“It’s a mess,” I said with a sigh. Things hadn’t been going my way and it was driving me crazy. Why was I such a controlling person? Only if I could let it be and stop worrying about every little detail.
“No, it’s not,” Meena said. “It’s artistic and highlights the best side of your work.”
We were both starring at the painting in front of us and all the clutter around it. “Do you really think so?” I asked skeptically.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Definitely.”
Was she trying to hide her smile or was I paranoid? “Well, in that case, this is it,” I said mustering up a smile of my own.
“Don’t worry, Eliza,” she said. “You’re going to nail this.”
My friend was nothing if not supportive. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling that confident. This contest meant so much to me. I couldn’t screw it up.
“Why is it so cold in here?” I hadn’t realized it until then but now, I was shivering.
“I don’t feel cold,” Meena said, giving me a quizzical look.
“It’s freezing.” I rubbed my arms.
“It’s mid-July, Eliza.” Meena looked worried.
“It is?” I had forgotten what time of the year it was. In any case, why was I suddenly feeling so cold? “Maybe I should lie down for a while. I am just stressed.” Yes, that made sense. Didn’t it?
“Yeah, go ahead,” Meena said to me. “I’ll take care of everything from here.”
“You’re the best!” I kissed my assistant on the cheek and went to my room to rest. As soon as my head touched the pillow, I fell into a dreamless sleep.
When I woke up it was eerily quiet. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t in my bed. In fact, I was lying outside on the grass. The sky was starless and moonless. I tried to look around but it was too dark to make out anything.
“Hello,” I called out. “Anyone there?”
That’s when I heard footsteps. “So, you’re finally awake,” someone said. There was a person near me but I couldn’t make out his features. I vaguely noticed that he was really tall and broad-shouldered.
“Who are you and where am I?” I asked a little breathless.
“Well, you are where you belong,” he said. “And I am here to welcome you back.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “Where I belong? What does that even mean?”
“Let me take care of the darkness first,” he said and then did something with his hands, some weird gesture I didn’t fully comprehend. But the next thing I knew, at least a thousand lanterns were lit.
I looked around and realized that we were in a beautiful garden. There were flower beds everywhere, I was sitting near one, and as far as I could see there were trees and plants of all kinds. There was a path leading to the woods on our left and it too was lit with lanterns. The sight was majestic, to say the least.
After taking in my surroundings, I looked up at the stranger. He was still standing over me, looking quite pleased with himself.
“So, what do you think?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful,” I replied. “But I still don’t understand. What is this place?”
“This is our home. You have been gone a while but now, you’re back and that’s all that matters.”
“No, this isn’t right. I live in the city. I was at home when I went to bed. Why am I here?” I said this more to myself than to him. I was having difficulty processing this situation.
“My little fairy,” the guy said, plopping down next to me, “of course, you came back when you fell asleep. Our world and the human world are both connected through our dreams. Only through dreams can we come and go between the realms.”
“You’re saying that we are not human?” I looked at him perplexed.
“Yes,” he said. “Oh, come now, don’t tease me. You know we are not.”
“No what?” he asked.
“Hmm,” I said. “I don’t know. I’m human.”
Now, he looked at me with concern and asked, “are you alright?”
“I’m fine but this situation isn’t.” I sighed. I must have been dreaming. This was all a dream and soon I’d wake up in my bed, safe and sound. I was stressed because of the art contest that’s why my brain was playing tricks on me.
“I don’t understand.” The guy looked really worried now. “When you had left without a word, I thought you just needed some time. That’s why I didn’t come after you. Now, you’re back but you’re treating me as a stranger. And what is this ‘I’m human’ nonsense. Come on, Eliza this isn’t funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” I said in a small voice. For some reason, I felt guilty. “I really don’t know you or this place. I want to go back.”
“You can’t,” he stated plainly.
“What do you mean? You said I can go back to the human world through my dreams.” I looked at him questioningly.
“Yes, but you have been gone for over a year. This means it will be at least five years before you can fall asleep again,” he explained as if that made any sense.
“You mean I can’t sleep for the next five years?” I was bewildered.
“At the very least,” he said.
After this revelation I was speechless. He didn’t say anything either and we both sat there in silence. The place was beautiful there was no doubt in that. A year, he had said but I didn’t remember this place at all. My memories were all from the human realm. Was I really not human? How long we sat there in silence, I couldn’t tell but then the silence was broken by laughter. We both looked up at the same time. A little girl was running towards us. She was coming from the direction of the woods.
“Mother, you’re back.” The girl threw herself in my arms. I caught her as she hugged me tightly. I looked at the guy beside me, horror-filled my eyes. I was a mother and I didn’t remember my own child.
“Meena,” the guy said to the little girl. “let your mother breathe.”
Her name was Meena. Wasn’t that the name of my best friend in the whole world? And wasn’t I talking to Meena before going to bed? For some reason, my memories were becoming hazy.
“Why are you crying?” the little girl, Meena, asked me.
I hadn’t noticed it until then but I was indeed crying, tears streaking down my cheeks.
The guy took my hand in his. “it’s ok,” he said gently. “You’re fine and you’re home. That’s all that matters. We’ll figure out the rest.” Then he looked at Meena and told her to sit down with us.
Now, it was the three of us sitting there, surrounded by flowers and their beautiful smell. It calmed me down when I focused on it. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling as lost as I had before.
I woke up with a start. Someone was knocking at my bedroom door. “Come in,” I said sitting up in the bed.
“Hey,” Anna said as she entered my room. “You slept in again.”
“Yes,” I said sheepishly, “I have been very tired lately.”
“Mom,” she said as she sat down on the bed next to me. “Why don’t you take a break? You should retire. I can handle things at the gallery. Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course, I do,” I said giving her a quick hug, “but what will I do at home all day. I’m used to working and idle life is not for me.”
“Then you should travel,” she said. “Don’t you want to see the world.”
“Not anymore,” I said wistfully. It was true that when my husband was alive, we had big plans. He had a vagabond’s soul and we both wanted to see the world together. But since his death, I hadn’t been the same and that dream was gone now. Just like the dream I had woken up from.
My husband and youngest daughter Meena had both died in a car crash. I often dream of them, in a beautiful garden, waiting for me. Someday, soon, we would be reunited but that day wasn’t today.
“You look sad,” Anna said. “Did you dream about them again?”
“Yes,” I replied simply. “I dream of them every night.”
“Mom,” she said. “It’s been years. You’ve to move on.”
“That’s not possible in this lifetime, sweetheart,” I said. “But you don’t have to worry about that. How about some breakfast.” I was feeling hungry all of a sudden.
“Yeah,” she said. “Freshen up and come down. Aunt Meena is also here. We can all have breakfast together.”
Meena was my best friend. Actually, I had named my daughter after her. That’s how much I loved her. She was godmother to both my daughters and very much a part of our lives.
Life wasn’t all bad. Even though I lost two of the most precious people in my life, I had Anna and I had Meena. They were here and I was still here. Life, as they said, went on. Even if my heart wasn’t here.
© 2020, Fizza Younis.