I was a sleepwalker as a kid. A “somnambulant” as the doctors called it. Common enough, but mine was more enterprising than average. For the extent of the wandering, mostly. Waking up in this field or backyard, or that bushland; or in bed covered in pine nettles with a forked stick and a pinecone, or two, sometimes three, and a random pile of pebbles by my side.
Thing about sleepwalking is, for the most part you’re only slightly more asleep than you are awake, and so you’re not really either. Just far gone enough that it’s remembered as a kind of broken dream. Images of the real world are there, but they blend with and change the narrative of whatever dream you’re already having, and so rarely is the real recognised as such. The haze of night-time makes this easier, I think. Only occasionally would the imagery feel familiar enough to trigger a lucidity as to where I’d wandered to.
This wasn’t limited to our house in the bush. Me and my sister Susie visited grandma’s once a month, and I walked there almost nightly. A small three-bedroom it was. Lemon-yellow weatherboarded, with that classic floral-patterned carpet from the 50s, and off-white wallpaper in all the shared rooms except the bathroom, where it was the dark pinstripes of a tearoom more befitting a Lewis Carol novel.
I loved my grandma. She made the. most. incredible. rissoles and veggies, with the saltiest sides of gravy. Mum for all her efforts was never able to replicate them, even with the recipe. My Gran was miraculous that way.
The best nights were the ones we watched Hey Hey It’s Saturday together, after which I’d climb all over her and mess her hair, and she’d laugh and lay me on her lap and tickle me so much that I couldn’t stop giggling. “That boy has too much energy,” she’d say to Mum Sunday pick-ups, but I knew she wasn’t serious.
Hard not to miss those kind of memories. They stick like old scars beneath even the worst of burns later on.
I think sleepwalking should really be called dreamwalking. The walker’s eyes aren’t fully closed, and so they see the world, kind of, but it’s a world augmented by the free-associations of dreamworlds. The confined space of Gran’s house made this a different experience to home. Where she lived was too busy to wander, and so Mum arranged for a special lock that couldn’t be undone from the inside, and the worst I could do was walk around the house.
For months I woke up with the memory of the same walls and corner turns of this surreal version of her hallway that never seemed to end. The dining and loungeroom flashed by as well, sometimes, but the point of view quickly turned back when they did. Strange business, even for a dreamwalker.
It didn’t occurred till later that my inward gaze was to avoid seeing something else…
Gran’s rissoles were mince and powdered pepper and Worchester sauce and a liberal dashing of iodised table salt, the one made by Saxa, mixed with egg, flour, and parsley. Gravy always Gravox gravy, veggies always from the same Coles supermarket at the shopping complex down the road. Always the same; always perfect. And to her delight I always went back for seconds. My sister was too young to remember any of this, but I could tell she loved these dinners as much as I did, in her own way.
Food so delicious the tastebuds had it brought up a theme in a dream. Walls above steaming gravy pots and pyramids of moist meat patties and seasoned meatloaves a foot long, salty gravy smell a mix with the steaming meat smell; these circling tables that followed circling walls with their plates of peas and carrots and cauliflower, and even more rissoles.
I dreamt that buffet every visit in one of form or another. But, this one night, which my psychiatrist would later say was the start of it all, I couldn’t dream-eat a thing. I was passing the walls too fast to avoid a mess, and the last thing I wanted was to make a mess at Gran’s – even a dream-mess, when I was lucid and knew it was a dream. But I was a long way from lucidity that night. Had no idea that I was practically running in the real world. Round and round the circuit, past the dining-room, kitchen, down the hall and past the loungeroom, again, and again, speed increasing each time that I saw from the corner of my eye the black thing.
Feelings are more potent in dreams relative to other senses, than they are in real life. The terror that I felt, thick, intense, came well before I knew what I was responding to. When on one go-round finally I saw it, this black motion in my periphery as I passed the loungeroom, the validation of that fear overwhelmed and sunk me into the deepest gut-dread I’d ever experienced. A nightmare, the worst of nightmares, sharpened dreadful by its hint to some black thing that I couldn’t properly see.
Soon I was moving at impossible speeds, more like I was gliding on water, tables of food gone, walls turned a blur, and then I was screaming. And awake under the bed, and grandma’s feet were there as the light turned on and she called my name and bent down with an expression of concern that was almost tender.
“Harris Brennan, what on earth is the matter?” she asked, but I was too hysterical to respond. I crawled out and hugged her as tight as I could manage. She let out a sigh. “There, there, sweetie. Everything’s okay.”
The nightmare kept recurring at home the next month, and the dreamwalking stopped altogether. Most nights I slept in my parents bed, come to them in the early hours with tears in my eyes, that same dread feeling carried to wakefulness with a weight more overwhelming than it’d been while asleep.
Curiosity can be problematic when the mind is left at the mercy of its dream faculties, when everything is once or twice removed from direct experience; when consciousness drifts vague. I think that’s what facilitates how senses become secondary to feelings, actually. With good dreams this is the whole raison of course, but in the case of a nightmare centred around the avoiding of an unknowable black thing, curiosity’s free-floating boldness only serves to amplify the terror.
Whenever I caught that peripheral glimpse, the magnetism of the pull to glance was so strong it became a physical tugging that took more effort to resist on each pass, until eventually the tension was too great and I would turn and see it…this flickering jet-black figure without a face, for the briefest moment, before again waking to my own screaming.
The sleep therapist said that our thoughts prior to sleeping influence the kinds of dreams we have, and because I’d been going to sleep scared of having the nightmare again, it actually caused the nightmare. A lot to take in for a pre-schooler. But Mum explained it better when I got home.
