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It is night -- I am not sure what time exactly -- and I am having another vivid dream. Unlike normal dreams, my surroundings do not assume swirling, shifting senseless forms. I can see, smell, taste, feel and hear distinctly. I can even pinch myself and feel pain. Yet I know instinctively that I am dreaming. When I was much younger I used to have plenty of these dreams. Sometimes I would tell my doctor about them, but I think he only half-believed me.
I have been dreaming about my grandson. Eric is eleven this year, a fine lad, but with the weight of too many long and cumbersome medical contrivances upon his frail shoulders. He has a constitution of glass, hundreds of allergies and is constantly prey to some malady, but he is the best companion a grandfather can desire. He accompanies me on evening walks, talks to me when I pine for company, and best of all, does all these little things without that edge of exasperation in his voice and actions. But I can never truly feel happy for this. I know only too well that what binds him to me also estranges him from his peers, keeps him from proper teenage pursuits, fills his youth with cruel winters.
In the dream we were scaling a giant beanstalk together. That is one great passion we share -- fairy tales. For me, a writer of children stories, fairy tales are a natural joy and inspiration. I think, however, that Eric enjoys fairy tales for more poignant reasons; that he indulges to escape, to flee into a bright sunny world where his sickness cannot impair him, where there are no bullies to taunt him, where it is always spring. It was spring all around us as we climbed the beanstalk, helping each other along. That is the way we live too, two dependent people lending one another support upon the treacherous roads of life.
Barely three quarters of the way up my surroundings began to swim and I found myself suddenly alone. Eric was gone, as was the beanstalk, and I stood looking down a familiar corridor. I haven't had a vivid dream since my teenage years, and I was surprised to find myself in one again after so long. They always start off the same way, with me standing in a long corridor. I will walk down its carpeted length and open the fourth door on the left. I do not know why I always take the fourth door on the left. I just feel that it is the proper thing to do. Something tells me that the other doors are not really doors, just parts of the wall cunningly disguised as doors and I should not fall for the deception.
There will be some encounter within, sometimes thrilling, sometimes frightening, sometimes cheerful; always vivid. Then I will be whisked off to wakefulness or another normal dream.
Experiencing a vivid dream again is like being united with a long lost acquaintance, but I do not feel too pleased. I want to get back to climbing with Eric, so I go up to the fourth door on the left immediately, hoping to be done with the dream quickly. Usually there is a knocker on the door. Sometimes it is a brass gargoyle, sometimes a silver maiden. Tonight there is no knocker, but I am not dismayed. I never knock when I enter anyway, and the door is never locked.
I open the door and step out onto a grassy lawn. I am in a lovely countryside, the countryside of a fairy tale. The hills are rich and verdure, rolling off to meet at the horizon a turquoise sky dappled with fluffy white clouds. The sunshine is bright and pervasive, lifting the morning dew, glinting off the golden ears of corn, sparkling on the babbling brook. The breeze skips along, whistling a cheerful tune that matches the laughing sky and the merry jig of butterflies capering amid the flowers. It is a lovely setting to begin a lovely tale. It is a beautiful day.
Usually the encounter occurs immediately. This time I wait but nothing happens, so I decide to do a little exploration, look around, perhaps even get some ideas for children stories. As I walk I notice the sky darkening. Ah, I think, at last things are beginning to happen.
The sun is gradually obscured, the wind picks up and cold beads break against my lips and forehead. Lightning blinks in the sky, thunder trembles upon the ground, the drizzle becomes a shower; all the heralds of a heavy thunderstorm. Through the intensifying pall of rain I notice a cave cut into the side of a nearby hill, around which crown I glimpse fluttering black silhouettes. As I near the cave, drenched and shivering, I detect through the crash and shudder of the storm the faint flap of wings from above. How strange that birds should continue to fly as though unaffected in such weather, but I give it not a second thought as I enter the cool, dry sanctuary of the grotto.
The lash of the elements grows in fury. Looking out, I am greeted only by a thick curtain of grey and the sporadic burst of light, so I turn my attention to my immediate surroundings. By the intermittent illumination I see that it is not a cave I have ventured into, but a tunnel, with roughly hewn stone steps disappearing down its throat. Perhaps they lead to the dwelling of a dragon. In books, dragons live in such places all the time, surrounded by riches and the yellowed bones of unwary morsels. This may be what my dream is about, being driven into the stomach of a dragon by fortune (of a thunderstorm) and folly (of a curious creature).
Indeed, I am deeply curious about where this peculiar dream might take me, and finding the gloom and grumble outside a poor preoccupation, I descend the stairs without hesitation. Soon I am far beneath the surface and in the darkness I fumble around, careful not to lose my footing on the slick uneven steps and to keep my head low so as not to graze it a second time upon a leering stalactite.
I turn another corner and see light. It is an illuminated doorway, behind which I find an ancient chamber sculpted by the hand of man. Torches crackle from brackets set in stone walls that are dusty and overgrown with moss. Ferns peep from the myriad cracks and crevasses of the granite floor. The chamber is longer than it is wide and a faded red carpet running from the doorway stops short of a giant slumbering form upon an elaborate throne. The path is lined on either side by rectangular slabs upon which lie armoured warriors, their weapons clutched to their breasts. It is a royal court, I realise, the subterranean court of a sleeping king and his sleeping soldiers.
I advance quietly, not daring to shatter the sacred peace that must have reigned for centuries and stop in front the monarch, who sleeps with one hand under his chin and the other upon the hilt of a huge sword leaning naked against his thigh. A golden crucifix gleams from its place in the stone above his head. His great red beard spews down the mighty, heaving chest like a plume of flame and completely engulfs the stone table before him in scarlet tendrils. As I take another step forward my shoe scuffs against a protruding tile and I trip, catching the table to arrest my fall with a cry of surprise on my lips.
“Is it time yet?” the red-bearded king murmurs, startling me with his speech.
The heavy lids on that stern, worn face crack open an inch and then fly wide apart as the roving pupils rest on me.
“Awaken, brothers, awaken!” The giant bellows, gripping his blade and shearing his beard from the table in a single stroke. “We have dawdled in dreamland for too long! Arise to the call of the Fatherland and the Faith!”
Steel clatters against stone as the soldiers rouse themselves to answer the cry of their leader. They surround me in a thick body, sealing my exit with a human wall bristling with menacing weapons, hard eyes and unshaven faces. The giant leaps upon the stone table and the lurid glare of torchlight on the shroud of red curls at his feet makes him appear poised atop a bed of fire. He raises his sword, rugged features set and malevolent – and hesitates.
“You do not look like the Antichrist.” He says at last, squinting at me in the poor light.
“Indeed I am not!” I answer, shaken to the core but trying hard to conceal it.
Suddenly bereft of purpose, the soldiers around me falter. They withdraw to their stone beds and mill around listlessly, as though unsure whether to continue their repose or to await further instructions from their king.
“But neither are you the lad or the Almighty,” the giant rumbles on. “And that means you have no right within these hallowed halls. Tell me, do the ravens still fly?”
“Yes, ravens,” he says irritably. “The ravens that circle this mountain, or that are supposed to anyway.”
I remember the birds I saw flying above the hill, not mountain, but as it seems a poor time to correct this grumpy and eccentric king I just answer, “Yes, they still fly.”
The man nods wordlessly, settles back into his seat and sighs as one reassured. “The Fatherland does not ail then, and I can continue my rest. I suppose you have no proper reason to be here but never let it be said that I am an emperor without grace. I bid you leave now and never disturb us without good cause again.”
As he sinks into his original pose with chin upon hand I say desperately, “Please, your majesty, I need your help.”
“Help?” he mutters drowsily, eyelids drooping, “What help?”
“I am -- well -- lost.” I reply. And it is true, in a way.
“If one is lost one should pray. Yes, that was what I did, and my prayers guided my armies to the Holy Land. So pray, son. That is my best advice for you.”
“I don’t pray, I’m afraid. Actually I was hoping -- ”
The giant stiffens as though thunderstruck and in an instant all the sleep is leeched from him. He glares at me with flashing eyes that sink back beneath furrowed brows, transformed into a formidable spectacle of righteous fury. “Not pray?" He thunders, brandishing his massive blade, "Heathen! Heretic! Now I know why you’ve been sent to us! To arms, my brethren, to arms! Our faith is being tried! To arms and seize the infidel!”
I flee for my life, eluding the grasping hands that reach to snag me, dodging the swing of the axe and the stab of the pike, out of the chamber and into the darkness, up the flight of stairs and out into daylight. Daylight. The storm is over and the sun glimmers on the rain-speckled foliage. No clamour rises from below and I decide that the soldiers must have given up the chase. I lean against the tunnel entrance and pant heavily, my sweat mingling with the rivulets of rainwater that course down the rocks to form puddles on the rain-soaked ground. Never before in my dreams, vivid or otherwise, have I experienced exhaustion, and I walk off marvelling at this phenomenon.
