Meeting in Dreams
'If you and I are parted now, we will never meet again, except, perhaps, in dreams, like dried flowers pressed together in [the leaves of] a book.' Translated from Faraz, Urdu poet,1931-2008.
They had always known about this shortcut to their school, but they had never used it, just as they had never gone down many a lane, or across many a bridge that they had caught sight of, on their way to school and back.
Linda forced her way through it. She stepped out on the other side onto the grey surface of the old highway. It was bordered by a low and green hill like an alligator hiding under strands of seaweed.
'Come on, come on,' Linda said, helping Mary out.
Mary looked very frightened and was quite out of breath. Linda weakly raised her hand to brush a leaf off her sister's forehead. Then she bent down, her hand on her aching side. Mary had already flopped down.
William came crashing out, his arm around his little brother.
He almost slipped.
'All that for a book. You'd think that we'd taken a diamond or something.'
'It's their job,' said William. 'If they didn't do that, they'd be fired.'
She picked herself up and brushed her clothes.
'Come on,' she told them. 'We gotta go.'
They walked on the same side as the green barrier, opposite the hill, four children, two girls and two boys. The littlest one was blond, with a mop hairstyle.
He was the reason they were there.
Ever since their parents had died, the children had been living with their Uncle Tobias and Aunt Amy. When it came to herself, Linda could put up with being bullied by their uncle and aunt. But for her uncle to raise his hand on Michael, little Michael, because Michael wouldn't give his teddy bear to his cousin Stella, that decided it. They would go live somewhere else, some place where they would be safe.
They did have another aunt, their mother's sister Sarah. But Aunt Sarah was unpredictable and frequently unemployed. Linda didn't think too highly of the gawky, bespectacled woman, gushing with love for them one moment and screaming at them not to touch her computer the next. So she decided they would stay with Oro.
The Waterfall and the Ghost House
Michael had stopped in his tracks. He got scared easily. Linda knew this was because he was very intelligent. He knew there are things you should be afraid of.
'It's the waterfall,' she said. 'The same one we could see from our house.'
'It sounds like a lion.'
'Yes, doesn't it? Look, there it is.'
The road had become a bridge, with short white railings on each side. The children leaned over.
Michael stared at the whiteness cascading down the side of the hill. He looked up with delight at his elder sister, who beamed back at him.
'Can we go down there?'
'There are wild dogs over there,' said William. 'So of course we can't go there.'
'Look! The Ghost House!'
Linda looked at it closely. So this was the Ghost House. How many stories they’d made up about it. The house you saw people entering but you never saw leaving. It was a house without windows and doors, painted white.
'It's just an incomplete house. The owner may have run out of money. Or changed his mind.'
She wondered to herself if the owner had ever thought that some children somewhere were making up stories about his house.
They kept walking down the road, which curved a little to the right, until they found themselves standing before a volcanic mountain, stretching up, up, up, high enough to make their necks hurt as they stretched back their heads to make out the top.
Linda grabbed onto the plants that grew out of the slope.
'Don't worry. They'll hold.'
She let go just to help her little brother onto her back.
'Hold tight. And don't worry.'
'Can you climb onto the rim?' she asked, once they got close to the top.
Michael made his way over her shoulders and her head.
She was safe too, as she pulled herself onto the ledge, and into a sitting position by her brother.
They looked at the scenery below. They could see the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the white buildings of the capital city, the green, undulating hills, the blue sky, with fleecy, white clouds.
'Isn't it beautiful?'
To their backs was the crater of the volcano. Linda looked inside it unwillingly. The lava bubbled and gurgled. White gases swirled out. It was a vision of hell.
William and Mary soon joined them. The four children sat side by side, enjoying the view of the sea, hills and the sky. For a long time, they stayed like that.
The voice startled them. Out of the crater rose a head. A head with pink-colored eyes and an impish grin.
'Hi, Oro! Look, I got you a book, like you wanted.'
Oro's eyes glowed red with joy as she looked at the book - a science textbook. 'Thanks. Come on in!'
With that, she started to descend back into the crater.
The children followed her. A few feet below the rim, Oro lowered herself into a conduit. The others followed. Lava glowed in the tunnel in honeycomb patterns and they had to watch where they put their feet.
'What happens if you do touch the lava?' William asked Oro.
'I don't know. I never touch it.'
When they came out of the mouth at the other end, they found themselves standing on a ledge. Looking around themselves they saw that they were more than halfway down a huge brick-colored cave.
Holding onto pegs poking out of the wall beneath them, they lowered themselves to the floor of the cave.
'You've also got pegs on that side,' pointed out William. 'Did you make them?'
'No,' replied Oro. 'They were already there.'
'Some other aliens? Before you? This is amazing!' William exclaimed. 'What do you think they were like?' he wondered out loud. 'They must have been multi-limbed –'
'Alright, Einstein! You tell me what they were like.'
But Linda was taking in the cave. A greenish smudge, like moss-coated water, invited her attention. She walked over to it.
'If that is water, we might be able to grow our own food in here.'
How could she have forgotten? Food. She was hungry, too.
'I'll go,' she said, making the decision. 'Look after Mary and Michael, William.'
They watched as she negotiated the peg-like structures and climbed onto the ledge. Then she vanished into the conduit.
William looked around himself.
'Oro, where's the light coming from?'
'I don't know.'
'Must be the lava inside the walls.'
'The lava doesn't light up the conduit. You saw that yourself.'
That was true. It had just been areas of pitch black with the white-hot interlacing of lava lines.
William tried to come up with an explanation.
'It's the sun,' he said. 'Way up there, you have conduits which lead into the sunlight. It's the sunlight coming through.'
'But then,' said Oro, 'it would be dark at night. And it isn't.'
'What's up there?'
'I don't know.'
'Not very curious, are you?' said William.
'I am,' said Oro, holding up the science textbook.
'Sometimes you have to find the answer yourself,' said William. He walked over to the other set of pegs and made his way up. The others followed him.
At the top was a ledge. And in the wall behind the ledge was a mouth. William walked about on the ledge, exploring it.
'What do you eat?' he suddenly asked Oro.
She bent down, broke off a piece of the ledge, and started chewing on it.
'Lucky you. Where does that mouth lead?'
'I don't know.'
William put his arm inside. He stepped back just as quickly. His arm had been swallowed up by the darkness, quite as if he had thrust it into a pool of ink.
'There's probably a monster in there,' said Mary.
'Like the minotaur.'
'You stop it!'
Or maybe it was the monster itself – the mouth of the monster.
Now, they kept looking at the mouth fearfully, afraid to turn their backs to it. How would they live here, sleep here, forever fearful of what lay in there?
'We've got to go in and check,' said William, at last.
He held on to Michael, while Oro held Mary's hand. They entered the mouth.
Inside the Mouth
Inside, it was pitch black. William felt he was swimming in an ocean of darkness. He shouted to the others, but the sound was absorbed by the darkness. He opened his mouth to shout louder.
'Don't worry!' exclaimed a voice, suddenly.
William's heart missed a beat.
'Watch it, Einstein! You scared him!'
'You're the one supposed to be looking after them!'
'And I would do it too, if I wasn't stuck with the brightest alien in the universe!'
'This was your idea, William. And another thing. What's poor Linda going to think when she comes back?'
William exerted himself.
'There's got to be a way out –'
And there it was – the entrance, blinding white in the darkness.
Linda is Back
'Funny,' said William, once they were outside on the ledge, 'in there, it felt like hours had passed by. Yet Linda isn't even here yet.'
'Here I am!'
Linda's head and arms appeared. She placed a bag on the ledge.
'Bread and fruit,' she said, now sitting alongside the others, her legs hanging over the ledge, as she explored the contents of the bag with Michael.
'Did the police chase you again?' asked Michael, innocently.
Oro looked up, her eyes bright orange.
'Ah, well, no,' said Linda, blushing.
Oro spoke up after some minutes of silence.
'My mother says stealing is wrong, and it's wrong on every planet.'
'So does – did mine. But what choice do we have?'
Oro said nothing.
'Linda, look! Oh, I'm sorry! Did I wake you up?'
'Look at these!'
Linda examined the two plates, with their pink rims.
'Where did you get these?'
'In there!' said Oro, pointing to The Mouth. 'I went by myself,' she said, sitting down, 'and if you keep on going in the darkness, you come out in this other – place. There was a huge palace there, made out of this – this pale pink stone. That's where I found these!’
She described the palace, with its long sofas, cut out of the same stone, and the faintest etchings of faces into the pink walls. There weren't any doors, or any windows, just open spaces between the pillars.
‘…and then, I was on the second floor, and when I looked out, I saw a lovely garden! It was open, with sun and palm trees, it wasn't a cave! And – then I noticed her!'
'A girl rather like you, dark-haired and dark-eyed. She was kneeling down in the garden. She was so huge, so big, I thought the palace must be her doll's house. I peered at her from behind one of the pillars. I saw she was holding herself still – so still, I almost thought maybe she was just a statue, a really big one. But then I thought, no, she's just pretending, because she's seen me, and wants to catch me. After all, what would you do if you saw a doll walking about in your doll's house? So I stayed still, as still as I could.'
'Then what?' said Linda, fearfully.
'Then I realised something,’ said Oro, her blue eyes widening with horror. ‘She wasn't holding herself still because of me. There was something else there – something even bigger, even more terrifying. And that’s why she was holding herself still, trying not to breathe, trying not to bat an eyelash, pretending she was just a statue. I moved backwards – slowly – then I turned, and rushed out of the palace and into the mouth. And here I am. I brought these,’ she said, indicating the plates. ‘We can go back and get more stuff,’ she insisted, desperately. ‘That way you won't have to – you know, steal stuff.'
'Thank you,' said Linda, touched. 'You are a real friend, Oro.'
Her attention was drawn by another sound.
'It's his breathing. He has asthma, you know. Oh God!'
'What's the matter?' said William, waking up.
'It's Michael. He's having trouble breathing.'
William stared at Michael for a few moments. Then he looked around himself.
‘How come we’re alive down here? How come we’re breathing?’
Linda thought about it.
‘It must be because of Oro,’ she hypothesized. 'Some of her powers rub off on us. It's wearing off Michael, though.'
'Because he's already got breathing problems,' said William, completing the thought. 'We've got to get him out of here. I'll take him,' he offered, knowing how tired his elder sister must be.
'Oh thanks! I really couldn't do any more climbing today, I know I couldn't! But where will you take him?'
'There's the Ghost House. We could stay there for the night.'
Linda helped Michael onto William's back.
'Don't worry, we'll be fine.'
'Oro,' said Linda. 'I'm worried.’
‘Let's go to the top of the volcano and see how far they’ve gone,’ said Oro, kindly.
Outside, the power was out and it was pitch dark. Linda could make out little at first. Then she saw something that made her heart thump.
'Linda, Linda, what is it?'
But Linda was scrambling down the side of the hill, and then running, down the barren terrain, and onto the old highway.
'Michael! William!' she kept crying out loud.
When she got to the half-complete house, she found the place full of smoke. Firefighters moved about, appearing and disappearing into the thick swirls of smoke.
A ladder had been propped against the side of the house. A firefighter was slowly coming down it.
'My brothers are in there!' screamed Linda.
'What? Linda, what are you doing here?'
To Linda's surprise, she found herself looking at Aunt Sarah's grimy face.
'Michael, William, they're up there!'
Aunt Sarah looked at Linda and up at the window. Then she hesitated no longer. Linda watched as first Michael, then William, were helped out of the window and down the ladder.
'He's fine,' said the paramedic, as he handed Michael over to her. 'His left arm is slightly burnt, but, otherwise, perfectly fine.'
'It must have been because of Oro,' explained William. 'Just as in the volcano, the smoke and the heat didn't hurt us.'
'Oro?' asked Aunt Sarah, who had come up behind him.
'Hello,' said Oro, shyly, as she stepped forward, with Mary's hand in hers.
Aunt Sarah stared at the little alien, whose eyes glowed a gentle green.
'Oro's an alien,' remarked Michael.
'I had to come here,' explained Oro. 'It isn't safe where I live, at least not for me. I hope you don't mind?'
'Of course not,' said Aunt Sarah. 'You’re Canada's first asylum seeker from outer space. We are proud to have you take refuge here. But, right now, you’ll have to go with the police,' she said. 'It's just a formality. Don't be scared,’ she added, as she beckoned a police officer.
A few minutes later, Oro got into the backseat of a squad car. As the car drove off, she waved to her friends.
Aunt Sarah turned to her nieces and nephews.
'Do your parents know you are here?'
Parents? Was it some kind of cruel joke?
'Your parents. When the airplane caught fire, they’d already jumped out. They’re alive. They were picked up by a ship yesterday. They'll soon be home. Why aren't you at your Uncle Tobias's?'
'Mom and Dad are alive?'
'Yes. I'd better let your uncle and aunt know where you are.' Aunt Sarah drew out her cellphone. 'Why, there's your mother now!’ she exclaimed, suddenly. ‘Michael, look!'
They all turned. There, walking down the dark highway, was their mother, her familiar handbag dangling over her arm. Michael waved delightedly to her.
She raised an arm and waved back. Michael continued to wave at her, until his mother was swallowed up by the darkness.
That was it, thought Sarah, with a lump in her throat. That was what happened to children whose parents had died – they sometimes saw them in dreams, and that too from far, far away.
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© 2020 Aishatu Ali