Castle in the Sky

The castle in the sky where Annie lived wasn’t made of pink cotton candy or gumdrops. It wasn’t spun out of wistful fairy tales or princesses with impractical hairstyles. That’s not what a castle in the sky is. It’s simply a dream, or a wish, or a hope that’s been held close for too long. Annie’s castle wasn’t made of anything but longing, and so it was a frail and brittle castle, stretched too thin as it braced against the whipping wind above the clouds. She stayed inside, mostly, and didn’t venture too close to the windows for fear of heights. Looking out through the glass to the dizzying pinpricks that were houses below always made her sway and clutch at the wall.

People didn’t often come to visit Annie in her castle where she lived most of the time. It was a long and lonely trek to get there. It always is, to reach somebody else’s hope. Her very best friends would brave it, and they would huddle with her inside her castle built of longing, because they wanted to be with her there. They spoke in whispers, as though they were afraid that their voices would echo against the slender walls. They spoke to Annie as though they were afraid to injure the silence that reigned in her castle. She was always glad to see them there, because it meant she didn’t have to be alone for a while. They left eventually.

Annie had to leave the castle in the sky at times too. She liked going out, most of the time, for a short time anyway. Dropping backdown to earth meant that there were no heights to pull her brain to bits of vertigo. It wasn’t as lonely back on the earth as it was in her castle. She could see people’s faces there, and hear their careless voices. Eventually, though, the faces started to seem strange to her, and she had to go back up. The castle was always waiting. She returned with a twinge that now everybody real was too far away to touch. There was relief in it too, though. Her castle was cold and it was empty, but it was familiar. The rooms fit her like a shawl she could wrap around herself, its touch cold on her skin but comforting and soft. The castle is beautiful, because it is built of longing. Wist makes for lovely decorations. The rooms are narrow and stretch forward before her, and the hallways wind in a maze. It is made for wandering.

For now, Annie spends a lot of time in her castle in the sky. She doesn’t like to, exactly. The chill in the air and the distance from the ground brings a shiver of foreboding to clasp at her. She does not like to be lonely. The emptiness does not make her happy. But she needs the castle right now. It’s like a drug, and it fills her veins with an ache that she craves. She comes back to it, makes the ascent, settles into the rooms of thin frigid air and sinks away behind the gossamer weave of stone walls that veil her from the clouds and the world. Someday, the castle might not be enough for Annie. It might no longer pull at her. Perhaps she’ll simply stop coming, because she will gaze up at the sky and realize that she doesn’t need to leave the earth anymore for longing. The rooms will get dusty and birds will perch on the sills of the little windows until the castle crumbles and falls from the sky.

Annie might also come back to the castle and stay there until she knows that she has to leave. If she does not know on the ground that she isn’t able to live in longing anymore, she might realize it while she’s still there. It’s possible that she’ll walk closer to the wall and put her hand to the stone, feeling the pits and cracks that threaten to break the whole place apart. She might look down and see the world far below, her castle sitting on a cloud, and the two homes of hers so far away that she can never live in both at once. Annie could realize that she can’t live in the sky anymore in a castle made of longing. She may not be able to let it collect dust in the sky while she lives in the world and forgets she was ever there. Maybe she’ll jump.

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Stranger Stories

Nadia told herself the stories of strangers. When she walked to the grocery store in the afternoons, she passed people going the other way, not meeting her eyes, people going about their business and thinking about their own lives. The man with sand-colored skin and dark eyes leaning against the wall watched her walk by, his fingers pressed together in front of him. She told herself that he was the sort of person to watch the world happening around him, to take it in, to be overwhelmed by it. He once went on a grade school field trip and sat in a canoe on a vast lake with his second-best friend. He put the oars inside the boat and leaned back, just as he is now against the wall, but instead of the crag of brick in his back there was a flat splintery board and water beneath it going down an endless way. He was, Nadia thought, just the sort to float and feel the way the waves against the sides of his boat tugged and shoved it back and forth but couldn’t touch him, could only lap at his feet in the puddle sloshing around inside the canoe while he closed his eyes against everything.

Nadia walked past the man who may once have sat in a canoe. In the grocery store she stepped around an old woman who was hobbling down the bread aisle behind her shopping cart. The woman’s mouth opened and clamped shut, but if she muttered something it made no sound that Nadia could hear. That, she thought, was probably something this woman was used to. She had a husband who lost his temper sometimes and told her off in a stern voice as if she were a child, and she learned that when he left the sink running or the clothes on the floor it was better to complain inside her head, to keep the words clogging her throat. The woman’s brother called once a week like a dutiful sibling to check up on her, but he was hard of hearing. He yelled into the telephone, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and she whispered back “I’m sorry.”

