When I was seven, my aunt gave me a dreamcatcher and told me to hang it above my bed. “You will see the world through your dreams,” she whispered to me as we huddled closely in the corner of the living room, so my mother couldn't hear the mumbo jumbo she expelled on me. “You will see my world through your dreams,” she continued, “And one day, others will find inspiration in your dreams.” Maybe if I’d hung it correctly from the start, the ending wouldn’t have been such a shock.
We didn't see my aunt much, but when we did it was always interesting—tales of foreign and exotic lands and just as many men of the same description. She and my mother varied in every respect: the way they looked, the way they lived, the way they loved. My mother was plump and dark while Crazy Aunt Kate was tiny and blonde. My mother had settled down early in life, found young love and married, had a baby, found a good job and lived the life of pleasant routine, while Crazy Aunt Kate had lost her marbles in her mid-twenties when a man she thought she loved drove the sanity out of her with well-hidden demons. She'd called off the fall wedding in late summer with a display of gut-wrenching pain and torment. I remember when her fiancé randomly disappeared from our weekend visits to the beach house which coincidently was a few streets down from their house, mostly because I missed his dogs. After that, we didn’t see much of Crazy Aunt Kate. It was just the three of us and the lives my parents made for each other as best they knew how.
The two of them overcame the trials and tribulations most working, busy, exhausted, polar-opposite couples experience and lived a life of quiet normalcy. I remember them fighting out on the deck one evening when I was little, younger than the dreamcatcher age. My mother had given me a cup of ice cream and sat me in front of the television for a show. Any other night I’d have revelled in this treat and ignored the goings on around me with the utmost enthusiasm. But I could hear them fighting and talking about me. I sat in the sitting room on the couch and watched my mom through the sliding glass door yelling at my father, who was just out of frame, like a ghost. I waited pateiently while they fought, my ice cream melting away into milk in the other room.
When my mom came back inside, I asked her if she still wanted to live with my father, my sad, elongated eyes staring up at her as I spoke. She burst into tears and collapsed around me as if to shield me from whatever was going on between her and my father. I never saw them fight again, but there was also something missing in my mother after that night –something inside her had died; a glint of light in her eyes extinguished. Later in my own life, after having been married for some time and having children of my own, I would come to understand this disappearance as the mother’s sacrifice. The extinguished light was the death of the part of her that existed outside the moniker of wife and mother. When my mother decided to remain true to the domesticated life she had chosen years before, her soul had matured enough to understand what her life could be, she ceased to be herself and continued as only wife and mother.
She loved my father. He was good to her, but they were different people. When she sat with my Crazy Aunt Kate on the couch late at night with a bottle of wine between them, I could see the excitement born back into her eyes from the top of the stairwell through the banisters as I spied on them. I saw a glimmer of light when Crazy Aunt Kate wove stories of dark men with names like Luka and Enzo doing dark things to her that I was too young to understand. They would laugh and whisper and drink too much. Crazy Aunt Kate would tell her stories, and my mother would ask questions about the people and places like she’d known them herself. We only saw Crazy Aunt Kate when the wind blew her in from her outlandish adventures, and my mother fed off the stories she presented and tucked them away for safe keeping.
It had been years since I’d seen Crazy Aunt Kate, probably close to five when she reemerged in our lives. She’d been too engrossed in fighting for women’s rights in some overly misogynistic nation to come home when my father first fell ill and too deep in the jungle studying the effects of modern technology of the native culture when we celebrated his first stint in remission. We would receive letters from her over the years entertaining us with magical tales of places no one knew existed except for her, things only her eyes had seen, loves only her heart had conquered. My mother would always read them to us with an air of jealousy hidden in disapproval, her mouth in a constant smirking state as the words fell from her lips. When he was gone, she would read them to me late at night when we laid in bed, like I was a little girl again and she was reading me a bedtime story. The first few letters my mother sent her after my father died came back marked “return to sender,” which was not uncommon; gypsies rarely stayed in one place long enough to have an address to post mail to. One must have found its way to my Crazy Aunt Kate and carried her home one evening on a gust of wind so powerful that our lives rattled in its wake.
I listened to them talk from the upstairs hallway, secreted in the dark, like I had done when I was little. There were whispers, and hushed words, tears as my mother chronicled the last days of my father’s life, the clanking of wine glasses, and finally, childish giggles after the business of catching up on the formalities of our lives had concluded.
I awoke the next morning with the uncomfortable feeling of someone watching me; my aunt sat on the edge of my bed humming some nonsensical tune, twirling the dreamcatcher she’d given me years prior and, for some reason, still hung from the spindled bed knob near my pillow.
“It must be broken,” I groggily confided in her. She turned so I could see the confused look fall upon her face as her ears interpreted my words.
“I never dream,” I yawned, still half asleep, the puzzlement upon my aunt’s face growing deeper and deeper.
“When I was little, you came back from one of your exotic expeditions and gave it to me and told me to hang it above my bed and I would see the world in my dreams… or something like that,” I trailed off as I flicked the dreamcatcher out of her hand. We both watched as it swung back and forth and then came to rest against the bedpost.
Quickly, the bewilderment transformed to understanding upon Crazy Aunt Kate’s face. “I remember that trip,” she whispered, her eyes fluttered back and forth as if she was seeing the memories pass in front of her at that very moment. “Lots of peyote,” she added in a hushed, disapproving manner with her face wagging side to side, as if to say don’t tell your mother I just told you that.
We sat silent for some time, not knowing what would come next. The last time Crazy Aunt Kate saw me, I was 11 or 12 maybe, so the 17 almost 18-year-old that laid in front of her now most likely seemed like a stranger to her. She only knew of me what my mother had shared with her in her letters, most of which she never received. And I knew only knew of her what my mother told me, which was a fraction of the truth. We were two strangers with familiar blood pumping between us, sitting on a bed together, waiting for the silence to break.
“You don’t remember any of your dreams?” she questioned, as she began to twirl the feathers of the dreamcatcher in her delicate fingers.
I thought about the question posed and then desperately tried to remember the last time I awoke in the morning having retained anything resembling what a dream might look like, but nothing distinct came to mind. No dreams of boys and innocent teenage petting, no dreams of sneaking out in the middle of the night and laying in the dew rinsed football field with friends, no dreams of leaving for far-away places; there was nothing, just blackness as thick the darkest night you’d ever seen.
“I mean, maybe something, bits, and pieces,” I lied unconvincingly.
My Crazy Aunt Kate looked at me with the expression of wonderment and awe upon her face. After a few more awkward moments she glanced down at the dreamcatcher she still twirled between her fingers. The continued silence began to grow uncomfortable. I threw back the blankets in an attempt to exit the comfort of my bed but stopped when the coolness of my aunt’s hand fell upon my own. She looked at me with a content smile but still did not speak. The air of comfortability in the room scratched roughly against my skin.
I continued to slide out of bed, my hand slithering out from under Crazy Aunt Kate’s grip. I began to babble about what we had planned for the day as I opened and closed my dresser drawers looking for something to wear, anything to break up the awkward feeling in the room. Mid-sentence, Crazy Aunt Kate interrupted me, her breath on the back of my neck, stinging like ice cubes on a hot summer day.
“It was upside down,” she whispered from behind me.
The seriousness of her voice was out of place for her whimsical flow. I didn’t even know she could be serious; I’d never heard her say anything without the flow of imaginative passion or fanciful lust before in my life. Had I not known it was crazy aunt Kate standing behind me, I may have thought it was my mother.
I turned to question the proceeding statement; upside down? What kind of obtuse comment was that to make, I knew how the dreamcatcher was supposed to go. What nonsensical insanity was this crazy person about to depart on me?
Her eyes lit up like the 4th of July as we came face to face, eye to eye, soul to soul. I couldn’t help but feel the enormity of what my Crazy Aunt Kate was about to explain to me, and the truthfulness that lingered behind the fireworks in her eyes pulled me into her world, deeper down the rabbit hole than I’d ever known existed.
“What?” was all I could conjure amidst my confusion.
My Crazy Aunt, Kate, cupped her small, warm hands around my face and pulled me closer.
“It was upside down,” she whispered again. “This is a daydreamer’s catcher. It has to be upside down for you to see…”
The noise in the room began to buzz or hum like a swarm of bees surrounding my head, and the words my Crazy Aunt Kate spoke to my mother who had burst into the room at the most pivotal moment in our conversation, began to trail into the distance. I stood, frozen by the stagnation of the moment’s inertia which crowded the room. What was it that my Crazy Aunt Kate thought or knew or thought she knew? What was she trying to tell me before we had been thoughtlessly interrupted? Why did it feel like the completion of the conversation was all that mattered in life?
The feeling of spinning broke my outwardly calm resolve. Words that they spoke came back into focus. Both my mother’s and aunt’s eyes were upon me as I sped back to reality.
“What?” I reiterated, obviously dazed.
“What were you two girls talking about?” my mother asked as she stood cross-armed next to my aunt.
I was frozen, unable to answer the simplest of questions with the simplest of lies. We were talking about boys, sports, school, dogs, books; anything would have sufficed, but the words would not leave my mouth.
“We were talking about my latest trip to the Far East,” my Crazy Aunt Kate started. “And a man named Giusto,” she continued with a wink and a hip shake, successfully satisfying my mother’s curiosity while leaving my hunger at its peak. My desire for more information about my aunt’s cryptic words would have to wait; plans for the day were being formulated in front of me while my mind drifted.
We spent the day shopping, sipping tea on the front porches of bakeries, strolling for the purpose of strolling, with our last stop of the tired day being a small gallery my Crazy Aunt Kate begged us to visit. None of it felt real; I would have said almost dreamlike, but never having experienced the surreal sensation of a dream of my own, I wasn’t completely sure that’s what the experience mimicked. I floated through the day, unsure that it even really existed as I experienced it.
