The River of Dreams
A story from The Sin of Man
I dread the dawn.
I awake and keep my eyes closed. I hope that I can shut the day out and fall back to sleep but memory and fear rush in and I open my eyes to see the empty floor of dirt and straw. I hear only stillness echoing off the cracking walls. I lay a while before I grab my staff and push myself up onto my good foot.
The road is quiet, but the eager buzz of another day begins to vibrate through the people like something between opportunity and the unknown. I sense it around me, but feel nothing. The sun is striking the temple in the distance, gleaming pure and white. The Hope of Mankind, they once called it. Miserable old thing.
I pass through the city gates and see the markings on them, carefully carved and painted. An old man is on his ladder repainting the fading lines so we never forget. There are pictures of enormous beasts, heroic men and women, and of course the Empress herself.
The city is the same as it ever was and probably ever will be. My mother took me here as a child. We traveled three days from our home where everything was green. The way to the city was dry and hot and I didn’t like it but she said we had to go. She gave me an apple at the end of each long walk and they were sweet and made me happy. Night was cold, but she always held me close and sang me to sleep. I wish I could remember the words to that song. On the third dawn the sun hit the temple in the distance and made a brilliant light in a sea of gray. I thought maybe our lives would change.
I sit down beside the street, lowering myself down with my staff. I like this spot because in the morning you can smell the baker’s work and in the evening you see the hunters bring back their catch. I smell the warmness of fresh bread and my gut turns, but still I lay out a shawl in front of me, say the words that others call a prayer and then wait.
The crowds rush past and I let them flow over me. Most don’t look but a few toss clay coins at the shawl, rushing off before I can thank them. A hunter drops a scrap of bread on his way out to the plateau. Still warm and so soft inside.
I wait. I used to hope.
The day blurs into memories and wanderings of my mind as I see the people around me, but I am separate.
I think back to when there was no wall of shame to divide us and I was one of them. The sun takes its course across the sky and the hunters return with their catch but it was not a good day and their eyes stay on their feet.
I have enough to buy a few scraps of tough meat from yesterday’s hunt. The man cuts through the dense steak and hands it to me and even tries to smile but his eyes are full of pity and he knows that.
I look out and see the sun setting over the river and I wish he was here to share this with me. I turn back to my smoldering fire and poke at it. I never was very good at making a fire but eventually I get lucky and it catches and breaks the cool night air and helps me relax. I set my dinner above it and lay down and it feels so wonderful to be in stillness with no one to avoid looking at me or stepping on me. No one to pass by me and feel guilty that they don’t care. I can just lay here.
After I eat, I go inside and set my staff beside me. The floor is still empty.
I close my eyes and let the darkness take me.
I see his face, all at once joy and sadness and I see the day I met him and that day I lost him and I see the days of my hunt and I see that wretched denizen and I see the hunger and I see all the pain. I always see these things.
Then a light. Not the light of dreams, ever wrapped in a muted darkness, but a light of intense brilliance. This light is brighter than the sun and purer than the moon and like a gleaming white eye looking back at me, seeing me and seeing all that I am and all I’ve been and all of my secrets. This is no memory or hope for tomorrow. This is. It looks at me and I see it too. It is no man nor woman nor angel nor devil. They are the hope of death and they are beauty and wonder and terror. She is my end. I try to speak, but nothing can break the peace so we just look and I am wrapped in her beauty. She is more real than my life. She exists with such profound presence. I want her to take me with her, but somehow I know she won’t.
The vision fades and I am left in darkness.
Only silence around me and the gray chill before dawn. I go outside to sit. Perhaps the air will clear my head.
I had never experienced anything so real. I look out to a pale twilight. I feel outside myself. A stranger looking through my eyes. Time passes and I barely notice. The morning breeze dries the sweat from my skin.
I walk to the city, but after I enter I go a different way.
I know these streets, but they always change. The stones are old but the faces are new. I walk past a small alley and there is nothing remarkable or different or special about it but still I look. Whether fate or God that led me to it, I do not know. It is not any memory or knowledge that makes me notice it. But rather a feeling like an animal’s instinct to find its kin. I go down its muted corridor, removed from the morning’s stirring and soon I see a small courtyard where several men and women sit in silence with tired faces staring aimlessly at the ground. A woman pushes aside a heavy cloth covering a door and emerges. A small trail of smoke seems to follow her out. Her face is old and kind. Her hair is silver and stretched back over her head. She looks at me and wishes me a good morning.
She is different but I cannot say why. She motions to me and we take the small stairs on the side of the building up to the roof and have a seat. There are gaps in the city that give us a fine view of the sun rise. She pours tea for us both and the steam rises out of the smooth clay cups.
“What did you dream?”
“The day I met my husband.”
She smiles and nods. “Yes, I’m sure. But that’s not what I mean.”
“I do not know what I dreamed.”
Then she tells me of the dreamers, who have always been more attuned to the river that contained all thoughts, hopes, memories, and sins. It contains our past, present, future, and everything else. Time disappears and we are left only with reality. Every night we dream, but rarely do we loosen our grip on reality enough to experience true dreams.
“It was real?”
“As real as the tea in your hands. Whether a memory or reality, hope or sin, it was true and good.” She pauses to smile. “This is my house of dreams and you are welcome here.”
We drink the tea and watch the sun rise. I watch the shifting tones from yellow to the clear light of day. It is a new day and a beautiful day and for the first time since I watched my precious girl die, I feel alive.
I don’t remember becoming weak.
I look at my hands and I remember being young and strong and brave but all I see is a frail woman who hurts most of the time. My staff used to be a spear and now it hurts to even hold this tea.
He used to make me tea each morning. He wasn’t very good at it, but I never told him. He’d bring it to me in the early hours before dawn because he always woke up so terribly early.
A lone hunter went after smaller game, but could support a family with their work. The hunting parties went after bigger prey. Sometimes even a denizen, if the need was great or the hunters foolish. They could feed the city for a couple weeks with a good hunt. It is a risky business for too many and I visit their graves sometimes.
I loved the hunt. I felt calm when every sense was active. I felt everything, from the flow of the earth below me to the pulsing energy of the animals I stalked. I felt the plants bask in the sun and yearn for water. I felt the flowers burst forth in spring and the last breath of the leaves as they drifted to the ground around the river. I had hunted with others before but I did not like it because they never felt the world that I did.
My tea is cold now. I toss it out and go inside to get another cup. I push aside the heavy drape and feel the warm, wet wall of smoke hit me. It washes over me and bathes me in its alluring scent of belonging. I hadn’t been to my old home outside the city in weeks. This is my home, now. This house of dreams.
I walk softly along the padded floor, trying not to let my limp make too much sound. Last week I had seen a dreamer cry for hours after being woken.
I pour fresh tea into my cup. There is always tea here because it helps us get through the day. It helps to push away the dullness of waking. I walk back outside past my sleeping companions. I was starting to sense them more. I could feel how deep in the river they were. There were a few who had been dreaming for years and could become so fully lost in the river and still return to our waking world.
I still go to my spot on the street near the bakers to sit with my shawl for part of the day. I don’t have much of an appetite, but I like to give money to the house.
My days are spent in solemn anticipation of night. I eat and breathe and drink so that I can sleep again because it is in my dreams that I feel most alive.
We tell our dreams to one another sometimes. If we tell it, for a brief moment we can almost sense that feeling we had again but it is so terribly fleeting. It is the scent of a great meal when you’re starving. I don’t tell them my dreams. I write them down sometimes, though. They feel important to me. Perhaps someone will want to read them one day.
The sun rarely reaches the courtyard in front of the house. We stay in this eternal twilight and wait. Some choose to sleep during the day because they say that their dreams are the only color and light they see any more and they do not miss the sun.
“Why are you here?”
The old woman interrupts my aimless musing. I don’t answer quickly, because she never wants the obvious answer. She wants the true answer.
“Because I miss the life I had.”
She nods and meets my eyes. In a face of wrinkles and scars, her eyes are so clear. She waits.
“I miss him. I miss what we had. I miss my girl. I miss walking without pain. I miss the hunt. I miss my friends. I miss being smiled at.”
She smiles a little and then I do too. I think I even laugh a little.
“We all lose so much in this life. Most of us near the end, but a few suffer too early and too much. I know you’ve had enough pity, so I won’t give you that but I will say that this does not have to be your end. I have been dreaming since I was a little girl and have known their beauty. My husband and I made this a home for dreamers many years ago because they were lost and alone and abused. But we knew the pull of the dreams. That little tug in your waking hours. The feel as memory brushes against your mind and lets you touch the rapturous presence of the dreams. Dreamers are not careless, but merely obsessed.”
She takes a few moments to breathe.
“My husband found dreaming later in life. I remember when he fell into the river for the first time and was full of excitement and terror but I helped him understand it and eventually our deep love let us share in the dreaming. It was beyond intensity. It was bliss. It was everything that life could be. But it was not all that our lives were. We were still us. We still loved and laughed and went about our days. He farmed back then. A small field, but more than enough. He liked to have extra, just so he could spoil me.”
She pauses again and her face almost hints at a smile.
“What I mean to say is that life can be good. This waking life here and now. It’s good and beautiful, like the dreams but it’s more real, even when it doesn’t feel that way.”
I sit a while, holding my empty cup. I think of days long gone and what the days ahead might hold.
I think of the dreams.
I am aboard a vessel but there is no ocean. I look out and see only the night sky, so brilliant as I have never seen it before. I see three great lights circling one another and I wonder at them. I hold the hand of my son beside me and I wonder why I love him.
I hear their mournful tones. These lost denizens, ever walking the earth searching the wastelands of our world and crying for their masters and weeping for mankind. They are alone and scared and terrible. I am them and I recall all ages, from the time of men to the long cold years of silence, to men being born again. I am a denizen and feel my sadness. I want it to end, but they never taught us how to die.
I am a child, looking at the night sky. I see the stars forming above us. I am not struck by their beauty. I am forming the stars.
I am alive. I am naked and scared but I am with others. I emerge from silence to a world of life as the sun is rising above the ring of mountains I look to the horizons and am confused. I know no words but I see a female beside me and grab her hand and we go toward the wooded path.
I am a servant, sitting beside my queen. She is great and beautiful and I wish she was mine, more than I am hers. I see the old couple crying and kneeling before her and feel nothing. I look back to my queen’s face and she glances at me and I think a smile starts on her lips.
I awake. I lay still and breathe. I look into the murky darkness above me and feel the last drops of the river slide from my mind and leave me here in this old bed. The ecstasy of life is replaced with the dull ache of my body and I remember the pain of weariness that is the reward of a hard life.
I reach for someone’s hand. But he’s not there. No one is.
I feel the tears returning and I close my eyes to fight them off but still they come. I try to relax and return to sleep. There is such blissful forgetfulness in the dreams.
I feel myself slipping and I am once again taken by darkness in such a peaceful, intoxicating bliss. I lose myself in the moment and no longer am I. There is no me, only the perception of a reality more than human. I forget my life, who I am, why I exist, who I’ve loved, and even that I have things to remember at all. This is my release. I am free to not exist. Further I dive, darkness taking away my self and replacing it with ever more intense memory and experience. Down and down into beautiful blackness I lose sight of the memories of men and beast and see something more wonderfully simple. It is nothing, but a nothingness that is real. It is a desire to no longer desire. She sings such sweet melodies, just out of reach. I let go and taste my end. She is there and she watches me. There is a flash of light and then a memory recalled. I remember my first kill, when I went out with my father. It was a good day and I was happy. Then fear—I am too lost in this river. I will not lose myself here. I hold to the memories of my husband and our daughter and the good life we had and I can feel myself returning closer and closer to the surface. Then their memory ignites and the memory I have been trying to push out of my head comes rushing into my mind, permeating me and forcing me to relive it.
Dawn came early, as it did in the warm season. I kissed my beautiful girl goodbye and gave my husband a long hug and kissed him quickly. I went to hunt and I knew the need was great. There was not enough food for everyone. I saw tracks, large and deep. A denizen. I followed the tracks and found it. It was massive, as they often are. Prowling on two great legs with a sweeping tail and a long neck. It was terrifying but I felt sad because they are rarely malicious creatures. Most are just scared. No one should ever hunt a denizen alone but I didn’t have time to find anyone and I knew it would be gone before I could return. I approached it and somehow, not by smell or sound or sight, it knew I was there and turned to face me. It let out a booming tone that shook the earth. Its skin pulsed with a glowing energy. I had seen others from a distance and knew well enough to leave them alone.
I gripped my spear tight and whispered the names of my husband and daughter. The kill was a blur and even so deep in the river I cannot see it clearly. But I see the moment I drove the spear through its head and brought it down. Its foul poison melted the tip of my spear off. In somber stillness I said a prayer for its last breath. Then I saw its soul like some other worldly smoke rising to the heavens. I hope somehow it found its fathers.
In this stillness was when I noticed my leg. Pierced and filled with that pale venom of theirs.
Again a blur. I see glimpses of faces and moments. My family crying and smiling. Later they were worried. They looked at me like a wounded animal, and maybe I was. I never was the same, I couldn’t hunt and I spent my days wondering when I would feel better. I just didn’t. I slipped into this ponderous melancholy for too long. I was pushing everyone away and I knew it but I didn’t care even though I did. I see them leaving, I see his crops dying, I see my skin pulled tight over my bones. I see a different pair of hands now.
I awake, weeping and sweating and scared, but all is silence and the dense wall of smoke still clouds my vision.
The air outside is unusually cold but I don’t take a shawl. I walk without a destination. My stomach is a twist of pain and I try to push the memories out of my mind but I cannot. The feelings rush over me once again. All of the regret and loss and confusion and despair. All of it. All of the things I never wanted to tell anyone for fear that they would understand. All of the things I should have said but never did. All of my sins and all of my memories. They rush over me in terrible recollection. It is as if I was living my life over again. As if an entire lifetime of pain could be reduced to a few moments walking through a city. It overwhelms me and I fall to my knees and weep. People see but do nothing. Just another poor old woman, they think. I beg for an end.
But life holds on. I hold to the day and to the sun on my face. I hold to the earth and all the good it meant to me. This is life, I keep telling myself. With all its pain, it is still life and that is fine. Or that’s what I tell myself. I practically scream to myself, trying to make myself believe the lies I know I am saying. I try to focus on the good parts of my life and but they always seem to be wrapped in pain. We all cling so desperately to our life of agony. In the way a wounded animal will run till its last breath, I run. I run from the fate I see and I flee from the end I desire so much.
I wander into places unknown, searching, hoping. I don’t even know what I can find to make any of this better. I don’t know how everything can be alright. I feel again that call of sleep and the intoxicating scent of dream. I need that blissful forgetfulness to sweep over me. To take this pain away. The years of loss and agony weigh heavily on me. Onward I fight. As the sun makes its course across the sky, still I fight. It dips below the horizon and rises again. I had wandered all night.
I find myself at my old home. I see the empty floor of dirt and straw. I pray. I beg and plead and hope. But terrible silence is the only reply. Still I pray. Through the dawn as exhaustion overcomes me. My eyelids are heavy and I can no longer focus on my hands.
I close my eyes for a moment.