By way of remedy, the therapist suggested storybook cassettes for me to fall asleep to, and a week of listening to Benjamin Bee later, the prospect of sleeping at grandma’s again didn’t seem so bad. Mum had held back that month’s visit until I was more settled, and by then I was missing Gran and her rissoles so much that I didn’t even care if I had the nightmare or not.
In anything, I was ready. Well, ready as can be, knowing most control would be lost after my eyes closed. I didn’t even bother with the cassette that night. Just slid beneath the blankets and stared at the ceiling, not long asleep to the drift of Gran’s smoker’s cough from down the hall.
The dream was almost lucid, this time. I could feel my fingers sliding along the emboss of the wallpaper as I walked, and knew exactly where I was; but the awareness was still a sort of hypnotised hypostate, and I couldn’t hear anything, or feel my body. Just my fingers as I floated smooth and silent around the usual walking path.
Subversion is a rare phenomenon in dreams. The narrative is authored by the dreamer, and so shifts have a certain flow in transition, or there’s a gap of some kind. Never do they come suddenly, from nowhere. An unconscious mind is still the mind, after all. All of which was implicit to the expectation of a kid my age. So when after however many laps of the hall I turned to the loungeroom and saw Darth Vader ripping apart my grandma’s couch cushions, the dream, as it was, stopped at a halt. Any sense of body disappeared, lucidity caved-in, and I immediately became sheer point of view. Frozen stiff a witness to this malevolent Darth Vader who was tearing feverishly the fabrics of Gran’s old couch, black helmet faced directly towards me.
Numbness from the shock was only a short buffer. As I registered things, that same soul-tearing dread came back coupled with magnifications of terror so great it was like being caught in a siren whose blaring was the pure embodiment and accumulation of every possible fear.
Everything about this nightmare Vader was wrong. Its stature was shorter and rounder and the helmet out of proportion, and its movements were frenetic and creepily rapid. The feeling trailing parallel with the manic energy of its cushion ripping was the peak of it all. That there beneath the mask was the most sinister of monsters.
…a siren that elevated to a white noise so total that I soon lost consciousness altogether.
The next morning I woke feeling as though I’d walked a mountain, emotionally exhausted, and dead flat – a new mental state that would often repeat in the years to come. Gran got up at 7am as per usual, and soon the aroma of fried eggs wafted in. I can smell them now as I write this, is how delicious they were.
A nightmare about Darth Vader shredding her cushions was a difficult topic to broach over breakfast. So I did my best to act normal, not to worry her. Gran was a big worrier as it was. Always calling home and asking Mum, “How’s my Harris doing?” even though we’d just spoken and I’d told her myself.
She knew something was the matter. There was no fooling her, not my loving grandma. But instead of saying anything, she just knelt beside the dining chair and gave me a hug. One of those extra long ones where she rubbed my back to let me know everything was okay.
The rest of the weekend was fairly routine. A visit to the shops, we went to the pictures – what she called the local cinema, bless her – and we watched Hey Hey It’s Saturday. But that Saturday night I barely got an hour’s sleep. The feeling that came with the memory of the previous night crept back the moment I became drowsy, until the drowsiness was finally too great to resist.
Mum’s car pulled up the drive at 3pm, a couple hours late so she could get her hair done at this nearby salon. Never was I happier to leave for home. To curling up in my own bed, where I’d be dreamwalking again. Who cared what the therapist said. Those mystery trinkets from the bush were the best part of waking up. If I’d known the dreamwalking would never happen again, I’d have taken a better mental snapshot of the last. But, as Vonnegut said, so it goes.
We were packed and backed out the driveway when I realised I’d left Benjamin Bee inside. “Be quick,” Mum said.
I called for Gran through the door and went to the spare bedroom where I slept and found the cassette in the top drawer. Then, turning to leave, it hit me. The house was completely, utterly silent. Only the sound of traffic from beyond the back fence, and the ticking of the clock down the hallway. The dread swelled back like a geyser. It was a complete mental paralysis, broken a minute later by Mum’s car horn. But, everything was fine. Gran was out the back, or taking a nap.
I stepped out the bedroom to the hall. Her door was wide open. I tip-toed the distance, and peered around the doorframe.
As it transpired, she wasn’t napping at all. Rather she was standing in front of the window shutters, her body stiffly postured, her arms straight down her side, and she was staring, wide-eyed, unblinking and stone-faced, directly at me.
Directly, at me.
The paralysis rushed back. Seconds passed to minutes, car horn in the distance too faraway to register. This lady that was my Gran kept staring as she bent down, and stood up, holding a black thing: that which had been forever branded in the deepest extremity of my soul: an oversized Darth Vader helmet, which she then raised slowly above her head, and brought down over the evil, maniacal grimace on her face.
When I came to, I was belted in the backseat of the car, and we were halfway home. “Grandma said you had a dizzy spell and fainted,” Mum said, concerned enough that we were headed straight to the doctor.
I never told her what happened.
My psychiatrist told me the previous shock of the nightmare had been a kind of psychic prelude that compounded with the later trauma to cause the PTSD. Made good enough sense. She was more savvy about these things than the sleep therapist was back in the day, the one who hadn’t a clue how to help after that weekend.
The insomnia lasted over a decade after that.
I got over it all eventually. Burns stop stinging with the benefit of time, but these days it takes the focus of writing to see the better scar beneath.
Truth is, I couldn’t stand it when Mum made those rissoles. The closer she got, the more disgusting they tasted. And poor her, she attributed the nausea and sometimes vomiting to her cooking. Calling it an allergic reaction wasn’t too far from the truth, though. And it meant she made spinach and fetta lasagne more often, which suited me just fine.
Her lasagne’s been my favourite dish for about twenty five years now.