I am alone in a grassy valley, and a train car carrying all of my family and friends is pulling away from me up the hill. I try to run after it, but I can’t catch up. No one hears my cries. Around me there is nothing but miles and miles of grass and hills, no sign of human habitation — “Christina’s World” without the barn; the sunset in My Antonia without the plough — nothing. I am all alone.
I have other recurring nightmares, the same kind everyone has—the exam where you’ve never been to the class; the public event where you are naked; the one where you try to run but are frozen in place — but none has the force of that earliest nightmare I remember. I realized the source of it earlier this year while reading to my son. My mother had found my very favorite Little Golden Book, one from her own childhood called Gaston and Josephine about two rosy French pigs who go on a trip. On one page, they too get off a train for a bit of fresh air and the train pulls away, leaving them in the blue grass. In the book they are soon found by a friendly farmer, but my dream never left that page. I was all alone forever. That the source of my nightmare could come from a source of delight shocks me. I loved that book, whose pictures I would describe as gay—gay in the sense of bright and cheerful, back before we had that word to denote a sexual orientation.
But nightmares are funny that way.
Recently my son built a nightmare catcher: a quarter cup measure tied to the banister with a piece of string. He swings it each night to catch any errant nightmares that might be roaming around, catch them and trap them before they can get to him in his bed. But still he worries that a nightmare will come.
“I’m thinking about a nightmare,” he will say to me as he lies in bed. “Let’s think of something happy!” I tell him with forced cheer. “Like ice cream or scooter rides or Paw Patrol!” ??”I can’t think of anything but a nightmare!”
?That is how they work, is it not? When our minds can think of something else, we no longer have the nightmare. We lucidly dream, and the bad things go away.
A nightmare used to mean a real thing, or real as the people writing of it understood reality. “A female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal” is the earliest definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary. Of course it was a female spirit, I think. When has mythological evil ever been male. Also fig. the definition continues. It’s two hundred years before the monster drops away and it simply becomes a bad dream, one that merely makes you feel strangled.
I don’t feel strangled in the dream on the grassy hill, though sometimes I am out of breath from running. Often I realize I will die on that hill, quite literally. There is no food, no water. The train is gone and there is not another one coming. I can walk along the track to try to get to wherever the train is going, but I know in the dream I will not make it. The distance is too far. The sun is too hot—it’s always a sunny hot day in this dream. I will be dead. It’s hard to say which is the more frightening: the fear of abandonment or the fear of death. My dream contains both.
I do no know when I started having this dream. We read the book early on, but when it lodged in my brain is another question. It would be tidy to say the dream began after my father died, or maybe it would be tidy to say it began before, that I had in my child’s brain a premonition.
In a few months my son will be the age I was when my father died. I’ve often been told by well-meaning people that I must not remember my father, and that therefore it must not bother me that he is dead. In fact I remember my father quite well — the way he wore his hat, the way he drank his whisky sours. If I were to die now, what memories would my son carry of me? What dreams would he have, and what nightmares would stay with him?
I hope against all these things, of course. I hope the nightmare trap will work, that the evil spirits, female or otherwise, will get caught in that old tin quarter cup measure and not make it up the stairs to where my baby sleeps. But I know it’s a poor thin sort of protection.