What Nightmares Are - A Short Story
It was a dark night; black as midnight even though it was only eight o'clock. Blinding rain lashed against the windowpanes, making a sound not unlike the beating of ghostly drums in some ritualistic ceremony. I could just make out the road outside our house; it was washing out and rivulets of muddy water were sweeping into the flattened grass below my window. A shudder ran through me.
It was the sort of scene that you see in a nightmare. Mysterious shades of grey peering at you from around every corner, the slight sound of creaking floorboard interpreted as a monster walking; the kind of moment when the most horrible ideas that you can think of replay themselves over and over in your mind. It was the kind of night when you keep hoping desperately that you could wake up and everything would disappear; when you somehow know that it's not a dream but still wish it was; and that wish is even more terrible for the hope that it is built on. It was a night that I have never been able to forget.
The fire burned low in the hearth, and the last fiery embers winked out and lay there smoldering. They looked like little eyes peering up at me, so I turned back to the window. It was hard to keep from covering my face with my hands and crying, which was something I certainly couldn't do.
The countless times that I had been left in the house alone!! But not one of them was on a night like this. I didn't mind the daylight at all, for the sun rays peeping in the window and greeting me under the door were friends. You can imagine a sunbeam being your friend. But a shadow? Shadows haunt you. Dreams are built on shadows, and while dreams can be wonderful, they can also be horrible. A shadow flits by on wings of darkness, and most dreams are built on darkened hopes.
A fierce wind began to blow, and the treetops in the distance swayed back and forth in a dance that patterned itself after the beating drums of rain. Back and forth, back and forth the dancers swayed and the rain beat even harder, driving the wind to even fiercer gusts. For just a moment I cold see the trees as people, and they seemed like people to me, with faces and arms and clutching, groping fingers that clawed for life in the storm.
Oh, where was my mother? Of course, she was deeper into the center of town, our town, of Bree. She had left only that morning to visit her cousin, leaving me in charge of the house and children, and I had expected her back by nightfall. But of course she had stayed there, for not many would venture out on a night like this. It did not occur to me to worry about her. Now, that I can think back with a rational mind, it would have been wiser to wish that she was safe and sound just like myself. But I wanted, oh, wanted more than ever for her to return, expecting at any moment that she would slip through the door quietly for fear of waking the little ones up. And every time the door did creak my eyes darted to it, but they were never rewarded. I might as well have gazed at the rough wooden wall.
The soft breathing of my little sister could just be heard as the rain let up a little. Her golden hair was scattered in little tangles around her face; and she was fast asleep. A particularly loud burst of thunder echoed through the house, and her eyelids flickered open for a moment, revealing soft blue eyes. "Sister!"
I heard her scramble out of her little bed and run over to me. "What is that noise? Is it giants?"
I had to smile. "No, dear, that's only the thunder. There isn't anything to be afraid of; it can't hurt us." Her frightened, imploring face cleared a little, and I gathered her onto my lap so she could see out the window. I felt a little better, having her with me, just having someone to talk to. Words seemed to shut out the fear; to crowd it out; silence only helped it grow because silence can take different forms. The simple silence of an empty room can take on a thousand different faces; or as many as you can imagine. And it only helps you imagine more.
"When will mother be home?"
"She will not be home tonight, and that is for sure. Look how the wind is blowing, and the rain is swishing around. You would not want mother to be out on a night like this, would you?" My own words to her out loud sounded much more convincing than they had in my mind.
She shivered slightly, just as I had. "I don't like the trees. They look like they are about to grab somebody from off the ground." Her forehead wrinkled angrily. "And that nice patch of pine trees, over there on the hill that I always like to look at. They don't seem even quite real; perhaps they are really dreadfully evil! I'll never forget what they looked like tonight."
I silently agreed with her. "Oh, you will forget when the sun comes out tomorrow. And the trees are really happy, because the rain is giving them life. That one over there, can't you see it smiling up at the sky, stormy as it is? It is waving its arms in gratitude, saying, `Thank you very much, rain clouds! Come again soon!'"
My little sister giggled. "That makes it look better. And every time the lightening flashes it's spelling `you're welcome' across the sky!"
I smiled. "And the rain is really falling diamonds, but the moment they touch the ground the fairy king whisks them away into his underground caverns. Sometimes too many fall for his people to pick up at one time, but eventually every one disappears." I often made up stories for her in this way. I had a great store of them waiting just for times like this.
My little fantasy seemed to comfort her a bit. She sighed and looked away from the window. "I wish we could light a fire again." The empty hearth gaped at us like a wide-open mouth about to swallow the room up.
I, too, felt the sudden need for light. "I will get a candle." I gently lifted her off and walked into our tiny kitchen. My footsteps made a soft thumping noise on the floor. I grabbed two candles and a candlestick off the long table, rumpling the blue linen tablecloth, and hurried out of the kitchen. I didn't want to stay alone for very long if I could help it. Knocking my shoulder against the doorframe and silently cursing my clumsiness, I made it back into the bedroom.
