Home > Fiction > Five Serrated Dreams
Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Five Serrated Dreams


The serial-killer abstract-expressionist meets me on top of a steep, snow-covered mountain. It is all arranged. The killer’s method involves throwing his victims off the tops of mountains into deep crevasses and canyons so they will plummet to their deaths. It is the only way he’ll work. He’s “elevated” (as he calls it) many “clients” before me and is quite famous among the sort of people who care about things like that.

On the opposite side of the canyons into which he pushes his victims, he displays his art. Each work consists of a long abstract carving of massive proportion but intricate in its details, composed of seams of variegated crystal and metamorphic rock. As the viewer descends into the canyon the colors shift, split, reunite, and reflect on one another to create shimmering images, mirages that seem to move and live. Each painting is like a story traversing color instead of time, which has to be read from top to bottom. The killer will create an entire work for each person that he murders.

But because the canyons he chooses are so narrow, the work can’t be viewed in its entirety from the top of the ridge. The only way to see it whole and at the correct speed is to fall down past it through the canyon.

I think to myself: Ah, so this is what he means, as I wheel in mid-air before the vast liquid face of light and shadow, the wind cradling me.


In the garden my grandparents sit and disapprove on hard, high-backed chairs. Nana sips tea from a delicate bone-china cup and a saucer patterned with roses. Her hair is steel wool coiled about her face and her cup clicks primly onto her saucer like a lock sliding closed, as if to say, ‘Well, I am not entirely certain about it.’ My grandfather takes a jam biscuit from a plate of the same pattern that has been set out on a small folding table, and then puts it quickly back.

They did not entirely agree with this idea to have a picnic on the lawn. They think it is new-fangled and really, why would you sit outside and subject yourself to the inconvenience of moving table and chairs and crockery, and maybe attracting ants, when there is a perfectly good sitting room just a few steps away? But they did not feel comfortable insisting on an alternative, especially after it had all been arranged. You’d think that since they’ve both been dead now for nearly ten years they’d have moved beyond concerns about social niceties, but apparently this is not the case. We all sit there, awkwardly silent, feigning passing interest in the grass, the snapdragons, the boughs of the apple tree cluttered with fruit.

“So…” I begin, but there is no thought at the other end of the noise. The snapdragons are just like the ones my father used to grow in this garden, tangerine and magenta. Nana is wearing the navy blue polyester turban that fastens at the front with a heavy brooch. She used to wear it to watch boules on Sundays. She’d sit in a plastic fold-out chair next to the flat, perfectly green field. Her legs are traveled by blue veins, which you can see through her stockings.

“Are you all right, dear?” says my grandfather leaning across and touching her arm.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, thank you,” says my Nana. Parkinson’s disease makes her stutter. When I was a child I used to imitate this, until my mother sternly told me to stop it.

“Do you…?” I ask, but I don’t know what to ask. My grandfather is glancing around worriedly.

“No cats?” he asks. He hates cats, the way other people hate spiders. He throws stones at them if they come near him. I shake my head vigorously no.

“What…I mean,” I say. “That is to say, I think…you know, it’s been…”

The garden fills with brilliant sun, poured in until the air saturates unable to hold another drop. The sky is cloudless. They used to give us chocolate bars when we’d visit them on weekends. He’d show us card tricks and she’d make embroidered pillowcases in cross-stitch before the Parkinson’s made her hands shake too much. We’d eat triangle-shaped sandwiches with the crusts cut off. My grandfather would watch the horses on television, every Sunday taking out a bet he never won. They liked to eat tongue and they had a blue woven cover on their toilet and a gas fire with the glass front molded to look like coals, but the scene is shifting now, and I’m at the rail of a ship as tall as a skyscraper making its way slowly down the Yellow River to Shanghai, and my English grandparents in their tall, narrow chairs are gone again.


A shark? In the basement, under the kitchen table? Again? Why is this always happening to us? Anyone would think we were cursed, singled out for this sort of affliction, thus and such. Jesus.

Proves to be true, though: propelling itself across the worn brown felt with tremendous swings of its heavy tail, scarred flesh puckered solid around faded wounds. Eerily smooth, its skin glows in the watery light. Another great white. I lean over the banisters, and even from two flights up, I can discern teeth, teeth, teeth, huddled in its mouth like diplomats planning a war.

“Got a mouth full of razor wire. Like all of ‘em,” my father says, shaking his head. He peers over into the dimness beside me, straining forward to see.

“I better go and take a look,” I sigh, resigned. “You make dinner, will you?” He’s wearing that old orange down jacket of his. Indoors. He leaks stuffing from one elbow, so a trail of little white feathers swirls softly after him wherever he goes.

The staircase creaks asthmatically with each slow footstep as I descend. I go and sit on the kitchen table cross-legged and wait. What else can I do? I’m not Rambo. I am going to have to be the second available type of human hero: a liar.

Eventually, our shark slides across the living room, its belly making a hush noise on the carpet. Its teeth are broken and uneven. One eye suppurates, scratched white and blind.

“I like the Klimt reproduction hanging over the brown sofa,” it says.

All the sofas are brown. Ha! Thought you could get round me that easily, flatterer!” I retort. The shark sighs, rolls its one remaining eye.

“I also like that Coptic tapestry beside the bookcase, the one with the Complete Chandler on the third shelf. Is it Ethiopian? It’s delightful.”

“Yes, it is,” I say. “My dad brought it back from Addis Ababa two summers ago.” Now I am impressed.

“But,” says the shark, “but what is that cheap piece of imitation cubist tat over by the radiator? It’s appalling. It’s got all the vividness and originality of a McDonald’s. How do you stand it?”

“That belonged to my grandparents!” I say, horrified. “How dare you!” And I stab the shark up through its neck with a fork.

A long thin gargling noise like a storm drain trails from its throat. Then its one eye stiffens and becomes fixed. Its tail still twitches and I am momentarily afraid that maybe it is just faking its own death.

“You bastard,” I say. “You’re not fooling anyone. I saw what you did to those kids in the movie.”

Then I feel terrible.


Anyone could tell from the hole in the roof what happened. A jagged, gaping star, splintered timbers visible beneath, broken teeth in a great black mouth.

I am home alone when they hit, plummeting downwards at terminal velocity, smashing through the roof and joists with a sickening tearing sound – slate, wood, plaster and the collision of human with floor. They land in the upstairs bedroom, the one with the green wallpaper.

My sister and her lover were flying over the city by hot air balloon. They wanted to see the war damage from the air and there had been no planes now for several years. Their balloon was made of red and gold paper like a Chinese lantern. My sister and her lover each grabbed onto the end of a silver piece of wire and they were lifted gently off the ground. As if moving in water, they turned and spun slowly beneath the scarlet halo of the balloon, sliding together in a gentle embrace, the horizons of their bodies folding into a single dove-colored silhouette. They hung above the ruined city, weightless.

But things that seem weightless on earth are always actually in free fall. And of course no one can sail across the sky on a paper lantern.

The ground rose up to meet them at a terrible speed.

At the door, I listen. No sound. They’re dead already. They must be after a fall like that. There is a comforting finality to this thought. At least they aren’t suffering. And they don’t need any help from me where they are now, poor things. I go back downstairs and continue doing the dishes. I am very busy today, and I can’t afford to waste time. But I can’t stop thinking about the bedroom upstairs, what the scene looks like behind the door. Supposing they aren’t dead? I tiptoe back upstairs and put my ear right up against that door. Nothing. What a relief. I am about to leave and go downstairs again, when I hear, very quiet, a sound that isn’t a cry for help, or a shout of pain. Someone takes ragged bites from the air as they struggle to breathe and keep breathing. Like sobbing, but more afraid.

I have to help them. I have to go in there and help them, no matter how broken they are, no matter what they look like now. An ambulance. I’ll call an ambulance and the medics can take care of them. I grab the phone and dial 999. At the other end of the line someone picks up and says,

“Pizza Hut, may I take your order?”

I slam the phone down and dial again. This time I get my mother. I try to explain what had happened, but I am too choked up and she doesn’t understand.

“Darling, I think you are still very depressed,” she says in that way that she has of spitting out what she really thinks quickly, as though banishing it.

“No that isn’t it!” I shout and hang up. I try 999 again. The phone at the other end starts ringing, but no one is picking up. I let it ring and ring, bleating faint and electric next to my ear, and as I stand there I start to think. How will I explain to the emergency services people why it took me so long to call them? Why didn’t you call us right away? they’ll ask. And what will I tell them? That I have been busy today, that I have been doing the dishes? I don’t know why I haven’t called already. It seems crazy now, when I mull it over.

Could I be charged with a crime over something like this? Could I go to prison for criminal negligence?

A voice comes on at the other end: “Fire, ambulance or police?” it asks. I slam the receiver back on its cradle. I go back to the kitchen, each step slower than the one before, and pick up a pan from the sink full of cold, greasy water. Through the kitchen window, I see the crumpled and charred remains of a red paper lantern in the flower-bed.


By summer the entire Northern Hemisphere will be uninhabitable. London will become an inferno, grass will fry brown, trees will lose their leaves and some will die. People will die too, the vulnerable ones, old people who can’t keep cool, children, rough sleepers. The pavement and concrete will trap light like a scream in a bottle. Everything will wither and people’s hearts, already gone feral and matted with calluses, will detonate. This will happen around the 15th of August. There’ll be a sound like a million radio’s being switched off at once; then rioting and looting. You’ll be able to tell people whose hearts have blown up from those who are still equipped with one by…no, actually you won’t be able to tell the difference.

My friend furrows her brow and begins to unroll a map on the kitchen table.

The government cautions people to remain calm. Conditions are slowly beginning to improve. Studies prove this, all the experts agree.

It’s one of those new maps that show the future. As I watch, scarlet heat slithers down the topography that my friend holds open in front of me. Red slides over everything until Europe glows together the color of danger, the color at the center of the target. She points to where there was once rolling green countryside, there and there and there, and she says, we have to leave. We have to go south. She points to where some thin paths of green still cling to the coasts of Asia, Africa, Australia. People don’t understand that this is real, she says, this isn’t just another recession, things aren’t going to go back to the way they were before. She shows me the preparations she has made for her journey – a pack with food and water purification tablets, clothes and first aid supplies, a knife. You must meet us in Malta, she says. From there we can head to Morocco. We could endure there, while Europe to the north shatters into pieces.

I’m worried about getting laid, of course, so I’m not sure if I want to do this at all. People will think I’m strange, one of those survivalists who hide in up a mountain with an array of semi-automatic weapons and enough cans of baked beans to give them gas until doomsday. What would people think if I ran off to Africa just like that? They’d call me ‘crazy lady’ and then I’d never get a date. At first I say I’m not sure if I want to go. I come up with excuses. Isn’t it better to stay where we know people who can help us if things really do break down? Wouldn’t we miss seeing it all unfolding? And we’d miss the end of the football season.

“I can’t force you,” she says, looking disgusted. Outside the window a small child picks up a cat and hits an even smaller child over the head with it. A man paints himself orange. A family roasts rats on a spit over an open fire. “If you really think that there is nothing wrong, you don’t have to come. But think about it carefully.”

I go home. I live in a disused railway station by the river with lots of other people and it’s very crowded. There are four men in whom I have a sexual interest. I decide to interview them and see if any of them would come to Africa with us.

I ask the first one if he believes things have become so bad in London that we should go away somewhere. He says no, that’s just urban living, while behind him a women throws a baby into the drink and six gulls carry it away.

I ask the second man what he’d bring on a journey to Morocco. He shows me a model of a machine made out of cardboard. It sags in the middle and when I try to examine it more closely, my fingers stick to it wherever I touch it. I ask, “What does it do, your machine?” He seems to have forgotten, but he shows me all the levers.

I ask the third man if he loves me. He says no and offers me a glass of wine that tastes like pepper.

The fourth man, I decide not to ask. I just say, “Come on, we’re going to Morocco because the world as we know it is totally over.”

“OK,” he says. We walk with our packs through deserted streets near the power plant. Armed guards shoot at stray dogs through the gates. Even at night the heat is on our backs like the palm of a huge hand pushing us forward: go, go, go.

Emily Mitchell is the author of the novel The Last Summer of the World (Norton, 2007) which was a finalist for the 2008 NYPL Young Lion’s Prize. Mitchell’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, AGNI, New England Review and Indiana Review. She is currently working on a second novel and a collection of short fiction. (updated 7/2010)

Back to top