It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome, with caves of ice
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
And they stood in the dark until they could not see.
A Miracle of Rare Device
My father had a recurring nightmare. It came to him when he was young and remained for all of his days.
I remember seeing my mother in the morning, bagging our school lunches in her flowery bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, glaring bleary-eyed toward a clock she was not prepared to face. The reason would always come out in some admonition:
"Don't forget your homework. I'm not making a special trip for you today because your ridiculous father kept me awake all night with his damned bad dreams."
"Why does dad have bad damned dreams?"
"You watch your mouth, young man."
"Why do you sleep in the same bed as dad?"
And so on.
Through inference and overheard bedroom conversation I had been able to piece together the contents of the dream over fifteen years. It wasn't overwhelming to me, and I'd largely forgotten about it until that night on Marathon, in the heart of the Florida Keys.
We were on our yearly vacation with my mother's cousins. We arrived at our beach front hotel and unpacked the cars. Sometime over dinner, when the adults were thoroughly lubricated with alcohol I noticed my dad becoming quiet. He kept staring out the restaurant window. My mother kept jabbing him with her elbow and it would stir him from his reverie for a couple of quips. Then he'd fall right back into whatever deep hole had taken him.
And when it was time for bed and we kids were all settled in our room, I heard the door open and shut to the adjoining room. My mother was sitting on the bed in tears.
"You go," she commanded, "You're old enough. I can't take this anymore."
I went into the fishy salt air, the concrete giving way to warm sand that pressed my toes apart as I followed my father's shrinking apparition, his back illuminated in the garish yellow-white hotel flood lights as he headed to the breakers and the foam. Ahead of him the sea glowed, waves pearlescent under the full moon.
He was so small in front of the ocean I thought he would disappear.
When I caught up with him he hardly noticed I was there.
"Your mother sent you," he said. "I just wanted to stick my toes in the water for a while."
Waves broke in rhythm, and a little while after each crash a hissing puddle would run over my feet and turn my ankles to motorboats.
"I've dreamed about standing right here," he said to me. "I know your mother won't believe me. I knew it as soon as I saw it."
We both knew he was talking about his nightmare, and I didn't have the patience to stand there and listen to him. And maybe the way my parents were acting was not in the repetoire of things the fifteen-year old me handled well. I was afraid.
"Mom wants you to come back," I said.
"Do you see the horizon?" he said, pointing toward where the moon hovered over the bright river of light it cast.
I told him I did. I knew what the dream was. It never bothered me. He had never told me himself and I knew it would be terrifying coming from him.
I wanted to go back. I wanted to be in my bed.
"See the way the ocean is so dark and deep like night? Someday," he said, "You will see the horizon rise and blot out the sun."
I stood there for a moment trying hard not to imagine what he'd told me. The cool ocean breeze was suddenly frigid. The night was full of tigers and knives.
"Go back to the room," he said. "Your mother better not have unpacked."
We left Marathon Key the next day, my mother mumbling near-obscenities under her breath about the impossibility of my father and his ridiculous dreams. It was bad enough he had the dreams, even worse he thought they meant something.
As I shoved a suitcase into the back of the station wagon she pulled me aside and asked me, "Did he tell you what Traco was?"
I thought she was reprimanding me for one of those ubiquitious kid crimes that were so like secrets I never realized I'd committed them until she'd informed me the whole family was embarrassed or I'd ruined my chance to get into a good college or I'd start growing hair on my palms.
"I wish he'd tell me," she said. "Every time he has that nightmare he wakes up yelling, 'Traco.' Sometimes, 'Traco, look out.''"
I was innocent. I didn't know what it meant, and neither did she.
My nightmares started when my father died. I would be standing on a sprawling beach of amber sand watching the waves crash and the gulls glide overhead on thermals. Then there would be a flash and a low rumbling. Out over the ocean, the horizon would rise until the sky became a wall of ink black water torn by stripes of foam, the sea standing on edge. The tide retreated stranding fish, baring the sea bottom. It was cold and dark in the shadow.
The wind burst past, tearing at my skin.
And I could not save my children.
"Osmun." The word was in my head, spoken by a deep familiar voice.
Mine. I woke up saying it.
"What?" said my wife, half asleep.
"Osmun. What the hell is Osmun?" I could almost see it written in the air.
