A Short Story by Melanie Lamaga
I have a story you won’t believe. No one does. And I planned it this way.
I know what I look like now, after so many years alone in the woods. But once I was part of the hustle and flow, a regular man like you. True, I had advantages—money and influence on my father’s side—but I worked hard, too. They called me The Prince.
By the age of twenty-five I owned a railroad, a fleet of golden airships and a dozen newspapers. Originally, I bought the papers to facilitate my other businesses. At the time I had no idea how important they’d be to my real life’s work.
The seeds of this work were planted just before my thirtieth birthday, unbeknownst to me. I only learned the details some six months later, reading the newspaper accounts.
It was the end of October, after a terrible lightning storm. A couple of young men, Maximilian Jones and John Maguire, were hunting deep in these woods when they discovered a naked woman lying in a secluded clearing. By her side stood a huge, white dog.
The young men called out to the woman, but she didn’t move. As they approached, they saw a snake coiled near her head. Shouting, they rushed forward intending to kill the snake, but it slithered away into the leaves. They tried to drive off the dog, as well, but it barked and snapped so viciously they couldn’t proceed. The young men didn’t dare shoot the dog, for it had lain down across the woman’s body.
Frantically, they rode their horses to the nearest town and made report. A police officer and a veterinarian associated with the SPCA were dispatched; but despite their efforts to entice the dog with chunks of meat, they could not get close to the woman.
A midwife who lived in the woods happened by and told them she could communicate with animals, sometimes.
“Oh, yes!” said Jones. “Please try.”
The officer shook his head skeptically. The midwife closed her eyes for a moment and then announced that the dog believed it was born to protect the sleeping woman, just as his father and his father’s father had done.
“Tell the dog we want to help her,” the veterinarian said patiently. “If she stays out here like this she’ll die.”
The midwife shook her head. “The white dog says she must be left alone to dream in these woods forever.”
“Ridiculous!” the policeman said. “All of you, clear out.”
“Why should we be asked to leave?” Jones said. “We found her!”
A scuffle ensued, and Jones punched the officer. When restrained by the veterinarian, he began to curse and sob.
Although Maximilian Jones had no previous history of mental illness, this outburst marked the beginning of a breakdown. His family eventually committed him to an asylum where he resided for several years. His case is notable only in that he was the first.
The policeman’s report indicates that having cleared the area, he lay down on the ground and shot the dog cleanly through the head. Of the snake nothing more was seen.
The next day a photo appeared in the local newspaper, along with a short article. It said that police had rescued an unidentified woman in the woods outside Clarion, Pennsylvania. However, those who had first seen the woman told their stories to anyone who would listen.
Jones and Maguire claimed they had discovered a girl with raven hair and skin like a white rose. They felt sure she was under a spell that could be broken by a lover’s kiss. Maguire vowed to kill the policeman for stealing the woman from him. The policeman claimed she was a beautiful witch, and blamed her for the failure of his manhood and his marriage.
The midwife opined that the sleeper was a vehicle from the stars, a biological library containing vast amounts of information that could transform the human race. The veterinarian theorized that she was an automaton such as those created by Vichy and Lambert in France, whose clockworks had started running low.
From these diverse seeds, myths took root and grew like tangled vines.
Soon the Philadelphia and New York papers picked up the story and published photos of the woman. The descriptions of her appearance varied wildly. Nordic men saw a pale-skinned blonde; Spaniards envisioned a dusky brunette; emancipated slaves saw an African woman with her hair in hundreds of braids; priests saw Mother Mary herself; and so on.
At the time I paid little attention to Sleeping Beauty, as she was dubbed by the press (first by the editor of one of my own newspapers, in fact). I usually had my assistant read to me while I ate or bathed, skipping all the fantastical stories about two-headed babies, monkey men and tentacled creatures from the deep—the usual tabloid fodder. It wasn’t until I chanced to see pictures of the sleeping woman in a medical journal some months later that I became intrigued. Indeed, she was a beauty: a slender brunette with delicate features and pale skin.
