Our Village — chapter 1

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Like it or not, our lives are on exhibition, like we live in a human aquarium. If there were anyone here but us then they could watch us swimming in circles.

Ours is a twenty-first century village in the northeastern United States, a small walkable dead-end neighborhood surrounded by tall pines on three sides and a lake on another  — the lake’s at the dead-end side, farthest from the road that passes us by.  On little plots of land, little houses are lit up at night from the insides, like the house lit by a single lamp that Mr. Bellis has left on while he goes to the bathroom (Fifty Shades of Grey bent along its spine and left open and face-down on the side table) and the house where a single blazing clamp-on utility light and the shadows it casts prove to the village that even if Roger does spend many hours at Sara Levine’s place (and even if she is twelve years his senior), he is in the basement using the scroll saw while she is upstairs knitting in front of the bedroom window, as anyone who strolls through the village is invited to see.  You can see a little something of every villager’s life tonight.  Even the Lukas’s place has windows, and the village is dark at night nestled among these pines, so the lights turn on in every home, and who could blame someone for looking at all of us little fishies?

The stars are out.  Jerry Randy is also out, just walking, because after all he has as much right to walk the village as anyone else does, seeing as how he lives here, and he knows which houses have dogs inside at this time of night in late winter, dogs that will bark if someone walks by, so he avoids those houses, and his stroll through the village is quiet, the snow banks muffling the sound of his footsteps but not the thoughts of his swimming mind, thoughts that sing out to him in the cold air as brightly and beautifully as the stars shine in the sky. Jerry Randy stalking the street thinks that he knows more about what really goes on in the village than anybody else does. But he doesn’t know that he is being watched.

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You’re at home reading. You’ve had your dinner and washed your dishes, and you didn’t think about what the neighbors might think when you poured yourself a nightcap — or rather, you didn’t admit until now that you had briefly thought about what the neighbors might think but you quickly dismissed it with the reasoning, “it’s none of their damned business.” And it’s not, but they’ll know all the same, some of them anyway, Jerry Randy for one, who just walked by. Did you see him? Did you sense him, perhaps? We villagers begin to have a sense for one another after living in this aquarium together for so many years. So go on, keep reading. And drink a nightcap if you so choose. I can’t speak on behalf of the other villagers — although I do — but I, for one, don’t care what you do. We’ve gotten on well enough so far, you and I, without me second-guessing your every move. With that said, and given that we have some level of camaraderie, may I ask your opinion? What do you think about Sara Levine “hiring” that young Roger for “housework”? No, on second thought let’s not talk about that. It’s none of our business, right? Nor do I care what Mr. Bellis is reading; he’s a grown-ass man and he can make his own decisions. No, what I want to talk about … is you.

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This might be a little presumptuous, but I think that sometimes friendships are made or at least developed by somebody going out on a limb and risking embarrassment by saying it, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it: I think we’re developing a nice friendship. I’ll admit it’s unconventional, but it’s not like some of my past friendships, which felt more like I was examining someone’s life by standing outside their house at night and watching them, distance and glass between us, and shadows, and no ability to hear each other’s voices. No, this feels a little more intimate, I guess, more like we’re in the same house, the same floor (not like Roger and Sara, who are just pretending, if you ask me). You and I are in the same room, compromising on what music to put on, conversing.  That — this — is friendship, right? Thank you for sharing this with me.

When I was in sixth grade, Mrs. Montgomery told me to wipe the smirk off my face and I didn’t dare tell her that I wasn’t smirking because it was clear that she thought I was smirking, so I realized for the first time ever that someone — like me, for example — might not know what he or she looks like to someone else, and I vowed then and there to give someone a break even if they looked angry or put-upon or unfairly aggrieved. I didn’t want to assume how they felt just based on the way their face looked like it was smirking, or on the way their bent-necked shrugging-shoulder posture made them look depressed.

So, without being too presumptuous, what I want to know from you is how old do you feel? I think you look a little bit older than you are. You can admit that; it’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think it can be really useful to look older than you are. I know how old you look, and I know how old you are, but what I don’t know is how old you feel.  So?

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I’ve talked to Jerry Randy about his nighttime strolls through the village.  This is one thing he told me:

I’m not a religious guy, not much into superstitions either, and I don’t go for any conspiracy theories. Look, all I’m saying is, well, you know me and school didn’t fit so well together, so it’s not like I’m saying something complicated that nobody can understand, I’m just saying that I only believe things that I can directly see or feel — cuz if you can’t trust yourself then what can you trust? — so I’m not telling this to spread rumors or get famous or get anyone in trouble or scare anyone or make anyone — like Lilly-Anne, for example, that little girl’s a dreamer — make anyone like Lilly-Anne or anyone else think something magical is going on, no, I’m just saying that I’ve seen it for myself — you can see it! — that this village has a soul. I’m telling you, you’d see it if you just looked, it’s just that no one looks anymore.

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Let’s take a look for ourselves, shall we? Between your house and mine, if you take the little path behind the houses rather than the road, you pass under the Breckendales’ grape vine. That thing makes me think of an old scaly sea creature — I must have seen a painting somewhere — a big ancient fish that’s been lured onto a hook and yanked out of the water, its thrashing body coiled and torqued as it fights for its life. I always wonder if one of the visiting fishermen to our lake won’t some day carry a beast like that out of our lake waters, right out of our village, and claim the creature as his own. But anyway, this sea creature, this grape vine at the Breckendales’, it’s clear to me that it ain’t giving up the ghost on the fishing line that reels it into the trees. That’s not its story at all. It just gets stronger in its struggle. Every year as it’s hauled farther up into the trees away from its roots, it grows in girth and sheds its scaly bark to litter the path and tell the tale of it conquering its would-be captor. I can’t imagine that the grape vine won’t eventually swallow the very line that reels it into the trees, swallow the trees themselves, swallow this village.

That’s what I see, I want to tell Jerry Randy, and I think he ought to walk around with pruners and a garbage bag and start cleaning up this village, rather than just walking around being a peeping Tom who thinks he’s a guru.

“The village has soul” my ass. Is that what you see? But I rarely see you walking the village, road or paths, so maybe you think differently than I do. Did you even know the Breckendales’ grape was growing out of control?

You know what else is growing out of control? Lilly-Anne Smarmouth. Hear me out: I swear to you that she missed two weeks of school — sat in her room with the door closed and the shades drawn, as far as I could tell. And I didn’t hear of anyone else being sick during that period, so it wasn’t a flu bug that kept her home alone in the village those two or three weeks, except when her mom bundled her up and took her in the car somewhere, just once. Now I’m just guessing, but I’ve seen her since then, and I think she’s growing a little bulge in the belly — got a bun in the oven, as they say. You mark my words: little Lilly-Anne ain’t so little anymore.

Jerry Randy says Lilly-Anne is a dreamer who believes in magic. I wonder if he thinks she’s dreaming now.

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This morning Mr. Bellis and I were taking our trash out at about the same time, just before sunrise. I feel like you never can tell when the truck will come barreling into the village, and I hate to miss a trash day, so you might have noticed I get my trash to the curb bright and early every week. Some folks put theirs out the night before, I know, but they should know better. Anyone who’s lived a week should know that you’ve got to wait until the morning to put your trash out, otherwise there’s no telling what critters will get into it, and the next thing you know your trash — well, not my trash, and not Mr. Bellis’s trash either, you’ll never see our trash blowing down the road because, like I say, we put it out in the morning. I always say I’ll know something’s up with Mr. Bellis if he doesn’t have his trash out on a Thursday morning. He and I are like clockwork in that way.

So he and I were outside this morning, before the sun was even trying to peer through the pines, but it was dawn enough and I’d had my beauty sleep and my coffee was already brewing, so I said a good hello to Mr. Bellis just to check in like neighbors do, and Mr. Bellis seemed a little funny to me. Not so funny that he wasn’t getting his trash out on time, like I said, so I guess it couldn’t have been anything too serious, but he’s normally such a proper gentleman with his, “Good morning, Ms. Marquetta, and how are you this fine day?” I swear he’s asked me that in a white-out blizzard before. I think the only time he hasn’t asked that question was the day his dog died, and he can certainly be forgiven for that. And he did ask me this morning; I think he said those very words, but there was something behind the words, something tied up in a secret room that he must have thought I wouldn’t be able to sense, but my gosh, I’ve known Mr. Bellis for twenty years. I knew something was wrong the day his dog died, and I know something was wrong today. He said the words, “Good morning, Ms. Marquetta, and how are you this fine day?” as he planted his palms on his lower back and straightened his spine as best he could after dropping a kitchen garbage bag outside his front gate, but I think he was looking toward where the sun was going to rise rather than looking at me. I wonder if he would have noticed if I didn’t respond to his question. I did, though. “Fine day, indeed, Mr. Bellis,” I said. “The sun is rising a minute earlier every day at this time of year. And my daughter tells me it’s setting two minutes later every day, so that’s three extra minutes of sunshine for us to enjoy, Mr. Bellis, every day.”

And that was enough for him to turn from the blush on the horizon. “Isn’t that something?” he responded, and I couldn’t actually tell if his eyes focused on mine before he turned back to his house. “You have a lovely day now, Ms. Marquetta. And please say hello to your daughter for me the next time you speak with her.”

It wasn’t a long conversation, I admit, and there’s nothing odd about that in itself, but I still felt there was something funny going on.

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I had a dream last night: I was a coyote, I think, could have been a wolf, I guess, but that sounds too dramatic. I think I felt like a coyote, and I was hunting a rabbit. The rabbit wasn’t far away, and it wasn’t running away, it was doing that nervous rabbit nibble — hop, nibble, sniff, and all the while it’s looking at me, so I guess it’s not so much that I’m hunting the rabbit, more like the rabbit and I are waiting for the hunt to begin. The rabbit is waiting for me to start the chase. I’m waiting. Watching that nervous hop, nibble, sniff, and when it next nibbles I lunge, and the chase is on, and I’m running through the woods with all I’ve got because all of a sudden I’ve become the rabbit.

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In late winter the setting sun shines at an angle between mine and the Breckendales’ home, beaming into the pines in front of my place. And when the Breckendale kids are out there playing between our homes on these sunny evenings, I can see the kids’ shadows jumping from tree trunk to tree trunk right in front of my house. I see it through the front window, like shadow puppetry on stage, and I’m the only audience member, and the kids don’t even know their shadows are on stage. I wonder who the puppet master is; it’s certainly not me. I can’t guess where the kids’ shadows will jump next, they’re just shadows criss-crossing the faces of the pines.

Sometimes I want to clap — in part for the kids, as a reflection of their joy, their laughter that I can hear even through my closed windows, and in part for me, too, their only audience member, my surprise at seeing their silhouettes leap between the trees — it’s a mesmerizing performance. But I don’t clap. Maybe it’s because I’m just sitting there alone at the front window. Who would I be clapping for? But it’s not just that: there’s something tragic in the performance, and one never knows how to react to staged tragedy. Should I sit here with my own silent tears? Should I clap away the tears and with a quiet “bravo” put the attention back on the performance itself rather than the tragedy of the show? I guess I’m becoming a sentimental old lady — lost childhood innocence and the sun setting on playtime and all that. But what a tableaux on those stately trees, lit up by the sun, with just the simplest silhouette of a child skipping across their surfaces, as if it’s just the most basic aspect of a human, captured by sunlight and projected for a brief moment. Is that what we are?

