I was fourteen, and she was stone white and naked and blond.
She was hazed in the pale cold light pouring in from the frost-shrouded windows of my bedroom, and I remember the dustmotes floating in the mid-afternoon sunshine, I remember the luminous living clouds of dust swirling around her great diaphanous wings, which seemed to shudder as she stepped toward the bed . . . my bed.
Those wings were white as tissue and seemed as fragile, as if they would break or crack or tear with the merest motion or gust of wind, and I remember her green-flecked eyes staring at me as she moved across my bedroom, which was filled with books and magazines and forty-five rpm records and pre-cut balsa models of World War II fighter planes (including a British Supermarine Spitfire MK XII that would be fitted with radio control) in various stages of completion, and I couldn't help myself, I looked at her breasts and at her naturally dark mat of pubic hair, and I was so terrified that I closed my eyes.
I remember, as if it had happened last month, rather than forty years ago.
It was the year that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens were killed in a plane crash in Iowa. Alaska became the 49th State, which brought Texas down a peg, and Hawaii became the 50th. Rio Bravo and Ben Hur came out that year; Navy beat Army 43-12, and Mafia boss Joseph Barbara and forty of his "delegates" got busted at his house in Appalachian, which was about fifteen miles away from my home town in upstate New York.
I found the old book after my father died in 1987.
I was searching through the bedroom closet that he had always locked, and I was lost in the smells of cedar and old clothesthere were old leather key rings and wallets, a lifetime member Playboy card, a stiletto knife that he had taken away from me when I was sixteen, a taped envelope that contained an old black and white Polaroid photograph of a dark haired buxom womancertainly not my motherwearing the skimpy outfit of a belly dancer, and there were tuxedo studs and cufflinks and silver pens and penknives, playing cards backed with photographs of nude women, white plastic collar stays of varied size, check registers, an old will in a manila envelope, letters tied with a black ribbon, expired insurance policies, a woman's red silk handkerchief, and my paperback edition of The Fundamentals of Self-Hypnosis and Yoga: Theory, Practice, and Application by Julian Rammurti, MA, MD. Its spine was broken and pages fell out as I held it open in my palm.
Dad had never told me he had taken the book. Nor had he ever told me that he had taken the stiletto.
I remember how keenly I had felt the loss of the book at the time, But that was only because it was mine . . . because it was the first book I'd found on the subject . . . and because it worked. I could find other books on yoga and hypnotism, which I did. I lived in libraries and learned clinical theories and models and techniques, and I'd even developed a flair for stage hypnotism, which was the antithesis of the careful, quiet clinical process. For an instantstanding there in my father's closet, a grown man discovering the secrets of his youth, savouring the presence of the living pastI saw myself, as if in a mirror: a thin, gangly, pimply-faced boy of fourteen once again, straight brown hair greased back with pomade, red button-down shirt, collar raised, leather jacket, black pegged pants. The boy sneered into those books, indeed, as if he were looking into a mirror. A poor reflection of Elvis.
Reading . . . reading about posthypnotic suggestion and methods for creating the state of yoganidra. The powers of tratakam. Lucid Dreaming. The state of somnambulism. Hypermnesia. Prana and Pranayama. The story of the man and the bear.
I've often remembered that story of the man and the bear. It went something like this: There was a psychiatrist who was wounded in France during the Second World War. As he recuperated in a military hospital in Cornwall, he grew bored and occupied himself with a posthypnotic suggestion. He'd hypnotised himself and conjured up a great bear to provide some comic relief from the day to day boredom. All he had to do was say "Bear" and count to five and miraculously, a huge white polar bear with a long, flexible neck would stroll upright into the ward, leap about in the aisles, try to mount the nurses, frolic around the other patients, or hunch against the psychiatrist's bed and allow himself to be petted. So the bear cavorted in the mornings and afternoon, and likewise all the psychiatrist had to do was count to five and the bear would disappear. The bear had no weight, made no noise, could somersault in the air, walk on the ceiling, deftly unbutton nurses' blouses with its curved yellow claws, remove bras, and dance with any of the variously undressed doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors, who were never the wiser. The psychiatrist also conjured up the bear every night as an antidote to counting sheep, but the apparition soon began to take on a different, more ominous aspect in the dark. It became more aggressive, would not always obey commands, and when it leered, a feat the psychiatrist was certain no other bear could manage, its fangs seemed much longer than they had been during the day. So the psychiatrist mumbled "Bear", counted to five, and disappeared his ill-conceived creation.
But the bear was not so easily dismissed.
It appeared the next night, unbidden, and the next day it snapped at the nurses and bit the psychiatrist on the forearm. A warning. Although it left no marks, of course, the psychiatrist was in excruciating pain for hours.
The psychiatrist had to hypnotise himself three times to get rid of it.
Nor did that work . . . entirely; and years later, the bear would oftimes appeara vague, threatening form in the distanceand follow the psychiatrist, who developed the disconcerting habit of always looking behind him.
So I lay on top of the prickly wool blankets of my neatly made bed and waited for Marilyn Monroe to come to me, to change me completelychange me from an awkward, pimply-faced adolescent into a full-blooded man who knew the moist secrets of women, who'd actually and really been laid, even if through the devices and snares of an altered state of consciousness known only to hypnotists and young dabblers in the arcane such as myself.
It didn't matter how I did it. What mattered was that I did it.
I had floated, fallen, drifted, breathed myself into the deepest, most profound state of hypnosis. I had imagined myself rowing a boat on a calm, shallow, infinite sea, every breath took me farther out upon the placid ocean, breathing in, breathing out, skiffing in smooth clockwork motion, each breath out, each breath in taking me farther, farther into a calm azure place without depth, without horizon; yet I could feel everything around me: the wool of the blanket itching my neck, the cold smoothness of the pillow case as I moved my head, the cold chill seeping in through the windows, and I saw her in that instant as I blinked open my eyes and shut them tight again. The woman who inhabited every adolescent male's dream. Walking toward me, a look of blond rapture on her painted full-lipped facesix shades of lipstick, I knew about that, Marilyn I love you, and I waited for her, waited in the dark bosom of my self-directed dream, waited for her to come upon me, slip beside me, touch me, guide me, sail me across the sea of my quickening breathing, sail me out of my virginity.
I would lose my cherry to an apparition, a ghost, a hallucination, but at thirteen, in North Leistershire, New York, population 16,000, in 1959, that was the best I could hope for.
With my eyes closedI do believe they were closed, but perhaps they were notI could feel her walking toward me, past the built-in, beige-painted bookshelves that housed my father's mystery collection, which he'd always kept in my room, past the door that connected to my parents' bedroom . . . walking under all the mobiles and models that floated just below the ceiling and defied gravity by mere threads; and then she was standing over me, standing beside the bed, standing beside my slippers and sneakers and cordovan dress shoes, and I knew that she was leaning, leaning over me nowI could hear her shallow, patient breathing and the rustling whispering of her wings, smell her overly sweet perfume mixed with a more acrid, damp odourand all I would have to do was take her in my arms, she would fall into my arms like pillows and soft toys and cushions; and all I had to do was open my eyes to see her breasts and I could raise my hands to touch them.
All I had to do was open my eyes.
I tried. I had to see her. I had memorised her from a hundred photographs: the mole above her swelled lips, the eyelashes heavy as cardboard, the eyelids white as chalk, the earings dangling, everything about her swollen and curved and fleshy and full of promises
But in that instant, in that terrible instant of realisation or proffered possibility, I felt everything change. I know it was my own fault, my own perverse nature, but somehow I suddenly changed the rules. Much as I desired to bring Marilyn's warm body close to my own, to enter her and lose everything I hated and instantly gain my manhood, I imagined something else instead.
In that terrifying, transforming instant I imagined that whatever I was most afraid of now stood in Marilyn's place, and I dared not open my eyes for fear of what I would see, yet I was afraid to keep them closed because it was unbearable not to see what was looming over me, suffocating me, watching me; and I remember the slow-motion tossing and turning and shaking, as the sea I had drifted too far upon began to rage and rise; and, in fact, I was caught between fear and desire. I could not tell how long the convulsion lasted, but once I awakened to the world of slanting sunlight and the familiar smell of bedsheets and air-freshener, I vowed never to hypnotise myself again.
After that Marilyn never came to me in my dreams, but the dark thing that I had conjured in her place shadowed me.
Like the psychiatrist who kept looking over his shoulder to check whether his great white bear was tailing him, so did I feel the presence of my apparition. But unlike the psychiatrist, who at least knew his enemy, I could only sense this manifestation of my fears. In my teens I thought of it as a monster shaped something like a bear, and I imagined its claws tapping on macadam or sidewalks, and I would turn quickly, just to check, and, of course, there would never be anything there, at least not anything untoward. Over the years, I gave up on monsters, for they, too, ceased to inhabit my dreams. My dreams had one recurrent element, and that was more an experience of synthesthesia: they would all, at one stage or another, take on the colour of deep purple, yet the colour would be more like damp mist, which felt thick and ominous and signalled danger, but the mist was the stuff of the world in my dreams, and it would bleed out of the sky and buildings and peoplejust as it would bleed out of myselfdying my monochrome dreams with purple fear and anxiety and uncertainty.
But I wasn't the beast entirely. Only part of it.
The dreams coalesced into reality one numbingly cold dark morning in Vietnam.
It was January 1969. We'd been stuffed into a deuce-and-a-half, one of three trucks going out of Phu Bai down south where the fighting was supposed to be heating up. Everybody was shivering, and I remember sitting perfectly still because it was warmer that way, and Joey Mantaneo was pushed against me like four o'clock on the D-train going to Brooklyn, and even in the cold he smelled like cordite and rot and piss (and that cordite smell should have alerted me that something bad was crawling toward me), and he had his war name SCARED SHITLESS painted across his flack jacket and stencilled on his helmet like he was military police, and I knew the story about how he got his namebut he was the only one in Bravo who'd never been wounded or sick, not even an infection when he cut his finger. He claimed he was a street-fighter and his gang was called "The Road Gents," even though nobody in the gang had a car, and he said he knew as much about killing before he came out here as he did after, but he always looked scaredhe just had that kind of a faceand when he was green somebody said he was scared shitless and so he took that name for himself. The guy who named him was dead, but SCARED SHITLESS wasn't. Neither was BURNT COP and CALL ME WHITE, and they'd been brought up in a black bopping gang in Philadelphia called "The Flicks," whatever the hell that meant, and the rest of the guys were farmers or factory workers or mechanicsI was the only college boy, and they called me "Professor"and they named themselves BORN TO DIE, BORN TO KILL, KILL OR BE KILLED, KILLER ANGEL, and if you believed everybody, every one of them was a stoned killer street-fighter and a drug-dealer and a hustler and a pussy-magnet, but we were all just kids. Full of piss and vinegar eight months ago, but now exhausted and sick with the shits and fungus and getting bald and everything else. And while the goddamn truck rocked and jittered in the muddy craters that was supposed to be the convoy routeI was black and blue from being thrown around in that caneverybody was singing and whistling "Reach Out, I'll be There," and then "Mellow Yellow," and Cop and Manteno and Sammy Chitester were singing in falsetto, so it sounded like we had women in the chorus, and then everybody did Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," and they were pretty good.
We sounded like a rock band without microphones coming through the storm that had kept up for days, and it seemed like the world was going to stay dark and moonlit forever; and everything was covered with leaves that blew all over like home in October, but nothing else was like home: the houses along the way that were still standing were burned and pitted from shells, and there were refugees that looked like they ought to be dead and buried walking along the road; some were wounded, and although the old people didn't seem to pay any attention to us, the rest looked at us like we were the enemy; they hated us, even though they were too afraid to say word one; and we just crashed and bounced and sang and whistled through the dark, through the rain and fog, and you would have thought you were at the south pole or something where it was twilight all the time, and then we blew out our transmission, and although a few of the guys got on the other two trucks, the rest of us marched.
We went twenty clicks before we finally bivouacked in a deserted village that wasn't far from the Citadel of Hue.
It was cold and wet and dark and I couldn't stop shivering.
Viet Cong could have been all around us, for all we could tell, even though we'd caught up with our trucks and guards were posted and the place was secured, but I didn't care about anything. None of us who'd done the marching copped guard duty, and I would have fallen asleep if I had; it was as if someone had pushed a button and all the life just went out of me. I couldn't even eat or relieve myself. I just wrapped myself up in my poncho liner and fell asleep in an empty hooch. There were bits of glass all over the floor that would sometimes catch the light like little green and yellow and orange and blue gems, the kind sold in the hobby stores along with crystals and beads, but I didn't dream about that . . . I didn't dream about jewels and beads and velvet and cold empty darkness.
I didn't dream at all.
But dreams or no dreams, we were up before first light; and our orders were to go the rest of the way, wherever that was going to be, on foot because they needed the trucks up north (where it was safe), and so we watched the deuces drive off and then we walked to paradise. That's what it looked like, anyway, and before we realised what was happening, most of us were dead. Only Joey Mantaneo and I survived, and Joey, of course, didn't even get a scratch, but he suffered later, went half-crazy with recurring nightmares; at least that was what I heard, only I can't to this day remember who I heard that from.
I didn't suffer any nightmares . . . after that I couldn't remember my dreams.
We were approaching the south bank of the Perfume River, and there were the smashed walls of what had once been beautiful French-style villas of the southern sector of Hue; and spread out before us was lush grass and fog swirling like we were walking on a carpet through cloudsthe grass was deep green from all the rain, but there was a metal smell to the air; and although that mist didn't look purple, like in my childhood dreams, I sensed that this place was wrong, that it was hazy and purple and that the purple was about to bleed out from the sky and me and everyone else, but I just couldn't quite see it yet.
For all that I just said, this place was picture-perfect: a lone sampan on the river, an old man riding a bicycle up the avenue that ran along the park, for we were walking through a park. I remember breathing in and looking around, and then I saw a flash and heard an explosion, and Mantaneo screamed "Motherfuckers!" or maybe that was me, but it didn't matter because there was another explosion and I realised that I was lying flat on the ground and looking up at the sky and watching watching watching for the purple, watching waiting for the change, please God make this just a dream, and I heard a gurgling noise and a wheezing noise, and I remembered the training film I'd seen on sucking chest wounds, and I just figured my chest had been blown out and I was dying, but I didn't think "Oh my God I'm dying" or "Mamma."
Everything was still and cold and quiet as a winter morning, and Marilyn came to me, just like she did the first time.
I could smell her damp perfume and then I could feel her coming toward me and studying me like she was a doctor and I was a patient, and then she lay down on top of me, straddling me; her pale face pressed against my neck, her stiff blond hair tickling my chin and lips; and I could feel her body moving against mine, and her wings, feathered white, layers and layers of down, covered us, sheltered us, and I felt myself inside her, felt the cold ether wetness, felt myself being drawn into her, into down, into feathers, into the swirling mists of cloud, drawn into a silent, cold heaven.
Mantaneo saved my ass that day by pulling me into one of the VC's tunnels, and we hid in a dark, damp, earthy room. By all rights, we should have met up with its owner; but, as I said earlier, Mantaneo always had the right luck and never got hurt. The way I heard it later, he just waited until the VC left and somehow managed to keep me alive.
