“The Boy Who Could Not Dream” by Jessie Volk

The boy-who-could-not-dream lived in a cabin of beachwood and bone. He blamed the wind for his lack of sleep – the cabin’s constant moan and squeak. Long ago he’d given up hope, passing time on the porch tracing the veins in the wood or watching the grey sky suck the color from the tall grass that surrounded his home like a sea.

One morning, a rainbow drifted through the grasses. Not a rainbow, but hair of a girl. Every color flowed through her mane, not one strand was the same shade twice.

The boy rubbed his heavy eyelids. They wet beneath the pressure of his palms. But the girl was real, and she climbed from the grass sea up to his splintered porch.

Pleased to meet you,” said the girl-with-hair-of-rainbows, offering a firm handshake. “I’m here to help you dream.”

Impossible,” said the boy. “It can’t be helped. Please leave me be.”

The girl ignored him, slipping inside his cabin though she had no invitation. She stretched her arms wide in the cabin’s only room, as if to measure the space, and then moved to the back corner to stroke the red quilted comforter on the boy’s bed. The walls lay bare, not even a window to break up the gloom. A chandelier twisted above their heads, dozens of candles set in concentric rings of silver ivy.

Of course it’s impossible,” she said. “It’s much too bright in here.”

She leaped from the floor, grabbing the chandelier with both hands. The rope suspending the chandelier stretched under her weight until her feet were back on the floor. She kept pulling, forcing the chandelier down to her waist. With a deep inhale, she blew at the flames. Each tongue of fire separated from its candle and floated toward the ceiling. One came to rest over the boys head. Swatting though he did, he couldn’t shoo it away.

The boy sighed. “Thanks for this,” he said, pointing to his new feather of fire.

It’ll burn itself out. Tell me, how do you normally start your sleep?”

I lie down and close my eyes.”

That’s it? Oh, it’s much more complicated than that. You must be precise. Sit down on the bed. I’ll give you detailed instructions.”

The boy eyed her and, without a word, hopped into bed.

Sleep is rhythmic,” she said, handing the boy a pad of paper and an ostrich-feather pen. “Like the tide, it surges and recedes according to the moon. First to improve your liquidity, drink a warm glass of milk from a copper mug. Write it down.”

The boy scratched his head and started to write.

Then,” the girl continued, “shoes off, lay on your back, legs elevated to precisely 70 degrees, forcing the blood to the head.”

The boy tried his best to keep up, but each word he wrote morphed into a scribble. His notes were not words.

Once situated, close your eyes and concentrate on either birds or rain. Either will do, but once you choose one, avoid thinking of the other.”

The boy held the notepad out at arm’s length. The scribbles warped and flowed, like a herd of zebras, obscuring their edges so that not one could be singled out.

Are you getting all of this?” The girl scowled, hands on her waist.

The boy’s scribbles had settled into a sketch of a duck in a thunderstorm. He hugged the notepad to his chest to hide the sketch, but the girl snatched it from his grasp with a tsk tsk.

Let’s try something else,” she said, tossing the notepad across the room. A painting of a schooner shimmered in the floating candlelight. The boy was sure it hadn’t been there before.

The girl slid the painting from the wall. “Let’s build a bedtime story around this.” She set the painting at the foot of the bed, propped up by one of the bedposts. The girl-with-hair-of-rainbows hopped into bed next to the boy, resting her chin on one knee.

What are we doing?” the boy asked.

You start: Once upon a time…” She gestured to the painting.

The boy rolled his eyes. “Once upon a time-” He shrugged his shoulders. “-there was a boat.”

What sort of boat?” the girl asked.

That kind.” The boy pointed to the painting. “Made of wood. With a deck and sails.” He pointed up to the sails snapping in the salty air. The schooner listed to port and the boy grabbed a rail to steady himself. “What’s happening?” “You’re telling a bedtime story,” the girl squinted in the sunlight, marveling at the turquoise sea, “An impressive one, at that. Then what happens?”

Where’s my room?”

The girl turned in a full circle. “There it is,” she said, pointing starboard to a massive painting of a boy and a girl huddled on a bed. Waves licked the base of the frame.

But how can we be both here and there?”

The girl clapped her hands. “We’ve been looking at this all wrong.” She grabbed the boy by the hand and marched them both toward the captain’s quarters. Across the threshold, they stepped back into the cabin of beachwood and bone. “Your problem is not one of quantity, but of quality. Dreaming is wasted if you only dream of this place.”

The girl-with-hair-of-rainbows pried a bleached plank from the wall behind the bed. Then another. Then another. Nails squeaked against dry wood. Behind the boards, the night was as black as coffee, but smelled of chamomile tea. Once she had done enough damage, the girl crossed her arms over her chest and fell backwards through the hole.

The boy-who-could-not-dream crawled across the bed to the hole in the cabin wall. He saw the girl soaring through the night sky, her rainbow hair tangled in a lavender galaxy.

The boy levitated over his bed. He smiled, and rocketed through the hole after her.

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