The late afternoon thermals carried the laughter and shouts of the town children up to the abandoned hospital where Gertrude would sit, one leg dangling out of a window, and listen. But her mothers wouldn’t let her play with the other kids. They wouldn’t let her go to school. Or leave the building to explore the overgrown grounds.
“We made you out of a dozen humping rats,” they’d say whenever Gertrude asked. “So we’d have someone to do the chores – a dozen squirming rats.”
“You’re not like the other kids: too many of you! Too many!” they’d cackle. “Scurry, scurry, scurry!”
• • •
Every day, while her mothers slept, Gertrude carried buckets of water from the basement to their attic nest. She mopped the floors, cleaned the walls, and did the laundry. She washed the cauldrons, candle holders, and upside-down crucifixes. Up and down the flights of stairs she climbed, up and down the attic ladder. All day long she scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until her hands were pink and raw. Then, when the sun began to set, she woke her mothers, threw open all the attic windows, and left, closing the trapdoor behind her, to fall asleep on her mat at the foot of the ladder.
• • •
Gertrude knew every stairwell, closet, and crawlspace in the hospital. She had raced the wheeled beds down hallways, she had worn the leaded gowns from the x-ray facilities as armor to hunt for dragons in the access tunnels, she had made balloons from latex gloves, evening gowns from scrubs, and blow darts from needles. She had only ever once seen anyone else on the premises. One hot summer day some town kids came by. She stared at them through foggy panes of cracked glass while they chased each other up and down the front steps, trailed after them in the cool shadows when they dared each other deeper and deeper into the concrete interior, and watched from a fire exit on the third floor as they ran down the slow curve of the driveway and vanished into the elms.
• • •
Then one day, while she was drinking powdered milk in the cafeteria, a little man in a rumpled suit limped out of the dank shadows. He had a ragged ring of grey hair around his bald head, horn-rimmed glasses on his button nose, and he clutched an old-fashioned hat in his pale hands.
“How do you do?” he asked and blinked his small, muddy eyes at her.
“I’m fine,” said Gertrude. “How are you?”
“A little hungry,” said the man. So Gertrude hurried off to the kitchen to get a can of spaghetti for him.
They sat and talked all afternoon. The man told Gertrude about the world outside: about the mile-long trains that rolled through town, the summer fair and the winter circus, about Thanksgiving and Halloween and Christmas and Easter, about the baseball games and the movie theatres and the cherry pie at the bus station restaurant. When she finally realized how late it was, she leapt up.
“My chores!” she cried out. “My chores!”
“It would be best,” the little man called out as she rushed away, “If you did not mention me to your mothers.”
• • •
The mothers slept in a tangled heap wherever the sunbeams stayed the longest. They stretched and groaned and hummed as they woke, combed their snarled hair with crooked fingers, and scratched vigorously at their dry, pubic thatches. If they were in a good mood they would chivvy Gertrude,
“Fleas and crabs and itchy little scabs.”
“Time to shave, Gertrude, again.”
“Time to shave Gertrude again.”
“Time to shave the rats.”
“Scurry, scurry, scurry.”
If they were in a bad mood they would squint against the light, snarl at her, spit, bite. They would curl back up into each other, burying their faces in armpits, behind knees and elbows, in crotches, bellies, and breasts.
• • •
When the little man showed up next he brought a carton of milk and two slices of cherry pie in a pastry box.
“Is there a jar?” he asked Gertrude as they ate. “Or a jug, maybe a box, but some sort of a thing, some sort of container, which you are not to ever touch? Something your mothers never require you to clean?”
“Yes,” she said. “There is a big mason jar which they don’t like me to see. They keep it hidden in their bed. Sometimes one of them falls asleep cradling it like a baby. It’s filled with something silvery, something that shimmers in the sunlight. How on earth did you know?"
“How do you like the pie?” he asked.
“It’s delicious,” she said.
“It tastes even better when you’re sitting in a booth by the big window,” said the little man, “watching the soldiers kiss their girls good-bye at the greyhound station; watching the busker in his cowboy hat playing for pocket change; watching the driver having one last smoke before he sails away down the shining highway.”
“I can’t imagine anything ever tasting better than this,” said Gertrude.
