Night Whispers

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It’s one in the morning, and I’m sneaking down the silent dorm halls.  This whole place was once an estate with a sprawling manor house, left to settle into old age and refashioned into a boarding school.  By now I remember which floorboards won’t squeak underfoot.

The staff have turned in for the night.  Even Allie, the young janitor.  She is always the last to call it a night, though if she was awake I wouldn’t be worried.  She’d just give me a conspiratorial wink and pretend she didn’t see anything.  She used to be one of us.  A founding member of these secret hours, they say, who somehow fell in love with the school’s charm and stayed on as staff.

I tiptoe around the last corner, finding a small group already gathered at the basement door, waiting for me to come with the skeleton key.

I’ve been more responsible with this key than I’ve been with anything else in my life.

We all wait until the door has been opened before someone lights a candle.  Some of us are still in our uniform, while others are wearing pajamas with blankets over their shoulders as capes.  We tiptoe carefully through the large laundry space and around storage boxes, heading for the farthest corner where there’s a small window well high in the wall.  Through it, we can see the night sky.

We sit in clumps on the floor, sometimes a big group, sometimes a bunch of little ones.  Tired teenagers, with dark circles under our eyes that deepen in the candle light.  Here it is still and dark and forbidden.  Here we are a secret community.

Here, we tell stories.

All kinds of stories.  Scary, funny, sad, and adventurous, sometimes ongoing stories that span over weeks.  Someone is usually able to smuggle down tea or cookies, and nearly everyone brings a blanket or two.

There is something about the night, the way it wraps us in shadow and quiets our surroundings.  There is something about the way a candle flame flickers from the breath of a story.  The night enchants us, and we are careful not to break its spell.

Tonight a girl whispers her fears, and we all find ourselves nodding in agreement.  We’re scared, we’re tired, we’re not sure what we’re doing.  She seems to gather strength from this, and she thinks for a moment before speaking again.

“Once upon a time…”

The whispers around us fall to a hush.  It is a rule; if you wish to tell a story, all you have to say are those four words.  Tonight, she tells a story about a young girl who was given a job she wasn’t good at, but faked it really well.  One of her friends scoots closer, and when she starts to falter in the story, offers a suggestion.  Maybe, although this girl may not know her job, she’s good at figuring out the other people that work there.

And perhaps this girl gets caught up in a conspiracy that’s way over her head, but by now, isn’t that what she’s used to?

We’re all involved now, and the story becomes a living thing in our midst.  The girl’s name changes every other minute, the conspiracy is never fully clear, but the story is about how she becomes a constantly confused hero.

And I think, at least for tonight, that’s the hero we all want to know.

Some nights, especially before exams, we make poetry and songs out of our homework, pulling it apart into tiny, doable pieces.  Making it funny and light and easy to remember.  Sometimes a made-up ditty gets hummed during a test.  Some of the especially funny ones get passed down from graduates, spawning a seeming never-ending supply of tunes that get stuck in the teachers’ heads.

Most of us are terrible at telling stories and making poems, but we all have things to say.  And sometimes, it’s easier to say it at night, in flickering candle light, to a group who may think the same way, in the form of a story or a rhyme.  We’re not supposed to be good at it, and there are no grades to fear.  Sometimes it’s funnier to say it wrong.  It can be easier to remember when it got messed up.

Some nights, we dissolve into helpless laughter, and we have to break it up and return to our rooms before a staff member wakes up.

Those are the best nights.

Tonight, it is sleep that pulls us back to our rooms.  One of the girls nodded off during the story, and two others volunteered to help her stumble back to her room.  We blow out the candles and carry away the stumps, taking evidence of tonight with us.

I am the last to leave, locking the door behind me.  It’s just a basement, with laundry and boxes and the occasional spider web, but to us it has become a trove of memories that get us through our classes, our exams, our semesters inside this school.

Sneaking down the quiet halls with the key tucked safely in my hand, I find myself taking a detour through the classrooms, pausing every now and then by a window.  Moonlight fills the grounds, outlining the old trees that surround us.  I imagine runaways peeking out from between the branches, fairies dancing through the grass, talking animals meeting at the fountain.

