Where do we go when the dark creeps in, when the shadows loom over us and whisper terrible things in our ears? You know that emptiness that fills our stomachs, that’s our spirit leaving us, going deeper into the cold place, the place where light does not exist. This is the place where suspicions and doubt wash around us like an icy winter squall, wrapping us up in a suffocating cloak of despair. When we get there loneliness is the only thing we have to hang onto, faith and hope have no place here, if you have any…hide it, keep it from site, keep it safe, hidden somewhere beyond the reach of despondency. Down here pain is the only thing you look forward to, you expect it, you want it, your desire eventually turns to a need for pain which makes you feel alive, and we all have an innate, instinctual drive to remain, to survive, and to suffer.
He opened his eyes; it felt like it was the first time in years. He’d been asleep, for how long he didn’t know, but he had, and now he was awake. As his eyes darted back and forth trying to focus he realized there was no light, it was darkness that had entombed him, and it was cold, very cold. The darkness was oppressive, almost claustrophobic. It pressed against him with heaviness, a feeling he couldn’t get out from under. He sat up, swung his feet around and went to place them on the floor but the floor seemed to bite at his feet. Suddenly it donned on him that he was naked, so he pulled at the covers with which to wrap himself in, to conceal his vulnerability, as he did so he fumbled with his other hand at the side table where he found a drawer. When he attempted to open it, the drawer stuck fast, he tugged and pulled on it, then he quickly yanked it and the drawer flew out and landed somewhere in the darkness, he could hear things tumble from it out onto the cold floor.
He was afraid to move, he didn’t know what lingered in the darkness but he knew he needed to find a way out, he sought warmth, for his body was frigid, his mind numb and his heart struggled to beat as it seemed his blood had grown thick and slow. So he lowered himself to the floor and on his hands and knees he crawled away from his bed, across the floor that felt like it was sucking any warmth he had left from his legs, his knees hurt, his hands and fingers stiff. He wandered through the darkness, his thoughts struggled to find sense of it, some remembrance of a time when there was light, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw, the last time his weary eyes were laid upon anything but the dark void. He yearned to hear something other than his own bones creak. He had a faint memory of him sitting on a beach along a river; the sand was warm and the water shimmering under the afternoon sun. Oh how he wanted to feel that again, but the memory is now just a dream, a fantasy, an image in his mind that plagues him, and haunts his spirit.
For long periods of time he would search for the drawer and its contents that spilled out from it, but to no avail, and then he would pull the tattered covers up under him, lay down there and fall asleep again, he would dream dreams of distant things, echoes of memories that seem to float by him just out of reach, he’d seen them in the corners of his eyes and then they’d disappear as he would turn around to address them. It made him sad but he no longer cried; that time had passed, now just a faint thought, a flicker in the distance. He’d grown numb, and he was in emotional arrest. As he rolled over on the hard floor he landed on something, he slid his hand under his chest where the object was to grab it before sitting up for fear of losing it, he caressed it with his frozen fingers, it was silky, it was flat on one end and seemed eviscerated at the other. It was a candle, thin and short, but it was a candle. He held onto it tightly, like a lover’s grip. The surface of it was warmer than his hand; he curled his calloused fingers around it and continued crawling around on his closed fist, looking for something, anything he could use to light it. His throat tightened, his breath shallow, the cold air he inhaled carried out with it any warmth that still remained in his core. He was feeling suddenly desperate; and that was an improvement. But where there exists desperation there is desire, want, need. So he crawls on through the darkness.
After a while he came across something else, it was heavy and had a chain attached, he felt around and figured out it was an old pocket watch, when he put it to his ear he could hear it tick. An inanimate object that moved, that lived, it had a successive beat, and it was the only other thing here that seemed to suggest life and it gave meaning to time. It made this very moment important, it was beginning and end, it was both future and past, marking lineal progression like his own weakened, but beating heart. He wrapped the chain around his other hand and dragged it along with him as he crept. The tops of his feet scratched and sore, raw from sliding them along the floor, his wrists hurt, as did the knuckles on his right hand but he would not open his hand until he found something to light the candle he held carefully inside, he would not take that chance. So he kept his fist clenched, protecting the candle, the idea of something warmer, something brighter, something that might light his way to safety.
While he moved slowly for days through immense obscurity he could hear the ticking of the watch, it seemed to tick louder now, as he crawled dragging the watch, the metal against the icy concrete floor it made a sharp screeching sound. Then when he paused the ticking grew ominous and irritating in his ears. It became the only thing he could hear, over the shuffling of his feet and hands, over the grinding of the metal against the floor and over the beating, the slow, tired beating of his heart. How long could he last, how many times could he lay down and get back up again, he began to think he was going mad, nothing seemed real, even the pain had subsided, he couldn’t feel his now bloody knuckles, or the hurt from the floor to his bare knees. He just kept meandering through the dark. At some point he didn’t even think about it any longer, he just moved along, he didn’t think about anything, he didn’t dream about anything, he didn’t remember anything. Tick, tick, tick the watch would sound the moments as they passed, mechanically, methodically he moved along without intention.
Then one day as he shuffled along he realized he no longer had his candle, his hand was open and he didn’t have the candle, he didn’t know when he’d lost it, maybe as he slept, maybe somebody stole it, but there is nobody else. Just him and the dark and his watch, that damned watch, he couldn’t stop it, and he can’t even read it, it just ticks and ticks all the time. He got so mad he threw the watch, he could hear it hit something in the distance and it sounded like it broke apart, he could hear all of the pieces fall to the floor and it sounded like they scattered, the glass bezel, the hands, the tiny little gears inside. His heart began to race, he started to sweat, he could feel it roll down his back and he fell to the floor, his face and his chest lay there, his arms and legs splayed out in every direction, his hands sliding across the floor searching for his candle frantically. And in the dark, he felt something with his toe, he stopped suddenly, he didn’t move for a long time, he could feel the edge of something with his big toe, he didn’t dare wiggle it, he just slowly twisted his body, sliding along the concrete until his hand reached his leg, then he slid it along his shin to his foot and then to his toe, then he methodically stretched, slowly, carefully, and there, lying on the floor under his toe was a book of matches, he pressed it between his fingers, he manipulated it open and could feel a number of matches still attached.
His face was now covered in sweat, it dripped into his eyes and stung, but he accepted it, even welcoming it, it hurt but it was something and he had hope now, he knew somewhere out there was a candle and he had matches, he just needed to find it again. But without a reference he didn’t know which way he came from nor which way to turn, so he turned in a circle, an ever widening circle, he became adept at knowing where his previous circle was by sensing the heat left behind on the floor by his hands as he went along, but the wider his circle became, the fainter the heat trace was. For days it seemed he kept turning, circle after circle not knowing where he was going, he just knew to keep going and then there it was, he’d forgotten why he was even moving, why he was there but there it was, under his hand, he stopped and just sat there and held it, it was soft, turned warm in his hand, it seemed to fit so nicely, it didn’t want of anything, it was just there for him. It made him feel good, and he held it up against his chest, he thought he’d never have it again. Then he wept silently for a bit. Hope is a funny thing, it can provide a reason to continue, it can offer solace in times of great need and suffering, a man will just keep moving, travelling without even being aware of why he is travelling, but he just knows, somewhere deep inside him he knows he must continue on, it can save a man’s life, but take it away and it will end it.
He sat there, caressing the smooth surface of the candle, he was afraid to light it. He had now the candle and the means to bring it to life. Yet there he is, in the darkness, paralyzed by what he might see. Right now he doesn’t know what he doesn’t see, if he lights that candle and doesn’t like what he sees, even if he extinguishes the candle, that something will still be there, it cannot be undone. As he knows it now, the dark is safe. Albeit cold, lonely and frightening, but he knows how to operate here, he knows the dark, lighting the candle is risky, it’s dangerous.
Finally he ready’s himself and strikes a match, he is so taken by the site of site, that one little match burns fast and furious and all he can do is look straight at it until it burns his fingers and goes out. For a brief moment he saw it, he felt it, the very thing that elevates man over animal. He is so distraught at the sudden darkness again that he almost drops the candle and the matches but holds on, takes a deep breath and grips the candle in his left hand and the matches in his right. He folds the cardboard match back against the booklet and strikes it, it sizzles to life, he slowly brings the two together and the candle takes the flame with force and the match burns out. But there in the darkness, there is light, beautiful, shimmering, dancing firelight, whirling and snapping back and forth. He could see it, it was wondrous and he could feel the heat and smell the sulfur too. He brought the candle close to his body, he could feel the heat against his chest and his throat, he turned his head to feel it rise and wash over his face. He was in love with the candle, he cherished it, he caressed it, gave it a home in the strong, calloused palms of his hands, he would never again let go of this candle, it brought to him trust and anticipation, it gave him faith. At that moment there was nothing as important as his light. He found himself staring for a long time into the light, watching the flame move gracefully, happily in his hands. He could affect it with his shallow breath, he played with it, celebrated it.
