I stare at the cursor blinking on the white background. Another hour ticks by. The words will not flow. I cannot tease my fingers over the keys. Rubbing my eyes and thumping my desk will not help. Why do the words never come when I have a deadline?
I’ll take a break.
Pulling on my coat, I head for the front door. The air is chill with a frosty nip as I emerge, and the sky is dull. But it will be light for a few hours yet. I have just long enough for a bracing walk before it finally gets dark.
The park I long to be in is on the other side of a busy street. A white van driver flashes his headlights at me to cross, even though the traffic has already come to a halt. I sympathize with the drivers tooting their horns all around me as I cross. I also suffer from that stalled feeling, the frustration, in my case, of ideas that will not form on the page.
As I near the park gates, a breeze picks up and a scrunched up newspaper whips past me. I cannot read the headline, except for one word: missing. This piques my curiosity and I must read more.
I give chase as the paper floats into the park. It drifts among the snowdrops and budding daffodils.
I must read that elusive headline; see the photo of the person for whom they are searching. For the first time today, my head fills with questions, questions for which I must have answers.
I chase the paper further in to the park, but it rolls down a grassy bank and is carried away by a stream.
I hunch my shoulders. My breath comes fast and furious; I didn’t realize I had been running until now. I place my hands on my knees, trying to get my breath back, but I cannot shake off my disappointment at a mission unfulfilled. Has my moment of inspiration gone?
“What is it that you seek?” A voice with a foreign accent startles me. I thought I was alone.
Looking up, I meet the inquisitive gaze of a gentleman with a darkened complexion and startling white hair. He smiles at me, and his eyes form slits through which his ebony pupils sparkle with unusual intelligence.
Still watching me, he places his hands, fingertips together, in front of him and makes a little bow.
I do not know how to respond. Should I bow in return? Should I offer him my hand to shake?
How literally should I respond to his question? How do you respond to a question posed in such a poetic way?
Bent slightly forwards, he continues to smile, and waits patiently for my response. Then he gestures towards a bench just slightly off the path. I sit down next to him and think up a response.
“I am blocked,” I inform him, “I am trying to chase a story but cannot find a way to put it in to words.”
“You are lost,” he says.
“No, not lost,” I reply a little irritated. After all, I come to this park every day. “Just pressured because I have a deadline approaching.”
“It is nothing to be ashamed of. We are all lost these days. There are endless pressures, countless distractions, yet no time to really connect with our inner spirit.” He continues to smile, but I wonder if he has an ulterior motive in talking to me like this.
“I must go.” I raise myself to my feet. I don’t have time to listen to a preacher today.
He taps me on the arm and says, “Come, let me show you something!”
I turn round to gauge his expression. He has his back to me now and is pointing at some blossom-covered trees in a clearing.
At first, this all seems perfectly natural, but then I remember that the spring blossoms are yet to emerge. So where did they come from?
“Follow me, have a closer look,” he says, clearly delighted by my puzzled expression. As I near the trees I become aware that they are painted on a huge silk banner. I have never seen such a realistic painting before.
He takes a step towards the banner. His hand skims its surface then disappears beneath it, as if it had been made of water instead of fabric.
I gasp, “Oh, my!”. He becomes fully absorbed into the picture. Temporarily he vanishes in a mirage of lights. I rub my eyes. When I re-open them, he is looking out at me and smiling. I blink as I notice that his costume has changed. He no longer wears an Adidas jump suit but is dressed head-to-toe in gold ceremonial garments.
He holds out a hand to me, “Kate, now you must enter my world!”
How did he know my name? I never told him?
I look at the outreached hand and think, well, what have I got to lose?
I take hold of his hand but flinch as he pulls me into the picture. Then I too am absorbed into a sea of lights. I feel no pain, just a sense of weightlessness.
He lets go of my hand. I feel the plushness of silk as it drops to my side. Looking down, I notice that my clothes have similarly transformed into beautiful ceremonial garments; a red silk robe embroidered with threads of the finest silver.
“Where am I?” I ask.
“You are within the world of your imagination. It is whatever you wish it to be.”
I look around, trying to take in as much as I can. The sky is azure; the grass is covered in morning dew.
I reach out to touch the blossoms. The soft petals flutter down at my touch. The scent of sweet cherries floods my senses.
Am I in heaven?
And yet there is this silence, which leaves me with an indescribable sense of unease.
I try to find its source, to eradicate it.
I search into the distance. I see the rays of the setting sun glowing red on the crest of the horizon, highlighting the turrets of a distant castle.
Then I see a figure silhouetted against the red, waving frantically and running towards us. I only hear what he says as he draws nearer.
“Han, please help us! The castle is on fire!” he shouts to us. His clothing is covered in ash and his hair is singed.
“Who has set fire to the castle?” I ask.
“It is the Nian,” says the new arrival.
“A monster who emerges every spring,” explains Han. He turns to our new arrival and says, “Where is he now?”
“He fled as soon as the flames turned red, so scared is he of that colour.”
“That is good. Is anyone hurt?” asks Han.
“There is a maiden trapped in the castle, a Japanese lady.”
“Kishiko!” Han exclaims. A flash of pain consumes his features.
“We must save her.” Han beckons towards me without making eye contact. “Come, we do not have much time!”
All three of us rush towards the crest of the hill. A plume of acrid smoke fills the air as we reach the castle walls.
“Where is she?” asks Han.
“She’s in there!” exclaims our guide. He points in the direction of a tall round tower, the foundations of which are already engulfed in flames.
“It is too late, we cannot reach her!” says Han, sinking to the ground and placing his hands together as if in prayer.
He scrunches up his eyes, tears form and drop to the ground. I cannot bear the sight of his despair. But what can we do?
The tears roll down my cheeks.
If only these tears could quench the flames.
What I see next makes me gasp. My tears merge with Han’s, forming a vapour-like mist. The vapour forms a net over the flames quashing them until they disappear in one last puff of toxic smoke.
This really is the world of my imagination. Every wish is my command. Well, I’ve heard of lucid dreaming…
I’m about to share this thought with Han but he’s no longer by my side. He is hurrying towards the little wooden door at the base of the tower.
He tries to open it, gently at first, but it will not yield. Then he rushes at it, and, using his whole body weight, slams into it. But it’s no good.
He crumples to the singed earth with his face buried in his hands.
I gaze on, feeling frustrated. I could not wish that door open. Perhaps there are some things that are beyond wishing.
There must be something I can do.
I stare up at the tall round tower that holds Kishiko. Squinting, I study it for any signs of weakness.
The bricks are small; perhaps I could climb them if I had some kind of harness?
But where would I get such a thing, and how would I attach it? Besides, I’ve always been scared of heights.
Looking up to the only window, right at the top of the structure, I realise what we need to do. I rush to Han’s side.
“Han! Han! I have the answer!”
He does not meet my eyes but gazes off into the far distance. I think he hasn’t heard me, but then he says, “What is your answer, my friend?”
I point upwards towards the distant window, “Can you see the ledge? Can you see the hook attached to it?”
He nods slowly.
“Using my imagination, as you instructed, I can create a rope ladder to attach to it. All you need do then, is call her down to safety.”
“We risk attracting the attention of the Nian,” says our guide who had been standing quietly by until now. “Then all our lives will be in danger.”
“There is danger, of course,” says Han, still gazing in to the middle distance, “But we have no better plan.” Turning to the guide, he adds, “We can keep the Nian at bay by lighting the beacon at the castle gates. You must go, light it now!”
The guide runs off on his mission.
What looks like the first evening star then appears. After a few seconds, I realize it is not a star, but the beacon.
Again, Han says, “We don’t have long. The beacon will only burn for ten minutes, and then we risk the wrath of the Nian!”
I take three long strands of my golden hair. And using my best finger-knitting skills, I weave them into a rope ladder. Han looks on with great interest.
Looking at Han and then back up at the closed window, I wonder if I have the strength to throw the ladder so high that it actually reaches that hook. I close my eyes, and throwing it in to the air, I imagine it already up there.
“You have done it, Kate!” says Han. “But we have one further problem. One that I, before, did not realize.”
“That window is sealed shut. No noise, from the outside, can be heard. Therefore, she will not hear us however loud we call.” He strokes his little beard, looking up at the window.
