Deep Dreams

         

My father was a monster hunter. He believed in chimeras and yetis. When he looked into the ocean, he saw shadows lurking beneath it. Mother Nature didn’t like being bothered by humans, and she always had a full stock of ammunition to keep them out. It was his job to expose her armies so that children wouldn’t be swallowed by serpents.

The monster he loved the most was Kraken, a giant octopus that devoured ships whole. It was the first monster he had ever learned about. At the age of five, my grandfather read him stories about Kraken tearing apart the limbs of men and commanding the ocean waves. Despite my grandfather’s worries that the stories were too scary for my father, my father insisted on hearing more. During the night, he dreamt about Kraken, imagining the depths of water it had seen and what secrets Mother Nature had shared with it.

During his late twenties, he set out to sea to catch Kraken. He bought fish from the locals to use as bait. His nets were specially designed to tranquilize anything that it caught. At nighttime, he rowed his boat out into the ocean and waited.

Something heavy snagged on his net. My father frantically pulled at the ropes. His eyes searched for the tentacled creature. But when he hauled the net onto his boat, there was no Kraken.

A woman was curled up inside of the mesh, shivering. Her hair was as brown as the sea floor and her skin was as pale as the moon.

She would become my mother.


§

My mother did not read fairytales or children’s books to me. Her heart was filled with far too many stories about the loneliness of the ocean and the souls that drifted lost in it. She told me about the language of the waves, who laughed during sunrises and cried when twilight set. When she looked outside the window, she squinted as if she could see beyond the horizon and to the shoreline.

For my ninth birthday, I asked her to teach me how to swim. My father drove us to the fishing lake two miles outside of town. It was June. The sun was beating down on us. The green-blue water rippled around her as she taught me how to float on my back. I stared at the sky and let the gentle currents carry me. The lake cradled me with its cool touch, and I wanted to sink into it. So I let the air out of my stomach. The water engulfed my neck, spilling into my lips. It surged into my nose. I panicked. Thrashing and kicking, I tried to suck air back into my chest, but only water poured in. My mother swam to me but she wasn’t strong enough. She grabbed onto my arms and began to sink with me. For a moment, I wanted to stop fighting. I wanted both of us to sink so that this would be over and I wouldn’t have to feel the water burning lungs. Then we could listen to the whispers of the lake, never thinking about land again. But then my father came. He pulled both of us back to the shoreline. While I coughed water out, I could still hear the lulls of the waves, calling me to come back. My mother looked at the lake as if she were trying to remember a distant dream, and I knew she heard it too.

§

After he pulled her out of the ocean, my father rowed back to the shoreline and carried my mother to the cabin he was staying in. He wrapped her in blankets, laying her down next to the fireplace. While she slept, the world was quiet. No crickets or owls called. The stars hid behind smoky clouds. They all cowered under the brooding of the ocean, who sensed that something with a breath and a soul had been taken from it. When morning came, it sent a sea breeze to search the beach. Before long, the wind snaked through the cabin’s window and latched into my mother’s head. As the flames flickered in front of her, she dreamt about the hollowness of seashells, how they crowd themselves with rushing air to fill their own voids.

When she woke up, she found herself in a strange place where each breath did not taste of salt. The sun, which she had known to be a hazy spotlight, was glaringly bright. Yet she felt like she was at home. Her feet were light without miles of water weighing down on them. The winds caressed her instead of pushing her ruthlessly like the currents.

Then she saw my father. He had been looking through his window, out into the horizon. From the lost look in his eyes, she could tell that he was a wanderer. His heart craved for a meaning, a purpose, and he tried to find it in the world’s secrets. Like her, he drifted through life at the mercy of the earth and the sky. When he looked at her, a shiver crawled up her spine as she realized that the stars had fated them to meet on this day. The ocean growled within her.


§

During their courtship, my father never stayed in the same place for more than a few months. While he was with my mother, he cooked for her when her hands were tired, taking care to remember that she liked her food lightly salted with a generous sprinkling of pepper. But it was never long before a restless would seize him, a nagging feeling that there was something more he ought to be doing with his life. He would pack his things and kiss my mother goodbye. As he shrunk into the distance, disappearing behind the dandelion-covered hill two miles away, waves rolled in her chest. Even though she was far away from the coastline, the sea breeze whispered in her ear, urging her to walk towards horizon, where saltwater lays. But her legs never took her farther than the local grocery store. My father needed a home to come back to, for he never forgot my mother no matter how long he was gone. She was his anchor, the only thing keeping him from becoming lost.


§

Last summer, I went to see my mother. I drove two hours to the pine forest that hid behind the sun-kissed mountains. Toadstools, nourished by the shade, sprawled across the black-soil floor. The light of the fireflies guided me to the saltwater lake at the heart of the woods. A full moon shone above me, making the midnight water shimmer. I stood and waited. A few minutes later, a shadow appeared beneath surface. She glided through the lake, letting her long, silky hair trail behind her. I stuck my palm into the ice cold water so that she could grab onto it. But she kept swimming. Teeth chattering, I pulled my numb hand out and walked back into the forest.

§

I was born while my father was gone hunting for Kraken for the ninth time in his life. Before he left, he promised my mother that he would come back before she was due. While he was sailing home, a wind started up, carrying him five hundred miles from the port he needed to land in. Later, he would tell me that Kraken had followed him. The giant octopus commanded the currents to sweep his boat. Monsters did not like humans that searched for them. My father wasn’t afraid. He knew he was close to finding the sea creature. After I was born, nearly half of all his trips were to the ocean, who greeted him with silence.

When I breathed my first breath, the sky was starless and moonless. Only my mother knew that I existed. Her hands trembling from exhaustion, she washed me and cut my umbilical cord. My face was tinged with blue as if I had been holding my breath. When my mother held me, she listened to my heartbeat and knew that saltwater ran in my veins. So she fell asleep so that I could sleep through my first day on earth. When she woke up, pink began crawling into my cheeks. By the time my father came home, there was no sign that I had ever been blue.


§

When I was five years old, my father began teaching me how to fold paper boats. He started with a dinky design that resembled a squashed sombrero, perfect for the clumsy hands of children. Then he taught me how to make a canoe out of parchment, which wobbled uncertainly down lazy creeks. A sail was added to the canoe so that it could lurch forward with only the wind as its guide. Rows of oars jutted from the sides. Steam engines whirred against the current. The captain stood at the bow, staring into the sunset with a compass pinned to his heart.

My father always kept a notebook by his side for new designs. Each time he came up with a new boat, he took me to the river so that we could make it from paper. I watched as the boats became stronger and faster. Exclamations of Boat! Boat! were scrawled all over my father’s notebook. By the time we came home, his hands were blackened with ink. When I was thirteen, the boats could cut through the water like cream cheese. My father piled wood into our living room and began sawing. While my mother watched, calluses filled my palms from helping him pound the nails into the wood. When we finished, the boat was sleek and tall, like an albatross.


§

Before they married, my mother asked my father why he loved Kraken so much. Weren’t there other creatures on the land waiting to be found? He wished he could tell her that the ocean was the universe. Inside it lay all the world’s space and stars, and Kraken was its guardian. But my mother knew that the universe didn’t invade dreams to call its children back. The universe was stoic and unwavering, immune to the crashes of the ocean’s waves. So instead he asked my mother what the bottom of the ocean tasted like, and she parted her lips, waiting for a kiss.

§

Two months after my fourteenth birthday, my father’s boat was complete. Every inch was precisely cut and polished. He fitted it with a giant fishnet and a harpoon. The boat would defy the waves and sail into the deepest parts of the ocean, where Kraken lay. He had already provoked the sea monster’s wrath. This boat would take him straight into its writhing arms.

As soon as summer came, my father loaded the boat onto his car and drove towards the coastline. My mother stood on our porch, breathing in the dust that his tires left behind. She wondered whether my father’s will could make Kraken bow. Kraken had time. It had devoured sailors for centuries. My father had a heart that was set in stone. He would chase Kraken until age took his bones. But time surrounds everything, and with each passing second, the heart erodes.

