Berg woke up for the seventh time this week in a cold sweat. That same dream had invaded his subconscious again, the dream where he is in the jungle, where through the thick brush he can make out a light, like a campfire. And there is also the rhythmic throbbing of voices and the steady beat of crude drums being pounded. Each time he had come closer to the fire only to wake up when he is right about to part the ferns that separated him from the circle of people around the fire.
Normally, Berg, being a sensible and down-to-earth kind of person, would have dismissed the dreams, but this was no normal dream, it was very vivid, so vivid that, sometimes, he forgot whether that reality was just a dream, or the dream was a reality.
I ought to see a therapist about this, he thought uneasily while climbing out of his rickety old bed, careful not to wake his fellow orphans who were sleeping in the large “nursery.”
Berg climbed down the cold, metal steps that led to the large common room that dominated his orphanage. From there he turned to a hallway that led to the kitchen where his favorite nun was sure to be working on making the children’s breakfasts.
“Well hello, Howard, what are you doing up so early?”
“The dreams,” he said simply, while Sister Amy nodded knowingly “Also, I’ve asked you, please call me Berg.”
The homely nun rolled her eyes and continued cracking eggs into a large bowl. “I’ll call you by the name this orphanage gave you, not some nickname you made up.”
There was a brief pause, broken by Berg asking hopefully, “Any news?”
Amy looked at him sadly and said, “No, I’m afraid not.”
They were talking about the news of Berg’s origin. He had been given to the orphanage five years ago, and ever since then he had been obsessed with learning about his past. The nuns did what they could, which was to ask other orphanages around the state if they remembered him, and to pray, of course.
“Darn it,” he said, feeling the familiar suffocating grip of hopelessness tighten around his body.
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Amy. “There’s always Fleming’s Domicile for the Destitute,” she said, squeezing his arm and giving him a wink. He laughed. It was an old joke of theirs. When he had first come and expressed his desire to find out who his parents were, the first orphanage they checked said they had no record of him. It was then that Amy had come and consoled him and said that it was always the most strangely named place that held all the information you needed. They had spent the rest of that afternoon making up different names for this unknown, strangely named orphanage, and Fleming’s was his favorite.
Berg got up from the stool he was sitting on and walked out of the kitchen, flopping on a brown, bumpy couch in the commons. He had just gotten a wave of vertigo, that feeling when it seemed like nothing was real. He gripped his hand tightly on the couch armrest until it passed.
He looked around at the familiar settings of the large room. In the northeast corner there was a ping-pong table that would most certainly be used over a hundred times today. Lining the room were cushy armchairs and rather overstuffed couches, and in the southwest corner was a large bookcase.
Soon though, Berg’s relaxation was broken by the sound of a large alarm clock and the thunder of feet stepping down the staircase. Like a large herd of cattle, the student body tromped through the commons and into the dining room, where breakfast was to be served. Berg got up shakily and walked over to where his two best friends were, near the back of the line, as usual.
“Hey, Clare, Nathan,” said Berg when he reached them. Nathan nodded in recognition and Clare smiled happily, glad that all of her few friends were around her; Nathan only stuck his hands deep in his pockets and whistled a tuneless song. Finally, when they had progressed through the line and were sitting at a table, Nathan asked, “So, dreams again?”
Berg smiled. He knew, of course. Nathan was the most normal and predictable person you could and probably ever would meet. It was for this that Berg had liked him so much. It was his normalcy that made him strange, because while everyone had their own unique style, Nathan had none. This in itself was a type of style that Nathan took special pride in.
“Yeah . . . They’re getting much more vivid, ya know?” said Berg after much thought. Clare and Nathan both nodded wisely, although both were hoping that the strange nightmares that had settled on their friend’s mind would simply go away.
There was an awkward silence, broken only by Clare looking down at her plate, sighing, as if to change the subject, and pushing it away. “Do they expect me to eat this? ‘Cause I am not eating this,” she declared, although there was never an answer. It was purely a rhetorical question, more like a ritual really. She looked disdainfully at the gray metal tray that held some sorry-looking eggs and piece of toast with a smidgen of jam on it. Then, as if accepting her fate, Clare picked up her plastic fork and grudgingly took a small bite of the egg.
The school bell was like an old woman, yelling at them hoarsely, telling them to get to class, or suffer the consequences. Because every student knew what the consequences were, they all hurried. Clare and Berg had to part with Nathan as they went to the math class while he went to English for his first hour.
In math they were covering dimensional analysis and many students were having trouble. Just as the teacher was explaining, for the third time, how to multiply with exponents, the familiar feeling of vertigo came to Berg.
His desk seemed to flicker and waver, changing to a small bush and changing back again. The girl in front of him disappeared for a moment and then reappeared but with slightly greenish skin. Then sweat started beading on Berg’s forehead; his nose began to bleed. He could hear the distant throbbing of drums. Without noticing it, Berg fell out of his desk. The teacher suddenly looked up to see him writhing on the floor. With a shriek of surprise and fear she came to him and roughly shook him. Almost immediately Berg opened his dark eyelids, but not to reveal the usual brown irises.
His entire eyes were like windows. In them the children and the teacher saw golden beaches, tigers at play, wild jungles and strange, exotic animals. Soon though, his eyes faded back to their usual luster, but holding a very confused and pained expression.
The room was suddenly very silent, the teacher in mid-shake, the students with their mouths agape. The silence was broken by Clare’s overly loud voice. “Did you guys see that?” she said in her usual blunt and straightforward manner. That seemed to snap everyone back to reality.
The teacher stood up, and in a very dignified manner began straightening her habit. She then looked gravely at Berg and said in a very quiet voice that betrayed how scared she actually was, “I think you’d better get to the infirmary.”
Berg slowly got up, making sure to use his desk for leverage. Then, silently, he walked out of the room. Once out, he leaned heavily on the wall. He looked silently at his hands, touched his head, and wriggled his toes until he was completely sure he had not broken anything. The pain had been excruciating. It felt like being digested; his skin burned, and his bones cracked, and yet, there didn’t seem to be any lasting harm done to him. Thanking God for the miracle, Berg resolved to head over to the nurse’s office anyway. Just as he passed through the hallway that led to the commons though, the vertigo came again.
It seemed as if this time it came with a vengeance, furious that Berg had gotten away last time unscathed. He collapsed and his nose began to bleed profusely. He found that instead of tile, his hands were resting on muddy dirt, and also, that the pain had seemed to go away. A centipede crawled over his outstretched hand, and when Berg looked up, he wasn’t in his orphanage anymore. He was in the jungle. The jungle of his dreams.
Although Berg was usually a very cautious person, none of this struck him as odd. He slowly got up and walked carefully to the clearing that he could see through the wild brush. The sound of drums pounding in his ears, he pushed aside ferns and tree branches and he came to the clearing. Instantly the music stopped. There, right in the middle of the clearing, was a small fire. Resting near it was an old man, dressed in what might have been a shaman’s robe, and wrinkled beyond compare. Behind him were some old huts that had evidently not been used for decades, and were falling into decay.
Almost as if sensing his presence, the old man looked up sharply and looked at Berg with surprisingly piercing and alert eyes. Upon seeing him, the man seemed satisfied and his gaze softened. Slowly, as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, the old man stood up and approached him. As he walked, Berg could see glimpses of his school. He knew they were in the hallway, but, at the same time they were in South Africa.
Finally, after what seemed like a million lifetimes, they met eye-to-eye. Berg tried to think of questions, but all thought had left his mind completely.
* * *
Sister Amy was walking down the hall when she saw Berg. He was face down on the floor, his arm stretched behind his back. Around his head was a small pool of blood.
“Howard!” she yelled, falling upon him, cradling his head, and gently trying to shake him out of his trance-like state. When it became obvious that her efforts were useless, she bundled him up in her arms and rushed to the nurse’s office.
* * *
Suddenly, just as it seemed that the old man was going to speak, Berg felt a jarring explosion of pain in his body. Instantly, the jungle around him flickered to reveal the orphanage’s white walls. He could feel hands on him but that didn’t matter, only the pain did. Once again, it was like a giant stomach grinding him up. He could feel his body being ripped apart at the seams. When he finally did open his eyes, it was as if the worlds had been spliced. The floor was made of dirt, the walls were white, the white stone of his orphanage. Around the walls were ferns that seemed to be two-dimensional and crucifixes just like them. Then, Berg didn’t have time to see the other strange things in the room, he only saw black.
When Berg did look up, he was in the jungle with the old man. Only instead of being calm like he was before, he seemed to be concentrating very hard.
His earlier shyness having left him, Berg opened up in a flurry of questions. “What am I doing here? How did I get here? Where are we?! Who are you?!” He said it all quickly, in one breath.
The old man, his concentration disrupted, could only look at him, grimace and grunt, “No questions . . . Your world’s too strong. It’s trying to break through . . . I gotta . . . keep you here.”
Berg could only gape, open-mouthed, until the old man relaxed and settled into a crouching position.
“Now, as for your first question, you are here to do a service to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.”
Berg opened his mouth, he was about to open up with another round of questions, but the old man quickly shushed him.
“You got here, through me, and we are in the spirit world,” continued the old man. “Also, I am called Darakai,” he added as an afterthought.
Berg sat very still for a little while, as if digesting the information he had been given. Finally, he looked up solemnly at Darakai and said, “What would you have me do?”
The old man grinned, then smiled, then laughed out loud, a loud, booming laugh that continued for a long time. After he had finished, he wiped his eyes and looked up at Berg. “You can’t believe how long I’ve been waiting for someone to say that.”
* * *
“Now, don’t worry!” said Darakai an hour and a half later. “You are a natural, believe me,” he continued.
All Berg could do was nod numbly and ask, “You were really taken as a slave? And that leaf was all that stopped you from living in South Africa?”
Darakai nodded solemnly, “Yes, now, we begin. Remember, once you fold it back, it will disrupt the flow of time. You might black out for a while.”
Berg nodded and asked, “And when I come to, it will be as if all of this never happened?”
Darakai said, “Yes,” and he drew a bag of greenish powder from one of his belt pouches. The fire had since died down and was now a pile of embers, but when Darakai threw a pinch of the powder into it, the flames sprang up, abnormally long. As instructed, Berg looked deeply into the fire and tried to clear his mind.
The changes were gradual, but they happened all the same. The settings around him seemed to melt away, to be replaced by a starry sky. One small, insignificant light seemed to be rushing toward him. Soon he could see the familiar planet Earth, surrounding his field of vision. He kept rushing toward it until he could make out all of the continents. However, he noticed that once he concentrated on something, he could see it perfectly.
He could see a butterfly on North America and the energies it was creating that would soon form a tropical storm in Japan. He could see two dictators shaking hands and the country that would soon be conquered by their combined force. And he could see the fateful fern that his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had tried to hide behind when the slavers had come. He could see the one leaf that had been folded over, thus betraying Darakai’s position. And, with very tender care, Berg flew down to it, to the scene that had been frozen in place by Darakai’s specially made powder, and with gentle care, he folded the leaf back, and then he only saw white.
* * *
It was dark when Burgta woke up to dreams of a large building and white children. As he walked out through the cool African night he saw his friend, Nakai. Nakai looked up from the fire he was putting out to see Burgta walking toward him. “What is wrong?” he asked. Burgta just shook his head and replied simply. “Nothing, just. . . dreams.”