idol survivor | individual challenge 2 | 1700 words
Willard Canticle was the last of the great dream-farmers, a spare, silvery sort of man with round-rimmed spectacles and faded blue button-down shirts. He favored rosewood pipes and calico cats, and he lived way out in the Northern part of the country at the very end of Pickleberry Road.
Willard had learned the art of farming dreams from his mother's father's mother-father. It was a complicated lineage, to be sure. All of the delicate details of feeding, coaxing, pruning, and harvesting had been taught to him from an early age. By the time he was seven, Willard could spot embryonic Jungian archetypes and ground-breaking inventions with the best of them, but he was duty-bound to let them ripen on their own like even the most ordinary dreams before he could free them to find their destinations.
He still gave the best dreams a little extra care and love, certain he was the first dream-farmer to do that and entirely wrong in thinking so.
Dreams were a year-round crop, in constant growth and fruition no matter the season. Willard would dig rows of little four-inch-deep holes in the dirt, and then drop a hope-seed and a star-secret into each one before covering it over and patting the earth down. Then he would wait to see what grew.
He fed the seeds a variety of fine and nutritious foods, for it was impossible to be certain what sort of dream a seed might want to be. He sprinkled the earth with fish scales and flower petals, and mulched in star moss and powdered narwhal horns and forgotten puzzle-pieces from rainy Sunday afternoons. He supplemented the soil with frog chants and foolish decisions, and brushed the emerging dream-buds with moth-wing dust and midnight yearnings and summer reveries.
He watered his crops with stray song-fragments and moonbeams, with wind whispers and backwoods folktales and the laughter of children.
Willard had acres and acres of land, and nearly all of it was covered in dreamlets in various stages of development. Willard would walk through the property each day, planting hope seeds, feeding his crops, and checking on their progress. He harvested the dreams that were ready, and culled any that had morphed into nightmares (when he dared, for nightmares were unpredictable and snappish).
Most of his crops needed only modest attention, but Willard was too fascinated by the process to let any of his plantings languish for long.
Some of the dreams were so shy that he had to creep up on them at night to try to glimpse their most recent configurations. Those were often his favorites. Others transformed almost hourly, and even after decades or centuries of tending dreams and raising them up from the ground, the entire process was as mysterious as ever.
While Willard provided opportunity and nourishment, he had no ability to influence what the dreamlets grew into. Each was unique, and they were often strange and wonderful, shifting and changing as they matured and offering little certainty as to what they might become. A dream might arise from the soil with the patterned scales of an armadillo, and yet be a bilge-pump by nightfall. A promising-looking little rosebud might evolve into a nightmare of teeth and feathers despite all of Willard's encouragement, and a box of warts might stretch and grow in an ever-changing series of sizes and shapes until it became a complex mindscape on the order of Arthurian legend.
At the moment, Willard had his eye on a purple pinwheel, and on something that looked like a balloon calliope.
"What do you think these will turn into?" he asked Patches the cat.
Patches looked at the dreamlets, and then looked at Willard. "Mew," she replied.
"That's what you said last time. Could be you're right, I suppose."
Willard scattered owl-prayers and seashell-longings in the soil, and then stood up and surveyed the property slowly. "How about a trip to the East hill today? I think it's ready for replanting."
He lifted Patches onto the passenger seat of the all-weather tractor, and they chugged off toward the back of the farm. "I was thinking that shady spot under the oaks, where you can see the river. Might find some fruit on the old apple trees near there, too."
Up on the ridge, Willard got out his seed satchel and a trowel. He dug a couple of nice holes ten feet apart in a spot overlooking the flame-colored trees on the far banks of the river, and another farther along that offered a view of the eddies at the base of a enormous boulder. He planted a hope-seed and a star-secret in each, rescuing the last one after Patches tried to snatch it back out of the hole.
"If only I could teach you to do this instead of undo it, maybe then we'd get somewhere," Willard said. "As it is, I've got no one to take my place…"
He put his satchel and trowel away, and took a pair of flour sacks out of the tractor. Patches scampered after him as he strode out toward the old russet grove waiting under the bright October sky.
