“I’ve been summoned to your side,” I said, taking a seat in the chair beside her bed. “In the hopes that I can help guide you back to the world of the living.”
She coughed, cleared her throat, smiled at me, and said, “I have been waiting for you.”
The waking dreamer was lucid on the day that I met her. Though she was lying propped in her bed, she didn’t even appear weak or pale. I was quite surprised. But then I looked into her dark eyes and perceived in their depths a hidden truth, a weary soul, and a cautious calm. She was indeed haunted by the journeys that her mind and even her body had made in the weeks prior.
Yet her smile did reach her eyes. To me that meant there was hope for her still.
I told her family so when I met with them after my preliminary examination.
Their polite smiled did not reach their eyes. They were the ones who delivered platitudes of hope. I was not surprised. After all they had already tried. I was their last hope. At least until they searched for and found another. They would not give up, not until they truly lost her.
They had first summoned doctors to her bedside, then clerics, supernaturalists, and finally even charlatans selling potions. Only after all of that did they turn to me.
At first it was believed that she was hallucinating, but it soon became clear that she was of sound mind. It was just that her perceptions and her mind seemed to be straining against the pull of a realm to which she was not native, and yet had somehow gained access and entry. A world that her family feared would soon draw her in completely. When she began speaking of bones and blood trails, her family finally acquiesced to the advice of an uncle’s friend. He was the one who referred me.
She is already changed. Her family had warned me that it would be so. Some days she seemed so well that they were tempted to hope again. Until small reminders brought them back to the reality in which they so desperately wished she would join them. She would only sip a few spoons of soup. She would absently scratch at a healing cut on her cheek whose source none could explain. She would cough a phlegmy cough and wheeze as she took a labored breath.
“Blasted sand,” she would mutter. And when asked to explain, she would wave the question away.
But two days after my meeting her, she fell into a daze. I called her name, gently, then firmly, and even loudly. She did not answer. I did not touch her, for she had asked me not to. I reached out to shake her, but stopped myself as I remembered her request. Her request was not odd. For who would want to be touched by a stranger as they slept? The oddness was in her giving me permission to watch her for as long as I wanted. And to speak to her and ask whatever questions I wanted.
Before she went silent, these were the words she spoke. I will ponder on them later, in case there is a meaning she meant beyond what I deem to be obvious.
“I have a long journey ahead, and I am already quite tired.”
On first blush, I believe she meant the journey toward good health when she is able to sleep soundly and dream sweet dreams.
For her dreams have not been sweet of late.
She walks in her sleep. I’ve observed the like before. I’ve observed how the walker can appear to be entirely awake and aware. I have watched as they navigate around familiar rooms and manipulate objects like doorknobs. And I have seen their environments affect them as well. The walker who goes out in the rain gets wet. The walker who steps a bare foot in mud tracks mud into their homes when they return. But in all those instances, I too experienced that same environment when I followed, or at least I perceived it. But the dreamer is different. Her hand is scratched by unseen branches as she walks through an open field. Her hair buffeted by unfelt winds. Her path veering and returning as if she were avoiding walking into something that she could see but I could not.
I see her walking through my world. But I wonder what world does she perceive?
Screams woke me. I thought they were her screams, but when I rushed to her room, I found her mother collapsed to her knees beside the dreamer’s bed. Others came to the room, extended family who had come to stay and help where they could. We were rotating the duties of watching the dreamer and following her as she walked in her sleep. On this night, her youngest brother was assigned to that duty.
He stood over his mother, begging her to calm down, telling her he could explain.
Both he and his sister, the waking dreamer, were soaked from head to toe in some dark red liquid. The sharp odor of iron struck my nose as I stepped into the room. Blood.
“It’s not hers. It’s not mine,” the brother said. The poor child. He started to weep, desperate to comfort his mother, but unable to.
The dreamer lay on her back in her bed, over yellow covers that were soon dyed red. Her eyes were closed and her arms lay by her side.
I glanced around to see who among the family appeared the most level-headed in the moment. The dreamer’s eldest sister. She directed her aunt to take her blood-soaked brother away, and give him a bath and words of comfort and nothing else until she said otherwise. As she herself tended to her mother, I came forth and offered to check the dreamer.
The sister nodded.