Maybe it’s closer to a religious experience than a tragic performance. Y’know Mr. Bellis calls that grove of trees The Cathedral for how the sun sends shafts of light beaming across the forest floor, the vaulted ceiling of heaven itself just visible through the top branches. He’s a religious man, Mr. Bellis. I’m not sure I see it the way he does, but I do like the notion of seeing The Cathedral out my front window. Who needs Paris when you live in our village?

Do you think it’s compatible to have a child-acted shadow-puppet tragedy in The Cathedral? Is that blasphemy? I can’t decide what to think about the whole thing.

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Did I ever tell you about the time I had the Smarmouths over for dinner? I guess I was feeling lonely, my own daughter having moved away and little Lilly-Anne — she really was little back then — kinda reminded me of Gretchen, or at least the closest I could get around here. Her mom and dad and Lilly-Anne, but I would have just invited Lilly-Anne if I could have, but that would have seemed weird, right? And I don’t want to be the weird lady in the village. So I don’t just invite the little girl who could keep me company since my little girl has gone away, no, I invite the whole family, but I make sure they know to bring Lilly-Anne along, I say I’ve got something special for her. And I do: I had been at a fundraiser at the school, a bake sale for something, and one of the high school cheerleaders — she was kinda chubby, and I felt kinda sorry for her — she was selling caramel-candied apples, and I thought they looked so precious all bundled up in cellophane with hearts on ’em, so I bought one, and that’s the special treat I had for Lilly-Anne. I thought, “that little girl needs something sweet.”

It was an interesting evening with the Smarmouths. The kid was nothing close to a smart-mouth, not like we joked when they moved in. No, that girl was so sweet, all “yes ma’ams” and “no thank yous.” At the time, I thought, “well they sure have taught this girl some manners.”

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Did you know that Jerry Randy writes poetry? I saw him pacing one day, must have been last summer, not too hot in the shade, so he was out, just pacing back and forth when I saw him as I was making my rounds. I watched him for a minute, not like he didn’t see me coming, but just watching cuz he looked like he didn’t mind, looked like he was rehearsing lines for a play or something, but I couldn’t imagine him finding a place to act, having dropped out of school and all, so I finally interrupted him and called out, “Jerry Randy, what are you doin?” And he told he was memorizing a poem. Can you believe it? And I said, “well, let’s hear it.” And he said, “well I’ve just finished writing it, so don’t judge too harshly,” and I about fell over — Jerry Randy writing poetry. But I’ll tell you it wasn’t bad. Maybe I don’t know poetry, but after he told me his poem I said, “that’s real good, Jerry Randy. Will you write me out a copy?” Here it is, listen to this:

Still summer day
Sizzling heat, haze
Cicadas scissor-kicking my skull

Still I don’t know
What it’s all for
Is the lake half empty, half full?

By day the sun glares
By night, starry stares
Bye-bye to another day lost.

On cannabis high
No reason to lie
Escaping this scene at a cost.

I wonder, I judge,
I trudge through the sludge,
Perhaps I admire the mire too much.

I wander, I fear,
I try not to sneer
At a world that seems so out of touch.

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I thought I understood my own daughter.  You see, Gretchen is a scientist, always has been, observing the world with big open eyes, tests a hypothesis and then tests another.  I’m pretty sure it’s my own daughter who taught me the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, test — she wants to see everything tested and she wants to see the proof.  She always wants to talk about “examining the evidence” and then she proceeds forward with her “best working hypothesis.”  That’s Gretchen.  Always marching forward with a hypothesis and a test, and a litany of facts.  And you’d better get out of her way if you’re still grasping onto an untested belief; she doesn’t have the patience for that.  Like religion: before yesterday, I would have said that Gretchen and religion were like oil and water.  I thought I understood.  I’m not saying I agreed, but I was used to agreeing with her so that we’d avoid arguments.

“Yes, yes, Gretta …”

“Mother, please call me Gretchen, the name you gave me at birth and at baptism and anytime you’re angry or pleased …”

“Yes, Gretchen, I’m sorry” — she always hated the very thing I loved, the pairing of Marquetta and Gretta; I thought we’d always be like a little rhyming couplet — “Yes, Gretchen, I’m sorry, I just wanted to say that you are right, dear: it’s hard to understand why someone might choose to believe a world promised to them versus a world right in front of them …”

“Hard to understand? They’re loonies, Mother.”

I really think she said, “They’re loonies.”  Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t agree with her. I just agree with her on the phone so we won’t argue.  But then yesterday she threw me for a loop when I tried to preempt her and stand up for science and she said, “Mother, it’s not like science isn’t its own religion.  They’re very similar, functionally speaking, in terms of establishing social norms to help a group of otherwise isolated individuals feel like they belong within a larger cohesive structure that has meaning and gives purpose to their lives.  Without science my colleagues would either subscribe to some alternative belief system or be wandering in the deserts of their own inscrutable minds, just like without religion your neighbor Mr. Bellis would be a lonely old man who would have drowned himself in the lake years ago.  We all need something to believe in.”

“But Mr. Bellis has … but, Gretta … don’t you …”

“Mother.”

“Gretchen, have you found religion?”

And she guffawed at that thought.

“I am not disavowing the logic of science, nor the elegance of well-designed experimentation, nor the benefits of curiosity over dogma and open minds over obedience.  I’m not abandoning my belief in the democratizing influence of a commitment to the scientific method, which, unlike religion, doesn’t privilege unprovable claims about communication with a god who seems to be most interested in playing power games with humans.  All I’m saying … I’m just saying that science is my chosen belief system.”

“Science is your religion, then?”

“Sure, Mom.”

I wish she would come home so we could have these conversations in person.  It could be like old times when we’d walk around the lake — Marquetta and Gretta — and she’d notice things on the shore that I hadn’t seen, or point out patterns in the pines ….

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I wonder if Lilly-Anne is still afraid of the dark.  When Gretchen used to baby-sit her, that little girl would tell wild stories, horror stories if you ask me, things she dreamed up about life right here in our village.  There’s the old tale about our lake monster, but everyone knows that’s just a fun fib we stole from Loch Ness.  Besides, our little lake is way too small for a dinosauric monster.  Well, Lilly-Anne took that one to a new level, and when she was just a child, too, barely reading her own picture books.  She said she’d seen the monster — in her dreams — and that’s when she’d go runnin to Gretchen straight out of a deep sleep, saying she’d seen the lake monster again, and Gretchen would ask her questions just to egg her on, and Lilly-Anne would describe what she’d seen.  Said it was more like an octopus than the Loch Ness monster, except she couldn’t count the number of arms there were so many, and that little bulbous head, and all but one time she said the eyes were closed but she could still feel the monster looking at her, through closed eyes — and this is Lilly-Anne saying this stuff, not my Gretta — and she said the monster was hungry, and she said it sat at the bottom of the lake licking its lips.  That doesn’t sound like a kid thing to say, and that’s what’s downright scary about Lilly-Anne’s horror stories — like they weren’t coming from a child’s head.

She had another nightmare, about a wolf.  She said it prowled around the village, open-jawed and slobbery — another hungry monster, I guess — with sharp teeth and deep-set eyes.  I think it was her fear of the wolf that made her turn on all the lights, but I reacted differently when Gretchen told me about this one: made me want to turn off the lights and jump in bed and go to sleep — I guess I was a little bit afraid, too, we just reacted differently, her being a little girl and me knowing that a night’s sleep would put an end to such silly fears.  But her horror stories really got to me for some reason.  She said the bats that would swoop around the Lukas’s kerosene lantern were a mom and pop — well, she said it funnier than that: she said they were our mom and pop, I remember.  And what made it scary was this little child’s seriousness when she would say that we need those bats to watch over us.  There was a plea to her voice that I haven’t forgotten, and to this day I take special care each year to watch for the return of those bats.  I admit I’d be scared if they didn’t show up.  Kinda funny how fear can build on itself that way.

Maybe, in fact, that’s what got me to say those funny things about the grape vine, the Breckendales’ grape vine, which I swear to you is its own sea creature — that’s it, it’s a hungry monster.  Now that I think about it, I remember Lilly-Anne refusing to walk that path, too scared.  I guess it’s kinda shady, but that’s not it: it’s the damn grape vines, out of control; I can see how a child would think they’d want to grab her and haul her into the pines.  I really ought to tell Jerry Randy to take his pruners back there; he’d do it; I bet he’d do it by cover of darkness and the Breckendales would be none the wiser, and we’d all be better off.

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It looks like you’re reading.

What are you reading?

I’ll tell you a story if you want a story.  You want a love story or a horror story?  I’ll give you both, in one story.  It’s not too much of either, though, in case the horror makes you squeamish or the traditional ol’ love story is too sappy for you, no, this is right in the middle, right in the sweet spot, and you get to decide whether it’s a love story or a horror story.  Reader’s choice.  Here it is:

She was seventeen.  Her sister was twelve; goin’ on twenty-one, though.  They didn’t exactly get along, not yet, not at this point in the story.  You with me?  The older sister’s kind of bookish, real shy, doesn’t talk much, doesn’t break the rules, a good kid.  Her sister — the younger one — is a little more wild, no, a lot more wild.  It’s like the five-years younger sister is five years older.  Ages seventeen and twelve.  And the twelve-year old is already drinking, she’s tried cigarettes a few times, and she’s just a kid.  The seventeen-year old is much more responsible but, somehow, much more childish, like she’d never dare disobey, yeah, she’s just too obedient.  It’s not that she doesn’t have wild desires — she’s seventeen — she has her crush, for example, and, truth be told, her fantasies about her crush, but of course she never talks to him or anything.  And yet this guy is the linchpin of the story, cuz whereas the older sister has her secret crush, the younger sister is caught sucking face with her crush at the playground; not just any crush — the same boy her sister is in love with!

The younger, face-sucking sister gets in trouble, but she’s sort of a bad-ass, right?  And she gets a name for herself.  And the guys think she’s hot in her little rebellious attitude.  But here’s the thing: she sees that her older sister actually has a tender crush on that guy, so the younger sister convinces the dude that he should ask the older sister on a date.  It’s weird now that I say it out loud, but it seemed sweet at the time.  So, the dude asks the older shy girl on a date, and they actually have an awesome time and go on a few awesome dates, until … the sister sees the dude sucking face with her sister, again, this time at their own house!  And the older sister, this shy bookish girl, gets in a rage and yells at her own sister — not at the boy, of course, but at her own little sister — “I hope you die.”

That’s right.  The younger sister dies that very night.

I know.

And the older sister — please excuse me — can’t forgive herself.

Years later, she names her daughter after her dead sister.

What is it in the end?  A love story?  Or a horror story?

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On a lighter note, I have another poem to share with you.  Don’t go telling everybody, but I think it’s just sweet: Mr. Bellis wrote this one out for me on  my last birthday, said it was by one of his favorite poets.  It’s called “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Sounds pretty, don’t you think?  I don’t worry that Mr. Bellis is attracted to me — I think it’s a love poem to God, not to me, and there’s all sorts of stuff to ensure that I’m not too flattered: the references to a cow and moles on a trout — the finches’ wing is nice, though — and things “strange” and “freckled” … well, if he’s referencing me then there’s no fear of too much attraction.  If anything, I’m just his sweet and sour neighbor.  Sweet of him to remember me, that’s all.  And I like the poem.

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You’ve heard my version of how this village is like a fish bowl, but have you heard Lilly-Anne’s?  You’d think it was a fish bowl of cannibal piranhas in her version.  I shouldn’t hold her accountable to her childhood self, though.  I’m sure she’s grown up since then.  A person couldn’t make it as an adult fearing all the things she feared as a kid.  She said the Lukas’s place is like the empty castle figurine in the fish bowl, y’know, the fishies swim around and through that little figurine, and maybe there’s a pirate treasure chest there that has a lid that pops open and a skeleton pops out — Lilly-Anne was afraid of that somehow happening in our village, deathly afraid of what she said was a skeleton at the Lukas’s castle.  Yet she played like she was a fish all the time — maybe just comes from living on the lake — it was the devil for Gretchen to get her to talk like a human some afternoons, she’d just pucker her lips like a fish and swim around the house, silent, puckering those lips but otherwise dead to the world, vacant-eyed, swimming her arms in front of her as she moved haphazardly around the house.  Gretchen told me about it, then I saw it for myself, and when I finally got her to stop acting like a fish — you can’t slap or shake a child that’s not your own, you know — she closed her eyes and I thought she was going to cry, but she said, “We’re all fish.  Finnish fish,” she said, and then she started to chant, “Finnish fish.  Finnish fish.  Finnish fish.”  Good lord.  Good thing I only had one child.  I don’t think I’d have had the patience for more than one kiddo.

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I’ll admit there are some things I like about Jerry Randy, but if he were my kid I’d tell him to get a job.  He’d have a job.  His ol’ man, Randy, didn’t teach Jerry Randy to work, didn’t teach him anything, as far as I can see.  I don’t even know for sure: is ol’ man Randy still living at the house?  Tell me something else: who’s paying the bills over there?  I seen they almost run out of wood this winter, and the only one I ever see bringin’ it in is Jerry Randy.  Is he there alone?  Maybe that’s why he walks around so much — that boy’s lonely — I always thought he was gettin’ out of the house to get away from his ol’ man — I’ll betcha it smells like a homeless shelter in that house — but I guess maybe he’s walkin’ about just trying to see people, to talk with people, y’know, like a real human, not like the lost boy he is, poor lonely kid.  Can you imagine your own father leaving you all alone to fend for yourself?  Gawd.  But I don’t know who that boy expects to meet walkin’ around by cover of darkness, dead of the night, you know he’s out there, prowling, lurking, stalking.  Is that what you think?  Or do you think he’s just a lonely kid shakin’ off the blues with a midnight stroll through the village?  Jerry Randy.  Ol’ man Randy never should have had a kid, but there you have it.  Jerry Randy.  Good Lord.  He’s a good kid, though, I say, given where he’s comin’ from.  And he’s a poet, too.  And I’ve made up my mind I’m gonna ask him about his poetry every time I see him.  “Tell me a poem,” I’ll say.  Jerry Randy, Poet Laureate of our lake village.

Here, let me read you something.  It’s a poem I wrote.  That’s right.  This here is the best I can do.  I ain’t ashamed, I’m just sayin’ this is what I’ve got:

A girl
A woman.
Afraid
Afraid not
That this is the whole world
But this is
As is said
As good as it gets

Did you see that movie?  Jack Nicholson.  Loved it.  And what’s her face?  Great movie.  And Jack Nicholson leans in and says, “You make me wanna be a better man,” and I’m leaning in and cryin’ and — well, I wrote more, but that’s it for now.  Let’s talk about something else.

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It was a wolf-sized coyote, that’s what she decided.  Sometimes you couldn’t tell–was it the runt of a wolf pack, or was it the alpha coyote–but this one, she decided, was the alpha coyote, wolf-sized, robust and meaty, maybe not the oldest and wisest, as it just ran into the headlight beam of her dream, sprinting out of the darkness, a healthy wolf-sized coyote that didn’t think it would ever die, sprinting and strong, and ruthless, and careless, and wild.  Willing to do anything to win, that’s what the sprinting glimpse of a wolf-coyote looked like in her dream.  Maybe not the oldest and the wisest, she was saying to herself, telling herself a story, but the strongest….  Until she died.  And with that thought she slammed on the brakes of her dream, and the wolf-coyote and everything else she was subconsciously thinking vanished into the darkness.  She was awake.  I saw it all through her window.

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We’re in this together, I feel like, you and I.  Maybe the whole village, sure, it matters to everyone, but I feel like you and I see eye to eye.  We could be the rhyming couplets of a poem, we complete each other’s sentences, we’re the yin and the yang — aren’t we all that?

Are we in balance or are we in opposition, though, you know?  I mean, do we complete each other in a good warm-fuzzy way — “you make me wanna be a better woman,” right? — or is it opposites attracting here, good cop bad cop?  Are we two peas in a pod, or are we peas and carrots?  We know we’re on the same plate.  We know that.  But what’s it gonna be?  You need to decide who you’re going to trust.

Listen, I’ll tell you how I see it.  Lilly-Anne is pregnant, and Jerry Randy’s not the sperm-donor, and Mr. Bellis — well, listen, it’s clear to say we don’t know who the father is, he’s not from our village, I’ll promise you that, it could be some punk from the high school, but I think something different, and I’m gonna tell you why: immaculate conception.  That’s right.  Hear me out, cuz I ain’t crazy.  Lilly-Anne is the daughter everyone wanted.  She’s the sister everyone would want.  That girl is pure, I’m telling you.  And nothing but holy matrimony could get her pregnant.  Child of God.  From the womb of the pure.  And I’ll tell you something else: she’s gonna be the mother everyone wants.  Holy Mother, Lilly-Anne — look out, there’s a new trinity in town.  Our village is gonna have a savior!

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The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

That’s another one from Mr. Bellis’s poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he gave that one to Lilly-Anne around the time I said she stayed home from school for a couple weeks, that’s how you know he’s not attracted to me, he’s giving away poems to all the girls, he’s just an old man trying to make some last impressions.  But that poem, for Lilly-Anne, at the same time I’m proposing she was impregnated by God … do you think Mr. Bellis thinks the same thing I do: immaculate conception?  Think about it: a poem about “God’s Grandeur.”  And you know what I like about it — that Mr. Bellis is a clever man, or maybe it’s Mr. Hopkins who’s the clever one — what I like about it as a gift for Lilly-Anne at that moment in time, is I like how the poem seems to start off sad — powerful, godly stuff, but dark: “toil” and “blood,” and “smudge” and “smell” — but that last part’s optimistic, don’t you think?  Morning light and “bright wings.”  And I bet that’s how kind Mr. Bellis wanted pure Lilly-Anne to feel at a confusing moment — her getting pregnant and all — like he’s saying to her through the poem, “this might seem dark, but it’s all morning light and ‘bright wings’ in the end.”  I hope he’s right.

What would that be like to be the mother of God?  Gawd Almighty.  I mean, really.  What are we doin’ sittin’ here when this could really be happening in our village?  What should we be doin’?  Praying?  Confessing?  Writing our own poetry?

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It happens to everyone around here eventually, at some point, even though you’ve been told not to walk through the village alone at night, or maybe in some cases because you’ve been told not to do it, everyone finds themselves, sooner or later, walking through the village, alone, at night, maybe moonlight, maybe not, the details are a little different for everyone, but the basic scenario of being out there by yourself — for some people it’s on the lake, for some it’s in the pines, for some it’s probably right under the Breckendales’ grape vine, wherever — you encounter whatever beast you fear the most.

What is it for you?  Can I ask that?  I feel like maybe it’s the wolf for you.  Or is it our Loch Ness?  The skeleton in the Lukas’s castle?  There are others.  Plenty of others.

It happened to me.  Of course it happened to me; I’ve lived here all my life, haven’t I?  It was summertime.  Hot.  And I couldn’t sleep.  Now that I think about it, I felt like the lake was calling to me.  It’s like I’m lying there in bed between dream and sleep, and every thought, whether it’s subconscious or unconscious or my wide-awake thoughts, I’m not in control anymore and my thoughts are all about the lake, like I’ve got to get to the lake, or I’ve got to solve something at the lake or I forgot something at the lake, you know how it is in dreams when you can’t focus exactly but there’s a feeling, some nagging feeling that pulls you, dreamlike, to certain locations or certain images, and you can’t shake yourself up to identify exactly what’s going on, it’s just an inescapable feeling.  And finally I realize, well, I’m not asleep, and I’m not sleeping in this frame of mind.  So I get up out of bed.  Now you know and I know that I’m not supposed to go walking through the village alone at night — we’ve heard enough stories, at our age — but of course I fooled myself by coming up with some reasons why it’d be okay this time: first of all it was hot, almost felt more like daytime than the day, and the full moon was up so I could see the paths well lit from my window, nothing scary about that, just like walking in the daytime, and the moonlight did look so enchanting on the lake, such a still, perfect night, and it was summer, too, and on such a beautiful summer night there’s always folks from outside the village who want to come visit the lake, skinny-dipping or rock-skipping or fishing or what-have-you, so, frankly, I didn’t think I’d be alone.  So I left the house for a walk-about around the lake, just wearin’ a t-shirt it’s so warm.

The air is thick, and still, and it turns out there is no one else out there, no one that I can see anyway, but there’s nothing more beautiful than a lake by moonlight, so I keep walking, and even though I know I’m awake it’s kind of dreamlike.  My feet keep following each other until I’m at the cove at the west end of the lake, and I’m lookin’ at my own moon-shadow in the placid lake water, waveless, I can see the reflection of the stars in the sky in the water at my feet and surrounding my moon-shadow.  And as I’m looking at the starry reflection in the lake, trying to identify constellations, something happens: out of the darkness and among the pin-pricks of light in the lake reflection, a moon-shadow looms up behind me, I see it in the water, and I tell you it’s a wolf.  My breath catches in my throat, and I briefly wonder if I can be so still that the wolf doesn’t know I’m there, but then I swear to you that I smell wolf breath.  It is blood and dirt; it smells like death — flesh decomposing or being digested.  I have the distinct notion of feeling sinful as I breathe it in, the wolf’s breath, my breath.  And I realize in a moment of lucidity that I am encountering my deepest fear, the blood-thirsty wolf  monster, and, hear this, I realize that it’s merely a reflection of me, as I can see in the water right in front of me and smell in my own nostrils — I am the wolf monster; I am the very thing I fear the most.

But I talk too much about myself.  How about you?  I know you.  Your deepest fear is not some childish boogey-monster.  No, yours is something real, something too real, something like cancer, or like watching yourself go crazy and not being able to stop it, or becoming an alcoholic.  Or maybe getting pulled over by the police and locked up for the rest of your life, innocent but imprisoned.  “The capricious nature of the state” — I heard that phrase once and it stuck with me, doesn’t it sound just awful, not sure exactly what it means, though, is the capricious one the bratty younger sibling or the bullying older sibling? — anyway, no, you’re not the type to worry as much about the police and the government as you are to worry about a personal catastrophe — personal over the political, do I have you pegged right? — so what’s your deep-down fear?  Depression?  Meaninglessness?  Loneliness?  I’d tell you not to walk around our village by yourself at night, but it happens to everybody, eventually, somehow you end up out there, alone, although most all the time in our village someone is watching you, someone’s got your back, really, cuz when they’re not watching, when you end up out there alone, that’s when you’ll encounter your fear.

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The way she said it to me was something like, “Well, I write a little poetry myself,” or, “you’re not the only poet athlete of the village,” or something like that, and she handed me this poem, didn’t say it out loud, just put it in my palm all folded up and then she walked away.

Well, here’s her poem:

A girl
A woman.
Afraid
Afraid not
That this is the whole world
But this is
As is said
As good as it gets.

A rabbit
on the run
in a den
of no escape.
Afraid
Afraid not
That it is the hunted
But that it has
As is said
Become the hunter.

A mom
A monster.
Afraid
Afraid not
That it has done wrong
But that it can’t
Do right.

The only thing is, I think she got it wrong: isn’t it the hunter who becomes the hunted?

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Eventually I got pretty curious about her, and when I’d be out walking I’d be sure to look in on her. You know how it is … do you? Maybe you don’t, so … well, I just wanted to see what made her tick. She talks a lot, but there was something she wasn’t saying, and I don’t know if … well, I didn’t know if I wanted to know, but I’m not gonna say I wasn’t curious, cuz I was. She seems like she’s got issues, you know? But, like, she seems deep. Well, I know she just kind of babbles on, but if you listen … or, I guess I just thought there was something more to her. That’s all. I guess it was just a feeling.

So, I watched.

When she gets ready for bed she does a whole ritual of facial rubs, some of ‘em must be getting the gunk off her face cuz she kind of pulls at her skin with some little cloths or pads that she then holds between two fingers at a full-arm’s distance from her body before tossing them in the trash. But she also spreads new gunk on—I can’t keep track of which bottle is used for what, in what order, I don’t care, I’m just fascinated that she spends that much time in front of a mirror each night. I wonder if she gets tired of her face.

And she reads in bed. I can’t see much at that point, as her bedroom shades are drawn, but I can see that she wears a long robe when she turns on a little domed lamp with a pull chain on her bedside table, and she picks up her pillow with both hands and, as far as I can see, every night she pats the pillow twice on the sides and three times at the top and bottom—you can come with me some time if you want to; it’s fascinating to watch people repeat the same actions every day of their lives—and it looks like she puts on reading glasses, and, then, I watch her silhouette as she reads.

She’s slow. But sometimes I watch for a while. Sometimes … well, I’ve learned to wait. There’s always something to see if you wait long enough. There’s always something to think about, anyway, while you’re waiting. When you wait, does your mind go to the past or to the future? I just ask because … I mean, I wanna say that Ms. Marquetta … it’s not like I watch every night, so I’m not sure, but another thing … she seems to cry a lot. A lot, yeah. I don’t know exactly what that’s about but, yeah, she’s got issues, I guess. I mean, we all have issues, I know that. I mean, we do, right? Do you? Do you? We don’t have to … I shouldn’t have even been saying this about Ms. Marquetta, but that’s all: she cries, no big deal. It seems like she cries a lot to me, but what do I know? Well, I’ve got my theories, sure, you would too if you watched this village like I do.

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Did I tell you what I’ve been reading lately? The Bible, believe it or not, The Holy Bible. This whole immaculate conception thing got me thinking, and of course I could read something about conception itself, the science of it – the birds and the bees, you know; gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve thought of any of that – or of course I could ask Gretchen about that, but she’d wonder what I’m up to, and there’s no way I’m telling my Gretchen that I think little Lilly-Anne – little Lilly-Anne who she babysat for – anyway, right now my theory is just between you and me. I didn’t tell Mr. Bellis, even though I think he might be inclined to agree with me, like I said, and I might tell him, just haven’t yet, so this is just our theory for now.

So, anyway, I’ve been reading the Bible, figure I’d get the story from the source. I don’t know of any other immaculate conception besides Jesus, do you? Well then. But truth be told I didn’t know exactly where to look, or even what I was looking for, really, just a good story, I guess – no, more than that: I want to know … I want to know what’s going on, and I want to know what I should do about it. Who’s gonna tell me that? Are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John gonna tell me what to do when our neighbor is pregnant with the child of God? Well, it’s not really a how-to-book, the Bible, but I don’t know where else to look.

Y’know one thing that concerns me as I’ve been reading about the birth of Jesus? I started with the Book of Matthew, and the way I read it the angels keep appearing to Joseph. Where’s Mary in all this? She’s busy bearing God Almighty – or his son … I’m not sure how the Trinity all works out – but she’s got the baby in her belly – The Baby – and King Herod and his men are following the stars and coming for them, coming after them, and she hasn’t even got a good place to sleep, and she’s on the run, and she’s pregnant! I know how that is, being pregnant, believe me I haven’t forgotten that. So she’s running off on a donkey, and all the time God has impregnated this innocent girl the angels are appearing to Joseph, telling him what to do. Well, who’s talking to Mary, Mother Mary? I suppose there are all sorts of men around who are willing to tell her what to do, but why not the angels directly? Why don’t they talk to her? Why don’t the men listen to her? How come we never hear from Mary? This is the Mother of God we’re talking about!

Anyway, that’s what the Gospel of Matthew says, but it’s not Mary I’m really concerned about here: it’s Lilly-Anne. Who is her Joseph, for one? Who is gonna be hearing the angel messages and helping protect her and her baby? That could be an important baby! and maybe we all ought to be reading the Bible … or some how-to book, whatever you can get your hands on.

Do you talk to God? Do angels ever talk to you? I’m serious. If we’ve got God’s child in utero in our village then we’d better start preparing. If anybody around here had been talking to God, I would have thought it might have been Lilly-Anne herself. I’ve told you she’s a blessed child. But like I also said, she had some crazy thoughts as a kid – kinda dark; scary, really, and I didn’t want to believe in them, but what if she was talking to God the whole time? Angels or demons, who knows what kind of story this is gonna be? It all depends on who’s talking, and who’s listening. I don’t know who’s talking to who out there in the village – I just know you and I are talking, that I know – but I want to be on the side of the angels, if that’s the decision I have to make. But how do you know? Who is hearing the angels around here?

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Y’know what she said to me the other day? Yeah, it was after you’d been sick, and I see her occasionally cuz we both go out walking, and there’s just not that many places to go, so we see each other here or there, and she’s nice and all, and, like you, she encourages me in my poetry, and, like I said, she even showed me a poem of hers and that’s when I got all curious, so yeah, I keep an eye on her, and maybe she knows, maybe she likes to be watched, maybe it’s comforting, because if you’re watched then you’re not alone, and so yeah, she likes to talk, and the other day after you’d been out sick, she asked me if I thought you were pregnant … well, no, that’s not really it. She said something a little more audacious and kinda pretended to demand that I tell her if I’d gotten you pregnant, like demanded it so that I almost felt like I had to defend myself, I mean I felt all guilty, she was so demanding, saying, like, with her finger in my chest, like a pretend whisper, “Did you get that girl pregnant?” And at first I couldn’t think what she was talking about, but she gestured to your house, and she’s pointing her finger in my chest and giving me the stink eye as if she knows something. And I want to tell her that, no, of course I didn’t get you pregnant, but I also think it’s none of her business, nosy old lady, but she’s so demanding that I get nervous and just say, “no, no, no,” like trying to get her to leave me alone, and she finally looks convinced, and her face totally changes, and she takes her finger away from my chest and puts her hands in her armpits, like to warm them up, and she gets kind of sheepish, and she says something like, “Well then.” And she goes so immediately back to being nice Ms. Marquetta … like we’re best buds, but there’s kind of a twinkle in her eye, like we share a secret now, even though the only thing we share is the knowledge that she’s a little batty … plenty nice most of the time, but a little wacko. So, I don’t know what she thinks now. I just wanted her to leave me alone when she was acting all weird and not nice.

But, like I said, there’s some depth there, don’t you think? I’m not saying I want some old lady yelling at me and saying you’re pregnant, I’m just saying it seems like there’s something to her. Is it that she’s not all there, or is it that she knows something the rest of us don’t know? You never know with someone like that, unless you delve real deep, but then if it’s a swamp in there then it’s hard to get out and you wished you’d never gone in. Ms. Marquetta…. I wonder what she’s hiding. Or what she’s hiding from.

I’ll tell you my theory. I see her as a woman on the run, but with nowhere to go. She’s on a hamster wheel, but she doesn’t see that she could step off the wheel. She’s so frantic about this and that, just all amped up, like she has to perform every day. But for who? For us? No way; who needs it? She’s performing for herself—I see it when she sits at the mirror doin’ all that face wiping, just lookin’ at her own face for hours until she can’t tell which mask is the real one. And she thinks she has to keep runnin’ on that wheel … even in her dreams, like a dog in its sleep I see her running through her dreams. When’s she gonna give it a rest? Why’s she making trouble, assuming you’re pregnant? What is it to her if you stay out of school a few days, and why can’t she leave it alone? Well … she can’t. I don’t know what would make her stop running from herself, what would get her to step off the wheel, look around without fearing she’s gonna fall on her face like she must feel on that wheel. Relax, woman. Dream a bit. Imagine your future. Listen to your subconscious. Let the soul of the village speak to you.

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Swim, sister,
in a fantasy fish bowl
where the only one
watching you
swim in circles
is you.
Swim for the
swim of it, princess,
past patterns in the pines,
skeletons in the castle,
through the lake of your dreams.
Swim to be swimming
because there is plenty of time
to drown
later.

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Y’know what bothers me? I still find dog shit in my yard. After putting up with other people’s dogs’ shit for so many years, after chasing down my neighbors to tell them, “Hey, I’m your neighbor, please don’t let your dog shit in my yard,” I still have to do it. Well, I can’t chase anyone anymore, but I mean I still have to deal with other people’s dogs’ shit in my yard, at my age, after all these years. You’d think everyone in our village would know each other and respect each other enough to not let their dogs shit in each other’s yards. I mean, when will this shit end?

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Spring time. Can you feel that in the air? You should get out there more, Lilly-Anne. It’d be good for you. It’s not so scary out there…. Here, let me tell you what I saw last night.

It was above freezing, kinda balmy. Everything was so still, it was all scent, the Earth coming alive after winter’s hibernations and contemplations—so much time and so much cold and so much darkness in winter, and your thoughts swimming slowly around each other like drugged fish in the depths of a cold murky lake, slowly slowly circling as the frozen water stretches toward them, isolating your slow fish thoughts until they’re the only thing left in a cold pool of freezing water, that’s winter…and now comes spring.

