On Seeing

“You just have to have faith,” she told me. “It’s all there right in front of you if you would just open your eyes.”
My eyes were open. I could see everything in front of me. “My eyes are open,” I said.
“No,” she shook her head, hair swinging, lips pressed together. “They’re not. You’re refusing to see. Why?”
I shrugged. “There’s nothing to see.” I didn’t see anything. We were walking down the street. The sidewalk was gray. It was always gray, spotted and pitted and stained like it always was. The buildings were brick and concrete and steel just like usual. The men sitting on the steps hooted at us as we walked past, as they did every day. I didn’t see anything whatsoever out of the ordinary.
She closed her eyes. Her steps didn’t waver. Her hand reached mine, fingers entwining. “I can see,” she said.
“Your eyes are closed.”
She nodded. A smile puffed up her cheeks. She pulled my hand up and against her chest, hard. I heard a whistle, but as if it were far away. I saw.

The air moved. The stumpy trees, crowded between street and sidewalk, breathed. The man eyeing us from the corner made a small noise in the back of his throat. I saw it. I reached up to my face, but it hadn’t changed. My eyes were the same, wide open and staring but no bigger. They felt hot, but my fingers felt no heat through my eyelids. Everything was vibrating, shimmering, wrapped in silver and ringing. I blinked, and watched the slow motion movement of my vision shrinking as the bodies in front of me shifted, like walking through sand, running through water, held in place by time and the gleaming shattering air all around them.

When I opened my eyes again, she had dropped my hand. The world was normal again. The man on the corner was now looking at us with undisguised curiosity, his mouth twisted. Somebody’s dropped bottle of soda rolled across the sidewalk. She was looking at me, her eyes wide now, her lips tucked in.
“What?” I said, pushing hair back from my face, shaking my head.
“You stopped,” she said. “Did you see something? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes tight for a moment. “Everything went funny for a second. What am I supposed to’ve seen?”
“Magic.”
“Magic? Please.”
She raised her shoulders, hands outspread, mouth still crinkled. “Maybe.”
I grabbed her hand again, and we started walking. My legs felt weak, shaking, as though I’d just climbed the longest stairway. “No,” I said, not looking at her. “Come on, be real. There’s no such thing.”
She was quiet.

Sometimes I still see it out of the corner of my eyes. Once you see like that, I guess, it’s learned. You can’t really unsee. Your eyes already know the shapes and patterns, the light that fills everything. The shuddering of the shadows and the way the brightness shakes, presses, bursts. The contrasts are overwhelming. It gives me a headache. I can’t wish I’d never seen. I just pretend that I didn’t, though. I press my fingers to my temples and take a breath and then go on as though nothing has happened at all.
She looks at me oddly when that happens, when she notices. It happens more around her, I think. It makes it hard to be around her, but of course I do anyway. I can’t stop loving her just because I see magic when I’m with her. She’s worth the pain in my head and that brief, disconcerting feeling that the world has shifted just an inch or so in between each shuttering of my eyelids. When she looks at the world, there is wonder written in the lines of her face. I understand why, I suppose, even though when I look at the world it’s ordinary at best. At worst, the beauty and the terror fleeting across my vision make me want to crouch down, eyes closed, head safely inside my arms and nothing before me.
Either way, we keep going, together. There isn’t much else to do, is there? Not for me, anyway. This is just how it always is. Her beauty, my pain. At the end of the day when we curl around each other, it’s night. The room is dark. The lights are off. We press our bodies together, skin to skin, touch over sight. Neither of us can see anything at all.

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.

Quiet Shoes

You can’t just buy magic shoes at an ordinary place. It’s not like you can walk into a department store and browse their new fall line of seven-league boots. For that sort of thing you really need to search the deeper depths of eBay or something. I happened to stumble on mine by luck, as though my slip-ons already had a touch of the fairy about them. I wouldn’t even have bought them normally, they’re sort of plain and gray and a bit scuffed around the toes, but when I tried them on they felt so close and comfortable on my feet that I loved them at once. I took them off, paid for them, brought them home, and promptly forgot them at the bottom of my closet for a couple of months.

The first time I wore them, I barely noticed anything odd at all. In my gray shoes I walked to the library at the end of the day, when the world sighs and settles into the beginnings of night. It was starting to be dim and yellow in the streets, so it didn’t seem strange to me that people were bumping into me a lot. I got to the library I leaned into the door so that it rang the bell, and people looked a little puzzled at the sound. The book I needed was way up on the top shelf so I stood on the soft toes of my new flats and coaxed it closer with the tips of my fingers until it fell and hit me in the forehead, pages splaying open.

The only thing that day that was really weird was the librarian at the desk. I stood there, leaning on the fake wood, staring at the librarian’s profile for maybe ten minutes. In that time I coughed, shuffled, sneezed, thunked my book down, and started saying “Excuse me?” When I spoke she glanced over and looked right past me, sweeping her eyes across the room and then turning back to her book. I kept saying it though. My tone went from the politely inquiring pitch of the barely bothered to that nasty hook of a voice that dips and sways on the dangerous edge of making a goddamn scene. I leaned and shifted around, picked up a foot out of its shoe to curl and uncurl my toes, and nearly yelled it at her. My “ExCUSE me!” echoed in the library and she whipped around to look at me.

