Only the smallest bit of light manages a path from the street lamp through his window, the opening between the curtains, and around the closet walls where he has built a writing nook. Michael feels around the plywood desk until he finds a book of matches. He takes one out and strikes the match holding it by the head as it is old and offer resistance to being lit; he has long since overcome his fear of burning his fingertips; they are fast as well as calloused. A small oil lamp illuminates this escapist station. It is upon the scrap-wood desk, by no means built with the craftsmanship Joseph would have constructed it, and in these piles of marble composition notebooks that Michael retreats from the dream, and retreats from living. Here shame becomes self-righteous essays, fantastic tales replace failure, and denied love and utter loss find comfort in romantic composition. Michael has often come here before any such tragedy and wrote of high adventure and an idealist’s love after only seeing a girl rolling about in a pile of leaves- her cheeks flushed the color of the changing trees themselves. In this very nook he has tried in his way to capture the beautiful things and the fantastic. As a result he has filled his piles of journals with lovely arrangements of words. But as a result he is tormented by a life unlived or a world with so much uncaught. He tried to free himself of this cycle. He had honestly. He had a dream, the sleeping kind. He dreamt it more than once so he was sure it was to come true. He followed the dream, gifted to him for his love of romance, and like so many other artists, he crumbled in the wake, faltered and fell.
These woods are dark and tall. This ground is lighter than the sky, bright white reflecting a sun unseen.
It is the fourth week and though the novelty may have expired the work is still gratifying. His ax falls with precision. Wedges of frozen wood shower the ground. He is slower to fatigue so it is not upon will-power alone that he depends; though his will has surely been encouraged by the praise given him by Robert Strait, praise Michael takes notice of, praise he holds dear, praise he nearly depends on.
Robert Strait (husband to Elizabeth and father of Johanna) built their home with his two hands alone. Like Michael does now, Robert had hauled the wood from the forest, for the beams and siding, each winter after for the stove. But his knees and back have grown old; with Johanna and Joseph (the neighbor’s boy) gone to school there was no one for this work. Fortune decided that Michael should pass out on the floor of Robert’s barn, where Robert would find him. Once Michael gathered his wits the Straits came to like him, thought him a bit too serious but someone to like never the less.
To impress a man accomplished in the way of the hand or mind is no small thing and so Michael hauls heavy portions of tree and in sizable quantity. He breaths heavily. He has long since removed his hat and so his hair is frozen to his forehead. His mind carries no thoughts, a thick cloud allowing only for labor. Later in secretive self-praise he’d compare himself to an ox or to those heroes in his favorite stories who’d move huge rocks or fell and drag whole trees. But now there is only a fog, dense as to suffocate these fancies. There are not even those doubts that will surely come to him later, that manifest as a crowd’s deafening murmur when he suffers a fever or insomnia- drown out distraction.
Winter’s early evening delivers relief to the boy. He lays down his ax and wanders about the darkening trees. “What lurks here in the night?” He is fearful of the darkness in the woods yet he is drawn to walk them often. It has become a part of his routine, after work and before dinner.
“Is there not folklore of the bad that has come from the uncommonly trod depths of these woods, like the stories of Pollepel Island? Where fishermen were devoured by wolves or impaled by spears submerged beneath the river. Or were those greedy men looking for treasure: antique weapons? At night men would hear horses running across the castle’s drawbridge.
“I could imagine those horses here. A woman no older than a girl amongst them cloaked in soft fabrics the color of her world about. She appears the blessed daughter of all creation and all that has been created. She steps slowly and lightly, never once startling the beasts about. I am to my knees through the snow. The cold burns through my pants and long underwear. She walks as though the snow were dense, leaving footsteps no more than I would in the sand. She feels about the air with her hands as if holding back the branches of trees long since vanished. Or she is pushing the air as if water, to maintain her delicate balance. She is not frail though, not to break from touch or even a violent strike against her skull. Her spirits would not even be compromised. He who’d attempt such ill will would crumble before raising his fist.
“Such beauty I would love. Upon the ice and snow I’d make love to her. Bury my face between her breasts, my hands in her black bird hair and in her black bird hair.”
His mind strays to dreams he has had “of the man who had his way with the dead girl, happy in this though he was being stoned by children wielding bricks.” The wolf who hunts, murders, rapes and urinates circles about his home; the cunning and deceitful fox who cries in all of his loneliness; other thoughts leagues more horrible and those gentle, beautiful, casually come and go. Some carry him away till he is certain he is possessed. To speak these thoughts out loud, to indulge in them shamelessly, these are the comforts of solitude.
He is not alone! A sudden noise gives away this uninvited Uninvited. Boy ducks down behind a tree, then peers out. The footsteps are those of two feet, and light as a girl. It is difficult to see but he can make out a moving shadow amongst the motionless shadows. “Already in love,” he whispers. “Oh, but these words I’ll not speak, not this time, so that there is meaning.” He recognizes her though he has never seen her face. She is the girl he has dreamt of more than once. She walks past without taking notice, right by him! His chest aches. When she is a distance away he runs, across the glen up a hill and onto a jagged rock that leans out over the path. Here the starlight meets the ground.
Michael lies buried in the snow with a hole to peep out from. There is a moment of quiet; she is still not in sight. He wonders if he is being a fool. “Yes a fool,” he blames a spell from the darker woods for the chase. He readies to stand, but then she is in sight. Gracefully she manages her way along, and all is as it was. Her hood has fallen back exposing her face to the cold winter and to Michael’s burning eyes. His chest aches again as if to burst and he lets out a squeal, a bark, and howl as he reels over onto his back. His voice echoes through the woods and frightens the few animals who wander about, as well as this sweet doe who runs off in startled terror.
“Michael you are a fool,” he mumbles to himself. He feels at his face; numb from the cold- he searches with his hands for a snout and sharp teeth; had there been, any such mask has now vanished. His mind collected, he slowly follows the hurried footprints of his beloved back to his own home.
Michael finally sits himself down, at the old Baldwin upright. He has carried in more wood than the room can comfortably bear and has fed the fire so hot that he and Robert are stripped down their undershirts and still sweat, Robert perfusely. Elizabeth and Johanna remain in their sweaters, appearing quite comfortable, a little cold if anything- it seems women always feel chilled, unless it is jumping into mountain fed waters, then suddenly they are some kind of artic creature or warrior inuit. No, this is not completely true either, it is something less predictable, there is the old woman who walks directly beneath the blazing sun in the hottest of summer days, with no umbrella to shade herself, and yet wears a scarf around her head, tied by the chin with a winter cap as well, a wool vest over long sleeves, full length heavy skirt over tights, she may be insane, perhaps, maybe the archetype, and her “opposite”, but honestly the same person, is the young woman dressed in open toed shoes with high heels and short skirt inches from the imagined, a top that merely adds color to her skin, certainly no protection from the wind and snow and ice that she parades across carelessly as if she were the some Red Sonya.
Michael sits himself down at the old Baldwin upright and meekly sounds out a melody that echoed in his head on his walk back to the house. Lightly, to avoid drawing the attention of Johanna and her parents who carry on in the kitchen. Though Michael plays quietly, ears will hear; as much as he’d like to fool himself, he knows they’ll hear, after all he can hear them:
Eilzabeth: “Rob! You were supposed to stir the pasta!”
Robert: “Look who’s coming to dinner, spaghetti dreadlock.”
Johanna laughs, Elizabeth whines annoyed but still humored.
Robert: “Any new boyfriends Jo?”
Elizabeth: “She’s with Joseph, Rob.”
Robert: “Sure, but he’s been in Australia all year.”
Robert: “Yeah. He’s probably met a girl or two- on second thought he probably hasn’t. I would have. So? Meet anyone Jo? Romance keeps inspiration burning, and this winter has been so cold already. And you can’t possibly go your whole life with one boy- I mean I think Joseph is great, I hope you guys end up getting hitched and pop out some grand-kids for your mom and me-”
Elizabeth: “Rob, it’s fine if she and Joseph-”
Johanna: “I don’t even know whats happening with me and Joseph.”
Johanna: “Never mind, forget it.”
Robert: “You two on the rocks? Is he doing that micro bionic yoga no sex thing again?”
Elizabeth: “Jo, we’ve got dinner covered. Go see that Michael has the stove filled properly.”
Robert: “Make sure he’s not burning down the house.”
Johanna comes close. Michael continues to play, acting as if he doesn’t know she is there, he can see her shadow on the wall, he can feel her, as if she is leaning against his back, her warm breath, from her mouth and her chest, her lungs, deep.
He stops abruptly: “hello again,” trying to be clever or cool, coming across odd, creepy even.
“Hello again.” She is further away than he had known, she is neither impressed nor turned off, but there is silence, he had hoped she would make some comment about his playing, an apology for interrupting, a request for him to continue, that she may lay upon the couch beside him and drift off to the careful arrangement of notes making melodies, his delicate touch, simple and beautiful, slow falling snow drops laying a blanket over the deep breathing beast, calming him, keeping his mind and movements tame. She smiles, he blushes with down turned eyes.
Instead, she stands some distance away, saying “hello again” in reference to their formal greeting only minutes before, not to their exchange amidst the trees, neither to the exchange in waking life nor to the one in dreams. Michael arrived back at the house, a frightening shadowy giant coming up the moonlit hill, though inside the house he stands no taller than an average man, shorter in the eyes of some, on the hill: lumbering, the great trees a distance off and below, his ax light in his strong hands… Robert greets him at the door with a grin that is both knowing and welcoming, then Elizabeth comes with a cup of tea, to warm the encroaching frost bite and to ground the laborer, something delicate to reduce his size that he might fit through the house without clumsy swinging of his inflated weight. Once he is acclimated, shrunk and something resembling civilized, Robert calls his child from her room.
Introductions are made, “Michael, this is my beautiful and brilliant daughter Johanna. Johanna, this is the homeless man we found in the barn. Ha! Ha! No, no, this is Michael, your adopted brother, and no more a wildman than your father was before your mother found me.”
