And while I slept I dreamt the most terrible dreams; the leftovers of our mangled memories, sewn together into one misshapen monster that dragged its ugly presence through each of our minds. I could hear its unsettling groan in each of their thoughts too, whoever they may have been. They didn’t tell me, but they didn’t need to. We share everything now, and their minds shiver with the half-suppressed silence of it’s skulking form. Their experiences were worse than mine though, for it was my body which we reside in, my dreams which take precedent, my thoughts which preside over all that they do. My fears and repulsions become theirs, they must echo each feeling I have, and with each one I can feel the wholeness of my pain. For me, it was nothing, simply repetitions of days gone by, of feelings I had already experienced. But for them, it was almost more than they could bear. I could hear their little voices whispering comments behind the glass of my eyes. Oh, how they wished I would stop remembering. They begged me to just sleep, but I couldn’t. For I knew that, if I did, they would take over my body, and giving up control like that would simply be impossible for me.
Luckily, I could ignore them quite easily. Though they couldn’t do the same for me. Still, their dreams did enter mine, until I could never be sure what were my memories, and what were theirs.
But as I got more, and more exhausted, I could no longer maintain control over my body. Instead of just watching, listening, inside my head, they would then come out of their hibernations and, I presume, take my place. It was as if I were sailing a ship upon a dark and turbulent sea, and when I got tired of negotiating the water, a simple passenger would have to take charge. I would hold on for as long as I could, but eventually I would be overcome. It disturbed me each time I woke up and came upon the middle of a dream that was not my own, as unsettled as if my body had just carried on normal life without me while I slept. Sometimes I was even in the middle of a conversation. But then, and all the more disturbingly, their memories would then sink into mine and it would be like I they had been my own, as if they were just my own forgotten memories. Until I could tell no difference between them and me, I feared that soon we would become as one, and my own self would be lost to this monstrous sea of thoughts.
Then the most horrible of dreams would come to me. I would be, we would be, sitting in a room. I could never work out what it looked like, just that I had a vague idea it was meant to be dark, old, dusty. Every time I tried to focus on the walls or the floor or anything it would fade like flimsy paper under my gaze, seeming to be more of an idea of a room rather than the actual thing. The people felt real, though: too real, perhaps. She would walk in, I knew she was meant to be my mother, or our mother, I could tell no longer.
She’d come in smiling, a tray of food in her arms. Kind eyes, brown hair tied up and fine lines around her eyes and mouth as if she were always laughing. She would place the plates down in front of me and tuck the tray under her strong, sinewy arms, looking down at me in wait for my reaction with a grin like she knew I would love it. And then I would reach out my hand, even though I knew what was going to happen. My body would move the same every time, frustrated as it was, it was like I was just watching behind glassy eyes as someone else made the same mistakes over and over.
I’d dart my eyes in my frozen body, looking for a way to escape this prison cell of a mind. But it would come down again, no matter what I did, the fork that was gripped in her hand. Slow motion, I’d watch the dark veins that pushed out of her tanned skin like they wanted to run as much as I did. Still, it would come down and the prongs of the fork would be stabbed deep into my hand, until I was stuck still like a pig and squealing like one too. And I’d bring up my dripping hand, looking at the metal that clawed out the other sides as if it grew from me, and watch its throbbing. Her face would be behind it, now thin, grey, hanging in weeping folds of skin. She would glare with eyes the colour of hate, pale as a snake and just as cold. After that I would be in a small space, maybe a box, and I would feel the heaviness above me and curl up like a tear.
I hated how it made me feel. Vulnerable. Even though I had never felt that way in my life, not that I could remember any of my life anymore. I just knew, I was too strong to have ever felt that way. I wasn’t broken like these people were. We were different. I was different. I would be the one to wake up. When these eyes opened, it would be me looking out from behind them.
I felt a dribble of warmth fall down my chin and choked into consciousness. I sat up, coughed up the liquid from my lungs and heaved a single shaky breath. Where was I? Directly in front of the brown armchair I sat in was the fireplace within which a fire crackled and hummed behind a gilded-metal fireguard, it’s light casting long, deep shadows that enveloped the small trinkets and curios littering the shelves and floor around it. I searched further, into the gloomier corners of the room, where walls of dark wood glowed richly in the light of the fire and tall bookshelves stretched ceiling high in the corners either side of the fireplace, all stacked full of old books with worn spines and titles in cracked gold lettering. Slowly, I inclined my head to the side and strained to look behind me, trying to ignore the protests from my aching neck. From what I could see of that wall, it was decorated with paintings in polished wood and gilt-gold frames depicting animals, people, landscapes, and flowers, with a space left just big enough to house a single walnut door: the only way out of the room. There was no light source apart from that that emanated from the fireplace, and as for the room itself, it was small and well-furnished, in a cosy, cluttered sort of way: the room of a scholar, even if a rather disorganised one.
I closed my eyes, already feeling my head ache even from the rooms low lighting, and let my ears search for any nearby threats. I heard nothing but the murmur of the fire. Drawing myself deeper under the pile of scratchy quilts, I resigned myself to half-sleep again, hoping against all hope that those dreams would not come to me again.
Instantly I was awake, eyes open wide, hairs prickling even under the warmth of my blankets. But, as my eyes raked the room, it soon became clear that there was no one there. I tried to settle my heart back down. Those people inside could feel my weakness. They began to mutter.
We need to get out, they whispered, as if talking right by my ear. My head jerked, and my hand whipped to my face against my control as if I was expecting someone to be there. Of course, there was no one. Just me, and a portrait on the wall of a young man with smiling blue eyes.
We must get out of here. The voices said. Run away, whoever you are.
My heart thudded under my ribs, the sound altogether too loud in the silent room but too quiet in my own head. In there, the conversation continued. I’m me, I thought, this is me. I looked down at my body, my hands and arms that were out of the covers. They were familiar yet alien in this dark, orange light. Were these my limbs?
Is it you? The voices said, do you even know who you are?
Well that made me think. I wondered what made me, me; searched for the memories that could anchor me to this body; soon noticed that there was nothing there, just my own voice echoing back as I thought, these very words echoing around the seemingly cavernous space. Shivers went up and down my arms despite the warmth in the room having risen to almost overwhelming levels.
We can hear you now, they said, thinking. You’re not certain, are you? You’re lost, just like us.
Lost? Yes, that was how I felt. Lost in my own head, our head, whoever we were. I felt sick. I ran a hand along my arms, trying to assure myself that that, at least, was real.
We’re real, no need to worry about that. They said, I could practically feel their breath on the back of my neck. Can’t you see our memories? Can you feel the fear in our thoughts? We’re as real as anyone. Maybe more real that you are.
Even the mention of those memories had me shaking. We could be in one now. I was just waiting for something to happen, for that door to click open and for that terrible woman to come in, all smiles, once again.
No worries, they crooned, this is no dream of ours. This one is real. Just look at the walls, you can see each detail, can’t you? You can read each book title, see each painting in detail, even trace the grain of the wood. We could not have imagined this. We are awake.
And with that, I was convinced.
We sure are glad you’re awake though. Your dreams are the most horrible by far.
How do you know they are mine? When we can hardly tell each other apart.
They stopped as soon as you woke up. Can’t you feel the fear is gone?
I could. But my fear was not. As I sat in that room, I felt a shudder down my spine.
They paused. You are tired. They said, voices in terrible union. We can take over from here.
And to the me that was suddenly tired again, that seemed like the best idea in the world. The voice faded into darkness and I into the pile of blankets, submitting to the forced peacefulness like soft hands were pulling me down.
Then I awoke, as if I was emerging from dark water. There was no fogginess, no fuzzy loss of clarity: as I opened my eyes the realisation that there was someone else sitting in the room was immediate. He was facing me, leaning on his hands with mouth half-open as if he were waiting for me to speak. My head jerked slightly and, as if sensing the movement, he raised furrowed his brow, a blue gaze on mine.
“So…you don’t know who you are?”
I stared at my hands. What did he know? What had they told him while I was asleep? I had been deceived, it seemed.
“You said that you didn’t, why?” Who had told him? It must have been one of those voices from before. They were quiet now. Silent. I could feel the tingling of their anticipation. They were waiting for something.
Then they let the rest of their memories flood back to me, and, all at once, it was as if I, myself, had been talking to the man. Only I knew I had been asleep. The recognition left me taken aback, causing me to completely disregard the man who sat, waiting, for my answer.
I knew now that he was the village doctor, he had told us that much. He had also said that he saved our life, that he had found us somewhere in the woods. I looked up as his fine-boned face, careful blue eyes, fair hair. He didn’t look like the type who took it upon himself to lie, but the best often do not. Still, the only feeling I got from the voices was quiet approval. They were not scared, and their contentment was urging me, too, to relax. I stared at the doctor, but slowly brought my arms down from where they had risen to cover my face.
He was looking at me quite strangely now, concern in the set of his mouth. I thought maybe it would be best to answer.
For now, I couldn’t let him know that I was somebody else than had been talking to him a second ago. That would be giving away too much, especially when I couldn’t even work out what was going on yet. Luckily, whoever had been talking before hadn’t given too much away, all they had said was: I’m scared. I don’t know who I am. That could even be seen as normal, considering the circumstances.
“I can’t remember a thing.” It was true, for now at least. I shook my head and looked down for effect, though I hardly needed to fake it.
He seemed to be convinced, leaning further forward with wrinkles forming on his rather large forehead despite him not being close to old. “Nothing at all? How very strange.” His voice was soft and calm, if a bit too sophisticated to be comforting.
Strange! I had to stop myself from laughing out. Yes, it certainly was strange.
He shook his head at me as if in pity, seeing the way I had reacted and misunderstanding it as terrified hysterics.
It was the kind of concern only an outsider could feel. Sympathy was something that frustrated me to no end, probably always had, it just seemed such a useless habit. And it was definitely wasted on someone like me. No matter how scared I was, pity was the last thing I wanted. Someone looking down on me as if they understood despite them not knowing half of what was going on inside my head. Someone inside my head seemed to appreciate it though. They tried to make me smile, to show him that I was okay. I wasn’t though, and I didn’t feel any need to pretend now that he had insulted me so.
He’ll get suspicious if you don’t start acting like a human being and stop glaring at him.
I huffed audibly. Really, what was more suspicious: someone who acts confused and unsure once they wake up in an unfamiliar place with no memories, or someone who immediately trusts the first person they see and starts revealing the deepest insight into his mind within minutes. Personally, I would never trust second person, if they weren’t insane they would have to be at least mentally unstable, or a liar, of course. Being honest, like I was doing, was the best route in my opinion. And I thought I could play the role very effectively, especially as I wasn’t even acting.
“Do you know your name?”
I looked back up, well aware I must have been making some strange expressions during this inner dialogue. His wire-framed glasses flashed in the firelight. Was he trying to trick me? I’d just told him I remembered nothing. He was looking at me expectantly, maybe I’d paused for too long. He was smiling slightly: too much, it made him look dumb. Was he just asking stupid questions or was this calculated? I couldn’t tell. No matter though; whatever his intentions were, my answer would not change.
“I guess you might want to know mine as well?” I said nothing. “Oscar Hirsch. Doctor Hirsch.”
He didn’t answer that. Just kept his pale eyes on me with that irritating air of calm. The silence just heckled me more. Like he was waiting for me to explain myself, when there was nothing to explain. The fire was creeping up the fireplace, tendrils licking the red brick and leaving sticky, black soot in its wake. I watched the marks glisten like tar as the fire moved and danced in its confines.
He put his hands together like he was praying, pressed it into his thin mouth and looked up at me over the top of his glasses. I narrowed my eyes. He was trying to make me uncomfortable. Scrutinising me and waiting for me to squirm. Well I wouldn’t. Even if I didn’t know who I was, I knew I wasn’t one to bend under pressure.
“Hmm…what about Noah?” He suddenly said, looking rather abashed. “No, I mean. Only if you don’t mind.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, for your name. I was just thinking that if you can’t remember yours maybe a new one would be better. Do you not like Noah? It’s quite fitting, it means rest and comfort, something I’m thinking you are owed enough of. Maybe it will bring you luck in that respect.”
Was he pretending, trying to catch me off guard? If he was, he was good at it. He really seemed a complete airheaded. I wasn’t prepared to underestimate people in my current condition though; if he thought he was going to gain my trust like that he had another thing coming.
You’re too pessimistic. I looked up at him, already glowering, but soon realised he hadn’t been the one to speak. It wasn’t him so…the voices had piped up again? They sounded a bit further away, a bit softer. Were they fading away? Perhaps the longer I was awake, the more tired they got.
Enough of that. They continued. He’s waiting for you to answer.
Ah, I looked up and the doctor was looking at me still. He was looking concerned again. I felt a prickle of annoyance. Funny how some things stay the same without your memories.
“Noah will do.”
He looked disappointed. “Oh, that’s good.” He laughed shortly. He shifted in his chair, a little uncomfortably. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to know where we are? Where we found you?”
We. So, there were others.
He didn’t wait for an answer this time. “This, of course, is the Akaimori village. We found you on a hunting expedition in the forest, the Greta.” Akaimori. Didn’t ring a bell. Then again, I shouldn’t expect it to when I couldn’t even remember my own name. “I’m afraid there is bad news.” His eyes looked almost silver as he shook his head. “That was our last hunt of the year. The village has been snowed in. There’s no way in, and no way out. There won’t be until the winter has passed, in at least three months’ time.”
I would have to stay here, fore three whole months. I had only been awake for minutes and I was already looking for a way out. This space felt as if it were closing in on me. The walls of ice I now knew were forming outside with every second passing were falling down around us. We would be stuck here, and I would be stuck inside this crowded head, until I could find out what had happened, and where I had come from. The only clue I had now, was that I had come from the other side of this forest. I needed to get out to find out where exactly, and hopefully find a way out of this mess. I truly was trapped, in more ways than one.
He lifted up a piece of cloth I hadn’t noticed was on his lap. “You were wearing this. Recognise anything about it?” He passed me the cloth and I took it into my hands after just a short hesitation. As he passed it my skin brushed against his hand: tanned and rough against the pale ghostliness of mine. He quickly drew it away though, and I was left with nothing but the feeling of the stiff material of the garment. I grasped it as if this flimsy thing could somehow contain the answers I sought. It was white, or perhaps another pale colour, I couldn’t tell in this orange light. The cut was shapeless, some all-in-one uniform. But, as I lifted it up to inspect it further, I saw a great stain, a dark russet brown, like rust on a white-washed wall. I grimaced. Dried blood, it seemed. My blood. I traced it with my fingers, shaking slightly. Something had hurt me. How was this possible?
I gulped, hoping the voices couldn’t detect my fear but knowing that they could, and stuffed the cloth in the gap between my legs and the arm of the chair, careful to turn the bloody-mark away from me. I didn’t want to see it now, didn’t want to think about what this meant for me. That to retrieve my memories I would have to go back in the direction of something or someone who had been able to hurt me, that I may be walking back into the mouth of the lion as I did.
A slow sense of dread settled in the back of my throat, stinging the back of my eyes with its pin-like hands. “No.” I said. “I remember nothing.”
You lie. The voices spoke gently from somewhere far behind me. We remember some. We were running, do you not recall? From someone, something, that was chasing us. You remember. You were as scared as we were.
I was not scared. I told them, answered only by their laughing silence as they knew I lied.
“What about your face? Do you know what you look like?”
I zoned back into his speech, shaking my head, and waiting as he reached over and picked up the hand-mirror on a shelf by his side. How he knew where anything was in this place, I did not know. He handed it to me gilded handle first, cautiously, as if he might spook me.
He did not know it was not he I feared. I took it, feeling its weight in my hands, and lifting it level with my face. My gaze migrated upwards, stopping on the dirt-filled nails of my hand for a bit before I lifted it up to meet the reflection’s eyes. Even as I did so, anxiously, my heavy breaths had left a cloudy haze over the cold metal, so my vision of the face was like looking at it through ice.
I must have taken too long because he stole it from my grasp.
I reached out instinctively to catch it.
He looked at my face. Smiled. What did he see? He rubbed the mirror with his sleeve. “Just got a bit of condensation.” He faced it towards me again and firmly wrapped my searching hand around its handle. “There you go.”
Gold eyes met mine. They were burnished, large and tawny like an owl’s, tilting down where the dark eyebrows lay straight across the forehead. They glared from deep within a round of purple like a bruise, hung over with long lashes and cast into deep shadows by the low brow bone which cut deep and straight across the face. I studied further, the jaw and nose were fine but squarely angled, only the cheekbones widened it to a softer oval shape. The face itself was pale too, with a mouth so red it looked cracked and sore, and hair as wild and white as sheep’s wool, a tangle of curls and frizz, still a little damp from the snow outside. I grabbed a loose lock that hung in front of my eyes. This was me.
“Surprised to see your own face? Well, I suppose it’s been through a bit of wear and tear since you last saw it.” The doctor spoke again, his voice still as soft as before, though there was a bit of humour there where there hadn’t been before.
Surprised? More like the sinking feeling in my stomach was getting heavier. “Yes.” I said. The face I saw looked weak, scared. Angry. It gave me no hope.
We have hope. The voices hummed. I could almost hear the click of their tongues as they spoke, though it could have just been the crack of the fire.
There was something moving in the mirror. My eyes flickered back to the ones that stared at me, it was already watching, glaring. There were great marks melting down its face. Dripping molten gold in the fire-light. Tears. I was crying. Or not me, one of these people was making me cry.
I didn’t want to take my eyes from it, but I knew that the doctor was watching me. A pitying look like I was a patient, a casual curiosity. I hated it.
He just wants to know why you are sad. The distant voices admonished. He wants to help.
But I couldn’t trust as easily as they could. It was not in my nature to trust, especially when as cornered as I was at that moment. And the doctor, too, should not trust me. If there was anything I knew, it was that.
“Okay then.” I thought it was them answering me again, for a bit, but, of course, it was the doctor. His voice was a whisper just like theirs, I could hardly hear it though he was only a meter from me in this silent room. He appeared awkward. “Do you want to go to bed for now?”
Did I? Somehow the shock I had gotten woke me up completely, I was no longer tired, but I didn’t want to be with him anymore. He would leave me alone if I said yes. And I needed time to think alone, or as alone as I could be.
“Yes.” Now I was quiet too. My voice came out like a croak. A sob.
But he didn’t leave, as I had hoped, instead he offered his hand. Rather than take his, I pressed my palms into the squeaking leather and pushed myself onto my feet, leaving smudged handprints on the surface. The blankets slipped off and I saw I was wearing what looked like a long button-up shirt. Glancing up at him I realised it was probably his, after all he was a lot taller than me, and stood with his head bent as if he were used to ducking under door frames. It stirred around my knees as I followed his gesture towards the doorway that led out of the room gestured me out of the room, forcing me to walk under his arm as he held the door open after I had stood at it for a moment, not quite sure what to do. I scowled as I did. It irked me to have anyone above me, whether they had the choice or not.
You know he’s just trying to be nice. The voices said. Maybe I did, but I didn’t have any time to think about it. He was walking behind me down the thin corridor, making me nervous. I wanted to turn, but I didn’t want to show any weakness. Instead, I sped up as I walked, going steadily faster in my attempt to avoid him getting too close. It didn’t work though, with ease he kept up, even, at one point, stepping past me to unbolt a door that I hadn’t even spotted for it was decorated in the same wood-cladding as the walls.
“Wait.” He called to me as he flicked open the latch and let it creak open by itself, groaning on rusty hinges. “After you.” He waved me forward. A triangle of light from the corridor shone onto the dull wood of the first step of the staircase beyond, I could see from the shadows that the other steps led off to the left.
He wanted me to go up first? He must be joking. For all I knew, he would lock me in the dark as soon as I stepped onto the first step. “You first.” I told him. He waited, and I wondered if he would say no, my heart beating. I almost hoped he did because then I would know that there was something wrong. Then I could fight at least. I couldn’t fight uncertainty.
He nodded and took the first step, stooping under the low curve of the ceiling, the white paint above him glistening, though it was flaked in patches to reveal the rough white-wash beneath.
I followed him only after he was a good three steps ahead of me. The wood cracked and squeaked as I shifted upon my bare feet, feeling the rough grain of each plank on my skin, and trying to avoid the great, gaping cracks that split some of them, though all that they revealed was the even deeper darkness below. There was no bannister, I could only feel my way using the bumpy wall in the darkness, and the stairs were steep and narrow in a way that made me think I would fall if I leaned even the slightest amount backwards. So, I searched the steps before me with my palms, making sure they didn’t suddenly stop at some point ahead of me. Cautious as a dog. He had reached the top already and stopped before I had crawled my last few steps and attempted to recover some decency by straightening my back. I took in my new surroundings quickly and with urgency, there was simply a small landing, straight in front was a barred window, and to the left and right there lay one more step up and beyond that each side had a single door. The air smelt of dust and not much else: maybe the faint scent of old wood and something musty in the depth of the crimson rugs that adorned the plain wood floor that already seemed to be threatening to prick my bare feet with splinters.
“You may have amnesia.” He said, surprisingly loud and close, making me jump. “It’s when you forget things. Normally it’s caused by a head injury, but trauma could have similar results.”
What was he talking about? Ah, my memories. I wondered why he cared what I suffered from. It wasn’t like he would get anything out of it even if they returned to me. I certainly wouldn’t have cared for such things, and him doing so only made me more suspicious of the man.
The voices, if they had chosen to speak up at this moment, would have said that he was only worrying for me. But I trusted them about as much as I trusted him. My memories were my own problem. None of them had anything to do with it. I would retrieve them with my own power. Amnesia, he had said. Like knowing what it was called would help me any. I smirked. Maybe he thought he could help me. I just didn’t care enough to accept anything like that.
Still, he looked at me expectantly, so I nodded just to get him to carry on. He led me to the right, towards the door at the end of the landing. The room he beckoned me into was not large, and its ceiling sloped low, almost meeting the top of the door frame, making it feel even smaller. The walls were painted white but the yellow layers underneath were visible where the glossy paint had peeled off in strange shapes. It had a big window at least, though it was dark out and it was criss-crossed with tight squares of dark metal that made it as closed as a prison cell. There were no curtains and not much furniture save a mahogany bookshelf and a rough, wooden chest at the foot of the bed, the bed being on the furthest side under the window and covered in yet more crimson rugs with a high wooden frame like a cot without sides.
I wanted him to leave so I went and lay down upon the bed like I was tired. He stood for a bit, not sure what to do, and then sort of waved his hand and strode back out, latching the door solidly behind him. I immediately rolled off the bed and onto my toes, crept over to the door and inspected it, but found there was no bolt. I glanced around to see if there was anything heavy I could push in front of it, perhaps the book case, no, it was too big to move with all those books in it: overflow from his collection I supposed. There was the chest though, it looked decently heavy as well, but low enough that I could slide it across the floor without too much chance of it falling. I didn’t want him to hear, and I must be extra careful, after all he could be close by still, as I was yet to hear the creak of the stairs at his descent. To ensure he would detect nothing even if he had his ear pressed against the very wood of the door, I pushed the chest slowly, in increments, leaving it lodged against the door. I considered, briefly, sitting atop of it so that no one could get in without me knowing about it, but soon dismissed the idea. The thing looked even more uncomfortable than the cot that was its alternative, and I didn’t have enough energy to put myself through such effort even with the insistent palm of fear upon my back pushing me to. This would do fine. It probably wouldn’t stop anyone getting in, but, hopefully, it would slow them down, and I was almost certain that the sound of the door hitting that chest would rouse me from any deepness of sleep. Not that I was planning on actually sleeping.
I sat back on the end of the bed and looked out of the window. As I’d predicted, there wasn’t much to see. A lane, a river, some fields to the left that seemed to merge into the forest directly behind the house. The trees were thick with darkness, which turned the familiar green of the foliage to a glowing blue which arced into swaying pines and towering oaks that jutted into the moonlit skyline.
Haunting. An ancient, ghostly ruse. So old, it barely knew what it was, now with animal eyes staring up at me even as I looked down at it, and calling me with song like a woman wailing in the night. And to think it was there I had been found, birthed with the winter snow from the very forest itself. Its child.
My eyes darted to the side as I saw a shadow flicker, through the distorted glass I could see a shape, a face. Not a human one, thankfully, but it stared back at me with strange yellow eyes very much like a person would. Soon, though, it turned on grizzly haunches and sank back into the undergrowth as if it had never been there at all. I elbowed one side of the window open, sending it shuddering into the night cold, and stuck out my head, reeling as it pinched my cheeks with icy fingers. My breath melded into the clouds of mist that slunk around the trees in steady slowness. I searched the tree-line like that until I could stand the cold no more, but saw not a single flash of yellow eyes in the darkness. The beast was gone.
I pulled the window shut and shoved down the stiff lock down to secure it. Laying back, I was thankful to the moonlight which softly illuminated the room where it would otherwise have been in pitch darkness. I could even make out the shape of an attic hatch close above my head. Though the rugs were itchy and uncomfortable, I curled up inside them so that the least touched me as possible, and was able to get comfortable enough to let my eyes wander the room, carefully watching every dark crevice from which something could crawl.
Eventually my eyes had closed, lulled by the hooting owl outside and whirls of wind pressing against the window, but then I heard a click above me. The attic door? My eyes jolted open whilst I kept my body deathly still so as not to alarm the creature. But, yet again, there was nothing. I watched the hatch door for so long I could have sworn I saw the gap between it and the ceiling widen fractionally, but I knew it hadn’t moved. It was the room that was getting darker and darker. The moon was disappearing behind the fat night-time clouds, and the shadows in the room were lengthening as its forgiving light vanished.
Without its great eye on me, the beating of my heart grew louder still. I tried to still it and turned over, away from the attic door, so that I was facing the wall and the window. I pulled the quilts up over my neck so that, even if there were something behind, all they would see was a bundle of rugs upon the bed. But still my eyes stayed relentlessly open as they studied the moulting patterns in the paint, imagining patches looked like faces in the dark. I pulled up the blankets even further, so that they half-covered my face, closed my eyes tight, and tried to fall again into the darkness. The voices had been silent for some time now. All that was in my head was the drum-beat of fear, and it only grew louder as there was a tap against the wall which had prickles shivering down my spine. Where had it come from? The solid sound came again, a tap, tap like a knuckle upon the wall. From below my bed. A creak from the other side of the room. I wanted to turn and look but I was frozen in my place. Instead I strained to see if there were shadows moving on the walls. Nothing.
I squeezed my eyes closed to a sound like a fingernail raking across the wall below me, the creaking sound of her moving beneath the bed and the catch of her skin on the floorboard splinters. I could see her eyes, red round and bulging, move close to the space between the wooden slats of the bed frame and the wall, and see her peer through, a triangle of dim light highlighting her darkness. She could hear my ragged heartbeat against the thin mattress and her thin fingers would reach up and hold the slats, so she could get even closer. Her ear pressed against the bed as she searched the area for the one directly below my heart, with sharp teeth pulled into a wicked smile.
And then she would be quiet. Waiting for the wind to blow and disguise the moan of the floorboards as she slithered across them. But I could feel the pull on the mattress as she gripped it with twisted, purple fingers. I could see the darkness rise as she pulled up her dark head over the foot of the bed, pulling the solid shadows with her like a cloak.
If I looked long enough, I could even make out the pale mark of her face within its shaggy mane as she crept closer like a light-burnt smudge. Suddenly, every inch of my skin that protruded from the covers became colder and each liquid pulse beneath my skin felt as loud as if it was in my ears. I squeezed my eyes closed and let my other senses search. They could feel the cold touch even before it reached my skin, tensing and curling my toes away as if the reaching fingers were made of ice. As her long body slipped over the bed, the scaly rasp of her skin on mine was so cold that it felt wet. Wet as the hot breath that panted on my face and smelt like smoke and burning wood. A cold touch again, just a shiver against my cheek.
I had to open my eyes. I could imagine the coolness was metal as it slithered up my cheekbone, a lazy blade in her hand as she decided where to cut. She was waiting.
I peeked up through my lashes into the blurry darkness. Wild locks fell above me, gnarled and shining with grease. The cracked visage of her face glistened wetly like scales in the blue light. Her serpent-like body curled in the darkness and her mouth glowed rank with spittle and snatches of pink gums. Damp palms licked my face, trailing tears down my chin, and she whispered to me. “You’re all I have”, she said in a voice soft as rainfall, “All I love. You, and this beautiful country.” But, soon, all that softness turned to battering and screaming, until she was spitting the words down at me. “You left me,” she shrieked, “burning, and joined my enemy. Betrayed me. You can never be redeemed.” Her black rimmed bug-eyes were wild and stormy as her voice turned shrill and then faded. And then she just looked at me, with her yellow stare, and closed her eyes. Yellow stare? That was wrong. And even as I looked, she seemed to fade into insubstantial light, the net of the curtains streaming in the wind let in by the swinging window.
My eyes jolted open. A dream? But how could it be? I felt like I had run for miles, tossed and turned and stumbled through bracken and branches and fern. My heart was hard and beating like an alien thing within my chest, stirring of its own accord as if it were awakened only by the panicked fear that stank like sweat and slipped down my back smooth as snakeskin. I sat up with shaking arms and surveyed the bright white of the room. Empty, swept clean by the clear light of the sun through the glass and the harmonious twitter of birdsong as the little creatures flittered around the trees. But the window was open, though I was sure I had closed it last night.
I turned my soaked pillow over and fell back down onto it, arms spread out to cool my skin. I could still feel welts down my calves from the whipping stems, and the wet mud that had glazed my knees as it turned to gritty soil that rubbed my skin raw. I held my hands to my knotted head and raked my fingers through the hair there. The motion calmed me, so with each movement I felt myself sink deeper into the mattress as if it was as soft and fat as pelt. I was almost asleep yet again when I heard his creak across the landing. It dripped dread into my veins.
He knocked on the door. I swung my legs over the side of the bed. “Are you awake?”
“I am.” My voice was cracked, he didn’t hear.
“Hello?” He knocked again, I was worried he would try to open the door. The chest was still in front of it, and I didn’t want to have to explain my paranoia, which seemed silly now, in the light of day.
“I am.” I called, louder, and felt a whisper of breath on the backs of my ankles. I stood up and lunged over to the other side of the room, before couching there to see if there was anything under the bed. Nothing but dust and floorboards. I held my face in my hands and sighed. This place was driving me insane: I must leave, as soon as possible.
He must have heard me move, for he stopped knocking. “Are you going to come downstairs?”
What would get him to go away? “Yes. I’ll come down in a minute.”
“Okay!” He sounded happy. Looking down on me, I thought. He’s probably thinking that something as simple as talking was an achievement for me. Presuming that I wasn’t talking to him because I was shy or had problems and not considering that maybe I was holding myself back because I don’t trust him. And for good reason too. I hated people like that. The ones that refuse to look below the surface of other people’s motivations, thinking that the only value was in being open and simple like them. They supposed that they’d already got you sussed, thought that they were good and kind for even bothering to talk to you. It was people like him that rid our world of all interiority, all the complexities that cannot easily be communicated. They thought the only good was in transparency, but it’s them that stifle it with their constant expectation that everything should be understood. Sometimes things are meant to be pondered, to be thought upon, but these are the things that shy away from dissection and discussion. They cannot be solved, and they aren’t meant to be solved. I was one of these things. My mind right now was beyond even my understanding and there he is acting like he’s bringing me out of my shell by calling me downstairs where I know he’s going to try and get me to explain what is going on. If he thinks I’m going to talk to him just because he saved me or something he’s wrong. I would rather leave here than try to explain everything to him.
I wasn’t going to try and tell him anything or trust him with those the things. I don’t want to have to see him try and solve my mind as if it was a problem to be fixed. And one that he could fix, just to add insult to injury. I could give him a glimpse of my mind, just to scare him off but that would be counterproductive. After all I needed somewhere to stay while I tried to understand what to do next. I need him, for now. I wouldn’t do it purposefully then if he continues trying to figure me out I was going to start by telling him just how irritating I find him. I would stop holding back. I grinned widely and stretched like a cat, pulled the chest from the door, and wondered down. If we were going to make this situation work, he was going to have to respect my space.