The Collage

By Stirling Edgewood

Copyright 2020

The First Hot Summer Day

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a peaceful kingdom. The kingdom had high, majestic mountains with sparkling white snow caps. And in those placid mountains, was a lake of clear blue water. Around the lake was a rocky beach, covered in smooth, age-worn stones. The stones were very colorful, from rust-red, to pert pink, to twinkling turquoise, to alluring aqua, and many other colors beside. The wonderful tints and hues created a fascinating mosaic on the beach. So much so, that the people of the nearby village called it “The Collage.” It was said in the village that if you carried home a basket of these stunning stones, you would be blessed with true happiness for life.

Now in this village lived two young girls. They were sisters. In fact, they were twin sisters. Identical in every way, the sisters were often mistaken for one another by the villagers. They had the same hair, the same eyes, the same face, the same body, and even the same feet.

But the sisters were very different from each other in one very important way. Their minds diverged. Each sister had in her head very different thoughts.

On the first hot summer day of each year, the villagers all went down to the rocky beach to enjoy the warm sun and refreshing waters of the lake. Early in the morning of one particular first hot summer day of the year, the two sisters woke up, thinking pleasantly of the coming day.

“I can’t wait to go to the lake!” exclaimed the first sister.

“Yes, I expect it will be an eventful affair,” replied the second sister calmly.

“Do you think we are strong enough to become In-Deep-Ended?” begged the first sister anxiously.

Now “In-Deep-Ended” was the title of honor given to the strongest swimmers of the village. Because, at the deep end of the lake, far from the comfortable beach, where the water became so cold it would make the swimmers’ teeth chatter and their ribs shiver, a large boulder stuck up out of the water. Those who could swim out to the boulder and back were dubbed “In-Deep-Ended.”

 The second sister thought a moment, then said, “Perhaps we are not meant to be In-Deep-Ended.”

“Nonsense!” the first sister scoffed. “I must get ready to swim,” she cried, snatching up a pair of scissors. She clipped her long hair, until it was little more than a short stubble. When she was done, she shouted triumphantly, “Now I will swim fast, with no hair to slow me down!”

She was surprised when she turned and saw the second sister brushing out her long hair to a luxurious shine. Then, she was utterly shocked! The second sister curled her hair into lovely loops, and she even added a colorful ribbon tied up in a bow!

“It will much be harder to become In-Deep-Ended dragging all that hair behind you,” warned the first sister sternly.

“Quite true,” the second sister informed her matter-of-factly, as a mysterious smile crept across her face.

The first sister then went and put on her swimsuit. It was a very tight, black suit that hugged her figure closely, squeezing it into a flat and curveless shape. It had only the most minimal amount of material to be considered decent. Indeed, many of the older villagers would think it scandalous.

“There!” the first sister announced. “My suit is streamlined, with nothing to slow me down, so I can swim as fast as a fish!”

The first sister was alarmed to see her sister wearing a brightly colored and fashionable swimsuit, decorated with ruffles, pleats, and lace! The suit fit her perfectly, covering her demurely, while somehow also flattering her figure, drawing the eye to the natural curves of her body.

“Ugh!” exclaimed the first sister with disgust. “That is no suit for swimming fast and far!”

“True,” answered the second sister matter-of-factly, while she smiled mysteriously.

The first sister then went to the kitchen to pack some food for the day. She carved up some thick salami and sharp cheese into cubes and gathered a few hardy biscuits. As she was packing it into the basket the two sisters shared, her eyes widened in alarm. Her sister was baking a pie!

“Whatever are you doing that for?” she demanded.

“To eat at the beach,” the second sister informed her.

“We cannot possibly eat a whole pie just the two of us,” scolded the first sister.

“I think pie will be just right for The Collage today,” answered the second sister placidly. “Perhaps we will find someone to share it with,” she added, smiling mysteriously.

“I have packed healthy food full of energy, so that I am strong for the swim. Pie will only weigh you down and make you feel sick,” the first sister warned. “Are you not going to The Collage to swim and become In-Deep-Ended?”

“Partly,” she answered quietly. “But The Collage offers more than simply fine swimming.”

The first sister laughed at her scornfully. “I am going outside to stretch and warm up, so I am ready for the challenge!” With that, she went outside.

When she returned, the second sister had packed the pie, still warm, into the basket, along with a blanket, four towels, four forks, four napkins, four tumblers, and a bottle of fruit juice.

“Well, are you finally ready?” asked the first sister, exasperated.

“Yes,” said the second sister.

“Then let’s go!” commanded the first sister.

“If you carry the basket to the lake, I will carry it back,” offered the second sister.

“It is heavy with food now,” said the first sister. “It will be much lighter when we return. Why would I want to carry a laden basket now, so that you may carry an empty one later?”

“Well,” replied the second sister, “if it is carried home full of stones from the beach, bringing the blessing of true happiness, it will be much heavier.”

“You don’t believe that old myth?” laughed the first sister.

“In a mysterious way, I somehow do,” replied the first sister easily.

“Very well then,” agreed the first sister. “You can carry home a heavy basket of rocks if you like.”

So they set off for the lake, the first sister carrying the basket. When they arrived, the beach was already crowded with villagers. They found an empty place not too far from the water. The second sister began unpacking the basket.

“I am going off to see who else is ready to become In-Deep-Ended this year,” announced the first sister. “When I get back, I will race you to the boulder!” she said confidently.

“An excellent idea,” said the second sister, smiling mysteriously. “But the race must be just the two of us, no others.”

“But many others will want to become In-Deep-Ended today,” protested the first sister. “We should all race together.”

“True,” said the second sister thoughtfully. “But if they are all on shore, they will be watching us. With so many to witness, there would be no dispute over who is the winner.”

“Very well then,” agreed the first sister.

With that, the first sister turned left and walked down the beach. As she walked, she stopped often to talk to the other villagers, announcing the race of the sisters to the boulder. She invited them all to come and watch. Some of the boys on the beach jeered at her, for not many women of the village were In-Deep-Ended at that time. Others offered to join the race, challenging her, and boasting that they would reach the boulder and return faster. She demurred, protesting that she had promised her sister that the race would be just the two of them. While she made her way down the beach, the boys’ eyes followed her, or rather, they followed the spectacle of her nearly naked head and body.

When the second sister had finished neatly laying out the blanket and towels to save their place on the beach, she picked up the basket, leaving open its lid. She turned right, and started walking down the shoreline. The savory smell of warm pie announced her progress, and many heads turned toward her before she reached them. Like her sister, she stopped often to talk with the villagers, announcing the race of the sisters to the boulder. She invited them all to watch. Some of the boys wished her luck, for not many women of the village were In-Deep-Ended at that time. Others offered to swim with her, promising to keep her safe if the swim proved too long and tiring. She demurred, protesting that she had promised her sister that the race would be just the two of them. While she made her way down the beach, the boys’ eyes followed her, or rather, they followed the vision of her elegant curls drifting in the breeze, and the graceful movement of her body.

When both sisters reached their blanket, a crowd had gathered to watch the race. So the girls went down to the water.

“I know we are equals in all things,” said the first sister. “But I will most certainly win,” she continued, looking first at her sister’s long hair, and then at her frilly swimsuit.

“Perhaps,” replied the second sister evenly, but she was smiling mysteriously. Then she launched herself into the water and began swimming smoothly toward the boulder.

The first sister, seeing herself left behind, quickly jumped into the water and began swimming furiously after her. The villagers cheered and shouted encouragement. The first sister soon caught up to the second sister, then passed her. By the time they reached the deep, cold part of the lake, she held a prodigious lead.

Then, the second sister suddenly stopped. She turned around, and waved her arm. “Help!” she cried.

The first sister was far ahead of her, intent on reaching the boulder. She did not hear her sister’s call. But the villagers on shore watching the race saw her. At first they were not sure what they were seeing. They could not believe such a good swimmer would be in trouble. Especially considering that her sister, equal in all ways, was having no difficulties whatsoever in achieving the boulder.

But, when the second sister waved her arm and called out “Help!” once again, then disappeared into the water, they burst into action. Many villagers dove into the water, including most of the young boys of the village, swimming out to save her. A few swam frantically, but soon tired and fell by the wayside. Others, who were stronger, or surer in their strokes, made it further. But the second sister was now thrashing about in the water. Somehow her splashing and wild motions were drawing her away from them, and for a while, the group of rescuers seemed to get no closer, though all moved further away from shore, and closer to the boulder.

