Week Six | 2,833 words
Hold Your Horses
We are all in bed, three spoons in order of size. I am cuddled up to my son Izak, eight years old, a skinny little enigma. One minute he is so serious, pulling apart words, phrases and off the cuff remarks with all of the concentration and irritating logic of a practiced lawyer. The next moment he is running, howling for the fun of it, in fits of giggles, blisters of tantrums. The tantrums, thankfully, are pretty few and far between, and are usually the result of me forgetting he is only eight. That direct gaze is deceptive, and lulls me into expecting more of him than is probably fair.
Izak is cuddled up to Abi, my daughter. She is five, a quiet little thing with a cheeky smile. I can see the edges of it creeping around her thumb (I am desperately trying and failing to get her to stop sucking it…) whenever she is happy. If she’s not with me or Izak she becomes a guarded child, watching everyone with a slightly suspicious squint and a tension in her body that I always want to cuddle and soothe out of her. But she has started school now, and I can’t be there every moment to ease the everyday fears away.
And if only these were the only fears that Abi has to deal with.
The dreams had started a little over a week ago. There were no changes to routine, to our lifestyles, or to our family dynamic. One night, all of a sudden, she began screaming and couldn’t stop. Her eyes were wide open, her hands clenched and unclenched into tiny fragile fists. She wasn’t awake. I tried desperately to soothe her, whispering calm words that turned into scared shouts as I wondered what had taken over my daughter and was making a puppet of her physical body whilst terrifying her mind. Izak had wandered in, full of sleep and alarm. Abi was sat bolt upright, light from the hallway casting a sharp line of light across her face; for a moment she looked like a child from a horror film. And then I blinked and she was my daughter again, being pulled about by something I was powerless to dismiss. I had been trying to pick her up for a few minutes, wondering how she might react, anxious that she might thrash suddenly and do us both an injury.
All of a sudden the screaming stopped; she blinked, gulped, and burst into tears. Izak scooped Lady O, Abi’s favourite toy, from the floor, and thrust her into Abi’s lap as I sat down beside her, cuddled her to me, and stroked her hair. Abi’s hand clutched mine and automatically began to twist my grandmother’s engagement ring back and forth on my finger, a habit she fell into when she was two, and that still emerges every now and then when she’s unsettled.
Having delivered Lady O, an elephant whose ear was now being sucked between hiccups and the echoes of sobs, Izak left the room, and came back a minute or two later with a glass of water and Abi’s favourite crazy drinking straw. Having set his sister up with the essentials he gave her a weary smile that made her face crack open into a relieved grin, and went back to bed.
After this it only took one read through of “Mr Magnolia” (an old but firm favourite) to get Abi to snuggle under her covers, clutch Lady O to her chest, and her eyes to flutter closed.
I assumed this nightmarish session had been triggered by something she had inadvertently seen – whether on telly, at school, on the street… It is impossible to blinker your children from everything, good or bad, that the world has to offer. My heart sank the next night when it all started again.
This time it seemed to take forever for her to wake up from the grip of the dream. She shook and moaned, tears leaked from her eyes that were either achingly wide open, or squeezed tightly shut. Her feet pummelled the bed. Her hands reached for something that wasn’t there. Once again my voice slid from a calm plea to a desperate insistence that she wake up. When she finally did I am positive it was nothing to do with me. Whatever nightmare had held her had simply decided to let her go. Exhausted and afraid she slumped back into bed whilst I cuddled up, Izak retrieved the elephant and the drink, and none of us had any explanations. Abi’s hands pulled mine around her and she snuggled into me, pulling my right hand down to her chest, fingers going to my gold ring, turning it and stroking the smooth Peridot and Amethyst stones set into it.
“It’s nice,” she said sleepily.
“It was my Nannys. She loved it.”
“Why did she give it away then?”
“She loved me more.” I gave myself a small mental cheer for so skilfully avoiding a conversation about death and bequests this soon after bad dreams.
“Nanny always said that it was quite outrageous at the time. Everyone else was being proposed to with diamond rings, and when my Grandad pulled this from his pocket she knew that he was the right man for her. That was her ultimate test, she always said. That the right man would know the right ring.”
“What’s porposed?” She was barely awake, this was a little mumble from a nodding head and heavy eyes. I shifted to the side and lay her gently down.
“It’s when one person asks another person to marry them,” I said.
She sighed an “Oh” of understanding, and I crept out of the room.
At breakfast the next morning dark circles had appeared under Abi’s eyes. She was pale and exhausted from the physical and emotional toll of the dreams. Izak frowned at her with concern as he spooned Cheerios into his mouth.
“I think we’ll try no telly today,” I said brightly, as if this was an adventurous idea we should all be embracing with enthusiasm. No luck there. Instead Abi gulped and proceeded to cry slow heavy tears into her cereal.
“It’s not the telly,” she whined.
“It can’t hurt to try,” I told her.
“What is it if it’s not the telly?” Izak wanted to know. Abi sniffed at him.
“I don’t know.” She gave me a somewhat baleful look over her bowl, “but it isn’t the television.”
“They’re really bad nightmares, Abi,” I told her, “so we have to try a few things to work out what is triggering them. And if we can’t work it out ourselves we’ll have to see a doctor if they don’t stop.”
This started the tears again. Abi hates our doctor for reasons she is reluctant to share but which she once told Izak had something to do with nose hair.
Izak shrugged. “I bet I can totally do a night without telly. I bet there’s loads of things we can do instead. What did you used to do Mum? In the old days, I mean. Before there was telly?”
I bit back my retort that I was not so old that I pre-dated television, and instead started to list rainy day games I had enjoyed as a child, tried to remember what board games we had mouldering away in the loft, and wondered if I had completely erased the rules to any card games.
That night the television remained black and lifeless. Instead we played music, sang, danced, built a den, played Huff the Donkey – a peculiar card game that no-one outside of our family seems to know – and laughed and talked and laughed some more. Abi was so full of smiles and giggles by the time I put her to bed that I was convinced we had solved this particular problem. How could such a sleepily content child suffer bad dreams?
“Do you think it will work?” Izak asked when I came back downstairs.
“I hope so,” I said.
“It was fun anyway,” he said with a smile, and helped me demolish the den and put the various blankets, table cloths and clothes pegs away.
“Why are they called after horses?” he asked as we gathered the playing cards together.
“Why are what called after horses?”
This was typical of my son – pulling a word apart to try and discern a bigger meaning behind it, some hidden clue into how we communicate, how our language fundamentally worked.
“Oh. I don’t know. Shall we check online?”
His grin was a clear affirmative. Izak can spend hours following the paths that one random question will lead him down. Thank goodness for the internet. Without it our house would be a permanent mess of encyclopaedias, dictionaries and atlases.
We turned on the computer and after a couple of false starts eventually found our way to an online etymology dictionary. The site helpfully stated that the word nightmare was from the 13th century and meant “an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation”. A little chill ran through me as I read this. I do my best to stand firm against the creeping fingers of superstition and fairy tales, but deciding not to worry about the bad luck a black cat may bring is a different campaign than brushing off one line referring to evil spirits when your daughter is screaming herself hoarse in her sleep.
Which is what happened later.
The dent in our confidence was the worst thing. We had had such a lovely evening, had felt so victorious in our battle against whatever it was, and it had made no difference at all. Once again Abi was a horror film child, face taut and appalled, hands scratching at her throat and then pulling at her hair.
Izak glared at the nightmare from Abi’s bedroom doorway, and waited for it to pass. It seemed to take forever. He had collected Lady O from the corner of the room, and was hugging her to his chest, scowling at Abi’s pain and fear. His expression vanished in the moment Abi finally wrenched herself awake and collapsed into my arms.
“Mum,” Izak said from the doorway, “can we sleep in your bed tonight?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” I pulled Abi to me, her hot and sodden nightdress clinging to her. “Let’s get you in some clean pyjamas, and then we’re all cuddling up together.” Alarmingly, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice shook. The unusual sight of me about to cry set Abi off again, and Izak abruptly left the room.
“This is no good,” I said to Abi as I pulled her nightie over her head and rummaged in her drawers for clean nightwear, “we’re just going to get you all soggy again.”
“We need TISSUES!” Abi shouted. Abi’s theory about “how to stop crying” consists of shouting the last word of every sentence until you feel better. I had no better ideas, and responded with; “You’re RIGHT! TISSUES!”
And, at last, our sniffy tears turned to sniffy sniggers.
Finally, all wrapped up in clean pyjamas, hair brushed again for good luck, Lady O firmly grasped in both hands, we went to my bedroom. Izak had remade the bed after my hurried exit, and had thoughtfully placed Abi’s glass of water (with the requisite crazy straw) and a box of tissues on the bedside table.
We all climbed in. Me, then Izak, then Abi. We cuddled up. I wished, knowing it would ultimately be a bad idea, that we could do this more often. My little family, all nestled together, comfortable and relaxed as we drifted off to sleep.
The second bout of bad dreams arrived early in the morning. Dawn was sliding up to the windows and peering around the curtains. Abi began twitching. She cried out. I propped myself up, ready to jump out of bed and do – what? I had no idea, but to be there when she woke up. But Izak cuddled up to her again, squeezed her shoulder and whispered “hold your horses” into her ear. Abi sighed, a softly worried sound. I lay back down and rolled towards them, my heart thumping. Izak’s soft curls brushed my cheek and I dropped a soft kiss on his head.
“Hold on,” he said, as he put his arms in a firmer grip around her. I sat back up. Abi was shaking in her big brothers arms and her legs were kicking violently, tangling in the quilt and dragging it across the bed.
“Hold on, Abi,” Izak said, a little louder, a note of tension singing through his concern. I knelt up in the bed. I had no idea what to do. I reached for the quilt that Abi was doggedly kicking into a cocoon around her legs and then stopped. I could hear a thumping. It was a noise I had not noticed – there had just been the white static of panic buzzing through my head underneath and urgency to not lose control, so figure out what needed to be done to get us through this. But this was new. This was not inside my head, not a hammering from my pounding heart, this was an actual noise. The noise of hoof beats, of something huge and malevolent galloping towards us. And suddenly there it was at the foot of the bed. A huge horse, foaming with sweat, its eyes wide and panicked as it fought its rider, and she sat astride him with glee. Skinny legs clung to the sides of the horse, shadows glancing from it in blacks and purples. The rider’s eyes were black and joyful, and focused solely on my daughter, who lay in her brothers arms whimpering and shaking. This was Abi’s horse, I somehow knew, summoned from some deep place in her dreams, and its unwelcome rider was a goblin lady. Sharp teeth appeared as she pulled back her skinny lips in a wide grin. A bony finger ending in a long, ragged and grimy nail pointed at Abi, who arched and shrieked whilst Izak hugged her tighter, forever whispering, telling her to hold on.
“Mine” said the creature, a hiss on the edge of consciousness, a demand that filled the room with a stink of chaos and perversion.
“No,” Izak murmured to Abi, and I turned to face the thing on the horse. I refused to let my son and daughter face this malevolence alone. Without even thinking about it I twisted my grandmother’s ring. The five stones, a peridot gleaming like a dragon’s eye, bordered by four amethysts, twinkling like gentle kindness, sat above the palm of my hand. I sliced an imaginary line through the air, I cut through whatever there was between this thing and my children and I screamed “No!” filling the sound with the will to not be defeated by this fear, to draw on courage and ferocity and stubborn refusal.
The horse snorted and skittered around. Its tail swished across my bureau, sending make up and perfume bottles rolling to the floor. It reared and whinnied, the most appalling shriek. I did everything I could not to bring my hands to my ears, to keep those gemstones glaring at the goblin.
“Hold on,” Abi stuttered. The horse shook its head crazily. The female thing on its back clenched her knees around it, wove her fingers into its mane. The horse staggered sideways, kicked backwards. The mirror on my wardrobe came crashing to the floor.
“Mi-ine,” the goblin sang, and Izak shook his head and, unbelievably, smiled.
“Mine,” he said, softly and gently into his sister’s ear. Nothing is as contagious as Izak’s smile. Even with her eyes shut tight, her body a ball of knots and panic, Abi felt it tickle her, and a fearful smile twitched on her lips.
“No,” the goblin said, but she had hesitated long enough. I brought my hand up again. The stones on my grandmother’s ring gleamed and the horse made a sound that at last was not one made entirely of fear. The horse bucked and the goblin flew backwards. A perfectly timed kick from its powerful back legs sent the wretched creature plummeting backwards, frantically grabbing at nothing, its hands reaching out and only finding the jagged edges of where my mirror used to be. The thing vanished, leaving nothing but the memory of its stink and inhuman desire.
The horse settled, slowly. It gave a snorting nod of recognition to Abi as she slowly opened her eyes, and then it was gone. Abi slowly relaxed into her brothers arms. I slowly sank back into the bed, dazed, elated, terrified, baffled. Izak, having held on for all of us, was finally letting himself go to sleep. He snuggled up to Abi, and groped for my hand as I spooned up to him.
“Hold your horses, Abi,” he whispered, “Hold them back.”