This story was included in a special “Story Time” edition of At Water’s Edge on 27 September 2014, along with several other tales. Watch the video archive or listen to the podcast. This story, along with the other story in this series and a poem from Love the Haven of Peace, will be released as a CD and downloadable album in the 4th quarter of 2014. You can hear a preview of the release at the end of this story.
Once upon a time, there lived a girl who dreamed—and not just any ordinary dreams. Well, many of them were ordinary, but once in a while, the girl had dreams that would come true in unexpected ways.
Being born in a month and year of Fire, as a young child the girl dreamt—naturally—of fire. She dreamt of it often, but in one particular dream, dark as a dungeon yet vivid as midday, the fire escaped the hearth and consumed everything around her except the bed on which she lay. Her books, her clothing, the walls around her.
Even her mother.
In the dream, she saw her mother enter the room and lean against the closed door, watching the child but unaware of the fire. It drew closer, kissing the hem of her dress, but she didn’t move as the fire raced up the front of her garment, then leapt to her hair, then engulfed her. No cry, no movement, only fire. The girl was terrified and grief-stricken, and cowered on her bed unable to move or make a sound. She could hear the crackling, feel the heat on her face, and still she could not move as the flames hid her mother from her sight.
The fire finished its work, and surrounded the girl’s bed but came no closer. Her mother still leaned against the door, and now it was deliberate, trapping the girl where she was. She stepped through the flames, no evidence of the conflagration on her skin or her clothes, but nevertheless transformed. The look on her face was now that of pure evil, with harsh features and narrowed eyes and downturned mouth. This new creature’s hands spread into claws and reached for the girl who, struggle as she might, was still frozen in silence.
Her cries, silent in the dream world, were heard in the real world. Her mother—her true mother, kind and gentle—raced to wake her. But the child was caught up in the dream still and did not recognize her mother’s face. The look of raw terror on the child’s face saddened the mother, who was a seeress, for she knew what it would mean.
Finally the child woke, weeping for what she had lost, though nothing had happened in this world.
In the morning the innocent child told her mother of the dream, and the mother’s heart grew heavy again.
“What does it mean?” the child asked.
“It means that some day you will see me exactly as I am—capable of evil as well as good—and you will leave me.”
“But I don’t understand. You’re my mother, and I love you, and the people love you. I will never leave you! I will stay with you forever. How could you ever do evil?”
“Ah, darling child, you are too young to see it, for your eyes are still sweet and innocent. Ask me again when you are grown.”
The child was confused and sad, but loved her mother very much, so the meaning of the dream left her—though the images remained forever in her mind.
Years passed and the child grew to be a young woman. Her dreams remained quiet until her sixteenth year.
In that year, her family sent her abroad to learn of her ancestral home, a misty island in the northern reaches. As excited as the young woman was to travel, she was also frightened, for she had never been so long without one parent or the other nearby. Nevertheless, she went. On the island of her family’s ancestors, she sang in the great spaces and lived with the people, and began to learn the ancient ways.
Her travels and learning wearied her deeply, for she was gifted with sight like her mother and therefore overwhelmed with the press of people and history around her. The fire that was her element revealed itself in her exhaustion as unexpected bouts of fury, which she feared.
One night during her travels she fell into a deep sleep and her dream grew vivid again.
This dream was brief. In it, she sang to her favorite childhood toy, a tiny stuffed mouse she had simply named Sir Mouse (she was very young when it was given her), as she held it close to her heart. Her hands grew warm and tiny flames touched the fabric of the little creature. The mouse came to life in her hands and grew large and sleek, and curled himself contentedly in her arms for a moment, making small happy noises as she stroked his soft warm fur.
And suddenly he died.
His form remained as it was, not as the toy she had known and loved, but as a fat little mouse, and she knew he was lost to her forever.
She wept with all her heart, for the loss of her childhood friend cut deep.
She awoke and mourned all that day for the little mouse, and for her own lost innocence, for she was far enough along in her studies of the ancient ways to see for herself without asking her mother what this dream meant.
She returned home.
Her dreams were again quiet for some years, until the first year of her marriage. The young man whom she was to marry had not the gift of sight, as her family did, but she loved him–or thought she did–and he loved her. A respected artisan in the town where she lived, her new husband was kind and passionate with her. Her mother’s gift of sight pricked her, but she ignored it, believing in her own gifted strangeness that this young man was her only chance at love.
So she loved the young man with all her naïve heart, refusing to see the curse that had been laid upon him.
One night she dreamed, and this was again an extraordinary dream.
In it, a young woman she did not know stood bound at the peak of an edifice, again surrounded by flames. Wild colors writhed in the air, formless and bodiless and confusing the dreamer, who tried to climb the edifice to help the stranger.
But before she could, she saw an evil witch glide up the steps toward the prisoner, as the young woman still struggled below. She watched in horror as the witch first kissed her prey, then sucked the soul from her body, inhaling her bright essence in a horrible, screaming, tearing breath. The witch flung the lifeless body from her, and flew away, exultant at stealing another soul.
The body of the captive landed at the young woman’s feet, grey and horribly still. But it was no longer a woman—it was a man.
The dreaming woman heard the voice of the witch from her distant flight: “Because you refused to kneel to me, you are cursed to live in a body not your own, living someone else’s life, forever knowing that your own life is beyond your reach.”
The shock of the curse woke the young woman, who lay shivering next to her husband, afraid of what she would see when she looked at him.
And indeed, in the moonlight, she could see through the curse’s glamour for the briefest moment and knew that the dream was true.
“Did you know?” she asked his sleeping form.
He woke instantly, understanding exactly what she asked, for he had seen her dream in his own sleep.
“Yes,” he replied sadly.
“And yet we married.”
“This is my life now. I cannot go back.”
“But you can. The witch has no power over you here; do you not know that?”
He was silent a moment. “How can this be?”
“I would not have seen your curse if it still held. It is shredding before my eyes.” She gave him a sad half-smile. “Part of my family’s gift is that curses break in our presence.” She held a mirror up to her husband, whose beautiful chestnut hair she had always admired now clear to her for what it was.
His face crumpled in sorrow even as his features softened into those of the cursed woman in her dream. “I love you, you know. Can you not love me like this? But you will not stay, will you?”
“You are beautiful. I treasure your love, and I will always have love for you in my heart, for you brought me out of my childhood with gentle care. But I cannot stay. You allowed me to deceive my own eyes by not telling me of the curse. You knew, and said nothing. So now you are free. Be who you are meant to be.”
In the morning, the young seeress left and returned to her mother’s home, sad for the loss of love but satisfied that the curse had been lifted, freeing her husband—now restored to true form as a beautiful, elegantly slender woman.
Years passed, and the young dreamer became less young. Mother and daughter practiced together, recognizing that each had the sight but that it took different forms. The younger woman’s visions were wild and passionate and often out of her control; although both were born in months of fire, the elder was born in a year of metal, making her sight a little colder and harder at times.
Eventually, this caused a rift between the two women and they fought, as mother and daughter inevitably must. The daughter fled in fury to the western lands where her father had wandered and settled years ago.
In her flight she remembered the dream of fire that had terrified her as a tiny girl, and wept for her mother, whom she now knew was indeed capable of great evil and great good.
She wandered the lands for many years, seeing and dreaming and making mistakes and growing older and wiser, until at last she came to the Land of Fire, near where her mother had passed many years before.
The seeress had reached the middle of her life, and understood that this land would teach her the final lesson in living with her own three-fold element. For it is only in her middle years that a seeress is strong enough to be fully immersed in her element and come out whole. And the element of fire was thrice hers, so the lessons would be that much harder.
Her dreams came more often now, always of fire, and she learned to remain still and serene in the midst of the flames. Fear no longer crippled her as it had many years before.
The flames were always before her now, awake or asleep, and through them she could see clearly into the hearts of the people around her. The fire burned away any illusions the people had built up around themselves, and she learned to see exactly who they were. Some were kind, some were cruel, many were both. Men and women approached her, asking for her gift, hoping for her love, but she remained aloof and strange and slightly sad, knowing that her strangeness would be difficult to live with. She saw for them, and helped when she could, and felt compassion for their pain, but could not remain close for very long. The seeing drained her and she remained apart from the people, who did not understand and were a little afraid.
Yet she knew that she loved still, and was loved in return. Who it was, she did not know. She felt it when she dreamed, a presence in the flames with her, comforting and holding her gently. At night, when she dreamed in fire, the love was with her always now, and by day, seeing for the people, she remembered it and was content.
As time went on, the presence grew more substantial in her dreams, shaping itself into a man she did not recognize from her life. He was not of the people around her, nor of any she had met in her travels. She could hear a kind of gentle music as his presence solidified, a breath of bells as from a great distance, and the sound gave her fiery soul a calm it craved. She could feel his hand in hers. She felt his quiet breathing and heard his heart beating slowly across the vastness. And she could feel love radiating from him, though she did not know why.
One night in her dream the presence finally spoke. “Breathe the fire.”
“Let it enter you. Breathe it in, feel its warmth, for it is your element and will not harm you.”
This was one thing she had never done. The flames always surrounded her, but never so close that she breathed them in. She trembled a little, for this was the final test of her gift. Allowing the fire to enter her would burn away the last of her own illusions, the things she had held within herself in hopes that they would somehow become real.
She closed her eyes. “Will you still be here when I have done?”
“There is no way to know until you do it. You must trust yourself and let go of all that you imagined yourself to be. What remains is the only real thing.”
A single tear escaped, immediately carried away by the heat.
“How will I find you?”
His hand reached out and gently touched her face. Though she still could not clearly see his features, she could see his eyes, black as char in the firelight, gazing gently into hers. He remained silent.
“Will it hurt?”
“You know it will.”
She held her breath a moment, the fear causing her heart to skip a beat, and closed her eyes.
She let all the air escape her, and as she did, she could feel the flames approaching. She opened her eyes, looked into his for the last time.
And inhaled as deeply as she could.
The pain was excruciating, burning everything in its path. Her heart caught fire, her lungs felt as though they were turning to lumps of ash and everything in her screamed to be released from the agony.
And yet she still breathed.
And breathed again.
She saw only flames, felt only the fire. She wept into the inferno as the last of her illusions were burned away, and she saw herself for exactly who she was. All the good she had done and not done, all the evil she had done and not done: it was all before her in the flames. She knew that she was, as were all humans, capable of great evil as well as great good, and she mourned for the souls she had harmed by her own weakness.
She faltered for an instant and blindly flung out an arm, reaching for something, anything to hold her up. The flames licked her hand once, twice, and this time the burn felt different. This would leave a mark, reminding her that fear would only cause her pain if she could not contain it.
The fire began to recede, taking the pain and all her glamours with it.
And he was gone.
When she awoke, she looked at where she had been burned in her moment of panic, and indeed there was a bone-deep scar on the back of her writing hand and another in her palm. They were healed, yet still pulsed with a dull heat, and she knew that the marks would always remind her of her failings, even in her strength.
She sighed and rolled over in the bed.
And he was there beside her, watching as she stirred—his eyes were black as char, even in the morning light.
“You’re here,” she whispered.
“No, you’re here,” he responded with a chuckle.
Her eyes widened and she glanced around the room. She could hear the distant bells he had brought with him into the dream. “Where are we, then?”
“In my homeland, very far from where you were. We dreamed of one another, and I have waited for you. You came out of the Land of Fire and our dreams brought you here. You are whole.”
He kissed her gently.
“And now you are free to love.”