by Ash Ibrahim
I descended the stone stairs to a
basement entrance of a dreary brick building on a cobblestone street downtown.
Every night I came here to dream.
Standing by the heavy wooden
door, I knocked and waited, studying its ornate carvings, which differed with
every encounter. Some nights the door beckoned with baroque reliefs of sleep.
Other nights, it stood aloof with serif lettering in a language I could not
understand. Tonight, the door sang a romantic lyric of a dream. A blessing, I
thought, a good omen.
No one answered. I waited still,
not daring to knock again. More knocking would not let me in.
A figure in the shadows opened
the door in silence. I did not catch its face. I never did. My attention
instead gravitated to the image of another face displayed in the entrance,
hanging like a gruesome chandelier. Its eyes were closed, but it smiled from
ear to ear. The black cross-stitching on its eyelids and lips pierced its grey
I shuddered every night I saw
that hanging face, but neither could I ignore its uncanny familiarity. It
glared at me, exposing what I wanted—what I needed—and
it judged me for it. Nonetheless, I stepped in, flinching as I passed
underneath the repulsive fixture. I hung my coat and hat on an old-fashioned
coat rack in the vestibule. No one else was there, if the coat rack was any
Pulling back a plush curtain, I
entered the underground tavern and sat on my usual high chair at the bar. The
room was dark, lit only by candles on the walls with no discernable pattern,
except for the flickers of light dancing on their deformed wax formations. I
welcomed the darkness because it comforted me, hiding everything in the room
and inviting me to do the same. Even though I knew it deceived me, I still
I smiled with nervous anticipation
and waited, respectful of the decorum the place demanded. He would arrive on
his own time, regardless of the bar’s occupancy and my apprehensive finger
tapping on the spotless bar. I recall one night I tried to count the number of
shelves and flasks on display behind the bar, but I lost count. Each flask came
in its own shape and color, each one containing a kaleidoscope of fantasy. No
labels identified the flasks, nor did the shelves show any letterings or
makings—a magical library with infinite books with no shelving system.
My time came and he greeted me
from behind the bar, the master of dream (also the bartender). I told him I
wanted the usual, ignoring the quiver in my voice. On most nights, he would
oblige by retrieving a flask without conversation, other than, on occasion, a
dutiful smile. Tonight, however, he inquired why I always requested the same
dream. His question lingered in the tavern’s thick darkness. I had no answer.
He furrowed his eyebrows,
dissatisfied with my inability to respond, and refrained from reaching for a
flask from the infinite shelves. Instead, he leaned in and imprisoned me with
his deep-set eyes, inches away from mine. This close, I noticed their chromatic
uniformity—solid black and not a speck of white or color—as if each eye were a
giant pupil. Every intermittent blink of his eyelids sent a shiver up my spine,
but I could not break his paralyzing gaze.
“Flémys,” he whispered my name.
I had never told him my name, yet he spoke it as a lover cooed to his mistress.
He knew how to pronounce it, the way they do in the old country and in my
dreams. “Do you desire seclusion? Escape?”
“This is escape,” I
shot back, trying to sound defiant, as if I had some
dignity left (my shaking hands had already betrayed me).
“You cannot escape yourself.
Does it sadden you that you are the only company you keep in your dreams?”
A sudden onset of heartbreak
overwhelmed me. Was there a hint of sadness in those achromatic cavernous eyes?
He broke his gaze to turn behind him and my head buried itself in my chest.
Perplexed and grieved, I could not feel the tear rolling down my cheek, even as
it announced itself in a silent drop on the bar.
A clink to my left alerted me to
another presence catty-corner from me—a woman sitting on another barstool
drinking out from a martini glass. The translucent liquid in the crystal glass
made her drink invisible, like picking up imagination to her fiery red lips for
“Why should it sadden you that
you only enjoy your own company? I think it’s fine,” she said without looking
at me. “Ask for the same dream every night if it works for you. Like my
martini—I have it every evening. I don’t dream myself, but if I did, I would
think it’s the same. Find that special romance and hold on to it.”
Indignation overwhelmed me. How
could she intrude into my confessional? Who was she to offer me advice? Or
worse, judgment? I forced a smile and sunk back into my chair, craving my
dream’s speedy arrival.
She continued anyway, ignoring
my uninviting gesture. She spoke with the sureness of someone who received
constant adulation. Perhaps her revealing white evening gown ensnared attention
(though not mine), or her flowing hair that changed shade with every glance.
“And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be only with yourself. Aren’t we all
just self-seeking creatures? Even the company we choose to keep—lovers,
friends, mates, companions, whatever—we keep to complement ourselves. So who
better than your own self?”
I said nothing. “Being alone is
not loneliness,” she said, as if I didn’t exist. “We never feel lonely in a
dream, do we? If you seek solitude—let’s call it retreat—then good for you!”
She took a long sip from her unseen martini glass and nestled it down on the
bar in a thunderous emphasis to her soliloquy.
He returned with a flask,
silencing the woman with a glance. She trembled in his presence—whether out of
fear or reverence, I could not tell. I wondered why he had that effect on her
even though she did not dream, but the thought vanished when I recognized the
flask. A smile curled up my lips—it was my dream. It hid in the unusual flask
and evanescent liquid, but my dream nonetheless welcomed me.
I expected him to say more.
Another lecture about escape, or an implied admonishment on selfishness. He did
neither of those things and left the flask. I caught a glimmer in his onyx eyes
as he turned away. Was it a glimpse of a future rendez-vous?
I tried not to rip open the cork
from the flask and reveal my ravenous desire for its contents. I glanced at the
woman next to me, her eyes fixed on me with a razor-thin sneer on her face. I
looked away with false indifference.
“Must you ruin this for me?” my
eyes screamed at him. “I came here for respite, for a life worth living, for
the goals I will never achieve. Why do you judge with more doubt and regret?
What is it you want from me?”
When my eyes had finished their
tirade, when the tears had muffled their cry, I uncorked the flask and drank
with feigned nonchalance. I imbibed it all to the last drop without stopping
for a single breath. My hands dropped, and I leaned back on the highchair.
Then I dreamed.
In my cave, I peered deep into the
desert from its craggy edge. The cool darkness engulfing me contrasted with the
harsh light of the merciless sun outside. The cave’s elevation atop a mountain
enlarged the vastness of the wilderness.
I inhaled the dry air and
smiled. It was the same dream. The dream I came for. The variations did not
bother me—a cave in the untraversable wilderness, a cabin in the deep woods, an
island in the unchartered ocean—they were all arpeggios in the same key. I
relished the retreat from reality.
My dream welcomed me with a warm
embrace. Or did it seduce me into seclusion? Whether as a friend or lover, it
accepted my desires without scrutiny. Its only restriction was my fantasy.
I never recalled what I did in
my dream, though I always came with lofty desires. Meditation, enlightenment,
prayer, praise, sanctification. Perhaps I long for divinization, to become a
god—transcendent, free, luminous. Or perhaps I yearned to be alone. Are they
all that different?
It should surprise me, with such
noble intentions, that when I return to the waking world, when my cave fades
into reality (or vice versa, it is not always clear), I am the same. Change
eludes me. Deeper understanding (of myself, of others, of anything) never
comes. I have not changed, and it did not surprise me.
“Because you have not invited me
here, with you.” Startled, I spun toward the familiar voice, but the light from
outside did not penetrate deep enough to reach the black silhouette with dark,
glistening, dark eyes. I knew who it was.
“How are you here?” I demanded.
“I come with you every night, in
your dream, but you never remember,” he said. “Every night I say the same
“And what is that?” My tone
bordered on mockery to mask my astonishment.
“I am the master of dream. If
you chased your desires, noble as they are, you would have invited me into your
dream because I would be your desire. Every dream I grant is me, and every
dream realized is me. Do not choose yourself over me, even if you think you
seek me. That is a delusion.”
“A delusion?” I forced a laugh,
suppressing the familiar ache of guilt in my chest. “Of course, it is a
delusion! It is my dream, the dream I want.”
I heard him shifting in the
darkness. “The dream is not a delusion, only your desire. Look around! Your
dream attempts to unmask you, yet you cling to vanity. Why do you think your
cave lives in the darkness, forcing you to its rocky mouth before scorching
light? Or your island hides in the impenetrable jungle, pushing you to its
blinding sandy shore? Or your cabin—”
“I didn’t come to explore caves
or islands or cabins,” I interrupted. “My adventure is within.”
“Then let me show you what you
My legs betrayed me to a
different master, stepping toward him, deep into the darkness of the cave. I
grew accustomed to the darkness in an instant, as only the logic of dream
allowed, and saw him beckoning at me. His silky, black hair reflected light
from an unknown source and swayed in an undetectable breeze. He stood with a
regal posture in a flowing robe of many colors, all visible in the darkness.
He stepped aside to reveal an
above-ground tomb, a sarcophagus of sorts in the cave. Its lid cracked open
just enough to see myself, Flémys, in full repose inside the tomb. My necrotic
self (I cannot bring myself to say “I”) had a leathery grey face with eyes and
lips sewn shut—an unrecognizable sight, except for the desire that bound us.
“This is you,” he said standing
beside my motionless head, gazing down with his hands clasped behind his back.
Uncontrollable remorse choked
me. “I do not understand.”
He pointed at himself and opened
his chest in a singular, incisive motion from the hollow beneath his neck to
his diaphragm. Using his bare hands, he peeled back his torso to reveal an
enlarged beating heart. I threw up my arms, aghast, expecting him to collapse
in a bleeding heap of flesh. Instead, I felt an outpouring of warmth and power
gush over me, overwhelming me. I fell to my knees and gasped.
“Within, this is how you are
when you refuse me.” He bent down and put his hand on my neck. His touch defied
any sensation I have ever experienced or can describe. “Whether you are in
solitude or among a multitude, your gaze is not on me. You know this to be
true! Search deep within yourself and you will see yourself, not me. Seek me
first, here in dream, my kingdom, and you will live because I am life
I dared not look up. “Out of
ignorance,” I whimpered. I felt a deep shame that I lied. What choice did I
have? Was I ready to admit to the dream king that I preferred my personal
fantasy over him? Especially if I received my dream from his hand every night?
“Let me in, Flémys, in your
dream. Desire me and not the dream,” he said as he caressed my chin, my tears
flowing down his fingers.
I found the courage to look up
and meet his gaze, but he disappeared, as did my sarcophagus and my deceased
self within it. Trembling, I regained my composure and wandered to the mouth of
the cave, at the boundary of the light. I could not bear to confront the
darkness inside the cave once more.
It was easier to peer deep into
the desert from its craggy edge.
In the vestibule, I put on my hat
and coat to face the uncertain world behind the heavy wooden door closed shut.
I came to the entrance before the door and waited for someone to open it. The
gruesome chandelier still hung above me, more unnerving than ever. Was it the
same face as before? Why did it look so familiar? Unable to stomach more than a
glance, I brushed aside any more thought of that macabre image.
I waited for a long while, not
daring to knock or ring a bell. Someone would come. Knocking or ringing would
not open the door for me.
At last, a figure in the shadows
opened the door, but I did not catch the figure’s face. As I walked out, I
heard a voice ask, “did you meet the master of dream or of wake?”
That has never happened before
(as far as I recall) and the voice was familiar, but I did not respond. I
wondered whether the voice originated from the figure in the shadows, or the
revolting visage hanging from the ceiling. It made no difference, I thought as
I ascended the stone stairs and stepped into the night just before dawn.
could not remember my dream. I never did.
has been a practicing attorney for twenty-five years and has written about his
experiences, both historical and speculative, always in the form of