In the haughtiest tones I think she could probably muster, she said, “Yes, dear, all right, you don’t have to yell.” I shoved my book toward her and waited while she scanned it, then slipped the shoe back on my foot and whisked myself out of the library. I walked home bumping into people again, but I figured that all the elbow-brushing and shoulder-swiping was just me being so annoyed.

It was maybe another week before I really figured out the power of those gray shoes. I mean, that I figured out that it was the shoes and not just everyone ignoring me. It must’ve been the day I fought with Andy – that’s my husband – because at the end of my yelling I kicked off my shoes until they flew and thumped into the wall and I cried. He’d been ignoring me while I ranted, getting dinner together while I delivered a tirade, calling my name out every once in a while when I was right in the middle of a sentence. It only made me angrier, of course, and I told him what a selfish ass he was, how rude he was being, and how pissed I was right as he must have just been so confused by hearing my voice faint in the distance and not knowing where I was.

Once we figured it out I was a lot less mad. Well, Andy really figured it out. He went and picked up the shoes and put them back on my feet as I was sobbing like Cinderella’s freaking prince in our little apartment that smelled of Ramen and laundry. The gray shoes fit back on my feet and Andy’s eyes just went round. He looked right through me. He figured out a way to focus on me so he could see me, after a bit. If he really tried, concentrated on my face, he could see me, but apparently if nobody’s looking right at me and thinking about it I just slip right past their vision. I tested it a lot.

Even when I jump up and down my feet make no sound on the floor in those shoes. The soles tap into the linoleum, or the marble or wood or concrete, and there’s no noise at all. It’s eerie if you’re paying attention, though of course if I’m wearing the shoes nobody else is really paying attention.

I don’t wear the gray shoes that often. I don’t want to scuff them up any more and I don’t want to abuse the magic that lets me duck under people’s notice and sneak around a little bit. I walk in the gray shoes sometimes, not often, when the night is creeping up the horizon and everyone’s glance slides right past you anyway, shoes or no. I don’t do it so often because I don’t need it that much. It is useful every once in a while, though, when there’s some reason that I want to step lightly.

After the Yellow Moon (Painting Futures)

Later, Mason thought that perhaps his paintings showed all sorts of moments. He recognized the coffee cup in Starbucks that he picked up by mistake and the brush of someone’s fingers against his hand. He saw his painting spread across the street when he walked to work, cramming a bagel into his mouth and leaning on the ache in his shins like any morning. Then, of course, he burned himself on his coffee and sighed with the pain and the stain spreading. He tripped over the sore stiffness in his legs and hit someone’s face with his elbow. The hospital bills and the apologies spilled out after. He began with an ordinary moment, but the painting didn’t show him the hurt that colored it.

When Mason was working, and his brush dabbed and smudged the world together, he couldn’t feel it at all. There had been no heartbreak in the oily light of the yellow moon. When he squinted his eyes to watch the coffee cup take shape, he didn’t have any sense of the spill, of the heat searing his flesh, of the warmth in his cheeks as all thirty people crammed into Starbucks turned to watch him curl in pain and swear like a stained sailor. That only happened in the moment. All he could do was watch it turn into something he hadn’t expected, hadn’t meant to draw and paint and smudge into being.

He kept painting at least once a week, for a while. For months, even. Mason painted the next man, and the one after that, and when he met them he recognized the strokes of their faces from the lines his hand made with the long straight handle of the brush. Afterwards their paintings stayed in his closet, facing the wall. They were easier, hidden away.

He painted getting “let go” at work and the stumbling stutters of three job interviews all in a row after that. He painted a night so steeped in whiskey that the canvas nearly oozed its acrid stink. He only assumed, later, that the shapes on that canvas had happened to him at all. He didn’t recognize the faces or the street. He barely remembered that night at all, except that he’d painted it, so it must have happened.

Author: Vinegartom Image created using Adobe P...

When his paintings came to pass, it was always in a way he didn’t expect. He’d thought, in a vague hopeful way, that perhaps he was getting a promotion. When he finally got a new job, he had never painted that congratulatory call. He smiled at a new coworker, but his brush never traced the answering grin. His canvases stretched from one tragedy to the next, big and small. There was one canvas that ended up with Alan’s face on it. Mason hoped, with a painful twist in his breath just to think it, that it meant they would see each other again. He realized, eventually, that it must have been his tragedy that happened without him.

After a long while painting, he recognized the pattern. His dreams started bring him to his studio and to tell him to paint a car crash, his mother in a doctor’s office, Alan’s death. Mason put his canvases away. Now he waits to see what the future looks like. He doesn’t paint anymore.

