Below the Surface
“In dreams begin responsibility,” Yeats wrote as epigraph to a 1914 book of poems, attributing it to an “Old Play” though he pretty clearly wrote it himself. It’s a lovely line, but one that’s never made a lot of sense to me. Dreams point nowhere. Your analyst has to listen, and your lover, but if we’re honest they tend to fall into two categories: the boringly obvious (sexual wish fulfillment, work worries) or else the sort of synaptic static you can’t remember ten seconds after you’re awake. Dreams are graffiti-scrawled walls, when what we want are windows glimpsed at evening, from a train.
Even the urge to interpret is mysterious. In “You Can Sleep While I Drive,” Melissa Etheridge sings “In the morning you can tell me your dreams,” and it sounds so intimate, so necessary. But when’s the last time you learned anything from a dream? Plus, every time you tell one — or any other story for that matter — you alter it slightly and embed the new version in its place. Brain experts say this happens at the cellular level. So whether our dreams are worth remembering or not, sooner or later they recede into the mist, slipping from whatever truth they might have started with.
Which I guess is why I haven’t told this to many people — just a few friends who won’t think I’m crazy, or who already do.
The summer I was fourteen I always seemed to know what song would be on the radio when I turned it on. I’m happy to call this chance, though it’s true I came down to breakfast one morning and startled my mother by asking if we were moving to North Carolina, as I’d dreamed. Her spatula stopped moving. No, she said after a long moment. (It was Virginia.)
That June my brother and I spent a week at scout camp, and Saturday night I had a short, vivid dream. I’m facing my mother, who’s perhaps ten yards away and slightly elevated. I don’t question this, or the gray-blue smoke drifting between us, because everything is normal in dreams. I ask “So how’s Pickle?” (our mutt pup), her eyes turn sad and wise, she slowly shakes her head, and that’s it.
I woke still wrapped in the dream, mentioned it to my brother, then forgot about it in the flurry of striking camp, dousing fires and wrestling canvas into the car.
On the way home we stopped at a reservoir for a picnic. I was first into swim trunks and, walking to the edge with my mother standing guard, I waded in. Braced against the rising chill as my footing fell away, staring at what might have been an ocean for all I could see of the other side, I remembered the dream. Turning to tell her, I felt my neck hairs prickle and, completing the turn, found my mother standing a bit higher on the bank, a dozen steps away across a band of shifting, wind-softened water. I swallowed and made myself say, “So how’s Pickle?”
Her eyes widened as if she’d spotted a shark, but she recovered quickly and shook her head with a kind, sorrowful expression that I’d seen before and can still see, and I dove under and swam, kicking down into the dark. I don’t remember the rest of that afternoon, or the ride home. I don’t even remember coming out of the water.
Pickle, as you’ll have guessed, was killed the night before, run over by a car, so there’s really not much to interpret here. Freud would shrug and break early for lunch. I still think about that day, if only because it’s unsettling to experience a thing you don’t believe can happen. But it doesn’t bother me the way it used to. Somehow, all these years later I don’t mind not knowing how deep that water is, or how far the other shore.
About the Author: David Raney lives in Atlanta, Georgia. He's the Chief Editor for the Southern Regional Education Board. His most recent publications are in Compose, Across the Margin and Green Mountains Review.