The blackness of the dreamscape is undulating behind her back, and I find it unsettling until I realize the movement is not separate from Chimera. “You’ve grown wings, my friend!” Large wings, black like a crow’s, stretch out behind her and ripple with each movement of her shoulders.
“I thought it prudent after our last encounter to have an additional defensive mechanism for protecting you. I am your Guardian, and were I to be so lax in my duties again, I could lose your companionship.”
It is the closest she comes to admitting she loves me the same as I love her, and I savor each syllable. I don’t often hear Chimera admit she has feelings, and I relish the times she lets me in.
“I love the new wings. I don’t think I’ll copy them just yet, if that’s all right with you. I’d like to see how you accommodate them first. The way they keep moving, they seem uncomfortable for you.”
“It is nothing that I will not be able to adjust to.” Chimera shifts on her paws, and her beautiful haunches stand out from the darkness as her body moves. She is even more beautiful tonight, despite the sadness I see in her face.
“What happened with Anne was not your fault,” I tell her, “We found a nightmare. They happen. I was too involved in my own head to recognize it was not an experience to engage in. It was my fault that we were in danger at all.” I look down, unable to meet her eyes. I can’t feel my physical form yet, but I know Chimera can see my essence in the dreamscape. She sees me as I really am, and yet she loves me. Chimera is an example no mortal can live up to. Perhaps that is why I am so separate from other people.
“Regardless, Dreamwalker, you are my responsibility. During your absence these past days, I have revisited Anne of Cleves, and she is not experiencing any ill effects from our visit.”
“I am glad to hear that. Anne is a good girl. I don’t think we can visit her for a while now, can we?”
“It is prudent to allow her undisturbed time to regain her dreaming patterns. I have alerted the other Guardians; however, it appears that only we visit Anne of Cleves. The consensus is that she is not interesting.”
“Of course it is.” Why would anyone want to experience the dreams of a young woman who has to rely on herself to maintain her sanity in a world that abandons her to the wolves? “Chimera, is there somewhere you suggest we go? My latest assignment is waived. I have to focus on regaining my comfort with walking.” When I refused to return to the dreamscape the night after Anne’s nightmare, I had to explain to my professor what happened. When I refused to return the following three nights, I had to discuss it with the dream counselor. My soul ached to see Chimera again, but I couldn’t stand the thought of watching Anne get shot again. The greasy smile in Henry’s bearded face; the laughter of the hunters in attendance as they encouraged him to finish the kill; the glint in his eyes as the blood flashed across his knife blade…
My mind is falling into blackness with the horrid memories. I feel my dream body knit itself around my consciousness, and before I can slip away, Chimera has grabbed my hands and pulled me to hers. I feel her strong arms around me, and I can’t hold in the tears. She encases us in her wings as I cry. My tiger haunches shutter with the sobs that I can’t keep inside anymore.
I want to confess to Chimera my fear that Anne’s nightmare was my fault. I think the dream came from my mind and not Anne’s. I see her as a defenseless doe in Henry’s forest; a plaything at his disposal to be removed when he sees fit. I feel responsible for the pain, anguish, and fear that my dear friend felt that night.
Chimera whispers into my ear, “It was not your dream. Tonight, I will show you your dream. We will walk together through a dreamscape built for you, and tomorrow, you will return to your studies.” She strokes my hair, tucking it behind my ear. “Come, my friend. It is time.”
She spreads her wings, and the brightness is painful. The dreamscape is no longer blank. We’re sitting in a field of grass that has been mown tall. The green goes out in all directions like a sea of plants. I stand up, and I see that the mown patch is just a circle around us. Five feet out, the grasses are waist-high and sprouting seeds at the tops. It looks like the wild grass pasture that grew next to my childhood home.
A hundred yards or so away, a giant oak tree sits in the middle of the field. Further off, a half-circle of trees begins a forest that protects the field from being cultivated. It must have once been farmland that has long since been abandoned to the grasses. The pieces that look like wheat are probably a wheat/grass hybrid created randomly.
