I am terrified of the dark. My grandmother, on the other hand, had an affinity for the dark. She loved and enjoyed the dark so much that most windows in her house were walled shut and the few that remained were, except for rare occasions like family visits, blacked out with several layers of black curtains.
It was only when I was about 16 that I realized that those two, her love and my fear of the dark, were connected.
When I was small I was, supposedly, very hyperactive. My mother never managed to control me and my father only did so on those rare occasions when he threatened me with punishments. But I loved my grandparents and, as my parents, said, I always behave right when my grandmother was around. Accordingly my parents dropped me many times at my grandmother’s place so that they themselves could have a calm weekend.
I was 8 years old when she died. At that time I was already scared of the dark – except, of course, when my grandparents were around.
Those eight years I stayed many times over. I remember vividly how I played with my grandfather and uncle Owen in the darkness. We had our special games, like a noise-based version of hide and seek which only worked when the house was particularly quiet and my grandfather taught me how to carve wood into spoons and flutes with just my sense of touch.
I remember their faces exactly – the way their faces were lightly visible in the dark but their eyes always penetrated even through the thickest curtains of darkness with a black pupil surrounded by a bright white that seemed to glow from inside.
My grandmother was always working around the house – cooking and baking for me, cleaning or tidying or preparing the beds for the night. The room always felt warmer when she was there and so, usually, i asked my grandfather and uncle Owen to play with me in the room that she was in.
Those weekends I never missed the light. Even my dreams were, often, just noises and smells and textures and shapes – never colors or visible objects. Still today I can navigate perfectly in the dark. And still today I can see very well in the dark and around my 16th year of life I concluded that my strong vision at night was the cause for my paralyzing fear of the dark.
The fear had been there as long as I remember and on most nights I slept with a nightlight. On those weekends with my grandmother the darkness had never been a problem. Cuddled up to her warm body I never felt fear and I never minded the figures that seemed to stand in the room, all around my bed.
They only came with the darkness. Never when there was a slight flicker of light, just with the absolute blackness of a night in a room without windows.
My grandmother called them the ‘Outcasts.’ She said that they were family and friends, former close ones, that wanted to return from the other side. She taught me again and again that I should never let them return.
I remember the way she said it. We were lying in the bed, my head cuddled up to the warmth of her shoulder. Somewhere behind me my grandfather was snoring and when I turned I could see his face glowing in the darkness, with his white skin it was even more visible than that of my grandmother.
“You can see the difference in their faces,” she said. “Their faces are darker. But if you really want to make sure then you have to look at their eyes. If their eyes are as black as their face or even darker then they are on the wrong side; they are dead and and they should stay that way no matter how much you miss them.”
“So they can’t come?”
“They can’t come unless you allow them to come.”
“What if I let them in?”
“Don’t ever let them in.”
Black on black, but I still saw them as clear as a pencil line pressed hard on a piece of paper, the type of pencil line that doesn’t just color the paper but rather pushes itself into the paper.
That night my grandmother fell asleep quickly but I, in the safety of her arms and with my grandfather behind me, watched the figures. They were gesturing and moving, voiced words and sometimes fought against one another; they pushed each other to the side and backwards, fighting for a spot on the borderline to life.
I saw their figures and I recognized their sizes and hairstyles, often I even thought I knew which clothes they were wearing. I never asked my grandmother about that, but for myself I concluded those were the ways they looked in the moment that they stepped from life to death.
With my grandmother I was safe. But without her the nights were terror. They came closer and they seemed more energetic, more violent, more likely to break through that barrier. Maybe they were closer because I was closer to letting them in, half out of fear and half out of curiosity.
The nightlight was my savior, but in those nights when my parents forgot to plug the light in there was no salvation. They stood above me with their dark figures pressed into the darkness and those eyes so dark that they seemed to extend deeper into space; as if they were hollow.
With 16 I tried to cure myself off my fear by “shock therapy.” I threw myself into one dark night after the other but rather than improve the situation got worse.
There was one figure particularly pushy. A smaller one with wild, curly hair and the darkest eyes of them all. I always knew who she was. She had only been there since I was 8.
The conclusions of my 16th year made too much sense to be overturned. I gave up my defense and accepted my fear and eternal dependence on nightlights. When I moved to university I even chose an apartment with a street lamp outside so that the light would certainly come through my window and keep the figures at bay.
With 23 I learned the truth about my fear.
I was at my mother’s place. We were at our second bottle of wine and a soothing melancholy, the type that you can see in a French actress’s eyes, had enriched the air. Somehow we came to speak about my grandmother.
“I miss her,” my mother said.
“Me too,” I said. “Sometimes I still dream of her cookies and when I wake up I can nearly taste the vanilla.”
“Oh,” she said. “Your grandfather loved those.”
“Did he? I don’t remember him eating any?”
My mother laughed.
“You were probably too young to remember that.”
“Not really. I remember playing with him.”
“Oh, you do?”
“Yeah. I played with him all the time.”
“Really, you remember that?”
“Wow,” she said. “I’m really happy for that.”
“I always thought you wouldn’t remember him because you were so young.”
I took a sip from my glass and let the bitterness fade from my mouth.
“I don’t remember going to his funeral.”
“Of course not,” she said. “We left you with a friend and went alone.”
“We thought you wouldn’t understand it. You were just 2 when your grandfather and uncle Owen had their accident.”
When I was 16 I thought I was scared of the figures standing at the borderline to our world.
Since I’m 23 I know that I’m not actually scared of those figures at the borderline. I’m scared and wondering how many others were allowed back inside.