And then I walked through the Taylor Valley. Jessie and I talked about dreams amid Antarctica's spectacular desolation. During the first four hours of the trip we'd exhausted most of the banalities one entertains when spending long stretches alone with a stranger. We knew the circumstances of each other having met their spouse. We knew family histories. We knew our educational backgrounds.
We had touched on loss of virginity and were well into "most embarrassing moments" when she said, "You want to hear something weird?"
Of course I did.
"You're going to think I'm a total nutcase. But I think I dreamed this."
I told her I didn't think she was a nutcase. There were a lot of excuses for deja vu. You could look them up. It was common. It wasn't magic or ESP. If she thought hard about it she'd probably realize she'd seen this valley in a picture and had forgotten about it.
"No, I dreamed you'd say THAT," she said. Then she pursed her lips and continued walking.
I didn't want her to think I was one of those scientific skeptics who write off people because they have intuition or see lights in the sky. So I told her about my dad's dream. My dream. The killer wave. The names. I told her I had spent time studying ESP phenomenon and that I thought the wave was a metaphor for death. That you had to pass through it and when you got to the other side, you were in a different life.
I said, "My dad was Sicilian but when he got drunk he claimed he was a reincarnated nineteenth century gunfighter from Dodge City. It freaked everybody out and as he got older you had to really pry it out of him. He used to say his dreams were so strong he could smell the cooking on the chuck wagon during the cattle drives. He used to yell, 'Traco.' It drove my mother nuts. And then after he died I looked it up on the internet and sure enough, there was a William C. Traco who owned a huge cattle company."
"Traco is also the name of a company that makes palletizing machines," Jessie said. "Didn't you say your dad worked in heavy industry most of his life? Don't you think that may have something to do with it?"
We were in the land of science and I was working as a scientist. I had to admit she was right. When I'd done the search on 'Traco' I'd seen all the ads for machinery and put them out of my mind. Only the wild-west references stuck with me.
"So what do you think about Osmun?"
"Like Donny Osmond?" she said.
"No 'd'. Just Osmun. It's someone's name, that's for sure. There are all kinds of people with that name."
"You think you're reincarnated from someone named Osmun?" she asked, smirking.
I gave her the only appropriate answer. Had I said anything else she'd have been well within her Antarctic rights to kill me for food.
"No. I mean...no."
When we got back to McMurdo Jessie and I were having drinks and as is wont to happen between people who grow to become friends, she began to tease me and toss a few barbs. At one point she blurted out to a mutual acquaintence that I'd been dreaming of a big wave and someone called "Osmun".
Bill's face lit up. "Oh, you're going to love this," he said.
We left the bar in the perpetual Antarctic daylight and staggered in the chill air to the Crary library only a minute away. There he found a book and opened to a page. The illustration showed Scott's men struggling on the Terra Nova in the grip of a terrible storm. Waves the size of grocery stores blast over the decks.
The men are tying down the animals. Ponies and dogs were housed on the deck and drenched for days by the mammoth waves of the roaring forties.
In an illustration a man holds a chain in one hand to keep himself from being washed overboard by a wave that towers over the small ship. In the other hand he clutches a rope from which a dog hangs, the poor animal dangling precariously over the gunwales.
The caption read: "Meares retrieves our lead dog, Osmun."
"You must have read this book. Last year when you were here," Bill said.
But unless I'd forgotten it completely, I don't think I did. I can't think of a single time I'd heard the name of Scott's lead sled dog. Maybe it was subconscious, buried in my brain, a piece of data that blew past with all the importance of a TV yogurt commercial and some had stuck.
"The big wave dream, everybody has it," Bill said. "It's an archetype. One of those psychological things. The fundamental conflict between man and nature--being overwhelmed by things you can't control. It's not unusual."
"Everybody has it?"
Jessie and Bill nodded and I felt like a dope.
"You're right. I probably saw this book somewhere. Or one like it."
Jessie touched my fingers and I knew the only reason any of this seemed meaningful was because I'd made it so. Things were just things. We'd all had these feelings and made these mistakes. We would act like sensible people, go back to the bar, and work on our hangovers.
She didn't want me to feel bad, so Jessie changed the subject as we walked. And because Antarcticans are fundamentally good people, Bill Traco took off his name tag.
Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry.
Here Comes The Flood