Gemma’s master was dreaming of the war again. He did that more and more now, returning in sleep, night after night, to the same time, the same place.
It was as if as Rupert Everleigh’s life grew shorter, his dream world grew emptier. He dreamed of his wife, long dead, and Nell, his daughter, most likely so. He dreamed of his son, disowned, dissolute, lying drunk in yet another cat house. And of the expensive cigars and aged whiskey he’d enjoyed with the other rich, white planters in his big house in Savannah, back when his body was strong and the money seemingly endless. And of course, on many nights, he dreamed of the rice harvest here on Scotia Island.
But it was the war, always the war, that began and ended most of his nights. And she was there too, watching, waiting, walking inside those dreams with him, skirting the edges of the shadows cast by his memories.
An explosion like thunder shook the ground under her feet and Gemma looked up to see dark smoke drifting above a too-green hill, toward a too-blue sky.
The buckras—the whites—they were always making a war about one thing or another, blowing each other to bits over this piece of water, that smidge of mountain top. They were making one now, out there, in the waking world. She’d heard the rumors the wind carried, the rumors that seeped up through the dark, rich soil. Heard that this war was different, that this war concerned them: the slaves that worked Master Everleigh’s rice. Heard that there was a buckra named Lincoln, up North ways—the master of all the buckras—who was saying that blacks might not be slaves no more.
Gemma pressed her lips into a tight line. That faraway war, that white master, Lincoln, had nothing to do with her. Tonight, she was searching for Rupert Everleigh in his dreams, walking the twisted wreckage of his memories. Tonight, she would try once again to grab hold of him there, bend him, shape him, take from him what she wanted.
* * *
She’d found him.
He lay at the edge of a narrow mule track, alone, his belly pressed flat into the swampy earth, half-hidden between the gnarled roots of a black cypress tree. From a distance, she watched him cradle his rifle in the crook of his arm, take aim, then fire into a thick wall of mist and smoke. Flashes of red—uniforms, the vague shapes of men—appeared, then disappeared, as if no more than a trick of the eye. She watched her master rip the paper of an ammunition cartridge with his teeth and pour powder into the muzzle of his rifle before firing again.
She smelled the gunpowder, the blood. But the sharp bite of gunpowder was from the dark caverns of his memories, the blood, from the corpses of soldiers long dead and rotted into soil.
This war that haunted him night after night was from when he was young, from a half century past. From when his whole life spooled far out ahead of him, instead of far behind. This was his dream, and she was walking in it with him.
She waited. She could wait forever. In dreams, time was meaningless. The roar of cannon fire crashed over them, and Rupert Everleigh fired his rifle again and again at the ghosts of the long-dead British, near a place called New Orleans.
The instant he saw her, she knew.
His eyes went wide, and suddenly, he was no longer a young man, but bent and frail, his old man skin the color of rice water.
She approached him, taking her time. She was in no hurry. She had all the time in the world. Her master dropped his rifle and struggled to get to his feet, his arthritic hands clawing desperately at the gray trunk of the cypress for support. The cannons had gone silent and around them the world swirled, changed. The ground dried, grew sandy, the vegetation more sparse, the air taking on the salty smell of the sea. They were back on Scotia Island, back on the plantation where she’d spent every waking moment of her life.
He held up one twisted hand, as if to hold her back, and in the warm sunlight she saw that he was trembling.
“Stop,” he cried. “You are an abomination, a damned creature. You stop right there, you hear?”
Gemma’s lips pulled back from her teeth and she made a sound, half laugh, half snarl. This was his dream, but there was nothing he could do to make her leave it.
She was a Dreamwalker.
She could slip into the world of a sleeper and wander at her will, a spectator in the theater of the unconscious. Or, if she was of the mind to do so, she could twist those dreams, change their shape, change their meaning. And what she did as she meandered in and out of those dark nooks and crannies of the night world could even change the dreamer himself.
Tonight, and the night before, and the night before that, she was exactly of that mind. This dreamer—her master—had something she wanted, and she intended to use what she could do, what she had been born to, to make sure he gave it to her.
Copyright © 2022 by Rita Woods.