Sensorium

A Quantum Fairy Tale

Instead of coins, because she had no allowance, Amelia dropped the shiniest pebbles she could find down the garden wishing well, standing on her toes to look over the stone wall and watch them disappear. They clattered once or twice off the well walls and then, after a few seconds, came the splash. She ran around the garden, poking around the edges of the trimmed path, and came back with the largest stone she could carry in both hands, a glistening piece of split quartz that she balanced on the lip of the well, hesitating with the anticipated joy of it, before shoving it over the edge. It plummeted away into her imagination, a great white comet headed through space, and hit the bottom of the well with a cough of water.

Amelia listened for a long time as the water subsided. But the noise didn’t fully go away, there was still something disturbing the surface, getting louder, a rumble, getting closer. She pulled her face back from the dark pit of the well mouth. The rumble sounded like claws, climbing up the stone walls.

A black, reptilian face thrust up out of the well at her, a mouth full of teeth open to swallow her. Amelia shrieked and fell backward onto the ground. The black dragon climbed fully out of the pit and perched on the stone wall and hissed at her. She screamed again and clapped both of her hands together on the dragon’s body, trapping it.

Her mother heard her screams and came outside. “Oh look! You’ve caught a little lizard!”

Amelia looked at the creature in her hands. How strange, she thought, that it was able to fit in her palms. It had seemed so much larger just a second ago. The dragon flicked out its tongue and scooped her breath into its mouth. It could taste her fear, could taste all of the things that made up her insides. “Let it go, and wash your hands,” her mother said.

But she didn’t want to let it go. Because then it would eat her. “No.”

“Come on. Come inside and wash up.”

The dragon was looking at her, waiting for her to decide. So Amelia did the only thing she could do, and threw it back down the well. Her mother immediately scolded her, but Amelia felt satisfied that she had done the right thing. “No more playing by the well, if you’re going to do things like that.”

At the dinner table, Amelia’s parents talked to each other about their jobs, or about news on the radio of wars that sounded very dangerous but were also far away. Amelia’s father was a serious man who worked long hours in the city, and who liked to spend hours after dinner reading the newspaper before going to bed early. Neither of them spoke much to Amelia except to ask what she’d learned from the tutor that day or, and this from her mother repeatedly, to say, “Stop playing with your food,” and, “Sit up straight,” and, “Take your elbows off the table,” or to otherwise behave like a proper young lady.

When everyone had gone to sleep, and when she also was supposed to be asleep, Amelia opened her window and looked out over the garden. There were fairies in her garden, she knew; sometimes she talked with them when she couldn’t sleep. Here they were now, bright little specks of flickering light floating through the air, blinking on and off. The night was warm, and Amelia enjoyed breathing the fresh flower breezes that curled into her room. One of the fairies drifted close enough to her window that Amelia could clasp it in her hands, much more gently than she had the dragon, and whisper to the fistful of light she held. “What should I do about the dragon?” she asked the fairy.

The fairyfly answered, “You must keep your window closed at night so that he can’t get you. When you are asleep is when you are weakest against him.”

She let the firefly go and closed and locked her window tight. For a long while she lay perfectly still on her bed and watched the window, afraid to close her eyes. She shut them into little slits so that she could still see, and pretended to sleep, and as soon as she did the dragon came to her window and looked in on her. The moon was shining with all its might through the window and when the dragon crawled across the glass on its gecko feet, it cast huge black serpent shadows across Amelia’s bed. Amelia couldn’t help her fright, and cried out until she heard someone stirring in her parents’ room, coming down the hall. But even before her bedroom door opened, Amelia knew what her mother was going to say to her, that it was just a bad dream, that she was being silly, that there wasn’t anything out there.

The fairies did their best to keep her safe at night, but that didn’t help during the day when Amelia was playing in the garden, well away from the well, and saw the lizard sunning itself on a dry patch of grass. “Bad lizard!” she said to it, and took out her frustration by throwing one of her smooth pebbles that she kept in the pockets of her dress at it. She had a good arm, honed by all her practice skipping stones across the garden pond, and her throw hit the dragon squarely. The dragon looked up at Amelia for a minute and then purposefully, spitefully, spat a little ball of fire into the dry grass and slithered away. The girl stamped her feet on the grass to put it out, yelling, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” over and over until her mother came out and pulled her away and extinguished the fire with a bucket of water.

Amelia was punished harshly that night, confined to her room because her mother wouldn’t believe the story about the little dragon that could breathe fire. Amelia sat on her bed with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face, kicking the wall repeatedly, hoping that the noise disturbed her parents’ dinner downstairs. She watched the window carefully.

But something in the mirror made her stop kicking. In the mirror of her bedroom she could see herself, of course, but she could see herself lying down, on the bed, eyes closed tight, lit by the moon. In this vision, the window to her room had been left open and the black dragon — long and sinuous — flowed into her room and coiled around her bed, opened its mouth to swallow her.

Wide awake, Amelia jumped off her bed and ran to the mirror and did the only thing she could think of to save her sleeping self; she grabbed the edge of the mirror’s frame and pulled it from the wall down to the floor where it splintered into a thousand dragon-free pieces. Dinner downstairs was most certainly ruined. Here they came, frantic up the steps and down the hall.

Amelia never broke another mirror after that, but neither would she look into one ever again. If she was in a room with a mirror, Amelia would turn it around, or knock it over, or cover it as best she could. The dragon still came to visit her at night, when it thought she was asleep. Amelia tried to trick it each night by closing her eyes part way, so that it would come to her window faster and she could know where it was before she fell asleep. Sometimes, though, she was just so tired that her eyes closed all the way and Amelia fell asleep before she saw the dragon. Those were the worst nights, not knowing if it had got in somehow and was even now under her bed. Her dreams were full of the dragon and she shook in her sleep. Mornings after the night-terrors Amelia would wake up to a bed sodden with sweat, and would hastily change all the linens before her mother came up to get her out of bed.

Several years passed like this and Amelia turned fourteen. She had to be taught at home, because the other children were scared of her and her absolute determination when she told them about the dragon that haunted her. Her mother tried making her feel better by brushing out Amelia’s long, black hair and giving her makeup, which Amelia applied blindly as warpaint to scare the lizard when she went out hunting in the garden, making her eyes look deeper and darker than they actually were.

And she still spoke with the fairies, because they were the only ones that believed her and she was the only one who believed in them, but Amelia didn’t wait long nights by her window for them to come to her anymore. She had gathered hundreds of the fairyflies in a jar and put in a chloroform-cotton-ball with them and then, when they were all still, ground up their dry bodies into a powder and mixed it with water. Using a sewing needle, Amelia tattooed herself with the fairy ink, crying with the pain, but not stopping until she’d covered her hands and arms with faintly-glowing whorls. The patterns were almost invisible in daylight. Actually, they weren’t much more apparent in the dark, either, but at least Amelia knew that they were there, knew that she could cup her hands together and talk to them.

Her mother saw her walking out the door and asked, “Where are you going?”

And Amelia said, “To go kiss a frog.” Her mother laughed, thinking it was a joke, but Amelia was actually going down to the garden pond to do just that, because the fairies had told her to. She hiked up her pants to above her knees and waded into the water, swishing her hands around. Whenever she caught a frog, she’d pop it whole into her mouth and hold it there to see if anything happened. Spat it right back out if nothing did. And she did this until called back in for dinner.

The only other time she went near the well was when she was hunting. She would take the carving knife from the kitchen, go out into the garden, and seek out the black lizard. If she happened to catch one, she would chop its head off with the knife and either bury it in the flower bed or toss both halves down into the well. Maybe it was the wrong lizard, or maybe the dragon had many heads, but it came back to her window the next night, and every night after no matter how many lizards she chopped up.

Her mother knew the signs, and what they added up to: the fire-starting, the wetted sheets, the faint scars on Amelia’s hands from the needle, her imaginary fairy friends, and now the dead animals in the garden. She’d found a headless lizard among her flowers with a nice, neat incision mark, and matched it with blood on the carving knife, and had a very serious talk with Amelia’s father. Amelia could hear them arguing in hushed tones about “doctors,” “the hospital,” and “pills,” but she continued to hunt. Even though her parents hid the carving knife from her, the fairies always told her where to find it.

The parents had come to a decision about her, she could tell. She could see it in their eyes that they were just trying to find the right way to get her to the doctor’s and set this whole unpleasantness behind them. Amelia went out to the garden pond one last time. She waded out deep into the very center of it and found the largest frog she could, so large that she had to lift it with two hands to her mouth. As soon as her lips touched its toxic skin, Amelia’s perception of the world changed: the sky became a bright swirl of color like an oil painting; the glowing tattoos on her hands shone like lamps; her illuminated arms were brilliant arrows pointing her in the direction to go, into the kitchen, to the bottom drawer where the knife was again hidden; and the knife, when she drew it out, was a long, enchanted sword.

Even the voices of the fairies were sharper to her new senses. They no longer just whispered to her, but sang loudly in infinite harmonies, and told her what to do. Amelia stepped out into the garden. Her mother was there, the fairyflies sang. The sword is in your hand. The dragon was curled around the pulsing heart of the world, far below. Amelia could feel it in her feet.

Amelia’s mother saw her walking through the garden with the knife in one hand and frog in the other, and called out to her with concern. Amelia started to run, and her mother cried out, “Stop!” but it was too late. Amelia leapt over the stone lip of the well and fell headfirst into the pit.

She fell and fell, hearing her mother’s screams grow fainter above her, and fell until she was no longer falling toward a black water studded with shiny rocks but was flying upward towards a night sky full of stars, and then Amelia flew up out of the darkness and alighted gently in a new land where everything was bigger and brighter than back home. The trees were taller, the carving knife was still a beautiful white sword, and the frog in her hand was now the size of a football. Surprised, Amelia dropped him. The frog rolled around until his bulging eyes were pointed the right way up, and blinked at her. He extended his stork-thin legs and rose from the ground to about half of Amelia’s height and introduced himself. “Greetings, Princess Amelia. I am your servant, Pudley.” He wore a coat with many more buttons on it than buttonholes and with leather patches on the elbows.

“Princess?”

Pudley said, “There goes the dragon!” and pointed at the multi-headed dragon as it flew away overhead, blotting out the sky. Amelia no longer felt afraid of it now that she was here. She took off running after it, and Pudley kept up with long strides of his spindly legs.

“Where am I?”

“This is the land of Sensorium.”

It all seemed so unreal, so hyperreal as to appear fake. “Am I dreaming this?”

“No, Princess. Sensorium is not in your mind; your mind is in Sensorium. The seat of your consciousness exists as an expression of particle entanglement in higher physical dimensions. It is the place where things have their true form, sensed directly by the spirit rather than filtered through the body.” The dragon had flown out of sight, but it was clear now where Amelia and Pudley were going — a stone castle sat on the hill and the frog continued to explain as they pushed through the brush and bracken. “A platonic world. The doors between the two worlds used to be more accessible, but now only a tiny bit of Sensorium makes it through to your world.”

He was a most studious frog. “And I am the princess of this land?”

“All girls are princesses here, but not the pink-dress-wearing, high-tea-at-noon type princess. You are the princesses who run in the woods, hunt, shoot, fight, barefoot and uncombed, dirty but pure, the ones who rescue the knights when the knights are in trouble.”

“Is my mother here, too? My house? My school?”

Pudley frowned his large lips into a long pout. “Your mother has long ago built a cage out of her brain around Sensorium, so that it cannot get through to her mind. The human brain is only a conduit for Sensorium.”

They got to the castle and entered it, but it was a dead castle filled with empty rooms and no people, offering nothing until Amelia reached the very highest tower where she found the sleeping girl. This was the same girl she’d seen in her bedroom mirror, her own self, unconscious and vulnerable. And there, too, was the black dragon, with all of its coils draped over the bed. The dragon roared at her, and Amelia charged at it with her sword, screaming her rage. She hacked and slashed at the black scales, scoring deep, steaming cuts on its necks and body until she was finally able to drive it away from the sleeping girl and out the window. Amelia rushed to her side to make sure she was unharmed.

“Does she sleep all the time?” Amelia asked the frog.

Pudley said, “Now you have to make a decision. You can either wake her with a kiss, or you can stand guard over her with your sword, fend off all the dragons and other nightmares that come to the tower every night.”

“She looks so frail.”

“She is just the physical, without the power of the spirit.”

Well, Amelia didn’t want to be stuck in the tower for all of eternity, but she couldn’t leave her asleep and undefended, so the princess bent over and kissed herself. And as soon as her lips touched the fatigue toxins in the sleeping girl’s skin, Amelia’s perception changed again. She was the one lying on her back, strapped to a hospital bed, and there were a lot of concerned faces looking down at her.

“Oh, Amelia!” her mother said. “We were so worried. Why did you do that? Was it because of the lizards? We found all those dead animals at the bottom of the well with you.”

Amelia didn’t answer. Her hands were empty and cuffed to the railings of the bed. Everything around her looked small and overwashed, like black-and-white television. They wheeled her bed through the sanitarium and a little bit later they put her in a wheelchair and pushed her around in that, too. Only after the first few days did they let her walk on her own to the art-therapy classes and meals. The finger-paintings and crayon scrawls that the other patients made looked a lot like Sensorium to her — clashing colors and strange proportions. “Have you been there?” she asked each artist, pointing to the scenes they drew.

But they always answered, with frightened or panicked looks, “No, these are the things that come to me.” Clearly they were trying to get it out of their minds and onto paper. Trying to get their minds out of Sensorium with their prescriptions. Amelia watched a lot of TV in the rec room, saying, “Mirror, mirror,” to herself over and over again when all the pretty actresses came on screen.

After a long while of living in the sanitarium, Amelia met another patient, Mary-Alice, who drew pictures of Sensorium but didn’t seem afraid of it. “I like to go here in my sleep,” Mary-Alice told Amelia cheerfully.

Amelia sat down with her and said, “Wouldn’t you like to go there forever?” They talked for hours about what they would do if they were free to go anywhere in the worlds. After that, Amelia saved up all of her pills, the tranquilizers, and crushed them up into a powder. When it was dinner time, she took two bowls of applesauce from the cafeteria, mixed the poison into one bowl and brought them to where Mary-Alice was sitting.

“Do you have anyone coming to visit you tomorrow?” Mary-Alice asked. Tomorrow was Christmas.

“I don’t know yet,” Amelia answered, and gave her the poisoned applesauce. Mary-Alice loved applesauce.

“I think my family will be here.” Her eyes were bright, and her face was red, maybe with excitement. Then Mary-Alice began to choke, spitting up gobs of sauce onto the table. Amelia backed away and watched the doctors try to save her friend. They shouldn’t try, she thought, because Mary-Alice was going to Sensorium, back to reality. But as she watched her friend struggle so hard to stay awake, fight for life, vomit up applesauce and pills, Amelia became upset. It looked to her like Mary-Alice would rather stay here, was afraid to enter Sensorium.

Amelia walked up the stairs to an empty room where she could think about this. She had believed that everyone would feel the same way once they knew what she knew about Sensorium, but after all these years she finally realized that people didn’t want to travel with her there. Sensorium was a dangerous world compared to this one, and dangerous things still came through the doors, things like dragons, the goat-footed balloon man, and people with wolves’ heads. She would have to go back by herself.

But how could she get there, locked up in this high tower? The only way to escape was to let down the long braided rope of her hair. Amelia looped the rope around her neck, tied the end of it to the doorknob, and sat down. A few minutes later, something pulled on the noose and took her up through the ceiling and drew her up through the ground of Sensorium, a princess again.

She stood up and brushed the leaves off, adjusted her hair. The short, spoiled hospital gown she’d worn for these years was now a long white dress of soft silk, and her tattoos shone through it. There was a noise behind her, and here came Pudley, walking through the forest toward her. “Princess Amelia!” he cried out. “I missed you so.”

“I had to come back, Pudley, and close the doors to the other world. I have to guard them. The other world can’t contain the things from Sensorium.” And there was her sword on the ground beside her. The sword shivered in her hand when she picked it up — it was happy to see her. She spoke to it and named it, called it “Icepick,” like the doctors’ tools in the sanitarium. “Take me to the nearest door, Pudley.”

“What about the sleeping girl?” Pudley asked.

Amelia looked at her discarded body made out of formaldehyde and mortician’s wax, preserved under glass on a bed of leaves. “She can remain where she is, forever.”

The frog pursed his rubber lips and bulged out his eyes until they could see nearly the whole of Sensorium and then he pointed and said, “There!” taking off at a quick lope with the princess close behind. They rushed through the fairy rings and woodhenges of the forest until Pudley stopped her at a small footpath and Amelia saw a young knight walking on it, wearing a steel helmet and carrying a short sword of his own.

She crouched down beside Pudley and whispered, “How did he get here? Where is his door?”

The forest was full of shallow caves and blind bends in the road. The frog said, “Any place may be a door to Sensorium if a curious person uses the right reality tunnel to burrow through to it. To keep him from coming back here, you must blind his perception to those tunnels.” The knight on the path heard them whispering and stopped to peer into the bushes. He held his sword loosely, unprepared for when Amelia sprang out of hiding and knocked his helmet away with her sword. The boy fell over backward, crying, dropping his sword, and Amelia saw just how young he was. “You must blind him now,” said Pudley, “quickly! If you wish to protect him from this Sensorium.”

She hesitated only a second more, hearing his cries, before deciding that this boy was not like her, not strong enough to survive in Sensorium, and drove the sharp, fine point of Icepick into the direct middle of his forehead. The boy froze, eyes shocked open, and fell onto the ground where dead leaves swallowed his body and took him below into the other world. The boy sat up in his front yard, where he had fallen while playing among the neatly-raked piles of leaves. He had a newspaper helmet on his head and a cardboard sword in one hand. He threw both away when he went inside to find something for the sharp headache that was suddenly and alarmingly growing in his temples.