I checked the dreamer for breath, for injury. She was breathing easily. She suffered no wheezing in the moment as she sometimes did. Nor did she suffer any injury that I could see. If the blood were hers, I could not discern where it had come from. With my kerchief, I wiped the blood off her face and neck. I dared to lift her eyelid briefly. The whites of her eyes were clear, not bloodshot at all.
“I think the boy might be right,” I said. “This doesn’t appear to be her blood.”
The sister had managed to calm the mother. And my words calmed her further. I left them to clean the dreamer, requesting that I might collect samples.
The dreamer was lucid again today. She slept all night under her mother’s watchful eye. And the first thing she uttered when she woke was her brother’s name. She asked how he was. He too had fallen asleep after his bath. When the dreamer woke, he was sleeping still, soundly.
Her mother asked her, “Where did you go?”
But the dreamer would say nothing more until her mother left the room and we two were alone.
“I told him not to follow,” the dreamer said. Her shoulders drooped. “But I had to scout the way.”
“Where did you go?” I asked, both out of curiosity and on behalf of her mother.
“I’ve seen the blood trails before,” the dreamer said. She sighed heavily. “But never so many. I couldn’t avoid them. Neither could he.”
I asked her to describe these “blood trails,” imagining the two siblings walking along a path that was soaked in blood. But she spoke of tangles like the roots of a tree, crawling along the ground, roots without bark, but with skin so thin that she could see the blood flowing within. What she described sounded like massive tangles of blood vessels, absent a body.
“Has anyone else who followed you ever experienced the world that you perceive?” I asked.
The dreamer furrowed her brow and glanced down as if she were trying to recall an answer. Her mother’s voice then called up to us to let us know that breakfast was ready. In the brief moment that I glanced over in the direction of the voice, the dreamer slipped away again. When I glanced back at her, she was peering at the opposite wall, peering and blinking, as if trying to puzzle out what she was seeing. All I saw was a blank wall.
When I went down to breakfast, I asked the dreamer’s eldest sister if there was a slaughterhouse nearby. The dreamer might have perceived entrails as her “blood trails.” I did not know enough of the operation of a slaughterhouse to know what became of the blood drained from the carcasses that were prepared. But to my mind it was the most comforting explanation. Gruesome as the thought might be to imagine the girl and her brother falling into a trough of blood, as they stumbled about in an abattoir at night, there were far more terrible ways the two could have ended up in such a state.
I’d stayed up the night before, sitting in the living room, with my host’s permission. The dreamer did not walk. I fell asleep but her watcher did not. Her eldest sister had been with her through the night. Tonight is my rotation. I spoke with the dreamer’s younger brother. He remembers nothing of the ordeal he suffered. We are all thankful that his mind has protected him from such memories. We hope those memories are gone, but they may just be locked away. Much as I wanted and needed to know what he had perceived that night, I would not stir those memories, even if I had not been warned away by both his mother and his eldest sister.
If only the waking dreamer herself would tell me.
But she was still silent.
Nightmare. Shade. Mirage. What is it that she’s seeing? It never seems to be anything pleasant. No sweet visions of lost loved ones or frolicking kittens. At best, she describes a windswept desolation where a constant cloud of dirt and dust hangs in the air. Every breath sucks in sand that scratches at the delicate tissues of the throat and collects in the deepest pockets of the lungs.
She shows no outward signs of being ill, no darkened veins full of bruised blood, no vomiting, no fever, no flickering of her eyes. But something is drawing her away.
I recognize these signs. And I am afraid for her.
A young woman should not walk alone in these woods at night. No one should. We tried to stop her. Then we tried to walk with her, but somehow we have been separated. The others have lost sight of the waking dreamer, the walking sleeper.
I cannot yet perceive where we are as I follow her. I am walking faster than she is, but I can’t catch up. I still hope that it is coincidence that I alone have been able to keep up with her. But this path, though I cannot yet perceive it, is familiar.
I scrape my feet in the dirt and break branches along the path, clues that I hope the others will be able to follow.
But I don’t know which world I’m dropping those clues into.
I’m desperate to catch up with her when I finally see something.
Something walks beside her. Something large. I can’t hear it. I can’t tell if the dreamer perceives it. But I glimpse a lurching shadow through the trees.
I dared to call the dreamer’s name. As I feared, she heard me right away. And she turned. She walked back toward me. With each step I knew she was returning to the woods. I had called her back from one danger into another. Then I heard the familiar voice of the elder sister calling out, and I shuddered in relief.
