the nightmare of the waking world
by Joel Fishbane
One night, fifty years ago, my friend Carlos was summoned to receive the last thing his brother wrote before he died. Carlos’ brother had died the morning of his wedding, three hours before we were all to meet at the barber to be shaved. When Dominica Rodriguez learned of the death, she immediately instructed her bridesmaids to help her put on the dress. She then insisted on visiting the groom’s room where the doctor told her he had died of a heart attack despite being less than thirty-five. It was then that she noticed an envelope addressed to Carlos sitting on the nightstand. Displaying a supernatural willpower that could have made her a saint, she did not read the letter inside.
“The woman was a catastrophe,” Carlos told me at the time. “But she was as honest as my face is ugly.”
After the funeral, Dominica left town while Carlos and I returned to our law firm. The years passed, during which we grew old having families and fighting our groundbreaking cases. Although Carlos had read his brother’s letter, he never discussed it and I accepted that the subject was out of bounds. But one Friday night, as I was about to retire, a shaken Carlos asked to meet at a bar favored by lawyers and the clients they had saved. I found him drunk, for he had been drinking ever since Dominica Rodriguez had appeared at his door earlier that afternoon. Having never married, she had enjoyed an extraordinary financial career. But everyone learns that money can’t buy everything and the wealthy Dominica could not buy a cure for the disease that had left her sickly and pale. She was, however, hoping to find the peace she had wanted for fifty years.
“She said that not reading that letter is her only regret,” Carlos said. “I told her it was in a safety deposit box and the bank doesn’t open until Monday.” He drank his aguardiente with a shaky hand. “In fact, I keep the letter under my bed. I have it right here. But I think I should tear it up.”
He produced the envelope sealed in a waterproof bag and confessed he had always thought it a blessing that Dominica Rodriguez hadn’t read his brother’s last words. In her delicate condition, he feared the consequences if she ever learned what the letter contained. Despite the passage of time and the fact he’d only read it once, Carlos remembered the letter with perfect clarity. But it was such a remarkable document that he said it would be better if I read it for myself. For the same reason, I will reprint it now.
There is nothing duller than a man who tells you his dreams and yet I hope you will indulge me. I am in the aftermath of the most astonishing experience and I must put it on record before it disappears. As you have a lawyer’s brain, I won’t bother theorizing and will offer nothing other than my cold hard testimony. You know that I keep a Bible by the bed. I hope you will trust that I’ve just put my hand on it and sworn to tell the truth.
Last night, I went to bed last night thrilled in the knowledge that it was the second-last time I would ever sleep alone. As I had done for days, I kissed the picture of my beloved Dominica, said my prayers, and read one of Rilke’s poems to calm my mind. I fell asleep with ease. Given the proximity of the marriage, it’s hardly surprising that I summoned visions of my wedding reception. I found myself in a great hall, dressed in father’s tuxedo and shaking the hands of guests as I accepted their congratulations. Dominica was preparing for her grand entrance when she would, for the first time, be announced as my wife. Stepping aside to catch my breath, I chanced upon a woman with hair like midnight trying to break a glass with her shoe. With each strike, I was surprised to see the glass held as if made from steel. She wept in frustration and the tears splashed the rosacea on her cheeks. She was a stranger but I felt compelled to help. Offering my help, I knelt and found her stiletto-heeled sandals were fastened around the ankle with a shackle and locking mechanism that kept the shoe in place. She had not been trying to smash the glass; in fact, she had been hoping to use it to break herself free.
These shoes are killing me, she said.
This was no exaggeration. Most of that delicate foot was blistered and the arch of her foot was purple and bruised. An examination of the lock confirmed it required an alphanumeric sequence that was fourteen characters long. Cracking such a code by brute force might take two hundred million years and yet I knew I had to try.
You need to return to your guests, said the woman. This is your wedding.
The bride isn’t here yet. I have a bit of time.
A year passed. I know how that sounds but it’s true. I was aware of the passing days but cared nothing for them. Finding the password was a question of mathematical precision and I became obsessed with the task. I cared for nothing but solving the puzzle and freeing the woman from her stiletto trap. Around me, the wedding continued. I was dimly aware that people were looking for me but a statue of the Little Mermaid, like the one in Copenhagen, inexplicably appeared and blocked me from view.
During this time, I learned everything about her life. Raised on a California peach farm, she fell in love with the stars and, at seventeen, asked for her father’s blessing to study astronomy. He refused, for he was a farmer who knew the value of strong hands and an even stronger back. What could she do but run away in the dead of the afternoon when everyone was taking a nap? She enrolled in a university where she was mocked for her rosacea which they believed to be a Satanic mark. She soon astonished them with her ingenious calculations and perfect knowledge of the heavens. In her final year, she proved that the universe had a defined center and everything revolved around a black hole. This hole was getting larger and she predicted that, in a few centuries, our descendants would be able to look into the sky and see this monstrosity with the naked eye.
Such talent did not go unnoticed and she went to work at the great observatories. Of course, success breeds jealousy and, at a Christmas party, her enemies got her drunk and then challenged her to a contest to see how fast she could break a password. Both she and her competitor were locked into the shoe with its devilish lock. However, her enemies had arranged to give her competitor the code. Then they revealed that they didn’t know the code for her own shoe, condemning her to wear it for all time. She persevered but the weight of the shoe slowed her down and the pain became such a distraction that she could no longer work. Her work suffered and she was dismissed. By then, she had a fiancé and he brought her to my wedding, hoping it would cheer it up. But he had disappeared and she feared their romance was at an end.
I repeat all this both in the interest of offering a complete account and because it speaks to the remarkable nature of this dream. If our dreams stem entirely from our subconscious then I am the author of everything from the woman’s midnight hair to her extraordinary theory about the center of the universe. And yet how can one account for such incredible detail? To dream of a woman is common but to dream of one with a backstory is almost unheard of. And here’s one more intriguing fact: despite telling me many fascinating things, she couldn’t reveal her name. It was the one part of her history she did not possess.
It was with great relief that I finally heard the tumblers fall into the place, whereupon the lock crumbled and the stiletto shoe cracked open like an egg. I now held the most delicate foot, red and pulsating from its imprisonment, and I had the urge to kiss it as a gentleman might a woman’s hand. The woman gazed at me with grateful eyes and I saw they were purple, the very shade Elizabeth Taylor is said to have had. She withdrew her foot and slipped off her other shoe so she could stand barefoot for the first time in years.
Then there was a fanfare and I knew that it was happening: at long last, my bride would arrive. A terror filled me for by then I had come to care for this woman who had put her foot in my hands. All at once, she burst into tears and I knew that our year together had been as meaningful for her as it was for me.
Get me out of here, I begged.
You have a wife.
And you have a fiancé. But we can leave them both behind.
We escaped the reception hall, fleeing through a door and into a nearby jungle. We must have been spotted because, when I looked back, a terrible army of tuxedos and fine dresses was in pursuit. You, Carlos, were in the lead, and you had all made torches of the table settings and brandished soup spoons like they were swords. But this army was without its general: I can only imagine that Dominica Rodriguez had been left to lead from the rear.
We raced on but I’m no runner and my side began to ache. But my companion was Atalanta and she carried me along, midnight hair flowing as if every strand were alive. When the sound of the mob faded, I found we had reached a mountain that was said to be the only one whose summit had a view of the constellations that was unmatched anywhere in the world. I knew my Atalanta wanted to climb to the top and, as I could deny her nothing, we began the ascent. Somehow, equipment appeared when we needed it and we never lacked water or staffs to help when the path became steep.
The journey took months and, each time I thought we had neared the end, the route curved and it there were miles more to go. We renounced our former lives and, when I saw a wedding ring on my hand, I cast it into the mist. After that, we called each other husband and wife. My muscles grew hard while my hair began to show the first signs of grey. My Atalanta – this was the name I had given her – grew fat beside me and, one night, I helped her give birth on a mountain cliff. We named our daughter Evangeline, which means bearer of good news. I fashioned a sling out of tree bark so we could carry her on our backs. I learned to build fires and became a hunter, stalking birds that looked like the phoenix and rabbits the size of wolves (since I had no weapons, I had to kill them with a look). Back at the camp, Atalanta cooked the meat and entertained Evangeline with tales of the adventures we would have. Sometimes, I thought I could hear Dominica Rodriguez calling to me from beyond the trees. But I knew she was clinging to the memory of a ghost. I was no longer the man I had been.
Evangeline was five when we reached the mountain’s peak. As promised, we had an unobstructed view of the stars and my wife pointed out the eighty-eight constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Then she saw pointed to a black speck and announced this was the black hole at the center of the universe she had predicted many months before. I asked her how it was possible that we could see it without a telescope. Hadn’t she said such a thing would take centuries? She could only surmise her calculations had been off and the end of the universe was closer than we knew.
She wanted to stay to study the phenomenon so I built a house out of wood and clay, a project that filled the seasons. We had another daughter and taught the girls everything we could remember about the world. Having no books, we raised them on what stories we could recall, from ancient myths to the plots of movies and television shows. Every now and then, I came upon a story that was linked to Dominica Rodriguez such as a book she had given me or a movie we had seen together. I hadn’t heard her voice in a while but I had the sense that she hadn’t stopped looking. I’ll confess I took some delight in knowing this. The greatest trick God ever played was making us love him even though he never answers our prayers. Dominica Rodriguez was my acolyte. I had forsaken her but she had not lost faith.
By the time the girls were grown, Atalanta had finished her studies and we decided to return to the world below. We spent several years on our descent so that, by the time we reached the bottom, the hole in the sky had become as large as the moon. Our daughters went off to pursue their dreams while we walked off as enchanted with each other as we had ever been. By chance, we came upon a footbridge that spanned the Atlantic and I recalled a cafe in Spain that I had visited in my youth. Atalanta wanted to see it and so we set out on another journey. Signposts on the bridge marked the milestones of this four-thousand-mile trek and, when we looked over the rails, we saw sea serpents and orca whales playing in the foam. There were many boats too and I was stunned to see Dominica Rodriguez strolling on the deck of a steamer, gazing out at the horizon from beneath a yellow parasol. An older man joined her along with a younger man who took her by the arm. I realized I hadn’t heard her calling for me in many weeks and, incensed, I turned away in a foul mood.
By the time we reached the café, the black hole was mammoth and we had entered the golden years of our lives. We rented a room above the café so Atalanta could write a twelve-book opus and redeem herself for her mistakes involving the black hole. I painted and cooked but nothing brought me pleasure and I spent many hours looking out the window and watching for yellow parasols.
One morning, an invitation arrived: Evangeline was getting married and chosen to hold the celebration in the same reception hall where her mother and I had met. Thrilled, we packed our bags and traveled by candlelight, which took us there in record time. To our surprise, everything from the floral arrangements to the silk tablecloths was identical to how they had been when we had left. Then came the greater surprise: the groom was the same young man I had glimpsed from the bridge, the one who had taken Dominica Rodriguez’s arm the day I saw her aboard the steamer. Someone told us that the groom’s father would not be coming because his parents’ marriage had been unhappy. His mother had never forgotten her first lover, a rogue who had abandoned her after their wedding, and his memory had cleaved them in two. My heart beat fast as I heard a familiar fanfare and the guests parted to form a path. There she was, an elegant queen with a yellow parasol for a scepter and a halo for a crown. She had aged with grace but her eyes were as young as they had been the day we made our marriage vows, which had, of course, been the same day I broke them.
Will you go to her? said Atalanta.
Why would I do that?
Because you haven’t stopped thinking of her in fifty years.
It was then I understood that, in all our years together, Atalanta hadn’t only been watching the sky. Across the room, Dominica Rodriguez extended her hand and I once more felt the thrill of the god who has instilled such devotion that nothing he does can ever be a crime. Above us, through the hall’s glass ceiling, I saw that the black hole was now a gaping mouth and I was aware of the crush of time and the approaching finality of the universe and it was at this pivotal moment that I abandoned the woman I had made a life with and crossed the room.
It was then that I woke up screaming.
To my amazement, only a few hours had passed since I had gone to sleep. My peace shattered, I immediately sat down to write. I thought everything would slip away but the memories have only become more vivid and I’m filled with a great melancholy as I know I will never see my wife and daughters again. The sun is rising and yet, when I look out the window, I see only that gaping mouth, the black hole destined to swallow me whole.
As you know, our mother, may she rest in peace, instilled in us the unmistakable power of dreams. She believed they were prophetic and perhaps this is why I’m gripped by fear as I think about my wedding. I know I will spend the day studying the faces of the guests, searching for the one that I failed in that last terrible moment. But I am not scared that I will see a woman with rosacea – I’m terrified that I won’t. For if she isn’t there, it will mean that I invented her. But I couldn’t have. It was too real. How can I ever be content when my dreams feel like truth and the real terror is the nightmare of the waking world? There is one more sleep until my new life starts. If God, in His mercy, allows me to return to the moment of calamity, I will beg my wife’s forgiveness and swear to cling to her until we are brittle and that great black hole has consumed us all. But I fear such a thing will not come to pass. Oh, Carlos! I don’t know how I’ll endure.
After reading this astonishing letter, I saw at once why Carlos Powell had kept it locked away for fifty years. It would indeed be better to keep this from Dominica Rodriguez for it seemed to be a record of madness that suggested her groom had not loved her as she had loved him. I suggested that Carlos create an innocuous forgery for Dominica Rodriguez to carry to the grave. He liked the idea but asked me to keep the real letter in case he lost his nerve. He took only the envelope, which Dominica would surely recognize and which was needed to complete the ruse.
I imagine Carlos Powell spent the weekend trying to write a letter in his brother’s hand but I can’t ever be certain because, on Monday morning, I learned he had died from an ischemic stroke. At the funeral, I saw Dominica Rodriguez weeping into her sleeve. I contrived to speak with her and, when she learned I’d been named Carlos Powell’s executor, she asked if he had left her a legacy. I told her I would alert her if anything was ever found. A month later, word came that she had died.
Given that many more years have passed, there’s no longer any reason to keep the incredible story to myself. Whether we did the right thing, I cannot say. Like Carlos’ brother, I can only provide my testimony and give myself over to judgment. I will add only this brief postscript: some time ago, on the ship to Caracas, I met a young man who told me his father had been engaged to an astronomer who had died of a bad heart. The incredible thing, the young man said, was that they had been supposed to attend a wedding which was canceled because the groom had died of a similar affliction. When the young man told me both the astronomer and the groom had died on the same day, I only nodded in interest and puffed my cigar. I could have asked if the astronomer had rosacea but what would have been the point? It was a question whose answer I already knew.