Tom Hansen teaches writing and literature courses at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The Christian Science Monitor, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Paris Review, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Paul was eight and Chris was five. Each night I took them down stairs, tucked them in, and read them a bedtime storyusually an innocuous tale from one of the dozens of children's books we had. After a few months of this, I started reading them Grimm's fairy tales, as much for my entertainment as for theirs. By the time we had finished Grimm's, they made a special request.
"Tell us a spooky story, where somebody gets lost in a deep, dark forest."
"With ghosts and scary people. Things like that."
"Me, toobut no snakes or spiders."
Every night after that, right there on the spot, I made up a new story. One was about an auto-mechanic, Frank N. Stein, who tried to make a living monster-car out of used parts stolen fromwhere else?an automobile graveyard. One was about Drac-Man, who slept in coffins all day and broke into people's houses at night in order to steal tomato juice out of their refrigerators. One was about a man who married a woman because she had an arm made of pure gold. I plagiarized shamelessly, but it worked. They never grew tired of hearing these old chestnuts I tried to tame down. Sometimes they asked for the same story five or six nights in a row. I thought they would grow tired of all that repetition. Instead, the opposite happened. Knowing what was coming next, they held their breath and waited. Their dark eyes glistened. I lowered my voice until it became a barely audible whisper: "Give me back my golden arm." Then, after a suitable pause, I shrieked, "Take it!"
Sometimes they laughed and sometimes they cried, but always they loved these stories.
For some reason, my wife didn't feel the same way. I would be sorry, she said. The boys would start hearing strange noises outside. They would see ominous shadows creeping down the bedroom walls. They would be afraid of the dark. What then?
Why did I have to marry such a levelheaded woman? She was right. I could see that. So I stopped telling spooky stories and went back to fairy tales and pirate stories and talking animals and puppets who want to be real boys and the like. But it was too late. Things were already starting to happen.
One night I heard crying downstairs. It was half an hour after bedtime. Earlier, I had told them some of Alice's adventures in Wonderland. What could be wrong? Had one of them fallen out of bed?
I went downstairs. There was Chris, crying. Paul was lying a few feet away in his bed. His eyes were closed, but I could tell he was awake. I asked them what was wrong. Chris sobbed a few times, trying to say something. Finally, I turned to Paul and put my hand on his head. His eyes opened. "Paul, what's the matter with Chris?"
"We saw a monster rabbit."
"A `monster' rabbit? Outside the window?"
"I think it was over there," he said, pointing to the door.
"Outside your bedroom door? In the hallway?"
"I didn't see it," Chris offered. "But Paul saw its shadow run under my bed."
"Why don't we look?" I suggested.
"NO! I'm afraid." Chris started crying again.
"Paul said it went down a big, dark hole under my bed."
"Shall we get the flashlight and look?"
"No. If we look, my bed might fall down a hole."
"But, honey. It's only a rabbit."
"I don't like rabbits. They have big teeth." Then he gave in, sobbing so hard he shook the bed.
Later that week it escalated. Instead of rabbits under their beds, it was Drac-Men driving monster-cars that made noises like hungry lions. I made the mistake of trying to reason with them.
"I want you boys to listen to what I tell you. OK?"
Of course, it was OK. As long as I was down there talking with them, they were safe from bed-swallowing holes and cars roaring like lions. Not to mention those carnivorous rabbits.
"Do you boys remember the time when you first asked me to tell you spooky stories at bedtime?"
They nodded their heads.
"Do you also remember that you wanted to hear the same stories over and over five or six nights in a row?"
They nodded again.
"And can you remember one more thing?but you have to try really hard. Can you remember this: that you never worried about monsters or heard them moving around until I after read you fairy tales about wicked queens who said, "Cut out her heart!" and gave away poison apples? Or told you stories like the one about the golden arm?"
Both heads slowly moved up and down.
"Do you know why you never thought about monsters before then?"
This time the heads moved back and forth.
"I'll tell you why. Because monsters don't live in the real world like we do. They only live in books and fairy tales. That's why you never worried about them until I read you those stories."
I paused to let this sink in. "Do you boys know what that means?"
Paul had it all figured out.
"I know. It means they're not real."
"That's right. They're only paper monsters. They're only words written on paper. They can't crawl under your bed or hide in your closet. They can't even come in your house. Do you know why? Because they are stuck inside books, like the words stuck on the pages of books. Do you see what I mean?"
"So let's just forget about monster stories for a while. OK?"
"OK by me."
Then I tucked them in and kissed them goodnight. And so it was that reason triumphed over superstitious fear. For almost twenty-five minutes. That's all the longer reason can hold monsters at bay.
For the next week or two I tried a different approach. Reason was too abstract. I needed something more concrete. Out with reason! In with demonstration! I would show them there were no monsters. Each time they called me down to their room to listen to a strange noise or look at an ominous shadow, I got them out of bed and patiently helped them search until we located the source of the disturbance. Some nights we spent almost an hour in our investigations. The boys were not at all put off by this. As long as we were harking and prying into corners, searching for footprints or claw scratches left by monsters, they were perfectly happy. But once they were back in bed, they were afraid. Their fear was genuine. And so was my exasperation.
"This is ridiculous," I told my wife. "I know we can't find any monster evidence and so do the boys. To me that proves there are no monsters. To Paul and Chris it proves that monsters are a whole lot smarter than their father. I don't know how much more of this I can take. There must be some way to solve this problem. But what?"
And just like that, she told me.
"Go ask them."
"It's their problem, even though you created it. So let them try to solve it."
The next night, shortly after I tucked them in bed and told them an old Ojibwa story about how the bear lost his tail and kissed them goodnight and told them to cover up and sleep tight, and then went upstairs, they called me to come back down. It was the monsters, again.
"Maybe we should go check in the basement?" Paul offered. "Not me. It's too cobwebby down there. Besides, I'm barefoot. What if we step on mouse poop?"
"Then you stay here. Dad and I will go down."
"Not tonight, guys. No more hunting for monsters. We're not going to find them. Never in a million years. They're just too smart for us."
They looked at each other, surprised. Was this really their father?
"What if they come back?"
"I don't know."
"What if we keep hearing scratching sounds outside the window?"
"I don't know."
"Will you sleep down here with us tonight?"
I pretended to think about it.
"Then what can we do?"
I pretended to think again. For well over a minute.
"Well," I said, thoughtfully. "Maybe you boys should talk about that."
"About monsters?" Chris wondered.
"No. About what you can do."
"About monsters?" he wondered, again.
They looked at each other.
"Do you want us to think of a way to trap them?" Paul was willing to give it a try.
"No. There might be too many of them. Where could we keep them? What would we feed them? I think you boys need to find a way to make them leave us alone, don't you?"
"So do I, boys. So what's your plan?"
"Dad! You need to help us find one!"
"No. I'm not the right person. I never hear them or see their shadows. You guys are the ones who notice all those things. So you are the ones who have to invent the plan."
They thought about that for a moment.
"I don't like rabbit shadows." Chris' voice quivered.
There was a pause. Then Paul spoke quietly.
"I made that part up. About the rabbit, I mean."
Chris and I looked at each other. Neither one of us spoke.
"Well, I was thinking about the Alice in Wonderland rabbit and that rabbit hole he ran down. So I told Chris there was a rabbit hole under his bed."
"Really?" Chris was relieved.
"I thought it would be fun to say there was a monster rabbit in the house, so I made one up." He paused.
He took a deep breath.
He looked at me, waiting, wondering what I would do. I thought for a moment, wondering what I should do. Then I decided.
"Thank you, Paul."
"Thank you for telling us."
He knew I wasn't going to punish him. He should have been happy but wasn't. Something was weighing him down. What could it be?
Then several things happened at once. Chris stared at Paul for a few seconds, then, in a whisper, he said, "Oh, no." They knew something I didn't, but what? Then, without even thinking, I knew, too.
"Tell us," I said to Paul.
"Tell us the rest."
Chris started crying.
"I don't want to say it."
"Why not, Paul?"
"You'll just think it's another lie."
"No. I won't. I promise."
Then I said it for him. For both of them. I said it for all of us downstairs in the dark of our childhood bedrooms. I told the horrible truth every child knows.
"The ones you hear moving around outside the house. The ones that wait until I tuck you in and go upstairs. They're real, aren't they?"
At this point, the three of us were close to tears. Now, at last, they knew: we were all in this together. Like soldiers of light outnumbered by the hideous forces of darkness, we would stand side by side, fighting our terrible enemies. Then we broke out laughing like condemned men who are given good news: they will all be hanged en mass, not one at a time. I have never felt as close to my sons as I did at that one shining moment.
As for the monsters, we disposed of them without risk to life or limb. The boys came up with a plan so clever and yet so childish, so absurdly logicalwhat can I say? It was a stroke of genius.
They told me to make a sign. Block letters printed in black crayon on white paper. Three simple words: NO MONSTERS ALLOWED! Each night, as the boys went downstairs to undress and get ready for bed, we made a brief stop at the front door. We taped that sign outside. It stayed there all night long. The monsters never returned. Lucky for us they were literate and law-abiding monsters.
Two weeks later, I heard something I had not heard before. At first I couldn't imagine what it was. Then I supposed it was some kind of soft animal sound, perhaps a sort of mewing. Then, as I walked slowly downstairs, I knew. It was Paul. Crying. But this time it was different. What I heard was the sound of a small human being absolutely alone. His brother was asleep a few feet away. He cried quietly, not wanting to wake Chris up. He wasn't crying for help. He was beyond all that.
I walked slowly into the bedroom. He was lying on his back. His arms were folded on his chest. His eyes were open. He was staring up toward the ceiling. Into the darkness.
"Paul? What's wrong?"
"I don't want to die!"
"What!Say that again."
"I don't want to die."
At first I floundered, not quite sure what he meant. Then I realized. I understood what the monsters really were. Fearful portents sent from within. Harbingers of a terrible truth already eating its way into his heart. I understood that at the ripe old age of eight, my son was no longer a child. He had discovered the ultimate fact of life.
He kept repeating it, softly sobbing, "I don't want to die. I don't want to die."
What could I tell him? Nothing.
What could I do to make him feel better? Nothing.
Then, without thinking, I did the only perfect thing I have ever done in my life. Without even knowing I was about to do it, I put my arms around him and held him close and said, "Neither do I.. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I don't."
Then I started crying, too. There we were: two boys alone in the deep, dark forest. There was no way out, and we knew it. All we had was each other.