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.
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 ….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Krishas’ 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.
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?
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.
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 go 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….
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
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 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.”