Fountain of Youth
by David Clarkson
Once Upon a Time, there lived sisters three. Their beauty, wisdom and bravery were unrivalled throughout the land. From across the seven seas to the four corners of the Earth, they had no equal.
Bellissia, the youngest of the three, was courted by Emperors and Kings, though none proved worthy of her love. It was said her beauty could soften the toughest heart and inspire the bluntest mind. She was a priceless jewel, too pure for any crown.
Ingenia, the middle sibling, was the most learned. Her inventions helped the Kingdom to prosper, surpassing the scientific prowess of its neighbours by decades, if not centuries. Wise men came from far and wide to study under her tutelage.
Then there was Bravia, the eldest and the boldest. There was no weapon she could not master, no beast she could not tame. To Bravia, life was but a game and there was no challenge that could not be overcome. Many tried, but no warrior could match her steel or best her arrow.
These maidens did, however, possess an enemy that could not seduced, outwitted or conquered. A persistent, unshakable nemesis. The most unforgiving opponent of all.
As years passed by, so too did life’s seasons. From the boundless energy of spring, through the giddy wonder of summer, into the quiet contentment of autumn before finally arriving at the desolate shores of winter.
With the days ahead numbering far fewer than the days behind, hope turned to sorrow and their beauty, along with their minds and their strength, began to fade. Refusing to yield to the shadow of the setting sun, the sisters dedicated what time they had left to finding a way to evade death’s inevitable approach.
Legend told of a well at the end of the Earth whose waters had the power to grant eternal life. For centuries, men and women had searched for this mythical spring. Ever so slowly, clues were obtained and secrets uncovered—just waiting to be pieced together to reveal the location of this magical place.
The sisters were the first to make sense of the legends, to decipher the puzzles and to piece together a map. Their considerable talents and charms had helped them amass great wealth over the course of their lives; wealth they used to charter a voyage capable of taking them to the place where age became youth, old became new and endings gave way to new beginnings.
They sailed toward the sun, fast enough that for twelve days and nights, they kept it within their sights, always above the horizon, always keeping the dark at bay. On the thirteenth day, they struck land.
No boat had landed on these virgin white shores for millennia, but the sisters were not the first to have set foot on the island. They ascended the beach, crossed a stream and entered a lush forest, where they walked until they could walk no more and without the life-restoring properties of the magical water that they sought, they knew this day would be their last.
The sisters sat, depleted and defeated, bereft of health and hope, when amidst the serenity of the forest, they heard the soft, inviting trickle of flowing water.
“We’ve made it,” they cried in unison.
And they were right, for the fountain lay just beyond the treeline. It was as beautiful as they always imagined it would be. More so, because of the hardships they had endured to reach it. The water sparkled and shone like liquid diamonds flowing over rocks of solid gold.
Together, the sisters took the final steps towards salvation, their key to everlasting summer, when they realised they were not alone. An aged hag, old enough to be the grandmother of Methuselah, was hunched over a rock on the far side of the clearing.
“Who cometh here?” asked the hag, each word taking as long to say as it would ten in the normal flow of speech.
“We are sisters three,” replied the eldest of the party. “We come in search of the key to everlasting youth. Tell us; have we succeeded?”
“You have found that which you seek,” replied the hag (at some length), “but success depends on what you are willing to give in exchange for that which you hope to keep.”
“What is the meaning of this?” asked the youngest of the sisters.
The hag lowered her head. There was no further wisdom to impart.
“It’s a riddle,” declared Ingenia. “We must choose.”
“But what are the choices?” asked Bellissia.
“Is it not obvious?” replied the middle sibling. “We are old. Whilst the years have taken a toll on our bodies, our minds continued to grow. We exchanged beauty for wisdom. To regain physical youth, we must also return to intellectual youth. The memories earned, the lessons learned; they must be sacrificed.” Turning to the hag, she asked; “am I right? Is this the cost of immortality?”
The hag did not answer.
