CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|ZZ’s Sleep-Away Camp|
for Disordered Dreamers
Emma and I are curled together in the basket of the Insomnia Balloon, our breath coming in soft quick bursts. I am stroking Emma’s cheek. I am spooning amber gobs of soporific dough into Emma’s open mouth, cadged from Zorba’s medicinal larder in anticipation of just such an occasion. (Sort of a cheat, I know, but it’s my first time doing this.) I am trying desperately to disguise the fact that this is the closest I’ve ever been to a girl’s face.
I was expecting some ineffable girl smell, dewy and secret an eau. But Emma smells like dinner. Barbecue sauce, the buttery whiff of potato foil. Because it’s Emma, it’s still sort of hot.
“Just put your head here,” I say, in a tone that implies I’ve nuzzled dozens of sleep-disordered ladies. I try to ease Emma’s curly head into the crook of my arm and end up elbowing her in the nose.
“Are you ready?”
What can you do but take a girl at her word? But I hope she really is ready. Being unconscious with somebody, that’s a big deal.
I take a deep breath, pull on the rip cord, and plunge the clearing into darkness.
The Insomnia Balloon is in a clearing at the shallow end of the woods. You may have been out there; it was public island property until Zorba started this camp a few years back. The Insomnia Balloon isn’t an airship of the literal, sky-flying variety. Zorba says it’s for mental flights. The “balloon” part is actually a giant lightbulb, suspended over a wicker basket by copper wires. It’s OK to be awake here, even after Lights Out. Sometimes, Zorba tells us, as a precursor to sleep, you need to let your thoughts dry out beneath the electric light. Eventually dream helium begins to fill your lungs. When you’re ready to soar inward, you pull the rip cord and turn the giant lightbulb off.
“How many sleep-disordered campers does it take to change a lightbulb?” Zorba likes to joke, and the punchline is, all of us. Every six months, a three-hundred-pound replacement bulb arrives from Norway. The Insomnia Balloon buzzes around the clock, its filaments glowing in the giant glass vacuum bulb. It turns the surrounding forest into an undulant sea of pines. They seem to grow larger when we turn the balloon off, their blue shadows billowing out beneath the low stars. A froth of gully grass pokes through the holes in the wire basket. Emma’s blue eye is half open, a quarter of an inch from mine. She is staring at an ant crawling along one moon-limned strand of grass. She won’t look at me.
“Elijah, I can’t.”
“Do you not trust me? If it’s that you don’t trust me, just say so.”
“That’s not it! I just …” She bites her lip. “I shouldn’t have to explain it, you know, I just can’t …”
“Well, not with that attitude, you can’t.” My heartbeat thumps in my chest. Not exactly the pace I want to set if I’m going to deliver the eight hours of sleep I’ve been promising her. After all that big talk, I’m afraid my sleep latency period is going to be eye-blink brief. Slow down and lengthen, I coach myself, trying to match my breath to hers. Slow down. “Look, Emma, I’ve got you. I’ve got you, OK? Just relax—”
This night is the culmination of weeks of practice. Oglivy has been tutoring me in smooth rock-a-bye technique. I hum a lullaby into her ear, one that Ogli says is guaranteed to make the ladies go limp. She throws her head back in an exaggerated, feline yawn, which I take to be a good sign. I hum louder.
“Are you sleeping?”
“Oh!” she breathes. “Yes!” She makes some theatrical breathing noises that I guess must be Emma’s approximations of what a deeply sleeping girl would sound like, but actually make her sound like her trachea is obstructed by a golf ball. I try humming a little more softly.
And then, just when she’s started mumbling in that softly demented voice that precedes sleep, Oglivy comes crashing out of the woods, staggering into trees and generally destroying the ambience. Emma bolts upright. “Who’s there?” She wriggles away from me and tugs the balloon back on. The light startles her sleep-blurred face back into sociable lines. Damn. All my progress, erased.
“Oh, crap, sorry guys,” Ogli whistles. “I didn’t, uh, mean to wake you …” He gives me a big shit-eating grin.
“Ogli!” Emma looks relieved to see him. She claps a hand over her mouth, but not before she lets out a coy yawn in Ogli’s direction.
I wish she’d save that stuff for me.
“Annie’s giving her Inspiration Assembly,” he coughs, averting his gaze with a showy gallantry while Emma rubs her eyelids back to their sentient position. “I thought we could all walk over together. Not that I care, but we’re gonna be late, Elijah.”
“We’ll be there in a second—” But Emma’s already clambering out of the wicker basket, tilting the hot yellow bulb. Shadows go spidering out across the clearing.
“Thanks, Oglivy,” she smiles. Her curly hair has a rosy glow in the balloon’s light. She looks all mussed up and adorably mortal, these violet half-moons under her eyes. “You’re right, we’d better get there on time. I heard that last year one of the Incubi? ”
“Incubuses,” we correct.
“Incubi,” she frowns, “was late, and Zorba put her on laundry duty for a week.”
We all shudder. Laundry duty means you have to wash the acrid bed linens for Cabin 5, the Incontinents.
We walk toward the Main Cabin in silence. It’s no easy hike. Sweat and mosquitoes and a purple ambush of nettles. Our bare toes sink into the oxblood clumps of mud.
“Sorry, dude,” Ogli says under his breath. “I thought you were ballooning solo. I didn’t mean to wake you …”
“S’OK,” I sigh. “She was faking anyways.”
When the trail opens onto the lake, I see that Oglivy’s timing was off, as usual. No way are we late. A few Somnambulists are still turning dreamy circles in the poppy pasture, tangling their sleep leashes in the furrows.
“Wait up, Ogli,” I wheeze. “We can’t all be late, retard.”
We’re all late. The camp director’s wife, Annie, is wrapping up her annual talk.
“ … And now, I’m proud to say, my Dream Contagion has gone into remission, and I’ve been dreaming my own dreams for nearly three years.”
Scattered applause. Somebody bites into an apple. Oglivy and I exchange a bored glance. We have been coming to ZZ’s for so long that we’re practically de facto junior counselors. We know Annie’s spiel verbatim:
“Sleep is the heat that melts time, children. It’s a trick that you will practice here. But—we don’t expect to cure you of your sleep disorders in these few short weeks.”
Oglivy mouths along with Annie, fluttering his eyelids. He has me and Emma laughing with a hot- faced, helpless surrender out of all proportion to the joke itself. After the white noise of school-year loneliness, I am so happy to be sitting with Ogli and Emma on this pulpy cedar floor again, making the same old jokes.
“That’s not why your parents send you here,” Annie continues, glaring in our direction. “We just want to provide you with a safe place to lie awake together. And maybe even?”she beams at the crowd—“to dream.”
“And”—I elbow Ogli—“to scream.” A veteran Narco sitting near us snickers. They never warn the new fish about all the midnight noises.
At ZZ’s, our nights echo with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Popularity is determined according to an unspoken algorithm that averages the length and volume of your sleep- yodeled error. Even at a place like Zorba’s, there’s still a clearly delineated social hierarchy:
Cabin 2: Sleep Apneacs
Cabin 3: Somnambulists
Cabin 6: Somniloquists
Cabin 8: Headbangers
Cabin 11: Night Eaters
Cabin 7: Gnashers
Cabin 13: Night Terrors
Cabin 9: Insomniacs
Cabin 1: Narcoleptics
Cabin 10: Incubuses
Cabin 5: Incontinents
And then there’s us. Cabin 4: Other. The ones whose parents checked the box marked “Other.” Our illnesses do not matchc any diagnostic criteria. That means we’re considered anomalies by Gnasher dudes who have ground their pearly whites down to nubbins, by Incubus girls who think that demon jockeys are riding them in their sleep.
