I dreamt of women in long dresses. Elderly women, sipping tea from cups and whispering wordlessly in clusters of three or four. Always the same. Sternly elegant and unfailingly erect. Their hems lightly tracing abstract designs on dusty floors of empty rooms. Ephemeral figures, clad in drab dresses sparsely decorated with tiny specks of pastel, gliding slowly from one group to another.
The house itself exuded an indifferent coldness. At least, I supposed it was a house, though no door provided passage to the outside. The windows, too, offered no evidence of an exterior world—their panes darkened as if to keep secrets in or prying eyes out.
I skirted the periphery of the maternal society, invisible, yet wary of violating some strict, arcane taboo. Through one doorway after another, I drifted, searching. For what I couldn’t say. Nevertheless, compulsion drove me. Always, I failed to find an elusive answer or even to grasp the question.
My waking hours freed me. However, I awoke each morning not with relief but weary and sweat-soaked. At work, my attention span dragged through an endless succession of spreadsheets. In the evenings, I resisted going to bed, watching late-night movies on TV until fatigue wore me down. The ritual of preparing for bed drained the last of my energy. Sleep overtook my senses as my head hit the pillow, and I descended into my private purgatory once again.
In desperation, I sought various solutions. Pills erased my dreams for a while. Yet, in time, their benefit waned as if a more powerful source had dampened the effects of medication. I turned to the fickle solution of alcohol. Dreamless sleep came, though of short duration. Then, restless dozing and waking filled the hours until dawn with fractured visions. Casting aside the bottle, I tried meditation. Still, peaceful sleep eluded me.
I returned nightly to the house of dreams, drawn by the gravity of austere women through dozens, possibly hundreds, of silent rooms—completely unfurnished, the only objects being the ubiquitous teacups and saucers and the ever-present dust.
Then, one night an abrupt change occurred—an uneasy shuffling among the women. Something had disturbed their world. A feeling of dread hung in the air. They huddled together in a large room as if assembling to plot a strategy.
Into the room glided a woman, younger than the rest, with a pock-marked, concave face and shy smile. She saw me when others did not. An undefined attraction enthralled me, and I followed. Or perhaps she followed me.
No longer did I desire to avoid the nocturnal visitations. Instead, I turned in early each evening, seeking the object of my obsession. Through the dusty chambers, I hastened, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Often, when I spied her across the room, her eyes cut a quick sidelong slant in my direction—an acknowledgement of the connection between us. I stepped toward her, and she vanished amid a cluster of spectral chaperones.
Over the weeks, I saw her nearly every night. She began to linger a few moments before disappearing. She inched nearer, inviting the collective disdain of her elders. Watchful eyes surveilled her every move. Eluding their vigilance seemed impossible. My longing for her touch grew, as did an awareness of the forbidden nature of our evolving mutual attraction.
One night, she managed to draw even closer. A light brush of our hands in passing sent excitement vibrating through my body. In return, she shuddered as if a heavy chill had descended upon her. A shadow fell between us. When I reached out, she glided beyond my grasp. A weight on my chest stole my breath and slowed my steps. My movements became sluggish and awkward. She slipped away and was gone.
I turned and found myself the object of scorn. The transgressive contact had exposed me as if standing naked before their severe and silent judgment. The only avenue of escape lay in the predawn grayness of my bedroom.
Weeks passed. Visions of her haunted my days. Unable to focus at work, I thought only of returning to the land of my dreams, where she continued to elude me, vanishing from each room just as I entered. I chased her as best I could, stirring ugly patterns in the perpetual dust.
I feverishly searched, edging around the phantoms who attempted to bar my way. As despair began to weaken my resolve, she appeared without forewarning in an otherwise deserted room. Taking advantage of the moment, she pulled me through a previously unseen doorway. A desolate beach lay before us. Free from the supervision of her guardians, we walked arm in arm along the surf, accompanied by the gentle murmur of the ocean.
I had been content to simply stroll and luxuriate in her closeness, but she led me to a secluded space among the dunes. There, her dress fell away. I shed my clothes, and we made love—a long, passionate entwining, unhindered by words. Afterward, I awoke in my bedroom with a serenity I had seldom known. I spent the next day in sublime expectation of another sensual rendezvous.
In bed, anxious anticipation delayed sleep until just before dawn. Dreams came, yet I no longer felt her presence. From room to room, I searched. The bitter women cast hateful glances and shook heads in disapproval. Had they banished her? Was she a prisoner without appeal? Of what crime had she been accused?
The women began to grow fainter night by night, or perhaps I did. The rooms melted away, leaving me on a lonely seashore, the only evidence of their existence a discarded teacup and saucer in the sand by my feet. The dreamscape I had once abhorred, then longed for, vanished like the receding tide.
Though forbidding matrons no longer disturbed my sleep, I could not oust them from my mind. Days passed in a fog. I slogged through the weeks, barely conscious of my actions.
While driving to work one day, I spotted her on the sidewalk. The unexpected sighting led to a quick and unwise U-turn, inviting outrage from other commuters. I drove up and down the avenue but did not find her. Could she have been an illusion? No, I was certain it had been her.
The following week, I saw her at the mall. Her complexion had cleared, and her face had filled out. She sported a fashionable blouse and short skirt in place of her drab dress. Despite the marked change in appearance, it was her. No doubt.
I loitered at a storefront, thinking our eyes would meet and our connection would be re-established, but she passed, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Why? Somehow, I knew the first move had to be hers. After that, I saw her often, usually in the company of young men. Jealousy reared its insidious head, yet a trace of satisfaction in seeing her happiness tempered my mood.
On a summer afternoon at the beach, she reveled in the attention of hard-muscled surfers. Her brief bikini revealed the body I recalled from our tryst among the dunes. She laughed with a light musical tone and tossed her shimmering blond hair in the sea breeze. When she picked up her towel to depart, a ruggedly handsome man accompanied her. For the briefest instant, she paused and met my gaze with that familiar sidelong glance and shy smile. She flashed a knowing wink before quickly turning away.
I took it as confirmation of our deep and lasting connection. The notion gave me peace, and I no longer searched for her. She’s out there somewhere, making her own way in the world. She has her freedom. And I have mine.
Ken Wetherington lives in Durham, North Carolina. He was the first runner-up for the 2022 Harambee Literary Prize. His stories have appeared in Ginosko Literary Journal, Remington Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and others. His first collection, Santa Abella and Other Stories, was published in 2020. He may be reached through his website: https://kenwetherington.com or on Twitter: @KenWetherington