Feel it with me, the way you don’t need thoughts anymore, because all is action, the Earth springing up out of the Earth, life and freshness, birth and growth. Everything waking up, unfurling even at night, spring is unfolding and the Earth is getting out of its head, out of its cave of shadows—that’s what my home feels like to me sometimes, a cave of shadows…and then spring comes.

So I wanted to tell you what I saw last night, so you’d know it’s not so scary out there: a skunk! Simple, scampering, black and white, didn’t look like it had a care in the world, didn’t look like it cared if I was there at all. The first skunk of the season, out of its winter den and off to explore the world….

Listen, Lilly-Anne, this year I’m going to spend more time out of the village. It’s too cramped here. I want to be around people, around life. Not just life on the lake—birds migrating through the pines, the return of the bats, a skunk—but human life, culture and concerts, philosophy and political action and poetry and rock and roll. I like this place, our village, but I think I need more. The skunk just makes it look black and white right now: I need to explore more.

But that wasn’t the point. The point is, Lilly-Anne, I don’t think the world is as scary as you think it is. There are monsters, sure, but there are also heroes…and there are skunks…which are pretty cool to see scampering along the snow banks, so I’m just saying you should get outside this spring. I’m gonna be splitting from this village, and you should do some exploring, too.

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Another night I was walkin’ around the lake—been meaning to tell you about this—and there was no moon, and the stars were bright, and the lake was breathing, pulsing, with starlight bouncing off the surface and resounding—as sound, I mean, literally—as little ploops of air bubbles and a beaver’s tail slap and the oh-so-quiet lapping of a light night wave on the shore … the lake is waking up. And our little Loch Ness monster—now don’t tell me that scares you, Lilly-Anne; the lake monster is just a story; it’s not gonna cause any … I mean, a story is just … Lilly-Anne, it’s just a story. But the story makes it more exciting, makes the idea of the lake coming alive in spring something that’s easier to feel and imagine. Maybe a little frightening, too, I can see that, but what if we just tell ourselves it’s not scary, what if we just tell ourselves it’s cool? Imagine, Lilly-Anne, a peaceful creature of the lake, it’s been napping all winter at the bottom of the lake, curled up on itself, just dreaming sweet dreams, even a little smile on its face if creatures like that can smile. And what’s it been dreaming? Oh, I don’t know, imagine the soft fur of a rabbit, or I guess it doesn’t know rabbits because it lives in the lake, so maybe it’s dreaming something peaceful like a pretty little fish that glides through the water, effortlessly, maybe even purposelessly, the swimming being reason itself for its pretty little existence … or maybe a school of fish, you know how they get together in tight groups, darting this way and that way, like they’re a single entity with a single group mind, all those little fish somehow bunched together and moving in synchronicity, thinking in synchronicity (if you can call it thinking), creating their reality through sacrificing their individuality to this beautiful group entity, and it is beautiful, imagine it is, all of them swimming together, thinking together, like those flocks of starlings you see over the lake sometimes, they call them “murmurations,” which I love, and they swim through the sky like fast-changing dark clouds, natural, beautiful, sufficient …. That’s what the lake monster—not a monster, a creature: the creature of the lake, the lady of the lake—that’s what she’s been dreaming. Imagine it. It’s not scary, right? Imagine you’re her, Lilly-Anne, the lady of the lake, waking up in springtime, after a winter of seeing beautiful things in your dreams, now it’s time to wake up and live your dreams.

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I saw her face in the butter, I mean I think I saw her face in the butter, I mean … I thought I had seen her face in the butter – Lilly-Anne’s; Lilly-Anne’s! – and then I thought I was crazy, but I’m not crazy. Okay, so the Virgin Mary’s face has been seen in all sorts of kooky places, I mean people have claimed they’ve seen her face, I know, I know, I mean what are they even seeing? I mean, first of all, who knows what Mary looked like? So I know, there’s a whole crazy culture of seeing her face or her shroud or her shape, I don’t know, the point is I know those stories are out there, and I know that I know those stories are out there so, sure, my knowledge of the stories is affecting even the idea – or it’s planting the idea, fine – that I could see a face in a melting pat of butter on my hotcakes. But here’s the difference: I know that people would think I’m crazy if I told them I saw a face in the butter, so doesn’t that make me more credit … more … trustworthy? I mean, I know how this sounds, so for me to still say it out loud, to still believe it, to still dare tell it, doesn’t that prove … or at least, doesn’t it seem more … ? No, fine, but it’s more than that, I mean it’s something else: I know what Lilly-Anne looks like, don’t I? So when I tell you I saw her face in the melting butter I’m not just making up a face: I’m seeing … I’m telling you, I think – yes, I think – I saw Lilly-Anne’s face on top of my hotcakes, as I poured syrup over the stack, there she was, just like the Virgin, I mean, just like other people talk about seeing the Virgin Mary in a puddle or a shadow, or a stain, there she was: Lilly-Anne, calm, serene, and before I could help it she was all covered with syrup and melting into something else. Butter. But she was there. What do you make of that? If it’s not a sign then I don’t know what is. Imagine: Lilly-Anne appearing in visions. Of course it will start right here in our village. Here she is, after all, the next Virgin Mother. Imagine: she used to spend afternoons right here in my house. What is Gretchen going to say? I really should tell Mr. Bellis, don’t you think, or talk to him about it, I mean, because, like I said, maybe he already knows. Who knows?! Well, now you know.

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I called my Gretta. I chickened out, though. I didn’t tell her about Lilly-Anne. But do you know why? Because she started talking science to me again, and I lost my nerve. Well first she offended me a little bit by asking if I was drinking enough water – she’s my daughter, not my doctor – but I think she could tell I was a little miffed so she told me it’s just that she’d been reading a lot about the human body lately, and she was just reminded that the human body is 60-70% water – 60-70%, can you imagine? – and then I think she could tell I didn’t believe her and so I think she got a little miffed, and the whole conversation was going sour. But, come on! The human body can’t be 60-70% water or we’d be in puddles on the floor, draining through the floorboards and down through the soil until we’d be pouring into the lake.

Or at least that’s what I thought at first. And then, do you know, just last night, I was telling this to Jerry Randy, and he said,

And you know what else? They say the surface of the Earth is 71% water. And you know what else, Ms. Marquetta? There’s theories that the Earth itself is a big organism, breathing and everything. I don’t know what to believe, but if we’re like 70% water, and the Earth is like 70% water, are we, like, little Earths, or is the Earth like a big human? I think this is real cool cuz it fits into my whole theory about the soul of our village…

And I stopped him right there cuz I’ve heard about the soul and I think it’s nonsense, and I wanted to talk about how this business about us all being water was nonsense, too, so I said it:

“If we’s all water, how come we’re not pouring into the lake?”

Exactly right, Ms. Marquetta. There’s something holding us together.

“Jerry Randy, are you workin’ on a poem here, or are you trying to make some sense?”

No, Ms. Marquetta, it makes sense, like Mr. Bellis said that Emerson said: like the over-soul, we pour into the lake, and we also drink in the lake, like one big single circulating thing, and the whole is part of us and we are part of the whole soul…

But I tell you I’d had enough confusion already to hear about the soul again, so I basically stopped listening. I mean, come on. We can’t be pools of walking water – we’ve got bones and muscles, a brain, a heart – and I don’t know about Jerry Randy saying the Earth is 70% water, what do I know? I’m stuck here in our little village so I haven’t seen enough of the world to know. And I don’t care: 70%, 7%, 99%, I don’t care. It makes no difference to me. I’m here, walking and talking, and I’m not water. Besides, if we were so much water, no one would ever drown.

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I watched her dream again. She was swimming. Now I don’t think Ms. Marquetta actually swims, but there she was in her dream, immersed in the water like a beautiful graceful little fish, swishing her tail, playful and graceful, like she felt like she was younger than she really ever remembered being. Is this what childlike grace had felt like? she almost asked herself in the dream, but she was busy swimming. Like never before, and yet like it was the most natural thing, she felt at home in the water, a little fish in a big lake….

And then, I swear to you, just like we were talking about the other day when I was telling you about not being frightened of the lake monster story—our lady of the lake, I mean—and instead imagining one of those schools of silver fish, something beautiful….

And just like that, in her dream she transforms from a single graceful fish to the whole school of fish, dreamlike, y’know? You know how you’re one thing one moment in a dream, and then you’re another, just like that, and you don’t even think it’s weird until you’re retelling your dream? But I’m watching, and there she goes, from a single fish to a school of fish, like she’d never been anything else but this beautiful bunch of synchronized fish, or…like she could go back to being a single fish in an instant, a flash. And she’s flashing through the water now, a great school of fish, silver fish, all light and motion as she flashes through the sunlight that filters through the water, flashing left and right, the evasive maneuvers you see in a documentary as the school…or…no, she’s just playing, just flashing for fun, like she is all of these single fish at once, greater than herself, all of these fish flying through the water together as a single school of fish acting larger than themselves so that she can play with something larger than each individual fish, and, yes, it’s weird but I saw it in her dream just like we were talking about it the other day, the thing she’s playing with, the larger creature…it’s the lady of the lake.

And there she goes again in her dream, she’s transformed again, as quick as a thought, from the school of fish to the lady of the lake, and she’s so graceful, she can feel it in her dream, she’s so magnificent, as smooth as the water itself until, boom, she becomes the water.

And Ms. Marquetta, no longer just Ms. Marquetta in her dream, she feels so peaceful, she is the fish, she is the water, she is the lady of the lake and she is the lake itself. She is, as is said, at one with everything, at peace with the universe.

When I watch her dream like that, it makes me think she believes my theory about the soul of the village.

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“The Fish” by Mary Oliver

“The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain,
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.”

 

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So, I’m thinking maybe the best way to explain the village soul is with another story, this amazing experience I had on the lake last year.

I was sitting on the shore, thinking about something, sure, don’t remember what, cuz I was probably trying to meditate or something, be mindless, you know? And out of the blue blurry unfocused sky an osprey comes diving into my field of vision so that I’m immediately mindful and focused, cuz it’s a real osprey diving out of the sky. It’s got those sharp elbowed wings and eyes that can turn you to stone and its talons are stretched out in front of it as it crashes briefly with the water. It’s part underwater and it’s right in front of me. And it’s got its fish.

They say osprey have, like, a 70% kill success rate when they dive. Amazing.

Right in front of my face, like a TV show, it dives for this fish and it’s got it! And as it flies up off the lake it does a little shimmy like a dog and water comes shaking off it as it flies away. With its fish. And you can see this big bird orient this fish in its giant talons so that the whole thing—the whole package, bird and fish—is aerodynamic as it flies off, a hungry cold-eyed predator and its wide-eyed prey.

