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.