“Oh, but it does,” smiled the man.
• • •
The mothers laughed at Gertrude, prodding her bum with bony toes, pinching her cheeks with knobbled fingers.
“So slow, so slow, so fat, so fat.”
“Hurry, hurry, hurry.”
“Scurry, scurry, scurry, little rats.”
• • •
One evening, after she had shut the trapdoor behind her, she looked down to find the little man at the foot of the ladder. He held a pudgy finger to his lips and indicated that she should follow him. He led her to the third floor emergency exit and went outside onto the fire escape.
“I’m not allowed,” Gertrude whispered.
“Just stick your head out,” he laughed. “They’ll never know.”
And so she did.
The black woods throbbed with mosquitoes. All that was visible of the town was the twinkling yellow grid of the streetlights, and on the other side of the dark valley the floodlit sphere of a water tower hung over it all like a bone-white moon.
“Look up,” said the man.
The attic windows were illuminated by the soft glow of candles and Gertrude could hear her mothers chanting.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she whispered.
“Look!” he said.
Her mothers, still chanting, were flinging dust from the mason jar out into the muggy air, their long, thin arms darting in and out of the dim light.
“What is it?” asked Gertrude.
“This,” said the little man and snatched at the night.
A glittering speck was pinched between his thumb and fore finger. Gertrude squinted at it.
“What is it?” she repeated.
“A thief,” he whispered. “Let’s go inside.”
The little man shone a flashlight on the object. It shimmered and buzzed.
“Is it alive?” asked Gertrude. “Is it a bug?”
“No,” said the man. “Machine: oneirophagus.”
Gertrude leaned closer.
It looked like a little steel mosquito, all silvery needle and madly fluttering wings. The man let it go and it went buzzing and bumbling about Gertrude. She raised a hand to shoo it off and the little man shook his head.
“Leave it alone,” he said. “It won’t come after you, it doesn’t want blood.”
It circled her and went careening out of their little pool of light.
• • •
They were drinking instant coffee in the cafeteria.
“It doesn’t want blood,” he said. “It wants dreams.”
“They send them out every night,” the man told her, “to stick their needle-noses into all the sleeping heads of all the sleeping townsfolk. They suck up the jumbled dreams in bits and pieces, then fly back here to pump them back out into those ill-begotten hags you call your mothers.”
“But why?” asked Gertrude.
“I don’t know,” said the man. “But I’d like to find out.”
“Does it hurt them?” Gertrude asked. “The townspeople?”
The man laughed.
“They don’t even know it’s happening,” he said.
“But,” he added after a pause. “Well, there is one thing, a thing that worries me, a gnawing thought, but never mind.”
“What?” asked Gertrude.
“It’s nothing,” said the man. “It’s nothing.”
“Of course it’s something,” said Gertrude.
“They collect dreams from lots of different people, of course,” said the man. “The oneirophagi fly from one person to the next, and sometimes the dreams get mixed up and confused, and a bit of one person’s dream might dribble into the mind of another, and sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the seeds of a grown up nightmare might end up in the head of a child, and if they do, they grow there, in the sweet, moist folds of that lovely young brain, and they flourish, like bedbugs, they feed and thrive and prosper and breed.”
“Is that very bad?” asked Gertrude.
“For the child, I suppose, who spends their nights awash in a sea of terror and despair,” shrugged the man. “And all the people that love that child, and all of those who ever will, for them it can be bad, or at least sad, to see the evil growing and twisting and turning within them.”
“So quiet, Gertrude,” squealed the witches. “So quiet and sad and mad.”
“Not yourself! Not yourself!”
“Not yourself? What are you? Rats?”
• • •
“Listen,” said the little man. “If you want I can take you to the bus station restaurant and you can see if the cherry pie tastes better in a booth with a view than it does in a spooky old hospital.”
“I can’t,” said Gertrude. “I’m not allowed.”
“They’re asleep,” said the man. “They’ll never know.”
He took her down through the basement, and the sub-basement, and the basement after that. He took her to cellar where there was a rusty old manhole cover in a concrete floor which Gertrude had never been able to shift. It now lay beside a round, black hole. Down the ladder they went, into the hot, pungent darkness where all Gertrude could see of the little man was the glow of his darting, bobbing flashlight.
