Image by Alexander Clark
*Editor's Note: First published in Storylandia 5 by Wapshott Press February 12th, 2012.
I then began to notice an enhanced humidity, and the smell of loam was becoming quite pungent. The mortifying notion that I had wet myself was a brief one, as worse things were not only imagined, but quickly becoming realized.
A cold draft swept over me; that stale harbinger of wicked intentions and fetid realms.
"How long?" she asked, her eyes searching mine. Solid and proportionally dimensional despite the venue, this bit of undigested food was commanding particular attention. I closed my eyes, swallowed hard - then ascertained that the firmness beneath me was not my own mattress, but rather moist hard pack soil.
I reopened my eyes, and groped for words. "How...long?"
She grabbed my shoulders; shook me hard. "Yes, yes, how long? If you are the Usher, then you must know. How long were the geese in flight?”
Definitely still in a dream. I looked to my right, where I expected my bedside clock to be - but found instead a large vacant foyer; vacant, I mean to say, of things most often found in such areas: a wicker umbrella holder, perhaps an oil painting of dogs flushing pheasant from fall wheat, an entryway table whittled in Victorian traceries… Instead - first impressions be damned - there was only a simple rectangular mat at the threshold of a large, charmless door whose only redeeming value was its inexplicably wide, almost Byzantine hinges.
A peculiar glow radiated patchily from the walls, as if from a phosphorescent lichen. But such is often the wayward wattage of dreams.
I turned back to the woman, and smiled. “Dreams are so … desultory. Wouldn’t you agree?”
She ratcheted her stronghold. “I must know!” she demanded. “The longer they stay aloft, the greater chance they catch fire. And when they burn, they will do so perpetually, and lay across the land a suffocating ash. I must know: did they finally catch?”
“Fire, yes,” I answered, surprising myself, then realizing she was right: I had been watching a flock of smoldering birds against a twilit horizon; saw them eventually ignite, though I don’t remember making their species. “They were geese, you say?”
Having affirmed her fears, she drew a deep breath. “Yes. Geese. Although I only know of them from old pictures and naturalist drawings. They were finally driven to extinction, victims of their own bitter mythology. But you know this.”
I assured her that I most definitely did not.
Finally, she helped raise me to my feet. “But…you are the Usher; therefore, you have to know.”
“All right, let’s just say that I do know,” I argued, wiping what were bits of her floor from the backs of my legs. “It would then follow that I would thusly know how to extinguish such a conflagration, yes?”
“You mean, how to douse their wings?”
She seemed to finally release the deeper breath she’d been holding. “To wake the dreamer, the Usher is to quench the fire. Or so lore has it. I won’t mislead you, as only through myth do I recognize who you are, what you represent. But I never doubted your existence. You’re prophesied to usher in death to this world by releasing the burning foul and seeing them through. Yes, you are the Usher, I am certain of it now, having fallen from the reigns, having lost your hold as you greedily reached for even loftier regions, just as legend predicted you would.”
To some of this, I had to agree. “Yes, I am the dreamer. Of that I am certain. As for greed, madam, all I desire is a good night’s sleep. But this fabled Usher of yours, I am not.”
Suspicion turned to surprise. “Did you and your chariot not just fall from the sky and into my home, with the apocryphal flock ablaze and continuing southward, the reigns of which having slipped from your grasp? Of course you are the Usher, for who else could you be then?”
I looked around, pivoting pretentiously. “I see no chariot, either intact or as scattered debris.”
“Metaphors by their very nature are elusive and not immediately noticed,” she reminded, “only to materialize later in less flattering form.”
“You make these outlandish accusations,” I reminded her, “in the absence of having viewed the phenomenon. Why don’t you simply go outside and gaze skyward, witness the burning geese yourself, and confirm the legend?”
Confidently, she said, “To have just half the myth in a jar is to behold the entirety.”
“Ah, to have just the rattle and tail in hand is to know you have the snake?” I said. “Madam, that is the kind of faith that can’t wait to whip around and bite you.”
She turned away from me then, disgusted. “You have to wake up now,” she ordered, “else the ash will smother us all.”
Right then a startling wind blew through, a kind of guarantor of truth, circumventing the oddness - and suddenly I was much afraid for this woman, this unadorned house, this meager and ephemerally delicate illusion that spread out no farther than a fat man’s shadow, yet offered no less proof that a legitimate world existed beyond its boundaries than from the one I allegedly hailed.
Then, quite unexpectedly, she turned reflexively to greet a faint sound.
In the doorway of his room stood a little boy, blinking acutely. He was tightly clutching what was some kind of stuffed animal, one with an opossum snout, pointed and whiskered, and ears like lily petals. Black button eyes with a malevolent gleam. He was backlit - haloed - by the same soft amber glow that radiated from the foyer; from indiscriminate places all around that nocturnal interior.
Clothed only in white shorts, he said groggily, “I think the neighbor’s house is on fire.”
“Go back to sleep,” she said, her voice in sharp contrast to her wide, anxious eyes.
He clutched the animal even tighter. “Did you hear those birds, mommy?”
“Yes, I heard them,” she said. “Such racket.”
“Are they the ones we’re to be afraid of?” he asked, shrinking slightly as his eyes shifted to mine. There, I recognized a bemusement of the very same kind I had just minutes earlier shaken from myself.
The woman’s own eyes softened, and she unset the sternness in her jaw. “Those birds only fly when dead. And since there is no such thing as death, they remain the denizens of fabled skies.” She offered him a weak smile. “Those nursery rhymes seep into your dreams the way red clay bleeds into a crystal stream.” She blew him a kiss. “Now go back to bed and surrender to other, kindlier things.”
The boy wasn’t having it, and said, “Then who is this stranger? And why does he look like the man on the pages of my favorite story? The one who falls from the rent in the ceiling? The one who marshals the burning foul? The one with the bleeding palms?”
I then, too, looked at my upturned hands and witnessed the blood. It had no reason being there.
She looked at me, at my bleeding hands, then gaped in utter epiphany. “You’re not the dreamer,” she whispered, then turned to the boy. “You are.”
He jerkily shrugged, the way small awkward children sometimes do. “Death eventually finds us all, even where it shouldn‘t exist,” he said, then retreated back into the recess that was his room.
Suddenly I found myself sitting up, the tick of my bedside clock intensely sharp.
My wife’s robed silhouette stood motionless by the window. Finally, she spread two fingers between the Venetian slats; peeked out. “Thought the neighbor’s house was on fire,” she said in a voice just this side of consciousness. “That yellow flickering… Seems now to have moved just over the horizon. Strange.”
She turned to me. “That’s not what woke me, though. Did you hear those birds? I think they were birds. Horrible screaming. Did you hear?”
I nodded, thinking that I might have. “Yes,” I finally decided. “Such racket.”