Monday, December 23, 2013

A Gift That Sets The Stars Free

One night long ago in a once-upon-a-time world there was a little lost dog in a faraway forest. The dog was alone and hungry, and it was a bitter winter. The dog was settling into the den he had burrowed for himself in the snow around the roots of a tree, and as he curled up in the darkness he heard the distant shimmer of bells and, a moment later, voices carrying in the cold night air, a great many voices joined in some happy song. The dog had never known anyone to pass through the faraway forest, not once in his lost time in that lonely place had he heard voices like these, or the beautiful and wondrous stamping of bells.

The little dog crept to the edge of his den and sniffed, peering, in the direction of the music. A moment later, light from the many torches of the travelers swept creeping shadows into the clearing outside the den, then chased completely the darkness before them and  became full, hissing light. The dog watched in wonder as the brightly clad travelers –laughing and singing—paraded into view, enveloped in a moving cloud of steam and smoke.

There were tiny acrobats and a tall, thin fellow toddling on stilts and several laughing jugglers. There were five shy horses pulling bright clattering wagons, and interspersed amongst the parade were dozens of chattering clowns. At the very end of this colorful parade, lagging almost outside the very last of the torchlight, there was a small, limping clown, leading an old and slow donkey. As the dog crept from his hiding place, the happy songs and jangling bells of the travelers were already fading away into the distance and the darkness of the faraway forest. 

The dog trotted along after the parade and soon found himself beside the limping clown and the old donkey. When finally the sad-faced clown became aware of the dog’s presence, a look of surprise and happiness came over his face and he let out a cry that startled the little dog. The clown crouched in the snow alongside the donkey and clapped his hands and called out, and when the dog came into the clown’s arms the little clown began to laugh and the small, laughing clown held the dog in his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring. 

The clown –murmuring and giggling happily all the while—carried the dog in his arms as they brought up the rear of the noisy and colorful and clanking parade. 

They traveled that night until the torches had all burned down to darkness, and then they stopped and set up their camp along a frozen river. It had grown cold, and the travelers bundled together under their blankets beside roaring fires, with the horses and the donkey huddled stamping and steaming just outside the circle of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns. 

The clown had swaddled the lost dog in an old wool blanket, and he held the dog in his arms and rocked him as the others told stories and laughed and gradually drifted into silence and sleep. 

The clown’s name was Munch, or so he was known to his fellow travelers, and now he whispered to the dog in his arms, “I shall call you Beauteous Munch.” Together they sat up until the bonfire had faded to embers, and together they saw a sky above them where there were millions upon millions of bright stars. The clown sang quiet songs and interrupted himself at one point to say, “Look, Beauteous Munch, there goes a shooting star!  Sweet dreams, my little wish.”

And that night, as he lay curled up beneath the blankets with the little clown, Beauteous Munch was warm and slept without shivering for the first time since the long ago day when he had first found himself lost in the faraway forest.

There had been a time when Beauteous Munch was a puppy living contentedly with his mother and his brothers and sisters in a wooden box in a small town. One day a man and woman had come to take him away to live with them in their house. They were loud and unhappy people, and try as he might Beauteous Munch could not make them any less unhappy. The old man was impatient with Beauteous Munch and shouted at him often.

All day Beauteous Munch would sit at the window staring out at the children playing in the street and passing by his house. Then one day when the nights were beginning to get cold, the man put Beauteous Munch outside. It was raining very hard, and cry as he might and scratch at the door as he did, Beauteous Munch could not get the old man or woman to open the door for him so he could come in out of the rain. Beauteous Munch sat on the steps of the house for a long time that night, until he saw the lamp in the front room extinguished and it was dark up and down the street and the rain was beginning to turn to snow. That was the night Beauteous Munch wandered away and eventually found himself lost in the faraway forest.

That first night away from his home Beauteous Munch tried to sleep, but he was wet and cold and lonely. He missed his long ago once-upon-a-time life. He peered up through the big, wet snowflakes that were cart-wheeling out of the sky and he found a star there barely twinkling, a little star that looked lost and distant and alone. And as Beauteous Munch closed his eyes he wished upon that lost and distant star, wished that somewhere there was another wish lost and longing for a dog, and that attached to that wish was someone special with quiet magic in his hands and a soft voice and a smile that could wag a dog’s tail.

That same night, far away from the faraway forest, Munch the clown was bundled up in a blanket next to his donkey, listening to the laughter and the songs of his traveling companions. He was stout and not as graceful as the others, nor as skilled. Even as a clown his only real role was to lead the donkey and the horses around the ring, and to assist some of the performers with their stunts. He could not sing, and because he spoke with a slight stutter he was the quietest of the troupe, and tended to settle by himself into the background, talking quietly with the donkey and the horses. 

The little clown looked up into the sky and wished upon a distant star; he closed his eyes and showed his crooked teeth to the moon and offered only the simplest and most humble of wishes: Please, he whispered, Something Nice.  Something happy.  A small, happy thing.

 And so it was that on the first night he spent with Beauteous Munch, the little clown saw the beautiful shooting star tumble all the way down the sky and he thought to himself, So that is what happens when two wishes collide with one another: An old star is freed from the heavens and falls into a distant sea where it becomes a thousand bright and glimmering fishes. A wish come true is a gift that sets the stars free.

And that is the story of how Beauteous Munch came to live with Munch the clown. Together they learned many tremendous and difficult tricks; the little clown taught Beauteous Munch  to ride on the old donkey’s back and walk across a rope and leap through the tiniest of hoops, and all the signs the performers took around and posted in the towns and villages now said “BEAUTEOUS MUNCH –WONDERFUL SHOW DOG!” He was very popular indeed, and people would come from far and wide to see the amazing clown and his astonishing dog.

On clear nights, as Beauteous Munch and his friend the clown tuckled up and drifted off to sleep, they would stare into the sky above them and watch with drowsy wonder as star after star tumbled through the darkness and somewhere, they knew, a wish had come true.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Next Year All Our Troubles Will Be Out Of Sight

 A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark, mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
          --James Joyce, "The Dead." 
Sleep, lucky world.
A star is born.
No, sorry: A child.
The star was just an announcement
to this little light lost.

I would follow a star
like that if it was
the dead of night
and I was alone with a bunch
of shivering sheep.

Even, I suppose,
if I was a wise man
on some sort of inexplicable
no-girls-allowed walkabout
in the desert.

I think it was a desert.
I imagine it was.
I'm sure it felt like one.

Trust me, though,
beneath these ribs lurks
the heart of a true believer
with a big, booming drum
and a feather in his cap.

I'll believe anything if it can
make me feel like something
other than a disposable
razor or a pink, quivering
grub nestled in shavings.

For God's sake, people,
there is not one thing you
could ever say that would
convince me that I am not
the proud father of a dog.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fall On Your Knees

It was a quiet horse, the color of gray corduroy, or those elephant slabs of damp clay wrapped in
cellophane. They delivered the horse to the pasture out back of my trailer, and it had taken four men to coax her from the truck. She didn’t kick or fuss, but simply refused to budge. I’d paid 100 dollars for the horse to save it from being put down. My old girlfriend had a pathological weakness for downtrodden animals of all kinds.

One of the delivery fellows kept referring to the horse as ‘daft,’ which I thought was an unusual word choice for a young man who couldn’t have been more than 25 years of age. I didn’t think the horse was daft, at any rate, just depressed. She tended to stand in one place out in the pasture, with her head down, and I very seldom saw her eat.

I’d never in my life spent Christmas alone. The day before Christmas Eve I’d driven into the nearest decent-sized city, a college town of maybe 70,000 people, just under a half hour’s drive from my trailer. The city was crowded with last minute shoppers from the small towns that were clustered in the long valleys throughout the mountains. I’d stopped at some cheap steak chain for lunch, and later splurged on a bunch of new CDs for myself and nearly fifty bucks worth of treats for my dog. Heavy snow was falling even as I made my way back out of town, and by the time I pulled into the half-mile gravel road that led to my trailer visibility had been reduced to next to nothing.
I stumbled through the blowing snow to the door of the trailer. My dog, a mongrel so strained as to look exotic, was waiting for me in a state of pitched agitation, and I opened the door and watched the dog disappear into the whiteout beyond the trailer.
That night I drank enough to feel genuinely sorry for myself, and almost managed to talk myself into flying out the next day to spend Christmas with my sister’s family in Colorado. 
The next morning, Christmas Eve, I woke up on the couch, as hungover as I’d been in years.The trailer was completely drifted in, and the wind was still tossing snow around and obscuring the range down the valley to the north. I’d left every light on in the trailer. The only radio station I could pick up in the valley was wheedling with Christmas carols, the signal drifting in and out –some choir somewhere, with a big echo effect that suggested a live feed from a cathedral.  I was determined to drink down some Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed, but I realized with a start that my dog was still someplace out in the storm. It was rare that I would allow the dog to spend the night outside in any weather.

