Feeling depressed? Take a ticket for free therapy.
I’d been staring at the notice board outside the bus station for several minutes deciding whether or not to take one. October was always a difficult time for my mental health, and over the past few days I had begun to feel overwhelmed and beaten. I knew where I was headed, but did I need therapy? And was free therapy a little too good to be true? After all, there was no reference to the provider anywhere on the poster.
I felt the wind blow hard on my cheek, and it pushed me into making a decision. I tore off a ticket. I cursed under my breath though, when I saw what I thought was a phone number was actually just a set of symbols and of no use to me whatsoever.
Across the road was a row of trees on the edge of the park, and to my surprise as I looked around for the nearest waste paper bin, I witnessed the farthest changing from green to orange. The one beside it followed suit; then the next and the next as though something were moving through them. Their leaves began to fall right in front of my eyes, then dried out and turned to brown. A gust of wind nudged at them and made them rustle, and they were tossed right over to my feet, at which point they stopped dead. I shuddered.
“Come on then, follow me.” I spun around to see the owner of the deep voice and my eyes widened. There was a man standing seven feet tall, with long black hair, a fur trench coat and heavy biker boots. His jeans were ripped in several places and in one hand he carried a great sword. His presence made me feel as though my insides were turning as rotten as the leaves. I looked frantically around me but none of the passers by seemed to notice this otherworldly stranger towering above me. Running away seemed sensible but also not a realistic option, so I just stood there like a rabbit staring into headlights.
“Don’t look so shocked, you took one of my tickets didn’t you?”
“Come on then, we can chat in my hut.”
There was something kind about his smile but something wicked about his stance that made me feel in equal parts comforted and terrified. He put his arm around my shoulder and it sent an shot of ice through my veins.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a fire.”
We crossed the road and took a route through the park I had never noticed before. The few people we passed paid us no mind, even though his appearance was quite out of the ordinary. As we walked, more trees began to change their hue and lose their leaves.
“This is me,” he said as we approached a small makeshift building hidden behind a crop of holly bushes. He fumbled in his pocket and produced a slender key, opened the tall, peeling door and, with the sweep of an arm, welcomed me inside. “Tea?”
“Yes! I mean yes, please.”
I watched intently as he filled an old fashioned kettle with water from a barrel and added some dried herbs from a jar. Then he hung up his coat, and came to kneel upon a deerskin rug by the glowing embers of a fireplace. As he rolled up his sleeves a gash on his forearm was exposed: it looked very fresh, and it made me wince. I remembered the sword which was now resting on a stand by the door.
“Who are you?” I ventured carefully.
“I am the Holly King.” His piercing eyes looked right into me, gauging my reaction. But I was not at all phased by his revelation.
“The Holly King? As in the Lord of Winter? No wonder I felt a cold bite in the air!” I said, not even sure myself where the confidence came from.
“I’m strengthened by my long sleep but weakened by the battle with my brother. When I am fully recuperated, that’s when you’ll feel the real bite.” He chuckled to himself as he stoked the fire. I noticed then that he had a few wrinkles around his eyes and mouth that betrayed he was probably older than I’d first imagined. “Now, please sit down?”
I joined him on the rug, mirroring him by crossing my legs and putting my hands together. “Your brother must be the Oak King, right? Don’t you feel bad slaying the one people love so much? The one who brings light and happiness instead of death and destruction?”
“Destruction has its place; it is a necessary part of the cycle. Do you think you’d feel so good in summer if you hadn’t persevered a harsh winter? There are many things, like the leaves, that must be sacrificed to bring growth and replenishment.”
I pondered this for a moment. “Well, it sure doesn’t feel that way when it’s dark and cold and hopeless out there.”
“I try my best to see to that. When I’m back to my full strength, I throw a rather major festival, remember? I bring gifts and encourage joviality. And, I’ll invite in as many people who suffer as I can, and help them to see it through.”
“With the posters and tickets?”
“With the posters and tickets. You have to accept the offer before I can show myself to you, see?”
The Holly King reached over and unhooked the boiling kettle. He poured us each a cup of tea, and it smelled rich and spicy. I took a tentative sip, and even that was enough to warm me through. I could feel a buzzing in my heart; a quickening in my blood.
“So how exactly do you plan to help me?” I asked.
“You come to see me here once a week; we’ll have a chat about your concerns and you can take as much of my special tea as you wish. I’ll train you in some coping techniques, and then I’ll show you the necessary things I must do to the world around you. I guarantee you’ll begin to see not harm but potential.”
“It’s not quite the therapy I’m used to… But the tea is good.”
The Holly King laughed heartily and pink flushed into his cheeks. “I think we’ll get along just fine. I must warn you though, some of what I’m going to show you is not pretty. And that includes the darker parts of your mind which I’m sure you’d rather be sheltered from.”
I thought back to last winter when I’d quit my job, sent my friends away and barely left the house at all. I thought about the crippling pain of inertia; the alternating tears and numbness. And I thought about the lack of care I’d been shown by any professional doctor. Of all the therapies I’d tried in the past, this one would surely be the most experimental.
“I’ve nothing to lose,” I replied, “I’ll do it.”
We drank up our tea in silent contemplation. My new friend seemed to know I needed some time to adjust to the situation, although I had surprised myself at how much I’d taken his bizarre manifestation in my stride.
When my cup was empty, the Holly King rose to his feet and rummaged around in a cupboard until he found a small box wrapped in fancy metallic paper with a bow on top.
“A gift for you,” he declared, and held it out to me on his palm.
“Thank you, that’s very kind,” I said.
“Don’t open it until you get home, will you? I hope to see you next week, I’ll be waiting.”
I thanked him again, and headed back out into the cold alone.