Problem Solved

I was told to go see someone who could help me. I followed the address I was given, and it led me to a cottage on a small, narrow side street. There were flowers in flower pots all around the railing of the porch, and there were wind chimes hung just beside the door that chimed softly as I came up the steps. I knocked at the door and an older woman in a flowery house dress flung the door open and stared up at me inquisitively. She reached up and clutched the door frame with her hand, as though to bar the way, and I saw her long black fingernails digging into the white paint. She made an insistent jerk of her head and shoulders and pressed her face forward, waiting for me to explain myself.

I started to tell her who had sent me and why, but she cut me off saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” and she turned back into the house, impatiently waving for me to follow her. She led me into her cluttered living room, where there were a variety of old clocks and framed pictures crammed together on all the walls. She went to get something from the hallway closet, and she came back with a thick bundle of rope. She held the coils of rope draped over her outstretched hand. She held the rope up to me, expecting me to understand the significance of it. “You see? You see?” she said, punctuating each sentence by thrusting the rope towards me. I shook my head.

She sighed with abundant exasperation, waving her free hand about and rolling her eyes at the ceiling as though there were spirits there that could grant her the patience to deal with me. She decided that she would have to demonstrate. She held a finger up to me, and then she began paying out long lengths of the rope which gathered into a loose pile of the floor. She tied one of the ends of the rope into a lasso. She twirled it around like a rodeo performer, and then she tossed it out into the empty space in the middle of the room.

To my amazement, the lasso seemed to catch around something invisible in the empty air. I drew up and leaned forward, blinking my eyes. She gave the rope a slight tug, and I actually saw it begin to tighten on this invisible presence. She nodded at me significantly, knowing that I could see now. And as I looked, I began to see a little round man with a long beard caught in the lasso. It was as if the pantomime of the rope had suggested his presence so convincingly that now I was able to see him there. I held up my finger and came forward, wanting to touch the apparition, but the woman slapped my hand away and pushed me back. Her nostrils flared and she scolded me with a shake of her head.

“This is a problem,” she explained, pointing at the round man. He scrunched up his face like a resentful child that has been caught misbehaving. “We all have these problems. Everyone’s life, filled with problems.” She waved expansively at the air. “You understand?” I nodded. “They are simple enough to deal with. You get the rope around them, as you see, and then you loop the rope around them five times. Five,” she repeated, holding her hand up with all five fingers extended, stressing the importance of this specific number. Again, I nodded.

She circled the round man, looping the rope around him five times. On each pass of the rope around his head, the round man watched with interest, but he did nothing to struggle or try to break free. He seemed as curious as I was about what was going to happen next. He even glanced at me once, blinking his eyes. He seemed a little shy and embarrassed by his predicament. The woman just kept slowly working her circles around him, holding the rope up as high as her arm could stretch and coiling it in nice even loops around the round man’s chest and midsection.

Finally, when she had all five loops laid down, she stepped back from him with a satisfied shrug of her shoulders. She held the end of the rope loose in her hand. “When you put the rope around him five times, exactly five, when you have the rope around the man, you have to give it a quick snap.” And before I realized that she was actually going to do it, she gave the rope a nice hard snap, just as she had said. The round man’s eyes went wide as the coils squeezed around him. The rope tightened like a fist around the round man’s chest, and his head and shoulders swelled up like a balloon. There was a look of fear and distress on his widening face, and then he just burst with a loud pop.

The coils of rope fell to the floor in a heap, and the round man was gone. The woman was shaking slightly as she gathered the rope up off the floor and began to loop it neatly over her hand. I could see that this ordeal drained her more than her casual demeanor would suggest. A few loose strands of her black and gray hair even clung to the sweat on her forehead. Once she had neatly coiled up all the rope, she presented it to me, meaning for me to take it. I thanked her and tucked it under my arm. She tilted her head and gazed up at me with a searching, concerned look. “You see how simple it is,” she said.

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An Abandoned City

I was leaving the zoo, and I walked out to the parking lot which sat on a high ridge looking out over the city. I could see all the buildings along the horizon, and I noticed that most of them were completely deserted and falling into ruin. There were great cracks along their stone foundations and huge holes torn in the brick where their windows had once been. It was raining, and rank brown water flowed from these holes, sweeping out rust and dirt and debris. Here and there among the ruins, there were a few buildings that were still intact, and I could see the people within in the lit offices in shirts and ties shuffling papers and files, trading them back and forth pointlessly with each other. I wondered why they even bothered. I wondered why they didn’t just clear out, so that the city could officially and completely be declared abandoned, so that this wreckage could all be wiped clean and something new erected in it’s place. I bowed my head and hustled across the parking lot in the rain towards my car. It was the only one there, parked all the way in the last row.

