They Drink Us in Our Sleep
By Elizabeth Twist
3:30 am. When he rolled over, George was surprised to see Paula sleeping there. A noise had woken him. Paula closing the bathroom door without turning the handle. Paula knocking over the shampoo bottle where it sat on the edge of the tub. Paula tripping over something on her way back to bed. If you dream a very loud noise, he thought, does it wake you up? His stomach rolled over and tied itself in a knot. When you dream of falling, you wake up before you hit the ground, or you don’t hit the ground at all.
Paula’s breathing, slow and steady. Everything’s okay, he thought. She’s here.
And then the air left the room.
The crawling started at his ankles. Little feet ran up his legs, cold metal claws digging in. When he was a boy he’d had a cat. Sometimes the cat would climb on him at night. That had been okay. This was not okay.
Paula’s breathing was regular, like there was nothing going on. George couldn’t raise his head from the pillow to look. Soon enough there was a dark shape at the bottom edge of his vision. A pointy cone shape, a face, two white unblinking eyes.
Gnome. The word came to him because of the conical hat. Or maybe that was its head.
It held something in its hand: a straw. The straw was shiny, like it was made of metal. It looked cold and hard. The gnome clutched the straw in both hands, raised it up over its head, and plunged it into George’s chest.
He still couldn’t breathe, couldn’t gasp. The pain was incredible. The plate of his breastbone punctured inward. The air in his lungs, stale and used now, left him. He waited for his vision to cloud, for death to pull him under. He would wake up in a hospital, or maybe not at all. But no. He remained oh-so-awake.
The creature put its grey lips on the straw and began to suck.
In pieces his lungs left him. When it couldn’t get any more from one spot, the gnome manipulated the straw, pushing it in a new direction, like an inept nurse searching for a vein.
Lungs are pretty big, thought George. He had an idea that this internal monologue came from the creature, and not from himself.
Dawn began to glow behind the curtains. The gnome sat back and sighed, rubbing its distended belly. George felt the empty space inside him. He hadn’t drawn breath for hours.
The gnome reached into a little bag that hung on its hip. It pulled out a shiny silver rock, put the rock in its mouth, and began to crunch with teeth like steel. It placed its mouth to the end of the straw and blew the powdered rock into George’s chest. He felt a penetrating sensation of cold, then heat.
“One hour,” said the gnome. “Sleep.”
Paula looked at George across the table. He was really pale this morning. I don’t think he knows, she thought.
George smiled at her and refilled her coffee cup. He took one of the strawberries out of the bowl in the center of the table and ate it slowly, looking at it after each bite like he was in love with it, or suspicious of it. He smiled at her again, that little half-smile with his eyes almost shut.
He doesn’t know. She imagined the scene that would happen when he found out. Maybe she would fall asleep at Eliot’s house. Of course that was impossible, because she never stayed there longer than twenty minutes, half an hour. The sex was always rushed. She was always running out of there with her hair a mess, lipstick all rubbed off. That was okay. She was home and showered long before George got in from work. Still, she wondered if he ever smelled Eliot’s scent on her skin.
But something might go wrong. She might fall asleep at Eliot’s house and sleep and sleep all night long. She would have to leave just as his wife was coming home from night shift. And George would be sitting at the breakfast table when she walked in through the back door. He would confront her. And she would have to explain.
He would say, “Paula, I know.” They always know, the cheated-on husbands, don’t they? Cuckolds. That was a word she learned when she took Shakespeare as an elective in college. In Shakespeare’s day, cheating wives were common. It was a word everyone knew. She thought about the word some more: cuckold, cuckold. She laughed a little.
George looked up over his coffee cup and smiled at her.
He didn’t know. He had no fucking clue.
George listened as Paula closed the front door. He opened a new tab on his web browser. He wasn’t interested in reading the news today. He looked at the clock: 7:33. An hour before he had to leave.
He was pretty sure he knew what to look for. Sleep paralysis, he typed. He’d heard that term somewhere. The second hit was a university website. That’s what he needed, real research. He scrolled through a menu, aware that he was breathing this morning with peculiar ease. Under a section called Hallucinations there were three categories: Intruders; Incubus; Experiences. He looked at a paragraph called Old Hag Syndrome: “The subject is unable to breathe, and experiences paralysis.” People would wake up in the night unable to move, and hear footsteps coming into their room. They wouldn’t be able to see anyone, but they sometimes felt someone sitting on the bed; others felt something pressing down on their chests. Another section of the site pointed to studies about the connection between sleep paralysis and REM sleep states. He couldn’t find anything about being pierced by a gnome with a metallic straw.
