You begin this dream in the middle, as always, knowing that the merchant is named Nihtcargast and sells nightmares. He runs a claw through the porcupine-like quills on the top of his head. “Nightmares are burnt soft-boiled eggs, you see.”
You nod, not out of agreement or comprehension, but an autonomic twitch of politeness, a spasm of social nicety, the safest thing to do in this situation.
“I place the yolk in the cortex, a germ of an idea. I then light a fire in the amygdala. The idea boils, bubbles of memories rising to the surface, the white of the egg filtering the thoughts searing the mind.” Nihtcargast turns to rearrange some jars in his stall: nuts and bolts made of reflexes, glassy marbles formed from epiphanies, unfurled paperclips of unexpressed thoughts. The flagella on his back twitch in the cool breeze. “Human minds work on ideas like a pearl, giving it substance, body, an unctuous flavor, firmness.”
You look about to note the market stalls, arranged haphazardly, no rows or easy paths to walk through. Visitors have to swim through the earth, the ground swelling and dipping in gentle rolling waves. You look down and sigh in relief. You are, at least, wearing a nice, pleasant sundress and even sensible work boots for walking in dirt. No dreams of being naked or in your underwear in public. This time.
“Soon, the egg thickens, pressing against the sulci and gyri, and the yolk breaks, the burnt, runny, creamy yellow seeps into the mind.”
“What am I doing here?” you ask. You know that here, you have no name, and only dreamthings have names like Nihtcargast or the Mechanical Cook or Mengmao or the Handheld-Identities-that-Dare-not-Exist.
Nihtcargast pinches the spot where his beak meets his eyes, squeezing out the annoyance to use for another nightmare. “I assumed you came here to buy a nightmare. Why else would I give you this sales pitch?”
“I’m here to sell a nightmare,” you find yourself saying, as if the most natural thing to say, followed by a confession you’ve kept bottled up for years, “I’m tired of everything, tired of remembering how unhappy I was growing up, tired of being scared all the time…” In the corner of your eye, you can see the rubbery red latex hand reaching out from the corner of a market stall—
“Well, I’m not buying that. I don’t do consignments. Go bother someone else.” You turn to leave, but Nihtcargast squawks. “No, wait. What else do you have?”
That rubbery red hand holds strings attached to your floating faces when—
“No,” Nihtcargast chirps. “I said not that one. Not … sticky enough. The other one.”
You dream within a dream, slipping into without interruption: You have to find it. The ’it’ being your heart-lunchpail-favorite doll as it fell into the sink. Reaching your hand into the garbage disposal, your fingers squelch the wet food and gunk, and squirming worms surge and burp out of the drain hole and into the sink itself. What a mess, you think, but plunge your other hand into the sink regardless. At first, the slimy worms have a comfortable cool pressure against your too hot hands, but as your arms sink deeper, that sensation vanishes. You pull your arms out and see they have both unraveled into strings of blue veins, red arteries, gray nerves, and pink muscle. These strings squirm with the worms, and the unraveling travels up your shoulders, neck, the bottom of your jaw—
You push the nightmare back down, centering yourself with your trusty refrain: think of the chair, concrete, gray, silent, cool stone …
“It’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t worry. That’s a good one,” Nihtcargast says, concerned with your frantic breathing. “Why didn’t you suggest you had worms before? I’ll give you … Ah! ‘The perfect name for your dog, in the only way you could pronounce it.’ Brand new, hasn’t been used.”
The cold block of concrete pushes out the image of worms-overwhelming-sink spilling out onto the floor, your body slipping in the moist strands, but the offer snaps you back to the stall. “What? I’ve never owned a pet. We couldn’t afford it. Dad called pets just another mouth to feed.”
Nihtcargast trills, sharp and annoyed. “You don’t have to keep it. You could trade it away. There is always a human looking for pet names.”
“I’m not a … pet-name-retailer,” you say, trying to keep it from becoming a whine. “I don’t want to buy, trade, or sell dreams and nightmares. I just want to get rid of one.”
You ponder. You could just walk away. Better to play it safe. But … you don’t like the worms-overwhelming-sink nightmare either. Better to be rid of it. It always reminded you of that horrible apartment your parents moved into, the plumbing falling apart and walls peeling, the one time the sink backed up and they hadn’t yet come home from work … You have to force out the answer before you change your mind, “Yes. Ok. I agree.”
“Put your hand into this jar.”
You slip your hand into an empty wide-mouthed clay jar, painted in swirls of brown and blues. You get a shivering impression of worms squirming down your arm through your hands, and then nothing. Before Nihtcargast caps the jar with a cork, you see a wad of string coiled at the bottom. He then hands you one of those rubber chew toys, a puzzle for dogs that hides a treat in the middle, already scarred from excited teeth.
