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A Bedtime Story

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The wind picks up a fallen leaf, sends it scudding down the narrow lane. It’s an old leaf, damp and decaying, and it disintegrates in midair, each fragment continuing to dance even as it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Once upon a time there was no lane here, no churchyard gate, no fields, no house. Only the wood was there, though bigger, covering the land. It should be like that now, desolate, almost empty, only a few red-blooded creatures, so inconsequential they hardly knew they were alive. (They knew when they were dying, though.)

Or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s better this way. Blood is blood, but fear can be made to last, if you have something with memory and imagination. And they’re practically bred for it, fear drummed into them from childhood, not only the fancies they come up with themselves, and the ones we feed them, but all the glorious panoply of hell: damnation and eternal torment, guilt, the belief you brought it on yourself, that you deserve it (the hare in the trap doesn’t believe it deserves to die, you can’t convince it that it sought out its own destruction). We settle into the bones of things, and humans make such good bones: churches and graveyards and roads kept going century after century, houses patched up and handed on, a whole deliberate edifice we grow through like cancer. What does some wood have to compare? It lasts only because trees take a long time to die, and meanwhile new ones have grown up. It isn’t intentional.

And intention is a powerful thing. It shapes the world into new realities. When all this was empty, uninhabited, where was hell then? But now it really exists, or very nearly: a fever dream, a nightmare on the edge of existence, and we, we come and go as we please, for what does it matter to us whether a place exists or only half exists?

Once we were nothing but instinct and hunger, but now…

Look at this man. He was born here, raised here - he belongs to us. He thought he could escape, thought he’d go away to a big city, where there’s nothing to be afraid of but other people, make a life there. But he met a girl, and he couldn’t afford to raise a family in the city, so they moved back here. He’d forgotten by then what it was really like. He remembers now, but where can he go with a wife and a child and a baby and another one on the way? He goes for walks by himself, thinking of the plans he used to have, wishing he could keep walking on and away into the distance. He gets a long way, sometimes, all the way down the lane, past the church, through the town and into a bottle of whisky. We like to talk to him as he’s walking home.

Or this woman here. She used to be pretty. She used to be young, too, all her life ahead of her. She didn’t care then whether she was pretty or not. She was going to be stylish instead, every single thing bought with her own money, earned by her own efforts. There was going to be a tiny, cosy apartment, too, when she’d saved enough, with flowers on the windowsill. There would be sandwiches in the park with her friends, day trips to other towns, the library with a thousand fantasies, a thousand worlds to explore. Nobody cares about any of that round here. She does have a house of her own, very small though not cosy, not even when the fire’s lit. She likes to sit and look at the fire, when she has time. We encourage her to make the time. It’s a nice thing to do, sitting like that in the only warm spot, watching the flames flicker and dance. Perhaps they want to be free. How can they dance properly when they’re chained to a fireplace? How prettily they burn!

See the children play! They are playing hide and seek. One to hide and one to find. Now they are playing a chasing game. Now the one who chases has caught the one who ran. What a fine game it is, to be sure. Children like to copy what they see around them, practicing for adulthood. “This is all your fault,” says one. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry - please don’t hit me again,” says the other. But give it time and they’ll change places, trying both roles, though it’s always one to flee and one to hunt; one to hurt, the other to beg.

See this man. He is a learned man, respected and wise. The others listen to him, take his words to heart, obey his commands when they can (when they can’t, they despise themselves for their weakness). And he, who does he listen to? Why, he listens to us. He doesn’t mean to, doesn’t even know he does, but at night he sits alone in the silence. He, too, despises weakness where he sees it, and he sees it everywhere. He sees it in the whisky, and the unswept floor, and the shouts of children who run and play when they should sit quietly and pray. He sees how autumn decays into dead winter, he sees how the feckless fecundity of spring hides cruelty and death behind a veil of flowers (hear how the little birds sing! And in the nest, the weakest is pushed away, pushed out to fall by its stronger brethren. The runt of the litter starves, the crow pecks the eyes from the lamb.) And summer? Summer breeds all manner of pestilence, a fitting precursor to the mould and decay to follow. He looks everywhere, thinks on everything, and none of it is good. How can it be? We are here. And what he has heard from us, he hastens to tell to his flock.

They build and build, these people, but the darkness is always there, like water creeping up a wall, like the taste of the soil seeping into a well. The old ways are good ways, and we follow them still, but a whisper in the night does as much as claws to the throat. We live half in hell, thanks to their teaching, we who were the spirits of this place, and we have learnt our lesson well.