“What about the light coming from her mouth?
“I don’t really remember it any more…”
And how did you cope with this when you were younger?
I think it all started with a dream Mamma told my brother and me when I was five and he was seven. I’m not sure why she told us, but knowing her, I suspect it was to somehow purge it from the surface of her own consciousness, regardless of the burden she unloaded on someone else.
It must have been a Saturday morning because Bubba and I were at home stretched out on our bellies in front of the TV, watching reruns of Roadrunner. Still in her gown, Mamma padded almost silently through the den on her way to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee. Then she came back into the room and stood looming over us with both hands curled around her mug.
Attempting to garner our attention, she said in her husky morning voice, “Do you guys want to hear something creepy?”
Like magnets that suddenly realized they were too close together, my brother and I simultaneously flipped in opposite directions until we were facing her, obviously intrigued. Mamma must have been encouraged by our instant response because she continued.
“You know that ravine you always go to, the one over by Dr. Thompson’s house?”
Without moving our heads, my brother and I cut our eyes sharply toward each other – ¬we weren’t supposed to be in the woods without permission – and then because we wanted the story to continue, we nodded in unison, a diminutive admission of guilt.
With a slight tightening of her lips and one raised brow, Mamma let us know we hadn’t gotten away with anything. But she was more eager to tell us her dream than she was to punish us.
“I dreamed last night that we all went there together to catch tadpoles.”
As she spoke, she pulled over a vinyl ottoman the color of vanilla ice cream to sit right beside us with her cup on her knees. The toes of her high-arched feet peeked from beneath the edge of her voluminous pink robe. As usual, her toenails were painted scarlet, perhaps to distract from the fact that her toes were somewhat crooked. (This was an area of great sensitivity about which we were not supposed to tease her.)
“Well…” she went on, “in my dream, we slid down the bank…”
(No surprise so far, since sliding down was really the only way to approach the muddy creek.)
“…and I saw a pair of boots near the edge of the stream.”
She said they looked worn out like army boots… “neatly placed, side-by-side, heel to heel and toe to toe, with a dull green sock tucked inside each one. And…” she paused then, looking first at my brother and then at me. “There was a knife on the ground beside them,” she said. “A big one,” she added for emphasis.
We looked at her expectantly, imagining the horror that was about to follow. But Mamma was looking past us, as though gathering elusive details from the dream scene. With a familiar off-center pucker, she chewed on the inside of her jaw for a moment and tensed her forehead in concentration. Then her lips relaxed and she released her breath in a sigh, and though she seemed to be shaken out of her trance, no dream details were forthcoming. It was as if she had forgotten we were even there, when, without uttering another word, she stood slowly, and with one foot, somewhat distractedly maneuvered the ottoman back into place. Then, without looking in our direction, she detoured around it and left the room.
I was still watching the door waiting for her to come back and finish her story when my brother elbowed me in the ribs and said, “I don’t get it.”
Flopping over onto his stomach, he grabbed his ankles and pulled his feet toward his head. “I bet you can’t do this,” he challenged as he forced the soles of his sock covered feet to meet the cow-licked crown of his stretched back head.
I elbowed him in retaliation, made a comment about him rubbing his smelly feet on his head, and we both returned to the misadventures of Wile E. Coyote.
But Mamma’s dream fragment stuck with me. That night as I lay in bed, I couldn’t uproot the feeling of dysphoria that her story had planted. It wasn’t so much the idea of the boots that disturbed me. It was the thought that somewhere near the creek, a grown man was roaming about without his shoes. I was sure he was desperate or maybe deranged. And I was sure he would eventually come back. I think Mamma was afraid of the same thing because she made us promise, “and I mean really promise…” to stay away from the woods until she gave us permission to return.
I didn’t go back to the woods for weeks afterward. I just couldn’t. I know for a fact that Bubba and his friends went there the next day. But I was afraid. I was afraid I would see the boots myself. And I was afraid I wouldn’t. I was afraid I would see a war-weary soldier wandering in the cool shadows. And I was afraid I wouldn’t see him before he saw me. Eventually, yes, I did go back to the creek. But I never felt the same way about the place again.
Sometimes, it isn’t so much the dreams themselves that scare me. It is more the way they affect the people who tell them. For example, the first time I went to visit my oldest daughter, Crystal, who had moved out of state and lived in an apartment by herself for the first time, she told me this dream.
“Here’s what I remember,” she took a deep breath and began somewhat reluctantly. “In my dream, I open the door of my apartment, which looks just like my real door, and I can see that the bathroom door is closed. And since I never close that door when I leave, I know something is wrong. So, I walk over to it all in a daze, push open the door, and your sister Kay-” here her voice rose in surprise “-is standing in the toilet up to her thighs. And your mother, who is standing there looking at her, turns toward me, sort of wild-eyed and angry at being interrupted. That’s pretty much it. All in slow motion. That one really freaked me out for some reason,” she added.
And it freaked me out, too. Perhaps it was because she dreamed about my mother and my sister, not her aunt and her grandmother. It was as though she was having the dream for me. Like a surrogate, she gave birth to it and then handed the responsibility for it to me…
People are always telling me their dreams. It’s as though they sense I don’t have an active dream life myself, probably because I don’t sleep long enough to dream. It’s like my brain can’t slow down enough to let my body rest.
And you’ve had this problem since childhood?
Yes. Since I can remember.
And how did you cope with it when you were younger?
When I would wake up, I couldn’t make myself stay in bed. So, when I was very small, I’d go get in bed with my parents. But they expected me to be still and go back to sleep. They thought I was scared.
Were you scared?
Not really. Not most of the time. I was just awake. And my brain was so busy, it just zoomed around hoping to land on something to think about.
What kinds of things did you think about?
I don’t remember exactly. Usually I would go to the den and sit on the floor with my back to the sofa facing the TV. It was like I was barricading myself against the house behind me.
Or maybe shutting out the past…?
What did you watch on TV?
Oh, those were the days long before infomercials. Back then, there was nothing on TV that late at night except a test pattern. But I remember sitting there and looking at my reflection in the dead screen. I remember the sound of the mantle clock ticking as time edged toward morning. Sometimes my dog would wake up and come lie beside me for me to pet her.
What was her name?
I know it sounds crazy… but I don’t remember her name. She was really my brother’s dog. And she was really a boy dog, I think. But I wanted her to be a girl, so I always thought of her that way. I remember my brother crying when she got run over. She was black and tan and didn’t have a tail. Stub. Her name was Stub. My mother named her that.
What do you do now when you can’t sleep?
Sometimes I watch TV. Sometimes it occupies my mind until I’m able to go back to sleep. I drag my pillows and my blanket to the couch, and propped up on the sofa, I watch TV in the dark. I’ve become pretty good at hypnotizing myself in front of the flickering screen. I keep the sound turned almost all the way down so I don’t bother anyone. And that way if I slip off to sleep, sudden noises won’t wake me. Usually that works and I’m able to lull my mind into relaxing a little. I especially like old movies. If I can manage to wedge myself between Rock Hudson and Doris Day, it’s a pretty sure bet I can get some sleep. Of course, nothing works every time. Sometimes I just lie there and worry…
About everything I can think of to worry about. It’s like my brain can’t accept the fact that I’m simply awake and it starts looking for an explanation. But I have gotten better at not doing that. It’s really not a good habit. I can get myself pretty worked up if I’m not careful, and things always look better in the morning.
So, you try not to worry?
Yeah, I try to just turn it off, to take my mind in a different direction.
When you get up at night do you ever go back to bed?
Sometimes. If I get lonely. I drag my pillows and blanket back to my room and try to get in bed without disturbing David. He’s so used to my coming and going by now, he usually doesn’t wake up completely. And he tries to help me sleep. I can usually count on him to rub my head automatically in his sleep because he knows it calms me down. And, if it is almost time to wake up, he’ll turn over and talk to me when I go back to bed. If he remembers his dreams, he tells me what they were about.
What kinds of things does he dream about?
A lot of his dreams are about protecting the kids and me. And he still has a lot of dreams about West Point. I guess because it was such a frustrating time for him. They really try to tear boys down and build them back the way they want them to be–into soldiers. They try to make them over into machines so they will act predictably… effectively. But in a way, I think they failed with David. He’s such a kind and sensitive person. I guess that’s what makes a man a hero though, when someone is willing to put aside his personal dreams and takes on the dreams of his country.
Do you see that as being a conflict?