Oglivy is my Other brother, the only other person I have ever met who shares my disorder. We’ve been bunkmates for the past three years. Annie calls us her twin boys with this syrupy, slightly unnerving tenderness. She doesn’t mean that we look alike. Oglivy is basketball-tall, with these small pistachio-colored eyes and a pleasantly dopey face. I’m small and dark and inexpertly put together, all knees and elbows and face bones. My mom says I’m destined to be the sort of man who uses big words but pronounces them incorrectly. It’s not even like we have that much in common in our waking lives, although we get a lot of mileage out of our few points of intersection—our moonball fanaticism, our mutual abhorrence of grandmothers and cats, our worshipful respect for the hobo. But we are sleep twins, phobically linked by our identical dreams. He is the first and only person I have ever met who is also a prophet of the past.
We would have been friends regardless, even if we weren’t the only two prophets in the whole camp. With all due respect to our Other brothers and sisters, Cabin 4 is creepy as hell.
There’s Espalda and Espina, the reverend’s adopted daughters. They are hunchback twins who giggle at everything and rub their humps together in their sleep.
There’s Felipe, a parasomniac with a coincidence of spirit possession. He caught his ghost after stealing a guanabana from a roadside tree, unaware that its roots had wound around a mass grave of Mon’öada revolutionaries. He’s been possessed by Francisco Pais ever since. This causes him to sleep-detonate imaginary grenades and sleep-yell, “Viva la Revolución!” while sleep-pumping his fist in the air. He is a deceptively apolitical boy by day.
This year, we’ve got a New Kid, this Eastern European lycanthrope. he is redolent of tubers and Old World damp. New Kid’s face is a pituitary horror, a patchwork of runny sores and sebaceous dips. Ginger fur sprouts from weird places: his chin, his ear. You intuit some horror story—homeschooled, his mother’s in a coven, he eats rancid cabbage out of a trough, that sort of thing. His sleep cycles with the moon.
Emma used to be a textbook Somnambulist. She says that after her mother died they would find her walking up and down the empty gutters at the Bowl-a-Bed Hotel, her eyes wide open. But her ailment must have mutated into some Other form, because she recently got the wire restraints taken off her bed. It was right around the time when I started noticing that Emma was, in addition to being short and a serviceable moonball shortstop, a girl. She has this amazing tracery of veins around her eyes, like a leaf pressed between the pages of a book. I don’t know how exactly I got it into my head that I could save her, or that we could save each other. But now I have this secret fantasy where we sleep together and dream about … whatever ordinary kids dream about. And then we wake up together in the morning, in the same bed that we started out in, rested and cured.
And then there’s Ogli. I’ll never forget the night Ogli and I figured out we had the same disorder. It was the first week of camp, when everyone was still skittish and uncertain and I resisted sleep as long as possible, not wanting to give myself away too soon. I hid my ration of soporific dough in a sock under my pillow. Oglivy was sleeping in the bunk facing mine, and I watched him do the same thing. We lay sideways in the dark, eyeing each other like desperadoes in a predawn stalemate. Eventually, we both must have succumbed, because at precisely 4:47, we woke up screaming, staring straight at one another. Oglivy’s hair was sticking straight up, his white eyes goggling out in the dark, the mirror image of my terror. Our screams gave way to giggles.
“What did you dream?” he wheezed.
“I dreamed,” I gasped, still laughing, “that there was this silver rocket, burning and burning.”
He stopped laughing abruptly. “Me, too.”
I appreciate Ogli’s pragmatism about our dreams. He refuses to try to interpret them with me. Like the time last summer when we predicted the St. Louis Zoo Cataclysm of ’49: “Who cares what it means, bro!” he sighs. “I’m too busy trying to outrun the lions so they don’t eat my shins.”
“Why don’t we get the joyful portents,” I want to know, “doves and olives, the Emancipation Proclamation, former paralytics winning Olympic gold? Why?” Ogli just shrugs. “Look on the bright side, Elijah. At least we don’t dream the future.”
Oglivy and I have remarkably similar medical histories. For years we were misdiagnosed as conventional Night Terrors. It’s hard to explain your symptoms to adults:
“Mom, I dreamed that fire was falling from outer space. And the fire was headed straight for these long-necked monsters. And, oh, Mom, then the whole world was cratered and dark, and there were only these stooped, hairy creatures stealing eggs, and no more monsters. We have to save them!”
“Mom, I dreamed that lava came bubbling out of the ground like blood from a cut. And the townspeople below were just picking tomatoes and singing oblivious Italian folk songs, Mom. We have to warn them!”
“Mom, I dreamed that an 804-foot hydrogen dirigible full of Germans was about to burst into flames. We have to—”
It’s just a dream, son, my mother would snap, turning on the scolding overhead light. Just a bad dream. We don’t have to do anything. Go back to sleep.
Then I got to school and started to piece things together. I remember flipping through Our Storied Past!, eyes agog. The table of contents was like an index to my dreams. Mount Vesuvius, the Bubonic Plague, Tropical Storm Vita—I was a prophet. Annie calls them my postmonitions. Sometimes I think Ogli and I must be like imperfect antennae, the distress signals traveling like light from dead stars.
I guess it wouldn’t be so bad, if the dreams didn’t have the fated, crimson-tinged horror of prophesy. Or if I could forget them before waking. It’s that dread half-second lapse in the morning that gets me, when time’s still just a jumble of tenses at the foot of the bed. I lurch forward with the certainty that I can actually do something to prevent disaster. Strengthen the scaffolding, batten down the hatches, don’t drink the water, quarantine the sallow man, stay docked in the harbor, wear inflammable apparel on the subway, avoid the Imperial City today, steer clear of glaciers! Between the dying echo of a dream explosion and my conscious brain reassuring me, like an alarm bell ringing in a pile of rubble. Too late: too late.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some perks. I get to go to sleep disorder camp, after all. And I’ve been runner-up in the history bee for four consecutive years.
It turns out that our tardiness is not a problem, because Zorba himself has yet to show. Annie keeps glancing from her watch to the door. We are just picking teams for the inaugural game of moonball when Zorba bursts into the cabin. He is sweating profusely. His face bulges like an eggplant, shiny and distended.
“Here he is,” Annie sighs. “Campers, I’d like to present you with our founder and director, my husband, Zorba Zoulekevis …”
“Heimdall is missing!” he thunders in his Mount Olympus baritone. A ripple goes through the crowd. Heimdall is a woolly Houdini, escaping his pen at least once a day. But the campgrounds are small, and walled in by trees. If Heimdall’s gone missing, that means he’s wandered into the marshy woods, toward the sinkhole.
All the color drains out of Annie’s face. “Oh no. Oh, Zorba. What if the dogs are back?” Her voice drops to a whisper. “We mustn’t panic the children.”
The microphone is still on. The cabin echoes with the whine of feedback. Dozens of eyes dart around, searching for unseen dogs.
“Don’t worry,” I whisper to one of the new campers. “There aren’t any dogs around here. Not that we can see, anyways. Annie’s a little, you know …” Ogli points at his temple and twirls his index finger like an unraveling kite string so as to indicate “nuts.” Ogli and I know that Annie’s just flashing back to her dream contagion again. Annie, prior to her recovery, caught a virulent strain of nightmare from somebody. For years, she dreamed of black dogs, wild dogs, a shadow pack running behind the green screen of trees and killing her lambs. In a separate assembly, Zorba warns us to avoid all mention of our pets in Annie’s presence.
Zorba eases the microphone out of her hands. “We must find the missing sheep!” he intones. His voice booms through the mess hall with a messianic thunder. Annie passes out flashlights, and we all file out of the main cabin. We split off in pairs to comb the shallow end of the woods. I grab Emma’s wrist and drag her toward the shoreline. It’s a clear night, and the lake glints mirror bright in the darkness. I steer her toward our reflection in the water. If I can just get her to see how right we look together, I think, see it the way I do, rising out of the lake with the eidetic, rippled force of dreams.
A high, piercing shriek erupts from behind the trees. Emma and I exchange glances. Zorba has found the sheep.
We keep a fuzzy flock of sheep, mostly as a testament to Zorba’s melancholy sense of humor. They huddle together in a pen down by the lake, next to the red turkey coop, where Zorba fattens the Tryptoåvhan Flock. There are only three sheep, so you can’t exactly induce sleep by counting them: Heimdall, Mouflon, and Merino. Even so, they still follow herd logic. Heimdall is our outlier. He is the brazen ram, pushing past the known limits of his grazing world. Mouflon is the bellwether sheep. If Mouflon decided it was safe to follow, then and only then would the rest of the herd, Merino, and the occasional disoriented turkey come trotting over.
We all run to the source of the screaming. And there’s poor Heimdall, splayed out like a murdered cloud. He’s lying facedown in a puddle of tadpoles and woodsy murk. “His throat is slit!” someone shrieks, but I don’t even register this. Somehow, I just keep staring at Heimdall’s pink ears. They’ve flopped inside out, and I have to resist a powerful urge to flop them right side in. They look sad and veiny and indecent. Zorba kneels in the dirt and holds Heimdall’s head in his lap, sobbing with an island abandon, a salt-buoyed, voluptuous grief that no mainland man would permit himself. Staring at Heimdall’s furry, triangular face, I feel a pulsing flood of adrenaline. I have never felt more awake than I do right now. Finally, “before” and “after” in their proper order.
“Oglivy,” I whisper excitedly. “Something is killing the sheep. Do you know what this means?”
“Gee-ros for lunch tomorrow?”
I point back toward the pen. “It means we have to sneak out and stand watch tonight.”
Oglivy frowns. “Couldn’t we commemorate the dead sheep my way?” With pita and Annie’s moussaka?”
“Ogli, this is serious! Don’t you see how great this is? This isn’t like the dreams. This is a real tragedy! This is happening right now, in real time. And we can stop it.”
I break off abruptly. Zorba comes lumbering out of the crowd, sweeping Annie into an ursine embrace. He buries his curly head into her shoulder. “Oh, Annie, our only ram!” The wiry hairs on his knuckles are flecked with blood.
“My children,” he bellows, gathering himself up to his full height of five foot four. “Be not afraid. We will sleep through this!” But his roar is all volume and no conviction, the tinderless fire of a faithless preacher. “To your cabins! Lights out!”
“The poor children,” we hear Annie sigh, “must be lidless with terror!”
Heimdall’s death is the best thing that’s ever happened to us here at ZZ’s. All night, the camp is charged with a giddy, carnival air of terror. The Insomniacs have a reason for their involuntary vigil. The Night Terrors feel justified in their fear. And we Others have another mystery to focus on beside our own disorders. Now that there’s an outside threat to unify us, the regular social hierarchy has been suspended. Apneacs, Others, and Narcos all gossip merrily on the walk back to our cabins. I’m lucky, because I have Oglivy, so I’m never really alone at night. But you can see how, for the other kids, Heimdall’s death is a real treat. It’s a bridge between our private terrors, this killer skulking around in our woods. Finally, the whole camp has a nightmare in common. It’s something to celebrate, like Christmas.
“Who do you think did it, Elijah?” Ogli’s ruddy face is hanging upside down in front of me, his tall body arcing over the top bunk.
Lights out was announced over an hour ago. Outside, rain drums down in silvery curtains, pasting the purple ferns against the screen. The walls bulge with it; you can almost hear it humming, the drowned sound of swollen wood. Bullfrogs chorus below our windowsill.
“I dunno. Annie was acting pretty strangely. Did you know she used to be a scrier? She had her spoon out with her tonight. Suspicious. Could be one of the Narcos having a hypnagogic seizure. And then there’s …”
“Keep it down over there,” the counselor growls from the corner. “Try to sleep. Fake it to make it. Close your eyes and do your lulling exercises.” God help him, he would administer a Kentucky sleep remedy if he could, he tells us, and club us over the head. Our jubilant paranoia means that he can’t sneak off to refill his flask.
I close my eyes. The cabin is full of comforting sounds, snores, and orchestral cicadas, the dromedary rasping of the sisters. But lying in my bunk, listening to the other Others breathe, I get this empty-belly loneliness. It’s both too much and not enough, somehow, to be this close to my brothers and sisters in the dark. Espalda and Espina are the luckiest ones. They have a special dispensation to sleep in the same bed. They get to sleep back to back in their matching sailor pajamas, nautical embroidery along the open, lewdly enticing back flaps. I picture their humps sharking together, their vertebrae interlocking in a columnar ladder to their separate brains.
“Are you scared, Emma?” I whisper.
“I’m scared!” Espalda says.
“I’m scared!” Espina says.
I feel Ogli shift in his bunk, and know he is smirking into his pillow above me. “If you’re scared,” I continue, more firmly, “you can come sleep in my bed.”
“What?” Emma hisses. “Here? In front of the twins? ”
“We don’t mind!” says Espalda.
“I mind,” whispers Espina.
Emma gives me a long, assessing look. Then she fluffs her pillow. She drags her blanket past the bored, whisky-blurred gaze of the counselor. She crawls into my bed. I annotate the moment with a historian’s portentousness. This is it. The event that I’ve been waiting for all summer.
We spend the next two hours squirming around miserably, trying to get comfortable.
“Elijah, it’s just not working,” she finally sighs.
“Well, if somebody would quit hogging all the covers …”
“We just can’t sleep together,” she says sadly. “Maybe it’s your lullaby …”
“Maybe it’s you, I say, hating and hating myself. “Have you ever thought of that? Maybe you’re what’s not working. Maybe you can’t sleep with other people.”
We even lie back to back, fused at the base of our spines, curling out from one another like fetal twins. But it’s nothing like I imagined it would be. It’s an empty warmth, an only-bodies touching. We listen to the New Kid itching and baying. We watch Felipe flinch beneath invisible grenades. I feel guilty; Ogli has started his midnight divination without me. I shut my eyes, and will myself to sleep.
The following night, I am running toward the sheep pen, flanked by Emma and Oglivy. We take a willfully, gleefully stupid shortcut through the woods. We are Others, I pant to myself, equal to any nocturnal danger. And tonight, we are wide awake. Instead of dreaming about the past while the slaughter continues, we’ve made a pact to protect the flock.
“Zorba’s going to kick us out!”
“Annie’s dogs will get us first!”
“You mean the muuuurderer,” Oglivy whoops. He mock stabs us both in the back and then runs past us, vanishing into the marsh.
The forest at night is full of friendly menace. It blurs and ashes all around us, a dark dream of itself. Rain runs down the skinned black hands of the trees, down the white mushrooms that push their tiny faces from the logs. Frogs jump from the branches like spry blemishes. We flinch beneath the leaf-swung shadows, the winged attack of lunatic moths. The forest gives me all sorts of reasons to reach out and hold Emma’s hand.
“Blah!” Oglivy yells, pushing Emma and me into a pile of wet leaves. We roll around, a red flail of limbs and hysterical laughter. We are all raccoon-drunk on moonlight and bloodshed and the heady, under-blossom smell of the forest. I breathe in the sharp odor of cold stars and skunk, thinking This is the happiest that I have ever been. I wish somebody would murder a sheep every night of my life. It feels like we are all embarking on a nightmare together. And we will stop it in progress! I think, yanking Emma and Ogli to their feet and hurtling toward the lake. We will make sure that the rest of the herd escapes Heimdall’s fate, we will—
Emma lets out a low, strangled cry and stops short. We are too late. The unlatched gate of the pen is swinging in the wind. Ewe’s blood glistens on the tiny leaves. She steps aside to reveal the humped form of Merino. “Oh, Ogli.” This isn’t the ashes to ashes of our dreams. This is Merino, our living, bleating lamb, now a heap of meat and sweaters. “We failed.” When she hears Emma moan, Mouflon comes trotting over from the far end of the pen. She steps blithely over her murdered sister, nosing our palms in search of poppy buns. But Emma is looking past Mouflon, past Merino, to the other side of the fence.
A wraithlike figure is rising out of the mist on the far end of the pen. “Do you think that sheep have human ghosts?” Ogli wants to know. But it’s just Annie. She is drenched, her white nightgown sopping wet, water pooling at her bare feet.
She blinks at the dead sheep with a dreamy incomprehension. She stoops and touches a wondering hand to the slick grass.
“Annie, we can ex—”
“Emma,” she barks, suddenly all business, “go back to your cabin. I need to have a word with the boys.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Emma squeaks. She goes doe-leaping off into the woods without a backward glance. Blue clouds race past her over the tall pines. Then the clouds part, and the moon blinks open above us.
That’s when I notice a bright spatter of blood on the hem of Annie’s nightgown.
“Boys,” Annie says, “my prophets, I need you to be honest now. Have you had any postmonitions about the dogs?”
We stare down at the blood drying on Annie’s hands.
“The dogs, boys,” she prods, her hazel eyes shining with a marbled hardness.
“Uh, no, ma’am,” I cough politely. “We had the Typhoid Mary dream again last night. No, uh, no dogs.”
The scariest thing about the blood on Annie’s hands is the fact that Annie doesn’t seem to know it’s there. She’s busy scanning the ground for paw prints.
“Oglivy,” she asks, taking his hand, “did you dream them? Have you dreamed the dogs? Your dream log has been blank for days.”
“Oh,” Oglivy gulps, looking down at his clownish feet. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, Annie … I, uh, I haven’t been remembering them. You know, the dreams.” He won’t look at either of us.
I elbow him sharply.
Annie nods. “Well. We mustn’t let the little ones see her like this.” She turns to me. “Elijah, I need you to help me drag Merino to the sinkhole.”
“Me?” I ask, horrified. “Um, Oglivy’s probably the man for the job …”
But he is already slouching off behind the red bushes. He mumbles a hollow apology over his shoulder.
Annie takes hold of Merino’s cloven hooves and grunts. I take up her forelegs, careful not to touch her still-warm body. I nearly drop her, shocked by the tactile revelation that beneath the airy wisps of fur, she is gristle and bone. Merino is easily the heaviest weight I have ever carried.
“Come on, Elijah,” Annie huffs. “Good job, Elijah. We’re almost to the sinkhole. Unh!” Her muscles shudder. “This is what’s necessary, you know, for the little ones to sleep easy …” I wonder which part of all this Annie considers to be “necessary,” the murder or the cover-up. I wish Ogli had stuck around to help me carry the body. I feel Merino’s nose brush against my bare thigh and let out an involuntary groan. When a blood-glutted tick crawls down her haunch and onto the white rim of my thumbnail, onto my sweaty wrist, it’s all I can do not to scream.
The sinkhole is a boggy pit on the edges of Zorba’s property. Elastic bubbles pop along the puckered brown skin. Lightning-scored cypress trees surround it, a greenish phosphorescence sparking along their submerged roots. And it occurs to me that throwing a dead sheep into the sinkhole, this is not our best idea. The sinkhole is a window to the camp’s aquifer. Anything you throw into the sinkhole remains in our water system indefinitely. Eventually, Merino is going to come back to haunt our drinking supply. Annie’s not protecting anyone by dumping the body.
“Are you ready?”
Peering over the edge of the limestone cavity, I have an otherworldly certainty that I have been here before. It’s one of those rare moments, the air thick and perfumed with memory, when the imagined world and the real world seem to overlap. A catatonic calm takes hold of me. Oh, no, I think, staring into the swirling, milky center, the blind eye of the sinkhole. We should not not not be doing this.
With a strength I couldn’t have predicted, I help Annie to swing Merino’s body into the murk. She hits the sinkhole with an awful thwack, her pale belly facing us. Annie and I watch in a grim, conspiratorial silence as she sinks beneath the surface. I wonder how much of this Annie will remember in the morning.
When we get back to the cabin, I wash my hands eighteen times. Then I loofah them. Then I wash them again. Then I wake Oglivy up and drag him outside and heave him up against the rain-slick wall, my palms still smarting.
“Why did you lie to her?” I hiss. “Were you trying to make us look like sheep killers? Don’t you think Annie would love an excuse to pin this on us?”
“Jesus, Elijah,” Oglivy gasps, squirming away. “Calm down. I was going to tell you, you know.” There’s a pained expression on his face.
