by Donna Glee Williams
Copyright © 2016 by Donna Glee Williams
A room without windows, hollowed out of a massive wall.
The room is lined with shelves, floor to ceiling, and the shelves are packed with books that no one ever opens. The books all look the same, from the outside: undyed sheepskin, their spines stamped with dates. (The dates go back to when the town was a tiny village huddled around its one lone well.) Parchment pages, pressed into heavy volumes, stitched together and put away.
There is a small table in the middle of the room and a lamp. The olive oil in the lamp has congealed into a thick, waxy scum. No one comes here. No one opens these books. No one reads.
The dreams have already served their purpose.
* * *
Gray. What a color for a girl.
Orik the Water-Bearer was getting used to this town’s inconvenient rule that everyone had to wait for that oracle-girl to draw the first water of the day. It kept him from getting the early start he’d like, but the weird pageantry around the whole thing intrigued him and the Dreamer herself was just at that age when girls started to get interesting — maybe seventeen or thereabouts, with skin like cinnamon honey. Dark-eyed like everyone else in the town, but different, too. There was something about her — he wasn’t sure what, but he enjoyed standing around with the old men behind the well in the mornings and watching her, trying to figure it out. Maybe it was the way she carried herself. Or maybe it was that hair, straight and black and long, past her waist. She wore it in a heavy rope of braid down her back, the way all the women here did. And always she wore gray: a light gray tunic over loose dark gray trousers, neatly banded around the waist with a strip of the same dark gray fabric.
There she was now, crossing the square in the sharp morning light.
The people here said her dreams ruled the town so at first he’d gotten the notion that she was some sort of princess. But over the time he’d been lying low in this dry, out-of-the-way place — four months already? — he’d realized he was wrong. The minders who always walked with her, some of them no more than girls themselves, didn’t treat her like royalty. If anything, he got the feeling that they bullied her. It was subtle, nothing he could put his finger on, but the girl — the Dreamer, they called her — didn’t look happy. She looked anxious, worried, and more tired than was right for someone her age.
Orik had some experience with rulers. They weren’t always happy people, but they didn’t usually look as harried and browbeaten as this Dreamer girl. Actually, his heart went out to her a little. He could tell she needed a good laugh. He could make her laugh; he’d bet a coin on that. What would it be like to see her smile?
The Water-Bearer’s brows crept together and his eyes narrowed a bit with that thoughtful, dreamy look he always got when he contemplated a challenge.
* * *
As she rounded the corner of the Garden wall, she saw the cluster of people, carts, and animals at the well and felt a nibble of guilt. Had she dallied over breakfast and made them wait too long? But the truth was that town-folk watched for her every morning. For the Dreamer, someone was always watching.
It was another morning just like every morning of the last two years. Just like every morning for the rest of her life. Nothing would ever change. Nothing could change, not for her. When the sun came up, she’d stepped out of the Chamber and handed over her dreams like she was supposed to, and, like she was supposed to, she’d received the thanks of the Council, dipping her head to the Chief Interpreter while the rest of them looked on. Something between graciousness and humility — that was what she aimed for when she had to face the Council each morning. She never knew if she got it right.
Now the water from the well.
Her eyes felt raw and gritty, but putting one foot in front of the other was something she could do. She did it.
When they noticed the Dreamer and her Ladies come around the corner into the square, the hum of conversation died away. That was the effect she had on people now. She put some attention to her posture and gait as she paced across the dusty flagstones toward the well; dignity at least was something she could give them, these people waiting for the hot, dry day with their jugs and barrels and carts. So many faces, neighbors who had known her as a child but didn’t know her anymore. Strangers, too, people who had moved to the town since she was sent away to become the Dreamer. That outsider Water-Bearer, for one, with his shaven jaw, wild brown curls, and odd bright clothing. He was there every morning, perched on the wide stone rim of the well or lounging against the South Wall, waiting with his wheeled barrel propped beside him.
And there he was now. Among the bearded men of the town, his face shone out, oddly naked and open as he chatted with the others. He gestured with energy about something; his movements sparkled with enthusiasm. With life. What was he talking about? The Dreamer dropped her gaze abruptly. Had anybody seen her looking at him? She had to pull herself together, stop sleepwalking through her days. This, this work, was important. This work was her life now.
