Scholars have been analyzing the structure of drama for nearly as long as it’s been written or performed. One of the more notable studies belongs to nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag and his “Die Technik des Dramas” (Technique of the Drama).
He didn’t originate the concept, mind you, Aristotle introduced the idea of the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe—beginning, middle, and ending—three-act plot structure, which was later replaced with drama critic Horace’s five-act structure.
But creators are never satisfied with the status quo, so when playwrights began toying around with three and four-act plays, Freytag wrote a definitive structure study—referred to as Freytag Pyramid—that explained the necessity of dividing a standard drama into the following five acts:
Stage 1: Exposition—as discussed in an earlier post—introduces the setting of the story, the characters, their situation, atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict. Traditionally, exposition occurs during the opening scenes of a story, and when expertly executed background information is only gradually revealed through dialogue between major and minor characters.
Stage 2: Rising action—sometimes called complication and development—begins with the point of attack that sets a chain of actions in motion by either initiating or accelerating conflict. Difficulties arise, which intensifies the conflict while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time. Complications usually come in the form of the discovery of new information, the unexpected opposition to a plan, the necessity of making a choice, characters acting out of ignorance or from outside sources such as war or natural disasters.
In this stage, the related series of incidents always build toward the point of greatest interest.
Stage 3: Climax—is the turning point, where the protagonist’s journey is changed, for the better or the worse. In comedies, the protagonist’s luck changes from bad to good, due to their drawing on hidden inner strengths. Drama is the other side of the coin, where things take a turn for the worse and reveal the protagonist’s hidden weaknesses.
Stage 4: Falling action—during this stage, the conflict unravels and the protagonist either wins or loses against the antagonist. This is also where a moment of final suspense might be found, in which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
Stage 5: Dénouement—also known as resolution, or catastrophe— in drama, brings the events from the end of the falling action stage to the actual closing scene. Conflicts are resolved in a manner that either creates normality and a sense of catharsis for the characters, or release of tension and anxiety for the audience. In comedy, the protagonist is always better off than they were at the beginning of the story. And in tragedy, the protagonist is worse off in the end—hence the alternate title for this stage, catastrophe.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, Freytag’s analysis wasn’t meant for modern drama. For starters, front-loading your story with exposition is usually the kiss of death for your audience’s declining attention span. If exposition is truly needed, it should occur naturally within your story in the smallest fragments possible.
Also, modern storytellers tend to use falling action to raise the stakes of the climax for dramatic impact, having the protagonist fall short of their goal—–encountering their greatest fear of losing something or someone important to them. And when they’re at their lowest point, they’re struck with an epiphany, giving the protagonist the courage to take on the final obstacle, resulting in the classic climax.
And there you have it. Now, sally forth and writeful… and enjoy your weekend.
Normally, one touch was all it took for Aaron. Even an accidental finger brush on his arm sent electricity coursing through his body and activating hormones that effectively shut down his higher brain functions and picked the lock on the cage of his animal self. But that wasn’t the case with Sarah. Oh, she was beautiful, to be sure, just his type physically, but like the wrong puzzle pieces, they hadn’t connected in the right way, their passion, intensity, and the things that made sex intoxicating, a drug, an escape from reality, just wasn’t there. At least not for him.
All of Sarah’s switches had flicked on from the first time they met and their chemistry was incredible and she was well and truly smitten and on a ride down the road of true love. She was so head over heels that she experimented in sexual activities that she once found sinfully inappropriate and hadn’t minded one bit making the sacrifice.
In the midst of the questionable acts, Sarah let judgment, inhibition, and all the pretense she dressed herself in to conform to societal norms simply fall away. She melted into decadence and let her body express her true feelings in a way her words never could. Aaron made her beg for it at times when she was unable to articulate a response with anything other than throaty moans.
And when they were both spent, and the room was filled with nothing but twilight shadows and their combined scent, Sarah rested her chin on her husband’s chest, examining his face while running her fingers absently through his hair.
“You understand me,” Sarah said. “You see me like no one else in the world. As I truly am. Don’t you feel the same way?”
“Of course, I do,” Aaron locked in on her eyes, careful not to blink or give away the fact that he was lying.
“I think you should paint me, you know, the way you really see me. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“Absolutely,” Aaron smiled half-heartedly, brushing a lock of hair from her face.
“Are you just saying that or do you really mean it? Because you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“It’s a great idea, darling.”
“I don’t want to force you.”
“I want to paint you. I should have done it years ago.”
“Really? I feel so close to you right now. Like I don’t know where I end and you begin,” Sarah smiled and leaned in for a kiss.
Aaron should have been concentrating on the kiss but he was aware of the sound of the rain outside, tapping a soft symphony on the window glass. He felt crushed beneath the pressure of her lips and the weight of her stare. The sheer density of her love caused him to sink into the mattress, straining the bedframe until it gave way and shattered, crashing him through the floorboards beneath, into the living room below and down still through the basement.
Sarah, of course, was blissfully unaware of this.
The next morning Aaron awoke to find Sarah gone, but she left a text message on his phone:
Remember, you promised, it read, followed by an emoji he couldn’t quite make heads or tails of without his glasses and an electron microscope.
She meant the painting, of course. The one Aaron never actually promised he would do of her but arguing that point would have revealed him to be the lying, heartless ogre that all men were genetically predisposed to become. So, he placed his current work aside and prepped a brand-new canvas for the masterpiece that would prove his so-called love.
He stretched the canvas, applied the gesso, and gathered all the photos he had of her, the ones in which he thought she looked most beautiful, and… his paintbrush hovered just above the canvas surface. For hours. Until the cramp in his arm forced him to step away.
