Night Visions (5 page)

WASHINGTON, D.C.
FEBRUARY 16, 1983
2:05 P.M.

For over two weeks, the Georgetown skies have been thick with brown-gray clouds. The absence of color makes Christina feel uneasy, as if she needs to check her watch to know whether the day is just beginning or ending. She enters the basement library of the music building and is relieved to be indoors, away from crowded classrooms and loud students.

Dozens of different-sized water pipes hang overhead, and the entire room feels cramped by the low ceiling. It is dimly lit, with cold, metallic gray shelves and narrow passageways. She hunts for several call numbers and finds more volumes than she can carry easily to a cubicle. The books smell of dust and stale cigarette smoke.

Since October she hasn't been able to sleep for more than an hour or two each night. That relentless circular melody keeps pushing its way into her thoughts, as if it's trying to make her
remember something already forgotten. Every week the school psychologist, whose degree in human resources hangs on the wall behind her desk, tells Christina that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The attack was violent and life-threatening. It's only natural to have trouble sleeping now, to feel anxiety and fear.

To feel anger.

 

A few weeks ago, while standing in a music store, she heard the piece again and decided to buy a recording. She didn't want to listen at first and left it unopened on the kitchen table throughout the afternoon. But at 3:16 in the morning—her eyes tearful with frustration and burning from the steady glow of television—she opened the tape, grabbed her Walkman, and climbed into bed. The notes progressed slowly, almost sluggishly, as if she were walking barefoot in wet sand. The physical sounds appeased some longing or craving in her memory.

She felt calm. She fell asleep.

 

Then the sudden flash of a body writhing upside down in the dark. Torn, damaged hands reaching up, grasping for the rope tied tightly around his ankles. Blood spilling unevenly from a gash across the neck. There was only a frantic gasping sound. No voice.

 

Christina woke up startled and out of breath, hair matted against her forehead with sweat. She looked at the clock: 8:36. In disbelief, she reached for her wristwatch on the cluttered bedside table: 8:36. She had slept just over five hours. With tears of relief in her eyes, she got out of bed and dressed as quickly as possible. There wasn't time to celebrate. She was about to miss sociology class.

She started repeating the same ritual every night, using the
Goldberg Variations
as a kind of lullaby. At first, she put on
her Walkman tentatively, like a swimmer testing water with her toes. The visions terrified her, but she accepted them as part of the price she would have to pay for sleeping again. Even though the music's effects were only temporary, never lasting more than five or six hours, they were better than nothing.

But why? She had listened to music before, and nothing ever helped her sleep. Why the
Goldberg Variations?

Christina peruses several Bach biographies in the tiny cubicle. After a few minutes, water rushes through the pipes overhead, and she remembers that the men's restroom is directly overhead.

“Nasty,” she mutters.

She can't find much information on Goldberg, but one story in
The Life and Works of J. S. Bach
catches her attention:

On a late summer afternoon in Dresden, Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach was approached by a sickly man wearing black clothes, a red silk scarf, and a circular pendant around his neck. He introduced himself as Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk and invited the composer for supper.

Bach arrived under a crepuscular sky that made the dirt roads shimmer with red and gold. Keyserlingk Castle was at the bottom of a steep hill, and moss covered much of the shadowy exterior. Bach paused briefly at the entryway to concentrate on the faint sounds of a harpsichord. The melody was dissonant, unfamiliar. The interior had a mausoleum-like stillness, and Bach couldn't remember ever feeling so cold in the summer. A servant led him down a corridor with eight faded tapestries that looked like distant memories. Orange-brown fields. Colorless skies. Faded-red sunsets. Bach was surprised that he
could only hear the sound of his footsteps as they walked. All of the count's servants seemed to float, moving about the castle in long gowns that hid their noiseless feet. None of them spoke or smiled. They communicated with mechanical gestures and nods.

Bach was led to a sparsely furnished room where he was greeted warmly. The count had not changed clothes after his midday ride, and he smelled of hay and horse dung. He sat in a chair directly across from the composer.

The count explained that for years he had suffered from sleepless nights. His eyes burned, and his body had become thin from nerves. At most, he slept one or two hours a night, and when he did, he experienced the most horrible visions. His wife, who had developed a nervous condition from his pacing and mad talk of dreams, had recently left for the spas in Baden-Baden. His servants were miserable from being summoned at all hours. They knew no rest—particularly the harpsichordist, Johann Goldberg, who was often required to play throughout the night.

The count spoke of Bach's reputation and the remarkable power of his music. He had been following the composer's career for quite some time. Then the count pleaded—begged—Bach to write some keyboard music to help him sleep. He was convinced that such a genius could help him somehow. He would pay well.

Flattered and in need of money, Bach agreed to try.

The count did not want to waste any time. He showed Bach out without serving supper. “Please, hurry.”

