Michael Parker

Posted on May 1, 2011

2


The Territory of Night

To sleep — perchance to dream:
ay, there’s the rub!

– William Shakespeare

 

The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.

– Gerard Manly Hopkins

 

I. Night and the spell that gave me peace

When you have lived with pain so long, you grow old and the old man inside of you takes over. That’s just the way it is.

Last year, the old man captive inside me was mad, incessantly complaining about how much pain he was in and how unbearable his plight was. He cried to me: “How long must I suffer? How long must I bear it? Will there ever be hope like a new morning? Will I have to walk with the dread of pain until my last breath? ”

I had not one answer for the old man’s questions so I grabbed him by the nape of his thinned neck and I kicked him down the ten or twenty or so floors from the reception room in my head to the dark recesses of my heart so I would have some peace. But peace wasn’t something I could own. I could never feel peace; nor was it a place that I could see, let alone reach. For the old man in my heart had turned my heart into an echo chamber and all of his protestations, all of the ranting from a lack of sleep, and all of his moans and fits of emotion reverberated off the walls. And as he protested and as he ranted and as he cried, he dug and he dug until one day my heart developed a hole.

It has been said that whatever consumes your heart, likewise consumes you. It’s true. Slowly, I began to change into that old man in my heart. Not only did I feel this in the way that I walked and carried myself, but I could see it in my face and in my eyes. Soon, I too was unable to sleep because of the pain. And I walked the darkness of the halls and rooms of the house trying to focus on my own thoughts and aspirations. But my dreams and aspirations seemed distant and unrealistic, like a land existing through a fog and whose ground was not the ground of rock and clay but that of clouds and a structure-less blue.

Before the transformation was complete, before the color of slate settled into my hair and the muscles thinned and the sinew sloughed slightly from bones like weakened tapestry, I walked out of the sleeping house, into the yard by the large maple tree already shedding her leaves. The cool Autumn air, sensing warm meat, began stabbing me.

Night was heavy on the land. She had devoured two-thirds of the moon and was still in hunger. I could see in her eyes she was contemplating the stars. “Excuse me,” I asked her loudly, but strained, as my voice had already taken on the old man’s age. “How long is night? Is there ever a respite from pain? How much longer can a man bear without hope?”

She heard me, but it was like one might hear an annoying fly buzzing at the ear, for she stopped reaching up into the Universe as if it were a tree ripe with fruit. She glanced down at me with that wide, pale face that could wear a sky. Her eyes were dark and un-alive as coal rock or lava that had slowed into a stationary place and hardened dead-cold. This startled me, but she seemed unperturbed. Night remained expressionless and did not speak or even move her lips to speak. She glanced at me not like a mute, nor like I was beneath her station. She was just sealed as an ancient tomb.

But something remarkable occurred. From her lips so high in the air, maybe as high as the peaks of the Eastern mountains, there came a song, a gorgeous melodic tune, much like a lullaby. It was Night who was humming as she turned back to the sky to search for that perfect star to pick.

I stood in the half-light of the glowing canopy of stars, mesmerized. If I were more versed in feeling, in the grand sentience of things, I would have known this whole affair magic. And I would have had the manners to give a gentlemanly bow, for I was in the presence of the mighty Enchantress. And she had just graced me with a spell; a spell of peace.
 

II. Night is a house of mutes

Night is a house of mutes. I pass the shadows in the hall without a “hello” or “how are you doing?” The ghosts call me from other halls or rooms. But by the time I find them, they dissipate into tenebrous air, the secret of their message dying on their pale lips and their bleak eyes looking past me to another destination.

Rooms don’t welcome me. Darkness hangs in social circles, filling all the corners. They stare rudely and hold their tongues.

I check on the children. They are sleeping soundly, covered and warm.

I walk back to our bedroom. The house doesn’t creak or reveal my presence.

No one wants to speak.

 

III. The trains of night

1.

The night trains enter the valley on a strident schedule: every 2 hours. Three ethereal horn blasts announce each arrival.

The souls who have made peace with their life and those who have completed their act of restitution (as predicated in their judgment) make their journey to the tracks.

The trip to the Underworld is short, just beyond the mountain where the horizon sleeps.

2.

The 3 o’clock train to the Underworld blows its eerie horn three times. Some of my shadow friends nod farewell and leave through the windows and locked doors. All alone again, I return to bed, hoping sleep will take me quickly.

 

IV. Interludes between suffering

1.

And so arrives the night. A pale glow from a distant streetlight steals into the dark room between a slivered parting in the drapes. It leaves a distinct line across the ceiling, wall, and floor, as if the room were cut in two. Will I dream dreams tonight? Or, will I pace the room’s two dark territories between the glowing boundary line, trying to learn the language of their many-faced shadows.

2.

Night rides into the great room on her ocean of pitch, teaming with the souls of all the Earth’s human family fighting to keep hold of old memories and the features of their faces. But memories are as grounded as dust. And death is unkind to its apparitions: how the full rounding of the lips and the blossoming iris of the eye slowly dissipates off of their faces like mist. Tonight, Night comes with expectations.

3.

I have forgotten how to sleep. I no longer know the way into dreams. I used to recall the sound of the night sea rolling onto the stoic shore, always changed by the tides but never defeated. But I can’t recall its strangely beautiful and hypnotic song. Tonight, I’ve been staring into the back of closed eyelids, an empty and dark void, wandering in search of an escape.

