Audio Production & DreamBed, assembled from various field recordings, by Shawn M. Garrett and dedicated to Dion McGregor, Brion Gysin & CURRENT 93
by Gemma Files
Shut your eyes, let your breathing slow. Then follow the map, from any direction, and you will find you are there now, in that place—your place. Look to the horizon; something is coming.
A short list of things you may do when it comes:
Shut your eyes again.
Find yourself unable to shut your eyes.
Find yourself short of breath, or unable to breathe entirely.
Hear your own heart in your ears.
Hear absolutely nothing.
See absolutely nothing.
Feel your face go blank.
Feel your mind go blank.
Watch everything cloud over, then go black.
Find yourself elsewhere, discovering you’ve lost time.
Think: “I must have fainted.” Have no proof this is true. Have no proof otherwise.
Wake up. Fall asleep once more. Dream. Lose yourself. Wake up. Repeat.
Repeat, repeat, repeat…
…until, one night, you never wake up again.
“I need you to make a map of whatever landscape you find yourself in, next time you’re there,” Gracie Hollander told me, to which I frowned; “Keep a dream diary, you mean,” I replied. But she just shook her head.
“No, I don’t,” she said. “I mean—do that too, obviously. But this is something different.”
It was only our second consultation, officially. My regular GP had recommended her to me, after I finally admitted I’d gone a month and a half without sleeping more than a third or quarter of the night: fallen asleep at three, or four, or five, always knowing I’d have to be up again before eight. Sometimes I’d steal a nap in the afternoon, then pay for it—get the bulk of my day’s work done between seven and eleven, feel mounting fatigue suddenly permeate me like a drug injection and brown the fuck out, sleep from noon to two before waking again with groggy surprise to my iPhone’s warbling alarm tone, mouth gummed and cheek sheet-printed, hair sweat-stuck up in horns. And when midnight finally rolled around, I’d start the cycle all over again: take a bath, brush my teeth, lie down whether I wanted to or not and force myself to keep my eyes damn well shut while I took long, slow breaths through the nose, willing my monkey-mind silent: let go, let go, let GO. Could count on one hand the times that worked, as a strategy, but it didn’t ever seem to stop me trying.
At least I live alone, I often caught myself thinking. Nobody but myself to inconvenience with this sad, stupid shit. Still, this was no sort of comfort at all, in the long run; the way I lived—endured, existed—probably wasn’t that different from the way anyone else around me did, except for the fact that they might be dealing with it better. Because loneliness is this century’s true disease, with every other problem just a symptom of the same.
Anyhow. My doctor had told me I couldn’t go on much longer this way without damaging myself irreparably, and I agreed, having no other option. So off to Gracie I was sent, for lessons in what her employers at the Sleep Habits Clinic apparently called sleep hygiene.
“Think of sleep as a destination,” she said, sketching free-hand with a soft charcoal pencil on the paper she’d placed between us, after already ticking off the usual checklist of pro-somnolence habits to cultivate: don’t eat after six PM, drink nothing caffeinated, start a wind-down routine that involved turning off all my devices, taking a bath, making sure my bedroom was light-tight. “A place, securely located in time and space, with fixed coordinates. Like if you could only find your way back there twice in a row, you could re-trace your steps the same way forever, and never get lost again.”
“Program it into my mental GPS,” I suggested, not actually trying to be facetious. But she shot me a pointed glance, so I fell silent.
The resultant map was divided into quarters and the path she drew meandered through all four in roughly circular fashion, spiral-form, like the world’s easiest-to-beat maze. The terrain itself was intentionally generic—upside-down Vs for mountains, looping scribbles for forests, a dashed white space for grasslands with wandering lines for rivers, a tiny shaded-in lake and a wooded island in the middle—but came out with a weird vividness, nonetheless; either Gracie was a born artist or she’d done this so often she had it down to a skill, an idea I found somewhat troubling.