“This doesn’t look like anything,” you say, but when you take the toy into your hands, the certainty that you will name your next dog, “Nacho,” pronounced with a lingering “oh” at the end that no one else will ever manage, hits you like a finger flick on your earlobe. Not just the name, you know Nacho will only listen to you, be loyal only to you—an animal loved gives love, doesn’t it?
“Good trade. Come back when you have another moist, slithering one.”
The Handheld-Identities-that-Dare-not-Exist, the red-latex-skinned nightmare in an off-white t-shirt still hovers in your peripheral vision. She holds the strings made of nerve endings, stretched taut by the cluster of balloons made of floating faces. You don’t want to see those frozen expressions staring at you as they bob in a circle, so with a shudder, you step quickly to another stall.
Chair, concrete, gray, silence, cool … you repeat to yourself.
You have never had this particular dream before, the buying and selling of nightmares. This dream doesn’t have that out-of-control sensation, where walking up a hill that gets steeper, falling up into the sky, being stuck in one place no matter how fast you run. You could actually enjoy this, if it wasn’t for those floating heads and the creak of latex rubbing against skin—
Chair, concrete, gray, silence, cool …
At the next stall, another woman begs the Mechanical Cook to give her “the surety that she will have a daughter.” The Cook flips some wooden letter blocks in a wok and with each toss, the green flames from the fire licks the concave surface. With each flip, the colors on the blocks deepen: a brilliant yellow A, a deep swimming blue B, a bloody beating red C, the sharp nose-biting scent of a green D, and so on.
Behind the Cook, ingredients sit in jars. Pickled dolls’ arms. Salted picture books unfolding in brine. A toy truck wrapped in foil, softening over hot coals. The gears and levers in the Cook’s arms click click click as her coiled-spring tongue clucks clucks clucks at the begging woman. “You don’t have anything I want. No childhood nightmares?”
“I have a childhood memory, playing in the grass. Would that be enough?” says the begging woman. She wears a prim bathrobe, silk perhaps, with roses that dance up and down on a black background. Her hair and makeup is perfect, as if she was getting ready to go to a party, sat down on her bed, and fell asleep.
“No,” the Cook clicks and turns her head and blue LED-lit eyes at you. “Now you, you have what I’m looking for.”
“What? I …”
Standing on the theater stage, overlooking the audience of empty faces, you can’t remember your lines. Something about being a cabbage? Even though the other children stand beside you, the stage warps and bends until you are at the apex, thrust out in front for all to see.
“You forgot this,” the teacher says, and slaps a metal plate against your side.
The cool metal calms your flushed and sweaty skin, roasting under the stage lights. Still, it also pulls you to one side, a lopsided top ready to teeter.
“This should help,” someone else says, slamming another metal plate on your other side.
It evens you out, but now you have twice the weight. You lift your arms up to get some freedom or to be picked up, either way.
“No, that won’t do.”
They slide your arms into metal pipes. Clamp a skirt of metal around your legs. And finally a sphere around your head. Through the slits, you can still see the faceless audience, but you can’t hear anything except your own breathing. The metal leeches off the sweat and heat and you shiver. The audience stands up and quietly walks out of the theater, and you start shouting, but it only echoes in your metal helmet.
And then they turn off the lights.
You reel back, taking sharp, deep breaths. The other woman reaches out to steady you, but you wave her away, shaking your head, both to refuse her help but also to shake loose the nightmare. Chair, concrete, gray, silence, cool.
“Aha! What if we do a three-way trade?” the Cook says to the both of you. “Everyone gets what they want. Everyone’s happy.”
The woman reaches out once more and grabs your hands, and for a moment, you think she will pull off the metal pipes that aren’t there. “Please, I need this. We’ve been trying and … I don’t know if I can handle another loss, please …”
You almost say, What would I do with a memory of sliding on grass? but instead ask the Cook, “What do you do with nightmares? Why would anyone want a nightmare of being sealed into a metal suit?”
“Dreams and nightmares are sides to the same coin,” the Cook says, giving the wok another flip. You can see wires tense and loosen in her body since she has no skin or covering per se. “And like flipping a coin, the value remains the same. Some can learn from a nightmare or be lured into falseness by a dream, you know.”
The headless red-latex-skinned girl stands in the middle of a couple of stalls, holding onto those oddly-shaped balloon faces. One of the floating faces, its expression of pure terror, unacknowledged tears trailing its cheeks, mouth distorted into a silent, unpermitted cry, looks very much like the bathrobe woman’s expression, a desperate fear. This is your problem: you spend so much time helping other people that you’ve never fixed your own life. You can’t help but say, “Okay, I’ll make the trade.”
The Cook hands both of you a teacup each. The other woman tips her head forward and presses her lips to the edge of the cup. You mirror her and something boils within your guts. You splutter and cough up a silvery liquid that tastes of copper and blood. It steams as the cup warms.
The Cook takes the teacup from your hands and hands you the other woman’s. Her teacup has a thick sludge exuding a green scent of cut grass. “Do I have to drink this?” you say. “Can I save it?”
“Save it? For what?” Both the Cook and the other woman stare at you.
You exhale and inhale deeply, to hold your breath as you swallow the sludge as fast as you can. The taste of blue skies and sunshine creep down your gullet and you giggle. A twitch in your heart, a tickle of your fancy. Running across that field, hands out to slap against the grass and flowers. (But I get hay fever, you think.) Nacho runs behind you (we don’t have a dog) and barks and his muzzle snaps at the back of your shoes. You trip. (Mom would have hit me if I had stained my clothes, you say to yourself.) The soft grass cushions your fall and the dog bumps his cold, wet nose against your face, so you roll away, laughing all the way down to the bottom.
You reach out to grab hold of something, dizzy from the tumbling, and grasp the Cook’s cold, metal hands. The market spins and your own head bobs like a balloon…
The other heads float above the neighboring market stall, eyes glaring.
You run away so fast that it feels like your feet have flown ahead of your head. By the time your head tells you to stop, you have found a tree some distance from the market like the one at the bottom of the hill with large roots, enough for you to slide down into them, like the arms of a comforting no-not-mother.
No, not mother. You go to your mantra, chair, concrete, gray, silence, cool, but it doesn’t center you as it should. Instead, you push it away, blinking in surprise when your heart settles down on its own.
Strange how it makes no sense to have your heart racing and your shoulders hunched up to protect your face, because instead, the joyous, glorious memory of falling down a hill with a dog you never had bubbles to the surface. With a deep breath, the sensation, the flight, leaves you and instead you find yourself smiling.
You sit down and fit perfectly in between these roots, and you wonder if maybe you could stay in this dream. You could set up your own stall, buy, sell, trade. Or welcome dreamers and explain to them how all this works.
“All dreamers must wake,” a voice above you says, “and your time is coming to an end.”
You stand up, calmly, carefully and look up to see a silky dark shadow lounging on a tree branch. Its many arms and legs wave lazily like cat tails, and multiple cat eyes swim throughout its body as casual as fish in a pond. “Who are you?”
“Mengmao, a dream of all black cats, harbingers of bad luck and endless voids.”
“I suppose you want a nightmare? But not the one I want to give away?”
“Almost correct. I want—”
Chair, concrete, gray, silence, cool. You had taken this dream and turned it into a meditation. The chair, comfortable, a perfect angle for your legs so they never hurt, unlike any of the so-called ergonomic office chairs you have had the misfortune of sitting in. The gray concrete underneath, above, and to all four sides has a perfect evenness impossible to find in the real world. It has the silence of a tomb; you cannot even hear your own breath. And best of all, when life turns into a furnace, when embarrassment or rage threatens to light you on fire, this dark, silent, cubical tomb cools, cooled, you down.
“N-n-no. This is … I use this. It helps me.”
“The concrete block can be a foundation, but it also can be a weight, pressing you down. It can be an obstacle that you have embraced as a home.”
“What will you do with it?”
Sharp incisors bloom throughout its black space: cat smiles. “I know a certain child who would be terrified being encased in such a tomb.”
“No! Why would you scare a kid like that?”
“Because we are bad. But sometimes good. Occasionally indifferent. Often fools. Once in a while, sages. Generally confused like all of you humans. We can be singular or all three. We are a dream. A nightmare. A memory.”
“I thought the Mechanical Cook said a dream and a nightmare are a coin?”
“She is correct. A three-sided coin.”
“But that’s … it doesn’t … never mind,” you say. “What can you give me then?”
“I have a lovely cold nightmare of getting swallowed by mud.” One arm-tail playfully swipes at another arm-tail.
“Wonderful. What am I supposed to do with that nightmare?”
“Remember the three-sided coin. Are you sure the nightmares you gave up weren’t memories in disguise? Perhaps the memories you have are merely waking dreams? Are you sure your dreams aren’t nightmares robbed of its terror?”
“But dreams and nightmares are just random bits and pieces. Brains only try to make sense of it because that’s what brains do.”
“Life is random bits and pieces too.” Mengmao’s many mouths yawn, and its body stretches, lengthens along the tree branch. “You don’t have much time. Any moment, your belief in this dream will collapse, and you will wake.”
“Then it doesn’t matter. When I wake, this’ll be just a memory.”
“Then no harm in shaping the clay and giving me what I want.”
You look back down at the cleft where the tree’s roots meet, and there sits a misshapen lump of some kind of white clay. You touch it, and it brings the same cool, calming comfort as the chair and concrete. Your hands move on their own accord, calm, slow, and methodical. After a moment or an infinity, you have a cube of the white clay, edges sharp and the corners piercing the air. You also have a leftover clump of the clay, the size and shape of a stick of chalk.
“Go ahead and eat it, and the trade will be done.”
You place the chalk between your lips, and the tip of your tongue tastes the weight of the muddy clay on your feet. You clamp down with your front teeth, and the chalk breaks—
—with a snap. Your eyes open to see, in the horizon, beyond the market, the top edge of the window in your bedroom, creeping up, a window-rise. The sky above the market is the stained yellow-white paint of your room. You must have forgotten to draw the blackout curtains.
You sit up in your bed, now also underneath the tree, and pull your blanket up around your shoulders. You shiver, not from cold, but from the half-waking. The dream begins to fade into the liminal space between knowing and forgetting. “But what do I do with—”
The name, Handheld-Identities-that-Dare-not-Exist, hovers on the tip of your tongue, but the words evaporate even as several dozen voices whisper, “Nooooo …”
The off-white blanket weighs heavy on your shoulders, and it causes your traded nightmare to snap into place: “I was standing in the middle of a field, all muddy but there was no rain. I started to sink. No, the white mud started to rise and with each inch, I started turning into clay, bone white. I had to keep walking or turn completely clay. I even stopped to reach down—My hands turned to clay, and it eventually came over my head.”
“Stoooooop …” the balloon voices say.
“No, it’s fine,” you say, tossing away the blanket. In the light low in the horizon, the blanket folds in a way that it looks like a sheet of crumbling clay. “No, it’s fine. It’s like … an epiphany. The clay means I’ve been stuck in a rut, being pulled down. Same job. Same life.”
A child stands next to you, next to the bed. Skin made of inflated red latex. Wearing jeans and an off-white long sleeved tee. No head, at least not at her shoulders; instead, she holds in one hand a cluster of strings and balloons made of faces, all of whom go silent when you look at them.
She seems familiar. A friend? No, a bully you never forgot about but then, when you see their small life online, you’re freed from their grasp. All of the faces bobbing up and down on those strings are all your faces, frozen at a different memory each. The one of rage from when that boyfriend accidentally threw out your books; the one of sadness when your father failed to show up on time to drive you back from the doctor; the bitterness at your mother’s undermining, backhanded compliments. You tried to forget those faces, those memories.
The other faces, you had truly forgotten: the joy you had at a book signing of a favorite author, the bliss from a sleepover with your friends, the excitement of graduating from college to face an unknown but potential future.
The headless balloon child lifts her other inflated latex hand out. You reach out, no hesitation, gently taking the hand in yours. It does not pop. She has a human hand’s warmth and you squeeze involuntarily, but it only yields a little, no different from flesh and bone.
Now it is your turn to hold out your other hand, and the girl gently tugs the balloons by their strings. Your fingers walk through each string like flipping through the pages of a book. Your pointer finger curls around one that feels right, a key fitting into a lock. You pull and the balloon slips free from the girl’s red latex fingers.
You pull the balloon lower and smile. The face has no expression, but it’s lifeless, a corpse’s face. Is this what everyone saw when they looked at you? When did you decide to take on this face? A laugh bubbles up from your gut. It all seems absurd. To take on this face of all possible faces and to forget the others.
Looking over the headless child with the balloon heads, like opening a forgotten diary, recognizing the handwriting but none of the words, you decide that it doesn’t matter. Dreams, nightmares, and memories are all the same three-sided coin.
She’s not the Handheld-Identities-that-Dare-not-Exist, you think. She’s the Faces-I-Have-to-Learn-to-Use-Again.
The sun finally peeks over the edge of the horizon, through the window, the light washing out the market. The beams of a new morning strike your sleeping face, and you wake up.
While being rained on near Portland, Oregon, Monte Lin writes, edits, and plays tabletop RPGs. Clarion West got him to write about dying universes, dreaming mountains, and singularities made of anxieties. He can be found tweeting Doctor Who news, Asian American diaspora discourse, and his board game losses at @Monte_Lin.
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