The Hermit

A fire blazed in the centre of the field, burning the crops and scorching the earth. A horde of faceless barbarians trampled the ground nearby, riding their horses to chase down the fleeing farmhands.

Liam watched the carnage apathetically. That was always the way with his dreams, however plain and dull or invigorated and exciting his dreams were, he always found himself an apathetic bystander.

The barbarians, and the peasants too, were indeed faceless. There was a blurriness about the front of their heads, giving the suggestion that though they had a face no matter how close you got they would always appear as if far away. Liam never did dream of anyone he recognised, unsurprising as he had no close connections to anyone.

One of the barbarians, classically garbed in brown furs, en-bearded and hefting a curved axe as the books and tapestries would portray him, hacked at a scarecrow. His axe bit at the pole supporting the imitation man but failed to topple him. The horse carried the barbarian on however and the scarecrow received no further molestation.

Liam himself was stood by the sweeping fire, barbarians and victims alike ran and galloped past him, but none acknowledged his existence. Neither help nor assault came his way.

The scene darkened and Liam’s mind began to surface from subconsciousness. A vision of close up bed sheets flickered across his mind and he realised he was beginning to wake. Struggling through the fog of slumber Liam pressed his mind to think of water, specifically rain water. To imagine the cool feel of droplets on his skin and the dampness of the surrounding air.

Liam had always been a dreamer, not every night but most nights he found himself dreaming. As he had grown up he had learnt of his own dreaming habits, how the people in the dreams never spoke. For example, though he knew the barbarians called out war cries and the farmhands screamed in terror he could not hear the sounds, he simply knew it had occurred as if remembering the events mere seconds after.

And he had learnt over the years that when he woke in just the right way. Gradually, not stirring, not aware he was yet awake, his conscious mind was able to manipulate the dreams.

A downpour started and amid great gouts of steam the flames dissipated. The barbarians and the peasants stopped and turned their heads to the sky. One man, the warrior who had assaulted the scarecrow, turned his attention to Liam. He spurred his steed onwards with axe held high and charged towards Liam.

Liam woke and leapt upright in his bed. He involuntarily took in a sharp volume of air and felt lightheaded. The next five minutes were spent calming his racing heart and catching his breath.

Calmed, Liam got out of his bed and dressed himself in a loose shirt and tattered trousers. He washed his face in the basin of water he had prepared the night before then carried it with him out of the hovel.

The hovel, for it could barely be called a house, was made of two simple rooms, in one was his bedroom and his few items of clothing and a few books he had acquired with great difficulty. In the other sat the stove, a table and a chair situated next to the single window.

Outside Liam emptied the basin of water over his small flowerbed of white begonias and leant it on the wall beside the doorway of the hovel. The dampness of the ground betrayed the night’s rainfall, however the begonias were sheltered by the close proximity of the house and their earth was still dry.

He picked an apple from the tree that grew beside his home. He’d need to remove a stray branch from the tree soon as it had begun to push against a wall of his hovel. Biting into the fruit he sucked the juice through his teeth before pulling a chunk of sweet flesh off and chewing it.

Liam lived several miles from the nearest village, his hovel neatly nestled the other side of a wood that separated the two signs of civilisation. The distance suited him. Liam was happy to get by on what he could grow and forage for, rarely had he a need to travel to the village and exchange items for money and money for more items and of course to converse with people. People.

Liam had never understood why he had such difficulty with people. They, seemingly did not suffer the same problem he had. He felt an intense nervousness in the presence of others. He did not know what to say or how to act and when he failed at these simple social graces he attracted worried and suspicious glances. Mutterings began to happen as he stuttered and stumbled his way through a payment for a merchant. The intense desire to hide away in a corner and curl up into the smallest ball possible was something that had been with him since childhood.

He’d found this hovel, his home now. The stone walls crumbled and encrusted with ivy. The roof had been non-existent and it was only through trial an error and a lot of wet, rainy nights that he had finally, satisfactorily thatched it.

A road ran nearby, barely visible from the hovel, that was, thankfully, largely disused and rarely possessed travellers. A wanderer had once asked for a night’s shelter of Liam. Unable to refuse Liam had allowed the man in. The wanderer, with a rather loud personality, had talked until he slept oblivious to Liam’s silence and the unnaturally large gap between them. Liam hadn’t slept at all that night, constantly aware of the presence in the other room.

Liam threw the naked apple core into a nearby hedgerow and made his way round the back of his hovel.

“Greetings Jeff,” he said as he approached the vegetable patch. He treated it like his own farm, rotating the crops year by year, letting some go to seed to grow again next year. He was self-sustained and he was happy to be that way.

The Jeff whom he had greeted was a merely a scarecrow. Liam liked his conversations with Jeff, free from the social anxiety he would feel in the presence of others. Indeed if Liam had hired a farmhand he was sure he’d spend his days hiding inside the hovel waiting for the worker’s day to be done.

“Nice day for the plants I suppose, bit damp for us though eh?” He’d made the scarecrow, using the failed thatching from his early roofing attempts, strapped to a pole and girdled with an old, torn shirt. It didn’t even have a face, Liam liked it that way and it did its job of keeping the birds away.

“What’s happened to you,” Liam muttered as he noticed a notch on Jeff’s support pole. Something had hit it, perhaps an animal scratching, though the notch seemed too clean cut for that. He shrugged and carried on his inspection of the crops.

The rest of the day passed as usual for Liam. His daily chores took most of the morning and afternoon, a long trip to a nearby stream for fresh water and to clean his spare set of clothes. Tending to the crops, keeping the creepy crawlies away and picking the daily harvest. One of the hovel walls had developed a crack in it so Liam set about filling it in. He used muddy clay he’d found long ago nearby, it was far from perfect but it did a good enough job for just him.

