Toti O’Brien


Sleep paralysis awakes me at dawn, like an earthquake. I sit up in bed, seized by an alien force I can’t oppose, no matter how hard I try. Frantically, my brain spits orders. Turn around. Open your eyes. Look. Speak. Scream. Normally my body follows directions. When I am awake, I mean. Also in dreams, more or less. Sleep paralysis cruelly severs neuron from muscle. It is painful. Exhausting.
Sleep paralysis feels like someone hitting, pushing, slapping, shoving me around. Though I understand no one is here, the intrusion is so palpable instinct begs my reaction. There’s an enemy—it says—yet more dangerous since it can’t be identified. Fight or flee—instinct insists. I can’t manage either. Sleep paralysis is one of those instances when you have to find a third way, an unheard-of solution. At least try.
Today it’s biting at me like a pack of wild beasts—the campfire extinct while I slumbered, I didn’t hear them come. Now I feel their warm breath on my neck, the raspy touch of a tongue, a paw landing on me. Is it only one? In the dark everything is called legion. I am tossed around like a toy ball, a puppet, by this thing I know doesn’t exist, yet is proving me wrong.
My brain wants me to speak. It sends patterns to my mouth. Like a wounded trooper crawling uphill—a soiled flag in her hand—I try hard but my tongue, palate, larynx, do not comply. Until a sudden thought strikes my mind, giving me supernatural powers.
“Are you a ghost?” I mutter. I can’t believe my own voice, distorted, undecipherable. Too bad… the enemy won’t be able to understand. But I’m sure I got a point. This must be clarified, for god’s sake. “Are you a ghost?” I need to know. I must.
Darn! An answer is whispered close to my ear, almost inaudible. Unmistakable, though. Not a noise. A word. “Yep,” the thing said. I am on the right track. How relieved I feel. Feverishly, my brain scrambles towards the next emergency step. Mouthing a new sentence costs me an arm and a leg. And the sound of it, oh my. How can the thing understand?
Now a terror—one more—makes me shiver. I am speaking in English. What are chances… The idiom I mindlessly picked seems unfit. Arbitrary. Peripheral. Should I have spoken Sanskrit? Ancient Greek? Latin? Hebrew? Something more dignified, universal. Esperanto? I can’t. Peace. A ghost, like a god (do they belong together?) should be able to understand across languages. Above particularities.
Urgently my brain pleads to go on, to ban hesitation.
“Are you mean?” I have uttered with the energy of despair—my tongue a whale stuck on sand. There’s a pause. Then an unmistakable answer. “No.” Ghosts don’t lie. Or do they. Ghosts don’t lie. I would like to ask some more—of course—but my mouth is full of lead, and the effort to articulate superhuman.
But my fingers seem to recover some strength… Slowly, I take hold of my ghost’s hands, or so I believe. I am grabbing something besides me, something else behind me, like in Varsovienne position. The thing—I should not call it so, since it has admitted personality—the ghost is around, below, above, inside me… we coincide. I can’t truly make out my own edges as long as I am hit, shoved, tossed, pushed back and forth. I have at least learned no meanness is meant. I am less scared, more trustful. This was destined to be, like a perfect storm. I believe the ghost is no more responsible for this incident than I am.
I hold his hands. His? That is how I feel, and feeling is all I have got at the moment. I am feeling his hands, strongly, boldly, intensely. Lovingly—what do I have to lose? Lovingly—would you object? On which basis? Lovingly, then more and more pleasantly. At each blow against my cheek, my back or my chest, causing me to lose balance and vacillate, I squeeze him with a pulse (a secret sign of complicity) as if saying: here it comes, darling, let’s dance. We swing to the right, to the left, with the agility of a couple of drunks on a ship, in the middle of a terrible gale. But I am starting to like it. Something is going on—something good—between the ghost and me.
Then it stops as abruptly as it started. Just routine: that’s how sleep paralysis works. She has left my body. She? It is she: now I can see her. My eyes have promptly recovered functionality. I love the sense of sight. I have badly missed it for the last minutes-which-felt-like-eternity.
A blue shine surrounds her—overwhelming, electric, so bright I am afraid I’d go blind again. The blue coils up in ovals—tall medallions festooned with small puffy clouds—like vapor, like foam. They arise from my bed, from my body. Slightly askew, they spiral into each other, reaching for the sky. I mean the ceiling.
She is encased into one of the rings like an ivory miniature on a cameo. Her slim torso and limbs are espousing the frame, brushing the contour as if she intended to escape. Leisurely, without haste, ascending, she will disappear like all visions do. Saints, virgins…
She is no virgin. I can tell by the look on her face. Young enough, but she knows it all. Slightly blasé. Sufficiently nice, with long curled black hair. She isn’t me, though we look kind of alike. She isn’t me, alas. She is going. Lord! I need to know more about her before she dissolves into ether. I have an itch… a feeling I can’t quite capture.
She is young, also antique. Out-fashioned. I mean, in non-recent fashion. She must have been a famous painter’s model—I’m sure—long ago. Now what? She can’t just vanish. My brain jumps into action, my mouth spits the crucial words: “Who are you?”
“Sylvia”. Amazed with no reason, I feel the need to say more. ‘Sylvia Plath?” How stupid is this? She isn’t Plath. She doesn’t remotely resemble her. But I wanted to keep her around for another second or two, so I exhaled whatever first came to mind. She is vivaciously shaking her head with a strange expression, both annoyed and sad. Meaning: “Of course not.” “How could I?” Most probably: “Don’t you know who I am?”
She melts into the blue, also fading away.
I am awake, and totally wasted as expected. Sleep paralysis leaves you in a state of extreme prostration. If I close my eyes I see a myriad of crates, all aligned, filled with blueberries. I remember blueberries fields… a nice sight, yet incomparable with the splendid ultramarine ellipses I just witnessed.
I need to get up, reach for the alarm clock on my bed stand. I can’t find it. When I finally grab it, I’m in horror. I missed my waking time, and the clock has changed shape. It is flattened, hinged and opened up like a book. Wait. I am still hallucinating. Sleep paralysis does it: false starts, fake beginnings.
I get up for good—push my feet against the cold tiles. The alarm clock is its usual self and I am on time. I rush to the computer and I look for Sylvia. Any Sylvia. Her face still so vivid… she must be close still. We have just danced. We held hands, did we? Did a Sylvia just die? Last night? Last-night-long-time-ago? Who is Sylvia? Maybe it isn’t her name. Ghosts aren’t so literal. Did she lie? I believed ghosts didn’t. Will she come back? I feel I was her last station. Maybe this is what her expression meant—her disappointed lassitude, while she smudged herself into smoke.
My limbs ache. I am an empty shell, my body a sheer vacancy of flesh and bone.
Bon voyage, my soul.



Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome and lives in Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician, and professional dancer. Her work has recently appeared in Indiana Voices, Italian Americana, Subprimal, and Salt Hill Journal.

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