The white face was staring at her from the edge of the bedroom door again. Actually, through the mirror beside it.
Other nights, the cheap piece of reflective glass, with its grimy, frameless edges and uncleaned fingerprint smudges, sat unremarkably on the wall adjoining the door to her cramped bedroom. Except now, when that face greeted her in the dark.
She hadn’t had night terrors for years. All manner of unsettling had stalked the corners of her thoughts since before she had memories to make, but the skein of nightly visitations that haunted her pubescent years had long ago faded to shadow.
Yet here he — it — was, smiling at her with glimmered teeth and black eyes. As with the other times it came to see her in the darkest hours, she was unable to move. Her body had betrayed her into a still helplessness, prevented from rousing even a whisper.
The rational part of her mind fell back to the training she hadn’t used in some time, to gradually bring her body back to conscious control. Focus on moving a single digit — a toe or finger — and then another and so on.
Yet her careful thinking abandoned her when, for the first time, the terrifying visage that invoked such terror spoke. A thin, awful whisper escaped the unending darkness between its jagged teeth, speaking a warning, or perhaps a threat.
If you hear them, they’re listening.
If you see them, they’re watching.
If you touch them, they’ll take you.
The words emerged without its lips moving, only just parting to release the horror it wished to share, carried on pale breath that condensed in the air. If she had been able to scream, she would have then. Instead, a chill colder than the darkest pockets of the earth spilled through her veins and drew tears to her cheeks.
Sleep paralysis, is what she was told — by doctors, psychologists, and the occasional well-meaning friend. While not well understood — as things of the mind seldom are — the common medical understanding was a dip between reality and dream, where the mind is languid and tender. The person is awakened, but their body has not gotten around to moving, allowing the imaginings of dreams to tumble into the waking world. Many people who suffer it say sleep paralysis is the gripping sense that someone, alien to them, is in their home — watching them, sitting on their chest, pulling the air from their lungs.
She knew all these things now, she knew all these things then. Yet a frightened child seeing a white-faced man in the mirror by the bed every other night hadn’t been able to absorb that nearly as clinically.
When the many specialists told her parents that it was common, that she’ll grow out of it, and that here are some techniques to help get out of it when it happens, she wasn’t comforted by their words. To her, as a child, it was true terror, straightening up from the darkness and opening its jaws to devour her.
As the years waxed and waned, she became more circumspect about the man — creature, entity, what have you — and what his intentions were. There had never been a true escalation of his prominence during these episodes, but it was the same every time.
A man with dingy hair and pale skin, eyes black like eternity, clothed in a hunched trenchcoat of midnight, with a derby hat stuck at a crooked angle above its head. He smiled without joy, mouth full of teeth jagged as stone and sharp as needles. Whenever he would appear, it was always through the mirror at the edge of her childhood bedroom, the one hung next to the door.
She remembered when her parents tried to remove it, she couldn’t rest at all. The creeping feeling that, lacking a place to put him, the white-faced man would find his way into her room proper, and she’d feel his cold fingers on her throat. So the mirror was left there, despite her fear, and one night she tried to settle with it.
The nightmares and deprivation of sleep had come to a head on an evening just shy of her thirteenth birthday. By then it had been months of torment, waking up in a paralyzed state to the man almost every night, his eyes more voracious as the nights wore on. Eventually the tremor would pass and she’d find rest, but it was never even, a stunted existence in the land of dreams.
Her waking hours became a cloudy reminiscence that never really cleared. She felt slower, worn down by time like iron rust, as if she was fading into an inconsequential nothing, or maybe didn’t exist at all and somehow still continued. It was as if her days were always overcast, her movements a drizzle of barely remembered steps.
She’d eventually had enough. She sat up in bed, eyes fiery, and stared into the abyss of glass by the door, daring the nightmare man to find her. As time dripped past midnight, she wavered and slipped into sleep without knowing, head dangling. And sure as wind, the man paid visit to her, same eyes glimmering in something like desire, or maybe hunger.
The words of her doctors and parents came then — move a small part of your body, focus on the real, know that this is all a dream. And she did, she fought through it, taking her gaze from the shimmery surface and finding purchase on her right hand. She bade her ring finger to move, wiggle, to make itself known in any way it could.
The slick white flecks of moonlight at the edge of her eyes were concerning, She could sense the man longing to come to her, to feed on her, to own her, but she would not be pulled from her task. If she was to conquer this, she needed to find herself there and then. Even as she heard glass crack and felt the creeping movement reaching out to her. She refused to stare at it, refused to give form to the slim predator treacling to her at the corner of her vision. She knew that if she could just pull herself out of this, break free of this cyclic incubitic horror, she would be away from it forever.
