Halloween I: The Comfort of Fear
There was the one in her closet, which she never heard, nor saw, nor smelt, yet knew was there. The others, if there were others, did not disturb him, for he was immense and probably furry. Tabitha was almost convinced at times, when the yellow street lamps were brightest in the night, that he was a protector and not a frighten-er, except he lived so deep in the shadows. He never left the closet, and so he was always “The Potentially Hungry one in the Dark,” and as long as she never crossed the threshold of the door, she felt safe enough. He was a maybe, a might be.
It was the Faceless One she feared at night. He was not tethered to the dark of a spot, but drifted like a low fog about her bedroom, sometimes black, sometimes electric white, his outline like the effect of blinking too much. He had no real face, but he did have a slack-jawed maw of a mouth. He would wake her with darts of sound, with softly exclaimed “hmms?” or “huhs!” Tabitha’s only recourse at these times was to make sure the walls of stuffed animals on either side of her were still vertical, and then tuck herself tightly between them. She regretted she could not hide under the covers, but she disliked the hot, recycled air that accompanied her breathing. Better, she reasoned, to live in a breathable fortress made of animals. There were no closet doors to close to the Faceless One. Not that she would dream of touching feet to floor at night, but still. He was anywhere he wanted, a pale outline that would too seldom become a familiar pile of clothes or toys in the daytime. As though he thought she wouldn’t know the difference.
The worst, however, were the demons in the basement. They never left, not even when Tabitha moved to a new home. They were the worst because of their bony joints and never ending smiles. In the dark they danced on unopened moving boxes, on piles of junk, discarded and forgotten furniture. They were as thin as stick figures, black as crows, and had wings which did not work. And their smiles – no clown smiles, or mime smiles, but hyena smiles. Smiles too wide for their faces, full of small teeth, unending smiles. When Tabitha turned on a light they would hide, but she sensed them picking up things, watching, waiting for the darkness again. Should they catch her, they would eat the nondescript part of her legs, between the heel and the calf, and watch her fall over.
Tabitha had her ways of keeping them away, for they hated to be discovered. She would walk of the stairs backwards, turning off one light at the bottom of the stairs, then the second at the top, before turning her back for the briefest of moments to shut and lock the basement door. It was in this moment she heard them cackle at her, before she was back in the light.
Then there were the rhymes she would sing. If her parents told her to fetch something from the basement at night – her Mother kept all her homemade sauces in the cool basement – it was especially difficult to go down the stairs. So Tabitha wrote a song, a spell to keep the dancing, smiling ones at bay. Shewould whisper sing it, each step a new couplet:
One step down, demons frown
Here’s step two, demons shoo
Now step three, don’t get me
I will make it down the stair
And the devils will not care.
She imagined her voice could frighten the dark, smiling monsters, or at least keep them hiding. She’d repeat it, since there were so many stairs, and noise was important. If she stayed silent, there was the possibility they would peek out at her while she fetched. And she hated the thought of seeing them.
So it went for many years.
Tabitha had a normal life, save for going down into basements. All her homes had one, for safety said her parents, for storage said her husband. The dark, furry, fat one in her closet shambled on, and she feared him no more (if she ever did). She had more or less reached an agreement with the Faceless One. He frightened her regularly, and she in turn allowed it. That was all he seemed to require – fear of him. He never hurt hear, but he scared her all the time with his menacing shadows. The dancing ones still needed charms. As she aged, Tabitha grew better with her chanting, sometimes relying on other songs written by famous people when she could not remember her own. But she could still whisper soft, singing chants as he climbed upstairs backwards.
I will make it up this stair
Since I know that nothing’s there
Let you silly demons prance
Do your wicked little dance
While I go back to the light
Leave you here to dance all night
Then, quick as age allowed, she’d spin on her heel, shut off the lights, and close the door. Even to old age, when by all accounts others considered her a little “off,” she would not go down into basements without hesitation. It was because she knew in some deep, ancient part of her, that unlike the fat, shambling one, or even the faceless, oozing one, these demons wanted something from her. More than her fear, more than her unease, more even than the nondescript flesh on the back of her legs. They wanted all of her.
And so it was, in older age but not yet oldest age, that Tabitha awoke in the dark, convinced she’d heard a voice say “Heh!” It had been a long time since the Faceless One had gone so far as to wake her up. She shivered at the shape of a shadow on the back of her bedroom door, so like a cloaked figure, squat with no hands, staring at her with no eyes. She forced her eyes to try and stare through him, wiling him to become a carelessly thrown shawl on the back of an armless chair. He did so, begrudgingly, but the cost was her newly alerted senses. Creaks, shuffles, new sounds from new sources around her. And a faint, rhythmic scrabbling sound from beneath her.
