I’m lying on the cool slope, next to the most beautiful girl I will ever meet. Both the grass and her hair, luminous under the moon’s stare, are tickling my cheek. She shifts slightly and I admire the elegant shrug of her shoulder.
“Hey, what time is it?” she whispers.
“About two thirty, give or take,” I murmur.
“Okay,” she says. For a while we admire the night sky. In these wetlands we are spared the glare of artificial lights, and the stars seem embedded in a crystalline canopy of constellations.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask.
“Oh, back when I wrote poetry, this would’ve been exactly the kind of scene I’d want.”
“Why not write it now?”
“I don’t write anymore.”
“It doesn’t work for me anymore. The words are never as haunting as the memory—I don’t want to mar the image.”
“But the point of writing something down is so it stops bothering you—that’s why it seems less haunting after you’ve written it down.” A breeze blows through the cattail stalks and rolls over us, and her scent mixes with the musk of earth. I can feel her warmth in contrast with the cool air, and I glance at her.
She takes a moment to respond. “I guess I want to be haunted, then,” she says quietly. I’m sure now that I love her; I just need to tell her.
“Come on, I’ll help you. I’ll start.” I clear my throat, “In the moonlight the cattails sway…”
She just laughs at my ‘poetry voice’. “I’m just cursed to carry around these memories.”
“If you insist,” I say, with mock resignation, “Speaking of curses, I think I might be cursed, too.”
“Sure, and how’s that?” she turns to face me.
“My natural charm,” I grin, and she rolls her eyes. “People I say ‘see you tomorrow’ to keep disappearing.”
“And you never see them again?”
“Right. I had the same bus driver for three months, then one day on a whim I said, ‘thanks, see you tomorrow’ and the next day, he’s not driving the bus anymore. I spent a week getting to know the new driver and then I said ‘see you tomorrow’ to him too. Now I have yet another bus driver.”
“Have you tried it on people other than just bus drivers?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve also had a librarian, a waitress, and an intern disappear. I was planning on removing that phrase from my vocabulary forever,” I pause for effect, “but then I had a far better idea.”
“I decided I’d just say it to people I don’t like.”
“Oh, I remember now, you mentioned trying an experiment yesterday. So did it work?”
“I guess the curse wasn’t fooled by your reverse psychology.”
“No, I suppose not. Would have been nice, though.”
“Yeah. Did I ever tell you about the time my mom was pregnant with my sister?”
“No. Tell me about it?”
“Sure, your experiment reminded me that I tried something similar. You’ll like this, it was when I still wrote.”
“All right then, let’s hear this story.”
“When I was younger I had some fanciful ideas, and—”
“So you were a child once too.”
“Oh hush, now this is going to sound ridiculous.”
“Go on, who’s to think you’re ridiculous out here?”
“You are. Well, anyway, back then, I used to write a lot of poetry. I was eleven at the time, and I was lonely. We had a large house, an old victorian mansion. It was usually empty, since my parents were always out on business—mergers and acquisitions. My brother was sixteen and he always had places to be with girls his age. I really wanted a little sister, or brother, I wasn’t about to be choosy about my company,” she pauses.
“Are you more choosy now?”
“Lucky me.” I grin.
She smiles, then goes on, “Behind the house there was a creek I’d often go to. There was a spot where the wind had blown down an oak tree, and it spanned the creek. I’d sit on that tree to be alone.” She paused again, looking wistful. “And I would just dangle my feet in the water.”
“To be alone. That explains my meeting you out here,” I say and she smiles. Traces of her wist remain, in her eyes, the corner of her lips, the arch of her brow.
“Yes, it does. Anyway, one day I found a notebook at the other end of the tree, hidden where the tree had been uprooted. It was new, there was only one story in it.”
“What was the story?”
“It was about a Djinni that searched the world from the Andes to Ural and from Copenhagen to Vienna searching for someone to articulate a beautiful vision. He would make this vision reality. But the story wasn’t complete—when I found it, it was left off right in the middle.”
“Left off where?”
“I remember the exact sentence still. ‘Atahqua considered the young girl before him. He beckoned the child to speak,’ and that’s where it left off.”
“So you filled in the next part?”
“Naturally. I filled in a prose poem for the little girl’s dialogue. Of course, I imagined I was her, and I wrote about wanting a little sister, then I put the book back where I’d found it. I dreamt that it was a magic book that answered my wishes. But even then I thought it was childish, so I didn’t think much of it.”
“Yes. But when I found the notebook a week later there was new chapter written. The Djinni granted the wish, and the characters were ecstatic. But what’s more, my mother announced she was pregnant that same day.”
“Of course, it was pure coincidence. She was pregnant even before I’d found the notebook. But given my limited information there was only one logical conclusion. The book was clearly magical.”
“Clearly,” I tease.
“Clearly, and—hey, I was eleven, okay?”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that came with possessing a magic book. I spent an entire month devising paradise, and then writing it down in florid detail.”
“Tell me what paradise was like, later.”
“Sure. I went and wrote everything into the book, and waited. After a week, nothing had changed.”
“What about the book?”
“Well, the story in the book continued, and it was beautiful, but it was just a book.”
“But who was writing it? Unless the book was magical, just not how you thought.”
“Ha, no, I snuck up on the author one day when he was writing.”
“Oh? What was he like?”
“Jonas was nice.” She half shrugs, and looks down.
She touches her shoulder, as if to brush something aside. “Have you thought about how crazy it is that we met?”
“I have, a bit. What are the odds that two night walkers would meet out here?”
“Well, probably not that different from two space probes finding each other up there—” she gestures at the sky. “Such a huge expanse of emptiness.” I roll onto my back and gaze up. The night is a soft wash of the deepest of blues and purple, freckled with distant galaxies. “Except instead of exchanging golden etched disks of our cultural achievements, we made do with awkward greetings.” I chuckle.
“All of that space up there. It’s not exactly empty. Just—lifeless. In the gaps there are points of frantic activity, but not the kind a probe is looking for.” We lay still. I hear the cicadas’ cadence, and the loons’ lament. I can feel the breathing of the marsh, its soft exhale.
“Makes me appreciate this warm earth here. Can you hear how alive this place is? Up there everything is so harsh. You have your cold vacuums and your hot stars, but there is no temperance.”
“You know, I think our odds were better than the space probes have, now that we’ve considered it.”
“Yeah, guess so,” she says, sounding a bit distant. I lose myself in the surroundings, and try to work up my courage.
“What do you think of self-fulfilling prophecy?” I say, turning over to look at her again.
“What’s the prophecy?”
“If someone thought he’d always be alone, and because of that he’s bashful and quiet, for example.”
“I think that’s rubbish.”
“Most prophecies come true even if you fight them. But with a prophecy like that, fighting back is all you need to break free.”
“All right, then.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Aliza, would you mind if I told you a story?” I finally manage.
“Have I ever?” She props her head under her arm and looks at me. I shift a bit, flustered.
“So,” I break eye contact. “For many months, before I’d met you, I waited with this cute girl for the bus in the morning. I got to know her a bit. I was always reserved, but she would initiate conversations. Gradually, we got to be friends. We’d talk each morning, and it was nice. I…”
I search for the right way to say it. “I had a painful crush on her.” I’m confused by Aliza’s amusement, I guess I hoped for something else.
“Well, of course, that tends to happen.” She smiles.
“Yes, well, one particularly foggy and dark day I stood next to her and I decided that I’ve waited long enough. I was going to ask her out on a date.”
“Oh, this is a terrible story. I shouldn’t tell it.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m listening.”
“All right.” I wince. “I stood there, and I looked out at the highway before us. The way the burning headlights drove through and lit up the fog made the highway look like a streaming river of fire. All I could think about was how I wanted to throw myself into the rushing river, be enveloped by the light, feel the waves washing over me, picking me up into the flow and flinging me along, tumbling, and finally I’d come to rest at the side, like a pebble along the riverbank.”
She places her hand on my shoulder. “I’m glad you didn’t,” she says, after a moment.
“Well, thanks. I just couldn’t handle the pressure, so I never asked her out.”
“Did you say anything to her?”
“Yes. I said, ‘see you tomorrow.‘”
“So, are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine,” I sigh, “the point is—and I’m sorry I’m being indirect—is being with you doesn’t feel like that. I’m nervous around most people, but comfortable with you.”
“I’m sure it’s just the circumstances. That’s why we go out at night, to get away from it all. Here, you can escape, that’s why you are comfortable with me. It’d be the same with her, if she was here.”
“I don’t think so. You are the first person I’ve felt this way about. And she wouldn’t go out walking at night—only you would do that. I’m in love with you, not the night.”
“Oh,” she says. She looks distraught. She studies my face. She turns away.
“Aliza, what’s the matter? If you don’t feel the same way, I’m sorry I ever brought it up.”
“I can’t be with you. I’m not over him,” she says, finally.
“You asked me about Jonas earlier.”
“Who is he to you?”