Finally it moved. The fingernail delicately rising and setting to the ache of her need, encouraging the rest of her hand to breathe up and down — the wrist, forearm, and shoulder. It tickled up her neck until it finally met her vision in the collapse of dreams. Though she would try to forget it later, she remembers flicking her eyes to the mirror in her triumph, her body regaining itself, and seeing the fierce anger of the white-faced man slinking under the bottom border of the inky impenetrable sheen on her wall. An anger of being denied his pleasures, forced back into the sticky dark slumber it had crept from.
Time had its way with her, as with everyone, but the years were sweet and free from the tortures of the night. Her fortitude had stuck a finger in the eye of her sleep paralysis, and thus of the man with the white face and jagged teeth. When she slept, she slept well, comfortably, without fear. She had friends and loves and grew and became a young woman.
Eventually an exchange student without a compass to her life, she arrived in the largest city of an eastern european somewhere-else with little more than a few cheap clothes and hopes to experience more than the dull lifelessness of her college town. But she would be anywhere away from her family, and the brother two years her senior that was slow and needed constant supervision, yet still strong enough to grab roughly at her chest and make lecherous remarks about her “thick rose.”
As the sticky, rumbling specter of a bus pulled away from the barely functional airport, another two hours to dig her deeper into this alien land, she felt some deep and terrible pressure all around. Everything felt wrong.
Shadowed mountains in the distance, surrounding the northern edge of the city like enormous, slumbering monsters, held their space enrapt by gunmetal clouds that chained them to the earth. Usually majestic to her, these erupting stacks of ancient stone were sick and foreboding, grim and ever-present ghouls, impossibly tall and awaiting the night they might come alive to devour again. She pulled her lonely bag tighter to her chest, a withered shield against some threat unknown.
She told herself that it was all in her head. The people around there were just living, maybe more rural more provincial more rustic than she was comfortable with, but they were like her — eating and sleeping and working and churning over and over. Still she felt like a phantom in a country of ghosts, watching at the periphery of twilight.
The interview had been unremarkable except for how cursory it was. Prior hosts in other lands had spent nearly an hour sussing out her character before allowing her into their homes, but the old woman was strangely terse.
“Can you pay?”
Yes, she had a stipend from the university.
“You stay clean?”
As in bathing? She showered once a day, more if —
“No, not that. You clean down there?”
The woman waggled her cane around the vague dimensions of the confused student’s lap.
For a moment, she was ready to jump up and thunder away, angry mites of disbelief forming a viscous cloud in her wake. But she straddled the side of herself that felt anger at allowing this crone to shame her. Instead of a hurricane, she only managed to drizzle out that she wasn’t with anyone at the moment.
The way she said it implied that she was a virgin, without actually stating it outright. It was a lie of implication, one that would serve them both, she thought.
The hoary skeleton of lolled, sagging meat that was to be her landlord barked a laugh and stood.
“Your room. Come.” As was bade, so she followed.
The room was not connected to the ramshackle house, with its bedraggled snake skin of chipped white paint and termited rot-wood. It was a short distance away in a cramped shack divorced from the main house by an ocean of dry grasses and unkempt weeds. It was raised on a platform, held a few steps up by aging wooden posts that seemed as tired as the property itself.
The woman turned the bent doorknob, green patina having almost entirely absorbed the brass, and ushered her charge into the shaded room. Dust and bad memories sat in a film over everything, which was not much — a double bed clothed in tired linens and lumpy pillows, matched with an equally exhausted bedside table. A dim lamp barely lit the space, light summoned by a reedy string of metal beads hanging underneath the shade.
Below and off-center the window, a wretched bathtub, stained from years of soap scum build-up and neglect, sat with a black drainplug chained to the bottom. A single spout erupted from the wall, it’s rusted valve waiting to pick a fight with whoever dare try turn it.
And next to the only door that led outside, hung by a rusty nail driven into the wall some age ago, was a mirror. Unframed, cracked — if held to her body, it could have covered her chest and reached little more than down to her waist. There were brown stains ridging the sides, time creeping in to eat it.
It had been years since her visitations from the man in the darkness. The mirror was simply there, an object, an unconcern.
She asked about the bathroom, and the old woman croaked a laugh stained by cigarettes.
“No toilet. There!”
She pointed her cane at the window, revealing the crippled structure of an outhouse in the fading evening light. The poor girl made a face like her dog had just killed her cat, but she held back the many and diverse remarks she could say.
“Sleep now. Tomorrow work.”
The hump waggled at her as the lumbering sack of sagging skin and poisoned words clomped out of the room, fading smacks of her cane on the wood floors.
