Of Haunting Dreams, and Our Mysterious Lives
A Cruise Rendered Memorable by a Passenger’s Tale
I met ‘James’ (not his real name) on a transatlantic cruise I took a few years ago after a long stretch of demanding work abroad. I had boarded the ship in Civitavecchia, near Rome, looking forward to a couple of weeks of leisurely sea travel that would bring me back to America.
Whenever I cruise, I select the open-seating option for the evening dinner, as it affords an opportunity to meet fellow travelers. It was on such an occasion that I came to know Jim and his wife. Recently retired, he had been for many years a senior executive in a UK branch of a major American corporation.
The relaxed atmosphere of an ocean liner tends to promote cordial if temporary acquaintances, and such a relationship did develop between myself and this well educated, thoughtful, amply experienced man.
One late afternoon, while luxuriating in an unusually comfortable folding chair on the Promenade deck, I was approached by Jim, on his way back from his evening stroll. He happened to notice the book I had been reading. It dealt with the paranormal, a topic that has interested me for many years*. After some friendly bantering about the peculiar nature of my interests, which I soon perceived was primarily meant to probe my attitude towards the arcana discussed in my book, he finally sat by my side and in a somber, hesitant, increasingly tense way disclosed to me the dramatic experience that had troubled him for years.
I have attempted to reproduce below, accurately though in my own words, the key details of the story that Jim recounted to me that memorable evening on the darkening deck of our ship, as the red orb of the sun appeared to be slowly sinking beneath the marine horizon.
Relate to this story as you will: as fiction; as an elaborate delusion; as something that did indeed happen as Jim understood it: whose implications would then be profound. Of course, I have no way of verifying the events he described; what I can do is vouch for the personal integrity of the honorable man who told the tale.
I trust, in case he came across this hub, that Jim will not resent my writing about it, given the care I took to protect his identity.
I never saw him again.
"I do not expect you to accept that what happened to me is construable solely in my terms. I just hope you will believe that what I am telling you corresponds to the events as I experienced them.
"It all began with a documentary about Lombardy’s Lake District I had watched on British TV late one night. I found it in no way remarkable, at least consciously. But in hindsight I came to attribute to it the onset of a series of uncanny dreams. Uncanny, because populated by characters, including the main one with whom I became gradually identified, who were entirely unknown to me; and because extremely vivid, detailed, and connected to one another in such a way as to form a coherent tale.
"In one of my earlier dreams ‘I’ succeeded in identifying the exact location of the events, having glimpsed from the window of the train from which I was preparing to disembark the name of a small town on the shores of Lake Garda, in Northern Italy. The presence of armed German soldiers - whom I rushed to avoid - patrolling with evident hostility the streets of the town, allowed my waking self to establish that the events had to be taking place toward the end of World War II. Certainly after September 1943, when Italy had surrendered to the Allies and the German Army had occupied the country.
"In one of the later dreams I caught a glimpse of a battered dog tag hanging from my neck. I succeeded in reading a last name on it: L ****ti, or perhaps L **** fi. This led me to conclude that the protagonist of my dreams was probably an Italian soldier, seeking to return home after the disbandment of the Italian Army.
"In the dream, fear and anxiety were my constant companions, along with an urge to hide to avoid arrest and possible deportation to Germany, or forcible enrollment into the armed forces of the Repubblica of Salo’, the puppet fascist regime the Nazis had set up in Northern Italy. I decided then that I would try and join the partisans who were forming the first armed bands in the hinterland.
"The culminating dream, the last and most important of the series, took place a few weeks later. I was frantically running in the wintry woods covering the hills surrounding the town; armed men in uniform were pursuing me. I sprained my ankle while trying to pass a moat; this made it impossible to continue my run. I turned and saw my enemies rapidly approaching. One of them loosed his wolf-dog, which bolted toward me. A handful of seconds separated me from capture. I decided I did not want to be taken alive, since torture and execution were likely awaiting me. I pointed my Beretta pistol at the nearest pursuer and squeezed the trigger.
"I woke up in a sweat. A searing pain in the chest made me fear I was about to suffer a heart attack.
"I thought that, in time, the memory of these dreams would slowly fade and eventually dissolve in the darkest recesses of my memory. I was wrong. The feeling of being intimately connected to the main character of my dreams, no matter how foreign his experiences were to my present life, remained very strong.
"I became nearly obsessed with the whole thing, and eventually decided to hire a private investigator. Without disclosing the reason for my request, I asked him to visit the town of ******* and find out whether someone bearing the name I had glimpsed in my dream was recorded as having died a violent death in the area between the autumn of 1943 and the end of the war.
"It did not take him long. He returned with the photo of an individual whose surname rather closely matched the one I had asked him to research. The young man in the photo had died on 3 December 1943, in unspecified circumstances. A bullet had pierced his heart, killing him instantly. His body was buried in the cemetery of the little town. The photo portrayed a lanky, dark haired, shabbily dressed man in his twenties, totally unfamiliar to me.
"Back home I took off my shirt and inspected my chest. I felt with my fingers a round reddish birthmark, the size of a penny, just below my left nipple. A similar stain, a little larger, was located a few centimeters to the left of my spinal column, beneath the shoulder blade. I am certain these birthmarks correspond to the entry and exit points of the bullet that killed L*****i.
"On my next vacation I went to ******, which I had never visited in this life. I thought for a moment I vaguely recognized a back alley, and a small square near the center of the town. At the cemetery I stood for a long time in front of the humble tombstone bearing L*****i’s name. I shuddered. Part of me, I felt certain, was buried under that grass.
"I still don't know how to face this truth: that we live more than once, possibly countless times, as envisaged, as I understand it, by some Eastern doctrines.
"Initially, I was exhilarated. Death does not demarcate the end of our existence!, I rejoiced: it is not a wall, merely a portal into another existence. My fear of death lessened as a result. But now, ironically, I have come to dread the prospect of a life that may renew itself perhaps interminably.
"This experience has uncovered an unfathomable abyss at the center of my being. I no longer know, if I ever did, who am I, nor what I am destined to become. I cherish the hope that our labors on this forbidding planet may not be futile. I tell myself that perhaps the lives to which we are repeatedly subjected are the crucible in which our soul is forged to enable her to master unknown tasks. More arduous than we can imagine, these labors may eventually propel us beyond the merely human.
"Only with this thought can I find peace at night, and fall asleep. Hoping against hope that I shall not dream.”
© 2015 John Paul Quester