From time to time during my childhood, the striking dreams that I nightly experienced would become brutally vivid, causing me to awake screaming.
The shouting done, I sank back into my bed in a state of superenervation resulting from the bodiless adventures imposed upon my slumbering self. Yet my body was surely affected by this nocturnal regimen, exercised harshly by visions both crystalline and confused. This activity, however immaterial, only served to drain my reserves of strength and in a few moments stole from me the benefits of a full night's sleep. Nevertheless, while I was deprived of the privilege of a natural rest, there may also have been some profit gained: the awful opulence of the dream, a rich and swollen world nourished by the exhaustion of the flesh. The world, in fact, as such. Any other realm seemed an absence by comparison, at best a chasm in the fertile graveyard of life.
Of course my parents did not share my feelings on this subject. "What is wrong with him?" I heard my father bellow from far down the hallway, his voice full of reproach. Shortly afterward my mother was by my side. "They seem to be getting worse," she would say. Then on one occasion she whispered, "I think it's time we did something about this problem."
The tone of her voice told me that what she had in mind was not the doctor's appointment so often urged by my father. Hers was a more dubious quest for a curative, though one which no doubt also seemed more appropriate to my "suffering." My mother was always prone to the enticements of superstition, and my troubled dreams appeared to justify an indulgence in unorthodox measures. Her shining and solemn gaze betrayed her own dreams of trafficking with esoteric forces, of being on familiar terms with specialists in a secret universe, entrepreneurs of the intangible.
"Tomorrow your father is leaving early on business. You stay home from school, and then we'll go and visit a woman I know." Late the following morning, my mother and I went to a house in one of the outlying neighborhoods of town and were graciously invited to be seated in the parlor of the long-widowed Mrs. Rinaldi. Perhaps it was only the fatigue my dreams had inflicted on me that made it so difficult to consolidate any lucid thoughts or feelings about the old woman and her remote house. Although the well ordered room we occupied was flush with sunlight, this illumina¬tion somehow acted in the way of a wash over a watercolor painting, blurring the outline of things and subduing the clarity of surfaces. This obscurity was not dispersed even by the large and thickly shaded lamp Mrs. Rinaldi kept lighted beside the small divan on which she and my mother sat. I was close to them in an old but respectably upholstered armchair, and yet their forms refused to come into focus, just as everything else in that room resisted definition. How well I knew such surroundings, those deep interiors of dream where everything is saturated with unreality and more or less dissolves under a direct gaze. I could tell how neatly this particular interior was arranged¬pictures perfectly straight and tight against the walls, well-dusted figurines arranged along open shelves, lace-fringed table covers set precisely in place, and delicate silk flowers in slim vases of colored glass. Yet there was something so fragile about the balance of these things, as if they were all susceptible to sudden derangement should there be some upset, no matter how subtle, in the secret system which held them together. This volatility seemed to extend to Mrs. Rinaldi herself, though in fact she may have been its source.
Casually examined, she appeared to present only the usual mysteries of old women who might be expected to speak with a heavy accent, whether or not they actually did so. She wore the carnal bulk and simple attire of a peasant race, and her calm manner indeed epitomized the peasant quietude of popular conception: her hands folded without tremor upon a wide lap and her eyes mildly attentive. But those eyes were so pale, as was her complexion and gauzy hair. It was as if some great strain had depleted her, and was continually depleting her, of the strong coloring she once possessed, draining her powers and leaving her vulnerable to some tenuous onslaught. At any moment during the time my mother was explaining the reason why we sought her help, Mrs. Rinaldi might have degenerated before our eyes, might have finally succumbed to spectral afflictions she had spent so many years fending off, both for her own sake and for the sake of others. And still she might have easily been mistaken for just another old woman whose tidy parlor displayed no object or image that would betray her most questionable and perilous occupation. "Missus," she said to my mother, though her eyes were on me, "I would like to take your son into another room in this house. There I believe I may begin to help him."
My mother assented and Mrs. Rinaldi escorted me down a hallway to a room at the back of the house. The room reminded me of a little shop of some kind, one that kept its merchandise hidden in dark cabinets along the walls, in great chests upon the floor, boxes and cases of every sort piled here and there. Nothing except these receptacles, this array of multiform exteriors, was exposed to view. The only window was tightly shuttered and a bare light bulb hanging overhead served as the only illumination.
There was nowhere to sit, only empty floor space; Mrs. Rinaldi took my hand and stood me at the center of the room. After gazing rather sternly down at me for some moments, she proceeded to pace slowly around me.
"Do you know what dreams are?" she asked quietly, and then immediately began to answer her own question. "They are parasites-maggots of the mind and soul, feeding on the mind and soul as ordinary maggots feed on the body. And their feeding on the mind and soul in turn gnaws away at the body, which in turn again affects the mind and the soul, and so on until death. These things cannot be separated, nor can anything else. Because everything is terribly inseparable and affects every other thing. Even the most alien things are connected together with every other thing. And so if these dreams have no world of their own to nourish them, they may come into yours and possess it, exhaust it little by little each night. They use your world and use it up. They wear your face and the faces of things you know: things that are yours they use in ways that are theirs. And some persons are so easy for them to use, and they use them so hard. But they use everyone and have always used everyone, because they are from the old time, the time before all the worlds awoke from a long and helpless night. And these dreams, these things that are called dreams, are still working to throw us back into that great mad darkness, to exhaust each one of us in our lonely sleep and to use up everyone until death. Little by little, night after night, they take us away from ourselves and from the truth of things. I myself know very well what this can be like and what the dreams can do to us. They make us dance to their strange illusions until we are too exhausted to live. And they have found in you, child, an easy partner for their horrible dancing."
With these words Mrs. Rinaldi not only revealed a side of herself quite different from the serene wise woman my mother had seen, but she also took me much deeper into things I had merely suspected until that day in the room where chests and strange boxes were piled up everywhere and great cabinets loomed along the walls, so many tightly closed doors and drawers and locked-up lids with so many things on the other side of them.
"Of course," she went on, "these dreams of yours cannot be wholly exorcised from your life, but only driven back so that they may do no extraordinary harm. They will still triumph in the end, denying us not just the restoration of nightly sleep. For ultimately they steal away the time which might have measured into immortality. They corrupt us in every way, abducting us from the ranks of angels we might have been or become, pure and calm and everlasting. It is because of them that we endure such a meager allotment of years, with all their foulness. This is all I can offer you, child, even if you may not understand what it means. For it is surely not meant that you should fall into the fullest corruption before your time."
Her speech concluded, Mrs. Rinaldi stood before me, massive and motionless, her breathing now a bit labored. I confess that her theories intrigued me as far as I could comprehend them, for at the time her statements regarding the meaning and mechanisms of dream appeared to be founded on somewhat questionable assumptions, unnecessarily outlandish in their departures from the oldest orthodoxies of creation. Nonetheless, I decided not to resist whatever applications she chose to make of her ideas. On her side, she was scrutinizing my small form with some intensity, engaged in what seemed a psychic sizing up of my presence, as if she was seriously unsure whether or not it was safe to move on to the next step with me.
Apparently resolving her doubts, she shuffled over to a tall cabinet, unlocked its door with a key she had taken from a sagging pocket in her dress, and from within removed two items: a slim decanter half-filled with a dark red liquid, presumably wine, and a shallow wide-mouthed drinking glass. Carrying these objects back to me, she put out her right hand, in which she held the glass, and said: "Take this and spit into it." After I had done this, she poured some of the wine into the glass and then replaced the decanter in its cabinet, which she locked once again. "Now kneel down on the floor," she ordered. "Don't let anything spill out of the glass, and don't get up until I tell you to do so. I'm going to turn out the light."
Even in total darkness, Mrs. Rinaldi maneuvered well about the room, her footsteps again moving away from me. I heard her opening another cabinet, or perhaps it was a large chest whose heavy lid she struggled to push back, its hinges grinding in the darkness. A slight draft crossed the room, a brief drifting current of air without scent and neither warm nor cold. Mrs. Rinaldi then approached me, moving more slowly than she had before, as if bearing some weighty object. With a groan, she set it down, and I heard it scrape the floor inches from where I knelt, though I could not see what it was.
Suddenly a thin line of light scored the blackness, and I could see Mrs. Rinaldi's old finger slowly lifting the lid of a long low box from which the luminousness emanated. The glowing slit widened as the lid was drawn back farther, revealing a pale brilliance that seemed confined wholly within the box itself, casting not the least glimmer into the room. The source of this light was a kind of incandescent vapor that curled about in a way that seemed to draw the room's darkness into its lustrous realm, which appeared to extend beyond the boundaries of the visible and made the box before me look bottomless. But I felt the bottom for myself when the whispering voice of Mrs. Rinaldi instructed me to place the glass I was holding down into the box. So I offered the glass to that fluorescent mist, that churning vapor which was electrical in some way, scintillating with infinitesimal flashes of sharp light, sprinkled with shattered diamonds.
I expected to feel something as I put my hand in the shining box, easily setting the glass upon its shallow and quite solid bottom. But there was nothing at all to be felt, no sensation whatever-not even that of my own hand. There seemed to be a power to this prodigy, but it was a terribly quiescent power, a cataract of the purest light plummeting silently in the blackness of space. If it could have spoken it might have told, in a soft and reverberant voice, of the lonely peace of the planets, the uninhabited paradise of clouds, and an antiseptic infinity.
After I placed the glass of wine and spittle into the box, the light from within took on a rosy hue for just a moment, then resumed its glittering whiteness once again. It had taken the offering. Mrs. Rinaldi whispered "amen," then carefully closed the lid upon the box, returning the room to blackness. I heard her replace the object in its tabernacle of storage, wherever that may have been. At last the lights came on.
"You can get up now," Mrs. Rinaldi said. "And wipe off your knees, they're a little dirty."
When I finished brushing off my pants I found that Mrs. Rinaldi was again scrutinizing me for tell-tale signs of some possible misunderstanding or perhaps misconduct that I might disclose to her. I imagined that she was about to say, "Do not ask what it was you saw in this room." But in actuality she said, "You will feel better now, but never try to guess what is in that box. Never seek to know more about it." She did not pause to hear any response I might have had to her command, for she was indeed a wise woman and knew that in matters such as these no casual oath of abstention can be trusted, all fine intentions notwithstanding.
As soon as we left Mrs. Rinaldi's house, my mother asked me what had happened, and I described the ceremony in detail. Nevertheless, she remained at a loss for any simple estimate of what I had told her: while she expected that Mrs. Rinaldi's methods might be highly unusual, she also knew her own son's imagination. Still, she was obliged to keep faith with the arcane processes that she herself had set in motion. So after I recounted the incidents that took place in that room, my mother only nodded silently, perhaps bewilderedly.
I should document that, for a certain period of time, my mother's faith in Mrs. Rinaldi did not appear to have been misplaced. The very day of our visit to the old woman was for me the beginning of a unique phase of experience. Even my father noted the change in my nighttime habits, as well as a newfound characterology I exhibited throughout the day. "The boy does seem quieter now," he commented to my mother.
Indeed, I could feel myself approaching a serenity almost shameful in its expansiveness, one that submerged me in a placid routine of the most violent contrast to my former life. I slept straight through each night and barely ruffled my bedcovers. This is not to claim that my sleep was left completely untouched by dreams. But these were no more than ripples on great becalmed waters, pathetic gestures of something that was trying to bestir the immobility of a vast and colorless world. A few figures might appear, tremulous as smoke, but they were the merest invalids of hallucination, lacking the strength to speak or raise a hand against my terrible peace.
My daydreams were actually more interesting, while still being incredibly vague and without tension. Sitting quietly in the classroom at school, I often gazed out the window at clouds and sunlight, watching the way the sunlight penetrated the clouds and the way the clouds were filled with both sunlight and shadows. Yet no images or ideas were aroused by this sight, as they had been before. Only a vacant meditation took place, a musing without subject matter. I could feel something trying to emerge in my horizon of each dream, exerting a definite magnetism, a tugging upon the austere scenes that it enveloped from all sides, even hovering high above like an animate sky, a celestial vault that glistened softly. Yet the dreams themselves were cast in the dullest tones and contained the most spare and dilapidated furnishings.
In the very last dream I had of this type, I was wandering amid a few widely scattered ruins that seemed to have arisen from some undersea abyss, all soft and pallid from their dark confinement. Like the settings of the other dreams, this one seemed familiar, though incomplete, as if I was seeing the decayed remnants of something I might have known in waking life. For those were not time-eaten towers rising around me, and at my feet there were not sunken strongboxes crumbling like rotten flesh. Instead, these objects were the cabinets and cases I remembered from that room in Mrs. Rinaldi's house, except now this memory was degenerating, being dragged away little by little, digested by that mist which surrounded everything and nibbled at it. And the more closely I approached this mist, the more decomposed the scenery of the dream became, until it was consumed altogether and I could see nothing but that sparkling, swirling vapor.
It was only when I had entered this foggy void that the true sense of dream, the inherent dread of my visions, was restored to me. Here was a sort of reservoir into which the depths of my dreams were being directed, leaving only a shallow spillover that barely trickled through my nights. Here, I say, without knowing really what place or plane of being it was: some spectral venue, a vacant lot situated along the backstreet of sleep, an outpost of the universe itself... or perhaps merely the inside of a box hidden away in the house of an old woman, a box in which something existed in all its insensible purity, a cloudy ether free of tainted forms and knowledge, freely cleansing others with its sterile grace.