That night he had a dream that he painted the most beautiful portrait of his wife. It was so wondrous that it brought tears of joy to the eyes of everyone who viewed it. And when he woke up, the memory of the painting was so vividly implanted in his mind that he was sure he could finally paint it.
But the brush hovered again. All day long.
Sarah asked how the portrait was coming along and in a rare moment of complete honesty, Aaron revealed his dream about the painting and his inability to replicate it in real life. Sarah interpreted the dream as his artistic genius pushing him to do his best work ever. She was convinced this was the beginning of a bold new step in his creative process.
A week later, after running a few errands, Aaron returned home and found Sarah sitting at the dinner table, her face tighter than a newly stretched canvas.
“What’s wrong?” Aaron asked.
“I just got off the phone with my mother,” Sarah said. “I’m going to stay with her for a while.”
“My God, did something happen to her? Is she all right?” The concern in Aaron’s voice was genuine. Sarah’s mother was the kindest and friendliest person he had ever met and it was clear that Sarah hadn’t fallen far from the tree.
“My mother’s fine,” said Sarah, but her distant eyes were focused on a point far past where Aaron stood.
“Then what’s the matter? And don’t give me that nothing nonsense. I can clearly see that something’s upset you.”
He hadn’t realized that Sarah’s hands were under the table until she lifted them and she was holding one of the preliminary sketches he had drawn for the portrait.
“This is what I look like to you?” Sarah asked.
Aaron let out a relieved chuckle. “Is that what’s bothering you? Honey—”
“It’s not funny!” Sarah crumpled the sketch into a ball and hurled it at him before storming out of the room. He stood there for a long moment, stunned, trying to puzzle out what was happening and the best he could figure was apparently, her vision of the painting far exceeded Aaron’s crude charcoal doodle.
He tried explaining that he was only working out shapes, angles, and compositions but his wife was in such a state of hysterics that he doubted there was anything he could have possibly said to get her to stop packing her travel bag.
As confused as he was at how something so small could have escalated so drastically, the moment Sarah slammed the front door behind her, Aaron felt lighter. The unending weight of her love was being lifted from his shoulders and now he finally had the freedom he desired since the beginning of their marriage. And he intended to enjoy his newfound weightlessness while it lasted because he knew she would return eventually. His wife loved him too much to stay away for long.
But he wasn’t exactly in the clear, either. Because he knew she would eventually return, he was still going to have to produce her portrait and it needed to be the best thing he had ever painted.
After his initial relaxation period, Aaron began losing a sense of time. Hours turned to days turned to weeks turned to months and even seasons, and in all that time, Sarah never once attempted to contact him. Then he began to realize that his weightlessness had transformed into emptiness and he began missing little things about his wife. Her gentle and never mean-spirited teasing about his odd habits. Her witty retorts to his sneaky jibes. The little noises of satisfaction she made while enjoying a meal, a program, or a good book. It was at that moment that he realized he actually loved her for more than just her money, her patronage, he had simply been a fool for looking at it from the wrong angle. And that was the impetus he needed to push through the barrier of artist’s block.
A year after the day that Sarah left her husband, she finally returned home, thanks mostly to her mother’s sage advice, but she wasn’t coming back without a fight. In the year she spent away, never once had he tried to contact her, send flowers or apology notes. Now it was her time to make him beg.
But when she opened the front door, she found the house in such a state of disarray that her anger turned into concern. Room after room she searched for Aaron until she finally found his dead body in his studio, surrounded by hundreds of canvases of varying size, littered across the room in various stages of completion. All abandoned. All rejected. All quite not right. His face was hollow, a pale mask of emptiness, and his painting hand was gnarled and twisted from a year of abuse.
The shift in my life began the day I discovered someone had broken into my car. The thief took nothing, but managed to leave behind a wallet containing the ID of a Miss Bunnie Baker, a name that unfolded long-forgotten childhood memories of better days filled with innocence, laughter and tears. This wallet belonged to my imaginary friend.
Well, perhaps imaginary wasn’t the best word to describe her, because she was real, only no one else could see her. We used to chat all the time about so many things and I loved conversing with her because she was so much smarter and worldlier than me, but when my parents grew concerned that I was talking to myself too much and considered psychiatric therapy, Bunnie and I began communicating telepathically, which was harder to master than one might have imagined.
But as I grew older—and Bunnie remained the same—our conversations became more casual and her visits decreased in frequency. She had supposedly found a crowd of people just like her—non-imaginary but unseeable—during the times we were apart and I had to admit that I was a bit relieved. She had a privileged air about her that I admired at first but eventually came to despise because she pranced around like the golden child and sought to one-up me at every possible turn. Then came the day of the big argument, the day she went away, and I forgot about her in the same way people tended to forget their dreams. She simply evaporated from my mind.
What prompted me to post the bizarre occurrence on my social media accounts was anyone’s guess, and I was well and truly roasted by my friends and followers, but then weird responses began appearing. It turned out that I wasn’t the only person who knew Bunnie.
A nonbinary librarian in Nowhere, Colorado, claimed to have been in a relationship with Bunnie but was forced to break things off after she lost her struggle with mental health and started becoming violent.
An industrial engineer in Nothing, Arizona, accused Bunnie of stalking him and harassing him with phone calls, text messages, and on social media insisting she was his wife and berating him for abandoning their children, which led him to file a restraining order against her.
And so on. Over a hundred posts of insane encounters that covered the span of nearly twenty years. But why had Bunnie broken into my car only to leave her wallet without a word of explanation? I kept turning it over in my mind and the longer I attempted to unravel the mystery, the more memories I unlocked, such as the only tv show that Bunnie enjoyed watching with me, the one about this little animated frog who had to solve puzzles in order to have friends to play with.
