Look with me, reader. There! Do you see it? Far, far down beneath the rolling clouds, there is a walled-in, closed-off, town. It is miles and miles away from the twinkling cities on the coast, and there are no lights here. No streetlights, no flashlights, no book lights -- not even a single candle. The windows are all small and square-shaped and shut tight against the cold, and every last one is dark.
All except for one. Yes, at the very heart of this little dark town, there is a single window that is full of light. And beyond that window is a bedroom, and within that bedroom is a boy. His name is Peter, and in his right hand he holds the only light in his entire town, and in his left hand he holds a book.
Soon, my reader, we will come back to him, for this is his story. But first, let me tell you about his world.
Peter’s little town was a rather terrible place to live, although no one living there quite seemed to know it. The weather was always cold. The colors were mostly dry and dull. The people were mostly dry and dull. The books were mostly dry and dull, and all filled up with nothing but ordinary facts. Every morning at sun-up, every last grown-up picked up a big beige briefcase from beside their front door and began to push through the long streets of the town, to their factory or their station or their office. Every night at sundown, every last grown-up pushed back home through the streets in more or less exactly the same way. It was quite useless for anyone to stay at work past sundown, seeing as no one could see a thing in the dark. Much to the confusion of the founders of the town, not a single form of light, man-made or otherwise, had functioned inside of the wall for nearly three centuries (except, of course, for the sun and the moon, which will always cut through even the darkest of darknesses). And so, from eight at night to six in the morning, the town could do nothing but sleep and wait.
Yes, the town truly was a horrible place to live. The night sky, always heavy with smoke. The children played, of course, as all children must. But they were only permitted to take part in organized activities, like golf and tennis and chess, and they were never allowed to imagine up games of their own. At school, the children recited their sums and their multiplication tables, and practiced their letters and their spelling and their definitions all day. And, worst of all, in the entirety of the town -- in every last home, in every last classroom, in every last library -- in all of these places put together, there was not one single storybook.
Peter, a rather ordinary little boy, grew up in one of hundreds of gray homes that were lined up neatly near the central square of the town. He dressed just like all of the other children. He spoke just like all of the other children. He seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be exactly like all of the other children.
No one knew what would happen, of course. No one can see the future. But even then, the signs were there, and those who looked closely could see them. Peter had always been the kind of boy who sat for hours and hours by the window on rainy days, watching the grown-ups pass by his house with their blue umbrellas and their brown coats and their plodding black boots. He liked to make up stories about them. Where had they come from? Where were they going? Why? He was the kind of boy who liked to watch them melting snow darken the dull gray stone of the front steps, and who saw shapes and faces and all sorts of creatures in the clouds.
Now, reader, I am sure that at this point in the story, you quite like Peter, and you want to be his friend. So, do I. But you must understand that the grown-ups in Peter’s little town did not like children who were not dull and serious and just like little grown-ups themselves. And so, it happened that Peter’s teacher called his parents into school to discuss his classroom behavior.
“Would you like to see what your son did on yesterday’s addition quiz?” asked the teacher, leaning forward over the desk and slapping down a sheet of paper with Peter’s name scrawled across the top in pen. She pointed sharply to a question about halfway down the page. It read:
4 + 7 = ?
There was nothing unusual about the question itself, and for a moment, Peter’s parents were confused. But then they saw what his teacher was pointing to: in place of the answer was a swirl of lines and shapes, scribbles that seemed to take on the form of wings and a beak and two short legs.
“It seems to be...a small, two-dimensional representation of some peculiar flying beast. It’s absolutely absurd!”
Here, I must pause to let you know that the curious figure that Peter’s teacher referred to as “a small, two-dimensional representation of some peculiar flying beast” was, in fact, a simple drawing of a bird. You see, since the wall had been constructed, no one new had come into the town, and no one old had left it. And so, while even the youngest children who lived there could explain the meaning of “algebra” or “monotonous,” not even the most learned members of the population were aware that the word “drawing” existed. No one in that town could have told you what the word “story” meant -- or “elf,” or “magic,” or even “prince”!
“And, sir, while we’re discussing your son, I must inform you that he has been lying, as well! Yes, lying! He wastes precious daylight hours telling the other students all sorts of awful tall-tales, filled with talking birds, and walking trees, and singing flowers. As if flowers could sing!”
Now, reader, you and I know well enough that Peter had not been lying at all. He had only been telling stories. But in this little dark town, no one except our dreamer knew the difference.
Peter began to cry as soon as he and his parents stepped out of the school building. He cried all the way home, through his dinner, through his daily bedtime math problem and through his weekly bedtime spelling test. And at last, still crying into his pillow, the boy fell into a deep sleep.
In his dreams, he drifted up -- up, higher and higher, out of his bed and straight through the closed screen of the little, square-shaped window. His soft white pajamas glowed like butterfly wings in the moonlight, and he stared down in wonder at the darkness of the city as it faded to a speck beneath him. He rose up farther, higher and higher and higher, above the layer of smoke and into the land of the stars. There he wandered for hours and hours before falling back to Earth and finding himself on the shore of a beach with the twinkling lights of a city behind him. Far off in the distance, he could see the speck of darkness that was his home -- and all around it, beyond its wall, were other villages and towns and cities, filled with twinkling, laughing lights. He stared at those little lights for what felt like days -- he thought that they were the most beautiful things that he had ever seen. And then, he turned to the ocean.
If you have ever stood on a white-sand beach at night, you will know that by the time the stars come out, the water is warmer than the shore. If you have ever waded into an ocean in starlight, you will know that the earth feels soft and cool beneath your feet, and that the rushing waves feel safe and warm around your ankles. Somehow, the whole world feels closer by night than it does by day. Fiction becomes truth. Dreams become reality. The impossible becomes possible. As Peter waded farther and farther into the water, he felt all of this and more.
He didn’t remember quite how it had happened -- perhaps he had stumbled upon it embedded in the sand, or found it floating on the surface of the water -- or perhaps it had simply appeared before him. All he knew was that one moment, there was nothing -- and the next, there it was, in his outstretched hand. He stared down at it in the moonlight, the brown leather cover and the worn yellow pages. It was soft to the touch, and far heavier than any book that he had seen before. He stared for a few moments at the gold-lettered title. It was a single word, strange and beautiful on the page. A word that he had never come across before.
He ran a finger over the letters. Traced them, one by one. He sounded it out, slowly. “Fair-y-tales. Fairytales.” What more can I tell you, reader? He fell in love.
When he woke up, hours later, there it was under his pillow: the book, with its brown cover and its gold print and that one strange, beautiful word. And beside it, something extraordinary: a flashlight. His hand trembling, Peter reached out and flipped it on.
Light, the first light in three centuries, flooded the boy’s bedroom. In that moment, there was nothing that Peter wanted more in the world than to read those stories. And so, he did, cover to cover, with the town’s first light in three hundred years clutched tightly in his palm.
And now, reader, here we are: back to the beginning of our story, looking down on him from above the clouds. Do you see him? Do you see his light? There he is now, with the book in one hand and the flashlight in the other.
Watch, as he finishes and puts the book down. Reads it all the way through one time again. Then, all of a sudden, realizes that he holds magic in the palm of his hand.
Watch, as he runs to his father and shows him the book and the flashlight. Watch, as his father calls his mother. Watch, as his mother calls the mayor, and as the mayor calls the governor, and as they both come over to the doorstep at three o’clock in the morning to see it all for themselves.
Watch, now, as they all sit down to read, all four of them together, and the boy, too -- as they laugh and cry and let the words fill them up in a way that they have never quite been filled before.
Watch, as storybooks are printed and drawings are made, as children are told that they may play their own games. As the walls are torn down and the parents take their children down to the sea for the first time in their lives.
And watch, now, as the little dark town’s lights come on, all at once, shining there in the darkness like a thousand floating candles, drifting across dark, deep waters. Watch, as, for the first time in nearly three hundred years, it is not always winter.
You see? The world takes care of its dreamers.
He stood with his back to the room, his face to the great arched window that extended across the east wall. It was the break of dawn, and he could see the sun rising above the towering skyscrapers, painting the sky a rose-touched periwinkle. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. He’d love to paint the scene—he pictured the way the oil paints would glide over the canvas, how the pale gray would blend subtly into the touches of golden and the lingering traces of clouds. The skyscrapers would rise up to meet the sky, firm strokes of black and silver, highlights in white and reflections in pale blue… I should take a picture, he thought. To paint later. He leaned forward and pushed open the window. It slid up smoothly, so unlike the stubborn, stiff windows in his own apartment, with their thin metal frames and cracked glass panels. Again, he sighed. He drew his phone out of his pocket. It had once been sleek and silver, but now it was caseless, a jagged fracture spreading over the silent black screen, the back covered in scratches. It took three attempts to turn it on.
He opened up the camera app and took a deep whiff of the air from outside. It smelled like the city, somehow fresh and polluted all at once. He lifted the phone and snapped the picture, then glanced down at it and wrinkled his nose. The lighting was wrong--all wrong. He slid the window up farther, and stuck his head through the frame, peering down at the asphalt road and rapid cars below. If he could hold the phone out the window, just so…
He narrowed his eyes in concentration and pushed his entire upper body through the frame, holding the camera out in front of him at arm’s length. He stared at the image on the screen for a few moments, contemplating it, then smiled.
Carefully, he moved to snap the picture, but just as he was about to, the phone slipped from his sweaty fingers. He scrambled to catch it, and in the process, he felt himself slide forward, farther out of the window. He gritted his teeth and grasped at the phone, teetering against the window frame as he struggled to secure it. After what seemed like an eternity, he grasped the metal surface in his fingertips, and he let out a sigh of relief. It was safe.
He realized it was happening a moment before it did. For a moment he felt himself suspended in air, free.
Then, he plummeted and he hit the road below with a sickening thud.
I can’t quite remember what it was about that story -- the crimson flash of the cloak, maybe, or the quiver of the lilacs as she scooped them from the soil, or the moon-stricken whistle of wolf padding through brush far beneath the darkening storm. But I do remember those dry summer nights, all paper and flushed watercolor and firm lines of ink. I remember how the flashlight trembled heavy between my fingertips -- how beams of light sprawled across the rolling covers when I lowered it to turn the page. Through the spun-silver curtain, the moon smiled down on us (the book and I, the two of us), its bright breath coursing on the wind.
I was there, in my bed, and yet it isn’t the bed that I remember, but a land doused in lamplight, swift and in concrete, with a population of one. Me, red with the cloak, sweet with the lilacs, moonlight-stricken with the wolf. Night by night, I wore the corners soft, the paper thin -- folded back the cover and breathed secrets to the spine. Even then, there was something in the words that I couldn’t help but love.
The door creaks once at the touch of her fingertips, then swings open in smooth silence. The room is at once sparse and lavish, empty save for the piano bench and the wooden harp and the pale, billowing bedsheet that hangs over the window in place of a curtain. Deep shadows wobble across the floor, shifting with each subtle breath, with each flutter of the air. This room provides no view of the sunrise, of the sky’s first blood-stained breath or of the rising wind’s fierce twist. Instead, it envelops her in darkness, in a heavy, early-morning gray that settles over the watchful air. The setting moon hangs in one corner of the open window. It laps silver at the legs of the worn leather bench, runs a firm gray hand down the wooden curves of the harp. She is reminded of how the gray tide slips ever further from the shore, of how white sand crumbles underfoot, cool and coarse between her toes, of how the earth rushes towards her as the waves pull away, leaving her ankles cold and her knees trembling.