Then his gaze was drawn to his hands, he looked at them, for the longest time as he lay there in the dark on previous nights, he’d think of his body, he’d travel along his arms and his torso with his hands, taking inventory as it were. He pictured his hands; he knew they were dirty, gaunt, scarred and hardened. He would feel his arms and they felt skinny, his chest and torso starved, his knees stripped of flesh and his feet drawn and calloused. But when he looked at himself in the candle light everything was different. He didn’t look worn out, empty and ugly, his skin didn’t look thin and fragile, instead he looked whole, he looked healthy. His arms appeared strong and his legs sculpted and ready. He didn’t recognize himself from the pictures he’d formed in his mind. He was different in the candle light, he liked himself in that light, and he felt good, solid, he felt hopeful, not wrapped in a blanket of despair any longer, but free. He could aspire for something, he get out and he knew he could dream good dreams. He began to feel tired, he was overwhelmed and exhausted, at one moment he suddenly opened his eyes and realized he’d fallen asleep, and it scared him and swore he wouldn’t let that happen again. Then as he stared at the candle he saw a puddle of wax on the floor and the candle had been reduced to a very small bit left in the palm of one hand, the wax had melted, poured over his palm and between his fingers and now, at that very instant, the wick went out. He’d wasted it, let it burn relentlessly, without a conscious thought, he took advantage of it and didn’t care for it as he should have and now it’s gone.
He sat in the dark for hours, just sat, he didn’t understand what had happened, he loved it so much, thought he protected it for so long, he’d searched for it, held it, kept it from the cold concrete floor. He paid homage to it and prayed for it and then it was gone, stripped away, extinguished in a moment. He felt ashamed, a new pain entered him and stole his breath, He felt as though he’d just been punched in the stomach, he was hollow again; he doubled over, sitting on his knees, his forehead now resting on the stone cold floor. His body quaked and shuddered as began to cry, he rolled over to his side and pulled his knees to his chest, he felt dirty again, he felt alone, more alone than he’d ever felt, he was scared and as he fell asleep he caressed his scars.
He cried, he cried for the flame, he cried for himself, he began to feel cold again, tired, hungry and ugly, his body shivered and he legs grew weak. Then it hurt, it crept in and like rats and bit him hard, he knew he wasn’t dreaming, he knew he was awake and alive and in pain, it wasn’t like a pain that hurt and went away, it was like a pain that made him feel, it struck him deep, into places he’d not felt pain in so very long, his eyes welled and tears flowed from them, rolling down his cheeks and onto the floor where it pooled. That’s when the rats stopped biting; they began drinking from the salty puddles. He rubbed out his wounds and dressed them with his tattered sheet. When he stopped crying and the rats drank what was left, they’d begin to bite him and he’d start crying again. As he crawled away he searched for help, for something to stop the biting.
He found his way back to his cot where he started, he found his pillow, it smelled like sweat, it was thin and the stuffing loose. He pulled himself onto his cot and pulled his sheet up over him. He lay down and closed his eyes, the pain began to decline, it leveled off and faded away, He’d open his eyes periodically in hopes that it was a nightmare and he would see his flame there in the shadows, but to no avail, each time he opened his eyes all that was there was the darkness. His old companion, he would accept it again, he would embrace it as his to have, and to keep. As he lay there still, between his shallow breathing and the hunger pangs, he heard a tick. He’d forgotten all about the watch, but there it is again, on the edge of a whisper, a short, steady, gentle tick. Now it just loud enough to hear, it hovered around his ears like a mosquito, never touching him, never louder, never quieter, just there. He’d thrown that watch in anger, he was sure he heard it come apart against some distant surface, so how is it that it ticks now? He must be going mad, his mind playing tricks, a figment of his cruel imagination.
And then he heard a shuffle, or what sounded like a shuffling, not of a rodent, but the sound emanated from something larger, it was controlled and intentional, careful. As if whatever it was or is, tried to be quiet and go undetected. He was afraid, he could not see himself much less anything else, anyone else. Could he not be alone, the vastness of this room is unknown, could someone else have wandered in, or was the shuffling sound his own echo, is he detecting himself, his own movement. It has been said that a person whom begins to lose their mind, begin to separate from their own conscious mind, they begin to think in third person, is this possible, has he begun to spiral? He reaches his arms out, cautiously, moving them back and forth as he sits up. His cot does not rest against a wall, so the vast darkness sprawls out all around him, in every direction. He lowers his hands to the wooden rail on one side which forms the structure of his bed and slides them down towards his feet, then to the other side, suddenly he feels a rush of air, a warm, stale, moist rush of air. He froze there, he did not move for a long time. There was a sensation of a presence, it felt very close to him, he was a afraid if he moved at all he would touch whatever it is.
His heart beat ferociously and he wondered if it was his heart he heard, or if whatever was near was as afraid as he was. He called out just then in slightly more than a whisper “hello.” There was no response and no movement, then when he thought his heart would come right through his chest he hollered out “Hello!” Again there was no response. Then he lay down on his back, crossed his arms in front of him and laid them on his chest, pulled his thin sheet up to his chin and then he rolled over to his left and closed his eyes. A droplet of sweat tumbled down his neck and it was so silent now he thought he could hear it soak into his pillow. On one hand he always had a feeling he wasn’t alone, he figured it would be his subconscious, his wandering mind. We all have another part of us we let roam free in our dreams, maybe some of us even speak to it when we are awake, when we are afraid or we need comfort in troubling times and no-one else is near, or no-one that understands.
As he began to drift away, away from his cell, his void of existence. The presumably empty room he had been captured in, maybe by his fears, he remembered a time when he was little. He remembered being six years old, in a moment of absent thought, he flipped a pad of butter from a napkin onto the ceiling in his parent’s kitchen. The ceiling happened to be textured, and after he panicked and attempted to wipe away the butter he also wiped away the texture on that spot. His mother told him daily for the next few days that his father would deal with him when he got home. He remembered the waiting game, what would he do he thought, how mad would he be, should he run away?
When his father got home he was in his bedroom, he could hear his father talking to his mother. Then it was silent. As he hear his father’s footsteps’ approach his room he could hear the tell tale sound of his father removing his thick leather belt from his waist band. He could hear his father fold the belt in half and in some cruel fashion his father would snap the belt as some sort of warning to be prepared. The six year old boy had crawled to the opposite corner of his bed and pretended to be asleep in hopes that he might escape the belt for now, but that would not be.
His father was a big man, an old school Frenchman, his hands were the size of catcher’s mitts, meaty and strong, he was a career truck driver, hauling construction equipment around the country. As he lay there under his covers he felt a trickle of sweat roll down his neck, then suddenly his father’s hand wrapped around his ankle and he pulled the six year old boy from the bed and turned him over on his belly. He fought, swinging his arms frantically behind him to guard his bottom, he kicked and he cried but to no avail, his father was much bigger and when the first hit with the leather belt connected with his bare bottom he screamed out. Then the second, then the third hit with as much power but delivered a little less pain, by the fifth strike it didn’t hurt anymore, he still tried to protect his bottom out of some instinctual need but took hits to his wrist, and then he’d tuck his arms under himself and surrender to the pain, he’d listen to the crack and slap of the belt as it landed on his raw swollen skin. He’d follow the pain, somewhere deep inside him, and it was at that moment he remembers leaving his body and withdrawing to a cold place, a place where no-one could see him, where no-one could find him, where he was safe.
Could it be that this little boy has remained there in the shadows his entire life and the other went on to grow up. To become what was expected of him, to fill the roles others around him needed him to fill? Maybe the adult is an avatar of sorts for that little boy. He remembers his speech therapist, how his well manicured, spotty hands would glide over his corduroys in sixth grade in his locked office at the end of the second floor hall. He would look out the window at his friends playing on the ball field. The therapists hands would slowly creep up to his lap and his fingers would fumble with his zipper; all the while the boy’s gaze would float off and out the window while he would withdraw and hide in the shadow behind the book case in the therapist’s office. Then as he was crouched in the corner there watching the therapist take advantage of the little boy he heard a loud tick. It seemed so loud he thought for certain the therapist would have heard it but he didn’t seem to notice, then the sound came again but even louder this time. The third time it rang so loud it hurt his ears and jolted awake. He was sweating profusely and found himself sitting on his cot, breathing awkwardly.
As he attempted to catch his breath he heard the tick again, it was the watch he’d thrown away, and it was right next to him. He reached out to the nightstand and felt it there, chain and all. But it was impossible he thought, he clearly remembers throwing it and hearing it break into pieces and fall to the floor. He picked it up and felt it, slid his fingers all around the case and the chain, it was all there and it was working just like it had before. He put it to his ear and listened to it, he could hear the mechanisms working inside, he could feel the bezel and it was smooth and unbroken. He drew the chain between his fingers and then wrapped it around his hand again; he placed it in his palm and held it to his chest before laying back down. He could feel the watch tick against his breast, he could hear its sharp tone, it mattered to him, he held it, he felt badly and he said he was sorry. And then he whispered “thank you.”