They come to me in my sleep. Dreams. A dizzying sort, the kind in which up is down, down is up, fragments of reality scattered in between the abstract fuzziness. At the bottom of it all is a nagging fear. They will leave me soon.
I am coming to the end of the line, to the days in which my mind no longer has the strength to compose the stories for my companion to hear. Or perhaps I believe they have heard enough, and they need to go back before the damage is complete. But it is too late; I have gone this far, played with time too much. All I want is to sleep and not worry. Sleep and construct my own dreams, the fantastical dreams filled with untold stories meant to serve as a distraction from the real world. The real world is too much, but only the privileged are allowed to escape it. Others can, if they have their dreams, unspoken and dormant and waiting for them to visit, crying or laughing, screaming or pleading, doing what they please or being who they please in a world different from their own.
I hear her words, even when she thinks I don’t, and they bite, more so than a wolf, whose I would gladly take because it wouldn’t hurt as much as hers. “Useless”, she calls me, “He can’t speak or do anything really. No sense of independence. A leech who will rob me of my dreams. I had big dreams, you know, as I’m sure you do so I don’t want you spending too much time here. Otherwise, they’ll be wasted.”
The girl blinks, unsure of what to make of her words. She smiles kindly enough, but I know it is fake; if she wants the job, she needs to act the part. A caregiver is anything but cruel, or so they say. The girl, in her first mistake, lowers herself to her knees and speaks to me slowly. “My. Name. Is. Jenny.” I roll my eyes. She reminds me of a chipmunk, her cheeks puffed out wide as if they were carrying something. The woman goes through the list of all my needs- medication twice a day, once in the morning, the other in the evening, a good scrub every once in a while but nothing below the waist, practice language skills on the cumbersome device that sits across my immobile knees- and says there is more, but the girl is not to worry about them. Then she leaves, and I scowl, quietly cursing the woman who no longer referred to herself as my mother.
It is just me and this young girl, older than me surely but no older than those looking to check me off a box for her college resume. Her discomfort is evident, and I reassure her by giving her a twisted, demonic smile and flapping my arms back and forth as if possessed. Her distress is more apparent, and I snort, spinning my wheelchair away from her and towards my spot in the living room where the curtains are drawn back, and I can see the tips of the mountain waving from the horizon.
For the whole day, we don’t speak, and its not for a lack of trying on her part. She brings me water and food and medicine lined up in single file on the counter followed by an awkward pouring of words. Her life story tumbles out sporadically at first, then more fluidly as she comes to believe she is talking to nothing more than a wall, which somehow spurs her confidence to sell her secrets. I hardly look at her, and finally she stops talking, the hints too strong to ignore. She gives in and sits on the couch, turning on the television to some trashy soap opera. Meanwhile, I leave my spot, choosing to roam around on the first floor, wondering-not for the first time- why he left me with her. The bitterness still stung as I thought of my father somewhere out there, enjoying a new life with a new family.
“Are. You. Okay? Can. I. Get. You. Something?” She still speaks slowly when she interacts directly, and I roll my eyes, my bitterness rolling into frustration. I gesture wildly, my arms moving perfectly, the muscles fluent and smooth and not at all a hinderance unlike my inability to speak. I hope to convey this to her, and I think it manages to cross to the other side. She clears her throat, asking the same question but this time in a regular voice, the same one she used to spill her life story. I shake my head no, then return to my spot by the window, the mountains staring sympathetically back at me.
At some point, I nod off, my mind taking me inside little dreams where I can talk, walk, jump, and climb. First, I am straddling a giant wolf against a dark and grey backdrop, blistering winds lashing and whipping as the storm begins its assault against a jagged castle under siege. There is a battle ax laying across my knees, and a ride hard, hurrying to cross the bulwark and find the captive girl. She is strung up like a dead lamb, her arms and legs bound around a stake, and her chipmunk-like face pleads for mercy from a crime she didn’t commit. With one swift blow, her ties are cut. Arrows assail left and right, one sticking into the armor above my right calf. Still, I get her on the wolf, and together we ride beneath the rapidly darkening clouds, the angry voices chasing from behind.
We ride on into another dream; this time I am dressed in a heavy trench coat swore to protect me from the steady stream of rain. A silver badge is attached to my chest, and I pull on a cigarette, the puff of smoke clearing a freshly trimmed beard. The chipmunk girl is no longer beside me; rather her dead body lies at my feet, her cheeks slashed from left to right. I close my eyes, scrunching up my nose which is a sure tell sign of my concentration, and try to work the answer for such a detailed crime.
