Dream a Dream
I’m dreaming, Nora thought, and she was right, but it didn’t matter.
The dream was very realistic, even to the glitter on the knife in the hand of the tall Mayan priest. He faced Nora in a small chamber she knew to be at the base of the temple, and even while her attention was on the stone knife she was aware of the rightness of every detail, both in his costume and the room itself, a narrow stone-walled space with a dry-smelling thatch roof. Stylized hummingbirds and vultures flowed on the priest’s robes as he gestured, saying, “Well? Are you ready?”
Of course he isn’t speaking English, and of course I understand him. “Ready for what?”
“After the rains,” the priest said, “we must sacrifice a virgin to ensure fertility in the new fields.
Astonished, almost offended, not yet scared, Nora said, “I’m not a virgin!”
His free hand extended toward her. “Come, you keep everybody waiting.”
A great crowd could be faintly heard outside. Nora shrank away, feeling the rough wall against her back through the thin white cotton tunic. “I’m a married woman,” she said. Safe in that other world, beyond the edge of the dream, Ray was now asleep in the cot next to hers, the two of them peaceful and at rest in the Central American night. “I’m twenty-seven years old,” Nora said. “I’ve been married nearly three years. I am not a virgin!”
“Of course you are.” His impatience made him draw quick cutting motions in the air with the blade. “There is no passion in your life,” he said, “–not for anything with juice in it. You married your husband not for love of him but of archaeology,” the word dripping with contempt. “You’ve never loved anything but dust. You’re a virgin, no question. Come along.” Eyes determined, his wiry hand closed around her arm.
“No!” She sat up straight in the dark, disturbing the mosquitoes, staring at the night. On the other cot, Ray turned heavily in his sleep, smacking his lips, a fiftyish man who slept profoundly after the hard physical days in the field.
“I’m not,” she whispered. The pressure of that bony hand could still be felt, a tight band around her upper arm. The glassless screened rectangle of the window let in air and the tiny night sounds of the jungle. Nora slowly lay back, hands holding the sheet under her chin, eyes very wide in the dark.
During breakfast at one of the long tables in the dining shed, Nora pensively picked at her eggs and beans while Ray talked with the oil company man. His name was Stafford, and he had come to this remote jungle camp five days ago for a stay of about a month. By day he wandered the high land to the west, and in the evenings after dinner he sat here in the dining shed in the circle of light, where he drew his tiny maps and made notes in a small, neat hand. Now he was saying something about tall mounds he had seen in the jungle, similar to those concealing the structures here in the main part of Actun Ek, the Mayan city whose excavation Ray was directing. “Thanks, Bill,” Ray said. “We’ll have a look.”
Nora was relieved when the breakfast was done and they could tramp on out to the site, where the workers already crawled over high-stepped sides of Building B-1, the primary temple of Actun Ek. I was here last night, Nora thought.
The workers, Indian tribesman who made their living from archaeological sites, had nearly finished the first task, clearing away the centuries of growth and decay, the earth and brush and trees that covered the cunningly nested old stones, the steep lines of stairs. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, Mayan temples were built solid, without rooms or corridors, just the steps and walls and sculptures reaching upward. Only at the base had there originally been the small thatch-roofed rooms built out from the temple’s side.
Nora and Ray worked behind the Indians, collecting shards, filling in site maps. This was Nora’s third year at Actun Ek, her eighth year since she had fallen in love with the dignity, strength and confidence of the Mayan civilization, the impervious mystery of their individual persons. Who had they been? When they awoke in the morning, what had they thought of themselves and the jungle around them and the high temples to which they devoted their lives?
Human sacrifice; yes, that was part of it but hardly everything. Something was known of their agriculture, their trade, their religion, even their sports, but never very much. Never enough to hamper Nora’s imagination.
Every day, in her mind, as she gleaned her way across the uneven steps, Nora was a Mayan priestess. Not even Ray knew of this game, this fantasy she had lived and elaborated for eight years. She imagined her clothing, her food, the understated drama of her days. Little was known of the place of women among the Mayan upper class, so her invention could float unimpeded.
At dinner, Bill Stafford showed them, on his neat maps, the location of the mounds he’d seen. This earnest geologist seemed even younger than Nora, which from the beginning had pleased her. She’s married a man much older than herself, was mostly around people of his generation, and resented their usual assumption that she was too young to be serious. Stafford was barely out of engineering college, but there could be no doubt of his seriousness. He had a square-jawed, handsome face, softened by a faint vagueness of expression. His eyeglasses were square-lensed, with plastic frames just a bit darker than his tanned skin. His hair was blond but already very thin, sunlight reflecting from his scalp through his widow’s peak. He wore hiking shoes, khaki slacks, a short-sleeved white dress shirt; in a white hard-plastic pouch in his shirt pocket, his pens and pencils were neatly arrayed. He shaved every day.
She didn’t dream that night but she barely slept either. Every time she dozed off, the fear of the dream startled her awake. She spent the night remembering her life, seeing herself as Dr. Helm’s promising student, then as Mr. Helm’s gifted graduate student, then as Raymond Helm’s assistant, and now as Ray’s wife. She had not slept with him until after his divorce from Joanna. He was Nora’s first husband.
In another shed in the compound, Bill Stafford would be asleep. This is terrible, Nora told herself. I must get over this. I must sleep. Toward morning, she did.
“I’m just here to do the stuff on the ground,” Bill Stafford was explaining to her. “Confirm or deny the technology’s guesses.”
“Does technology guess?” Nora asked, following him. She had volunteered at breakfast to go with him to see if the mounds he’d described did contain buried structures. Perspiration ran down behind her ears, between her breasts.
“It’s all step by step,” Stafford told her. “We’ve got satellite pictures to map the terrain, aerial survey using infrared. SLAR scanning. Now we have to walk the groun–”
“What kind of scanning? Help here, will you?”
They were crossing a gully. He held his hand back for her. His teeth glistened when he smiled. Sweat made gray islands on his shirt. He said, “SLAR–for Side-Looking Airborne Radar.”
“Sounds very suggestive,” she said, laughing and released his hand. Then she had to clasp his arm to keep from slipping backward on a muddy stone.
His hand pressed to the small of her back. “Careful.”
Not careful. “You’re all wet,” she said, showing her tongue, tracing with her fingertip a line of perspiration that ran from his throat down his chest and under the shirt.
Behind the glasses his eyes looked surprised, but when she kissed him he knew what it meant.
Before dinner, she used the primitive bucket-and-cistern-in-a-tree shower, the sun-warmed water plashing over her heated body. She lifted her right breast and, yes, his watchband had left a scratch. She smiled at it.
I wasn’t wrong, she thought late that night, slipping silently through the sleeping camp, away from Bill’s room, back toward her own cot. I was right in the college, right to follow my own needs and grow at my own pace. I wouldn’t have been ready then for this. But now I’m right again!
She was brand-new, tingling with rebirth. The dream had rescued her before she withered, using her Mayans as the symbol. Her stone passion had pointed the way to a richer, truer passion of the flesh.
Not that she would run off with Bill, nor leave Ray. There was no need to throw away the life she already had, the work she’d already accomplished. She would still admire Ray just as much, esteem and help him, serve him and the Mayans and the work, absorbed and satisfied; but now there would be more. A lifetime of Bill Staffords smiled in her mind, all young, all loving and giving, all a kind of delicious dessert. And no one need ever know, no one need ever be hurt. She could have it all.
Ray’s breathing was long and regular. Nora slid between the cool, damp sheets.
The same cell. She stared, unbelieving. The same cell, the same rough thatch ceiling, square stone walls, tall imperious priest in all his finery, grasping the same rough-edged knife. “Now,” he said, “what we do with adulteresses…”
Copyright © 1982 by Donald Westlake