This Trick I'm Learning To Do...(Originally appeared in the Dead Mule)
The night before last I dreamed I was sitting in my old bedroom, the one I inherited from my sister after she moved out, with several friends and Hollywood celebrities. We were talking, having a party, when dozens of snakes dropped from the ceiling.
It is surprising how many phobias I have about that house. I blame the snake dream on stress and an experience from my childhood— we had an old dishwasher in the kitchen that hadn't worked for years. One day my sister, my father, and I were standing in the kitchen, talking. My sister's cat started nosing around the dishwasher, pawing at it, alerting us to some kind of weirdness with it, and so we opened it up. And an annoyed snake stuck its tongue out at us. I think it was a blue racer— a black one, the kind we told stories about how they would chase people or drop on them from trees. At the sight of the thing, the cat leapt from my sister's arms onto my father's neck, a la Piddy Sing. My sister screamed. My father ran to the back door and tried to dislodge the cat from his neck, which took several tries, and finally threw the cat outside. My father was ever the champion cat flinger.
The dishwasher door had slammed closed, so the snake was still inside. I don't remember what we did with it. Dad probably took it outside. I remember that he wouldn't kill it. Sometime soon after that, he sealed the drain pipe up, so nothing else could get in, and finally replaced the old thing with a slightly less-old one.
Looking back, of course, this is a hilarious scenario to me. Afterwards, after the terror had been overwhelmed by the adrenalin and excitement, I remember my sister and myself standing, shaking, laughing at dad's bleeding neck while he fumed. But it was an uneasy laughter.
This scenario represents one of my first memories of intrusion. We had simply been talking, when this thing, this OTHER, intruded into our kitchen, our lives, shattering our illusion of security.
The popular preconception is to think of the childhood home as a place of safety, a place to look back upon wistfully once one has left and entered into the much less forgiving world. I never have thought this. Quite the opposite, in fact. I can't remember a time when I was comfortable in my parents' house, though I was definitely dependant on its familiarity. It was an evil I knew.
Very early on, my mother doted on me to the point of nearly smothering me. A teacher and church member well known in the community, my mother was loved and loveable. And then, somewhere between my Kindergarten and elementary school years, an intruder came into our lives. Mom began to show symptoms of Huntington's disease, and her health declined. She became, over time, withdrawn, reclusive, a stranger haunting the couch in the living room, eyes fixed on the ABC affiliate out of Jonesboro, where she'd gone to college, establishing a pattern in the family of forever looking back.
I wanted to get away from her. I spent all of my time dogging my father's footsteps, riding along and sitting in the truck while he walked the rice fields, begging him to come home instead of spending late nights on the farm drinking with his buddies, which became more and more frequent as Mom's health declined. I wasn't urging him towards a moral path; I simply didn't want to be at home with Mom without some backup. She was becoming, herself, an OTHER, an intruder, a stranger. She haunted that house, and it terrified me because I didn't understand it. One moment, she was my mother, another, she was violent, crying, unpredictable.
I dream about her, too. When I moved out, I dreamed, often, of her as a wraith, moaning outside my bedroom door in whatever apartment I was in at the time, while I huddled in bed, willing her to stay outside.
More recently, after her death, she's become a different sort of archetype. My (and my wife's) favorite dream happened before my birthday, a couple months ago. I dreamed that my wife had bought a bicycle for me and hidden it in the bathroom of my father's house. It is important to understand that as my mother's health declined, she became prone to violent attacks. The bathroom was the only room in my parents' house with a lock on it, so my sister and I hid there. The lock broke at some point, and we would pull a drawer out so that the door would hit the drawer and couldn't open all the way. The door couldn't open far, but my mother was still able to stick skinny, long nailed fingers through, in between bouts of slamming the door against the drawer. But in this dream, the horror archetype, the "safe room" outside of which the monster lurks, scheming a way to get inside, had become the repository of this bicycle, this gift. I knew the gift was there, but I refused to spoil the surprise. I sat in my bedroom (with no snakes in the ceiling, this time) waiting for the big day. But my mother wouldn't have any of it. She wanted me to come play with her. I refused, determined not to spoil the surprise. This, I should add, is very close to what was really happening at the time. My wife had hidden gifts in a certain room of our apartment, and I was thoroughly banned from entering.
But Mom was determined. When I wouldn't come out into the living room to play, she went and got the bike herself and rode it through the house, exclaiming how much fun she was having. But I refused to budge, even when she rode it into the bedroom and did loops. I ignored her until she left and went back to the living room. She offered me all sorts of bribes, finally calling out, "I've got fried chicken." This was enough to draw me to the door, where I saw her, sitting in a recliner in the living room with a bucket of chicken, savoring a drumstick.
This turn, this re-envisioning of my mother from wraith to childlike, playful friend in my subconscious, is at least indirectly due to her death, ironic as it may seem. Aside from the emotional backlash, the opportunity for closure, which played a large part, something else important happened after she died: I found her diary. It was an ancient book, chronicling two summers from her childhood, one when she was about the age I was when she first became ill, then dropping off and picking up again several years later in her late teens, the summer between high school and college. Brief and limited as these entries are, they present a window into her personality, allowing me to fill in some of the gaps.
And really, isn't this the bane of the archetype? Doesn't the killer in the horror film become much less frightening when we realize the reasons for his actions, the motivations, when we begin to delve beyond the chainsaw and see that he is simply a deformed freak, when we learn that his terrible mother isn't real, it's him in a dress, driven mad by constant goading? The terror gives way to revulsion, pity, empathy, sometimes, but the magic is gone. Its hold over us is weakened.
And there's something sad about that. It's a kind of loss of magic, like growing up and realizing Santa isn't real. When I look back at this house from my childhood, I can chalk the snake up to poor plumbing, neglect. It is an old house. The shadows on the ceiling are caused by poor lighting, nothing else. There is no magic, there. There are no demons or ghosts haunting its walls, as I and several friends have believed over the years. The wraith outside my door, in my dreams, is my guilt, my loss; it is emotional collapse trying to get in and confound me, but I haven't let it. My mother was sick and we were children. We didn't understand what was happening, not really. Now I am beginning to understand. The monster is losing its power.
And my snake dream from the night before last isn't even a proper nightmare, because I haven't told you everything that happened. As I said, it was in my old bedroom; I was standing with several people, talking. Some of these people were friends, but most were celebrities. Angelina Jolie was there, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, probably the entire cast of the Ocean's 11, 12, etc movies. They were standing, sipping martinis because this is what celebrities do, when the ceiling opened up and snakes fell onto their heads, into their drinks, curling around their throats like scarves. There was silence, the deep intake of breath...
And they laughed, en masse. It was a well-timed joke, this trick I'd learned to do with my ceiling. They clapped, the women daintily holding cigarettes, their tips burning in long, skinny black holders. They were flappers, they were ape men with robot heads, they were demons and girls I sat behind in grade school. My mother was there, in the back, smiling, young and healthy. All of them turned to me and applauded, thundering, covered in snakes.
And I woke up, realizing that I am no longer afraid of that house; I just don't like being there. It was an epiphany. Sometimes snakes crawl into dishwashers. It happens. Sometimes people die. It is always tragic to someone. Life is full of tragedy and terror. That doesn't mean we have to be afraid of it.