When Clara Meets the Man of Her Dreams

The walls are made of aluminum and Clara is sure that they will rattle with a hollow metallic ring if she brushes against them. She knows she is looking for somebody, but she doesn’t know who. When she steps her feet sink slightly into the floor and lift out of it with a slight sucking sound. Her skin tingles. The walls are rising higher around her like a maze and then they melt away into puddles at her feet and he’s there in front of her. She won’t be able to describe him later. His face is beautiful, but it is indistinct. Clara walks toward him and he reaches out a hand toward her. She brings her fingers to touch him and jumps a little as though it was an electric shock. He catches her up in his arms and kisses her, taking her breath away. She wakes up gasping.

Her bedroom is square and sharp after the soft edges of her sleep. She blinks bewildered eyes at the walls that only go up to the ceiling and the mess of clothes she left in the corner last night. The breeze from the window brings a musty smell into the room and a car alarm is going off in the distance in the relentless beep-beep-beep that she’s almost learned to tune out completely. Almost. What a lovely man, she thinks.

Clara falls asleep that night half-smiling, wondering if her brain will produce the same man again. She wakes in the middle of the night to stare at the white shape cast by the window and to feel a vague disappointment that he has not returned to her. She dozes again, skimming the surface of sleep and finally sinking beneath it. He is there, and he folds her into his embrace. When she wakes in the morning she can nearly feel the burning imprint of his lips on her skin. Her ears seem to know the sound of his voice, for all that it never sounds in daylight.

The next night, Clara does not see the man at all. She wakes in the morning and her stomach is filled with acid and disillusionment. Sleep is nothing but black when she has no visions of love. The night after, though, she falls asleep bitter and she wakes up delighted, for he came back to her. He’s in there somewhere, she thinks, huddled in her mind until she sleeps when he can come to her. The following night she knows she will see him, and there he is. When she wakes she is shivering from his hands, his tongue, his skin on her. She drifts into reveries during the day thinking of the softness of his hair in her fingers and the glint of light that dances in his eyes.

Clara begins to resent mornings. When she opens her eyes it means she no longer sees him. Her days are long and she counts the hours until she can be in bed again, with her lover again. It never comes soon enough. Everything bothers her in the daytime. The stairs are too steep and the muscles in her legs strain likes strings pulled too tight. Work seems to freeze time, and when she gets home she is impatient to be tired, for her body to soften enough that she can go to bed. She tries sleeping earlier and waking right before she has to leave for work, but it doesn’t work. She has trouble falling asleep early and when she succeeds she jerks from slumber in the middle of the night and cannot return to it. The rest of the night is a long gray block of longing.

Occasionally there is a night that she does not see him. On the mornings after uninterrupted sleep she wakes livid, angry at her brain that it did not produce her lover. She spends all the day in a quiver of irritation until she can rest her head and close her eyes to see him. She has started to notice the process of waking up and the sluggish drag out of the cling of sleep. Her eyes are still closed and her lover still before her, but she can feel the morning come. The light creeps into her room like a thief and robs her of her sleep. She bemoans its loss. Her days are dry and long. Her nights are too short and too beautiful. Clara lives to slip into sleep, where she is loved.

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Falling

Her heart was pounding the beat of a song she couldn’t hear, and so she couldn’t fall asleep. She lay awake instead and listened to it thump against her chest, the soft sure sound that kept her awake. Across the room, her computer blinked at her with a slow glowing and dimming, the light strengthening and dying again. It didn’t match her heartbeat and the dissonance bothered her, in a vague distant way. She couldn’t hear anything but her heartbeat echoing through her body. The rest was silence.

There was a very large rabbit and she was outside. Oh, she thought, I’m dreaming now. Maybe I should climb on the rabbit. When she approached it, trying to touch its fur, it gave a startled whinny and hopped away, bounding toward the sky before it fell again to the earth with a deafening crash. She shook with the force of its fall, and then it was off again. She ran after it, feeble, wishing her legs could carry her farther and push her off the ground like that. When the rabbit landed again, it turned to her and blared.

She woke to the sound of the car horns, pulled from her half-sleeping by the sudden noise. The horn whined through the air and then stopped. The silence grew again, except for her heart. Now it was thundering in her ribs, beating a frightened tattoo. Her bones were jangling, like the bundle of knives she dropped trying to empty the dishwasher. Her skeleton jittered in the same way and the vibrations buzzed against her bones for a long time before the shivers faded again into sleep.

Lost Dreaming

When Amanda saw him, even though she was dreaming, she lost her breath. She wavered and probably said, faintly, that she might need to sit. He was so close and so real, three-dimensional, his face before hers and she could reach out and touch it. As soon as she did – as soon as her fingers lit on skin – she woke up. Of course.

