It is not a common thing to wake up with laughter. It is even harder to imagine such an uncommon moment occurring when the past few nights have been horrid and nightmares have become more real than they should be - but that is exactly what happened to Lucy this morning, and she seemed perfectly fine with it.
We call her Lucy, because she had started the day with such a strong urge to go by that name. All the best names little girls usually love to go by were taken, but as I failed to come up with something comparatively brilliant and descriptive of the whole concept of her life and adventures, she stuck with Lucy, which was, to her t least, the closest approximation to that name she most wanted, had she been the first to take it - had she been born one hundred and forty-two years earlier.
So we call her Lucy - and as we speak, her eyes adjusted to the morning gloom. It was probably around five AM, because the sun was not yet up, but the kettle in the kitchen sat fat and stained on the stove and whistled. The kettle always whistled at five AM, she remembered, and the sun rose several minutes after. A lamp burned low in her bedroom, on a little stool placed in the far corner of that room, beyond the curtains, dresser and open windows.
Yes, the windows were open. The wind blew the curtains so their shadows danced like long, menacing fingers on the walls, reaching towards her like something out of a bad dream, but not quite getting near enough to scare her. Which did not matter much that day, because, unlike her other recent mornings, she woke up with a fit of laughter. And she did not know why.
Lucy sat up in bed, dressed in an old tee shirt that must have been her sisters, because it fell well below her knees and smelled of shampoo and oil. It also had a faded portrait of Marilyn Monroe on the front, the one that Warhol made. Her sister liked such things as lipstick and boyfriends and sleepovers and all. But not Lucy, no. She was just a little girl who had woken up from a very bad dream in a fit of very unexpected (and, dare I say quite inappropriate) laughter.
Something was missing from the picture, however. She sat up and scanned the expanse of her large, ornate bed. Her pillows (all six of them) were scattered at odd ends of the soft mattress, without doubt the evidence of a rough night. Her blinders must be under the bed too, or lost in the tumble of bits and bedding. Everything was messy and damp. Had she been crying? It wasn't likely. Her eyes didn't ache. It must have been sweat because she had grown past wetting her bed, she was sure.
There was a little whine from somewhere in the unlit part of the room, and from shadow of memory, up came her little red dog with a short, excited trot.
“There!” She cried, hugging the cur as he leaped and landed on her laps and barked its little barks and tried to scratch her nose. She hadn't seen her dog in what, weeks? Or was it just the night? Such things were hard to tell when you woke up from a terrible nightmare in a fit of laughter. All the same she was glad she had her dog with her. Whatever its name was, and here I should mention that unlike with her, she wasn't particular with the names of other things, and though she knew she had given this dog a name before, she did not have any strong opinions on what to call it this on unlikely morning, she was glad there was something other than the darkness and shadowy-curtain-fingers and the pale memory of a horrible night with her that morning.
“Do you love me, little red dog?” She asked it, looking into its black, eager eyes. It barked a happy bark and made a lap round her before stopping to sit and wag its short tail. It must have loved her, she thought. But then she thought again, aren't little dogs made to bark and run laps round their owners? Did the little red dog truly love her, as in, love her as much as she sometimes felt she deserved? It probably did, or it probably didn't and maybe it didn't even matter at all. Who knows what a dog thinks when it wags its tail and runs laps round you and barks? Perhaps it was love, perhaps its just the way dogs are, just like how adults work in offices and buy stuff and never seem to listen when you talk, but sometimes they just happen to be there when they are needed or when things get out of hand. Maybe that's just the way it is. Maybe whatever it really meant didn't matter, as long as you believed it meant something good to you.
So Lucy took this to mean that her dog loved her, and so she loved it back, hugging the little red dog with all her might, and kissing it between its eyes.
As soon as she let go, it skipped off her bed and into the darkness. It looked back at her and seemed to plead that she get out of bed and follow it. She laughed to herself, “Alright you little red dog, I'll be out of bed this very minute.” But as she crawled to the edge of the bed (for you see, this was a very grand bed even by adult standards) her foot got caught up in a fold in the bedsheets, and she fell, head first on the cold hard floor.
