Love in the Age of Haniel
She couldn't remember when she began to envy her husband's dreams. Maybe around the fourth week of pregnancy, after he'd moved out and then moved back again. Or maybe around the twentieth week, when he wanted to name the baby after himself, and she said no. The truth is, she didn't remember because the condition of envy had become a chronic background noise. Her husband had always had baroque and complex dreams and she'd never minded. Now her envy surrounded them both like a hot electric fence.
She could see her husband clearly. He was blond, bearded, surrounded by the haze of his dream. He woke up, propped himself up on one elbow, looking slightly disoriented. She didn't ask to hear the dream. He told her.
This morning his dream was about time travel. He had visited a country where people still thought the earth was flat and never traveled far because they were afraid they were going to fall off. Since he knew the earth was round, he convinced them otherwise, but when they started to disappear over the horizon, it seemed he had made a mistake. She leaned forward, looking encouraged -- maybe this was a dream of failed adventure, after all. But no. It turned out that when everyone disappeared over the horizon, they were really flying. Her husband could fly, too: As he flew, he saw the entire country below him. Thatched roofs. Children with hoops. Quaint little streets. "A fairyland," he said, "just like Disney."
He often had flying dreams. They were giddy, hallucinatory, perilous. She lay in bed listening and her envy surrounded them.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing," she answered.
She smiled, concealing her envy, but he caught it. "Just life," she reassured him.
In a sense, she was telling the truth. Their faucets leaked. Their washing machine overflowed. Yesterday they'd bought two dozen miniscule T-shirts that turned out to be for nine-month-olds, not newborns. They were investigating breast pumps that looked like devices from the regime of Torquemada. Lists of names for the baby lined their kitchen wall and they couldn't agree on any of them.
But in another sense, the truth was only her envy — not any kind of envy, but dream envy, an affliction of trolls, gremlins, bats, sad, dreamless beings relegated to caves. A dangerous omen. An unhappy and violent passion. Her midwife had advised her of this, pressing into her hands herbs, amulets, arcane books, a dream pillow filled with lavender and sage. Dreams are essential, she'd said. You must work to get yours back.
Her husband leaned over and touched her belly. "Whatever happened to the good old days?" he asked. It was something he'd been asking for awhile, a compelling, urgent question.
"Nothing," she said. "They're here right now." The baby chose this moment to shift inside of her. An obscure dolphin. A rumbling miniature subway. He was always, without a doubt, the most important person in the room, an unruly character, waiting for the chance to speak. On ultrasound he was the size of a kitten, his transparent heart no bigger than a dime. After they saw him, her husband drew a heart on her stomach and kissed it. See. I'm being good now.
Today he turned to her, not unkindly. "You resent my dreams," he said. "You begrudge me this little corner of my mind."
"Of course I don't."
"But you do. You begrudge me. I know it."
She said nothing. Under her pillow, she could feel the velvet dream pillow the midwife had given her. It was prickly, filled with sage and lavender. The sage had come from the Bolivian mountains. The midwife found it last summer at the witch's market in La Paz.
"I'm being exemplary these days," he continued. "I've found a crib. I went with you to buy those ridiculous T-shirts and today I'm going to help you return them. I've even gone to those damn birthing classes with what's-her-name."
"Laurel Moonflower," she supplied. Laurel Moonflower was the midwife. Her husband didn't like her. He said she was a New Age parody.
"Laurel Moonflower," he agreed. "I've gone there and I've sat there and I've admired her models of the pelvis. I've chanted atonal chants. I've offered prayers. I've rubbed your back. And you begrudge me my dreams."
I don't begrudge you, I blame you. She didn't say this, but thought it. The day after he'd moved out, to a lawyer friend's place on a street with the improbable name of Taurus, she'd woken from a dream about being trapped in the city of Dresden during the second world war. She was in a house, standing by a cabinet full of fragile china, when a bomb fell. Cup after cup after cup shattered in slow motion. A miniature china shepherdess was severed from her sheep. Plates decorated with flowers crashed. This had been her last dream. Now her nights were a blank canvas.
"What are you thinking?" he asked.
"Are you hungry?"
"Just for grapes. Grapes are all I have room for. It's like someone put a grand piano in there."
He went to the kitchen and came back with grapes for her and a huge hunk of toasted French bread for himself. He climbed into bed and they started to eat. It was a custom they used to enjoy.
"How are the grapes?"
"Fine." In fact, they were too soft.
Since he'd moved back, traits which she'd previously found charming had become irritating beyond belief. One surfaced now. The way he crunched his toast. Once it was boyish enthusiasm. Now it was greed.
"Do you have to eat so loudly?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you're taking very big bites."
