Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fantasy, Fantasy, Fantasy: One More Once Upon A Time

One year when I was young there was for a very brief time a girl who lived alone with her mother in a trailer at the edge of town. They were recent arrivals.

The girl was a loner at school, and held herself close, a new kid trying to be hard enough to survive. She had started attending classes after the Christmas break, and it was a terrible age to get thrown into the middle of a small town school.

One night I was walking out along the railroad tracks, as I often did after my family had eaten dinner and everyone else was settling in to stare at the television. It was early summer. School would be out in a week. As I was kicking rocks down the tracks I encountered this girl along the creek, at the edge of a field of prairie grasses that were just starting to green. She was catching fireflies and grasshoppers.

I watched her for a time from the railroad trestle, fascinated by her stillness, and then by the grace with which she would suddenly pounce. I walked down the bank below the trestle and approached her in the gloaming. If she was at all startled to see me there, she never let on. We had never so much as exchanged a word in school. She glanced at me briefly and then turned away and pounced once again into the grass.

When she came back up she looked me right in the eyes and said, "Do you remember your first memory?"

I thought this was an interesting question. I was 14 years old and it had never occurred to me before. "I think it was teething," I said. "I just remember being miserable and rubbing my gums with my knuckles and my mom put something on my gums with a Q-Tip and it felt so good and I slept."

"Wow," she said. "That seems like a really early memory. How old were you?"

I shrugged. "It doesn't seem like that long ago, really."

"I guess not," she said, and then held up her Mason jar, clutched in both hands, right to my face. "These," she said. "That's what I remember. Sitting at my bedroom window at night and listening to the strange sounds in the fields and seeing the fireflies floating in the darkness. I thought it was a dream." She studied the jar and then smiled. "Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it is. But I love this dream."

I asked her what she was going to do with her jar.

"I can show you," she said. "But I won't show you unless you tell me your full name and promise not to be a creep about anything."

I told her my name and said I would try not to be a creep about anything.

"I guess that's good enough," she said. "If it's weird, though, that's your problem."

We walked along the creek together, back toward the lights of town. The yard light outside her trailer was the first light in the distance. It was a double-wide trailer, and was one of those trailers that had fake shutters and siding and was trying hard to look like a real house. There were also flower boxes, I remember that. There was no car in the driveway. I asked where her mother was.

"She works the night shift at Tyson's," she said. "Chickens are wrecking her hands."

The girl led me into the dark trailer, and down a short, narrow hallway to her bedroom.

"I'm not trying anything," she said, "but we can't have any lights."

I stood at the doorway of her bedroom until I felt her hand gently push me between my shoulders and heard her voice behind me: "Go on in. I'm not going to kill you."

I went in and shut the door. She told me to sit on the bed. I sat on the bed. Light from outside crept in through the curtains on the window. The curtains had an embroidered heart in the middle, and inside the heart a girl and a boy were facing each other and bowing at the waist, awkwardly, leaning their heads in for a kiss. The real girl noticed me studying the curtains, laughed, and glided over to the window.

"Loves me," she said, and then pulled the curtains apart. Just like that the girl and the boy were separated, the heart divided, the kiss interrupted. "Loves me not. My mom found those at a garage sale and thought they were funny."

She turned away from the window and crouched next to a doll house in the corner. "My grandfather made this doll house for me for Christmas one year," she said. "But I've never put any dolls in there. It would just seem too sad. They would be trapped, and I would feel stupid trying to pretend they were alive."

I watched as she lowered the jar through the open side of the doll house roof. She removed the lid and shook the contents loose, and then, in one lunging motion, sat down next to me on the bed, the empty jar cradled in her hands.

"Just wait," she said. "And be very quiet."

Nothing seemed to happen for several moments, but then I saw the first firefly flicker in the living room of the doll house, and then another, and another in an upstairs bedroom. Pretty soon they started to float lazily out the windows and up through the roof and into the air around us, spark after spark flaring in the dark bedroom of the girl whose name I still did not know. And then, slowly, the grasshoppers started up their washboard chorus.

I looked at the girl. She was bent over, the jar gripped now between her knees; her eyes were darting around and watching the fireflies and she had a look of pure joy on her face. It was almost like I wasn't there.

I won't go into the complicated reasons why, but improbable as it may sound --and be-- it was 30 years before I had another encounter with that girl and eventually learned her name. In the intervening years I came to understand that this world tends to traffic in complications and improbabilities both wondrous and cruel, but even now, when I see the woman that girl became, and remember the girl that woman once was, I feel like I am once again 14 years old and breathless and trapped in one magical moment of a past that seemed to promise nothing but enchantment and dreams.


  1. Chillingly beautiful and impossibly reminiscent. If that makes any sense.

  2. Yes, memories are like that. More than real. Brighter than real. Magic.

  3. wonderful. reminds me of so much.

  4. Days of long bus rides and thick old books are upon us again, brother:

    "It is as if he fears the brutal revelation of his loss and loneliness, the furious, irremediable confusion of his huge unrest, his desperate and unceasing flight from the immense and timeless skies that bend above him, the huge, doorless and unmeasured vacancies of distance, on which he lives, on which, as helpless as a leaf upon a hurricane, he is driven on forever, and on which he cannot pause, which he cannot fence, wall, conquer, make his own."

    -- TW

  5. 30 years is a long wait but well worth the wait.

  6. I read this once a week, it's lovely, and always makes me smile.

  7. This story is exquisite. And breathtakingly beautiful.