I started to feel the heat of the fire intensely, then, baking on my forehead, cheeks, the backs of my hands. I could no longer feel the book, and after a moment, I detected a change in the air. The smell of woodsmoke, stone and dust was replaced with a warmer smell, one of fresh air and grass and dirt in the summer. I was no longer freezing, and the breeze felt good on my face.
I opened my eyes in a completely different place. I was outside, in the backyard of my childhood home, sitting on a flat, pitted black rock. The rock had seemed huge to me as a child, and it seemed huge to me now. I pressed my palms against it and felt heat radiate from its rough surface. Just beyond my feet, I could see the grass, wild strawberries and buttercups growing around the rock. Behind me was the peeling, blue-gray porch of the the house, but in front of me, instead of the rusty metal wire fence, garage and alley that should have been there, were rolling hills of long grass and scattered wildflowers, dipping and rising a gently undulating way down into a deep valley. The tops of the hills met the sky in an intense, wavy line. Trees on the hillsides made shushing noise as the faint wind shook them. Fat cumulous clouds drifted. Birds cheeped and warbled.
I smiled, looking around. I had a strange feeling that there was something I was missing. I had been dropped into a lovely outdoor scene, mixed up with an environment of my childhood contentment. There was a message, though, and I was not getting it. I became aware of getting warmer and warmer, although the the sun was behind a cloud and not beating directly on me.
The warmth was soothing, and I could feel the heat of the sun-warmed black rock radiating up through my palms.
Before the heat could become uncomfortable, I felt an intense cold against my right arm, and I turned to see what was there. On the rock was spread a tiny plaid tablecloth– more like an oversize napkin– like my mother used to give me for picnics on the rock, when I was young. Standing on it was a smooth pottery jug, painted rather than glazed, with vivid patterns of orange and green triangles and incised lines against the terra cotta background. Frosty beads of condensation covered it. There was something I most definitely did not like about this jug. Also standing on the cloth was an old-fashioned, thick glass bottle, square-shaped and corked.
Against my better judgement, I gathered my weight and rose into a crouch, reaching out my hands for the jug. I felt I was being compelled to do so, but perhaps it was just my unfortunate and pervasive curiosity. I gasped when I put my hands on either side of the jug. It was so cold that it seemed my hands froze right to it, the way skin and metal will fuse in the coldest of winters. I peeked into the jug, thinking surely that whatever was in there was frozen solid. But it was not.
The liquid inside was black and shiny as ink, moving in a little whirlpool of its own. Vague oily rainbows shimmered across the surface. But it was not pretty, not at all. In fact, looking at it made me feel a little sick. Sweat formed on my brow, the back of my neck. I felt dizzy, nauseous. I could not look away from the slowly rotating liquid or pull my hands from the sides of the jug. I was caught, snagged by this repulsive black stuff.
And then the images began.
I watched the images on the surface of the liquid, but they surrounded me as well, so that I was no longer aware of the sunshine, the grass, the hills and valleys, the expansive sky. I was completely stuck, rooted to the spot, unable to look away. My terror grew, as well as great sorrow.
A flaming, smoking wrecked car. Dogs fighting viciously, fangs flashing. Financial ruin. Intruders. Madness. Death in myriad violent forms, both mine and people I loved– my husband, children, friends. Great fires and storms of full of destruction. Loss and filth and decay and despair. Scene after scene, and I watched, helpless.
My breath came ragged, sobs forcing them themselves out over top of one another. I remained locked in this terror and sorrow for what seemed an eternity. I could not struggle free, could not tear my gaze away from the terrible things unfurling in the jug.
And then, dimly, distantly, I heard a dog barking. The barks became louder and louder, penetrating through the grip the images had on me. It was a loud bark, a distressed and fierce bark, punctuated by snarls. I realized the sound was coming from right beside me, and I felt something loosen and give way, until I was able to turn my head the slightest bit. I saw the little three-legged dog beside me on the rock, her lips peeled back to expose an impressive set of fangs. Slobber flew as she continued to bark furiously. The fur on her neck and shoulders stood straight up.
She was barking at the jug, not at me. Little by little, I was able to transfer my attention from the jug to the dog. My hands slipped on the pottery, no longer stuck in place. I could feel the sides warming, and trickles of condensation flowed over my knuckles. The liquid inside the jug was no longer moving, no longer gleaming or rainbowed. It had turned cloudy and thick, parts of it around the circumference beginning to coagulate. It looked disgusting. I set the jug down, finally. I sat back on my heels and took a deep breath. I felt like I’d just run a marathon, or wrestled with a monster. My face was slick and sticky with tears and sweat.
“Easy,” I said to the dog. “It’s ok.” She glanced at me but then looked back at the jug where it sat. Long, low growls still ripped from her throat, but her weight was settled onto her back legs again, and she was no longer on the attack.I knew what had to be done with the contents of the jug, then. And I had to act fairly quickly, before the junk solidified inside it. I did not want to be scraping that stuff out with my hands. The thought of it made me gag.