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Volume 14, Issue 3: Pictura

In Which We Begin

Nathan Wilson

Our story was born in a land that has long since grown into a continent, in a county that has grown into a nation, in a village that is now a swollen city, in the life of a boy who has long since grown into a man and become a boy again. This boy bore a deeply magical name. He was called Tom. His village however, was not so lucky and wore the rather drab title of Hylfing. But both were happy. Or were before our story begins, for this story is the story of a nightmare, and not one of those nightmares that find their origin in a fancy, or spicy food, but one of those nightmares that really happen. And those are things which, while it is possible to be happy before, and even fairly quickly after, it is nearly impossible to be happy during. But then boys with magical names can sometimes do the impossible just as towns with drab names can occasionally become terribly interesting, if not permanently, at least for a Saturday afternoon when the breeze is cheerful and somebody is selling popcorn.

As is the case with all things magical, it is difficult to know where to begin. We could begin with the birth of Tom's father, or even of his grandfather. Perhaps it would be best to go back a few hundred years to a lazy afternoon spent by the sea where a gray-eyed girl met a boy with a lazy smile, and some might argue, the magic of Tom's story began. But then again, if we must trace the roots of magic we would find ourselves perched on the very foundations of life watching the oldest magic birth the world as the true beginning of every story began. But we cannot begin with the beginning for simply practical reasons. It is too long for any telling here, and there is only one who can tell the whole of it, though many may read it.
So, we must content ourselves with the telling of part of a story. This is Tom's part of the story. Though not his whole part. We could call it the beginning of Tom's part of the story. Except that it isn't really. What of the gray-eyed girl? What of the dragon his trebly great grandsire pursued to its death? What of the world? What of the Father of magic itself? But, though no beginning is adequate, begin we must, and we must be brave about it. So, though there will no doubt be a great amount of leaping backward and forward throughout this story, we will begin with a very particular night in the life of Tom, our very particular boy.
The sun had set on Hylfing. Darkness with its silly songs had spread throughout small streets and suppers had been spread and consumed in every house. Hylfing is dark while we see it now, but we can remember how dashing it looked before the sun had shut off. That afternoon the sons and daughters of our village had, with loving hands, put the town in its best clothes. Not only was the next day a Sunday, and our townsmen were pious about such things, but it was a Sunday festival. The Feast of Ploughshares waited for daybreak, the autumnal festival that always meant songs, dancing, sticky apples on sticks, and men playing the games of boys.
The streets had been cleaned in preparation, the lampposts dressed in harvest finery and windows stuck out their chests proud of their shine and of their jolly garb. The Feast of Ploughshares was a lovely time for all involved, and it was generally looked forward to for the entire month, for it always fell on the final Sunday of the grand time we call, though Hylfingers had never heard the word, September. And it is important to note, though not yet to explain why, that this particular Sunday was not only the last of its brothers that the month would see, but was also the last of its cousins. Which is to say, it was not only the last Sunday of the month, but also the very last day.
But now the streets were silent in their readiness for the jigs and songs that would soon muss their cobbled hair. It has been said that the time for suppers had passed, and they had. Boys and girls were in bed and their parents were sitting by fires smiling and not knowing why. All have experienced such nights, nights of preface. The darkness chuckles and puffs out its cheeks as if unwilling to tell its secret, the secret of what will follow. And every soul it tortures knows that if things were left entirely up to the night, no one would ever get to the feast, for the dark would snigger continuously at the grand joke it kept hid in its coattails. But the sun is a wise mother and finally relieves the night of its unspoken punchline and lets all the children have another spoon of syrup on their cakes.
It is in and on these nights that everyone who thinks they cannot sleep is soundly sleeping and anyone who claims to have no interest in what is to come listlessly wanders the narrow confines of his pillow. This is especially the case if that anyone's name is Tom, and if he was sent to bed without his meat or his pudding, and was told that he wasn't to attend any of the morning's festivities, but was only to leave the house at the lunch hour, and all of this to atone for wrongs which, in the mind of Tom, were not so very terrible. Accidents, after all, do happen. We must not take sides in the issue, it is only the facts of the case that we are interested in. Tom was being punished, he was hungry, and he was feeling belligerent about it. As for his wrong, we will not elaborate. It involved rocks and a grocer's window, and there the story will stay untouched, left for another's narrative. Ours travels without it.
