The dream is always the same.
Every night it comes to me. Part of it is foreign, different – somehow frightening – yet the other part is so familiar…like yesterday.
It begins like this: There’s a figure running down a stone corridor. It’s very dark. The only light comes from the torches mounted along the walls, and the shadows are tangible, living and breathing things that reach out at this person as he’s running along, in fear, maybe. There’s an immediacy to his steps that suggest he isn’t just out for a jog.
The figure is cloaked and hooded, one of those numbers like Red Riding Hood would wear, except dark brown. Deep shadows hide his face. In his arms, he’s carrying something that looks like loaves of bread wrapped in a sheet, but you can tell it means something good because of the way the figure is holding it close, like life.
I see this picture in my dream in a series of quick, rapid, flashing images, like between the pulsing beat of a strobe light, and it almost makes the figure and the flicker of the flames of the torches slow down, almost makes it choppy like one of those old movies. But I still see it so clearly, everything so vivid. I can describe the room: there were walls; there were doors.
The figure turns the corner, and as he does, he steals a look back over his shoulder. As he looks, I hear something, like barking, maybe the baying of hounds. I didn’t hear it before, but now it’s all I hear, quiet at first, but it seems to be getting closer. The sound is angry, hungry…deadly. As the figure reaches the end of the hallway, I see a shadowy mass and know that the sound is coming from it. Well, them. Wolves – four at the most, but they move so fast that it’s quite hard to tell in the strobe-effected slow-motion of the dream – bound around the corner so fast that they slide against the far wall, slipping like animals do, as if the floor is wet and slippery from being just mopped. They collide as a mass of fur, fangs and claws, eyes glowing and glaring in the dimness. They recover as a mass and begin their angry, hungry pursuit again as a mass, as one single entity with several heads, like the Cerberus of legend. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of teeth snap and gnash with anger rivaled only by God’s when he flooded the world.
The figure glances back and quickens his pace further. Behind him, the teeth are so white against the black mass of fur they might as well be glowing in the torchlight, and they get so close they nearly snap along the hem of the cape, but just miss. The figure stuns the beasts with a swift kick and then turns suddenly, pushing through a door and slamming it fast behind.
The door leads outside to a stone walkway at the top of a large wall. With the night sky before him, the figure stops for a second to catch his breath, leaning back against the door he just came through, and looks up toward the heavens, praying, I suppose, but there aren’t any words. Maybe there doesn’t have to be for a prayer. Maybe a prayer is just something your heart says that no one else need hear.
As he rests for a minute, I notice the castle towers that mark either end of the walkway, see a courtyard so far below where men with torches are scurrying like ants. Like fire ants. The figure takes a step forward onto the walkway that’s large enough to drive a car on – maybe two, if the cars are small enough and the drivers are really good. Maybe it’s not a walkway at all, but an elevated drag strip where Mini Coopers race…on a castle. Right.
It’s a dream. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense.
There’s a faint cry then, from something small and not so far away. It sounds like a baby, and the cloaked figure wraps his bundle tighter and holds it closer. Shouts echo out from the fire ants below, and the figure begins to run again, across the long stone walkway, faster than before, as if trying to outrun the really good drivers racing their small cars.
He comes to the other side of the walkway, enters the door there, doesn’t really slow, and descends the staircase that snakes and winds its way around corners to the ground several stories below. The door at the bottom empties out into a grassy field where fires burn all around in the open air. Smoke ascends like a sacrifice to the night sky.
Ahead in the distance is a forest, and tucked away by the treeline is a small hut, built of large stones with a thatched roof. Toward that, the figure runs. He steps from the shadow of the castle wall, and as he gets just a few feet into the open, it begins to rain fire.
Behind him and way up above on the castle wall, the fire ants have gathered and are shouting. That’s when it occurs to me that it isn’t raining at all. The ants are shooting arrows whose tips burn like napalm. The figure’s being chased by arrows as if they were a flock of startled birds flying so close over the crest of the hood, rending the cape with holes and tears, splitting the fabric, and drawing blood. The figure is hit once or twice, but they’re glancing blows, and nothing sticks. If the figure feels any pain, he doesn’t let it show, doesn’t change his speed for even a fraction of a breath.
With no time to look behind, he just keeps running across the open field, dodging arrows and weaving in-between the pyres of flames burning brilliantly and with all gloom here and there amidst the grass.
Then suddenly my dream is given a narrator, and a voice echoes off from somewhere I can’t see. Part of me expects the voice to sound like the voice in a movie trailer, but it’s not. The voice belongs to a person I know, but know isn’t in this dream – or hasn’t been. The voice belongs to Kenny, and he says, “Tonight we make a circle. We join hands and we pledge our friendship. We make an oath that cannot break in hopes that all of our lives, we will live and love each other. That no matter what happens, we will be true friends. Through the passing of time, through the separation of miles, through whatever distances of life, we will remain true. No matter the cost, no matter the circumstance, no matter the pain or the tears or the laughter, we will remain true. Friends. Forever. For all time.”
As the cloaked figure reaches the hut, his hand grasps the old doorknob, just as an arrow strikes the roof above his head and the thatch begins to smolder and ignite. The figure doesn’t seem to notice or care, just disappears inside, and the door closes behind him.
The interior is not at all what I would have expected. There’s no stone at all, but wood planks, and it’s littered with old tractor parts, rusty gears and ground tilling equipment. An old John Deere sits in the corner, there’s stacks of hay along the walls, and an old scythe with a chipped blade hangs from the ceiling. In the center of the room is a big, sturdy barrel with a lit candle on it. The moonlight shines through cracks in the walls and ceiling. There is no other light.
Around the barrel, joined hands in a circle, are six children. One of them is me. Connor Woodson. The others are my friends: Jake, Kenny, Audrey, Scott and Rowen. Kenny pulls out a knife. The dream is over. I wake up.
But I know how that part ends. I was there. It really happened – the summer after eighth grade. It was the summer everything changed. Kenny had his mother’s kitchen knife, one of those ones you see advertised on late night television that never dull. The knife – advertised as the last knife you’ll ever need yet they give you three hundred of them – is supposed to cut through the wall of a submarine and then still cut through a tomato without spilling a seed, and it was perfect for what we needed it for.
Jake asked, “Does your mother know that you have that?”
Kenny shook his head, and Jake said, “Maybe you should have said through being spanked and getting grounded.”
Nobody laughed. I smiled. We were just trying to all be serious, though, so laughter was a bit inappropriate. Being friends forever was not a laughing matter. Kenny used the knife on himself, cutting his finger. When he started bleeding, he sucked the wound, holding his index finger like a harmonica to his lips, like he was getting ready to sing the blues.
Jake took the knife from Kenny, very valiantly, at least for Jake. He’s a bit of a clown, ya know. Then he cut himself, too, digging into the side of his finger, bleeding. “Yeah, that one hurt,” he moaned.
We all took a turn whittling into our knuckles. It was something Kenny had seen in a movie on late night TV. It was supposed to make us closer, somehow. Looking back on it, it kind of sounds stupid, especially the whole copying off TV part. But it was for a worthy cause. It was to see how much we were willing to take for one another. You see, it proved, in that one moment, what it was worth to be a true friend. To take pain for one another, to bleed with one another, to cry, to hurt together, there’s just something about that…like being in war, I would guess, though I’ve never been in war. Maybe it’s the same as being on a sports team together. When you see someone in their weaknesses, you really grow closer to them. When you bleed with someone, you’re so much more vulnerable, and you begin to let others in. I suppose it did work that way, for us, back then. I was thirteen. We were in middle school. All in the same grade. We grew up together, growing up living near each other, going to school together or because our parents were good friends with each other. We were all close – one girl, five guys.
Audrey was a tomboy and liked us better than playing barbies with the other girls. Now, when I think about how we were then, it reminds me of one of those old kid-buddy movies like “Stand By Me” or “The Sandlot” or something like that.
Too bad life isn’t a movie. Though, like those movies, we all did grow apart for various reasons, each our own. Scott, for example, moved. Kenny followed the wrong crowd. The others did their own thing, I guess. Jake and I were really the only ones who stayed close. But this isn’t a story of what we did together when we were young and at the end how we fell apart, went our separate ways. This isn’t about that. It’s a story of how friendships do last forever – when they’re true – and how oaths, though forgotten, keep their binding power.
This is my story.