The sixth chapter sits roughly in the middle of Brief Lives, and it is suffused with a kind of mid-life melancholy. Or perhaps not melancholy exactly, but rather pensive yearning and contemplative reflection. Reconciliations and reconfigurations. The characters’ histories are long and a bit dusty, and many seem now on the verge of significant change, though no-one knows what that change will be. Everyone knows their stories must go somewhere, but there are nearly infinite wheres out there.
The chapter is composed of short dialogues: Destruction and Barnabas, Delirium and Dream, Dream and Pharamond, Dream and Bast, Lucien and Mervyn, Dream and Death, Dream and Delirium. Two of the longest breaks in this pattern occur on page 9, where Dream is alone, and on page 17, when Dream, Lucien, and Mervyn talk together (the trio is prominent only in the fifth and sixth panels).
The two-character structure is an ancient one — Aristotle credits Aeschylus with adding a second actor (in addition to the chorus) to Greek tragedy and emphasizing dialogue. Such a structure readily lends itself to interrogation and reflection, and it has been the foundation for a wide variety of dramatic works through the centuries, from the intensity of August Strindberg’s The Stronger to the philosophical meanderings of My Dinner with André. The dialogic structure here couples the physical journey of one character to another with a more abstract journey toward honest maturity.
After the opening scene with Destruction, Chapter 6 focuses on Dream. He ends the quest for his brother, returns to his realm, thinks for a bit, then initiates a conversation with Bast, the longest of the chapter’s dialogues. It’s a conversation heavy with a sense of time passing, age accumulating, beliefs and powers shifting. Dream has decided to renew the quest for his brother, but the conversation with Bast may signal multiple motivations in that quest, for while he certainly wants to get to the bottom of the mayhem that accompanied his search with Delirium for Destruction, he may also desire communion with a brother who has lived as long as he, who is as uniquely powerful, as uniquely alone.
Bast is beautiful in her dreams, but her reality is depicted with rougher lines and darker colors, a reality with little comfort and little pleasure. Page 15 presents a third break with the two-character structure; it shows us Bast alone.
Dream seeks out his sister to apologize and to renew their quest. The last pages of the chapter give us the most sustained representation of Delirium’s realm yet, and she seems older and more lucid in it than she has before. The strange (or, as Dream says, “remarkable”) sundial in the realm is inscribed with broken time. Time has stopped. We might have thought this was a utopian accomplishment — stopping time would halt the plunge toward aloneness, powerlessness, or disconnection that the rest of the chapter suggests is the inevitable result of time passing — but there’s no utopia here. Whether cause, effect, or correlation, time only stops in the center of madness.
Delirium seems a bit more mature in this pages than in her usual presentation. On the other hand, Dream appears to her in a youthful guise; he knows what he’s about to propose. The search for the lost brother is literally rejuvenating.
Dream reveals that their previous journey was one of separate quests. He had hoped to see his lost love in the realm of the real. Now, agreeing with Delirium that they must seek Destruction, he and she have unified their yearnings.
Delirium asks Dream if he likes her — not, as might be expected, if he, her brother, loves her. “Like” is a less committed word than “love”, a word without passion or strength, a word between casual friends and friendly acquaintances. It’s a good word for both of them, because Dream has been derailed by love and all Delirium’s passions are unbridled. And Dream is able to admit to it without lying: “Yes, I suppose I must do,” he says (getting all British in his diction). “You entertain me. And it distresses me to see you troubled.”
Another pair in a chapter of pairings: You entertain me. It distresses me to see you troubled. The first would not be taken well by everyone (we do not all aspire to be entertainment), but the second, though at least tinged with selfishness (“it distresses me“) is generous and, for us the onlookers, touching.
Delirium ends the chapter on a youthful note, a hopeful countenance against a background of doodles, and her last words are ones children issue when jumping into a game of hide & seek: “Ready or not. Here we come.”
Except most children have only one seeker in hide & seek, and so they say, “Here I come.” Delirium has Dream, though. A pair. Sister and brother. Partners. We.
Together, quests united, they can leave the broken time behind.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.