At home later that day, Willard put the satchel back in the dark corner of the tool shed to let it grow new seeds over night. He stowed the apples in the root cellar, made supper for himself and Patches, and then built a fire and settled in with a book on the museums of Paris.
Sure would like to see it all someday, he thought. But I don't suppose that's possible…
The next few weeks at the farm were busy, with dreams coming due for harvest one after another. Sometimes that was just how things went. Each dream grew at its own pace, and there was no telling when fierce or fine weather, or even a random exultation of fresh wing flutters, might cause a whole slew of Willard's crops to ripen early.
One day, Willard was out on the back forty inspecting the plating on a large, blue, beweaponed stallion that looked about ready to cut free. The nip of winter was in the air, and it made him hastier than he should have been.
He hadn't been keeping a proper eye on the two large nightmares across the way. He'd tried to destroy them when he'd first realized what they were becoming, but it had proved too risky. After that, the only option was to starve them and hope they withered from neglect, but nightmares were stubborn creatures and seldom died on their own. These had simply grown larger and more menacing in the ensuing months.
As Willard reached down and sliced the edges of the stallion loose from the soil, he heard a growl behind him and a horrible wrenching sound. He stood up and turned around quickly, and came face-to-face with an enormous set of claws and fangs and whipsaws all spinning around an evil-looking carnivorous tree.
"Oh, heavens!" Willard yelled, as he ran off through the field, dodging through and around his crops in the hope of slowing the thing down. That had worked a couple of times before, but he'd been younger then, and faster.
He could hear the thing roaring and snarling behind him, and he kept on running. Unless the nightmare grew bored with him and went off in search of its true owner, he had little chance of escaping it. Who'll tend all these dreams if something happens to me? he thought.
He reached the edge of the old willow grove and darted in, hoping it might offer some protection. Then suddenly, he heard the boom of a cannon and the roaring stopped.
Willard peeked out from the trees to see what had happened.
The dream-stallion stood at the edge of a large, smoking crater, snorting in satisfaction. "It is dead now," the stallion said. "You are safe."
Willard walked over to stallion's side, admiring its handiwork. "That was quite impressive," he said. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome." The stallion looked around him. "What a stunning enterprise. You must be most proud of it."
"Oh, I am," Willard said. "It's been my life's work. I don't know what'll become of it after I'm gone, whenever that happens. Not today, thanks to your help."
"Do you wish it to continue?" the stallion asked.
"Yes, only I have no one to teach and no one to take it over. It is the last of its kind, and I don't know how to save it."
"If that is your wish, then you may let the care of it fall to me," said the stallion. "You must simply train me in its needs and upkeep, and then be free to live the rest of your life as you choose."
"But is that really possible?" Willard eyed the stallion doubtfully. "Could a dream really take on such an important task? I've never heard of such a thing."
"You were your mother's dream once," the stallion said, "and she was her father's dream before you."
"No," Willard frowned. "That can't be true."
"It is true," the stallion said. Then it stretched and shifted, bulged and narrowed, until it took on the shape of a young man with steel-blue eyes and the same spare build as Willard. "And I am your dream, the one that grew from your own wishes, and now your future is yours to decide."
"Oh!" Willard said. "Well, I'm much obliged. I do believe I might like to do a little traveling…"
"Then we shall begin training as soon as you're ready, and in time you will be able to do as you wish."
"That would be marvelous. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it," Willard said. He rocked on his heels a little. "Well, how's about we go to my shed and I start showing you the tools and what-all, the tricks of the trade?"
"Certainly," the young man said.
"What should I call you, then?" Willard asked.
"How about Buck?" the young man said.
"Sure, Buck it is."
Willard led the way through the battered field back toward the tool shed, thinking about Paris and the Grand Canyon and the canals of Venice.
He slowed as the neared the shed's doorway, and paused for a moment.
"Tell me something, Buck," he said. "How do you feel about cats?"
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