Dreaming the garden of the text

Sometime after 3:00 a.m. I had the following dream. In the heart of a large Western city there is a massive building complex that combines a national museum, national library and botanical garden. It is past closing time, but I cannot find the exits.

I am lost in the Medieval section, which appears to contain an authentic cloister, a Romanesque church and a formal garden. It is winter in the garden. I know that the city is right on the other side of the high wall, but how to get there? Useless to ask the guards – I know they will only arrest me and, as an anarchist, I am afraid of falling victim to the terror war that now imprisons all suspected enemies of the state indiscriminately, with no recourse to due process.

In the dusting of snow I notice a set of human footprints disappearing into what looks like a groundhog burrow. I have to take my coat and shirt off to fit inside, but once I do so it turns into a tunnel, then a hallway in a decrepit student housing unit like those I used to party in years ago in State College. The only occupant is a young, very serious-looking woman who looks up from her reading with a kind of calm surprise.

I throw myself on her mercy, imploring her to help me get out, without explaining why it is so urgent that I not be caught. To my surprise, she consents without a word: with one glance she is able to tell that I am both sincere and harmless. I hear the guards coming down the hallway, so I quick grab a volume from the bookshelves that cover the walls of her room and try to act casual.

It turns out to be the first volume of a complete, bilingual edition of the Babylonian Talmud, with the Hebrew and English on facing pages. It’s full of bookmarks, which lead to pencilled notes in the margins in a mixture of both languages. I glance quickly over the shelves and realize that every volume is bristling with bookmarks.

When the guards enter, without giving me a name she introduces me simply as her “friend” (which is especially believable because of my shirtless state). I realize with some shame the awkward position in which I have placed this apparently shy and circumspect young scholar.

At this point the details grow fuzzy, but I remember we all go outside together, escorted by the two or three guards, and accompanied also by a girlfriend of my benefactor who shows up from a nearby apartment. The two of them are laughing and talking together like ordinary women – no sign, now, of a typical intellectual’s introversion. When we hit the streets, my benefactor – who I notice suddenly is very good-looking – sees me off in a way that is meant to appear casual (for the benefit of the guards) but is in fact completely indifferent. A sideways, halfway hug. The suggestion of a smile.

Why did you do this – why not just turn me in? I wanted to ask but could not. I glance back for a final look, and she and her girlfriend are talking animatedly about something else entirely, disappearing among the crowds of revelers on the streets.

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