John O'Dreams

Boat by the Shore (1888), Torsten Wasastjerna 

Death is common in most fantasy games. Whether the PCs are in danger of crossing the veil or are regularly sending the deserving (🙄) monsters of the world to meet their maker, Death is a presence. A character in and of itself, especially when we decide to anthropomorphize it.

Gods of death are numerous, and generally of a familiar vein. They are evil, spooky, loaded down with skulls and crows and other on-the-nose paraphernalia. Or they're cosmic and unknowable, dark and empty and unyielding, just barely recognizable as something intelligent, the ultimate void. But death is not an enigma, not really. It's something, someone who we all know to some degree. Who we will all know intimately, one day. So why should they be sinister, or terrifying? Death is an old friend, awaiting our return to their quiet company.

That's why my Death is different.

When midnight comes, good people homeward tread.
Seek now your blankets and your feather bed.
Home comes the rover, their journey over.
Yield up the nighttime to old John O'Dreams,
Yield up the nighttime to old John O'Dreams.

Death is sleep, is rest. Death is warm and gentle and welcoming. And John O'Dreams, or Joan, or the Dreamer, or whatever they're calling themself today is those things as well. They're patient, have to be when every soul they make the acquaintance of is just coming down from the panic of passing. That's why they speak smooth and low and quiet in a friendly drawl. That's why they play that gently rolling tune on their guitar as you get your bearings. Of course, they already know you, in and out and every which way. They call you friend, and welcome you home, and they mean it with all their heart.

They're not much to look at, when you can get a glimpse of them at all. Death is long and slim, with patches on their clothes and a soft tweed skipper's cap on their head. Their face...well, that's hard. There's always smoke about them, sweet and spicy, drifting over their features. At the bonfire as they sing you a quiet song. On the seat of their humble boat, puffing thoughtfully on a pipe. What you can see: weathered, eyes achingly gentle, a patient smile on well-creased lips. Beyond that, it's hard to say. You'd swear that face changes sometimes, even as you watch.

Across the hills the sun has gone astray.
Tomorrow's cares are many dreams away.
The stars are flying, your candle's dying.
Yield up the darkness to old John O'Dreams,
Yield up the darkness to old John O'Dreams.

Death is a Dream, the river of dreams from which all other dreams flow. In some spots it
 meanders, brackish and warm, perfect for wading. Things that once were and things that will be and things that never could might meet you there on those boundless flats, wandering in and out of your mind as sleep takes you.

In others, it races, water white as bone, sweeping you down and pulling you under. It's dangerous if you fight, if you struggle your way back to the surface and gasp for the air that you don't even need anymore. Lay back and let the Dream pull you on, friend. The waters know the way. You'll find the source, find everyone and everything there ever was, and find your place among them once more. Joan will see you right.

In still others, it pools in deep cold basins, unfathomably deep, impossibly dark. There may be things down there, great and terrible beings even Death can't ease to their rest, not until they're ready. Silly things. Don't they know the darkness in all its forms belongs to old John? Best to let them twist away until even they feel the call to dream, to rest.

Both man and master in the night are one;
All things are equal when the day is done.
The Prince and the plowman, the slave and the freeman.
All find their comfort in old John O'Dreams,
All find their comfort in old John O'Dreams.

Death is fair and just. Forgiving and forbearing. They treat every passenger just the same, no matter how grand or how insignificant the waking world judged them. The great and the wretched, the kind and the cruel, they are all greeted as a friend. They all have their place in the Dream.

Death is always present for those of us that have already had dealings with them. You might hear them whistle a tune that just barely reaches your notice from way out over yonder. They might whisper right in your ear. "Hey there friend. Long time. You still awake? Fussin' and fightin' your way through the world? Well, that's just fine. You just keep dancin' your beautiful dance - you dance it so well. I'll still be here when you need me."

And there are many that have made bargains with old Jan. Death can be dealt with. They don't want anybody coming to the last bend in their creek with heart a-thumping in terror and soul twisted with regret. If it's not your time yet, they're ready to make a bargain. Hell, most of the time they'll give you another go for nothing if you really want it, as long as they have assurances you'll come back for another jaunt out on those waters when the time is right. But make no mistake - they've got a grip on your tiller now, and if you try to cheat them they'll yank you back onto course with a stern hand, wash you where you should be going in a great sweeping wave that will leave nothing left of you, friend.

They are kind and tender, but they are inevitable.

Now as you sleep the dreams come winging clear;
The hawks of morning cannot harm you here.
Sleep is a river, flows on forever,
And for your boatman choose old John O'Dreams,
And for your boatman choose old John O'Dreams.

Death is a boatman. What lies down the river and its many branches, only they know, but you can be sure they'll see you where you're meant to go. They'll help you into their dinghy built from solid planks, older than the oldest tree. They'll make conversation as they steer and sail and paddle you to where you're needed. Might take a while, longer than I can explain. But they'll talk all the way, and listen even more, to everything you need to unload, or reminisce about, even to the things you thought you'd never speak of and were better off forgetting. No matter how long it takes you to find the words friend, they'll listen. No point trying to get a peaceful sleep with a burdened mind.

And your destination? Well, that depends. It may be another waking spell in the harsh lands of the living, all bright light and commotion. Jean will take you down a brisk, bubbling freshet, right up to the edge of the falls, and with a wry "See you again when day is done, my friend," will tilt you over and tumble you into the mist below. It hurts their heart so to see you go, but they can't wait to hear all about your new day in the sun.

It may be a final rest in the warm, clear shallows where the Dream gathers. Those waters will take your soul and work it into all those other souls that make up the river. Joan will help you strip yourself of your clothes and your burdens and ease you onto the smooth stones just beneath the surface. Maybe some other folks will be there, if there's anyone you've been wanting to see. Maybe it will just be you and the barely perceptible ripples that lap at your sides, over your face, until you're part of the Dream too.

Wherever you're bound, they'll stay until they're sure you're settled. Then they'll turn their boat around and whistle their quiet tune as they pole their way back to shore. They'll always remember you and every last thing about you, friend. You're part of the Dream once again, and they love you dearly.

My friend, I hope you're a long, long time from making the boatman's acquaintance. There's so much to do, so much to see, so much to stay awake for. Hell, stay up late if you can manage it. Burn the midnight oil and make as much of these hours as you like. And when you've tired yourself out and you're ready to get some rest, old John will be there to steer you right. You can tell them all about the wonderful day you've had.

This is for all of the dreamers I've and you've and we've lost, especially over the last few years. I've got so much to tell you about.


Popular posts from this blog

Humanizing the Monster

50 Sights to Stumble Upon in the Bolewood

Istus Take the Wheel - Who I am, and thoughts on the OSR