Nadia felt that it was a serious task to tell the stories of the people she saw, even though she only told them to herself. Of course they were false, only figments, half-waking dreams that didn’t mean very much. Who would ever correct her? The sand-colored man didn’t know that she thought he had once sat atop a lake, and he couldn’t tell her otherwise. Nadia liked to tell stories. She wasn’t going to see most of these strangers ever again, but she could mostly remember their faces to illustrate the stories she made up for them. The versions of them that she told to herself lived in her head, occupying places she invented for them. But then, where else could they live?

A Fairy’s Tale

If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep after? No more snacks or trips to the bathroom. You have to promise. Crossed fingers don’t count, it’s a promise anyway. You can’t fool me.

Okay, listen. Sorry, yes. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, up in the mountains lived a fairy. She wasn’t the kind of fairy that sits around on mushrooms or swoops in to sew for a god-daughter. She’d always been a fairy. You could tell by the wings that rose like stiff lace from her shoulders, and the fact that she was four inches tall. Most fairies lived in forests, not up mountains, and that was exactly the problem for this fairy.

Hush, darling, I’m getting to the important part. Don’t you know that in order to learn the heart of a story, you need patience? You must be able to hear your own breaths if you ever want to find the pulse of a tale. Listen.

And the fairy was very lonely, for she had no friends. She had lived with her mother and father on the mountain, but they had gone and she had lived for a long time by herself. She was still almost a child, because fairies live so very much longer than we do, but for us her lonely childhood would have seemed a very long time. The mountain was cold for a little fairy by herself, and when it snowed she huddled in a crevice between her favorite stones and imagined that the flurries of white were warm. She had no friends, and so she had a very good imagination instead.

Of course, you can have both imagination and friends. It’s just much harder to live if you haven’t got either.

The fairy had enough one day. She was tired of wedging herself in a crack in the rocks and pretending she wasn’t shaking with cold. Living alone and lonely was exhausting, and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. The mountain was very tall and very steep, but the fairy was determined to start flying. Her little lace wings held her up as she hopped and skipped from one crag to another cliff. She took a leap off an edge and beat her wings until they blurred in the thin air, and she drifted until she settled on her tiptoes and jumped off again. Finally, after long days and long nights, the fairy reached the bottom of the mountain.

I don’t know what country the mountain was in. Sweetheart, it’s a story, so probably it’s in a country that doesn’t exist on this planet. While I’m telling the story it exists in your head, and that’s the place you should look to find it.

The fairy was so glad to feel the crunch of gravel and the satiny shush of dust on her feet that she walked after she left the mountain. She walked through a valley and a plain, and she swam across the river. The water was cold and bright against her skin, and she thought in a lovely delirious blur that she’d never felt anything so beautiful and pure. Once across the river she was in a field. She walked through the field and found herself in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow—her breath caught—she saw the furry edges of trees bristling on the horizon. The fairy loved walking. The grasses brushed against her feet like friendly cats. But now she was impatient, for she knew that fairies live in the forest. So what do you think she did next?

No, even if you could guess the answer would be the same. Some stories change shape to fit around you, but this one has its shape already. If you close your eyes you’ll be able to see it better.

She tried to fly. Running wasn’t fast enough. Only wings could take her to where she knew friends were waiting. The fairy leaped upward and felt the air catch under her wings, and then she sank back down to the ground again. Her knees folded under her, and the little fairy crumpled on the grass. She didn’t understand. What was wrong with her wings? Stumbling, she pushed herself to her feet again, and she walked across the meadow. She almost didn’t notice the grass brushing against her feet, because she was so worried about her flying. She entered the forehead with a creased forehead and an anxious stare. She almost tripped over someone, who let out a cry and asked who she was.

“I’m a fairy,” said the fairy.

“Yes,” said the stranger, unfolding wings from her shoulders. “I can see that. In fact, I’m a fairy too. My name is Lianet. You look upset. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know,” said the fairy. “I never needed one before. I used to live on the mountain alone, but now my wings don’t work.”

“Ah,” the stranger smiled. “Wings only work on the mountain, in the cold. When you hop down from on high you have more space to fly in, and the frozen air can keep you aloft. Lacy wings like yours won’t work in the forests or the meadows, the fields or the valleys, over the river or through the plains. Sometimes to fly for a minute you just have to climb a tree and jump.”