The first sister, upon reaching the boulder, reached out and touched it. As she did, she felt something cold and slimy slither across her leg, as if a tendril of lake grass, or maybe even the tentacle of some sinister aquatic creature had touched her. She felt a sudden chill, shivered, and quickly turned around. When she did, she discovered her sister’s distress. She swam to her, shouting “Sister, I will save you!”

However, to her astonishment, the second sister, in a very angry tone, told her, “You most certainly will not!”

The first sister stopped, confused, and said, “Well…what then, shall I do?”

“Finish your race,” the second sister hissed. “I will be back at shore presently.”

As the first sister swam back to shore, one particular savior, stronger and surer than the rest, pulled ahead of the pack of swimmers. He was tall and strong, and full of the vigor of youth. And although the second sisters’ excited movements were bringing her still closer to the boulder, he began to close the gap between them, getting nearer and nearer. Then, when the first sister was but an arm’s length from the boulder, he caught her and held her.

“Save me!” she cried.

“I will save you!” he replied. But seeing the boulder so close, he said, “I will carry you to the boulder first. I have swum all this way. I can easily take you there, so I can become In-Deep-Ended. Then I will carry you back to shore.”

But the second sister hugged him tightly, and whispered into his ear, “Save me, now.” At that moment she appeared as if she might faint. This alarmed the boy, and he began to swim back to shore, with the same strong, sure strokes that had brought him to her. She clung tightly to his back, but he was a powerful swimmer, and proceeded almost as quickly as when he was unencumbered by her weight. As they drew nearer to shore, she clung to him tighter and tighter.

“I can hardly swim with you squeezing so much,” he gasped.

“But I am afraid,” said the second sister. “I do not want to slip off and fall back into these dangerous waters.”

So the boy swam on, with the second sister embracing him tighter and tighter, until he felt he could hardly move. Finally, they reached the shore. The boy lay down on the beach in exhaustion. The second sister popped up, and taking him by the hand, said, “Come with me to my blanket. I have some delicious fruit juice that will refresh you, and give you renewed energy.”

They sat on the blanket, and drank the sweet, invigorating juice. They watched as a crowd gathered by the water around the first sister, to congratulate her on her excellent swim, and on becoming In-Deep-Ended. The first sister smiled proudly, and told the boys she was not at all tired. She boasted that even after her trip to the boulder and back, she could still make the journey faster than any boy there.

Then the first sister called out to the second sister, “I have won!”

“The swim, most certainly,” replied the second sister, smiling mysteriously. “Congratulations on an excellent swim.”

When the rest of the villagers hoping to become In-Deep-Ended lined up on the shore, the first sister joined them. The boy who had saved the second sister saw everyone lining up for the race. Though still weary from saving her, he stood up excitedly, and said, “I must race too, so that I can become In-Deep-Ended!”

Just then, the second sister opened the basket, and took out the pie, two plates, and cutlery. “Wouldn’t you like to stay, and have some pie?” she asked sweetly. The smell of the pie, and his lingering fatigue overcame him. He sat back down on the blanket, and watched enviously as the swimmers started off for the boulder.

The second sister cut a generous slice of her pie for him, placed it on a plate with a fork, and served it to him. As he took the first bite, all thoughts of the boulder fled. The pie was delicious, savory and warm, and its intoxicating flavor seemed to fill him with the sound of tantalizing yet soothing music.

“Your pie is delicious!” he declared. “I have never tasted its like. Thank you.”

“Thank you, for saving me,” replied the second sister shyly. She wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly once again. This upset the plate. The pie fell onto the blanket, its rich red filling staining the clean white cloth.

“I am so sorry,” said the boy, looked ashamedly at the stain. “I did not mean to…”

“No matter,” said the second sister calmly. She smiled mysteriously, as she cut him another generous slice of pie. He ate it slowly, rolling each bite around in his mouth, because it was so delicious he could hardly bear to swallow it.

And so the second sister and the boy watched the race, while contentedly eating pie. To the surprise of many, the first sister beat all the other swimmers to the boulder, and was the first to return to the shore. She won the race! Again! The first sister stood at the water’s edge beaming with pride as the villagers congratulated her.

