One of my earliest and fondest memories of my Grandmother is playing Slumbering Child. The rules were simple: my sister and I would lie in our beds and pretend to sleep while Grandma tried everything from tickling to bribery to trick us into revealing we were awake. When we got older, Grandma told us stories of creatures that would come in the night and devour us if they knew we were awake.
“Practice makes perfect,” she would always say, “and you both certainly need a lot more practice”.
We would just giggle and close our eyes to start the next round; we were far too old to believe in monsters by then.
It was something I remembered fondly after Grandma’s passing, until I moved into my own apartment after college. I had shared a room with my sister while living at home, and then with various roommates all through college, so my first night in my new home was also my first night entirely alone. Despite my excitement at being on my own, a long day of moving and unpacking finally got the better of me and I didn’t even bother to pull back the blankets before flopping onto my bed and instantly falling asleep.
I awoke some time later, filled with inexplicable terror without truly knowing why. Perhaps out of habit, I stayed perfectly still while I tried to discern exactly what had thrust me from such a deep slumber and left my heart trying to escape my chest. Just as my pulse began to return to something akin to normal, I felt something graze across the bottom of my bare foot. I froze, barely remembering to breathe. As the sensation itched its way farther up my bare calf, I heard a rasping breath from somewhere above me and only my grandmother’s warnings echoing from somewhere deep within my memory kept me from crying out.
Another harsh breath, followed by a whisper like dry and crumbling earth,
“Are you sleeping, little one?”
Talon-like fingers sharply seized my shoulder and it took everything I am not to cry out from the pain and fear.
“Are you waking, child?”
Hot, rancid breath filled my lungs; spittle and bits of something warm and damp landed over the exposed side of my face. With my eyes still closed, I tried to remember the lessons of Grandma’s games. “Be still, breathe deeply, find something to focus on” Grandma would always say.
“Are you fearful, girl?”
Be still. I tried to relax every muscle in my body slowly.
“Do you slumber, little one?!”
Breathe deeply. I filled my lungs, exhaling deliberately.
“Do you awaken, Child?!”
Find something to focus on. I recalled the memory of my grandmother’s voice as she sang forgotten ballads and chanted mysterious rhymes each night before bed.
“LOOK AT ME, GIRL!”
The room filled with alarming heat as the thing continued to shriek wordlessly, and then, silence. I continued to lie, still and silent, until I was certain whatever the being was had finally gone. Only then did I finally begin to sob. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I awoke to sunlight streaming through my window. My shoulder was stiff and covered with angry bruises, an unwelcome reminder of my torment.
Over the years, I’ve learned it only comes if I am totally alone when I sleep. Every encounter is different, but similar; though, luckily, my grandma’s lessons stuck with me and I’ve never had to find out what happens if it knows I’m awake. Slumbering Child is my son’s favorite game already. After all, Grandma was right: practice does make perfect.