I went to the door and called out into the blowing snow. There was no response, and I still could not even make out the gray horse in the pasture less than 100 yards away. I pulled on a pair of boots, parka, mittens, and a hat with earflaps, and ventured out into the drifts. My truck was almost completely buried. I tried to call out into the snow for the dog, but my voice was swallowed in the swirling wind. Wading knee- and sometimes hip-deep through the drifts I made my way around the side of the trailer and managed somehow to locate one of the fence posts from the horse pasture. I couldn’t see much, or far, but there was no sign of either the dog or the horse.
I crawled back into bed, bundled myself in blankets, and tried to take a nap. My head was throbbing, and as I lay there I kept imagining that I heard the dog barking somewhere out in the storm. I actually got up and went to the door twice, but there was no sign of the dog and no sound other than the howling of the wind. Even as I slept fitfully I was aware of my heart pinging in my chest like a sonar in an abandoned submarine.

I’d traveled so far from the person I had once been that the people I’d allowed myself to be close to, as well as those to whom I was conjoined by blood, had become mostly uncomfortable strangers to me. I had drifted out of touch. I had no axe to grind, no extravagant grievance or baggage, and it now seemed sad and even a bit shameful to think that my mother did not even know where I was now living or how to get in touch with me. I hadn’t spoken with her in over ten months. When my girlfriend had grown tired of the west and had moved back to Boston –it had been almost two years—I’d given up the apartment in Bozeman and taken the trailer in the valley. I was supposed to be finishing a set of illustrations for a children’s book, but hadn’t made any progress in weeks.
I’d been traveling further into loneliness and its odd, romanticized solace and pleasures. My girlfriend had been in possession of a more polished set of social instincts. She’d been an English professor at a local college, and liked to host small gatherings, enjoyed going out for dinner and shopping. Left to my own devices I seldom did anything that might be considered social. I had made few real friends in the years I’d been living in the west, and still hadn’t even bothered to have the trailer wired for a telephone. The dog was a perfect companion: a good listener, an enforcer of routine and a reasonable order in each day. It was also patient, even-tempered, and eager to please –absolutely companionable. That Man’s Best Friend business really was not overstating, not in this instance. It was unconscionable that I’d allowed myself to get so drunk that I’d left the dog outside in a raging blizzard all night. The poor animal could have strayed miles in search of shelter by this time. 

