Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

I want to tell you all a story. I’m surrounded by Kleenexes, movies, blankets, drinks. There’s a cup of tea and a glass of water. I have a few books scattered around, an orange cat resting on the love sofa across and an old black and white film paused on the tv screen. It’s the perfect night for storytelling.
Tonight I went for my walk tonight as all usual. I stuffed a few Kleenexes down my pants’ pocket and threw on my bright red hoodie. It might be cold, it might not, it didn’t really matter. It is I who has the cold, inside and out.
I pace out the interlocking grids of our Westside neighborhood. If you go down far enough to the south, there’s an old stone mansion of Italian Revival Style. I get there sometimes, mostly not, it’s really only a place I peek at for a special treat. I like to visit it most during Christmas time when they put wreathes in all the windows and I can imagine what it was like then, when women wore long dresses and horses did pull sleigh bells. Sentimental, possibly but then again not. I was born too long after all these things to have any memory of them, my mother and father were grown up in the after World War eras, their own parents around for the tail end of one war and participators of the second.
I came around the corner of the far south, devoid of long skirts and a horse, in my pants stuffed with Kleenex and a red hoodie and I took a long look at the stone Italian house. The cupola on top stood up taller then any of the cupolas in the old farm towns I’m used to. You could set up a studio in there, a cold studio in the winter, a sweltering one in the summer. Could anyone breathe up there? The windows looked sealed tight.
Tight enough to drowned a scream? A boyfriend of a country town told me once, with a serious tone and serious face, that an old house in his neighborhood with a small cupola on top was the cell of an unhappy girl who died up there in her glass prison. Her screams could be heard at night, he told me. He heard them himself.
Of course, later I found out he was a pathological liar or maybe it was just being eighteen that annoyed him and he told stories to make it all better, but anyway, the story perked my interest and I take a look at all glass rooms perched on the top of houses. What could be put up there anyway? Besides dying girls. Plants? A desk and paper? A mattress? A bed? A girl? A boy? It was a girl for him, of course. He went to the Army and after awhile, I never heard from him again. So it was girls for him, that screamed. I didn’t hear any screams and I like lighted Christmas trees in the town house cupolas I saw. There’s one off Batavia Avenue just right up the block from me, to the north this time, and they’ve always done a tree up there and on one of their balconies too.
There are other single rooms too, like the single roomed cupolas, and people live in those. A few weeks ago, Jeff and I, in our search for a little house to rent, visited an address listed as a “house for rent.” It was just the first floor of a 1940’s house with decently sized rooms and a cement screened in porch. The house had a second floor. I tried the handle to the second floor and found it unmovable. “Oh,” the landlord countered, “that’s the second floor. You can’t open that door. The renter’s lived there for five years. He works for Nicor. I’ve never heard a complaint about him making any noise.” We went outside. I looked up at the second floor windows. They were covered and still. There was no car out front to speak of the man upstairs. We looked in the empty basement. Nothing of his there either. We went into the two story garage, its roof raising like a bird’s wing. Nothing marked him there either. The landlord commented that we would share the porch with the upstairs man, though he doubted the upstairs man ever used it, except to get to his stairs.
As we drove away, I took another look at this 1940’s second floor, a sort of sagging cupola with four windows on one side and four windows on the other. The front windows didn’t tell a word. There was a screen thrown out on the roof from one window, that was all. The Nicor man must then, with his balding self, crawl out onto the roof with a cigarette and watch for stars and wait for the sea-girl’s call. He wouldn’t measure time by coffee spoons but by constellations turning and the burning stubs of his cigarette butts. He wouldn’t join us in the cement porch shut up by screens. He would remove his own screen and watch the time, listening for the call, thinking about natural gas and bills and meters.
He grew so lazy, he left the screen out and no one noticed. Except for me, driving away from the falsely advertised house apartment, just another apartment. We wouldn’t be taking it. We couldn’t get a dog there, we would be back in just the same sort of thing, having a neighbor we had to be quiet for, I would tend a garden I would have to leave, decorate a house that we wouldn’t stay in. And in the summer, the woods it was surrounded in would drown out light and I would go mad in the small windowed house with the smeary wallpaper and the creaky floors and the bare new chandelier the landlord proudly showed us, complete with hook to hang it up higher. I would go mad and there are no sea-girl’s call or rooftops for me. Not at all.
Pulling out the advertisements today, there were no houses or even apartments for rent. It must be a slow week then. So slow that I took my walk far enough to get all the way to the old stone, Italian house. The windows are still sealed up there. I passed on and turned, my fist full of Kleenex.

(A few notes. First off, my head is stuffed and I might as well be underwater, sleeping. Take care of my verb tenses, I know not what I do with them. Second off, I beat Jeff because since we heard of the upstairs man behind the locked door, we’ve joked about locked up children and the such and we each thought how we could write about it. I won! Thirdly, not everyone who reads this blog has had the leisure time to get a bachelor of arts in literature. I cast some allusion to a poem by T.S. Eliot called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". It’s worth reading and so beautifully fits my upstairs man. Anyways. Good night.)

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Cracks in Time

There are moments in time where the past overlaps with the present. Sometimes referred to as “thinning of the veil,” they are strange, illusionary moment when one season passes into another, when the silvery full moon shines its brightest, and when firelight flickers warmly in the cold night.

Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness is overtaking the days of light. Icy winter is just beginning to finger the edges of autumn’s beauty. The first frost came a few days ago and over the weekend, I awoke early in the morning and was greeted by the sight of downy snowflakes falling weighted from a heavy sky.

As the days grow shorter, I catch glimpses of color and movement out of the corner of my eye. I can’t say what I’m seeing exactly—perhaps it is the corners of autumn on the wane, the earth shedding its summer glory before it falls still. Perhaps I’m seeing the fast flicker of days as they shorten, when sunset comes around 5PM instead of later hours.

