The scent of ripening mangoes from the kitchen was enough indication that this was going to be one boiling summer ahead. A stillness that suffocates you in the afternoons, where cloudless skies are in languor, and you’re left either mindlessly flipping channels, scratching that ‘unscratchable’ itch, or trying to doze off despite the oppressing heat.
On one such afternoon last week, I had a pleasant dream during one of my many cat naps.
Here I was, in a school that looked like a hybrid between my own and Hogwarts, with pillars and turrets almost touching the day moon. It appeared cloudy and a storm was incumbent. Making my way up the cobblestoned pathway, I see two large oak-panelled doors with filigree on them and solid handles made of iron. Pulling one of them with all the might I could muster, I enter the Grand Hall with no chandeliers or rows of benches and tables.
The stairwells don’t move and connect to each like in the Harry Potter movies, but appear very dismally normal. I begin to wonder if I’m in the wrong dream. Looking around to see the characters I was familiar with, I spot none in sight. Just when I was about to give up and wake up, my eyes happened to chance upon a pair of half-rimmed spectacles. Picking them up for a closer look, I realize it must be a port key and find myself hurtled into a whirlpool that transports me to the highlands.
Feeling slightly dizzy and confused, I see a little girl climbing up the hill towards me. She has short hair that barely brushes against her shoulders and is wearing a white dress with pink and yellow flowers. There was something oddly familiar about her. She has a smile playing on her lips and is busy making a little bracelet for herself out of daisies and other stray wildflowers.
“Hello” I said.
The little girl either didn’t hear me or just chose to ignore me, wishing to continue weaving her jewellery.
“What’s that you’ve got there? A bracelet?”
Still no reply. The little girl clearly could not even see me as she walked right through me. I felt a chill run down my spine and feared the worst. I was dead. I had become a ghost. It was the only explanation I could come up with, either logically or otherwise. I broke into a sweat as I turned and watched the little girl happily skip and frolic among nature, a Lucy among these untrodden ways.
Walking closely behind her, I see another girl emerge from the south of the hills with a book in her hand. This scrawny teen also looked vaguely familiar as she brushed aside loose strands of hair across her face. She was dressed in a top and a plaid skirt. Who are these people, I asked aloud. For a brief moment, the older girl looks up from her book and scans her surroundings, which made me think that perhaps she had overheard me mumble to myself. The girl looked right past me, and my heart sunk as I realized that I was invisible to her as well.
What really amused me was the fact that the little girl and the teen were walking side by side, and yet, they did not speak to each other or even acknowledge the presence of the other. What was this place? The Land of the Invisible?
Putting my hands in my pocket, I fiddled with the spectacles that had teleported me to this strange land. The view of the countryside was simply spectacular and I took a moment to soak it all in.
The two girls had vanished down the hill in those few minutes and I became restless again. What was I supposed to do? Follow them or wait and see what else was in store for me? I decided I would wait and plopped onto the soft, fragrant grass. If I was really dead, was this heaven? And if this was heaven, where were the unicorns and the waterfalls?
As if someone was reading my thoughts, a lad much younger than me came and sat beside me. He looked me in the eye and whispered, “Don’t worry, I can see you. You’re not dead.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Well, this is the place where people usually come. This is Dreamland.”
“Rubbish. There’s no such thing.” I retorted.
“Fine. You don’t have to believe me. But it’s true. And the two girls you just saw out there were younger versions of yourself. How different you look now!”
“Hold your horses, Prince Charming! Are you saying that the little girl and the teenager were younger versions of me? I don’t ever remember wearing a plaid skirt! How embarrassing!”
“It’s not my fault your memory is failing now, is it?”
“The cheek! My memory is perfectly fine, thank you! You may leave me alone now, please. I’m not particularly in the mood to socialize with little ruffians like you! If you can’t help me leave this…this…Dreamland as you call it, scram!”
“Oh, you can’t leave just yet. You haven’t even seen the rest of the land and its beauty. But of course, you can choose to leave any time you wish to. This is your dream, not mine.”
“I found these spectacles in a Hogwarts replica and I seem to have landed here. What is this, like Aladdin’s magic lamp? Should I rub it again to leave Dreamland?”
“Of course not. The spectacles served to teleport you from Hogwarts to Dreamland. You have to find a port key from here that will take you back home.”
“Can’t someone just wake me up instead? Where’s my mother when I most need her?”
“Snoring below at the foothills. I spotted her as I came uphill.”
“I can help you find it, if you like.”
“What does it look like?”
“Uh-huh. That really does explain quite a bit. Thank you!”
“Why do you want to go back so soon anyway? Dreamland is a happy place.”
“Why haven’t you gone back to where you came from? Are you looking for the key, too?”
“Yes. I have been looking for it for the past three days.”
“Th…Thre…Three whole days?”
“Yes. And I think the pair of spectacles you’re holding is my port key.”
“Very smart. So that you can trick me into using mine and I’ll be stuck here forever?”
“Weren’t you teleported here the minute you peered into those lenses?”
“Yes. I think so, at least. It all happened very quickly.”
“Why don’t you try the same thing again?”
“Fine, I will.” I took out the spectacles and placed them gently on my palm, peering intently into the lenses. After almost a full minute, nothing had happened.
“See? I told you those are mine. You have to find your own.”
“What makes you think they are yours?”
“I can see a green whirlpool through the lenses. That’s the port key. If I hold them and look into it, I’ll be gone. But I think you will need my help in looking for the key. So I’d rather stay back a little while longer.”
“Oh, that’s okay. You don’t have to do that. I’ll be fine on my own. Here, take the spectacles.”
“No. Hold onto them a little longer. I wish to help you. You remind me of my older sister. Strangely overbearing, yet kind.”
“How old are you, again? You seem a lot wiser than me.” I said disdainfully.
“I will turn fifteen in three months.”
“You look a lot younger, though.”
“We better start looking for your key before nightfall.”
“Gee. Who would’ve thought Dreamland had days and nights too! Spectacular!”
Trudging along, I asked, “Before I forget, how did you know I saw those two girls who were apparently me? How long have you been spying on me?”
“I wouldn’t call it spying. I saw them go down the hill and knew they had to be versions of you. It happened to me too. That’s how I know.”
“You must’ve seen yourself as a baby!”
“I think I looked about three or so. And I also saw the ten-year-old me. I couldn’t speak or reach out to them either.”
“So this key that you speak of, where do you think it could lie?”
“Let’s see! Was the little girl holding anything?”
“Yes! She was making a bracelet out of flowers. Why, do you think that’s my key?”
“It could be. What was the teen carrying?”
“She was reading a book.”
“Ha! I don’t understand how you failed to see yourself in her.”
“Don’t you mock me! So now I have two options: it’s either the bracelet or the book. But where do I find them? It’s been over an hour since I last spotted the girls. What if I’ve lost them?”
“They couldn’t have gone too far off. I know every nook and cranny of this place by now. Let’s hurry.”
We ran downhill and crossed a brook that flowed swiftly on, picked out some pine nuts and fruits, passed a windmill and finally reached what seemed to be like a tiny hamlet. We passed by a few huts, but none of them looked like they had any inhabitants. A chill wind blew across the region and I warmed my hands in my pockets. I followed the lad as he led me through the brambles and bushes that lay a few feet ahead of the huts.
Stopping suddenly in his tracks, he looked at me and placed his finger on his lips. I thought I should remind him that I was invisible for the most part. His eyes darted this way and that and finally rested on the dogwood tree beside a makeshift cabin. This cabin looked very different from the four or five huts we had crossed before.
“I think you should go inside and have a look.” He whispered in muted undertones.
“Me? No way! You’re my guide for today. So you go see if someone lives there.”
“It might be the little girl or the teen. Don’t you want to find out?”
“Even if they are inside that cabin, how do I take the port key away from them? They can’t see each other, and they can’t see me either! Maybe they can see you.”
“Fine. I’ll go. If we ever meet in the real world, you owe me a biggy!”
“We’ll see about that. Now let’s go take a sneak peek, shall we?”
We tip-toed our way to the cabin and hid ourselves behind the dogwood tree. The smell of charred wood filled the air and I was quite sure that the cabin had to have a different occupant from the ones we had so conveniently assumed.
“There’s a window on the other side. I’ll go take a look. If it’s the girls, you go in” he said.