The moonlight shrouds her shudders, winds itself around the rise and fall of her breath. She moves towards the window, ducks behind the sheet. It drapes lightly over her shoulders, wrapping her in its own pale world. Dying moonlight rushes in, tracing patterns on the pale cloth behind her, alighting on the scattered floorboards beneath her bare feet and casting her papery hands in soft, fragile white. She lifts a palm to the glass. It feels like wax beneath her fingers, soft and cool and lenient, as if it will cling to her form long after she is gone.
I wake up in a sea of white. Blinding sunlight pours in through an iron barred window, casting dark, slashing shadows across my body. Stark white walls, grayed linoleum floor, and the voices are silent again. I take a deep breath, relishing the feeling of air swelling in my lungs. Breathe. Where am I? I look down to find that I am wearing a plain white slip, the cloth rough as paper against my skin. Who am I? I close my eyes and fall back into the darkness.
Not much registers that first day. Women dressed all in white come in and out, bringing trays back and forth and, every so often, murmuring a comforting word. They change the sheets and bring in meals, which are always accompanied by a thin paper cup and a pale blue pill. The pills numb the pounding in my head, but I feel sluggish when I swallow them -- like my mind is encased in a thick, soapy film.
The next time they come in, I ask them why I must take these pills. They tell me that I am sick. Can you believe it? Sick! What a terrible lie. When I am sick, I feel tired and flushed and empty in my stomach, and as I do not feel any of that, I cannot be sick. At least, no more than I can be insane.
Days pass, months, perhaps even years. I do not know; time is all the same in this place. After a while, I am allowed to wander the halls, and then to eat meals with the others, and then, finally, moved into a room without bars on the windows and the door. The food here isn’t bad, to tell you the truth -- actually, I rather like the mashed potatoes that serve in the dining area. I’ve met some new people, too. They’re nice, if a bit strange. There’s a man who believes that his skin is made out of tissue paper, and an old woman who has four different people inside her head.
The women in white are everywhere. I thought they were nice, at first, but I soon realized that they are not so much polite as distant, and not so much caring as formal. They may be kind, but it is a cold sort of kindness, abrupt and never enough to fill you up.
When I ask them why I am here, I am met with swift buttered smiles and wandering glances. Their laughs are strained, and lies spill from their lips.
I find them strange, so strange -- even stranger than the other people here, sometimes. They are marionettes; their movements and their words and their thoughts are wooden, and I long for people made from flesh and blood.
The glass glows blue under the strobe lights – so calm, so blue, so cold and fresh. Trembling beads wash down from the lip and break the smooth waterline, one by one, one with each thump of the music against the soles of my feet. My whole self turns with the pulse and squish of that stereo. Stomach jumps, up and down and up. Bones in my hand jitter. The little umbrella stirs and blows loosely in the glass.
You know, I have this image in my head, and I can’t shake it, of all these people – umbrellas and hoods and newspapers – skittering down the New York street like raindrops down a window. They’re looking down, down, down, always down. I’m looking at them, not from the street, but from above, in a building, and in a yellow raincoat. So high that the raindrops are wider than the cars, that the people are only pinpricks. I wonder if they’ve ever looked up and seen me, or seen the clouds roll home.
And, you know, once I sat in front of the glass, a pen in hand and the crashing rain before me, and I got it in my head that I would write it all down, every drop – only, I touched down that pen to paper, and all that came was a little blue dot. No words in my head clean enough to show you how it fell, in patters and stones and soft sizzling sheets. None playful enough to show you how it landed, the sighs and ripples, the drumming rings. The empty page – what a world. White as the wind – this still, raging white – and hollow as the prickling stars.
So instead, I stood up and I pressed my nose and my own two hands to the glass, for so long that it grew warm and waxy under my fingers. It started thinning, the glass, like it was melting, only softer. And I think, just maybe, I fell right through and became the rain.
