Last night I dreamed of the “happy hunting ground.”
He is thrust into the place of bones. These bones that look human but are not. They are different because, he sees now, the skulls are all wrong. But the rest of the bones are normal—legs, ribcage, bits of arms, shoulder blades. But what of this place? More tunnel than anything else, in the way a tunnel hides a promise of light directly within the darkness of its mouth. Following this promise, he moves ahead, no longer studying the skulls so closely, remembering, memorizing, the legs, ribcages, arms, shoulder blades, each part of each former person as tarnished pearls in the black.
When he at last emerges from the tunnel he is met with the most perfect spring day, an environment with the sweetest air and water, but a spring day that shimmers and then changes to the most perfect summer day where in the dry heat the deer make dust in the road. Predictably, here comes cooler weather and the fog of fall with good leaves.
It’s a place called Virgie, but it could be Milton. Small town is small town. In this small town the railroad tracks move forward to the vanishing point and splits two giants of the great range—John Attic Ridge and Abner Mountain. The scent of creosote comes up in waves from the treated ties. As far as twenty yards out from the tunnel, the cool breeze moves in a wall against him. A coating of sweat turns cold on the back of his neck, and he is at that moment aware of the rabbits.
Across an expanse of bottom field at nearly the same level as the Big Sandy tributary running behind it, no less than two dozen rabbits stop all at once, spread out a few feet from each other and, seeing him, begin to beat the ground. But after no more than a few seconds of this, in perfect synchronization, they flop into the trimmed grass of the field, chin the ground for a bit, and then begin dancing, actually spinning in the air.
Seeing all the activity out in the open by so many rabbits, he raises his hand, his finger pointing forward like a barrel, the thumb held up like a hammer, and fires off three pretend shots into the bottom field. At once three of the rabbits begin to spin slowly and fall stiffly backward, their front feet cartoonishly clutching their chests before going entirely limp. He can’t remember ever seeing rabbits behave this way, but it was nice to be hunting again, so he fires off three more shots and three more rabbits pretend die. Then all six rabbits roll over in the grass and regain their lazy beating of the ground.
There is the strong urge to tell his mother about the rabbits. And you could shoot without a gun, never kill, but the rabbits would do a little dance, all as if it were a game, and they were playing it too. As he begins the letter to his mother in his mind, how he would explain this strange place and these strange animals, the season turns again. Winter with heavy powder-snow as the railroad tracks disappear beneath the weight; that thick scent of creosote doesn’t fade away as much as turn off as if captured in an unseen vacuum. It is replaced with the crisp sensualities of cold. When the snow stops he can see he’s at the summit of John Attic Ridge.
The summit is profoundly quiet. The mountain descends in sharp slopes all around him. The trees, the sky, the mineral flesh of the soil, the foliage—everything is white. When the first animal comes into view, it’s a big deer. The buck is heavy-horned and clumping along under its weight and power and constantly lip curling to get at the wind. It is also entirely white, including the beams and tines of its rack. A closer look reveals that even its eyes are coma white.
In line behind the buck are other animals, all white, including a small herd of goats, two thoroughbreds, and a massive and lumbering buffalo with a head like flaming torch of cotton. The horses are only visible within all the white when their tight muscles draw together to create the hint of grayish lines along their bodies. He grieves to tell someone how the buffalo snorted, tossed their heads from somewhere in the snowblind, to explain how it seemed a kind of language sharing a kind of secret.
All of a sudden he is tired, and materializing there on his side is his Army blanket. It is rolled tight and fixed to his waist by three shoestrings tied together in reef knots. There’s no question that he will bed down here on the summit in the snow, and so he is asleep nearly before he is flat on the ground. This is where he will write later he dreamed within the dream.
At Fleety’s she tells him the story of the bones. If he could have remembered the perfect spring and the dry summer and the white devouring everything in the winter he would have shared this with Fleety. But all he could remember where the bones inside the long tunnel. The skulls. This is why he felt it was a predetermined event, her telling him about the only thing he could remember from where he had been. He believes in fate, intervention, and destiny; he knows these are some of God’s tools to understanding.
The bones were poor people killed by bandits, Fleety explains.
He listens to her, but everything she says after explaining the bones comes in muffled bursts like a coughing fit into a pillow. Finally she takes him by the hand and at once they are both deep inside the tunnel where he started from. The bones are there, just as before, walls of legs, shoulder blades, fingers, hip bones. The skulls are more misshapen than before, less human. They are lighted in the dark by the faintly pearled tarnish. There is much about the bones that are the same, but there is more that is different now.
He has no time to study the bones or the tunnel walls closely. Fleety guides him to a place he must have overlooked the first time. She moves aside and allows him to enter this new place under a huge rock where no light should have shown. When he is standing fully inside the space, two things become clear: he is in a cave and he is irreversibly alone.
In this cave where light should be a fable, he finds a dogwood tree. It glows the kind of red those trees get at sundown and the buds are purple in that weird light. The scene holds his attention fast, even as the distant thumping of footsteps starts up behind him inside the darkness of the tunnel. By the time he looks away from the dogwood tree and turns to the sound of the footsteps, there is little time to do anything other than throw up his arms in a weak defense.
His forearms go instantly numb. Flecks of blood splatter his cheeks and forehead, warm at first and then drying and cooling. And then he sees the instrument swooping downward again toward his outstretched arms—a pick axe, but one much larger than usual.
The man holding the axe was much larger than usual too. Clearly mad as a hatter, he swung the weapon in bursts, crushing and chopping at the skulls. All the while he is yelling, explaining that he is trying to make them human-looking.
Then I went back to the other side of both dreams.