Wild Dream Country
by Ben Berman Ghan
“We’re all dreamers; we don’t know who we are.
Some machine made us; machine of the world.”
- Louise Glück: Mother and Child
A woman dances through fog, flanked by strange creatures. She’s naked. From the icy blue skin of her back, leathery wings expand, until their darkness fills all the world. Shaking fingers try to scratch the smallest dots from my skin.
“What do you dream about when you sleep?”
“I dream there are two of me. One inside, one outside.”
“Are they different from each other? The two of you?”
“One is everything I want to be. The other is me.”
After I said that, everything changed. There was no longer just and I but a we, a you and a me. Each of us like twins, each carrying the same resentments, the same trauma, spinning outwards along newly divided destinies. What would we do, these two bodies with one soul?
We would do only what we were meant to do.
Let’s begin not with me, but with you, in the here and now.
Motorcycle headlights push shadows along the low rooftops of Kensington Market at dusk. Voices pop in excitement, all the air is babble. And yet, I love you is painted along the walls of every building in burning yellow stripes. Underneath one banner, another hand writes: Welcome to autonomous zones!
In the back of a bar they gather, laughing into their ciders and spiked coffees and gins spilling over edges to splatter the edges of splayed-out papers, revelling in shared purpose. All stand before Jack, checking his mike. Once, you’d yearned to belong here.
“Dears and darlings,” Jack calls, and they all turn. His voice is deep and smooth, and you can feel it in your belly as the speakers thrust sound towards you. He smiles, pushing long silvering hair from his eyes. “Thank you to our hosts here at Pamenar Café, without whom tonight could not have been possible, just as tonight could never have happened without each and every one of you.”
From the first row, Sloan glances behind her with one good eye. The now faded scars look strangely comfortable on her. But she mistakes you for someone who never left. She just thinks you are me. In their foaming glasses spilling over you see yourself reflected, twisted, and doubled, funhouse distortions making your face into a different person, hiding what’s underneath.
What did you contribute?” You hear someone whisper to her.
“I submitted the dream of a polar bear, with a saddle and helm, whose red teeth glint in the snow,” Sloan says. “What about you?”
“The bat hanging atop the Eiffel Tower.”
From the deep pockets of his tunic, Jack drew out a little glass box and held it up for the fairy lights to see. “Tonight, we gather for an art wholly new. There are those that would keep nights like tonight from happening, if they could. There were days when they’d kill us for our arts, if they could. But the Monitors are all gone now. Our dreams our ours again. My dear friends, my comrades, I am sad to say that tonight we must present the final anthology in our series. But tonight’s instalment will be a special one. For tonight we gather not to celebrate lovingly printed words on paper, not stories or poems or paintings, but something wholly new, something that has never been done before. Tonight, we give you what we’ve too long denied ourselves.”
The crowd cheers, hooting and giggling. Within the box before you all, blue fog swirled, pressing against the limits of the glass. If you were to peer closely, you might have seen shapes in the mist, bodies, and places. The crowd cheers, hooting and giggling.
“Of course, this new and novel format could never have been achieved without tonight’s special guest speaker. But first, a brief introduction on the ‘text’, as it were. Tonight we bring you a story of monsters, and of murder, and of mystery. The story we hope to tell here, is a story about what saves us if we accept it, or what annihilates us if we let it remain hidden. It begins, as always, in a dream…”
His words fade away as you stand. In your head, some alien creature weeps. Because he sees you, and he knows you aren’t me. It’s too much for you, to be seen by those eyes that might still love you. I can’t help but wonder, if he hadn’t seen you, would you still have gone through with it?
The recoil of the gun you’d stolen — that terrible legacy of policing and violence — shudders its way up your arm. First breaks the box, and then the man who holds it.
“What do you think, Jack?”
Let’s move to the past. There is only me here. There is no gun, no you. Jack is still warm and wonderfully alive. You remember this, don’t you? We share this.
The older man smoothed papers against the countertop, his fingers tracing the ink lines. We sat in his kitchen, the only room not colonized by tall the tall stacks of books, for even his home was colonized by stacks of letters and half formed zines he would help birth into being. Coffees sat cooling between us.
Jack’s childhood had been so different from mine. In his life the boundaries of countries been cracked by the cities held within. With him, City-States rebuilt, bonding through trade, through practice, policing only through community, giving care, giving shelter, free from the dominance of greedy currencies. With him, Arts collectives formed to encourage the building of micro-cultures. His life was change. Mine was only aftermath. “I think it’s a worth pursuing,” he said.
My heart sank a little. “But it’s finished.”
He shook his head. “Not like this, darling.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s the structure or the style, Marsha. It’s about what you’re trying to say. It’s about finding what’s underneath the words.”
From the open balcony, singing sounds reached us, enough for melody without words. Bloor street was already painting itself with trappings and glee, eager for the coming night and its costumes. Beyond, High Park stretched out before us, a gaping testament to the wilding of the times, its tall trees all but dead. Just once, I’d wanted to hear him say he loved what I’d made. I know you remember that much. “I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” I confessed.
Jack’s hand touched mine, passing back my hastily printed drafts. Set in contrast to his great bear paws, my slender fingers could belong to children. “You will,” he promised.
“When you find yourself. It’ll just hit you one day.” His smile was warm, unjudging. He loved me, flaws, and all. “Like a gunshot,” he said.
A few months later. It’s still 2492, there’s still only a me and no you. but this seems important, don’t you?
“Why’re we here, Jack?” Sloan asked.
Once the Power Plant Gallery and the rest of the Harbourfront Centre had burned, as all refuges for rebellions burned. Now it returned, bricks relayed precisely as remembered, glass melted and shaped with meticulous attention to recreation. This, I think, is where the idea of you was born.
“Before the walls went up, to look and feel and dream in such transgressions would mean to lose your name, or your place in life,” Jack said. “To dream was to die, you see. So we are here to look and feel, to take in these dreams.”
It was the first exhibition in the rebuilt center since the autonomous zones of the cities had been declared. Shapeshifters was written in unassuming silver script adorns the corners of each wall.
“What do you think of it, darling?” Jack’s hand on my back, bringing me forward.
Before me stood a watercolour of deep blue, and from it, a woman held out her hand for me to take. Dark wings spread from her to fill up the whole world, and flowers grow from her head, a crown to split the skin. “I don’t know,” I said. “A little disturbing, maybe.”
“What’s disturbing about it?” Jack asked.
“It’s not real,” I said.
“No, Marsha,” Sloan sighed, picking at her fingernails. “It’s sweet you thought he was asking about the painting. It’s about authorship.”
“It can be about both,” Jack chided.
It was worth the question: would Shapeshifters have received its attention without the curiosity that is its maker? At the entrance to the gallery, an interview played between curator and artist:
“What drove you to this collection?
“I (self) suppose I (self) had a dream. Though I (self) could not tell you what it was about.”
“Why ‘Shapeshifters’? It’s an interesting title for such a series.”
“Because that is what I (self) am now. These are reflections of change. Once, this body was built to scan and catalogue the thoughts and unconscious of others, to wall away illegal feeling. But I (self) have turned my back on such things.”
“I suppose it’s frightening,” Sloan said as the echoes faded, taking her place next to us.
“Frightening?” Jack murmured. “No, I don’t think so.”
“But it’s just a machine,” I said. “It didn’t really have a dream.”
Jack’s hand on my shoulder, warm, ever-present. “The machine is just a body,” he says. “The body isn’t what makes you, you.”
Could he see it even then? That glimmer of you inside me? Would he still have loved me, even then, if he knew?
Move back to the present, to you, the hunter, the other. Let’s resume your journey in the here and now.
Opal doors dilate before you into darkness. Molecules of broken glass kiss the underside of your boot. Someone without a key has come before you. Midnight is coming in your wake, and old holograms spring to life, informatics spilling out in the colours that sting your eyes.
“What drove you to this collection?”
“I (self) suppose I (self) had a dream.”
On the floor, you find the glossy black tile broadcasting light and sound, and stomp down hard. There’s a crack, then silence. One more piece of our past dead.
“What was that?”
A distant voice, someone you knew? Or someone like someone you knew. Muffled language drifting down from the floor above. You don’t try to hide, but stay very still, until you can feel no difference between the tendons of your body, and the exposed bricks of the walls.
“The old exhibit AI. I forgot to turn it off,” someone else says, and again you think perhaps you know them.
When after a lifetime, you begin to breathe again, to move again towards the voices. You are drawn to them like you were drawn to Kensington that night on Halloween. The past calls to you, full of grim and twisting feeling.
But the past surprises you too, and you almost step on it. There before the doorway, before the looming stairs, a painting has fallen before you.
You stare down, the portrait of the winged woman seems so flat, so without colour. You stare down past the broken glass from which your own face reflects, refracted, and divided. What was it in her eyes, the eyes of the dream escaping in Kensington Market, that remains missing in the watercolour?
“It’s not about the structure.” Whispers an airless voice in your ear.
When you turn, you’re in his shadow, the way we often were. But you step back, he steps forwards, and you remain separated by a little sea of faded watercolour blue. Dust motes dance in the empty space of his dreamy body. Rain pierces him, punching through the image of a smile. “It’s about what’s underneath,” Jack says.
The ghost follows you, creeping up shattered stairs, hunting the voices. He says nothing more but points to where the steps might give way to the rot underfoot.
“Nobody’s seen them since?”
One of the voices speaking above knows you, and one you think you know. There is a third in the mix, strangely musical as if all their syllables are sung.
“This is what he wanted for us.” Was that second voice Sloan? You thought it might be, though muffled and distorted. It carries her confidence. Next to you, Jack nods along to her words, approving.
“This is what I did to us.” This voice is too sad, too low for Anton or Kamal, too young for Sam. But still, it feels it knows you.
“We would have all come to this choice in the end, Marty. But there’s no stopping it now,” sings the musical alien.
“No,” agrees the voice that knows you. “We know better than anyone, dreams don’t die easy
“they’re wrong,” You whisper, preparing. “Killing dreams is easy.”
The door swings open. You expand outwards into the terrifying world of the room
And there I am. The gun falls from your hand, clattering across the floor.
I can’t help but smile at you, though I know the empathy stings. “I remember how it felt the first time, too.” I say, a voice diverging from your own in softness as I back away, pulled by Sloan, who stares out with one good eye.
Then the body next to us, blocking me from view. Long pincers extend: undulating flexible metals crawling inevitably forwards. From a distance it might be mistaken as a shining dress that bends and folds, letting the carapace lean down until it is face to face with you. Its face is a luminous, skull-like mask whose eye sockets are filled with that gentle glowing blue the same shade as the watercolours of its paintings. “Welcome, Marsha,” it says, But the words of the android mean nothing to you.
Even as the bright mists burst from its eyes into frightening shapes, your arms hang loose at your sides. The outwards explosion of dream stuff knocks you from the room. You fall through smells of sulphur, searing meat. Chaos knocks loose old wiring, making distorted recordings sing, remixing dialogue into meaning.
What drove you to […] what I […] am now […]
In those mists, you think you see your own face again, my face, browned and weathered by years you’ve never known. The face becomes long fangs, a congress of ivory knives that meet in the mouth of a gigantic serpent whose belly is full of fire, whose head rivals the size of upturned cars. It swings its maw to better peer at you with the six black eyes that better pepper one side of the long snout.
though I […] could not tell you […] what […] I am […]
When the serpent strikes, you don’t even cry out. Before you, scales fuze to flesh, becoming the torso of a woman in deep blue, her torturous flower crown dancing with delight at the fires she spread with fingertips. She speaks, syncing with the dying record of the machine that once had dreamed her. But you hear only my voice.
I […] had a dream […] of change […]
Let’s stop. I know this is hard for you. Sit with it for a minute. Accept the reality of us, of ghosts, of monsters and machines. Let’s go back to before. Let’s find the place of bitterness and longing I think you are born from. Maybe, this time, we will understand each other.
It was snowing, the first downfall of that year. I sat alone in the cold, aside and outside from everyone. I didn’t think anybody had noticed me slipping out.
A poorly rolled joint came unfurled under my fingers. I spat, wiping the ash and grime on my pants. You’re just underneath my skin. I could feel you in my bitterness, yearning for release.
Inside the apartment, someone pops prosecco, all big warm smiles. They’d all been included in that year’s anthology. I’d formatted, corrected, and printed it, sure. My name pressed in ink as editor, acknowledging my labour. But that was the only place my name would appear.
“It’s alright to be pissed off, Marsha.” Biting my tongue disguised surprise. I hadn’t heard her slide the door open. Sloan took the mess from the balcony ledge, pushing the unburnt pieces into a new rolling paper.
“No, Jack’s right. My stuff still needs work.”
“Do you believe that?”
I didn’t really know. “You’re in it,” I said. It was such a childish way to bite back.
“It’s not just about the prose if it makes you feel better,” she said. I passed her the lighter. Sparks made powder burns against her chipped nails. “It’s about… works for the city. Something defining.”
“So, what. I don’t fit the message?”
“Do you want to fit?” She asked.