As she drew near, people moved back away from her as they always did, even though there was plenty of room around the well. You’d think she’d be used to it by now.
Stepping forward from the other Ladies, Sand handed her the stiff leather bucket. The Dreamer fixed it carefully to the end of the chain — the thought of dropping it and losing it in the well always made her palms sweat. She felt every eye on her hands as she turned the old iron crank that lowered it past the dry stone, then past the mossy green and out of the light. (Were buckets ever afraid of the dark?) She felt, too, the silent counting of the people as they watched; the number of turns before her pail touched the water measured the health of the well and of the town that depended on it. The clatter of the chain sounded loud in the hush.
When it reached the water, the container floated for a moment and then the Dreamer felt a slight release of tension, both in the chain, which sagged slightly, and in the people waiting. As the pail tipped, settled, and became heavy, she felt more than heard the people’s shared breath of relief that the water was, in fact, still there. In this dry land, it was good each day to know for sure.
Now she hauled the heavy fullness back up into the light. Around and around went the balky crank until she could reach out and catch the dripping pail with her hand. Secretly, she tipped a little out. The bucket had to be reasonably full — the Dreamer who drew light loads from down below would clearly be of light use to her people — but she didn’t want it too full to carry, either. If any sloshed on the ground before it was given, that would show her to be careless with her sacred freight. So she’d learned to be cautious: Before the bucket rose into view she always made certain that the water in it came no higher than three or four inches below the brim.
She pulled it to her and steadied it on the well’s rock rim as she swept her hand around it, guiding the cool drops back into the well. Then she freed it from the chain and heaved it down. The weight of it stretched her arm down from her shoulder as she trudged off. The Ladies of the Day surrounded her, old friends who didn’t know her anymore: Flute and Lintel falling in behind while Sand and Feather walked a step ahead to make sure no one jostled her along the way. This was the box she lived in, at least during the day. At night the box was made of stones and mortar.
The bucket bore her down as she walked up the rise of the Street of Merchants slowly and with great attention. If her sandal caught on a rock, if any of the precious gift-water sloshed on the ground, someone would tell the Council of Interpreters. (Sand was such a tattletale; she always had been, even when they were children.) So the Dreamer was careful, conscious of watching eyes. The water had to get to where it was needed. It didn’t matter how tired she was; she couldn’t be sloppy with this. The gift must be given.
Today she thought she would take it to the old woodcarver’s widow who lived a fair distance uphill from the middle of town. The Dreamer had been feeling a little at fault recently for favoring the well-off townspeople who lived down near the square. Water was heavy and the streets sloped steeply up from the square and the Garden. But what she brought up from below was supposed to serve the whole town. She had to do better. She was their Dreamer.
A plan. She needed a plan, maybe some kind of timetable to guarantee that each family received the gift-water regularly, in turn, like the rotating service of the Ladies of the Day? Maybe the Scribe would help her make a list; she didn’t think a schedule would be against the rules.
Sand shouted at a street vendor with a big tray of bread to get out of her way. Sand never changed.
As they left the square, the Dreamer heard the morning hubbub coming alive behind her. A bucket splashed. The crank creaked. Carefree voices bubbled up and boiled over. She had done her part; a vessel had been sent down empty into the dark and drawn up again, full. The town could start its day.
She stole a glance back over her shoulder. The knot of people at the well had drawn in and she couldn’t make out individual faces but, just for a moment, she saw a flash of a bright ruby vest among the sober browns and oranges of the townsfolk’s garb.
* * *
While the Dreamer plodded up the winding alley to the house of the wood-carver’s widow, something unsuitable happened inside the green precincts of her Garden.
The Keepers were at their morning work. They had already cared for the Chamber itself: making up the Dreamer’s big bed, airing out her pillows, beating the meager dust from her carpets, emptying her pot, replacing the water in her brass basin. The Scribe’s ink, too, had been replenished, sheets of fresh parchment set out on his desk, and his sleeping place arranged at the foot of the Dreamer’s bed. Now the same Keepers saw to the Garden: raking up dead leaves, watering the trees, and picking the quince that ripened at this time of year. (Because it came from the Dreamer’s Garden, this fruit sold at a great price in the market, helping with the expenses of the Dreamer’s household and the Council of Interpreters.) Also, two of the gray-robed women were busy in the kitchen; the Interpreters took their morning meal in the back room of the inn on the square while they worked over the dreams, before they went about their own affairs in the town, but the Dreamer and the Scribe had to be fed. Two big, solid Keepers simply stood guard, because the Western Gate was open for the coming and going of the day. Although the sun shone and the Dreamer walked outside the walls, the Keepers kept the hush of the Garden out of long habit. If their work required them to speak, they whispered. But mostly they used signs and gestures.
The unsuitable thing that happened was this: The blanket of silence tore. A sharp, insistent voice piped in the garden.
The two Keepers who kept lookout against just this sort of intrusion stirred. If it had been night, the Dreamer’s guardian owls would have dealt with the little bird that shrilled from the highest frond of a date-palm, but the owls slept by day, so a mist-fine net was gently lifted high on tall canes around the errant noise-maker.
When the bird became aware of the creeping gray figures below it, it launched itself to the freedom of the air but the nearly invisible net caught it. It hung there, flapping hopelessly, until one of the Keepers reverently snapped its neck and released it.
Silence returned. The net was tidied away into the Keepers’ Closet, close at hand when called for.
* * *
The Scribe yawned. His morning work was done. He’d surrendered the night’s dreams to the Interpreters, completed the Thanking Ceremony, handed the Dreamer over to the Ladies of the Day, and sent them off to the well; now he had to rest. He carried the brass tray with breakfast — his main meal of the day — to his usual place on the bench built into the joining of the East and the South Walls, well away from the morning bustle at the Western Gate.
With his work at night and his sleep during the day, the Scribe had always relished taking his meals in the early morning sunshine. It was the only time he really sat in the light of day. A man needs to see the sun sometimes, even a Scribe. But his mind was elsewhere, gnawing — again — on the question: What was he going to do about the Dreamer’s wakefulness?
He leaned against the brilliantly whitewashed East Wall while he ate, distractedly scooping up his lamb stew with bread still warm from the big stone oven and watching the angle of the morning light change. It was still very quiet, of course, even here outside the Chamber in the daylight. The thick walls and carefully watered trees of the Garden kept out the sounds of the town around it coming to life, and the night-watch of owls usually saw to it that no small animals rustled the leaves. One small singer had disturbed the morning briefly, a poor foolish bird who had wandered into the precincts, but it had been dealt with. The Keepers were very efficient in these matters. Their soft footfalls and few quiet words filled the place of morning birdsong as they went about their work.
The coming of day didn’t mean the Scribe went off duty, like some soldier who walks away from his guard-post once he has been relieved. The Scribe was always the Scribe. But duty differed from night to day; while the sun shone, he must rest his body and mind. He must sleep during the day. During the night, if he wavered in his alertness he might miss a crucial word or phrase of a dream or even commit the unthinkable calamity of dozing off in the Chamber.
Drowsiness plagued him many nights. It had taught him that he must take his own sleep as seriously as the Dreamer’s. He must be regular in his routines, even when his mind was in turmoil. So this morning he consumed his usual heavy breakfast, finished up with a sharp salty cheese and some figs, then washed himself. After he had seen to his necessities, he went back to the Dreamer’s Chamber.
The Keepers have already aired it out, of course. Sweet smoke catches in the Scribe’s throat; incense still smolders and glows faintly at the head of the big carved bed. At its foot, his pallet lies on the floor like a rug for the Dreamer’s feet. He slips out of his sandals and descends the four cool stone steps into the Chamber, then pulls the heavy doors closed behind him with the same formal dignity with which he brings the Dreamer to her bed each night. This is just habit; his sleep is important, but it is not a sacred thing like hers. He sleeps protected from untimely awakening in the windowless, half-buried Chamber because the Dreamer’s Scribe must keep his vigil alert and ready, able to take down her dreams perfectly as they come from the source. But during the day he doesn’t drop the heavy iron bar into place, nor draw the curtains across the entry. Narrow bands of brightness glow around the doors as he un-belts his tunic and settles down onto his sleeping mat.
