The Unwitting Soothsayer
by P. S. Gifford
Ah, there you are! Please forgive my disposition today, for I barely got any sleep last night. You see, my nightmare has returned, and it is identical to the ones I had several months back. But how silly of me, you would not know about those now, would you? Please allow me to enlighten you, and you will soon enough understand the dreadful significance of these haunting dreams.
My life had been plodding along on at a relatively normal and contented clip until recently. My career was going exceptionally well, and I was getting some serious writing accomplished, finally making a name and a decent living for myself.
Then it happened: completely out of the blue, a dream that was going to repeat itself over three increasingly harrowing nights. I feel I should mention that I had never before been haunted by nightmares or night terrors, in my entire life to this point, so they came as quite a fright.
The first night in the dream I found myself casually strolling in a nearby park, as I am in the regular habit of doing. It clears my mind, and the light exercise invigorates my imagination. I was unsure as to what time of day it was, perhaps early afternoon. The air was crisp but comfortable, and there was a generous splattering of clouds in the sky.
All at once they appeared from nowhere: four excessively tall gentlemen with bald heads and nondescript facial features. They were dressed in matching, old-fashioned, long black tuxedoes and were marching directly towards me. I needed to dart out of the way, as I would surely have been knocked down. Balanced on the men’s shoulders was a coffin. Not an expensive model, mind you; no, this one appeared to be made entirely from pine and had nothing on it apart from the most rudimentary hardware.
It was at that moment I awoke, slightly amused by the vivid nightmare and not even remotely alarmed by it. Within a matter of minutes I soon fell back into a more restful sleep.
The following day I did not think much about the nightmare as I went about my usual routine. That is, until I once more lay in my bed. For the very moment that I closed my eyes, the image of that pine coffin kept popping into my mind’s eye. Normally, in my experience, the clarity of dreams fades until the dreams are forgotten. Yet this image of the four peculiar fellows carrying the casket was remarkably clear.
I tried to dismiss the disturbing vision as I lay there fidgeting. Finally, after an hour or so, I did succumb to sleep, and that dream once more manifested itself within my slumbering mind and with precisely the same odd series of events from the night before. Only, this time it continued further.
For some reason, in my dream, I felt compelled to follow the curious pallbearers, and I had to almost jog to keep up with them. They seemed thankfully oblivious to me being there. I watched on as they marched purposefully through the park, past the bowling green, where several old gentlemen dressed smartly in white shirts and ties grinned as the procession went by. Then on near a muddy soccer pitch, where young boys of about nine or ten, with muddied faces and knees stopped playing their game and began pointing and laughing hysterically as the four tall men, the coffin, and I passed by.
The peculiar procession continued on out of the main gates of the park and down the high street, and it was then I abruptly awoke.
This time I was not amused by the nightmare. I discovered myself to be in a cold, prickly sweat. I promptly took a warm shower and a short measure of brandy, to calm my nerves. Then I returned to bed and, after a short while, fell into a peaceful sleep.
The following evening as I prepared for bed, I wondered if again I would have my nightmare, and I wondered further if I was going to discover who was in the coffin...
It took a little while to finally fall asleep and yes indeed the dream did return. Once again we were in the park, once again I followed, and once more the bowlers in their white shirts grinned, and the pale-faced young football players sneered and cackled as we marched. Just as before we continued out of the park, and along the main street. And then I saw it: an old hand-painted sign.
Birching and Watts funeral parlor.
Serving the City of Birmingham since 1896
As the pallbearers marched towards the red brick building, the heavy doors of the parlor swung open, seemingly by themselves. The procession went inside, and I followed immediately behind them.
The men placed the pine coffin onto a long, narrow table standing about three feet high and draped in faded, moth-bitten, black velvet.
I studied the room. It had no windows, and its dark wooden walls were cracking and revealing their age. There was a small fireplace on the back wall of the room containing the dying embers of a fire. The room was softly illuminated by black candles in simple, old-fashioned, sconces on each of the room’s four walls. I breathed in the air, which was dank and stale. It occurred to me that the room could have been taken from a Charles Dickens novel.
As I stood there, I abruptly turned around, and realized that the door I had entered through was no longer there. I stared blankly at the dusty wooden covered walls where the door had been. I began to spin my body about furiously in alarm. The pallbearers had also vanished. The room contained only the candle-lit walls, the smoldering fireplace, and the coffin set on the table.
