Tales of the Ancient Turtle – Merchant of Dreams

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‘Dreams can either be the most terrible or most wonderful of all experiences, God has ever created.’ The turtle slowly opened his sleepy eyes.

 

‘Why terrible?’ I was taken aback at the turtle’s response. I thought he was a dreamer like me.

 

‘Dreams are terrible when they remain dreams. They try to survive by raising their delicate heads and breathing in the air of imagination. But a time comes when they die. And when they breathe their last, they lose their vibrant colors and turn into the grey dust of regret.’ The turtle said, sadly prodding the dry leaves littering the pale grass.

 

‘But I thought dreams were beautiful things –romance, adventure and imagination.’ I felt my legs weakening and I sat down on the pale grass besides the turtle.

 

‘Yes they are sometimes beautiful. They are beautiful once they evolve into something meaningful; something which can be cherished and something which can become a legacy. But when you allow them to die, they become the ugly remnants of their former majestic selves. And most of the dreamers do just that – they let their dreams die.’

            It was a cold December evening when I met the old man carrying an antique kaleidoscope. I was about ten years old and was bicycling around the streets without any purpose. The streets were lonely as a cold wind had been blowing since morning, depriving the world of the warmth of the pale winter sun. I was not alone – I had my imagination to keep me company.

 

            I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him first. It was not that people like him had vanished in my childhood days. They were still there. But now they are all dead – the clan of the street entertainers. It was a sad and lonely clan indeed, long faded into oblivion and hidden beneath the constantly falling dust of time.

 

The gypsies in tattered clothes surrounded by awestruck children, making their monkeys and goats perform impossible acrobatics and dance; one hand beating the knotted laces of the dugdugis into a blur and the other eager to grab the occasional coins.

The snake charmers in their saffron turbans and lungis, blowing a life force into the empty gourds of their fifes; and opening their bamboo baskets to reveal dangerous-looking snakes, who raised their majestic and poisonous heads and coiled and uncoiled with their swaying masters.

And yes, most importantly the strange men carrying their fantastic kaleidoscopes; sentinels jealously guarding the threshold between reality and fantasy and capturing the imaginations of their innocent and attentive audience.

 

            There he was, an old man with his kaleidoscope and resplendent in vibrant colors. He looked strange. Strange because his bushy and unruly hair peeking from underneath a bright yellow skull cap, were of shining silver; and he wore a bright red pyjama and kurta. No doubt he was an old man. But instead of stooping shoulders and shuffling feet, he was walking with a purpose – eyes straight ahead and back straight as a bamboo. The green box of the kaleidoscope was mounted on a brown wooden tripod, carefully balanced on his shoulders. He was truly a spectacle – more than enough spectacle to catch the fancy of a young boy.

 

            By the time I realized that he was real and not a figment of my over-active imagination, I had already crossed him. I stopped the bicycle by planting my jogger firmly between the tire and the axel and got down. He had already stopped and was looking at me with an expectant smile.

 

            I approached him and his peculiar smell surrounded me. It was not an unpleasant smell at all. He smelt of old books stacked and forgotten forever; and he smelt of memories, painful and sweet, half-obscured by the fog swirling over the lands of nostalgia. Though I was unaware of the smell of memories then, I was quite familiar with the smell of old books – courtesy of my late grandfather and his amazing library.

 

            From near, the old man looked even more marvelous. The cheap plastic-framed glasses were tied around his head with a piece of bright blue ribbon – its glasses were cloudy and thick but still failed to hide his piercing gaze.

‘Who are you?’ I asked and then got embarrassed at the absurdity of my question.

‘Who am I?’ He seemed perplexed at first but then raised his eyes to the sky and chuckled softly. A small earring of gold dangled from his left ear.

‘I am the Merchant of Dreams, humbly at your service.’

‘I meant I have never seen you in the area.’ I hurriedly explained myself, though somewhat intrigued by his strange answer.

‘I live in the old walled city child. Hope has brought me to your area.’ He explained while carefully setting the tripod down.

‘Hope for money?’ I asked and started searching my pockets, which were unfortunately empty as always.

