A short story.
After ten years in the same spot, Baku stopped sleeping in his scraggy basket tucked away in the recess below the bedroom window. Our cat didn’t move far at first, only a few feet to the rug at the foot of the bed. It was there my husband and I would find him staring, longing it seemed, for hours on end at his abandoned basket.
Even though it was better to not have such a big, lazy moggy as a trip hazard in our cramped apartment, we caved in and moved Baku’s basket to where he preferred. But nothing changed. His staring continued unabated at the newly cleared space under the window.
Less than a week later, Baku moved further back; first, close to my side of the bed, then next to my bedside cabinet on the wall opposite the window. And with each move, our cat always made sure he had a clear view of his original haunt.
One morning, I placed Baku’s basket back under the window and tried to put him in it, but it was worse than jamming him in the carrier for the vet. He became all muscle; a taut, writhing, hissing beast. After a swipe vicious enough to draw blood, he escaped my grip and didn’t come back till supper. When home, he settled into his final choice: half a foot outside the bedroom, right in the middle of the doorway.
The first night Baku slept outside of the bedroom I lay in bed, my husband asleep beside me, playing a mental game I made up as a child. I was trying to see the bedroom through closed eyes; test the power of my mind’s eye to visualise all the bits in the right place and at the right distance from each other – the muted shape of the radiator, the open door, the wardrobe, all patterned by moonlight sliced into strips by the window blind. But whenever I opened my eyes the real room was misaligned, shifted a metre or so from my visualisation. Two worlds never quite in sync. I usually found the process soporific, but that night, as I started to drift off, a voice cut through the night’s silence as if spoken by a stranger cloaked by the bedroom’s darkness:
What’s my name?
My heart racing, I flung myself up and swiped at the light switch. Nobody there. I shook my husband awake to ask him if he’d heard the voice.
“How the hell was I supposed to hear anything when I was fast asleep? You were just dreaming.”
“But I wasn’t asleep. The voice came from the window. It was as real as you are now.”
He looked at me as if I was insane.
“We’re on the second floor. How could there be anybody outside the window?”
“It didn’t come from outside.”
He shook his head before letting it fall back on the pillow.
“Don’t be daft,” he said, turning away from me.
Unlike the ambiguity of a dream, the memory of the voice was still fresh the following morning. What’s my name? I could hear the intonation clearly. I could hear the rhythm – the faint hiss at the end of the first word to stretch the question, only to finish like a heartbeat with the final two syllables. But whenever I replayed these words, they came with no owner bar the imperfect darkness of closed eyes. I couldn’t even imagine one.
The following evening, as I was falling asleep, the words came for the second time and asked the same question. What’s my name? Startled I looked up, again, to find nothing, and when I woke my husband, he took even less time to call me daft.
The same happened for the next seven nights, always when I first began to sleep and only ever once. By this point, I was no longer waking my husband, except the time I screamed, I don’t know your stupid name.
Worried I was going insane, hearing voices, I phoned my doctor. Every night until my appointment the voice came to ask its question. But something changed. The voice moved. Whoever – or whatever – took a step towards me, away from the window, away from where the cat used to sleep, and towards the bed.
The doctor asked me: Do you hear a ringing sound at all? Do you feel you are unable to move when you hear the voice? How are you feeling? Have you lost interest in things? Are you anxious at all? Stressed?
She looked in my ears.
She asked me very little about the voice itself. It was clear to her that the origin of the words was in me – the spurious firing of inconsiderate neurones. She said it was most likely to be something called hypnagogic hallucinations.
“Have you heard of sleep paralysis or night terrors?” She asked.
“Of course. They’re the periods of time where the awake dream and cannot scream or move to escape the nightmares attacking them.”
“That’s right, like your experiences, they occur at the cusp of sleep.”
“I don’t think this is what I’m experiencing. I’ve never seen anything and I haven’t been paralysed.”
Bored of me already, she looked at her computer and scrolled her mouse.
“Yes, they scare me,” I continued. “But it’s not a night terror; it’s over in a flash.”
She looked back up at me, irritated with my trivialities.
“What you are experiencing is a lot less extreme than it can be, so you should consider yourself lucky. It’s not worth doing anything yet as it is likely to go away on its own. Come back if it persists. Come back if it gets worse.”
“Hypnagogic hallucinations?” My husband said, later that evening. “What a good word. Hyp-na-gogic. I like how the word turns midway from short, stabby syllables, to that go-gic you suddenly have to mash in your throat.”
“I got a book out from the library. Hypnagogia and Other Realms. This is how Dr Lionel T. Moon describes it in the introduction…”
“Does he have a ‘PhD’ after his name on the front cover?”
“Of course. In big yellow block capitals. Anyway, listen.”
This is what I read:
Hypnagogia: the edge of consciousness moments before sleep; the boundary where insights flash as the mind loosens and fragments; the fertile ocean where seers dive for their prophecies and scientists find their eurekas. We have all glimpsed this place – those visions of stumbling and falling that jumpstart us awake with a hypnic jerk on our attempts to cross the boundary into sleep. I wonder if that is why we say ‘fall asleep’. Because it is exactly what we are doing – falling through this threshold. And whenever we fall, whether in this world, or through the space between worlds, we must relinquish control.
“This all seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? For a funny dream.”
With Darkness as father, Night gave birth to twins. Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Thanatos, the god of death; a relationship suggesting that an impression of the afterlife might be found in sleep. Should we then be worried that our dreams are so often filled with fear? Perhaps, but the hypnagogic experience contains no dreams, because we are not asleep. According to the researcher, Andreas Mavromatis, the somatosensory phenomena experienced in a hypnagogic state are characterised by their “externality, autonomy and vividness.” Simply put, they are as real as our waking state. Some even say that the land summoned to us by hypnagogia is enriched, as if it is viewed through a microscope of celestial optics that brings into focus a more fundamental reality. Or perhaps, it has also been suggested, the place behind our reality.
“Come off it,” my husband says as he brings my coffee to the sofa. “This is just new age bullshit, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of evidence in the book. Anecdotal, sure, but not everyone can be lying; what would be the point? What annoys me, though, is that everyone having these hypnagogic experiences are all visiting fantastical, vivid wonderlands of pleasure. But what do I get? A creepy little voice with a stupid question. Don’t get me wrong, my so-called hypnagogic hallucinations feel very real, but they are so basic. No sights, no smells. Only the stupid voice. I don’t get to see any, and let me quote Dr Moon for you, ‘ecstatic rainbows unfolding into impossible geometry.’ Nor any ‘dragon seraphim descending through a spiralling Mandelbrot ether, spraying heavenly manna as they fly’.”
“So you’re jealous,” my husband said. “You want to be part of a crazy eighties fantasy film don’t you? Flying around the set of Labyrinth or something?”
“Most of all, I want it to stop. It’s creepy.”
“It’s really bothering you, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I’ll stop taking the piss. What can I do to help?”
“Nothing, I guess. Just be here. Don’t leave me alone at night.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Later, my husband was reading Dr Moon’s book. I settled down beside him on the sofa, knees tucked in. He put his arm around me and kissed the top of my head. Even Baku joined in and spread his purring mass across us both. I was feeling settled for the first time in a while, especially with a stomach full of my husband’s cheesy pasta bake.
“You know,” he said. “Reading this, I think you should consider yourself lucky your fledgling night terrors haven’t reached the multimedia stage.”
He pointed to a colour panel which showed a renaissance painting depicting a vision of hell as a realm of endless torture populated by cursed abominations. We both read the text that followed the picture.
Not all the experiences people witness in the hypnogogic state are positive. Many have born witness to a hellish place of eternal terror. A place that Heironymous Bosch depicts in his paintings. A place where our cries for mercy go unheard, unable to travel further than our own insignificance.
“Jesus, that doesn’t sound good,” I said. We both continued to read the page that followed.
Some researchers postulate that by exploiting hypnagogic states we might gain knowledge of our mental nature and this knowledge could lead to a fundamental understanding of all thought. But perhaps it’s not only thought we can learn about. Maybe something else too, something concrete, something ‘out-there’. And if it is ‘out there’, then maybe our access to this world is not a one-way street. It is not unfeasible to think that something could come to our waking world from that space. I’m certainly not the first to suggest this. After all, the cracks, the hinges, the gaps in between, are what lets the other side of anything through. Hell, then, might not be a destination, but somewhere on the way, an opportunist waiting to reach out and drag you from your path.
The doctor was wrong. The voice didn’t go away. In fact, it took another step closer to the foot of my bed to ask: What’s my name? Although this move amplified my fear, the increased proximity helped me understand a strange quality of the voice that had been confusing me. The voice was clearly in front of me, right there in my bedroom, but it sounded wrong. The words sounded as if they were being spoken in a room with different acoustics –one mimicking the sad echo of words spoken for the last time in your favourite ever home, now bare and empty, with your life packed up in a van outside waiting to take you away. The voice had escaped the domestication of the bedroom’s soft furnishings.
I told my husband this one morning, how the voice was getting creepier, sadder and, of course, closer.
“You know this might sound strange,” he said. “But you’ve reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years. When I was a child, no older than six, my father told me a fairy tale I now realise was to coax me into sleeping. He told me about the monster that was coming for me, hunting me down. He told me that everyone in our family belonged to a monster and that monster’s only job was to chase their allotted member. When our monster catches us, we die.”
He was waving his finger at me like his father might have to him.
“What a charming story for a six year old.”
“But he told me I wasn’t to worry. No. Not if I were good boy. You see, the monster starts off a very, very long way away, and they are very, very slow. And the monster could only move towards me, step by step, after I’d gone to bed, and then only when I had my eyes open. The monster comes much quicker to those naughty children who try and stay awake at night. So, once you go to bed, he said, make sure you close your eyes and don’t open them till morning. Don’t give your monster an opportunity to catch you.”
“Jesus, no wonder you sleep well. What do these monsters look like?” I asked.
“No one knows. Once you’ve seen your monster, the story goes, the next time you close your eyes, even if it’s to blink, will be the last time.”
“Is this what you think is coming for me? Do I have a monster?”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just a bit of old family folklore to scare the kids to sleep. My Grandad told the same story to my Dad when he was young.”
“Yeah. I guess i’m just being silly.”
I leaned over and held his head, tilting it to towards mine.
Then, like a selfish wish gone bad, everything changed.
One night, with the voice even closer, as if its owner leaned over the foot of the bed, I was asked the same question as always.
What’s my name?
But this time I felt the pressure of something sharp yet rough, like a ragged talon, drawing – etching – across the ball of my bare foot. I tried to pull away, I tried to scream, but nothing came. Down the gossamer flesh of the sole it went, inching its way cruelly, with slow deliberation, towards the heel. I could feel something emanating from the touch – a pain filled with the all the horror of death forced its way up my body, through the veins in my leg, stretching every blood vessel to the point I thought my skin might split. It was searching for a home, searching for my centre. I tried and tried to move, to look up and stop what was happening, but my muscles were locked, my eyes sealed. Then, seconds before the subcutaneous tendrils that burrowed through me reached my heart, as suddenly as the first touch came, it withdrew and my volition returned. I leapt out of bed screaming and rubbing my skin, as if to cast off crawling insects. There was, as always, nothing in the room. My husband jumped out of bed too, freaked by my reaction.
“What is it? What’s wrong? Are you ok?” He said.
“I’m ok, It was just a nightmare, sorry for waking you.”
“Was it the voice? Has it changed?”
“No, no. It’s fine. Please, just go back to sleep.”
I went to the bathroom and with the harsh strike of light upon pulling the cord I saw across my body every vein mapped as a raised network of red welts, etched into me like cat scratches. Struggling with the brightness, I covered my eyes for a moment. When I looked again the marks on my skin were gone.
Baku joined me in the bathroom and walked back and forth rubbing my legs, purring deeply.
“I guess, the night terrors have finally come for me,” I whispered while kneeling to stoke him.
The next night I attempted to go without sleep. And with the aid of that creepy touch the night before and endless coffee I succeeded. Neither the voice nor its claw came. But I could not fight sleep another night. This was not the solution.
The voice came from my side of the bed. And now it didn’t sound like it came from an empty room, it sounded as if it came from an echoless place with walls that absorb all sound; a place so completely silent that you can hear the blood flow through your veins and the electrical shimmer of your nerves; a place that mimics the infinity of space. An unbearable place.
After it asked its question, I felt a cold grip around my arm. It wasn’t my husband who slept beside me. It couldn’t have been him, not unless he was a corpse, because whatever gripped me was so cold I could feel my flesh burning. It pulled on my skin like a tongue stuck to ice. I tried to move and shout for help but the cold now covered the whole of me like a frozen meat cocoon. As it suffocated me, I told myself it was just a night terror; I was having a bout of sleep paralysis and it will pass. This is not happening!
I tried to push through, to open my eyes and force myself awake, but I couldn’t muster any strength. Only when it restricted me to the shallowest gasps for air, when the muscles of my chest could move only millimetres, did it release me. When I opened my eyes it was morning. The whole night had passed, somehow, yet my body was heavy with the weight of insomnia.
I was a wreck the next night, too sleep deprived to avoid another night in bed. I could have tried the sofa but I didn’t want to be alone, even though my husband always slept deeply and quickly. That night I could hear the rhythm of his sleep begin within a minute of him putting his head down. Lying on my back, listening to his breath, I closed my eyes and prayed that I would not get another visit.
What’s my name?
This time, right above me; within inches of my face. If it were breathing I could have felt it, smelt its sourness. But there was nothing.
What’s my name?
Then a finger, or something that mimicked one, moved across my forehead, down the side of my face, and with a gruesome, fairy tale tenderness drew the hair behind my ear. Closer than ever before, as if from the gristle gluing the bones of my skull together, as if there was never such a thing as a space between us, no gap between its world and mine, it spoke words I have not heard before. Terrible words.
I am not here for you.
And for the first time it let me open my eyes.
It is often said about horror films that what you don’t see is more terrifying; the revealed monster is always a disappointment; the secret of terror is in the anticipation. But in real life this is not the case. What you can imagine cannot compare to the horror you will face. It is much, much worse to open your eyes.
No matter how hard I try, my description could only ever be a jumble of half-meanings, but what I can say is that what came for me on these nights, what spoke those words, wasn’t physical. It wasn’t even a ghost. It was pure absence. Negative space. The totality of grief.
I am not here for you.
From the whirlpool of its gravity I felt a vacuum-pull, like suction, as it drew away and rolled over to my sleeping husband. I couldn’t turn my head but I could tell he was still sleeping from the corner of my eye – that shifting periphery where danger always reaches first.
Tell me my name.
Much deeper than the original question came this demand. Although its existence now floated above my husband, it was still addressing me.
Tell me my name!
But I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. Take me, I thought. Please, take me!
TELL ME MY NAME!
I couldn’t call out to my husband. I couldn’t wake him. But as soon as he began to scream, I no longer needed to. I shut my eyes. What else could I want but darkness?
A team of scientists have shown that as we pass into a hypnagogic state areas of the brain involved in motor function light up – our brains think we are interacting with this new reality in a physical manner, moving from one place to the next, turning our head this way or that, touching, feeling. In theory, an expert said, we might perform actions in this state that we are unaware of upon waking. Another expert claimed that the future ceases to exist for us as we fall asleep – in this new place, she said, our perceived actions may lose the consequences normally associated with them.
The jury didn’t care for these excuses. Nor did the judge. He said this was the most shocking piece of violence he had ever come across. So brutal, methodical and continued was the attack it would haunt him to the end of his days. As would, he said, my abhorrent inability to take responsibility for my actions; the cold absence of guilt. He said I’d eroded his faith in the human spirit; he would never have the same level of confidence in mankind, the same level of hope as before this case, because he now knew there are people like me in the world. Animals would not tolerate such cruelty, he said.
The evening when I got to see the entity that haunted my nights, I became my husband’s night terror. After his flesh had been rendered inch by inch with something like a candle flame, my husband was eviscerated, gutted as if he were a wild animal by my bare hands. There is far more to tell of his suffering, but I won’t dwell on it. However, I will say that the coroner reported that the majority of his wounds were committed pre-mortem – up to the point his heart failed. The prosecution claimed that I had somehow immobilised him (although they found neither chemical in his body nor restraint marks to blame). They informed the jury there was no murder weapon to find because I was the murder weapon; the police found his flesh deep under my broken nails the morning they found me at the crime scene. I had called them, apparently, quite calmly. The only witness to the event was Baku the cat, who, that morning, had returned to his spot under the window, cleaning his front paws as if nothing had happened.
Of my crime I have no memory, but sat in this cell I do know one thing that I didn’t know back then. I know its name; the name of my visitor; the name it kept asking me to give; the demand I could not meet. Now I realise that I have always known its name, because its name was, of course, my name. And what’s my name, you might ask? Well, it’s just a name, any old name. A name just like yours.