The Tasmanian Writers Centre has selected five emerging writers aged 16-30 as residents in the inaugural Devonport Young Writers in the City program. Skye Cusack’s experimental essay was inspired by the people she encountered in the Rooke St Mall.
Sonder, and the Lucid Dream
By Skye Cusack
I am going to be honest with you. Sitting in the Rooke Street Mall, watching people I have never met and will never see again float by me, I had an existential realisation.
It dawned on me that all of these people were not split seconds of my life, but in fact real people with lives of their own. I learnt afterwards that John Koenig, creator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, created a word for this: sonder.
Whilst not a legitimately credited word, the concept of ‘sonder’ led me to remember a theory I studied in school. The theory suggests that your brain cannot create new data whilst unconscious, so the people in your dreams are people you have seen in real life and subsequently forgotten after the moment subsided. This, in turn, inspired me to play around with the idea of dreaming about people I saw at the mall.
Now, whilst it is frowned upon by many to play the ‘it was all a dream’ card when explaining story inconsistencies, I was very excited about the prospect of using literary techniques to create a piece that seemed genuinely like a dream. The possibilities seemed endless. Of course, I did have some limitations – I wanted all the characters present in my ‘dream’ to be influenced by people I seen during my time in the mall.
I strongly encourage you to reflect on the fact that every single person in the piece below is influenced by a real, living, breathing person.
The first thing the Girl senses is that she is late. She can’t figure out what she is late for, but the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach is a special feeling reserved for missing an important appointment. It is only after this feeling simmers down slightly that she becomes aware of her surroundings, her place in the world.
She is in a familiar place – a mall of some kind, she can’t recall the exact area. There is a large Christmas tree up ahead.
“Christmas already…” she mumbles. “But if this is Christmas, then why am I so cold?”
Light, fluffy snow falls to the earth around her, decorating the roofs of stores and outdoor café tables. The Christmas tree looks like something from a bakery – the crisp, clean fir of the tree sprinkled in powdered sugar. She stands, mesmerised… her first White Christmas.
“I’m so glad you’re here!”
She instinctively closes her eyes as she reacts to the sudden voice. When she opens them the snow is gone. A bead of sweat drips down her face from the sweltering heat.
“I’m sorry?” she replies to a lady in a ringmaster’s outfit. Her makeup is reminiscent of the ‘60s, with a clean wing drawn on both eyelids. Her orange hair is teased and decorated to be glittering shrubbery on which her top hat sits.
“Please, don’t apologise,” says the Ringmaster, kindly. “We just really need you in position next to the other contestants over there.”
The Girl looks to where the Ringmaster is pointing and sees two people standing on a small stage in place of where the Christmas tree just was. One is an extremely beautiful lady in a wedding dress, her hair and nails styled perfectly. The other is a child, around the age of twelve or thirteen, with almond-shaped eyes and a mullet.
“Contestants?” she repeats. “Oh, no, you must have me mixed up with someone else. I’m actually late for-”
“Please!” the Ringmaster cries. “I’m begging you.”
“But I’m late for… I’m, um…”
“Are you alright?” inquires the Ringmaster, concerned. “This game is really fun. Maybe you could let off some steam. Please?”
Looking into the Ringmaster’s pleading eyes, the Girl knows she can’t say no. This lady seems so gentle and sincere. Plus, she is right – the Girl did feel quite distressed. She follows the Ringmaster to her spot on stage.
Beside the other contestants, the Girl notices things about them that she couldn’t have from a distance. The Bride, is beautiful, yes, but there is a haunting sadness in her eyes that gives the Girl an immediate drive to look away. The Child is quivering, whispering random words under his breath in intervals. The Girl looks at her feet. What has she gotten herself into?
A sudden burst of commotion stops the Girl’s rapidly beating heart. Out of nowhere, there is an entire crowd of people on the upstairs balcony of the building parallel to the stage, the Tapas Bar. They are laughing and flirting with one another as if they have been there the entire time. The Girl even spots a few people holding half-smoked cigarettes.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Ringmaster booms in a voice entirely different to the polite, timid one from earlier. In fact, the Ringmaster’s entire demeanor is different. She is now holding herself tall, chest out, like a male peacock putting on a show for a field of peahens.
The people on the balcony settle down in response.
“Thank you all for coming,” the Ringmaster continues. “Let’s welcome our contestants. Give a round of applause for…” The Ringmaster turns towards the contestants and smiles. “Actually, I don’t feel like introducing them. It would spoil the surprise. Besides-” she turns to the audience. “You already know who they are.”
If the audience knows who we are, then who would it spoil the surprise for? the Girl thinks to herself. Maybe I should just leave. I really am running very late by now.
“Before you consider leaving, you must at least want to know about the prizes.”
The Girl jolts back to reality. How did she know I wanted to leave?
“I see the word ‘prizes’ has your attention. Unfortunately, I cannot disclose what your prizes will be, as they are all something very personal to each of you.”
The Girl looks at the other two contestants, thankful to see that they also seem confused.
“You each want – no, you each need something. We can provide that for you…given you play along.” The Ringmaster looks pointedly at the Girl, who jumps to attention at the wordless accusation. Suddenly, the Ringmaster’s expression brightens. “Well, now that that’s out of the way – let the show begin!”
Promptly, three men approach the stage to escort the contestants to their first challenge.
“But, I didn’t even agree -”
“Hush,” says the Child, and the Girl quietens down. “Think about what you want. It’s not worth backing out.”
“But I don’t know what I want-”
“Me either,” sniffles the Bride.
The Child looks exasperated. “You two are ridiculous! Haven’t you been saying this entire time that you’re late for something?”
He points at the Bride: “and you’re obviously in a wedding dress and not at a wedding, so I’m guessing you want a rich husband or something.”
“No,” cries the Bride. “It’s the complete opposite! I left my fiancé at the altar. I just couldn’t go through with it. I don’t think I’m ready…I’m too young.”
“Well there you go,” sighs the Child. “You probably want a trip to Schoolies or something.”
They reach their destination. They have only walked a few steps, but it feels like miles.
“Chin up,” the Ringmaster booms to the Bride. “You can’t aim far staring at the ground.”
The Girl’s blood goes cold. Aim? Anything involving weaponry is surely illegal…
“It seems you have quite the imagination,” says The Ringmaster. The Girl looks at her reluctantly, calming when she sees a football in The Ringmaster’s hand. “The only thing we kill here is boredom. Anyway, we’ll do a few warm-up challenges before we give the big reveal. Just to get everyone in right state of mind.” She winks at the contestants and throws the Child the football.
“It’s simple,” she continues. “Whoever throws the ball the farthest wins.”
The Ringmaster steps back and lets the Child have the spotlight. He takes a deep breath and steps forward. Everyone waits in dead silence as he holds the ball in his hands. He lifts his arm, pulls his elbow back and…
Places the ball on the ground.
“What?” the Bride mutters. The Girl looks over to the Ringmaster, shocked to see the Ringmaster giddy at the sight of the Child’s rebellion. The Girl looks back at the Child and sees that he is muttering frantically again.
“Throw,” she hears him say firmly. “Toss. Hover. Throw!” He is getting embarrassed now. The Girl can see a pink flush in his cheeks. He drops his voice to a whisper. “Fly.”
As soon as he utters this word, the Bride shoots up into the air. The Girl, bewildered, looks up and sees a white ball of fabric wildly flailing in the air. “What’s happening?” The Girl asks the Ringmaster. “We have to get her down!”
The Ringmaster just smiles.
“How did this happen?” The Girl feels faint. Is this a rouse? The sound of the Bride’s screams makes it seem otherwise. But then…what on Earth is happening?
“Down,” says the Child, and down the Bride comes. She floats softly to the ground and lands on her feet. The Bride calmly fixes her appearance. She looks astoundingly poised considering the situation. She turns to the Child and smiles. “What was that about?” Her eye twitches. “Seriously, tell me. What was that all about, you little-”
Suddenly the Girl finds the football in her hands. She looks up, bewildered. There are so many people watching her. Their stares feel invasive and unclean. She suddenly feels claustrophobic, even in such an open space.
The Girl, completely fed up with this entire situation, turns 180 degrees and throws the ball in the opposite direction.
It falls inches away from her feet. In her anger she had forgotten to calculate her aim and sent it nosediving into the ground. Hot tears appear, rapidly affecting her vision. She stays with her back turned to everybody, ashamed.
“You’re lucky I specified that you could throw the ball in any direction.”
“What?” The Girl turns to confront the Ringmaster. “You never mentioned anything like that.”
The Ringmaster grins. “Now, now, don’t try to take all the credit. You still only tied for first place. You threw it farthest this way and she threw it farthest the opposite way.” The Ringmaster gestures to the Bride before turning to the Child. “I guess that makes you second. Chin up, it’s much better than third. Anyway, onto the next challenge!”
The contestants are escorted back to the stage, where the Ringmaster is waiting to deliver the instructions for the next challenge. “This challenge is simple,” she informs them. “It’s a classic case of ‘First In, Best Dressed’. Kind of. Basically, whoever puts together the nicest outfit wins. You can go to any store and get anything, no matter the price. You have ten minutes. Go.”
The Girl feels the sudden urge to co-operate. Potentially losing the last challenge has brought something out in her. She doesn’t feel like herself as she races through store, grabbing bits and pieces to wear. She feels like a warped, lucid version of herself. Like something from a dream.
She runs into the fitting rooms. As she frantically undresses, the Girl can hear the Bride crying in the neighbouring cubicle.
“I can’t take it off,” she is sobbing. “If I take this off, surely a part of me will die. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…”
The Girl forces herself to ignore her compassion and continue getting dressed. Once she is done, she kicks open the door and runs back to the podium. She notices with a shock that the Bride is already there, her face in her dainty, pale hands.
“Welcome back,” the Ringmaster says to the contestants. “You all look quite nice.”
The Girl tries to look at what the other two are wearing, but the Ringmaster speaks before she has the chance.
“And the winner of this round is…” The Ringmaster looks at the Bride. “You.”
When she does not react, the Girl gives the Bride a small tap on the arm. The Bride looks up from her hands, astounded. “Me? But I didn’t even change.”
“Oh, but dear… You didn’t need to. Every girl wants to be a princess.”
The Girl looks over at the Bride, noticing a tiara atop her blonde curls. “Was that always there?”
The Bride reaches up to touch the head piece. “It must have been.”
They look back at the Ringmaster, waiting expectantly to hear the next challenge. The Ringmaster doesn’t speak. She is barely even moving, her head turning slightly as she looks between the competitors.
The silence becomes too much. “What’s the next challenge?” the Child cries.
“Change of plans.”
“What?” The contestants exclaim in unison.
“Show’s over. It’s come to a nice, clean ending and everybody is bored.” She gestures to the audience, who aren’t even paying attention anymore. They are back to chatting amongst themselves.
“But we haven’t even gotten to the main event!” The Girl is furious.
“And what about my prize? Didn’t I win?” The Bride looks as if she may cry.
“I think you’ll find you all received your prizes. Don’t you all just feel like winners?”
The Child seems to understand before anyone else. He shares a knowing smile with the Ringmaster. “Thank you,” he says, putting his hands in his pockets.
The girls watch as he walks off the stage. They watch as he walks the length of the mall and disappears into the distance. They share a look of confusion.
“It would appear someone is waiting for you.”
The Girl looks to where the Ringmaster is pointing and sees only empty space, but the Bride suddenly cries out: “Thank you!”.
The Girl watches as she walks off the stage. She watches as she holds her hand out to thin air and begins walking the length of the mall, disappearing into the distance.
“But… what about me?”
“You shouldn’t be wasting your time with pointless questions like that. Aren’t you running late?”
A flash fires through the Girl, sharp and silky, like a ribbon made of metal. It ties all the jumbled bits inside her together and suddenly her face lights up with joy. “Yes, I am. I really should get going now. Thank you.”
Everybody watches as she walks off the stage. They watch as she walks the length of the mall and disappears into the distance. They watch, and then they all go home.
You can attend readings from our residents at the Tidal Festival from 5.30-7pm, January 23.