The First Story

by Fernando Sacchetto – dec. 2009

Once upon a time, there was a peasant boy who loved to play. While he was very poor, such that he often had to go to bed hungry, he was rarely without a smile, for his life was never devoid of wonder and magic. Nobody could tell from looking at him, as he looked in all ways like simply one more peasant boy in a dreary forgotten down, living a dreary and soon-to-be forgotten life. However, when he played – which he did in every waking moment of his life, as much as he could anyway – he lived a thousand different and fantastic lives. This time he was a bold knight, fighting against monsters so strange and fearsome that the wisest sages could scarcely find words to describe them; that time, he was an escaped slave, trudging through dank sewers as he evaded the tricks of his wicked sorcerer master, contriving plans to bring about his downfall and claim his remote frozen kingdom. His little head had more stories in it than the greatest of libraries, each more amazing than the last – and, when he finally tired enough to lay down and sleep, they came to life.

One cool spring night, the boy dreamt of a king. This king and the peasant boy were one and the same, although he could never have suspected that, having been a powerful and respected king all his many years, and a young high-born prince before that, but never a peasant boy. The king in the boy’s dream led a life of glory and greatness, for his kingdom extended in all directions as far as a horse could ride, and was filled with people who had nothing but deep love and respect for their sovereign. He lived in a vast and beautiful castle, where he sat on his high throne, dispensing justice, pronouncing edicts, laying down the law, and deciding on war and peace, all with the most hallowed wisdom. He would also go out hunting gorgeous beasts with his trusted retainers, and hold memorable feasts for a shining court, where the most delectable foods and drinks in the world were served, and the most enchanting music played. Yet, despite all this, deep inside, the king was troubled.

One summer night, after much reveling was had on the feasting hall, in celebration of a particularly glorious hunt, the king summoned his most trusted advisor, the Lord Chancellor. “Look at me”, the king said, once the two of them were alone in his chambers. “What do you see?”

I see only the greatest man my eyes have ever met,” said the chancellor, and the king knew he would not have said that if he had not really believed it, which was why he was his most trusted advisor. “I see one who is loved and respected by each and every person I know or can conceive of, and who will go down in the books of History as the head of the best reign this kingdom has ever seen. I also see a man who leads a life of endless glamour and joy, a life that every living person deeply yearns for.”

The king walked up to his mirror, an exquisite work of the finest gold and silver, the largest of any in the kingdom, its face smooth as the calmest pond, worth as much as a castle by itself, and looked into it. “Yet that is not what I see,” he said. “I see a dazzling crown, and fine-spun robes, and a bejeweled scepter, but nothing beneath and behind them. I see the trappings of a king, but in stead of the man who holds them, I see nothing but an empty shell.”

I will hear none of it,” the king continued, before his chancellor could protest. “The king is displeased, and demands remedy. He knows the dispensing of law, and the hunting, and the feasting, and all courtly matters, but nothing else. The king is troubled because he is nothing but a king, and knows of nothing else. His life is filled with glory, yet this glory is as ashes on his mouth, for it has become a prison, being all he has ever to look for in his life. Therefore, your king commands you to solve his predicament.”

Nothing would please me more than to see for my king’s happiness,” said the bemused chancellor, “though I must confess that I am at a loss. This is indeed a dire situation that ills Your Majesty, and yet, I have no notion of how to even begin to counter it. Your Majesty has shown wisdom beyond bounds when deciding the fate of the kingdom, and thus, I humbly ask: what would my king bide me do, that would fill the emptiness he feels inside?”

My Majesty has shown wisdom, but not knowledge; I know not what life is other than what surrounds me at the castle and court. I know nothing of what transpires in lands far away, and of what has passed in times long gone, and of what is yet to come. Thus, your king commands you: Go forth from this place, with a retinue as large and rich as you require, and travel as far as your horses can take you. Then, once horses can travel no more, take to the mountains and travel as far as elephants and other beasts can take you. Then, once no beast can travel any further, take to the waters and travel as far as ships can take you. Once you have reached the edge of the world, you are to use whichever means to travel as far as any man living or dead could have ever traveled. You are to visit every kingdom, empire, duchy, principality, barony and fiefdom in the world, as well as any land that bows to no lord. You are to consult with the wisest sages in each land, and the eldest tellers of lore. You are to listen to every minstrel or spinster or child who has a tale to tell. And you are to record and recall all such tales. Then, when you have enough tales that their scrolls could fill all the halls in this great castle, you are to return here and tell them to me, for I would know every last of them. That is your king’s command.”

