When I was in high school, which was, remarkably, ten years ago, the only class I could stand was my senior art class. I loved it actually. It was peaceful and fun and I thought I was quite good.
My mom thought my paintings were hilarious. Every time I brought home a new painting, she would joke that we could hang it up in the basement. I usually laughed and told her to shush and that I thought they weren't that bad. Long story made a little shorter: all of my high school paintings ended up in a stack in a dusty corner of the basement.
About two years into college, I went home for the weekend to visit my parents. I often went down into the basement during my trips home to look through my old toys and photo albums. This weekend trip was no exception.
As much as I'd love to include a description of an eerie atmosphere in this story, I have to admit that the basement wasn't creepy or ill-lit. It really was kind of cozy. My old sea-green rug with slithering dragons woven around the edges was laid out in the bigger section of the room. I loved that rug. I wish I had taken it with me before the basement flooded. Well, what's past is past. Anyway, my old dressers, and framed pictures, and heaps of photo albums were all down there. I sat around looking through them until I got bored and moved on to my arts and crafts bin.
At the bottom of the giant plastic bin was a stack of my old paintings. I smiled and pulled them out. I looked at each one, remembering everything about the time I spent painting them, the events that preceded the class where I painted them, who was sitting across from me, and even what I was wearing. They were good memories, probably the only good memories I had from high school. Somewhere in the middle, I found the one I had been most proud of finishing. It was a recreation of Henry Fuseili’s “The Nightmare.” I loved it.
I have to admit we used the grid method where you make a light grid with pencil over the original and another numbered grid over your blank canvas. Then you can focus on one square at a time, making it easier to be exact. I have always loved dark tales, illustration and films. This painting was so interesting to me, and it turned out pretty good considering a marginally talented high school student had attempted it.
I looked at it for a awhile, remembering what I had read about the story behind it. The painting, among other things, depicts an incubus, or a demon, sitting on a sleeping woman’s chest. She lies lifeless with her head hanging off of the bed as a horse’s head with white, lifeless eyes watches from behind a red curtain.
There are myths about creatures like the incubus saying that they were known to visit women while they slept and sit on top of them, paralyzing them and making it hard for them to breathe. Some folklore associates this with what is commonly known as sleep paralysis, in which a person is conscious but their whole body is unable to move, and they feel a weight keeping them from sitting up. It’s all very eerie and the painting shows all of this beautifully.
I put the paintings away, went back up to have dinner and told my mom about the paintings. Again, I got the same old jabs about how terrible they were. I went back to school and a few weeks passed before I visited again.
At the end of the year, after finals were over, I moved back to my parents’ place for the summer. They once again had my old room all set-up and clean for me, although it looked more like a guest room. My old bed had a new bed spread and the two windows on either side had brand new curtains to match. My mom was skilled at making something out of nothing and she used some old milk crates and a table cloth to make a stand for the lamp behind the headboard of the bed. I went to bed with the ease of a kid who had the whole summer ahead of her.
That night I woke up in a sweat and all I could hear were very loud summer crickets outside my bedroom. I couldn’t move my body and I couldn’t open my eyes. All I could do was move my head slowly from side to side. I tried to scream but it was very much like being in a dream, or a nightmare rather, where every time you try to do something you feel like you’re wading through molasses. I started to cry and I was aware of my mouth hanging open in a silent scream. I was terrified. I knew I was sleeping but I was too aware of my own body to really be dreaming it. I had a hard time breathing and I’m not sure if that was just panic or not. Finally, I sat up like a rocket and held my chest while I hyperventilated.
I cried audibly like a baby for a moment and my Mom heard me and came in to see what was wrong. Once I realized it was a dream, I started to calm down and just wanted to sleep. I was so exhausted. I felt like I had been on a long run. I went to bed and didn’t dream.
The next morning, I woke up and got dressed. I still felt groggy but I was glad that I had gotten a full night’s sleep. I lifted up the bottom of the table cloth that was behind the headboard, covering the milk crates to unplug my phone charger. I realized for the first time what a weird assortment of things my mom had compiled to create this fake table and I just shook my head at her strange creativity. I lifted the fabric all the way up to see what the flat surface was made of at the top where the lamp sat. I jerked my hand back when I saw that it was my painting of "The Nightmare." I quickly lifted the cloth again to check and there it was. I pulled it out and ran downstairs to find her.
“Why is this in my room?” I sobbed.
“Why is what in your room?” she said, already annoyed with my tone.
“You put this behind my bed for the table top and I had a dream last night about it. You have to get rid of it.”
"Don't be so dramatic. You always have weird dreams."
"No, I had a dream where I couldn't move, like something was sitting on my chest. It was just like the painting."
“Alright, alright. I’ll put it back in the basement. Creeeeepy stuff," she teased.
But it wasn’t funny. In fact, I couldn’t sleep in that room the rest of the summer. I stayed at my friends’ places in the city a lot, but most of the time, I just slept on the floor of my parents’ room. I just couldn't fall asleep in the room without thinking about that cold, numbing pressure pushing on my chest.