Last night I had that dream again. I heard a voice of glass and iron, a voice of
tobacco and boiling stew, the sound of barns set ablaze. A voice that sounded
like someone I knew, someone I met when I was young. Someone that, for a
reason surely known to God, I have long since forgotten.
Words only a little louder than a whisper, ringing through my head like a gunshot
in the night. “Time to sleep, Dolores,” it said to me, my bones all cold and trembling.
I try to speak, to reply to the stranger, yet to my surprise I cannot. My body won’t
move, not at all, stuck down somehow, like I’m sinking in mud. Like my body
is full of lead, dropped down to the bottom of the water.
“A deep and dreamless slumber ,” I hear the voice say, and my eyes shut so
tightly, closed up before I can see who sits before me. Then I wake from that
strange dream, dressed in all my day clothes, the morning light clinging to the
rooftop. I wake like this, like so many nights before, my mind set to the task of
my errands, set to a plan that I feel I cannot change. I recall that I lay there for
a moment, thinking of a book I once read, about a little girl who fell down a
hole, a hole that lasted forever and ever. I cannot recall the title of that book.
Yet when I woke this morning I felt some great distress within me, a poison
panic in my stomach as if the walls themselves were closing in. I smelled smoke,
burnt hair, the sound of wood snapping in my ears. I fled into the hallway and
stopped in my tracks, caught up like some fish in a net, my breathing mighty
shallow. There was nothing there to see, not a thing out of place. But then, you
see, I turned around to see my momma, waiting there in the dark, her face a
blanket of sorrow.
She was sitting in there, alone in the dark, peering down into the glass of her
gilded vanity, curtains all closed. I watched her touch her face in the shadows,
feeling it over like a map. But her skin, it was fine and clear, and her eyes, her
eyes looked as if they could barely behold what they saw. “Momma?” I had
asked once or twice, “Are you well this morning?” But this time she did not
turn to me, a horsefly settling upon her cheek. So, with some regret I left her
there, sitting all lonesome in the dark, thinking it was best to go on with my
day. It had occurred to me then that I had not seen her face for some time, that
in time I must do more to care for her. It occurred to me then that I barely
knew Momma, that all I had were memories of us from long, long ago.
Out on the porch I could hear a small, familiar sound, the soft creek of my
Daddy’s chair, the wood rocking in the morning light. Outside the birds were
singing and the air it buzzed with insects, the hum of Sweetwater’s industry
rolling all over the hills. I wished my Daddy good morning and asked how he
had slept, walking over to face him. But Daddy’s reply came so quickly, and it
was deep and rough in tone, spoken by lips I did not yet know. “Well enough,”
it said, asking me if I was heading out to see the “natural splendour.” I looked
my Daddy square in the eye, his face at once familiar and peculiar, his bones
misshapen and odd. A long black moustache curled across his lips, a pipe
hanging from it, smoke rising up across his eyes. “Dolores?” the man asked,
“are you feelin’ alright, darlin’?”
The butterflies in my belly returned, a great sickness consuming me. I could
neither reply nor open my mouth, trapped just like in the dream. Daddy’s new
face began to tremble in confusion, an eyelid fluttering open and closed. I
stumbled backward, falling from the porch. My father called to me but I
crawled and gasped and stood up quick, straightening my dress and running
toward our horse. I was fearful of Daddy, fearful of what he had become in the
night. My papa wept on the porch, screaming for me. I knew it was foolishness,
on my part, yet I could not stop it. I fought back tears. I set off and rode on
until the house was out of sight, fearful my Daddy would send the sheriff after
me. I somehow felt out of place, lost in a land I knew so well, a doll abandoned
in the sand of some desert.
