THE DREAM-JOURNEYS OF BRAM HESSOM
BY LAURA MICHET
SECTION 1: THE COLD BEACH
Let me begin. Years ago, in '93. The middle of the story, really, but the first moment I did anything in it.
In 1893, when I was eight years old, I found a ragged and crumpled novel wedged behind my mother’s nightstand. It must have slid down there long ago. The book was titled THE DREAM JOURNEYS OF BARTLETT SAMUELS.
Bartlett Samuels himself was rendered in a line drawing on the front cover as a confident, handsome man with energetic hair and a trim explorer's outfit. The book also contained many illustration plates, which were listed and named in the index on the third page. Bartlett Samuels builds his machine, the first one said. Bartlett Samuels meets the fish-queen, said another. Bartlett Samuels casts a magic hex!
I was enthralled. But when I heard my mother’s step in the hallway outside, I panicked and shoved the book under my shirt.
I’m not sure why I did this, but out of all the careless little things I've done in my life, it has certainly had the biggest effect. If I’d shown the book to my mother, she would have taken it away from me, and likely none of the unusual things that happened in my life would have ever occurred. I’d probably be a lawyer today.
But I hid that book, and I’m not a lawyer.
I spent a week reading it from cover to cover several times in a row. It was the story of a gentleman adventurer, a doctor of physics and archaeology-- an odd combination, surely-- from a British university. Doctor Samuels discovers a magical artifact which, when charged with electricity, allows him to enter the “dream world.” To Bartlett Samuels, the dream world was less a place of the mind and more like an unexplored continent which he inhabited physically. He spent most of his time there finding buried treasures and fighting the wild and monstrous natives.
They were particularly frightening to me. They were described as bipedal fish-men who built underwater cities in lakes and ponds and made peasants’ wages weaving reed baskets and farming trout. They were either led or oppressed by a monarch, a queen, fifty feet long and shaped like a barracuda, who made her castle inside a gargantuan conch shell at the bottom of the ocean. She was terrifying and dangerous, but in the end Doctor Samuels managed to defeat her. After slaughtering her armies with the power of modern technology (specifically, explosives), he kills her, forces the fish-people to adopt democracy, and returns home to the real world with crates full of gold and jewels.
I didn’t particularly like the ending of the book. From the moment the fish-queen appeared in the tale, the entire mood of this cheerful, adventurous book became dark and gloomy. Gruesome, too: after slaughtering her troops on the shore, the hero hires a pair of hideous, man-sized insects to sew gills into his neck. (I could hardly bear to look at these creatures in the illustration on page 128.) After gaining his gills, Bartlett Samuels subsequently swims down into the dark of the ocean, where the fish-queen maims and then swallows him. He kills her by cutting his way out with a sword.
The writer mentions specifically that he tastes her blood in the water. He writes that it gets in his eyes, and clings to his skin when he steps out on the beach.
After this disturbing sea-war sequence, the triumphant final chapter feels insincere and out of place. Though he travels back to the real world and enjoys a life of riches and fame, it always seemed to me that Samuels should have died.
In the end, however, I loved that story because it was so unsettling. It was a puzzle that wasn’t a puzzle. It was arbitrary and strange but it didn’t seem designed to be that way. Here is Bartlett Samuels, a scientist. Here is his magical device. Here he is, emerging into a strange new world without a hint of dream to it, and nevertheless exclaiming: “I have arrived… in the Dream World!” There were no other real characters in the tale besides Samuels, but the monsters were numerous and varied. Their lack of coherent artifice made them seem almost real. Some were ambling sharks, others were legless crocodiles. Eels piped advice from the muddy banks. The insect-men were never explained. It felt to me as if the book had no author, no purpose, no organizing intelligence. It simply was.
Now, the book obviously did have an author. But the name on the cover was Samuel Bartlett, which was clearly a joke. And his wasn’t the only name that baffled me. After the third or fourth reading, when I lazily opened to the inside cover to begin again, I realized that the illustration artist’s name-- Claudia Hessom-- was my mother’s.
Here, at last, was the meat of the puzzle. And out of either a stubborn urge to solve it myself, or a cowardly fear of revealing that I’d stolen the book, I kept that puzzle private for over ten years.
My parents married too early. They were terrible for one another. It might have been better if they’d waited a few years before pledging their halfhearted dedication, but it’s also possible that they were two mismatched souls who never could have been happy together, no matter the circumstances. I no longer speculate about what might have been.
