In my sixteenth winter I finally began to dream. Many in our small village hoped I’d be normal like them. My younger sister, Amelia, had been dreaming for three years already, and I hadn’t seen a thing. Maman never gave up hope that I would join the family business. She tied small bundles of herbs and dried flowers to my nightshirt, and whispered into my ear as I slept.
It must have done some good because at first my dreams were shapes without color. They were hazy and smeared like opening your eyes underwater. I was afraid I’d be trapped inside the bleached landscape until one of my older brothers, Pierre, promised that eventually the shapes would form recognizable things.
He smiled and said, “You have to learn patience before you can learn how to dream.”
None of my five siblings ever said the one thing they feared the most: that I would be the first in a thousand years to see the Gray Tree. Late-bloomers, like me, were five times as likely to be cursed. Girls who saw the tree merely went mad, but boys killed without remorse. Or so the stories we heard growing up led us to believe. No one was alive who could recall the last Dream-Weaver who saw the tree.
“Don’t worry, Pip,” Henri said, punching my arm, “you’re no match against four older brothers. We’d take care of you.”
What he wasn’t saying is that he’d take care of me by slitting my throat like a hog before I became a danger to my loved ones. With this very real threat hanging above me, I stayed away from the forest that lined our farm. I didn’t want anything to trigger a tree-shaped dream. I’d muck out the horses’ stalls and pray to dream a riding dream. Riding dreams denoted charity and good deeds in the future. When that didn’t work, I spent hours cleaning out chicken coops and laying down hay for the cows and goats. Nothing turned the images in my head into something recognizable. They remained still and quiet. This state of nothingness seemed worse than not seeing anything at all.
An emptiness started to tear at my insides. It was almost imperceptible, yet I knew something was wrong. I’d have done anything to stop that feeling from working its way from the inside out. By the Winter Solstice, I found myself praying to the old gods every night. Begging them to stop the cold dark from taking over my heart. Sometimes it would beat so fiercely that I knew the gods heard me. I entrusted myself to their care.
The dream began with colorless smudges. I settled for disappointment, letting that emptiness break over me like a wave. And then, as if my head finally breached the surface, the objects snapped into bas-relief. Just as Pierre had promised, I saw a meadow spread out for miles around me. The flowers remained without color, as did the sky, as did the trees around me. My dream body flinched. Instead of seeing one gray tree, I saw an entire forest of them circling the meadow. It wasn’t until I turned around that I saw the Gray Tree in the middle of the clearing. It towered over all the other trees. The breeze rustled through its leaves, singing.
My breath caught in my lungs, my toes dug into the achromatic earth, but the song called me closer. I looked down at my hands, and discovered my skin matched the landscape around me. I longed to know more about this place and this fabled tree. My feet carried me all the way to the base of the tree. As I started to circle the huge roots, I discovered a girl reading a book. She didn’t lift her head when I shouted a greeting.
As I reached out to press my palm against her book, I awoke. I felt no different. Not more charitable or murderous towards my family. I did know, however, that they could never know what I dreamed. From that day forward, I began to lie to everyone I loved.
“What did you dream last night, Pip?” Amelia asked. She churned butter in the corner, a thin veil of sweat on her brow.
“Yes, Pip, what did you see?” came the chorus from my older brothers.
I sighed and pulled my porridge closer. “Same thing as always, swirls of nothing.”
I wanted so badly to tell them that I had been dreaming at last. In the weeks since the Solstice, the girl sitting under the tree had smiled at me. I tried to talk to her, but she turned her attention back to her book. I spent what seemed like days memorizing the way she sat. How she neatly tucked her charcoal hair behind her ear when the wind blew through it.
I wanted to ask one of my older brothers if what I felt for her was love, as it was nothing like what I felt for my family. Sometimes she would sing. I’d climb up onto the roots opposite of her and listen with my whole body. She sang the harmony to the tree’s melody. I hummed that same tune in a minor key with a lowered fifth instead of a perfect fifth at meals. Maman’s eyebrow would rise before I’d catch myself and stop.
In my dreams, I became bolder. Instead of spying on the girl from a distance, I would sit beside her and look at the book in her hands. It was full of symbols I couldn’t read. We sat so closely that I could feel her breathe on my arm when she exhaled. She stared at me, and in her eyes I saw the universe go on for an eternity.
“My name’s Philippe,” I said, holding out my hand to shake hers. Any excuse to touch her. “My family calls me ‘Pip’.”
She covered her mouth with her hand and giggled, closing those amazing eyes with the palest of lids. When she lowered her hand, I sucked in a breath and pressed my lips against hers. They were soft and tasted like fresh peaches. The girl didn’t kiss me back. I pulled away and searched her face for the smallest reaction that she might not love me the way I loved her. Her mouth had turned from gray to a vivid pink. Emboldened by this, I kissed her closed eyelids and both her cheeks. The deathly pallor that had once covered her skin disappeared, leaving a vibrant girl with eyes like the sky after midnight. If this was madness, I was its willing victim.
Night after night I returned to the girl. The landscape slowly changed with every kiss I gave her. The grass turned green, the flowers reflected every color of the rainbow, but the Gray Tree remained. Its leaves fell out, splattering the ground in cadaverous piles. I worked my body to the point of exhaustion during the day so I could slip into that world faster at bedtime.
The girl’s book began to make sense. The first thing I read was that Monsieur Charbonne would die of a stroke in three days’ time. He did. The second revealed a sickness would sweep through the pigs. It did. When I read that Henri would die serving in a foreign war he had already left for, I backed away from the book. The girl looked at me, in all these years she’d never spoken a word. She’d accepted my kisses, my bouquets of flowers, my secrets, and my unwavering attention in silence.
“Why are you showing me this?” I pleaded, the tears already spilling down my cheeks. “Is this the curse? To know those I love are going to die?”
She smiled at me, but I found no warmth in the gesture, only sadness and wisdom. She closed the book and placed it on the blanched root beside her. I didn’t expect anything more, so when she finally spoke, I clung to the words like a dying man to life.
“Knowledge is not a curse,” she said, her voice like the wind in the leaves. “Knowing the future of those you love most allows you to make every moment you have with them more precious.”
“No,” I shouted, shaking my head to help me wake up. “It taints every interaction. Dreaming is supposed to be a gift. This is a burden.”
As I began to wake up, hot tears on my face, I heard her whisper, “I need someone to share this burden with.” And I knew that I would return, night after night, to help her.
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