Like the Dreamer, the Scribe doesn’t fall asleep easily. He lies in the dark Chamber and thinks about his charge. He thinks about her dreams gushing out as if from a fountain, her restless tossing and turning, the dark hollows below her eyes. He pushes away the dread that she might be withering already. It can’t be; she’s only dreamed for two years. She’s barely sixteen years old. It can’t be that time. He won’t let it be. Not yet. She just needs more sleep, that’s all. More unbroken sleep. More rest. What should he do? He keeps himself awake, turning ideas over in his mind, studying them from every angle, considering facts and possibilities and consequences.
The Dreamer is always and only one. Nobody knows this better than her Scribe. But he also knows the other thing, can’t help knowing it after all these years: that the Dreamer wears the face of a sequence of young girls — the big-eyed shy one, the laughing one, the bossy one, the tiny one, and this one — each with their own ways, each needing different things to help them sleep and dream true. And meeting these needs is as much a part of the Scribe’s responsibilities as sitting with the Dreamer through the hours of the night, waiting for her to speak. (But what does this girl need?)
He keeps these thoughts to himself, of course. You have to be discreet in this job; you have to be careful. He never refers aloud to "this Dreamer" or "the Dreamer before this one," but he allows himself to think these words in the privacy of the Chamber, because each of his girls once had a name and a family and a story and dreams that were her own and not the property of the town.
It seems to the Scribe that this knowledge, even though it was not discussed by his teachers, matters. It’s not to be shared with the Council of Interpreters, perhaps; how could you expect a troupe of shopkeepers and traders to deal with the paradox of the one-in-many faces of the Dreamer? The Council’s concern lies with the dreams themselves, not the getting of them. When the pages of creamy goatskin are turned over to them each morning during the ceremony at the Western Gate, that’s when their duties begin, turning the dreams into decisions and actions that guide the town. The Scribe and only the Scribe midwives the dreams themselves and this calls for some awareness of how the Dreamer rides differently in the different girls who inhabit her Chamber. (Although always the same, of course.)
If they ever call him back to the School to teach, he thinks he may introduce this knowledge to aspiring Scribes. Not in their first year, maybe, but before they leave to take up the work in the far-flung towns where the Dreamer dreams.
It is not impossible that he might be called to teach. When he first came to serve the Dreamer in this town he had been a boy of eighteen, and now eighteen is his age in her service. He has gathered a lot of experience in those years, solved a lot of problems for the girls-who-are-the-Dreamer. (A phrase he would never utter in public.) The prodigies of Dreaming that are emerging in this town reflect well on him; he knows this. He might be called.
He thinks he would be a good teacher. He remembers his own time at the School clearly and knows what helped and what simply frightened him.
Awe is not the same as fear; young Scribes need to know this. Awe keeps you awake in the presences of the mystery, alert and ready through the long hours in the dark, your pen in hand, listening hard: listening to the breathing of the Dreamer, the rustling of the bedclothes as she turns in bed, the quality of her tossing, the subtle changes in all these sounds as she rises towards wakefulness and speech. Fear, however, is another thing; he knows about fear. Fear distracts. It tugs your attention away from the Dreamer into the what-if’s of a Scribe’s life: What if she speaks too quickly or too softly and I miss some crucial words? What if she can’t remember the dream? What if it slips away from her and I have nothing to give the Council in the morning? And — more likely, with this Dreamer, who never forgets the dream — what if the poor child never falls asleep at all?
No, fear is not helpful. If he is ever in charge of the education of young Scribes, he will not try to scare the discipline into them, as Storm did when he was a boy. No, he will try to be more like Tree, to inspire them with the wonder of the work, the love of the one who dives below the surface of the world, and the honor of sitting as her only witness.
The Scribe will wake in the late afternoon to begin his preparations for the work of the night. If he were asked, he would say he did not dream.
* * *