A. C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has appeared in publications such as Future Lovecraft, ChiZine, Clarkesworld and The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits the online ‘zine, the Journal of Unlikely Entomology, along with Bernie Mojzes. The author can be found online at her personal site. The following story, “Where Dead Men Go to Dream,” is reprinted from the recently published anthology Fungi (Innsmouth Free Press), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Orrin Grey. — The Editors
Creative Commons Image © Futurilla (Flickr)
She was the real deal.
Jonah had watched her long enough to know and long enough to know better, too. He should turn around and walk away. A woman selling dreams; it was madness. He crushed out the last of his cigarette, but didn’t take a single step to leave the crowded train station.
No. Madness was a razor against his skin every night, trying to recapture the feeling of a hundred shards of mirrored glass slicing into his flesh. Love was madness, an infection deep in his bones. Madness was further down the road, this road full of not knowing and no answers.
“Shit.” He flicked the butt of his cigarette away and made his way toward the woman who sold dreams.
Merrin was gone, probably dead. Probably. But he didn’t know for sure. All he knew was that she’d disappeared into the night and it was his fault. None of the usual avenues had turned up any trace of her. If he wanted answers … if … then madness or not, it had to be dreams and the woman who sold them.
The woman sat among the roots of the vast iron tree in the centre of the station, legs tucked beneath a red skirt spread on the mosaic tile floor like pooling blood. At her back, the trunk twisted up and up, and overhead, branches held up the station’s glass ceiling. From each branch, globes — strange, moon-coloured fruit — hung, ready to light the station at twilight.
A cloth holding bones, coins, stones, and leaves — every possible tool of scrying — lay spread before her. She looked up as Jonah approached, tilting her head.
“You smell of loss.” Her eyes were white, frosted with a delicate pattern of mold, like lace over irises that had once been green. Jonah crouched.
“I … I’m looking for someone. I heard you sell true dreams.” Jonah’s voice emerged hoarse, from a throat gone parchment-dry.
The woman said nothing, filament-veiled eyes looking through his skin to sort his bones, weigh his soul.
“Sorry. I’ve made a mistake. Sorry.”
He rose to leave, but the woman’s hand shot out, catching his wrist. Off-balance, he nearly tumbled into her lap. He stared at the hand gripping his arm. A skirling pattern of white, blue and green covered the back of her hand, spiraling up beneath her sleeve. Not a tattoo, not ink: mold.
“You’re looking for a dream?” She leaned close, flashing teeth as evidence of her pleasure at his discomfort.
They were stained dark and Jonah doubted the stains came from tobacco. He couldn’t begin to guess the woman’s age. Anger — or something like it — hardened the lines around her mouth and put a bitter light in her eyes. She might have been ten years younger than him, or ten years older.
“Let’s see.” The woman laid a hand against his cheek.
Where her fingertips touched, Jonah felt tacky strands, like a spider-gossamer, pulled from beneath his skin. The woman drew back, unraveling the strands, only to wind them, cat’s-cradle-wise, around her fingers. Jonah couldn’t see the web, but he could feel it and he knew exactly what the dream-seller would see, taste, smell, hear.
Merrin. And the imprint of his fingers blurring the mirrors covering her skin. The scent of his blood, drawn every time they made love, mingled with her sweat. Murmured words and tiny sounds of pleasure; the beating of his heart, too loud inside his skin. Love.
“The coins in your pocket. All of them.” The dream-seller leaned back.
Jonah filled her palm. She weighed silver and gold, before vanishing the coins too quickly for Jonah to see where they’d gone.
“Not here.” The woman lifted the hem of her skirt, drawing a card from the top of her boot. It bore an address on Bergamon Street, in the Old Quarter. “Come late tonight. I have what you’re looking for.”
Light skittered across the blade. He couldn’t quell the shaking, not completely. Never could, not since Merrin had disappeared.
Jonah gripped the handle and drew a long, shallow cut along his thigh. He sucked in a breath, flicked drops of red from the razor’s thin edge. His pulse steadied; the pain centred him.
Still, memories unfurled.
Merrin’s tongue gathered sweat and blood from his skin. She raised her head long enough to smile at him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know.” Jonah stroked her hair, breathing her in.
She smelled like glass, which smelled like nothing except her. She smelled like Merrin — the scent only intensified by sex, heightening her herness as her skin slicked bright under his touch.
Jonah liked to believe Merrin was most herself after they made love. As if she came more sharply into focus when they touched, her essence clarified in the afterglow of sex.
Another shallow cut, matching the first.
The pain faded, too fast. But in the blood-sting, the razor slice, he could almost reach her. He could unwind time and hold her again.
Merrin’s eyes were the same shade as the mirrors covering her skin, no colour and every colour, catching the light reflecting whatever was around them. They became sunset and starlight, moonglow and new leaves; they encompassed his world.
“Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.” He took her hand, leading her from the bed to the bathroom.
He filled the claw-footed tub, the one luxury in his cramped apartment. Steam billowed, clouding her glass. The water swirled pink as she lowered herself into the tub.
“Don’t you want to wash, too?” She trailed her fingers in the water.
“I’m in no rush.” Jonah wrung excess water from a sponge. “I’ll clean up later.”
Another cut — lazy, quick. He barely felt the pain.
Merrin leaned forward, arms wrapped around her legs. Jonah sponged her mirror-studded skin. Water-dark tendrils of hair curled against her neck and shoulders. He breathed steam, breathed her.
Cut. Jagged. Hard.
He’d promised not to, but he looked. Below the surface, which merely reflected the room around them, lay the true essence of Merrin’s mirrors. Fractured light and possible futures sliding across her skin. Children they’d have one day — a boy, a girl, or both, and both with Merrin’s dark red hair. Their house — a cottage by the sea, an apartment with a balcony overlooking the city, a stone bungalow surrounded by a rambling garden. Their future scattered mosaic-wise on her skin — Jonah and Merrin making love, a thousand repetitions in a thousand fragments of glass, each iteration taking his breath away.
A cut, deeper this time.
Then. Then –
Jonah sucked in a breath. Merrin shivered, the bathwater suddenly grown cold. The image changed, their perfect future replaced by a starkness that mocked Jonah with its implacability.
In every fragment of glass, Merrin lay dead.
Pale skin cradled shards of mirror — cracked, broken, emptied of every possible future.
“What’s wrong?” She stiffened.
“Nothing.” Jonah tried to back away, to unsee. His legs wouldn’t straighten, keeping him crouched beside the tub, gripping its edge so hard his bones ached against his skin.
Merrin’s eyes widened, reflecting the horror of his expression. She reached past him, dripping, to pull a towel around her as she stood.
“I told you not to look.” Goose-bumps prickled between her glass.
Merrin stepped out of the tub. Water pooled at her feet.
Her fear — he’d put it there. Her anger, too. She’d seen what he’d seen, just by looking at his face, and it left her lips pressed thin, her expression closed and grim.
“Merrin ….” He reached for her and she twisted away.
Jonah’s fingers brushed the edge of the towel, but she kept going, bare feet slapping tile then the wood in the hall. His memory always quickened the footsteps, turning them into a run.
The razor, jagged, went deep. Jonah hissed pain and dropped the blade, shaking hard.
He let out a breath and gathered a wadded sheet to press against the wound and staunch the blood. It soaked red in an instant.
Merrin. If she was dead, did he really want to know? If she’d run away, if she was still alive and wanted nothing to do with him, would that be better?
She’d told him once her mirrors could lie. They showed possibility, not truth.
Jonah rose, dropping the bloodied sheet in a heap next to the door. He’d go to the dream-seller. Even if he didn’t like the answer, he had to know.
