The town where I grew up has a curse on it. It’s a story that every school kid knows and a few anthropologists have written about. Kids tell it like a ghost story until they’re too old for Santa Claus and they want to laugh at the dream demon and take his name in vain. The local Indians won’t even say it out loud. By the time kids come into that first flush of sex and possibility they know the curse is real. It’s heavy on them. It isn’t funny anymore.
It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a monster that ate people and couldn’t be killed. The local Indians sent their bravest men after him, and none came back. Finally, someone smart managed to trap him and set him on fire. But this demon wasn’t the sort of thing that could that could end in fire, so the people inhaled the smoke and he took root in their dreams. They crammed his filthy ashes under an enormous boulder that the whole valley can see and it imprisons him, but it doesn’t dampen his power at all. So now, he casts this long shadow over the valley. Sleep in that shadow and you’ll lose your power to leave. Those born underneath it will always return.
There’s no way out. The dream demon cannot be seen in the doing. His teeth leave no marks and you’re too much an adult to say it out loud. But one day the place you used to work goes under and you have to move in with your folks. You say it’ll be a year, but you’ll keep collecting the mail addressed to them for years after they’ve died. You’re swallowed whole by a retail job and a trailer park and a couple of kids who you sacrifice to the curse.
There was a day in early spring when I went for a walk. For two weeks, that town blooms and greens and behaves itself and you can feel the tide turning. I walked down a perfectly temperate street, smiling and thinking this isn’t so bad. That is the voice of the demon. It’s not so bad. It could be worse. At least it’s familiar. I came upon a skinny stray dog, eating what looked like vomited pizza off the sidewalk. He didn’t see or hear me coming; he was engrossed in his meal. The optimism of the day made me think I could pet him, maybe walk with him and find him a home. When I called out to him he bucked and jumped and ran wild-eyed straight into traffic. It was over quickly.
Three days later the heat had burned the pizza vomit dark red and black. The green had gone fire-ready yellow and in our haunted dreams the demon laughed and laughed.
That summer tore use apart with triple digits and bad news. We blew out eggshells and collected the empty snails picked clean by the birds. We pulled the dead hair out of our brushes and clipped our fingernails. I found a dried out paper wasp’s nest that had fallen from the eaves, its tiny tubes perfect and empty. This is the sorcery of poverty and desperation. We buried these empty houses and burned our hair. We put tiny effigies of ourselves into a small black coffin and sang dirges to the earth. We told our friends memento mori and it was a phrase of wild hope.
On the longest, hottest day of the year, we smashed our empty eggshells and made our escape. We did not die like dogs under the wheels of fate. We won through to the sea and a new life.
I have not heard the dream voice since last summer. I think for us the curse is broken. But under the shadow of the mountain, the reign of Tahquitz goes on and on.