Tom had been in bed for quite some time, staring at the various moonlit furnishings of his room. They were not nearly as interesting as their typically entrancing selves. There had been times when he had looked on his small dresser with a loving eye and known that it would carry him safely to the other side of the sea. His toy chest had slain thousands, and his coat rack tens of thousands. And he had honored the both of them for their deeds. But now, he simply wished that they would all go away and leave him alone with his hunger. All except the three-legged milking stool that sat beneath his window. That gallant steed, thought Tom, could stay where it was. And he climbed out of bed and sat on its terrible back.
He looked out his window, not down at the town, for the town was in disfavor, but up at the jigging stars. They, though he knew their games to be ill-played, were to be forgiven. After all, how could they know he was supperless? Not everyone could be expected to mourn for him. He watched them, and as he watched his spirits joined them. Here was a festival far more worth attending than his own little village's. Here was a game superior to that of the tug o' war he had been so looking forward to. He was missing the child's play of tomorrow, but he had the far more lofty game of stellar hide and seek to play. And then it hit him, well, it had been hitting him for hours, but then it hit him in a new way. He was hungry, but this time it seemed as if something could be done about it.
"I'm hungry," he told his furnished friends. "I should eat something." He hesitated for an immeasurable moment at the door, wondering if his mother and father were still up and why it mattered, and then he was gone.
He passed his sister's door, heard her talking to herself, decided not to include her in the evening's festivities and took the stairs. Oddly enough, as he descended, the stairs wailed not, nor did they belch as was their usual custom when he traveled them without license. They passed quietly behind him, giving their unspoken approval, but when he reached their base, he stopped.
He did not move for some time. When he finally did move, he realized that he had not been breathing and a sudden wheeze broke his silence. He was frozen by something he had never seen before, though he had heard it many times. The sound of someone eating pudding with a general disregard for propriety was familiar to Tom—he often made it. But as he looked across the table, where he had not sat that evening, and gazed through the kitchen and into the open door of the pantry, his mind expanded. Here was a new thing. It was a man, possibly, but very small with not much body or face, sitting on the floor, eating pudding with his hands. Tom was at this point entirely nondescript physically and mentally. He did nothing and he thought nothing. But such an intense lack of activity in anyone will always attract attention, and the hollow, pudding-faced fellow looked up from his spot on the floor. It was a natural moment, for no one could naturally expect either party involved to do much of anything, and that is exactly what they did. Until the pudding fellow spoke.
"Are you Tom?" he whispered in a boisterous voice. Tom nodded.
"Lovely," said the fellow, and he lifted a handful of pudding to his face and solemnly put it on his chin. His eyes did not leave Tom's.
"I'm to speak to you about something." Tom did not respond. The pudding fellow puddinged on.
"But you'll have to come over here if you want to hear it. I'm busy." Then the man looked away from Tom and back to the bowl of pudding between his legs. He was an indisputably diligent fellow.
After some moments Tom walked to the pantry carefully. The fellow, who was just the size of an eight-year-old boy, which is to say, Tom's size, paid no mind whatsoever.
"I was going to have some of that," Tom said, and saying it, sat on the floor. The little man held out the bowl and Tom dipped his hand, and immediately knew that things would get on all right. Pudding came and pudding went, and it kept on doing so for sometime until it had gone for good. It was then that Tom spoke again, for the little man was busy licking the bowl.
"What's your name?"
"Ah. . . ," said the pudding fellow, and Tom thought his voice sounded funny from inside the bowl. "Ah. . ." said the fellow again, and he set the bowl down before he commented further.
"I have lots of names." He looked thoughtful. "There are names my mother called me, names other fellows have called me, and names I have called myself, but you only need to know my fairy name, the one I work under."
"What is it?" asked Tom.
"Frank." Tom looked incredulous, so Frank continued. "You see, I've been working as a fairy on and off for a while and fairies have to have magic names. So I'm Frank. Frank is a magic name and is fairly uncommon among fairies, so people remember me easily." Tom was terribly disappointed in Frank's name, but he was polite so he did not comment. Little did he know that his own name was one of the most common of all fairy names and that people were forever confusing one fairy named Tom with another and wholly different Tom. But such is the case with all Toms.
