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Dreamed spring 1941 by Daniel Quinn

One night in the spring of 1941 I had a dream. It was the middle of the night in Omaha, Nebraska, in this dream--truly the dead of night, every radio silent, every lamp dark, every car in its garage, every man, woman, and child in bed asleep. Only one human being was abroad in that dead of night, and it was me. I was trudging home after a movie, head down, one foot in front of the other, down the long, silent blocks, past the dark, silent houses.

Suddenly I found my path blocked. A tree had fallen across the sidewalk. This was strange, because the tree hadn't been there two hours before, when I passed by on my way to the movie theater. I say it was a tree, and it was, but it was a kind of dream tree. It was the essence of a tree, which is to say it was a tree trunk. If it had been an actual tree, I would have come up against a huge tangle of leaves and branches, and the heart of the tree, the trunk, would have been hidden and inaccessible inside that tangle, which means that what happened next wouldn't have happened at all.

A great black beetle came scurrying down the length of the trunk to confront me, and I shrank back, terrified. I was terrified because all insects terrified me at this age and because I was sure the beetle was going to blame me for what had happened to its home, which was this tree. But the beetle spoke up immediately to reassure me. It wasn't a matter of vocalization. He spoke in my mind.

"It's all right," the beetle said. "Don't be afraid, I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to talk to you."

I drew a little closer, fear giving way to curiosity. It isn't often that an adult actively seeks communication with a six-year-old-and this beetle was definitely an adult. It had an aura of great wisdom and authority.

It, he. I had the impression it was a he.

"This tree was my home," the beetle said. "Mine and others', of course. Squirrels, birds, and so on."

"I know," I said.

"We'll have to abandon it now, of course."

I said I was sorry it had fallen down.

"That's all right," he said. "As a matter of fact, it didn't just fall down. We felled it on purpose to block your path, so I could talk to you. There was no other way to do it."

I was dumbfounded, of course.

"It's really dark out tonight, isn't it?" he went on conversationally, making small talk to put a small boy at ease.

I said I guessed so, or something.

The beetle seemed to reflect for a bit. Then, conveying a feeling of great compassion: "You don't really belong here at all, do you."

I was surprised to hear him say this and asked what he meant.

"I mean, you don't really feel much at home in these streets, in these houses, in this world. You're not really cherished here."

Now that it had been put into words by this wise creature, I suddenly knew it was true. I felt tears stinging my eyes, as one does at moments of great revelation.

"The thing is," he went on very gently, "you're not needed here."

I nodded, unable to speak, too overcome with grief and with the great truth of what he was telling me.

"Well, well," he said, giving me a little time to recover. "But that's why I wanted to talk to you."

"It is?"

"Yes. Yes, it is. You see, you're needed somewhere else. "

I blinked at him in astonishment and said, "I am?"

"Yes, you are. Very badly."

Once again I was dumbfounded. I opened my mouth but the word I wanted to utter wouldn't come out. It didn't matter; he knew what it was: Where?

"There," said the beetle, nodding toward my right. I turned and saw that the city lot beside me had vanished, along with its tall, dark house. In its place now stood a lovely forest that opened at the edge of the sidewalk, and I realized that the beetle's tree had come from this forest and not from the city lot. The fallen tree was a sort of bridge spanning the two locations, which were in reality hundreds or thousands of miles apart. About twenty yards away I saw a deer standing motionless in a little moonlit glade, watching me with grave speculation. Then after a few moments the deer turned and disappeared into a thicket beside him.

"He wants you to follow him, of course," the beetle said. "We all do."

I tore my gaze away from the forest.

"We'll all be there, waiting for you," he went on, and then paused as if thinking about how to explain. "You need to know some things, you see, if you're going to help us. It will almost mean giving up your life, will almost mean becoming one of us." Then he added, rather shyly : "We need to tell you the secret of our lives."

I understood that he was talking about something that was meant to happen in the future, but I saw no reason to wait. I didn't want to wait and saw no reason to wait. The forest was there now, a step away, and I was entirely ready to give up my life to be in the company of these creatures, who needed me and wanted to share their secrets with me. In far less time than it takes to tell, I turned and stepped off the sidewalk--and was instantly awake. Instantly awake--and utterly heartbroken, sobbing uncontrollably until my mother came in to find out what was wrong.

"Did you have a bad dream?" she asked, taking me in her arms.

"No, no," I insisted. "It wasn't bad!"

She smiled at this. "Then why are you crying."

"I'm crying because--" But I was crying too hard to explain.

"Come on," my mother said, "tell me why you're crying."

"I'm crying because," I finally managed to squeeze out between gasps and sobs, "because--because it was so beautiful!"

I hadn't realized till tonight that the basic story framework of Ishmael [Quinn's best-known book] is clearly derived from this dream, a fact I find quite amazing. In dream and in Ishmael an obstacle is laid across the narrator's path--in the one the trunk of a tree, in the other an ad in a newspaper (which of course arrives rolled up like the trunk of a tree). In dream and in Ishmael the narrator is confronted by a dark, threatening creature who immediately sets out to reassure him with words spoken directly into his mind. Both creatures, bug and gorilla, are "not where they belong"--have thrust themselves into an urban habitat in order to encounter the narrator. Both creatures come to the narrator from a habitat that has been destroyed. Both speak to the narrator as representatives of a larger community, a community consisting of all nonhuman life. Both tell him this community is in need of help--and that this help can only come from someone privy to secrets unknown to his fellow humans. Both invite him to take a journey of discovery that will alienate him from his human family and friends.

Having had it pointed out to you in this way, you would be forgiven for thinking that I must have deliberately patterned Ishmael on this dream--or must at least have been aware of the similarities between them. I assure you that neither is the case.

What the similarities indicate, I think, is how deeply I accepted this six-year-old's dream as a description of my destiny. From that age, I knew that, somehow or other, I would make the dream come true--or rather, that I would finish it. I hadn't been allowed to finish it as a child--and this is exactly how I understood it at the time. I knew that its fulfillment was something that was to happen later. The purpose of the dream was to plant in me a lifelong yearning for its fulfillment. Someday I would be allowed to step off that sidewalk and enter another world.

--Daniel Quinn


This is from Chapter 2 of Quinn's autobiography Providence: the Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest (1995). "Beetle" is merely my title of convenience; the passage is untitled in the original. Quinn is of course the author of Ishmael and the equally strange graphic novel The Man who Grew Young (my favorite, I think).

--Chris Wayan

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