“Dreams of Color”
Blind since her brother vanished, young Emerald must decide whether she can trust a ghostly visitor that promises to help her find him.
She sat awake on her bed among the buzzing things of summer and listened. Faint, weightless footsteps kissed the dusty floorboards. She lurched upright and clutched her sponge-damp shirt.
“Emrick – is that you?”
She heard nothing. A million frogs lamented their dirges through the glassless windows. The boards moaned again.
“Emrick?” she whispered. “Brother?”
The feet scampered away, thudding like goat skin in the unblinking dark.
In the morning she helped Mother while Papa worked the fields of Mr. Milam Bryant. She washed beans and felt the leathery pods between her fingers, one by one, and counted the days since Emrick had gone into the woods.
“I think a ghost come by last night,” she said quietly.
“Ain’t no such thing,” Momma said.
“But I heard him,” she insisted.
“Don’t fuss me none, Em’rald,” Momma ordered, and the matter was settled.
The Mississippi heat poured through gaping windows to bathe her in thick sweat. Fleas and mosquitos feasted beneath her sheets. She stirred, but did not wake.
Within the infinite thickets of her dreams, Emrick leads her by hand to the ravine. It is a scar of serrated earth, long cut deep by floodwaters, guarded above by a split rail fence of flecked white wood.
“This way,” he says.
“I’m not goin’ down there,” she protests, crossing her arms.
“There’s somethin’ in there,” Emrick continues. “Somethin’ evil.”
“Then we should go home.”
“I wanna see it,” he says.
She sat bolt upright, awake. She had heard the footsteps again.
She was sure.
The visitor persecuted the aged wood, a soft drumroll along the floor. Sweat greased her skin. The footsteps scuffed to a stop beside her straw mattress.
“Who’s there?” she whispered.
The world held its breath.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
Then, no more than twelve inches from her ear, it spoke.
The soft voice of a youth, not unlike her brother’s.
“Then who are you?” she asked.
She swept her fingers through the air. They found no flesh beside her. Each digit tingled at an invisible winter.
“Where are you?”
“What are you? A ghost?” she said.
I know where you can find your brother.
A hopeful tremor shook her. She reached out to feel in the dark again. So cold.
“Is he okay?”
“Can you show me where he is?”
Her volcanic joy surged forth and she shouted, “Momma, Papa! Emrick’s okay!” but the presence of the visitor fled with a gasp as her mother thundered in.
“What’d you say?” Momma cried.
“Emrick’s okay, Momma! I can find him!”
“Make sense, child!”
“A ghost told me! He’ll show me where he is!”
“He will, Momma!”
A thousand pinpricks exploded on her cheek, the familiar sting of a slap.
“You done put me through enough,” Momma quaked. “No more of this ghost. Y’hear?”
Emerald sucked her lower lip and massaged her cheek until she was alone again with her dreams.
She knows that the world ripples with luscious paintbrush-bristle color. But as she sits squat on the ground, barely taller than the knifing grasses, the verdant landscape is alien and silent for her.
“You have to come with me,” Emrick says.
“No. I can’t see.”
“I’ll hold your hand,” he says.
“No,” she whines, “I’ll get lost.”
“Then don’t come,” he snaps. “You can wait.”
She latches onto his ankle to hold him still but he pries her fingers away and leaps out of reach, leaving her alone.
“Come back!” she wails.
She rubs her eyes vigorously, then opens them to look after the sound of his feet crashing in the thicket. All she can spy is a single gray firefly disappearing into the jagged glen. Then she is alone.
The pall of another sleepless night hurled her about the bed. She decided to wait again for the visitor and played a lion growling at other little children, and a cat mewing and pawing at the mice of her mind.
The floorboards squealed softly.
“Ghost – are you there?”
A lifeless breath blew frigid against her gossamer neck. Her hands swam the room, but found nothing. Just particles of thick Mississippi air, strangely chill in the swelter.
“Can you help me find my brother?”
A thought had come to her before, and she spoke it now.
“Why won’t Emrick just come home?” she said. “If he’s really okay, like you say?”
He’s lost. He needs you.
She weighed the words and felt her throat turn to sand.
“Do you have a name?”
A pause. The sound of breathing, light and cool like November winds.
I can’t remember.
Your brother needs you.
She considered. Her fingers groped along the edge of the bed, numbed with the visitor’s presence. She thought of her mother and father sleeping below and shivered.
“How far is it?” she asked.
“How will I know where to go?”
Can you feel me?
“Yes,” she said. “You’re so cold.”
Before the grinning ravine, she does just what Emrick told her. She waits.
She draws her knees to her chest and nibbles a stalk of straw. She prays and sleeps and cries. She dreams of color. She sees the radiant thickets behind her house, draped in leaves of jade, the crick to swim naked in, the water clay-crimson in her hands, her cocoa-rich skin.
She waits two whole days.
After such agonizing hours, she begins the long crawl home, alone in the everlasting darkness.
She stumbled past the hissing lamps of the house into the orchestra of insects. Bare feet pressed the hot dirt. One arm swayed side-to-side for balance, the other felt for her guide. Howls from every direction. The chill faded from her fingers.
“Wait!” she cried.
Your brother is close.
“Please, I can’t see!” she panted.
She scrambled through the knee-high grasses, claws of pokeweed and prying crowfoot. A cistern of pollution and nameless shapes before her eyes. Each breath burned with fear.
“Ghost?” she called.
She crawled and her head struck a log. She groped along to find it propped above the carpet of grass and mud and wriggled beneath it. She recognized this place. The braille of the earth whispered to her. She was approaching the ravine, the tree-toothed border of Milam Bryant’s plantation.
She pawed her way forward. The ground fell away and her palms came up cool and moist. Exposed bare bones of earth kneeled for her to find and clutch and clamber downward upon. She reached a tremendous stone and hugged her body against it and gasped for breath.
We are close now.
Wet mud squished under her toes with each step. Several long minutes elapsed as she passed through the delta lowlands. She spread her arms again, wings of a fallen creature.
“Emrick!” she cried at the top of her voice. “It’s me, Em’rald!”
Her foot kicked a stone and she flopped to the ground, yelping in pain. She lifted her head and opened her eyes. All pooled with black and soot, the bottom of a grave.
But a shape began to form before her.
She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and stared into the horizon.
She could it. Something man-made. A structure rising wart-like from the ground, haloed with silver moonlight.
She took wobbling steps toward it, blinking.
It was a shack. Black walls collapsed around sunken windows that hung drunk. Serpentine fog encircled the sorrowful portals.
“Emrick!” she called.
She stumbled forward.
She drew closer to the shack. The world cloaked in dusk and haze, the frigid winter of the visitor’s presence raising goosebumps despite the dripping summer sweat.
“Emrick? Are you there?”
Her hand touched the splintered jamb. Rusted debris rattled about her feet. She peered inside. Still, she saw little more than a foamy maelstrom of ash.
She lifted a leg and stepped inside, holding the door frame, gasping. She blinked again and looked.
Amid the thunderhead in her eyes, a human shape lay before her, asleep on the ground. It glowed dimly.
Go to him.
She knelt and whispered, “Brother?” Her fingertips brushed the limp pair of feet at the ankles. She gave a cry.
They were rigid as rubber. And cold. Impossibly cold, like ice and acid.
Her hands worked along his leg and torso, up to the neck. A point of pain knifed into her finger. Her hands maneuvered the tiny daggers looped about the boy’s collar.
“Emrick!” she called.
It could only be one thing. She trembled at the barbed wire sunk deep in her brother’s swollen flesh. Her hands moved again. So, so cold. She recoiled at the kiss of his dead lips and landed on her backside. Her whole body shook with terror.
“G-ghost,” she stuttered through hot tears, “what happened to him?”
Above the limp body before her, the fleshless guide appeared in full. Its face flowed with black oil, its cloak billowing smoke and mold. It made no sound.
She opened her mouth, but could not scream.
It opened a single eye, a tiny sun of frosted glass. Unspeakable polar cold. Not of this world. And she knew then that this visitor had not come to help her, nor had it arrived out of pity or remorse.
She glanced once more at the dead boy before her. His head was turning. The mouth opened.
She wailed and spun to crawl through the door. Her feet slipped and splinters dug into her forearms and knees, but she kicked at the shed and flew into the simmering Mississippi furnace.
She scrambled up the shoulder of the earth out of the gulch, wheezing in terror, not looking back.
Her head struck the logs of the white fence again and she tumbled and rolled onto her back and wept and repeated Emrick’s name until her tongue swelled. She listened between gasps and heartbeats. She looked down the hill for the ghost but saw nothing. Instead, the tallow-white negative of her brother’s corpse hung suspended before her, trapped in the prison of her eyes. Its mouth still moved and she beat her head to dislodge the image.
She curled into the warm grass and caught her breath and waited. Nothing came after her. No sound reached her, and she felt a shame familiar to all frightened children, that trickling poison in the belly with a cruel voice of broken glass.
At last she began to fumble through the lonely forest. With every step her brother’s image burned on her horizon, a beacon of dread. Her tears watered the blind and lonely way home.
She never spoke of her brother again.
Image Credit: Keith, Creative Commons
“Dreams of Color” © 2015 David H. Safford.
This story was first published in The Gateway Review, 2015, under the author name ‘NoahDavid Lein.’