Just as he was about to cross the front door, we heard voices from the inside. It sounded like an elderly man who was either talking to himself, or addressing a mute audience. The man coughed a few times and walked with heavy stomps that left the cabin momentarily reverberating.
Before my fellow companion could retrace his steps back to our hiding place, the door was flung open and a man in an oversized jumpsuit walked past him. I breathed a sigh of relief as the lad was clearly invisible to the old man. He quickly darted back to where I was standing and taking me by the hand, raced off in the opposite direction.
“I told you the girls wouldn’t live alone in the middle of nowhere! We could’ve been caught!”
“You can’t blame me for what happened!” he said rather hurt.
“I know. But we ought to be more careful. Apparently we’re a pair of invisible dreamers hopelessly lost and desperately searching for our port keys. Mine, I mean. You can still take the spectacles and leave.”
“No. We’ll leave Dreamland together. Now come on. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. The sun is beginning to go down.”
“Do you think we should split up and meet back here?” I timidly suggested.
“I’d rather not. I haven’t seen any wild animals so far, but some chap might be dreaming of a hungry lion or bear!”
“That’ll probably be the case in Nightmare Land!” I laughingly added.
He flashed a smile back at me and we walked steadily on, lost in thoughts of our own. I was beginning to get worried and was secretly happy that I had company. He was a sweet boy. And helpful too. We just might be able to pull this off.
“How silly of us! We don’t even know each other’s names. I’m Juan.”
“Sheela.” I said.
“Are you from India?”
“Yes, I am. And you?”
“Wow! A Latin American. Nice!”
“Aren’t I exotic!” he said, puffing out his chest.
“You certainly are something! What happens if I’m stuck here forever? Can I escape if I’m woken up on the other side?”
“I don’t think my dad would spare me if he finds me sleeping for three straight days. I guess this is some sort of parallel universe where we’re functioning in both places at once. Does that make sense?”
“It’s an interesting thought, if nothing else. So now it becomes all the more important for us to find that damn key! If I were me, as odd and ridiculous as that sounds, where would I be?”
And as though I had uttered a string of magic words, the little girl appeared before us, startled and on the verge of crying. It was evident that she could see the two of us and began to step backwards.
“Please don’t be afraid, Sheela, we’re your friends. We’re not going to hurt you.” I softly said.
She looked at me disbelievingly and asked feebly, “How do you know my name?”
Trying not to scare the only ray of hope I had now, I gently answered, “I know your name because I’m your fairy Godmother. Have you read Cinderella?”
“Yes…that’s my favourite bed-time story” she said smilingly. No sooner had she smiled, a look of panic took over her pretty face as soon as she saw Juan.
“Oh, he’s just one of Santa’s helpers. He’s not going to hurt you.”
“Okay.” She sounded more reassured.
My glance quickly rested on the shining floral bracelet that lay delicately on the little girl’s wrist.
“Did you make that all by yourself?” I asked with feigned wonder.
“Yes. Isn’t it pretty?” She lifted it up to the light and I could see it shine even more brightly than before. This was my port key. It had the same green light that Juan had seen take the shape of a whirlpool in the spectacle lenses.
“Can you remove it and show it to us so that we can take a closer look at it? I promise we’ll be very careful not to break it.” I said.
“You’ll have to help me untie it” she said.
Juan stepped forward and knelt down beside the little girl. He gently began to untie the knot with trembling hands and it came free at last.
“This is it” he said rather sadly.
“I guess it is. Do you want your spectacles?”
“Sure. Let’s do this.”
Exchanging our port keys, the little girl vanished into thin air and it was just Juan and I who were about to leave Dreamland in the next few seconds.
Peering into the lenses, Juan quickly stopped and said, “You first. I want to make sure you leave this place before I do.”
“Thanks for everything, Juan. You’re a great kid! I’ll see you around in another land sometime.” I said in a muffled voice.
I tied the bracelet around my wrist with a little difficulty, and that was the last thing I remember doing. I was thrown back into the sofa in our living room as the clock struck four in the evening. I could hear my mother’s snores from the adjacent room and smiled to myself. She was still at the foothills, slumbering in Dreamland. I began to wonder if Juan had made it to Mexico safely.
Beside me, the floral bracelet had come off and was lying limply, the flowers now wilting.