The Dreamapist

From her climate-controlled pod Rachel reports with desperation: “My hands ache from thumping on the door marked “Help” at the corridor’s end. They’re bleeding; my marks on the door make an exploded rose. Am I alone in this sinking ship, already swallowed alive? I feel no motor, no motion; though ceiling lights glow like little portholes. Back the way I ran–a long curve, not the ruled line you expect–twin rows of cabins are numbered out of order; one bears a smiley face instead. The chain of lights starts to flicker overhead…

“Where are all the passengers I saw dancing to the band in the banquet hall? Where’s Mother? She’s the one who dragged me on board with her luggage, shouting how we’d be saved in Bombay. Now I can’t remember our cabin’s address. I want to scream, but my throat closes like iron over words like prisoners tunnelling.

“The ship shudders and shakes; it groans and clangs. Things I can’t see are tearing loose, the metal scraping, breaking, buckling…”

“What are your exact words, Rachel?” Consuela interrupts from her pod.”What would you tell Ruth if you could speak?”

“I hate you.”

“Very good. Continue, please.”

Under her yellow construction helmet, plump Rachel’s face stiffens. She hunches and shudders, her arms and legs strapped down snug in her pod. Through her hatch she sees Consuela facing her in her own, mock leather pod. The dreamapist (middle-aged and trim, with ink-black hair and candy-pink nails) pecks away at her keyboard. Looking up she smiles encouragingly:

“Rachel, please go on.”

“This ship is sinking; that’s why Mother left. As the corridor rises I go sliding back, till I’m squatting on the door marked ‘Help.’ Drops of chilly water sting my face, and rivulets trickle down the tilted floor. Such dark green water.” She shivers, and Consuela checks the temperature reading in the dreamer’s pod: a comfy 70° F.

“Taste that dark water,” she urges.

“I know it’s salty,” Rachel complains.

“Like your tears?”

“Like the sea that devours and scours us dry; the sea that wrecks us, every one.”

“This is the water of your tears. You conjured this intruding sea.”

“No, I’m sinking on this ship my mother chose before I learned how to walk. And now I’m going to drown, because you won’t help me. She won’t help me; Mother wants me to drown.”

“Ruth has been dead for thirteen years, Rachel,” Consuela chides. “She went bankrupt in Brooklyn–don’t you remember? She burned down her own house, hiding inside it, trying to outsmart her creditors. They got nothing but aggravation. You inherited a steamer trunk crammed with her old photos.”

“I forgot,” said Rachel coldly. “I suppose I wanted to forget.”

“OK. Please go back to that ship where you always get stranded. What can you see?”

Scowling the dreamer grips her armrests. Drops of sweat glitter on her face. One falls like a tear, and she shudders as it trails down her bare arm. Today she’s wearing a loose white T-shirt printed with: “Recovering from my Recovery.”

“That’s only a tear,” Consuela soothes.” Please, continue.”

Rachel reports in a monotone, as if reciting for the hundredth time (which she is): “Where the corridor curves out of sight, the flickering lights go winking out. The water that was trickling comes streaming down. Now I’m standing on the door marked ‘Help,’ in ice water up to my shins. I feel frozen; I can barely breathe.”

“Pull open that door.”

“But I’m standing on it.”

“Take a step to the side and grab the handle. Try to raise it like a trapdoor.”

“I can’t turn it; it’s locked. Maybe welded shut.”

“Just do it, please.”

“I can’t, Consuela. I’ve tried.” Closing her eyes, Rachel screws up her face, and lights flash in the dreamapist’s pod.

“I’m telling you it can open,” she says; “but not if you only moan and complain, coming in for treatment every week and using up the last of your Mind Insurance. You have to want to save yourself.”

Rachel bites her lips, and a curl of blood runs down her chin. She licks it and sneers at the dreamapist. “Look at me–how I hurt myself. I tell you this damn door doesn’t open.”

Consuela folds her arms, leans back in her pod and shuts her eyes. She flexes her fingers and exhales. In the stillness you hear Rachel’s ragged breathing.

“Maybe someone can open the door from inside,” the dreamapist observes, and switches off alarms in the dreamer’s pod.

“Like who?”

“You were nine when your father flew to Honolulu. Here’s his heartbroken little girl.” Consuela projects the image of a grim-faced, skinny girl in a black dress into Rachel’s pod. “She’s hiding under that door marked ‘Help.’ Now she’s reaching up; she’s turning the handle. She’s strong as a suspension bridge, you know: she survived.”

Clenching her eyes Rachel grips her armrests. “Maybe it’s opening,” she mumbles fearfully. “Just a crack.”

“Of course it is. Help her now and pull on that door. Why should you let this child die?”

“I see her,” says Rachel. “I recognize her.”

“Just look at her reaching up to you. Only you can save her. You reach down now and pull her out.”

“But I can’t speak. I don’t know what to tell her.”

“Hold her close, and feel her heart beating. Feel her will. Now what do you see?”

“One light, above the door, comes back; the rest go fizzing out for good. Now the green water’s sloshing down the corridor, and we’re standing on the door, up to my waist. Now I’m holding her up, out of the water…  But the ship plunges, and we’re stuck at the bottom of this pit–it’s horrible! We’re going to drown. Oh let’s get it over with…”

“The trouble is,” Consuela explains, gripping her armrests tight, “though you love this child, you’re still stuck on this ship. You have to swim away and let it sink, with all its freight of hope and fear.”


“Touch the girl’s tears: are they wet? Taste them: are they bitter, dear?”

“I don’t know,” she mumbles.

“Some taste like honey, when they feed the bitterness we’ve come to expect.”

“Are you telling me I banished myself?”

“No, but you want to stay on aboard. You enjoy your drama, drowning,” Consuela offers dryly. “You love to prove how I can’t help you.”


