With the eighth issue, the Sandman is free for the first time of all the concerns that occupied him previously, and so “The Sound of Her Wings” is a kind of coda to the tale up to this point. It’s a particularly interesting issue in that it has no overt conflict; what conflict there is exists within Dream himself.
This issue luxuriates in the freedom from a need to advance the plot. For the first time, we get some glimpses of Dream as a character, someone with complex thoughts and feeling. Though the story ranges across time and space, it feels as focused as “24 Hours” because it is primarily a dialogue between Dream and his sister, whom we eventually discover is Death, the god Roderick Burgess tried to imprison in the first issue, when he instead summoned and captured Dream.
Death seems like a nice woman. She’s not morose or vindictive, and certainly not terrifying in her affect or presentation. She wonders why people are so seldom happy to see her. She’s sensitive and thoughtful, apparently a good sister. We know nothing, though, of her realm. We see her welcome people to their deaths, but the afterlife remains mysterious. A Jewish man says to her, “It’s good that I said the Sh’ma. My old man always said it guaranteed you a place in heaven. If you believe in heaven… So. I’m dead. Now what?” Death replies, “Now’s when you find out, Harry.”
Harry finds out, but we don’t — instead, we see Dream standing against a dark blue background with black, charcoal-like shadows radiating across it, and two thought bubbles: “She draws him close,” and “From the darkness I hear the beating of mighty wings…”
Further visits to people who will die prove no more illuminating. Death admits a certain sadness that people are so frightened of her and “the sunless lands,” then expresses some surprise that people enter Dream’s realm every night without fear. To which her brother adds, “And I am far more terrible than you, my sister.”
How the world of dreams is far more terrible than the world of death we do not know; it is an assertion that, at this point in the series at least, we must take at face value. What we see, though, on the page after this dialogue, is the awfulness Death can bring to the living — she takes a baby’s life, and the mother collapses in grief beside the crib. Death places an absolute separation between people. Dreamers dream alone, but there is always an expectation of return. More often than not, people wake from sleep. Death is, though, the realm from which no traveler returns. It is not only mysterious, the land of the unknown; it is final.
Dream’s struggle in this issue is not with his sister, who functions here primarily as a foil for him, but rather with himself. Having freed himself, having restored his realm, he lacks any sense of direction or motivation. It’s as if he’s become a stereotypical angsty adolescent. There is, indeed, a sense of rebirth for him, and not only for him — for the story, as well. It has moved from infancy to wild teenagerdom, and now it stands ready for some sort of adulthood. There is a sense that anything could happen, that Dream could shape his life in any way he chooses. Such possibility is difficult for storytellers, because stories thrive on limitations. Every word in a story ends whatever infinite paths existed before that word was uttered; every word narrows the possibilities for what words might follow. It’s not surprising that art often thrives in conditions of aesthetic limit or scarcity, that many artists choose certain rules and regulations for themselves, that form is not something every creator rejects, but rather something many choose. Sonnets have survived centuries.
The last page of “The Sound of Her Wings” explodes with lively colors: red, yellow, green. The final image of Dream here is one of joy and youthfulness — he has found the peace he needed, the peace that will allow him to return to his realm and the many tasks waiting for him there: “There is much to do in my kingdom,” he thinks. “Much to restore. Much to create.”
Having accompanied his sister on her rounds, seen her at her work, talked with her, he is now able to accept his own purpose and work. The world of dreams needs the world of death, its counterpart, its sibling, to remind it of its meaning. A creator who faces infinite possibilities needs not only some form, but some purpose, and even some responsibility. It’s as if Dream is saying to himself: This is who I am, this is what I am meant to be. It’s as if to rebuild himself and restore himself he must accept himself.
And then the dream-stories can begin again.
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.