My mother was an artist. She was skilled, if extremely conservative and derivative in style. Throughout my childhood she kept a studio in the back of the house which I was allowed to to enter only if I remained absolutely silent. I didn’t mind the rule. I found the quiet scratch of her pencils soothing.
My father, on the other hand, was a wealthy industrialist. He was always away on business at his factories in Lowell. In the end, of course, it turned out that he never owned a single factory in that city, but at the time, we believed that he was quite an ordinary-- though successful-- manufacturer.
When they were young, my parents were quite popular in their chosen social circles. My mother attended salons and clubs, and enjoyed working illustration jobs for her friends’ books, pamphlets, and newsletters. She numbered painters, poets, and novelists among her friends.
My father preferred the bankers and merchants of Boston. In any given family with which we were acquainted, my father would be friends with the head of the family, or the oldest sons-- inheritors and decision-makers. My mother would select the youngest son and daughters, who were, at the time, the kind of people upon whom few expectations were laid. He sought power; she sought entertainment. This philosophical gulf divided all other aspects of their lives, too, from employment to leisure-time to the way they spent the family funds. They had very little in common. In fact, I’m certain that the only meaningful thing they shared was a responsibility to raise me.
I never saw my parents kiss or embrace. Their bodies did not seem as if they fit together, and even now, if I try to imagine them romancing, I can only imagine something like a scene from an awkward, poorly-performed play. They did not enjoy being around one another. You could say they loathed one another.
I do not, however, remember many arguments between them. They lived in completely different parts of the house and rarely crossed paths. It was a silent war, one that never passed the "organizing little models on the war-room map" stage.
I occupied a neutral middle ground on the second floor, and I filled out the space between them during meals. As I grew older and their marriage continued to deteriorate, my entire day split into zones controlled by one or the other of my two warring parents. Breakfasts were with my father. Lunches were with my mother. They alternated suppers, passed commands to one another through the servants, and delighted in giving me contradictory advice and instruction. They only cooperated when social convention required it-- for instance, when they were invited to a party as a couple. Even then, they would wander different corners of the banquet-hall speaking to different groups of friends. It was therefore unsurprising to me when, at the age of twenty, I learned that they were planning to sell the old home and move into separate houses.
And so I had to move my own things-- all my old books and papers and saved knicknacks and extra clothes out of my old room and to my lodgings at the university. On the weekends I would slip into the house through the back door, go silently through the rapidly-emptying rooms, and lock myself in my childhood bedroom to sift through the detritus of my past in private. Occasionally, some memento or book would catch my eye, and I’d stop to examine it, read it, and remember. It was during one of these reveries that I uncovered The Dream Journeys of Bartlett Samuels.
I had never forgotten it. Even then, it came to my mind once or twice a week. Whenever I ate fish or walked on the beach or heard the sound of waves churning underneath a pier, I thought of that weird, precious old book. And with it in my hands again, I felt such a powerful yearning for its puzzle that instead of dropping it in my crate, I stood up, slipped it into my coat pocket, and marched right down the stairs into my mother’s studio.
She stood with her back to the door, packing up her canvasses. “Mother,” I called.
It was an intrusion into her sacred space, and she whirled angrily on me. “What?”
“Did you ever illustrate a fairytale book?”
“A children’s book?” she asked.
“A fantasy,” I said. “A fantastical story, in a strange world full of monsters.”
She paused, and shook her head. “No. Nothing like that.”
I lost my patience. The proof, after all, was hanging heavy in the pocket of my coat. “Nonsense,” I laughed, and crossed the room to brandish the book in her face. “Illustrations by Claudia Hessom. You drew this, didn’t you?”
I expected her to admit her forgetfulness and apologize. I did not expect her to turn pale and collapse in a heap on the floor.
We had a physician in the house by the afternoon. By evening my father was there, unexpectedly drunk. He sat on the bottom step of the stairs and started shouting for me.
I’d holed up in my room. That long afternoon, I’d read the first chapter of the story over and over again. Bartlett Samuels returns from his trip to India with a strange stone seal. During a laboratory accident, it comes in contact with a live electrical wire. The stone glows and sparks, and Doctor Samuels, who fears no peril, picks it up in his bare hands. When he awakens from his swoon, he finds himself on the shore of an otherworldly ocean. A cold dark beach, crawling with monsters.
