Nobody ever talks about the dreams.
For the first seven years, she dreams herself a world of green grass and purple-blue sky, builds up a forest of apple trees and walks among them, climbing each one to see the change in the horizon. She dreams herself an ax, and chops each tree down one by one, because before if a spindle was too dangerous, an ax was unthinkable. The trees come down, red apples bursting into juice as they hit the ground, and she builds and destroys because she can, finally. She swings her ax and feels powerful.
Her first rescuer dies, spit on the thorns outside her tower, as she turns in her sleep. She doesn’t notice, but the dream changes.
The next three years she spends on a beach by an endless white sea. She commands an army of crabs, scuttling to build her castles that remind her of a place she once knew. They bring her pearls to adorn her hair, and she watches them and names them after remnants of people in her mind.
Two years into the dream, Captain Pricklewood speaks for the first time. His voice creaks, high and rough, like he’s never thought about speaking before. “My lady,” he says. “You have a visitor.”
“I receive no visitors,” she says, and she’s shocked to hear her own voice again. It startles her, to think that this part of her had been missing for so long.
“She says she’ll wait,” Pricklewood clicks, claws working nervously in front of his mouth.
She nods. “I figured as much. She’ll be waiting a long time.”
“She says she has the time.” He scuttles off before she can reply and leaves her to her thoughts. On the horizon, a shape comes into view, just a suggestion of a ship with green sails catching the wind. It doesn’t come closer, though, and she learns to ignore it.
Her second rescuer dies, falling from the tower as a stone crumbles to dust beneath his fingers. She sighs in her sleep, turning once.
The next eight years she spends in an empty city. It looks much like her father’s city, the one time she saw it, but the buildings grow taller as she looks at them, stretched like candy until she bids them stop. Here she learns to fill the city with people, and the people with ideas, and she says nothing to them as the city begins to bustle around her day by day.
Her people begin a market in the center of town, spiraling out from the well. They cover it with purple cloth to blot out the sun, and she sits at the edge of the well and watches them haggle with each other until their words bleed together.
The fourth week of the market, someone sits down next to her.
“You learned to build,” says the bad fairy. Her skin glitters a pale green, and her lips are the deep purple of the berries her people sell in the market.
“You knew I would,” she says. They sit together there, and the bad fairy produces an apple out of nowhere – it looks like one from her orchards two dreams ago – and takes a bite. “You didn’t wait for me,” she says.
“You knew I wouldn’t,” replies the bad fairy, and offers her a bite of the apple. The inside of the fruit is very white, like the bad fairy’s teeth. She shakes her head, and the bad fairy shrugs her shoulders like it means nothing to her one way or the other.
The bad fairy finishes the apple and feeds the core to a passing goat as she stands up, looks back. “Aurora,” she says.
“I know,” she replies.
“No,” says the bad fairy. Her face is serious. She presses her berry-purple lips together for a second like she’s holding something back. “There is much more to dream than this,” she says after a moment. “And I don’t think you know.”
A swirl of green, a rustle like wings taking flight, and the bad fairy is gone as Aurora sits by the well, watching. The people in her market take no notice, but the goat baaas up at her reprovingly.
“I guess that could have gone better,” she acknowledges, and perhaps the goat nods a little before it shambles back into the purple shadows of the market.
Her third rescuer dies of thirst, trapped in a cage of rose vines. She stirs in her sleep, turning again.
This dream, she finds out later, lasts a full eleven years. It begins in a room much like the one she sleeps in, but when she open her eyes, her world is black and white.
She gets up, sits at the vanity. In front of her, there is a thick book opened to page 318. It is blank, except for the number.
She picks up a quill pen whose feather so long it sweeps her hair, and begins to write.
Two years into her letter, she sees a sparkle of color out of the corner of her eye. “You came back,” she says conversationally, like she hadn’t been waiting.
“You’ve been boring,” says the bad fairy, laughter in her voice. It’s a little scratchy – not like the crab captain, but pleasantly dysfunctional, like she’s not used to speaking softly.
“And whose fault is that?” she asks.
The bad fairy floats down, sits next to her on the bench. “Yours, of course,” she says, taking the pen away. “You are the dreamer, after all.”
“I missed color,” she confesses, like it’s something to be ashamed of.
“Of course you did,” the bad fairy says, and brushes her cheek with the feather. She feels her face flush, and when she looks in the mirror her cheek blushes pink, and her lips are rosy as she bites back a sigh.
“I could have changed it, couldn’t I?” she asks the bad fairy, who smiles her glimmery white smile.
“You can change more than you will ever know,” the bad fairy says, and brushes the feather across her face again, gentle. Her eyes flutter closed as she tilts closer, and when she opens them again, the room is in color, blue and blood orange and gold-shot silk.
The bad fairy stands up, leads her back to the bed. “Sleep,” the bad fairy whispers, fingers clasped with hers like a promise. “See what you dream up for us.”
She closes her eyes and imagines her cottage, the smell of peonies and fresh-mown hay. She imagines the bad fairy, laughing at her across a bowl of lentil soup. She imagines a big ginger dog at her feet, licking her ankles until she passes down a scrap of bread.
“That’s not sleeping,” the bad fairy says, and when she opens her eyes the bad fairy is sitting over her, stroking her hair. “That’s daydreaming.”
“Sing me to sleep, then,” she says, and drifts off as the bad fairy sings of cherry pie and turtledoves in her pleasantly scratchy voice.
They stand together, side by side, on a ship draped in green, and she feels the salt of the white sea as she licks her lips. The bad fairy is dressed in gold brocade, a three-cornered hat pinned in her braided black hair, and she is laughing.
“Of course,” is all the bad fairy says, like it’s the answer to a question.
They sit at the table that night and feast on tunny steak and deep red wine. It is the first night she can remember in all her years of dreaming.
“You never told me your name,” she says to the bad fairy, who looks at her like her heart is breaking.
“I thought you knew,” says the bad fairy. She takes a sip of her wine. “You can call me Mal,” she says at last. “When you want to know the rest, you will.”
The ship’s bed has a headboard that twists to the ceiling like vines, painted a dark purple like Mal’s lips, and it creaks just slightly under her hands as she holds on. Mal’s mouth moves down her body, leaving kisses that shimmer on her skin, or perhaps they just feel as if they do, because soon she feels herself glow as Mal licks promises into the pale skin of her thighs, and all the while the headboard creaks reassuringly around her fingers: this is a dream.
She comes apart in Mal’s arms, eyes pressed tight together, and when she awakens, her little room is black and white, and the hangings on the wall have been pulled down.
She walks over to her book and looks at the fresh ink on the page.
You will color your own world, before this is done.
She walks out of the room for the first time in years, and leaves the book behind her.
Her fourth and fifth rescuers arrive at the same time, and die fighting each other for the honor of who will be the first to open the door to her chamber. She hears the clash of their swords in her dreams. It does not disturb her even a little.
She dreams a desert, as she imagined it once after hearing a tale from a passing troubadour. The sky is a permanent twilight, and the sun has been in the process of setting for the past six years. She sits, wrapped in fine white linen, painting a picture that will never be complete.
Mal does not arrive.
She keeps painting.
Her sixth rescuer drowns in the moat around her tower. There wasn’t a moat there when the tower was built, and he didn’t know how deep it was when he decided to swim across it. She turns onto her stomach and continues to dream.
She walks a winding dirt path and does not tire.
Eventually she picks up some followers: a dog, a deer, and a mouse.
“Where is she going?” the deer asks the dog. The deer’s voice is high and reedy, and she almost thinks she’s imagined it, but the dog responds.
“She doesn’t know where she’s going,” he says. “She’s just going.”
“She doesn’t know where the road leads,” adds the mouse, whose voice is sonorous as a church bell. It’s a lot of voice to be coming out of such a small creature, and it makes her turn back and look at them.
“You should figure it out,” the mouse adds.
“And then tell us,” says the deer. “I’d really like to know.”
“She’s trying to find Maleficent,” says the dog and then looks up at her guiltily like he’s hoping she didn’t hear.
“She’s supposed to find that out for herself, idiot,” the mouse says, and punches the dog in the leg. The dog whimpers and hops for a moment, and for a minute she thinks they might stop following her, but when she turns back around they’re still walking behind her, grumbling at each other.
She walks the road for another fourteen years, and learns that the mouse’s name is Charlie, and the dog’s name is Ned, and the deer’s name is Sevrine. They pass four inns, each one named The Unicorn and Steed, but they never go in. She does not get hungry or thirsty, and she never finds what she’s looking for.
Her seventh rescuer eats a piece of rose petal on the climb up the tower. His lips turn blue, and then brown, and then so does the rest of him. He dies screaming, if wood could scream. She shifts onto her side, and the dream changes again.
She is in a house on a mountain, shouting into the distance. “I am getting sick of your sulking!” she yells, and wishes the mountain would rumble with her annoyance. It does; it’s her dream to shift, after all.
The house, she decides, she will paint in blues and oranges, remembering the room from dreams ago, the way the colors bloomed before her eyes at the brush of Mal’s feather. She spends a year on a mural in the kitchen, painting and repainting green-flecked sails and rolling white seas before the women on the prow of the ship look just exactly right. She plants peonies around the front porch, and loves that they do not smell even remotely like roses. She gets her hands dirty, and the rich black soil feels powerful under her fingers.
The peonies bloom but do not die. She plants an apple tree nearby to keep them company.
Every so often she screams into the distance at Mal, sometimes diatribes on what it means to dream, sometimes just her name: “Maleficent!”
She begins work on the upstairs.
She’s carving deers and dogs and mice into the banister on the stairs when there comes a knock on the door. She’s almost to the second story, and her mice have finally started looking different from her deer, which she considers a personal triumph, and when she hears the knock her knife slips and pricks her finger.
“Lovely timing you have,” she says, sucking on her bleeding finger as she pulls open the door with her uninjured hand.
Mal stands on her porch cloaked in black. Her hair is pulled back from her forehead severely, and atop it sits a strange black-and-silver hat. She looks like she hasn’t slept in years, tired and worried; she looks like everything Aurora has been waiting for.
Mal takes her injured hand, presses her mouth to it. The cut tingles for a moment, heals. “It’s time to wake up,” Mal says sadly.
“I know,” she replies. “But I don’t want to.”
Mal shrugs. The cloak looks too heavy for her shoulders, almost. “We can’t always get what we want,” she says. “Nevertheless, it is time.”
And suddenly, it is.
She wakes up to the press of a strange mouth against hers, breath that tastes slightly of rose petals, and she screams, shoving at her rescuer until he gets the message and pulls away.
“Fair maiden,” he begins, clearly a speech he has rehearsed before.
“Yes,” she says abruptly, “I’m very grateful and all that, and sorry to interrupt you, but can you tell me how long I’ve been asleep?”
He blinks at her for a moment. His eyes are very blue.
“I’ve been dreaming,” she says, wondering if he understands her. “Can you tell me for how long?”
“This, uh.” He clears his throat. “The tower has been here for a hundred years. Many have tried to scale its heights, but I…”
“You’re very brave,” she says wearily. “Congratulations.”
They sit in silence for a few moments. He looks at her once, and then back down at the shining silver sword he holds in his hands.
“I expect we shall be married now,” he says finally, fingers tracing over the leaf-and-thorn etching on the hilt. She watches him sweep his thumb back and forth and feels nothing but pity aching in her bones.
“I’m a hundred years older than you,” she says, and pats him on the hand as it fidgets with his hilt. “I expect you should find someone your own age.”
She leaves him, still seated beside the bed, staring at his sword. She takes the stairs slowly, just in case, but somehow her legs remember what to do. When she gets to the door of the tower, the sunlight hurts her eyes, and she thinks she sees a flash of green among the red of the roses that line the path down the hill.
There is nothing for it, she thinks, but to start walking.
Three hours later, she comes to a traveling inn in a clearing in the woods. The sign above the door, a unicorn rearing above a bowing horse, creaks gently in the breeze. She is suddenly very, very hungry.
She sits at a table.
“Can I help you?” Mal smiles down at her, hair falling down around her face in soft black waves, simple wool dress hugging every curve. She puts a bowl of lentil soup down on the table, sets a jug of ale next to it.
Aurora smiles. “I think you can,” she says, and leans back in her chair. Outside, a deer and a mouse argue with a dog, but nobody notices. Animals can’t talk, after all.