…and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
“‘Hace mucho tiempo, cuando sueños aún tenía capacidad…’ I remember the words clearly now, but I still don’t know what they mean.”
“Why didn’t you ask Eduardo to translate them for you?” I asked.
“He wasn’t there yet.”
“Where was he?”
“He was mixing our drinks, but he came back in time to translate the story, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Why didn’t you ask him to translate those first few words for you, Frank?”
“Because – look, I already told you, I didn’t remember them. It was my first night in the village and my Spanish was horrible at best, I just didn’t remember them, alright?”
“But you remember them now?”
“Yes.” Frank let out a heavy sigh. His narrow shoulders slumped. His green eyes glared up at me with frustration out of his worn, reddening face. “I heard them in my dreams. Several times. And I recognized them. I’ve told you all of this before. You know this.”
“It’s a sign of fluency to speak a language in your dreams; did you know that, Frank?”
“No, I didn’t. But – like I said – I wasn’t the one saying those words, I heard them. Like I’ve told you about a hundred times. God, what’s wrong with you people? You force the same story out of me a hundred different times a hundred different ways. I’m not crazy, alright? If you don’t believe what I’ve said already, you’re not going to believe me now.”
“Why don’t you tell me about your dreams, Frank? What happens in them? What are you doing in them?”
“I thought I was going to tell you about my first night there. I thought I was going to tell you Hector’s story.”
“You will, you will,” I said, “We’ll get there. I know you love to tell stories. But first why don’t we talk about your dreams for a little bit?”
Frank shifted in his chair; he was 62 now and, though his pockmarked face was still robust and full, there were careful lines drawn across it and thick streaks of gray that cut through his beard and hair. With a show of force, he lifted his heavy green eyes and locked them on me. I held his stare as he began.
“It’s the same every time. I’m looking up from the floor but I’m not – I’m not really there, see?”
I said nothing.
“I can see up from the floor, but not through my eyes, it’s like I’m looking through a window in the floor or something. It’s so surreal. I can see everything that’s happening, but I’m not there at all. Well, I’m there, but not in my body.”
Frank looked at me for approval and I nodded that he should continue.
“Anyway, I’m on the highest floor of the church and the ceiling is torn open – there are splintered roof beams and a great hole that opens up to the sky. I look up and I see everyone – everyone that I couldn’t get out of the village, everyone I couldn’t save. They’re all up there, except now they’re different. The happiness of seeing them – of knowing they made it out okay – it fills me up. But I start to wonder how they got up there and if they’re still alright. And then I see what’s different about them: they’ve grown wings – huge red and gold wings, it’s amazing I didn’t notice them at first – and they’re flying away. They’re flying to safety and I know that they’re going to make it. They’re going to be okay.”
His eyes were lifting out into the corners of the rooms, exploring the spaces he had only seen in his semiconscious dreams.
“And then one swoops down real close, and his wings are beautiful, just beautiful. And this feeling comes over me like I just want to jump up to him and let him lift me up with him into the sky. Like if I go with him none of it would have happened and nothing will have been lost. Then he lands on the edge of the torn opening in the roof and I see that it’s Hector and he’s smiling. And he looks at me and I know he sees me. He sees right through the nothingness that I am, right to the heart of me. He knows what I’m thinking and he smiles and lets out a little laugh and he whispers it – ‘Hace mucho tiempo, cuando sueños aún tenía capacidad’; I recognize those words from that very first night and I realize that I want to go with him, but when I try to jump up to him – or float, I guess, I’m still bodiless but that doesn’t seem to be a problem – he turns around and looks out to the front of the church and sees something. There’s someone shouting outside. Then winged-Hector jumps off from the roof and takes off with all the others into the sky. They fly higher and higher until I can’t see them anymore. And just like that they’re gone. But out of the corner of my eye I notice that one of Hector’s feathers is stuck in the wooden beams where he was perched and it’s shimmering in the sunlight. But when I reach for it – and I always reach for it, I just can’t help it – I wake up.”
A change had come over Frank while he spoke. No longer was he a bent, disheveled old man. He was sitting straight and tall and it seemed to me that there was a blind strength in his eyes that recalled the days of his youth before his body and his mind had forsaken him. In front of him his right hand was outstretched, grasping at the feather that had existed only in dreams, forever outside his reach.
