[The following fable is attested to in various cultures with variants dating back to the early dynastic period of Egypt (c. 3050-2686BCE), the Naru literature of Mesopotamia (second millennium BCE), and the Shang Dynasty in China (1700-1050BCE). It continues to surface in other story-telling traditions, notably the Aesopica (originating c.620-564BCE), the parables of Jesus (c.3BCE-33CE), the stories told by the Baal Shem Tov (c.1700-1760CE), and it is even alluded to in poetry told by the famous Romanian fabulist, Grigore Alexandrescu (1810-1885). it is impossible now to say if the story had a sole point of origin or if it arose independently in various locations and then these stories cross-pollinated and created new variations over time. What is clear is that four or five very distinct and different endings are left to the contemporary reader. I have, to the best of my ability, created a contemporary version of the fable that combines elements from multiple sources. I do not mark which parts are earlier or later or which stem from which tradition (I’ll leave that kind of source and redaction criticism to the exegete and not trouble those who read because they love to read with such details). However, because the endings are so different, I have left each one to stand on its own. The main body of the text breaks off and then the various versions begin to split from each other. I have labeled the endings in the following manner: The Somewhat Ambiguous Ending, The Happy Endings (Version 1 & Version 2), The Horrible Ending, and The Sad Ending. I have chosen this order because The Somewhat Ambiguous Ending, The Happy Endings, and The Horrible Ending, have the most content in common and only diverge from each other at the last minute. The Sad Ending is longer and splits off earlier from the other two. I record it last. It is also the ending that appears most frequently in the various traditions but the frequency of its use (not to mention its length) should not lead the reader to consider it the most authoritative ending. In truth, it is impossible to now determine which ending is the most authoritative (or earliest). Additionally, although the Happy Endings and The Horrible Ending all build on The Somewhat Ambiguous Ending, it is hard to know if that makes them later extensions or a previously shorter work or later reductions of a previously longer work. It is up to the reader to choose the ending s/he wants. I cannot chose for the reader. I can only tell the story, which I will do now.]
In the beginning, the child was not afraid of the dark. After the lights had gone out and the parents had left the room and the music had stopped playing, he often got out of bed and explored and played games in his imagination, and noticed how different things looked when you could hardly see them. Shadows merged into objects and objects faded into shadows. Spirits took on bodies and bodies faded into slivers of light or pockets of darkness in the corner of the room.
It was only after they started to hurt him that they child learned to be afraid. Afraid not so much of the dark itself but of what was there in the dark and how they hurt him not once, not twice, but many times. They hurt him so much and so deeply that hurt became him. He was his hurt and what he used to be before he hurt, or what was left of him outside of his hurt, was lost to him (just like they and the dark got all mixed up and confused and he came to fear the dark as much as he feared them). In his child’s mind, there was no distinction. They hurt him. He was afraid of them. They came in the dark. He was afraid of the dark.
He stopped exploring. He stopped playing games in his imagination, the kind that were fun, and instead turned his imagination to hyper-vigilance. He no longer wanted to notice anything. He built forts and wrapped himself up within them. He rolled himself up in his blanket. He curled up into a ball and wouldn’t open his eyes no matter what he heard.
Time passed and eventually they stopped coming for him. He did not stop building forts and burying himself in the blankets. Every now and again he looked out from under the sheets and pillows and he saw their shadows waiting for him by the closet, by the door, in the corner by the dresser. Waiting, waiting, always waiting for him. They were in the dark, they were the dark, they were waiting. He closed his eyes and pulled the sheets over his face. The next day he barricaded his windows and his door and his closet and that night, and every night after, the darkness was so thick that no light could enter the room. In this kind of darkness even shadows disappear. But that does not mean they are no longer there. He stopped peaking out from under the blankets.
More time passed. They had not come in a long time. But he was still his hurt. The dark continued to terrify him. The walls of his fort had became increasingly stiff over time. The blankets had hardened into a shell. The salt of years of sweating and crying had crystallized and hardened. It was like a cocoon of stone around his pain. He grew the body of an adult like a calcified shell around the child, around the hurt child, around the hurt that was the core of him. In the dark, in this bed, in this body, he curled up and slept like a lithopedion.
Still more time passed. Then one night he heard a voice he had not heard before.
“Hello,” the voice said.
He did not answer. His heart was racing. “The darkness is speaking,” he thought. And “it’s going to kill me,” he thought. And “I’m so afraid, ” he thought. And “please don’t hurt me,” he thought.
The voice didn’t speak again.
Until the next night. And the next one. And the one after that. For many nights the voice said hello and for many nights the man did not answer. Until one night he did.
“Hello,” the man replied.
“What are you doing in there?” the voice asked.
“Please go away,” the man said.
“Okay,” said the voice. But it was back the next night.
“Hello,” the voice said.
“Hello,” the man replied.
“Why are you buried beneath these walls of tears and sweat and salt and pillows and blankets and sheets?”
“I am afraid,” the man said.
“Of what are you afraid?”
“I am afraid of the dark.”
“Is it dark in there?”
“Yes,” the man said, “but my eyes are closed.”
“Why are you afraid of the dark?” the voice asked.
“Because it hurts me.”
And then the man asked, “Are you going to hurt me?”
“No,” the voice replied.
“How can I know?” the man asked.
“You will know when you turn on the light.”
“You are trying to trap me!”
“If I get out of here you will hurt me!”
“You are already hurt.”
“I cannot be hurt anymore.”
“Yes. If you do not want to be hurt anymore — because hurt is all that you experience yourself to be now — then turning on the light will help you.”
“I am too afraid of the dark to go and turn on the light.”
“I will walk with you to the light switch,” the voice said. “My voice can guide you.”
“Don’t come near me,” the man replied.
“Okay,” the voice said. “But perhaps I can help crack you out of those blankets?”
“No!” the man yelled. “This is the only place I feel safe! Even suggesting that you might lay hands on it makes me feel that you belong to the darkness. You are not a safe person for me to be with.”
“I’m sorry,” the voice said.
“Go away,” the man said.
“Okay,” the voice replied.
This time the voice stayed away for awhile. A long time or a short time, who knows, it is hard to measure time in the darkness and in the hurt. The man developed bed sores. Bugs found their way into his bedroom through cracks and tunnels in the floor where light could not travel. The climbed onto his mattress and crawled on the walls of his fort. Inside, the sound of their walking and scratching and eating and fighting and mating and living and dying was amplified. The man did not understand the noises and they scared him. He had lost feeling in his right side. He didn’t know if it was from a stroke or from laying curled up on that side for so long.
The voice returned. “Hello,” it said.
“You left me alone,” the man said.
“You said I was unsafe and told me to go.”
“I was afraid all alone,” the man said.
“You don’t have to be afraid anymore,” the voice replied.
[At the point the narrative fractures into the multiple endings listed below.]
The Somewhat Ambiguous Ending, The Happy Endings and The Horrible Ending
The man’s heart began to race again, but this time it was not only because he was afraid. It was also because he was willing to act, even though he was afraid.
“I don’t want to be afraid anymore,” he said.
“I am happy to hear that,” said the voice.
“If I come out, will you stay with me?”
“Do you promise?”
The man opened his eyes. Everything was dark inside his fort. He closed his eyes again.
“I am afraid,” he said.
“That was a brave start,” the voice said. We can rest and try to go further tomorrow night if you like.”
“Okay,” the man replied.
The next night the man kept his eyes open for a little longer. It was too dark to see anything, but he didn’t close them. Then the man began to move. He discovered he could still move but had been still for so long that it hurt quite a bit. Especially at first, the slightest shift of weight would send darts of pain up and down his body.
“You’re doing an incredible job,” the voice said.
As he shifted and began to stretch, the feeling returned to his right side. He began to push against the crystalline walls of his fort. Blankets hardened and covered with salt began to crack. The bugs scattered and hid in the headboard and under the mattress.
“I’m amazed by how well you’re doing,” the voice said. “It takes a lot of strength to continue through all these pains and not give up. Perhaps there are other things inside of you apart from pain and fear. How else can you be doing all that you are doing?”
The man didn’t know what to think anymore. He still hurt, he was still afraid of the dark, but he had decided he was going to turn on the light and, although some days were better than others, and there were still weeks when he would stop moving and his right side would start going numb again, and the bugs would cautiously return to climbing over the blankets and sheets, and he would close his eyes and not open them for days, he stuck to his commitment.
The voice comforted and encouraged and spoke in awed tones of what he had accomplished. And then one night he did it. With a crack, he lifted his fort from the bed and tossed it away from him. He sat up in the dark. He could not see anything.
“Just breath,” the voice said. “Just breath.” He breathed. “The light is this way, when you’re ready.” He breathed some more. And then he got up. He could not walk very well but he did not have far to go.
“You can do it,” the voice said. “You are doing it. I’m right here with you. Nothing is going to hurt you.”
It was only a moment — what kind of moment or how long a moment is hard to say — and he was at the light switch. He turned on the light.
[The Somewhat Ambiguous Ending ends at this point. The Happy Endings and the Horrible Ending continue.]
The Happy Ending, Version 1: He turned to face the voice.
“That was very brave of you,” said the person next to him, whose voice was familiar but whose face was not.
“Yes, it was,” the man said, looking around. The darkness had disappeared. The room was just a room. There was a bed, a dresser, and a barricaded closet. There was a mound of ossified blankets on the floor, and two people staring at one another. That’s all. Nothing more. Inside his stomach a bone cracked and a baby kicked.
“Why didn’t you turn on the light?” the man asked.
“Only you can turn on that light,” the person replied. “I can try to encourage you, I can walk beside you and try to find the words that help you find your way, but I cannot turn it on for you.”
And then the man noticed something else inside of him beside the hurt. He was also very, very hungry.
“Let’s get something to eat,” he said.
The Happy Ending, Version 2: The man turned to face the voice but there was nobody there. He got a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror across the room. No shadows, no horrors, no people with hands or eyes or bodies that touch and sweat, caress, and hurt. The darkness had disappeared. The room was just a room. There was a bed, a dresser, and a barricaded closet. There was a mound of ossified blankets on the floor. That’s all. Nothing more. Inside his stomach a bone cracked and a baby kicked.
