When I was a small child I had a dream about a building. It was mostly just me floating around darkened hallways and rows of doors. It’s a little difficult to describe, but some of these hallways ended, and led outside, and then they would start up again inside. Both inside and outside were in shadow, but not fully dark. It was more like the time between twilight and night.
I drove my parents crazy talking about this dream. It was so incredibly vivid and strange, and I had it almost every night. It scared me a little, which is maybe why I wanted to talk about it. But I learned that there are few things more boring to other people than someone else’s dreams. I began to recognize the looks of exasperation that quickly formed whenever I mentioned anything related to my dreams, especially my “big building dream”. So I just stopped talking about it.
The dreams remained vivid, but after so many nights of visiting the same place, the experience began to feel almost ordinary. One night, though, something changed. I don’t know why, but I took a different path. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade by that point. I had already spent a couple of years exploring the building. I knew the hallways and passages better than my own neighborhood. I started to recognize different doors too. And, my goodness, there were so many different doors! Even in the low light of the dream world I could see each one was unique and special. Some were crafted with delicately carved wood, while others were formed with intricate metal loops, shapes and figures. I saw oddly shaped windows as well as normal windows with colored glass. The variations boggled my mind.
The doors fascinated me, but still, I always felt a little wary in that place. I was alone after all in the half darkness. But I can’t say that I was afraid anymore. Not really. On this particular night, I floated through my usual route, and then, like I often did, I visited the hallways with my favorite doors. At one point, when I reached the end of an inside hallway, I went to the “outside” part and turned before the inside portion of the hallway continued.
It honestly hadn’t occurred to me to do that before. I suppose I wasn’t the most creative or spontaneous of children, but on that night, I turned, and it led me to a place unlike any other I had seen in real life or in my dreams.
Again, all of this is a bit difficult to describe. I remember walking instead of floating like I usually did. I was outside in the dream world, in the time between twilight and dark, and there was grass under my feet. I couldn’t see full colors, but I think the grass was a deep green-blue. I walked on a wide path, lined on both sides by forest. Eventually the path opened up, leaving the forests behind. I could see something in the distance. Some structure, like a massive building. I admit, I felt a little afraid again. By this point, I had lost track of how far I’d walked, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. The fear got to me and I turned around and retraced my steps as fast as I could, actually floating all the way. When I woke up in the light of day, I chastised myself for being such a scaredy-cat. I pledged to find the structure and to explore it.
Over the course of maybe a week, I dared myself to get closer and closer to the building within my building. Each night, more detail would come into view. It looked to be stone, enormous, and with at least two towers. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of old cathedrals in Europe. On one particularly daring night, I made it as close as I had ever been, and I was rewarded. Outside of the structure, a beautiful garden emerged.
The twilight nature of the place gave the garden a mystical quality that I can barely explain now. As a child, it was even further beyond my abilities to describe. I wandered through stone paths surrounded by exotic flowers and plants that didn’t exist in waking life. I admired statues of unknown saints, and found a place to sit on edge of a koi pond, with koi that weren’t exactly koi. Above the garden loomed the structure, which I decided was some dream version of a church or castle. I told myself I needed to explore the gardens before going into the structure. That was just an excuse, of course. I was afraid, and exploring the garden gave me a reason to procrastinate.
On my third night of wandering the garden, I walked along what I had begun to think of as my usual route. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw something that I had missed on the two previous evenings- a small cut out between a couple of hedges. It looked almost like the beginning of a pathway. I squeezed myself between the hedges, which were much deeper than I had originally estimated. I could feel leaves rubbing against my skin. The narrow opening curved, and I followed it until I was free of the hedges, where I found myself in an entirely new portion of the garden. The first thing I noticed was a deliciously sweet scent of fruit and flowers. I sniffed my way to the source of the fragrance and discovered an unruly bush dotted with fist-sized blooms and large berries the size of grapes.
In the low light, the flowers looked white, and I assumed that the berries were deep red or purple, but it was difficult to tell for sure. I held a bloom to my nose and inhaled deeply. The scent was so wonderful, it almost made me dizzy. And then I did something completely unexpected, at least for such a cautious soul that I thought my childhood self was. I picked a berry and popped it into my mouth. And after that, the world really did change.
I suppose I should temper that statement just slightly. It was the world of my waking life that changed.
The next day I played outside, as I did almost every day. Our house was near a park with trails, and I was allowed to wander in the woods as long as I didn’t go past a particular trail intersection, and as long as I was careful. I was always careful. I usually didn’t do much besides walk in the woods and hunt for mushrooms. I was really into mushrooms when I was a kid. I knew they were dangerous and you could die if you ate the wrong one, so I admired them with the fascination of a detective studying a serial killer.
I tended to take the same paths, look in the same areas where I knew mushrooms would grow, and sit under the same trees. That afternoon, I sat underneath one of my favorite trees, an enormous oak that I had named Otis. All of my favorite oak trees had O-names like Oscar and Omar. The Beech trees had B-names, and so on. As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t the most creative of children.
Anyhow, I was leaning against the roughened bark of Otis when I caught a glimmer of light reflecting off of something just to the left of me. At first, I assumed it was sunlight bouncing off a piece of trash. Perhaps a discarded soda can or chip bag, and I felt the indignation rise in me against anyone who would litter in this beautiful park.
I crawled over to get a closer look. It wasn’t trash. Someone had dropped a key, and not the kind of key that I carried to get in the house. It didn’t look like a luggage key either, or a lock key, or any other sort of key I had ever seen. It looked more like a storybook key. It was regular-key shaped, but larger, about the size of my outstretched hand. It had markings in an alphabet I didn’t recognize, and best of all, embedded down its length were three delicate blue and aquamarine jewels. I immediately felt terrible for the person who had lost such a treasure.
I put the key in my pocket and hurried home. It was a Saturday and my Aunt was reading on the back porch. I pulled out the key and held it in my hand.
“Aunt Cait, I found this in the woods. We need to find the person who lost it.”
She looked up from her book, and at my palm, where the key shimmered in the sunlight. She lowered her sunglasses and gazed at me with a tightly furrowed brow. “Hazel, I don’t understand. Is this a game?”
I shook my head. “No, I found this. I want to help return it.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t see anything. Do you want me to guess what you’re thinking of?”
I looked down at my hand, with the key plainly there, and then back to my aunt’s puzzled face. “It’s right here. You don’t see the key?”
Her confusion quickly transformed to concern. “Sweetheart, I don’t see anything. If this is a game, I’ll play with you, but remember, we talked about this. It’s important that we be clear about what is pretend and what isn’t.”
Her face took on the look she got when I did something that scared her. My stomach felt like I was on the downhill of a roller coaster. I could feel my cheeks flush too, like I had messed up somehow. Before I knew it, tears came to my eyes.
My aunt, seeing my distress, hid her own alarm. “Oh sweetheart, it’s okay. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you something to drink? It is warm out today. You might be dehydrated.”
I put the key in my pocket and wiped my eyes with my shirt. I sat on the chair next to my aunt’s and waited. After a few minutes she came out with glasses of lemonade. I took too big of a gulp and the cold liquid made my stomach hurt. My aunt asked me questions, and I tried to pretend that the key was imaginary and that it was a game after all, but I’ve always been a terrible liar.
Later that night, I sat on the stairs and heard her telling my uncle about what had happened. She used the word “hallucination”. She said she was going to call Dr. Bennet. I hadn’t seen the psychologist in a couple of years. Not since after my parents died. I wasn’t upset about the idea. Dr. Bennet was a nice woman, and she always treated me like I was older. Not like an adult exactly, but not like a little kid either. I wasn’t a little kid anymore, and I wondered how she would treat me now.
I eavesdropped until I was sure the conversation was over. My aunt and uncle are calm people, thankfully, and they concluded that today may have been a problem with heat and dehydration, but it would be best to get an appointment with Dr. Bennet to be safe. After listening to them, even I was convinced that I had heat stroke and was seeing things. At least I was until I got to my bedroom and saw the key sitting on my nightstand. I picked it up and ran my fingers over the lettering and the cool blue gemstones. It was real, but not in this world.
I didn’t know what to do with the key. I took it with me the next time I went to garden, but I couldn’t decide whether or not to leave it there. On one hand, it didn’t feel right to just to abandon it in that strange place. But on the other hand, what else was I supposed to do with it? I went back and forth in my mind trying to decide where to put it. While I thought, I snacked on the berries. I ate handfuls.
If the connection between the berries and finding the key wasn’t clear before then, by the time I woke up the next day, I understood the relationship painfully well. I couldn’t leave my bed because every single object seemed to emit light directly into my skull, the key itself being the worst. I couldn’t look at it without my head feeling like a fireworks explosion and my stomach wanting to throw up. But it wasn’t just the key. All sorts of things glimmered and made my head feel like someone was sticking needles through my brain. Aunt Cait said I was having a migraine, and she worried I was under too much stress at school. She was right about the migraine, but wrong about the cause.
A week of rest allowed my headaches to ease, but during this time the key faded away and finally disappeared. As soon as I felt better, I went back to the garden. I was more careful with the berry consumption, and it paid off. I didn’t get a single headache and the key was exactly where I left it on my nightstand. The next day I walked in circles around Otis, trying to see if I missed anything. Maybe there were other keys, or locks, or something. I needed a clue. Where was I supposed put the key? The world appeared shinier than it had before I discovered the berries, but still, I could find nothing like the key, and no hint about what to do with it.
It took me far longer than I’d like to admit to understand where the key was meant to go. In retrospect, I should have seen it right away. For years, I floated past hallways of doors. Now I had a key- a key as unique as any door I had ever seen there. After several nights of searching, I found the door and returned the key to its owner. The significance of what I had done, and what I would be called on to do, many times over, was unknown to me that night. I wish I could describe what it’s like to be in that place. It’s unlike anything you could ever imagine. It’s a gift, to be sure, but also a responsibility. Just know, if you ever lose your key, I’ll do my best to get it back to you.