Tiny Bells


by Bruce Holland Rogers


Sleeper, sleep well.  Sleep until morning.  And listen.

            I am a dream.  Once I was a man.  Once I dreamed as you now dream, woke as you will awaken.  I used to walk the world between earth and sky.  Now I am a memory.  If you wake to memories of a life you never lived, it is because you have let me enter your dreams.  Threads of my life will be woven with your own.

            Sleeper, I bring you a story.  In the time of the Empire, the people of my village lived simply.  We were happy.  In our valley, we were at peace.  The Emperor's armies were vast and we were his people.

            People in the village of the next valley over were happy, too, as far as we could tell.  Like us, they tended their flocks, sheared and traded wool.  Like us, they planted wheat, ground flour, baked bread.  For their feasts, they too roasted mutton.

            But instead of proper houses, they built round huts, like mounds of stone.  Instead of putting icons on their walls, they hung cut branches over their doors.  The men tied bands of blue cloth on their heads, and the women wore metal bells on their wrists.  They feasted much as we did on holy days, but for them, different days were holy.

            We rarely met.  From our farthest pastures, we saw them in their own farthest fields.  In springtime, we sometimes passed them on the road to the market.  When they spoke, we understood them, though some of their words were strange.

            We had been separate like that for generations.  We might have gone on, separate, for generations more if the Emperor and his army had not come to our mountains on their way to conquer the east.  But come they did.  More men than we had ever seen, men with swords and banners, camped on our hillsides.  Their horses outnumbered our sheep.  We saw the Emperor's square black tent in the distance.  His general came among us, commanding the soldiers to carry off our biggest rams, to empty the fullest granaries.  "Do not be afraid," he told us.  "You are the Emperor's own people.  We will leave enough to sustain you."

            With the next dawn, the army was on the march again, over the pass into the next valley.  At first, we did not think of the people there.  We thought of the hard winter ahead, of the smaller harvest of wool for spring.

            When we saw a great smoke, we knew from what distant fires it was rising.  Then we did think of the other village.  We remembered the general's words.  "You are the Emperor's own people."  When we took our flocks to our most distant pastures, we saw no other flocks, no other herders.  I went into their valley.  I saw the ruins of their round houses, the ashes of their granaries.  Of the people themselves, there was no sign.

            As the days grew short, though, those people came to us in dreams.  My widowed mother dreamed of a woman her own age who was a widow also.  My daughter dreamed of a little girl who wore bells on her wrist.  In my own dreams I met a man whose favorite ram was black, like my own.  In our dreams they said to us, "We are lost.  We were driven from our homes and from this world.  We are a memory only.  Give us refuge.  Give us a place here in your dreams."

            Had they come to us alive, strangers fleeing before soldiers, we would have turned them away.  They were not like us.  We built our houses square and true.  Icons blessed us from our walls.  We spoke the Emperor's own tongue, feasted on the proper holy days.

            But they came one by one, an old man to an old man so that they both remembered the same droughts and floods.  They came one by one, a young mother to a young mother so that they knew the same weariness of waking throughout the night, and the same joy.  They came one by one, a child as another child's playmate.

            In dreams, I tended my flocks with the man who had a black ram.  He taught me a song that I remembered when I awoke, and I sang it as I took my flock to pasture under the waking sun.  In dreams, my daughter learned a game that she played with the other children when their chores were done.  In dreams, my wife learned to make a yellow tea that she poured when I returned hungry and tired.  It was good.  I sang her the song, explained the words that were strange.  Some of them she already knew.

            Asleep, I asked the man why he hung a green branch over his door.  Asleep, I asked him how he dyed wool blue.  Asleep, I asked him who the traders were who would trade for tiny bells.  My daughter wanted some to tie at her wrist.

            In the spring, our village smelled sweeter for the branches over our doors.  In the summer, our daughters jingled wherever they went.

            The Emperor's campaign in the east was long.  When the soldiers finally returned to our valley, there were not so many of them as before.  They looked harder and bigger.  Their general rode among us.  He told the men to take everything‑‑‑every lamb, every grain of wheat.

            "But we are the Emperor's own people!" we said.

            "Are you indeed?" said the general, and the way he shaped the words was strange in our ears.

            We brought icons from our houses to show him.

            Soldiers lit torches from our cook fires.

            I tore the green branch from my house and flung it to the ground.  Women wept and clawed at the bells on their daughters' wrists.  The general drew his sword.  The soldiers drew theirs.

            Sleeper, I am a dream.  Once I dreamed as you now dream, woke as you will awaken.  Now I am a shadow of memory‑‑‑your memory, if you will give me refuge.  And here is my brother, who once tended a flock as I tended mine, who had a black ram, who was a stranger to me, but no longer.  We were driven from our homes and from this world.  Take us in.  Give us a place here in your dreams.


This story was first published simultaneously in “The Sun” and “Realms of Fantasy”.  Reprinted by permission of the author.



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