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The Changed River

Dreamed 1914/11/25 by E.M. Martin
Source: Dreams in War-Time by E.M. Martin (1915)

On the twenty-fifth of November I dreamed again, and though not, perhaps, in the strictest sense a war-time dream, it filled me with a greater and more unreasoning horror than any that has ever come to me in dreams, and as I recall it now, that same strange sense of fear is strong upon me.

I dreamed of a river I once knew well, but have not seen since I was a child; a sullen river, with deep, muddy banks grown thick with burdock and coarse-stemmed weeds; a sluggish river (even though it is a by-way of commerce) winding through level lands that are not wholly void of a certain quiet beauty to eyes that know and love them.

In my dream I found myself once again near to this half-forgotten river; I felt it was near, though rows of tall trees, trees I did not remember, hid it from my sight; and the desire was strong upon me not to look upon the river again; I wanted to forget it, and all the part it had ever played in my life. But all against my will, my lagging feet were drawn, as by some unseen power, towards the water, and when I neared the belt of tall trees, a gipsy girl rose suddenly from out their shadow and said, "Have you come to see the improvements they have made in the river?"

She was a handsome wench, with black, braided hair, and a pink handkerchief, showing a full brown throat with pink beads hanging from it. But her speech was not the speech of any true-born gipsy, and there was something sinister in the very manner of her easy familiarity. Together we passed through the thick shade of the trees, and before me was a wide, clear-running river; the deep, muddy banks with their evil weeds were gone, and in their stead were stretches of flowering gorse, honey heather, and wild white flowers with a strange sweet scent, flowers I have never seen in the waking world, for they were like the heads of double narcissus1 set on to the loose leafy stem of the wild parsley. The unlooked-for beauty of this new river-side held me silent: heavily freighted barges plied along the further shore, so I judged the depth to be great, while near to where we stood gaily painted pleasure boats were moored to the low gorse-grown bank.

"Will you walk on the water, or shall we take a boat ?" asked the gipsy girl.

Though in a dream, the semblance of consciousness accepts without comment the unusual and the impossible for the usual and the possible, yet this question startled me, filling me with an uneasy sense of something amiss, some twitching aside of the curtain that hangs between the world we know and the world that is hidden from us. Would I walk on the water? The thing was impossible, unthinkable, and all at once this gipsy girl, with the smiling eyes that yet hid something unsmiling behind them, became horrible to me. I would have left her if I could, and turned my back upon the river, for now even its very beauty seemed the beauty of an evil enchantment; but as if in answer to my fear, she stooped down, unmoored one of the gaily painted boats, and without volition, as one moves in a dream, I followed her, taking the steering ropes while she held the oars.

We were going with the stream and had journeyed for a half-hour or more in a heavy silence, when she bent forward, and looking into my eyes asked again, but with a certain haughtiness as though some queen were commanding a subject, "Now will you walk on the water?" Dream image: a river with a straight  road running down the middle of it, widening until it covers the river in distance. Foreground: woman rows a red boat past reeds and white flowers.

We had been hugging the low bank where the white scented flowers grew close to the water's edge, and I had not once looked at the further side. Now I looked, and was seized with a horror of unreasoning fear, a fear greater than I had ever known in waking, greater than I had ever known in sleeping: for, at that moment, I understood what was meant by the strange question. Down the middle of the river ran a road wide as a cart-track, yet beginning from nowhere; it lay even with the surface of the water, and was solid as though it had stood the test of time and had been there ever since the days when men first made roads to walk on. How had this strange road come here, and why was this piece of devil's engineering so terrible to me?

The girl pulled faster, and I had some difficulty to keep the boat by the bank and away from the road that divided the river; then, with a jerk, the boat stopped and we were brought dead against the road. The river was gone, swallowed up seemingly in the road that, widened out, now ran between dusty hedgerows, while coal-laden carts dragged by tired horses moved slowly along it until they were lost to sight in the far level distance.

"What has happened?" I asked eagerly, "Where is the river?"

Then I turned and saw at a distance of some twenty yards, the old mill, the mill-wheel going round and the churned water rushing down the mill-race on the farther side of the dividing road, and coming to a sudden stop where the broadened track began. The river was gone, but where did it rise again? I asked the gipsy girl as we stood together on the highway, while the little boat, rocking on the waters at our feet, beat itself against that solid wall of road. For I knew it must be running somewhere underground; the force of the current told me this, and yet the hard wide road bounded by dusty hedgerows and melancholy elms, seemed as though it would stretch on into eternity. "Does it come out again at ----?" naming a little village some miles away. Dream image: gypsy woman in purple dress with pink scarf and necklace.

Then the gipsy girl spoke in an altered voice; all the easy tone of command was gone, and instead she was as one giving a message and fearful lest she should forget a single word. "The river has gone; it can never come back. It has gone because men did not want it, for they love the work of their own hands better than the work of God."

I looked into those smiling yet unsmiling eyes that hid a menace, and fear, reasonless, causeless fear, seized me, and I awoke to the greyness and mist of the morning.


Now part of the horror of this dream was that in it I had no sense of a two-fold consciousness2; the dream was real, whole in all its parts, and, like doubting Thomas, I, too, touched and handled; I can still feel the river water on my hands, I can still feel the rough grit of that strange road. In a dream where the two-fold consciousness prevails, one is never at grips with mystery as when the dream self (the 'soul' of the older writers) is left alone, with no comforting memory of the sleeping body to anchor it to dear familiar things, but instead has to find its way through the loneness of an untrodden country, among unseen, unguessed forces that have, as yet, for us no definite outlines, but are only growing from out the darkness into something more real than anything we have known.

If Pharaoh's soothsayer were bidden to interpret my dream of the river, might he not tell me (with all the grace of Eastern hyperbole) that it was because men loved the work of their own hands better than the work of God that this great war had come, and as the river was changed, so will the world itself be changed when at last all the bells in all the steeples ring in the Great Peace? Much will be gone that can never come back again, lost faiths, lost ideals, lost hopes; for we have seen what little force to bind or hold have pledged words or crusted creeds, when the beast that sleeps in each one of us wakes up to have his will of us. Like the unreal loveliness of the changed river have been these our years of peace and plenty in the world we have made with careless hands; now we have gone back to a warfare as bloody, as merciless, as savage as any in the grey past of history, and when all is ended how can we hope to be the same as in the years of quiet?

That is why the river was swallowed up in the hard dusty road that seemed as though it would stretch on into eternity.

--E.M. Martin


1: "Double narcissus": Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the water and starved to death. Soon after, the gipsy directly accuses humanity of narcissism. Even the stems "like wild parsley" have a symbolic ring to me: poison hemlock looks like wild parsley and loves riverbanks. I wouldn't trust those flowers.

2: By "two-fold consciousness" Martin means what today we simply call lucidity: knowing you're dreaming. He was often a lucid or semi-lucid dreamer; I think he's saying a lack of lucidity can increase a dream's impact, so even a lucid dreamer may sometimes unconsciously choose not to be lucid, to experience some dreams as absolutely real. If he's right, struggling for lucidity may weaken dreams' power to warn--to alarm. If so, cultivating lucid dreams might be like paving a river.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: flowers - guides - walking on water - boats - ecology - oops! dreams of mistakes - war - World War I - more E.M. Martin - two nights before, Martin dreamt of the war directly: The Last Mass - two months earlier, a friend of Martin's dreamt the war's first disaster before the news came: Death Chanty -

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