Dream House

Lucy Biederman


Their mother never said it. She didn't think of it. Scything the grass into a jagged path, she pushed it away. But this realm, as we know from psychoanalysis, is precisely the infantile unconsciousness. It is the realm we enter in sleep. We carry it within ourselves forever. She ferried a basket of knives and shears through the glowering white morning.



Sara made mud masks on the banks of a thin river, a community of sightless seers staring out of their faces. She made one for herself with special qualities.

Inside the room Sara and Leigh shared, she sat with her gym shoes on, her face neatly swallowed by mud. The walls of the room were thick and formidable, built as if for the façade of a museum or school, but they were whipped and tattered by water damage, rotted paint, and internal decay. The ceilings were high—too high. They were wrong to be so high. They made what happened on the floor seem amateurish, unofficial.

The house was brown and moldy, sheathed in moss. It was cold, even in summer—its walls, inside and outside, were cold to the touch. It was renovated hardly once a century. No passerby ever happened upon it; that would have been geographically impossible. It was on a rugged island serviced by a ferry that ran on weekdays, provided passengers called to confirm the night before. There were five other properties on the island, including the school attended by Sara and Leigh and other children from the dribble of islands nearby. But of the island's five buildings, Valance House was the only one occupied year-round.

They took the ferry to the post office every Tuesday. Leigh subscribed to magazines like Vogue and The Queen. She left them lying open in the bathroom and on the floor of the narrow hallways, under the shadows of the far-off ceilings. Sara didn't like magazines. She never looked at them. She didn't know the names of anyone in the Mickey Mouse Club or what brands of sandals were popular to wear. But Leigh looked through them diligently. For her each page was like a whole new cover, another scented skin. She hoped one day to go to London, or if not London, Cardiff, or if not Cardiff, Dover, where Mum had grown up. They didn't know much about their mother's life before they were born. There used to be a small, brown photograph of her with short hair and dark lipstick wearing a hat and kissing a man with all her heart, yet primly. It was a sad picture. Leigh and Sara shared it for a while, propping it up on toy cars to make a parade float, or wedging it in the mirror in the bathroom as if they were soldiers at war remembering their sweetheart. They didn't ask her about it. Then it wasn't around anymore.

Leigh was polite to the ancient musty ladies who hazarded the ferry to visit with Mum every blue moon. She never made trouble at school. She always helped with dinner and left milk for the outdoor cats.

Sara hated leaving the island. She didn't like the unpredictability of seeing people she had never seen before, interacting with their essences. Going to school was bad enough, and there were only a couple dozen other country people there, all of whose souls were neutral.

Sara put trances on Leigh in the middle of the night, while Leigh was sleeping. Leigh knew but didn't tell Mum or say anything about it to Sara. All three had terrible secrets they kept safe. They kept them safe for so long and so devotedly that they were no longer secrets—they were alternate ways of navigating the world.


They shared Valence House with a seventeenth-century lord who, during an opium binge, had beheaded one of his friends. The Star Chamber sent him to prison, where he lived out the rest of his living days watching rats peck at each other's faces as they starved to death. Sara knew him well. After dinner they took long walks in the wild woods past the end of the property. She hid the hideous stories he told her under her bed. He told her about special tricks the Spanish Inquisitors had used to make people stay alive for as long as possible while they were being tortured. The Inquisitors tied their prisoners to cold iron frames and had servants prod them with canes at irregular intervals. The prisoners never knew when the next cone of fire would roar back onto their skin. Their dwindling existences fought them from inside themselves. The rules they had lived by crumpled, doubled back. There must be something wrong, they thought, that they, simple people who had done nothing exceptional, collecting eggs from chickens, swaddling their babies, should suffer so exceptionally.

Leigh's body knew about Lord Dunham, but it kept it from her mind. As she slept, her hands would reach toward the corners where the ceiling met the wall—this was where he stored his essence. She was trying to pull him out of existence. Sara saw Leigh struggling and laughed. Sara's laughter sounded inside Leigh like a second heart, too hard to hear.

Lord Dunham shared with Sara his way of looking at things, a smear of blood down the side of every panorama, a century of daily walks through the village on the largest island beset by continual moaning and weeping, the sounds of peoples' seams being ripped apart. He told her of the pitiful vagrants who would wander through the countryside, unhoused from their own selves with pain, some of them largely lacking discernible human features. Under the bluffs past the end of the woods, he tied his royal blue ribbons around her wrists and called Sara his girl.

Her full name was Sacrifice, a name you don't hear nowadays.


When Leigh told their mother that two cousins, boys, had joined their class— in the middle of the school year, in the middle of a week, without any warning—their mother looked at Leigh like a bad bird flying in the wrong direction. They didn't discuss it, but Mum and Leigh felt a sense of the joints between the days being pulled apart. Lord Dunham whipped his sash.


Sara covered the Lord's entire body in mud, though he told her not to. He begged her not to. It was one of his superstitions and he said it would ruin everything, every little thing, pore and war and boat and mote, if she did it. She told him she would just do his face, but she kept going.

Lord Dunham first felt a comprehensive sense of indifference that he imagined could be permanent. He thought of all the death and dying he had been a party to and wondered if perhaps he had become immune to human affairs. He was not particularly strong or brave, and he definitely wasn't good. He didn't know why he had endured in this way for so many hundreds of years. He took a deep breath and began to consider a new phase of consciousness.

Then, the sense of the nightmare that the world was about to become struck him. He trembled like the fork used by the dandy who tuned the piano for the last family who had lived at Valence House, a happy lot, he still missed them. He fell off the cliff of himself. Even Mum and Leigh felt it. The dusty corners he inhabited shattered.


The cousins were both named Frances. They had lived in Spain. They had come to live on the big island with their grandmother, who operated the only restaurant on the whole group of islands—though it was really just the living room of her house. She only served beef stroganoff, she didn't offer alcohol because she believed it to be morally wrong, and she set out water crackers instead of bread before the meal.

Though the cousins were separated in age by three years, they looked more or less the same age, so the school secretary took them to same classroom. There were only three classrooms in the school, anyway—very young children, kids, and young ladies and gentlemen. This was Leigh and Sara's last year in kids; they would be in young ladies and gentlemen the following fall.

The cousins were assigned to young ladies and gentlemen. They were tall and pale, more confident and healthy-looking than anyone Leigh had ever seen. They stood straight and spoke clearly. They spoke as if they wanted to be heard; Leigh was accustomed to hearing people speak who hoped not to be heard, or expected not to be. The cousins' high, small, sweet voices suited their heart-shaped faces. Leigh wanted to talk to them but Sara told her not to, not while everyone else in the school was taking such an interest in them.

Leigh and Sara watched them play football with the other boys and speak politely to the teachers. On Friday, the cousins' third day at school, Leigh came back from the bathroom to find Sara having an involved conversation with them. Later Sara told her they were meeting the cousins after school. Leigh knew this could not be undone, as much as she might want it to be. Their mother did not permit them to invite boys over. But that was the least of it. Sara was glowing with excitement. Leigh knew a parade of miseries was passing through Sara's mind. She could have watched it too if she had wanted to, but she had turned off that channel before she knew she was alive.


They met the cousins at the ferry stop, the only landmark Sara could think of that wasn't too obscure or esoteric for them to find. The group spent a few hours walking the ragged windy miles between Valence House and school, the boys trailing Leigh and Sara. It grew late, stars stinging the moonless sky. It was if the moon had been broken open, numinous and luminous as a smashed chandelier.

The boys were adventurous and open to suggestion. They didn't seem to mind the wind and cold or not knowing the lay of the land. But they were not entirely comfortable, either. One would look at the other for confirmation after agreeing to keep going forward on this or that path, and from time to time they would look at each other with expressionless faces, as if affirming each other's presence. They don't know how to protect themselves, Leigh thought.

Leigh was hardy, accustomed to long days at school followed by long hours of chores when she got home. She didn't complain when she was hungry or tired or hot or cold. She was strengthened by how rarely in her life she had been comfortable. She leaned on her history of discomfort as a weary person leans against a wall.

