My Dearest Clara,

I awoke this morning bathed in cold sweat and dusted with flakes of stone. It seems a fierce fever overtook me in the night, rendering me all but helpless. My damp form huddles weakly in the corner of our cabin, and a haze has fallen over my eyes. I long with each passing moment for a draught of water, though my supplies have already run dry. The blankets I had stowed in my traveler’s sack have all been thrown about my sodden skin, and though I pull them tight, a bitter chill still hounds my core.

In these aching hours, I find myself pouring through E.L. Wheatley’s tome further, hoping, perhaps in vain, for some manner of reprieve.

Following the tale of the man in the paper boat, there is a story of a boy and his dog, wound tightly in the space of a single page. Though they had always lingered close in life, the boy did not appear upset upon the untimely death of his faithful companion and only friend, who had been struck down by some strange pestilence in the eve of summer. On the contrary, his smile brightened with each passing day, and his jovial laughs rang clearly through the garden for all to hear.

It was only when his parents told him of his friends demise did the sun leave his face. He stared about his legs, horror filling his eyes. Upon their curious stares, the boy informed them that since that eve, his pet had found voice, and spoke to him in the garden while they played as a dear friend. It was only now, the boy said, that the dog was gone.

***

I have come to the conclusion that I must leave this place, though the mere notion of abandoning my search for Dana Elizabeth Allen burns hot and sick in the pick of my stomach. I wonder, dear Clara, if you could forgive me such a retreat, and if I may be able to reconcile the loss myself once I reach the base of this lonely hill. With a half day’s rest, I shall commence the first arduous steps down the path, leaving this spot of empty homes and paper swans in the hands of the slippery sea creatures. In its hands I lay the decision to drown alone, or resume eyes on the shore beyond parted waves.

***

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Dearest Clara,

I have decided to stay up here one night longer—I feel as though its grasp on me is slipping, yet I fear cutting the umbilical cord too soon. There seems to be something out of place here, something in the wind that tugs on me unpleasantly, as though a great leech has found skin. I remember the girl Henry spoke of, Dana. There is a part of me that cannot help but wonder if her voice is what I hear brushing past my ears in the early morning hours, cradled in morning dew and crumpled letters, and that wonder has taken staunch alliance with my quest for the last piece of your puzzle, thrusting me out the door of our past cabin and about the faded grounds for answers amongst their hollow skulls.

Each untouched door upon unremembered home calls out in falsetto tones, each piercing deeper than the last. Still, I must hold myself back and go carefully. Perhaps under some stone, some discarded bed spring nestled in the corner, her stowed voice hides, waiting to unmask the secret of the paper swans.

I paused for the evening at the ninth cabin, halfway through my excavation, having happened upon soggy, dust mucked copy of a book of stories with the title page torn out. All that remains of identification is the author’s monicker, listed in small silver print as E.L. Wheatley in the corner of the spine. But what has captured my eye most about this book is the engraving of a swan on upon the cover. I have committed myself to its completion. Perhaps Dana’s fate lies within it, and in hers, my own.

 ***

The first story in the collection tells of man adrift at sea on a paper boat, remaining aloft only by his faith that he would reach the far shore safely. The slippery creatures of the sea came up from the water to meet him as he furthered his trek, parting the waves before him in line with the rush of their slippery flesh. And their slippery voices called up from the foaming tides, a slippery hum of some lost ethereal ballad, a sensuous siren’s song culling back the waves in line and calling for his eyes. But still, he stood strong, and the folds of his boat held firm and onward it sailed, the far shore slinking ever closer, cutting through the tide as the creatures sank back below the surface.

Undaunted, the slippery creatures of the sea plotted against the man in the paper boat. He had sailed straight through their dominion on an impossible boat, and they wished to claim his soul to the ocean as an eternal warning to all who would trespass as he had. And all the greater, they said to one another, if he should choose his fate.

Once more, the slippery creatures parted the waters before him with a cut of their slippery tails and rose to greet him. The greatest of them rose up around the boat’s sides, slathered in earth, as if land had come to greet him early, and they called out to him as a lover would, begging him to leave his paper boat and join them in forever bliss. But still, the man stilled his eyes toward shore, his paper boat held steady, and the creatures silenced their slippery voices and dove back into the sea.

Rising once more, the creatures turned their slippery voices to the heavens and begged for winds and rains to wash the man away, and they came. But still, through the stormy haze, the man knew he would reach the shore safely, and thus remained dry and afloat. The slippery creatures, enraged by the mans persistence, moved as one, parting the waves before him a final time, all the way to the sea’s floor. As the boat settled onto the dry ground, surrounded by a torrent of swirling waves, the creatures laughed, expecting the man’s strength fail him, and the boat slip away as the waves came crashing down, but to their fury, the man stayed his faith, his eyes steady on the far shore.

Seeing this great show, the sea carried the man and his paper boat up from the sea floor and landed him upon the dry shore, where he was greeted by friends and strangers alike with feasting and celebration.

***