A fairy tale I wrote a few months ago, published in the latest issue of The Dhauli Review...
Her eyes, always dreamy, always misted over with innocence, were dark wracked voids like the night. The storm was raging madly. It pounded and rattled the bedroom windows, but she lay still in awful quiet, her clear, smooth face unnaturally becalmed, her white legs stretched stiffly like the plastic legs of a doll. No delighted gaze took in the lightning, no step strained to run into the rain. The top right corner of a painted wall appeared to absorb her completely. Below and beside it stood the door, ajar, letting in a bright line of light and the subdued murmuring of her family.
The man on the chair settled deeper into the shadows.
'Would you like me to tell you a story?'
'It's not a fairy tale', he added hurriedly, 'If I had to give it a name, I'd call it a vision.'
'A vision', he explained, 'is when you see something, and that changes everything.'
The little girl's gaze shifted from the corner of the wall to the middle of it. Her legs drew up a fraction to her body.
'Very well', said the man, and he began to talk, in his soft, precise tones. The girl resolved not to listen. Gradually, she knew, his words would sink into the general chaos like the wind and the thunder and the rain outside.
But the solid blue wall was dissolving in front of her eyes, into a transparent and shimmering film. Through it she could see, not her mother and her father, her aunt and her cousins, cramped together in the familiar flat, but a vast and beautiful room, resplendent with all manner of luxury, whose wide windows overlooked a brilliant blue sea. Perched before those windows, with her arms wrapped around her knees, and her knees pulled up to her chest, was a girl no older than herself.
The sea was a complex and arresting sight. It was dark near the horizon and bright near the shore, shadowed by clouds and winking in the sun. But though the girl's gaze was cast over it, she was looking at something else.
Half-way across the visible waters, the figure of a woman hovered in the air. Her face itself was indistinct but the girl was sure that she was smiling and she could see that she was beautiful. She was dressed in purple, with a white, soft stole about her throat, and a sparkling tiara that rested on hair flowing so light and ethereal, it could not be said where the woman ended and the clouds began. With one slender arm she wielded a sceptre- or perhaps it was a wand- and her gesture was one of beckoning.
Some time later, the girl's father entered the room to tell his daughter that breakfast was ready. At first he did not spot her- then, seeing her little form so happily absorbed at the window, he swelled with loving pride. On soft steps he came up behind her and in low, smiling tones ventured to comment.
'Isn't it beautiful?'
But she only cried out.
'Papa! What did you do!?'
For the vision had vanished as soon as he spoke.
'I only said it was a beautiful view, my sweets.' The hapless man was taken aback.
'Oh damn the view!', said the girl, ' It's always the same old thing!', and she jumped off the window-sill and out of the room, dashing over the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece as she went.
From that moment on- even less than before- nothing could please her. They pressed on her her favourite foods and desserts, and though she did not quite turn them away, she ate with irritation, and declared herself unsatisfied. Her closet was bursting with dresses and shoes, but one evening she piled them all onto the floor and ringing for the servants bade them take them away and give them to the poor- 'if they don't mind ugly things'. School was out for the summer so she didn't have to study, she couldn't stand her toys, she wouldn't sleep at night, and she wouldn't wake in the day.
When the doctor, who was wise, though young, saw that she was perfectly healthy, he took her father aside and spoke to him quite plainly.
'Your daughter is rather spoilt.'
'Maithili has had no mother', said the father woefully, 'And I am so often travelling.'
'My advice would be to send her to some summer training school- in theatre perhaps. But anything will do that will take her out of herself.'
'Send her away? But I'm going to Morocco in July- now is the only time I can be with her!'
He did not realize how far she already was from him and everybody else, in everything but her physical presence.
Then one night, after neglecting most of a dinner that she had summoned to her bedroom, Maithili stood in front of the full-length mirror behind her bedroom door. She was tired and restless. As she did everyday now, she had spent several hours staring hopefully at the sea. But there had been been no repetition of her vision, on this or any other day. Now she looked sullenly at the girl in the glass. She watched the sullen-ness looking back.
Lately, she had started to watch herself a great deal in this way. It was as though she possessed a third, secret, and superior eye that was always fixed on herself. And whether sitting with her knees up at the sea-side window, or making a face at a plate of food, she was always really looking at how she looked.
