Disclaimer: As always, I do not own the Labyrinth, or any of its creatures. All intellectual properties belong to the Jim Henson company and whoever holds the leash on their lawyers.
Dedicated to Pika-la-Cynique, for a truly inspirational drawing.
The Price of Dreams
Hope, hate, haunt—they jumble up in my head. Dim room, desk here, chair here. Reality solid and unyielding—no, unforgiving—beneath my feet. So many years, but forgiveness comes slower still. I'm confused, distorted.
On my desk is a dream.
One, two, three, ten, fifteen of them along the walls. These you can touch. You can walk up to them, confront them, breathe in the heady odor of paint and pastels. If you wanted you could smudge your fingers in them. Mine are coated with the dust of my dreams. In the right light, it even glitters.
There are books full of them, a stack on the floor nearby, a grotesque little face peering (leering) out where one page came loose from the rest. In my imagination it winks at me, sly and sketchy. There's a couple of sketchbooks on the floor near the bed, last night's dream still lying open where I dropped it, exposed. Glimpse of charcoal chiseled features, white chalk fluff of hair.
There are other dreams from other years, the first few doodled in notebooks. Etchings of memory, things you don't want to forget. Later, they grew larger, scribed in pencil and ink and paint. Some sold, gone to those who collect such things. Some hang in other people's homes, turpentine reminders that reality isn't always far from fantasy. Some wait still in galleries, waiting, wishing.
Still, they are mine. My memory. My imagination. My nighttime wanderings in a labyrinthine landscape I will never quite escape. Some things are true: I doubt I will ever quite find my way out again. I don't think I want to.
I leave the dream on the desk and turn away.
When you're fourteen your dreams are so much grander than you. Diamond starbursts, marble halls, fairy tale princes, gowns spun of moonlight. Dangerous thing, to get what you wish for. You see the shabbiness and shallowness behind those dreams, the crumbling castle walls, the debris littered paths, the diamonds shattered to a shimmer of magic, your prince not a prince at all.
More dangerous still to crave it after, to miss that magic, to grab hold of it with both hands and refuse to let go. I never even tried. Foolish, I know.
I wrap a scarf around my hair, pull on my boots, wonder if it will rain, ignore the gleam of crystal in the corner of my eye. Shut the door, Sarah, lock it. Keep it safe inside. Smile at the girl across the hall lugging a pair of overstuffed grocery bags. Put your keys in your pocket. Descend three flights of stairs.
It's hot outside, a muggy kind of stillness where the weight of the air flattens your hair to your head, keeps your movement slow. I feel like I'm walking underwater. The car's closer, but I want the walk. Three blocks aren't so bad. Still a little light outside. Good neighborhood. Just the heat to keep me company and a muddle of voices in my head.
I find the fuzzy outline of a worm cloud crawling across the sky, painted red and blue and yellow in the fading sun. It's been this way since then, since I spoke the words that damned my dreams. Since I won a brother back. Since a king offered to be a slave.
A bird calls somewhere, long and low. Possibly an owl. Probably an owl. It's usually an owl. I pick up my pace.
The lamplight picks out glittering bits of whatever they put into cement sidewalks nowadays, but it also emphasizes the shadows. Something hunched and burdened in that alley, something small and skittering across the way. Two points of light that might be eyes, feline or fairy—it's hard to tell sometimes.
All those fairy tales, all those books. Be careful what you wish for. How often in stories do wishes turn out well? Not nearly often enough. Fairytales are lessons that I never learned. Not then. Not now. Else there wouldn't be a dream on my desk at home, waiting.
Up ahead, the welcome glow of an open doorway. There will be coffee inside, but I'll drink the tea instead. Black, saturated with sugar, hint of lemon. Dark, decadent and sweet, bit of bitter. The door here is seldom closed, but I know (because I looked once) that it has a knocker on the front, currently facing the wall. I say hello to it as I enter. One should always be polite.
In the back there's a booth with familiar dents worn in the cushioned seats. One of them is me shaped, the other occupied. I slide in to the smile. Louisa's eyes glitter, too. Not for the first time, I wonder what she is.