“This way,” laughed the little man. “Follow me! Follow the light!”
She chased after him for what seemed like hours, splashing through water, tripping over unseen obstacles and seeing nothing of herself, until she felt disembodied, disoriented, a tangle of disconnected thought and sensation. Then suddenly the dancing light ahead of her jerked upwards through the air: once, twice, a third time, and it was floating above her head. There was a loud creak and a crash and a flash and she was blinded by a flood of delicious, bright, clean sunshine. Up the ladder she chased him and emerged into a vacant lot, fenced in by chipboard walls, parkades, and warehouses, a glorious blue square of sky above.
• • •
“Let’s go!” called the old man. “Let’s go!”
Gertrude blinked away the glare to see him ducking through a gap in the fence. She scrabbled after him as quick as she could and found herself on a busy street. People were bustling about, a motorbike buzzed by, and a car screeched to a halt in a tumult of honking.
“This way! This way!” she heard the old man call and she saw him limping across the busy street.
Off she ran into the crashing, banging city; into the elbows and knees; smacking into briefcases and bags and behinds. She darted past a parked truck and a bus surged out of the traffic like a great whale, she caught a glimpse of a pale face peering out at her from the air-conditioned dark before the juggernaut went crashing down the street.
“The bus!” she yelled at the old man. “I saw the bus!”
He laughed and ducked around a corner.
They sat on red vinyl benches on either side of a yellow Formica table. They had eaten hamburgers and fries and onion rings and potato salad and coleslaw and were just scraping clean the last crumbs and smears of the pie. The man winked at the waitress and ordered them each a cup of coffee. Outside, across the street, a thin man in a cowboy hat opened up a guitar case. A soldier was sitting against the wall smoking, a duffle bag beside him.
“So how’d it taste?” asked the man and Gertrude laughed.
“It was better,” she said, “with the view.”
The man across the street began to sing.
“He asked me if I'd seen a road with so much dust and sand,” the nasal voice came buzzing through the window.
“Is that really the bus stop?” Gertrude asked.
“It is,” said the man.
“And if I got on the bus it would take me away from here?”
“It would take you from blue horizon to blue horizon,” said the man and the coffee arrived, “and all places in between.”
“Crossed the deserts bare, man, breathed the mountain air,” came the song from across the street.
“But I could never go,” Gertrude sipped her coffee.
“I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere.”
The little man shrugged.
“My mothers,” said Gertrude.
“I suppose,” said the man, “they’d turn you back into a tumbling pack of rats.”
Gertrude stared out the window.
“I’ve been everywhere, man.”
“Although,” he added after a pause. “No. No, never mind.”
“Although what?” asked Gertrude. “Never mind what?”
“Nothing,” said the man. “It’s nothing.”
“It must be something,” said Gertrude. “There’s no such thing as nothing.”
• • •
The next morning Gertrude woke up early, before the sun had risen, and snuck out the fire escape. Above her the mothers were chanting quietly. The horizon was stained a dirty sort of pearl, but the sky was still flush with stars, and the town laid out in all its glittering, electric glory. The last of the oneirophagi were straggling back, so fat with dreams they emitted a faint glow. They stumbled and staggered through the cool air up the hill and to the open attic windows. One of them came bumbling by Gertrude and she reached out and grabbed it between her cupped hands. It buzzed about for a while, tickling her, before it settled onto her palm. She cracked her hands and peered in. Behind its blank pinhead eyes and needle nose, nestled between the delicate wings, was a throbbing grey sac, no bigger than a swollen tick. The machine sat poised on the cradle of its sharp little legs, and then jammed its probiscus into her hand. There was prick, and the sac compressed, emptying itself into her, deflating in an instant.
Gertrude was suddenly aware of voices and shapes about her, a woman was calling: “Sarah! Sarah! Come home for dinner!” She was running down a street in the evening, in the shadows of towering elms. There were butterflies everywhere, thousands upon thousands, of every color imaginable, and she was falling through them. “Sarah!” she heard. “Sarah! Sarah!” She was in the back of a car, on a highway cut through a rolling landscape and rain was falling on the window. She could hear the murmur of voices from the front seat. She watched the drops of water coalesce on the window, shimmering in the wind, fluttering across the glass.
