At the time, I didn’t realize that I was almost done with dreaming, but that’s the thing about dreams: You think they’ll go on forever, but one day they just stop, and after a while, you wonder if you ever had them in the first place.
I don’t remember the dream; I never do. I did remember the feeling afterwards—an energetic afterglow that sent me dancing through the morning. I savoured the sensation for a while, then recalled that the cupboards were bare, so I wrapped up my dream, put it in my pocket, and hurried down to the shabby shop at the back of the market, right behind the stall selling second hand pots and pans. The dusty sign read, ‘Jennings’ Dreams and Keepsakes.’ With barely a moment’s hesitation, I strode in.
Inside, the shutters were closed. The only illumination came from a pair of antique gas lanterns, their yellow light flickering over mound after mound of old papers and magazines piled high on chipped ancient furniture and topped off with antique tea sets, porcelain figurines, and other debris from long forgotten lives. In the corner, a stuffed deer stood in disinterested contemplation. I noticed that one of its glass eyes was missing.
Behind the counter, a shrivelled old man with long, greasy hair and a pot belly stood hunched over a faded newspaper, following the lines with his finger and muttering darkly about its outrageous comments. After he’d ignored me in this fashion for a minute, Jennings looked up, showing the gaps in his teeth as he grinned. “What you got for me today, Finch?”
I brought out my small bundle and placed it on the counter. It glowed softly, in toyshop primaries of blue and red. “You’ll like this one,” I said, then I told him what was in the dream, though I can’t remember that part of the conversation now. He smiled, handed over some crumpled notes, and deftly pocketed the dream.
I felt a little emptier when I left the shop and walked round the market, but I had money in my pocket and the tavern was open, and before long, my spirits were high. After all, I fooled myself, there would always be time for more dreaming.
But the next night, I slept fitfully, and my dreams didn’t return. I put that down to the beer and resolved to avoid the tavern for a while. I went about my day and waited for the night to revive me.
After three sleepless nights, I looked into my mirror, bleary eyed, and noticed more grey at my temples than I’d seen before. It was still dark outside—winter was closing in and there was a new chill in the air. I grabbed my coat with new resolve and headed for the apothecary. The pills he gave me helped me sleep, but I dreamed no more.
I spent my days wandering listlessly around the town. At first, I called in on old friends, but I found myself unable to join in with their reminiscences, prevented, somehow, from sharing memories of the hopes we’d all had, back before the first grey hairs appeared on my head. After a time, I grew bored with my friends and I suspect they grew bored with me, so I sat in my room staring at the cracked plaster on the walls.
After a month of pointless staring, I trudged through thick snow to the dreams and keepsakes shop. Jennings looked up.
“Been a while, Finch. You keeping your dreams to yourself?”
“I need to buy them back.”
Jennings laughed. “They’re all sold, my friend. And I have to say, they all raised an excellent price. You are one mighty dreamer.”
“Who did you sell them to?” I was leaning over the counter by then, with Jennings leaning back, my face contorted with fear and desperation.
“No need to yell. And you know I can’t tell you that.”
“How much?” And with that, the negotiations began. It took the rest of the money I’d made from selling my last dream, but I had some names.
I’d thought that dreams were bought by people whose own dreams were weak, lacking in focus and clarity. But then I read the list, full of people who’d achieved something in their lives. Why would they need my dreams?
I went to the blacksmith’s first. I’d seen him around town before—burly, confident, always smiling. He was bashing out the kinks on a farm implement, sweat dripping from the intense heat of his furnace. A young boy watched, leaning over to get a closer look. An apprentice, I assumed. Business must be good. I came straight to the point.
“I’d like to buy my dream back.” I didn’t tell him I hadn’t any money, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.
“No way,” he said, suddenly hostile. “Before the dream, I was nobody, nothing. A clueless kid. Then I bought the dream and here I am. Got my own business and plans for expansion, got a wife who wouldn’t give me the time of day back when I had no ambitions, kids, a place in the community. Now why would I want to sell you that back?”
“Because it’s mine!”
“You thought dreams came cheap and plentiful, didn’t you?” he said, turning back to his work. The sound of his hammer drowned out my protests.
My next visit was to the Mayor. He had a plush office in the largest stone-clad building downtown. Even the outer office was stuffed with exotic rugs and hand carved furniture. Had I wanted all this once? I couldn’t recall.
I had to wait some time for an appointment, but when he did see me, he was all politician smiles—at least until I told him why I was there.
“I was small time before I visited Jennings’. No thoughts beyond the day I was drifting through. Now? I’m running for Governor. So get out, and don’t come back.”
I left, chagrined, and headed for the third name on the list. Ned Anderson was a farmer and lived out of town on the Highgrove road; it took me a while, because I had no money to hire a buggy, so I had to walk. I was barely a mile into my journey, trudging through thickening snow, when a man caught up with me in his trap and offered me a lift. The horses looked at me indifferently as I gratefully took his hand and he pulled me up.
I didn’t know it then, but he was the man I’d come to visit. We talked, and he told me about his life on the farm, about how he’d always been hard working and enjoyed growing his livelihood, but that there’d always been something missing, some gap that no amount of hard work could fill. Until one day, after taking a cartload of vegetables to market, he’d stumbled on Jenning’s Dreams and Keepsakes and wandered in, not knowing what to expect, but leaving with more than he could have imagined.
“You’ll like her,” he said, with adoration in his eyes. “She turned my life around.”
I kept quiet about my mission, saying instead that I was looking for work and had heard that the farmer had an opening. The truth could come later.
We pulled in to his snow-covered farmstead, deep in the countryside. A woman greeted us at the door and embraced Ned warmly, then turned to me and smiled.
“I’m sorry …”
She must have seen the expression on my face, because she said, “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten.”
I remembered something, though not enough. “Of course. Emma. How have you been?”
She led us inside. Ned looked confused. “You know each other?”
“Long time ago,” she said. “We were close once, but then he went away. Didn’t you, Finch?”
I started to respond, but the look in Ned’s eyes warned me to keep quiet.
Emma prepared a simple meal of cold meat, bread, and cheese, washed down with rough country wine. We ate round a thick oak table in the kitchen. I’d never tasted anything finer, nor drunk anything sweeter. Emma was a delight, reeling off stories and anecdotes as though they’d happened yesterday, but which I could barely recall. Ned was clearly mesmerized, and I could see why. She was pretty, too, but what she had most of was an inner beauty, a radiance that shone through. By the time we sat round a big log fire in the living room, drinking coffee, I understood the consequences of giving up your dreams.
I was astute enough to realise that the extent and depth of Emma’s memories of our previous relationship was making Ned uncomfortable, and so we drank in near silence. From time to time, Ned and Emma would gaze at each other and then, warily, at me. Eventually, Ned asked me why I was really there.
“I want my dream back.”
Ned sighed. “It’s my dream now. And as you can see, I’m not giving her up.”
“And as much as I loved you once, Finch, that dream has gone. You have to act on your dreams, not give them away.”
I started to argue, but it was useless. For Emma’s sake, Ned agreed I could stay the night, and Emma led me to a room in the attic, handing me the candle she’d used to illuminate our way and turning sharply before I could say anything.
As I tossed and turned, I began to drift off. My sleep was fitful and more than once I woke to a cold sweat, but I started to lose myself in a once familiar world. Perhaps it was the sight of Emma, or the food and wine, but as I started my journey through the landscape of dreams, I felt an elation that had eluded me for a long, long while.
I wandered down a dark path, surrounded by bracken. It was a moonlit night, and clouds flitted across the sky. An owl hooted, and something large trampled through the undergrowth. As I walked, the chill night air seeped into my bones, and I shivered. At the end of the path was a large house, silhouetted against the night sky and completely blackened, save for dull candlelight emanating from the partially opened front door. It creaked and opened fully, revealing a tall cadaverous figure, dressed in black, with clay-grey skin and dark, brooding red eyes. He beckoned me in, then closed the door behind me.
Then I started to scream.
I left the next morning, grateful for the lift Ned offered me. I could barely speak to him, and he clearly had no desire to talk to me, so we sat in silence until it was time to say goodbye. He dropped me off in the market square, and as he pulled away, he said. “I hope you find some new dreams, Finch. And this time, I hope you hang on to them.”
I went into Jennings’ Dreams and Keepsakes one last time. Jennings stiffened as I approached. “I don’t want any trouble…”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m selling again.”
He took the small package from me, wrapped as it was in my soiled handkerchief. “Hmm,” he said, peering at the dull, crimson glow. “Not like your usual stuff. Don’t like it. Don’t like it at all.” And with that, he threw my nightmare back at me. “Come back when you’ve got more of the good stuff.”
But I never did. Ironic that I could give away my dreams so freely, yet not be rid of my nightmares.
I sleep with trepidation now, worried at the dark turn my slumbering imagination might take. But I’ve learned my lesson now, and I know that one day, I’ll dream of hope and joy again.
And when that day comes, I won’t be visiting Jennings’ Dreams and Keepsakes.
—Mark Bilsborough lives and writes in a fantasy land that sometimes resembles Old England. He occasionally visits the real world. You can find his work in various places around the Internet or via markbilsborough.com.