The dreamer returned to me and she walked the path back to her home. We were rejoined by the other searchers as we left the woods. Many grateful hands landed upon my shoulders and squeezed my own hands. I nodded and smiled as I received their thanks. But all the while I watched the dreamer.
I don’t understand why I can’t help her.
Today, I met the dreamer’s older brother. His post often takes him far from his family. But he’s left his work in the hands of others so he could come home. He seems kind. His mother mentioned to me that he is not yet married. He recoiled as if with an inaudible gasp, and gently pushed her out of the room so the two of us could speak in private. I too was somewhat embarrassed, but also glad to see that there was still joy in this family.
Joy was most difficult in the times in between knowing, in between certainty. The dreamer would heal, or she would get worse.
We did not yet know. My presence was not a prediction. It was a precaution.
The dreamer might yet awaken.
She has been asleep now for four days and going on the fifth night. Her older brother waits just outside her door at night and sleeps during the day.
She woke and asked for me. She tells me that she has been dreaming. She describes an endless and empty expanse, sandy winds choking her throat, tangles of pulsing blood vessels creeping along at her feet. She follows their course and follows their course and follows their course…
I asked about the shadow in the woods. But she gave no answer. When I prompted her again, she closed her eyes and squeezed them and said, “no.” She shook her head.
“It’s too much for her to bear,” her mother said, placing a hand on my arm to halt me.
But the dreamer’s tone was not one of fear or reluctance. It was as if she was sorting through answers to my question, evaluating them, rejecting them.
“I’m trying,” the dreamer said. “I don’t know how.”
I leaned forward. “How? How to what? Remember?”
But she could give no answer.
Her dreams grow ever more frantic, ever more heinous. I have attempted a sketch based on the details gleaned from her latest nightmare. The blood trails led her to something new.
The structure is roughly shaped like a tree but made up of disproportionately sized animal bones. The trunk is the bones of an elephant leg. Sprouting from above the foot bones are curled horns. At the top of the trunk are the bones of a human hand, fingers splayed out in the suggestion of branches. Extending from some of the branches are the bones of bat wings and cat tails. Capping two finger bones are the skull bones of a penguin. A third penguin skull sits atop the bones of a cat’s tail.
A tree made of bones. Is it…a mockery of life? Or an homage to it?
I know what’s happening. They are not just dreams. She’s perceiving two worlds at the same time, one laid over the other. When I ask her to tell me if my sketch is accurate, she frowns and blinks as if she’s trying to bring the image into focus, but can’t. She can’t speak anymore, only shakes her head. I convinced her to try uttering a phrase. She strained to do it. All that came out was a single syllable uttered in a husky whisper. Her labor was so great that her face broke out in sweats, her eyes bulged and grew bloodshot, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Tears so hot that they steamed and left welts on her face.
The time is near now. I have been trying to give her comfort. My methods are insufficient for her case.
I have one idea left.
I have used it before. Each time I have been wrong about the response I thought I would receive. So I will not guess what she may say or do. I will only put my trust and hope in her strength.
On this night, I knew she would rise. I knew she would walk. And I would walk with her. To the end of her journey.
She rose from her bed, and I followed as she walked past her older brother, who wept silent tears. I followed as she made her way down the creaky stairs. I paused as her mother embraced her, only releasing her when she was pulled away by others. The waking dreamer was sad but she did not weep. And she did not hesitate as she swept past her younger brother, who glanced between his sister and me before he opened the front door for us.
Before she had retired to bed, she had donned warm clothes. She shrugged into a jacket now. She slipped on boots.
She seemed more awake than ever she had since I met her.
We walked a path that was now familiar to us both. We did not enter the woods. As we walked, she reached out her hand to me and I took it.
So at last I perceived what she perceived. We walked a vast emptiness surrounded by thick clouds of sand. We held our free hands to our mouths, breathing through kerchiefs to keep as much of the sand out of our lungs as we could.
Soon, we saw something ahead. A tangle of roots, it seemed. But as we drew closer, I was not surprised to find that it was a pulsing mass of blood vessels. One vessel, as thick as my finger and entwined with smaller ones, trailed away from us.
The dreamer followed the trail of vessels. It branched off at many points, each branch of equal thickness. I wasn’t sure which way to go. But the dreamer walked with certainty. Along one branch, I saw in the distance that the branch thickened and joined another tangle of vessels, all pulsing and squirting blood from tears and holes. Maybe that was what the dreamer and her hapless brother had wandered into so many nights ago.
I soon saw something that I recognized in the distance. It did not match my sketch exactly. But it was undeniable that we were headed towards that tree made of bones, dead bones long sucked dry of their vital elements. If I had succeeded in helping the dreamer, I had hoped we would be seeing a tree that was green and flowering, maybe even laden with ripe fruit, so she would have a treat on her journey.
The bones of the tree shivered in some unseen and unfelt wind. Or so I thought as we passed it. But once it was behind us, I heard a crunching and I turned around. The tree was reaching toward us. The bones of the trunk split apart and bent at the joint. And the tree began to move toward us. As my gaze followed its lurching gait, I realized that this was the shadow I had seen in the woods.
The time had come for me to try and put a stop to the journey before we encountered anything more horrific. I did not know what was ahead. The dreamer’s nightmares had gone no farther than this tree of death.
“This is not what the journey should be,” I said.
The dreamer stopped walking. She turned to me and nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m not sure what to do.”
She glanced over at the tree. It too had stopped when we stopped. I squeezed her hand to draw her attention back to me.
“That burden is not yours to carry,” I said. “It’s mine. I know what to do. But first I ask that you put your trust in me.”
The dreamer smiled. “I already have.”
“I’m grateful,” I said. “That trust may falter when I tell you the truth of who I am.”
“I don’t need to know that,” the dreamer said. “All is forgiven now.”
We stood in desolation with only bones and blood and each other for company.
I straightened my shoulders. I placed my other hand over hers.
“I am a psychopomp,” I said. “Do you know what that means?”
The dreamer shook her head, and so I explained. “You may have heard stories—they started in myth. In this life when we visit a new place, we need some kind of guide, a map, or better yet, someone to show us the way. That is what a psychopomp does for those who are passing from life into death.”
Her gaze fixed upon mine then. Her mouth dropped open, cheeks just rising as if on the verge of a smile. In the depths of her eyes, where before I had seen anxious confusion and sad resolve, I now saw realization and clarity.
She brought her hand to her chest. “That is my calling,” she said. “Or my…burden. I am that guide, a guide for the dying, a guide for the dead.”
Her eyes grew shiny with tears. “I am meant to guide you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I peered into her eyes then, truly seeing them. To be sure, I had been foolish, most foolish. “You’re awake!”
She nodded. “Yes, I must be for this part of your journey.”
“Of course, but…I am certain I’m not dead, and fairly certain I am not dying.” A fear shifted the beat of my heart. “At least I hope not be so. I was summoned here to guide you. I’ve always hoped to be able to guide some, a few, back from death. Some of those whom I’ve guided could have turned in either direction. But I’ve never managed to help any back. What I have managed to do, until now, is to shift all visions of horror to visions of comfort, or at least amusement, perhaps even peace.”
I gestured to the bone tree or the bone creature. “Such visions of bone and blood and flesh are typical for the dying. When we die, we leave our bodies behind. And even when those bodies are failing us, we are attached to them. But these visions should give way to others. People often see the ghosts of dear ones who have passed. Sometimes they see glimpses of the world beyond this life. Your visions never shifted. I feared that meant your soul would be trapped in between life and death, in this desolation.”
“And I was afraid of the same for you,” the dreamer said.
“But this affliction you have…I don’t understand.”
“It’s happened twice before. The first time, I don’t remember. My mother remembers it. I was too young. But the second time was when my grandfather passed. It was as you said. I had bad dreams at first, but then they shifted. They were good and sweet, and I walked with him until he passed by a tree. And I knew to stop. And he knew he must go on without me. He thanked me for being his guide. The next morning, my mother told me that he had passed.”
I peered at her. “And both times you fell ill with some vague affliction.”
The dreamer nodded.
“Then…no one has taught you, trained you.”
The dreamer shook her head.
It was in that moment that both the dreamer and I knew that neither of us would be finishing the journey we thought we were on. It was then that we both knew why I had been summoned to her.
It was then that I knew that for the first time, and perhaps the only time, I would be returning a soul to those who loved her. I would be guiding a soul back to her life.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel