In His Dreams

He is one day old and asleep. His face is calm and healthy pink. Now REM-charged eyeballs pulse his eyelids and he frowns, his brow tensed, grown-up and troubled, now the tension releases quick as an archer’s bow and his mouth curls up, a little more on one side than the other, into his first smile.

What does he see in his dreams?

Surely not images, let alone images recalled. When awake he manifests no experience of cinema; each time he looks at me I am new, a surprise; he doesn’t seem to clock cause and effect and sequence.

So he sees nothing but remembers sensations? The nurse’s needle jab, fluid rattling in his lungs, the womb’s warm hug?

No, no memory at all. His face in sleep, as when awake, is simply a live-stream of I feel cold, now I’m warm, now my belly hurts, now dad dropping a mug sounds bad.

But maybe he sees. By-product scenes painted by neurons firing and binding, and agitated rods and cones. Dreamscapes encoded in his DNA.

I’m too tired to orienteer the confusion I’ve stirred and happily let go of abstraction. His first smile. His adult brow. He is human: he is.

I see in his dreams the fact of life and it feels like peak art. I watch and hope to remember.


He is two weeks old and in a milk coma. Mouth parted, slack lower lip, arm hanging off mum’s arm as heavy as a church bell. He frowns the frown definitely inherited from dad, and now he pouts the pout my wife calls ‘banana mouth’, and now his full face buckles in distress. A bad dream.

The distress doesn’t recede as usual in five seconds or so. Instead he flushes, his face twitches, his body contorts as though ready to fit. He murmurs then feebly whines then howls and the howl sounds nothing like his most animated daytime cry. It is alien and ominous. It doesn’t come from him but from history; the howl of Great War widows and shamanic ritual and surgery before anaesthesia.

I am terrified. Throat tight, heart thrashing, I try gently to call him back. My wife calls too. He won’t wake up. We speak firmly now, we hug and sway, we’re almost yelling his name. Still he dreams.

It takes three or four eternal minutes for him to open his eyes, and another minute for him to recognise us and reality.

I know it is a night terror because I have had night terrors. I’m stung by what has troubled me most about having a child — the chance I’ve passed on the genes for extraordinary pain, melancholia, suffering. This ordeal hints yes.

I try to abstract myself away from the hurt… what does he see in his dreams? Hellscapes unlike anything he’s experienced in daytime, Jung’s demons of the collective unconscious, or maybe it is in fact sense memory, Otto Rank’s trauma of birth, or maybe he sees the dreams of his previously incarnated soul, or maybe the by-product scenes of neurons firing and binding, shadow puppetry of the brain’s organic imperative.

I’m too shaken to be distracted by the mental dust I’ve stirred. My child is trembling and disoriented. Too heartbreaking to look at. I don’t watch and hope to forget.