We stood on the porch together, staring at the vast blue twilight above the horizon, waiting for the man with no eyes. He sells water, and we pay with our dreams.
He first arrived three years into the drought, when the town well eventually dried out and rumours of people drinking blood to survive began to circulate. He walked out of the desert in a red beanie that covered half his face and his eyes, a grey raincoat, black jeans and navy Chelsea boots. Leaning against the well, he said he would return weekly to trade water for the townspeople's dreams. We learned to store our dreams within the mind, just like water in a well, and how to leave an opening so he could take the dreams when he returned.
The amount of water given depends on the quality of the dream. We each pick one dream per week and let the no-eyed man read it. Only one, no more. For months we would discuss the dreams that resulted in the most amount of water, trying to discern what the man preferred. We would write down the details of the most successful ones and read over them just before falling asleep, trying to induce similar dreams within ourselves. However, we came to believe that there’s no reasoning behind his choices. Mother had one about being hunted by a wild boar in the woods, and the boar would chase her through the trees, panting behind her, getting closer and closer, but never finishing her off. The beast just made her run and run. That dream gave us enough water for two weeks, but our neighbour Laura had one about a boar hunting her a month later, and we only got a dribble for that one.
“He’s late,” said father.
“He’ll be here. I think he needs us as much as we need him,” said mother.
Father shook his head and sighed. His dreams never produced much water. They were always farming dreams, tilling fields, or leading cattle from pasture to pasture. Dreams from the past. It seemed they were all his mind could create, and now he looked tired all the time and slouched his shoulders and dragged his feet when he walked. Every week he’d look at me and say,
“I hope you got something good for him kido,” but mine were only ever average.
Watching his approach always gave me chills. His gait caused his head to bob with each step, and his arms never swung; I bet he could have broken into a sprint and those arms would have stayed motionless at his side. Either he could see through the beanie or used some other sense for direction because his stride never faltered and he always finished in the same spot, leaning against the well precisely as he did all those years ago.
We formed a line and he started reading our dreams. Most raised the water line of the well by a couple of inches, which was the typical amount the one-eyed man gave. Adrian, a young boy that lived in the town alone, raised the water line by three feet. I approached after father, who was awarded an imperceptible dribble for his. My mouth was dry, and I clenched my dust-covered fists in anticipation. The one-eyed man dragged his thumb across my forehead and read my dream.
I was in a long corridor with red wallpaper and I was naked. The air was freezing and the faint, timorous breaths that escaped me turned to frost in front of my face and I knew there had been no warmth in this place for a long time. The corridor led to a staircase, and as I descended, an ominous idea began to consume every part of me; that this was no dream; somewhere out in the world, this was really happening. After the final stair, I found myself in a dining room. In the center of the room stood a circular wooden table with a group of people gathered around it. They were all naked like me, staring at an overturned tortoise shell on the table. Inside the shell, a small fire burned; the fire was floating a few inches from the shell's surface and could only have been an inch in diameter, yet it was bright, far brighter than it should have been. Enamoured by the flame, I felt myself approaching the table. The others kept their intent gazes upon the flame, except for one member, an elderly woman with sleek white hair and voluminous, unblinking green eyes. She studied every move I made, but if she knew what I was about to do, she never flinched in her composure, stoic yet wild. She was familiar, I had seen her before, in a half-remembered dream, but it would be an eternity before I realised who she was.
Climbing onto the table, I positioned myself in the lotus pose and prepared my hands to extinguish the small ball of fire. I had no control over this action; it would occur, and nothing could stop it, but I was unsure whether it was what I truly wanted. Perhaps I was a conduit, brought here for this exact reason, that every choice in my life had been predetermined, and trying to understand any of it was pointless. My palms crashed together, dousing the flame and the light. The world entered deep, impenetrable darkness, and then I woke up.
After the reading, the one-eyed man examined my face, twisting my head left and right. He capped the well, slammed his fist against the wood twice, pushed the cap off, and started walking away from us. Something cold touched my feet; water. The well was overflowing. The entire town rushed forward and began filling buckets, and father hugged me, a giant grin on his face. Everyone seemed so at ease. Mother washed my hair that night. I had never felt so clean, and that night, I wished for a long dreamless sleep.
I woke up and knew someone else was in the room with me.
“Who’s there,” I called out.
“Have you had that dream before?” It was him; he was in my bedroom.
“No. I don't know what any of it meant.”
I could hear the one-eyed man breathing; he was sitting on the end of my bed, facing away from me.
“Maybe it is best not to know. Once we begin to unravel a mystery, it can be impossible to halt the process.”
“Who is the woman with grey hair?”
The one-eyed man turned to face me.
“If, in time, you still find yourself searching for answers, walk through the desert until you find the mountains. I live at their base. You will know you are close when you see the shell. If you do come, there will be no returning here. You will learn to read dreams, and free will shall become a memory. For now, you still have a choice; choose wisely.”
For three weeks I toiled with what the one-eyed man had said. There is an answer out there to a question I have long been asking myself, and I cannot continue in the darkness. I walk across the austere desert, thinking of wells, dreams, and the boundless space separating the two.