Nonfiction, Brittany Ashley
Of the eleven protection practices I could find on the internet to ward against mares, I have tried maybe three unintentionally.
1. Drinking coffee before sleeping
2. Changing one’s sleeping position
3. Saying an elaborate prayer poem before sleep.
I would rather face the mare than try three of the others
4. Sleeping with leather, a wedding belt, or a scythe – of which I have none
5. Smearing feces on the front door
6. Sleeping in another room with a bundle of hay in my place.
Two of them I would do if I lived alone, but they would provoke many questions with roommates
7. Throwing a piece of noose at the demon
8. Leaving an upside-down broom behind my door.
That leaves three, only one of which am I somewhat enthusiastic about…
9. Inviting the mare for breakfast.
In nearly every cultural belief about nightmares, there are two consistencies: the feeling of suffocation, and the concept of the mare. Give or take a few details, this creature is an evil female incubus who sits upon the sleeper’s chest until they awake, gasping for breath. Her name comes from a language system almost as far-reaching as she, the Proto-Indo-European root -mer, to rub away, to harm, in extreme cases, to die. Mar, Mara, Mahr, Mare. The only English word this root survives in is nightmare.
The mare visits during the night when human beings are at their most vulnerable. Night is a time of ignorance, a time where spirituality could not save you from whatever lurked beneath. The night was when people made their biggest mistakes, and it was also when they paid for them. The mare rides throughout the night, upon a victim’s chest, upon a horse, upon a tree. She leaves you breathless, confused, frightened; the horse exhausted, sweating; the tree gnarled and twisted. The mare drains her victims of energy.
When I think about those who have caused me the most harm, it is always those who have rubbed me away. A friend who taught me not to trust my thoughts and feelings. A father whom I ignored them for. An accident that left me sprawled out, easy prey for any incubus. When I started having nightmares again, my mother said, “The night has always been hard for you.”
I have a complicated relationship with sleep. It is perhaps the world’s greatest pleasure, and it is also a whirlpool of fear. Sometimes the only thing to get me out of bed in the morning is a personal promise to return as quickly as possible. When the time comes, though, it’s a return of resistance. There is a literal diagnosis to fear: nightmare-death syndrome, or sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS)– a phenomenon perhaps most famous for inspiring Wes Craven to write Nightmare on Elm Street. Depending on who you ask, there are two causes for SUNDS – the victim’s belief in a nocturnal evil spirit, or a weak heart. Good news for someone who holds firmly to her beliefs in creatures deemed mythical and whose family has a history of holes in their hearts.
Sitting down to breakfast with my mare, I imagine she’d take the appearance of my old friend Marissa.
I imagine it would take place in a liminal space – somewhere like the worst kind of nightmare, blurring the lines between what is real and what is her creation.
The tea kettle screams, and it mixes with the radio, scratchy and small.
She's my Thelma I'm Louise
She's a coffee cup I'm tea
She's a dog, and I'm her fleas
If she's creamer then I'm joe
Sun don't set wherever we go
She's a pistol, I'm a bow
Time don't move
When you're blue
Sitting in the sun is like sitting amongst clouds of gold. The wooden table legs are uneven, they tap against the black and white tile when either of us makes a move.
I invited her, but she is first to rise, first to reach for the kettle and silence it, pouring streams of steam into estate sale teacups. The song continues, bolder, now the only sound.
She's the jester and the queen
She's the salt, and I'm the sea
Life's unfair when you're nineteen
She's the Larry I'm the Moe
Clouds depart, the moon it glows
She's a seamstress, me I sew
Life don't move
When you're blue
She hums along and I have never felt more like the ocean waves. I am dizzy, rocked by each note. I am witness to my rock dissolving into the sea, then turning to shards of glass beneath my feet. She knows this, I imagine, and this is why she’s chosen my friend’s eyes, her height, her long floral skirts. Why she’s playing this song, why she’s using her teacups. If she wants to suffocate me, she must find the closest I’ve ever been to drowning, and she has.
Protection Practice #12
Never sleep alone.
Protection Practice #13
Sleep in unexpected places.
Protection Practice #14
Protection Practice #15
Invite her to dinner next time.
Brittany Ashley (she/they) is an art historian and writer from Eastern Kentucky. Her interests include really bad disaster movies, contemporary art, dinosaurs, the horror genre, and Antarctica. She lives with her partner and their cat, Poppet (pictured), in Denver, CO, and hopes to enter the field of museum education. Her thoughts are on display at @stillifewithart on Instagram.