Dream Awake

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It came with the fog, rolling off the creeks and lakes and the river and assembling from the mists in the dark hours, disappearing at the touch of morning light, like a terrible dream. It prowled the farm, always seeking the cattle in the pen, feasting until it was glutted, roaring and then circling the cabin while the boy and his mother trembled in each other’s arms, clutching dreamcatchers to their hearts. At dawn they would leave the cabin and count the heads of the remaining cattle, calming them and attempting to milk them as their eyes lolled in their sockets. Even after the mother and son had cleaned up the gore that splattered the ground, the cows trembled and lowed in fright. They all awaited nightfall to once again endure the dark hours and their bloody horrors.

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The boy’s father had tried to stop it once, and had been buried the next morning. He had been a tall, silver-blonde Swede with an easy smile and big hands. He had been a good shot, too, and was certain he could slay the beast with his rifle. He had faced what he thought to be worse beasts on his travels Westward: the fickle ocean, the duplicitous crew, the thousandfold mendacities of those awaiting him on the American shore, the selfish wagoners with whom he ventured Westward, and the wilderness itself. He had, against the odds, forged a trail and met his wife among the welcoming Cheyenne. Together, they had settled in this valley between the mountains. Now the Swede was buried here, far from his home and his old gods, and his wife and son remained.The day after the Swede had been killed, a man appeared. He strode casually across the field, naked, his face smeared with crimson wetness and his eyes white-rimmed, his teeth set in a bloody grin. His black hair was long and full of twigs and briars and sticktights. Upon his breast he wore a leather-strung necklace. A single, large bear claw hung from it, curved like a crescent moon over his heart.

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“Cheyenne whore,” he said. “Send the blue-eyed child to me. Let me feast on his misbegotten flesh. He is an abomination in these lands. His presence is blasphemy. I will feed on him and turn him into filth, as I did his father. And where his filth falls the land will celebrate with flowers, for his life is a slight against the Spirits.”
The boy’s mother kept her son behind herself as the man spoke.
“Give him to me now,” he said, “and I will give him a quick death.”
“Never,” the mother said.

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The man’s grin only widened. “Then I will come dreaming,” he said, “and I will devour the womb from which he sprang.”
When the man left—sprinting across the fields and up into the mountains— the mother took her son inside the cabin and told him to stay hidden while she worked outside. She was a small woman, but strong and determined and wise. She cleaned and oiled her husband’s bear trap. That day she slaughtered a calf and put its meat upon the trap, setting the trap near the cabin, its chain nailed to the porch’s thickest post. She then went inside and comforted and reassured her son until nightfall.
That night the man came dreaming once again, and so the beast returned with the fog. He ignored the cattle and went instead to the cabin, circling it and snarling and growling and laughing. His laughter was suddenly cut short by the sharp clang of the bear trap; of steel teeth on bone, and a terrible scream. The mother told her son to stay silent and then she ran outside with her husband’s rifle raised.

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But haste was her master, and haste was an incautious master, as was desperation and, too, hope. The beast was no ordinary bear, and so the bear trap was not crafty enough to ensnare him. He had lived for centuries learning the wiles of Man. Rather, he snared the mother with her own trap, having fed it a branch as thick as a bone and then having feigned a yowl of pain. The mother realized the ruse too late. She fired once, and struck true, but he was no ordinary beast, and so the bullet pierced without wounding. He stripped her of her gun, pressed her down to the earth, and breathed charnel mist into her face.
“Before I kill you,” he said with a grinding growl not unlike thunder. “Know that I will feed upon your son at next nightfall. I will eat him slowly, and shall relish his blood and meat.”
He then silenced her anguish with his large maw.
The boy cried all night, trembling in the lonely dark. When morning came, still he cried, and he heard the man calling from beyond the cabin.
“Half-breed,” he said. “Count the hours. Mark the moon. I will come for you at midnight, and then my land will be cleaned of your filth once and for all.”
The man left, and the boy emerged from the cabin. He buried the remains of his mother and went into further mourning. He drank little and ate nothing. At length, he was exhausted and fell asleep beneath the shade of the porch. The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was a spiderweb gilded with the rays of the sun.

The boy dreamt of his parents beneath a starry sky. They waved to him, then ascended to the stars. He cried in his dream and an old woman came before him, her wizened face smiling. She had black eyes that gleamed, but they did not frighten him. Her smile comforted him. She took his hands in hers, and put her hands on his shoulders, and on his cheeks. She had many hands; many arms. She was Grandmother Spider.

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“What is wrong, child?” she asked.
“My parents are gone,” he said, “and soon I will be killed by the beast, too.”
“Must you?” she asked. “Must it be so?”
“What else can I do?” he said. “Father’s rifle did nothing. Mother’s trap did nothing. He will kill me! Why does he hate me?”
“Because of both sides of your blood, child,” the old woman said. “Because he fears what you could be.”
“I don’t understand,” the boy said.
There came the caw of a raven up above, flying overhead, and he tried to watch it go, but the old woman kept his head firmly forward; her eyes peering into his own.

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“Embrace both sides of your blood, child,” she said. “Reconcile your heart or perish. Dream awake, child, as the beast cannot. Dream awake, for it is the only way to save yourself.”
She let go of him, then, and he began to drift away from that stelliferous, eternal night.
“I wonder,” the old woman said, her voice fading. “Will you dream of blood? Or will you dream of something more…?”

When the boy awoke he saw that the sun had nearly set. Dusk flared across the mountains, red as blood and furious as fire. He sat up with a start. He had slept near to nightfall! He leapt up, ready to run inside the cabin. But he paused, his eyes alighting upon something in the spiderweb. It was a raven’s feather: black as midnight, but shimmering like starlight. He took it from the lithe strands, with a gentle hand, and went inside. The old woman’s words echoed in his head, crisscrossing like spiderwebs until their spool wove an idea in his mind.
Going to his father’s escritoire, the boy sat down and took a sheet of parchment from among the small stack that his father had kept for writing lists, mail, and journal entries. There were books along the wall, too. Included among them were Almanacs, old Nordic Epics, vocabulary words translated by his mother from Cheyenne into English and Swedish. The boy had been taught all three languages by his mother, and she had taught him how to write. Using his father’s whittling knife, he sharpened the feather’s quill. He then dipped the tip into his father’s inkwell, blackening it with ink as the shadows stretched from the mountains to blacken the valley. He wrote for a few minutes, as the valley darkened, and then lit a candle.

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Feverishly, he continued to write. He wrote the same story in every language he had been taught. It was a simple story, direct and to the point; practical and economic because he needed it to survive. With each iteration of the story he envisioned the story more clearly. He wrote until he could at last dream awake. Thus, he dreamt of a small raven, the quill in his hand scribbling to swirl the mists of the creeks and lakes and the river together, wherewith was manifested the bird. The raven was sharp of eye, and sharper of beak, and swift and light and small, and so it formed from the valley’s mists quickly. With a flourish of his quill he sent it over the valley, toward the mountains, even as the dreaming man dreamt his bear from the same waters.

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The raven saw a cave with its keen eye. Swiftly, it entered the cave on silent wings. Within the cave was a flat slab of rock, and laying upon this slab was the dreaming man. The raven alighted upon the dreaming man’s chest. He did not stir, for he was dreaming deeply, his soul roaming in the form of the bear. The raven therefore snipped the leather necklace, untethering his soul from his body, and flew away with it, flying out of the cave and into the open air once again.
The misty beast below saw the raven, and his necklace, and so he roared and paid chase. The raven led the bear far afield, as was written, coming to the center of the mountains. There was a tarn at the center of the mountains, for it was the navel of the world, and this tarn was where the raven dropped the necklace: on an island in the center of the reed-rimmed tarn.

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The beast roared, racing upon all fours even as he was left behind by the raven, and yet knowing where the connection to its human body resided. The beast ran all night, but when he finally arrived at the tarn and parted the reeds, the sun was climbing the mountains. The beast clasped the necklace in his bloody maw and fled across the tarn’s crystal-blue waters.

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But the sun surmounted the crest of the mountain, illuminating the navel of the world. The light struck the beast and that terrible dream faded in the burning glare of dawn, as did its terrible soul so that beast and man both dissolved forever, never ascending to the stars as the boy’s parents had done.

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The necklace fell from the dissolving beast and sank into the waters. The waters were fed with countless eons of bloodshed, darkening to a fetid crimson. To this day the tarn resides in those mountains, red with all of the bestial hungers of its cursed treasure.
There had been temptation in the beastly claw when the raven held it. The boy had sensed its bloody power and its beckoning guile. He could have taken it for himself and lived forever, as the dreaming man had done, feasting on the flesh of whatever, and whoever, he desired. But he did not write that story. His story, he decided, would not be written in blood.
The boy grew up, on his own, as both a hunter and a farmer, caring for the farm and the wilderness, and writing into being the things that needed to be. And, though the loss of his mother and father was great, their blood wrote on with his own, living on in his words and deeds and the narrative of his life. He learned the power of dreams, and of the written word, for what is reading and writing but dreaming while one is awake?

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