The Lord Chancellor bowed deeply, and left at once. He dreaded his task, for he knew it would take a lifetime to complete, and would be fraught with peril; nevertheless, it was a mission on the king’s behalf, and he would carry it out to the end of his life, if necessary. He made all the proper arrangements, gathered a host of soldiers to protect him and servants to aid him, and left the next morning at first light.

The king waited patiently for his chancellor’s return, doing his best to while away the long seasons and years of waiting with his customary kingly activities. No one knows how long the king waited; after all, he, his court and his castle were part of a dream, and time does not flow in an even manner in dreams. To the king himself, the wait seemed like an eternity, thousands upon thousands of years long; to his reveling court, lost as it was in the happiness and gaiety that surrounded His Majesty wherever he went, it might as well have been the blink of an eye. The truth is, many years went by until the Lord Chancellor returned, finding a significantly older and wearier king to relay his stories to. The chancellor was aged himself as well, and significantly worn from the journey, as could be plainly seen; as for the host that followed him, only a single mute servant remained.

When word reached the king’s ears of his trusted advisor’s return, he had him summoned and brought to the throne room at once, to commence the telling of the stories in earnest, beginning with the story of the chancellor’s own travels. And thus, the wizened traveler was brought to the throne room, supported by his mute servant (for his age and travel-weariness made walking difficult), and found his lord slumped on the throne, the joy and vigor of youth drained from him. The king said nothing, for he wished only to hear; understanding this, the chancellor began immediately recounting the tale of how he set off on a journey to retrieve all the tales in the world, and of the many wonders, dangers and passions he encountered.

It would not be convenient to relay this tale at this moment, nor the other tales the chancellor told thereafter, for they would fill countless volumes, which would never permit this very tale to end. Suffice to say that the king was extremely delighted by the stories told, so much that days passed before he recalled that he needed to sleep. When he did, he dreamt for the first time in his life – for, previous to that, the only dream he could ever have was the joyful life he had in vigil. He dreamt not only of the marvelous things he was told by his advisor, but many more, for the doors of his spirit were opened by the tales he heard. He woke again more than a day later, only when his yearning for new stories surpassed his pleasure in living the ones he knew. The Lord Chancellor then supplied him with new fables and legends and chronicles, until he wearied enough to sleep and dream again, in a cycle that went on for many years still.

Then, one warm spring night, while snoring soundly on his throne – for he no longer cared to leave his throne room, where the stories were told, long enough to sleep in his own chambers – the king dreamt of a new realm. This place was somehow different from the others, in a way that could not be identified at first – for it seemed magical without showing any wonders the eye could see, and exciting without any activity that could be gleaned. The king was different as well, for in this dream, he was a boy once more, although not the prince he had once been – now, he was simply a poor commoner’s boy, wearing a toy crown made of wicker and a toy cape made of sackcloth, and carrying a toy scepter that was no more than a small gourd impaled on a wooden stick.

The boy looked about him, and he saw rolling meadows, rushing streams, chirping groves and towering mountains. He walked to and fro, climbing the tallest trees, swimming in the deepest waters, and exploring the darkest caves. He played and played like the child he was, hardly bothered by the lack of company and toys, for his imagination and the stories in his head were all he needed. After many and many hours, already tired of playing, the boy looked about him once again, and this time he realized how lonely he was. He did not remember what family or friends he had – for all he could recall was being a poor boy in a mock king’s regalia playing in the fields – but he somehow knew there was one particular person he sorely missed. He could not remember anything about this person, other than that he told him stories; nevertheless, he fervently wished this storyteller was there.