It was a frigid day in February of 1986 when the case of Franklin Bonner was brought before me. Frank had just lost his wife to a long and pronounced battle with lung cancer. Before she had died, Madeline Bonner had purchased a fairly unusual provision for her insurance policy: a clause had been installed mandating that Frank be evaluated for mental illness immediately following her death and, should he be found to be suffering from any condition that made him unfit to carry on without her, be provided with the necessary treatments, care, and housing – it was made expressly clear that he was not to live alone.
According to the insurance addendum, Mrs. Bonner had “long noticed that [Franklin Bonner] seemed to dwell on the tragic events [of his past]” and that he seemed “on very rare occasions to forget what he was doing and instead imagine that he was back in Mexico [sic] and would begin speaking to people that weren’t there about things that didn’t seem to exist.” In fact, Mr. Bonner’s symptoms – which appeared to have begun in 1943 after he and his wife (then his fiancé) had spent time as volunteers in a rural area of southern Mexico (Parícutin) – had been so troublesome that, after the couple’s return from Mexico, he had never taken a job again, instead living at home and seldom leaving his house while Mrs. Bonner provided for their small and childless family.
Having been contracted by Mrs. Bonner’s insurance agency (they have elected to remain anonymous in this record), it fell to me to examine Franklin Bonner and to determine whether or not he was suffering from any condition that would warrant the fulfillment of this uncommon clause. I had to determine if he was truly an invalid.
Frank was sitting in my office, his eyes downcast and pale.
“Frank, why don’t you go on with Hector’s story – the one he told during your first night.”
“Are you actually going to let me tell it this time? You’re not going to interrupt me and make me tell you about my dreams or some cockamamie thing you’ll be wanting to scribble down in your notes?”
Frank’s frustration was palpable; he was disgruntled – and with good reason. I had badgered him to repeat his memories and dreams time after time, for the sake of my evaluation. My time with Frank was not one of therapy and restoration but rather of isolation and identification. It was clear that Frank was not fond of me. But he sure loved to tell his stories.
“No, Frank. I won’t interrupt you. I want to hear about Hector’s story, the one that started with those words from your dream.”
His back straight and his shoulders tight to his neck, Frank’s eyes scanned me up and down, looking for some sign of deception. It was a gaze with which I was intimately familiar. When he was satisfied with my word and appearance, he relaxed his neck and drove on with his previously truncated tale.
“Alright, well, it was my first night and we were sitting around a fire: me and Eduardo and Hector and a dozen or so other villagers and their kids.” I nodded my understanding. “And Hector spouts those words from my dream, except I don’t know it at the time. But after that first line, Eduardo pulls up a seat next to me and starts translating everything that Hector’s saying. He was whispering – you know, so as to not ruin it for the kids – so I had to listen real close. I don’t remember much else about that night but the story – but that I remember almost word for word. It goes like this,”
He leaned in closely, a fey and joyous light in his eyes. Clearly telling me this story gave him some grim pleasure, as if he were reciting it to me under the same starry southern sky where it had first found him. I shifted in my seat, but I did not break our eye contact.
“When men came to these lands they smiled, for they knew the land was blessed. Indeed, if they had known it, Tonatiuh favored these very lands above all the others in his kingdom. So when the men came and made homes there and gave thanks and praise and sacrifice to Tonatiuh for allowing them to live in such paradise, he was pleased and let bounty flow down from the sun so that the land was plentiful and rich.
“But in time the hearts of men may fail, and so it was in the blessed land. Many men came to love and praise their own hands as providers rather than seeing that all before them was a gift from Tonatiuh and so he was angered. He was determined to set things to rights and drive those that did not love and worship him from the lands. Have you forgotten who it was that gave you such bounty? He shouted. Do you truly think that your hands are capable of such great things? I will teach you the meaning of greatness.
