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Dream of Better Worlds

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The first time Mercedes dreamed about Ofelia, the girl had been dead a year. They had buried Ofelia by the labyrinth that had mesmerized her so much, even though there was space in the cemetery. Mercedes took the baby south with her. The original plan had been for her to stay with her brother and the other rebels, but this became less practical once she had a baby to raise.

The first dream was simple: Ofelia ran through the forest as Mercedes watched. Yet the seeming peace of the sunlight scene didn’t explain why Mercedes woke with a jolt, her heart pounding and her eyes looking wildly around the dark bedroom. She stood up, checked that the baby Esteban was still sleeping, and made herself return to bed. A woman who worked long hours as a housekeeper and who was raising a child alone couldn’t afford to spend her whole night worrying over a dream.

Over the following years, the dreams continued. In her sleep Mercedes watched Ofelia roam through the halls of a palace and wear dresses even finer than the one she had ruined during the dinner party. Sometimes she forgot that Ofelia was dead and buried, and smiled to see the girl look so happy at last. She saw Ofelia grow older and become the beautiful young woman that she would have been, had her youth not been spent in an unforgiving country following the war. Once in a while she saw Ofelia accompanied by an angular creature that was gray like stone and had fingers like the twisted branches of a tree. Not once did Ofelia appear to notice her.

Yet the dreams were silent, always silent. After several dreams had passed Mercedes tried to speak. She didn’t know what she planned to say: to apologize for not protecting Ofelia from the Captain, or to say that her brother was safe, or simply to ask what was happening. Something always stopped her lips at the last moment. As strongly as she tried, she couldn’t get past whatever it was that froze her throat.

Mercedes was no gifted storyteller but she managed to spin stories out of the dreams. Although she would never again mention the Captain in her life, she told Esteban about his mother and half-sister. “She wanted nothing more than to take care of you,” Mercedes said. “She told you stories when your mother was carrying you and planned to be the best sister.”

When Esteban was ten, they were living in Valencia. For the first time, Mercedes had a dream that took place at the old labyrinth. Her sleeping self shied away from looking at the bloodstain at the top. She would have fled but for a glimpse of gold at the labyrinth’s bottom. When she descended the stairs Ofelia stood before her, wearing a gown of scarlet and gold. The dream-girl smiled and pointed at the ground below her feet, then at Mercedes. Before Mercedes could make one more attempt to speak, Ofelia vanished.

The next morning, Mercedes went to the bank and withdrew her small stash of emergency money. It was just enough to get herself and Esteban there and back.

She had never expected to return to the mill-turned-fort and the forest. These days the building was abandoned and there were no armed men hiding behind the trees. If she hadn’t known what took place there, it would have been a peaceful setting. As it was, she remembered the feel of a knife hidden beneath her apron.

“What are we doing here?” Esteban asked, not for the first time.

Mercedes remembered running through the trees on a rainy night as she led him to the labyrinth on that cloudy afternoon. “We’ve come to see your sister.”

“Ofelia’s dead, Mama. Did you want me to see her grave?”

Even amidst her nervousness, she almost laughed at the look on his face. He was such a dear boy to be so worried about her. She could not have loved a son born of her body more than this boy. “Not quite,” she said.

The labyrinth remained standing but the steps had grown even more decrepit and they had to walk carefully. “If you’ll be patient just a little longer, I can promise you’ll see something that you’ll never forget.”

Mercedes sat on the bottom step and waited.