Happiland, by Mileva Anastasiadou
Originally published in Rhetoric Askew’s Anthology Askew, Mileva Anastasiadou’s Happiland speaks to the migrant crisis, and includes themes such as war, and a sort of euphoria-denial breakdown experienced by the bereaved (and perhaps the dead).
Sneaking into the old lady’s garden was not easy, yet the young man was determined. She used to keep her garden’s gate locked and he was no longer a little child to climb over it. He retained a childish curiosity inside him though, or at least traces of it. This made him a bit more reckless than other men his age, with a sense of wonder that made him take the chance and enter the mysterious garden the moment he saw her take the garbage out. He ran behind the bushes and remained quiet, looking around, until a pat on his back made him jump in fear. He looked behind him but nobody was around.
At first glance, the garden looked deserted, as lush vegetation had taken over. The fence seemed buried under the greenery, and not much could be seen from the sidewalk.
When asked if she needed help, she alleged that her daughter was taking care of her. Despite her insistences however, nobody had ever witnessed anyone visiting her. The neighbors thought that the daughter might not exist. Seldom did they talk about it, yet in the back of their minds the thought of a sad story concerning a long lost daughter prevailed. The old lady seemed so otherworldly, that most of them believed she had lost her mind.
The young man considered himself the second loneliest person in the neighborhood. The basic reason is that he lived alone. On top of that, he had just arrived. He was but a stranger to them, an unfamiliar face in the crowd. Only Mrs. Glee waved at him, every once in awhile, when he happened to walk around her street. Nobody else ever noticed him.
He intended to hide behind the bushes, until Mrs. Glee entered the house, so that he could quietly explore the strange garden, but the pat on his back, for a second time, could not be ignored. He did not jump this time, but calmly turned around.
A pair of angry eyes, placed on a reddish chubby face, stared at him. Despite his surprise, he did not stand, but kept still, on his knees, rubbing his eyes, believing his mind to be playing strange tricks on him.
“Sir, I hate to tell you this, but I think you may have trespassed on private property,” said the dwarf.
The young man knelt in silence, unable to utter a word, face to face with the strange creature who looked as if he had just escaped the pages of a fairy tale.
“What is going on back there?” They both turned their heads to Mrs. Glee’s direction, who was coming closer, her steps slow and heavy.
“I think we have an intruder,” said the dwarf, looking her way.
Mrs. Glee had lost her daughter, a brave soldier, long ago. The war had been won, but her daughter was lost. Mrs. Glee was proud of her daughter’s fighting skills, yet unsure if she had used them the right way. She could not even be certain if her daughter had been on the right side. There are some wars after all, for which you cannot be certain as to which side is the right one. Even if you are, facts may prove you wrong later.
“How can you be sure you are fighting for the right cause?” she kept wondering when she lost her daughter, and she dived into her mind to search for the answer. The answer was never revealed, so she decided to build a world of her own, in which wars did not exist.
“Do not worry, my little one, he is no intruder. Everybody is welcome here. Besides, I have been waiting for him for a long time,” Mrs. Glee said. Turning the young man’s way, she asked, “What took you so long?”
“Who is that stranger?” asked a cat who was coming closer.
“He is the stranger we have been expecting,” said the old lady.
“In that case, nice to meet you, stranger,” said the cat, and standing on her two back feet, she stretched out her right front leg for a handshake.
The young man shook the cat’s leg in wonder, questioning his earlier beliefs about cats. He thought he might be dreaming for a moment, for as he stood up and looked around, the garden seemed larger than he had known it.
“This place gets bigger, serving the needs of its inhabitants,” the old lady explained, as if reading his mind.
“Is this Wonderland or something?” he thought to himself. “Have I unintentionally fallen down a rabbit hole?” He did not dare speak his thought, though. Not yet.
“May I present to you… Happiland!” Mrs. Glee proudly said. She made an effort to pull her shoulders back as she announced the name of the strange land to the young man, and for a moment, as her long silver hair was blowing in the cool summer breeze, she looked like a goddess, or a fairy queen. She certainly looked much younger than her age, as if not only space, but also time could expand in this strange place, granting youth to its inhabitants.
She offered him a tour, showing him the south hills of the dwarfs, the north mountains of the ghosts, and the cat apartments on the rooftops of the fairies’ cottages. The young man grew tired and asked for some time to rest.
“Happiland is an independent country,” she said once they found a bench and sat down.
“Is it really? Can you prove it?” he asked in amazement.
“There is no need for proof. Bureaucratic procedures are a waste of time,” she told him.
“But do you have an army to defend it?”
“Your country, in case of invasion.”
“Oh no, it does not work that way. You cannot invade a place where everyone is welcome. Who would invade an unfenced garden anyway?”
“There is only greenery around the garden. Nothing else,” she reassured him. “The gate needs some fixing, but it is never locked.”
“What if some evil forces come and want to take you over?”
She smiled. “We will take our country elsewhere.”
“So is everybody happy here?”
“That was my intention. Well, truth be told, happy is the Greek word for pill.”
“Does this mean you’re all medicated?”
“Some of us are.”
The old lady was indeed medicated most of the time. Since she lost her daughter, she had been severely depressed. She stopped taking her medicines when she started forgetting about them. It was all downhill after that, until this fantastic land was built, piece by piece, in her mind to make her happy again.
She explained that all this was, at first, a figment of her imagination.
“I don’t think, though, that all this will fall apart once I’m gone. It’s as if my imagination created a world so vivid that it managed to break through the walls of reality, and come to life. Everything must be imagined first, before it comes into existence. Every utopia must be conceived before it can be realized. Do you believe in God?
“Which one?” he asked confused.
“That is not the point. Pick one.”
“Well, it does not matter. I think this is how God made the world. He was lonely, or somehow hurting, so he used his imagination, and then some creatures came to life. Afterwards, everything got out of hand. That is what I fear the most. What will happen to these creatures when I’m gone? You see, God may be immortal, but I’m certainly a plain mortal, destined to leave this life soon.”
“So, you imagined all of this?”
“That was the easy part. All beautiful things must be imagined first. You do not necessarily have to go into details. It’s the grand scheme that matters. My main purpose has always been a peaceful world. Keeping beauty alive against the forces of entropy is the hardest part.”
A young woman approached them silently.
“I am the ghost of her long lost daughter,” she said calmly, as if being a ghost was the most usual thing in the world. “You can call me Maria.”
The young man gladly shook the hand of the girl who had approached them. Nothing surprised him anymore, and shaking hands with the ghost of a girl was more pleasing than shaking the paw of a cat. When Maria explained how she died, he understood the words of the old lady, and her detest for war.
“I do not regret dying,” Maria told him. “Mother is wrong. Sometimes, when things get out of hand, you have to choose sides. It is true, they might exploit you and discard you like a used napkin; your ideals might serve the most corrupt of their causes in the end. Yet you have no choice… you have to fight.”
When the time came to tell them his own story, the young man was surprised at his forgetfulness. His recollections of the past were restricted to his childhood, as if a big piece of his memories had been stolen from him.
“Do not worry. It will come to you in time,” Maria said. “It happens to most of us when we arrive at this place.”
Before his past began forming in his mind, the man was overwhelmed by a strangely strong feeling of shame. He could not tell the reason for it. His heart quickly took control of his mind, and he felt shameful over a mistake he was not aware of, yet was certain he had made. Breaking into this forbidden garden might be the cause… or was it something more important?
It then hit him. Stronger than thunder, the memories came back like a wave of electricity. He first remembered the happy times back in his country, until war came and destroyed their life. He remembered the battles, the dead bodies on the field, their home destroyed. He remembered walking for miles, starving, thirsty, cold, his feet burning, his clothes smelling of sweat. His wife, his two kids in his arms,, all of them in a shaking boat, hanging on to the same dream; reaching the shore, the final destination of their journey, was the only thing on their minds that night. His youngest son, his four year old boy, asking him. “Are we approaching the shore, daddy?”
He remembered the myth of Happiland. The magical land he had read about during his childhood. A place he used to visit in his dreams. A paradise lost to maturity. “We’ll soon be in Happiland son, a magical place where everybody is happy, and we will forget all of this,” he had answered, to appease the little boy’s fear. This was right before the wind got wilder, and a huge wave overturned the boat. He remembered the cold sea, the dark sky above, the waters swallowing them.
He broke down crying. At first, it was the pain of losing his family, yet there was something deeper that made his pain even more immense; he cried for all lives lost due to war… not only the one he had known himself, but all the wars in human history. It was all his fault. For a while, he carried all the shame of the world on his shoulders, as if war, all of the wars mankind had ever faced, had been his own unforgivable mistake.
“It’s not your fault, my dear boy. It is an error imprinted in human civilization,” said the old lady.
He realized he had finally reached his destination, the land he had once promised to his son.
He touched himself to confirm his existence. He then decided to stay there for a while. At the very least, he would make sure these special creatures never fell out of grace, and into senseless wars. Perhaps his wife and kids would soon arrive too.
“Hello stranger,” yelled the cat from afar. He waved back. Sensing his sadness, the cat approached, sprang into his arms, and embraced him.
He would always recall this as the first time his memories seemed stranger than this strange land.