by Kathryn Allen
I lie, awake and in pain, and wish for agony. But he does not come. Instead, I toss and turn the hours from midnight to four. Wishing he would come. Fearing he will never hold me again. Wondering if, now I have nothing left to offer, I hold no attraction for him anymore.
He has always lied—or at least told me less than the truth—and I have long since forgiven him. The truth would have changed what happened, and I cannot imagine my life any different from what I have had of it. Would not wish it so.
The first time—the first that I remember—I was ten years old. I jerked awake with a scream ready on my lips, escaping from a nightmare I had suffered through several times in the previous month, to feel his weight and sense his shadow in the darkness. For an instant – before I was quite awake – he seemed a part of that terrible dream, but then he kissed my brow, hugged me close, and I rested against him, feeling safe in his embrace. Lying in silence together, as innocent as any children ever were, I eventually drifted back to sleep.
He has said I was special to him from that night on. Another of his lies, but one I think he clings to and needs to believe. As much as I do.
The nightmares continued. And I became clumsier. I bruised myself more, or at least had more bruises. And my knees would ache and complain for days at a time. Still, I was a tomboy, bursting with life and health, and everyone expected a few such trophies of war. The nightmares passed without comment too, because I seldom felt a need to trouble the household with them. Why would I, when I had his arms about me, his comforting bulk holding me tight to him, and a whisper of thought like a lullaby singing in my head?
I discovered that I could see him only in the faintest lights—of stars, or the earliest twilight of the dawn—and even then he was only a shadow. By moonlight he was invisible. When I reached back, my arm would be held from the bed by his form unless I pressed down, and then it would sink through him as though he were made of water.
The nightmares were gone by the time I was thirteen. Instead I started having those dreams that young girls do, when they begin to understand their place in the world is mostly, quite literally, under men. The seductions of womanhood, played against the virginal fears of the unknown; just as the first monthly bleeding is accompanied by both pride and dismay. And when I woke from half-understood dreams of heat, and lust, his arms would curve around me, and his touch would finish what the dream began.
The pains in my knees stopped being occasional, but I was getting too old for running and physical games anyway. I was learning to walk, and act, as a woman and not a little girl. The pains in my elbows were more of a trouble to this new life, but they came and went—as did the physicians.
Then I was sixteen, and starting to draw the interested eyes of boys and young men. I remember waking from a dream, so explicit I could not believe it was built from my imagination, and turning to ask him whether that was the truth of what men and women did in darkness. A perfect dark drawl inside my mind answered—Yes. It jolted me, till I was more awake than I had ever been in his presence. I looked into his shadow, and he reached to me, and into me. And I whispered—Yes—in my turn.
So he showed me the how and the why. The act and the pleasure of the act. He changed me, and I put a name to the feelings I had known for so many years—I was in love.
Soon enough I was nineteen, and could not dance at my younger sister’s wedding. The pains had taken more of me. The men and boys who noticed my ripening had also seen my growing feebleness, and paid court elsewhere. Had I been able to manage the steps, I would have received no attentions from them but for pity’s sake.
I wanted neither their pity nor them. Not men—who were too little of a mystery to me—or boys—who were all too imperfectly human. And there was the matter of the bloodstains on sheet and thighs, which had warned me, three years before, that I would not go to any marriage bed a virgin. I was in no hurry to explain myself to a husband, and rather at a loss for excuses to give.
Looking back, I believe I did think to marry—to have a husband and children, in due course—and that a good reason for my apparent lapse in virtue would present itself. If I just waited. And there was my beloved—my lover of shadows—who spoke sweet poetry and song while he fulfilled my body with near endless passion. Perhaps marriage vows would deny him my bed. Perhaps they would not, and I would find myself wrapped in his arms whilst my husband snored beside me, both oblivious and a cuckold.
I let the time pass. Which was easy enough. I felt no lack, and the pains which troubled me were always easier borne for his being near. The pains that grew worse, and worse. Medicine had failed me, and the consolation of God’s ministers was not so pleasurable as that offered by my beloved.
One night, I woke to the near dawn and realised that I was twenty-five but had never been kissed in passion outside of my bed. And I realised too that my health was so poor I was barely worth my keep. No man would ever have me his bride. No child would ever call me mother. My lover was there before the second tear ran my cheek. He filled my thoughts with his touch and his need and, even when the light took him from shadow to nothingness, he stayed to serve me with completion, over and over again. As if he could not bear that I be left alone with such empty truths to face.
Soon after, I began to have fevers. Odd flushes of heat that made me shake in an ague. Or chills that shivered through my bones until they froze. The red rashes and the tiny pustules made people look in askance: one hour they disfigured me and the next they would be fading or gone. Or else last a week and more.
More and more often I would lie awake at night; longing for my only source of comfort, dreading that he would someday realise how unworthy I was of his desire. Even then—after all those years—I would not have presumed that he could feel more than lust, that he too could be in love.
More and more often I would wait in vain; falling, eventually, into a deep and untroubled sleep from which only morning could wake me. It took years of such growing neglect for me to challenge him, to ask him why he did not come to me as he had. He satisfied me five times, and spent himself in my arms before he gave his answer.
He said that he made the pain worse. That being with him advanced my illness. That he did not want me to sicken and die. He said he did not want to lose me.
I told him I did not care. That the illness was my cross, not his. That he made it easier to struggle through another day, another week, knowing there was something in my life worth the pain. I said I loved him.
When morning came, I was swollen in every joint of my body, the gentlest touch on my skin burned with pain, my eyes were feverish bright, and my cheeks so red that no one could mistake the glow for rude good health. From that day on my family did not worry about how I would face old age—without children of my own—they knew I would not be hanging dependant on nieces or nephews. The mark was on me.
Had I the power to wipe it away, I would not.
I lie, awake and in pain, and wish for agony. But he does not come, and I toss and turn the hours from midnight to four. My mind filled with the truths that have been self-evident, but which I have never faced.
He does not make my illness worse; he is my illness.
At some point in a woman’s life, even if she stays a virgin the rest of the world forgets and they say things that are never said around unmarried girls. Crude jokes. Suggestive comments. And ribald stories.
That is how I learned about his kind: demons which feed on the nightmares of children and the lustful dreams of youth.
Lying lonely in my bed, I know now that he has eaten me near to the bone. But if only he will come again, come one more time, I will welcome him with all my heart and not one drop of bitterness. If he comes, I will ask him for my death and serve him a last banquet of passion in recompense. Then I shall bid him wrap me in those great dark wings—which he has never unfurled in my sight—and I shall set my lips to his in a kiss: giving him the last breath of my body, the last beat of my heart, the last thought that is mine alone.
And that last thought will be, ‘he loves me’. For that is why he did not come before. And that is why he could not stay away. And that is why, this time, he will do as I beg.
It must be so.
Kathryn Allen will someday have a bio here, but until she has something more interesting to put than that she is English, lives in England, and writes quite a lot, she’s settling for this.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish