To begin with she had entered her bedchamber and Peggy had been waiting beside the bed. “There’s an owl under there,” Peggy had laughed hopelessly. “It’s impossible to chase it out.”
She, the mistress, ran around the side of the bed, eager to catch a glimpse of this unusual visitor. The bed, however, was giving nothing away. She dipped to her knees and peered into and around the landscape of shapeless items down there. But the stillness under the bed seemed to be sealed tight like a coffin.
“Why can’t we get it out?” the mistress pleaded.
Peggy smiled cryptically.
She, the mistress, believed that the owl had been only just previously in the room and that she had, through some calamitous misjudgement of timing, missed it. Then the desolation had broken vastly over her and she was gazing around the room piteously. Her eyes felt so raw that they could have been seeing this room for the very first time.
Next she had been deposited midway down a familiar dirt road, out across the far side of the widest fields. It was day – the afternoon, probably. A black, a labourer, was stalking towards her, his arms swinging self-importantly. Solemnly, he raised a hand to stop her and he then informed her in a few bare words that Peggy was dead. Her body, he confided, was lying in the ditch that ran along the other side of the hedgerow, adjacent to this road.
“But how?” she, the mistress, wondered. “She was only alive a minute ago, wasn’t she?”
Then she saw that the man was gesturing to her to be silent and that he was mouthing a single word. In her mind, the word BRANTELL had reached her.
As inevitably as a coin rolling around into a hole, she, the mistress, proceeded up to the gap that waited ahead in the hedgerow and she stepped through. She was not surprised to see Peggy lying face-down in the grassy ditch. Slumped in the middle of her outspread blue dress, like a bedraggled fly dangling within a cobweb, the girl somehow looked amazingly shrunken. Her flesh could have been already melting away and seeping into the grass.
Reluctantly, Brantell turned from the body and in doing so he seemed to slyly hook his waist back into his overalls. He now stood still and calculating and she, the mistress, felt that he was collecting all of his energy and drawing it into his fists. His eyes rested levelly on the mistress, as though she was a clock that was about to strike.
Trying to overrule this sinister impression, she, the mistress, appealed to him openly. “What happened? Why is she dead?”
“She had a knife,” he reported in an emotionless voice. He continued to wait. She, the mistress, knew that if the next thing she said was the wrong thing, she too could be lying in the ditch, confirming these killings as a pattern.
“She was dangerous,” Brantell sniffed, glancing again at the body. Noiselessly, he was starting to drift up towards her. What should she say next? It was as if a gale was blowing onto the very material of her soul and she had been frozen in this unearthly blast.
She needed to shake off Brantell, if only for a few seconds. If she could run away from him then she could circle back around the hedgerow and approach Peggy’s body from a new angle. When she was alone with Peggy, she could rouse her and walk her back to the house and dose her with apple brandy and badger her into being alive again. But already, in a massive wave of inspiration, the cold knowledge was reaching her that this was impossible. Startled, she demanded of herself how it could be so, when this was the plan that she had only moments ago forged. Because you are having a dream, she realised in astonishment. Because this situation is impossible. There is no way it can be real.
On this signal, the stunned reality was draining out of this field and out of the body in the ditch and out of Brantell, who now stood to one side, paused and waiting dutifully. She began to stride out over the field. So why hadn’t the dream ended? Some instinct told her that she should have been plunged out of this dream, like a fish snatched in a fisherman’s hands. But she looked around at the paleness of the field and, visually, its stability held firm.
On she walked and now she was walking on cobbles around a harbour in the moonlight. She was in somewhere like Glasgow or Gdansk but she found that she was unable to quite latch onto this precise detail. Sleeping ships were leaning vastly over the walkways; it was hard to keep out of their shadows, to keep her face floating clear in the moonlight.
Her mission was to buy the termination of a pregnancy for her mother. She was carrying a bale of fine silk to complete the payment. The bale had been compacted so heavily that it hurt her hands to carry it and she had to keep putting it down every few seconds to rest them. There was a worry in her mind that they had been cheated and that she was really carrying a useless lump of coarse wool. Inevitably, the suspicion was also stealing over her that she had been sent to buy the termination of her own personhood. But this is nonsense, her own voice sang from faraway over the harbour. Because this situation is impossible. You are dreaming!
She, the mistress, ducked inside a vaguely moonlit room and she began to clomp up a flight of stairs. She knew that the abortionist was sitting somewhere overhead, at a bureau in his chamber and writing letters. She could picture this chamber perfectly and the candlelight by which he was writing and she headed towards where she sensed that this would be found.
Why can’t you control this?, the thought darted in her mind.
Then the flicker of a chance memory had reached her. A boy, one of the hands, had been telling her that he could fly in his dreams. He would be suspended over sundrenched, early-morning fields, as steady as a hawk. He told her that he could indeed swoop down over these fields just as a hawk would do.
She, the mistress, had wondered how this boy could have known the look of the fields from far overhead. After all, he could have never possibly seen them like this. She had quickly grown embarrassed, however, when the boy had asked her if she was also able to fly in her own dreams. You were not meant to show weakness in front of the blacks, but neither should you share bedroom intimacies with them. If she assured him that she could fly in her dreams (she couldn’t), then she would have let him – even in the most casual and most spectral way – enter her bedchamber.
The dream that she was in blared over this memory and she could not keep a hold of the vital thread. Perhaps if she had held on, something on the other end could have wrenched her out again.
She hurried on through the flimsy, scatterbrained scenarios that had been devised for her to walk through. She was out in a desert in the dead of night and there was a murderous edge to the cold. She had built a crude fire but she had to run hither and thither, around the desert, collecting bits of stray wood, otherwise the fire would go out and the cold would swing in punching hard, knocking her down.
This isn’t real, she fumed. I can end this.
The desert had become a beach and the cold a wide foaming sea. Just a stone’s throw down from the level on which she was standing a coach and a team of horses were trundling through the waves. Water was being sprayed in uproarious wings from the wheels on either side. The coach glittered – its carapace had been painted in gold – and the horses were snow white and so grand and powerfully built that they could have been ancestral plough horses. She, the mistress, could also spot what appeared at first to be monkeys, and next to be tiny footmen in livery and tricorn hats, clinging to the backs of these horses.
Two ladies sat perched in this coach. One had vacant eyes and luxuriant, curled golden hair, whilst the other was a black in a high pointed turban. She, the mistress, did not like the look of this black lady so well. She understood with the force of a spiteful kick that this lady wasn’t lesser and that she had never been a slave. Although the fair lady stared expressionlessly ahead, smiling faintly, the black lady turned and leered straight at her. Her eyes goggled and her tongue writhed maliciously, tying the air around into the craziest and most highly ingenious of knots.
She, the mistress, let her eyes fall on the sand. Her head seemed to be pounding unsteadily with the beating of her own heart. The urgency had pressed in on her, clamouring, that she needed to remember who she was and where in the universe she was due to awaken. By now she would fasten onto any hint – any clue – any passing suggestion of what her real identity was.
Then she saw that the sand had become a small random pile on the floor of her own dining room and she looked up at the table. Her husband had been restored to full health again and the dinner that was about to ensue was being evidently held to celebrate his recovery. Houseguests were being shown into the room and then amazement was flooding over her that she was in a situation for once where whites were finally the majority. Only a couple of the blacks were still orbiting discreetly in the background.
I know that this is my husband, she thought, even if can’t quite access who I am yet. She theorised that if she could get up and leave this room and climb the stairs to the bedrooms, then she might happen to come across her own body lying asleep in one of the beds. She could then waken herself and ask herself who she was.
She remained seated. It was impossible for her to stand.
“I am not letting you leave.” An old man dressed all in dusty black clothing had seated himself next to her. He seemed to be sitting strangely close for a guest at a dinner party. His face had initially looked mild and with rather glazed eyes, but next a kind of smirk was rolling deep in his jaw. Immediately, she, the mistress, felt trapped and now the dread and the panic of this impression had pounced and caught her.
The man had clutched at a glass and he was waving it impatiently in the air.
Peggy was scampering around them, pouring wine. She, the mistress, was trying to watch her face to see whether she was alive or still dead.
If only this wine was real, she, the mistress, thought glumly, looking down at the meaningless liquid.