I am standing on the crest of a grassy knoll that affords a bird’s eye view of the region. In the distance I spy a white castle with soaring spires and dancing pennants. There the ruler of these lands probably resides, someone who might render aid in a more effective and civil manner, so towards the gleaming fortress I head. It is a pleasant walk over hills, with the wet grass crisp beneath my feet and the air sharp and invigorating within my lungs. Upon reaching the castle I discover that it is surrounded by a forbidding moat, but the lowered drawbridge extends an open invitation into its dazzling quarters.
I pass freely through the outer bailey and courtyard without encountering a single soul. The portcullises are lifted, the gates wide open; the guard houses are empty, the battlements desolate. No patrols accost me, no domestic servants bustle around on their various chores, and indeed, the place does not impress one with a need for any of them. There is no obvious military threat for miles, save perhaps the red-bearded king who seemed perfectly content slumbering alongside his soldiers in his underground domain; the buildings are spick and span and admirably maintained in the absence of human hands.
At the threshold of the keep I pause, thinking it polite to first make known my arrival before barging into royal lodgings, and rap the knocker thrice against the oaken door. When there is no answer I admit myself with diffidence. The entrance hall is spacious and unfurnished and I am beginning to think that the palace is completely uninhabited when there comes a sound like the bang and clangour of metal against stone from the upper stories. Swiftly I ascend the winding stairs and, racing down the hallway towards the source of the ruckus, arrive at a door from behind which a man's deep breathing can be heard distinctly. Before my knuckles come within an inch of the portal it swings open and a tall, slightly flustered man stands in the doorway before me.
"Hola, my good man!" He booms cheerfully, "Hast come to inform me that it is time? But, by my troth! I am ever ready to hold the marches of my fair beloved land with tempered steel and untempered faith!"
The man is broad of shoulder, fair-skinned and silver-haired, his otherwise handsome visage marred by a gaping, blood-encrusted wound where an eye should have been. There is something of pride and majesty in the beak-like nose and fierce brow that sit above a suit of steel running from neck to heel. Draped in a long jacket upon which is blazoned a scarlet wedge against a white field, he adjusts the buckle of his sword-belt as he watches my face eagerly.
“I am sorry, sir, but I think you’ve mistaken me for another. I have not come to inform you of anything.” I answer as courteously as I can manage.
The excitement washes away from the single shining eye and his features droop. “Alas and alack, that I should have bided here all these years awaiting the chance to once again champion the white cliffs and green fields which I love, and that when at last a messenger comes he should bring no call to arms!”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I have a request -- ”
“A request!” The spark reappears in his eye. “Perchance you seek advancement through honourable debate? Or to exalt your lady? Ha, my teeth may have been blunted somewhat by overlong disuse, but the old war-hound is ever keen for fresh game. But, what ho! Thou art no knight! Where art thy golden spurs? Whither thy coat-armour? Shalt besmirch my noble hands with base-born blood? Why, thou knave-“
“I never said I was here to fight you.” I interrupt hastily.
He stops, relaxing, and blinks perplexedly. “Well, what manner then does your request take?”
“I am a stranger who wishes to find his way out of these lands.”
“Faugh!” Cries the knight in high disdain, “Must needs concern me with such trifles? Is the gallant cavalier of the argent pile gules, at whose coming every French cur once trembled, to deign to become a signpost for every wandering wayfarer? I am off to resume my respite.”
So saying, the warrior turns and re-enters the room, divesting himself of his armour and letting the pieces fall to the ground with dull clanks before collapsing on a cot at the far end. The air is rank with the smell of steel and sweat and a battered wooden training figure in a corner suggests how the knight employs many of his waking hours.
“Please sir -- ” I begin in another bid.
“Methinks,” comes the baritone of the supine figure, “That since I rest to husband strength to defend my country in her hour of need, and that thou doth disturb my rest, you may be considered an indirect assailant of fair England. Leave me be, I prythee, lest I be moved to draw steel upon you.”
There is nothing for it, and so I go.
I feel the utmost despair and wretchedness now. Never have I before experienced such a unique dream, wherein everything is frustratingly and boringly placid, and everyone is eager to be left alone. I cannot seem to wake from it either, and something tells me that I shall only do so after a climax of some fashion, like in any other dream. But what is this climax, and where is it to be found? Each time I ask for help, I am answered only with a threat on my life.
Then a crazy thought strikes me. Perhaps the object of this vivid dream is to have my life taken. Yes, indeed, has death not been my release from countless dreams in the past? I decide to have the knight hew my head from my shoulders, but I turn to find the drawbridge up as if by magic. No matter, the red-bearded emperor will be only too happy to serve, but then it is a long walk back to the cave and a better idea has suddenly occurred to me.
I look over the lip of the moat into the dark, glassy water far below. Piranhas or flesh-eating monsters of some kind may dwell beneath its unassuming surface, and even without them I will be guaranteed a swift death by drowning. I make up my mind and take the plunge.
The wind whistles in my ears as I hurl myself headfirst into the chasm. One side of my face strikes the water painfully and I go down under with a splash. Muddy, gritty fluid fills my ears and mouth. I gasp from the shock of the chill and inhale a lungful of dirty, icy water. My chest constricts excruciatingly and as the vice of death tightens over my lungs my vision fades and blackens.
The golden shafts of late morning slant into my bedroom as the curtains are drawn, flooding the darkened area with light. I squint my eyes in the unaccustomed brightness and peer at the dark figure that stands by the window with his face toward me.
“Grandpa, you’re awake at last!” Comes the voice of my greatest affection.
“Eric,” I answer, my voice hoarse from sleep. With a smile, I shield my eyes that are gradually adjusting and look out of the window, “a fine morning today.”
“It is!” He says, and I notice the unusual exuberance in his voice. He rarely sounds so energetic and bubbly, and it pleases me to hear him like this. “Grandpa, let’s go for a walk now.”
“A walk?” I shook my head, trying to clear my newly awakened brain, “But I’ve just got up, Eric. I have to brush my teeth -- ”
“No, no,” he says, laughing. He walks over to the bedside and tugs my hand. “A walk right away. A bit of fresh morning breeze will do you good. You can always brush your teeth and when we come back.”
“Very well,” I say, chuckling. I shove the coverings aside and slip off the bed, groping around for my slippers with my feet. Hastily, I change out of my bedclothes.
“Come on, grandpa, out of the door now. Hurry.”
I finish buttoning up my jacket and make for the bedroom door, wishing my eyes would adjust to the brightness more quickly. It is then that I notice something remarkable about the scene. The light is too dazzling, far more intense than what I wake up to on usual mornings. And the bulk of the brightness comes not from the window, through which frail rays of sunlight still filter in, but from the door leading out to the hall. A sudden terror, overwhelming and inexplicable, grips me as I near the exit. I try to halt my steps but to my horror my feet stride on defiantly.
“What on earth -- ” I begin, turning to Eric, but it is no longer Eric who is standing in my room. It is a monster, a demon, something horribly and indescribably foul and malignant, that leers at me, clapping its hands and cackling as the vestiges of Eric’s semblance melt away from its features. The fear within me magnifies a hundredfold and I become desperate, twisting and struggling frantically to distance myself from the portal of searing light without avail.
Then, barely a feet from the doorway, I come to an abrupt halt. I back-pedal as far as I can from it as the demon snarls a curse and the brightness diminishes.
I look up as the bedroom window shatters with a tinkle of glass to see Sleeping Beauty leaping through in a flurry of petticoats. I recognise her from the illustration in a collection of the Grimm Brothers' that I have read and re-read countless times. She is exactly as the picture had her, with a sweep of dark ringlets cascading into the curve of her back, a pale face, marmoreal in its beauty, and lips the hue of ripe cherries. I must be going crazy, I think, as Sleeping Beauty sizes up the demon and pink tinges of anger appear on her flawless cheeks.
“Be gone, you rascal.” She says, her angry glare never leaving the abomination, “this one belongs to my world.”
“He is a lost one!” He screeches in a metallic and terrible voice. “He belongs to me!”
“He is hereby reclaimed. Busy yourself with the others. He has a purpose in coming to my lands, and his purpose is also my purpose. I am taking him with me.”
The demon growls and suddenly lunges at the beautiful lady. With impossible composure, she flicks a silk handkerchief out at the creature and, as though caught in mid-leap by an invisible hand and hurled back, it flies, screaming curses, through the very doorway it had lured me towards.
