He has too many words to say and write and think and they’re pressing and building – and he’s so afraid that he’ll forget how to unstopper them and let them spill out and fall, slip sinuous and puddle in a pool that sinks into the soft weave beneath what holds something together, himself or something else. He’s afraid they’ll stay there, and he won’t be able to let them out. He’s afraid to live quietly. He’s afraid of being alone, and he’s afraid that people are alone, and thinking of it makes him slide apart. He’s afraid he’ll forget the words he needs to say before they slip out, before he slides apart or together or holds himself fast with forgotten threads of memory laced with tears and grief and still bound tight. He’s afraid to speak.
She is an old woman, querulous and domineering. He is a gruff timid old man, sometimes biting dry words into splintered shards. She snaps at him, shrilly plies plaints of empty supermarket shelves and rude waiters. He winces at each grating note, flinches when she begins to speak. And mostly he stays quiet, until he can listen no more, and hears a second of silence to speak, and grumbles a complaint of his own– then the cycle begins again. Every so often, he would be quiet for a long time after one of her tirades. She would look at him, and then her voice would be brittle and bright as she recounted some event from the news. Every so often, she would frown and turn away when his voice was too rough and impatient aimed at her. He would put a hand on her shoulder, and hold it there for a moment, before creaking up to standing and walking away.
I see a girl on the bus every day, on my way to work. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying this to introduce some romantic fantasy. It’s not some wild pretense that I know her, know deep into her soul. That’s ridiculous, I don’t know anything about her beyond what I can see from a few seats away on the bus. What I can see is this: She sits, always, in the same seat. It’s the third seat back from the front, on the right side. She sits with her spine straight but her neck bent over, head looking down at whatever’s in her hands. It’s almost always some simple object, and she turns it and turns it in her hands, looking at it so intently. Her hands are small, and the nails are barely chewed – nibbled, really – and there’s a round scar on her right wrist, at the top bone where her watch sits. Her eyes are wide when she watches what she’s holding, and they are very round, and blue. They are not so round when she is not staring in fascination, I think, at a penknife or whatnot. They go up a bit on the outside tip, and the blue is grayish but in the brightness, when the bus passes someplace bright and the sun washes over her through the window, her eyes are light and clear. Her hair is brown, and in that light it has hints of red, but otherwise it’s dark and plain, and barely curls at the ends brushing her shoulders. She has a short straight nose and full lips, and her face is round like her eyes. She never wears anything fancy; just sweatshirts, jeans. Sneakers, usually. Sometimes she pulls her feet up onto the seat, her knees touching her chin or pushed to the side. Once in a while she brings a book and reads instead of playing with some trinket, and sometimes she forgets what’s in her hands to stare out the window, face reflecting the play of light as the city rushes by. She has a habit of pulling up one hand, absentmindedly, and rubbing her nose, pulling her index finger over the top of the tip of her nose as if there were a fly sitting on it that she was trying to banish. She does this at least once every time she’s on the bus, and I see her with her hand moving, scrunching up her face, eyes distant. I take the bus almost every day. I’ve memorized the way this girl looks, even though I don’t know her at all. I just see her nearly every day, from 8:13 to 8:29 every morning. I’m often tired, because I’ve had a long day before and not enough sleep, despite everything, and some mornings I have to drag myself to the bus stop even without coffee. I do, though, I wait at that bus stop every morning even when the cold drizzle is stinging my face. Not because I’m responsible and have to go to work – obviously, that too. But each morning, it is oddly and quietly comforting to see that girl, the stranger, rub her nose like she always does.
There seemed to be a dragon flying overhead. Theresa couldn’t believe it. Barely anybody else was glancing up, and after rubbing her eyes and looking back she assured herself it was nothing but an odd-shaped bird.
When she got to the office, she could have sworn that the man sitting at the front desk today had pointed ears. He nodded at her cordially enough, and when she stood in the elevator she shut her eyes tight and told herself to get a grip.
The work day passed mostly without event; that thing that looked like a tail flicking from a co-worker’s skirt was probably a scarf. Or something. She decided to get a lot of sleep that night, she was clearly seeing things.
She walked home, feet tapping the sidewalk as always, chiding herself for being silly – she didn’t believe in that stuff. She needed a good night’s sleep and an aspirin, that was all.
A moment later, she stopped short. That was definitely a goblin walking by.
A man is sitting at a barstool, leaning forward and staring dully at the glass clasped between his hands. He is thinking, vaguely and hopelessly, that there is very little in his life. This is a good reason to straighten and gulp down a swig of scotch.
After a while, and another glass filled and emptied, the door to the bar swings and slams. Somebody settles into place on the stool beside him, but he barely notices. His glance hardly flickers to the side. He concentrates only on the shards of light piercing the glass before him.
Another long while passes, and eventually it occurs to him to look at his companion, drinking quietly next to him. He turns and scans and sees nothing remarkable, and returns to his comfortable slump. In a minute, though, as he raises the glass to his lips, it occurs he can’t remember what the person next to him looks like. The thought tickles at his mind, drawing his attention to – something. Something that did not hold his attention at all, and it bothers him. He saw only a face, and it left no imprint on his mind. He doesn’t think he’s quite that drunk yet.
After a sip he turns again, sliding a glance from half-lidded eyes, and nods. A normal face, nothing outstanding. But when he turns forward again, the face slips from his mind. He has no recollection of the person two feet from him, no sense of what he – or she? – looks like. He shrugs, and his hands settle before him once more. He sits and chats with the bartender, empty small words, and after a few minutes he has mostly forgotten that anyone is there at all. The barstool is a familiar sort of uncomfortable under him, and his head swims pleasantly.
Time passes until a flicker of movement at his side catches his attention, and he realizes that the barstool next to him is still occupied. He peeks over, another sidelong glance at someone wholly unremarkable. The plain stranger is watching him steadily. So he sits up straight, and turns completely, and looks back. The man and the stranger stare at each other, the stranger unperturbed and the man bewildered. He waits for a long moment of peering at the stranger’s vacant eyes, blank but for something – searching. Something that prods him with a question, but he cannot hear it and does not know the answer.
He shifts, fidgets, and a shiver brushes his spine. His hand finds the glass on the bar and he looks at it, keeping his gaze there. He speaks, his voice rasping and thin, and says to the stranger, “Who are you?”
The stranger’s voice is flat. “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”
The man is confounded. Surprised, too, that he is less confused than he should be. He nods at the question as if it makes sense, and then wonders at his own quick acceptance. And a voice comes from his lips as he realizes too late what he is saying, “I don’t know. Nobody. I guess I could be.”
The stranger smiles and nods, but he cannot see. He sinks back into himself, crumpling onto the barstool and forward toward the glass and the drop of scotch left traced around its edge. In a bit he notices that he is the only one sitting there, that the bar is empty. And when he shakes his heavy head he feels the wisp of something drifting from his mind, like a dream hidden in the shroud of sleep. He leaves the bar very late that night, alone, and watches his own shoes step forward on the pavement until he can rest.
That man wanders now. He goes to many places and talks to people who don’t understand what’s happening, but he stops that quickly because he cannot bear their confusion. They hold so much of substance in their minds that he cannot fit. So he goes from place to place and watches people, hoping someday to find a person with nothing on his mind and little to live for. In the meantime he sits on trains, stands in line for coffee, steps through sidewalks with a crowd of people who cannot remember his face.
Have you ever seen an angel? They aren’t impossible to see, but they are difficult to spot if you aren’t looking carefully. This is mostly because they are so light blue in color, nearly transparent against a sunny sky, floaty and phosphorescent as they hover. They tend to flutter near you when you don’t notice, and they are reluctant to talk to you. If you can get one to speak, the first thing it will tell you is that it is an angel.
These beings made of air call themselves angels. Once they speak, their tones ring out clear and loud. It is not bell-like, as you would expect, but rather a bit like a gong, rich and reverberating, issuing from a mouth you can barely see. This big noise blooms from what seems nearly to be air.
Once the angels begin to talk, they hurry and their words fall and fill the space around them. They speak to you of truth and beauty, and right and wrong. They tell wonderful stories, these angels. They will tell you about the loveliness of the clouds as the sun sets and floods them with color, and the grace of the wheeling birds celebrating each morning. They will tell you about the scent of pine rising off a forest, and the rushing crash of a waterfall farther away than you’ve ever been. They will tell you of the things they have heard and smelled and seen – not of the things they have felt, though, for entities of air cannot feel as we do. But you will forget the sensation of warmth on your skin when you hear them speak of the reflections of sunlight on a glittering ocean.
As they tell these stories, their high light voices will rise and swell. They will gesture with their near-invisible arms in the air, as if a mirage were swooning before you. Their beautiful tones with weave and spin through the stories, and you will sit transfixed. You will cross your legs and hug your knees, right there on the sidewalk where you first saw them. You will sit there as the pavement grows cold beneath you, and the light dims around you, and a few faint drops begin to chill your shoulders. All of this escapes your notice, as you are too absorbed in the stories, listening intently to the rise and fall of the angel’s voice. Everything else ceases to exist.
This is why you have never seen an angel. They aren’t impossible to see, but if you do ever spot one – and it’s not difficult enough, unfortunately – you must know not to trust it. Ignore the swoop of shifting color in the air beside you, and if that lovely light voice speaks into your ear, keep walking. Shut your eyes to the sight of it, and do not listen to its stories. Instead. concentrate on the embrace of the cool evening air on your back, of the ache in your muscles as you walk down the sidewalk, on the softness of the breath you draw in. Listen to yourself breathe, and for God’s sake ignore the angels.
They know things we aren’t allowed to show them. We sneak them in, back-alley ways, through the door they never check, the one they leave unlocked. They come up the stairs, feet pounding. We know she can hear their feet pounding. The walls are thin, and they echo with the reverberations of everything in this house. When they bound up the stairs, she can hear that they are coming, and we can feel her fear even from all the way downstairs.
She cringes, on her pallet bed in the corner of the floor with the long grey planks, wood that stretches until we see her at the other side, huddled against the wall. We stand in the doorway and whisper, and her eyes are wide as she stares back. We aren’t close enough to see the reflection of our own selves, silhouetted against the light of the hallway as we peer into the room, grey and painted but darker with shadows, lightless and grey with gloom. After a moment, we swing the door closed. We can almost hear her sigh of relief as it rustles from her, shaking the frail body we have just hidden from view, but we move on. We pull them down the hall, toward a room cheery and bright, with light streaming from a lamp in the ceiling, and we enter that room and sit. Once we are there, we can forget the things forbidden and unspoken, we can pretend that all the rooms in the house are this colorful.