And yet it had been a very long day. The wind sent personal beads of ocean to her face. She said it was time to go home. Sara kept saying just a little longer. Hours passed, wandering through the high, frozen grass to the sea-shell whorl of the wind. Leigh grew exasperated. She felt she should stay, but exhaustion tugged her away. Finally she gave in and went home to her dreams. They didn't have anything to do with her and she didn't deserve then. She struggled through them like a deep-sea creature brought to land and put on display.


When their mother came to their room the next morning to wake them, Sacrifice was in the empty bathtub in the adjoining bathroom wearing a mud mask. Their mother said get ready for school. Leigh reflexively got out of bed and started packing her book bag.

"It's Saturday," Sara said. She was right.


Some say nothing has power until it is spoken. On Monday, Leigh sat at her desk inside herself, trying to let her body touch her mind as little as possible. Whenever her mind and body touched each other by accident, like two people squeezing by each other in a narrow hall, she gagged at the sense of herself, the gross familiarity.

No one mentioned the missing boy.


Under the fathoms of scratchy air, their mother's eyes were closed, but she wasn't sleeping. She knew what Sara did with their dreams. She stirred them together in a thick black sludge, a living death. The more she and Leigh dreamed, the more material Sara had, and soon the pot would boil over. Even the spiders and roaches crawling around the grounds would go. Their walks would be as clean of creatures as the set of a Hollywood film. But so far this was just conjecture: Sara didn't have enough material. So their mother would sleep as little as possible.


The bones of one of the cousins lay in a neat line on the fence on the far side of the property.


Some say nothing has power until it is spoken. In many ways nothing was different. They wore their hats on the ferry to the post office. The craggy postman offered pleasantries in his mostly indiscernible brogue. Leigh got the latest Girl's Own Paper and Mum had two notes from the bank. What was gapingly wrong none of them would talk about.

Lord Dunham barely touched down into existence at all now, and when he did, he merely fluttered through the static above a pile of laundry or in the dust along the fringes of an Oriental rug. Mum and Leigh wondered where he was, but since they hadn't acknowledged his presence in the first place, they couldn't admit to themselves, let alone mention to each other, that he was now missing. The sense of his absence was like being constantly in the ebbing stage of grief, waiting for a flow that did not come. They could feel intense itches that people had died with, which screamed with untapped, unreadable meaning. They could zero in on the exact germ that began a certain ancient plague, the unwashed chain of mistakes that the germ traveled through, its goal pure and true.


Posters of the missing Frances hung in the school, the post office, the bank, the ferry. The local newsletter ran a story about his disappearance. Laconic part-time police from the largest island came and asked questions of Sara, Leigh, and the remaining Frances.

Leigh wanted to look at Sara while she was asleep, or examine her face at rest. She wanted to see if Sara knew or was bothered or changed in any way. But once long ago she had looked at Sara in a searching way, and Sara had responded by having Lord Dunham whip Leigh all night. It was a night Leigh would never forget or remember; it lived in her like the war her father had fought in, though she didn't know her father or that he had fought in a war.

Even while considering possible changes in Sara, Leigh didn't tell herself what Sara had done. Though Sara had done it before and would do it many times again, this was the only time Leigh and Mum knew about it. It was nearly too close to their home and their brains to ignore. They ignored it, but it ruined their lives anyway. Thinking became more like trying to bury something in the woods. Sleeping became more like digging through the dirt looking for something.


The bones of the disappeared Frances were no longer on a neat line on the fence. They were now decomposing in the angry gray sea.


Awakening, Leigh and Mum only traveled deeper into the symbolic space of sleep. They dreamed they had awakened and were remembering the dreams they just had had: meanwhile a new dream was beginning in the next room, like the loud, quiet first notes of a song. They walked toward that room without intending to. They found in their hands the key to its door. Walking through, they were only going further into sleep, away from the light, but by the time they realized that, it was too late to turn back. They shared a life, the only one, a dream in which the things that barely touch us succeed in carving an impression, in which our hands take hold of the key that turns the lock, the key for which we have sought in vain.