Close your eyes, child, and pull the quilt up to your chin, and I will tell you of the first time I fought a shadow.
It was a cold December night, like tonight, not too far off from Christmas, and the window pane was edged with frost. We had been your guards for nearly two years; night after night, stalwart, casting our lights across your sweet sleeping face. I was the brightest, then as now the captain of our little band, and I stood command here from the outlet by the light switch. The others had their posts above, each glowing green star a soldier at the ready.
You were then about three years old, or thereabouts, and our duty thus far had been an easy one. You were a happy child, often smiling, your hair a wild halo around your face. You called me blue canary with such a solemn intensity, and you told me stories, just like I am telling you this one now. I could not speak to you then, only watch, but I loved you. We all loved you.
The night the shadow came, you were not smiling. It had been a bad day. Another child had been cruel to you and you were angry and afraid. Perhaps more afraid than angry; cruelty was new to you. You did not speak much during the nightly routine; your father read a section from the mythology book as usual, but you asked no questions. He asked if you were all right, and you simply closed your eyes and were silent. When he left the room, he touched one fingertip to my switch, just softly, as if to reassure himself that it was turned solidly on. His face was drawn tight, weary.
I was worried, too, as were my soldiers. All of us had been told, back in our training sessions at the factory, that the shadows fed on unhappiness. They were drawn to it, inescapably, like moths were to ourselves, and so you would be vulnerable. We pushed ourselves, in those first few hours, to shine just a little brighter, just a bit more warmly, hoping that our collective light would be barrier enough to keep the shadows away.
At first, it seemed like it might be enough. Outside the wind whipped at the trees, howled laughter into the night sky. The branches of the big oak scraped across your window, like fingers clawing at the latch. But the glass was solid, the walls strong, and inside the room glowed golden and green. There was a warm quilt tucked up under your chin; your grandmother had sewn it for your birth, picked out a pattern of stars in glimmering thread to echo the ones that hung above you. For a while, you slept peacefully.
And then, sometime around midnight, your brow began to furrow. Your little button nose wrinkled up and you turned over once, and then twice, in some sort of agitation. You flung the quilt off the edge of the bed impatiently, then shivered at the cold and muttered something I couldn't quite make out. You still slept, but it was uneasy, unhappy.
The shadow came – no more than a faint mist to begin with, like a fog that might collect in a warm room on a cold night. It seeped in under the door, slipped in through the thin places where the window panes met their frame. Then, all at once, it coalesced into a thick mass, hanging menacingly in the middle of the room. You pushed yourself away from it in the bed, though even then you did not wake.
It wasn't a real shadow, of course, not smoke or even the mere absence of light. It was emptiness – a great, vast sort of emptiness. It was hunger, the kind that could never be sated; it was thirst, the kind that could never be quenched. It was fear, embodied into something that crawled and slithered and writhed all at once. I knew that if we did not stop it, it would press its icy tendrils to your brow, drip poison into your ear, feed itself on your nightmares.
My army of stars pulsed brighter, twinkling valiant green, each drawing deep from the well of power it had built from the day's sunlight. At my unspoken command they cast the light sharply downwards in a flight of glittering arrows. The shadow flinched back; I loosed my own light, a thundering cannon shot, and the shadow gave a squeal of pain like fingernails on a chalkboard. I made my command again, and a second flight of arrows sliced through the air.
This time, though, the shadow was ready. A waft of dark smoke arched sharply upwards above it, a grotesque, swollen limb lifted to protect its body. The shafts of light were swept aside, scattering harmlessly against the wall. Emboldened by this success, the darkness grew again, higher, thicker, until it reached nearly to the ceiling. I sent another cannon shot, and another, but though each one struck home, the shadow carried on growing. One by one I saw the lights of my soldiers flicker and go out.
The shadow stooped over your bed. You were whimpering by then, and your head thrashed back and forth on the pillow, your hands clenched into fists on the edge of the sheet. I strained in my socket, desperate to save you, though I knew not how.
As I reached for you, something in me changed. You had called me blue canary, but in truth that was only the outside of me, only the image I presented. I was a light – a warm one, a strong one, but no more than that. My ancestors were candles, lanterns, lighthouses. But in that moment, I became more than electricity, more than filament and bulb.
I wrenched myself free of the outlet, and I flew.
The world felt strange to my new form, the air more fluid. It fluttered beneath my weight. I faltered, unsure of how to use my wings— but then a gust of air bore me up, and by some instinct I skimmed across it to land in your hair. The shadow came closer, then closer still, until only I remained between the darkness and your ear.
Your pained whimpers fell silent, but still you trembled. And I opened my mouth and sang.
My song rambled, I don't mind admitting that much. I started off with good intentions, telling you who I was and how I wanted to help you. The shadow stopped moving; it froze above me, inky darkness rippling uncertainly, and inwardly I rejoiced. But soon after that my mind ran dry. What could I say that would wound such a thing as a shadow?
In the end, I sang about anything that occurred to me: about night lights, about music, about the little framed picture of the lighthouse that hung on the wall above your bed. The shadow staggered back, thinning, as if even these small things were the sharpest of knives, striking to the heart. It faded to fog, and then to a charcoal smudge, like a dirty fingerprint pressed to a window pane.
I sang about Jason and his stupid Argonauts, just to remind you of your father and his bedtime stories, just to remind you of how much he loved you. I sang, and I sang, and as the shadow shimmered and faded into nothingness, I told you that I loved you, too, and I promised that I would never leave you.
Your brow smoothed out, and your breathing became more even, and your little mouth even turned upwards at the corners into a faint smile. I knew then that the danger had passed. The room was once more warm, the air soft and clear and filled with light. Above your head, the army of stars glowed green again. You were safe at last.
Your fingers loosened on the edge of the sheet, and after a moment you turned over again, but lazily. The gust of air this produced lifted me up, carried me back to my place in the outlet. As I landed there I resumed my old form, became nothing more than a night light once again. Everything was as it had been.
But there was one thing I kept, of those few valiant moments. Despite my shape – my switch and my plug and my filament and my bulb, all covered over with a thin picture of a blue canary – I kept my voice. And now every night when you close your eyes I sing to you. Sometimes I sing of epic fights against the darkness, of battles nearly lost and hopes ultimately triumphant. Sometimes I sing of the tales your father tells you, of mysteries and adventures. Sometimes, when I am tired, I just sing about the furniture in your bedroom and what the wardrobe thinks of your outfits (it likes the purple shirt best). But every night, no matter the topic, I end my song by telling you once again that I love you.
Soon, I know, you will be too old for stories, too old for night lights. You may take down the stars on the ceiling and the little framed picture of the lighthouse, fill the space instead with posters of bands and cars and teen celebrities. You will go to bed in the dark and sleep in late. Every so often a shadow may come, but there will be other things to protect you, other lights in your life, other songs.
You will not need me. But if you make a place for me in your soul – maybe a birdhouse, with a night light on inside the birdhouse – I promise I will never leave you.