Hell Realms

(With apologies to Bernie Glassman)

Before I was old enough to remember, I was given a hand-made marionette — a clown — that my mother displayed on the wall of my bedroom. I do not know who gave it to me. But I do know that adults viewed it as a thing of quality and, if not great beauty, at least great craftsmanship.

In the daylight, I could see its merits — it had a certain charm, and I thought that, when I grew more skilled with my own limbs, I might like to know how to make that wooden body (with real silk polka-dot jumpsuit and matching hat!) move with the precision of a live person.

But at night, the little clown haunted me. It radiated a kind of psychic ill-will that could not be fended off with any of the usual talismans: a selection of stuffed animals tucked under the covers and against my body just so.

Sometimes, the hall light illuminated my room enough so that I could make out a shadowy figure against the monochrome wall. Staying awake as long as I could, I watched intently for movement that never came. This anticipation was pure terror. Other times, it was too dark to see anything at all. This was considerably worse.

I never told my mother how I felt about the marionette. I never once said, “Hey, this thing scares the &$#@ out of me” or “I do not like this horrible toy — please take it away.” It never even occurred to me that I could have any power over my nighttime circumstances. It was just my lot in life to be a child with a possibly (absolutely) evil clown doll hanging on the wall.

And so, the blind spot was both mine and my mother’s — she did not notice; I did not point out. I was held fast in nightly torment.

Like many children, my nighttime fears blossomed into full, complex worlds that did not dissipate for years to come. Perhaps unlike other children, my fears had a carefully hand-painted face and teeny-tiny red pompoms for buttons.

Eventually, we moved out of that house and somehow the marionette became lost. I remember there was speculation that one or two of the packing boxes had mysteriously disappeared. I was grateful for this. Still, my fear of the dark remained for years, and I have never enjoyed the company of clowns.

Sometimes I wonder what nightmare realms my children will encounter. Some I can guess, perhaps. Closets. Strange shadows. Darkness. And the space under the bed (if we ever own beds — we sleep on the floor now, Japanese style). I’m okay with what I can anticipate, the obvious things, those lesser hells I’ve known and escaped.

Other things, though. . . those are the things I’m really afraid of. The things my children won’t — or can’t — tell me.