Last night I dreamed I was with friends in an indoor public place- a restaurant or a mall, maybe- filled with the half-height walls those sorts of places use to create the perimeter of a food court, or to divide one dining section from another. The walls were deep, and made of a light-colored wood.
One of the walls had a decorative box built into the top at the end, a bit like the newel post pictured here, and about 9 inches square. The side of the square facing me had been replaced with a piece of thick plexiglass so I could see the box was filled almost to the top with water, and that a gray and white goldfish and a champagne colored gerbil were swimming inside.
The gerbil was treading water desperately, trying so hard to keep its nose in the inch or so of air at the top of the box. I started pounding on the plexiglass screwed to the face of the box, trying to break it to release this sad little creature before it drowned.
(It just occurred to me that I gave no thought to what might become of the fish were I to succeed in breaking through the plexiglass.)
I looked around and saw no one with me seemed bothered that someone had doomed this fish by shutting it into a “bowl” where the water could never be aerated, nor that this gerbil was even more precariously trapped and was clearly on the verge of drowning.
So why wasn’t anyone else upset? Why weren’t they helping? Why weren’t they even looking?
I remembered I had a mini multipurpose tool in my bag, with a small screwdriver folded into it alongside its picks and files and blades. I knew the screwdriver’s tip was too small a size to remove screws as large as the ones holding the plexiglass in place, and began praying for help as I ran to the people around me, begging them to get involved as I searched for wherever I had left my bag.
I felt so alone, and realized I was scared. And no matter what I said, or however urgently I said it, everyone I met replied with silence. Frustrated, accusatory silence.
I found my bag, but when I pulled out the multipurpose tool I saw the screwdriver was now larger than it had been before. I ran to the box and franticly attacked the screws. As they came out they cracked and split the glass, letting the water rush out onto the floor.
(I never did see the fish again. Perhaps it was just there in the beginning to help me understand the purpose of the box?)
I caught the soaking wet gerbil as it fell and laid it on top of the the low wall to catch its breath while I took my bag back to wherever I had grabbed it from. When I returned to the animal it appeared to be in worse shape than when I had left it only moments before, and none of the people standing around had stepped in to try to help it.
“What’s wrong with you?” I yelled at them. “It’s dying! Why didn’t any of you do something to help him while I was away?!”
More silence as shoulders were shrugged and backs were turned.
I scooped the little fellow up and cupped him in my hands, stroking his head and face with my fingertip and blowing warm air across his fur to dry him off. He opened his eyes and began moving around a bit. I was so happy that he was alive and recovering, and so angry that no one had done anything to help us. I didn’t know any more about what to do than any of them did, you know? They should’ve done something.
Why didn’t they do something?
I dreamed last night I found a fat, white, aquatic ferret with a black tipped tail like an ermine. Its claws were long, its fingers scaly like a lizard’s, and its teeth looked like they belonged in the jaws of a dinosaur we should be glad has gone extinct.
The creature interacted well with my current ferret brood, but kept leaving them injured after playing with them because of its deadly jaws and paws. It scurried in and out of my arms, up and down and around my torso, playful and chittery and surprisingly heavy in my hands. It was used to living under water and alone, but seemed so much to want to stay with us. It grew happier and happier, and more and more playful, even as its fur would dry and it would have to run back into a rocky pool to wet up.
And so I told it I would keep it as long as it wanted to stay.
I tried to create a place for it to live in my home, separated from my other ferrets so it wouldn’t accidentally hurt them, but every tank I found for it leaked.
Before I could find a solution, I woke up.
“Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”
- Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel
I fell back asleep and dreamed I was taken- not with force, but not by choice- onto a giant, steel ship. I was lead below deck to a giant passenger hold like a commuter car on a puddle jumper train. There was an empty seat to my left, so I took it and belted in. And then strapped in. And then belted in some more. What was this? Why all the extra safety measures for simply sitting in a seat on an enormous boat?
I looked up, and the ceiling above my head was a window full of twilit clouds and sky. The captain’s voice came over the speakers all around announcing that all personnel should find their seats because we were about to dive.
It was a submarine?
I looked up through the window. We dove. I could not determine the angle of our descent, except that I knew it must have been sharp as the ocean around us was almost immediately tar dark through the windows at each row of seats. I checked the ceiling view again. No stars, no sky, not even water. Just blackness. I pictured the window above me cracking and wondered if pressure or drowning killed more quickly.
“God? I love you.”
I gripped my arm rests, ready to die there in the unavoidable rush of an unchosen sea.
The captain’s voice came on again to say we would continue to take on passengers at various undersea docking points. We did so, each time diving deeper down to avoid the subsequent barrage of torpedo fire from the new passengers’ previous vessels. They were refugees of some sort. Were we taking on good guys? Bad guys? I never knew.
I got up from my seat under the guise of looking for a restroom, and set about exploring. I found myself in an empty great hall with gold walls and vaulted ceilings. An exhausted group of five or so wilting strangers approached me. I assumed they were our most recent pick up, so I regarded them as fellow commuters.
They were heading toward a nearby bench, so I sat down on it to join them. The youngest in the group was a woman with auburn hair who looked to be in her 20s. She sat beside me on the bench, curled up under my arm, and went to sleep. Another woman, who carried herself like the leader of the band, her hair dark and broken, her jacket creased and worn, worked her face into a small smile for me, and leaned back against the wall behind us to go to sleep herself.
The hall was vast and silent, the walls glittering, the chests of the strangers rising and falling. I tightened my arm around the sleeping girl to keep her from slipping. She opened her eyes, thanked me, said she loved me, and went back to sleep. I stared ahead, wondering without care if anyone missed me in the dim tunnel of belted seating I’d left behind.
Suddenly a door to our left burst open, admitting four giant men, skin dark as the ocean, spears in hand, and looking for all the world like they’d just arrived from hiding in plain sight as a museum display. The sleeping group woke and leaped to their feet as the men demanded I join them. Not “them” the four men, but “them” the four men and the troupe of sleepers. I realized they had not been picked up, they had snuck aboard- and they were all working together.
“It’s time,” said the dark haired woman. “This is why you’re here. We need you to tell the captain. It’s over. It’s time.”
The painted men had set down their weapons and were changing into black pants and shirts from bags I had just noticed them carrying. “Yes,” said one. “She’s right. We can’t wait any longer. We are all here now and it’s going to work this time. You must tell the captain that this is right, and that you are leaving with us.”
“I love you,” whispered the younger woman. “Come with us. Tell the captain. It’s time.”
I felt the ship shift and dive, faster than before. A look to a window revealed more torpedoes speeding past.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s not my place. I’m not a part of this. I don’t even know who you are. I’d get in so much trouble, and it will never work.”
I wanted to be wrong. I wanted them to be right. I wanted them to be heroes. I wanted them to save the day while I watched from the best seat in the house. And somewhere buried under fears of death by pressure and drowning, I wanted to be one of them.
“Help us. Please.”
I woke up.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
- Anaïs Nin
There were a few months in college when my first class wasn’t until 1 pm, so I used almost every single morning to write down the previous night’s dreams. During that time I was able to dream very vividly, and to remember the dreams quite clearly, so I was able to pour into Word page after page of plots points, characters, and Technicolor story arcs.
It was awesome.
It’s been a long time since I’ve remembered my vivid dreams as frequently as during that semester, and when I remember them now I’m usually lacking the time or the energy to write them down.
Except for last night’s dream. Unfortunately I only remember the last portion of it, but I’m glad to have at least retained something, because this one– this one I needed to record.
I was me, I was my own age (26), it was now, and I was here in Waukesha.
I was dating this “cute” boy of about 19. Not cute in any way that makes any difference to me, but cute in the way 19 year old boys try to be cute these days. Tan, muscles that look out of place with such baby faces, long, side-swept brown hair over the eyebrows. The kind of guy who’d never turn my head in waking life. The kind of guy who’d only register on my radar if he jumped out in front of me in the crosswalk, and only then because I’d think what a shame it was that some mother just lost such a soft looking child.
