A Sharpened Blade

It all started with an explosion. I was making my way through the middle of town, and there was a single engine plane droning overhead in the placid blue sky, and suddenly everyone on the street was looking up at the spreading burst of black smoke where the plane had been shot down. There was a long interval of silence where everything seemed to hold quiet and still, and then the silence broke with everyone screaming and scattering and trying to run from the falling pieces of wreckage and debris. No one could afford the risk of stopping to look to see what had shot the plane down, but as we all scrambled for safety, there was an overwhelming sense that something was coming, like the unheard sound of a thousand boots approaching in perfect lockstep.

The attack went on into the next day with random percussions heard throughout the night on the outskirts of town. The invaders started rounding people up as they marched through the streets. I was taken prisoner and brought to a bombed out Spanish church where they were holding several people. The ceiling had been broken open, exposing it to the sky, and there were large chunks of stone and tile scattered around. I was sitting on the floor against a wall with the other prisoners, all of us with our heads hung and the sweat and dirt and soot covering our faces. There was a metal grate just beneath my feet, and I could hear the sounds of people screaming out in pain coming from somewhere below, along with pleas for mercy that were abruptly cut short by the sharp pop of a pistol.

And yet, there was a strange benevolence about our conquerors, as though all of this were being done for our benefit, trimming the weak from our population and honing us like a sharpened blade. A rosy blonde secretary smiled as she handed out blankets to the prisoners that were herded past her in a line, and the officer overseeing the distribution of the blankets patted each prisoner warmly on the back and leaned close to whisper smooth words of comfort to them as they took their blankets and nodded their feeble and terrified thanks before being ushered away to whatever awaited them off somewhere in the dark.

When the moment came for me to step up and take my blanket, and this coarse lump of folded brown fabric was laid across my hands and I felt that tender thump against my shoulder, I was determined not to play the part of the pathetic supplicant that the situation seemed deliberately engineered to compel me to accept. I stopped and raised my head and held my glare on the officer, my teeth grit and my jaw quivering. The smile slowly faded from the officer’s face as he stared past the sweat and the dirt and saw the anger in my eyes. And then his eyes shifted away from mine as he made a gesture to someone behind me, and I felt the sharp crack of the butt of a rifle against my back, shoving me forward with my blanket to join the other prisoners who’d gone on ahead.

Little Blue Suit

I was at a backyard picnic, and a toddler in a dark blue suit and striped tie came toddling over to me with a smile beaming on his chubby round face, exclaiming that I was his “best friend” and reaching his arms out wide for me to catch him. I knew that this was my son, a son that I had never had, as though he had toddled his way out of some other life that I had never lived. Everyone turned in surprise as he called out to me, and they chuckled over what he had said. I scooped him up as he came to me, and I hoisted him up by my shoulder so that he could see over everyone’s heads to a spot in the shade of the house where the hosts of the party were releasing dozens of red and yellow balloons into the air. As the balloons sailed up into the clear blue sky, the boy tapped me on the back of the head with his little hand to get my attention, and he pointed towards the balloons with his stubby finger, and he nudged my chin trying to get me to look, and I turned and squinted as the balloons sailed passed the glaring afternoon sun.

There was something in these gestures, this tapping on the back of the head, this nudging of my chin, that gave me a glimpse of the man he would become. I knew that over time, he’d get bigger and older and come to match me in height and stature, and there would be those grudges between us, as there tends to be with fathers and sons, something distant and awkward. But I also knew that this moment would stay with me, that open-hearted declaration of friendship, that gentle nudging of the chin, and despite anything else, it would always be between us. So we both beamed and grinned with the sunlight in our eyes, and we watched as the balloons sailed off over the tops of the trees and the roofs of the houses.

Over for Dinner

We went over to the pastor’s house for dinner, and after the meal I sat in an armchair by the bay window in the front room and I watched as the snowfall tapered off and the traffic hissed by out on the wet road and the last light of the day broke through a frosty cluster of rose tinted clouds. One of the pastor’s sons came up to me, his second oldest, the blonde one, a little leaner and gawkier than his brother, a little more troubled around the eyes. Around the table after dinner he had heard them mention that I liked to write, and he told me that he wanted to write as well. I turned from the window to listen. Maybe the kid had some real ideas. But he just made some sweeping gestures with his hands and spoke vaguely about the feelings engendered in him by dozens of books he’d read and movies he’d seen. He had the necessary passion, but like me, he was still struggling to find something to say.

I nodded along until it got too dark to keep sitting there in the front room. I got up and passed restlessly through the house. In the back there was a dim little mud room with a vinyl shade pulled down over the window in the door. All the shoes were lined up there in a row along the wall beneath the coat rack. I pulled on my coat and went out back down the snow covered steps. The back yard was encroached by a dense woods of stark grey trees, and there was a basketball hoop at the very back of the yard. There was a smooth depression in the ground in front of this basketball hoop, and I could tell that there was pavement under the snow. This small court was lit by the crossing glow of the back porch lights of the neighboring houses. The net and the post and backboard were all covered in snow. Only the white outlines of things remained, thicker shaped and softer around their edges.

A long shadow stretched across the snow as someone came out from the house next door, and a basketball came silently sailing through the air towards the hoop. It dropped through the net, barely brushing any of the snow off of the rim. The ball left little dark divots on the pavement as it bounced away from the hoop. The pastor’s oldest son had slipped out the door behind me without a sound and he leapt at the ball, catching it mid-bounce. The snow began to fall again as he spun in the air, reaching the ball out towards the net. It dropped through with a whisper and the neighbor kid caught it from underneath before it had a chance to hit the pavement again.

I brushed off one of the deck chairs that had been left out on the patio, and I settled down to watch. It was really the snow that made it something, slowed it down, gave it a certain grace. The pastor’s two youngest kids came out from around the corner of the house by the driveway, and they stopped to gawk and stare at the game for a second before they turned their attention to consulting over tiny discoveries in the palms of their mittens and rolling the first tentative lumps of a snowman along a strip of ground by the fence where the frozen soil of their mother’s flower garden was buried.

The Morning Side

In the quiet later years of our lives, my wife and I bought a cabin at a campground out in the woods. There was a murky pond in the middle of this community, and all of the gravel roads that wound off into the different areas of the woods converged on this pond. One evening in mid-July we rambled down the gravel road with our neighbors to see a show down by the pond. There had been a flyer about it posted for weeks on the wooden bulletin board outside of the general store. Everyone had seen it. Everyone was curious and talking about it. As we came to a crossroads where the gravel was looser and the road was worn away into dry dusty ruts in places, a man waved us down as he peddled by on a bicycle with a big picnic umbrella mounted on the back of the seat. He sold us roasted peanuts in little paper sacks, and we could feel that the peanuts were still warm through the paper.

We brought our warm peanuts and our lawn chairs and we set up on the muddy bank of the pond, ready to watch the show. The trees hung dense and dark and low over the far side of the pond, and the rank water was steamy and still. A flat barge with torches lit at each of its four corners emerged from a spot where the water meandered into the trees. Along the edges of the barge there were several people on their knees rowing it out into the middle of the pond, and between each person rowing there was a person in a yellow robe with laurel leaves on their heads holding a golden trumpet to their lips. Once the barge had settled into the middle of the pond and the rowers had pulled up their oars and stood to their feet, the trumpeters let out a blast from their trumpets, as though heralding the commencement of a ceremony. The trumpeters and the rowers joined hands and took their bows, and then they dove off the edges of the barge and swam for the shores of the pond, leaving the barge floating empty.

We could see now that the barge was set up like a stage for a play, and we had a moment to contemplate it as it floated there quietly. There was a bed at the center of the stage, comfortably made with white linens and pillows and lit by the torches surrounding it. A few minutes passed with nothing happening, but just as the crowd began to stir a little, a trapdoor opened in the wooden floor of the barge just in front of the bed, and a person in a brown robe wearing a rabbit mask climbed up out of the trapdoor. It looked like they had ascended a set of stairs that was underneath the trapdoor, and I speculated that there must be a dressing room beneath the floor of the barge, submerged under the water. I pictured a cramped space with soft lights and mirrors and the daylight breaking through and the players all glancing up whenever someone opened the trapdoor.

Soon three other figures emerged. One wore the mask of a falcon, another a crocodile, and the third had the face of the lion. The masks were all made of clay covered in some sort of shiny, smooth resin that made their contours gleam in the torch light. The four figures each made their way to their appointed corners of the barge. They took the long torches from their posts and waved them aloft in the air. They cried out in unison some latin incantation, and they thumped their torch poles against the wooden floor of the barge with three hard rhythmic thumps. Then they repeated the incantation again, and then again they thumped their poles. Our neighbors and fellow residents were scratching their heads and murmuring amongst themselves, wondering what this was all about.

The four figures then turned inward towards the center of the barge. A low continuous chanting began, different words and phrases overlapping. They waved the flames of their torches over the neatly made surface of the bed. One word became more and more distinguishable among the others that they were chanting, and it grew more and more insistent each time they said it. “Rise. Rise. Rise!” And indeed, something did begin to arise from the middle of the bed. Slowly taking form under the linen, I could make out the shape of a woman lying on her back. I knew that there was stage trickery behind this, that there was probably some sort of opening in the mattress that allowed the woman to come up from the dressing room below. But the way it was all timed and done, with the intensity of the mood that had been established, it was still mesmerizing nevertheless.

The figures in the masks stepped back a single pace from the bed and made a single resounding thump with their torch poles and then fell silent. The woman under the linen sat up in bed, slow and heavy, as though the soft fog of a dream hadn’t yet cleared from her mind. She sat on the edge of the bed with her head hung. The blanket was still over head, but she reached up a hand and swept an opening clear for her face. A lock of long dark hair fell free. The figures in the masks seemed to recede into the shadows beneath the torches, and she didn’t seem to be aware of their presence, even though she glanced back over her shoulder a few times and looked this way and that around the stage.

With a sudden surge of vigor and resolution, she got up from the bed. The white linens had formed into a white robe around her. She took three gliding steps to the foot of the bed. She seemed to be looking for something, searching for something beyond the stage, off somewhere in the dark trees on the far side of the pond. Then she made a gesture with her hands, like she was unlatching and flinging open the shutters of her bedroom window. There was an operatic joy about this gesture, something larger than life, something beyond the mortal veil. I felt my breath catch and my pulse quicken. There was a gasp from the crowd as the light began to break through the trees, on the morning side of the sky, where we always knew the sun to be at the beginning of every day.

In the swell of light, the barge had seemed to fade away and it was gone now. Whether they had submerged it somehow or they had used this theatrical moment of distraction to slip off somewhere into the trees, I couldn’t tell. There was just the light now, creeping across the milky water, showing nothing in its depths. There was a buzz of energy in the crowd along the shore. There was talk about going fishing, buying bait from the general store as soon as it opened. There was talk of picnics and barbecues and long drives up into the hills. The miracle had happened. It was six o’clock in the morning. We had the whole day ahead of us.

Songs for the Road

It was a cold grey morning, and I looked out the window and saw a blue car parked in our driveway. It was my daughter’s car. She had come for a visit, and I could see her out there with my wife, already packing the car to go and tying some of her luggage to the rack on the roof. I slipped on my shoes and ran out to tell her something, but she had already pulled out of the driveway, and she was halfway down the road. As she drove off, several loose pieces of paper fell from one of her bags and scattered in the air and dropped in the road behind her. I picked up my pace, and I yelled and waved my arms, trying to get her attention, but she was already turning the corner, and then she was gone.

I stopped to pick up the papers that she had lost in the road. They all had lyrics written on them for songs that she had written. The pavement was a little wet, and I was trying to gather up the papers before they got soaked through and ruined, before the ink ran and the words were lost. The papers had fallen in front of this orange house down the road from mine, and the old man who lived there had seen what had happened, and he came out the door still slipping on his coat and he labored down his steps and he met me out on the road and started to help me pick up the papers.

I was grateful for the man’s help, but he kept stopping from time to time to read the lyrics off of random pages as he picked them up. He read in a slow drawl, squinting sourly at the words, and he always began by saying, “Well, it says here.” It was starting to get on my nerves. As he read, I would reach out and snatch one of the papers he was holding, so that I could add it to the stack that I had gathered in my hand. But the old man would just snatch it right back, still reading all the while, still keeping his eyes on the paper, still taking all the time in the world.

This snatching back and forth of the papers went on until suddenly I looked down and realized that my hands were empty. The old man was holding all the papers in a meaty stack in his hands. He had all of my daughter’s songs. He started away towards his house, still reading the lyrics, mostly mumbling them to himself now. He went along the side of the house and around towards the back, and I followed after him calling for him to wait up. But as I came around the back corner of the house, he had suddenly vanished. There was just an empty little yard there, bordered by the tangled branches of bushes that were leafless and barren in the cold.

I couldn’t find the old man anywhere. I peered in at the little window of the garage out back. I circled the house a few times, calling out for him. I knocked at the front door. I knocked at the side door. He was gone, and he had all of my daughter’s song lyrics. I stood there staring at this quiet orange house. I felt eyes on me, and I looked back and saw the woman next door watching me from her window. She just rolled her eyes and shrugged, as if to say, “What are you going to do?” And then she dropped her blinds back over her window and then she was gone too.