One day early in the summer vacations, Mirabelle’s parents took her to the Borderland, where the worlds of Here and There mixed and merged. She’d been promised this trip as a reward if she did well in her examinations, and she’d done so well that they hadn’t been able to wriggle out of it, though they’d tried. Oh, how they had tried.
“Why do you want to go there?” Mummy had asked. “It’s going to be hot and crowded, and there’s nothing you can’t see on the TV right here. Why don’t we just go to the hills like we do every year?”
“I might not be able to get time off from the office,” Papa had added. “I can’t let your mother and you go alone all that way. It wouldn’t be safe, with all the pickpockets and criminals. It’s better that your mom and you go to the hills.”
But Mirabelle had no wish to go to the hills. “You promised,” she’d said, and to her horror had felt her eyes brimming over with tears and her lips starting to tremble. It was something only little girls did, and she was almost twelve and not so little any longer.
“Don’t begin blubbering,” Papa had snapped. “We can’t always have everything we want. Tine you realised that.”
But in the end they’d given in.
So now they were walking through the gate that separated the world of Here from the Borderland. No cars or any other machines were allowed through that gate, of course, not even cameras or cell-phones.
“It’s just a tourist trap,” Mirabelle’s Papa grumbled, as they waited impatiently behind a fat foreign lady who was arguing with the guards, in an almost incomprehensible accent, that she had to be allowed to take at least one camera through. “And it’s an overpriced tourist trap at that. Just look at these entry prices – it’s a disgrace.”
“And we have to walk everywhere too,” Mama sighed, wiping her face. “In this heat. It’s not right.”
Mirabelle didn’t want to listen to either the fat lady’s yammering or her parents’ grumbling, so she took the opportunity to look up at the gate and the wall instead. She’d seen them both on TV, of course, but they looked different in reality, higher and more imposing, the top of the grey wall lined with instruments, boxes with shiny round lenses and spiky antennae growing out of them.
“What are those?” she asked, pointing up at the boxes. “Papa? What are those things on the wall?”
Papa looked up at the boxes impatiently. “I don’t know,” he snapped. “Security cameras, maybe, keeping an eye on everyone. How does it matter?”
Mummy squeezed Mirabelle’s hand sympathetically. They both knew when Papa was in one of his moods. “We’ll buy a guide book,” she said, pointing at the stall outside the gate. “It’s sure to have a lot of information.”
Papa began grumbling about the cost of the guide book, so Mirabelle looked at the gate instead. It was in the shape of an arch, very high, and decorated with all kinds of carvings, of unknown creatures with the faces of frogs and the bodies of feathered snakes, and the like; and strange scenes, such as mountains hanging upside down and water flowing uphill. The carvings were done very intricately, so that the animals seemed alive, and the water in motion.
The foreign lady, having lost her argument, had deposited her cameras at the counter and stalked through the gate, and Papa was at the counter taking a long time paying for the tickets and trying to bargain for a discount. Mirabelle watched the people in the line behind her, many of whom were foreigners from all parts of the world.
“My teacher says,” she told Mummy, “that we should all be proud that the Borderland’s situated in this country, and not in America or Europe or somewhere like that.”
“Um,” Mummy replied. “Why should it be something to be proud of? It’s not as though we had something to do with its being here. Did your teacher say anything about that?”
Mirabelle thought for a moment. “All these people have to come here to see the Borderland, haven’t they?” she argued.
“And if it were elsewhere, they’d have gone there instead,” Mummy replied. “It’s not as though we had anything to do with it. So why should we be proud?”
Before Mirabelle could find a reply to that, Papa came over with the tickets. “It’s even more expensive than I thought,” he grumbled. “Even the half-day tour is twice as much as I expected.”
“Half-day tour?” Mirabelle repeated, stricken.
“Of course, the half-day tour,” Papa snapped. “Do you think we can afford one of the longer jaunts? As it is, even this one costs more than I thought it could possibly could.”
“I heard the half-day tour’s very good,” Mummy said quickly. “They show all the most interesting things.” She flipped through the guide book. “Yes, they show the Portal to There, the Goblin Grounds, the Lake of Rainbow Fire, and…”
“What about the Wind Dragons?” Mirabelle asked. “Do they show the Wind Dragons?”
“The Wind Dragons?” Mummy flipped through the table of contents. “Well, they’re listed as an optional. We can see them or the Rain of Stars.”
“I want to see the Wind Dragons,” Mirabelle declared firmly. “That’s what I want to see the most in the Borderland.”
“Are you sure?” Mummy asked doubtfully. “We’d have to climb right up the cliffs, in the heat. And they aren’t really anything much to see at all. Now, the Rain of Stars looks so pretty.”
“I want to see the Wind Dragons,” Mirabelle repeated, her voice rising in pitch. “I’m not interested in the Rain of Stars.”
“But –“ Mummy began to argue. “But they can’t even really be seen.”
“I don’t care,” Mirabelle said. “I want to see them, and I want to listen to their songs. There’s nothing else here I’d rather see.”
“They sing?” Mummy asked. “Really?”
“Yes,” Mirabelle replied angrily. “I’ve read all about it. They fly around the cliffs, and they sing so beautifully.”
“Oh, let the child have her way,” Papa said irritably. “She’ll just start whining otherwise. Let’s get this thing over with so we can go home.”
They walked through the gate after passing through security. Of course, they’d known not to bring cameras, but they were still searched. The uniformed lady even made Mummy take off her sandals and checked the heels.
“We’ve found people trying to smuggle spy cameras in their shoes,” she apologised, handing the footwear back. “You can’t believe what people will try.”
“What happens if someone does take a camera through?” Mirabelle asked curiously. “Why don’t they allow it?”
The guard lady smiled. “The scientists say all kinds of bad things can happen, imbalances of energy and so on,” she replied. “They don’t allow anything mechanical at all.”
“That woman doesn’t know a thing she’s talking about,” Mummy said once they were out of security and walking through the gate. “They don’t allow cameras only because the government wants to make money out of selling the pictures.”
“But my teacher says,” Mirabelle began, and then didn’t say anything more, because they’d gone through the gate and were in the Borderland.
Even though she’d heard what it was like, Mirabelle was taken by surprise at the difference from the world of Here. The air was still as hot and dry, but there was a strange smell to it, faintly acrid, and it tasted of cinnamon. The sky was a deeper blue, and things seemed to look sharper and clearer, because there was no dust in the air.
And all around was the strange landscape of the Borderland, the hillocks which looked like human faces, the tiny castles which grew out of the rock, the weirdly twisted trees and giant reddish mushrooms. Mirabelle looked around at it all, gawking, and wished she could run off to explore.
“It feels like the place is full of magic,” Mummy said wonderingly. “You know, it’s the sort of atmosphere in which you’d expect ogres and wizards and fairies.”
“The half-day tour line’s over there,” Papa said, pointing to a small group of people standing beside a small stone bridge. “Come on.”
So Mummy and Mirabelle followed him over the little bridge, and for the next few hours a uniformed guide escorted them around. He had a high-pitched voice like a squeak, and his English was so terrible that Mirabelle had to fight down an urge to giggle whenever he said anything. But even though it was only a half-day tour, the things they saw were so strange and wonderful that they filled her mind with wonder.
At the Goblin Grounds, they looked through a falling sheet of water at the goblins – brown and leathery, with small heads and long needle teeth, which stared back at them with beady little black eyes. They stood on a platform of rock high over the Lake of Rainbow Fire and stared through the round tunnel of the Portal to There, looking out at that strange and enigmatic world, with its clear blue light and sand as white as silver. The time passed so quickly that Mirabelle was amazed when the guide announced that the tour was almost over.
“Optionals only now left,” he said. “Wind Dragon group? Any Wind Dragon?”
“Yes,” Mirabelle said loudly, before either of her parents could speak. “We’re going to the Wind Dragons.”
The guide grinned with stained teeth and pointed. “To the right.”
Mirabelle’s Mummy sighed with exasperation.
To get to where the Wind Dragons flew, they had to climb up to the top of the Cliffs of Storms, which thrust up into the clear blue sky like serrated teeth. There was a winding path going up, covered with thick green grass like a carpet, and it wasn’t really difficult at all to climb. Still, Mummy sighed when she saw it, and Papa refused to go up at all.
“I’ll just wait here,” he said, sitting on a flat rock. “You go on up and enjoy yourselves.”
A different guide led them up the path, a short young woman with a broad face and a sprinkling of moles on her cheeks. There were about fifteen people in their group, and the way to the top was empty. Only one group was allowed on the Cliffs of Storms at any one time.
“Are they really so stormy?” someone asked the guide. “Is that why they call them the Cliffs of Storms?”
“It can get windy up there,” the girl replied. “But it’s just a name, really.”
“Are the dragons dangerous?” someone else asked.
“Not at all, sir. They’re made of wind and light, and can’t hurt you.” She glanced at them over her shoulder. “Please be silent when we’re up there,” she added. “The Wind Dragons don’t like noise, and besides only if there’s no other sound can one hear them singing.”
“They actually sing?” Mummy asked. “That’s really true?”
“Yes,” the guide said. “But nobody knows why.”
