I missed my dreams.
No, more than that - I missed Dreaming. The Equinox had come and gone without a single midnight spark. In fact, it had been six weeks, maybe more, since I'd last awakened to record some vision in my Journal. My investments - hell, my life! - were beginning to falter, deprived of the energy I'd been accustomed to absorb all my life from the nightly pageant before my closed eyes.
I couldn't even tell how it was happening - if someone were stealing my dreams, if I were being kept from dreaming altogether, or if my unknown assailant had just hexed me so I couldn't remember what I'd dreamed after I awoke. The ambiguity frightened me almost as much as the loss.
The one thing I did know was that I could not have stopped Dreaming on my own.
So I did what I had to do. I went to my Uncle Stepan.
I summoned my most reliable dreambound driver, and left my rural estate as early as I could in the dew-drenched morning. I had a long journey to the city ahead of me, hours to be spent sweating in the limousine's air-conditioned comfort, staring out of the window as the cool green fields of my estates gave way to pastel suburbia, then that replaced by the dusty gray of the City.
Near noon I arrived in the oldest part of downtown, directing my driver into a borough which had never fallen victim to glass boxes and sprayed-stucco townhomes. We motored slowly through streets still paved with brick and cobbles, crunching over the stones to halt at last in front of the Nepenthe Club, a squat granite structure that cradled my Uncle as a murderer's skull, all unknowing, defends the malicious brain within.
Alighting from the limousine, I bade my driver locate a nearby restaurant in which to replenish his body, and to return in no more than an hour. He touched his cap and drove off, as I turned to walk up the granite steps into the Nepenthe.
I found Uncle Stepan in the smoke-shrouded library, slumbering in a wide-backed leather armchair. The crackling of huge logs giving up their heat to the air, fighting off the chill that pervaded the old stone walls even in the midst of spring, was the only sound that marred the stillness, and Stepan was the only club member in the gloom on this sun-filled day.
A somber representative of the club's staff, the only other occupant of the huge dim chamber, stood stiffly nearby, ready to provide service whenever needed. Even in my diminished state I could tell that the servant was not dreambound, but merely honorable and rigid. I wondered that as seasoned an old hand as Uncle Stepan would allow one so close to him to remain uncontrolled. It showed a level of trust of which I'd thought him incapable.
Uncle Stepan's eyes moved rapidly beneath crumpled parchment lids. He was Dreaming, and the sight stirred an unworthy jealousy in me. Yet I allowed no hint of that bitterness, or of my subtle satisfaction at interrupting what I could no longer have, to seep into my voice.
"Uncle! Uncle Stepan!"
He roused, partway, and then subsided into sleep yet again. I reached over impulsively to shake his shoulder, but of course he was not one to be importuned in such a way. I did not need the butler's disapproving glare to understand that. I pulled back my hand with my gesture uncompleted, and settled instead for coughing loudly and repeating my call.
"Uncle Stepan, wake up! Please! I have something to ask of you."
This time he awakened fully, staring up at me with age-bleared eyes as he scrabbled blindly for his own Journal.
"Jakob, is it? Nephew. I Dreamed..." he mumbled, beginning a slow scrawl in the pages of his Journal. I saw only the first few words before he curled his arm possessively around the creamy pages, something about a black horse and a silver rider, profit riding on the back of death - ordinary enough images. Uncle Stepan had made his first fortune selling tobacco, after all.
"I know you were Dreaming, Uncle; I know the signs. But I had to awaken you."
"Boy, you forget yourself," he rasped, voice growing stronger and louder with every word. He wound himself up like a long-disused toy, displaying more energy than I'd seen from him in hundreds of reluctant Sunday visits throughout my childhood. "You haven't lived long enough - you have nothing so important that you must interrupt a Telling."
"I have stopped Dreaming, Uncle, and I don't know why," I said simply. "I fear an oneiric attack."
He stopped writing, then, a look of comprehension and craft taking years off his face.
"Ah. So, you have come to me... for my advice, Jakob?"
"That too I will accept, and gladly, my Uncle. But I need something more. I would like one of your Dreams, with which to trace the speaker of this curse, if curse it is. A small one will do - a daydream, really. You need not lose much."
That one word contained within it the same obdurate granite as the stone of which the Nepenthe Club itself was made. But I knew I'd shaken him... for one of us to lose the Dreaming was the ultimate horror, surpassing even the ever-present fear of Dreaming falsely. The danger of succumbing to a false Telling was constant, customary; one became used to it or one could be at best a mere dreamling. Losing the Dreams altogether was much rarer, and the very unfamiliarity of such a doom lent it extra power.
