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Poem: "A Hand in the Darkness" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "A Hand in the Darkness"
This poem was written outside the regular prompt calls, in response to [personal profile] ng_moonmoth's idea for the "machete" square in my 10-1-17 card for the Fall Festival Bingo fest. It has been sponsored by [personal profile] ng_moonmoth. It belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.


"A Hand in the Darkness"


Shiv remembered a lot of things,
some of them good, most of them not.

He could recall how he got this scar,
or that one, or these over here; but
if anyone asked, he wouldn't say.

There was a hand in the darkness,
and it held a knife, a glimmering threat.

Shiv was just as dangerous himself, now,
as if his skin were a sheath that held
a blade barely out of view.

Anything solid enough
for him to touch was a block
of raw material just waiting
to become a weapon if he
happened to need one.

When he handled the key
to the safe deposit box, though,
that was a different story.

Shiv knew it was dangerous,
just not in the same way.

He still didn't understand why
Tolliver and Simon had rented
the box in the first place, not really,
even though they said it was to hold
the machete until Shiv could take it back.

He remembered the machete, all right, and
sometimes in the night he woke sweating
from dreams of the day when he made it.

There was a hand in the darkness,
and it held a knife, bright with blood.

Even after his release from prison,
Shiv fretted over that machete.

Collecting it from the box
should have made it stop
haunting him, but it didn't.

Shiv held the blade balanced
over one finger, perfect even though
he had made it quick as he could
from the crappy stainless steel
of the prison silverware.

He was proud of that knife,
mostly, and he was grateful
to have it back, but ... but.

Sometimes he imagined that
he could still feel the blood under
his fingers, like duct tape peeling off
when he let go of the metal hilt.

That probably wasn't a good sign.

So Shiv took the blade downstairs
and showed it to Boss White.

"Nice knife," Boss White drawled.
"What do you want me to do with it?"

"Make it quit bugging me," Shiv said.
"I can't get it out of my head, and
it's starting to drive me nuts."

"Might could be you'd want
to mention that to Dr. G,"
Boss White suggested.

There was no push to it,
but Shiv quivered anyway,
lines of goosebumps racing
all up and down his spine.

"I'd rather not," he said.
"Can't you just fix it for me?"

"You know I ain't a mindhealer,"
Boss White said, frowning.

"I know, I know," Shiv said.
"So maybe not fix it, but just ...
shore it up a bit, so it won't keep
landing on me? I mean, you've
done that with some other stuff."

Which had hurt like hell, at the time,
but it had been a damn sight better
than that rip in the wall leaking
black sludge all over him.

"All right, come on over here
and I'll see what I can do,"
Boss White said as he set
the machete on his desk
and led Shiv to the couch.

Shiv went with him eagerly,
because he liked the feel of
Boss White in his head, cool
and smooth as a saxophone.

One big hand cupped the back of
his neck, stroking the little hairs there
until they lay down flat again.

Shiv let his eyes flutter shut,
melting into the touch the way
he never did for anything else.

There was a hand in the darkness,
and it held a knife, slipping into his mind
like popping the latch on a window,
the contact painless and familiar.

Boss White found the place in his head
that the machete kept falling down from,
like that closet Shiv had once where
the boards bent toward the front
and dumped things all over him.

It only took a minute for Boss White
to bend the boards straight and
fix them so they'd stay that way.

Yeah, it stung a bit, like a splinter
under the skin, enough to make Shiv
flinch at the first prick of it, but that
faded fast enough for him to ignore it.

Boss White put the memory of
the machete's making on that shelf,
and this time Shiv knew that it would stay
there unless either of them reached up
to take it back down on purpose.

Then Boss White let go of him,
and there Shiv was leaning against
his boss like he always seemed to do,
rubbing his cheek against the fine wool
of Boss White's suitcoat, like a cat
wanting to be petted one last time.

Shiv shook himself and pulled away,
embarrassed to be caught that way.

He didn't need anyone like that.

"Thanks, boss," said Shiv.
"I reckon it'll stay put now."

