Nora nudged her drink, watching ripples play out on the surface. It was just a shot of whiskey, yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to down it. So, she would nudge it every now and then, and watch the ripples and think of the way waves might lap at the shore on a summer day. Even without the whiskey, she could imagine sea salt and foam, coral and shells poking half-out of the sand, their surfaces shiny in the early afternoon sun. She could hear the gulls crying as they wheeled above the waves, and further out, see the bright triangle of a sloop or a small fishing boat. Then the burn in her guts would come back, and the ocean would fade – she’d remember she’d never actually seen the sea – and she’d take another shot of whiskey to take the edge off the pain.
She grimaced when it went down – she had never been one of those people like in the movies, where they toss back the shot, slam the glass down, and ask for another – she’d never gotten used to the taste. It went down hot, and she coughed a little, and then chased it with the beer beside it. Beer was better. Not much, but it wasn’t like fire, and though the whiskey made the acid in her belly that much hotter for a moment, the two blended together just enough to mellow the pain, and make her loose enough to think of anything that wasn’t the black cancer eating away her insides. She took another sip of beer and tried to think of anything else, like how if she managed to down about five more of those, she might finally be ready to finish the bottle of pills on her counter and deprive the pain of its one source of joy, her misery.
Her stomach protested with a wash of acid that made her want to vomit up the three shots, near-pint, and handful of peanuts she’d forced down over the night. She clenched her jaw and breathed through her nose, and thought nasty words at the nausea until it passed, her hand on her stomach. Her left hand was clenched in a fist, the thumb tucked inside. She’d read somewhere that it was supposed to put pressure on a nerve that helped control the vomit impulse. She wasn’t sure it was true, but with weeks of not keeping food down for more than twenty minutes, ten sometimes, she was willing to give anything a shot.
A man sat on the stool next to her, bumping her arm and sending it banging into her stomach. She winced and looked over. He looked back with old, kind eyes.
“Sorry about that.”
“No, sorry about the cancer. I didn’t have anything to do with that.”
She had just turned away to contemplate the new shot the bartender had placed in front of her, and her head snapped back. If it had moved any faster, it would have made a sound like Indiana Jones’ whip in an open market. The man was still watching her with those eyes. They were odd, she thought. Especially in a man with dark skin. Gold, with flecks of green. She thought she might be mistaken – that they were just a light brown, or the light was caching them in a way that made them shine, but then he inclined his head just a little, and she saw her first thought was right. He smiled, and his wrinkles formed themselves into smile lines and dimples, a sort of seismic joy across the landscape of his face.
“Looking at my eyes?”
“No – yeah. I mean – sorry.”
“No need to apologize.” He laid a thin hand on hers, his skin dry, but warm, his palm calloused. “Got them from a tiger. Had to trade the moon for them, but I got it back.” He winked.
“What did he get?” She asked, the question surprised out of her by the oddity of the statement.
“His stripes. And a hangover.”
She laughed, a sound that came from her so unexpectedly that she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, sorry.”
“You apologize a lot. Don’t. Never be sorry for a laugh that isn’t cruel.”
She looked at him closer. At the tweed suit. At the hat that lay beside his left hand, a battered fedora like you’d see a jazz singer wear in the 50s. At his slight build and the white stubble that clung to his head. At his eyes. Kind, but somehow laughing. Not at you, though. No, she didn’t think those eyes ever laughed at a person. Her first thought flittered back into her head, a reminder of the sudden surprise she’d felt.
“How did you know about the cancer?”
“It stands out. A person carries themselves a certain way. A little stiffer, their shoulders a little hunched. Like a whipped dog – no offense. It’s a mean thing – it takes and takes and leaves little. Sometimes not even your dignity.” Anger flashed in his eyes just once, so brief she thought for a second it might be the reflection of a reflection – the light from a watch catching the neon, but she didn’t think so. Then it passed, and his demeanor changed. He signaled for a drink, and watched the bartender bring it, then turned to Nora. “You like stories?”
“Depends. Is it long?”
He shrugged. “Not so long to tell as it was to live.”
She thought about it. The tub, the razor blade, the bottle of pills – they would wait. None were clamoring to be first, none were more important than the next. They simply were, an inevitability at the end of a long road. She nodded. “Sure, I’ll listen.”
“A long time ago – that’s how these things always start, anyways – there was the dark, and man, and man was afraid of the dark.”
She wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. Sermons hadn’t gotten her anywhere in the past two years, and praying had gotten her less. She held up a hand.
“Is this a Bible story? Because – no offense, thanks, but no thanks.”
He shook his head. “Nope. Probably wouldn’t show up in the Bible. Probably wouldn’t show up in the New York Times.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t make it less true.” He paused and looked at her. “Okay?”
She nodded and picked up her beer, taking a sip. “Okay.”
“Where was I? Oh – the dark. So many stories start in the dark. That’s because for a long time, man didn’t have light. They huddled together, in their caves and their secret places, away from the beasts, and they held sharpened sticks and fended off the night when it came for them. They weren’t always successful. Men died. Women died. Children died. Or worse.”
“Worse?” Despite herself, Nora felt herself already being drawn into the story. The man’s voice was mellifluous, and she could imagine shamans and grandparents and parents telling stories like this to their children, some still babes in swaddling clothes, as they huddled around campfires or fireplaces, in places where their parent’s parents had come up and made a life.
The man nodded. “Sometimes the dark didn’t kill them, but got inside. Some, it made sick.” He reached out and touched her stomach, with one finger. It was nonthreatening, tender – the touch of a physician. It burned for a moment, as if in response to his presence. He pulled away, and her stomach settled. He continued. “Others, it took. It brought them into the fold and changed them, made them crave the flesh of families, made them hunt their own children. Others, it made generals, great leaders of beasts that had never seen the light. They fought for so long, but the thing about fighting for so long in the dark, with no light at the end, is that you get tired. You just want to sleep. Some simply walked into the dark and didn’t look back.
So it went, generation after generation, until one day, all the people that ever were at that point huddled together in one cave. They were sore and weary, and began to argue. ‘We should fight until the end,’ some said. ‘We should walk out,’ others said, ‘let the dark take us’. ‘We should lie down and sleep until the end,’ said the third group. It was then that a voice, younger than the others, but still strong, spoke up. ‘We should fight with something they’ve never seen before.’
‘And what is that?’
They shook their heads in bewilderment and scratched their pates and wondered if the young man had gone mad. He held up his hands for quiet, and then told them of a dream he’d had, of a glittering thing that shone in a way that couldn’t be stopped by the dark, of the way the things in the night were afraid of it, and the way the beasts feared it. When they asked where it came from, he told them it was a thing of the gods.”
Nora stopped him. “This is a fairy tale then.”
He raised a hand. “Hand to gods, it’s true.”
“Gods? Plural? You’re not one of those new age kooks, are you?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “I haven’t been accused of being a new anything in a long time. No, back then there were many gods. But they were busy with their own squabbling and couldn’t be bothered with man. That came after.”
He continued. “So, the young man told them his story. And they laughed at him. Until he went to the mouth of the cave and stared into the dark. Then, they no longer laughed. They begged and pleaded, and wheedled and cried and finally cursed, saying that if he was going to throw away the future of the clan, then he could rot in the dark with the rest of them.
Their warnings and curses went unheeded though, and he walked out, into the dark.”
The man stopped and took a sip of his drink. He paused for a moment, looking around the bar.
“What happened next?” Nora prompted him.
“He found the light.”
He heaved a sigh. “Tests, trials, labors. There are always three – did you know that?”
She shook her head, and he nodded in return.
“Three is sacred to one deity or another – the Goddess, God, Shiva – it’s all very mathematical and proper, as things are with their sort.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, he walked. For a long time. And it was dull. There was very little on the Earth at that time, due to the darkness. Not many things could live in it, though somehow man did. I suspect resourcefulness was a gift from the gods, because man could find food in the dark – mushrooms and lichen from the caves, water from the grottos, meat from the occasional lizard that wandered through – though, let me tell you, raw lizard tastes awful. They also found wood from trees that grew in the caves where a lizard had carried a seed, though it grew hard and leafless and completely inflammable. A joke of the dark, I think.
Anyways, he walked for three days, somehow avoiding the eyes of the dark, and on the third day, came to a stream. A bird – ravens were common even then – had landed on a rock in the stream after some beast or other had wounded his wing, and was trapped. While it wasn’t very deep for a man, it was deadly to a bird that wasn’t made for swimming, so the boy decided he would wade in and rescue the raven. When he reached the edge of the stream, the bird spoke.
“Look out!” It called. “The water is thick with the teeth of the dead!”
The boy looked down and saw it was true. Beneath the surface of the water, bone-white teeth glinted in the moonlight.”
Nora interrupted him. “I thought you said there wasn’t any light.”
“Moonlight is not the same as light. You know that. Could you grow a tree by moonlight? Frighten a predator?”
She shook her head. “Sorry.”
He shook his. “Again. No apologies.” He continued.