Masquerade

I found myself in a cramped closet filled with costumes and disguises. It was dark in the closet but there was a small skylight which cast down a narrow ray of sunshine, dimly hinting at the fake mustaches and spectacles on the shelves as well as the epaulets on the coat of a fake uniform hung on the clothes rack beside me. Another man came forward out of the darkness into the ray of sunlight. He was small and extremely frail. He looked as though no amount of food or nourishment could ever provide enough strength for his weak body. The light fell across his brow but left his eyes obscured in the shadows as he spoke. He told me that it was his job to follow people, to collect information about them, and he said that being small and hard to spot gave him an advantage. He pointed at the clothes hanging all around us and explained that he had to wear different disguises from the closet here to do his job.

At that moment, yet another man appeared. This one had a tailor’s tape measure and he immediately hoisted the frail man up onto a tall bar stool that he pulled out from the corner of the closet, and he began to take the frail man’s measurements, pulling his face into a long, sour expression as he read the tape. It began to feel close and crowded in the small closet, and I pressed back against the hanging coats and shirts to give the new man room to work. The frail man paid no attention to the man taking his measurements. He just went on talking to me and explaining how he needed to dress as a child for his present assignment. The man with the tape measure nodded to confirm this as he held the tape measure along the length of the frail man’s thin arm.

We all emerged from the closet once the frail man had been dressed in his disguise. He wore a small blue dress and a blonde wig with pigtails. In the bright hallway outside the closet, I had a better look at the man, and I could see that he was just a little over two feet tall, and I could see now that his right leg was missing from the knee down and that he supported himself on a short black cane with a gold handle. The man with the tape measure hurried over and attached a prosthetic leg to the frail man’s knee. It was a perfect match for the other leg, already dressed in the same white socks and patent leather shoes. The frail man hobbled forward a few steps on his new leg and then he handed over his cane to the man with the tape measure. As he started away down the hall, I watched him from behind, and I could tell the man by his walk, like picking someone out of a crowd, their face turned away, their back to you, nothing but their posture to know them by. And I could see it then. It was clearly an adult man with all the struggles and gravity and pain of an adult life. He would never pass for a child.

Sketch of a Hanging Man

In the stiff brown pages of an old textbook I found an illustration of a man hanging from a gibbet.  A pair of small creatures were drawn clinging to the man’s body.  They were dressed in the rough robes of monks, but they had insect heads and long claw-like fingers protruding from their sleeves.  One of the creatures clung to the man’s back, and it seemed to be whispering in the man’s ear, but looking closer, I could see that it was actually gnawing at the rope around the man’s neck.  The other creature clung to the man’s legs, and it rested its head against the man’s knees as it grinned lasciviously.  There were more hands and claws breaking through the ground beneath the man, grasping for his swinging feet.  A few inches away a single antenna with sharp spikes was drawn breaking through the soil like an infernal weed.

The caption below the picture explained that back before people knew anything about gravity, it was believed that it was a hanging man’s sins that weighed his body down, that it was the demons trying to pull his soul down into the earth that put the fatal strain on his neck.  The counter force of the gibbet and the rope, being applied from above, pulled back and cinched the noose with the authority of divine justice.  The condemned man was caught between them, literally made to choke on his own guilt.

Walking Home

There was a terrible accident, and I was rushed to the hospital.  Just as the doctor glanced up at the clock on the wall to call the time of death, I began to see things from his perspective.  Just a quick drop of the eyelids and a sudden snap of the second hand, and then I was seeing things through his eyes.  I had no memory of my own life and I had no tangible connection to the body lying on the bed, but yet somehow I knew that this migration had taken place.  I was the doctor now.  I went on about the doctor’s afternoon rounds, moving from room to room to see the patients as though nothing at all had happened.  Faces smiled up at me from their beds.  People sat up and propped their pillows against the headboards.  The white curtains rippled softly in the cross breeze.  It was turning out to be a pleasant afternoon.  I listened to all of the usual questions.  I nodded to all of the usual answers.

When the doctor’s shift was done for the day, I walked home.  It was a quiet, small town road with no sidewalk, just a soft dirt shoulder.  I knew every step of the way.  I knew the mulberry tree where the doctor would sometimes stop and rest in the shade and finish whatever food that he had brought for his lunch in his black tin lunchbox.  I knew the names on all the mailboxes that were posted along the side of the road, all the names that the doctor read every day without thinking as he passed them by.  This was feeling more and more like my life now.  I was settling into the old habits, the comfortable routines.  I turned down a couple of side streets and I arrived in front of the doctor’s house.  It was a modest bungalow with a short white fence around the front yard.  The doctor lived there with his mother and his grandmother, and I could hear them in the kitchen fixing dinner as I came in.  

That night, I read a few passages from the book that the doctor kept on the table beside the bed, and as I was setting aside the book and the doctor’s reading glasses, I had a moment to reflect.  It was a nice quiet life, but it was a lonely life, too.  Still I knew that I had chosen this somehow.  I had passed on to this after the turbulent storm of my own life had subsided like a whisper.  This was the calm place that I had reached out for in that last moment.  And as I rolled over and settled in bed and listened to the late summer sounds of the bugs outside in the yard, I wondered where the doctor would go when the time came, where I would choose to move on to when this life was over, what other place would look brighter through the looking glass of mortality.  There would always be a little something missing from every life.  I drifted off, dreaming of it.