Friday, 13 May 2011


Night filled me with dread. That the world turned black, leaving windows like sheets of obsidian against which my little brother's face resembled something my reptilian cortex clearly remembered, was bad enough. Beyond lay strange noises, cries of marauding wolves and phantom babies that grown-ups dismissed as dogs and cats. But the worst was the bed. There I sat alone, and unarmed, swaddled in flannel and bound by bedclothes. In such a state, I was completely vulnerable. Anything might happen. I had no clear idea what, but it was awful, and certain.

Interesting now to think that I once feared the dark. As I grew, I came to prize the cover of night, the protection of a nocturnal forest, the kindness of a dark room. But at seven, that very darkness manured my nightmares. My lifeline, and the only power standing between me and destruction, was a paper-thin beam of light slicing in from the hall. The door was kept cracked for just this reason, so that a sliver of day would fence my bed from the darkest corner of the room.

As I was (and am) also an insomniac, bedtime was almost as stressful on my parents as it was on me. First came the operatic resistance, then the serial interruptions in television shows as they stalked back down the hall to threaten me with ill-defined but horrific harm if I didn't "go to sleep right now." As if sleep were a place to which I could simply walk, in my striped pyjamas.

One night my mother happened to glance through the narrow gap on the way to the bathroom and find me seated on the floor, reading Dr. Suess by that thin reed of light. The shout that followed sent the book flapping like a flustered chicken. I can only guess that she had parried one too many of my counter-recumbence tactics that night, and a vain hope of peace had been rudely extinguished.

Taking scarcely a terrestrial step I dove headlong into bed, vanishing deep beneath the covers before I'd even touched the mattress. Outside my mother continued raging, while I curled into a fetal posture and pinned my last wager on science.

For as any child knows, children's blankets are made of some advanced space-age stuff -- possibly Kevlar -- and are fully UL-rated against ghosts, prowlers, and middle-weight monsters. They may also be effective against parents, if, upon finding no head protruding from the bedclothes, these last conclude they must not have had children after all, and withdraw. No blanket is soundproof, however, and so I was able to determine that this hadn't worked this time.

At length my mother wound up with the observation that if I couldn't be trusted with an open door, she could damn well close it. Followed by a slam, and silence.

Here was bad news. I popped out, already terrified, and found the situation exact. The air was pitch-black, and opaque as cast iron. The door was closed.

It's hard to describe, or explain, the horror of that moment. It engulfed me like fire, scorching away all trace of reason. I only knew that whatever hid in the dark each night, waiting for just this opportunity, was in that very instant converging on my bed. It was big and vicious, able to shred a child's blanket with a single swipe of its nondescript paw. And it was horrible, too horrible to face. I screamed in the dark, begged for the door to be opened, hot tears pumping down a face that a second before had been dry. But there was no response.

For some reason it never occurred to me to get up and open the door myself. Being decapitated by a giant praying mantis was one thing; a spanking was quite another. But I was otherwise completely disabled by panic, chest heaving as I sobbed, quilt clutched to my sternum. A pounding heartbeat, maybe two, and whatever it was, would happen. And I'd be dead.

Not the dead you get playing army. Actual dead.

And then a strange thing happened. Something did surge out of the dark. It came from 'way down, 'way down to the first rung of a long, twisted staircase, from a place so black and estranged to light as if it had never been.

But this thing came not from my room. It came from me.

Something angry, arrogant, powerful, climbed my spine. Undaunted. Unafraid. Something...


"Rrrrright, then!" it snarled, in my voice. "So et's eatin' me ye're aboot?" Well, GET ON WI' IT, ye blatherskate!"

Even in the dark I could feel my eyes burn red, my teeth gnash each syllable.

"Come 'n' get me, ye gory great monsters!" I, or It, continued. "But I'll STICK IN YER THROAT on the way doon!"

I'm not entirely certain I was speaking English. It might have been Gaelic. It might have been whatever we spoke before Gaelic. But the words came from deep, down where the peaty black water laves the gates of creation, where things live that intellect denies. And the thing would retreat not an inch. Not so much as the breadth of one unearned blade of grass.

"Och," I cried, "STEP UP, ye pukin' milksops!"

No roar, no attack answered. Not a rustle. I sat bolt upright, quivering not from fear, now, but fury. My small fists clenched to hammers, and I was avid to ply them. To be sure, I was still aware of my tininess. I knew the big-scaries would probably just laugh and bite me in half. But this was no longer about winning. Or even survival. This was about giving as good as I got. This was about honour.

I scanned the shadows again, fixedly, panting, but no longer crying.

I cocked my head toward the murky space beneath the bed. Nothing afoot there, either. Nothing breathed in that room, seen or unseen, except me.

Since that night it's been harder to frighten me with darkness, harder to threaten me with solitude. Lurid tales no longer run me. Hysterical exhortations to strike a shadowy enemy before it strikes me. Imperious demands that I not look under the bed, "for my own good." Because I've learned a truth too true to be unlearned.

The monsters are pantywaists.

(From Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson.)
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