(Fiction) The Scent of Dreaming

As I ascended the ladder-like steps to the cupola, my mind was on thread and silk and how I wanted to look my best for Benjamin’s funeral. When I reached the top, I found that reaching the trap door to close it unfortunately required me to ascend halfway into the octagonal room, which was barely large enough for three people to stand. There was a conical roof overhead rimmed in slat windows. Small statues, no more than two feet tall, rested in the concave nooks at the center of each of the eight walls, with the exception of one, whose figure had fallen to the floor. It wasn’t until I stepped into the space and lifted it that I realized I could see everything clearly, despite that it was then the middle of the night and there were no electric lights above me. The windows let in a hazy orange glow, as if it were dusk in a sand storm. I looked down at the statue in my hand, a prancing satyr who grinned at me as if he knew something terrible was about to happen. I replaced him in his nook and turned his face toward the wall, which is how all of the other statues rested, before quickly descending and locking the trap door behind me.

My feet reached the floor of the attic and I turned in the direction of an old chest where I had before noticed a torn satin dressing gown only to find that the chest was missing. In fact, everything was missing. I turned slowly. The room in which I stood was was very different. It was still an attic and it was still appointed with stacked chests and clutter, but it was different clutter. And the room itself was both larger and L-shaped, which was never the case before. It was as if in descending from the cupola, I had entered the attic of a different house.

I looked up to the trap door. Perhaps it was best to retrace my steps. I climbed the stairs only to find that the lock was no longer on the exterior of the door, which was immovable. I was certain then that there was something moving on the other side, something man-sized, at least. I thought I heard shallow breathing near the hinges, as if something were watching me through the crack, and the hairs on my arms stood, as did the ones on the back of my neck, just like when little Mattie appeared. I decided it was better to try a different way. I climbed down again slowly, stood, and listened. But other than the rustle of an occasional breeze, there was nothing.

The house groaned then, just as it had right before the spire fell, and the attic to my left seemed to stretch away from me. I walked swiftly to my right and around a corner, where I almost ran into a full suit of horse armor on a Trojan stand. I stepped around it and made my way down the stairs, which exited not into a open room but into a kind of secret passageway. There were joists over my head. To my left was a solid wall made of struts that oozed dried glue between them. To my right was a thin wall beyond which was the house—or whatever version of the house existed in that place.

I heard sounds. Voices. I couldn’t make the words, but I recognized Annie and Martin.

“Annie!” I called “Annie! Annie!” I pounded on the walls and repeated the name. “Annie!”

Her voice got louder then but still sounded as though she were yelling through a stack of pillows. There was a silence pause, and just as I was to begin pounding again, I both heard and felt scraping.

I pulled my hand back.

“Mila?”

It was Annewyn’s voice. It rang clear, as if there were truly nothing but drywall between us.

“Mila? [indecipherable muttering] hear me?” Her voice faded in and out as if someone was adjusting the sound on a radio.

“Yes! Annie, I can hear you! The cupola was open. I went to close it. I seem to be stuck. Somewhere.”

“You’re going [indecipherable muttering] your way out!” she called.

Already her voice sounded further away, as if she had stepped to the far side of the room. Whatever spell she had cast was already fading—or perhaps was being countered.

“Do you hear [indecipherable muttering] find your way. There’s nothing [indecipherable muttering] to you. Okay?”

“Annie?” She seemed even further away then. “I hear you. But I don’t know the way!”

I paused.

“Annie!”

I heard more muttering, but this was as faint as before. Nor did it sound any clearer after several minutes of waiting. In fact, it seemed then that whatever was being said was no longer directed at me, that Annie and Martin had given up trying to contact me and were talking worriedly to each other.

I knew where I was—in the general sense, at least. I knew where I was in the same way that, when one is lost in a forest, one knows it’s a forest—perhaps even which forest—but I had no idea how to get out. I was in the spirit world. What I did not know was which spirit, for there are two: one above and one below. The latter is sometimes called the shadow realm since it is the inverted shadow cast by the light of higher dimensions striking our thin film of reality, where as the former, what the Aborigines called the Dreaming, is the kaleidoscopic refraction of that light. Of course, I imagine it goes without saying that, given the choice of where to be stranded, the one is infinitely better than the other.

I looked up and down the narrow passage, whose ends curved away from me as if seen through a lens, making it impossible to guess just how far they actually stretched. It could be either. I supposed I would find out soon enough; the shadow realm was host to terrors that would never suffer the living, mortal or immortal.

Westminster chimes rang then, as if from a grandfather clock. But it wasn’t a clock. It was a recording of a clock. A vinyl record had started playing. I could faintly hear the scratches as the sound moved like a pale echo through the halls. After the chimes, the music started, but I already recognized it even though I hadn’t heard the song in ages—not since my time with Hank. We had danced to it, in fact, the one and only night we slept together. It was “Three O’Clock in the Morning” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, recorded in the early 1920s. I listened as the gentle swinging horn section danced off the walls amid the crackle of the scratches.

Since I could no longer see the staircase that had deposited me, I started again down the narrow passage behind the walls which, despite subtle changes in texture or appearance, remained basically the same. The path was straight and never-ending, and despite that I traversed it for some time, the song never seemed to end, nor did it start over. Neither did it get louder or softer as I walked. Given the distances that stretched before and behind me, it seemed like there should be an echo. Its absence only amplified the overpowering sense that there was something wrong with that place. That it wasn’t right.

It was dusty in the passage, as you might expect, and at some point I had to press a finger under my nose to keep from sneezing. It ran, and I sniffed, which is when I noticed the complete lack of scent. I inhaled deeply through my nostrils, let it out, and did it again. But there was nothing, which was uncanny—more so than I expected. Scent is not a way by which humans typically make their way in the world. You don’t realize just how much you rely on it until it’s stripped from you.

I stopped. The hairs on my neck had stood. I was being watched. I turned and saw Anna and her stringy hair standing silently some ten paces behind. She was still wearing the drab brown dress we buried her in. She was next to a door that hadn’t been there when I passed. It was open, and upon noticing it, I heard the music louder, as if the space beyond held its source. After a pause, she went through. I of course followed as quickly as I could lest the door disappear as fast as it came.

On the other side was a billiard room with an impossibly high ceiling. The walls were lined with bookshelves to a height of about eight feet. All of the books were backwards such that their spines faced the wall. A large Victrola, complete with wooden horn, turned in the corner, spewing Whiteman’s seemingly endless song. Four pool tables took up the rest of the space. Each was topped in red velvet. The one in the back corner was the only in use. Six figures stood silently behind, including little Matti, the ghost who had come to see the stranger that invaded her home. A diagonal shadow his her face. The adult figures around her held pool sticks. The long lamps that hung over the tables obscured their faces as the shadow did hers, but by their stance, and their silence, I was sure each was watching me—partly curious, partly impatient for me to leave them to their eternal reverie.

Anna should’ve been just in front of me as I entered the room, but as I turned through the door, I saw she was waiting for me in another door on the far side. She was leading me past the ghosts, deeper into whatever realm I had entered. As I walked toward her, the hanging lamps, covered in frosted green glass, always managed to hide the faces of the others, who never moved. Not wishing to press my luck, I stepped through the door swiftly but without seeming afraid, and it shut behind me.

As soon as I turned, it was gone. The music stopped abruptly. Now there was only a distant hollow breeze. I was in a long, narrow hallway, as in a mansion, but without doors or windows. As before, it stretched in either direction as far as I could see. The walls rose so high that the ceiling was completely obscured by shadow. Whether it was ten feet tall or fifty, I couldn’t tell. The brown wainscoting on the walls was heavily scuffed while the wallpaper above it was pale tan with faded brown pinstripes. On it hung a myriad of framed pictures. Thousands and thousands of them. More, even. They were hanging close to each other but were tastefully arranged, and they filled the walls to their height. No two were the same. Most were rectangular, although a few were round or oval. Even fewer still were oddly-shaped. I saw a cast-iron frame in the shape of a fleur-de-lis and a wooden one in the shape of a cat. Inside each was a still photo captured from a memory—my memory. The hall was my life. I stood at the point of my last parting, when Beltran and I decided we could no longer live as husband and wife. Behind me was the past. Somewhere ahead was my first meeting with the young shaman who would change my life forever.

I lifted a round frame, like a wooden plate, from the wall. It hung from a nail on a loop of yellow ribbon. The border, which was wider than the picture, was seemingly hand-painted in a repeating floral pattern. Inside the circular window, Beltran and I posed for a picture that had never been taken. He was wearing his high fur hat with the mighty buckle. I was in a wool coat with a high collar. The sun shone. The mountain wind blew. We looked so happy, but our eyes were tinged with sadness. He had then begun asking for what I could not give.

My finger traced the firm line of his jaw. It had been years since I’d seen his face. Decades, even. It took every ounce of strength not to cry at the sight of it, although my lip did quiver. And I smiled. However it ended, he did love me. Genuinely.

I replaced the picture on the wall and turned my eyes over the others nearby. I began walking forward. As much as I would’ve loved to see the face of my father one last time—or even that of my mother, who died in childbirth and who I only knew from a single painting that hung over the hearth in the great room—I knew that there were no surprises in the past, only traps and peril. Whatever I was there to discover, I was sure it lay forward in the wastes of the unknown, and I took up a brisk pace. I saw Istanbul and Little Village and a ceramic terrine in my kitchen in which I cooked most of my meals and of which I used to be quite fond.

Still I walked. And then came the gaps, spaces where many of the pictures were missing, frame and all. The only evidence of their prior existence was the slight discoloration on the pinstriped wallpaper. In a few steps, the walls were all but bare. Only a few pictures remained. I saw the derelict train station in the woods and the cafe where I tasted the Nectar of Death. I saw a cemetery grown with trees and a grave filled with books. And I saw Etude. Younger. Skinnier. Softer. With a sheepish grin under that great bald head that contained the world.

Then, just like that, the gaps ended and the walls were full again. So many pictures, so many frames. I saw the hall of The Masters, and the Great Eye shattered. I saw Beltran as a very old man. I saw a fantastic coat and the Safari Gastronomique and a leopard-man and the towering horns of a long-dead beast. I saw the Great Wall and a voodoo woman jumping into a pyre and Granny Tuesday and the Dunvluddich Furnace and our flight from what was released there. I saw my first night with Benjamin and our first visit from Oliver Waxman. I saw poor Dr. Alexander hanging in the poison garden. I saw Cerise’s dead body curled in a pot and the detective woman and the tree in the sanctum burning like an effigy to hope.

And then I saw the chair. Benjamin’s precious cargo. Only this picture was no mere photo, as were all the others. It was a portrait, a painting in oil and at least four feet high with a frame of pure gold that looked like it had been pilfered from the halls of Versailles. In it, the chair was cracked—and gloating. To one side, I saw a black and white photo of Saycroft House flooded by the ocean to a height of three feet, and that was it. For before me the entire wall of the house was missing. Beyond was the water of the Chesapeake, which had risen in catastrophe to lap at the house, exactly as in the picture. It seemed like it had been doing so for a very long time—long enough to have pulled down the windward wall. The floorboards under my feet poked out, cracked and jagged, over empty space. Below were the two lower floors of the house, while far out to sea, so distant as to be shrouded in haze, was a monster the size of a mountain. It strode slowly northward, up the bay, as if moving in slow motion, its upper half shrouded in orange hazy clouds. Its massive tentacles, too numerous to count, alternated between the earth and its mouth as if it were a grazing elephant.

It was grazing, in fact. It was too far to see clearly, but somehow I knew then not only that it was grazing, but that it was grazing on people, plucking them from huddled crowds hiding under the ruins of skyscrapers. It slid its tentacles into the gaps of the buildings like the tongue of an anteater through a termite mound. It wrapped up whole families and pulled them screaming to its seven-holed maw. What they became after stewing in its intestines, what emerged dripping and snarling from its anus, I cannot begin to describe. Pray only that you never meet one.

It was the future, I was sure. It’s what was coming to the earth, a return to the bondage we had slipped eons ago. But it wasn’t the distant future. It wasn’t what would come if some arcane string of whether-or-nots came to pass. This future was days from us. At most.

Days.

Our last days.

Suddenly the giant creature turned as if it had heard a noise. It lumbered at first as it swung its feet around. But soon it picked up speed. I had a sense then of its power, for its legs were pushing an ocean in front of it, and yet it came right toward me, toward the broken remnants of Saycroft House. I turned about looking for some kind of escape. I was certain there was no way back down the hall, for that was my past—one unbroken line of action to the dead end of my birth—whereas what lay in front of me was the wide open future.

But the floorboards were shattered and two floors below was the shallow ocean. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where I could run or what place could possibly shelter me from the beast, who was one of the six Nameless. It had sensed me, I was sure, and although it was in the future, I knew that place was a timeless shade of the real and a being such as that could pluck me from it and I would reenter the real world at that terrible point, having skipped over all that came between. I needed to escape.

I heard a buzzing and a flapping then, as if from a swarm of large, batlike insects. I looked up and saw black dots swirling in the sky. Devils. Thousands of devils. Preparing to pounce. I caught movement one floor down and saw Anna in her burial dress. She was looking silently up at me. She was waiting. On the floor near my feet was a loose photo, unframed. A long room of cabinets and hardwood was twisted and splintered, as if the room itself had been wrung like a wet rag. The devastation was incredible, but still, I recognized. It was The Barrows. I looked to Anna. I looked again at the picture.

“There’s no frame,” I whispered. I raised my eyes to her again. “You’re showing me the future.”

She moved out of my sight and I folded the picture and stuffed it in my pocket. I dropped to my hands and knees and made my way carefully over the shattered boards, whose ends were capped in sharp splinters. I glanced to the orange-tinted sky and could just make out the faces of the descending devils. Behind me, I could hear the crash of the ocean pushed forward by the ancient god as it strode mightily. I lost my concentration and slipped and fell, and a long splinter buried itself in my hand as it was ripped across the wood.

Anna had already moved across the broken sitting room and into the hallway beyond, and I forced my feet to follow as I pulled the bloody splinter free with a shriek. When I reached the hall, she disappeared around a far corner. Each movement of her seemed instantaneous. I heard devils land on the roof. I heard their scratching. I heard their shrieks. I heard the first waves of the impending tsunami fill the ground floor of the house with a rush. I heard clatter as it lifted clocks and furniture and cast them against the walls. I heard a rumble then, like the cross between an elephant and a lion, and the whole house shook. Glass clinked in cabinets. Pictures rattled and turned crooked on their nails.

The ancient nameless god had come.

The devils broke into the house as Anna moved at last. She raised an arm to direct me around the left corner of the hall, where there was a short nook with two doors, one next to the other, on the back wall.

I stopped. Which did I take?

I turned to her, but her arm had again fallen to the side. She simply looked at me, scared but helpless.

Devils entered the hall, whooping and snarling, and I turned with a fright. They had me—or so I thought. But Anna raised both her arms and a door shut in front of them where there had been none a moment before. They clawed and pounded against it. It would not take them long to break through.

The house groaned. The giant wave pushed by the striding god crashed over the roof. Sea water fell from every crack and drenched everything. I turned to the doors. The motion spun my wet hair and it struck my face. I had been given a vision. I looked to her.

“You’re giving me a choice.”

I looked between the doors. One was scuffed and shabby, the other painted and pristine. Did that mean I was to take the lesser door or the greater?

I heard the bellow then, directly overhead, and a terrible crash. The god was tearing the house apart. I turned again to Anna, hoping to plead some guidance from her, and I felt the heavy coin shift in my pocket.

Of course.

The Moirai penny. I would surrender to Fate.

I took it out and flipped it in the air and caught it with one hand and pressed to the back of the other. I held it there for a moment.

“Heads, to the left. Tails, to the right.”

I removed my hand. Heads. I went for the scuffed door to the left just as the entire roof and upper floor of the house was torn free, lifted off in one piece as if by a tornado. It flew high into the air and I saw dark clouds and swirling devils and the tendrils of the mighty god and its seven-hold maw lined with millions upon millions of teeth. I saw a giant tentacle plunge for me.

At the last moment, Anna shoved the empty air before her and I was propelled through the door with force. The last thing I saw was the tentacle wrapping around her and pulling her to the sky, her arms reaching for me, a scream on her lips. For the beast had ripped her from shadow just before I fell out of a broom closet. Its door swung open and I tumbled to the hardwood as long handles and plastic bottles hit the floor beside me. I stood immediately and slapped my palm against the back wall, but it was solid.

“ANNA!”

I was back in Saycroft House. The sun was shining. I stood in a puddle amid a tangle of broom handles and sideways spray cleaners. I was drenched. I smelled of sea salt and iron. Watery blood dribbled from the splinter gash in my palm. I looked at it. My arm was shaking. Pain throbbed down to the elbow. Behind me, the foyer of the house had been cleared in anticipation of Benjamin’s funeral.

“There you are,” Annewyn said from the stairs, as if a sundered world were whole again. “I knew you’d make it out.” Then she saw my face and my bloody hand and the puddle that had dripped form my clothes and hair. “What happened?”

I fell to the floor, crying. “Anna . . .”