At first it was just a small sound, like a branch against a window during a storm. Or the barely-there sound of a pencil scraping against paper. Gradually, it became a dull thudding, muffled and silenced by the sounds of the world settling into itself for the night. The trees bent inward and creaked with the weight of the day they’d carried. The birds picked nits from between their feathers, and sang the moon from its inky bed. The night creatures, with their black eyes and quiet feet, moved into the darkness, and listened. Thump, thump, thump. In the distance, an owl called woefully, and nearer, an answer issued into the air: thump, thump, thump. In the absence of language, the muted panic of the rhythm seemed to dissolve into the blackness without landing on an ear capable of recognizing the plea contained therein.
The night creatures preyed, and the trees held their bony fingers close to their bodies, and the birds fell into fitful dreams.
He sank into the man-shaped indent in his mattress easily that night, before the night called to him, in the way that night does: secretly, quietly, malevolently. The sounds of the owls and night bugs and creepy crawlies eased him into an uncomfortable rest. Neither awake, nor asleep, but prostrate and silent himself. He dreamed, but only in terms of suggestion. A shadow suggested he dream of detaching himself and fleeing, to conceal and deny its own existence as often as possible. A cool breeze against his face coerced him into flight. A rhythmic thumping became a boat rocking on a glassy lake, where the horizon and the water met seamlessly.
Thump, thump, thump. The boat rocked. Thump, thump, thump. The waves lapped at the bow of the ship, yearning to cling tighter. Thump, thump, thump. The breeze licked at the sails, craving a taste. Thump, thump, thump.
And then he was standing in his garden, beneath the rose bush lattice, brushing the night webs from his face as his toes searched the ground. The damp air touched the nakedness of his skin, and slowly his senses became aware that this was a wake up call. His eyes opened, adjusting to the dark, but still seeing in shadowy shapes.
But the boat was still rocking. He could feel it even as he left the dream and realized he was, in fact, naked in his backyard. Thump, thump, thump. Only, the sound was uncomfortably real - unsettlingly close, impossibly foreboding. The man began to scan his surroundings, closing his eyes to enhance his other senses. He moved into the night, further, stepping gingerly through the shadowy and dewy yard beneath him.
As he approached the shed, looming ominously out of the grove of trees that signaled the end of his yard, the sound grew more pronounced. Less a thump, more a knock. And behind it, or maybe folded into it, what sounded like a call. The small sound of a coyote pup learning to curl its voice into the chill-inducing cry you heard in the hills late at night. But, more specific, somehow. As though a word were trapped there, struggling to shape itself. The sound was coming from the shed. And now it grew more frantic, more urgent. The slow thump now became a steady thud, and it was coupled with smaller bursts of noise. It was inside the shed. And he was being called to it.
He neared the door of the shed, suddenly shivering and too aware of his body. His toes seemed to pop with each step, and his knees trembled loudly. His breath became white in the air and brushed against his face in glassy ting-ting-tings. Surely, this is a dream, he thought. “It must be a dream,” he said out loud to himself. His arm reached out to grab hold of the door handle, and a hand weakened by the chill of the air turned to gain access: locked. He pulled the door, but it wouldn’t yield. And, now, the sound: thump, thump, thump, thuddy-thud-thump. And the eery word-shaped sound: “Eyyyoooahhhlll”. The persistence of the sound now alarmed him, and he turned to run back to his house.
He ran, slipping in the damp grass and creating mud beneath his hurried steps. He found his backdoor was already open, like an arm waiting to wrap safely around him. But, he had no time to feel safe. The noise coming from the shed was growing louder and more panicked. He began to attempt to map out a way to open the door from the outside to free whatever was trapped without having to come in contact with it. The occasional raccoon or fox had taken up lodging in the large shed before, and become trapped after exploring and forgetting where it came in. This, though, sounded larger. And he feared he might find a much larger and fiercer creature waiting to maul him in sheer terror. Clothes. He needed clothing.
