The Sleepless Widow

Jen sometimes took walks in the dark. It was oddly peaceful to slip out after the streetlights winked on and the shadows engulfed the streets, to walk through the glow of a light and then swim blind through the shadows only toward the next bright spot. When everything was quiet she would leave, her dishes tumbled in the sink and the bedroom light left on. When the door clicked closed she was suddenly back in the world, not in the house that wrapped her tight and kept her closed off.

When she walked down the street, there was nobody there. She only had to navigate past the odd trash bag spilled out over the sidewalk, belated leftover from the garbage truck. Her thoughts rose up around her and spiraled out, and she followed their threads as she walked. She was so caught up in her mind that she nearly bumped into an elderly woman, stepping with slow solemn care along the sidewalk.

Jen said, “Oh, I’m sorry!”

“That’s all right, dear,” said the lady. “I understand. After all, I’m taking a walk at night too, right?”

Jen fixed a polite smile on her face and nodded. “Yes, certainly. Do you walk often?” She cursed herself silently for starting a conversation, realizing too late.

“Sometimes,” the woman confided, leaning toward Jen. “Sometimes I just can’t sleep, and my house is empty now. Then there’s really nothing for it but this dark sorcery of the night, don’t you know?”

Jen looked up at her, startled. The old lady was grinning, but her face was sweetly set in wrinkles and her eyes gleamed with the yellow shine of the streetlights.

Jen nodded cautiously, and said, “I suppose so.”

The lady let out a chuckle at that, and said, “It’s quite all right, sweetie. What brings you out at this odd hour?”

“I just like to walk at night,” she said. “That’s all.”

The old woman laughed again. “Yes, of course. And at night you never know whom you might meet.”

Jen’s eyebrows drew together, but the old woman was still smiling. “I met you.”

“Just so, then.” The woman, a smile still stretched over her creased face, nodded at her and turned her face forward again, taking a small step on the concrete.

She walked slowly after that, looking behind her every now and then. There was nothing remarkable there, though, just the shape of the old lady disappearing slowly in the night.

When Jen got back home, she stretched across the cool sheets of the bed and curled her hands in the blankets. She was tired after a long walk, and she fell asleep into restless dreams of moonlight and magic.


The Tambourine Men

You can tell that they’re coming by the music seeping into the air, the notes lingering like a scent that you can almost recognize. You’ll follow it just to know, because otherwise it nudges at a corner of your brain, reminding you to notice it. When they arrive, you can just follow the stream of people headed toward them, the crowd clustering around the sounds.

You can try to push up to the front if you like, but people are so tightly packed that you’re risking an elbow to some of your softer parts. Everyone stands still, locked in place, reaching for the music that chimes and jangles through the mob of people. You can feel it rising through your bones and spreading through your blood until the melody runs through your veins and makes your heart beat faster.

You can hear them play for a while, and then they go. It seems like forever when you’re in the middle of it, the music stretching like some vast landscape where the grass rustles and the streams murmur, the leaves swish against each other and the birds offer an occasional cascade of notes. The sweetness of it fills your chest with a warm pressing joy.

You can listen to it rapt, your lips moving without your realizing it, your eyes closed. When your eyelids blink open you see the men on stage as they play. They are wearing buttoned shirts and jeans, and their eyes are open. They stare at the people, eyes searching, lips parted. They look entirely ordinary. Your eyes slip shut again and the sound builds again to a glorious height. It stretches again forever. The music surrounds you, overwhelms you, drowns you in beauty. When it ends the silence is emptier than anything you have ever heard.

You can tell when they’ve gone by the sudden absence of people who are usually there. The old lady isn’t at the grocery check-out line anymore, the librarian is missing, the banker who eats a sleepy lunch at the corner diner has left the plastic stool empty and you can see the dimple on the cushion where he’s sat every day for twelve years. You can watch them go, but that’s boring. Men with suitcases trundling behind them walk in a little clump. It’s more interesting to watch the trail of people following them.

You can count them, but you’ll get tired before you reach the end. They link their arms together and walk on, some with bright sure steps and some dragging their feet, undecided, still thinking of the leftover burgers they abandoned in their refrigerators.

You can watch them all and wonder, and ask yourself if you should go too. They’re all listening, all straining for the music, and humming along with the sound. Together the caravan of people builds into a great round well of song, so many voices twining together. They walk endlessly, singing, dreaming.

True Fictions

David wished that he could change things. He thought he could, sometimes. That’s what being creative is; writing is making a world happen with the imprint of ink on paper. In the little spidery lines where the black bleeds and snakes through the white, you can lean in close and see the beginning, the seeds of what is happening with each word.

There was a city, he wrote. He wrote and built its skyscrapers and its glistening towers, the windows that shimmered in the sun and the sunset that paled behind the neon glow of the stores and restaurants, cafes and tattoo parlors. With each letter he typed, it took shape, and the people began to stroll down the sidewalks. A couple, interlaced arms and somber clothes, ambled past him. A harried businesswoman skittered down the steps to the subway station on the corner. A tall man with a green mohawk and a glinting artillery laced through his face and ears slumped against a wall with a cigarette. At the end of the block, a sandwich board advertised “Free Booze!” in teetering chalk handwriting.

