Thursday, 22 January 2009

A Visitor

Jenny liked to lie on her bed when the lights were put out and stare at the shadows dancing on the ceiling, cast by the trees outside.

In that respect, she'd later note as an adult, she was unusual for a little girl her age. Most kids wanted the door slightly ajar, knowing that their parents were a quick bolt away should anything appear under the bed or from behind the closet door. But not Jenny. She loved the dark, it was mysterious and romantic, not frightening and strange. Some nights if she couldn't sleep she'd throw back the covers, tip-toe into her dressing gown and slippers and go downstairs to the conservatory to sit. If it was a clear night, with a moon casting its silver light over the garden beyond, she'd look up at the stars (for there were many where she lived in the country, away from the orange glow of city streetlights) and speculated as to what would happen if she were to shoot off in one direction at the super speed, what she would see.

Her gaze would turn to the garden, bordered at the end by a forest, and wonder what strange animals were staring at her from the safety of the thicket. Maybe there were faeries there, or other supernatural forces. But these thoughts didn't scare her like they did other children – instead, they fascinated her.

When it began her mum or dad would come down to find her there, scold her and take her back to bed. Behind her back they would discuss their daughters odd night-time habits and wonder if it was worth doing something about, but aside from that she led a pretty normal life, did well in school, got on well with her friends and had a keen interest in playing the violin. So eventually they decided to give up and let her get on with it, keeping a blanket to hand to cover her if it was cold and sometimes finding her asleep in her chair in the conservatory the following morning.

But Jenny was to discover something one day the week before Christmas. That if you spend enough time watching, eventually you'll see something, or find out that something was probably staring back all along....

It had been a pretty normal day in school. Jenny had rushed home as ever, had her dinner, polished off some homework and spent some time practising her violin. Later she watched a film and, come ten o'clock, shipped herself off to bed (her parents rarely had to nag) to spend a while reading with a glass of water before switching off the light.

As usual, four hours later, she woke up. As her eyes opened, the jagged shapes of tree shadows swaying on the white paint of the ceiling swam into view.

Jenny yawned and lay there, still, her eyes half closed. She needed the toilet. So she stirred, checked the time (02.18) and rolled out of bed. Her toes dipped down into her slippers as she slid off and after walking crookedly to her door, she grabbed her dressing gown off the hook and disappeared to the bathroom.

A few minutes later, she shuffled back in, a little more alert than before. It was a bit cold and she shivered slightly, keeping the gown on as she moved towards the bed. The moon appeared to be full outside, and the room was cast in a white glow, sharp shadows scattered everywhere through the treetops outside. Jenny reached the edge of her bed and looked up. The wood swayed in a breeze and above it the sky was free of cloud and swathed in blankets of stars. She blinked, slightly stunned. Somehow it looked so much clearer tonight, as if she could see billions and billions of miles out to galaxies that even the largest telescope couldn't reach. Then she realised that it wasn't the moon illuminating her room, as it was absent that night, but the stars alone.

Countless tiny points of light clustered around each other here and there amongst the ocean of blue blackness, punctuated by larger, brighter distant suns... and giant nebulae, deep purple, pink and red, formed massive, cloud-like waves as if they were threatening to crash towards Earth. The sky was alive with detail, stars weaving together and sweeping through the air like silk trailed by a dancer. Venus and Mars hung bright and fierce in the sky and when she squinted Jenny swore she could nearly make out each one as a crescent in the night.

Excited, Jenny banished all thoughts of sleep, grabbed a blanket and made her way downstairs. Her feet navigated about the creaky floorboards so as not to wake her parents as she crept downstairs through the darkness to her favourite red wooden chair in the conservatory. She passed through the lounge which was aglow with the warm lights of the Christmas tree, and when she reached her destination noted that the plants almost seemed reverent, the leaves wilting slightly as if bowing to the breathtaking sky above. As she sat, she looked up into the garden. The light from the sky above had taken away the colour of the world and left it almost monochromatic and when she looked up at the majestic scene spread out before her she felt almost dizzy with vertigo, as if her dream of shooting off into the galaxy was about to come true.

