About a year ago, specifically on the night of 28 October, I dreamt that I was running scared in a circular forest filled with medium-height, triangular-shaped trees. The trees had been attentively pruned by some gardener whom I hadn’t met in my dream so far, but the exaggerated coordination of the forest made me imagine him to be a dexterous man with phenomenally skilled workmanship and a rigid mind, explaining why he had duplicated the forest trees from originals in public parks. No one was chasing me, but the density of trees formed a maze that made running necessary.
The scene was circular. Each tree was identical to the previous one, so I did not know where my dream began. Despite obvious coordination the trees were spaced in a way that prevented easy passage between them, so that the branches would hit me while I ran panting. The trees dominated the whole scene, to such an extent that I couldn’t tell if it was night or day.
The leaves had an unfamiliar colour, a type of purple, or maybe closer to crimson, or, if we were nitpicking, a reddish kind of purple. The red in my dream was scary, suffocating. I won’t disappoint you and describe it as blood red, but it was closer to the colour of wine, appropriate for the atmosphere of a dream. Despite all this presence, it remained undeclared as it was camouflaged in purple, which dominated the whole scene.
After I’d dreamt the same dream six times I did not wait for the seventh before asking my mother for help. She had warned me before about sharing the dreams that are bothering me, and her response was always an abrupt, ‘to end what may arise from any talk about the dreams you fear, spit to the right and they will disappear on their own’. But this time she listened to me intently with a sadness that I couldn’t explain. The dream wasn’t as scary or curious, but rather it left a residual, lingering sadness.
My mother dismissed it saying that it was a white noise type of dream, but she came back after a few hours, and asked me, after thinking for a long time which was unlike her usual decisive nature, ‘what is it that bothers you in this dream?’ I told her that it made me irrationally afraid, and I also felt lost with no specific path to follow. I always woke up breathless, soaking in sweat, my eyes filled with tears.
My weeping within the dream was real, but what I didn’t tell my mother was that the problem wasn’t with the fear, the crying or the sweat, but it was with the maze, and the confusion it left me in when I awoke. The running also exhausted my whole body. That night, the dream didn’t come to me. It was gone for a few days and I thought that it had chosen to leave. What is strange is that exactly a week later, my mother related to me accurate details from my nagging dream which I hadn’t shared with her, details which I couldn’t even comprehend. I could visualise them in my head, with no way of describing or rationalising them, which would leave me unable to find the right words for them. That’s when I realised that she had started having the same dream every night.
Initially she didn’t give it much thought. She thought that it was her subconscious playing tricks on her, projecting what I had told her about my dream. She said that sometimes it was boring and sometimes it was as scary as it was for me. The dream bounced back to me, and then continued to go back and forth whenever one of us would tell the other about it. It wasn’t something we got used to despite the repetition. We thought about it during the day, when we were consumed by either waiting for it or avoiding it, and it came to us during the night.
The colours in the dream were disconcerting and their bluntness distressing. When my mother was fed up with the whole thing, she avoided talking to me about it at all, and told my father instead. The dream instantly left her and crossed over to my father. She said with certainty, ‘the dream is circular exactly like the forest. For its curse to stop, we need to find out where it began.’
It had started in my mind, and we searched for what could have prompted it, but we couldn’t find one single thing that would help us to determine its origin.
I wasn’t born with a blessing or a curse, nothing unusual had happened to coincide with my birth. My past life was calm and tranquil and no one was out to get me or my family, as far as I knew. Even the date when this dream began, in both the Islamic and Christian calendars, had no significance.
To cut things short, I was very normal, inexplicably normal, so all we could do was succumb, and take the dream in turns. When one of us got tired, they would tell the dream to another and their days would start spinning. The dream wasn’t what was circulating amongst us, the dream itself was the centre of the circle, and we were gasping in its orbit.
Sometimes two of us would share the load. When my mother fell ill, for example, I shared her shift with my father, and during my exam time my mother felt sorry for me so she took over my shift as a good will gesture.
My father came up with a cunning solution, which we all agreed on to avoid disunity. At the time my father had talked my mother into telling her colleague at work about her dream in an attempt to get it to leave us, but the dream doubled down and refused to leave the boundaries of our little family. Even when my father suggested some close relatives, all of them, my uncles, their wives and children dodged the trap, along with neighbours and my friends from school. We tried everyone. It got so bad that we called in to a dream interpretation show, and told them about the dream in front of millions of listeners, but the dream persisted and paraded amongst the three of us alone.
One day my father gathered us and talked to us avoiding any eye contact. As he wrote down a lot of numbers on a piece of paper in front of him, he said, ‘the only solution to get rid of this is for two of us to agree on killing the third when they are in possession of the dream. That way it can escape through an exit in the circle.’ My mother was quick to approve, and so was I, in order to be part of their agreement.
Sometimes I would tell myself that I was safe, given that I was their only child, and that neither of them would have the heart to kill me. The parental instinct would win for sure, that’s what I thought. But knowing that the curse was settling in my mind destroyed any hope I had of survival, and I knew that each of them had their own separate rationale. Since making the agreement, each time one of us handed over the dream to another, they would warn them from the other two for the next six days – neither of us knew who was in alliance with the other, or when they would make their move. All we knew was that the circle would break open for the unluckiest of us.
‘Running in Circles’ was written as part of Short Stories Cairo, a collaboration between KfW Stiftung and the Goethe-Institut for the promotion of young literary talent in the Middle East. The project consists of writing workshops for young writers writing in Arabic who develop short stories under the direction of renowned writers (including Abbas Khider, Wagdy El Komy, Adania Shibli, and Dima Wannous). The best texts are translated and published in Arabic and English on adda.
Illustration by Ghada Khalifa