I never saw him again to thank him.
And, of course, I don't remember what happened.
After I came back to the World, as we called coming home in those days, I waited for Marilyn. I liked to think that she came to me every night in my dreams. But since I couldn't remember dreaming, it was moot.
My shrink told me that once I'd worked everything out and regained my health, I'd remember my dreams again. The shrink, of course, attributed everything to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which had become the fashionable diagnosis for everything that had happened to every grunt in 'Nam. I argued that I didn't exhibit any of the other symptoms of PTSD: diminished interest in activities, feelings of detachment from others, exaggerated startle responses, sleep disturbances, survivor guilt, memory impairment, recurrent dreams of a traumatic event, or trouble concentrating. I'd put myself through law schoolmemorised the Uniform Commercial Code and fifty cases a night, and I won't believe you can do that without concentration and a good memory. But he was not to be dissuaded. He figured that I was having nightly traumas; I just couldn't remember them.
I couldn't argue that kind of logic, so I stopped seeing him.
Eventually, of course, I started dreaming again, and I was, indeed, having recurrent dreams, but whether or not they were traumatic, I couldn't tell you because all I could remember was that they were about wingsgauzy, translucent wings that sometimes looked like feathers, sometimes like down, and sometimes like the surface of a soap bubble. I suppose I became obsessed by the very idea, obsessed with flying frogs and flying dragons and flying fish, with horseshoe bats and redwings and griffon vultures and hummingbirds, with hawk moths and wasps and hovel flies . . . and with those who like me couldn't fly. I spent hours at the botanical gardens watching the swans and remembering Marilyn's wings fanning and spreading; and I wondered, I tried to remember: were they white and feathery or were they gossamer rainbows settling around me like silken sheets, billowing, as alive as the surface of the sea?
I usually remembered them as white and feathery.
The wings of angels.
I started dating blond womenhow I yearned for pale skin and white-bleached hairand then I married a petite, dark haired woman, may she rest in peace, and we had children and lay in bed every night, and some nights she knew I wasn't with her. I would dream pretend that she was someone else, and then for an instant the sheets would become wings.
Josiane died of ovarian cancer under cool white sheets.
I had always thought that the next timeif there were ever to be a next timeI would find myself looking at the monster that was unseen but terrifyingly present when I'd first conjured Marilyn out of an old book about hypnosis.
Every night I lived with the anticipation, with the desire and the fearwaiting for Marilyn, or the monster, Marilyn, monster; and my bones grew, my hormones changed, as did the colour of my hairfrom blond to brown to grey, as the years passed me through Binghamton Central High School, Broome Community College, Vietnam with its smells of cordite and damp familiar colours of fear, Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island, where I drove a Buick Le Sabre and wore tie-dyed t-shirts, Brooklyn Law School, clerking for Bernstein, Haversham, Lunquist, Esqsfrom associate to junior to senior partner, from Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan to Connecticut; marriage, children, vacations, fourteen-hour days, weekends on Fire Island, divorce, reconciliation, death, Josiane's dead, say it, admit it, there, fact, and through it all, through all the empty and disconnected nights, all that was left were desire and fear. My whole life a moment wrapped around anticipations of dreams . . . or nightmares.
Marilyn or the monster.
I did finally find them.
I'd received an invitation from my old unit to attend a reunion. It had been thirty years. I looked for Joey Mantaneo in the columns of names and addresses between the grainy photographs, but he wasn't mentioned. I was listed alphabetically, home address, home phone, business phone, just like all the other officers and noncoms and grunts. There I was, a ghost in black letter type, but Joey had disappeared.
That night I dreamed about him.
While the little black and white television blinked ghostly light into my bedroom I allowed myself to follow him, skipping around time like it was an old neighbourhood, and I found him in Bayone, New Jersey, where he was working as an electrician for the building firm of Calley & La Cross, or so I dreamed; and Joey's wife was named Louise, and he had three daughters, Marsha, Missie, and Mave, and in that dream I'd forgotten the names of my own daughters, but didn't follow that trail, lest I dwell upon how I'd failed my children and my wife, and how Ibut that wasn't important; I was following Joey. I'd always be safe with Joey because he was a survivor; he survived, survived the bopping gangs and the drugs and everything else and I wouldn't let myself drift back into Vietnam, but Joey led me right back. He took me through his father's candy store and showed me how he'd grown up. He took me to Larry's Bar, which was across the street from his three bedroom apartment on Stadler Avenue, and we sat at the bar, which had a brass rail to rest your feet on, and we drank boilermakers, dropping the shot-glasses filled with Johnny Red right into the beer mugsall the regulars had their own personal mug at Larry's. We drank three shots and beers, and I felt an overwhelming sadness as I looked at Joey, an overwhelming longing. He had lost most of his hair, had put on weight, which changed the shape of his facetook out the definition and sharp, clean good looks and replaced them with a softness that was somehow repellent; and Joey smelled bad; he was dressed in jeans and a faded shirt, and he leaned over and told me that he was still in Hue, still in Vietnamthat we were still in Hueand that's when the dream broke apart.
It had been so real, as not to be a dream, although I knew that bits and pieces were wrong, that there was no company called Calley & La Cross; those were just names from the war, but Joey leaned toward me, then grabbed me by the shoulders and
We tumbled into the VC's tunnel, back into that cold, damp morning near the Perfume River, and I was lying against the dirt wall, sitting up, while Joey pressed his hand against my chest and said, "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ," and there were a few rays of light coming in from the entrance above, and they were golden and seemed as solid as the blades of ancient bronze swords, and I watched the dust swirling through them, swirling swirling and I remembered my room in Leistershire, remembered lying on the bed and counting myself into a hypnotic trance, into a deep state of somnambulism, and I was fourteen and about to conjure up Marilyn out of my adolescent desires and the light pouring in through my windows, light filled with dustmotes dancing swirling, promise, everything filled with promise and
Then Joey stopped fussing with me, and we could hear someone scraping around above. Somebody shouted "Chew hoi, chew hoi, " which meant surrender, but we could tell it was our own boys; we were all taught Chew hoi, Yuh tie len, lie daysurrender, come out with your hands up, and then concussion, blinding light, the cracking of thunder, and then silence as my ears popped, and I felt sudden wetness all over me, sonovabitch whoever was up there couldn't wait to take prisoners, or find out who the hell we were, and I wiped my face, everything smeared with blood, Joey, Joey was all over me. I looked around, light now pouring in from the entrance that was forward and above, pouring in like mist, which swirled, turning everything to blood, and I was holding Joey's torso, but his arms and legs and head had been blown off, and I was a liar, he wasn't lucky, or maybe he was.
I closed my eyes, but the blood and light and mist could not be closed out; rather everything slowly darkened to purple, and I could feel myself tossing and shaking in slow-motion, and I remembered having convulsions before, but now it didn't matter if I closed my eyes or opened them, I'd found the monsterJoey, Joey, goddamn it, and I screamed and opened my eyes and the mist the fog cleared and I could see her, standing in the entrance that was flooded with light, pure blazing sunlight, cold winter morning light. She was moonlight white, and naked, and her eyes were drawn in black and her lips were smeared with blood and as she reached toward me, coaxing me out of the earth, her wings spread out reflexively; they were butterfly blue fans, deep azure, darkening, darkening into purple black, and they quivered, trembling to the meter of her perfectly measured pulse, and I remember
I whispered "Mamma"
Just like every other grunt who thought he was about to die.
Originally appeared pp33-41, Eidolon Issue
29/30, April 2000.
Copyright © Jack Dann, 2000. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.