In my dream the child was sitting on the floor in complete darkness, its small legs crossed over each other as it rested its head on its little fist, elbow on one thigh, dark hair spilling over its face in a careless mess as it looked me over with mild curiosity, staring through eyes that seemed to shine like a sky of stars in this dark place.
‘Are you ready to wake up?’ the child asked me, not moving from its position on the invisible ground.
Its voice echoed through the emptiness. Part of me wondered how I could see the two of us in this darkness as I replied, ‘I don’t know what you mean. Where are we?’
‘Where do you think?’ It looked bored already with the question, like it was asking me in advance not to ask it anything else. ‘If you just opened your silly eyes, things would become much clearer. You old people think you know a lot, but in the end, you miss out on more than we do.’
I walked a circle around the child, trying to find any sign of light or anything beyond this kid, but behind me it commented, ‘You know this place. I told you; you just need to open your eyes.’
I turned back to face it. ‘You seem to know a lot about things. Tell me.’
Innocent amusement played in its eyes. ‘I do know a lot. What would you like to know?’
Wondering what game the child was playing, I answered, ‘Like I first asked: what is this place?’
‘Hm.’ The child let out a hum and leaned back, hugging its legs with its arms. ‘Well, it’s here, isn’t it? What would you expect?’
‘I’d expect a helpful answer,’ I told it dryly. ‘Not cryptic ones.’
‘What’s cryptic? We’re here. You’re here. What more is there to it?’
‘Well,’ I said rather impatiently, ‘just how did we get here?’
The child considered this question. ‘I guess neither of us know that one.’
After a pause it added, ‘But the both of us are here, in any case, and that’s what’s important. Do you know why?’
‘Because we get to be here.’ The child swept an arm out to the darkness. ‘We get to be here.’
Its voice seemed to echo a bit more in the last repetition. I looked around at the sheer black walls and wondered what a child could possibly see in this empty existence, but when I turned my attention back, I saw it looking around with a curiously sweet face, like something was here that gave it a splendid joy that words wouldn’t suffice to express.
Something flared in my chest before it was extinguished.
‘Who are you?’ I asked the child, looking it over more thoroughly to for the first time notice its simple white clothes that looked just a tad large on its thin, yet not hungry, frame.
‘I’m me.’ The child laughed a little, like this should be obvious, before turning my own question back on me in a taunting, ‘And who are you?’
I shrugged. ‘How can I know in a void like this?’
‘Void?’ The child cocked its head. ‘Why do you call it that? What’s a void?’
‘This.’ It was my turn to gesture at the pitch darkness surrounding us. ‘Emptiness. Nothingness. Meaningless. A void.’
‘A void,’ the child repeated slowly. ‘But what is nothing?’
‘The opposite of everything. It’s darkness. It’s a hole. It’s where there is nothing.’
‘But there is air in a hole,’ the child said in a tone of finality. ‘That’s not nothing.’
‘But there are places where there is nothing, not even air, like outer space.’
‘There are stars in outer space.’
‘Not everywhere in outer space.’
‘How do you know there’s not air if you can’t see the non air?’
It took me a moment to realise the child meant you can’t see something that’s invisible, and therefore cannot see the absence of said invisible existence. I was unwilling to have this unnecessary conversation at this time, so I resigned, ‘You must be right. Of course there is nothing. Except we happen to be right in the middle of it.’
Again the child cocked its head in confusion. ‘But you said there is no nothing. We must be in something then.’
I couldn’t help but laugh and pace a couple steps in vain. ‘Sure. Of course.’
The child watched me walk for a minute or so in silence while I wondered again how we had got here and for what reason. It didn’t occur to me that it might be a dream; however my dreams turn out, I rarely think of them as dreams; they must always be reality. What was the point of this existence? The child left me alone to my thoughts so that I almost forgot it existed until it finally asked, ‘If we are in nothing, why are you still moving like you have somewhere to go?’
‘Well,’ I retorted, ‘I have to do something, don’t I?’
‘But do you enjoy it?’ the child asked.
‘No, must I?’
‘Well,’ the child mused, ‘why do it if you don’t enjoy it?’
I snorted. ‘What would you have me do, sit down with you and wait for nothing for an eternity? Might as well just do something to kill time.’
‘Killing is bad.’ The child moved its foot, and I heard a little clanking noise as it added, ‘And I’m not waiting. I think you are, but you’re pretending not to.’
‘What gives you that idea?’ I huffed, before looking down to see the source of the clanging and for the first time seeing a chain wrapped around the child’s ankle which shackled the child to the ground.
‘What is that?’ I asked, pointing at the chain.
The child looked at it. ‘It’s a chain, silly.’
‘Yes, but why? Who did this?’
The child looked up into the black sky and said, ‘I told you; if you’re ready to wake up, just open your eyes.’
I stared in bewilderment at the child before something prompted me to look down at my hands to find a small key I already knew was the one for the child’s bonds, but how did it get here? The child was looking at me again, waiting, and I frowned back, trying to make sense of this, when it told me, ‘You old people think you know so much. You just don’t ask the right questions.’
‘Why do I have this?’ I demanded, to which the child almost immediately returned, ‘What we both really want to know is, what are you going to do with it?’
‘You said you’re killing time.’ The first beginnings of resentment were beginning to creep into the child’s voice. ‘Would you like to wake up now?’
‘Why do you seem to know everything? What is this place?’
‘I don’t know everything,’ the child said impatiently. ‘No one does. I’m just okay not knowing everything, and you’re not. But please, what are you going to do with the key?’
I glanced down at the key again, then back up at the child. I still had no idea who this person was, but even then, what had either of us to lose in a place like this? It wasn’t even mercy or pity that moved my hand in the end; it was the sheer nothingness of anything else to do, the sheer emptiness that had given me one task that I grudgingly fulfilled.
The chains fell to the ground. The child stood and reached up.
I hesitated, then knelt in front of the child, who reached up on tip toe to put small hands around my neck.
‘Wake up,’ it whispered tenderly, and the blindfold fell off; and I found myself blinking in the orange light to see the beginnings of the sunrise begin to caress the tips of the mountains as the black cloth fluttered to the ground at the chains by my feet, and the crumbling remains of a dirty mask melted in the sweet dew of the morning air.
I am the child.