My little sister was kneeling upright on the chair and straining her eyes to see through the rain. She seemed worried. I walked over to her side. "What is it?"
"I heard something." She turned her face to me, quivering. Her eyes were big and frightened, and her face was pale. "It was like a ghost. Do you think that ghosts can come out in the rain?"
"I'm sure they can't." I said. But there was something in her face that worried me. She was truly afraid, not like when she asked me to check for goblins under her bed, but like the true fear of a grown-up, or something. That isn't the best way to describe it, but it's as close as I can get. "Here, I have a candle now. We can see better." I placed the candle on the end-table. It shone weakly into the darkness, like it was too tired to give any more light. The light that it did give gave me little comfort. My sister was still staring at me.
I felt a bit annoyed. "There's nothing I can do." I said. "It was just a noise. Maybe it was a cow or a sheep from the barn next door."
"I know what they sound like." she replied. "This was more like a scream- like someone was dying." She turned back to the window as if mesmerized.
I didn't like this at all. "No one is dying." I snapped. "You couldn't have heard anything out of the ordinary. Dying screams are out of the ordinary."
"But out of the ordinary things must happen to some people, or we wouldn't know about them." The child's logic hit me with a blow.
Strange things do happen to people. You can turn aside every fear with the thought, "Oh, something like that would never happen to me!" But nightmares do come true for some. They are forced to look at their worst fears face to face, fears that we can't find the strength to laugh about even in daylight hours. They are sacred, sacred and held sacred at some ghostly shrine, waiting to take out their vengeance on you when you are most susceptible to the unknown.
I leaned closer to the window myself. Slowly, slowly, the rain began to beat harder and I couldn't imagine that it was anything but drums. The wind blew more fiercely and the trees danced madly, wildly, and I couldn't see them any way but dancing. I was sucked into a nightmare, and so was the little soul that was with me. We were held in a trance by some unseen captor, bound to the horror in the midnight scene before our eyes. I furrowed my brow and remember thinking somewhat fleetingly, "This can't be happening."
But it was happening, and when it seemed like I couldn't bear it any longer a scream echoed through the nighttime dance.
A scream, a deadly, piercing scream like a thousand men were dying in agonizing pain. My breath caught sharply in my throat and I tried to scream to but the scream wouldn't come. My lungs swelled in the silent shriek and my unblinking eyes were fixed on the window. I began to shake; and all of a sudden my whole body was trembling and I caught onto my sister's shoulder in a tight grip. Looking down at her, her mouth was also frozen open in horror, but her eyes were shut, and tears were wetting her eyelashes.
I picked her up and sat down in the chair again. I pressed my face to her shoulder and kept on shaking, knowing somehow that she was shaking too. My mouth shut tight and I pressed my lips together, because if I opened them I was sure to say something foolish or scream or something like that. But the sound of the shriek again, this time closer, drew me back to the window.
I just managed to open one eye and look out again. Suddenly, I could hear hoof beats, and they blended with the drums of the rain and made a drumming sound of their own, but you couldn't make up fairy stories about these kinds of drums. They were ghastly, and pounded their way into your heart and beat there with it. My heart was beating more quickly than I had ever felt it beat before, and my breath was coming in little gasps.
That is when I saw the figure rush by. Not a figure, not anything you could even describe, but maybe a phantom comes the closest, a phantom that rides on the wings of the night and hides from the break of day. I could hardly get more frightened than I was then, but I did. My head rose without me knowing it, though my sister still stayed huddled against me. It was a black horse, blacker that the darkness; and the rider on it filled me again to the brim with my worst nightmares.
The wind was sweeping with it; swirling the cloak around and around; the black folds rippling against the rain. The hoofs splashed through a little river of rain, sending up great sprays of mud onto its legs. It was like everything turned to slow motion, and I could see each little drop fly through the air and land back in the puddle with a tiny splash of its own. And then the face of the phantom turned toward my window.
Except that there was no face. Just a darkness darker if possible than the horse below it. There was no face. Never before then and never until now could I imagine anything as horrible as that. It seemed to be speaking to me in words that had no sound. My own mouth moved as if in silent reply, but no words were formed, it just opened and closed in disbelief. Not disbelief, because it was too real not to be believed. I tried not to believe it, but couldn't. My heart ceased to beat immediately and stopped instead.
It was only a second that the faceless rider looked at me, and only a second it took for the nine of them to gallop by. I watched them pass on into the town, wondering what was happening there. I remember being glad that my sister hadn't seen what I had, and I never told her. I never looked into her blue eyes again without thinking of that night when they looked at me in such terror, putting my nightmares into words.
But something I will never, never forget is the stare of that faceless face, even thought it wasn't one at all, and if someone asks me what I am most afraid of I cannot even tell them; instead my mind travels back to memories of that night and black riders that forever have defined nightmare for me.