In Phoebe Roberts’ ‘The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn’, a girl’s mind drifts back to the days when she used to dance as she lies awake with insomnia. This piece was selected as the short story winner for the Tribe’s creative writing competition last semester.
For a long time I used to go to bed early. It was an easy little pattern, to go to bed early in New York, the place known as the city that never sleeps. By day I danced and took the 2/3 line from the downtown platform at the 72nd street station towards Brooklyn, towards school, rising on weary legs at the familiar call of “Borough Hall, Borough Hall, next stop Hoyt Street!” beneath the constancy of opening and closing train car doors. By night I thought of dancing and occasionally tried to stick my finger down my throat. At the hour of ten or eleven sleep is simple when there is nothing left in your body but pain, pain in little ecclesiastical aches which cry out to remind you that you are a ballerina (“perfection’s broken heart”), which cry out as if to sing again all the fallen notes which you’ve borne in your every last limb and finger. Sleep, with Tchaikovsky in my head and bloodied blisters on my toes, was indeed very simple.
That all stopped suddenly when dancing came to an end, and I tried to sleep again, only there was still Tchaikovsky in my head, still aches in my every last limb and finger; but now they were crying for nothing, for the notes which fell and died and lived anew somewhere outside of them. Days passed as the cry in the night lessened and lessened, and went silent. At first the silence only kept me up an hour or two later, ringing like a shrill alarm clock left unattended. Then three, four, five hours later, it went on ringing still.
I don’t think it’s too good for a person to be up all night. Especially not me. I have too much I could think over. Sometimes I believe that being unable to fall asleep must be punishment for all the years, the dancing years, that I slept very well and didn’t need to remember anything other than to point my feet (which in the end I didn’t seem to do too well either). Now, lying here with wide eyes, I feel as though I could be twelve again or some age like that, because everything I once forgot I remember over and over. Over and over.
I tell myself Nabokov was an insomniac, and make note to look up what other geniuses suffered from habitual sleeplessness – or, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, habitual sleeplessness (semicolon) inability to sleep – in the morning. The Oxford English Dictionary also says that the origin of the word insomnia is early 17th century: from Latin, from insomnis ‘sleepless’, from in- (expressing negation) + somnus ‘sleep’. I wish I remembered more Latin. Dead language and all. I studied it for three years in middle school and not even the dregs of the dative declension remain within me today. The only things I can remember with any clarity are my sixth-grade Latin teacher chastising me once in front of the whole class for momentarily wavering in my belief of the Greek Gods, and that he died suddenly before he could grade my final project. It was the best project I ever made: a model of Pompeii in a glass box, with the ruins on the bottom half and sand resting on a shelf up top, so that when you looked in you could see the whole city buried beneath the ash and pumice. I even went to this baking store downtown to buy all these miniature plastic figures and vases and columns. I spent hours dusting them in a coat of thin black paint to give that “buried alive” effect. It wound up being very heavy, and I had to walk with it the five blocks to my middle school while making sure the shelf of sand stayed in place so that Columbus Avenue would not suffer the same fate. I knew it was an A, A+ quality Pompeii, and all my classmates knew it too as soon as I unveiled the box to Mr. – Mr. my-since-deceased-sixth-grade-Latin-teacher. It was the last time I ever saw him. They didn’t even bother to tell us that he was sick and had died. He disappeared and we knew. That year everyone in the class ended up receiving a final grade of B+. I guess some of them just got lucky. Meanwhile, my Pompeii was forgotten, abandoned to further decay.
I wonder now if he was visibly sick and I just didn’t know how to tell. Pretty soon after that I would know exactly what a sick person looks like, but not then, not yet. Maybe if I had, I would have spent a lot less time painting those plastic cake decorations.
I tried to talk this all over with my older sister, Amanda. My sleep problems, not the sixth grade, or any sick people. Amanda is a great sleeper and was, in her time, an exceptional Latin student. Tonight, it was still early when I went into her room, and she was up reading with the lamp on. I sat on the foot of the bed and spoke.
“What do you think about when you’re trying to fall asleep?”
If she was disturbed by my presence she didn’t move in the slightest to show it. She hardly even turned her head from her book.
“I don’t. I just fall asleep. Or I breathe. And then I’m asleep.”
She said it as though it were the only answer ever imaginable for such a question. Like that, coming from her, it almost made sense.
She didn’t ask me what I think about when I am trying to fall asleep. If she had I don’t know what I would have told her. I think of New York, of dancing, of the 72nd street subway station, of all the music I used to dream of dancing to, of some of the people I used to know. I think of each and every other night when, from the blackness of whatever room I inhabited then, the very same visions burned impossibly bright and far. I couldn’t have said all that though. I would tell her I was thinking of sheep. But she never asked me anyhow.
That was hours ago. A short while later I saw her light flicker out beneath my door, settling our flat into complete darkness. I have barely moved since. I feel my arms and legs and heart pinned by a certain shrill, ceaseless ringing. Why my sixth grade Latin class and all the sick people I knew entered my mind tonight, I cannot say. I didn’t want them. I only wanted Tchaikovsky and the fallen notes and the call of “Borough hall, Borough Hall, next stop Hoyt Street.” I’ll have to keep on thinking of them, so that when that night comes when they finally return in all their fullness, as those earlier memories now have, I’ll be ready to welcome them with open arms. I didn’t know to do that before. I didn’t think to do that. And now I am awake to it all again, awake, awake, awake…. I am lying here and an old song is playing upon my head, with the lyrics that go:
While I’m far away from you my baby
I know it’s hard for you my baby
Because it’s hard for me my baby
And the darkest hour is just before dawn.
Each night before you go to bed my baby
Whisper a little prayer for me my baby
And tell all the stars above
This is dedicated to the one I love
This is dedicated
This is dedicated to the far away girl who rode the 2/3 train and stuck her finger down her throat and spent her days dancing on the points of her toes. I think I almost love her, in this darkest hour, as I lay drifting away from sleep, writing to all the stars above.