Creative Non-fiction

The Fieldstone Review (2017-2018)

In Sheep’s Clothing

Kym Cunningham

This story was previously published in Here Comes Everyone.

His fur glistens like the blood on his teeth. I am five years old and already I know what that tastes like. My throat closes iron-shut as bones crunch beneath impossibly large paws. He has killed so many already in this fatal game of hide-and-seek.

I am just now beginning to understand the rules: he sniffs out the bad, follows the scent of their crimes like a map—gurgled screams cut the air behind a bookshelf, a bloody X marks the spot under an oak table. I am crouched behind a treasure chest, filled with the still-beating hearts of the people I love, hiding amidst houses I haven’t lived in yet. The only sense I can make is the fear whispering through my bones, black and red—the colors of this nightmarescape. He has made me terrified of who I might become.

This dream followed me as I aged, leaping years and continents as if human concepts of time and distance held no importance for monsters. Every time I thought I was safe, falling asleep a little too easily, the dream would envelop me, swallowing me whole until I awoke in darkness amidst choked screams. It hasn’t changed since that first time, only now I recognize the house on Stonybrook Lane, the Parkway West High School auditorium, the Pennsylvania forest behind my first boyfriend’s house where my heels stuck in funeral mud—all the places I’d come to know later in life foreshadowed in a childhood nightmare. In the dream, I haven’t changed either: I am somehow both five and sixteen and twenty-eight years old, my identity collapsed into a singular self petrified at the monster I know lurks just around the darkened corner.

There are things we can’t explain in this life, no matter how hard we try—dreams that come to fruition, ironies no one else can see that stick in the back of our throats. If you’ve ever tried to explain this spider-web knowledge you know what I mean: the confused looks it engenders, the concern evident in eyes and voices who can’t understand why it bothers you that this dream as old as your memory conflates with your discovered love for wolves in the third grade, how this beast of your nightmares became the animal you most associate with—the fierce loyalty to family, the historical persecution, the paradoxical proximity to and separation from Western humanity—something inherent that spoke to the core of your identity which your imagination bastardized into monstrosity before you even realized this affinity. Experience has taught us that conversations are the key to understanding, that language has the power to bridge gaps in our consciousness, but the idea that two heads are better only works when the second can separate speaker from speech.

I described it to a stranger once, my shrink, to see if putting emotional distance in the communication would alter the reception, but he diagnosed it as a byproduct of anxiety and wrote it off on a prescription pad, trusting the panacea of man to cure what he believed was wrong with me. The pills stopped my dreams but made me too slow, halting my processing speed, my tongue and brain thick and heavy under the influence of science I neither liked nor understood. Amidst the fog of suppression, I realized I couldn’t pick and choose knowledge. I preferred psychological discomfort to chemically induced ignorance so I flushed the pills down the toilet and canceled my remaining appointments.

The dream came back in force. I tried to lean into it, searching my field of vision for clues about something, anything, that would lend meaning to this chaos of fear and prophesied memory. But it was the same, just like I was the same, waking in the dark with a scream only I could hear echoing in internal confinement.

And echo it did, nightmare memories permeating my waking hours, shadowing the back of my thoughts, split-second hallucinations flooding my senses sharper than reality: the dire curve of blood-laden teeth, the smell of gore and fear, the silence that comes right before pierced screams. I couldn’t control or ignore them, realizing the dream was as much a part of me as anything I had experienced. In fact, it was more: clearer than my memories, more consistent than existence, something that persisted through time and space. It was like watching a movie over and over, only I was an actor—sans agency—trapped in the action unfolding onscreen.

The television metaphor reminded me of the 15-minute Disney short, Peter and the Wolf, but what I remembered from this was neither the protagonist nor the plot. Instead, I remembered huddling in my childhood bed against the arctic snows of Finland, thinking of the wolf amidst the Russian darkness.

Certain that this wolf—the wolf of a children’s film—had overthrown my dreams, following me under the cover of darkness to awaken primordial fear and slaughter notions of security, I decided to re-watch the movie. I thought that if I knew the root of the dream, the inspiration behind the monster, I could put it to rest. I thought I would be free.

But watching the cartoon of my nightmare loom above Peter on my computer screen, I realized my dream version was both this wolf and not. My wolf was more monstrous in every conceivable way: he was more realistic, more calculating, more brutal; he had turned the nature of the hunt into a sadistic game of morality in which there was no escaping fate. My subconscious had given him a code to live by—kill the bad—impregnating him with manmade ideas of virtue and justice. He was more monstrous, then, precisely because I had made him more human.

Make no mistake: he was my creation, just as all monsters have arisen out of manmade invention—the creature we use to make our children stay in bed at night, the bipedal wolf we design to keep children away from strangers. The product of human fabrication, monsters abide by manmade codes, existing at the conflated juncture of Man and beast. Werewolves, vampires, zombies: they are both human and not, defying the kind of categorization that gives us a false sense of security, the belief in anthropocentric dominion over nature resultant from knowledge. They are the manifestation of our fear, humanity’s inability to control its creation after birth.

But this knowledge is too disturbing to face, so we placate our adult selves with the belief that werewolves and vampires are the stuff of myth, stories meant to frighten those terrified of imagination. We convince ourselves that our terror as children resulted from the possibility that monsters were real, that they hid in closets or slithered somewhere outside the shadows of our minds. In our alleged loss of innocence, we try to forget their most horrifying quality: humanity.

Because monsters are more than mere human creation; they are humanity. Trace lore to find history: werewolves are more palatable than medieval French aristocrats with a taste for slaughtering nameless boys, vampires less horrifying than the infamous Countess Elizabeth Báthory bathing in virgin blood to preserve youthful beauty. Go back less than a hundred years to find evidence of zombies, masses starved into the walking dead who know cannibalism to be the last resort for survival.

Modern psychology attempts to categorize these behaviors with diagnoses like antisocial personality disorder, believing that labeling serial killers as amoral gets us one step closer to truth and reality. Psychologists put Ted Bundy and Donald Henry Gaskins in boxes to be studied, as though science can unravel the mysteries of monsters.

But there is no mystery to monsters. They are our own creations, the products of abuse, rape, and neglect—often by their own progenitors—their seemingly unconscionable actions the very embodiment of humanity. As Frankenstein’s monster exacts vengeance upon its maker so too are we made to pay for our sins; our insistence that we are somehow inherently different from—more developed than—Nature becomes the very mechanism by which we ensure downfall, producing our own monstrous destruction.

Scholars say that we make our own monsters, but I think it’s simpler than that, so simple I tried to forget as an adult what I knew as a child: the fear that left me silently screaming in solitary darkness, terrified of my subconscious understanding.

I am the wolf. Humanity is its own monstrosity.

Creative Non-Fiction