“Rage filled Tonatiuh’s face. He cried aloud from the heavens and lifted up the world with one hand and drove his spear into it with the other, setting fire to the homes of those who had defied him. With flame he drove those men that denied him; some were burned in their homes, others in the fields, and those who ran swiftly ahead of the fires leapt into pits of daggers. And yet there were men who had been true to Tonatiuh and they said to him, But Tonatiuh, we have not denied you and have been ever grateful for all that you have given. We have spoken your name with reverence and praise. Will you cast us down with all those who would not heed our words and bow to your greatness? And the anger passed from Tonatiuh’s face and he smiled as he looked at his followers who stood upon an island of land fast shrinking between the purging flames and he said, No, you will not be cast down, for your hearts were true and you acknowledged the giver of gifts divine. No, my friends, you shall live and prosper beyond the ends of this world. And so, holding the world aloft, Tonatiuh set to it again but instead of a spear he used a brush. And the true followers of Tonatiuh looked in amazement at one another as the divine brush worked magic on them, painting brilliant strokes of gold and red until – behold – they were winged as birds and could set to the air and traverse the skies. And so, praising Tonatiuh who had given them so much, they flew beyond the confines of the burning land into a realm of eternal happiness and everlasting life.”
When he had finished, Frank’s eyes were heavy and wet, welling up at the memory of some strong emotion.
I asked to hear this story several more times before the end of my assessment.
While I busied myself in my notebook at the outset of our session, Frank’s eyes were ever at the window. Our meeting today would be our last. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Frank’s lips were moving as he looked into the sun. I kept my eyes on my notebook but lifted my pen so that its scratching would not drown out his whispers.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be ready soon,” he said, “No, no he doesn’t. I know. Soon, yes, soon.”
I looked him full in the face.
“What was that, Frank?”
His face darkened as he turned to me, the smile melting from his face. “Where do we begin today?” He did not acknowledge what I had just seen and heard. Neither did I. Not yet, at least.
“The end of your time in Parícutin, Frank. Today, we begin at the end.”
I remember that a bright stream of light poured its way through the window and onto Frank’s chest. My eyes were drawn to it as he began to speak.
“It was early; the morning. I was on the north side of the village helping Eduardo with the corn when it started.”
I looked at him, unblinking, willing him to continue.
“The ground shook. Not enough to knock us to our knees, but enough to shake us, and there was an echo of this terrible noise, it didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before, it just sounded so…violent. At first we thought it was a small earthquake. But when the really rough shaking stopped there was still this constant trembling. We could feel vibrations coming up through our feet. It rattled our insides.
“Eduardo was facing me and my back was to the village. As I was asking him if he was okay his face went thin and white like a dead man’s – I swear it was like looking at a corpse – and his eyes suddenly grew very wide. I stared at him for a second thinking that he was hurt in some way from the shaking, but he just looked right past me and said, ‘No, no, no.’
“My Spanish was never great, but that was easy enough to understand. I knew something horrible was happening behind me. We didn’t get much word from outsiders, so we didn’t know what was happening with the war and my brain was jumping to all kinds of awful conclusions: maybe the village was being bombed or raided or something equally terrible. And all I could focus on was whether or not Madeline was okay.
“I could barely bring myself to turn around. But when I did, I think my face became the same as Eduardo’s. The sky was red and black above the village. Fire was shooting into the air. A volcano had erupted on the other side of the village.
“I guess maybe I didn’t know it was a volcano at the time, I mean, I don’t remember that word being in my head, but I saw the fire and the ash and what else could it be? It didn’t take Eduardo so long to figure it out. I was still standing, dumbfounded when I saw him running, heading toward the village. It was like I had been turned to stone. I had to break out of it to follow after him. It was so hard to move anything except my eyes, but I knew I had to help somehow. We needed to get everyone out of the village.
“In the distance I could see Eduardo making for his house – he would be going to his wife and his sons, I thought – but I couldn’t be any more help to them, so I ran off trying to find Hector, assuming that he would know what to do. He was a damned wise man, Hector.
“I didn’t have to run for very long before he found me. He came from the south end of town, he was vaguely smoky – clearly he had gone to see how near the volcano was.
“‘American,’ he called at me – that was what he always called me, ‘you must take the children. In your motor-wagon. They will be gathered at the church. Go. Now.’ He spoke with such authority and certainty and I was so stupefied by the entire situation that I didn’t think to question him – it never even registered to think for myself – I just blindly followed. I would have done anything he said, right then.
“I ran as quickly as I could back to my Jeep – the only motor vehicle for miles and miles. When I got there I ran into my hut and – out of some strange instinct – pocketed my pictures of Madeline before I jumped into the Jeep and drove east to the church.
