These three interweaving little stories were once inspired by three pieces of gorgeous music, written by the composer Jonathan Romeo: Entrance, Duet, and Cathedral. Perhaps they are now lost recordings.
A mother and daughter spent a summer on an island of birds and deer and wind and memory. A pale, light, blue summer, with sanddollars and starfish drying on the back porch and sometimes a crab caught and saved in a bucket by Sarah, the daughter, who was eight years old that summer and would never be eight like this again.
Ella was a painter who appreciated—no, who worshiped—-the colors of everything so brilliant, suffused in ocean island light. A painter who could spend an entire morning studying and painting sunlight against a potted plant or a bowl of lemons. She painted not objects so much as the difference between objects, the space between. She was fine. She listened to her daughter. She listened to the stillness in a painting. She listened to the stars. She was young too, in a different way.
The back window of the house on the island framed this: a sloping yard, the grass tough with harsh ocean air; a band of coastal bush; a blue band of sea; then, far out, a strip of sand bar; and over it, a block of sky. Cousins and aunts lived next door and down the road, and the uncles flew in from the city for the weekends and for two weeks in August. And the matriarch, Gana, who was still alive then and did not bake cookies nor smell of antiques or lace, but did tell fine stories—her theater-practiced hands shaping the words and framing the scenes by the fire on certain exclusive evenings.
Sarah was eight years old and would remember the summer—the stories, the stillness, the blue—not specifically, but as a feeling that once, as a child, had entered bloodstream and continued to flow through her life.
The moon had been waxing and now it was full. The sky was indigo and their two moon-y shadows were elongated like fingers across the yard, then the road, and then the field as they walked. Orion, paled by the moonlight, was barely aware. A white lawn chair glowed like there was a spotlight on it and the two went out to the woods at midnight—crossing yard, the road, the field, and then struggling through a border of brambles. Then, like entering a realm of imagination, they were in. And they were silently welcomed. And he made a fire and she gazed at its light, and the trees stretched into the full moon sky, breathing and speaking, thinking and listening. The sounds of trucks passing in the distance on route 29 were like whispers. The trees bent and loomed and one curved away as if trying to flee… “Like life,” he laughed. “We are rooted and sometimes we try to get away from those roots, but it is impossible.”
The space between two trees; the space between two words; the space between two bodies when they come together.
The fire was small and contained and secret that night in the woods, but it roared too. Before leaving, he dug a moat in the dirt around the fire’s embers, and hoped that it wouldn’t spread out of control.
No one died entirely during the quick war in that little country. You can still see them—the dead—drifting down the dirt roads, bent over in fields, in the branches of the avocado trees picking the fruit and sometimes laughing. They are like the reflection of a soaring bird on a window pane: an image caught in the periphery of vision, but when you turn to look, they are gone. In this country that does not exist in our world, the dead are half-alive, and the living are half-dead.
But there were times. After the party just before dawn, flood lights of a half-ruined city glittered across the valley below the house. We walked down the driveway to the car and stopped suddenly outside the gate. “Listen to that?” her friend whispered. Dogs were howling. A chilly breeze rose—the weird kind that feels like a solar eclipse or a nuclear bomb. “Listen to the Muslims praying,” she said.
Perhaps it was the prayers of Muslims that filled that pre-dawn valley, that’s what it seemed. It was not desperate, nor haunting, but there were no Muslims, and it was not present either. It was the voices of the past—-the threads of a thousand souls woven together—-whispering, gentle—a tapestry of another world that lives beyond our own (the way constellations are invisible in daylight, but there). It was the murmur of the past. It was the ghosts of a genocide, stained against the dawn.
There were no doors between the rooms in the house, and the windows were left open all summer. Ella hung the clothes out to dry on the line by the barn. Sarah, embarking on a project of crickets and moss and rocks and roots, felt, from the corner of her eye, the white sheets grow with the breeze and then settle.
The air doesn’t smell like the ocean in the dock/sailing lessons/yacht club way—Ella clipped a shoulder of Sarah’s little t-shirt on the line—which (her thoughts continued) is brackish and snobby. It is a democratic sea breeze, treating everyone equally, and (concluding her thought) she smiled a little, dropping the remaining laundry pins in the wicker basket, lifting the basket against her hip. Really, sometimes they way her thoughts unfolded was itself enough to amuse her.
She entered the house and entered the smell of wood and sand and beach rose and garlic lingering from last night’s dinner. Dinner. Dinner! It was Friday already! It was Friday, no? She looked around the room. She had had dinner with her sister on Tuesday, and Wednesday morning was the sailing lesson… but the memories of the afternoons blurred since they had arrived on the island. She furrowed her brows, adjusting to thought like a raft on a suddenly choppy sea. She stood for moment suspended, a feeling that no longer estranged her. She knew to just wait it out.
Yes, she concluded. It was Friday. And that meant that the uncles were landing for the weekend, and the cousins and aunts and Gana would all be wandering in, one by one, two by two, three by three, for dinner. She started to sift through the possibilities in her thoughts… Was that blue fish still in the freezer?
Sarah—with crickets, with moss and rocks and various roots—rushed in the door. “Mom,” she declared, breathless, rushing past. “Mom, if I could be any animal, I would be a bird. And”—she was placing her collection, her jar of crickets, on the table—“know what I would do? I would fly up to the blue ceiling and see what’s up there in the other world. And Mom? Mom!” (Ella was listening, opening the freezer door and extracting a white slab of fish) “… then I would… then I would come back. And tell you.”
He took her to a river that cut through a valley; a valley that separated mountains. He carried her across dusk and into the realm of night. He carried her to the crack that that’s through everything—the fissure between joy and demise, where cruelty becomes kindness. He carried her to the place that’s hidden in everything, the place where the light gets in.
Two went out to the woods at midnight—crossing the fields, through the threshold of thistle difficult to cross—the thorns caught her hair which he carefully untangled. And, like entering a realm of imagination, they were in. And they were silently welcomed. And hours later, the dawn broke a rift through the starsl. She heard the whispers and she watched the sky tear the edges off the night.
A boy in the country with the war stood in a school playground looking up into the branches of a tree. It had been two years since the war. His family was gone. He stood by himself while around him the children ran and the girls whispered and the boys who had a ball kicked it into a goal and then scattered. But the one boy stood still, separate, oblivious to the commotion, and talked to himself or to the tree or maybe he was singing. I was just driving by. It was a fleeting moment, one of those rare moments where life truly presides. (The moment between an inhale and an exhale; a pause for thought mid-sentence; the music of silence between two notes of a flute.)
That boy—standing aside, talking to trees—will have a difficult life, seeing things the way he does. That boy will have a beautiful life, seeing things the way he does.
The mother and daughter, Ella and Sarah, took the sailboat out after lunch. Maybe I should just buy lobster for tonight and be done with it, Ella thought, pushing the red dingy away from the shore. Sarah was a life vest with a child’s head on top, sitting upright and looking forward, at once excited by the ocean and lulled by its soft waves. The day wobbled slightly as the wind caught the sail and the boat began to creep out. The girl’s hair—so blond, so delicate—seemed translucent. Please world, love my girl, thought the mother, who was young in a different way, and she turned to the horizon and decided ok she would pick up lobster at the shack and put the pot on at 5:00. Lobster would be fine. With blue fish pate and a few baguettes ready for the hungry uncles. And an eye on Charlie, who would eat bluefish pate until he was sick (and she remembered that night in her sister’s bathroom, the porcelain and the little boy with a green face. No, she thought, he would probably never eat anything bluefish again). The tomatoes from the garden—how they lined the windowsill that morning like little hobbits—so sweet! So warm, bright, and innocent.
Everything was Picasso-blue in the moonlight including the long shadow of their bodies. The trains do not hesitate across the night—do not hurry, do not rest. One long melancholy toll of a horn broke through the silent stars, and Casseopia, forever humiliated, spun between conspiracy and virtue.
“Perhaps God is a bird.” I read that in a poem once and it seemed the next sentence to put down.
Perhaps God is a bird, and flight is the part of Him that is in each of us. The ability to move is a blessing. The ability to fly.
And, with the lobsters steaming red, the tomatoes sliced, the corn on the cob ready to go in and the blue fish pate displayed elegantly—with dinner almost ready and the block of sky beginning to turn the faintest orange, the first arriving cousin swept in through the screen door, looked around for something he didn’t know what, and hugged her.
It is winter, and everything is blooming. It is night, and everything is being born. There is one red leaf on a branch outside my window and sometimes—often—I mistake it for a cardinal.
I get lazy sometimes. I can daydream for hours or months. I am very old now, and finally just starting my life.
Time does not unfold like this in real life. But this is a book, and you are here now. Please don’t leave. Let the water on the stove boil a little longer (it’s only steam). Let the phone ring. Let the hooves of your childhood canter. Let the trees speak; let the constellations sing. Let the wind, and the train, and the stillness. Let the silence between two notes.