By Eric Liu
When I was five years old, I lived with my mother and grandma in a tiny, old apartment. My dad worked in another city, and my mother was never home –– her newly-started company was on the rim of falling apart. So, my life mostly consisted of two things: strolling around with grandma on a college campus near our crowded apartment building and hanging out with kids around my age that lived in my building.
During the day, our apartment room was lovely. It contained everything my five-year-old-self ever wanted: a sofa that could serve as a trampoline in the living room, a soft carpet under the sofa for crawling and rolling around, a marshmallowy bed to sink myself in afternoon naps and an assembly set of train station toys that covered the entire living room floor. However, when the night fell, the apartment shape-shifted into a monster, lurking and waiting to swallow me alive. I could not stay in the dark by myself. I would scream if my grandma left my side. In my mind, there were always some scary, evil things hiding in the shadow-drowned corners. I would always face my back toward the well-lit walls and fix my eyes nervously on the corners.
One night, my grandma missed a stair going up to our room and hurt her ankle. So, she asked me to pick up the medicine in the drawer near the kitchen. However, a long, shadowy corridor lay between the living room and kitchen. The corridor connected two other rooms, and their ajar doors always offered exceptional subjects of imagination for an active, curious mind. Like the doors in the movie “Monster Inc.,” where monsters collect horrified children’s screams and use them as an energy source, behind the doors were some imagined unimaginable behemoth prowling, waiting to scare me. Occasionally, the blinking of dots of the charging electric devices manifested as their eyes, converting that imagination into reality…
So I stood, facing the abyss of darkness. Behind me in the well-lit living room, my grandma sat on a heating bag, unable to walk.
I must go.
I took my first step. The orange glow from the living room faded significantly, and darkness crept up on me. The back of my head tightened like a stretched elastic band — I could feel the cold sweat sticking my shirt onto my back. My eyes looked around, seeing nothing but a dim contour of the door leading to my bedroom, and next to it, where the dining table used to be, four long-legged, Daliesque creatures awaited.
My hands left the wall, and I became completely ungrounded in the dark, shaking.
My grandma is watching me. I said to myself. Nothing will happen.
I went in, hearing my own heartbeat, seeing my vein pulsating with the little blue dots in my peripheral vision. I stopped feeling — dissociating from the present and becoming a mechanical stranger, completing the order step by step –— until I reached the kitchen, grabbed the medicine and turned around.
An eon had passed.
I found myself facing the same corridor, but this time, the other end was light. Without a thought, my body started running and dashed toward the light source. The next thing I knew was light. That was the first time I faced darkness alone.
Many years have passed, and now that I am reflecting on my relationship with the dark, I noticed that it has changed drastically. However, no matter how it changed, the feeling of uneasiness has imprinted on my deepest psyche, stimulating peculiar alertness at night. I once was afraid of the dark perhaps because it hosted a lack of vision, a deprivation of familiar senses or a loss of agency. It meant that something in the dark can take advantage of my disadvantage and potentially do harm to me because of my vulnerability. Perhaps being vulnerable to unknown things was what horrified me. Not realizing that I’m being taken advantage of was scary.
But as I grew older, I noticed that it happens in the daylight, all the time.
Perhaps also, I once was afraid of the dark because it isolated me from the surroundings. It meant that I would only hear my heartbeats indulge in my own thoughts and nothing else; it meant going astray without knowing so and without help in the bleak darkness. It meant that confusing thoughts would blur my vision, echoing noises that I could not understand. Drown by wave after wave of things to do from all directions, lost in the immediacy of life.
I noticed that it, too, happens in the daylight, all the time.
So, it wasn’t the dark that I was afraid of.
What is it, then?