They say that at the heart of the woods, where the river slows to a graceful meander, and where the wolves howl along with the wind rustling through the trees, there lies a spring of still water. It is in this spring, under the full moon and the endless stars, where dreams go to die.
That is what the Elder says to the Younger when the Younger asks why they are walking through the woods, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their sticks in their hands.
“Dreams can die?” asks the Younger, brushing her hair out of her eyes as they move through the mid-morning mist. It hangs low in the air, and rests in little droplets on her clothes, clouding her breath when she breathes her spirit out into the air.
“Everything can die,” answers the Elder, “and everything must, sooner or later.” The older woman walks ahead of the Younger, her steps slower, shorter. But she still stands tall, her blond hair glowing like silver in the light filtering through the trees. “That is the way of all things.”
“Will you die one day?” asks the Younger, as she clambers over a fallen log. The hem of her skirt almost gets snagged on it. “Will I die too?”
“Yes, little one, one day we will both die,” sighs the Elder, as she stops and waits for the Younger to catch up. “But do not be afraid. Death is not a bad thing, nor is it the end. It is simply a new beginning, a different path, another chance.”
The Younger says nothing for a moment as she looks around her. The trees rise up like giants out of the mist, their branches swaying gently in the breeze, as if they are dancing to a song she cannot hear.
“Do the trees die too?” she asks, laying her hand on one. The bark is rough against her skin, and yet it is smooth too, as if the grooves in the wood have grown around her fingers. “And the mist? What about the sun, the moon, and the stars?”
“There have been a hundred suns, a thousand moons and a million stars, and there will be many more,” says the Elder.
“Do they have dreams too?”
The Elder stops, and smiles at the Younger. The wrinkles around her eyes light up with laughter. “Yes, little one, they dream too. The moon dreams of when she will see her love again, the sun in all her shining splendour, as the night and day turn into each other. The stars dream of the time before they were born, when they were all as one, the brightest light in all the skies. Even the darkness around them dreams.” She stops, and looks up at the sky. “It dreams of one day having someone of its own, to fill its heart.”
“Do you dream of having someone?” The Younger asks, before she can stop herself. She immediately puts her hand to her mouth as a blush rises into her cheeks. “I mean…”
“Yes, I have dreamt of having someone, and I have had them.” The Elder’s smile spreads across her face, like the sun peeking over the horizon at the edge of the world. “Many lives have touched mine, and I have touched theirs. Love, joy, belonging… These are things that every person feels. The plants feel them, the animals feel them, even the wind and the water.” She places a hand over her heart. “All living things dream, and it is dreaming that makes us alive.”
“Alive…” whispers the Younger, the wind carrying her voice through the mist and leaves.
They walk on in silence through the woods, as the sun rises ever higher into the sky. The Younger walks ahead, sliding down a ditch between the trees and waiting for the Elder to follow— she takes her time, inching down the loose earth, but never losing her balance.
“How long will it take for us to get to the spring?” asks the Younger.
“We will get there when we get there,” replies the Elder. She takes the Younger’s arm in hers, and leans on her for support. “Why are you hurrying so?”
“I don’t know,” sighs the Younger. “I want to run with the wolves, climb trees, sing with the birds. I want to do everything all at once.”
“Oh, to be young again,” chuckles the Elder. “When everything is still a dream, when you have your whole life ahead of you. The wind blowing through your hair, the forest singing in your ears…” She sighs. “Life is a precious thing, little one. We must not waste it.”
“I’m not so little anymore,” says the Younger. Now she stands at almost equal height with the Elder, whose hair is thinning. The wrinkles on her face deeper, but her eyes still just as bright and clear, like the afternoon sky.
“Soon you will be as tall as the trees,” says the Elder in a lower voice. She looks up, at the leaves hiding the sky, with little spots of blue still visible. “We grow, blossom, and wither all at once, here one moment and gone the next. But even that is still ample time for dreaming.”
“When will I dream? When I sleep?” The Younger can feel her blood moving through her body, surging with every heartbeat, restless like wolves on the hunt. She pushes her hair out of her face. “I feel like I could be awake my whole life.”
“Dreams are not just for sleep,” says the Elder. She brushes her hair out of her face too, her hands trembling. “That is something you should always remember. Even when we’re awake, we still dream.” She smiles at the Younger’s impatience as she forages ahead, climbing up the trees, leaping across streams and rivers, taking the woods into her heart and soul.
