The woman dipped the sturdy oars into the glasslike reflection below, rippling the face of the moon with hushed strokes. Wish, wish, breathed the lake in response to the foreign touch. She directed the oaken boat toward the castle standing on the other shore; the vessel glided along its invisible course without so much as a strain from the woman’s arms.
“My, this rowing is the easiest thing I’ve done in my life,” she whispered in amazement. “I wonder what letting go of the oars will do.” She released her tight grip on the handles and let them fall into her lap, forgetting why she had clutched the wood so hard in the first place. “You don’t say,” she said to the little boat. Leaning over the edge, she inspected the wood for wings or tiny propellers to no avail.
“There it is.” Her thoughts barely escaped her lips as words. Unconsciously, she massaged her sore fingers as she stared at the advancing castle with its richly decorated ramparts. Purple and gold gleamed in the moonlight, shimmering, glittering like lost treasure of old—treasure from the times of gallant knights and fair maidens needing rescue from fire-breathing dragons and evil lords. From the tips of the pointed walls to the base of the stones near the moat, streamers of ribbons in every color flitted in the unfelt breeze.
As her boat neared the shore, the woman grabbed for the oars in her lap. “They’re gone?” She searched the palms of her hands, then turned them over. “But I didn’t even drop them. Wha—” Her wonder turned to panic as the vessel accelerated, lashing the waves aside as it sped to the craggy rocks ahead. She gripped the side of the boat with one hand and covered her eyes with the other, anticipating the impact and splintering of herself against the shore.
Then everything was still. Even the unfelt wind ceased.
The woman’s entire body trembled in the seat. After a few seconds of steady breathing and listening to the sounds around her, the woman lowered the blue-veined hand that covered her eyes. She turned her head in slow motion from side to side. “Am I not…dead?” she whispered to herself. “And grass? My boat’s sitting on grass? It’s too good to be true!” She used her free hand to pry the whitened fingers of her other hand free from the side of the boat. “Come now, relax,” she crooned to them. The unyielding fingers released the bruised oak flank one by one in succession from left to right. She frowned at the stiff ligaments and crooked knuckles, then looked up.
“Now that’s a castle,” she sighed. “A dream home.” She jumped as a tree sprouted through the belly of the oaken boat, cracking the wood as if it had been a mere veneer. It offered her ripe bananas, already peeled, free for the taking under its shady green leaves. The woman squinted in the moonlight to inspect the mystery without moving an inch closer to it. “Um, I think I’ll pass, but thanks,” she said to the curious phenomenon in an unsure voice. But the bananas wiggled at her rejection, detaching themselves from the tree and running around the boat in a frenzy.
“Oh, help! Help!” she half-yelled, half-sobbed. The crazy fruit fled at her tears and hid themselves in the forest over yonder. The woman stared at the empty tree still sticking through her boat and focused on her breathing. Again, she looked to the castle.
Carefully skirting the plant, the woman crawled out of the boat and stepped onto the lush grass. “Oh, it’s soft,” she quietly exclaimed to herself. Her bare feet sunk into the ground as she walked to the castle, her eyes never wavering from it. Suddenly, the drawbridge fell open like a surprised jaw, causing a boom to echo through the air. The woman rubbed her eyes. “It can’t be,” she whispered in awe.
“Your Highness.” The man in the floor-length robe bowed, showing the jewels embedded in the crown of his head. They caught the moonlight and blinded her momentarily. “I’m sorry.” He smiled with kingly warmth. Before she could form words, he added, “Here, this way.” He offered his gloved right hand from under the folds of his tiger-skin collared robe. “They’re waiting.”
The woman smiled back and reached for his outstretched hand and—
The woman sat up in bed and frantically looked around her dark room. She barely glimpsed the retreating tail of her spotted cat behind the dresser. “Stupid beast,” she mumbled. “Knocking over my lamp at this time of night. Inconsiderate.” She rearranged the cozy sheets around her shoulders and curled back up against the pillows. “He was so close…felt familiar…somehow,” she mumbled as she fell back asleep.
The castle walls rose above the woman’s sight as she sat before a sumptuous feast with hundreds of bustling lords and ladies. “My,” she breathed. “It’s even more beautiful on the inside.” Her giddy eyes scanned the hall draped in velvet curtains as the orange fire of the torches on the wall danced to the music of the lyre and flute and came to rest on the face of the bearded king she’d met at the drawbridge minutes before. Their eyes locked.
“Come,” he mouthed to her and stretched out his hand again. Hesitantly she stepped forward, then quickly grabbed his hand before it disappeared. “Come, feast with me,” he whispered in her ear. “It’s all for you.”
“Gladly,” she responded. “And thank you.” She gracefully stepped to his side, swinging her gold-embroidered gown around her dainty ankles with easy flare. “Oh,” she gasped as she looked down at the rustling. “Silk?” She gazed at the king in amazement, then back at her new clothes. “How—”
“Only the best for you,” he said with a wink.
As they sat down at the front of the grand hall, the woman traced the jewel-encrusted gown with her manicured fingernail. Rubies, diamonds, amethysts, and emeralds bordered her dress, encircling her body in a wavelike pattern. “Mm.” She inhaled the smells of the feast. “I smell roasted turkey, duck with dripping cranberry sauce, rosemary potatoes, and the kind of freshly baked bread that crackles when you touch it.” She did a happy jig in her seat as she awaited the meal. As servants brought the piping-hot dishes out in troves, she licked her lips and readied her fork.
“To the queen,” the king shouted. He raised his silver goblet in a toast and dipped his head in her direction.
“To the queen,” the peasants replied. And suddenly the food was before them.
“Oh, oh my. This is delicious!” the woman said. She ate and ate to the sound of the jovial music until she could eat no more, fully satisfied to bursting. “Grandmother’s chocolate pudding?” She stared in disbelief at the dessert that appeared in front of her. “How can this be?” she asked the king beside her.
Upon turning toward him, the woman screamed. Instead of the kind king, she saw a giant lizard. She bolted out of her chair, knocking several plates of food off the table in her haste. The lizard’s forked tongue flicked in the air as it searched for her scent. Strangely enough, the reptile stood on two legs in the same crown and robe that the king himself had worn moments before. “This can’t be,” the woman scolded herself. “It’s unbelievable.” Just then she bumped into a young servant. “Pardon me, sir. I didn’t—”
Click, click. The servant responded as best he could in his newly changed skin before dropping on all fours and skittering under the table. In fact, the entire assembly had turned into lizards and shot their wicked tongues out of their mouths, searching for something particular. No music played, and the hall sat eerily silent but charged with energy.
“No. No, no, no,” the woman whispered. She quietly slid behind a velvet tapestry on the wall to evade suspicion. Her fair complexion was the only one that had survived among the people of the banquet. Her eyes peeked out from behind a tassel in time to see a scaled claw with long fingers reach for her arm, inching closer in slow motion, when—
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The woman woke up to the sound of her alarm as light streamed through her curtained windows. “6:00 a.m. already?” she groaned. “It’s too early to be awake.” Sluggishly, she rolled out of bed (quite literally, for she now lay on the carpet) and threw a shoe at the alarm clock. It instantly hushed. “Sleep, come back,” she pleaded like a child. “Don’t make me go to work.” She sighed after a few minutes of nothingness and slumped into a sitting position. “Now where’s that stupid cat?” she called. “Waking me up from my nice dreams like that in the middle of the night. Well, weird but still nice,” she added.
Her stomach rumbled, and she looked at it in confusion. “Hey, you’re supposed to be full, remember? We ate an entire feast.” She patted the protester and scrunched her nose. “Remember…why can’t I remember the last part of that dream?” she mused. “Something weird and green. Or pink.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows.”