“My wine is real.” His voice had seemed to rap like knuckles on the table. He then raised his glass and gobbled greedily from it.
Peggy was scampering on another circuit and he clicked his fingers for his glass to be filled again. Yes, her face – from what she, the mistress, had glimpsed of it – had looked like smudged, bruised fruit.
“Mine is real,” the old man reiterated. Another foul smirk, rolling in his jaw like the belly of some leech or snake that was turning over.
He snorted with laughter – his every casual action appeared to be declarative, a brusque slamming on the keys on the piano. Then all at once she, the mistress, had recognised that every voice that she had heard previously in these dreams had been faint, listless, a faraway cry of the wind. Even her own voice whenever she had spoken had sounded like this. But there was a preternatural clarity to the voice of this man beside her.
“I don’t believe we are acquainted…” she began. Why did her own voice still sound so remote when compared to his?
He eyed her shrewdly. “Well, my name is Corpustain…” His accent was Scots and so hard and knobbly that he could have been speaking only through his teeth. “Corpustain. But what’s the point of telling you? You know who I am but you’re so fucking lobotomised that you currently can’t hold any thought in your head.”
Her arms were shaking. She had turned to look at her husband for help but there seemed to be nobody there, just a genial nothingness.
“I am keeping you here,” Corpustain confirmed, nodding. He then grinned nastily. “I can keep you here for a million years, you stupid, bewildered bitch.”
From somewhere her voice came, slow and ghostly. “How – why – for a million years…?”
He shrugged off the question. “Well, why not? Outside, your sleep will last for a few hours, as it always does, but in here there is no connection to the time outside. One second out there can be one hundred years in here.”
He then stuck his tongue forcefully between his teeth and ripped a kind of ugly fanfare out of this impromptu kazoo.
“I don’t believe you…” she heard herself moan.
“Please let me out,” she pleaded.
His face was frozen into another grin. Next he had emptied his glass and clicked his fingers again.
“A million years of wandering – aye, through absolute fucking nonsense – aye this’ll serve you about right. You’ll go insane but, of course, when you wake up, you won’t know that you are insane. You won’t know how you have come to be insane or why you are. You’ll just have this melted husk of a soul. It’ll serve you about right. Oh I’m enjoying this, I can tell you. Believe me, I am taking a MIGHTY enjoyment.”
She bowed her head but she continued to hear his stained-glass window voice with all of the rich light soaring wondrously through it. “So don’t try to escape,” he demanded. She heard the pop and tinkle of his glass breaking. “Look up at me! LOOK AT ME!! he bellowed.
She raised her head and looked up at him.
“I’m giving you a chance. That handiwork by Brantell is going to happen. Do you understand? It’s going to happen out in the outside world. Nod if you understand.”
She did not know what to think but she nodded.
“You have to keep it in your mind – all through the million years of nonsense that I’m about to make you walk through. It is like a flame that you are not meant to allow to go out. If you tell her – to avoid walking in that road – to avoid Brantell – then you can save her life or something. Do you understand?”
She nodded again.
He rocked on his seat gleefully, looking so animated for such an elderly man that, if there had been any innocence to this scene, he might have resembled a hobgoblin in a children’s picture book. He emptied his glass again – even though he had surely just cracked it – and his body erupted and jangled in his chair triumphantly like a cockcrow pealing. She bowed her head and then, when she had looked up, there was smarting rain and she was in a cornfield, running hither and thither, trying to find anywhere where she would not be hit by the immanent lightning.
“Peggy,” she murmured.
The pearly light pouring through the windows seemed to accord jarringly with how stunned she was feeling. She could not sit up yet but she lay back and tried to peer around through her own grogginess.
By now she was panicking slightly. She felt so stunned and so groggy – she must have been sleeping unusually deeply just prior to awakening. It will wear off, she told herself. She just needed to wait.
Peggy. Why had she said the word Peggy? She had heard herself distinctly saying this out loud.
She smiled. Perhaps she had been already calling for coffee before she had even awoken.
“Peggy!” she called again in a high voice, just in case the maid happened to be in earshot. Then she rang the bell.
[Previously on Tychy: “The Fairy Carriage.”]