He descended every night.
Some nights, the steps were light, and he found himself in a sun dappled wood, surrounded by blue sky and bird song, the stairs nature-made from loam and rock. Other nights, the staircase was cold and dark, a spiraling descent that saw no end into the blackness below, and Paul would guide himself by feeling the damp stone walls, moving slowly, carefully; the only sounds being the echo of his footfall and his shallow breath.
He descended each and every night, and lost himself in a world of dreams, falling deeply, dangerously, into sleep, into the blissful arms of Lily, his dream lover.
It had been months since he conquered his insomnia, the long dark sickness that he battled night after night over the previous year, leaving him exhausted each day when the sun rose. Each sleep-deprived morning Paul cursed the brightening sky, reluctant to continue what had become his life, days strung-out without promise; without sleep, there was no break, no renewal.
He would go days without blessed unconsciousness, days without closing his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes. Paul continued to work at the insurance agency, but he became ill-tempered, erratic. His co-workers whispered, eyes upon him, and stopped talking when he was near. A meeting with his supervisor found him demoted to paperwork and moved to another part of the building, away from customers and clients, away from the most perfunctory human contact.
Paul never had a problem with sleep before, he had explained to his new wife. They had been married for two months when the insomnia kicked in; he had two months of sleeping beside his bride before his world began to unravel.
He and Grace had met at a mutual friend’s wedding not quite a year prior. They were placed at the same table with the other single guests, an odd mix of lonely spinsters, confirmed bachelors, and distant relatives. Perhaps it was the spell of the wedding, but they felt drawn to one another. In between the salad and the main course, they began to converse; Grace criticized the greens as wilted, the steak over-done. Paul, emboldened by his visits to the open bar, had pushed away the food and asked her to dance.
They had moved together awkwardly, his hand pressed against her back, held flat against her bra strap. Grace insisted on leading; he had to keep reminding himself to follow. Later, swept away in a buzzed haze, Paul had escorted her outside for a breath of fresh air and fumbled towards her in the darkness, mouth against mouth, cheek, neck, shoulder. Grace had firmly but gently pushed him away and patted her hair back into place.
They had several, appropriately proper, dates in the months that followed, and quickly settled into a quiet routine of sexless companionship. While it was not exciting, it was comfortable; and before the year was done, they were married. Paul had hoped that the situation would improve after their marriage, when they shared a bed as husband and wife. It didn’t. Two months later, Paul found that he could sleep no more. He had a makeshift bed on the living room couch, a mockery.
At first, Grace was patient, a concerned wife. She suggested therapy, hypnosis, a sleep clinic; nothing worked.
He tried sleeping pills, taking two, five, ten, handfuls of pills that should have killed him. He began drinking, hard, hoping that he would blackout and put an end to the torture which held him awake, night after night. After a year, Grace gave him an ultimatum: either he get his sleep under control or she would file for divorce.
And as suddenly as the insomnia had taken over and wreaked its terrible havoc on his mind, his marriage, his life – it stopped.
The sleep that had once evaded him now overtook him. He could not wait to go to sleep, to alter his consciousness, to descend the changing staircase that lead, night after night, to the delicious landscape of his dreams.
But Paul found it harder and harder to wake.
The alarm became useless, and Grace found herself with the task of waking him each morning. She hated waking him. She hated the sight of his sleeping form; eyes closed, body still and heavy as death.
She shook him, yelled and cursed at him. She threw up her hands, disgusted, half-wishing he still had insomnia, half-wishing she had never married him. She wanted to leave, to just walk away from him, leave and start over. She wanted to let him deal with his nightly afflictions, let him stay in his disturbed dreams, let him sleep his life away.
“She’s trying to wake you.”
Paul touched the strands of ivy in Lily’s earth-black hair. They laid together on the forest floor. He kissed her hands, and inhaled the scent of her bracelets as he touched the climbing vines and flowers binding her wrists.
“How did I find you?” Paul asked her, gazing into her eyes.
“I found you.” Lily laughed, a light and airy laugh that fell into the air around them and rose higher, touching upon the canopy of trees and leaves above. A dawn chorus of birds answered the sound; light fell across their naked skin.
Paul ran his hands along her body, and remembered.
The first night, that first night he fell into sleep, all was blackness, a nightmare of darkness in a tangled wood. He walked into the abyss, tripping over rocks and branches. Unseen things reached out and scratched his face and arms; he was blinded by the absence of light.
Then he saw a flicker of a candle in the distance. A single, dancing flame led him forward, guiding him towards a torch-lit mansion. The expanse was grand and beautiful, and staircases were everywhere; Paul froze in the entrance hall, blinking in the surreal landscape, finding himself in an Escher drawing come to life.
A movement caused the slightest sound, and turned his eye to the small light advancing on the highest ladder of stairs. It was a blur of figure, a flicker of flame, seducing him onward. He followed, as he had followed through the wood, trusting that this strange dream would soon find him awake, bursting breathless into consciousness.
At the top of the stairs, Paul saw a sliver of orange light, a door ajar.
He pushed open the door, and there she was. A mirage, a fantasy. More beautiful than any woman, real or imagined, he had ever seen.
She was lying half-suspended, reclining on a four poster bed.
The bed was shaped from earth and clay, and covered with a green mantle of soft moss. Each post was a young tree, and the canopy was intricately woven with branches and boughs. Vines of moon-flower and climbing datura were trained across it, blooming obscenely, seductively, in the diffuse light.
