User:Michael Bard/Unicorn Dreams
|Xanadu story universe
There was a Christmas tree on the Kitchen table.
It hadn't been there five minutes ago when he'd staggered awake, staggering through the kitchen to the washroom. He hadn't bought one for years. It'd been so easy a decade ago. He could dream of magic, secure in the knowledge that there was no such thing. He could write about it. He'd even sold a novel, and there was talk of a sequel. He wasn't rich, but it had been enough, and with the promise of more.
And then Xanadu had happened. And magic was real and alive in the world.
And it had left Edward behind.
He hadn't had enough when he was well off to afford any of the actual mages who'd sprung up. And, with magic real the so-called fantasy market collapsed. And with it his dreams. And his writing.
He hadn't written a word in years. He hadn't dreamed--
Dreams hurt too much.
So what was a Christmas tree doing on the table? It hadn't been there last night. He knew that. Had it been there when he'd woken up? He couldn't say. But now--
It wasn't a big tree, just a tiny one that would have done Charlie Brown proud. Yet, unlike the comic character's, the needles were rich and green, the tree alive and growing. It was even in a small clay pot, one more than large enough to support it to an eventual replanting. Its scent was rich, sweet pine with the promise of future life.
And, beneath the tree, was a present.
It was a dream, it had to be. He knew he didn't have a tree! Was he going mad?
And yet-- the tree was real.
With shaking hand he reached out and touched a bough of soft needles. They hissed against each other as the branch moved slightly at his touch. The scent was richer. Letting go, the branched wiggled back, and he reached down and touched the present. It was solid, the paper warm and slick under his finger, the ribbon a bright ivory around white paper that tickled his touch. And there was a card.
He pulled the box out. It was heavy, and something sloshed inside. The card almost fell into his hand and he lifted it, opening it to read what was inside. A simple inscription in a swirling scrolling hand he knew he'd never seen before. But it was easy to read:
FOR THE MAGIC
Tossing it down, he fled, leaving the tree behind, leaving the magic he'd once held in his mind, he'd once put on the page, behind. He threw himself onto the bed sobbing. It creaked underneath.
After a while he shoved the pain, the agony, the dreams he'd lost, the whisper of his soul that had abandoned him years before, aside, and went and showered. He ignored the tree, ignored the present. Then he got dressed and went to his minimum wage job like all the other mind-dead drones. Lost in banalilty.
For three days his life continued. Studiously, carefully, he ignored the tree and the present. As he always did once he got home, he sat at the computer and stared at the blank screen. From long memory he rewrote the last paragraph he'd ever written, hoping it would break the dam. As always, it didn't. He typed in a dry meaningless account of his day. An account with nothing but empty plain words that had no meaning, no dreams. Even yesterday when one of the superheros Xanadu had spawned had halted a police chase in front of him by lifting the chased car into the air and off towards the station--
All he could write about it was short simple sentences. A chase. A car. A superhero. A resolution.
And then he saw the tree again. Not in any magic inspiring way. He just became aware of its existance. Of it's needles drying out. Of it's life dying drop by drop. He filled a glass with water and carefully poured it into the little pot, pushing the present aside so he wouldn't spill.
What could it hurt?
In small neat motions he untied the ribbon and folded it neatly. He slit the neat pieces of tape with a knife and unfolded the paper to get it off, and then folded it back. There was a box, plain white cardboard. And inside was dry straw, faintly smelling of spice and dirt. And, cradled on it was a little bottle full of liquid. His hands trembling, he picked it up. A bubble oozed along the glass as he twisted it side to side. The top would screw off, but was sealed in wax. And there was only a plain white label, with only a handful of words in that same beautiful script that had been on the card:
He stared. Stared. And then he screamed, screaming out his anguish, and throwing the bottle onto the floor where it clattered and rolled, the liquid gurgling inside. And then he fled to clean, to dust, to write meaningless words. And then to sleep and dream forgotten dreams, and then to wake up and go to work.
Days passed. Weeks, months. Each day he gave the tree a little water. Each day it grew a little greener, a little bigger. The box was tossed in the recycle bin along with its pretty wrapping. And his banal life continued day by day. He kicked the bottle early one morning, stubbing his toe against the cold glass. Somehow his throwing it away hadn't broken it. The same way his kicking it so that it rumbled across the floor and clinktinked against the wall hadn't cracked the glass. He picked it up, pain throbbing from his toe. The label was as white as it had been, and the writing just as mocking.
Only to avoid more pain did he put it on the counter out of the way.
After a long cold winter spring finally burst forth. The last of the snow melted, and the plants burst into green.
