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By E. Catherine Tobler
Age comes upon every being and so, too, death, but none should be made to endure both in the same moment. In these long and gloomful days, it becomes difficult for me to separate life from death. For, though my life ended in the spring of last year, I find myself breathing yet. However, one cannot call this existence life. Clock hands move through the hours, but cannot be said to live. Such have my own days moved, a slow sweep across an unseeing face, my daughter poised on Death’s door, so close to where I yet labor.
She moves rarely in her sleep, the slumber holding her as though it were Death, instead. I know it is not, despite the doctors and their refusals to believe me. A panicked mother, they say, but they did not hear what she said one winter’s night. They did not see her eyes, open and looking, not at this world, but another. “He feeds me flowers,” she said and stared at something I could not see beyond a flicker in the black iris of her eye. It was pale and slow, and a low tremor coursed through her entire body before she went still. Her eyes closed and the doctors said her time would come soon. She would starve; every bit of water would evaporate from her body. I refused the very idea.
I brought her home after that, for they placed their hope in God’s hands rather than their own. My hands were capable of creating machines that could sustain her until I could discover where she had gone – where she had been taken. They thought me mad. I made a room for her, in the wing just off my laboratory, a space where the afternoon sunlight slants over her if I open the draperies. I open the draperies often. The sun gleams off the metal and glass that enfold her; she is wrapped in nutrient-giving tubes and electrical wires that stimulate her muscles. She is a bird, waiting to hatch.
[pullquote]I open the draperies often. The sun gleams off the metal and glass that enfold her; she is wrapped in nutrient-giving tubes and electrical wires that stimulate her muscles. She is a bird, waiting to hatch.[/pullquote]
She looks small there and smells almost like honey, though it’s sugar that feeds her, courses through her and should wake her – but it doesn’t, which strengthens my belief that she, her consciousness, has been taken elsewhere. The doctors cut her ginger hair short, then shaved half of her scalp, to expose the whole of the wound she suffered. Stitches run in a jagged line beneath the delicate crown of metal I’ve woven for her. This headdress keeps her still – though she never moves much, remember; when she wakes, I don’t want her to further injure herself.
Our modest home sits along Fleet Street, neglected by the public for the most part – though there are youngsters who creep around, hoping for a glimpse of the strange machine they say I’ve made. I often peer from the windows and they do not see my darkened face until it’s too late, until their eyes meet my own and they are left shrieking or staggering backward in silence, as though I had reached through the glass to cut their tongues free. Tongues to be used in some hideous concoction, no doubt, though my own research leads me not to such things, no. It is the Dreamlands I seek and my daughter imprisoned there.
They say it is the grief that has made me believe these fantastic things. Losing my beloved to the Atlantic’s ceaseless suck, my daughter left in a coma after the wreck, it would be enough to drive anyone to madness, they say. I am not mad. I am perfectly sane but for the normal grief that encompasses a person when they have lost what they hold dear. I should never have given Richard my heart to carry, but I could do nothing else. What little remains of my heart now rests within Hester. And she remains sleeping, still.
Doctors sent me home with laudanum and told me to rest, to sleep. Told me to give my daughter up to God because He was calling her home. I replied in a tone that a lady should not use in polite company. I find irony in my actions now, that it is a drug that will carry me to her, though, again, it’s nothing one should speak of in polite company. The opium is ready for me even now, though it’s Cynthia I’m waiting for. Cynthia who will ensure I don’t linger in opium’s hold if I cannot complete my task today. I would not care if I lingered; I would wander forever to find my daughter.
Discovering what I sought was most difficult – leastwise until this point, for the journey I am about to undertake will surely rival the discovery itself. But there is nothing else to do. I must go if I mean to get her back. Professor Meriwether thinks me mad, too. Cynthia doesn’t argue with me. She lost her own son three years ago and if there were a way to reclaim him, she would. Cynthia has stood by me when others have turned away.
Though she doesn’t argue, I am not convinced Cynthia believes me when I say my daughter is being held in the Dreamlands. She goes quiet when I speak of it, when I tell her of the creatures and their ways. She purses her lips and nods, and does what I ask of her, but she never speaks of belief. I suppose her continued presence should be proof of her belief, but part of me wishes she would say the words. I believe you. I believe in you.