It hurt so bad she cried. Her bed, being ornate and all, was rather too high for a little girl, and the floor was still in darkness, and her fall was so unexpected that her heart nearly jumped out of her chest. The only thing that escaped, however, was her breath, and when she regained it, she cried for a while. And as she cried, she watched how the curtains with the wind in them lifted their heads and stretched their long fingers at her, and they rattled as though with laughter. It was dry and airy and, for a moment, Lucy thought that the sun will not come out today. Her little red dog was also not there to comfort her. It might have been in Australia for all she cared! Nothing was there to comfort Lucy so, picking herself up, she wiped the last traces of tears from her eyes and rubbed her bruised forehead and got on with life.
Now, as is common with a well laid-out bedroom, a full length mirror stood against the wall. Lucy went first to the corner of the room with the lamp on the little stool. She took both lamp and stool and marched to the mirror to have a good look at herself.
The girl in the mirror was not Lucy. She swears to this day that it wasn't Lucy. We shan't be calling her by that name, however, the name that Lucy wanted so badly. No, she preferred (you can tell she had a strong opinion about this one too) to call the little girl the Spectre in the Mirror.
As specters go, they are scary, malevolent spirits priests cast out with Holy Water or chase off with crucifixes. The Specter of the Mirror was not scary, neither did she seem malevolent, nor was she the sort to be frightened by crucifixes and Holy Water. She was a little girl just like Lucy, probably a little older and dressed in the same night clothes. Everyone including myself would have mistaken her for a common reflection of Lucy but no, this one will insist otherwise. Because this spectre was a poor, sad thing with sunken cheeks, bloodshot eyes and bruises on her face, her arms and between her legs. She did not smile, but it was easy to guess that she will reveal several broken teeth if she did. She looked with longing outside her world, at Lucy, who only stared and forgot the pain on her forehead and the ache that came with crying about it.
“What do you want?” Lucy asked her, but the Specter of the Mirror did not answer. She only stared back in jealous bewilderment - with a look like that of one who was looking into a dream and seeing a vision she had long hoped for, but that was always out of her reach. Lucy, in that annoying manner of hers, cocked her head to the side to better examine this look-alike and to make it very obvious exactly what she was doing. The Specter felt a tad embarrassed and cast her eyes down, fidgeted with her toes and straightened out her crumpled, mucus laden night shirt, exactly like what Lucy was wearing. She brushed away her grey, disheveled hair and scratched a sore on her cheek.
Behind the Specter, long curtains stretched their fingers out at her, reaching and reaching and reaching forth in patterns more shadowy and treacherous than were only capable in Lucy's dreams. Lucy felt bad for the little girl, but she could not do anything about it. She was in a mirror, stuck on the other side, where left is always right and things aren't exactly as they seem.
A memory skipped through her mind - a flash that stung her heart and made her stifle a tear. She claims she cannot remember it, but I rather think she does not want to tell us what she remembered. Whatever it was, it must have been horrible, because she couldn't hold back her tears. And when the Specter of the Mirror saw her, she cried too, silently. While Lucy was all feelings, this one looked like stone and ice. Tears she shed, but you might have splashed water on a statues face and watch it ran down.
With the tears came words she hardly voiced out - she said something to the Specter of the Mirror, of how sorry she was and for a moment she sank to her knees before the mirror and touched it with the tips of her little fingers. The Specter did the same, and this is the first time that we saw her finger-nails were long and dirty underneath, that she had broken her pinky, that there were deep bruises on her elbows too. That there were long, thin, and very likely deep scratches up her little arms. Oh how it must hurt! Lucy thought and became miserable all over again.
She must have been there a while, because by the time her little red dog returned to do his happy little laps round her and wag his tail and bark and all, the wind had stopped blowing, the curtains were long asleep, and the Specter of the Mirror was nowhere to be seen. Lucy recovered her composure and walked out with her dog.
The door to her bedroom led straight to the sitting room. It was old and dusty. Obviously, everyone had been away for a very long time. The furniture was still draped in white cloth, the curtains were limp and drawn and the windows spread the quartered lights from the street across the wooden boards of the floor, silver moonlight mingled with amber streetlamp fire.
All was old and untouched, save the massive clock that stood right now before her, wide of waist and ancient as her grandfather had been before he was taken out by masked government men and shot, all knowing as the picture of God seated and flanked by angels that hung above the family altar.
The clock looked stern and stood there with a sort of frown on his face. It could have been forty minutes past five in the morning, but you knew he was more than telling the time when he asked her,
“Dear daughter, where are you off to?”
