Chapter 1: "Sleep is a Celebration"
“Why bother?” wondered the Old Man from beneath his white linen sheets. It had been days since he’d slept through an entire night; why would tonight be any different? He groped over the bedside to douse the candle on his nightstand and collect his sleeping cap. Total darkness settled over the room as the Old Man yanked the cap over his sparse, whitened hair.
He grumbled to himself as the TICK TICK TICK of the ancient wooden clock worked its usual madness into him. In his mind, the sound was like a demon’s laughter taunting him each night. What he needed was for something—anything—to change in his life…or at least in his room. But, instead, it was just the same as every other night: a headache, the darkness, and the incessant ticking of the clock. Accepting this miserable routine once again, the Old Man grumbled, “Why do I even try for sleep anymore?” He lifted his bloodshot eyes to the heavens and rolled them with exhaustion.
But even as he muttered his frustrations into the darkened room, something new and different did begin to take shape. The ticking of the clock became a rhythmic toll that sang through the bedroom and into the Old Man’s heart. This night—and only this night—the sounds of that clock began to lull him to sleep rather than lure him to insanity. The TICKS became a song and the song became a lilting waltz that carried him swiftly away from his bed.
Yet, those few moments of blissful rest were short-lived as usual. His eyes, once again, shot open as he grasped around for a near corner of the blanket. Instead, he pulled back only clumps of grass that shed dirt and earthworms all about. Confused, the Old Man lifted the hunk of earth to his eyes and inspected it as best he could in the dull moonlight.
Moonlight? But hadn’t he drawn the curtains as always? That was when understanding dawned on him; he wasn’t in his bed anymore. Nor was he in his home at all…nor any home for that matter. He sat up as quickly as his antique bones would allow.
A dew-covered field, green even in the dark of night, unrolled before him. The meadow carpeted a gentle hill between him and a huge, fancy manor a short distance away. The Old Man pulled himself up to his feet and dusted himself off; he was still dressed in his night robe and hat. Then he began his shuffle across the grassy expanse toward the mansion. It took only a moment for the Old Man to realize that he was not alone here.
A woman with two small children skipped past him, the little ones holding hands and singing happily along with the distant music. The Old Man glanced around as he walked; there were dozens of others migrating across the field in the same direction. As a nearby couple passed by, the Old Man caught a glimpse of them against the moon; he could see right through them. He glanced around and saw that the same was true for all the others. Ghostly beings, every one of them. The Old Man looked down at his own hands and realized that he too was not quite solid. He wondered for a moment if he had died in his bed and this was his journey to paradise.
So, the Old Man quickened his pace until he arrived at his destination. His knock on the decorative wooden doors echoed mightily around the porch like a cannonade. A startled blackbird took flight from the eaves above the Old Man’s head and disappeared into the night sky.
After only a moment, the double-doors swung open wide, spilling the glorious music out into the world. A dashing gentleman with a pin-sharp mustache and an inviting smile now stood in the doorway, head tilted in greeting. The greeter’s garments were, by far, the finest evening wear that the Old Man had ever seen.
“Welcome!” the well-dressed gentleman shouted, just a bit too loud to be completely proper. “Come right in and make yourself comfortable. Dance, feast, enjoy yourself. Should you require anything that is not readily apparent, feel free to beg my assistance. I am your host for this evening and I am at your service.”
The Old Man blinked and smoothed the wrinkles on his face. “Thank you,” he replied almost more as a question than a response. As though cued by the Old Man’s arrival, the music gathered to a crescendo. It continued to build, like a wave raging across a calm sea.
The Old Man was uplifted by the music; it became so overwhelming that it was almost painful not to dance. The Old Man hadn’t felt like this in years. His age seemed to melt away as he gave in to the beauty of the scene around him. The music was an unstoppable wave and the Old Man was swept away upon its crest. He danced and laughed and spun and stepped; he was like a young man again. He lost himself so quickly in the fun of it. Real fun! If this was truly heaven, then it was all that had been promised and more.
But then, as quickly as the atmosphere had ignited before, so it doused now. Hundreds of instruments—strings, woodwinds, horns, percussion—all ceased at once, as though synchronized to one device that had switched off. At that point, most of the guests began to move to the long tables situated on either side of the ballroom. The Old Man took a minute to catch his breath and dab the sweat from his brow.
The Old Man wondered if the aromas wafting through the ballroom had been there the entire time he’d been dancing or if they’d just popped up to draw his attention now. He made his way to an open seat at an otherwise-full table and sat down. Before him were a dozen silver platters heaped with a king’s array of meats and gravies. He dove in without hesitation or restraint.
As he ate, the majestic world around him faded into the background. The food was so delicious that it took all of his focus to savor each bite. When he had finally eaten his fill, he leaned back against the cushioned chair, closed his eyes, and exhaled deeply. When he opened his eyes, a new sight met him.
A woman, strikingly real, sat across from him. She was not ghostly like the others. Her dress, a flowing gown of red and purple, was from outside of this ballroom’s time. In every way, this woman was out of place. Yet she looked quite comfortable where she was. The woman had no food in front of her, no drink, and clearly no interest in anything other than the Old Man’s face. She was staring intently at him, studying him.
The Old Man studied her right back. Neither had spoken a word yet, but there was an energy passing between them. The Woman was beautiful like a sunset through a line of trees is beautiful; a glimpse of something singularly radiant but mysteriously obscured. Even as he stared into her eyes, the Old Man couldn’t even begin to guess her age. Her hair was neither dark nor light. Rather, it seemed to capture all the colors of the spectrum in its shimmer. And her eyes burned with that same enigmatic fire. The Woman appeared unknowable…surreal.
“Hello.” As she spoke, the rest of the ballroom seemed to vanish. The woman smiled fully. “This may sound strange, but I’m glad that you came. I’d hoped to see you here tonight.”
The Old Man tried to respond. “You…uh…me…I mean, do I know you?” he stammered and stumbled over his words.
She laughed warmly, “No, you don’t know me. Not yet, dear man. But I do know you.”
“Because you’re an angel. I knew it the moment that I saw you.”
The woman appeared to mull that idea over in her mind. “Let’s not place labels on one another just yet, my friend. You are not dead…nor are you a ghost of any sort. And this is not the end of your journey. In fact, your journey is just beginning.”
The Old Man’s head began to swim as the patter of raindrops began to echo through the hall. “I don’t understand any of this. What journey? What am I doing here?”
The woman reached across the table with a gentle hand and touched his cheek lovingly. “You’ll learn all of that in time. But before you go, you must understand one thing. You are the one that has to lead them…you are the guide. I don’t expect that to mean anything to you right now. But, when you wake up, you will understand so much more. Follow your instincts, you will know how and where to go. And, most importantly, always listen for me.” She paused and sat back in her own seat. “Now it is time for you to go. They’ll be waiting.”
He meant to ask who, but the sound of the raindrops against the roof became a cacophony in his head. The pulsating rain began to work an odd spell over him; louder and louder and louder until it was almost too much for him. He closed his eyes against the sound as the harsh droplets became the TICK TICK TICK of an ancient wooden clock.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself, once again, surrounded by darkness and his meager white bed sheets. At home again in his bed, the Old Man pondered the odd dream. Had it been anything more than his imagination? But there was something more in his mind…something that wasn’t there before.
He knew where he was supposed to go. The old inn at the forest’s edge.