"You walked?" she says, though she couldn't know. There's half a cup of tea in front of her to attest to that. Still, she does. Just as she knew my dog's name before I told her, what I wanted to be as a girl, that my dreams are more than dreams. There's something in her eyes sometimes, something in the lilt of her voice, behind the slight Scot's brogue. If I look at her directly she's sweet, with apple cheeks and soft brown hair with hints of gold. From the corner of my eye she's something else, something that glows and glimmers and shifts a little till I look at her, blink, and let reality cloak her again.
She wouldn't be my most unusual friend.
"There's a dream on my desk," I say, and she frowns a little over the rim of her cup. It's a thoughtful sort of frown, not worried, which makes me feel a bit better.
"What shape?" she asks, and I'm used to her questions so I barely blink.
"Crystal," I say, then remember, "and something else. A feather." A waitress brings round the tea I forgot to order. They're used to us, here. One of my more tangible fancies hangs on the wall behind the counter: a wall of shimmering stone, a climb of white roses, a barely noticeable gate. In the shadows of the paint you can see a flicker of fairies, and something that might be a statue of a dwarf peeing into a pond.
Once upon a college term, I'd slouch in with a sketchbook in hand and scribble in the corner furiously for hours. Louisa'd float in a little later, sometimes she'd talk and I'd listen while I assuaged my madness with pencils and paper, sometimes she'd just watch and point out places that could be improved. I can't remember when we met. Shakespeare might have introduced us the summer before sophomore year. I was taking night courses then and spending my days shelving library books.
"Did you look into it?" she asks, an echo of the past. Memory like lightning: a silken fall of hair and a seductive smirk. A dream, a snake, a goblin. Regret.
She glances up then, her gaze shrewd. "Why not?" But I think she already knows. It's my voice that has to say it, though.
"At what cost?" I say, and realize that yes, here's my hesitation. "What price does one place on a dream? Your life? Your soul? Your firstborn child?" She snickers a little.
"He's hardly Rumplestiltskin, this Prince of yours," she says.
"King," I correct her. "And not mine."
"Not yet yours, you mean," she says. She smiles a Cheshire grin into her tea. Her middle name should be Cryptic. Or maybe Innuendo. "Look," she says, "maybe you're reading this wrong. Things aren't always what they seem. Maybe it's just a gift."
"Famous last words," I say. My tea tastes like guilt. I put it down. "That's what he said to me twelve years ago. My dreams. A gift. All for the low, low cost of one baby brother. You know how fairy tales work: nothing's free."
"Not true," says Louisa, then waves her hand dismissively. The lights flicker, but that's probably because of the wiring. Probably. "In fairy tales, advice is often free. So here's mine: sleep on it."
"Sleep on it?" My eyebrow crawls north. She shrugs. I shiver. "Why now?" I wonder aloud. "Twelve years of nothing and now."
"Catalyst," she says. "Something got his attention, I imagine. I don't suppose you've wished anything away lately, so it's something else. What did you do today?"
"Nothing," I say. Which isn't entirely true. I was busy, but it was just a day. No far off places. No daring swordfights. No magic spells. No princes in disguise. She makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a snort. "I got up, I painted. I took some stuff down to the gallery. Which is what I did the day before, and the day before that."
"Something else, then," she says. That twinkle is back in her eye. She indicates that I should drain my cup. The flavor is stronger now, sweeter as you get closer to the bottom, more like curiosity. She takes it when I've finished and studies the leaves intently. I turn away for a moment, focus on the painting behind the counter, on the thin crack off the gate in the wall. From the corner of my eye the light flexes behind her, like wings.
She hands it back to me, and she's normal again. I wonder how much of everything is my overactive imagination. "Sleep on it," she says. "Things will make more sense tomorrow." She does not tell me my future. I don't ask. Sometimes, you don't want to know.
I don't sleep well that night. The thought of the dream lying on my desk in the other room is enough to make me uneasy. I imagine I'd feel the same way sleeping in the same room with a rabid weasel—even if it were locked in a cage. When I do dream it's the old one again. The one with the stairs. I wake up tired and frustrated.
There's a second dream lying next to the first.
They sit there, innocuous, smooth surfaces reflecting the pale fire of the morning sunlight, setting it dancing. I edge close enough to carefully look into them. In one, there is a shaggy beast, a gnarled dwarf, a silly fox, a dancing throng of goblins. In the other, I glimpse a bed, four-poster, a slide of silken sheets, a white sliver of skin. I step back quickly. My dreams, apparently, have changed as I've gotten older.
In my studio I take the iPod from the charger and pop in my earbuds. I need to paint this frustration, this curiosity. I don't need a distraction. After a moment's thought, I close the door on the dreams and turn up the music. I skip the sketch and go straight for the paint. Today isn't about perfection.
You go somewhere when you paint. Your mind wanders free. You give yourself up to the splash of color, the disjointed concentration. Once, I'd felt like this when acting, but that faded. This doesn't. This is as intense as an orgasm, and I ride the swelling tide of it for hours. It's not the first time I've let myself ride an idea this way. The last time was beautiful and terrifying, the result revealing. I took it down to the gallery yesterday just to get it out of the house. I'm almost afraid of what this will bring, but too curious not to find out. Time slips away, I forget to eat. Finally I stop, when my arm aches from the effort and the sun has moved to reflect off a bit of glass outside and into my eyes. I've been staring at the canvas all morning, but I can't confront it yet. My nerves are raw and blistered like sunburns.
I almost miss seeing the third dream on the desk.
I don't look into it.
I know what it contains.
Instead I shower, let the hot water pour over me and absolve me of guilt, of temptation, of mounting curiosity. I will continue to ignore them. I will finish my shower, have a late lunch with whatever remains in the fridge. I will take the last batch of paintings down to the gallery and then come home and dress for the evening.
Tonight isn't that special. Not really. Except for the dreams.
Third Thursday. All the galleries along Main Street throw open their doors for the evening. There is light everywhere, glittering on the long silver earrings against a woman's dark hair, twinkling above in a stretch of christmas lights that swag across the street. It rained earlier, which cooled things off, and the wet pavement sparkles and shines, reflecting back a thousand colors, but especially the red yellow green glimmer of traffic lights and the welcome warm glow of the open gallery doors.
Inside and along the sidewalks people mill about. Some wear jeans, some wear dresses. They come in sneakers and heels, platform sandals and goth-buckle boots. Some dress up for the occasion in diamonds, some in kitten ears and fairy wings. There's nothing quite like it in the city on any other night. Just this one night, this urbane bacchanalia.
I weave in and out of the crowds, alone but not lonely. I like to watch the people looking, like to watch their faces and wait for that magic moment when they find a piece of art that strikes them. Here, a child looking at a porcelain doll with curls as red as her own, that old woman who found a Venetian mask made of paper mache and memory (specifically the memory of her honeymoon spent cuddling in the prow of a gondola on a night much like this, some fifty years ago). There are things I know sometimes, but don't know how I know. Usually they seem like an intrusion. Tonight they seem like a benediction.
Every Third Thursday I make it a point to visit all the other galleries and booths along the street before stopping at Reflections, the gallery that shows my work. I like to see what the other local artists have to offer, like to harvest ideas. Usually. Tonight I find myself dragging my feet a little, savoring this time alone. There are two things I'm dreading, one easier than the other. I know, later, when I get home, I will have to do something about the dreams, but I don't want to face that just yet. All these years, tiny glimpses of the Underground here and there, my artwork treading the line between dreams and reality. It was too much to hope that I'd go unnoticed. Too much to hope that I wouldn't.
Time enough to face it later. Time enough to face the easier task first.
It's nearly midnight when my wandering feet bring me to the front door of Reflections. Most of the crowds have dwindled—gone off to the nearest bar or restaurant, foot sore, weary, eager to get their purchases home. There are a few browsers still, some of them eyeing my pieces with a practiced eye. I don't interfere. The piece chooses the purchaser, more often than not. If you have to explain it, you shouldn't have painted it, and it shouldn't be sold. I watch a young woman rub her pregnant belly and nervously eye a painting of a baby in a cradle, wearing red striped pajamas. He's surrounded by a smiling crowd of creatures that might be faeries, might be something darker, but somehow still look like friends. An old man actually reaches out to touch the frame of a larger painting of a couple of dancers in a masquerade ball, eternally young and beautiful, slightly debauched as they waltz across the canvas.
