Afraid of the Dark


In the old days, darkness was something to be feared. When the sun went down, there were no electrical bulbs to burn away the night, no clean white clicking switches to banish the gloom. There was just the darkness like a maw at the rain-streaked window, while the people inside huddled closer around the fireplace. Sometimes there were the few precious candles and the warm dullness of lanterns; but these are dim things compared to the harsh brilliance of fluorescent bars and the modern neon glow.

In the old days, night was really night. The stars were still visible because there were no glittering metropolis lights to brighten the sky from below. Getting home late was not a matter of staggering along under the streetlights, but a fearful drunken stumble down muddy lanes in a pitch blackness the like of which city dwellers rarely encounter anymore. Back then it was still easy to believe that something stalked the darkness on cloven, inhuman feet.

Occasionally Drusilla tells Faith of those olden times, in shuddering whispers and slow drawn-out words, but the young woman has never fully understood what she means. Faith is a child of the late twentieth century and a woman of the twenty-first, born in the white surgery glare of sterile hospital lights, her eyes inundated since childhood by the flickering of cathode ray television tubes and stuttering motel signs flashing neon 'vacancies'. Later there were computer screens and microwave ovens, Playstation games and designer lampshades.

Faith thought she knew night. She thought she knew of the nameless depths invoked by Drusilla's sing-song words. But in truth, even her darkest moments have always held some tiny chink of light or half-half shadow against which to contrast the blackness. Even in the solitude of the cell there was the faintest of reflected glows from the jailyard spots, enough to illuminate the outline of her hands as they clenched and unclenched, reaching for the sky.

Only now, when she buries her face in the fall of Drusilla's nightshade hair, can Faith begin to conceive of the perfect dark.

Yet even with her incomplete understanding, Faith is not surprised by the thrill of sharp, undefinable emotion that runs through Drusilla's body when the electricity cuts out and leaves Istanbul as dark as the grave. The hum of traffic gives way to silence and the window might have disappeared for all the illumination it now provides.

Silence, and an utter absence of light.

For a moment Faith has a sudden vivid flash of imagining, of the rest of the world falling away and leaving only this room, this rumpled bed and the two fluid bodies wrapped around each other comprising the whole of creation. But then the city breathes again even in its darkness, the neighbours complaining and dogs barking, and Istanbul is restored.

Drusilla begins to whisper, a low dreamy stream of words to complement the cool touch of her hands running across warm flank and thigh and belly. This time, lying in the utter darkness above the ancient city, Faith almost understands when Drusilla speaks of her long-ago girlhood and the tyranny of the night, of the way her mother barred the doors and muttered prayers over windowsills, how the beating her father dealt her after coming home barefoot an hour past sunset came from relief as much as anger.

Drusilla recites memory in her voice of silver and even Faith, with her blunted sense of wonder, can shiver at the sound. And now too there is the heat of desire, this unsatisfied craving as Drusilla moves above her. Cold hands tracing out the symmetry of Faith's fevered body. The darkness is complete and Faith cannot see - Drusilla is a succubus composed of nothing but the disembodied hands trailing across her breasts, the thighs that press against her sides, and words that fall like cobwebs out of nowhere.

Now Drusilla's rememberings have turned to different forbiddings and unspoken rules of the dark. Back then, in the olden days when night was still night, women did not touch women. Their secret places were kept for their husbands' use alone, their nipples reserved for the suck of children and men, and carnal pleasure was for whores. They were bound by God and the sancitity of the marriage bed: so they learnt, as infants and girls and women, that they were not to touch one another except in sisterly, chaste embrace.

Only at night could these forbidden meetings occur, when they could not see for the darkness, not even each other. Even then there was the fear - of discovery, of their own wrongdoing, fear of the very night itself as it pressed against their bodies.

To Drusilla, time might almost seem to turn back in its tracks, for are they not two women together in the secret darkness? Faith long ago learnt to recognise the scent of fear and for an instant she senses its presence, in Drusilla's dead pheromones and suddenly brittle hands. The darkness is suffocating and Drusilla seems to gasp without breath.

But Faith, twenty-first century girl, has never been afraid of the dark. Langourously she stretches out her hands, arms entwining around torso and ribcage. Their bodies falling together, Drusilla's mouth pressing butterfly light against the curve of Faith's throat. Skin melds into skin, warm against cold and cold against warm, and reawakened memories wither in the heat of their embrace.

Darkness never changes. Shut eyes can see no difference between the Istanbul of now and the England of centuries past. Darkness cannot change, but fears can. And in this moment, these two no longer know the meaning of the word. In this moment, it seems they never will again.

The electricity starts up again and the lights turn back on. They do not notice.


January 2001
Written for improv #8.

[Rowan's Fanfiction]