“Dreaming is generated by the pontine brain stem.”
Hobson & McCarley, Am J Psychiatry 1977
Per the late lord’s will, a ritual was performed on the day after his passing. Lord's dead body was strapped seated to a stretcher, eyes taped open, and carried through the hundred and ten halls of his family estate. When the procession entered a new room, the workers stood the stretcher in the corner, and, as the corpse looked on, leveled the tripods of their theodolites and quadrants. The lights of their kerosene lanterns darted across the curtain slits, snatching out of darkness the flaky portrait frames, efflorescing naphthalene balls, and cockroaches’ husks.
A lacquered box was carried in on a separate stretcher. With the reverence of priests tending to an ark with a Torah scroll, the workers extracted from it a folded parchment and laid out on the floor, peeling one by one the parcel’s moldy flaps. The piece was stitched from smaller sheets—a vast, frail origami, no less in size than the room itself. It was covered with rectangles connected by long twin lines.
One worker took down the instruments’ readings as the other knelt by the parchment adding or erasing the geometrical shapes and adjusting their outlines. In some halls, he would draw a new rectangle and verify its width and length against his partner’s numbers. The workers then folded the parchment and returned it to the box. They collapsed the tripods, lifted the corpse, and the whole entourage moved to the next hall.
A boy strolled alongside them. While the workers plied their implements, he sat in the corpse’s lap and scrutinized the heavily powdered dent on the left temple of the deceased. In his hands, he held a pair of tweezers and a matchbox. At times, the boy would bring the tweezers to the indentation on the dead man’s skull, twist them as if pulling out a splinter, open the matchbox, and deposit an invisible object into the tray.
The worker tending the parchment asked him why he was prodding around the bullet hole in his father’s head.
“Letting the bugs out,” the boy replied.
“I don’t see the bugs.”
“I do.” The boy slipped off the stool, sidled towards the kneeling man, and lifted the matchbox to his ear. “Hear them scratch?”
The worker didn’t bother him again.
They set out at dawn and took a full day and the next night to survey all hundred and ten halls of the house. They unstrapped the body, laid it in the coffin, and, complying with the dead man’s orders, covered it with the parchment from the box. A horse carriage hauled the coffin to a small cemetery adjoining the estate where it was interred in a nondescript grave, fourth in the row with a space for the fifth on its side.
The boy did not go with the carriage. He lingered on the porch, squinting from under his palm at the flat sheet of sunrise. Above the oaks that had sprawled behind the house, above windmills and thatched-roofed barns, loomed a few high-rise buildings arrested in various stages of construction: a hunkered crane with a wood plank cabin, a skeleton of riveted girders and cantilevers, a clockface tower half-dressed in limestone tile.
The boy scampered through the oaks and onto a glen where he sat down, took out his matchbox, and shook its contents into dew-heavy grass.
The maid slid her cell phone into the pocket of her apron and wheeled the vacuum into the vacant room. The bed covers were still creased with the outline of the body that had lain within them just minutes ago. The pillow with the faded Forest Glen inventory tag still smelled faintly of valium. The dresser and the wardrobe doors swung ajar, the shelves and drawers emptied. Closing them one by one, she spotted in the nightstand a plastic bag that morticians had left behind as they rushed the body to the autopsy room. “Research specimen,” one of them had spat at her when they shoved her aside. In the bag, among the personal effects of the deceased, she found a few handwritten pages. Unsure what to do with them, she sat on the edge of the bed and glanced through the sheets.
“An otherwise unremarkable man, I carry one queer trait, a consequence, I suspect, of some brain anomaly or familial madness: every night, all my life, I see the same dream. Saw it throughout my nomadic youth, drifting with archeological parties, my head rocking on the damp stone of ancient passageways, and later at a library desk writing up their findings. A king for a day, I watched my dream from under soft silk sheets, my new book ‘The House of Troy’ a sensation amidst war news, and a short while later writhing on the cot at the Wormwood Scrubs Asylum, my discoveries debunked and the treatise ridiculed.
