This is a short story I wrote in December 2017. It’s about pain. It’s been translated by my friend Vanja Vinter and is published here on my blog for now because I’m not really sure where else to put it yet. If you read it and find something you like with it you’re welcome to donate whatever you think it’s worth to a charity of your choice.
SEBASTIAN AND THE TROLL
A little story about how it feels
Sebastian lives in a bubble of glass. This is a problem, of course, on this everybody on the outside agrees. Glass bubbles are very impractical, for example in classrooms and at birthday parties. In the beginning everybody thought the glass was the problem, but after he’d lived in there long enough it was decided instead that Sebastian was the problem. The people on the outside say you can’t establish eye contact with him, that he seems ”absent”, as if where he is somehow is worth less than where they are.
”Don’t you wanna go outside in the fresh air and play ball? Wouldn’t that be fun?” they used to ask when he was little and their voices could still be heard all the way in. He couldn’t explain then that he didn’t think having fun seemed liked fun. That being happy didn’t make him happy. He can’t remember the last time anyone of them said something funny and he laughed. Maybe he never has, and in that case they’re probably right, the people who for as long as he can remember have been shaking their heads saying ”there’s something wrong with him” to Sebastian’s parents.
He sat close to the glass back then, reading the words off their lips. They were right. A person is supposed to think that having fun is fun, otherwise something that shouldn’t be broken is broken. Something that isn’t broken in children who aren’t weird. For years various grown-ups came and went outside the bubble, some carefully tapped the glass, others banged it hard when he didn’t answer. Some asked him how he ”felt”. He wanted to tell them that it feels like feeling nothing, yet still it hurts. Some said Sebastian ”suffers from depression”, but they said it like they were the ones actually suffering. Sebastian himself said nothing, and now he can’t hear anyone at all from the outside anymore. He doesn’t know if it’s because they gave up or if the glass just got thicker.
When the bubble still had tiny openings at the top they dropped down little pills, they said the pills were supposed to make the glass thinner but he thinks they might have misunderstood. He’s not sure they actually know as much about glass as they claim. The pills got stuck and blocked the last few openings. Now there’s only Sebastian in here.
He can’t sleep at night. Sometimes his parents can’t either. He can see their tears run slowly down the outside of the glass then, they sound like rain over rooftops. Sebastian knows that his parents wish that something awful had happened to him. Because then there’d be a reason for him to hurt. Then he could be understood, maybe even fixed. But Sebastian’s darkness is not just a light switch that someone forgot to flip, not just a pill he doesn’t want to take. His darkness is a heaviness and a tiredness that pulls the bones of his chest inwards and downwards until he can’t breathe. And now the bubble’s gotten bigger, or maybe Sebastian has gotten smaller. Maybe that’s what anxiety does to us, shrinks us. He sometimes falls asleep in the afternoons, from exhaustion, not tiredness. Sleeps with shallow breaths and deep nightmares, just for a few minutes at a time. Until he wakes up one evening with fur in his eyes.
There is a troll sitting in his bubble.
Sebastian knows it’s a troll since he asks the troll:
”What are you?”
And the troll replies:
Then you know. But Sebastian still needs to ask:
”What do you mean a troll?”
The troll is busy, it’s concentrated on writing something on tiny white notes with a nice blue pen. More and more and more white notes being stacked in uneven piles everywhere, until the troll looks up at Sebastian and replies:
”Regular kind of troll”, it says, since that’s what it is. Nothing special for a troll, but special since it is a troll, of course. It’s after all not that often you see a troll either in a bubble or anywhere else.
”What are you writing on the notes?” Sebastian asks.
”Your name”, the troll answers.
”So that you don’t forget that you are somebody.”
Sebastian doesn’t know what to reply to that. So he says:
”It’s the most beautiful pen I know, I always carry it with me because I want them to know that I love them”, the troll says.
Sebastian’s fingertips touch the glass of the bubble.
”How did you get in here?” he asks.
”I didn’t get in, I got out”, the troll says and stretches sleepily.
”From you. Through one of the cracks.”
The troll rolls its eyes, disgruntledly flails its paw against the walls of the bubble, kicks a threshold, annoyed. Sebastian didn’t even know there were thresholds in here.
”You see, this here shack won’t do anymore, Sebastian. The glass has gotten too thick and everything that’s in here hurts too much. In the end, there’ll be no air left and then something has to crack. Either the bubble or you.”
Sebastian’s fingers fumble over his stomach. His throat. His face. Small, tiny cracks everywhere. They don’t hurt. Sebastian thinks that maybe he’s forgotten how to do it, how to hurt in places where other people hurt, in all the normal ways. Burn-your-hand-on-a-hot-pan-ways. Stub-your-toe-on-furniture-ways. Now he only hurts in weird ways. Ways-that-don’-t leave-a-scar-ways. Ways-that-can’t-bee-seen-on-an-x-ray-ways.
”How did you fit inside me?” he asks the troll.
”Oh, it wasn’t hard at all. I’ve been asleep inside your heart for a hundred thousand years. Trolls get very small when we sleep. Like balloons, balloons also become very small when they sleep.”
”And when they break”, Sebastian notes.
The troll nods thoughtfully, as if this is very, very true. Then asks:
”Is there breakfast?”
Sebastian shakes his head. He doesn’t eat very much anymore, everyone worries about that, as if food was the problem instead of the problem being the problem. It’s easier to worry about food, of course, it’s understandable that the people on the outside stick to the kind of worrying they know best. The troll looks very disappointed.
”You get pretty hungry after a hundred thousand years. Breakfast would have been nice.”
”I’m sorry”, Sebastian says.
The troll nods, with his sorrow in its eyes.
”I know, Sebastian. I know how sad you are.”
Sebastian reaches his hand out. The troll is soft, its fur thick.
”You’re not from my imagination. My imagination isn’t this good.”
The troll takes a deep bow.
”What do you want from me?” Sebastian asks.
”What do you want for you?” the troll asks.
”I want it to stop hurting”, Sebastian asks.
”What?” the troll asks.
”You should know, if you’ve been inside me. Everything. I want everything to stop hurting”, Sebastian begs.
The troll doesn’t lie to him then. Sebastian really likes the troll for that.
”I can’t teach you how to make it stop hurting, Sebastian.”
”Then what can you teach me?” Sebastian breathes in reply.
”How to fight.”
”Fight against what?”
”Against everybody that’s coming tonight.”
”Your nightmares. Your weaknesses. Your inadequacies. Your monsters.”
And at night, they come. All of them.
Sebastian sees them at the horizon of the bubble. They wait for just a moment, just long enough for him to have time to be terrified. They love when he’s terrified. And then they come, everyone that hurts, every nameless terror, everything Sebastian has ever feared. Every monster from under every bed and every creature from the darkest rooms inside his head. They ride straight towards the boy and the troll now, all the anxiety that there’s space for in a child. Children always have so much more space inside them than grown-ups can take remembering.
Sebastian turns to run, but he’s at the edge of a cliff, a hundred thousand feet high. The ground shakes, in a few seconds they’ll be here, all his inner demons. He feels their shadows and how cold they make everything. He’s cold on the inside now, they way you get when some of your skin is exposed to the air outside of the duvet an early morning in November, just after winter has wrestled its way into autumn but before the radiators have had time to adjust. Sebastian spins around at the edge of the cliff with his palms open, like he’s looking for heat, and suddenly he actually feels it. It’s coming from below. If he jumps now he’ll land in a bed, soft and safe and full of blankets just the right size for pulling over the head of an average sized boy. He can see it from here. The demons hiss and snarl so close to the edge that the troll has to scream for Sebastian to hear it:
”They want you to do it!”
”Do what?” Sebastian roars, leaning over the edge.
He wonders whether it’s really possible for anything to be worse down there than up here.
”They want you to jump, Sebastian!” the troll screams.
And Sebastian almost jumps. Because he knows how good it would have felt on the way down, and then maybe it doesn’t hurt anymore? Down there at the end of the falling down, maybe it will feel like it never hurt at all?
But the troll holds on to Sebastian’s hand. Its paw is also soft. It can’t be imagination, Sebastian thinks, because he doesn’t have that good of an imagination and he knows practically nothing about paws, does he? So he stays, and everything that hurts rushes straight through him, down into the abyss, laughing and howling.
”They can’t hurt you, not really, so they have to make you hurt yourself” the troll whispers.
Sebastian stands at the edge, out of breath.
”Are you sure?” he wonders.
”Are you sure there’s no breakfast?” the troll wonders.
”What do you mean?”
”I mean that sometimes you think you’re sure of something, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be wrong. You could for example see a balloon and be sure that someone dropped it, but it might actually have run away.”
Sebastian starts hurting just behind his eyes.
”So you mean that you’re… sure or not sure?”
The troll scratches a few different spots of fur.
”I just mean that breakfast would have been nice.”
Sebastian apologizes, the troll nods disappointedly. Everything goes quiet. Then Sebastian’s feet start moving, without him being involved. The bubble starts rocking, at first almost nothing at all but then almost immediately all at once. Sebastian closes his eyes and holds his knees with his hands, because there’s nothing else to hold on to in here. He wants to throw up, but the troll places its paw at the back of his neck and then for a long while it feels like Sebastian takes off and floats. “Watch out”, the troll whispers, but Sebastian doesn’t react until the troll yells ”WATCH OUT!”. All of a sudden Sebastian gets water up his nose. Then in his eyes. He flails his arms wildly, feel his clothes get wet and his shoes fill up with sharp claws, something is pulling him down into the depths as if he’s drowning. HE’S DROWNING!
”Did you push…you frikking idiot…did you push me into…into the ocean?” he screams to the troll, panicking with his nose barely over the surface now.
”No, this isn’t an… ocean, it’s a…rain”, the troll pants.
They both gasp for air. The sky disappears behind huge waves that pound and splash them on purpose, hurt them just because they can. The troll’s fur gets dark and heavy and is sucked into the depth. Sebastian reaches his hand out and grabs its paw, an endless storm riding in over them.
”Where did the rain come from?” Sebastian yells in the troll’s ear, or at least where he thinks trolls might have ears.
”It’s tears!”, the troll roars back, where the troll thinks Sebastian has ears.
”Yours! All the ones you’ve held back inside you! I told you, I TOLD YOU!!!”
”THAT EITHER THE BUBBLE WILL CRACK! OR YOU WILL!”
Sebastian disappears under the surface, just for a few moments or maybe an entire life, before he struggles his way back up again. A flock of huge grey birds hover over them. Now and then they dive towards the water and snap at Sebastian’s shirt collar. He shields himself with his arm, their sharp beaks cut long, deep, bleeding cuts in him.
”Are they trying to…take me?” Sebastian screams with the rain and the wind raging and roaring across his cheeks.
”No, they’re trying to…scare you!”, the troll cries back while one of the birds takes off with a beakful of fur.
”Because they want you to stop swimming.”
Sebastian grips tightly onto the troll’s fur, closes his eyes even tighter, he doesn’t know who is keeping whom afloat in the end. They’re hurtled through the waters, down into the darkness, into a wall. They land in a petrifying silence, impossible to trust. But at last Sebastian opens his eyes again and realises that the two of them are lying coughing and snorting in the sand on a beach. The sun slowly dries fur and skin.
”Where are we?” Sebastian asks.
”At the bottom” the troll whispers.
”The bottom of what?”
”The bottom of you.”
Sebastian sits up. He’s got sand inside his clothes, in every place you don’t want sand to be and some places where Sebastian imagines that the sand wants to be just as little as Sebastian wants it there. It’s warm when he lifts it up in his palms, runs around his fingers until it finds its way between them. Sebastian looks as his knuckles, full of cracks that don’t hurt, and it’s not raining anymore. Maybe it never rains at the bottom, maybe the sun always rests on you here, never too much and never too little. Surrounding the beach are high, smooth cliffs, impossible to climb. This is a paradise, at the bottom of a hole. Along one of the cliff faces there is a rope, at its very end there’s a campfire burning. Sebastian carefully opens his palms towards the small, bouncing flames to feel the heat. The wind tickles his ear.
”Do it”, the wind shouts. ”Do it!”
Sebastian scratches his ear, looks at the troll in surprise. The troll points sadly to the fire.
”Everyone is waiting for you to do it, Sebastian.”
”Decide that it’s easier to stay down here. And set fire to the rope.”
Sebastian blinks like his eyelashes have gotten stuck to his heart and have to be ripped from it every time his eyes open.
”I can’t live on the outside of the bubble”, he stammers at last.
”You can’t live in here either”, the troll replies.
The words shiver when the answer falls from Sebastian’s lips and the tears bring him to his knees:
”I don’t want it to hurt anymore. Does everybody else hurt like this?”
”I don’t know”, the troll admits.
”Why do I hurt when nothing has happened? I never laugh! Everybody normal laughs!”
The troll’s paws rub the spot where the troll probably has temples.
”Maybe it’s your laugh that’s broken. Not you. Maybe someone broke it. One time someone broke my favourite breakfast plate. I’m still a bit upset about it, actually.”
”How do you fix a laugh?” Sebastian whispers.
”I don’t know”, the troll admits.
”What if there’s something wrong with me after all?”
The troll looks to be taking this under serious consideration.
”Maybe something’s wrong with the wrong?”
”Maybe the balloon isn’t even a balloon. Maybe you don’t have to be happy. Maybe you just have to be.”
The troll writes something in the sand. Slowly and carefully, with its most beautiful letters. Then it promises:
The troll dries the boy’s eyes. The boy asks:
”What do we do now?”
”Sleep”, the troll suggests.
”Why?” the boy asks.
”Because sometimes when you wake up there’s breakfast.”
The troll puts its paw under Sebastian’s cheek. Sebastian crawls up in it and falls asleep. From tiredness, not exhaustion. The troll sleeps around him, the boy’s tears sway slowly like crystals in the fur. When they wake up the fire has gone out. Sebastian blinks at the sky.
”What are you thinking about?” the troll asks.
”I’m thinking that maybe the balloon was neither dropped nor ran away. Maybe someone just let it go”, the boy whispers.
”Why would anyone let go of a balloon?” the troll asks.
”Because somebody wanted it to be happy.”
The troll nods gratefully, as if this new thought is a little gift. Sebastian stretches forward carefully and touches the rope.
”What’s up there?” he asks and points to the top of the cliffs where the rope is attached.
”A life. A hundred thousand years of all the best and all the worst”, the troll whispers.
”And in-between that?”
The troll smiles, almost happily.
”Oh, yes! THAT! All the in-between. You get to choose that. The best and the worst in life just happens to us, but the in-between… that’s what keeps us going.”
Sebastian’s breath bounces around in his throat.
”Will you come with me?”
”Yes. We’ll all come with you.”
Sebastian’s face crumples up like confused laundry.
”We”, the troll repeats.
When Sebastian looks out over the beach he sees a hundred thousand trolls.
”Who are they?”
The troll hugs Sebastian until Sebastian is only hugging air. The other trolls walk toward him and disappear, one by one, all in through the same crack. But they call out from the inside:
”We’re the voices in your head that tell you not to do it, Sebastian. When the others say ’jump’, stop swimming’, and ’set fire to the rope’. We’re the ones that tell you not to.”
Sebastian looks at his hands. One of the cracks closes up. Then another one. He holds the invisible scars against his cheek and wonders how you live with them instead of living in them. Then he closes his eyes again, sleeps all night there in the sand.
He dreams. Not that he’s running, like he usually does. Not that he’s falling or drowning. He dreams that he’s climbing now, up a rope, to the top of a cliff. When he wakes up he’s on his own next to the hole. He drops the rope and it falls to the bottom, lands with a soft thud. Far down there in the sand the boy can still read what the troll wrote when it said ”just be” and the boy said ”be what?”.
It says ”Sebastian”. Just that.
He sits with his feet dangling over the edge and awaits the sound of rain against the roof of the bubble. But nothing comes, and far away he sees something else, something he’s forgotten what it looks like. A line in the sky, from top to bottom. Sebastian has to turn his head to the side until his neck sounds like bubble wrap before he finally realises what it is.
A crack in the glass. Just the one. He can barely fit his hand through it. His mother touches his fingertips on the other side. He hears her shout his name into the bubble, and he whispers:
”You don’t have to scream, mom… I… can hear you.”
”Sebastian…”, she whispers then, the way only the person who gave a child its name can whisper it.
”Yes, mom”, he replies.
”What can I do for you?” she sobs.
Sebastian thinks for a long time before he finally answers:
”Breakfast. I’d like…breakfast.”
When his mother whispers that she loves him, snow starts falling from the sky. But when it lands inside the bubble it’s not frozen flakes, its freshly shed fur, small bits of fluffy fuzz that settles softly on Sebastian’s skin. It’s still early, maybe he doesn’t have words for this yet, but in time he might be able to talk about it. One day when someone says something and maybe he laughs for the first time. Or when he laughs as if it were the first time, over and over again. Laughs as if someone a very, very long time ago found the laugh on the ground in a forest, broken to pieces after a storm, and brought it home and nursed it until the laugh was strong enough to be released into the wild again. And then it takes off from the rooftops, straight up towards the heavens, as if someone let go of a balloon to make it happy. Maybe, in a hundred thousand years.
He blinks at the light, as the sunrise gently tugs at the clouds until the night lets go. There’s a note in his pocket. He’ll find it soon.
“Don’t jump”, it says, written with someone’s most beautiful letters.
because we really really want to know
who you can become
if you don’t.”