I was no stranger to the concept of lending supposedly important tasks only a portion of my full attention, after all. Though that was less a choice on my part, by this time, than a simple necessity: the only way I knew of to preserve what was left of my mind as the wall between waking and sleep grew ever more flexible, bulging darkly with the shadows of things that might lie beyond and stretching my life out recklessly around the damage that left behind, like some slow-forming, paratemporal bruise…
“…based mine on Strawberry Island, up in Lake Simcoe,” Gracie said, indicating the central island with her eraser, as I belatedly forced myself to focus in on her voice once more, recalled to myself from yet another one of those increasingly-too-frequent microsleep episodes, apparently by the sharpening ring of her tone alone. “I used to go there as a kid so it’s extra-easy to summon, a great little anchor. You might want to use someplace closer, a point on the Toronto Islands maybe, or whatever works for you—the key is, it has to be a location that’s an overall pleasant memory, yet has some clear element of separation from your normal life. What kind of places do you normally dream about?”
I shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t remember. When I sleep at all, I’m out—completely inert. Maybe I don’t see anything.”
“Unlikely. You’d have other symptoms, if you really didn’t dream.” Gracie tapped her pencil against her teeth. “Can you remember faces?”
“What? Yeah, sure. Of course.”
“Okay, good, then your brain probably isn’t damaged.” Probably? I furrowed my brow at her as she went on. “True complete dream loss is associated with focal, acute-onset cerebral harm—hemorrhage, thrombosis, trauma. Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome, specifically characterized by visual agnosia and loss of ability to mentally recall or ‘revisualize’ images: face-blindness, in other words, which can be triggered by lesions in the parietal lobe or the right fusiform gyrus. What you have sounds more like being so tired overall you just forget your dreams as soon as you wake up, which is a far better deal, because we can fix that.”
“Oh, by using memory tricks to build you a personal dreamland, one worth the exploration; the more attractive we make sleep as a process, the longer you’ll want to spent there, so we make it into a reward, not a chore.” She gave me a smile. “I know it sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but trust me, it really does work—so long as you don’t use skepticism as an excuse to be half-assed about it.”
“I have no plans in that direction,” I said, dryly.
“Excellent.” She scribbled something on her prescription pad. “I’m also prescribing a drug regimen, short but sweet, just to help kick things off—a mild sedative combined with a very mild hallucinogen, so you won’t have to work too hard. Stop by the pharmacy on your way out.”
Me being who I am—born and raised in a paved-over former Paradise turned current parking lot—I opted to make my own dream map strictly urban, not rural. I picked the quarters of Toronto I knew best, then strung them along a mental subway-loop, from least to most interesting: Rosedale, the Yonge-Dundas downtown core, Distillery District, Queen West Village, the Annex. A favorite used bookstore became my anchor-point, the end of my quest; it was the place I felt most relaxed and comfortable in real life, so why not? Good as any other.
Remember, this was all theoretical at this point. Remember, too, how I didn’t really expect that to change anytime soon.
Gracie studied my map for a moment, frowning slightly. “You may not end up where you want to, following this,” she told me at last. I shrugged again.
“I’m not sure I expect to end up anywhere, to tell the complete truth,” I replied. To which she eventually quirked an eyebrow and smiled.
“We’ll see,” she said.
That night, I lay down after taking my first pill (one nightly and no more, thirty minutes before bed, absolutely no mixing with alcohol) and shut my eyes, expecting nothing but the usual: a shallow handful of hours spent knotted in on myself, teeth grinding, hands fisted. Light leaking in from outside, gradually bleaching my eyelid-darkness red. Morning’s familiar despair.
Before Gracie, my idea of “good sleep” had been simple darkness at worst, nothing at best—a glitch, a blink, lost time. Followed, if God was good, by a refreshing sense of physical renewal: laxness without lassitude, no aches or pains, no hangover. I had some vague idea that once upon a time, long ago in distant childhood, I’d almost always woken up happy, sharp, ready to jump up and get at it, whatever it might be. That had once been my natural state: the rule, not the exception. But it seemed so frankly impossible these days, I barely spared the matter a thought anymore. Just composed myself yet again, ready to suffer.
Instead, without any clear sense of how it even might have happened, I found myself abruptly… elsewhere.
People I’d overheard talking about their dreams always claimed they couldn’t tell they’d been having one half the time, except in hindsight. Interactions with dead relatives, talking animals and singing flowers, surreal landscapes, ordinary objects suddenly converted to starkly awesome fear-totems, flying while falling, falling while flying—it all just got taken in stride, somehow; the abnormal, normalized. Some put it down to simple neurology, a side effect of their brain’s effort to protect itself proactively against a wholesale invasion of the uncanny, installing filters, building walls. The mental flinch before the equally mental bruise, improvably skull-shrouded, invisible even on MRI or x-ray.
Whatever you see behind your shut lids must still come from you, though, right? I mean, where else? And that’s why it always seems so familiar, even when it’s anything but.
Suddenly snapping conscious—or seeming to—and finding myself foot-sore yet upright, Achilles tendon stretched out and calves trembling slightly, wavering heavy-ankled in the center of an open, roughly circular, eerily quiet block of wilderness: thick grass, scattered trees (elm, birch, maple), hummocks, hills and ivy-draped cliffs. Nothing unnatural, literally, yet all of it strangely regular, as though laid out on a grid. All of it with a very slight touch of design.
Above, the sky hung striated, red and green and gray. The air smelled of ash, furze underfoot coarse as hair, dew-greasy. I wasn’t wearing any shoes in the dream, so when I stepped forward, I felt something hidden jut up under my toes—hard, uneven. The submerged cobbles of a long-dead street thrust apart by dirt and overlaid with mulch, then furred over by crop after fallow crop of wind-blown seeds.
Peering around, eyes narrowed; feeling the sun on my face, the wind at my back, a fresh cool breeze with the mounting chill of deeper shadow barely hidden underneath. And thinking, while I did: I know this place, though I very palpably do not know this place, not in any way, shape or form… feel deep in my soul that I’ve been here before, even as I know for a fact that I’ve never been here at all.
Ridiculous. No one had ever been there, I realized later, back in the waking world. Because that place didn’t exist, had never existed. I was—
Some people claim they can make themselves wake up the moment they understand they must be dreaming, but I hadn’t been aware of my nighttime explorations long enough to learn that trick. The only viable alternative plan, I decided, was to pick a random direction and simply start walking until something stopped me, so that’s exactly what I did: vaguely right, sort of diagonal, possibly south. I followed the dead road’s corkscrew track wherever I found it, trying not to trip, as the cartoon sky roiled above me.
No insects. No animals. No human noises, however distant.
Eventually, after who knows how long, a particularly sharp turn snagged me, and I stumbled, almost going down on one knee; my hand met the largest chunk of cobblestone thus far palm-first, wetting itself with what I thought at first was blood until I wiped it on my pants—too dark, too shiny. Oily asphalt and gravel with a forked line of white paint scored down one side, like the broken pieces of roadway you see around every pothole in Toronto during the summer roadwork season. And with that, the whole scene snapped into… not focus exactly, but clarity, the picture hidden inside the illusion.
This was my city, it turned out. Or it had been.
That flat green square off to my right, great mounds of grass-covered rubble on every other side, intersected by waving, urine-colored stands and sprays of weeds: it was Yonge Street and Dundas, the junction, but reduced to long-empty wreck and ruin, digested by wilderness. I turned slowly in place, three hundred and sixty degrees, overlaying Toronto’s downtown on top of this wasteland and seeing it match, point for point. Even then, I don’t remember feeling horror, grief or any of the other things you’d expect. Simply a vague confusion. Senseless; no sense. Nonsense.
I only saw the temple once I’d completed my full circuit.
Set in the far corner of the flat sward that had once been Yonge-Dundas Square—and I was absolutely certain it hadn’t been there when I’d first looked around—it appeared more like an amphitheater than anything else, a sunken cup surrounded by concentric walls with an empty space down in the middle. There was nothing like an altar: no signs or images, no icons, only a circular hole in the center like a beehive turned inside out. But by the time I was standing in it—
(and when the hell had I done that? Walked over, stepped in? Why was I there now?)
—the silence became even deeper: cathedral, funereal. A low gray hum. Cold air breathed from that black gap at my feet, whispering up the broken steps I saw spiraling down into it; discolored wine-vomit splotches ringed it, sunk deep into the stone, the stains round a dead drunk’s mouth. And here I felt my stomach clench for the first time, coldly filling in with fear, or its dimmest echo. Thinking dully: Please. Not down there.