The more he read, the more he began to feel that what had happened in the night had been unreal. A nightmare, but far away and in the past.
Paula loved to accuse him of melodrama. She used to, anyway. He had struggled to be calmer. Was last night’s experience a symptom of anxiety? What had he suppressed? What was coming back up? He thought about it clinically. The only things he could think of were the obvious things, the things he’d accepted long ago. Maybe it was time to make an appointment with Dr. Wright again. He would have to tell Paula he had a meeting that would make him late. She didn’t know about Dr. Wright. George knew that even one session could be helpful. He could work through it. Whatever it was.
He poked around a little bit more. He watched a video called Old Hag Syndrome: The Witch Comes at Night. A voice-over at the end of the video said, “Each year, a significant number of men with no known medical conditions die in their sleep. Upon autopsy, coroners can find no cause of death.”
George thought about the details of what happened last night. His lungs had been removed, and replaced with something else. He took a deep breath. He felt pretty good in his body. Maybe he’d needed the nightmare to cleanse something. Maybe he was fine, after all. One man’s nightmare is another man’s healing, right? It all depends on how you deal with it. So Dr. Wright would say.
He shut down the computer. He went upstairs, took a shower, and got dressed. He was looking forward to work: right now he was designing an atrium for a shopping mall. All day long he would think about light. He could forget about what happened the night before.
Three nights later, two of them came. One was the same. The other was new. The one with the metal teeth sat by his head, whispering orders in an unknowable language of sighs and clicks, grinding and moaning. George couldn’t move. Like last time, he could feel Paula breathing beside him: did they enchant her too?
They went in through his right side. He could barely see the pointed head of the new creature, but as it drank him, it began to glow with a greasy green light.
He raged, trying to scream, but all that came from his throat was a compressed, reedy noise.
The gnome rubbed its conical head and moaned softly, then it began crunching. George was blown full of green fire. The gnome’s dank mossy voice told him to sleep. He slept.
Paula looked at George closely. He knows, she thought. He’s wondering why my hair was still wet when he got home from work yesterday. He knows something’s up, even if he doesn’t know what.
George sipped his coffee, took a bite of toast. She felt irritated by the crunching sound his teeth made. He didn’t know. He didn’t have a clue.
How would he react when he found out? She thought about George throwing a kitchen chair across the room. He might grab a knife out of the drawer and hold it to her throat.
“I’m going to be getting home late tonight,” she said.
He looked at her, smiled mildly. “Okay. Should I get something on the way home, or do you want to cook dinner together once we’re both here?”
“I won’t be that late,” she said. “I’ll probably be home before you.”
Through his research, George found David Grant. There was a video of Grant talking about his work on sleep paralysis. George watched the interview a few times that morning. There was one part that bothered him, the part where Grant talked about what most shrinks thought of the phenomenon.
Most psychiatrists, given a description of a typical sleep paralysis episode, diagnosed the sufferer as psychotic.
George accepted that there must be a good reason for that. Science had shone a light on all the dark corners of the world. It had separated the real from the imaginary.
But what if you are stuck in the imaginary? How do you get out again?
He turned off the computer and stood up. He tried to calm down while he took a shower and went to work. At work he thought about trees and water all day. Looking at trees and water would slow people down as they walked through the mall. That was what everyone wanted: to slow down.
Maybe I need a vacation, thought George. He did not call Dr. Wright.
George looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He tried to tell himself that he shouldn’t worry about going to sleep. He stuck his tongue out at himself. What’s inside is invisible even to us. I could be a different person, and no one would know. I wouldn’t even know.
He brushed his teeth, letting the toothpaste foam out over his hand.
If he did call his therapist, he could probably get some sleeping pills or anxiety meds to help him sleep. But then he might not wake up at all. The visitors could do what they do, and he wouldn’t even be aware of their presence.
Them. The nightmares. The Nightmare Gnomes. Good name for a punk band... He laughed a little bit. The circles under his eyes looked less grim when he was smiling.
“You okay?” said Paula.
George looked at her reflection in the mirror and not at her. How could any of it be real? Paula put her arms around him from behind. She rarely did that any more.
He turned, mouth still foaming, and kissed her nose.
“What’s funny?” she said. She looked really worried, which he thought was appropriate.
It placed a handful of earth on his stomach. The smell of it—loamy, rich—came up to his nostrils. He had fallen asleep with his head propped up on extra pillows, so tonight he could watch. He now realized that was a bad idea.
The dirt began to soften the skin and muscle of his belly, working its way through layers of fat until he, too, was earth. The gnome used its hands to dig into his torso. Light came up from his silver lungs, his green liver. They were not his, but they were there, and they worked, didn’t they?
The gnome placed its straw to its lips. It dipped its head into his torso, and slurped George’s stomach away in one great inhalation.
It leaned back and scratched itself. Flakes of yellow skin fell off its body and into the open cavity where George’s stomach used to be. A phantom outline of a new organ took shape in the empty space.
The gnome produced a broom and dustpan from somewhere near George’s knees. It swept away the dirt, and the hole was closed. George’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slept without waiting to be told.
Paula watched George make coffee. He always made it in the same methodical way, grinding the beans, measuring them, carefully pouring the water.
She thought about the early arguments they’d had in the first year of their relationship. They were sorting everything out then, like you do. George used to say she was too independent. “I feel like you don’t need me at all,” he would say. “Why am I even here?”
She had tried to tell him about how she saw things. “Don’t worry about it so much. Everything’s fine. I’m fine.”
Now he looked like he was barely there at all. He knows. He knows and he doesn’t care. Or maybe he didn’t know but he would never ask, because he didn’t care enough to wonder.
She thought she might be falling in love with Eliot. “I should let you go,” Eliot would say when they had finished making love, like people do when they’re talking on the phone and they want to end the conversation. Eliot worried that his wife would come home early one day. Why didn’t he just say that? He never did.
Instead of eating breakfast with her, George poured a cup of coffee and went straight to the computer.
“You don’t want breakfast?” she said.
“I want to research something before work.”
She followed him into the basement. As the computer booted, she said, “I’m definitely going to be late tonight.”
He nodded, watching the screen come on. “Okay.”
“Don’t wait up.”
He looked up at her. For a moment, he looked like he was going to object. To ask her to come home early. At least in time for bed. Instead, he said, “Okay.”
“There’s a meeting.”
She planned to persuade Eliot to go with her to a hotel. There would be no time limit at a hotel.
They were everywhere. Always with a different name. The old hag. The haint rides me, brother. Wraith, witch, fairy, demon lover. Incubus, succubus—depending on your taste and inclination. Gui ya shen. Ghost pressing on bed. Dab sog. Crushing demon. Ogun oru. Nocturnal spiritual warfare. Se me subió el muerto. The dead person got on me. Kanashibari. Bound in metal. Suk ninmyo. The trees drink our essence while we sleep. Karabasan. The dark presser. Mora, vrahnas, varypnas. The demon steals my speech. Ga-ui nool-lim. Pressed by a nightmare. Amuku be. The ghost forces me down.
A troop of them clambered up the blankets to the left of George’s head. No one was there to witness it as they rolled him over onto his stomach.
The sensation of water dripping on him came as a surprise. The drops entered him, seeping into his flesh on either side of his spine. Two sharpened points entered him from behind. The sucking sensation was painful and brief. It ended with a sound like two champagne corks popping. He opened his eyes again, wondering if this was it, if he would be in some other place now that most of him had been removed and changed.
It was just the bedroom.
The sensation of cool water flowed in again, this time to soothe the wounds the creatures had left. When Paula had been beside him, he’d imagined there was a chance that these were just vivid nightmares. Without her sleeping body there, solid and peaceful, he felt totally exposed. This was not imaginary at all. It was real after all.
He began to go under, back into sleep. There was a tightness in his chest, a feeling he hadn’t had for a long time. Paula was not here. He wanted her. He had imagined he was past feeling this way. After so many years, he had learned to be okay with what she had to offer.
He sat up.
The gnomes, still standing on the bed, gasped. One of them, surrounded by a shimmering blue oil slick aura, said, “Sleep.”
“Fuck you,” George yelled. He couldn’t move his legs, and his arms, although partially mobile, couldn’t reach the gnomes. “Go to hell.”
They scrambled in different directions. George rolled onto his back. He felt something drain out of him and onto the bed. He threw two of the creatures onto the floor as he managed to stand.
In the corner was something large, an animal outlined in blue flame.
“No,” said a low voice, as the creature breathed blue fire out into the room. “Sleep.”
George fell to the floor and slept.
