The Dreaming Quilt
Once upon a time there lived a mighty king. He was powerful and feared and terribly wealthy. From a tall castle atop a wide mountain, he ruled over a vast kingdom in the green valley below.
The people of the valley were a kind, hardworking people. During the day, they tended to their fields and traded their goods and taught their children. The people of the valley were a joyful people. During the evenings, they would dance and tell stories and smoke the dragon-flower.
But now, sad times were upon them. The king had started wars in faraway places and had sent many men and boys to battle. Although the king was very rich, the war cost him greatly, in coin and resource – similar to how it cost the people their families, but not quite the same. So to make up for the losses, he began taxing the villagers, by demanding eggs or bread or other goods from their cupboards.
Many moons passed this way. With men and boys gone to war, the women and elders of the valley had to work harder and longer tending the fields. They had less time to make wares to trade, so each had less and less. They had less time to teach the children, so the children became dim and wayward. They had less energy or care to sing or to dance. And instead of smoking the dragon-flower for hale and hearty relaxation, people took to drinking the potent nectar of the wocktoo, which was easy to forage but made them sick and melancholy. Seasons turned to years.
In his tall castle, atop the wide mountain, the king began to have nightmares. Awful, horrible nightmares that shook his body and rocked his brain. Nightmares of rabid wolves chewing through the walls of his chamber and through the walls of his flesh. Nightmares of evil elves with little weapons, chopping his body into pieces and flying him off to the four corners of the earth. Nightmares of his own insides coming alive, tearing free from the rest of him, and strangling him to death. Each night he tossed and turned and groaned in his great kingly bed.
True and pleasant sleep eluded the mighty king. And because he could not sleep, his mind and body could not rest, could not mend. He became groggy and grouchy. He became thin and weak. The king yelled for his honored men of science. After examination of his head and his heart, they concluded that they could not help him. The king yelled for his honored priests. After prayer over his body and his bed, they concluded that they could not help him. The king began to feel weaker yet and illness fell upon him. He seemed to age decades in mere months. Finally, one night the king snuck from the castle and went to the home of the witch.
The witch lived at the edge of the valley, surrounded by a beautiful garden and a yard with pigs and chickens. Like all good witches, she knew the ways of old, like how to summon the rains and how to read the wind. She knew about all the plants and creatures of the kingdom and how to employ and enchant them, knew how to trick them into revealing their secrets. She was a trusted advisor for many of the villagers, who came to her for healing herbs and magic stones and dragon-flower smoke.
The witch was not surprised to see the king. She invited him in and served him tea. He sank heavily onto a chair, gazing deeply into the fire.
“I am told that we are learning to leave the old ways behind us. Soon your ways will be lost to the past. But right now, I have no one else to turn to.”
The witch nodded and watched him.
“Am I possessed?” He asked her after some time.
The witch plucked a hair from his head and tasted it. “No, Sire.”
“Am I cursed, then?” He asked, hanging his head in despair.
The witch glanced down at his tea leaves. “No, Sire.”
“Can you cure what ails me? Can you… help me?” He looked into her eyes for the first time, desperate, feeling like a curious child in a foreign land.
She searched the palms of his now pale hands. “Yes,” she replied.
The witch told the king to return in seven nights.
Instead of sleeping, the witch rested on the ground in her garden, looking into the night sky. Witches tend to think more clearly in darkness. She studied the stars above, with the thin clouds sweeping by; she sniffed at the breeze. For a moment, her thoughts drifted to her husband – who was away at war and who had been missed as dearly as every soul gone from the valley. She thought and she pondered and she dreamed. By morning, she was ready.
The witch sat by the fire. She sat by the forest. She sat by the willowed lake. She sat in her garden. She sat and she sewed and she wove and she quilted: a beautiful, magnificent quilt. It would be a magic quilt, worthy of the king.
She quilted with fabric soft and warm as a mother’s embrace. She sewed in bits of earth and sky. She wove in the elements and she wove in dreams. She wove in love and joy and hope. And all other happinesses. For seven days and six nights the witch toiled this way, stitching with the silky threads of woodland spiders.
Her hands were tired and her fingers bloodied by the time the king knocked on her door. Neither the king nor the witch had slept since their last meeting. The witch placed the quilt in the king’s arms. Both were transfixed by its exquisiteness and its magnitude.
