From the author: When a bag of magical beans goes missing, a girl tasked with waking the city must confront the being she most fears.
The city is still as dark as ebony when I begin my deliveries. I lace my boots and take up the rough satchel passed down from my gran. Legends say it's woven from time itself and lined with a curse from the world's first sunrise, but I've always thought it felt a lot like the silky wool of the ancient pet sheep Gran had kept in her little hut near the city's eastern gate. The sheep's name was Sunrise, so maybe folks were just confused. When I was younger, I asked once, and Gran had only sighed.
"Don't you worry about it, Eos," she'd said, "folks will always fear that which they don't understand. They'd take life and death and all the world's magic and lock them all together in a gilded cage if they could, just so they'd feel they had some control over their mysteries. You needn't let it bother you. You just do your job and they won't give you trouble."
The streets are silent, save for my footfalls. I clutch my bag, vigilant in the darkness. Even though I may not see him, I know Morpheus is not far. The night is his realm, and here, I am the intruder, the thief creeping through the city to steal back that which he's claimed.
Today, I take the path along the canal, where the water's lapping masks the city's nighttime silence. There's dozens of routes to choose from, and here, at the beginning of my journey, it's easier to feel confident, knowing he could be anywhere in the city. It's only when I near my destination that I begin to worry he'll find me — that he'll guess or somehow surmise which city leader I intend to visit first today — and that he will be sulking in the shadows with his top hat askew and his long coattails flapping like a bat's wings.
Today, Mayor Stone is first on my list, but as I turn the final corner onto Fallowfield Street where his white-bricked home stands tall, all adorned with pillars and vine-ensnared balconies, a movement in the corner of my eye gives me pause.
To my relief, it's not Morpheus himself, only one of his minions. The bandit-striped raccoon hisses from its corner and clutches a bit of waste it's scavenged from the darkened streets before scampering off to alert his master. I run as fast as I can past the final houses. At the mayor's front door, I mutter the staccato tune of the opening spell — "Anoígo, anoígo, anoígo," — and tap the knob to gain entrance. The door shuts behind me, and I'm inside. Safe, for now. For today.
Mayor Stone has remembered to leave the supplies on the table for me: a candle, a match, and a pot of water to boil. He's been one of the city leaders for decades, as his father was before him, so I don't worry about him forgetting. There are others who aren't as reliable, and I dread the days when they're the first on my list, wondering if I'll be able to find a light in time, or if I'll have to proceed in the dark, anxiously looking over my shoulder to ensure I'm not being stalked.
When the wick of the first candle catches fire, it bathes me in light and relief. Morpheus and his minions despise the light; now I can proceed in safety. I'd carry a candle with me from the city's edge, but it's too risky — the light would draw his attention and would be too easily snuffed out by wind or malicious intent.
In the warm glow, I take the supplies from my bag: my mortar and pestle, and four dark, sweet-smelling beans — one for each member of the mayor's family. I grind them up with expert skill, letting the rich aroma waft over me as I mutter the boiling spell to the water in the pot — "Vrázo, vrázo, vrázo." Once the elements are combined, I intone one final spell — "Xypnó, xypnó, xypnó" — and immediately hear rustling from upstairs, followed by a baby's cry. Out the window, a bit of light appears on the western horizon. The mayor has awoken. Morning has begun.
I leave a brown paper parcel on the table with enough beans for the mayor's district and turn to slip out the door. He will distribute the rest to his neighbors, and they in turn to theirs, and soon this portion of the city will be bathed in light and wakefulness and the sound of chattering voices. These, along with the fragrant bean-scent will sustain the people of the city through the morning hours and into the late afternoon, until Morpheus' dark shadow once again creeps upon the city and steals their wakefulness away.
My hand is on the knob when a voice calls out: "Wait, Eos."
It's Hector. I know before I even turn to face him that the mayor's tall and handsome nephew will be gazing down the staircase at me, his spectacled eyes full of some clever fact he's discovered in one of his books or fascinating story he wants to share with me.
"I can't stay," I say. Regret tugs at me, along with a bitter nostalgia for the days when we were children, when Gran was the one to tend the beans and wake the city, and Hector and I were free to run barefoot through the streets, playing Chase-the-Darkness and sneaking into Mr. Johnson's candy shop to beg for peppermints and taffy. The other children of the city had always avoided me, but Hector didn't mind that I wasn't like the others, that I was immune to the spell of sleep.
I slink from the mayor's home before Hector can reply, and adjust the satchel on my shoulder. There are still six more districts to visit, six more leaders to wake.
