The great thing about monsters is that, once they cross, they always leave a door. An open passage to another dimension.
After all, even fiends have to come from somewhere. They have a past. And they are notoriously indiscreet about leaving clues to their origins. Let them rage and howl, screech claws across windowpanes. For all their theatrics, they are as careless as drowsy toddlers. Once they come through a door they always forget to close it. And the opening will always appear if you look hard enough for it.
Crack it wide enough and you will surely find, as I did, a portal to another world. A place where phantasm and reality converge. A dazzling, alarming, illuminating place.
I learned my lesson as a child. In my earliest years I knew monsters were not just in dreams, no matter what the adults said. The ghouls appeared throughout my life in human form, in jeans, polyester pants, or expensive tennis shoes.
There were two main types of real world monsters: bullies and handwriting teachers. The bullies called me “Ghost,” although my real name was Jason, because my skin was so pale. The teachers, the monstrous ones, towered over me and demanded that I write my name in the right hand margin of my papers, and not on the left.
From there it was not much a leap to believe the kinds of ghouls that appeared to inhabit my room at night were real. Besides, the day time types had so much in common with the closet stalkers. They glowered in the same way. Sought dominance. Aimed to punish.
It was at night when I saw the clawed monsters emerging from the wall shadows. Their forms varied, sometimes bug-eyed, scaly, their tails slithering or writhing. Other times they had shaggy faces that were mostly mouth.
The echoes of their raging come to me across a tunnel of many years, and I still have bite marks I have never shown to anyone. They are old and they have healed, but they still hurt sometimes when something or someone reminds me of them.
But I like remembering how I healed from them. One monster, the shaggy kind, taunted me when I was ten because, like the bullies at school, It said I was a freak. To weaken me, the fiend had pulled the insecurity out of my mind somehow.
It echoed the classroom bully, whose name was Dave, who had said in front of a crowd of kids, “Hey, Albino freak! If I squint my eyes, I bet I can see right through you. Know what I think you are? A ghost.” He had studied me a moment longer with a look of grave concern. “No, maybe I’m wrong. Even a ghost is something. You’re not even a ghost.” He spat. “You’re nothing.”
The monster in my bedroom said it again and again, mimicking the voice of Dave, you are nothing, nothing, nothing. I believed the monster, that I was nothing because it was only echoing what I had heard at school. Night after night, it said so. Once it saw from my crestfallen face that its words had weakened me, it bit me. Not big bites. It seemed to savor the pain the tiny ones caused. It fixated on my wrists or the crook of my arm. At first I fought back hard. I tried to escape its grasp, but its message of my worthlessness sank in so deep, it numbed my soul, or perhaps it was the venom in its saliva; in any case, my will to resist the monster weakened. Its incisors sank into my skin as its eyes blazed into my soul. Despite agonizing stabbing pain, I still could not bring myself to move.
But one night, my suffering gathered into a single white-hot point of resolution and I did something I had never done before. I moved. I opened my mouth and brought my teeth down on its paw and bit the monster back. Fur tickled my tongue, and the stench of it, like a dog in need of a bath, assaulted my nose. The monster wailed like a banshee and even left. Though in agony, I saw the doorway it had left and a beckoning light was coming through it. A luminous violet feather floated through the door from the other side – not something I would have expected from a monster den.
My adrenaline was surging. My curiosity awakened. Mobility returned to my limbs. I stood and inspected the doorway where the monster must have entered. A feather. I picked it up and felt its airy softness. Why a feather? I wanted to know. Had to know. I put the feather in my front pajama pants pocket and, with a long, heavy breath and a hammering heart, I crossed the threshold. As I beheld the new world, every assumption I had ever had about what was possible fell away.
I was on Earth, but a very different Earth. I was either a giant or the world was very small. Either way I could see that I was standing on a sphere. Lonely islands broke up the ocean, so I could step over them like paving stones, snapping palm trees like twigs, as I followed the sweeping curve of the ocean. But I could sometimes feel the world lurch beneath me. That was because I was not just walking over the world; I was riding it. I could feel the motion of the new Earth around the sun as the winds, warm and cold, caressed my face. I could hear the hypnotic crash and hiss of the waves below me, yet the moon was so close, I could reach above my head and touch it, feel its rough outer layers against my fingertips.
I could see, far away, the orange ball of the sun, but even it seemed much closer than I remembered it being. However, what mesmerized me even more were the plush, densely feathered birds that soared far above the atmosphere of the planet at the level of the moon, their plumage the colors of lollipops; somehow they were able to fly, though in my own world, outer space was known to be an airless void. One of the birds lit to my shoulder and said to me, “You are new here, Moon Child. Why have you come?”
Moon Child. That was a name I had never been called before. But weird as it was, I preferred it to “Ghost.” I said, “I came here because I wasn’t happy where I was. A monster from your world, and a monster from mine, said I was nothing.”
“Ah, so they gave you a compliment.”
“A compliment? How could calling me nothing be a compliment?”
“Well look at the night sky. Our universe is mostly nothing. For there to be so much nothing, it must have tremendous importance. However, you look like a something to me. Or rather, a someone. I say this because you have a nose. I have never seen a nothing with a nose before. As for me and my friends, we give little thought to whether we are something or nothing because we live our lives in awe.”
“Look around. Do you see the stars? They are so far away, yet without them none of us would be here. They were our nesting grounds.”
“Nesting grounds.” I tried to imagine a bird building a nest on a star, which was all just super-heated gas as far as I knew, and could only imagine the nest and the bird incinerating.
