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The hauntings of a puppet

A tale of dream life

· musing

Witches' Sabbath, by Francisco Goya, 1797-8

This is a face only a mother could love, the type of mother who says (as the mothers of most-wanted war criminals said to me as we searched them out in Bosnia), "but he wouldn't hurt a mouse."

When my father first visited Czechoslavakia, no longer a refugee but now a wealthy lawyer, he purchased and bought back with him a collection of 30 puppets. These puppets are familiar to anybody who visits Eastern Europe, and they smack of kitsch, but in those days they were an unusual gift from a voyager.

Among the princesses, and hunters, and wolves, and dragons, and Snow Whites and knights, was this figure of a wizard. Intended to delight a small boy, this terrible face, those hands, and the transfigurative additions of my own mind, would haunt me for 17 years.

I read a book by Graham Greene many years ago about his dream life. Despite his place as of one the 20th century’s most original novelists, the greatest impression left on me by A World of My Own: A Dream Diary, was the dullness of other dream lives, and our abiding conviction that because they are vivid, and real, and grotesque in their distortions, our dreams must be as gripping to others as they are to us.

But they are not.

With a few exceptions, the recounting of awesome dreams that we had the night before is boring. The only interesting thing, to somebody who cares tuppence about you, are the sensations conjured by a dream, or even the resolution of a challenge. When most interesting, it might even have been a challenge hitherto unidentified which revealed itself to us, sleight-of-mind, when we were least expecting it.

This post is not about an ambition to recount an incredible dream, but more about my own experience that dreams are hallucinogenic vaults which can remain tightly locked, or can be cracked open by a pair of safe hands, in this instance which I'll briefly recount by an astute psycho-navigator who understands, knows, and can identify the shoals and reefs (or the tumblers and clicks, to keep a metaphor alive) of the mind.

The Spell, Francisco Goya, 1797-8

In my dream, we were in the house to which our mother had moved us four children after she had left our father. In reality, that house was ample enough, but gloomy and cold and filled with dust and the spoors of damp. Possums ran through the roof beams, foxes whipped through the untamed bush, and blue-tongued lizards poked their faces at our infant selves while kookaburras laughed from the 300 year-old gums that loomed above.

It was a far cry from the harbourside villa in which we had been raised, and the rude transplant must have been a shock for small children. My dream must have begun in those years, and it was related to the turmoil of the rancorous divorce proceedings which lasted for many years as my parents, egged on by my stepfather, fought a protracted battle through the Family Court over property and custody of we children.

In my dream, I am with my sisters on the verandah of the musty cottage in which we now lived. A huge figure appears at the end of the verandah. It is the puppet wizard, now transformed into female form, a Luciferian wraith with malevolent intent fixed into her ghastly twisted mouth, her red hair flowing and her shriek slicing the air as she runs towards us. I push my sisters inside, and fall backwards onto a chaise longue as her spindly russet claws close around my neck.

It was a nightmare, and a repetitive one that followed the same course with each dreaming. Whenever I woke from yet another encounter with the awful spectre, my body would be rigid with terror, my brow beaded with sweat, my heart pounding as my eyes accustomed themselves to the fact of my living and breathing without those fingers around my throat. But I never knew way she came, and came again, and again and again.

Then one day, when I was 22, a tender girlfriend who was studying psychology handed me the key. After listening to the content of my nocturnal terror, she revealed the mystery, as plain as day, and I never had the nightmare again.

The Forge, Francisco Goya, c.1817 (the Frick Collection)

Recently I had a dream that I was back in India, lying on the floor of a third class rail car. A bird swooped in from the deep distance, and drew alongside the window. It was a huge green owl, the Bird of Wisdom, and as I watched it turn it's huge face towards me, and stared long into my eyes.

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