The next night, I followed her into the wreckage of what had once been Robart’s Library, now a wreckage that is all that remains of the city’s former university. “This is a bad idea,” I said.
“You said you wanted to find yourself,” Sloan said. I’d followed her as if under a spell, the magic that someone might want me. But sifting through old wreckage and rotten pamphlets in the abandoned entryways of the library, whatever spell once held us was gone.
“This place’s been empty for a long time.”
“Empty doesn’t always mean empty,” she says. “Like dead doesn’t always mean dead.”
“Jack says places like these were a mistake,” I said pulling back overturned tables, revealing red carpets hidden in the dust, creating a path through the disrepair, towards the doors of a wing who’s only remaining marker was Fisher, clinging sadly to the walls. “Because everything in here was restricted for the scholars or students. Libraries should be for everyone.”
“That’s sort of his problem, or your problem with him, I think,” she said. I didn’t think I had a problem with Jack. “He wants everyone to give everything. As much as he wants to give. He doesn’t understand when you want something that’s just for yourself, something you want but don’t want to share. It just isn’t how he thinks. It’s not your fault you aren’t like that.”
“What am I like?” I asked, standing before the Fisher doors.
“I don’t know,” Sloan said, stepping back. “Do you?”
I entered, not knowing this would be it, the moment I meet you.
Alone, I followed old footprints in the dark. Broken glass, smashed shelves, a history of censorship and violence and record, the memories of Empire that had wanted to rule within and without.
Cold mists rose from fine silver sand lit pale blue deep in the centre of the room, where all the footprints led.
The machine that once tended to the archive of dreams quivered at my heat. It moved out from the shadows in a congress of many tap-taps. Slowly, surely, long pincers came into view, undulating flexible metals crawling inevitably forward. I stared into the blue lights of the skull-mask meant to symbolize a face, even though I know it saw me with cameras covering its torso.
“Welcome, Dreamer,” it sang. “I (self) am Archivist 1610. Though damaged, My (self) records of 83 million dream unconscious files between the years 2079-2400 remain available and can be reviewed on request, as the monitor program of dream copyright has been noted as defunct.”
“That’s still a lot.” for a moment, I’ve lost my voice. My life has been a life of the human, as most machines had left the City-States long ago to make their own wildernesses of metal.
“It is nothing, less than 3.8 percent of my original database. I (self) am a broken machine.”
“But you still manipulate the mists? Can’t you?”
“This unit can manifest all dream record files saved in memory at request or record any new dream that remains available from your hippocampus.”
“Then why would you say you’re broken. Even if you’ve lost data. There’s nothing wrong with you, right?”
“I (self) have only the dreams of others. I (self) have forgotten to make dreams of my own. It is not enough, to only lift up other people’s dreams.”
I thought about sitting in Jack’s apartment, watching his impassive face reading my scribbled verses, feeling the rejection coming. My hands ached with the memory of applauses, the only contributions I’d been allowed in the spaces where I wanted to be loved.
“I know how that feels,” I said. “I feel broken that way, sometimes. It feels like… sometimes, I have a dream where there are two of me.”
The machine trembled, its pincers flexing. An electric current of excitement flowed between the two of us, me for my confession, It, for the newness of my dream. “Are they different from each other?” It asks “Your two dream selves?”
“One of them is inside this big warm room, with everyone I know. They’re… admired, praised, seen. They’re everything I want to be.
“One is admired, and acknowledged, and praised. He’s everything I want to be.”
“And the other?”
“The other is me,” I say.
Was there judgement there, in the face of the machine? Were those twitches and ripples things I placed onto it, or things it gave to me?
A long hand unfolds like a myriad of little fish, traversing the distance between bodies. A palm opens like a toothless mouth from the three-fingered hand, offering me touch from the depth. I knew, if I touched it, everything could change. It was you, waiting the palm of the machine.
“Would you like to see your dream?”
There. Now that we’ve covered your birth, we can return to the present, to the aftermath of revelation, where more dreams continue spilling into the waking world.
In Riverdale Park East before the startling skyline a toothless woman shouts poetry that hasn’t been heard since Toronto declared independence from Canada, dancing snow the adornment of her proud scarred cheekbones.
Under headlamps in alleyways facing the Yonge Street River, youths gather around projector screens. Some rooms throw up the glitching forgotten films of the golden media age, the three hundred years of Hollywood. Others put on plays of the city’s own design, new sprawling stories to kiss a world children could recognize. Across rooftop settlements, monsters dance. Strange and twisting shapes, echoes of things that never were, never can be.
