The queue stretched a thousand people down past The Arts House all the way to the Singapore River. Each person clutched a precious text: a book, or a graphic novel, or single issues of comics; some hardy souls even carried the massive Absolute editions of his collected works. It was a response the organizers of the festival had not been prepared for, and still seemed somewhat baffled by. And at the very front of the queue, behind a plywood table, sat a literary rock star, the Dream King himself, signing autographs.
I stood to the side of the table, trying in vain to catch his attention; he was wholly and utterly concentrating on the task at hand, giving each person in line his undivided attention for several precious moments before moving on to the next. His enthusiasts knew well of his patience, his kindness, his endurance, his appreciation. A sense of lightness and festivity filled the air as they stood patiently, waiting for their thirty seconds of audience with the master.
The Dream King and I had traded direct messages on Twitter weeks and months earlier, hoping to negotiate a time to meet during his brief stay in the Lion City. But despite both our efforts, the festival organizers seemed to thwart every attempt, rushing him to and fro and barring any previously-unapproved communication. Luckily, a reader of this blog recognized me, and put me in contact with the owner of G&B Comics, one of the festival sponsors who had specifically organized to bring the King in, and all of a sudden I was being motioned over to the plywood table to shake his hand.
“Hullo,” he said, a bit dazed, but smiling. His bottom teeth were slightly crooked, an unexpected detail. He looked exhausted, dark circles under his eyes, a weariness in his movements; he’d flown a very long way to participate in the festival, and was jetting off again the following day.
He didn’t seem to recognize me so I gave him my name.
“I know who you are,” he said. “I recognize you from your photo.”
After some brief small talk, I thanked him for making the long voyage, and expressed appreciation at getting to take a few moments of his time. He mentioned looking forward to my tweets (to which I smiled and blushed), and wished me luck with the colicky newborn waiting for me at home. It occurred to me then that he still gripped my hand in a shake that had lasted several minutes, that we weren’t so much shaking anymore as we were holding hands, and that I really didn’t seem to mind.
He thanked me for the copies of A Field Guide to Surreal Botany I had dropped off the day before; he had looked through his copy that night and remarked to me now on the premise and the gorgeous illustrations and book design. A Beautiful Thing, and worthy of recognition. He hadn’t yet told The Dresden Doll about her copy, as he had just placed it in her suitcase, but he would later that day.
Then he pulled me close and said, “I want to try something. Hang on a moment.”
The Dream King closed his eyes and let all his facial muscles relax, and an expression of serenity seemed to spread throughout his body. The air around his dark clothes shimmered, and a low vibration traveled up my arm and into my body, to settle in my stomach. Staticky hissing filled my ears and intensified to nigh unbearable levels, and then just as abruptly stopped.
It was completely quiet. The noises of the thousand-plus people milling around the area had been utterly silenced. I wondered if I had gone deaf. But then I looked around. Each person was frozen in place, caught in amber as it were. The Dream King had stopped time.
He opened his eyes and looked down the queue, then turned back to me. “Wonderful,” he said, smiling brightly. “I had no idea if that would work.”
“How have you done this?”
“An old man in a shack in Guangzhou taught me how, in exchange for a copy of Sandman #74. It was the last issue he needed to complete his collection. Funny. He didn’t even want it signed.”
“I want to apologize for not being able to take more time with you. Grateful as I am for this career and this wonderful life of mine, it does mean I’m stretched quite thin. However, we do have a few minutes to ourselves now.”
“Can you show me the Secret Handshake?” I asked, half in jest.
He smiled and said, “Of course. You won’t remember it by tomorrow anyway, but still.”
And so he showed me the Secret Handshake, and How to Talk to Cats, and Which Sushi Increases the Flow of Qi, and Which Shade of Black is Repellent to the Elder Gods. In more ways than one, it was magical. One of my literary heroes was sharing his hidden knowledge, despite his exhaustion and his commitments. And he was right, I remembered none of it the following day except for the fact the he had shown these Mysteries to me.
Finally, he said, “Think it’s time we returned to the real world?” and then he let go of my hand. Sounds and motion rushed in as time resumed, and I had to grip the table as the accompanying dizziness unsettled me. I took a breath and looked up. The Dream King glowed, and I smiled.
“Thanks so much, Neil.”
“You’re very welcome. My best to your wife and baby daughter.”
And then he turned back to the queueing hordes and resumed his duties.
originally posted at LundBlog: Beautiful Letters on 24 Jan 2010