I’m nine years old on July 31, 1996, when I write the evil queen dream in my diary, in pink pen on a pink-lined page with a heart and a bow in the corner:
“A night or two ago I had a terrible dream. I dreamed I had gone to a terrible place where I was something like a servant girl and there was this horrible woman (she looked like a queen), and if any of the girls did the littlest thing wrong she would beat their head with a very hard stick, and send them to a laboratory kind of place where this man would use things to suck your brains out.”
When I wrote this, I immortalized her. I went back, rereading, crystalised the memory. I see much more than I put on the page: the dark wood-panelled walls, the sorrowful faced old man telling me he has no choice about sucking out my brains, the lumpen heads of the beaten girls. This dream follows me, in my scribbles and drawings, half-finished stories, general fears (23 years later, and she is still here).
Here’s an even younger one that fills me with the same foreboding: Mama takes me to a white farmhouse in the middle of a wheat field and speaks to a woman in the kitchen there. They are across a tall counter, light streaming in the windows, I am small and alone, and in my bones I know it’s a place of evil.
See, the thing about a bad dream is, maybe nothing much happens, but still the nasty feeling lasts all day. It washes over everything and seeps in the cracks.
Like I used to have this sick dream that came to me every fever through childhood. Starts out with a beautiful ballerina, spinning, and spinning, and spinning – but her shoes are scraping, grinding, on crumpled sandpaper. Then a giant pile of toothpicks comes rolling at me like logs. Finally, a girl with dark hair whispers to me, right in my ear, something important that makes me tingle and flush, but when I wake up it always slips away.
On the edge of waking, I try to weave each dream into narrative I can follow. But it feels like cheating; I fill in the details and I know I’m making it up. As if the veracity of the dream’s recounting is what matters here at all.
Listen y’all: this one time at camp I woke up in my bunk-bed after rest hour, got up, left the cabin, walked down the path squinting in the sun and didn’t feel a thing wrong till I met the sinister clown in front of the bathhouse. Then I woke up for real in my bunk-bed and a night hag was sitting on my chest and I had to fight her, gasping and gasping for breath once I finally threw her off.
I try to tell it to you – but every dream is a “you had to be there” type of situation. Except those ones where our eyes won’t open, where we can’t run, every movement dragging – we all have those dreams, right?
Lately what gets to me is the ones where my Mama is alive again and clearly, firmly, disappointed.
There are a lot of these. Her same furrowed brow, hard tone, firm mouth (she looks like a queen).
Each time her presence shocks me. It’s physical: I’m minding my own business and there she is. I walk down the hill and she’s there on the porch, calling my name. I’m in my bedroom and she’s at my door. Such a sinking in my stomach.
My mind seeks meaning in these – unjumbles – rejumbles. Piece the stories together and write myself, at least that’s the impulse. There’s a pattern here, right, do you see it? And if so, will you tell me what it is?
Sometimes days later it appears to you whole: a dream you’d forgotten, now here in full color.
See, there’s her face, blocking the sun — I’m four years old on my grandmother’s carpet, looking up from my pile of blocks at the heat of her palpable anger. She looks like a queen But that one is memory, not dream, it’s just polished to the same narrative shine.
Like the monkey story – for years I wasn’t sure if I dreamed that. It was on the radio while I was driving with Mama the day before she died. Rain streaming down the windshield, her soothing voice as she counseled my friend’s mom over her flip phone. I tuned her out and listened to two men talking about a couple who had a pet chimp that grew too much for them, so they gave him to a zoo. But on his birthday they came to visit and brought a cake. And the other monkeys went wild with jealousy and attacked the couple and ripped the husband’s face off.
Years later I googled it: chimps, birthday cake, face ripped off, March 4 2005. Sure enough, this one is true. I saved every article I could find in a folder, along with her obituary. It seemed important somehow, because the feeling lingered, it seeped in the cracks and set a tone for what followed.
Or more likely that’s the way I saw it after, on the edge of waking, as I tried to piece the narrative together in my mind.