Love Invisible

I tried to forgive them. After all, you can’t help who you fall in love with. It was years ago anyway, and it wasn’t their love that hurt the most. It was the indifference, the exclusion.

Our senior class had been on a field trip that day. Jimmy had played it cool, not sitting with me or making eye contact. But I understood that was because he wanted to keep our growing love secret. That’s what I believed at the time. When our class returned to school, a few of the kids said they were heading over to the Mansion for a bit of fun. Jimmy was going, too. I had nothing else to do, so I followed them.

The Mansion is a big, old house at the side of the main road, just where the train tracks cross. The forest has all but swallowed the tracks now, but you can still see the tops of them poking up through the asphalt. Back then, the house was newly vacant and still up for sale. Only the most daring among us would chance getting caught hanging out there.

It was early October and already almost sunset when we reached the property. A few of the kids let themselves into the house. They crept through the hallways, making ghostly sounds and trying to scare each other. I stayed outside, behind the house. For a while, I stood with my back to the swimming pool, looking into the forest. I wasn’t deep in thought. I was nervous. I was hoping Jimmy would see me and come stand with me. I was imagining the feeling of his arm around my shoulders. I waited a long time, until it was quite dark and I was cold, but he never came.

When I turned to leave, my foot caught on something and I tripped. I hadn’t realized how close I was to the edge of the pool.

The others were still running around trying to scare each other in the darkness. They mustn’t have seen me fall. I hit the frigid water and sank into the murk. It was so dark above and below that I couldn’t work out which way was which. I guess I passed out in my panic because I didn’t suffer for very long.

I’m not sure how much time I spent drifting in oblivion before the rumbling of a train passing on the nearby tracks dislodged me from my unconsciousness. As I came to and pulled myself out of the water, I noted that the grounds were still and quiet. Everyone must have gone home. I felt numb; no cold, no pain, despite being wet and out in the chilly evening air. I thought I was probably in shock.

There was a pinprick of light coming from inside the house. Trying not to make a sound, I pushed the front door open and made my way along the hallway. A soft glow spilled through a crack in a door up ahead. Approaching, I heard voices — two voices. The way they spoke, they sounded as though they were trading intimate confidences.

I paused at the door and peered in. Too horrified to move, I stayed watching the two of them together for a while. Finally recovering myself, I cleared my throat and stepped over the threshold into the light. Jimmy looked up from Nancy, looked right at me and frowned. My heart skipped. I had loved him from the moment I saw him. He seemed the typical summery, sun-kissed boy, with his blond hair and blue eyes. All the girls liked him. But there was a darkness about him, too. I could see it but I don’t think any of the others could. I knew it was something we shared, the reason we were meant to be together.

I was angry as I stood there looking at the two of them, but I still loved him. I still thought there was hope for us. I thought he might be embarrassed or mad that I was there, but I would be able to win him back. I began to speak, my words slow at first, then picking up speed, but soon realized he wasn’t listening. I stopped dead. He shook his head and the two of them went back to their quiet talking.

He couldn’t see me. He couldn’t hear me. After all these years, I wonder if he ever had.

When the Orchids Bloomed

Fynbos on Table Mountain, Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

In the span of a breath, everything changed. Breath is powerful; it can transport and transform you. Sethunya had learned this lesson at an early age. But on this day, it would transform her beyond anything she had experienced. It would carry with it new life.

Early that morning, she had ventured out into the quiet scrubland surrounding the settlement, ignoring the protests from the other women. “You must rest,” they had implored her, “your time is near.”

Sethunya waved her hand to dismiss their concerns and assured them she would be fine. “It’s a lovely morning for a walk,” she said before she turned and disappeared into the sun-gilded mist that had settled across the valley.

Sethunya was young, almost a child herself, though she already possessed great wisdom. Because of this, and her kind and gentle ways, even the older women listened to her. In those days, it was common enough for one so young to be wed and on the verge of motherhood. But her situation was different, for she was not wed and the father’s identity was unknown. Stranger still, she radiated with an inner glow that inadvertent mothers usually did not possess. As her belly had grown, so too had the bewitching twinkle in her eye. And none of the menfolk gave any sign – haughty or otherwise – of having played a part in the conception. So it remained an enigma.

Usually, shaman women did not wed or bear children. Usually, they were older — often elders. And it was certainly unheard of for a shaman to practice while with child. No one could recall one before Sethunya who had been so young, or so unusual.

She was indeed as rare as the orchid for which she had been named, an orchid that blossomed only once a year and, when it did, remained scentless but for one magnificent hour. To the people of the settlement, this orchid was a wonder. And for this reason alone, they might have chosen to name her after its blossoms. But it just so happened that the orchids began to release their scent at the moment she appeared. The perfume, believed to be the most beautiful in all the world, continued to grace each step she took that day, illuminating her with its miracle until nightfall. No one could explain it, just as they could not explain the girl’s mysterious appearance. The settlement’s shaman, the oldest woman among them, proclaimedthat her coming was meant to be and invited Sethunya to live with her. It was she who named her after the orchids.

After the shaman passed on to the stars several years later, Sethunya stayed on in the hut and, despite being only 12, took over the role of shaman, applying all the lessons her mentor had taught her.

Now, at 15, Sethunya had earned the love and respect of her community, and she loved them in return. These lands were the only home she knew, these people the only family she remembered.

On this particular morning, she was following the red, earthen paths worn into the countryside by centuries of nomads, the ancestors of her adopted people. She passed the towering rocks and gnarled branches that left shadowy, mythic shapes in the mist. She breathed deeply, feeling at peace, enjoying the beauty surrounding her. Every now and then, the mist cleared and she glimpsed the sparkling blue of the distant sea.

As she paused beside a small lake to admire the stillness of the water, her child began to stir. Instinctively, she knew she had gone too far to make it home before the birth. Looking around, she saw an outcropping of rocks which shielded a patch of long grasses. It would be a soft place to lie, she thought, and would protect her from the sun when it rose higher. Small white orchids – her special flowers — poked up here and there through the grasses, their delicate starburst blooms dainty among the other plants.

People have been giving birth on this land forever, she reasoned.

She knelt down and prepared herself. Nature welcomed and enveloped her and a calm settled upon her.

Her labour did not last long. At the final moment, Sethunya took one deep breath. In the span of that breath, she smelled the scent of the orchids and was transported. She was free of pain, she was one with the Earth. As she exhaled, the next shaman was born.

September 1948: From the Memoire of Miss Penelope Miller

Stanley Kubrick’s Photos of 1940s New York City via laughingsquid.com

 

The days of the week lined up like buckets, ready to catch whatever fell in. On that Sunday evening, I was alone in my apartment, relishing the unknown of the week to come. The smoke from my cigarette mingled with the sweet scent of wine, making me feel indulgent and grown-up; a working girl in the big city.

The following morning, I dressed, made some toast and coffee, and headed out the door to work. My midtown office is a bit far to walk but I like to do so on a nice day. I enjoy looking up at the buildings and moving along with the crowds.

I walked home in the evening as well and my feet were aching by the time I reached my building. I had just leaned on the wall to adjust my shoes when I heard the raised voices of two men from an open window overhead. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

When I reached my apartment, I kicked off my shoes, poured myself a drink and opened my own window. I like to sit on the ledge and look out at the city. I’m a country girl no more! I could still hear the men arguing and realized they were in the apartment below mine. I wasn’t in the mood to eavesdrop, so I closed the window and turned on the radio instead.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened on Tuesday. On Wednesday evening, though, they were at it again. I stopped on the sidewalk when I heard them arguing and rummaged in my handbag, trying to make out something of what they were saying.

One of the men moved over to the window and I caught a glimpse of him: neat hair, three-piece suit, not handsome but well turned-out. He was quite angry, accusing the other man of throwing his words back at him, of twisting something he’d said. I was curious but the argument didn’t seem unusual.

It was a cool evening so I didn’t open the window when I got upstairs. I’m not sure if they were still arguing, but I couldn’t hear anything from my apartment.

Thursday morning, I noticed their window was still open. It seemed dark and quiet inside. It’s none of my business whether people leave their windows open or not, but I did think it odd, cool as it had been the day before. And it’s only three storeys up! You never know if a burglar might get it into his head to try to climb up there. It wouldn’t be that difficult.

As always, I dined with Diana after work that night, so I didn’t get home until quite late – about 11:30. As my taxi pulled up to the curb, the man I had seen through the window on Wednesday staggered out of the building. He looked up and down the street, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the light from the streetlamps. I tried to stall as I paid the driver, hoping I could make it up to my place without having to pass him. It was then that I noticed his hand was bandaged and blood was seeping through it.

When I could wait no longer, I got out and, keeping my head down, slipped past him. I could feel his eyes on me.

That night, I was sure I heard noises outside my room and in my half-dreams I thought the man with the bandaged hand was at my door.

I felt ill Friday morning. I must admit that I was scared to leave my apartment in case I should see him again. I called in sick and spent the day at home, restless. I was trying to convince myself that I’d made something out of nothing when I heard a commotion coming from the apartment below.

“Did you think you were god?” that familiar, sinister voice shouted. Then I heard three gunshots. Soon after, sirens and flashing lights filled the neighbourhood. I heard people gathering on the street below, but I stayed put.

I still don’t know what happened with those men but the apartment is empty. Sunday evening has rolled around again but this time, I am hoping for an uneventful week. The only sounds drifting in through my window now are from the never-ending traffic. It’s true what they say about this city – it never sleeps. But, sleep or not, Monday morning always rolls around and the first bucket begins to fill again.

 

 

 

Into Silence

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

I’ve come to love the silence. It wasn’t always this way. I fought it at first, but that was long ago. I am an old woman now, a crone in the forest. I may be alone, but I still know things, things you wouldn’t expect me to know.

Once, I was young like you. Reckless and stubborn, I thought I knew best. I was just eighteen when I ran away. You see, I was angry at my misfortunes.

Does that sound familiar?

There is no need to dwell on all of that, though. Suffice it to say that a sickness had left me partially deaf and I was told the silence would take over completely one day.

I’m sure you of all people can imagine how I felt.

Back then, deafness was a life sentence and I had no intention of living at home forever. In a desperate flurry of youthful angst, I packed a few necessities, jumped on one of the horses and rode away into the night. I was a girl of means, you understand. I wouldn’t want for anything out there – out here – in the world. But still, I was young and alone.

I rode for hours at first, not stopping until I was far enough away to avoid being recognized. Over the coming days, I navigated forests darker than this one, their gnarled branches forming faces in the leaves. I crossed open lands under vast skies, where towering clouds chased me until I was so frightened I buried my head in my horse’s mane and wept. Along the way, I rested at inns, always covering enough ground between each to remain anonymous.

When eventually the smell of the sea began to permeate the more familiar scents of earth, blooming heather and hearth fires, I realized I had gone far enough. I had outrun the land and I had even outrun my anger. I had nowhere left to go.

Although it was mid-afternoon, the steady rain and heavy fog made it seem more like evening. I was wondering where to take shelter when I spied a small stone building at the side of the deserted, tree-lined road. Through the gloom, I could see a faint light in the windows and could smell the smoke curling from its chimney. A sign over the door said it was an inn, though there didn’t seem to be anyone about. I was hungry and cold, and my horse needed to rest. I decided this would be the place I would end my journey.

As I approached the building, a figure emerged from the trees. Her worn white dress and long, white hair billowed slightly, diaphanous like cobwebs in the mist. When she spoke, her voice barely rose above the whispering wind.

“Come with me instead,” she said, “I will feed you and give you a soft bed.”

I turned away from the inn as though in a trance and followed her into the woods, leading my horse behind me. She brought me to a log cabin hidden amongst the trees. She fed me then showed me to my room. Warm and comfortable, I fell asleep immediately. When I awoke the following morning, she was gone and all was quiet with a silence more complete than solitude. I don’t know when I realized I had lost all hearing. Alone as I was, it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

I have lived here ever since but now my time is coming to an end. I can feel it. And as sure as I know that, I also know that you are headed this way. You are just as I was; young and impulsive, in search of a different life. At least, that’s what you think you want. Before you decide to follow me, to take your place in the cycle, you must think carefully. Can you learn to love the silence as I have?

 * * *

I let the cracked, leather-bound book drop back onto the table with a thud, sending up a cloud of dust. Grappling with my own tragedy, I had been drawn to this abandoned cabin in the woods, but the voice of the mysterious woman sent me running from it in fear. 

Surely her faded, spidery words were too ancient to have been meant for me. And yet, sometimes I think they were. At those times, when everything seems overwhelming, I consider returning to take my place in the cycle of silence. 

 

 

Silent Stars

Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal, from New York Culture Photos of the Year

Detail from image by Bryan Derballa, New York Culture Photos of the Year, Wall Street Journal

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the stars. For years, Sarah had taken Bethany up to the roof to look at them, to point out the constellations and tell her their stories. “This, this is majesty,” she used to say with a deep sigh, her eyes upturned and her face aglow. Bethany had watched her curiously, but with a lack of rapture that Sarah never noticed.

Because of those evenings together, Bethany grew up knowing the myths of the sky better than she knew the nursery rhymes and fairytales her schoolmates recited. Every now and then, she asked her mother to tell her a “normal” story, and while Sarah had obliged, she never stopped to wonder at the request.

Somewhere along the way between Bethany’s childhood and her teenage years, their stargazing had dwindled. Maybe that was when everything had started to fall apart. They hadn’t been up on the roof together in two years, other than that last time, a few days ago.

Now, Sarah felt both sickened and mesmerized to find herself looking up at the stars again in one of the church’s soaring stained glass windows. It wasn’t the usual holy scene, just a wall of glowing royal blue, flecked with tiny golden shapes. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from it.

She shivered from the cool dampness, momentarily aware of the hard wooden bench beneath her and the smell of furniture polish, lilies and candle wax. Despite the people surrounding her, she felt she was alone.

I should be paying attention at a time like this, she thought, but she couldn’t do it. The boys’ choir began to sing while she let her mind continue to wander. She yearned to get up and run away. To escape. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed on the window and thought of earlier times.

Sarah had always been a present and involved mother and Bethany a quiet, calm child. Anyone would have thought they had a deep bond. When Bethany started swimming competitively at school, Sarah became assistant coach, spending her free time composing cheers and ushering the girls to their meets. No one would have guessed there was a chasm growing between them. Sarah did what she could to reach out to Bethany but you can’t control another’s reactions. Her daughter never reached back; she was already fading away.

The choir stopped singing, dragging Sarah back to the present. The Minister would be getting up to speak soon. Sarah had given him something to read on her behalf but she didn’t think she could bear to listen, or to feel all eyes turn toward her.

Had Bethany been trying to get closer to the stars when she went up there? That’s what Sarah had thought at first, when she’d gone looking for Bethany and found her at the edge of the roof, teetering perilously with her eyes turned skyward. She thought maybe the roof had become Bethany’s refuge because of all those times she’d brought her up there as a child, that she went there when things became difficult because it was a safe place, full of happy memories.

But Bethany had released her from that illusion. Her parting words as she drifted out onto the air left no doubt. The stars, the roof, those childhood memories, they held no happiness for her. They never had.

“There was never any light here, Mom,” Bethany said before she leaned backward, her bright blue eyes locked on her mother’s.

At first, she appeared to be floating, suspended. Sarah stood and watched, marveling at her daughter’s beauty as her hair billowed out around her. In her shock, Sarah imagined that Bethany would never crash. But of course, she did. Her slow motion free-fall sped up like a film reel suddenly switched to the right setting.

Sarah never had time to speak. It was over before she even realized it had begun.

She is with the stars now, thought Sarah as she listened to the Minister reading the final line in her eulogy. They were the words she had never managed to say in the light of day.

“I’d do anything to make you stay.”