Who knows who stocked the lake with fish, but there goes one—a meal for a sea-hawk—and I’m sitting there thinking how the lake is a source of food for the osprey, and I’m thinking about how it’s our resource, too, our drinking water, y’know, and we totally depend on it, right? And I want to draw one of those cool diagrams they do in school about the cycle of the water, falling down from the clouds as rain, and going from mountain streams to lakes to rivers and eventually to the ocean. But it gets confusing because there’s no stream going into our lake. It’s just the water coming up from the spring in the middle of the lake, that last spot to freeze every winter. So we’ve got this perpetual source of water, our village lake, feeding us all but coming from who knows where? From a spring that you can never see because it’s at the bottom of the lake, hidden. And that’s when I think of Mr. Bellis’s bumper sticker: “Man is a stream whose source is hidden.” That’s us, Lilly-Anne, all of us, fed by the soul of the lake. We’re all in it together. Maybe that’s all I mean by the soul of the village: we’re in it together. But it’s not just us. It’s bigger than us.

 

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“Good morning, Ms. Marquetta, and how are you this fine day?”

“Good morning, Mr. Bellis. And what’s got you in such a fine mood today?”

“‘Tis spring, ‘tis spring! You can feel it in the air, yes? You can smell it. Look around! The American red-breasted robins keep us company—bless their pea-picking hearts—on these mornings, Ms. Marquetta—look at them all hopping about for their worms—whereas all winter we were alone: you, me, an occasional owl that sounds magnificent if it calls, yes, but also ominous, don’t you agree, Ms. Marquetta?”

“I’ve always thought of them as kind of magical, the owls…”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. I hear you and I agree. The owl is always magical—pick your culture—yet often, we must agree, a kind of dark magic, a magic of the night, of things normally unseen and perhaps not meant to be seen…but this spring, Ms. Marquetta, these robins, I can’t contain my joy…”

“I can see that, Mr. Bellis, like you’re a little singing robin yourself this morning.”

“Yes indeed. And I have a treat for you, Ms. Marquetta. For you. Not only have we turned the corner into spring, but today is the first day of April, and April is National Poetry Month—did you know that, Ms. Marquetta? A month for poetry. Sometimes, on fine mornings like this anyway, I feel like the whole year, every day, should be a time for poetry, but anyway I like this reminder, this declaration that we will commemorate poetry—we shall honor poetry—and that’s exactly what I’ve done this morning, my dear. I have a treat for you, on the dawn of National Poetry Month, a poem for my dear neighbor, a poem of spring, Ms. Marquetta, a poem for this very day. A poem for you. It’s called “Spring” and it is penned by the poetess—just listen to the poetry of her name, even—Edna St. Vincent Millay. It goes like this,” he said, and then he recited to me:

“To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”

And his gaze fell to the ground, where the snowdrops were starting to poke up right along the edge of the house. Yes, I had to admit he was right that spring was coming, and it had obviously put him in a dandy mood, at first at least, but there was something unnerving about it to me. Y’know, sometimes someone’s so chipper that you feel like you kinda have to balance them out by being a little negative, a little grounded realism to their high-flyin’ idealism, does that ever happen to you? Maybe it’s just me, or maybe I hadn’t slept well … or maybe his poem rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, what’s he trying to say? I hear stuff about beauty and my ears kind of perk up, but didn’t he say, “Beauty is not enough”? What does that mean? I just wonder what he’s really trying to say, and I guess I was just a little annoyed that he wouldn’t just say something, rather than telling me a poem, someone else’s poem. I mean, I heard it well enough: spring and life coming back – I can see the snowdrops as well as he can – but listen, that’s bullshit that there’s no death. We die. Period. And he knows that. And he knows that matters to me so I don’t know who he thinks he is when he knows how I’ve suffered and for him to say with all his robin cheer and springy poetry that there’s no death? There is death alright. The important part is the maggots, the decomposing bodies, our deaths damn it all, our dead bodies and pointless lives….

I’m sorry.

And I was sorry then, too, for being so gloomy with kind Mr. Bellis.

There was something in the end, though, in the way he got less cheery at the end of the poem. Was he saying he’s the idiot, “babbling and strewing flowers”? He looked a little guilty, maybe, like he saw the maggots beneath the flowers as much as I did, like the flowers weren’t enough…. “Beauty is not enough,” he’d said. But whose beauty, Mr. Bellis? Where’s the beauty?

I didn’t feel right, and I’m sure he could tell, and maybe my lack of cheery response had changed his mood, too, but I don’t know what to do when my neighbor’s just recited a poem for me….

I think I told him something like, “I’ll be thinking about that poem today, Mr. Bellis. Thank you.”

And it was my way to say goodbye and good day, but then he asked, “Do you like poetry, Ms. Marquetta?”

And what am I supposed to say? What would you have told him?

 

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“Good morning, Ms. Marquetta, and how are you this fine day?” He always says that, I’ve told you. And I was determined to be nicer today – in fact, I had intentionally gone outside to greet him when I saw him walking around his yard, poking in the dirt. Come to think of it, he reminded me of one of those robins, although he’s an old man and he doesn’t move like those young birds, but I braced myself for his cheery greeting, and I decided I wouldn’t be all doom and gloom, let the maggots give way to the flowers, know what I mean?

“Ms. Marquetta, if I may…may I share another poem with you this morning?”

“I’d be delighted, Mr. Bellis. Who is it today?”

“This is from the gentleman poet I believe I’ve shared with you before: Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of my favorites). Again, the poem is titled ‘Spring,’ yes, like yesterday’s, and, if I may, this poem…to me, the poem is just about how beautiful spring is. That’s all. Don’t even worry about the words, just listen to how beautiful it can be when spring returns:

“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.”

 

This time, when he ended … or, he paused anyway, and he was looking at me. He looked sensitive, like he knew I hadn’t felt right yesterday, and I didn’t feel the need today to counteract his cheeriness with dreariness, but he was waiting for a response from me….

“Is that okay?” he asked cautiously. “May I share more poetry with you tomorrow?”

“It’s lovely, Mr. Bellis. Thank you.”

We watched the morning robins, out again, eyes ringed and gazing back at us in between their scratching and pecking at the thawed ground. I finally broke the silence:

“That blue he writes about, the blue and the blooms…”

“‘That blue is all in a rush / With richness…’” he recited.

“Yes, I like that.”

“I’ve got another one about that spring blue for tomorrow.”

 

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“In spring the blue azures bow down
at the edges of shallow puddles
to drink the black rain water.
Then they rise and float away into the fields.

Sometimes the great bones of my life feel so heavy,
and all the tricks my body knows―
the opposable thumbs, the kneecaps,
and the mind clicking and clicking—

don’t seem enough to carry me through this world
and I think: how I would like

to have wings—
blue ones—
ribbons of flame.

How I would like to open them, and rise
from the black rain water.

And then I think of Blake, in the dirt and sweat of London—a boy
staring through the window, when God came
fluttering up…”

 

And something in me fluttered up at that moment, all his talk of floating away on spring’s blue wings … but when he said, “God came fluttering up” I got all nervous, self-conscious, I could feel myself starting to sweat – an old woman like me – so in a rush to change the subject, I said, “Who is Blake?” and Mr. Bellis kindly obliged my nervous interruption.

“Ah, William Blake, the prophet poet, a Romantic, a mystic, a visionary. There in the poem, in Mary Oliver’s ‘Spring Azures,’ Blake is looking through the window—he’s only a child at the time, before he’s a poet himself, of course—in the grime of London, nothing fancy, regular house, regular day, could be us here, Ms. Marquetta, except it’s London, bustling, and William Blake is a little boy looking out his window when…he sees the face of God.”

“Did he talk to him? Did William Blake talk to God?”

“Well that’s an interesting question, Ms. Marquetta. I think many would say that he did. You see, he claimed to see visions through his life, and, although he wasn’t a religious man, per se—some would even interpret his mystic poetry as blasphemous, his supposed philosophy of free love and what have you—yet in other ways he was quite religious, obsessed perhaps, a visionary perhaps…perhaps even a prophet…a prophet of God or a confidante of God, I could hardly be expected to know, Ms. Marquetta, as that is between a man long deceased and God.

“Tomorrow, if I may, Ms. Marquetta, I will share with you a poem of William Blake’s. I shall find the right one. Until then, Ms. Marquetta, have a blessed day.”

And he left and I was still all in a flutter, I tell you, maybe more fluttered than I’d been before. I had meant to change the topic from that poem he was telling me – away from flights of fancy and God in the window – when he starts in on this business of prophets, the very thing I was wondering about Lilly-Anne, the very topic I’ve been meaning to mention to Mr. Bellis, cuz I still haven’t asked him what he thinks about the improbably pregnant Lilly-Anne – she’s his neighbor, too – and I just can’t help but wonder if Mr. Bellis or these poems are somehow messages from God.

Am I crazy? I just don’t want to miss it if I’m the one is supposed to hear messages from God for Lilly-Anne. I think I’d do anything to help that girl. It’d be like redeeming myself.

 

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I’ve just got to tell you. I always do, but this time, I mean … listen. Mr. Bellis just this morning, April 4 – fourth day of National Poetry Month, y’know – he gave me this poem, this poem by William Blake, the fellow we were talking about yesterday, the fellow who saw God. Now listen:

“The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.”

“The Lily”! The poem is called “The Lily.” Now come on.   This cannot be a coincidence. The “Lily white” – look here, I made him give me this copy – the “Lily white” is Lilly-Anne, of course, as sure as I’m Marquetta Mason. I mean, come on!

So I told you he’s bein’ sweet to all the girls with his gifts of poems, but what do you make of this business with “Lily” and “love” and “beauty bright”? That sure sounds like love to me, adoration, worship maybe even. What do you think? Is he confessing his love for Lilly-Anne to me, or is he saying what I’m saying, that our little Lilly-Anne is holy enough to be worshipped, holy enough to bear the next savior? Good Lord, save us. I have to talk to Mr. Bellis about this.

 

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You’ve been there. Something happened in the day, and it nags at you, it gnaws at you a little bit – it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just there in your head, or your gut, and you think you’ve read enough this evening and that your eyes are droopy enough that you’ll just fall right asleep … but you don’t. You know what I mean. Some nights you just toss and turn: rest on your back and think about what’s bothering you; rest on your side and think about what’s bothering you; turn over onto your other side … and think about what’s bothering you. You know what I mean. It just happens, and sometimes I move the pillow out of the way and I sprawl out on my stomach on the whole bed, like a beached whale, no struggle anymore, just lying there waiting, waiting ….

But sometimes sleep doesn’t come. That was the way it was for me last night. Did you have any trouble? I’ll tell you I don’t know if tonight’s going to be any better, because listen to this. I was so sick and tired of lying there in bed and not sleeping, I got up at about 4:30, before there was any light in the sky, but I knew it was coming soon enough, and I wanted to see it, and I had nothing better to do, so I got up, and I got all bundled without worrying too much about which layers were the perfect ones. Who’s up before 5 in the morning, anyway? Who knows what to wear? I was tired of caring, and I just wanted to be outside, for myself, to see the dawn. Make the most of it, I thought.

So I was in an old robe, plus galoshes, and a great long coat, and that blue knit scarf of mine that is way too long but makes me feel all cozy, and I’m walking down into the Cathedral, and I stop. Those deer that have been hanging around … but … it’s not just that I saw the deer early this morning, no, that’s not the least of it. I’m emerging out of the Cathedral feeling all tingly because I’ve just had this, kind of, experience with the deer … I’d tell you about it, but … I don’t need to, because … read this, it’s the poem that Mr. Bellis gave me as I’m stepping out of the Cathedral and on my way back inside.

“Five A.M. in the Pinewoods” by Mary Oliver

“I’d seen
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
Finally
one of them—I swear it!—

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.”

So … I was thinking, I tell you, and my head was swimming, I’m going this way and that way, inward, outward, everything is a mess, and no, I haven’t told him my theory about Lilly-Anne yet. I’m a mess, the coincidence is so crazy, so all I can say is the last thing he said.

“Pray,” I tell him. “Pray for me, Mr. Bellis.”

And I’m asking you, too, please pray for me. I’m confused.

 

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It’s day 6 of National Poetry Month, and this morning I put an end to Mr. Bellis’s poem per day. I felt bad, but – and I only talk to you these days, you and Mr. Bellis a little bit; haven’t called Gretchen; haven’t seen Jerry Randy on my walk-abouts …. It’s lonely here, don’t you think? And there’s a certain quiet to this early spring, like I move a little slower in the morning, like the earth and I are waking up at the same pace. Slowly.

Mr. Bellis started right in on the poetry this morning – and I’m glad he did, he left me a good poem, I’ll read it to you – and I didn’t have the heart to stop him right then, he was beaming like sunshine itself, and I let it shine before I pulled the curtains, cuz sometimes the sun is too bright, and I want to wake up or live at my own pace, maybe in the shade for a little bit, wait until I’m ready for the full sun. But not Mr. Bellis.

“I can’t get enough of Mary Oliver, these days,” he exclaimed. “She’s the one I read to you yesterday, the encounter with the deer in the woods. Now this one’s got other ungulates in it,” he told me, “this one’s got the humble cow, and it’s about the even more humble lily.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Bellis” – and I was deciding right then how to pull the curtain closed, but the sunshine was enticing, too, and sometimes you need that warmth, so I left the curtains open a crack, just enough to ask, “did you say ‘lily?’”

I always thought I had such a plain life – our village is such a quaint little place, y’know? – but I’m beginning to think we live in an extraordinary place, or these are extraordinary times…. Listen to this poem he gave me today – and I eventually told him this should be the last one, but I thought I might as well hear this last one, and, here, you ought to hear it, too. It’s called “Lilies” and it’s by Mary Oliver:

 

“I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the edge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as the old idea.
But if I were a lily
I think I would wait all day
for the green face

of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself

even in those feathery fields?
When Van Gogh
preached to the poor
of course he wanted to save someone–

most of all himself.
He wasn’t a lily,
and wandering through the bright fields
only gave him more ideas

it would take his life to solve.
I think I will always be lonely
in this world, where the cattle
graze like a black and white river–

where the vanishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues–
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away.”

 

I want to float away. Dear Lord, don’t you want to float away sometimes? Just escape it all – the pain, the confusion, the bad memories, nightmares, sleepless nights …. Wouldn’t it be something to just melt away? Like the winter lake ice, just dissolve into water. Like butter on hotcakes, just melt into a syrupy sweetness, be someone else’s breakfast … but it’s not that simple. I can’t just melt away after all my sins …. And Lilly-Anne, I don’t know what she’s done wrong, but she can’t just float away, no way, your world changes when you have a child to take care of, there’s no floating anymore, it’s sink or swim.

But there I was with Mr. Bellis – sunrise, pine woods, our thawed spring lake, and Mary Oliver’s poetry in the air.

“Mr. Bellis, I can’t get quite enough Mary Oliver these days also, but … I’m sorry, but I can’t deal with a poem a day, I’m sorry, I’m just getting all sorts of things confused in my head, I mean, I do … I mean, I really do think there’s something magical about Mary Oliver’s poetry, but … Mr. Bellis …”

And he saved me, kind Mr. Bellis just put a hand on my shoulder and didn’t ask anything, with my mumbles and murmurations, he quieted my mind a bit by saying,

“Dear Ms. Marquetta, I’m afraid I’ve upset you. I do apologize. I will leave you with a book of poetry—Mary Oliver’s even—and you can read it when the time is right for you. I do apologize. Please, my dear, have a blessed day.”

 

our village (40)

She has three books at her bedside now: The Bible—it’s a fat Bible, y’know—and next to it is a slim book of poetry by a Ms. Mary Oliver, I can see it written on the spine: “poetry of Mary Oliver,” sittin’ there on the bedside table, and I’ve memorized the name cuz it’s been sittin’ there not moving—every once in a while she seems to glance down at that one, but she doesn’t pick it up, see, not for a long time. And I’ve got nothing better to do than switch from star-gazing to glancing back through the window at Ms. Marquetta, just to keep her company, kind of, y’know, cuz you can see she’s lonely, so I just watch her read. And I look at the stars.

So the poetry book is sittin’ there on the bedside table for a long while, so I have time to memorize the spine and the name of Mary Oliver. But the third book, I couldn’t tell what it was until after she picked it up and started writing in it, right after reading the Bible for a bit. So the third one’s a journal, I guess.

So she’s got the three books on her bedside table, and she’s reading in the Bible, then writing in the journal, then reading in the Bible, then writing in the journal; and I’m watchin’ the stars, then watchin’ Ms. Marquetta, watching the stars, then watchin’ Ms. Marquetta. It’s a beautiful night out there. I love being outside at night in the village—don’t believe the kind of hogwash hocus-pocus that you and Ms. Marquetta believe: monsters, scary shit…nah, I believe in the good stuff: nature and the soul. I believe in the soul of our village, Lilly-Anne, you know that.

But, right, back to Ms. Marquetta, who, finally, after sittin’ in bed with the light on for, like, hours, finally, she picks up the little book of poetry. I’m watching now, cuz she’s treating it like a moment of solemnity, or, like, religious devotion—which is weird cuz she’s just been readin’ the Bible and not treating it so serious—or, like she’s really nervous…so, right, I see her kind of fling the book of poetry open, to a random page, maybe, that’s my best guess. And she reads something, y’know, reads that page, and of course I can’t see it at the time, but I saw it later…heck, I’ll read it to you now. It’s called “The Swimming Lesson.”

“Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.

Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,

Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, –
How to survive in any place.”

…and Ms. Marquetta goes white, and glass-eyed, just fuckin’ staring out at the world, straight out at the world, not blinking, like she just read something that she just cannot comprehend is real, like that it’s really real and there on the page, not just in her head, but like this poet, Mary Oliver, has put on the page a poem that expresses what Ms. Marquetta has been trying not to think, like her doppelgänger evil twin just broadcast her deepest secret, cuz you know what? I heard a rumor….

 

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I’m wondering what you’re wondering.

I mean, here I go on and on about this and that – and I’ve got plenty to say; I’ve got plenty more to say, y’know, cuz there’s so much curious stuff and I’ve got questions about it and it makes me wonder, and, well, today I’m wondering about you.

We have these little check-ins, you and I – words words words, mostly mine – and I blather on because, well, that’s who I am, I guess, and it’s not like I’m gonna deny who I am, right?

All these years – day after day, that’s all it is: one day follows another, and over the course of it people change, kids grow up, people die – all these years I’ve been in this village, watching things mostly, telling a story or two. Sometimes things seem so clear, like I’m watching this village in a clear fish bowl – there you are, there I am, there’s Mr. Bellis, all of us swimming about in our own circles, crossing paths, like you can see it all clear enough in a cute little well-maintained fish bowl on the kitchen counter, all lit up and full of little domestic fish. But then other times I feel like I’m looking – trying to look – into the murky lake water, trying to see just what’s going on. That’s what it’s like when I’ve got all my questions, like how much does Mr. Bellis know? What’s gonna happen with Lilly-Anne’s baby? And what’s going on in your head? What’s your role in all this?

I don’t want to ask too much.

But that’s what it feels like to me: all this water around – y’know, the supposed 70% – but it’s murky as hell half the time – excuse my language, please – and I just want to see who’s swimming where, and why.

Y’know what I’ve been trying to do lately? Pray. Can you tell? It’s my own version of prayer, I suppose, but that’s the way I see it. Does that make sense?

What do you care? Crazy old lady of the village. It’s not what I thought I’d become – when I was young, this wasn’t the future I imagined for myself: stuck here in this same village, crazy old lady who doesn’t even know how to pray right – but this is the way it is, I guess.

And maybe I’m the only one who thinks Lilly-Anne Smarmouth – our neighbor; my friend – is pregnant with a child of God, but that’s what I believe, and I’m just going to keep praying about what to do. Your mind is inscrutable, but I can pray for answers.

 

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Will you tell me again about your dream, your fear that the fish were finished—“finished fish”…maybe you’re the poet, Lilly-Anne—that the lake, the life-blood of our village, was…was what? What do you think was happening in the dream? Why were the fish finished? And who was the predator? Who was the prey? I just want to know what the dream felt like, if it was all frightening, or if there was some sort of redemption. Who did you relate to in the dream?

 

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Y’know when you’re sitting in a crowded theater, and you know people are there behind you even though you don’t see them, right? You can feel them there, clear as day.

Or y’know when you know you’re bein’ watched? You can just feel it, and you look around … and sometimes … you catch ‘em. You catch ‘em looking at you ….

I caught one. I caught one talking to me. Lord. Talking to me, like it was normal, a disembodied voice, but clear as day there’s no other way to see it I heard it without a doubt in my mind, I heard it out loud say, “Walk to the lake and pray.”

Of course I did it.

You don’t understand. You couldn’t … I couldn’t expect you to understand. A disembodied voice spoke to me, out loud. It’s not the kind of thing you negotiate with. It’s a gift. It was a gift. From heaven … from another dimension … I do not care. Hallelujah praise Jesus Amen Hail Mary, Our Father – what do the Hare Krishnas’ say, is it, “Hare Krishna?”

I heard a voice, and I listened and I obeyed. “Walk to the lake and pray,” it said, and I did. Like a penitent, like a novice, like a nun, like Jesus, I prayed every way I could think of, I prayed ‘til I sweat and shook. And after I had collapsed and rested awhile, when I opened my eyes, thinking I was alone on the lake at night again, this time, instead of a snarling wolf, the vision I saw at the lake water’s edge was Lilly-Anne.

 

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You were at the lake water’s edge. It looked to me like you were looking at your reflection. At least, you didn’t move as I stepped down through the pines, didn’t seem to notice I was there. You didn’t see me, right? At first you seemed very peaceful, Lilly-Anne, like a lily of the lake, lotus lily…Lilly-Anne, Los-Angeles…. I want to get it right, like a poem, it’s got to be right…but it felt more like a dream, more fluid and imprecise than a poem…but as beautiful as a good poem, just…dream-like—can a poem be compatible with a dream? Can a poem reflect a dream? It would have to be fluid, I guess, like a rippling reflection in the lake….

Maybe that’s what you were doing: writing a dream poem with your ripply reflection in the lake water. Lilly-Anne the poet of the lake, writing in waves, gentle rippling waves, just barely waves at all, but rippling enough that you’re not sure exactly what you see in the reflection.

It was amazing moonlight, wasn’t it? The whole world—our world, at least, here in the village—was glowing. The world is almost black and white in the moonlight, colors washed out into grays…yeah, that’s it, not just black and white, but grays, gradations of gray…. If I ever publish poetry, maybe I’ll call it “gradations of gray.”