“Outside, with my little red dog.”
“And why is that, dear daughter?” came another gruff, grandfatherly question.
Lucy looked round for an answer and only saw the dog look up at her, then at the big old clock, then back at her, an uncertain wag on its tail.
“Because he said I should come.” she sounded doubtful.
“Oh did it? And do you know what time it is, dear daughter?”
She read his face. “It must be forty-one minutes past five.”
“Is it now? Could it not be that I'm merely frowning?”
She shook her head. “The kettle whistled at five in the morning, and the sun is not yet up from what I see. I have been in my room for a while, and judging by my own inner body clock, it must be over thirty minutes since I woke up. And besides your face plainly tells the time.”
“Is that so?” he asked flatly, turning it back to a quarter to three.
“But that's not fair!” Lucy protested with a stamp of her right foot, sending her little red dog into a barking fit.
“Ho ho ho!” The old clock had a good laugh and rubbed his belly the better to show her, as he told ten minutes to two. For some reason he found it funny that Lucy was mildly cross with him, so he kept that silly smile on his face for a couple more seconds (going by Lucy's own body clock)
“What is that smell?” He asked, interrupted. He bent low to sniff at her shirt. Mucus, or urine? Dear daughter, did you wet yourself again?”
“No!” She almost shouted and assumed a petulant pout while holding her night clothes to herself, as though whatever he smelled could be held back. “I've grown past that!” She protested.
“Have you now?” he assumed a questioning four-forty. “And do those dreams still scare you?” he probed her further.
Then in a moment her face lit up as though the very morning were breaking in her heart. No, she did not smile. One does not smile so easily when being mocked by an old fashioned clock in a dark sitting room while your little red dog waits eagerly to lead you outside. Nor did she frown, because seldom do profound revelations elicit such a response. Her face just lit up and made sense of a number of things that were happening just now, as they spoke.
She asked with caution, deliberately: “Why do you keep ticking backwards?” She held her breath.
Silence fell between them.
“Your pendulum, it swings the other way. Why does it swing the other way?”
He failed to answer, as Lucy took a bold step forward. She did not frown, because she was not angry, neither did she smile, because this was a grave matter, as you will soon see.
“My body clock tells me the day is getting younger, not older as I should expect a normal day to go. The shadows are shifting the other way. Why are the shadows shifting the other way? Why are they lengthening?”
He swallowed a protest because she had taken another step too close for his own comfort and, not having any legs to take him backwards, retreat was not an option. Nor could he put up a fight, because his hands were used for things other than fighting. More dreadful things in fact, as you shall discover right away.
And then, she asked: “Why are you bringing back the past?” She asked this because she felt the same way she felt when she had left the Specter of the Mirror, sadness mingled with the hope of happiness - pity, pure pity. She felt the freshness of the ache behind her eyes when she cried. She felt the burn of the bruise on her forehead. She smelled a little worse.
And then the old clock broke into a fit of coughs and wooden sobs and excused himself, saying that he must be having a heart attack or something of the sort. He sighed a proper forty-five minutes past five and let her pass, hiding his embarrassment after having been revealed.
So at thirty-one seconds, forty-five minutes past five (we must be exact, because now Lucy follows her own internal body clock which has proven to be more truthful than that big old edifice) she, with a happy dog wagging its tail and trotting right beside her sped past him and run across the untouched sitting room.
And into the dazzling heat of midday.
Now, for many of us, waking up before the break of day and stepping out of our bedroom into the fury of a Saturday afternoon would be the harshest, most unexpectedly crude trick the universe could play. The thought of missing a sunrise can be unbearable if you often look forward to it. It is even more miserable if you look forward to sunrise because the night can be dark and terror-filled. If you are the sort who spends most evenings asleep alone on a bed as big as Lucy's in a room as spare hers, you definitely will look forward to a beautiful sunrise and the cool brightness that is the morning. Walking from darkness into a ferocious light storm is utterly unpleasant, as you should expect it to be for Lucy.
Only, for the girl who woke up with a laugh and the hug of a loving dog, who had just had a heart-to-heart with a specter in a mirror and who had bruised her head most painfully while getting out of bed, this was not at all a surprise. Lucy just carried on walking, led on, and sometimes like right now leading her little red dog. All she did in response to the sun was to shade her eyes with an arm and grimace a little, because the contrast can hurt your eyes if you're not careful. And that was all.