“Bram!” my father screamed. I pulled my mind from that dark beach and came trotting down the hall. He caught sight of me at the top of the stairs and lurched horribly to his feet. “What have you done?” he demanded.
I could not think of anything to say, so I tossed him the book.
My mother had gone pale. My father, ever her opposite, turned a ripe shade of red, howled like an animal, and ripped the book in half.
"Don't," I screamed, and came thumping down the stairs. We fought for a moment over pieces of paper. He actually struck me across the face, and I fell hard on the floor in a shower of torn pages.
“This damned thing!” he said. “Where did you find it?”
“Years ago, in my mother’s bedroom,” I said.
He made a low growl in the base of his throat, seized me by the collar, hauled me to my feet, and dragged me slipping and staggering down the hall toward the sitting room. There was a mirror there, just inside the door.
He dug the words out of the pit of his chest. “She’s a bitch, and you’re a thief, and a goddamn worthless bastard,” he snarled. And then he put me in front of the mirror, and put the cover of the book beside my face.
Three faces in the mirror: mine, my father’s, and the face of the illustrated scientist on the cover. And my face had much more in common with the face of Bartlett Samuels-- or Samuel Bartlett-- than with the man who’d raised me.
He stuffed the cover into my hands, and I fell to my knees. By the time I tore myself away from the mirror, my father had gone.
I’m built like a ginger scarecrow, but the man who raised me looks like Count Dracula shrunk to half-size and fattened on cakes. I suppose I’d always known that we looked nothing alike, that the gaps between us could not be explained away by my mother’s likeness alone-- but I’d pushed it out of my mind. Deliberately ignored it, perhaps. But there it was: the man on the cover was practically a caricature of me.
I never had a chance to ask my mother any of my questions about Bartlett. A week after her fainting episode, she suffered a stroke. A week after that, she died. And then I was left alone in the empty house with the movers at the door.
My father never returned home to claim his furniture or belongings. He never even settled into his new house. Because it was fully paid for, and in a very nice part of town, I moved into the house my mother had selected for herself. As far as I know, my father’s house is still empty.
At first I tried to pretend that I was “doing all right.” I’m ashamed to say it, but with my parents dead and gone, for once I had peace in my life-- and the house was an extremely large and luxurious place to be peaceful in. Although my friends knew my mother had died, that something terrible had happened, they did not know the full details, and I could not bring myself to tell them the truth. When I wasn’t studying, I was alone, lying in bed, watching the shadow of the windowframe creep across the wall.
I could not forgive myself. The truth about my father should have been obvious to me, but I had willfully ignored it. He and my mother were both quite short; I am nearly six feet. He had a widow’s peak, a hooked nose, arms and legs that bulged against his suit-- but I’m rather more like Bartlett Samuels. My hair is curly, like Samuels, and I even wore it like he does in some of the illustrations. You’d think his surprised, grit-jawed little faces were my own. And although I do have some hint of my mother in my looks, my father’s influence is nowhere to be seen.
I felt like an imbecile. I could not bear to look at myself in the mirror. When the old family portraits were delivered to my new home, I could not look at those, either. I left the canvasses wrapped up the foyer for two months. I had to make myself completely drunk before I could find the courage to even move them into the basement.
The shock I needed came at graduation. I walked through the ceremony without anyone in the seats to cheer me on. My hands and feet seemed numb. Six months had passed since my father left the city. The crumpled pages of the book were still heaped out of order on my desk. My friends had ceased trying to contact me. No one had visited my lonely house in months. My life had stopped completely in its tracks.
So I made my choice. I had no one to leave behind in Boston-- or anywhere else in America, really. Or on Earth, if we’re being honest. Diploma in hand, I looked within myself and-- in possibly the first act of personal courage in my entire lifetime-- I turned my life in a new direction.
I resolved to find my father and, at the very least, shout at him until he broke.
It soon became clear that none of my father’s friends in the city knew him as well as they thought they did.
Nobody had any idea where he was. Some were sure he was in England, while others were convinced he was on an extended trip to Denmark. One old banker even told me that my father had gone west to explore investment opportunities in railroads and oil.
I had been relatively frugal with my mother’s money at home, but I now spent it wildly on private investigators, rail fare, and ship berths. To be honest, I enjoyed the chase. I enjoyed being out of Boston. I liked meeting all these new people, seeing all these new cities. I put together a list of lies and guesses and hunted almost all of them down. I took a train to Columbus and asked a wholesaler if my father had really ever sold him lumber. I drove down to Philadelphia and shocked a hotelier with a list of visits he insisted were all completely fabricated. In Atlanta, people who half-knew my father directed me to Baton Rouge, and in Baton Rouge they sent me to Havana. I spent a year like that, on the road more often than sitting still.
But as I came closer to the truth, the answers I found grew more and more unsettling. In England I found a group of men who claimed that my father had been sailing into Portsmouth and selling them cargoes of rice for fifteen years. They lead me to a firm in France which insisted that they’d insured over ten ships belonging to my father. When I told these insurance agents that my father didn’t own any vessels, they referred me to the cargo agent in Amsterdam with whom my father had apparently worked. Each name brought me new conversations, new nets of linked names, new offices in drab corners of Atlantic cities. I travelled with a bale of crumpled letters of introduction stuffed in my jacket pocket. I told myself that at least one of the names in my notebook’s ever-growing list must belong to a man who knew the truth.
The strangest claim I heard during this time was that my father had built an island in the middle of the ocean. The man who said this to me was very elderly, bedridden, and more than a little senile. I dismissed it as nonsense, but I heard this claim again in Providence, from a middle-aged lawyer who smiled as he said it and laughed when I shook my head.
But in the end there was more than a little truth to this bizarre story. In Copenhagen, I finally discovered an old captain who told me a bizarre story about a job he’d taken in 1884. At my father’s behest, he’d carried a team of bridge-builders and and Caribbean pearl-divers onboard alongside four enormous metal pylons. He had subsequently shipped these out into the middle of the north Atlantic, where a smaller ship carrying a team of engineers had supervised the pylons’ installation on the ocean floor. He claimed that my father had paid half his fee in bricks of solid gold. He grinned and showed me a golden tooth.
I sat listening to the Captain’s lunatic story for two whole hours before I interrupted him. I was not certain that the feat of construction he described was even possible.
“Do you remember the names of the engineers?” I asked. “The bridge-builders?”
“Well, I never wrote them down,” he said. “And that was over twenty years ago.”
I thanked him, gave him my card, went back to my hotel, and took The Dream Journey’s bundled pages out of my suitcase. I dragged all the furniture to the walls and laid the pages out on the floor, in order. It was a riddle, I decided. It was something I could solve.
There were a few facts I could hold on to. Firstly: the man who raised me clearly lived a double-life. He was not a factory owner: he was a merchant who sourced goods and vast wealth from some unknown location in or around the Atlantic Ocean. The rice was a conspicuous example. Where on the Atlantic does someone get that much rice?
This shipping mystery went back over two decades. The publication-date of the Dream Journey was 1884, the same year that my father had apparently financed the construction of an impossible structure in the middle of the ocean. I was born the following year, probably thanks to the man who had served as the model for Bartlett Samuels.
And finally: The Dream Journeys was not, as I had previously assumed, a totally arbitrary story. It was about oceans. Fish and bodies of water were on every page. The main character becomes an expert sailor while living among the fish-men. What I had once understood as random and senseless storytelling was actually very tightly-themed: around the sea, around the darkness of it, the storms it carries. And I knew now that my father was a man of the sea, a man who worked with sailors, who charted lines of trade to lands unknown. I knew from my own trips that the sea could be shockingly wild and cruel for no explicable reason. I thought of the blood Samuels tasted in the water.
And all this had been kept secret from me, from my extended family, and from our friends. None of the men my father did business with knew the entire truth. This suggested that criminal or underhanded elements were at play.
With a few leaps of logic and a mess of assumptions, I concluded that my true father was an author, a sailor, and a criminal in partnership with my legal father, and that the base of their criminal operations was some kind of metal platform constructed in the icy waters of the north Atlantic.
Which all seemed idiotic, once I summarized it. If my father was a smuggler, why would he waste his money building towers in the ocean? The Danish captain must have played a trick on me. The grid of torn pages on the floor seemed like a monument to my incompetence. So I swept them under the bed, burned my new notes in the fireplace, and drank myself into a stupor.
But in the morning I woke to the captain pounding on my door. I hesitantly cracked it open, and he stuck his boot in the gap. “Let me in for a moment,” he said.
“What is it?” I demanded.
“I thought about your story all night long,” he said. “This morning I went to my attic and dug up the old records. I’ve found my log from the journey. It’s a wonder I’ve kept it.” He handed me a sheaf of papers and explained that it held everything I would need to locate my father’s bizarre construction job. “And there’s the addresses of the facilities he rented in the city, too,” he said. “The warehouse, anyway. You might corroborate that, even today.”
I was still groggy and sour, still suspicious, but I invited him into the room. He gave the piled furniture a shocked glance, but stood in silence while I held the papers up to the bright window. They were certainly ship’s logs. I didn’t know any way to judge their veracity.
“I should pay you for this,” I said, “but how can I know if it’s worth anything?”
“Poor boy,” he said. His smile was all pity. “I don’t need your money. Find your father, that’s all I want.”
My first steps were toward the warehouse where the pylons had been kept. If it was still owned by the same fellows who’d owned it back then-- unlikely, but possible-- they might have a record. if not them, then the local port authorities, perhaps. I was optimistic.
The place was dark and silent when I arrived. the doors were locked. And while the other big warehouses on this street had guards playing dice outside the doors, this place seemed totally abandoned.
Three times I visited, and three times it was abandoned. Eventually, I went to the port authorities, but the fellows there didn’t speak very good English, and we were unable to come to any mutual understanding.
But warehouse or not, I knew I’d have to sail to the coordinates marked in the captain’s logs. So I chartered a clipper ship, the Conrad. The captain was a young fellow named Henriksson, only a few years older than I. We got along well, but I wasn’t quite comfortable sharing the whole story with him. So, edging around the truth, I explained that I was a wealthy inheritor searching for my missing father, a mad eccentric, and that I had reason to believe he was located at a very precise spot in the middle of the ocean. The captain was less skeptical about this claim than I thought he’d be, and he explained that the place was quite close to an island which whalers had always used for repairs.
“Gatland Isle,” he said. “I’ve been there myself, many times.”
Over beer, I explained my trouble with the warehouse. “If I could confirm that my father had been there, it would tell me that I’m on the right track,” I said.
Henriksson was so pleased with the first check I’d written him that he agreed to smooth things over between me and the port office. The next morning, he took me to a liquor shop and had me buy an expensive bottle of American bourbon. Then we headed to the office, where he had a few genial conversations with moustached men in stairwells.
During his conversation with the fattest and best-dressed of the men, Henriksson waved me over and I presented the bribe. The official beamed, but his response seemed to agitate Henriksson. “There’s a problem,” my friend reported. “Nobody’s used the place. Nobody stores anything there. It was converted into offices and then abandoned.”
“Any records?” I asked.
Henriksson shrugged. “There was a fire five years ago.”
But the journey so far had changed me. I had a new kind of daring. And the night before Henriksson took me out to sea, I crept down to the warehouse in the middle of the night with the blanket off my hotel bed and a hammer I’d bought from a local store. And when accordion-screeching from a nearby pub rose loud enough to disguise the sound, I shattered the window to the warehouse’s back office, laid the blanket over the shards, and hoisted myself inside.
The office was still full of the useless detritus of business, caked with years of grey dust. The dust was in the air, too; I buried my face in the crook of my elbow to disguise the sounds of my hacking coughs. I found dusty desks, empty crates, and shattered carboys still stinking of some strange chemical. Red-eyed from the dust and the sting of that chemical, I cursed myself for not bringing a lamp. There was a lot of very peculiar stuff in the dark and dusty corners of the place’s cluttered rooms, and I wished I could see it better. There was something that looked like broken telegraph apparatus, for example. There was an empty weapon rack for rifles, and a suit on a stand that seemed as if it were for deep-water diving, and three or four enormous spools of high-quality copper wire, probably still worth a hundred dollars or more.
And in the largest room in the warehouse-- the cargo floor itself-- I found an enormous copper cage, like a birdcage big enough for a man.
When I drew close enough, I saw that inside the cage were the loose bones and withered leathery skin of a dead person so disfigured and horrible that I could not see humanity in his face.
I flung myself back, tripped over a loose board, and hit the ground so hard that I didn't even have the breath in me to scream. The body was prone, buckle-backed, with one withered skin-and-bone hand curled around one of the bars and a horrible monstrous face turned toward me. It had two cavernous holes for eyes, big enough to nestle a teacup in each. God! I vaulted up and ran. I toppled bonelessly out of that shattered window, hefted the blanket over my shoulder, and rushed off into the light of safer streets.
