Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Do you know what it’s like to live without a soul? Because I do.
It’s like watching a romantic movie that’s so perfect you find yourself falling in love with the character. Then the lights come on, and you suddenly remember that person doesn’t exist. And even if they did, they would never care that you exist.
It’s like running the wrong way on a race track. It doesn’t matter whether you ever finish or not, because everyone else has already crossed the line and gone home. You’ve run farther than anyone else, your legs are agony and there’s fire in your lungs, but you’re still running because you’re afraid of the silence when you finally stop.
Living without a soul is sitting in the eye of the hurricane. Life is moving all around you and sometimes it feels like you’re part of it when it passes too close, but in the end nothing and no-one can ever move you. And though the wind howls fierce in its savage glory and sweeps all the world from under your feet, you’ll never know what it feels like join that wild dance. And that’s okay. You tell yourself that at least you won’t be hurt like all those other fragile humans burdened with their souls, but deep down you wish you could feel that hurt. Just for a moment. Just so once in your life you know there’s something important enough to be hurt over.
I lost my soul when I was only six years old. My father didn’t want me. My mother told me so. She said I was the reason that he left, and I believed her. I was in first grade at the time, and our class project was to make a paper lantern which was closed at the top. The hot air from the candle was supposed to lift the lantern, although mine wasn’t sealed properly and couldn’t leave the ground. I was getting really frustrated, and after the fourth or fifth attempt I got so mad that I actually ripped the whole thing to shreds.
My teacher — Mr. Hansbury, a gentle dumpling of a man with a bristly mustache, squatted down next to me and gave me the lantern he had been building. I was so mad that I was about to destroy that one too, but he sat me down and said:
“Do you know what I love most about paper lanterns? They might seem flimsy, but when they fly they can carry away anything that you don’t want anymore. You can put all your anger into one of these, and the moment you light the candle, it’s going to float away and take that anger with it.”
That sounded pretty amazing to me at the time. I settled down to watch him glue the candle into place, concentrating all my little heart on filling the lantern with my bad feelings. It started off with just the anger at the project, but one bitterness led to the next, and by the time Mr. Hansbury was finished I’d poured everything that I was into the paper. All the other class lanterns only hovered a few feet off the ground, but mine went up and up and on forever — all the way to the top of the sky. The other kids laughed and cheered to see it go, and my teacher put his hand on my shoulder and looked so proud, but I didn’t feel much of anything. How could I, with my soul slowly disappearing from view?
I remember asking Mr. Hansbury if I could go home and live with him after that, but he said he didn’t think my mother would like that. I told him that she would, but he still said no. I don’t suppose it would have mattered one way or another though, because it was too late to take back what I did.
There’s something else besides the numbness that comes when your soul is gone. I didn’t see them the first night, but I could hear them breathing when I lay down to sleep. Soft as the wind, but regular and calm like a sleeping animal. I sat and listened in the darkness for a long while, covers clutched over my head; the breathing seemed so close I could feel its warmth billowing under the sheets. I cried for what seemed like hours, but mom didn’t come and I was too afraid to get out of bed. I don’t think I fell asleep until it was light outside.
Mom was angry at me in the morning for keeping her awake. She’d heard me, but she thought I would give up eventually. I didn’t get breakfast that day, and I didn’t mention the breathing again. That was only the beginning.
I think a soul does more than help you appreciate the things around you. It also protects you from noticing the things you aren’t supposed to see. And with it gone, they were everywhere. Beady eyes glinting from under the sofa, a dark flash at the corner of my eye, scuffling in the drawers and late-night knockings on doors and windows. I never got a good look at them, but they were always watching me. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and feel their weight all over my body, pinning me down. Rough skin against me, dirty fingers digging into my nose and mouth. Worse still, their touch penetrated my mind, inserting thoughts so vile that I knew they couldn’t be my own, although the longer they were in my head, the more difficult it was to be certain of that.
Did I want to insert a needle into my eye and see how far it would go? Probably not. Then why could I not stop thinking about it?
Were they making me think about beating my class-mates into bloody pulps? Or setting fires to people’s homes to watch them weep on the sidewalk? Or was that all from me?
