Stories Told Halfway

Stories Told Halfway

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Stories Told Halfway

When I was sick I slept all day, in the shifting patch of sun on my bed. I woke up after fourteen hours and I saw that I had taken Sleep into me. And I thought, I understand why they called Sleep a god, why they gave him a face. If you sleep long enough, you let him in. You can feel the way he lifts your limbs and lets them fall again till they learn to hang, loosely, just so. You can feel the way his hands push down on the back of your neck, gently, and the lazy halo he brushes over the crown of your head with his fingers. You can understand why today he likes Sun, who paints a quiet coat of warmth onto your faded yellow sheets. You can feel him blink and stretch and curl up softly and let Sun paint him golden. And you can also understand why mostly he likes Night, who comes more quietly, dressed in cool gowns, trailing her nets and nets of stars to trap him in. You can see through his eyes, when you have just woken. Things come into your understanding slowly and you are content to know them only halfway. You do not struggle for meaning. You can see how he blurs shapes into roundness. You can see how he breathes out quiet through you where you go, and you know he is there in the sleepy tilt of your head. And the people around you, when you have just woken, will see Sleep smiling in the lazy lines of your walk.

This is Nick's favorite dream: He was being chased. He was all fear. He ran until he started to run on four legs. He felt the spring and the power and the motion that is a wolf running. It was daytime, morning. He followed a rough trail that wove through the woods. He ran and it was not strange. He did not even stop to think, I am a wolf. Only he was. The trail turned cleaner, shafts of new white light urging him on to the east. He was not feeling afraid anymore. He hadn't for a long time. The chase fell away and he was just running, all motion and speed. He came to a place deep in the forest where the trees were narrow and dense.

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There was a pool to one side, shallow and ringed by shelves and curves of gentle rock; the water was ancient and softly lit, chalky with minerals. He stopped to watch the water, any sense of danger long past, his wolf's heart going hard. He felt how cool the air was, and how cool and still the water. He stopped and heard all around the hush of the wind. That was the end of the dream.

There was a hunter named Actaeon who could not sleep one night for want of the chase. So he woke his hounds and went to the woods. The woods were thicker at night and it was hard to see, even with a full moon. Their progress was slow and Actaeon moved as one still half asleep. Maybe that's why he mistook the noise he heard. He thought it must be a deer-he saw a flash of movement through the leaves; he heard a gentle movement of water. He imagined a pond, a stag pausing to drink. He left his hounds behind and pressed as quietly as he could through the brush to see. There was a pond. But what he saw was not a stag. He was dumbfounded. Six women were bathing, their skin glowing white under the moon. Long hair undone, thighs shining and wet. His eyes were drawn to one of them; she was taller than the rest and shone with a different light. He saw that she must be a goddess. And just at that moment, she saw him. Her eyes narrowed and turned cold. There was a tumult of water as her attendants gathered before her to shield her from his eyes. Then he felt himself change. His limbs narrowed and tensed and pulled tight, his arms became legs that were not human legs, strange bones came over his face, stretching it out; his eyes grew large and brown and he felt the strange weight of antlers pressing in on his skull. He began to run. He was seized with a fear that became flight. He went out again into the dense woods but his head was clear. He bucked on his new spindly legs. He found the narrowest paths and ran headlong.

For years now I have kept a volume of Ovid by my bed, the Metamorphoses, and before I sleep I leaf through it looking for images. And over and over I have found Icarus in flight: "Then the boy begins to be more daring, rejoicing in flight; he deserts his leader, and drawn on by a desire for the sky itself, he takes his journey higher." cum puer audaci coepit, gaudere volatu; deseruitque ducem, caelique cupidine tractus, altius egit iter.

When Miriam dreams of flying it always starts from water. She runs on it, pushing hard with her feet, flapping her arms with quick beats like a loon. Sometimes she fails, falls forward, the splash of her impact. Then she gathers her energy, tries again. When she is in the air she concentrates, she knows how to move her arms, she lets the reflex gather in her joints until it starts to come of its own accord. Then she plays. Over lakes and over oceans, always over water.

The air is thick and sweet and humid and it pulls me up when I move my legs a certain way. And so I go, lightly at first, over the road, just floating. The people walking ahead of me see me and are amazed. I don't say anything. But then I pass another group of people walking, and their talking and my separateness make me tense and I just want to go, so I walk up into the sky up and up until I am over the sea. I walk the sky over a narrow band of earth banked on both sides by deep blue water, glittering with far-off waves. There is a boy walking there, below me on the band of earth. And I am worried about whether it will continue forever-the earth he is walking on-because it is so narrow and so bare and very much surrounded. But he reassures me. Without having to say anything, he reassures me. Then I have turned, I am facing the west, it is early afternoon. I am looking out at the bluest water I have ever seen, a cove, surrounded by stone cliffs of gray and darker wet gray, majestic and enclosing, grown over with vines and leaves of deepest green. A group of birds soars out over the water, so white they burn in my eyes, a reflection of the sun.

There was a boy once who was an only child. His name was Phaethon. He and his mother lived away from the town in a little house beside a garden where his mother grew vegetables to sell on market days. When the boy went to school, word eventually got out that he had no father. The other children asked why, and then asked more cruelly. He went to his mother, who was outside weeding her bean plants, and asked her where his father was, why he had no father at home like the others. His mother turned slowly and brushed some of the earth from her hands and watched her son with even eyes. After a moment she said, "your father is not like the other children's fathers. He is the Sun himself. See, he watches over you even now..." -and she gestured up at the midday sun that came down over her and over her son and over the rows of plants. Of course, when Phaethon went back and told everybody that, nobody believed him. He went home again, ridiculed and lost. His mother saw how upset he was, and so she told him, you are old enough; if you want, go and see your father. His palace is away in the west, across the plains. You know where the sun goes down. Only go there. So Phaethon set out, and after a long time he found the palace of the sun. The Hours who sat waiting at the gate saw him and seemed to know him. They nodded their light heads and turned away to let him pass. His father met him in the doorway and greeted him as a father greets a long-lost son. He embraced him, offered him food and wine. As they ate, he asked was there anything he could do. Phaethon looked up from his plate and said actually yes, there was. Then he asked to be allowed to ride in the chariot of the sun the next day. His father was horrified. Anything but that... He raised his noble hands in supplication. But his son was insistent. And so as morning came along it was Phaethon who followed Dawn out to the pasture where the horses of the sun were kept, and Phaethon who helped her yoke them to the chariot. And his father came with warnings and a crown of light, telling his son which path to follow, which constellations to avoid, how to manage the horses. And as he was talking he placed the crown atop his son's head, and Phaethon felt the light all around him, streaming out of him, and he felt the world attend to him, all the living things reaching towards the light. And for all this noticing and all this feeling, he could not hear his father's words. And Dawn flung wide her purple gates.

All these stories are only half-told. We know after all that Icarus fell. The sweet wax that bound his wings grew soft in the sun. The white feathers burned brown at the tips. If he screamed he was falling too fast for anybody to hear it. At the end there must have been the impact, the sudden smash of the water, a final hard gulp of salt. We know also that Actaeon did not have long to run; his own hounds sought him out, his running turned from flight to desperation. He felt the pressure of their teeth; he felt the ripping of his newborn skin; he bled into the earth. And we know that Phaethon burned, that he could not wield the reins, that the horses were out of control, that the constellations snapped and bit and stung. We know that he flew too low and burnt the fields away. We know that in the end the light he loved gave way to a sharper and a piercing light, a thunderbolt rang out, Zeus hid his face, Phaethon burned and fell and a river carried his ashes slowly to its banks.

Travis dreamed this when he was fourteen: He and his father and his brother are camping. The silence of the mountains at night. There is a town nearby, down in the valley. Points of yellow and orange glittering far away down beyond the pines. It's late-the scent of the pine needles hanging under the stars. His feet on the pine needles damp with the night, the path leading down through the woods. He goes to the town, where a girl sits in the grass. He sits beside her, and they kiss, and this is an image that doesn't move but stays in his mind for a time. The time comes when his father and brother need to continue and he has to decide whether to follow them or stay with the girl. Then it is a few years later, and he is a few years older, and his choice when he made it those years ago had been to stay with his family. He leads a small party through a swamp, single-file. He does not know the people he is leading. He carries a wooden staff. They reach a river and he moves ahead of his companions to look out over it. A narrow boat comes slowly down the river with three figures shrouded in gray mist. Two are standing; one is seated between them. Then the boat draws closer. He recognizes the girl from the first part of the dream. She wears a red gown; there is a terrible silence in her eyes. She is holding a chain which leads to a collar fastened around the neck of the person seated in front of her. Then he sees that this person is himself, having made the choice those years ago to go with her instead. At the head of the boat stands Charon, his face shrouded by a dark hood. He comes to understand that this is the river Styx. He is afraid. From inside his dream he knows these waters are not meant for the sight of mortals.

A cave near Second Mesa, Arizona, midsummer, some years ago. The chanter stands in a shadowy arch in the center of the circle and throws with certain arms bowls and bowls of tea onto the hot coals. The heat rushes up thick and humid and scented with herbs. In the dark he starts to chant the song of creation. The sweat shines off his belly in the bucking light of the fire. It is a small cave dug into the earth, the entrance covered in colored cloth blankets woven many years ago. He calls it the womb of the earth. Twenty people sit in the circle in the dirt, bare chests shining more darkly than the chanter's, struggling with the heat, their arms and legs hanging down. He throws in more sage. The flames throw out smoke. He brings more tea and sings louder, desperate or mournful, until the air is tense for holding so much water. I sit in the circle and feel my skin start to answer to the air. Beads of sweat that rise from inside me and start to trickle down my face and down my arms and down my chest. They come harder until they are coming from all over me and drip off to the ground. Until I am raining. I am half girl and half god; my skin could be sky, my sweat a boundary river between two realms of life and pulsing air. The chanting goes on and on until I know it will not stop, and I rain or I flow and my toes settle into the damp earth.

There are times in life when waking approximates sleep. Some experiences are like bridges. I pad up the stairs, almost evening now, the fever floating higher in my head, a mug of chocolate cupped in my hands. The safety of a heated house, billows of warm air coming up the stairwell from the radiators. I am thinking of that sweat lodge, the rainbows over Second Mesa. And of the feeling on airplanes that speaks of the vastest journeys, your body's clock not in time with the sun's, the dark out the window. And the gold and green and white points of light that are cities below you, their faint glow, their foreignness. There will be nets and nets of stars flung out before you, halos where you press your fingertips to the glass. And I am remembering a certain evening on a mountaintop in the Alps, spinning around till the world spun around me, till I understood why the trees came down the way they did into the valleys, how the clouds came up over the ridge to hug the side of the mountain. I spun slowly until I had seen that all around me was a great sleep, a great rolling in and down and over, a great cradling.

Once you have died and paid your coin and been ferried across the river Styx, you will find a pool before you. They call it Lethe, and you will drink, and you will forget everything. This is common knowledge. But Death has a half-brother, who is Sleep. They are much alike, but Sleep is gentler than Death is, and being the half-brother, he really means only half of everything that Death means.
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