“The boy paused at the edge of the water, and looked. He had his spear with him, and thought ‘maybe…,’ so he laid it across the stream, and it reached the rock. The raven hopped across, holding its broken wing out. Just before the end, it dipped its beak into the water and grabbed a tooth, holding it up as it hopped onto the shore. The boy held his hand out and the raven spat it into his hand. It was long and sharp, and he could feel it ready to bite.
‘Thank you,’ said the raven. Fasten this to your spear, and you will be able to pierce even the sky.’
‘Will you be okay?’ The boy asked.
The raven bobbed his head. ‘I will be fine. Now go.’
The boy strapped the tooth to the point of his spear and went on his way, leaving the raven behind. He walked another three days, until he came to a great forest, one older than even the darkness, and began to work his way through.”
Nora interrupted again. “Wait. I thought you just said trees couldn’t grow in moonlight.”
“You’re right – they can’t. I did say this place was older than the dark. Such things did – still do – exist.” He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “May I go on?”
“The boy came to the center of the forest, and there he saw a bear, his leg trapped in one of the night’s traps. He went to the bear and knelt beside him, inspecting his leg.
‘I think I can get it off,’ the boy said.
The bear shook his head. ‘Do not. It is a strong tar. Even touching it would stick you hopelessly.’
The boy thought for a moment, then using his spear, pried the jaws of the trap apart. The mechanism snapped open, and the bear pulled his leg free. The tar clung to the tip of the spear.
‘Thank you, boy,’ the bear said. ‘With that tar, you can catch the most cunning of prey.’ He wandered into the woods, leaving the boy alone. After a time, the boy continued on.
He walked for three more days, leaving the forest behind. By now, his stomach was growling, and his step was unsure. He had come so far, and been lucky in that the dark seemed to not see him. Finally, he came to an arch set in a plain countryside. It had no house, nor any frame, but you could not see the other side through it. He stepped though, and screamed in horror.
The light was more than he’d expected, more than he’d dreamt. It seared his skin, made his eyes burn. He cowered before it, and flung his hands over his eyes. He lay that way for some time, his hands over his eyes. He cursed the gods and their tricks, and cursed the dark and its cruelty. He trembled, part in fear, part in rage. He could not die here! He could not let the gods have their joke! Slowly, he stood, and through squinting eyes, he picked up his spear. He aimed with a trembling hand. Sweat covered his skin, and his grip was unsure. Still, he pulled back, and let fly. The spear flew like an arrow, like a hawk at its prey. It struck the sun, and with a thunk, sliced off a piece that stuck to the tar. The spear fell away and landed to earth, the tip still burning.
The boy picked up the torch, and marveling at its light weight and heat, began to walk the way he’d come. He had decided if he couldn’t destroy the thing in the sky, he would steal a piece for his people. Let the gods have their joke – he would use it to his advantage. He walked, back through the arch and through the forest, beside the stream, and finally, back to his cave. Where he went, the light spread, driving back the dark things, making greenery bloom around him. He called out to his people.
‘Come and see what I have brought!’
They came, tempted by the light, and though they shielded their eyes, they rejoiced at the new sights, at the fleeing darkness.
‘What do we do with it?” They asked the boy.
In answer, he flung the spear into the sky, and there it stuck. And that’s how we got the sun.”
“What happened to the boy?” Nora was enraptured.
The man shrugged. “Some say he is still around, bringing light wherever he goes.”
“Is that why the dark left him alone?”
The man shrugged and finished his drink. “Maybe. Maybe he was just small enough to pass under its sight. Maybe it saw the strength in him and knew he was unbreakable.”
She thought about it and downed her shot. The alcohol made her head swim pleasantly. “It’s nice, but it’s just a story. Thank you for it, but I don’t see how it applies to me.”
A small look of sadness passed the man’s face. “You don’t? It’s simple, Nora. There is always light to drive back the dark.”
He tapped her stomach once more, and the pain came, but it was distant. The alcohol must be working. He stood and laid a fifty on the counter, then nodded at the barman.
“For me, and her.”
She started to protest, and then laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you.”
He smiled. “Go home, Nora. Sleep. That thing you’re thinking of can wait another day. And the day after that, maybe you can steal the sun.”
He walked away, and she sat on her stool, rubbing her stomach. After a while, she stood as well, and left. The cab ride home was quiet, as was her apartment. She looked at the bottle of pain pills on her kitchen counter, and mentally counted them. 32 – that should be enough. She thought of the old man, and took a breath, then went to sleep.
The next day, she woke, and the pain in her stomach was less. And the day after that, and the day after that. And after that, she drove to the beach. It was a three day drive, and at its end, she stood on the shore and raised her hand to the sky. From where she stood, the sun seemed to fit neatly in the palm of her hand.