Published in Issue 16 of Visionary Tongue, 2002.
For six months after the baby died, Alana woke in fear. No, not quite. She woke into an uneasy amnesia, superseded seconds later by the gasping squeeze of dread in her stomach, as memory returned.
She was gone. Laura was gone. Forever, irrevocably. Reality – Alana’s reality – had changed. Everything had shifted.
Was it change that she feared? Was it the unfamiliarity of her new world, without the child who had instinctively trusted her, turning to her for warmth and nourishment? Without the eyes that had learnt to recognise her; the round face, downy as the buttocks of a peach, splitting with a smile when she drew near; the exact feel of that shape and weight in her arms. She had tried holding cushions or soft toys, to fool her brain somehow for a second or two, to give her arms, her achingly bereft arms, their purpose back again; to mitigate the entirety of the emptiness for an instant.
But nothing really worked. And it was meaningless, all meaningless. Fate had lured her into this bitterest of traps: first the happiness, then the agony of losing the thing that had given – and promised – so much. The signs of dawning intelligence were already clear; the sweetness of temper that would, in time, have developed and modified her character. Life, barely begun on its journey, suggested by its very presence what it might one day become.
Sleep was the only blessing now, because it provided oblivion. Alana had expected nightmares. Instead she seemed to blank out completely, a pall of forgetfulness covering her till morning, and bestowing its legacy: that fumbling mistiness between sleep and waking when she was, in sense, the person she had been before, a person who was living the same familiar, comforting routines, her world unchanged, safe in the life that had once been.
The rush of remembrance swept that world away, substituting another, which resembled a faulty clockwork mechanism, its alignments knocked out, its wheels spinning helplessly. It was monstrous, unnatural, and wrong. She must find a way to undo the mistake, to put things back on course. So her thoughts rattled on, along random,whirring tramlines. And no rest anywhere.
Then the dreams began, and that was worse. She was surprised that she did not embrace them, because in them she saw her dead child as she had seen her in life. Yet there was something not right about the dream-child; she had the flavour of a haunting about her. Not in her white, cobwebby, spreading hair, nor the pooling shadows of her eyes – these things were irrelevant: Laura might look different and still be Laura. But always, behind the seeming vision, there lurked an uneasiness.
One night the dream-child said a strange thing to her; and that was strange in itself, for Laura had not been able to talk beyond a few words. In this dream, though, her child was older than she had known her, perhaps seven or eight. She walked towards Alana out of a dark forest, wearing only a pale shift or nightdress. Her feet were tiny, bare, and white as mushrooms. Her hair was silver.
‘Mother,’ she said, oddly archaic, ‘you should dream more. You do not dream enough. How can I be, if you will not dream for me?’
These words would not leave Alana. She did not want to dream: her dreams were all of the child that was not a child, of emptiness and foreboding. Yet that child, however strange, was still her own, and how could she refuse whatever small service remained in her power?
She would dream; whenever and wherever she could. She would make it happen. Logically, this was not feasible: she knew she could not force herself to dream, yet she found that all she needed to do was to open herself to the possibility, and she could dream anywhere, at any time, no matter how briefly. Whenever she had a few moments to herself she slept, and whenever she slept, she dreamed.
She slept standing up, sitting down, leaning against a wall. She slept in slack periods at work; she slept in the supermarket queue or waiting for traffic lights to change. It was amazing how many opportunities there were in a day for catnapping. She could always, it appeared, wake herself up at exactly the right moment, and carry on exactly where she had left off. She could even sleep during a conversation, wake up, and continue talking so that her companion never realised. Eventually, she found she could dream without sleeping, her eyes wide open. And these waking dreams were the most vivid of all.
Laura was in most of them, and that fact was more sure of itself, no longer disturbing. Often, she was physically changed from what she had been: older, displaying a diversity of characteristics and abilities, but still, indubitably, herself. Sometimes she had brothers and sisters. Sometimes Alana had a partner or husband. Sometimes they lived in unfamiliar towns, or in the country. In a few of the dreams Laura had not been born at all; there would be another child, or none.
The dreams were like the moments of forgetfulness when she awoke, the reassurance of slipping back to another world where something, some awful thing, had never happened. She didn¹t want to analyse them too closely in case she aborted the process. They were glimpses, no more, but they were wholly absorbing and convincing, accepted unquestioningly by her dreaming and, increasingly, by her non-dreaming mind.
She saw the danger: the dreams were becoming more real than reality.
So stop it, she told herself, stop it right now. You started it. You can stop it. Just as she had set out consciously to dream, now she throttled back the daylight dreaming, strangled it out of existence.
I will not dream, she said, or at least I will not daydream.
But the dreams would not be forbidden. She found that she was doing the extra dreaming inside the dreams that she had at night. She would be aware of falling asleep during a dream, waking from her dream into another dream, and dreaming, to wake again. Badness began to creep into the dreams, discomposure; she dreamt of death, and woke to find it true, time after time.
Alana wakes. She wakes out of a nightmare of death and loss never ending, to that moment of forgetfulness, that moment of infinite possibilities. But this time she does not think: Laura is dead.
Nothing is known; everything is in abeyance. She cannot speculate. She simply waits. She waits for the terror to fade, for her hands to cease trembling, and as she waits, thoughtless, her eyes rest for a moment on the indentation in the pillow next to hers. She merely sees it; she does not interpret it.
The bedroom door drags open across the carpet: a familiar sound. A small face peeps round it, silvery blonde hair.
‘Mummy? Daddy said bring you a cup of tea.’
Alana smiles vaguely. The child comes and sits on the bed, carefully proffering the hot mug. She is seven or eight years old. Alana feels the mug burning her hand. Memory returns, a flood of relief.
She sets her mug down jerkily on the little table with the glass top. She embraces the child as though she will never let her go.
‘Oh, Laura, Laura,’ she says over and over, stroking the bright hair.
‘Alana?’ Her husband is at the bedside with a plate of warm, crumbly, very real toast.
‘Oh, Laurence,’ she says, pushing her hair out of her wet eyes, ‘I had a terrible dream. I…’ She breaks off, her mind suddenly invaded with images of all her vanished worlds, all her lives, real and complete.
She knows that, somewhere, Laura is dead. Laura is dead and she is alive. The dreams have brought her to this moment. They have allowed her to pass invisible boundaries, and come to rest at last in a world where the sunlight beckons from the crack in the curtains. This is where she belongs. But what if they return to carry her off forever on a careering, nightmare ride that spans all possible lives? What if it isn’t over? She dare not contemplate that. The impetus to dream came from the child, she reminds herself, and Laura, whatever her form, cannot deceive. This is the true reality – she MUST believe in it. Alana holds her daughter close. Today is enough.