"I really don't have time to talk to you," Frank said, and he picked himself up off of the floor. "I must go. I have other engagements."
"You haven't told me anything yet," Tom said. "You've only eaten my pudding."
"My small friend," Frank explained, "you've eaten your pudding as well. But you are correct on the other point. I haven't told you anything yet, at least not what I was going to tell you. So, I will tell you now. Do not go to sleep tonight. Wait until the sun comes up before you close your eyes. And now, goodbye." And Frank, full of pudding, turned to leave.
"Wait a moment won't you?" Tom asked, "Not that I don't believe that you're a fairy, but you are quite an odd fellow. You've stolen my mother's holy day pudding, you don't look at all like a fairy, in fact you look like me only older, and now you are simply going to leave after telling me not to sleep. Why? Why are you here? Why shouldn't I sleep?" Tom had been speaking quite quickly, and now that he had stopped, he breathed heavily. The odd, pudding fairy had stopped and turned around.
"All right," said Frank the fairy, "But I must make it quick, because other things press."
"Fine. Quick is fine," said Tom, and Frank sat back down on the floor and began speaking. Oddly enough, he held his arms above his head the entire time.
"You might have noticed," Frank began, "that my nose is crooked, my eyes are swollen, my lips are fat, and I am missing three teeth."
"I hadn't," said Tom and quite honestly. He had only thought him odd looking. But the fairy continued oblivious.
"This is because I have been crossing picket lines. You see, the union leadership representing all bad fairies in the entire region led a walk-out on the first day of the month, and the management had to fill in their spots with scabs. I crossed picket lines and have been working double hours for a month."
"You're a bad fairy?"
"Actually, I was apprenticed as a good fairy, but I was never really good at babies and weddings. I'm not a bad fairy. I was just out of work and would take anything I could find. But no more questions if we are to get through this. As I and the rest of the fill-in-fairies were mostly good fairies out of work, we weren't really that good at being bad. You see only one boy in this entire village has had a nightmare this month. That boy was Harry Jessop, and his started out horribly enough, but somehow we all just ended up feeding him too many honeyed biscuits. All this is to say that there hasn't been one technical nightmare this entire month. We wouldn't really mind, except for the fact that the union leadership and the management settled this afternoon, and all the bad fairies go back to work tonight. Of course there are quotas and things to fill that haven't been, and it turns out that under their new contract, all the fairies will lose their Christmas bonuses if the nightmare quota isn't filled for the month, and this is the last night of the month. Of course you realize what that means."
"No, I'm sorry I don't understand at all."
"Bit slow are you? Well it means that you will have to have the entire quota of nightmares tonight or none of the fairies will get their bonuses and that would mean that there would be no vacations, and a pretty rough Christmas all round, what with angry fairies and all."
"Why me? Why do I need the nightmares?" Tom was really quite upset by this bit of news. He was a tough enough boy, but the toughest boy does not enjoy a nightmare.
"You don't need the nightmares; they need to give them to you. And as of two minutes ago," Frank was consulting a very small watch on his finger, "you are the only boy still awake in this village. Fairies can't get to boys already sleeping, they have to get you while you fall asleep, and young Tom, if you fall asleep tonight, they will get you, and they will keep you until you've had all eighteen and a half nightmares. Goodbye." And Frank ran to a window that stood open in the kitchen. "There wouldn't be half a nightmare to be had except for our feeding fat Harry so many honey biscuits." And with that, Frank was gone and Tom was left with an empty pudding bowl and a bit of a mess on the floor.
It didn't take him long at all to clean up the pudding fairy's mess. And then he morosely went back up the stairs to his room. Once there he sat back down on his little stool next to the window and made a resolution. It is questionable whether or not his resolution was complete before or after he fell asleep, but it is certain that the resolution itself was not to fall asleep.
Tom's head lay on the window sill as he leaned forward on his stool. His legs slipped out from underneath him and lay limp on either side of his seat. He looked comfortable in that odd way that children can when sleeping in an absurd position, and he was. But as peaceful a picture as he made, the truth of it was that he was in for a night like he had never had, nor would have again. The fairies had him, and they hadn't worked in a long time.

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