I think it would have to be an irreconcilable conflict. I know he has a lot of war dreams. But that may just be his nature. He told me that from the time he was six or seven, he has been mentally fighting Germans alongside Audie Murphy. When we were first married, we lived in the house he grew up in. I was planting some mums around our front sidewalk one day and found a cache of little green plastic soldiers buried in the flowerbed. It was eerie to see them frozen in their combat positions, ready to take on the enemy, while all around them the world kept going on. That must be how he feels. But I think part of him is disappointed that he was never called on to be a hero.
There are times when I’m lying beside him at night, that I can tell by the way he is breathing that he is dreaming and I try to make up stories that go along with his breathing patterns… He’s a lot better dreamer than I am.
What do you mean?
I’m such a light sleeper, I usually wake myself up when I start to dream. Sometimes though, when I realize I’m asleep, I am able to stay in there and learn something. I have gotten pretty good at lucid dreaming. It’s all about being able to know when you’re asleep without becoming fully awake.
How do you do that?
You mean how do I do it? Well, I start out by looking at my hands before I go to sleep. Supposedly our hands are the most recognizable things we see in real life. They’re always in front of us doing things. So, anyway, you memorize the way your hands look and you tell yourself that when you see them in your dreams, you will instantly know you are asleep and dreaming. At that point you’ll be able to take charge of your dream.
You know, if I’m having a dream about a snake or something that scares me, I can take control of the situation and deal with it. Or if I have problems, I can summon experts to help me solve them. Once I talked to Coleman Barks in my dream because I was writing a poem and couldn’t quite get it to work out the way I wanted it to. He was very helpful. But I’m not good at just letting go and letting the dream have full sway. I wish I could release myself from my body like David does.
For example, once when I went back to bed, I could tell he was still asleep. Really out of it. I tried to be still so I wouldn’t bother him, and I could hear him making this weird noise. It was almost like he was singing, but it was a tuneless song without words. More like a keening noise. But not loud. Very quiet. And then he started breathing faster and sort of irregularly as though he was struggling.
I didn’t want him to be upset, so I shook him by the shoulder until he was awake. He immediately started telling me about the dream he had been having. His speech was slurry… and slow… and his voice seemed to come from him in an almost formless, involuntary way.
“In my dream I’m floating,” he said. “And you know that fluttery feeling you get in your stomach when you float? It’s like that… and I’m over a valley, floating about as high as the surrounding mountains. There is a house in the valley with a porch all around it, and Crystal, B.J. and Pappy are on the porch-” he was talking about our daughter, David’s father, and his recently deceased grandfather “-and they’re all smiling and motioning for me to come toward them. I want to go to them, but I feel myself struggling, as though I’m being pulled backward by a powerful force. And I know… somehow I know that Death is coming for me. And it’s not that I’m afraid; I just can’t let go… But then I finally do. I stop struggling… and they smile at me from the porch… then I’m free. I realize I have to let go in order to be free… I have to leave behind the things I love to be free.”
And did hearing his dream upset you?
Yes. Yes it did.
Why? Because it was about death?
No. I don’t think so. It was more that I thought he was confused. I don’t think Death was pulling him from behind. I think it was luring him toward the house. I think he barely escaped. But I don’t know. He said, while he had been floating, he drifted closer to Crystal, was drawn to her, and that at first he thought she was wearing braces on her teeth, which she never had. Then as he got closer, he saw a brilliant gold light emanating from her mouth. He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Maybe that’s why he struggled to stay. I asked him about it years later, and he looked at me very intently, a little confused, and he said, “I don’t really remember it any more…”
But it stuck with me. And it haunts me. That’s the trouble with other people’s dreams.
Cheryl Hicks has had prose published in The First Line and Southern Hum, and one of her memoirs “The Goat Story” is to be included in The Remembrance Project at Howard University. Her poems have been published in Urban Spaghetti, Blue Fifth Review, Heliotrope, Makar, Snakeskin, Her Circle, Creative Soup, The Orphan Leaf Review, the delinquent, Autumn Sky Poetry, Silent Actor, Avatar Review and 103: The Journal of the Image Warehouse. She has been a featured poet at C/Oasis, is a previous recipient of the Paddock Poetry Award and presented poems from her series titled Conversations with the Virgin at the 2006 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association Conference in Tucson, Arizona. Hicks currently teach photography and creative writing at the secondary level and is also a visual artist. Her mixed media canvases have been shown across Texas and in New York, and her work is showcased at the Image Warehouse in Athens, Texas.
© 2008, Cheryl Hicks