The most peculiar aspect of the property was the edge of the forest. The trees had long ago been clear-cut in a lopsided V, whose wide top connected with the road, the unassuming house peeking out from the trees remaining on the roadside. The center of the artificial clearing had been made into a vast grazing field for drably-colored cattle.
Usually the edge of a wooded area, when cropped in a straight line, retains uneven tufts of bushes and immature trees. Yet here the old oaks stood guard over a wide grassland, impenetrably dense forest behind them hidden from daylight in the starkest of demarcation. There seemed no opening to wander between any of them, the dark spaces thick with disturbing tones of green.
The effect was unnerving and made her feel that if she ventured too close, the mass of trees would swallow her, roots and limbs tightening over her body so tightly that she could only choke screams as she was consumed.
More than once when walking up to her door during the reedy non-time between sunset and total darkness, she thought she saw things darting behind those trees, always at the edge of vision. Strange things have a habit of being at the corners of reality instead of its sharp center. Easy to dismiss, hard to ignore.
It was a constant feeling of unease, gnawing at her like rats in the dark. The lack of bright and beautiful days only quickened her discomfort, for it was almost like it was never truly daylight there, the sun always tucked away behind clouds or just out of reach, suffocated by the sinewy, black trees that grew everywhere there wasn’t . She began to feel that light wouldn’t even reach her there.
At night came the sounds. At first explicable as the natural sounds of unknown environs — animals she did not recognize, wind grinding against old wood, the whistle of air in the trees. She could dismiss most of them, keep the thoughts of the otherworldly in deep pockets of her mind, but not all.
A week after her first night bedding in that uncomfortable place, she was restless just past midnight, when she heard what sounded like a voice. Not words, just a voice, a young voice, like a child. Almost like soft giggling, the kind of suppressed laughter when you’re in the middle of church. It happened only once. Maybe it was something imagined, she told herself, and wrestled with slumber once more.
But it came again, now with two sources — from just under the window to her right that overlooked the forest, and in front of the door. The same, muddled tittering, someone sharing private jokes, perhaps at her expense.
The sole entrance to the hovel was granted a deadbolt, which she was thankful for using each night. There seemed little crime in this nestled community in the far somewhere out there, certainly not the type that would mean a stranger rousing her from sleep, forcing her into acts she couldn’t escape from, but she liked the comfort of it nonetheless. At that moment, she was more attuned to that protection than other nights.
A scritching, nails or cat claws, drew against the door, and more of the voices, the laughter, the malicious joy with them.
She concentrated on her memory, on if she’d locked the window before she’d gone to sleep. During the days the breeze through it was a gracious thing, helpful as she wrote, but she always closed it at night. She didn’t always remember to lock it.
Her eyes focused on the window, willing them to see if the latch on the base was locked to the right or left open. The room was too dark, the moon lackluster in its hidden light behind the acres of unmoving clouds in the obsidian night.
More voices joined the pair, no longer sniggering, but staccato chirps, like rats deliberating over their next meal. They were moving as they spoke — they seemed small, but not so small as rodents — tracing a border along the perimeter walls. She reflexively pulled the covers tight to her chest. Her heart quickened and breath shallowed. The chittering was difficult to hear, but growing in number. She swore there were flickering shadows under the door, but it was hard to tell in the dim light.
She inhaled deeply, slowly, and released it gently. And again. This was enough to calm some of the frantic chatter in her head. It was just like the night she confronted the man in the mirror, she thought.
“Hello?” she said, surprised at her own voice, so loud against the noises she strained to hear.
The voices stopped. No more scratching at the door or giggling of distorted children, only the pale wind and listless insects in the distance. She waited in silence, barely breathing, eyes rushing about the room from door to window and along the floor.
Eventually the night wore her down, and sleep took her sometime later.
The following day was bleary and full of half-formed thoughts, existence as mist. The skin had slipped off reality and revealed its red innards, even if only for a short while. She managed to submerge herself in a midday bath and found the energy to go out.
The old woman had her do chores as part of her stay, washing this, cleaning that, cooking other things. The miser wasn’t much for talk and seemed to revel in having someone do her bidding. In the evenings, the crone would rub viscous, foul-smelling oil on the thick, blistered bunions that bent out from her feet, something the young woman tried to avoid as she washed dishes, but had trouble completely averting her gaze.
The voices hadn’t returned the nights after, so she was grateful for some dedicated rest.
Eventually she settled into the bizarre routines of the place, most of her waking hours consumed with her thesis: Folklore and its effects on rural communities — beliefs, rituals, and traditions.
There were so many hamlets with tales of the unusual and arcane that hadn’t been documented, let alone given context and texture. She wanted that, finding herself an explorer in the minds of a collective wisdom of things considered lost. It gave her purpose.
At first the locals were suspicious and indeed strange. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what look they had, but they all definitely shared some feature, an understanding of the way of things in that isolated place.
Her command of the regional tongue was rudimentary, but she muddled along somehow. Street signs were straightforward, if not plentiful enough to explicitly help navigate. There were few buses, most of them taking her out of town instead of around it, so she made do with the rickety bicycle that was overgrown with weeds alongside her skeletal home.
There wasn’t so much a town center as a scattering of streets with livid buildings sufficing for the necessities — a butcher whose battle with flies was unsettling to his product, a grocer with the remnants of what larger cities cast off for foodstuffs, and a bakery that made bread suitable for people with steel teeth and iron stomachs. Still, she had to acquaint herself with the residents if she wanted her paper to ever have a final punctuation.
She spoke with townspeople, asking after their stories of legend and myth, and a pattern began stitching itself together over many weeks.
The story was told in many different ways, but with the same, dark core.
Two sisters — or two brothers — were playing in the forest and became lost as the sun retreated from the world. They were scared and didn’t know how to get home. Huddled together, they began to hear the titter of laughter in the beckoning night. Laughter like children — light, shrill, sprinkled all over.
They didn’t need to ponder the source of the noise, for soon emerged a collection of small creatures, no larger than toddlers, with pale, shiny skin and black eyes, limbs stretched a bit too long and too thin. They wriggled out of the pockets of dark and approached the siblings, offering help with grinning faces.
The pair were frightened, but came round to telling them of their plight. They were lost, scared, and didn’t know how to get home.
Oh they could help, the slithering collective replied. But they could only take one at a time to the safety of home, for the children had gotten so lost that they were far from anywhere and anything. And when you’re far from everywhere and everything, guides are hard to find. They could only lead one of them out, the other must stay behind.
The two were reticent to part, but desperate to find home. It was agreed that the younger one would go and fetch their family to come back, so the older sibling could be saved from the cold terrors of night. The creatures eagerly agreed, escorting their charge to a particular path that they could walk all the way back to safety. But as they did, the little one could hear them giggling and dancing around their kin, a sinful revelry that dug into the bones, the last thing seen was the ribbon in their sibling’s hair.
After returning home all alone, their parents and other brothers and sisters and townspeople alike led a search back to find the missing child, torches ablaze and into dawn. But despite carefully tracing every step back, in mud or sand or sallow ground, they could never find the one what was left behind. All that was recovered was a yellow ribbon, smashed into the mud of the forest deep.
They all told this story in different ways, but they also told it just the same. There were things in the forest that like to take children. Things that cradled the flesh of the young. Things that despised and deceived.
As more days of the same tale fell onto her, she became increasingly disturbed at night. She’d begun to brace the sole chair in the room against the doorknob, but had doubts of its usefulness. Sleep was a runner too fast for her to catch, until exhaustion finally won and snatched her into darkness.
One night she awoke to see a glimmer of what she was certain were two sets of eyes shining on the other side of the window. She nearly sat straight up in a panic, but they were gone before she could register if they were there at all. And maybe she heard skittering noises, movement away again.
Her dreams had turned sour. She hastened to forget most of them, but there was repetition. There was no logic or story, but imagery, terrible and overwhelming — a fractallating overgrowth of tumorous limbs, undulating with wet, slapping sounds that made her want to vomit, contorting over her body as small, rough hands grabbed at her torso, tearing away shorns of skin and viscera to gobble in their hungry, putrescent mouths.
They were awful and all-encompassing and she wanted them to stop. Then one night, interrupted of her terrible nightmares, the man with the white face returned to her again. Returned to that mirror by the door that she’d dismissed as just an affect.
His eyes glowed in the dark and he seethed those terrible words.
If you hear them, they’re listening.
If you see them, they’re watching.
If you touch them, they’ll take you.
The voice crisp as broken glass, shattering over her ears in icy delicacy.
She’d put him to rest, made peace with her mind and found her way out of the dread of his presence, but here he was, shuttered behind the grimy mirror in a place she could never call home.
She didn’t remember how she slept after, but she must have. The morning was as indistinct as stagnant water, the thin hope of sunlight the only reason she managed to leave her nocturnal cage.
That day was dedicated to disproving the mirror man’s warning. She made rounds to those who told her of the children of the forest, and asked them if they’d heard of such forewarning.
Instead of finding relief, they reinforced her dire circumstances. They said the creatures preyed on weakness, on finding a way to take your strengths and suffocate them in uncertainty. They didn’t only seek children, children were just the most likely to see them, the ones who could be manipulated to their whim.