I had to be water, wearing down stone. I waited, trying to appear as silent and impassive as the butler. My effort was obvious, but effective nonetheless. Uncle Stepan shifted restlessly, no longer writing (by which token I knew I had not been dismissed) but unwilling to look up and meet my gaze.
After a time I could not measure, there in that timeless room, Uncle Stepan slapped his pen down on the arm of the chair and fumbled in the earlier pages of his Journal. His fingers, frustratingly slow, separated the sheets of vellum with great care. I caught glimpses of crimson and viridian - common affectations of youth, when most of us succumbed to the desire to color-code our minds' creations. But the page on which he stopped was almost blank; a short paragraph at the top, and a sketch in the middle, both in dull black, were the only breaks in the sheet's smooth expanse.
Uncle Stepan inhaled deeply and brought the book up to eye level. He breathed gently on the page. The letters rippled. He did it again, and the words and small picture fluttered and rose together, an inch above the page. Supporting his Journal with one hand, he slid the other underneath the floating text until it looked as if he'd scrawled the whole thing on his palm. Then he set the book down and brought his other hand overtop of the words, trapping them between his palms. He squeezed, grunting softly with old man's effort, until a flash of light signaled the end of the Binding.
When Uncle Stepan opened his hands there was a black silhouette on his palms, a boyish male figure standing arms akimbo between them. He picked up the shape and rolled it into a cigarlike cylinder with practised motions, then ran his finger along the edge to seal it and handed the bounden Dream to me.
"There, boy. Smoke this before your bedtime and you'll see the spark, I'll warrant."
I began to stammer my thanks, at least somewhat regretting my earlier repugnance, but at some unseen signal the butler came forward and gently grasped my elbow, ushering me irresistably away from my uncle as he flipped forward to the newest page in his Journal and began writing down the rest of the Dream I had interrupted.
I came along willingly - it was enough. I now had at the very least an instrument with which to detect, if not defeat, my unknown enemy.
Sped by the hope of Dreams returned, the long trip back to my estate in the country went quickly and smoothly. I almost fell asleep in the back of the limousine, in fact, as the miles sped by and the day faded away; only the knowledge that I could not safely take advantage of Uncle Stepan's gift were I not in a properly-warded room restrained me.
The clang of the gates in the first wall that rings my estate stirred me from the doze into which I'd slipped despite my resolution not to wander. It proved a welcome interruption, for during the drive up to the main house I was able to refresh myself somewhat and fasten on the driver, impelling him with a minor Dreaming to clean and tend to the car before himself going to sleep above the garage. I still had enough power to keep my own staff in line, at least, even after months of Dreamlessness.
I bounded up the steps to the front door of the mansion, where Gerda and Larisa waited to open the door and take my coat. I brushed past them without speaking, without even my customary fondling of their dreambound flesh, almost throwing my greatcoat at Larisa on my way up the stairs to my bedchamber, where I hoped to put Uncle Stepan's gift to immediate use.
My wife Valentina, herself only a minor Dreamer, had long since retired to her own chambers, I knew. As I passed the door which led to her wing of the mansion, the pallid smoke of her own Dreaming tugged at my starving mind, but I resisted the temptation to enter. Uncle Stepan's bounden Dream was not one to be shared, not even with a spouse.
Tremblingly eager to begin, I threw myself on the bed without removing more than my shoes. I drew the black cigar Uncle Stepan had given me from my coat pocket and, rolling over on the satin coverlet, pulled from the drawer of my nightstand my lighter, a silver homunculus on a pedestal that Valentina had given me last Beltane. I don't smoke tobacco, but at times, before I'd stopped Dreaming entirely, the savor of brown opium had made my Tellings more vivid, and hence more effective. Most of us used opium, but only from time to time; although even the weakest of us were immune to the lesser addictions of the body, the chaos of the visions the narcotic brought was debilitating.
I sat up in bed long enough to bring the rolled-up tube of Uncle Stepan's Dream to my lips, and lit its tip.
I was thrown backward onto the coverlet by the force of the Dream. As a young man Uncle Stepan had been one of the strongest Dreamers known to our family, and therefore in the world. This Dream from his youth shared fully in that power despite its age, and his. The black cigar flared and vanished from my sight as a wave of darkness overwhelmed me. I groped for the lighter to shut off the flame before I fell helplessly into slumber...
I tumble into a Dreamland both intimately familiar and strangely altered by the acrid, bitter tang of Uncle Stepan's Dreaming as it overlay my own. The vista below me stretches forth as it always has, green fields and deep forests extending to mountainous horizons blued by haze, the whole untrammeled by any work of humanity except for my great castle directly beneath me. I settle toward my Dream castle gently, with a welcoming sense of coming home after a long absence.