It was then that the boy heard rustling steps behind him, and turned to see an old and regal man, dressed in rich purple robes, beautifully garnished with gems of all varieties, who also wore an exquisite felt cap tipped by a long feather of various scintillating colors, and a majestic gray beard. Surprisingly, the man bowed before the boy, as if he were a lord rather than a peasant child, and said: “I see you have found this most secret of lands. Welcome, my friend.”

The boy could scarce do anything but look in wonder. “What place is this? Where am I?”

You may not remember it at this moment,” the old man said, “but you have been told many stories, each hailing from a different place. This, well, is the place where the stories happen.”

But I don’t see any story happening around me!” the boy protested. “I don’t see anyone I know from any stories! Where are the knights, and the nobles, and the wizards, and the dragons, and the fairies? Where are the castles and cities and temples? Where are the wars and quests and courtly feasts?”

The old man smiled, as if amused by the boy’s innocence. “Why, that is very simple, my friend. A story cannot exist until it is told, can it?”

The poor boy who played at being a king said nothing to that, for he understood. He looked around him once more, surveying his lands – for, while he was nothing but a commoner, he was free, and thus the entire world belonged to him – and set to thinking about a story to tell. It would not be a story he had heard, since such a tale would have already ended – but rather, a story of his own conception, one yet to begin. And, upon spying a rather lovely glade, he imagined the village that could sit there, and a story that could take place in it.

Have you heard the story about the piglet who wanted to be a butcher?” he asked the old man, knowing the answer would be ‘no’, for the tale was new. Then, he set to telling it, describing the travails of the stubborn piglet and the befuddled villagers that met it, describing the village where this episode happened, and what came of it. When he ended, the old lord smiled, for it was a lovely yarn, and looked down at a glade that perfectly matched the one in the tale. There he saw a little village, every bit as quaint and picturesque as the one he had heard of. The boy followed his eyes, and smiled as well, pleased at his discovery – for the village had always been there; he had simply not looked closely enough before.

Enthused by this newfound purpose, the play-king started telling tale after tale, of wicked wizards and dainty damsels, of great conquerors and goofy commoners, of terrible trolls and mischievous mice. As he told them, he walked along with his companion, and found city after holdfast after hamlet after castle, all to match the manifold stories that were recounted. In them, he found men and women and children and beasts of all sorts and types, who lived lives filled with joy or melancholy or adventure or toil, as suited each one of them. And thus the land appeared to be filled with the wonder he first saw in it; however, the boy realized, something still was amiss.

All these people,” he said to his old friend, “I see them going about their lives, milking cows, clashing swords, chasing stars, doing all the things they do in the stories about them… but nothing else. They are like clockwork mannequins, doing nothing but the things they were set to do. They live the stories told of them, but not their own stories.”

Very perceptive,” said the old man, nodding sagely. “Indeed, they are as words in a book, trapped into telling the same tales over and over again, each time you look at them. And what would you suggest to remedy this situation? What could there be that would bring new stories into this place?”

The mock king sat on a wooden crate as were it his throne, set his mock scepter across his lap, and lowered his wicker-crowned head to think. Deeply and deeply he thought, for the problem seemed indeed baffling. What this land needed was new tales, and new people to live them, and new places to set them in. However, he should not be counted on to keep telling them forever, for he was already beginning to tire. He had to find the source of this novelty, the place it all sprang from – but it could not be situated in this land, for were that the case, this spring itself would also need to be fed with new tales. And there was also the matter of what to do with the old tales that were already told; the people in the land could not simply continue to live them over and over again, in an endless carousel. They had to end, in order to make place for the new stories – and then, they still had to be moved somewhere else.

The boy thought and thought, and when he wearied of considering the matter at hand, his little mind drifted back to another person he did not remember at all, but still sorely missed. It was someone who planted, and grew, and harvested countless delicacies that filled his senses. They were fruits and vegetables of all kinds, each more delicious than the last, for they were all fresh. And he could scarcely wait until she appeared anew with her fresh produce, for she was the source from which the joy in the house sprang. It was her who brought new life. With this realization, the boy leapt to his feet and announced: “The orchard! There’s an orchard that produces all kinds of delectable vegetables and gourds and fruit. Let us visit it, and talk to the lady that tends it; I am sure she knows how to bring new life and tales to this place.”

Very good, my friend. But where is this orchard, and which path do we take to it? Should I visit the next village to procure horses?”

No, that won’t do. Where we are going, no horse or elephant or ship can reach.” He realized the orchard was nowhere in the land, but rather inside him, so he and his friend walked until they came to a poor commoner’s holdfast, and sat on his orchard. They closed their eyes, and thought of another orchard – the first one, which all plantations are but a pale imitation of. They sat and contemplated, calmly and blissfully, until the mists of sleep came and spirited them away. They then opened their eyes, and found themselves in a bright place, full of color and life, and knew they had arrived at their destination.

They wandered through the rows of planted life, amazed as it bulged and grew and popped out all around them, bursting with new life at every moment. They plucked fruit of all imaginable varieties, and many more that could not have been imagined, and feasted on this delightful bounty. Then, when they were just about to burst themselves, they heard a chiming giggle, like a piccolo flute’s trill, and turned to see who was behind them.

They saw a portly matron, giggling like a girl, dressed in leaves and fruit, and covered in a gleam like that of a million minuscule stars. She hopped to and fro, plucking here and planting there as she went, fluttering as a bird, despite her ponderous build. She had seen her two visitors, but did not appear to be fazed by them; rather, she simply gathered a generous armful of produce, straddled it around her ample bosom, and presented it to the travelers. “Here!” she said in a high-pitched, yet deeply comforting voice. “Have some! I know you’ve come from far away. You must be tired and hungry; have some fruit, and you’ll be good as new!”

The boy and the old man stared at her, dumbfounded, for they could neither accept any more fruit than they had already eaten, nor refuse such a generous gift from such a lovable lady. Eventually, they picked a couple berries each, and started to explain their predicament. They told her the story of the land that was locked into a neverending story, and of how they needed new life and new stories to feed it with.

Oh!” she exclaimed, in an even higher pitch than before. “I have just the thing! Here, take this.” She presented the boy with a strange, red fruit. “Open it! Come on, don’t be shy!”

The boy did so, and found it filled with dozens of tiny seeds. “What’s it for?” he asked.

The fat lady giggled some more. “The seeds, silly boy! It’s full of seeds! Each and every one of those seeds is a mighty tree waiting to be born. So, inside this fruit, there are dozens of trees, and each tree has dozens of fruit. The same is true for most other fruit in this orchard, and the other plants as well. They contain life with no end inside them, life that can be sown into countless worlds of infinite possibility. These patches around you here are where worlds are born, and all the people and beasts inside them. We need only to get the produce to your little land!”

And how do we do that?” the boy asked, wide-eyed, because he knew it was true. Infinite worlds beyond imagining, ripe for the picking, just waiting to be born! If only he knew how to bring them forth! And he once again set to thinking, this time sitting on a particularly large gourd. There was no road leading from the orchard to the lands, but surely there should be another route… and once more, after much thinking, he yearned to find a person he did not recall. He recalled a wizened old man, one gone blind from age, but who could still see into the hearts of all. He recalled that all comings and goings went through him, both the glad arrival of pleasant new friends and their sad departure as well, once they had concluded their visit, for this man was the gatekeeper. The boy did not recall this, or know what it meant at any rate, but he understood it. And he also understood that this man surveyed a body of water – a moat, but one that might as well be a river. And so, once more, he leapt up.

The river! There is a mighty river that runs from here and all through the lands. It goes from everything that was and onto everything that will be. It’s the perfect route for feeding the land with new life and tales, and the old man who tends it will see to that. Let’s visit him at once!”

He took his old, regal friend by the hand, and bade goodbye to the kindly lady. They walked among the patches for a while, following the irrigation streams, and closed their eyes once again as they walked, welcoming the mists, which eventually led them to the river that fed those streams.

They looked around themselves, and this time there was not much to see, for the river was wide and the air around it thick with fog, although the water was so clear and placid that they might as well have been fording a mirror. They forded on and on, stopping on islets and reed banks, thinking about everything that led them to where they were at that moment, while they examined the trembling reflections on the river’s surface. When they were so lost in thought that they had almost forgotten why they were there or even who they were, they heard something sliding through the waters, and turned around to see a barge, conducted by a wizened and blind old man, dressed in a heavy, gray hooded robe with many folds, holding a lantern in one hand and the barge’s pole in the other.

The barge stopped in front of the two travelers, and the old ferryman waited for them to step on it. They did so, and as the vehicle started moving again, the boy quipped, “Does this river run from the orchard and into the lands?” The blind man remained silent, but the boy understood the answer nevertheless.

Then, how come the fruit and life from the orchard aren’t coming through it?” Once again, the blind man was silent, but the boy again understood. The river was still.

Why is the river not moving?” the boy asked, and took the silent reply. “It’s because it doesn’t have anywhere to go, isn’t it? I’ve found where it starts, but not where it ends.”

The play-king shivered, for he knew where he had to go next. “Ferryman,” he said, “take us to the end of this river. Take us to the place where stories end.”

While the old blind ferryman silently carried them through the great waterway, the boy sat once more, and thought. Once again, he found his thoughts drifting to someone he did not know or remember, and who, while he did not quite yearn for, as she was a stern person who heralded joyless matters and grim admonitions, he wished to see once more. He closed his eyes, and thought of a place of sad loneliness and longing memories. And then, when the mists passed, he was there.

The boy and his old companion walked off from the barge, which was not even there anymore, and surveyed the place around them. It was gloomy, gray, and lifeless – however, its lifelessness was not full of promise, as the empty world he first awoke in, but rather full of forgotten memories. It was a bleak wasteland filled with ruins, crumbling cities and castles, long-abandoned, and countless gravestones, markers, cairns, mausoleums, and sarcophagi.

The two friends walked among the endless graveyard, admiring this tomb and that decaying tower, this empty town square and that memorial sculpture, wondering at all that came before, all that once was and is no more, and never more will be, when they heard someone behind them, coming with deliberate rustling steps.

They turned around to see a finely-appointed woman, in a rich black velvet dress, wearing a jet-black crown, and carrying a black scepter shaped like a rose. She was pale as the moon, shrouded by the black midnight sky. “Welcome to my realm,” she said. “I have been expecting you, as I expect all to come to me sooner or later.”

The boy looked at her cold eyes, transfixed. They carried no malice in them, but no benevolence either. They were serious eyes that did not love or hate, but only saw that which was before them, bare and unembellished. They looked at him and saw neither a peasant boy nor a king; they saw only the one who was looking at them. And he asked, though in his heart he knew the answer: “Who are you, and what is this place?”

This,” she replied, “is where all come when they reach their end. All men and women and children and beasts and kingdoms and worlds. This is the end to all stories. And I am the one who tends it, the one who welcomes those who have ceased to be, and who reigns over that which is no more.”

The boy turned to his companion. “Those stories we saw in the land, the ones that would not stop being the way they were – are they over now?”

Yes,” he said, “they have ended. Everything has ended here. This place exists after everything else has already happened. We are after the end of the great river that runs through life.”

Does that mean… that we have ended as well?” The boy’s voice was wavering.

No, no,” the gray-bearded man said in a reassuring tone. “We are still far from the end of our own narrative. We have simply taken a shortcut here. One day, when the river drags us here with its current, we will have to stay for good; however, since we were ferried to this place, we can just as easily head back.”

And so they did, after biding their farewell to the grim lady, for they had succeeded in finding what they were looking for. They had found a beginning for all the new stories, and an ending for all the old ones, and the path they should take in the telling. So they took the ferry once more, and traversed the great river, this time against the current that ran from what never was to what never will be. They leapt off at the middle of the way, wandering into the mists until they found themselves back at the land they started in, and indeed, it was a changed place. One could not tell just by looking at it, since it was still filled with townships and palaces and people of all stripes – however, the lives that those people were living were unlike anything the boy could have ever imagined. They were no longer living the boy’s stories, but their own lives.

Weary from all his traveling, the boy finally set down to sleep, and as he did so, he dreamt. He found himself in an enchanted land, filled with fantastic creatures and charming denizens. He saw a glamorous court, where joy was neverending, and everything around him was filled with magic and mystery. So enthralling was this land that days and weeks in it passed in but a moment’s notice, and before he knew it, he was awake again. He eagerly sought his friend, and relayed to him all the marvelous sights and sensations of the land in his dreams; however, the old man’s smile was faint, devoid of the boy’s enthusiasm.

The boy once more set to exploring the land around him, now filled with new and exciting stories and people each day, and played and played as he went across the world. By night, when he was exhausted, he would lie down and sleep, and return to that enchanted land of magic and wonder. This went on day after day, and night after night, until the boy realized something was amiss.

One late summer morning, after a particularly glorious dream about the shining court, the boy called his gray-bearded friend. “Tell me,” he asked, “have we not brought new stories and new life to this place?”

Yes,” he said, “and found a place for the old ones to go as well. The world is no longer trapped into a single story, but free to tell as many as there may be.”

But then,” the boy protested, “how come every night I dream the same dream? Are the stories not endless? Why must I be trapped just when I ought to be the most free?”

Ah,” his friend replied, “you have come to a crucial question. The thing is, you are not the only one who dreams this. All who live in this land are bound to the same dream. There is an old story, older than this entire world, about a king who led a life so full of glory and majesty that all aspired to be him. Well, all who live still aspire to that king’s court, and dream of it. They dream also of a princess, the most beautiful and gracious of all, the one that all girls want to be and all boys want to espouse. They dream of a land of pleasure and wonder, a land beyond all the worries of their dreary lives. Those are the things that everyone in this land aspires to, and as such, they all dream the same dream. That is why the dream cannot change; because it is common to all.”

But that can’t be! They can’t all dream the same dream. Can’t we find a way to give them new stories each night, just as we’ve given them by day?”

That, my friend, would be a highly complex matter. After all, dreams are not simply the musings of the sleepers. They are tales, more vivid and more real than any other, which need some place to occur. They create a reality, one that must either end or be transformed when the dreamer wakes. When all the people dream freely, there will be countless worlds being created each night, with manifold ramifications and repercussions. There needs to be someone to tend to these worlds, as were it an exquisite garden filled with delicate flowers.”

The boy sat and thought once more, but this time, there was no place or person he yearned for. Much as he pondered, he found no answer. There was none he thought that he would entrust with such a lofty task; none but his purple-robed friend. So, after thinking and thinking, the boy tired so much that he fell asleep once more, thinking of the old man. This time, he found himself not in the enchanted land, but in a secluded grove.

He walked this way and that, weaving between the trees, but could not find anyone. All the familiar faces from his old dream were absent. He wandered through the strangely silent forest, exploring its every nook and cranny, until he tired of it, and wished there was anyone there with him – someone to tell stories, to build something out of the forest, to create something new for him to experience. It was then that he found a clearing, and saw someone standing on its edge.

As he approached, the figure gestured for him to be still. “Shh,” he said, “it is about to begin.” The boy recognized the voice as that of his old friend, and looked up to see it indeed was him. The man pointed to the center of the clearing, where there appeared to be a small bundle. Before the boy could ask anything, the bundle stirred, and then it grew as it unfolded, revealing a small child. It was a little girl, dressed in a nightgown, which slowly grew and transformed itself into a beautiful dress as the girl gradually stood up and took bearing of her surroundings. The clearing she was in seemed larger each passing moment, and she found several trappings in it that could not be seen there before – a quaint little table with a delicate tea-set, a few cozy chairs around it, floorboards and a carpet under her feet, and the walls, windows, doors and ceiling of a comfortable living room around her. There was a crackling fireplace too, which had always been there, for several years, as she could well remember. Her friends were also present for tea – a piglet, a talking horse, a princess, and a soldier. They were always there, even though the girl had not noticed it, and neither had the boy and the old man that looked on.

That is the first guest,” the man said, “and many more will come. All thanks to you, my friend. You have found this place for them to come at night, as well as someone to tend to it.”

That’s you, isn’t it?” The boy marveled at the girl’s dream, and of the many others that were beginning to form all around them, in as-yet unnoticed clearings within the gloomy forest. Here, a man found himself seated in soft velvet cushions among many silk-draped ladies; there, a young woman unspooled woolen thread from a pumpkin, knitting a wooden ladle with it; there, a dog rolled among fresh carcasses, overjoyed. He looked up at the regal man, with sadness. “Will you have to stay here?”

Yes, of course,” he replied. “Dreams are fickle and wild things, prone to clashing, crumbling, melding and unraveling if left unchecked. Look, just now, two of them are already in conflict.” He pointed, and surely enough, the young woman was beginning to pull her thread from one of the man’s cushions, slowly undoing it. “We must separate dreams that are private, lest they risk unmaking one another; others, that are dreamt in unison, must be kept from tearing apart from the pull of so many tellers recounting the same story at once.”

They both looked around once more. The dog was found by monstrous, leering scavengers, that hounded it from every corner, chasing it until it nearly collapsed from exertion. The little girl’s companions had become ghastly boggarts, with coldly gleaming eyes on faceless visages, and were weaving a web that bound her tighter and tighter, while she opened her mouth to scream, though not a sound came out. “What about those dreams?” the boy asked, cringing. “Why would such horrible things creep into what should be a happy and wonderful place?”

The old man pondered for a while before responding. “There is a shadow that lies beyond every light. The souls of all who live burn as the brightest candles, but they all still carry darkness within them. Here is the place where the infinite worlds within each person and animal come forth; those are worlds filled with love and fear, joy and hatred. Strange beasts lurk under each bed, and it is all I can do to keep them from overrunning this realm; keeping them out entirely is out of the question. Nor would it be desirable, lest they might escape into the waking world itself. I would rather set apart for them the deepest reaches of this forest, and enclose them where no dreamer is advised to tread.”

What of the shining court?” the boy wondered, eager to turn his mind to gladder subjects. “What of the land of magic and enchantment and beauty we dreamt about before? What of the fey realm?”

That, my friend, is a dream so old that it cannot end quite so easily; not before the world itself, in any event. So many dreamt of the fey kingdom that it now is as real as the waking world, alive on its own right. It is beyond my rule, and that of any dreamer. I would daresay that none hold sway over it at all, other than the Queen of Faerie, whose beauty filled endless nights across all realms.”

The little mock king began to tingle, as if pins and needles pricked his feet and hands, and understood that he was about to leave. “Can’t you really come back with me?” he asked, longingly.

Don’t worry,” the old man said in a soothing tone. “I have other stories to attend to now, but your own will continue and never end, not until it is your decision to cast them aside. And should you need to see me again, you can find me beyond the mists of the night, at the very heart of this forest, in a palace made of all the dreams that never were. Goodbye, my friend.”

The boy woke before he could reply, vaguely sad, though he could not quite remember why. He found himself at the foot of a gnarled tree, hungry. The last shreds of his dream flitted away in the morning wind as he stretched, regained his bearings, and looked around for some fruit, as well as a new adventure to live in his imagination. He felt a surging satisfaction swell in his heart, though if one asked, he would not be able to say why. But, for some reason, he felt that all was right in the world. The magic he carried within himself was somehow renewed, and the worlds that sprang forth each time he played would keep coming. The spark that fed the stories burned strong, and though he was a lonely boy, there would never be a lack of heroes and villains, sages and phantoms, princesses and trolls, beings fair and foul by his side. Everything was possible, as long as he was bold enough to conceive it.

He donned his toy cape, put on his wicker crown, picked up his mock scepter, and ran off into the cool spring morning. The world was his, and he still had much to explore.