• • •
Gertrude woke on the floor, the sun shining through the open fire exit. She unclenched her fist. The oneirophagus was a crumpled wreck, the needle still in her skin.
• • •
“Sad Gertrude, sad, why so sad?”
“Why the long face?”
“Why the twitching whiskers?”
“Scurry, scurry, scurry.”
• • •
“This will put them to sleep for a week,” said the little man. He was a holding a vial of a rusty-brown liquid in which was suspended a universe of minute black specks. There was the hint of movement in it. “Nothing, absolutely nothing can wake them from that sleep. You’ll be long gone, halfway across the country, far beyond the reach of their power, before they even begin to yawn.”
“But how do I give it to them?” said Gertrude. “They don’t eat anything, they don’t drink anything.”
“But they do,” smiled the man. “They eat dreams.”
• • •
The sun was just coming over the horizon when Gertrude got to the top of the water tower. It was hung a hundred feet above the ground, supported by single pillar driven deep into the soil. The sleeping town lay beneath a green canopy of foliage, an expanse broken only here and there by an apartment block, or a church, and in the middle distance, by the modest skyline of office blocks, department stores, and hotels. She could even see the abandoned hospital perched on the wooded rise that marked the far boundary of the borough. Her mothers would have tumbled into bed by now, incurious and insensible, the breeze drifting through the open windows, the trap door still closed, the empty bucket and the old mop waiting for her.
The round access panel on the top of the sphere was unlocked, just as the little man had promised. She could see him looking up at her, a tiny figure under the elms, just outside the gate, his upturned face a pale smudge against the shadows. He waved at her and she opened the panel.
It was cool darkness inside. She smelled the water before she saw its glimmer. The tank was no more than two thirds full. She pulled the vial out of her pocket and held it up to the sunrise. It was murky and brown, like the water that gushed out of the hospital taps when you first opened them. It swirled and shifted in the light, streaks of darkness coiled into clouds and dispersed. She unscrewed the lid and sniffed at it, detecting the faint aroma of mildew and mushrooms and old mattresses. She poured it out in a long drizzling stream that echoed about the tank.
• • •
“Tomorrow morning I’ll come back with a bus ticket and some travel money,” the little man told her in the hospital basement, “and you can be on your way down the blue highway.”
“Thank you so much,” said Gertrude. “Thank you, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” said the man.
“I wish there was something I could do to show you how grateful I am,” said Gertrude.
“There’s no need,” said the man and smiled at her. “Glad to do a good turn.”
“Well,” said Gertrude, “see you tomorrow.”
The little man began crawling down into the sewers, then stopped and looked up at her
“Actually,” said the little man. “There is one thing, not much really, next to nothing.”
“What’s that?” asked Gertrude.
“I was thinking about the children and their nightmares, about the oneirophagi, about how when your mothers wake everything will be back how it was.”
“Yes,” said Gertrude. “I’ve been thinking about that as well.”
“It might be nice,” said the man, “if before you left you went up to the attic one last time and brought the jar down to me so I could destroy it.”
“What if my mothers wake up?” asked Gertrude.
“They won’t,” said the man. “It’s impossible. I’d do it myself but there will be charms and spells, dangerous enchantments to keep out the thieves.”
“They won’t wake up?” asked Gertrude.
“No,” laughed the man. “They’ll be dead to the world.”
• • •
Gertrude could not sleep that night. She imagined herself already on the bus as it climbed the road, up into the hills on the other side of town, up past the water tower and out onto the almighty sprawl of the Great Plains. She imagined the bus roaring down the highway, her own pale face staring out from the darkness. As dawn broke she crept out to the fire escape to watch the sun rise over the town. The last of the oneirophagi were coming home, and the street lights flickered weakly as the sky brightened. She heard a lone siren, the thin wail drifting up to her with the morning breeze.
“Almost time,” Gertrude said. “Almost time.”
• • •
Her mothers were a bird’s nest of arms and legs and hair. Gertrude crept up to them and listened to the mumble of their snores. She could see the jar, tucked between a leathery elbow and a long, tuberous thigh. She reached in and pulled it free.
One her mothers screamed: a long note of shrill agony. She sat up, her eyes wide open, and screamed again. A bony hand clamped around Gertrude’s ankle. A second was awake, staring up at her, eyes as white as boiled eggs.
“What have you done,” hissed the mother holding her foot. “You stupid girl, what have you done?”
The screaming did not stop but no one else woke. Gertrude kicked the mother clinging to her feet in the mouth once, twice, three times, and fell over. The jar rolled out of her grasp. She scrabbled after it but it vanished down the trap door. There was the sound a glass breaking and a swirling cloud of oneirophagi rose through the hole in the floor. They hung there in a spinning, sparkling column, and then swept across the room and out a window.
The first mother was still screaming, staring at the wall and screaming. The second mother wiped the blood from her mouth, stood up, and walked to the window through which the oneirphagi had flown. The mass of mothers was awake now, or something like it, twisting and writhing, faces contorted, staring wildly at the walls and the ceiling and the floor, arms warding off phantoms and nightmares.
“What have you done?” the second mother asked again. “What have you done?”
Then she stepped out of the window and was gone.
• • •
Gertrude found her lying on the front steps, legs and arms askew, head on its side in a pool of blood, flies already buzzing around the sticky mess. She sat down on the steps beside her mother and shooed away them away. She stared at the driveway curving through the waist high weeds and into the elms. Above her the screaming of the other mothers continued. A haze of smoke hung over the town and the persistent chorus of sirens was pierced with an occasional, urgent shriek. She shooed the flies away again, stood up, and began the long walk down the hill to the bus stop.
• • •
The sun was up and it was hot. There was no sidewalk and she had to make her way along the side of the road. When she was about halfway down the hill, and just on the edge of the suburbs, a car came careening past her and smashed into an old oak, a body exploding through the windshield, sliding across the hood and onto the curb where it lay perfectly still, a jumble of awkward limbs. Many houses and vehicles were on fire, waves of heat washed through the trees making the leaves rustles, and crowds swept through the avenues like smoke. She saw a figure walking calmly out of a three-story Tudor, hair and clothes ablaze. A merry-go-round in a park was rotating slowly, creaking under the weight of the dead children piled on it, their hands and feet tracing lazy tangled trails through the dust. Gertrude wiped the sweat from her eyes and kept walking.
• • •
The little man was eating cherry pie and watching oily flames consume the crumpled remains of the bus. The waitress’ legs stuck out from behind the counter, bare knees cocked against each other, panties coiled about one thin ankle. A soldier was slumped in the doorway, jam-dark holes for eyes and a bloody spoon clutched in his hand. An oneirophagus was pulsing on his neck. Gertrude stepped carefully over him and walked to the booth. Her hands and face smeared with ash and oil, her hair a tangled mess. A plate of pie was waiting for her.
She sat down but did not eat. She watched a plump oneirophagus settle on the little man’s forehead and stab its syringe into him, and then another. A third nestled into his neck, just below his jaw line. They emptied their silvery bladders into him and then flew off. More and more kept buzzing and bumbling in to settle on him but he just kept eating. One landed on Gertrude’s forearm, sank its needle into her, and began to suck. When the little man finished his pie he smiled at her through a pulsing mask of oneirophagi, glasses shining and yellow teeth stained violet. The soldier in door way hauled himself up and staggered off. The little man picked at his teeth awhile and then got up as well, the oneiraphagi hovering over him in a misshapen halo. He limped over to the counter to pour himself another cup of coffee.
“One for the road,” he said, threw some coins down, and walked his funny hiccupping walk out the door, sipping his coffee, the dream eaters trailing after him in a cloud.
Gertrude sat staring at her hands. The skin on her dirty arms quivered and bubbled, lumps appeared on her face, sliding around under her skin. She bubbled and boiled and came apart into writhing mass of naked tails, black fur, ivory teeth, and glittering eyes. Her clothes subsided into a ragged pool on the bench, and the rats poured under the table, skittering along the floor, humping over and under each other in their effort to get outside. A woman in a nightgown was walking past the restaurant, cradling a child’s bloody head in her arms. The rats scurried past her.
“Sarah!” screamed the woman at them as they scuttled away.
“Sarah!” she screamed. “Where’s the rest of Sarah?”