Sometimes he will make clicking sounds and then, sort of, open his mouth as if he is eating something. He will open and close his mouth for a few seconds and then there will be silence before I start to hear his teeth grinding together. It sounds awful, his teeth at the back of his mouth, gnawing and clashing together. I make him stop by stroking his cheek softly. He stops when I do that.
‘The Sleep Walkers are coming,’ he whispered once in the dark, ‘and we have to be prepared.’
This has gone on for months now, him talking in his sleep, usually babbling incomprehensibly. It’s only on occasion, like that night, where he will say complete sentences. Sentences containing words I didn’t even realise he knew.
It’s strange listening to him but I can’t stop. A part of me believes he will say something I need to hear. He will say something I need to know. Only sometimes I have woken up to find I’ve fallen asleep, slumped in the chair next to his bed. I wake up shivering in the dark, disoriented, unsure of where I am. I remember the panic that had coursed through me once when I woke up and really believed I didn’t have an arm anymore, it was so asleep. I could feel my arm with the other one but it was like touching a dead limb. It was disgusting. And I woke him up too, I didn’t realise I was being so loud.
In the morning he told me that he didn’t remember it at all which I thought was very strange.
But it is rare that I find I have fallen asleep. Usually I have a lot of trouble sleeping which, when I was younger, would really upset me. I used to get really worked up by it and believe, if I didn’t sleep, something bad would happen, like I wouldn’t be able to live the next day, as in, talk or breathe or stand. I used to watch the clock as it got later and later and my breath got fainter and fainter. It made me feel like my life was literally seeping out of me with every minute that passed. The next day, though, I found I could do all the things that I usually could do, albeit in a sort of drugged haze, and that made me relax a lot. And I felt like it wasn’t that bad being awake when I should be asleep if only because it made me feel weird and kind of nice and fuzzy.
Now I have no problem staying awake all night because I don’t mind being tired and I usually will stay awake sitting in the armchair by his bed. I like to watch him sleep and make his sleep sort of my own. I feel energised by watching his little body breathe heavily. In this way, I stand guard until morning, listening to him speak, usually in tongues but sometimes in the correct order. The tongues I don’t care for, I lean in closer and listen carefully though, because sometimes words in their correct order come out and it would be terrible to miss them.
This thing about the Sleep Walkers did sort of make me feel funny. There had been no tongues before it or after, it had just sort of appeared without warning and made me shiver when he said it because he said it with his eyes half open and that was really weird. The way he was lying at the time, too, didn’t help. He had tried to kick his blanket off but instead had become tangled up in it. The blanket wrapped around his left leg and crossed over his stomach and behind him and around to his right arm. He was lying on his back with his arms wide open and his legs bound together by the sheet and his head was turned to the right, which was towards the wall and away from me. It meant the orange street light was shining on him so I could see his eyes were half open after I leaned over to look.
When I did lean over him, I had this flash where I imagined him sitting up and grabbing my throat and squeezing tighter than a child has the strength to.
At the same time, I had a flash of being told by my parents about my brother sleep walking and they were afraid he would fall down the stairs in his sleep. I don’t think I ever saw my brother sleep walk, I have this image, though, of being at the bottom of the stairs and he’s at the top of the stairs and I can see it in my mind like it actually happened even though I’m certain it didn’t. My dad also told me that he would wake up and find my brother standing over him. I can see that like I was there, too, but I can’t have been.
And all these thoughts came to me in a flash as I was leaning over his bed to see his eyes. And other thoughts happened then, too, but the ones I just recounted were at the front. All of these things combined – the way he was lying and what he said and his eyes half open and all the thoughts that flashed through my mind as I leaned over his sleeping body – made me shiver and feel kind of vulnerable and alone and lonely. Even though he was right there, he felt so far – away from me and this all made me feel really cold and sad.
This feeling made other, generally sad, things flash into my head, such as the thought of a friend of mine who had died when he was 23, or my childhood dog who had died with a suspected brain tumour after having a series of progressively worse and worse seizures and losing muscle mass so that her whole face kind of sagged off her skull. It was death that was the recurrent theme in my head and I suspect it was because one thought of death flashing into my head led to another thought of death and so on.
It did make me wonder if it wasn’t a Spiral of Depression that I was experiencing. I thought it could be due to the sad nature of my thoughts and the way the thoughts seemed to enter my head in a circular fashion. And once I had thought about depression, lots of other related thoughts began to pop up, like if I was, in fact, experiencing a Spiral of Depression, would this then lead to suicide?
I certainly had thought about suicide before. I think everyone has, and I had thought of it in the way where I had wondered what it might be like to actually kill myself and what my family and my friends would think. What they might say at a funeral or who would even organise a funeral considering I had given no instructions to anyone of what I might want.
Then, though, I wasn’t thinking so much of my funeral but more about what it would actually be like to kill myself. Strangely, these thoughts made me feel better, not because I realised I wanted to kill myself, but because it all started to seem a little dramatic and unnecessary to think about it.
It made the air feel less cold and the strange feeling that had washed over me had passed so that, in reality, I was just standing over his bed still watching him, while he breathed heavily and deeply and peacefully.
When I look at his peaceful little face, I feel convinced that he has no thoughts. That in his dreams, he thinks nothing. I realise that this isn’t likely but I do wonder how he can possibly have seen enough or felt enough to fill his dreams night after night. Sometimes I feel so convinced he can’t have enough to fill his dreams it makes more sense if he’s not dreaming at all.
I remember one morning, after I hadn’t slept at all but had sat up by his bed all night, he told me he had had dreams about a little black monster who had saved him from another red and bigger monster. He said it cheerfully over his cereal. I asked him if he had been afraid and he said the little black monster, who was furry, he added, had assured him he didn’t need to be afraid. I asked him if he had believed the little black monster and he said ‘yep’ with a mouth full of milk.
I remember feeling really annoyed because that night he hadn’t made a sound in his sleep. He had slept peacefully the whole night. He had barely even changed his position and, when he did, it was in a sort of languid and gassed way. Not in a distressed or twitchy sort of way. I remember feeling particularly annoyed because I had been convinced that he hadn’t had a single thought all night and then he told me about these monsters. It made me mad that I didn’t even know when he needed saving from a red monster and that a small furry black monster could make him feel so calm. I dropped a glass when I was washing up while I was thinking about this and then I cut my hand on the broken glass and my hand was bleeding and I screamed for him to leave the room, which he did, and I cleaned it all up.
There’s something comforting about the silence before he speaks. I’m getting more and more used to the silence, also, because I find he is speaking less and less. I keep telling myself the silences are comforting, I am wrapped up in them and I find myself there, all warm and safe. I have to keep telling myself this otherwise I might become more afraid.
It’s true, I am frightened of what the silences might mean, that they might mean he will become more withdrawn from me after every hushed night. I really am afraid even his dreams – for it’s clear to me now that he does have them – are pulling further away from me. To bring him back to me, I have tried to influence his dreams before he goes to bed.
It feels like I have done this for some time now. It began as something obvious and has evolved into something far more subtle. I would encourage him to draw pictures of things that he is afraid of and then I would insert myself into his drawings, proving I was able to save him from anything.
I never mentioned the small black furry monster to him again. I believe he has forgotten about it. Following his drawing time, I would suggest maybe he would dream about his drawing that night, maybe the drawing would come to life in his mind. Eventually, he got sick of drawing before bed and refused to do it which is something I certainly don’t blame him for. In truth, I was getting a little sick of it too. I can’t draw very well.
So I had to find a way to influence his dreams in different and more subtle ways. Now I insert a word, a sentence, usually something brief, but always with the promise of my rescue and I do it as he is climbing into his bed and he never responds to me, probably because he is so tired.
But I refuse to stop watching him sleep, silent night after silent night, sensitive to any small movement that he might make. I’ve needed to push my chair closer to his bed to ensure that I miss nothing. From my new position I can see each twitch his mouth makes, each fluttering of his eyelids, it’s impossible for me to miss anything.
But it’s true he hasn’t spoken in such a long time, and yet I continue to wait in the dark next to his bed for him to speak again.
Each morning he rolls over and sees me there, in the armchair, watching him, and he yawns and stretches out with his eyes half closed and then he climbs out of his bed and onto my lap and he tells me to go to sleep. And so I do.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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