Whatever it is, I feel the shift and though it’s a cycle I’ve witnessed my whole life, there is something unearthly about the shift, as if something strange is lurking in the off edges of the exchanging cycles. There are tiny spaces in the exchange, little windows that open up into another world and as the darkness lengthens, perhaps it is the past that grows a little clearer, a little nearer.

Earlier sunsets and later sunrises means more darkness and with the dark and external stillness arises memories and with memories, the dead rise up. The dead is our own past, old and gone versions of people and ourselves which are still living. What people have been to us, what they have done to us, what we ourselves once were, lives in the murky shadows of memory and as the seasons change, one foot treading precariously before another, time slides a little and anything is possible.

There are many stories that deal with these strange moments in-between worlds and time.

One of my favorites is Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin, first published in 1924. It deals with the lives with two women, Jan in the 20th century and Juliana in the 18th. The two women never fully see each other, despite their ability to see the past and future, but it is Juliana’s brother, Lucian, that travels through time between them. Jan first encounters him on a stormy afternoon on Hill Street, London. She takes shelter under the doorway of an old, preserved 18th century house and as the rain pours down, he appears near her side. The book follows and explores their strange relationships.

Another book about curious women existing in that magical land in-between words is The Brontes Went to Woolsworths by Rachel Ferguson. The three Carne sisters live in pre-war London. One is a journalist, one a young actress and the last is still under the care of a governess. They make up stories as they have done since they were very young, one particularly long lasting imagery saga about a real life judge they read regularly about in the papers. When they meet the judge’s very real wife, problems ensue and during a dark night, two of the Bronte sisters appear on their doorstep. Take a guess which two.

And of course, any list about the stories that deal with past impinging on the present would be incomplete with The Turn of the Screw. One of Henry James’ most popular short stories, The Turn of the Screw is narrated by a very young and sweet governess who isn’t entirely sure what she is seeing or what is going on with the two children she looks after.  The three (including a housekeeper and a few servants that are rarely mentioned) live in a great empty house but after a short while there, the governess begins to see lone figures in what should be empty spaces—the top of a turret, in front of a drawing room window overlooking the lawn, by the side of a still pond. She is never able to catch and speak to them for they always disappear and slowly, she gathers that these figures are not quite human nor, is the rumor, were they that human when they were alive neither. What follows is questions of belief, what is real and what is not, and the end plays out the consequences of her decisions.

Earlier than James’ spine tingling story is The Christmas Carol, a ghost story that largely takes place at night by the master of Victorian ghost stories, Charles Dickens. His lesser known Ghost Stories are a delight. The characters in his haunted tales travel through dreams, moonlight, firelight and meet all sorts of ghosts and other sorts of beings. My favorite “The Queer Chair” occurs when man dozing at night realizes that an old, quaint chair in his room has come to life and they have a long discussion about the future near the warmth of the fireside.

Another of my favorites is “The Ghosts of a Mail.” A drunk man on his way home decides to take a comfy snooze on the top of a wall overlooking a yard of wrecked and decrepit coaches. He wakes under a full moon only to discover that the coaches are being used once more and goes on to have a wild ride with a beautiful lady trying to escape her pursuers.

Dickens favors the moments between sleeping and waking for his ghosts to appear (his most famous ghost of all Marley can’t resist making his appearance during the ungodly hours) and it is small wonder.

Some of my own most fantastic nightmares, more real than the day, occur when I’ve been dozing off or are just beginning to fall asleep. My mind is in-between places here, not fully in one state nor the other. I’ve seen ghostly sad boys standing by my bed. For decades, my bedroom walls were covered in elegant cursive every morning as I slowly awoke.

M.R. James is another writer that uses the moments in-between sleeping and waking as some of his most terrifying moments. One such story is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” A professor comes across a strange bone whistle on his walk along the English coast and inscribed on it in Latin are the words, “Who is it who is coming?” As he makes his way back from his walk, he blows the whistle a few times. Nothing happens. But that night his bedclothes rise in the form of a blind man and attempt to strangle him.

It Leapt Towards Him in an Instant

Sleeping is dangerous time, indeed.  The mind lives in another realm while the body lies prone. And now as the dark and heavy hours approach, we turn on lights and stay indoors. But those strange corners still remain and in-between our waking hours, we sometimes see them.

The Willows Converse Among Themselves

I look across the river and catch sight of the willows, lost in their own world. They have no regard for me. They are speaking to each other in whispers so I hear nothing clearly but I see their long golden-yellow chains wavering over the water. It reflects their light.

There are presences in this world that are not human but sometimes, a human being comes across one of these presences and this is when poetry happens—when we interact with the strange divinity that moves through the world.

I caught sight of the willows and so complete were they within themselves, so beautiful to behold, that my mind stopped dead in its tracks and my heart eased. In the presence of an Other, human commotion becomes impossibly silly and pointless. The past and future converge into the present and there is only now.

I exhale the stress I’ve held this morning as I watch them. The willows, their long hair hanging over their faces, disregard me totally and completely and talk in their slow tree way, something to do with the air, water, and earth. I cannot hear much but what I do hear makes me recall there were other beings on this earth other than myself, older than myself. They exist in this time, in many times, living, dying, always reappearing. The willows hang their hair over the water as they have done for centuries, listening to the currents and moving with the breezes and eddies of the wind.

With a gratefully diminished self, I thank the universe for the ancient poetry that is the willow tree and move forward, reborn, into the bright day.

 

茶の煙柳と共にそよぐ也

the tea smoke

and the willow

together trembling

Issa

(Trans. David G. Lanoue)