Last night you dreamed of a silver lake, a shelf of ice on the side of a mountain, and a sleeping brown bear.
The icy side of the mountain came with all the familiar sounds – a sizzling crack somewhere deep and unseen, some wind blowing like a backward scream, the requisite screeching bird.
The bear lay like stone against the only exit from your son’s room. Her breath puffed in slow grunts, pushing and pulling a downy feather to and fro. Her black lips curled into her matted fur.
The lake had the glints on the surface, and the laps of the waves, and the murky depths that say “Ignore the rest. I am what counts.” You don’t remember the sky. You’re not sure it was there.
You woke up with your pillow damp, your hands tucked under your chin. Swore you’d never sleep again. And then your reluctant prayers began, the ones you deny to quivering voices, the “if you are there, then please,” the “whoever you are, please listen.” Hated yourself for saying please, hated yourself for saying them at all, hated everyone everywhere everything.
Afterward, you ate the smaller portion of the bagel your husband sliced. Toasted. Dry. He had already crumpled the newspaper, its corner stained with butter, and left you a note on the counter:
At the doctor. Will call.
When children dream, they can only tell us the highlights, how the robot hugged them or how the puppy was green. There is no plot at all, it seems, no need to decipher a meaning or future. Just a dream. And their nightmares are similarly streamlined. A monster. A clown. A snake. Just a snake.
Your dreams have become almost as slick. One message drowns out the rest. Something is waiting.
When the phone rings, you don’t jump. The news can bring nothing new. What more is there to say. But you listen carefully and then return to your day, absorbing the latest deteriorations.
You write your words. You wash your hands. You fold the laundry and put some on and then push your body into a sprint all the way from your front door to the canyon and back, sweat like a purging of some blackness, feet flogging cement to beat out the darkness. For a moment, you cross the finish line. For a moment, you win.
And then they’re home, and you hold him. He is so heavy, a surprise every time. His sweet-smelling hair sticks to your damp face. He becomes part of you again while you try to become him. He smiles, some unexpected impishness. He won’t let you in. You press your lips to his. His eyes don’t see you see him.
He sees this: The bear and the ice and the lap-lap of waves. The hiss and drip-drip of the shortening of days. He simplifies his pain. He is content to lie on a lap. That’s his gift to you, and the gift that you gave. It’s not just mercy, it’s progress. When you hold his hand, he squeezes for an instant. Fear grips you, the new defense against hope. But his smile stays.
This boy will someday take each touch you gave to the grave, a sweet blanket. No memory of how each day unfolded, or your crumpled shoulders, or his father’s slow fading. Just a rush of sure love and life, and then brief uncertainty, and then silence. Blue. Sky. From below the surface of the lake. Hope submerged. A smooth stone in the cool mud. Content to be dark.
Or a silent constellation. Brighter than white.
It’s late at night, and you’re awake. You keep writing your words and drinking your tea and your husband leaves the doorway and you hear the creak of the bed. There’s nothing left to say – it’s all been said. But you keep typing it away anyway, the uncertainty, the dread. A rendering of anger. Sudden, unwelcome humor. They all lie together like kindling for a fire.
You stand by your baby’s bed. The whir of machines. His chest, slow to rise, quick to fall. Damp fists. Slack toes. Pursed lips. The smell of him.
Tonight you dream of a red, dry crack, a scar, a fissure, across some blank canvas. A desert? A belly? Some untold secret. An injury just beginning or ending. You draw closer to peel apart the edges. A cavernous pain. And then suddenly, a wide swath of blue across the distant depths. The crack fills. Water floods the lens, a dam not holding, rushing toward you. A baby in a glass bottle, riding the torrent. What is the message, you feel yourself screaming. What will I learn?
And then. And then. The turn of corner comes. The water recedes. The old dream returns.
But the lake is quiet. The surface is still. The bear stands and shakes herself, stumbling toward the door. The block of ice is illuminated by sun. It clarifies the mountain beneath, sliding down toward you, melting as it comes.
Your face wet. The baby free of the glass. The doorway open. Dust in the air. The unknown.
You rise with an eighth more of something. Smile at him. Suffocate a little less. Rethink the dream.