She was the Universe, by Helen de Búrca


At first, the summer seemed promising. From the moment the clocks changed, it was sunny and warm. We had endured a spate of wet cool summers in the previous years, so everyone made the most of it. From April onwards, people were sporting tan-lines.

Nobody took it seriously at first when we started hearing media reports saying that the days were getting longer twice as quickly as usual. Before long, however, we could see the unusual length of the days for ourselves. Nobody could explain it; almost every morning that summer, I listened to interviews on our national radio station with environmental experts and climatologists and academics, and it was clear that, despite all the long words they used, they were as flummoxed as anyone.

Of course there were dire predictions of droughts and warnings that the planet was overheating even more quickly than usual, but despite all that, the first few weeks of constant sun felt like a holiday, and the long days initially gave us the illusion that we had more leisure time than usual. In between the apocalyptic newsflashes showing fires spreading across forests and crops drying to a crisp were videos of large-scale parties breaking out spontaneously in various parts of the northern hemisphere. Flash festivals became a feature of that summer, with artists both famous and unknown turning to launch unplanned gigs that continued as long as the daylight, which, by mid-May, was practically the full twenty-four hours. We were all showing up for work in increasingly weird buzzing states after spending sleepless nights sunbathing and dancing in parks or by the lake. The divisions between one day and the next became increasingly tenuous.

By June everything was parched. Anything that should have been green was a withered yellowy-brown and there were warnings not to use water needlessly. And everyone had run out of energy. The thing was, even if you didn’t go dancing during the long bright nights – and there was still a hard core of people that did, although increasingly they stood out for their twitchy, erratic behaviour – it was hard to sleep because it just didn’t get dark anymore. The shops quickly ran out not only of electric fans, but also of shutters and dark curtains. I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a set of thick black curtains fairly early on, but the problem was that they tended to hold in the heat even as they held out the light, and that was almost bad as trying to sleep through constant blinding daylight.

By July, most people had started to look like zombies. The news was full of stories of people cracking up, running amok in supermarkets swinging carving knives they had ripped from the packaging with their teeth, or accelerating at zebra crossings and mowing down pedestrians. Even the radio and TV presenters had started to get snippy with each other. It wasn’t hard to believe even the most extreme stories, because everywhere I saw violent arguments flaring up for trivial reasons, and cars being abandoned haphazardly on roadsides instead of being carefully parked in driveways, and people staggering about with red eyes and what we had started to call midnight sunburns, looking as if they would either tear out your throat or fall asleep on their feet – or both – given half a chance.

I’ve never been someone who slept a lot, so all of this didn’t bother me quite as much as a lot of the people I knew. By July, I did find that I was becoming more irritable and distracted than usual, but then I met Anna.

It was on a Saturday afternoon in July. I’ve always liked observing people, and that summer was particularly fascinating. The park near my flat was a great place for it, because it was hilly and offered numerous viewpoints. Although a lot of people had started to hide indoors from the constant sun, others still came out in droves to soak it up even as they complained that they couldn’t wait for the autumn and short, cool days, although beneath the blaze of that endless summer day, autumn seemed increasingly like a fantasy.

There was spot on a rise which I usually had to myself when I came out to people-watch, simply because it was at the top of a rather steep hill and most park-goers could not generally be bothered with it. On that particular July day, however, when I got there, I discovered that someone else was already installed there. I sat down and looked over.

She was about my age, with very pale skin and big round sunglasses with very dark lenses. She was lying on a pashmina that she had spread out on the parched grass, and as I observed her, it began to seem, unbelievably, that she was asleep, although because of the sunglasses I couldn’t be sure. Her skin was like milk, almost bluish, and so transparent that I could see the underlying veins. She looked as if her skin had absorbed the sunlight and, instead of tanning or burning, was simply radiating it back out in a soft glow.

Even so, as the minutes passed, I found myself worrying that she would end up burning or with sunstroke. Eventually, I leaned over and touched her shoulder. She gave a little start and said, “Mmmh?” and leaned up on her elbow, pushing the glasses up onto her head and squinting around at me, blinking.

“Sorry,” I said. “I was worried you’d get sunburned.”

She smiled at me, and suddenly I thought her the most luminous girl I had ever seen.

“That’s really nice of you,” she said. “You’re right, I’m not careful enough.”

I looked closer and realised that she seemed unusually fresh. The whites of her eyes were clear, without the deep shadows under them that had become so commonplace. She actually looked rested.

“Sorry to be nosy,” I said, “but… you looked like you were asleep. Is that possible?” It may seem like a strange question now, but it’s important to understand that sleep had become the most common topic of conversation in those nightless days. She smiled again.

“Don’t tell anyone, because someone will probably stab me, but… I have no problems sleeping when it’s bright. Actually, I prefer it. It’s babyish, but I’m totally terrified of the dark, and even though it’s weird that it hasn’t been dark for so long, I’m kind of enjoying it. I know that’s really selfish…”

I said, “I understand – I find darkness depressing. Even if these days are unusual and worrying, they’re also amazing.”

We smiled at each other, and then I asked her if she wanted to get an ice cream at the bar in the middle of the park. She said yes, and down we went, and there we stayed, drinking warmish beer once we had finished our ice creams, until the bar closed. It was hard to be sure, given that it was still bright and hot by the time we were told, rather irritably, to leave, but it was probably around one o’clock in the morning. At such an ungodly hour, as Anna laughingly called it, there was nothing else for her to do but come home with me.

After that, I didn’t care about other people’s bad moods, and I was grateful for the endless days, for the longer they lasted, the more time I felt I had with her.

But then the nights started to return.

One morning in September, I was drying off after my shower and Anna was making coffee in the kitchen – by then, she had basically moved in, and only went back to her own flat when she needed to pick up some fresh clothes. We had even been talking about finding a place together. I switched on the radio to catch the morning news, as usual. The presenter, usually a very sober woman, sounded as if she had been inhaling helium, and it took me a moment to take in what she was saying.

“Last night, for the first time since last May, the world experienced two minutes of darkness, between three and three-oh-two a.m. Analysts are considering the phenomenon, and hopes are widespread that we may soon be able to look forward to a return of normal ratios of day and night!”

I called out to Anna, “Did you notice that there were two minutes of darkness last night?” and she called back, “No, thank goodness!”

Maybe there was something in her voice when she said that; perhaps it was too vehement, too relieved. Maybe I should have paid more attention, but I didn’t. We simply got ready as usual, kissed each other goodbye and went our separate ways to work.

Of course, I thought about it all day, that rumour of darkness. It was impossible not to, since it was all anybody could talk about, and by then I was as sick as anyone of the constant heat and blaze. I was tempted to stay up until 3 a.m. that night, just to see if it happened again, but by 1.30 a.m. my eyes were scratchy with tiredness and I had to go and seek refuge in my stifling darkened room.

Usually we went to bed together initially, but Anna always became edgy and restless as soon as I closed the black curtains. She claimed that the curtains made the room so stuffy that she could not sleep, and that the curtains made her feel claustrophobic. At some stage every night – I suppose she waited until I fell asleep, for I never saw her leaving – she went out to the sitting room to sleep on the couch under the wide-open window, in full sunlight, just as I had seen her the first time.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. After that news report, the darkness returned even faster than it had departed. Night after night, it swallowed up the light, like a wolf caged up and starved for months and then released into a flock of sheep.

At first everyone was euphoric with the relief of being able to sleep again for the duration of a proper night, but only a few weeks later, the days had already become far shorter than was usual for the season. As before, all sorts of specialists tried to find causes for the lengthening darkness, throwing around words like trajectories and meteor showers and sunspots, but they were obviously all just trying to cover up the fact that they were clueless, and their inability to explain the increasingly interminable nights made people even more nervous about what was happening.

Even so, the transition from all light to all dark was not so bad at first. We all enjoyed being able to sleep again without suffocating behind our dark curtains. It was nice to curl up for a cosy evening on the couch instead of feeling that frantic obligation to be outside trying to enjoy the bright evenings. As the nights closed in further, there was a boom in the number of restaurant-goers, especially to places with comfort food like fondue or pizza.

It wasn’t just the dark, though; it was the cold, too. As each day grew shorter than the last, the cold began to grind into us. It was probably less easy to bear simply because for six months we had been obliged to accustom ourselves to extreme heat – and the transition was so abrupt. Also, after the first full nights of voluptuous slumber, a lot of people began to be affected by a sort of sleep blight, apparently brought on by the constant darkness. It was as if they not just needed to catch up on the rest they had lost during the interminable summer, but as if they could not wake up properly. As with the long days, because I’m not really a big sleeper, it didn’t affect me as intensely nor as quickly as other people, but I did notice increasingly how friends had begun to nod off in between courses in restaurants, and colleagues who were invariably punctual would arrive not simply minutes but hours late, looking bleary and confused due to having slept late, and even then would doze off during the day, in meetings or even in the middle of face-to-face conversations.

Very soon, there were official calls to ration power, simply because everyone was using far more light and heat than usual – not only out of necessity, but for comfort too, because the constant darkness had begun to feel insidious and malevolent, as if it was something that would creep into our homes and workplaces if we were not attentive. Once the rationing started, other things began to disintegrate.

People had gone a little crazy during the long days, but the long nights turned out to be even worse. I came across a poem around then that seemed strangely prescient. I had been looking for a love poem to send Anna, as I did every day to prove to her that I was thinking of her, and I had been checking out various Romantic poets to see what might be suitable, and had come across Lord Byron. Of course I didn’t send “Darkness” to her, as even then I was aware that she would probably find it creepy, but I kept rereading it and being astonished all over again each time by how close to our reality were lines like, “Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day”.

Bit by bit, as the night lasted non-stop through November and December, people began to take their children out of the unheated schools. Once the streetlights were switched off, windows were broken and buildings and cars were vandalised. We began to be vulnerable to increasingly vicious attacks, even in streets that had never been dangerous before, during rush hour and in crowded places. Gangs calling themselves – with great originality – “Vamps” took over patches of the cities, and not just the traditionally tough areas, either. The more evident the Vamps became, the less people went out, and of course the fewer “normal” people were around, the worse things got for the victims of attacks. It became a common topic of conversation to exchange fears of things breaking down in our homes; we all hoped against hope that our toilets and fridges would just keep on working properly, because if we had problems, either nobody would dare to come and fix them, or if someone did come, you couldn’t be sure who they were and what their real intentions were likely to be. Stories of horrific crimes abounded, and each one felt closer to home than the last.

From the moment the darkness began to return, Anna started to become increasingly withdrawn and inert. As the nights grew longer – even at the beginning, when the darkness only lasted a couple of hours – she began to invent excuses not to leave my flat. Her skin grew even paler and began to look greyish and sickly, like a root that has never seen the light. As time passed and the hours of darkness lengthened, she spent more and more time just sitting about, virtually immobile, her skin dull and her eyes sunken back into her skull.

I discovered that she had stopped even bothering to go to work when I returned home from work myself and came across a letter from her employer, crumpled and discarded on the kitchen table, in which they said they had no choice but to fire her for her continued absenteeism. That was confusing – I had had no idea – but above all I was furious at what I saw as her thoughtlessness and laziness. After all, none of us wanted to go out, but there was no choice, because the price of electricity was rising like fireworks. I didn’t have any spare cash to help her out while she looked for another job, and in any case I didn’t see why I should help. Above all, I felt that she owed me a very good explanation.

I found her huddled in bed under a blaze of light: she had taken every portable lamp she could find around the apartment and had plugged them all in, every single one. By then, because of the rationing, it had become illegal even to use that much electricity at one time. Although she basically never left the flat anymore, it was still in my name, and if there were to be any problems, they would fall squarely on my shoulders.

I can’t even begin to describe how furious I was by that stage. I started going around the room, switching off the lights, but I had only extinguished two or three of them when she gave a terrified yowl, like an animal. I threw an enraged glance in her direction and then just stopped and stared at her.

There was no trace of the luminous girl I had met only months before. What stared back at me from within the crumple of the duvet resembled nothing so much as the pinched face of a cadaver. In that instant, all of my former ardour was transformed into revulsion.

It wasn’t hard to tell her to leave, because I didn’t feel that I knew her anymore. What was hard was actually making her do it. Even though – of course – I didn’t ask her to leave until the couple of hours when the streetlamps were switched on, she was so terrified to leave the paltry light of the apartment that I literally had to push her out the door and slam the door on her scrabbling fingers. It was like some nightmarish video game, with her clinging to my arm in an approximation of her former affection – that had dwindled along with the sunlight – and begging me to let her stay. She seemed sticky as a cobweb and macabre as a spider. As I finally closed the door on her, I was not in the least tempted to change my mind.

I kept waking up for a long time after that, thinking that I could hear her mewling and scratching at the door to my flat. I only dreamed of her once, though. In my dream, she was as she had been on the first day I saw her, a beautiful girl who radiated light, but when I woke from that vision, all I could remember was what she had become by the last day, a thing hardly human, like some sort of greyish grub.

I woke from that particular dream at 3 p.m. on a Saturday. I didn’t know what had wakened me until I saw a faint but growing light coming through my uncurtained window. I sat up and, for the first time in months, I saw the sun. For about a minute, it continued to rise above the horizon. Then, slowly, it fell inexorably back into the sea of darkness.

Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her prize-winning stories have been published in the Sunday Business Post, the Nivalis 2016 Anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2017, the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts, Bare Fiction Magazine, Occulum, Wasafiri, Number Eleven Magazine, the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association (HISSAC), the Hysteria 6 Anthology and The Ham Free Press. She tweets @helenlechat

[Reference: “Darkness” by Lord Byron ]

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