A green stink rose from the canals, wrapping Jonah’s nose and mouth as he crossed one of the myriad stone bridges stitching the city together. His clothes snagged at his wounds, threatening to reopen them with every step. Brass numbers set into the bricks beside each door gleamed in sickly light from the globes hanging like overripe fruit from the twisted, iron trees lining Bergamon Street. Each light dragged his shadow away, fraying it and bleeding it into the city’s greater dark.
He stopped at the address matching the dream-seller’s card, a narrow brownstone joined to identical houses on either side. The woman opened the door before he knocked, light from the hallway framing her. She’d shed the headscarf, revealing a head bald save for the mold, delicate as lace, spiraling across her scalp and trailing down her neck.
Jonah followed her to a room crowded with a couch and low chairs, all patterned in faded red and gold. A cup of tea waited on a table in front of the couch, just the right temperature, as if she’d timed its making to his arrival.
“Orange pekoe.” She smiled. She’d even added exactly the right amount of honey.
Despite the over-abundance of chairs, she didn’t sit. The dream-seller leaned in the doorway, watching him as she sipped from a cup smelling faintly of jasmine.
“What use is it, knowing the future, if you can’t change it, if your lover ends up dead anyway?”
Her words cut, almost as sharp as the razor. Jonah’s cup rattled as he set it down, the desire to run overwhelming. But the dream-seller stood in the doorway, blocking him.
“Why did you come here, really?”
“I have to know what happened to her.” Jonah hated how small his voice sounded.
“Dreams don’t tell the truth any more than mirrors do. They’re fickle.”
Behind the bloom of mold covering her eyes, she watched him — intent as though the white filaments only sharpened her vision.
“What do you really want?”
Jonah’s teeth hurt. His whole body hurt. He couldn’t look the dream-seller in the eye. He looked at his hands, instead, shaking, pressed flat against his thighs.
“I want Merrin to forgive me.”
“Ah.” She nodded. “As long as you’re clear.” A smile shadowed her lips as she turned. “Come with me.”
Jonah hesitated, but honesty had left him exhausted. He abandoned his tea and followed the dream-seller.
“Amaryllis.” The woman’s voice trailed back to him. It took Jonah a moment to realise the word was her name.
She opened a door in her tiny kitchen, leading him down a wooden staircase. The basement was cold; it smelled of cobwebs and the canals. Jonah imagined thick water pressed against the walls on the other side.
“I’ll respect you enough not to ask you if you want to change your mind,” Amaryllis said.
The dream-seller pulled a string dangling from the ceiling, flooding the room with uncompromising light. Their shadows stretched across the brushed concrete, stopping short of a dense, metal door set in the far wall.
Amaryllis crossed the room and pulled the door wide. It released with a faint hiss, a sound matched by the catch of Jonah’s breath. Amaryllis stepped aside; the sight inside the cold storage room gut-punched him.
A dead man hung from a dozen thin ropes. His bare, blue-grey feet pointed down; his head lolled as though, at any moment, he would wake. Mushrooms — as thin as breath, as grey as moth wings — covered every inch of his skin. Only his face was clear, save one delicate blossom, just below his right eye.
“They didn’t fruit until he died.” Amaryllis’ voice pulled Jonah back.
He closed his mouth, turning to stare at her instead of the dead man. She looked past him to the corpse, so Jonah couldn’t tell which one she addressed.
“There’s an imbalance in every relationship, one person who loves more than the other.”
Jonah opened his mouth to protest, but she went on. “I loved more and he loved equally, everyone, just the same. It got him killed.
“He was shot. A jealous husband, a jealous wife — it doesn’t matter. Everyone wanted something from him, more than he had to give.
“But I was the one they brought his body to in the end. I took care of him when he was alive, dream-drunk; why shouldn’t I watch over him once he was dead? Nothing changes. After a week, two officials from the city came and told me I had to burn or bury him. They said I couldn’t let him lie there and rot. It wasn’t safe, wasn’t sanitary.
“But I knew and I kept waiting. And I was right. He didn’t rot; he bloomed.”
Amaryllis plucked the mushroom from the dead man’s cheek. She held it up to the harsh light, letting it shine through to show the delicate gills underneath. The mushroom’s cap was so thin a breath might melt it. Jonah held his.
She twirled the stalk, pensive, eyes fixed on the mushroom now, and still not on Jonah.
“When he was alive, his skin grew with poppies the colour of blood.” Amaryllis’ mouth shaped a wistful smile.
Her lover hung — dead not dreaming, or dreaming not dead, ready to wake at any moment and stop Jonah’s breath by opening his eyes. Had he felt it when she plucked the mushroom from his skin? Did it hurt?
A patch of mold curled across Amaryllis’ cheek, gentle as a lover’s touch. She put a hand to it, the hard line of her lips softening further.
Amaryllis held the mushroom out to him. “Let it melt on your tongue and you’ll find your way to where dead men go to dream.”
In the glow shed from the iron trees lining the canal, the mushroom looked even more ephemeral. Jonah brushed the cap with one finger, wondering why it didn’t bruise. He leaned against the low wall of the bridge crossing the canal.
The night smelled green and black.
What was better as a last image — Merrin running away from him, angry and frightened, or Merrin dead, her mirrors cracked and empty? It wasn’t too late. He could still change his mind.
Jonah set the mushroom on his tongue. It melted the instant he closed his mouth, tasting of dust-turned wine, butter and deep cold — not earth but the worms moving through it; not the worms but their dreams. The last taste hit the back of his throat and Jonah gagged. He turned, gripping the bridge, fighting to keep the insubstantial slickness down. He sucked in a breath, the sick smell of the canal refreshing against the thickness coating his tongue, crawling down his throat and up his nose.
The world tilted. Sweat popped out cold all over his body. He stared fixedly at his wavering reflection in the dark water, focusing on it, focusing on not falling in. The image split, doubled, and a face beside his that wasn’t his turned toward him.
Jonah whirled, backing against the bridge wall. The dead man wore loose black trousers and a black shirt hanging open. Beneath the shirt, covering his skin, poppies bloomed dense.
“Amaryllis sent you.” It wasn’t a question.
Jonah gripped the stone behind him. The man tilted his head, a curious and patient gesture. Dark hair brushed his collar and curled soft against his cheeks. His black eyes were tinged red, as if his entire being was soaked in subtle blood.
He took a step forward, reaching as if to soothe a frightened animal. Beneath the dead man’s bare feet, the cobblestones cracked. Bright petals unfurled in the cracks, filling the air with a sickly-sweet smell, just on the edge of rot. Poppies ran riot, racing out from beneath his soles to swallow the stones.
The dead man took another step and the sky flickered. The night flipped from black to white. The dead man’s skin turned grey, the blooms on his skin withering and falling away. He opened his mouth and black river water spilled down his chin.
Jonah reeled back; his only thought was escape. A hand covered in petals caught Jonah before he fell, pulling him back from the bridge’s edge. The dead man eyes were black-red once more, his skin whole and blooming with flowers.
His gaze searched Jonah the way Amaryllis’ had, sorting his bones.
“Are you sure you want this?” the dead man asked. “I could make you forget, instead.” His breath smelled like poppies, too.
The grey-dead fingers plucked a flower from an equally grey chest, and held it out. The corpse’s eyes were black coffee, edged in dried blood. They were the colour of midnight and crimson dawn. He was the most beautiful man Jonah had ever seen, and the most terrifying.
Jonah opened his mouth, closed it on silence, then shook his head. “I need to know.”
He couldn’t look directly at the dead man as he gave his answer, but he glanced at him from beneath half-lowered lids.
The dead man’s smile was crooked. “Too bad.”
He tossed the poppy over the bridge and the canal caught it. It floated for a moment, incongruous against the slick green-black before sinking. The sky flickered again; the bridge trembled. The stone split and pale mushrooms fruited in place of red petals. Eyes white, skin blue, the dead man pointed to the water.
Dread swelled in Jonah’s throat, stopping his breath. It stiffened the muscles of his neck so he couldn’t turn his head. He knew what he would see and he didn’t want it anymore. But it was too late to change his mind.
After an eternity, he turned.
Merrin rose, dripping, from the water. It ran black on her skin, like ink, fat drops tracing the flesh between the mirrors. Between floating and walking, swimming and drowning, she moved to the edge of the canal and clambered up the slick stone.
Jonah’s pulse hammered, fear rooting him to the spot. Merrin crossed the bridge and stopped inches from him, her eyes the dull, shattered colour of broken glass. When she blinked blood ran from her lids. All over her skin, her mirrors were broken. Jonah couldn’t see anything in them at all.
“I’m sorry.” He reached for her.
She flinched away. “You shouldn’t have looked so deep.”
Jonah clenched his jaw, his fingers. “You shouldn’t have run. I could have helped you. We could have figured something out, together.”
Merrin blinked. More blood ran from her eyes. She shivered.
“No.” Her voice blew — a cold wind coming from far away.
Jonah reached for her again, and again, she pulled away.
“I wasn’t scared of death.” Merrin’s tone and gaze were steady. She met Jonah’s eyes. “Every time you looked in my mirrors, all those possible futures narrowed the world. They piled up against me until I couldn’t breathe. You saw what you wanted to see and you never once asked me what I wanted.”
“That’s not true! I never ….”
Jonah shook his head. He knew what he’d seen in her skin — all the houses they might live in, the children they would have had, different iterations, but always together, always happy. He reached for her shoulder. He caught her this time, digging his fingers in when she tried to twist away.
He gripped harder, desperate to hold her. His hands slipped, moved, squeezed. His thumbs pressed against her windpipe, crushing.
Her mirrored eyes widened, truth and lies tumbling through them; Jonah couldn’t tell them apart.
His love had terrified her. She’d run away seeking her death. Her death was a tragic accident. She wasn’t dead at all. She had a secret lover, a life of crime. He’d never really known her. She was a stranger and her mirrors had only shown him what he wanted to see.
“Stop.” It wasn’t Merrin’s voice but the dead man’s.
He put a hand on Jonah’s wrist. Grey poppies, moth-wing-thin, covered his skin. His eyes were white, tinged with red.
Jonah let go, startled. His palms were lacerated a dozen times, slick with blood.
He whirled back to Merrin, but the space where she’d stood was empty, the only evidence of her the black water pooled on the stone. Everything had gone wrong. He’d meant to say he was sorry. He’d meant to fix everything. And now it was too late. Again.
“You should have taken forgetting.” The dead man fingered the edge of one of poppies growing out of his skin, a delicate mushroom flower.
“Is it too late?”
“Probably. For you.” The dead man’s smile flickered like the world, the sky shivering back from white to black. The air smelled like poppies; his smile tasted like oblivion. “But then again, dreams are strange and fickle things.”
Jonah blinked. He stood on the bridge alone, the thick haze of the canal rising around him. The iron trees shed haunted light. There were no flowers, no mushrooms blooming between the cracks in the stones. The stars hadn’t shifted an inch. The night went on, just as it had been before, as though he’d never dreamed.
Jonah ran a hand over his scarred flesh, the latest cuts just beginning to heal. They itched and he rolled back his sleeve. It might have been a shadow, a trick of the light, but he thought he saw a faint tracery of mold between the red and white lines.
The scent of crushed flowers mingled with the chill scent of a room beneath a small, furniture crowded house. He thought of eyes frosted white and eyes the colour of black earth, soaked in blood.
Maybe it wasn’t too late.
Dreams were strange and fickle things, after all.