As they waited, a fiddler sat down next to the hearth and began to play some spirited tunes. Soon a drummer and a piper joined him. Joan found herself tapping her feet and nodding her head. The only thing close to this back home was the melody from the white birds, but that sound didn’t make her want to move. Some more people had come in and were hopping around the floor to the music. It seemed like such a good time to her.
When the meal came, she forgot about the music. The food smelled so good, but not in the same way the flowers smelled. Joan hadn’t wanted to eat the flowers. When she took a bite, the flavors exploded in her mouth.
“Wow,” she said. “This is food?”
Tim was surprised at her question.
“It does something to my mouth,” she tried to explain. “It makes me like it. It makes me want to eat.”
“You mean it tastes good?” Tim clarified.
“I’ve never had food like this.”
“Where did you say you were from?” he asked again, hoping her response would make more sense to him this time.
“From the kingdom in the sky. My castle sits on the cloud that hangs above this valley.”
Her answer still did not make any sense.
“So how did you get here?” he asked, trying to sort it all out.
“I thought I told you,” she replied. “I fell off my unicorn when I was looking for Chaz.” Her face drooped. “I suppose I have to go look for him. But first…”
Joan hopped up from the table, grabbed Tim’s arm and pulled him into the crowd of dancers. Never had she felt so invigorated, and she laughed until her sides hurt. This was the second discomfort she had ever experienced, but this time it felt strangely pleasant.
The musicians took a break in order to devote their full attention to their drinks for a while, so Tim and Joan went back to their seats. At the table sat an old man telling a strange story of what happened to him earlier that day.
“… and he would not shut up,” the old man was saying. “One complaint after another. And those teeth! Every time he opened that big mouth of his, it just about blinded me.”
“Chaz,” whispered Joan. She turned to Tim. “He’s talking about Chaz.”
“I couldn’t wait to be rid of him,” continued the man.
Joan interrupted to ask where Chaz had gone. The man explained how the annoying stranger seemed fascinated with the clouds and went running off into the mountains.
“He thought he could get up on a cloud,” he concluded.
“The rainbow bridges. That’s where he’s going.” she said to Tim. “I need to go.”
She ran out into the street, and Tim followed. He wanted to see a rainbow bridge; he wanted to see a castle on a cloud.
He led her out of town to the mountain road. The dirt path wound up through the pines. When the trees gave out, they made their way over crags and boulders. No one ever came up this high. They entered a mist and kept going. They could not see far in the fog, but they could hear a very obnoxious sound ahead. Someone was yelling and crying and cursing.
“It’s Chaz!” exclaimed Joan.
When they came out of the cloud, Tim was truly amazed. The mountain top rested above the clouds. Looking out over the mist, he could see the most remarkable sight. A castle of gleaming white marble stood boldly between the mountain tops, hovering on the cloud. Unicorns fluttered about like large butterflies. It would have been a perfect scene except for the obnoxious person yelling and screaming.
“Let me back!” he yelled. “I’m here, you idiots! Let me back over! It’s me. Prince Chaz! Let me cross, I say! Now!”
“Chaz!” shouted Joan.
Chaz turned toward her. “They won’t listen,” he cried. Tears streaked his perfectly chiseled face.
Joan looked over at the castle. “Hello!” she yelled. “Where’s the rainbow bridge?”
The large golden door at the front of the castle quietly swung open, and a figure dressed in a pure white gown with a white cloak made its way across the cloud toward them.
“Mother!” shouted Joan. “I’m back. I’ve had such a wonderful adventure, but I’m back now, and I brought someone with me. Where is the rainbow bridge? I want to come over.”
“Honey Bunny Luv’ms,” said the mother. “The bridge will appear only for those who are perfect.”
“But I live here,” Joan reasoned.
“You certainly did, my Darling Dumpling Munchkin. But you are no longer pure.”
“What?” exclaimed Joan. “I’m still me, and I have so much to tell you.” She was so excited to share what she had experienced that she didn’t comprehend what her mom was saying to her.
“I discovered wonderful things,” Joan continued. “Music and dancing and food and colors and fun. I want to bring flowers here. You’ll love them. And something called taste. It will astonish you. And the music will make you feel amazing. You can’t believe what I found down there.”
“What on Earth did you spend your time doing up here?” asked Tim.
Joan turned to him. “Nothing. Can you believe it? We were happy doing nothing.”
“Cuddle Nuggins,” said the mother. “I’m afraid you are soiled. The world down there has made you impure. You cannot come back. Not ever.”
Chaz cried out and he went running off, determined to try another mountain top.
“Seriously?” asked Joan.
“Ferociously, absolotiously seriociously,” her mom replied.
“Wow,” said Joan and turned away. As she walked past Tim she muttered, “It was a boring place anyway.”
Joan returned to Hillvaleham. She loved her new life, though sometimes she could hear Chaz complaining from the mountain tops.
Most days she filled her time with music and dancing. She planted a garden and sold flowers in the market, spreading the joy she found in them to others. She loved everything about this world. Everything except marshmallows, not even marshmallow cobbler.
* * *