“Not half as bad,” Elizabeth chimes in from the kitchen.
“Yes, yes, well I’m well tamed now… Johanna, help your mother and me in the kitchen. Michael, you can load up the fireplace, then take it easy, you look like the day’s beaten you to shit!”
“A pleasure meeting you Michael.”
Now, “hello again” ‘s.
“So you passed out in the barn?”
“Ha! Ha!” to discharge some discomfort, “yeah,” quietly.
“Why?” not to press or cause Michael distress, straight forward curiosity, a girl who can not fathom this boy, or has not (will not) stretch her mind to dark places. He would later think he could understand why an electric outlet would choose its role in life better than the role Johanna chose for herself, for now he understands her clearly, or at least makes no effort to prevent seeing.
Why? Michael searches for an answer, he goes to speak assuming the words are there or will come if he opens his mouth- they do not, so he lets out an empty breath and takes in another hoping this one has some ideas in it. The air is bad, or wrong- it smells nice, warm, rose, wood, slightly molding instruments, but his thoughts are stifled, muddy, lost. He had a reason, he was sure, and now he can find no explanation, something else, some dreadful bloated worm or choking cloud in his brain. This is new, as old and sick as the soil of the first tendered garden, grown over again and again by inbred brothers and hybrids that leech from the earth the same blood every season, growing larger and weaker every day on now waterless sand, as old as civilization, but new to Michael, to his heart at least, it is familiar to his gut or somewhere in his mid and low back, some ancient and forgotten curse that has been there as long as man has existed; born into him. He is desperate for words, the silence is unbearable, suffocating. “I’m sorry!” he blurts out. It is all he can think to say.
“If you are ashamed then don’t tell.”
Shame! Is that what has over come our boy? That’s for the tail tucked dog, not the proud and vicious wolf. He takes a sip of tea from his dainty floral print cup, then flinches back suddenly- still too hot.
Over a pleasant meal Robert and Elizabeth ask Johanna the typical questions parents ask their children: some redundant or obvious, seemingly posed simply to hear their daughter speak, other painfully oblivious to the workings of the modern world. With little resistance from Johanna they refrain from dwelling on the topics. Conversation finds its way to Johanna’s ‘Art and Literature during the Age of Expansion’ class, a subject all think Michael will find interest engaging in: the move to the wilds and the America’s; homesteading; the enthusiasm behind the ‘first’ technologies; the music and art that were born of the same era. They would hope to include him in the discussion so that he is not left as if a ghost in their company.
Speaking or not speaking he is content, leaned back in his chair taking small bites of millet bread, looking at each person who talks, with some distance but some love as well. Robert’s beard has collected a bit of dinner for itself but Michael admires the coarse beast. He’d like to grow one himself but his facial hair still comes in too sparse. As gentle as Robert’s eyes sit in his head he speaks quite the opposite, as though he’ll finish each sentence with “God damn it!” Elizabeth’s voice is much kinder, soothing to the ears. She is beautiful for her age as well, in fact she beautiful for any age. After she speaks her pupils roll back and the lids flicker as if in seizure.
“I’ve read of that being common in girls of esteemed families.”
“What is that?”
“The rapid batting of your eyes.”
“What? Oh yes, yes, I forget that I do that. Robert has pointed it out to me on occasion.”
“In stories I’ve read written in the late 1800’s girls would do that same thing, but they would try not to. I assume that it was considered undesirable to have a visible lack of bodily control. But in these same stories men always found it disarming and endearing. Are you of old blood?”
Elizabeth laughs a moment then answers “yes.”
Michael is quiet again for a while longer. The food is warm and heavy in their bellies, tongues are slowed. Quiet wraps the room, a large blanket, just the sound of mouths chewing, some louder than others. Here is the comfort Michael has found in this home. They sit and hold each other up in the silence. Here he could live forever. This man his father and friend, this woman his mother, and the girl the proof of dreams- manifest reality. He gazes her way a long while. She returns glances and smiles, not shy ones but as relaxed as a dear friend would. He can see the old blood in her too, her slender fingers and long neck, her seemingly deliberate gestures.
Breaking the silence, but with a soft-spoken question: “Do you dance ballet?”
“Yes,” with an unchanging face, composed and smiling at contentment.
“I studied for a while to be a ballet accompanist,” he.
“On the piano?” she.
“Yes for classes,” he.
“You are a fan of the ballet then?” Elizabeth chimes in.
“No, well some of them I enjoy, but the classes are what strike me. Behind those doors one becomes witness to the stark contrast between perfect grace and form, and the crude slouched and lazy. Carelessly exhibiting these two extremes side by side makes recognizing magnificence as clear as clean water or warm sunshine. It gives a depth of understanding to these movements: as uptight as the training is, these are the greatest physical representations of love.” A month with Michael and still he can surprise the Strait’s. Robert laughs thoroughly amused and charmed, Johanna smiles too, Elizabeth is enthralled.
A clamor of knocks against the kitchen door and the blanket is torn from round Michael’s mind, he is shut out from this pleasant home. Johanna springs from her seat to answer her beckon call. She squeals out a bit of delight and lets the man’s out-stretched arms around her, she returns an embrace forever.
When at last their arms find their own bodies, they come back to acknowledge those others in their company.
“Good evening Mrs. Strait, Mr. Strait.”
“Joseph, how many years now and still!” Elizabeth.
“Joseph, how the hell are you?” (God damn it!) Robert.
“Fine sir.” Joseph.
“Joseph really, call him Robert, your a man now anyway.” Elizabeth.
“I don’t know about all that now! Ha! Ha!” Robert.
“Ha. Ha. Yes ma’am, Mrs. Elizabeth I mean.” Joseph.
“Joseph sit down, eat something,” Robert. “This here is Michael. He’s been doing your work while you’ve been at school.”
“Austria actually. I studied abroad this semester.”
“Robert you knew that, his poetry was published in the Villacher,” Elizabeth.
“Couldn’t read any of it, all in German.”
Joseph takes off his coat to hang it along side his hat, removed long before Johanna had opened the door. Turning to Michael, “Micah? It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope you have a little work left for me.”
“Oh, don’t dirty your hands for the sake of a couple lowly laborers,” Robert delivering his fatherly sarcasm.
“Daddy!” Johanna objects in her daughterly fashion.
“Mr. Strait, really I’d love to do some honest work. It’s been too long since I’ve swung a hammer or an ax.”
“There is plenty of wood to be cut. Too much to do even with this work horse on board,” Robert says patting Michael on the back. “Your help will be much appreciated Joseph.”
“Thank you Sir.”
“Hello,” Michael mutters uncertain that anyone has heard.
To Joseph: “You weren’t there during the riots were you?” Elizabeth asks knowingly. She has heard much of his exploits from his own parents.
“Protests really. It was only a result of police instigation that violence came to pass.”
“You were there Joseph?”
“Sure I was; you must agree that our government hangs over Austria: a tyrannical beast. I would have been arrested too if not for immunity.”
“Arrested?” She asks, repeating in this way. Robert laughs, humored by everything this night.
Michael glances between each face, “Johanna has forgotten I am here,” he thinks.
Johanna proudly, to her mother: “Joseph defended another young man from being beat to death by a cop!”
Joseph turns his eyes down, an approach towards humility? He raises them quickly enough; inspired by righteousness and justification for those punches he threw. Even if the officer had needed medical attention afterwards and though the young man was struck down again only minutes later. “Johanna had pride in my heroics; a man’s duty,” he thinks. Robert does not laugh. His expression is regretful acceptance: “a man’s duty,” he’d settle for.
Politics, this is road conversation is forced; happily boring, regurgitated opinions aired in a tone trained and mimicked rather than naturally conceived, inspired, far from the grown and expressed yearning flamed up inside Michael when pondering family- or Joseph as he thought of the officer’s broken helmet and head. I’d recount bits of their liberal wit if I myself could ever focus on these topics. Even mid conversation I’ve found my mind wandering or wondering some other thing.
Joseph and Robert command the words; Michael is silent, alienated. He couldn’t be bothered with a thought neither beautiful nor romantic; a primal thought at least! Now it is his peace that’s been taken; she as well- engaged, laughing, enamored.
Michael scratches at his neck and arms. His skin feels very tight, his bones and muscles are shrivled and dusty beneath. Far from the power he had floating above the table, watching distantly, able to command his heart and the expressions on his face. Now, he is very much in his body- but hardly present either, agitated and struggling between observing and reacting. She is bewitching him in some way, he’d blame the caffeine, three cups of tea, though he’s never been troubled with that before- perhaps it is the tea and sitting very still, and her, those three ingredients making for some chemical reaction that makes his nerves tremble and his breath want to gasp, and the inerds shrivle.
She smiles, and bats down her eyes, and wipes her mouth after small nibbles of food. Oh for a moment- no, no, that is tortured! Perverted! To betray yourself? That would only hurt you in the end. Push down those thoughts.
“Michael? How about you?”
“What? Oh, isnt there a hog I could vote for? No, I won’t choose a demon over a devil. Just do right and try not to do harm. Whats wrong with living ideals? That ridiculous, beaten down broken bullshit! Why wouldn’t I live true to my heart? Why did you have to come in and fuck up the conversation? Are you trying to impress us? None of this matters! It’s just mental masturbation. And its messed everything up. Why don’t you try levitating or walking through walls, then maybe you’d be doing something entertaining at least. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. No, no, we weren’t really talking about anything. No, I’m tired thats all. I don’t feel right. I’m no example either. I’m all messed up. I do nothing. I should have said nothing. I’m sorry Johanna, Miss Elizabeth, Rob, Joseph.”
Michael buries himself in shame. The others continue, amiably discussing Michael’s points in a less animated and significantly more controlled/studious manner. Michael doesn’t care. He’s done.
