The Boiler

Beth Bretl

DARK HORSES

I have grown thin with awake and the worry of dreams. Adam’s eyes seem never to fully open or close, the lids taut and nearly translucent over the blue they cover. We no longer swim in the river.

The summer I was pregnant with Marja, we swam at night. Even the cool of the cabin was stifling that summer, like living in over-ripe fruit, too moist and molding. It was impossible to sleep, and Marja would push her feet against my ribs in protest while I shifted about the bed in discomfort. Adam would try to rub my feet or my shoulders, but his hands would stick and skid against my skin.

We would leave our towels where the bank was an easy slope and the grass was matted, and we would step into the current. By midsummer the water had slowed, peaks of the sandbar were small islands where most mornings the heron sunned herself after fishing. I was big and awkward walking against the river. We would float to the edge of the sand bar, where it dipped down to deep water. Adam would go first, bury his feet in the silt, and sit where the water was chest high. He’d catch my hands as I floated by on my back and hold me so my body streamed out before him. We steadied ourselves against the current, my belly anchored over the deep. Marja would sleep.

I believe we know some places only in dreams. Places that seem to have no counterpart in our waking lives. We know the details solely from our dreams. The way a chenille spread drapes a bed under an attic window, or night flattens the shadows beneath the El, or earth crumbles in small slant erosions on a path beside a river: they are familiar because I’ve dreamed them often.

By fourteen months, we would find Marja standing in the crib some nights, staring, awake in her sleep, not aware that one of us had walked into the room. We’d try not to rouse her, lay her down again, and wait for her eyes to close. “Where does she go, do you think?” Adam asked once when I came back to bed and curled against him.

When I dreamed of the path and river again, Marja was three and actually walking in her sleep. I’d find her in front of a window, any window. Sometimes I’d kneel beside her and try to see what she saw. I saw the field of strawberries next door or the silhouettes of dark horses in the pasture across the road, but nothing more. She was always losing her shoes, kicking them off while she rode in the stroller or in the pack on my back. I dreamed that her shoe was on the path. I asked Adam if he knew other houses in his dreams. “It is always the same house,” he said, “when I dream you leave me.”

Marja is almost six. It is summer again. We have hung bells across the doorways in our house. We lock the doors when we sleep. We have found her in the strawberry field in the middle of the night, staring. We found her walking toward the dark horses. She unlocks the doors. Her feet are so silent.

Adam’s grandparents both dreamed of their daughter after she’d died of a rheumatic heart. They woke together. Glare from streetlights and old snow bled through the drawn shades. In both their dreams she’d stood on a lawn they didn’t know. A lake glistened in the distance behind her. They rested in one another’s arms and said how blue her eyes looked and how clear, like before she’d been sick.

Marja says she doesn’t remember where she goes when she sleepwalks. I ask if there is an attic with a bed on a dark wooden floor. She says she doesn’t think so. I want to know the architecture of her dreams.

I ask Adam about the house he dreams. He says he’s never dreamed the exterior, only the kitchen. The chairs always scrape more loudly against the linoleum floor than he thinks they will.

I dream I find another shoe further down the path.

When we walk through the rooms of our house, the bells ring. They are supposed to bring good chi and wake us when Marja walks.

The air feels full, swampy with heat. I take Marja to the public pool a half hour away to swim. We arrange to meet her friend, Mallory. I’m afraid to let Marja go down the giant slide alone. But I do. She and Mallory shiver and laugh while they wait in line.

Adam and I have told Marja the current is too strong in the river. She’s taking swim lessons at the YMCA. Maybe next year, we tell her, she’ll be ready for the river.

We stop for ice cream on the way home. Marja falls asleep slumped forward with the shoulder restraint pressing into her cheek. I think I could drive into the night and through days for as long as sleep could hold her there in my rearview mirror.

At night, I lie awake waiting for the bells, or sleep so shallowly it’s more like looking at sleep than sleeping. Adam and I lie flat on our backs without clothes or covers wishing for cool air to blow across our thighs and stomachs.

I open my eyes when the wind sends the willow branches swinging against our window. I always think I hear bells. In the dark I can see Adam’s eyes are open. I know that he is about to say, “Remember when you were pregnant? How we’d take the path to the bank and swim to the sandbar?” I think of the stars over the river on those nights and Adam’s hands. Marja would lie so still then.

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Beth Bretl lives and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, Verse Daily, The Southern Review, and Aufgabe.