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The Barcelona Review

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Picture this. Another monster hurricane has laid siege to your house. You are fetal on a cot in the basement, unable to shut out the earsplitting, bone-rattling din, and your wife’s wretched praying, and the hollow echo of floodwater rising all around. Storm surges reach you even here, but your fortifications are holding so far. 
       You try thinking about all the things you miss about the world as it was. Music, for one. Sometimes one of you will sing, but it isn’t the same as listening to jazz, or Mozart, or Springsteen. Brilliant colors: a cobalt sky, the yellow of tulips, leaves that are really green. Neighbors. A crisp, cold apple. An afternoon drive. Costco. 
       Every so often, an object hurled by the screaming wind—lawn gnome? abandoned gadget? brick? tree?—smashes into the house, which you fear will crack like an egg, and your wife stops praying and says, “Edward, if we survive this, we’re leaving here.”        
       Another thing you miss is birds: Canadian geese in V formation; a slowly circling vulture; a pair of swans, gliding low across the water; the blue-footed Booby’s stomping, wing-spreading mating dance. (You never got to the Galapagos, but loved nature shows on television.) When it became clear that the birds had all disappeared—or died out, you’re not sure which—you and Henry decided that the planet could only have been saved if human beings had worked together like a murmuration of starlings, an astonishment in the sky that you witnessed only once and will surely never see again.        
       You sleep for a while and dream you’re young again, swimming with a woman named Simone and a trio of dolphins in a turquoise sea. When you wake, you light a lantern and write the dream in your notebook, as is your custom. The only sound now is your wife’s quiet weeping. You say something reassuring, and wonder if it’s day or night.       
       You make your way upstairs, pry open the door and peer out at the broken landscape, the toppled trees, the sodden, puddled mud field that used to be a lawn.
       Around an uprooted tree, you navigate through the debris to the front of your decrepit, boarded-up house. The porch has nearly collapsed, and a section of roof is gone.  Hailstones and sea rubbish are scattered about—a lobster, a piece of tire, a hodgepodge of bottles, an anchor and buoy, a dying sea bass, its scales riddled with disease. 
       Though you’ve rarely wept despite twenty-five years of traumatic good reason, you find yourself blubbering. Boot deep in the mud, a grizzled old codger pushing eighty, sucking in giant gulps of self-pitying grief and poison air. The struggling, tumor-pocked fish has plunged you into distant memory. 
       You were fifteen. Your father, a Vietnam vet who always carried his pocket Bible, even into the jungle, picked you up from school one rainy fall day. No biggie. He wanted to spend more time together. Nearing home, you resumed an ongoing argument about your ambition to be a writer. The last thing Edward Pawel Zielinski ever said to you was, “For God’s sake, Eddie, take physics or calculus next year instead of creative writing.  Give yourself some options.” Options meant you should become a math teacher like him, but you were already skidding on a roadway slick with wet leaves and didn’t have a chance to make a foul teenage retort. The car plummeted down a steep hill and landed upside down in the mud. Wedged under the seat, you were inches away from your father’s last gasps, and the low gurgling in his throat before his final breath, and then the weight of silence, like the silence after a storm. 
       “Look what I found.” Henry Wong is standing across the street, smiling, holding up another lobster. A compact, remarkably vigorous man of eight-six, he has a wide, flat face and a daunting slash of a scar across his cheek, from an accident with a cooking pot when he was a boy in Mao’s China. His house has fared better than yours, though apparently a tornado swept through the neighborhood, leaving a straight line of rubble in its path.
        “I’ve got a lobster over here, too,” you say. “Mine’s smaller.” You and Henry share a grim sense of humor—a robust one, considering. As the storm came in, you each retreated to your own basement, like a captain preparing to go down with the ship.
       He laughs. “They’ll make a good meal. Your place or mine?” 
       You always prefer yours, because after you got out of the hospital you spent a lot of time over there with your childhood friend, Gary Brice. Your nervous, chain-smoking mother, Eleanor Frank Zielinski, started working two jobs, one as a waitress and one in the office at the First Presbyterian Church. She didn’t want you coming home to an empty house and instructed you to hang out after school with Gary, whose mother would feed you dinner.  The woman never failed to point out how sorry she felt for you, a fatherless and neglected boy, and she always seemed mad at her son, who had an infantile sense of mischief. Whenever she yelled at Gary, he’d imitate Nixon and give her the double victory sign. Once he snuck into the girl’s locker room and stole Patty Ohlson’s bra. Such shenanigans no longer interested you, and soon you refused to go over there. 
        No doubt Gary, Mrs. Brice and Patty are all dead now, along with all the neighbors who fled from here, June and Henry Elliot, the Cassie sisters, the Miller family. You make lists. Of people you once knew who are probably dead, of all possible manners of death. Illness, contagion, infection, various forms of barbarism, suicide, drowning, wind, heat stroke, freezing, burning, lightning, toxic air, starvation, take your pick. 
        “How about dinner here?” you say. “We’ve got potatoes. Lobster stew for four!” Your left leg is throbbing. The fibula was broken in the accident and still hurts when the barometric pressure is low. You decide not to mention the diseased bass. If the lobster meat looks clean, you’ll eat it.
        “An excellent plan.” Henry gestures toward the buckled porch. “I’ll help you shore that up.” 
       You motion toward the missing roof section. “What about that?”
       “Maybe you have a handyman to call?” 
       You laugh. “I’ll get right on it.” 
       There are no phones, of course, and no handymen, but you often assist each other, and have passed many an hour discussing everything from a television show that you both liked called Star Trek, to the nature of evil, to women you have known, to the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. 
        “How’s Helen?” 
        “Chipper as always.” You give him a wry smile. “Mia all right?” 
        “We made it,” he says. “The mighty sun has risen on another day.”
       You notice he’s removed the plywood from one of the front windows. 
        “Just wanted to let a little light in,” he says. 
        “Easy enough to put back.” You always keep the windows boarded because the storms arrive without warning, and so that your houses look as abandoned as all the others, many now leveled. You don’t want to attract the attention of savages.
       The last time you and Helen went to the market in town before it closed, a shooting skirmish erupted in the parking lot between a paramilitary group and a mob of cultists in long purple robes. As you sped away, bodies were collapsing onto the ground like marionettes cut loose from their strings. The skeletons probably lie there still, a macabre late (very late) postmodern sculpture: Arrangement of Bones in a Field of Asphalt and Weeds.    
       Even here you cannot always hide. Last month a loner with a broad and deranged smile staggered up to your door. You recognized him as the father of a student you taught in your senior English class one year. You gave him food, but when you wouldn’t let him come inside, he reached for a gun, and you had to shoot him. You always keep the Walther semi-automatic pistol at your hip. You and Henry took his gun, and then buried the smiling dead man in the woods. 
        “I wanted to tell you about a dream I had when I fell asleep during the storm,” Henry says now. “Did you ever have a dream that contradicts your actual life experience, but seemed so real it has to be true?”
       You’ve confessed so much to your friend—how your mother made a saint of your conventional and often prickly father after his death, how you lost much interest in sex after Jimmy was born—but just as your father would never discuss Vietnam, you never discuss your dreams.
        “What do you mean?” 
        “I dreamed we met in a different time and place than here,” he says.
       When Henry and Mia moved in, all four of you were middle aged, all your children grown and gone. Probably for the best that the last you heard about any of them was a decade ago, when Henry got an email his oldest had been shot dead along with his family, in a battle with migrants fleeing north from a boiling equator. For months you thought Henry and Mia weren’t going to make it through their grief. Now you have no way to either give or get word about anyone. The electricity is gone for good, and your computers and cell phones are useless junk. Sometimes you pick up the phone just to feel its weight in your hand or open your laptop to stare at the dark screen, though without these things at least you can hear your own thoughts again. 
       “Where did we meet?” 
       He furrows his brow, as if he’s trying to figure it out. “I should have written it down. There were other people all around, wearing costumes of some sort, and strange noise— humming, honking, beeping. You said, “We need to discuss a matter of grave importance to the future.’”   
       Mythic hero dreams are common, but the fact is, Henry’s dream parallels one of the recurring dreams you’ve had throughout your life. The settings and characters change, but the plot is the same: You dream of meeting strangers—of all different nationalities and ages, most of whom have names you can never quite catch, in places you’ve never been or can’t identify—to discuss a “matter of grave importance to the future”: a tall, middle-aged character with a Stalin mustache under the statue of Nepomuk in Prague; a balding, paunchy fellow wearing a white coat in a mysterious scientific laboratory; a beautiful Black woman, Simone, in front of a patisserie. You dreamed about her this morning. Once you dreamed you were married to her and had a child together who wasn’t Jimmy. How do you remember your dreams so well?  Because they’ve always been extraordinary, because they were the source of your first and only novel, and because you keep a careful record. 
       Dreamkeeping may seem peculiar, or narcissistic, or even impossible, but like Dr. Jung you believe they hold the key not just to an individual unconscious, but to a collective unconscious of all humanity. It’s a practice mastered over time, like yoga or meditation. You learn to respect the moment just after you wake when you might believe, say, that you alone can fly. Or maybe it’s the moment you awaken upon a dying planet, in a dystopian wasteland that was once the green and fragrant earth. You train yourself to reject any notion that you’ll remember the dream in the morning, record it quickly and efficiently, and only then allow sleep to take you again. 
        “When I woke, I realized I was wrong about meeting when we were young,” Henry says, with a half-baked grin. “Or maybe I’m wrong now.”
       It reminds you of an ancient Chinese story he once told that sticks in your brain like chewing gum to a shoe: A butterfly is fluttering around, and then one morning, it wakes up and finds it’s a man, but then the man realizes he doesn’t know whether he’s a butterfly dreaming he’s a man, or a man who dreamed he was a butterfly.

“We’re going to drown when the next one comes.” 
       Your wife is standing in the doorway, her voice muffled behind the gas mask, her face obscured. You all got used to cloth masks during the pandemics, but as the particulate levels rose, you bought full military respirators online for all four of you.
Helen and Mia always wear them when they’re outside, but you and Henry are more like the Stoics; if toxic air is going to slowly kill you, so be it. Why four old people have escaped death when so many millions have not, you do not know, but you’ve absorbed so much death, and expected your own death for so long that it almost feels as if you’re waiting for something other than death. 
       You turn back to Henry, but he has gone inside.
       “We need to go to Jimmy’s,” Helen says.  
       You’ve no idea if your son is even alive since you’re cut off from all the world beyond here. Once you saw a drone overhead, so you know technology still exists, but you four have returned to a harsh pre-modern existence. Like other pre-Enlightenment humans, your wife is mired in superstition; she holds up your son like a savior god in a myth. You heard this coming as the years went by, the surrender to conspiracy-thinking. The last time you talked to Jimmy, years ago now, he had joined some local Michigan militia called the Knights of the Crimson Apocalypse. He was a beautiful baby, Jimmy was. Loved to blow bubbles, clutch his toes and giggle. 
       “Maybe in the spring.” 
        “Edward, please.” She knows you’re lying. “We’ll be much safer there.”  She starts to step outside.
       You put up your hand to stop her. “The porch is unstable. We’ve lost some of the roof, too. I’ll take care of it today.” 
       “You’ll kill yourself climbing up there, Edward.”
        “I think I can fix it from the inside.” You’re not sure this is true, but you are never leaving here. You grew up in this house, all your memories, provisions, and dreams are here, and this is where you’re prepared to die. Until then you have the stream out back, a mountain of firewood, potatoes from a hydroponic garden, the gift of lobster for dinner.
Today you must make repairs. Today you’ll check the stream to see if salt water has made it unpalatable. You’re prepared for that, too, with an attic full of desalination tablets. 
        “I don’t want you to fix it. I want to leave.” Her voice as taut as a drum. “And put your mask on—" 
        “Air seems okay, after the rain.” 
        “The rain is poison,” she says, likely frowning, though you can’t see her face behind the mask. The filter has always reminded you of the snout of an anteater, surely one of
countless species gone extinct.
        “We drink the poison rain, Helen. And if the air is poison here, so it is in Michigan.” You’d think so much loss would mute this bickering, but you would be wrong.
       “Maybe we’re grandparents, Edward. Don’t you want to see your grandchildren?”