I stopped spinning and made my way to the center of the well-proportioned room and over to the coffin. I studied it keenly as I ran the fingers of my right hand over the cheap, coarse wood. There were no nails or screws securing the top, I noted with a combination of delight and dread. I felt a sudden sharp pain, and realized that I had managed to embed a splinter in my index finger.
Undeterred I gradually placed my finger tips under the lid and lifted it up, just an inch. I then took a big breath, and held it as I lifted it further and peered inside.
I screamed and instantly recoiled at the face gazing up at me. Grinning through badly applied makeup and empty eyes still wide open was the face of my editor and dear friend Constance Cooper.
I immediately awoke, to discover that I was indeed screaming. As I once more attempted to calm my nervousness by depleting more of my brandy and taking another warm bath, I noticed a throbbing in my right hand, and discovered with further horror and complete disbelief a splinter in my finger.
I could not bring myself to sleep for the rest of the night despite it being only a little after two. I simply went downstairs to my kitchen and made a pot of strong coffee.
As I sat there I kept replaying the terrible scene in my head, and kept considering the splinter. “Surely there is a rational explanation,” I kept muttering out loud in an attempt to convince myself. “I must have gotten the splinter without realizing it, and then incorporated into my dream. That can be the only explanation.”
I watched the clock ticking away the hours... Three, four, five... six... I sat there silently as the sun awoke and cast its soft morning glow.
Finally it was nine... My editor was always at her desk by that time in the morning.
My head dizzy from the combination of lack of sleep, anxiety and the large quantity of caffeine, I dialed my editor’s number with trembling fingers.
It was on the fifth ring that the phone was answered... by Constance.
I told her about the dream, and she joked about my imagination always working over time- and that I should stick to just writing speculative fiction and not dreaming it. I laughed, and my mind was eased.
However- I wish I could tell you that that was the last of it. Alas, the most shocking is yet to come. It was a few days later when I had a question for Constance, and once more dialed her number. The phone was answered, after the sixth ring, but not with Constance’s usual cheery voice meeting my ear. Iit was the voice of her young assistant, June.
“Oh my goodness,” she said and I could tell that she was crying, “there has been a terrible car accident this morning. Police are here right now... Constance’s Jaguar apparently skidded out of control... and she’s... she’s... dead.”
All at once my mind was filled with the haunting, disturbing vision of Constance’s distorted face I had seen in my nightmare... and I collapsed on to the ground, hitting my head on the cold marble tile in the process.
I awoke in a hospital bed, heavily sedated, with a pretty redheaded nurse smiling down at me.
She told me that I had suffered an emotional breakdown, brought about from the shock of losing a close friend, and that I had been out for several days... I had even missed the funeral.
She went on to inform me that with help, my life would return to normal within a matter of weeks, reminding me how resilient humans are.
The last few months have been awful, absolutely awful. My writing fell apart, and the only way I could get myself to sleep was by a doctor’s prescription. But at least I had no more of those dreams.
That is, until a few days ago.
The dream was precisely as I remembered it.
On the first night there I was once more in the park, and once more saw the menacing pall bearers, and yet again I darted out of their way to avoid being knocked over.
On the second night we once more headed out of the park, and again the bowlers sneered and the young boy scoffed and pointed their grubby fingers at us.
And on the third night, just as we had done before, more we continued out of the parks, through the main gates up the main street, and I saw the Birching and Watts funeral parlor sign... and I followed the procession inside.
Again, the door vanished, and again I span about frantically, realizing that the pall bearers had once more disappeared. I finally focused my attention on the coffin.
Once more I made my way over to it, and studied the cheap brackets and hinges... Again I saw there were no screws or nails keeping the top in place.
I ran my right finger over it, and got another splinter. Then I placed the tips of my fingers underneath the lid, and gradually eased it upward.
As I peered inside, the candlelight flickered eerily about me... And as my terrified eyes met the face of the person lying in the coffin, I screamed. Then I awoke in my bed, just as shaken and just as terrified as before.
That is why I needed to contact you so desperately. Please understand... That face in that cheap pine coffin... It was yours.
Copyright © 2007 by P.S.Gifford