The following story appeared in two parts in consecutive issues of The Charles River Journal, #2, September 2009 and #3, January 2014.
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 kitchen well scrubbed. The sitting room and study were filled with heirlooms, and the floors were covered with eastern carpets. Stained glass on the landing illuminated the stairs, 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 daughters 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.
Under obligations to my creditors, I was required to spend my first two years in practice dreaming exclusively for the unfortunate Mr. C, an eminent member of the bar who needed to escape from the paralysis of his existence. He wrote out the objectives for each dream and measured the results against these objectives, offering what he felt were constructive suggestions to a novice when I failed to produce according to plan. No doubt he saw himself as my benefactor and guide. "Dreams," he was wont to say in his grand manner, "are the life that informs the soul." I don't know if this is true or not, but I regret spending some of my most creative years laboring at such drudgery and wonder even now if my association with Mr. C did not in some way inhibit the development of my natural powers.
When at last I was on my own, I started with such simple, commonplace dreams that it pains me now to recall them. For a new bride, I dreamt of endless corridors in a dark house and amorphous figures of authority. For a heart patient, I dreamt of blackbirds fluttering in a hollow chest. Some of the same dreams occurred night after night until dreaming them became a task rather than a pleasure. To break the monotony of these repetitions, I would sometimes dream for myself. And when I had the chance, I would dream of flying. There was nothing like it. I climbed the air as if pedaling a bicycle, pushing down hard with each step, but faltering at times as the ether gave way beneath me. Once aloft, I propelled myself with nothing more than an impulse of the will, felt throughout my body. Among trees and rooftops I floated until I forgot that I was flying and had to summon my will again to keep from falling. Of course I never informed my clients that these were my own dreams and, as far as I know, they were content with the illusion.
It is commonly believed that dreamers need no company, that they are so consumed by their dreaming they have no time for anything else. But nothing could be farther from the truth. After spending their nights dreaming the dreams of businessmen who would rather be fishing or politicians who want to be loved, dreamers need the companionship of a person who can support and comfort them, someone who can help them forget the anxieties and frustrations of troubled souls. And so, once secure in my profession, with a list of regular clients, I decided to marry. I chose a woman who did not dream. Isn't that always the case? She had no need, she said. But that wasn't the problem. No, I could have lived with that. The problem was that her hopes had yet to break upon the rocks of middle age. Care, want, and grief were as foreign to her as dreaming. Her optimism was too much to bear. After coming home from a night of dreaming the dreams of the disenchanted, I needed to be with someone who could understand and appreciate my work. All she could do was encourage me blindly. So, in short, I failed to make merry in the springtime summons of my blood.
To salvage the situation, she suggested we move to a place where the dirt is red and the trees provide no shade. Not the antipodes, mind you, but somewhere on the verge. "A new life together," she said. "It would do you good." She finally left when I told her I couldn't live without my dreams. That was her right. We had never had any kind of commitment. Apart from the formalities of marriage. She gave me the ultimatum on a Thursday. It was a holiday. Or my birthday. Or both. I've never really been satisfied by my grasp of time.
"It's me or them," she said.
"Them?" I said.
"You'll have to choose."
I bade her good-bye. But she was already gone. South. Or west. Is there a difference? She went somewhere where the sun is hot and the days are long. That's all I know.
Her eyes were blue, like the sky you see through clouds after a rain. Since then I have lived alone. No cats. No dogs. No children. Sine prole. Sometimes, I confess, I feel the desire for love late in the afternoon. Sometimes I feel it in the morning. But most of the time I don't feel it at all. I think of other things. That's just the way I am. And then I am comforted by a reverie that I keep to myself. Of a luminous morning hidden in the heart of an old fable. The morning of all mornings. When the spirit moved across the waters.
For several months after her departure, I had trouble sleeping. And as a consequence, I could not work. At night I went for walks along the river and felt an intimacy with the stars I had never known before. I watched the moon rise and fall through its phases and the planets in their wandering. In the meantime, I lost many of my clients. But what I discovered was worth the loss. Beneath the stars and moon, I came to know the mysteries of the night, the empty calm of the infinite, the wonder of the ancients. Not in ways I could express with words, no, but in ways that I could dream. And soon I was able to sleep again.
Then everything began to change. Not just dreaming, but the world around me. And not all at once, but gradually. I assumed it was the natural progression of things. Colors lost their luster. Fruits lost their savor. Landscapes lost the sanctity of the sublime. Perhaps worst of all, the coral houses of my youth were painted gray and white. Life had become comfortable and uniform. People found satisfaction for their desires, solutions to their problems, in simple objects acquired for the sake of acquisition. They were so enamored with the traders and mountebanks who descended on the public squares that they forgot the value of dreaming. They forgot that love begins in dreams, that great undertakings and even minor decisions are first cast in the colors of dreams.
I did my best to adapt. But the state of my clients did not encourage me. Coming and going in a shadow play of purpose, they requested my services from a shallow serenity, an indecent security. When church let out on Sundays, these good citizens flew like startled swallows from their sanctuaries of brick and mortar, tossed into the face of the sun, torn by the gravities of time. They came to me like the living dead, expecting me to make a difference, expecting me to rouse their souls. As if I had the power of the winds that stir in the night. They came to me, these upstanding citizens, sleepy after their evening meals, wearing their clay with pride, forgetting the indifference of their bones. Night after night I touched their souls in a sea of lost desire. I tried my best to help them. I did what I could. I swam for daylight to save us, but there were stars at noon, and the water shimmered like a lover caught forever in the throes of pleasure. I woke covered with salt and knew my days as a dreamer were numbered.
One by one, I bade them good-bye. The printer, the baker, the soldier. If I could have dreamt of words and flour and war, things might have been different. But I had come to accept the inevitable. Out of a sense of obligation, perhaps habit, I continued to visit the priest. Unlike the others, he had a constitutional attachment to melancholy and this intrigued me. Yet the night eventually arrived when I had to let him go as well. We ate a quiet meal together and then I retired to a room on the upper floor of the rectory. There was a gable and a small window where I could see the light in the west and its reflection on the river. A single star gleamed above the hills. In his dream, he walked through the darkened streets of his childhood with a young woman. They lay on their backs in a fragrant garden and looked at the constellations overhead, which were surrounded by haloes of silver light. Then the woman disappeared and the priest found the head of an angel in a field of barley and, farther along, a wing that had been severed from its shoulder. The silken feathers were as smooth as the caches of a woman's body, but the wing was heavy with the burdens of its holy office. The next morning larks were singing and the river was hidden beneath a layer of fog. I left without taking his money. When I arrived home, I sat down and wrote a public notice for the local paper informing all interested parties that I was no longer available for the purpose of dreaming.
Because I had little formal schooling and only a narrow range of experience, I was forced to support myself for several years by doing a variety of odd jobs. Then, quite by chance, I ran into a former client who had recently become a person of some importance at the university. After learning of my circumstances, he invited me to join the faculty as a lecturer on the art of dreaming. As it turned out, I was one of the last authorities in the field and was held in great esteem by the young people who wanted to know what dreaming was really like. The position was well compensated and after a few years, I was able to retire with a generous pension to live out my life free of worldly cares. And this I would have done had it not been for my old friend the priest. One afternoon he left a message asking me to stop by at the first opportunity. When I arrived at the rectory, his housekeeper led me to the den where I found him preparing his sermon for the following Sunday. It had been several years since I had seen him and he had aged perceptibly in that time. We spoke at length about our mutual acquaintances and the changes that had occurred in the town. Then he asked me if I would consider coming out of retirement to dream one more time.
"I need something to go on as I approach the end," he said, "something to get me through the final days of my life."
Dreaming in such circumstances is a risk few practitioners are willing to take. I had often heard stories about dreams of absolute annihilation where one wakens in the night trembling and forever changed. But the fear in the face of the old priest convinced me this was something I had to do.
I needed a month to prepare. To read a variety of sacred texts and practice my breathing exercises. In the last week, I went on a strict diet and regulated my period of sleep to maximize the effectiveness of my dream. When the assigned night came, I walked to the rectory through the public gardens at sunset to put myself in the proper state of mind. We had a rich dinner of shellfish and sparkling wine and then I went upstairs to the same room where I had dreamt in years past.
I fell asleep almost at once and began by dreaming of strange apparitions that moved past me in the darkness: scenes of smoking charnel grounds, of scavenging dogs, and mud-caked bones. Cries of terror and panic followed. Then great volume without sound. My heart pounded like a hammer on steel and I entered a violent darkness of madness and rage. But just as quickly, I found myself before the open doorway of a large house. I went inside and saw a note on a desk reading, "Make yourself at home." As I was about to do so, I heard something in the kitchen and discovered a man wearing a camel hair coat sitting at the table.
"I'm Bergin," he said, without standing or extending his hand. "You can stay here until Mr. Abercrombie is ready for you."
"I'm looking for someone else," I said.
"No, it's Mr. Abercrombie you're looking for."
"I'm here for the priest," I said.
"Forget about the priest," he said. "Mr. Abercrombie will take care of him. He has no business dreaming anyway."
"Where am I?" I asked.
"You should have everything you need. The coal bin is in the basement. There are extra blankets in the hall closet."
"Am I supposed to prepare in some way?"
"I'll return when Mr. Abercrombie is ready," he said. And then he left.
I welcomed Bergin's departure as the removal of an unsettling presence in the house, but as soon as he was gone, I became more aware of my solitude and the uncertainty of my purpose in this place. I went outside on a narrow balcony hoping to discover where I was. Across the street were other balconies identical to mine. Linden trees along the avenue were in bloom and the odor of the flowers reminded me of my childhood. Yet there was nothing familiar in the skyline of roofs and spires.
I had no choice but to wait patiently to be summoned. My will was now nothing more than a dream of will just as my impressions were dreams of impressions and my thoughts were dreams of thoughts.
At length, the bell rang in the front hall. I went down to see who it was and discovered Bergin standing in the shadows.
"Is this purgatory?" I asked.
"Mr. Abercrombie has sent me," he said.
"He's ready to see you."
"Should I bring anything?"
"It won't be necessary. Just shut the door."
We walked down a cobblestone lane for several blocks without seeing another person or any other sign of life. At the end of the lane, Bergin opened an iron gate and we climbed up a steep hillside through a spruce forest until we came to a high meadow where rain clouds had just passed and the sky was clearing. We crossed the field and continued up through a canyon of bright stone and emerged at length onto a plain of sun-bleached earth. Below us lay tracts of blue hills and a broad river that sparkled as it wound toward an invisible horizon. Like silhouettes on a white canvas, we passed through an austere landscape of aloe plants and tamarisk trees. When the sun finally edged beneath the plain, scarlet layers of cloud stretched across the horizon like the burning terraces of a fabled kingdom. A moment later, the light was gone and the kingdom had turned to ash. We walked by starlight until a half moon rose in the vaporless sky. Behind us, a luminous cloud of dust hung above our tracks like a train of ghosts.
The plain ended at the edge of a valley where the wind had stripped the soil from a bleak palisade of rock. We climbed down to level ground over a series of narrow ledges, crossed a floor of bedrock scoured by ancient floods, and then continued through a talus field of loose stones and jagged boulders. On the far side of the valley, we entered a deep chasm where a grove of oak trees and a single white cypress stood beside two springs. Bergin instructed me to drink from the one on the right and I did. As I looked at the sky, I saw the constellations break apart, yielding the power of their perfect forms over the fate of living things. I heard the creaking of the oaks swaying in the light wind and the haunting calls of curlews in the open spaces, and felt a sympathy with their strange nocturnal hearts. We proceeded up a long stairway cut into the stone cliffs and reached what Bergin called the Lake of Memory. Along the bank were fields of white asphodels and on the eastern shore was a dense forest, black against a pale, ambrosial sky. We untied a boat that was moored in a small cove and rowed out across the still water as the day began to brighten.
I had expected to find Mr. Abercrombie in a palace of white marble and gold roofs gleaming beneath a morning sky. But when we reached the far shore of the lake, all I could see was a labyrinth of broken walls, a rubble of bricks and stone, and sun-hardened foundations of mud smoothed by centuries of dry wind and sand. Blue smoke rose from unseen fires and an angry wren harassed stray cats that wandered among the dusty lanes. We passed through an open gate between two mud obelisks embedded with mirrors cut in the shapes of glowing suns and quarter moons. Trees sprouted from the earthen walls on either side of us and rusty scaffolding sat idly in their shadows.
On a desolate ridge behind these ruins stood a vast, somber house. The central structure was a plain hall built of large granite blocks covered with vines. The rest of it appeared to have been constructed at later dates in various styles. To one side was an overgrown garden and a large pond with an island where two angels stood chained to an apple tree. Their gowns glowed like light, but their hems were stained with clay.
We entered the house through a heavy timber door and walked down a long hall. Shafts of sunlight shone through latticed windows to illuminate a floor of polished basalt. Marble statues of mythical figures stood in a series of niches opposite the windows, and on the wall above them hung gold plates inscribed with indecipherable characters. Bergin led me to a large room with a high ceiling and a great fireplace. There were tall windows on every side covered by thick drapes that reached to the floor.
Seated before the fireplace in a worn leather chair was an old man who appeared exhausted by the exertions of his life. White hair covered his head like a great whirl of cotton and he wore a muslin robe embroidered with gold thread. Hanging from his neck was a gold pendant in the form of a tree with ruby fruits and emerald leaves.
"The dreamer is here," said Bergin.
Without appearing to acknowledge my presence, the man muttered, "Desinas ineptire et quod uides perisse perditum ducas."
I was worried that I might not be able to understand him, but then, looking up, he said, "Souls of mischance. Shadows in the darkness."
"This is Mr. Abercrombie," said Bergin.
The old man gestured for me to sit in a chair beside him.
"I hope your trip was not too arduous," he said.
"No," I said.
He leaned over and took my hand in his and, making a sweeping gesture with the other, whispered, "I dreamt all of this. Everything. Out of nothing. Not even the darkness of night was here. The chaos, as they call it. I dreamt it into being. Dreamt it into order. People complain. They criticize what they call the injustices. But what do they know? Who are they to judge me?"
"I felt the same way," I said. "I mean, I felt that people didn't appreciate my dreams."
"Did you, sir? Did you ever dream of perfection? I did. I had such plans. So many ideas. I dreamt of the light of the moon in the desert, the seductive folds of the orchid, the eye of the tiger. I dreamt it all. But then my imagination lost its wellspring of desire, the impetus of creation, and my heart became as empty as this old house, this world you see around you. Perhaps you noticed the change. Despite what has happened, I am content with my efforts. The stars are impressive, wouldn't you say? If they are my only legacy, I am satisfied."
Suddenly he cried out in pain. Bergin, who had been standing behind him, stepped to his side and bent down. Mr. Abercrombie tilted his head and raised his hand for silence. Then he shouted, "The roof, Bergin! They're on the roof!"
At this, Bergin leapt up and took a stout pole from a corner where it was leaning against the wall. He listened briefly to the movement on the roof and then hastened off in the direction of what appeared to be vigorous scratching. I noticed a strong odor of sulphur and heard guttural laughter. A moment later a scuffle ensued and then silence.
Mr. Abercrombie listened intently as if he were imagining what was happening. "Belial and Moloch," he said. "They're waiting to take over."
When Bergin returned to the room, his face was red and his clothes were stained with pitch.
"Did you take care of them?" asked Mr. Abercrombie.
"They got away."
"Well then, you'll get them tomorrow. In the meantime, open the windows for our guest."
Turning to me he said, "You have been waiting patiently to discover why you were summoned."
"I thought I was here for the priest," I said.
"The priest? No, not for the priest. Look."
Bergin went around the room pulling back the curtains and opening the windows. But instead of the surrounding countryside, I saw ghostly images sculpted from the light. A graceful form and then the blue eyes of my wife, and a white dress in the wind, and yellow flowers glistening with dew. And then high on a hill above the sea, a small cottage and laundry blowing in the breeze, and my mother and father walking through fallen blossoms that brightened the ground like patches of sunlight. So many memories of my childhood and youth it seemed my life was passing before me. As though I were living each moment again for the first time. And then, at Mr. Abercrombie's prompting, Bergin closed the windows, and the images vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
"What did you see?" Mr. Abercrombie asked.
"Moments of my life I had forgotten," I said.
"All that love. All that happiness. Forgotten. Your life dry and thin like a flower pressed between the pages of a book. You live it briefly and while you live it, it disappears. To those who come after you, your world will lack color. It will be an invention of words. Fables, lessons, stories told from one generation to another. Until forgotten altogether. I'm offering you something lasting."
"I don't understand," I said.
"Do you know where you are?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I said.
"This isn't a place of beauty or perfection," he said. "And it isn't a place of ruin or dissipation. In fact it isn't a place at all. It's a dream. A dream without end. You make of it what you will."
"I don't think I'm ready for this," I said.
"Nonsense. You're as ready as you'll ever be. You always were. Look at it this way, if you choose to dream, you can dream you are awake again and never know the difference. Dream yourself the same old life, or something better. You'll have whatever you want, go wherever you will."
And then, as if by his suggestion, I did. I dreamt I was no longer dreaming, that I was in an old house with oriel windows and ivy, surrounded by walls of books and furniture of another age. I was sitting at a desk holding a pen in my hand writing on a sheet of paper. I stopped to listen to the sounds of the city. It was early morning. I sensed a conclusion was at hand, but couldn't find the words. I rose from my desk and opened a curtain to look outside. There was fog on the river and the dawn was just beginning to show. It had been a long night. I went to the bathroom and washed my face and then went downstairs to the kitchen.
The priest was standing at the table preparing breakfast. Before I could say anything, he looked at me and said, "I'm sorry."
"Why?" I asked.
"You mean you don't know?"
"Go over to the church and see for yourself."
I went down a covered walkway and entered the church through a door in the sacristy. Candles were burning on the altar and two women dressed in black stood in the shadows of the chancel. Then, to my astonishment, I saw myself lying in a coffin in the center aisle. I was struck more by the impossibility of the situation than by its terror. I hurried back to the rectory for an explanation. The priest was still standing at the table.
"This can't be right," I said. "I can't be here and there. I need to go back upstairs. I need to speak to Mr. Abercrombie."
"There's been some mistake. I never agreed to this."
"Have a cup of tea. It'll settle your nerves. This sort of thing happens to everyone."
"I thought I was dreaming," I said.
"Then that's not me?"
"Oh, that's you."
"But I wasn't ready."
"Ready?" he said, "what's ready got to do with it? If you don't go today, you go tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then the next day. It's all the same. There's marmalade in the cupboard."
"I'm not hungry," I said.
"No, of course not."
I put on my coat and left. On the way home, I wondered how I could have ever been so presumptuous as to imagine what this would be like or even consider it when I was so far from the actual experience. Where was the final struggle to survive? The symptoms of surrender?
Upon reaching my house, I found a man carting my furniture away and an old woman carrying my clothes out in a wicker basket. My papers and books were in a barrel waiting for the dustmen. How easily the traces of my life could be erased. As easily as all the dreams I had ever dreamt. I stood outside the door and watched a group of workmen come and go for a week. They painted the walls and changed the carpets and drapes. When they were finished, a family moved in with small children whose screaming and crying must have made my neighbors regret my death as much as anyone. I lingered for long enough to see my hollyhocks and tulips die, and then I moved on.
I dreamt of the streets of the city, and when I needed a change of scenery, I dreamt of the forests and fields. Sometimes I dreamt of the cemetery where I was buried. Strollers of a Sunday passed without an inkling of what I had been, all that I had done. But that didn't really bother me. More difficult to accept was the thought that my hands and arms and legs and even the face I had seen every day of my life were now on their own in the darkness, belonging to no one, like stones in a field.
For a long time, I was sustained by my memories. Memories of the world of things. Houses and faces. Streets and skies. They displaced the idle ether that surrounded me, the emptiness that weighed heavily. But now when I look back on the things I once cherished?the gladness of summer mornings, the autumn sunlight in an orchard?I am indifferent. I don't begrudge the living anything. Sunsets, dawns, and seasons mean nothing to me now. The same is true of age and time. I feel no bittersweet nostalgia. No longing for the past or what might have been. There is nothing more to gain or lose, nothing more to fear. But sometimes, when I dream of life, I am still shaken by the inconsequence of my absence.