Look with me, reader. There! Do you see it? Far, far down beneath the rolling clouds, there is a walled-in, closed-off, town. It is miles and miles away from the twinkling cities on the coast, and there are no lights here. No streetlights, no flashlights, no book lights -- not even a single candle. The windows are all small and square-shaped and shut tight against the cold, and every last one is dark.
All except for one. Yes, at the very heart of this little dark town, there is a single window that is full of light. And beyond that window is a bedroom, and within that bedroom is a boy. His name is Peter, and in his right hand he holds the only light in his entire town, and in his left hand he holds a book.
Soon, my reader, we will come back to him, for this is his story. But first, let me tell you about his world.
Peter’s little town was a rather terrible place to live, although no one living there quite seemed to know it. The weather was always cold. The colors were mostly dry and dull. The people were mostly dry and dull. The books were mostly dry and dull, and all filled up with nothing but ordinary facts. Every morning at sun-up, every last grown-up picked up a big beige briefcase from beside their front door and began to push through the long streets of the town, to their factory or their station or their office. Every night at sundown, every last grown-up pushed back home through the streets in more or less exactly the same way. It was quite useless for anyone to stay at work past sundown, seeing as no one could see a thing in the dark. Much to the confusion of the founders of the town, not a single form of light, man-made or otherwise, had functioned inside of the wall for nearly three centuries (except, of course, for the sun and the moon, which will always cut through even the darkest of darknesses). And so, from eight at night to six in the morning, the town could do nothing but sleep and wait.
Yes, the town truly was a horrible place to live. The night sky, always heavy with smoke. The children played, of course, as all children must. But they were only permitted to take part in organized activities, like golf and tennis and chess, and they were never allowed to imagine up games of their own. At school, the children recited their sums and their multiplication tables, and practiced their letters and their spelling and their definitions all day. And, worst of all, in the entirety of the town -- in every last home, in every last classroom, in every last library -- in all of these places put together, there was not one single storybook.
Peter, a rather ordinary little boy, grew up in one of hundreds of gray homes that were lined up neatly near the central square of the town. He dressed just like all of the other children. He spoke just like all of the other children. He seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be exactly like all of the other children.
No one knew what would happen, of course. No one can see the future. But even then, the signs were there, and those who looked closely could see them. Peter had always been the kind of boy who sat for hours and hours by the window on rainy days, watching the grown-ups pass by his house with their blue umbrellas and their brown coats and their plodding black boots. He liked to make up stories about them. Where had they come from? Where were they going? Why? He was the kind of boy who liked to watch them melting snow darken the dull gray stone of the front steps, and who saw shapes and faces and all sorts of creatures in the clouds.
Now, reader, I am sure that at this point in the story, you quite like Peter, and you want to be his friend. So, do I. But you must understand that the grown-ups in Peter’s little town did not like children who were not dull and serious and just like little grown-ups themselves. And so, it happened that Peter’s teacher called his parents into school to discuss his classroom behavior.
“Would you like to see what your son did on yesterday’s addition quiz?” asked the teacher, leaning forward over the desk and slapping down a sheet of paper with Peter’s name scrawled across the top in pen. She pointed sharply to a question about halfway down the page. It read:
4 + 7 = ?
There was nothing unusual about the question itself, and for a moment, Peter’s parents were confused. But then they saw what his teacher was pointing to: in place of the answer was a swirl of lines and shapes, scribbles that seemed to take on the form of wings and a beak and two short legs.
“It seems to be...a small, two-dimensional representation of some peculiar flying beast. It’s absolutely absurd!”
Here, I must pause to let you know that the curious figure that Peter’s teacher referred to as “a small, two-dimensional representation of some peculiar flying beast” was, in fact, a simple drawing of a bird. You see, since the wall had been constructed, no one new had come into the town, and no one old had left it. And so, while even the youngest children who lived there could explain the meaning of “algebra” or “monotonous,” not even the most learned members of the population were aware that the word “drawing” existed. No one in that town could have told you what the word “story” meant -- or “elf,” or “magic,” or even “prince”!