Amelia looked at the imprint in the leaves that the wind was already erasing. “Is he safe now?” she asked.

“Yes, Princess, safe from here. You can do nothing else for him from here.” Sensorium was a large kingdom, filled with many people, but Amelia didn’t notice that her efforts were never-ending. She threw herself into the quest with enthusiasm. She came across and blinded a musician who played the entire range of pipes, flutes, horns, ocarinas, syrinx (both ornithological and medical), conchs, didgeridoo, and death whistles to gather hundreds of children around him on the path to Sensorium. She found and blinded a man who saw Sensorium in the clouds of his hookah pipe and who built churches in the stalks of giant toadstools where others could come and do the same.

When she was tired out from these labors, Amelia returned to where her body rested in the glass case and fell asleep against the cold, hard side of it. Pudley’s eyes looked skyward like a planetarium projector and tracked the eel-like flight of the black dragon as it hunted little boys in paper hats.

She and Pudley slept for a while until Amelia was awakened by a noise. She saw a woman bent over the glass coffin and heard her crying Amelia’s name over and over. “Mom?” said Amelia, standing. Pudley heard her and rolled over. “What are you doing here?”

Her mother shouted, “Amelia!” and rushed toward her with arms stretched out. “Come back to me!”

Amelia tried blocking her mother’s advance with the flat of her sword, but it got tangled up between them and the point of Icepick slipped up under the mother’s ribs. “Why is she here?” Amelia asked Pudley, watching her mother sit on the ground and gasp for air.

The frog rubbed his mouth with his fingers and said, “I believe the cage around her mind is breaking down, likely upon seeing your body in the other world.”

Her mother continued to struggle like a fish. “Will she be all right?”

“Some residual heartache, shortness of breath, but you must not let her stay here. She is ill-suited for it.”

So Amelia steadied her sword hand with her other and rammed Icepick directly into her mother’s mind. Icepick went in like a needle and knitted closed the quantum loophole. With a sigh, her mother closed her eyes and sank out of sight into the mud. The sword point was stuck in her skull, and after she was gone it remained upright in the ground. Amelia pulled it free with trembling hands. It was not the last time they saw her mother in Sensorium. They came across her wandering the woods, lost and crying, because the initial shock of seeing Amelia’s body was not the only doorway into this world. Amelia sent hundreds of wanderers back to their mundane worlds, where they could only sit blankly in movie houses, and where they slept silently and completely undisturbed in their beds each night. She dispatched them with enthusiasm, even the oneiro-warriors who came to Sensorium clad in full armor, and yet she hesitated during every fresh encounter with her mother.

She picked apart the yarnball that her mother’s brain had become with every year that Amelia roamed in Sensorium: first, extreme grief drove her mother through the doorway; after Amelia closed that, her mother came through with prayer and meditation; then there was a doorway in the smoked glass pipe and the physical pain of starvation. Her mother came to visit her faster and faster once they committed her to a hospital, as her mind raged up and down all the flickering frequencies. The mother was talking out loud about seeing her daughter again, and the nurses discussed upping her dosage.

Sensorium and the other world were two ships tied together in the dark, and Amelia ran the length of the deck, cutting the halyards with her blade, sending the two drifting farther apart on the tides. She and Pudley saw her mother one last time. The woman wouldn’t even approach them anymore, frightened of the icepick. “This is it,” Pudley whispered to the princess. “She has come through her final doorway.”

Amelia dashed toward her, quick and tan as a deer, and tackled her mother to the ground. She tried to struggle, but Amelia had grown strong during her outdoor life in the woods and pinned her down. Her wrists in Amelia’s grip were wet and slippery. “Please,” her mother begged. “You’re all I have left. Don’t send me back. I want to stay here with you.”

Amelia said, “I can’t!” through her own salt and water. “You can’t be here, Mom. It’s not safe. There are awful things I have to protect you from.”

“This is the time,” said Pudley. “The door must be closed.”

“I can’t,” Amelia whispered again.

The fairies in her arms screamed their songs to remind Amelia about all the heart-hardening things her mother had done in raising her, to give her the courage to do it, and Icepick was just a sliver away from the skin of her mother’s head. And Amelia insisted, “I can’t.”

“You must,” said Pudley.


Josh Pearce writes from the San Francisco Bay Area where he fights the encroaching sprawl of Silicon Valley with longhand. He currently works as an assistant editor at Locus magazine and his writing is in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Clarkesworld. Follow him on Twitter @fictionaljosh or visit fictionaljosh.com.