Dreams: The Abyss Stares Back Into You

Posted on July 17, 2011


Tristan stands outside a skeletal barn, long ago stripped of picturesque plains charm and bearing now only enough function to stave off its slow collapse. He stands beside an old woman. Her face shows signs of native blood, but Tristan cannot place her. The pyre-dry winds of open lands and the lash of filth and debris kicked up by dust devils have tanned her face into a hide the texture, thickness, and color of jerky. Still he doubts that they share common ancestry—his relatives did not mingle with the stewards of these plains. Barring all the secrets and shames of familial lore, he knows it by the way the hot knife winds lift his veins towards the skin of his arms, raising the flesh in tiny mounds of abnormal irritation; he remains the first of his clan to step onto such blasted fields.

They have been mummified in denim pasted to their skin with a mortar of sweat and the soft press of the hands of heat. She wears shades of faded blue with tan boots caked with straw-strewn dung. Her peppery hair juts stiff, askew from under a black Stetson. Tristan mimics much of her outfit, but all in black, a choice he soon regrets as the sun hits high noon.

Sweat beads along his forehead. He wipes away the strand. It does not sink into his saturated sleeve and drips lonely and doomed into the cracked earth. Leaning on the fence, his eyes droop to cave, silt-soft cliffs succumbing to the monotonous waves of heat, and he scans the horizon as it ripples, rolls, melts.

The plains open up for miles, an undulating geometry of tans and flaky yellows swaying in lazy, hypnotic patterns, up to the tinder-ridden foothills of a powder keg mountain obscured from clarity by the sheer mass of air between him and the slope.

Another droplet of sweat lands on the eye of his glasses. He takes them off and rubs the lens on his undershirt, but it only smears. When he returns the frames to his nose, the effect compounds atmospheric perspective and turns the mountain into a daub of green oil paints smeared onto nature by a blind virtuoso God. He tosses the glasses aside onto a pile of hay. The woman fires a bullet of chaw from the side of her mouth, turning the sneer of the spitting lip upwards into a smile.

“Get on over the fence, boy,” she murmurs. “Mr. Roe needs Jig broke for Chloe’s sixth.”

Raising his gaze, Tristan sees a young colt saunter up to the edge of the fence—he would fade into the moonless night, save for one patch of white on his chest. The colt breaks just before Tristan, leans down, and nuzzles his hand with husky black gums, mercifully moist. Tristan smiles, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bag of carrot slices. He places one on his palm and, hyper-extending his fingers away from the horse’s mouth, he offers the hand to Jig.

Jig lips the carrot away and trots off a pace as Tristan wipes the horse’s fluids against his jeans. There is no gate to the fence. The Roe’s made the enclosure themselves, a makeshift closed-circuit electric number to keep horses in and coyotes out. Three strands of wire run a loop, punctuated here and there by a wooden post with footholds around which the lines curve. One must climb the post without catching a foot on the wire and then heave their weight outwards to avoid the top cord. Then it is in the hands of deities and genetic dispositions of balance to land gracefully on the other side of the trench of half-digested hay and earth-toned slop marking the last barrier between man and animal.

Tristan scurries up to the top rung of the fence, three feet above the ground. A wave of heat catches him under the chin, punching the blackness beyond his eyes into sight, speckled with explosions of the sun’s last rays, and he swoons. His foot catches the top wire as he tumbles forward. His hairs rise. Every muscle contracts, loosens, contracts, loosens. Eyes roll back and the strain grows intolerable. He yelps. Jig’s head jerks up. Tristan falls forward, his leg crisped, and lands on his hands and knees in the filth on the pasture side. Jig turns to face Tristan as he rocks himself into a crouching position. The horse neighs and beats the ground with a hoof. He stands now just a foot away from where Tristan crouches.

“Don’t move!” yells the woman. “Don’t fuckin’ move!”

Jig rears back on his hind legs and paddles his hooves in the air. White eyes, no veins, roll glossy and wary in the horse’s sockets. Tristan spies the bend of iron waving above his head, feels the crash as the hooves land back on the earth before him, hears the bray and snort of the colt as it prances back and forth before him. A shower of white foam flies off Jig’s lip and slides down Tristan’s cheek. His heart beats fast and his nerves tingle. He wants to stand and run. He will explode with all this energy if he does not expend it. He cannot sit here, his muscles expanding as they prepare to rap the earth with enough force to propel him skywards out of danger.

“He thinks you’re a coyote,” the woman says, calmly now. “You’re crouched down like you want to take his neck out. He thinks you’re going to spring up and crush his throat, and he damn well intends to take your jaw out before you can reach him.”

A chemical reaction triggers in Tristan’s chest; he feels fluids clash, fizzle, swell, and impel him, first in one short burst, and then in a double flash as he realizes the calculated malice of his opponent. His leg begins to cramp.

The body was built for flight. It befuddles his flesh to stay here when everything inside screams. He wishes he were Jig, wishes he could kick out on impulse and without regret and do away with his enemy. Instead he crouches. Everything goes cold and numb. He looks to the woman.

“Stand too fast, move too fast, look too fast,” she says, “and you’ll walk out of here, maybe, but a few notches down on the IQ charts.”

The vision crumbles. Fog spreads across the scene. An old television set switching off, all the images pull for a second, discolor for another, and then fade. The woman expands outwards and folds into a static field. The colt vanishes suddenly and the earth stretches farther and farther apart into blackness, into void. The weak grid of shapes and colors flashes against his eyes.

Void yields to another image. The woman flies against one of the posts, a patch of crimson tendrils expanding outwards from one of her breasts, settling, staining her denim a deep burgundy. Tristan hears nothing, but sees the horse’s head, ramming repeatedly into her chest, her gut, her arm when she tries to defend herself. Her mouth flaps, but no scream escapes. Blood rises from her throat, but no noise.

Tristan hears the crack of bone, watches the red vines spread over and soak through the whole shirt. He watches the horse’s head recede from the scene and, lying in nothingness against the post, the body of the woman slumps down, a lumpy straw man fallen from its post, no longer able to ward off the crows. Her leathery skin hangs in rolls, pooling loose onto the ground. One rib presses out against the denim.

Tristan’s teeth clatter against each other. The noise wakes him. He feels sobs rising from his gut, and something hot as well, but forces the air and sick back down. Several sharp puffs escape his mouth. They garble and quicken into a laugh, and it rattles his body as tears heat the side of his face. A stream of steaming, salty water slides down his cheek and, still laughing, he drinks it in. Maybe she stood too quickly. Maybe she really was a coyote.

Sleep takes him again.


When you stare into the abyss …

Something rustles in the nothing. A shape, blacker than moonless night, shifts an inch and resettles into its camouflage. Time has returned to the eternal, and with it comes motion, and with the motion comes the fear that walks hand-in-hand with shiftless life.

Tristan turns his head towards the disturbance, but nothing moves. He can sense the encumbrance of being, that leaden mooring beyond, towards the sagging weight of flesh and bone. These are the dock cables of perception and of mind and spirit, and they lash him back towards the solidity of a pier, rapping him hard and rhythmically against the sagging wood as the ocean, into which he wished to drift endlessly, pushes him back with each wave into something real and offensive.

Incorporeality does not frighten Tristan, nor does the ceaseless bobbing of his limitless self into something equally limitless and equally present. But the shifting, again something black against the black, something moving an inch and then remaining for an eon, pulls his eye and with it the whole of this plane. The disturbance unsettles him.

The black upon black steps forward, and it is all too solid. It is a man, but only the face stands out against the dark. Papery skin, tallow and shimmering as though illuminated from within, crinkles and threatens to tear with every twitch of the crystalline bone and ruby-inlay muscle that clatters beneath. It sways, jagged and long, under tussled black locks, matted and greasy, tapering downwards and downwards into a chisel-point chin. The Japanese lantern hangs in space, an illuminated kabuki mask, an oni, wavering before curling back peeling thin lips and baring down caked and chipping yellow teeth. The lips fold upwards, a burlesque excuse for a smile, and hang just below a hooking nose as sharp and sudden as the rest of the skeletal figure. And behind the teeth, within the eye sockets, there is nothing more than blackness, a continuation of this field of fieldlessness, echoing back through whatever two-dimensional prop stands before him.

His being crashes harder and faster, louder, into the side of that substantial something.

The hook-nosed man beams at Tristan, holding the gaze for seconds or minutes or millennia. It feels warm. Looking into the eyes, the space beyond tooth, it feels so warm. With nothing, he smiles back at the hook-nosed man.

Below the face, something moves. Tristan drops his gaze down. Spindly blue-black digits hitched at one joint clatter below the face. They writhe. Tristan feels spongy muscle graft itself back onto him, feels the weight of skin baring down, stretching and pinning him, sucking him back from a million points. He wants to vomit; he feels the roiling heat in his guts. He wants to cry. He feels the hot salt collect in the corners of eyes somewhere far away but fast approaching. He hears his name here.

Once more, he locks onto the hawk-nosed man. Everything is so tight, everything is so limited, everything is becoming too real.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” coos the lantern head, its voice the sound of settling earth and shifting roots, the tenor of wood flexing in the heat. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Cracks and whips and stones fall upon him. Mountains crumble and the roar deafens him. He is battered by the weight of the world obliterating and reforming around him, crushing him into its core and burning him with its pressure, encasing him in lead and wrenching him out through every layer of solid ground. He screams and he tumbles. The stones landing before him dull into a drumbeat, a light tap, tap.

His eyes are open. He lies in bed. No painful breath, no struggle to regain life once more. He lies in a golden shroud and all around him he hears tinkling laughter. He smells strawberries as they sprinkle a light perfume in the air when plucked from the stem, drenching parched summer aid, and he feels lace brush against his cheek. The haze fades, but the drumbeat continues.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? The line jangles in his skull, beat in rhythm with the drums still pounding. None of this makes sense, none at all. This is not the way the cycle goes, this is not the way one wakes. The infernal drumming will not cease.

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