       She cleaves to magical thinking and archaic ideas, like the notion that your children will take care of you in your old age, that sons get married and have children instead of dying, or that God will swoop down and save humanity by some miraculous intervention. You’ve harbored similar hopes about God, though you’d never speak of them aloud. Henry once said he thinks maybe God, if there is one, seeded many planets with human-like creatures to see which could evolve beyond ego and tribe into unbounded consciousness before self-destructing, a test Homo sapiens has obviously failed.
        “We can take your damned dreams with us,” Helen says.   
         She means the dreams you’ve recorded over a lifetime and keep in notebooks upstairs in your mother’s old sewing room. You point out that there’d be no room for dreams in a car you’d need to fill with food and enough gasoline, assuming you could find some. They finally managed to pass substantive laws about electric cars and the like some years back, but it was already way too late.
       “Helen, we’ll never make it to Michigan.”
       “We have our guns,” she scoffs, then turns and goes back inside.  
       Your wife was lovely if rather prim when she approached you half a century ago in a New York City Barnes and Noble after a reading. She said she wasn’t normally a fan of dystopian fiction but found your novel enthralling and deeply imagined. Flattered at the comment (so absurd now), you asked her to dinner.  
       After the critics lined up to pan the thing, you tried for years to write another while Helen supported you both, but it seemed your mind had turned to stone. When your mother died of lung cancer in 1989, you gave up. Apparently, you only had one story to tell. You found a job as a teacher and moved back into your childhood home, which was left to you by your Mom. Helen thought you were crazy when you started learning survival techniques, and hoarding gear and food. Even though this is surely part of the reason you’re both still alive, she’s never expressed gratitude, never even mentioned it. 
       In any case, Helen is no longer either lovely or prim; she’s a stubborn old woman who empties chamber pots, chops wood, and can shoot, skin, and cook a rabbit over an open fire.  
       Maybe you’ll awaken one day, and your wife, a gun or two, and your Toyota will be gone. Not the Walther, though. You keep that under your pillow. 

After you’ve done your best with the repairs, Helen and Mia are preparing dinner in the kitchen, and you and Henry are drinking tea in the light of a crackling fire.  Assorted relatives look down from their tarnished silver frames on the mantle: your son as a toddler and in his graduation gown; various ancestors, Polish (yours) and Presbyterian (Helen’s); and three pictures of your venerated father that your mother placed there when she became a widow at thirty-five. In the first he’s wearing fatigues and squinting in the sun in front of a mess tent; in the second he’s holding you when you were a baby, your mother hovering close by; in the third, taken only a few weeks before he died, he’s smiling, one arm draped over your scrawny teenage shoulder. 
       Helen has been taking in strays and a pantheon of cats are prowling around on the faded carpet. A Siamese rubs up against Henry’s leg. “What’s this one’s name?”
       “Ah, the goddess of wisdom.”
       “Much too late for wisdom.”
       He laughs.
        “Personally, I’d like to shoot them all,” you whisper. “For all the food they eat, they’re hardly worth the occasional squirrel they bring.” 
       He aims a finger gun at the cat’s head and pretends to fire, emitting a little explosion at the back of his throat.  
       “You know,” he says, “cats are considered good luck in my country.” 
       “This is your country, old man.”
       He sings the first lines of “America the Beautiful” with extravagant patriotism. Even the idea of country is absurd now, though perhaps a gaggle of senatorial ghosts is still filibustering in whatever is left of the US Capitol. Hah! 
        “I’ve been thinking about that dream I had,” Henry says. “But now I’m not sure which one of us said we needed to talk about the future.” 
       Exactly why you record your dreams. The details may be essential. 
       You watch the fire for a while, then he tells you a story about a man called Sheng-po, who dreamed of crossing the river Huan, where someone gave him a gem and a fine pearl. He ate them and shed copious tears made of the gems, but he was so terrified that the dream foretold his death, he refused tell anyone, or even have a diviner interpret it. Years later, after many adventures and much good fortune, he decided it wouldn’t matter to tell it, and so he did. 
        You love Henry’s stories. He always leaves you hanging like this, pausing before the end for effect. “So, what happened?” 
       He laughs uproariously. “You know, my friend.  He died the next morning.”
       The wives come in, and Helen hangs a pot of lobster stew over the fire to cook.   
        “Don’t pay him any mind with his stories.” Mia, a tiny woman with dark eyes and a cheery personality despite everything, loves Henry with every cell of her being.
        “No, no,” you say. “I live for your husband’s stories.”
       Helen sits down beside you. The lines in her face are deep, but she’s fixed her hair and put on a fresh clothing for your guests. In the play of fire shadows, you can almost see the young woman you married, though the thought is disrupted by another, of Simone, who is always young in your dreams.   
       After a while Helen gets up and stirs the cooking pot. “We’re all going to drown next time. You all know that, right?”
        “We could also die from eating those crustaceans,” Henry says. “Or is it crustacea?”
       “You’re making a joke,” she says. “I don’t appreciate it.”
       “Helen wants to go to Jimmy’s in Michigan,” you say. 
        “No!” Mia says. “Don’t leave us”
        “How would you get there?” asks Henry.
        “We have gasoline in the garage. Two cans.”
        “It’s not enough, dear,” you say.
        “Besides,” Henry says, “they’ll see two old people in a gas guzzler, and that will be the end of you.”
        “You’re so full of shit, Edward.” Helen is full of venom. “You don’t want to go because you never loved our son.” 
        “Helen, please.”
        “I’m sure that isn’t true.” Mia’s voice is trembling.
        “He never even wanted children.” Tears are spilling down Helen’s cheeks.
        “I told you before we married that I didn’t want to bring children into this world. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love him.”  
       Now she’s weeping openly. “Please, Edward, you’ll be able to write when we get there—”
        “Don’t be absurd.” The idea fills you with revulsion. How can she not understand? 
         “Write?” Henry says. “I thought you were a teacher.”
       “I published a novel when I was in my twenties.” 
        “You’ve never told me this.” He looks hurt.
       “I burned all the copies I had.” 
       “You did not,” Helen says. “You have one upstairs.”
        “It’s nothing, Henry. The reviewers hated it.”
       Here’s the truth, though what does it matter now: You thought you could make a difference with a cautionary tale. Near publication, you made an appointment with your editor to confess. She said she’d cancel the contract if you insisted on publishing dystopian science fiction as a memoir based on dreams you thought prophetic. You went ahead, but over the years, as your dreams became reality, you have hideously regretted that you didn’t find a way to live as if those dreams were the miraculous intervention you explored in your novel and always hoped for. Grandiose perhaps, but there it is. Perhaps the people you dreamed of meeting were real human beings you could have tried to find, not imagined ones with names and a plot you made up.             
       “May I read the book?”
       “Edward will be honored.” Helen looks at you as if daring you to disagree. 
       “What’s it about?” 
        “A group of dreamkeepers who share nightmares of a dystopian future very much like the one we’re in now. They work together to try and stop it.”
         “Are you one of these?” Henry asks. “A dreamkeeper?” 
        “Between two and five dreams a night, for sixty-three years.”
       He stares for a moment, then says, “Let me see.”
Now, in lamplight, you and Henry Wong and are standing in front of the bookshelves in your mother’s old sewing room, where you keep your father’s St. Joseph’s Pocket Bible, your novel, and all seventy-six dream notebooks, their spines lined up like soldiers at attention. Henry chooses a notebook at random. You explain your color-coding system, tags for theme, mood, content, takeaway, and category—déjà vu, recurring, archetypal, lucid, false awakening, prophetic, nightmare, vivid, and so on. 
       He reads a few pages in: “‘January 10th, 1986, 4:30 AM. I awaken to the sound of buzzing, loud as a jackhammer. I get up and go to the window, where insects as big as cars, with pincers like tractor claws, are crawling everywhere. I open my mouth to scream, then wake again, this time for real, and realize with relief that I was only dreaming.’” 
       Green for nightmare, blue for false awakening, red for a theme related to your long-ago accident. You often dream of insects. A grasshopper crawled up your neck and onto your face while you were stuck in that car. You couldn’t move your arms to swat the creature away and thought you might go insane every time it came back to tickle and torment you. 
       Henry thumbs through the pages, reads another dream silently, then looks up. “In 1986 you dreamed the birds would disappear? Is this why you were already stockpiling supplies when I moved in? My God. It’s why you didn’t want children. Because you knew.”
