Darkness is a Trusted Friend

Siouxzi L. Mernagh

The forest's darkness had become a trusted friend. A worn-in coat resting its sun-warmed hands on the shoulders, then wrapping the entire body in an unhurried could-be-the-last embrace. It had not always been this way. The first plunges of darkness, here in the forest, were like drowning. As each day made itself scarce, and the moon made its eternal decisions whether or not to show its face that night, the darkness would raise up, crest for a moment, then come crashing down and pull all beneath its rip. There was no sleep to be had. All was consumed by the feeling that nothing would ever emerge alive from this. Nights silent with the expectation of a predator; nights thick, caught in the back of the throat; nights of chasing the sense of being chased through the undergrowth, vines becoming entrails, spilling bloody with this chase, further tempting the darkness creatures. Heaving breaths from dew-wet lungs. But night after night, as dawn quickly became impassioned by day and blushed, morning broke the darkness every time and revealed aloneness. The light brought warmth and searing beauty but it also brought inevitability. By day, the inevitable loneliness was clear. By night, any number of stalking creatures could be near, watching and wanting. The night brought the promise of being wanted. The day brought the clarity that nothing had taken a chance; nothing had tried, yet again, to get closer. Darkness became a trusted friend.

Upon that dusk, the dusk when their voices were heard, the coming of the dark was embraced even more heartily than usual. The darkness would provide protection from being sighted by the owners of the voices. It was an Indian-Summer night­—the leaves were already glowing the golden of Autumn, while the air still swamped in warm pools. If the voices had not been heard, it would simply be another night to ward off responsibilities. Another night to lie with stars and simply nod along with their spiral rhythms. Another night, while Summer lingered, to forget the passing of time. To forget that something would have to be done before the Winter to ensure survival. Something would have to be arranged. The body had been harvested this Summer and the body would need storing for when the snows came.

But those voices—a startle to all of that.

And now that the hearing had been startled, the other senses awakened sharply too. All of a sudden, smoke could be detected in the air. Why had it not been sensed before? Why was it that their language had to be heard before the fire truly smelt? Perhaps, like an oasis, the fire-smell before had simply seemed too impossible to be true and was shelved by the mind as pure fantasy. A fire threatened within that smell, burning as if with the potential that anything in its reach could catch alight.

The sound of their voices; the smell of their fire. Their existence somewhere deep in the forest was confirmed absolutely now. And curiosity now could not keep the third exploring body away in its forest refuge. The next step now, was to see them.

Venturing from the river under the nurturing coat of night, following the intensifying scent of smoke. After seemingly endless tracts of forest, finally ruins of two small wooden houses sprung up into sight. Dark wooden shells they were, burnt out and caved in under the weight of many snows, many storms. The forest had taken its own back with new firs and ferns dwelling inside. Their harrowed shells conjured memories of earlier times when all was, presumably, full of life and thriving. Perhaps many bodies lived here, singing and working, gathering and scribbling down all they knew so nothing was lost. Warm bread, children laughing and skipping through the washing lines, long hair being brushed. The head, the body was flooded by images, sounds, smells of these times here. But this was impossible. How could the body bring back such memories? Non-existent memories from a time before remembering. Shaking the head free of these impossibilities, moving further in towards where the voices had come from and where the smoke was coming from, now all was still.

There stood a little wooden house—its angles, its squarenesses, its containment all neatly intact. The last remaining house of three. The first view of it strained the eyes after so many wavering trees and shadows dancing across dirt and heavenly bodies. There was a glow from it and again, like an oasis, the eyes did not trust it. The mind did not trust its scents, threatening to churn both it and the guts with so many different types of hunger, so many different types of memories. All these types of longings thrown upon with damp earth, calming their fires. The hunger for meaty food, for sweet food, for the pulse of another's blood nearby, for the drumming of another's mind nearby, for the scent of another's sex nearby. The hunger for those electrical surges of another. The glow from the little house was a safe passage, a chain to always coming back to the same place of a night. The glow was a distraction from the pain, for a time. But, no, the head shook with confusion, pain should always be stroked, always be satiated to climax. Pain should be clung to and nurtured and made at home until it is loved. The pain, being ignored for a time while the glow dazzled, then returned tenfold, and threatened to collapse the body. Under the will of pain, then, it was time to back away from the glow once more, and to retreat, whimpering, back past the collapsed houses, into the waiting arms of darkness.

There was a howling that night, by the river, that shook down shooting stars. And the glow from the little house burned bright and clear. The Red and the Black did not have the heart to extinguish their lights that night. They heard the howling loud and clear and they did not sleep a moment.


By next light, awakening in a grove close to the little wooden house, it became apparent that there was more than one type of fire. And maybe there had been for all this time.

Crawling towards it, all fours, innards dragging through the moss, the fire-smell of theirs was no longer tangled up in the cooking of berries and mushrooms. This was a singular fire that the back should never be turned on. There was no roar about it or even purr in its devouring. A quiet eating of things.

Closer, the little wooden house could barely be seen for the flames. Its four, square walls, its triangular roof atop—its entire form, consumed by this fire. Perhaps its inhabitants had finally turned on it and set it alight? Had it disappointed? Had it not been protective enough all Winter long? Had it grown old and predictable and lost its sheen? Had it set its eyes on other potential inhabitants it thought beautiful and this was its dwellers' revenge? Or had it just self-combusted, giving no one a chance to protest or to run, burning all at once for the forest's chance at true solitude again?

More likely, was that the fire was its own natural reestablishment of borders. The forest had, admittedly, over the seasons, begun to allow itself to get too close to these two inhabitants. They had invited the forest into them, more times than they could count without blushing, and the forest had enjoyed making its quiet way within their slippery interiors. And now, it seemed, the fire had spoken: interior and exterior should never be comfortable spending this much time together.

Creeping closer, intricate fingers of pine trees brushing past and framing this destruction, the flames could be seen licking as high as the pointed roof. Closer, the flames slipped down so that their reach was only as high as the crude guttering. Closer still, the flames only tickled above the windows, and now, perceptibly retreated back within the windows and left the white lace curtains intact, allowing them to make their play with the breeze again. The flames on the veranda were now extinguishing, and all of its contents being left intact: a wooden travelling case by the door, a pair of trusted boots by the mat, a Winter coat that had seen much snow, flung on the wooden rocking chair, just so. All the old belongings. The heart raced with familiarity as the flames subsided. All the familiar grooves and notches of the belongings still glowed true. Once more, they promised warmth and the chance to set the wandering down a-time...anchors to be dropped into the deep plushness of armchairs. Before the eyes, the flames were sweeping back like a receding tide, leaving all in its wake renewed, if a little shaken.

Smoke haze drifted forestwards and the curtains of one of the rooms whispered aside. Through this parted lace, the last of the fire could be seen, contained within these four richly papered walls. Until now, this room had remained uninhabited, pressed upon only by dust. Dust along the locked doorknob, dust along the dressing table laden with powders and rouges, dust along the mirror, streaked by unwelcome fingertips. Reflected in this mirror, the very last flames could be seen crackling on a bed draped in green velvet, flanked with red velvet pillows. The fire trickled back from the bed now and from the two bodies slicked with sweat, raging upon it. One burning thigh pressed between the other's two: their hair was the forest's entrails, their paleness the forest's moonlit pools. The muscles in their writhing backs were the ripples of the forest's ancient volcanoes. Their hands, dripping with fresh blood, travelled each other; beasts pursuing their hunters. Their writhings then began slowing, along with the flames around them. Their skins showed no trace of damage from the fire, just sweat from its heat. The dust of the closed room left no smear on them. They were invulnerable to everything but each other. In the mirror, they could be seen drinking each other's sweat like river fish hungry for the taste of the ocean. Then finally, they were still, satisfied. A last wisp of smoke trailed from their window: a reassuring wave to the forest that all was in place once more in the little wooden house. The forest responded with a gust that slammed the hinged window of that room shut again.

The fire had now completely burned itself out in reverse.

A retreat back to the trees was necessary, fast, then a dip in the river to rid the give-away smell of smoke.

Much later, as dusk gathered, the dwellers' voices were carried to the river, lost in one of their Old Believers' verses.

We build together


each other

in your image

in the image of your shivering trees

and your sighing grasses

We are all,

because you are all

we need.

In your image

we are all,


We build together

in the image of your shivering trees

because you are All

and your sighing grasses.

In your image,

we need

each other.

Bathed within their words, scent of smoke trailing away with the river's current;  purity, a baptism.

Tristan Still, for 'Exit' a film by S L Mernagh, 2010, 35mm. Image courtesy Siouxzi L. Mernagh.

Did they burn and become whole again? Two wholes becoming there in the closed room? Did they breathe out in satisfaction and blow out the flames? Their fire-smell, their cooking of the forest, their house like a lullabye and a terrible nightmare all at once. They had remained in control of the fire's tides. This power of theirs to overcome things was intoxicating. Great heavy vines which had served as entrails began to wither and drop to the feet. Yes, there were indeed feet here which could drag through undergrowth until it sprouted there beneath the nails and grew up the legs of their own green accord. Yes, legs—the pain there which forced itself to be loved—the legs which gave out at the river and were soothed. The eternal, mortal gratefulness to this river and its source. Eternal gratefulness. Gratefulness again to realise the ownership of a mouth, a head, feet, legs, all of it. Indebtedness to what had saved them. Hate for what had shattered them out of perception: wilful, complete forgetfulness.

Those two, the Black and the Red, and their burning room, opened the floodgates of the past. Made the before-times a possibility again. They bent that straight line of time past into a loop that could double-back on itself. A loop that could entrap. Loops had been known to entrap before. Loops that could make backbends and backwards transformations. Taking growth and forcing it to ungrow. Shoving it head-first back in the earth. Taking wisdom and forcing it to be unwise. Regression, more than drowning, was a darkness. But this loop, this fire, this room, these bodies, had already begun its cycle. This heaviness, this silent tide from the forest was ready to circle in once again.


Howling. Louder, as the river's current whisked away more blood and washed it downstream from the wound. More piercingly as the riverlife made their home in the wounds and painted the body again with the green of its native lands. All manner of underwater creepers and crawlers finding their way through the openings in the bloody flesh and keeping themselves fed and warm. Howling that the river, the forest's river, would invade the body to keep it here by the river and away from the little house. No. The body wanted in to the little house, more than anything it had wanted in all of the time before the unremembered time before. The body knew that the fire of the little house and the two other bodies living within the little house would leech out the river life, leech out the green, and make the flesh whole and no longer steeped in indebtedness to the forest. A decision had been made.

The forest would have its favours paid, though, even with a life that at the same time loved it and wanted away. The forest itself had become an anchor. It had become a staying-in-one-place. It was no longer the vast unchartered escape of the heart. It clung with its curling vines and sucking molluscs and sinking bogs and fossils of once-flying things. It would have its domesticity; it would domesticate, even if that meant wrenching open wounds, just as they were healing. Even if it meant making its darknesses safe and putting all under its grasp to sleep.

But there was still a voice, still a howling that could ring through the night and defy the forest. Even if the legs had become unwalkable again from the river's invasions, the howling could reach the little house. Inside the little house, all could grow wild and free again. Inside the little house was fire and sweat and blood and urine and saliva and come and all of the body's wonders.

The admittance of the body. Finally. Its existence was undeniable. And admittance to the body would soon lead inevitably to admittance of the 'I' again. That the 'I' was still here and would never go away completely.

Sensual pleasures. Orbular red berries exploded into seeping juices in the mouth. Full of the forest floor, full of the last goodbyes of sunlight, full of the imminent majesty of coming snow. A handful of berries, crushed into the mouth at once was a decadence the forest would not approve of. Those were flavours to be lived. The mouth must live them out one by one. But after seeing the flames of the little wooden house in reverse,  this discipline was not to be endured. The leaves fell decadently in golden piles around the ankles—why should a whole handful of red berries not be enjoyed in the mouth? Why should an entire handful of river not be splashed lovingly over the head? And yes, there was a mouth that could explode these red berries with joy and abandon. Their bitterness overcome by sweetness in this naked handful. And yes, there was a head that could feel the river stream down it and pool in its hair, its feelers. This mouth, yes, it was not only a cave to entreat the forest's whispered warnings; to taste its fickle pulse. This head, yes, it was not only a cavity to be filled with the forest's ways, its wilfulness to overcome all. It could still be felt and thought about and swum about in like an infinite womb, but yes, there were still, in existence, things beyond its nourishing suffocating walls.

The interior was beckoning and 'I' howled back. It was time for the 'I' to be heard now. It was time for the 'I' to remember now.

Siouxzi L. Mernagh is an Australian-born writer and artist and an affiliated fellow of the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. She is a former research fellow of the ICI, having undertaken a fellowship concerning the spatial, temporal and sexual tensions within psychoanalytic films and subsequently completing an experimental narrative film titled 'The Dangers' as a direct response to her research. Siouxzi has since produced provocative and sensual work in writing, moving-image, installation, photography and performance in Sydney, London and throughout Europe. Extracts from her first novel, White Tales, were published by Turia & Kant (Wien/ Berlin) as part of the volume “Tension/ Spannung”. Her recently completed novel manuscript 'Our Little Wooden House by the Sea', stems from her research with the ICI and her residency at Mustarinda, Finland. She is based in Berlin.