Finally he sat down to read one of his books, a journal written by an explorer detailing experiences meeting aboriginal tribes in far off lands. His few books were mostly books of learning, details of wildlife and of history. The selection was limited on account of the availability of the reading material. The nearby village was home to mostly illiterate people, Liam himself had only been taught to a rudimentary reading level and had learnt the rest through practise. Consequently a bookseller only rarely visited with his cart, and it was on the even rarer occasions when Liam was also in the village and managed to pluck up the courage to talk to the seller that he ever got any.

He liked this one best though, The Explorations of Sir Reginald Colman. It was a life he might dream of but could never have. Even if he travelled far and wide, he could never bring himself to interact with such different and varied people. The cultural difference would frighten him more than normal. No, Liam was content to live vicariously, reading the adventures of another and imagining them as his own. The world was a better place in his mind.

The sun began to dip and Liam took his leave of the explorer’s world. He closed the book and dropped it with a thud beside his chair. He poured some water from the bucket he had collected earlier into the basin and carried it into the bedroom. He rested the basin in the corner and began to undress, thankful for the summer warmth. In winter times his ramshackle hovel did little to keep the heat in and he often went into hibernation, huddling up in his bed and leaving only for daily necessities. In particularly bad times he had layered the floor in hay and straw which helped, somewhat.

Nestled in bed it did not take Liam long to nod off. He awoke, so to speak, underwater. Dreaming as he was he did not feel panicked or shocked or even any sense of anything other than ordinariness. He was not treading water, his body did not appear to be there at all only his presence. The water was a warm blue expanse, with no seabed below or rippling surface above.

A school of mermaids swam in the distance, they played with each other spiralling and pirouetting as they flapped their large tailfins. Their long, flowing hair billowed in the depths and trailed their movements beautifully.

One of their number separated from the group and swam to Liam. Like all of the people in Liam’s dreams the mermaid’s face was blurred and like all of Liam’s actions in a dream he did not feel disturbed by it at all. The blurring was akin to having a hard time focusing on something as if always looking at the mermaid through the corner of his eye.

She spoke, or rather mimed speaking in the soundless dream world and Liam understood what she had said. “Swim up, swim up and away.” The mermaid gestured upwards to emphasise her silent words. She kicked mightily, washing a current over Liam’s non-existent body and swam upwards. With no will of his own in the dream Liam followed, flowing smoothly through the water after the mermaid.

Suddenly he emerged out of a bowl of water and landed, dry, on the floor. He was in a room that felt alien but could be recognised as his own, the bowl of water being his very own wash basin placed in the corner.

Something was different though, he felt awake, or almost awake. Similar to that brief moment between slumber and consciousness. Everything around him was groggy and blurred, his mind was operating slowly and illogically. He drifted to the other room and saw inside it was the traveller who had once stayed with him. The room itself was a campsite and the traveller motioned for Liam to sit beside him. Despite being a man he recognised the traveller’s face was blurred and confusing to gaze upon.

Anxiety pressed on Liam. Disturbing as he had never suffered any of his real world shyness in his dreams, not in any real sense of emotion other than sudden, waking fear in nightmares.

The traveller stood up and approached Liam on seeing no response to his invitation. “Come on lad, what’s the matter with you,” he said with muted words, “I won’t bite.”

Liam shrank away from the traveller but backed up against a wall, the campsite was surrounded by doorless walls. He willed the traveller gone, hoping his toying with half awakening dreams would work now too.

He was in a garden. Whether he had succeeded or whether it was a whim of the dream Liam was glad to be free of others. A golden sunset basked the garden in warming honey colours. It was circular in design, with Liam currently in the centre, neat flowerbeds of varying colours radiated outwards in concentric circles.

He became aware of a woman. “Oh, hello,” she said soundlessly. She was lying between rows of flowers and playing with her moss green hair. She pushed herself up to a seating position on noticing Liam. “You’re new.”

Liam froze, too panicked to respond. The woman stood up revealing clearly the unmarked, white cloth she wore wrapped tightly around her body.

“Are you a Dreamer too? Or perhaps something other,” she mused cocking her head slightly with thought.

Liam took a step back and shook his head.

“Don’t you know how to talk?”

“N-n-no,” Liam managed to stumble out. The woman had a face. Red lips and soft, white skin like an idyllic portrait.

She chuckled, “I think you do know how. I’m guessing you’re new to this. Do you live near here?”

Liam looked around him, “N-no.”

“Well of course I don’t mean in my dream-garden! I mean in the real world. You’re asleep somewhere right?”

“My…home?”

“Well I can see we’re not going to get very far with this. I, for what its worth, am currently in a carriage on the road. I do find the journeys dull, so I drop off and come here to pass the time.”

Liam relaxed somewhat as the woman spoke but could not bring himself to converse with her. As she spoke however she began to fade, transparency spreading across her body.

“It seems I’m passing out of reach of your dreaming. Well it was nice to meet you…?” Liam’s voice caught in his throat and he remained silent casting his glance to the ground. “Well, whoever you are. There are some nice advantages to being a dreamer of course.” The woman knelt and gracefully plucked a sprig of bluebells from the flowerbed before her. She handed it to Liam, placing it in his nervous hand when he didn’t move to take it from her. “Goodbye,” she said.

Liam woke in the morning. Rousing himself from his slumber, dazed and confused. His mind sleepy. He moved out of the bed and placed a foot on the floor immediately feeling cold wetness on his sole. Water had splashed from the basin in the corner across the bedroom floor. He sighed and put down his other foot, feeling something soft crush beneath it. Groggily he looked down and saw a plucked bluebell lying on the floor.

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