The bird said, “Hold out your finger, Moon Child, so I can better see your eyes. I’ll never know if I can trust you unless I see your eyes.” When I complied, the bird hopped to my finger, its violet feathers rustling. The creature raised its head and studied me. “Your skin is like the moon on a cloudless night, and your eyes are blue, a soft and honest blue. I trust what I see, so I will share this with you. See my violet plumage? Well, beneath it I am made of starlight.” The bird lifted a wing so that I could see a blinding spot of luminosity where a patch of feathers had been plucked away.
I blinked from the burning intensity, my eyes watering as they always do from bright lights, but I was feeling something of what the bird had mentioned earlier: awe. “Starlight,” I said, wiping away my tears with the sleeve of my cotton pajama top. “So what are you exactly?”
“Figuratively speaking, I am what happens when a star sneezes. I am just a little bird no one notices. We call ourselves moon birds because we fly so close to it. But my ancestors came from a magnificent place. Not the sun, of course, but the great stars very far away. Billions of years ago there was a great migration. You would never know it now though. The stars, they keep moving away from us, so fast and so far we could never fly back now even if we wanted to.”
“Have you ever seen any monsters?” I asked.
“My great grandparents did. Monsters used to eat us birds all the time. We lived so close to the ground back then, far beneath the clouds, and monsters live off starlight. There is no taste they like better. We birds could outsmart the monsters as long as we united against them, but the monsters found ways to divide us. They would point out that some of us had feathers that were more colorful and beautiful than the plumage of other birds. Jealousies arose. The monsters conquered us with flattery. As we fought each other, the monsters took the weakened birds for their lunch. Finally, a wise bird said, ‘Enough fighting over plumage, which just molts anyway. We belong nearer to the stars.’ We took to the message immediately because we realized by then how much the monster had harmed us by making us view ourselves as things — not as living creatures, but as mere collections of feathers. So we flew here, and we have been here ever since.
“We like it better here, so close to the moon. Here we can see the curve of the ocean and the vast sweeps of space above and below us. As I said, we live in awe.
“As for the monsters, we left them to starve. They had to find other worlds to invade. I am sorry one of them got to you. Do you feel any better now? After what I told you?”
I looked around. I did feel better. Like I belonged in this world as much as the bird did, and I loved the idea of living creatures coming from stars. Besides, what the bird felt was contagious; In a place so magnificent, how could I worry about what a bully or a drooling monster thought of me? I wondered if I had any starlight in me.
I was pretty sure I was not a nothing, though, even if I wanted to be. As the bird had pointed out, I had a nose. Nothing that was nothing could ever have a nose.
I said goodbye to the bird, knowing that my time there had come to an end. Even though the new world was beautiful and my own world was crawling with bullies and handwriting teachers, I was eager to return to it because I wanted to view it with new eyes. I knew my ocean would never look as vast or as flat as it once had, and my moon would never look so far away.
Days later, I encountered Dave wearing a baggy jacket and slouching against the wall in one of the crowded hallways as I went to class before the first bell rang. “Hey Ghost,” he yelled. “Ever considered wearing makeup? We could see you better. At least, if you were a ghost, we might. But you’re not are you, you’re not even that. You’re less than air. Can’t put lipstick on nothing.”
I turned around but I barely saw Dave when I said, “I’m nothing? Well, you’re boring. You’re the most boring person I’ve ever known.” And it was true. I envisioned rolling oceans and distant stars and moons whose rough surface you could feel if only you could get close enough to them. Yet in all the teeming, swirling, violent universe, all Dave could see was nothing. Only a dull person focused on nothing when there were so many Somethings all around him. He was an idiot, I concluded. His opinion, therefore, was invalid. He gave me a strange look. It was the look of a chastised puppy that was uncertain whether to bite or run. This was not, I think, because of what I had said, but because of how I had said it; he must have sensed that whatever he did or said in the future, I was no longer afraid of him, and he did not know why.
Having faced Dave, I was ready now for the monster too. I was almost disappointed when it never showed. But like Dave the monster must have sensed that I had changed.
Unfortunately, the door, too, had disappeared. I missed that door. I wanted to feel again the unselfconscious awe I had felt inside the other world. I kept the memory of it with me, though, cherishing it like a shiny rare coin in my pocket that I would take out and examine whenever I felt blue. The monster never returned.
However, ever since my childhood drew to a close, other monsters have visited me. They came to me when my parents died, when I lost my job, when I faced impossible decisions where there seemed no way to win. They no longer had fangs or furry faces or spiked tails. They no longer hid in closets or under beds. But I recognized them by the sharpness of their bites, all the more horrible because I could no longer see the creatures as they bit me. Even still, their bites always left me changed, not knowing where to go or what to do.
Old goals would fall away as life revealed its starkest face to me. All pretensions would evaporate, leaving me with nothing, as the universe seemed to demand that I start my whole life over again.
Then I would remember the violet feather I still keep in my desk drawer, star-bright and untarnished by time, and a friendly bird I met long ago, seemingly fragile, who filled itself daily with the awe of the universe and, in doing so, became part of its vast mystery .
Because of the so-called moon bird l met as a child, I am constantly searching for doors, the doors that the monsters leave open, the place of unexpected illumination in the darkness where beauty becomes possible again. Sometimes it takes years of struggle to find that mythic place, but monsters always leave a door open, and I know I will find it if I look hard enough and long enough, until the day comes when, lo and behold, a crack in the wall will appear and the light pouring through will change everything, if only I can summon the courage to step through it.
Sometimes, after crossing through such doorways, I find that my feelings toward the monsters that left them open have changed.
That does not mean I will ever return to the monsters or whistle for them to come back to me, especially if I have recently taught them a lesson by biting them. Instead I prefer to breathe a silent farewell, without hate or fear, as I venture forth into my surreal new world of freedom, in the space between reality and dream.