Perhaps I'm simply distracted by my memories. Perhaps I overestimate the sliver of light on the horizon. Perhaps I underestimate the speed at which a raccoon can scramble on its vile, clawed toes to deliver news to its master. Either way, it takes me entirely by surprise when a leather glove, smelling of smoke and midnight, presses against my shoulder.
I've seen him before — his new moon eyes and his owl-beaked nose and his smile like a sliver of silver in the moonlight — but never this close. Never so close that I can feel his fingers pressing into me hooks. Never so close that I can smell his scent of chamomile and poppies.
I panic and wrench free, pulling my arms from the straps of my satchel to break his grip. I writhe out of his hands and dash down the street, but my satchel remains — my satchel which contains the beans I need to wake the rest of the city.
The shadow-darkened buildings fly past me. My feet hit the ground in a rhythm, a beat, a spell gone all wrong, but I'm powerless to stop them. Fear drives me now: fear of Morpheus, fear of what he'll do now that I've failed, now that five-sixths of the city will be unable to wake this morning. If I don't find some way to wake them by the time his darkness falls again, they'll remain asleep, forever at rest in a city forever dimmed.
I'm at my own hut before I can think, before I can pause and catch my breath. If Gran were here, she'd know what to do, but she's been gone for nearly a year now. Her books will have to do. I take them from the shelves, one after another, and try to find something — anything — within their dusty, crackling pages that will help. The rules laid out in gold letters accuse me. I've failed in my duty. I've failed the city.
I tear about the hut like a madwoman, searching for some secret store of beans Gran might have set aside, but all I find is half a bean — one I'd discarded in the waste bin this morning when I saw its outer shell was cracked.
Half a bean to wake five-sixths of the city.
Out the window, the sky is frozen in the gray and cloudy darkness of early dawn. It's light enough to see by, but not entirely safe to roam the streets. Morpheus' minions will still be aboveground, scavenging with their claws and venom-tipped teeth. The people of the mayor's district will notice soon, any moment now, that they're the only people awake.
Someone raps on my door. I'm half-surprised to find when I open it that it's not an angry mob with torches lit and pitchforks raised, but just Hector, looking confused and forlorn, my mortar and pestle in his hand.
"I didn't intend to keep you," he says quickly. "You forgot these."
"Hector!" I scold him and pull him inside the hut before any person — or creature — spots us conversing in the soft light of dawn. I push him toward one of the Gran's wooden chairs, and he collapses into it like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
"What happened here, Eos?" he asks, looking around at the mess I'd made of Gran's books.
I blink, surprised once again at all the things he hasn't noticed. "Morpheus found me after I left the mayor's home. I lost the satchel and the rest of the city's beans."
"Can't you just get some more?" he asks, gesturing toward the garden out back where the stalks of beans wound so thickly about the lattice it almost seemed as if the plant was holding up the pieces of wood and not the other way around.
"If only it were that easy." I scoff and busy myself about the room, restacking the piles of books. "Tomorrow's beans won't be ready to harvest until midnight, and by that time, it will be too late for those still asleep. I have to get that satchel back, and I have to do it now."
I gather up some supplies, stuffing a pocketknife, some candles, and one of Gran's spell books into the pouch at my belt. When I reach for the door, Hector is already standing there beside it.
"What are you doing?" I ask when I see that he's grabbed a knife, a loaf of bread, and a wrinkled map of the city.
"What do you think? I'm coming with you."
As we slip through the city, Hector squints at the map, pressing his nose to the parchment in his struggle to make out its lines in the dim light. I'd offer to read it, but I don't want him to feel useless on this quest, though I need him more for his companionship than for his navigational skills.
"Where do you think we'll find him?" he asks, leaving Morpheus's name unspoken.
"The sewers." The words catch in my throat. "I've seen his minions come up from the grates. There's an entrance near the western wall..."
Seeing the look on Hector's face, I trail off. He's already terrified; no need to frighten him further. In all the years we've known one another, we've never talked about what I do, and it makes it difficult to speak of now.
When we arrive, three sharp-toothed rats block the giant metal grate that leads to the sewers. With shaking hands, I fumble with my pocketknife, trying to open the blade, but Hector touches my arm to stop me, crumbles some of the bread he's brought, and tosses it further down the street. The rats chase after it, leaving the grate unguarded.
Even after the bolts are removed, it takes both of us working together to pry it from the wall, and from there we slip down a crumbling staircase into slick, black darkness. I light a candle — more for Hector's sake than my own — and hand in hand, we descend into Morpheus's realm. Potent sleep-sand whips about us in a gust of wind, and Hector yawns and rubs his eyes. I press the cracked half-bean into his hand and urge him to eat it. He places it on his tongue where he can suck on it and its magic can keep him alert.
We're deeper now than any tomb or crypt, and darker and quieter, too. I'm just about to suggest that we head back, that this whole endeavor has been a useless one and that we're better off back in the city — in my hut, at the mayor's house, anywhere but here — when we reach a door.
At the sound of my song-spell it opens, and before us lies a circular room of stone, extending high up over our heads. Even if it weren't so high, we still wouldn't be able to see the ceiling, for above us churn storms of the fine, white sand which Morpheus uses to lull the people to sleep. It rises, like a silky tornado, from a long, wooden box in the center of the room.
"It's beautiful," I whisper. Hector just stares at me, befuddled, and I understand then what I ought to have realized long ago — he's unable to see the sand at all. No wonder the people succumb to its power each night, plummeting the city into Morpheus's darkness. It's hard to avoid that which is unseen.
"Eos," Hector whispers. He points to the dais on which the box is seated. My satchel leans against it.
"You have to stay here," I tell him, handing him the candle. Even with the half-bean on his tongue, I don't trust that he'd be able to withstand the power of that much sand. "You step foot in there, and I'll have to drag you out snoring."
He furrows a brow in protest but retreats back into the doorway. I pull out my pocketknife and release the blade as I silently approach the dais. I've nearly reached my satchel when a subtle movement from within the lidless box catches my attention. Even with my keen eyesight, I have to squint to make sense of what I'm seeing.
Morpheus himself lies within the box, his eyes closed in slumber and his hands crossed over his chest. With every exhalation of his breath, a wisp of sand rises from his lips, spiraling upward to join the slowly shifting sandstorm above.
This is my opportunity. One quick slice of my knife and the people of the city will be forever free from their nightly imprisonment. One red line across his throat, and I'll never have to slink through the darkened streets again. I raise my knife and draw in a ragged breath.
I turn instinctively at the sound of Hector's voice, sharp and echoing in the stone chamber. A hand closes on my wrist, stilling the blade and ensnaring me. I turn back to find myself eye to glimmering eye with Morpheus, now fully awake.
"You've come for your satchel, haven't you?" His voice is thick and slow and smooth as syrup and not at all like I'd imagined.
"I've come to free the people from your clutches," I spit back.
"Free them?" he says, drawing back as if struck. "Day by day, you provide them nothing but toil and hardship and tears. It's only in the arms of sleep that they find healing for their bodies and peace for their minds. Tell me, do you truly think I do them harm by extending my protective cover of darkness? By granting them sweet slumber so that they have the strength for another day's work?"
I stagger, pitch backward, and he lets me break free. "Then why did you steal my satchel?"
"I didn't," he says. "You ran off without it. You see, it's right there, with everything just as you left it. I'm sorry if I startled you; I never meant you harm."
I kneel by the satchel and tug the clasp open. It's filled to the top with rich, beautiful beans, as perfect and fragrant as when I packed them this morning. My mind reels with the implications. Could it be I was wrong all along? That this isn't a battle of good or evil, but two sides of the same coin — that Morpheus isn't my enemy at all, nor is sleep an enslavement to fight.
"Is it true?" I demand of Hector, who's still standing speechless in the doorway. "Is sleep peaceful? Is it... beneficial?"
He looks at me with wide, startled eyes and slowly nods. "I suppose I never talked about it because I didn't want you to feel left out, but yes, it is quite refreshing and helps cure all sorts of ailments. I had no idea you feared it so."
I clutch the beans in my fists, trying to crush my shame. I've been wrong all along. Now Gran's words come back to me, a chiding rather than a comfort: folks will always fear that which they don't understand. I look from Morpheus to Hector and back again. "Will you teach me what you do?"
The city is dark as ebony again, but this time as I hurry along the city streets with my satchel full of beans, I no longer fear the blanket of darkness. I no longer check over my shoulder and peer around corners at each cross street. An owl calls from a distant tree, but I know now it's no cause for alarm.
At Fallowfield Street, Morpheus stands in the shadows, and before I sing my opening-spell and slip through the mayor's door, I raise my hand in a wave and my lips in a grateful smile. Thanks to him, the citizens will be well-rested — their minds sharp and bodies strong for their tasks of the day. Morpheus tips his top hat, and with a swish of his batwing cloak, he's gone.
This story originally appeared in NewMyths.com.