Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Longlist, Ishan Mukhopadhyay

A Mid-Summer’s Sandy Dream

Once upon a time, out there somewhere, there was a restless boy who’d lost his ability to dream. For someone who would ride the waves of real life as if they were free-flowing dreams this was a peculiar predicament. Even when he went to bed bone-tired he would shut his eyes and all he could dream-up was black darkness. He grew so tired of staring and straining into this darkness, he started dreading going to sleep. He became insomniac and sat up nights distracting himself with escapist amusements. Long shadows decorated his under-eyes. He grew more restless and dead-weary. And as so often happens, when he finally stopped calling for her the sleep-fairy sneaked silently in his room and touched his head lightly with her wand. Immediately the boy fell asleep. And in his dream the fairy spoke to him. She explained that reality was overpowering his world, past incidents brewing darkness in his soul like a rotting infection. So she offered him an alternate reality – the gift of a dream that was to become his life. She told him he could rest there till as long as he wanted, but warned that if he woke too soon he might weaken fatally. All he had to do was to keep clinging to the dream and believe it could be real, and try to fight his own darkness trapping him out of this realm.
And so this restless boy from somewhere, woke into this dream. And as often happens with dreams the start got foggy and he suddenly found himself in the midst of a drama-set, rehearsing for a play! It was The Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, and his fellow actors were – a fat donkey, some magical fairies and among other creatures - a sand princess. Nervously, watchfully he joined in the fun and soon two evenings passed by with the sand-princess’s laughter filling the air like thick-music, and the group of amateur actor-animals gelling happily into a warm little family. And then there was a fountain, and somebody clapped and a crowd gathered around it. And he was standing upon the fountain feeling hot in a purple sweater, and the play was happening around him and the crowd was clapping. Long after dusk fell that day, the hangover of that performance – replete with pretty little fairy queens and donkeys and wild-lovers – charmed his surreal sleep. 

The lost boy awoke the next day expecting normalcy to resume, but in this super-real dimension he was about to be mistaken. For the sand-princess with whom he’d acted, befriended him and they began to have an engaging conversation. Though the boy tried hard to keep her at the distance of a delusion, the lively princess egged him on to look closer at her – as they coursed deeper into his dream. And so it went on till one day when her father – the king – stepped away from his kingdom for a few days, the princess slipped out of her palace. She took her sea-swan and the adventure-thirsty boy and flew far out into a magical wood. While the boy wondered if this was crazy he remembered the sleep-fairy’s condition, and just prepared himself to enjoy the ride. They swirled through a dark-highway like a leashed sand-storm and as the wind hit his ears the boy suddenly felt alive - like he’d not felt in a long time. Simmering in this hyper-real state they landed in her woods, and chatted within a leafy hideout.  On the way back they paused by a make-shift beach near a cemetery and admired the wild moon upon the ocean. 

And thus the spiralling dream stop-started and new days dawned and before he knew it – a week passed by. Every day of that week a bitter-sweet piano had played. It had hung upon his mind – a tune over thoughts. Little did the cynical boy realize that his dream had almost run its course. That night he was attending a friend’s birthday-party upon a hill top. He sat sad and aloof and watched his friends run around, and for a brief while reality was about to crash upon his sleepy head. Teetering on the edge he jumped off and the sand-princess picked him upon her swan and for one more night they hurtled away into the wilderness. Why did it feel like it was one last chance to escape?

This night they got some hot coffee and went deeper into the magical woods. Here another empty beach waited behind dim lights. They greeted the ocean which repeated her secret-worn waves, and they settled near her to enjoy their coffee.

But this coffee contained strong-charms and the sleep-fairy must’ve been silently shaking her head for it soon made his blood boil. Caffeine can be antithetical to sleeping-pills and it submerged his brain like a drying river, where reality clotted through like ugly land-shoals. In that tussle between wakefulness and sleep he must’ve looked too close or mumbled something coherent (he’d forgotten that the sound of real voice was forbidden in the dream). And it might’ve been his darkness rising like a high tide, or a wakeful longing for a beautiful memory, but at the precise moment he reached his hand out for a slice of real-life, he felt the sand-princess disintegrate before him. With her the whole world of his dream. As he stood slightly separate from himself, he watched the final chapter of a human tragedy play out in the moonlight. Already his world was falling apart like sand. And as the caffeine flowed, a sick-fever descended on him and an hour later the sand-princess was gone and somebody else had taken her place. How the dream ended is still smudgy to him, but the next day he woke in his bed – the end of a prolonged, and exotic sandy dream. 

Like the fairy promised he’d woken weaker and more haggard than ever before, but there were two things he couldn’t strike out of his mind. When he woke there was sand strewn all around his bed. And the wounds where several thorns had pricked him inside the wood in the dream, were still raw and bleeding. This made him believe that the sand-princess might really exist. Maybe she was after all a character from out of real life! He felt sad that in the dream they had to end without even a short good-bye. As the hours trickled by in his empty bed-room he found himself obsessing over those events – refusing to believe they were just part of a dream.

He struggled to sleep once more, for now he heard a new silence everytime he shut his eyes. Nor could he let anyone new fill his emptiness – for his dark problems were still his isolated problems and with strangers in a post-real context he couldn’t connect. Thus he kept everyone at arm’s length and missed the princess from his dreams. When he hit the bed and shut his eyes - the faces of friends he spent time with in the day crowded his mind. Quickly they’d collage into a brick wall, a zigzag pattern becoming blurry by the minute. Till the faces would lose the names and it’d be just a lifeless, indistinct, dark wall. Till he felt himself staring at the wall that would explode and the bricks would rain on him from the dark. And along with this familiar, bruising darkness there was now the addition of a new burden. He just couldn’t forget the piano-tune from his dream. 

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