His hand slammed against the white comforter. "I'll eat the way I want to."
She waited. The words arrived. "You pig." It was a dangerous thing to say. He could call her a pig, too. She looked a lot more like one than he did. You're a pig. He could say that. But he didn't. He threw his toast on the floor.
"Oh my," she said. "A food fight."
"Spare me your irony." He went into the kitchen for a sponge and soon was picking butter from the fringes of the woven rug.
It wasn't a wanted pregnancy. That's how she thought of it now. It wasn't a wanted pregnancy, and it was a miracle that he stayed. A lot of them don't, you know. A lot of them just leave. But when they finally see these wonderful little beings, they always love them. If they stay . . . . Laurel Moonflower, the midwife, had told her this last part. She'd also said she should be more generous with her husband. Allowing was the word she used. For heaven's sake, be more allowing.
In truth, she thought, Laurel Moonflower had problems of her own: Last summer, in La Paz, she claimed to have fallen in love with an enormous black-and-white bull who lived near the hacienda where she stayed. She didn't call it falling in love. She called it a soul connection. I have a soul connection with that animal. And it has cured me of my bitterness concerning males of every species. Not that the love would ever lead to anything. But it was real.
Sometimes the midwife wrote the bull, care of the owner, in Spanish. The bull's name was Flacadillo. Little lazy one. The owner said he had a deep heart and promised her he'd never be slaughtered.
Her husband continued to clean the rug, muttering damn under his breath. Even as he muttered, she reached for a book of dreams Laurel Moonflower had given her. The book was old, with a serious black cover, filled with symbols and incantations. An appendix listed angels in charge of dreams for every hour of the night and day. It seemed they were always rotating: this morning, Sunday at eight-thirty a.m., the archangel Michael resided. He would soon be replaced by Haniel, who would be followed by Raphael. The angels must be exhausted, juggling their heavenly schedules. Maybe they forgot. Maybe no one was in charge. She lay back in bed and tried to imagine Michael, angel of ice, with fiery wings that never melted. She was interrupted by the sound of a knife scraping against toast, followed by rebellious bites, her husband eating in the kitchen. Soon he came inside, and sat beside her on the bed. He was filled with toast and very little forgiveness.
"So," he said. "What's on the agenda for today?" He asked as if he didn't want to know.
"Laurel's coming this morning."
"I already told you. She likes to make house calls. To check out the vibes."
"I wish we weren't using her. She gets on my nerves."
"Laurel's okay. And we can't do it alone." She laughed. "No one can."
"In that case, I'll dress." He went to the closet and pulled out a brown-and-white striped djellabah that made him look like a prophet. He put it on, adding sunglasses.
"How do I look? Will Laurel like it?"
"Give me a break. You look awful."
In a fit of nest-building she'd put up lace curtains which made the bare trees outside seem covered with snow, the landscape done in petit point. He didn't like the curtains. Every morning he pulled them back, making the stretch-rods slip. She got out of bed and recovered the windows, transforming the landscape back to winter. She wondered if she should try to dream: Michael was on for another twenty minutes and then the intimidating Haniel, guardian of gates for the west wind, would arrive. What would happen, she wondered, if you were having a dream during a change of celestial shifts? Would the dream evaporate? Would the angels fight to claim it? Not that she believed in angels. She believed in accidents, lucky breaks, arbitrary forces of nature. No wonder the dream pillow didn't work. One had to be sincere. One had, as the midwife said, to believe.
She went back into bed and began to read an old copy of People magazine she'd snuck from the dentist's months ago. Two of the stars whose weddings had been featured were already divorced, and a prominent socialite had died. She liked reading old copies of People magazine: It was a curious form of time-travel. Her husband opened the door and she snuck it under the covers. He was still wearing the djellabah.
"Laurel's here," he announced.
"She wasn't supposed to come until eleven," she said, making no move to get out of bed.
"Well, she's here. In all her glory."
There were two taps on the door, and Laurel Moonflower walked inside. A med-ley of crescent earrings, silver bracelets, floral scents, woven shawls, velvet paisleys. Laurel Moonflower was large and her flowing hair the color of moonbeams. She wore two Victorian lockets and carried a carpetbag. "My," she said softly. "What a wonderful room!"
Her husband scrunched over in a straight-backed chair. "Welcome to our humble birthing hut," he said in a peasant accent.
"Oh, but it's wonderful," said Laurel, missing the irony. "All you need is a picture. Something to look at while the baby is being born." She floated around the room, pressing the mattress, touching the curtains. Everything seemed whiter in her presence, the trees outside dusted with real snow. She sat in the rocker, saying that a rocker was a blessing with a baby. Laurel should know. She'd had three children, each by a different man.
