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Dream Quest One First Writing Prize Winner
Winter 2005-2006
Charlotte Ashlock
of Guelph, Ontario - Canada
by Charlotte Ashlock

       Stories? Again! How you pester your old grandmother for stories. What shall I tell you about this time?

How you clamor, all at once! You must take turns talking. Ssssh, David, wait for your little sister to finish speaking. Really! You want to hear about when I was a little girl? Was I ever a little girl...... was I ever.....

          It comes gently drifting back now, through the mists of time. I was born in a golden city, where the long sunny afternoons were filled with laughter and the music of harps drifted through the streets. The sky there was the bright hard blue of lapis lazuli, obscured only by golden turrets with silk banners, and palm trees with gorgeous-feathered birds languidly preening themselves, and proud fountains, with statues of illustrious heroes standing amid the white whirling spray. The streets were rivers, paved over with glass, and beneath the glass you could see enormous fish swimming, rich rainbows of colors with jeweled scales and fins like plumes and ruffles on a great lady’s ball dress.              The air was always heavy with the scents of food and fireworks, rare fruits and exotic incense and rich perfumes. Ladies in sky-blue dresses leaned out of windows and waved their fans and laughed at the joking things the young men on their way to sword practice called out from beneath. Children chased each other around corners, giggling like crazy, capturing robbers, killing pirates, crowning kings and queens, getting married, having sword fights, turning into tigers, and generally getting into all sorts of fantastic mischief that the grown-ups turned their noses up at and never bothered to understand. Occasionally they would run into a storyteller, and he would take them all prisoner and they would sit in a wide-eyed circle around him, transfixed by the winking of his wise eyes and the low music of his magical voice and the bobbing of his feathered turban. And around the ring of children was a ring of adults, pretending to be too busy to listen but straining to catch every word.

          Besides the storytellers, there were also minstrels, poets, artists, and dancers— entertainers of every description, plying their wares on the street-corners. A man with a glass eye juggled six different colors of flame, a magician made apparitions appear in colored smoke, a cobra with a diamond tiara extended her undulant body from a jug, to dance to the piper’s eerie music. A red-haired young man sang ballads of a love and a loss he had almost certainly never felt, while a bevy of maidens stood around him sighing and wondering if they could comfort this mightily picturesque and tragic figure. A haughty artist paced restlessly back and forth before his easel, examining his picture from every angle and applying one stroke of the brush every twenty minutes, meanwhile talking to anyone who would listen to him about the uses of perspective and chiaroscuro, and the terrible sacrifices an artist makes to pursue his sacred calling. A poet, a man the size of a bear with a huge

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beard and hair that stuck out all around his head like the rays from the sun, sat on the side of a fountain, penning lines with earnest intensity, and occasionally arising to let forth screams, howls, and mighty roars, while tearing at his

 hair, ripping pages from his book, crumpling them up and throwing them like missiles while thundering that he would never be a poet and he might as well go back to blacksmithing. He attracted a larger group of onlookers than the magician, who assisted him in a friendly way with his self-abuse, and collected his crumpled pages and tried to publish them as their own (for the verses he threw away were, invariably, excellent.)

          Despite his numerous threats, he never went back to blacksmithing, and every evening at sunset hordes gathered to him read his day’s labors in his ringing voice, better suited for ordering armies into battle than for revealing the tender secrets of a poet’s heart. His verses were sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and always left echoes in your mind that lingered far past their time and made you think odd things in odd places. Sometimes he wrote about events that happened around the city, sometimes he wrote bloody epic masterpieces of gore and adventure, sometimes he wrote odd things which sounded like jokes and turned out to be some of the very best philosophy. But best of all was when he wrote about love, for his unrequited passion for the daughter of the royal gardener was the best joke of the town. Though he never named her, everyone knew perfectly well what goddess his poems described. People laughed their heads off at his most fanciful, far-flung, airily gorgeous verses while he shot them smoldering glares from under his heavy, furry, brows. The more they snickered, the more angry he grew, until at last he stopped mid-word and shouted, “Reading this to you people is like casting pearls before swine!” and stalked off. Ten people would run after him and beg him to continue, and growling, he would allow himself to be cajoled into finishing, while everyone stood in the most respectful silence, stifling their smiles.