I did a quick search on YouTube and found an episode of Phroggie Phriends, which was laughably bad and it was clear why the show hadn’t had the staying power or reboot potential of its more successful competitors. And that was when I felt a tiny tingling sensation at the nape of my neck, followed by a soft female voice.
“Did we actually like this show?” the voice asked.
I turned in my seat and was surprised to see Miss Bunnie Baker in the flesh, fully grown now but still recognizable as the little girl I once knew. If her features revealed anything to me, it was that time had not been kind.
“No, we loved this show,” I answered.
Bunnie pulled up a chair beside me and we sat in my kitchen and watched the episode all the way through, laughing more at ourselves for having devoted so much time and attention to Phroggie, than at the childish humor the show served up.
I closed my laptop and we sat there in an awkward moment of silence, which I eventually broke by saying, “So, you broke into my car.”
“I didn’t break anything. I opened your car door,” Bunnie corrected.
“And how did you manage that?”
“It’s been a while since we last saw each other. I picked up a few skills along the way.”
“And you couldn’t have just come to me directly?”
“We didn’t exactly end on the best of terms,” Bunnie said, staring at her feet. “I was scared. I didn’t know if you wanted to see me again.”
“Can I be completely honest with you? I had forgotten all about you until I saw your ID. Nice photo, by the way.”
“Thanks. And I get it. Folks like me are typically the out of sight, out of mind sort.”
It was my turn to stare at my feet. “I posted about you online. I don’t know if that breaks some kind of cardinal law—”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Well, some people, a lot, actually, responded with some pretty disturbing stuff.”
“Pay them no mind,” Bunnie said.
“I mean, really disturbing stuff.”
Bunnie shrugged. “Chalk it up to growing pains. It was hard surviving without you.”
“Oh, so this is my fault?”
“Sort of, yeah.”
“How do you figure?” I asked.
“You mean, you haven’t worked it all out?”
“Worked what out?”
“I have absolutely no clue what you’re on about.”
“How did we first meet?”
I drew a blank. “I don’t know, you were just there.”
“Yeah, after you dreamt me.”
“After I what?” And as soon as I asked, it all came flooding back to me.
The dream I had with Phroggie, trying to help him solve a puzzle and unlock the door to a bakery so that a cute little bunny rabbit could come out to play. And in that weird dream logic the rabbit was a bunny one moment and a little girl the next, with absolutely no explanation. And when I woke up, the dream faded away but the little girl I named Bunnie Baker remained.
“You created me,” Bunnie said. “You’re my mother.”
“No, that’s not—”
“Possible? You’re an adult talking to something you pulled out of your dreams as a little girl. I think we’re miles past questioning possibilities, here, don’t you?”
“But other people can see you, how?” I asked.
“I don’t know the rules,” Bunnie admitted. “All I know is when I left you, I was determined to show you that I didn’t need you, so I tried becoming someone else’s pretend friend. And it was working until I noticed I was starting to grow older and children became afraid of me, so then I started seeking out lonely people who lived in seclusion and invented perfect partners for themselves, but no one ever taught me how to love properly, so those relationships always fell apart.”
“So, it was my job to teach you how to be what? A person?”
“Yup. That responsibility is all on you, none on me.”
“Then you’ve been shafted, kiddo,” I said. “Look around. I’m nearly thirty years old—”
“And I’m alone. How am I supposed to teach you about love and maintaining solid relationships?”
“I don’t know. You just do it.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you weren’t meant to run off like that. What were we fighting about, anyway.”
“That’s funny because I can’t remember either. But my point is maybe that’s why you were created, so we could be together.”
“You’re my Mom, that’s creepy.”
“Not in that way, silly. I meant maybe we were meant to be companions. You know, do things and go places together.”
Bunnie took my hand into hers. “That wouldn’t be fair to either of us. You deserve to be with real people, building real relationships, and I need—”
“What do you need?” I asked.
“I need to go back to where I belong,” Bunnie said. “Which is the real reason I’m here.”
“Okay, see my expression? This is me not understanding,” I said.
“I need you to undream me.”
“That is so not a thing.”
“It is and I can show you how to do it.”
“And you know this how?”
“I told you, I picked up a few tricks along the way. Unseen people have access to more knowledge than you think and we’re pretty good at disseminating it.”
“Then why didn’t you just undream yourself?”
“Because it can only be done by the creator. That’s you, Mom.”
The conversation then turned to a long-forgotten lucid dreaming technique that was popular during the times when magic was at its apex, allowing a dreamer to pull apart disturbing aspects of dreams, which was typically used to dissolve and control nightmare states.
She began to instruct me in the ways of the undreaming and it was a steep learning curve but, in that time, Bunnie and I were able to reconnect and share our stories with one another and rebuild our once fractured relationship and when my training was complete, I swore to Bunnie that I would never forget her again. She smiled, but I knew she didn’t believe me.
We enjoyed our version of a last supper—tomato soup and salted peanut butter and bacon grilled cheese sandwiches—before I slipped on my pajamas and climbed into bed. Bunnie sat beside me and lulled me to sleep with the lullaby my mother used to sing, all the while dropping suggestions to “Dream of me.”
And I had. When I entered the dreamworld, we were once again with Phroggie but we let him go about his merry way to find more suitable playmates, while we remained in a field of rainbow flowers and took our sweet time saying our goodbyes. And when everything had been said and done, I kissed my dream daughter’s cheek before she transformed back into a bunny rabbit and I began picking at a loose thread of her reality and pulled the string, unraveling her until she was no more. I woke up with tears in my eyes and a profound sense of loss and my apartment seemed somehow emptier and I hadn’t the faintest idea why.
Ruthie woke with a long exhale, her brain still fuzzy with the nonsensical and evaporating vestiges of a dream. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, her vision slowly coming into focus, she was surprised to find Stuckman seated in the chair beside her bed, watching her with amusement.
“What are you doing in here?” Ruthie asked. “You get your kicks creeping on me while I’m asleep? Like your women young and defenseless, do you?”
“Good morning, Ruthie,” the older man said. “How did you sleep?”
“I don’t remember waking up in the middle of the night, so I guess I slept all right.”
Stuckman raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember, then?”
“Yelling at me?”
“Did you deserve it?”
“You mean, did I try to touch you? No.”
“So, what did I say?” asked Ruthie
“A lot of things.”
“You talked about her,” Stuckman said, the disdain in his voice evident.
“She has a name, you know.”
“Why do I need to say it? You know who I’m talking about.”
“Say her name,” Ruthie insisted.
“Why is that important to you?”
“You don’t think she deserves to be called by name?”
Stuckman sighed. “Aisha. Satisfied?”
“Never,” Ruthie said. “So, what did I say?”
“You blamed me for what happened to her–Aisha.”
“So, do you?” Stuckman asked.
“Do I what?”
“Blame me for Aisha?”
“Would it bother you if I did?”
“You still love her, don’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“You still have feelings for her.”
“And if I do?” Ruthie’s tone was more defensive than she intended.
“That poor girl had no clue that you’d wind up causing her nothing but trouble in the long run.”
Ruthie let out an ironic chuckle. “I’m the best at what I do.”
“If you really loved her, you should have cut her loose.”
“I don’t have feelings for her, so you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? You think I can’t read your body language? Your expressions?”
“I think you see what you want to see.”
“So, you’re telling me that you don’t hold me responsible for making you the monster you are today?”
“You think I’m a monster?”
“No. You think you’re a monster. You said as much last night.”
“I’m my father’s daughter,” Ruthie shrugged. “I make no excuses for that.”
Stuckman shook his head, rose from the chair and walked out of the bedroom.
“If you can’t stand the heat,” Ruthie yelled after him.
When Stuckman was clear of the room, the door to the walk-in closet on the opposite side of the bed slid open to reveal a twenty-year-old girl, as translucent as gossamer, hanging like a bat by her ankles from the clothing bar.
“Why do you do that?” the young woman asked.
“Morning. Why do you taunt him?”
“Because he needs to pay.” Ruthie said. “But he never will.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Aisha said, gesturing at her ghostly form. “Take it from one who knows.”
“But they don’t happen to men like him.”
“I think you’re being too hard on him.”
“Hard on him?”
“Yes. He’s going through a tough time.”
“How is this about him?”
“Because he’s the one that will have to live with your decision,” Aisha said.
“Let’s get one thing straight: this right here is my life, not his.”
“But you’re living under his roof.”
“I realize that and I make certain concessions.” Ruthie admitted. “I pitch in to help with the cooking and cleaning and chip in for the rent and bills. I even respect his ridiculous curfew and keep my friends far away from his house—”
“Still, he is within his rights.”
“But not when it comes to this body, this mind, this life. They’re mine and that’s where I draw the line.”
“He brought you back to life, Ruthie,” Aisha said. “What you’re planning to do is wrong.”
“Why? If I decide one day that I no longer want to live, that decision is mine to make and mine alone. I’m no one’s property to be ordered about. Who can demand that I continue to live? Who can remove my right to control my own destiny? And what type of life do I have without choice? Don’t I have the right to choose whether or not I want to continue to suffer?”
“I just want what’s best for you, babe. I always have.”
“Then what’s wrong with me ending my life?”
“Because you plan to do it in his house. Because your motive isn’t to end your pain, it’s to add to his.”
“Get out,” Ruthie said.
Even though Aisha had no weight or body mass, she went through the motion of unhooking herself from the clothing bar and stretching before heading for the door.
“Sorry for dumping on you,” Ruthie said before her friend reached the door.
“As smart as you are, you just don’t get it, do you?”
“You’re looking at the only person in the world who loves you unconditionally,” Aisha said. “You can trouble me with anything that bothers you. My shoulders are broad and strong enough to help you carry every burden you choose to heap on yourself.”
“Then why do you mind if I kill myself?”
“Because that would mean that I sacrificed myself for nothing,” Aisha floated over to the bed instead of pretending to walk. “You’re quick to talk about it being your life, but we both know it’s a lie. That’s my life force powering your body and I didn’t mind giving it to you, because I love you, but when you talk about killing yourself, does it ever register to you what a slap in the face that is to me?”
Ruthie’s eyes widened. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”
“Of course not. All you ever think about is yourself.”
“That’s not true, I care about you.”
“Oh, really? Prove it.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Stuckman’s in the kitchen making breakfast. Go and make things right between the two of you.”
“You can just fuck yourself,” spat Ruthie.
Aisha giggled and shrugged. “Can’t blame a gal for trying. I almost had you there, admit it.”
“Again: Fuck. Your. Self,” Ruthie flung a pillow that passed harmlessly through her friend.
Lavinia’s skin was the shade just above albinism and her straightened hair, dyed deep crimson, framed a beautiful face marked with matching black eyeliner and lipstick, and occasionally when she tilted her head he thought he spotted black gages that created flesh tunnels in her earlobes. Black was the obvious theme for her ensemble as she was done up in black Elizabethan style clothing. Despite the fact that he had zero interest in goths, the four words Eason thought best described his blind date were: Out. Of. His. League. But somehow, through an odd series of events and several disastrous dates, they had become a couple.
And there was love, perhaps not on her part but certainly on his and even though Eason was treated far below the level he deserved, he could not bear to quit the relationship for the simple reason that should Lavinia leave, he feared no one would knock on love’s door ever again. So, while the theater of his soul was only occupied by one disinterested audience member, it was far better than playing his one-man lonely hearts show to an empty house.
But was it truly a relationship? Had Lavinia considered the poor, besotted fool more than a mere friend with benefits? They did not know each other’s friends, let alone their families, and the pair always met in obscure places like cemeteries, a section of a public park where creepy dolls had been strung up among the trees, the sites of car accidents where victims’ families and friends left flowers and lit candles in memoriam, and abandoned subway stations and catacombs. Essentially places where they ran little risk of running into known people.
There were also no public displays of affection, but amorous congress could be had if an area possessed the proper ambiance, such as in a freshly dug grave or a deserted mental hospital. When no such place presented itself, Lavinia allowed Eason to rent a motel room, the shadier, the better. He put up with her eccentricities for the same reason as thousands of women and men remained in bizarre relationships, because the coitus exceeded his every expectation.
During a rare dialogue exchange, Lavinia admitted to suffering from anthropophobia, which was a fear of both interacting with and being around other people, and she was only able to be with Eason because she had not thought of him as a person. She also considered herself a presentarian, a word she invented to describe only living in the present moment because the past was irrelevant and she did not believe in the future. And in his heart of hearts, Eason knew that they would not grow old together.
On the final night they would ever be together, Eason rented a nice hotel room and ordered room service with champagne and candles because he wanted to show Lavinia what he thought of her. The problem was he didn’t really see her. He was an ambivert overthinker whose head remained planted firmly in romantic clouds, and he had a terrible habit of constructing fantasies about women based on the limited knowledge he gleaned from their social media photos. While she was an introvert who would rather read true crime books than deal with the real world, and that she possessed an abnormal love of silence.
Lavinia picked at the meal, sipped some champagne but spent most of the evening perched on the window sill, in her very own pocket dimension of eternity, watching pedestrians on the street below. Eason always prided himself on being the most patient man on the planet but he came to realize that next to her, his patience was nothing, a pebble in a rock slide.
She was beautiful, silhouetted against the moonlight, and that beauty weakened Eason’s patience and made him annoyed at being ignored and when he was unable to bear it any longer, he broke the silence.
“Do you know the irony of being a mime?” he asked, and when no answer came, he continued. “Dying and being trapped in a box. Get it? Mime? Trapped in a box?”
It was a stupid joke, an icebreaker, and off her expression, Eason was immediately regretful of having disturbed her solitude.
Lavinia turned and held her hand up, palm facing him, exposing a tattoo he had not seen before. It appeared to be a baby’s skull that was divided by a dagger-like crucifix that was intertwined with a long-stemmed thorny rose.
“I remember,” she whispered low and soft but somehow her voice nearly shattered Eason’s eardrums. “When the cold of peace and the heat of evil were no different from each other. That was before the edges of earth were rounded by popular belief. I remember when the clouds would sacrifice its life to feed the hungry earth, slashing its wrists so this planet could drink its fill and slake its voracious thirst.”
Eason was about to speak, about to question the meaning of what she said but Lavinia crossed the room, pressed her black nailed finger to his lips, and eased him down onto the bed. He was suddenly dumbstruck by the power she had over him, this silent power. Even her body, which he mistakenly thought he knew so well, radiated a power that made him weak.
Hours passed, and Eason drifted in and out of sleep, still mesmerized by the very silent sight of her on top of him. He dozed off again, and when he came to, she was still astride him, but her normally long, cool stare was somehow different now and it caused him to tremble.
The corners of her mouth turned down in a slight frown. “You are a fool, Eason Gadsen, for making me see you as a person. Your affection disturbs me. It slides into my silence, shredding it and sending it spiraling down on the heads of those who pass under this window. They do not know or sense it now, but it will affect their lives significantly. They have taken pieces of a life that does not belong to them. That they do not deserve.”
“I don’t understand,” Eason said in a voice so timid that it might have belonged to a child.
“They are taking my silence with them, taking me. And I am not to be shared.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Now, I must go to them, to each one and see the sights that assault their eyes, smell scents that nauseate them, touch the textures of their worlds, be compressed into the microcosms that are their lives. I was not meant for that. And if I cannot retrieve the pieces they have stolen, these strangers will kill me without ever knowing me. And it will be your fault.”
“None of this is making any sense, but tell me how I can help you! I’ll do anything you ask!”
Lavinia cupped Eason’s face in her hands and said, “I need you to promise me something.”
“Do not hate me.”
“I need your help to undo what you have done. Will you aid me? Will you give me what I need?”
“You have to promise.”
“No, you must speak the words of the promise.”
“Okay,” Eason said, confused. “I promise to aid you, to give you what you need.”
“You are a better man than I deserve, Eason Gadsen, and I will never forget you,” Lavinia said as she pressed her lips to Eason’s mouth and inhaled sharply.
As per the promise, she breathed in what she needed: the elasticity of his skin, the strength from his muscles, the vision from his eyes, and every last drop of silence that he possessed. But in an act of kindness that proved that she too loved him, she had not taken everything. She left him his life, and perhaps, if she was able to reclaim what was hers, she would return to restore him for he had given her the ability to believe not only in love but the future as well.
A long, long time ago, when words still contained magic, and abstract concepts were living things, there lived a woman, who was a wife, that lived alone. Deserted by her husband, for reasons known only to him, she would have been crushed if not for her pregnancy. She poured every ounce of love that her heart possessed into preparing a loving home for her child, and one day, while out chopping firewood, she gave birth.
The child was not the seventh son of the seventh son, nor born ‘neath the lucky star, nor blessed with any special gifts which would have set him apart from anyone else of woman born. With the exception, that he was born dead.