Teenage Boyfriend would regularly come over to visit me, his cute but pudgy 19 year old buddy ever in tow to play Back-up Idolizer in the event no one else could be found to fawn over Teenage Boyfriend’s eyebrows and vitality. He’d sit on the couch next to me and make a show of draping his arm broadly around my shoulder, but then never look at me. Never speak to me. Just while away the hours gabbing and showing off his conquest to the chubby friend who so adored him. He’d brag to his friends that he had a 26 year old girlfriend as though that was some great feat, and I’d endure his being 19 and mentally absent around me because he was cute for a young’un, and it was nice to have the company.
One day- the day of the dream- he asked me to give him a lift to go see this girl he knew. He kept insisting it wasn’t a date, even after he showed up at my place in his best shirt and oceans of cologne. He told me how great this girl was, and how pretty. How much alike they were, how much fun she was. He told me he was taking her out for dinner, and how they had somehow gotten hold of some alcohol and were going to get drunk together later that night. He kept telling me nothing was going to happen, and then winking and nudging me while saying that if something did happen how could I blame him because “both of them are so hot.”
I agreed to give him a lift. I even encouraged him to ask this girl out if she seemed interested in him. I was a 20-something cougar and he was just a joke to me by this point. A mere presence. An embarrassment. A body warming a seat on a couch I don’t really own in a living room that stopped being mine as soon as I awoke. He told me no, no– it’s not like that. It’s not a date, I’m not trying to get her to go out with me. I just nodded, joked that no one could resist him, and walked out to the car. Attractive men live on the reassurance that they are irresistible, and for better or worse I live on the reassurance that I fill a need.
“The car” I drove him in turned out to be one of those large, white, passenger vans they use at schools and day-care centers, with several long rows of seats, all equipped with shoulder strap seat belts that came down from the ceiling. When we got in to drive to this girl’s house I discovered Chubby Friend was already in the van to tag along. As was my mother. My real mother. My waking life mother. She was smiling and cheerful; happy to see me and to have my company as we drove the tangled streets of Waukesha. I don’t recall feeling shy that she saw my laugh of a kiddie boyfriend. I just remember being glad she was there so I wouldn’t feel so alone in spite of all this other company.
I drove us past the park by the library, up the street past the apartments where Kate and Janet, Rachel and Arielle, and Sean and Tish used to live. Teenage Boyfriend rattled on about how cute the girl was that we were about to go see. Chubby Friend listened intently. Mom smiled graciously. I came to full stops and used my turn signals.
In one of those shifts you only find in dreams, we were suddenly out of the van and walking to the girl’s house. And the streets were no longer the streets of Waukesha. We were someplace else. A small city. No litter in the gutters, no dirt on the sidewalks. Everything was clean and quiet. Every alley was wide. Every building was the color of a coffee shop I couldn’t afford in a neighborhood I’d never visit. And the sun was almost set.
Teenage Boyfriend was getting nervous. He said he remembered how to get to the girl’s house– a few more blocks down, and then a few blocks to the left– but that he couldn’t remember what her house looked like. He started getting anxious about the falling darkness, too, as the scent of his cologne began to wear off. I turned to him on my right and suddenly– dream shift– he was a girl. A short, small-framed, dark haired, olive skinned girl of about 17.
And just like that we were in danger and on the run. I took her by the hand and we darted quickly down an alley. A car curled around a corner to our left, its headlights shining on us. We made a mad dash for the alley across a street we’d come to and ran as fast as we could. Two blocks down, one to the left. We hadn’t gone far enough to get to the home of the girl we were seeking, but we were at least still heading in the right direction.
The dark haired girl whose hand I was holding was suddenly back to being Teenage Boyfriend again when we were back on track. When we knew where we were going. As long as everything was going according to plan he was himself. But the moment things were in chaos, the moment we lost our way, he shifted back to this small, frightened girl younger than himself and latched on to me for help. This didn’t bother me. I’d rather baby-sit youths than date them.
