That's probably why I have so much trouble falling asleep at night. I turn out the lights, and my head fills with thoughts that begin to circle madly through my mind. Then I imagine a big eraser inside me where my thoughts are. I rub that eraser across the bustle and buzz, rubbing out one memory after another, until only silence remains. Only then can I sink into the luxury of sleep.
But sleep never lasts. Sooner or later a nightmare always wakes me. In the middle of the night I can't find my eraser. My heart is pounding in my chest. I have to find another strategy for calming down. If I was dreaming about my mother dying, I listen for her breath. The sound of her coughing calms me down. Or I hear her pacing restlessly in our small apartment in the dark, as she used to do so often in our early days in America, and even that sound reassures me. I think, She is still alive. And then I can go back to sleep.
I have nightmares every night. I can't get away from them.
Sometimes I dream that we've gone back to Pakistan for a visit and I have lost my passport. I'm searching desperately through our baggage, strewing our clothes about, crying out loud, What am I doing here? Why did I come back?
Or I dream that we're in Pakistan and staying too long. Our tickets have been stamped for a certain flight. They'll expire if we don't get to the airport in time. But everyone keeps trying to delay us. My mother doesn't understand my sense of urgency. I'm crying out, Let's go, let's go, before something happens, before they shut the doors! But she's saying, Wait, I can't find my scarf. Wait, we have to say good-bye to your aunt. Wait, we can't leave without visiting your grandparents....
Sometimes I dream that Alyce won't talk to me. I've made her angry. I plead with her. I say, This isn't right, why are you angry with me? I didn't do anything wrong, don't be mad!
Or I see that Alyce has made a new friend. She's striking up a conversation with my cousin. I fly into a rage at that cousin. Why is she talking to my Alyce? Get away from her, she's my friend! And in real life my poor cousin isn't even in America. She's stuck back there in dire straits, and yet in my dreams I curse her.
Sometimes I dream that a stranger is hitting me. I want to hit back, but I can't. And then suddenly I find my mother waking me up. She tells me I was sitting up in bed, making slapping and punching motions with my arms. Oh, we laugh about it! She paints such a comical image of me, punching away at nothing and growling, "I'm going to slap you so hard!"
I dream that I have fallen into a river. A woman up on the riverbank is dangling a handkerchief down to me. I try to grab it, but it's too short. I try to grab it, but it's too flimsy-it tears in my grasp. I try to grab it, and I get it in my clutches; I start climbing up it, hand over hand, but the handkerchief keeps stretching out. No matter how hard I climb, my feet never leave the water. In fact, I sink deeper with that tattered handkerchief still in my grip. I feel the water in my mouth...in my nose....
Every time my mother gets sick during the day, I dream that night that she is dying. I scream, Take her to the hospital! Someone help us! People have gathered around to watch us. Their eyes bulge out strangely. They find us interesting. Their eyes bulge because we fascinate them, but none of them reaches out. They seem to think we are figures in a glass case or a movie. They don't seem to realize we are right there, close enough to touch. They could take our hands. I shout at them, We exist!
Then I realize no one is going to help us. It's all up to me. I lift my mother in my arms. I will have to carry her to the hospital by myself. But as I struggle through the door, she begins to grow. My mother gets bigger and heavier in my arms. I can't carry her! I don't have the strength! She gets longer. Her feet drag on the ground, her head drags, I can't hold up her middle. I'm just too small and getting smaller. I wake up screaming.
Text copyright (c) 2005 by Nestegg Productions LLC.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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