Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Daniel Mozes
Category: Short Story
The average human spends a third of their life asleep. A waste of time, really. Luckily I don’t have to deal with it. The doctor said I have to look on the bright side, so that’s what I’m trying to do. Someone with my condition has about six months left. Rapid onset, the doctor said. But I get more out of those months than anyone I think, because of my condition. Silver linings. My day is one and a half times as long as the average human’s, and those black hours when the rest of the world sleeps have become an important time to me. From two to four AM, I’d say, is the best time for me, the quietest, when I’m most alone with my thoughts. Everyone’s asleep, but the world still talks, moves, breathes. Out in the woods, mice and rats scurry beneath the fallen leaves and owls catch the glint of the moon in their mirrored eyes. A fierce wind blows past my house, setting the timbers groaning softly; a lament. The shadows seem to take on a little more life, the house around me groaning, wheezing, whispering. Your thoughts echo off these sounds, magnify. I do most of my thinking during the night. During the day, I feel slower. The light dulls my mind, which is a nocturnal creature. I stare into the woods while it laps up puddles of darkness.
Initially, I didn’t know what to do with all this new time I had. But staring out into the woods, I started to think of the movement in the shadows, the chirping of night birds and the shimmering call of the insects, and it sounded like music. The pumping of my heart became a drumbeat, and out of the woods a voice seemed to call to me, something ancient and aboriginal. People have been staring into the woods for thousands of years. What have they seen?
I work at an ad agency, a ways from where I live. Getting to work on time used to be a problem; I could never seem to wake up early enough to make the hour’s drive into Green Bay. Not a problem anymore. After the beautiful velvet texture of the night, the way the darkness and sound seem to press close around me, the diurnal world seems thin, faded. My coworker, Sandra, says I look tired. Of course I’m tired, I tell her. Right, she says. I’m sorry. I forgot. Do I want a coffee? No thanks, I tell her, it doesn’t seem to help anymore. She sits at the break room table and unwraps her sandwich. Tuna fish. My muffin sits sullenly in its waxed paper as I tear away chunks. What do you do at night, she asks. I look at her a moment, detecting pity, and a faint morbid curiosity. Why couldn’t I have the decency to die of something normal? Her mother passed of leukemia, she knows how to deal with that. But this, it draws her fascination, makes her forget her manners. She realizes I’ve realized this, her expression shifts slightly; guilt. It’s okay, I tell her, an understandable question. I’ve started work on a book, about the first European explorers who came here, and what they found. So it’s historical? she asks. Fantasy. Of sorts. It’s about the human psyche, what we see when we stare into the darkness. Some French fur traders find the woods around the lake haunted, not with quite the same demons they have at home, but similar. What lurks in the night here, I tell her (I’ve done my research), are what the Ojibwe called bakaak. Ojibwe? she asks. I chide her for her ignorance. Did you think we were the first here?
It’s hard to concentrate on my work. The electric light of the screen seems jagged; the colors a razor’s edge. I squint to stop the text from vibrating. I wonder if I should quit my job, just focus on my book. I should really spend as much time on it as possible. My day-to-day seems less and less important. Even here in the brightly lit cubicle (harsh, sterile) I feel the pull of the night, the softness of the woods, the notebook and pen where I scribble my ideas feverishly by the light of a candle. I like candlelight. It’s easier on the eyes. Rustic. And the French didn’t bring lightbulbs with them when they came here so many years ago, plying the misty lake, looking for beaver.
The sun sets while I’m making my way home and I turn on my high beams for visibility. The roads out where I live have no light but the stars. Something flits through the night ahead of me and I slow. The deer’s eyes catch the light and throw it back to me. It heads off into the trees slowly, and its body is consumed by the darkness. The eyes shine still. Bakaak have glowing eyes, so say the Ojibwe.
I wish I had a quill pen, for maximum authenticity, but ah well a ballpoint will do for now. Jean Lebesque, I think, a good, strong name for an explorer of brave new territory. The woods sing to him in a way they hadn’t back home in France. He’s separated from his company, and finds them dead in the woods, arrayed in a circle, bellies torn open. Their livers are gone. Why? I can explain, the woman says, moonlight catching softly on her skin. Her bare feet pad across the forest floor and her hair shines. She wears very little, a simple shift for a simple people. Does she have a name? I’ll figure it out later. Bakaak are thin, she tells our protagonist; they fold themselves up to hide in holes, behind trees, above us, around us. She takes his hand. They will come for you while you sleep, with their heavy clubs and invisible arrows. I will help you build a fire. We can watch the night together.
Sandra’s lunch today includes ham slices, wrapped in plastic. I ask her if she thinks about the animal before it goes in the wrapping and she tells me she tries not to. It’s easy to forget, I observe, because it loses a lot of its vitality, its essential meatiness, in this form. Plastic, not skin. Bloodless. We’re so far removed from the squealing, the whoosh of the blade, the sound of the saws hacking limbs apart, the spurts of blood on the sterile white suits of the industrial butchers. Stop, she says, I don’t like thinking about that. I understand, I say, it can be a hard thing to confront. Society seems determined that we not. The printer starts up, shooting out fresh white sheets, blinding, bleached. No sign of the tree that once was, all the sunlight it drank, or the animals whose rotting flesh its roots explored. We were not the first here, but our world is not the same as theirs. We’ve paved it over, drained the blood, packed it in plastic. From inside the city you can’t see the stars.
The Ojibwe saw the stars every night, before the white people came, before there was electricity. An earlier people of an earlier time, a people of the dark. I am beginning to empathize more. I can no longer look at my phone; it’s too bright. In the office I squint. On the drive back home the headlights of an oncoming car blind me; I close my eyes, I swerve, I miss the turn. I’m lucky, the doctors say, that it was only the leg I broke. The other guy, his head smacked right into the dash. Wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. A neat circle of blood on the plastic. It’s patterned, tackily, I think, to look like wood.
Dr. Unogwu says I shouldn’t drive anymore, I should stay at home. Besides, I don’t have that long left. I might as well enjoy it. She’ll come visit me, she says, to make sure I’m doing alright. I will do alright, I tell her. I have something to work on.
Jean spins around, shadows dancing away from his lit torch. He hears the sharp cry of the bakaak, but he sees it nowhere. And then—something, over there! Careful, the woman says. No man can kill them. Maybe none of your men, he says, and lunges for the creature with torch and blade. It melts away before him, shrieking. He whirls around, it is nowhere. Is it dead? The woman does not know. It might have just melted back into the trees.
Sandra visits me, saying, I hope you don’t mind. I found your address in the employee registry. And I thought you should know we’re thinking of you. Flowers, a card signed by everyone in the office, some brownies Cheryl baked. Thank you, do you want anything? Tea, cocoa? It’s cold outside. No, you’re hurt, don’t trouble yourself. I hobble to the stove anyway and she catches me and sits me back down. I’ll fix us something myself. She admires the cupboards while she rummages around in them. Beautiful wood. Virgin growth, I tell her. This house is old, built back when you could cut down a tree older than the white man’s roots in America and use it to make a shelf. Its age gives it character. Forest fires, beetle infestations, it’s all marked in little blemishes. History laid bare, a cross-section. I’ve finally bought a quill pen (goose feather, long and grey and mottled) and she sees it on the table next to my leather-bound notebook and glass inkwell. You like history, don’t you? All this old stuff. It’s what makes us, I tell her, and it can unmake us.
I enjoy our conversation, but I am happier when she is gone, when I can lie back and let the shadows sing to me. My bedsheets are nylon, a product of science once unimaginable, but now ordinary because of the ministrations of generations of men, swinging their torches out against the dark. The bakaak shrieks as it leaps away, and this time Jean sees it recede into the tree, hiding deep beneath the bark. He lights a fire at the base of the tree and it spreads and grows taller, towering against the sky. The sparks pop and fly, the demon’s dying eyes, and the explorer and the woman make love in the embers of the old world.
You can’t keep the lights off all the time, says Dr. Unogwu, and flips them on. The light dances jaggedly, now brighter than ever before. The shadows have deepened too, by contrast. They do not vibrate as much as they sway, a hypnotic dance, all hips, and I respond. Dr. Unogwu asks if I am okay, and I respond truthfully, telling her that I am better than ever. She seems worried about something, but I can’t imagine what. I’m better this way. When I sharpen my quill and miss a stroke and the blade cuts deep into my thumb I rejoice and suck the red juice. How else should I know I am alive? She asks me to answer a few questions, and hands me a quiz. How severe are my symptoms? I have none. I had before, but the veil is now drawn away. She nods and retreats quickly. She is afraid of your potential, a voice says.
The forest is gone, burnt to ash. The ground is charred, but it is good, Jean explains. The charcoal will fortify the soil. The Ojibwe chief, he is not sure if his people are ready for this new way of life. The opportunities are limitless, our intrepid explorer says. The bakaak are gone, burnt away. I trapped them in the trees and now they are all gone, ashes. What if not every tree burned? Then we will cut them down one by one and use them to make great houses. None shall come for us then.
At night, the wind sets the timbers creaking, and I call out in response. The shadows sway, and I sway with them. Release me, a voice calls, a high-pitched call. I am trying to write. Release me! Release me! I bang my fist on the table and ink spills everywhere. I push my book out of the way so as not to lose all my hard work, and hastily attempt to clean up the mess. My hands are stained and I go into the bathroom to wash them. One of my crutches slips and I end up on the floor, hard scrabbling against the tile. The puddle of ink surrounds me, and I roll in it. When I pull myself up and look into the mirror finally, I see a gaunt face, emaciated, stained, staring back at me. The eyes glint. Release me! it says, release me and I will teach you to be who you were meant to be. I will show you how to swing a club and shoot an arrow and remove a man’s liver while he sleeps. I will teach you to shriek and sneak and melt into the trees like the shadow you are. What do I need to do? There is an axe in the garage, the bakaak says, break the timbers, set us free! We will make the world over again, a new world, an old world. On my way back from the garage, I fall and the axe cuts my hand. I am bleeding, I can still bleed. I am not yet dead like the others. Inside, I let the axe crash into every surface: tables, cabinets, chairs. More! the voice cries, more! more! The heavy metal head smashes through plaster, through sheetrock, to the timbers that hold up the house. I step inside the wall and feel the splinters press close around me. This is the place, the truest darkness. I am at the bottom of a black velvet bag, and it holds me warm. No, not velvet, the pelt of an animal, fresh and stinking. Now you’re getting it, says the bakaak, twisting its way out of the darkness. Its glowing eyes meet mine. What do you want? I ask. You. I embrace it, and I am whole.