The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Hills and the Valleys

Creatures live in the hills and in the valleys. They are creatures of smoke and ash, of whispers and misunderstood words, of lavender and poison and hollow bones. Some are so not-there you could put your hand right through them, but if you tried, their very-real fangs would feel very solid indeed, solid and sharp. Others have a laugh that shatters glass…when they laugh.

At night, they run toward the villages. They listen for the sounds of sleep, for breath and snores. They reap their harvest, and return to the hills and the valleys carrying their prizes in talons or on the wind.

A hair, a tooth, a shard of fingernail.

It has no name, the young creature, for names are human things. Ages are human things, too, but it can truly be said that it is young, formed of thistles and lightning the last time the snows had melted and the land had sprung anew with green.

Names are human things, so we shall give it a human name. The hills and the valleys are where the Nightmares live.

The young Nightmare dances across the fields, a crackle of blue and sting, strong enough for the first time to move. It will soon be even stronger. All around, the other, older Nightmares skip and fly and tumble toward the houses, thatched roofs pointed above darkened windows. A dog whines, perhaps sensing something that humans cannot, perhaps simply wishing to fill the silence, for the Nightmares make no noise. No noise, at least, where they can be heard.

Grass gives way to stone under the Nightmares’ feet, and here they all part ways, heading for different places. They slip through window cracks and mouse holes, down chimneys and through letterboxes. Any way inside is good enough, and once they are inside, they cannot be stopped.

The young Nightmare knows what to do. It is knowledge passed from creature to creature by the howl of the storm, by the rustle of leaves—are they just leaves?—in the darkness. It watches the house for a minute, and creeps inside. Up the stairs, past two doors that are not the right doors, and to the one that is. The girl in the bed tosses and turns as the Nightmare nears, her face scrunched at the pictures in her head. The Nightmare knows precisely what the pictures are. She belongs to this Nightmare, and it to her.

She has not recently lost a tooth, and her fingernails are short and smooth, but it is no trouble to take a single long, red hair from her head. She does not even notice. The Nightmare crackles brighter blue. Happiness is a human thing, but this is an important moment, this first collection. It dances back across the fields, the hair streaming behind it. Back in the hills and the valleys, the others have returned to crow over their spoils, and the young Nightmare watches as they grow bigger, stronger from the things they have gathered.

Nightmares are creatures, and creatures must feed. The young one feels itself grow, an inch taller perhaps. Not much, but there is time. Years. The girl’s red hair is cut short, and grows long again. She loses a tooth, and it is replaced by another. One night, a sliver of fingernail is painted pink.

She is alone in the house when the Nightmare, no longer young, climbs the stairs to her room and stops at the landing, for, no, she is not alone. It glows brighter, not from joy at this collection, this time, but rage.

“Mine,” it says, and its voice is the sear of lightning and the burn of a thistle on skin.

The other Nightmare turns from her bedside, empty-handed, but clearly hoping not to be for long. “Mine is gone. It slept the wakeless sleep.”

“Mine,” says the lightning-thistle voice again. “I am gentle to her. She never remembers.”

The girl’s face twists and grimaces as the Nightmares battle inside her head. It is loud, and at the same time completely silent, and when it is over the winner backs away, taking nothing from her tonight and knowing she will not sleep peacefully until it is gone. It crackle-dances over the grass and up the hill to a strange, hollowed-out spot filled with red hair and pink fingernails. “Mine,” it thought once more. She had made the Nightmare strong. “Mine.”

Snows and springs fell over the hills and the valleys, one after another. The girl’s hair turned white, and her fingernails brittle. Once more, she lost her teeth and had them replaced by fake ones that were of no use to the Nightmare at all.

The moon was full, and bounced off the lightning as it moved slowly down to the village. It knew. The Nightmares always knew when the wakeless sleep would come. The house was full of people, speaking in hushed voices the Nightmare ignored as it crept to her bedside.

She opened her eyes, and blinked.

“I know you,” she whispered. “I know you from once, when I was a little girl. I never dreamed again after that.”

The Nightmare thought of its collection. “You did, many times,” it said, and of course she did not understand it, but she nodded, a tiny jerk of the head.

And closed her eyes.

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