a story by JIM BREGA

 

My dearest Anna,

The fact that you’ve received this letter means that my worst fears have been realized, and that the happiness we have enjoyed together is gone forever. I only wish I could somehow apologize to those I’ve injured—you, most of all, my dearest—but I know that I can never see you again. I can only say this, truthfully and with my whole heart, while begging you to believe it: whatever pain my misdeeds have caused was unintentional and without malice. I know you will want to know why this has happened, but I cannot explain what I don’t know myself. I must hold firm to the possibility that it was the result of an accident or a mistake. Indeed, I could not live with any other possibility. You know better than anyone, dear Anna, that I’m the gentlest of men. I flee confrontation and violence, am shy in public places, and avoid all argument and debate. Of what in my nature has made me the criminal I now believe myself to be, I know nothing!

Last night, in a dream state, I discovered where the man I had murdered was buried. I doubt you can appreciate the feeling of shock and terror that accompanied this revelation; you may imagine it was in some ways similar to what you’re feeling now at receiving this news. I must admit I had almost forgotten about my victim, had finally begun to feel that I could go about my business without the burden of guilt and depression that, until recently, had colored my every waking hour with self-loathing and caused me to question my own sanity. I had almost managed to return to a normal life, had convinced myself—given the lack of any evidence to the contrary—that my murder fantasy was exactly that: a fantasy. I had even begun to imagine a future for the two of us….

But I can’t think about that now. All those possibilities have vanished as suddenly and finally as a mirage in the desert!

I feel I can no longer keep my story from you, my dear Anna, even if it means that your thoughts of me, which once turned so tenderly to admiring my character, will henceforth be filled only with contempt and repulsion! But let me start at the beginning.

***

It all began about a year ago, at a time when I was experiencing unusually vivid dreams. I often awake from dreams with one foot still firmly planted in the imagined world, absolutely convinced that what I’ve just seen or experienced is real. Usually the incident is trivial; I forget these delusions within a few minutes, and the anxiety that has followed me into the waking world—over an (imagined) missed train, say, or my failure to acquire a mutton chop for dinner—quickly turns to vapor.

On a particular morning last year, however, I awoke with the firm conviction—nay, knowledge—that I had recovered the memory of having murdered someone. You can only imagine, my sweet, what affect this knowledge had on me; the more so as I realized that the dream was persistent: it did not dissipate in the gloomy June morning. I lay unmoving in my sweat-dampened sheets for several minutes, overwhelmed in turn by feelings of sadness, terror, and guilt. In desperation, hoping to force forgetfulness, I willed my mind to wander, distracting myself by examining the pattern of the roses on the heavy window draperies and the quilt mounded at the foot of the bed, the dancing light and shadow on the ceiling reflected through an open door from un-curtained windows in the next room, the spots on the carpet where an unknown substance was slowly bleaching the forest green threads the color of a tobacco stain.

Everything made me think of violence: the crimson roses became (how could they not?) pools of blood; the flashing light was a reflection (in my imagination) from a brandished kitchen knife; the powdery spots were undoubtedly residue from some poisonous compound. After ten minutes, my recall of the nightmare had not faded. I dragged myself from bed, now enveloped in the noxious odor of panic, to start my morning ablutions, acting on the inspiration that a focus on quotidian activities might drive away all thoughts of the night before and the dream.

In spite of my discomfort, I felt fortunate that the nightmare hadn’t included the details of the murder itself. I’m quite squeamish about such things, as you know, and can’t bear to read in the newspapers and scandal sheets about even the most common violent crimes. In my dream I knew only that the murder had taken place, and that I, the perpetrator, had suppressed the memory of it until that morning. Who, where, how, when, why—these all remained a mystery. I had no further details.

Although I’d had persistent dreams before, they had never been as powerful or real ass this one, and I’d always been able to come up with a way to prove them false. If I dreamed I’d lost my position, for example, I could easily disprove it by calling the office to announce that I’d be late that morning, quickly confirming through my superior’s reaction that my mind had invented the whole thing. But how was I to assay the murder dream’s pretense to reality? Here its lack of detail introduced an obstacle: I had never seen the face or body of my victim, nor heard him—I was sure for some reason that it was “him“—give voice to any speech or plea. He could be a stranger, someone I had never laid eyes on. How could I prove to myself that I hadn’t murdered someone when it felt so real, and yet so many details of the imagined crime were missing? When the only evidence that it had taken place was a strong conviction resulting from a dream? It’s said that suppressed memories can be uncovered through hypnosis; isn’t it then likely that they could also emerge during the course of a night’s sound sleep? Isn’t it at least possible that these memories were of real events?

I managed to arrive at the office on time, if somewhat nervous and disheveled, and spent a busy morning in my dusty cubbyhole wrestling with customer account ledgers. By noon I’d begun to persuade myself, through sheer effort, that what I’d experienced was indeed born in my imagination and nurtured by my nervous disposition. I began to look at the other side of the question: after all, what evidence did I have of my guilt other than a dream?

But for the next several days I was unable to shake the feeling of dread and horror I felt every time I thought of my fateful vision. Gradually, I began to feel that my entire understanding of morality was threatened, and to wonder whether the mere fact that I’d had this dream, in and of itself, suggested an evil temperament. “Judge of your natural character,” Emerson wrote, “by what you do in your dreams.” Against my will, my mind began to wonder whether my “natural character” could include the potential for murder.

I resolved to visit my physician, Dr. Gutmann, to seek respite from the thoughts that obsessed me, either through a talking cure or, if that failed, a draught or powder that would at least allow me to sleep undisturbed. But when I told him my story he brushed my concerns aside.

“My dear sir,” he told me, “You are interpreting your experience much too literally! Remember what Dr. Jung tells us: that dreams are symbolic in order that they cannot be understood, in order that the wish, which is the source of the dream, may remain unknown. I would be much more worried if you had dreamed that this mysterious figure was seeking to murder you; such a dream would be evidence of compensation for your own murderous urges. No, no,” he concluded, “You must forget about this dream; it’s not something that should concern you!”

I left Dr. Gutmann’s office quite dissatisfied. I still hoped, in spite of his skepticism, that proving to myself that my experience was merely a symbolic manifestation of subconscious conflict would allow me to feel normal again, and I would be able to deal with this upsetting incident in a rational way.

As weeks passed, however, and a resolution continued to elude me, I began more and more to resist the nightly slow drift into sleep. I knew that, once my sub-conscious mind took control, there could be no way to avoid the possibility of dreaming, and I feared what would be revealed to me through that portal. In my tortured state, I thought it at least as likely that new revelations would damn me as save me. More than anything else, the answer to the question “Why?” tormented me. I couldn’t accept Dr. Gutman’s cavalier dismissal. Each night I paced from room to room, desperately returning to the clock on my mantle again and again, begging the morning to speed its arrival. I left the lights blazing and avoided the bedchamber, afraid that, in my exhaustion, I would be tempted to collapse onto the bed and there be overcome with sleep. But each morning I awoke to find myself splayed across a sofa or curled-up on the floor where I had fainted into a stupor at some point during the night. Blessedly, for whatever reason, I did not dream.

During the day there was no respite. I suffered from a constant biliousness in my stomach that no digestive could cure. Each morning I catalogued in the mirror the progressive change in my hair color from auburn to gray, the ever-more-prominent sagging under my eyes that darkened to the color of bruises. I saw an angry, miserable creature begin to emerge from my reflection, as if through a reverse metamorphosis: carefree moth to cowering grub.

Eventually, dear Anna, I felt I was left with little choice in my search for resolution: like historical and fictional monsters before me, I would plumb the darkest recesses of my soul, embracing the worst aspects of what I had come to see as my criminal personality. Acting on this impulse, I soon found myself immersed in the speculative study of circumstances under which I might, in fact, commit a murder.

Looking back upon that period, my complete absorption in this topic must have seemed like a form of madness to anyone who knows me. I sensed that danger and began to keep completely to myself but for the intercourse that business and the procurement of daily necessities required. My investigation, which took several weeks, would have been much easier had I felt comfortable contacting my solicitor for advice. My state of mind being what it was, I knew that would be unwise. How would I explain to him my new obsession with the study of murder, madness, manslaughter, punishment, and penance?

I won’t tire you, Anna, dear, with the details of what I discovered. Suffice it to say that  “derangement”—the one condition under which I could imagine myself committing such a horrific crime—is treated somewhat differently than other circumstances, as are intoxication, automatism, duress, consent of the victim, necessity, provocation, self-defense, and, simply, mistake. Such a rich landscape of excuse and extenuation! The law even considers crimes committed under these influences as “homicide,” distinct from “murder,” and defined as “the killing of one human being by another.” How dry and unemotional! It sounds almost polite: “Forgive me, sir, but I feel I must kill you.”

I seized upon this discovery as a drowning man would a piece of flotsam. If I had indeed killed someone, whether under derangement, necessity, or duress, who could morally accuse me? Perhaps it had been self-defense, against which no one could argue. It occurred to me that it was even possible the killing had been a heroic act, perhaps in the aid of some helpless creature. The fact that the incident remained unnoticed by the outside world, that I had not been visited by the police, and that my presumed victim remained unknown, were mysterious elements of the case; nevertheless my new understanding of the crime gave me respite from my fear of sleep. At last I could imagine an eventual reconciliation between my troubled mind and spirit.

And as more days passed without further dreaming, I did begin to put the experience behind me. I no longer avoided sleep, and awoke from each successive dreamless night a bit giddy, as though I had emerged triumphant from a harrowing experience. The daily confrontation with the monster in my mirror eased. As my conscience lightened, so did my spirits and demeanor. My countenance flushed with the roseate glow of rediscovered vigor. I began to feel that my fearful experience had made me a better man than before: less shy, more confident, an enthusiast for life and living!

It was at this point that I first met you, Anna, my dearest, my sweet! I’ll never forget the day you knocked shyly on the open door of my tiny office and I looked up to see for the first time your beautiful face, your lovely eyes (hidden, though they were, behind your spectacles). I made some weak joke about “a kingdom by the sea” when you introduced yourself. You, charmingly, smiled at my poor attempt at humor. It’s true your hair was unkempt, and your jumper had a dab of jam on it from your morning tea and toast—a dab that had fallen too high on your narrow chest for you to see it without looking in a mirror (a habit you obviously avoided). Still I was entranced. I heard nothing of your question about a customer account (Smith? Brown?) but stared, transfixed, imagining the transfer of that sweet dollop from your dress to my finger and thence to your pale, unadorned lips!

***

What a happy day, and how happy those that followed! I shall never forget our lovely sojourns in the fields outside the town. In my new, placid, love-intoxicated state, I even allowed myself to be persuaded to picnic among the headstones of the village cemetery, whence we’d followed the swells of wildflowers that had painted the hills with color. We sat and rested against the giant oak over the grave of Mr. G____, your head in my lap as I read you poetry, you playing the part of the maiden who “lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me!”  Whatever my fate, I want you to know, dearest Anna, that these last several months we’ve been together have been the most blissful I’ve ever known!

You may wonder why I’ve never spoken to you before of the events described on the pages you now hold in your hands; why—until now—I’ve never revealed to you, my closest friend, these terrible thoughts and dreams. Suffice it to say that I allowed myself to believe that I had put them all behind me, and hoped to share a life with you free of the burden of my history of crime. What must you think of me now? How you must despise me! I hope with all my soul that you will forget me, that you will soon find comfort in the companionship of an honorable man, for I can never see you again!

But I feel I cannot leave you without some sort of explanation, some narrative that will help you understand what has happened….

Last night I dreamed of the murder again, and this time the dream showed me where my victim is buried. Oh, how I wish it were an unfamiliar place! How I wish it were unrecognizable, an obscure spot in a foreign country to which I’ve never travelled, instead of the grassy hill behind my home!

I awoke early this morning in a state of panic. My dyspepsia had returned. I leapt out of bed and was sick several times in quick succession. I splashed cold water on my face, but when I raised my head to regard my own wretched image I didn’t recognize the miserable being who stared back at me from the glass. Like Dorian Gray’s portrait in Mr. Wilde’s novel, my reflection told the tale of every transgression I’d ever committed. Every fear and agony I’ve experienced over the last few months came rushing back. Every rationalization and equivocation I had mastered was, in a moment, rendered ridiculous, and I am seized by a deep sense of hopelessness more complete than any I’ve known before!

What can I do? In my mind there is only one possibility: I must try to find my victim’s body and thereby prove either that I’m a villain or that I’ve imagined everything. If I confirm the worst, I will have to flee; I feel I have no other choice. As much as I yearn to return to your arms, I fear, my sweet, that I would only ruin your name and find myself in prison if I stay. I couldn’t bear that!

I’ve given this letter, which tells everything I know, to Dr. Gutmann, whom I trust implicitly. I’ve asked him to deliver it to you if I do not return to claim it from him by this evening. That will allow me several hours in which to search the location identified in my dream, to either discover the body of my victim or, if I’m unsuccessful, return to the good doctor, retrieve this letter, and resume a normal life—secure in the knowledge that I’ve been misled by my visions; that I am, in short, not a criminal.

You cannot imagine how my heart breaks over the possibility that we will never see each other again! But I beg you, dearest Anna, not to try to follow me. I may leave the country, change my name, marry another.

And should you manage to find me again, who knows what I might do?

 

 

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