The Bottom of the Mug

The fairground had been bustling, teeming, crawling with people. Now they trickled, bouncing from stand to tent like pinballs. There were barely any of them left, and they were outnumbered by the bottles and cups and straws and plates and napkins and balloon animals littering the ground, tossed and crumpled on the withered grass. Penelope was walking, staring at nothing in particular, down a path trodden between games and tents. She was walking toward the tent at the end.

Her day had been a long crowd of bewildering events with strange faces. She’d only just gotten to the fair after missing two trains and losing her phone. Now she walked with purpose toward the gray tent, the plain one with scarves for a door and a solemn sign outside. It read, “MadamE Clara’s TEa REadings” in a blue scrawl. She kicked aside paper cups and empty bottles as she walked.

Once Penelope reached the tent, she hesitated. One hand paused at the scarves. Even barely touching, they whispered against her skin. She took in a breath, pushed them aside, and stepped in.

Inside the tent, she blinked with surprise. She had been expecting MadamE Clara to be something else. The picture in her head of a tea leaf reader was that of an old woman, perhaps with a turban. Knowing this, she’d expected MadamE Clara to be very young, or a man maybe. The inside of the tent was dim, a lantern scattering yellow light onto the dark colorful walls of cloth. In this sparse light she could see a wrinkled face, lines etched around blue eyes, and indeed there was a turban threatening to fall off the wispy white hair. She opened her mouth to speak, and MadamE Clara handed her a mug without a word.

It was a mug, not a proper teacup at all, and she sipped without thinking. The tea was sweet, lemony and strong. It must have been made a minute ago, for in the chill night air it had already cooled to the solid warmth that didn’t burn her tongue at all. She drank, looking over the rim of the mug at MadamE Clara, who nodded at her. Penelope drained the mug, feeling the leaves float over to tickle her lips, and then she handed it to the old woman.

MadamE Clara took it, folded her hands around it, and looked inside. She stayed like that for a while, making a moue with her mouth and squinting this way and that. Then she spoke, in a startling gravelly voice.

“Try to avoid strong brews, my dear. You’re probably more of a mint sort of person, perhaps chai? Certainly not assam, I’m sorry to say.” She said this in a kind way, her eyebrows stretching up as if trying to soften the blow.

Penelope stared at her. “Pardon. What? What are you talking about?”

MadamE Clara shook her head, seeming impatient. Her turban swung back and forth, but clung on despite all odds. “Tea, dear. You ought always to add milk, but you could probably really do without lemon, and I get the sense you don’t like too much sugar. Just do, for the love of all that is holy, do avoid awful bagged tea and make it the proper way with a strainer.

Penelope nodded, her mind tumbling. She must have looked as bewildered as she felt, for MadamE Clara patted her shoulder with a gentle wrinkled hand before pulling the scarves aside to let her out of the tent. Penelope walked through, somewhat numb and very confused.

She half-turned when the old woman called out after her, “And you should really put the milk in first, then pour the tea. It’s not how it’s meant to be done but it’s more sensible. Otherwise you scald the milk.”

Penelope managed a smile and walked with her head down until she reached the edge of the fairground. It had been a very long day. Perhaps she just needed a drink. Not a hot one.

Strange Things Are Happening

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.

The Magic Hat

The first time Allison found the magical hat, she was six. She had clambered up to the attic when her mother wasn’t looking, and she climbed over boxes and ducked under old furniture until she happened upon it. It was hanging off the edge of the cabinet that had hidden in the attic from before they bought the house, and it was beautiful. Fuchsia, wide-brimmed and velvety, with a profusion of fake flowers and a spray of feathers.

Allison tugged on it and set it squarely upon her head. She was most surprised when she looked down and she had disappeared. She tested it – walked downstairs, where her mother was cooking dinner, and outside. She only stopped herself from walking across the street, since the cars probably wouldn’t stop for an invisible girl. After an hour of watching quietly as her mother diced, chopped, stirred and leaned on the counter watching television, she took the hat upstairs and laid it gently back on the cabinet corner.

She used the magic hat sparingly. Perhaps she already sensed somehow that she had to keep from using up all the magic in it. When Allison was eight, she remembered it was there and she spent a half hour rearranging the desk and ten minutes moving her mother’s coffee mug around the kitchen. She carried a pen past her father and watched him crinkle his forehead and stare at the patch of air where a pen had just floated merrily by.

When she was ten, she walked into the kitchen and listened for twenty minutes to her parents having a conversations she was sure she wasn’t meant to hear. When she was eleven, she hid an entire package of cookies in her room. Just after she turned thirteen, she learned to juggle and watched the mirror in fascination as little plastic balls flung themselves into the air to bob up again. At fourteen Allison snuck out of the house, hid the hat under the rhododendron book, and slipped into a waiting car. When she was fifteen, she walked downstairs and her mother said, “Hey, sweetie. Where did you find that ridiculous hat?”

The magic of the hat was over, she concluded. She put it under her bed, but she remembered it when she moved. Allison kept the magic hat – just in case, she thought.