When I was a kid, I became enchanted with Cinderella stories, but my versions never had princesses.  They had houses and they had witches.  It was the house and the witch who would be transformed and made beautiful.  Homes should always be sweet; women should always be gorgeous. I must have thought this as a kid and clearly popular society is still largely convinced its true.

My favorite place to draw was the dining room because there was no place else to spread out the typing paper I took from my mother’s desk and the assortment of random colored pencils that hadn’t gone missing yet.  There were corner windows in that room, looking out over a pasture and a scrap of back yard.  When the chickens were out, they littered the grass like folds of white towels – the crowns each a smear of blood.  Sometimes when I looked up through the smudged glass I saw my mother coming back from the barn.  Her plaid jacket was frayed at the cuffs and her hair was ruffled messily by the work.  She always seemed tired.

The first iteration.

I would draw a house and a woman softly, the pencil whispering on the page and leaving only the vaguest impression.  The woman would have worried bags under her eyes and a ragged gown.  The house would have loose shudders and a shaggy lawn.  It had to be drawn lightly so that I could cover it over with the magical transformation.  I thought it was cheating to erase the lines, so instead I would add more pigment on top, burying the first and deliciously tragic version under the adorable cheer to follow.

The change.

With bold strokes of my pencil the house would be reimagined with pristine woodwork and flowering shrubbery.  Birds would appear in the formerly barren skies, a few limp letters ‘m’ that are somehow sparrows or larks in flight. Even to grownups one never need explain that these are birds.

A sun with lines of radiant warmth appeared over the trees.

With greater care still the burdened witch became a mighty queen, her eyes ringed with such lashes that the dimly drawn wrinkles were all but undetectable. With my pencil I sketched over her dismal schmatta, layering on top a diaphanous skirt with hundreds of folds. Messy hair vanished under a mantle of exuberant curls; the bitter mouth fold budded  into a hopeful rose.  If I could find the crayon called peach, I’d bring the blood to her cheeks.

I made the messy and neglected into something ordered, manicured, and styled.  If it failed to convince me, I added flowers and more eyelashes.  I might have flourished in marketing.

In truth I was playing at something adults rarely learn to examine, whether or not the picturesque is superior to the authentic.  There is a reason that we have apps to place crowns of flowers on our Snapchat photos; a glow to our Instagram selfie to blur away the pores; the framework of Facebook to describe the perfect weekend, leaving out the parts where we quarreled over which credit cards to use.  We are terrified of loose ends, of things and people gone ragged.  Perhaps the animal in us knows how quickly we can be toppled, the way a rabbit knows that once the fox has them in its jaws, there are only seconds before the end.

The blood widens a pink circle in the snow as the black eyes of the rabbit reflect a cloudless blue sky.  Burying its nose in the warmth of the rabbits breast, the fox eats quickly amid the smell of iron and meat and frosty grasses.  His breath rises up around them, a fog veil to soften the truth that this is how the circle goes unbroken.

If we are to survive on the terms that make us human, cooperation within the growing village of humanity, without losing our grip on the one power that helps us maintain our place, a self-convincing sense of contentment, we must embroider reality, making over everything that we find dim with bright colors.  If our grip on the story loosens and we are forced to see how quickly our shutters rot, perhaps the entire fabric of our narrative will spill out of control.  Grass that needs our hands to chase away the chicory and pokeberry might return to wilderness.

We may go wild ourselves.

Haversham and Darcy

The cat chased a leaf under the sofa, then hunkered there, watching for it to escape.  He would lose interest soon enough, but for the moment he was perfectly satisfied with being unsatisfied.  An orange marble with proud lights in his hazel eyes, he had simple likes and dislikes, as any self-respecting animal ought.

abandoned roomEdgerton watched the animal for a moment, thought about how the leaf had gotten in the house.  It was a shame that no one wiped their feet properly on the front mat.  It was a new one, sturdy and absorbent, well made for its purpose.  Yet they all tore in with the manic panic of an asthmatic going for his inhaler.  He rolled his eyes now at the thought; why was everyone on the face of a earth a perfect twat?

Hilly had not been one.  Rather, she had been what old bards used to call a rose.  Yet her perfect rosiness went al the way to her core.  She was not merely the petals, the red trimmings, but was the green hips and the sturdy stem and even the thorns. Hilly was certainly the thorns.  Had he pointed out to her the new door mat and made a point of why it was so good just now, with the autumn rain making such a mess of the front walk, she’d have nodded in agreement. And she’d have been good about wiping her feet.

Well, another girl I’ve sent packing, he thought.  Edgerton was in just the kind of morose mood that the time of year perfectly evoked.  As a personality, he always walked the line that separated jolly sorts from gloomy ones.  He liked happy little rituals, like making a snack for himself before and after work, and he loved nothing more that to sit with a close friend and discuss the meaning of things.  He was not a man for hitting the pub with a rowdy group; he was not one for drunken, lusty singing on the walk home; he found riding on the tube in the thick of rush hour absolutely abhorrent. He was not unlike his cat.

Although he had contemplated more than once, while getting himself outside a cup of tea and a little plate of cheese and bread, that if a cat had the ability to think existentially, it might slip into the dark realms of depression or near-depression. What might the cat think now, he wondered, if he paused to contemplate the futility of life? The leaf might well represent the inevitable death of summer.

It was all very well to exalt the splendor of the seasons when the first buds and sprigs of spring were come to brighten hill and dale and to point out the birds one hadn’t seen since last year.  He had succumbed frequently himself to the April-time temptation to wax poetic about the return of life to wildwood and barnyard.  Yet who could deny that it was a much gloomier truth to acknowledge come October, when that same endless cycle of birth and death was merely spinning one toward the bland grey weeks of mid-winter, with only a brief, colorful pause at Christmastime, those fragile days of desperate giddiness?

“If you had a mind, cat,” he said into the gloomy little parlor. “You’d find Christmas the worst spoke on this ancient wheel of life.”

The animal glanced up at him, abandoning its post at the edge of the sofa.  It rubbed itself along his pant leg, littering his brown wool with ginger hair.  This made Edgerton turn up his lip bitterly.

“Count yourself lucky then that you’re a stupid creature,” he added.  The cat liked Edgerton’s voice, which was deep and resonant, despite its fairly constant air of bereavement. It jumped up and stood on his lap.

“Settle down then, you silly cow,” he said.  Still, he rather liked it when the thing curled up on his lap.  There was always a lint brush for such matters.

He glanced about the parlor, the space he’d thought of as his own since they first took the lease, and wondered how in all this big old house, he had taken ownership of the comings and goings room, the room in which his roommates were most likely to show their tit-ness.  He might have fallen for the little sitting room on the third floor, a space quiet and self-contained much like himself, where no one would have ever thought to go, except that Alec, when he made it sort of his own love, had set it up for television and gaming. Now it was the hub of the house.  And how the poor old rug in there had taken a beating, Edgerton thought, getting a quick mental image of three grown ups competing at that game where one tries to dance to disco music like the cartoon of a fool on screen.

“We don’t care much for shenanigans, do we, kitty?”

If one took away the television, Alec’s haven would become what it had been designed to be: a dim little cavern at the top of the house where a gentleman might sit with Tennyson and the company of stuffed birds.  It was honest and mildewy up in there. Yet Edgerton had allowed himself to be seduced by the fading floral wallpaper of his own front room. With its hint of femininity, its lovely decay and mellow gloom, it made him think of Ms. Haversham.  And he had always and secretly fancied himself Darcy, and so with them a marriage of two literary misunderstood souls was formed.  Hilly had sort of grasped this, though near the end, she said there wasn’t room for two loves in his life.  Adieu, La Haversham, she had sort of said, backing out of the front door with her bag straps sliding off her shoulders.

Still, he thought, missing her dreadfully, she’d always have used the mat.

The Longing

Slender young woman in a dress white and romantic like an orchid.

She holds herself small, close, despite her long brown sugar limbs.

Her shoes and her purse, her softness and her scent are pricy, but not impossible.

Next to the girls waiting tables, eyes searching to satisfy, hair a sweet frazzle, coming undone,

What is she to the clever food critic watching her leave the room?

Her femininity seems careful, her self still more her own than a warm mother’s soul would be.

Perhaps she seems like all things womanly yet with no obligations.

He closes the cap on his pen with a crisp snap,

Long moments after she has left only her perfume to remind us of her.

His thoughts are his own and only I imagine they are of her.

Still, with a girl who carries her whole life in a big elegant purse on her ribs,

A man must think it would be easy, light.

He’d just move on after, simple, carrying merely his own weight into tomorrow.

Five Minute Writing

The men who owned the mines laid the railroad tracks and when the mines were scoured clean, they took the tracks away again.  Reusing the metal was smart, frugal, one supposes. Yet the families that grew up outside the mines and were left behind in ragged mountain towns that soon died could not forgive them.  One by one the stores closed.  Families moved off in order of resilience and common sense.  The romantics were left for last.  Then they climbed off the mountain.  What had come in by steam was hard to take out in a horse cart. Many signs of a temporary life were abandoned.  Any tears to shed have long sense dried.

The trees make no less grand a cathedral in autumn, when the leaves turn holy colors.  The spiders and the mice, the rats and the birds are all thankful for the shelter of the empty buildings.  When the wind blows, the old sign at the post office creaks.  From the train platform, a spring twilight, the sunset reflecting in the window glass looks just a little like home fires burning.