I imagine telling their story, perhaps of how they tried to sneak into the school to learn.  Perhaps the old walls of this manor whispers to them in its shadow. Perhaps the school books are hiding secrets for me to find.  I think I’m not in such a big hurry to go to bed anymore.

I think I’m starting to fall for this place.

Dreaming

Dreaming

I dream I’m standing in a field of flowers, smoky blue petals filling the ground for as far as my eye can see.  They are like the ones that grew in my window box when I was a child, the ones I imagined to be filled with magic.  I used to feed them with wishes and convince myself that they became a deeper shade of blue because of them.

There’s a golden steam trickling through the field, passing just in front of my toes.  The sounds it makes is the kind of music I imagined fairy music would sound like.  Soft and crisp and impossible.  The sun is getting close to the horizon, warm and rich and deep, deep, yellow.

A gentle wind picks up and millions of petals fly into the air, up and up until they are little blue sails lost in the sky.  I wonder if each of them are a wish I once had.

I hold out my hands and feel the kiss of fading sun and summer breeze.  It is here that I decide to pretend it isn’t a dream, because if it isn’t, I can stay here forever.  But dreams have a way of being dreams, which is to say, fickle and changing.

The wind stops and petals are falling, drifting down like soft snowflakes, landing in my hair and in my hands and into the golden water at my feet.  There is a wonderful smell in the air, like roses and lilacs and strawberries.  I close my eyes for a moment to smell it.

When I open them things have changed again.

There are thin tendrils of smoke rising into the air, coming from every petal in the stream. They are smoldering. They are hissing.

They are bursting into blue flame.

Every flower is catching, threads of smoke unfurling into the air.  I’m in a field of blue fire on green stems.  I’m watching them burn without being consumed.

Something cold touches my feet, and when I look down I see golden water has flooded the field.  It is rising, swallowing up the stems and leaves, reaching for the flowers, but stopping before it reaches their flames.

And I am standing in ankle deep water, overwhelmed with the sight before me.  Blue flames spotted amongst a still sea of gold, as far as my eye can see, wild and peaceful and brilliant.  The edges are blurring and I know that I’m waking up, so I stare at a flower in front of me, framed in gold, and try to commit the details to memory.

I’m rising from the field, nearing a morning that is worlds away, but doing so gently with a smile on my lips.

Waking is merely another change.

It could be the best one yet.

 

Taking A Stand

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A jester, that’s what he was.

An entertainer, a joker, the court’s companion.  It was his job to make things lighthearted and entertaining.

He stood before his mirror, preparing for another gathering of the court.  His outfit was red, and he wished he’d gone with the black instead.  Or any other color for that matter.  The red was too bright, like the blood that stained the hands of every member at court.

Sometimes he saw his own hands stained with red.

He reached for his feathered hat and when he looked again in the mirror, it wasn’t himself–or even his room–in the reflection.

Instead he saw the children.

He saw the blonde-haired girl, only a few years older than the two little ones she shielded with her own body.  Her eyes were both fierce and afraid.  And there–behind them he saw the copper curls of a boy, his face frozen with terror.

And there–

There where his reflection should have been, he saw the oldest boy.  The one that had stood in front, hands shaking while holding his head high.  His mouth moved, but no sound came out.

There was no need.  The jester knew the words that had been spoken.

“We are not our parents, yet you condemn us for their mistakes, you plan to spill our blood.

No matter we were ready to heal.  To forget. 

Know this, we do not die willingly.  

Know this, we do not forget.

Remember well, we wait for you.

Darkness shall be your reign.”

He turned from the mirror before he could see what happened next.  Moisture lined his eyes as his memory showed him anyway.  The red pools on the floor, the small bodies limp and lifeless, the empty eyes that stared at nothing.

He had been forced to watch.

It was mere minutes later that they had called for him to lighten the mood.  To make a joke.  To make them forget the blood that clung to their skin.

And like the coward he was, he’d obliged.

His hands shook as he placed the hat on his head.  It had been a year ago today.  Not that anyone seemed to remember.  There was to be a frivolous party for the court.  Like it was a day for celebrating.  Like they felt like laughing.

Like that boy’s words didn’t still echo through the halls.

The jester straightened his tunic.  He’d had enough.  Red had been that terrible day, and red would be his clothes tonight.  He would not forget, nor would he cower as before. Quickly, he wiped away his tears and gave his reflection a savage smile.  Tonight the stage was his to command.

