Juliane was the only one, apparently, who could see them. And I promise you, it isn’t because she was crazy. She’s not crazy. But you know those times when you think you see someone only to have everyone around you brush it off. “It’s just a bush.” “That’s a signpost.” “There isn’t anything there.” You know what I mean. Well, that happened to Juliane all the time.
You see, for a long time, she thought they were right. They told her she just had an overactive imagination and that she needed to calm down. And she believed them. To be fair, Juliane did tend to be pretty anxious and it was usually at night that she thought she saw things, when it was most easy to make mistakes like that. It was probably just a trick of the light, she thought, just me being jumpy, right? Right?
Or maybe, she wondered to herself, never daring to say it out loud, it was more than a trick of the light, more than just her imagination. That’s what I came to believe, at least. I’ll let you decide for yourself, but just remember, the next time you think you see a man next to the lamppost only to have him disappear a moment later or you spot a little girl by the bush one moment and rub your eyes, finding her gone the next, you might be discovering something more than your own imagination. That was what Juliane found out one early spring day as she took a walk to clear her head.
It started like this: the day was cool but not cold. The sun was high in the sky and it was a normal spring day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Juliane had a lot of decisions to make. And a lot of things could go wrong. As she walked down the street, she could have sworn that she saw someone standing between the trees, but when she looked back, they were gone. She shook my head. Just a trick of the light. All the pressure to make the right choice must have been getting to her.
But, as she kept walking, she thought she saw someone again. However, again they seemed to disappear. My imagination must have been really going overboard, she thought to herself. The walk was supposed to be helping her clear her head, but instead there were even more thoughts. Again and again she thought she saw something. Finally, she decided to investigate.
Stepping toward the side of the path, she peered into the trees. Nothing. Now, our Juliane is not one to normally go off the path. She liked to stay where she could see where she was going, not taking too many chances, and always having a good safely net or plan B, but in this instance, whether she wasn’t thinking straight or was feeling extraordinarily bold, she stepped past the first row of trees and the forest seemed to swallow her. At least, that’s what it felt like. She could still see the path. It would be fine, she told herself.
As she took one step after another off the path, the light seemed to dance on the leaves of the trees and shadows fell on the ground like softly laid blankets. Being off the path was strange. The sticks and leaves on the ground crunched under her shoes and it felt like she jumped every step.
She looked back to check that she could still see the path, as she had been doing every few steps, only to find that the path was gone. Her heart beat faster. She bit her lip, mentally yelling at herself for being so stupid. What would everyone at home think when she had to explain that she was late because she went off the path? Because she was chasing shadows, nonetheless! Turning around to find her way back to the path, she nearly screamed.
There, blocking her way, stood a young man, except that she couldn’t see him when she looked straight at him. It was as if looking at him straight on made him fade away but looking just past him made him appear as clear as day. He smiled brightly.
“You can see me!” he exclaimed. Juliane stumbled backward, but didn’t fall because there was a tree directly behind her that she stumbled into instead.
“Y-yes,” she stuttered. He jumped up and down with joy, as a child would. She tried to keep him in focus, which was surprisingly difficult.
“This is so exciting!”
“W-why?” He wasn’t getting any closer to her but she still couldn’t see the path. It made her nervous. Maybe she shouldn’t have gone for a walk, she thought. Maybe she should have stayed in like her sister.
“Oh, did I scare you?” he asked, stepping back. He didn’t wait for a response. “This is just so exciting! What’s the message?”
“Message?” Juliane asked, completely confused. As far as she knew, she had no message. She was just going for a walk.
“You know, the message. You guys can only ever see us when you have something worth saying.” Something worth saying?
“I-I don’t have anything worth saying,” she said. While this is rarely ever true for anyone, except those of extraordinary foolishness, Juliane certainly thought she didn’t. It was quite the opposite, really. Juliane was a bright young girl who had many clever insights, but she was very often afraid to speak up, for her thoughts often took her off the well beaten path to places she was afraid of going and places others might not approve of.
“Oh, but you must,” the young man insisted. “They all say that at first. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never been seen by one of you before.”
“What do you mean, ‘one of you’?” Juliane asked. The boy looked pretty normal. Except for the whole bit where she couldn’t see him right. She rubbed her eyes to see if it was just her eyesight. Perhaps she needed glasses, but she had been told she had perfect vision her whole life. The boy remained out of focus if she looked straight on.
“A human,” he said, as if that was a completely normal distinction to make.
“Do you mean you aren’t a human?” Juliane said, her voice raising in alarm.
“Of course not,” he said casually, “Have you ever met a human you can’t see?”
“Well, no, but – what are you then?” Juliane could now see him clearly because she was somewhat preoccupied by looking past him for the path so she could run back to it if she needed to. She thought she might, but for now, though she was terrified, she was too curious to leave. That could be dangerous, she told herself. She should go. But something in her wanted to know more.
He sighed as if he was apologizing. “I’m not allowed to tell you.”
“I just… I can’t. Not until you give me the message.”
Juliane was exacerbated. “I don’t have a message!” she nearly shouted. Juliane felt much more like she didn’t know anything at all. She felt as if she was walking along the edge of a cliff most of the time, where one wrong step could send her plummeting into a deep ravine. A ravine of disapproval and hardship and mistakes. “I don’t have a message,” she said, quieter.
The boy looked disappointed. “Then I guess you’ll have to tell me later.”
Juliane felt a strange wind and then, suddenly, she was back on the path and the boy was gone. She was sure she was crazy.
Not knowing what else to do, she started walking back home. Her steps were shaky, and she kept looking into the trees expecting to see something pop out at her. The woods looked strange now and every shadow seemed to hold some unknown. The sun was still high in the sky, but the world looked different, like she was aware of something out there, and in herself, that she had previously not known. She was afraid.