More importantly, why is it this girl?
I awaken, with the chipmunk faced girl staring at me, worrisome. There is wetness between my legs, and I groan, embarrassed. The girl leans over me, cleaning me up with the practice patience not necessarily given to a certified caregiver, but because she cares.
“You know,” she says, her speech a regularly pace, not broken up into little bits to help me chew when I can chew just fine. “I was wrong. And I’m sorry for listening to her.” She shows me a crumpled-up paper, unfolding the creases and lines, exposing the smudges at an attempt to draw what I see. A partially finished wolf. A mottled figure with noodle arms in a trench coat. I threw it away when my hand trembled and I could no longer hold a pen. It was hideous, the strokes wild and uncontained, and I hated it. It was supposed to be out of sight, out of mind, but the girl found it. As I wandered in my sleep, she too, wandered away, out of curiosity or to get a drink, I do not know.
“I don’t think you’re useless,” she says, smiling for the first time with steadfast sincerity. “I think you have words, little dreams trapped inside you waiting to get out. And they will.”
Yes. Yes they will. I am suddenly sure of it. I pat my leg, and she places the paper gently on top of it. I have dreams, just like anyone else. They may be little, but to me, they are bigger than anything else in this world.
I sputter, working the weak muscles of my jaw. “Thank. You.”
Up on the ledge the old man sat, his legs crossed as he watched the waves swish back and forth; sometimes tossing sailors from their ships, other times standing still, unblinking as it tried to match the sky. The sky, however, wasn’t a perfect model; its clouds grew dark and the wind swirled around, searching for something to destroy as the rest of its anger lashed out with bolts of light striking anything that got in its way. The old man sat, his legs crossed, up on the ledge of the cliff, watching with eyes that never blinked.
Down in the village a young boy carried about his day, shoveling hay to feed the horses, carrying pails of water from the sea and back to bathe his fragile mother, and cutting wood to build the fire which kept them warm at night. He was doing all the things a young boy was supposed to do to become a man, even more so because it was only the two of them. It had been for some time; the old man knew as he watched from his ledge.
Day in and day out, from the rise of the sun to the falling of the moon the old man watched the boy carry on in a village whose skin was paler than milk. The boy stuck out, not only in his darkness but in the wide gait which suffered a hitch that made it difficult to walk smoothly as he gathered the water to wash his mother’s own stretching skin. Day in and day out, starting from the crescent morning he climbed the hill, climbed the slippery rocks bridging over the sea, carrying the pails of water. On one such journey, he looked up towards the cliff and saw the old man watching.
Why does he sit there and watch?
As the boy returned from the sea, he slipped, his hitch stumbling over the uneven ground. The bucket of water clattered and spilled; his heart sank. He would have to go back. If he did not… well the image was too dreadful to bear.
The old man watched. A crowd of boys and girls with skin lighter than snow circled him like crows. They watched the boy struggle to get to his feet. They watched with eyes colder than ice. One of them, a tall boy who carried himself with a thick pride which crumbled easily if one ever dared to poke him in the right spot, crouched down low beside the boy. He extended a hand, and the boy grabbed it, only for the tall boy to twist it, the bones bending unnaturally back. The boy screamed. The tall boy shoved him to the ground, spitting into his face, and left the boy more crippled than before. The boy would lay there, motionless, never to return to the sea to fetch that pail of water.
Later that night, his mother would breathe her last breath, the call for her son echoing softly in a dim room until it faded like mist.
The old man watched, his eyes unblinking but his heart recoiling. What a terrible thing he had done. If he only knew then that the hatred he carried would chain him to the ledge, his wrists and ankles bound tightly to the razor-sharp rock as his throat cried out in thirst and hunger that would never be satisfied, then maybe he would have changed his course and left the boy alone. No, the old man’s young cruelty was too much to escape from.
Up on the ledge the old man sat, his legs crossed as he watched the waves swish back and forth, back and forth, taking him to another moment where he would once more watch. He looked up, stretching his neck towards the sky which wavered between black and white. Long ago he had stopped cursing them; he had stopped begging and bargaining. Yet still he hoped; he still waited for the day their knife would set him free. But that day would not come, not yet. I was still a long way off, dangling over the horizon where the sun slowly dipped, leaving behind a blood red stain.