The gallery is lovely tonight, the lighting reflecting brilliantly off the faux marble floors and the creamy walls. It has a shabby kind of elegance that I like, and that sets off my work. Much better than the gleam of steel and track lighting in some of the other galleries. Here my paintings hang scattered among others, not all quarantined together in a corner like the last place I had a showing. I pause to admire a painting of a brilliantly red-feathered bird by another local artist, then slowly ascend the stairs to the second floor.
It's quieter here; most of the customers have gone. My heels echo on the tile. In my stomach I feel the first flutter of butterflies. I've been working up to this moment all night. Wandering the night, dulling the edge of my expectations. I wonder if it's sold. I wonder if it's still here. I wonder if I'll still feel the same when I see it as I did when I painted it. I hope. I dread.
There's a statue of a stallion at the corner of the door, rearing on its hind legs, nearly life-size. I brush my fingertips over the warm bronze of its nose, feeling for a moment the fuzz of a real stallion's nose, the soft puff of breath against my hand. Surprised, I stare. I can't believe for a moment that I failed to note the horn, a gleam of crystal set into its forehead.
When I step back, it's just a stallion again, and I pretend it didn't blink one bronze black eye at me before it stilled to statue.
I round the corner slowly.
"Really," he murmurs, and it's the low purr of a cat, the sharp singe of a match on my fingertips, the first shock of chili tinged chocolate on my tongue. "I think my offer was more than fair." His hair is shorter, still the soft tangle of winter frost and palest gold that I remember. There was a book, not long ago, with a gentleman who had such thistledown hair. Only this gentleman's coat is not green. No, his coat is black and gray, his shirt silver, slick as sin. I don't dare glance down.
I neither feel nor hear my feet move, but I'm standing beside him, close enough to touch, to smell, to taste if I wish. Part of me wishes. Part of me wants to lap at him like cream. Fourteen year old me never knew this flavor of temptation.
He inclines his head a little at the painting, his eyes watching me carefully from the corners. "Well," he says. "Will you accept three dreams for it, or will you up the price? I've no notion of the human monetary value of such things, though I promise you, they're your richest."
I feel myself go blank. My eyes shift to the painting. I'd been dreading it all night, knowing it was for sale, half wishing it wasn't, wondering who would purchase it. Never expecting he'd want it for his own.
Small, nearly unnoticeable among the much larger paintings around it, you wouldn't expect something so small to be worth so much. Its value to me was far more than the price tag so sedately sitting beside it, but it was too much to have in the house. Too much for me to keep. Too dangerous a revelation to remember. It was a dream, like all the others, but not. Richer, more velvet, the colors saturated, the edges unclear. Most of the others were more memory than dream. Even the half dozen portraits I'd done of the man beside me were more like scenes from a play than pure invention.
This, this was something else. The result of too many nights, too many dreams, too much bottled up and building inside of me. This was the Inferno and I was Dante, treading where mortals should not. I'd painted it with my eyes glazed, barely seeing the brush or the canvas.
The woman in the painting was me, but not. She lounged against a throne draped in blue velvet, her gown mere silver mist, parted to bare a long leg and a long expanse of torso, the soft swell of her breasts barely concealed beneath the revealing fabric. Her hair was longer than mine, and spilled like ink over her shoulder. Silver vines twined in the long tresses. Her pose was languid, content, silently seductive. Her feet were bare, her lips just kissed, her eyes lidded. There was something otherworldly about her, something innocent but old, something sensual and naive. Beside her a twisted candelabra dripped golden wax from a dozen and one candles, and just beyond its light, half glimpsed in the shadows, a pale man, his dark shirt open to reveal a carved marble chest and a gleam of gold from a strange pendant worn around his neck. The glitter of his eyes in the shadows, the pale curve of his chiseled face, the moonlight gleam of hair were all that defined him, but the sense of his presence dominated the painting still, overwhelmingly masculine, possessive, and heady with love or lust or longing. I could never be sure.
Beside me, he resonates the same confusing combination, and I feel an answering echo within me, buried under embarrassment. Harsh to see your soul laid bare before a man who would mock it. Still, there is no mockery in his eyes. "It's just a painting," I say, by way of excuse. "I meant nothing by it."