He ran into his room, nearly slipping on the runner in the hallway. He grabbed the first pair of pants he found on the ground - a pleasingly sturdy-feeling pair of jeans - and threw on the hoodie draped over the bedpost by his pillow. He felt emboldened, nearly safe. He laughed at his own uneasiness, and began to relax as he realized he had slept for nearly three hours without sleepwalking. His night terrors had been growing worse lately; an effect born more from boredom and disuse of his waking imagination than from actual fear. He often found himself wandering when this happened, sometimes far enough to consider bolting the doors at night or installing a security system to prevent him from being able to open the doors.
Now, he began to wonder if perhaps the noise he heard wasn’t simply his own heart racing as his body found itself sleepily creeping into the cool wetness of night’s inky canvass. After all, he had repaired the rotted hole in the attic where animals able to climb the trees near the shed had been sneaking into the structure. He held no stock in being a carpenter, but he had made sure to kick the repaired space a few times with his good leg, his kicking leg - the Havenford Hammer they called it! - before being satisfied with his handy work.
He breathed out slowly, determined. His imagination had gone wild again, and his own heartbeat was the sound he’d heard. He sank into the recliner by the bookshelf in his dining room and slid into a deep, satisfied sleep. There were no heartbeats, and there were no night creatures, and the trees yearned to stretch their skeletal limbs towards the sun.
A boat rocks on the sea,
Calling its lover by name.
The titan rolls ever free,
Lurching towards the end all the same.
My heart, my soul, my boon,
It purrs to the depths below.
My sun, my stars, my moon.
The Lady Sea stays silent, though.
A man finds himself at sea,
Aboard a ship he finds lost.
The man cries out “Save me!”,
But the ship knows the cost.
The seabed stretches to reach,
To touch and to comfort.
The Lady Sea cries to the beach,
Its voice roaring in the rocking port.
The sea and the ship,
Bound to each other through man,
Never to hold the other in its grip,
Nor hold the upper hand.
The man pays his toll,
And drifts into inky death.
The ship carries the soul,
And the sea takes his breath.
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.
Waking felt like a blow to the stomach, knocking the breath from his lungs and causing his fingers to curl around the end of the arm rests in panic. It was still dark in the house, and the night had become silent as it does when it knows it is about to retreat. His heart was racing and his mouth felt dry. There was a searing pain vibrating the right side of his head; he had fallen asleep with his ear being pinched between him and the back of the recliner, no doubt. He made ready to lean upright, and as he did so he fell backwards, the world spinning around him as he settled back into the groove his body had created in the cushioning.
That’s when he heard it: like the sound of blood pumping through a stethoscope, or the gauzy vibrations of a dance beat sneaking through cracks in the walls, a drumming noise - did it have a rhythm? - no, not drumming, an erratic thump, and then a louder, less staccato, THUD, with smaller echoes, as though even if it was surprised by its own noise. He put his hand to his chest, felt the rattling of his erratic heartbeat. He put his hand over his right ear, and realized he was deaf in it. Hadn’t his brother told him that if he put a finger in his ear, it would help pop it and make his hearing normal again? Even to him that sounded stupid - like a memory you don’t quite remember, but don’t have the heart to, either. No, someone else told him that. He didn’t want to think about his brother.
His brother had been missing for nearly three months now, without a trace, and the only evidence: a partial foot print near the backdoor, which was only unusual because it was bare. The police investigating the disappearance had taken to calling it “the Cinderella Case”, which amused most people so much they could barely keep a straight face while talking to him. In between their breathless and unnecessary apologies were the tiny cracks of a guilty smile trying to piece together. He laughed, too, when he could.
He nervously laughed to himself now, as he prodded at his ear to get his ear drum to pop. The force of his finger reaching into his ear had a watery effect. He began to imagine he was on a boat, listening to the waves lapping against the hull of the ship. And imagination gave way to concern when he realized the water effect was horribly realistic; indeed, so much so that he could feel it on his finger. It was sticky and warm, and he realized it was sliding down the side of his face. The tip of his finger had grown a shadow in its journey, now absorbed into the dark of his living room. Blood. He was bleeding from his right ear, and turning on the lamp next to the recliner revealed there was blood on his shirt and the chair.
