The sound, a deep rumbling boom, sent almost visible waves into the air that flung birds into the sky, branches to the ground, knocked children off their feet, unsteadied all. No one had heard anything like it, nor felt the ground vibrate with such intensity and depth, and it sent great fear through the land. As mothers held and comforted crying babies, animals scattered, and people left their homes to come into the open to see what had happened, a fine bronze-brown dust settled over everything. The oldest in the community were gathered; all agreed that none had experienced nor heard of such a phenomenon before. All the villagers gathered in a circle and prayed, some crying, all worried.

Everyone waited, frightened and tense, for something further to happen. But hours passed, and nothing did. The dust caught the light of the sun and sparkled prettily, the birds returned to the trees and sang, the children resumed their play. Life over the coming days returned to normal. God had protected their village.

The next week, one of the villagers, an older man, set off into the high hills to the west, looking for a particular medicinal plant that was getting difficult to find. He wandered further than he had before, taking a little-used path that wound along a ridge. As he edged down a hill and rounded a wide curve, he glanced up from the scrub and dirt of the high ground and saw the most remarkable sight he had ever witnessed. Set into an incline was what appeared to be a beautiful hot spring, with curls of steam rising from the clearest blue water, surrounded by black porous rock. There were multiple small waterfalls that fell with a soothing quiet roll, winding down to smaller pools. The man was transfixed. He moved closer, and felt the warm moist air reach his lungs, expansive, comforting. He reached down at the edge and touched the rock, which was surprisingly soft and smooth. Carefully, with shaking fingertips, he bent further and just touched the surface of the water. It felt gentle and warm, as if the sun had shone upon it for a full summer. He reached in further, then brought both hands underneath the water’s surface and rubbed them gently together.

He rose again, and cupped some of the water in his palms, letting it slowly splash to the rock below. He cast his eyes over the spring, and a smile spread across his face from the delight of his discovery. This was unimaginable good fortune for the village, surely a God-given resource they were meant to have. As he looked down at his hands again, his eyes caught a change. The back of his hands, long mottled and scarred with age and work, looked much smoother, newer, supple again. He stared, felt them in disbelief. What if…could this water somehow, possibly, have some sort of restorative power? He looked again at his hands, 10 years now gone from them. A bolt, a mix of both fear and thrill, went through him and a racing joy filled his senses.

He hesitated not a further second, and threw off his clothes, and waded into the water, easing down, feeling the warm rock and silt of the spring’s bed on his feet, until he was chest-deep. It felt wonderful: relaxing, silky, perfect, womb-like. He laughed and splashed and watched the water ripple, dipped his head and hair into it and threw it back again, shaking the droplets everywhere.

After a few minutes, the man pulled himself out of the spring to sit on one of its jutting rock ledges, a natural place to rest. As the sun dried him, he noticed that he was breathing more fully, his skin seemed more taut and glowed with health. The old soreness in his weary back and legs and feet was greatly diminished, and even his vision seemed sharper, details around him crackling with life. Surely he was not imagining this! He could scarcely pull on his garments fast enough, to begin the trek back to the village. His feet flew as never before.

He called out as he entered the village circle, the one where everyone had gathered to pray when the horrible sound occurred, and all crowded around to hear his tale. Breathless, he told them of his discovery. They could see the changes in him; not as dramatically as he could see and feel them in himself, but there was no doubt that the man seemed somehow a bit younger, stood taller, looked stronger and in better health. Could his story be true?

Immediately, all who could walk the distance set out to see for themselves the miracle. The man led the way, struggling to slow his excited pace to match the rest. As they at last came to the spring, a collective gasp went up amongst them. The man thought it looked even more beautiful now in the late-afternoon sunlight: the water now reflecting an orange-gold, sparkling and winking white diamonds on the surface. He walked into the spring to his knees, smiling and beckoning, and slowly the people came in as well, fully clothed, rejoicing, looking to the sky, praising God for this tremendous gift. All who entered the water were renewed, rewarded with vitality, youth, and strength. Even the children looked rosier and happier.