“Excuse me,” he carries some dishes to the kitchen then slips out the back down and into the snow buried rose garden.
He growls, less than he’d like so that he isn’t heard. He punches a tree hard enough to change the color of his hand but not to break a bone. He is deeply frustrated but in acts of violence, though common to him, he performs with many reservations.
“I am sorry tree,” he whispers slumped over a lower branch posing defeat.
Some stars shine bright. Scattered clouds, flurries. Michael walks the gardens. He sits upright and composed upon a wooden bench. He breathes out heavily speaking a sigh joined by another subdued growl and throws himself to his back gazing up.
“What a damn fool you are Michael!” He speaks louder this time, maybe hopeful that someone will hear him? “She’d come to me now, if it weren’t for unwarranted fear. She’d come to me and admit that she recognized me too. Not from these woods but from those in the dream we both must have dreamt. A dream like that I could never conjure in my mind alone. She’d confide in me the boredom of a dreamless life with him. She’d admit the horrors of making love for the first time, that she had only craved kindness, romance and touch. She had only come to enjoy the act by desensitization, indulgence and saturation. Not unlike working on a rainy day; it is best to get muddy right off the bat. But once soiled, innocence can not be washed clean or thrown out and bought new like a pair of pants or goulashes.”
Exhausted, he quiets himself and his mind. Letting the remains of presence go his ideas drift to believing other things, the dreams of seasons to come. The last sounds he hears are those of snow settling around his ears and the applause given for Joseph’s piano playing inside the house- no composition Michael recognizes but quite nice he’ll admit here alone, then sleep.
“The warmer spring rains, a couple walks close to one another. The father carries a sleeping child over his shoulder as he would a most precious bag of rice or potatoes. These pleasant showers cast light tones of blue amidst the warm air. The wandering perfumes of fertility: blossoms open, people shed clothing, and the gentle breeze carries the aroma that result.
“It is on evenings like these that the hero accepts a second and more personal debtof gratitude, payment for his recent chivalry. After a late night strolling about the streets, as if composed of lunacy or inspiration, boredom would catch up to me (before fatigue even) and I would retire. Creeping into my home I make effort to keep the door from creaking or from having my feet step too loudly as I climb the stairs. But for as careful a method as I had taken there is still a clamor- not from any of my actions. Hero and she whom he has saved giggle and breathe heavily from his bedroom, even at such an hour.
“‘He is proud,’ she’d think, ‘or I have made him this way; I on the other hand am confused. Happy yet distressed.’ Perhaps a piercing pain felt in the heart? She has certainly taken a loss with being saved.
“‘She is collected,’ his thoughts. ‘That I could enter her life so full of glitz and glamour and she would keep it so secretive. She confides in no one, nor does she have that need. She must have seen things spectacular: goats and wolves or monsters and ghosts.'”
Michael wakes from his own shiver. Heat was with him when he was angry, now he is calm and cold. The moon is high; this is all he watches. A door opens and closes again, carefully. It is Johanna who walks towards him; he can hear it in her approach, always light but lively still. Now it is her face he sees and not the moon.
“Hello!” After a sudden jump, landing so that she is stooped over him.
“Hello again,” he tries to say but his words are stuck behind an hour’s sleep. He clears his throat and tries again: “Hello again,” delivered well enough this time though the wit may have been lost by the delayed delivery.
She sits upon the bench; he resumes his gaze at the moon though he’ll glance her direction often.
“Joseph is gone?”
“Yes. What did you think of him?”
“He seems nice,” lying through his teeth in that same effeminate voice. “I was a real jack-hole tonight.”
“Jack-hole?” She laughs. He chuckles a little too but is more concerned with his nerves and less with his stupid words. Then she offers her opinion: “You remind me a lot of Joseph. He is very idealistic too. It has been good for him in many ways to study these disciplines. It’s good to be excited about something.”
Michael has no clue of what she is talking about (why really) but he pretends he does- to Johanna (he pretends) and to himself. When enamored there lies a fog, not over the mind as is with labor, but mysterious clouds shadowing reason. The forest is this way too, on this night atleast, a thick mist containing the trees.
“There is an enchanted place,” he points to where no moonlight strikes the forest floor. Michael is sitting now and she is quiet. The evening is right for the balance between curiosity and fear. It is right to suspend belief and reason. Johanna realizes this, maybe not so consciously that she would compare how she feels normally to the impulses that drive her sight and understanding at this moment. But she recognizes that they should walk there tonight; the curiosity and fear are such that they cannot refuse. The mist is about their bodies, as it was Michael’s mind, as it is upon Johanna’s judgment, as they have started on their evening ‘stroll’. Snow piles, tall and a brighter shade of dark, lead their way acting as the stone free walls of the older cattle farms. Just like these walls in fact; through an ancient cattle-shoot they are led about.
The whisper of the wind and its howl march across their ears in deep one-tone strikes; there is a flower (who only that morning found bloom) cut for its beauty; there is a pristine bird of perfect white struck dead by a stone thrown by a boy, as he was himself struck by her beauty; and the young girl and older man who has forgotten who he is and where he should be. What is he to do? He’d escape if not for these walls. She is beauty despite her age, and it is not for lust that he is mad but becomes as much as he has an artists mind but never is he satisfied; as he has an artist’s mind he’ll never be satisfied.
They stand before a wide lake. Its water is as black as black, and thin and cold. Johanna’s hand brushes his; he swallows down a flame that holds its fire even in that cold black! He wants to shake until he bursts but instead remains as he was, motionless. Their anxiety is the mist itself. They turn to walk a path around the lake and find the air a burden to walk through and heavy in their lungs. Michael notices the skeleton shadows of Johanna’s face looking at his, he notices because he is staring at her. She’d deliver longing verse of passion if she had anything prepared.
Around they labor on, along the woven root banks. Along they labor on, and out of the contained is born terrific open spaces. Johanna turns over saturated by inspiration, she grabs Michael’s hand, he leans to press his face against her palm, and then just as quickly she is unsure and searches to be and appear uninspired. Michael nudges her down turned chin up with his own head and rubs his face against hers. He feels her smile. Burning in the chest: a coal, red and raw swallowed down with water hot to numb his mouth and warm the ribs. His face rosy red, his back cold and numb by the powdering snow.
The last cry of a chicken, the fox has had his meal; he walks slowly with a full stomach and leftovers to drag. His crying is also over for this night; now he should sleep; morning is only a few hours away; and he’ll rise as early as the thoughts of rising conjured by our sun. He’d not sleep at all if not to finish one day and start another.
Michael brings down his ax with a fever and bellows out self-congratulating laughter for each log he splits with one swing. If the ax is buried in the green oak (block) so that it stands on its own this brings one bellow more.
The sun has hardly shown his face and already Michael has finished half a day’s work. It is gratifying yes, but today he labors for more than labor’s sake- he looks for Johanna’s praise. He woke that morning as early as it was late when he retired the night before. Johanna was sound asleep and would remain there in pleasant dreams until hours later. They slept in a bed together and were close the whole night. They had embrace once- to him as though they had held one another a lifetime. “Married even! Ha! Imagine such a thought from a boy who is so opposed to such institutions. Still, we spent a lifetime in each other’s arms until tired and old. In this night I nearly forgot who I was. All I could remember was us together.” These thoughts are present as he swings the ax; in this way his pace never slows and his strength never weakens; labor for Johanna.
Late in the morning, Michael wears no shirt. Steam rises from his skin. He is burning insane with glee; the logs: a growing mountain. His arms are loose and powerful; if he keeps on he’ll have the entire winter’s wood cut by the day’s end. Johanna comes to him. For this he’ll yield, though one more drop of the ax for show. He stands proudly leaned against the stick.
“My gosh!” she begins. He is well prepared for her astonishment, astonishment that would surely turn to respect and later affection. “My gosh, you’ll freeze.”
He is taken off guard but responds: “It became hot doing all this work.”
“You have cut quite a bit. I’d say you have a good chance finding work under a lumberjack.”
Under a lumberjack? He is dumbfounded and insulted. But he can not argue his worth; you can not argue how another sees, and now the sweat on his chest is beginning to freeze. He won’t put on his shirt; he won’t give her that! “If I…” he starts but stops. The words are impossible for his nerves, but in somewhat comic tones, freed of some passion he’s able to; in a quivering voice, “if I only had a horse, I’d storm up this lawn, sweep you away.” He immediately makes excuses, amendments, for what he just said (his desperate words), “I’ve thought of that before, I’ve long wanted to do such a thing… In general, not for any girl in particular, well you I’ve thought of. For you I’d be moved to perform such an act.” He closes his eyes to escape for a moment into darkness.
She smiles as if to say, “you’re beautiful and at the same time sickeningly clichéd,” but Michael is sincere in his words and much of the appeal in such a deed is its embarrassing familiarity.
He changes the topic, or drives at a new angle, “what makes you cry or laugh out loud? What boils passion in you and what do you long for? She answers something about a slip of words or a pun that made her laugh, but he drives at this angle again using many of the same words. She pauses and before she can think, though she thinks quickly, quicker than he perhaps, he lays the question before her again.
“I have never felt passionate about anyone or anything,” she admits. “This is not to say I don’t care; I care very much.”
“But you don’t have goals or an ultimate direction?”
“No, do you?”
“Yes, well I had one, but I am the shell of a man.”
“I don’t understand you, are you so hateful of yourself?”
“I am a failure, but let’s not get into that.”
“What have you failed? Last night we had a strange and beautiful adventure. Maybe you’ll find work in town and get an apartment, get married to a nice girl.”
No, she shakes her head upset that he’d put her on the spot in this way.
“I’m sorry, Joseph then.”
“Joseph,” she takes a moment, “he has read to me poetry, poems written and published for my sake; read them to me at my window,” she speaks in defense though ultimately she sees it as ‘impossible'; there is pity in her voice.
“He is not your man?”
“But he is in love with you.”
“I love Joseph.”
Michael stops pressing the issue. He can easily see that he’ll only be further confused, her way of drawing logic from some other place.
“Many people haphazardly make their way through their lives, wandering aimlessly. Some of them live content, some do not. But for all of them their is an uncertain end. For those who look towards the future and hold great concern with the past and have a place for themselves and ambition in their own existence, who pray to God: ‘It is not right that my friends or I should die yet!’ Not for selfish reasons, though there is that, but that we have much to do for this world. Our jobs are unfinished. And whether these people should live a long time or die all of a sudden there will certainly be climax and reflection and great concern and reverence for their ambitions and opinions that they held when alive. They become martyrs and legends through and through.” He doesn’t say this. He’d write this later, after she is gone, in a journal; Elizabeth would watch, impressed that he writes things down, his thoughts. But for now he is cold and too flustered- in anger he finds no words, only babbling foolishness.
Across the field comes Joseph upon a horse. They smirk at irony, Michael and Johanna.
“Good day Michael!” he cries out after an atheletic dismount. “Hello Johanna,” in a gentle voice; Michael recognizes it, the same as his own, meek.
Johanna reaches out for an embrace, she and Joseph. He makes no hesitation. Michael swings down the ax and splits the log and the block.
Joseph and Michael finish what’s left of the firewood.
“You sure can swing the hell out of that ax.”
“Thanks Joseph, you too.”
“No, but you can labor on. I have to catch breath. For every hour I’ve spent in the library I have a dozen breaths more than you.”
“It’s all I’ve been doing the last few weeks.”
Michael hopes his face is already flushed by the cold. He tries to hold his smile to a modest grin.
They move on to other duties: the barn’s repairs. Here Michael takes notice of Joseph’s skill: every nail sunk in two strikes. Michael bends a dozen trying for the same speed.
“You are lucky to have grown up here,” Michael. “I never learned any trade or of the wilds, only from stories I read.”
“I don’t know much about the wilds, but I do love it here. Though perhaps it is better from where you stand, an outsider coming in.”
“The grass is greener?”
“‘A prophet can perform no miracles in his own country.’ I’d like to prove this statement false, but it seems I am burdened here as if I have no strength or space to mover and so I have the urge to keep moving. But I feel as though I am being driven away from my friends. I am shadowed by a notion and a recalling of my shortcomings and failures, but my friends claim that no one doubts me and that my wanting to accomplish great tasks is foolhardy. I need labor in my life. If I don’t work I begin to shake in the arms. I’ve thought about becoming a furniture maker, I’ve made some nice tables and chairs.”
“What did I say?”
“Oh, no, nothing. Don’t mind me, sometimes I just laugh. It’s just I have never figured you a man with difficulties. Your like a Prince Charming, or thats what I thought. We’re more alike than I ‘d like to admit.”
Joseph laughs a moment then continues, “it is disturbing to me that the courtship process is so heavy with sickness; that a boy should be chastised for liking a girl too much; that objectives exist other than love.”
“Joseph, lets not talk about that. Thats a bit delicate; I am only starting to like you.”
“Regardless of what the conditions are: you are in love, I am in love- I’m ok with that; I don’t know why, I guess love itself transcends the foolish limitations of the practical or rational. Forget playing it right, avoid conflict and pain. You choose a goal and go for it relentlessly.”
“Do not overlook the journey itself. After all that is most of your life. You should try to enjoy every aspect: the losses as well as the joy. And of course you are still responsible for you actions, consider others over yourself.”
“No, of course, this does not admit reckless abandon, only allows for fantastic living. Idealistic conditions do not happen, they are attained by hard work.”
“Here we speak the same language.”
“Ove man’s work.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Murder? Mankind’s self-destructive nature? The effects of death upon the living?”
“More than anything.”
The day ends and Michael takes his nightly walk. The woman no older than a girl who stands amongst drawbridge trampling horses leans against a tree.
“Will you pull my hair?”
“Pull your hair?”
“It’s my favorite massage.”
“You’ll have to teach me.”
He shows her how to pull with entire handfuls so that it is pleasant, not sharp. It is a comfort: touch.
“Are you stressed?” she asks.
“Perhaps, but I don’t think so; I’m just trying to figure out where I have gone wrong. How have we gotten here?” He looks up and at the tall darkened trees, at a quiet stone farmhouse. “How many people manage walking this world alone? I am surely lost.”
“My standards, the expectation I have of myself have all but vanished. They come out as half formed words and in fragments at random moments. The ambitions, paths I had walked, have broken up, dissolved into unrealistic dreams. Reality should not stumble into dream, dreams should be forged solid.”
“There are those dreams you have while asleep.”
“Johanna? Oh how I’d say I love her. No! I have nothing to show for, to show her.”
“The fantastic and the beautiful things?”
“Perhaps, but not from me. Why should anyone listen to a shadow of a man?”
“No. There is Joseph. He is a good man. He would be good for her. I admit he is a better man than I. Well that is easy to admit. Further more he loves her and was there first. To try to take her would be cruel. She wouldn’t have me anyhow; she’s already turned me away. Or is it that she is too scared of what is strange and difficult or untrod? I’ve only shown her what is broken. No! There is Joseph.”
Michael walks from this place to where the starlight casts light. Robert’s land is beautiful, but here is not where he’d like to be. He closes his eyes tightly and returns to his dreams: Dutch windmills turn their mammoth sails; mammoths with only two legs, balanced on them like birds; a goat stands on the back of a mule; the children act foolishly and their foolish adults are swept by nostalgia, reflecting on their reckless youths; small men with mighty wills push boulders up mountains; some who flounder are moved by this romance and ambition and will learn the joy of labor; others die, forgotten quickly.
The sheep faced man and crying fox sing in a pathetic harmony. It is the guilty song of violence delivered. Michael opens his eyes awake in the garden. Behind taller and thicker bushes a hysterical voice carries on. It sounds as if a girl is crying but Michael soon recognizes it and is frozen; to bare witness. It is Joseph, his words broken by sobs, stammering over choked tears. “Yes, I want, to be, hero- a hero. There’s no, danger. There’s, nothing, lacking. You don’t need, the freak, who would stand, up and, face the dragon. You don’t, need, the boy, who, believe, believes in, dragons. You don’t need, the dream-er, who, thinking he may, reason with the beast. If there was, a monster, you’d want it slain. You’d love the hero, but also, be sad, sick, for, the cruelty. I raise my, fist for, your, honor, and lose, all of mine. I am, the beast. If distress, found you, I’d be fortunate, and, that makes me, the blame.”
She responds but her speech is calm and quiet and so Michael can not hear though his ears are burning to listen. They burn as his stomach churns. Joseph’s shouting cries again: “Why not, believe?… You don’t, love me! I love you! Johanna, I love you!”
“Pull yourself together Joseph!” this time loud enough.
“I love you! I love you!” he cries again and again and again, a complete lunatic destroyed. Michael clasps his hands to his ears to block out the horror but still he can hear Joseph. He beats his head to burst the eardrums but still Joseph cries on and on.
Michael flees again to the mist swallowed forest. He runs now, along deer trails, along the sides of steep hills. He wakes one who sleeps, startling Michael for a moment, but when she bolts he takes after with murder upon his lips. He chases until he has no spit and his chest burns. He falls to the ground and would cry had he any tears; the lack of these makes him worried too.
“Close you eyes, escape into darkness.” But there he only finds the clamor of enveloping crowds. Doubt. The weight of what he’s left behind and could not be. He screams and throws himself against trees and bangs his skull upon the dirt.
Then still, exhausted by his hysterics. He lies back and looks up to the sky. The moon has burnt a hole through the fog. It is so very bright, hot even against his face.
Robert sits with a book and looks out at Johanna and her mother; looks at them like strangers. He is a fearless man plagued by guilt. Joseph has gone away and will never return, will never return to Robert like he was. This bearded man would have, in his youth, been angry at this book for its paintings of tragedy and loss as beauty. Tonight he reads and takes note of this thought but is concerned more with clever plays on words and the historical accuracy of the story.
“Forgive me!” she cried out, the first expression of desperation that she had ever revealed. He had respected her unyielding happily contented demur, but it was suiting she should break role now that it was too late: the foolish bird leaps into the mouth of a delighted fox, delighted of course by his easily attained meal, the satisfaction of a weighty belly. But delight also being his typical disposition; the sun had shone glimpses of a divine kingdom, upon the drops of a past rain, upon the grass and budding branches of dogwoods and magnolia. Boy reels with joy as a witness, though he also regrets what he forgot. Regretful, but this was the most beautiful distraction yet. Shining upon him with a forgiving laughter he bellows back to the white streaming goodness in a lunatic’s hysterics.
Johanna sits fearfully alone in her bed, awoken by regret for a dream lost.
The brand new composition notebook holds Michael’s eyes. Words turn through his mind, rattling against his will to get out. A crumb of hope and respect holds this animal at bay. He sits silent, contemplative and will also throw out his arms and drop his head to the desk, then again be calm.
“Michael, we’re going to fulfill our ambitions and parade in our comradory and joy. You want to come?”
“No I’m cool.”
“You need anything?”
“…yeah, I’m writing,” oh how dearly he wanted to tell, but the words would not come, they’d sit in his stomach instead, acting heavy, now his friends have gone.
“Forgive me my sweet for what I am about to write. Do not chastise me because I seek refuge. I have become weak and have even developed the beginnings of resentment towards you; this I could never bear. Forgive me Lord that I doubt ‘the dream’, that my faith is one less than pure. Do not let this fool be damned to live out his own cursed story. Must life reflect fiction? If so, I’ll write a story of beauty and pleasantries alone. Give strength to a boy though he has faltered already. Show me to the dream again and I will not falter in its wake.”
He turns down the lamp and climbs into bed. The voices on the streets, pigeons nested in his walls, and the passing trolleys lull him to sleep, into hopeful sleep.