Sleeping Beauty gives me a warm, radiating smile. “It is time to return,” she says, taking me by the arm and sending us hurtling out of the window.
I jerk into a sitting position, coughing and sputtering with my lungs afire. Water, laced with dirt and sediment, spews out of my mouth and nostrils in violent spurts. As I recover, I realise that I am in the shallows of a meandering stream, and remember faintly the tug of an undertow in the moat before slipping off into unconsciousness and the most bizarre dream. Yes, it must have been a dream. But does that not mean that I have had a dream within a dream? I groan and clutch my throbbing head.
A few moments later I rise to my feet unsteadily, trying to figure out what place my crazy attempt on my own life has landed me in. A stone’s throw from the riverbank is a forest, dark and huddled, and at its edge I spy the form of a child, curled up against the trunk of a massive tree. I walk up to her, shivering in my soaked clothing, and rouse her gently.
The child stirs and awakens, scrubbing bleary eyes and yawning loudly. Snugly clad in a fur tunic, she has a fair complexion, dark tresses and looks to be no older than Eric. She raises herself to a sitting position and beholds me with the wide, trusting eyes of untainted childhood.
“Is it time already?” She asks, smoothing her hair and massaging her neck.
There it is again, the same, mystifying question with which everybody in this world greets me, and grow grumpy and reticent when I cannot seem to answer it. This girl, however, looks to be fairly harmless and mild-mannered, a promising candidate for my nagging queries.
“I’m sorry, little girl, but I haven’t a clue what you are talking about. Can you explain to me what is this ‘time’ that you refer to?”
“Why, time to protect my flower of course. It is a frail thing, but it is my beautiful child and I shall always love and defend it. It struggles to survive on its own, but sometimes the weather in Iceland gets too harsh, and my strength is required to tide it over the storms.”
“I see, but why did you think that I am here to tell you it is time?”
“Because that’s the only reason I would be awakened, isn’t it?” She says in a tone that conveys how obvious she thinks her statement should seem. “But usually it’s the Valkyrie who wakes me. I was surprised to see you.”
“The mistress of this land. She always calls me just before the great blizzards and frosts beset my garden back home.”
“And where might I find the Valkyrie?”
The child turns her head from side to side, craning her neck and peering as though expecting to see the personage nearby. Suddenly her face lights up and she jabs her finger towards the riverbank.
“There she is!” She trills and waves her hand. “Hello, Madam Valkyrie!”
I look around and see a familiar vision of absolute loveliness standing near the spot where I had washed up, returning the child’s greeting with laughter and nods. Then her gaze settles on me and her smile softens. Sleeping Beauty shakes her head, as though regarding a disobedient but adorable child, and beckons me toward her.
“That was rather unwise of you, to give up just like. No wonder Gargharsh thought you were a lost one,” she scolds gently as I draw level with her.
“Lost one? Gargharsh?” I say, my thoughts reeling in my confused and disoriented brain. Irritation creeps into my voice. “Look, lady, please. I’m lost and frightened, and I want nothing more than to be freed. If you are the ruler of this place I beg you to be merciful and to release me into the waking world.”
Her smile vanishes, and she says, not unkindly, “That is not possible.”
I experience a wave of panic at her words, and suddenly I am sick of the endless riddles, sick of feeling scared and helpless, sick of having to linger in this ridiculous place meeting the most ridiculous people. This is just a stupid dream, dammit! I lose my temper and begin to rant angrily at her, the vehemence of my words and the magnitude of my fury taking even me by surprise. Never have I experienced such wild transports of rage, that bring me beyond the reach of even my own reason. Deep inside I somehow know that the lady who is bearing the brunt of my ugly temper is not to be blamed. She is here to help. Yet the pent-up fires refuse to subside until I have shouted myself hoarse. Numb and drained, I sink to the ground, hot tears trickling down my wrinkled cheeks. How undignified I must appear, an old man throwing a tantrum like an infant, but what do I care?
Sleeping Beauty settles herself beside me and braces my trembling shoulders with a comforting arm. At her touch I suddenly feel like a child again. “I’m sorry, Darryl,” she says quietly, ”that you should have to go through so many trials. But it couldn’t have been helped. Most people arrive here by the prearranged route, and they receive my guidance right from the start. You did not take conventional paths, and so I took time to locate you. Those who turned you away so unkindly are my beloved charges also, and I apologise on their behalf for the shabby reception.”
