Baby, Book, and Banjo: Tim Westover's web site
Home | My Books | Auraria: A Novel | Short Stories | E-mail List | Contact Me

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Unbroken Lines

In our neighborhood, all the houses were alike; their complex geometry, indistinguishable. But mine was the most splendid of the identical houses, because I framed it with an impeccable lawn. Blades of grass stood in unbroken lines: crew-cut, uniform, regimental green. The lawn was the perfect complement to the red brick of the house itself, and behind that, the vast blue emptiness of sky.

But such a spectacle is paid for in vigilance. I walked the lawn every evening, being careful to vary my path so as not to flatten the zoysia. I suffered no weed to survive the night; I dug out their roots with a thin-bladed knife. My neighbors, dwelling in their own identical houses, let crabgrass spoil their property and lives.

The first sign was so small. During my patrol, I found a sapling, almost a foot tall, which had not been there the night before. I am aware of what occurs on my lawn above all other pieces of land in this world. I know it better than my own face in the mirror. Had the sapling instead been a tendril of kudzu, the stalk of a sunflower, even the grasping face of a dandelion, I could have understood its sudden appearance. But a sapling, no matter how small, does not sprout over night. I dug up the sapling and worried about its roots; how far could they have spread in a day?

I woke the next morning under a shadow. There was an oak in the middle of my front yard. Seventy feet above the lawn, the tree boasted a full crown of leaves, towering above the gable of my roof line. An irate squirrel, at my eye level, hissed at me and made what must pass for a rude gesture, then scurried upwards.

The tree came not only with fauna, but with flora, and all was bounded inside a precisely delineated patch of transplanted forest floor. Bounded by a ten foot by ten foot square, there were scrubby pine saplings, brambles, vines, fallen leaves, and twisted limbs. Exact unbroken lines separated the wild from my zoysia.

Could it have been a practical joke? I had had trouble with curious kids and ill-trained pups before, so I had aimed motion-sensing floodlights at the lawn. They had not been trigged in the night.

My neighbors slowed down as they drove past my house. I knew how to look into their faces, through their windshields. I was used to seeing jealousy—they looked upon my landscaping and despaired. But that day, behind their masks of surprise, I saw smug smiles. They couldn’t wait to call the homeowners’ association. They would put a yellow ticket on my door, a thirty dollar fine for “untidiness.” It would be a blemish upon my heart.

I called every arborist listed for our town. None could make an emergency visit that day. A wind storm thirty miles away had thrown limbs into power lines, toppled trees over roads, and it was a bonanza for anyone with a chainsaw.

I moped around the house all day; I tried to stay away from the windows. I finally fell asleep once the sun hid my shame, but rustling wind unsettled my dreams.

The next morning, there were two oak trees in my lawn.

The newer arrival was as tall as its predecessor; it, too, came bounded with its own precise plot of forest floor. Beneath its crown were scrub pines and brambles and leaves and earthworms. I looked from one oak to the next, but I could see no difference. They were as alike as mirror reflections. From my window, I was derided by two squirrels, who turned their tails towards me in tandem and climbed above my head.

The arborist had no explanation. A tree is a tree, he said, and he was dismayed to cut down two healthy specimens for purely aesthetic reasons. I made a mental note to use a new arborist in the future. I watched his work, scolding him when I thought he was unnecessarily endangering the remaining zoysia. He lopped off all the limbs first, then brought down the trunks in sections, running each fragment through a chipper that sprayed a cloud of sawdust over my lawn. The arborist tackled the remaining scrub with a weed whacker, a horrible tool without finesse. The process of excision brought no relief. Two barren squares of soil stared up at me like eyes.

I awoke the next morning to four trees standing outside my window. Four oaks, four hundred square feet of forest, four squirrels with distain in their furry faces.

I wanted a specialist: an arborist of renown, not a provincial layabout. By the time a person of sufficient repute from the state university arrived at my home, two more days had passed: four trees had become eight, then sixteen. They stood on their squares like chessmen—exactly as neat, exactly as scheming. Only, they were all rooks, and I was the lone pawn. The renowned arborist chopped down the sixteen trees. I didn’t scold him for carelessness as I had his predecessor. The lawn was already suffering from sixteen open wounds. I asked the renowned arborist why the vegetables had chosen to wreck my lawn and not another’s. He said that oaks used to be common in our region, before the subdivisions were built. I asked how I could stop them from spreading. He offered only the most dire solution: a potent herbicide,which had assassinated notable trees in university towns and felled founders’ oaks. It was an indiscriminate killer. Zoysia would not survive, nor any root or seed below the soil.

A few days prior, I could not have dreamed of ruining my own lawn, my own flesh and blood. But now, I thought of it as a test of will. Anyone can maintain an established lawn—it only takes a modest irrigation system, an imprecise mix of chemicals. But to raise grass from nothing? It would be a proof of my mastery. I would have a lawn that belonged to a fresh, young, vigorous generation. Yes, the homeowners’ association would censure me, but their authority is only covenant, not moral law.

The herbicide smelled like chlorine. It hissed and sizzled over the zoysia. Pert stems drooped into the foamy earth. All was barren, void, and new.

The next morning, thirty-two identical trees and their bracken filled the emptiness in front of my house. Thirty-two squirrels urinated from thirty-two branches onto the crowded forest floor.

I called the renowned arborist and harangued him until the university switchboard blocked my calls. The profession had lost its way if it could not kill a few dozen ordinary trees.

I walked to the end of my driveway and looked back up towards my home. The trees obscured nearly the entire edifice; hardly any red brick or blue sky broke through the wall of foliage. Some may say the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but these are the ones who are only passing through. But I, who suddenly found myself in their midst, cannot find the beauty of trees. They are unwelcome when they come to visit, even less welcome when they have come to stay.

I was awake all night, leaning against the mailbox, to see the moment when the next iteration of oaks would be born. It happened at exactly midnight. This must have been coincidence, as I could not believe that trees cared about our human measures of time.

In a blink, sixty-four trees now filled my lawn. There was no space for any more; the last generation quivered at it was pressed by the newcomers. The exact space that each had been allocated—its one hundred square feet—bled into its neighbors, so that not all had their full allotment. They strained at the perimeters of the lawn, and I worried that they would not be held back by sidewalks and property lines any more.

What could I do? Could I burn them? I would set up barriers and dig trenches so that the fire would not run out of control. But the flames might crawl along the branches and spread to my home. And if not from branches, the fire would be spread by cinders caught in the wind. I judged it a foolish risk, a mad plan, but it might have been our only hope. Had I know what would follow, for me and for us all, I would have sacrificed my home and more. I would have been a hero, with a statue in my honor in an open public square. I would have had more fame than I could have ever hoped to gain from a nice lawn on a suburban street.