The first few nights I lay awake and cried to myself, but I soon learned to be more afraid of my mom than I was of the creatures. As much as I hated the shadows, they never hit me after-all. I wouldn’t call it living, but I continued to exist for years like that. During the day I kept to myself: exhausted and numb. All colors seemed muted except for the glittering eyes which tracked me from unlikely crevices, all sounds muffled but for their scrapings and breathings. The only times I could really feel was when I was lay awake in the darkness, but these were the times I wish I felt less. Neither screams nor silence brought any comfort from the intrusive probings, and my mind was flooded with persistent images of violence, self-destruction, and despair.
Over time I found a trick to help me get through the insufferable nights. I convinced myself that my body was not my own, and that nothing it felt could do me harm. The real me was flying safe somewhere, high up in the sky inside a paper lantern. And no matter what happened to my flesh — no matter what my flesh did to anyone else — that had nothing to do with me.
I kept everything below the surface as best I could until I was fourteen years old. By then I’d lost all ability to distinguish the origin of my thoughts. All I knew is that I wanted to hurt someone — hurt them as badly as I wanted to be hurt in return. I picked fights at school. I pushed my classmates around and they stayed clear of me. I once drove a pencil into someone’s hand when they weren’t looking, grinding it back and forth to make sure to tip broke off inside the skin. I heard the creatures snickering at that, but it was a disdainful kind of laugh.
When I was called into the principal’s office afterward, I was surprised to see Mr. Hansbury there too. The principal was all rage, lecturing me and stamping around like the Spanish Inquisition. Mr. Hansbury didn’t say much. He just looked tired and sad. He didn’t speak up until the principal dismissed me, at which point he put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in real close to ask:
“Have you looked for it?”
I didn’t have the faintest idea what he meant. I gave him a stare that a marble statue would find cold.
“Your lantern. Did you ever try to get it back?”
I told him to go fuck himself.
“I’m sorry for telling you to send it away,” he added, gripping my shoulder to stop me from leaving. “I thought it would be easier than facing, but I was wrong. People can’t hide from themselves like that.”
The pencil was good, but it wasn’t enough. My thoughts matched the sardonic tone of the laughter, mocking me for my pitiful attempt. As the creatures crawled over me at night and their intentions mingled with my own, I decided to bring a knife next time. I considered a gun too, but resolved that it wasn’t personal enough. I’d rather look into one person’s eyes when the blade slipped into them than shoot a dozen scurrying figures from a distance. And what happened to me afterward? It didn’t matter, because the real me was safely floating in the breeze a thousand miles away.
It wasn’t going to be at school this time. I wanted to take my time and not be interrupted. Instead I went out at midnight, the taste of those dirty fingers still fresh in my mouth. I didn’t care who my victim was, as long as they could feel what I was doing to them. My neighborhood was quiet at night and there weren’t a lot of options though, so I decided to head down to the 24 hour gas station on the corner.
Kitchen knife gripped between my fingers, cold air filling my lungs, goading laughter and applause from the creatures thick around me in the darkness, I almost felt alive there for a second. Just like I did with the pencil, but this would taste better. Holding the knife, I felt like a virgin on prom night with my crush slowly unzipping my pants. I wasn’t in the eye of the storm anymore — I was the storm, and tonight would be the night —
that I saw a paper lantern floating in the air, just a few feet off the ground. The shell was so filthy and stained that I could barely see the light inside. It was impossible for the fragile thing to have survived all these years, more impossible still for the single candle to have burned all this time, but I knew without doubt that it was my light by the way the creatures howled. They hated it with a passion, and would have torn it to shreds if I hadn’t gotten there first. I plucked the lantern from the air and guided it softly to the ground, the shades screeching as they whirled around me, feral animals cowed by the miraculous flame.
Holding the lantern close, I found the note that was attached.
“I found this in the woods. Took a couple days to find it.” -Mr. H
I collapsed on the sidewalk, trembling for all the time I’d spent away from myself, blubbering and sobbing like an idiot until the flame guttered out from my tears. The howling creatures reached a feverish pitch, and then silence, all rising together into the sky with the last wisps of curling smoke from the lantern. It hurt like nothing I’d felt in years, but it was a cleansing kind of hurt. I didn’t hide from it. I didn’t send it away. I didn’t drown it with distractions or fight its grip on me. I won’t go so far as to say that pain is a good thing, but it is undeniably a real thing, and I’d rather hurt than send it away to live with the hole it leaves behind.
CREDIT: Tobias Wade
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