Today, I am going to tell you the very brief, horrific (and admittedly whimsical) tale of a naughty little girl of my acquaintance and how she (for some time at least) lost the friendship of a near relative through a lie about wolves, radiators, and lights out! time. If you suspect that I know that little girl a bit better than I am letting on, so be it (heaven forbid you should think it is actually myself I am talking about, though they do say that confession is good for the soul).
Cast your mind back to the early 1960’s, when little girls still wore puffy petticoats with short skirts over them, and either had to have pigtails and ponytails or Shirley Temple curls (made arduously, if not “natural,” by painstaking mothers using bobby pins, at least on school nights, when everyone the next day had to believe the curls were genuine). Picture to yourself a weedy young imp who preferred to lie curled up with a good book all day, and hated being told to go outside and play (hey! that rhymes!). This young person of the female persuasion only liked going out to play or even playing inside with dolls, for that matter, when one or the other of her female cousins were around to make the game interesting.
Of course, Halloween comes in the fall of the year, and at that time, vampires, spooks, and werewolves are in the juvenile mind in abundance, not only for trick-or-treat, but even after, to spice up daily conversation and slumber parties. And, of course, to supply material for ghastly nightmares, which, once they’re over continue to supply a pleasurable frisson of fright, a harking back to horror.
Well, it so happened that this little girl had never acquired a fear of the dark. She was afraid of many things, but unlike her female cousins, had never become afraid of the dark, or required a night-light to sleep. But she was afraid of wolves. Not just werewolves, but the real animal, which she’d never seen except in books, nor was likely to. But her cousins slept with a night-light, because it was decreed that parents had different verdicts about what was the best way to deal with nightmares, and theirs had been known to give way more easily to the specific of waking only to find the light shining, and nothing wrong.
Now, our little girl, we’ll call her Beth (for nothing would induce me to reveal her true identity), abhorred a night-light. She was proud of not needing one, and when she had an occasional fright in the night, she simply stumbled out of bed and went to her parents’ room for comfort and reassurance, or better yet, and more often, called out for the long-suffering (and perhaps overindulgent) parent(s) to come to her. But one other thing that she was perhaps less rational about than even wolves was floor registers to radiator systems, the kind that have a few little slots in the floor that can be made to shut firmly by pushing the knob. Doing so of course shut off the warm air flow to the room, but it at least produced a firm surface which didn’t show a long, mysterious floor passageway below it, leading off into who knew where. Nevertheless, Beth had been warned to leave the floor vents open, and by and large she was a good child and not too terribly mischievous. She did tell the occasional untruth when it was advisable in her view, but as she usually got found out and punished, it didn’t often strike her as a viable option.
There was one notable occasion, however, when Beth found it to be the sine qua non, the absolutely necessary element, to add comfort to her existence. And this was when her cousin Bella came to stay the night. Now Bella was about a year or two younger, and wasn’t used to being lied to by Beth, so she was unprepared for what happened when the two girls were left alone for the night. Just as Bella had requested, there was a night-light burning to one side of the bedroom, and while Bella found this a fine method of reassurance in a strange place, Beth found it irksome and just knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink with it on. She had been warned by her mother to leave the light burning if Bella wanted it on, as a mark of courtesy to her guest, yet since it was her bedroom they were sleeping in, in her nice warm bed, and everything was beckoning for an evening of confidences and strange stories in the dark, she just knew there must be some other way to arrange things to her satisfaction.
Suddenly, it came to her in a flash of inspiration! She’d share with Bella one of her own nightmares that had happened once or twice to trouble her own sleep; only, she’d pretend that it had really happened, and surely Bella couldn’t refuse to allow her to turn off the light then! So, slowly and carefully, trying to suit her story to what Bella was likely to believe, Beth explained, with many a gesture and fearsome expression:
“Well, see, Bella, it’s not that I don’t want the light on; but at night, there’s a big, fat, mean ol’ wolf that comes up in the floor register, and if he can see us, he might eat us. Or tear us up to pieces, and then eat us. But if we have the lights all out, then he can’t even see where we are, and all we have to do is go to sleep, and he’ll leave us alone and go away.”
Bella’s eyes grew large. “But won’t he hear us talking?” she asked, her voice shaking with the faithful tremors of the new convert, gullible but still with questions. “Naw,” said Beth airily, “He never hears me when I sing to myself in the dark.” “Well, then, won’t he smell us?” Bella persisted, not liking this strange mutated creature of frightful fairy tales at all. “NO! He doesn’t smell; something is wrong with his nose.” “Well, can’t we just close the register and keep him out?” This example of independent thinking, which moreover had all the marks of her own previous thoughts on the subject, riled Beth. “NO! Not unless you want to be a baby and freeze all night, without any heat. I’m telling you, the only thing to do is to turn out the light. And we’d better hurry, because I think I hear him coming now!”
Had Beth had time to think the matter through at leisure, before her parents had sprung the surprise on her that she was expected to endure a night-light all night, she might probably have thought of a better solution. Because this one clearly had serious drawbacks, one of which was that Bella now wailed in a loud voice, “I want my mama! I want my mama, and I want to go home!” Why this lie? Especially since no wolf or even any self-respecting werewolf was likely to come up through a floor register in a modern house at night? Suffice it to say that this took place back in the 1960’s, when naughty children were still likely to be punished with at least a mild spanking, as well as having privileges taken away, and such methods were enough to reassure the erring Beth that whatever wolves lurked below the floorboards were best left unmentioned when company came. Bella went home still frightened, though in a huff as well for a few weeks when she was assured that Beth had only been “telling a story,” as such matters were euphemistically called by the children’s doting grandmother.
And there ends this whimsical (and true) tale of the fall season, my second early contribution to the Halloween holiday which will come next month. But you should know that if it’s ever a choice between being in the dark all night and managing to sleep, or sleeping with a light on in a room with a floor register, old memories have convinced me that the dark room is the best (and for good measure, I might even pile up extra blankets on the bed and shut the floor register as Bella suggested–after all, even a cousin who’s a ‘fraidy-cat can’t be all wrong!).