By: Dennis Vannatta
They’re our secret desires, Freud said of dreams. If so, why does this endless night of dreams keep bringing me to such wretched places? Empty streets under dour gray skies in one. Heat and dust in another. Now this dank stone hallway, perpetually chilly, I’m sure, although I’ve just arrived. And why should I be concerned with the cold, the damp, anyway when the dream isn’t even about me, a mere messenger? Unless it’s because she feels it. Little Joanie.
Joanie? Why this flippancy now, on this dreadful eve, when what Ireally feel is something like fear, and not so much fear for her but, unaccountably, of her?
I hesitate before an implacable iron door that seems soldered to its frame.
“May I enter?” I call in a trembling voice although no iron or stone, no or nay, can keep a dream from his dream.
From within, a voice, at once soft and arresting: “I’m being given a choice?” Then I hear—what?—a chuckle?
“Enter,” she says.
Now I’m on the other side of the door—her side. The cell is larger than I would have imagined and she even smaller. She stands beneath a barred paneless window. Outside, I’m surprised to see not the bleak midnight I’d expected but soft blue sky and one white cloud across which flits a cardinal. (Dreams are notorious jokesters and I try to find one in this, but this tale has no cardinals. It was a bishop, Pierre Couchon, who condemned her to the stake.)
Her hair has grown out to pageboy length. She looks like neither Jean Seberg nor that other actress, the French one in that wonderful, ghastly French film—but the names escape me. (A one-time literary scholar of no repute, I know I should look them up, but dreams don’t come with search engines.)
A slight vague figure in the deep shadows beneath the bright window on the far side of the room, she intimidates me. I feel more than see her eyes fixed on me. I rush to my purpose.
“I come to bring you the Good News.”
She shakes her head and says, accusingly, “You’re not Him.”
Touché. I need to quit capitalizing “good news.”
“No, of course not. Nevertheless, I’ve come to bring you some words of comfort.”
Do I hear another chuckle?
“Comfort? From an Englishman?”
After two courses of French over a half-century ago, I could barely manage to count un deux trois and say Je m’appelle Dennis with an execrable Ozark accent, but in dreams I’m a passable polyglot although here apparently my French comes with an English accent.
“Actually, I’m not English but American,” I explain before I realize that wouldn’t mean anything to her. It’ll be another century before Amerigo Vespucci sails to the New World, bringing his name with him.
She beckons me closer. I take two or three halting steps nearer. What am I afraid of?
She looks me up and down.
“What order are you?”
I look down at myself. I’m wearing a brown wool habit with big floppy sleeves and a hood, which I don’t have raised, waist cinched with a simple rope. Maybe I’m supposed to be a lay brother. How would I know? Hell, I’m not even Catholic. Still, I think I’ve seen this getup in Renaissance paintings and historical dramas on TV. Maybe I’m a Franciscan. I always said if I hadn’t been an English major I would have majored in philosophy, so obviously vows of poverty are right in my wheelhouse.
“I’m a Franciscan” I tell her. She murmurs sadly, “No.”
I hang my hand like a little boy caught in a lie, but my eyes remain locked on hers. I’d like to look away. I cannot look away.
“The future,” I mumble, and when she frowns as if not sure she’s heard me correctly rush on, “I come to you from the future. Say it’s a dream. It might be easier for you to accept as that. I come to you from the future in a dream to—”
“Ah, you’re an angel come to tell me that in the morning I’ll be pardoned!” she says with lacerating sarcasm, at the same time those limpid blue eyes shining eerily in the darkness. With hope? Fear? I don’t know. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know what she knows.
“I can’t promise that your body will be spared, but I can promise you something more important than that.”
“No, ” she says.
“Truly, more important. You’ll—”
“Let me tell you, Joanie—Joan. You’ll agree, I’m certain, that—”
“Let me tell you, please! You’ll be canonized. You’ll become a saint. Saint Joan of Arc! You’ll be declared a national symbol of France by none other than—”
“It’s true. Why won’t you believe me?”
She cants her head, like one might look at a snake-oil salesman.
“I see you,” she says. “I see you. I know your heart.”
“What? . . . I don’t—”
“Why have you come now?”
“I told you. To bring you this good news.”
“Why have you come now? This day?”
I look at her, mystified.
“You could have waited until the morning.”
“Waited until the morning to tell you? Well, I thought it might be better—”
“No. You didn’t come to tell me anything. I know why you came.”
“As I said . . .”
“Not to tell me—”
“I swear to you . . .”
“I know your heart.”
“This young sweet blue-eyed virgin.”
“You came to watch.”
“No no no!”
“You came to watch me burn.”
I rush back to the door and pound on the unyielding iron until my hands throb with pain.
“Let me out! Let me out!”
I’m outside. Outside the cell. Outside the castle.
I wander through the winding streets of Rouen.
It is twilight now. A few steps farther and it is night. As the darkness deepens, it grows colder. In an alley hardly distinguishable from the stone passage in the castle where she lies, I find a dry corner, pull my hood over my head, draw the folds of my habit tight around me, curl up, and try to sleep.
Morning comes. Stiff and cold, hip aching (even a dream is no analgesic for bursitis), I struggle to my feet, look about me.
Where am I?
I hobble out of the alley into the street.
The city is coming to life, the people pouring out of their tenements. They exclaim to one another, but I seem to have lost the ability to understand French. Clearly, though, they are excited, eager.
They all rush off in the same direction, and, confident that they’ll lead me where I wish to be, I rush with them.
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.