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Dreams of Elephants and Ice

by Mari Ness


In this place, our dreams come to life.

I cannot explain how, or why, only tell you of the results, of dancing red flowers that leap into the sky, only to wake and find them there; of a stranger who seduces you, only to wake and find this person by your side, confused, blinking in the dreams that dance around you. The strangers come from our dreams too, they are alive. If we have dreamed them strongly enough, they can speak and laugh and dance; if we have dreamed them weakly, they merely stare at us, then wrap themselves in small balls and rock back and forth. We step carefully around the strangers that we see on the streets.

It is tricky to walk though dreams the following day, to move amongst truth and lies. It is difficult in those first terrified moments after waking, when the horrors or joys of your dreams come alive, sometimes touching your fingers. Before this, I heard the story that we can control our dreams, that we can hold our minds to dream only certain images, certain plots, certain people. That story is, in my experience, a lie. I have tried often, coaching myself as I fall asleep, only to find myself dreaming of something else, and have heard others say the same. Before this, before I came here, I thought that dreams mirrored our deepest inner truths and fears, that we could find these truths only within our dreams. Waking to see my own dreams about me, I have learned how often dreams lie. I have become more than cautious of the people I meet. I have learned to step carefully in the dark.

Not that we are free of ordinary troubles here either. Bills must be paid, food cooked, errands run, work completed. Although in a land of waking dreams little of that last item gets done. We still sicken and die, can still fall down and are hurt, and whatever we may do in our dreams, we are quite ordinary when we wake. I have flown across red, green and blue skies in my dreams, but upon waking, I must walk. That is one way I know truth from dream. Another: in our dreams death is not permanent, and wounds can vanish in a glance, or in a shift of dreams. Awake, our dreams can kill. A woman down the road was murdered by the nightmare of a neighbor, a great black beast half-spider, half-dog. A man three roads away stepped on the knives of his dreams.

My lover wants to kill me in his dreams. I have learned this, all too well.

• • •

I do not think we first became lovers in this place, though I cannot be sure. It is so difficult to distinguish between sleep and awake that the past becomes shadowed and uncertain. That we were both once in a place where the dreams did not follow us beyond sleep, I am sure. There was a time when we could walk into the kitchen and find nothing more there than what you left the night before.

This morning, I found an elephant in my kitchen. Not my elephant, and not my dream. Perhaps from the mind of a friend or a neighbor. I looked around in despair… yes, I would need to demolish part of a wall, unless I wished to live with an elephant in my kitchen. I sighed and considered which corner would cause the least damage.

But I was speaking of my lover. As I said, I think we became lovers elsewhere, although I do not entirely remember. Nor do I remember how we became lovers. I imagine that it was in the usual way, although I cannot remember what the usual way might have been. My mind is too tangled with dreams, even waking.

The elephant is still in the kitchen; it will take another day before someone can help me demolish the wall.

But again, I was speaking of my lover. We have been lovers for some time, I think, and remain lovers now, lingering sweetly and sometimes fiercely and sometimes desperately in bed, afraid, perhaps, of what we are creating, or clinging to, maybe to something that we know is real. I did not create him. He has his own memories and his own dreams, all from well before we met. He tells me of them sometimes, and I have met others: the blonde cheerleader from an old class that he never spoke to, but continues to dream of. He often summons her, and she stands, dazed, until one of us takes pity on her and tries to take her to where the dream people can go. Sometimes the blonde cheerleader refuses and rolls herself into a ball in the street and rocks herself to and fro. We let those go. We cannot help them, although I sometimes wonder why they are different than the ones dreamed with enough hope that we can lead them away.

But I have never dreamed her. At least, I do not think I have. I have seen her so often outside my dreams that I cannot be sure.

I must find food for the elephant.

But I was speaking of my lover. As I said, even after all of this time, he is still insistent, demanding; it is almost like new every time we are together, only not quite, since we know each other’s bodies so well. He jokes, almost endlessly, almost feverishly, as if to ward off the dreams around us. (Sometimes this works. Other times, the dreams join in — like the green monkey that interrupted our meal or the rich purple black roses that he gave me.) He plays music incessantly, as if to drown out conversation, although our conversations never seem to end. We talk about our memories of the place before this place; we talk of the things that have happened here, of the strange sights we have seen; we talk of our friends and their dreams; we talk of ordinary things, of music, and food.

No one has enough food for an elephant. No one has dreamed that much food, either. I must take some of the strange plants that now grow in my yard products of my dreams, and sometimes of my lover’s and bring it to the elephant, before the animal grows angry and tramples my house. Foolish, you might think, given that I am already planning to destroy a wall to set the elephant free, but that will be a controlled destruction that I can watch.

But I was speaking of my lover. We do not live together, he and I. Few people here find it safe to sleep in the same house, and we are no different. He lives two streets away, unless a neighbor chooses to move that street in the night or during a nap. This happens enough that we have given up the use of normal maps, and merely search for landmarks near our destinations, hoping that those landmarks have not been altered beyond recognition. We call each other every morning to show that we are alive and well, before the daily struggle with the fragments of dreams.

The elephant is reaching into my cabinets in search of food, and has made a mess of the kitchen. Even if I can get the creature out of here, this will be hellish to clean. I must move the elephant. I cannot have a dead elephant in my kitchen. Do dream elephants die? I know some of the dream creatures have disappeared, or left. I know they can kill us. I’m not sure what happens when we kill them. In my dreams, I poison and crush them, but in the day I can only attempt to hide.

But again, I was trying to speak of my lover, of how, after our daily call, he struggles to work every morning, without fail. He works at a bank. It may seem odd that a place such as this would have a bank, but people still dream of money, and so the bank exists, usually overwhelmed by terrors. When he leaves, I retreat to my room and hide. I have not been to my job for several days, where I create art on a computer. What is the point of making advertisements in this world with frequent living dreams? I know fewer and fewer of us are trying: the poets and the cooks, the musicians and the gardeners. But the rest of us stay at home. I tell my lover this. Then he heads to the bank. I sit, and attempt to draw, as dreams wander by me.

Or, in this case, not wander. The elephant bellows in frustration at the confined space of my kitchen. I try to reassure it. I will let you out, I promise. But it cannot understand me any more than a non-dream elephant could. It continues to bellow. The house shakes. If this continues, it will destroy the house. I exit through the front door and look around frantically for elephant food. It occurs to me that I am not sure what elephants eat.

My lover and I do not speak until the evening. We once communicated incessantly on the computer until the day my machine was overrun by blue dream bugs. I spent the entire day clearing them off, and it became known between us that the days were not meant for speaking. Not that every day is quite that bad, sometimes we wake to amazing and pleasant things. But on those days, I am even more reluctant to speak.

Reflexively, I search the street for anything that an elephant might eat. Our street is oddly empty today. I remember quiet streets from before, before the crowds of dream creatures. A dream person sits on the curb, dazed. I nod at the elderly man, but do not speak. He will find his way to wherever they go without my help. The elephant bellows again.

I have talked to my lover often about refusing to sleep at all. Many of us choose just that, clinging to wakefulness with desperate bouts of coffee and energy drinks. It can be done for a few days easily enough, even a week, with effort. Any longer brings sleep with agonizing dreams, or death. It might be preferable to this, I say. My lover shakes his head and pulls me to him. While we have this, he says, it is worth it — all of it, everything. And he will cling to his banking to keep it. If that is not enough, what about my art? Would I give that up?

I rip up the bushes that surround my house — some real, some dreamed — and toss them into the elephant, hoping they are to its liking.

I have no real art to give up, but I have not told him this. My lover has not seen my art that I have created by my own hands, in the daylight. The paintings and drawings hanging in my house are all from my dreams. Sometimes I am not sure that I ever created real art. I have only a few of the pieces left over from before, now buried safely in the closet, hidden from the dream creatures. It seems there should be more, but I cannot recall them. I’m not sure that they existed, and were not also a dream.