When she gasped in the darkness, gathering the sheets around her shoulders, she felt Mark stir. At once she tried to be still, to keep her hands from grasping and her voice from breaking out. She wanted to wail, but she shivered instead. Mark woke up anyway.

“What’s going on?” His words rustled and rasped in the black bedroom.

She shifted closer to him and tucked her head down. “Nothing, I’m sorry for waking you. I had another dream.”

“You saw him?” Mark pulled her closer. “Honey, come here.” Amanda nestled against his chest, fitting her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder and stretching out against his body, trying to let her arms relax. The tension of waking up still ran like electricity through her bones. It took her a long time to fall back asleep, but at least she had no more dreams.

When she woke up, Mark was already out of bed. He couldn’t have been up for long because his heat was still fading from the sheets. The muted clatter of pans sounded from down the hall. With a shudder, Amanda climbed out of bed and began to dress in the numb air. Mark must have heard her footsteps, because he called down the hall, “Want eggs?”

She paused and thought about it, then called back, “Okay. Thank you, sweetheart.” It took much of her concentration to pick out clothes. The red sweater – no, she’d been wearing that, there was a picture, that time they went to the park together and pushed the swing for an hour. Not those jeans, there was still a marker stain on the knee. That shirt had been her favorite to wear on weekends, when Mark had made pancakes for all of them on Saturdays. Eventually she found clothing that was unburdened by memory and she ducked out of the door, down the hall, turning her head from the closed door. They acted as thought that door wasn’t there. She hoped that eventually it would be easier to ignore, just like part of the wall, and they wouldn’t ever have to go back inside. They could pretend that it didn’t exist.

When she got into the kitchen, Mark snagged an arm around her waist and kissed her. Her smile back was wan at best. They sat with eggs, toast, and orange juice, across the table from one another in silence. When the sound of their chewing stopped, Mark sighed. “I hate when you dream about him. You’re upset all day.”

Amanda’s heart thumped in her chest. She said, “I don’t hate dreaming about him.”

Mark lifted an eyebrow. He was trying to be brave, she thought. He always tried to comfort her, as if it weren’t his loss too, as if it didn’t hurt him as much. It made it all worse.

She struggled to find the words to explain. “It’s not like that’s bad. I mean, they’re not nightmares. He’s there, you know? Still there, still fine, nothing’s wrong. It’s, I don’t know, do you know what I mean though? I just get to see him, while I’m asleep.”

Mark’s mouth twisted. His eyes were beginning to sprout crinkles when he smiled or scowled. She had just begun to notice them. He swallowed, and said, “Right, that makes sense. Okay, so why is dreaming about him so bad if you get to see him?”

She looked at him as if he were crazy. Surely he didn’t really need to ask. “I always wake up.”

 

Sunlight Stealing

Sunlight slipped through the window like a thief easing his way into their bedroom. Laura flinched from the brightness pressing at her eyelids, flaring in her half-sleeping sight.

She was just about to face the end of it. Falling asleep, she’d been brooding on their fight. Andy had curled up on his side of the bed, so she’d huddled on hers and run the lines through her head over and over like a script she was memorizing. She had been sure she was right, he was wrong, he should have called, she should be angry. Then she repeated the argument and she doubted. Later, though she couldn’t remember it, she was certain that the fight looping in her mind was the reason for the dreams.

Sleep swallowed her up while her lips were still moving around the angry words, and she dreamed. She found herself alone, in a vast and flat wasteland. There was nothing but desert sand and a wind that billowed and swirled around her. It pushed Laura, unyielding, until she dropped behind a hill. There was a cave there, lit from within. The sky was dark then, the sand near invisible, so she went inside. As she entered she saw that the cave glowed, an unearthly light from the crystals embedded in the walls. It was a tunnel, deep underground, and it wound and wove as she walked on.

There was the brief sensation that she had turned upside down. Laura knew she could feel it in her stomach, the quick twist from left to right, down to up. There was sky now, in the space she thought had just been the floor. It loomed above her head. It was lower, angrier, than the sky was normally, and it was a dull orange. She nearly brushed her nose on it when she looked up at the stars. The area around her was narrow, a long cramped room with the sky opening above it. Andy was there, and an elf, and a talking raccoon. They turned to her, and they said, “Hello, Laura, are you ready?”

She squeaked, “Ready for what?”

They did not answer her. Instead they turned, her lover and the talking raccoon, and gestured onward. At the end of the cramped room under the low dusty sky there was a door. It was nothing but wood planks, bound by iron and adorned with only a latch. Light shimmered around its edges. She reached for it, and it swung open. Andy walked up to stand next to her, at her right hand, and the raccoon appeared at her left. Andy said, “It’s an adventure, love. We’re going to face it together, just like everything else.”

She smiled, weakly, and the raccoon snarled, “Gods above, but dreamers in love make me sick. Come on, you humans, let’s go defeat the evil already.” She smiled at him too, and together they stepped forward.