“I am not going to die,” he said to himself.
The Horrible Ending: The man turned to face the voice but the voice was a mouth and the mouth opened and opened and it was endless and deep and glistening and wet and went on and on for ever and ever. The tongue in the mouth was covered with eyes and the teeth were like knives and they were like the hands and bodies that had touched him when he was a boy and they greeted him in ways he had hoped to forget. The mouth closed over him and the light was extinguished.
The Sad Ending
[The Sad Ending continues on from this line before the break above: “You don’t have to be afraid anymore,” the voice replied.]
“Who are you to say what I do or do not need?” the man replied. “My fear is what keeps me alive. It keeps me safe. I cannot take any more hurt.”
“You already hurt more than you can take,” the voice said.
“Yes, I do,” said the man.
“Would you like to hurt less? Would you like to feel well?”
“Obviously, I would,” the man replied.
“Then you must face your fear of the dark.” The voice explained. “Because it is your fear of the dark that is leaving you trapped in the dark. If you face your fear of the dark, you can make the darkness go away.”
The man became angry. “You say that this fear is mine, but it does not belong to me. I did not want it or choose it. It was planted inside of me along with the hurt. The hurt that also was not of my choosing. I do not want this fear. I do not want to face it. I feel most well when I am here, under these blankets, with my eyes squeezed shut.”
“Yes, it is true the fear, like the pain, is not of you. It is not what you chose or wanted or could have even imagined as possible before you encountered it. But now that you have encountered it, it has possessed you. It fills you, along with the pain, and displaces your inside parts. It is not so much that the fear is yours now, as that you belong to the fear.”
“You are making me a victim. I don’t want to be a victim. I just want to lay here where nothing can ever victimize me again. Why do you continue to pester me? Don’t you know that it takes everything I have to just survive being alive in this moment? Why do you burden me further with your questions?”
“I do not mean to burden you. I want you to be free of fear and pain. But to do that, you have to get up and turn on the light. I can’t turn it on for you. Even if I could, you wouldn’t notice. You are buried in the sheets with your eyes closed.”
“Stop asking impossible things of me! Why are you so insensitive? Go away!”
“Okay,” the voice replied.
But the next night it was back.
“Hello,” the voice said.
The man did not reply. And the voice said nothing further. This went on for several nights, the voice saying hello, the man refusing to answer, and then the voice stopped coming again.
Time passed. Some say months. Some say years. Lizards had followed the tunnels the bugs made into the room and they climbed over the fort that had turned from salt to stone. The ate the bugs and below it all, the man listened to them them skittering and scratching and crunching through the carapaces and shells of the insects. The noises scared him and the pain pulsed inside of him. His right side, long since numb, began to calcify and blend into the stone of the blankets. He eyelids hardened and became so heavy he wondered if he could lift them. His lips began to grow stiff and his tongue settled more and more deeply into the bottom of his mouth. His hair fell out. He grew old. The walls of his room collapsed and grass and wildflowers began to grow through the carpet. But day and night were all the same in the darkness of his fort.
The voice returned one last time.
“Hello,” it said.
The old man’s heart began to race. He had forgotten about the voice. It took awhile for him to form words. “Hello,” he replied.
“It is a beautiful sunny day out here,” the voice said. “There are bees in the flowers and lizards tanning on your fort. a creek has found a path through the earth not too far from here and dragonflies are flitting about above the water. Spiders are spinning webs in the long grass and a blue jay is watching it all from the tree that grew up in what used to be your backyard.”
“Why do you torment me with all I cannot see?” The old man asked. “I am afraid you are trying to trap me. When I come out, perhaps all that is really out there is darkness and perhaps you are waiting for me, in the dark, to hurt me. But even if what you say is true, even if the sun is shining and life is beautiful, I cannot see that or know that. Why now, in my old age, do you come again to break my heart with stories of things I will never know?”
“You can know them still,” the voice replied.
“I am too afraid of the dark,” the old man said.
“The darkness is gone,” said the voice.
“I cannot see that, I cannot know that, I cannot feel that, I have no way of verifying if anything you say is true.”
“You have to take a chance.”
“It’s too risky. The stakes are too high. I cannot handle another betrayal, another disappointment, any more pain.”
“What, then, do you want?” the voice asked.
“I want you to go away and never come back,” the old man answered.
“Are you sure?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” the old man replied.
“Okay,” the voice said.
The voice never came back. The old man lay beneath his fort of stone. His teeth fell out. The rest of his skin ossified and turned to bone. His chest no longer rose and fell. His eyes and mouth sealed shut and where he ended and where the rock that had once been his bedsheets began became all blurred together. The seasons came and went. One day the wind blew a maple key onto a patch of dirt that had formed in a fold in the rock and it put down roots. A seedling grew and slowly, ever so slowly, over the years its roots split the rock apart. The tree it became was the home of squirrels and birds and ants. It stands today, down by the creek that is across the field where the streetlights end. When the wind blows through its leaves it is said that one can hear the sound of a child crying.