We have watched you all your life
Become a child, woman, wife
We have heard you moan in bed
We have watched you mourn your dead
They were singing, spell-like songs. She could not pull the covers over her head – she hated the stifling heat.
“Nothing is there. Nothing is there,” she said, adding reflexively. “My mind is putting noise to air.”
A cackle. A pulling fear in her bones. She took off the covers, and set her feet to the floor, into her slippers. All the nameless shadows immediately turned into objects, the Faceless One retreating unexpectedly from all corners of her room. She heard her own words now, tittered quietly from under her feet, and a low, rhythmic reply:
Oh, we are most certainly here
Here and there as well, our dear
Subconscious no, we are substance
Now come and join our little dance.
Tabitha felt her arms in her robe sleeves, the light quilted weight on her shoulders. This was the inevitable, what she had known since childhood. Walking to the basement door, she hesitated at the light switch. She could not see them. It would be too much for her. Hesitantly she found the first step.
“One step down. Demon frown. Here step two, demon shoo…” her voice sounded high and young. From below, voices chorused.
“Now step three, come to me. Here step four, we want more. Then step five, still alive. Will you go to Hell or Heaven, as you pass by six and seven? Pretty little human girl, with her precious fearful will, now at last comes down the stair, now at last is full aware.”
It was darker than she could have imagined. Her eyes, desperate, flashed purple streaks and golden stars across her eyes, but found nothing, no light to which they could adjust. Something brushed, then jabbed into her arm. She yelped, sheepishly wondering if it were an imp’s elbow or a pointy broom handle. She closed her eyes in the dark, her old mind racing, recovering lines from old couplets she had made in younger times, tempered with her more grow-up vocabulary:
You do not frighten me
For I have grown to sixty-three
I tell you all to leave this place
Stop your dancing in my space
Back to wherever you reside
By my words you will abide
Silence in the absolute darkness.
Tabitha wasn’t sure where her basement ended anymore. In this void, it could have been infinite. That was what made the dark so awful – there was no telling where it ended, no telling if it was growing or shrinking. The dark had that power. She hoped her bravado made an impact on the unseen creatures, but then she heard the rhythmic scrabbling start again, now behind her and also above her.
Time has passed for you, it’s true
And we have watched the under view
But now it’s time for time to end
Soul and flesh and time we rend!
The words struck coldness into her heart. For sixty-three years they had waited for her, and now.
“My legs,” she breathed, unable to rhyme. She could see them now, even in the abysmal dark, could see the clacking teeth, the useless wings sticking out like broken umbrella tops, the too many angles. And fear, so heavy and straight-edged, gripped her in every joint, so that her terror brought a cheer, followed by a stark, searing pain to the bit of her legs between the calf and heel, the part that had no real name.
In her pain, Tabitha blinked furiously, begging for tears. None came, but in the electric white of her blinking she saw, suddenly, a shape outlined in the dark, though the shape had no light of its own. Like the dancing ones, it was only visible to her mind, though like the dancing ones, it existed, tangible, in the dark.
“Huh,” it seemed to spit out of its slack-jawed maw. And then it sucked, soundlessly, each and every demon into that same gaping hole of a mouth. The demons screamed, clawed, failed to fly away, but the Faceless One was everywhere, for it was in every shadow, and there was no light to turn him to objects. No sound emitted from the mouth that swallowed, but Tabitha was buffeted by the fears of the consumed demons, the death she imagined waited for her from him when she was a child.
There was one left, seeming to shine like volcanic glass in the dark. It peeked from around something; Tabitha could hear claws gripping a cushion. It pointed at the Faceless thing all about them.
“No fair! No fair! You may not travel down the stairs!” It hissed out angrily. The Faceless One, now close to Tabitha, stared with no eyes at nothing. Tabitha couldn’t move, though she was deathly afraid of him. She could only see him in the blinks of her eyes.
“Hih! It said abruptly, like the soft bark of a ghost. Out of the black a new voice spoke, bland and infinite, spilling through the air.
“My meal, my friend, my decision. She has kept me sated for sixty-three years. What have you to offer?!” As the last words settled without echoes in the space, there was a new sound, a sound of crunching and crying, of bones being rolled around in a mouth, of a great appetite.
Tabitha could no longer stand. She stumbled. Instead of landing on the cold concrete floor, she fell into a mass of fur and fat. This must be how bears feel, she thought. To large hands, like paws with long fingers – cradled her as though she were a child.
“Sleep, Fearful. The great goodness of sleep,” murmured a voice, dark as the basement. He was the Potentially Hungry one in the Dark. She saw nothing.
“Yes,” was all she mumbled, and closed her now ancient eyes against the black, secure and comforted in her fears.