The Dream Curator
He looked around the gallery at the driftwood sculptures and an installation that allowed patrons to hatch from an egg or be fossilized in amber. His confidence waned. He had just one piece of art to show. An art project that seems brilliant at home may fall flat in public. He peered into the mercurial liquid to check that it worked.
His eyes lost focus, and in the bowl appeared an image. Transient orcas transformed into scrappy young men wanting to start fights. They had too many teeth in their mouths. T-63, Chainsaw, had become a redhead.
He refocused on the rim of the bowl, then the wider world around him, and found another artist standing over his shoulder. “What’s that you’ve got there? How’d you make that whale picture?”
Hieronymus blushed. “The liquid in the bowl reflects a dream.”
“You dream about orcas? Or was that my dream?”
“I’m pretty sure it was mine,” said Hieronymus. “But I guess a lot of us dream about whales.”
An hour later, the gallery crawl was in full swing. A woman wrapped in a sweater and scarf drank wine from a box on the display table. A man in a suit and shoes with individual toes overzealously smeared crackers with cheese and had to lick the cheese off his fingers, wipe this fingers on his pants, and then remember not to touch the art.
A mother and child approached Hieronymus. “What’s in the bowl?” asked the child. She reached out to touch it, but her mom swatted her hand away.
“Only looking,” her mom reminded her.
“It’s a dream bowl,” said Hieronymus. “Look in. What do you see?”
The girl leaned closer. The silvery liquid turned shades of green, and the greens coalesced into the bodies of snakes. Hundreds of snakes rolled and roiled over each other. One blue snake slithered and slid through the others, his body growing as he emerged from the pile. He coiled atop the others and lay heavily, dominating them.
“I’ve seen this show before,” said the girl. “Did you make it?”
“No, you did,” said Hieronymus. “This is your dream.”
“I thought you said you dreamt about roses?” said the mother.
“Those too,” said the girl. “But also snakes.”
A golden retriever barged through the crowd at the door, bounded to the back of the room, and skidded to a stop on his soft paws. He bonked the table holding the bronze bowl with his wagging tail. Liquid sloshed to the edge of the bowl but didn’t spill.
Hieronymus scratched behind the dog’s ears. “Hey, boy. You seem like a good boy.” He thumped the dog’s back.
The dog rested his head in Hieronymus’s lap. His gaze fell onto the bowl. He hopped up and sniffed it. Maybe it contained food.
The aroma of grass and dander filled the room. Smells came in waves, like colors of the rainbow through a rotating prism. The red redolence of fresh dirt, the midnight blue fragrance of a frightened cat, the beige scent of an empty can of dog food.
The dog’s owner ran in, sweating, apologizing. He grabbed the dog by the collar. “I’m so sorry. He got away from me. He’s normally such a good boy. Did he break anything?” The man pulled hard on the leash, and the dog’s attention drifted from the bowl. The spectrum of iridescent odors evaporated and was replaced by the funk of wet boots and wine.
“He’s fine,” said Hieronymus. “Such a good boy.”
In the space the dog had cleared ambled a woman trailing two young children. She approached the bowl and peeked in. “Oh god not my dreams. They’re always nightmares. See? There’s the one where I’m throwing a glass of milk in a man’s face because he broke into my house. And he just laughs at me for being annoyed.”
The silver swirled. “Oh great, another one. Here I am with my teeth falling out. They’re crunching around in my mouth. I keep trying to nonchalantly spit them into a coffee cup so no one notices.”
Another swirl. “And there’s me looking in a mirror. My face is totally distorted. My hairline is jagged, and my forehead goes on forever. I think I have an extra nose. This is ridiculous. Now see me getting into bed, but my bed is made of stone. Hours of this. Hours of dreaming that I’m in uncomfortable places and unable to sleep. Do you know how unrestful it is to dream that you’re awake and trying to sleep?”
“I can’t say I do,” said Hieronymus.
Her toddler whined and pulled at her pant leg “You’re lucky,” said the woman. “Dreams are a window into the workings of your mind. And mine are all about managing people’s disdain for me, or trying to escape it.”
“I..I’m sorry,” stammered Hieronymus.
“It’s not your fault. I bet other people have beautiful dreams. What’s the best one you’ve seen tonight?”
“Someone built a Rube Goldberg machine to keep the raccoons out of their lawn.”
“Why can’t I have dreams like that?” The woman picked up her toddler, who’d begun to cry. The child wiped her nose in her mother’s hair. “Has anyone else had a bad dream?”
“One man dreamed he died on board a ship. He then eulogized himself in a quatrain. I think it went: His corpse was sent to wander/ on two black oceans deep/ one eternal suffering/ one eternal sleep.”
Her older daughter began tugging on the toddler’s dangling leg. The woman spread her feet, trying to keep her balance. The toddler whimpered. “That sounds like a relaxing dream. Why can’t I dream that my soul wanders the abyss eternally? Do you have any art that gives people good dreams, or is your art just a reflection of what’s already out there in the world?”
“It’s a reflection. But there are pills you can take to stop dreaming, if you need.”
The baby bit her cheek, and the older daughter sat on her mother’s feet, muttering “I wanna go home” on an endless loop.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to stop dreaming altogether. Then how would I know how I feel?”
Hieronymus had no time to answer because the toddler grabbed her mother’s hair as if it were reins and led her to the refreshment table.
A young woman approached the bowl slowly, without looking directly at it. She stared blankly at the driftwood chimes that hung from the ceiling and spun lazily on their silver chains.
“What’s this?” she asked when she eventually arrived at her destination.
“A dream bowl. Have a peek inside. It shows you your dreams.”
She leaned over, then stopped, closed her eyes tight. “Can others see them?”
“Yes,” said Hieronymus.
“That seems like an invasion of privacy.”
“I can look away if you’d like.” Hieronymus turned sideways, fixing his gaze on a collage reminiscent of a Rothko painting but made by cutting out glossy magazine images of bird feathers. “It’s safe to open your eyes now,” he said.
The woman opened first one eye, then the other. The swirling silver liquid resolved into the image of herself and a blonde woman seated on a driftwood log on a sandy beach. They were holding hands. The blonde rested her head on the woman’s shoulder. Her ample hair spilled over the second woman, creating a golden pile in her lap. The woman ran her fingers through the hair, slowly, saying nothing.
Hieronymus looked back eventually, assuming the woman must have left. But there she stood looking into the bowl, watching herself comb another woman’s hair.
The image was disrupted when a tear dropped from the woman’s eye into the bowl.
“Was that dream a memory?” asked Hieronymus. “Is she someone you lost?”
“In a sense, I guess. She’s someone I never met. I just dreamed her up.
“And you fell in love with a figment of your imagination?” asked Hieronymus.
The woman thought a moment. “Everyone we love is a mental model of a much more complicated person. The only difference between loving her and loving someone real is, well, she has no physical form.”
“That seems like a big difference,” said Hieronymus.
The woman nodded. “I always wanted to see her again. Thank you.” She turned on her heels and walked away, stopping only briefly to take a cookie from a platter before exiting the gallery.
A patron of the arts with a wine stain on his shirt plodded over. “Have you met Madame Olga,” he asked. He stood over the dream bowl, his full wine glass swinging precipitously in his hand. “She interprets dreams. Costs a fortune, though. You pay her to follow you around for a few days. She learns your unique symbology, then interprets your dreams.”
“Seems like an interesting woman,” said Hieronymus. He held his hands over his bowl to catch any stray drops of wine that might spill.
“I heard about her on the radio. Maybe you two could team up?” The man swayed. A drop of wine sloshed over the rim of his glass. Hieronymus missed it, and it fell into the liquid.
“I’ll consider it,” he said grumpily, distracted by what a drop of wine might do to his perfectly calibrated dream fluid.
He waved the man away and peered in to check.
The silver liquid sloshed around like water over rapids. It projected crumpled images. A laughing face appeared, then faded into the darkness. A tree, enormous, towering over him, its lowest branches three stories above ground. The feeling of wrapping his arms around the trunk, the desire to climb. The tree vanished. There was a woman covered in wooden and macrame jewelry, wearing a rough woven poncho. Her long, matted hair hung in great strands around her face. She transformed, ever so slowly, into a buffalo. “You see,” she said, lifting a great blue hoof, “the stone rolls forever.”
Why would a buffalo have a blue foot? Hieronymus wondered, and that moment of lucidity broke the spell.
He sat above his bowl, his chest sweating, his head aching. He kicked the bowl over. “It’s ruined now. I don’t want to see drunken dreams.”
The silver liquid poured from the bowl, ran in a thin rivulet out the door, slow and viscous like honey. It meandered past people’s feet, avoided muddy bootprints, and snaked onto the sidewalk. The little silver stream ran with the rain along the gutter, down into a puddle at the corner of the highway and Main.
It spiraled into the puddle, formed a shimmering dull rainbow like an oil slick.
The puddle seeped into the ground through a grate marked with a picture of a fish and dire warnings not to dump anything. The grate led, after all, to the sea.
Months later, on a warm summer evening, Hieronymus saw a woman he vaguely recognized gazing out the window of the ferry, transfixed by the broken reflection of the sun, like golden embers on the water. She stared intently at nothing, her eyes tearing over. She reached out a hand, which hit the salted window of the ferry.
Startled, she broke her gaze, looked first at her hand, then around her. She spotted Hieronymus.
“Funny thing,” she said. “For a moment, I remembered a dream I’d had long ago.”
“That happens to me whenever I look at the sea,” said Hieronymus. They looked out the window together, at the clouds at the base of Mt. Rainier, at the blond threads of sunlight on the water, at the transient orca whales with far too many teeth.
Anna Shomsky is a Vashon author. Her radio show Whispers of Vashon is broadcast on the local station. She is currently working on a Science Fiction novel.