It was the Professor who first believed me, though even he was reluctant to speak with me. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the subject matter at hand, or the matter of who I was. Some men were not comfortable with women inhabiting the spaces that were commonly their own. In the early days, I tried to respect this notion, but it grew difficult when these invisible boundaries began to limit my research. Why should I be barred from the classrooms and laboratories because of my gender? Those men were studying the very thing I was and they would disallow me access because I didn’t wear trousers. I will note that wearing trousers did not help my reputation in any way and speak no more to that, as it has little to do with my journey.
It was a passing mention in one of these lectures that led me to Professor Meriwether. There was talk of parallel worlds, of the creatures that might inhabit such, and that the Professor had written at length upon these ideas. I never dreamed, if you forgive the wording, of hearing such a thing spoken aloud in a classroom. The men seemed to pay it little attention, but I latched onto the idea and retired to the library, where I sought the Professor’s papers. Within them, he spoke of strange lands, some less solid than our own, yet running parallel to it. Some were seemingly just below the surface of ours. One might even glimpse these strange lands when a cloud moved just so, though, likewise, a cloud might move to cover what one thought they had seen. The Professor wrote as though he had been there, riding in glass ships that could submerge themselves in viridian oceans, looking upon the luminous creatures that trolled the depths. He had even sketched a handful of creatures and there upon the page was the pale thing I had seen lurking in my daughter’s eye.
I know what you will think, reader. I had never seen anything in her eye but a reflection of my own grief. A hope that she might be brought back from the deathless existence the ship’s wreck had bequeathed her. But no. This thing was real, hideous and nearly without shape. If it had any shape, I suppose one might liken it to a toad, but it had no skin as earthly toads do; it was pale as if never having known sunlight, and unmarked. Waxy. The beast had no eyes, yet still looked upon the strangely-starred sky the Professor had drawn, its maw open in a terrible howl.
I could not look upon it long that day, though I returned to the papers time and again, because neither could I remove that haunting beast from my mind’s eye. Perhaps it was some manner of hope, a wish not yet expressed in those earliest of days, but, when I told Professor Meriwether and saw the way the color bled out of his face, I knew he was acquainted with this creature. With its place and its habits.
He refused to take me, of course. Said the Dreamlands were no place for a lady, even if people said I was nothing of the sort. Said he owed it to the memory of my husband and no matter that our daughter lay ill; he would not take me. It was his blunt refusal and continued study of his papers that led me to opium as a means of travel. The Professor was of a mind that these lands were accessed via dreams. These creatures came into our own through them – perhaps they could not dream on their own and were drawn to ours as a curiosity. He could only speculate, though later he would go. We might encounter them in such dreamscapes, thinking them a construct of our fantasizing minds when, in fact, they were dreadfully real.
Cynthia came, carrying with her a small velvet bag, which she pressed into my hands as soon as she could, as if the drug within could soak into her and she would be carried away by mistake. I opened the bag to find the bottle of laudanum, the very thing the doctors wished for me to take. To calm my nerves. To ease my grief. Neither was possible. I had come this far; I had some distance yet to go.
My hands did not shake as I retrieved the necessary syringe. I would only sleep and dream and be able to find her; I knew this as well as I knew my own laboratory around me. Hester would be there and I would – well, I would consider all of that once I got there. I would need to understand the beasts which held her. I would need – too much.
And if I was wrong? If there were no Dreamlands, no beasts? This idea was like a bee. I shooed it away.
My hands did not shake as I pressed the needle to my arm; Cynthia seemed to shake enough for us both. I sat upon the chaise near Hester’s bed and was calm every step of the way, even when the world began to vanish in a black haze under the opium’s rush. The sunlight that draped me began to shimmer and Cynthia’s face dwindled, retreating to a small point amid the black before it winked out altogether. Then there was only the black and, though I screamed for my daughter, there was no reply. I could not move within the darkness and what little awareness I had overwhelmed me; I felt as though I would drown inside the black. There was no shore to hold to, only endless, empty black.
It was Cynthia’s screaming that pulled me out and the cool touch of Professor Meriwether’s hands on my brow. I looked into his eyes, even and blue and reproachful. I had seen that look before, but there was something else this time. Something I dared not name and something he shuttered away before more could be exposed. He drew a cloth across my brow and offered me a cup, which held tea. His hands were less steady than my own.
The room was darker than it had been, sunlight no longer slanting across my legs, though the draperies remained open. How long had I – Too long! Cynthia screamed when I asked. I had never seen her temper like this and watched in silent fascination. Professor Meriwether took my pulse, listened to my heart, then moved away from the chaise with a drawn breath. Did I mean to kill myself? His question startled me. I could only stare at his bowed shoulders. My answer was quick – of course I did not – but then he turned on me, lashing out the way Cynthia no doubt wanted to. How easy it would be, he said, to perish in the guise of an experiment. To leave this world and poor Hester behind as though they had never existed. He did not believe my denials and lifted the bottle of laudanum.
The liquid was the death, he said. It brought only blackness. While one might glimpse images within, it would be as an image upon a rain-slicked street. It would rise and then wash away before one could do anything. The secret was the smoke, he continued, for the smoke made pathways upon which a person could walk. Pathways that curled past the curtain of one world and into the next. I would go to a den, I said, and he shook his head. No, he said, I would not.
Two days hence, I was invited to the Professor’s home on the outskirts of London. Location didn’t matter, he said; I wouldn’t have to be close to Hester in this world to reach her in the next. Much as I had Cynthia, the Professor had a man in his employ who would watch over us as we went – We? We. If I meant to do this foolish thing, he said, he meant to go with me, meant to guide me as best he could. I saw the worry in his eyes, but if it was for me or for Hester, I could not say.
The Professor led me to one of the most magnificent machines I have ever seen. It was of his own construct. While, at first glance, it looked like little more than a glass coffin, closer inspection revealed much more indeed. It could hold two people, side by side, supine upon the emerald cushions that padded it. The fact that it was made for two gave rise to certain questions, questions which I did not ask as I crouched beside the enclosure. Surely, what the Professor did in his own time was his own concern and not my own.
The glass sides of the coffin were cobwebbed with metal piping, which stemmed from an elaborate pierced metal burner at its head. These metal pipes fed into the coffin itself, channeling smoke from the burner. Copper and other metals had gone green and black from continued use, the interior of the coffin slightly hazed. It was an opium pipe large enough that one could rest inside.
Professor Meriwether helped me inside, where I sat while he crossed the room and his man prepared the burner. Though I had been calm two days before, I found a certain trepidation curling around me now. I had never smoked opium and only knew of the blackness the laudanum had brought me. All would be well, the Professor said as he joined me, a revolver in one hand, a pouch in the other. I stared at the weapon and he smiled – the first time I had seen him do such. One could not exactly pack for the Dreamlands, he said, but there had been occasions when he dreamed with an item nearby and found it close in the dreamscape, as well.
His man enclosed us within the coffin and I took an uneven breath, for the walls were terribly close. The smoke had yet to begin flowing and already, I felt suffocated. Was this how it felt for my Hester? I could only wonder and startled when the Professor’s hand took hold of my own. Just breathe, he told me, and so, I breathed, focused on the feel of his hand around my own, even as the smoke began to take us over. Think of sailing, he told me. Great ships and great seas.
It was a strange experience, the breathing in of the smoke. I expected to cough and splutter, but only found myself drifting, as if to sleep. But it wasn’t entirely sleep, for I was still aware of the man at my side and that we were going somewhere. I became aware that we were walking upon a road, a road that looked like metal cobbles with a haze of fog. I trusted this was the opium smoke, though it smelled like the sea.
We found ourselves in a harbor, though I only call it such because there seemed to be ships anchored there. It looked nothing like what humanity would build; the docks under our feet were made of writhing moon snails, a constantly moving landscape that was slick and threatened to pull my boots off if I didn’t keep moving. I headed toward a patch of ground that looked stable, if wet, and perched there as the Professor joined me. The ships that rocked upon the waters, waters that seemed electric and protoplasmic in the same instant, were black. The sails that hung from the masts seemed tattered, but they rose into the air without any wind to lift them and revealed themselves to be alive, writhing masses of tentacles that clawed the sky. The sky was solid under their touch and thus, the ships glided through sodden air.
Most startling were the creatures upon the ships. They were the waxy, pale things I had seen in Hester’s eye.
In the way of dreams, I had no memory of moving toward the ship. I was simply upon its deck, though this was no wood construct. The ship, like its sails was horribly alive, shuddering and sucking my boots with each step I took. This sensation scuttled up my legs, beneath my skirts where it should not go, and no manner of movement from me made it cease. The pale beasts turned toward me, rushed closer even as it seemed they moved through a dense aspic. There came an exhale and a low laugh as if pleased. The awareness made me want to retch, but the Professor’s hand upon my own again grounded me. In his other hand, he held not his revolver but a darkly gleaming gem from the pouch. This he held up before the eyeless toads and they took a notable step backward.
I could not say if they actually spoke. I heard a voice, though, burrowed inside my mind as if it were beloved Richard pressed close in a warm darkness. This voice sounded like a whisper, pulling away with a wet slobber at each period. Rubies. From the human world. Pricelesssss. They wanted the stones.
Professor Meriwether kept the ruby out of their reach and the beasts snarled, as if torn between two very different desires. They wanted the ruby, but they wanted something else, too. An image of Hester rose in my mind, but it was not my daughter as I knew her, nor my own eyes which looked upon her. She was fragmented, as if she were seen through a hundred different eyes and perspectives all at once. I had the keen impression that someone – something – was looking at my daughter and sharing the sight with me. And then another something looked down, and I saw the thousand-eyed beast reflected back and back, and back once more. It was too much, looking through a long line of mirrors toward infinity.
I tried to speak, but could not find the words as the ship lurched into motion across the protoplasmic slop. The sea tongued the ship’s sides and splattered onto the deck. Though I tried to lift my feet, they seemed well-anchored to the not-wood that made up this vessel. The Professor pressed his gun into my hand – I think that’s what happened, for the weapon was abruptly there. I held tight and looked at him, though he was not the man I knew in this place. He was something entirely different and I wondered if he pictured himself as such, or if it was my dreaming mind that made him into what I saw. His head seemed a huge penny arcade machine upon which there was a variety of levers and buttons. A metal plate encircled his keyhole mouth, from which tumbled more rubies when he worked a lever. They glistened with saliva. When he offered these to me, they were warm, alive in my palm.
My daughter’s ransom. I understood that much, but the thoughts which came to mind next were strange, disjointed. In my mind’s eye I saw alleys, at first alike enough to fool me into thinking it was the same alley over and over, but I began to see they were different. Crossed by different people, too, though they had something in common. Each possessed a gem, some larger than others. Some set within a brooch or pendant, others in gleaming cane heads. The rubies in my hand seemed to spark with heat; there was something else buried within them, but I could not yet reach it.
This was another dream, but it was also not. I looked at the Professor, but his head, once again human, turned from my gaze. He watched the slop and suck of the sea as our ship bore us closer to –
What, I couldn’t say. I held to the wet rubies as we sailed and watched as, in the distance, a strange city rose against the sepia sky. It was no city I knew, the buildings (if they were such – I shall call them such, lacking any other word) looking more like jagged teeth than places one might work or live. When the ship reached the shore, it was as though the ground reached for the ship, pulling it in and securing it. The pale toad creatures scrabbled over the deck, down a writhing gangplank and toward the waiting warehouse beyond.
The Professor did not move as I made to follow them. I glanced at him and he shook his head, silently telling me I had to go alone now. I had the revolver, but wanted him at my side as he had been here before. He would not be moved. I turned to the gangplank alone and moved down its length, toward the cavernous mouth of the warehouse where the beasts had gone. Every step was achingly slow, yet I covered more ground than I should have when I managed to take one. The air here was thick and smelled of bilious rot; the hem of my skirt was sodden and barnacles clung to its hem.
At the building’s threshold, a curious feeling seeped through me. It was not the worst thing I’ve felt – that was still the loss of my husband and the lack of my daughter – though terrible in its own right. It felt as though my back had been flayed open, my spine exposed, allowing the slow drip of thick air onto muscle and bone. This air was a dense and rotten jelly, which oozed into every part of me.
I stepped forward and kept moving, though the room before me was dark and my boots seemed jelly-filled. I thought the room should have been cold, but a strange humidity permeated this place and stuck my hair to my cheeks in damp tendrils. I called for Hester, but my voice only echoed back to me, accompanied by disembodied hands and tongues. When one hand tried to latch on, the rubies in my hand flared with sudden light and the hand abruptly withdrew as though burned.
The bloody light of the rubies pressed onward into the darkness, as if trying to shove it back. However, as the light grew, so, too, did the thing contained inside the rubies. The memory of how the stones were taken. Each step I took revealed another moment to me, a moment which threatened to close around my throat and choke me. Those dark alleys, a shadow dislodging itself from a wall – the Professor! The thrust of one body into another. A blade across a throat, iron-sweet, and the spill of blood over rubies.
Priceless, the air whispered.
Bodies I could not see crowded me in the darkness, as if drawn to the violence that leaked from the gems. Hands of soot and shadow clutched my arms, my bodice, and tried to smother what light escaped from the rubies. I held them high, shaking my fist to force the light up and out, to show me the true horror of the room I had entered.
It was more womb than room, a vast curved lattice rising into an infinite sky that broke the roof apart. The lattice was both flesh and metal, one inseparable from the other, the flesh quivering wherever the ruby-light touched it. The light in my hand spilled bloody, but this structure was bloodied by itself, for, amid the overlay of one slat into another, hundreds of bodies were tied. Wedged and chained, these bodies looked broken, yet still seemed to live, for breath moved the sunken chests. Each person – Could I call them that? – seemed asleep and amid them all was my Hester.
I screamed her name and her body twitched, as if hearing me above the groan of the beasts around me. She was ruined, her body flayed open to the dense, heated air. Her hands stretched outward, reaching for something and closing on nothing. The sight of her there drew a shriek from me, because it wasn’t her – it was me.
I have spoken of looking into mirrors, each reflecting that which stood across from it, onward into infinity. In this moment, looking at her, I saw my own reflection. No mother me and I never had been. I was only ever Hester, trapped within the monster’s dreadful machine, staring through a deckled glass and dreaming myself elsewhere.
The dream of me in sodden, barnacle-crusted skirts shattered. Standing where my mother had stood – my dead mother, I remembered now – was a man I did not know. He smelled like opium smoke, but that wasn’t true, either, I supposed. It was the smoke I breathed in from the embrace of his glass coffin. He smiled at me the way you might smile at a lover when no one else was looking. A low shudder rolled through my ruined body, sweat and worse dripping from it, down the length of the hideous dreaming machine.
The pale toad creatures paced at the base, some shimmering out of existence when they leaped through the rippling portal, which opened and closed like an iris at the machine’s lowest center point. Other creatures (a thousand-thousand luminous eyes) churned in a circle around the machine and we moved with them, slowly turning as we dreamed. When I looked at my fellow captives, I could feel the dreams. This man dreamed of horse racing; this woman of sailing the Channel.
The man – the Professor – kneeled amid the toads and gave them rubies. Bright, warm, stolen from the dead. I tried to touch my throat, to feel for my grandmother’s locket with its inset ruby, but it was in the Professor’s hand now, winking up at me. How many had he killed to reach this place?
The Professor laughed low, shook his head.
Another dream, perhaps. Did it matter? I couldn’t say it did, but for the rage that made me tremble.
One of the pale forms shifted, rising on its spindly legs to climb the machine. At my side, it pressed a flower against my mouth. A bright-red poppy, sweet amid the stench of the room. I thought I smelled opium, but maybe it was only the poppies. I sagged against the warm machine, watching the Professor spin out of view as the great lattice turned.
My thoughts turned backward. Backward to a room I thought I knew. It was not the room my mother had (never) prepared for me. There was no gleaming harness, but, instead, the glass coffin and its emerald cushions, which reeked of sweat and slumber. I dreamed the Professor stretched beside me, dreamed the rubies and the revolver. Was it his dream or mine that brought the gun? Did it matter?
I lunged for the weapon – had he not given it to me moments ago on the ship deck? I made it real as anything was in this awful place. The grip of my hand was slick with sweat and blood, but that didn’t matter, either. I dreamed a dry hold on the revolver, my finger steady and my aim true, despite the fact that I had been trapped here for countless days. Weeks? It did not matter.
The rage of the truth rose inside me. The rage gave fuel to the dream, to the action, at long last. Instead of allowing these pale creatures to tiptoe from my dream and into the waking world beyond, I took up that revolver and dreamed a bullet into the Professor’s mind, shattering past forehead and skull. The Professor hit the wet ground and rubies spilled carelessly around him. The pale toads leaped for them.
I started awake inside the glass coffin, trembling, sweaty, my head aching from the jagged scar that would forever mark me. The coffin was not locked. With unsteady arms, I pushed the lid open. I sat up slowly, the room resolving itself around me to show line after line of similar opium coffins, each holding a dreamer.
The Professor’s man crouched nearby my coffin and together, we stared at the wreck of the man beside me; the Professor, his skull having blossomed into a bright-red poppy.
He fed me flowers, but no more.
E. Catherine Tobler lives and writes in Colorado. She is the senior editor at Shimmer Magazine. Her debut novel arrives this summer.