“Tell me what?”
“I think I might possibly be, uh, getting better? Our dreams, the fires …” He gives me a helpless shrug. “I haven’t been remembering them.”
My hands drop from his shoulders. “What?”
“I mean, I still get the shakes, and everything,” he says quickly. “I just can’t remember what I augured, you know?”
“No,” I growl. “I don’t know. You faker! You mean you’ve been lying to me all summer?”
ZZ’s Sleep-Away Camp is divided down all kinds of lines: campers who can’t sleep vs. campers who sleep too much, campers who control their bladders vs. campers who do not, campers who splinter through headboards vs. campers who lie still as the dead. Now Ogli and I are separated by one of the greatest rifts: campers who remember in the morning and the ones who forget.
“You didn’t have the Trail of Tears dream, with the ice floes and the frozen squaw?”
He shakes his head.
“The Inundation of Ur dream? All those alluvial, egg-smooth Sumerians?”
He shakes his head.
“What about the Great Peruvian Firequake of 1734?”
“Look, Elijah, It’s a good thing.”
“Oh, sure. It’s great!” I kick the side of the cabin, feeling stupid even as I do it. “You’re getting better! You don’t remember our dreams! That’s a great thing.” I blink furiously, glad for the dark. “Really.” I reach up to give him an awkward pat on the shoulder. “Really, Ogli. It is.”
Ogli grins down at me, relieved. “Look, let’s go to sleep. Maybe if I concentrate really hard I’ll remember them tonight.”
“Nah, Ogli,” I sigh. “I appreciate your volition. But I don’t think the dreams work that way. You go get sleeping without me.” I turn back toward the woods. “I need to be awake for awhile.”
“You’re not going back out there tonight, are you?” he yells after me. “After what we just saw?”
You mean what I just saw? I think, a deafening, echoing thought. It roars around me, the new solitude within my own skull. And I am angry, so angry at Ogli, for his forgetting. It’s worse, somehow, that it wasn’t deliberate, that the dream sickness just left him like a fever lifting. It means I don’t even get to hate him. Recovery at ZZ’s means sleeping through your symptoms. Ogli gets to wake up to cheery blankness and cereal, and I’ll spend the rest of my life counting dead sheep.
This time I do a slow, listless shuffle through the woods, crunching into the leaves. All the happy fear has ebbed out of me. The leaves sound like leaves; the lake looks glassy and flat. When I startle a young stag in the middle of my path, I stand my ground and hurl some sticks at it. I climb into the Insomnia Balloon and curl my body like a fist. Now that I really am ballooning solo, I’m afraid to pull the rip cord. At least with Emma I could feel the warmth of another body in the basket.
Far away, I can hear Mouflon, our last sheep, bleating in the dark. I wonder if Annie is still out to protect her, still scouring the woods in barefoot pursuit of those dogs. I feel sorry for Annie, alone with a rabid pack of her own delusions. I feel sorrier for Mouflon. She’s alone with Annie.
Eventually the dark gravity of the postmonitions begins to tug at my eyelids, a first oracular shimmer. I shiver and lie flat against the basket. My fingers curl through the holes in the wicker, through the wet grass beneath it, trying to hold tight to the sharp blades of the present. Somewhere in my brain a sinkhole is bubbling over, and each bubble contains a scene from a tiny sunken world: Oglivy erasing his dream log, Annie’s blank eyes filling with phantom dogs, Merino’s milky gray belly resurfacing with a terrible buoyancy. I have never been the prophet of my own past before. It makes me wonder how the healthy dreamers can bear to sleep at all, if sleep means that you have to peer into that sinkhole by yourself. Oglivy really spoiled me. I had almost forgotten this occipital sorrow, the way you are so alone with the things you see in dreams. Overhead, the glass envelope of the Insomnia Balloon is malfunctioning. It blinks on and off at arrhythmic intervals, making the world go gray:black, gray:black. In the distance, a knot of twisted trees slashes like cerebral circuitry.
From Karen Russell’s story collection St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves (Alfred A. Knopf).