Once Upon a Dark and Storybook Night

By Leneé Cobb
(Excerpt from Moonwalks and Unknowns)

Around 1960/’61. I’m four. The Air Force transferred Daddy from Andrews Air Force Base in South Carolina to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. We drove north through the U.S. and then across Canada to get there. Somewhere within the vast Canadian countryside, this happened:

I don’t know how many days we’d been driving nor where all we’d stayed but I do remember traveling across a far expanse of flat country. Sometimes there were woods, sometimes not, just rolling hills and flatland. This particular day had been foggy and as twilight descended, the fog thickened. Yet up the road to our right, a faint light shone through it. Dad slowed the car so he and mom could read the sign.

Mom said, “Jerry, it’s a pool!”

“Well, I’ll be . . . It’s a hot spring.” Dad almost whispered the words as he pulled into an empty parking lot and stopped the car.

Steam rose off the cream-colored building to mix with the fog and we all just stared for a while at this unexpected apparition.

“They are probably closed,” mom said, then sighed.

“Maybe, but I’m not leaving till we know for sure,” dad said, and with that, he got out of the car.

Mom and I watched him as he looked around again and walked to the blue door at the back corner of the building. Fog swirled around his feet. He wasn’t very far before I couldn’t see his black shoes any more. He cupped his hands around his eyes and looked into the small, diamond-shaped window on the door, then reached down, grabbed the handle, swung open the door, and walked inside. We watched as he walked around the pool, because we could see him through the tall wall of windows we’d parked in front of. We watched him put his hand to his mouth and call out. Finally, he came back to the door, leaned out, and motioned us to come inside.

Stepping through the fog was strange, almost as if my feet would never find anything to stand on but in spite of not seeing it, the ground stayed true.

Inside, the building was warm and smelled funny.

Dad said, “No one’s here but us. Just strip down to your underwear and jump in!”

And that’s just what Daddy did. Mom told me to do the same while she went inside a restroom and took off all her clothes except for her bra and underwear. Then she jumped into the water with us. The water felt wonderful and we played for a long time, just us, alone in that pool. I remember watching the fog swirl in the darkness outside the windows as we frolicked in this bewildering dreamlike place.

We didn’t leave until way after dark. When we walked outside the steam came outside with us, mingling again with the fog of the night. I watched the lights shimmer from inside the building as we drove away. Too soon, the black night and thick fog severed the connection we’d had with the light and, once again, we were driving alone, an island of travelers inside the twilight zone of dreams. I sat between my parents during this drive away from the phantom pool, my eyes traveling between the millers in the cars headlights and the blue lights of the radio on the dashboard.

Daddy sang Moon River along with Andy Williams. “We’re after the same rainbows end, waiting round the bend, my huckleberry friend, Moon River, and me . . .” Then, through the night-blackened forest on our left, we saw a light, a yellow, welcoming light. It was like a fairy light, like Tinkerbell, very faint within the forest of fog and shadows.

“What do you think it is, Jerry?”

“I don’t know.” Dad pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and put it in park. “I’m going to find out.”

“Oh, Jerry,” mom worried, “what if that’s someone’s house? Do you think we should?”

“After those hot springs? Yes!” He opened his car door.

I wasn’t about to be left behind. “I think it’s Tinkerbell. I want to come.” I slide across the seat, joining him outside.

Mom got out of the passenger side a lot slower than us.

They looked all around, then softly shut their doors. It was a quiet night, a night for whispering. The fog was so thick. The forest was black, except for that warm, beckoning yellow light. Daddy picked me up, holding me against his side as he walked. There were no footsteps to hear, no crickets or birds or wind. The moisture of pine and damp earth tantalized my nostrils. There was just enough light to see our way through spun glass blue grass, shadowy trees, and waves of swirling fog.

After a little ways, the trees stopped and formed a small circular clearing. In the center of this clearing was a stonewalled wishing well. I’d never seen a wishing well before, except in movies. Daddy and mommy stood at the edge of the clearing, with me, taking in the scene. Daddy still held me on his hip as he and mommy crept up close to the wishing well. It all felt sneaky, and wonderful.

As we approached the light, I could see faeries, lots, and lots of them, fluttering. At least at first, I thought they were faeries, friends of Tink, but the nearer we came, the more defined they became until I recognized them for what they were——millions and jillions of flying millers and other incredible flying bugs. We stepped up to the edge of the well.

The yellow light shone from beneath the shingles of the well’s roof, above a rope and crank. Dad held me and we peered down inside it. It was not deep, maybe as deep as I was tall, but I could see the bottom of the well and by the light of the yellow bulb, I spied hundreds of copper pennies on the bottom. Mounds of them. I reached my hand into the water but daddy held it back.

“No, honey. No one takes this money. This is a wishing well and what we do is hold onto a penny.” He set me on top of the well’s cold, damp, rock wall while he searched his pocket, brought out a penny, and placed it into my hand. “We close our eyes, and then we make a wish.” He closed my fingers around the penny. I closed my eyes and made my wish. “And then we toss the penny into the wishing well.”

I opened my eyes and my palm and stared at that penny, then studied the piles of pennies beneath the water. Those stood for a lot of wishes. “Do the wishes come true?”


“Does it ever run out of wishes?”


I shut my eyes, closing my fingers around the coin again as if to make my wish more powerful, urgent; then tossed the penny into the water, and opened my eyes to watch it fall. It plunked. Ripples spread over the water’s surface. There it lay, on top of hundreds of other copper pennies, beneath the water, the yellow light, and the fairy millers fluttering overhead.

Daddy flicked a penny to mom. She caught it, closed her eyes, made her wish, and tossed her coin. Daddy reached into his pocket once more, pulled out one last penny, closed his eyes, and tossed it. Just like mine, I watched their coppers descend through the water and come to rest. After a while I looked up. My parents smiled at each other and at me. They stood back a step and we all stared around us, taking in this magical wishing well within the enchanted forest.

We wafted silently through fog and woods back to the car, entering as quiet and when we came. None of us looked behind us to watch the light disappear this time; we each looked ahead within dreams.


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