But for someone older, they would only pursue them out if they’d seen into the other side of things, into the world behind this one, that lived in dark crevices and terrifying thoughts. Then they could be picked at, worn down until they were too tired and helpless to stop them.
She felt like she was drowning, being pulled deeper and darker with each passing night, now to find she was being stalked. Even if it was just in her head, just wild, uncontrolled imaginings, she knew she had to leave, had to get far away from there. But it became more difficult to find an escape.
The bus out of town only came once a week, days away. She couldn’t ask or pay for a ride, no one in town owned a car, everyone was poor and worked the land or made money from labor that ate into them like carved stone.
She considered taking the bike and riding while the sun was up, but the closest city was at least eight hours away. And if the hoary thing decided to blow a tire, she’d be forced to walk the remainder — ten or twelve or sixteen hours more, all along unfamiliar roads lined by black, abyssal forest.
She couldn’t leave. Not yet, not until the bus came and rumbled her away from that awful pockmark in the earth.
All the way back she stayed in the center of the road, as far from the trees as she could. She watched the sun sling down the sky behind the ugly clouds and cursed it for leaving her.
When she finally returned, she wanted to speak with the old woman, but the house was dark. She couldn’t enter — the doors locked, the windows closed. Where, she wondered desperately, could the ancient shrew be? She’d never seen her step a foot into sunlight, how could she be gone?
She had no choice, she hurried to her four walls and bunkered in, bolting the door as the final drip of light left the day. The window was decisively locked and the chair stuck under the doorknob.
There could be no sleep, not like this. She paced and fretted, fingers digging into her hair, lower lip drawing blood from how much gnawing she gave it.
They must be out there, must be watching her. She could imagine their shimmery eyes tuned to her window, seeking her shadow under the door, laughing at her with those morbid squeals like corrupted children.
The sounds began, louder this time. The sickening giggles and gleeful cheeps tickled the walls of her wooden prison, soft footfalls of dozens of diminutive bodies surrounding it in clatters of scratches and clawed baying. She leapt onto the bed, pulling the covers up to her like an ineffectual shield. The horrible sounds were some grotesque white noise on the night, ever-present and shifting.
She saw the unmistakable gleam of eyes at the window. They would vanish when she looked, but they were there, cycling up and down with her notice. Her distraught breathing was ragged, strained.
As the night drew deeper, she could feel the strings of sleep tug at her. It was a fight she would soon lose, despite the horrorshow at her door. But it must have come, for in the darkness she saw the mirror shine, the man with his black trenchcoat and frayed derby hat rise into being.
Surprising herself, she managed to speak, even if no other place on her body would move or respond.
“What do I do?” A cracked, desperate whisper.
It’s voice was suicide, a rainfall of knives and acid.
On the glass.
The hissing edge trailed into a cacophonous horror in her ears, wailing and singing like glittering demons.
“Why?” She didn’t know if she said it or just willed it to him, but he heard.
Even with the jagged blades of his voice cutting into her, she knew it was true. She knew that would make it stop.
She fought to move herself again, fought with her arm to move her hand, battled with her hand to move her finger, and finally made one move so the rest would follow. Her head was afloat on a river of ashen mud, burbling in some obscene hellscape where there is only terror.
But she managed to stand, to move to the mirror. The eyes at the window stayed there now, blinking and shifting and rapping at the glass. She could not she their bodies in the dark, but she heard them tap with so many sharp claws, like razorblades striking pond ice.
She pressed her palm deep into the lower edge of the unguarded mirror and screamed as she slit it open, the crimson liquid spraying onto its surface and dribbling down her wrist. She squeezed her hand inward to gush more blood, sending electric, shearing pain up her arm, before flinging it at the window.
The spray of blood pattered onto the glass, and the horrid little things simply disappeared, gone in an instant. The atonal laughter shushed into nothing, gone forever from her ears.
They were gone. They were finally gone.
She pushed a bundle of her shirt onto the wound and stumbled to the bed, collapsing onto it. She struggled to find calm in her breath, hoping it would come soon.
When she finally had time to settle herself, she noticed the mirror again. The blood had done something to it, made its polish ripple like water, thinning the surface out until it was liquid.
The man with the white face was there again, eyes aglow in its unquenchable desire. She managed to find her air, and asked what she needed to know.
“Why? Why did you save me?”
Its cavernous, obsidian eyes flickered, like a flash of moonlight on ashen waters, before it spoke without speaking. Those teeth — larger, grinning, hungry.
You are not theirs.
You are mine.
And with no more words to say, it stepped out of the mirror.