The Dreamer by Julie Cohen

Something shifted in the dark. Bones settling into dust, softly crumbling edges touched only by dirt, all flesh long since dissolved. With a smile that came by fractions over cracked lips, she reached out to touch the bones. Touched only now by dirt and her finger—flesh encased? Or exposed bone, too? No, there was softness there, but it was not the firm softness of living tissue… not exactly.

How long had…?

She remembered the taste of air suddenly. Real air—true, fresh air not scarred by decay. One day she had breathed that air without knowing it would never again touch her lungs—

—but there was a sky, red? Was that the color red? The word arrived and then vanished. No, pink, orange, pink, the words supplied. The knowledge came without her knowing. Pink orange pink mottled with blurred off-color patches. Was this dawn? The word, like the others, came to her mind unbidden. A flash of something not pink (—red—), blood? Her fingertips tingled with the feeling: hair. Red hair, not her own hair, she had been told that was a honeyed brown. Someone with red hair beside her at dawn. She had never lived this moment—

Back to herself, she felt her mind spin as the images vanished, their presence lingering like the ghosts all around her here in… Where? Where was she again?

With the dead. She laughed aloud; her voice sounded wild and strange. Could a corpse laugh? She was a corpse?

Obviously. She could feel the decay as it softened her skin, crept through the remains of her organs. Her heart, strangely still. The air, so very still without the sound of her own blood in her ears. Dead still. She laughed again. What else could she do? She was not about to cry for what they took from her—she had resolved long ago to never shed tears for pain they inflicted. They didn’t deserve anything from her, not a single bit of salty water from her unseeing eyes. She belonged to herself. If they took what they wanted by force, she refused to give them anything more.

Had they, then, taken her by force?

Her mind was hazy now, the crystalline images from earlier having faded.

Was it earlier? How long had it been? A few minutes? Somehow she felt that years had passed… since… what…?

She lay down. She felt her bones shift oddly in the skin that still cloaked them, even as it peeled, rotted, dripped, fed the stray creatures that dared come close enough to steal from her. Most of them she beat off. The maggots she crushed, the worms she flung away. Even in death, she had to fight the vermin hungry for her body.

Well, it was a little different, right? She cackled at the thought.

She sobered as a ghost spoke beside her ear.

No, she couldn’t come with him. Why? She didn’t know. She was dead, wasn’t she? She was… not quite dead, was she?

Did they finally have their way? She thought so, but not in the way she had always expected. And something else had happened. Interfered.

—a lake. A child who laughed as he thrust flowers into her lap. She could smell them, sweet fragrance, and the scent of something else nearby… a warm spice she could taste but had never known. Did not know yet. Cinnamon, said her mind, together with a voice she knew and knew she had never heard. A warm voice. She reached out—

The catacombs. That was the name of this place. She had not been brought to them. A ghost had whispered of them to her once, and the shape of them had formed in her mind. Her fingers had felt the slick walls, the quiet, shifting bones, the tattered fabrics. From the shapes grew images; she did not understand them at first. Her mind was not accustomed to imagery. The colors were too much, but behind the images were remembered sensations known to her, objects familiar to her touch.

Then suddenly she knew she had gone there, to the catacombs of which the ghost had whispered. A village for the dead.

Dead, but not quite dead… Did the dead have memories? She tried to remember something.

There was an old man. He had not always been old. He had always been strong, with a wry sense of humor and a kind heart. He had a daughter, born blind. He raised her by himself. Together they lived in a small house with a goat and three chickens. There was always work, but the girl was as hard-working as her father.

Not everyone was kind. The girl grew up, was deemed pretty but unmarriageable. Her eyes saw nothing. It was, for some reason, too great a flaw, and thus her fate as a spinster was sealed.

But they decided that it would still be a waste to let her grow old untouched.

Her father taught her how to fight. She was especially fond of the sturdy, thick wooden chair in their house, which always made a satisfying sound when it struck a body in motion.

They resented her unwillingness, her fierce refusal to give in to them. It fueled their desire, but she fought harder. She threatened to deprive them of their favorite body parts. Eventually they grew tired. She had been tired for years.

And then…

They had not taken her body. She knew that much, now. She was pleased to have died-not-died unmolested by them. She wished she could spit in their faces, and imagined her tongue falling right out of her mouth, arcing through the air to slap one of them in the eye. She rolled over in the dirt and laughed until she would have been breathless had she needed to breathe. Somewhere close, a ghost laughed with her.

tell them tell them tell them

Flashes of things she didn’t recognize—tanks, the word came. Now a… ship? Monstrously large. Sinking. Screams silenced by the black water.

She is waiting scarfing down the suffering waiting for the ones who will ignite her power waiting waiting we left her long ago, cast her from the moon to the depths below, she waits in anger, you must tell them, she will come

—then one day, they had come for her. Not to take her body. She could not fight them all this time. Her father could not help.

Our god is angry. You are a curse on us. Your birth was an omen. We should have listened to it. Now we are starving. The god is hungry and so he makes us hungry as punishment. We will feed you to him.

Their accusations smothered her with sound. These fools who prayed to a god they talked into existence in their minds and gave power to—just enough power to suit their fantasies. She was carried away by a wave of hands, and then her back hit something hard. Her heart beat so loudly, knowing it would soon stop. Her heart knew before she herself realized what they meant to do. When her mind caught up it was too late. She screamed in anger and in horror.

The knife should have stopped her heart. And it did. But did not, exactly. Two goddesses caught her in that moment, on the edge of life and death, and trapped her there. Sacrificed to an imagined god, only to be stolen by two true ones.

You will dream for us now, oracle. They whispered the words into her violence-rattled mind. She screamed again after death, and the others recoiled in terror. Good, she thought as she heard their gasps, felt their fright. She could sense their repulsion. She knew they were staring, trembling, praying to their false god. Magic wrapped around her soul.

Finally they threw her into a grave. She laughed in their faces, not because she was amused, but because she hoped to haunt them. She laughed as the dirt stifled her.

Now she rolled back over and listened to the soft shifting of bones in the catacombs. Sometimes the dreams would come upon her. She would speak them aloud to the dead, telling prophecy to those who did not need it.

Julie Cohen is a library assistant living in New Jersey and is currently working on her Masters in Library and Information Science. She lives with her partner, their four cats, and an ever growing treasure hoard of books.