My dream was so real it was like I was actually there. But of course that was impossible. I wasn’t born yet. According to the experts, this may have been a past life memory emerging. My detailed account of this dream appears in ‘A River Runs by it’, an anthology honouring the 100th birthday of Sarnia.
On the sidewalk next to a wooden crate is a partly eaten hunk of bread − the crust untouched. I snatch it up. In one smooth motion, it’s swept into the pocket of my dress.
Self-preservation is my utmost priority. Each day my thoughts are of survival – finding food and safe shelter for the night. Nearly invisible, I slip into hiding places and scavenge for necessities − which are few.
My shadowed obscurity shields me like a cloak of armour as I dodge the dockworkers at the busy wharf along Front Street. Instinctively street savvy, I have the ability to blend in and stay out of harm’s way.
I am eight years old. I am a street urchin. This is the only life I know, or rather, the only one I remember. Though it is a solitary existence without family or friends, loneliness does not affect me.
Farther north and away from the warehouses, people are picnicking on a grassy expanse of a park-like area next to the Town Hall. Mostly women and children. The activity captures my interest. Knowing I don’t belong here, I keep my distance and study the scene from where I stand on the sidewalk.
Sensing that someone is watching me, I turn my head slightly to the right. A girl stands on the grassy section near the sidewalk. She wears a fussy dress. A wide, pink satin ribbon rides slightly above her chubby middle. A plump child with strawberry coloured hair, fat cheeks, and a pouting mouth. A pink complexion fights for exposure amongst the freckles.
To her I am not invisible; I am a curiosity. She stares. My face is smudged with dirt, my hair tangled, and my dress grimy. Without a petticoat, it hangs in folds around my skeletal frame.
She remains on the grassy section for the same reason, I think, that I stay on the sidewalk. We each have a clear awareness of where we belong.
It’s strange how, as though from a distance, I can see myself standing there. Behind me is Christina Street, though normally I do not venture onto the other street. If I turn, I will see horses and wagons travelling the roadway. I can hear them. But the horses and wagons do not interest me.
It is windy. I hold a newspaper in both hands, reluctant to put it down because it will blow all around. I look for a refuse bin, finally spotting one outside the open door of the Town Hall.
A man with a large mustache drooping past the corners of his mouth, and wearing a waistcoat and bomburg hat appears in the doorway. He observes the activities outside for a few minutes. When he leaves to go back inside the building, I scurry across the lawn to dispose of the paper.
Not until then do I realize that the bin is not for refuse. It is a holding bin for the papers and books from the Town Hall. It flashes through my mind that they are preparing to move or are doing a renovation of some type. Regardless, they need to move things out of the building.
I secure the newspaper in the corner of the concrete entrance and hurry back to the sidewalk. The river beyond the lush green open space is now churning fitfully. I see whitecaps. The sky is dark with rain clouds.
I watch as one woman shakes a red plaid blanket and folds it into a neat square. The picnickers are packing up. They carry their wicker baskets over their arms as they prepare to leave. The women wear broad-brimmed picture hats. Their dresses, a snug fit around minute waists and smooth over rounded hips, stretch beyond their calves, though they do not reach their ankles.
As one woman bows her head, I can see a dip in the brow of her hat where delicate ivory-coloured lace rests in folds inches thick. A blue bird is nestled into the lace.
There’s dampness in the air. The cool wind chills my bare arms. The storm is coming quickly. Turning away from the pretty dresses and unusual hats, I hurry back to the south end of Front Street.
The dockworkers, some wearing dark coloured sweaters, are shouting as they hand off small crates one to the other. They appear anxious to finish unloading before the inevitable downpour. I skitter past them. Already the sidewalk is spattered with the heavy drops.
The texture of the sidewalk fascinates me – pebbles of varying size encased in concrete. On summer nights, I sleep with the uneven, cold surface against my cheek. I trail my fingers over the round smooth tops of the brown and grey stones and then onto the roughness surrounding them. The familiar touch and smell is comforting.
On this night, I seek shelter from the weather. Waiting for the right moment, when no one sees, I pull open one of two large faded green wooden doors, badly splintered at top and bottom. Portions of wood−the size of my arm−missing here and there.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The large warehouse is mostly vacant except for a few skids and crates. Crates that stand higher than me. I believe them to be empty but imagine them filled with root vegetables.
The damp smell of the black earth floor fills my airways. Creeping forward, I notice a small pile of loosely woven gunnysacks along the wall in the outer corner of an empty wooden crate. I’m excited. I cannot believe my luck. These sacks will be my bed. Perhaps tonight I will keep warm and dry.
The sound of the alarm clock rouses me. I reach across the bed and shut it off. Lying beneath the covers, I revisit the vivid details of my dream.
The indisputable smells, sights, and sounds of an era a half century before my birth refuse to fade upon waking. The smell of the St. Clair River lingers, as does the feel of the damp cool breeze on my bare arms. It is so real that a part of me is still there. The young street urchin − still on the streets of Port Sarnia.
There is a puzzling sense that I have been inside this dream before. The moonlight has guided my hurried steps down the deserted street and past the warehouses. The explicit image and the feeling of danger flash through my mind. There must have been other dreams like this one over the years. How many dreams over how many years, I cannot be sure.
My mind remains centred on the keen recognition of things unknown in my lifetime. The memories hold fast. For weeks, the dream intrudes at unexpected moments. Not solely images, but feelings and thoughts. Not about my dream, but within my dream. These visions that refuse to diminish disturb me.
It was an intriguing dream that set off many ‘what if’s’ for an inquisitive writer.
Is the newspaper I am holding in the dream significant? Can I even read? I have no insight of what I was doing with the paper. Is it possible that I hawked newspapers and needed to dispose of the last one? As yet, I have not found the answer.
It seemed strange that words not normally in my vocabulary would come out in a dream: petticoats, refuse bins, waistcoats, homburgs, and even gunnysacks. I had gone back in time. From the appearance of the clothing, I guess it to be the early 1900’s.
Finally, I power on the laptop and make a record of the distinct details still embedded in my mind.
During online research, I delight in seeing the women’s costumes sketched as I remember them in my dream. I even find a hat with a bird. Apparently, the well-to-do sometimes wore real stuffed birds on their hats! In my dream, I am very taken with this image.
My attention turns to the men’s fashions. Namely, those of the man who appeared in the doorway of the Town Hall. In my online search, I cannot find the bomburg hat. However, I do find a homburg hat. It looks identical to the one from my dream. Is the name of the fashion headwear a child’s mistake? I deliberately use the word bomburg in the re-telling of my dream as that name is definitely the way the child thought of it.
My fascination of this phenomenon continues over the weeks and months to follow. I research historic pictures of the Sarnia waterfront. None of the pictures is exactly as I remember. There are a couple of pictures of the waterfront, however, that produce a chilling effect.
Friends listened to the strange dream, wondering, I’m sure, if it is even possible to dream in such detail. Interesting, they said − if they said anything at all. Some suggested it may have been a past life regression.
It remains a mystery.
Twilight Imagery appeared in the anthology A River Runs by it, published by Sydenham Press 2013.