       You shrug. “Helen wanted to be a mother. And she was a good one too.”
       Henry closes and puts back the notebook, then pulls down your novel—probably the world’s only remaining copy. He stares at the jacket for a moment, a black and white photograph of a bleak landscape and an empty sky, silhouettes huddled together in the foreground. 
       He reads the title printed in blue across the top. Dawn Before the Rest of the World, by Edward Zielinski.”
       You wince as he opens the book and reads the dedication: “With hope for those yet to come.”  
       Among the many things that astound and terrify you: A few thousand people bought your novel, and not one ever contacted you to ask what Henry just asked—how you knew. Even your wife never asked.
       He reads the epigraph, a quote from Oscar Wilde, from which the title is taken: “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
        “I was given a gift,” you say. “I should have used it differently.”
       You open your eyes. Henry Wong is bending over you, wearing a white coat and a look of concern.  He’s many years younger than you last saw him, but you know the face, the scar, the voice in perfect English with a slight accent.  
       He places a hand on your shoulder. “You are all right, Edward.”  
       You look down at your body, your thin, hairless chest. You’re lying in a bed in a hospital room, right arm in a cast, left leg elevated in a traction device, excruciating pain somewhere in your torso. A nurse is bustling around, wearing a white nurse’s uniform with a little white cap, adjusting machines that seem to belong in a museum. How can you have lived your life before you live it?  What manner of dream was this?
        “I’m fifteen years old,” you say in the voice of a young boy. “Reagan hasn’t even been elected yet.” 
         Young Henry Wong stares. “Reagan? Your mother went out to have a cigarette.”
       “Mom should stop smoking. She’s going to die of lung cancer in 1989.” 
       The nurse stops moving and gawks.
        “You got that scar from a cooking pot, right?” you say to young Henry Wong.
        “How do you know that? We’ve never met. I’m a new resident. Do you remember what happened in the accident?”
       “We went off the road. My father was killed.”
        “I’m very sorry, Edward. You’re going to be fine, but you have several broken bones, and your spleen is—”
        “Yes, yes, I know all that, but I was dreaming of a different time and place, of the future on earth. Or maybe my future on earth. Or one possible version of that. It wasn’t even like a dream. It was as real as this moment is.”
       “Dreams can be like that.”
        “No, no, this was different. I was an old man, with memories and experiences and knowledge about so many things that haven’t happened yet. Computers the size of paper, and tiny telephones, and climate catastrophe, and electric cars that come too late—” 
        “Doctor?” The nurse is alarmed. 
        “Edward,” young Henry Wong says softly, “you’re in shock.”
        “Forgive me,” you say. “I mourn my father, but the dream was so real it still feels as if his death happened a very long time ago.”
       “Go on.”
       “You and I were friends, two old men living in a ruined world—”
        “Wait.” His expression has shifted from concern and puzzlement to something else. “We were outside after a terrible storm, and there were lobsters in the mud, even though we were several miles from the sea.”
       You can almost feel a physical link between you, like a filament of blood engorged tissue. “The oceans will rise as Earth’s temperature rises from the burning of fossil fuels.”
       He stares for a moment, then says, “I told you about a dream I had, of meeting you in a different time and place.” 
        “We were young. There were other people all around, wearing costumes, and strange noise—humming, honking, beeping.  Listen.” 
       He listens. “You said we needed to talk about a matter of grave importance to the future.’”
       “We do.”
        “The dream was so strange that I wrote it down. Several pages—”  
        “I suspect mine would be longer than that. Can you get a tape recorder? I need to record it right now because I fear I won’t remember the details.  Please. The details may be essential.”
       Henry Wong turns to the nurse, who seems frozen in place. “Nurse, can you please quickly find a tape recorder?”
       After she leaves, he says, “Do you think you can recall it?”
        “The key to dreamkeeping,” you say, “is to record the dream quickly and efficiently, so when she comes back, please leave the recorder on until I finish, even if what I say offends or upsets you.  Okay?” 
       The nurse returns and sets the tape recorder down on the bedside table next to the rotary phone, then young Henry Wong flips the on-switch, and you begin to speak, a fifteen-year-old boy, who believes he can save the world. 

© 2021 Fran Dorf

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