But this time someone has arrived before me. Standing with hands on hips on the highest parapet is a boy I'd never seen, one I'd never put into any Dreaming of mine. He has Uncle Stepan's features, stretched taut over young bones, and I recognize him as the semblance of my uncle's Dreaming, the guide I'd asked him to supply. He laughs soundlessly at my approach, and swings over the lip of the stone, plummeting toward the paved courtyard below.
I leap after him, following him down and down, speeding toward the flagstones at a horrifying rate - for one of us, it's no myth that dying in a Dream can easily lead to true death. At nearly the last moment, the boy catches hold of a silver thread that appears magically nearby, and uses it as a fulcrum to swing into a wide-open window of the castle. Not the way I would have done it, but quick and effective - and perhaps unexpected, if someone has in fact invaded my Dreamland.
I ape his actions and follow him in. The Dream boy clambers hand over hand along the thread winding through the familiar stone halls and tapestry-hung banquet chambers of my castle. We meet no other soul or semblance; I have had no time or inclination to populate the place as I normally do.
The thread we follow curves smoothly into the throne chamber. So intent am I on following the boy that I do not notice at first where it leads, once there; a sudden flare of intense heat is my only warning that the silver thread vanishes into the great fireplace, where logs I have not commanded to be lit nevertheless burn loudly. I stop barely in time to avoid being singed myself as the boy I've been following ripples and goes to ash, reverting for an instant to the featureless silhouette I'd seen on Uncle Stepan's palm before disintegrating entirely into meaningless black dust.
Then the flames reach out at me with crablike claws, seeking to draw me in, and I flee straight up through the smokehole at the apex of the throne chamber. I speed upwards through the roof, through the clouds, impelling myself further as the flames beneath me engulf my entire castle and begin consuming the land of my dreams from mountain to ocean. A gigantic hand of fire pursues me as I broke, gasping, into my own body, sitting up in the bed not ten minutes after I'd smoked Stepan's Dream.
The bedding was smoldering, and a thick pall of smoke had arisen from the foot of the bed, where I'd apparently flung the homunculus lighter as Uncle Stepan's Dream had overwhelmed me. It was fortunate, I suppose, that I'd been ripped from the Dream as quickly as I had, but I didn't feel lucky.
The fire was manageable; I retrieved the lighter and poured water from my bedside ewer over the flames, but I moved slowly and felt no relief when it was out. I almost wished there were some cleansing fires that could take me and anneal me against the pangs of loss I felt at the act of vandalism I'd just witnessed. Uncle Stepan's Dream was gone, and I had nothing to show for it but a black smear on the coverlet... I had less than nothing, in fact, since before this I'd been able to believe that my own Dream constructions would still be waiting for me when I resolved this problem. Now I was unsure that anything would remain, that I could salvage anything from the wreckage that was being made of my life.
I arose from the bed and opened both sets of French windows to the evening breeze. From beyond came the quiet sounds of whispering trees and empty country lanes. I stumbled around the room, stripping off the charred bedding and fetching new sheets and a new coverlet from the chest at the foot of the bed. Then I collapsed into the armchair facing the windows, looking out over the grounds. Their accustomed peace, though only a pale imitation of my lost land of Dreams, eventually relaxed me. I stumbled back across the room just before dawn, to collapse again across my pungently smoky bed, and to sleep again as so often these days a Dreamless sleep.
When I awakened the rustling of the trees outside told me it was well into the next morning. The servants had known not to awaken me, of course, and I'd cleared my calendar before my trip to the city in case I'd had to stay there overnight.
Sometime during the night, my wife had come in and now slept beside me, with her hands curled up beneath her face in a kittenish pose that I found very endearing. I felt a warm rush of affection for her - she'd been so patient during my moods and crises, these past few months. She made me glad I'd married her, glad I'd elevated her from the ranks of the minor Dreamers, whose Dreams of power were so rarely of enough significance to be written down in Journals.
Though we were rarely intimate, these days; the distraction of losing my Dreaming had kept me from being quite as attentive as I'd been wont. She hadn't seemed to mind, though.
I reached out and touched her cheek. Her eyes moved rapidly beneath her lids; she was Dreaming. Even the small dreams of which Valentina was capable deserved my consideration; I withdrew my hand, then withdrew myself soundlessly, heading downstairs to the kitchen to see if I could find some breakfast. I would need it; I was now bound to return to the City, to face Uncle Stepan and report to him my loss of his Dream and my failure to obtain any of the results for which I'd hoped.
While rummaging through the cupboards in the kitchen, trying to find something more substantial than crackers to eat, I sent out a call to my bounden driver Andrej, to bring the car around. There was no feeling of response.
Leaving my plate and fork on the otherwise empty marble counter, I picked up the knife with which I'd intended to carve off a piece of lamb. The very act was a measure of how far my confidence had fallen. I felt foolish and awkward, holding a physical weapon, though I had been at one time quite good with a blade. Father had insisted that we children learn numerous human skills, whether or not we thought we'd need them, but upon Father's demise I had not felt the need to continue such time-wasting practice, and it had been years since I'd picked up a knife for anything more than dinner.
Eluding Gerda and Larisa, I slipped through the front door of the mansion. As I'd expected, my car was nowhere to be seen. I started around the east wing, towards the car barn where I kept the working vehicles. Andrej was there, standing still outside the garage, swaying back and forth with his eyes closed. He looked as if he were Dreaming, almost, though I knew he was dreamless by nature and lack of education. He certainly wasn't listening to my calls.
I snapped my fingers in front of Andrej's sleeping face and he awoke, looking down at me from his full height, gray eyes flashing insolently. I took a step back. Just then the crunch of gravel on the drive signaled the arrival of a car or truck of some sort. I backed farther away, towards the front of the manse, and Andrej stayed put. I found myself breathing sighs of relief, and when I felt I was far enough away turned towards the main drive.
A long, low, ancient black limousine took up most of the graveled area in front of my main entrance. Although I had never seen the car before, the age and ostentation of it provided enough clues for me to determine instantly who must be inside. I strode forward, my driver forgotten.
"Uncle Stepan! What a pleasure to see you! I thought you never left the City - what on earth brings you all the way out here?"
The reflective black window glass rolled down and I saw the visage of Uncle Stepan.
"I felt the death of my seeming, boy. You've lost more than you know, with that. I believe you're going to need some assistance getting your affairs back in order."
I hadn't been aware that Uncle Stepan could track down the dream he'd given me, nor that it had been that important, but I think I covered well regardless.
"Of course, of course. Thank you for coming, Uncle Stepan," I gushed. "Here, let me help you out of the car. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"You can explain why you're handing me into the house yourself, to start," he said acerbically. "The last time I was here, your father had his retinue bear me into this mansion on their own shoulders... I didn't even have to touch the grass. You're slipping, boy. You're not the man my brother was."
I hung my head, feeling rather put-upon but unwilling to show it.
"It's not as if--"
Suddenly Uncle Stepan's voice deepened and took on the scintillant qualities of a Dream Master. I looked behind me. Andrej stood not two feet behind me, tire iron in hand, apparently ready to take off my head. I hadn't even sensed his murderous intent. Andrej's eyes were blank but his body strained to throw off Uncle Stepan's block and get to me.
"Andrej! Sleep!" I barked, hoping that my old tone of command would work once more. His eyes flashed and his arms trembled as he strained to bring the tire iron down on my head... but slowly his lids fluttered shut and he collapsed onto the gravel of the driveway, the tire iron clattering to his side.
"There. See, Uncle Stepan, I have not lost everything."
I turned back to him, and his pale face seemed to fill my gaze, his voice to thicken with fatigue.
"Help me into the house, boy. I am feeling a bit... indisposed."
Uncle Stepan was not so indisposed that he couldn't get his own driver to bring his numerous bags indoors, however. He had obviously packed for an extended stay... I found myself wondering how much of his solicitude was concern for me, and how much was just a desire to escape the city heat.
"That's an unworthy thought, Jakob," Uncle Stepan gasped, as I led him up the steps and into the foyer. Uncle Stepan was altogether too aware of my thoughts, but it was intriguing nonetheless to find out just how far the power of Dreaming could be taken... I hadn't been aware of the possibilities and for a moment, at least, I eagerly anticipated going to bed in order to see if I could start reading thoughts myself.
I was brought back to earth fairly quickly, though. Gerda and Larisa were nowhere to be seen - another failure! - so I took Uncle Stepan's coat myself and led him further into the parlor, where he could sit and regain his strength.
The parlor was one of the rooms to which Valentina's decorative talents had not yet been extended. Dark draperies hid the tall windows that would have admitted light, and the mahogany paneling sucked up the rest. I found the dimness somewhat soothing and hoped Uncle Stepan would too. I led him to one of the high-backed armchairs - very much like those in the Nepenthe Club, come to think of it - and he sat down with a muttered exclamation. I took the low ottoman in front of him and watched him anxiously.
Valentina swept into the parlor, resplendent in a white silk dressing gown trimmed with ermine.
"I saw a car--" she began, stopping short as she came around the chair and saw Uncle Stepan. I'd thought she was dazzling before, but her smile as she came towards Uncle Stepan, arms outstretched, was absolutely radiant.
"Stepan! So good of you to come. Here, let me look at you." She grasped his forearms as Uncle Stepan twisted in the armchair. He seemed excited to see her. Valentina leaned forward to murmur her greetings and kiss him on the cheek. An odd trick of the light - a shadow of her lips seemed to stay visible on his cheek for a moment as she released him and stepped away, beaming.
"We're so glad you've come for a visit, Stepan. I hope you're prepared for a long stay."
"Ohh, I don't know," Uncle Stepan replied, vague again. "I... hhh."
"But you must be tired after your trip out from the city. That's a long way for anyone. Here, let me take you up to a room where you can get some rest. We'll put you in the guest room next to mine - that has the best light. You'll be quite comfortable there." Valentina held out her hand and took Uncle Stepan's. He stood more rapidly than I would have thought he could, and followed Valentina out of the parlor towards the stairs. She led him away, still chattering brightly, while Uncle Stepan's answers seemed to be mostly muttered monosyllables. He must really be exhausted, I thought, then went back to the foyer to make sure that Uncle Stepan's bags were moved upstairs as well.
I would not have thought I could bemoan the return of my Dreaming... but that night as I lay restless and exhausted, I finally closed my eyes and fell into a Dream of creeping horror, a Dream I could not control. I lay like a mortal human in the grip of images I would not have wished upon my worst enemy - though that, of course, is where they came from.
I crawl across the field of bones, a vast ossuary that stretches from horizon to horizon, the sun's terrible bleached skull sending down waves of dry heat. My own flesh is being ripped and flayed by the sharp, broken edges of jawbones and fractured skulls, my blood draining sluggishly down between the slowly moving limbs and rib cages. Mixed in among the bones are scraps of cloth and jewelry, some of which I recognize... a delicate gold chain draped over a desiccated pelvis with a remembered curve tells me Larisa shares my doom. As the sun cackles I crawl onward through clouds of clattering boneflies, eventually becoming nothing more than an animated skeleton myself...
I sat up in the dark room and forced myself out of bed. Valentina... I needed her. She would be able to comfort me, at least, even if her understanding of what I was going through would be limited. I pushed open the door to the brilliantly-lit hallway that led to her chambers.
The smooth chrome ball floats toward me, dead center in the hallway. I shrink back into my doorway but suddenly the shining sphere's skin grows chainsaw blades, dozens of them that extend and retract randomly as the ball floats closer to me. I reach for it, knowing that I must grasp it, though I lose my hand, or have it go through me and lose my life. I reach up and throw myself forward, into the spinning blades...
I fell to the floor in the hallway, outside the door to the room in which Valentina had installed Uncle Stepan, very near her own. I was awake now, I was sure of it. I pressed my head to the wall next to Uncle Stepan's room and found that I was not so sure now whether I was awake or Dreaming. I saw Uncle Stepan lying on top of the covers on the high bed in his room, arms at his sides. I could not tell if he was breathing... but his eyelids moved. He was Dreaming, and he pulled me in.
We stand on either side of the great hourglass, a creation of crystal and mahogany six feet tall, bearing sands of solid gold... I know without words that the few grains remaining in its upper half, trickling towards their final rest, are the hours and minutes of Uncle Stepan's remaining life. They are almost gone. Uncle Stepan and I grasp the handles of the hourglass and strain to lift the apparatus, to overturn it and return him to his youth and strength. Only then can he assist me. The glass comes up - too easily. There is no bottom to it, and the golden sands spread out across the floor around our feet. Uncle Stepan collapses in the pile, scrabbling feebly for purchase, as a silver angel a thousand feet tall laughs and laughs...
I awaken with a start and lie immobile on my cot in the toolshed until my heart stops pounding. I've done this every night in the eight months since the Dreaming Mistress of the big house hired me to be her gardener. Though the nightmares vary a little, most often I dream of what it would be like to live in the big house and be its lord. At first I enjoy and indulge myself, but my dreams always turn sour, and I can never stop them before they force me awake.
I wonder if the Mistress knows what I dream. She knows so much else, I can't believe she doesn't know this. Yet she shows no sign, no anger at the liberties my dreams take with her and with her property, when she calls me before her to give me the week's instructions. It's as if she also knows that this Dreaming of mine is a sham, that I have no power over what my mind displays. And that makes me wonder if...
Excuse me. I must go tend Her roses.
Started 12/25/2000; completed 8/5/2003
©2000-2003 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated August 6, 2003