For the young doctor had been wiser than he knew, when he recommended for her a course in the theatre. Maithili's talent for self-awareness would have been a fine thing if made to serve her artistically. Then she would have looked at herself the better to look at the world. Now her talent was her tyrant, and she looked at herself just because she could.
Suddenly her mouth parted in delight. She swivelled sharply and then heard herself commanded.
'If you look here and there, you will never see me again!'
'Alright! Only don't go- please!'
In the mirror the woman smiled. Her allure increased manifold.
''Where are you?, cried Maithili, for she had had a glimpse of the empty room behind her, 'You are so beautiful!', she exclaimed.
'There's no need to look behind you, my dear. Everything is much more beautiful ahead.'
It was true. Her boring bedroom was transformed in the mirror. Every surface was twinkling with light. There were wisps of gold hanging in the air. And then, for the second time in the space of seconds, Maithili caught her breath. For the wide windows at the far end did not look out at the sea. It was a forest she spied in the glass, a bright green, sun-splashed forest with the hint of a stream sparkling in the distance.
'Come along Maithili!' The Fairy Queen (what else could she be?) was laughing as she went, gliding towards the forest. 'Let go of the ugly things and come to the beautiful!'
Deciding in an instant, she reached her hand to the mirror. The glass gave like jelly. For a moment Maithili shuddered, for this sensation was cold and slimy, and as she moved forward through the mirror she had an awful sense of slugs and lizards crawling all over her body. Then she was into Fairyland.
'You said this wasn't a fairytale.'
The little girl was now crouched horizontally beneath the blankets, her unfathomable eyes fixed on the storyteller.
'Perhaps I spoke wrong', the man admitted. 'But it's really not the kind of fairytale you were thinking of. You see, this story has fairies, but it's not about fairies. It's about real things.'
She said nothing, only stared straight at him a decisive moment longer. When she looked again at the wall, he understood he may continue.
What a wonderful world it was! It was like putting on magic spectacles- everything was brighter and sharper in Fairyland- and a lot more besides. Maithili took great deep gulps of the air and it was heady like the wine she had once drunk from her father's cabinet- only much nicer. She felt ticklish the first few steps on the forest floor, because the grass here had a way of kissing her feet every time they made contact. Soon she simply took off her slippers and walked barefoot, caressed all the way.
They reached a clearing in the forest where the trees gave way to the sky. Maithili gasped in amazement. In dollops and tendrils of colour, blue, purple, red, white, orange, the clouds moved like paint over canvas. How dull and empty was the most blazing sunset compared to this display! And then she noticed something that made her stare at the Fairy Queen, in disbelieving delight.
Among the flourishes and curlicues was distinctly visible the letter 'M', drawn in her favourite magenta.
'We've been waiting for you', the Queen nodded, 'That's what it means.'
As from nowhere, a thought came to her and she shivered and her heart beat hard.
'Who am I?', Maithili whispered.
But even before she could wait for an answer, she felt the shifting of the shapes in the sky. The clouds were swooping down and all about her, whirling her up in revolutions of colour. She was borne up on cushions of fairy air. She found that there was no necessity to decide anything, for she was moving without trying, propelled on the wind towards the many-storeyed, many-coloured castle shining far above the ground. And that was not a painting like the clouds, but a thing of light and magic like the Aurora Borealis.
'My daughter.' Right beside her, the Queen bent to whisper in her ear. 'Welcome home.'
She was found by the maid, curled up in front of the bedroom mirror, her breathing slow and rhythmic, just as in the deepest sleep, a constant smile about her lips suggesting the happiest dreams. But it was her eyes that chilled them all. They spoke to her, shook her, moved her, but neither her mind nor her body seemed to respond. Then they laid Maithili onto the bed, still curled up, with her bounteous blankets, and her fixed and fascinated stare.
In the castle, all time was as though compressed into one everlasting moment. From entering to walls and floors splashed thoroughly with colour, and corridors lined with ecstatic fountains, to passing through a high hall filled with dancing figures, each wearing the mask of a different wild animal, to tripping through an open courtyard studded with baffling sculptures of triangles and rectangles, and finding herself at the dining table, with the Queen opposite her and shocks of nodding flowers sprouting from every seat, she had scarcely drawn a breath, or so it seemed to her.
'Everything moves so fast here!', Maithili exclaimed.
'That's why nothing here is boring.' The Queen beamed., 'Won't you eat?'
A bowl of clear soup had appeared on her plate. When she had taken three most delicious sips, it disappeared and various tiny cakes and snacks appeared before her instead. Each was less than a bite-size, as light as air, and when they were swallowed, she had a slice of pizza, which crumbled to nothing in her mouth, two mouthfuls of something that tasted like chicken, then more bite-cakes, a quarter roti and a spoonful of gravy, and a shot-glass of liquid chocolate. Then she was thirsty. From a crystal glass discovered in her hand she poured down her throat the sweetest, clearest elixir she had ever tasted. Then it was gone.
She stared in wonder at the Queen, who was watching her with a little smile.
'It's more delicious than anything I've ever eaten! But the portions are so funny.'
'We don't like large and oppressive meals', the Queen replied, 'It's so much better to take a bite out of everything, isn't it?'
'Oh I agree!'
At this point a song began, and although Maithili still felt very hungry, she was too astonished to do anything but listen. All about the table, the flowers were swaying their heads, and singing in a lisping, whispering chorus, like nothing she had ever heard before. After a while, she thought she could make out some of the words.
'Change change change', the flowers sang.
'Let nothing stay the same,
No dull things
No ugly bores
We are pretty little birds'
So they were. True to their tune, they had changed. Mynahs, parrots, sparrows, robins and other beautiful and colorful species she couldn't name, were trilling all together.
'We are pretty little birds,
No ugly bores,
Chasing our stars,
Spreading our wings
Change change change
No ugly things.'
On it went in this vein, and sometimes the birds flew up to the ceiling and sometimes they turned back to flowers, as they sang. Then something happened which was startling, not just because it was unexpected, for everything in Fairyland was unexpected, but because it was distinctly out of key. Maithili knew at once that this thing did not belong.
A shudder shook the floor. The dining plates clattered and the birds ceased singing. In the space of their sudden silence, there entered gradually a noise. A groaning, hoarse and shaking, the sound of a living thing in deep and uncommunicable anguish, rose louder and louder, till it resounded about the room. Maithili's stomach churned. Her face crumpled and her breath turned ragged.
She did not notice the rows of beady eyes that fixed her with glinting accusation, or how the beaks of the beautiful birds were arrayed like so many swords.
At its highest, the groan died in a series of stricken gasps, that were like pain visited upon pain. Then the Fairy Queen's wand touched her heaving shoulder.
The little girl was wide awake. She heard distinctly the thundering outside and the constant swell of the rain. She lay on the bed just as before, but there was a new note in her eyes when they turned upon the bedside figure. And his voice softened as he saw.
'Yes', said the man, 'That's the sound that Maithili heard. And then-'
They were flying over Fairyland. Deep blue lakes like embedded sapphires, rolling hills, now verdant, now silver with snow, sudden tracts of soft green meadow-land, endless mysterious forests, all passed below the play of the magic clouds. The landscape unfolded with such a sense of plenitude and perfection, that after a while, overwhelmed, she turned her gaze away.
The Queen's face was close to hers. She looked at it- and suddenly she realized this was the very first time she was looking at it. Perhaps the wonder of her new world had distracted her before, but now, alone among the clouds, Maithili took in distinctly the slanted eyes, the mouth curved and imperious, the high cheekbones about which stretched taut the pale and perfect skin. The Queen was beautiful- she saw that at once. Then her gaze returned to the eyes, as the light flashed over them, and two black and glinting hollows bored into her.
'Is not our country lovely?'
She nodded. Simultaneously she recalled the secret she had learned- who she really was- the Fairy Queen's daughter, the daughter of this land!- and the thought made her shudder with pride.
'But it wasn't always so', the Queen went on, 'Once upon a time, our country was no different from other countries. We too had sorrow and poverty, war and unrest, dirt and disease. They disfigured our fair land and robbed us of our happiness. Our freedom lay trapped in their fetters.'
She had never experienced poverty or war, but oddly, as the Queen spoke, Maithili felt that she understood exactly what she meant. A burst of anger went exploding through her, strong and intense, like something long-simmering set suddenly to boil, and strangely, the face of her father came bobbing before her mind's eye.
'Like dust', she said suddenly, 'It's like a layer of dust on a surface that ought to be sparkling. It spoils everything!'
'So we cleansed ourselves', said the Queen, 'That is how we fought the tragedy of our world. We overcame it by overcoming ourselves, by changing and evolving into something truly beautiful. You see Maithili my dear, once upon a time, I was not a fairy at all. I was like you.'
The cloud-cover had thickened and hidden the view of the land. The Queen was smiling. She looked more beautiful than ever, but there were many strange meanings in her gaze, and Maithili's heart pounded with unexpected panic.
'You are not yet one of us', said the Queen, 'You saw that in the castle.'
'But I didn't do anything!', Maithili exclaimed, 'There was that awful noise!' But though she protested the charge, though, in truth, she did not even comprehend it, yet she knew that she was guilty.
'It has never been heard since Fairyland became Fairyland', said the Queen, 'Such noises do not belong here, and we do not hear them.'
As she spoke, she extended her slender arm, and taking Maithili's hand in hers, led her down through pink and swirling mists.
Below them lay a land like no other Maithili had seen. Pure-white as paper was the colour of the earth, and flat as an empty canvas it stretched, as far as the eye could see, infinite in all directions.
The white land was still; undisturbed even by a breath of breeze; meanwhile, the sky turned constantly with shapes and colours, and in the juxtaposition of the two Maithili sensed both a meaning and a command. Then once more she felt the Queen's wand on her shoulder and swivelled to attention.
How majestic the Queen looked! How powerful were her words, that now chastised and humiliated her!
'You have brought evil to our land', said the Fairy Queen. Her eyes glinted coldly and dispassionately. 'You are the conduit through which pain and suffering, have intruded upon our beauty. You are not ready to be here.'
'I'm sorry', cried Maithili, 'I didn't know what I was doing. But I want to be just like you! You did say- you did say I'm your daughter!'
There was a plea in her voice; a wheedling cadence that she hated even as she employed. So it thrilled her to see the Queen's mouth twist in thin contempt.
'Do not be dramatic', said the Queen, 'That is one thing we simply loathe.'
Inwardly, Maithili nodded, eagerly and gratefully. Did she not loathe it herself when she heard it from her father?- from whom, of course, she had picked it up unwittingly- this terrible show of subjection, this shameful docility before every mere obstacle. The way he sighed when stuck in traffic, his anxiety when she caught a cold- but her real parent had no need to plead. For she was a monarch; she made her own rules, lived by her own lights, controlled the forces that controlled the weak.
'To create a world filled with goodness, where no pain is heard, where no ugliness is seen, where only truth, love and beauty reign, that is what we accomplished, to become who we are. If you would be one of us, so must you.'
'Wait!', cried Maithili, for before her gaze the figure of the Queen was shimmering like a mirage.
'The bad will come in many forms.' Her wand was enchanting the air around her, transporting her to some ethereal realm. 'But most of all, it will prey on your Fear and on your Guilt. Defeat those two monsters and you shall succeed.'
'But what must I do?', said Maithili.
'Create!', commanded the Queen.
A moment later, she was alone in the white country, with only that word filling her mind.
She closed her eyes. She concentrated hard.
When she looked again, she literally laughed in delight. A purple mountain covered in flowers rose tall on the horizon, just as she had pictured it. She closed her eyes again, imagined a whole range of flower-decked hills- and there was the range! She thought then to test the limits of her power. She wished for a waterfall, flowing upwards into the sky. And what was impossible in the ordinary world was happening before her eyes.
Maithili lay down on the smooth white ground, hardly noticing even the texture of it. The sky above was like a palette, waiting for the brush-strokes of her fancy...
Afterwards, much later, she was resting on soft grass, softer than velvet, among gardens and lakes and magic groves of ancient trees, and rivers and mountains and beautiful birds, and doe-eye deer and unicorns and great big butterflies with bright green wings. It was raining drops of light from the sky.
She felt drowsy and sated. She drifted into sleep.
In her dream she woke to the very world she had created. The realization thrilled her; and she felt, for the first time, an equivalence between what was and what ought to be.
She was eager to explore, for it was cool and pleasant in her paradisiacal garden. She had both the safety of being at home, among her own creations, and the desire to exult in them.
Yet no sooner had her eyes travelled to the first inscrutable lake, the first dark gap between the far trees, than a feeling came upon her, which was not of her choosing.
