Sometimes I have other people’s nightmares. Their stories settle over me and eventually are absorbed, taking up residence in my brain as false memories and never-known experiences.
I have been listening for a long time, yet I have been unable to neutralize the information before it finds a portal into my subconscious. Why do other people’s memories and nightmares become my own? What part of my brain spins out dreams that cause me to relive horrors I’ve never imagined or seen?
Making my way through the Congolese jungle, falling flat into sucking mud during a fierce storm in the rainy season. My feet hurt, my back hurts, my gut is on fire, and I have no idea where my two oldest kids are.
This is not my story, although I know it by heart.
The jungle again. More rain. Quiet, quiet. My friend is above me on the path we were just following before I slid through the slick leaves and loose gravel to where I am now, looking up the steep embankment. Burmese soldiers saw us: my sister and her husband, another Karen man we met yesterday, my friend Moo Thay Paw, and me. When the blistering crack of a rifle shot ruptured the thick jungle air, I caught my breath, lost my footing, and fell off of the path.
I am afraid to breathe. I can’t hear what the soldiers are saying, but I see one of them shove my sister to the ground. The food. Maybe they just want our food.
“Get up!” He is screaming at my sister. When she is back on her feet, he ties her left wrist to Moo Thay Paw’s wrist. The other soldiers pile their things on the path and tell my family and friends to carry. A few minutes later, when everyone is out of sight, I hear another gunshot and a faint thud. I hope it is the sound of an animal being killed and not someone I love. Night is coming. I have no idea how to get to Mae Sot on the Thai border. I don’t know where I am.
This dream woke me in the early morning hours and I was instantly filled with such a pressing sadness, I couldn’t bear to stay awake. The feeling stayed with me for days.
On the hottest nights in summer, many men and boys will sleep on the roof of the house. Our house had air conditioning and fans, so our nights were cool and quiet. With the house closed up, we never heard anything going on outside, but my husband must have because he went outside. He probably wanted to make sure nobody was trying to break in. We didn’t even know he was gone until morning.
I was frantic with worry and it got worse as each day passed. Nobody knew anything, nobody saw anything. Six days later, I heard a car in the narrow alley behind our house. The walls around the courtyard are too high to be able to see anything. I didn’t hear anythingat first, but when I did—I saw it and heard it at the same time. Had the sun been in my eyes I would have thought someone had thrown a bundle of trash or an errant ball into the courtyard, but the sun was behind me. I saw quite clearly the horror before me. My husband’s head and right hand had been tossed over the wall, landing with a dense thud on the concrete patio. My husband was dead. My husband was dead and his body was defiled in the most violent, repulsive way.
I did not faint. I did not get sick to my stomach. I did not cry. Instead, I stood there motionless in the pounding heat for a very long time, wondering if someone was watching me, wondering if my husband’s severed head was rigged with explosives. Maybe it was hours later, maybe not, but I went into the house and tried to call my brother who lived in a different part of Baghdad. Where was my cell phone? Where was my god? I was afraid to stay, afraid to go out, afraid to speak. My beautiful house was no longer going to be my home. How could I live in the place where my husband’s head had sat decomposing in the summer heat only a few meters from the patio door?
Long ago, I made a promise to myself that I would be an open vessel for these stories. They had been entrusted to me, and I accepted them silently believing this would help someone heal from the worst trauma and I could remain uninvolved and safe at home. The refugees recounted their horrific experiences, sometimes through tears, and sometimes without emotion. I thought that I received them quietly, and that the tales were locked away in a benign place away from my own memories.
This is not how memory works. It is not how the brain processes repugnant visions. These stories are sill alive and they are playing out in the nightmares of a second-hand bystander.
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