But from that moment, life in the village changed dramatically. It was felt that those who spent more time at the spring not only improved their outward appearance, but also became more wise, a greatly-prized virtue that raised one’s social standing in the group. From the earliest morning light to the very last strands of glowing sunset, most of the villagers were found bathing and resting at the spring. The regular balance of things soon began to falter; meals were unfound and uneaten, homes fell to disrepair and mess, pontification on the black spring rocks took the place of school. There arose great vanity, a competition to see who could show the greatest improvement from the spring’s divinity, with whispered conversations, preening and pouting, many faces peering at their reflections in the water. Groups formed, sitting in separate areas of the spring, each feeling more beautiful and powerful than the others. Only one in the village never went into the water; a young man who had always lived outside the village, alone after his parents had died. The others would see him sometimes, looking down from a far hill, but he would never come down to the water. He was dismissed as an oddity and a fool, and not thought of in any substantial way.

One of the young women in the group had three lovely little daughters, who were vivacious and giggly. They were often seen running around the edge of the spring, playing games, and waving to their mother. They were as curious as they were delightful, and one day found an opening at the far edge of the spring. The opening was so small, no bigger than the circled arms of the tiniest girl. The children peered into the blackness of the watery cave, and the oldest thought she saw the glint of a jewel, which was most exciting. If they were able to go in and retrieve this jewel for their mother, a jewel which surely held the most unimaginable powers, she would be so happy, and would become the most-revered woman in the village.

The smallest girl was sent in first. When after a short time she did not retrieve the jewel, the middle girl went in. When the oldest girl heard no sound from either of her sisters, she too squeezed in, barely making it into the cave. Fear struck her heart immediately. She could no longer see the jewel, and saw no sign of her sisters. Her feet desperately tapped for the bottom, but there was none; the water was deep and the only light came from the opening.

She yelled as loud as she could for her mother, trying to keep her head above the water, which now felt uncomfortably hot. No one came, but she was a strong girl and kept yelling, taking long breaths to make the loudest sounds she could. Finally, a man from another group heard her, came over, and the girl gasped out the story of what happened, and begged for his help and for her mother. He called out across the spring in his deep voice that there was a terrible emergency, and the alarmed villagers all again came together to the mouth of the small cave.

The girls’ mother pushed her way forward, in tears and crying for someone to rescue her daughters. But there was no one small enough to reach anything but an arm into the cave. The mother implored her oldest daughter to grab hold, but as the girl tried, her strength gave out and she tumbled under the water. The mother screamed, and lifted her hands to the sky and spoke.

“God! Save my children from this fate! We are the chosen; you have given us this gift! Do not deny my daughters their birthright!” Her face reddened, and with an ugly screech bellowed, “I DEMAND IT! I…DEMAND…IT!” The crowd took an intake of breath, listening to her words echo off of the hills.

“You. All of you. Do you not understand?” It was the loner who spoke now, the young man who never came to the water, who now stood at the edge of the spring, glaring. “Do you not know, or wonder, where your miracle came from? DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT HAS HAPPENED?” All was silent, save for the sound of the water, and the choking, muted sobs of the mother. The young man turned away for a moment, and when he turned back to face the crowd, his own face was hot and tear-streaked, eyes glowing with anger and grief.

“Your God is dead. The day the air burst was the day he could stand no more, and threw himself to Earth. Do you not see? There, the rounded corner, his head. That long curve, his back, the line to the south his legs, the oval pool his clasped hands. You bathe in his tears, and sit, gossiping and cawing, on the blackened fragments of his very bones. He cannot save your children, or any of you. He is dead.”

The villagers stood, some still in the spring, some on the banks, some on the hills, in stunned silence, the enormity of the young man’s words just beginning to take hold. Some began to weep, some fell to their knees and began to pray from habit, some simply brought a hand to their faces and stared into the distance.

The young man spoke again, this time more quietly, resigned. “You took the last thing God had to give, and you ruined that too, and it cost these little girls their lives. Had they not wanted to feed the vanity and reputation of the mother, had they not been neglected so that she might be more beautiful and powerful, they would have lived to grow to be women of great character and given much to the world.” He paused and sighed. “Go back to your village and never return here, and never tell others of this place. You have only each other to rely upon now. You are each, alone. This was never yours.”

As he began to walk away over the far hill, away from the village, the people began to leave the spring. The young mother sobbed, placed her hand on the top of the cave opening and stroked it, then her friends gathered her, and helped her walk from it.

The spring was left to the wildlife that came by to drink and bathe in it, its beauty and magic taken in purely, as had been intended.