You’re a vast sky
You’re a dead star
You’re a cruel sea
Last Night I Dreamed a Flower
Last night I dreamed a flower. Its corolla was as soft, pink, and delicate as you. Petals bloomed before my eyes at an impossible rate. The flower grew in size until it seemed a world, engorged petals big enough to scale—so many uncharted mountains and crags. I did not know its kind, but I thought it resembled a mushroom: grifola fondosa, hen of the woods, its overlapping fleshly shingles far too many to count. The flower bloomed in a bare oasis, clouded pool of water set in a dune that unfurled for miles. I picked up the night-moistened flower, my hands wet with dew, and glimpsed at its center a shining pearl. In this way I revealed pearl’s opposite, a dark round sphere—no, a hole in the ground, inside of which you lay, naked as the day save for a blanket made of linen that covered you up like a shroud. The sudden flood of moonlight in the hole caused you to stir, and you woke, sat up, and looked at me. You had my face. Your body yours, you wore my face, set in a look of dark despair.
You drove, as you always did, and I sat beside you in the car and asked you questions, and sometimes you answered and sometimes you did not, but I thought you liked my asking. Still, today had been tense, and I don’t know why. Weather, time of year, the shifting colors of our moods had collided to make us both a little sour. My fury rises now and then in little crests, sparked by you, too much of you, the one I love. Yours does, too, and the crests rise higher than mine, even if it seems uncouth to say it and I remain sufficiently patient to bear it. Yet the question remains. We were not enjoying each other that day. And why, sometimes, did it feel like you wanted to fly from me?
Nonetheless I persisted because I thought it, or I, was cute. I asked you to confirm whether you did or did not like the beach.
We had already visited the beach that stunned us, that place where sky and lake come together, seeping into each other in a beautiful, surreal, and endless gray-blue. Looking upon it, I believed for a moment that I had never felt more astonished or less corporeal, my body gone soft and hazy at the edges, as blurred as the line that marked water’s beginning. My feet stood on rock that kept me stable, kept me present, but it seemed any minute I would melt into the blue. I longed for it. It surprised us, that this could be here, here, at the top of our drab and ugly state in the middle of the country. We wanted to linger in this other world; we wanted never ever to leave.
I watched the people we passed, couples with children, a few dogs with their owners. You watched for birds, as you always did, but none revealed themselves. You had always loved birds, the notion of flying, birds’ freedom and grace. (You wanted some of it for yourself because, you sometimes said, you had none of your own. I disagreed, and you disagreed with that.)
Soothed by lake and sea, we walked. We walked the length of the beach and picked up rocks, this one washed flat by the water, this one pocked with tiny holes so that, you said, it looked alien. You wondered if we’d found the rock that would herald our end, cursèd artifact of the eldritch deep. I laughed and slid it into my pocket, saying it would remind me of you, always, my cursèd one. We tried to skip stones but had no idea how; neither of us had that kind of know-how. We walked and saw nothing but blue, though after a time the fog cleared to show us a lighthouse, white spear in the distance, hurtling upward to heaven. I wished aloud that we might get close enough to touch, close enough to go inside. When you said it was time we turned back, I felt chastened.
Not until we reached the car did the tenseness resume, peculiar and persistent state of suspension that made both of us jumpy and suspicious. Though I believed that the beach had successfully charmed you, you did not answer my question as you ferried us away. As we sat, a song I like issued from the tinny car speaker. Apostrophizing a fugitive lover, the singer invoked a vast sky, a dead star, a cruel sea. I furtively watched for your reaction; your face looked tense and impervious to musical distraction, your lip stiff as your brows, eyes fixed on the horizon. Neither of us said another word.
And when you pulled up to the dune and parked beneath it, the tall one we’d been planning to mount, together, I said something I have come to regret. It seems stupid now, pointless, impulsive. The patience to which I so like laying claim had grown thin, like taffy that stretches as far as you like, if a little further than I like—but when it gets too thin it grows a little transparent, even if it rarely snaps apart.
Thus, when you said it was too cold today, and you appeared not to wish to leave the car, I pointed out that you always found something to complain about. For some reason, that meaningless moment was the turn of the screw; my throwaway comment set you off; you went away. You got out of the car after all, and you began to stride dune-ward, moving fast enough to signal that I ought not join you.
Keeping my distance, I watched. Your pace rapid, you pushed deeper into the dunes. You were utterly intent on, absorbed in, your own forward momentum, oblivious to me. But my job has always been to wait for you, to watch for your inevitable return. My job has been to bear the tension as it mounts, to stretch when I need to, until I can rest once again.
You might have been lost there in the wilderness, lone saint endeavoring to prove his moral mettle, his hardiness in temptation’s wicked face.
For my own part, I wanted two things. I wanted to rush to you and give you shelter, to pretend my arms were strong enough that you could not burst from them, or sufficiently supple that they would always stretch to hold you, that you could not leave me no matter how hard you tried. And, my anger having flared, I wanted to sneak up behind you, hiding under cover of shrub or stray garbage until you stood at the dunes’ high peak, and then push you off and watch you fall. I wanted you; I wanted everything—power over life and death.
Meanwhile the wind blew with such force I half-expected the dunes themselves to blow away, as though nature had no resilience, no defenses, in the face of this eternal obstacle.
I began, then, to move, to follow you up the dune, my feet slipping, struggling to find traction in the sand. How you had ascended so fast seemed beyond my ken, as beyond it as the nature of God and love and the fate of all of us, saints and sinners together, traipsing through an unyielding wilderness that we had come by force of habit to regard as life.
A flash of pale purple, the color of the sweater you wore, drew my eye. Just as fast it went away somewhere, across the peak, and I rushed to keep up. When I reached the top, I surveyed the peak, the sand, the land that held us. You were not there.
Far from me, in the distance, so tiny it might have been a birdhouse, I saw a crooked little hut that sagged in the sand. We’d driven that way en route, but only now did the house come within my purview. Something lay behind the hut, a sort of park perhaps. The wind carried from its vicinity the sounds of birds, chirping, a cacophonous chorus that struck me as eerie.
The hut rested alone in an empty landscape. No you, no people at all, just me and the house, miles away.
And so you really had disappeared, and I didn’t know where you went.
I woke up wanting to save you. What else was there to want?
After you vanished, you left me with an evening of aimless pacing, scouring the dunes for nonexistent signs of you. My feet moved of their own accord, oblivious to reason, to the notion that you really might have gone. I spent the night in the car, watching a black sky bereft of stars, barely sleeping as I curled up in the back seat. My legs grew cramped and ached by dawn. The next day, I wandered the dunes in further vain search, once more climbing the peak, dog-tired and angry, and once more finding nothing but the crooked little house. But the house, it now seemed to me, could have granted you shelter. Or it could have granted me a clue. So my desperation, at least, led me to believe. And thus I whiled away the morning crawling down the dune and approaching the house.
All the while, birds chirped and chattered, though they did not sound cheerful, and when I got close I discerned that the source of the noise was right here. Sure enough, behind the house—invisible even where I’d stood on the dune—I found thousands of them, birds in gilded cages. The further I walked, the more I found. And thousands of statues formed strange phalanxes, though who could say what they might have been defending. I had entered a sand-blasted sculpture garden.
Wending my way to the front of the house, I soon stood before the door. A knock upon the shabby wooden slab yielded no response. I was about to turn away when the door swung open, and a man as frail and wizened as the flock of caged birds peered at me across the threshold. He had a face that looked familiar though ravaged by time; I could not place it.
I did not know what to say to him. To explain what this encounter stirred in me would be impossible, yet I shall try: My ragged and delirious mind, beset by desperation and anxiety that now seemed my body’s sole animating forces, desired only to collapse. That face, not friendly but familiar, made me feel welcome, put me at ease. Smiling, he bade me enter. I wished for nothing more than to be comforted, helped, saved; I who wished to save you needed, first, my own salvation. I gave in, entered, felt for a moment that my troubles might, if not cease, then let up.
Suddenly, he laughed. I tried to move, but a strange inertia took hold of my limbs; they would not budge. Not strange—the answer came to me—but magic: that is to say, still strange but explicable. Or not explicable but somewhere in the realm of the conceivable. I wished I could have asked you whether you could explicate it.
Witchcraft froze my limbs in place; it made of me a statue. Rendered helpless, I watched out the window and saw the birds. One, which I had not noticed before, bore beautiful pale purple plumage. It appeared a little more youthful than the rest, and it reminded me of you, you who so loved birds but had never kept them. I watched as the man, or witch, approached that purple bird and trapped it and held up the cage—your cage—in triumph.
I understood. Meanwhile, I was entombed in marble, my newly alabaster skin gone hard. Faculties of speech and locomotion fled from me; my mind alone remained.
Later, he returned to me and said he’d let me go. Why? Did he feel a twinge of sorrow, pity such a pathetic simulacrum of a man?
Still, he promised that I would never see you again, not as I knew you. I fled.
And so last night I dreamed a flower, a flower in the wilderness. It might have been the wilderness I wanted to claim for my own, where I could wallow in misanthropy and even try to queer it.
We made quite the pair, you and I; we always had, and everyone said so. Together we made one. Perfectly matched, your candor and my reticence, your capriciousness and my equanimity. And we changed roles sometimes, handing one off to the other in a private two-hander or folie à deux. And, of course, we looked a bit alike, sufficiently so that we were made to field intrusive questions now and then. We made quite the pair, and with one of us gone then where, and what, were we? What was I? You were a caged bird, and I a one-time statue who hoped to see you one day, once more, as a man.
I took a room in the nearby town, the one overlooked by the dunes. Here I could walk to the beach every day and wish, as much as I please, to dissolve into blue. I wished it every day, for to be sea-swallowed might bring me some modicum of peace. The lake, at least, is still, and what it does it does slowly, with gentleness and care, such as smoothing the rocks, such as holding the sky. I walked to the beach and near the hut, but I dared not draw too near. Instead, my feet circled its perimeter, my ears picked up the chatter of sad and aging birds, and I wondered in vain why I could not pull you close. Terror and longing forced my steps; they restricted them, too. They moved in a dance as you and I could but never have, so self-conscious and clumsy and alike.
For a long time my life shrunk to the space of that landscape. But something changed last night. The flower that in dreams drips with dew, whose pale pink petals I could stroke and thereby think of you—somehow, it visited me and whispered a secret across the length of the night. The flower said I could: it prodded me to act, to lift it from the earth and reach my arm into the hole and grip your hand in mine. Therefore, I would seek the flower of dew. Therefore, I would rescue you.
I searched for it for the length of nine long days. How it would make itself known to me—where this oasis would rise from the landscape and whether it was near or even real—remained utterly unclear. Soon, dunes and shore gave way to a flat stretch of sand that looked bleached white, like a salt flat, which I knew not to exist here. Yet there it lay, and it looked like snow though improbably dry. It looked dead, beneath a sky equally barren. I had entered a desert in the heart of the country.
By now, however, I had ample experience of transformation. I knew how feathers could burst from your skin, how lips could harden into a beak, how eyes could grow beady and feet small, keratinous, and clawed. And, after all, I had for a time been a marble man, my skin made mineralized. Why could the lakeside not desiccate into a desert? If you were with me, I would have asked you whether you knew that alchemists believed in three principal elements, into which all matter could be divided: mercury, sulfur, and salt. Including you, including me! If they were right, then it should seem no trouble at all to wreck a body or a mountain or a lake into nothing and build it up again into something new. By unknowable forces you became a bird and I a sculpture, and so I came to believe that any transmutation could be equally possible. Even flesh, even water, even love, perhaps.
For nine days I wandered, until there it was, until at dawn I found it. I had known it would be there: the oasis. Perhaps the lake had shrunk into nothing, into a shadow of its former self. Perhaps I had traveled scarcely any distance at all. I stood there beneath the dark sky, into which a solitary prick of light had bored a hole: not the moon but some far-off and indifferent star. I felt an insect, a germ beneath the microscope. No, call me what I was: a pale weak man shrinking before the luminous and burning eye of God.
The fat heavy flower, hen of the woods, hen of the desert, rested near the pool of murky water. I knelt and did as my dream had bidden me: picked up the flower and peered into the hole that fate had commanded to be there.
The dim light of that menacing star showed me nothing. It’s true: the hole turned out to be empty. I saw neither body nor shroud, neither your face nor mine. A mere empty hole greeted me and commanded me to get on my way. Resolute if newly wary, I obliged. All the same, I had the flower.
Having had enough of rough country to last me all my days, I turned back, flower in hand, and sped my way toward you—toward, that is, the crooked little hut at the base of the dune.
If anything the crooked house looked somehow grander, as though bolstered by the continual accumulation of souls. Birds continued to nurse their grief; that their calls were full of sorrow now struck me as obvious.
I clutched the flower close to my chest and, when I approached the door, it flew open. Inside all was bare and empty: there was neither man nor any furniture at all. The room looked forlorn, not empty but abandoned. Walls made of thin sagging wood let in light through little chinks and cracks. The floor let out heavy groans when it met my feet.
I left and moved out back, toward the cages. It seemed that you would never be found amid this flock of thousands. With the flower, I touched each cage I passed, and each one disappeared, metal vanished in a flash. Feathers tucked themselves up and away as wings stretched into arms that flapped in joy and wonder. All these captives, thrilled to be released, gave me their thanks and rushed away. But where was my purple-plumed bird?
It might have been days that I strode through the park—no park but a prison, until now. The statue garden rapidly diminished, the figures melting at the touch of my flower, softening, as I had, once more into humanity. I knew exactly how it felt for marble to ease back into flesh and so I rejoiced with them, naturally, as they ran and leaped and danced for the simple pleasure of it.
I journeyed to the far end and back to the hut, exhausted but happy and eager. I was eager for you. The taffy of my life had been stretched as far as it would go, spun gossamer-fine, thin enough to see through, and I was ready to retreat, coil up, and rest forever.
And there, at last, I saw you, uncaged, resting on the roof. How you broke free of your cage and reached that perch I did not know, unless the old man had freed you. Or unless you had mixed with the crowd in my spree of liberation and swiftly made your exit. You sat alone, lovely and calm. You did not look my way. I remember I shouted, called your name, waved my hands to get your attention, until at last with those beady black bird-eyes you saw me, and something glinted in them, and you flapped your wings and flew, surging skyward. You landed on the ground beside my feet but, before I could touch you, you soared away once more.
I knew what you meant. It suddenly seemed to me that, as beautiful as ever, you had become what you’d always wanted to be: untethered, volant, free. This was one path I could not follow, no way to contort myself to join you in your passage. Thus I did not try to reach you but let you be, watching from my earthly vantage. You made a wonderful sight.
Then I went inside the empty hut, wondering what had happened to the wicked old man. With those four walls as my dubious shelter, until I figured out what it was the world had in store for me next, I sat down with my flower, alone. I crossed my legs and cupped it in my hands and held it close. Its central pearl shone amid the folds of its petals, and I saw my own despondent face reflected within that tiny glowing sphere.