Upon standing, she ate breakfast and got ready to leave for another grueling day at the office. “Huh, I thought I took that trash out last night,” she said to herself. “Those banana peels will make my apartment smell like the jungle in no time.” She quickly grabbed the trash bag and flung it into the dumpster on her way out the door.
That night the exhausted woman flopped into bed, finally smiling for the first time since getting up that morning. She sighed contentedly and drank in the silence. “I’ve been waiting for this all day.”
The gentle murmur of rain against the still of the night wove itself with the soft comfort of her blanketed bed. The more she snuggled into its warmth, the deeper she sunk into oblivion. Downy pillows cradled her weary head as her eyelids hurried to welcome the dreams.
Hidden from the moonbeams, the woman walked through a moss-carpeted forest. White-tailed squirrels flew from tree to tree like lost ghosts in regal gowns. The light padding of the woman’s pale feet suppressed the green blanket; it sprang up like sponges when the weight advanced farther. She’d been walking for…hours, maybe in a circle. She never seemed to advance, unaware of any cycle-breaking power she had. Like an unending roll of tape, she retraced the steps and passed the same trees over and over and over again—a monotony of visions, a crushing burden of papers pushing down on her back.
And then she was falling through thin air. She gulped the wind as it rushed past her face while she flailed helplessly to catch something to slow her fall. The pit of her stomach twisted and dizzily rose to an unknown level of uneasiness. Everything was grey as it hurtled past her airborne body; she tumbled head over heels into the void.
Jerking awake, the woman opened her eyes. The sound of her labored breathing barely ousted the frantic pounding of her heart. “Whoa,” she whispered. She lay unmoving on her back, feeling the solidness of objects around her. “It’s okay.” She stared through the darkness for a time before daring to close her eyes again. Sometimes dreams were nightmares.
The steady drumming of raindrops washed away her cares and passed her back into the arms of sleep in a lullaby trance. Everything remained dark and empty in her mind until her body fully relaxed into the enveloping marshmallow of a bed.
The woman looked around her. A light from somewhere above filtered through the murky water. Surprisingly, she could breathe, even in her normal body. Surely, she wasn’t a fish. “But where am I?” she bubbled. A dark form brushed past her body, sending cold shivers racing up and down her spine. She froze and swiveled her eyes to watch the ominous shapes of at least a dozen creatures. The water turned icy around her floating body.
Not the happy, smiling crocodiles with fat tears on children’s shows, but the nasty bane of African rivers. Their pointed teeth glittered in the weak rays of penetrating sun, snapping up fish in one crunching bite. At least they hadn’t noticed her, yet. She silently glided through the underwater realm in search of a rope ladder or way out.
“There,” she bubbled. A rickety wooden bridge floated entirely under the water, about five feet below her makeshift fish’s tail. The ropes were still intact but covered in seaweed or something else slimy to the touch. The woman surveyed her options. She floated about twenty feet from the end of the bridge and spotted the faint flickering of a lantern attached to it. The only problem was the two giant crocs that guarded each exit.
While she thought of a plan, she’d forgotten her scaly tail, not being used to such a long appendage. It lightly bumped a water-soaked rope, signaling the guard crocodiles of her intrusion. “Shoot,” she mouthed. As the chomping teeth advanced at an alarming rate from both sides, she swam as fast as she could, paddling with her arms and flopping her tail back and forth. They came within lunging distance—she could see the yellow beady eyes filled with greed and scorn as they locked on their prey. To throw off their path for at least a split second, the woman swam along the inside of the wooden bridge, close to its planks.
Above her, the crocs crashed into each other snout first. Whimpering like puppies, they rubbed the injuries and began fighting.
“Watch where you’re going,” the first bubbled in the face of the second.
“No, you need to watch where you’re going,” the second mimicked.
“You lost the lady,” the first harrumphed.
