From the author: A dragonfly dream. With a fox and kissing and a trip on a jet plane and a cup of tea and--
“This is a dream,” I said.
I was pretty sure it was, anyway. The dimly lit tavern had that kind of feel, like if I turned my head too fast I’d see something that shouldn’t be there.
“Kind of but not exactly,” said the fox-headed man. He was sitting across from me in the booth. The benches were high-backed with red leather cushions and the table was old dark wood, coated with varnish, scored with gouges. He flicked his index finger against his beer stein, his manicured fingernail making a faint clicking noise on the thick glass.
I looked at him. He seemed harmless enough, an ordinary man with a fox’s head. He was wearing a dark pinstriped suit, a white shirt, and a tie the same red color as his fur. For a moment I thought I was naked and then I realized I was wearing a rose-colored dress but nothing else. Oh well; if I didn’t get up no one would see I didn’t have any shoes on.
“You know how it works?” he asked.
“Dreaming,” he said. He let his red fox-tongue briefly out of his mouth and then drew it back over sharp fanged teeth. “Ouch, goddamn,” he said thickly. “I keep doing that.”
“Biting my tongue.” He took a quick sip of beer. It left a line of foam around his muzzle. I wanted him to lick it away but he didn’t. I saw I had no beer or drink of my own and wished I had one too.
“When you’re awake,” he said, “your consciousness emerges from the workings of an assemblage of sub-minds. It’s not like pieces of a machine, though, nothing that neat. It’s more like … patches of flowers in a meadow. The bluebells overlap with the dragonflies, right? There are no clean boundaries.”
Something he said was wrong, I knew. I was imagining the long stalks of the dragonfly plants with their columns of little flowers and that was okay. Bluebells? That sounded odd. How could flowers be bells? Oh well, not important. He was still talking. I liked the animal sound of his voice.
“Anyway,” he said, “when you go to sleep, it’s like some of those patches get cut off from your mind-meadow. If enough patches fall away, you lose yourself entirely. When that happens you experience dreaming as a collage of sensory fragments that you don’t remember because the person who would remember them doesn’t exist anymore. So one minute you’re in a tavern, and the next, who knows, you’re flying a plane or something.”
“I exist now,” I said. “I’m aware now.”
He smiled, which was scary at first because he showed his teeth, but then he opened his mouth and gave a chirping little bark of laughter.
“Me too,” he said. “Which is another reason this isn’t a dream.”
“But it’s close.”
“Well, yeah,” he said. “If you get tired of me, this could become a dream, so focus, okay? You have the power here. All this beautiful tavern detail is being made up by one of your half-asleep mind-patches. Everything can change if you don’t pay attention. If you forget me, we’ll be separated, maybe lost forever. And I want to keep talking to you.”
“Okay, but you’re making too much sense,” I said. I pointed a finger at him, tapped him on the chest with it, felt his soft fur under the pad of my index finger and pressed my whole hand against the bloom of white fur in the middle of his chest because the sensation was so pleasant.
“What?” The fox blinked and put his hand over my own. His hand and arm were covered in red fur, with yellow claws curving over the tops of his fingertips. He was naked, or at least the top half of his body that I could see had no clothes on, and his body was entirely covered with fur. I wanted to ask him to stand up so I could see the rest of him and take a look at his tail, but felt that would be too forward at this stage in our acquaintance.
The fox opened his jaws and his tongue lolled in his mouth for a moment before he spoke. “Oh, I get it. You mean in your dreams the people you talk to don’t make sense?”
“Yeah,” I said. “They start out okay, but when I ask a question or say something, whoever it is doesn’t respond right. It makes me really angry when that happens, and that usually wakes me up.”
I picked up my stein and took a sip of dark stout with a thick white head. Bitter and rich, with an aroma like black earth after the rain. I licked my lips to get rid of the foam.
“I see,” he said, and he reached out his hand to lift my chin so I was looking into his black fox eyes. “That’s too bad. I promise to make sense from now on.”
I closed my own eyes, hoping to be kissed.
“Wait,” I think he said, though it was like a distant whisper. “Don’t do that.…”
But I was wondering what it would be like to be kissed by a fox, with that narrow lipless muzzle and those sharp teeth. And wondering I fell asleep from within my dream.
I woke in a dark, quiet, forest, knowing I was dreaming. I’d forgotten something, something I wanted maybe, or something I needed to do, and it was making me upset. But then I saw there were two paths I could take here. One path was overgrown with thousands of little ferns with tiny curling leaves, and that looked like a nice way to go. Another was thorny, and I didn’t want to go that way, so I turned back, and where was the fern path? I couldn’t find it. But then I saw another break in the trees, a path bordered with countless red and yellow dragonfly flowers. So I went that way.
The path led me to a dense circular hedge of tall dragonfly flowers. I knew there was something inside. I had to work my way through the flowers to get to the center, but the petals felt soft against my naked skin so it was a pleasure to wade through them.
The fox-man was there in the center of all the flowers, and seeing him I realized all at once that I’d forgotten him and our conversation in the tavern. It was such a relief to recover what I’d lost that I nearly cried out. But I saw there was something wrong, too. He was sitting there on a patch of lawn amid the flowers, his business suit rumpled and covered with bits of grass. His fox-head was bowed, he was clutching his knees to his chest, and I thought he might be crying though he wasn’t making a sound.
Seeing him like that I was overcome with pity, and I reached out to touch his shoulder from behind. He turned his head, and the joy on his foxy face was such that I wanted to hug him to celebrate it.
“Oh,” he said, “you’ve come back! I thought I lost you!”
I squeezed his shoulder. “I did lose you. But now I’ve found you again.”
“Listen,” he said, “this is important. We need to be together to—to find the way. While we’re apart, we’re just dreaming our own dreams. And my dream is just—”
“Shh,” I said.
“What? What?” He looked up at me and I saw he was afraid so I decided to comfort him.
What I wanted was to sit down in his lap so we could embrace and so I could at last find out what a fox kiss felt like. But he was still sitting with his knees up, and there was a clumsy awkwardness to the maneuver that embarrassed me. My skirt got in the way and I got turned around somehow, and for a moment I didn’t see him at all and I panicked, thinking he might already be gone. I decided that no matter what I would concentrate on remembering the fox-man, that I wouldn’t lose him or forget him again, and my focus on that was so complete that I closed my eyes.
My eyes were still closed, but I was awake now, or thought I was. I didn’t say anything, though. I just wanted to lie nestled up against him there on the grassy patch surrounded by dragonflies, deep in the forest. The fox-man and I were spooning together, both of us naked. My back was up against his furry chest, his groin pressing on my bottom, and his arm was over my shoulder while his hand cupped my left breast. Had we just made love? Were we going to? It didn’t matter, because all I wanted was to feel like I felt now forever.
He bit my earlobe gently, just a nip, and I shivered as I felt his breath on my cheek.
“A dream is the converse of reality,” he said softly. “But this is the opposite.”
“What?” I was annoyed at him for making me think, when all I wanted to do was rest there in his arms. “What does that mean?”
“In a dream the blinkered infinity of your waking mind collapses into finitude,” he said, “like the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics. But here, between the two of us, it expands into a larger infinity. There’s a new world for us, if we can only find the path.”
That made sense to me and I turned to face him to say so, but when I opened my eyes I saw we weren’t in the forest anymore. I was sitting in a comfortable seat on an airplane—it must have been business class, or first, because I had plenty of room. We were flying over the ocean at night, with all the lights in the cabin turned off, but there was faint silvery glow coming in from the window at my side. A stewardess was leaning over me to lever my tray into position.
“Dragonfly tea,” she said, and offered me a glazed ceramic cup with a red-and-yellow dragonfly flower sprig stuck into it like a stalk of celery in a Bloody Mary. A lovely scent arose from it: not jasmine, not rose, but something delicate and warm I’d never smelled before.
I looked around and it was with an intense feeling of relief that I saw the fox-headed man was sitting next to me in the adjacent seat. For a moment I was terribly angry with myself because I felt like I’d been really close to losing him again, but then I realized that after all I hadn’t and that made me happy, like I’d accomplished something.
The fox-man had unbuttoned the top of his shirt and loosened his tie, and his head was turned toward me, his eyes closed. His sleeping expression was boyish and very sweet. I wanted to touch noses with him but in our airplane seats it was too awkward. What was a boy fox called, anyway? I couldn't think of the word for a moment, but then I remembered: oh yes, a foxen. His hand was on the armrest, so I put my hand on his, determined not to let go. Then I remembered the dragonfly tea, and I didn’t want it to go cold without a taste so I turned back and took a sip. It tasted like—it was wonderful, sweet, light, and refreshing, but I’d never tasted anything like it before. And I heard a whirring sound coming from the cup.
All at once I was sure if turned my head to look back at the fox-man again something terrible would happen, so I looked at the cup instead and I saw a big insect perched on the flower stalk, a green needle of a thing with big red eyes like rubies. It looked wet, like it had just emerged from the tea, and its wings were moving so fast they were only a blur. I knew the insect was friendly so I closed my eyes to hear the pleasant humming sound, still feeling the fox-man’s hand beneath my own.
We were walking hand in hand down the airplane’s steps onto the tarmac. I saw palm trees in the darkness off to the side of the airstrip faintly illuminated by a silvery crescent moon overhead and I smelled the rich black earth and the scent of tropical flowers in the air. There were dragonflies, I was sure of it, because I could hear the humming. For a moment I thought I was naked and then I realized I was wearing a rose-colored sarong. Only a sarong, with no top or anything, but that was fine because it was a tropical island and that was what you wore there. The fox-man let go of his wheeled suitcase and took me in his arms. We kissed and his teeth didn’t get in the way at all and even though it was a warm night the feel of his fur on my skin was very nice so I relaxed into his embrace, never wanting it to end.
“I think we’ve done it,” he said, after a timeless infinity.
“Yes. I can feel it too.”
“We won’t be separated again.”
“No. And there’s a path to follow.”
I pointed, and through the palm grove the moonlight picked out a path bordered with tall plants bursting with red and yellow blossoms.
“What are those flowers?” he asked.
“Snapdragons,” I said.
“Funny,” he said, “I could have sworn—”
But I kissed him again before he could say anything more.
This story originally appeared in New Haven Review.