“It only took me a few minutes to get there and as soon as I did, children were climbing into the back seat and bed of the thing. I looked around at the faces of the villagers who were loading their children into the vehicle and saw that they were dour-faced and firm – their eyes were dark but as sure and steady as their hands as they filled the truck with every child in the village. I’ll never forget watching their eyes. I didn’t see Eduardo; his kids were already in the truck before I thought to look for him, but Hector must have sent him on some other errand. I never saw him again.”
Frank swallowed a hard knot in his throat. Everything he said was so real and tangible as it left his lips, it was taking him back, he was living it all again. Forty some odd years had passed and still the thought of a man that he had called a friend for a few short weeks was enough to make him quake.
“Hector came out from around a corner of the building and approached me as I sat in the truck, staring like an idiot.
“‘Go,’ he said and pointed to the north, ‘take them to Yerba Buena. Take them to your woman. Go now, American.’
“I looked at the strength in his eyes and it shook me out of the stupor that had taken me since I first saw the fires that leapt into the sky. It was like I had been dreaming and now I was waking up. I finally understood what was happening. I finally understood Hector’s plan for me. He saw what I was thinking.
“‘No, we cannot come. The fires approach too fast.’ I looked pleadingly at him, but he continued. ‘You must take them,’ he glanced at the children that were now crawling all over the vehicle. I opened my mouth to speak but before I could muster a sound, Hector was answering my questions. ‘We cannot outrun the flames, but we may climb above them.’ He looked up at the tall towers of the church. ‘You must take them,’ he said, ‘None of us can command this,’ he lightly tapped the Jeep.
“Ash fell like snow around me and silence came raining down with it – it was like Christmas time in Hell. Even the children crowding into the Jeep were wholly quiet. The silence was terrifying. I opened my mouth to speak to Hector but, once again, he beat me to it. ‘You must not come back. The fire is moving too fast. It will be here soon. We will climb to the highest level,’ he pointed up at the parapet of the church’s tower, ‘and we will wait. We have praised Him. He will save us.’ With these last words, he looked at me one last time and nodded, then he turned and ushered the rest of the villagers into the church where they were lost from my sight. As I drove off it seemed strange to me that the parting of so many children from their parents would be so quiet – it was as though the separation was a thing expected and that only the time of the event had been in question. No one was crying. I put my foot to the accelerator and we rumbled forward, leaving the church and all of Parícutin behind us.
“The smell of sulfur and carbon began to grow thinner as the trees flew by us and we approached safety. But the cooler air did not calm me. The shock was wearing off. I was beginning to shake. I knew I would have to go back to rescue the others. Hector would soothe them, but he could not save them. I had to get back to them before the fires and magma had surrounded the church and trapped them in.
“I pulled into Yerba Buena after about thirty minutes of driving. As the children unloaded, I shouted for Madeline until I could see her. Her head poked out of the throng of villagers who had been waiting to see what news would come from Parícutin. They were sure it had been destroyed. Madeline was a wreck. She thought I had been killed. I comforted her as I could but I knew I had to go. I had to get back. I remember prying myself from her as she sobbed that I couldn’t go back there. But she understood. Her heart couldn’t bear it maybe, but she understood.
“So I drove again, faster than I had dared when the children were with me – and it was easier now that the vehicle was so much lighter. But I was not fast enough. I could see the tower of the church in the distance, but it was surrounded by flames. The heat was stripping my throat and making me hoarse, but I kept shouting even though I knew no one could hear me. Trees were bursting into flames and crashing down around me. The air was toxic. I couldn’t stay. I had to leave. There was nothing else I could do. I had to leave. The drive back was…I don’t really remember it.”
Frank’s eyes were bleary and stuck to the swirling patterns of the carpet.
“Did you try to go back, Frank? Did you try to go back later?”
I could see that Frank was breathing heavily. He was bouncing his knee, and his hand was shaking ever so slightly. He was looking up again, too, in what I assumed was an attempt to stop the tears from coming.
“Yes. I went back three days later. Once the magma had cooled enough for me to walk on it.”
“What happened then, Frank? What did you find?”
I could see Frank’s jaw clenching, his teeth grinding. His eyes were red.
“The village was gone. Almost.”
“Almost?” I asked.