He had no garden, just a strip of gravel strewn dirt along the sidewalk. He'd always thought about doing something with it, but never had. Early on one of his days off he picked up a small garden shovel at a garage sale, and some good dirt from the grocery store. Digging the gravel and garbage and bits of glass from a little spot by his front door, he poured in some of the rich dirt he'd bought. As though it was made of glass, he pried the little tree out of its pot, putting its little ball of soil in the hole, and then filling said hole with the rest of what he'd bought.
The tree looked so small and defenceless. Given its proximity to the sidewalk and the road, he gave it a day. And yet-- and yet it seemed right. And-- and the tree couldn't stay in the pot forever. He watered it and left.
Day by day it survived and grew. Bottle were tossed into the little strip of dirt that was all he had, but never around the tree. Garbage was kicked against the house wall, and people stomped on the little strip of stone-strewn dirt.
But, the little tree was never touched.
Every day he watered it, and every day it grew a little more.
In a sense it was a miracle. Maybe it was magic.
But his soul was still empty.
It was a hot July day. Not hot, blistering. He'd just watered the tree. Had it actually thanked him? Nah. Impossible. Going inside, he checked the fridge for something cold to drink. Nothing. Nothing--
--except a little glass bottle.
He didn't even recognize it until he'd opened it and unscrewed the top. The water-- if it was water-- smelled of lilacs and pine and crystal clear water and salt and-- and everything not man made. That was when he recognized the bottle. Recognized, and remembered. He hadn't put it in the fridge! And yet--
His throat was dry. And it was open.
He took a sip, rolled it against his tongue. It was water. Water that tasted of innocence and nature and purity and freshness and oak trees hanging over and quiet happy live and-- It was the purest, most perfect, water he'd ever tasted.
He downed the bottle in five swallows.
After tossing it into the recycle bin, he sat back at his computer. A hot muggy afternoon. An empty screen--
But it didn't remain empty!
The words poured out of him, flooded onto the screen. The story of a Xanadu victim became unicorn. Of his despair at what the world had become, and of his sacrifice to bring dreams and magic back. Writing it, it was like it shoved its way out of his soul and burned its way onto the screen. Like he was watching an unfolding movie, but more. He could smell the foulness that was humanity. His heart burned and tore with the emotions of the unicorn, the creature that Xanadu had brought into existance destroying the man who had gone before like a blast furnace would destroy a leaf.
And in two hours the story was done.
Following Heinlein's Rules, he proofed it once, looked up an online ezine he knew of that paid a few pennies for Xanadu fiction, and submitted it.
An hour later they offered to buy it.
It was only for $5, but--
It was the first thing, the only thing, in years.
For the first time in ages he went to bed happy. Even looking forward to the next day.
The next day he started on an actual novel. Another Xanadu victim, but this time he became a celtic myth, a white stag. He researched the old celtic and gaelic and welsh stories, and got into the three-part rhythm as he told a tale of a life, and who it touched, and how it ended. If there was one thing the agent he'd had, and he guess he still had, had hammered into him after his one novel, was that publishers like sequels. This time he made sure that any of the lives touched by the stag could be made into a novel -- if the publisher wanted.
t took him over a year of poking at it in his time off, letting the words flow out in what time he had. He'd polished the first three chapters and tossed them to his agent -- he was still on file -- and said agent had been enthusiastic -- after he'd read it. The agent had said he was worried it was plagerism, given the long dryspell, but the style was recognizable.
As he worked, and wrote, he passed the lilttle tree each day. It was still doing fine, though it wasn't as little. Rich and green, growing in rich black soil admired, but left untouched, by those who passed by it. When he came in from work on Christmas day with the novel half done, he'd have sworn there was a little star on top twinkling away, but when he'd looked carefully it was gone.
It was summer by the time he had the thing done; a British publisher was interested and wanted to see the whole thing. There were advantages to having had a novel published -- you were a known property that could make money. He still had the file cabinet full of rejection slips from before-- As to his writing, he fell into his usual bored depression after finishing a project, but this time it lasted no where near as long
As it always had, his mind got better, and he began working on the outline for one of the characters the stag had touched -- a rabbit.
In late October he got word that the publisher was willing to buy. An advance of twenty thousand, to be deducted from his royalties as was standard. Or, he got at least twenty grand, more once his royalties exceeded that amount.
That night he went out to party. Well, if going to a local bar and getting stinking drunk alone with endless chicken wings and some football game on television could be called a party. He'd made arrangements with the bar keep to send him home, and he managed to make it to his bed.