Soon after Bach began the piece, he received an earnest letter from his eldest son:

7
NOVEMBER
1742

Dearest Father,

You have no doubt heard the rumors buzzing about Dresden? This count from whom you have taken a commission is a notorious drinker and gambler. He lurks about the streets like a madman, and people say that he practices alchemy—that his servants do not dare leave the castle for fear of his magic.

I know such matters do not concern you. “People will always talk, regardless of truth,” you are fond of saying. But perhaps this is a work best left unfinished.

Do not be angry, Father, but I have written to Goldberg. I met him in Berlin years ago, and I know him to be an honest, good man. His recent letter makes me fearful for you. He too describes the count as an alchemist and tells me that for decades he has been searching for the secret to immortality!

Even if these are only the ravings of a madman, is it not better to have nothing to do with this count? Please, Father, do not partake in this.

Your son,
Wilhelm Friedemann

Bach did not take these concerns too seriously. He finished the piece and gave it to the count as promised. There is no record of the count's response to it—whether or not it broke the spell and helped him sleep again.

 

No matter, Christina thinks. She knows one thing that these historians don't.

It works.

Even though she can't read music, she takes a copy off the shelf and starts looking through it. The lines and circles on the score appear encoded, leaving her disoriented and frustrated. She feels their meaning but doesn't know how to interpret them. As she flips through the pages, the notes blend together, forming shapes, and she remembers a game that she and her sister played as children. With a stack of scrap paper, they created moving pictures by drawing individual frames and fanning through them like a deck of cards. Christina's favorite was the swing. She would draw a little girl on a swing, then the same picture at a different angle on another sheet, and so on. Eventually, she could fan through them and the girl moved, as if she were swinging up and down.

She starts seeing the music this way. Picking up the score, she holds the binding in one hand and quickly moves through the pages with her thumb. The notes become images. The images form a picture. They seem to communicate something. The light around her fades.

FEBRUARY 17, 1983
4:32 A.M.

Staring down at the dark waters of the muddy Potomac, she notices that her hands have turned white from gripping the icy green rail of Key Bridge. She rocks her body back and forth, trying to remember how she got here and what she is doing.

…There is a room without floors and a man in black who floats toward her. He wears a red scarf and a shiny circular pendant around his neck. His mouth moves without making sounds….

Several cars pass behind her, and a flash of headlights breaks the trance. She looks at her watch.

“I need to go home,” she says aloud, looking again at the waters that call to her like a siren song. She turns and hails a cab.

“Where to?” The driver looks over his shoulder.

She thinks for a moment. “I don't know.”

W
hen Samantha steps off the elevator onto the fifth floor of the clinic, she collides with Phebe, who mutters an apology and something about the bathroom. Samantha watches Phebe scurry down the hall, stunned less by the physical jolt than by her outfit—two frog hairclips that seem to be drowning in her waterfall of hair, a huge smiling frog on her T-shirt, green sweatpants, and slippers in the shape of frogs that squeak with every step.

Samantha turns and walks past an empty nursing station. Except for the gray carpet and dim lighting, the corridor looks like a hospital floor. Sterile and nondescript—but at least it doesn't smell like antiseptic. She inhales again and recognizes the scent of grassy fields after a long rain.

Both Phebe and Arty have already chosen rooms, and Samantha feels like a latecomer at summer camp who doesn't show up early enough to pick a good bunk. She walks down the hall, looking for a room. On the walls outside of each door, there are two screens. The top one is familiar to her; it displays both an electroencephalogram and an electrocardiogram. She has
seen her brain wave and heart rate activity measured like this at the institute. The bottom screen shows a video feed of the bed inside, allowing Dr. Clay and the attending nurse to watch patients' faces and bodies during sleep.

Samantha steps into a small, empty room and places her overnight bag on the only chair. Nothing hangs on the walls. The muted lighting shows the room to be monochromatic. The bedside table, mattress frame, and chair are the same off-white color. They match the walls. She changes into shorts and a loose T-shirt, then sits on the firm bed.

She doesn't have time to begin worrying about whether this treatment will work before she hears Phebe scurrying down the hall.

Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak. Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak
.

Phebe peers into the room and says “Good night” cheerfully, without waiting for a response. Samantha smiles at the sound of the slippers as Phebe continues to her room.

The hall becomes quiet again, and Dr. Clay steps inside. He half smiles, nodding his head and looking more at the clipboard in his hands than at Samantha.

“Shall we start,” he says without making it sound like a question.

 

The plastic goggles feel cold around her eyes, and wires run from her chest and forehead to the wall. Dr. Clay speaks softly from the chair next to her bed. “Try to relax. Once you put the earpieces on, I want you to breathe deeply and concentrate on the sequence of flashing lights and sounds. Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

The lights and sounds begin steadily. A deep
boom
like a bass drum or heartbeat. Red light flashes with each sound. New colors gradually overlap with the sound, and the tones become richer, more full. Yellows and blues merge with momentary
bursts of red. The colors spray like water from a garden hose against her eyes. The sounds syncopate, becoming gradually faster and higher pitched. She imagines driving over yellow lines on a two-lane highway…. Gradually the images and harmonies begin moving away, farther and farther into the distant blackness, while the heartbeat still echoes steadily. The colors suddenly bleach, and everything becomes white—light without shadows, the lonely absence of color….