She sighed and huddled up to her blanket, pulling it over her mouth so the soft wool warmed under her breath. The garden sat silent. No animals scurried and the plants themselves seemed frozen, bewitched by the magnificent sky. Sparkling frost covered the grass, competing with the stars for her attention. The forest frame the scene as if a theatre backdrop, black branches curling up into the night, the twigs giving the illusion of millions of hands reaching up to pluck the tiny lights like diamonds in a pitch black mine.

It was then she noticed the shape.

There, right in the middle of the garden, something was hovering.

She leant forwards and blinked. Whatever it was, it was floating above the centre of the lawn, a few meters high into the air. A faint shadow lay underneath as confirmation of its existence.

Jenny got up and swept the blanket around her like a cloak, all the while watching the shape, which appeared to be spinning quite slowly in place. She tiptoed up to the window, narrowly missing knocking over a pot plant, put her hands up to the cold glass and stared. Occasionally it would glint a reflection of light which came from the house, probably from something in the kitchen window, and after a few moments staring, she decided that it was... a triangle. No... a pyramid.

Jenny didn't feel scared or frightened by the presence in the garden. It seemed benign to her. Non-threatening... and she got the feeling that it was waiting for her.

She gave it a thought for a moment about what to do. Her parents would want to stay inside. Talking to strangers was one thing, but approaching strange objects? Where did it come from? What did it contain? Was it an alien from another planet, like in the films she saw on TV? She recalled the few she'd seen... one with a creature with a glowing chest, another about a boy who befriends a spaceship and yet another about little robots that could have babies. She pressed her nose against the glass and let out breath, frosting it before leaning back. Through the dot her nose left, surrounded by the decreasing haze, the object floated. She was certain it knew she was there. If it was going to do anything bad, it probably would've done it by now.

It was then she decided that at least going out to see what it wanted was the right thing to do.

Jenny crept back into the lounge and walked up to the tree, before carefully removing a single silver bauble, thinking that a gift would be appropriate when welcoming a visitor. It was a pretty silver one that reflected the colours of the tree lights in thousands of tiny triangles of glitter. She smiled, popped it into the pocket of her dressing gown, huddled the blanket closer and set off for the conservatory door.

The pyramid still hovered in place in the garden, she noted as she passed back through the conservatory glass. She picked up the key hidden under a pot away from the door, then, holding the cold metal door handle, put it in the lock and turned it. As she pulled the door open, she let out a little gasp as the cold air rushed in over her feet, then stepped out into the frozen night.

The blanket kept her warm, but each breath caught in the back of her throat and her face felt numb in the chill of the night. Her slippers crunched the frozen, well trimmed grass as she stepped off of the path that led from the conservatory and out into the forest beyond (or at least that part which belonged to her family), and carefully she walked out towards the obsidian shape. Jenny briefly looked up at the sky, her head swimming at the sight of the cavernous universe above, the scale reminding her of the cathedral she'd visited in school the previous term. She recalled how far away the ornately decorated ceiling seemed, giant stone arches streaking off into its darkest corners, the distant faces of gargoyles and angels staring down as if looking through a portal from some unknown, darker part of heaven.

Her eyes tracked back down to the pyramid as she continued her approach. Now she was closer, she could tell that it definitely wasn't a figment of her imagination. It looked like it was carved out of a solid piece of stone, smoothed to a shine. No light came from it, but it reflected everything about it – each surface facing up to the sky trapping the stars in their black mirrors. Jenny halted a meter away. Now she was closer, she could feel warmth coming from it. The air seemed to vibrate and an electric smell, reminding her of her parents kettle the month before, permeated the air. Yet despite both she couldn't hear a motor, her ears only settling on the occasional creak from the tree's and the distant sound of a branch dropping in the silence of the wood.

She reached into her pocket, felt for the cool orb of the decoration and pulled it out. With a shiver she cradled it in both hands for a moment before hesitantly holding it out up to the little pyramid.

Almost immediately, it started to slow down.

