What inspires me most? Inspired people. Alice Markham-Cantor is one of the brightest, most creative, and dedicated young writers I know. In her experimental story, The Night, Alice explores the smallness of a moment–how feelings can shift in seconds and how affected we become when we begin to notice the world around us.
To find out more about the workshop in which Alice wrote The Night, please visit: www.WritopiaLab.org. Writopia Lab is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization that holds creative writing workshops for kids ages 8-18 in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, L.A., and D.C.
Rachel Ephraim is Founder and Director of FreeBird Workshops.
You look around, tiny, crystalline snowflakes falling softly on your face. You glance up to the dusky purple star-strewn sky, to the perfect full moon, round as your wide-open eyes. This is a night of whispers, of dreams.
You walk down the sidewalk, old blue and gray sneakers sifting the thin layer of shadowed white fluff that lands softly on the cement. You glance back over your shoulder every so often, not knowing quite why you do it. The sounds of the busy New York avenue behind you begin to fade, muffled by the snow as you turn down a side street.
The trees are bare, their leaves fallen to the ground months ago. The cars parked on the street and the brownstone houses loom up on either side of you, huge shadows pricked with pinpoints of light, windows. Reflections of that light tinkle off the tiny icicle dangling from an overhanging branch. It snags your hair as you pass underneath the shadow-dappled bough.
It is beautiful, you realize, but also forbidding, cold, untouchable in the still. The night is calling to the wild, and you can hear it. A tight feeling rises in your chest, and you shiver.
You have no reason to be afraid, you know that. And yet you cannot stop the slow creep of fear of the unknown. Your breath accelerates, sending frosty puffs out into the smooth, dark air. Your breath does not even touch the quiet. You are not important enough for that. Compared to the world, the universe, the night, you are tiny, completely inconsequential.
Once panic begins to rise, it is almost impossible to stop. Your body tenses. You glance around wildly, at the same time trying not to move your head too much, trying not to attract any attention. The fact that there is no one else on the street doesn’t matter; the skeletal shadows cast by the trees and the houses on the moonlit snow have suddenly turned into monsters, demons, creatures of another time and place who are ready to rear up and tear the fragile world to pieces.
When you were young, your parents told you, ‘Don’t be afraid of the dark’. And you weren’t, not usually. But there is a difference, you realize, between the dark, and the night. The dark is simply the absence of light – it obscures your vision now as you peer into the shadows, sure that with your next step you will fall into an endless abyss. But the night, the night is something else entirely. The night is unfamiliar. Each night is something new. The night unlocks things from somewhere else, things you imagined as a child. You do not belong in the night, and you know it.
The panic is rising, the beauty of the snow-filled world evaporating. You raise your foot to run, to dash away from the still, untouchable night, then freeze in mid-step. In that single moment of terrified decision – to either succumb to your frightened thoughts, or defy them – you somehow know without a doubt that there is one other option. If you ride the fear, you realize, ride the rolling wave just as you used to do when you were six, playing at the beach, then it cannot touch you. If you accept the darkness, the night, then it will no longer frighten you. Fire cannot burn fire. Ice does not freeze ice.
That path has been there all along, you know that, but you were simply unwilling to see it. You do not like to depend on anyone else. You don’t like the idea of allowing something into your self, in fear that it might take you over. That you might cease to be you.
But you will still be you, you realize. It is like the snow that is still dancing through the calm darkness. If you were to open your mouth and catch a flake on your tongue, the ice will melt and become water, which will soak into you, eventually becoming part of your body. By letting the snowflake in, you do not become it. The snow becomes part of you.
It becomes clear. You must break bread with your fears, open yourself to them, and they will no longer trouble you.
You take a breath, the panic receding. It seems loud at first, booming against the silence of the moonlight, but becomes quieter, sinking into the soft, hushed night. It is no longer untouchable. You are part of it now, one of the tiny pieces that make up the greater puzzle.
You know that you should take a step, and another, that you should walk down the sidewalk towards the lights in the windows, the glowing squares of golden light that mark your home. But you don’t. You stay a moment and lift your face to the moon, sneakers planted firmly in the snow, hair falling off of your face, cold hands stuffed in your jacket pockets. You close your eyes and breathe in, listening and becoming the quiet of the night.