… I didn’t think that things could get any worse, but the next dream came swiftly, unexpectedly, to destroy the small amount of hope I had left. In this dream I was asked a question. I can’t remember what the question was, but I know it was hugely important, and when I tried to answer I couldn’t speak. No sound came out of my mouth. I tried coughing and swallowing and clearing my throat, but nothing worked. My voice was gone.
When I woke I knew what to expect. I tried to speak, to make a sound, but silence was all there was. I had lost the use of my hands, lost my sight in one eye and only saw in monochrome with the other, and now my voice was gone too. I thought about calling work again to say that I would need to take leave, but then realised that using the phone is pointless when you can’t speak. I couldn’t even have called the doctor, and there was no way I was walking into town looking like I did.
I stayed in bed. It was too much effort to get up and get dressed with my useless hands. I couldn’t brush my hair so I had to leave it to knot as it pleased. I wasn’t hungry. I knew I deserved whatever had come to me. I had made a promise to my grandmother, the woman who had raised me from the age of five, and I had broken that promise. I had ignored all that she had to teach me, neglected to listen. Now, without a voice to speak, all I could do was listen, remain silent, crippled and half blind and alone.
I didn’t want to go to sleep that night as I was scared of what my next punishment would be, but I couldn’t stay awake. I had to accept whatever came, I knew that much, and so I dreamed of hundreds of beautiful birds, all caged, all sad and silent. Birds that could not fly and could not, or would not, sing.
My next punishment was a loss of freedom. I was now caged in my own room, too ashamed to leave the house with my strange milky eye, damaged hands and tangled hair. I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t speak to explain myself, and I couldn’t even read a book. All the meaning that I thought had existed in my life dropped away, instantly.
I got up the next morning and looked out of my window, over Gran’s garden, now grey and seemingly lifeless. The phone rang but I ignored it. It sounded like something far away, that didn’t exist in this world anymore, just an echo. (I wondered whether I was losing my hearing as well.) I didn’t know what to do with myself so I paced up and down my room, glancing now and then at the small pile of yet-to-read books on my bedside table, now pointless collections of pointless words. The day passed, slowly, torturously, as I dwelt on my guilt, knowing that Gran was far more disappointed in me than I had realised. The morning was grey. The afternoon was grey. The grey sun set in a grey sky and then the grey became black. I fell asleep.
The fifth dream was more disturbing than the others. In this dream a black, formless shape advanced towards me, smothering me like a thick blanket, like a cloud of acrid smoke. I couldn’t breathe. There was a tearing sound and a terrible pain and I looked down at my chest to see a gaping hole, dripping blood, with the splintered cage of my ribs exposed, and an empty space where my heart should have been. This black being had taken my beating heart right out of my chest and I felt cold, lifeless. My heart looked red, brighter than any red I had ever seen, but I was nothing but grey now, and without a sound the black figure consumed my heart, surrounded it with darkness, and was gone.
This time I woke up in a panic into the grey light of dawn. This was bad, worse than all the rest. I scrabbled at my chest with my clawed hands, trying to rip open the buttons of my pyjamas. On my chest was a mark, a long scar, where my chest would have been opened, had my heart been removed. And it had been removed. I could feel it, a hollowness inside. My heart was gone.
I sank back into bed and sobbed, although of course, no sound came out of my mouth. This was too much. How could I live without a heart? How could a dream do this to me? Would my kind-hearted grandmother really punish me like this?
A newly-made monster of my own creation, I lay in bed. This was all my fault. If only I had paid attention to what Gran had said about the best time to plant tomatoes, when to pick the plums, the songs the beans liked her to sing, the power of the moon. I had selfishly surrounded myself with books, an imaginary world of my own creation, when I should have spent more time loving my gran and the world outside the back door, where the bees hummed and butterflies came to visit and things blossomed and fruited and grew. And now I would never be able to redeem myself, not with disabled hands completely incapable of work, with eyes that couldn’t tell beans from peas, plums from apples, a voice unable to call chickens to me or sing the songs for fertility. Perhaps I had been blind from the start, so hard and stubborn that I would not allow the garden into my thoughts, into my heart. And now I had no heart.
I knew what the next dream would be, for in many ways it had already happened—that night I lost my mind.
I thought with perfect clarity, at first, but when I looked down at my handless arms, through my failing eyes, and saw the scar on my chest, which felt hollow and cold inside, I started to wail, soundlessly, manically, beating at my face with my severed stumps, tossing my body from side to side. All was chaos now and not a clear thought was in my head. I wanted to beat myself senseless, cover myself with bruises, scream silently until all my breath left my body.
I woke well before dawn and I knew what I had to do. Something crazy, senseless, for I was no longer sane, and I couldn’t stay here, a prisoner in my own home. Eventually someone would come to find me, the librarian I worked with, a neighbour, and they would see me in this state and I couldn’t have that. If my gran was a witch I was now worse than that. I was a monstrosity, torn apart by guilt and nightmares.
I got up and packed a bag, with difficulty, with whatever food I could find and a thin blanket. I knew I didn’t want to attract attention to myself, so I slowly and awkwardly put on some of my gran’s old clothes, things that would make me look more like an old homeless woman than a young girl-freak. Old fuzzy grey woollen stockings, a greenish skirt and a worn brown jumper that gran had knitted in the evenings of one winter long ago (although they both looked grey to me), and Gran’s old boots, scuffed and worn, which fitted me perfectly. With my knotted hair I certainly looked the part. I would leave town and stick to the backroads and sleep under hedges. I couldn’t stay in this house, insane with remorse. I had to leave the neglected garden behind. I had to leave behind my storybooks and start to live my own story.
So I did the hardest thing I had ever done. I stepped outside the front door with a bag on my back. I broke away from the imprisonment that had been bestowed upon me by my dream of caged birds, and shadowy birds swooped in the grey morning light as I hurried away from the town, along the backstreets and into the countryside before anyone woke and saw me. I was far from free though. I was cursed, cursed to spend the rest of my days alone, a freakish vagrant, living on berries and wild mushrooms, and only seeing in black and white.