"The key is not to traumatize the fish."
Grandpa always treated the fish with a certain level of empathy. Even now he gently pushes a minnow onto the hook. He passes the line under its gill with precise, carefully measured motion, tucks the hook into the eyelet that's sticking out through the minnow's mouth, pulls it back, and admires his handiwork. A double hook protrudes from the minnow's mouth like a dazzling metal mustache.
I watch Grandpa's hands, but his movements are too familiar; my focus slides off them as they fade into the background. I see only the minnow or, to be precise, its eyes. They aren't empty as fish eyes ought to be. They're filled with longing and doom.
I recall the boiled hake they served us in kindergarten, a long time ago. I never ate it; didn't even want to look at it. The black film that covered the inner walls of the fish belly seemed to me the gates of the abyss. The same abyss that surrounds me now. The sounds of the nighttime river fade and are replaced with the sounds of the cafeteria—the clinking of spoons against plates, the unsteady rumble of children's voices, the admonishing calls of the teachers: Nekrasov, hold your fork right; Fedina, settle down and eat quietly!
"Pass me the next one," says Grandpa.
I'm at the river again.
The bucket of live bait stands nearby. It emits a suspicious rustle, as though the minnows, having despaired of trying to escape the trap at the lid, are now attempting to gnaw through the bottom. But I can't get distracted before I solve the Rubik's cube. I keep turning it, keep repeating the algorithms which my consciousness has long forgotten, but which my fingers remember. I can't seem to solve it; each algorithm I try returns a fish pattern at the top layer.
I can't open the bucket before I solve the cube. In it, under the scratched-up plastic cover and among the minnows, hides the knowledge that Grandpa can't be here, because he died a long time ago. I know this, the minnows know this, even the pikes that swim somewhere underneath the boat know this. Only Grandpa doesn't know.
I feel the same longing I saw in the eyes of the fish. Doom blends with air and I breathe the mixture in. It collects somewhere in my lungs like a lump of bitterness one might wake up with after uneasy sleep.
I look at my watch. Research papers on the subject recommend checking the watch, looking away, then checking it again. If the hands display completely different times then the solution is clear: you're asleep. In my case there are no hands on the watch at all. The time is never o'clock.
I see other signs, too. The sky is too low; it's almost possible to reach up and tear off a piece of a cloud, perhaps made of cotton or foam. Instead of the familiar dachas, untidy three-story buildings appear on the shore across the river. They look like an abandoned summer camp or resort. Beyond them rise the horned silhouettes of slagheaps.
This is a dream.
The realization doesn't strike; it builds gradually over several steps: yes, I'm asleep and the cube hasn't been solved; I'm asleep, which is why the cube refuses to be solved, and Grandpa keeps waiting for me to pass him live bait; I'm asleep; there is no cube, no fish, and no Grandpa.
But Grandpa is there, and he's still waiting. The boat sways gently on the waves of the river. Somewhere, the seagulls caw churlishly.
I must wake up. Not because of the river, the seagulls, or fishing—which I can't stand—but because of sleep itself and of my realization. I can't recall why being asleep is a bad thing, but the foreboding of something unkind lingers at the edge of my mind.
I must wake up, before it's too late.
I could take flight, puncture the low sky, and escape this evening shrouded in the shadow of something terrifying; but I take pity on my grandfather, even if he's long dead. I don't want the wounded sky to fall into the river, to crush the cardboard boat, and the cardboard Grandpa in the boat, and the cardboard minnows in the bucket.
I rise from my seat, lean my hands against the side of the boat, close my eyes, and slide into the water. Let Grandpa stay alive a bit longer, at least here. While submerged, I hear grumbling from above, the sort Grandpa used to break the monotony of fishing. His voice becomes diluted in the murky depths until it tapers off into a series of short beeps.
In a dream my memory always fails—it breaks into a million jagged shards when my consciousness falls into slumber from the dizzying heights of reality. It is from those shards that the sets and scripts of our dreams are put together.
I used to like sleeping when I was a child. The world of dreams seemed like a house to me. A very large and possibly infinite house. The house was crooked—terrible and beautiful at the same time. There were multiple ongoing construction projects within the house, undertaken by crews unaware of each other. Each built according to their own plans; some rooms seemed sturdy and reliable, while others crumbled at the touch. It was a world of cardboard and enamel. Some rooms were large enough to fit entire streets, the ski slopes of Dombai, or the Azov Sea. Others were so small they could barely fit the construction worker erecting them. But they were always rooms, and the low ceiling was always a ceiling, no matter how hard it pretended to be a sky.
The house was simultaneously overpopulated and abandoned. Its guests were akin to wind-up dolls, forced to act out strange scenes from ridiculous plays.
I learned to walk through walls. I broke windows and ripped wallpaper; I toppled the card houses of others' dreams and erected them anew. The dreams of adults were dreary and incomprehensible; they reminded me of spending time in the waiting room of a clinic. Children's dreams were a lot more fun. Kids my age resembled real people a lot more, in their dreams.
Everyone is born with the ability to remain self-aware in their own dreams, I think. But this ability is atavistic, akin to the Moro reflex in infants. And, like the Moro reflex, this ability fades with time.
Unfortunately, that's not what happened with me.
I don't open my eyes right away. With practiced patience I wait several minutes, so that the darkness from under my eyelids won't escape into the real world. A silly ritual.
The printed white elephants are awakened by dawn and hesitantly lumber across the red field of the curtains. Alya hung these curtains when she first moved in with me. Now they remind me of her, and of what happened when she left. That's why I don't take them down: they help me remember why I need the sleeping pills.
There is a moment's hesitation before I lower my feet to the floor. I want to jump away from the bed, before a tentacle or some other horror slithers from under it and grabs my leg. Instead I slowly put on my shoes. There's nothing under the bed.
Miha sleeps in the bathtub, wrapped in a camel-hair blanket. He washed out from the university half a year ago. Ever since then he's been bouncing around the dorms like a nomad, with his suitcase and his guitar. He pointedly ignores the bunk in my room that has remained empty ever since Alya left. Either he has an amazing sense of self-preservation, or weed has heightened his senses. He's always on his toes around me, as though he can see the darkness behind my back. The sleeping pills he procures for me from a nurse he knows are like an offering, a way to buy the reprieve from that darkness.
In the kitchen I sit on the wobbly stool that ended up there by some miracle. I stare at the gigantic palm print above the electric stove as I wait for the teapot to boil. It's merely the result of the explosion of condensed milk that Alya was cooking once, but the cracked brown crust looks very similar to blood. Someone traced a smiley face in the center of the palm. The steam from the teapot animates the face and turns it demonic; the palm detaches from the kitchen tiles and reaches toward me. This picture is harmoniously supplemented by the tapping sound from the teapot's lid.
The windows in the kitchen are taped over with newspaper pages. Miha taped them; he became quite a productive member of society after his discharge. My gaze wanders across newspaper columns seeking not sense but accidental forms, familiar patterns where none exist. This phenomenon is called pareidolia. But the letters have conspired against me and insist on forming words, and those words are on the offensive.
Best time in any young person's life … student A. jumped from a fifth-floor window … make a true specialist of the recently graduated high-schooler and open doors … pursued by a fellow student … this opportunity, afforded to everyone in our country … will remain permanently disabled…
I can't read any paragraph in full—the lines jump and mix—but I can easily parse the meaning. Each article, each strip of paper taped to the window tells the story of my tragic love.
That's how it happened—but the newspapers hadn't covered it. The newspapers don’t report on the dreams of regular students. They write about five-year plans and swine-breeding, of visits by friendly heads of state and satellite launches.
There are sounds of steps and voices coming from down the corridor and I shake in terror: they're about to read the truth about me and Alya. I try to rip the newspaper off the window but I can't; it's glued firmly to the glass and my fingernails slide off with an unpleasant squeak, snagging only a few small strips. Underneath the paper, instead of the glass and the dull cityscape, is the black abyss.
I'm still asleep. The premonition that loomed somewhere on the periphery becomes a certainty. I know the abyss waits for me beyond the window, grins at me via kitchen walls, dissects me with my own memories.
I have to leave this kitchen and this dream. The steam, which fills all the space around me, thickens like jelly. The kitchen door smoothly recedes from me, or perhaps I recede from it, drawing ever closer to the darkness outside.
I check my watch. The time is never o'clock.
Knowing you're in a dream and being able to control that dream are different skill sets. I nearly forgot the latter; only the ritual with the watch allows me to somewhat attune to the right frequency. I may not become the puppet master, but at least I can sever the strings that connect to my extremities, and become a little less wooden.
I can't wake up, so I must run and hide. The window seems like the obvious exit. But now, having remembered Alya, I'm afraid. She jumped from this window. This exact one.
The remaining option is the free associations—the easiest way to move across dreamscape, and the least reliable. You never know where they'll lead you. I look at the newspaper column somewhat askew, so that the text becomes blurred and I can imagine TV listings in its place. Some innocuous children's programs from my youth.
The other children didn't like me when I was little. This dislike eventually blossomed within every social group I joined. They didn't boycott me, and they almost never beat me, nothing like that. They just kept away from me.
I wasn't an angry child. I wanted to make friends. In reality and in dreams.
There are people who like to watch insects. Beetles, for example. They can flip the beetle on its back and watch in amusement as it helplessly waves its legs—a hypnotic spectacle. It's also possible to rip off its legs. Harness it into a paper chariot. Imprison it in a matchbox. Set it on fire. There are all sorts of possibilities.
My friendship in dreams was sometimes similar to those kinds of amusements.
Children are more finely attuned than adults. They might forget the details of their dreams, but not the emotions. Children-beetles couldn't remember the dreams I participated in, but they could feel that I was dangerous.
At the age of eight I had no friends, but had a classmate who sat next to me: Seryoga, a neurotic and aggressive kid. That's about all I remember about him. I don't recall what he did to anger me. But that's how it always worked: anger, hatred, or rage built the bridge within the dream between the subject of my emotions and me. And then the game began. That time we played dinosaurs. I always wondered what would happen if the thing built from car tires on the kindergarten's playground would come to life. That's where I brought Seryoga.
By then I already began to figure things out. Morpheus was beginning to emerge. It was just a feeling at first, like when you're being watched. The attention of the unseen observer spread like the growth of mold and the smell of rot. It vibrated and it demanded. It whispered, wordlessly, like white noise from the television tuned to a dead channel: let me in.
I searched for the source. I wandered across my domain—I thought of it as mine back then—hoping to find signs of monsters, or find the monsters themselves, hiding in the dark corners of the dream-house.
Morpheus revealed himself to me, in all his oppressive glory, the night Seryoga perished. I watched the beast made of car tires rip my classmate to pieces, and the mosaic came together, stone by stone. The rubber monster, the playground, bald dandelions, low sky, a rusty bike skeleton, a sandbox, trees and fallen leaves: every detail of my dream was part of a huge, insatiable monster. Even me.
Seryoga didn't come to school the next day. He never came back to school. He simply failed to wake up that morning. He fell into a coma.
That's how I learned that there were no monsters hiding in my dream-house. The house itself was a monster.
At eight years of age, I almost stopped sleeping. When I did manage to fall asleep, I found myself in the worst of nightmares. My ability to remain aware in the dream and to control the surrounding dream world lit me up like a beacon in the darkness. Every moment I felt the unkind attention of Morpheus upon me.
But I managed to forget. To unlearn. To turn down the intoxicating power. I think Morpheus allowed me to do that. He knew I'd be back.
If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. Perhaps Nietzsche knew something of Morpheus.
Changing the plot of the dream through free association is somewhat like moving the layers of a Rubik's cube. At first glance it seems totally random, but there's logic and structure behind every move. Except a person is but a speck of dust on one of the edges of a huge cube being solved by Morpheus. It is not for the speck to understand the logic of the monster.
It isn't just memory that works under a different set of rules within a dream. Time also has unique properties here: it is circular, it forces you to replay certain episodes again and again, and then to forget them.
I recognize this place. To my right is the concrete fence topped with barbed wire. To my left, the factory wall. The space between them is overgrown with burdock, emmer wheat, and broadleaf plantain. Wild grape vines thread up the wall and the fence. Green dominates the summer here, only somewhat diluted by scarlet in the fall. This is the perfect place for games, a secret place that can only be reached via an inconspicuous hole in a fence disguised by a currant bush. Beyond the corner the space terminates in a concrete block that cuts across it. In reality, the factory floor lies behind it; gray buildings with glass blocks in place of normal windows, rows of containers, guard dogs. In the dream everything is different: a shaded square in front of the kindergarten, a playground under chestnut trees, a multicolored dinosaur made of car tires rising all the way up to the sky.
You might not remember this dream when you wake up, but you can't help but recognize it when it comes back. Seryoga is about to say, "Last one across is a fool!" Then he'll climb the concrete block barring the way to the playground.
Maybe I'll want to stop him this time, or perhaps I'll prefer to watch in silence as the dinosaur comes to life and rips him apart. It won't be the real Seryoga either way. The dinosaur ate the real Seryoga the first time around.
It's easy for me to tell the real people, the dreamers, apart from the shadows, put together from the shards of my memories. The shadows are vague; it's impossible to make out the details of their faces or the tone of their voice, no matter how hard I try. The shadows are functional and predictable. They're cardboard cutouts. The living people, on the other hand, are … alive.
"Damn, Egor, you're such a donkey," I hear. It's not Seryoga's voice. Atop the concrete block that hides the chronicle of my first encounter with Morpheus sits Miha. He smokes as he stares down at me. He's real. Not a ghost made of the mix of papier-mâché and memories, but the real, living Miha.
"What the hell?" I ask, confused. I come closer and look him in the eye. His pupils are dilated.
"It's your dream, bro. So you tell me, why the hell did you drag me here? Are you aware that there's a giant thing on the other side of this block, and it's drooling as it waits for breakfast?"
I climb the block. It seemed almost insurmountable when I was eight, but I'm not a kid anymore. I look at the car tire monster. It's just a slide on the playground, right?
"Relax, you're seeing things," I say. "How did you get here?"
"You dream too loudly." Miha shrugs. "Also, I have some primo grass. Listen, man … I don't feel comfortable here."
Me neither. Benzodiazepine successfully blocks all the things it's supposed to block in my brain, which is why I can't manage to wake up. Sometimes it's not enough to just want to. Flying usually helps and I would take flight, but there's no sky here. Above us is an abyss. I don't want to go up there.
I'm tired. I don't understand how Morpheus managed to break through the wadding of the sleeping pills. I figure I should return to the very first dream with my grandpa, hang out in the boat with him until I wake up. I figure I need to distract Morpheus.
"Fine," I say. "We'll jump down on the count of three." I point to the side where we should jump. The side of the tire monster. Miha gets up obediently.
I stare at the lawn below and imagine it isn't a lawn but a murky river. That seagulls are cawing in the distance.
"One … Two … Three!"
We jump. Time slows. I feel my feet hit the water and catch a glimpse of Miha's confused face. He hangs from the concrete block as though crucified. His wrists are chained to the concrete. It was easy to imagine such a thing—easier than imagining the river. Farewell, Miha. Forgive me.
I hear Morpheus rumble in approval. The tire creature prepares to jump.
The river waves close over my head.
I remember Alya. How she fell. How she screamed.
I shouldn't be thinking about her now.
She left me suddenly. There were no signs, no hints, no calls that kindly prepare a man for such drastic changes, allow him to regroup and get ready for the hit. One day we were making plans together; the next, she took her things and moved to another dorm.
Outwardly I was calm like a lamppost. Inwardly, I seethed. It was unbearable. We saw each other every day. I didn't pursue her, didn't try to talk it out, didn't write verses or cry in front of her door. Not because I didn't want to, but because I couldn't. From early childhood I got used to being—or at least pretending to be—indifferent. I avoided building emotional bridges. I avoided getting attached. But then, something broke within me.
For over ten years I'd lived in relative peace. I hid the knowledge about the nature of dreams on the furthest shelf of my memory; I learned to tiptoe around the dangerous thoughts and to avoid having dreams.
I fell off the wagon, crossing out ten years of abstinence. I decided that it would be easier to talk to her in a dream. Now I just had to remember how to do that.
When learning to play the guitar people scrape their fingers raw. Athletes exhaust their muscles as they prepare for competition. I trained my consciousness—until it was raw and bloody and exhausted—recalling how to control dreams, how to bend them to my will.
I came to her. Alya's dreams were gormless, but mostly nice. Nothing resembling a nightmare. I became her nightmare. There was no conversation, no attempt at an explanation—who was I kidding? I merely began reshaping her dreams. It was intoxicating. We were together on the other side of reality, and I didn't care who she loved when she woke up. Did I know how painful these dreams were for her—dreams where she came back to me night after night, gave herself to me, without understanding why she was doing it? Of course I knew. I believed that everything would change.
Everything changed the night Alya became aware during the dream, recognized herself, recognized me, and understood everything. Her gaze was terrifying.
She jumped out the window. Anything, to get away from me.
Morpheus cackled behind my back.
The short beeps announcing the time emanate from a radio somewhere. I recognize their sound, even though the beeping is unceasing. Instead of six reliable points they draw an infinite dotted line across the surface of time.
I lie submerged in the bathtub filled with fetid water. I stare at the patchwork of cracks on the white ceiling above me. I surface. There's the sound of water gushing from the tap. The shower curtain patterned with octopi and ships waves gently. This definitely isn't a river. Where am I?
I open the curtain. The bathtub stands in the middle of the living room and is surrounded by the labyrinth of junk. Stacks of books tower over armchairs filled with crumpled clothes. Dirty dishes and ashtrays filled with cigarette butts sail across the glass surfaces of coffee tables. The sound of running water is replaced with the sounds of the street. A huge floor-to-ceiling window is open wide.
In front of the window stands Alya. Her hair is long, like it was when we first met. She wears the dress with the flower pattern—my favorite.
I haven't seen her since the night when she … I never even visited her in the hospital. I was afraid of that gaze. The knowledge implied in it. The understanding.
I shouldn't have thought of Alya within a dream. And now I'm here. In her dream.
"By the way," Alya says, "you promised to take me to the theater."
She's holding a Rubik's cube. That's logical. She's the one who gave it to me. It was the real thing, made in Hungary, rather than a knockoff made based on the schematics published in Young Technologist magazine. I always fidgeted with the cube—solved it and broke it apart again. It became a habit, one that Alya found very annoying.
"Do you want to go right now?" I ask. I look around for the way out.
Alya laughs. Her laughter is pleasant. It sounds a bit naïve.
This appears to be a nice dream. Those occasionally happen. Perhaps here, in this dream, Alya doesn't remember us breaking up, doesn't remember the nightmares which featured me, doesn't recall that she no longer knows how to walk. Doctors said it was psychosomatic. There was no physical trauma, no brain damage. It was a self-suggestion.
"No, dear. First you must sort out the fish you and your grandfather caught. I know what you fishermen are like."
There's a large basin beside her filled with live pikes. Their tails are beating as they look at me and their eyes are filled with the abyss. Morpheus.
Morpheus is everywhere. I see that now. The cracks on the ceiling and walls come alive. They dance and taunt me and intertwine, becoming ever wider. Tendrils of mold reach from the bathtub and follow my wet footprints across the floor. They reach for Alya, who doesn't notice them. The pikes look on in irony. I've led Morpheus straight to Alya.
No. I won't let him do this again. We'll both wake up. I look out the window—we're on the second floor. If I can't fly, then it won't be a very long fall. Not a deadly fall. But somehow I'm convinced everything will work out. Perhaps because of Alya. She cleanses me with her light.
"Alya, do you trust me?"
"Of course." She looks at me in surprise. There's something familiar in her gaze. I don't immediately realize what it is. There's no time for contemplation.
I take her hand. We step out of the window.
Without opening my eyes I listen to myself and the world around me. Me: My heart races, my right hand asleep, my mouth dry. The world around me: There's a cold breeze coming through the window; a door in the next dorm slams loudly; there's a patter of feet, laughter, a sharp smell of acetone—the walls in the corridor were painted yesterday.
I wake up.
Today is going to be a challenging day. It’s the final practice run for the pathetic heresy that is the student concert. I've been roped in as the sound engineer for this travesty.
I can look forward to spending an hour on a bus filled to the brim with students and the proletariat, smelling of gasoline and overflowing with the sounds of everyone's morning complaints. Then at least an hour of waiting for everyone to show up. Three hours of listening to gossip, complaints, suggestions, and criticism. But then, if I survive all this, I can head over to Shurik and Kaban's place in the evening and play cards all night, because—oh miracle of miracles!—tomorrow is Saturday. So it's not all so bad.
I really don't want to get up. And then I realize that I can't get up even if I wanted to.
Yeah, I'm awake for sure. I see my room, the elephants on the drapes; I hear the sounds and sense the smells. But my eyes won't fully open. I can't move. I wouldn't even be able to breathe if breathing depended upon my willpower.
I must not panic. This has happened before. It's the damned pills. My brain, infused with chemicals, is not ready to wake up and to unblock the mechanism that controls my muscles. Sleep paralysis: one part of the brain does not know what another part is doing. My amygdala, displeased with its inability to control my body, is about to fall into hysterics. Hallucinations will be borne of fear. It's not a dream anymore, but it's not reality, either. It would be easy to return to sleep from this condition, but—no, thanks. I try to calm myself and wait. Two to three minutes, and everything will return to normal.
There's a sound under my bed … No, there isn't. And the door to my room isn't squeaking. There isn't a sound of footsteps. No one is here to make that sound. No one is whispering into my ear: "Don't be afraid, dear, it's just me. No one else is here." It's not Alya. She couldn't be here.
But it is Alya, and she's lying. She didn't come alone.
I recall what I saw in her eyes: the longing and doom, just like I'd seen in the minnow's eyes.
Alya throws my blanket onto the floor. She gently traces something cold and sharp across my chest. She presses on it, lightly, seemingly without effort. But I feel the blade cut through not only skin and muscle but also bone. It slides through easily as though my sternum is made of cake. She opens the sternum with both hands. Her hands are warm. She smiles and looks me in the eye, to see if I'm watching. I am. I watch through barely cracked eyelids. I see everything.
Alya opens her mouth and spews out the darkness. The darkness flows into me, fills my lungs, squeezes my heart in a cold grip; it flows through my veins.
A fishing string stretches along my spine, from the lungs to the head. There's a metallic taste in my mouth.
Morpheus smiles with my lips. He and I open our eyes.