Of course, I went. Trudging down the steps into the cold, the black. Down and down and down, until I was too exhausted even to imagine turning around to climb back up. Which might well have been why I didn’t scream when the stone vanished under my feet, when I fell face-first into the dark. Why I only screamed when I dimly began, at long last, to see exactly what I was falling towards…
…but here I lost it, memory falling from my mind to shatter like a dropped dish, as I jackknifed awake with hammering heart, burning eyes, and raw-rasping throat. I clenched my hands before me, pressed to my breastbone, gulping down air, hunched amid twisted, sodden sheets. The awful color of the light that had swelled around me—some horrid, poisonous shade of yellow-green lingered on my retinas like the after-flash of a strobe.
Thinking: Something coming. Something is. Coming.
“Jesus,” I croaked aloud, half-wanting to weep. Yet not able to, not then.
Not now either.
Gracie was silent for more than a few seconds after I told her all this the next day.
“Well,” she said at last. “Let’s focus on the positive. Even with the interruption, you got a total of eight hours sleep last night, for the first time in… how long?”
“That was the antithesis of ‘restful’,’ Gracie,” I said flatly.
“Yes, but it’s an amazing improvement for your first night. And it means we can write off the possibility of brain injury.”
“Really? ‘Cause if this is the cure, I think I’d rather have the damage.” I leant forward, prodding the map between us with my finger. “I don’t ever want to go back there, map or no map. I won’t.”
“Then you don’t have to.” Gracie held up her hands, palms out. “Don’t like this map? Draw another.” She shuffled it into a nearby file folder, grabbed her pad, and scribbled a few notes. “I’ll tweak your ‘scrip, too—we may not need the hallucinogen as much as I thought.”
“That’s it?” I demanded. “Aren’t we supposed to, like, go over the dream? Figure out what it means?”
Gracie shrugged. “We could, if you want, but… honestly, that strikes me as a distraction.” She closed the pad and leaned forward again, looking earnest. “Alex, I know this is difficult. But believe me, it’ll all be worth it in the end.”
I let out my breath in a sigh. “Fine,” I said, picking up the sketchpad and another pencil, and turned to a blank page.
This time the map had been chronological rather than geographical: I’d sketched out all the houses I’d ever lived in, from a tiny apartment out in Brampton with my father through various Torontonian townhouses and converted, semi-detached units, to the current condo. When I shut my eyes and found myself standing in the marble-tiled lobby of my own building, I folded my arms—the mental semblance of them, anyhow—in deep satisfaction.
It was only when I passed by the open door of the building’s coffee lounge that I caught a glimpse of grass with a tell-tale flash of stone hidden under it, heard the low gray sound of a hollow wind. The shock hit me in right in my stomach, like a punch; I actually wobbled on my feet, then turned and ran.
Maybe if I’d had more experience dreaming, I’d have known not to expect that tactic to work. Or maybe not—people do seem to keep on trying to extricate themselves from repetitive nightmares, however useless it always proves. One way or the other, the effort proved fruitless: after what felt like a quarter of an hour spent crossing the lobby, I hauled open the main double doors and staggered out, only to find myself right back onto that flat plain, which looked even wider this time, stretching from horizon to horizon like images of the prairies in winter. Yellowish-gray corn stalks, harvest’s detritus, whipping in the wind; gangrene-colored clouds, racing by overhead.
I spun, and my building was gone. But the temple was there instead, of course, slap-bang in the middle of the flatland. Ring of gray stone, a black crater at its heart, cold air perceptibly welling up from the dark, the cup, the well. And the stairs, going down.
Don’t know if I said it or thought it; didn’t help, either way. Tried to run once more in the other direction, ‘till I was gasping and dizzy, only to look up and find the temple back in front of me again. Tried yet one more time, closing my eyes, not stopping until I stumbled over that gap and nearly fell down the stairs, clinging to the side with both hands. At which point it frankly just didn’t seem worth fighting any more.
Muscle memory led the way, unprompted and unwanted, as I tested each step with my feet, just barely able to pull back from the point where the stairs vanished, plastered against the stone wall as I stared down into the abyss; a tiny speck of light glimmered some unimaginable distance below me, the same nauseating yellow-green as before, gut-wrenching even at a distance. My grip was uncertain. The stone felt soapy under my fingers, slippery, as if fat-coated.