One side of the quilt was a swirl of deep blues and violets and blacks and silver, as though the night sky, the sea, and the moon were all dancing or making love. One side was a brilliant blend of reds and oranges and browns and gold, like the blazing sun, the earth, and the hearts of mankind were all struggling to outshine one another. It seemed to glow and dim all at once.
“This is largest, loveliest quilt I have ever seen,” marveled the king. “But how will it help me?”
The witch yawned. She told him, patiently, “Sleep beneath this quilt each night, and you will know sleep like you have never known before.”
The king looked into her eyes for the second time, feeling like a grateful child. “How will I repay you? I could give you coin; I could give you land; I could grant you nobility.”
The witch rubbed her aching neck with her aching hand. She steadied her gaze on his aged face. “Sire, I do not seek treasures in exchange for this quilt. Instead, I have two requests.”
The king, who was again entranced by the quilt, raised his heavy eyebrows.
“With this quilt you will have the peace and comfort each night that for so long had gone from you. Now, you must make peace where you have made war, and bring our people back to the valley so that they may have the comfort of their own beds. You are swaddled in gold and silks and more livestock than one man can count. No longer will you take the tax of eggs or bread or greens from your people who work so hard and have so little compared to you.”
The king sighed. He was already feeling pleasantly drowsy and weary, while he held the quilt. He looked into the quilt, with a contemplative brow.
He whispered: “If this quilt brings me true sleep, then that is a fair trade. If this quilt brings me true sleep, I shall grant your requests.”
And in that moment he meant it with all of his being, for with all of his being, the king wanted nothing more than to be asleep beneath the quilt. “You have my word.” And with that, he was gone.
The witch watched his silhouette shrink as it slunk up the wide mountainside. She eased herself into bed and into the gentle arms of a witch’s slumber.
The king returned to his bedchamber, feeling tired and hopeful. He lay atop his huge kingly bed and spread the quilt over him. Although he thought both sides were absolutely stunning, he was partial to the orange red side of fire and blood, trimmed in gold as it was. He turned this side toward his body, so that the blue-violate side faced the ceiling, reflecting the twilight. The moment he relaxed into his pillows of goose down, the king sank into a deep, deep slumber. One like he had never known.
That night, the king slept as the dead sleep – though perhaps even better. For in his deep, glorious sleep, he had the most beautiful, wondrous, tranquil dreams. He slept and he slept, lost completely to the world of sweet dreaming. And when he finally awoke, it was nearly time for mid-day feast. The king rose from his bed feeling… well, magnificent. As he stretched, his body seemed stronger, more agile. As he walked through the corridors, his mind seemed to clear and sharpen. As he sipped his tea, he felt healthier, younger. The king was himself again – though perhaps even better.
Many moons passed this way. And the king, remembering his promises to the witch, stopped taxing his people. This brought the people of the valley some relief and some ease.
But the king hesitated to withdraw his armies. With his mind and body so lithe, the king had become a true force to be reckoned with, and his sly military strategies kept him winning battles, and kept bringing him power and treasures. Just a bit more conquering, he thought to himself, and then I shall make peace.
Seven nights later, the witch awoke to a sensation of being stabbed. She placed a hand to her heart and wept and wept, knowing that her love had fallen in battle. She cried for her husband, she cried for all the lost souls gone from the valley, she cried until her night gown was soaked with tears. How awful it is to cry when you feel there is no one in the world to comfort you. She would be alone now.
Finally, the witch picked herself up and set about tidying up her home. For three days the witch did not speak a word, and she would not accept visitors. Instead she worked in her garden and waited. She waited and she waited for the king to keep his word. When it comes to matters of life and death, one last chance is one last chance.
But men do not always keep their word. And even great kings with great treasure do not always choose greatness – do not always turn from greed. The witch knew this, and she had prepared for these events.
One night, a blood orange moon rose high in the valley. The witch sat by her fire, stitching a widow’s gown. Just as your people continue to suffer true terror, so shall you, sire, she promised the flames.
The king, alone in his chamber, was preparing for bed and thinking. He was considering the best way to distribute newly gained land and power to his nobles. Who could he trust most, he pondered as he crawled into bed, spreading the quilt over himself as he always did – blood red side against his flesh. Oh how he would spend his new treasures, he marveled as he relaxed into his pillows of goose down.
And while he drifted into sleep, the colors of the quilt began to shift and churn and change, as they wrapped his kingly body. The quiet swirl of silvery sapphire violet faded to the bottom side and the vigorous carroty scarlet gold rose to the top, facing the ceiling and the sky. With his eyes closed, the king was unable to see what he and the other townspeople were missing in the heavens. As they slept in their beds, a crimson sky spread over the kingdom. It was a sky of a fiery blood-soaked blend, whose colors reflected those of the magic quilt.
Then, the king began to dream. And beneath the colors of the quilt, his dreams turned to nightmares like none he had ever experienced before. Awful, horrible, wretched nightmares that chilled his heart and gripped his innards and shook his body and rocked his brain.
These were terrors that he not only saw within his mind, they were terrors he could feel, at every level of his being. He dreamt of warriors fallen on the battlefield, and he felt their fright and rage as they fought, felt their bodies torn and crushed and burned, felt their final, painful gasping and choking. He dreamt of mothers and children screaming and sobbing in grief, and he felt their deep misery and profound emptiness, felt their souls wrecked with sorrow. He dreamt of a hot and dark and endless hell – of his place in it, and he felt himself being cruelly and mercilessly tortured, as punishment for his selfishness and wicked ways.
The king’s consciousness slowly dawned, and as he became more lucid with the light of day, he realized that he was not merely dreaming these new nightmares; he was living them. Finally, his mind cleared and his eyes opened.
With as much force as he could muster, he tried to bolt from his bed, tried to escape the quilt and its terrible torment. But, alas, he found himself caught beneath it. He could not move. And his limbs burned and ached, as his mind again became foggy with images of ghastly, atrocious things.
The king shrieked and bellowed in agony. His guards burst into the bedchamber and tried to cut him free with their powerful swords, but they found they could not help him. He yelled for his honored men of science, who ran to his side. But after examination of the magic quilt, they found they could not help him. The king yelled for his honored priests. But after prayer over the magic quilt, they found they could not help him. They watched, in turn, as he feverishly writhed in his bed. And, not knowing the origins of the quilt, they racked their brains for answers – but found none.
Finally, shaking, the king told his guards to bring the witch. And he told them not to hurt her. For the king knew, at every level of his being, that if any harm were to fall upon the witch, he would surely spend his remaining days, trapped and twisted, beneath the blood red side of the quilt.
The witch was not surprised to see the king’s men.
She followed them willingly up the wide mountain, to the tall castle. The king called her to see him alone, for he did not want anyone to know of their contract of magic. From his prison of anguish beneath the quilt, he looked into her eyes, feeling like a helpless child.
“What have you done to me,” he asked her weakly.
But in his heart of hearts he already knew.
It is, of course, the result of your own deceptions. The king saw these words form in his mind’s eye, but in his delirium he was not certain if the witch’s lips had moved.
“Please,” he begged, “release me. I will do anything…” He winced and moaned as waves of pain and terror gripped his body.
“You know what must be done, great king.”
The witch turned her face to the crimson dawn, and as she spoke, the king’s lips formed the same words in a hoarse whisper.
She said: “the men and boys will come home. There will be no more war without virtue.” She turned back to him, locking his tearful eyes to her own.
“And what of you, great king? Every night, you may enjoy a full and deep, restful and tranquil sleep beneath the blue-black heavens.”
But, each morning at dawn, before you may wake and rise with the day, you will live moments burned and cut and torn and beaten under the emblazoned blood-orange sky – lost to the very hell you once created – as the price of your own undeserved peace.”
The king nodded his desperate agreement. And in that moment he meant it with all of his being, for with all of his being, the king wanted nothing more than to be free from the magic quilt. “You have my word.” And so it was done.
And with that, the witch was gone.
In coming weeks, the king ended the wars in faraway places. The men and boys were reunited with their women and children, and the people of the valley rejoiced.
The king put his energy toward strengthening and improving his own lands, and in time he was seen as great once again. And every night he slept faithfully beneath his enormous quilt, although, for the life of him, he could not recall the circumstances surrounding how he came to possess the brilliant thing.
Still, the king never forgot the lessons of the quilt – as he was reminded at the crowning of each new sun.
Amber Hollinger hopes to contribute something good to the world by sharing her work. After a five-year writing hiatus, she returned to creating poetry and short stories following the loss of a full-time job last Spring. She has an MA in International Relations from the University of Sussex. She recently completed, and has been submitting for publication, her first poetry collection, (S)urge. She is currently working on two poetry chapbooks. She happily teaches dance, tutors/edits for wine money, and works for a nearby university.