We were lying in bed early in the morning, the light coming through the curtains and illuminating a corner of blanket. My four-year-old said, “Look! A ribbon!” He reached for the curling corner of light and at the same moment his brother rolled over, moving the blanket, and that bright loop was gone.
The four-year-old scrambled around the bed looking for it, frantic. “I saw a pink ribbon!” he wept. “It’s in the bed but I can’t find it!”
“There’s no ribbon,” I tried to explain. “It was a trick of the light. Sometimes the light plays tricks on your eyes and you see things that aren’t really there.”
He didn’t believe me. He shouted and raged and kept searching the bed. He sobbed over breakfast: “I want that ribbon! I loved that ribbon!”
It’s easy to forget the first time it happened to you. We get used to it, in a way – reaching for something, and then, poof, it’s gone, or it was never there, we were wrong. We learn that not everything we think we see is real. That we can’t always touch the things we imagine and long for.
Sometimes the light makes a pretty ribbon in the bed, but sometimes it makes things that are terrible, too. When I was a little girl, shadows became monsters on the wall with awful frequency. I remember one particular occasion so clearly because real terror stays with us – the car pulling into the driveway, the headlights coming in my bedroom window, casting moving shadows across the wall and ceiling. One shadow on the wall had eyes, a mouth, reaching arms that lengthened and lengthened. It grinned at me as it moved across the wall, arms stretching out, and then it vanished. I screamed until my mother came. She probably told me it was a trick of the light, but I knew she was wrong. I knew what I’d seen: the sly treachery of the mouth, the hungry eyes. Just wait, it said, just wait. And then: poof. Gone. The car parked in the driveway. The engine shut off. My mother sat on the edge of my bed, but I was only safe as long as she was there. That shadow was still hiding somewhere. I’d seen it.
Another time I looked up and there was a woman standing at the foot of my bed. She was wearing the same dress as my doll and holding an open book, which she appeared to be reading. She didn’t look scary but all the same I hid under the covers, paralyzed with fear, because what was a strange woman doing standing by my bed reading a book? I have never in my life felt such a rush of adrenaline and terror. I hid until I couldn’t bear it. Then I rocketed out of the bed, out of the room, screaming, for my parents’ room, cannon-balling into their bed and waking them.
It might have been a dream. If I believed in ghosts, I might say it was a ghost. Our eyes and minds are easier to trick when we are younger because we aren’t used to their tricks, to the way light and dark and half-awake moments and our own brains all play together. I used to see strange things, inexplicable things, all the time. Now I can’t remember the last time I saw something that didn’t look right, something I couldn’t explain. Still, when I saw my son’s hand groping for that lit corner of blanket, the urgency of his movement, I knew exactly what was happening. I remembered how it felt – your hand closing on nothing.
We got through a weepy breakfast and went to the beach in boots and coats. It was windy and beautiful. The sea shimmered in the sun and white clouds streaked across the sky. We ate sandwiches on the rocks and my son said “The water is beautiful,” and I said, “Yes, it is,” and then his voice cracked and he said, “Is this a trick of the light?”
“No,” I said, with the kind of certainty and authority I can command only as a parent. “This is real.”
But of course, we can’t really touch the golden light on the water. We can’t hold on to any of this, and I used to wonder all the time as a small child if what I saw was the same thing that other people saw. Who could say?
“I wish I had that ribbon,” he whispered.
It took a few days for him to really accept that it was gone, that maybe it had never been there at all. Just this morning he said, without crying about it: “Remember that ribbon I saw that was a trick of the light?”
After I pick him up from preschool, I give him some play-doh so I can read over the chapter I wrote in the morning. He makes ribbons with the play-doh – a departure for him, since generally he shares my interest in monsters.
“This is not the same color,” he says, eyeing his play-doh ribbons critically. “This is not like the ribbon I saw.”
I say, “but it’s a very nice ribbon.” And I keep tinkering with my chapter – the burning shore, the uneven light, monsters multiplying around my heroine. We spend a quiet hour together, working with what we thought we saw, what wasn’t there, until it is time to go get his brother from school.