They demanded a show.  A show is what they would get.

The children will not have died in vain.

Wildfire

Labyrinth

The labyrinth is in flames.  My dress is catching on every branch and corner, tearing at the hem as I run deeper in, my head ducked below the smoke.  My eyes and lungs are burning like they’ve caught fire themselves.

My sister would have called this brave.  She loves the idea of defying danger in favor of a goal.  To want something bad enough that not even death could hinder the progress.  I do not scoff at such things anymore, not after all we’ve been through.

The heat is rolling over me in waves.  There are no flames along the walls beside me, but I know they are closer with every step.  Today, I don’t think it matters how badly I want and want, death does not seem to consider what I’m thinking as I run towards its open arms.

My mother would have called this foolish.  She loves the idea of careful consideration and precaution, and would never wish to see us in unnecessary peril.  My sister and I were the reason our mother’s hair went gray so quickly.

I’m choking, smoke coating every inch of my throat despite my head ducked low and the cloth wrapped over my mouth.  I can understand why I’m the only one who ran in to the maze.  This feels like foolishness.  This feels like death.

But I do not turn.

I did not run in without thought.  I’d weighed this decision within seconds, but I would not have changed my mind if I’d been given years to think it over.  My sister would have run in beside me if she knew the way as well as I.  Even my mother did not try to stop me as I ran by her.

There’s a fork of ways before me, and I hesitate for just a minute.  I used to know this tangle of paths like the pages of my favorite book.  The walls were once wings that folded overhead to keep me safe. Now they are strange and skeletal in a haze of smoke and flickering of flames.

I cannot think about how the fire is destroying the labyrinth, I cannot consider the pain I will feel if I live to see it destroyed from this.

I’d come here as a small girl; frightened, separated from family, and running from terrible, terrible people.  The stone pillars and walls had been pure soft white, like they’d been covered with daisy petals.  The leaves on the hedges and trees had been fresh, bright green, their trunks and branches of twisted wood in rich reds and grays and browns.  The vines that covered everything had bloomed in every color, their petals littering the ground and blowing in the breeze.

Sparks are falling amidst flakes of ash.  I can feel stabs of heat where they fall on my skin and burn.  I’m getting close, I’m nearly there, if only I had air to breathe.  I try to scream, to call out, but all I manage is a coarse whisper of a sound.  The smoke takes hold of it as soon as it leaves my mouth and smothers it.

I stumble into the center courtyard.  I can barely see the large tiered fountain directly before me.  The trees that rise up around it loom as dark shadows in the orange-tinted smoke.  Again, I scream.  I know, above all sounds, this is the one I can make loudest.

The fountain is steaming, its water gray with ash and soot.  It is terribly hot here, and it presses on me until I’m not sure I can expand my chest to breathe without breaking a rib.  Tears are blurring my vision, but I see movement in the shadows to my right.

I am surrounded by fire and death, but at the sight of the emerging shadows I feel extraordinary relief.  They are all there, their skin half-scaled as if the shift could never quite manage to hide everything they were.  The two little ones run to me, a boy with scales tinted green and a girl with scales tinted pale blue.  Their faces are smudged from the falling ash.  I take their hands and look at the third figure.

His scales are tinted black, and today they blend in instead of starkly contrast our surroundings.  His eyes are flickering with the memory of who he used to be, of what lies trapped now inside the body he wears.  He never could figure out the maze of paths that surrounded his home from down here, so used to navigating by air that the ground swallows him up.

My dragons.  The ones who fought off the terrible people so long ago, back when they had beautiful wings and sharp teeth and wicked claws.

“I’ll get us out of here.” I tell him, and they all follow me closely as I plunge back into the labyrinth.  I do not have wings or claws or teeth, I do not have powerful strength or sharp cunning eyes.  I can barely see enough to keep us on the right path.  My throat is all but closed off.

Still, I will not leave them behind.  Not when they need me.  I did not feel brave running in, but I could not quite feel foolish either.  This burning labyrinth is my home, my home, my home, and it is killing me to see it die this way.  It is an unbearable sight, one that I would have born watching from the outside.  But these dragons.  These dragons.

They are my heart.

And I would not leave them in the fire to burn.