One autumn night, as the heavy blue of dusk cut through the sweet golden of sunset, a single white tulip arose from the dusty riverbank and caught sight of her own silken reflection in the still, breathy water of the river. It was the night of the new moon, and as the low clouds around her dissolved into stardust and the heavens above her crumbled to black, the tulip turned her delicate head this way and that, combing down her brilliant petals and admiring the way that the last star of evening graced her slim form with swift lines of silver. It was not until the trees shifted and darkened the sweet spell of starlight that the flower, at last, seemed to notice the lively woods around her. Slowly, she turned up and took in the long forms of the trees and the flitting of the lightning bugs and the slipping shadows on the grass. She turned at once to the great oak, who had lived in the forest for many seasons, and knew much about the world.
“Aren’t I beautiful?” she asked him. The oak, awed by the pristine ivory of her petals, smiled and dipped his branches gently at the next touch of the rushing wind. But the flower did not see, for she had already moved on, peering beyond the oak into the open night.
“Aren’t I lovely?” she called to a young lilypad, who had made his home a little way up into the water. The lilypad, quite taken with her melodious voice and her delicate perfumes, blushed furiously and ducked his head under the froth of the river. But he said nothing, for when he surfaced to tell her that he loved her, he found that she had already moved on.
This lamp does not belong in summer. It is a winter lamp,
with its twin in the window, its echo in the bone-cold wood.
Summer lamps, they all gleam yellow.
This lamp was not made for lemon light --
for damp porch swings, blue-bluster nights like glass --
It cannot rival the fireflies.
This winter lamp, it sighs – it scrapes – it pounds – it singes
the ice-marble-air. It does not dare to quicken to being,
only to soothe and soften,
throw gossamer sheets over still and beaten forms
Even through the threadbare curtains, Sam can see the traces of frost creeping across the window glass, throwing slivers of moonlight across the hardbound book in her hand. She doesn’t check the spine for the title.
Shivering, she tugs on the sleeve of her pajamas. The wind outside has grown fierce, gnawing at wood and flesh alike; winter has finally arrived. Branches groan against the walls of the house, as if to escape the frigid air, and she sits cross-legged on the hardwood floor, listening to the sound-filled silence.
The room is dark, and her head is pressed back into the side of her desk. Her wire-rimmed glasses, bent ever so slightly out of shape, lie discarded on the ground beside her. She traces the cover of the book in her lap. Its corners are well-worn, curved inwards, and almost reverently, she runs a finger down its pages. She smiles as the moon washes her hand in silver light.
Even as her heart tightens, breath comes more easily, and her shoulders sag. Already, she can feel her own worn-out world trickling away through the cracks between the floorboards, hear new existences blossoming at the turning of a page. Already, she can taste escape in the air.
She draws a breath through her nose as the fresh scents of dust and paper trickle up from the pages. Sleep holds down her eyelids, and she still can’t remember what book it is that she holds in her hand. Only that it is the one she fell asleep meaning to read, and the one that she turned to, hours later, when she sat straight up in bed, choking down a scream. Reading by moonlight has always been her remedy for a nightmare.
And for her first failing grade.
And for her grandfather’s death.
Scratch that--reading by moonlight has always been her remedy for everything.
She’ll have to go to school tomorrow, and she’ll have to go to sleep soon. But for now, there is only her and this book. She hopes that she will lose herself somewhere in the pages, in a world away from this one; she hopes that when she returns, she will be a little more whole than before.
But I still remember
Scribbled notes on orange post-its
Flicked across a desk
I remember making faces at friends across crowded rooms
And laughing when they finally noticed
And I remember when we ran in circles against the wind
Without a care in the world
I remember when we became dragons.
Read the full poem here
It’s been a while since we left. The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination.
I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.
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Growing up, there were four boys on my street, all of us about the same age. Danny, my best friend from birth and the clown of the group, with his dimpled smile and his freckled face. He went on to be the only one of us to enroll in the army, but at the time, he was a mop of hair, haphazardly parted and falling into his eyes when he ran. There was Jacob, the youngest of us and something of a tagalong, who went on to become a famous movie critic. There was me, the quiet one. And then there was Evan, who moved into the old house at the end of our street when we were in first grade.
Evan was the storyteller of the group, to say the least. His eyes shining, he’d spin us golden tales about his grandfather, who had singlehandedly led the American Army to victory during the Great War. He’d swear on his life that old Mr. Dupont was a Russian spy, and he’d speak in low whispers about the time he’d seen a dragon on the horizon as the sun disappeared over the edge of the woods. Being seven years old and new to lies, I hung onto his every word like a precious stone.
My favorite stories were always those about his father. “He’s a pilot,” Evan would say, his back straightening and his mouth going stiff, “and he owns three planes, and he flies ‘em all day. He ain’t got no passengers, no one else with him. He’s up there all alone up in the air, jus’ like a bird. Every day.” Once, he had flown right across the Pacific and skimmed the top of Mount Everest with his wing. Another time, he had broken right out of the earth’s atmosphere and scraped against the edge of the moon. In fact, he was so busy with his planes that he was rarely home. “But I don’t mind,” Evan told us. “He’s the best Dad in the world.”
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I have my back to him, but I know he is here. I thought perhaps he could only visit in my dreams. But I can see the shadows on the wall shifting with his every breath, hear him shuddering in the winter air, blue-skinned and cold-eyed and drowning in shadow. The cold gnaws at the back of my neck, and I can feel the trails of water running down his face, hear them dripping onto the floor and pooling at his feet.
I close my eyes. Breathe. I need to breathe. I must take in air, must brace myself for the voices. They are only murmurs, now: whispered fragments grasping at something they cannot quite reach. But they will grow louder, as they always do when he visits me, bubbling up in my mind and hammering into my spine. They grow and weave, washing over one another like coursing waves, but I can never figure out what they are trying to say.
I suppose ghosts have the right to haunt those who have wronged them, but his presence still unnerves me. I do not want him here. Go away, Luke. Please.
Nothing; I can still hear his breathing. Must I turn and face him? I cannot bear to see what he has become--
Please, I try again. Please. I’m not ready.
A moment, and then he listens. I can hear his breath wilt into the air as he fades. It’s a soft sound, gentle, like the breath of air that kills a flame.
Silence follows, and then the raw cry of the wind. I open my eyes. The shadows are still; the street lights pour in through the windows. I sigh and rest my head against the windowsill. The painted wood is cool against my cheek, and I feel an urge to sink into it and never wake up.
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The white paint has been peeling ever since she layered it on, and it clings to her palm when she brushes against it. She doesn’t mind it; she likes to think of the small white flakes as lost thoughts, snatched up in the elusive tide of memory.
But when the afternoon sun streams in through the window, it’s not the paint that it catches, but the solid oak underneath, and she finds herself wishing that she could crawl underneath it again, wrapped in thin sunlight, listening to the sound of her father’s loafers tapping against the floor. Even now, it smells, ever so faintly, of honeysuckle.
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The slipping shadows are slick and warm, and soft and thick as cotton, and they guard him against the still, damp lights of the stars. They wrap around his dangling ankles, around legs too small to reach the ground, around his round-eyed face and his drumming fingers.
She wonders if the case in his arms is stolen or his own, if the smudges on his cheeks and forehead are oil or coal or only shadow. She wonders why his fingers tap so furiously the wooden seat.
He’d been the first one to speak at her funeral. It was an odd crowd – a few of her friends from Church, three or four ex-students, an obscure European cousin who she had lived with for a few months in her thirties. He shouldn’t have spoken – he was the least qualified of them all, really. He and Lillian were strangers, had been for all but the first ten of his fifty years. Strangers who shared blood, but strangers all the same.
He’d prepared a story for the podium – some made-up gibberish about the innocence of childhood and Lillian nursing a tabby cat named Juniper back to health. He can’t imagine his sister actually doing anything of the sort, can’t even remember how the story went, but it had brought the meager audience to laughter and to tears, and after receiving heartfelt condolences from the majority of the room, as well as the odd bouquet, he was sure that he had played the part of loving brother reasonably well. He wonders if he should have brought flowers with him today – roses for love, lilies for peace, poppies for remembrance. That’s the point of it all, really – remembrance. She was loved, flowers call out to passerby. She was needed. She will live forever in our hearts. But that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? He can’t conjure memories of a stranger; can’t offer her the mourning she deserves.
At last, he comes to the end of the graveyard – to a clean, chiseled stone standing straight among the forgotten and decrepit. Fresh dirt clings to his shoes as he moves towards the tomb – pale gray, almost hazy under the curtain of descending night. Slowly, he runs a finger over the name. The stone is cold, and the hard line of the L leaves an indent in his skin.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
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The night sky seems to buckle under the weight of smoke, and his voice seeps into the cobblestones, golden notes lingering in the firelight long after they are gone. Though his words are barely whispers, barely bursts of breath in the darkness, there is a sorrow in the touch of his voice. It wraps around each shuffling footstep. Each passing car.
He sits on the curb, perching on an overturned paint bucket just under a flickering gas light, and though his tune is familiar to all who listen, it is his own. Some do not see him; others cast furtive glances as they pass by. First to his guitar, to worn-smooth firelight coursing through wood. Then to his hands, trembling against the strings. And, at last, to his face. Skin like wet paper, clinging to protruding bones. Chapped lips, whispered words. Pale eyelashes, fluttering in time to his song.
And, quickly, they look away. Something about him unsettles them; perhaps his tattered clothes; perhaps the pain that lurks in the silence between his notes. Perhaps it is only his luck.
Some glare; others speed up and pull their children closer. A few search for a donation box. They fine none.
An old man frowns as he approaches, pulls the cigarette from his lips. His footsteps pause, and his breath draws circles of smoke in the air. He nods, slowly, and slides a dollar into the palm of the singer’s hand.
The singer hands it back.
Winter takes a brush to his lips, painting them blue, and his hands tremble against the strings of his guitar.
He sits with one leg outstretched, and every so often, his voice scrapes. His notes grow sour, his words catch, and he pauses. Opens his eyes. Looks to the sky, and finds only smoke.
And still, he sings on.
The wheels drum briskly against the darkened tar, and silence sweeps out the hollow between the dashboard and the front seat. The moonlight falls on the rushing grass, each blade heavy with the weight of the wind, and casts her hands in fine, pale silver. Fingers tight on the cold wheel, bones, ghostly white through the skin of the knuckles, she turns easily onto the curling highway. A lone bright car swerving between dashed white lanes, humming and breathing at the slightest touch of her hands. Behind, the windshield she takes refuge from the roaring world: there is only her and the gas and the gears and the still, stifled air.
The mountain itself stands solemn, towering over all and aching with pride, a silent protector. Its gaze stretches to the whispering sea, to the vast horizon beyond and to the setting sun, who graces the face of the mountain with her warm, golden light. The mountain rolls gently into the sea, which stretches far into the distance, each breath a wave, each exhale a whisper.
Though it tries, the sea can never quite trace the horizon; so, instead of reaching up, it reaches down. It knows the chill of icy depths where even the sunlight dares not wander, and so, it longs for the warmth. Each day, when the sun is closest, it paints itself with vibrant hues of russet, saffron, golden, and rose. Each day, the sun brushes the horizon and smiles at the painted sea, then bids the vast gradient of the sky goodbye, ducking under the land and giving way to the stars and the night.