Some habits only come with maturity, which comes with a history of experience in dealing with unfortunate circumstances. Lucy was pretty much an adult when it came to experiencing misfortune. If you have to wake up every morning to reach out to the first thing that comes your way and ask, repeatedly (while inevitably doubting the answer anyway, but asking is an important part of the ritual) if you are loved, you must know what life was like for Lucy. And if you're used to watching the curtains rise up at night and stretch their long, cloth fingers at you where you lie on your bed, usually bundled up in a corner amid a tumble of damp bedding, you will appreciate Lucy's rather sorry life. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why she wasn't too perturbed when the curtains mocked her fall, and when she met the Specter of the Mirror, and you can see why she so connected with the little specter's plight. And it should naturally make sense that for one like her it should be utterly inconsistent that she woke up from a nightmare with a laugh.
The sun was no laughing matter though. I have never experienced anything as terrible as what Lucy was made to walk through that afternoon. People who live in hot countries should be more familiar with that sort of afternoon, but Lucy likes to think that day's was far more terrible.
In less than fifteen minutes, she was wet with sweat all over, and she had to wipe her face in the sleeves of her big night shirt. It soon got too hot for that even, so she took it all off and draped the shirt over her head to make some shade. She didn't mind being naked outside for all to see - because there was no one there to see her. Neither did she feel less modest. She was only a little girl, as far as she was concerned, and besides, her little red dog went about all day naked and no one complained so why should you?
So she did the same and looked at her dog, who only let out his tongue and wagged his happy tail.
“Where are we going to?” she asked her dog. It was a question she had forgotten to ask it, and one without doubt I'm sure you have asked yourself.
The dog knew it was being talked to, because it turned to look at her for a bit, and then it trotted on.
She followed, not knowing why, as the little red dog led them into a garden in which flowery bushes grew high and fragrant. He barked a happy bark and tossed about in the flowers, popping up here and there, moving further in the distance and sometimes turning to her, beckoning her to do the same and join in the frolicking.
Oh how pleasant it must have been for Lucy to finally find happiness in the garden! She rolled about laughing excited about everything and nothing, stopping once every little while to smell a rose or two. As it turns out there were many roses there of red and white, but mainly oddly colored indigo and teal.
Whatever the reason, it didn't matter to her that moment. She just enjoyed the frolic in the garden - until she just chanced on a queer old ladybug who claimed to know the most important thing in life.
“My lady”, said Lucy who suddenly remembered her manners and curtsied.
“Olga. My name is Olga. And no don't ask, I am not from Eastern Europe. I saw the name on the news one evening and only fell in love with it. And you must be --”
Lucy interrupted her with the name she had chosen
“Oh, but that cannot be right, can it --”
Lucy interrupted her with the name she had chosen again.
“Well, I always wanted to meet the famous --”
And for the third time, Lucy interrupted her and would have squished her had the ladybug not claimed to know the most important thing in life.
“Very well then, Lucy it will be. You really have a strong opinion about it, you.”
They stood staring at each other for a while, Olga at the scrawny underfed thing that chose to go by the name Lucy, and Lucy at the fat old ugly ladybug that claimed it knew the most important thing in life.
“Well ask me!” She sounded cross, as though she expected Lucy to have a question on her lips at that very moment. But in such a strange garden, it was not hard to find a question, and Lucy promptly (she insists, but I say carelessly) asked the first question that came to her mind: “Do you come from Russia?”
“Oh you stupid little girl!” Olga screamed, shifting herself to better look at the audacious lass. “I thought I said this before, I saw the name on the evening news and fell in love with it. How hard is that to remember, lackwit?”
“Well it isn't hard, I didn't have any question to ask and with your insistence - and your very heavy Eastern European accent - made me ask you promptly.”
Olga thought for a while and sighed with some pity, asking: “Do you know why you are here?”
“So why did you come to me?”
“I don't know.”
“You are a stupid little girl, I'm sure you realise that, dear?”
“Why aren't you?”
“I don't know. I don't think I am, so I am not. And that's that.”
“I see. Only stupid little girls will come out to play in such a devilish sun, naked as the day they were born with an old tee-shirt wrapped round their heads. And by that definition, you are a stupid little girl.”
