04 Aug The Barrow Woman
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"The Barrow Woman"Written by
Estimated reading time — 5 minutes
Call it sleep paralysis. I don’t care. At this point, I’m used to people throwing explanations and diagnoses at me. Everybody wants to be the one to make sense of what I’m saying. I can tell you now-it does not make sense. It does not make sense and I could not care less about your analysis of my psyche.
The first night was like any other night. I brushed my teeth, changed into my pyjamas and sank into bed. Like everybody else. Although I live in a town, there is seldom any sound from outside between six o clock in the evening and eight o clock in the morning. The most you’re likely to get is the wind singing through the trees or the low hum of engines from far off cars. As you can imagine, this made the transition from conscious thought to dream rather seamless.
Honestly, I don’t remember whatever I had dreamt about that night-which is unusual for me. My dreams are usually so vivid. Vibrant colours or dark greys and blacks. Always memorable. Not that night though. I awoke in a sweat from the heat of my room. Assuming I had left the radiator on, I willed myself out of bed. Nothing. Panic gripped me, causing my muscles to tense. I tried to move again but to absolutely no avail. The sweat was soaking through my blue pyjama shirt by now and my eyes darted around the room in desperation. I tried to call out in the hope that my mother would hear me but I was mute. It was at this moment that my eyes focused directly above me. My guts churned as if to force a wail and my muscles went into spasm as my natural reaction was to thrash. Descending slowly, almost mirroring my pose, was a figure. The only detail I absorbed before passing out from shock was how pale its visage was; almost glowing as it reflected the moonlight from my window.
I kept the night’s events to myself. It had been a dream. A vile dream which had left me with a day of grogginess and headaches. I put it to the back of my mind and went about my day as usual. Just as with the night before and every night prior to that; I went about my routine. Teeth, pyjamas, bed. As usual, I drifted away with incident. Then the sweat.
I woke up drenched. Head to toe. The sheets stuck to my legs and my hair clinging to my scalp. The heat of the room made it impossible to take a full breath. I was not concerned with breathing. I knew what was coming which meant my focus had to be on getting out of that bed. I drew everybody ounce of energy I had and attempted to hurl my body from the mattress. No success. I was a cadaver waiting to be incised and drained. Eyes on the ceiling, I braced myself against whatever this roommate had in store for me.
On time, the glaring mask came into view and began its descent. As the gap between us narrowed, the femininity of my visitor became apparent. Her eyes were so sympathetic. Her hair acted as a skull cap. My stomach threatened to expel my dinner. It took about five minutes for her to reach her destination. About half a foot from my face, she halted. I could feel my eyes bulging. Her face unchanging, she removed a hand from her garment and set about reaching for my face. I must have lost consciousness because suddenly I was awakened by her freezing cold touch. In contrast to the heat of the room and my skin, it felt as though she jammed a blade into my cheek. She ran her fingers from my temple to my chin like a mother comforting a frightened child. My breath caught in my chest and I lost control of my bladder. There were no thoughts. My jaw was clenched and my eyes were fixed on hers. My body was ceasing all basic function out of sheer horror. As my oxygen starved brain was about to put me to sleep, she withdrew her digits and hid them away in the folds of her clothing. My lungs frantically pumped air in an attempt to restore normal function.
I thought she would leave. She remained stationary for a moment before drawing her hand again. I was high from the lack of oxygen so her actions were all somewhat blurry but I will forever remember with clarity what happened next.
She had a silver comb. Tarnished and battered, presumably from a lifetime of use. It was so intrusive. So much more terrifying than a blade or a hook. She ran the comb through my hair and I could feel the bile rising. The violation. I mind was in frenzy. Even if I had regained control of my limbs at this moment, I don’t think I could have moved. Her image became blurry and I slipped away.
I slept through most of the next day. I was woken by the heaving of my stomach as I vomited over myself. I did not immediately remember my uninvited guest as I grasped at consciousness. The dread I felt when she flooded my mind caused me to slump. What was happening? The room was at a normal temperature and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I almost convinced myself that it was a dream. No. It wasn’t. Have more faith in your own mind. You were there and you felt her touch and you saw her face. Her face. Every time I blinked. No blemishes or wrinkles. Nothing of note but those eyes. So sad. Caressing my cheek, combing my hair. Why me?
Sleep did not come easily to me that night. I had avoided my family for the day. I wouldn’t have known what to say. Where is the balance between “Hello” and “Check my wardrobe for monsters”? I tried to stay awake. I drank. I attempted to read. I walked. I walked for hours. Around the town, down to the sea. The sea was tempting me. I felt as though sirens were calling me to walk away from all I had seen and join them in the tide. I went home.
I stayed awake by lamplight for as long as my eyes would allow before falling into a deep sleep in the armchair. My exhaustion promised to force me to sleep through anything that was to occur before daybreak. I dreamt that night. I saw my family at breakfast. It was probably the most uneventful dream of my life. No extreme colours of darkness. We were all together, eating pastries and drinking juice. A pleasant dream that I was sure to relive the next morning.
When I was woken, I felt relief. It was bright. I had made it through the night. I remained in the chair dosing for a while, regretting my decision to sleep downstairs. I eventually decided to relocate to my bedroom where I would be met by clean linens and a more comfortable rest before breakfast. Before I could move, I realised how hot the room was. I was frozen. I shot my eyes around the room, only to discover that I had mistaken the light from the lamp for dawn. I didn’t have to wait for her this time. She was there. Crouched my legs. Her whole being in heaves of sorrow. Silent convulsions of absolute dismay. This was the most awake my mind had been. The most present she had been. I did not attempt to throw myself from the chair. I watched her as she rose and leaned over me. As she had the night before, she kept her face half a foot from mine. She continued to silently sob and stare into my eyes. Why was she so distressed? What did she need me to do to make this all go away?
I filled with sorrow as her display of grief became more and more intense. Her lips began to part and so did mine. Where cries should have come from her, they came from me. In my voice. She began to keen and wail through me. I was repulsed. I had no control. The moaning grew loader. I was almost screaming. The sound of concerned footsteps could barely be heard over my cries. Suddenly it stopped. My muscles relaxed, my vocal cords loosened and she was gone. The silence was bliss one moment. Half a moment. The running footsteps from upstairs ended with a yelp and a series of thuds. I ran to the hallway to find my mother at the foot of the stairs; broken and silent. I was frozen.
Credit: J. B. Prunty