“Then one of us will have to climb, and knock?”
“You are correct. But alas, my poor old knees will not allow it!” he says, wringing his hands. “If you will climb, I will be forever in your debt!”
I nod, but I can feel the blood draining from my face and my world spins, just thinking about it.
If only I could find the edge of this mural, and leave this mess behind me, I start to think.
But I summon up the courage, somehow. In autopilot I put a trembling foot on the first rung.
I start to climb. I cannot believe I’m doing this.
With every step comes the growing fear that I might freeze halfway up. But I will myself on. At last, I reach that window and prepare to knock.
As my knuckles make contact with the glass, it opens with little effort. That’s when I first see Kishiko, although she doesn’t see me.
She is beautiful, just like a doll. Her skin is pale, her hair like ebony. Red silk ceremonial garments adorn her petite frame.
She is lost in a trance, as if hypnotized. She shows no awareness of her surroundings, or of me.
I watch on as she removes an item wrapped in silk from inside her robe. She clutches what looks like a handle and the silk falls away, revealing a dagger. With both hands, she raises it to her chest, and…
“No!” I scream.
Forgetting my fear, I leap into that room. I startle her and she drops the blade. She cuts her porcelain fingers and her face scrunches up with the pain. A few beads of blood ooze out but soon scab over. Her eyes become wide with disbelief as she looks down at the knife.
I rush over to her.
“Whatever were you doing?” I ask, my heart palpitating. We are both shaking.
“It’s the Nian. He put a spell on me!” she says, “But who are you, and why are you here?”
“I am Kate, Han brought me to your land. I came up here to rescue you.”
“This is not my land,” she utters, grimacing. “I came here for Han, but I don’t belong here. I’m not one of them. That is why they keep me in this tower.”
There’s a serious look in her jet black eyes, which keeps me mesmerized as I watch on.
“I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful. I thank you for trying to save me. But if I leave this tower, they will recapture me and kill me for sure. My only hope is that I can somehow find a way of escape into the neighboring country with Han by my side. But the border is heavily barricaded.”
“There must be something we can do, must be!”
Clenching and unclenching my fists I return to the window. Looking down, I see Han sitting cross-legged among the ashes below the tower in a meditative state. I look across to the beacon, which is still lit, though the flame is guttering slightly. Then I look up at the full moon, which is steadily rising in the darkening sky.
“I have an idea!”
“What idea?” Kishiko rushes to my side, as I close my eyes and…
I re-open my eyes.
“You did it!” she says.
Down on the grasses, next to Han, is a giant woven basket attached to the ground with a rope made from one of my hairs. Above it, a giant flame shoots into life, encased in a balloon of pearl white silk.
Han rises to his feet. He looks at the basket, and then up at the window, where we are still gazing out.
“You built this for me?” he says, “I am forever in your debt.”
“Just climb in the basket, Han.” I shout down, “Kishiko, you must go down there and join him.”
“But we leave you here, at the mercy of the Nian!”
“This is the world of my imagination. I will be safe.”
She leans forwards and kisses my cheek. Then she steps out of the window and shimmies down my makeshift ladder. As she reaches the scorched earth, she runs over to Han, who examines her wounded hand. He kisses her fingers, and then they embrace.
Han climbs into the basket and gently lifts Kishiko in after him. They loosen the ropes that hold it in place and it starts to move.
Another bright flame bursts forth as they take to the skies. In no time, they pass the window. I cannot see their expressions in the darkness, but I know they are waving at me.
I wave back, and continue to wave, until the balloon is just a speck on the horizon.
Then I sit down on the only chair in that room and close my eyes.
I’m tired. Oh, how I wish I were back home.
When I re-open them, I’m surprised to see the blinking cursor of my computer screen. I am back in my room, just as I had wished. Using just my imagination, I have wished myself back home.
The room is now dark. The curtains flutter at the open window through which the Full moon now peeps.
Placed on top of the keyboard is a copy of today’s paper folded in half; my husband must have left it there. I unfold it and read the front headline.
Blinking rapidly, I read the following: Han and Kishiko: missing presumed dead.
Han and Kishiko, could it be?
Now I know what I must write; I just know I must.
The world must hear their story.