Far away, in the back of my head, I could almost hear a woman’s voice singing some fragment of a plaintive miner’s lament, Appalachian style: I’m down… in a hole… I’m down… in a hole… I’m down … in a deep, dark hole…
I don’t know how long I stood there, if that even means anything. All I remember is that sick, spine-shaking jerk of my foot slipping on the stone, shooting out from under me as I tried to the very last not to move, cold air burning my face as I fell. That ghastly light coming at me like a hammer, throat bursting with screams, as I finally saw what was in it: there, then gone, an empty space. A hole inside a hole inside a hole.
For all that forgetting should have been a good thing, surely, I shook awake feeling like I’d just witnessed a death foretold—my own, maybe. And knowing, now, knowing…
… there was no way on earth it wouldn’t happen again.
A week, then two; seven nights, fourteen, more. Eight hours a night, sometimes more, but when I looked in the mirror, all I saw was the blue-gray shadows under my eyes, steadily deepening. Hygienic as my sleep cycle might have seemed from the outside, I was still tired, to my very bones, in a way that only looked likely to get worse. I felt caught in a loop, a snare. I couldn’t see my way out.
Before you ask, meanwhile: yes, I stopped taking the drug. I stopped taking the drug about five nights in. And no, it didn’t help.
(I woke up in yet another field, in a ravine, in a crevasse. The first time I thought it was a hangover, prescription still making its way out my system. But there I was, following the crevasse along, tracing a trickle of muddy river, only to turn a sharp corner and find myself at the place where the temple’s door should be, the very threshold. The very next night, meanwhile, I started off inside what looked to have been a parking garage, two floors below street-level, so I deliberately turned and went down instead of up, found a door, opened it—right into the temple’s stairway, the grim, fading light, those steps leading down, down, down. Into the Well.
And yes, again: The name came to me there and then in the dream. I’ve never thought of it as anything else, since.)
“This shit is worse than homeopathy!” I complained to my GP, two and a half weeks in, not feeling like facing Gracie again; I was slumped back against the wall, still in my paper gown, too exhausted to stand. “I mean, at least that doesn’t do anything; Gracie’s map-drawing crap is actually making a bad situation worse.”
She’d just given me an all-over exam, entering the initial results as she sat there nodding, one eyebrow cocked. “Not according to your numbers,” was all she had to say in return, at last, angling the page towards me so I could see for myself, like she really thought that proved anything. The only good part of which, I guess, was that it at least made me mad enough to force myself back upright again.
“Yeah, okay,” I managed, grabbing for my clothes. “But riddle me this: what do you really know about Gracie Hollander, anyhow—what can you attest to? Professionally?”
My GP thought that over. “Well,” she said, at last, “I know her methods work.”
“Always? For everybody?”
Like it was gospel: “Always.”
“… better start working soon, then,” I muttered, momentarily defused.
Sometimes, all I can think is that nobody believes in the assumed social contract between and doctor and patient quite as much as doctors themselves do. Which is good, I suppose; really, they sort of have to. Seeing how it’s all that keeps them from abusing their authority ‘till it bleeds.
So, yeah: I don’t know whether I thought Gracie was mishandling my case deliberately, or what. By that point, frankly, I could have been thinking all sorts of crap. I was. On paper, physically, I was well-rested and firmly on my way to recovery, but my mind didn’t feel that way at all. Even if that was happening with my body, provably, there’s no way my mind believed it.
Three days on, though, I sat in Gracie’s office once more, my own file open in front of me. I’d spread the sheaf of discarded maps out, then had the strange impulse to lay them overtop each other, stacking them clockwise; the paper was thin enough you could see them form what looked like one huge, circular chart.
“Like a whole other world,” Gracie remarked, her tone oddly admiring. As she stared down, eyes never leaving the map-made-from-maps, studying its multiple-choice fan-shaped destiny of paths for all the world as though, on some level, she was beginning to recognize them.
Each route made a sliver of a quadrant, filling the whole thing in. I pointed to the result, and she studied it, eyes narrowing—because done this way, it seemed fairly undeniable how no matter where they might have begun, all roads did indeed lead to Rome: the fallow field, the temple, the hole. The Well.
“What made you choose to call it that, you think?” Gracie asked, gaze still held fast, doodling a series of unintelligible notes in her scratch-pad’s margins.
