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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues
FEB 2021 Issue
Fiction

Symbology

I.

My mother began sharing her nightmares with me the same year I unfurled and grew taller than anyone had anticipated, an alien in a family of pygmies. Bad dreams were her artillery, boogeyman stories retold to keep a daughter on the straight and narrow. She’d serve them up with the morning coffee before the images could fade into wakefulness. This is how I learned to dread a steaming cup when placed before me with a certain theatrical heaviness.

"How did you sleep?" I asked, careful to keep apprehension out of my voice.

"Malísimo," she replied. Not badly. Very, very badly.

"The sobbing woke me up," she continued, "then I realized it was mine."

She’d dreamt my brother flew into a rage, tearing apart our house and everything in it. Her mild-mannered first-born rose up transfigured with super-villain strength, ripping down walls with his bare hands and sinking his teeth into them like gingerbread. She’d run from the house towards the chain-link fence of the schoolyard, only to find me crossing the asphalt towards her, beaten black and blue, naked to the waist. “It’s nothing,” my dream-self assured our mother, even as the injuries screamed otherwise. The other me smiled and went on her way as the bruises multiplied and blossomed into one another.

I roll up the sleeve of my sweater to show her the unblemished skin of my forearm. She looks at me, unconvinced. “You haven’t been looking out for each other,” she concluded. All her dreams bear warnings.



Once I’d grown so much we could no longer deny I was a woman, my mother dreamt about her marriage. She dreamt she crossed the threshold of the house to find my father collapsed on the walkway in a crumpled blue suit, his hands at either side, palms open, facing skyward. The sight of his bare, unadorned fingers angered her, until she looked up to where his left eye was missing. His gold wedding band glittered and winked at her from the pink flesh of the barren socket. She offered no interpretation that time.



II.

Out of my intimacy with her subconscious grew an impulse to emulate, to prove that I took after her and received messages just as readily as she did. Symbology got in the way. We didn't read images the same. We got our signs crossed and stalemated over our cups of Bustelo, refusing to compromise.

The first dream I share with her is the one where I can't stop bleeding. My ankle bleeds and bleeds from a cut no bigger than a grain of rice, and I fail to notice the rapid spread of crimson until it has soaked through my sock. I change that sock twice, then double up in an attempt to stanch the bleeding. Unabated, it pools in my right heel until it finally pushes clear through, past the tan leather of my favorite oxfords. I leave half a bloody footprint wherever I go and walk looking over my shoulder, hoping no one has seen. But the man at the bus stop notices the blood under my fingernails. "Aren't you going to take care of that?" he asks, looking down at my feet.

"Your enemies are afoot, see?" my mother says matter-of-factly. She advises me to guard myself, to hide my vulnerabilities lest they be used against me. Aren't you going to take care of that?

"But he was trying to tell me something," I respond. "There’s something I need to attend to, something I need to fix, so I can quit looking over my shoulder."

My mother laughs at me. "Better to watch your back."

Later I begin to dream that I'm crossing the intersection by my mother’s house. I approach it as I have a hundred times before, secure in my footing and sure of my direction. I am headed somewhere up ahead that I know well but cannot see. Halfway across, a wave of weakness swarms up my legs like ants, pulling me to my knees. Unable to move, I face the fast-approaching cars.

"I've had that dream," my mother claims, when I finally tell her. “It’s about failing to keep to one's given path, of lacking resolve."

Her interpretation ignores the firm step with which the dream begins, the familiar surroundings, the sense that I could find the destination in the dark were it not for some impending calamity. The mistake, I decide, is charging ahead as though nothing has changed, falling into the limbo of habit.

"No,” I say. “It means that the security of the known path is an illusion. I’m going the wrong way." I get up to leave the table, abandoning her to my half-eaten toast.

"Where are you going?" she demands.

"To reset my compass.”



III.

When I left home, she stopped trusting me with her visions. She resented me for jumping ship and withheld herself as punishment. On the rare occasion she did come to me with a dream, it was with a new sense of urgency. One spring morning when I’ve come to visit, she approaches me at the table by the window where I’ve settled in with my coffee, accustomed now to pouring my own. She traps me in the corner, pulling her chair in close.

"Last night I dreamt of my own death." She says it like she’s been waiting years to dream this dream just so she can tell it to me.

It takes place in a hospital, though this dreamscape is mercifully devoid of the endless panels of florescent lights that accost her in every real hospital she's ever been in. The walls and ceiling are alabaster, the sheets a blinding white, the light omnipresent. She lays dead center atop a never-ending expanse of mattress, tiny beneath the plain top sheet. Her joints form peaks in the cotton. Too weak to lift her limbs, she lets her eyes roam instead; exploring the place where she presumes death will come for her.

Her gaze falls on the window where the white curtains billow far too slowly and evenly for waking life, like white sand dunes in a steady wind. She turns on her side and pulls in her arms and legs the way she sleeps at home. Curling into a ball she grows smaller and smaller, the sphere of her dense and compact. She is imploding; everything she is and ever was tucked away into a shrinking orb of selfhood, until she disappears altogether.

My mother sits back expectantly. She believes the intimations of death have spoken loud and clear—they warn of the fleeting nature of time, of mortality. She's telling me there's still time to come around, to see the world as she does before the hourglass runs out. I don’t believe her. Death to me looks like a passage, like transition, a harbinger of change. I say, to her great annoyance, "Death doesn't always mean death, mami. Not in dreams."



IV.

I sat in the waiting room alongside my father and brother on the day her dream nearly came true, immersed in an unsettling stillness cut only by the convulsive sobs of her crowd of sisters. They huddled together away from us, we who preferred our solitary, internal smolder to the catharsis of their precipitated mourning.

When it was done, after they'd cut her open and put her back together, my mother seemed angry, like she thought I'd lied to her. Her eyes, opened to glaring slits, leaked accusation through her post-operative pallor until the sedatives pulled her down into a perturbed, unnatural sleep.

Back in her own bed she was plagued with insomnia, finally drifting off each night when she’d reached the point of sheer exhaustion, only to be jolted awake by the feeling that she was laying in her own coffin. The third time it happened she fled to the room I'd slept in as a child, wrapping herself up in one of my brother's old sweatshirts for protection.

She remained afraid to go to sleep until the night she started to dream that my brother and I were still small. Each night, as her scars healed, as the heart that had betrayed the body resettled into her chest, my brother and I regressed. We were children, then toddlers, then babies, until she dreamt that we were still with her in her belly, until even before that, to what she insisted was not a dream but a memory of us all together in the primordial slime. Nameless and formless, we gravitated towards one another by an unfathomable force she explained away as love.

My mouth hurts when she tells me this. The mythology she spins sends my tongue searching for the magic words that might convince her that dreams hold messages richer than warnings. I want us to agree for once. I want to tell her that she has not come full circle from the image of death to the spark of life for nothing, and my coffee grows cold as I prepare speeches that never come. Before I can begin, she says this: "Last night I dreamt I was reborn."

Contributor

Betsy M. Narváez

is an Ecuadorian-American writer and translator. A native New Yorker, she was born and raised in the Bronx and now resides in Washington Heights. She earned an MFA from Rutgers Newark and a B.A. in English and American studies from Wesleyan University. 

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues