Dream # 1: Diogenes Lights the Lamp
“Come, child,” Diogenes takes me by the hand. “Let me show you the way.” His fingers are gnarled and twisted, ancient twigs. A delicate accordion of tendons glide under papyrus skin, thin and translucent. I feel every knob and sharpness, the very bone of him. A feral dog at his feet barks a warning.
“You are a seeker of knowledge,” he tells me. “You are a seeker of truth.”
The streets are deserted, although it is midday. He stands still for a moment to light his lamp, though we are already drenched in sunlight.
“You would be surprised at the difference a single light can make.”
We arrive at the temple. The oracle stands before us. She is wrapped in purple robes and crowned by floral garlands, but her face is in shadows.
She crushes sweet herbs with a mortar and pestle, examines the slick entrails of a cat.
“Yours will be the sweet death of old age,” she proclaims.
“Why does the oracle lie?” the old man holds his lamp aloft, tremors wracking his body.
Silence fills our ears as we leave the temple.
The sun slides down into a crimson and violet sky.
We curl up together in his red clay urn, a hard and unforgiving womb for sleeping. The night is cold. His lamp has long since been extinguished.
Dream # 2: Babcia’s Hearth
I sit quietly on my babcia’s lap, plaiting her long silver hair. I am six years old and love her dearly. We share a name.
A blue and orange fire burns brightly and steadily in the hearth of the tower room. Steam rises from the cooking pot, like miniature souls of the righteous floating upwards after the Divine Judgement.
“Come, Manya,” Babcia says. Her voice is like honey flowing over gravel. “The water is ready for us now.”
Rows of pierogies are laid out like fleshy thumbs on my grandmother’s table. We examine them closely, pinching the edges of the few errant ones tighter still.
“Remember, Babisiu,” Babcia takes my chin between thumb and forefinger, looking serious. “Education is the most important thing. Being a wife. Becoming a mother. There is time for that. You must put your studies above all things. Do you understand?”
As we gingerly drop the soft, pale pierogies into the cooking pot, I look hard at the fire. The source of the strong, unwavering flame is a Bunsen burner.
Dream # 3: Serpentilia
I am lying prone in a white tub in a bone-white room. The air is rich and warm with the fragrance of lavender, but the tub is full of ice.
A jade-skinned serpent slithers through a tiny window just out of reach. He joins me in the tub, wrapping himself around one leg and then the other, crimson tongue darting. Though unable to move, I am unafraid.
He regards me with vermillion eyes. He does not speak, but we understand one another.
At night, the serpent sleeps coiled on my belly. I am comforted by the weight of him. I sing Polish lullabies as we drift off.
Lulaj, lulaj moje dziecie
pojedziamy do koscio.
Lulaj, lulaj do ziecora
az ci matka przyjdzie z pol.
Lulaj, lulaj stari hulaj,
a hulajka psiekla jåjka.
Usiadla sie na zapsiecku
psiekla jåjka w tygielec.
I am feeding the serpent boiled eggs for breakfast when he lashes out, fangs sinking into my wrist. My hand and forearm swell up like a Zeppelin. I do what I can to tend to the wound, but it festers before turning black as ash.
I am lying prone in a spirophore in a bone-white room. The air is cold and smells of bleach and death. All I can hear is my own deeply laboured breathing.
The serpent is nowhere to be seen.
I cannot be angry with him. Why should I be? All he has done is reveal his true nature.
Dream # 4: “How Difficult Is a Woman’s Life!”
My mother coughs while cobbling in the corner. She is covered in blankets.
Mother has not been feeling well lately.
Lined up on the floor next to her are four identical pairs of leather shoes she has made for my brother and sisters. White and gleaming.
“Yours are almost ready,” she says.
She wipes her brow and I notice two parallel scars running down her right cheek. Mother shakes off the blankets to reveal a barefoot child latched to each breast. It is my brother, Jozef, and my sister, Helena. Both are older than I. She cradles her children in the crooks of her arms. In the right hand, she holds a knife.
She begins to cough violently, her body spasming. The children squirm off her lap.
“Brew me some tea, Manya” she says weakly.
I do what I’m told. I bring my mother hot tea in a special china cup, hoping to cheer her. It is a beautiful, delicate vessel painted with Bourbon lilies and a portrait of Louis-Philippe of France.
Mother thanks me for the tea, which I hold to her lips for her to drink. When she is finished, my hands slip, and the teacup crashes to the floor, bursting into tiny pieces. I start to cry out of remorse and a fear of repercussion, but mother soothes me.
“Not to worry, my darling girl,” she says. “Everything breaks.”
In her small translucent palms, she presents a perfect pair of bright red shoes.
“For your cousin’s wedding,” she says proudly. “And for you to wear to church where you can pray for my health.”
White shoes for my brother. White shoes for my sisters. Bright red shoes for me.
I caress the beautiful gift my mother made me. My hands come away wet with blood.
Dream # 5: Red Right Hand
Saint Casimir is cheating at cards again.
“I used to be a prince, you know,” he says, tucking the King of Hearts into one velveteen sleeve. “And a very fine mathematician, besides!”
We are sitting in my tiny room in Paris. For my guest, I have laid out bread and water, sweet gherkins and tea.
“Bring me meat,” he commands.
“I have none.”
“Bring me some koumiss, then,”
“This is all I have.”
“Give me a moment,” he says. “I shall conjure us a fine meal.”
He whirls his three hands in the air. Saint Casimir has one left hand and two right hands, which makes him particularly skillful at cheating. His rich red velvet robes smell of woodsmoke and tuberose.
“You’re a saint, not a conjuror,” I tell him. “And anyway, saints aren’t supposed to cheat.”
“I’m not really a saint,” Saint Casimir says. “I’m your cousin. We were once in love. You wanted to marry me. Do you remember?”
I remember, Casimir. How could I ever forget?
Saint Casimir plants the King and Queen of Hearts on the table, skewering them together with a dagger.
“I win,” he says. “Would you like to play again?”
I tell him no. I tell him never again.
We eat bread dipped in water because it is all I have.
Epilogue: Morning with Pierre
My dreams have been so vivid lately that I can scarcely tell if I am asleep or waking.
Riding an underwater train through cities and towns carved out of coral and glittering with sea glass. Lazing in hazy fields with my sisters, wildflower halos. Drinking bowls of poppies poured over with thick, sweet, condensed milk.
A dear old friend swept me up in his arms. He laughed as he kissed my legs and feet. It was sunny. I felt like a child.
I sometimes dream in colour, did you know that?
Are you awake, my love?
Sofi Papamarko is a writer and matchmaker who lives in Toronto. Her short fiction has been published in Taddle Creek, The Toronto Star, and Maisonneuve. She is the recipient of the JCW Saxton Award for Playwriting. She’s also taken third place in The Toronto Star’s Short Story Contest.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Rowsom