Frustrated, the smartest of the sisters stepped toward the fountain and placed her open mouth to the water as it cascaded over the side of its golden cradle. It tasted like nothing she had tasted before. It was both sweet and bitter. Hot and cold. Her throat burned, not with fire but with new life. The feeling spread to her chest, radiating through her lungs, her heart, restoring her internal organs to the fullness of youth.
“It’s working!” she shrieked with delight. “I feel myself being restored.”
As fast as the feeling of rejuvenation had begun, it took an unexpected turn. The power inside her expanded outwards. As she filled her lungs with air, they pressed against her shrunken, geriatric ribs. She felt a crack and fell to her knees. Still, the rejuvenating power of the magical water flowed through her body, strengthening and expanding her organs until they were too much for her brittle, fragile bones to contain. Her next gasp was her last and it was agonising.
“What happened”’ asked Bravia, shocked but too old and tired to shed a tear for her lost sibling.
“She misread the riddle,” replied Bellissia, stepping toward the inviting water. “The price of eternity is not that we lose our wisdom, it is that we must keep it. To be forever young whilst knowing those we love and hold dear will turn to dust. That is the curse.’ She glanced to the hag. ‘Beauty is skin deep, so skin is all the water must touch.”
She plunged her hands into the fountain and watched in awe as the wrinkles disappeared—colour returned as the cruel contortions of arthritis flexed away.
“It’s working!” she declared to her sister, scooping up as much water as her youthful hands would allow and splashing it all over her body.
The change was instant. Her spine straightened, her skin softened, her hair regained its dark vibrancy. Looking down on the water, a picture of perfect beauty was reflected back at her.
“Is this not wonderful?” she asked, turning to her sister. “Here, let me use my renewed strength to help you bring back yours.”
Giddy as a schoolgirl, she stepped away from the fountain and ran to her sister, falling into her arms. Though her hands and feet felt like they could carry the world, her lungs deflated, struggling to provide her limbs with enough oxygen and her heart exploded, unable to beat fast enough to cope with the flow of blood demanded upon it. Bellissia, like Ingenia before her, died in agony.
Only the eldest of the sisters remained.
“Tell me the answer to your riddle!” Bravia demanded of the hag, but no reply was forthcoming. “What is the price of eternal youth?”
She approached the water and stared at her reflection, taunted by what she saw. Ingenia had thought that wisdom had to be sacrificed to restore youth, whilst her youngest sibling believed that youth itself whilst those around you died was the sacrifice that had to be made. Both had been wrong. Both were now dead.
Then it hit her. The answer had been in front of them all along.
It was age. When one becomes old, they give up being young. To be young, one simply had to give up being old. Such a riddle—so simple yet so cruel.
“I have your answer,” she told the hag. “The compromise is not what we choose to give up, but what is taken away. My sisters failed because they did not give themselves fully to the fountain.”
The hag remained unmoving as the oldest and the bravest of the sisters climbed onto the side of the fountain. Then, with her eyes closed and a hand over her heart, she stepped forward, plunging her entire body into the elixir of life.
Years washed away as evenly as they had been added, transforming her elderly form into one of pristine youth and unsurpassable beauty. Her mind, her heart and her body were in harmony. She kicked her legs and reached for the surface, but it was nowhere to be found as she continued to sink deeper into the depths of the bottomless fountain.
Her arms and legs were strong, but the pull of the water was stronger. With her newly restored lungs, she was able to take a deep breath, which she held for as long as she could, but it was not long enough. Like her sisters, Bravia finally succumbed to the eternal sleep of death.
At the edge of the clearing, the hag turned her face toward the sky. It was midday and the sun was nearing its highest point. A ray of pure light broke through the trees and hit the surface of the fountain. Steam formed where sunrays touched the magical water, radiating outwards, carried on the breeze. The hag inhaled deeply as the ephemeral mist washed over her.
The change was slight, but it was all that was needed.
One more day.
Tomorrow, she would be back again. And the day after that. For that is the true price of immortality and it is one that all must pay. Whether one lives for ten years or one hundred and ten, there is no escaping it. The rule that even those who live forever cannot break.
One day at a time.