I used to walk this field for hours when I was a girl. I turn to Chimera and ask, “What do I do now?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I’d like to go watch the sunlight through the leaves of that tree.”
Chimera swung her arm out before us with a grace gained from her feline haunches and tilted her head towards the tree. I started walking, enjoying the feel of the grass against my legs and beneath my paws. I had never walked through grass with fur that rubbed against the stalks before. It was a delirious sensation.
I continue moving forward with my eyes closed, enjoying the feel of my dream body so unlike the physical one slumbering in my bed. I take a step, and pain jars me back to the field. I’ve stepped on something sharp, and my forepaw is bleeding.
“Oh dear, where did that come from?” Chimera points at something shining in the grass.
It is a spike set into the earth. It’s not very tall, sitting no higher than a coffee mug. It is wide at the base and slopes slowly to a sharp point waiting to be trod upon. I look up from the spike and see the field is strewn with them. They glisten in the sunlight and stand between me and the tree.
“What is going on?” I ask.
“You must have hidden something in that tree that we are not permitted to see. These spikes are intended to prevent us from venturing forward.”
“I hid something? You built this dreamscape. How could I have hidden anything?”
Chimera takes me a step backward, and we sit together. The grasses lie beneath us making a comforting seat. “I did not build this place. I borrowed it from you. This is designed for you, yes, but it was built by you.”
I am confused. I have never built a dreamscape in my life. That is the job of the Guardian. They guide us through the dreamscape and build worlds for us to journey through. That is why we invited them into our world to begin with.
“I have built nothing here. This is from my childhood, but I did not create this.”
“Once, when you were very young, you built a dreamscape. Only a walker of exceptional strength and skill can; it’s why you were chosen for me.” Chimera stretches her wings out as though still getting comfortable to their weight. “I am the oldest of my kind. My strength gives strength to the many Guardians that wander the dreamscape. I was alone until I came upon this place. You are the only of your kind that I have ever known to build your own sanctuary.”
“If this is my sanctuary, then why is it booby trapped?”
“Come, let us see what is in the tree.”
We stand together, and I feel the tiger haunches fade away. I look at Chimera, and she is caught up in wisps of white smoke. As the air clears, she still has her wings, but now her hindquarters match her torso. We are both fully women, wrapped in a gauzy cotton that wafts in the slight breeze.
Two small feet make it easy to navigate around the spikes. I’m focused on where I need to place my feet when I hear the sound of wings flapping. I think it’s Chimera at first, but I feel her hand firmly in mine, so I look up.
A Griffin is slowly lowering itself onto the ground in my path. It tilts its bird-head first to one side and then the other, assessing me. It lets out a loud screech, and I hear its claws digging into the soil beneath it scraping against rocks. I reach out my left hand towards it in a gesture of friendship, and it snaps at me.
I flinch, pulling my hand back to my chest. “Who are you?” I shriek at it.
It throws back its head and focuses one beady eye on me. Leaning towards me, it says, “Who are you?”
“I am the Dreamwalker.”
“No you’re not. You’re a liar.”
Before I can respond, the Griffin swipes at me with a great lion’s paw slicing across my chest and stomach, leaving four great gouges. Instead of blood, sounds start pouring out of the wounds.
How do you make a living at that?
Don’t you want to be normal?
What’s wrong with you?
Don’t you have any self-control?
At least you know you’re capable of being loved.
It’s been months; get over it.
You have to do it every day, or you don’t really love it.
You’re not a real person.
You’re not good enough.
You’re right; you’re being stupid.
On and on they pour out of me, and I fall to my knees clinging to Chimera’s hand. Staring at the Griffin, I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. He takes a step towards me, and I can’t take my eyes off his razor sharp beak. I watch as he lunges at my face. The pain is surreal as he plucks my eye out of its socket. In my one remaining eye, I can see him toss the eyeball into the air. And eat it.
The empty socket does not bleed. I feel ribbons running down my face, and I collect them in my hands. They are typewriter ribbons. Black on top and red on the bottom, they stream from my socket. Holding it up to my remaining eye, I can see letters running across the ribbon. I’m sure they must say something, but I can’t focus hard enough to figure out what it is.
I see snatches of letters. An L. An A. An R. An L. An I. Clutching one small fragment of ribbon between my fingers, I make out the word. It’s liar typed over and over, pouring from my head.
I look at the Griffin again, unable to cry, unable to stop the words pouring from my torso and the ribbon cascading from my face. I open my mouth to ask him why when he lunges at me again with the reflexes only a trained predator has. He grabs hold of my tongue, and the pain as he tears it out of my mouth causes me to black out.
I’ve lost the feeling of Chimera’s hand. I can’t see myself; I can’t feel my dream body. I know I am still alive, and I am still within the dreamscape, but I don’t know anything else.
A match flame sparks next to where I imagine I am, and I see a face that I haven’t known since childhood.
She pushes her glasses higher up her nose and smiles shyly at me. “Hello.”
I reach out a hand to push my glasses up my nose and reply, “Hi.”
“Do you like my Griffin?”
“No. He’s quite mean.”
“I had to make him that way. I’m too sensitive. He’s supposed to toughen me up.”
I reach toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
She shrugs off my hand and says, “You have to finish his test. Liars aren’t allowed near the tree. You have to purge the lies.”
She turns away from me, and the light goes out.
There’s a fresh wind on my face. I blink, but I can only see out of one eye. I try to call to Chimera, but I can’t find my tongue. Smoke is pouring out of my mouth in a rainbow of colors that undulate in the sunshine. In the smoke, I can see snippets of stories that I have dreamt, stories I have read, movies I have watched, tales I have heard; on and on they billow out of my mouth.
The Griffin throws his head back and laughs a cackle painful to the ears. He looks at me, and in the blackness of his pupils, I see the creature sitting on the ground pouring out all the pain she has stockpiled over the years.
I sit up straight and move onto my knees. I feel Chimera’s hand on my back, and I understand she could not prevent this. She could not help save me from my own dreamscape. This is not a nightmare intended to scare me into hiding. This is a challenge created by a younger me to remind myself what it is that matters.
As I regain my feet, the Griffin steps forward to swipe at me again. I bend over, getting my forehead as close to my knees as I can. Placing my hands behind my neck at the base of my skull, I feel for the seam that I know is there. The seam on the imaginary covering that is my shell. I find it tightly closed beneath my hairline.
Pushing with my fingers; digging with my fingernails; screaming in a wordless agony, I find the corners of the lie and pull.
There are words that describe pain: agony, angst, anguish, punishment, burning. The pain I feel is so far beyond any term for pain combined with every other word used to describe it that my pain became a color. Intense pain in your soul is not red like you’d think it would be. It is a purple that is so deep and possessing such depth of possibility it is nearly as black as the vacuum of space.
The purple-blackness overtakes the world around me as I unfold out of my dream body. I continue peeling at my essence, stripping myself of every idea of what the self is until I am left with a single idea: I have inherent value by existing.
The idea that is now me shakes off the darkness and rejoins my dearest companion in the field. Approaching the Griffin, I express, “I have stripped myself of everything except the one thing I know to be true. Allow me to pass.”
If it’s possible for an eagle to smile, the Griffin’s beak performs such a miracle. Without a word, he spreads his wings and takes to the sky. I do not watch him leave. Instead, I continue moving forward toward the tree.
I have thus far shed my dream body that matched Chimera. The body I built myself out of my external love for another. I have shed my dream body that was not a reflection of the real me. I have shed the baggage and pain that I clung to.
Moving forward, I can feel the ground begin to shake beneath me. Chimera gasps as a wall sprouts from the earth and rises tall enough to block out all sight of the tree.
I am no longer intimidated by my attempts at shielding myself. I built this wall, and I will make a way through it. I move to the left and Chimera follows. I keep heading in a parallel path to the wall until I can see what I know must be there.
