It’s three in the morning and everyone is gardening. Oliver Birch, Room 404, prunes and tunes the radio in his greenhouse to the frequency of a distant planet, his border collie Eloise nipping at his heels. Down the hall, Alice Ellsworth tends the vines of her pumpkins, fat and orange as the moon slouching down the pinwheel sky above, the night around her teeming with ghosts. Desmond Brown, 410, kneels in soft loam, his three daughters encircling. They grow up through the soil he waters from his herringbone hat, their eyes blooming roses as their leaved fingers toss seeds across the gulf and birth new lands.
Maybe it’s the recent equinox or the warm weather this past week, bringing green things up through the floors of the hospice ward, stringing cords and tubes with ivy and coaxing flowers to bud from the colored pills I measure out for the morning. I take the dreams and I file them in my mnemonic mansion, a room for each patient opening into the worlds we build together each night.
I started gathering dreams after the volunteer videography project, a few years ago. A timid high school student would come to the hospice center once a week and set up a camera across from each patient, filing memories. Some were suspicious and reticent; some, whose grandchildren visited less and less often over the years, relished the chance to spin a tale for a rapt audience. In some videos, I hover in the background, taking vitals or administering medicine, and the more I witnessed the more I noted the extent to which we expect performance even on the slow march toward death. I wanted to capture memories sans expectations, file the unfiltered visions conjured by minds at the border of this world and the next.
I’m not sure who I do it for. Not for the families – by the time patients are committed to our ward, their children and grandchildren hold most of the stories they want and are content to close the book, not edit in the phantasms that lend magic to the pulse of a life. Not for the patients – who in a short time will have access to all realms, past, present, and imaginary. In the end, it is for me. If I can make these dreams matter beyond the minds of the dreamers, perhaps someone will cherish mine. As I walk the wards I wonder: what worlds open from the doors of the mansion halls? Who will guard them when I go?
Morning comes, Mr. Brown stirring in his bed as sunlight cracks the window. As I place the medicine cup on his tray he grabs my hand, his pulse trembling against mine. He searches my face and smiles, daisies blooming from his gums where teeth once were, and we hold each other for a moment before waking up.
S.E. Hartz (she/her) is a fiction writer and environmental scientist living in Brooklyn, New York. She has work published or forthcoming at Lammergeier, small leaf press, (mac)ro(mic), and others. She can be found on Twitter @unsilentspring.