"How are you doing?" she asked them both.
"Fine," they lied.
"Really? Somehow things feel . . . " Laurel groped. "Not exactly . . . mellow. I mean if something's wrong, I'd like to know."
He leaned forward, adjusting his sunglasses. "I'll tell you the truth," he said, still using the accent. "Things are not so fine with us in our little hut. No. As we near the hour of the birth things are not so fine."
"Really?" Laurel looked at him warily. In sunglasses, with his hairy legs sticking out of the djellabah, he looked like a strange celebrity from People magazine. "Like what?" she asked.
"Like her begrudging me my dreams," he said, dropping the accent. "Like her hating me when I have a pleasant night."
"Really?" Laurel looked upset. "What do you mean?"
He paused, plunged on. "She envies me my dreams!" he cried. "Not that she'll admit it. But she begrudges me. Talk about vibes! These are vibes!"
Over the past months, they'd tried out various names for the baby, some of which persisted in the form of errant greetings. From her aunt, a check accompanied by a card, saying, Galen, be sure your mom and dad have a teddy bear waiting for you when you arrive. From two friends overseas, a note: Love to the future Christopher — our favorite warm fuzzy of the nineties. These were on the bedside table, reminders of near-hits, possible errors, compromise. She swept them off, along with the grapes. "I despise you," she said to her husband. "You don't stop at anything!"
A silence entered the room. A polite, expectant silence. Laurel opened her carpetbag and the air filled with the fragrance of flowers. She pulled out sage, dried lavender, rose petals, kept rummaging through the bag. She was looking for something, or pretending to. An amulet? The essence of an angel? Finally she found a small, dark blue book, the size of a postcard. She carried it over to the bed.
"Not another New Age tome," said her husband. "Really, we have plenty."
Laurel turned to him. Her eyes were fierce. "You leave," she said. "You leave right now."
He left. Laurel handed her the book. It was the size of a child's story book. All the pages were blank.
"A book of dreams. Your dreams. Nobody else's. You write down whatever you want to dream and eventually you'll dream it. Really. It works." Laurel looked at her sternly. "Dream envy is a terrible thing," she continued. "Dreams belong to everyone. Even men." She paused, suddenly looking sad. "Be grateful," she said, "that you share karma with your husband. I only have karma with an animal."
It was quiet when Laurel left. The smell of lavender was everywhere. She lay back in bed, wondering if Laurel's bull dreamt in his meadow of flowers. Of what would Flacadillo dream? Of cows, perhaps, large, compassionate, forgiving. Or of Laurel with her crescent earrings, staring at him across the fence. Laurel once told her that every night in Bolivia she went to the barn where Flacadillo slept and sat opposite his stall in the straw. They gazed at each other for hours.
She shifted and the baby shifted, too. The space inside her seemed vast, boundless. She got up quietly and took everything Laurel had given her from the bedside table: The dream books, the book of blank pages, the amulets, the dream pillow.
The hell with dreams, she thought, putting everything in a drawer. I'll envy him as much as I want.
Her husband came in. He'd found clean laundry in the dryer and changed into jeans. "Let's return those T-shirts," he said.
That night, in the hour of Gabriel's ascendance, she had a dream. Again, she was in Dresden during the war. It was night and she was escap-ing in a car. A stranger drove. She was painfully aware of the fragile city: its statues, its stonework, its houses about to be bombed. At some point the car was stopped. Flashlights shone. It was the police. She reached for her false identity papers. The SS nodded approval. The car drove on.
The dream made sense, the way an echo affirms sound. She didn't tell it to her husband, or Laurel. She kept it to herself. But her husband guessed she had dreamt. "You've been traveling," he said when she woke up. "I see it in your eyes."
Four weeks ago to this day their baby was born. She wore long purple socks, recommended by Laurel, because purple is the color of healing, and a renaissance angel in fiery robes watched from a picture on the wall. When he saw the baby, her husband cried. You see, Laurel said to her with her eyes. When they see these wonderful little guys they always melt . . .
Their baby still doesn't have a name, although they're coming close to finding one. At night he sleeps between the two of them, in a sense unknown, but no longer obscure. And her husband still dreams. He dreams of crusades and first ascents and trips to Nepal. He's a juggler, a spy, a magician, a tosspot, a clown, a double agent. He has extraordinary adventures. But she no longer envies his dreams, having less to do with her dream of Dresden than with the baby, whom she pushed out by herself, straight into the world. In the morning, when her husband wakes up, he still stretches, smiles, pats her on the belly. "Whatever happened to the good old days?" he asks.