The odd thing about the whole affair was that I’d seldom even gone into town without taking the dog along. I’d been made careless by melancholy and drink, and I would chew myself up forever with grief if anything had happened to him. As I lay there drifting miserably along the blurriest edges of sleep and hangover, I imagined being hounded to the end of my days by the ghost of that dog. In the two preceding years the only real highlights of the holiday season had been the long walks down the valley we had taken together on Christmas Eve.
I finally bundled myself up again and ventured out in what was left of the afternoon daylight to look for the dog. The storm had apparently lifted or moved on; I could see the last of the clouds departing down the valley. The odd and alarming new development was that not only was my dog missing, but there was no sign of the gray horse anywhere in the pasture. The sky had cleared to the point that I could see the entirety of the horse’s fenced enclosure, and the horse was nowhere to be seen. I waddled along the drifts that were built up along the fence line and inspected the gate. It was not only firmly latched, but drifted completely shut.  I walked the length of the road to my trailer, all the way out to where it intersected the main gravel road that led out to the state highway. I saw no evidence of any traffic whatsoever, no animal or vehicle tracks other than those from my own truck the previous evening, and even those were mostly obscured.
I managed to get the truck started and backed out to the turnaround.  From there the four-wheel drive got me through the drifted snow out to the gravel county road, which was in pretty good shape.  From there to the blacktop state highway, a distance of just under two miles, I saw no signs of either the dog or the horse. Once I hit the stop sign at the highway I decided to make another trip into town. I had no idea what I expected to accomplish there on Christmas Eve; it was almost five o’clock and already getting dark. The highway had been plowed and road conditions were fine. There were still Christmas carols looping on the radio station, and I made up my mind to attend Christmas Eve services at some church in town. I hadn’t been in a church in a half dozen years, at least, but I had fond memories of the holiday services from my childhood, and felt very much like a man who needed somehow to be forgiven. If God was ever going to grab me, I’d never felt so susceptible. 
In town I found a phone book and tried to call the local animal shelter, but got the answering machine and a deadpan voice wishing me a merry Christmas and encouraging me to neuter my dog. I walked around downtown checking telephone poles and bulletin boards where I thought I might find notices of lost and found animals, but turned up nothing that fit the description of my dog. In the empty Greyhound station I picked up a copy of the local newspaper and found an advertisement for Christmas Eve services at area churches. There was a six o’clock service at a big Lutheran church right in town, so I left my truck on the street and went off in search of the place. 
The service was packed with families, and there were dozens of scrubbed and squirming children. I had a tough time staying awake through some of the readings and much of the sermon, but I nonetheless felt somehow better for having gone. My heart felt lighter and heavier at the same time, a strangely emotional state that I have always associated with the holidays. As I walked back to my truck I was greeted warmly by at least a half dozen strangers. I remembered my late father coming in from a last-minute errand on Christmas eve long ago; the old man was rosy-cheeked, half in the bag, and happy as a clam. He was a man who loved special occasions, and as he came in with his arms loaded with shopping bags he had bellowed, “The whole damn town is lousy with Christmas spirit!”
All the way out to the trailer I tried to repair the years in my mind, to line up memories and freeze them in a place where there had still seemed to be so much time, all the time that had since carried me past dark off-ramps, dimly-lit intersections, and all the forks where I had chosen –or, unconsciously, not chosen—the direction that had led me to this road along which I was now driving. I’d basically always let each day shove me wherever it wanted, and when it stopped shoving I stayed put. I missed the old man, a guy who’d been a shover, a dictator in the best and most intoxicating way; he’d always gone his own way and dragged others along who were helpless to resist him, right to the end. After he died my mother had admitted that she’d been little more than one more of his tag-alongs. “He told me he was going to marry me,” she said, “and I believed him.”
Back at the trailer I stood out in the middle of the drifted-in driveway and called out to the dog.  The sky had been blown entirely clear of clouds. I stood and watched a jet make its way right through Orion’s belt in the east. It was already close to nine o’clock, and I went back into the trailer, mixed myself a glass of eggnog, and managed to nod off on the couch for a time. At some point I was awakened by what I thought were bells. I sat up in the dark and listened. All was silent, and then I heard voices. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside the trailer. It was a gorgeous night. I could see the Christmas lights twinkling from my neighbor’s yard across the valley. The trees at the farthest edge of my fence line seemed to be nested with glowing corposants. I walked around the trailer and there, a hundred yards away in the pasture, was my dog, sitting attentively before the gray horse.
The horse was standing perhaps three feet from the dog, and her big head was hanging directly above the dog’s, and their joint breathing had created a surreal little pocket of steam in which they seemed frozen. It was an absolutely clear night, eerily quiet. The horse appeared to be conversing with the dog, and as I approached the fence I swore I heard the words –clear as they could possibly be: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.’” The dog emitted what sounded like a hoarse, incredulous chuckle. From across the valley I heard once again the ringing of bells. Stars were stretched out above me, precise, detailed constellations, the clear, dusty clutter of the Milky Way. I was astonished to see fireworks bloom suddenly above the valley in the distance, and was inexplicably moved to see the dog and the horse raise their heads in unison to marvel at the display. 
I let out a belly laugh that snapped out into the cold air and was quickly swallowed up, and at that precise moment my dog turned and saw me. As he came bounding in my direction I fell to my knees in the snow, opened my arms wide, and braced for the impact.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Shaking The Shadows

The dogs had been put to bed. That was Nico's job now, the big boy, even though he had just turned six years old. There were three dogs left, old hounds that had belonged to his grandfather, and they slept in an old shed lined with hay out back.

