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One Hundred Years of Dreaming by Chris Collins - Twist in Time Literary Magazine
The Old Woman’s Advice Calpurnia woke up screaming. Breathless, she gasped into consciousness, her panicked bosom heaving until the Oneiroi demon dislodged and shuffled off with a sneer. Clutching her husband’s arm as he rose, she told him of her dream and begged him – do not leave. And, laughing, he dressed in his gold and finery and went out into the burning streets of Rome. Morning breaks in a golden green land of sunlit shafts, bridged by Bifrost from grey, snow-heaped mountains. Balder awoke gulping, haggard and head-wrought. His dreams were poisoned and choked with gore; he swam in horror nightly. He dreamt of the end of the world, but it serves no warning as Ragnarok is carved in runes by the Nornir. What shall be. And yet… Long ago, Odin drank the spiced mead of poesy under Hnitbjorg and brought it back to Asgard on eagle wings. He whispers sonnets and villanelles into the cinnamon sleep of women and men; thus dreams are singing messages from the Gods. I saw these things across ages. I whisper them to children to sooth them when they wake up in the night. ***** A young child dreamt. Her night terrors shattered the castle on its mountain-girt waveless green plain. Running weeping to her mother, she wailed that she was being chased by a huge nameless thing; a dragon, a great snake, a dreadful grey formless thing. Her dread kept her from her sleep and marked her skin with dark circles of worry. After three successive nights, her mother summoned the wise woman who had helped her through her time and asked for her sage and un-minced advice. ‘Well?’ exacted the old woman. She had settled her shapeless grey and brown form on a fine couch by the fire and begun spinning with her distaff. The young child sat tense on a stool at her mother’s feet, swaddled by her mother’s silks. Muted grey mist gathered at the spike of the old woman’s spindle and the young girl gaped at how this stuff of clouds and air became silvered strands, like hair from the moon. The Queen did not flinch at the brusque demand. Her inflexible eyes held the wrinkled gaze with which burned back like black fire. ‘The child is sick.’ She gestured her daughter at her feet. ‘Oh?’ The child blushed and her eyes flickered away from the fascinating spinning thread and fixed on the floor. ‘Are you, child?’ The croaking voice startled her, and she looked up at her mother for reassurance; she was never addressed so familiarly. Her mother nodded, and she took a deep breath. ‘Mistress, I cannot sleep.’ The old woman looked back to the distaff and flicked it again. ‘It is midwinter. The rain drips mournfully from the grey dead trees and you are restless. You long to run through the wildflowered meadows of your kingdom and race your horse along the mountain passes where the young shepherd boy hands you rosebay and smiles.’ The young girl’s eyes grew wide and she stole a furtive look at her mother’s disapproving, yet amused expression. The Queen addressed the old woman. ‘You are always right, in part, Mistress. She is a keen horsewoman, despite her age and her father’s displeasure. She is adventurous in spirit and the curtailing winter often casts her mood into a black pit. But it passes. This is different.’ The girl met the old woman’s eyes. ‘Please Mistress. I have bad dreams.’ ‘Ay? Tell me.’ And the young princess explained her strange dreams, entrapments, paralysis, monsters, snakes and dragons, evil forests and some other, dark thing she could not explain and did not understand, but loomed in the corner of her mind, sharp and horrid. ‘Are you afraid child?’ The old woman asked. Accepting the girl’s mute nod, she turned her attention back to her spinning. ‘You have guessed at your own fate. I see it woven out for you.’ Silence while she spun and spun. Shattered by the spindle-sharp voice again. ‘See these?’ She gestured at her spinning, the sharp point at the top. ‘Be careful of them. Watch.’ And here she cut herself on the needle. The princess stared in horror as dark blood swelled in rosary beads and dripped onto her rough skirt. The old woman did not even recoil as they stained the fabric. ‘As you bloom to your woman hood, you will learn to spin. You will make soft linen for your father, and one day a prince. But before that day, you will prick yourself on a spindle, as I have done, and your blood will not bead and dry as mine does, but flood in tides and you will die.’ The queen paled, swelling her skirts and arms before her daughter, like spreading wings to shelter a nest. ‘Fie, Mistress!’ she spat. ‘My child shall not die!’ Her anger kindled the coals of fear. ‘She will know now never to touch them. Why would she now, when they mean her harm? I will collect each one in the kingdom and burn them all!’ Here she lunged at the old woman’s distaff. But the old one had risen, the distaff held across her like a barrier and both women seized it. They struggled. The queen’s knuckles were white from wrenching. Then with a contortion of disgust on her fair face, she snatched the long thread between spindle and distaff and snapped it. She turned to the fire and leaned against the mantle. The old woman watched her, motionless. Disdain worked in around the bridge of her nose and suddenly the princess hated this old hag who had predicted her own death and humiliated her mother, whose stately back was heaving misery against its silk and lace casings. The old woman watched, then slowly unwound the ripped thread from the distaff. ‘Well Majesty, you’re as like to pay for that. But the threads of life can be short or long. One is not so much broken as put to different use.’ The queen turned back to the old woman and slumped, defeated, into her chair. The old woman spoke. ‘Come here, child.’ The princess stepped forward, her jaw high and her little eyebrows arched. ‘You order me, peasant?’ The old woman fixed her with a long stare. The child glared back with all the audacity of regal youth until the natural authority of age outweighed it. She capitulated. If only she could not hear her mother’s crumpled tears crushed under corseted breaths, she could have held that gaze longer. Who was this woman to speak so? The woman took the princess’s hands and held them out in front of her, the palms facing each other. She took her finished thread and began to wind it around the outstretched hands. ‘I am no monster, child.’ The woman looped and looped the thread. Her voice was low and with shame, the princess noticed its crack that split the word ‘monster.’ ‘I do what I can. This is your thread. It has been woven for you, like your mother’s was woven for her, and her mother’s. Even a princess cannot choose of what it is made or how it is spun. It is made for you, and then binds you up. Away from those meadows and mountain ridges.’ The princess felt her throat constrict. ‘When a father fears his daughter’s energy, his restraint is woven in, and he will get his wish. The King’s own law will visit severely upon him.’ The princess whispered; ‘Will I really die, Mistress?’ The old woman continued wrapping the grey thread around. The princess counted the silence, broken only by the fire hisses, her mother’s short breaths and the tension of the answer, which weighed down like heavy sacking on their arms and shoulders. Eventually the old woman dragged her eyes up out of it and looked at the child. ‘Nay. You will not die, but sleep. You will sleep for a hundred years. But this, I can weave in for you. Those dreams that have plagued you lately, will come again. But you will learn to govern them. You will make the world in them to your liking and come and go as freely as you please. Here, you will be mistress of your own kingdom.’ The princess stared in wonder; in horror. A life or a death? Dream or nightmare? Or something liminal; the thin white places between. ‘And the dark thing?’ here she blushed; she did not know what it was to name it, but shame was there, and disgust as well as horror. ‘Do you know what it is, child?’ The old woman looked grave. The princess shook her head and began to cry. ‘Beware it.’ She spoke gently. ‘For that spindle comes in human form. It is a man who will seek to rescue you from sleep. If he does, you will make linen for him. And there will be no more dreams.’ Here the old woman leaned forward, her breath puffing the golden curls away from the royal face. She whispered: ‘And certainly, no more riding.’ In the thick silence before the fire, there was a rustle of iridescence from the Queen. ‘And what will happen when he comes?’ ‘Well that,’ the old woman conceded with a smile at the Princess, ‘is up to you.’ Other Kingdoms In another kingdom, another Queen rocks her cradle and sings. As her son grows, she kneels before him buttoning his doublet, brushing his coat. She walks behind him in the gardens and applauds when he runs, fights, rides his horse and kills a hare. Soon he leaves his nursery and joins his father on the hunt; at jousting; at drinking. From the love of his mother’s kisses and his father’s smiles, all he has ever known is that ‘one day, all this will be yours.’ ***** My father is old; my rights manifest. A new age is beginning, my age, and I will extend my kingdom at its borders and strengthen it. I will be the most powerful king from sea to mountain, championing new pastures and new cities for my swelling subjects. And the sower will reap their eternal gratitude in tithes and taxes. It begins with my destiny – my first enrichment. A powerful spell smothers a princess in the next kingdom and my salvation of her augments my lands, my bed and the posterity of my home. It has been foretold that my defeat of the guarding dragon and the rescue of this maiden brings me rich reward and I will distinguish myself in skill and courage to take her. She is all states. All princes I. I awake in the grey-blue morning and am dressed in my armour. I stare out of the casement at the lands I will soon liberate from sleep; help breathe again through clearing the choking forest and briars. I have known all my life of that strange place, and its princess that was cursed by a witch. The pettiness of women. I gaze at the mountain pass, still topped with the fading winter’s snow and feel a shudder of fear in my heart. I force it down and think of that unknown girl laid out like her kingdom’s offering. Strengthened, I breathe again. It is cold enough to see my breath, but my furred cloak is thick. I smell dew and adventure in the morning. My buckles are strapped at last, and I stride from the chamber to my stables. ***** Her early dreams were of that first horror. Childhood night terrors were re-lived and were all of that first piercing; the sharp shock, the blood pooling and seeping up the hem of her gown like litmus paper; dizziness then tumbling blackness. Twenty years twitching in the satin sheeted, brocade hung bed with roses growing in through the window. Thorns in the forest grew so thick and fast they pierced the breasts of robins as they sang. Serpents rippled through roots and stems...