Dreamhunter, p.1Elizabeth Knox
To my son, Jack Barrowman
A Talented Family
The Rainbow Opera
On a late winter night, the Isle of the Temple lay quiet, streets empty and shimmering. The moon was at the top of the sky, and the dew had set as frost on copper roofs, iron railings and window glass. But the roof of the Rainbow Opera was clear of frost, and lit from without by tall gas beacons that rose, a crown of flame, from the coping around its dome.
Inside the dream palace all was silent. Its central pit was illuminated by low nightlights, and by a mix of moonlight and the unsteady gas jets shining through stained-glass. The Rainbow Opera seemed deserted. But behind the doors that lined the four tiers of its balconies were bedchambers, all occupied, and all with their padded doors shut fast. Each bedchamber was at an equal distance from a dais that rose in the centre of the pit, a platform upholstered in white silk.
The dreamer’s bed.
It had been a hard winter, the kind that kills the old, the ill and unlucky infants and, at the Opera that night, the great dreamhunter Tziga Hame was performing his most famous dream — Convalescent One.
Tziga Hame lay on his back in the dreamer’s bed, his sleeping face serene, paralysed by his dream and holding all the Opera’s patrons still in its priceless healing spell.
… the invalid had been gravely ill, but was better and was to be allowed out. He was to take the air. But he wasn’t just lifted into a bath chair and wheeled into a garden. Instead, he was bundled up and taken by carriage to a small country station. There he was transferred to a white canvas pavilion which had been built on the roof of a railway carriage. His attendants joined him, and picnic baskets were passed up to them. The train pulled slowly away from the station. It went on quietly, its motion only fast enough to raise a pleasant breeze. It was a late afternoon in summer, the air balmy, the light gold.
The train took them through tunnels of elms and black beech trees, a cool green and red gloom. It ran along cuttings with its roof at the level of meadows. Young horses galloped beside the train, sometimes plunging through the trailing banner of the engine’s white steam. The train passed over a viaduct, high above the meadows, then ran alongside a canal, passing barges with bright paintwork. It picked up its pace a little on a winding, graded stretch of line that took it through pastures where rabbits grazed and crouched, washing their black noses and ears in the evening light. The train ran along beside low sand dunes, and showed the invalid the sea, the sun setting over its quiet surface.
The scalloped edge of the white cotton sun-shelter fluttered in the breeze. The invalid’s attendants handed him strawberries, each the size of a child’s fist, firm fruit with foamy white cores. They gave him milk sweetened with honey.
The train ran on to a causeway, a narrow strip of land, only wide enough to carry one set of rails. The causeway went out across the water. The train seemed to glide over the sea itself. Everything was peaceful, the air cool and caressing. The invalid lay in the safe embrace of his bed, yet there was space all around him, open air and flaming light …
Almost as one the Rainbow Opera’s patrons breathed in deeply, and out slowly, and seemed to melt into their beds, let gently down into a deep, restoring sleep.
But Tziga Hame opened his eyes. He looked up at the fluttering light filling the air. He listened to the auditorium’s dedicated hush. Nothing had disturbed him. He had roused himself.
Like other dreamhunters, Tziga Hame could edit any dream that needed editing as he caught it. He’d wake himself up before the dream managed to load him with any distressing dark turn. But he had never managed to learn how to edit Convalescent One in the catching. And so, when the dream reached the point where the train moved out on to the causeway, Hame had trained himself to wake up. To ease out of sleep without hauling his audience with him. Their dreams would trail off with the train into the beautiful sunset. There would be no dark turn.
For the dream went on. The train slowed because there was work being done on the line. Men stood on the stony trackbed, their hands hanging idle, while the train glided by. The invalid looked down on their upturned, grimy faces. He saw that the legs of their trousers were gathered at the ankles, as if tied there. The invalid was innocent and curious. He didn’t know why, in looking at the exhausted men, he felt frightened by them, and unhappy for them.
But the dreamhunter Hame had caught and performed Convalescent One many times and had understood long ago that the invalid felt frightened because the men looked up at him with eyes full of menace and a kind of hungry expectation. And that their trousers were gathered at the ankles because their legs were in chains.
Hame had begun to suspect who the men might be, and that their presence in the otherwise beneficial dream was not a mistake, but a message.
That night at the Opera, after frost-fall, Hame lay gazing up at the dome high above him as a drowning man looks back at the surface, the underside of the world of air. He lay under silence like the weight of water and thought: ‘What do they want me to do? Tell their story? Or break their chains?’
A Talented Family
On a hot day near the end of summer, Laura Hame sat with her father, her cousin Rose and her aunt Grace against the fern-fringed bank of a forest track. She watched as her uncle Chorley and the rest of the picnic party passed out of sight around the next bend.
Chorley turned and waved before he disappeared. Laura stared at the empty, sun-splashed path. She saw black bush bees zipping back and forth through the air above the nettles, and heard the muffled roar of Whynew Falls, where the rest of the party was headed.
Laura and Rose, Laura’s father Tziga and aunt Grace were sitting under a sign. The sign read, ‘CAUTION: You are now only 100 yards from the border to the Place.’
‘The falls are loud today,’ Tziga said. ‘It must have poured up in the hills.’
They listened to the cascade pound and thump. Laura, who had never been allowed near the falls, tried to imagine how they would sound up close.
Her father said, ‘Think how startled Chorley would be if one of these girls suddenly skipped up behind him.’
Aunt Grace squinted at Laura’s father. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Come on, Grace. Why don’t we just get up and wander along that way?’
‘Tziga!’ Grace was shocked. Laura and Rose were too. The family had owned a summer residence at nearby Sisters Beach for ten years, and at least on
‘Come on, Grace,’ said Tziga. ‘Why should we make the girls go through all the ceremony of a Try? It’s only for the benefit of the Regulatory Body, so they can see their rules enforced. Why can’t we just find out now, in a minute, in private?’
Rose wailed, ‘It’s against the law!’
Tziga glanced at Rose then looked back at Grace. He was a quiet man, self-contained, secretive even — but his manner had changed. His face had. Laura thought that looking at him now was like peering into a furnace — its iron doors sprung open on fire. Her father was a small man. He was a mess, as usual, his shirt rumpled and grass-stained, his cream linen jacket knotted around his waist, his hat pushed back on his dark, springy hair. Laura’s aunt Grace wasn’t any better turned out. Both dreamhunters were thin, tanned and dry-skinned, as all dreamhunters became over time. Rose was already taller than her spare and weathered mother. Rose was white and gold and vivid, like her father Chorley, and like Chorley’s sister, Laura’s dead mother. Laura had, unfortunately, not inherited her mother’s stature or colouring. She was little and dark, like her father. But — Laura thought — her father, though small and shabby, still had the aura belonging to all great dreamhunters. Laura liked to imagine that the aura was a residue of the dreams they’d carried. For, when Tziga Hame and Grace Tiebold ventured into the Place, dreams were what they brought back with them. Dreams that were more forceful, coherent and vivid than those supplied to all people by their sleeping brains. Dreams they could share with others. Dreams they could perform, could sell.
Laura’s father was saying, ‘We were pioneers, Grace. You didn’t “Try”, you crept past the cairn beyond Doorhandle early one morning when there wasn’t a soul on the road. Do you remember? That moment was all your own. There wasn’t anyone standing by with a clipboard and contracts.’
Laura saw that her aunt had gone pale. Grace stood up. Laura thought Grace meant to walk away, back towards the road, to go off in a huff and put an end to Laura’s father’s crazy talk. But then Laura saw Grace turn to look up the track towards the border.
Laura’s heart gave a thump.
Laura’s father got to his feet too.
Rose didn’t move. She said, ‘Wait! What about our Try? You’ve even bought us outfits — our hats with veils.’
‘Rose thinks she’s a debutante,’ Laura’s father said.
‘I do not!’ Rose jumped up. ‘All right, I’ll go! I’ll go now! I’m not scared. I was only trying to remember the law. But if you don’t care about it, why should I?’
‘Good,’ said Laura’s father. He offered his hand to Laura. She looked at it, then took it and let him help her up. She busied herself brushing dry moss from her skirt. The others began to amble slowly along the path. Laura caught up with them and gave her hand to Rose, who took it and squeezed it tight. Rose’s hand was cold, much cooler than the air which, even in the shade of the forest, was as marinated in heat as the open paddocks, the dusty roads and the beaches of Coal Bay. Rose’s hand was chilly, her palm coated with sweat.
Around the first bend was another, very similar. The track was flanked by black beech trunks. The sun angled in and lit up bright green nettles and bronze shoots of supplejack.
‘I guess we won’t see the Place until we’re there,’ said Rose.
‘That is right,’ Grace said. ‘There’s nothing to see. No line on the ground.’
Tziga said, ‘The border is around the next corner.’
They didn’t slow, or hurry. Laura felt that their progress was almost stately. She felt as though she were being escorted up the aisle, or perhaps on to a scaffold.
She didn’t want to know yet. It was too soon.
In two weeks Laura and Rose were due to Try. Any person who wanted to enter the Place for the first time had to do so under the eye of an organisation called the Dream Regulatory Body. The Body had been set up ten years before. It employed ‘rangers’ — those who could go into the Place but couldn’t carry dreams out of it — to patrol the uncanny territory and its borders. The dream parlours, salons and palaces in which working dreamhunters performed had to obey laws enforced by the Regulatory Body and its powerful head, the Secretary of the Interior, Cas Doran. The parlours, salons and palaces were businesses, and had to have licences. Dreamhunters, too, had to have licences. A Try was the first step on the road to a licence, and a livelihood.
The Body held two official Tries a year — one in early spring and one in late summer. Each Try found hundreds of teenagers lined up at the border. It wasn’t compulsory to Try, but many did as soon as they were allowed, because dreams represented a guarantee of work, and the possibility of wealth and fame. Any child who showed an inclination — vivid dreaming, night terrors, a tendency to sleepwalk — was thought, by hopeful families, to have a chance at the life. A dreamhunter or ranger in the family was another indicator of talent. More boys than girls Tried, since parents were more permissive with boys, and the candidates were, by and large, in their mid-teens.
The earliest age for a Try was legally set at fifteen.
Rose and Laura had celebrated their fifteenth birthdays that summer.
Walking along the Whynew Falls track, hand in hand with her cousin, Laura felt desperately unprepared for an impromptu Try. She felt unprepared whatever. Every night that summer, as she’d put her head down on her pillow, she had mentally ticked off another day — the time narrowing between her and her life’s big deciding moment. She had felt as though she were hurtling down a slope that got steeper and steeper the further she fell. For Laura knew that, after her Try, she would either be in her father’s world, or would remain at her school — Founderston Girls’ Academy. She would have a calling, or be free to continue her education, to travel, to ‘come out’ when she was sixteen and appear at every ball in that season. If she was free, Laura knew she’d inherit the Hame wealth — but not the Hame glamour. And, free, she would lose Rose, because Rose fully expected to walk into the Place, fall asleep there, dream and carry back her dreams intact, vivid and marvellous. For Rose had already been into the Place, had been a number of times, because Grace Tiebold had gone on catching dreams when she was pregnant with Rose. (Grace had just laughed when her sister-in-law Verity said to her, ‘Did you ever think that you would go there and leave the baby behind?’ Grace had put a hand on her stomach and laughed at Verity — also pregnant — saying, ‘Oh! Darling! What a bloody thought.’)
As Laura approached the bend around which her father had said the border would be, she began to drag her feet.
Rose gave her hand a sharp tug. ‘Come on,’ she whispered. ‘Stick with me.’
‘Tziga,’ said Grace, ‘just tell me this — why now? We could have tried last year, or the year before, or when they were only ten. We could have whipped them across quickly when they were really tiny, and they wouldn’t even have known where they were. We would have learnt whether they could cross or not, and just waited to make it official.’
Laura saw her father shake his head at Grace, but he didn’t answer her.
‘Why do you need to know now?’ Grace asked again.
Laura gave a little sob of tension. Then she crashed into her aunt, who had suddenly stopped in her tracks. ‘Jesus!’ Grace said. They all stepped on one another. When La
The man came up to them. He looked, in quick succession, surprised, suspicious and polite. ‘Mr Hame, Mrs Tiebold,’ he said, respectfully. ‘Good day to you. Are you going In?’ Then he looked beyond the adults at the two girls. He stared, pointedly.
‘No, of course not,’ said Grace. ‘We are just waiting for my husband and our friends. They went along to the falls.’
‘I see,’ said the ranger. He stood blocking their path. He cleared his throat. ‘Perhaps it would be wiser to take these young ladies back to the sign.’
‘We do know exactly where the border is,’ Grace said, frosty. ‘It isn’t as if it moves.’
‘It is very well signposted,’ Tziga said, neutral. ‘We’re not likely to make any mistakes.’
‘But you can’t always keep your hand on your children near the border — best not to go too near.’ The ranger was quoting a bit of the Regulatory Body’s official advice, saying something he had no doubt had to say to many people on his patrols. But, because he was addressing the undisputed greatest dreamhunters — one of them the very first — he at least had the decency to blush. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he said.
‘We’re not dopes, you know,’ Rose said, indignant. ‘Laura and I are Trying in two weeks, for heaven’s sake. Why would we spoil that by sneaking across now?’
Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes