Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fever Dream

In another life I must have been bad
In another life I must have been real bad
Stripped down, break my pride
Straight through the other side
Rip through my memory
Nothing that I want to see

I love the way you punish me

In another life I must have done wrong
In another life I must have done wrong
Don't tell me what I've done
Don't see what I've become
Ravish me, tear me down
Stub my life into the ground

I love the way you punish me

(Steve Wynn, “The Way You Punish Me”)

The day was unusually warm for late September. I discretely blotted my brow with my handkerchief – at least, I hoped the action was discrete – as I leaned back in my chair. Mr. Donald Chisholm and I were having a cup of tea at Steamperk and I was wondering why I felt feverish while, simultaneously, I attempted to keep up with his explanation of how he planned to make a great deal of money in a falling real estate market. I was failing at both tasks.

Mr. Chisholm was a land speculator, and had graciously agreed to give me an hour of his time to explain his business to me for a newspaper article. He was in his early fifties, with a full head of hair, albeit mostly gray, and a handlebar moustache that was inexplicably nearly jet black. He was dressed as one might imagine a land baron to be dressed, in a new suit from Mako Magellan’s and an ivory walking stick with a gold knob. Except for the moustache, which made him look a little like a theatrical villain (and whose color was both vain and silly), he was a handsome man with an athletic build. Although I felt I was reasonably clever with figures, his dazzling manipulation of borrowed money, tax dodges, depreciation, ruthless foreclosures, and sheer speculation on a further decline in the market was quite beyond me. I took notes and nodded at what I hoped were appropriate times. In truth, the interview was a coup for me, as Mr. Chisholm preferred to operate privately and fairly anonymously. I wondered why he would grant me an interview, much less one of such length. It was possible that the brevity of my dress in my initial visit to his office was more the deciding factor than my renown as a journalist; I chose not to dwell too deeply on that point.

“Is it hot in here?” I asked, breaking my guest’s flow of words.

He looked up, startled. “What? Hot, you say? Mmm, perhaps just a bit. Now where was I? Oh yes, tax credits. I anticipate Governor Shang will be anxious to recapitalize the market, and will eventually be forced to grant a tax credit to anyone willing to extend credit to the real estate…”

I fanned myself, which got Mr. Chisholm’s attention, and a frown crossed his face. He was annoyed, which was bad for me. I knew I should apologize, but for some reason the words refused to come out.

“Miss Jameson? Are you all right?”

I wanted to say yes, I wanted to tell him to go on, even though I knew by this time I was seriously ill. If I made any sound at all, it was not intelligible to the human mind. I slumped back in my chair. “Miss Jameson?” He was now standing over me, with an expression of concern on his face. At that point, Miss Sea Beaumont, the proprietress of Steamperk, noticed the commotion and came to our table.

What happened next I discovered only after the fact. Although I was conscious, I was unaware of what went on around me. Mr. Chisholm wanted to leave immediately, but his sense of honor would not allow him to do so. He asked Miss Beaumont if I lived nearby. Miss Beaumont replied that I lived across the street, which seemed to greatly relieve Mr. Chisholm. He picked me up and the three of us made our way to my house. My front door was, naturally, unlocked, and Miss Beaumont led us into the sitting room, then into the adjacent bedroom. No doubt she looked around her in horror as she saw various articles of clothing strewn about, and the bottle of absinthe on the bedside table, a half-empty glass by its side. Mr. Chisholm placed me on the bed, removed my shoes, and, despite my fever, was about to pull the covers over me. Miss Beaumont thanked him for his service and sent him on his way, saying she would send for the physician. Somehow she managed to maneuver my semi-conscious body to unhook and remove my dress. She poured water from the ewer into the basin, soaked a cloth, and placed the cool cloth over my forehead. She then returned to the coffee shop and sent her boy to fetch Dr. Stanley, my physician.

The coolness of the cloth eased my fever, and after some time I fell into an uneasy sleep.

I was a child again, no more than ten, standing before a large desk, as though I was an errant schoolgirl awaiting punishment from the headmaster. In fact, I seemed to be in my old school, in Headmaster’s office. My eyes searched the room, taking in the calendar, which advertised a new carbonated drink called Coca-Cola; the globe, in which Caledon was only one-fourth its present size; and the flag of Alba, our nation, prominently displayed, as though to call attention to Headmaster’s staunch patriotism. When I looked up, I saw Headmaster, dressed as he always did in a black academic robe pulled tight across his ample waist, but this time his eyes were a deep red, as though his skull contained flames waiting to escape. I was paralyzed by fear, unable to move or speak. He began to lecture me on my sins, but I could not understand his language. As he continued, however, my brain slowly started to process the words and understand his meaning. “…will be consumed in the eternal fires of Hell…You have condemned your soul to the darkest pits…” Over and over he repeated this mantra.

“I have done nothing wrong!” I wanted to scream – I tried to scream – but no sound escaped my mouth..

“…must punish you…”

And now he stood, rising to his height just over five feet, which was nonetheless enough to look down on my ten-year-old form, but he kept growing, filling up the room as he growled, “Let the punishment fit the crime…let no one escape the wrath of an angry god…”

As I continued to attempt to speak, four older students strode into the office. Instead of wearing the school uniform, they wore military-style dress, with a wide sash over the tunic and crisply-pressed pants. One stood on either side of me, and each grabbed an arm. One stood behind me to prod me with a baton, while the fourth led the procession out of the office and down a series of twisting passages. Part of my mind knew this was not real, that Headmaster, despite his shortcomings, was not a demon incarnate, and the school, despite its age and architectural foibles, did not have endless twisting corridors. A different part of my mind continued to process the scene as entirely real, however, and the courage of a shy ten-year-old had given out long ago. The teenage guard marched me to the entrance of a tiny closet. Their leader opened the door, the two holding my arms threw me inside, and the fourth slammed the door shut behind me. It locked with a dismaying click. Inside, it was pitch dark. I heard the retreating footsteps of four pairs of boots, and then all was silent as well.

The sheer terror of the situation started to subside, and was replaced by a feeling of hopelessness. I began to cry. I had no idea what I had done wrong, or why this was an appropriate punishment, or how long I would remain here. I cried at how unfair this was, and because I was afraid.

Much later, after the sobs had turned to sniffles, I had a feeling that no one was ever coming back for me. The twisting corridors were a route to some other place, not part of the school or even the same physical dimension. When the guard left, the corridors disappeared, leaving me cut off entirely from the world. Cold and miserable, hungry and thirsty and dirty, I hugged my knees in the dark. Exhausted, I finally slipped into an uneasy sleep…


…and now I was twelve years old, standing before my Uncle Eamon in my bedroom. He had the same flame eyes as the demon headmaster, and again I knew I was to be punished, though again I knew not my crime. Uncle Eamon liked to strike both Kathy and me, for crimes real and perceived, but he would always give a reason before ordering one or both of us to lie across the bed, face down and bottom up. This time, Uncle Eamon gave no explanation, only intoning the words I knew he would say: “You will be consumed in the eternal fires of Hell…You have condemned your soul to the darkest pits…” He spoke in the same unknown language as before, though I could now translate every word. I stood there mutely.

As before, part of me knew this was not real, that it reflected some panicked corner of my mind. But I was so hot, and that made the nightmare appear real to me. Uncle Eamon pushed me onto my bed and began to hit me with his meaty hand, strengthened and roughened from his years in the mills. The pain was intense, and tears welled in the corners of my eyes, but I determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. As he continued to hit me, he continued his insane chant, never varying the words or his intonation, almost as though none of this was personal to him. Yet his actions were those of a man who had been deeply offended and was taking this very personally.

When he had spent his fury, he grabbed me by an arm and manhandled me down the stairs and outside. He pulled open the doors leading to the cellar and fairly flung me down the short flight of stairs. I landed on my side, doing no real damage, but the fall knocked the wind out of me. As I struggled to sit up, I heard Uncle Eamon slam the doors shut and thrust the wooden slat in place to lock me in. Daylight wormed its way into the cellar through cracks in the stone where the masonry had crumbled, but there was precious little of it, and the light was growing dim as night started to fall. The cellar was dank, and a musky odor filled my nostrils. I could hear no sounds from the house above me.

Still sore from the beating I took, I did not want to sit, but I had no energy to stand and the damp, cold air was making me shiver, so I found a corner of the cellar and curled up into as small a form as I could manage. My eyes were damp, but again I vowed not to give my uncle the triumph of knowing I cried. Kathy would be home soon, and she would get me out of here, I thought. Uncle Eamon was no more fond of my older sister than he was of me, but she would find a way to release me.

Night fell, with no sign of Kathy. Hunger was eating at me. My fear grew. Suppose Kathy had suffered the same fate, or worse, and was now in her own prison on some other part of the property, unable to help me? Fatigue overtook me, and I felt myself drifting into sleep, but, strangely, I felt myself getting warm again…


…and I was sixteen, at boarding school. I was with Sally Burke, my closest friend, walking through the town at night. The gas lamps provided dim, flickering light, causing shadows to form and dissolve at random. Walking toward us were four boys from the town, swaggering in their open-neck shirts and well-used boots. The lead boy had the demonic look I knew well by now. All four intoned in unison in the strange language: “The sins of the girl are now the sins of the woman…You have condemned your soul to the darkest pits of Hell…” They continued advancing on us. Sally and I were frozen with indecision. I looked around, but saw no exit. All around us were building, long closed for the night, and fences. The nearest cross street was nearly a block behind us, and we could hardly outrun all four boys.

By now they were close enough that I could make out their faces. I recognized none of them. Their leader was spotty with sallow skin and long, greasy hair. Two were attempting with little success to grow facial hair. One was more neatly groomed than the others, but still affected the swagger that suggested they aimed to cause trouble.

The leader pointed at me, and the other three ran at Sally, who tried with no success to fend off their grasp. They dragged her away from me as she screamed into the night air, but I knew no help would be forthcoming; the streets were otherwise deserted, and I saw no lights other than the gas lamps.

I tried to run, but the spotty boy was surprisingly quick, and grabbed my arm and held me fast. Placing his arms behind me and his hands on the front of my shoulders, he started to drag me down the street. “What do you want from me?” I cried. “I have no money I can give you – I am a poor student!” He did not reply, but merely continued his chanting.

We came to an old factory building, and my captor opened the gate. He pulled me into the building, which once housed an enormous furnace and equipment for manufacturing something, but was now abandoned. The demon boy dropped me on the hard floor of the factory, then opened the coal bin of the furnace. He produced a match from his pocket. He struck the match and threw it on the coal. The surface had been treated with some sort of accelerant, and the coal burst into flame. I could see the inside of the furnace starting to become red hot. Sweat rolled down my face.

“I will not give you the satisfaction of begging for my life,” I said defiantly.

The demon boy appeared not to hear. When the furnace was glowing, he picked me up from the floor and dragged me closer and closer to the furnace door. The heat produced ripples in my vision; it was almost hypnotic. I could take no more and I screamed, the sound echoing off the hard surfaces of the factory.

At the sound, the boy dropped me, and blew on the blazing pile of coal. Amazingly, the flames died instantly, and the bright red furnace darkened. He left me on the floor as he turned and walked out the factory door. I heard the lock click into place behind me. For a moment, the lack of heat was so refreshing that I did not mind being shut into this place. Then I realized I had no means of escape: the front door was secure, and the windows in the factory were at least twenty feet off the floor, with nothing I could use to elevate myself enough to reach them. I was left in the cooling night air to contemplate my fate…


I awoke in my bed, my fever broken. Molly Lundquist, Miss Beaumont’s partner at Steamperk, was sitting at the foot of the bed, reading a book. She looked up as I stirred.

“You look much better, Rhianon. How do you feel?”

I looked around me. Everything looked normal. I could see no glowing eyes, could hear no intonations in strange languages. “Weak…but alive. What are you doing here, Molly?”

“Dr. Stanley came and did what he could for you, but he said you were in God’s hands, not his. He asked Sea if someone could stay with you until the fever broke or…well…Someone has been here most of the time – principally Sea and me.”

A kind soul had replaced the absinthe bottle and dirty glass with a ewer and a clean glass. I poured myself some water and sipped. “Thank you both so much. I was not myself for quiet a while.”

Molly laughed. “Indeed no, not for nearly three days.”

“Three days! Was I really out that long?”

“Yes. Although you were not out the entire time. You would occasionally thrash and say things that I could not understand – at least some of the time it sounded as though you were speaking in a different language. At some points, you seemed very hot and feverish; at others, you seemed cold, and shivered despite the blankets.”

“I had…strange dreams. My mind must have been telling me I have unresolved issues.”

“What kind of unresolved issues?” Molly wrinkled her forehead. She was a direct person, and I suspect she had little use for the addle-minded.

I considered. “I don’t really know. Authority figures? Guilt over something I did? I suppose I will have to mull that over more thoroughly.” I sat up. “You should get some rest, or return to Steamperk – any place but here. I’m feeling so much better now, and you must be exhausted.”

She smiled. “Perhaps a little peaked.” Rising, she gathered her things.

“Oh, Molly? I don’t suppose you saw Mr. Chisholm, the gentleman I was with in Steamperk the other day, ever again, did you?”

“No, he seemed anxious to disappear as quickly as possible. He is no great loss, though; he was a very bad tipper.” We both laughed at this.

“The richer they are…”

“…the tighter the grip on their money,” she finished.

I thanked her again for her kindness as she left. I was alone with my thoughts. Is there truth in fever dreams?

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