by Kyle Kepulis
“Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again!
For then the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.”
-“Longing” by Matthew Arnold
There’s a certain dream I’ve had since childhood. I don’t dream it every night, but whenever I do I feel home again in an odd sort of way. It’s a friend, a companion I’ve had ever since I can remember. It reminds me of who I am, where I come from. It’s almost like a piece of me. But after I dream it I always wake up in a chilled sweat.
In the dream I’m young again, riding through the black forests of Denmark on my old horse Sleipnir. He races us through the underbrush, kicking up clods of earth and grass and flinging them in our wake. I feel like I’m flying.
A piercing light blinds my senses. I stretch my hand out in front of my eyes to protect my vision from the bright glow. The luminescence finally dims, and I lower my arm, fearful of what it will reveal.
I look upon a wing. The most radiant wing I have ever set eyes upon. It is a brilliant and breath-taking amber gold. Then the color swirls and changes. It morphs into a deep purple-blue.
Then the wing unfurls itself, revealing a solitary eye hiding behind it. The eye mists over, damp and wet. The iris flickers, and stares petulantly.
My hands shake. I feel my bow and arrow at my side. Sleipnir neighs nervously and lightly stamps the earth with his foot.
I draw my weapon. My hand shakes even more. I can barely hold on to the bow and arrow. But finally the arrow slips through my hands and races towards the heart of the creature. There is an earth-shattering shriek. Feathers flood the air, and a red mist permeates the glade.
I find myself on the forest floor. Sleipnir is beside me, sniffing my face anxiously. I look up at where the creature once was.
It is gone.
And that’s when I wake up.
The powerful steps rose up before me, cold and unwelcoming as they always were. It didn’t seem possible that they could eventually lead up to such a great building. My polished boots clicked on the warm marble, and I adjusted my hat as I came before the looming expanse of the museum. The sun seemed to be burning down that day. The first droplets of sweat appeared on my brow as I took hold of the entryway door handle and entered the sanctity of the cool, richly ornate lobby.
The first sound I heard was the cloyingly jovial tinkling of that blasted fountain. Why they put the damn thing in a museum of natural history I’d never know. It’s always seemed like an extravagance to me, something to keep the rich visitors happy, a kind of aesthetic addition that seemed unsuited to the surroundings.
Settees and armchairs littered the room as they always did, and the check-in desk sat uncomfortably opposite the front door I had just entered.
I took off my hat, stifled my breath, and started to cross the lobby towards my office in the east wing until I was stopped by Mr. Percel, the desk clerk. The man always came across as a stuffed penguin to me, who had clasped the top button of his suit too tightly, so he constantly had the expression of strangulation on his face. He appeared now just as red and puffy as ever.
“Excuse me, Mr. Aren,” he said in his anguished little voice. “Mr. Blackwell wishes to see you immediately.”
“Ah yes, I almost expected as much. I can just imagine what he has to say to me.”
“That’s none of my business, sir. I’m just meant to bring you to his office.”
“Yes, alright then, let’s get it done with.”
With this I motioned for him to lead the way, and we quickly started off down an adjacent corridor. I followed after, trying to calm my slight nerves and regain a calmer composure.
Percel showed me into Mr. Blackwell’s rather large but offensively nondescript office. It contained a leviathan-sized desk and a mismatched petite armchair which always cowered behind it.
“Please be seated, Mr. Aren,” were Percel’s only words before exiting hastily from the room.
I looked around at the place I had just been shuffled into, the place I remembered so clearly from my first interview for my position at the museum. It seemed unchanged from that time. The walls were bleak and bare. A lone window seemed to scale the wall behind the desk, stretching its arms out as high as possible in effort to escape from this imprisoning atmosphere. There was no excessiveness apparent in the room at all. This had always puzzled me. I though surely the curate of a museum would have more imagination than what lay before me.
My thoughts were interrupted by another person entering the room – the eminent Mr. Blackwell.
I rose from my seat and extended my hand.
“Mr. Aren. It’s good to see you. How are you? Please, sit down.”
“I’m doing fine, Mr. Blackwell. As well as can be expected, I suppose, considering . . . “ My voice trailed off, unsure of what to say next.
“Yes, yes, of course.” Mr. Blackwell looked down at his desk, obviously searching for something to say that might be hidden within its depths. “That’s actually what I’ve brought you here to talk about.”
I studied for a moment the face of the man who was my employer.
He had a square, chiseled face, seemingly cold and resilient, but there was a softness about the eyes that belied his stern countenance. A stylish, though not excessive amount of facial hair masked his cheeks, following popular fashion. He wore a stiff black jacket and waistcoat, and a carefully tied cravat. His dress pants were neatly starched and orderly. Everything about Mr. Blackwell always exuded formality. I winced at the fact.
“I knew as much,” I said carefully. “I can imagine what you have to say.”
“I’m sure you can,” Blackwell went on. “You’re a very intelligent man, Fritz. And we’ve benefitted from your knowledge greatly. But you’ve changed. Ever since . . . the unfortunate circumstances that have set upon you recently, I’m afraid you’ve become less and less a positive force in this institution. In fact, I might even go so far as to say you’ve become a hindrance to the development of your department.”
I looked him in the eyes, unflinchingly. If I was to go down, I would at least go down on the same level as Mr. Blackwell.
“It pains me to say this, Fritz, but the board of governors and I feel it is time for you to leave the museum.”
I stared at Blackwell’s bald head, the shine emanating from the lighting of the room.
“For twelve years you’ve been a guiding light to the museum’s ancient mythology and religions department. We’ve appreciated your hard work, and will definitely see that you are compensated for your industrious labor in the field.”
I rose, not wanting to make this moment longer than it had to be.
“Thank you, Mr. Blackwell.” I firmly grasped his hand in my own. “I’ll make sure all my things are gone by this afternoon.”
“No hurry, Fritz. Please, we mean all the best for you.”
With that, I made my way out of the office, and silently trekked to my own office to start clearing out my things.
That afternoon, my hands grasping a full box of odds and ends from my desk, I crossed the lobby, refusing to acknowledge the existence of Mr. Percel or the fountain, and pushed open the front doors of the museum. I stepped out once more into the sweltering sunlight.
The house was quiet that day as it always was. I hated the thought of being alone there. It felt imprisoning, the silence. Like invisible bars crossing the windows, and indiscernible locks bolting the doors. Inescapable, inexorable, like fear itself. The stillness made me think, and I didn’t want to think. I’d do anything to keep myself from thinking. But it never seemed to be enough.
I hadn’t taken down her pictures yet, or disposed of her things. They still filled the house, as she did when she was alive. Her gloves and fan lay on the bureau. A book she had been reading lay on the window seat. Her nightgown lay across the vanity chair where she had left it. Untouched, as they would never be touched by her again. Something in me couldn’t let them go yet. They were the one thing I could still hold on to.
I crossed in front of her dressing table, and the brooch caught my eye. A bird wreathed in flames was delicately etched upon its surface. I looked away.
I sat down on the bed, and stared at the shadows that played on the furniture, running in and out of the stray beams of sunlight. Crisp, clear lines that swerved and doubled over into graceful arabesques. I felt like the shadows were dancing with the furniture, and the furniture in turn set her things glowing, like the flicker of a candle in the darkness.
She never came to me in my dreams. Lord, I wanted her to. It would be a sign, some kind of signal that she was really alright, that she was safe and warm someplace, someplace where hopefully I would meet her again., It would be like Orpheus or Aeneas descending to the underworld, that place where all life meets its conclusion, and finding the beautiful eternal Eurydice waiting patiently there. But there was never anything. Only dreams of darkness and shadows. I never remembered them. My conscious mind never seemed to want to.
I was born in Denmark. My father died when I was still a baby. I don’t remember him. I lived with my mother in a small house on the plains. I was a shepherd and a flock-herder for most of my childhood. I remember running in the fields. There was a certain tree I loved the best in the countryside – an oak. I remember often laying out below its branches.
Something inside me felt different back then. I don’t know what it was. Perhaps it was the wind pushing at my back. Perhaps it was freedom.
I don’t remember having any real friends during my youth. I suppose the sheep were my companions back then. I had to watch them and take care of them – make sure they were not harmed or injured. In the spring I’d see new life being born. Two eyes opening up to the light from the darkness.
My favorite phrase as a child was always “Once upon a time . . .”
On moonlit nights my mother would tell me stories. Tales of faraway places and mythical beings. Dragons and unicorns and centaurs would populate my mind. They seemed just as real as the sheep in the filed or the birds in the trees outside.
There was one creature that terrified me the most.
“He encompasses everything,” my mother would say, “within the confines of his scaly body. He has us all wrapped within his grasp. The horrible, terrible Jormungandr. They call him the Midgaard serpent. He bites down eternally upon his own tail, threatening to devour himself and loosen the world from his steadfast hold.”
The thought that this creature was suffocating me in an eternal death grip chilled my blood. I often looked to the horizon to see if I could see even one small bit of his scaly, long tentacle-like body holding firmly to the edge of the world. I never saw anything.
But I felt a presence. I felt like someone was staring down at me. Someone who never made themselves known. Only silence served as their presence.
Now the silence had returned to me forty years later.
Back then I wanted to be like the wind. Now I only wanted the wind to carry me on to wherever I was meant to be next.
Shepherding was not always an easy job. Sheep would sometimes stray from the flock, and I’d have to find them alone, silently terrified that they might be dead or hurt somewhere and it would all be my fault. They’d usually be hidden away somewhere in the hillside, under an overhang or in a small rocky nook. I always let out a breath of relief when I found them.
But there were days of peace and comfort as well, not at all like the pastoral poetry that’s popular now, but perfect in a different kind of way. The earth seemed still and waiting. The sun made everything warm. The sheep would bleat to each other, and occasionally run into one another. It would make me laugh. The laughter is what made the fields beautiful.
One day in my youth I was particularly content. I was spread out underneath the oak tree. My eyes flickered with drowsiness, and the last thing I saw before sleep overcame me was the image of a mother sheep letting her child drink of her nourishment.
I dreamt of the Jormungandr. He was wrapped entirely around my body, squeezing the breath out of me. I could feel his pulsating heartbeat echo inside me, and I could sense the blood that ran throughout his veins. I was horrified.
His head is what terrified me the most. His teeth were clenched tightly upon his own tail, drawing blood that oozed onto the ground below us. I could only imagine that the pain must be excruciating.
My fear slowly disappeared. This creature that seemed so terrifying was in constant anguish. I felt something stir within me. A kind of feeling, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Pity, maybe, or understanding. Compassion.
A single tear appeared in the creature’s yellow, jewel-like eye. It slowly loosened itself from its encasement, and rolled like a perfect sparkling diamond down his scaled snout, and fell upon my arm. The tear hissed where it landed, and filled my body with a warm, tingling sensation.
And then I woke up.
The mother was dead. I came upon her in the field after waking up. She was lying on her side. She seemed calm and at peace. No breath stirred her lips, no movement etched her body. Her children gathered around her, unaware of what had happened. The youngest one, who had been nursing at her tit just a few hours ago, seemed the most startled.
I carried the body home from the fields, not knowing what else to do. Placing it before the feet of my own mother I gazed into her eyes, seeking some kind of answer or explanation for what just happened.
She merely asked, “Is it dead?”
“Yes,” was my reply. “The mother.”
“Then we shall eat it tonight. Wastefulness is a callous thing.”
As we sat eating our dinner of mutton that night I looked again at my mother.
“It doesn’t seem right. She was ours. She had children.”
“These things happen,” my mother replied. “Everything goes back to the earth. This is her rite of passage.”
We ate the rest of our meal in silence.
My mother did not want me to care for the orphans.
“They must be able to survive on their own,” she said. “Otherwise they are useless.”
I understood what she meant, but I couldn’t leave them to their own defenses. They were weak and powerless. They had no hope of surviving on their own.
I secretly brought them milk. I fed the youngest the most of all. He was my favorite. I named him Gregos – the watchful one. The babies started to grow healthy. I was happy, content that they were safe.
My mother saw their development, and knew why they had grown strong. She killed them. She served them for dinner.
But the meat got stuck in my throat. I felt I was eating my own flesh. I fell to the floor and wretched out the orphaned sheep.
My mother didn’t say a word. She just knelt down on the floor and cleaned up the mess I had made.
A fly inched its way up the sunlit wall. Small and buzzing. Its wings smooth and transparent; gossamer like silk. It paused for a moment, probably finding something to nourish its hunger. Its shadow waited patiently. Then the fly slowly started crawling again, occasionally opening its wings, and buzzing up a few more inches, always crawling upwards and upwards.
My eyes reverted back to the room before me. I realized there was no point in sitting here on the bed all day. I had done enough of that already. So I rose to my feet.
Sunlight spilled onto the Spanish-tiled kitchen floor in one long golden pool. I stood at the window, staring out at the cobble-stoned street, listening to the gentle clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, and the sounds of children playing. I looked down at the windowsill.
A small caterpillar was inching its way across the wood. Small and green. I placed one of my fingers on the sill, and it leisurely strolled on to it. Furry legs gently brushed against my skin as the caterpillar made its way across my finger and on to my hand.