 

V. Night and the necklace of leaves

Night is a harbor for the pained and sorrowed, and I’m one of the weary vessels moored in its calming bay. My neck, shoulder-blades, and the back of my right arm radiate in pain. I tried lying down to sleep, but intensely sharp pains hit my chest. The pain stole the oxygen from the air and I could not breathe. I arose and walked the long corridor to the Great Room. The activity allowed me to take in air. I sat on the couch, upright, feeling a tide of light-headedness overcome me. Breathe, I told myself. Be a machine – air in, air out. Five, fully-rounded syllables of breath in; five full counts out.

Shadows in the night
bend, hiding from light.

Breathe, breathe through the pain.
Breathe, air is your frame.

Despite my best efforts to calm myself, my breathing continued to be laboured and the pain didn’t cease its stabbing sensations.

Night walked through the portal of shadows carrying a tall staff the color of weathered iron. On its top sat a dark, cerulean-blue crystal sphere that faintly glowed, adding a serene blue hue to the room.

“It’s a fragment of a falling star,” she said, raising the orb before my face. “This is my guide through time and space. It allows me to go anywhere I wish to go. And it is my protector. It carries out my every command, allowing me to keep from the grasp of any malevolent or plotting spirits.”

“It’s gorgeous,” I said and was shocked to hear how quiet my voice sounded, as if its power were being drained away. I kept breathing as steadily and as deep as I could.

Night was stunning in an obsidian gown, with an applique of sheer umbra stretching behind her like a wedding train. Over her face, she wore an ethereal veil weaved with the darkest filament of the November snow storm brewing outside. It was the first time I saw her wearing her crown, a sable iron masterwork etched with illustrations of the skeletons of ancient trees and their thick and wiry roots, columned-temples overgrown with ivy the color of coal, and phrases of a language that possibly only the old wind knows. I’m transfixed at the black pearls cresting the crown’s spires. They glow in the faint lights from streetlights.

“You don’t sound well at all,” Night said, taking me by the hand. She walked me through the house of sleeping children and shadows that had settled into their places like homes. She then guided me to the middle of the Great Room, beneath our chandelier.

“I have something to show you,” she explained.

Before I could utter a reply, she tapped the iron staff on the black bamboo wood floor. The light from the shard of star in the orb glowed brilliantly. Night raised the staff in front of her and she guided me forward, as if we were going to walk into the wall. But the boundaries of the room dissipated in the brilliance of the light. The wall and ceiling opened and transformed into a long corridor of ionic columns and buttressed ceilings, as if it were a nave of a great cathedral. The old, wooden pews were full of apparitions in the act of worship or in prayer. And faceless shadows lurked behind the columns and filled the darker regions of the transepts, as if they were the ghosts of the choirs who had filled them through the ages.

Night and I walked onward and the nave continued to take shape the further we progressed, until we were standing in a glorious apse, in front of an ornate alter. A giant gold Christ hanging upon his cross hung high at the center so all were transfixed by his sacrifice, especially the statues of adoring saints who were forever gazing down from lofty ledges on him. Above the crucified Jesus, a massive rose window let in the faint glow from a far away crescent moon, illuminating the scene.

“You are suffering,” Night said. “I see it in the way you walk; how your fingers reach at your back as if you were thinking you could pull out pain. I hear it in your breathing. It’s laboured, like an old tree moaning from winds pushing against it. And I hear the wince escaping from your lips on every breath.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not well at all tonight,” I replied.

“I know,” she uttered. “Let me tell you something. Being Night, I see the suffering of man, his sorrows, doubts, madness — all of his unraveling. Men are often frightened of me, as if I were Death. But you have not been frightened of me. Rather, you have been quite kind, as if I were a friend. Because of this, I have something for you. A gift. I gathered and made it years ago, when I first spied you running the canyon late one night. What you did and what you said was beautiful. It’s an example of what’s good in people.”

Night let go of my hand. She raised her veil. I could see her pale and thin face. She brought her hands up to her neck and pulled out a necklace made of crystallized, Autumn leaves: maple, oak, birch, and aspen. The leaves hung upon a silver strand.

“Turn over this oak leaf,” she said.

“It is engraved,” I replied.

“Yes, each of these leaves carry your words. Tell me what it says?”

“I love…” I said, unexpectedly breaking into sobs.

Night comforted me. “Read on.”

“I love my family.”

“I want you to read the engravings on each of the leaves, one by one. Read them like you would send off a prayer. Read them with as much belief as you did the day that your sincere words engraved each of your wishes upon these leaves as you ran through the canyon. And then, I will give you the necklace. It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to your wife, who loves you and who dreams fondly of you, even though you are gravely ill and feel like a heavy burden. It belongs to your son you look at and see a champion. It is for your beautiful daughter, with hair of night and the face that causes each full moon to envy. And lastly, it’s for your youngest son whose very presence lights your heart and who causes you to think of angels and miracles.”

“Now,” Night beckoned in the moonlight still rising. “Read me the leaves.”

***

Michael Parker works as a software, product, and marketing writer. His short fiction, poetry, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in MiPoesias, Poets & Artists, OCHO,Ygdrasil: Journal of Poetic Arts, 52/250 Flash Fiction, Doorknobs & BodyPaint, 50/50: Words & Images, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and New Letters Literary Magazine (University of Missouri Press). He enjoys oil painting and running marathons. He, his wife, two sons and daughter, and Lucky the dog live in Utah.

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