The Kingdom of the Sleeper
You have heard the tales of the sleeper, the prince who came for her and her sleeping kingdom. You have always taken it for a curse – people blanketed in sleep and stupor. Let me take you to the heart of this tale and you will see that it is not as you expect it to be.
At the border of this land everything is as it should be. Trade flows freely, people who have relatives and friends in the neighbouring kingdom go here and there, even groups of jugglers and actors and other colourful bands cross the border. There is nothing wrong, except perhaps the knowing look one of the guards gives you as you enter into the kingdom of the sleeper.
You notice nothing wrong as you walk through the outlying towns and cross forests and rivers. In fact the only thing that might be wrong is how right everything feels. Your thoughts are more intricate, your steps more vigorous. It feels as if you had finally learned how to breathe right, no, more, how to be right.
As you enter the first big city you are confronted with something deeply odd. You meet someone turned halfway into an abstraction. He seems like a person who was only half born with the rest sketched in. He looks as you as if he’s half-hoping, half-trusting that everything will turn out fine in the end.
“Some people are just born this way,” he will tell you. “Fact is, there’s a lad over in the next village who looks as if they just forgot to give him his head when he was born. He’s walking around fine and all, just doesn’t have a head.” He says this with the same nonchalance that people use when talking about a two headed dog born to the neighbour.
You inquire about witchcraft, but reap only dubious looks. No witchcraft here, the people assure you. It’s a good place and odd things just happen. But odd things happen everywhere in the world.
At night, when you sit down at your campfire, a well-mannered monster will sit down next to you and engage you in a spirited discussion about your fears. Its enthusiasm worries you a little. As the monster is getting ready to leave it mentions, very offhand, the Sleeper. You are unsure if this was a warning, a friendly mobster being sent by the boss, the fist still a gloved and open hand.
That night the dreams start. In the dreams you are bleeding. At first it’s just a trickle, a few drops that fall from your finger and disappear in the darkness beyond your vision.
You inspect your finger as you wake up. Nothing there to see. Although you are a bit pale and more tired than usual.
The lethargy passes with the rising sun. You continue to travel along a dried up riverbed. The sleeper, people have told you, lives at the very centre of her kingdom. If she lives at all. There have been legends and stories.
Some say that she has died long ago and that everyone who sets out to find her will – without fail – enter the kingdom of death themselves. You are not scared of that.
Some say that she is old and frail, veiled by wispy hair that grows down to her ankles. She is supposed to weave strands of her hair into intricate tapestries. The motifs on those tapestries determine fates – those of individuals, groups, towns, cities and, perhaps, the entire country.
You walk through patches of poppy in the most gorgeous colours. Red as blood, white streaked with blue, violet and black. Purple. You see flowers that could only grow in dreams twisting their beauty out of hollowed rocks and old bones strewn across the riverbed by an old current.
Night returns and you make fire on an island of earth in the middle of a sea of white stones. The river used to be wide here. You map says it issued from a mountain at the centre of the country and you plan to follow it.
After an hour or two of solitude the monster sidles up to you, warming its shapely and dangerous hands on the flames. This night it tells you no veiled threats but a story of a marriage gone wrong and a suicidal friend. This leaves you puzzled and in the dream that follows both your hands are dripping blood.
Overnight a raging river has come back you know not from where. There is water all around your island; brownish, spitting water. It hates you and you feel like you’ve made a mistake, many mistakes in fact. You stare at it and think heavy thoughts.
Strange things are thrown around by the currents and eddies. Trees stripped of their bark. The carcass of a cow with several ravens surfing on its limbs, cawing wildly and flapping their wings to evade the splashing water. Colourful, mismatched clothes still strung to a line, tangled up with something you can only describe as memories – oddly shaped, kaleidoscopic things that pull you so strongly you almost jump into the water to save them.
The river has something of you. Something you never shared. You stand at the edge of the island your chest tightened by surging feelings.
At midday you hear whistling and a reedy song. A small boat comes up the river, inexplicably pushing against the strong current. It is steered by a man in rags who calmly and impossibly poles his little vessel up the raging stream. As he comes past your island, he leans himself against the pole and motions you to hop in.
The boat is lined with fur and rags. Broken musical instruments lie inside. The man is scarred, dirty. A white, barely healed mark on his ankle shows you that he has been wearing a chain for a very long time. You study his face as he poles along. It is an inward face, gently lined underneath the dirt, sensitive and odd. When you try talking to him, he grimaces and keeps singing.
Your journey is slow. The song and the river become one in your mind. The sun sinks and you sink into sleep. In your dream you see both your arms opened by deep, painless cuts. The blood flows away into darkness. You can hear the reedy song in your dream and you decide to follow it through slippery darkness and through a door.
The corridors beyond are full of light, old things and spider-web. They branch off as if they, too, were designed by a spider. You pick a path at random and leave dew-drops of blood behind. Soon you feel lost in a labyrinth. You hear a pattering noise behind you, around a corner. Something has caught your scent. Something is following the trail of blood you leave behind.
It runs after you.
Through another door and into a courtyard covered in silver dust. You see movement in a corner and call out, but they are simply old curtains caught in the wind.
Autumn flowers grow abundantly, spilling their seeds in a streaming wind. The floor is covered in dry blossoms and seed capsules and seed. There is a balcony. You run towards it. Whatever follows you is close. Perhaps you can jump.
You cannot. You watch the seeds drift into the formless mist beyond and grow into flowers and half-formed ideas. You see the river far below you, flowing from a mountain, but there is nothing around. Usually when you say there is nothing, there is always something, just nothing specific. There is literally nothing around you. The world has simply not been filled in, or fallen in, or whatever the world does before it is.
There are islands of strange things floating around and there is a horizon of something but other than that there is literally nothing.
A noise behind you. You spin around.
The monster saunters through a door. It is as well-behaved and devilishly handsome as before but seems even more dangerous. It bows and takes one of your bloodied arms.
“Somehow nothing is too strong a word for this, isn’t it?” the monster remarks with a tightly controlled voice.
Something icy around your throat. “I’m not dreaming, am I?”
It takes you through a different door before it answers. “You have seen that this place is not…whole. For you there is only one way to traverse the empty parts.”
“My arms…but there’s no pain.”
“This isn’t blood.” It considers for a moment as it takes you round another corner. “Or you don’t need blood here. One or the other. There was one comforting answer, but I forgot it.” It notices your stare and says, almost apologetically, “It has been a long time.”
“Where are we going?” Your voice wants to tremble but you won’t let it.
“To the sleeper.” Up some stairs. Its voice is almost admonishing now. “I told you when we first spoke that you should not continue your journey.”
“I…I thought it was a game, something to set me off.”
“No. I am too old for anything but honesty. I have seen too many.” Across ramparts and through cold wind. The monster stops for a moment and looks out at the blossoming colours in the emptiness. The view would be excellent if there were more to see. “I will stop by to visit you – whatever you will turn out to be.”
Up a spiral staircase. The monster stops to knock on a simple wooden door. A whisper answers.
“Ah,” the monster says as it opens the door. “I remember. It is not blood but ideas.” It pushes you inside and closes the door behind you.
You close your eyes and slide down to the floor. If you want to face the sleeper, you must be calm and strong. A few deep breaths.
Something pokes you.
Again, just above the ankle.
You open your eyes and look at the gently demonic face of a cat. It’s a rather fat cat and it seems to be hungry. You blink at it in astonishment before it is whisked up and away. A lithe woman in comfortable wide clothes has picked up the cat and is carrying it briskly to a bowl.
“It’s eating and being let out, not wanting out, then not wanting in, then scratching at the bloody door, then not wanting in once more, then more food, but you have to go in before you can eat and when it’s not eating it’s cuddling, usually when one has a particularly good idea, of course.” She plops some food in the bowl, the cat sniffs it and turns away. “Oh for Hell’s sake!”
You look around. There are pieces of paper all over the room, stuck to the walls. Colours and paintbrushes, ink and linen canvases.
“To think that I have three of those,” the sleeper continues as if talking to herself. “A wonder I haven’t yet chucked them out the window one by one. But come on, have a seat.” She walks over to you and lifts you up just as briskly. “Over there, there must be some space on the bed. Sit. Let me look at you. Where do you come from?”
You tell her.
“Oh, from there? Haven’t heard from that place in a while. Thought you had run out, really. You are a decent specimen. Could do something with you.”
“Erm…I have heard tales.” You remember your guidance. The way to capture the sleeper is in a tale.
“Have you? What do they tell of me over there?”
“That you are waiting for a prince to be awakened…” you venture.
She looks disgusted. “Well, word travels slowly. Yes, that happened. You met the guy. He brought you here. Wouldn’t leave even after it was clear that whatever flame there was has long since burned down.” She scratches her head. “Come to think of it, there were others…some must still be around. Haven’t seen them in ages. Not that I mind. Do you have any education?”
“I have heard more of your tales, if that is what you mean…”
“No, I know more than enough about myself, thank you. And that’s not much of an education, really. Well…” She claps her hands, loudly. The cat jumps. “I never know how much I should tell but you, my dear, are an idea and you made your way right here to me.” She moves closer to you, much closer. “Now, get comfortable, I’ll get us some wine and you will tell me everything about your way here, your life before and everything else. I’d love to hear all of your dreams and desires and make them mine.” She grins and laughs. Her laugh is infectious and fills you with warmth. “Just let me get the wine, a piece of paper and we can start.”
She kisses you on the lips before she gets up and rummages around. You already feel yourself swelling into a tale and can’t wait to tell the sleeper…