Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear of Darkness

When I was little, I saw gorillas in the dark.

I don’t recall my exact age but it must have been around when I started elementary school. After sleeping with relative ease for years, one night I lay in bed, peered at the blackness around me and saw big black gorillas.

I was terrified. I called out for help. When my parents came to my room and turned on the light, there were, of course, no gorillas. Just plain white walls, the same fringy yellow carpet, the same clutter of toys and clothes and I had, even at that young age started to accumulate.

When I had calmed down, they turned off the light again. And the gorillas were back.

The next step was to plug in a small orange lamp that flickered on and off like a strobe light. I’m not sure who would rest easy in the presence of such a thing, but more troubling was the gorillas who appeared and disappeared in rapid succession, loping closer to me each time I could see them in the dark.

My parents let me sleep with the light on for the rest of that night, and the next day bought a more traditional nightlight that glowed faintly from the corner of my room, bright enough to ward off all manner of beast I might see the black of the room, subtle enough not to keep me awake.

I outgrew the nightlight. Though I had on-again off-again fears of what creatures might share the darkness with me in the years to follow, spurred on by every scary movie I might see, or some of the early episodes of The X-Files, such fears were nothing I couldn’t escape by tucking my head beneath the covers or distracting myself by imagining stories--most effectively of all by turning on the lights for a couple minutes.

*

A fact I never knew until Archie came to live with me--cats can see in the dark.

Well, that’s not quite right.

Without getting overly scientific about it, cats evolved as night-time hunters, and so have a much greater ability to adjust to very limited light. For the contemporary house cat, that means freedom to wander an apartment, climb bookcases, and hunt vermin by what illumination streetlights provide through the cracks between Venetian blinds.

Despite this greater capacity for sight, cats cannot see in true darkness, which brings me to the day when Archie must have snuck into my closet while I fished out my work clothes, and remained stealthy enough to go unnoticed when I closed the door, got dressed, and headed to the office.

What a strange world it must have been for creature accustomed to seeing in all places at all times to be confined to blackness for a period of nine hours. I wonder what philosophical questions he may have pondered. What gorillas his imagination may have conjured.

What I do know: he found his way to a trash bag full of old bank statements I intended shred. Between teeth and claws he managed tear of half the papers to ribbons. Otherwise? I suspect he slept for much of the day, just as he would have in the light. Maybe he slept easier without the distraction of spiders scaling the walls, or the robins in the tree outside the living room window, or the expanse of hardwood floor to dart aimlessly back and forth across.

Still, by the time I got home, surprised that he didn’t greet me at the door, I heard his muted, plaintive meows, luring me to find him and let him back into the light.

*

On a dreary autumn Friday, I went to the gym after work, drove home, and napped. It was dark when I woke. In lieu of any better plans for dinner, I threw on a hooded sweatshirt to walk to the Chinese place a block away to get takeout.

As I walked past a row of houses, through the drizzle on a poorly lit street, a young woman approached from the opposite direction, earbuds in. She didn’t notice me until the space between us had reduced to four or five sidewalk squares. A porch light lit her face as it rose from the pavement and looked at me in terror.

I smiled and said hello.

She quickened her pace to just shy of a run.

And as I continued my walk, it occurred to me that the way the porch light hung may have revealed her face, but coming from the opposite direction, I remained the most shadowy of figures. Tall. Hood up. Face obscured. In all of that darkness I might have had a third eyeball protruding from my forehead. Might have had blood dripping from my vampire’s visage. Might have been a gorilla.

Or may have been a stranger intent on snatching her Vera Bradley handbag. Such things do happen on the streets of Baltimore, particularly in the dark of night.

And I suppose that’s where all this fear comes from. Reality, informed by frightening tales, contorted with all of the disorientation of not being able to see; amplified by a world of the unknown.

I made my way from that dark stretch of sidewalk to the traffic light at the intersection where a line of cars waited, headlights shining a path to guide them to bars and movie theaters; to take them home.

And I rounded the corner, where the red and blue neon sign read OPEN, and stepped into the familiar smells of soy sauce and glossy breaded meats; the same sounds of Mandarin hollers that I’d heard at my grandparents’ house when we visited in my youth. I stepped into the light.

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