§

A few weeks after I was born, candles filled our house. My mother went to the downtown candlemaker every ten days, buying every scent from sandalwood to freesia. She lit them even when it was daytime. My father said it was romantic. Our neighbors warned us of fire hazard. But my mother knew that our house, so thoroughly watered, couldn’t catch in flames. These were the scents of the earth, breathed through dry air. She told me to remember them as if they were my name. Then she taught me how to light a match so I could burn candles when I left the house. More than anything, I smelled smoke, the last cries of the wax as it melted.

§

For their first anniversary, my father and my mother went mushroom picking in the woods. My mother wanted to taste the earth. My father wanted to breath the air of trees. He taught my mother how to dig the fungus from the dark soil and avoid the ones with red caps. In the ocean, she knew which fish were poisonous and which kelp could be eaten. Now she stood in a forest where she couldn’t tell friend from foe. She tiptoed across the grass as if the slightest wrong movement would awaken a monster. My father didn’t notice. He continued digging his hands into the wormy dirt, ruthlessly uprooting the blue mushrooms in it. To him the mushrooms were one more secret, one more thing that nature kept hidden from him. It was then that she wondered if she truly understood his heart. She had always sensed the sea of adventure in him that took him to the far corners of the world. But had that adventure become abandonment? My father sensed her eyes on him and asked if everything was all right. She smiled. A familiar lulling pulled on her heart from deep inside the forest.


§

My father made it to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We knew this because the remains of his boat were found off the coast of Greenland. The currents at the underwater mountains carried the wood boards until it reached the ice-covered island. There was no fishing net or harpoon. Only the engraved name Nathaniel M. Hudson: Monster Hunter, Explorer, and Inventor. Large black circles covered the remnants, as if they had been sucked on.

My mother didn’t speak for the next months. She continued baking cherry pie and washing our clothes every day. But at night, when she thought that I was asleep, she sat on our porch and looked into the horizon. A roar boomed in the distance. The ocean rolled over the dandelion hills, soaking her dress. Seeping through the front door, it blanketed our carpets and submerged our basement. She closed her eyes to breath in the salt. As the water flooded my room, I read my father’s notebook, tracing my fingers over the fine outlines of oars and sails.


§

Twenty years ago, my mother slept next to my father. It was raining outside. At first, it was quiet. The only sound was the light pattering of rain. Then lightening crackled. My mother sat up in her bed. Breathing heavily, she touched her stomach and felt a new softness there. It was an odd feeling, spinning inside of her. For the next hour, she sat there, pressing her palm flat against herself to remember it.


§

The ocean continued to rise inside of our house. It soaked my father’s notebook and destroyed all the unfinished homework on my desk. I slept on wet sheets and ate soggy bread. While she was sitting on the porch, my mother’s feet rose from the ground. The water carried her over the hills, zooming past the city. She thought about fighting it, but she couldn’t remember how to swim. When it put her down, she was in the forest. The scent of saltwater filled her nostrils. It grabbed her and pulled her toward the center of the woods. A dark blue lake opened up before her. It was still. There were no ripples on the surface. The song of the ocean sung loudly in her heart, filling it to its brim. Silently, she slipped into the lake, becoming a shadow beneath it.

§

Some days, when I dip my feet into a river or the ocean, I can hear the ocean whisper. It wants me to dream about it. It tells me to listen to the saltwater in my veins. It reminds me that my father and my mother live underneath the surface. My mother always thought that the ocean would claim me. It was part of my flesh and blood. But then I see her and my father in the distance, standing on top of the water. They are too far away for me to tell if they’re smiling or not, but I remember holding a paper boat in my hands and inhaling the oil scents of candles, and I can pull my feet out of the water and walk back onto land.


Jieyan Wang is a high school student from northern Idaho. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, The Blue Nib, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Teen Ink Magazine, and elsewhere. She is also an alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Adroit Mentorship Program.