But now, there will be no more statues, no more squares. How could I have known that, then? Can I be expected to know the future from what had happened on my lawn? And so I did nothing, which was all that anyone could expect.

At midnight, the trees doubled again. One hundred and twenty-eight oaks exploded from the earth, breaking past the property lines that they had previously obeyed. The driveway was thrown over, chunks of concrete reversed. Trunks crashed up through my living room. A tree branch shattered my bedroom window. A crown of leaves broke open the attic dormers. The rubble of my dwelling was lost in scrubby pine saplings, brambles, vines, and fallen leaves. It was as if that marvelous place—so like its siblings along the neighborhood streets, and yet so superior, because of my landscaping—had never existed.

I was spared impalement because I felt the ground swell beneath my feet and danced away just in time. One hundred and twenty-eight squirrels cried victory above my head. They hurled acorns down at me—the seeds of the two hundred and fifty-six identical trees that were to come the next day.

My house was only the first casualty as the oaks continued to multiply geometrically. In three days, the homeowners’ association ceased to exist, because the entire neighbor had been filled by trees. Even the most crabgrass-polluted yards disappeared into forest. My smug neighbors saw their homes, identical to mine, destroyed. Two days after that, our city was gone beneath a wall of wood. In a week, homeless human refugees flocked to the last open spaces—deserts, islands, parking lots, and glaciers. But the trees followed them. They marched beyond their natural limits, bringing with them patches of forest that overlaid water and ice. Oaks limbs touched, end to end, continuous, along every latitude and longitude.

And now, it is thirty three days since the first oak was born to loom above us. More than eight billion trees that have sprung from that first seed, and each oak is identical to all its kin. Or, at least, we cannot tell the difference. Yesterday, humans outnumbered our arboreal enemies two to one; tomorrow, they will have reversed the odds.

We suburban souls find ourselves huddled in the darkness, without our homes, beneath an solid dome of entwined limbs. Unbroken lines of trees, as thick as grass, grow closer and closer. Their trunks press in on us, and we have less room to live with each passing day.

Soon, the world will be made of wood, and only the squirrels will ever see the sky.

Written by timwestover

September 25th, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Short Stories

New Story at Fantasy Faction

I have a new story, entitled “Unbroken Lines”, posted at the website Fantasy Faction, as part of their October Writing Challenge. You can read (and vote) for it there: http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/writers-corner/october-writing-challenge/

A quick excerpt:

In our neighborhood, all the houses were alike; their complex geometry, indistinguishable. But mine was the most splendid of the identical houses, because I framed it with an impeccable lawn. Blades of grass stood in unbroken lines: crew-cut, uniform, regimental green. The lawn was the perfect complement to the red brick of the house itself, and behind that, the vast blue emptiness of sky.

But such a spectacle is paid for in vigilance. I walked the lawn every evening, being careful to vary my path so as not to flatten the zoysia. I suffered no weed to survive the night; I dug out their roots with a thin-bladed knife. My neighbors, dwelling in their own identical houses, let crabgrass spoil their property and lives.

The first sign was so small. During my patrol, I found a sapling, almost a foot tall, which had not been there the night before. I am aware of what occurs on my lawn above all other pieces of land in this world. I know it better than my own face in the mirror. Had the sapling instead been a tendril of kudzu, the stalk of a sunflower, even the grasping face of a dandelion, I could have understood its sudden appearance. But a sapling, no matter how small, does not sprout over night. I dug up the sapling and worried about its roots; how far could they have spread in a day?

No singing trees this time, but still plenty of trees.

Written by timwestover

November 2nd, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Foreword to the Collected Works of Ilonja Szieckwicz

This is another piece from my college days. Perhaps under the influence of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I tried to put together my own “unreliable academic” piece. It’s a pastiche of various elements that annoyed me when reading literary critical essays: useless Latinisms, untranslated quotations, assuming too great a familiarity with the author’s works, careless and unsupported scholarship, an editor that seems to frankly dislike (or be jealous) of the author, and flights of speculative fancy that go too far.

I had a lot of fun “translating” this into an Esperanto short story, “Antaŭparolo al la Plena Verkaro de Yvette Swithmoor.” Esperanto culture provided its own set of academic conventions, “favorite horses,” and literary stereotypes. I think the story is more successful in Esperanto, perhaps because I was closer to the target I was aiming for. The Esperanto version also includes a suggestion that the editor fabricated the author’s entire ouevre [right there in the title!], which doesn’t come across in the English precursor.

Foreword to the Collected Works of Ilonja Szieckwicz

While the writer Ilonja Szieckwicz (1835?-1879?) is unknown to the vast majority of even educated scholars des lettres, her novels Guard Towers and Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life, as well as selected poems and letters, have now become widely available to English-speakers in the present volume.

Compiling a list of literary influences on the works of Sziwieck is difficult. Her works generally do not make use of foreign tongues, except for a few Latinisms scattered a priori. But we can perhaps assume that she knew Polish (as Poland exerted a large influence in the area) and had perhaps read Mieckiewicz’s Dziady, a play in which the character of Konrad is featured prominently, as in Guard Towers. I hold with certain others that many of Konrad’s speeches in Guard Towers borrow largely from Mickiewicz’s works, but this theory has not gained wide acceptance. In her school years, Sziewick most likely learned Russian and was thereby exposed to the cult of Pushkin and his Eugene Onegin, the official religion of Russia (“ymom rossia nye ponyat”). Some of Onegin’s relationship with Tatyana comes out in Elster’s courting of Natasha (some would say too much). In one letter to her sister, Sziwekicz mentions that she has read Tolstoy, but denounces his works as “sozsyem tre plokega” (a comment to which I take particular affront, but I shall let it pass as a private remark made without forethought for future scholars). As for religion, allusions seem to be of the very pedestrian type that run en mass in Judeo-Christian literature.

All of this speculation on religion and literary influences is based on close readings of her works, since Szieckwicz’s life is not well documented. We know, after extensive research conducted in Estonia and parts of Latvia, that families by the name of Sziewick lived in Gadki, Pustoy, and Ostarozhna, but most scholars agree, based on certain details of architecture in the novels, that Ilonja’s branch of the Sziewicz’s lived in Jablika, about ten miles from Gadki. Sziwieck is herself elusive when speaking of her family and writes to Hans Birchmann in 1872:

“Do ich ne mogu parbolshe pri mia cemya ot tiom, kiom ich scii, ich ja mogu skazhat.”

