Chapter : Shades of Fear
I woke up in darkness, my throat so closed up that I was gasping, and tiny cold fingers seemed to be pinching me all over. I was paralyzed for a moment, not knowing where I was, or even more frightening, who I was. The voluminous white cotton nightgown which had so pleased me earlier tangled around each of my limbs like a straightjacket, tightening, preventing me from moving at all.
I thrashed harder, and felt myself first falling, and then landing with a muffled thump onto thick carpeting. Once there, I was able to unwind the flowing nightgown from my arms, and struggled to my hands and knees, and then to my feet.
Staggering, I fumbled about in the dark, waving my arms gingerly. When my shins struck it, I patted the edge of the oversize Victorian chaise where I’d been sleeping, patted the the fluffy warm quilt. The darkness was impenetrable, overwhelming. I shook all over, and though I knew it was important to slow my breath down, because when the breath is calm, the mind often follows, it still came in smothered little gasps. I shuffled to end of the chaise, using my hands to guide myself.
I made a real effort to draw in a deeper, possibly calming breath, although my throat felt full of feathers, the quills poking, the fluff choking. Then, I shuffled away from the chaise, not knowing if I would ever make it back. There was something heavy in the pocket of the nightdress, and it thunked gently against my thigh as I crept.
Ice slid down my spine as I heard something snuffling, sniffing. I jumped and yelped when something warm and living bumped against my knee. I heard a soft “whuff?” of inquiry, and I remembered– dimly. “Doggie?” I whispered. “Little dog, is that you?” A cold wet nose touched my hand, and I delicately explored the poor little patient dog with my fingers. Her fur was silky and plush. She had a collar on, which I curled my fingers around, and when she moved forward, I went with her, sliding my feet cautiously across the floor. She was kind enough to go nice and slow.
The carpet ended, and I felt cold stone beneath my feet. I wondered fleetingly what had happened to my sandals. But these kinds of questions– where, when, how, what?– didn’t last long in my mind; they seemed to float away, captured and borne away in rainbowed soap bubbles as soon as they surfaced.
I noticed, once again, warm orange firelight lightening things to the color of dark ash, the fireplace growing brighter far off to my left. I walked on, releasing the dog’s collar when I could see. I left the cold stone floor and walked first across polished wood planks, then onto a thin, rumpled carpet with images of large ruffly flowers– peonies, maybe– worked into it. The threads felt very fine against my skin and I could tell that it was very old, perhaps ancient. The little dog walked with her hopping gait ahead of me, toward the fireplace.
I followed. The sight of the fire (did it only flare up when I approached?) soothed me a little, as did the sight of the familiar wing chairs upholstered in burgundy velvet, their arms faintly worn, and their low, oval companion table, which was still bearing a tray. I hurried to my chair, lifting my feet now that I could see.
On the seat cushion was a small, folded blanket and a diminutive book. I picked up the blanket. It was dove-gray knit and as soft as the down on a baby bird. I stroked it, and then threw it around my shoulders. I was still shaking and shivering. From fear or cold, I didn’t know, perhaps both. I never knew fear had a temperature. I picked up the book so I could sit, held it in my lap as I looked at the fire. There was much charred wood, as if it had been burning for a while, and huge sullen embers glowing deep orange. Flickers of movement, almost like old friends.
I twitched at a noise– why did I keep forgetting the little dog? She hopped back into the circle of firelight, looked up at me and wagged her tail. She seemed to be expecting something. The firelight shimmered across her shiny fur, her thick ruff and sleek head. Her tail was shaped like a crescent moon and swept swiftly side to side. Her eyes were star-bright, the tip of her little pink tongue stuck out..
I nodded at her, and I whispered, “Everything’s all right.” It was a terrible lie, but she seemed to believe me, because she came forward and settled herself at my feet, curling up into a coin shape with her nose tucked under her tail. I hoped she had food and water somewhere. I hoped the shaman hadn’t left her behind accidently. I stroked the top her head. She sighed, and after a moment, I turned my attention, distracted though it was, to the book.
It was bound in worn, faded, coral-colored linen. There were no words on the cover, just an incised image of the sun, picked out in delicate gold lines.
I opened the book. The title page was elaborately painted with gold and lapis and bright scarlet red, very beautiful, but the words were in another language– thin, spidery characters with many spirals and curlicues. The pages were thick, the edges rough and uneven, and I thought that the book was probably a hand written and illustrated manuscript. I turned to the first page, where the strange language was closely crammed onto the page, filling the whole thing. The first character was oversize and highly decorative, with tiny golden suns and spiral shells and flowers.
Although I couldn’t decipher what it said in the least, it was a beautiful piece of artwork, and I scanned the page appreciatively. I even ran my fingertips over the long-dried ink. I wished that I could read it.
And then the images on the page began to swim and swirl, until they were nothing but a bright, colorful smear. I watched avidly for a moment, but the movement and formlessness made me feel nauseous and headachy and dizzy, and I closed my eyes.