Mom and Chubby Friend found us catching our breath on a sidewalk and, reunited, we resumed our trek to the home of some nameless, attractive young girl so much more appropriate in every way for my boyfriend, but who he still insisted he was just going to go visit. I began to grow annoyed with him for thinking I was as big a fool as I’d have to be to accept his protestations as being remotely likely. I said nothing. I didn’t care. I didn’t want him. He was a child. But it was like I suddenly wanted him to want me, at least a little, at least for show, at least for now, because I wanted him to be worth all this trouble.
We reached a street we thought could be the girl’s. Teenage Boyfriend told me he was unsure if this was it or not. I looked ahead and there on the right was a white bridge that looked like it had been made from pieces torn from the wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was beautiful all lit up against the sky, which was now completely dark. It was beautiful and white and sturdy. It was beautiful and clean.
Do you remember crossing this to get to the girl’s house before, I asked young Boyfriend. But before he could respond, an enormous Main Drape the brownish color of strawberry preserves dropped swiftly and silently into place on our right between us and the bridge, hiding it, and the street it was on, from view. The only direction we could go was to the left. We turned.
To our left was a house-lined street you cannot find anywhere but in a Stephen King novel set in a carnival and made into a movie directed by Guillermo del Toro. I felt like I’d walked into one of James Roland‘s nightmares without the “James Roland Guide To Waking Oneself Up.” Each house on either side of the street wasn’t so much an actual house as it was a N’Awleans mausoleum, a booth, or a tent. Yes- I could see that now. They were ragged backstage circus tents back from their final tour of the universe. And in an instant the street itself wasn’t even a street anymore. It was a waterway.
Stringy men on floating platforms poled their way up and down this sudden canal, as stars winked on high above our heads. Strings of bare bulbs buzzed as heat fell onto the tents, each decorated like the temporary encampment of some displaced Vodun priestess. Collages of religious figures, chains of beads and mud, canvas wilting in the heat, rocking chairs immobile on front stoops extending cautiously over watery lawns out to the waterway ahead; it was like death. Like so much rotten, floating death.
I knew we had to walk down this street to find the girl’s house. No longer to bring my boyfriend to her, however, but to save her. To rescue her from this place. I’d share my couch with her, my kitchen, my bed, my locks on the front door. She could even have my boyfriend; anything to get her out of this place.
I looked down the sidewalk comprised entirely of rickety front stoops and began planning how to cross them. Each one was made of odds and ends tied together and floating on the murky water of this hellish bayou, and none was more than 3′ square. Some stoops looked like sections of fencing attached to the base of the tent’s front entrance via bits of cord and wire. Some were more like single fan blades, or the arm of some unlucky chair that had fallen into the water and been spit back up after whatever lurked beneath the surface realized chairs are not as good for eating as people are. As we are. As we would be if we took even a single misstep while making our way across this floating walk.
I turned back to my group to warn them to be cautious before we began jumping from one floating, disconnected stoop to the next, when I noticed my mother was no longer behind me. I turned back around to face the walkway in front of me and there she was, already blazing a trail atop the floating “bridge.” She was picking out her steps slowly and carefully, her arms out for balance, her head down, her eyes scanning the wet boards around her for which ones looked least likely to tip her into the water and deliver her up to the dangers beneath its surface.
She hadn’t gotten far, maybe 10 feet from us, when she reached a section of the path where every piece floating around her looked too narrow for even a single foot, or too disconnected from the other stoops, or too wet and slippery to bear her up if she lept onto it over the great distance between it and the step before.
I opened my mouth to cry out to her to tell her to stop, that she didn’t need to go on ahead, that we’d find some other way. But it was too late. Her foot slipped on a wet, rocking piece of insignificant wood, and the water between the stoops of two of the tents swallowed her up with so insignificant a splash the water could have been made of damp bread.
There was no motion beneath the surface, no bubbles, no splashing. I frantically scanned the walkway for the best path to reach the point where she’d gone down, but could find no way to get to her without getting into the water myself.