An angel, my dream stood over me safe in the arms of the blue-eyed girl who rescued me, and with time became my mistress, my lips pressed piously against her crucifix. Then, abandoned by love and cured of past ambition, I woke from my dream among the rubble of an abandoned train station. I still see it today as, one hundred and ten years of age, I ready to die under the oaks of the Forest Glen Hospice. My life’s unyielding enigma, I now commit my dream to paper in hope that someone who reads these lines would reckon its meaning.”
The girl winced and slid back on the bed, her crossed feet dangling above the floor. She rested her chin on the back of her hand and flipped the page.
“As a child I dreamt about a forest glen—my daytime play spot, a clearing among the oaks behind my father’s house, my refuge from its dim, stifling halls. My father, and his father, and grandfather before him, had put up this grotesque maze of a hundred and ten additions to contain their family, which grew larger and poorer by the generation. A scion of bad-gene nobility, whose men seldom lived past their forties, my father then shot himself through the head. ‘To bore an exit for the brain bugs,’ his note explained. In the dream, I lay in the grass and watched the clouds sieve through oaks’ crowns. The meaning of my dream came easily to me: it was a promise of an ever-welcoming childhood retreat amidst life’s gathering gloom.
“Worker ants came to the glen when I was seven. For what purpose? From what real-life antecedents? My unconscious supplied no explanation. I never saw the critters; they went about their business during the day and hid by night when I arrived, inspecting the dream’s next installment. With the ants’ arrival, the oaks began to disappear—one tree a night. In a year, all had perished. The grass withered; maroon clay crept up to the surface. For the next five or six years, night after night, ruddy mud stared back at me, no stir, no variance in its clumps.
“When I turned sixteen, the ants resumed their work. Their punctate tracks traversed the glen in every which direction. Chicken wire fence encircled the spot, pegs marking the interior with an even rectangle. A foot-deep stratum was removed. The depression began to deepen an inch a night. With time, a pit grew where once rolled my childhood grasses. I had been mistaken; the dream was never about the glen. But what could a pit mean?”
The girl laid the papers down, distracted by a sound she had been hearing for some time: a soft scratching, as if tiny quills scribbled on paper. She glanced around but saw only a nightstand, a dresser, and billowing window curtains. The sound cut off the moment she focused on it. She listened for another minute, then picked up the sheets and began to read once more.
“On the night of my twentieth birthday, a spark beaconed from the pit’s front left corner. In coming weeks the glow widened, and I saw that it came from a metallic whisker. The same wire stalks rose in the other corners and with equal intervals in between. Inside the pit steel bars joined into a cuboid mesh, which soon filled the trench to ground level. Wooden molds encased the bundles of rods; a gray substance poured in, ensheathing the scaffold.
“By thirty, I began to understand what went on in the pit. Concrete and steel had formed a foundation. I decided what was to rest upon it must be my dream’s true meaning. I imagined the building to come—an obelisk of glistening stone, a monument to man’s audacious spirit.
“The structure grew one floor a month. Its walls were made of marble, their austere expanse enlivened by pilasters and molded ornaments. Porticos with massive epistyles projected on each side. On the bas-reliefs on the friezes I recognized scenes from Hellenic myths: three girls with an apple, galley ships inching towards a clifftop fortress, a wheeled horse with tiny figurines crouching in its belly. In five years, an antique pantheon rose above the glen.
“By thirty-five, the marble of the new floors had muddied, blackish veins snaking through the slabs. Simple antique forms gave way to baroque exuberance: capitals’ volutes curled with strained fancy, the friezes leaned on the round shoulders of vestals; bacchants, not warriors, peered from the bas-reliefs on the friezes. The construction had picked up pace: each new floor now took a mere week to complete.
