Tulgey Wood

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsey were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”

“Is that all she says?”

“Yes. Over and over. Same thing.”

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

“What sort of rubbish is that? It doesn’t even sound like English.”

“Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s Jabberwocky. You know. The poem by Lewis Carroll?”

“That the guy who wrote about the magical wardrobe?”

“Not even close. What the hell kind of childhood did you have anyway? Didn’t you ever read Through the Looking Glass?”

“Irrelevant. Does she say anything else? Anything at all.”

“Well… not really.”

“You hesitated there. What is it?”

“Sometimes it’s as if she’s gotten stuck. She’ll repeat the same word over and over like she can’t remember the next line.”

“And then?”

“After a while she just kicks back in as if she’d never hit a glitch.”

“And what is this Jabberwocky…”

They think I can’t hear them, they think I don’t see what’s two feet away. Catatonic, they say. But I’m just ignoring them. They don’t know anything, and they’ll leave the room eventually. They always do.

I’m safe inside myself. No one can reach me here and there’s nothing that can hurt me. I don’t have to feel anything this way. I don’t have to fear anything. I’m disconnected from my body, and though I can’t exactly get around, that’s okay. I don’t need a change of scenery. I don’t need a change of pace. I like it just fine here inside myself where it’s safe.

“Beware! Beware! Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

They think I’m crazy. They think getting lost in the basement during a power outage was too much for me. They claim I freaked out; short-circuited, or something. Deep seated fear of the dark, they say. They’re so full of shit they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it showed up and bit their heads off in the middle of the night.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame…”

There really is a Jabberwock. I’ve seen it. I’ve fought it. I thought my life was as good as over. But if I told them that, they’d still think I was crazy. So it’s better to hide inside myself, where it’s safe. Not even the Jabberwock can get me.

As a child I never had irrational fears of monsters or things that go bump in the night. Now I know better.

It was a stormy summer evening, and I’d tried to keep busy. There wasn’t much to do. The cable had been knocked out and the TV reception was crap without it. I couldn’t risk the computer to a power surge, it was too valuable. So I made myself productive. There was a lot of house to clean. I’d been sick all week and my husband was down with what he’d nursed me through. I let him rest on the couch with a book, occasionally bringing him something to drink.

I admit I’ve never been a fan of the dark. I’m a klutz. The basement’s always been a bit creepy; but in a centipedes’ and spiders’ playhouse sense, not in a monsters’ feeding ground kind of way.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

I went down to check the laundry. I’ve always been obsessive about getting the clothes out while they were still hot. I avoid a lot of ironing that way. I’m not particularly good at ironing. Never was.

I folded the laundry in the basement, using the chest freezer as a table, and dropping the folded clothes into a basket for my husband to lug up the stairs. I’m also not particularly strong. You might call me a full-grown ninety pound weakling.

“The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back…”

I was in the basement when our block lost power. I was more annoyed than scared. I knew my own house well enough to find my way out of it in the dark. And really, what’s to fear of the dark? If I didn’t come up soon enough, my husband would be down with a flashlight.

The basement in the dark is a terrible horrible place. It’s something all children seem to know. Parents dismiss it as a silly fear, but I think it’s an ancient instinct. Parents think they know best. Fools. They don’t like things that defy their neat and tidy logical world. In the dark, a basement becomes another realm; a maze populated with all the horrors of ancient epic, and a host of others never dreamed of. Ishtar’s wild bull can’t touch it. The Minotaur is a plaything. Grendel is nothing on the Jabberwock.

“Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came…”

I don’t know how long I stumbled around in the dark. My husband didn’t respond to my calls. My shouts. He blames himself for my condition. If I dared come out, for even a moment, I’d tell him it’s not his fault. He didn’t hear me because I wasn’t in our basement anymore. I was in the place where darkness was born. I was in the Tulgey Wood.

I stumbled into a hard wall, slick with the cool dampness of a limestone dungeon. The surface felt rough, nothing like the sheet rock we’d hung last spring. That should have warned me. But I told myself I was too dependent on my sight and didn’t know what I was feeling. I reminded myself of the old Halloween gag where peeled grapes pass for witches’ eyeballs. I tripped over obstacles that shouldn’t have been there. Instead of understanding, I cursed our tendency to let things go for too long before cleaning them up.

“So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought…”

I eventually sat down on the damp and lumpy floor to wait. There was no point in continuing to bumble about in the dark, blindly walking into walls.

I felt a tickle as if light hairs were sweeping gently over my arm. I froze, hardly able to breathe. I was sure my heart would stop when the first spider was followed by others, all running across my bare skin. I tried to tell myself it was just my hair dangling down onto my arms, or brushing against my legs where I sat hunched up. But I knew better. It was the centipedes and other multi-legged creatures come to claim their domain. In the dark they have no fear. In the dark they can be as small as a broken pencil lead, or as big as a horse. They live with the Jabberwock. They share the spoils.

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch…”

It wasn’t until I heard the louder scuffles, the slithering noises and rustlings of larger things, that I realized something was wrong. That’s when I began to feel fear. You don’t really know what fear is until you’ve faced your basement in the dark.

The rough floor trembled slightly and I heard something approaching with great heavy steps. I called for my husband, thinking it was him. I saw the orange glow from around the corner and got up, virtually running to greet him.

No light burns quite like the fire in Jabberwock’s eyes. It’s red. It’s hot. It sears its imprint on your retina as you try to see. Never meet the eyes of a Jabberwock. In an instant you can know its mind, but it’s very like standing on the lip of an erupting volcano.

Jabberwock knows your fears; any and all of them. It’s been around longer than we have. It can’t come into our world except in the dark. It needs a basement, as a demon needs a gate.

“Long time the manxome foe he sought…”

Its mouth makes up a full two-thirds of its head and its eyes are the other third. Its nose seems to have been added as an afterthought, and I don’t think it relies on smell for much. For a beast the size of a hippo, it moves with the speed of a cheetah. Perhaps the laws of our world don’t apply to Jabberwock. Then again, the perfect conditions for it to come into our realm may align so rarely that it has to be fast if it wants time to toy with us. Jabberwock likes to play with its food.

It grabbed me in its two huge claws before my brain could even register surprise. I’ve never been a screamer. But I was that night. I shrieked until my throat was raw. I screamed until all that came out was a forced hoarse exhalation. It roared its triumph. It stomped its four great feet in celebration. I struggled. I kicked and squirmed. The logical part of my mind had been reduced to a quivering mass of incomprehension while I fought for my life.

“The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

When it tried to put me in its mouth I must have triggered a long dormant berserker gene. My father hasn’t traced the family back to Norway yet, but I suspect he’ll find that link soon enough. I kicked and bit and scratched and howled in protest all at the same time. I somehow broke loose. The fight itself is still a blur. It grabbed me and I got away, again and again. It knocked me against a hard stone wall, but I refused to pass out. I refused to lay still and die. I ran behind it and grabbed its pathetic string of a tail and sank my teeth into it. Bit it right off.

“He took his vorpal sword, vorpal sword, vorpal sword in hand…”

Jabberwock’s blood is foul beyond the most noxious sewer sludge. It smells of a hundred rotting corpses sitting in the summer sun two weeks after they should have been buried. It burns like acid that peels the skin right off your body. But I had no vorpal sword. No magic blade to chop off its head and be done with it. I had to endure the sickening stench and wretched pain, and even seek it out if I wanted to survive.

Jabberwock howled in rage. It grew less interested in playing and more intent on killing me and eating me. Not necessarily in that order. It grabbed me by the hair. I bit its nose. We fought in a haze of teeth and feet and claws. I poked its fiery eyes. It slapped me across the room. I broke an arm. Jabberwock lost a tooth.

“Beware the Jabberwock…”

When the lights came back on, Jabberwock vanished with a screech of protest. It had not conquered me. It was sent home unwilling, but I knew it would be back, looking for me and the opportunity for revenge.

I collapsed in a daze; the adrenaline crash was phenomenal. There wasn’t a piece of me that didn’t scream out in pain. I hurt so much I wanted to die, but I hadn’t the means or the energy. I couldn’t move. My throat was too raw to cry for help. I lay there until my husband woke from his nap hours later and came looking. By then I’d retreated to the safest possible place. I’d followed that recessive berserker gene to its little hidey hole for safe keeping. Nothing can hurt me here.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?”

They think I’m crazy, but I’m not. They don’t know what lives in the dark. And they wouldn’t believe me if I told them. I’m not ready to face the Jabberwock again. Not just yet. So from my place of safety I whisper the charm that keeps the Jabberwock away. But I haven’t been idle. I’ve found the vorpal sword and can claim it as my own. Someday when I’m strong again, I’ll take up that sword and finish the job.



Inspired by my basement, irrational fear of the dark, and the poem Jabberwocky.

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About S.N.Arly

Author of adult and young adult speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, dark fiction)