I know you’re very tired, and so we’re almost at the end. Do you think our fairy will give up the glory of flight to live in the forest, where the trees crowd one another and the squirrels chatter at everything that moves? Yes, I think so too.

The fairy thought about it for a while, and then she shrugged. Her lacy wings rippled in the air with the movement. There are worse things, she thought, than jumping out of trees with new friends. She could be flying alone. And so the fairy lives in the forest now, with a new name and a new friend. Sometimes she climbs to the very top of the tallest tall tree, and while she’s there she can see the very tip of the mountain where she used to live. Then she jumps into the air and lets her wings carry her down. She knows that there will be somebody to meet her at the bottom.

Good night, love.

Inside the Dollhouse

We only move some of the time. It’s sporadic. There is silence, a long quiet relaxation. Dominique is propped up against the toilet, and Leonardo is next to her sitting on the stove. The others are all piled in what is definitively the kids’ room, as it’s the one with the cradle and the swingset. I’m in the room above, under the sofa. Then, so sudden that our breath would catch if we had any lungs, the hand of Fate swoops in and plucks up Dom and shakes her, upside down. Her hair sways, brushes the floor, and then she’s tossed to land with a clunk in the corner.

Later, when everything is over, Leonardo is in the room with me. He’s looking at me, flat eyes gleaming in his faraway face. He’s dipped in the shadow that splays across the room. I look back at him. I know he doesn’t believe in Fate, in the things that move us. Just because the hand flashes in and out of our lives, isn’t there all the time, moves too quickly to see. I’ve seen it, though. I’ve seen the pain and the destruction it causes – why, AshleyBelle was thrown half across the world. Sometimes we can hear her calling out, half-crushed, gathering dust alone under a bookshelf. Sometimes we can hear Marianna calling back. Their voices are the only noises that ever really interrupt the silence when Fate’s not around.

When Fate is around, it’s often noisy. There are shrieks and cries, from Fate I mean, but often the muted sadness that escapes us as we’re separated or bent backwards. But even the hand of Fate thumping against the floor or a body seems loud to us, with our small ears and small lives. It makes an awful lot of noise thrashing about, and then when it’s gone again the quiet presses sudden and hard against us. We collect ourselves slowly, figuring out where we’ve ended up and where our loved ones are.

The rest of the time we wait for Fate to come rearrange our lives again. We wait – AshleyBelle under the bookshelf, Dominique hanging out of the refrigerator, Marianna’s plaintive voice still sounding through the body-strewn rooms. Eventually the hand of Fate will come through and we will scatter again. We wait, upside down and sprawled on the floor, for something to happen.

The General’s Dream

The general tossed in his sleep that night, plagued with a bad dream. He rose with the sun and rubbed the crackle of sleep from his eyes. He walked out to where the men were waiting. They looked so clean and smart in their pressed uniforms and their straight serious faces. They were very dear, he thought, and he felt a pang. Generals of armies were not supposed to think words like “dear,” least of all about their own young soldiers. But the sensation was there and it was growing, so the general began to speak.

The sunlight shining through these clouds in E...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

This was supposed to be his stirring speech, readying them all for battle, lifting the sodden soldierly spirits up to the brightness of the sun that must be shining somewhere above all that foggy grey. Instead, he told them to wait until the sun came out on its own. There was no reason they had to die on this dark day, without ever feeling the sunlight sift on their faces again. They were free, forgiven of any loyalty to the army, just go. Go, he urged them, and watched doubt creep onto those rigid faces. Go, he said again, and the first broke away. One by one they scattered, and he watched them huddle into their tents with a pinprick of pride. Then he went to the other side, and here things got blurry.The general went to talk to the opposing army, to the surprised faces that awaited him there. He wasn’t sure what happened. He explained what he had done, and why, and recounted several important events in the war as though they hadn’t been present – though they hadn’t, he supposed, for his version of them. He wasn’t sure if that was when light began to dawn, or when he was taken out by a lone shot. Either way, the early sunlight was filtering its rays onto his face and into his eyes, so he blinked awake. The dream ended abruptly and there was no peace being brokered, as yet no fatal shot, no young lives saved.

The general dressed quickly and went to meet the soldiers, filing into line with fear in their expressions. The smell of soap and dread mingled, and the morning’s cold stole into their bones. The general recited his stirring speech, the last comma memorized and intoned to them. Then they went to battle.