“I couldn’t say at which point the building’s growth took a malignant turn. First, thin ornamental grilles appeared on a few top floor windows. The bars grew thicker and spread to the nearby blocks. Windows narrowed into barely discernible slits that squinted for light amidst bare walls. All adornments vanished; the marble gave way to soot-stained stone, riddled with cracks. Above the antique and baroque floors now leered a hostile prison. Buckshot holes perforated the walls, as if some stone-eating woodworm had burrowed through the slabs, gray pulp dribbling their lips in thin streams. Despair gripped me every time I pondered my dream’s new meaning. All this time, all my life, was I building a prison?
“I came to understand that whenever I arrived at fresh interpretation of my dream it soon metamorphosed, as if with the intent to prove me wrong. By fifty, the building had begun to change again. The walls were fair stone, their cumbersome weight leveeing against a filigree of flying buttresses. Crocket-studded pinnacles with fleur-de-lis finials jutted from the piers. On the spires, shapes previously unseen: austere stone crosses. From the prison came a church.
“The wormwood holes in the walls widened into wheel windows. Mullions partitioned them in an elaborate ornamentation, akin to an insect’s compound eye. Ubiquitous discs of azure glass gleamed amidst the walls, as if the heaven trapped inside the church was peering through myriad eyes at the depraved and beguiling world outside.
“Why a church? The dream touched, at times, on reality: the pit and the pantheon taken from the archaeological pursuits of my youth, the baroque palace, from my brief prosperity and concomitant excesses following the success of the ‘House of Troy,’ and in the prison with woodworm holes, I recognized the visual pun on my stay at Wormwood Scrubs. But nothing in the present, illuminated by a flicker of happiness, affection for my blue-eyed mistress, recalled this house of worship. Was attaining God’s love my dream’s ultimate meaning?”
The scratching resumed—a mechanical Morse code drumbeat. This time, the girl heard it clearly, emanating from the bed’s headboard. She opened the nightstand door. The lone plastic bag sat where she had left it. She brought it into the ribbon of window light and saw within it reading glasses, a pencil, and a matchbox. As before, the scraping ceased the moment she tuned in to it. The girl frowned, returned the bag to the drawer, and turned once again to the papers.
“The builders did not rest; the frivolous domes, ornamentation, crosses, all were streamlined to an extreme—eventually vanished. The new floors scaled the sky with a succession of faceless blocks that retained no vestige of God’s house. The frames of the wheel windows buckled into rectangles; the glass panes swelled and merged, covered the entire expanse of the walls. The building’s next stage of succession was a utilitarian high-rise. Each new tier of windows overlaid the one before like the scales of a reptile.
“Weary of the dream’s dizzying permutations, and anxious to solve at last its ever-deepening puzzle, I turned to psychics and shrinks, and even traveled to Alan Hobson’s sleep lab in Boston. ‘What we see as a dream,’ he explained after I finished my story, ‘is our consciousness trying to make sense of haphazard visual signals sent by the atavistic part of the brain called the pons. Think of it as the human mind’s tail, one of the few cerebral structures we still share with our ancestors. Located on the brain stem behind the cerebellum, it triggers REM sleep during which the dreams come. Your pons, however, its waves are not random. Every night they oscillate in the same pattern, as if some conscious entity were tapping out a message on its afferents.’ He said my condition could hold the key to understanding dreaming, pressed me to leave my brain to science after I die. I scribbled my name across a blank page. ‘But what does it all mean?’ I repeated my question. He shrugged.
“The dream’s new architectural form settled in when I turned sixty. It did not change for the next twenty years: dozens of indistinguishable glass floors inched night after night toward the sky. Looking at the designs and styles the dream building had assumed in the past, I began to wonder whether its meaning was some pursuit of a perfect form, which had ended with the advent of the glass high-rise. By seventy-five, the growth had slowed to half, even a quarter a floor a year. By eighty, the construction halted. It appeared the builders had achieved their ideal. They had lost interest in this endless reproduction.
“But on the night of my ninety-fourth birthday a bright yellow stalk peeked from a chink in the concrete that crowned the building’s top floor. The next night, two yellow shoots sprung up nearby. On the third night, their number was seven, and grew thereon with a geometric progression. Never before had I seen such vigorous germination.
“In a year, the twigs coalesced into a lawn that spread over the entire roof. My beliefs about my dream were upturned yet again; but what a welcome epiphany it was! With awe and jubilation, I recognized in the yellow reeds the blades of my childhood grass. The return to childhood—that was the dream’s meaning after all! Oaks jutted out of concrete as if directly from my memory. The sun pinned to their trunks swatches of canopy-filtered light. I no longer observed the building from below: I now lay in my childhood glen, recreated on a skyscraper’s roof.”
A new bout of scratching interrupted the girl’s reading. This time, she was certain it came from the nightstand drawer. She pulled out the plastic bag and spread its contents on the bed. Her gaze lingered on the matchbox. She lifted it to her ear and shook. No sound. She slid the lid open to find folds of gray paper. Blue shadows hunched in the corners. She gathered the dead man’s belongings, returned them to the bag, the bag to the drawer, and riffled through the pages to find where she had left off.
“Two weeks ago, as I lay one night on the glen, sure that my dream’s mystery had been solved, I felt in my spine a gentle quake. Shortly thereafter, a cracking sound carried, as if a tree had splintered in a silent forest. The clouds in my eyes swung with apprehension to the left, then to the right.
“The construction sprung back into action, its vigor and pace unmatched by even its most productive times. The ants were back; their tracks echoing helter-skelter throughout the building. New scaffolding wrapped the walls. Whole sections were removed and swapped with new blocks.
“From the ground, I looked up the building’s façade. Beams and planks concealed the lower floors. No longer hiding during the day as they once had, the ants scurried about the scaffolding. They plastered the cracks, hammered out broken beams and welded in the new ones, yet the building began to buckle. They slogged on in vain; the building edged down toward collapse.
“Thick gloom stirred in my heart. Once again it was clear the dream was not about happiness regained. Was it a grim lesson, a testament to the meaninglessness of earthly pursuits, of the slow erosion of time? With a sigh and a heavy soul, I resigned to seeing every night—now until my imminent death—a tall building bowing closer to the ground, an inch a day.
“Even the consolation of knowing that my dream had been a meaningful, if sad, parable was denied to me. In a new twist of the plot, one night I discovered in my hands a scroll which I at first mistook for religious texts. I laid it on the ground and allowed it to unfurl. One half of the parchment revealed the building’s floor plan, one hundred and ten floors in all. It reminded me of the family estate’s plan, which my father had ordered completed upon his death and laid with him in his coffin, bringing to a close his lifelong obsession with the building’s construction. Here, on my plan, the pantheon, palace, prison, cathedral, and the high-rise, each was sketched in minute detail.
“The parchment’s other half looked nothing like the floor plan. Beneath the ground, winding passageways connected oblong chambers that sprawled endlessly, as if on a diagram of some ancient burial. The underground part was bigger than the building itself.
“I lifted my eyes from the scroll. Odd quicksand heaved around the foundation; craters gaped on its surface. Ants marched out of them in troops and scattered over the scaffolding. An immense anthill had been tunneled underneath the building. The foundation quaked, suspended by the spongy pulp of untunneled dirt and clay that remained. The ants’ labyrinth of passageways threaded through the concrete slabs and stone walls and then merged with the building’s interior. It was only in that moment, seeing the connections, that I realized my dream skyscraper was but an extension of the anthill.
“I had only ever seen the building at night, when the ants hid. I wondered now what went on in its halls during the day. Who were these tenacious builders? Were they too my father’s brain bugs, infectious carriers, akin to kuru prions, those of the same familial madness that compelled me, in my father’s and his father’s and grandfather’s steps, to build my own house of hundred additions—my recurring dream?