Nobody said anything further all the way to the top of the path, where there was a broad platform of stone with flat-topped boulders like benches to sit on. Before them was the cliff edge, beyond which there was only the endless blue distance of the World of There, from whence the dragons flew.
“Where are the dragons?” Mummy asked the guide, after they had been waiting several minutes. “It doesn’t look like we’ll see any.”
“Please be patient,” the girl replied. “They’ll come. This is one of their favourite places.”
But for a long time nothing happened.
“I’m sorry,” the guide said at last, rising to her feet. “It must be one of the days when they don’t appear. We’ll have to go down soon. Our time is almost up and the next tour party will be –“
It was Mirabelle who first saw the dragon at that moment, even before the guide put a finger to her lips and pointed. It was more a glitter in the air, a sparkle like rainbow dust, twisting and twining just past the cliff edge, as though a long tail was lashing back and forth. She caught a glimpse of writhing antennae, and spiky horns, and what might have been beating wings. And for a moment she was sure she saw two great lambent eyes, and they were looking straight at her.
The Wind Dragon saw her, Mirabelle knew. It was looking at her as a single, special human being. It was watching her.
“Listen!” someone whispered softly.
As though from infinite distances came the dragon’s song, notes warbling up and down the scale, building up into rhythm after complex rhythm. Another dragon joined in from somewhere unseen, a deeper note, the two voices merging and building, until it was impossible to tell which was which.
Entranced, they listened, the music resonating through the rock and their bodies, making the very air vibrate in sympathy. And the air glittered and turned on itself with the movement of great wings, as all around them, the dragons flew.
And then, suddenly, the air ceased to move and glitter. Like a door shutting, silence fell.
It was over.
Nobody said anything all the way down. Three was nothing to say.
“Well?” Papa demanded when Mummy and Mirabelle had rejoined him. “Had a good time chasing around after invisible flying lizards?”
Neither Mummy nor Mirabelle replied.
That night Mirabelle had a dream. In the dream she was standing on the platform on the Cliffs of Storms, alone. The sky was clear and blue, but there was no sun, and she could feel no heat.
All around her were the dragons, close enough to touch, and she could feel the beating of their wings. They circled her, they sang to her, and as she listened to them she began to understand.
“Come with us,” they said. “Come with us to the world of There, where no human has ever been. Come with us to the land of wonder.”
“Why me?” she asked. “Why did you choose me?”
“Because you are the one we’ve waited for,” the dragons sang. “You’re the one who is in perfect tune with us, the one who can understand us, the one who dreams and wonders. Come with us.”
“How?” Mirabelle asked. “How do I come with you?”
“Nothing simpler,” the dragons sang. “Step off the ground, and let yourself fly. Fly with us. But if you fly with us, you can’t come back again.”
“Yes,” Mirabelle said, and she tried to step off the ground, but she could not. Her feet held her tight.
“Come with us,” the dragons sang, their wings carrying them away. “Fly with us.”
“Wait,” Mirabelle called out desperately. “Wait for me.” But they didn’t wait.
And then she woke up.
She never told anyone the dream, but she never forgot it.
Years passed, and turned into decades; and Mirabelle grew up and went to college, and became a successful career woman. But nobody ever got close to her, really close; and those who called themselves her friends came to feel that she was not really happy, or could ever be.
One day, when the chill of winter was in the air, Mirabelle looked at herself in the mirror of a hotel room, and saw that her hair was streaked with grey. She looked at herself and thought of her world, of business deals and money flows, and thought how sterile and futile it was. And then once again she remembered the wind dragons, and the song they had sung to her.
So it was that she caught a plane and flew across the world, back to the country of her birth. The Borderlands were still there, but the tourist trade had long since dried up, victim to civil unrest and economic collapse, to war and global warming, and the security guards and guides were long gone.
So it was that there was nobody to object when Mirabelle walked up the grassy path to the top of the Cliffs of Storms, alone, and sat waiting for the Wind Dragons.
They came, twisting and writhing, their wings beating rainbow glitter, and they sang to her.
“Come with us,” they said. “Let go of the ground, and fly with us. We’ve been waiting so long for you. But if you fly with us, you can’t come back again.”
“I’m coming,” Mirabelle said. “Wait for me.”
And it was absurdly easy then, to let go of the ground and fly with the wind dragons, through the vast blue distances, to the world of There, where wonders never ceased. It was a small price to pay, not to be able to come back again.
Nobody ever saw Mirabelle again.
But if one goes up to the Cliffs of Storms, there’s a new voice on the wind, a new note in the dragons’ song.
It is the voice of Mirabelle, singing.