 

Then a new sound. It's barely audible. The soft and steady footsteps of a familiar visitor who doesn't need to knock before entering. All other sounds are gone except a deep baritone. The light around her changes into a hazy gray, and she vaguely recognizes a man's voice.

Dr. Clay has removed Samantha's earpieces and is still sitting in the chair. As her eyes readjust, she thinks that something has gone wrong, that she has failed; her first attempt at hypnosis didn't work. She must not have been susceptible or willing. Now he has to tell her to leave. She'll have to deal with the problem on her own. She is no Endymion.

“Sorry,” she says. “I guess I wasn't relaxed enough.”

“Quite the contrary. You did very well. It's time to get up.”

“What time—”

“Six
A.M
. You went to sleep shortly after ten last night. We want to get your body used to an eight-hour sleep cycle.”

“I was asleep for
eight hours
?” Tears well up in Samantha's eyes. For the first time since Frank left, she feels relieved, happy. Happy with the hope of regaining control.

“Yes.” His manner is much less formal this morning, and Samantha can tell that he is pleased. “See you tonight at nine.” Dr. Clay walks to the door, then turns. “By the way, you snore.” His smile makes him look tired and older than she first suspected.

“What about Phebe and Arty?”

“They're fine.”

“And the other person?”

“Still a no-show.” He pauses, then looks at his watch. “I have to go, Sam. So far, so good. See you tonight.”

Before leaving, Samantha wants to see Phebe to compare experiences. She gets out of bed and hurries next door. The room is empty. She turns and finds Arty watching her from the doorway. His mouth opens slightly, and for the first time she notices that one of his front teeth is chipped. He wears dark blue jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt. The overnight bag in his right hand dangles close to the floor.

“Have you seen Phebe this morning?” Her voice is slightly hoarse at first.

“She left already.” He looks at her legs when he speaks. “She seemed upset. I don't think she slept last night.”

“Do you think she's all right?”

He shrugs.

Samantha suddenly feels light-headed and unsteady. She touches her face to see if she is still wearing the goggles. Then a series of images—uneven hardwood floors, open boxes of Chinese takeout, a well-worn black book. Another flash, more visceral than the first. A black mirror hanging above a sink stained yellow-brown. A blade dripping red into a dirty porcelain basin. Her stomach turns, and she falls to the floor.

Dr. Clay is standing above her when she opens her eyes. Arty watches over the doctor's shoulder, and the room seems to vibrate like a fluorescent light.

Dr. Clay checks her pulse. “What happened?”

“I saw things. A house, I think. I don't know.” She covers her eyes with her right hand. The left rests on her stomach. “It was cold. No, the bathroom tiles were cold, and there was a mirror
with no reflection.” She sits up suddenly. “What the hell is happening to me?”

“Relax. There's nothing to worry about. Spontaneous hallucinations are a common side effect of hypnosis, especially in conjunction with sleep deprivation.”

“Nothing to worry about! If they're so damn common, why didn't you tell me?”

Dr. Clay flinches, then speaks with a soft sternness. “Sleep-wake cycles are like fingerprints—they're different for everyone. So just as it's impossible to predict how someone will respond to prolonged deprivation, it's also difficult to know how she will be affected by certain treatments, particularly hypnosis. Like dreams, hallucinations are a way of processing anxieties and fears. You haven't been sleeping well for months, Samantha, and this can cause chemical changes in your brain and body. In some cases, prolonged deprivation releases a chemical into the bloodstream similar to LSD, leading to altered states. That seems to be what's happening to you.”

He touches her right hand, which now rests on her thigh, and says, “Trust me. Your brain is just trying to make sense of this new neural activity.”

“But I didn't just see things. I
felt
them.”

“As I said, extraordinary hypnotic experiences can create an altered state—some scientists even associate it with psychic phenomena such as ESP and clairvoyance. But the truth is that these hallucinations are a result of modified perception. They make you believe that what you're seeing is real. You think you felt something, but you didn't. It wasn't real.”

“Oh, no problem then. I can just get a part-time job with the Psychic Network,” she says with anxious sarcasm.

“I'll prove there's nothing supernatural about it. What am I thinking right now?”

“That I'm being a pain in the ass?” She tries to play along.

“Hey, maybe you're psychic after all.”

He laughs halfheartedly, and Samantha smiles. She feels somewhat relieved, but not entirely convinced.

“Is this going to keep happening to me? What about when I'm driving to work or walking down the street?”

“Not likely. This state was induced by hypnosis, so you should experience hallucinations only going into or coming out of a trance state. After a few more sessions, I expect that your mind will adapt. The hallucinations will stop.”

She nods quietly, almost imperceptibly. “I guess salvation doesn't come without a price,” she mutters.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

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