Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the snow-storm

The Snow-Storm / by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

The 2014/2015 holiday edition:

earlier in the month, I bought a treasure trove of vintage paper
from a local stationer who is only open about 4 hours per week

my local post office ran out of the stamps of Emerson's contemporaries, the Hudson River School painters,  so I had them shipped from the USPS underground bunker in Kansas City

So I love this paper. It's crinkly and crackly and has gorgeous red lines. I bought all the stock of it.
500 sheets.
Also two reams of the same paper without the red lines.

The part of me that really wants to be able to embrace simplicity almost left them at that.

The bigger part of me that thinks simplicity is over-rated had opinions about doing nothing.

In an ideal world, this would have been the appearance of all the broadsides in this year's edition.
However, I didn't think through what "Corrasable Bond" really meant. What it means is that when you do lots of things to the surface of the paper, the text disappears.
That would be great for an art project. That is much less great for a poem.

So the majority of the broadsides were treated more simply; splattered rather than manipulated.

Into my personal archive of Japanese airmail stationary for wrappers.

The Big Dipper was chosen because it's one of the few constellations that I recognize,
and the 'random snowflake' punching would have taken forever.
However, after mailing the cards, I looked up the symbolism of the dipper, which relates to stability through the changing seasons, a wrap to the year.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas, eventually

There will be a holiday edition this year. I've got the stamps and the envelopes. And the deadline, technically, isn't until February 19, when the Chinese New Year finishes out the holiday season. So, as above, eventually. Here's a placeholder.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

oceanic gold

I have a weakness for spam messages; this is a recently received gem of an offer.


Good Day,

We are village miners, we have AU Gold of 550kgs Dust/ Bars and 20,000 carats of Rough Uncut Diamonds available ready and willing to sell to use the proceeds to upgrade our mines. If you are interested to do business with us, respectfully  reply for details.

Waiting in anticipation for your soonest response.


 Nana Kojo

Sunday, October 5, 2014

pipe dreams

After many years admiring the work of Empty Set Projects (Pittsfield, MA), I finally have a sign of my own!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

signs & wonders

from the narrow gauge railway museum


Monday, September 22, 2014


Nestled on a side street, near a cafe that serves a delicious greyhound (drink, not canine), is the Museum of Cryptozoology. As soon as I found out it existed, I began looking for a convenient excuse to need to be in Portland.

It did not disappoint.

yay, Canada!

wait, I grew up near here, and never heard of the monster?

if only my childhood games had included these classics

yep, it's a mermaid

Sunday, July 13, 2014

lost in the woods

(miniature edition)

The best part of the House on the Rock was the abundance of insane crazy unending dioramas -- and a website of the wonderful recently pointed me in the direction of the Fisher Museum, a gem quite close to home base that I'd never previously heard of. The quality of workmanship and stunning attention to detail were even more staggering that I had expected.

note the squirrel

"roots are second only to the creator for sustaining mankind on this planet." I might have said "oxygen" got first place.

Plus 1 for handwriting and word breaks. Minus 1 for spelling errors.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

sister of embers

need a refresher on the source text? click here.

It started with the birds descending. They had an evil intent, if by evil, one means they were harming a human, and by intent, one means they acted of their own free will and volition. This ignores any actions the humans may have done, intentionally or unintentionally, in the past, that may have affected the birds or the god who controls them. This also presupposes a defined starting point: did everything, the universe, the big bang, the sudden materializing of a god, begin at the same moment the birds turned evil, or was there some passage of time beforehand, and the starting point becomes arbitrary narrative framework?

The birds seem to be complicating the story, but I can’t very well leave them out, any more than I can leave out the evil stepsisters and the glass slipper and the methods of household management employed by bourgeois families of the unspecified but pre-Industrial past, and I can’t include all of these aspects without inserting some type of warning against a hasty marriage with someone you’ve only danced with, on an evening where everyone was all dressed up and the champagne flowed freely and magic was in the air. I’ve had plenty of those evenings, but, had I actually been able to whisper the proverbial word of wisdom, I might have ventured that a spot of premarital counseling, or, at the least, a third date, would have been a not inappropriate consideration before trading an inarguably uncomfortable domestic arrangement for one that, quite possibly, could be much, much worse. Fairy godmothers are powerful beings, but not compared to royal executioners or divorce lawyers.

This is why choosing where to begin the story is so perilous. This isn’t really even about that interlude, anyway, seeing as how it lasted no more than a month, and nothing about that month was otherwise remarkable in any particular way. Let’s go back.

It started with the birds descending. They had an evil intent, the strong, sharp beaks and talons of raptors; they were larger and blacker than any falcon; there were two of them, and they swooped down onto the wedding party just as the cake was being cut and they blinded the sisters of the bride, then disappeared back into the heavens. Everything happened so quickly that many of the guests were unaware of anything at all, and there were two screaming girls, just barely teenagers, blood streaming down their faces. They quickly were led away from the festivities; the band took up a catchy dance tune; the moment was forgotten by the crowd and the party continued.

The girls were taken to the infirmary, staffed by a midwife who had developed a taste for distilled spirits, and one of them succumbed to an infection that spread from the eye through the bloodstream and into the brain, and the other one survived. She had lost her sight, of course, and had been hobbled as a child by stunted growth in her right foot, and thus knew she had no future position at court. She also knew she had no where else to go. By the time her wounds healed and she had learned how to navigate her dark world, she was still only sixteen, with a dead father, a dead step-father, a dead sister, a disinterested mother, and a stepsister with whom she had never been close and who was now negotiating the difficulties of an ill-advised hasty marriage. She was blind and had a club foot and no particular means of survival, and she did not have any desire to be alive.