The second sister and the boy finished their pie. Then the second sister suggested they take a walk down the beach to collect the attractive stones. They walked slowly, discovering many appealing colors and tempting shapes. They paused often to collect them in the basket, and soon it was sagging with the heft of their treasures. When they returned to the blanket, the first sister was finishing up her hard salami, sharp cheese, and stiff biscuits.

“Your swim was marvelous,” said the first sister enthusiastically. “You are truly In-Deep-Ended.”

“It was a thrilling race!” the first sister said, smiling broadly with pride. “But what of you, sister? Will you not become In-Deep-Ended?”

The second sister smiled a sly smile, and said simply, “Not today. Perhaps we are not meant to be In-Deep-Ended.”

“Plenty of pie is left,” said the second sister. “Perhaps you could find a friend to share it with you?’

“No thank you,” replied the first sister, “I am quite full from what I have already eaten.”

“Well,” said the first sister, seeing the basket practically bursting with the collected stones, “that will be a chore to carry home!”

“It is quite cumbersome,” admitted the first sister. “It may be a bit more than I can manage.”

“Don’t expect me to carry it!” warned the first sister. “We agreed that you would carry the basket home. Besides, I am far too weary from my swims.”

The boy suddenly cut in chivalrously, “I will carry it for you.”

“You are very kind, but,” replied the first sister, “perhaps it would be best if we shared the burden.”

And so the second sister and the boy carried the basket home. Together.

Another Hot Summer Day

Some years later, on the first hot day of summer, the villagers gathered at The Collage for a special celebration. In the middle of the beach, the villagers placed a statue. Its bronze surface gleamed in the bright sunshine. The statue was of a person, a girl, as if caught mid-stroke on a powerful swim. Frozen swirls of brazed metal curled around her in tumultuous waves. A small plaque was set in its base. The face of the swimmer on the statue was that of the first sister. Of course, it also looked exactly like the second sister, except for the very short hair, but all the villagers knew which sister the statue honored.

The mayor of the village stepped forward for the dedication. “Years ago, in this tiny village, a young girl set out from this very beach to reach the In-Deep-Ended boulder. By the time she returned, every villager knew, she was the fastest swimmer in our humble hamlet. But her journey did not end there, at the water’s edge. No. She ventured on, across this great kingdom, racing over rivers, lakes, and even the great salt seas where the land ends. And though she competed in hundreds of races, she never lost a single one. We dedicate this monument, today, to the amazing daughter of our small corner of the kingdom.”

The crowd clapped and cheered. The first sister’s face beamed with pride. She went into the crowd to receive many congratulations from the villagers. As she neared the edge of the throng, she saw the second sister, who stood next to the same boy from that day on The Collage, so long ago. Only now he was a man. Around them, their children played at gathering stones and splashing in the shallow part of the lake.

The second sister spoke. “You are a credit to the village. I am very happy for you,” she said warmly.

“Thank you,” replied the first sister. “My life has been full of adventure and excitement. Seeing the kingdom, hearing the roar of applause, feeling the swift rush of foam cascading from my back, and tasting the sweet waters. It has all been very thrilling.”

The second sister asked curiously, “Now that you have returned, will you stay in the village? Will you, perhaps, find a husband, and settle down, and make a family?”

“No, no!” protested the first sister. “I have many more waters in other lands to swim. Besides, I am too old and ill-suited for a husband and family. But come, sister. Let us swim out to the boulder once more, in memory of the day my epic began. Swim with us,” she added, pointing to her sister’s husband. “You were part of this beginning too.”

“But I have never swum out to the boulder,” noted the second sister.

“Nor I,” interjected her husband.

“What?” asked the first sister, unable to believe her ears. “In all these years, you have never become In-Deep-Ended? Why, sometimes I am In-Deep-Ended six times before breakfast!”

“Perhaps,” said the first sister, with a mysterious smile on her face, “we are not meant to be In-Deep-Ended.”

The sisters stood silently for a moment. Then the first sister suggested, “You swim out to the boulder alone, sister. It will give the villagers a show, and please your admirers.”

And so the first sister swam out to the boulder, buoyed on a wave of cheers.

Yet Another First Hot Summer Day

Many, many years later, long after the sisters were only a vague memory in the minds of the oldest villagers, and the magnificent bronze statue had disappeared from the beach, and the notion of becoming In-Deep-Ended by swimming to the boulder was mostly forgotten, a boy and a girl stood at the edge of the lake. It was the first hot day of summer.

“I can swim faster than you!” boasted the girl.

“Ha!” scoffed the boy. “No girl can swim faster than me!”

“Let’s have a race then,” the girl challenged.

“Let’s,” taunted the boy. “It will be my great pleasure to leave you sputtering in my wake. But where shall we race to?”

The girl scanned the lake. Seeing a boulder jutting from the water far from shore, she pointed at it and exclaimed, “We will race to that!”

“That would be foolish,” came a voice from behind them. They turned and saw an old woman. She was bent with age, but her eyes glowed as if they held a secret knowledge, and her wrinkles seemed to smile at them, as if they carried ancient wisdom within their folds. She also smiled. Mysteriously.

“Why?” asked the boy.

“I can easily swim that far,” the girl informed her. “And faster than him!” she added, pointing at the boy.

“Well,” began the old woman, “many years ago, the young men and women of this village found great sport in swimming out to that boulder. In fact, those who did were given special honor, and were known as In-Deep-Ended.”

“I want to be In-Deep-Ended!” shouted the girl.

“Me too!” insisted the boy.

“But,” continued the old woman ominously, “that was before they knew of the curse of the Barr-Un.

“What’s that?” they asked together, their eyes wide.

“It is said,” explained the old woman, “that the Barr-Un lies in wait in the cold, murky depths near the boulder, which it jealously guards. It has grown so chilled in the frigid waters of the lake bottom, that when swimmers touch the boulder, the Barr-Un snakes up a clammy tentacle to touch them. This touch steals the warmth of their soul. And though the boy or girl might make it back to shore, they will spend their whole life cold and alone.”

“What happened to all the In-Deep-Enders?” asked the girl.

“Well, the In-Deep-Enders were too unhappy to find love. So they never married, and never had children. Each year fewer and fewer villagers became In-Deep-Enders, until one day, there were no more. That was when the villagers awoke to the curse of the Barr-Un.”

The children stood quietly for a moment, sadly contemplating her tale.

“The Collage also has a blessing,” added the old woman.

“What sort of blessing?” asked the girl.

“A blessing sounds better than the Barr-Un,” said the boy.

“If you fill a basket with stones from the beach, and carry it all the way home, your life will be filled with happiness,” the old woman told them. “I should know, I filled a basket once on this very beach a long time ago, and my life was truly happy.”

“But,” said the girl thoughtfully, “we don’t have a basket.”

“Well,” said the old woman, “you can have my basket. But I only have one, so you will have to share it. Together.”

“We couldn’t, in good conscience, take your basket,” said the boy.

“Indeed,” continued the girl, “we would not want to take your lifetime of true happiness.”

“I have already had a lifetime of happiness,” replied the old woman. “Perhaps it is your turn.”

The boy and the girl gratefully took the basket, and began wandering about The Collage, pausing now and again to collect a stone or two that took their fancy. Soon it was full. So full it was practically overflowing.

Somewhere around the middle of the beach, they tripped on what looked like a particularly large, dull rock. The basket tipped, and a stone fell out.

“Clang!” went the stone, as it dropped onto the strange rock, as if it had struck something metal, and hollow. The boy picked up another stone, and dropped it on the rock. “Clang!” came the hollow sound again.

They crouched down to peer at the ground, and saw that the odd rock was not a rock at all, but a bit of tarnished bronze poking up through The Collage. They began digging to see what it was. After digging for a while, exposing part of it, the boy exclaimed, “I think it is a statue! That has fallen down on the beach!”

With more digging, they discovered enough of it to make out its form.

“Why, it is a girl!” the girl exclaimed. “It looks like she is swimming.”

After digging more, they discovered a plaque. It said:

I am Otzi MannHeraus,

Champion of Champions,

Abandon your Obsessions, Ye Ambitious,

For None Shall Follow Me

The boy and the girl, weary from their digging, picked up their loaded basket, each with one hand on the sturdy handle. Then, they walked home. Together.

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