“The Stuff of Which Dreams are Made” by Elizabeth Fenley
The morning after the dream, I went to see Sylvie. She was setting up her shop for the day—the kind that sells aromatherapy, crystals, dream catchers, ritual athames, stuff like that.
She was behind the counter, rearranging displays with swoops of her flowing, gauzy purple sleeves. Bangles on her wrists reverberating like wind chimes through the glass door. I could hear her humming to herself.
Even though the sign said, “We are Currently Closed. The Universe will Open for You When It Is Ready,” I pressed my face to the glass, cupping my hands around it.
Without looking up, Sylvie whisked the door open, then closed and re-locked it behind me without moving from behind the counter.
“Good morning, Noreene,” she said, still not looking up from the lower display case she was rearranging.
“Hi, Sylvie. Sorry to bother you before you open.”
“No bother, Noreene, dear. I expected you.” Her voice was dulcet, feather-like, sweeping across my skin.
“Of course you did.” If I was like her, I would have seen that coming.
“Had another dream.”
It wasn’t a question. She already knew that. “Come through,” she instructed, leading me through the curtained doorway to her private consultation space.
I sat in my regular seat, clutching the drawing I had brought.
Silently, she held out her hand for it before sliding gracefully into her chair. I always felt so clunky, so earthbound, so overly solid around her—practical, sensible, like orthopedic shoes.
Sylvie studied the sketch briefly. “A chimera. Nue is his name.”
“You know his name?” Of course she did. Stupid stuff always came tripping out of my mouth around her; it didn’t seem to bother her. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything disturb Sylvie’s serenity. I lacked the Serenity and Grace genes, I suppose. My little sister got them instead; I’ve always resented that.
The crudely scribbled figure I had scratched out with the side edge of a dull pencil on the back of a bill had a grotesque grin stretching it’s monkey’s face out not unlike the Cheshire Cat, huge black unblinking eyes, furry legs and paws striped like a tiger, some weird wavy pattern on its body, and a long, undulating deadly-looking snake tail.
“Nue frequently appears in dreams.”
“Why? I’m guessing it’s not a good thing.”
“He is a harbinger of sickness and misfortune.”
“Pretty much nothing after ‘harbinger’ is a good thing.”
Sylvie smiled gently, her silver-blue eyes bright, her skin uncreased by time. “Harbingers just Are. Judgment of what they bring is open to interpretation.”
“Sickness and misfortune are open to interpretation?”
“If they are not directed at you. What if they are intended for terrorists? Or serial killers, or pedophiles.”
I considered that for a moment. “Sure. But why give me the nightmare? Why not send it straight to the… you know, the… target, the bad person? Why do I have to see these things? I don’t want to see.”
“I cannot tell you that, Noreene. You seem to be Open to these messages.”
“And you can’t ‘Close’ me, right?” She’d told me that before, but I kept hoping.
She shook her head. “What did Nue show you?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed my hands over them, like I was trying to erase the images of the dream—if only it were that simple. “It—he—Newcamerathingy opened a door to a room I’d never seen before. The only thing in the room was a bed, a huge bed, like filling up the whole wall.”
Sylvie nodded encouragingly.
I swallowed hard and continued. “There was a dead body on the bed—not like a skeleton, but rotting and maggots, and skin peeled off. Looked like a man. All around him and on him and through him were dozens of snakes. The were weaving in and out between his ribs, in his mouth and out where his eyes should have been.”
“What color were the snakes?”
“Black mostly. Some had some red parts. Maybe some grey, or dull silver. But nothing pretty.”
“Around the edges of the snakes, like a picture frame or a fence that they all stayed inside, white lilies. White lilies with perfect drops of blood on them. And I could smell them. I hate lilies. They have that sickly sweet smell that always gives me a headache. But the lilies and the rotting corpse, I could smell them together, all mixed. I threw up. That’s how I woke up—leaning over the side of my bed, puking on the floor, on my slippers. I had to throw them away in the garbage can outside. The smell.” I shuddered at the memory and pressed my hand over my mouth, trying to keep myself from being sick again.
“My vomit smelled like the room—lilies and death. How is that even possible?”
Sylvie shrugged slightly. “It’s possible because it happened, Noreene. It just Is because it Is.”
I sighed, breathing back the nausea. “So this is the part where you tell me what this means.”
She laughed, a light fluttery sound.
I knew it couldn’t just be that simple.
“I can do a reading for you.” She pulled out the familiar, well-used tarot cards.
She placed the cards on the table for me to cut. She flipped over the one on top where I had divided the deck: The Empress, The Five of Cups inverted, the Page of Rods inverted, the Four of Swords, and finally The Queen of Pentacles inverted. She studied them silently, her face neutral.
“What? It’s bad, isn’t it? Of course, it has to be bad. Oh, wait—you’re going to say it Just Is. Right?”
Sylvie smiled. “They’re your cards, Noreene. We have here the power of the earth-force, its bounty and abundance with a reunion spoiled by deception, and illness through neglect, perhaps even intentional.”
“Oh, God. I’m dying. It’s a death dream. I knew it.”
She placed her soft, cool hand over mine. “You were not on the bed—it was a man. The illness was his, the snakes and lilies and blood--- all from the bounty of the earth. The reunion could have been yours with him, or you simply witnessing the aftermath of another’s. You should not jump right into the personal, the worst outcome. Nue is not known for his kindness or helpfulness. It is likely he enjoyed showing you these things because they would upset you.”
“Charming. What a nice guy, or camerathingamajig. So what do I do now? What am I supposed to do now that I know? Now that’s I’ve seen…that.”
“What did you feel like you were pulled to do, after the dream?”
“Throw up. Brush my teeth a dozen times and use half a bottle of mouthwash. Then come see you.”
Sylvie raised her hands, palms up, above the table. “There you are. You have done what the dream intended you to do.”
I sat, stunned, staring. “So that’s it?”
“For now. Come see me again tomorrow morning. At the moment, I have someone at the door who needs me.” She rose and disappeared through the curtains, “Goodbye, Noreene. I will see you tomorrow” floating behind her as she went.
“Great. That helped zero percent.” I sighed and rubbed my tired, stinging eyes as I left through the back.
That night, sure enough, Nue came back. This time I knew his name, even in the dream, but I couldn’t speak, which was too bad because I really wanted to tell him off and teach him some colorful vocabulary words that freaky dream-monkey-tiger-snake harbingers don’t know. He seemed to know, staring at me with his creepy, bottomless black eyes.
He took me to an abandoned amusement park—not one I knew, just your typical kind. Except that the banners and decorations were wet, ripped, falling, clown figures knocked over, their red noses rolled away somewhere, cobwebs caught on my face and in my hair everywhere we walked. Then, explicably in the middle of the park, was a huge, ornate grandfather clock with a fading Sun face and a sleepy Moon face, eyes closed, under delicate filigreed hands. Nue grinned and made a chittering sound like nails on an old-fashioned chalkboard as he touched the clock with a tiger-striped paw.
The clock began to run. Backwards. Then, one at a time, the rides started up—roller coasters traveling backward, the Ferris Wheel spinning on its side, the rafts going up the steep waterless flume ride. Huge animated clowns opening and closing their mouths above the Fun House of distorting mirror where a silver disco ball began to spin, projecting hundreds of light-reflected eyes in the dark tunnel. The rumbling of the machinery began to vibrate deep within the concrete below my feet. A crack split open near my feet, pulled open into an oval, and helplessly, I fell---
Landing on the floor beside my bed, right where I had thrown up the night before. Good thing I had cleaned it up.
“Time,” Sylvie told me simply.
“Time? That’s it? No looking at the cards, no peering into the scrying bowl, no seeing---”
“Just Time, Noreene. Even the cobwebs are symbols of time.”
“But everything was going backwards—starting with the clock.”
She nodded. “Time is out of joint, oh cursed spite, that ‘ere I was born to set it right,” she quoted.
Great. Shakespeare. As inscrutable as Nue and backwards time.
To distract myself, I went to my favorite consignment store, The Red Collection. It had antique furniture, paintings, clothes, toys, knickknacks, you name it. There was a different inventory on a constantly rotating basis. I tried to go every month. Sometimes I bought something, sometimes I just spent an hour wandering around, looking at things, at people, guessing why this person or the other was buying what they held. It was always a good distraction, like wandering through jumbled remnants of hundreds of other people’s lives.
Until it wasn’t.
In the corner behind the three-tiered shelves—the kind you had to get someone to help you with, even though I could never find anyone to help me with anything—I saw it. I mean I saw me.
I saw a painting, a portrait. It looked just like me. I actually thought it was a mirror at first—until I realized it was a wearing black Victorian dress with a high buttoned up neck and puffy sleeves, hair pulled back into a severe, unforgiving bun.
And it had no eyes. Not like someone had cut out the canvas to remove the eyes. Just a face missing the eyes. Fused skin over where the eyes should have been. My eyebrows were there—in the exactly shape I plucked mine into. Then my face just sloped into cheekbone and nose. Like that was the normal way a face should look.
I actually pressed my fingers to my eyes to reassure myself that they were still there, blinked a lot, and then felt really stupid because obviously I had eyes if I could see.
After several people bumped into me without apologizing, I tore myself away from myself, and hurried to my car.
A nice warm shower would make me feel better. And my comfy sweatpants pants and an oversized t-shirt with an emoji winking and sticking its tongue out, which always made me smile.
Dressed, feet in fluffy socks, I looked into the mirror so that I could see myself imitate the emoji and smile, even laugh.
But I had no eyes. My reflection in the mirror had no eyes. I raised my hands to touch my eyes, run my fingers over my eyelashes. My reflection mimicked my motion, but its fingers found only skin. I could still feel my eyes.
It had to be another nightmare. I looked around for Nue, but he wasn’t there. Maybe I just didn’t need him for this one. I must have just crashed on the couch when I got home—from the stress and sleeplessness following the nightmares. That made sense. Just another nightmare. My worst nightmare. But it would end, and I would go back to see Sylvie.
I sat down on my bed to wait for something to happen. Nue didn’t appear. No other grotesque images appeared.
I got up again and again to look in the mirror. Still no eyes. That’s such a weird thing to have to think.
I checked the time on my phone, my alarm clock, the microwave. Time had stopped.
I’m not waking up.
Or I’m not asleep.
This is my worst nightmare.
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Thank you. Definitely a trippy story-- a good substitute for illegal drugs. I'm odd enough to write all kinds of bizarre things unimpaired. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Those last three sentences had me tripping after you already had me tripping. I'm dizzy just trying to figure out what the hell is going on here. Are you stuck in a dream? are you hallucinating? Stay off the drugs, please. I feel like I would never want to sleep after dreams like this. I like how you used side characters to describe the main character. That was masterfully done. And your dialogue helped to reiterate our perception of her and the people she engaged with. I felt the mc's desperation as she pushed her clairvoyant friend to give...