I spotted one of the rafts lazily patrolling the canal like a crypt keeper in a town where there are none left but the dead. I called out to the sun worn man atop it and begged him to take his tiny craft to where my mother had gone under and rescue her. His taut, tan face wrinkled into a grin as he rasped something to the effect of “No.”
I jumped. From one slick board to the next I jumped. I screamed. I cried. I didn’t look to the canal to my right, nor to the tents to my left. I just looked down. Down at the rickety path bobbing below me as ripples of the bayou washed over it and over my sliding feet.
I got to where my mother had gone under. So much time had passed with no movement from that place, with no hand coming up above the surface, with not a single bubble of air. Perhaps 10 seconds? Perhaps 20? It felt like days.
I didn’t want to reach my hand into the water. I didn’t want to be dragged under. I was in a nightmare. I was in hell. I was in this town doing something I didn’t want to do for someone who didn’t even care about me, and in the process I was losing one of the people I love the most in the world. And on top of it all, here I was on the verge of losing myself to save her when I didn’t even know if she was there anymore to be saved.
But I couldn’t leave without trying to bring her back. I couldn’t run away not knowing if she was alive and if I could have saved her. It was like being stranded indefinitely in that moment in a horror movie where everyone in the theatre is screaming for the protagonist to just go, just run, just leave the others behind to be killed so at least one of you will live to tell the tale and warn others. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t leave. Not my mother. And whatever I did I would have to do it alone while Teenage Boyfriend and Chubby Friend cowered together on the last bit of real sidewalk at the entrance to this horrible place, immobilized by their fear.
I dropped to my knees on the stoop beneath me; the boards comprising it began to break apart. I thrust my hand into the water in front of me and waved it around, half hoping to feel something, half fearing it. What if I did feel my mother and it was just her body? What if I didn’t feel her at all?
What if I felt something else?
I felt nothing. I got nowhere.
I dunked my head into the water in front of me and to my surprise I could see. Not much, and not well, but I could see. It was like the water had light of its own. Dim light. Dirty light. My field of vision was awash with brown and muck and floating debris. Bits of leaves and broken boards floated past me. Gnarled branches nearly struck me as more and more things I couldn’t identify swam in front of me in a current that didn’t seem to exist at the surface.
I picked my head back up out of the water and caught sight of another man on a raft. I called to him. No response. I had a vision of my mother. I thrust my head back under the water along with enough of one of my arms that I was likely to tip into the water myself any second.
And then I did.
There were no bubbles. And though I kicked and thrashed at dangers I could not see and could not guarantee existed, I knew somehow that my movements were not disturbing the surface above where I went down.
And then I saw her.
Her glasses were still on her face, which had turned pale. Her eyes were open and glassy, her mouth wide. Something mechanical looking, something about the size and appearance of a tarantula’s leg, peeked out from inside her mouth where it gripped the left corner of her lip.
I suddenly didn’t know if I wanted us to live anymore or not. Perhaps it would be better if we both died so this would be all over than for me to get us out and revive her so she had to remember this horror for the rest of her life.
I reached for her and pulled her to myself. I tried swimming to the surface but it was rougher going up than down as the water thickened like refrigerated grease. I pushed her head above the surface, and then my own. I called to the boys to come grab her, to get her out of the water. I felt like something was coming toward us, something worse than thick water, debris, and mechanical creatures with bodies I couldn’t even imagine.
But they didn’t come. They dropped to their knees on the sidewalk and cried. They screamed. They held each other and pointed towards us. They called to the river men and begged someone to help us, but their cries went as unnoticed as mine had.
I began losing her beneath the water again. My face dipped and I saw something black, shapeless, and violent with ugliness move toward us with a painful slowness from far below. Something evil. Something the size of a house. I reached my chin up and out towards the night air one last time, and then she was gone from my grasp.
And then I woke up.
I don’t really know if I’m glad that I was able to remember that to write it all down or not, to tell you the truth. I don’t have many nightmares, nor have I ever, really. But would it have been better to have forgotten this?