“No I am not!” she insisted, really wanting to squish Olga now, not caring if she was Eastern European or Russian or whatever. “I am not a stupid girl, because stupid girls listen to whatever people tell them without questioning, and they fall in love and wear lipstick and miniskirts.”
“Did that dog of yours tell you why it was bringing you here? Did you listen? Did you question it? And worse, you're not modest enough to wear a miniskirt or keep your underwear on. You must be very stupid by your own definition.”
“But I don't wear lipstick and fall in love!”
“Well that woman on your shirt wears a lot of lipstick, and she did a good deal of loving, I can tell you” laughed the ladybug.
Lucy found no words to defend herself, although she had a perfectly valid argument, and good reasons for being in the state in which she was. But she could not answer just one question. Why she had followed her little red dog to the garden?
Then she remembered the first thing she had asked when she woke up that morning, and believing it to be love, loved the dog and so trusted it in return.
Then she realised how stupid she had been and she broke down in tears.
“There, there,” said Olga the ladybug who claimed to know the most important thing in life. “It's okay to be stupid. That's the only way to learn in this world, my dear daughter. And if you think you have it, that's not the most important thing in the life.”
“Then what is?”, asked Lucy, recovering from her crying and feeling quite bad about it.
“Ah! Now you ask the question!”
“Was the the question I was expected to ask?” asked Lucy to the ladybug who claimed to know the most important thing in the life.
“You may be stupid, but don't try to push that one too further” she answered, turning and beating her wings.
“Won't you tell me the most important thing in life?” Lucy asked, a bit confused because suddenly Olga seemed to be interested in going somewhere else.
Olga the ladybug who claimed to know the most important thing in life turned to Lucy and only said “I don't care about you Lucy. I'm sorry. Nobody does.”
Lucy let out a soft “oh”, and before she knew what was happening, she was running after Olga, screaming her name and crying “What's the most important thing in life?”
Olga only shouted back at her when she stopped to rest on a petal, “It only comes to those who have been through more than they can bear, and are on the brink of losing all hope and falling into deep, black despair. The answer only comes to those who have looked darkness in his eye when all good things have perished in their lives.”
Then she hopped unto another large petal and added, “And it comes in bits and hardly in the right order, all the more to confuse the desperate!”
And with that, she was up, and threw Lucy off with a sudden change in direction. The chase was on again, and as Lucy cried out - screamed actually until the back of her throat hurt - the entire garden erupted in a wild chorus of clapping flowers, each shouting something distinct, different, yet somehow connected - like every single flower in the garden was reading a sentence of a large book simultaneously, so that it all could have made sense if they took their time and read one after the other, but it didn't.
All the shouting distracted her and hurt her ears, and she had to choose between gaining on Olga and blocking her ears to still her mind - and this was an uncomfortable choice if you were forced to chase an Eastern European ladybug called Olga through a garden with flowers that shouted and thorns that pricked you all over, especially if you were a naked little girl with a smelly Marilyn Monroe tee shirt wrapped round your head while the sun beat hard on your skin.
But Lucy persisted, because she was within reach of the answers to all those voices that had whispered to her anytime she remembered those things in bed, alone in that dim lit room with the reaching shadowy curtains. She believed that if she knew what the most important thing in life was, all the voices will fall silent and go back to sleep.
As she was thinking, a huge teal flower struck her right in the face with all the cruelty a talking, thorny rose can muster. And as it did, she cried and it shouted back at her “ nobody cares!”
She got to her feet and tried to beat it away with her sister's tee shirt, but no, it was no good. She could not get to her feet, nor did she think she ever would. For just as she thought she was on solid ground, it gave way beneath her, and suddenly everything was upturned like when clothing are tossed out of a big basket into the air.
And all the soil and all the flowers went with her, spinning into the air - except it wasn't the air that they were spinning in. It was just empty space in what looked awfully like her dim bedroom. And the flowers were no longer flowers, but they were curtains, long reaching curtains with their cloth, shadowy fingers.
The cold finger-tips brushed on her and kissed her in her face and all over her body, pulling out her tongue when she was careless enough to yelp. And one nearly gagged her, but she managed to wrestle the awful thing away. And the confused chorus soon turned into a chant, and here and there some painful memory came flying past her, whispering like the dry laughter of the curtains: “nobody cares, Lucy”. And in that moment, she had only herself to rely on.