You greet someone by asking what they dreamed. If you want news of someone you care about at a distance, you ask how they have been dreaming. You see the future in your dreams and you talk to the dead.
This is how it is in the family of Colombian American writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Her dead Nono - her grandfather - appeared to her in a dream and showed her a river, a river she needed to know about. He appeared in dreams the same night to her mother, Mami, and two of her aunts, telling them all that he needed to be disinterred. He couldn’t bear to stay longer in the place where he was buried. His daughters did not understand why, but they knew the dream required action.
This is a shared dream, and shared dreams are gospel, because unlike dreams you experience on your own, shared dreams have the validity of being peer-reviewed.
At some danger and expense, the women of the family acted on his wishes. They traveled to Bucaramanga, the town where he was buried, and raised money to have his body exhumed. They found the reason for his discomfort. People had smuggled encargos – demands for Nono’s help - inside his casket, burdening him in the afterlife with their needs and desires. A typical encargo, scrawled on a piece of paper, might read, “You will have no rest until I get a new house.”
So the family took the remains of Nono’s body, in his white suit, and had them burned. They made their way eventually to the river from Ingrid’s dream and released the ashes to the waters there. “My dream gave us the river.”
Nono was a curandero, a healer and seer, both an illiterate rogue and a person of real gifts he called “secrets,” like the ability to talk to move clouds (and so change the weather) foresee events, or negotiate with the dead.
When Nono was treating an illness, he asked his dreams to guide him to the herbs he needed, and when he roused from sleep, he hiked until the landscape matched his vision, and there he gathered the medicine
His daughter Sojaila, “Mami”, Ingrid’s mother, had similar gifts, though women were not supposed to be curanderos. Her gifts burgeoned after a dreadful incident when she was eight, in which she fell down a well and remained amnesiac for eight months. After that, as well as knowing “secrets”, she had the ability to bilocate: to project a double visible to other people. This often happened when her regular body was in deep sleep or she was tossing in fever. Ingrid saw Mami’s double reading tarot cards at the kitchen table while her body lay in bed. Mami would often go to visit her husband in her second body – which she called her “clone” - when he was working in another country. He would see her doing his housekeeping, sweeping the floor, scrubbing the walls and leaving them wet.
The doubling theme is central to the book. Ingrid, too, suffered amnesia (for eight weeks) after an accident in Chicago in her early twenties, and the gift she found in the wound is a remarkable story in itself. And she is a dead ringer for her mother, causing endless confusion among Mami’s relatives and former lovers.
Enter the world of The Man Who Could Move Clouds and you will find yourself in a landscape teaming with the wild fauna of magical realism. You may need to shake yourself to remember this isn’t just magical realism: it’s magical reality. You are in a realm full of ghosts. The ghosts may be restless spirits of the dead, or conditions that Western doctors label complexes or disorders, or energy doubles, or the product of leaving a part of yourself behind when you make a sudden or wrenching life choice. Listen to this:
We have a hand in creating our own ghosts. We think we are done with a place , or a person, and wrest ourselves away. But when leaving happens in a wave of distress, when we leave what we still love, we conjure our own ghost walks into being.
A circle is a straight line haunted by something living at its middle – a ghost that causes it to bend and bend,
Ingrid Rojas Contreras showed us her astonishing power with words in a novel titled Fruit of the Drunken Tree, which brings vividly alive the struggle of women and girls for survival in the era of constant war between guerillas, paramilitaries, drug dealers and police. The violence is always there, in the offing, in the memoir, along with heartbreak, deception and the brutality of men towards women. Yet there is a dancing spirit that sashays us through, the fascination of local customs – sleep with a mirror under your pillow in order to remember, watch for the glow in the earth where a guaca (haunted treasure) is buried - and all the everyday magic.
Maladies and misfortunes are caused by “stories that have not healed inside you.” The heart of healing is changing your life story for the better. Mami heals people by mumbling incantations over a bottle of tap water and giving them a story as they drink it. She tells fortunes the same way. "You have to tell a story that will allow the client to experience the truth without your ever having to name it."
In the world of Ingrid's family in three mountain towns in Santander department, we see what it means to live in a family where everyone dreams and therefore everyone is a little bit of a shaman. Ingrid’s Papi dreams of death under a piece of falling machinery on a walkway at the site where he is employed as an engineer. He’s arguing with a worker when this happens. Later, in ordinary life, he starts arguing with a worker on that walkway. He recognizes that the dream is starting to play out and steps back – escaping the death he dreamed when a piece of machinery fell at the exact spot where he was standing.
The boundary between dreaming and waking, like that between the living and the dead, is porous, if frailer than the ratty shower curtain Nono was gripping when he fell and died in the bathroom. Things bleed through. On the night of Nono's death, Nona - his estranged wife - dreams she has passionate sex with him. Bit when he asks her forgiveness, she won't give it. She wakes to find she is covered in mud and there are clods of earth on the bed. She knows this is because she threw their marriage bed away in the woods, leaving it to mud and muck.
In my family, we study dreams and seek to decode their architecture.
Waking life was a constant state of confusion "but our dreams were grounding”.
Mami says, “Your dreams say more than anything you can tell me.”