“Then rise and swim away with the child. Swim for your life, Rachel.”

“I don’t believe you.” She writhes in her pod. “I’m damned; I’m doomed; no way can I save her. She has to drown, ‘cause that’s the story.” Rachel bangs her helmeted head against the padded sides of her pod.

“You lazy girl,” Consuela scolds.

“That’s what Mother said. “Rachel stops banging.

“You spoiled, lazy creature–throwing these tantrums, trying to make me do your work.”

“I’m tired,” Rachel sniffles, tears slipping down her cheeks. “It’s enough for today. Please let me go; I promise I’ll make another appointment.”

The dreamapist hesitates, flexes her pink-tipped fingers and takes a deep breath. “I’m not going to let you go today. There’s no excuse for this weakness. I’ve been patient with you for 99 sessions. This time you have to do it, dear.”

“I don’t want to,” Rachel whines. “I can’t.”

“Then I’m going to leave you locked in your pod while I take a little spin down the hall. I need to work with somebody willing, for my own mental maintenance. You know I’ve got a waiting list, with dozens of pods in my parking lot. “Consuela slides back her clear glass hatch while Rachel scowls and bites her lips. Slowly the dreamapist unbuckles her seatbelt and stands up.

“You can’t leave me!” Rachel howls. “Please, I’ll dream anything you say.”

“Then you have to do the work,” says the dreamapist smugly. “Will you try?”

“OK,” she concedes in a little girl voice.

Consuela plops back down in her pod and rolls her head from side to side. Then she toys with the ends of her seatbelt.

“Where were we?” Asks Rachel eagerly, who has licked all the tears she can reach.

“You and the child are standing together on the door, waist deep in cold, green water. All of your lights have failed but one. And now you see the child’s alone.” Rachel’s jaw drops, her mouth forming horror’s O. “Because Rachel the coward has gone home to bed. “Consuela buckles her seatbelt again.

“So what’s the little girl supposed to do? Waiting here in this icy water. Meanwhile, my mother’s living on some borrowed yacht–the bitch. She’s sunning herself off Monaco, or maybe it’s the Yucatan Peninsula…”

“You let her go. Just let Ruth go. Come back to this child. She’s ready to float in the water like a cork.”

“This black water’s killing me. It’s too cold…”

“Little Rachel doesn’t care, with her diving reflex. If we freeze her, she’ll warm up again in the sun. “Slyly Consuela smiles. “She’s stronger than a man in some ways; think how fast her scraped knees heal. Rise up, let the waters raise you, dear. What do you see?”

“I’m rising up the hall.” Her blue eyes widen. “There goes that stupid smiley face.”

“This child is strong. She has in fact survived. Remember how she followed your father into the ocean at Atlantic City? On that stormy day, when waves came roaring up the beach at high tide. You swam out so far with Marcus, the lifeguard whistled you back. “Faintly Rachel smiles. “Keep swimming. The ship is sinking, dying; it’s breaking open now. It’s growling; it’s screaming and howling like a god giving birth. At the end of the corridor, our patient ocean has broken you open a door. You keep on beating through the cold and find it.”

“How can I breathe?”

“Use the words that got stuck in your throat. Anger is power fierce as the sea. It’s inexhaustible.”

“Now I can’t see–”

“You don’t need to, dear; just let yourself rise. This ship was a sheath, a used-up husk. You grew this entire catastrophe–and what an effort you put into it.”

“You helped me.”

“I’ve listened to you weave and unweave this tale, and now it’s time to end it. You can start a new one tomorrow, if you like. If you buy new Mind Insurance.”

Rachel hesitates, blinking slow. “Can I have a happy end?”

“Do you want one?”

“Then, at the end of this tunnel, I see a round, white light: the moon.”

“Not the sun?”

“Not yet. I’m swimming out the end. Now I’m rising up, through the bubbling dark… I see a shape through the shimmering curtains of light–a dark shape. Is it a shark?”

“No, it’s your lifeboat,” the dreamapist suggests. “With all the work you put into building your Titanic, you must have included one boat for floating free. Everybody gets a little one.”

“Now Mother grabbed my leg–she’s pulling me back! Mother wants me to drown.”

“Ruth can’t harm you, a ghost in your mind. Let her go; down, down, drifting down to her lonely grave. You choose the surface, and rising up you break through the shimmering door… ”

“We’re sitting in a rowboat,” Rachel says with wonder, “you and I. We have two sturdy oars, Consuela, and a spare.”

“Always a good idea.” The dreamapist makes her own pod recline. She kicks off her low-heeled pumps and settles her stockinged feet on her worn footrest. Flexing her toes, she breathes deeply. “Now what do you see?”

“Above us the gulls are veering and wheeling. They look happy and clean. Silver fish come leaping out of the smooth blue sea and knife back in.”

“Isn’t this fine? The weather’s gorgeous, so let’s just drift. Relax and breathe.”

They breathe together, breathe as one. The clamped lines of Rachel’s face relax. She rolls her head in an opening spiral and grins at herself in her overhead mirror. She now looks five–no, ten years younger. Dreamapy’s worth it, after all.

Her restraints flip open, and she shakes out her arms and legs, and then makes her pod recline. She dabs tears from her face with a tissue, unbuckles her helmet and drops it on the floor. Next she pulls a brush from her Hawaiian-print bag, and brushes smooth her shoulder-length, chestnut hair.

“So where do you want to row?” Consuela asks casually. “What do you see?”

“There’s a funny grey bulge on the horizon. Maybe it’s an island, with fruit trees and a beach. Maybe it’s a typhoon bearing down. It looks like a mushroom cloud!”

“Why don’t we row in that direction?”

“Oh I don’t know, Consuela… Choosing was easier before.”

“Time’s up for today,” the dreamapist replies.