By Paul Stansbury
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“Something has been sucking my dreams and thoughts from my head at night for quite some time,” said Katsuki, wiping a tear away. “Now it has started happening during the day.”
She eyed the paunchy, balding man sitting behind a cluttered desk. The office was cramped, resplendent with twenty-year-old décor.
“Honestly, I haven’t slept properly in months. Now I’m starting to blank out when I am awake. I’m worn out. I feel I’ve lost my creativity. Dr. Goettle, I don’t know if I’m going completely insane or not.”
“Actually, I am not a doctor. I am a Licensed Social Worker. You can call me Herbert if you like. None-the-less, you’ve come to the right place,” he assured, looking up from the file folder on his desk at the petite young Asian woman. Her face was drawn, making the dark circles under her eyes more pronounced. She sat on the edge of the chair, fumbling with her clutch.
“I’ve dealt with the dream disorders of hundreds, if not thousands, of clients. Probably the most of anyone around this area. You might say dream disorders are my specialty. You were referred here by a Dr. Taradash for parasomnia?” he asked.
Katsuki dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
“Yes, I didn’t know where to start, so I started with my General Practitioner.”
Herbert held up a sheet of paper from the folder, examining it through his thick glasses. “Dr. Taradash reports you complained of trouble concentrating, fatigue, feelings of guilt, loss of interest in hobbies and loss of appetite. If a client comes to me with such complaints, I will assume it can only be a result of psychological or physical conditions. I see Dr. Taradash ordered a full battery of tests to determine if there were any physical conditions which would cause your symptoms.”
“Yes, she ran everything she could think of, but couldn’t find any definitive physical reason for what’s happening to me.”
“It’s evident from her notes,” said Herbert, “she didn’t test for psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, or the like.”
“Dr. Taradash said what I described sounded like sleep terrors, nightmare disorders, or something she called nocturnal cognitive arousals.” Katsuki giggled. “She said that the last one had nothing to do with sex. So in the end, she said I should see someone who specializes in dream disorders. I checked the internet, and you were the nearest one.”
“A sterling recommendation,” grumbled Herbert.
“How long will this take?”
“Keep in mind that therapy isn’t like getting a prescription for antibiotics; take it for two weeks and that’s it. That aside, I think we can make significant progress in six visits. Before we get down to business, why don’t you sit over there,” he said, pointing to a well-worn sofa on the other side of the room, “and make yourself comfortable. Clients find it more relaxing than that straight back you’re sitting on.”
“Okay,” said Katsuki. She moved over to the sofa and sat down. Herbert picked up a legal pad before plopping down in a club chair next to her.
“Where were we?” asked Herbert. “Oh yes, therapy isn’t something one can quantify. What I mean is, one can’t readily say it will take this many or that many sessions and then everything will be okay. Understand?”
Katsuki tugged at her ear and looked away. “I guess so.”
“Good, now that we’ve settled that, you say you’ve lost your creativity. What is it that you do?”
“I am a producer for a content creation studio that helps build brands, launch products, and expand our clients' reach.”
“I bet that pays well,” said Herbert.
“Not as much as you think,” said Katsuki. “After paying off student loans and living in the city, there isn’t much left over.”
“I guess there is a lot of stress in a job like that.”
“No more than most other jobs,” countered Katsuki. “I already talked with Dr. Taradash about that.”
“Any relationship issues?” asked Herbert. “Boyfriend troubles?”
“The reason I ask,” Herbert explained, “is the fact that dreams may be ways of confronting stressful emotional circumstances in your life. And when you sleep, the brain operates at a higher emotional level. Consequently, the brain may make connections regarding feelings that the conscious self wouldn’t make.
“It is interesting that you cite losing creativity. One theory is that dreaming helps facilitate our creative tendencies. Artists have claimed some of their most creative work came from dreams. People have what we call the logic filter, which is present when we are awake. It can restrict your creative flow. On the other hand, your thoughts and ideas have no restrictions when you’re sleeping. What that means in your particular case is yet to be determined, but may speak to the parasomnia suggested by Dr. Taradash.”
“The only stressful thing in my life,” huffed Katsuki, eyes glaring at Herbert, “is the fact that something is getting inside my head. If that’s what you mean, then I agree. My question to you is: are you going to help me find out what it is and help me get rid of it?”
Herbert stroked his chin, searching for an answer. “Well, whatever it is, we will certainly work together to determine its nature and origin and through discovery, eventually map out a strategy to deal with it. First thing is to order up a battery of psychological tests and assessments so I can establish a baseline.”
“First Dr. Taradash, now you,” said Katsuki. “Test this, test that. This is taking too much time. I’m going crazy while you are giving me tests. What tests are we talking about?”
“For starters, I suggest a Rorschach, TAT, and MMPI. Then the Beck Depression Inventory, PTSD Symptom Scale Interview, and an insomnia questionnaire. There are some others we can use if necessary.”
“What are all these tests going to tell you?” asked Katsuki.
“As I said, they will establish a baseline from which we can begin to delve into what is going on with you.”
“When will we get around to getting rid of whatever it is that is sucking the life out of me? I can’t go on like this much longer.”
Herbert wrote something on a form and handed it to her. “If it’s okay with you, I suggest a follow-up session after the testing and assessments. Give this to Tad at the reception desk and he will schedule a time for your tests and next visit.”
“So that concludes my explanation of the results of your evaluations and tests,” said Herbert. “Do you have questions?” He had been droning on for the better part of an hour, discussing an endless array of graphs and tables. Even the comfort of the sofa couldn’t keep Katsuki from squirming.
“Yes, I see all the graphs and tables,” said Katsuki, “not that they tell me anything I didn’t know before I spent half a day taking them. You have yet to tell me how any of these,” she said, slamming the test results on the table, “explain what’s eating away at me and how I get rid of it.”
“Well, ah… ah…,” stammered Herbert, “in a nutshell, the results are inconclusive. If I were looking at these results without the knowledge of your complaints, I would say there was nothing to indicate anything was wrong. That sometimes happens. As I said, these tests were only meant to establish a baseline.”
“So you don’t know anything more about what’s going on than when we first met and now two sessions are wasted,” spat Katsuki.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Ignoring the last exchange, Herbert asked, “Has anyone in your family experienced anything similar to what you say you are experiencing?”
“I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“Sometimes mental conditions run in families.”
“Mental conditions?” asked Katsuki.
“I’m not saying there are mental conditions in your family,” soothed Herbert, “but it is always helpful to know family history. Perhaps, as an assignment, you could do some research. Talk to your relatives and see if anyone has had similar experiences to yours and what came of it. Tad will schedule your next visit.”
“So to close today’s session,” said Herbert, “do you remember the assignment I gave you the last time we met?”
“Yes,” answered Katsuki.
“Did you talk with anyone?”
“You’re being a little passive-aggressive today,” said Herbert.
“Okay. Did you find out anything of interest?”
“Sōsobo said she knew what was happening to me,” answered Katsuki.
“So-so-boh? Who is that?”
“My great grandmother. She emigrated from Tōno as a little girl.”
“Where is tow-no?”
“Tōno is a small farming village in northern Japan.”
“So, what did she have to say?” asked Herbert.
“She said I am possessed by a Baku.”
“Did you say she said you are possessed by a backhoe?”
“A Baku, B-A-K-U,” huffed Katsuki. “Sōsobo said the Baku were created from the spare pieces that were left over when the gods finished creating all other animals. She said they are dream-eaters. Sometimes they are benevolent, other times they can be evil…”
“That’s very interesting and all, but I was hoping for something more concrete.”
“Concrete like what?”
“Like, if members of your family ever had similar experiences to yours. Did your so-so-boh tell you about this back-who when you were little? Maybe she planted a seed in your adolescent psyche.”
“Oh, no, the old ones do not speak freely of such creatures for fear of disturbing them. This was the first time I ever heard of it. Sōsobo said it definitely is evil. When she described it, I recognized it immediately as what I have seen and that it was real.”
“What is it you have seen?”
“So you’ve seen the back-who? This is new information. Why haven’t you mentioned this before, or did you just think this up?”
“Oh, I didn’t just think this up!” protested Katsuki. “You see, sometimes I think I dream I am awake when it comes. I thought maybe it was just part of a bad dream. However, after hearing Sōsobo describe it, I know it is real.”
“So what does this back-who thing look like?”
“It has the body of a frog, wings and claws like a bird, and a humanlike head with black eyes that never shut. Its skin is mottled. From its mouth, pale tentacles writhe out, wrapping tight around my face and arms while it feeds.”
Herbert rolled his eyes. “That’s a pretty fantastic creature you’ll have to admit. Still, it could just be a recurring dream image.”
“I’ve got photos,” Katsuki shot back.
“Photos of what, the back-who? I can find any number on the internet. Not real photos, mind you, but drawings and paintings.”
“No, not photos of the Baku, but photos of what it does to me.” Katsuki fumbled in her clutch and brought out her cellphone. She tapped on the screen, then handed it to Herbert. “I took these this morning,” she said.
Herbert examined the photos for a few moments. “I see a photo of you with a number of lines, creases and indentions on your face and arms. This is easily explained. This happens frequently while we are sleeping as a result of lying on wrinkled sheets and pillowcases. Not much of a case to prove the existence of your back-who, I’m afraid.”
“But I tell you it is true. Why won’t you believe me?” pleaded Katsuki.
