by Mary Bargteil

Helen is 14. She lives in a rowhouse in Baltimore.  Helen is stuck in a nightmare.

In her recurring nightmare, her collie, Macbeth, is racing away.  His long silky fur catches sunlight as he sails across the campestral scene like a beautiful tawny silk scarf weaving through the green grass.  He is running toward the teeth of a huge thrashing machine.  She screams but the wind forces the air back down her throat.

            In her recurring nightmare, she is eleven, wearing a white cotton nightgown dotted with pink rosebuds and her long dark hair tangles down her back like an arbor of brambles.  Her naked feet make prints the color of Alabama clay in the wet cool grass, peach-tinted soles trailing after Macbeth.

            In her recurring nightmare, she runs after the dog but never gains ground. He disappears into the large yellow machinery, swallowed up with the wheat.  He yelps, a quick sharp sound that ceases mid-aria.

            In her recurring nightmare, she tries to wake. She knows what is coming next. She sees herself. She stands and walks into her mother’s room, tears run down her cheeks.

            In her recurring nightmare, the sewing needle, 24 inches long, tumbles toward her, end over end, winking silver. Unthreaded.

            In her recurring nightmare, she stands by her mother’s bed. She can’t speak so she touches her mother’s shoulder.

            “What is it honey?” her mother says, waking and propping herself up on her elbow. “Why aren’t you in bed?”

            Helen shakes her head. No words will come. There is a stopper in her throat.

            “Are you dreaming? Are you asleep?” Her mother swings her feet over the side and gets up.

            Now she will walk Helen back to bed.

            “Oh sweetie, don’t cry. Everything will be okay,” her voice singsongs. “Oh sweet girl, you are just dreaming. Come one. We will make the dream go away.”

            Now she will take Helen’s hand and pull her along behind her like a ghost.  Helen watches her mother pulling her down the hallway but she is still standing beside her mother’s bed.  In her recurring nightmare, her mother does not see her, does not feel her shake the shoulder.

            In her recurring nightmare, the feather is the last thing. It is the most terrifying.  The feather falls from a cloudy sky toward a dark wood.  Helen, in her nightgown, stands in clearing of pines.  She prays silently, “Please do not let the feather touch me.” She does not want to be in the woods with the feather taking forever to fall out of the sky. She does not want it to touch her. It must not touch the ground. “I want to wake. I never want to dream of the dog and the needle and the feather again. I never want the paralysis of the muted swan, the slippery sense of being surreal.

            In her recurring nightmare, the feather is in the air just above her face.  She clenches her eyes tight and wakes.  In a hot narrow room on an August night in the city, streetlight glows through her window that overlooks the alley where the night creatures search the trash cans for treasure.  She smells baby powder made sour by her juvenile sweat as she untangles the cotton sheet and gets up, heads down the hall to her mother’s dark room.

            Standing beside the bed, she wipes tears off her face with the back of her hand and then reaches out and touches her mother’s shoulder. Shakes it a bit. “Mom? Mom, wake up.”

            Her mother rolls over, away from Helen. “Not now, Honey.” Her tobacco tortured voice snags across the words. “Rough night.”

            “But I had the dream.”  Helen says.

            “Well, it’s over now so go back to bed.”

            “I can’t go back there,” her words grow thin, higher, helium high, so only dogs will hear her.

            Dammit, Helen. It’s a dream.”  Her mother turns her head, opens her dark eyes, props up on her elbow.  Her eyes are black, not brown; deep tar pools with shards of mercury light in them.  Her eyes are stronger than all the ghosts and demons that visit mere mortals.  “Now, go,” she flails her hand toward Helen, “to” and then points at the door, “bed.”

            Helen turns.  Her mother’s head makes a soft plopping sound back onto her pillow.  Helen heads for her room.

            After her recurring nightmare, she goes into her room, closes the door, turns on the light.  It is 3:14 AM.  She gets out paper and a pencil. She will write it down, but this time, she will call out to the dog and he will turn and run back to her, jump on her.  There is no machinery, just wide green fields, soft breezes, a wood in the distance; a wood that her mother emerges from carrying a picnic basket and a smile.  She’s raising her arm and calling Helen’s name as she fall asleep.

            In her recurring nightmare, her collie, Macbeth, is racing away.