“No idea,” I replied. “But you do see it, right? The pattern?”
“I see what looks to you like a pattern, yes.”
I snorted. “Then look again, goddamnit.” Tapping the papers, as she did. “No matter where I start out, I always end up there, every time. Does that seem… normal, to you?”
She smiled, eyes crinkling adorably. Pointing out: “Normal’s a fairly negotiable concept, Alex.”
I shook my head sharply, neck sparking, impatience fierce as rage.
“No, but seriously: ‘distraction’ or not, why would I keep on doing that to myself? Why the temple, the Weh—the hole? Why those endless fucking stairs? All night, every night. What’s the goddamn point of it all, exactly?”
She was frowning slightly now, pen still going a veritable mile a minute. “In dream language, the well is a very primal image,” she allowed, at last. “Basic shorthand, the place where Jung and Freud meet; it can symbolize change under pressure, sometimes forcible, beyond your control. More shallowly, it could stand for anything which opens inwards: a mouth, a door, a grave… your own vagina, even…”
“Pretty sure it’s not that,” I snapped back, annoyed.
“… but my point is,” she continued, overtop, as though I hadn’t even spoken, “most people in general dream of wells, even repeatedly; it’s not just you. A lot of my other clients do it, too.”
“Wells or well?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that, Alex.”
I tapped the ream of paper between us. “Like, this well? That’s what I mean. Do most of your other clients also dream of this well, maybe?”
I could hear the words coming out of my mouth, but didn’t seem able to stop them; it was like I’d finally been pushed beyond my limits, so far my internal censor had popped a fuse. Like something inside me had simply burnt out, leaving me as naked in daylight as I felt during the dark, down the Well, clinging to my unreliable perch as I teetered in the bare instant before the fall. Forever hovering between fear of the unknown and whatever unknown thing I feared.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure,” I snapped back, before adding, far too brightly: “But could I really trust you to tell me if they did?”
This is where my research phase would surely have started, if this was another sort of story—plunged myself into the Internet, found myself some sort of magic keyhole giving me access to other people’s medical records. Where I would’ve waited until Gracie went home and broken into her office using my mad lock-picking skills, the ones I’d picked up osmotically by watching an ass-load of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation holiday marathon installments; where I would’ve been able to find exactly what I was looking for on the first try, just by glancing through her filing system. Some sort of paper trail or pixel trail. Some patient—or colleague—who’d bonded hard with Gracie, volunteered to prove her theories correct, then disappeared up her own repetitive dream cycle forever, leaving no forwarding address. Some Case Zero that would prove I was right in my frankly demented suspicions about Gracie’s methodology, about the reasoning behind her continually pushing me to keep doing exactly what I’d been doing thus far, yet act as though I truly expected a different result, however many times I might have had to try before that happened, like some goddamn crazy person.
(Which I probably was, by now. True sleep-deprived, hallucinating… yeah, I can see it from the outside, the way I couldn’t back then when I was in it neck-deep. The way no one ever can in similar situations.)
In hindsight, the only sort of sight I have to reckon by, this is what I realized I must have been looking for, afterwards. But no, that’s not the way it went. Because when it comes to solving your own dreams’ puzzle, the only investigative tool available to a person in my position is a willingness to do things personally, confrontationally; take a leap of faith, however potentially damning. Take the challenge between your mental teeth and run.
I went home, took a bath, lay down, closed my eyes. Let the nightmare enfold me yet one more time. Welcomed it with open arms.
Just lay down in the dark and let whatever was going to happen… happen.
Something is coming, the voice whispered once more under that cold wind, but the Well itself didn’t move, ever. Remained the fulcrum, the still point at the center of this otherwise fluid world. And: Am I the thing that’s coming, then? I wondered, before finally relinquishing that last step—plunging downwards into darkness, voluntarily, for once. Was that always me?
Only one way to find out.
The green light came at me bullet-fast this time, as I felt a wrench that cracked my whole dream’s spine. Felt things around me splinter, split and branch, cracks extending fractally in every possible direction, like roots from some invisible tree. They reached upwards, spiking into the shimmering shadows of what seemed like a hundred brains at once, scattered country-wide, yet all asleep and dreaming the same dream; a hundred other sleepers, presumably linked by Gracie’s therapy and/or prescriptions, all making their slow way across a hundred different landscapes towards the exact same destination. Not a habit, not a chore: a ritual pilgrimage, infinitely shared, bleak and black though it might be. A method of worship.
Around me, the Well flipped itself front to back to inside-out, becoming a tower—a beacon. Descent into ascent, stairs down into stairs up, though still hammered haphazardly together from the same crumbling, greasy stone, each cobble a puzzle-piece only lightly intertwined, a relic from some age before mortar. And at the top—
—at the top, laid open to that glaring, gangrene-colored sky whose stars were nothing like the stars we see from Earth, someone waited.
I didn’t know their name, even now, even here. I never expected to. But… I knew that voice.
(… in a hole… I’m down… in a deep, dark hole.)
Cast herself down the Well, just like me, I thought, not knowing why. Then: Just like me, oh God, oh God. Oh, Jesus fucking God.
(Just like me.)
And here it spoke, that same too-familiar voice, skull-resonant even masked under the Well’s low gray din. The ruin-echoed blood-slosh of some long-dead ocean, on some long-empty world.
Gracie? It asked, apparently to the empty air. Is that you? Did you come back for me… to find me? Has this been long enough?
I drew you a map, but I went too far. I lost it.
Can I finally come home?
Oh, what the hell.
I swallowed, hard enough something seemed to scrape, suddenly dry from lips to esophagus. My tongue felt numb, stinging. “I’m not Gracie,” I told it, finally, wincing at how weak my voice sounded in that unhallowed place.
As I spoke, the person—more a thing, really; greenish-black on greenish-purple-red, more an absence where someone once used to be, an echo, rather than the person themselves—shifted its attention onto me fully or appeared to. Stood watching me from afar but not quite far enough. And though I couldn’t see its eyes, not even at that distance, I knew, somehow… it recognized me.
Could almost feel the words graze me all over like snakeskin or a poison tongue: a lack of voice, almost too alien to organize itself into words. Yet hearing them nonetheless, if only in some highly primitive way—tasting, smelling their most basic meaning, borne on a burnt-skin stink-wave. Reading them out loud and translating from a foreign language, even as they carved themselves, stroke by cauterized stroke, into my mind’s soft meat.
Oh, oh yes. So, it’s you, finally.
Did Gracie send you after me? It asked, after an aeon.
“Not… as such.”
Then why are you here? How did you—?
I shrugged, helpless.
“I don’t know,” was all I could say.
We stood there a minute more—several, crawling like fossils, like erosion, shale tectonically crushed against shale. All the slowest moments of the earth.
I was someone before I got here, the thing told me, almost sadly. Now I’m something else. No one can stay who they are here, not for long.
I nodded, trying not to breathe. Not that it seemed to need my agreement, exactly.
If I let you leave, it began again, slyly, will you go see her, Gracie, when you—wake up? Will you tell her what you found?
If? Jesus Christ; my stomach clenched against the very idea, knotted itself off like a bag, burning bile. But I wouldn’t let the implications faze me, not for long. I couldn’t.
“If you do, then… yes,” I replied, carefully.
Of course I will. No sense not. Neither of us get what we want if I don’t.
I agreed, not trusting my words any longer, in silent dumb show bowed my head, spread my hands. Pinched a helpless smile and felt—rather than saw—it, bare broken teeth at the spectacle, half amused but all angry, colder than death and twice as raw.
Thank me for that, Alex, it suggested.
“… thank you.”
Tell her I want to go home, but I don’t know the way. Tell her… I need a map. The map.
I nodded. “The one you drew. Right?”
No. The one she drew for me. She knows which.
Be very sure to tell her, Alex. Or we’ll see each other again.
Another clutch, body-wide this time, running me like a gamut from top to toe. I had to wait just a few more beats to have any hope of self-control, let alone avoid dying of sheer, existential terror before I got the chance to answer.
“I don’t think either of us want that,” I said at last. And felt the thing give something not at all like a laugh in return, resonant with the universe’s anti-rotation, so awful on a cosmic level that simply acknowledging it risked madness.
Just the touch of that laugh killed something inside me, some capacity I hadn’t known I had until then. But by that point, frankly, I was glad to feel it go.