But it all seemed so silly, on the other hand. It was all in her head, she told herself, right? This person in the woods that she could only see if she didn’t look right at him. The message? It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
But other fears were. She began to think. She was tired from it, weary, really. Juliane had been afraid for a long time without knowing it. Fear has an interesting way of hiding itself in plain sight. Juliane could watch scary movies or take walks in the dark just fine. Her fear was much harder to place, much better disguised. She looked out into the woods once more.
“Hello?” she called, against her better judgement, as she saw something shift. She stepped into the woods, off the path again, bolder this time, but still cautious. “Hello?”
“Hello!” Jumping between the trees as if she was playing hide and go seek was a little girl. “Did you come to bring the message?”
“What is this message I’m supposed to have?” Juliane asked the child, who she noticed she could only see when she looked past her.
“Silly, I don’t know what it is till you tell me!” the girl giggled. “You know it, don’t you?”
“I don’t have any idea what is happening,” Juliane admitted. The girl stopped to skip a stone into the creek. She stepped closer to Juliane and she felt a cool breeze.
“You know. You know who I am.” She said in a child-like taunting voice. “You just don’t want to admit it.”
“No, I really don’t know,” Juliane insisted.
“It’s what you’re so afraid of,” the girl said. “Look at me.”
As soon as she did, the child was gone, and she was back on the path. What?!
Juliane had no idea what she was talking about. Little girls shouldn’t be alone in the woods. Juliane didn’t know her. She had never seen her before in her life. But still, that cold feeling felt familiar to her. It felt like fear. It felt like being disapproved of. Like being judged. But she still felt like she couldn’t quite place it.
What are you so afraid of?
It wasn’t so much of a voice as a thought.
What was she afraid of? Everything! She thought. She was afraid of making the wrong choice and of being alone. She was afraid of upsetting her family and that her friends would think she was crazy if she told them what she actually thought about things. She was afraid that if she didn’t get it right, people wouldn’t keep her around. She was afraid that she didn’t know enough but couldn’t bear to ask questions. She was terrified that someone would think she was stupid. She was –
She stopped running, which she had started doing at some point, though she couldn’t remember when.
Looking left and right, the woods seemed darker, but she felt less afraid, somehow, despite the fact that she had been thinking of her fears very specifically. She darted deep past the tree line until she saw her, an old woman sitting at the foot of a big tree. The old woman smiled at her. She looked just over her head to see her.
“Hello, my dear. Do you have the message for me? Do you know my name?”
“I do.” Juliane said, her shaking voice betraying her show of confidence as a farce. She had figured it out just as she walked into the trees that last time and she was nervous, scared, but she would have to do it anyway. The old woman smiled but it was hard to tell if it was friendly or cruel because Juliane still couldn’t quite bear to look right at her. “Hello, Fear.”
The woman stood. Juliane stepped back. As she stood, the woman seemed to grow taller, her face shifted and her shoulders broadened. She was no longer an old woman, but a shadow that twisted and morphed into terrifying shapes that would send the bravest person running. Lions and vultures and monsters with mouths that were all teeth. The sky grew dark and Juliane froze in fear. She couldn’t look. “You think we are friendly,” a deep, raspy voice said, “You always do. You trust us. You base your decisions on us, but you so rarely see it. Because you can’t see us.” Juliane shielded her face with her arm. The darkness somehow seemed too bright. It didn’t make sense.
“Oh, but you know me,” the voice continued, “I have been your constant companion. All your worst decisions, your biggest regrets, the moments you wish you could redo; I was there! It was me!” The ground even seemed to shake. “And you never acknowledge my handiwork! You look right past me, never noticing. Isn’t it beautiful? Perfect? You never look at me, so you’ll never know!”
Juliane was terrified. She could just barely peek out and see the great shadow that stood in front of her. She felt as if she would never have courage again.
“You’re too afraid,” the voice boomed, “And that’s just where I like you.” She could hear the smile in the voice.
But something didn’t make sense to her. Why was fear telling her she was trapped? Wouldn’t it be better for it if she never thought about seeing it? If she could see it, wouldn’t she be able to avoid it?
“Why are you telling me this?” she shouted, for the wind had picked up. She tried to look at the creature in front of her but turned away at the last moment.
“Because you can see me!”
“I don’t understand!” She tripped as she stepped back and landed on her back. As she finally looked at the shadow above her, it seemed to shrink. The sky seemed to grow light again, and the wind died down. In front of her was the excited young man again, not the massive shadow. The birds chirped above the two.
He shook his head sadly. “You see me. I thought if you really looked at me, I could stay. But I was wrong…”
Juliane sat up and as she continued to look at him, he continued to fade.
“What’s the message?” he said.
It seemed to suddenly come together in her head. “You are fear…” she said cautiously, “I could see you, so you tried to make me more afraid. But when I look at you… When I look at you I know that I can’t trust you.” She thought she saw the boy briefly smile and wave in defeat as he disappeared. “And you have no power over me anymore.”
Juliane stood in the middle of the path and pondered what had just happened. Her most regretted choices, her hesitation to choose, her constant worry about what others would think… it was all fear. But when she stopped to look right at it, it didn’t make sense. Her friends should be the ones who would want to listen. She was allowed to go off the path. Her family would love and want her no matter if they liked her decisions. None of the fear stood up when examined in the light, for fear itself disappeared when someone looked at it. Fear, after all, wasn’t something she could trust.
So, next time you see that trick of the light, look a little closer. You never know what you may discover. After all, putting fear in its place seems to be light’s greatest trick.