I wake up, hours later, to the dawn bleeding through my eyelids. The aching sun drags its fingers over the horizon, unraveling spools of crimson into the sky. It warms the gravel beneath me, but makes no move against the bitter chill in the air. Somewhere down the road, a lone engine sputters, wheels kicking up dust.
No one is watching me; no one is even awake. All the same, I keep up the pretense of nonchalance as I glance down at my watch. The face is cracked, almost shattered; it must’ve happened last night.
Grabbing hold of the railing, I pull myself up. The gravel has left a deep pink imprint in the right side of my palm. Absently, I rub it against my sweater. The pink imprint hasn’t disappeared; if anything, it’s gotten deeper.
I know they are there like
I know I am here, I
can feel them surging and
ebbing and pushing to be
The sound of deep, slow breathing resonated through the house that night; I alone was awake. I drew back the curtain and peered out into the night. The moon greeted my gaze, the shimmering pearl in the sky. I pulled open the curtain further, and a shaft of luminescence trickled down through the navy black night, bathing my face in a pool of silver and spilling onto the cotton pillow like a still, rippling stream. A droplet of the purest silver, a beam of moonlight, had found its way down to me, and for a few precious moments, it was mine alone.
A tear traced its way down my cheek, turned silver by the light of the moon. As soon as it hit the pillow, more fell, and I began to sob, silent, shuddering sobs that seemed to shake the world.
The moon was the only witness.
My favorite Sundays were those when it rained. On those days, she’d bring her umbrella, dark gray with a wooden handle, slightly bent on one side. We’d fill that umbrella with rain and empty it over our heads, laughing as clean, untouched drops of water poured down around us like a shower of molten beads of glass and crystal. The sound of the rain echoed in our ears, both gentle and firm, comforting and endlessly rhythmic. Then we’d run down to the lake and skip stones in the water, the ripples we made joining the ripples of the raindrops as they hit the smooth surface. When our hair hung limply around our faces and our clothes were soaked, we’d run to the tree at the end of the lake, our tree, and prop the umbrella up on the lowest branch, securing it with her scarf.
We’d run to the ice cream place at the end of the street and purchase one scoop each. Mint chocolate chip for her, pecan for me. We’d dash back outside and race to our tree, laughing as the rain stained our ice cream and our ice cream stained the rain. By the time we reached the tree, both cones would be a soggy, sticky mess, but we’d eat them anyway, dry under the umbrella, then rinse our hands in the overflowing lake. We’d jump into that lake without hesitation and race to the other side. It wasn’t deep enough to swim, but we waded in and ran across the sandy bottom, our flailing limbs sending up crowns of water all around us as we laughed and struggled to get ahead. The winner would decide what to do next.
Sometimes we doubled back to the umbrella and sat under it and talked. Sometimes we played two-way tag in the park. Sometimes we snuck into a movie at the theater or ran to the playground and clambered onto the wooden swings, riding them so high that it felt as if we’d break through the rain and brush against the clouds. We climbed to the top of the slide and rushed down along with the roaring rain water, shrieking in our own personal waterpark.
Sometimes we just walked to the café on the end of the street and watched the rain for hours on end from the corner table by the window, the one that felt like a separate world. It was a silent pastime, but the silence wasn’t the awkward type that scrapes and screeches past like coarse metal, nor the overwhelming kind that presses down on a room even after it is shattered. Instead, it was a third presence, a connecting fiber between us, safe and comforting, like a blanket of calm, too strong to be broken by a whispered word here and there, by the corner of a smile. Sometimes I feel like there are more types of silence than there are sound.
She wafts in like a harmony,
a rose-golden whisper.
Lives on the inside of raindrops,
Scraping moonlight from cloud-edged silver linings
and pulling shadows from under pine needles.
Crafts the moonlight
and the shadows into truth,
and whispers the truth into star-licked violets.
I'm a high school junior.