“Be careful, little one!” calls the Elder, as the sun begins to dip towards the end of the world. She now stands hunched over, her hands shaking even more as she holds onto her stick. She does not stop once, her steps slow and yet as sure as a pilgrim’s while she continues on her way through the woods, where the trees grow ever thicker, and the leaves rustle and flicker like fire in the light of the setting sun.
The Younger returns after a while, when the sun has finally gone, and the eastern sky has been left aglow with its light. Her hair is longer and matter with leaves and twigs, and there are marks and bruises all over her arms and legs.
“Did you get to run with the wolves?” asks the Elder.
“I did,” whispers the Younger, looking down at the ground. “I ran with them, and howled with them, and hunted with them. But…” Her eyes cloud over, like the mist beginning to rise through the trees. “There was a deer, and they chased it, and at first it was fun, but then I wanted them to stop, and they wouldn’t, they kept running and running towards the deer, and then…” She closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. “It isn’t what I dreamed it would be.”
“I know,” says the Elder, in a quiet voice. The moon is out now, and the mist is shining. “I know, little one. Some dreams are just not meant to be, and others, which we want with all our heart, will never come true.” She looks up at the sky, where the stars are twinkling in the darkness. “I dream of seeing the sun again, and feeling its warmth on my skin, of reaching out to pluck it from the sky like an apple from a tree…” She shakes her head. “But this dream is beyond my reach now, like the sun.”
The Younger says nothing as she follows the Elder. The trees are taller, their trunks thicker, and the air between them is dark and heavy. She shivers.
“We’re almost there now,” says the Elder, her voice so quiet that the Younger can barely hear her. “Just a little bit longer.”
“What happens to the dreams, when they die?” asks the Younger, her heart pounding in her chest as she asks the question. “And to us? Where do we go? What do we do?”
“The same thing we always do,” smiles the Elder. All her teeth have fallen out, and her hair is so thin that her scalp is visible. “We will go forwards, dreaming all the time. But that is your job now.” She comes to a sudden stop. “Mine is over.”
The Younger opens her mouth, but the words do not come, and she gasps instead, her eyes widening, as she sees the spring behind the Elder. It is a pool of dark water, perfectly still, and in it the stars and moon are reflected.
“This is where dreams come to die,” whispers the Younger.
“Yes. And as I am a dream, it is where I must come to die too, and where you will one day come as well.” The Elder turns, and faces the Younger. “All dreams must come to an end.”
“Not this one.” There are tears in the Younger’s eyes. “I don’t want this one to end. If this is a dream, then I never want to wake up.”
“We all must wake up at some point, little one,” smiles the Elder, but her eyes are shining with tears too. “And we all must go to sleep as well. Now it is your time— sleep, child, and dream. Dream of the dawn, and the new day, and everything it will bring. Now here.” The Elder holds out her stick, and the Younger takes it. “May your dreams be pleasant, child.”
The Elder turns around, and begins to walk towards the spring, lifting her foot—
“What do you dream of more than anything?” asks the Younger, wiping her tears away. “Now, at the end?”
The Elder smiles without turning around. “I dreamt that I would be not alone when I died, and look— some dreams do come true.”
She continues on her walk, the water rippling around her, the stars and moon and darkness becoming one, dreams folding into each other, twisting and turning as the Elder walks deeper and deeper, until she disappears beneath the water, and it becomes still once more.
The Younger stands there, at the water’s edge, and then she turns and walks away. Her eyes are hot, and the tears begin to fall again, and she must stop, she cannot go on, the dream is now a nightmare, and she wants to fall asleep and never wake up, and, and, and-
And falling asleep is what she does, on the forest floor.
But she dreams now.
She dreams of love, of anger, of desire and regret. She dreams of all those who have come before her, and all those who will come after her. She dreams of the endless forest and the spring, the moon and stars aglow with wondrous light.
But most of all, she dreams of dreams, of the Elder’s smiling face as she vanished beneath the water, her dreams joining the world’s.
When she wakes up, it is morning, and the mist shines in the light as she rises, both sticks still in hand. She can hear laughter ahead of her, and she follows it, the sun rising ever higher, until at last, she reaches a clearing. There is a little girl there, jumping and laughing through the flowers, but the girl stops, and turns to look at the stranger, who walks towards her and then stops.
“Hello,” says the Elder with a smile as she crouches down. Her hair is beginning to grey, and she holds out the other stick in her hands. “I’m going to show you where dreams go to die.”
Image courtesy of: Zaynah Ahmed