Becoming God

Luke was a follower of his very own school of religious thought. It was somewhere in between Method acting and, perhaps, that vague soppy brand of spirituality that tells you to believe in something, anything, so hard you nearly strain your faith muscle. So rather like a lot of religion, actually. Luke was just the first to really put it into practice in this way, and he knew this. Knowing it, he reckoned himself just about a god. So he thought of the Judeo-Christian god that had scowled down on him from the stormy heavens all his life, and he imagined himself that god.

He closed his eyes, and he focused really hard, and he did this on the linoleum floor of his ratty apartment. Luke stayed there, too, for two days. He drank a bit of flat soda that was in the cup he’d cleverly reminded himself to put there, and he got very hungry but eventually stopped noticing. Then, all at once, it clicked and shifted into place and sunk into him and then he was God.

He could peer down on all the world and zoom in to see what people were doing and twist toward people’s thoughts and examine their ideas and somehow he could do all of this at once. It was fascinating and confusing and beautiful and bewildering and very very ugly at times. He swapped views from a woman reading poetry to a child holding its sick mother’s hand to a bird lazily circling the top of a mountain where two hikers were slowly running out of food. He looked at lovers fighting and children squabbling and criminals shooting at each other in desperate spurts. He saw babies crying and people kissing and the long sad sigh of a man who had almost thought that today he wouldn’t be alone again. He saw all of this and more, spinning from one head to another and reading one person’s “fuck that, I don’t like him anyway” and another’s “my God, though, what will I do?” He descended into the gritty details of people’s lives, and the mind-numbing boredom of sitting in the waiting room or standing uncomfortably in line or typing for another long afternoon in the confines of a cubicle. He sat in on courtrooms and classrooms and bedrooms. He watched people until he became them, winding himself into bones and sinews until he saw through their eyes. All of their eyes, every godforsaken orb among them.

Somewhere, distant, Luke was aware that he couldn’t feel his own body anymore. He was too entwined in everyone else’s, and his muscles weren’t aching with the strain of it. His soul was tired. His mind was sore. He concentrated again, pushed away the people and stamped on the pain. With a shove and a wrench he was free of the burden of the world and he opened his own eyes in his own familiar ratty apartment. He lay on the floor for a long while, blinking slowly, and then he got up.

Might Have Happened

If she had stopped, earlier, instead of listening to the drum of her feet and the hiss of her breath, then things might have been different. Tina would have stopped to talk to the old woman for more than half a moment, would have sat beside her on the sidewalk and kept talking. The old woman’s lined face might have lit up then, settling into a well-worn but forgotten smile.

Tina would have asked her what she was doing, why she ended up there, what she wanted with her life before anything had happened to it. The old woman would have introduced herself as Rebecca, and shaken her hand. Then the old woman talked, for a long time it seemed, letting the pent-up shut-tight held-in words all pour out in a bewildered rush. Tina liked to listen, and listening to this one woman would have been the same. She sat and nodded, her eyes intent, her ears drinking in the rusty voice.

The old woman’s story was a long and convoluted one. Rebecca told Tina about the husband who’d left her, the sister who took a plane and never came back, the child who ran away at fourteen and never came back. It would have been very sad, and Rebecca might have said, “Everybody leaves in my life. I never see anyone again, and I don’t even know if my baby is dead or alive.” Her voice was quavering. Tina hugged her impetuously, hiding her tears in Rebecca’s shoulder.

When Tina finally got up to go, she creaked to standing and held the side of the building. She teetered there on the sidewalk for a moment, and then she pulled up Rebecca with her. It took some coaxing, but she got Rebecca walking and into the nearest café, where she bought the older woman a sandwich and fiddled with her phone for a moment. She felt guilty about using an expensive electronic in front of Rebecca, but she kept her head bent low, only peeping up to ask Rebecca’s last name.

After lunch, she copied down a few numbers and gave the scribbled napkin to the old woman, and explained, “I got you a room at this motel, and here’s your confirmation number. You can stay there as long as you need until you get back on your feet.” Rebecca, her eyes welling, would hug Tina and hold her close, and they would part with kisses on the cheek and promises to stay in touch.

Tina didn’t know what would have happened after that, eventually. Perhaps Rebecca would have left the motel and refused to keep taking her help. Perhaps she would have gotten a job and a home of her own. That was where the story always seemed to get murky, in the aftermath once other people’s actions could go in any direction.

The train was groaning to a stop, and Tina stepped out. She shook her head, flinging the daydreams away. The old woman on the sidewalk had given her a piercing blue look as she’d walked by, and she’d stooped to drop a dollar into the paper cup. Time to let her thoughts wander on something else now.