“Those people were --” I stopped as memory brought a sensation a strange familiarity. It had been a long time since European history in my college days, and yet, the myths of Germany and the heroes of Hundred Years War-England were not entirely lost to me…
She nods with a silent smile to unspoken thoughts. I indicate the girl who has gone back to her slumber at the edge of the woods. “And who is she?”
“No one you would recall. A daughter of a common Norse family that lived hundreds of years ago.” Sleeping Beauty looks back at me. “But it is your story that requires our attention now. Do you remember what happened before you found yourself here in these lands?”
That is easily answered. “I was climbing a beanstalk with Eric. The real Eric, I mean, but in a dream, just like this one, except it isn’t so vivid.”
“And before that?”
I think hard. “I cannot remember,” I say finally.
“Try again,” she says, concern touching her voice.
I lower my face and close my eyes in concentration. Sleeping Beauty rests her palms gently on my head and the ache in my temples subsides. With the distracting fog of pain lifted from my mind, the recent events flash past with greater clarity – the Viking girl, the demon, the moat, the knight, the red-bearded giant, the corridor, the beanstalk. Eric joined me only halfway up the plant. Before that, I had been standing alone at its base, gaping at the gargantuan stem that spiralled upwards and lost itself in the clouds. Before that? Swirling motes of lights, masses of amorphous shapes and figures. And before that?
Suddenly, with the breathtaking sharpness of icy water in the face, everything comes to mind.
It was not night. And this was no vivid dream.
In the late afternoon, in the real world, I had been taking an evening stroll with Eric, as usual, by my side. His recent interest in botany had brought us to the park, where he delighted in calling out the names of the many specimens around him, taking note of the characteristics of those he did not recognise for future identification. We had stopped in the shade of a tree to rest and I was bending to tie my unravelled shoelaces when I felt the familiar ache. It started off as before, a dull throb in the chest which I had always dismissed as some malaise too minor for the doctor’s office. This time however, the pain did not subside within the first few minutes. Instead it grew like an expanding ball of razor spines, searing my chest, sealing my lungs. Then I was choking, clutching my chest in agony, fighting to breathe. Then my knees were buckling and I was being driven to the ground. Then I was hearing my grandson’s frantic cries. He was right beside me but already sounded a world away. Then I was keeling over, vaguely conscious of a gathering crowd.
“I have passed on,” I whisper, and what surprises me is how I do not feel the thrill of revelation. It is as though my subconscious has known the fact all along, just that I have never consciously registered it.
Sleeping Beauty nods silently, and I suddenly feel a weakening twinge. Uncontrollably the tears return, and as I sob, thinking how strange it is that I should be mourning my own passing, I realise that it is not my loss I grieve.
The lady seems to read my thoughts. “Do you think," she says as I draw a shivering breath, "that we truly abandon our loved ones to fend for themselves forever when we die?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard all that nonsense about dead people watching over living ones from the sky. It’s just a sorry invention by people who have lost to console themselves. Eric may think this and feel a little assured but the fact is -- ” I cannot continue.
“The fact is you are no longer physically by his side, can no longer help him, support him, give him strength the way you used to? The fact is you feel you have deserted him?”
She is shrewd. I nod dumbly.
“Do you think, then, that Barbarossa and Chandos and all the other beings, great and small, who slumber in my domain, slumber in vain?”
“What?” I ask, raising my head.
“There is a reason why people find themselves here after their death, Darryl. Humans are more than mere shells. You are guided by not only instinct, but also consciousness and intent, and when the corporeal form can no longer be sustained, you would be wrong to think that the purpose and the will crumbles with it. Do you remember the question repeated by all those you’ve met?”
“Is it time?” I echo, “But time for what?” And the answer comes to me even before Sleeping Beauty speaks.
“Time to rise to defend the cause they love, Darryl, the things they never ceased fighting for while they lived, and still continue to work towards after they’ve died. Chandos loves his country, Barbarossa is eager to glorify both nation and religion and Aesa’s mission is smaller but no less significant to her.”
“I imagine Eric would be terrified to see my ghost.”
“In his time of need you will rise for him, not in form, but in his heart. Just as Barbarossa rose in one Hitler’s heart when he felt it was time to bring his kingdom above all others, though he was ultimately thwarted in the attempt. There were others who rose to protect their interests as well, you see. Still, the emperor bides his time.”