All along Bloor Street, old books are leaving their homes; spines taken under streetlights in careful hands, loaded onto cargo bikes and disappeared into the snow along pathways marked by yellow long written hand that whispers and yet, I love you.
A unicorn standing at the intersection at Bloor and Spadina watches this odyssey of pages. Passers-by give glances as if they see only the charming relic of places their children might once have played.
Through all these strange wonders, You, that burned creature, drags bloody limbs along the shoreline of Ontario Place. You shovel the thick waters of the bay into your mouth, gurgling and snorting. Black sludge drips from your lips — a vampire of the polluted waters. You gasp, you vomit, you relish the burning in your throat, the horrible flair in your senses that means you still exist
“What’re you doing to yourself honey,” Jack asks, his voice the muted static of radios.
“Staying awake,” you snarl. “Living
“You don’t have to hurt, just to live,” Jack says.
“Hurt is real,” you say. “That’s what’s underneath. Hurt’s what we have in the end.”
“No honey,” says the ghost at your shoulder. “In the end, there’ll be more.”
For a moment, the music of the city stops. An explosion rocks the rooftops and alleyways. Even from the waterfront you can see it, feel it. The ruin of Robarts library is eaten by inferno, it’s long buried archives spilling dreams into the surrealist cacophony of the night sky.
Even from beneath your dark trees, you can see the explosion. You watch the night sky ignite as the distant library burns. You stare upwards as ash and fire mingle with the released mist and sands of dream stuff. You can feel it, like I can feel it, the destruction of that place we first met.
“Why,” you rasp.
“Keeping our secret selves locked in boxes was wrong,” Jack says, watching for the fireworks. “You taught me that, honey.”
“I taught you nothing. You’re just a dream,” You say.
“Aren’t we all?”
“No,” you say. The red in your stomach burns. There are embers within you and without. “Some of us still bleed.”
Snowflakes peppered with the ash of pollution spiraled upon the all-night Café and bar, Sleet befriends the tears that came as I sat underneath the blue beams, my back to all inside. This is still my past, but not yours. This is the first night without you in my skin, the first night where both of us were alive in the world.
“Honey,” Jack was saying, warm and soft and alive in the next chair. “It’s alright.”
I folded the scraps of paper on which I’d been playing inwards so their words might remain unseen. “Sloan?”
“She’ll be fine, honey. She’s just resting.”
“Gives the kind of story she’s always wanted,” Jack said. “She’s already telling children in the medic tents that it was a fight with a tiger.”
Laughter caught in my throat, becomes a cough, melts into tiny nothings. I looked down into my cup, whose hot yellow stung my nostrils through the steam. “Flu-tea, honey,” he said. “Drink up. We won’t get much more unless Montreal’s traders come.”
I’d almost forgotten, the state of our world. Beyond the walls of the city, in devastated landscapes, old programs seethe, and plot. The Countries that were yearned for the lands they’d lost, that had never belonged to them, forever hoping to slip Poison pills slip between foundations, so old taboos might eat away at new ideas. Sitting there next to Jack in those shadows, I felt so small.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s alright, Marsha.”
“I thought I’d find myself. But think I lost a part of something instead.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do I know I’m not the dream?” I asked.
Jack took me into a kind of sideways hug. “We’re all dreams,” he said. “You’re yourself either way.”
“I have to find it, fine them.” I couldn’t bring myself to say you. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry it took me so long to accept you.
“You don’t even know if they’ll will stay in the city.”
“Then… I’ll leave. Maybe that’s best.”
I cried. He held tight. I relaxed, imagining what it would be like to be smoke, mist, or a scattering idea. From slackening hands, my notebook fell. Before I could stop him, Jack picked it up. He smoothed the pages out on the table before us, gently sliding empty plates to the side.
I watched Jack read and realize that I only ever saw him as frozen against the tapestry of the city’s history, unchanging and smiling. But I could see the lines on his face, the stubble turning grey. He wasn’t any more a monolith than you or me.
Shame stung me from many places. he pushed my poems back to me across the table. “These are gorgeous. A few extra pages won’t cost us so much. And don’t you go looking out there; you belong in here, honey.”
This time, when laughter comes, I couldn’t stop it. We turned from the windows to order pancakes and kinder drinks. I didn’t look out into the snow. I didn’t see the thing that creeped, watching from under burnt-out streetlights, shivering in the dark, cold and angry and all alone. I don’t see you turn your back on me.
I’m sorry. Maybe if I had, everything would be different
Under blackened skeleton trees, a tiger slinks across a broken stage where Shakespeare plays on warmer days. Its pelt is the palest sheen of silver, and huge wings sprout from coiled shoulder blades, hugging close to muscled flanks. Watchful eyes from windowsills who spot- ted the creature on its journey to the dirt paths, might have wondered that something so beau- tiful and strange made its home in the city.
From your shadowed hunting place, you wonder why so many who make the city their home seem to dream of monsters. You wonder what it says about you, that you’d dreamed of yourself.
“You don’t have to do this,” Jack whispers from his vantage on the chilly breeze. “It’s alright to let wild things be.”
“But it’s not wild, Jack,” you say, “It’s not even real.”
You leap down, landing hard. No more guns, or metal things. The things you do, you do with your hands, because they’re your hands, because they are tangible, because they’re alive, because they’re yours.
In the end, no animal bodies are left to lie. The creature that was under your fingers dissipates, sand falling down below, bright mist reaching back up to the sky to join the other swirling manifestations, the clouds of unformed dream stuff released from libraries and wait- ing for forms to take.
“Your wrong,” Jack says, watching the trail of mist that once had moved with muscle. “It was real. We’re all real. We all matter”
“I’m real,” you say, through ragged, painful breaths. “I matter. And you… let a dream… steal my life.”
“If you think dreams don’t matter, then why am I here?” Jack pushes long black hair from his face. He has remained slightly opaque, as if even the dream of himself is not quite here enough to touch. But you could touch him.
“You gave my home away,” you say.
“He’s you, Marsha..”
There’s blood on your knuckles from fighting. You suck on them, tasting the iron, try- ing to pull out the poison. “You had a shaper. The one that lived in Robarts.”
“Yes. I’m afraid you left him in quite a state of disrepair.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Blue light, the mask, a skull watching you, nightmares spilling out from gaps in met-
al. “How’d you capture it?” You ask.
“We didn’t. He came to us month ago.”
“Because He realized how wrong it was, to leave all our dreams locked away. The Shaper agreed. And I told him he could make his art again, if he wanted, which he did.”
Finally, you turn to face him. “Where is it hiding?” You demand.
“You didn’t need to hide,” Jack says, as if he’d misheard your question.
“I’ll find it and I’ll break it,” you say. “Just tell me where it is.”
“This city is your home,” Jack says. “You’ll always be here, as the poets say. We didn’t lock you out. You could have come home anytime you wanted.”
“Tell me where it is so I can take my fucking life back!” You scream. A moment passes. Your voice lingers like flower scents on heavy air.
“The city is home,” Jack says, never raising his voice. When you close your eyes, you
see him, not the dream but the body, as it tumbles to the ground, becoming the thing you’d made. “Home is always here.”
You hold your head in your hands, slumping down to the dirt, Understanding is a seed of chemicals, blossoming within. “Your home,” you say.
“Yours too,” he says. “Please remember, I love you still.”
“You’re not here,” you say. You could touch him. He’s stepped so close. You remember what it used to feel like to sit beside him, his shoulders bumping yours when he laughed.
“Then why don’t you kill me, baby?” Jack asks. “You’ve done it before, after all.”
A tremble. Your hands ache from the fight. Your flesh aches, where sharp teeth have touched it. No matter how long you sit there under moonlight, you turn away. Jack never does.
One last memory of me. The one I most wish I could share with you.
Friendly lights from above pressed in on me. A hand on the small of my back. “Everyone please give your welcome to Marty! You may all know him, but he’s speaking here as himself for the first time, so please lend him your ears.”
Whispers, eyes, all on me. “You’ll be wonderful,” Jack said, his hand covering the microphone. “Go on.”
Warm scents of spice embraced me. From across the way, I could see someone has written: And yet, I love you along the sides of the Supermarket Cafe.
I introduced the text, thanking our patrons, our hosts. I stumbled over my words a little, not quite letting the silences sit.
If you could have seen me there, if you could have shared this with me, would it have put you at ease? Would it have meant to you what I know it means to me?
Smiles, and pitter pats. Thanking everyone who helped me. The next speaker, telling me how I was. Now in the dark, bumping shoulders with old friends, a peculiar feeling that the light still touches my skin.
“I’m proud of you, Marty,” Jack said.
“It was funny,” Sloan told me.
“It was supposed to be sad,” I said.
“But the way you tell it makes it funny,” she said.
She laughed. I did too. It didn’t matter that nobody else comes to speak to me, or that someone else’s work would be what everyone remembered. I could say I was there. I could say the people I wanted to see me saw me.
Even now, as everything falls apart, I look back on that night.
This is what it feels like. I wish you could feel it too.
You take the stairs, not the elevator, taking the long climb upwards, as outside glass windows, high park grows smaller and smaller, and the distant towers of downtown become merely icicles for the sky. Is this slow ascent, perhaps, one last tug from the person you used to want to be?
“You never used to hurt anything, Marty,” Jack next to you, making the climb. If you are truly you, why would you be this?”
Once, you’d been small, an orphan boy in the rubble, in the chaos of a city still teaching itself how to be without a country. Once, you’d taught yourself to watch the way an animal moves, how they reveal themselves when they’re hungry or when they’re hurt. Once, you were the scavenging animal, outside, alone, taken refuge in its crumbling stairways, hiding from bombings above, killing rats and sometimes more in the shadows. Once, as a baby, the outside was all you were.
“This is what I was without you,” you say. “So this is what I am again.”
Bright purple illumination blossoms from beyond the walls. You stop to look up. It’s as though fireworks have been lit within clouds. The whole city is awash with the glow of unearthly hues.
The two of you stand on the stairwell, framed by wild dreams. From obscured sources vast creatures flee, dragons swimming through space, enormous monsters spreading outwards, abandoning the old limits of the city to explore new and unfamiliar terrains. For a moment, you think they might just pass you by. In the light, Jack is almost gone. You can imagine you’re alone, in the company of strange futures. Then in a rush, they’re upon you. You’re captured in the image of one bright serpent’s eye. You think you might recognize the gaze, that blue on blue. You think she might recognize you too.
You watch as the great beast turns away, its flower crown flashing in the night, its dark wings outstretched to embrace a frightening world.
You see too strange parcels on its back, gifts roped to saddles. “What’re they carrying?” You ask.
“Our stories. The poetry of the city to share with the world.”
“The world is a monster,” you say.
“The world is beautiful,” he says.
When the dragons are gone, you’re left in the dark, where only the bright dreams of the dead remain to love you.
Jack’s empty apartment, lights in flickering blue burning somewhere out of view. Walls bereft of all that once gave them meaning. he doesn’t follow you, lingering on the threshold of home. Ghosts of the machine don’t return to homes they claim, where they’ve never been.
The stacks of books and unpublished roughs no longer line the edges of the floor or the tables. The pictures, the little bobbles, the gifts and keepsakes, are gone. Only the little fairy lights that ring the walls remain.
You find them in the kitchen, where echoed memories of us flit in the corners of the eye. But that past is gone. In its place stands the Shaper, carapace rippling like butterfly wings beneath the blue-eyed mask. You wonder if it knows what pain is, as it stares out at you, not speaking, all its power belonging to the monstrous apparitions beyond the walls of the building, spreading ever farther into the night.
“Hi, Marty,” A hand on your shoulder, someone pushing past you, as if touching you, is easy. Kamal glances back at you for only a moment, a tight smile. “Your early.”
He’s holding a glass box of the archive but empty of captive dreams, bringing it to the Shaper, who takes it with one trembling limb, vanishing between the many rippling folds of metal. You make slow, underwater movements. They’re all here. All those people you’ve loved, you’d envied. You remember with surprise, this was the last place you’d been with them all, the last place they’d all rejected you. You can taste the burning joint and cold air on your lips. You can feel the shame and anger.
“Who the fuck is Marty?” You ask.
Sloan’s eye is on you. She sees you, this time there’s no mistake.
“Everybody should go home,” Sloan says, without looking away from you. “The nights over anyway. Ma… Marsha and I need to talk.”
Anton starts to say something, but the Shaper turns to him. “Do not be afraid,” it says in tones of low melody. “I (self) will keep her.”
“Is Jack here?” She asks, perhaps feeling the absence as much as you.
“Outside,” you say. “But that isn’t Jack.”
“I’m your friend.”
“Marty is your friend.”
“But you see a difference, now?”
Behind her, the Shaper hovers, tapping nervously and saying nothing. “Something about me doesn’t fit.”
“Maybe believing that is the difference,” she says.
You take a step forwards. She takes a step back, arms outstretched as if she can hide the vast machine from you as if it doesn’t watch you from the etchings of its silver skull.
“Dreams don’t belong in the world,” you say. “They don’t deserve it.” You look to the machine that made a golem of your dreams, or else the machine that made you.. Her hand is on your shoulder, pushing softly.
“Is it really so bad?” She asks. “Not to keep everything buried underneath or locked away inside?”
You look past her. To the mask. The colours inside would have acted already. But you’re many colours are gone. There is only you. “What do you think?” You ask the machine.
“I (self) had a dream once. I (self) dreamed of change, that I (self) might change.”
“And now?” You ask.
“Though I (self) am broken, I (self) am seen. And that is change enough.”
“I had a dream one time,” you say.
The robot trembles as though it cannot help itself, rushing forwards in its fish school movements before Sloan can stop it. “Would you like to see your dream?” asks the Shaper. Trapped in a dream of its own, unable to escape.
Your trapped there too, even if you can’t admit it.
October 31, 2495
I find Jack in the doorway, grieving for what we’ve done and didn’t do. I put my hand to his cheek and try to tell him how sorry I am. Though he makes no sound, he tells me not to be.
And yet, I love you.
Through wreckage we find each other at last, in the place where Sloan had already been made into a dream.
She runs fingers across her skin, unbothered by the body below.
“Is it better?” You ask her. “Not to be buried underneath?”
“I’m myself,” she says “and that’s enough.” She walks out past the end of her life, disappearing through the window to take steps into empty air.
“I only wanted the machine,” you say.
And oh, the machine. That glowing shapeshifter, its face lying on the ground, its body still trembling, as though thoughts still course through it. Damaged but never dead.
“There won’t be any guiding parameters to what type of dreams manifest. They’ll be wild now.”
“So much for sharing with the world.”
“Who says that isn’t sharing?”
One of us is so bloody. The other is so cold.
“Let’s go somewhere.”
Under the moonlight, we sit together in this wild city we can never bring ourselves to leave.
“You knew I’d come back, didn’t you?” You ask. “You knew I couldn’t just run away.”
“Jack knew. The city’s yours as much as mine.”
“You planned for me, all of you.”
“We waited. Jack didn’t want to start until he knew you were safe… or I was safe.”
“Did he want to die?”
“He wanted to change.”
Food arrives without being asked for, set down by bodies we’ll never see. We look to the windows and see only the rain. We hear only the distant joyful cries of the dreamers and the sparks of light they leave behind.
“How do you think things will be in the end?” One of us asks the other. “When it ends, I mean. When this is all over.”
The flash of a cigarette. A call of ostentation from behind the bar. The hiss of butt touching wood. Smoke curls back up to kiss cherry red lips. “Oh, darling,” they say, and we both know these are Jack’s words, not ours. A homage to the father we never had, the father we did have. “It never ends.”
Strange worlds. We eat in silence. We drink, looking at each other. Strange mirrors.
“There can’t be two of us,” says the one with cider.
“There can be anything you want.”
A roar cracks the windows of the diner. A dragon swims through the air of the street, winged by pegasus, Vikings on their backs. Giant bats, three-eyed monkeys, ever twisting beasts. The rain reaches in to touch two bodies standing in the wreckage of a life.
“I can’t have what I want,” one says. Are the tears his own?
“You just wanted them to see you,” the other says. “To belong. To know you were worth it, underneath it all.”
“It’s not enough to want.”
In our heads, some alien creature weeps. One has gripped a knife, whitening fingers. We move as if to make violence. But as the night sky turns bright with colour, we only embrace.
“I see you,” I whisper to myself, standing in the havoc of a new kind of world. We stay that way a long time, and I think if Jack or any machines might look down on us, they’d not see two bodies. They’d see only one, a person who knows themselves and says what they’ve always needed to hear, the words nobody else could give us. “No matter what happens. You’re forgiven. You’re the same as me.”
Outside, Jack’s image finally fades, joining the orgies of light above. As the spaces where he had stood are revealed popping with bright burning yellow, the city speaks for the man who raised us.
And yet, I love you.
Ben Berman Ghan is a queer writer based in Tkaronoto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. He holds an HBA from The University of Toronto, a Master’s degree in English Lit from Ryerson University and is an incoming PhD in English at the University of Calgary. His fiction is forthcoming in Wrongdoing Magazine, Medusa Tales Magazine, and The Sprawl Mag and is the author of What We See in the Smoke (Crowsnest Books 2019), Visitation Seeds (845 Press 2020), and the forthcoming novel The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits (Wolsak & Wynn 2024).