Jenny looked about. Her parents lights were still off, so nobody knew she was there. For a moment she wondered if she should have gone and told them what she'd seen. But then the pyramid came to a stop and her attention was drawn back to it. It had tipped forwards slightly so that one of the triangular sides was facing flat towards her.

Almost imperceptibly at first, a thin trace of white light broke through the glossy surface as a rectangular shape cut itself free and ejected out of its slot towards her. The thin piece of stone then started to slope out towards her and the light began to flood outwards so brightly that Jenny found herself shielding her eyes. The bauble reflected it like a mirror ball, casting silvery points out into the darkest corners of the garden.

Then the light went out.

Jenny lowered her arm. Her retinas were still a little burnt with the shape of the door, but she could see that the door had now fully lowered into something resembling a little platform and the space behind it had become pitch-black. As her sight adjusted back to the dark, she then noted a shape moving outwards from inside the little object.

At first, a thin, white leg, smooth and featureless, curved out into the night air. Jenny retracted her bauble and moved a little closer. It didn't have a foot as such, the leg (or whatever it was) came down to a point and was supported by what looked like four little white roots. Then, after a moment, the rest of the creature followed. A small hand, with only three tiny fingers, if they could even be called that, curled around the side of the entrance and out stepped the most peculiar little creature Jenny had ever seen.

It had a long, thin white body, two arms and two legs, and a head that didn't have any identifiable neck. It seemed like a formless worm from deep underground had taken the shape of something approximating human. It had eyes, but they were more the eyes of a small rodent than a person, being two unblinking black orbs that sat outside of its face on stubby little stalks. Yet despite their simple appearance were very expressive, their movement indicating that it was looking about at its surroundings. Under the eyes Jenny couldn't make out a mouth, but rather a cluster of the same small white tubes that ended its feet and hands, which wriggled out around in the direction it was looking. This was accompanied by a gentle sniffing sound, so she decided that they must be its nose.

Jenny could hear herself breathing. She felt a palpable buzz of excitement. She'd forgotten how cold it was and in her transfixed state had let the blanket she was wearing slip to the icy ground.

The worm-man, hesitant, stepped out further, looking about with small, smooth movements. Its feelers pawed at the air for a moment before it turned its attention to the small girl standing below, nervously holding out her silver bauble. It had now reached the end of the platform and was leaning quizzically over the edge, peering at the surface of the glittering orb at its hundreds of tiny mirrored reflections.

Jenny let out an involuntary shiver and quickly placed her hand over her mouth, eyes wide. The creature straightened in suprise. Jenny cleared her throat to speak, and as she did so was surprised to hear herself in the stillness of the garden. Then it hit her that she had absolutely nothing to say and even if she did – would it understand? She held the bauble up.

The visitor relaxed from its upright posture and put a hand towards the gift in a gesture of curiosity . Jenny croaked out, suddenly aware that the cold was catching her throat. Her words came out crooked and raspy, not at all the friendly introduction she'd had in her mind.

“This... this is for you.”

The worm-man stood stock still. Its little tubes moved about slowly as it processed the sound, then it reached out and plucked the bauble from her grasp. Jenny quickly retracted her hand and put it in her pocket, before huddling up her shoulders against the freezing temperatures. It held the bauble aloft in examination, turned its head somewhat theatrically back to Jenny, then bobbed its head like a bird before startling her with an odd sneezing sound, like a sped-up elephant.

Jenny let out a little giggle. The creature visibly jumped a bit then leant back towards her, before bobbing its head again. She bowed back in return, which seemed to please it, for the visitor then squeezed its eyes shut (the eyelids seemingly coming from nowhere) and bobbed its head back in return. It then gathered itself up in a haunch, before throwing the bauble up into the air. Jenny reached her hand out involuntarily to catch it before she realised that instead of arching down back to her, the silver ball floated up above her head and carried itself onwards up above the conservatory and beyond the roof of the house.

The little white creature watched as it rose, following its ascent until the glinting silver orb joined the myriad other stars in the sky. Jenny looked down back at the creature which cocked its head back at her like an inquisitive puppy and gave another of its distinctive sneezes.

Jenny smiled and put out a hand.

The creature looked down at it, back at her, then reached out. Jenny watched as its tiny little tube-like fingers curled around the end of her index finger. It was surprisingly warm. She looked up at its black eyes and smiled. The little whiskers vibrated slightly in response and she guessed that, in some way, perhaps it was smiling back?

At that moment, an odd sensation ran through her body. She felt light and her mind fuzzy, as if someone had stuffed her head with cotton wool. Her vision blurred a bit and she blinked to see the face of the creature towering above her.

Then she realised she was standing next to it. Jenny gasped and looked about - she was still in her garden, only now the creature was standing in front of her far bigger than before. Somehow it had shrunk her down to its size, only comparatively speaking in proportion the worm-man was far bigger than she. Looking down at her feet she saw her slippers were on the surface of the little craft, and when she turned to look about the sky seemed so much bigger than before, an epic painting in a chapel of infinite size, and the garden and house dwarfed the pair entirely.

The creature bobbed its head then started to lead Jenny back to the hole in the pyramid from whereupon it emerged, tugging her gently and insistently onwards. At first she was hesitant, but it seemed to her that the visitor didn't seem to wish her any ill will, its benign presence filled her with confidence. So she followed, realising how cold she felt now she was so much smaller, and together they made their up the platform, which she could now tell was of a rougher surface than she first made out, and towards the dark portal gaping before them. Warmth emanated from it and Jenny began to walk alongside the striding visitor, eager to get out of the winter chill.

As the warm darkness enveloped them, the creature let out another sneeze. The light from the craft started to shine again, and they paused before it.

Jenny looked at the worm-man, who bowed in affirmation, then she squeezed her eyes shut and took a step forward...

There was another sneeze.

Jenny opened her eyes. She was looking up at her ceiling.

She sneezed again.

Shadows from the trees outside danced above in silvery overcast daylight, which hurt her eyes as she blinked herself awake.

The feeling started to flow as her body began to wake up. Almost immediately her throat started to complain, then as she moved her limbs ached. Her head followed as she became dizzy as she sat up, and she fell back down again. A mild sweat clung to her forehead.

Jenny gave out a little moan. She was ill. Her mother shouted up the stairs for her to come down for school, and six minutes later when Jenny didn't respond, she rushed in to tell her off only to see her daughter lying there, pale and feverish, holding the bedsheets tightly over her mouth with a slightly desperate look in her eyes.

She stayed home that day. Her mother brought up the small television from the study and the video player from downstairs and, when not tending to household chores, sat at her daughters side. The doctor came and went, commiserating to Jenny about her terrible influenza and talking in hushed tones and long words with her parents that evening about things she couldn't understand. Comics were bought and she was spoilt rotten for days, missing the last few days of school and spending most of her time in bed, to the point where she couldn't remember ever being well – and if she'd ever know what it was like to feel normal again.

Throughout her ordeal Jenny suffered silently, all the while thinking about her visitor that night. It all felt like a fever dream, an alternate reality that had intruded hers from the pages of her favourite fantasy novelist. As Christmas rolled on, then the New Year, Jenny begun to reminisce less and less about the strange little worm-man. They year went by, then years, and the entire ordeal of the visitor was swamped with vague memories of childhood illness.

It was much later in her life when Jenny had a daughter of her own, that the memory resurfaced, one late night whilst sitting in their cabin in the country staring at the stars. Even then she couldn't remember if it was just something she saw on television, a strange dream, or a story told to her by her parents. She held her sleeping daughter close to her, looking up at the sweeping night sky, wondering what it would be like to fall into it, to be enveloped in its blanket of stars, a quilt of dark silk that endlessly wrapped around itself through infinity.

She hoped it was real, feeling a twinge of sadness ath the thought that it most probably wasn't. Jenny felt her daughter stir. She looked down at her blonde head, her baby's face staring out at something in the woods beyond. The girl looked up, a quizzical expression on her face and one arm pointed out at something she couldn't quite see.

“Mummy... what's that?”

Jenny looked up... and smiled.

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