I learned that the doctors at the hospital to which she’d been admitted had found no cause for her coma. However, there were physiological anomalies: eyes with slightly elongated pupils, an unidentifiable blood type, and a pulse so slow it seemed she must be nearly dead. Yet, as time passed she did not die or even decline. She remained as radiant as the day she’d arrived.
Word spread. Doctors and researchers came from all over the country and their bickering nearly led to blows as each attempted to claim her for his institution.
Among the general population the story had created a frenzy. Thousands attempted to prove she was their relative or wife. Those who prayed to her claimed miracle healings. A bishop sent to investigate caused an uproar when he declared that after her death she would progress swiftly to sainthood. In short, all who saw her, regardless of their education, social standing or creed, risked falling under her spell.
Observing the radical changes in visitors as well as his staff, the hospital administrator, Bob Roberts, realized the extent of the woman’s influence. He considered transferring this inconvenient patient to another hospital, but the endowments providing for her care were mounting at an unprecedented rate.
Being a man of vision, Roberts resolved to adapt to this strange but lucrative new mission. He vowed never to lay eyes on the woman himself in order to maintain his objectivity and keep the hospital from collapsing into chaos.
Within a year, the hospital had become a fortress. A massive iron fence, studded with black iron roses as big as a man’s head and protruding twelve-inch thorns, surrounded the perimeter. Engineers installed hydraulic gates manned by a guard at the top of a tower overlooking the entire property. Inside, another half-dozen iron doors, each locked with a different combination, barricaded the sleeping woman from the world.
Perhaps the strangest feature of the new facility was the chamber in which the woman lay. The designer must have been one of the devotees of the Cult of the White Dog, which held that she should have been left sleeping in the woods, for he had created a forest of clockwork automatons: a dog that stood watch, singing birds with flapping metal wings, yellow bees that flew among crimson flowers, and a fox that hunted rabbits. Oak and willow lined the room, each green leaf waving as if in a gentle wind.
A pastoral scene, to be sure. But Bob Roberts assured me that if an unauthorized person were to break in, the bees, equipped with hypodermic stingers, would deliver a generous dose of tranquilizers while the rest of the mechanical army tore into the intruder with razor talons, claws and teeth. Even the leaves were as thin and sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.
Only a select few doctors and one nurse had direct access to the woman. The rules allowed visiting specialists to observe only, through multiple panes of thick glass. They came intending to take notes and confer, but often would simply stand and watch her hypnotically slow breathing, one respiration per hour.
Throngs of the obsessed, denied access, gathered outside the hospital. They took up residence in a ragtag carnival of wagons and tents. Some attempted to bribe or blackmail the staff; others formed societies dedicated to dreaming, in the belief that while asleep they might meet her on her own territory. Stories multiplied; legends grew. Factions argued over such details as her origin, meaning and purpose.
I was one of the obsessed, I admit, but with a key difference. By that time I’d become one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, surpassing even my father. If I told you my name, you’d recognize it through the corporations and institutions I’ve founded. I still own them today, though no one knows this except my lawyer.
None of that matters. I only tell you so you’ll understand—not only was I able to arrange to see the sleeper, we would be alone and unobserved.
On the day I entered her room, the curtains were drawn over the windows to the observation chambers. My own guards stood outside the door with strict instructions to kill anyone who attempted to forcibly enter and to stay outside themselves, regardless of how long I remained.
The mechanical forest was the one unknown. Even the designer could not predict or circumvent its actions, because in his enthusiasm to create and install the clockwork guards he had forgotten to devise a way to turn them off.
I wasn’t concerned for I meant the woman no harm. Of course not—I was in love. To be on the safe side, I had donned a doctor’s garb, complete with stethoscope and examination goggles.
The mechanical forest completely obscured the walls of the large room. The sunlight shining through the glass roof cast lacy shadows through the leaves. The huge mechanical dog approached me, twitching its silver ears. A steel and copper bird perched on the woman’s glass box and cocked its head.
Impressive though the automatons were, I only had eyes for her. For a long while I just watched her breathe. Death didn’t frighten me, but it took all my courage to move closer, reach out my hand and open the glass box.
A scent of indescribable beauty overwhelmed me and I collapsed. I caught notes of honeysuckle, baking bread, the skin of a woman I’d once loved, the ocean, pine trees—hundreds of scents evoking every good memory of my life, which I relived in complete sensory detail. I stayed like that for hours or days—I don’t know—floating in the bliss that emanated from her skin.
Eventually, though my ecstasy remained undiminished, I became accustomed to my new state. Regaining the power of thought and mobility, I realized I still had not touched her.
I found myself on my feet. Shedding my clothes came as naturally as breathing.
If you’re tempted to judge me, ask yourself this: if you could time-travel, be instantly rich, beautiful, famous, loved—that is, if you could actually possess the embodiment of your most sacred desire—wouldn’t you? I knew this was no ordinary woman, but I am no ordinary man. She was my destiny. Of that, I was sure.
As I lowered the sides of the glass box and reached inside, the hair on my arm stood up, crackling with static electricity. Gently, I untied the cords of the white linen robe that draped her body.
She was perfect. But this is a word, like “beauty” or “God,” used to describe the indescribable, the unknowable. There are no words for some things because the immediacy and power of their presence transcend language, render it useless.
I had experienced something like this once before, when I was nine, the day I drowned in the ocean.
My father had taken me out in his sailboat. A sudden squall, a gust of wind, the crack of the boom against my back. I turned and turned, losing any sense of direction in my panic. I fought the pain in my chest, flailing against the blue-violet twilight.
Bruised water rushed over me, under me, inside my skin. Finally the pressure won, exploding into me as I breathed water in. I had an orgasm, the first of my life. The ocean became a rainbow of colors emanating from a light far below. Then a dark, elongated form swam up from the depths—up from the light. I thought it was a dolphin, but when it overtook me I recognized my father. He hooked me with an arm and yanked me out of the water.
I pondered the light at the bottom of the ocean for years before it occurred to me that it must have been the reflection of the sun above me, not below. Still, I had my doubts. I suspected that the watery man who took me from the ocean was not my real father but another father who’d replaced him that day.
I had dreams in which I fought him, prevented him from taking me out of the ocean, prevented him from pumping my chest with his wet, hairy hands until I vomited my bliss and let in the air that cut my lungs.
Father thought he’d saved me, but in truth it was too late. I had recognized this world and every sensation it produces as a fake, a poor imitation of another world, a perfect place that lies beyond our ken. That’s why I found it easy to gain power, money, anything I desired—and yet it all meant nothing.
I’d had no hope of rediscovering the bliss I’d felt that day—until I saw her. Even photographs of the woman elicited a trace of the feeling I’d had in the ocean.
Now I stood naked beside her, mesmerized by her sleeping face. In her visage I saw everything I desired: beauty and humility, innocence and sensuality. Ecstasy coursed through me like a current, pulling me closer. I mounted her and penetrated the silken warmth between her legs.
All the strength immediately left my body, drawn out by her power no doubt, for I’ve always been robust in the act of love. I collapsed forward, pressing my lips against hers for one instant. Then her eyes flew open.
A jolt of electricity ripped though me, and I catapulted backward. My entire body throbbed with pain even before I slammed into the trunk of an iron oak tree and collapsed to the ground among pebbles of glass from the box that had shattered with her awakening.
Semi-conscious, I watched her beauty explode like a tree in a forest fire. Blue currents danced like snakes around her body, turning her skin reddish-brown and setting her hair aflame.
Another security measure gone horribly wrong, I thought. Screaming, I leapt toward my beloved, planning to hurtle my body against hers and disengage her from the power source, or die in the attempt. But before I could reach her, the dog attacked me, teeth ripping into my skin. The rest of the clockwork army followed suit like a swarm of intelligent knives. I fought them off as best I could, but everything I grabbed sliced and stabbed me.
The attack lasted only a few moments and ended abruptly. I tried to get up, still desperate to save her, but could not move my limbs. I felt no pain, but a glance down at my body confirmed that I had been butchered, laid open in a hundred ways. As one the mechanical animals turned and stared at the woman.
I looked over, too, expecting to see her burnt and dying. Incredibly, it was worse. Flames engulfed the woman I had so recently embraced. Yet she did not burn.
No. She was quite at home in the crackling blue tongues that licked her naked shoulders and breasts. And—I can scarcely relate the depth of my disgust—the bottom half of her body had transformed into a thick, black and gold snake.
As rage distorted her beautiful face, a banshee scream burst my eardrums. Blue fire flowed from her eyes, melting the animals and trees, burning the walls, burning me.
I came to in the woods beyond a barren field where the hospital had stood. Not a board or stone remained. Even the iron fence with its roses and thorns had melted into the earth.
I huddled in the dark, watching as police searched for non-existent clues. Looking down at my body, I found I’d been transformed into a ghoul: limbs burnt black, flesh falling from bone. Then, from the corner of my eye, I caught a movement—a white dog, eyes gleaming as it turned and leapt away.
Something burst inside me. A searing acid spread through every part of my body, the agony so consuming I couldn’t even scream. The intensity caused me to hallucinate that I had become a massive python like her, engulfed in burning skin. All night I writhed and twisted, rubbing myself against rocks, praying for death
In the morning I woke to find myself naked and healed, skin as pink as a babe’s. Of my physical injuries, nothing remained. My mental state took a bit longer to reclaim.
Over the next few days, I reflected upon all I’d seen and eventually arrived at the only explanation that made sense. I had discovered the truth that even the most pious priests never dared teach. The woman’s true form, revealed by the flames, had given her away. The snake did not deceive Eve—Eve was the snake.
I knew the reports would say there were no survivors, because officially I had never been there. Her followers would concoct paranoid fantasies about her abduction, and contradictory myths of her ascendance. From such seeds religions are born. The truth would only make it worse.
The next day, my newspapers reported that Sleeping Beauty was a hoax. Other publications were enticed to follow suit. The doctors who had seen her were more difficult to convince, but as the saying goes, all men desire at least one thing more than they desire the truth.
I handpicked a staff of fifty to destroy or discredit any record of her: every copy of every article, every photo, every person who insisted on babbling about what they’d seen or thought they knew.
The expunging took many years, for she had a fierce hold on people’s minds, but I relished the task. Strange how passion deepens when love turns to hate.
I even inserted fanciful stories about her in backdated editions of the European folk tales collected by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, along with fabricated reviews and scholarly analyses of these books in newspapers and journals. I must say, this stroke of genius tickles me even today. Indeed, my publishing company has proved to be the best investment I ever made.
And so, within a decade of the hospital’s destruction, I’d completed the groundwork. Sleeping Beauty had been reduced to a fairy tale. Even my staff who had helped erase her memory had been erased. All that remained was to find her again.
True, I’ve been searching for a long time, but even this may be for the best. I’ve built a home for us deep underground. It began quite simply with the materials available back then: asbestos and brick. I’m not sure it could have withstood her power initially, but as technology has evolved, I’ve kept it up to date.
Now the walls are made of diamond nanorods. For myself, I’ve had a suit of aerogel made. Light and nearly invisible, I feel sure it can stand up to any pyrotechnics she can create. It almost seems unfair—the advantage science has over magic these days.
The greatest irony is that our embrace seems to have bestowed unnatural longevity, perhaps even immortality, on me. I have not aged. I need almost no water or food. My senses grow more acute.
You might mistake this vitality for a gift, but it’s a curse. I can feel her, smell her, taste her—the lie of her beauty, sleeping somewhere in these woods.
Does she dream of me? Does she believe that like every other man who fastened eyes on her, my corruption is complete?
I hope so. I want to savor the surprise on her face when I take her home and wake her again.
This time I’ll be ready.
Waking the Dreamer is a short story from the collection The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags which can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Reptilian-Handbags-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B00I3Q9Y6E/?tag=melalama-20
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