The bell. Taking the caterpillar with me I crossed to the front door, and opened it hastily.
Mr. Hastings, the postman, was standing on the step.
“Good Morning, Mr. Aren.” He looked at me and smiled. Then he looked down at my raised hand that still cradled the caterpillar. His smile disappeared.
He handed me my letters and bills. I took them with my free hand. There was a moment of pause, then with one more look down at the caterpillar on my hand, he walked off towards his next destination.
I only realized then that I hadn’t said a word to him.
I stepped out of the entryway, and put my hand down near the leaf of a blooming rhododendron beside the door. The caterpillar calmly inched its way across the curve of my hand, and found its footing on the leaf. It blended with the green. I went back inside.
After the sheep incident I became distanced from my mother. She noticed the change in me. She never voiced her observations, but I felt her withdraw from me as well. I was almost thankful for it. So much so that eventually, when I was sixteen years old, I ran away from Denmark, and made my way to England. I started a new life, one that I hoped I could be proud of, and one in which I hoped I could be happy.
I found work in a factory, but made time for schooling in the evenings, knowing that was the only avenue open to me for advancement. I studied long and hard and finally made it to university. When I was in my mid-twenties I found a position at the museum and worked up to becoming head of the ancient mythology and religions department.
I became discerning and fully concentrated on the beliefs and legends of primitive man. My thoughts continually swept back to my childhood, and the stories I was told by my mother of the fabulous monsters and gods, and how they interfered with the lives of ordinary men. Reflections appeared back at me through every angle of my research, and I saw my own face shining clear through all of them. I felt these stories were my own, almost as if we were made of the same stuff, the same flesh and blood. I felt one with them.
I became engrossed in my work, so much so that I did not realize until too late that a war was going on. The opium wars with China had begun. I was force to enlist by city law and went off to fight in that Eastern country.
I’ll never forget the first time I was wounded. I felt something pierce me like a blade. It was like no other pain I had known before. I felt my breath released from its bodily restraints. It was sucked from my mouth and nostrils. I felt for a moment what it must be like to die. Then, all of a sudden, it flew back into me with double force, thrusting its way back inside me, and threw me right off my horse.
I lay panting on the ground, unable to move. My lungs felt over-full. The world seemed to lurch. I saw only blackness. I awoke in an infirmary several days later. No one could believe what had happened. They said I had received a blow straight through my chest that should have killed me. But it didn’t. It didn’t. Some lucky chance of coincidence. They laughed it off. And so did I.
I continued to fight in the war. I saw good men fall beside me – friends. I still remember their faces – the breadth of their brows, the creases and lines that would show when they smiled. And how those same faces looked dead on the battlefield, the eyes still open, gazing at a world they could no longer see. The flies hovering over their wounds. Mouths still wrenched open in fits of pain or shock. Sometimes I would see my own faced attached to the body of a dead soldier I was passing. I kept thinking to myself: I could have been him; that might have been me. But eventually the novelty wore off.
I came home and pretended to forget about the war. I remember looking into a mirror for the first time in what seemed like forever. I expected a massive change. I’m not sure what kind of change, but something physically perceptible that would strike me as different. Something to show for all the blood and death I had seen. I looked into the mirror. My face seemed the same. Same eyes, same nose, same mouth. My stomach twisted in a tight knot. I felt something was wrong. I had been away for five years, yet my face was the same as ever. It should have been different somehow . . . somehow different . . . .
I remember the first time I saw her. She was stepping down from a carriage. There was something about her face that caught me off guard. It was different somehow, almost unearthly. The difference I had wanted to see in my own face after the war. There was a newness about her. I could never quite decipher what it was.
But I knew at that moment that I could marry no other but her.
“Benu, she whispered to me through the night. We were on the doorstep of her parent’s house, hidden away from the music and the laughter of the party going on inside. I had just told her of my childhood, and my subsequent journey to England.
“What did you say?” I said, chuckling.
“Benu,” she said, laughing. “I think that shall be my new name for you.”
“But why? What does it mean?” I said, my eyes trying to discover the mystery that lay within her laughter.
“You’re a mythologist, aren’t you? I thought you would know the legend of the Phoenix.”
“Oh. The Phoenix. Well, yes, of course, but . . . .”
She placed a finger on my lips so I would cease talking, and began herself:
“The Egyptian Phoenix is called the Benu. According to the legend, every two hundred years the Benu bird builds a special nest from twigs and bark. “
I knew this story already, but I reveled in how her sweet intoxicating voice galloped across the syllables and vowels of the narrative.
“Once the nest is finished the Benu burrows inside it and bursts into flames.” Her hands clapped with the sound of a thousand fireworks launching into the night sky. I could see the colors: the brilliant purples and yellows and greens.
“The flames transform the bird into a small, defenseless worm. This worm eventually grows and matures into the bird it once was, only to disappear again after another two hundred years to be born again.”
“So you’re naming me after a worm?”
She laughed, and put her hand to her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter so the guests inside would not hear and begin to wonder.
“No, silly. You’re my Phoenix, my Benu. You’re a transformation.”
I wedded Juliana in a small ceremony, and we started a happy life together in London. We wanted to start a family, to start a new life ourselves. And before I knew it, Juliana was with child.
“Benu . . .,” she called to me, “. . . what names are you thinking of.?”
“Names? What do you mean?” I was impatiently looking over our bills.
“Names for the baby, of course. What should we call it if it’s a boy?” She latched her arms around me from behind and gently kissed my cheek the way she always did.
“Well, he should have a good English name, of course. Maybe Jack. Or Thomas.”
“Thomas . . . yes, I like that name. And if it’s a girl?”
“Let me see . . . .”
“Emma. I’ve always liked that name.”
But our baby wasn’t to be named Emma. It was a boy. Or at least, it would have been, if it had survived.
Juliana miscarried in the autumn of that year. I still remember everything . . . the blood, and the screams, and the tears, and the pain . . . I felt powerless to do anything . . . I had no control over anything . . .I felt useless . . . I felt I had betrayed Juliana.
My dreams were terrorized by nightmares of the unborn child. I dreamt of my mother and the foundling sheep. I dreamt eating their flesh. And then suddenly it was not sheep meat I was eating, but the fetus of little Thomas . . . .
That was when I stopped sleeping.
The relationship between Juliana and myself was not the same after that. I felt distanced from her. I admit I intentionally distanced myself from her. I felt I was the one responsible for the death of our child.
But then she spoke to me. I can still hear her voice ringing in my ear. She said it was meant to be. We could have more. It was not the end.
So we tried again.
But again, the child did not survive. And this time neither did Juliana.
The day had fallen to night. I watched the house slowly fill with darkness, the shadows stretching their fingers out to every crevice and cranny. My eyes burned with intensity and emptiness. I made my way back to the bedroom.
I stretched out upon the cold, inviting sheets. And then I felt something. A feeling that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I didn’t know what it was, but it crept over me like a curtain slowly opening upon a stage of endless possibilities. The floor seemed to revolve. There was a new landscape. I saw new things.
I felt my chest relax and my breath grow deeper.
I was in a black expanse of emptiness. There seemed to be nothing around me, only vacant space. I sat looking around me for a moment, wondering what to do. I decided to stand.
At that moment a spark of fire lit up my surroundings. I thought some great sun had descended. And then I saw the three.
The oak tree stood towering above me, its limbs reaching to the sky, so high that I could not see the very tops of the branches. The trunk seemed enormous. But it was not the ordinary oak tree I remembered from my childhood. Now it grew apples and pomegranates. Sometimes they fell to the foot of the tree, and turned to pure gold. I stepped between them, not wanting to disturb their final resting place.
She was pierced to the tree, a spear sticking straight through her breast. Her arms sidled two of the lowest branches, and supported her weight upon the trunk. Her face was calm and peaceful. It seemed like she was asleep. She seemed beautiful and terrible.
I knew what it was then. It was the Tree of Life; Yggdrasil; the world tree. The tree that the Norse god Odin hung upon for nine nights to gain the secret of the runes, to gain the secret of life itself.
My mouth felt dry. I tried to swallow but could not.
She opened her eyes, and turned her head towards me. A smile played on her lips.
“Benu,” her voice whispered.
I didn’t think I could speak. Finally, words came.
“Juliana . . . .” I tried to say more, but my mouth was clamped shut. My tongue wouldn’t move.
“Come here,” she beckoned.
I walked further towards her.
“Juliana, I’m sorry . . .,” I began. So many things unsaid.
“No. No words.” She lifted her hand to my lips. I felt her skin against my skin. A sound grunted out of my chest. I rested my head on her breast. I kissed the blood that oozed from her wound.
I felt her hand upon my head. I looked up, and my lips met hers.
The sun shone through the windows of the bedroom. Birds chattered outside. My eyes grew used to the light. I sat up.
Light and shadow played throughout the room in a never-ending waltz.
I heard the unfolding of wings.