In any event, I sensed that the usual boundaries of my world of sleep had extended into another realm. And it was here, I found, that the lost dreams were fully alive in their essence. Consumed within that barren vapor which I had seen imbibe a mixture of my own saliva and the reddest wine, they lived in exile from the multitude of unwitting hosts whose experiences they had once used like a wardrobe for those eerie performances behind the curtain of sleep. These were the parasites which forced the sleeper into the dual role of both player and witness in the manipulations of his memories and his emotions, the ungranted abduction of his private history for those reckless revels called dreams. But here, in that prison of glittering purity, they had been reduced to their primordial state--dreams in abstraction, faceless and formless things from the old time that a very old woman had revealed to me. And although they had neither face nor form, none of the multitudinous disguises in which I had always known them, their presence was still quite palpable all around me, bearing down upon the richly laden lucidity I had brought with me into a place where I did not belong.
A struggle evolved as that angelic mist agent of my salvation-held at bay the things that craved my mind and soul, my very consciousness. But rather than join in that struggle, I gave myself up to this ravenous siege, offering my awareness to what had none of its own, bestowing all the treasures of my life on this wasteland of abstractions.
Then the infinite whiteness itself was flooded with the colors of countless faces and forms, a blank sky suddenly dense with rainbows, until everything was so saturated with revels and thick with frenzy that it took on the utter blackness of the old time. And in the blackness I awoke, screaming for all the world.
The next day I was standing on Mrs. Rinaldi's porch, watching as my mother repeatedly slammed the doorknocker without being able to summon the old woman. But something told us she was nevertheless at home, a shadow that we saw pass nervously behind the front window. At last the door opened for us, but whoever opened it stayed on the other side, saying: "Missus, take your child home. There is nothing more that can be done. I made a mistake with him."
My mother protested the recurrence of my "sickness," taking a step inside the house and pulling me along with her. But Mrs. Rinaldi only said: "Do not come in here. It is not a fit place to visit, and I am not fit to be looked upon." From what I could observe of the parlor, it did seem that an essential change had occurred, as if the room's fragile balance had failed and the ever-threatening derangement of its order had finally been consummated. Everything in this interior seemed askew, distorted by some process of decay and twisted out of natural proportion. It was a room seen through a warped and strangely colored window.
And how much stranger this color appeared when Mrs. Rinaldi suddenly showed herself, and I saw that her once-pale eyes and sallow face had taken on the same tint, a greenish glaze as of something both rotten and reptilian. My mother was immediately silenced by this sight. "Now will you leave me?" she said. "Even for myself there is nothing I can do any longer. You know what I am saying, child. All those years the dreams had been kept away. But you have consorted with them, I know you did. I have made a mistake with you. You let my angel be poisoned by the dreams which you could not deny. It was an angel, did you know that? It was pure of all thinking and pure of all dreaming. And you are the one who made it think and dream and now it is dying. And it is dying not as an angel, but as a demon. Do you want to see what it is like now?" she said, gesturing toward a door that led into the cellar of her house. "Yes, it is down there because it is not the way it was and could not remain where it was. It crawled away with its own body, the body of a demon. And it has its own dreams, the dreams of a demon. It is dreaming and dying of its dreams. And I am dying too, because all the dreams have come back."
Mrs. Rinaldi then began to approach me, and the color of her eyes and her face seemed to deepen. That was when my mother grasped my arm to pull me quickly from the house. As we ran off I looked over my shoulder and saw the old woman raving in the open doorway, cursing me for a demon.
It was not long afterward that we learned of Mrs. Rinaldi's death. True to her own diagnosis, the parasites were upon her, although local gossip told that she had been suffering for years from a cancer of some kind. There was also evidence that another inhabitant of the house survived the old woman for a short time. As it happened, several of my schoolmates reported to me their investigations after dark at the house of the "old witch," a place where I myself was forbidden by my parents to go. So I cannot claim that I observed with my own eyes what crept along the floor of that moonlit house, "like a pile of filthy rags," said one boy.
But I did dream about this prodigy; I even dreamed about its dreams as they dragged every shining angelic particle of this being into the blackness of the old time. Then all my bad dreams abated after a while, just as they always had and always would, using my world only at intervals and gradually dissolving my life into theirs.
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