The next day he didn't get up until noon, and when he did it was with a pounding headache and a dry scratchy throat. It was too early to get up! So, what had awakened him?
Something banged on the door. Again. He heard a muffled voice.
Cursing, he whipped a bathrobe on over his pajamas and stomped through the house to answer the noise. At least it was summer. He ripped the door open just as the mailman was leaving.
"Registered delivery. You need to sign for it."
He blinked. "But--"
"Just sign--" He handed over an heavy electronic thing and Edward signed on the screen where indicated. A thick envelope was shoved into his hand and the courier left even as Edward closed the door and pushed his way to the kitchen. He wasn't going to sleep now, so he might as well see what it was. A knife was required to get through all the cardboard, but inside was a thin pamphlet. A ticket fell out as he pulled it out.
Congratulations! You've won an all expenses paid tour of the Amazon! blared out at him from the front of the booklet.
He rubbed his eyes, and then went and got a drink of water. Gulping it down, he felt a bit better as he sat down to read more.
It was a free trip, a chartered tour of the Amazon. He'd tour the river, visit ruins in the mountains, generally have a good time. Or so it was claimed.
For a moment Edward thought it was a scam, or thought he should just give it away. Checking the ticket, he called the airline and confirmed the reservation. And it was free. Why not go? It wasn't until December, but the price was right.
He hadn't been on a vacation in years--
Edward had to get a passport, and get time off, and get everything ready, but there was no problem achieving that. As usual, it was bedlam at the airport, but he managed to board just in time. The jet landed in Brasilia. Exiting it was like walking into molasses, the heat and humidity was so hot and thick. Not to mention the salt from the ocean, and the smog that billowed over everything. An overnight stay, and then onto the charter plane. Next was a week boat cruise further inland, with extensive lectures of the river's wildlife and ecology. Fascinating stuff. The writer in him drank it up, already thinking of scenes he could use, if he could figure a way to sneak them into the plot he was working on. Edward even wrote a few up -- one day he'd find a story for them, or not. The boat trip ended and he moved to another chartered plane and started touring the ruins. Fascinating stuff. The heat wasn't so bad, though the less said about the bugs the better, not to mention the oozing mud that clung to his boots like thick clay. The group that survived to the final stage wasn't large, only twenty people. Edward didn't talk much, just took notes and pictures and typed -- he'd picked up a laptop especially for this trip -- and there was another quiet one, though she sketched to pass the time.
It was December twenty-fourth when the reached the last site. Given the date, there was a small party in the evening, and there'd be the tour on the twenty-fifth. After that, the plane would leave for Brasilia on the twenty-sixth, then the jet, and then he'd be home again.
And yet-- the closer he got to the last stop, the more nervous he became. Something was wrong, and he had no idea what. The landing was rough, the runway short and only barely paved. Upon exit the air was cool and clear, filled with the smells of vibrant greenery and rot. He'd seen so many ruins that these, even though in not too bad shape, were just more of the same. And yet-- He needed something. But what?
Edward had no idea why he found himself at the desk of the tine on-site office, asking to rent a truck. He'd run directly there right after the plane had landed and still was somehow beaten by the artist girl. She was leaving just as he got there. Edward couldn't say why he needed the truck. When the bored clerk asked, all that he could come up with was that he needed to be away for a day, alone. And it was true. He knew he had to drive out into the wilderness. Normally there were three trucks but one was down for maintenance, and one was taken. Damn that girl! Before he knew what he'd done, he'd talked them into renting him the last vehicle, the one they'd wanted to keep in case of emergency. It'd taken all the money he had left on him as a bribe. Why?
He didn't know.
Well, it was done. And, he might as well take advantage of it.
He didn't sleep that night, couldn't sleep. It wasn't the thin air, or the scents, or the night sounds. Visions danced just at the edge of consciousness. Turning and tossing, he couldn't find a position that made any difference. At four he surrendered. After showering and getting dressed, he picked up the keys. They warned him not to go before dawn, but he could feel something calling him. He had to give them the rest of his traveler's cheques as collateral, along with his credit card number, even though they already had it. Part of him wondered if he'd ever see any of it again. But then, did it matter? He didn't know why, but he had to do this. And, he'd never have another chance. This was the last stop. Besides, he still had his tickets home.
One way was as good as another, and he chose upward. Edward didn't drive like a madman -- it would be the ultimate irony in a story for him to drive off a cliff the day before he was to go home. This was Edward's life. So he drove slowly and cautiously, all the lights he had shoving their way through the darkness to illuminate the dirt track. It changed to gravel, and the overarching trees fell to brush, and then broken and shattered rock. On his right the face rose higher and higher, twisted sheets of limestone shoved up out of their beds eons ago. On his left the ground fell steeper and steeper. Oh, it never became a cliff, just a steep slope that would be just as suicidal to start rolling down. Just not as Hollywood dramatic.
The sun dawned on his left; the reddish glare almost blinding him. He had to stop and wait for the sun to rise high enough that he could see. This was stupid! But-- But he had to go. The need filled him. He couldn't go back. Half an hour was the most he could make himself delay, before getting back in the battered dusty truck and coaxing the engine back into grinding operation. Five miles. Ten miles. The road grew more rugged, scattered with shards of rock as it followed along the slope rising higher and higher. Once the sun was rising behind him, he sped up more than his mind liked, but less than his heart demanded. It was past noon, he'd climbed who knew how high from where he'd started. The road was shambles, but still drivable.
Turning a corner he saw, arching over him, a cliff of sheer granite. From far above tumbled water, almost all mist by the time it plattered against the plateau he was on. The road stayed near the edge of the slope, but there was a crack in the face that glistened in the sun. Rich greenery grew throughout, and a small pool collected the dripping water from the cliff face and falling mist. Wipers were needed to keep the windshield clear. Spilling over into a jagged crack was a pool, its runoff passing under the road -- a bunch of metal sheets covered it -- and then bounding and jumping and hopping down the cliff to the jungle below.
Stopping, with a creak, a rattle, and a wheeze, he let the engine clatter to its eventual halt. He could hear the hot metal popping beneath the droplets, the clinkclink of water down the slope, and the faint hiss of wind and chatter of birds below. Almost afraid, he got out, leaving the door hanging open. The suspension creaked as his weight left it. This was the place--
The place? Why the hell had he had to come here?
He looked at the grass, he looked at the still pinging truck, at the slope, at the jungle below. It was like something he'd seen before, but he'd never been here in his life! Reaching down, he untied his boots and pulled them off and put them in the truck. The same with his socks. This was stupid! Against everything he'd been told. And yet, it was right. He stepped across the painful gravel with his naked feet, and onto the cool grass.
This grass felt different than any he'd felt before. More alive. More real. And the stream, and the water-- He looked up-- Then he knew. Knew! Knew that far above was the pool burned into his mind. The pool from first story he'd written after Xanadu.
Where the unicorn had gone to die.
He stepped over to the pool and leaned down, his jeans getting soaked and stained with water and greenery. Cupping the clean water in his hands, he raised it to his lips, and sipped.
The scent of greenery filled him. Life. Pureness. The release of dreams and the hope of wonder.
He remembered the bottle under the tree. The taste when he'd drank it. But this-- this-- it wasn't right. So close--
Water dribbling down his chin he looked up and knew that the water that'd come with the little tree had come from the original spring way up there. Stepping forward, he strained to get a better look, his feet disappearing beneath the water, sinking into the rich ooze below. It was cool and relaxing, comfortable, refreshing. The water washed away his cares, filling him with hope and life.
He wanted to get up there, but how? And should he? He felt it calling, but also felt its privacy. Felt it wasn't for him. It didn't make--!
The roar of an engine burst around the bend from further down the road. Who the hell? And why now? What was he going to do? And yet, had he done anything wrong?
Another truck grumbled along the road and stopped behind his. Its door groaned open and a figure walked out, silhouetted in the sun. Edward didn't know what to do. But, somehow, the water gave him strength. Standing there, he waited. Boots crunched on the ground, stopping at the edge of the road. A cloud slid in front of the sun and the glare faded until Edward could see.
It was the girl, the artist.
"Hello?" he asked.
"Umm-- hello." She looked embarrassed.
His eyes slid down her form cataloguing with the mind of an author. She was young. Early twenties he'd guess. Well dressed, but not excessively. She wore a fedora, a white cotton shirt, dirty now and splattered with water-streaked dust. She wore beige canvas pants that went down until they were tucked into her boots. Those were finely made, beadwork and Celtic designs worked along their rim. And--
She coughed, breaking the spell. A long silence, before both spoke as one: "Did you get a--" They stopped, looking away. Both started again. "Christmas tree--"
In the silence Edward pointed to her and then put a hand over his mouth. Words just didn't seem right.
Her voice wasn't the sweet melody of myth and story, but a human voice. Slightly higher than perfect, and with some slurred vowels. "Two years ago I found a little Christmas tree. And under it a bottle of water. After drinking the water-- I got--"
He nodded. "I-- well-- the same."
"I hadn't drawn in years."
"I hadn't written in years."
"Then I drew the unicorn facing off against the iron beast--"
"The steam shovel."
He knew then that she'd seen the unicorn in her mind, just as he'd in his when he'd written that first story. "I'd like a copy."
"I can make you a print."
"Thanks." His legs were starting to get cold, but he didn't want to move. "I wrote a story, a short story, about a unicorn, a pool--"
"I dreamed it. Could I get a copy?"
"Sure. And I wrote a novel--"
"I got a contract. For a cover. It was weird -- I'd sent out a portfolio, just to get on their file, and then they called me. An unknown! It's for a new fantasy novel called The White Stag of Xanadu."
The White Stag-- He stared. And then starting laughing. A loud and joyous and right sound as he shook his head.
Putting her hands to her waist as the cloud slid away from in front of the sun, its renewed light haloing her head in its short hair, she glared. "What's so funny?"
"Is-- Is it by Edward Derksen?"
He snickered. "Hi. Edward Derksen, author. Pleased to make your acquaintance. And you are?"
He couldn't see her face other than as a shadow, but he knew she was blinking, her mouth opening and closing as she tested response after response. "Umm-- hello. Amber Quisselle, artist. I guess we've already kinda met." She paused, and looked up, pointing. "Do you think--?"
"I know the pool is up there. And whatever is left of him."
"I know. I enjoyed the book."
"Oh. Thank you. I was afraid-- well-- there are horror stories of artists never reading the book they illustrate. I haven't even seen proofs of the cover yet."
"I sent in my three proposals just before taking this vacation. I haven't heard back yet."
"I-- I'm sure I'll like them all."
"I-- Oh hell!" he burst out. "Take those boots off and come in. We can watch the sunset. The water--"
"No." He sighed. "It's up there," he pointed up the cliff. "But this is close. And-- somehow-- it-- well-- it feels right."
Walking back, she hopped up and sat on the seat of her truck, unlacing her boots and pulling them off, and then her clean white socks. He just watched. Tossing them in the truck with a clunkclunk sound, she walked towards him.
"This is nice." Stopping, she looked into the water.
"Take a drink. Come in. Rest your feet."
Nodding, she crouched down, cupping the water and gulping it. "This is nice, but--"
"Not the same. That's up--" he pointed.
She nodded, stepping in. "It's cold!"
"But-- we could build a spa here. Sell tickets. This-- it's--"
"Of course not! But--"
"Do you think--?"
"Of course not!"
She stopped and he found himself holding her hand. It was warm, splattered with water that squeezed between their palms. In any novel he knew they'd kiss, swear undying love, and live happily ever after. But-- this wasn't a myth, this was life. And--
Amber broke the silence. "Okay-- I'll bite. I have to. The unicorn, he was real. Xanadu made it happen. And he-- he did what he could. But why us? Why here? Why now?"
He shrugged. "Got me. Real life doesn't work like storybooks. He gave up his life to bring dreams and magic back to the world. Well, Xanadu brought the magic. I guess he, us, are bringing back the dreams. Through my writing, your artistry--"
She pulled her hand out of his. "Fine! But--"
"Why? I don't know! But here-- I can take a guess. Today's Christmas."
She laughed. "So it is!"
He felt his muse singing in his soul. Or was it the unicorn. Did it even matter? "Two years ago we got a gift. We got back what we'd lost and couldn't find. Maybe what he left behind found it, helped us. Maybe it's using us. I don't know how much of what I write is true, and how much I make up. I doubt I'll ever know.
"But, it brings dreams. It brings magic into homes. It whispers to the child in us. Why did we have to come here--? I don't know. Maybe to prove he was real. Maybe the water here, the grass, it's all a sign, a reminder, of what he was so we'd never forget why. Dreams made real as proof that his dreams existed. That they've come back, small, weak, but able to grow given time and help.
"There are probably others. Already, or later. We'll know each other. We can help each other-- Keep his legacy alive."
"But, as we, as they, come here to see the proof, they'll find that they don't need it." A warmth filled his soul. All his life he'd quested after magic, been cheated by Xanadu. And yet-- the magic had always been there. Inside him. Part of him. It had needed some help, but that was it. A gift he could share with all. "Magic exists, and the world knows it, but doesn't believe it. We know. We know and we believe. And we'll share."
She nodded. They both looked up through the mist at the spring the knew existed, at the grave far above. Soon they'd go home, go their own ways, share what that Christmas gift had given them. They'd stay in contact, but each would grow. Each would share the dreams, the magic.
Each would change the world.
And, each would know, as would all the others who came after, that once, once, there had been a unicorn--
Now I will believe that there are Unicorns
|This story is part of a series