Between Nothings

A short story about a young man, and a familiar revelation.

Out of nothing comes a dim light, recognized moments later as the hallway lamp tearing a sideways shadow over the face of darkness, and the sound of two human voices, their meaning obscured by doorways, recognized moments later as Daniel’s parents — all within Daniel himself. It was not the first time they woke him up in argument, but on this evening a potential source of anxiety was in fact Daniel’s immense comfort. He felt safe with those lovely parent sounds, the low raspy stumbling mumble of his father and flowering lilt of his mother, sharpened here and there in interruption. Daniel did not just smile, but felt warmth burning within. Before he was awake enough to know anything about himself, it was there in his chest, lulling him back to sleep.

But as he dissolved into the unknown nowhere, a face appeared behind his eyelids like a waking nightmare: the bloody face of Joshua, his classmate and sometime friend, recognized moments later as a memory from earlier in the day, he was sure of that, when Joshua started dripping thick red from his nose just as the recess bell rang to collect them. Students fled from the gruesome sight of it, and Joshua flung about like a frantic zombie, until Mrs WIlliams bore down on them, mending the chaos with her raised voice. “Joshua!” she cried in rage, but instantly on recognition her tone softened to the warmest expression of sympathy, kneeling to hold a white handkerchief to Joshua’s smeared face. “To the nurse’s office with you; it’ll be alright.”

Daniel lingered at the edge of sand and grass, the rush of returning students pulling him alternately toward and away, and crinkled his brow with confusion, for something unique was occurring within him, and no one could say what, least of all Daniel. His mind ran like a rampant projector, images and meanings flashing through him: blood, inside, outside, blood, face, fear, love, tears, inside, blood, face. Mrs Williams face, angry, unconcerned, like everyone’s mother. This time there was no inner recognition, no paradigm for this moment to fit within, except of course that he’d already experienced it, and now in bed it was another monstrous thing. Who would comfort Mrs Williams, Daniel wondered? Well, she perhaps wouldn’t need it, if there is any justice in the world.

There was a moment, sometime long before, months even, when Daniel wandered back through his parents’ room uninvited one indistinguishable evening and found his mother crying, tears streaming everywhere like the foreshadowed miracle of Joshua’s red face. Daniel, flushed with anger, tripped over himself in escape, irritated by his own startling rage, then scrambling down toward the kitchen. Before long he was laughing and the memory untangled, then returned safely to his bed, remembering the whole ordeal, wrapped in blankets of familiar voices.

Daniel shot up in bed, struck by a new string of memories, like images on a cold screen, and yet, nothing arrived. No images, but a memory nonetheless. Something horrible, something tragic was happening — was going to happen, rather. The knowledge of this inevitability shattered Daniel, tearing his blind ignorance with an ancient, nameless understanding: Daniel knew, for the first time, that someday his parents will die. Daniel recoiled. The stench of death snuck in all around him. He was on fire, burning, agonized. How could he have been so foolish? How could he have missed it? It was beyond obvious, in front of his face and behind every thought. In every beginning and ending, in the extinguished light that erases a TV show. As sure as they were alive, as sure as Daniel himself was alive, he knew his parents would die.

All this time Daniel was crying, not only for them, not only for himself, but for something worse than death: injustice. Injustice! It cannot be. How could it be? How could the world be unfair? “Explain yourself!” he heard his mother’s voice in his head. Is there no reason for it? Why do we have to die? Daniel searched his sticky darkness, the symptom of a dead world. Monsters do not hide in closets or under beds, Daniel realized, but all around, cursing all actions, laughing at each smile and sunrise, the hungry merciless beast of change and destruction, more evil than imagination, smothering desires great and small. Death. Death everywhere. All is death.

Daniel was in a grave, trapped in a splintered coffin with his screaming echo, far from the muffled roll of parental voices, and seconds later met with the insulting thump of dirt against the lid — a final unanswered knocking. Surely, Daniel was already dead. His dead heart sank. He could no longer even scream. He was dead, like everyone else.

Daniel shot up again in bed, struck with wonder, on the edge of an enormous precipice, his heart rising in graceful objection. No! That is not death. Trapped in a coffin… that is not death. Death is less. Take away the breath and sight and smell and touch, absolute darkness, not even through the cracks in the stale wood. Daniel closed his eyes to picture it. I am dead. What is it like? But… I am still here, aren’t I? Daniel is a voice in darkness, eyes behind eyelids witnessing mutely, and yet… present. And so, alive. Death is less, not even the thoughts in his head or the immense awareness, unfettered by dead senses. Death must be less! Could anything be less than death? What is it? What is this nothing? Daniel was still. No breath, no heartbeat, no thought, focused on nothingness. What is it?

But Daniel could not imagine nothing. Nothing is nothing. What is the experience of no-experience? What is when I am not? Daniel did not even give up — sleep took him, and in less than a moment he was missing entirely.

The painting above is Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night over the Rhone.’

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