“I lost the lady?” The second warily circled his older counterpart. “I lost her? How can I lose her with three eyes? You only have two eyes.”
“Well,” sputtered the first, “you lost her all the same. Dad always said you were the weaker of us.”
“You lie. Dad never said any such thing.” With that, the two crocs attacked each other, barrel-rolling out of sight.
The woman breathed a sigh of relief. She carefully began swimming in the protection of the bridge again as she neared the exit. Suddenly, another guard croc blocked her way of escape. He blinked cruelly at her and licked the knives inside his jaw to ready them for a feast as he advanced. Paralyzed by fear, she floated in place, helplessly watching him advance. Then she involuntarily pulled a bright red flower perfectly formed and blooming in full health from her pocket (her pocket?). Upon seeing this token, the croc broke out into a grisly but earnest smile.
“For me?” he asked. He stopped in his watery tracks.
“Y-y-yes. It’s for you.” The woman trembled as she handed the scaly foe the dainty thing. He cradled it in his arms and drifted off to the depths of murkiness below. Breathing a sigh of relief, the woman clicked her heels to propel herself forward. As she sped toward the light, her feet sprouted Crocs to boost her from water to the land. As she broke the surface, a distant sound caught her attention.
“Again,” the woman moaned as she recognized the incessant alarm clock on her phone. It was almost as annoying as her boss. She stuffed a pillow over her ears to muffle the noise, then blindly snoozed the sound machine. “All I want in life is to get a decent amount of sleep,” she mumbled. “And maybe not have so…many…proble—” She fell back asleep mid-yawn as her cat meowed in confusion at the strange positioning of the woman’s body.
This time the woman was running as fast as her legs could carry her through the woods. The branches and thorns tore her clothes while the moss she ran over shriveled into gray masses. There was no moon. “Faster, faster,” she gasped. Something followed close behind her, but she dared not look back to catch a glimpse of it. Uphill and downhill she ran through the unending wood, with the sound of the beast’s growling making her arm hair stand on end.
Soon her legs stiffened, and they felt like lead. Lead that weighed her down and anchored her to the earth she sought to escape. The woman pushed with her arms through the air as her legs refused to work. “No, no! You have to go faster,” she panted. “I-I can’t.” In terror she turned around to see how much space she needed to make up. A gaping mouth gained ground no fewer than twenty feet behind her. She lifted her legs with all her strength, even using her hands to physically pick them up one at a time. They felt like part of the immoveable earth, unable to advance or collapse. She sensed the nearness of her enemy—its breath on her back and the fear in her heart.
Then, it swallowed her whole.
Darkness. Silence. An absence of feeling for an eternity. The woman was somewhere between weightlessness and a weird serenity.
She opened her eyes with minimal effort and lay unmoving on the bed. For minutes she watched her own breathing and pondered anything that came into her mind. “It wasn’t real,” she whispered to herself. “None of it.” She looked at the clock, which read 5:30 a.m. She’d woken up thirty minutes earlier than normal. Was it the dreams?
Her cat purred in its sleep by the foot of her bed. “Maybe I should get up. I don’t feel like sleeping anymore,” she told the ceiling. The woman sat up, pulling the blanket to her chest and grasping her knees. The dreams—they were nice, sometimes. But at other times they took away her restful sleep and brought her waking troubles through the fluffy clouds of imagination. She shook her head, then rubbed her tired eyes. “No, I’ve been so wrong.” The revel of sleep, the comfort, the nightmares. “I have to stop.”
5:45 a.m. “It’s time to get up,” the woman said. She quietly tied her chameleon robe around her body, made her bed, and rearranged the pillows. “Until tonight.” She nodded to her favorite place on earth and left without a second glance. Then, turning towards the kitchen, she switched off her alarm clock and stepped into her slippers. The cool morning air seeped in through the cracks in the window, touching her skin with its gentle cheek. “I think I owe you a second chance,” she said to no one in particular.