Justin Burnside DELILAH

I dreamt such a strange dream. Let me tell you of my dream. The dirt descended snow- flakes, a snow that fell where I lay on my back, with no knowledge of how I arrived there. I remember feeling very warm, and comfortable, except that I could not for the life of me move my arms from where they lay crossed on my chest.

There was no horizon in this dream. But I could see. I could see things there with me in the gloom. They seemed to be buried in the air, to my right and to my left. There, from my warm spot, I turned my stiff neck to get a better view of my surroundings. There to my left, a music box. The kind that one might give a young child, suspended at a strange angle, its paint mostly pulled away, but one could still see the hint of a leg of a ballerina, or perhaps of a princess, exposed in the peeling paint.

And to my left, a child’s doll, horizontal, arms folded like my own arms were folded. Its head was turned in my direction, a smile on its lively lips, a familiar smile I remembered from somewhere far away.

Such a strange dream! In this dream a voice came to me from a direction I could not pinpoint, but it was strong this voice, and familiar; I strained my ears to make an identification. It seemed to be coming from above where I lay dreaming. A small voice humming a tune I knew because I, too, played piano once.

At once there was a knocking that drowned out the soft tune, followed by something that had been driven from nowhere downward into my atmosphere. I recovered from my fright to come face to face with what appeared to be the business end of a sharpened stick of bamboo. This stick was followed by two other sticks, and I suddenly became worried because things made so little sense to me.

And another sound came to my ears. The light sound of a triangle being rung, perhaps, I can not be sure. Followed by the sound of whatever it was above me leaving, no doubt toward the sound, or, away from the sound. I have no way of knowing.

By this time I was beyond confused, and really to the point of panicking. I had had it with this world of gently falling dirt and baby dolls. I wanted my arms to work and I wanted to wake up. But I had no idea how to make this happen. I searched my brain for all information pertaining to dreaming, and to waking oneself from a dream, but I could access nothing that would be of much help to me. And so I gave up, which is just like me from all I have heard from others. Sleep came and went, and I passed what seemed to be a very long time somewhere in between.

I can’t remember if I was awake, or if I was dreaming, but suddenly I could move. My arms again my own reached up into the descending dirt and pulled. In this way I ascended, or descended, I had no way of knowing, at the time, which way was which. I moved past the music box, threaded my body around those yellowed bamboo sticks, and finally broke out of the ground. A soft breeze blew across my bare scalp. I got my head out of the dirt and stayed like that a moment hoping to get a better grasp of where exactly I was. It looked like I had crawled my way out of hell only to end up in my own backyard. Seeing my own backyard after such an ordeal filled me with a passion I have since never known. I was somewhat at a disadvantage because my legs were still stiff and not yet under my own control. They stuck out like roots below me. This was a perplexing situation that required much effort on my part to free myself, but I could see my very own house just a little ways off and the promise of comfort and the ambitions of the body propelled me forward in my task. I pulled myself hand over hand, measuring distances in handfuls of grass, moving myself from my grave in the ground, across the driveway and up onto the porch where I sat facing the west.

The sun was about an hour from setting. It looked to be a fall sunset. It was then that I realized I was dressed in a suit and tie, which was strange, because if it was indeed fall then I should be wearing jeans and a work shirt. It was in fall that we brought in the hay and everyday in that season was set aside for that very task.

I thought I might walk the fields, in order to get my head cleared up, but found that it was impossible to physically leave the porch. I cannot explain what I mean. My legs were working, and my arms working, but each time I tried to leave the porch I found that I couldn’t for the life of me remember why it was that I was leaving. My mind could hold no thought so I sat there on the porch, which seemed the smartest thing to do.  Not being able to focus my thoughts I let my eyes wander. I looked out on my front yard where the driveway snaked past the old house and back toward the road. There was a small island cut off from the rest of the yard.

An empty birdbath surrounded by some browned out bamboo, and the remains of what used to be, pure conjecture here, roses.