Paula sat wrapped in sheets, flipping through the channels on the hotel television. Beside the TV on the dresser, the tiny coffee maker gurgled. She had a granola bar in her purse. She made plans to pick up some yogurt at the variety store near work.
Whatever George knew before, he knew it all now, or at least had reason to suspect.
She wondered if anyone at work would notice that she was wearing the same clothes two days in a row.
She threw the remote onto the bed. “I can’t do this any more,” she whispered.
That’s what Eliot had said to her as he left the hotel room at six o’clock the night before. “Laura suspects something,” he had also said.
She rolled over onto her side and curled into a ball. “I can’t do this any more.” She had paid for the hotel room with a credit card she shared with George.
George was so detached, though, he might pretend to believe her story about needing a night away to think.
She didn’t go home right away after work that evening. She drove around for a while, and then she went to a park and sat in the car watching an old man feed pigeons.
When she came in, George was sitting in the living room. He was wearing pajamas. He was drinking a beer. Paula’s body stiffened. Here we go.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you sick?”
“Old hag syndrome,” he said.
“With a twist of gnome.”
She stared at him.
“You can look it up if you want, but it won’t help you understand.”
“What are you talking about?”
He took a long drink.
She shuffled from one foot to the other. “I guess you know what I have to tell you, and I want to say I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry for what?”
She wasn’t sure if she should continue. He knew, or he didn’t know. Why should she talk about it? It was over. Eliot was gone. She knelt down on the carpet, covered her face with both hands, and cried.
“I loved you, Paula,” said George. “I loved you so much when we got married, remember? I was so crazy about you, and I tried so hard to make you understand what that meant to me.”
“I’ve been having an affair.”
He felt himself begin to unravel into some kind of reaction: a temper tantrum, yelling, crying. But he didn’t—he couldn’t—go all the way into it. He needed her last night. He didn’t know what he needed now. “Who with?”
“One of my patients,” she said. “He broke his leg in four places.”
It came out as laughter. A lot of it. Finally, he could speak again. “I’ve lost four of my major organs,” he said.
“If you weren’t such a solid sleeper, you would know that.”
She sobbed. “I’m trying to confess something to you. I had an affair. It’s over now. I’m sorry.”
George stood up. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
The red fire in the corner woke him. It shimmered, making faces at him.
Five of them came out of the darkness. One of them glowed red, like the beast in the corner.
Paula was somewhere else. Maybe she was sleeping on the couch. Maybe she had left. It didn’t matter now.
This gnome was heavier than the rest. It sat on his chest. It held liquid fire in its fist. The fire poured down over George. It burned.
Thank you, thought George. He had prayed for this.
The gnome finished its meal. It looked down and smiled with bloody teeth. It chewed hot embers and spat them into George’s chest cavity through a red straw.
“Sleep,” said the gnome.
Forever and ever, thought George. He slept.
Paula finally had the courage to look at George as he sat across from her at the breakfast table. He smiled as he poured coffee into her cup. He took a strawberry from the bowl between them. “Is that the entertainment section?” he said.
She jumped. “I guess so.” She shuffled the sections of the paper that were sitting unread on her lap. Maybe a divorce was coming. A gun. A pair of scissors. She’d barely slept two hours the night before. She’d imagined that George was talking at dawn, that she’d woken up to hear him saying “Thank you.” Thank you for what? Thank who?
“Can I have it?”
“The entertainment section. The financial pages just don’t do it for me any more.” He laughed, shook his head.
She looked at him carefully. “You okay?”
“Don’t I look okay?”
He did look okay. She nodded. “You seem to be in a good mood today.”
“Yeah.” His mouth pulled down at the corners while he thought about it. “That flu was nasty, but I’m good now.”
“It’s been going around.”
“I think it was coming on for a while. To be honest, the last couple of weeks are a blur. I don’t remember much.”
He was messing with her. The next thing he said would be the coup de grâce. She waited.
“I’m okay now, though,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure.” He looked genuinely happy. “Somehow it didn’t kill me.”
George’s web research into sleep paralysis is based on research I did for this story. There are some very interesting websites that deal with sleep paralysis; none I could find mention organ-drinking gnomes.
The University research page on Sleep Paralysis is the University of Waterloo’s:
Your Worst Nightmare: Supernatural Assault, a documentary about sleep paralysis that includes the video George watches:
Wikipedia article on Sleep Paralysis, with detailed notes on folkloric descriptions of the phenomenon:
University Professor David Grant’s real life counterpart is Dr. David Hufford.
David Hufford wrote The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
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