Trees. Grass. Elephants eat trees and grass. I cannot move any of my trees, but I begin pulling up grass and tossing it frantically toward the kitchen window, anything to stop the elephant from shaking the house again. I try to call contractors to make a hole in the wall. None of them answer, perhaps too busy with their own dreams or they have stopped working.

I think of my lover, the way he comes to me each evening as the shadows fall and the dream creatures creep away, in those dusk hours before we return to bed again. The way he pulls me to him with such desperation. The way he looks at me.

I hear the elephant settling. Perhaps the grass was enough to calm it.

I picture the way my lover has tried try to kill me in his dreams.

I think the elephant has fallen asleep.

• • •

The room is covered in ice when I wake, the crystals still forming on my hands. I am so cold and shaking that movement is difficult. At least I am awake. This is one of those dreams that can kill, if one does not wake in time. I shuffle to the bathroom where I turn the faucet handle with difficultly, managing to get the warm water flowing over my skin. I promise myself warm drinks, and then remember the elephant in the kitchen. It is quiet now, but I cannot hope that it is gone. I swallow some warm tap water and turn it hotter. Below me, the elephant bellows. I am shaking again.

I can easily guess why I am dreaming of ice.

You may ask me how I know, how I can be so certain.

I woke up with his knife lying on my throat.

I’ve dreamed this before, a knife at my throat, or ghostly hands around my neck, or a cup filled with poison left at by bed. (It is one of many reasons I prepare my own drinks every morning. I know of no one yet who has been killed by dream poison, but that is yet.) It was not the first time I'd half awoken to see his shadow self in the corner, holding a weapon or pouring something extra into my mug. More often, I woke to find a weapon near my bed, or a drink I had not dreamed of, or a pillow over my face — none from my dreams. This time, I did not have to wonder. I recognized the blade: a favorite hunting knife of his from before. A gift from his father.

It felt cold on my throat. The flying fish from my dream hovered above me without water, gave a small swoosh and fled. I carefully removed the knife, running a thoughtful finger along its edge.

Thawing now, I shiver in the hot water. I know what has stopped him, the only thing that has stopped him: that it was only a dream, no matter how real that dream became. We can dream phantoms alive, and into reality, but while we dream, it is only a dream, and we can change nothing after it follows us to the waking. Or so we have always believed. But that had not stopped him dreaming of the knife, of the hands (I was certain, now, that they were his), of the gun. That had not stopped the wish.

His weapons, left in the wrong place, could kill me. If he dreams of knives around my bed, and I trip and fall… Or what if he dreams of a bomb? I have never heard of anyone dreaming such a thing. I could ask, but this is not a thought I wish to place in anyone’s mind.

I step out of the shower and wrap myself in warm clothing. The ice in the room is starting to melt; I open up a window. First the elephant; now this. I wonder, wearily, if the house can survive. I decide to worry about this. Sometimes worry can slide into a dream and create a solution the following day. In this case, worry might even bring me a new house, although I am not hopeful.

My lover can no more control his dreams than I can, I tell myself. I wonder if I have dreamed of killing him, only to forget this dream when I awoke. Perhaps I am misjudging him. Perhaps he does not wish to kill me. Surely, if he hated me that much, I would have seen it. I would have seen something in his eyes.

Unless I was too distracted by dreams to see it. His knife — or the dream of it — is still on my side table. Somehow or other, the ice of my dream never touched it. I tremble, not entirely from the cold, and step leave the room. Time to face the elephant.

• • •

The elephant is remarkably quiet now. Perhaps it has resigned itself to its temporary prison. I manage to squeeze passed it, toward the shelves where I keep my coffee. I have a second coffee pot in my study area; I just need the coffee grounds, and then I can leave the elephant alone. It moans a little. “Sorry,” I whisper to it. “We should have you out by tomorrow.” Assuming that the contractors are not distracted by dreams, or stopped working.

The elephant shudders, perhaps not believing me.

The kitchen smells terrible. To say it has not been designed for the use of elephants is an understatement, and this elephant has left all too many real evidences of his presence. Luckily, the elephant has not destroyed the coffee. The creature bellows again and I barely hear the phone ringing. It could be a friend. But I know, without knowing how I know, that it is my lover. My hand wavers over the phone as it rings again.

I pick up the phone.

“Shall I come over?” he offers.

I hesitate. “This may not be the best time,” I say. “Ice is still melting in the bedroom, and I have an elephant in the kitchen.”

As most of us, he is unsurprised at such a statement. “Then come here,” he says.

I do not answer. At my side, his knife is still cold, its sharp edge itching against my skin.

“I need to see you,” he says.

“Let me have some coffee,” I say. “And then I’ll come.”

I make coffee. Still cold, I am hope the elephant can warm me.

• • •

I walk to my lover’s house as shadows lengthen into the streets.

A new street has appeared since I last went to his house, which was two days ago? Three? The elephant has exhausted me, and my long afternoon sleep has disoriented me. The new street is paved with bright red brick, and contains no houses, but that will change. A twisted playground stands in one corner. This is a child’s dream then. I hurry by, watching a sudden flock of butterflies materialize from nowhere. Odd that: few sleep in the early evening, but perhaps someone is waking late from a nap.

After the new street I find myself lost. I try different directions. Nonsense: I have been to my lover’s home dozens of times. Perhaps hundreds. I know where I am, even in this altered landscape. I walk this way, then that. The roads and houses remain the same, sullen in the shadows. That flock of butterflies must have been one of the last dreams of today.

Finally, I see his house. I enter the yard and knock on the door.

It takes him a few minutes to open it. “You don’t need to knock,” he says, and quickly folds me into his arms before I can see his eyes. “Why would you knock?” And he leads me in, toward his elephant-free kitchen where he’s made dinner for two. I am still cold, and the dinner does nothing to warm me.

“So…” he says, after we have eaten dessert — a warm apple pie that might well have been dreamed up since neither one of us are particularly gifted with baking, and this pie has the odd lack of taste I associate with dream foods — “An elephant?”

“An elephant,” I repeat, and tell him of the various people I have called, of the various things I have done to remove the elephant from the kitchen.

I tell him the truth, that I am worried that the elephant will destroy my home or that the water damage from the melting ice will cost too much to repair. He reminds me that other homes here have been destroyed, only to have new dream homes rise in their place. This is true, and I try not to think about the homes that have arisen, with their shaky foundations and doors which go nowhere and grey walls that melt at a touch. That is not the home that I want, not the home that I waking dream of. But he is right: even if my home is destroyed tomorrow, as seems likely, I shall dream another house. I can only hope it may resemble my waking dreams.

I do not tell him the other truth: that I hold a copy of his knife in my bag. Instead I cling to him, kissing him, until what always happens happens. He cannot hate me, I think, feeling the warmth of his arms as he falls asleep. He cannot. And then I slip away, back to my own home.

• • •

When I return home, the elephant has ripped another hole through the wall between the kitchen and the living room. The house smells of elephant. Even assuming I can remove the elephant in the dark, cleaning will be a nightmare. I sink wearily into a chair, unable to face that.

I cannot let myself sleep or rest. I make myself coffee. My lover will be sleeping soon. The elephant rumbles. I stay in my chair, staring at my computer, changing nothing on its screen.

I do not even hear the door open. Perhaps it hasn’t opened, and in the nature of dreams, he has simply come here. Because he is here or almost here; a shadow-self, a dream self. It flickers against the wall, but I would know him, or his shadow, or his dreams, anywhere. I hide inside my chair.

His shadow self steps towards me, holding a gun.

I hold myself motionless in the corner.

It is only his dream, I tell myself, even as I remember the tales of people who have been killed by other dream creatures, other monsters. It is only his dream. Only I have never seen any of us step out of our dreams. I have only seen the objects and creatures we have dreamed of. Does this mean that he himself does not wish to kill me, but dreams of a twin that does? He has never mentioned a twin.

Idle speculation. What matters now is the gun. What matters now is surviving until this dream ends.

The elephant bellows. I cannot tell if he can hear it, but surely even his dream self must feel the floor shake as the elephant begins to stomp. If he does, he does not show it. He steps towards me, and fires the gun.

I duck, moving behind the chair. The elephant bellows, so loudly that this will wake the neighbors, although they will not come, knowing this is only a dream. He shoots again. The elephant shakes, and the house shakes with it. Surely he has to feel it. The wall between the living room and the kitchen starts to crumble. The trunk of the elephant slides through the hole in the wall, and reaches around his neck, and squeezes. He jumps, or tries to; the elephant is holding him tight. He drops to his knees, then twists, staring at the elephant. He points the gun.

And, because this is a dream, his gun melts, and he is holding, not a gun, but a coffee cup. His dream self twists, bewildered. And then he steps away, and is no longer there. The elephant bellows again, before retreating back into the kitchen, shaking the dust of my shattered wall from its trunk. The house shudders.

I stare into the shadows, turn my computer on, and begin to work.

The phone rings. I pick it up, my hands oddly cool. I listen to the elephant shuffling in the kitchen.

“Me,” says his achingly familiar voice. “How were your dreams?”

“I didn’t dream much,” I say more or less truthfully.

“And how is the house?”

I look around me. “Quite wet,” I answer, also truthfully. “I’m not certain how long it will survive.”

“You’ll dream another one,” he says.


We talk a little longer, until he tells me he must rush off; his street is full of unusual vegetation today, and it may hinder his commute.

Behind me, the elephant shuffles and snuffles. I assume it’s hungry. I go outside, hoping that someone has dreamed of food that an elephant might like. They have not, but new purple bushes and plants that seem more appropriate for deserts have appeared in front of my house. I pull them up and toss them into the elephant. The contractors will be here soon, I think. I only need to keep the elephant a quiet a little while longer.

But it is already too late.

The elephant moves against the walls. The house shudders, and I watch it start to fall as the elephant pushes against it, determined to flee. I did not build this house strong enough. It shudders again, and the west wall buckles. The upper story sags, and the elephant steps out, my house collapsing behind him. I can see a new line of trees, dreamed by a neighbor.

I do not try to chase the elephant as it leaves.

• • •

That evening I return to his house, wandering along dream-littered roads, smiling as I greet him, laughing in his arms. He smiles back. I grip him. He is solid, real. I cling to him as we make dinner, as we talk, as we tumble into bed. I do not know why I am here. And it is not a dream. We are both awake, and I am safe. His knife, or its dream self, is safely hidden in my bag.

You wonder why I return to him. I could say a thousand romantic things, that this adds a hint of passion to our lovemaking, a hint of danger. That I hope to reform him, to eliminate his wish for my death. That in this land of dreams I need something real to cling to. That he will not be able to enter my new house tomorrow. The house will have doors that go nowhere and windows that look elsewhere.

I could say these things, and lie. The truth is much simpler: I can be safe only if I stay awake while he sleeps.

If I am no longer his lover, I will never know when he sleeps.

I wait for him to fall asleep, truly asleep, before I step away from his bed, and softly, so softly leave the house. I must find coffee. It will be a long night, until I become used to this new routine, of sleeping during the day when my neighbors wrestle with their dreams, of walking the streets as they dream their dreams into life.

I walk off into the shadows. Something thumps in the streets behind me. An elephant, perhaps. I could turn and look, but for now, I need coffee more than dreams.



Mari Ness lives in Central Florida, where she spends an extensive amount of time attempting to convince two cats that the laptop is not, despite appearances, a cat bed. Her work has previously appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Fantasy Magazine, Aberrant Dreams, and several other print and online publications. She’s been known to dream of green cats with golden claws, and a flying elephant or two.


October 2008