“Is this dream at all mine? I asked this of myself with a chill of the soul. Or am I merely channeling the collective unconscious of the ant colony, an outlet for some vague evolutionary yearning, a passageway, like the insects’ subterranean dwelling, to human experience? Was this a subterfuge that man’s jealous enemy devised in order to sneak his agents through the gates of a sleeping city?
“Truth be told, after all these years, I still do not know what my dream means.”
The girl laid the papers down. She removed the plastic bag from the drawer and slid the sheets of paper back into it. She hesitated a moment, then dropped the bag into the trash bin. She vacuumed the floor, dusted the nightstand and the dresser, and replaced the bed coverings. Surveying the room one final time, she noticed on the nightstand a large, sleek ant. It was quickly swept to the floor and squished with the sole of her shoe.
The morticians trundled the gurney down a long corridor. In their white coats, elbow-long gloves, bonnets, and masks, they looked like forest gnomes making an escape with stolen treasure. Ahead, brighter than afterlife’s light gleamed the doorway, and through it, a stainless steel table, surgical lights, body maps on the walls.
Two men swung the body off of the gurney and onto the table. The third canvassed the back of the dead man’s head with a vibrating saw, wedged a skull key into the cut, and hammered out a hairy, slimy lobe. He began spooning the brain out with a metal spatula, but abruptly stopped. The implement slipped from his hand, clattered against the floor tiles. The man pulled down the handle of the ceiling light. With his free hand, he groped about the instrument tray for a magnifying glass. Others peered in.
In silence, they scrutinized the ulcers peppering the brain’s shrunken fissures—moon craters drifted behind the lens’ eye. They poked at the craters’ rims with curved tweezers, exposing wormholes projecting deep into the flesh. Furrows ran along the brain’s surface and burrowed into the spongy matter. They all seemed to converge on one spot at the brain’s stem. To reach it, the prosector severed the spinal cord and, holding the brain by its stalk, pried apart the walnut cerebellum. Behind it, a gaping, ulcerated cavity riddled with white flakes. Under the magnifying glass, they looked like insect exuveae—empty sacks of excreted gore, translucent shells, shriveled and torn.
The men stood silent, their bloodied hands hanging idly along the sides of their bodies, staring at each other through glossy faceshields. Then they set to work. They photographed the brain, took its weight, measured it with a ruler and a sliding gauge, then dissected the tissue surrounding the openings and the walls of the canals, preserving its chunks in plastic molds.
They pulled up a folio of brain sections drawn to scale—maps of an alien world, its promontories and archipelagos with strange names like “medulla,” “cerebellum,” and “pons” drawn in a quivering outline—and marked out the lesions with a chemical pen. They calculated the curvatures and diameters of the tunnels and shaded the damaged area. A blob of glistening ink concealed the word “pons,” as if it were a name of some coastal hamlet razed by a marauding armada. They squeezed the brain into a mold, sectioned it, and froze the slices on a slab of dry ice.
The body lay unclaimed in the morgue’s freezer for a month until a letter arrived, providing a shipping address and a check. The remains were fitted into a zinc box and flown across the country. Two laborers met the shipment at the airport and drove in the back of their truck to an abandoned estate by an oak grove.
At the gate, they passed a caravan of lorries hauling dirt from a quarry at the edge of a development coming up behind a forest. In a distance, above the tips of the oaks, loomed skyscrapers, their neon halos and zapping lights glowing vigorously against the dusk.
The body was laid to rest at a small cemetery adjoining the estate, the fifth in a row of nondescript graves. Nearby, an anthill had grown amidst a mortuary junkyard. Cigarette butts, glass shards, and petals of plastic flowers were assimilated into a magnificent tower of dirt. If some mourner paused to observe it, he might marvel at its deliberate ornamentation, precise arrangement of colors and light specks and wonder as to the meaning of all this pulchritude. But then, why would the work of ants have meaning? Ants build ant houses—that’s just what they do.