When the mist cleared from around them, they were in a fair. There were balloons clamoring together in the sky and a little girl with a cloud of cotton candy. There was a giraffe walking past them and a clown flying by. Laura knew that the fight lay at the end of the lane, and with Andy and the raccoon beside her she walked bravely toward it.

Laura groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. The movement only jostled her awake, though. The pale stealthy light of the sun had already made its way into the room, and it had robbed her of her dream. She turned, and saw Andy. He was frowning in his sleep, probably still angry from the night before. She glared, annoyed, at the sunshine. She wanted the rest of her dream, the end of her story. She sat up instead, because the sun had come up before she could finish it. Her hands fumbled, her eyes still bleary, but she found her glasses on the nightstand and set them on her face so that she could see clearly. The dream was already fading as she shook the sleep from her head. The room around her was pale, just traced with enough light to see by in the waking day.

The Stranger’s Tale (part two)

“In any case, nobody agrees on who that stranger may happen to be. If some say it is a fragment of a shattered past, some too think that the stranger is a messenger from the future. A ghost of what is not yet living rather than a ghost of the dead. A whole different kind of eerie. Some think that it’s nothing of the sort and rather a person born of dream and chaos. I think I’ve said that one already. The stranger appears, and tells her story, and disappears again. It’s as simple as that. A stranger in a wood, after all, can be almost anyone at all, and too a storyteller is both anyone at all and everyone at once.” The woman gave Ella a wink and a smile.

Chatyr-Dag Night Forest

“Of course, the story comes in many different shapes. In many -” the strange woman leaned toward Ella across the clearing, as though telling a secret, and her voice dropped to a tone that was soft and low, “the story is a truth, a terrible and beautiful truth that can never be untold, and is only given to those who seek it. It’s a warning, an omen, or a fact, I suppose. A telling of what is more true than any other, what’s true about people and the universe, what’s real in the dreams.” There was a moment of utter silence, and Ella’s heart burned and twisted in her. The black of the night seemed to advance, shadows curling like cats in their laps.

“Of course -” and now the woman’s voice resumed its conversational cadence, “that’s utter nonsense according to others. Then again, those others are often the ones who think that the story is something horrid, twisted and fearful.” Ella thought she heard voices around them. She looked from the corners of her eyes, trying to listen to the cries and groans that were almost too faint to hear. The strange woman continued talking as Ella’s ears strained for the voices in pain that swirled and spun in the darkness, but they faded away and she couldn’t hear anything. The voices may not have been there at all. Perhaps she was imagining it. She was simply getting spooked by the story, that was it.

The woman was saying, “and there are some people who think that the story is naught but a dream misremembered, nothing but a bad night’s sleep with only bits of anxiousness and terror grumbling in your stomach. It could be that, I suppose. No more than the hidden misgivings that appear and speak to you in the gloom. It could also be the wish of the past or the fleeting sight of the future. Nobody knows, do you see?”

The moonlight flickered on the strange woman’s face, and the two of them sat cloaked in quiet. Around them the forest was still. Nothing moved except a shiver crawling up Ella’s spine. When her shoulders trembled the stranger began to speak again. “My dear, it’s but a story, or rather bits of a story that don’t quite make sense. Nobody knows what it means, a story from a strange person in the night. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. If you don’t think it does. If you get a chance, though, sweetheart – do try to tell it again. It’s a story that’s meant to be told, for all that it’s made of wishes and fancies, hollow ones at that. Anyway, Ella, think on it some. Dream about it a little. Don’t forget.”

Ella looked at the woman, sitting serenely and looking straight at her. She watched the shifting glimmer in the woman’s dark eyes, and wondered at herself for being so calm, for accepting this bizarre thing that was happening to her. She didn’t want to forget, and against the words ringing in her head and the woman sitting against a tree whose story was finished, she closed her eyes. She told herself the words she had just heard, the ragged patched-together story made of dreams and retellings. The words pirouetted and dipped in her head, dancing fast to the beat of her heart.

She told herself the story against the dark behind her eyes until the words blurred and ran in her mind. When she opened her eyes again, she was alone in the forest under a lightening sky. She hauled herself to her feet and looked for the sun, and the shadows that would point her way home.

The Stranger’s Tale (part one)

Everything began when Ella got lost in the woods. She’d been hiking, watching the sun stream in languorous ribbons down the trees and crumble through the leaves. She got distracted. It was easy to do when the light sliced through the forest the way it was doing. But then the shadows grew, and stretched. The light faded and the blue darkness pooled on the ground until the trees and the sky were steeped in it. The shadows spread and Ella was alone in the forest in the dark under a violet dimming sky.

Ella tried to figure out which way was north, or which way she’d come. The moon was no help at all. It just glimmered at her, indifferently, offering a sliver’s worth of silver light. She’d worn shorts and a sleeveless top, which was sensible in the sun. In the deepening dusk the mosquitoes swarmed and before too long she was covered in bites, slapping at her arms and brushing bugs from her neck. Finally Ella sat, her back to the prickly bark of a tree, and closed her eyes to wait for the sun.

A chirp sounded. She sighed. Crickets. Another chirp, and another rang out. Soon the air was clamoring with crickets, and probably the odd frog. The noise continued for a while, and then in a moment the forest was silent. Ella opened her eyes.

There was a woman there, sitting against a tree facing Ella. She was wearing long pants – Ella’s bug bites itched in envy – and a t-shirt. She smiled when Ella looked up at her, and said, “Hello there, sweet one. You seem a bit lost.”

Ella scrambled to her feet, bracing herself against the tree when her legs buckled. Her whole body seemed to be asleep. The strange woman rose too, somewhat more gracefully. “Yes,” said Ella, her voice loud against her own ears. “Could you tell me the way back to Angram Street? It’s just against the woods, it’s where I came from -”

The woman was shaking her head. “No, dear. I’m sorry, I simple don’t know the geography of this place. With me, though, you have nothing to fear, and I can tell you a story to pass the hours until day breaks. If you like, that is.”

Ella’s brow crinkled. What a strange suggestion. “Okay,” she said, knowing that she sounded as bewildered as she felt. “Sure, I’ll hear a story.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” the woman clapped her hands together. “But first, what is your name?”

“Ella.”

“Ah.” The woman let out a long sigh. “Ella. That was my name once.” Ella just looked at her, blank.

“Right then, on with the story. It’s a tale long and seldom told, a tale you can find once and never again. A tale that is spun lost in the wood by the light of the almost-moon. It’s about a story, in a manner of speaking. A tale within a tale. Though what is a story, of course? That is the question. A dream, a ghost, a wish? I wouldn’t know, of course. I only tell the tale. You know, when the tale is told by a good storyteller, all else ceases to exist? But I’m rambling now, and I will tell you.”

Ella was thoroughly perplexed at this point, but the strange woman continued.

“This is a story cobbled together from the half-remembered and nearly-known. It’s about a ghost more than a wish, I suppose, because it’s about itself. You see, when a person -” she nodded to Ella, “when a person such as yourself, my dear, finds herself wandering a strange place where the moon is barely gleaming on the trees, she may meet with a ghost. Or a dream, or whatever else it may be. Nobody quite knows who the stranger is, who the dream is. There have been arguments on this point, naturally. Some say that the dream is nothing more than that, the fancy woven of fear and moonlight. Some say that it is a shadow of the past. Those ones have a story all embroidered and blood-spattered. It’s the ghost of a woman who fled to freedom, who escaped a vengeful lover, who – oh, I don’t know. Who can say. Those ones think it’s the heroine of some story who’s run from it, only to find herself in another. It’s a very dramatic view of things.”

Ella coughed and the strange woman looked up, as though she’d forgotten her listener was there. Neither spoke for a minute, and then the woman went on with her tale.

The General’s Dream

The general tossed in his sleep that night, plagued with a bad dream. He rose with the sun and rubbed the crackle of sleep from his eyes. He walked out to where the men were waiting. They looked so clean and smart in their pressed uniforms and their straight serious faces. They were very dear, he thought, and he felt a pang. Generals of armies were not supposed to think words like “dear,” least of all about their own young soldiers. But the sensation was there and it was growing, so the general began to speak.

The sunlight shining through these clouds in E...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This was supposed to be his stirring speech, readying them all for battle, lifting the sodden soldierly spirits up to the brightness of the sun that must be shining somewhere above all that foggy grey. Instead, he told them to wait until the sun came out on its own. There was no reason they had to die on this dark day, without ever feeling the sunlight sift on their faces again. They were free, forgiven of any loyalty to the army, just go. Go, he urged them, and watched doubt creep onto those rigid faces. Go, he said again, and the first broke away. One by one they scattered, and he watched them huddle into their tents with a pinprick of pride. Then he went to the other side, and here things got blurry.The general went to talk to the opposing army, to the surprised faces that awaited him there. He wasn’t sure what happened. He explained what he had done, and why, and recounted several important events in the war as though they hadn’t been present – though they hadn’t, he supposed, for his version of them. He wasn’t sure if that was when light began to dawn, or when he was taken out by a lone shot. Either way, the early sunlight was filtering its rays onto his face and into his eyes, so he blinked awake. The dream ended abruptly and there was no peace being brokered, as yet no fatal shot, no young lives saved.

The general dressed quickly and went to meet the soldiers, filing into line with fear in their expressions. The smell of soap and dread mingled, and the morning’s cold stole into their bones. The general recited his stirring speech, the last comma memorized and intoned to them. Then they went to battle.