Fear rose from her heart and swarmed through her body, paralyzing her. Every sound was different in her dream; the bird-song, the water, the rustle of the leaves; they were whispering dark and mutinous secrets.
Her gaze was drawn continually to a certain turn in a cobble-stoned path, that disappeared behind a clump of fir trees. Inexorably she was drawn towards it. It led to a pavilion- as far as she knew. But well before she had breasted the turn, that terrible noise returned.
Unmistakably, it was the same noise as from the castle, the same groaning of a suffering creature. But it was louder than before, more aggressive, more dangerous.
She closed her eyes and wished it gone. She told herself that it was not of her making, it had come from elsewhere. It was an intruder. What was more, it was foul and ugly. It made her afraid, and that was wrong.
There was silence when she opened her eyes, and emboldened, she turned the corner.
On the steps of the pavilion, in the shade of the trees, lay a little grey dog.
It was raining still, though perhaps the rain had slowed. The storyteller's head was bowed before the little girl's. His eyes sought hers with quiet urgency. His voice dropped specially. The dog was in pain (said the storyteller softly)-
- and Maithili paused. Her instinct was to go to the animal, but a warning sounded over her instinct. She had not created this, she reminded herself. It could not be trusted.
Soft, broken noises yet tugged her towards them. She told herself that it was all only a dream. The dog did not even truly exist- not like the rest of the world, which she had made and approved herself. It was only from curiosity, therefore, that she came close, peering.
Then she recoiled. It was sick and diseased. It had no hair, only grey and wrinkled skin. Its face was covered with hideous sores.
Again she shut her eyes and enured herself to everything the aberration threw at her. She heard low growls, and howls of anger, snarls, whining, and an almost human entreaty, but she held fast to her resolve, until finally, once more, silence descended...
When she opened her eyes she did not know any longer if she was dreaming or awake. She was sitting up straight in the empty white land. Every particle of her own creation had vanished, like a dream dissolved.
In its aftermath, disoriented, she saw her surroundings anew. The infinite canvas was dizzying, and the dizziness was horrifying. Round and round she turned, desperate for her bearings, while the sickness rose to her throat. She had nowhere to begin and nowhere to end, no place to rest and nothing to lean on, and no one to hold her hand.
Then she spied the whining dog, hobbling towards her across the awful emptiness. The sight of it stopped and steadied her. Simultaneously the sky churned fast with its myriad colours and the thought crossed her mind that she could build again her beautiful Fairyland, and be worthy again of her Queen. There were two ways to banish her loneliness, and one promised a world of beauty, and one was mangy and diseased. But that one was coming to her, and something broke within her, and sobbing, she ran to embrace it.
Maithili blinked. Her father, who at that moment was adjusting the blankets about her body, pretended he had not noticed. Only he knew, how many times, in the months that had passed, he had imagined such things, how many hours he had stared in futile waiting, how many false alarms had battered his heart with hope. So he went on tucking her in, until she turned all the way towards him and reached out with her arms.
The bedside figure rose quietly to his feet. He went through the doorway, closing it behind him, and faced a strained room full of light and people.
'Well?', said the girl's mother. 'Did you tell her a nice story?'
'She's trying to sleep now.'
'Such a happy, cheerful child!' The mother exclaimed. 'And then one day she comes home from the market, and now three days and nothing can even make her smile! And what happened? We still don't know. She won't tell me or Rakesh. She won't tell Madhur.' She looked towards her sister, a well-dressed, well-spoken lady, who nodded pityingly over her coffee cup, and then asked the man suddenly.
'Did she tell you?'
He shook his head. The aunt looked displeased. He was not a close relative to begin with. He was only passing through the city.
'We may need to call a doctor', she said sombrely, 'As for fairytales- I believe it's the fairytales that scare them in the first place. I don't know what this story you told Anita was about, but if she didn't even tell you what it was, that came out of nowhere and hurt her, then I don't see how it could have helped her.'
The woman stared fixedly at him. Beyond the walls, the rain persisted.
'It was about how things come out of nowhere', he said quietly, 'How they come out of nowhere and hurt you.'
His face was tired in the harsh light. They all noticed suddenly how young he really was.
A few moments later, the girl's mother got up, and went quickly into the bedroom.