Just after dawn, while the sun was still a red ball over the eastern hills, Joy went down to the lake, as he did ever day.
As he walked, fairies scattered from before his feet, chittering indignantly. Jay normally tried to avoid the fairy grazing grounds, but they must have migrated again, as they did several times a moon. It would be a couple of days before he could map it out, so that he knew to avoid it. And then, without warning, they’d change it again.
“You could at least leave some kind of marker,” he said aloud, though he knew it would do no good. He’d said this many times before, but the fairies never listened. “One day I’ll probably step on one of you,” he threatened, “and it won’t be my fault, at all.”
The fairies didn’t say anything. One waited too long to fly away and its tail scraped Joy’s ankle, drawing a line of blood.
“Ouch,” he said. “Watch what you’re doing, why don’t you?”
The fairy just sniggered derisively and flitted away into the grass.
From where he was standing, Joy could still see the castle. Today, the knights would come from across the hills, their red, gold, green and maroon banners flying, for the tournament. Joy loved tournaments, loved to guess which knight would win. That his guesses were nearly always wrong meant nothing to him.
“I’ll bet today’s tournament is the best of all,” he said to himself. “Maybe I’ll take part in one some day.”
That day would probably be a long time coming, Joy knew, because he wasn’t big or strong, and it would take many long years before he got big and strong, if he ever did. But then he would put on armour, too, and sit on a huge horse, and then he would be a star of tournaments, and everybody would know his name.
But for now, he’d sit by the lake and watch the sun come up, and then maybe he might swim a while, if it was warm enough.
The Loch Ness Monster was still up and about, its long neck and rear hump breaking the surface a little way from the shore. Seeing Joy, it swam over, eager to chat, as usual.
“Hey, laddie,” it called cheerily. “Kind of early, aren’t you?”
Joy tried to ignore it. He didn’t much like the Monster, which had a habit of splashing freezing water over anyone who came within range. The Monster thought it a huge joke, and laughed until both its humps shook like jelly. But Joy knew the Monster was lonely, and he was a kind hearted boy, so he turned towards it.
“Shouldn’t you have gone home by now?” he asked. “The sun’s already up.”
“Ah, I thought I’d warm me blood a little,” the Monster said. It had little horns on its small head, and it waggled them at Joy, playfully. “You’ll be wanting a bath, lad?”
“Don’t you dare,” Joy warned it. “I’ll never speak to you again.”
“Never is a long time,” the Monster said, but moved just about far enough away that it couldn’t splash Joy. “So, I hear that the knights be coming today. Tournament, hey?”
“Yes, there’s going to be a tournament,” Joy said. “It happens every so often, so you know all about it.”
“Oh, aye,” the Monster agreed. “I know all about it. Maybe I’ll drop in one day and scare the knights right off their horses. Just think what it would be like.”
Despite himself, Joy giggled at the thought. All the clanging metal as the knights fell over each other, trying to get away, and lying helplessly on their backs, like upturned beetles trying to set themselves the right way up again...the pretty ladies scrambling to escape, and tripping over their own long skirts. It would be hilarious.
“But you shouldn’t really do it,” he admonished. “Tournaments are important. One day I’d like to be in one.”
“Maybe I could be your horse,” the Monster suggested. “You’d probably like that, wouldn’t you?” It had been slowly sneaking closer to the shore, and now it suddenly threw a flipper-load of water at Joy. But he’d been waiting for it, and jumped to one side. Only his feet got wet.
“I told you not to do that,” he yelled. “I’ll never talk to you again, I swear.”
“Never is a loooong time,” the Monster laughed, swimming away. It submerged a little way from the shore, going down to its lonely home in the mud of the lake bottom, where it would sleep the day away.
“I really won’t talk to you,” Joy called after it, still annoyed. But of course he knew he would, and the knowledge annoyed him even more.
Still, it was a lovely morning, and when he went down to his usual flat rock by the water, the sun was already warming the air. He sat there and watched the dragons flying back and forth over the far shore. They seldom came this way, which was a pity, really, because he enjoyed talking to them, but they’d explained that they didn’t really like to be close to people.
“Your energies cause us pain,” the purple and yellow one had explained, her antennae twisting like snakes. “We can only be near you a short time, and then we begin to hurt all over.”
“Try to understand,” the blue and green one had added, gently. “It’s nothing you can help, or we either. We can visit you sometimes, but only for a short while, and then we have to go away again.”
So he sat and watched them fly over the mountains, and perch on the edge of cliffs before diving low over the water. He was so engrossed in watching them that when something snorted at his shoulder and a huge horned head leaned over him, he almost fell off the rock.
The unicorn snorted again, derisively. It had been some time since Joy had met the beast, and he’d neglected to bring something to feed it, a bun or apple, both of which it loved. So he merely rubbed its nose.
“How could I have known you’d be coming?” he asked it. “If I’d known, I’d have brought something. Where have you been all these days?”
The unicorn didn’t answer, of course. It merely nuzzled him so its straggly beard tickled his neck and made him laugh, and then turned its head to scratch at its flank with its knobbly, twisted horn. He rubbed at its neck.
“One day,” he told it, “just think, you and I will walk together to the far side of this lake, and we’ll go and explore those caves on the hillside there. I wonder what lives in them? Sometimes at night there are lights inside them, white and red and blue. I think I’d like to find out, don’t you?”
The unicorn snorted again, and pushed past him to the water to drink. Its tail slapped Joy on the shoulder and the side of his face, rhythmically, and, he knew, quite deliberately. He tried to decide if it was uncomfortable.
“That’s enough,” he tried to say, but part of the tail went into his mouth, so he moved as far to one side as he could without actually falling off the rock. The unicorn finished drinking, turned and snorted affably to him, shook its head so that its beard showered him with water, and walked away into the woods.
He was still laughing and wiping himself dry when the mermaid climbed out of the water and sat next to him. She, of course, was wearing no clothes, so he averted his eyes modestly from her, which made her laugh, as always.
“Oh, Joy,” she said. “Look at you, you’re turning red. How will you ever get along in the world if you get so easily embarrassed?”
Joy just blushed more furiously than ever. “It’s just the same old world,” he muttered. “What’s there to get along about?”
“The same old world? Oh, but, Joy, it isn’t.” There was a new note in her voice, very far from her usual teasing. “You don’t know anything about the world, do you?”
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”
“Look at me,” she said. “It’s important, Joy.”
Reluctantly, he turned his head towards her. Her eyes were wide, concerned, and brimming with tears. He was shocked, because these were the first time he’d ever seen her crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Have I hurt you somehow?”
She shook her head, the tears still trembling on her eyelashes. “It’s not your fault,” she told him. “It’s just that I was thinking how little time you have left here.”
“How little time?” He frowned. “I don’t understand. I’ve been here all my life, and I don’t ever want to leave.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want,” she said. “Soon enough, you’ll grow up and go away, and then you’ll never think of us again. So you’d better get used to the real world, Joy.”
“The real world? Why do you keep saying that? What is this real world?”
“The one that...” She shook her head. “How do I explain? This lake...those dragons, the hills, even I...we aren’t real. You’re imagining us.”
He frowned again, not understanding. “What do you mean? All this is something I made up?”
“Not consciously, oh no. But, as surely as the sun is up there in the sky, you’re imagining us. We’re all just a sweet dream inside your head. One day, you’ll have enough of the dream, and we’ll vanish into the mists until some other child dreams us up again.” She paused, looking out across the water. “I’ll miss you, Joy.”
“You mean...” Joy whispered, “that there’s some other world out there? Something I have to...live in?”
The mermaid nodded, slowly. “Something very different, and you’d better prepare yourself for it. None of this is real – but everything in that world is.”
“Can you...show me?”
“Do you really want to see it?” she asked. Her voice was very sad. “Once you see it, you can never forget it again.”
He thought about it a minute. “This has happened before, hasn’t it?” he asked. “With other boys.”
“Yes. Yes, it has.”
“And,” he added, “you’ve asked them the same questions, told them this same things, and they had a look, and after that, they never thought of you in the same way again. And you’re afraid that that’s going to happen with me.”
“You’re right again. It is going to happen that way.”
“Then why did you tell me about it at all?” he asked. “Why didn’t you just let me go along until I...woke up?”
“Because you needed to know – and it’s my job to tell you, to prepare you.”
There was a long silence. “A little while ago,” he said at last, “I was getting my ankle scratched by an angry fairy, and thinking about riding in a tournament one day. And now you tell me it isn’t real.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wish it didn’t have to be like this.”
“I still want to see it,” he told her.
“Of course you do. I understand completely. They always do.”
“But,” he said, “before you show me, there’s something you can do for me.”
“What?” She turned towards him, and raised her eyebrows. “What do you want me to do?”
“Before you show me, I want you to put this all...” he waved a hand at the lake and the mountains, and the wheeling dragons. “I want you to put this all into my mind, somewhere safe, where I can visit whenever I want. Can you do that?”
She bit her lip. “You’ll tire of us,” she said at last. “Someday you’ll wish us all gone.”
“You said you’d miss me,” he said. “Don’t you think I would miss you too?”
She smiled suddenly. “Soon, I’ll be just a childish fantasy.”
“Not if you’re inside my mind,” he replied. “I’ll get up in the dark of night, and come down to this shore, and it will be dawn here, and the Monster will be waiting to splash me. And the dragons will be turning and turning in the sky, the unicorn will come down to drink. And perhaps, one day, we’ll go across the lake and explore the caves on the hill.”
“And you’ll have to put up with me too,” she reminded him. “Have you forgotten that?”
“Especially you,” he told her. “You, mermaid. Especially you.”
Years passed, the seasons turning from summer to winter and back again. Joy grew to a fine young man, and made a name for himself in the world of factories and computers and business deals, where nothing was beautiful or simple or made to last. But – alone among all his peers, he seemed to need nothing, to be happy no matter what was happening around him, no matter how hard things got.
They did not know, nor would they understand if they had known, that each night he would walk down inside his mind to the lake, and talk to the Monster, and watch the dragons flying. And then the mermaid would swim up from the water, and they would talk, in the light of a summer day.
No, they would not understand him, and they would call him crazy.
But then, in their world, happiness was crazy, as was imagination, and everything that was beautiful and strange, so it was as well that they didn’t know.
He told the mermaid that one day. She smiled and touched him lightly on the shoulder. There was no need for words.
When he woke in the morning, he was still smiling.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014