When the nights were dark and deep we roamed at our ease, crossing from shadow to shadow, perceived but not seen. Some people saw us clearly, the young children whose eyes were still so sensitive they could distinguish between the black of a cellar and the black of a closet. But no one paid any heed to the wild imaginings of the children, infants raised by the brothers Grimm, unable to separate dreams from reality. The madmen saw us, as well. I have always felt like the mad were that way simply because they knew too much: they saw too much and they heard too much. What their fellows called insanity was just the refusal to not see all that is actually there. It is not that the mad heard voices, but that everyone else refused to listen. And the mad saw us. They did not like us, but they also did not fear us, not the way the children feared us. The children were right to be afraid. Perhaps part of what made the mad men mad was their refusal to have fear.
But all that was many years ago. The shadows kept shrinking, pulling back. The lamps no longer required lamp lighters, even candles no longer required matches, the whole room bathed in light with no more effort than a switch. The trees were cut down, first for the building of ships and homes, then for the creation of pastures for dumb beasts, the sheep and the cow. I do not know how they managed it, but even the moon glowed brighter, reflecting the light of the earth in addition to the light of the sun. And as the shadows receded, so did we.
Perhaps you have watched a cat try to fit into a box that is smaller than itself. Perhaps you have tried to fit into a suit of clothes from your youth. Losing the shadows was like that; there was no where to fit. Our population had stayed the same, our size had stayed the same, but our world had shrunk. There were fewer and fewer places for us, without the shadows. Our colonies and families split up, individuals finding pockets for themselves, for it wasn't possible to live any longer as a tribe. I can no longer remember the last time I saw my mother; I can almost forget that I had a mother. It is, in the end, no matter.
There are spaces here, between the walls. It is not palatial, these spaces; it is cramped, musty. I have to share the space with a population more numerous than on any city street. Crammed in among the wires and the insulation are several generations of mice, an incestuous community of cockroaches, a family of swallows, one of squirrels, spiders of all types, and a tiny lizard which, I believe, exists no where else on earth. There are others of my type, as well. Not others of my kind, but other species of the shadows. I know they are here because I can smell them, sense them, in the scent of ash from a wood burning stove, in a waft of mothball, in a scattering of pebbles loosened across a floor. I avoid meeting them. They avoid me. It is not that we fear one another; it is simply politeness, respect for undisturbed peace in this society we did not create but must inhabit. And so we know of one another but we do not know one another, and that is as it should be.
A new family has recently moved in, but they are not what I expected. There have been so many families, and the children seem to grow more and more quickly and then they leave and then there is a new family again. Perhaps it is simply the weight of my years, but it seemed that once I was able to see the children more clearly, distinguish between them, remember their quirks and their needs and their fears. Now they all seem the same, interchangeable, and it is lonely, for me, these cookie-cutter children, there is nothing in their essence for me to know them by. And then they are gone. But a new family has recently moved in.
They are different, their infant is different. It has eyes that see everything, big, round, green eyes, and it stares and it sees and it knows. So many of these children have never seen, never escaped from their fog, but this one gazes and does not fear. It has seen me, and it did not pull back, it did not even flinch. I have never had a child so nearby and so utterly content, so completely placid. At first I wondered if something about the infant was not right, if it was perhaps an idiot, or damaged, or blind. But it seems to be alive in a way that other humans are not alive, it has all its senses, and then some. I am enchanted, and I am afraid. I am fascinated, and now almost never leave the nursery.
The nursery is a sunny place, filled with light, but even though there are so few shadows that I almost don't fit, I can't bring myself to leave for a more comfortable corner. This obsession worries me, but it has overtaken everything that once filled my world. Last night, when the moon was quietly tucked away and I had only the shadows of the streetlamps and the passing cars to block my way, last night I stood vigil next to the bassinet. The child was not asleep. It does not seem to sleep, or to cry or fuss as other infants might. I was right next to it, and it was awake, and regarded me in the shadows from those uncritical eyes. I don't know what it saw, but I broke down first. I escaped that unnerving examination just before the sun broke over the eastern sky.
It is impossible for me to leave the shadows; it is not that direct light will kill me, it is that I will cease to exist. I will become non-being. There were always tales of non-being, not so much warnings or nightmares, but reminders. Just reminders. Non-being wasn't something you could experiment with and then just go back to the way things were. Nonbeing wasn't a process or a decision. To become non-being happened in an instant, and lasted as long as time. It wasn't something to be feared, the way humans fear death, but it meant a transition to a place beyond place, and a loss of all we were and all we remembered, and even our families would forget that we had ever once been. So we stayed in the safety and comfort of the shadows. The infant, I feared, would somehow tempt me into forgetting myself, and I would stray beyond the shadow, lost in the moment and the hold of that gaze.
I was not afraid of non-being, but, if I transitioned out of my reality, I wanted it to be a considered decision, not a momentary lapse into forgetfulness. The child scared me because it made me forget everything, everything about who I was and the world around me and memories were the only knowledge I had. Memories are my life blood, my soul: the discarded human memories left piled up in the corner, the rank and rotting emotions in a room after a fight, the fragmented and scrambled memories hastily collected from dreams before dawn. My fellows and I are sometimes called dream-eaters, but we are not hunters, we do not steal memories form human minds. We scavenge forgotten emotions and outgrown passions, we clothe ourselves in childhood dreams and lost moments. And so if I forgot myself and ceased to exist, I would become a forgotten collection of forgotten memories, I would be a non-being.
So I feared the child, feared its magnetic pull night after night, even as I could not bring myself to leave the nursery. Perhaps that was the core of my obsession: there was something in those eyes that remembered back to a deeper reality, one before the womb. The child held in itself the memory of non-being, and to it both being a child and the memory of non-being were equivalent. I could stare deeply into the green eyes and they were unending, and beyond everything that I could recognize were shapes and colors and places that I could not find words to describe, there were emotions that had no parallel in my experience of the world.
I cannot say what drew the child to me, if perhaps it was sorting through my accumulation of wan and moth-eaten memories, discarded emotions, for some guidance about this world it was now a part of. Under its examination, I felt my soul laid bare, I felt everything I possessed and everything I was made of to be paltry, unfinished, worn. But it is not that I was an unfit housekeeper of my soul: I treasured the memories that made up my being, but I was a creature of the shadows, I was a scavenger. I could only collect the discards of the world around me. The child sifted and sorted, and I was bare, but I was not judged. I was empty but I was unashamed; then, as it reached a hand to the edge of the cradle and I touched its finger, the sun rose, and I no longer was.