“He was a storyteller, whereas I was a mere poet. His description wasn’t as evocative as mine, but his characters were. He would blow humanity into dialogue and action and characters would become beings of flesh and bone. Behind their movements was the subtlety of emotion and thought. They lived.”
“I guess he made quite an impression,” I say, more bitterly than I intended.
“After we finished the book we sent each other letters, and then we started meeting. We waited to start dating, for a while. Those were the happiest years of my life.” She adjusts her jacket for a bit, while I pick at the ground with my foot. “One day is particularly clear in my memory. We’d been dating for a few months and Jonas said he had a surprise for me.”
“What was it?”
She shivers. “He lead me through the forest, to somewhere unfamiliar. We reached what seemed to be a clearing, and I just gasped.”
“What did you see?”
“I was standing in the shadow of an old limestone belltower. The base was covered in ivy, but it still gleamed white, and was engraved with scenes of supper and gaiety. Jonas said it was his hideaway.”
“Did you go inside?”
“Well, we pushed through the curtain of ivy that took the place of the missing door and ran up the steps. Then we sat down in the belfry, trying to catch our breaths, and just grinned at each other. Everything was perfect.”
I can’t hear it, but I see her shoulder shake. She’s crying. “What was the matter?”
“I wish that, out of the blue sky, lightning would have struck the bell—a peal of thunder and of bells—and frozen us in that moment forever,” she says finally. She turns toward me, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
“I don’t understand. Isn’t the belltower still there? You could still visit it.”
“The last time I went back the grass was brown, the ivy had withered, and the satyrs and nymphs were worn away. The tower looked like a skeletal finger thrust through the earth, and it wore a ring of thorns.”
“I’m sorry.” I look down, I can bear neither her gaze nor the night’s. The swamp is silent, holding its breath in, like it overheard our conversation and is suddenly ashamed.
“It’s not your fault,” she says at last, but her voice is hollow. “Not unless you cause brain aneurysms.” She clutches a clump of grass and rips it out.
“Pity it is a clear night out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because we never got our chance at lightning. This was perfect, wasn’t it?”
“It was nice.”
“But I messed up.”
“Can’t we just forget that I did, and go back to before?”
She shakes her head. “It’ll never be the same.”
“I know. But we’ll still enjoy ourselves.”
“It’s changed, it’ll just be different,” she says as she stands up. I scramble up after her.
I look up to gaze at that night sky I found so beautiful. But she’s right, something has changed; the stars lie flat and dull against a dismal darkness. I look back at her, she’s still the same gamine.
“Please don’t go,” I say, but I see the wounds in her.
“I’m the one who should be sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s fine. Maybe you were right, I have writing to do, I’ve been haunted for long enough.”
“It was nice knowing you. Can you just answer one question?”
“Depends on the question.”
“Will you ever be over him?”
“Will I see you again?”
“That’s more than we agreed on,” she says. For a second she smiles. “But probably not.”
“Can I ask a favor, then?”
“Oh, why not?”
“Could I have something to remember you by?” I ask.
She looks through her bag, pulls out a book, and hands it to me. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“I wouldn’t put it past me.”
“You wanted to know what paradise was like.”
“I was hoping you meant a farewell kiss.”
“Oh, you. In paradise, whenever two peoples’ happiness come into conflict, they would each go in living parallel realities where they are happy.”
“What did the Djinni think?”
“He said he was a being of finite, if immense, power.”
“Pity, it would have been handy just now.”
“That was just a story, you know.”
“For all I know, so was everything.”
“You know that’s not true.” She looks hurt.
“I’m not sure I do.”
“Well, will you remember me, regardless?”
“Always. You sure this is goodbye forever?”
“I’m certain,” she says and turns away. “And hey, stay cool, you’ll meet some nice girl one day,” she adds, over her shoulder.
“Okay then, see you tomorrow.”
She smiles sadly and walks to the trail. I consider following her, but she knows I go the other way. I sit in the dark, holding that book, before I walk home.
Along the way, every little thing reminds me of her. I used to go out walking to escape. The void of night would swallow my melancholy; the vastness would make my emptiness insignificant. I would be primal again. Now there’s no escape. In fleeting shadows I see her dancing figure, in the crisp air I still smell her scent, the brush of a breeze beckons with her touch. The night itself carries her imprint.
Finally I reach city streets again. Under a streetlight I examine the book. It’s a worn anthology of poetry. Inside the cover is written “Property of Jonas Coffrey” in a neat letters. There is a bookmark, so I open the book to the marked page. There are several annotations in a feminine hand, which Aliza must have written. One poem has been encircled with a floral design.
Separation Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color. — W.S. Merwin