"Didn't you?" his voice is soft, the gentlest caress of a cool breeze over night-sweat-skin. "You were always so sincere, dear Sarah, even when you were lying. Especially when you were lying to yourself."
"But I'm—," I begin, but he interrupts. He taps a cool gloved fingertip against my lips and I instantly still.
"Ah, but you are," he says, and regards the painting in such a way that I'm forced to look at it again. Forced to see what I've painted. Forced to admit my fondest wish: a faerie-tale King, myself the object of his desire, fearing, loving, both of us enslaved by the other. My face flames, but he remains cool beside me. Calm. Confident.
There's a feeling pulsing between us that does not have a name, that cannot be measured in human words. It is older than time, older than love or lust or longing. It grows, beat by beat, radiating warmth. When he reaches out and twines the long fingers of his gloved hand with mine, it's only a natural extension of the binding. I neither protest nor withdraw. He regards my hand with something a shade darker than amusement, a hue more heavenly than mere longing. I half expect him to kiss it, but instead he tugs on it, draws me closer, and tastes my mouth instead.
How to describe a kiss? Might as well describe the ocean, or the ever changing gowns of the moon. Can you see a wind? Can you taste an emotion? Can you hear a painting? No mere meeting of the mouths, this. No soft brushes or dancing tongues. This is the rain at the end of a long, long drought. This is the last piece of the jigsaw, the final turn of the stair at the top of a lighthouse. His mouth is sin incarnate and it craves mine with an intensity that is nearly staggering. We come together like magnets, dance around one another like moths at a light. We are fire and water and steel and velvet. This is not a kiss, it's creation, and with it, I understand infinity.
When he releases me, an eternity later, he appears as staggered as I. He brushes my lower lip with a gloved thumb. "I thought once to show you your dreams," he says, his voice rougher than usual. "I never imagined you would give me mine."
I glance once more at the painting. "Yours?" I ask. "I'd thought..."
"You take too much for granted," there was amusement this time, but I don't feel frightened. There is no threat here, no screaming baby, no game. At least, not one with irrevocable consequences.
"Ah," he says, "another incorrect assumption." I must look startled, because he grins a little, a small, predatory sort of grin. He steps away, and within his hands he holds three crystals. Lightly he juggles them back and forth, a dance of light between his dark fingers, a gleaming dream, each one. They vanish as quickly as they appeared, gone to wherever he stores such things.
"Tonight we play one of the oldest games," he says. "Commerce. You have something that I wish to purchase, but my kind does not deal in gold and silver. We deal in dreams. I've come prepared to give you yours in exchange for your painting."
"I think I've grown past the age where seeing my dreams in a crystal ball was worth much," I say. Unfortunately, this is true, however I place the blame squarely on his shoulders. He let me live a dream once, and I've never been satisfied since with mundane reality.
"Of course not, Sarah," he says, and he holds up a single gleaming crystal. "I do not offer to show you your dreams. You've done well enough recreating them on canvas without my help. I offer to give them to you."
"I don't understand," I say.
"Take this one, for instance," he holds up the crystal, and within it I see the same familiar friends I glimpsed earlier, lying on my desk. "You dream of being able to see your friends whenever you wish; not merely their images on paper, or a silent scene in a crystal ball. With this you will be able to visit them whenever you like, and return home safely. The creatures of the Labyrinth will be yours to command or befriend, its paths familiar, its secrets laid bare before you. I will give you this, in exchange for your painting."
My fingertips tingle with the desire to snatch it away. It's an incredible price for a piece of canvas coated in oil. Still, something in his eyes challenges me, as it always did before. Something in his smile says I'd be a fool to accept this offer. Something tells me he thinks the painting is worth more. I remember three dreams lying on my desk. I pretend to consider.
"While your offer is generous," I say, suppressing a smile, "it's hardly more than I already have. My friends have always been a wish away, should I need them, and my memory of your Labyrinth is still rather good." He smiles, a sharp toothed grin, his eyelids half closing over mismatched eyes.
"Ah, something more then?" He conjures the second dream, balancing it beside its brother on the tips of two fingers. Within its depths I glimpse a slide of sapphire silk, the long marble torso of the man before me, this time lightly sprinkled with sweat. I blush. "There are many who would pay for the privilege of a night in my bed," he says, and his voice drips with desire. "There are few I would offer to pay with my favors, but for you, sweet Sarah, I think it would be no hardship. I've seen your dreams, and am more than willing to make them come true. Especially this one," he turns the crystal to show me what's inside and I feel my knees begin to shake.
With an effort I keep myself upright. "You're offering me a one night stand?" I ask. I'm afraid I don't sound as indignant as I intend. Hard to speak around the saliva pooling in my mouth. I glance back at the painting, and imagine the fantasy me smiles with encouragement.
"Greedy girl," he says, his voice almost a growl. He is smiling, however, and I shiver with the promise behind it. I remember his kiss. "My final offer," he says, and the third dream rolls down his shoulder to join the others. He swivels them so it's at the fore, and peering inside I'm not surprised to see a reflection of the painting within. Only in the reflection the candles flicker, the shadows shift, and the fantasy me looks over her shoulder as the Goblin King approaches, smiles, and slides his hands possessively over her shoulders. He slips something around her throat: a gold pendant, a more delicate version of his.
I glance up, unsure.
His eyes are blue: one the bright ice of a diamond, the other the dark velvet of a shadow. "Forever," he says, "I offer you forever that which you most desire. All this, all nights, forever, my Sarah, my Queen." He lowers his head, his mouth so close to mine.
"All this for a mere painting?" I ask.
"Not just a painting," he says. His voice is the rough rasp of a cat's tongue over my fingertips. His eyes promise pleasures beyond human ken. I shiver.
Startled I turn. Louisa stands at the doorway, one hand on the horse's nose, absently petting the bronze. She smiles. "I thought I'd find you here." She approaches, her eyes flickering between me and the King beside me. I'm not astonished when she barely inclines her head toward him, the motion old, practiced, familiar. "Your Majesty," she says, but her voice is light, amused.
"Lady," he says, oddly reverent. "I'd wondered." I watch an odd half smile slide across his face.
"Well, Sarah," she says. "What price for a dream?"
"A painting," I say.
"That," she points at the third crystal, "is worth ten times that painting alone. Perhaps ten thousand times a painting." She smiles, at me, a dozen shimmering suns. "That's what some would call a bride price. You asked me yesterday what cost a dream. That one will cost you your soul. Are you really willing to give it into this King's care?"
There is a small part of me that hesitates. Who wouldn't? A small part of me that wonders what I'd give up, should I accept. A painting? A soul? A life? For so long I've longed for my dreams to be waking. For so long I've lived half in a fantasy. What would I miss? My family? My friends? My brother?
Louisa smiles. "There are always ways to see what matters most," she says. "I promise that. I'm not an Arbiter for nothing."
"Arbiter?" I ask.
"Some," the Goblin King says, "in your world, call them Fairy Godmothers. What they are are mediators between your world and mine. They deal in dreams, in making fantasy reality, in granting worthy souls their deepest desires. Think of her as something of a Faerie lawyer, here to negotiate a contract."
She laughs. "That's one way of putting it," she says. "But Sarah, this portion of your contract is due for renegotiation. You can chose to continue to live with one foot in the door, as you've been now for so long. Your original defeat of the Labyrinth earned you that much. You may chose to give it up, entirely. In that case I can make you forget it all, if you wish. Or, you can accept Jareth's more than generous offer. Allowances for your heritage can be made, but you will become his Queen in name, deed, heart, body, and soul. This deal will last Forever. Those from Faerie, be they Fae or Goblin or something in between, do not give their hearts lightly. Consider carefully."
"Be mine, Sarah," Jareth whispers. It's a question, and a command. His eyes speak the rest. They shine like lighthouses, like candles in the dark places of the world, tiny glimmers of hope refusing to be snuffed. They shine the way they did all those years ago, they promise nothing more, and nothing less than what he promised then. Fear, love, mornings of gold, valentine evenings. More, they forgive.
I smile. I know the answer I will give. I've drawn it every day for the last thirteen years. I've painted it on a thousand canvases. I've rehearsed it in pencil, in pastel, in paint, in practice. My soul has sung it since the day of my birth, and will until the last of me fades like the stars from the sky at dawn.
"Yours," I say. "Yours, until the world falls down."