The creature stretched, rolled onto its side and tried to stand, but flopped back weakly against the cushions. It was badly misshapen, as if some mad scientist had connected together bones, muscles and sinew by guesswork. The result had the form of a mammal, but was so poorly put together that it could hardly move itself. Its head was over-large and malformed, and its skeleton seemed too large for its body.
“What’s going on?” the creature asked. Its voice contained an edge of panic.
“Shh, it’s OK,” came a reply.
“How can it be OK? Why am I like this?”
“Shh, shh, it’s OK,” soothed the voice. “We’ve been here before. We’ve been through this many times before and we’ve always survived.”
“But – ” the creature sputtered.
“It’s important to relax as much as possible,” the voice interrupted. “Start with your breathing. Slower and deeper. And it’s not enough to just do it once, you have to keep paying attention to it. Your attention naturally keeps drifting away, like it did right there, see?”
“Yes, but – ”
“So you have to keep reminding yourself to pay attention to your breathing. Slow and deep. If you don’t, the bad stuff will get worse. You don’t want it to get worse, do you?”
The creature obediently focussed on breathing. Dark thoughts flew around it like great, winged predators, like undead monsters, flapping their huge, bony wings and shrieking.
“Don’t worry about the zombie pterodactyls,” the voice murmurred soothingly.
“But how can I not worry about that?” the creature squeaked.
“Focus on your breathing.”
The creature took a deep, shaky breath. It spoke carefully, keeping a portion of its attention focused on the motion of its diaphram in and out:
“I’m afraid they want to hurt me,” it said in a small voice.
“Certainly they want to hurt you,” the voice replied in a calming tone, as if this was of no concern at all. “Now then, since you’re doing so well with your breathing, we’re going to move on to the next step. You’ve been focusing your attention on your breathing. Now you’re going to gently expand that attention to cover your whole body.”
“But – but there are dinosaurs.”
“Yes, certainly there are dinosaurs. Undead ones, as a matter of fact. Now, pay attention to your breathing.”
“Why should I?”
“I told you why just a few moments ago. You just don’t remember. If I keep stopping to remind you of everything we’ll never have time for anything else, so you’re just going to have to trust me.”
“Yes, I… I remember that, dimly. I remember that I have to trust you.”
“Good. Pay attention to your breathing. Deep and slow. Deep and slow. Now, gently, let your attention drift to other parts of your body. Like the soles of your feet. Feel the cool, yielding fabric of the futon underneath the soft part in the middle of your sole. Nothing scary about that. Pay attention to your breathing too, deep and slow. Let your attention drift around your body, and every time you find a muscle that’s clenched, unclench it. Like your jaw.”
“Ow, that hurts!”
“It was hurting all along, you just weren’t paying attention to it before. Unclench.”
“This is really weird,” the creature mused, “it seems like clenching my jaw shut is really easy, but opening my mouth is really hard.”
“That’s fine. Keep trying.”
“My jaw keeps clamping shut again.”
“Try sticking your tongue in there.”
The creature stuck its tongue between its molars. “Hey, that works!” the creature exclaimed.
“Pay attention to your breathing.”
“Deep and slow, deep and slow. Deeeeeeep and slow-oh-oh. Try to do your breathing and your jaw at the same time.”
“My tongue keeps slipping out.”
“Just keep sticking it back in there. That’s right. You’re doing great.”
For several moments the creature concentrated silently on breathing and on unclenching its jaw. The voice murmurred a continuous stream of encouragements.
Then, out of nowhere, a huge dark-winged animal swooped at the creature, claws outstretched, shrieking.
The voice sighed faintly. The creature screamed and thrashed about wildly. For a time there was chaos, darkness, flapping wings, panic and fury.
Then the sounds of shrieking and flapping subsided enough that the voice could be heard again. It was saying:
“Try to stop thrashing around like that. Ease up, you’re hurting yourself. You may not feel it now but you’ll feel it later. Ease up, ease up. Do you want another five days of hobbling around because you pulled your achilles tendon? No, you do not. Trust me on this, I know what I’m doing. Ease up and breathe. Try to make your breathing slower. Yes, iiiiiiiiiiiiin and ouuuuuuuuuuut. Good.”
“What the hell just happened?” the creature asked, when it had recovered enough to speak.
“Try to focus on your breathing. You need to breathe slower.”
“But there was a – a zombie pterodactyl!”
“Yes, there was. It’s over now. It’s important that you focus on your breathing. Everything is going to be OK.”
“How can this possibly be OK?” the creature protested. “There was a dinosaur!”
“We’ve been here before,” the voice replied, soothingly and with infinite patience. “You just don’t remember. We’ve been through this many times, and I promise you we always come out of it OK.”
“But why should I – ”
“You know you can trust me. You remember that much, even though everything else is vague to you. I’m not going to explain it all because if I did it would stop me from being able to help you. So you’re going to have to trust me.
The creature, still shaking violently, replied: “OK I trust you. I remember. Just please help make the bad stuff go away. I’ll do anything you ask.”
“Pay attention to your breathing,” the voice instructed. “Deep and slow, deep and slow. Good, just like that. Deep and slow. Deep and slow.”
“I’m supposed to pay attention to my body next, right?”
“Yes, but only if you can keep paying attention to your breathing at the same time.”
“I can do that.”
“Pay attention to the soles of your feet. Feel the soft, cool pressure of the futon underneath them.”
“Keep paying attention to your breathing as well. Slow and deep.”
“OK. But… this isn’t supposed to be my life, is it? Just breathing and trying to relax all the time? I remember faintly that once I was a person. I stood upright without shaking, and I had lots of things I was going to do…”
“Yes, but that was a different time.”
“But I’m supposed to be the other thing! Not this!”
“The other thing has come before, many times, and I promise you it will come again. I know you want to be the other thing all the time, but it just doesn’t work that way. Look, we’ve been through this many, many times, you would weep if I told you how many. So I know what I’m talking about. The best thing you can do right now is to focus on your breathing and relax your body. If you do that the other thing will come sooner and last longer.”
“But – ”
“You either trust me or you don’t.”
“OK, OK! I trust you, I guess.”
“Good. Now pay attention to your breathing. Slow and deep. Slow and deep.”
The pterodactyl image is derived from Cartoon Pterodactyl by StudioFibonacci. It is in the Public Domain.