“The church survived. I made it to the church and climbed in through a broken window.” He wouldn’t catch my eyes but he continued, “The building was completely empty. There was no sign of anyone inside. It was like everyone who had been there had just vanished. I made it to the top floor. The ceiling had been smashed in and I could see the sun through the gaping hole. I could see it glowing through the clouds.”
“Is that all, Frank? You didn’t find anything else?”
“You know damn well what I found – I’m sure it’s in one of your reports – and I’m sure you don’t believe it any more than anyone else.”
“Why don’t you try me, Frank. What did you find?”
“I found…I found a feather. A red feather tipped with gold.”
“But I passed out. The fumes were still too strong and I passed out. Madeline had sent some men after me and they found me passed out in the church and took me back to Yerba Buena. I didn’t have it anymore when I came to. They said that they had never seen it, okay? Are we done here?”
“There’s no need to be angry, Frank. I just wanted to know what had happened. But yes, we can be done now, if you’d like.”
He rose hastily from his chair.
“Madeline’s with them now.” He spoke as I had never heard him speak: through dry and gritted teeth. “They’ll come for me soon.”
And with that he was gone.
In 1943, Franklin Bonner was the lone adult survivor of a natural catastrophe in Parícutin, a rural Mexican village where he was briefly a volunteer. In response to the stress of this event, he has become delusional, having fabricated an alternate reality wherein the adults who perished during the cataclysm (a geologically rare occurrence of monogenetic volcanic activity that has been confirmed in the public record) were saved in an event similar to a mythological narrative local to Parícutin. Mr. Bonner has recurring dreams of this rapture-esque happening as well as having repeat visions of a symbolically significant red and gold feather.
This diagnosis activates the aforementioned clause in his joint insurance policy with his (now deceased) wife, Madeline Bonner. Pending relocation, I am committing him to St. Peter’s Ward.
NOTE: No remains of the deceased of Parícutin were ever discovered. Professor Alan Smith from the University’s Chemical Sciences department has opined that this lack of remains indicates that the adults had vacated their hiding place in a misguided fit of self-preservation. Driven out of the church by the oppressive heat and having had their capacity to reason compromised by the noxious fumes of the eruption (an effect that would only have been made worse in the closed environment of the church), the adults likely would have left the church in the hopes of escaping on foot, only to be consumed by the lava floes.
The shrill ring of the phone tore through the silent office and woke me from a daze. My eyes regained focus as I lifted the handset to my ear. On the other end a voice both frantic and confused implored me to make my way to St. Peter’s. In a matter of moments I had thrown my coat over my shoulders and was driving down the serene lane that led out from my office building to the greater world. Behind me, the setting sun lighted the trees like wildfire.
I was met by the staff as soon as I arrived. “Right this way, doctor,” said the neutral voice of a person whose nametag identified them as Sam. My envoy led me through a catacomb of twisting and turning sterile hallways until we arrived at a door whose nameplate read, F. Bonner. My eyes were fuzzy. I still seemed to be in the dreamlike stupor from which I thought the phone call that begat all this strangeness had awoken me. At Sam’s command the door swung noiselessly open into a room that had all the markings of a single occupancy dormitory: a twin bed, a small desk where a few books were splayed, and a lone chair stationed in the corner underneath a small window.
The window. Sam was speaking in a harried voice at my side, but I could not hear the words. I stepped into the room, towards the window from which my eyes could not tear themselves. I was finally waking from the dream.
The window was spotless, double-paned, and locked so securely that I am sure that it could not have been opened by the former occupant of this room without shattering the glass. It faced west. The world was aflame with the red evening sun. In the dying glow, I remembered a patch of light that had struck the heart of Franklin Bonner, a man who had survived a volcanic eruption, a man who had saved the lives of two dozen children, a man who had lost the only people that had loved him, a man whom I came to believe had been broken by the harsh reality of his life. But I never truly understood Franklin Bonner. I pitied him. I tried to subdue him, to put him somewhere where the hardships of his life would be forgotten by all but him. For all the time that I spent with Franklin Bonner, for all the time that I spent thinking about him, I never knew him.
Glittering in the last rays of sunlight that issued from a setting star was a singular feather, sitting gently on the sill. Its vane was a brilliant red and the tip shimmered with gold. Sam’s voice droned on beside me. Franklin Bonner was gone. I could not help but look to the sky.