          I was one of the daughters of the great noble houses of the city, and I was as wild as a half-tamed tiger, always putting on the scullery maid’s clothes and sneaking out of back doors to run in the streets or the grand bazaar. Though my parents frowned on these expeditions, they were never too harsh with me, for they had a bit of the wanderlust themselves, and besides, it was hard to believe I could be hurt on the streets of the golden city. For it was not like most cities, swarming with thieves and pickpockets and with murderers in every dark alleyway. Crime was practically unheard of, and anyone who lacked a meal might knock on a golden door and be ushered into a cool courtyard full of blossoming trees, to be given a cup of mango juice and a plate of kiwis and strawberry jam and cassava bread and cold chicken. I passed for a beggar many times myself, knocking at a friendly door to find hidden gardens with cushioned chairs and silk canopies, swarthy men who bowed to the queer little beggar in jest, calling me “Lady” (if only they knew how correct the title was) as they served me queer pastries full of ground beef and spices, or eggs and mushrooms, or fruit and cream cheese.

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           As for the market, if I told anyone who I was I could always help myself to any of the wares on credit, and have them send the bill to my father. But mostly I preferred to remain anonymous, listening to the outrageous tall tales of the merchants and the shouts of indignant customers and the jingle rang-a-tang of the dancers. All the merchants lied, but in the most droll and transparent way, so nobody was hurt or offended. It was a pleasure to hear Edwardo describe the half-starved kitten he had found nearly dead in the gutter as a, “ferocious beast, sure to defend your door in times of trouble,” or to hear Jonas describe a simple cotton dress as, “stitched from the finest of silks by nine imprisoned princesses,” or to hear Massar’s story about how his jars of cloves and cinnamon were brought by camels across ten thousand leagues, and nearly stolen twice by bandits (besides almost being smashed when a sandstorm blew away one of the bundles.) The rougher the merchandise, the more fantastic was the tale that came with it, and the customers, laughing, paid for the tale as well as the goods. However, if the merchants had something especially fine, something their customers especially wanted, they would shake their heads sadly and wag their long beards and say it was the poorest junk, the most dilapidated of rubbish, that they were ashamed to have it in their stalls and their good consciences would not allow them to hoist it off on people who had been such fine customers to them.

          The only way the customer could get it was by suggesting that they had rather underpaid the merchant in previous purchases, that they had taken advantage of his good nature and purchased his ferocious beasts and silks stitched by nine princesses and imported cloves for mere pittances. And that now, in all honor and honesty, they must give the merchant a gift of gold to make up for all the times he had been cheated out of his treasures. The merchant, delighted, would accept the gold, and “give” the customer as a token of gratitude the “sad piece of trash you seem to admire, goodness knows why.” It was a most delightful way of conducting business.

          Of course, this wasn’t the way it always happened— the merchants were careful not to wear out their jokes through constant use— but they had a dozen other gags and tricks they could use to enchant, vex, puzzle, bewilder, and crack up their customers. If someone was in a hurry, or simply not in the mood for jokes, the merchants could be quick and businesslike; but people did not often hurry in the golden city. The bazaar was a place it was practically a crime to hurry through, there was so much to look at. Every booth had a different gorgeous picture painted on its awnings, which explained in some way what the business was about. There were stalls where necklaces hung in great rainbow loops, stalls with tubs of rings and bracelets, heaps of precious stones and little notepads for sketching out the designs of jewelry you wanted the craftsman to make for you. There were stalls where strange furry creatures and miniature monkeys and brightly colored lizards hooted and

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squeaked and chattered and rasped and rattled in cages, while a basket of puppies lay sleeping in the sunshine. There was a store where a thousand kinds of birds lay hanging in cages from the ceiling, some of them silent and fretful, some chirping in impatient racket, and some singing fit to break your heart. I used to dream of slipping into that store one day and setting all the birds free, so they flew up in a great rainbow cloud towards the rising sun. I always hated to see anything caged, but I loved the things in the cages. And I suppose, if someone hadn’t gone to the trouble of capturing them, I would never had seen them. So a sort of hypocrisy came into my heart whenever I went into the pet stores, at once longing to see the animals free and longing to possess them.

          Then there was the pottery and the glassware: you could find anything from urns big enough to hide a grown man in, to tiny crystal boxes the right size for holding the smallest jewel. There were huge glass balls all striped with brilliant colors that they hung up as ornaments, and one stall had a border of wind chimes that always tinkled as your head brushed them on the way in. I liked the enormous vases, in twisted spiral shapes and blown out of glass of purple or emerald green or ruby red. But I could only go in when no one was looking, and then I would soon be sent out, for fear I would shatter the fragile wares. But it was wonderful to see the translucent stained-glass dishes shining like enormous jewels along the shelves.

          There were silk scarves dyed in thousands of colors and patterns, and bright swords with their gold hits gleaming, there were maps in colored ink showing the Lands Beyond, and one great tiled market square that had a map of our whole city in mosaics. There were stalls that sold paint in enormous jars that I always longed to dip my arms into and never quite dared to. There was a stall that sold fifty kinds of chess set, the pieces carved in the shape of animals and legendary creatures and heroes from the ancient stories.

            And, of course, there were the stalls that sold food: thousands of spices, fruits piled up in enormous pyramids, baths of millet and grain deep enough to swim in. There were cafes and restaurants by the dozens. One cafe was my especial favorite; as it could always be counted on to develop some explosive argument about politics. It was wonderful to sip your chocolate while watching a couple of college students shout incomprehensible insults at each other and stalk away, vowing never to be friends again. And it was still more wonderful to see that same pair of college students, staggering drunkenly down the road together, singing, with their arms around each other’s necks.

           Sometimes a great wedding would take place in the palace square (which was also the busiest part of the bazaar) and the bride in her red gown with the gold tassels and her towering headdress would walk down the scarlet carpet that was laid down between the stalls. The merchants and the customers would stop their bickering for a moment and watch, with happy smiles and eyes brimming,

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and the great music of the palace organ and a hundred minstrels would overwhelm all other sounds. The bride would always stare straight ahead, not looking to either side, as she went slowly along, and her relatives tramped grimly behind and before and at either side of her. All the male relatives always escorted the bride, in full military gear, with polished helmets and swords and breastplates, and I always used to wonder if it was to prevent the bride from escaping. No such measures were taken for the groom, who always awaited the bride at the steps of the palace, looking very nervous indeed. In fact, the grooms always looked far more ready to bolt than the brides. And sometimes I thought he should be surrounded by all of his female relatives, ready to beat him with rolling pins in case he should try to escape.

          So many flowers were thrown at those times that the members of the wedding party were occasionally obscured by clouds of petals. There were of course the most beautiful dancing girls, and many dancing dragons (it took six men to dance the dragon, and required much precision, cooperation, and skill.) As the music reached its climax, the bride would join the groom up on the steps, and place her hand in his, smiling as if her teeth hurt. Six priests of the Everlasting Immanence would chant holy things and make speeches about everlasting fidelity, and it is interesting to note, that while the dancing was going on business stopped and everyone in the square watched the progress of the wedding most intently— but when the priests began talking, business resumed and occasional arguments about the quality of the wares drowned out the nobler sections of the speeches.

          But everyone fell silent again when it was time to make the vows, which were very simple: “I am yours, and you are mine: two beings made one.” And everyone, whether they knew the people being married or not, threw up their hats and cheered like crazy when the groom kissed the bride. Afterwards, there was always free food and drink for everyone. Although the more sophisticated members of the congregation withdrew from the palace square so as not to have to mingle with the common crowd. I never did— I was as often as not dressed as a commoner, and their bawdy jokes and belly-laugh-invoking stories were always far more interesting than genteel conversation among the water lilies. Considering my tastes, I suppose it was inevitable that I fell in love with the wrong man. Well, my parents and society at large thought he was the wrong man. I was fully convinced that he was the right one.

But that’s another story, for another time, my small ones. Right now, its time for you to go to bed.
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By Charlotte Ashlock