The Great Wall of China was built to keep the Mongols out. It was intended to be unscalable. It was toured by guards armed to kill any who approached from the wrong side. But the Mongols got through anyway.
They went through the door.
I too will go through the door. The door that I can see in front of us, guarded by a black lab wearing silver wire-rimmed glasses.
“Hello, Gladys.” I say.
“Hello. It’s been a long time.” The dog looks at me, and I can see her tail wag ever so slightly.
“Yes, it has. I’m pleased to see your nose is better.”
“Well, this me never had a tumor. That is the glory of being a construct.”
“I suppose it is.” I look around to make sure Chimera is still with me. She is so silent, I worry she may have left me. But she is ever my stalwart companion in her gauzy cotton wrap and shining black raven’s wings. “I’d like to pass the wall, Gladys.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave that behind.” She raises her snout at me as she speaks, and I am afraid she means Chimera. “To enter, you must need purpose. I must finish emptying you, old friend.”
And so, the dog who was a companion that I outgrew as I became a teenager approaches me. I can feel her tongue against the remnants of what is me, and as she backs away, I float free. There is a string of my consciousness that dangles near the ground, and it is to this that Chimera clings to keep me from drifting away.
The black lab backs away, and the door opens. I feel a draft pull me through the doorway, and I gaze up at the oak. It is the size of a small house with a trunk that would require a kindergarten class holding hands to encompass it. I float forward with Chimera holding fast to the last string of what was the me that entered the dreamscape.
The tree has a knot that is shaped like a cat’s eye, and as I get closer, the eye opens. The bark eyelid blinks, and then I feel the focus of that great eye on me. A rumble of sighs starts low in the roots of the tree and rises through the branches until they release into the sky, heaving a great sound of relief and joy.
Beneath the tree’s eye, a crack in the bark widens and draws me to it. The darkness should be frightening. Somewhere inside the remnants of me, there is an idea that the dark should be frightening, but I cannot hold onto the thought. I have to float forward, pulling Chimera with me.
As I cross the threshold into the dark, Chimera lets go. I want to pull back, so I can bring her in, but she whispers, “We are at the end. I shall see you on the other side.”
Alone, I float in the dark. This time, I am without any of my defenses. I have left behind my confidence that I am intelligent and can think my way out of a problem. I have left behind my helplessness in the face of other people’s feelings having more value than my own. I have left behind my creativity and sense of hope that magic can happen. I have left behind the idea that I am in any way special or deserving of love.
I am all alone in the darkness.
It starts as a hissing sound. A spark in the distance dances in the blackness. It prances to a song only it knows, and the hissing continues. A clicking sound beats out a syncopated rhythm to accompany the hissing, and the dancing spark matches its rhythm. I follow the path made by the spark, but I still can’t see what is happening.
I spin in the dark, and confirm there is only me and the spark. It is still a distance away from me dancing in circles when it flies to my face and stops.
All is silent.
This spark is floating in the space in front of me, and it is spinning on its own axis. It is glowing and burning like a tiny sun. I want to touch it, but there isn’t enough of me left to reach out for it. Besides, if I touch the burning thing, it will incinerate the fragment of me that still remains.
So I do nothing.
The baby sun keeps spinning as though it’s waiting too.
Then, nothing happens.
The baby sun drifts away into the darkness, and I follow it. I follow as close as I dare, catching glimpses of the tree around me. It is carved with symbols and letters that are so tightly packed, they jumble over each other. I can’t see any one thing clearly.
The spark stops, but I am looking at the floor it is illuminating beneath us. Before I realize what will happen, I smack into the baby sun.
The world inside the tree explodes. It’s like I’m inside an action movie, and the bad guys’ hideout has just been blown to smithereens while the good guy is walking away without watching the chaos he has wrought.
For chaos is what I have wrought. I am so filled to the brim with hope, and affection, and joy, and gratitude that I would no longer fit inside the tree had it still been there.
I’ve destroyed the entire dreamscape.
I search through the blackness that has been left behind, and I hear Chimera’s voice. “Well met, Dreamwalker.”