6. The first trial
After preparing a swift departure, early on the next day Manuel left Antioch and went Eastwards. It took him many days, but once he reached the banks of the mighty Euphrates, he built a raft and floated down the cold, rapid waters, struggling not to crush into the massive rocks that stood in his way. As the river widened, the flow of water slowed down, slowly carrying him towards the endless, deep sea. And when he reached it, he kept on floating on the calm waters for weeks, but he didn’t find the beautiful island and its fantastic dwellers. Maybe it all had been just a lie meant to send him to his doom.
Then, one cold night, somewhere on the high seas, Manuel spotted a small outcrop. But by morning the distant promontory had vanished, and so did the boy’s hopes. What made things worse, his food and water were nearly gone. Yet, the next night he again saw that strange mound, looming in the distance. Feeling how his strength was flowing out of his body, he sailed for it. That was his last chance of getting anywhere. With the new daylight came another disappointment. Whatever that thing was, it was nowhere in sight. However, Manuel stayed on course, oaring towards the inexistent destination. And with every passing night the once small shadow reappeared growing larger and larger only to disappear in the morning. He had done well not to give up to desolation and stop from reaching it. It became clear that some sort of magic impeded Manuel from seeing the outcrop in clear daylight. And so, on the seventh night he finally arrived on the shores of an island, all covered with forests the like he had never seen before. Manuel crept inside those woods to see them populated with all sorts creatures having many odd shapes and ravishing, bright colours. There were fruits and flowers of incredible sizes, swarms of flying fish, giant reptiles and frogs, buffalos with magnificent, spiralling horns, two headed elephants, white deer, covered with gemstones, airy butterflies who dissolved into thin air like smoke, and all sorts of other unknown creatures.
The island was crossed by a network of small rivers, and all seemed to flow from one single place in its centre. Fade, eerie sounds came down the water streams, but as Manuel advanced deeper inside the forest, they became louder. He then found an open plain, and in the middle of that plain there was a pond, the source of all those streams. What was even more bizarre, on the pond there was a small island thronged by hundreds of peacocks. Their plumage came in all colours ant they were singing in a frenzy around a tall tree and perched on one its branches there was a radiant golden peacock. The bird spanned its metallic wings and chased away all the other peacocks, who rose in a dazzling swirl, spreading across the island. After that, the king of peacocks fell asleep.
Manuel sought the chance and swam across to that small patch of land, and crawling towards the three, he climbed on it getting as close as he could to the sleeping bird. But just before he could grab it, the peacock awoke and flu away on another branch, where Manuel couldn’t reach it.
The boy went down, trying how to find a way to catch the sly peacock, always thinking of his beloved Isabella who was waiting for him, far away in Antioch.
Not long after, all the noises of the forest halted. Alone in that wilderness, Manuel started to be harassed by his body’s needs. Beleaguered by thirst, hunger and fatigue he first went to drink some water from the pond, but went he tried to take some in his palm, the waters withdrew under the ground. Hungry, he saw that the three was full of fruits, but when he grabbed one of them, the fruit withered away and turned into ash. Too tired to think about the bird, Manuel laid on the ground and thought of dozing off for a few minutes, but a voice came from under the grass and spoke to him:
“Young man, if you fall asleep, you’ll be swallowed by this island. All that beauty you see thrives on the bodies of those who hoped to catch the golden bird. Go back and never return to this cursed place! I was a man like you once. I came here thinking this golden bird would make me rich, that it would help me fulfil all my desires. But now, look at me, look what I’ve become. I am just a pile of soil and roots; defenceless food for the ants that crawl inside me. I feel their stinging bites, but I cannot defend myself. Don’t share my torment. Run away from here, for if you sleep, you’ll be always trapped in here, half dead and half alive, just like the me.” The voice stopped.
Manuel understood this was a task he could never accomplish. Weakened by the many nights on the sea, he closed his heavy eye lids for a moment and saw Isabella. It was just for her he had come so far. He sought no fortune, no fame. He lived only for his love. Alas, without even knowing he slipped into the sleep of death. When he realised that he had fallen into that never-ending dream, it was already too late. He felt the thin roots of the three piercing his skin and dragging him under the earth. He tried to fight them but had no more power. Hopeless, Manuel whispered his young wife’s name. The last thing he heard were some wings flapping above his head…
“Manuel, I only let myself caught in dreams, for dreams always reveal a man’s true nature, his deepest thoughts. Most of those who came here have tried to have me for their own vain desires. What they got instead was eternal damnation. But you seek to save your love and that I cannot vanquish. So far, I’ve met only a few mortals to be worthy of me. You’re among them. I free you from my course. Wake up!”
The boy opened his eyes and found the golden peacock sitting right next to him. His kind soul had saved him and brought the bird down to the ground.
And so, the youth had managed to complete the task. But now he started to contemplate at his long way back. He had no more food and water, neither could he get them from that island. Then, like somehow it had read Manuel’s mind, the peacock shook its feathers and grew tenfold in size. Spreading its long, golden wings it shrieked and waited for Manuel to climb on its back. Once that happened, the two flew back to Antioch.
Imagine the amazement of all those living in the city when they saw the boy circling on the back of a giant golden peacock high above the lofty, slender towers.
Once the landed, the peacock returned to its previous size and was taken in one of the palace gardens, where he spent much of the days grooming itself and displaying its glittering plumage to the astounded people at the court.
As for Manuel, he returned to his mother house and from where he sent a message to Isabella, waiting for her response. Tee poor youth hoped their troubles were finally over.
Relieved, Isabella, wanted to see him right away, but her jealous mother reminded her of the letter and persuaded her not to give up with such an ease. Manuel must have caught the bird out of sheer luck. There were better ways to prove his devotion to his wife and she will find them.