Her arms were raised in crucifixion and her legs were tied to each shaft by ropes of braided green stems. Torches lit the room and dancing shadows revealed walls lined with instruments of pleasure and pain. Incense burned sweetly, infusing the room with a soporific haze.
Paul felt his knees go weak, and reached out for something to support his fall. The woman in the bed did not speak. Her eyes stared through him; her face was luminous, her body was a sculpture tended by erotic hands, unreal, unparalleled loveliness.
He was sweating, desire burned through him. He took a deep breath and wiped his brow. A dream, he thought. He wanted to touch her. Could he touch her? He looked at the walls, and excruciating thoughts of pleasure dominated his mind.
“Yes” she said, raising her eyes to meet his. Hearing her voice, ethereal and sultry, caused a shock to run through his body.
The word hung in the air between them; light as jasmine and vervain, perfume wafting from an open bottle, heavy as the hanging blossoms of datura and moon-flower above the bed..
“Please” she whispered. “You know what I want. You know what I need.”
And after that first night, each and every night found him searching for the place he would find her; she was his fantasy, his deepest desire come true. There was no limit to the places they would explore; each night was an erotic feast, a sexual playground of boundless, raw desire. Night after night, their bodies twisted and entwined, aching with an insatiable craving to feed their tortured hunger.
“Paul, she’s trying to wake you.” Lily reminded him.
“I don’t want to go back.” Paul said.
“You’ve been saying that for months,” Lily frowned. “I’m starting to not believe you.”
She gave him a somber kiss, then pushed him into wakefulness.
The light hurt his eyes; Grace was standing over him. Her face was distorted in anger. His head hurt. Paul rubbed his head, trying to break through the cloudiness of his mind. He felt hung-over but he knew he hadn’t drank the night before. Or had he? He could barely remember anything these days. He closed his eyes.
Grace glanced at the watch on her arm and glared at him.
“You’re going to be late again.”
He was drifting, his hand reached out, and fell empty on the crisp cotton sheets of the bed. She was gone. He turned over, trying to find his way out of this nightmare, back to the forest, back to Lily.
“You’re falling back asleep.”
No, Paul thought, raising his hands instinctively over his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut, searching the darkness, trying to find the threads of unconsciousness that would lead him back to his dream.
“Don’t go back to sleep.”
Her voice wouldn’t let him go.
He ran desperately throughout the forest, but all was quiet, empty. There was no trace of Lily; he frantically turned around and around, calling out her name. Even the birds were silent.
Grace pulled the covers off him, exposing his body from head to toe. Paul’s feet were revealed, caked with dirt. What looked like crushed leaves littered the end of the bed. She stopped, mouth open. “What the hell?”
“Are you sleep walking now?” She exhaled noisily.
“Where the hell were you last night?”
Her voice. Paul struggled to pull the covers back over him.
“Don’t go back to sleep!” Grace yelled.
Paul lashed out, pushing her away, pushing her with such force that she lost her balance and fell onto to the floor.
“I’m done.” She screamed at him. “I don’t care if you sleep forever.”
Grace got up and left the room. The angry step of her heels pounded across the hard wood floor, and a few seconds later, the front door slammed shut.
The sound shook the floor boards.
He was descending into ruin.
The stairs were wooden, crooked, and broken in places. The house had fallen apart. The steps creaked and threatened to give under his weight. He felt the sharp pain of a splinter in his soft arch. He cried out.
Lily appeared at the foot of the steps.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
The basement of the house was dark, damp with decay. Lily looked more beautiful than ever, the dark green pools of her eyes were still and calm. Her body was adorned with flowers and leaves, and the scent of her spun around him, enchanting and intoxicating him.
“Sit down, my Love.”
Paul sat in a large wooden chair. The seat was covered with bright green moss. She knelt before him on the earthen floor and took his foot into her hands. She used a pine needle to drive the splinter out of his skin, then kissed the wound.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and backed away from him as thorny vines slowly began to trap Paul’s arms and legs to the wooden frame of the chair.
He looked at Lily in alarm. “What is this?”
“You said you don’t want to go back.”
Her face was sensual and cruel as she circled him. “And yet, you do. You leave me over and over again. You go back to your wife, to your life, your life! While I am here, alone in this wretched and desolate place, waiting for you.”
“Lily, I want to be with you. I love you.” Paul struggled against the restraints. His heart began to beat wildly.
She looked into his liquid, desperate eyes, then kissed him on the lips, drawing his hungry breath into her mouth with furious desire.
When Grace returned from work, she walked angrily into the house, placed some boxes on the floor, and slammed the door. Paul’s car was still in the driveway; he had missed work again.
It didn’t matter, she had made up her mind; it was over. A friend from work had offered her guest room until Grace could find a new apartment. She only needed a few personal items for the remainder of the week; she would make arrangements to retrieve the rest of her possessions later. She grabbed a box and stalked into the bedroom, not even noticing the dirt on the floor.
Her eyes instinctively flicked towards the bed, where she knew he would be asleep. She stood in the doorway, stock-still, unable to make a sound.
Paul’s body was tied to the bed frame, shrouded with green leaves, tangled with roots, and entwined with creepers and flowering vines. Moss covered his eyes; earth filled his open mouth. He did not hear her scream.
The first weak rays of sunlight slowly aroused his shadowy form, and he began to awaken. He opened his eyes and found himself next to Lily, sheltered under a canopy of twisted branches and vines. Morning Glories bloomed around them as the sun stretched and began to flood the sky. He reached for his dream lover, lover of dreams, and fell into the light.