He wasn’t laughing anymore.
He cupped his hand over the ear and ran to the bathroom down the hall, leaving shadowy handprints on the walls as he struggled to maintain balance. He threw open the bathroom door and switched the light on before he was even in the room fully. The majority of the right side of his face and body was covered in dark stains, and there appeared to be a small - but obviously harmful enough - cut or scrape in the cartilage of his right ear. It had been bleeding out for a while, judging by the sheer amount of blood he was wearing. Probably just scratched it in my sleep, he thought to himself. “I hope there’s no wires poking up through the upholstery,” he said aloud, but only to steel his inner voice’s resolve.
He’d check it in the morning, which was beginning to spread its fingers into the night already. He’d call out of work in the morning, clean the wall in the hall, and check the recliner for offending wires. He hoped the upholstery wasn’t in need of repair - it was pricey enough to have the recliner recovered only a few months ago. He hoped blood didn’t stain walls, but he saw them glowing on the walls, burned into his eyes seemingly, and wasn’t sure what he could wash them off with without destroying the paint. So, maybe he’d even paint the walls finally. But, in the morning.
He took his clothes off, threw them into a basket in his closet, and collapsed onto his bed, sleepily pulling the covers around him, like the caterpillar in its cocoon: secretly, it wanted to wake up a dragon, though a butterfly was probably easier, in most ways. He dreamed about dragons, and bats, and beastly moths larger than his house.
And he slept until mid-afternoon.
The beast knows not that it is a beast until man declares him so. To the beast, he is only himself, and does not see the wildness of his soul. This is what separates man from beast: we call ourselves men, and they do not know enough to name themselves. So, later, they are renamed “steak” or “strips”, and man knows now the devil he is, for he knows not enough of himself to call himself Wicked. This evil is not born, rather it is inherent, and man is too conceited to concede his flaw is anything less than supernatural.
At work, he was distracted and there were long stretches of time when he’d drift off inside of himself, as though he soul just curled into itself and hid in the husk of his body until presence was required. He’d learned to do this in therapy. He’d needed to work through a way to treat his anxiety. She helped him mute himself. Hide himself away. But keep the body running at full function. Projects came and went this way, coworkers came and went the same. And he’d pop back up in his husk and it would be time to pack up his belongings.
The exhaustion he felt from his sleep walking was robbing him of his powerful presence, denying him the ability to sparkle like so many gems set in the sun. He felt unpolished and dull. Still, he got through it.
He’d had to bandage the ear up for a while after that night. There were no wires sticking out of the upholstery, but he figured he’d probably ripped the wire out with his ear and it was lost to the floor in one way or another. The cut was significantly worse than he thought in his half-asleep daze; it nearly split the top of his ear in half. The doctor who stitched him up thought he’d been in a fight, or had a seriously irresponsible hair dresser. The truth is, he had been in a fight. It’s just the same battle every night, and there was no reason to believe it changed, or had the capacity to. He’d never harmed himself in his sleep before, not even on his longest and most frustrating sleep walks. But, it was a fight with himself every night to avoid sleep walking entirely. His hearing had returned slowly, and the doctor had told him that was entirely normal and that it was just the fluid that had dried inside his ear clearing away. He didn’t really think that was an accurate medical description, but didn’t have the meddle to question it until it was proven wrong.
While his ear was recovering from its unfortunate nightmare, he barely dreamt, or moved while sleeping. It was a sacrifice he promised he’d test again just to have the peace of sleep cradling him. He wondered how many body parts he could begin systematically injuring to distract his body while he was curled inwards in his husk. Above the waist only, or below the knees. When that shortened the list significantly, he decided that he’d wait to see if this happy accident would have lasting effects or not. He hoped that the small amount of blood he lost had caused some sort of brain damage, freeing him of his motor skills while unconscious.
The first time he found himself with wanderlust again, he found himself standing in his backyard - again. The ground was wet and soft from the rain earlier in the evening, and rain was still trickling down through the leaves of trees that were refuge from the storm before they were collaborationists. His boxers and t-shirt were clinging to him in some places, large spots of wetness binding them to his skin. He was by the shed this time, though, and the roses seemed so far away. Still half-asleep? He assumed so and thought better of attempting to wake himself while sleep walking. Thump, thump, thump. And this time it felt like his chest, or maybe he just felt it in his chest when his ears let the sound in. Thump, thump, thump, and a scuffle, or a scratch, or a thud. It was dark out, and he was slowly reaching his consciousness past the dream and into the drizzling reality. This time he needn’t have hurried back inside for clothing, but he had no light and the moon was new tonight, and, as such, didn’t know it was meant to light his way, or illuminate the shed.
So, to calm himself, or protect himself, he went back inside, popped a few sleep aids, and crawled into bed, winding the sheets around him as though he were an insomniac burrito: the best parts are invariably the parts you didn’t start with, but had to work for.
He moved from shadow to shadow in this world, barely anything more than a breeze and half as corporeal. Here he found himself on the edges of lives that were not his own, tending to them from the shadows but never interacting. He observed, he introduced things in their path to train them for some purpose - he was building an army of shadows, perhaps? He couldn’t discern the reason, if there was one. He stood beyond the borders of each life, a passenger without a driver. But, oh! They were lives. Millionaire playboys, depraved congressman in clandestine dives, bored housewives finding handy men to fix their broken marriages, or tear them down in the process. He stepped between them as though they were stepping stones along a garden path, balancing on them until the next was reachable. Stepping on lives, in the shadows.
A strange music was faint in the air. Its notes seemed to linger, wanting you to want to hear them. The longing they issued! It was like waves of distorted light crashing against each other, hoping to one day crash into you and shed a little light on your dark. But they existed just out of reach; their wave rolled on unbridled seas, and you were without a life vest. It was maddening being stuck in the shadows, and not being able to hear the music. People, his people, the lives he was watching, moved past him, meandering from moment to moment, and their throats vibrated with the soundless humming that began to mock him. How dare he be doomed to irrelevance while all of his people, his souls, his lives collected the glory for themselves, while the fat lady sang, but not to him.
Now, he found he could fly. Although, more specifically, he discovered he could do something he could only describe as flying. To him, it felt as though he were rearranging himself to be small enough to fit onto a particle of light, and that particle of light carried him where he needed to go. He, himself, was never mobile - just transported. Flying was still a passenger thing for those who lived on the outside of lives.
So he transported himself to the real world and took his body for a test drive.
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.
"Is this thing on?" The receptionist was tapping the intercom behind the glass. "Sorry, I can’t hear you. Let me figure out how to turn the INTAHHHCALM on." She had an annoying accent that asserted itself when she briefly raised her voice, needlessly, to emphasize that the intercom wasn’t on yet. Though, he suspected it was and she merely didn’t listen very well. He waited.
Finally, she stopped pushing buttons and told him to go ahead and tell her what he’d said when he’d first arrived in the office.
"Um, " he started, and cleared his throat, "I’m having some trouble sleeping, and I was wondering if Dr. Aurora is available for walk-ins. Sorry, I usually have time to schedule an appointment. But I was really hoping to, um, move past the issue this evening." He hated talking to her, and the way her eyelashes touched her eye sockets when she looked up with her eyes only. The way her mouth had two settings: open, and open with words spewing out of them in the wrong order. He steadied himself on the intake’s window ledge, gripping the ledge until his knuckles went white.
She shuffled through a few pages in her oversized desk calendar, then apologized because HR had instructed everyone to (she imitated quotations in the air above her head) “please move all calendars into the digital system for internal review”, whatever the fuck that meant (she said this while biting a corner of her lip in thought). She hadn’t remembered she’d done that this morning. Long day, ya know? Shut up, shut up, shut up. Shut. Up. He screamed at her in his head. Profanities and curses and hexes and poxes about her family. He thumbed his nose at her, visibly. He hoped this would cause some primal reaction inside her, a reaction to a perceived threat by an annoyed predator.
"Eh, I mean, I guess you can see him in 30 minutes. Can you wait that long? 30 MENNNNUHHHHTTSSS," she tapped the window while she screamed this into the intercom, "God damn it! Can you heahhh me? Is this POS broken again?!"
He nodded at her and took a seat, absent-mindedly glancing over the cover of a People magazine without investing his eyes in any actual words. His head hurt, and he was exhausted. His sleep walking had been getting worse, and he was beginning to hallucinate while he was awake. He slept, but his body got no rest. At night, he’d walk for blocks sometimes before finally stepping back into himself and ending the nocturnal stroll. He’d been having bad dreams about his brother, hearing things, obsessively creating scenarios about his whereabouts even in his sleep. Therapy had proved to be less of a help, especially after his doctor quit the practice and left without referring him (or the rest of her caseload) to another doctor less likely to take to flight suddenly. Dr. Aurora, his primary care physician, would hopefully provide him with a referral to a new specialist, or, and this was preferable, dip into the shallow well of his laziness and simply hand him a prescription for some intense pill to knock him on his ass and keep him there.
Dr. Aurora never stayed in the dark for too long, and his skin had a sickeningly healthy sheen to it no matter what time of day it was, or what state of stress his body found itself. And when the good doctor came through the waiting room doors asking for his next patient, he found himself lost in the grotesqueness of the doctor’s excess. For a moment, he felt lulled into a half-sleep, mesmerized, perhaps even hypnotized, by this oddity. Ever so slowly he regained control and limply raised his arm into the air to signal he was ready and sorry! he didn’t hear the doctor call his name over the lobby music! these damn songs are just so catchy, nearly collapsing under the colossal weight of each unerringly sincere add on.
He followed the doctor into his office and sat on the edge of the examining table like he used to as a kid. This same seating arrangement had seemed much less clandestine before he was able to differentiate between clandestine and fun. Dr. Aurora had not been his pediatrician, but he felt oddly childlike in his presence. The man carried himself in a way that seemed to say he ejaculated masculinity itself. It was both endearing and alienating. So, he withdrew halfway into his husk, peaking above the brim just enough to see and hear what was going on.
And that’s when he saw The Other. It seemed to be hiding just behind him, whatever it was. It looked like a shadow, but three dimensions had been bestowed upon it, giving the effect of a humanoid in a black, velvety body suit. It was holding his hands and posing him, using him like a puppet.
And the dream began, stealing him away from the alienating allure of the good doctor, and away from the mystery of The Other:
A wood clearing- that is, a large open circle in the middle of what appeared to woods. There were no roads or evidence of people near by. The trees surrounded him in undulating patterns that corresponded with the color of the sky in accordance with day and night palettes. It gave a distinctly trippy sense to everything around him, and he felt he must be in Wonderland. He expected to be greeted by the Caterpillar at any moment… the caterpillar wanted to be a dragon… didn’t he? The caterpillar… No, he became a butterfly in the end, as most caterpillars intend to become. He felt confused and lost within the dream, and he felt beyond the dream. Outside of it, almost. His thoughts weren’t sleep thoughts, and he felt awake, just robbed of consciousness. Or control.
And as he thought of caterpillars and dragons and butterflies, the trees twisted themselves together. They spiraled around each other, creating a long, spindly cocoon-like structure from cloud bottom to forest floor. The structure creaked in the wind, under its own weight, almost as though it were begging for relief from the whole exercise.
From inside the cocoon, a booming voice erupted. Several voices? The voice seemed to slide off of itself, like knives sharpening their sides off of each other. It twisted between the branches, splitting itself, listening and answering itself.
"You have no business here. You are not of the Forest, you are not of the Water, you are not of the Wind, you are not of the Flame. You, " the voice breathed around itself, "you are nothing without the blood you hold."
He looked down at his hands, and they were covered in blood. His? He touched his ear but it seemed completely normal now. The cut, once open to the world, was now a memory. Or a dream.