by Sanaa Humayun
She was born into light. It burned her eyes. It surrounded, engulfed. It was all she had ever known.
She was not light. She was darkness. And those who raised her made sure she knew. She was not like them. She was not good. Not pure. But she could be. They would help her. If she just tried she could shed her skin and become light.
She lived in a room with no windows. Pale walls, pale light. Never any darkness. She never left. Those who raised her floated in and out, no need for doors. They were beings of light. It hurt her to look at Them.
She desperately wanted more, but this was all she was given. Four walls in which to live her life. She knew there was more, there had to be more, but those who raised her denied it.
“This is all you need,” They said to her, over and over They told her: “We are all you need. We are all there is. We love you.”
They wanted her to know that They sacrificed everything to raise her. Although she was unworthy, They loved her. They had built her a home, safe from danger, safe from the horrors of Outside. Safe in the light.
But when she slept she knew they lied. She dreamed impossible things, things that she was told did not exist. She dreamed of Outside. She dreamed of night. Beautiful black skies, littered with stars that were bright in a way that emphasized the dark blue sky that she loved, that was like her. Rolling green hills bathed in cool starlight. When she slept she fell in love, and she knew that anything that kept this from her could not really love her.
When she woke up, she wished with all her heart for it to be real. Even if she couldn’t see it, even if she’d never see it. She had to believe that it really existed.
They wanted her to become light. They thought that by surrounding her, they could force her to be the same. She could shed her darkness, her skin, and become like them. The fact that she hadn’t yet was because she was unwilling and impure. As she got older, they became harsher. They were Good. They were Right. They needed to Punish her, but it was for her sake. She could be Good too, if only she tried.
So little by little, year by year, they made her home brighter and brighter. The harsh white light washed her out. It stung her eyes so she could barely open them, but she had to all the same. She would feel herself slipping, she’d lose herself in the light, shapes would fade and everything would become a blur, varying shades of white, the only contrast was her own darkness. They became happier, brighter.
Until she went to sleep. Because when she slept, she remembered her world, the one she was holding out hope for. She remembered herself. She woke up ready to fight, and then They would do it all over again.
At first Their anger came through words. They screeched at her, told her she was foolish, she was impure, she was stubborn. She was ungrateful to the sacrifices They had made for her – she didn’t realize that They only wanted the best. They wanted to scream her into submission but her dreams were too powerful.
So when words no longer worked, They turned to blows. Every touch burned her, left pale, throbbing scorch marks upon her skin. But somehow, when she dreamed, she healed. She sat on the grass, looked into the night and watched the marks fade from her skin, laughing as the pain disappeared.
But in the mornings, They saw that she healed. So They hit her harder. Harder and harder, so she slept more and more, to escape, to feel free, to heal.
And then They realized. Her dreams were the reason her enlightenment failed. They could not imagine what she was dreaming, but They did not have to. She would not be allowed to dream anymore.
From then on, every hour was marked with a piercing scream. She was no longer allowed to sleep. She was no longer allowed to escape.
And she began to crack.
Days passed. And then months. Time became meaningless, relentless piercing light and noise that forbade her from thought, forbade her from hope.
Soon after her mind cracked, her body began to. Little white lines began appearing on her body. Like lightning creeping across her skin, slowly creating fault lines across her body, until one day she was covered.
And then the lines began to open. Little by little, she was being spread apart. Slowly. Painfully. Each shift radiating throughout her body.
They were ecstatic. They had broken her. They had healed her. She would become like them.
She sat quietly while her body tore itself apart. She had long been devoid of emotion. She had been numb to the pain.
Until she had a flash of memory. A brief glimpse of Outside, of Night. Of a world that she knew existed for her, it was waiting for her. She remembered stars, remembered that light could exist without overpowering.
Her eyes opened, truly opened, for the first time since she lost hope and the light burned them but it didn’t matter – she felt pain. She felt all of it and it made her feel alive.
She screamed. She screamed louder than she thought possible. The walls shook. They came into the room. They screeched at her to stop but her voice drowned them out. They tried to subdue her but when They touched her They were burned. Her voice created cracks in the wall, just like her skin. They spread through the walls, through the floor, through the ceiling. She brought it all tumbling down, and as the walls of her home fell away, so did They, disappearing within the cascading drywall until they were buried, until there was nothing but silence.
She stopped screaming. The silence rang in her ears. As the dust cleared, she looked around, and saw that the walls had given way to thick metal bars. She knew then that this was never meant to be a home. It was a cage.
But beyond that, she saw everything. She saw a beautiful night sky, with stars nestled in. She saw Outside and she laughed, she knew it was real and her heart was full. She raised her arms to feel the cool air and she looked at her skin. The cracks were still there. The night was not healing her.
In fact, the cracks were growing still. But it no longer hurt. She felt herself fall away and she felt one last pang of human emotion – dread. She was becoming light after all. She had found a world of darkness, but she had no place in it.
But she was wrong. She was not light. She was darkness. And she was powerful. She slipped through the bars and she became part of the night. She soared into the deep sky, across the trees, between every blade of grass and she felt, for the first time, alive.
She could never be caged again.
Photography courtesy of Jeff Tao.