The smell of incense invaded my nostrils as we crossed the threshold of the gallery and the quiet sound of chimes and peals resonated from a poorly hung speaker in the corner. Crazy Aunt Kate struck up a conversation with the gallery keeper while my mother and I wandered the open space, looking at the strategically-hung, overpriced pieces of art that adorned the walls. I stopped my amble at a specific piece of figurative representation of a child sleeping in her bed, the loud pastel colors that covered the canvas an interesting contrast to the soundless subject of sleep. I stood, rapt, by the odd pairing of subject and color, and in my enthralled study of the work, I noticed a tiny familiar object hanging from the bed spindle. I moved closer to confirm that my preoccupied mind was not playing a trick on my weary eyes.
“This is a very interesting piece,” a man’s voice interjected behind me, it’s presence in my world giving my body a reason to jump back at least three feet.
“Apologies, apologies,” he begged at the realization that he’d interjected himself into my world unannounced.
The man introduced himself as the curator of the gallery, and we made pleasant chit-chat about the gallery. He was a small, thin man with the eyes of someone who’d done too many mind-expanding and mood-altering enhancements throughout his years. Looking into his eyes felt like looking out into the ocean: blue in color and endless in depth.
“This is one of my favorites,” he explained motioning to the piece I had been studying before his interjection.
“It’s… interesting,” I replied, turning my attention back to the piece hanging on the otherwise stark wall. “But, is that… a dreamcatcher?” I questioned, squinting my eyes trying to make out the tiny, blurred object hanging from the spindle of the bedpost. “It looks like it’s upside down though. I thought the feathers were supposed to hang down from the bottom,” I finished, the point of my nose within inches of the pastel paint.
“Very keen eye,” the curator commented, “It is a dreamcatcher. It’s upside down because it’s a daydreamer’s catcher.”
The ease in which the explanation of the upside-down dreamcatcher flowed from the curator’s lips was almost as confusing as the words themselves. I stared at the painting and attempted to comprehend his meaning, unsuccessfully and conspicuously apparent.
“You know, so the daydreamer’s dreams can flow to the person sleeping below it.”
Seeing my utter confusion, the curator took pity on me and dove into an explanation of how dreams are made involving visionaries and seers, people who are born to be daydreamers and whose extraordinary lives are put to use in the dreams of those in need of inspiration and stimulation. The upside-down dreamcatcher above their heads, the tool used to circulate these images and passions to others around the world.
The rabbit hole had fallen completely dark and felt tight around my skin, constricting my ability to think rational thoughts. Had I had the dreamcatcher upside down this whole time? Had it been upside down, would I have been dreaming dreams that other people had seen; dreams of the things my Crazy Aunt Kate had lived? Is that even possible?
Of course, it’s not possible, I screamed internally. Have you come completely unhinged?
I stood still, my body facing the direction of the painting in question, but my mind was elsewhere; my eyes scanned their peripheral vision for a familiar face that could rescue me from this nonsense. Where was my rational mother when I needed her?
“Often, the ability of the daydreamer is passed down through a family, from parent to child,” the curator continued unprompted.
Something stepped into my peripheral line of sight as he spoke, blurred at first until I turned slightly, bring her into perfect clarity. Crazy Aunt Kate stood at the other end of the gallery, the sun from the skylights above raining down on her like beams from heaven. Her skin sparkled like bubbly champagne, effervescent in the jumping light. She floated across the floor, her feet barely brushing the ground below them. She was angelic, unreal and yet more present in my life that I’d ever known her to be. When I looked at her, I had a hard time disbelieving this unbelievable idea that my aunt and this strange man believed to be true.
“Sometimes it skips a generation or only passes to one of several siblings in a generation. It just depends on the dynamic of the person passing on the gift. Sometimes people don’t even know they have it. Sometimes someone knows they have this gift, but choose to ignore it for one reason or another.” The curator spoke as he stared into the space of the gallery, his eyes focused on images only available to his eyes.
As if in some masterfully orchestrated ballet, the curator’s last words to me passed through his lips as my mother gently came to rest alongside my Crazy Aunt Kate, the two of them exchanging smiles and giggles in slow motion. The light twirled between them as dust bunnies danced on the air. The look of release and reprieve showed on their faces, and as they turned the look of acceptance filled my mother’s eyes. What I assumed to be the refraction of the sunlight pouring through from above turned out to be something more than mere light itself. The spark in my mother’s eye that had disappeared the night she fought with the ghost of my father on the porch while my ice cream slowly melted now leaped from the canvas of her face. She and my Crazy Aunt Kate turned to look at me in unison, faint, reassuring smiles resting on their faces.
“Or sometimes,” a voice whispered from behind, “sometimes, someone who abandoned the gift for whatever reason comes back to it later in life, when the time is right.”
When the time was right? Was the time right right now? Had my mother abandoned some mystical gift because she married my father, had me and settled down to a life of normalcy and routine? Was the timing right at this moment in her life since my father had passed and I was no longer a young child incapable of caring for myself? Had I just gone insane, lost my marbles, because I was on the brink of possibly believing in some small aspect of whatever it was that was going on around me?
My mother moved toward me, leaving my Crazy Aunt Kate behind to dance in the sunlight. There was a weightlessness to her soul that let her drift across the floor, a fresh smile breaking upon her face.
She tucked a small dreamcatcher into my hand, forcing my rigid fingers to curl around its edges. “Ready?” she beckoned.