By Priyadarshini Chatterjee
For years the people in my village had not slept. The dreams did not let them sleep.
During the day they went about their mundane chores in a sleep-starved stupor, their blood-shot eyes sunk deep in dark, hollow craters; their limbs flaccid and steps uncertain, like addled bacchanals. They all looked strangely alike.
And at night they sat, in their courtyards or in the open fields, staring blankly into the darkness. If the newborns cried in hunger their mothers stuffed a piece of cloth in their mouth. And if an ailing man coughing blood cried out for help, the villagers hurled at him such appalling curses that he shriveled and festered to death that very night. Such was the state in our village.
My family’s plight was no different.
My grandfather must be a hundred years old and he has not slept a single night for as long as he could call to mind. All night he would sit on his bed, his tongue stuck out, a sign of heightened absorption, and rock. At times he would groan and whimper as if he was in pain. He said he couldn’t sleep for he dreamed of the flames of hell; and giant pots brimming with boiling oil in which scalded, disembodied limbs floated; and headless bodies that shrieked and bawled.
But he was a pretty innocuous old man. Only once did he show a sign of violence and that time he had merely brandished a scalpel at the milkman because his dead wife had warned him that the bastard was stealing from them. And there was this other time, but that time it was hardly his fault. When an unsuspecting guest woke up thirsty in the middle of the night and headed for the kitchen, she found my grandfather, squatting by the hearth, naked, swaying slightly, his eyes fixed on the glowing embers. The poor woman threw a fit, and the next morning we had to send her home wrapped in a blanket for her fever refused to subside. She never came back again.
My sister, her beauty is unsurpassed, did not dare shut her eyes for every time she did she dreamed of a pack of frightful dogs, their eyes like burning coals and their teeth stained with fresh blood, tearing her apart. So, she was terrified of sleeping and of dogs. She had managed to poison every dog in the village, luring them with dead mice that she caught on a trap and doused in poison.
She loved cats though. But as ill luck would have it, one night my sister, for she often walked in her sleep-starved daze and has been found miles away from home several times, stepped on the tail of a cat as she tottered across the courtyard in the dark, crushing it under her feet. And the rotten rascal had bitten off a blob of flesh from her belly. A gaping hole still remains where the cat had bitten, right next to her astonishingly deep navel. Henceforth, she has been terrified of cats too.
My father dreamed of far-flung lands with outlandish names and odder people who spoke bizarre languages. They were terrifying people, he would say. He was an eccentric man anyway and often vanished for months. We stopped worrying for he always came back. But every time he returned he looked more haggard and battered than the last time we saw him. He said the dreams followed him wherever he went, like a halo around his head. And for nights after he returned, the village would echo with his cries of agony, until one day he would be gone again.
But I, for as long as I can recall, have not had a dream. Every night while my grandfather sat rocking on his bed and my sister whimpered in the kitchen and my father wandered in search of a land where the dreams wouldn’t find him, I slept.
The whole village loathed me, and my own family would have hauled me over burning coals if they could. Though I can’t think of a reason why they didn’t. The villagers spat on my path, called me spiteful names and refused to step on my shadow. They said I had sold my soul to the devil in return for sleep. The village boys — they’ll burn and rot in hell — threw stones at me every time I passed by.
But the more they hated me the more I wanted to be one of them. In fact, every night as I lay crouched under the bed where no one could see me asleep, I tried to summon dreams. I tried so hard that I feared my skull would crack. But eventually I would drift into the complete darkness my nights were doomed to.
When my grandmother was alive, she tied me to the bed post every night so that I wouldn’t sleep and knocked my head against the wall every time she found me dozing off.
I was fairly glad when, one morning, my sister found her in her bed stiff and cold, her eyes, the color of curdled milk, popping out and her face contorted in a sickening smirk.
My sister said I would dream if I fell in love. Lovers are known to be dreamers. But that was not as easy as it sounded, not for me. I was fat and dark and far from attractive. I even had traces of beard, tufts of hair, on my chin and throat.
Once, a few years ago, a band of gypsies came to our village. When they arrived the villagers squirmed in suspicion and frowned upon the filthy nomads. But when the word spread that the gypsies had mysterious powers and secret potions that could rid the village of their dreams, people flocked to their colorful tents on the fields, with pouches full of coins. Inside their tents the gypsies lit sacred fires and performed elaborate rituals that promised the villagers escape from their frightful fate. They brought out boxes engraved with strange inscriptions and in them were stones smeared with vermilion and sandalwood paste, barks of exotic trees, strings of beads, all of which they said had magical powers. Their leader, a fat, bald man with a mustache the color of the setting sun, wore a long, decaying tooth on a black thread tied around the sagging folds of his flabby neck. He said it was the tooth of a virgin tigress and had the power to perform extraordinary miracles.
Soon the villagers were drifting away on a tide of unrestricted merriment and unabashed profligacy. The fields where the gypsies had erected their tents turned into a carnival ground. There were fire jugglers and fortune tellers and acrobatic geniuses and light-eyed whores who wore enormous rings on their nose. The revelry went on for fourteen days and nights and during that time no one in the village had the heart to return home and leave behind the carousing.
And then fourteen days and nights later, when the villagers, delirious with joy and exhausted from the intemperance, retired to their homes to catch their breath, the gypsies left the village quietly. The only traces they left behind were mounds of excrement strewn around the field and ash pits where they had lit fires. The villagers sighed in despair when they returned to the fields in the morning to find them gone. Nonetheless, they blessed the gypsies for bringing an end to their anguish. For the rest of the day they went about their jobs with a zeal they didn’t know existed, looking forward to a night of soothing slumber.
But when night came they realized that they had been deceived, for the dreams were far from gone. They cursed the devious scoundrels, swearing to burn them alive should they return to the village again. And in all this while I slept especially well, dreamless. Naturally, the wrath of the village fell on me. And they cursed me more.
My only relief was my aunt, my father’s half-sister who was abandoned by her husband on the third day of her marriage. She returned home on a drizzly evening with bunions and bruises all over and has ever since refused to step out of the house. She was the only one who loved me and when I was a child she would hold me close to her bosom and in her coarse voice sing me a lullaby every night. I could hear her heart beat at an impossible rate and all night she would sweat so much that my clothes too would be soaked in her sweat.
And then on a day like any other a stranger arrived in the village. He knocked on our door while we were eating our evening meal. He said he needed a place to stay for the night. Though I wasn’t too keen on letting a stranger stay in the house, he took my grandfather’s robotically bobbing head as a yes and showed such gratitude that I had not the heart to throw him out. And while we finished our dinner, the stranger eating from our plates too, we talked about many things. The others ate in silence. I doubt if they heard us talking, because by evening all their senses became numb and they wouldn’t know if a limb was severed from their bodies.
I asked him what it was that he did for a living and he said wryly, “I eat dreams.”
I laughed, called him a clown and then, because I somehow knew he was not lying, I begged him to devour every dream that haunted our village. I would have to pay a price, he said.
I was ready to pay any price.
He spotted my grandfather first. The nutty old man was crawling in circles around the courtyard. He stopped every now and then, spun on his rickety knees and crawled again. At times he lay flat on the ground and stared at the red sky. And then he leaped up and went back to crawling. The stranger bounded across the courtyard and landed on my grandfather. I feared his weathered bones would crumble. I watched as he lay writhing on the ground, blubbering and moaning, as the dream eater wolfed down his dreams, gobbled them whole, slurped the little that trickled down his arm and gnawed at the tiny bits that lay scattered on the ground.
My sister and aunt came running. They froze at the sight. Before they could make sense of what they saw, the dream eater was tearing away their dreams too. Once done, the dream eater burped with pleasure, rolled on the ground and hobbled across the courtyard and into the darkness. Soon the entire village reverberated with the screams and wails of the villagers. I sat in my room and chuckled.
When I woke up the next morning, the stranger — I had not asked him his name and I didn’t quite remember his face — was nowhere to be seen. I went out to look for him but the sun-drenched courtyard was empty except for the cat, the same one that had bitten my sister. I went around the house once, and then again. But the man had simply vanished.
I went to the kitchen. “When did he leave?” I asked. My sister looked at me puzzled. Then she returned to straining the starch from the rice. My grandfather sat in the corner burbling as usual and my aunt continued to stare out of the window, the hint of a smile on her puckered lips.
“Where is he?” I asked again.
“Where is who?” my sister asked.
“The man,” I said, irked.
“What man?” she snapped.
“The one who stayed with us last night,” I said.
She said she knew of no such man and that I had lost the last dregs of sanity. I told her she was a lying whore, and my aunt threw a ladle at me. My grandfather roared into laughter and skipped about in the kitchen like a happy child. My sister said she wished I had been dead in our mother’s womb.
So, I went out again. The villagers would know, I thought.
It was a day like no other in our village. The women prattled excitedly, and the men hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks as if they were meeting after ages, and the boys who once threw stones at me didn’t notice when I passed. The portly woman next door even called me into the house to chat. But when I asked her about the dream eater, she laughed first and then looked at me warily. She said she had an errand to run and I should leave.
And not just the fat hag next door, no one remembered what happened the night before. I tried to remind them how they scuttled here and there like disoriented animals struggling to drag their numb legs behind them, and how the entire village echoed with their screams as the dream eater chomped on their dreams.
“You must have been dreaming,” one of them told me. “Why we were all asleep. Have you gone mad after all?” said another.
They remembered nothing of their sleepless nights or the dreams that had haunted them for so long. By afternoon, I stood on the middle of the road screaming and yelling, reasoning, cursing, and crying, but they simply frowned and clucked their tongues and moved on.
So every night I stand here waiting for the dream eater to appear again. Sometimes I spot him scampering down one of the narrow alleyways that crisscross our village, keeping strictly to the shadows. But my legs have turned to stone so I cannot run after him. At times blood wells up in my eyes and they burn so much that I have to tear tufts of hair off my balding head to make the pain go. I cry out to the villagers, begging them to remember so that I can sleep. But so deep is their slumber they can’t hear me.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is based in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India and currently working as a Sub Editor with a reputed English News Daily. She holds a Masters Degree in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Though she has been contemplating it for long, she only recently started trying her hand at fiction. The Dream Eater is the first story she has written.