Gillian, Post-Election, short story by Karen Malpede

“A number of my patients have had dreams of decapitation, and I, also, awoke from one of these dreams.” Gillian recorded this information in her notebook, paused and looked out. She did not care to write the details of her own nightmare last night which she could still clearly recall. From her twelfth floor office-apartment in the art deco building at 91st Street she was able to scan the whole park. She was also still able to see vivid details of her patients’ various frights. Chin in hand, she wished to wash clean the impressionable screen of her mind, to imprint there instead soft-focus images, for there was a low-lying fog, of the big-veined leaves, shiny from last night’s rain, yellow and red, or brittle brown, some even still green flat against the gray sky like so many open hands of the blessing icon, others curled spasmodically at their edges, each leaf attached by a thinning stem to its branch. Then, snapped loose in front of her eyes, a leaf turned horizontal and hung suspended in the windless air. She watched as it floated toward earth. All the way on the park’s other side the Guggenheim Museum, stolid, tub-like and white, stared with a post-modern spectator’s gaze back through the carnage at her. “Perfect example of how the collective unconscious becomes permeated by world events,” Gillian wrote in black ink on her white page, and looked out the window again.

She tolerated feelings and thoughts only in bits and pieces these days. In this, too, she was not alone. Nearly all her patients complained of their inability to concentrate while she struggled to pay attention. It was not yet three weeks after the presidential election. Everyone felt inconsequential. It was already a week and a half into the siege of the town of Falluja. U.S. troops had been positioned outside the city for weeks. If John Kerry had won would the U.S. have invaded? Such thoughts were useless, of course. Falluja was being flattened. Gillian was checking on-line reports from the BBC between sessions. Her need to know verged on obsessive-compulsive. Clutching her pen she understood she hungered for some kind of control. After her last patient left yesterday, she learned about Muhammad Abbud who watched while his nine-year-old son, Ghaith, bled to death in their Falluja home. His words entered her head before going to sleep. “My son got shrapnel in his stomach when our house was hit at dawn,” she wrote down now. “We couldn’t take him for treatment. It was too dangerous to go out. We bandaged his stomach and gave him water. He died this afternoon. We buried him in the garden.” With her left hand, Gillian stroked the soft fur of the old spaniel asleep at her feet. “Day residue,” she scrawled in her margin. She thought of Smith College in spring, the campus in synchronized bloom. Gillian had developed the inter-disciplinary art-therapy program at Smith. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she gave her students instructions to record their nightmares about nuclear holocaust alongside all dreams of their mothers. There had been anyway a shared sense of bold confrontation about, as if the nuclear threat, also, the explosive material of women’s lives, might be looked at straight in the eye. Seen and cleared up that way. And the Cold War, surprisingly, ended.

During the anxious lead-up to the recent election while an electric hopefulness ran through the city, Gillian had been dreamless. She’d been dreamless, too, during the initial, shared, post-election depression. Then, last night, the severed head of a curly-haired boy-child rolled off a red Formica-topped wooden table—she had had one in a rented summer house somewhere once—to plop with a smirk on its face at the foot of a large tree, on black earth dense with gnarled roots. She’d leapt up and gone straight into the kitchen to swallow down two more melatonin, otherwise, she might have instructed herself to fall back into her dream where it left off and to plant the head by its blue and red arteries and veins in the sod of the river bank, there to bring-forth an oracular voice. Lucid dreaming was a technique she had practiced in years past, and shared with her students and patients. She wondered, now, when it was already too late, what wisdom she’d cut off at its source by her recoil from the grim image.

Under Gillian’s tutelage, her Smith students fashioned a public ritual event for the nuclear disarmament weekend. They borrowed the structure of the Eleusinian mysteries, goddess rites were then all the rage, into which they poured the contents of their nuclear nightmares suffused with their mother-daughter dreams. Her Smith students, they would now be middle-aged with round bellies like hers, had grasped wheat sheaves in their hands, worn garlands of leaves in their hair, raised clear voices in chant, rung brass bells and gongs, beat on drums as they processed through the campus, drawing followers to them from out of the library and Victorian residence houses. They led the ritual participants into the woods at the edge of the campus, the moon above a clear crescent, Venus smiling. There, they danced a licentious dance on a swaying bridge that spanned the creek, like Baubo had danced, lifting her skirts, so bereaved Demeter would laugh, and the watchers had hooted. These recollections seemed like history to her, as if she had come across them in a library book while researching a paper. Gillian had, then, also been young, given to twiddling like a pornographer with raw, rough undergraduate matter.


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