Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Demon Dreams

(The following Sudden Fiction story was inspired by real events and began while sleeping atop a cement hovel in a rice field after a day of hiking at the Shrine of Eternal Spring in Haulien and completed two weeks later at 4 a.m. during a lighting storm in Taichung city.)

I was scratching mosquito bites on my legs when the first man began speaking, said he’d had the one where he was falling and the other where his feet were stuck in the sand, but last night he had the naked one where he was trying to open the locked doors and it shook him. Hadn’t had that one since before his marriage fell apart.
The first man had an effeminate air when he spoke, thin arms crossed defensively. Bermuda shorts. Leather sandals. I sized him up quickly as a man who mounted heads on walls.
“And you?”
“I don’t share my dreams with strangers. But I can tell you what yours mean, if you wish?”
“Faggot.” The second man said under his breath. He’d been nursing the same drink for over an hour, still sore at me for running the women off when I wouldn’t play his drinking game. It got heated.
“You’ve got to have a list,” he said. “Everybody has a list.”
“I don’t.”
“Come on, a list of five.”
I explained I didn’t, that the game was banal.
The second man looked at the first. “That’s a big word. You sound like half a faggot when you talk big words like that.”
The first man interrupted. “It’s a list of five free passes. Five people you can screw and it won’t be cheating. You know, like an actress or a singer.”
I looked away. “I’m not interested in that.”
“See what I mean,” the second man said disgustingly.
“What’s the point of wanting a woman you will never meet, never know for real?”
The second man scowled. “Because it gets women talking about sex, and when you get women talking about sex they fantasize, their defenses are down. You know? Jeez you’re a faggot.”
I stood up.
“Call me that name again and I’m breaking this chair over your head. We clear.”
The one I wouldn’t tell was about blood. I'd had it since I was a boy. I am swimming laps in a pool. Long strokes. Breathing on cue. I loved holding my breath and looking underwater with goggles then. Chubby fat legs of the workout group. The older boys diving for coins. My kid brother riding an inflatable starfish above like a floating cloud.
When I come up for air there are men in hazmat suits pouring brown sludge into the pool from large drums. A toxic substance resembling blood moving toward me. I close my eyes and go under, but all the bodies are rotting corpses. I stand up and there are hordes of naked and bloated people floating face down. I scream. But can’t wake up. I scream again as the toxic sludge encircling me draws into a noose.
I sat on the bus and tried to come to grips with all that has happened. The bus wound into the mountains with cliffs on both sides and the ocean hum ringing on the breeze. Lately I’ve been making notebook lists, places to see before dying, books I must read, promises to my children, those born and unborn.
We exit and head through the caves toward the Shrine of the Eternal Spring. It’s supposed to be a place of magic unaffected by age over time. A perpetual season. One long beautiful day without night. There were two backpackers with me on the trail. We stop at the waterfall to soak our feet and fill canteens. Here we start to talk and I decide to make my life a lie so unbelievable it had to be true. How I’d been in a coma for ten years after a car accident caused by a boy drag racing on an old country road. The passenger, my girlfriend, had been thrown to her death, the driver landed decapitated through the windshield, but I didn’t have a scratch on me. I told the boys I laid in bed for ten years and then one day I awoke in my parent’s house and got up, fixed a sandwich in my pajamas, and vowed to see the world.
“Waking up from a long sleep will do that to you.”
The two boys were amazed. They sat with trembling hands holding cigarettes, the ash dangling from the tips.
“You can touch me if you want.”
The closest one, the bearded boy with soft eyes did, sticking out a finger and poking me on the shoulder.
“See, neither of us is dreaming.”
At the bar the first man wrapped his arm around my waist and held me from moving. “Don’t sweat it,” he said. “That guys a caged animal. Probably an abused kid who spent all his life bullying people around. It’s cyclical. Just let it go.”
I turned a bar coaster over and over in my hand and nodded.
“So, was that true? You’re a dream reader?”
I wanted to tell the first man I knew nothing. That I had traveled to places. Read books. That dreams were a hobby of mine, that’s all.
“Have you ever heard of demon dreams?”
He raised two fingers and pointed for a refill.
“Let me ask you a question. You ever wonder where bad dreams come from? I mean, most people think it’s the subconscious trying to help us rectify past trauma, but what if the subconscious doesn’t exist. What if it were demons locked inside your mind? Demons trying to warn you of a future God doesn’t want you to see?”
The bartender sat two fresh drinks in front of us and the first man lifted his to his lips but did not drink. “I mean, who said demons are evil in the first place. Maybe they just operate outside the normal constraints of good. Maybe they are there to remind us that the opposite could also be true. To make us believe a lie that leads us to a future truth.”
I drained my drink and felt on edge. The second man was suddenly standing behind us. “You two look cozy. That’s his method, you know? Get you drunk so he can have his way with you.”
The second man was smiling, laughing to himself as he backed away into the crowded bar.
“Would you please let it go.” The first man held my arm. “Come on, have another drink.”
“I can’t. Every time I see him he’s going to remember that I’m a coward. If I don’t fight him now, I’ll be fighting him every day for the rest of my life.”
The night I returned by train from the Shrine of the Eternal Spring I lay on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom and read Aesop’s fables. There was the Boy Who Cried Wolf and the Dog and His Reflection. I explained how fables were stories about failure and loss. How they teach us to do the right thing. Then I began reading the Fox and the Grapes aloud. How the succulent clusters hung just outside the animal' reach, and how he leaped and leaped but could not grasp them. Giving up, he cursed the wine berries saying to himself, “I never wanted those sour grapes anyway.” Convincing himself it was true.
“So what’s the moral?” I whispered, looking up to see little bundles wrapped in slumbering blankets. “Do you know?” But my daughters were already fast asleep.
Earlier that morning I’d met the two backpackers again by chance. They were headed to Kaoshang and I was getting off in Taichung. The soft eyed boy approached me.
“I just wanted to tell you how meaningful your story was to me.” He explained. “For a year now I’ve been putting off medical school because I lost my faith in medicine. I’ve just never met anyone who had been healed before. That is, before I met you.”
I stammered, unsure of what to say.
But the boy just shouldered his pack and backed away. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I hope you get a second chance at life.”
That night the second man’s head cracked against the floor like a cookie jar splitting in two. I had followed him into the bathroom finding him at the urinal.
“Now who’s half a fag?”
I caught him with a right cross to the bridge of his nose, jolting him backwards. His face was terrified. Pants down. Pissing himself. He swung wildly at air but toppled over. Laying atop him, I beat down on his face. Blood on my knuckles and chin. Blood on the mirror. Blood running in lines down the cracks of tile.
Afterwards, when the police came, the second man was antagonizing, pointing blame. He said he just wanted to see who he was dealing with, that it had all been a big joke. The first man was gone. I looked into the second man’s eyes for the longest time but then my vision blurred and I began to sit outside myself watching the scene unravel, trying desperately to convince myself that none of it was real.
(Sudden or Flash Ficiton is a short, short category of literature that attempts to tell a complete story in less than 1,500 words.)

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