David looked down the street, and saw Mark saunting along on the sidewalk toward him. Mark was his main character; his fingers flashed across the paper, pen scratching, and Mark paused. He stood hesitating amongst the swarm of people and checked his watch, frowned, and then kept walking. David stayed still now, watching him, pen hanging in the air. So many things could happen now. Mark hadn’t heard from Trudy in a long time. Maybe he would do something with that.

Mark stopped again outside an alley as the pen scrawled. There was a mugger advancing on a teenaged girl, whose eyes fixed on Mark as he peered in.

David scribbled, then pressed his pen to the paper. A spot of black grew and widened under the point as he pondered. It could go in that direction, too. He looked at the girl, frozen with eyes round and frightened, and at Mark, leaning forward as if he were going to tip over. He wasn’t going to hear from Trudy again, David decided. That was in keeping with how he wrote, anyway. Early on, he had tried to write her into his stories. He had tried to write love as it was, as he experienced it, and he had tried to make her come alive with words. That was a long time ago. He never tried to write romance any longer. Everything else, he could paint and detail with words, but not love. It was just never very convincing.

The Danger of Angels

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.

The Palace of Language

In the palace of language, there are winding hallways, labyrinths to get lost in. If you take a left turn and start down that long run-on endless sentence, you’ll be all dazed and bewildered by the time you find your way out. You’ll have forgotten where you started. However, you may stop in some lovely rooms along the way. There’s one just a bit in, lush and soft with pillows you can just sink into. Then farther on there’s a fountain, the words flowing like black ink that sprays and pools and rises again. They go over and over, into themselves and back out, tumbling end over end until they’ve been in every order and shape you can imagine. That’s even still within the fountain, not escaping from the neat stream that arcs into the air and plunks against the surface.

Saragossa. Court of the Infanta, Zaporta Palace

Photo credit: Cornell University Library

If you take the right turn, there’s a long and beautiful hallway lined with pillars. They’re spiraling and straight, plain and engraved with intricate designs. If you lean against one, the feel of it on your skin will near take your mind away. Sink against it, slump until your shoulders sag and your head droops, and close your eyes to the touch of it on your skin.

Then follow the scent of sandalwood and cinnamon until you get to the grand hall. Lean back until you feel your spine creaking, and stare up at the ceiling. Watch the candles cast warm yellow circles up the walls, let the tendrils of heat whisper on your cheeks. The paragraphs are crunched into bricks that climb until you can’t see the lines where they join, and the words sparkle in the leaving light. The texture of them on your fingers grates slightly, the curls of the letters rubbing with a hissing sound. If you trace the curving lines on the tiles you can spell out the words, and if you follow them for long enough you get to the end.

The Storyteller at the Market

The storyteller is wedged between the trinkets and the magazines, tucked between tables piled high with watch springs and tattered pages. You could walk right by him if it weren’t that you’d have to walk through his story. It’s hard to see until you’re in it – nothing glows or glitters or anything. There’s a queer feeling to it. It’s sort of a drop in the pit of your stomach, a stopping-suddenly that spreads over your skin. Otherwise it’s hard to tell it’s happened. You just edge past the gaudy tarnished frames and the drawings of cats, and suddenly you’re someplace else. Sometimes it’s the middle of a broad meadow, green curling grass laid out around you and a forest clustered against the horizon. Sometimes it’s dangling from a turret, spinning gently in the window as the castle looms below you and its grey stone juts against the cold air. Sometimes it’s just sitting in a living room, folded into a plush rocking chair with its weave rough against your cheek as the voice of a grandmother and the smell of a fire fill the air.

Usually it’s fine to just walk in. Just last week I stepped into a story that swooped and dove on the back of a dragon, scales burning my thighs and flames blistering the air. The storyteller nodded to me when I got there – we’re familiar by now, he’s seen me there so often – and went on, the dragon just pausing a moment in the air as he recollected his thoughts. He often doesn’t even notice. You get there and you’re just suddenly part of it, huddling in the corner of a great lofty cave as the dwarves hack into the ground with chisels and spades.

When I was there on the dragon, the story went on so long I started to notice my fingers going numb. It was very hot on the dragon, of course, but after long enough your body starts to notice the market just as much. When I left I was tingling with cold but flushed all over, blisters rising on my knees. We flew right into a storm, and there the dragon left us. Then there was a while being nestled into a cloud and talking to a man on a pegasus, buffeted by the sweep of wind from its wings. We never did find the treasure, but I had a very distinct feeling that it was gone entirely. Somehow destroyed – a tragedy, I suppose. Then again, it’s just a story – or so you tell yourself, anyway.

You haven’t been really, so you wouldn’t really understand. You ought to visit more often. The storyteller is welcoming of visitors. He’s really very friendly. That is, if you get a chance to talk to him, the man, outside of the story. It’s harder to do than it sounds. He wraps himself in tales and hides inside them, rubbing their softness against his cheek and showing their spines and bristles to outsiders. He’s a lovely man, though, and makes a fair living off his stories at the market. Well enough it serves him, even just once a week. The market doesn’t meet more often, and it shouldn’t. Perhaps it would be all fine if it were just for the baubles and chains, but it’s well enough that you can only visit the storyteller’s realm only so often. Otherwise people would crowd into his stories more often, they’d be there every day. He’d have to tell stories with every breath he drew and every thought he held. Once you’ve entered the stories and got used to being there, it’s hard to leave.

The Dream Factory

The machines are always humming, and the conveyer belts move so slowly you can barely tell, unless you’re still and staring. The workers scurry across the linoleum like ants, heads nodding in time to the rustle of their stiff gleaming uniforms. Every once in a while you will see one of them yawn, swiping a wrist across a mouth and looking embarrassed, checking to make sure that nobody saw.

There are different stations in the factory. Over in the northwest corner, the worker’s uniforms are made of lace and mesh, and the floor squelches slightly as they step over it. The conveyer belts rise and fall over the hills of the machine, undulating with a faint glimmer. The manager of this section leans against the wall, one leg crossed over the other, fingers curling and uncurling on the handle of a whip that trails in whorls on the tile. The workers steal glances at the manager, but mostly they pay attention to what they’re doing – some of them caressing the products, fingers slipping into the crevices, checking for flaws. Some of them fold hands around the dreams that pass before them, pressing with firm attentive care to mold the packaging to their contours.

In the southwest corner, the ceiling rises and lowers like a melting cave. The shape of the room slopes so low that the workers there have to stoop their heads and huddle past, until they get to the part where it suddenly opens into a vast cavern of darkness again. Then they duck their heads yet lower, trying their best to avoid turning stray glances above. They’re afraid to see what’s there. If you wander too far into this quadrant of the factory, you will start to hear the shrieks and rumbles that emanate from the corners. The conveyer belts slant down, in a straight line toward a dark hole that fits neatly into the edge of wall and floor. The belt sinks into it and is lost in a few feet, draped in shadow until you can barely see the dreams at all. It’s better that way – everyone tries to avoid staring at the dreams as they writhe and flop on the surface of the belt. The workers handle them delicately, fingers dancing over the edges and shapes, fluttering away from the surfaces sticky with slime or sharp with needles and razor edges. They transfer from the southwest corner as quickly as possible. It’s mostly an assignment given to new hires, or those who’ve made some mistake in another section. It doesn’t matter so much what they do with the nightmares, even if they’ve let dreams slip by upside-down in the other parts of the factory.

The southeast quadrant of the factory is more varied than these other two. Some of the dreams that glide by on the conveyer belt are beautiful, crafted of shimmering glass that unfurls in splendid lacy spirals. Some of them are absolutely plain, perfect and tiny crafted shapes like models of Mrs. Dashwood’s day at the office. If you peer closely, you can see the coffee stain on her skirt and the bald spot on her boss’s head. Some dreams are ugly, flat things, marked with the shapes of missing clothes and missed trains. One or two of them even smells like old cheese – though, of course, the smell will be mostly stamped out by the time they’re packaged and sent off. The workers go about their jobs somewhat mindlessly here, plodding from one station to the next, fingering the dreams carelessly. The monotony of a day filled with the utterly ordinary is broken now and again by the beauty of a dream that stops them. They turn then, lean in and gaze at it as their fingers work smooth and sure on its surface. Their eyes widen and lips part, and their hands linger on the edges of the dream until the conveyer belt pulls it away. They will return then to the rote routine of their work until another lovely dream draws their attention. Go on and look at one – you might hear the music drifting from it and the notes falling aimlessly through the air. Touch it, even, for some of them have a warmth that spreads up your arm or a soft and aching sweetness that reaches your bones. Some of those dreams smell of vanilla and cinnamon, or bread baking, or wildflowers. Don’t touch too long, though.

The northeast section of the factory is closed off. There’s a tall forbidding wall around it, reaching into the center of the factory, studded with locked doors. Workers rarely go in and out of doors, and when you see one walking out of the northeast it is with a solemn expression and downcast eyes. Generally everyone has a hidden and secret desire to work in the northeast part, even if just for a day. Just to know, for the secret is enticing, seductive. When the workers whisper amongst themselves, that is often what they speak of. They gossip in lowered voices during their breaks, turning to one another and flicking glances at the managers.

They don’t talk for long, though. They don’t get a lot of breaks. Their work is more interesting than anything else they could be doing, even the dull unending hours in the southeast on a quiet day or the heart-thudding work in the nightmare section. The workers look at dreams as their life’s purpose. It’s intricate and important work that they shape and check and send along. They talk about it, think about it, and if they could dream they would dream about it too. The workers at the dream factory don’t dream, of course. They only work at dreams, smoothing the edges and twisting the corners. They work hard at their jobs, take pride in what they make, and they never sleep at all.