Throughout my childhood, dreams were a major part of my life. I often suffered from terrible nightmares that woke me screaming in the night, and when I woke up my imagination would turn ordinary objects in my room into visions of terror, which would send me running across the hall and literally flying though the air to belly-flop in my parents’ bed.
As I got a little older, I began incorporating into my nightly prayers a plea to God that the nightmares wouldn’t come. That did the trick; they went away pretty much for good. Later, I began to experience a new kind of dream: the prescient kind. At various times during my adolescence I would have a dream that felt unlike other dreams. The kind that I understood was a vision of things to come. I would remember them clearly upon waking, and the feeling of certainty, of understanding that these events would occur, was beyond my ability to explain. I predicted several events, including the disappearance, return, and eventual death of my neighbor’s yellow Labrador retriever. This ability has mostly left me now, too, but sometimes during periods of great stress or turmoil, both the nightmares and the prescient dreams return. And so it was that I one night came to meet the last full-blooded Piscataway Chief, Turkey Tayac.
He had been dead for twenty-eight years.
One day, in 2006 or ’07, my friend Jeremy and I had driven up to Maryland and, looking for something new to do, made our way to Piscataway Park, a nature preserve beside a Native American reservation across the river from Mount Vernon. We walked the nature trail and came to a place where the last full-blooded chief of the Piscataway Nation, Mr. Turkey Tayac, was buried. There is a plaque there, with his photograph, an older gentleman with grey hair and a plaid shirt, and a brief epitaph beside the picture. Visitors had left tokens, coins and such, along the lip of the plaque. I felt that I should pay respects, but had no coins in my pocket. I turned around and there were some quarters in the grass a few feet away, along the bank of the creek that flows along the property.
I picked up the quarters and placed them on his plaque, and sent good thoughts in his direction. Jeremy and I continued on our way, walked as far along a dirt road into the forest as we dared to, before we felt that perhaps we shouldn’t go any farther, and turned back, along the road, back to Turkey Tayac’s grave, and then along the dirt path and the plank-covered walkway along the creek, back to the visitor’s center and the car.
In October of 2007, a girl named Colleen, whom I was involved with, flew in to Reagan National from Chicago, Illinois, to visit me for a weekend. It was the culmination of many months of communication, via e-mail, instant messenger, and telephone, and the visit was one of the best times I’ve ever had, but when she left, she was heading home into a difficult situation and I knew that her life was about to carry her away from me forever. We hugged a tearful goodbye, and she smiled at me in that special way she had and said, “no regrets. The bitter and the sweet.” It was a callback to an early conversation of ours, regarding the dual nature of life and the universe. That without the bitter, the good things in life wouldn’t taste so sweet. You need both. Two days after she got home, she emailed me to let me know she was moving on.
In the months following, I was distraught, because I loved her and would have been delighted to walk with her to the end of my days, but it was not to be. Then one night, I had the most startling, and moving, dream of my life. I’m not even sure “dream” is the correct word.
I found myself in a field, near a treeline, on a starlit night, walking beside Colleen. A city girl, she was never comfortable in the country, especially in the forest, but I saw a low opening in the treeline and knew we must enter. She was nervous, but she always said that whenever she was nervous, if I took her hand she’d be fine, so I did, and together we ducked through the opening in the edge of the forest.
On the other side was another clearing. Here there was a great bonfire, and singing in a language I did not know. There were drums and wooden flutes, and shirtless men with painted chests and faces danced and sang around the fire. The tongues of flame were ten or fifteen feet all, and the sparks drifted up into the night and disappeared among the stars, which were numerous and breathtaking, a thief’s bounty of jewels strewn across a silken bed of black and blue.
An old man sat nearby, on an old-fashioned folding lawn chair, the tubular aluminum kind with stiff, interwoven nylon bands forming the seat and back. The man’s hair was steel grey, his skin the color of walnut, his lips creased with age. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, a blue plaid shirt, faded blue jeans, and brown leather cowboy boots: Turkey Tayac. His features were sober, but kind, and he spoke not a word, but raised a hand and we approached. He motioned for us to sit before him, and we each pulled up a hunk of ground before him. He reached under his chair and produced two carven figures: a swimming baby, and a ginger cat. He let us choose them, then we decided we’d got it wrong and swapped. Colleen held the baby and I held the ginger cat.
The Chief raised his hand again, and the singers, the fire, the grass and the trees and the jewel-encrusted sky all vanished, and we sat in a house. The chief’s chair had become a mission-style piece of interior furniture, all dark wood and big cushions, backed into the corner of a drawing room, and Colleen and I knelt on a hearth rug on the floor. My friends Steve and Heather, whom Colleen and I had visited with during her stay, were there in the room. They were a married couple; the two of them had met in college and I’d known Steve since middle school. Colleen and Heather wandered off to a kitchen counter to talk and drink some coffee, and the Chief disappeared. Now I sat in the corner chair and watched the comings and goings. Colleen and Heather walked away, to some distant part of the house, and never reappeared. People kept presenting me with books, some of which I had written, and then Steve and I disagreed about something and he went away. But all of my belongings were being packed into boxes and moved somewhere, and all around me, the activity continued, family, friends; some I knew and some I did not. The flurry of activity became impossible to follow and at last I awoke, and it was morning.
The next summer, my ginger cat, Lucky, passed away. Steve and Heather revealed to me that there was difficulty in their marriage, and by the following year, they split. Colleen got a new boyfriend, and became a mother. I joined a writer’s group, and Clayton and I started filming our movie. Then at long last I moved out of my parents house and into a place of my own. It’s not that the dream predicted any of this, exactly, but it kind of…prepared me. I was never sure what exactly it all meant, and for years afterward I felt a pull to return to Turkey Tayac’s grave in Piscataway Park, but as of this writing, after nearly a decade, I still have not been back. Looking back on it, the message, as I see it, is that life goes on, and it is full of loss and also of discovery, and perhaps the Chief was saying, don’t grieve, because you’ve only just made your way further along the road, and many adventures remain.
No regrets. The bitter and the sweet.