But there was something…. What’d you see, Lilly-Anne?

 

I couldn’t tell what she was seein’. I couldn’t see it, you know? When you’re lookin’ in the water … when you’re out at the lake, alone, at night – course she wasn’t alone, but she must have thought she was alone – standing still as a statue … she’s lookin’, and I’m lookin’, and you know we’re not seeing the same thing, different perspectives, you know? God knows what she’s lookin’ at, or what she’s seein’ … and I actually thought that to myself at the time: “God knows what she’s seein’” … and that’s when I figured it: all my praying, my call to prayer, the passing out and then seeing Lilly-Anne, mother-to-be, holy mother-to-be, it’s her moment, she thinks she’s alone – we’re never alone, I know it now – and she’s encountering her biggest fear, like everyone has to do in our village…. You know what I think? I think she was lookin’ at the devil. And I think God called me there to witness.

 

It looked like whatever you saw really had your attention, your full attention, like maybe you were scared, that’s what I thought, like maybe you were too scared to look away, too scared to run away. Were you scared?

 

She was scared – I could tell that – scared of the devil – aren’t you? Maybe scared of birthing the devil, I don’t know, but that’s a thought: you never know who’s gonna come out of your womb, after all…. I was scared of that. I remember. Scared my baby would be the spittin’ image of my sister, would remind me of my dead sister for the rest of my life, so you know what I did: I looked that fear right in the eyes … but this isn’t about me.

 

Lilly-Anne, I’ve told you I’m not normally scared, but there was something about that night. I was too scared to look away, too scared to run away.

 

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And all of a sudden…

 

Then, it was like, the moon clouded over real fast, you remember?

 

You should have seen it…

 

Lilly-Anne, were you scared then?

 

You would have been so scared…

 

How ‘bout when that lightning struck?

 

I swear to God.

 

Crack! Out of the darkness.

 

Crack! A bolt of lightning.

 

That’s when I looked up and saw Ms. Marquetta.

 

That’s when I looked up and saw Jerry Randy.

 

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That’s when I got really freaked out and I took off. I don’t know, I’m just trying to explain…I wasn’t just going to watch, I wasn’t planning on just sitting there watching—I wasn’t planning anything—I was going to say hello and like, say how cool it was to see you out at the lake at night…but there was something about the night, something that wasn’t right, or maybe not normal—did you feel it?—and I was scared, like I could maybe understand your fears, for the first time, cuz I hadn’t felt like that before, but there was something about seeing Ms. Marquetta there, it was like…like I’ve been saying: I’ve got to get away.

But it hadn’t been scary before, but watching you…and I could have sworn you looked scared, and maybe that got me scared, I don’t know, or maybe it’s that I hadn’t seen Ms. Marquetta until the lightning struck and I hadn’t thought about anyone else being out there cuz I was so busy watching you, and I guess I didn’t know if she’d been watching me and that got me really freaked out, and so I bolted back up into the pines, into the darkness.

And I was alone again, and I was like grateful but still scared at the same time, mostly scared, though, like I hadn’t been before—I’m not used to being scared—and after running up the hill I was breathing heavy. And it was dark back there.

It had just been that one crazy crack of lightning—weird, right?—and then the moon came back….

A one-bolt storm. Just one heavy breath from the gods, and it blew that storm right over our village. A flash in the pan. One lightning bolt at the lake, and that’s all it had to say.

So I’m sittin’ there in the pines, thinking I’ve run away from something weird, and the moon comes out again, and I don’t know what it was like for you down at the lake, because at this point I’m alone in the pines, and the moon comes out again—like a flashlight, Lilly-Anne—a beam of moonlight shining on this patch of ground right in front of me. And lying there in the dirt at my feet, in the beam of moonlight I see a ticket.

And I knew what it was, Lilly-Anne. I knew what it was.
Without even looking at it,
I knew what it was.
It was
my ticket
out of here.
I could take that ticket and go anywhere I wanted, any time. A free ticket, Lilly-Anne. Staring me in the face, directly in this beam of moonlight, and I’m out there alone, on my own. I’ve run and left you, and I ran away from Ms. Marquetta, and I’m just there, alone in the woods, and this beam of moonlight is flashlighting a ticket at my feet, and I know without looking at it that it’s my ticket out of here. I’ve been looking for this ticket, you know? I’ve been wanting it so bad, for so long. And there it is, finally, a free ticket out of our village.

And I’m scared to death.

 

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D’you hear those spring peepers? Every year ….

D’you ever think they think about where they’re going, moment to moment?

No, right? They’re just being. They’re just being frogs. They’re not hopping toward anything with any kind of conscious intent, and they’re not hopping away from anything, not really, not with any logic about it, you know? They just go. Hippity-hop. Peep. Peep. Peep. Splunk! That’s what the cartoons say they sound like when they jump into the water: “Splunk!” But the cartoon might make you think the frog was like a human, with little human-like expressions and human thoughts, like, “I see that thing coming and I’m going to jump out of the way.” Nah, it’s not like that. The frog just jumps. Not thinking. Just being.

And the fish swim. Around and around.

And the stories they say about the lake monster … here’s my latest realization: the stories they say bout the lake monster are true. I mean, they’re true stories, and when you hear them, you should think about them as stories. Truly: stories.

What’s my point? My point is that I can understand when my Gretchen thinks I’m crazy, when she thinks I’m living in a world of fantasy rather than fact, when she thinks I’m disregarding science, when she thinks I believe too much in make-believe stories …. And I can understand when someone like Jerry Randy thinks I’m silly for being scared of the story of the lake monster, or a wolf on the loose in our village. But what I want to tell them is that I know they’re stories, and – and – I think they’re important – and scary, and uplifting – because they are stories, and … and there’s something beyond the stories ….

Why would we have all these stories … ?

I know when something’s a story, but I also know when there’s something beyond the story ….

 

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So, I’m having a nightmare about this ticket in the woods, maybe that’s what’s going on, and I realize, like my inner voice says to me, “You’re just stoned, this isn’t actually a ticket out of town, it’s just some crazy fantasy-slash-nightmare, and you don’t really have to face that fear, not now; and not ever, not in any kind of nightmarish monster-encounter kind of way, cuz those are just stories, and you’re a rational albeit imaginative actor in the real world, an independent thinker, and you’ll reach down and see that that’s not actually a ticket, because it would be impossible to have a ticket to anywhere lying at your feet in the woods.” That’s what I’m telling myself, so I reach down to test whether or not it’s a ticket shining in the moonlight at my feet.

 

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When you hear the voice yourself …. When there’s no intermediary between you and that voice, and you realize, “Well, this might be a fantasy or a nightmare, but whatever it is, it’s real … it is.” When God speaks to you, you can’t help but listen.

 

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And that’s when I saw you, Lilly-Anne. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, and why I’m confused that you don’t know this part, when I saw you, and you spoke to me, right there in the woods, as if you hadn’t been down at the lake at all, or as if you followed me up, I don’t know. I bent to look at this potential ticket, and there you were, right in front of me, and you said, “You’re alright just as you are.”

 

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I think it was a dream, maybe, but you be the judge. I mean, it’s got to be a dream, logically speaking, a dream, a nightmare, a hallucination, an out-of-body experience, I don’t know, I just mean, it’s not real according to the normal expected experience of real … but what if we’re missing parts of the real, and they’re really real, we just don’t normally experience them? I mean, how many people hear the voice of God?

Am I crazy? Am I now officially the crazy lady of our village?

It doesn’t matter. What you can’t understand unless you’re at least a little bit crazy is that crazy is not crazy to the crazy person, and what I’m saying is that they’re not necessarily wrong – the so-called crazies, I mean – and maybe it’s the rest of us that are missing something, and it’s something we call crazy because we don’t understand it … or in this case, you don’t understand it – or do you? – because I, for one, think I now hear things I couldn’t hear before, see things I couldn’t see before. And they’re there.

This, for example, this vision I had, it’s such a part of a whole fantastic scene that I don’t know what to call it. A vision, I guess. That works.

I was telling you, I woke up after praying out on the lake. I woke up as a witness, and I saw Lilly-Anne there, at the shore. And out of the blue night sky a quick storm passed, that one crazy crack of lightning, and I looked up and saw Jerry Randy there, too, not, like, with Lilly-Anne, just there, kinda watching, I guess, like me. And when we see each other he bolts off, and I have this like out-of-body experience or vision where I’m following Jerry Randy, like floating along in easy silent pursuit as he is hoofing it through the pines, up the hill, and he stops. And the storm has passed, and there’s moonlight shining on the ground in front of him, a beam of moonlight, looks like it’s shining on a ticket or something, it’s a magical scene, and I don’t know how I’m there, but it feels as natural as anything. And Jerry Randy bends down, like he’s going to pick up this magical ticket in the moonlight, and Lilly-Anne shows up, again, out of the blue, but natural as anything, and she says, and I can hear it loud and clear, and I know it’s my job to hear it and remember it, to tell it; she says, “You’re alright just as you are.”

You’re alright just as you are….

 

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That’s when I started seeing things a little differently.

The moon was a gentle wash of light, showing the world with soft edges, muted colors, like a blue-tinted x-ray—a moon-ray—that showed the world of things beneath our sharp and painted stories about the things; naked things exposed by moonlight. How can I explain what I saw?

I saw the moon as microscope, magnifying the magnificent, the magical—and everything was magical, by its very existence, exposed by moonlight.

Lilly-Anne, I’m seeing things new. I’m waking up, like the world after winter, we are waking, and I am seeing the way I’ve never seen before. And this new sight, I think, this is real. Now I’m actually seeing what is.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing, Lilly-Anne? Do you always see this way?

Let me tell you about the moment because, I guess I don’t know if you were there or not. The spring frogs were singing with gusto—did you hear that?—overlapping choruses and ever-climaxing crescendos: the song, the sex, the spring scene! The whippoorwill was whip-poorwilling, whip-poorwilling, and, God willing, he was gonna get laid tonight, too.

I don’t mean to just be talking about sex—I hope I haven’t offended you—no, that’s just a part of it, just a part of the whole, the whole of it. I mean, everything. EVERYTHING. That’s it, Lilly-Anne, that’s the thing…I mean, there is no thing…I mean, no single thing…I mean, no one thing is everything, but…but…everything is! Everything is!

And I could see it at that moment, that’s what I mean, I mean, that’s what I’m trying to say. Do you know what I mean? Somehow you’ve helped me see the world in a new light.

 

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What do you think of all this? You’re pretty new to our village, y’know, I’ve been here all my life, but you might still have the eyes of a newcomer … if you ever did at all. Is that your style, to look at things with fresh eyes, “the beginner’s mind” as the Buddhists say – is that you? Or do you come in with your years under your belt, solid conclusions about life based on solid experiences, lived and learned, right? Maybe that’s you. I can’t tell. I mean, I can talk and talk, y’know, spout my opinions and share my stories and, well, you know, but I can only guess at you, I can’t tell for sure.

So, what do you make of us here in our village? It’s your village now.

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