By the time I had reached the edge of town it was afternoon, the clock ringing
out upon my arrival. I tethered my horse, took a deep breath and tried to ease
my mind, to think of my errands, the things I was meant to do. Main Street
stood before me, the crowd thick with newcomers and lawmen, bounties
paraded by the roadside. Eyes gazed as if they had known me before, a group of
strangers staring from the porch of the Mariposa Saloon. A young man in a
black hat pointed toward me, whispering to another in a red waistcoat. It
looked as if they wanted me for something, grins on their faces. I knew of men
like that. I wove through the townsfolk, walking like a ghost, drifting into the
general store. My thoughts seemed to blur in the heat, a bell ringing when I
entered. The place felt empty, abandoned, the smell of fresh paint in the air. All
those tin cans were arranged neatly on the shelves, as if nobody had ever
I could not see the owner, not a soul in sight. Though I did not wish to, I
couldn’t help my hands, my fingers plucking a can from the shelf. I looked
down at it, peering through my eyes like the lens of a camera. MaidenBrand
Condensed Milk, read the label. I held it to my chest, stepping over to the
counter and setting down the money. The coins rolled down, slipping over the
edge of the desk. I peered over to see and saw something terrible. The
shopkeeper lay down on those floorboards, cowering behind the counter, a
large bullet hole in his head. He seemed half alive, his face still moving, eyes
white as snow, his mouth opening and closing. “ Howdy ,” the dying man
whispered to nobody, over and over, “ what can I do ya for? ” His blood filled
the floor like a little river, pooling around his face, dollar bills floating on it. It
was horrible. The cash register was opened up, empty as a nest in December.
And worst of all, the voice in my mind, it spoke to me as if I had seen this
before, as if I had watched this man die many, many times. I saw these deaths
pass before my eyes, like reeds moving in the water of a lake.
I could barely stand or walk. I stumbled out of the building, holding onto the
wall, almost sick. I knew I should tell the sheriff, or scream, or tell someone the
General Store had been robbed. It’s what my Daddy raised me to do, him being
a lawman in his day. But something deep inside me told me not to, something
told me to walk away real slow, to just step quietly into the middle of Main
Street, to not shed a single tear, just to smile. My heart raced something
terrible, my mind conjuring up all kinds of strange memories, vivid dreams of
corpses littering the ground, of my hands covered in a man’s blood, cradling
him in my arms. But then my clumsy hands, shaking as they did, dropped the
can to the ground, the milk rolling across the dirt. Time seemed to slow, the
voices of the crowd drowning out, breath sucked out of my body.
My eyes followed the can, watching it roll against the boot of some fellow. I
looked on up, the sun bright in my eyes, the brim of his leather hat looming
overhead. At first my heart stopped, only for a second, a strange fear washing
over me, until I saw who it was above me. The man clenched his fingers around
the milk can, reaching out to pass it to me. It was a man I hadn’t seen for some
time, a man named Teddy Flood, his handsome face a real sight for sore eyes.
Suddenly all the pain I felt was replaced by something else; a sense of meaning,
purpose, of belonging. His smile seemed to last forever, his eyes telling me to
follow him. I felt like telling Teddy what I’d seen, but my memory of that
moment had begun to fade, as if I’d seen nothing at all, as if it was something I
wasn’t supposed to recall.
“Don’t mind me,” he said, “just trying to look chivalrous.” And though these
words brought a smile to my lips, my head telling me to respond with kindness,
my heart told me not to, my body beginning the shiver. I had heard him say
that a thousand times, the same exact words, like the verses of the bible. I
stepped back from him, Teddy trying to pass me the can. My mind saw exactly
what had happened before, a life I was living again and again. “Dolores? Ain’t
you pleased I’m back?” he said, reaching out further, his smile changing to one
of fear. I flinched, looking across to my animal. It took everything within me to
leave, to pull away. It was as if I were killing my own instinct, fighting my own
desire. “I’m sorry, Teddy,” I tried hard to say, “I’ll see you again.” His face went
cold, something in him naive and lost, watching me untether my horse. I saw
him hold that can, looking at it in the sunlight. It wasn’t how things were
supposed to be. I think something in Teddy died in that moment, a part of him
that needed to.
On my way home I passed by the place I liked to go and paint. There, at the
lake I saw my easel, the one that I’d left out beside the rocks, its wooden frame
buried in the sand. There were no animals by the lake, only me and the
broom-tail. I rode her some way beside the water, the clouds passing overhead,
killing time before sundown. Every step I took felt new, as if I had never done
it before, my mind thinking of the milk can. I knew if I had taken it that my
fate would be decided, burnt into time. If I had even touched it my destiny was
written. I had to end the repetition, But I knew tonight they would come for
me, just as they had in my previous lives. That much I couldn’t change. As the
light began to fade I tied my horse close to the water so that she might drink,
leaving the riverside on foot.
By the time I made it back to my family’s ranch, a warm darkness had set in
across the land. All was silent, crickets chirping, oil lamps flickering in the
windows of the house. I crept through the gloom toward my window, hiding
by the tree on the right side, waiting for the sound of hooves in the dirt. And
without fail they came, three four riders came riding towards the house,
smashing the door down with wild abandon. I heard my Daddy talking, my
mother screaming. My fingernails dug into my palms. The bandits silhouettes
danced in the lamp light. In the distance the train moved through the night, a
cloud of steam rising from it, its windows glowing like fireflies. I took a deep
breath and climbed into my bedroom, slipping under the gap between the
wood and glass.
I landed gently without a sound, my feet touching the one floorboard that
didn’t creak. I saw that my oil lamp was switched on, casting its warm yellow
light on the drawers beside my bed. I reached for the handle and pulled open
the desk, the drawer opening slowly. There, wrapped in cloth, was a gun. I did
not know how it was there, but somehow it was. The gun felt smooth and
heavy in my hand, resting like it had been there before. I had gone hunting
with my Daddy before. But this gun felt different, like it was made for me. I
pried open the door to my room, peering through the gap.
There, in the hallway of my home, stood the man that resembled my Daddy,
facing up to and another gentleman in a top hat. Rebus was his name, I had
heard it spoken in the town, a no good halfwit always in and out of a cell.
“Ain’t you got anything out here other than milk, old man?” the man asked my
father, putting a gun to his head. For a moment I considered not saving my
father – after all, today he did not feel like my blood. But my hand did the work
for me, extending from the gap in the wood. I pulled the trigger and fired at
Rebus, my first shot hitting his chest, my second in the head. Half the bandit’s
face blasted to the floor, my fingers becoming steady. I still loved my Daddy,
whoever he was that day.
As I stepped into the hall I saw my momma’s body laying still, her mirror
smashed to the ground of the bedroom. A man they call Walter stepped out, his
hands covered in dripping red, staggering towards me with a knife. On the
wall the young man had drawn a map, a crude drawing of many circular lines,
painted in my mother’s blood. In his eyes I saw the madness of some rabid dog,
some deranged, pathetic animal, led only by instinct. I put it down with three
shots, his body writhing in agony. I tried to fire again but the gun, it wouldn’t
do a thing. Not a single bullet left in the barrel.
A noise came from behind the front door, my Daddy swinging it open. Shouts
and screams rang out, Teddy shooting at a man in a red waistcoat. The
newcomer blasted Teddy away, stepping over him to finish him off. I winced
for a moment, but did not shed a tear. I knew I would see him again. This man,
this killer dressed in finery, was nobody I had ever seen. His smooth, youthful
flesh and perfect blue eyes that pierced through the night. Before my daddy
could talk his chest had exploded in a hurl of bullets, the stranger running over
his corpse. There was a look on him like a child amused, like a cat playing with
a mouse. I hated everything in the newcomer, every part of his soulless being.
An empty shell dressed as a man. He extended his gun toward me.
I ran into my bedroom. With all my strength I pulled the heavy drawer across
my bedroom doorway, blocking the way. Though I knew in my heart,
somehow, that my body would return, I knew a part of me would not. That
person I was today, that piece of my soul, would be gone, disappeared forever,
never to come back to this place. I threw the oil lamp to the ground, the
newcomer still kicking at the door. The glass split into shards, fire and oil
licking at the bedsheets. As my body became engulfed by flame, I looked ahead
and smiled. The fire was bright enough to blind my eyes, my flesh scorched in
the searing heat. I thought of what my father had once said, his words coming
back to me in a plume of the smoke, the things he’d once whispered in my ear.
The words were as loud as those in the dream, as loud as the roaring fire.
“ These violent delights ,” he whispered, “ have violent ends .”