03. MUSIC INSPIRATION
Yin and Yang
At some point, the night had stopped arriving as it ought to over our town. Most days were blanketed in daytime and sunlight, and the night would only arrive in fits and spurts. It would appear at random, sometimes only for a few moments and, at best, maybe half an hour, as if were nothing more than a large cloud that had passed in front of the sun and billowed away shortly thereafter. Then the night would fade away like a heavy fog at dawn, and the world would be coated in an orange glow once again.
A couple times a week I would work at a small restaurant in town, washing dishes after school. Walking home late at “night”, the sun only ever got as low as dusk. I had taken for granted just how soothing the night could be after a long days work. A deep blue sky, a slight breeze, a crescent moon hanging like an ornament. It seemed right. The natural flow of things. When I got home I put on a sweatshirt, heated up a cup of tea, grabbed a book, and set up comfortably on the porch. The grasshopper that keeps me company showed up right on time as usual, flittering his way onto the porch. He had started showing up right about the same time the night had stopped doing so. He perched himself on the railing in front of me.
“Is that tea I smell?” he asked, bouncing up and down the railing. “Judging by the looks of you, I’m betting we both had long days. Why don’t you spare me a few drops of that tea and we’ll talk it over?”
I could always count on him to show up with his hands out, asking for a sip of tea or nibble of fruit. But it’s not like I couldn’t spare such tiny portions anyway. The trade-off was some much needed company to an otherwise lonely house. After school, I would usually spend time at the library and keep to myself when I got home. I smiled a tired smile and stood up, snatching a leaf off of the tree growing by the porch. After coiling up its edges to keep it from spilling, I poured a few drops of hot tea into the leaf and set it down for the grasshopper. The grasshopper sipped up a droplet out of the leaf and let out a deep sigh of relief.
“Jasmine green, is it? A good choice. You know, not many people would assume it but I’ve got quite the refined palate when it comes to tea. You live as long as me, you pick up on these things. I’m quite proud of it, actually. Anyway, what’s on your mind?”
“It’s the night. Or rather the lack thereof. Ever since it stopped appearing normally, it feels like everything is—”
“—Out of balance,” the grasshopper finished. “Right you are. Many had taken the night for granted and assumed it would always be there for us. Who’s to stop it from disappearing if it feels underappreciated?” The grasshopper paused to take another drink, then continued. “And now the balance—daytime and nighttime—are off. You can see its effects in the world around you. Just as the world needs sunlight to stay alive, so too does it need moonlight. The trees are withering and turning pale. So are the grass and fields. Even this leaf you poured my tea into is slightly pallid. The world—all of us—need to breathe in the night air if it has any hope of getting better. Big, deep gulps of night air in our lungs. You and I, I can tell we both need it. Otherwise, I fear things will only get worse.”
“But how can we convince the night to come back? The only time lately I ever witness it for long stretches of time are while I’m asleep, in my dreams.”
At this, the grasshopper’s antennae perked up. “In your dreams, you say?”
“I never remember much,” I said, digging around in my mental drawers, trying to find any useful details. “It’s always night. Clear and tranquil. That much I know. I think I’m moving through a forest, like I’m trying to get somewhere. Or maybe find someone. But I never get far before I wake up. I feel like I’m wandering in circles. The rest is too hazy, too foggy, to recall.”
“I don’t think this is any coincidence,” said the grasshopper, scratching his chin with a long appendage. “The dreamworld and the night world are similar, both strange and full of magic. Sometimes they overlap, making it difficult to tell which one you’re really in. I believe the key to fixing the balance lies somewhere in your dreams.”
The town grew ever restless, literally, as the night continued to hide its face except for its brief appearances once every few days and at worst, once a week.
“I can’t seem to sleep normally,” an older woman had told me at work. “Sleep only comes in fragments, just the same as the night.”
“How come this only happens in our town?” said a classmate. “Nothing amazing ever happens here. Nothing, except for this. Our town is the worst.”
“Business is bad,” my boss had said at work. “My employees are exhausted, sales are down, and I don’t know what to do. Somebody needs to do something. But how do you make the night come back like it’s supposed to? It’s like it’s been stolen away.”
The world itself seemed to be losing steam as well. The sky had begun draining of its color, its normal vibrant blue seeping away into a colorless hue. The bark of trees was turning the color of dirty snow, its leaves doing the same and growing too weak to hold onto the branches. It was like approaching the end of autumn, but sapped of any beauty.
Someone did need to do something. Luckily, the grasshopper and I had been working on a plan.
“Here’s what you’ll do,” the grasshopper had said. “Every time you have a dream that takes place at night, I want you to treat it like it’s real. Remember that the dreamworld and the night world can overlap, the same way the sun is sometimes out during the rain. So each time you have that same dream where you’re trying to navigate that strange forest, I want you to immediately write down what you remember from the dream the second you wake up. Where you went, what you did, what directions you took.”
“We’re making a map?”
After several weeks of writing and plotting, we had a functioning map. The forest in my dream was always the same one, and we wanted to find out what was in the heart of it. Hopefully something to bring the night back in its proper form. By jotting down what I remembered after each dream, we had begun honing in on the center of the forest.
“Left, then right, over the small brook…”
“Past the owl perched on the sad-looking tree—”
“—but not too far past, or you’ll wind up back at the beginning.”
“Right. The rules of the dreamworld are strange like that. By the way, why don’t you refill my leaf with more of that tea? I’m no help without it, you know.”
Looking over my tattered notebook full of scribbles, directions, a map and key with symbols, I could tell we were close. I knew where to turn, which places to avoid, what to look for. Each dream I got a bit further in, scribbled down more notes, and got closer to something. What it was, I couldn’t be sure yet but I knew it was within reach. Hopefully it was the key to restoring some much-needed balance.
In the meantime, the town was getting worse. The vibrancy of our little world was all but gone. Without the night to keep things in balance, the world was growing weary. What once resembled a colorful painting now looked like a crudely sketched image done with a dull pencil.
“I really hope I figure out what’s at the center of the forest in my dreams soon,” I had told the grasshopper one “night”, which was much closer to dusk. “I know I’m close. I bet the next time this dream occurs I’ll make it there. And I hope you’re right about it being the key to fixing things.”
The grasshopper didn’t seem worried at all. He languidly nibbled a small piece of melon I set on the porch and took his time responding. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” he finally said. “It either is or it isn’t. One or the other. Nothing you can do about the outcome, right? All you can do is try and find a solution. Look high and low, overturn every rock, see what turns up. After that, it’s out of your hands, isn’t it?”
Sure enough, the same dream returned several days later.
The night is beautiful in my dream. The moon is full and beaming and stars blanket the sky. A couple tuffs of clouds billow by lazily, enjoying the deep blue sky like they’re floating on a peaceful lake. The forest is thick, but patchy enough that the moonlight shines through the trees and branches and leaves and brings enough visibility to get around. It isn’t so much dark as it dipped in a mellow, deep blue.
I always begin in the same spot, a tiny meadow with a chopped down tree stump in the center that looks like a lonely chair in an empty room. From there, through trial and error, I could make my way in closer to the heart of the forest. There are vague, subtle paths in this forest if you know where to look. I’ve been here enough and studied its clues enough to get a sense of direction. Sometimes it’s in the way the grass clears at certain points, forming a path. Or the trees line both sides of small clearing like they’re creating a hallway. Lucky for me, this knowledge always stuck with me even from the real world into the dreamworld. It seemed the grasshopper was right—the dreamworld and the nightworld do overlap.
As I crept further in, I had passed a small brook and was approaching the deepest point I had reached thus far. There was a large tree—the largest I’d seen in this forest thus far. It stood like a wooden giant guarding some sort of treasure. I had gotten tripped up here a number of times, taken a wrong turn, and found myself back at the start. The last time I made it here I had woken up before getting the chance to test my hypothesis on what the clue was, telling me where to go next. I stared at this wooden giant, sizing it up and down. A long, craggly branch stuck straight out in the front of the large tree as if it were an accusatory finger pointing back at me. But on second thought...
“I think I’ve finally figured you out,” I thought, and then turned directly around. My hypothesis was correct—it wasn’t pointing at me, it was just pointing back the way I came. And sure enough, when I turned around I didn’t see the small brook I had recently passed. I had cracked the code—I was somewhere else.
The forest had switched over, very abruptly, and taken me into a new section of its woods I hadn’t seen yet. I was in a circular clearing with such thick trees hanging overhead that the moonlight struggled to find its way through. In this circular clearing were four different paths—four perfectly clear, visible clearings I could take between the thickest set of trees in the forest.
I looked around. This had to be the final bit before I reached the heart of the woods. Just one problem—which of these paths was the right one? There was only a one-in-four chance I’d choose correctly.
I soaked in my surroundings, trying to grasp any subtle hints the woods were leaving for me. Then, without hesitation, I chose.
I was walking through what seemed like a tunnel of trees, their trunks forming walls on my side and their branches blotting out the moonlight above. This had to be it—the last stretch before I had reached the heart of the forest. Just a bit further and I’d be there. But would I find a key to restoring balance to the town? Or was this still nothing but a dream, and nothing would be waiting for me once I got there?
After some time, the “tunnel” ended. The trees cleared, forming what felt like a large room in the middle of the woods. The sky came into full view, deep and blue and starry, as if a giant lid had been removed overhead. The full moon shone down, coating the world in a watercolor blue. In the middle was a lake, serene and still as glass, with a tree stump at the edge of the water. The stump looked like a chair positioned in front of a large desk. I sat down and waited: I had arrived at the heart of the woods. Now what?
Suddenly there was a stirring in the water, a tiny splash that began zipping back and forth. The stirring grew, picked up speed, then abruptly stopped. All was quiet and still. I waited. Then, a fish the size of a van surfaced before me, splashing water onto the dry land and sending waves pulsating from around itself as if a meteor had just crashed into the lake.
The fish’s seafoam scales looked like armor, the whiskers hanging off the sides of its face making it appear kingly and wise. A long stem drooped from the top of its head down in front of its face with a glowing lure at the end in the shape of a crescent moon. The crescent moon lure dangled like a fancy ornament. The fish spoke:
“You must be awfully clever to have made is this far,” he said. His voice was deep, firm, but not harsh. He sounded genuinely surprised, if not impressed, at me being here. The fish swam back and forth several meters, eyeing me up with skepticism, then continued. “You picked up on the clues in this forest and solved its riddles even though it took you a number of tries getting lost. That is no easy feat. Tell me, how did you solve the final riddle? There were four different paths you could have taken and you chose correctly. What was the key?”
Sitting in front of this giant fish, seated on the tree stump at the edge of the water, I felt like I was being interviewed by an intimidating boss for an important job. “The key was the wind,” I finally said. “I chose the path where the leaves were pointing in the wind.”
The fish let out a single deep, kingly chortle. “Clever, clever. You are the first person to arrive here, you know. After I had stolen the night away from over you and your town, I had dropped this specific dream you are currently having into the heads of many. Like scattering seeds over a field to see which ones would grow, I waited patiently to see if anyone would figure it out. Follow the breadcrumbs, so to speak. I must admit my faith was running low.”
“So this is nothing but a dream?” I asked.
“Of course it’s a dream,” said the fish. “But it seems awful real, wouldn’t you say? In any case, I’m sure you didn’t come all this way to ask me if this was a dream. What drove you to come here?”
“The night. Without it, our town is withering away. The balance is off. You said you stole it away—could you return it?”
The fish jumped up and fell backwards as if it were plopping into bed after a long day, resulting in another explosion of water and waves. It resurfaced after a moment, and stared up at the night sky.
“The night. Of course I could return it, if I wished. I’m sure your town is withering and upset, but thus far nobody had wanted to do anything about it. Can you really say you miss a thing if you never go looking for it once it’s lost? You didn’t deserve the night and the balance it brought. Or perhaps you never wanted it much in the first place. In my kindness, I even spared bits and pieces of it here and there over your town. This, too, made no difference. Even after I scattered this dream over your town, none given it a second thought. Look about you: the night is strange and wonderful, is it not? I could keep it all here for myself, where it would go to better use. If I returned the gift of night back to you, could you honestly tell me that it wouldn’t go to waste?”
I tried to think of a response, anything to counter his argument. I had ventured though these strange woods, solved its puzzles, and made it all the way here. But now I had no way to answer this final question. Insects chirped behind me like gossipy witnesses to a court trial, awaiting the judge’s decision.
“I don’t know,” I said, finally. “All I know is that I had to make it this far, and I had to try to convince you to return that which you took. We need it. Without it, there’s no balance. But maybe you’re right. We squandered away a gift and took it for granted. If nothing can be done, then I will leave now.”
The fish stroked one of its whiskers and let out a deep, grumbling sigh. It blew the stem and crescent moon lure that hung from its head up into the air as if it were a strand of hair it was trying to get out of its eyes. “You are right. It was a gift, and you all had ignored what it meant,” the fish said. “Still, you made it all the way here. You kept trying, even though you got lost many times, never giving up. You proved me wrong when I thought nobody would bother with doing so. Perhaps I was too swift in my judgement, my fins too grubby in their taking. I did steal away the night, but I think it is time I returned it.”
“I am glad you came here,” the fish added before diving back underwater, creating another explosion of splashes and waves, and then dream was over.
Slowly, the night returned in full over our little town. Like a flower in bloom, the color and vibrancy returned and the withering came to a halt. The day and night were balanced again.
“So he really did return it,” the grasshopper said one night after I explained to him all that had happened. “Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if he would.”
“You sound like you know of him personally,” I said.
“Do I? Well, if you live as long as I have you run into all sorts of characters along the way. It’s possible we’ve crossed paths, but my memory is a bit foggy these days. Who knows?” Then, he added under his breath, so soft I doubt he knew I heard him, “Perhaps he and I ought to catch up over tea soon to make sure the night is never stolen again.”
After that night I never saw the grasshopper again, nor did I ever again dream of strange forests and giant fish. The night has, to this day, not been stolen from our little town since then.