NOTE: You can now hear me reading this story on MixCloud
by Judith Cullen
"Is this seat taken?"
I dropped to the rough wooden planks without waiting for an answer. I knew better than to believe the voices that mutter in the gloom of 3 am; the wolves that lurk in the dark beyond the edge of your bed, or under it, their panting breath summoning every doubt and fear from the hidden depths inside you. Their province is the pitch where "false" and "true" are hard to distinguish.
I escaped outside to a land that was gloom itself, which perfectly matched my mood. At least I'd left the wolves to gnaw and shred the blankets, while I sought what air and light I could. There was precious little of that - a weak moon and a greenish glowing of perpetual pre-dawn. A trio of skeletons sat at the end of a forbidden pier, fishing lines ending empty above the brown muck of the water. One was drinking. I could sympathize. They seemed like company, albeit undemanding company, frozen in the timeless moments of their demise.
I wasn't expecting a reply. Imagine the surprise when one of them spoke.
"I don't know," I replied, "this seems an ideal spot just now."
"We thought so too," said the one closest to the sign that clearly read "No Fishing" despite its wear and age. "But it turns out that wolves aren't the only things that lurk in the dark."
How had he known about my lupine demons?
"I'd stay away from the edge, if I were you," he added.
I peered into the water. The murk made it hard to guess what lay beneath the surface: secrets with teeth, pulsations of the horrific, the corpses of intentions. I shifted back a few inches.
"This doesn't work either," said the third, his mouth still wide open to the dust-dry bottle he held aloft, "after the initial thrill, you discover that there are more devils looming in green glass than are found in all of that brown water."
I knew drink was not the answer either. The air held a tinge of the foul, but I breathed slowly in and out anyhow.
"I don't know what to do. I feel so inadequate, scared, and ready to burst into tears because I just don't ... "
"You are not alone!" interrupted the first skeleton. He seemed taken aback by his own outburst, though I am not sure how I perceived that. It was more of a feeling, a sense.
"I apologize," he continued gently, "but you see these houses around us, behind the shutters and curtains - out of sight? Each one contains a living soul who sleeps surrounded by their own doubts. Fear oozes out in the darkness and take on forms that expands it beyond its actual importance. It manipulates the dark to make you think that you are helpless, weak, a victim."
"It lies!" exclaimed the skeleton with the bottle. "Truth sleeps. Truth is smart. It knows that rest is necessary to thrive. Lies never sleep. Lies are stupid and predictable. They never really change, they just mutter the same things over and over, until they convince you that what is false is actually true."
There was some comfort in the thought that I wasn't alone - that everyone wrestles with what is vulnerable and uncertain in their own natures.
"What can I do?" I asked.
"Don't listen!" said the skeleton by the sign.
I laughed weakly, "Easier said than done."
"Look, it's not easy. We did what was easy and look what happened to us?" the first skeleton suggested, "We lost more than our lives, we lost all possibilities and opportunity. Now we are stuck here with the last really bad decision we ever made. Don't be like us. We are not good company for you. You don't belong with us."
I looked at each of them, locked in a last moment, stuck here on this dock in this looming land.
"Just keep going," he continued, "move forward, even when your steps are so small you can't measure them. Keep your mind, your soul moving forward. Seek the light."
I stood, taking in what they had said and regarding them thoughtfully.
"Seek the light, and never forget about darkness, and lies."
"Do what you have to," the drinking one added, "light a candle, light a match. Better still, be the light for someone else in their darkness. Always keep moving."
"You are never alone, not ever," they concluded.
I turned, taking a single step away from where I'd sat. On the very edges of the foggy horizon, an ever so slight gleaming heralded the return of the light, and the re-emergence of the well-rested truth.
(written for Fantasy Faire 2020)