‘No child…..I have sufficient money. One of my sons takes care of me.’

‘You don’t need money?’ I asked him not believing what he was saying. Everybody needed money in this world. ‘If not money, what do you hope for?’

‘The hope of the prospect of procuring some dreams.’ He peered at me closely. ‘You look like a dreamer too. Perhaps you can give me your dreams for safekeeping.’

 

I looked deep into his eyes and found them quite familiar. Why? I didn’t know.

‘Dreams? Oh yes, I have dreams – millions and billions of dreams, each more precious than the last.’ I decided to humour the old man. ‘But what will you give me in return old man – your own dreams?’

‘Nah! My dreams have been fulfilled since long. Instead, I will give you a promise – the promise of your dreams coming true one day.’

‘And where will you keep my dreams?’ I knew I was mocking him but I couldn’t control myself. He was absurd and my childish impatience had no tolerance for absurdity.

‘In here of course.’ He lovingly caressed the kaleidoscope, carefully unscrewed the lens cover and waved at me to peek inside.

‘Don’t worry. It won’t cost a dime.’ He smiled at my worried expression.

 

            I looked closely at the kaleidoscope. It was a simple box of wood, painted in bright parrot green. The paint was peeling at several places. I looked around. There was nobody. I hesitated but then curiosity assumed control. I took a deep breath, bent down and fixed my right eye firmly to the lens.

 

            At first I saw nothing. There were layers of mirrors – one over the other. Small and large, blue and red and green and yellow, there were mirrors everywhere. The light from an invisible source reflected off the surface of the mirrors and then entered my eye. There was nothing but moving jolts of intense bright and colored light. I laughed at my own stupidity and tried to straighten up.

‘Have patience child.’ The soft pressure of the old man’s hand on my shoulder did not let me get up.

‘Keep on looking. Search within the folds of light. Look for your dreams riding the shoulders of light beams.’

 

            I looked closely. At first there was nothing but blinding flashes of light. But then….something – a small figure, visible in the far distance and growing larger by the minute. It was a man with a head full of dark unruly hair quite like my own. He was walking tiredly on a rough thorny path. His lips were parched with thirst and his feet shuffled with exhaustion. But yet he walked on, his eyes fixed on a mountain in the far distance.

 

            I walked with him and felt the burden on his soul. My heart grew heavy at his plight. I did not know him but somehow I knew he deserved kindness and understanding. I tried to hold his hand but my hand passed through his. He was oblivious of my presence. We walked on and the mountain loomed closer. We walked some more and reached the foot of the mountain. He started climbing up and I climbed with him.

 

            It was strange place – away from the confines of time and space. In a few moments, we were standing on the top. He took out a beautifully carved wooden pipe and lighted it. Smoke rose out of its bowl and dissolved in the soft wind. He took a deep puff and looked down on the valley with a troubled expression.

 

            I looked down with him. There were abstract patterns of yellow and green – indistinguishable and intermingling. Somehow the abstractness of the patterns troubled me greatly. I could feel the man’s anguish and frustration without knowing the reason. But then I saw the patterns moving. Gradually their amoeba-like tentacles receded and they transformed into geometrical shapes – order being born out of chaos.

‘Ah! So that is what everything really means.’ The man breathed a sigh of relief.

 

            I looked back at him. He was smiling. His eyes were no more troubled and his brow was no more knitted in worry. But strangely, his hair had turned all white and silver, quite like the owner of the kaleidoscope.

 

            He blew into the stem of the pipe and thick fragrant smoke rose out of the bowl. The smoke swirled into the air and started forming words – simple yet beautiful words. I tried to read them but could not. They were strange words yet familiar in an unexplainable way. The wind grew strong and tried to blow the words away. They danced but held firm and gradually descended over the valley. I felt the happiness of the man and my heart filled with joy.

 

‘I can see him. I can see him.’ I straightened up and looked at the old man. My throat had gone hoarse with tears of excitement.

‘Oh yes child! You saw him, didn’t you?’ He smiled at me kindly and screwed the cap over the lens again.

‘Who was he?’ I wiped my tears and asked the old man.

‘Why child – he was you of course. He was your dream.’

‘But how could I see myself? How could I see my dream? And what did it all mean?’ I had a lot more questions. My young mind was unable to grasp the meaning of the strange vision.

‘With time, will come understanding. For now, it is enough for you that your dreams are safe with me.’

 

The old man picked up the kaleidoscope and placed the tripod carefully over his shoulder.

 

‘Run along now. It’s getting late.’ The old man waved a final goodbye and vanished into the swirling fog.

________________________________________

‘You know I met the Merchant of Dreams yesterday.’ I excitedly informed the turtle.

 

            It was daytime and I was out playing in the lawn behind the rose bushes. The turtle was lounging idly in the sun, the light filtering from the leaves drawing interesting patterns across his mottled back.

 

‘You did eh?’ The turtle smiled without opening his eyes. ‘And what did he tell you?’

‘He showed me my dream and it was a wonderful vision.’

The turtle’s eyes were still closed and there was a disinterested expression on his wise face.

 

‘Dreams…dreams…tell the boy about the dreams turtle!’ The raven shouted from the top of the mango tree. But the turtle kept silent.

 

‘What are dreams…. old friend?’ Getting tired of his silence and closed eyes, I finally had to lightly prod his neck with a twig.

‘Huh! What?’ Startled, he opened his eyes and looked at me.

‘Dreams! What are dreams?’ I chewed my words deliberately.

‘Oh yes! Dreams…..Well dreams can either be the most terrible or most wonderful of all experiences, God has ever created.’

‘Why terrible?’ I was taken aback at the turtle’s response. I thought he was a dreamer like me.

‘Dreams are terrible when they remain dreams. They try to survive by raising their delicate heads and breathing in the air of imagination. But a time comes when they die. And when they breathe their last, they lose their vibrant colors and turn into the grey dust of regret.’ The turtle said, sadly poking the dry leaves littering the pale grass.

‘But I thought dreams were beautiful things –romance, adventure and imagination.’ I felt my legs weakening and I sat down on the pale grass besides the turtle.

‘Yes they are sometimes beautiful. They are beautiful once they evolve into something meaningful; something which can be cherished and something which can become a legacy. But when you allow them to die, they become the ugly remnants of their former majestic selves. And most of the dreamers do just that – they let their dreams die.’

‘What do you mean? Simple words please – I cannot understand what you are saying.’ I pleaded with him.

‘With time, will come understanding. For now, it is enough for you that your dreams are safe with the Merchant of Dreams. He won’t let them die.’ The turtle smiled at me kindly.

______________________________________________________________

‘Baba!’

I stop typing and look up. She is growing into a beautiful woman – my once little one.

 

I grab her hand and pull her into my lap. She laughs and hides her face in my neck. I smell her thick luxurious hair and the world turns into a beautiful place.

‘Tell me what’s bothering you?’ I run my fingers through her hair.

‘I dream of becoming a singer one day but I am afraid my dreams won’t come true.’ She growled into my neck frustratingly.

‘Hmm!’ I caress her neck. ‘Why don’t you give your dreams to me?’

‘Where will you keep them old man?’ She giggled with mischief. ‘And what will you do with them?’

‘I will keep them safe…here.’ I place her hand on my heart. ‘I will make sure that they never die. I will ensure that one day they evolve into something meaningful; something which can be cherished and something which can become a legacy.’

‘Baba! Would you please talk in simple words? I don’t understand what you are saying.’

 

‘With time, will come understanding. For now, it is enough for you that your dreams are safe with the Merchant of Dreams. He won’t let them die.’ I whisper into her ear and see the turtle wink at me from across the threshold of time.

6 thoughts on “Tales of the Ancient Turtle – Merchant of Dreams

  1. You spin magic and dreams like the delicate finesse around a cotton candy. Pastel-hued, delicate fibres and sweetness wrapped around an ordinary cane that melt in your mouth even if its parched. The exact stuff that dreams are made of.

    The story is in your trademark style ; with hope, sadness and imagination folded into the batter of a great story baked to perfection with an aftertaste of bittersweetness.
    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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