Dreamcatcher by Colin Kelly

Medical Science does not have cures for everything.
Sometimes the solution can be found in a tradition based on a different kind of medicine.

I’ve had nightmares all of my life, not every night but often. Some of the nightmares that I have now are the same as those I had as a boy; most I don’t remember in the morning. However, I find that I have these nightmares the least when I’m traveling.

Joanie and I spent our last day in Santa Fe on Canyon Road, checking out the antique shops and artist’s studios and scoping out restaurants along with the crowds of tourists. We were taking the first vacation by ourselves in the twelve years since our son Jeremy was born. This week he was staying with his grandmother back in Tucson, being spoiled rotten, so we could enjoy doing the things that adults can do without their kid complaining every five minutes about being bored. Add that I hadn’t suffered from any nightmares during our trip to New Mexico, it made this a perfect vacation.

It was almost one o’clock and I was looking forward to lunch when Joanie spied a shop with some Indian baskets in the window. I’m not sure how she even saw them; the windowpanes were overlaid with years of accumulated grime. I was reluctant, but she dragged me along as she headed for the shop door. We entered the dusty interior and waited for our eyes to adjust to the gloom. Motes of dust that might have been centuries old floated through a few beams of sunlight that penetrated the interior. Most of the roof of the building was made from industrial style skylights that had been painted over, and the sunlight shone through spots where the paint had peeled away. After looking around I came to the conclusion that this had been some sort of garage, perhaps an auto repair shop, in the distant past.

“Rick, look at this!” Joanie was holding a carved deer antler, and the quality of the carving was impressive. Think of scrimshaw, but with more pronounced cuts and the tan color of an antler. I could see the hanging price tag, $1,750.00. She carefully replaced it on the top of the glass display case.

I wandered around looking at Indian headdresses; one was marked $12,500.00. I saw carved walking sticks, Navaho rugs, and black pueblo pottery, all of which looked authentic though I am certainly no expert. Joanie had spent most of her time looking through the owner’s collection of earrings, bracelets, rings, and necklaces. She’d selected a particularly beautiful topaz necklace and matching earrings. I cleared my throat, and when she looked at me I raised my eyebrows, a signal that I wanted to know ‘how much?’ It looked like she mouthed ‘twenty-five’ but that must have been wrong for what she'd selected. I stepped closer to her and whispered “How much?” and she replied “Twenty-five dollars.”

I couldn’t believe it. That was much too inexpensive, even if it was a fake made in China. There’s a lot of that going around in New Mexico. I inspected the necklace, and it was stunning.

“No way,” I whispered.

“Way!” she whispered back, “that’s the price she told me, and I asked her to repeat it two times.”


Joanie made a motion with her head toward the back of the store. In the gloom I saw a little old woman sitting in a willow branch chair in the corner behind a counter. I gestured to Joanie and she handed me the bracelet and earrings, and I walked to the back of the store.

She appeared, perhaps, Navajo. Her face contained a sea of wrinkles in her firm, bronze skin, and those on her lips caught my attention. I knew that I’d seen a painting with an old Indian woman with those exact wrinkled lips, but I couldn’t remember where.

Her voice was quiet, not much more than a whisper, but clear enough to understand, and without any trace of an accent.

“Yes, I am the one who Daniel Kavanaugh used as his model for the painting you saw at the Oxbow Gallery.”

“How… how did you know… that I’ve seen that painting?”

She laughed. Her laugh was as soft as her voice, but it was as clear as a chime. “Anyone who comes here and stares at me has seen that painting. And they want to ask me if I was the model. Most times they are too shy, so I just assume that is what they want to know. No reason not to give them the answer they seek, is there? No, I don’t think so.”

Of course, I had seen the painting at the Oxbow Gallery, and it had caught my attention. It was almost photographic in the depth of detail it showed of the subject, and yet I had been able to tell that it was a painting and not a photograph. It was, unfortunately, far outside our budget.

“That is an amazing portrait of you. Your modeling sessions must have been very long.”

“I didn’t model for that picture. Daniel and I have known each other for over forty years. He painted me from his memory.” She looked at the necklace and earrings I’d placed on the counter. “And as I told your wife, the price for those is twenty-five dollars.”

“I’m amazed at the price. They are fabulous. Why are they so inexpensive?”

“Some things here are just waiting for their rightful owner to arrive and buy them. Your wife is the rightful owner of this necklace and earrings. There is always a rightful price for a rightful owner. For these it is twenty-five dollars, for your wife.”

I started to pull my wallet out of my pocket. “Your wife has to pay for them. I cannot sell them to you. She is the only rightful owner.”

I almost started to ask ‘why?’ but thought better of it. That would be argumentative, and I didn’t want to lose the sale for Joanie. I turned to look for her, and she was standing in back of me.

“You have to…”

“I heard.” Joanie pulled her wallet out of her hip pack and handed a twenty and a five to the old Indian woman. “Thank you. I love them. I’ll put them on now.”

She put the necklace around her neck and fastened the latch, and put on the earrings without using a mirror.

The old Indian woman held up a hand mirror, and Joanie’s eyes glowed. “Oh, they’re so beautiful. Thank you!”

“You are welcome. They are matched to you very well.”

We turned away and started to walk to the door. I smiled at Joanie. “You are absolutely radiant. What do you say we grab some lunch?”

“Wait!” It was the old Indian woman. “You forgot something.”

She had walked up behind me and pointed to the wall to my left.

“You are the rightful owner of this dreamcatcher. It has been waiting here for you for many years.”

I looked where she was pointing. The only object on that wall looked a bit like a lacrosse stick, but with a much larger head. It hung from a loop at the top attached to what looked like a one foot long handle made from a branch wrapped in bark and hide. A willow hoop hung from the other end of the handle, strung with a loose web made from twisted bands of grass and reeds. Four leather thongs hung from the sides and bottom of the hoop, each decorated with bright beads, and along the sides and at the bottom of each were several large almost-fur-like feathers. The colors were brilliant, and even though the shop gave the impression of being dusty the dreamcatcher was so clean it seemed to collect and reflect the few beams of sunlight that came through the skylight. I stood transfixed. I’d heard of dreamcatchers and how they are an art form prized by collectors. This one was a beautiful piece of Indian craftsmanship. I felt drawn to it as if her ‘waiting for me for many years’ sales pitch had been the truth.

She smiled. “It is beautiful, it is very special.”

“Yes. It’s amazing. The workmanship is fantastic.”

I tore my eyes away from the dreamcatcher and turned to ask her the price. She wasn’t there. I looked to the back corner of the store and could just make her out, standing behind the counter. I shook my head. How could she do that! I walked back to the counter.

“How much is the dreamcatcher?”

“I’m afraid that it is much more expensive than the necklace and earrings your wife purchased.” She stared at me for a moment then continued. “This dreamcatcher is over two hundred years old, and it was given very powerful medicine when it was made. The price is five hundred dollars.” I saw Joanie nod her approval.

“That’s a lot of money. What if it doesn’t work?”

“You can come back at any time and get your money back. But I don’t believe that you’ll do so. This dreamcatcher will stop your nightmares by catching them before they get to your sleeping mind.”

“How do you know I have nightmares?”

She tilted her head a bit and smiled. She had an expression like that of my grandmother when she’d tell me something that as a boy I had a hard time believing. I soon learned that my grandmother was always right.

I took a deep and audible breath, and she chuckled. Damn, she knew my decision almost before I’d made it.

“Do you take credit cards?”

“Yes. Any major credit card will do.”

I handed her my Visa card, and she pulled out one of those old-fashioned manual card imprinters from under the counter. With the transaction finished, I turned to look at the dreamcatcher. It had been hanging on the wall perhaps fifteen feet away. Now it was missing. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Where did it go? I heard a soft chuckle in back of me, and turned. I saw the old Indian woman standing in back of the counter, but instead of the credit card imprinter a wrapped package about the size and shape of the dreamcatcher lay on top of the counter.

“I arranged to have it wrapped while we were completing your transaction. Now we need to talk about the dreamcatcher. Mount it on the wall above the head of your bed so the top of the handle is one foot below the ceiling, and centered above your bed. The basket must face out, and the dreamcatcher must hang straight down, not on an angle. You see there is a small buckskin loop at the top of the handle. You will hang the dreamcatcher from that loop. You can use a large nail or a large picture hook to hang it, but the dreamcatcher can get very heavy and a sturdy place for it to be attached is necessary.”

Heavy? What in the world was she talking about? “Why will it get heavy?”

“The dreamcatcher does exactly what its name says, it catches dreams. All dreams. It lets good dreams pass through to your sleeping minds, yours and your wife’s, and prevents dreams from bad spirits to pass through.” She chuckled. “Think of the dreamcatcher is a kind of vacuum cleaner, one that cleans your dreams in advance and holds the bad ones, your nightmares, until you empty it.”

“Empty it? How do I empty it?”

“Oh, that is very easy.” She handed me a folded piece of paper. “This has the chant you and your wife will say every morning after you wake. That chant will clear the dreamcatcher for another night. It is important to do it every morning. As I said, some bad dreams can be very heavy. After saying it several times you will have memorized the chant. It is very easy. The chant words are like a little song, and are very easy to learn. Soon you will find that you do not need the paper.”

She smiled and nodded, sat down in her wicker chair, leaned back, and closed her eyes. Apparently, we were dismissed.

We drove back to Tucson the next morning to collect Jeremy from Joanie’s mother. I pulled into Martha’s driveway, and before I stopped the car Jeremy had run out of the house and was standing next to the car, grinning like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.

“Mom! Dad! Hi! How was your trip? What did you see? Did you take lots of pictures? Were there any real Indians? Did you have fun?”

Martha walked up and joined us, and stood at Jeremy’s side laughing. “Let them at least get out of the car, Jeremy! Hi, Joanie. Hi, Rick. How was your trip?”

We extracted ourselves from the car and stretched our muscles and joints after the eight hour drive.

“Our trip was excellent, Mom.” Joanie looked at Jeremy. “And was our number one son good while we were gone, or do we have to think about trading him in for one of those obedient Indian boys we saw in Santa Fe?”

“Aww, Mom, I was good. Wasn’t I, Gramma?”

Martha looked down at her grandson. “Yes, Jeremy, you were good. In fact, you were helpful and polite and a joy to have for the week.” She looked at Joanie, who had what could best be described as a skeptical expression. “And that’s the truth, Joanie. I loved having Jeremy with me. He even taught me to play his Super Mario Brothers video game. And I had a lot of fun playing it!”

“Yeah, well, she beat me the last two games we played. I created a monster, Mom. If my friends hear about it they’ll kid me for a year. Maybe for a century!”

“Come in and rest for a few minutes while Jeremy and I make sure he hasn’t left anything behind. Would you like something to drink? I made some lemonade, if you’d like that.”

Jeremy couldn’t ignore an opening like that. “May I have a glass, Gramma?”

I was stunned. ‘May I have’ hadn’t been in Jeremy’s vocabulary just one week ago. “Alright, Martha, what have you done with our real son? There’s this polite and helpful robot that’s taken his place. Though I have to say, I’m rather torn. Maybe we should take this bright shiny new model home with us and we’ll leave the old Jeremy behind. How’s that?”

Jeremy was smiling. “Aww, Dad!”

“Aww, Jeremy,” I mimicked. “Did you have fun while you were here?”

“Oh, yeah. We did lots to things together. Gramma took me and Ryan and Tony to the water park yesterday. That was a lot of fun. She helped me with my English homework. We watched Toy Story 3 on pay-per-view, it is so funny. Darrin and Ryan and Tony and Lee came over Tuesday after school and we worked on our science project together and Gramma helped us by asking questions we hadn’t thought of, then she made lasagna and I made the salad and we all had dinner. I had a great time. What did you guys do in Santa Fe?” He glanced over at Joanie, “I suppose you went shopping a lot.”

When we left Martha’s it was just about time for dinner, so we decide to go to Choi Garden and have Chinese. Martha declined, saying she had things to do. By the time we got home both Joanie and I were exhausted, and even Jeremy seemed to have wound down and was ready for bed.

Sunday was slow and lazy. When I woke I realized that I couldn’t recall having a nightmare that night. Maybe it was because we had been so tired. That day neither Joanie nor I felt like doing much more than unpacking. We gave Jeremy the gifts we’d bought for him, and he was excited about everything. We’d found an Indian headdress in a store on the plaza that became his favorite. I watched him find the best way to hang it above his desk, then carefully apply one of those peel-off hangers. It did look very impressive hanging there. I didn’t tell him it had been made for the tourist trade, but even if I had I don’t think it would have affected his delight.

While I didn’t have a nightmare on Saturday, I also didn’t forget that I needed to install my dreamcatcher. With Jeremy watching, I carefully unwrapped it. He became as transfixed by the dreamcatcher as I had been, and insisted on helping me hang it above our bed. Aided and somewhat impeded by his enthusiastic assistance, we successfully mounted the dreamcatcher. I carefully positioned it as I had been directed by the old Indian woman: hanging straight down, not on an angle, with the basket facing out.

My opinion is that the dreamcatcher works. Joanie still isn’t sure. Unlike me, she’s never been troubled by nightmares. However, I haven’t had a nightmare since I put up the dreamcatcher. Joanie and I perform the chant together every morning, and we now have it memorized like the old Indian woman said we would. I believe this empirical evidence demonstrates its effectiveness.

While my nightmares seem to be a thing of the past, Jeremy has started having occasional nightmares, perhaps one or two each month. They don’t frighten him, but he complains about them enough that Joanie and I realize that they are disturbing. As soon as school is out we will take a trip to Santa Fe with him. Our goal is to find a dreamcatcher, one for which he’s the rightful owner. I’m sure the old Indian woman will have just what he needs to block his nightmares.

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This story and the included images are Copyright 2011-2014 by Colin Kelly (colinian).
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