"Welcome," Boss White said.
He picked up the machete from
his desk and handed it back to Shiv.
"You take good care of this, boy."

"Yeah, boss," Shiv said, and
headed back up to his apartment.

He stuck the machete in a pumpkin
and set it outside his door as
a sort of jack-o-lantern.

That night, Shiv went to bed
and found himself dreaming again.

There was a hand in the darkness,
and it held a knife, the blade
shining with promise,

but that was okay.

* * *

Notes:

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."
-- Neil Gaiman

Scars are marks of survival, but people process them in different ways. Some are proud of their scars while others hate them. Shiv is variable about his, partly depending on how he got them. There are ways to feel comfortable with a scar.

Traumatic stress can cause a spectrum of effects ranging from acute stress reaction (a normal response that fades after a few days) through acute stress disorder (a "stuck" crisis state that lasts up to a month), PTSD (a "stuck" crisis state lasting more than one month), to PDSD (a "stuck" crisis state involving repeated traumatic experiences over time). Shiv has PDSD out the wazoo. When the abuse begins very early in life, Developmental Trauma Disorder may occur as it disrupts personal growth. This spectrum of conditions is fundamentally a failure of processing that happens inside the brain. When the mind cannot file traumatic memories properly, then they don't integrate into experience, which disrupts the ability to recognize context. The events get "stuck" in a processing loop within the mind, which turns those memories into triggers that cause flashbacks. Some new therapies focus on the body as a way to "unstick" those memories and thus heal the mind. Similarly, some people find that sharp things can cut the bad feedback loops in their head. Interestingly, Shiv has diverted from his usual habit of ignoring problems as much as possible, and actually found a patch for this one little bit. While it doesn't solve the underlying problems (his crappy past and a traumatic rescue) it does reduce that one symptom. This positive experience may improve his help-seeking behavior over time. It also helps to learn ways of coping with flashbacks or helping someone else through them.

Traumatic memories may be repressed. In particular, child abuse often disrupts memory due to betrayal trauma. In Shiv's case, he has been betrayed so often and so flagrantly that his memory is a sieve and he has concluded trust is nonsense. Previously, this was correct distrust, but in his current circumstances, it is now under-trusting. Here are some signs of repressed memories and how to cope with them.

Double modals appear through a range of black, Southern, and lower-class dialects of English. Suzette Haden Elgin wrote about these in posts regarding cows and belief. "Might could be" is one of those phrases that sounds wrong to people outside its dialects of use, but within those, it has a variety of subtle and specific meanings. Among the more consistent is taking sides, and another is framing an oblique request. It's a very face-saving phrase. To unpack a bit more, Boss White is saying something like, "Now I'm on your side, Shiv, and I know you don't like headwork much, but I think your psychiatrist is better suited to solving your problem than I am. I won't push, though." The connotations are all crammed into three little words, thus neatly disproving the claim that the phrase is "unnecessarily wordy." In actuality, Boss White can do a temporary fix faster and better, whereas Dr. G can guide Shiv through a permanent fix but it'll take longer.

The linen cupboard metaphor for PTSD is quite popular. Dr. G used something similar with a scary basement in "Capable of Stretching."

Intimacy is a special closeness that comes in different types and aspects. It is essential to both sexual and nonsexual relationships, in order to move beyond the shallowest levels of interaction. However, vulnerability is the key to intimacy -- you can't get close to anyone without letting them inside your defenses -- which is why so many people resist vulnerability. Shiv never had a chance to form healthy attachments growing up, often described as disordered attachment but more accurately connection disruption, which makes it difficult for him to develop positive relationships as an adult. The early abuse and neglect left him with fear of intimacy and fear of vulnerability, because his experiences with those things have been consistently bad. So very few people can get through to him. Telepathy works because it's all but impossible to lie mind-to-mind; Shiv can feel Boss White's honest concern. But as soon as it's over, Shiv tends to pull back into his typical reserve. There are ways to overcome fear of intimacy and stop avoiding vulnerability. Understand how to handle a relationship with someone afraid of intimacy.

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