From his extensive analysis conducted in church basements in Jablika, Matich found a marriage certificate that he believes represents Sziwieicz’s parents, dated 1834, and a birth certificate, dated 1835 (quite an anus mirablus in itself), for an unnamed female child of the same surname. There also seems to have been another child in the family, Olga, three years Ilonja’s junior; this matches a detail gleaned from one of Sziwiecz’s letters, written to an Olga in 1878:

“Menich tri god pli staraya ol’ vi, senkonechya.”

In Jablika then can we find the unhappy prison-school of the third vision of mitotic life (see pages 334-347), the cathedral to which Sosha runs for sanctuary while being pursued by cannibals (pages 115-118), and the unpaved streets along which Konrad crawls, nose in the mud, sniffing for the Spice of Infinite Time (pages 12-49). Of course, there are still scholars who put forth the argument that Sziwieck lived in Palivek, though this is clearly ludicrous, judging by her use of dialect, or even in Dunchekskia (an even more preposterous supposition, one possessing only those “lacking in the reason which divides man from beast”). Matich, at first one of the great Sziwiecz scholars, was driven mad after years spent in church basements (see above) and, in later life, claimed that Sziewieck was in fact English and had written a forty-seventh vision of a mitotic life. But these assertions are clearly instances of insanity—”o what a noble mind is here o’erturned!”

There is no record of Schiweicz ever “going at last to husband,” and no mention in any of her letters of a husband or children or even “wee sleeket hause beasties.” Her affairs “of the coin and purse” are a mystery—her father, a cobbler, could not have left much behind in his will, nor are there pleas for money in any of her collected correspondences. While Szieiwiecz could have lived by patronage, this seems unlikely, given her place of residence and the state of the country at the time, in medium res. Most likely, she was a simple laborer or farmer by day and writer by night, though Nussbaum, in his none-too-scholarly monograph on Sziewivcz, reading too much into the more graphic passages in the Visions, suggests that she lived as a common prostitute. I find such suggestions distasteful and hesitate to even share them with the gentle reader, lest he get the wrong idea.

In mining Sciwiez’s novels for her biography, we find that one of the premier observatia is thus: she seems to have been a rather unstable person, prone to episodes of melancholy, panic, and confused thinking—her prose from such times is unsettling. Her deepest periods of melancholy, full of strum und drang, generate a prose that is seemingly nonsensical, but through careful readings and prolonged exegesis, much of it has been elucidated. See especially my work Binded in a Nutshell: Szkiewicz and the Troubled Mind, Nussbaum’s chapter on Szchiweich is his Lesser-Known Women Writers in Late 19th Century Estonian-Latvian Literature, and parts of Mendelfarher’s “Screw the World, Give Me a Beer!” The Proletarian Sensibilities of Poetics of Estonia-Latvia. In one of Szieiwieczh’s most personal correspondences to her sister, we have an account of an episode of paralysis, a time when Sziwhiecz found herself unable to move, and, as she described, thinking about nothing:

“Tiam ich mogla nechevo fari, nechevo movi, nechevo pensi. Estis odin ot mayick plej plokega vremi. La mir chesis cya dredeli i ich estis odna denove vo la holodnost moeymu tserb.”

It is not often in the letters that Sziwkeiwick is so touching, so reflective.

The average scholar, ignorant of Szieckwicz’s background or works (eh, hypocrite lectur?), may find it odd that we have such a complete collection of her writings yet know so little about her life. This average scholar cannot therefore guess how tenuous our link with Szieiwieciz is, or how close we came to losing this valuable literary figure forever to the “sand of time.” The world’s very acquaintance with Szieiwcz’s writings owes itself to a happy accident, a “wind of fortune in life’s great sails.” A cleaning woman in a Bucharest rail station in 1985 uncovered a leather suitcase lodged behind a commode. While the suitcase was badly damaged, apparently by befouled water leaking from the commode, the bundle of papers inside was legible, though soiled. The cleaning woman took the case to her supervisor, who then dumped the contents into the wastebin. Ah, if that supervisor had only known the worth of those beshitted papers! Fortunately for us critics, the inquisitive trashman, a Latvian immigrant, possessed a good knowledge of Sciwieck’s dialect. He eagerly read the manuscripts, even making translations of a few of her poems and shorter prose pieces into Romanian, beginning Scziweich’s greater introduction into the literary world. Here is a list of the contents of the suitcase, which now forms the complete canon of Sziewick’s work:

A six hundred fifteen (615) page manuscript entitled Garantaj Turi [Guard Towers]

This work is written entirely in pencil. There is evidence of about three dozen corrections to the document, all made in black ink, in the same handwriting as the original.

A forty-six (46) page manuscript under the title of Kvardecyat Shect Posmotriyies al Miomiti Zhiv [Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life]

This manuscript is presented entirely on very large sheets of paper in a phenomenally small handwriting, without correction. In this English volume, the translation of Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life comprises over six hundred pages. Fitting so much writing onto forty-six pieces of paper is a feat in itself, and when one considers that these forty-six pages contain some of the finest prose ever to emerge from Estonia and parts of Latvia, this manuscript is even more incredible, a magnus opum. The seventh page is written in red ink, the rest in green.

Six (6) poems of varying quality, each written one-to-a-sheet in a fine hand

Evidence of thorough self-editing. The sheet containing the poem “Kracnii Kroot” is torn in the lower right corner without affecting the text. The sheet with “Plocka Scio,” a mediocre work, is damaged apparently by fire, leaving the conclusion to the reader’s imagination and scholar’s interpretation. Perhaps a final stanza would have catapulted this work into greater prominence, but an answer to this hypothesis is impossible; “the key turns once in the lock only!”

Eighty-seven (87) letters, dating from 1864 to 1879

All are without envelopes and, according to the statements of the Latvian trashman, were originally clustered together by sender—seventeen sent to Szikeweech’s sister Olga, forty sent to a Mr. Hans Birchmann, twenty-two to a lady by the name of Galya Simirova, and the remaining to a mysterious Konrad. These letters have often aroused much debate among Sciweicz scholars—after all, if the letters were sent to different recipients, how have they all arrived in this suitcase? My theory, presented at the 3rd International Sciweizch Conference on June 30th, 1996, and reprinted in Eastern European Literary Controversies 114 (Fall 1997), has met with some acceptance, despite jeers from the ignorati. Let us remember that Konrad, Hans, and Galya are all mentioned in Guard Towers or Forty-Six Visions of a Mitotic Life—Konrad has a large role in Guard Towers, while Hans and Galya are bit players in the Visions. It seems most likely that these letters were, in fact, meant to be “sent” to the fictional characters. Their content is highly disorganized, filled with phrases and ideas that later appear in the larger works. It is as if Siewicezk were “working out” her novels in these fictional correspondences, and then saving these letters, either for inspiration, historical record, or for eventual inclusion in the printed versions of Guard Towers or the Visions. The letters to Olga are of an entirely different nature. They span the entire duration of correspondence and seem to be of a fairly routine nature—cold comments on life and living, the price of bread. There is little about the novels, except for a few brief references which help us place their composition chronologically. It seems Guard Towers was written primarily during the summer and early fall of 1870, and the Visions begun in late November of that same year, though only one chapter was written at that time. Most scholars agree that this single chapter was the one written in red ink, numbered as the seventh vision. The remaining chapters were written between 1872 and 1878. The final letter to Olga is dated October 30, 1879. My theory as mentioned above postulates that just after this date, Sziwiecz collected all of her novels, poems, and letters to Konrad, Hans, and Galya, and caused them all to be delivered to her sister (perhaps in the mysterious suitcase?), at which time the correspondences collected by Olga over 15 years were added to the accumulated materials. Some critics, because of certain circumstantial evidence, assert that Olga was not, in fact, a real person—that Sziwieckz wrote to her just as she wrote to Konrad or Hans or Galya, as a means of exorcising her own demons. It is true that no replies from Olga have been discovered, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Somehow, all of these manuscripts and letters were preserved from 1879 to 1985. If Ilonja did not send them to Olga, perhaps Olga collected them from Ilonja’s residence sometime after 1879—most likely, Ilonja died shortly after her last letter to Olga, but her grave and epitaph are “forgotten to all human memory.”

An untitled prose piece

This is the most mysterious of all Sziwieckz’s works and is dated October 31, 1879. It consisted of a single piece of hide (most likely sheepskin, though possibly from some large flightless bird), inscribed with a dark red ink. The handwriting matched all of the other documents recovered from that fateful suitcase, but this piece was clearly composed very quickly—the script was rushed, and there were no corrections made. I say “consisted” and “matched” and “made” because this piece of history has been lost, having quickly and mysteriously decayed following the recovery of the manuscripts. Fortunately, early scholars did their utmost to faithfully transcribe the contents and describe the form of this piece, and we have a reasonably good image of the whole. Since it is so brief, I shall provide the entire piece here (the translation is my own):

Then one night, I was visited by a woman clothed in green robes and leaves. She took my hand and led me out into the night. I was very small. There were many tall women with arms like branches held high in the air. And there were others in the sky, whispering delicate music on the air. In the water, too, were wispy forms of female figures—their long hair appeared to be no more than the slight wake of their smooth motion through the water. I could hear them all, speak their languages, and jump to fly or splash to swim or totter to dance.

And three years passed as the sun slowly crept into the night, and I could see light running between the blades of grass that didn’t seem as tall and gentle as they once did. Then a piercing scream shattered the last fragments of night, and with the sun came a tiny animal covered in blood, like nothing ever before in this world, and it was screaming, and then it was suddenly quiet. The dryads by their trees (I had since learned the name of the old spirits of our land) had stopped dancing, and the naiads stopped playing in the waters, and the sylphs paused in the air for the screaming and for the silence afterwards. And after a time, all the action began again, but somewhat sadder than before. And I never saw that animal again, never except in nightmares.

Then I knew of the blood in my own body, and I looked into it and saw hundreds of men and women wiggling in red slime. They followed patterns that bore nothing of happiness or ecstasy, only of an inevitable end.

And I tried desperately to find the songs and rhythms of the spirits of the old world in their former joys and strengths. I licked the salt of time from the waves of the water but it was bitter, and I climbed the watchtower, plagued by thieves, to feel the failing breeze in my hair, and I spun in endless circles to dance, but I felt sick.

And day by day, the sun traversed the sky, crossed the zenith, and began to fall towards the opposite shore. I knew that the sylphs’ songs were becoming softer, and I understood less of their whispered words. The naiads’ water was becoming dull and still, and the dryads’ dances were slowing. Some days, I found myself stopped, unable to move, and my brain felt empty, but slowly again it would resume the hollow rhythm of life that fewer spirits upheld, since many them had already vanished, gone to somewhere I was not privileged to see. And one day I felt that the sun was about to disappear into the red-orange abyss of the bottom of the earth.

I saw before me a long, low building made of smooth stone, and I went inside. There was a great noise. A hundred people talking rapidly in a language I refused to know. From the distant horizon was a whistle which frightened the few remaining sylphs and made them fly in timid circles. And I saw the dragon eye of a great iron beast rumbling towards me, but as the beast came closer I saw that the eye was unblinking, then I saw it was a lamp. The beast rolled to a stop before me, and against all will, I climbed aboard. And another whistle rang harshly in my ears, and the beast with me inside began moving forward, slowly at first, then faster, away from the low building of featureless stone.

From my head I pulled my brain, and I placed it beneath my chair. And you who animate from beyond the grave what should have been consigned to die will not find it there! Corpse dancers! Begetters of monsters! Then I could move no longer and stared silently out of the window, and I thought of nothing. I saw the last of the dryads renounce their trees and begin to float upwards, and I saw the naiads shake off their watery cloaks and join the dryads, and I saw the sylphs join hands with the naiads and the dryads, and I saw the last of the old spirits depart my weary life.

Perhaps I should apologize to the ignorant reader. You have faithfully and correctly begun his adventures in the present volume with the Foreword, only to encounter this piece of turgid and frankly amateur prose. It might have been the inspiration for a thousand insipid and lamentable acoustic rock songs, were it not recently discovered in a bus station. Who knows, though? Maybe there’s something still to suck from those symbolic sentences.

I do not hold that this document represented Sziwieickcz’s best writing. In particular, I am bothered by the somewhat wearied metaphor of life’s journey as the progress of the day’s sun. And by 1879, Scziwiecz certainly would have been familiar with trains, train stations, etc. and the tiresome “train as iron beast” idea seems artificial, as if she wanted to pretend that she did not know of trains at all. Also, the frequent use of “and” grates on the ear as overly biblical, perhaps a final attempt at self-sympathy or a resignation to some “inevitable fate.”

The importance of this piece to Schizecwh scholarship, though often overblown, is nevertheless rather great. As is so often the case with such symbolic and confused manuscripts, we scholars, with our knowledge of the future, tend to read as prophecy words that are only the frantic writings of a fading genius. Some of the more romantic among Sziwiecz’s critics hold that this prose piece reflects a deep spirituality, a hope for escape from the dreary world even if it meant (creative?) death. The ever-inventive Moroson even proposes that Sziwieicz was indeed taken away like Enoch into the bosom of the eternal. I hold with many others on a much more terrestrial theory: this is Sziwiecz’s suicide note, her embrace of “what dreams can come” when “we have shuffled from this mortal coil.” But it is not our place to create a history or legend where none existed before. Whether her soul took flight with the spirits of the old world is a matter for theologians, not for literary critics.

Written by timwestover

October 3rd, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Short Stories

A Spectacle

This was a short I wrote back in college. I present it more or less unchanged, because I am partial to singing trees. There’s one at the University of California, San Diego, and there’s one in Auraria, too.

A Spectacle

It’s sixty years now since I’ve worked at the bakery, so it’s been at least that long since the singing tree was run out of town by an angry mob hurling fruit and fire. I was still a young man, only an apprentice, and my fingers didn’t have the touch for making the perfect pie, croissant, fritter, doughnut, cruller, or even simple pierogie. I was so poor then, just like they say in the proverb: poor as a baker’s dough boy. When I left the bakery and got a fruit stall, I could take in over fifty zlotys at the market on a good day. The money’s one reason I decided to give up on the baking—that, and I had no talent. I made maybe 50 groshes a week as an apprentice, ten measly groshes for each day I spent cracking eggs, pouring milk, sweating at the oven. What a sight I must have been!

But at least one girl didn’t mind that I was always finding clumps of flour behind my ears—my darling Greta. On Thursdays I would take her to a picture show, and it was always my groshes that bought the tickets (this is how she saved up her money, I’ve come to realize—by making me pay!). Her favorite fellow was that singer-actor Dasha Pavlovski, and we saw all of his films, even the one with the elephant and the ice skates. Greta was a serving girl at a restaurant, and ours was the typical love story—a poor baker’s apprentice and a serving girl find happiness in each other’s arms, but I had a nagging sensation that if Dasha had ever come to town, he could have stolen away my Greta with a sigh and a few flat notes.

It turns out he did almost come to town once. It was late March, and I left the shop after noon, sticky with butter and eggs. As I was walking home, I took a detour down Vronski Prospect, where the theaters put up their posters. If I had missed the latest Pavlovski film, Greta would’ve killed me. So I always kept my eyes open.

There was a crowd around one of the posters, and I pushed up to the front. Huge green letters jumped out at me: “One Night Only: The Amazing Fabulous Dasha Pavlovski!” I ran to Greta’s restaurant and found her rushing around with drinks.

“Greta,” I said, out of breath. “Greta, he’s coming here!”

“Who?” she said, not even turning to look at me. “Who are you talking about?”

“Dasha Pavlovski! He’s coming to town! One night only!”

The four mugs in Greta’s arms fell to the floor and shattered. A shower of beer leapt upwards and outwards and sparkled in the firelight, but no sparkling beer cascade could match the twinkling in Greta’s eyes. She looked at me with such tenderness and affection, her mouth cracked into a radiant smile, and she flung her arms towards me.

“Oooooooooooooooo, Dasha!” she squealed, and gave me such a tight bearhug that my eyes watered.

Is now a good time to mention that I couldn’t stand Dasha Pavlovski? I’d seen every movie that he’d ever been in, even the one with the elephant and the whistling broom. He had this stupid grin that I found repulsive. And his voice was terrible, I think. He did this thing with his hat that’s very annoying, and he couldn’t act worth a single grosho. Give me an American show any day.

“Ooooooooooooooo, we must go, we must, we must, we must!”

I shuddered at having to sit through several hours of Pavlovski in person, but there was no way out of this mess or out of Greta’s embrace. On the life of our firstborn, I swore to Greta that I would go the next morning as soon as the box office opened to buy the best tickets I could. As I stuffed my hands back into my pockets on the cold walk home, I thought of how my fingers would be warmed by the hands of my darling as she sweated in glee at the show—that is, if she wasn’t wildly applauding every minute for some seductive clearing of the throat or tip of the hat.

#

I knew there’d be a crowd at the box office, so I arrived before sunrise, but there was already a line. A hushed whispering of men ran up and down the impatient column: “I can’t believe it’s costing me five zlotys to take the missus to see some singing buffoon!”

My heart froze in my chest. Five zlotys? I barely had two, especially since two weeks ago Greta and I had gone for the double feature and then split a mushroom pie afterwards (all on my bill, of course). I don’t like mushrooms. They’re grey, and no food should be grey. Good foods are green or red or yellow or maybe brown, but not grey. The chatter of the cold men around me confirmed my fears: tickets were each two and a half zlotys. I pulled all the coins out of my pocket, but I didn’t even have enough for one ticket. Glumly, I got out of line and watched as the long column snaked forwards and dissipated into grumbling individuals, muttering “Five zlotys, five zlotys.”

They could mutter because they had the five zlotys, and their girls weren’t going to break them when they got home.

#

“Greta!” I cried.

Greta didn’t slacken her grip on my arm. “What, you miserable weasel?”

“Greta, I have a plan!”

Greta did slacken her grip on my arm, but only a little bit.

“We can sneak in.”

“Sneak in? Isn’t that dishonest?”

“Well, yes, but it’s Dasha Pavlovski.”

Greta promptly turned to a quivering jelly. I returned my sore arm to a more comfortable position. “What’s your plan?” she said.

“Cousin Mikhail has a friend who works at the theatre. He can let us in.”

“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket.”

#

“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket,” I explained to Cousin Mikhail’s friend.

“Is she skinny?” said the friend.

“Who?”

“Your lady friend,” he said.

“Why? And how do you know I have a lady friend?”

“Only ladies want to go see Dasha. I haven’t seen a guy yet who cared. Did you see that film with the elephant and the whistling broom? Awful, right? But the ladies could overlook that, because there was Dasha. And the guys overlooked it, because there were their lady friends. Circle of life, see. So, is your lady skinny?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Is she fat?”

“Look, why are you asking?”

“Answer me. Is she fat?”

“I don’t know. She’s not fat. I mean, she’s not really fat.”

“Is she this fat?” he said, holding his arms apart at about the width of a wine barrel.

“No, not that fat.”

“Is she claustrophobic?”

#

“I’m not doing that,” said Greta, not loosening her grip on my arm.

“Honey, honey, I already gave him two zlotys, and he’s got the watch my papa left me as a guarantee on the rest. We can’t back out. It’s the only way.”

“The only way?” she said, sniffing.

“The only way,” I said.

“Well, if I have to sneak in to the sold-out theatre and crawl through an air vent to get above the stage and risk my good name and sense of decency and that’s the only way to see Dasha Pavlovski, then I’ll do it!” She thrust her arms out in a gesture of victory, letting me go. I ran off to wrap up my very sore arm.

#

The night of the show, Greta and I dressed up in our very best. We met Cousin Mikhail’s friend at the side entrance, and he showed us to the air vent that was at the top of a iron stairwell. Greta was, in person, perhaps a teeny tiny bit larger than I had remembered, and getting her into the vent was more difficult than I’d thought. In fairness, I must say that I was no stranger to the baker’s treats, and the passage wasn’t especially comfortable for me either.

Once inside, I realized that Cousin Mikhail’s friend had taken advantage of many devoted husbands and boyfriends, since the air vent was filled with sneezing fans of Dasha Pavlovski. There was a general moaning mixed with curse words and snippets of angry conversation.

“I feel sick,” I heard a voice say near me. I didn’t recognize at first that it was Greta.

“I’m sorry, dear, but maybe when you hear Dasha, you’ll feel better.”

“I feel really sick. I think I’m going to throw up,” said a voice that wasn’t Greta’s, but this voice did sound quite ill, and it was very close to me.

We waited in the vent for what seemed like an eternity. Greta and I had wiggled our way to a grating that allowed us to peek down onto the stage. Our view was not the best, but Greta seemed excited enough, even though her eyes were puffy and watery from the dust. I gave her my handkerchief.

Below us began a roar, and the sound grew louder and louder. There were stompings of feet, clappings of hands, and then a well-dressed man strode out onto the stage. The curtains hadn’t yet opened, and the lights were on.

“Is that him?” I whispered, confused.

“I can’b really bell,” mumbled Greta. I could barely understand her. “I can’b see bery well.”

“Would it help if I scooted over?” I asked.

Greta sneezed. “No, nob really.”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” cried the voice from far beneath us. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a great announcement!” The speaker stood at the edge of the stage, and I could hear something shaky in his voice. I didn’t know if he was nervous or excited. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he said for a third time. “I am at once the bearer of bad news and of extraordinary news. The bad news is that Dasha Pavlovski will not be appearing this evening.” Here, a great groan issued from the assembled masses. The air vent contracted in one great brow of woe, and Greta stopped breathing (maybe this was from a dust allergy, but a quick blow to her back, and she gasped, and seemed to be fine). “Ladies and gentlemen, please, please! We have something far more exciting for you tonight! A true marvel! The eighth wonder of the world! A vision beyond your imagination! A treat for the eyes and ears, an awakening to the beauties of our universe! A clarion call from the heavenly spheres, a spectacle to touch your mind, your heart, and your soul! I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are no tricks or ‘special effects’ in the marvelous wonder you are about to witness. Please welcome, a truly splendid sight directly from the pages of antiquity! The Arabs in their great tales have sung of such marvels as you are about to witness on stage right now! Please welcome the wondrous, the spectacular Singing Tree!”

The announcer began to clap wildly, but he was alone. After a moment, he stopped and hurried off the stage. A squeaking sound of moving curtains rattled in the silent hall and wafted up as high as us desperate people in the air vent.

“Whab’s goinb onb?” whispered Greta.

“I don’t know…” I began, but then I saw it. It was a tree on stage, perhaps ten meters tall. There wasn’t any soil or a pot—the tree’s roots skittered across the stage in a skillful, graceful way, and the tree pulled itself up to the spotlight. The branches dipped low to the ground, and then the tree straightened up again. I heard a cough come from below, as if the tree were clearing its throat. Then, it began to sing in a syrupy tenor:

A story of sweet love I
Tell, dear my friends!
And should words fail, I’m sorry but
Shan’t make amends.
See a young boy, with his heart filled with
Much love (what else?).
In’is head (rash it was) he hears naught
But wedding bells.
When his eyes oft glances to
A girl (fair dame!),
His heart beats like a metronome.
(Has he no shame?)
But there’s one, oh yes, there’s one so
Bee-you-tee-full
And glad ‘n lively, and to not love her
He’d be a fool.
The groom—baker; the bride—bar maid.
(I’ve heard it all before.)
And all’s well, and all’re happy, yes.
(Ord’ner’y bore!)
But strife! the wife takes delight in
A singer man.
And doom! the groom follows suit, and
Goes for whom’e can…
Oh! can it be a little bit
Of jealousy?
A fight, a tiff, and argument:
This’s prophecy!

At this point, I heard a woman’s battle cry, and a large, red, half-eaten tomato sailed through the air. I saw the explosion of gooey red seeds before I heard the satisfying squelch. Honestly, though, the song wasn’t the most hideous thing I’d ever heard. In fact, the tree wasn’t half-bad for an evergreen. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fan. In the papers a week later, I read an editorial which argued that the tree had a wonderful voice, but that critic must have attended the performance of a different singing tree. But it was a damn sight better than seeing Dasha Pavlovski’s twinkling blue eyes and listening to his cursed crooning.

The first fruit opened the way to a full volley. Tomatoes, cabbages, apples, lemons, rhubarb, asparagus, grapes, mangos, oranges—anything in reach the crowd began to throw at the performer, who tried to bravely finish a few more stanzas, but its voice was cracking.

Can weather they the trial that’s
Unexpected?
No, they whine, and so split ways, just
As suspected!

“Let’s chop it down!” cried one angry voice from nearby.

“No, let’s burn it!” cried another, angrier voice. This was Greta’s.

“Yes, burn it!” echoed the very ill voice.

“Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!” was the chant picked up by the sooty mob in the vent, and the crowd below, momentarily confused by the many voices coming from overhead, quickly joined in. “Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!”

The singing tree at last let its voice die on the wind and let out a whimper. It rustled its branches in apprehension and began dragging itself off stage, throwing root over root in a most ingenious manner. But someone had already set a bundle of papers alight, and others around the flame held out pieces of chair, stage, carpet—anything that could burn. The tree, confused and panicked, began pulling even faster until it was entirely backstage. Greta pushed her way out of the air vent, down the stairs, and into theatre proper, and I followed her. We joined the torch-brandishing mob flooded out of the doors and began searching for the tree.

“Over here!” someone shouted, and the mob turned onto Vronski Prospect. The tree wasn’t far ahead of us, but we didn’t seem to be gaining on it. I’ve never seen a tree move so fast. The tree led the mob through the marketplace, and though the vendors’ stalls were closed, there was plenty of rotten fruit in the gutters. Blackish shapes flew through the night air and squelched against the trunk of the fleeing tree with an icky, sticky noise. The black smoke rising from the mob’s torches made me cough and certainly didn’t help Greta’s condition, but everyone continued to nurse the flames, nurse their revenge against the singing tree.

“Greeeeeeeeta!” I whined. “Do we have to do this?”

“Be quiet and keep running!”

By the time the tree and mob had reached the edge of town, most of the torches had died, and the tree was far ahead of even the best runners. I was very out of breath and had been begging Greta that we slow down, and as we reached the last houses on Vronski Prospect, she slowed to a walk, then stopped. The mob slowed, grumbled, and broke apart, the lust for justice beaten by weariness. Greta refused to hold my hand, so we just stood there, watching the tree scamper into the distance.

Greta shook her fist defiantly in air. “And stay out, you bum!”

#

“And that was the closest I came to seeing Dasha Pavlovski in person, thank goodness.”

“Grandpa, you tell that story too much!” said little Mateko. “Grandma Greta doesn’t like it.”

Anja chimed in, “Yeah, don’t tell us that boring one! Tell us the one about the elephant and the whistling broom!”

Written by timwestover

September 21st, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Our Ghosts

This is a little piece that isn’t quite a short story, but more of a mish-mash of various local lore and ghost stories. – Tim

The new library on Rosebud Street couldn’t be opened to the public without its own ghost. In the 90’s, the city council built several libraries around town that didn’t have ghosts, following the general tide of the times away from the old superstitions. Those libraries were filled with rainbow colors, comfy chairs, little stuffed animals, smiling faces—all to attract visitors, as if a library was a cafe or coffee shop!

But the city council later regretted its errors. The visitors to those libraries complained that something important was missing: the cold finger that draws itself along one’s neck when one steps into the stacks, the mist of silence that veils the periodicals. Such feelings turn a book-filled room into a real library. At great expense, the city council rid itself of the rainbow colors and comfy chairs and tried to install in their place appropriate ghosts, but the atmosphere was never quite right. The shadows that should have played in the dark corners weren’t dark enough, and the footsteps that should have paced the empty corridors could hardly be heard.

Hoping to avoid another catastrophe, the city council hired me. I had been among the most vocal of the concerns citizens when the ghosts were omitted from the earlier libraries, and I knew the ghosts of our town better than anyone else. Only I could interview the various candidates and choose the most fitting for the new library on Rosebud Street. It was not only a matter of equipment, which I possessed—the tape recorders, magnetometers, and time-lapse cameras—but a matter of acclimation and expertise. I could keep my wits and therefore approach the task with the necessary dispassion.

The ghosts of our little American town are nothing like the ghost of the Old World. Our eldest spirits are from the 19th century. Compared to the dwellers among the English stones or German forests, 19th century ghosts are only children. It’s true that once, in the slice of land that our town now occupied, there were Native Americans with ten thousand years’ ancestral spirits, but the first settlers drove away the natives and the ghosts, expelling them to the mountains or to the western reservations. None of the old ghosts stayed behind, or if they did, they didn’t survive into the modern age. Anywhere they could have installed themselves was plowed down into cotton. This is a great misfortune; our little town could use more diversity to shake off our provincial prejudices.

More than half of our town’s ghosts are soldiers killed during the Civil War. They sit on their gravestones in the Old Cemetery and gamble on dice, or they complain about the hard tack and pine tea, or they play idle music on harmonicas and cheese hoop banjos. The ghostly soldiers rarely leave their earthly encampment, but they vigorously defend it against invaders. Once, a drunk wandered from the Hail Mary sports bar into the Old Cemetery. He had a mind to turn over some tombstones as a amusement. That, of course, was an aggression not to be tolerated, and the ghostly soldiers conspired to turn over a tombstone onto the drunk himself. It was a little menhir, a spire six feet tall that commemorated a particularly noble horse (who, I have discovered, is only partially buried in our town; his tail is here, but his limbs and head and other horseflesh is ten miles up the river). The toppled monument pinned the drunk’s leg against the cold earth, and the pitiable fellow spent the night crying out as the ghostly soldiers bounced long-rotted sunflower seeds off his wriggling form. None of the nearby inhabitants paid attention to the drunk’s pleas—they were accustomed to the generally debauched atmosphere among the soldiers in the Old Cemetery and gave the noises no special mind.

For my search for the Rosebud Library ghost, I set up a little office next to the historic courthouse and sent announcements along the usual spiritual channels. Applicants were requested to arrive during twilight hours for interviews. I was a little too old to make it to the witching hour, straight midnight, without falling asleep.

The first to visit was the ghost of Edward Owens, who lives in the abandoned train station in the valley. Edward was ten years old in 1885, when he put a fat metal screw on the railroad tracks. He wanted the train to flatten it; it would be a novelty. He’d seen others put out pennies on the tracks, but Edward did not have a penny to spare. The five o’clock express to Atlanta rushed past, and the fat screw became snarled in the wheel works. Sparks jumped forth and brakes engaged, but the momentum of the rear cars was too great. The train crumpled against itself, and the cars jumped the tracks. Six passengers and three cows died. A grain storehouse and two water towers were destroyed. The rail line was closed for ten days, postponing the delivery of tobacco, gravy, and beer that were the lifeblood of the local economy. For all this death and delay, and because Edward could never hope to repay what was lost, he was hanged outside of the train station. The gallows were normally built outside the courthouse, but this was a special occasion. As is customary, it was not the accidentally killed passengers that had their spirits imprinted on the land where the rusted smears of tracks are still visible. Instead, it was the little boy, suffering his own catastrophe of sudden guilt and untimely violence, whose spirit remained.

I decided that Edward Owens was not a good candidate for a library ghost; the simple fact was, he couldn’t read, and that seemed to be a poor thematic and moral lesson.

The next interviewee was Molly Maltbie, whose husband was a famous drinker in the Eagle Tavern on Pike Street. The tavern opened in 1911 against the objections of the local temperance committee; the local workers and farmers made it a great success. Every night Maltbie spent his strength, time, and money in the Eagle, consuming legendary quantities of beer and of a homebrew that was also renowned for its efficacy in removing paint. When the Eagle Tavern, later transformed into the Eagle Pool Hall, was renovated to become the Hail Mary sports bar, the new owners stripped away 70’s-era vinyl and found hash marks on the original woodwork that seemed to recount a particular liquor contest from almost a hundred years before. One storm-wracked night, while Maltbie was at the tavern, his wife could not longer be restrained. She made her famed March on the Eagle, carrying a hook and a broom. She opened the tavern doors with her boot; lightning illuminated the wrath on her face. “With this broom, I’ll give this place such a cleaning!” she cried, breaking every bottle and glass, upending tables, splintering the great mirror above the bar, shredding the indecent pictures, and defending herself against the counter-attacks of the clientele. In truth, after her assault, the tavern was much less clean, by the traditional use of the word. She placed her hook beneath the collar of her husband’s shirt and dragged him into the street, through mud puddles and thorn bushes, until they reached their beloved and peaceful home. On stormy nights, one can still see her white form making the March up Pike Street, and from the Hail Mary, there will be incidents where waitresses accidentally upend pint glasses of lite draft.

But after a long conversation with Molly, I decided that she, also, was not the right candidate for the library. She died as an old woman and was not very attractive—a round, plump woman with a mustache and big ears. That sort of ghost would not be approved by the public, who would want someone more beautiful. Her spirit-forming event, too, was a loud and raucous one, which would be unbecoming in a library atmosphere. And finally, I will admit to a personal bias. The ghost tours that I lead, commencing in September and running three times weekly until the first week in November, would be much less rich without the story of Molly Maltbie. I needed her at her current station; she was a necessary, punchy, up-beat figure in a litany of ghosts that would otherwise be too maudlin.

Next was Mike Callums, who occupied a place at the one-time Rhodes Hotel. Mike trained as a boxer and in 1933 won a high title at a regional championship. He returned to our town as a hero, and a grand spectacle was mounted for him in the courthouse square. The party burned long into the night, and as the women and children wandered homeward and the evening became heavy and boastful, Mike offered to face any challenger. He bested thirteen, but the fourteenth was the wheel man at Watson’s Mill, and his work had imbued the sinews of his arms with more strength than any boxer’s training. Already worn and battered, Mike Callums could not beat him. Immediately, the air of the place changed. The cheers and shouts stopped, and the high title lost its worth. Mike’s fiery temper was snuffed out. That same night, the Rhodes Hotel burned, and Mike Callums died.

I decided that he, too, was inappropriate for the library ghost. He was an angry and tormented spirit. At the Rhodes Hotel (rebuilt in the 80‘s and now hosting lawyers’ offices and a sub-par Italian restaurant), he terrified visitors with cries, blows, and hurled furniture. I was afraid that he would be insufficiently subtle for a library. The fire that had killed him had also left him with certain grievous wounds that could not be cured in a bloodless body. His face would be more fitting for a horror movie or nightmare than a glimpse reflection in the windows behind the circulation desk.

But when almost every hope for a suitable candidate was lost, Amelia Bloom arrived in my office. Her blue eyes, perpetually half-filled with tears, blinked below her wide-brimmed hat. Amelia was born and raised in a large white house, set back aways from the main street of our town, and her family was well-respected. Her pleasant face ornamented Fourth of July Parades, and she sang sweetly and harmoniously in the choir. Every young man in town wanted to be her beau, and there was more mourning than celebrating when she announced her engagement to Jack Thompson, a handsome and clever calvary officer. Their days were happy and bright, but, alas, too short! Heartrending was the hour that he was called up to the great campaigns of the Civil Wars. From the moment of his departure, Amelia stood sentry at the window of her family’s house. But after two years, three years, her young face was lined with hopelessness. Passers-by saw her at the window and thought her a ghost, though she was not yet dead. After her passing, her demeanor and appearance changed little, except that she was somewhat more flighty and transparent. I was surprised that she was willing to surrender her watch and take up a place at the library, but even ghosts, I suppose, can get bored.

A more ideal candidate for the job I could not hope to find. Amelia was young and beautiful and therefore certain to be more popular and inspirational than the ghost of an old woman. She was intelligent and literate, but not a dusty professor that would sink into the books and forget that her chief role was to interact with the visitors. She died in a quiet but pure and pitiable way—heartbreak. She was not a crazy or savage ghost who would freeze the blood of steely-nerved adults, but she would give to the library the essential and delicately perceptible aura of something strange.

The city council immediately approved my recommendation, and on the day before the ribbon cutting for the Rosebud Street library, I introduced her to her new home. The books stood in neat rows, like soldiers in file. Amelia comments on this in a sad voice. I suggested that she could shuffle the books a little, put them in a slight disorder. It would be best if she rearranged them only subtly—put volume H after F, and M after T, so that her presence should be eerie and not overt. She should leave books open to random pages; visitors would find for themselves some significance in the revealed text and credit Amelia with clairvoyance. On stormy days, it would be her job to flicker the lights haphazardly. If a piece of paper were left on a table, she should decorate it with curious symbols and invented words; it was unimportant if these words have any sense behind them.

Amelia nodded her understanding. Happily, she didn’t ask why a ghost was required to do these things, because I didn’t have a ready response. It was the behavior demanded by visitors. It fit with the ghosts of film and literature and campfire stories. It is odd, I think, that they expect such conduct from ghosts, because in my experience ghosts are neither random or capricious. They stalk the same places for centuries and remain fixed on the same obsessions. There are some so regular that one can set his watch to their moans and wails.

In front of a crowd on Rosebud Street, the city council cut the red ribbon and turned the golden key. And when the visitors entered the library, they felt a cold finger run down their necks, and they felt the mists of silence wrap their ears and hearts. The memories of those warm, modern libraries were lost, and everyone recognized that the Rosebud Street library, properly provisioned with a ghost, was good and correct.

But Amelia was even more clever than I had anticipated. For several weeks, she fulfilled her role as a library ghost splendidly. She rearranged and opened the books at random, she flickered the lights, she scrawled words and symbols. But at night, when the visitors were away, Amelia read. Strange conduct for a ghost! They are not much for entertainment or self-improvement. She read everything that the Rosebud Street library offered on the Civil War. First, she read the basic histories, then the historical annals of our town, which held the records of enlisted and casualties —the list of ghosts. After she had finished these, she left requests that the library should send away to other institutions for further documents: maps, collected letters, battle plans, lists of burials at battlefield and prison camps. The librarians obeyed; perhaps they felt it their duty to serve a client, supernatural or otherwise, or perhaps they didn’t want to anger a ghost.

Then one day, when I entered the library, no cold finger ran along my neck, and sneezes and snoring and whispers dispelled the mists of silence. Amelia had left behind a letter addressed to me. In her refined antebellum hand, she wrote: “I’ve gone to Jack. He’s waiting on his tombstone in Virginia. I won’t let him wait at the window for all his life after death.”

What could I do? Sometimes, ghosts are not like books, whose stories are fixed to the page.

Written by timwestover

September 18th, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Tagged with

Subscribe