Silver

There was once a woman who loved to drink tea with four spoonfuls of powdered milk. She was also prone to unique superstitions.

So when she was pregnant, she ran into trouble with the old rhyme:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret, never to be told.

Four for a boy. With every cup of tea she drank, she was casting a little spell for a son. And she absolutely, definitely wanted a daughter. This would never do.

She cut down to three spoonfuls of milk in each cup. Three for a girl. The tea tasted thin and bitter. This wouldn’t do either.

Finally, she reached a solution. For the rest of her pregnancy, she had five spoonfuls of powdered milk in every cup of tea.

She was my mother. My gender is ‘silver’.

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To Find Him

I don’t care if it was just a dream. I need to find him again.

In the dream, I was walking down a street, one of those streets where the houses have no front gardens and people’s living-room windows are right there. Behind one of the windows, I heard someone crying.

I couldn’t see him because the curtains were closed, and I don’t remember much of what he said. But as I listened, I realised this was a young trans guy crying to his parents about his transition. About the years of pain he had to go through to make his female body look anything like the boy inside.

I walked away before I started crying with him, right there in the street. As I left, I heard him scream, ‘I wish it would just be OVER!’

All down the street I thought of him. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. Except that -

except that this was a dream.

I’d been practising lucid dreaming. And in that moment, I went lucid. I realised I could do anything. I could change him in an instant, just by thinking of it. I could be the angel who made his wish come true. I turned round, and started running back down the street -

- and I woke up.

I don’t care if it was just a dream. I need to find him again.

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Pride and Joy

The two children at the palace gate were dressed in rags, with broken chains around their ankles. They were the colour of dirt, from their tangled hair to their bare feet. The only bright thing about them was their eyes; and from their eyes, the king and queen recognised them. The lost prince and princess, Pride and Joy, had found their way home.

The palace erupted in celebration. The royal blacksmith was sent for to strike the chains from their thin, scarred ankles; the royal barber cut away the hair that was matted beyond brushing; the ladies-in-waiting stripped them of their rags, and bathed them, and dressed them in silks and jewels; and the cooks prepared a feast for them.

But the spiced meats and sugared fruits went untouched. The prince and princess snatched at the bread and ate it dry, like scared animals, their hands to their mouths and their wide eyes darting around them. They drank only water, in quick gulps, as if someone might take it away.

‘Oh, my darlings,’ said the queen, ‘can’t you see that you’re safe?’

‘Give them time,’ said the king, who had been a prisoner of war in his youth.

That night, Pride and Joy were tucked up in two huge, sumptuous beds, in two great gilded chambers.

But morning found them curled up in each other’s arms on the prince’s bedroom floor. They had walled themselves in with chairs and blankets to make a little shelter. The princess had taken her necklace of gold and rubies and tied it around her ankle, as if she couldn’t sleep without a chain there.

‘Oh, my darlings,’ said the queen, ‘can’t you see that you’re safe?’

‘Give them time,’ said the king.

The queen began to weep. ‘I have given them silk and gold and jewels, I have given them sweets and spices. I have given them my heart and soul, and must I now give them Time?’

‘Yes,’ said the king, and put his arms around her.

And so they waited. And the next night, the shelter Pride and Joy made for themselves was just a little bit bigger…

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In the Waterfall…

You always get wet going through Waterfall Gate, even if you stick close to the rockface (which is wet anyway) and edge around behind the falls. But nobody much cares because it’s so hot here. When the knights ride out they run their horses right through the falls. It’s a sight, I can tell you, when the armoured horses come rearing through the spray with their red nostrils flaring, and the knights on their backs sitting bolt upright under the force of the water.

Beyond the falls is the cave-court, big as a cathedral, cool and dark, except when there’s a tourney or a feast and they string paper lanterns between the stalactites.

In the waterfall, there was a cave.

And all around the cave-court, the castle walls rise up, towers carved from the rock, a jumble of little windows full of candlelight.

In the cave, there was a castle.

Go in past the Great Hall and down the cellar stairs, and just as the sound of the falls dies away behind you, you’ll hear the sound of water under your feet. Down in the castle cellars, the River Secret bubbles up from the ground to meet the River Bold.

In the castle, there was a river.

Here among the echoes and the cobwebbed barrels of wine, the rush of water and the ripples of light, be brave enough to follow the river to its source. Don’t worry, the tunnel isn’t long. Hold on to the rusty chains as you climb the slippery stone steps. Sniff the palms of your hands and they’ll smell of iron. Turn the corner, step out into the cavern full of candlelights bobbing on the water. You’re on the shores of Lake Secret.

In the river, there was a lake.

This is where we come in the heat of summer, to splash in water as cold as the bones of the earth. And this is where we come to build and play with boats. There are always half-built boats around the shores of the lake, some just big enough to hold a doll or a single candle, others as big as houses. And on the lake there are always dozens of them, riding up and down on the tides that well up from the earth. Some of these boats have been worn out and mended and added to for generations, and never once seen the sun. Lake Secret is their sea.