It was November and the first snows had fallen; frost glazed the windows, the wolves were not yet desperate in the forests. One afternoon, as she say by the fire in the infirmary with the drunken midwife, she decided she had had enough. She could not knit, she could not sew, she could not clean, she could neither teach nor read, and so she wrapped her cloak around herself, and left.

It did not take her long to consider the folly of leaving without food or a sense of destination in the early winter, and she might have tried calling out for help, except she could not bring herself to care. Perhaps a poacher would inadvertently shoot her, or a band of ruffians attack her, or she could fall into a chilly swift river and drown in a haze of hypothermia. It was all much the same to her. Even if the devil himself had appeared and offered a bargain, she would not have been in any state to even know what to ask for. And she did not believe in the devil, although she believed in poachers and ruffians and rivers, and, if pressed, would have admitted that the birds that took her sight and her sister’s life were evil. She was too exhausted to care much else about philosophical details of god and the devil, and had never thought much about such esoteric drivel, anyway.

She walked slowly, and very quickly lost any sense of where she was and where she might be going, and she collided with trees and walls and quite a few immobile objects she could not identify. As the day grew colder she stopped and sat, just where she was, with no sense of whether she was twenty feet or two miles from where she had started; if she was in the middle of a road or on the edge of a cliff. If she had been injured and nursed in the land where she had grown up, the shape of the landscape would have imprinted itself into her mind, but her family had moved to this region when her mother had remarried, then she had been moved to the castle infirmary after her injury. Even if she had been in full possession of her senses, she knew nothing of the geography of this place. The people spoke a dialect that was thickly accented, so as to be almost foreign, and, outside court, she couldn’t understand a word of the locals’ speech.

As she sat in the cold, she tried to remember what she could of her childhood. There were very few good moments to latch onto; neither her mother nor her sister had even been willing to talk about the past. What she remembered was the deep warm heat of the underbelly of the chickens as she collected the eggs in the morning, and how there was one black hen that had imprinted upon her when it was just a chick, and would follow her throughout the day. She could barely remember her father, he had disappeared before she was old enough to learn her letters, and she never knew for certain if he had really died or something else, maybe something even worse. He had been a giant to her, with a huge shaggy red beard and a leather vest that always had a bit of string in the pockets, and if he wasn’t at home very much, when he was there, he would pick her up and swing her around in circles and she would scream in disoriented delight.

Her mother must have been quite young, barely past girlhood herself, and she remembered summer days when her mother would uncoil her hair and wash it and let it dry in the sun, and it was the same color as the grains growing in the fields, shiny and yellow. When her father was at home, her mother would sing and knit and make jams with the berries from the garden, but when her father wasn’t there, her mother had to chop wood and start the fires and she even must have learnt to shoot game. They never went hungry, but when her father wasn’t there, they didn’t have jam, and her mother didn’t sing.

There, on the corner of her memory, is a thought — had there been a baby brother? She hasn’t remembered him in years and years. He must have disappeared around the same time her father did, but she isn’t sure, she may have never known. There was a time she doesn’t remember at all, and then the flurry of activity with the move, the new stepfather, the new stepsister.

It is very cold out, now; it must be fully night. She lays down on the ground, curls inside her cloak to stay warm. She is hungry and cold, and in the back of her mind she still hears the echoing cries of the birds as they swooped down from the heavens towards her. Her sleep at night is always fitful and prone to terrors; she hears the heavy flapping of the birds’ wings in her dreams. It is very cold; she sleeps, but does not dream. There are no poachers, no ruffians, not even any hungry wolves that accost her as she sleeps.

The sun rises, but she does not wake up. It is a clear morning, and frost has traced her features, left her shape outlined upon the ground where she slept. A small boy is the first person to notice her, and he tugs at his mother’s apron to get her attention. He does not cry: he did not know the girl, he does not recognize death. She had not travelled so very far from the infirmary, but she had managed to leave the castle grounds, and cross a fallow field to the edge of a small village of share croppers. No one recognizes her as being from the court, for her clothes are not fine, and she is buried in the small churchyard, in the corner by itinerants and unknowns. Her story ends.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Two things in life are certain: cats and taxes.

2013 (prep for 2012 returns)

2014 (prep for 2013 returns)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

in like a lion

happy spring (eventually, presumably, hopefully)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tohu and Tikun

Under the tree that knew everything, I felt the pressure of knowledge. Under the tree that knew everything, I felt the air of expectation. Under the tree that knew everything, I felt the fog of emotion. I was too curious to care for knowledge, too rebellious to care for expectation, too confused to recognize emotion. Instead, I lay under the great spreading branches, my head pillowed by a tree root, and I watched what life existed above.

Item, one squirrel. Item, a second squirrel. The squirrels barked at me, then catapulted into an adjacent tree and disappeared. Item, a bird. It may have been a mockingbird, or it may have been a crow, or it may have been a bluejay. My ignorance of this particular is inexcusable, but I was distracted. Between hearing the flurry of beating wings and the rustling of disturbed leaves, I looked up into the heart of the canopy and was surprised to realize that the light was a different color than underneath any of the other trees, or, for that matter, than when standing out in open ground. It wasn’t a delicate filtered green like underneath willows or the ruddy shadows of a maple; it wasn’t a pure blue of day light or the deep velvet of twilight. I forgot about the birds completely.

Something about the air filtered by this tree turned it into a pearlescent glow, like the full moon on the ocean or a puddle slicked by oil after a summer storm, depending on whether one is at the shore or in the city. The air didn’t smell any different, and the sounds were the sounds of the afternoon: the barking squirrels, the rustling birds; somewhere near but not too near, the swish of tires in a hum of traffic.

This was the tree that knew everything, but it was not, as our mayor and our minister and our school teacher and my mother pointed out all too often, this was not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I wasn’t quite sure why they made such a fuss about all that. I knew it was important that it was the tree that knew everything, because it was the tree that everyone told secrets to and studied for tests under and went to when things were confused. I figured if it was the tree that knew everything, it really must also be the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because, if it wasn’t, well, then, it couldn’t know everything.

I asked my mother. “Mom, what’s the big deal about the knowledge of good and evil?”

She got all flustered, and said it had something to do with beautiful gardens and falling in love and having babies.

“That doesn’t make any sense at all. What’s evil about gardens or love or babies?”

She stammered incoherently and sent me outside to play.

When I asked my school teacher, she said it was all just a silly story that the mayor made up so that we could have a landmark featured in the tourist brochure. Well, I had sent letters to the tourism offices of all 50 states and I had a great pile of color brochures and maps covered in squiggly lines, and most towns seemed to put up statues of funny-looking men rather than have famous trees.

When I asked the mayor to explain it all to me, he gave me a little lapel pin with the state flag inside the outline of the tree that knows everything, and then had his secretary give me a commemorative poster from the dedication of the tree. I put the pin on my overcoat and hung the poster on my bedroom wall, but none of this answered my question.

After church on Sunday, I went up to the minister, who had just taken a big bite of jelly doughnut, and asked him. “Why’s it the tree that knows everything, but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?” Right at that moment, some of the jelly filling plopped onto his shirtfront and he ran off to get a napkin.

No one would or could explain it to me, and so I had taken to sitting under the tree at all hours, thinking that maybe the tree would tell me. I mean, I know that trees can’t talk, or write, or anything, but no one else had much to say, so there was nothing to lose by trying. I figured that I probably wouldn’t learn much, but it was summer, and the air was warm and the days lasted forever, and I sat and napped and daydreamed and watched the squirrels and sometimes other people would stop by and I’d take their picture for them, under the tree.

This was the first time I had noticed the air under the tree being different from the air other places. I don’t know if I just hadn’t been looking right before, or if the time of day or the weather were different. I’d seen the air change color when tornadoes were coming in, everything turning a yellowy green gray and then lots of lightning and I knew, absolutely knew, that I had to run somewhere safe and duck and cover. We did lots of duck and cover drills at school, so that felt okay. But this wasn’t scary-tornado-storm colored under the tree. Like I said, it was pearlescent, it was one of the prettiest things I had ever seen, like a rainbow but without any color.

I decided to climb the tree and see what was going on, which seemed like a fine idea until I realized that it would be kind of hard to climb, since there weren’t any good branches for footholds. Then I remembered the squirrels, and how they would jump from tree to tree, and that made a lot of sense. I looked around. There was a good oak not too far away that I could get into by climbing onto the cemetery fence, so I did. The oak tree was built like a staircase, or a ladder, and I went up and up and around until I was on the right side to scoot over to the tree that knew everything. The squirrels started barking at me again, but as long as they didn’t start throwing acorns, I felt safe.

When I was looking over at the tree, I realized the entire tree seemed to have a cloud, or maybe a fog, of this different air. Or maybe the tree was glowing, or radiating something. We had studied nuclear bombs a little bit at school, but I wasn’t sure if nuclear meant glowy or if that was something else. Maybe when we do chemistry I’ll learn that. And I don’t think there’s any way to tell if something is nuclear, anyway, not without special scientist stuff. It isn’t like nuclear things are maybe warmer or smell different or get magnetic. Or maybe they do. But the tree that knew everything wasn’t warmer than everywhere else and smelled the same as all the other trees, and I didn’t have a paperclip to check and see if it was magnetic. I felt that it probably wasn’t going to nucleate me, and it didn’t seem ashy like fire smoke, so I crawled out on the limb of the oak tree to get closer to it.

I didn’t look down. I knew it would be a bad idea to look down, so I slithered on my stomach and held on tight and watched to make sure I didn’t get caught on any branches. The trees were further apart than they looked from the ground, but I could see how different the air was inside the tree that knew everything. I wanted so badly to know why it was different, and so even though I knew Tarzan was only make-believe, I started looking around for a rope or something to swing myself over. We didn’t have any kudzu, not like they do in some places, and even though I know I’m not supposed to like kudzu because although it looks like a fur coat it makes it hard for the trees to breathe, even still, if I had kudzu, I could have braided it into a rope to swing to the other tree. But I was just out on a branch on my stomach, and that wasn’t getting me anywhere.

There had been a movie about how monkeys move through trees, swinging from their arms, and I decided that might work. I wrapped my arms around the tree branch, like I was giving it a hug, and dropped upside down so that my legs were swinging free underneath. I swung my legs back and forth and back and forth to get momentum to move forward, and the oak tree’s bark scratched up my arms and my shoulders felt like they were going to break off and my hands were so sweaty I was afraid that I would lose my grip and fall, and that would probably hurt. A lot. So I kept swinging my legs and scootching forward and I didn’t look down or think about my arms bleeding. Then I was close enough that if I swung really, really hard I could get my leg onto one of the branches of the tree that knew everything. And I swung and looped my knee into the other tree, but was still holding onto the oak tree with my arms. I got my other knee up to cross over the branch, and I let go.

I was hanging upside down in the tree that knew everything, and I was tired, and my arms hurt and I was kind of absolutely terrified, but I realized I could feel the air was different. It was a little bit thicker, and a little bit warmer, and smelled a little bit like cinnamon. The only thing I can compare it to is the dandelion feathers that go poof into the air when you make a wish. It was like being surrounded by the tickly-air feeling of dandelion. I reached my arms up to meet my knees on the branch, and collapsed onto my stomach. Everything seemed happy, even my blood felt bubbly, like cola, or fish tank bubbles. I scootched closer to the trunk, and sat, resting my back against it. The trunk was warm, not like a stovetop, but like socks off the radiator, and all around me, the air hummed, like bees, except there were no bees. I could feel how much the tree was trying to tell me, and even though I couldn’t understand any of it, I was happier than I had ever been.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Przewalski's horse

I held onto the suitcase. My knuckles were white with the effort, but I knew if I even relaxed my hand, my subconscious brain would take over. Then I would rest the suitcase on the ground, just for a moment, to shake out my hands; then I would go for a cup of tea and being distracted by the thought of tea, leave my suitcase unattended; when I came back for it, the suitcase would be gone. Disappeared, stolen. That absolutely couldn’t happen. I gripped the handle tighter. It was everything left of who I was, and contained everything I would become. It was the reliquary of my soul, and I did not want to have my very self stolen from me in a train station.

The train itself had not arrived, but it was not late. The station master chatted with someone down towards the end of the platform. There was nothing particular about the crowd waiting, there was nothing particular about me. Or I hoped there was nothing that would cause anyone to take a second look, or to remember me. Not that there would be any negative consequences; but it just seemed wrong, exposed, standing here in full view of the world and having my soul and my memory clutched so tightly in my hands. The train arrived; we boarded; I sat in a corner by a window, placed my suitcase on my lap, watched the scenery edge past.

Back gardens with drying laundry gave way to fields fallow after the harvest, then the fields passed and there was only scrub and distant hills. I had forgotten how quickly the city gets left behind and how long the scrublands last. When I’m in the city it seems like the only thing that really exists, but even the tallest skyscraper was invisible in almost no time at all. Most of the people who remained on the train have settled in, stopped trying to appear busy, are napping or gazing out the window. The afternoon advances and still we continue, the scrublands continue, the distant mountains grow incrementally closer.

I sleep, jerk awake from a dream where I was surrounded by everyone I knew as a very young child, we were eating birthday cake, and I awoke just as I was about to blow out the candles. The sun is setting, and from the window I can feel draughts of cold air seeping in. We are in the mountains. The sun disappears and I feel the shadow of the mountains in the darkness outside my window, but there is nothing to mark distance. The moon is new, and the stars move as we move, and I sleep. In my dreams I am flying and there is a river rushing towards me, a flood or waterfall, there are rocks and I fly faster to stay ahead of the tide and then I awaken. The cabin has grown quite cold. There are men in uniform with flashlights, checking passports. They do not look very closely; they have thermoses of coffee and flasks of vodka waiting for them in their chamber, and the darkness of the mountains continues and again I sleep, but do not dream.

Morning, a tea cart, served by an impassive woman who doesn’t quite say anything and doesn’t quite make eye contact with anyone. I am the same way, huddled by the window with my suitcase, drinking the acrid tea. The mountains have passed in the night, but the landscape is bleak, empty, the only thing of note upon it is the train itself, and it is a train well past its prime, the tracks are indifferently maintained, the landscape so barren I see not even a rabbit or crow. Somewhere in my mind I feel a sense of familiarity with this emptiness, but I cannot begin to count how many years and memories have passed since I last watched this land stretching endlessly from the window. Even grasping for some sense of what comes next, all I can see before me is the endless ocean, and that is still some days’ journey; there is more to pass before we arrive. But at that distant ocean, I can remember smooth black stones along the shore, and huts weathered grey by the wind. I cannot remember how many huts there may have been. Perhaps five, or ten, but no more; and of these, I do not know if any may even remain on the empty coast.

I clutch my suitcase, cling to it like a security blanket or teddy bear. When was it? I could not have been older than three or four. Everyone towered above me, and spoke too quickly and used too many words that I couldn’t understand. I remember the men were giants with scratchy faces and they smelled of old fish and the sour smell that I know now is woodsmoke and alcohol. The women were plump, and I could not always distinguish my mother from the other women. Sometimes I would run to one woman only to suddenly burst into tears when it was not, in fact, my mother. We had chickens that jostled in the thatching and our neighbor had a goat that was not friendly. And then I left. Or I was sent away. Or I was claimed.

I was put aboard a train by my mother and a strange woman in an embroidered red coat took me through the mountains and into the city. All I can remember of her is the red coat, for I had never seen anything so magnificent, and my awe of the red coat may have been enough that I had no space in my heart for tears at leaving my mother or fear at going to some strange place. Now that I am being sent back, or escaping back, I realize that I am not certain of my name. The parts of myself that I keep so closely in the suitcase may be some other person’s past or memories, and I have stolen or borrowed them for this journey. Three or four years old is such a long time ago that I do not know if I will recognize anything or anyone, but this is all that I have.

It is not that there was ever cruelty. I meant to say that before, but I forgot. Never was there cruelty, not by the woman in the embroidered red coat nor by any of the headmistresses that came after. There were a great many other children, but we were so numerous and moved about so often that I cannot remember any one in any particular detail. This was not cruelty; this was method, and we received the best method there was.

One girl, one girl I remember. Perhaps we were six, or only five. We were learning our letters, tracing and copying out, tracing and copying out, until our wild scrawls were as neat and precise as the teacher’s. The girl I remember kept sneaking little animal faces inside her letterforms, the letter “C” was given ears and the tail of the “Q” was made into a mouse tail. She was missing a front tooth and could whistle just like a singing bird. They did not punish her for any of these things; they were not cruel. I wonder if, when she learned numbers and math, if she drew faces in the numbers, made her math equations look like faces peering through apartment windows.

I never did these things, although when there was a hallway that was absolutely perfectly empty and there wasn’t even an echo of voices or footsteps, then I would turn a cartwheel. Never more than one. I don’t think I learned how to cartwheel after arriving in the city, for we were not given lessons in gymnastics and our playtime was carefully structured, so perhaps I had learned how to turn a cartwheel on the smooth black stones of the beach. None of the women, with their generous girth and wide skirts, would have taught me how, nor any of the men, smelling of alcohol and the sea. I do not remember there being any other children, not even babies, not in my cottage nor in any of the others, but some how I must have learned. And that was my secret, that I was so careful not to share with anyone else.

All of the rest of the time, I drew my C’s and Q’s and numbers just exactly like the teachers showed us, and the years passed, and passed, and then, suddenly, I needed to leave. As quickly as it began, but so many years later, I am returning to the sea, the smooth black stones that lead to the water, stretching endlessly away.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

caught indoors

Tiny fleeting thought, appearing then gone. Outside, the rain continues. It has rained for so many days now that we have ceased to comment upon it; the lanes and paths have flooded, making our house into an island. It will stop raining, eventually, and we will return to playing horseshoes and picnicking as if this is all that we have ever done, forgetting the weeks we were confined indoors. And we bring our past-times with us: upstairs, directly above this room, they have set up a horseshoe pitch in the hallway. It has done some damage to the plaster, but no matter. There is bocce ball set up in the entryway, for with the roads impassible we have no guests to welcome, and the cellars are stocked with strawberry jam, so it is almost like summer. I am alone, for the moment, although soon the girls will come in and we will have opinions about lunch, but for now I hear the thud of the horseshoe landing in the hallway above and I look towards the window and try to trace the outline of my reflection and catch the ephemeral moment that I have almost forgotten.

Butterflies. It had something to do with butterflies. If there was no rain, the monarchs might be here, dancing over the rose bushes. The rose blooms are tightly furled, waiting for more auspicious times, and the monarchs seek their nectar elsewhere. In the conservatory a forest of ferns turns what little sunlight enters an eerie, ethereal green, and a lone orchid is in bloom. It is flowering out of spite, I think, for it is not a particularly attractive bloom and it has no scent, but as it has no competition, we are forced to admire it. Last week the girls made butterflies out of tissue paper and hung them throughout the conservatory, suspended above the ferns, and before the paper could wilt from the humidity, we brought in lanterns and had a midnight dinner among the ferns. The boys believed they were Dr Livingstone in deepest, darkest Africa, and the girls believed they were in one of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, princesses transported to the fairy realm, and I felt trapped in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, constantly checking over my shoulder for speaking snakes and little lost boys, half-wild. We had orange ices and declared it a success, but now the tissue butterflies are drooping and there are no real ones yet to replace them.

Somewhere in the house we have an old army cannon. I am unsure why or where it came from, but it is quite old, quite heavy, quite unsightly, and has been here for as long as anyone can remember. This afternoon the boys have spoken of taking it to the roof, or, more likely, the terrace (unless it is already in the attics, it is too heavy to transport upstairs), and I believe they mean to fire it. It has probably not been set match to since the troubles around Cromwell, and whether it will fire as desired or explode itself and all of us, I would not know. There is gunpowder they have found, that isn’t too damp, and they have been studying the Encyclopedia for days, to get the mechanics right. They were unhappy with this practical detour, but have persevered in their studies. If it were not raining, I am sure the cannon would be safe under a layer of dust, but we will play marches and make banners of quite wild heraldry and defend this our castle against whatever form our enemy takes. It will not be good for the shrubberies, nor, probably, the statuary.

On the piano, now, someone has started practicing marches, but they are doing so with a quite impractical syncopation. Our troops seem likely to move in formation to the Charleston, rather than Sousa. When was the last time there were so many of us gathered together? With the rains we have become a Noah’s Ark, or, if we were of a sinister cast, a bad murder-mystery-whodunnit where the guilty party cannot escape. Nothing so dark; the greatest damage is to the wallpaper in the upstairs hallway and perhaps that sentimental goddess in the garden. I would not mourn her defeat by cannon-fire, but that is perhaps unfair.

Before she was delivered, there was a delightful statue of Pan, playing the pipe, but when Uncle married, his new wife declared Pan scandalous and unChristian, and his new mother-in-law bought the goddess as a wedding present. Usually we drape her in a feather boa and leave a pack of cigarettes in her plaintive, upturned palm, but both those improvements are missing, due to the rain. I can see her, cowlike and petulant, from my window. Perhaps tomorrow, if it is at all drier, we can search the closer outbuildings for Pan, for he can’t have been far removed. When Uncle and his bride return from the coast, we can none of us remember the exchange taking place.

None of us expected him to marry, not at this late date. He was always described as having suffered a great disappointment, but his sailing was impeccable and his pantomimes funnier than everyone else’s, and he never seemed remotely out of sorts. After all this time, to latch onto quite that type of woman, all breathy gasps and fading blonde curls, but he will hear nothing against her. I do not think they plan to live here at the house, or I very much hope not, as I hope Uncle deems it undignified at his age to be fathering infants. We were able to expel his mother-in-law the week after the wedding, thankfully before the rains began: as she had brought boxes and boxes with her, we feared an encroaching would-be matriarch.

It must have been the use of the portrait gallery as a shooting hall that finally did it, although the girls were whispering fiercely among themselves, and may have been tampering with her cosmetics. She was a naturally florid woman, so it might have been difficult to tell, and I asked no questions. Had she stayed another few days, I had worked out a method of introducing extra drops of minor improvements to her meals, hoping to encourage her to take a water-cure some place rather far away. It is a shame about shooting in the gallery, as some of the portraits were quite respectable, and one of them may or may not have been a Gainsborough, but when the weather clears, we’ll wrap them up and send them to Town for repairs. I wish I had known earlier of their plans, because there’s one particularly dour woman that I’ve often felt had a diabolic squint, and this would have been an opportunity to have a one-sided duel with her. However, my little pistol has an unfortunate pull to the left, so I probably would have only achieved a glancing blow, at best.

The piano has switched to Strauss, which seems quite out of place for eleven o’clock, and if it continues much longer, I will have to rise and insist upon Chopin, at least before four o’clock. The player has skill if not discernment, but I am not certain who among us it might be. The girls have just entered the room. They will allow me a moment more before drawing my attention to the new kitten or a particularly funny illustration or asking if horses can be made to rhyme with curses in a sestina. Or perhaps we will move on from sestina to sonnet, and no sonnet can feature either a horse nor a curse, so perhaps it will be an attempt to match alligator with water, even though one would have to be quite Cockney for that to succeed. Somewhere in the library is an old dictionary of rhyming slang, probably from great-grandfather’s day, but if we can find it, then the girls can write Cockney poetry this week. For now I will find the silks to make our banners, if the cannon has been found and moved into position, and I will make sure it is aiming in the general direction of the goddess. Perhaps the girls will find the rest of the pieces of the suit of armor that went missing the other evening. If there is to be cannon-fire, the person to light the fuse should have whatever protection can be managed, or should at least look properly heroic.

The Strauss has stopped, which is a relief, and the girls rushed from the room before interrupting me, which can only be to descend upon the player. There is no one here whom they would run to so eagerly, and yet I do not see how any visitor should have arrived in this weather. If it is a guest, however, I must see to lunch, and hope that a room has been readied, and wonder if it will be enough of a diversion to postpone the firing of the cannon. The clock just chimed, and the rain continues to fall, and whatever fleeting thought that I sat down to try to catch, it is gone. The rains continue; it is time for lunch.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Captain’s Log-Book

inspired by:
and Swallows and Amazons
and Two Years before the Mast

Wind south-southwest. Sunrise five seventeen. The sextant swept overboard in the storm of yesterday eve, unable to confirm latitude or longitude, excepting by stars. Sky overcast, clouds thick after storm, so unable to confirm latitude or longitude by stars. In addition to sextant, washed overboard: one seaman, one cabin boy, one barrel of rum, three chickens. The cabin boy is not felt to be a loss due to poor eyesight and lack of coordination when scaling the mast, but must water the remaining rum and trust there are minimal complaints.

Wind south-southwest all night, but calmed to flat before sunrise. Sunrise five fifteen. It is possible that the ship clock was altered by a mutinous member of the crew. I have reset it according to best approximation with current location, and length of day. As skies continued overcast, heavy dark clouds, approximated location on charts, but may have been moved further off course by storm of two days ago, and am unable to confirm. Have suspicions of mutinous seaman’s identity but no evidence. Thinned rum noticed but not commented upon. Sail repairs almost complete.

Wind flat: movement not discernible in any direction. Stars visible briefly last night, updated charts to approximate location. Suspect recent storm pushed off course and into fabled Pacific Doldrums, which have always steered well clear of in past. There are rumors of a chain of islands protected by the Doldrums, but none I know have ever seen them.

Wind easterly but too slight for movement. Sunrise five ten. Repaired sails hung, process much more efficient without cabin boy. Must send message to the families upon return, if there are families to send message to. Murmuring during grog hour, which quieted when I approached; believe in relation to thinned rum. Mutinous sailor claiming barrel did not go overboard, but that I plan to sell it at steep profit to the natives. We know of no natives in this sea, not upon any of the islands, but morale is low as the air hangs heavy and we do not progress. Begin white-washing decks and mending ropes as sails are empty and slack.

Wind easterly but weak. Sunrise five ten. Watch reported sighting a seagull, but as it was only one bird and an unconfirmed sighting, it may have been a high cloud or a restless mind. It is impossible to tell how long we will remain mired in this circle of water; I update the chart but we would make faster progress swimming. A pod of whales passed by yesterday in the distance, but otherwise the sea is as eerily calm as the air. I suspect the second mate of tampering with my meal yesterday evening, but have no proof. I will have to check the storage of my food stuffs, and perhaps start preparing my own meals. The white-washing has progressed at a steady pace, but I came upon one young sailor painting caricatures upon the deck, rather than painting the deck. It was a good likeness of the unfortunate cabin boy entangled in the sails, but I cannot encourage this practice.

Wind easterly. Sunrise five ten. We have moved somewhat further, and, while it is not in the direction I would have hoped, it seems best to travel as swiftly as possible in any direction that removes us from this cursed area of dead calm. I charted our location against the rumored chain of islands that lies protected by the Doldrums, and, if the islands do exist, it is possible we might be able to make landfall. They cannot possibly be inhabited, and are likely no more than exposed rock, but there might be freshwater. I have locked my foodstuffs and taken to preparing all my meals by my own hand. The moon rose yesterday evening encircled by a red ring, and I fear for my own safety and the safety of my ship.

Wind flat. Sunrise five ten. We are but floating, there is not wind enough to counter the current, and we have lost the progress of the past three days. The men have taken to grumbling openly about the rum ration, but even when I offer to search the ship with them to demonstrate that it was lost in the storm of last week, they refuse. The mutinous sailor has been filling their minds with stories of the islands of paradise in this region, and I do not know which to fear more: that we will not sight land and I will be cursed for withholding Paradise through Incompetent Navigation, or that we will sight land and the sailors will call him a Prophet. As the winds stay eerily absent, tempers grow short, and there is little I can offer to calm the men. The mate is induced to bring out his accordion, but as the air is thick and heavy, there is little spirit for dancing.

Wind southwest. Sunrise five fifteen. If these islands do exist, they are guarded by the stormy god Eurus to ensure they remain undiscovered. Yesterday I consulted C——’s book of Voyages and here quote his passage on the Doldrums:
… there is one region of that great Ocean that every good-hearted Captain fears, for it has a surface as smooth as polished glass and wind as calm as the snuggest cottage. This region is commonly called “The Doldrums,” and many a ship has laid trapped here for weeks, waiting in vain for the winds to blow fortunate and make some progress against the current, before the crew runs out of fresh water. At dawn and dusk the air becomes heavy and reflective, like a fog or smokey mirror, and tales of ghost ships, swarming sharks, and even the most elusive giant squid have been reported from this half-light. Many a sea captain has been led against his own better judgment into the region of the Doldrums, as he seeks the rumored isles of fire and emeralds, covered in the sweetest tropical fruits, and populated by a race generous and beautiful. This kingdom has been called the Sandwich Islands, but it is as dangerous and unlikely as the tribes of Amazonian warriors in South America…

Wind westerly but quiet. Sunrise five twenty. We are pushed further off course and now I begin to understand C——’s fear that our water stocks may run low. There has been no further sighting of seagull or even albatross, and the rocks that were sighted on the horizon turned out to be a school of dolphins, swimming into the distance. The padlock on my foodstuffs had been tampered with, but I do not think it was broken into. For the moment I continue with my own stores, but will switch to sharing the sailor’s salt-beef and hardtack if any further evidence arises. Our artistic seaman has been commissioned to elaborate the figurehead of the ship, and yesterday was roped into a harness, and spent the day hanging overboard, painting upside-down. The other sailors do not jeer or throw rotten food at him, but watch his work with something approaching religious fervor. He has been promised an extra ration of rum at its completion. Played penny-whistle during the overnight watch, but the wind brought back some kind of echo. I do not trust these waters.

Wind east southeast. Sunrise five fifteen. Sails slack, as they have been since the storm that cost us the sextant and rum and two pairs of hands. Today I began eating the salt-beef and hardtack, like a common sailor. I told them it was nostalgia for my own first years at sea, but the men all but openly jeered at this excuse. I tried to describe my first crossing of the Cape, as a cabin boy of ten, tied into the nest, but was interrupted by a shout from up deck. Land, sighted, of some type. All hands on deck. There is so little wind as to make trimming the sails all but useless, but, as the men were more enthusiastic than they have been in many days, we pulled the sails as taut as possible, and trained our eyes towards the horizon. It could just be a rock, or a storm cloud, or the islands that may or may not have fruit stranger and sweeter than anything we have ever known, and caverns of jewels tucked under the cliffs, but any change can only lift the spirits and makes the prospect of mutiny less imminent.

Wind easterly. Sunrise five ten. The wind has picked up enough to counteract the current, and I intend, by guiding the ship on a sharp curve, to stay in front of the wind and clear of the strongest currents. As we begin to move again, painting of our figurehead is postponed, but the sailor is given his extra ration in good faith. Someone has rifled through my cabin, but I do not know if it was with the intention to steal from me, or to plant evidence to implicate me in some crime. There is no longer the shadow of landmass on the horizon, but even though it may have been but a cloud or small outcropping, I tell the men we have to circumvent the current to approach the islands. New moon; clear sky. Many comets, which I do not know if they are good omens or ill. There are hushed murmurings from below decks that silence awkwardly as I approach. I do not think it bodes well.

Wind easterly, filling sails. Sunrise, five ten. Confirmation at dawn of land mass sighted in distance, encouraging presence of birdlife. Estimate arrival in another day’s clear sailing. Morale higher, all hands working, whistling at noon. Accordion brought out in evening; painter-sailor from Scottish islands, and dances elaborately. I do not think he has been won over to the mutineers, would make a powerful ally to keep order aboard ship.

Wind easterly. Islands close enough geography can be confirmed. At least one volcano, which may be active. Watch begins for reefs and rocks below water; charts do not indicate path to safe harbor. Landing likely. Presence of natives unknown.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

van Winkle

This time of year the stars are so bright, they’re like the eyes of god staring out of the sky. There are so many of them that the only place to hide is in the city, where all the lit up buildings throw a camouflage blanket over the actions of the people below. That’s why life is so different in the city, that’s why there are all those murders and robberies and people doing whatever they want without asking their conscience if it’s really such a good idea. It isn’t that the cities meant to be bad, but when they found out god couldn’t see because of all the light, they forgot all their Sunday school in the hustle and bustle. Electricity more or less wrote the obituary for omniscience.

But this isn’t about the city, because the city people don’t really matter. They don’t care anything about us, and that goes both ways. This is about last night, and all the stars were so bright I could almost touch them, the air was so thin it made the distance disappear. Sometimes the stars get all close like that and it makes me afraid that it’s time to die, that the stars are coming to get me, and sometimes when the Geminids fly overhead, I’m convinced that the stars are jealous of us, that they are coming to Earth to live as humans. I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a bit confusing, thinking of how it would be to live surrounded by powerful radiance: part of it would be the most amazing experience and part of it would be feeling like the clumsiest, stupidest, ugliest thing to ever live. So usually I’d rather wait to die to become a star myself and join them, rather than have the stars decide to take human form when I’m not ready for them.

Last night the stars were bright even though there was a full moon; everything glowed brighter together instead of competing for space in the sky. It was cold and the air was thin and I almost forgot to look, but then I did, right after the moon rose above the old elm tree, and it was just so much that I had to be outside, too, sharing the night with the stars. These days I don’t move as easily as I used to, my knees are stiff and my hearing’s not so good, and the cold makes it that much worse, but it didn’t matter. I found my old peacoat from back in the shipyard days, and the grass was frozen as I walked out into the yard. The moon had cleared the elm tree and stood high in the sky, surrounded by a court of stars, and I tried to look at all of them at once, but there were too many, in every direction, to see standing up.

Then, even though the ground was frozen cold, I laid down, and the stars spread across the sky above me, so numerous and so close it felt like summer rain falling. I lay, perfectly still, and watched the stars dance across the sky and the moon move to its own tempo, and then I must have fallen asleep. I do not think I died, but I might have.

This is not what I was told death would be like, for I was not a star, I was still myself. When I awoke, though, I felt like I was both myself and every human who has ever lived, all at the same time. I was young and old and weightless and heavy, and I still spoke in my voice and had my thoughts, but my mind was full of more memories that I had ever imagined. They were cascading, shuffling through me, dance lessons turning into working a plough turning into a dinner party lit only by candlelight with fantastical wigs and dresses turning into the acrid smokey smell of an oil rig turning into a field of marigold overwhelmingly glowing and then into a family of monkeys chittering to one another in the canopy of a forest. The images and memories kept coming, faster and faster, and I tried to watch all of them and relive all of them, until I felt myself growing dizzy with the effort. I opened my eyes.

The entire night had passed, without me being aware of it. It was still my hillside, but something was different. Something important had changed. With my eyes open I tried to suppress or calm down the memories so I could concentrate, and I squinted my eyes to see what was there. It felt like home, the same way it’s easier to breathe when you’re at home than anywhere else. The air smelled the way it was supposed to smell, rotting leaves and woodsmoke and pine tree. There was something off about the old elm tree, and I got off the ground to look more closely. The first thing I noticed was my knees didn’t hurt the way they used to, but they way they felt was that they remembered hurting, they just weren’t swollen and painful anymore. My vision was sharper, too: colors seemed brighter and richer. Maybe my vision hadn’t been so great, or maybe those cataracts were worse than I had thought, but even though I could tell that things seemed clearer and more vibrant, I wasn’t completely sure why.

I walked towards the elm tree, the tree that I had made up stories about since I was a child, the tree had been a knight and a dragon and a princess and an evil stepmother and an old sage. When I was close enough, I reached out a hand and touched the bark. It was like an electric shock, but it wasn’t unpleasant. I had pulled my hand away in surprise, but now I put it back, and the electricity buzzed through me and I felt the pulse of the tree. The sap rose and fell and rose and fell just exactly like my heartbeat, and with one hand on the tree I placed my other hand on my pulse. It was the same rhythm. I listened more carefully, tuning out the chatter of all the memories in my head, and I could hear the zinging humming of the sap as it moved. Then I could hear the gurgling murmuring purr of my own bloodstream, synchronized with the tree.

The tree’s bark was alive, shifting and moving, not the inert armor I had always assumed, and I watched it turn a thousand shades of russet under my hand. The branches overhead were not merely swaying in the wind, but were moving of their own accord, dancing with the wind. As I continued to focus on the branches, I felt them lift up and form silhouettes, the shape of the knight, the dragon, the princess, the stepmother, the sage. I wondered if I had known I was telling the tree’s own stories, or if, instead, the tree had heard my stories and become them, but as soon as I thought this, I realized it didn’t matter, because the tree and I were the same. Our cells moved in harmony, its experiences passing as easily beneath my skin as my experiences became a part of its branches.

Overhead, the sky grew cloudy, and as the rain began to fall, it did not bounce off or form droplets upon my skin but was being absorbed into me. As each raindrop landed, I could feel every lake and ocean where it had been before, in some droplets I could even taste the sadness of former tears, and as all of these drops fell onto and into me, I felt myself become the ocean.

It was still afternoon, and although I was nourished by the falling rain, I knew it was time for tea, and I returned to this farmhouse where I have spent my entire life. The kitchen was full, filled with a dozen women I recognized but did not remember meeting, until suddenly I saw they were my grandmothers, all of my grandmothers, gathered together. In the spaces between them were all of my grandfathers, settling down in the chair by the fire for an afternoon cup of tea, and I could feel the house filled with cousins and aunts and uncles beyond counting. For a moment I wondered how there was room for all of us, but just as my body had absorbed the rain, so all the people in the room were able to exist in the same space at the same time, absorbing one another. We spoke in turn and out of turn, each of us filled with our memories and the memories of everyone else before us.

The tea was poured and the early winter twilight began, and I remembered that it was only yesterday that I had gone out to watch the stars in their clear, perfect sky. I began to describe the moon, how it glowed soft yellow through the tree, and then, as I looked out the kitchen window, I caught my breath. I was paralyzed by the emptiness. The sky was empty, completely empty. Where there had been planets and constellations and shooting stars was now only the moon, disappearing into the darkness. All around me, the kitchen grew brighter, the conversation louder. The stars had arrived, joined us, become us. Their time had come, and we breathed each other, one together in the night.