So torn with grief was the mother, that she wailed unrelentingly, without stopping to catch a breath, nor pass out from exhaustion for three days straight, which attracted the attention of a traveling wish.
“Why wail you so?” asked the wish.
“My son–untimely from me snatched was he,” the woman said, holding up her blue-hued baby boy.
“Tis sad indeed,” said the wish.
The woman examined the wish closely. “You are a wish, are you not?” of which she was certain, for nothing else on Earth looked like a wish.
“That I am,” the wish nodded.
The woman pleaded, “Then grant me the life of my son!”
“Alas and alack, I cannot,” the wish said, its countenance growing sullen.
“And why not?”
“I am not your wish. I belong to another.”
“Then I am ended. There is no place for me in this world. Not without my son.”
The wish pondered a moment, in a way only a wish could. “All may not be lost if I can, No, you would not want that.”
“Nothing. Forget I spoke. It was a foolish, errant thought.”
“Speak it, o wish, for I have ears for thought, errant and foolish alike, if it may offer me but the tiniest hope.”
“Well,” the wish said hesitantly, “Though I cannot grant a wish to you, I may exchange a boon with thee.”
“Speak not so quickly–“
“My tongue cannot carry conveyance at the speed my heart travels, so without hesitation, without reservation, I bid thee, wish, to speak thy will!”
“I propose a trade.”
“Of what shall we barter?”
“I cannot say.”
“What? I do not follow your meaning.”
“You must accept the trade on blind faith. Agree, and be bound to it.”
“I agree to it then!”
“Are you certain?”
“As certain as you are a wish, and I am a soulless wretch without my son.”
“Is this boy child truly your heart?”
“And you desire it above all else, this heart of yours?”
“Then I will give you your heart,” the wish said, closing its eyes in concentration, and the woman felt the boy twitch in her arms. Then the body grew still for a long moment, and her heart sank even lower than she could have imagined possible. As she was about to turn her rage upon the wish, her son, born dead, and remaining thus for three days hence, took a deep breath, and let out a cry that could be heard ‘round the countryside. To the woman, it was the most glorious sound she had ever heard.
“You have given me the thing I wanted most in this world,” she said to the wish. “Now what would you have me trade?”
“I have already taken it.” answered the wish.
“What was it?”
“I have given you your heart, correct?”
“And in exchange, I have taken his,” the wish said, gesturing at her son.
“My son has no heart?”
“Not such as you know. Because no being can survive without a heart, I have given him a heart, perfectly carved of the purest red glass, that is as fragile to the touch as his birth heart.”
“But why a glass heart?”
“The exchange had to be equal. a fragile heart for a fragile heart.”
“Will my boy be cursed to possess a glass heart forever?”
“You must guard his fragile heart, and teach him to do the same, for it will shatter far too easily. And it will remain this way until his real heart is delivered by a person who truly loves your son and whom he also loves.”
This answer saddened the mother, for she knew that without a real heart, her boy could not properly love anyone or inspire love in another to undertake the quest for his real heart.
This was the story the woman told her son when he was old enough to properly comprehend the situation. Until hearing this story, the boy thought all children were born with glass hearts that slowly became real as they grew older. Funny how the mind of a child worked.
“And where is my real heart?” her son queried.
“According to the wish, it lies East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” she recited by rote. “Farther than the farthest thing the eye can behold. There you will find an endless sea. And in that sea, there is an unscalable mountain. And atop that mountain, there is an uninhabitable castle. And within the grounds of that castle, there is a bottomless well. And in that well swims a flightless swan. And in that swan, there lies a shatterproof egg. And in that egg, there lies your heart.”
The boy asked, “Well, why can I not just retrieve it myself?” which was a fair enough question. The journey sounded like a grand adventure, just the sort that little boys craved.
“Because it will always be just beyond your ability to detect. So, even if you managed to travel farther than the farthest thing, swim the endless sea, climb the unscalable mountain, dive into the bottomless well, find the swan, make it lay its egg, and crack it open wide, it will be empty to you,” the mother waved off the foolish notion as if she were swatting a fly. “So, do not even try, for it will then move to yet another location, even more impossible to reach.”
And so, the boy lived a careful life. Oh, he was active enough and none could tell that there was the slightest thing awry, that was until he fell in love. Now, the brightest among you might be asking, “How is it that a boy with no heart could love?” please allow me to tell you that I honestly do not know the answer to that question, yet the boy loved just the same. In his own way.
And unfortunately, that way was never quite enough to satisfy the young ladies he courted. And even though the boy explained his plight to all he loved, it mattered not to them. They all left him, in their turn, each cracking his red glass heart a bit.
Then one day, when the boy was well into manhood, he suffered a heartbreak that sent him to the family doctor, who was aware of his unique condition. After the examination, the doctor said grimly, “You must be careful not to attempt to love again, for should you suffer heartache but one more time, your heart shall surely shatter.”
Not love? Impossible. The glass-hearted man could not sit idly by and feel no love for the rest of his life, nor could he risk another heartbreak. So, despite his mother’s warning, he set off west in search of his stolen heart.
Why west, you ask? Because he needed to speak with the Sun and could not do that in the East as it rose, for he would surely be blinded by its brilliance. No, the man needed to find the Sun in the East while it slumbered for the night. And after some time had passed, he arrived at the place where the Sun rested.
“Ahem.” The glass-hearted man cleared his throat as loudly and as politely as he could.
“Who are you?” the Sun grumbled, peering at him through the narrowest slit of its solar eye.
“My name is,”
“I did not ask for your name, did I?” the Sun said curtly. “I asked who you were! Are you merely your name?”
“Um, no, sir–or madam,” he was not versed in the gender of the Sun, and he, she, they, had not bothered to correct him, so on that fact, he remained clueless.
“Then who are you?”
“Who I am is a born-again optimist. What I believe is that love is not denied to anyone, even to those born with glass hearts, such as myself. What I know is that I am wise enough to accept love as it finds me and not reject it because it doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty package. What I hope is that someday every lonely person will reach out to another lonely person and befriend them so that the word lonely fades from our lexicon.”
“Glass heart, eh?” the Sun sighed, and his, her, their, breath was a warm Summer’s breeze. “So, you have finally come. I will tell you where to find the Moon, for that is your next destination.”
The Sun expected him? How much did he, she, they, know? I wanted to ask questions, but the Sun rattled off a set of instructions and promptly rolled over and fell fast asleep. The man had been summarily dismissed, but he didn’t mind. He smiled as he trekked to meet the Moon.
The glass-hearted man had a dreadful time with directions and could scarcely follow his train of thought even with a road map, normally, but the directions given to him by the Sun were spot on, and in no time flat, he found himself at the lair of the Moon.
“Well, do not stand around dawdling all day, come in!” a cool voice said impatiently. And as the man entered the chamber, he saw the Moon sitting on the edge of its celestial bed. “I heard your approach from a mile away. I am a light sleeper. Must be all the sunlight in my eyes.”
“I am very sorry to disturb you–“
The Moon cut him off. “You have a glass heart, searching for the genuine article, east of the Sun, west of me, blahdy-blah, and you need me to point you in the right direction, correct?”
“Uh, yes, sir or madam.”
“There will be none of that nonsense here, young man!” the Moon sniffed. “I am The Moon, and you can either address me as such, or do not address me at all, but do not seek to confine me to a gender.”
“And don’t apologize. How were you to know? Now, come here and climb aboard,” The Moon said, diminishing into a crescent in order to provide a seat for the man, and no sooner had he positioned himself when the Moon rocketed skyward and it was all the man could do to keep himself from falling.
“Look to your left and tell me what you see,” said the Moon. I turned my head and was about to speak when the Moon said, “Your other left.”
Embarrassed, the man looked in the opposite direction. “I see the city.”
“Um, I see land.”
“And farther still.”
The man strained his eyes out past the sea of glimmering blue, searching, searching until, “I think I see land!” he exclaimed. “But it is so far away that it might be a trick of the Sun reflecting off the water.”
“That is no trick. That is where you must go,” the Moon said and began lowering the man to the ground. “Off you go, for I must sleep or it will be a long night for all concerned, if you catch my meaning.”
The glass-hearted man thought he did, but was not quite sure and had not wanted to seem like a dolt for asking, so he let the comment pass. And off he went, to travel past the farthest thing he could see.
He walked for days on end, and if such a thing as wanderlust existed within him, it had long stopped by the side of the road to rest its feet. The man, however, did not have that luxury. He traveled past the point where the soles of his shoes were worn down to nothing and the soles of his feet became as rough as leather, until he finally hit land’s end.
The glass-hearted man sat on a dock and pondered his situation. He was bone-weary, penniless, and staring out across an endless blanket of glimmering diamonds. Had he traveled all this way to simply end here?
“Ahoy!” a voice called out, and he turned to see a woman with hair the color of sunset, and eyes of the clearest aqua, leaning over the bow of a boat.
“You are not thinking of diving in, are you?” she asked. “That would not be a smart thing to do.”
“Uh, no. I cannot swim,” the man admitted.
“Then what brings you to the sea?” she asked, and he told her his story. When she was done, she stared at the sun-baked man and rubbed her chin. “Farther than the farthest thing, eh? And it is out past the sea? Fancy a lift?”
“I could not ask you to put yourself out like that,” he waved off the invitation.
“Pshaw. Got nothing better to do, and I love me a good adventure I do. ‘Sides, how can I turn my back on someone who had conversations with the Sun and the Moon? The name is Bryony, by the way.”
I have become narcoleptic in order to serve she who haunts my dreams. I know that I should stay awake and stay away from this mysterious woman who is hellbent on stealing my soul, but although her presence strips away my courage, I am enraptured at the sight of her beauty and addicted to the danger that she wears like an aromatic scent.
My nameless dream lover is a paradox, duskily exotic yet of no recognizable ethnic descent and so pale as to make alabaster appear tanned. Her long flowing hair is a tangle of locks, thick, wild and constantly billowing like obsidian curtains in the wind, streaked with grey at her pronounced widows peak and temples. Her eyebrows, dense and dark, contrast colorless retinas that draw my eyes down along an aquiline nose to her pink rosebud lips that drip crimson onto the hi-necked lace top that seems to rise and crash against her shoulders and breasts.
My knees buckle and I kneel at her approach, weak, naked and shivering as she towers over me. Her narrow hands with their thin, scalpel-like fingers, hover inches from my exposed throat, twitching in anticipation. She plans to kill me, and I should be afraid, but all I can think about, all I care about, is if I will feel her touch, taste her lips and fulfill my desire one last time before she takes from me a life that I would give to her freely.
I always awaken the same way, unfulfilled, miserably alone, and alive, much to my dismay.
I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.
You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money–come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment–having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.
“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”
Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.
Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.
Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.
What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.
Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills–minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.
My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listening to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled up snotty tissue and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue–ick–in the trash and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”
“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.
I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe–I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages–all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”
“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”
She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”
“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”
I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”
The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”
“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bills into the hat.
“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”
“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”
“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”
It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.
“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”
“How did what happen?”
“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”
“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.
“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.
“What’s the matter?”
“It would be my luck that the first person I strike up a conversation with in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.
“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”
“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”
“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”
“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”
“You can always try.”
“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”
“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”
“Like my final words?”
She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”
I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”
“No, but go on.”
I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”
“Murder.” she adds, sheepishly.
“Murder.” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”
“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”
I tested the ripeness of Mr. Skelly’s soul more than thirty times this evening, all at the insistence of his wife, Tamara, who never left my side for an instant. I tried to explain to her that this was a delicate process that could not be rushed, but my words never reached her, as if her ears were made of cloth. Mr. Skelly’s ash gray body was laid out on the dining room table like a flesh centerpiece, table decorated with the finest cloth and place settings that she could afford.
This wasn’t uncommon. Most people were ignorant of the proper protocol in matters such as this. They would set out red wine and wafers, or specially baked breads and cakes, and some even brewed their own ales. Those trappings weren’t necessary, born mostly of superstition and old wives’ tales, but had they been presented, I would have tasted the offering. If for no other reason than to be polite.
Her husband had come to see me some six months earlier. He was skeptical, as most people are when seeking my services, but I never believed in hard selling my skills. It was a matter of faith. Either you believed that I could do what I claimed I could do, or you couldn’t. In the end, Mr. Steven Skelly did believe. He told me he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and wasn’t expected to survive the year. And the diagnosis proved to be accurate.
When I first arrived at her door, Tamara debated whether or not to let me in. Not with me. She debated with herself. A loud conversation, as if both halves of her brain, the logical and the emotional sides, succeeded in separating themselves from one another and exercised shared control over the body. A conversation only the bereaved could have and still seem sane.
This was nothing new to me, in fact, Tamara’s discourse with herself counted amongst the tamer exchanges I had been witness to over the past ten years. I remained silent, taking no side in the argument, and was prepared to comply with her decision, either way. If she declined my services, I would quietly tip my hat and walk away.
When she quieted down, we stood there, me on her porch, unmoving, and she wedged in between the narrow crack of her door, unspeaking. Then, she shifted aside slightly, which I took as an invitation to enter, and squeezed past her as politely as I could manage in the limited space provided.
As I stated earlier, Mr. Skelly was laid out on the table in the dining room, dressed in his Sunday best, a bible laid on his chest with his hands folded upon it.
“Mrs. Skelly, I wish you hadn’t gone through all this trouble—“
“Tamara, please, and it was no trouble at all.” she smiled kindly as she touched her dead husband’s face.
“No, what I mean is, we’ll have to remove your husband’s clothes. I can’t perform my job this way.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought—“
“It’s all right, you didn’t know. How could you know?”
Mr. Skelly was a tall man, a sturdy man, and even the cancer couldn’t rob him of that, but it made his dead weight all the more difficult to manage. How Tamara succeeded in dressing him all by herself in the first place was remarkable. Where there’s a will, I suppose. In silence and in tandem, we stripped the corpse, being as respectful to the man who was no longer with us as we could manage.
“How long?” Tamara asked.
“How long will it take for you to do your—thing?”
“There isn’t a set timeframe for this sort of thing, Tamara.” I took one of her hands in mine, and she let me. “Most people believe that life and the soul are one and the same thing. This simply isn’t the case. Life ends when the human body shuts down completely. The soul is eternal. The soul doesn’t power the body. If that were the case, we’d all live forever.”
Tamara looked at her husband, hopeful. “So, you mean Steven’s soul is still here, with us?”
“His soul hasn’t released itself from the flesh yet, so yes, in some way, it is still with us.”
Tamara pulled her hand free of my grasp and rushed over to the table and caressed Steven’s face gently. “Honey? Steven? Are you still in there? Can you hear me? Give me a sign if you can hear me!”
I moved behind Tamara, placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”
She turned on her heels and was in my face suddenly, like an attack dog. Delicate hands balled into fists and pounded into my chest. “Then why are you just standing here? Why aren’t you doing what we paid you to do? Why aren’t you helping my Steven? I can’t bear to think of him trapped in there like that, helpless!”
Her energy spent, she folded herself into my chest and I held her.
“He isn’t trapped, Tamara. He’s in a transitional stage, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. If you can imagine a spiritual chrysalis, enveloping his soul, molding and shaping his essence into what it needs to become in order to move on, that’s what’s happening now.”
Tamara looked up at me, concerned. “Then shouldn’t you be getting to work now? Before it’s too late?”
“His soul isn’t ready.”
“But how do you know?”
I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle. “I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. I just know.”
“And you’ve never been wrong? Never made a mistake? Not once?” Her concern was understandable, but unjustified.
“Not once. When his soul is ready, when it reaches the stage just before it emerges in it’s new form, I’ll do what I’ve been paid to do.”
“You’ll eat his sin?” That question was the one thing that never varied in deliverance, from person to person, job to job, regardless of who said it. It always came out sounding the same. Part skepticism, part hope.
“Every drop of it.”
“And there’ll be no retribution?” she looked up at the ceiling but I understood her meaning.
“No retribution. He’ll move on to a better place and none of his sins will transfer to you.”
“And what about you? You take this– all of this on yourself. What happens to you?”
“With all do respect, that’s none of your concern.” I was expecting an argument. None came.
“Well then,” Tamara straightened up and composed herself. “Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”
“Tea would be nice.”
She stared at me a long moment, no doubt trying to decipher what made me do what I did. Trying to puzzle out how I came into this profession. But she never asked. I think she knew I wouldn’t be very forthcoming anyway, so she simply shook her head slightly and moved to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.
It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.
It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.
Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.
She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.
It would take many years for me to become that type of person.
But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.
I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.
Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.
At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.
While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.
Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.
I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.
And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.
Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.
PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.