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The Ninth Dream

The Fields of Elysium




There is no color in this world, and with such homogeneity, it is impossible to distinguish anything. All is the same, really—all is one. But I'm clawing for a way out, regardless. I find a ripple in the night-fabric, a disturbance in the shadow-veil, and I pinch and pull at the hint of a seam. I've lost the knife somewhere, so I put my teeth to work, tearing and gnawing.

It tastes like papaya, and when I manage to rip the veil, it bleeds a black sap (the cerebro-spinal fluid of the collective unconscious, as it were, to anthropomorphize the inhuman). As the hole becomes bigger—my hands aching with the effort—I am rewarded with a flickering cascade of images like a thousand films being projected through the same tiny aperture.

I smear my naked body with the sap—as if I were an ocean swimmer, covering myself with seal fat before beginning a tumultuous journey across rough water—and I am clothed with a rainbow wash of memories. My shoulders are too wide for the hole, even as slippery as I am. I grunt and kick, flailing like a newborn child. So close. Just a little farther. One arm through now, and I can grab a passing phantom. It bleats like a little lamb—pure and white on the outside, red and yellow and black on the inside.

The phantom bolts, using the legs I have impressed upon it to kick and scrabble against the fabric. I hang on, and it pulls me through the acrid thermocline. The hole closes around my leg, a mouth descending, and my foot slips free with a muculent pop. The lamb dissolves into a frisson of silvered scales and monsoon rains, and I am left floating in a riotous river of color and memory—the Enhypnia, the basal flow that feeds the symbolic Oneiroi.

I swim upstream until I find her empty coffin. Standing on the velvet cushions, I reach up and knock on the sky. One, two, three: I know the secret code, let me out. The ceiling splits, radial lines subdividing heaven into the twelve houses, and suddenly I am thrust out of the grave.

I wake from a dream within a dream. Naked and trembling, I am back in the desert of slippery sand and glittering diamonds. There is no one waiting for me. No one haunts her grave. No one lingers at the buffet table, fingering the petits fours or slurping punch straight from the ladle. All the ghosts have gone home.

My hat is partially buried in the sand. I brush off the grit and the dust, and no longer needing it to protect my head (the voices don't frighten me any more), I tear the fabric into a handful of leaves and throw them aloft where they snap and flap themselves into the shape of a tiny blue bird. Singing wildly, it circles my head three times, and then flies off to the east.

I have some cake (yes, Martin, that despair; it is our fear of death, isn't it? Our fear of abandonment?), as well as another glass of punch. Oh, yes, a little alpha-methyltryptamine definitely takes the edge off.

I follow my bird. Back the way I came. Back to the beginning.

The gnarled tree leans precariously, its twisted branches reaching for the tall wheat as if to brace the bent trunk against the swaying grain. The crown of the tree has been split by lightning (some time ago, the wound is blackened with mud and ash), and the wound has rotted down to the roots. Not even a squirrel would hide nuts in its decrepit belly now.

I climb the hunched back and stand on the rim of the broken skull. I can see the white sheet of the forest on my left, and the desert dissolves behind me. When I stand taller, the curve of the world reveals itself, that yellow arc of the horizon. In the distance, small enough to be easily obscured by my thumb, is another tree. Beyond it, barely a pinhead jutting up from the gentle arc of the world, is a third tree. They look impossibly far apart.

If I was actually going to walk that distance. But I have line of sight now, and that is good enough.

Space bends as I squeeze, and when it flexes back, I have moved from the tree at the edge of the field to the one on the horizon. The world bulges and snaps back, fleeing from my transference. Here, perched on the slightly more upright top of the third tree, I am surrounded by yellow. The forest is nothing more than a thin white line behind me.

I scan the fields of Elysium, looking for the scarecrow. It's out here somewhere. I saw it in the library mirror. It was in the book, before the pages were torn by the octopus monstrosity. But all I see is distant black sticks, poking up from the endless sea of wheat. More trees, more dead guardians.

I make three more leaps, pinching the horizon each time, before I see the birds.

They're not fooled. They rarely are.

They circle the scarecrow, just out of reach of the tentacled thing in the grass. Once it was a severed limb, but it has mutated and grown other appendages in its need. It drags its heavy arm with spindly legs, and only one of its thin stalks still has an eye.

The birds are getting braver. Or hungrier.

Some of the wheat near the scarecrow is stained black, a damp half-arc of spatter as if a window had been briefly opened and then shut again, letting in rain from somewhere else.

My blue bird lands on the scarecrow's head. He chirps noisily at me, and I look up to see one of the carrion birds gliding toward my head, its talons outstretched.

I freeze it, and leave it hanging in the sky as a warning to the others.

The tentacle humps slowly through the wheat. Where are you going? Do you think you can flee from me here? Its muffled undulation grows more frantic, and the carrion birds cackle with glee as they soar on the rising thermal of my anger. Burn . . .

The scarecrow's face is a flesh mask, tattered and tattooed by exposure into a featureless maze of cracks and wrinkles. The straw man is dumpy and misshapen from being hung for so long; all of its stuffing has settled into its waist and arms. Other than the vibrant stain of its red and yellow gloves, its clothes have been bleached of color.

Paper washed a thousand times no longer remembers the history of the text once written on it. When the sea recedes, taking with it all the dissolved text, the books will be blank. The shelves will be full, but the library will be empty. When the dreamer wakes, all the words will vanish.

The scarecrow's face is the mask we all wear in public. When we ride public transportation; when we wander aimlessly in our consumer warehouses; when we stand in line at the post office, at the movie theater, at the coffee shop; when we pack ourselves into tiny elevators and pretend we aren't three people over the recommended weight limit of this conveyance. When we get out of bed, go to work, come home again, eat, drink, shop, shit, fuck: all of these things happen automatically. We don't need to be present. We just put on our blank faces, and disappear.

"Into the dream? Perhaps, but most don't make it this far, do they?" She is a ghost, and the smoke from the burning tentacle wraps her in billows of silk. "Most float somewhere up there, caught in the first astral layer—just like the womb. I don't have to tell you, you know it very well, don't you? It's comforting, isn't it? That amniotic weightlessness. That sense of blanketed security. Nothing can touch you. No one can find you. You are safe."

You found me, Nora. He found me.

"We don't count, Harry. We were with you already."

What about TH3m?

She takes the symbol from me, and her touch splinters its unnatural threads. The trinity leaps from her hand—father! son! spirit!—and the carrion birds shriek with excitement. They dive after the floating sigils, fighting each other for the chance to swallow the floating ephemera.

"You give them too much power, Harry. You believe in them too easily."

One of the squirming masses of letters and flesh is caught by a bird, who chokes and shudders as it tries to swallow the concept whole. Its throat expands like a balloon, and then pops. The bird plummets, and a wet mist of apocrypha trails in its wake. Two other birds follow it down, and all three disappear into the sea of swaying wheat.

"They have their own gravity. They do not like separation, that sense of being cut off from each other. They do not like the idea of abandonment, and they will draw you in." She draws my attention to the smallest of the three, and I watch it descend into the waving wheat, chasing after its fallen father. "The dualities are strong, Harry, but they are not enough." The last of the three spins above, and its motion churns the text of the blood mist. "The pairing is not complete until it is witnessed. It is not enough to be matched with your opposite. Your communion must be recognized."

The whirling mist becomes a tornado of darkness, and it touches down in the field. The stalks of wheat are shredded by the spinning textual serifs in the cone of wind the breath of language! the exhalation of God?, and the carrion birds scream again, though their cries are strident with rage and bewilderment. Feathers and bone and blood funnel up into the tornado's belly, still bleeding, slowing along with fallen father and grieving son. Brought together again by the whirling wind of spirit.

Believe in me. I am all that matters. All in me . . . I try to push my mind around the infinitesimal tremor of TH3ir poison, that need and want that my cells haven't quite forgotten. . . . and all will be well. What should I believe?

"Love," she smiles.

That's too easy.

"Of course it is," she laughs. "But that's not what I meant."

The tower That's what I —abadalgharagh— heard falling . . .

When the earthquake passes (all inside, nothing moves around me because none of exists, you see—I am the center, and all disturbances start and end in my heart, in my brain), she is gone. Just a smear of colored light vanishing into the angry swirl of the dissipating swirl of textual smoke.

You believe . . . (what did you mean, Nora?) . . . too easily . . .

I can almost see her words in the ghostly fog: answer say answer. I can almost make out the three—

Too many riddles. Everyone has one. Too many ciphers. Too much noise.

There are layers to the Oneiroi, depths and heights like any other multi-dimensional space, but it bleeds too easily. Not all direction is literal; some of it can be temporal or transpersonal. My subjective realm, my individually realized dream, has been perturbed by the passage of the monstrous will of TH3ir corporate poison. The aggregated pain of all those who have succumbed is still bleeding through. Too many listened to the whisper of their unremembered unconsciousness. Too many looked back.

We bury so much. All of us. And these suppressed memories and dreams and desires drift down into the deepdark where they collect into one massive not here not now you cannot stay.

Bleak Zero woke it—no, the drug is just a catalyst, a psychopharmaceutical that prepares the mind, that opens doors and lets shadow in. It's a fragment of mythology, really, a fragment of something that never happened. It is a hint—the slightest possibility, the nearly impossible probability that might, yes it might!, be true—of that first doubt. The drug is the key to the box we buried in our myths and fables—that chest of ancestral memory. all those bad things flying out! what's left? what's left hidden in the lid? We are Pandora to its key, and we are still cursed with curiosity, with that morbid fatality that makes us so human.

What was the first transgression? Yes, there, in the wood. With an ax. Oh, how he begged, how he pleaded for mercy. When we did it again All cycles repeat, all tales eat their own words, we used a shovel. When we do it again, we will use a sharper object. Something with a point. Yes: ax, awl, and trowel. We will use them all, and each of us will have his chance to slay the others. Each will die. That is the price that is the way that is that is is is—

I grab the frozen bird by the leg and press one of its hard talons into the soft flesh behind my right ear. I dig it in until my brain cries uncle, and the deepdark flees the bright sparks flying from my nerve endings. I shake the bird, snapping it off at that first joint, and keep the leg. I might need it again.

The scarecrow holds the key in its red right hand; its left fist is closed tight. The key, even with all the warning signs placed along my path, still tantalizes me. It fits some lock, even if it isn't the right one, even if it takes me on a diversion, a shortcut that isn't very short. Even if to take the key is to admit that I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do, I want it. Pandora to this key. What box? What secret?

Is this my choice then? Or is it some programming that I haven't managed to eradicate from my brain? Some fish of ill intent, still swimming in the deep undercurrents of my psyche? Will this key unlock the secret chamber of my heart and reveal my desire to me?

I don't know what to do. I'm still fragile from the Bleak Zero, from TH3ir assault. I am still our Father, who left us in Heaven a child. Still—

Fuck, TH3ir chemistry is persistent. Even though I know what it wants, it is hard to silence. Nora, nora, nora, noranoranoranora—

No, you don't get to wear that mask. In fact, you don't get to wear any mask. I am done with them. I have nothing—nowhere, actually—to hide. take it, then it is yours it has always been all is—

We are explorers. We are not conquerors. That is the difference between you and me.

She is back. Her hands stroke my neck. Her breath is a tickle in my ear. "The age of exploration is over," she whispers. "The map has no dark corners left. There are no places left for monsters to hide."

No? What about the closet, or under the bed?

"Aegenus named each and every one, and Ghen slew them all. All that remain are echoes, phantoms of your imagination. Your draw your terrors out of the ink of the Oneiroi."

We invented everything, didn't we? We dreamed our myths, our stories, our cosmological beginnings and endings. We made it all up, and those of us who remembered the words wrote our dreams down.

"Just one, Harry. There is only one dream."

Then why are all the stories different? Why do we have so many myths?

"Remember the Tower, Harry. Remember how it was built."

I don't know, Nora. I can only remember hounarwnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk! I can only remember the sound it made as it fell.

"It made no sound, Harry. Stone cannot speak."

No, you're taking me too literally. I'm talking about the sound of—

Oh.

"Yes," she breathes.

"Boom boom," I whisper, my lips forming a different word, a different series of syllables.

"Yes," she sighs.

We stand still for a long time, and we hear nothing. There is no echo in my head. Because there is nothing for that thunder word to bounce back from. There is nothing but empty space. Nothing but—

"Yes," she laughs.

Double-you.

For a moment, I can see everything. Direction is meaningless; distance is undefined; space is a point. Eyes like mirrors, I can see him staring back at me.

"Does he know?" I ask.

"Of course. But it isn't enough to free him."

"Is that what this key is for?"

"No, the key opens a door. Not the first, and not the last. In between, there are others, Harry: windows, boxes, arches, gates, holes, portals, mirrors, thresholds. You must find the path."

If the right hand is the key, then what is the left? Our brains are separate hemispheres, connected only by the threads of the corpus callosum, and we nothing more than the evolution of reactionary communication. Dualities. On and off. One and zero. Straight and curved. Literal and figurative. If the right is the physical key, then the left must be—I pry open the scarecrow's left hand, and find the black bud of the dream plant—the left must be the abstract key.

"How many times have I kissed you, Nora?" I ask. I touch the bud, but it does not open. I have to imagine the petals. How many were there? She loves me . . .

"Less than a hundred," she says. "More than—"

"Twenty?" I keep counting. She loves me she loves me not she . . . "When was your birthday?"

"It is February. The twenty—"

"—third." . . . loves me. "'Answer say answer.' That's Houdini's code, isn't it? The one he pre-arranged with his wife. I felt him—I was him—in the deepdark. He was trying to get through, trying to reach her."

"He told her something else."

"He told her to believe. Yes, that's what he said to her. In this code they shared. But that's not what you were trying to tell me." There are roots beneath the bulb of the bud, veins that bury themselves in the scarecrow's palm. "All those other voices, like soloists rising out of a choir, all those variations on the same theme." I pull on the bulb, and the hand twists and curls as the roots tug at the fingers and the arm.

She doesn't say anything, and when I turn and look at her, she is crying. Or maybe I am crying. It is hard to tell anymore. I raise a hand to her ghostly face, to wipe away the tears, and she sinks against my open hand. Holding her is like trying to catch rain.

The roots run deep, all the way down into the scarecrow's gut. There is a hard nut in the straw man's belly, a fibrous mass of twisted strands. I rip the tattered shirt and drag out the coiled rope of root. The scarecrow folds in on itself as its straw tumbles out: its head sinks down on its chest, and it sags on its cross of sun-blasted ash. Its left wrist comes free and hangs down, pointing at the ground. The unopened bud is still in its palm, and the twisted chain of the roots still snakes through its sleeve and glove.

Tearing open the nut is like striping the shell off a coconut by hand. The ache in my knuckles and joints from tearing open the deepdark makes the task difficult, and when I finally tear off enough of husk to reach the softer center, the ache has spread to my elbows and shoulders. The white pulp stains my skin as I dig it out. I cut my finger on the edge of the blade before I realize what lies in the center of the nut.

The rainbow blade glitters in the sun, prisms dancing along the outer rim of my vision.

The pulp soaks up my blood, white becoming red. The bud is still attached to this heart, still connected by the torturous twist of root and vein. The crimson stain slithers through the pulp and vanishes into fibers of the roots. The scarecrow sighs as the wind teases its loose straw, and the key tinkles softly as it scrapes against its metal ring.

The right is the means; the left is the method.

I stand, my knees popping from the strain of kneeling so long. To the west, revealed by the setting sun, is a mobile home, an ugly trailer beaten and stained by the weather. The windows are open, and thin purple curtains flutter like eyelashes.

Eyes like mirrors.

Carefully, I pry the knife from the pulpy heart, and as I snap the hilt free, the roots convulse and the flower bud opens. In the center of the array of white and yellow petals is a delicate coil of red thread.


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