Nico's grandfather had died on Halloween, sitting in the front room in his reclining chair with a book about flowers open on his lap and a rubber Frankenstein mask over his head.

His grandfather had stayed behind to hand out candy while Nico, his younger sister, and his mother went trick or treating in the neighborhood. When they had returned home the old man --who had loved God and science in equal measure, and who had given Nico a revolving globe of the moon that was his most prized possession-- was unresponsive, and Nico and his sister were sent to their rooms.

From his bedroom window Nico had watched as an ambulance pulled up their long driveway, its spinning lights carving up the darkness and splashing off the windows of neighboring homes. Nico saw small groups of costumed children and huddled adults gathered in yards and standing out along the road by the mailbox. It was a long time after the cart was wheeled out to the driveway, loaded, and driven away --the ambulance's lights no longer flashing-- before Nico's mother came to his room. She had changed into a robe and slippers, and sat down at Nico's little desk and absentmindedly spun his moon globe with her long index finger.

She told Nico that his grandfather had died. Peacefully, she said. He was mad about you, she said. You were the apple of his eye. Nico did not say anything. His imagination was whirling in a hundred directions, just as it did when he was excited, confused, or frightened. His mother eventually got up, kissed him on the top of the head, and said, "You're a big boy," which pleased him in some way he didn't understand.

The next day, despite the coming and going of many people, the house seemed almost unbearably silent. The visitors tended to congregate in the kitchen, talking in hushed tones to Nico's mother. Each time Nico would creep down to the kitchen there would be more plastic- and foil-wrapped plates and casseroles lining the counter. Later, after everyone had finally gone, his mother had Nico move all the food to the back porch, which was unheated. And there it sat.

His grandfather's funeral, which was held several days later, was the first that Nico had ever attended, and he had sat through it in a sort of trance, not understanding a word that was said. Even when people were clearly talking about his grandfather Nico didn't recognize the man they were talking about.

That night, alone in his room, he sat at his desk in the almost dark, the only illumination provided by the moonlight through his window and his little night light. His fingers explored every inch of the beautifully contoured and cratered surface of his moon globe. He imagined his grandfather up there now, wandering with a pack of his dead dogs and looking for frogs or salamanders. Surely, Nico thought, some of those who went to heaven were allowed to visit the moon. It must be so close.

But now it was late. It was Christmas Eve, and the moon in the sky looked like an abandoned boat in a big, dark sea filled with bobbing stars. The dogs had been put to bed, and Nico had sat with them for a time, stroking their bellies and finding something comforting that he did not yet recognize as trust in their eyes.

Afterwards he trudged back to the house through the snow, lunging occasionally in an attempt to either lose himself in his shadow --to merge with it-- or to shake free of it. He couldn't do either. On the back porch the plates and casseroles, still untouched, were exactly where he had left them almost two months earlier.

His mother was at the kitchen table, sitting as she so often did at night, smoking a cigarette and staring at a piece of paper on which most of what she had written had been crossed out. She was wearing her robe and slippers, and as Nico passed by she reached for his hand and brushed it briefly against her cheek.

Nico's sister was in bed, and he changed into his pajamas. As he was brushing his teeth in the only bathroom in the house, which was located between his mother's bedroom and the room where his grandfather had lived after he came to stay with them when Nico was very young, Nico heard his mother's voice from the front room. It was his mother's angry voice, which he had not heard often over the last two years.

The toothbrush still in his mouth, Nico moved to the doorway between the bathroom hall and the front room, which was dark. As he craned his head around the corner he could see his mother in the front entry, blocking the half open front door and shouting. She was shouting at Santa Claus, who was standing on the front step, his glasses fogged over and puffs of his breath swirling in the porch light.

"You must be out of your mind," Nico's mother said. "The kids are asleep and there's no way I'm letting you in this house." And with that she slammed the door.

As he usually did when confronted with something troubling or inexplicable, Nico sat at his bedroom window for a long time that night, his moon cradled in his arms, thinking until he ceased to think and began to imagine. It wasn't hard to do.

And the next morning, when he came down the stairs to discover that Santa Claus had indeed arrived after all, he was able to dismiss the previous night as nothing but a dream.