The Dream Culler knew hunger. It was a gnashing beast, forever prowling the cage of her ribs, a fist forever twisting her insides. Hunger was her constant companion, her earliest memory.
She could see it as clearly as if it were yesterday— waking to find her wrists bound to that metal frame bed in that iron colored room— thrashing and howling and clawing at her restraints until a nurse finally wandered over to feed her. Such is the nature of the Blessing, the man had said as she uncapped a vial and pressed it to her lips, the memory slipping like jelly over her tongue, thick and sweet. Control is key.
She hadn’t understood at the time— she hadn’t the words. All she knew was blackness, and then light, nothingness, and then hunger, the craving so sharp she thought it might slice her in two.
Three years it took them to train her. Three years in that complex of iron and stone, hidden deep in the earth’s bowels.
She’d only lost control once, in her first year at the complex. One of the nurses hadn’t secured her properly, and she’d slipped from her restraints and found her way to the storeroom down the hall. She tore through an entire stockpile of memories, downing every last vial within the radius of her reach before the guards caught and sedated her.
It wasn’t until later that she understood the enormity of her mistake. The more she fed the fire in her gut, the more it raged.
Such was the nature of the Blessing. Control was key.
The day the overseer finally declared her fit to become a Dream Culler, the nurses had smiled and looked at each other with pride. Another successful rehabilitation, they’d said. Just think of all the good she’ll do.
She had mimicked their actions, palms folded tightly across her growling stomach as she smiled and nodded, smiled and nodded. They wouldn’t feed her, otherwise.
And so they’d entrusted her with her own small clinic, a gray building that sat in the middle of a forest an hour’s trek up a mountainside. A village sat in the valley below, and beyond that, the complex. You’re one of our favorites, the overseer had said, so we’re keeping you close.
Two years she’d been a Dream Culler, and in that time, she’d learned to manage her craving as best she could. Yet when the pink blush of dawn spread across the sky, or the moon rose high and full, or the first snowfall dusted the road, her hunger roared all the louder, doubling her over with pain as it tried to claw its way out of her stomach. She didn’t understand it, this void yawning open inside her, but she didn’t complain. While others rotted beneath the mountain for their crimes, the Overseer had been merciful, wiping the stain of evil from her mind to give her a fresh start, a new purpose. Freed of all emotion save for want, the Blessing allowed her to feel nothing but the compulsion to serve those in need.
The Dream Culler regarded her current patient, a dark-haired teenager who’d come in to have a nightmare extracted. Now the girl lay on one of the clinic’s many beds, her skin pale as death in the gray morning light filtering down from the dome of glass high above.
“Better?” she asked, touching the girl’s cheek as she’d been taught. It was best to make a patient feel at ease, after a culling.
The girl nodded, the corners of her mouth curving upward as her eyes drifted closed.
That is a smile, she reminded herself. It means she is pleased. “Rest,” she said in a gentle voice, stepping back to pull the curtain closed.
Shh shh shh the stiff gray fabric of her skirt whispered as she moved toward the table in the middle of the culling-room floor. She selected one of the five empty vials she’d carefully lined up on her silver tray, pressed the needle of the syringe through the vial’s thin copper top, and depressed the plunger. The memory swirled into the tube with abnormal violence, a miniature crimson cyclone.
Mmm. she nodded to herself, the knot of her headscarf rubbing against the high collar of her dress. This one would be tasty. She tossed the spent syringe into the wastebasket and held the vial up to the light— just for a moment, she told herself. Just long enough to—
A low groan and the rustle of bed sheets snapped her to her senses. She swiftly reached for the block of clay she’d placed beside her tray, twisting off a pinch of the red-brown earth to seal the vial. Then she nestled the memory into a padded box, grabbed a fresh syringe, and moved onto the next curtain, the next memory.
The Dream Culler hid her shaking hands in the folds of her skirt. Control was key.
“I can’t do it anymore.” The old woman twisted the bed sheets in her hands and looked up at her with sallow, red-rimmed eyes. “Take them all.”
“You know I can’t.” She tilted her head. “I’m sorry,” she added as an afterthought. No matter how tempting the offer, the woman was too old to be of service to society. The Blessing was only meant for the young.
The woman’s lip quivered. “Please?”
The Dream Culler blinked.
“Take four?” The woman twisted the sheet tighter, her voice hitching upward. “Three?”
The Dream Culler sighed. “Fine. But this is the last time. You hear? The last.”
It wouldn’t be the last. The woman couldn’t bear the weight of her own life, and she hadn’t the strength to turn her away. Her memories were too damned delicious.
“Thank you.” The woman immediately rolled over and exposed the back of her neck.
Deftly the Dream Culler guided the needle through muscle and between vertebrae, tapping into the cerebral vein housed in the center of the spine.
The woman tensed, releasing her breath in a hiss.
The first memory slipped into the syringe, a pale yellow ribbon flecked in gold. The Dream Culler frowned. Never before had she taken the incorrect recollection, but this— the color was all wrong. “Did you mean to give me this?” she asked, holding the syringe before the woman’s face. She recognized it from her training as a joyful memory— one she was never meant to cull.
“Happy memories can hurt, too,” the woman whispered. “Especially when they remind us of all that we’ve lost, and can never regain.”
Perhaps she is mad, the Dream Culler reasoned. Yet still she was obligated to take that which was tormenting her. So she slid the syringe back into the base of her skull, pulling out a second memory, this one pure gold and fluffy as a cloud.
Then she slipped the needle from the old woman’s neck and brought it directly to her mouth, empting the cocktail onto her tongue.
It was unlike anything she’d ever tasted.
The woman’s memories were both salty and sweet, tangy and, and— she shuddered as she swallowed, lost to that split second of euphoria that could only be found in this— taking the shadows of a person’s past.
But those weren’t shadows, she realized. They were something different, something . . . more. Her hands shook as she looked down at the empty syringe, already wishing she could have another.
“Thank you,” the woman said, pushing herself up.
The Dream Culler spun on her heel and yanked the curtain aside, needing to get as far away from the woman as possible. No, she snarled at her craving. She couldn’t give in— couldn’t lose control.
So she trashed the spent vial and clutched the edge of the table until her breathing returned to normal. Then she snatched up a new syringe and moved onto the next curtain, the next memory.
Nine in the morning, and all ten cots were already full. Outside, the trees thrashed and swayed, the tempest ripping away their golden leaves and tossing them aside, bright coins cast to the clouds. She glanced to the glass ceiling and decided it must be the storm. Bad weather tended to stir up bad memories.
The Dream Culler shook her head and set to work, offering a click of the tongue here and pat on the hand there, just as she’d been taught. New heads full of old woes occupied the cots, and she repeated the process. Line up the vials; select a clean syringe; insert the needle in the base of the skull; pull out the pain.
Before she knew it, all her cots were empty, night cloaked the sky, and she was ravenous. She hurried down the narrow hall to the small chamber at the rear of the clinic, not bothering to extinguish the lights in the waiting room or bar the door as she’d been taught. What did it matter? Even if a person were to arrive after dark, she wouldn’t turn them away. Her craving wouldn’t allow it.
She paused to light the oil lamp that rested by the door, her fingers trembling more than usual as she coaxed the little flame to life. The soft yellow light reminded her of the old woman’s memories, all brightness and warmth. Her mouth immediately watered, her hunger itching to taste more of the forbidden.
“Hush,” she snipped, shoving the feeling down, down, down.
Once she’d regained control, she turned to face the room.
Since her kind hadn’t any need for sleep, the chamber was furnished with nothing more than a low table, a couch, and a trunk for her clothing. The light of a waxing moon poured in through a skylight twenty feet above, illuminating the knee-high stacks of books that dotted the worn gray floorboards, each one a pillar to her solitude. The more she read, it seemed, the less she understood of humanity.
Shaking off the thought, the Dream Culler looked at the floor-to-ceiling shelves that lined the room. They were packed tight with black metal boxes, all filled with memories. The longer a recollection aged, the more potent it became. What might taste slightly bitter today could in time become so sour that it curled one’s toes. Yet the stronger the memory, the better; these older memories were sharp enough to slice through her craving with but a taste. The challenge came in keeping it to just that: a taste.
Control was key.
She grabbed the ladder attached to the shelves and pushed it toward the far right corner, the high-pitched squeak of the wheels on the track loud and grating. Eagerly she mounted the steps, rising onto tiptoes for a box covered in a thick layer of dust. She pulled it down with reverence and hurried to the couch, where she sat it on her lap and used her skirts to wipe it clean.
She laughed upon seeing the date stamped atop the box. The memories within were collected fifty years ago. Not the oldest she’d ever consumed, but a prize all the same. Palms itching with anticipation, she slid open the two-part lid.
Four exquisitely colored memories lay cradled inside; purple as a bruise, black as night, gray as rain, and blue as flame.
“Hello?” A rough male voice shattered the silence.
The Dream Culler startled, nearly casting the precious memories to the floor.
A man stood in the doorway, his face half obscured by shadow. “Sorry.” He shifted his weight, setting the floorboards to creaking. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Her hunger growled in frustration as she set the gem-bright memories aside. “Pardon.” She rose and smoothed her skirts. “Select a cot, and I’ll be right with you.”
“I—” the stranger stepped into the light. “Do you remember me?”
She tilted her head as she regarded him. Sun weathered skin, straw colored hair, clothes patched and faded, and arms thick with muscle. An earth-worker, perhaps. “Have I treated you before?”
The man swallowed. Blinked rapidly. “No.”
He is upset, her brain supplied. She tilted her head, slipping on a thoughtful expression. “You do look familiar, though,” she lied. It was the type of thing people liked to hear.
He stared at her, brown eyes full of an emotion she couldn’t read.
“Don’t worry.” She put on her reassuring smile. “All it takes is a quick prick. Then you’ll feel right as rain.”
The man shook his head. “That’s not why I’m here.”
She scratched her scalp, a distraction from the knot in her belly. Perhaps he was here in search of another kind of release, then. “What memory would you give me, in exchange?”