Ignoring her question, Herbert continued. “Maybe next session, we can try some Hypnotherapy. It is a trance-like state in which you have heightened focus and concentration. It can prove to be an effective method for coping with stress and anxiety. No drugs, just verbal repetition and mental imaging. When you’re under hypnosis, you’ll feel calm and relaxed, and more open to suggestions. Tad will get you scheduled.”
“Well, you may not think we have made much progress with the hypnotherapy today,” puffed Herbert, “but I think a breakthrough is coming very soon.”
“You’re right,” barked Katsuki. “I don’t think we’ve made any progress.”
“Well then, we can try some medication to reduce your anxiety.”
“Won’t that stuff make me dull? Beg your pardon, but I don’t want to walk around like a zombie. That’s as bad as what is happening to me now. What I want is to be rid of the Baku once and for all. Frankly, I can’t see that I have accomplished anything of value through four visits.”
“Please don’t give up at this point, Katsuki. It is oftentimes when things seem most hopeless that the major breakthroughs are just around the corner. I wouldn’t want all the work we have accomplished to go for naught just when, in my opinion, the foundation for true progress has been built.”
“What does any of that mean?” demanded Katsuki. “You just suggested medication to dope me up, then in the same breath, tell me that I’m ready for a breakthrough. I don’t think you know anything about what’s going on with me.”
“Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes sometimes with therapy. One step forward, two steps back.” Herbert stopped and wrinkled his brow. “Whoops, I meant two steps forward and one step back. You know what I mean.”
“Yes I do. I think you had it right the first time.”
“Don’t forget to check out with Tad.”
“I was hoping we would have made more headway during today’s session,” sighed Herbert. “I see you are still latched on tight to the notion that this back-who is the source of your troubles. Seems like you have put more confidence in your so-so-boh than a trained health professional. Would you be willing at least to consider that your recollections of this creature are dreams themselves?”
“I told you before, the Baku is real, not a dream,” said Katsuki. “Sōsobo said so and I know so.”
“Well, I hoped we could’ve avoided a confrontation on this, but in deference to your claims and those of your so-so-boh, I’ve done my research,” snipped Herbert, “and there is no evidence whatsoever that back-who exist. They are myths, creatures of Japanese folklore. Legend has it that if you wake up from a nightmare, you can call on the back-who to take it away. Even little children were encouraged to summon these back-who to eat their bad dreams. Did your so-so-boh share that with you? I don’t think so. I think she related a fairy tale her parents used to tell her when she was a child. I know this is hard for you, but you will not get well until you accept this reality.”
“Sōsobo would not tell me fairy tales when I am hurting so much. My Baku is not a fairy tale. It’s real and devouring every thought inside my head.”
“You are asking me to make a professional diagnosis on the basis of a silly Asian fairy tale designed to frighten little children,” whined Herbert. “We can’t make any progress if you insist on clinging to this fantasy. I think we’ve done enough for today. Think on what I’ve said and we'll pick this up in our next session. Don’t forget to see Tad on your way out.”
Katsuki bounced into the room and took her usual place on the sofa.
“You look pretty chipper today,” said Herbert. “I was a bit worried when you called Tad and said you had an urgent need to see me today. What do you want?”
“You’re right, Herbie. I guess you could call me chipper, if that means my Baku is no longer an issue for me.”
“You’re telling me your back-who is gone?”
“Yes, and I’m not being passive aggressive. It’s a simple yes, the Baku is gone.”
“Really, that’s good to hear,” said Herbert. “What happened to bring this about?”
“I spoke with Sōsobo.”
“What did she have to say? Did she come up with some folk remedy to banish your back-who?”
“In a manner of speaking,” answered Katsuki.
“Well, I’m all ears.”
“Sōsobo said if a Baku remains hungry after eating one’s nightmare, it may also devour their hopes and desires as well, leaving them to live an empty life. That is what happened to me. She went on to say it seems some Baku have an insatiable hunger. In fact, they are undeniably gluttonous when it comes down to it. That’s when she told me what to do.”
“What was that?”
“Sōsobo said all I needed to do was to show my Baku a more plentiful source of dreams on which to feast.”
“And you accomplished that?”
“Sure did, so I won’t need your services anymore, Herbie. You see, just before I came here, I put it in my mind that there was another who knew more about dreams than anyone. My Baku took the bait and now it is gone. I suggest that you prepare yourself for a visit.”
“You’ll figure it out, eventually.”
Herbert sat motionless; eyes glazed over.
“Herbie, did you hear what I said?” asked Katsuki.
Herbert jerked his hand in front of his face as if batting at a fly and blinked his eyes. “I apologize. I thought I saw something,” he mumbled. “Then, my mind suddenly went blank.”
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion - Not Your Ordinary Stories; Inversion II - Creatures, Fairies, and Haints, Oh My!; Inversion III – The Lighter Shades of Greys; Inversion IV – Another Infusion of Speculative Fiction; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky. www.paulstansbury.com
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.