When you ask me where Gracie Hollander can possibly have disappeared to, officers, you must therefore take the preceding as my very poor stab at an explanation. Or not. I’d absolutely understand if you didn’t.
You tell me she had a partner once, long ago, and I nod. You tell me that partner helped her develop her methods, as well as the drug regimen that bolsters them. That this woman disappeared as well, years back, with similarly little trace left behind; it was as though she slid off the world’s surface, slipped through a crack, to somewhere underneath. As if she’d tripped, unseen by anyone else in her life, and fallen down a deep, dark hole.
You say this, and I nod. No other response seems suitable; it all sounds extremely plausible indeed to me. But I don’t have anything else to tell you, unfortunately, beyond what you’ve already heard. I simply can’t remember.
I’m not capable of it.
I’m back to not dreaming at all, thank Christ, though I maintain the hygiene of my sleep habits zealously. Of course, the brain damage has a lot to do with the former, if not the latter. My GP thinks it might have been a series of small strokes brought on by stress in the wake of my insomnia. All I know is that since I woke that last time, I’ve basically been unable to picture anything visually inside my head at all; if I didn’t have this document to remind me I’d once been able to, I’d be tempted to assume everyone around me is lying or joking whenever they claim they can. Not classic prosopagnosia per se, but I do have a lot of trouble telling one person from another, unless I use certain tricks—recognizing voices or knowing where people are likely to be at any given time or categorizing people by their accessories, their favorite t-shirts, the color of their hair, eyes, skin.
It sounds bad to say, for example, but because there are only so many black people I know, if somebody with dark skin comes up to me using my first name and acting like we’re friends, I’ll always give them the benefit of the doubt. I actually thought one of you might be a friend of mine when you first walked in, but by now I’ve certainly spoken with you long enough to understand I must have been mistaken. The minute you leave, however, my ability to remember you will go straight back down to zero. I’ll reset like a bad alarm system, waiting for the next person to set me off.
The worst part is my family—they can’t understand why I can’t tell, say, my own mother from any other woman on the street, and I can’t blame them for that. But there’s nothing to be done, and by now, I’m used to it.
My nights are neither long nor dark anymore. They pass in a blink. I wake refreshed, remembering nothing. If something still lurks behind my eyes, dug deep into that interior landscape I can no longer map, then it’s invisible to me—completely, utterly, safely so. I’ll never see it coming.
I prefer it that way.
If you’d been where I have, you would too.
About the Author
Though she was born in London, England, Gemma Files is a Canadian citizen, and has lived in Toronto, Ontario for her entire life (thus far). She is the daughter of two actors, Gary Files and Elva Mai Hoover. Files graduated from Ryerson University with a B.A.A. in Magazine Journalism, then spent roughly eight years as a film critic, primarily writing for local alt-culture journal eye Weekly. By 1998, she was also teaching screenwriting, short screenplay writing, television series development, film history and Canadian film history, first at the Trebas Institute, then the Toronto Film School. After leaving eye, she taught full-time, while also publishing two collections of short stories (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both from Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, a Sinnersphere Production, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). In 2002, she married fellow author Stephen J. Barringer. In 2008, the Toronto Film School closed down and Files’ son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She became a stay-at-home Mom, finally beginning serious work on her long-planned first novel. A Book of Tongues: Volume One in the Hexslinger Series (ChiZine Publications) was released in April, 2010, and will be followed by two sequels, A Rope of Thorns (2011) and A Tree of Bones (2012).
About the Narrator
Tatiana Grey is a New York City based actress of stage, screen, and of course, the audio booth. She adores traveling and counts her lucky stars that acting and dancing have taken her all over the United States, to Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland, and Holland… but she loves coming home to New York where it all started. Equally at home speaking heightened language in a corset, in a leather jacket spouting obscenities, and as a dancer she has been compared to such dark, vivacious heroines as Helena Bonham Carter, a young Winona Ryder and Elliot Page. This depth and facility with multiple genres garnered her a New York Innovative Theatre Award Best Featured Actress nomination for her work in The Night of Nosferatu. Her facility with accents has landed her quite a few audiobooks and numerous on-camera roles including the role of Evgenya in the award winning I am A Fat Cat. Tatiana is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.