Fiona awoke with a jolt. Her heart was pounding, and she was panting as if she’d sprinted a mile in a minute. “Where am I?” she thought.
She coughed, quietly. The last thing she remembered was she was sitting on her bed, reading the poem, The Highway Man, then there was a flash of light, and her voice mingled with the black words, the strangest of feelings coursed through her.
She looked about. This was not her bed. Nor her room either. She found herself against a head board of a small, bony bed, inside a little, dusty room. Outside, she saw only blackness, illuminated by a pale, ghostly moon.
She tried to move her hands to push her damp hair from out her eyes. Fiona gave a sharp cry of displeasure. Her hands were bound behind her, in sharp biting ropes. She struggled and writhed until finally she gave up, exhausted.
But where could she be? That one question, in the midst of hundreds, thousands, swirling around her brain, taunted her the most. She knew for certain that she was definitely not at home, but then where? Maybe, she told herself, she had fallen asleep, weary from trying to make out the tiny words, and sleep-walked. But why, she asked, did she end up here? A gust of wind blew through the night, swaying her nightgown. She shivered. Fiona remembered the first line of the poem, she’d been reading.
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
Wait a moment. It was raining, at home, not windy. Could she remember being cold? She couldn’t.
The moon emerged forth from its veil of clouds. That’s strange, she thought. There wasn’t a moon at home . . . The second line swam clearly before her eyes.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
A horrifying feeling of recognition was dawning on her. The poem she was reading . . . reading last night . . . reading last night in her bed . . . she was in that poem! The plot was unfolding—unfolding before her eyes. And she was the main character. She was . . . Bess. It was all happening . . . to her. She was IN THAT POEM.
“Oh my God,” she thought. “Oh no, no, no, no, no!” She was going to be shot!
Her finger moved in the moonlight, her musket shattered the moonlight . . .
It was happening, just like the story was, and she couldn’t do a thing. Suddenly she heard some raucous guffawing. Looking about, anxiously, she searched for a loophole in her bonds. Frantically, she thrashed about.
Up the stairs, came a man, no two! Their boots stomping, they strutted into the bedroom. When the saw her, they sniggered.
“There she is!” said the first. With horror, Fiona realized that they were King George’s men, obviously, like parrots in their red and gold plumage. Drunkenly, they clomped about, stepping upon the hem of her nightgown.
The second took a long, thin something, and tied it in front of her. When he moved away, she knew it was the musket, the musket that would take her life.
“Now keep good watch,” he sneered, and the two of them slipped away, into the shadows beside her. Beneath her fingers, she felt the smooth trigger, the trigger that offered sudden death. She gulped.
In the darkness, she could see the vague red of their uniforms, and their ragged breathing that matched her own. She felt the smooth trigger of the musket, and tears slipped down her face. It wasn’t fair! If only she hadn’t read it aloud, if only it had been another book, if only . . .
She bit her lip. It was no use, to yearn or pine. On the ribbon of moonlit road that lay before her, she heard the clear, but faint beat of horse hoofs, clopping lightly in the frosty silence. She could see his face, the face she knew so well, from the colored pictures from the book.
What would happen, she wondered, if she were to change the plot? Could she manage it so she herself wouldn’t be killed? But what would happen to the robber then? It was all so confusing, confusing and her brain was muddled even more with sheer terror.
All she wanted was her mug of hot chocolate, a hot fire, a new book. . But she wouldn’t think of that now. If she were to die, she didn’t want to be reminded of what could have been.
She held her breath, and puffed out her stomach. Gasping, slightly from the effort, she wormed her perspiration-soaked fingers from their bonds. She slipped out one of her left fingers. The clopping came louder. A trickle of sweat dribbled down her forehead. Three more fingers were tugged from their bonds.
Nearer, Nearer, NEARER, NEARER!
The horse’s footsteps rang through the night. She wrenched out her thumbs, with a sharp jab of pain. The redcoats stiffened, cocking their muskets. She held back her tears, and held her head high, face glowing. The soldiers rose, slowly, their fingers on the triggers.
“Nooooooooo!” she screamed, and burst forth. The last finger was pulled from her bonds, and now dangled grotesquely. Gasping from the pain and effort, she grabbed her musket, and held it over her shoulder. The redcoats leapt up, guns in hand. She squeezed her eyes shut, and pulled the trigger blindly.
The last thing she saw was a look of pure astonishment on the redcoat’s faces, as the gun recoiled, throwing her backwards. She hit the wall with a sickening crack, and the spinning world went black in front of her eyes.
Fiona opened her eyes wearily. A lump on her head throbbed, and she moaned slightly. She sat up. She felt the warm, white sheets beneath her, pages spread over her hands. Looking about, she saw that it was her familiar room that surrounded her. Fiona sighed in relief.
What a terrifying dream that had been! But it was so real! And so vivid. She hated those dreams, the ones that left you soaked in sweat, the bedclothes wrapped around you like a straight-jacket. But unlike most dreams, this one wasn’t slipping from her mind like water from your hands. It was clear, clear as day in her fevered brain.
She picked the leaves of paper scattered over her arms. Fiona glanced at the last sheet. Suddenly, she grabbed the paper in alarm, crumpling the pages. The words had changed! Each letter imprinted starkly on the white page swam before her eyes.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard,
And he taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter, Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And he clasped her to his side, bonny sweetheart and all,
With the redcoats still lying, in their dead sprawl
And they rode away, rode away, rode away
From the dark and gloomy inn-yard
To the west, to the warmth, to the morning’s light grey.*
She stumbled back, dropping the pages to the floor, where they cascaded downward. A bit of wetness on her fingers caught her eye. Her fingertips were covered with a thick, glossy, black substance . . .
The ink was still damp.
*[from "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes]