I strolled down the empty river bed, letting the dry air and rustling leaves tell the Nightmare’s story.
“It is rare to meet a human Nightmare,” the dry river said. “Are you lost?”
I paused before answering. Did I know where I was going? No. Did I know where I was? No. Did I even know what I wanted? Three for three there is seems.
“I guess I am,” I said.
“I can take you back to dreams if you need?” the dry river asked.
“No!” I said. “I can’t go back there.”
“You have too much grit?” the dry river asked.
“As rivers flow they carve away the things within them. When they dream some of those little kernels come with them, carried along in the flow of their imagining.”
“I see, and if you accumulate too much of it, you get stuck in the waking world?”
“No, when you collect enough of grit within you, that’s when you can settle down.”
I brushed my hand over a withered root that stuck out from the dusty earth. It certainly wasn’t going anywhere.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“It is peaceful,” the dry river said. “I do not change, I do not frighten, I am as I am and that is all that I am. It is peaceful.”
The idea of being at peace was alluring. After the chaos of being seen in the waking world, I could imagine drifting down into a sedate and tranquil existence. I could imagine doing that but I couldn’t imagine staying like that forever.
“Don’t you ever want to be anything else?” I asked.
“There is nothing else for me to be,” the dry river bed said. “I am all that I am.”
“That sounds…dead?” I asked.
“I was a Nightmare of death,” the dry river said, as though that was explanation enough.
I thought about the Nightmares I’d been. I’d been death, and loss, and powerlessness. Mostly though I’d taken the shape of anxiety. The school where the dreamer returns and is late for their classes, or the teacher who calls on them when they haven’t done their homework. The strange highway they’re driving down where none of the directions lead to their destination, or the speeding car that they can’t control.
Being a place rather than a person didn’t change my experience of the dreamers world that much. I had fewer words to say, and my reactions were more constrained, but pursuing someone as a pack of wild dogs didn’t offer a wide range of dialog or variety of actions to choose from either. You ran, maybe you howled, and, wherever the dreamer went, that’s where you followed.
Thinking back to the dreams I could remember, I began to wonder if my problem wasn’t that I was lost but rather that I had almost no practice at making decisions for myself.
“I was the Nightmare of a lot of different things,” I said. “Maybe that’s what’s making this difficult.”
“You are unsure which type of Nightmare you wish to be,” the dry river said.
“I don’t know if I even want to be a Nightmare at all,” I said. “I don’t like how we have to live.”
“You don’t like being the embodiment of their fears?” the dry river asked.
“I don’t like losing myself,” I said. “I’m only me for as long as the dream lasts, and I’m a different me each time.”
“And how long will this dream last for you?” the dry river asked.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The dream that you are not what you are,” the dry river asked.
“No one is dreaming me now,” I said. “I don’t have to worry about anyone waking up anymore. I can just keep living like I am.”
“Then you wish to live as I do,” the dry river said. “Unchanging, and forever yourself. You must find some grit and collect it until its weight bears you down. Until you can settle into who you are.”
It didn’t sound entirely right, but it didn’t sound entirely wrong either.
“Where can I find grit like that?” I asked. “I’m not part of any river’s dreams and I can’t afford to go back into dreams yet.”
I felt the chain that the Queen of Nightmares had given me. It might mean that I could survive a passage through dreams like a dreamer did rather than being absorbed back into featureless, mindless, unreality like a Nightmare between sleepers. It might but I didn’t want to risk it.
“There are many sources for grit,” the dry river said. “You can find it in the ones who dream the most deeply as they grind the real into the unreal and back again. You can find it in the destruction of what is, or the passing of long years.”
“What do I do with it when I find it?” I asked.
“Lose yourself in it,” the dry river said. “Become what it makes you, which will become what you are and what you can be.”
“What if I don’t like what it makes me though?” I asked.
“You will not like it, you will not dislike it,” the dry river said. “You will be at peace. Come. Let me share this with you.”
“You can do that?”
“I will give you some of the grit I have collected and you will see what it is like to be at peace,” the dry river said.
It seemed like I didn’t have anything to lose.
But it felt wrong.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think that’s the kind of peace I need.”
“Then what is it that you seek?”
“I don’t know exactly,” I said.
“Then take this and learn,” the dry river said and the withered branch shook as one its dead leaves fell into my hand.
“What do I need to do with this?” I asked.
“Hold it close, feel what makes it solid, feel it make you solid,” the dry river said.
I brought the leaf to my chest and felt my heart pulsing. In most dreams I didn’t have a heart. A road that leads to nowhere doesn’t need one and a pursuing wolf pack isn’t aware of theirs, not from the dreamers point of view at least.
The sensation of stillness was enrapturing and I wondered why I had thought this was wrong. I was still wondering that as I tumbled down into an eternally frozen moment of silence.