By Chong You Zhen
The Dark Child came awake much like how days awaken.
The Dark Child yawned, so wide that he could have swallowed a dozen red supergiants. The nearest stars barely felt his cold when he stretched to wake his body.
He lay in the midst of eons of swirling galaxies: a Child who knew no mother except for the stretches of void creeping among light and life. He was a Child who knew no brother, sister or neighbour.
The world did not care for the Dark Child. It almost never touched him and certainly never saw him these days. The Dark Child had been more visible a long time ago, before light burst across stretches of space that had just been made up.
He had had acquaintances, people who had asked how he felt about his darkness, passers-by who had quickly moved on to explore other spaces, times and existences. They never meant any malice. That did not mean he liked them much.
By now, those travellers had rolled far, far away, and space itself had stretched to put more distance between them and the Dark Child. He was not expecting another visitor for a long time. It contented him.
The Dark Child has not grown since he first knew himself. Nor has he shrunk. Of course, he could exert himself and stretch all through the visible darkness. In fact, he had tried it once, only to find that the darkness never ended. He became bored, so he remained a Child.
As a Child he was observant. He knew time slowed when he paid attention, so whenever he was not asleep, he spent his attention on things aside from time. He knew that things were drawn to him (especially his mouth when it was open). There was once he ate a cluster of stars by accident after he had drifted in his sleep and yawned without thinking. It had got him all hot and bothered. He could not go to sleep until newborn stars reached their ends. It was unpleasant.
This awakening, he decided to turn his attention to a new world. Planets with the right conditions became worlds. Worlds were ever-changing and helped him pass time.
He had been told a story by a traveller, about a creature that ate stars for nourishment. The first star was too cold, the second too hot, and the third was just right. But all stars were hot, the Dark Child had wondered. And the hot and the cold ones would have mixed in the belly and probably been just right, if the creature had not been picky.
It was the same with life. Life was picky. The world he had set his eyes on was between lifeless planets that were too hot or too cold.
Life intrigued the Dark Child. Life was the difference between creatures like him and the travellers, and lumps of gas in the star systems. The lifeless lumps did not have the complexity to support thought. He did.
It still marvelled him how small and transient life could be. The first saplings fell as soon as he blinked. But instead of fading back to grey, more saplings took their place. And the colours of life persisted and spread across the world, with each life coming to its end scarcely before finding its place in existence.
Deep in his belly, the Dark Child had seen small creatures. A mixture of too-hot and hot-but-too-cold stars that had concocted a level of complexity allowing creatures that propelled themselves, creatures that responded to their environment instead of staying a lump of gas. Even now, they swam. But his belly contained nothing like the lush complexity that was occurring before his eyes.
Meanwhile, the world turned its yawn into a ferocious roar. Soon, there was movement among the living and lives ended prematurely. Structure infected the world, constructed meticulously. And when he narrowed his eyes, the dizzying pace slowed to an intriguing one.
Creatures navigated the waves of liquid oceans. Some of them found hard solid land, then quickly became bound to it. Yet other creatures learned to ride weightlessly on gas, seemingly unbounded by the world at all.
Could all these creatures inhabiting a single world eventually catch up to the number of stars in existence? It was unfathomable to the Dark Child. But they were breaking his every expectation.
And then there was one race of creatures that rose above the masses. As he pulled himself towards them, drawn by sheer curiosity, they gravitated to structure more than any other. They gripped their environment and sculpted it to their will.
And he halted, a step removed from the roaring mass of life and ash. The creatures that adored structure inevitably took their place as masters of the world, claiming victory owing to their ability to navigate complexity and rigidity. They were individually small but as a whole they were big, throbbing, and always moving.
When the Dark Child closed his eyes, he seemed to breathe in the rhythmic whirr of their movement. They constructed structures that outlived them, gathered in clusters to live and created a thousand languages to communicate. Across the world, all life lived and bred around these masters.
When he opened his eyes again, they locked with another set of eyes peering into the depths of him.
“How beautiful.” Her whisper was so soft, it hardly reached her own ears.
But she reached him. The Dark Child was transfixed, having been seen for the first time in a great stretch of time. And what beauty that had arisen out of the trajectory of saplings and migratory creatures and structures and languages! What beauty to peek out of the mess of complex, evolving life.
Each of her eyes seemed to house a thousand stars, just as he did in his belly. She too, was a Child.
When her eyes broke away, he felt like he would shatter. But he kept his eyes on her. He could not bear to lose her, and never come to understand the sense of excitement and terror shaking him at the same time.
He began counting time by the instances she looked to the skies.
Despite his attention, she was fast changing. Her words became more elaborate and her voice more controlled. Her eyes kept their wonder, if only peeking from under a layer of a million thoughts. Even when the planet was between him and her, he paid attention.
- She whimpered after a scolding from her mother.
- She took a deep breath after shutting the open end of a neat pile of thin fibres that had been stuck together on one side. A book, it seemed to be called.
- Like so many other nights, she seemed to lie awake peering at the sky.
- There was more laughter in the space where she lived with a few others, whose names were Mother and Tony. Sometimes she joined in the laughter.
365. Her laughter had grown soft and she liked to brush strands of hair behind her ear.
She shivered, silent and cold with solitude. When she looked to the sky again, the patch of existence that filled her eyes did not contain the Dark Child. But clarity and resolve returned to her eyes.
That night, the rotating world would get them directly face-to-face for a second time.
The Dark Child remembered the sensation. He could not bear to border on shattering again. Perhaps, he should adorn himself with thoughtful embellishments that would sparkle in her eyes.
At 402, the Dark Child felt for the first time that he was inadequate.
She was different that day too. Words reached her lips only to retreat. Her hand felt cold although it was wrapped by another and slowly led down a path that deviated from her usual.
In each fist, he held a handful of stars as a gift, or as a desperate shield against her piercing eyes.
And then her eyes found his.
His grip went weak for a moment, before he clenched his resolve and sprinkled his stars all around him with all the flourish that he could muster. But it was surely inadequate.
Repeatedly, he stretched into the universe and clutched fistfuls of shimmering stars to toss into the vast void that lay between him and her. All in the hope of keeping her attention for a moment longer.
He paused when an eruption of light curled into a tight blinding ball that swallowed itself almost instantly.
The first collision was followed by wave upon wave of light that washed up against his periphery as circles of impact pulled themselves ever wider.
Finally, the circles pulled wider into the distance and only calm remained. Blinding flares of dying stars and unfulfilled futures became a distant buzz. His eyes were clear and sure, fixated on her.
She raised a finger to point at him. Another pair of eyes looked idly in his direction, seeing through him like they were blind.
The pair of unseeing eyes returned to her. The man’s nose edged towards hers and she, too, lost interest in the Dark Child.
And then her eyes jumped awake, wide with startle. The man too. Their sky regained its hold over them.
Her eyes returned to the Dark Child’s while the man’s darted everywhere at the flurry of lights.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she remarked.
“Is that like, an eclipse or something? I heard it on the news earlier.”
The light of the stellar collisions must have just reached them.
She always seemed to find his eyes, but perhaps there was still a gap between them. He was close, but not that close.
For the first time, the Dark Child smiled. He smiled knowing that the stars he had stolen reached her.
She was alone, and cold. But she stood outside, staring at the stars that seemed to sparkle especially brightly for her.
Again, she shook uncontrollably. Not from cold, but something else that the Dark Child could not understand. A tear departed from the edge of her eye.
The Dark Child stayed with her in each of her quivers. It was impossible to look away.
The sight would stay with him until his next slumber, after the heat of the stars finally left his palms, long after her own star had faded into nothing.
She was happy that time. She had gotten a furry creature, which she called a dog.
- She was dressed in white, beaming to a crowd that clapped their hands together.
- Deep in thought.
- Laughing with a man who was blind to the Dark Child.
610 seemed to take an eternity to arrive. The Dark Child thought back to times when a world was born and crumbled to desolation when he was not paying attention. He had waited patiently for 610.
Her eyes had found him once again. It was no fluke. She pointed, and a fair child that her arm wrapped around looked where she pointed.
The Dark Child stared back, slightly appalled.
The fair child giggled, and saliva streamed from his mouth.
She lay in sheets, donned again in white. Where she had been rosy in the previous occasion to the hand clapping crowd, the colour of her fair skin now seemed to be fading away.
“Mommy, mommy, look!” the fair child pointed to his sky.
She smiled but it was heavy.
“Why yes, the Dark Child nestles in the heavens.
He watches over us silently,
And we are blessed by his attention,
Loved by his all-seeing infinity.
The stars he commands blink at us
All night every night.
And that is why I look to the sky for strength.
That was the end of time for the Dark Child.
About You Zhen
At the age of five or so, You Zhen completed his first book, a work of fiction titled “The Longest Rabbit”. It contained illustrations (doodles) and a happy ending.
For years since then, he flirted with writing before finally making the decision to take things to the next level (fortunately, no moving in or meeting of parents was involved).Now, he has committed to writing regularly and sometimes finds short stories coming out the other end. These are published weekly on https://fivenswrite.wordpress.com and curated graphics to his stories are on https://www.behance.net/gallery/55410477/Fivens. You can reach him directly by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.