Monday, October 1, 2018

A brush with the Brushwood Boy

I woke early from a dream in which I needed to make up a story for eager children in an ancient or indigenous village. I told them a story of a chief's son who went through various adventures and ordeals of initiation and came back with a new name: "Brushy".
    I was excited about my storymaking assignment and curious about the name that Dream Robert gave the boy. The primary meaning of "brushy" in English is related to "brushwood", a pile of dry sticks often used for kindling.   This reminded me of a story by Rudyard Kipling titled "The Brushwood Boy" that made a big impression when I first read it many years ago. It is about two people who meet in dreams over many years before they meet in the physical world.
    Georgie Cottar dreamed stories in bed at an early age, “A child of six was telling himself stories as he lay in bed. It was a new power, and he kept it a secret… his tales faded gradually into dreamland, where adventures were so many that he could not recall the half of them. They all began in the same way, or, as Georgie explained to the shadows of the night-light, there was ‘the same starting-off place’—a pile of brushwood stacked somewhere near a beach.”    His dream adventures were interrupted by school (“ten years in a public school is not good for dreaming”). Hiss dreaming revived when he was deployed in India as a subaltern.
He would find himself sliding into dreamland by the same road—a road that ran along a beach near a pile of brushwood. To the right lay the sea, sometimes at full tide, sometimes withdrawn to the very horizon; but he knew it for the same sea. By that road he would travel over a swell of rising ground covered with short, withered grass, into valleys of wonder and unreason. Beyond the ridge, which was crowned with some sort of streetlamp, anything was possible…First, shadowy under closing eyelids, would come the outline of the brushwood-pile; next the white sand of the beach road, almost overhanging the black, changeful sea; then the turn inland and uphill to the single light.

In one of the dreams that “filled him with an incommunicable delight” “he found a small clockwork steamer (he had noticed it many nights before) lying by the sea-road, and stepped into it, whereupon it moved with surpassing swiftness over an absolutely level sea” and he is carried into trans-global adventures with the girl who reminds him of a picture in an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland. Sometimes she is his rescuer. "Sometimes he was trapped in mines of vast depth hollowed out of the heart of the world, where men in torment chanted echoing songs; and he heard this person coming along through the galleries, and everything was made safe and delightful. They met again in low-roofed Indian railway carriages that halted in a garden surrounded by gilt and green railings."
   A stable geography develops, always anchored by the brushwood pile, a starting point, rendezvous and place of safety. There is the white beach and the black ocean, the thirty-mile ride along the coast that goes to tropical uplands, the Indian railway that goes to a garden where people sit at tables covered by roses, the purple down. Sometimes there is Policeman Day who walks him away from the City of Sleep. 

So thoroughly had he come to know the place of his dreams that even waking he accepted it as a real country, and made a rough sketch of it. He kept his own counsel, of course; but the permanence of the land puzzled him. His ordinary dreams were as formless and as fleeting as any healthy dreams could be, but once at the brushwood-pile he moved within known limits and could see where he was going. There were months at a time when nothing notable crossed his sleep. Then the dreams would come in a batch of five or six, and next morning the map that he kept in his writing-case would be written up to date, for Georgie was a most methodical person. 

The Brushwood Boy and his dream girl grow up together, in the dreamlands. She becomes a woman and kisses him under the lamp while he is sailing back to England on furlough.
    At the family’s country estate his mother tells him she has invited neighbors – the invalid Mrs Lacy and her daughter, Miriam, described as good with music (a composer) and horses – to dinner.
    He comes back from trout fishing very late and through the window he hears the girl singing her own composition, naming places from his dreams:

Over the edge of the purple down,
    Where the single lamplight gleams,
Know ye the road to the Merciful Town
    That is hard by the Sea of Dreams—

He tells himself it can’t be the girl from his dreams. But at breakfast he sees her full face He gapes, knowing her and seeing that she does not know him. Later when they go riding they share more of the geography of their dreams and realize that since childhood they have been dreaming not only of each other but with each other.

"What does it all mean? Why should you and I of the millions of people in the world have this - this thing between us? What does it mean? "

There’s a happy ending. He tells her her how they kissed under the lamp above the brushwood pile, and the dream spills fully into the world. We understand that they will marry.

I am sure that Kipling drew heavily on his own dreams in composing "The Brushwood Boy". In a letter to Richard Gilder dated September 25,1895, Kipling wrote that “I’ve drawn the map of the dream-country several times.” He added, “It grieves me much that you call my yarn a romance for what I prided myself on most was my grey and unflinching realism.” He implied he was writing about real experiences in an alternate reality, a concept that is quite familiar to other dream travelers.
    His story may encourage us to think more about shared and social dreaming - when we find ourselves together with other dreamers - and about mapping the geography of our own adventures in the dreamlands.

Top photo: Kipling in the library of the shingled house near Brattleboro, Vermont where he wrote The Brushwood Boy – and The Jungle Book .He had married a Vermonter and loved his four years in Vermont (1892-1896) writing in a room where the snow came up to his windowsill all winter. 

Bottom photo: One of Kipling's maps of the geography of The Brushwood Boy.

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