I sprinted between groups of carousing sailors. I was breathing so loud and ragged that people stared at me and shouted questions in worried Danish. My shirt stuck to my back. "I'm fine," I gasped. I turned a corner into a darker, emptier street, and tears began to flow. I'm fine, I told myself. I'm fine! It was a dead man. Nothing but a dead man. I was never there. He wasn't my responsibility.
I didn’t sleep that night, though.
Henriksson’s ship, the Conrad, had only ten crewmembers. I paid almost twice what Henriksson asked for and offered a bonus for each sailor once we arrived at the precise longitude and latitude marked on my logs. He promised to have me there in four days.
In the end, it took him twelve. We were caught in an early blizzard on the morning of the second day. The snowfall turned back into rain by evening, and we spent the next several days struggling to hold our place against the wind.
Henriksson became increasingly agitated. I was paying him so much money that the delay ballooned to disaster in his mind. His tortured apologies were embarrassing, and in the end I retreated to my cabin and spent the rest of the journey crouched there in the gloom, fantasizing about what I’d say to my father when I finally caught up with him.
I wasn’t even sure what precisely I’d accuse him of. There were too many things to blame him for. Abandoning me, that’s for certain. Lying to me. Lying to his friends. Behaving like a criminal. Keeping a twisted and horrible dead man in a goddamn cage in his warehouse. Hating my mother, but staying married to her for decades, and in the end skipping her funeral entirely. I imagined each of these conversations in great detail, setting them up in my mind like little plays, muttering the arguments to myself in the dark. But each of my imagined rants ended the same way: with my father pointing out that I was a bastard, that he didn’t owe me or my mother anything. And whenever my imagined phantom of a father denied me, it felt as bitter as reality.
On the morning of the tenth day, Henriksson called me up to the deck and showed me a dark smear on the horizon: Gatland Isle. He handed me a spyglass and pointed out the masts of whalers gathered in the safety of its southern bay. We then passed Gatland at a distance and continued north-west toward the specific point mentioned in the Danish captain’s logs.
The sailors watched me with bald curiosity. I was paying them well, but I was paying them to waste their time. Gatland was the last land between here and anywhere. That coordinate was in empty ocean, and because the sea is ever-moving, we would never find anything there.
But, of course, we did. Around three in the afternoon on the twelfth day, a sailor perched halfway up the mainmast gave an excited shout, and a suddenly we were all at the starboard railing, fighting over the spyglass. Barely a mile to the northwest, something like the top third of the Eiffel Tower could be seen sprouting directly out of the ocean.
I felt a longing pain in the center of my chest, sharp enough to set my nose watering. The rolling deck seemed even less steady than it usually did, and I was not sure whether to sit down or dance. Henriksson clasped me on the shoulder. “What a shock this is!” he said. “I must admit, I thought you were deluded. I did not believe you!”
He looked expectantly at me, as if there is anything to say to something like that. I simply dissolved into giddy, panicked laughter.
They sat me on a folded tarp and gave me a cup of hot soup. As Hendrickson took the helm, I made a show of signing a bonus check to each one of the ten crewmembers. I must have misspelled all their names.
The tower in the ocean was the spindle round which my whole life had been wound. Looking at it, I felt a kind of vertigo. I had to pin my head between my knees and breathe in rhythm to prevent myself vomiting on the deck. During my university studies I’d had a fondness for the history of ancient and foreign religions. I laughed at myself, because I understood for the first time how the ancient peoples I’d studied must have felt when they’d slept on mountaintops and hallucinated meetings with their gods. It is hard to understand those old religious metaphors until you've felt such a thing yourself, until you’ve climbed your own sacred mount and seen your own cosmic puzzle unfold itself at a secret place.
Perhaps this is why I later kept so calm around all those revered gods and ancient kings in unknown lands, among alien peoples. There is nothing to inoculate you against the holy awe of strangers like a holy awe of your own.
When we were a half-mile away, we noticed a small cutter moored up against the far side of the tower. Soon afterward, we noticed figures scurrying around on the cutter and on the tower’s lowest level. Henriksson examined them through his spyglass.
“We should stop here,” he said. “Those men are all armed.”
I jumped to my feet. “You can’t be serious,” I said.
Henriksson spread pleading hands and passed me the spyglass. My eyes are not as sharp as the average sailor’s, but I could see that the dim shapes of men on the lowest level of the tower were carrying long sticks in their tiny hands. Rifles.
My hands shook, and the image in the spyglass blurred. I composed my face and turned back to the crew. “Well,” I said, “how should we approach?”
The sailors clasped their hands and looked away, but I raised my checkbook in the air again. “Because I didn’t come all this way just to watch my father through a spyglass!”
The sailors protested, but Henriksson shook his head and ordered six of them into the skip. He settled into its stern with a long revolver on his knee, and I crouched in the prow, holding our flag of peace: a white shirt tied to an oar. There were only three crewmembers left on the Conrad. As we began rowing away, one of them called something out to us in Danish. It must have been a joke to lighten the mood, because the sailors laughed bitterly and bent against their oars.
And so, to the sound of their whispered foreign cursing, we finally covered the final half mile across the sea.
The tower was utterly preposterous, and it became more and more preposterous the closer we got. Rising from the sea at the center of the structure was a thick pillar with a pair of metal doors set in the side. When we were fifty yards away, these doors opened, and seven or eight men carrying long guns came trotting out to join the fellows who were already there. They lounged against the railings and cocked their weapons in our direction. I waved the peace flag as hard as I could, but they seemed unimpressed.
The bottom part of the tower was ringed by three exterior platforms stacked one on top of the other. The lowest platform was full of crates and barrels and bulging sacks. A few men were rushing to load these into the cutter.
“Hessom,” Henriksson whispered. “What is this? Is your father some kind of robber? A smuggler? Is your father a pirate?”
“It would certainly explain a lot,” I said. And then I laughed. The oarsmen glared at me.
When we were close enough to see their faces plainly, the men on the tower began shouting to us in English. “Pull up here,” one called, and pointed out a ladder.
“First, you put those guns down,” Henriksson shouted back.
“Notta chance, friend,” cried another one of the armed men. His Boston accent was horrible to me. How many people walking in streets of my city knew more about my father’s life than I did?
I leaned over to Henriksson. “Please,” I murmured. “Don’t argue with him.”
Henriksson took another look at the row of guns balanced on the railing. “We are at a disadvantage,” he admitted.
We tied up alongside the ladder. One of the oarsmen stood to climb, but the Boston thug clicked his tongue and pointed at me. “Only this one comes up.”
The Danes muttered amongst themselves. I opened my mouth, but could not think of anything to say.
“We know who you are,” Boston sneered. “Come on up.”
I turned to Henriksson. “Give me the revolver,” I said.
“No,” he blurted, turning pale. The armed men above us all laughed.
“You won’t need that up here,” someone said. “You’re the guest of honor! Your father’s waiting for you inside.”
“How did he know I was coming?” I demanded. And again the tower men chuckled, but gave no answer.
So I climbed up fifteen feet of slippery metal bars to the platform, where the armed men steered me to the tower’s stout central pillar. One of the men put a key into a slot in the pillar wall then bent down to holler into a speaking-tube: “Send ‘er up!”
A few moments of silence passed. I turned to the thug nearest me and, with my blood fizzing and my stomach skipping rope, began to make a joke. “Have you got my mother in there too?” I asked. “Because--”
And then the whole tower began to rumble and shake. A low grinding echoed up from the depths of the structure. And when the doors popped open, there was an elevator-car with a single dim electric light burning in it.
When the armed men pushed me inside, I noticed that there were also three coffins in the elevator car, stacked one on top of the other against the back wall.
Later, it reminded me of The Dream Journey. My story was just as senseless and unpleasant, just as arbitrary. Here was my father’s secret smuggler outpost. Here were his fifteen heavily-armed guards. Here was his elaborate electric elevator. Here were his three coffins, freshly-painted, still smelling of turpentine. He keeps them in his elevator in his tower in the middle of the ocean. There in the elevator, I thought: dear God! What have I done to deserve such a father? Why couldn’t I have had the other one, the one who looked like me?
The thugs did not join me in the elevator. They slid the doors shut, and then the light in the elevator car went out. And in pitch blackness, with everything shaking and grinding and wailing, I began my descent into the depths of the ocean.
When the doors slid open again, I flung myself out into a long, narrow hallway lit with electric bulbs. No portholes, no sound of surf. Locked doors lined the walls, but no one answered my knocking. At the end of the hall I turned a corner and descended a flight of echoing metal stairs. At the bottom, a thick metal door stood open, just a crack. A bright light shone in the room beyond.
I wiped my brow. I could smell my own perspiration, feel the chill where the air touched my damp skin. My experience with cheap drugstore novels told me that my father would shortly either shoot me dead or name me his crime prince to rule beside him in evil, and neither of these outcomes appealed to me.
But I was at the bottom of the ocean, alone, with no way out but through.
The room beyond was high-ceilinged, dissonantly elegant, pillared and portholed, floored with scratched marble, and cluttered with what looked for all the world like a university’s chemistry laboratory. Tubes and wires covered the tables. Domed metal cages like the one in Copenhagen filled the empty spaces on the floor. Glass bulbs shone in the dim blue light from the sea outside. The light came from the guttering flames of a few lonely gas lights up by the ceiling. I felt as if I were looking upon some odd wreckage at the bottom of a quarry lake.
“You’re here,” someone said. It was not my father’s voice.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
A cage at the far end of the room swung open. A man stepped out and closed the door behind him. He picked his way toward me, stepping carefully between stacks of books and towers of interlinked distillation globes. “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you,” he called.
Then he stepped into a patch of watery light. It was, without a doubt, the ginger-haired man from the front of the Dream-Journeys. My other father.
“Bartlett Samuels,” I said.
“Guess again,” he said.
“Samuel Bartlett,” I ventured, less certain.
He sighed and stepped closer. “That was supposed to be your name, actually. But he married her in the end, and they went and named you Bramford.” he gave a high-pitched, manic laugh. It reminded me of my own. “I’m so sorry. It’s an idiotic name. Mine is Connor.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to this. The man in front of me was wrinkled and weathered, but he had the same cavalier attitude my mother had captured in her drawings. We looked so alike that staring at him was like staring at my older self.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I hadn’t planned this particular conversation in the ship. “Were you going to marry her?” I finally asked.
“I’d thought about it,” he said. “I considered it, for a while. But I changed my mind.”
“After you’d fucked me into her?” I spluttered.
He laughed. “If you’ve come here to shame me, it won’t work,” he said. “Your father’s been shaming me about it for over twenty years.” His expression became stern. “Your father came here not long ago,” he said. “He never comes here. He brought a gun.”
He he produced the gun from a nearby table: a revolver with a silver band around the handle. I recognized it at once. And then I thought of the coffins in the elevator, and my stomach filled with ice.
He put the gun away in his toolbelt and shook his head. “You should never have told him that you knew.”
I had no idea what he meant. “I never told him anything! I haven’t spoken to him in over a year!”
“Don’t be an idiot,” he laughed.
“Jesus Christ,” I bellowed, throwing my arms wide. “Do you think I know what’s going on? What is this? Some kind of smuggler’s den?”
He laughed hysterically, which only raised my blood. “You called me Bartlett Samuels,” he said, “I thought you understood!”
“You’ve read the damn book, haven’t you?” He turned on his heel and headed back into the piled scientific clutter.
I shuddered. There was no way that the book could have anything to do with the reality of this place. “Wait,” I called. “You can’t be serious.”
I saw him climbing up onto a table, unscrewing something from the side of one of the metal cages. He spoke in a singsong voice, reciting words I also knew from memory:
“Bartlett Samuels emerged from a deep sleep to find himself on a strange grey beach. Above him the clouds hung low, and around him the surf pounded, cold and dark.”
I felt absolutely wretched. “Stop that," I said.
“Bartlett sat upright and surveyed the strange unspoiled world around him. This was the culmination--”
“No, shut up, will you?"
“--the culmination of all his life’s research! He raised a triumphant fist into the air!” And then my new, true father too raised his fist in the air, and for some reason I was disgusted, deeply disgusted and frightened to my core. The words were like a spell, and they held a power over me.
“I have arrived,” I mumbled, “In the Dream World.”
“So! You’ve read it!” He stepped down from the table, and I saw that he was holding something round and heavy in his hands. “Is this familiar?”
In the book, Bartlett Samuels has a magical device that he uses to travel to the fish-world-- some kind of ancient relic. It is a round piece of stone carved all over with deep grooves. They crackle mysteriously with ancient energies. There is an illustration of them crackling away. I knew it very well.
And here it was. The device I then held in my hands was just like the one in the illustrations, but made of metal, and the grooves were packed with wires and little bulbs of glass. I ran my fingers over it and felt a static tickle. As a child, I might have mistaken this for the dim shadow of some ancient energy.
And with a smile playing about his lips, my true father told me: “The Dream Journeys of Bartlett Samuels are about seventy-per-cent true.”