"Tell me, Chris, what do you think happens when you create something? A character, for example. What do you think happens to him?"
Deirdre and Chris were sitting at one of the wooden tables of the restaurant that was proud enough to own the name of The Last Homely House. Upon its stony walls lamps were burning and a strange unreal music could be heard. Chris stared thoughtfully in front of him, before answering Deirdre.
"What do you mean what happens to him?" he asked at length. "Well, I guess he lives the life and undergoes the adventures the writer has set for him and that's that. If he's well-constructed, then he'll even become an example for other characters."
"Well, I was actually hoping for something a little bit deeper," Deirdre declared.
"How much deeper?" Chris inquired, shaking his head thoughtfully. "It's hard to say exactly what happens, Deirdre. No one knows."
Deirdre stood silent for some time, her attention bent on her food. Presently, she looked up.
"I wonder if we're doing a right thing," she admitted. "When writing books and…and creating characters. I mean, we're creating a person and we're messing with his or her life for the sake of entertaining others. Imagine if that person could feel - I think the feelings would not be exactly pleasant."
"Perhaps not," Chris agreed. "But really, it would be quite boring if no stories were written on that ground. It would be like…well, very much like a universe where no life was."
Deirdre mused on this.
"So," she concluded. "You think the reason why we're here is the same reason why the characters we create are here?"
"Well, why not?" asked Chris. "How can we know that we actually aren't the characters of a well-planned book?"
"But some are sure," Deirdre protested thinking about Edsel's visit. "Some know. Some characters know they are only…well, the figments of one's imagination."
Chris looked at Deirdre puzzled. He was used to her strange ways, but that was a little too much.
"I'm not sure I understand you, Deirdre," he confessed. "What do you mean, they know? How can they know? And how can you know they know?"
Deirdre shook her head, dismissing the subject with a wave of her hand. She regretted having said so much. She had of course not mentioned Edsel to Chris and had no intention of ever doing so.
"Oh, just forget what I said, Chris," she told him lightly. "It was only one of my eccentric ideas and badly explained as well. It doesn't matter."
Chris looked at Deirdre sceptically.
"Really?" he asked. "Very well, if you insist. I just had the feeling our talk was more than academic."
"Did you?" inquired Deirdre absent-minded. "Well, how else could it have been?"
Chris shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. Deirdre stood equally silent, staring into space. Abruptly, she stirred and said:
"I think I'd better go."
"Just wait for me to finish and we'll both go," he told her. "Wonderful place, this is, but too stuffy. I have no problem with this in winter, but in spring and summer it's getting on my nerves. So, where do you want to go next?"
But Deirdre shook her head.
"I meant, I think I'd better go home," she explained. "Get some work done and all that. Sorry, Chris. I hope it does not bother you. It doesn't, does it?"
"Not in the least," Chris replied cheerfully.
It was not entirely true, but he had learned he sometimes had to hide his emotions. When Deirdre was having one of her strange moods, the best thing one could do was to let her be. He knew that quite well by now.
Deirdre left after she had paid her half of the consummation - a thing which she knew irritated Chris, but she was much too proud to do otherwise. Sometimes there would be quite long rows between her and Chris on this matter as they were both stubborn and none of them wanted to give in. She knew that the only reason why Chris had not objected now was because he had sensed her in one of her "moods" as he used to call them. Deirdre shook her head, grinning. She had to admit there was something quite admirable in Chris' stoic way of putting up with her whims. Come to think about it, he was about the only one that did.
Deirdre had been walking for some five minutes when she realised she was not alone. There was someone else beside her, a silent yet compelling presence and Deirdre knew who it was before she had turned to look at him. She smiled brightly in greeting.
"I am glad you are here, Edsel," she confessed.
Edsel inclined his head, acknowledging both words and smile.
"You wanted me to be," he told her.
"Does it bother you?" Deirdre asked worried, perhaps more so than she had been a little while ago when she had put the same question to Chris.
"You already know that it matters not," Edsel reminded her.
Deirdre bent her head.
"I'm sorry," she said. "If it bothers you, I mean. But perhaps you could tell me what you want. I would have you be content."
"Nobody likes a content character, Deirdre," Edsel pointed out. "You as a writer should know that. You do know that."
"I do," admitted Deirdre. "But right now I really do not care whether readers will like you or not."
"Really?" inquired Edsel. "I thought that was my purpose. To make them admire me. To make them be astounded by me. And, in the same time, by you, by the great story you have created."
"It can still be a great story," Deirdre said. "Even if I give you what you want…"
At that moment, Edsel stopped and turned to face her. They were now so close to each other, they almost touched. Deirdre thought of reaching out for his hand to see whether he was real and tangible, but she was too afraid of what she might find out to do it.
"It can still be a great story even if you give me what you want," Edsel repeated. "I am not so sure. For I want too much, you see. I would have the Forgotten City become a place of peace and beauty, its people esteemed and honoured. I would have the strife between the king and his eldest son end, for I feel torn in two, as I have sworn loyalty to the king yet Adelmar is my friend. Also, I would have the King's youngest son grow up somehow without me having to torment myself with the thought of having to murder his innocence. Not to mention that I have certain thoughts concerning princess Mabshenka. But of that I already know you do not approve. It would be - how did you put it? Yes - idyllic and overly-romantic."
Deirdre started hearing his last words. Who was he, if he was capable of entering her mind and reading her thoughts?
"You knew of this?" she could not help asking. "But how?"
"How not?" Edsel replied. "They were part of the words that made me, if you recall. While I was being born, your words were brought by distant winds to me. Before I had become aware of myself, I was aware of your prophecy. Of my doom."
The word doom made Deirdre flinch.
"But," she began desperately, "but I can alter all this…It was only a plan, I can change it. And I did not even know then what I was doing. I did not know I was doing it to you!"
"Why is it so different that you are doing it to me and not to someone else?" Edsel inquired. "That is what I would like to know."
Deirdre stood for some time staring over Edsel's shoulder. Why indeed? she asked herself. What was it about Edsel that made her want to change her plans, that made her regret the things she had once called normal and harmless without a moment's thought? What indeed?
"Because you came to me," she said at length, speaking slowly and carefully. "You answered a call I did not even know I had sent. You came to fulfil an unknown wish - unknown, yet consuming. Should I not show you some gratitude? You have helped me. Should I not give you something in return?"
"I did not come in answer to a plea," Edsel said. "But to a command. Commands are different. They give you no choice."
"But even so," Deirdre insisted, "obeying commands deserves some reward, don't you think?"
Edsel inclined his head.
"Perhaps," he consented quietly.
"Then why not accept a reward from me?" Deirdre wanted to know. "Why not let me give you something?"
"But you have already given me something," Edsel pointed out. "You gave me a purpose. And, of course, an existence. And for one like me, this is quite enough. For now, at least. Later on, perhaps - but that is only up to you. I am still in your power."
Deirdre nodded slowly. She would have liked to tell Edsel that she needed help with what she was about to do, that, now she had discovered what power she possessed, she was afraid she might misuse it. But she somehow knew an answer to such a question would not come from him. He had been, after all, made by her and how could he know something she did not?
She abruptly realised that she was alone. Her visitor had left her - without a word, this time - as suddenly and as unexpectedly as he had arrived. Thinking that it did not quite do to stand thus in the middle of the street - especially the street on which The Last Homely House was, from which Chris could emerge at any moment - and also knowing she had no further reasons to be there, Deirdre resumed her walk with a brisk, purposeful step.
She was as confused as ever when she finally reached home and could hardly settle to do anything. She read a little, then wrote another chapter of her story- a bad choice, because whenever she wrote Edsel's name she could not help raising her head to see whether her visitor was not there. Also, she would dearly have liked to forget about the story and what she had done through it for a while. In the end, she decided to put some music. She switched on the volume as loud as she could bear it and settled herself on the bed, her eyes closed, her expression finally peaceful.
Soon there was nothing, only a river - soft, peaceful, soothing - bearing her slowly but surely away from the Forgotten City, away from Edsel, and from all the responsibilities and burdens and questions she was too afraid to answer. It was better than sleep. In sleep, dreams come to attack you, reminding you of what you are and what you aspire to be, constant, ruthless proofs of your greatest sins. Those who claim sleep is oblivion are wrong, for in sleep you remember against your will, in sleep you have no power over your memories. They come to attack you, knowing you are too vulnerable to resist an assault.
But there was no peace for Deirdre that night. The shrill ring of the phone - fainter than usual yet still clear to be heard over the music - made her jump. Her eyes snapped opened and all the unusual events of the past days returned to her. She looked around her dazzled. But the phone kept on ringing, urgent and insistent, not allowing her the moment she needed to become once more accustomed to her reality. Deirdre sighed, passing her hand over her eyes.
"That is surely Chris," she said to herself. "Wanting to see whether my so-called mood has left me or not."
She turned down the volume of the music and picked up the phone. She had been right, but only partly. It really was Chris that had called her, but not for the reasons she had thought. For:
"You know, I've been thinking of what you said to me, Deirdre," he announced. "About our discussion which you claimed to be only academic."
"I still do," Deirdre replied. "Well, what about it?"
"Well, you were complaining that writers were messing up with their characters' lives," he began. "But you were forgetting something. Those characters have been created for this purpose. They are fated to be messed with."
Deirdre sighed. Chris' words reminded her of her previous conversation with Edsel, but not enough that she should be comforted. On the contrary.
"You make it sound worse with this," she told Chris.
"But why?" Chris asked. "This is what I do not understand. Why do you say this is bad? Don't you see it, Deirdre? They have a purpose. They are created to fulfil something, to do something. Why, many of us would give anything to be like them!"
"I thought that many of us would give anything to be happy," Deirdre confessed. "Or at least content."
"Having a purpose makes one content," Chris said. "Take yourself, for example. You are a writer. Your purpose is to write books, to be read. You are content with this. At least, you used to be. So I guess that characters too should be content that they have such a well-established purpose. What I am trying to say, Deirdre, is that no one will punish you because you've done nasty things to a character."
Deirdre sighed, impatiently. As usual, Chris had managed to guess how things really stood. But she still wanted to dissuade him.
"Who said anything about me?" she asked on an impatient tone. "This talk was only academic, remember?"
"Oh yeah," Chris said, without bothering to add that he would not have troubled to call her so late if he had not known these matters did not concern her deeply. "I've got a little carried away. What I meant to say was that no writer is ever going to be accused by anyone - or anything - of landing his character in nasty situations. Well, as long as it's not overdone, but I'm sure you wouldn't…well, that no sensible writer, I mean, would overdo it."
"That's what you think?" Deirdre muttered, trying to sound pleased with the idea. "Well, that's interesting. Thanks for telling me that, Chris. That was nice of you."
But when she put down the receiver, her smile faded and she shook her head.
"Only," she sighed, "Only that's not it."
No, that was not it, and Deirdre was by now beginning to think that she had grasped the problem. She was aware she had created something wonderful, aware that she was about to give the world a beautiful thing, one worthy of praise and admiration. She knew she would finally be able to achieve what she had been dreaming of ever since she could remember, that she was about to make not just a story but an entire world with real people with a will of their own. Or, at least, seeming to have a will of their own. Edsel was not only proof of this, but he was also her helper, her guide. And yet, what if she somehow failed? What if her actions only led to the ruining of her greatest, her dearest creation? How could she prevent that? How was she to act for things to take the right course?