The crabgrass and some scotch thistle supplied the only green round the front yard because the time of the year was approaching late fall.

A dilapidated pig corral fenced in with old tin roofing material placed to the right of the driveway sprouted a particular green that had been fed by past years of pig shit, shaded by a stand of pecan and chinaberry. A section of grass had been cut; I could just make out a fresh plot of dirt, some of it freshly overturned, and I had a strange affiliation to that spot of dirt that I couldn’t explain. I could not remember why, but it felt as if I had been there recently. Three pikes of slender bamboo stuck up at one end of the plot, and on top of them were small skulls, the end of the bamboo sticking out of their crowns.

The screen door slammed behind me. I felt eyes on my back.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“Nothing.” she said. “What are you doing?”

“Where’d you get those catfish heads?” I asked her.

“Somewhere’s.” she said.

I was afraid to turn around. I thought I might scare her. Or, I thought she might scare me. Something felt wrong. I kept my attention on the pig corral even as I felt her move to my right side.

“Are you my real daddy?” she asked me.

“I’m not sure of anything.” I said.

I hoped she wouldn’t touch me, or in any other way make contact with me. It was such a strange dream after all.  I knew those brown eyes. I chanced a look. She caught my eyes with hers, I was powerless to resist.

“Will you stay?” she asked me.

I looked at her face. I could see where the baby ended and the girl began, and even, in those brown pupils, where the woman started to stretch out—to push against her ribcage.

“Are you my real daddy?” She reached out to touch me, I recoiled.

“No.” I said. “Not anymore.”

“Will you be?” she asked.

“Do you want me to be?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter.” she said. “I’m thismany, so I’m mostly grown anyway.”

“Lilah…” I began and stopped. Nothing came out, like a cow with its throat cut, I stumbled wildly for the words and finally succumbed. I smiled to soothe her, a foolish move on my part because I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t afraid of me of what I might say.

Dusk was upon us and I felt my time growing short. I had many things to say to her. I wanted to tell her that I used to come in and check on her before going to bed with her mother. That it was me who found her with the blanket gathered tight around her little head, only her nose and mouth poking out.

It was me, this is so strange to think, who listened as she explained that she wore her blanket like a talisman against those specters that visited her nightly. Those forms that fingered the keyhole, whispered from the darkened corners, and sat heavy on her chest. I wanted to tell her it was me that waited until her breathing slowed. It was me who left the door cracked just enough to allow the hall night light in.

I believed her. I had seen them myself. I was seeing them now for the first time in daylight. Two particularly perverse forms followed the child’s every move. They never left her; their empty faces concentrated, one on either side, on her face; their hands always on her chest. Some stared from the window curtains. Others crawled between us as we sat there pretending we did not see them. All of them seemed more interested in the girl than in me. I wanted to tell her that one day she’d substitute flesh for that night light, just like I did, and hold on tight till even that crumbled into dust; every night burying her love like everyone else.

As the sun went down beyond the branches I struggled to remain focused on that little girl. This was such a strange dream after all. I tried to pull myself up so that I was standing but my hands could not grasp the porch railing. I could hear someone inside the house, footsteps, and the heavy clunk of cooking pans. Delilah stayed where she was, squatting on the porch, a look of concern furrowing her brow. She brushed the hair from her face and rested her head on her hands. The world came in and out of focus and I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. My thoughts turned increasingly toward the old pig corral, that certain plot of dirt. I thought I heard the faint wisps of a child’s music box on the breeze.

She was too young to understand. And she was dying. I could see it growing there inside her small body, death growing, death pushing against her small lungs. She coughed and the world spun. I remember yelling at them to leave her alone, to stop touching her, but they seemed to no longer have any interest in me.

“Are you staying?” she asked.

“Yes.” I said. “As long as I am able.”


lives in Sin City where he writes, teaches, and dreams of California waves. His work has appeared in Alice Blue Review, Slightly West, and an upcoming issue of Interim.

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