From time to time, I wake in my bed after visiting someone else’s life, in a place so real you could touch it. I stumble through a doorway and find people I know and love, only I forgot that I’d forgotten them. It is a vision that beckons, shimmers, then slams the door in my face.
As my bedroom comes back into focus, I have this sense of being stretched like a strand of hot glass, suspended between two dimensions. For a languid moment, the streets in this other world are more real than the ones I live on now. Their names are on the tip of my tongue, the contours of the hills in the distance are so familiar I must have walked them my whole life. There is a person there, waiting. But the connection cools and snaps, and the faces freeze and vanish.
These places are not always easy to visit. Even when the scenery is bucolic, there is almost always an undertone of war. Most times, the only way I can escape is by accepting my own death. Sometimes death doesn’t come as needed, and I have to put a gun to my head. Sometimes I wake with relief, sometimes loss, but always with the ache of loneliness that comes with amnesia, with questions that are not meant to be answered.
Last night I visited Europe during the occupation. I guess. I don’t have the words for where I was. I wore a long skirt, with an old gun hidden in my coat.
My life was all about my people. I had people. I don’t know what the hell that means because I have nothing like that in this life, I have no people. But there I was surrounded by brothers, cousins, extended family all around. Our hair was dark, our skin was white, the men wore undershirts and dark pants all the same shade of beige, gray, black. I walked through the dim city streets, grit crackling under my boots, sooty fire escapes overhead, fear in my heart. Still, I wanted to fight, like an alley cat that bristles and hisses before the miscreants stone it to death. I wanted to fight because it was my in my blood, and because pride helped obscure the reality of my inevitable doom.
My boys, my young men who were as close as brothers, all around me. We whispered as we passed each other.
Tonight, I said.
Tonight, they nodded back, as if our every move was being watched.
There was this calculated façade of calm, as if we all knew what was coming: a chance.
We collected in the street as if for some harmless family gathering, sitting at makeshift benches to eat and talk. There were at least a hundred of us, and we didn’t want to raise suspicion. Our small cache of artillery was hidden. The air was prickling, men with urgency in their dark eyes.
This street where we sat was an alley between two factory buildings, and at each end was a tall iron fence. To protect us, perhaps, or confine us.
Three lanky teenage boys wearing coats that were too small, stood at one end of the alley. They were dark-skinned with smooth black hair. Their nationality was different. They had rifles strapped on their backs, as if they were keeping watch on our behalf. They were friends of my son. A friendship, I suspected, that was ill-advised. I knew they would betray us, or we would betray them. I wouldn’t let my son go to them, and this upset him. But there was no time to sort it out. My son was lost in the crowd as it scattered. Someone was coming. Something had gone wrong.
The fight was breaking out too soon. This was not as planned. Our men had been spooked. For a moment everything paused, like the silence before a falling glass shatters on the concrete, and then a single shout splintered the street into chaos. Gunfire pulverized the brick over my head. We were discovered. Now the enemy would close in from both sides and kill us all. All was lost, and so quickly. I ducked for cover in one of the buildings, doom and grief in my heart. I knew, I knew there was no way out of this. Nowhere to go. In here, the booming gunfire was muffled, but soon they would hunt me down. Death was coming for me, breathing down my shoulder, how would I meet it?
Down one of the corridors stood a beautiful woman, sheltering some children. I knew her. In a world of sepia-toned shadows, her face glowed brilliantly with calm and sweetness. She had long curly hair down to her shoulders.
Stay and fight, she implored me. Face the enemy and remember our cause.
But I was panicked to my core, I didn’t care about our cause, I wanted only to stay alive, to find a place to hide, to escape.
They’re coming! I hissed at her, climbing up to a bank of windows that lead to the roof. I rammed my shoulder into the glass, breaking a few panes, stumbling out into the air above the crossfire. The city around me was engulfed in flames. I turned to my right, but the beautiful woman had followed. She was beside me.
Stop, she warned me, holding up her hand. She had seen something. A thick gunshot rang out from across the street, and a shell rocketed toward her in slow motion, leaving behind a trail of fire as it landed in her body, embedding in her coat, knocking her off the roof. I covered my eyes but I had already heard it, the soft thud that snuffed out her life. The sucking sound of her dying breath roared in my ears, louder than the deafening artillery fire, filling me with dread and sickness.
Just like that, she was gone.
A soldier was coming through the window behind me. I fell down to play dead, but it was too late. Before I could surrender to him, I remembered I could escape. I placed my hidden gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
I’ve done this in dreams a dozen times before.
First comes the loss of breath, then the darkness, the wrenching away, then the blissful fall through the escape hatch, back into my room. And then there is light.
In the distance, no gunfire, just the steady hum of a leaf blower. I lay there blinking in the sunlight, breathless.
When I die, will this life become as distant to me as that one, just some passing, transient dream? Will I doubt I was even here, the same way I doubt if I was there?
I guess it doesn’t matter. Life on earth is fucking barbaric. Centuries of war, suffering, murder, loss– it’s in our blood, the DNA of every cell. Maybe I have a frayed strand in my heart that wicks up these memories, and when I wake it casts a little flicker, and in that brief moment before the darkness recedes, I can hold vigil between two worlds, remembering enough for everyone. Or maybe for no one.
Maybe just for me.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011