“Want some candy?” Aunt Dissy asked when I was seven.
Delighted, I thrust open my hand.
“Let me see it,” she said. She grabbed my hand before I could hide it in my pocket, forced me to reveal the map that was the dark life lines of my palm. Aunt Dissy shook her head and laughed, her face like water, rippling between a smile and a frown. “See here? I told your mama when you were born.”
The women in my family aged like trees. To Mama, Aunt Dissy was like a grandmama, more big mama than sister. Aunt Dissy was strong and clever, nimble-minded and sure. She pointed at a dark groove, a short river rolling across my palm. “Your love line all broken, your life line zagging, too.” She traced the pattern with the red tip of her nail. “It’s all writ right here,” she said, her face resigned. “Cassie, you ain’t never going to be lucky in love, and you sho’ll ain’t going to be lucky in cards either. But don’t worry.” She leaned over, blowing peppermint and something stronger in my face. My bottom lip trembled, her bright jewelry banged against her chest. “You got the best luck of all, child, the best.”
Luck? I was only in the first grade, and hope rose above my fear. Maybe if I raised my hand in class I would always know the right answer, I thought. Maybe if I didn’t know, I could be invisible. Aunt Dissy stared at me, her eyes wide, knowing, bottomless mirrors. I wished I were invisible right then.
She dug her nail into the fat meat of my palm. I tried to focus my eyes on her thick silver ring, not the pain.
“You got the Sight.” Her tongue held onto the “t,” the word itself an incantation.
My face crumpled, my palm raw, exposed. For a moment, Aunt Dissy’s eyes softened. She passed me one of her hard candies then stroked my palm with her rough, bejeweled hand, tugged at a loose plait curled around my ear. “If you don’t understand right now, rest assured, babygirl. One of these nights you will find out in your sleep.”
The red twisted wrapper fell from my hand. I stood petrified under the hard gaze of several generations of Aunt Dissys, hanging on the wall. Behind her heavy choker, I could see where there had been a deep gash in her throat. The scarred skin was raised and thick like a rope. Maybe the Dissys looked so sour because they were all cursed with the same “best” luck.
“Go on, play now,” she said and frowned, as if she’d heard my thoughts, but I was frozen, didn’t close my eyes for more than a few minutes for three whole days. Instead, I stared at the dark portraits that hung in heavy frames along the walls of every room. Imagined the navel names of the stern-faced women. Before, when I asked Mama about their names, she answered with one sharp word. “Dissy,” she said and shrugged. So I fought off sleep, making up a litany of names and stories about the Dissys’ mysterious lives. And when the strain of wakefulness became too much, Mama found me passed out under the sink in the back bedroom, owl-eyed and babbling.
“What did you do to her?” she asked and carried me away. Aunt Dissy bit down on hard candy and grinned, the sound like crushed bones. I didn’t find out until much later that Aunt Dissy poured whiskey in my tea, an old Dissy trick to force me to fall asleep. “The Sight’s coming one way or the other, Faye.” Mama unbuckled my overalls and put me to bed. “Even a mother’s love can’t change a child’s fate.”
Mama didn’t speak to Aunt Dissy for six whole weeks. Didn’t matter no way. Aunt Dissy had told me something else that scared me that first night. Peppermint couldn’t mask the whiskey on her breath, nor those words she had whispered, as if they were a gift. “And with the Sight, you’re going to live longer than the richest woman, deeper than the sweetest love.” Coming from Aunt Dissy’s lips, that didn’t sound so good.
All day long Mama had tried to protect me, but when my eyes closed, I was on my own. And like all the others born before, not long after Aunt Dissy read my palm, the Sight came to me, just as she said, deep in my sleep.
That night I dreamed my room was alive. The walls, the doors, the ceiling pulsed and heaved as if they were flesh and breath. The room rattled like the tail of a snake. In the night, dark as the inside of an eyelid, I willed myself awake, refused to sleep for fear I would dream the dream again. But when I grew weary of fighting off sleep, I woke to a room that was collapsing all around me. Chips of paint floated down like peeling flakes of dry skin, decayed flesh. The walls hissed and screamed. I scratched the paint chips off of me, but they kept falling, dark and jeweled snowflakes.
My body felt dry and prickly as the brightly colored paint stuck to me, covering my skin. I screamed as the chips crept over my arms, my legs, my throat and face. Only my eyes remained. I could see the dream world caving in on me, but I could not escape. Something or someone was holding me, holding my breath. It forced my mouth open, forcing me to swallow. I tried to swing and fight but my arms felt heavy, weighed down by the rainbow tiles that covered my flesh. Neither asleep nor fully conscious, I fought between worlds. I couldn’t stop seeing. A mosaic mummy, I scratched and clawed and screamed myself awake. The skin on my throat, my arms, even my belly were in tatters.
I cried for my mother, but it was too late.
The night the Sight came to me, the night it ripped my flesh into cruel tattoos, Mama died. I never forgave the Sight for taking my mama away from me.
Aunt Dissy claimed it was a heart attack. “Yo’ mama has always been weak.” She covered the mirrors and dressed my wounds with raw honey, forced me to drink a bitter tea. As I swallowed the peppery spice, she refused to let me see her. She wrapped my tattered body in cloths and locked me in my room. But it didn’t matter. I already knew the look of terror on Mama’s face. As the Sight’s fire crept over my body, burned through my shredded skin, I let the pain take over, allowing it to numb the pain of me being left behind.
I never got a chance to tell Mama what I saw in my dream. Every night I waited for her, whispered her name as I tried to fight sleep, but Mama never came. Only Aunt Dissy. And the others. When the oldest came to me, the very first Dissy, I recognized her as if she had always been there, hovering in my room. She floated in the air above me, the look in her eyes like two open wounds. Her body was covered in what I thought at first to be tattoos. But she was riven in cuts and runes. Even her blue-black face. The others gathered around her, rubbed ashes into the wounds. They covered her with a dark stained robe and gently braided her hair, dabbed petals from bright flowers on her unblinking eyes.
As they worked, I recognized them from the portraits that filled the walls in all the rooms of Mama’s house. The woman with the regal black bun and the high, lacy white collar that covered her neck, the Dissy in the long skirts, with bright ribbons that hung down to her knees. The other dressed in sack cloth, her head covered in a handkerchief. Still another dressed in a cloche hat, sporting glossy marcel waves and a fur-trimmed coat, wrapped around her glorious figure. I saw another Dissy wearing what might have been a lab coat. She puzzled me. I couldn’t tell if she was a scientist or held court in someone’s kitchen. All of them Dissys, the infamous line of women in our family, women whose minds wandered in the realm of the spirits, returned with the answers in their dreams. And from what I could tell, their stern faces staring back at me from heavy frames along the mirrorless wall, none of them had been full of cheer. Ever.
So many Dissys. And still others came, from times I could not recognize. They showed me things I didn’t understand, led me to places past fear. And if I refused to sleep, they would sing in the wind. They would whisper in the rain. They would linger in the shadows, the walls of my house shaking, humming, hissing until I slept, until I wove their signs into stories, some I whispered to Aunt Dissy, some I kept to myself. And when I refused them too long, the dark circles under my eyes like black half-moons, they would carve the dreams into my skin. Signs and symbols haunted me, a bloody warning in the light of day.
I wore long sleeves for years. The others teased me, said I was sanctified. I never kept up with fashion, for fear that one of the guidance counselors would think I was a cutter, for fear that CPS might take me away. I covered myself until women in ink were as common as night and day, and then I set the scars free.
For most, dreaming marks the end of labor, a time for rest, reflection. For me, it marks when my labors begin.
My dreams held the fates of people I had not met, their lives netted with my own. And no matter what I did years later to try to change my “luck”, my fate, what Aunt Dissy said was turning out to be true. She’d lived longer than nature allows, while my own mama had died fairly young. Aunt Dissy had seen more dreams than any single mind should ever have. Her body held the story, just like mine. And at the rate I was going, it looked like I too would carry her burden, the weight of the scars, the weight of years.
Longer than the richest, deeper than the sweetest love, she’d said.
But what’s the point in living long if you’re broke and lonely and all the dreams you hold are for everyone but you?
“Hey, Slim.” I jerk my chin up in the obligatory greeting and watch Mrs. Medina’s green beanpole of a grandson bebop his way down the street. He has gotten to the age where he thinks he’s grown. He has three long hairs on his top lip he calls a mustache and some knobby strands on his chin he calls a beard. He believes he is a man now and can make a play for me or any woman he sees. If he sees even the hint of a curve, no matter how old that curve is, he’s practicing on you. It’s almost cute. He has grown tall and strong and brown over this Indian summer, but the baby, the boy straining underneath the skin of the man, is all up in his face. I hear Katherine’s little knock-kneed girls giggle as he struts by. His long arm waves as he gives them his back. Still wearing pigtails and bright bobos, they are too young to be kee-keeing in the manboy’s face, but it’s summer, such as it is, the ice cream man hasn’t crawled by yet, and young hearts are for flirting, for loving, if nothing else. Or so I am told.
I stand in the shade of the fire escape, breathe in the scent of spices and my struggle herbs as the manboy disappears around a corner, down the brownstoned street. Aunt Dissy had the gift of green. Me, a different story. My rosemary looks dry, the peppermint and basil wilted, and the yarrow won’t bloom. With my back to the kitchen, I can feel the spirits pulling the huge sky over me. The air feels heavy, humid, the weight of rain. Sheltered from the wind, my skin feels like ripe fruit about to burst. I haven’t slept for nearly two days. A dry spell. Haven’t had dream the first. Aunt Dissy’s book sits on the kitchen table, atop its golden stand, its pages closed, judging me.
A lone black sock from the rough and tumblers upstairs just barely misses my head. That couple is always fighting. Everyone on the block already knows how that dream ends. I watch the sock sail down to the dirty street below, like a fuzzy feather, a sign or a warning. It falls in slow motion, a sign surely, but I don’t know what it means. It’s too early in the day and I can’t tell which. The inside of my head itches. My eyes probably look like teabags. I’m afraid to look. In my mind I am two thousand miles away. My Sight is shaded up from the hot sun. Like a rainbow-tailed serpent, it won’t budge until it’s cool.
I close my eyes. Right now, I don’t want to see anything, don’t want to hear, don’t even want to feel. But I know he is standing outside the door before the bell rings.
“Come, sit down,” I tell him and wave at the piano stool set up before my table. He sits as if the weight of his burdens has just sat down on the stool with him. His face and his thin shoulders worn down with worry, the remnants of his dreams linger in the wrinkles of a loose shirt that is too big for him. The man looks not much older than me, but I’m a Dissy—got more years than the stories in my skin can tell. I don’t offer him a drink or a cool glass of water, don’t want him to get too comfortable here. The hard, backless stool is perfect, uncomfortable by design. When I had that old cushy armchair, fools asked me questions late into the night. The frightened and the lonely. The vengeful and the resigned. My head hurt, my eyes stung, and my mind was weary with their dreams. I couldn’t get them out of that seat.
You don’t get what you want because you want it. The waxy skin of my palm, the faded scars, remnants of a jagged river, was proof that not everything is meant for you. No, not love or riches, health or success. With Aunt Dissy’s words in mind, I enjoyed the comforts of flesh, the mysteries of skin. Pleasure came easy because I never expected more. While others gnashed their teeth and wept at the comings and goings of lovers, my heart drifted above dry land, tumbled into dark caverns like water, slumbered in the shadows. Intimacy gave the vastness of my loneliness a sheltering look. His is the face of a man who might turn on you at any time. As if he was just born, already wary of the world.
“If I ask a question, will you tell a lie or answer me true?” he asks.
“Depends on the question.”
He leans on my table—I hate when they do that—presses his palms into the indigo Adire cloth so hard, that I can see the dark lines on his knuckles, the veins running along the top of his hand to his wrist.
“Do you have the Sight or do you just need money?”
I stare into his black pool eyes, unblinking.
“‘Cuz if it’s the latter, I can pay you for your trouble and save us both the time.”
He’s got an accent I can’t quite place. Something with a river in it, deep and Southern.
Can he see my discomfort or am I invisible? What is the right answer?
A lie or the truth?
He is not the first to sit in my chair, nor the first to ignore the signs, to will the impossible. Trying to change one’s fate is a lifelong Sisyphean task, but to change another’s is like trying to move a brick wall by hitting it with your fists. In the center of this knotted thought, your desire, is the belief that if you will it, change will be. Rest assured, the people who come to me have bloody fists. They sit in my chair, much like him, with disappointment or hope or both peering from the shadows beneath their eyes. And they expect me to move the wall for them, expect me to make a lie a truth.
I watch his hands, now cupped in his lap as if they hold a message. The remnants of his dream waft off him like invisible smoke, snaking through the air over to me. I don’t want to be bothered but my utilities are due. Mama may have left me the house but she left plenty of bills, too. Utilities and property taxes so high, I had to break down and take on worrisome tenants. The sock puppets upstairs.
“Yes and yes,” I say. He thrusts five folded bills in my open hand. I slip them in my trusted bank, adjust my bra strap, pat my breast.
Listen, telling lies is easier than reading, and reading is harder than telling the truth. It had been hard even with Aunt Dissy at my side. She greedily watched me as I slept, combed through every detail of my most mundane dream. It became even more challenging without her, because I never thought I would be. Of all the Dissys who came to me, it’s odd that Aunt Dissy never did. I waited for her those first weeks, but all I received from her defiant portrait was silence. And yet when she lived, I studied the ways and means, the art and the craft of reading dreams. And make no mistake, it is an art, the delicate task of mixing the truth with half-truths, but she joined Mama and the line of Dissys before she could tell me all her secrets. Before she died I wondered if she ever would. Her death was a final sign of disapproval. The signs and symbols of the old policy dream book remained a mystery to me.
Truth be told, mistakes were made. After one mother came, her belly hanging low, her forehead riven with anxiety, that night I dreamed of a large sumptuous table. Luscious fruit, sweets, and bread were piled high around two bright brass candelabras with candles. I was so relieved to see the fresh fruit, the loaves of bread. I didn’t notice that while one of the candles was bright, the other flickered in the dark, almost spent. I told the woman she had nothing to fear. Her son would be healthy, safe. So when she gave birth to twins, one who wailed in her arms, the other who shed no tears but was still warm, I counted her loss as my own. I grieved, for all I could see and for all I did not.
It was with her, that first mournful young mother, that I learned the power of nuance, the strength in ambiguity. Neither was for charlatans to hide, but for professionals to appreciate. Every square-toed soothsayer and two-boots traveler knew the universal sign for the conception of a boy, but I’d failed to see that the pair of candles in my dream meant that she would give birth to twins. A novice, I could see all the signs but I misread the symbols. Instead I’d spoken to the mother as if her child’s fate was assured. A jackleg error is what Aunt Dissy would have said, a rookie rushing toward the finale instead of redreaming and working the scene.
Long after that mother buried her child, I wondered if he might have lived or if I could have better prepared her for the loss. But even if I had known, and told her that her son would die, she would have hated me still. Never to return. Each day I woke with that mother’s grief running down my face. But tears wouldn’t help me. They never did. I had learned the hard way, the danger in misinterpreting a dream. It was almost as painful as refusing to see a dream at all, and I wanted nothing more than to be rid of Aunt Dissy’s burden, my “best luck.” I tried every drug and remedy I could find, lost myself in the forgetfulness of flesh, hoping something or someone would grant me the release of a dreamless sleep. But still they came, surrounded me. Dreaming awake, the Dissys watched from their gilded portraits, silent on the wall, the dream book waiting, as always, on its stand.
“A copious record of other’s subconscious travels,” one Dissy had written in her crowded, sloping pen of the late 19thcentury, but I could find nothing in Aunt Dissy’s book that would offer me relief. With its smell of damp roots and weeds, its Old Testament-like list of names all handwritten by Dissys, reaching back generations, its hand drawn apocryphal images and inked sacred numbers, the dream book offered the key to others’ fates, but for me it offered no answers at all. For all of its passages, handwritten and collaged, Aunt Dissy’s dream book remained an enigma full of hidden, unwritten codes I struggled to decipher, blank spaces I filled with fear.
And it was clear that no Dissys dreamed of their own deaths, for where one scrawling hand ended, mid-sentence, another began.
“What you see is not writ,” he tells me, “not like in the Book of Life,” he says. “You can be wrong, can’t you? Sometimes it ain’t all clear?”
I lie to him. After he tells me everything, about the unseen woman who haunts his dreams and makes him lose sight of his days, the faceless phantom, the haint that sabotages every attempt at love he makes. A lost love, perhaps, an old flame, an unforgettable ex? Most people who sat in that chair had more than a sore bottom. They came with stooped shoulders, bent from carrying the dead weight of the past. A relationship that would not be resurrected. Memories that should be put to rest and forgotten. But this was a different kind of hopeless, one unknown to me. I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead, a finger at my temple, lying because despite the smoky tendrils of his dream, I couldn’t see a single thing. The serpent slumbered, spent.
Sky released rain. The day was leaving without me but this man was still here. I could feel the spirits around me, hear them pounding the streets outside my window, but I couldn’t get this man out of my chair. His sadness was a long, unbroken note slowly descending into madness. Anything else I could say would sound reedy, hollow to his ear. I could tell from his face. He was one of those hard-headed, fingers in your split side souls. I would have to show him. This is where the cards become more than props.
I pull out the pouch. Its worn purple velvet is smooth in my hand, the royal yellow stitching now only reads “CROW.”
“You’re going to read Tarot?” he asks, incredulous. He glares at the discarded crystals and the bowl of red brick dust, both silent failures atop the lacy table. I have already tried everything. He is not impressed. “Been there, done that,” he says. His old genteel Bojangles act discarded, too. “Death card comes up every time, don’t mean shit.”
He’s right. Skeletons and bones, black knights on white horses. Mine is a great dying baobab, the tree of life, cut down with a bone ax. A Dissy from the 1920s called the weapon the Bonecarver. She even sketched the ax, a drawing I used to make my tarot. I stroke the purple velvet pouch, unloosening the yellow cord even as he protests. Death, the thirteenth trump, a major arcana, represents significant change. Transformation, endings, and new beginnings. I shuffle and reshuffle the deck, stall for time, hoping for some kind of inner vision. Nothing comes through, not even a dirty sock tossed out a window.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to hear any of this.
“You got to close one door to open another,” I say, stalling.
“Whatever. Just tell me what you see.”
I’m tired. I drop the cards. He is closed to me. Just like Aunt Dissy. Distrustful and secretive, she never let me see her dreams. “That’s the problem. I can’t,” I say. I can’t look him in the eye. “I, I have to sleep with you.”
His brow shoots up, his sad mouth almost turned to a half smile. “You what?”
“No.” The words aren’t coming out right. I feel like I’m already sleepwalking in a dream. “I mean I am going to have to sleep, to see…” my voice trails off. No sane way to explain it.
He studies me coolly. “You’re telling me you’re trying to go to sleep in the middle of the job? Go ahead then. I’ll be here when you wake.” That’s not what I expected. I study his face again. Now it’s my turn to protest, but he stops me, bloody fists still hitting that wall. “I don’t know if I can explain it, but Mrs. Bannister—″
“Cassie. Mrs. Bannister was my aunt.”
“Cassie,” he said it as if it pained him. “It’s really important that I get some closure here. I can’t—” He stares at the backs of his hands. “I can’t keep living like this. I was engaged. We, we could have been happy but I—I need to know who this woman is, what she is. I don’t care about being with her or not. I just want this, not knowing to be over. So I can make a decision.”
Something in his words tug at me. He is ripping up the whole damn script. Most people sitting in that chair wanted that other relationship no matter what. They wanted assurance. A sign that what they hoped for would come true. But this man didn’t even know who he was pining for. This one just wanted closure. He wanted to sleep at night—but don’t we all? Wanted to know and to walk away—or so he claimed. I wasn’t yet sure if he was the letting go kind or, like my upstairs tenants, the kind with the stranglehold.
He told me how he first encountered her, in some old childhood nightmare of a dream that clearly scarred him for life. Typical guilty conscious mess. But as he spoke, suddenly the silvery threads of his dreams circled around his throat, coiled in the air, weaving and unweaving themselves like silk webs, shrinking then growing longer as they covered me, a gossamer cape until my eyes closed. A sea of blue green sapphires opened up and I stepped inside to see.
In this dream the ground is chill, wet underfoot, the air laced with sweet perfumes. Honeysuckle and moon musk sting my eyes, sibilant leaves prick my scalp from up above. I walk to an aged willow tree, groaning its complaints to a brook. Aunt Dissy taught me the language of trees. Sometimes they offer you real clues. Most of the time they’re just bitching. This one complains about a bruise, a burden too heavy, a man named Iudas. Old dirt he needs to get over. I tune out the trees and adjust until my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. I know the woman is there but cannot see her face.
She is hiding from me. I am not in the mood. “Look, lady,” I call out, trying to keep up with her. “I’m not trying to get in your business or nothing, it’s just that…” Wait. Is this woman running from me? Oh, hell no! As she flees, she’s stripping, dropping whole swaths of cloth, brightly colored, glittering in the night. By now she is probably buck naked and there is no way I am following her into those woods. She is going to have to Hansel-and-Gretel on her own.
Night is never quite as dark as you think. There is always some starshine, some moonbeam, firefly glow. But not here. Wherever the woman disappeared to is like a black hole floating in the middle of the night. The backs of my eyes are itching, my eyelids and elbows twitching like a needle scratching on a record. I waver in the narrow band of zodiacal light, the faint luminosity of the horizon, the memory of a day that will not come again, the promise of a new one that has yet to begin. Ravens circle my head—a really fucked up sign—I swing at them and moonwalk my way back out of his dream. Like the others, he knows what he wants but he has no idea what he needs. He is asking me to peer into the darkness, asking me to see past what was to what could be. I tell him there is no harder work than imagining a future.
“Hold the deck,” I command, eyes still closed. Time for some theater. He hesitates. “Don’t worry,” I say, opening my eyes slowly. “They won’t hurt you.” Bless his heart. He thinks I’m talking about the cards. He grips them, his sad mouth now a defiant frown. I take the cards from him, still warm from his touch, and spread them out in a fan. “Choose three.” He studies the backs of the cards, his eyes narrowing at the design, a raven caught in the thick limbs of the blossoming world tree.
As I watch him decide, I wonder if I could love someone with the same unforgiving force that pushed forests from the deep ground. People think because they forget their dreams, that they are gone. They are not. The body holds them, the way rich soil holds water. Dreams are hidden somewhere deep in the bones, and flesh, and skin. The residue of his recurring dream hovered around him like a sweet musk, like sweat. With its scent I could feel the Sight stir inside of me, uncoiling again from the back of my brain like a waking snake.
He watches my face, unaware that I am still dreaming even as he sneers at me. He tries to look indifferent, but his eyes are now as sad as his mouth.
I try to recall the woman’s shimmering steps. In the dream her path is the same. Down a road she doesn’t want to travel, with branches for legs and twigs for hands. Raven’s feathers pour from her mouth. A filthy starless sky of rain and blackbirds pierce the clouds, dark ribbons of flight.
I shake my head, try to think of another dream, something of comfort, of resolution, to cut off the images that unfold before me, a troubling silent movie. One of the Dissys, from the seventies, swore by iron and copper. A disc of metal to block dreams. The trick never worked for me. Even as I finger the heavy key around my neck, I can feel my Sight uncoiling and writhing in the air around me. And then they come. The wet mud shining underfoot. Trees twisting in the wind, the twig limbs reaching to grab his hand.
“Are you going to choose the final card or should I?” His voice sounds far away.
His hand covers mine and the shock of his touch pulls me from the vision, his dream.
“I know you saw her,” he says. “I can see it in your face.”
There’s no telling what I look like. I want to speak, want to tell him how she hurts and for how long, but the words get stuck in my throat and slide down to the bottom of my belly.
How to tell him that she is lost to him? That the love he seeks is already a dry husk, gone for many seasons.
He must have thought he was reaching back into the past, that she would be as he remembered her, whichever spring it was when their future was green. Who is she? I do not want to know. I just know she does not want him.
All night, while sleep carries others to dreamland, I work at remembering, rewinding to study others’ dreams, to rework the scene. But some signs you do not want to see. I told him a lie because the truth was too expensive. His presence fills the space inside my mind as he sits, arms crossed, legs tucked under him. I breathe through the odor of his sweat and desperation, my back curled, his final card hidden, face down on the table.
When he finally left, I stood on the fire escape, listened to the waves of bachata and kompa music floating up at a sky littered with stars. Night-time. I could still hear the children laugh and leap, shrieking through the darkness below, their shouts mingling with the sharp-edged call of car horns and crows. The ever-present crows.
The truth I would not admit to myself.
I had told him a sweet lie, a story pieced together of all the women I had ever known. Enough of the truth to make his spirit woman real, enough of a lie to make him release the cards and turn away. A lie stitched together with the threads of past lives, crossed stars, ill-timed fates, the worst kind of luck. Now the crows have come to pick it all apart.
“I’m not going to do it!” I cry. I run out to the terrace, kicking over my poor, struggle herbs. “I don’t believe in you.” The black circle slows. The sound comes not from outside, but within my ear. I scream. Regret every foolish word I’ve uttered. How stupid could I be? The circle of sound reverses itself. The murder of crows dives from the sky, but instead of cutting through the night, they circle inside my head. I back away, knocking over my thyme, and climb back inside. Slam down the window so I cannot hear. They shriek and call, wings clawing at the air. A cloud of them circled overhead, counterclockwise, haranguing me. Their beaks are sharp as needles, sharp enough to pierce the skin.
Bleeding or not, that night I refused to sleep, let alone to dream.
I snatch the cards off the table, hands shaking, I drop one. The Hanged Man, reversed. I stare at the figure entwined in lush green vines, surrounded by blood red flowers and gourd-like fruit, then stuff all the cards into the velvet bag. I double tie it, almost wishing it was a hangman’s knot. If only it was that easy. I take the crystals and the bowl of dust and dump them into the trash. A red cloud rises into the air. I am done. D. O. N. E. Done.
I dig in my bra and pull out a couple of the crumpled bills he’d given me and grab my keys. Though I had never been up there before except to get late rent, it was time to see the sock puppets.
I stomp up the rickety stairs so they could hear me coming. The music, propulsive beats that make the whole floor shake, turns down before I even make it to the door.
“What’s good?” a sleepy-eyed man asks. He has grown his hair out since last month, and his hair is half-braided. His girl lounges on a couch, frowning in the background. Piles of folded up laundry cover the floor.
“I need to stay awake.”
He shakes his head. “Naw, sis, you sure? Look like you need to be sleep.”
I hold my money out to him. He won’t take it. I dig in my bra and pull out some more. “I don’t want to dream.”
He turns back to his girl, as if asking permission. She grabs a dress out of the basket and lays it flat across the couch. After she smoothes it out with the palms of her hand, she shrugs. Her purple twists dangle over her shoulders.
“I got you,” he says, and disappears into a back room.
At first there was nothing. I slept the sleep of the ages. So much nothing I could dive into it. Hours and hours of nothingness. I had been resting, better than I had in a good, long while but then, just before dawn, the dreams—if I did not speak them, they would bleed into my waking thoughts. If I did not speak them, they would tear the veil away from their world into my own, rip and tear at reality, starting with my skin. Soon, nothing gave way to the Sight, the Sight becoming all I could see. The crows came to screech a warning. I had to tell him something. Enough of the truth to keep both him and the spirits away, or I would never have another day or night’s peace.
Real hoodoos, sho’nuff conjurewomen can’t be bothered with black cat bones in pockets or meetings at crossroads. Meetings take place in the mind, in the space where your soul sleeps, where all the signs are newborn, hidden from view. The night after I spent his money, the night after the crows shrieked my name, I hear the house split and crack. I open my eyes and see a zigzag scar across the ceiling above my bed. I watch it grow deeper, longer until I fall asleep. The crack grows while I dream. Then I see him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I ask.
“What are you doing here?”
We avoid each other’s eyes and shift on our sides. He is lying next to me, clutching my pillow as if it’s his own. He is dressed in a T-shirt and some tighty-whities. I had pegged him for a boxer man. I’m not looking all that great myself. I am dressed in a jersey tank top that is so tattered, I should have been using it as a dust rag. I clutch myself self-consciously. My best bra is wet, hanging on the shower curtain pole, dripping by the sink. Neither of us admits that we’ve been keeping our own separate vigils in our sleep. We are so close, almost touching. I assume that this dream is another way for the Dissys to mess with my head, to tease me about latent lust, so I snatch the pillow back from under him.
“Hold up, that’s mine,” he says when his head bangs against the headboard.
“You’re in my dream. My rules.”
He looks confused. “Last night, I saw this crack in my wall and I…”
“Put your finger in it and it brought you here. Great. Jacking up my sleep.” I snatch the quilt I sleep under year-round and cover my boobs like a death shroud. “Go on back where you come from.”
“I don’t understand…”
He repeats syllables that make no sense to me. All I hear are the sounds of paper peeling back, a window’s snap before it cracks, the shift of plaster under layers and layers of paint, the break…
“I’m going back to sleep,” he says. “I mean, I’m waking up.”
“Boy bye,” I say and turn over.
With that he disappears.
A few nights later we wake to the sound of Mama’s house breaking. Before I open my eyes, I know it is him beside me. Of all the people I could dream of waking up to, it’s his ass. Not Mama, so I can tell her I’m sorry for not saving her life, for not seeing her dream sooner, not Aunt Dissy or one of the other Dissys, so I can tell them to kiss my ass, not an ex-lover I didn’t really want to kick out of the bed, but him. Now I have grown accustomed to his scent. Irish Springs and strong minty toothpaste. He is using mouthwash before he goes to bed. I think I smell the hint of cologne or some kind of dime store aftershave. I am almost flattered that he has started to clean up for me.
He doesn’t say anything about my ruined skin. My scars were like tree rings, bloody palm prints, maps of all the horrid dreams I’d ever had. He doesn’t stare at them but he doesn’t look away either. My scars are my shield. They remind me, even with so much death around, that I still live.
His eyes wonder briefly over the gown I had put on. It is the closest thing to a nightgown I own and calling it lingerie would be a stretch. I have braided my hair neatly and hid the black satin bonnet I usually sleep with.
We spend the night plastering the cracks, caulking breaks and holes. We think if we make the repairs in our dreams, we will wake to fewer holes in our waking life. I suspect that neither of us can afford to regularly repair our houses. It sounds like he is almost as broke as I am.
This time the breaking sound is louder. We hope the walls will hold themselves.
I don’t know about him, but I definitely cannot afford to move. We clutch our pillows and hold our breath as the sawdust and plaster float down from the ceiling like fairy dust. I’m so tired in this dream, I can barely keep my eyes awake. There is nothing sexy about any of this. My house is dying all around me. It seems like each crack I fill reveals another gaping wound. We are afraid of what the house will do in our sleep, so now we rest in shifts.
When I wake after he’s softly snoring, the front wall has moved. The door to my bedroom is gone altogether. Three of the Dissy portraits lay on the floor, facedown, silent as corpses. I panic. I feel trapped. But then I feel cool air tickle my scalp. The ceiling opens up and all the stars look in. I am more surprised at the sight of them than any of the other changes to my room. Suddenly the stars I never see in this city of light and noise and loneliness fill the night sky.
I need a witness. I shake him but he won’t wake up. I look for paper and a pen. This is not something I want to write in Aunt Dissy’s dream book. This is something I want to keep for myself.
We leave each other notes now. Not love notes…just … notes.
“The west wall, near the kitchen is going next. I think I heard it rumbling near the bookcase.”
“A new set of stairs may appear out of nowhere.”
“You overslept! There were more cracks in the hall. I woke to two sets of double doors before I could use the damn bathroom!”
I spend my days at the hardware store. I lug heavy panels, hammers and nails, cans of paint, brushes, and glue. My upstairs tenants don’t even bother asking anymore. They know I’m not repairing their shit. They owe me two month’s rent and are counting on losing their deposit. And how can I explain? I don’t have the heart or the energy to kick them out anyway. I wobble into the brownstone and trip up the stairs, crashing into the walls. Cornrows pokes his head out the door.
“You OK, sis?”
I wave. Now they look at me like I’m the fuck up.
I scrape the old paint and smooth out rough edges. I can’t remember what my mother’s house looked like before, before Aunt Dissy moved in and came to take care of me. The only thing that remains the same are the walls of Dissys. And even they are changing. Their backs are still turned to me, but now I see here and there, a hand on a hip, the jut of a jaw, a bell-shaped hat turned to cover a side-eye in profile. I don’t need to see the pictures or their poked-out lips to know how much they disapprove.
Our hallways are now labyrinths. I say “our” because he and I now share the same dreaming hell—or purgatory. I can’t tell which. We lurch through the house, shoulders stooped, eyes squinted up and frowning.
After a month of midnight renovations, the full moon returns again. To my surprise, the ravens disappear and the sky is washed clean. I turn away from the mirror and return to my empty bed that is not really empty anymore. I push his pillow over to his side of the bed. By now I know he likes to sleep with his back to the window.
In my dream, I see him as he cannot see himself. The landscapes of his spirit, as level and gentle as an open hand, without one fist for boundary. His goals and joys, memories and defeats are mine now. They lay glittering in small pools of green and brown and gray as he sleeps, continents on a bright unfolding map reaching out, unbroken across the sea.
I see myself, too, reworking a scene that is my own. Not buck naked this time, but wearing the shimmering scraps of clothing like rainbow strips of skin. Instead of running, I’m dancing, and all the breadcrumbs lead back to me.
I think I will tell him someday. On one of these nights when the wind sounds like the rustle of a blackbird’s wings, when the stars look sharp enough to slice the black sky into ribbons. I will tell him of Aunt Dissy’s book, of all the Dissys who are pretending not to watch us now, and of the woman whose face still holds my unimagined dreams.
Sheree Renée Thomas, a native of Memphis, is the author of Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press, August 2016), recently named on the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Award “Worthy” Long List, Shotgun Lullabies, and the editor of the World Fantasy Award-winning Dark Matter anthologies. Read her short stories and poems in Sycorax’s Daughters, Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, Revise the Psalm, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, Mojo: Conjure Stories, An Alphabet of Embers, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Jalada: Afrofuture(s), Callaloo, Obsidian, So Long Been Dreaming: Post-Colonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, Memphis Noir, and Harvard’s Transition. Find her @blackpotmojo or visit www.aqueductpress.com/authors/ShereeThomas.php.