The Dreamkeeper by Alex Otto
Editor’s note: The power of dreams and the obsessive devotion of a mother made this story ring true to me. There is sadness and grace in this powerful story.
The broken-winged moth stumbled into my mason jar like a drunkard, its left wing torn like the paper scraps I used for writing shopping lists: baby formula for James, half-price turkey, dandelion greens. I set the jar on the cabin windowsill facing the petunias so I could pretend the moth would fly back home. Later when I saw my baby boy slumping in bed, I thought of that moth: the flap of a single wing against glass, shards of moonlight illuminating its legs, the clear glass both a promise and a prison. The doctors ran tests. Ventricular septal defect. A hole in his heart. We’ll waitlist him for surgery. No guarantees. I brought James home and watched him. When his lips blued and his breath shallowed, I clutched him in his dot-patterned baby blanket and kissed his dandelion-fuzz hair, fearing it would be the last time. The night winds whispered to the blue moon. Before she passed, Grandma Rose had rocked with me on the porch swing and told me that blue moons attract Dreamkeepers, healers with hands the color of dried blood and hair made of milkweed blossoms. I thought they were a myth that people blanketed themselves with when the world grew too cold, until the Dreamkeeper appeared at my moonlit window. Metallic silver revealed her in streaks like a Polaroid picture developing. It doesn’t have to be this way, the Dreamkeeper said gently. Do you know what it’s like to lose a son? I asked. I’ve never had a child. She stroked a half-heart birthmark on her cheek. But yours can grow up in your dreams. When I saw my boy’s body crumpling, like that moth in the jar, I didn’t ask the price. I just said yes. Word spread that James was gone. The townspeople brought potato casseroles and whispered about funeral arrangements. Cremation, I lied. I couldn’t tell them I had handed my son to the Dreamkeeper before he could take a last breath. I nodded politely from the doorway, my unbrushed hair like wild vines. Then I shooed them away so I could sleep. James’s bunny rattle jangled in my mind as I drank chamomile tea. Soon, the wood-paneled bedroom walls dissolved into the gray mist of dreams. I heard James’s cries before I saw him resting in his oaken cradle in our shared bedroom. His tiny breaths warmed my palm as I stroked his cheek. Hush. Mama’s here. I placed a hand on his chest, hoping my warmth filled the hole in his heart. I shook that bunny rattle, the one Papa had wrapped in jackrabbit fur. James kept his eyes closed, and his cries calmed into the steady noiselessness of things that flourished as we both slept. In my dreams, James lived and grew just like the Dreamkeeper had promised. Once, I woke with sore fingertips from soothing the nub of his first tooth breaking through. Chickadees outside the window cawed along with his murmurs. I wondered what songs and whispers he heard when I wasn’t there. Another night, golden dreamlight suffused the cradle. The light danced and James laughed from the alphabet carpet on the floor. He curled his lips and murmured. Mmmm. Ma. Mama. His first word. My heart full, I gazed at him. But James stared past me, his eyes seeking something beyond. I turned and ran to the rough-hewn window frame. I searched the hollow night air for answers. I was only in his world when I dreamt. I needed a way to help him remember me. The next time I drifted into dreams, I envisioned Papa’s old Polaroid camera. I held its image firm in my mind until it appeared on the bedside table. I would take pictures of us and leave them in his world. In the first picture, the two of us nestled in front of the window. It developed slowly, the shapes coming into focus one at a time. James smiling, turning and stretching toward the window. Blood-red hands. Milkweed blossoms for hair. The Dreamkeeper stroking James’s dandelion-fuzz. Her words rushed back to me. I’ve never had a child. At dawn, my fingers combed the chill air, grasping for him, reaching nothing. I paced the creaking floorboards into a distorted lullaby. Sorrow drenched me, beckoning me to return to my dreams. Beside my bed, the trapped moth dipped a leg into a moonbeam. Blue moonlight always attracted moths. And Dreamkeepers. I picked up that mason jar, clasping it like a lucky rabbit’s foot. I would use it to trap that false mother, the Dreamkeeper, hoping her dream-mist form would slip inside like rainwater. I slipped into a hazy morning dream, envisioning the jar in my hand. James. The Dreamkeeper spun him in a dance, cupped sunlight in her hands and offered it to him to drink. His laughter kept time for their songless waltz. The townspeople’s voices cut into the dream. She’s still mourning. Sleeping. James shrieked at the clang of dishes they set on my doorstep. The echoes of my world were leaking into our dream world. A hole in his heart. He couldn’t make it. She needs to let him go. The wind flapped like that torn wing against glass, struggling for freedom. I studied the Dreamkeeper. She smiled as James’s chubby finger stroked the half-heart on her cheek as if fingerpainting it to completion. James would grow up hearing the wind swish through milkweed blossoms, dancing until dizzy with a mother’s love. He would heal. So would I. I set down the mason jar. There was no need for capture. Just release. It didn’t matter that she was happy. He was. I bent toward his head and kissed his dandelion-fuzz hair until my lips grew numb. I shook the jackrabbit fur rattle. It thumped like a weak heart: damaged but alive. The Dreamkeeper pressed a milkweed blossom into my hand, our fingers meeting briefly on its petals. Then I let go.
Alexandra Otto writes flash fiction and short screenplays. She has just completed her first novel. When she is not writing, she can be found outsmarting the largest bears in the world in southcentral Alaska. Image by Pixabay