by Troy Blackford
It’s not a paradox when I say that, although different from the beginning, the dream began as a normal dream. I was back in the fifth grade, at a school assembly. Then, the normal dream gave way to a good one: I found that my chair had the ability to slide from place to place. I could, with slight effort of will, ride my dull-grey metal folding chair around the polished wooden floor of the gymnasium like a go-kart.
This was a major development. Students and teachers reacted with instant shock. Adults called for me to be apprehended.
I wouldn’t have that. The powers that be would clearly dissect anyone demonstrating the ability to drive a simple folding chair around at will—even if the individual in question were a ten year-old. Eyeing my escape, I rocketed out of the gymnasium through doors more than twenty years in my past; flying down the picture-perfect hallways, replete with decorative, cut-out facts about everything from owls to astronomy glue-sticked onto vibrant construction paper and taped to the walls above the lockers. A picture perfect recreation of my one-time school.
Racing my chair gracefully up a handicapped ramp with mounting speed, I artfully avoided a small set of stairs. I knew exactly what I was doing. The smoothness of my control was matched only by the intensity of my velocity.
Then, the scenery around me began to change. The tile walls mildewed before my eyes, covering over with something that looked like paper-mâché that had been stained a dark brown. As my folding chair sped further along the hallway, the texture of the rough material spreading across the walls began to harden. The initially artificial appearance rapidly vanished, replaced by rockier and rockier facades.
Though the lockers were now totally obscured by the spreading crust, the glass of the classroom doors remained visible. After rushing by a few more rooms, however, the thickening layer of rock began to swallow up the panes of glass. I picked up speed.
A pale, throbbing light issued from the fissures in the stone where the windows had been — a sick light that gleamed through the mist-stained glass in violet shades. The glow poured through the scantly visible patches of smothered doorways that still peaked out from the spreading mineral surface. The plastic-capped feet of my chair clattered along on the uneven surface as rock slipped away beneath me, and I was propelled ever deeper into the tunnel. Even at this point, I was not yet afraid: merely curious.
Instinctively, I began to scream. The way someone who accidentally slices off their fingers in a meat slicer screams.
Soon, I noted, the purple light no longer came from classroom doors, but instead billowed from luminous, tuberous growths embedded in the stone. I had been transfixed by my changing surroundings, and suddenly noticed that my speed had gotten out of hand. Trying vainly to slow my strange transportation, I was upset to find that my power over the chair had weakened. I could still pivot from side to side, but I couldn’t slow down.
Worst of all, I couldn’t reverse. I was a slave to the machinations of the chair, and it was taking me to a destination not of my own choosing. By this point, the hallway’s transformation had finished, revealing its actual form: a dank, cave-like tunnel. It no longer kept up any pretense of being my elementary-school.
Somehow, with eyes other than my own, I could see into the depths of the stone fissure. Far ahead, I saw that the tunnel opened out onto an expansive space — larger than any aircraft hangar — in which leaning parapets of stone loomed like great mushrooms out of a massive pool of deep, dark green water. These towers of rock reared high above the water’s surface, nearly scraping the rough, arched ceiling of the caves.
There was something achingly familiar about those caves. Something I didn’t want to remember. Something that a part of me, buried deep inside, already knew.
Instinctively, I began to scream. The way someone who accidentally slices off their fingers in a meat slicer screams. But, inside the dream, what came out of my mouth wasn’t an inchoate cry. Instead, I called for it. That’s when I first remember hearing its name, out of my own mouth.
“Seritz!” I cried. “Seritz!”
The anguished cry stretched out, echoing down the narrow tube of stone. With my elevated senses, I could hear the reverberations of that scream bouncing around the mushroom-towers of the open space ahead like a pinball, skipping across those deep green waters like a stone. Echoing in the chambers where the thing I had named dwelled: the lair of the Seritz.
Where therein the Seritz resided, whether deep in the water, or high atop the trees of stone — clinging like a limpet to the bottom of the verdant, noisome sea, or perched like a fat toad on the flat seats of rock high above — I do not know. But I do know that I never, never want to find out. I never want to see it.
I began screaming again, just outside the dream, on a second level of my mind. There, I urge my lips to form the shapes that create the sound of my wife’s name. To call out to something in the real world, some kind of lifeline that could lift me out of those caves.
My voice — the sound of my sleeping body’s real, human voice — leaked into the dream: thick, slow, and deliberate. A voice stuffed with cotton balls, mumbling into a pillow.
But it was there. The sound of my moaning voice was real. And, most importantly, it was outside the caves.
I needed to get out of there. I couldn’t wait for ordinary consciousness to be restored on anything resembling its own schedule. I needed immediate intervention. I muttered again, the sounds growing more distinct. The sound of my wife’s name grew clearer in my ears. My eyes snapped open.
I was in the world, the real world. No purple lights. No caves. No Seritz.
But no wife, either. As I stared at the only light — the alarm clock’s jagged red numbers proclaiming it to be two thirty seven AM — I began to weep: my wife had died thirteen years before, and for the space of three desperate, mumbled gasps, I had managed to forget it.
The next night, my dream was terrible from the beginning. That is typical for me. I was in a room filled with people. A maniac had a gun, and threatened to kill my wife.
She was alive again in the dream. Seeing her again nearly every time I close my eyes and drift off is something I live with. In these dreams, however, I know she’s not really alive.
In these dreams she is always pregnant.
The gunman pointed his weapon at my pregnant wife. Always, in these dreams, I had to do something. At least try to help. I sprang up and jumped between her and the gunman. He only laughed.
I urged her to run. She didn’t take much convincing. Only when she was safe did I attempt to flee. I cleared the corner around which my wife had just vanished. She was gone.
I ran downstairs, outside, and into streets as crowded as New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I quickly scanned through the throng of faces surrounding me. None belonged to my wife.
I never found her. Instead, after hours of looking, I woke up in an empty bed, where I again failed to find her. I always fail, and I always will.
During this unpleasant nightmare, never once did I try to escape through the dream — to wake myself at once, before things could progress any further. The dream of Seritz and the caves felt different from the first. I started off well, only to end — through my own desperate intervention — before the true nightmare could to begin. Throughout the dream, however, it had felt real.
While it was happening, I hadn’t the slightest inkling I was in a dream. Not even at the end, when I begged my sanity to let me wake up. The fact that I actually was asleep was just a lucky break. I now know that if someone kicked in my door and came running at me with a chainsaw at this very moment, my last words would be: “Wake up! Wake up!”
The dream of the Seritz was different. Every other night — before and since — I dream of Denise and the little one she carried inside her when I last saw her. Every other night, in every other dream, we are in some kind of danger. It’s never the same thing twice, but the premise is always the same: something is trying to kill her, and, as much as I try to protect her, I somehow lose her. Her being in danger, and me not being able to help — Denise in trouble, and me not able to save her.
Every night, for thirteen years, I’m reminded of what happened in some new and visceral way: death stares us in the face, and I can only flail, and watch. Exactly as it really happened, thirteen years ago.
Perhaps Seritz is nothing more than the death I have never faced, that I have never been able to let go.
When I dreamt of the chair that could whisk me around as if by magic, it was at first a blessing, a dream of childhood. Of a time before I had met, and subsequently lost, Denise. A mystical ride on a folding chair. A respite from the horror of my memories. An emotional oasis.
But, oh how quickly it curdled. The joy of unfettered youth darkened, hardening into rock. The memories of a childhood left behind were obscured by the weight of all that had come since, in no more than a smattering of helpless moments. And what was to come next — what lay in the caves up ahead — was worst of all. The Seritz. An unknown name I found myself crying out with sickening familiarity.
Not just the way you call out to somebody you know, but the way you call to someone who knows you. A name that felt like death on my lips. And perhaps that’s what it was.
Perhaps Seritz is nothing more than the death I have never faced, that I have never been able to let go. Or it might be the now thirteen-year-old girl I chose not to know. The stranger I refused to call ‘my daughter,’ the little stranger who took away the only thing I loved, simply by being born.
Just as I have never faced Denise’s death, I have never faced this person’s life. The certificate says my wife ‘died in childbirth.’ But wasn’t this little girl also ‘born in motherdeath,’ in a kind of terrible symmetry? I knew then that I could never do anything but hate her for killing my beloved.
It felt then that I could only hate this stranger-child for what she took from me. But thirteen years later, I know nothing: nothing but pain. What have I done to myself by giving up the only person who would understand what I’ve gone through, the only person who could help? My regret at sending my little stranger away when I needed her most is incalculable.
And maybe that’s what the Seritz really is. All the pain and doubt I can’t bear to face — all the anguish I would rather simply wake up from than examine at close range. Maybe the Seritz is just the personification of all that I can’t face in this world, the embodiment of all the regret living in my heart and poisoning my dreams.
I feel like I’ve hated so many of my own choices and failures that my regret itself could be something alive. Something hungry. Something that isn’t merely content to have eaten away at any chance of happiness I will ever have. Something that wants more, and more, and more–forever.
I know the truth: the caves aren’t anywhere out there. They’re inside me, inside my mind. Something like the Seritz lurks inside us all, waiting to swallow us whole. Every bad decision we make, every calamity, every horrible choice we can’t take back — it all drains down into our core and pools together in a deep green sea.
Just as I hunger for a life in which Denise had never died and I had never given away our first, and forever only, child — my last connection with my wife — the thing inside me hungers for any fleeting moment of joy or peace that I might be lulled into allowing myself to feel. A sick, monstrous thing that makes its nest in the guilt that consumes me every time I permit myself to feel happy, and lines it with the skeletons of my hopes.
These things lurking inside us, like the memory of things we can never go back and change, unable to be ignored. These monsters clamor for our innermost and most absolute attention, commanding that we listen, endlessly rapt. From deep within, they insist that we ponder their dark mysteries, always torturing us with stinging images of what might have been, or — worse still — with vivid memories of that which will definitely always be.
Whatever the answer to the mystery of the Seritz, whatever truth lies behind our secret pains, the shrouded agonies that haunt our hearts have this in common: they feed on painful memories, and quickly blot out what little distractions from their endless feast we dare turn our eyes to. They are always desperate to remind us of one ultimate fact:
A good dream cannot last for long. No matter where we think we are, we’re actually down in the caves, with the Seritz.
Troy Blackford lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, two cats, and a son on the way. He has stories featured in Inkspill Magazine, Roadside Fiction, Bewildering Stories, and Rose Red Review.