of the Night
from issue Number 2, September 2009
by David Green
Far from the capital and centers of culture, the town of Alstead was a refuge from time, a place of lost winds and quiet lives. Rising on a low eminence above the coastal plain, it overlooked a region of woodland farms and terraced vineyards. In the public gardens, pheasants nested in beds of lavender, and along the river, the winding paths were lined with generous hedges of wild roses. But the feature of the town most enduring in memory was the old quarter where the houses were painted a coral pink and built with high gables and slate roofs that sloped away from the sea.
My family lived in one of these houses on a narrow street near the market. Not that I remember much from my early years. My mother sang to me in the morning. My father smoked at night. I credit them for all they did. It was a household of much enterprise. Much thrift. No intrigue. The pantry was well stocked, the cans and jars neat and orderly. Heirlooms filled the den and study, and the floors were covered with eastern carpets. Blue and yellow light illuminated the stairs beneath a stained glass window, while the walls smelled of dry wood and day-old bread. My room was at the top of the house and faced the street. From the open windows, I could hear the clattering halters of passing horses and church bells ringing from a dozen towers. At night I imagined the whispers of ghostly visitations, and in winter symphonies of snow swirled about the gas lamps.
When I was old enough, I accompanied my mother on her trips to the market. It was a vast building of clutter and crowds. Strings of larks hung from the rafters and rows of pigs' feet dangled from archways. Spice merchants with dark beards tipped their tin bowls on crude scales. Horsemen traded insults. And temperamental scrap collectors made their rounds pulling wagons of broken tools and wire. Among the lanes and wooden stalls were baskets of daffodils and tulips, trays of oysters and squid, barrels of figs and bunches of tarragon. Everything was fresh—the morning, the fruit, the glistening dew on the flowers, the sun shining off the wet cobblestones. And down by the river, the women washed their sheets, washed, it seemed, their dreams away, into the water, into the light.
But each time I returned, I noticed that the faces and scenes I encountered were at odds with those I remembered. The women who sold us fruit were young and lively one day, but worn and pale the next. And walls that seemed gilded on sunny mornings were dingy and stained on cloudy days. Something similar occurred in the streets of my neighborhood. Houses I had never seen before suddenly appeared between those I knew. Others I could not find again. Wide, spacious avenues grew narrower each time I passed, and at night, mansions on the bluff above the river floated on banks of fog. So it surprised me when people spoke of these places as if they never changed, as if they could be captured so easily with words. And their mysteries never noted. The possibility that my own experiences could fit into a discipline of arbitrary sounds and characters seemed remote to me. And even when I succeeded in grasping the concept of words as symbols, I still could not discern the reasons for associating one word with another, so I added to my confusion by making connections of my own, associating, for example, "starlight" with "steel," and "breeze" with "lace."
This became a problem when I went off to school. While the other students were busy reading their books and writing their essays, I was lost in wonder about the nature of words. One morning near the end of my first term, the headmaster called me out of class. It was a tumultuous autumn day and as we walked along the edge of the playing fields, orange and yellow leaves blew across the grass. When the wind lifted the hair from his head, I imagined the spray of crashing waves rising over a rocky coast. He began by asking me whether I was enjoying my studies. I thought he was going to encourage me or praise my work. I told him I was happy enough. Without seeming to hear my response, he said he was concerned about my progress. I expressed my surprise. The faculty, he said, had met and decided there was nothing more they could do for me. I was a dreamer, he said, as if trying to expel a bitter taste from the tip of his tongue. By the end of the week, I was back in my room at home.
My course in life was thereby established at an early age. I would never be a minister in the government, a physician, an historian, or an economist. The one great object in my life would be to dream. And that would provide my days with purpose and direction. Perhaps, I told myself, my dreams might spur a revolution or inspire a poet. One never knows. But the harmony of home was shattered. My mother was inconsolable, and more than likely, my father was not pleased. Without wasting any more time, they contacted the appropriate people through the proper channels and found a well-established dreamer, a Mr. Poole, who agreed to take me under his wing. For that was the custom in my part of the world. One spent one's childhood in the company of a master dreamer before pursuing a career of one's own.
The first thing I learned was that there is very little about dreaming that can be taught. Nevertheless, one is encouraged to study the differences between dreams of the day and dreams of the night, and the effects of certain diets and moods on dreaming. The youthful dreamer also practices how to describe and record a full range of dreams, noting, for example, the subtle differences that distinguish recurring dreams. And then there are the exercises that help to develop the latent talents of those who aspire to the profession. I spent more than a week learning to interpret the expressive qualities of clouds. But this was nothing compared to the months I labored over the expansion and contraction of time.
In my free time, I also studied the great dreams of antiquity, beginning with Hesiod's Oneiroi, the offspring of Night who dwell on the shores of the western sea. I memorized Penelope's dream of the eagle, devoting myself wholeheartedly to the mysteries of the Gates of Horn and Ivory, and became familiar with countless other wonders including Scipio's Dream, the Dream of the Rood, and Dante's dream of desire. I gave no less attention to the poetry of metamorphosis, to Cybelė's transformation of the Dardan ships, and to the tales of Arethusa, Daphne, and Niobe. Even the Golden Ass of Apuleius.
After several years of study, I was invited to accompany Mr. Poole into the field. The venues for dreaming were diverse, but the most common by far was the client's home. Typically, the dreamer would appear late in the afternoon or early in the evening. It was customary to share a meal, usually dinner, and exchange pleasantries before a fire while drinking a glass of port or, in some cases, a distilled spirit. The dreamer would then retire to a guestroom and draw the curtains. However, some cases called for dreaming outdoors in the daylight—on a bench or in the grass. Others, especially those involving issues of a metaphysical nature, were most successfully pursued in churches, and several times we went to a cemetery to dream of the departed souls who rested there.
It was a long apprenticeship against formidable odds. Though the freedom of dreaming, the ability to be where one has never been—to be anywhere, and, at the same time, nowhere—suited my natural inclinations, I was not perfectly adapted to the calling. For one thing, I have always been sensitive to the suffering of others, and so, in no small degree, share their misgivings, conflicts, guilt, and losses. There were also more practical impediments to my success, not the least of which was my tendency to forget what had passed in the night. I also lacked an innate ability to read the subtle encryptions of desire. With practice and time, however, I learned the tricks of retention and interpretation, and, at the conclusion of my course of study, I had every reason to hope for my professional success, particularly because the demand was so great for skilled practitioners.
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