“And, sir, while we’re discussing your son, I must inform you that he has been lying, as well! Yes, lying! He wastes precious daylight hours telling the other students all sorts of awful tall-tales, filled with talking birds, and walking trees, and singing flowers. As if flowers could sing!”
Now, reader, you and I know well enough that Peter had not been lying at all. He had only been telling stories. But in this little dark town, no one except our dreamer knew the difference.
Peter began to cry as soon as he and his parents stepped out of the school building. He cried all the way home, through his dinner, through his daily bedtime math problem and through his weekly bedtime spelling test. And at last, still crying into his pillow, the boy fell into a deep sleep.
In his dreams, he drifted up -- up, higher and higher, out of his bed and straight through the closed screen of the little, square-shaped window. His soft white pajamas glowed like butterfly wings in the moonlight, and he stared down in wonder at the darkness of the city as it faded to a speck beneath him. He rose up farther, higher and higher and higher, above the layer of smoke and into the land of the stars. There he wandered for hours and hours before falling back to Earth and finding himself on the shore of a beach with the twinkling lights of a city behind him. Far off in the distance, he could see the speck of darkness that was his home -- and all around it, beyond its wall, were other villages and towns and cities, filled with twinkling, laughing lights. He stared at those little lights for what felt like days -- he thought that they were the most beautiful things that he had ever seen. And then, he turned to the ocean.
If you have ever stood on a white-sand beach at night, you will know that by the time the stars come out, the water is warmer than the shore. If you have ever waded into an ocean in starlight, you will know that the earth feels soft and cool beneath your feet, and that the rushing waves feel safe and warm around your ankles. Somehow, the whole world feels closer by night than it does by day. Fiction becomes truth. Dreams become reality. The impossible becomes possible. As Peter waded farther and farther into the water, he felt all of this and more.
He didn’t remember quite how it had happened -- perhaps he had stumbled upon it embedded in the sand, or found it floating on the surface of the water -- or perhaps it had simply appeared before him. All he knew was that one moment, there was nothing -- and the next, there it was, in his outstretched hand. He stared down at it in the moonlight, the brown leather cover and the worn yellow pages. It was soft to the touch, and far heavier than any book that he had seen before. He stared for a few moments at the gold-lettered title. It was a single word, strange and beautiful on the page. A word that he had never come across before.
He ran a finger over the letters. Traced them, one by one. He sounded it out, slowly. “Fair-y-tales. Fairytales.” What more can I tell you, reader? He fell in love.
When he woke up, hours later, there it was under his pillow: the book, with its brown cover and its gold print and that one strange, beautiful word. And beside it, something extraordinary: a flashlight. His hand trembling, Peter reached out and flipped it on.
Light, the first light in three centuries, flooded the boy’s bedroom. In that moment, there was nothing that Peter wanted more in the world than to read those stories. And so, he did, cover to cover, with the town’s first light in three hundred years clutched tightly in his palm.
And now, reader, here we are: back to the beginning of our story, looking down on him from above the clouds. Do you see him? Do you see his light? There he is now, with the book in one hand and the flashlight in the other.
Watch, as he finishes and puts the book down. Reads it all the way through one time again. Then, all of a sudden, realizes that he holds magic in the palm of his hand.
Watch, as he runs to his father and shows him the book and the flashlight. Watch, as his father calls his mother. Watch, as his mother calls the mayor, and as the mayor calls the governor, and as they both come over to the doorstep at three o’clock in the morning to see it all for themselves.
Watch, now, as they all sit down to read, all four of them together, and the boy, too -- as they laugh and cry and let the words fill them up in a way that they have never quite been filled before.
Watch, as storybooks are printed and drawings are made, as children are told that they may play their own games. As the walls are torn down and the parents take their children down to the sea for the first time in their lives.
And watch, now, as the little dark town’s lights come on, all at once, shining there in the darkness like a thousand floating candles, drifting across dark, deep waters. Watch, as, for the first time in nearly three hundred years, it is not always winter.
You see? The world takes care of its dreamers.