When I was a boy there was a black man that I would see. Out of the corner of my mind, hidden behind trees and corners. He was there in my house, in my life. I would hear him walking up the steps of my father’s house in the dead of night. And I would hide under the covers. I would see him in my dreams. The choker, one that would suffocate me with a stare.
This man was not black, as in African American, or even a man at all. I should actually refer to him as The Dark Man, because his purposes for me were never clear, but always hidden. I would lie awake at night. I would pray that he would go away. But I would feel my body run cold, even if the blankets were warm. Even now as a man I wrap my arms around me, as if by instinct, grounded by the child-like belief that mere covers could save me from a being dark, ancient, and powerful. How would you know this, some have asked me. I know because it told me so. This dark man was a demon. One that haunted me in the night, a taunting dream that would lie in bed with me, whisper threatening lies in my ears. Words without a voice, ones that echoed in my empty unoccupied mind. Many of you don’t believe in demons, or manifestations of evil. They are the guilty conscience that hangs over us like dark clouds in the sky, most say. Until this night, I’ve never written about the dark man. I was always afraid of him coming back. I have a family now. Lord forgive me if I were to invite such a thing back into my life. But now that the light is with me, the dark man comes back less and less. The dreams are less real now. If he ever came back, it would never be the same.
There was a night in July, when I was 10 years old. I had recently come home from an informal reunion in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, where the hills are made of gold and from the earth pours wine. The specters of long dead miners and Chinese rail workers haunted the hills, their legacy paved over with boutiques and high class restaurants. I was lying in my bed at home, my brother sleeping soundly next to me. The Dark Man was there. The night light did not flicker. The air was not frosty or cold. There was no ghostly herald or cultic preamble in cartoonish languages. He was there, lying next to me, heaving rattling, emphysemic breaths. And what I remember, so clearly, so unequivocally, its words. “Ahh… don’t be like that.”
I froze. I wanted to cry.
It rolled over me, on top on me. Every muscle tensed on my body.
My eyes closed tight, he told me a little about himself.
“I’ve been alone, so alone. Sentenced to the depths of Hell, without respite and closure, a soul that asks on those passing through what came of their legacy of my life. I owned a house at once, hidden away in the forests of Bavaria. I had a cart and some sheep, my small cottage. I lived alone, skinning and tanning pelts under a cold distant sun that would pierce the canopies of my grove with shafts of goodness finding me in the depths of my loneliness.
“A woman, young with fair skin and supple breasts, with fiery red hair and green eyes would come to me, and only me, to sell milk and bread once a month. We would talk for a few hours. I would pay her a little extra for her services and she would go her way. With longing eyes she would look back, but they hid her pity well. Pity for an old man of the forest that knew no one, and none knew him.
“The clearings would keep the time of year, shading the earth with autumnal foliage or the colorful levity of spring. I would watch through my window built of fine glass that I found on a wrecked carriage near the road overlooking Berchtesgaden. The grass would bend under the weight of the snow, and every morning I would see the tracks of lesser creatures foraging in the night. A fire lit in the corner I made to remind me of older days, when I knew my son, and when he knew me.”
The creature reached out to me, forcing me to see through its eyes. I shook my head but I was still. I cried out to shout but I was made silent…
I saw the old man walking through the clearing, looking with tired lonely eyes at the rabbits. He would lift his hunting bow, aim, and collect his kill. Rabbit stew every night, always. Stringy morsels seasoned with crushed black pepper and salt from the mines near town.
Again the woman would come on the months end. He would sleep with her, collect her salt, and she would leave without tasting the rabbit he caught.
“I was unremarkable in death as I was in life, a simple soul with simple needs. When you see me in your dreams, I will suffocate you! Look into my eyes.” I didn’t need to see them again, because I had seen them many times before in my restless nights. Dreaming of dark rings housing sinister, cruel eyes.
“I was not always like this. All souls fall from paradise to the crags of perdition, marred by the tumultuous journey down, striking the rocks of the interior creation, the space between worlds where those long created before man dare to walk. One day, while seeing to my sheep, I looked up from my toil and, across the clearing, a young man with calloused hands and wiry beard watched me. The face so familiar, so precious, masked by the pain of a life bereft of paternal care, I beheld my lost son.
“That is how all good things start, with such energy that prolongs the period of good feelings. Together we built another room on the cottage. We cut lumber together, sawing with dull tools and fastening with rusty nails. Many times I fell to my knees in exhaustion, no longer young, but my son continued. I saw to it that he was well fed, and inside a feeling, a forgotten sensation of affection warmed me better than my cottage fire. My son, he should stay longer he said, as the snow will fall again and the leaves are withered and falling once more. And with bitter tears I cried aloud ‘I’m sorry, Hanz! I’m sorry for your mother, for everything.’”
The Dark Man forced its hand across my face. I felt nothing but its emptiness. I squinted under what felt like a hundred pounds of pressure. And it showed me more…
The woman returned after the snow melted, late but she came eventually in the summer months, driving a cart up the shadowed trail to the cottage. She was weak also, and when he saw her, he saw the rotund belly swathed in red cloth, a leather corset crudely cut in half with a cutlass holding up her bountiful breasts. He knew what it meant and said nothing. In her hands she took his, holding them up to her face. She smiled and told him that she would need another room to stay. He laughed, uncertain of what to say or do. And what was there to say? Long ago, as a young man he remembered the feelings, the prelude to excitement and fear, of anticipation and anxiousness. He thought shallowly then, considering that he would have to go into town to buy milk and bread from then on. Utility possessed him, purpose filled his lungs with the damp air of the forest floor. Across the field, the son came out of the forest carrying over his shoulders pails of water to run the new forge. The father, he looked at his son befuddled and the son nervously beheld the woman.
“The cottage grew over the winter. That was an early snow. Father and son digging in the ice while she waits inside; we prepared for the long season. I knew that soon the child would come. I did not see her watching through the window. Sweat in the cold winter air steaming off both our backs. We gripped our shovels tightly, revealing our strong rope-like arms. Both tawny, but strong. She coveted him, watching me in my old age, finding me… wanting. It was not long until I found her one night with him in our room, stroking his erection as they lay together in secret. And my fullness, the spirit that lifted me so high, higher than the birds of the sky, poured out of me, into my hands, and gave me strength to kill the boy, with tears in mine own eyes as she watched.
“She did not get far, so close to the fruit of our labors. She died in the snow as she fled.
“I could only imagine then how the questions slowly came to be asked, how the forge burned brightly, deep within the trees without orders for steel, how the milk grew sour and the bread stale in wait at the market, how the people came to confront me, how they found me wearing her bones around my neck, and how they came to strike me down. And so my soul was torn down through oblivion to the depths of Hell, to the Second Circle, let to roam the dreams of those that seek light beyond the forest depths.”
The Dark Man snarled, but I screamed. He floated away, seeping into the ceiling above. My brother awoke next to me in a start and made a face in disgust. “God! Shut up! Mom, what’s wrong with him?”
That was the first and only time the Dark Man spoke. It would come here and there throughout the years, with diminishing passion at each turn. How he would rake my body with his claws, stop my blood still with spiritual malaise. Taunt me in the morning, terrify me in my youth. I would not lie if I said that I remember hearing the sounds of his steps through my mother’s home. The creaks in the night. The sensation that he was behind me. And yet, in all this, I sensed that its menace had climaxed at the moment of personal disclosure. As I became a man, as I chose my path to go to the university, the Dark Man became less real, and merely a bad dream. But I still remember the first days, before I accepted God’s protection, when I would hide in the fluorescent fountains all around me. Its memory surpassed its presence, which was, in many ways, more terrifying that the genuine reality of the creature.
In these times, I am not afraid of the Dark Man any more. But I know he is still there, somewhere, praying for death. Should I feel sorry for him? No. What good is the Dark Man to me, but the memories of youthful trepidation? Yet I am thankful. I’m my studies on theology and the demonic I have reasoned that such soul would be allowed to hate me because the Dark Man’s presence teaches me what it means to languish unchallenged in loneliness. For so long I had wrapped melancholy around me like a blanket, to shiver bitterly, to deny the charity of friendship to others and myself. The Dark Man cursed me when I was young with its sadness. I could never curse another to bear mine. And now, in my office, on this word processor, I want you to know what happened to me. Melancholy like a good book, or an engrossing film can be so gratifying. Some revel in it, crushing themselves in a vise. But like a monkey on my back I have worn the Dark Man and put him off, never to wear him again. One day I will forget him, and then he will finally be just another shade in the pit.