The stranger frowned.
The Dream Culler pulled off her headscarf and shook out her hair, long and black as the night. The last one had liked that, she remembered. “If I’m to lie with you,” she clarified, tossing the kerchief on the table, “I prefer to taste your sorrow. Or regret. Those are the best.”
He fisted his hands and turned his face to the wall, nostrils flaring.
“If you had another—”
“I came to return something,” he announced, yanking a vial from his shirt pocket and thrusting it toward her.
She stared at the vial, confused. Sunlight flecked in gold swirled around the tube, moving as lazily as the stream outside the clinic. “I don’t understand.”
“This memory belongs to you.” The man set the vial on the edge of the table. “It’s time you got it back.”
She stared at the vial and licked her lips. Wanting it. Knowing she shouldn’t. “I— I don’t cull recollections like that.” She jerked her chin at the surrounding shelves. “There is far too much pain in the world, and not nearly enough pleasure,” she said, quoting the overseer.
“It’s yours,” he repeated, tapping the side of his head. “Someone shoved a needle into your brain and sucked it straight out of your head. Just like the rest of your memories.”
“Of course they did. It was the just punishment for my crimes,” she repeated by rote.
“No, it wasn’t.” The man strode forward and grabbed her hands, his calloused palms scraping against her knuckles. “You did nothing wrong. You were simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
“I see,” she lied, slowly pulling her hands from his grasp. She stepped toward the yellow vial, spittle pooling in her mouth.
“Look at me, Lizeth,” the man commanded, moving between her and the table. “I got them back for you— all of your memories. I have a connection in the complex, someone else who doesn’t—” he shook his head. “Never mind. All that matters is that they’re yours, if you want them.”
“Dream Culler’s do not have names.”
He shook his head vehemently. “You are Lizeth. Our parents are earth-workers, and you love to ride the plow with Da, and pick wildflowers with Ma. When you sing, it moves grown men to tears, and when you cry, it makes me wish I could bring you the moon.”
The Dream Culler cocked her head. “How would you like me to respond?”
He blinked rapidly and stepped back, his hands falling limply to his sides. “Either stay here, and stay as you are, or come with me. Claim what’s rightfully yours, and be freed of this unnatural craving.”
“You could do that?” she asked, interested for the first time. “Make my hunger go away?”
He shoved a hand through his hair, the short yellow strands poking out from between his fingers like bits of trapped hay. “I— I’m not entirely certain. But I think so.”
“Your offer is . . . intriguing.” She sucked a tooth as she weighed his words. The nature of the Blessing might be pain and hollowness, but what if she were to change her nature?
“I’ll sit on the front steps until sunrise,” he said, backing toward the door. “If you don’t come out by then, I’ll assume your answer is no.”
As soon as he exited the room, she rushed to the table, flipped open the metal box, and downed two of the antique memories in quick succession. Sour and then spice settled in her stomach, just enough to dull the knife blade edge of her want.
Then the Dream Culler sat. And she stared at the vial, the memory floating around like bottled sunshine.
The man thought that by taking back her old memories, she might silence her hunger. But how? Would she need to ingest them, or inject them?
What if she went with the man, but she found her own memories repulsive? She could always extract them again, but what then? It’d be impossible to return to the clinic, after such a treasonous act, yet where would she find her sustenance? Moreover, if they caught her they’d haul her back to the complex, chain her to a bed, and let her hunger eat her from the inside out.
She folded her hands across her grumbling stomach and turned her face to the stars. Being human is painful, the nurses had said. The Blessing frees you from all that pain, save for hunger. Yet the man hadn’t been certain it would work. What if she reclaimed her past, but her craving didn’t go away?
Was it worth the risk?
“Lizeth,” she mused, saying the name aloud. It felt odd on her tongue, both soft and sharp. She wasn’t certain what she thought of it, but the memory— her gaze flicked back to the vial—that was undeniably enticing.
An odd pressure built in her chest, and her heart picked up its pace. Here was the potential to have more, to be more, staring her right in the face.
She couldn’t turn away.
The night had passed, and the pink blush of dawn was beginning to creep across the sky. “Liz-eth,” she said again, rising from the couch. “Li-zeth.” She strode to the culling room and grabbed the basket she used to take the sheets to the stream for washing. “Liz.” She pulled as many boxes from the shelves as she thought she could carry and stacked them carefully within, using the spare set of clothes from the trunk to hide her quarry. “Izeth.” Then she lifted the basket onto the table with a grunt, sat down, and pulled its thick white carrying straps around her shoulders and waist.
“Zeth,” she repeated, satisfied. “I am to be called Zeth.”
Then she rose, scooped up her little yellow vial, and walked out the door.
Jesse lives in Colorado with her husband, daughter, and two fur children. Her short stories have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Youth Imagination Magazine, among other publications. She is currently seeking representation for a young adult fantasy novel, the first in a series. Find her at jessemaeweiner.com, or connect with her on Instagram @Jesse.Weiner or Facebook @JM_Weiner to stay updated on her latest publications.