This story is by Liliam Sandoval and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
‘Eternal youth in exchange for your eternal name – one essence in exchange for another. As you drink from these waters, our covenant is sealed. Do you accept?’
‘Then drink your fill and never return.’
NoName’s body heaved as he vomited murky pond water.
The sounds of his gasps and ragged coughs filled the night air, joining the
chorus of the crickets and cicadas. Grasping blindly, NoName was vaguely aware of the cool mud that squelched between his fingers as he reached shallow waters. His nose and esophagus burned, but his lungs felt worse.
The croaking of the frogs in his vicinity drew to a crescendo until he couldn’t hear his own coughing anymore. He suspected they were annoyed at the disturbance, so he made a mental note to try and die more quietly next time.
NoName dragged himself out of the lake and drooped to the ground. The smell of the damp earth filled his senses as he rested and caught his breath. When his heart stopped thrumming in his ears, he flipped over onto his back and stared up at a sky where midnight blue and periwinkle hues swirled together. The clusters of stars were brighter and closer than he remembered, but the surrounding palm trees stretched up toward them just the same.
It was exactly as he had discovered it a century ago—an oasis suspended in
perpetual twilight—as if time held no authority there. Perhaps time had been barred at the entrance. Or perhaps, time resented the arduous swim through the underwater cavern required to access the entrance in the first place.
After nearly drowning, the feeling was mutual.
Despite his dedication to finding this place and what it held, now that he finally arrived NoName felt conflicted. On one hand, relief. On the other, stupidity. He had almost everything he could want in life, more than he had ever dreamt of having. Yet, there he was, possibly risking it all. For what? A pair of brown eyes that crinkled in amusement flickered across his mind.
He wanted to see those brown eyes again. And maybe he would if he found
what he was looking for. While he debated, his feet moved of their own volition.
Let’s continue, his feet said. Let’s go home, his logic argued.
Deeper into the jungle of palm trees he went.
Exotic flowers, absent from the science books back home, twined around the
base of the trees. He walked as if pulled by an invisible string, and everything around him steadily began to glow with a blue iridescent light. The trees thinned as they gave way to a small clearing. NoName paused at the threshold.
He stared at the object of his years-long search– the fountain of youth.
The fountain stood looming amid the trees. The pool itself was plain and not
particularly big, but the stone bust that sat in the middle of it was carved from a radiant turquoise stone and cleared NoName’s height by several feet in both directions. The horizontal pillar that rested on top of its head from which its waters fell resembled wood in the way its grooves and edges curved, and it blended seamlessly into the waves and curls of the bust’s short hair.
Its face looked like someone who might have been free to roam once: the
sharp lines of a strong nose, the slightest downward dip of the corner of the mouth, and brows drawn together in such a way that the figure almost looked deep in thought. Or dreaming.
NoName stepped forward and stopped a few feet away.
The fountain’s eyes opened. It studied him for several seconds, perhaps cataloging all the ways in which NoName had changed and stayed the same. “You’ve returned.”
NoName shrugged. “Yes, well, I missed your charming personality.”
A flicker of emotion crossed the fountain’s features—regret, most likely—but he was unable to pinpoint what it was before the fountain smoothed its expression and it was gone.
“Have you come to waste both of our time?”
NoName pressed a hand over the imaginary wound in his chest. “You wound
me. Here I thought we’d reminisce and share stories by the campfire.” When the fountain stared back at him blankly, he pursed his lips and knew he could only stall for so long. “Alright, we’ll revisit that idea when you’re in a better mood.”
Stepping forward, NoName outstretched a hand expectantly and addressed the real reason he was there. “I’ve come back for my name.”
The fountain’s expression flickered and smoothed over faster than NoName
could read it. “You must be confused about the terms of our agreement,” it replied. “That name is no longer yours to have.”
“I’m not confused. You have something that belongs to me, and I want it back.” NoName persisted, sounding more confident than what he felt. He had no intention of leaving empty-handed, but he briefly wondered what it would cost him this time and if he was willing to pay the price. “What if we struck another deal?”
The fountain’s eyes tightened around the corners. “You wish to return the
NoName flinched. “No. Not that.” He cleared his throat and returned the easy
expression to his face. “Look, I’m the best thief there is. I can find and bring you whatever you want, in exchange for my name.”
Cicadas filled the silence as the fountain considered him. “Do you remember why you sought out my waters?”
NoName stiffened. Of course, he remembered. The legend of its restoring
waters was the only thing that had kept him going during the nights when the pain was at its worst.
Degenerative, the doctors had referred to his bones.
Restored, the fountain had declared instead.
For an orphan who was used to being ignored all his life, giving up his name in exchange for a pain-free life hadn’t sounded like a sacrifice.
Then he went and met those brown eyes.
If only he could learn to live without them. If he could just learn not to care. Not to care that those brown eyes loved him during the day but forgot him by dusk then maybe he wouldn’t need his name back. But he did care.
Without his name, he had eternal life.
Without his name, he died on her lips each evening.
NoName’s jaw locked as he stared back into the fountain’s unblinking eyes.
“Yes, I sought them because they could heal me. My name meant nothing to me then, but it does now.”
The fountain’s brows drew together. “Nonetheless, you received exactly what you wanted.” It looked away and its face took on a faraway look. “We must all live with the consequences of our choices.”
Pressing forward to the edge of its pool, NoName knelt and placed his hands
on the lip’s edge. He couldn’t leave there empty-handed, but the fountain wasn’t listening. His hands clenched and he glared at the stone figure. “But if presented with the opportunity to change your fate, wouldn’t you seize it too?”
Several minutes of silence passed by. NoName dropped his gaze.
“Is what you want worth the sacrifice?”
The forest quieted to a hush.
NoName’s pulse quickened as the fountain’s question sparked new hope.
“Yes,” he answered quickly without another thought. The iridescence glow of the trees around them intensified.
The fountain opened its eyes and peered back at him.
“Then I will return your name. And you may keep your eternal life. In return,
you will give me something I want. One essence in exchange for another. As you drink from these waters, our covenant is sealed. Do you accept?”
NoName dipped his cupped hand into the cool water and raised it to his lips.
The fountain’s eyes followed his movement.
He tilted his head back and, as his eyes flitted shut, he swallowed.
There was a heaviness that wasn’t there before, and its presence disturbed
NoName. It felt like something dense and hulking had draped its arms around him, pressing and smothering until he felt suffocated. His eyes shot open as he drew a sharp intake of air. The feeling lifted somewhat, but that did little to soothe him. The pit of his stomach churned violently as he tried to make sense of what he saw.
From up high, NoName watched an unfamiliar man with short curly hair and a strong nose pick himself up from the ground below. He was naked but seemed unperturbed as he stared at his own hands and arms as if seeing them for the first time. Then he turned and looked up at NoName.
The man smiled.
Recognition stole NoName’s breath. As realization slowly began to sink in,
NoName looked down at himself and felt nauseous when all he saw was radiant turquoise stone and the still waters of the pool that surrounded him.
The man drew near and stopped just short of NoName’s waters. When he
spoke, NoName closed his eyes and wept bitterly.
“Your name is Augustus.”