The biggest and best one is the Children’s Boat. Nobody knows how old it is. Perhaps not a stick of the original boat remains. It’s a ramshackle jungle of decks and masts, tattered pennants and patchwork sails. There’s no wind, of course, under the ground, so only the Children’s Boat has sails as well as oars. The glass in the portholes is all different colours, and when the lamps are lit it shines on the water like treasure. Children scrambling in the rigging make impish shadows against the coloured light.

In the lake, there was a boat.

Inside is even better. The Children’s Boat is a houseboat, with rooms just our size, and years and years of our paintings running riot all over the walls and ceilings. There’s a toy armoury for playing knights, and a kitchen for making sticky marchpane animals and mixing things and squashing things and piling things up till you can’t get your mouth around them. Instead of a dining room there’s a picnic room with coloured rugs on the floor. Instead of beds there’s a room full of hammocks and blankets and cushions.

In the boat, there was a house.

You can pile up the cushions and blankets to make a fort, or a nest, a place you can crawl into and curl up and hide and nobody can see you.

In the house, there was a nest.

In the nest, there was a child.

In a nest in a house
in a boat in a lake
in a river in a castle
in a cave in a waterfall.

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Thorn-Rose

There were thirteen fairies in the kingdom when Princess Rose was born; but as thirteen was unlucky, and thirteen fairies unluckier still, the King and Queen only asked twelve to be her godmothers.

On the night of the princess’s christening, while her godmothers were giving her the gifts of beauty, song, embroidery, and so on, a terrible storm struck the castle. It rattled the windows and tore the royal pennants from the towers. With a great howl of wind, the doors of the banqueting-hall came banging open, and the candles all blew out. Silhouetted against the stormy sky, with her black robes whipping about her and lightning in her hair, stood the thirteenth fairy.

The queen ran to the cradle to protect her child, and the king drew his sword. The thirteenth fairy laughed. ‘Never fear,’ she said, ‘I only want to give her a gift.’

The frightened crowd parted as she swept down the hall and stooped low over the cradle. The baby began to cry. ‘Your Highness,’ said the thirteenth fairy, ‘I give you the gift of Eternal Youth. On your fifteenth birthday, you will prick your finger on a spindle, and drop down dead!’

In the outcry that followed, she whirled herself up in her shadowy cloak and vanished with a clap of thunder. A wisp of smoke lingered in the air.

The queen caught up her baby from the cradle and held her tight, and the king ran to her side and held them both. All three of them were in tears. ‘Somebody do something,’ sobbed the queen. ‘Save our child.’

‘I can undo the curse,’ said the twelfth fairy. ‘Little princess, I give you the gift of wishes. On your fifteenth birthday, you will not die. Instead, your dearest wish will come true!’

But somehow, word must have reached the thirteenth fairy that her curse had been undone. One night, as the baby princess slept, a storm-wind whirled about her tower, and riding on its back came a dark and angry figure. Her face leered in at the rain-lashed window, and the window creaked open. The thirteenth fairy whispered a terrible spell:

‘O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.’

She uncurled her hand, and blew something from her palm into the chamber. A shadow in the shape of a caterpillar settled on the crib, and inched up the coverlet towards the sleeping princess. It ate its way into the baby’s heart, and there it stayed. The name of the shadow was Fear of Change.

The poor princess, for all her fairy gifts, grew up deeply unhappy. She sang very sweetly, but her songs were always mournful; the pictures she embroidered were always dark and sad; and her beauty was often spoiled by tears. In autumn she cried for the falling leaves; in spring, for the melting snow. When relatives said to her, ‘Haven’t you grown?’ she cried. And on her birthdays she cried most of all. A whole year lost, an age she’d never, ever be again.

Everyone had heard that on her fifteenth birthday, her dearest wish was destined to come true; and everyone had an idea of what that wish should be, and tried to influence her. But the princess hardly heard them. ‘I wish,’ she used to say, over and over, ‘I wish everything could stay the same for ever.’

If her dearest wish came true, she thought, she would wake up on the morning of her fifteenth birthday to find she was still fourteen. When that morning came, and the maid poked her head in and said cheerfully, ‘Happy birthday!’ she was bitterly disappointed. She crept off to the topmost room of her tower to cry alone.

There in the little round attic, where bats nested in the rafters of the pointed roof, sat a beautiful lady at a spinning-wheel.

‘What’s that?’ said the princess, who had never seen one.

‘This is a wishing-wheel,’ said the lady. ‘Come and play with it, and your dearest wish will come true.’

Forgetting all her manners, the princess dived for the spinning-wheel in wild excitement, and grabbed at the spindle; and the point, sharp as a rose-thorn, stabbed into her finger. As soon as her blood touched the spindle-wood, she fell down in a deep sleep, and all the castle with her. The king and queen fell asleep on their thrones, and the servants fell asleep in the kitchen, and the horses in the stables, and the birds fluttered out of the air.

The thirteenth fairy picked the princess up in her arms, and carried her down the spiral stairs, and laid her down on her bed, among the worn old dolls and teddy-bears she had never given up. ‘Sleep well,’ she whispered, ‘your dearest wish has come true.’

In the little attic room, the spinning-wheel suddenly blossomed with roses; it put down roots into the floor, and curled tendrils out of the windows, and by morning the whole castle was hedged about with roses, whose thorns were tipped with red.

For a hundred years the princess dreamed among the roses, while her hair grew long and tangled with the thorns, and the dust of years settled on her face. Many princes tried to rescue her, but as soon as the thorns pricked them, every one of them dropped down dead. The princess smiled in her dreams. She didn’t want to be rescued. She wanted everything to stay the same for ever.

Some say the thirteenth fairy regretted her action at last, and some say it was just coincidence; but whatever the reason, when a young prince was born in a far-away kingdom, there was a storm at his christening, and a mysterious lady came uninvited and gave him the gift of wishes.

When he was almost fifteen, the prince saw a picture of the princess in an old book, and fell instantly in love with her. ‘Who is she?’ he asked his tutor.

‘Thorn-Rose they call her,’ said the tutor. ‘They say she lies trapped in an enchanted sleep, in a castle of thorns, and all the princes who tried to rescue her have died.’

‘I wish,’ said the prince, ‘I wish she would wake up and love me.’

‘It’s been a hundred years,’ said the tutor. ‘I doubt there is much of her left.’

But the prince hardly heard him. ‘I’m going to find her,’ he said.

So he set off on the long journey to the castle of thorns. He arrived there on the morning of his fifteenth birthday. Thick as trees the ancient roses twisted and towered above him, full of bones and rusting armour caught on their cruel thorns. But the prince wasn’t afraid, because he had the gift of wishes. He put out his hand, and touched the roses, and a rose-thorn pricked his finger. And as soon as his blood touched the thorn, the roses parted like a curtain, and let him through.

Past the sleeping guards, up the spiral staircase, he walked in wonder to the princess’s chamber. There Thorn-Rose lay among her dusty toys, as beautiful as the day she had fallen asleep. He took out his lace handkerchief, and wiped the dust from her face. She stirred in her sleep, and sighed, and he couldn’t help but kiss her.

‘Wake up,’ he said. ‘You’re my dearest wish. Please come true.’

His kiss and his voice found their way into the princess’s dreams. She dreamed of a beautiful young prince who loved her, and she dreamed she loved him too. ‘I wish,’ she thought, ‘I wish this was more than a dream. I wish it would come true.’

The prince saw a shadow in the shape of a butterfly flutter from the princess’s chest, and dissolve in the sunlight through the roses.

And the princess opened her eyes.

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The Laughing Moon

The crescent moon is lying on her belly tonight, like a bright boat on a dark sea, or a Cheshire Cat grin. I feel as if she’s laughing at me. I suppose I must be pretty funny to the moon. She’s seen it all so many times before. Every life is the same play with different actors, and the moon knows how it goes. Oh, says the moon, you’re at that part. Ha ha. Hee hee. Ho ho.

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The Boy Who Made a World

There was once a boy who was lonely and sad. The world seemed grey and cold to him and he felt lost in it. So he decided to make another world, a place just for him where he could escape.

He took his pot of bubbles and began to blow. Everyone dreams of blowing one marvellous bubble that just keeps getting bigger and bigger and never bursts. Most people can try all their lives and never manage it, but the longing that the boy breathed into the bubble was so strong, it made the bubble strong too. Bigger and bigger it grew, until it was as big as the boy himself.

It floated free of the bubble wand and settled on the grey carpet, a translucent world of rainbow oceans shimmering with restless tides. The boy put out his hand and touched the bubble, and the bubble didn’t burst. He put his hand right through the rainbow ocean and into the warm tropical air of his breath.

And then he stepped inside, into his own world.

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The Old House

It wasn’t until after I’d grown up that I realised the old house was haunted. I thought of ghosts as sad, or angry, so sad and so angry that they couldn’t stop being sad and angry over and over forever, no matter how dead they were.

But the people who sang late at night in the old house were happy, so happy that it stayed with you afterwards like a scent caught in your hair. And they didn’t seem dead, not really. It was more that time didn’t work quite the same, in the old house.

Every note someone sang there, every word someone spoke, lingered on the edge of hearing and never quite died away. And every feeling lingered too. It was all still there, an endless chord of complex harmony.

I used to creep downstairs at night and sing with them. They never seemed to hear me, but it didn’t matter. The thread of my voice was twisted in with theirs, part of the old house for ever and ever.

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