I grow comforted at her words and as my sadness ebbs away questions surface in my head. “May I ask who this Gargharsh is?”
Sleeping Beauty becomes solemn. “More of a what, actually. The demon you saw was only his manifestation. Gargharsh collects the lost ones, mostly wastrels and villains who had no direction in their lives, or those who have given up their purpose and so have no reason to continue their existence in this realm. Theirs is a sorry fate, but we should not dwell on this. Gargharsh will never trouble you again.”
She stands and gently assists me to my feet. A small boat with no pilot draws up beside us and we step into it. As the boat drifts down the stream, I am treated to glimpses of this wonderful world in the constantly changing scenery. Then it was a hillock, now a hamlet, here vast barren plains dotted with yurts, there exotic palaces nestled in the folds of ancient blue mountains. I was right from the start. This is a lovely setting to begin a lovely tale, a tale that will last forever. I spread my arms to encompass the grandeur around me and say, “So this is the land we all come to eventually, a fairytale land, ruled by Sleeping Beauty!”
She laughs but hastens to correct me. “Yes and no. A person sees this place, and sees me, according to what he believes in. Barbarossa, for instance, calls me the Almighty, and to him this place is Heaven. Aesa sees me as a Valkyrie, whom her people believe lifts the valorous from the stricken field. You have lived always by fairy tales, and so you see this realm as the splendid and wondrous lands you so often fantasised of.”
“Amazing,” I say, just as something else occurs to me. “I don't suppose the German emperor and the Viking girl speak English, yet how was it that we understood one another?”
“Language is but a physical barrier in the living realm. Meanings are conveyed here, not words, and an individual interprets them according to the speech he is familiar with.”
“Why then, this place is built entirely upon one’s perceptions!” I exclaim.
Sleeping Beauty looks askance at me. “And the place you came from is very much different?”
I think about it, and realise she is right.
The boat stops near a cliff and we alight. Off the cliff is a cottage that appears to be suspended in mid-air, but as I draw close I see that it sits at the peak of – yes – a giant beanstalk. Bidding Sleeping Beauty farewell, I leap across the space and land on my feet beside the house. Here I have come at last, to the top of the beanstalk, the end of an exhausting climb, the conclusion of a long journey. As I enter the quaint and beautifully furnished abode, fatigue suddenly weighs down on me, turning my limbs to lead. But it is the pleasant kind of fatigue, the weariness of a day’s work well done. I walk up to my bed, lie down, and assured by the knowledge that I will be awakened duly, go off like a light.
I am having a vivid dream. In the dream a slightly built boy kneels beside the bed of an old man in a hospital ward. The old man, wrinkled and grizzly, wears a look of blissful serenity on his face. The boy’s features are mottled with grief but he expresses his sorrow through no more than a few quiet tears. Once he might have bawled loudly and furiously, angry that he should be robbed of a beloved companion when he has already been deprived of so much, but since then he has grown, matured. He has learnt through the past years, through the past hours as his grandfather wavered between life and death at the hands of the surgeons, to be brave in the face of adversity, strong in the face of misfortune, accepting in the face of the inevitable.
Around him doctors and nurses bustle, shaking their heads at the beeping heart monitor, tearing life-sustaining tubes and needles from the arms of the man who occupies his space with little more than his body, drawing the sheet over the worn and peaceful face. A nurse tries to help the boy up, but he shrugs off her hand and gets to his feet by himself. His gaze never leaves the old man’s face until it is at last obscured. One last tear rolls down the inflamed cheeks; he permits no more. He knows his grandfather would not want him to mourn.
“I know you’ll always be with me, grandpa.” He whispers, so that none can hear him but himself – or so he thinks.
“Yes.” I reply, and he jerks his head up, eyes shining with wonder as they rest on that unmoving, covered form the nurses are beginning to wheel away. Then he shakes his head, as though in disbelief, but his grief-contorted features are eased somewhat as he turns to leave the room.
He does not know it -- or maybe he does, just that he will never be able to reconcile this feeling of his with his logic -- but I continue to live, not by his side, but in his heart. He may be frail and aspen in the storms of change, oppressed by his differences and disheartened by his difficulties, but ultimately he is made of sterner stuff. He has courage and tenacity, and will rise to great heights, like the beanstalk that twists and bends yet reaches the clouds.
After all, life is just another vivid dream. And in a dream, anything is possible.