From the Archive: The Dark All Around Us


This essay was first published in The Rumpus on December 14, 2017.

A year after my little sister, Kat, was born in 1996, our parents moved her crib out of their room and into the bedroom belonging to my older brother, Dan, and me. At the time, my family of five lived in a two-bedroom condo located in a town a few miles west of Greater Boston’s outer beltway, I-495. That said, I don’t remember our bedroom without Kat. I do remember that without having to move from the center of the room, my mom and dad could say goodnight to Dan—about seven years old at the time, the oldest child and rightfully in the top bunk—then bend down and say goodnight to me—around four, the middle child, bottom bunk material—then stand back up, turn around to Kat’s crib, bend back down, and kiss her goodnight. Right after they’d flick the light switch off and close our door, Dan, Kat, and I would grow increasingly restless as the night deepened into darkness.

Dan talked in his sleep and was a kicker, always causing our bunk bed to creak. Occasionally, he sleepwalked. Nearly every one of his unconscious journeys ended in the same exact spot: the kitchen fridge—his head of golden blonde hair resting on the bottom shelf of the fridge, his skinny, pajama-clad body laid out horizontally on the kitchen floor tiles. Our father was always the one to find my brother in this peculiar spot because he usually woke up by 4 a.m. to go to his part-time job delivering mail before going to one of the various full-time, blue-collar jobs he had throughout my childhood. My father would carry Dan back to bed, his oil and grease stained work-clothes perfuming our room, his lips and morning stubble grazing my cheek to give a goodbye kiss, which only informed me that one of my protectors—my father, mother, and older brother—was leaving. It was still dark outside.

Shortly after her first steps, toddling from my mother’s arms to mine, Kat became an escape artist. Many nights, she climbed over her crib’s railing, jumped to the floor, and ran out our bedroom door. Whether she left unnoticed or she evaded my and Dan’s attempts to keep her imprisoned, whenever I realized during the middle of the night that Kat was gone, I would struggle to fall back asleep, fretting that my little sister—the one person I had a responsibility to protect—was in trouble. Often, she’d go to my parent’s bedroom and they’d let her sleep with them, but grave anxieties often consumed my mind. I would stare at her empty crib, thinking of the dangers that came with the dark—the myriad threats I could sense, but not pinpoint or name—and if she were exposed to them, whether inside downstairs or, worse, outside on the street and utterly defenseless.

Although my bottom bunk had no bars, I usually stayed put in my bed. In a few instances, I got stuck there, paralyzed between consciousness and sleep, both dreaming and imagining. One night, a few dinosaurs performed surgery on me. If I had to guess, these dinosaurs were specifically Pachycephalosaurus, which I had learned about in kindergarten. The Pachycephalosaurus were herbivores with velociraptor-shaped bodies, short arms, and monkish bald heads, their scalps underlined by a ring of spikes. I watched the operation happen as if it was being projected onto the sheet of darkness blanketing our room. Laying on my stomach, I took my right fist and gently pressed it against my bony back, following along with the Pachycephalosaurus surgeons as they cautiously cut a rectangle the length of my torso. My mattress pushed against my beating heart. My sheets stuck to my sweaty skin. I wanted to look away, but I didn’t want to move and wake my siblings up. I couldn’t hear the conversation between the dinosaurs; their mouths were covered by white surgical masks. I didn’t know what inside me needed fixing. So for a while longer, I lay there awake in the dark, searching for the hazard within my body.

“Nyctophobia”—”nycto-” meaning night or darkness; “-phobia” meaning fear—first occurs in children around the age of two when their imaginations begin to develop. To get a toddler to sleep, most parenting books suggest having a consistent pre-bedtime routine and reading before bed. I recently asked my mother what kind of sleeper when I was a kid. I wanted to know because over the past few years, during which I’ve completed undergrad and moved to Virginia for graduate school, I’ve had a lot of trouble falling asleep at night. Two or three times a month, I don’t sleep at all; I just work through the night. I felt paranoid that I’d always had a sleeping problem and I’d just never questioned it. My mother answered that I was easy. Every night after dinner, there was bath-playtime with Dad, which ended in him putting me in my baby-blue onesie, and then there was reading with her. She recited some of my favorites books: Richard Scarry’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks and Horton Hears a Who. There’s nothing biological or inherent about my current sleep issues.

So, the answer to what has been keeping me up at night later in my life could be this: when I first shut off my bedroom lights and close my eyes after long hours of working on graduate school assignments and grading papers and lesson planning for the classes I teach, all I can picture in my mind are to-do lists, bills for a maxed-out credit card, rent, my car, and my deferred student loans accumulating interest. Common stresses, really.

Searching for self-help books on sleeping in my library’s catalog, I came across a children’s book named Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, written by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth. First published in 1988, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? won that year’s Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, a once-prestigious award no longer in existence that was given to children’s books authors from the UK. Out of curiosity, I read it, and found myself drawn in. The book felt more helpful than actual self-help books. It seemed so simple (it was for children, after all). From the book’s preface:

Notes to Parents and Teachers: Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s classic bedtime story features a loving parent-child bond and is as warm and reassuring as a good-night hug. Even as it gently soothes a child’s fear of the dark, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? rewards the efforts of emergent readers with patterned and predictable language, illustrations that match the text, and other elements that support early literacy.

Children have to harness their imagination with something familiar or else be overwhelmed by their fear of the dark, much like adults have to handle their anxieties rationally in order to rest.

The first page of Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? shows a field of fresh snow between a deep pine forest and bear den. There are two brown bears with round bottoms reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh. The sky above swells with the yellow, orange, and red colors of a setting sun. The reader is told exactly what is what:

Once there were two bears,
Big Bear and Little Bear.
Big Bear is the big bear, and Little Bear is the little bear.
They played all day in the sunlight. When
night came, and the sun went down, Big Bear took
Little Bear home to the Bear Cave.

On the second page, Big Bear tucks Little Bear into bed, leaves Little Bear alone, sits in a pink single-cushion sofa across the cave and reads a book by a lit fireplace. Little Bear is spooked. His eyes peep out from above the quilted blanket that he has pulled up to the brim of his nose, looking towards the lit part of the cave where his protector is. This is a common test for children and Little Bear is failing:

“Can’t you sleep, Little Bear?” said Big Bear.

Little Bear answers that he is afraid of the dark, which perplexes Big Bear. The fire lights up enough of the cave to at least distinguish every piece of furniture in it:

What dark?” said Big Bear

Little Bear replies:

The dark all around us.


According to a study titled “Sleep Intensity and the Evolution of Human Cognition” by David R. Samson and Charles L. Nunn, many thousands of years ago humans transitioned from sleeping in trees to on the ground, which increased the risk of getting eaten by animals at night. As a result, we became more efficient, but also lighter sleepers. Being afraid of the dark is human nature.

What exactly an individual fears at night is taught to us. For example, when I was about six or seven, my parents allowed a sudden progression from watching The Land Before Time to Jurassic Park. Consequently, my two siblings and I had frequent dinosaur nightmares. The switch occurred just after we had moved into a house on a woodsy dead-end street in a more rural town in central Massachusetts. One night, around that age, when Dan and I were sledding in the front yard, my fear of dinosaurs came alive even though I was wide awake. Dan had gone inside to get dry mittens. As I waited for him to return, my butt getting cold from sitting on a plastic red sled, I sensed something in the distance approaching from the forest. I could see it: an enormous T-rex bursting out from the trees—how it always goes down in Jurassic Park—roaring, shaking the ground, knocking over everything in its path, and then eating me in one swoop while on its way to wrecking my house and swallowing my family whole. I dashed away from the thought and the sled, into the house where it was warm and bright and I could see my family alive.

Generally, the parenting of American culture is not conducive to the sleeping habits of kids. Americans on average make their children go to bed a few hours earlier than other countries. We make children sleep in separate bedrooms at a very young age. We often use fear to quell misbehavior; most notoriously, how many of us were told the Boogeyman would come out from under our bed at night if we didn’t clean our room or brush our teeth and then spent hours awake in bed worrying about the Boogeyman? (Parenting books now advise against this approach). Kids sleep with stuffed animals, often bears, elephants, lions, and gorillas, imitations of animals that if real could kill an unarmed human, especially a child. On the cover of Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear, Little Bear sits on his bed smiling at Big Bear, even though the stuffed animal in Little Bear’s arms represents the most dangerous threat to a bear—a human. The doll is a source of comfort for Little Bear. Perhaps a stuffed animal transforms a potential threat into something passive, something real and controllable. Perhaps if I had slept with a stuffed dinosaur, I wouldn’t have been so afraid of them. Practically, I knew that dinosaurs were extinct, but I knew there was something about the dark I should fear, even if it wasn’t exactly a dinosaur.

When my brother turned eleven, my parents decided it was time he got his own room, and forced me to move into my own room. The first night I slept in my new bedroom was the first night I had ever slept alone. Some twenty minutes after my parents wished me goodnight and closed the door behind them, I got out of bed to reopen the door and turn on the hallway light. As much as the hallway light prevented me from sleeping, I needed to be able to see the inside and outside of my room and to listen to the rest of the house in case of danger. I heard a click-clacking sound downstairs and concluded it was our chocolate lab’s nails scratching on the wooden floor. I heard a burp and fridge door close and knew that my father had just finished chugging Diet Pepsi out of the bottle. As I dropped into sleep and jolted back awake with the realization that once I fell asleep for good, I would be vulnerable to intruders silently sneaking through the open door. I closed the door. My room was completely dark except for the highlighted rim of the door. My eyes adjusted to the dark. I still counted too many ambiguous shadows, and I could no longer hear anything downstairs. I opened the door. I got back into bed and closed my eyes, but the back of my eyelids were dark, too. Anyone could get in. I closed the door. I opened the door. Hours seemed to pass without peace before exhaustion overcame me and I fell asleep—door opened or closed, I’m not sure.


Tossing and turning in his bed, Little Bear is awake and afraid. Big Bear has made several attempts to calm Little Bear to sleep by providing bigger and bigger lanterns. Now “the Biggest Lantern of Them All” hangs over their heads:

“Can’t you sleep, Little Bear?” groaned Big Bear.

Little Bear answers no and cites the same reason as before:

“The dark all around us,” said Little Bear.
“But I brought you the Biggest Lantern of Them All,
and there isn’t any dark left,” said Big Bear.
“Yes, there is!” said Little Bear. “There is. Out there!”
And he pointed out of the Bear Cave at the night.

The entire cave is visible, even its furthest corners, but it is so bright in the cave that nothing outside the cave’s entrance can be seen. There, at the mouth of the cave, darkness still encroaches on their safety.

When I was ten, I repositioned the furniture in my bedroom so that I could sleep with my head right by a window that faced the street. I’d keep my shades pulled up and my lights off at night. I wanted to believe that I could see anyone outside while no one could see me inside. It was the silence and stillness outside the house that still made me uneasy. Whenever a car drove by late at night, which was hardly ever, I’d shoot upright and make sure the car didn’t come up the driveway, worried it was carrying robbers and murderers. Once I couldn’t hear or see the car anymore, I’d go back to sleep.

One night, I awoke to a creature’s screech outside, which sounded like the crying of a baby in severe pain. Shuddering, I assumed watch at my window and searched for the source of the sound. A full moon washed over the front yard, weakened on the narrow street, and deadened at the edge of the forest. A small black form as big as a medium-sized dog and with feline ears appeared in the road and lingered into the forest. It was the lynx that my father had mentioned seeing in our neighborhood a few days before. The lynx continued screeching, its call quieting as it walked into the forest, and I let my head settle back onto my pillow, until I felt that I had to double-check and so I looked again, surveying the view: the front lawn bare, the street dusky, and the forest a depth of darkness. Nothing to be seen, so I opened the window and listened. I thought I could still hear the lynx’s screeching. I couldn’t be sure if it was real or echoing in my head. I held my breath, still with fear. I tried to make out shapes in the forest, but it was too dark.

All the lanterns in the
world couldn’t light up the dark outside.
Big Bear thought about it for a long time, and
then he said, “Come on, Little Bear.”

Big Bear gently guides Little Bear outside. Just outside the cave’s entrance, where the light of Big Bear’s fire and the Biggest Lantern of Them All extends out from the entrance of cave onto the field of snow, Little Bear holds Big Bear’s leg. The reader can see them both looking up at the sky above. The page ends on a cliff hanger, dangling what Big Bear and Little Bear now see and feel:

and it was…

Starting in middle school, a few nights a week always around one or two in the morning, I would wake up to my parents bickering about bills. During the years leading up to the 2008 recession, my parents began to struggle making ends meet. They had accumulated a great amount of debt from putting my mother’s Reagan-era, high-interest student loans into forbearance to start a family and taking out two mortgages on the house. My mother went back to school to switch careers in 2004, and my father was laid off in 2006. I was fifteen when the recession made things harder. I didn’t know the specifics of our financial troubles, just that we had them. With my parents’ bedroom next to mine, their voices sounded blunt like a fast underwater current. I knew what they were fighting about; it was the same subtle, mostly unspoken stress over money that droned through the house during the day. Long after we both moved out, I asked Kat, whose bedroom was across the hall from mine, if she also heard our parents’ late-night arguments those years. She told me it was the reason she kept a radio on throughout the night. I would just listen, gazing at the dark outside, watching the moon and stars if they were there, trying to figure out exactly what was threatening my family.

During my last two years of high school, I often stayed up late to do homework and to study. I needed good grades if I wanted to go college. One night at around two in the morning, while I was typing a history essay due in seven hours—the rest of the house dark except for the computer screen and a lamp across the living room—my mother suddenly shouted from her room at me: “Go to bed!” To which, I lost my shit: “I have to finish my fucking homework! What the fuck do you want me to do?” To which, Kat cried out: “Be quiet!” And then, it was over. I sat still at the desk, not typing, silence resuming in the house louder than before.

My older brother was away at college; I kept him updated on the house. He said he didn’t envy me for still being there, but that he wished he could be there for me and Kat. Those days, my dad was sleeping in my brother’s old room on the first floor for a few reasons: 1) he snored, 2) he woke up and went to work much earlier than my mother, and 3) they were working through marital troubles primarily caused by the aforementioned money troubles. Even though my father had always been a heavy sleeper, I expected him to come out after the burst of shouting, wearing a white t-shirt and blue sweatpants, and say something sympathetic to me. I had never sworn at my parents before. Kat, the youngest, never made orders. This family flare was unprecedented. Staring at the computer screen, waiting for my father to appear and perform his role, I wondered if he was awake, but reluctant to get out of bed and acknowledge the situation. I wondered how long my typing had been keeping my mother awake, upstairs alone in her and my father’s king-sized bed. Were they both wondering when to cut me off? After I swore, twice, at my mother and she didn’t respond, and after Kat made an attempt to control the situation, did I only remind my mother of the deadline that I had no choice in facing at school? Or did I inform her of something else? That we were angry, tired, and sinking into isolation. That, along with myself, my fears and anxieties were grown-up; they were now greater than lynxes and extinct dinosaurs, both more serious and mundane—a lonely lamp-lit night working against a deadline—when what we fear during the daytime is as real and present as their manifestations during the night.


This is what Big Bear and Little Bear see outside:


This is how Little Bear reacts:

“Ooooh! I’m scared,” said Little Bear,
Cuddling up to Big Bear.
Big Bear lifted Little Bear and
Cuddled him and said, “Look at the dark,
Little Bear.” And Little Bear looked.

Turn the page: the reader sees their backs and what’s in front of them:

“I’ve brought you the moon, Little Bear,” said Big Bear.
“The bright yellow moon and all the twinkly stars.”

These gifts to Little Bear cast a shadow behind them: darkest at their heels, waning over a path of footprints in the snow from where they stand in the snowfield to just before the bottom of the page. Big Bear and Little Bear observe the moon and horizon of stars that illuminate the snowfield, interspersed pods of pine trees, and a distant mountain range of pointed peaks. There is still light in the dark. This is the paradox that Little Bear has to accept in order to fall asleep. Turn the page:

“But Little Bear didn’t say anything, for he had gone
to sleep, warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms.”

Here is when I believe the book starts to open up to adult readers. Big Bear walks back to the cave over the same path of footprints they made going out, carrying the sleeping Little Bear inside and fulfilling his duties as a parent:

 and he settled down with Little Bear
on one arm and the Bear Book on the other, cozy
in the Bear Chair by the fire.
And Big Bear read the Bear Book right to…

It’s easy for even children to anticipate what’s on the next page: both Big Bear and Little Bear asleep in the Bear Chair, snoring.

The End.

We are granted this clean ending in which Little Bear doesn’t ever see Big Bear flinch and all is well. Though, just as my parents unsuccessfully tried to hide their worries until night, out of love and care, adult readers know the ending is unrealistic. It isn’t letting children in on something that’s certainly there. If Big Bear is as anthropomorphic as he’s made out to be, then he would naturally have Big Bear Problems and Big Bear Worries. We all have them. I think back to the second to last page when Big Bear is still awake, alone, and thinking. There had to be something still on his mind: perhaps the Bear Book he had just finished, Little Bear and his sleep troubles, or responsibilities he had to fulfill the next day such as foraging a berry patch so to feed Little Bear. And yet, with all of this still, on the last page, he is sound asleep, sitting right next to the light.


Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.

Ryan McDonald teaches at George Mason University where he is also a graduate student in the MFA program. He lives in Northern Virginia. More from this author →