Carmen glanced around at the rest of her friends, daring anyone else to disagree. But no else did. She settled her gaze on the one who had interrupted her.
Kavita crossed her arms and peered ahead with her cool dark eyes.
Carmen continued to tell the gathered girls the wondrous tale of how she had met the royal dreamer, the sleeping sorceress, their queen.
The queen had asked permission as she approached the gates that signified the borders to Carmen’s particular part of the dream-realm. Then she had greeted Carmen by removing her luminous crown and bowing her head ever so slightly.
“You’re making it up,” Kavita said, her eyes narrowing. “You’re taking parts of the stories from people that the queen has actually visited. She only visits those who might help her find her missing parents. Do you have some help for her?”
The queen had reluctantly made herself sovereign after her parents were taken by a wicked suitor of hers some years past. Carmen and her friends were too young to remember.
Kavita was right, much to Carmen’s annoyance. The queen still searched for her family. She still hoped to return rule of the kingdom to her mother and father, to step down and become a princess again. The teachers in the kingdom were fond of relaying to their students the tale of how the queen had studied and studied, and gained the ability to travel through the dream-realm, and even to walk through the dreams of others. She did not need to ask permission—they would add—but she did so anyway, for she loved and respected her people. Even as it would serve for students to love and respect their teachers—and parents.
The queen did not seem to abuse her ability. She did indeed only ask to enter the dreams of those who might have news of her mother and father. Or she would visit the dreams of those who could help her learn to govern the kingdom with wisdom and strength, so that when she restored the throne to her mother and father, they would find themselves the sovereigns of a kingdom that was just as mighty as when they were unwillingly taken from it. And they would find themselves proud of the princess whom they unwillingly left behind.
Carmen had no wisdom or news to share with her queen.
But it was said that the queen sometimes visited the dreams of children, to help them scare away monsters in their nightmares.
In truth, Carmen was not certain she believed that their queen could walk through dreams. She had started telling her friends that she had met the royal dreamer in the hopes that by speaking it aloud, she would speak it into truth.
The first time, she had done it without thinking, by some instinct, some desperate hope.
For Carmen had a nightmare that she could not escape. A nightmare that started stalking her a fortnight past. She had hoped it would just go away.
There was one way that she might make it go away, a way that was within her power to achieve, but it was a way that was almost as fearful as the nightmare.
Then, there was the dreaming queen.
As farfetched as a visit from the queen into her dream-realm seemed, Carmen had begun to hope. She had begun to hope for the lunar calm of her queen to quiet her fears. She had begun to hope for the queen’s luminous crown to cast a light onto the monster that hid in the shadows of her dreams.
But even though Kavita was the only one who had spoken her doubts aloud, Carmen saw glints of that doubt in the eyes of her other friends. The others were too kind—or perhaps afraid themselves—to challenge Carmen.
Carmen continued her tale, as she had told it three times already in the three preceding days. After riding in on her flying horse, knocking at the gates and asking leave to enter Carmen’s dreams, and removing her crown to bow to the girl, the queen held aloft that crown. Moonbeams burst from the tips of the crown. The slavering creature that lurked in the alleys of the ominous town in which Carmen had found herself whimpered when a single moonbeam fell upon its greasy fur. It drew back even as the queen advanced.
Carmen walked behind her queen, hiding behind the royal robes. The queen called the creature out and a spike of fear pierced Carmen’s heart. She would later admire the queen’s courage, but at the time, she was so terrified that she longed to beg the queen to stop summoning the monster. But she was also too terrified to utter a sound.
“And then she said, ‘Begone, foul creature! And trouble this girl no more!’ And she set the crown upon her head and it shown all the brighter,” Carmen said, miming the setting of a crown on her head. “Not like moonlight or even sunlight. But like starlight, shining in hundreds of colors.”
Carmen huffed out a breath and smiled as her friends all cheered. She glanced at Kavita, who was also smiling, though her arms were still crossed.
That night, Carmen went to bed with two fears. The fear of her nightmare, and the fear of her friends’ doubts. She resolved to try and find the royal dreamer herself, so at the very least, her stories of having met their queen would actually be true. And perhaps if she were fortunate, the queen would do what Carmen claimed she had already done, and chase away the monster in Carmen’s nightmare. That resolve actually gave her a bit of courage, enough courage to go to bed at least.
Carmen knew she was dreaming as she strolled through the candy tree forest, flaring her nostrils to take in the scent of cherry cordials and blackberry taffy, and the sight of rainbow swirl lollipops dangling from branches, like earrings. She plucked a green translucent square from a striped green-and-white bush, and popped the candy in her mouth, grinning as the taste of watermelon burst over her tongue. By that time, she had quite forgotten that she was dreaming.
She was strolling down a road paved with cinnamon-colored bricks, when a puppy that smelled like peppermint came running up to her. She picked up the puppy, and giggled at its wiggling. She buried her nose in the puppy’s soft sweet peppermint coat. It wore a gleaming golden collar. Carmen tried to check the collar for the puppy’s name, but the puppy kept wiggling so much whenever she did that she was afraid she would drop it. Something about that collar seemed familiar. She wondered if she had already seen it, if she already knew the puppy’s name. She shrugged as she encountered a sugar plum tree and plucked one to nibble on.
As she continued along, Carmen met her teacher on the road. She apologized for being late to school that day, and assured that she would be on her way, right after she dropped the puppy off to be cared for.
But her teacher furrowed a brow and said, “Why? There’s no school today.”
Carmen felt a keen and sudden lifting of her spirits. The puppy in her arms reached for the sugar plum. As Carmen pulled the confection away, the puppy wriggled out of her grip, and dropped to the ground. Startled, Carmen could only watch as the puppy darted off down the road. It did not seem injured by the fall. But Carmen ran after it.
The puppy followed the path and the path turned to the west, where the sun was quickly setting. A dart of worry shot through Carmen’s chest. She began to feel a mounting sense of dread.
Darkness would have been preferable to the dusty yellow haze of the impending sunset. The trees she passed no longer bore confections but only yellow leaves. And as she advanced westward, even the leaves thinned out until they were absent altogether. Bare branches jutted out over the path, occasionally catching her sleeve. Carmen gasped each time it happened and wrested herself free. Some of the branches lay right on the path, and she was afraid the poor puppy would get caught up in their clawed clutches, and cut itself trying to wriggle free.
But the puppy made it through the forest of yellow leaves. The path led into a town, a strange town that looked as if it had just been abandoned moments before. Smoke rose from fires that still burned. A door to an inn still swung on its rusty hinges. A rooster crowed and was answered by a raven. The calls both sounded like warnings.
Carmen wanted to turn back, but she had to find the puppy. Though it was not her puppy, she felt responsible for it. Had it not been for her interference, that puppy might have traveled in the opposite direction from that town. It might have stayed in the candy tree forest, eating morsels of marshmallow.
She crept carefully through the town, afraid to call out, even though she somehow knew that there was no one left there who could harm her, and no one left who could help her.
In the shadows of an alley between a smithy and a shoe shop, she caught movement. The flick of a tail, and the gleam of something golden.
It was the puppy. Carmen approached, stepping lightly.
A sudden growl froze her steps.
“You are too late.” The voice that spoke was deep and heavy as with gravel. “You found me…but not in time. Not before they found me.”
Carmen gulped. “Who is ‘they’?” she asked.
But the voice gave no answer.
Carmen sniffed. She felt the rims of her eyes begin to water. That voice did not sound like the voice of a puppy, but she knew it was him. It was the puppy. Something had happened. She wanted to help, but she was afraid, afraid for him and of him.
And perhaps it was the unselfishness of her longing to help the puppy that shifted her mind back toward the truth she had known when first she entered the candy tree forest.
She was in a dream, she realized.
And she remembered about the royal dreamer, the sleeping sorceress, her queen and sovereign.
Carmen began to mutter under her breath, the chants that many children of the day muttered when they were plagued with nightmares.
“By the light of moon, for which you are named…”
Carmen invoked the queen’s name.
She heard a furious growl from the alleyway. He leapt out of the alleyway, a creature three times her size, with dusty yellow fur that smelled of rotting leaves. He was shaped like a dog but with giant squarish scales jutting from his fur. He opened a mouth full of sharp teeth and putrid spittle. He began to lope toward her.
Carmen could not move. She prayed she would wake before the monstrous creature reached her.
Suddenly, she felt a hand around her hand. It clamped shut and tugged.
“Run!” a voice said. A familiar voice.
Carmen ran. The monster growled. There was no way Carmen would outrun him. But as she pumped her legs faster than she ever had before, she heard his growls grow fainter.
At last, the hand around hers pulled into an inn and up a flight of stairs and into a room.
They locked the doors, dropped to the ground, and huffed out rapid breaths that slowed and deepened, until finally, Carmen was able to speak.
“What are you doing in my dream?” she asked.
The other girl held up a hand to signify that she was still catching her breath.
“Is this my dream or yours,” Carmen continued, “or are we sharing it? Why are we having the same nightmare? Why didn’t you say something when we were awake? I thought—“
“Stop! You talk too much, Carmen. And you think too much.” Kavita rose and dusted off her dress.
“My mother says there’s no such thing as thinking too much,” Carmen said as she too rose.
“It’s your dream,” Kavita said. “But I once had one much like it, a few actually. I had a feeling that you would try to call for her.” She sighed and shrugged. “I’m sorry you just got me instead.”
Carmen threw her arms around Kavita and squeezed her. Kavita laughed and hugged her back. The girls drew apart.
“I thought you were mad at me,” Carmen said.
Kavita shook her head. “No, though you can be irritating at times. I was worried. It can be dangerous to lie about dreams sometimes.”
Carmen widened her eyes. “You’re really in my dream? You’re the real Kavita?”
Kavita grinned and nodded.
Carmen beamed. “You’re a dreamwalker. Like her!”
“Not like her. But yes, I’ve learned a few things. That’s why I knew you were…well, I didn’t really think you had met—“
“Oh, I was lying about meeting the queen,” Carmen said. “You were right. But I—I thought if I said the story aloud, maybe she would hear me, maybe she would answer. But why would she?”
Kavita frowned. “To help you, of course. To help you face your monster.”
“My mother says that the monsters in my dreams can’t hurt me.”
“What your mother means when she says that is that they cannot hurt your body,” Kavita said. “And so you have no reason to fear them. But fear isn’t always reasonable, is it?”
“I’m not afraid once I wake up,” Carmen said, “but while I’m asleep and dreaming, it seems so real that I do think it can hurt me, chase me down, and gobble me up.”
Kavita crossed her arms. She raised one hand to rub her chin. “So, you told your mother about your nightmares?”
“And that didn’t make them go away?”
Carmen shook her head.
“But that monster, it was more terrifying before you told her?”
Carmen shook her head again. “It’s gotten worse, I think. It’s hard for me to remember. Why are you asking me this?”
“Nightmares usually lose their power when we tell others about them. If they don’t, then something could be terribly wrong. But you know the difference between your nightmare and your waking world. Most likely you’re afraid of something in the waking world. Here in your dream the thing you’re afraid of has transformed into that monster.” Kavita narrowed her eyes. “Tell me everything about your dream.”
Carmen relayed the events of her current dream, the candy tree forest, the puppy, the road turning west, the suddenly abandoned town.
Even as she recounted the details, a realization dawned on her.
“You’ve figured it out, haven’t you?” Kavita asked, peering at Carmen.
Carmen nodded. “It might be easier to face that monster.”
Kavita raised a brow. “For you, maybe.”
“Will you help me?”
Kavita reached out and took her hand. “I will.”
They walked down the steps together, hand in hand. They left the inn, hand in hand.
Hand in hand, they walked toward the monster, who roamed aimlessly through the town.
“Is it smaller than it was before?” Kavita asked, gazing out at the creature.
“Seems so, doesn’t it?”
“And what’s that shimmering around its neck? Is that a golden collar?”
Carmen took a deep breath, and sighed. “It is.”
In her dream it was a collar, but in the waking world, it was a bracelet, a golden bracelet made of square links, and it belonged to Carmen’s mother. Her mother had lost that bracelet a fortnight ago. She had searched for it, blamed herself for losing it, and at last, when Carmen’s father had asked why she cared about the bracelet that she had always claimed was the ugliest piece of jewelry she owned, her mother had explained. It was also the only piece of jewelry she had from her grandmother, her mother’s mother, who had been immeasurably dear to her.
Carmen knew that her mother had not lost the bracelet. Carmen had not known how special the bracelet was. She only knew her mother didn’t much care for it and never wore it. Carmen had taken it, so she could wear it and show it off to her friends, and then put it back before her mother noticed it was missing. But her friends never saw the bracelet. It split apart when she tried to squeeze close the clasp. Carmen had collected the pieces, and in a panic, had hidden them until she could find some way to fix it.
Sunset was long past. It was fully dark, but a crescent moon hung in the sky. And it cast its beams down into the town.
After the dream ended and she woke, Carmen would wait for Kavita to come, and then she would face her fate with her friend by her side.
Now, while she was still in her dream, hand in hand with that friend, Carmen faced the monster that lurched toward them. She made a fist and envisioned a mighty flying horse swooping to a landing behind her, and the dreaming queen herself, dismounting with a sweep of her silvery cloak, and taking the luminescent crown from her head.
Carmen imagined a crown upon her own head, and upon Kavita’s head.
Radiating from those crowns, Carmen imagined moonbeams.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel