Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Bells

Long after he had ceased to remember many things, the old man remembered being a boy, and had vivid memories of Christmases from his childhood, of candlelight and snow and a Christmas tree he chopped down with his father in the woods and decorated with his mother. All of the ornaments were things he and his mother had found in the world around them --bird's nests, feathers, pine cones, and stringers of dried berries-- or made out of paper and scraps of cloth.

He could not remember the faces of either of his parents, nor the sound of their laughter, but he nonetheless remembered that there had been much laughter, and many stories, especially at Christmas time, and he knew that he had loved his parents, and that they had loved and cared for him until they were taken from him by soldiers. And he remembered the beloved dog who had helped him escape from the soldiers and whatever fate had befallen his parents.

Strangely, perhaps, he remembered everything about that beloved dog, who had been his constant companion through the many difficult years when he had been lost and constantly moving through a world that seemed so dark and filled with so much menace. He remembered the dog's soulful brown eyes, and the way it constantly connected to and communicated with him through those eyes. He remembered countless times when he had awakened from a nightmare and found the dog pressed against his body and studying him with a combination of concern and adoration. He remembered the dog's exquisite and unique smell --a combination of old leather, wood smoke, and something sweet he couldn't put his finger on. He remembered the comforting sound of the dog's breathing at night, and the way his chest rose and fell (a chest on which the figure of a white dove in flight was outlined against a background of black fur).

And mostly he remembered a Christmas Eve long, long ago, when he and the dog had sought refuge in the shell-torn church of a village that had been recently devastated by the conflict. There in that church their solitude had been interrupted by the arrival of soldiers, and he and the dog had found themselves climbing a seemingly endless and labyrinthine staircase that led them up into the bell tower. The higher they climbed the more dark and narrow became the passage through which the stairs ascended. Eventually they had emerged into the belfry, which was surprisingly capacious and had open portals on all sides. Since there was no further they could climb, they paused there in that cold, dark place and listened.

The soldiers, it seemed, had been unaware of their presence or had chosen not to pursue them. Who were they, after all, but a boy and his dog?

Then, as the boy and his dog huddled together on the top step, fearful, and the boy took the dog into his arms for comfort and warmth, the big bell creaked for a moment and then, very slowly, began to sway. And then its sound --deafening in such close quarters-- started to ring out over the village below. The boy pulled himself up to the ledge of one of the portals, from which he could see out across the entire village, crouched there in darkness. The boy knew there were people in the dark houses below, for he had seen them earlier in the day, scurrying furtively around to the few remaining shops that were still open for business. Some of these people were carrying geese, or crocks containing some scarce commodity, or huge loaves of bread. He'd even encountered boys not much younger than himself, dragging Christmas trees through the snowy streets.

As the bell continued to sway and ring out over the dark little town, the boy was seized with wonder. Soldiers or no soldiers, that village, which had known so much recent distress and sorrow, was poised in the cold and the darkness, its remaining residents preparing for the momentary peace of Christmas, the merciful hush that would settle over the place after the bell had rocked back into silence.

When the bell did finally stop swaying and ringing out, the distant voices of the soldiers had carried up that long staircase to the boy and his dog, and it dawned on the boy that it had, in fact, been the soldiers ringing the bell. After several moments of silence, during which the boy assumed the soldiers had departed the church, the men began to sing a beautiful and mournful song that the boy recognized from a Christmas past.

The boy and his dog sat there listening for quite some time, until they finally heard the voices of the soldiers, subdued now, moving once again out into the streets of the village. After what seemed a safe interval, the boy and the dog crept back down the stairs, moving together slowly in the darkness, and emerged into the empty church to discover hundreds of burning candles fluttering in the drafty sanctuary.

That night they returned to their hiding place in the woods outside the village, and the next day they began to travel further and further into the forest. The old man could not remember how many days they had traveled, but they had pressed on, becoming more and more lost, until the day they discovered the hut in which the old man still lived. It just appeared to them one day, as if it had grown up out of the ground or been built by prehistoric birds.

The boy had left home with a pack stuffed with seeds and potatoes and corn --the bag had been packed by his mother before she was taken away-- and, together with these provisions, the hut and the woods around it and the nearby streams provided almost everything the boy and his dog needed to survive. From the time he was a little boy, the man had been at home in the woods, and over the years he had become an expert hunter, fisherman, and trapper of game. From both his parents he had learned to forage and cultivate a garden.

The boy --who eventually became a young man-- and his dog were together every moment of every day, slept curled up together, woke together each morning, and wandered the woods from sun up to sun down. And each night they sat up together talking and remembering their long-ago life in a world filled with soldiers, darkness, and fear. The young man would often recount the story his mother had told him shortly before she and his father were stolen from him.

"There are flocks of angels in the mountains," his mother had said. "They live in the high places with the wild creatures, but in times of trouble they come down into the valleys and wander out into the world to lead those in peril to safety."

The boy had asked about all those of their acquaintance who had not been saved by the angels.

"They cannot save everyone," his mother said. "They have limited numbers and limited powers. These are angels who have not yet crossed over, not yet traveled beyond the mountains, but their job is to do what they can. And if you are ever in danger, my boy, you must be vigilant; they will come for you and guide you to a safe place. You must go where you are bidden."

They boy asked about his dog.

"He works with the angels," his mother said.

It didn't take the boy long to recognize his hut as the architecture of the angels. It resembled in no way any human habitation he had ever known, and from the moment he discovered it he had had the certain sense that it had never been occupied by another human being. Though it was humbly furnished, everything in it served some utilitarian purpose and showed no signs of ever having been used or even touched by human hands. The iron stove had never known a fire until the day the boy and his dog took possession of the hut. And though he and his dog rambled great distances in every direction, they had never encountered another person, had seen no footprints or signs of human presence or habitation.

Though the man often had the sense that he was living on another planet, he did not feel lonely.

The years in the hut went by so quickly, and the boy who had found refuge there grew into a man. Dogs, of course, grow old much faster than humans, and there came a time when the man was still young when the dog could no longer keep up with him on his long rambles through the woods, and often --and more and more frequently-- would stay in the hut, sleeping, as the man went about his daily routines. One day the dog could no longer get up from the floor without the man's assistance, and the man would carry him in and out of the hut and set him down in a clearing in the woods; from there the dog would wobble around in increasingly diminished orbits, and doze off in the garden while the man tended his plants or chopped wood.

It seemed to the man that the dog had been his constant companion for as long as he could remember. He couldn't say with any certainty how old the dog was, or even how old he was; he had never bothered to keep any sort of calendar and had lost track of time there in the woods. It had never occurred to him that he might one day lose his beloved dog, and even as he watched the dog's slow but resolute decline he was incapable of imagining a day when his dog would die and leave him truly alone in the woods. Finally, though, there came a day when the dog would no longer eat, and then refused water, and at night the man would sleep on the floor with the dog held tightly in his arms, and he would listen with growing terror to the dog's labored breathing.

Then one night the man had a vivid dream: He and the dog were once again climbing the stairs to the belfry, moving through darkness toward a flood of light high above them. When at last they reached the bell tower they encountered another staircase, even more narrow, that ascended still higher. They had sat there for several moments, looking into each other's eyes as they had on so many previous occasions, and then the man had buried his head in the dog's neck and said to him, "Go on now." And the dog had turned and headed up the stairs alone.

When the man woke up from this dream the dog was lifeless in his arms. He who had not cried since he was a little boy found himself crying almost without cessation for days and weeks and months. He cried as he buried the dog alongside the wild rose bushes that surrounded his garden. The man was inconsolable, and as there was now no one to console him or to share in his grief, he felt very lonely. He had grown so accustomed to talking with the dog, all day and into the night, and almost overnight he lost his voice.

The man barely ate, and would wake up in the night, calling out for the dog. Many times a day he would be convinced the dog was still there with him, sleeping nearby or following him on his rambles through the woods. Wherever his dog had gone he longed to follow him, to follow him once again to some safe place beyond his suffering and loneliness.

Somehow, though, the man remained there in that place through the changing of the seasons. In time his grief settled in him as a persistent and nagging sadness. He grew old, and often thought of his mother's story of the mountain angels. For this, he thought, I have been saved? For a life of loneliness and grief? It would have been better if he and his dog had been taken by the soldiers that night in the belfry. He felt he had been forsaken, and alternately cursed and implored the sky, the clouds, the trees, the earth in which his dog was buried. He frequently thought about striking out into the woods in search of the world he had left behind. Perhaps in his absence some peace had been made, or found. He could not, though, bear the thought of leaving his dog behind there in that lonely place, and so he remained.

One day the man found himself studying his reflection in the still surface of a little pond in the woods. It was perhaps a distorted or unreliable version of his face, but it was also clear enough to alarm him. He looked so old, so gaunt, so sad. He tried to remember the last conversation he had had with an actual human being, and was saddened to realize that he had no such recollection, however vague. He began to talk to himself, to try to regain his voice in the hope that someone, somewhere, might hear him, might be listening.

Around this same time he started to have what he felt certain were hallucinations, or dreams that were carrying over into his waking days. One night he stepped out of the hut and was startled to see what appeared to be nests, immense constructions high up in the skeletal branches of the trees and pulsing with bright blue light. It was winter, and the sky had been dark and moonless, and from these luminous nests there seemed to emanate a sound like the shimmering of hundreds of sleigh bells, a sound that filled the woods all around him. In the morning all was once again silent, and the nests looked liked nothing more than towering structures of sticks and leaves. At night, though, and for many nights, the blue lights in the trees and the shivering of the bells returned.

The man began to have the unshakable sense that there were other presences out there in the woods with him. Perhaps, he thought, his dog had sent the angels back to fetch him. For the first time in many, many years he felt the fog of his grief lifting.

One day early in the winter he awakened from a peaceful sleep and had gone out to gather wood for his fire when he was startled to see a gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. He dropped the wood and stood there for several moments, staring at the band and puzzling over it with his fingers. It was the shiniest ring he'd ever seen, and was so firmly and snugly set upon his finger that he discovered he could not remove it. For much of the day he studied the ring and fiddled with it and wondered about it. He sat up late into the night by the fire, listening to the chirping of the bells and gazing at the band on his finger, which was of such bright and burnished gold that it captured flickering firelight and often seemed to be burning.

By the time he went to bed that night he was convinced that as he had slept the previous evening he had been espoused to a spirit. And with that queer conviction came a sense of almost overwhelming happiness.

Each successive year following this nuptial visitation, around the same time, the old man would wake to discover that some new and increasingly extravagant gift had appeared as he had slept. One year he woke to find a piano in his hut. With this mysterious gift he also received the ability to play the piano as if he had been studying the instrument all his life. This last gift was a source of comfort to him, and he often sat up late into the night playing beautiful songs that seemed to flow directly from his fingers to the keys of the piano.

Another year, very near the end of the old man's story, a boy and his father who were traveling through the woods had gotten lost in the swirling snow and darkness. The man and the boy were poor and were fleeing a cholera outbreak in the north that had claimed the boy's mother. The man hoped to return to the village where he had spent his childhood before being swept north with a wave of soldiers. He had not been back to the village in almost two decades, but an old woodsman and trapper who had outfitted him with a sleigh and two old, sturdy horses, had drawn him an elaborate map. Once safely through the northern woods, the trapper had said, they would find a river that would be frozen at that time of year; if they followed the course of the river as it meandered south it would eventually deliver them to a clearing that was just east of the village that was their destination.

If things went well, the boy and his father were to travel through the woods for five days, and arrive at the river early on the evening of the fifth day. Things had not, however, gone well for the boy and his father. The snow in the woods was deep, and the way through often seemed impenetrable. There were frequent obstacles that slowed their progress and often stopped them in their tracks. The father had to keep struggling through the snow to clear fallen timber and brush, and when this proved impossible they had to make long and awkward retreats and detours.

At some point the moon was blown over with clouds, the temperature plummeted, and the wind began to blow. The man could not keep his lantern lit, and the struggle to do so became an obsessive battle. Both he and his son were bundled in blankets and furs, but they were very cold. The sleigh provided no refuge from the wind, and the churning legs of the horses kicked up a constant swirling curtain of snow that enveloped the sleigh and kept the boy and his father pinned down in a blizzard from which they could not escape. The man would pull up for a few hours each night in some place that offered modest refuge from the wind, and he and the boy would curl up beneath their furs and blankets and struggle to find warmth and sleep.

Even during the hours after daybreak there was very little true light, and they kept plodding --more slowly, it seemed, all the time-- into the permanent murk of the woods. Things grew more dire by the hour, and the father was becoming convinced that they were lost. For longer stretches every day he had to wade through the deep and drifted snow, coaxing the horses along, tugging at their frozen harnesses, and navigating around ever more impossible obstacles. The boy was silent and shivering in his blankets, and there was now a fine coating of ice on his eyebrows, lashes, and even on the downy hair above his lip.

One evening in a mercifully sheltered clearing the man paused, thinking he might try to build a fire, and as he disembarked from the sleigh he was suddenly aware that the wind had abated; a hush had settled over the woods, the blowing snow was clearing at last, and as the man stood there he spied what he thought was a light a short distance ahead through the trees. He coaxed the horses along until he was close enough to confirm that what he was seeing was indeed a light in the window of a small, strange cottage, with smoke rising from its chimney into the cold night air. The man climbed back up next to his son, tapped the boy on the shoulder, and soundlessly pointed to the light through the trees. The boy leaned forward in his seat and stared at this unexpected vision. Steam billowed from the resting horses and the woods were eerily silent. The man listened into the silence and thought that he heard the sound of a piano, but the sound ceased before he could truly discern what it was he was hearing.

Meanwhile, the old man in the hut lifted his head from his piano, his long and crooked fingers poised above the keyboard, and listened intently into the night. He was prepared to swear that he had heard sleighbells in the woods outside his window. This was somehow yet unmistakably different from the old persistent shimmer of bells that had now and again filled his woods whenever the luminous blue nests would make their appearance. This was the clear and isolated shaking of sleighbells, a sound he had not heard since he was a boy. Humans, he thought, and then: Soldiers. He had been hunted down at last. He was now too old for any of the true terror of his younger days, but he was nonetheless afraid. He listened more closely and heard the sleighbells again, a few seconds of emphatic shaking and then silence. He sat there at the piano and heard footsteps approaching through the snow. He heard the snapping of brush that sounded like gunshots after so many years of silence in those woods.

And then he heard a child's voice just outside his window: "Father, I'm afraid," the little voice said, and this declaration was followed by one tentative knock on the door. The old man got up from the piano stool, moved across the room, and opened the door to find a man and a boy standing there, looking for all the world like frozen ghosts.

"I apologize," the man said. "My boy and I are lost, I'm afraid, and we are close to freezing to death. We would be grateful for an opportunity to warm ourselves by your fire before continuing on our journey."

"You are lost?" the old man said.

"Yes," the father said. "We seem to have lost our way in the blizzard."

"I was myself lost in these woods once upon a time," the old man said, "and I stumbled across this hut just as you have. It was my refuge then, and I would be happy if it could be yours now. You are welcome here, and I will treat you as my honored guests."

The old man settled the boy and his father on stools near the stove, and fetched quilts and blankets from the trunk that had been magically replenished annually for many years. He hung their clothes to dry by the fire, and retrieved their frozen packs from the sleigh. He led the horses into a sheltered area near the hut and gave them food and water. In a small cold cellar he had dug off the back of the hut the old man had more food than he would ever eat --dried and smoked fish, wild boar, all manner of fowl from the neighboring woods, roots and herbs and berries, mushrooms, truffles, and various potatoes and vegetables he had grown in his garden from his mother's seeds. He had always eaten well, and was blessed with plentiful fresh water all around him. And now the old man was pleased to be able to provide a feast for his visitors.

They sat up late that night eating and talking about the journeys they had all undertaken and the sorrow they had known. The old man was surprised to learn that the village to which they were destined was a place familiar to him, and very near the village where he and his dog had had that long-ago experience on Christmas Eve. As he studied the map the trapper had provided he recognized many of the landmarks, and realized that he was not more than two day's journey from the place he had started out from so long ago. All of the streams around his hut flowed into the river that skirted the village in question. He was surprised that no one had crossed his path in all those years in the woods, but was exceedingly delighted to have these visitors now.

The boy couldn't take his eyes off the old man; with his long hair and beard and fierce and lively eyes, the old man reminded him of the pictures in his mother's Bible. And the old man was enchanted in turn by the boy, who reminded him of himself at a similar age.

That night, as the boy and his father drifted off to sleep in the bed that had been prepared for them on the floor, the old man played quiet songs on the piano and thought of his beloved dog and the dream of their last parting in the belfry.

The next day the old man packed the sleigh with provisions, drew a clear shortcut to the river on the trapper's map, and while the father went out to prepare the sleigh for departure he sat down in the hut with the boy and told him the story of the mountain angels. And then he stood in the clearing outside the hut and waved to them as they headed back out on their journey.

That night the woods outside were roaring with the bells --the old man had never heard them so loud-- and the pulsing lights from the nests were so bright that they illuminated the inside of the hut as the old man drifted off to sleep and slipped away at last --quietly, peacefully, purposefully-- to follow his dog one more time.

Early the next morning as the sun came up, the father paused the sleigh at a bend in the river, from which they could see the spire of the village church in the distance. As the father let out a whoop of happiness and urged the horses on, the boy was puzzling over a mysterious string he suddenly discovered tied around his neck and disappearing down into his many layers of clothing. His father clapped and cried out to the horses, and the boy slowly coaxed the string out of hiding and found himself gazing with wonder at a gold band that now rested in the palm of his hand.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thank You

Through most of my toughest times I've managed to drill through the darkness at the bottom of the day by making additions to an inventory of gratitude that I've been working on for more than 20 years. The giving of thanks is a habit like any other, a discipline that has to be cultivated, especially in a world where there's so much pressing preoccupation and suffering that gratitude can feel like an indulgence, or just another reminder of our often appalling privilege.

I believe in the old Christian notion of Grace; very few of us have done anything sufficiently virtuous to deserve what --at the risk of being perceived as quaint or even daft--I'll go ahead and call our "blessings."

There's a lottery aspect to this concept of grace that should be discomfiting to those of us who have things that so many other people in this world don't have, or have had stripped away by tragic and calamitous circumstances. There are perhaps others in this world who might be given a pass on gratitude. Much of the time, though, I can recognize that I'm surely not one of them.

Like so many others, though, I have too often been guilty of the most petulant sort of ingratitude. Being ungrateful is an easy and knee-jerk thing, but how hard, really, is gratitude? How hard is it to sit down and make an inventory of all the things for which you should be grateful? Any of us --or most of us-- should be able to do this. Anyone, at least, who still has dreams and memories, however inchoate or bittersweet, swirling around in their skull, or anyone whose heart can still be stirred by music, art, or beauty; anyone whose heart can still kneel in the presence of suffering or sadness or grief; all of us, honestly, who have received so much more than we have given.

Our responsibility as members of a family or a community, however large or small, however (these days) ersatz and virtual, is to share in each other's happiness and sorrow; to pick each other up when we fall, lift each other's spirits, carry each other when we're too sick, tired, or broken to go on, and to allow ourselves to be swept along when we're seized by joy.

I depend on these things more than ever now that I feel so often stalled and thwarted in the backstretch of my middle years. Lately I have been spending too much time contemplating a Stanley Kunitz poem called "The Layers." The question Kunitz poses in that poem is a tough one: "How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?" And his answer, I think, is that he --and we-- have to learn to turn, to go on, and to exult, to embrace life as a "book of transformations." Like Kunitz, I have "made myself a tribe of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered."

My own tribe is truly scattered, fragmented, fractured; the only place I thought of as home for my first 50 years is gone now, and in the last year I have lost people --and a beloved dog-- I regarded (rightfully) as essential. Such losses, coupled with the daily poison that now masquerades as current events, inspired a good deal of glum rumination, but gratitude is a stubborn thing, a light --sometimes barely a glimmer-- that can penetrate even the most intractable darkness. And the older I get the more determined I am to honor and acknowledge all the light that manages to find me, or to go looking for it when necessary. I know how easily people can be crushed in this world. I know how painful it can feel to be here. But I also know that no one can survive for long on a steady diet of despair. You don't have to look very hard or very far to find examples of how tough and resilient humans can be. Most of us don't have to look beyond our own lives and the lives of our families and friends.

Our suffering is something we have in common with the hundreds of millions of other people who've survived --and often triumphed over-- adversity, disappointment, and all manner of betrayals and loss. I like to believe that most of us are at least as sturdy as those people were and are, and that like them we can continue to press on by holding tight to our oldest and fiercest dreams and ideals, and by taking every opportunity to give thanks: For the passions that have shaped and sustained us, and for the people with whom we share those passions; for the blessings of our bodies; for the resilient miracles of nature; for every opportunity of communal ecstasy and grief; for the dizzying marvel that is the average American grocery store; for the idiot wonder inspired by a phonograph record, a baby, a giraffe, a magnificent musician or athlete, or even an iPhone.

Sometimes this world feels like a foundering lifeboat, but in our more lucid moments we can recognize that it's crowded with all sorts of other thoroughly decent people who are doing everything in their power to keep it afloat.

Thoughts and prayers --particularly when ceaselessly uttered by hypocritical parrots and politicians-- are much maligned these days, but "Thank you" strikes me as the purest and most simple sort of  thought or prayer, whether offered to a particular person or as a hosanna to the majesty, mystery, and magic of life. Those simple words --"Thank you," much like the other simple words to which they are cognate: "I love you" and "I'm sorry"-- don't absolve anyone of anything or preclude a responsibility to act, but they nonetheless have a remarkable power to extinguish burning bridges and assuage hurt and perceived insignificance.  They're part of the connective tissue that makes us human.

We should all find more time --and more ways-- to say thank you, and to take stock of our gratitude. The United States is one of a small number of countries in the world that sets aside a day for its citizens to give thanks, but the pure and simple fundamentals of the occasion are too often eclipsed by precisely the too-muchness for which we're supposed to be giving thanks.

Go ahead and eat too much. Let yourself go. Get drunk and argue about politics. But also try to take at least a few moments to look around, to appreciate and toast your friends and family and your ability to dance and laugh and care, and all the other things, whether frivolous or irreplaceable, that you've been given. And say thank you. Thanks a million. Thanks so fucking much. For all of it. For everyone you love, everyone you've loved and lost, and for all the other essential things that remain, and endure.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Your Man For Fun In Rapidan: An Index

Every entry from Your Man For Fun In Rapidan: An index of links (Updated 9-15-2017):

Alchemy. Angels, guild of. Animal Collective, as source of tension in therapist's office. Animals, speaking. Aristotle, extracts from History of Animals. Anthology of American Folk Music, discovery of. Apes, as aviatorsAssociative disorder, a case study. Automobiles, usedBananas, the airbrushing of. Barber, Samuel, Adagio for StringsBarbers, in Livingston, Montana. Beard, inhabited by fairies. Belief, a personal inventoryBergen, Jergen King. Birds, bleak; mysterious locutions of; prehistoric; speaking Farsi; history of talking. Bobagorus, from The Dialogues ofBond, James; only a girl. Bones, waltzing. Books, black; fifty favoriteBoon, D. Bridges, burningBubbles, as meteorological event. Burger King, and human trafficking. Butterflies, the shooting of. Cannibalism, on trial. Carnap, Big Leonard. Carp, hour of the.  Catcher in the Rye, an allusion toCattle, drowning. Cheese, craving. Chickens, hit. Children, three in Texas. Conductors of the Moving World, a mathematical breakdown. Contentment, the slow dazzle of. Country and Western, fifty greatest songs. Dead people, the singing of. Death, before birth. Desire, claimingDevotion, unhappy. DiGrippa, Silvio; Agents of Contagion. Dog, blind; private remarks to. Dogs, on payphones. Dream Motel, official lodging for convention of thwarted dreamers. Dreams, broken. Dying, the; what they do. Elephant, man who married an. Elf, abortedEminem, overheard. End Times, surrender of the Almighty; possible reconsideration. Exploration, an incident from the history of. Eyeglasses, confusion regarding. Ferry, Bryan. Fire, breathing ofbuildings consumed by. Fireflies, falling in love with swallows. Fletcher, Galen. Forever in Bluejeans, gravestone inscription. Fortune cookies, empty. Free, there ain't no. Garden, abandoned. Gettin' Jiggy Wit It, a soundtrack to one summer. Goats, talking. God, as cinematographer; birth of. Golf, miniatureGrasshoppers, in dollhouse. Gratitude, an expression of. Great Maybe Whatever, a plea to. Grief, keeningHamburgers, the business of. Harpo, Slim. Harps, a sanctuary of. Heart, at rest and in motion; pea-picking. Heaven, garbage disposal in; the suburbs of. Help, a cry for. Henley, Don. High jumping, the eroticism of. Highlights magazine. History of Human Futility, museum. History, smothered byHorns, French. Horses, blind; flying. House of Coates, self-promotion surrounding the release of. Hypnagogia, a brief personal history. Imagination, stretching of. Insomnia, a possible cause. Islands, in the North SeaJar, voice in aJazz, groupiesJigsaw puzzle, unfinishedJonah, the rational challenges of.  Keegen Bash, the; a reminiscence. Kitchens, an exercise in forensics. Ladder, as clumsy metaphorLandfill, at the bottom of the day. Last Picture Show, a lament. Lawn statuary. Librarian, disappointed in love. Life, dearLightning, heat. Lions, a choir of. Loneliness, and disgustLoveliness, the difficulty of. Magi, in Soho. Magic Eight Ball, desire for the 'Yes' answer. Make believe, an inquisition regarding. Malls, as factors in depressive episodes. Manistique, anecdotal material regarding. Meat, as community; pining. Memories, pleasant. Mermaid, in a bathtub. Mermaids, obese. Messengers, epiphanicMichigan, Lathrop; in photography. Milkman, dysfunctional. Mind, state of. Minnesota, nice. Monastery, bells. Monk, burningMonks, singing. Morrison, Lester B. Motion sickness, terminal. Mountains, the loneliness of. Munch, Beauteous. Murray's Suave Outlet, pioneering blog. Museum, of soundNabokov, Vladimir. National Poetry Month. Never (never, never). News, localNightmares, an inventory ofas supreme entertainmentsNoise, joyful. Osteoporosis, moral. Otherness. Paradise, a bestiary. Paranoia, religious. Pessoa, Fernando. Pandora, her unfortunate marriage. Philosophy, the consolations of. Photography, an education. Photomart. Pianos, and colonialismPoetry, about birds. Presley, Elvis; in his underwear. Professionals, so-calledPuppetry, sound advice regarding. Puppets, and homicideRabbits, blind, discussing photography. Radio Shack, a love story. Regrets, International Repository of. Relay, of words. Ribs, broken by reading. Rio de Ratones Poetry Society, imports dying castrato. River, woman who was turned into a; Sad Museum, the unspeakable nature of. Saint Nicholas of Myra, pageant of. Salamanders, on the moon. Satan, and the Sacred Bone. Schlegel, Ustave; and the giantess. Schopenhauer, argues with Spinoza about dogs. Science, mysteries of. Scrub pads, in bulk. September Song, part one; part twoShadows, and monsters. Sheep, shivering. Sherman, William Tecumseh; "March to the Sea." Show business, obscurity. Sky, as the limit. Slave, orphans. Snack crackers, bewildering slogans of. Sno-Caps, an appreciative memory. Soup, the god of. Springsteen, Bruce. Squirrels, phantom. Stuttering, and general ostracism. Sushi, truck stop. Table tennis, the Mongoose vs. The Cobra. Talk radio, and the dissolution of a marriage. Tchaikovsky, a remembrance of. Teenagers, moonstruck. Terkel, Studs. Thinking, wishful. Tim Horton's. Time, as snaggle-toothed bastard; rewinding ofTony Orlando, and Dawn. Trees, as unmanageable. Uncle, crying of. Unilever, manufacturer of the Q-TipUpstate, New YorkUrination, public. Wedding party, contemplated by an unmarried woman. Wendell, prized dog. Whiskers, brief history of. Whither, also Wither. Williamson, Sonny Boy. Winter Olympics, Vancouver, 2010. Wishes, simple. Words, uselessness ofWordsworth, William. World, of wonders. Zellar, Dean Wilson

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wendell Dean Zellar: February 15, 2007-April 27, 2017

This is a devastation beyond words, and I am utterly shattered, but words are the only way I know how to try to make sense of this senseless world, and to sing hosannas to the increasingly few precious people and things that make my life worth living at all.

I have lost Wendell, we have lost Wendell --my lifeline and lamp through some of the darkest and brightest days of my life-- and I am contending with a loud, polyphonic chorus of howling pain and anger.

We were awakened by Wen at 5:30 this morning, just as he was slipping into a seizure. He has been epileptic since he came into my life, and we'd grown accustomed to these terrifying episodes, and also thought that we'd become more adept at managing them. This time, though, there was no bringing him back, and he suffered a series of cluster seizures that were unrelenting. Just as one would abate, another, more violent one would come rolling in. After a nearly two-hour ordeal I held him in my arms, talked him through a desperate and improvised series of Last Rites, and told him he had my permission to let go. At which point his eyes finally swam back into focus, and we looked into each other's brown eyes for the last time in this world, he let out a long sigh, relaxed in my arms, and left us alone with this terrible desolation.

Wendell did not die easily or peacefully, and I know I will be replaying that trauma in my head for weeks, and months, and years to come, trying to convince myself that in those last moments he knew that Kate and I were there, he was home, and that he had been granted in that last instant some measure of recognition and peace.

I have never in my life had a more purely symbiotic relationship with another being, never felt such a visceral two-way current of connection, trust, and adoration. Wendell was a special-needs dog --epileptic, surrendered twice in seven months, with a rap as loud, destructive, an escape artist; he had parasites and a mouth full of broken teeth. He was, though, my dog from the first time I met him. I was a special-needs man, and we were on the same wavelength right from the beginning. Nothing in his rap sheet ended up having even a shred of validity, and for the first six years of our life together he was, quite literally, my everything. He got me up, dressed, and out of the house. He listened with not just patience but seemingly genuine interest --or at least curiosity-- to my long, lonely, and often incomprehensible monologues.

He loved almost everyone who came into my life. If he wasn't wild about someone I quickly learned that his criteria for withholding were rock solid, and his instincts were to be trusted. Since I was a boy I have always regarded dogs as my most trusted and loyal companions and confidantes, and as the years have gone by I have chosen my friends almost exclusively based on those qualities, even as trust and loyalty have become harder and harder to come by in human relationships. I have, I know, often failed at being a good friend and a good human being, but I believe I am a good dog. If you are my friend I am fiercely loyal in a strictly dog way: You can take me for granted; I will not forsake you; I will always be tail-wagging happy to see you even if our paths in the real world seldom cross, and there is nothing I would not do for you. I adore and admire my friends, and I am perpetually grateful to have found a reasonably reliable pack of kindred people --dog humans-- in this world of so many broken solitaries.

Wendell --and his beloved predecessor, Willis-- made being a dog seem effortless, an easy privilege touched by unlimited grace and a boundless capacity for joy. It is not, alas, easy for a man to be a dog, but I have learned from the best, and my failures are entirely of my own doing, and they are many. Perhaps the only thing I can say with unqualified confidence is that I have been a devoted and unfailing father of dogs. I never had children --a blunt sadness in my middle years-- but I have a fierce and devoted love for the children who have come into my life --my nieces, nephews, stepchildren, and the children of friends-- and I have also always treated my dogs as full members of my family. I have belonged to them, and have tried to raise them to be good citizens and gentle and joyful souls.

Time and again they have shepherded me, and goaded me to be a better man, and a better dog, to measure up to their impossibly high standards. Wendell's joy was fierce, and it was contagious, but it was also gentle. And his capacity for serenity and affection were exemplary. Right now, I would give everything I have to watch him sleeping beside my wife.

I believe I gave Wendell a good life. In our early years together we traveled all over the U.S. and across Canada. He traveled like a Zen master, uncomplaining, clear-eyed, and always eager for the next experience. We visited 35 States and four Canadian provinces, survived a roll-over in Ontario, and he seemed to enjoy every minute he spent with me in cars, tents, cabins, and motels. In the past few years he has settled into our home in St. Paul with a contentment that blew my heart wide open and also --and finally-- allowed me to learn to feel at home. He loved being part of a family, thrived on the constant activity and attention, and was touchingly and zealously devoted to Kate, and loved as well the kids and Boris (the cat), toward whom he maintained a deferential and almost courtly respect.

And still he was my boy, and every morning I sang the same song to him to greet the day, and every night before bed we shared our sacred ritual of The Sweet Dreamers, an elaborate and rambling inventory of all of our shared blessings, and everyone --dogs, cats, humans, many no longer with us-- who was such a special part of our lives together. We talked about all the lost, lonely, sick, and neglected animals, and prayed to the God of Sweet Dreamers that they would find loving and happy homes. This ritual --equal parts prayer, poem, and batshit meditation-- could last anywhere from 15 minutes to a half hour, and every single night Wendell listened patiently, without squirming, to every word.

I would begin and end every day with the same wish/prayer: That I would be worthy of and honor the tremendous blessing and responsible that was Wendell. I can say now, with a shattered heart and from a place of profound lostness shrouded in a fog so impenetrable that I am writing these words on auto-pilot and through waves of wrenching grief, that I have held up my end of that deal to the absolute best of my abilities, and to an extent that has often transcended my abilities. And I know that Wendell held up his end of the deal, and then some.

I know that every genuine dog-human relationship is a sacred and mysterious thing, but I have been blessed with a series of dogs who seemed divinely-tailored to where I was in my life and what I desperately needed at that time. They have all, I'm sure, shaped themselves to my personality and needs, yet the truly amazing thing about my relationship with Wendell was that our lives collided at a time of maximum crisis, when each of us was in urgent need of a lifesaving connection. We found each other, and that impossible convergence of need, timing, and good fortune is and always will be all the evidence I require to believe in the miraculous.

Wendell, I know these words are inadequate. I'm so exhausted and broken, but I want to keep going until I find the right words to sufficiently honor you and the dogman you have made of me. I love you with all my heart and soul. I feel certain that you knew that, and it is my only real consolation tonight. As I promised you every single day of our lives together: we'll be together for as long as I breathe. For so many years you kept me going, and I'm going to need to figure out how to keep going without you, even when I don't feel like going on at all.

You tenderized me, my beautiful boy. You showed me how to love, how to pay attention, how to minister to those who were hurting or lonely, how to be responsible to someone other than myself. You introduced me to people and places that I would not have experienced were it not for your consummate skills as an adventurer and an ambassador. You loved me --adored me-- when I'd become convinced that I was unlovable. You salvaged hundreds of shitty days. You had the brightest, most expressive and attentive eyes. You were a world-class observer, listener, and an intuitive, first-rate psychiatrist. You knew when I was off, and made compassionate and intelligent inquiries with those lovely eyes. Many, many times I was utterly convinced that you'd spoken to me, that we'd had an actual and substantive conversation.

You put my heart back together again and again, and now you've gone and broken it into a million pieces. I know that wasn't your intention, and I know you didn't want to leave us, and how hard you fought not to leave us. I also know how hard you had to fight just to find your way to me. I've spent a lot of time --too much time-- trying to imagine those first seven months of your life. How could you --the Genius of Love-- have been neglected, abused, or abandoned? How is it possible that twice people adopted you only to find you unsuitable or unworthy? These questions always trouble me, but I am grateful to those people --those idiots-- all the same, and grateful to you for persevering until we found each other at last. And I'm grateful --and full of wonder and admiration-- that you carried none of that baggage from those first seven months into our life together. You were, I choose to believe, patiently biding your time, waiting to become Wendell, to become my precious boy. And I know now that I was waiting for you.

I knew I would love you, and take care of you until the end of your days, but there was no way I could have imagined the extent to which our souls would become cross-wired --there's probably never been a man who so wholly entrusted a dog with the keys to his metaphorical car, and who, in doing so, was so spectacularly rewarded.

You've left a giant hole in my soul, Wennie, a giant hole in my life, at a time when all the holes in the world seem to be getting deeper and darker by the day. Wherever you've gone off to, I'm going to have to continue to count on you to keep feeding me a steady diet of light and life.

Love, always, my boy, and sweet dreams. The Garden of Sweet Dreamers exists everywhere, especially in dreams. And my old promise holds: We'll be together as long as I breathe.

(Here are a couple other Rapidan pieces about The Genius of Love)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

From The Christmas Crawl Space

Every Christmas when I was a child much of my extended family would gather at my grandparents' farm outside a small town in Illinois. We'd all trek there from various points around the Midwest. My own family would usually arrive early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived nearby would come out to the farm for dinner that night.

My grandparents had a big farmhouse. They'd raised seven children, so there was usually room for everybody. My uncle Dick, who had never married, still lived at home and helped my grandfather out around the farm. Dick was a bit of a drinker, and a big, jolly fellow.

One year when I suppose I was maybe five or six years old uncle Dick corralled all the kids --there were close to a dozen of us-- after our huge potluck dinner.

"Everybody get bundled up and come with me," he said. "I've got a big surprise to show you."

"Oh, Jesus, Dick," my grandfather said. "Go on and leave that thing alone."

It was already later than most of us were accustomed to staying up, and I remember it was a cold, clear night with a good deal of snow on the ground. After we'd all pulled on our boots and zipped ourselves into our snowsuits we headed out into the farmyard with uncle Dick. I imagine he'd had a few drinks by this point in the evening, and he had a big, hissing Coleman lantern that sent dark angles of shadow swaying before him as he walked. We followed him across the yard and along the fenceline that separated the feedlot from the fields, trudging through the snow and struggling in his tracks through the deep drifts.

Uncle Dick led us way back along the fence to the edge of the property line, where the corn field gave way to a wood lot, on the edge of which was a frozen dumping pond. He paused there and bent low to illuminate something in the snow. We all gazed with a combination of horror and wonder at a pink, hairless thing, wincing, glazed with ice, and curled up like a fat grub in a cradle of snow.

There was a sustained silence as we all crowded around for a closer look, the steam from our breath billowing in the lamplight.

"What is it?" somebody finally asked.

"That there is an elf fetus," uncle Dick said. "A dead little baby elf."

"What happened to it?" one of my cousins asked.

"Well, you know how it is with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve," Dick said. "He must have had an elf with him who went into premature labor, and when she squeezed out that baby they flung it over the side of the sleigh as they went flying by. That's how much Santa and his elves care about getting presents to you kids. On a night like this they're just too damn busy to fuss with a little baby elf when they're out buzzing around the world. They had to toss it overboard and go right on with their important business."

A couple of kids started to cry.

"Aw, don't you worry about a thing," Dick said. "There's more where that one came from. Them elves are like rabbits; they have babies all the time."

Someone suggested we bury the baby elf.

"Nah," Dick said. "Santa Claus will take care of it eventually, once he's done with his chores." He then reached down, grabbed the tiny creature by the head, and pitched it out onto the ice of the dumping pond.

And then we all followed Dick back along the fence to the house, our heads --or my head, certainly-- full of all sorts of disturbing images and questions.

The next morning I went out with my brother and some of my cousins to look for the elf, but --sure enough-- it was gone.

I think I believed in that dead little elf longer than I believed in Santa Claus, and it wasn't until a few years later that my older brother told me that what uncle Dick had shown us that night was actually a stillborn pig.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

No Direction Home

Alec Soth
 (Image: Alec Soth. Hearne, Texas)
I possess a dignity and a power founded on ignorance and credulity; I walk on the heads of men who lie prostrate at my feet; if they should rise and look me in the face, I am lost; I must bind them to the ground, therefore, with iron chains. Thus have reasoned the men whom centuries of bigotry have made powerful. They have other powerful men beneath them, and these have still others, who all enrich themselves with the spoils of the poor, grow fat on their blood, and laugh at their stupidity. They all detest tolerance, as partisans grown rich at the public expense fear to render their accounts, and as tyrants dread the word liberty. And then, to crown everything, they hire fanatics to cry at the top of their voices: "Repeat my master's absurdities, tremble, pay, and keep your mouths shut."
--Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary. 1764
A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.
We are surrounded by men stronger than we are: they can harm us in a thousand different ways; three times out of four, they can do it with impunity. What a relief to know that there is in the hearts of all men an inner principle fighting in our behalf and protecting us from these attempts. Without that principle, we could live only in a state of constant alarm; we would walk among men as among lions; and we could never be assured for a moment of our goods, our honor, or our lives.
--Baron de Montesquieu, Persian Letters. 1721 
For the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. 
--John Locke, "A Letter Concerning Toleration." 1690
It's difficult not to feel disgusted and disenchanted with the current state of politics in this country. With very few exceptions, in fact, I've felt disgusted and disenchanted with American politics since I came of voting age. The first year I was eligible to vote Ronald Reagan won the Presidency, and in the years since there have been precious few occasions when I've felt genuinely stirred by a political candidate --two, actually: Paul Wellstone's first senate race in 1990, and the hopeful rush of Obama's 2008 campaign.

For much of my adult life I've been obsessed with the writers, scientists, and philosophers of the Enlightenment, that astonishing period when so many of the fiercest and most enduring political ideals --the ideals on which American democracy were founded-- were first being formulated. For a man in the 21st century such writings can be a source of heartache. So much hope and so many lovely (and lofty) ideals have been squandered during the more than 250 years since most of those words were written.

The writers of the Enlightenment were wildly idealistic, but they were also keenly aware of the foibles of human nature, religious hypocrisy, and the perils of both greed and power. Thus, in the 1750s, Denis Diderot could write in his Encyclopedie, "There are narrow minds, deformed souls, who are indifferent to the fate of the human race and who are so enclosed in their little group that they see nothing beyond its special interest. These men insist on being called good citizens, and I consent to this, provided that they permit me to call them bad men." And there was the Marquis de Condorces, writing in the late 18th century: "In looking at the history of societies we shall have had occasion to observe that there is often a great difference between the rights that the law allows its citizens and the rights that they actually enjoy, and, again, between the equality established by political codes and that which in fact exists amongst individuals; and we shall have noticed that these differences were one of the principle causes of the destruction of freedom in the ancient republics, or the storms that troubled them, and of the weakness that delivered them over to tyrants. These differences have three main causes: inequality in wealth; inequality in status between the man whose means are hereditary and the man whose means are dependent on the length of his life, or, rather, on the part of his life in which he is capable of work; and, finally, inequality of education."

Reading again those words in 2016, and reading as well the words of the founders of American democracy, is an exercise in exasperation. They have a slippery and double-edged potency, and might be appropriated by people with otherwise wildly divergent beliefs. I'm pretty sure, though, that in my lifetime, beginning in my childhood in a smallish town in the Midwest, I witnessed firsthand the defeat of all those Enlightenment ideals (as I choose to understand them), incrementally and, eventually, catastrophically. I saw my hometown, and other similar towns all over the country, gutted by labor strife and the de facto defeat of organized labor. I watched with dismay as the universal corporate milfoil crept across the nation, town by town and State by State. Family farms lost out to giant agri-business. Main Streets and small, locally-owned businesses were decimated by the incursion of huge corporate retail establishments and franchise restaurants. I saw small banks absorbed by indifferent behemoths, roadside mom-and-pop motels replaced by hideous, prefabricated and endlessly replicated motel chains. I watched as small and once autonomous local radio and television stations whose programming was once full of distinctly local color and character were overrun by the glum, generic, and virtually unlistenable and unwatchable formats of corporate media.

I experienced firsthand, in my own family, the devastations of corporatized medicine and the growth of the sadistic and labyrinthine insurance industry. I've also had exhaustive --and exhausting-- firsthand experience with the disabling and utterly callous game of Russian Roulette that the pharmaceutical companies engage in with the full and unquestioned collusion of the medical establishment.

And in the wake of all these changes --let's call them what they are: predatory and invasive-- economic cataclysm and an epidemic of psychological disorders, loneliness, addiction, crime, and pathological disconnection have followed. People have suffered. Communities have withered, or at the very least the old, quaint conception of "community" has sustained a terrible blow. Even so many of the churches, which in the town of my childhood were so often nurturing and charitable agents of community and compassion, have become political pulpits, divisive, agents of intolerance, mercenary, grasping, insular; capitalist enterprises like any other, and more mega by the year.

In the midst of all these seismic disruptions is it any wonder that our politics have become so strange, so cynical, so angry, and so charged with confusion, helplessness, and disengagement? Everyone seems to have the sense that they're under siege --their rights, their jobs, their way of life, their bodies, their families and communities-- and politics today is so divisive, so polluted with money and influence, and so bogged down by the broken machinery of Washington and the major political parties, that even otherwise principled and like-minded people are at war with each other about who's to blame and what's to be done. People on both sides of the great divide seem at the very least to be united in the two fundamental questions they most want answered--Where did our country go? Who took it?-- even as if often seems that we may be long past any sort of agreement on the answers to those questions.

I know this, though: all those changes I've seen all over the U.S., all those identically-ruined landscapes and small towns and big cities, are not representative of either progress or progressive politics. And politicians at the community, state, and federal levels have been complicit in every step of this force-fed corporatization of America. These politicians didn't just allow those changes; they enabled them and lined their pockets and the coffers of their political parties. Time and again they caved in to special interests and lobbyists; they gutted environmental and safety regulations; they rattled their sabers for destructive and unnecessary wars; they consistently turned their backs on the working class, the poor, and the minority and immigrant communities, and have succeeded in demonizing those populations to a wide and angry segment of the populace.

In my lifetime America has never known a class war or a revolution as either is properly understood. But make no mistake: we have lived through a class war --perhaps the most effective class warfare in modern history-- and a revolution, but they have been pressed, and fought fiercely and absolutely without ethics by the upper class.

It may be too late for those of us who are prisoners of disillusionment and disenchantment, those of us who agree on many, many things, to decide that this country has a soul and that that soul is worth saving. And maybe the writers of the Enlightenment were naive, impractical, and even foolish, but their notions of liberty, democracy, and basic human rights, dignity, and values were crystal clear, and they have been perverted beyond all recognition.

And if, at this late date, we're forced to conclude that all that gossamer, pie-in-the-sky stuff is in fact naive for the time and place and predicament in which we now find ourselves --that it just doesn't work given the complex realities of 21st-century America-- then can't we at least admit to ourselves how dangerously naive it also is to believe that these multi-tentacled corporations and the politicians who do their bidding have our best interests and welfare at heart?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Fourth Of July: Fort Snelling, 1971, And Beyond

Drunk, he could float, an oblivious spectacle. Gentle, wouldn't hurt a fly. People observed as much all the time. But so, so sad he didn't even know that it wasn't in fact the world he was feeling.

He could dream on his feet, standing still or moving. Giant turtles, ancient, crawling again and again from out of the surf in his drowned brain. He didn't know where that came from, but they had been coming ashore for a long, long time.

Turtles. Maybe it was something he'd looked at in a picture book at the library when he was waiting for it to stop raining, or shaking off the cold of another January night spent floating.

He trembled and thought he was being shaken in a pair of giant hands. A single dice. Die. An endless, impossible series of ones.

Often the things he spoke aloud would be remarked upon by complete strangers long after the fact: "Even the trees are unmanageable." That was one thing someone remembered years later. It was no random or idle thought, however. The world he wobbled through was divided by only one straight line in his mind; on one side was a sign that said "Unmanageable," on the other a fading but otherwise similar sign with the word "Manageable."

It was a sort of straight line, anyway, even as a teeming, disorderly city of hallucinations jostled up against the border, permanently exiled from the increasingly desolate and dying town across the way. A hamlet, he would think in the moments when he could still recall such words. A hamlet of the manageable things.

These things were quiet things, generally still and inordinately simple. He couldn't even really name them anymore, but he knew them by their ease. The hands of the woman at the Salvation Army who cut his hair. The dogs who spoke the mute, imploring language of his eyes. The sound of the night and the world retreating. Damp grass against his cheek. Once upon a time.

He depended on the kindness of strangers, and took it on unrecognized faith that the world was full of kind strangers. He had never begged, but he had been fed. He had also, of course, been beaten.

He could no longer remember if he had ever driven a car. He could no longer remember the sound of his mother's voice, or what sort of shoes his father had worn before he wore none. Things broke, of that he was certain. Tears had been shed, some of them surely his own.

He was a little boy. Somebody put a tiny flag in his hand and he waved it and waved it and waved it.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Strings of Bertie

From the moment she was finished, shoved in a box, and buried under a shower of styrofoam peanuts, Bertie Rathbun understood that through some accident of God she had been given a soul. As she had been dangled in the air at the inspection station, and as her strings were jerked each in turn, jiggling Bertie’s head, hands, arms, legs, and feet against her will, she had caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the eyeglasses of the woman who would initial the packing slip signaling her completion.

Bertie was alarmed not only by what she had seen reflected in the woman’s glasses, but also by the fact that she could see anything at all.

Something had happened, and though she was not quite sure what had happened, Bertie thought that whatever it was had occurred earlier in the afternoon when one of the detailers in finishing –a small, stooped, and melancholy Japanese man who was nearing retirement– had bent over her, puffed his warm breath three times directly into her face, and then buffed her painted features with a soft rag.

The little man had then held Bertie Rathbun before him in his outstretched arms, and with an expression of great sadness on his face addressed her in a quiet voice. What the man said to Bertie, before he carried her into the next room and hung her on a metal rack alongside dozens of other puppets, was this: “Such a pity, little one.”

And in that man’s warm breath, and in his strange, inscrutable statement –somewhere in that series of moments– Bertie’s soul had entered her body.

Perhaps, even, it was not Bertie Rathbun’s soul at all, but the soul of the old man, or a seed from his soul that he planted in her empty chest or head. Bertie didn’t know a thing about souls; she didn’t even know anything about knowing, but it would later occur to her that somehow she’d been given that old man’s broad ignorance and disappointments, his longings and desires and badly faded dreams, dreams that would appear to Bertie as dim and fleeting images on an almost translucent screen.

No sooner was Bertie Rathbun folded up in the darkness of her box and she began to feel the first fierce stirrings of resentment at her fate. She hated the very idea that she was a puppet; even worse was the realization that she was being sent out into the world as the most hopeless and hackneyed of all-purpose metaphors.

Bertie also recalled with horror that glimpse of her own reflection: she had absolutely no idea what sort of puppet she was supposed to be. Was she a mouse? A little boy bear? A kitten? Perhaps, even, a wingless bat?

Like all puppets that have been cursed with consciousness from time immemorial, Bertie Rathbun dreamed of autonomy, of free will, of a life unfettered by her cursed strings and her dependence on the hands and whims and attention spans of complete strangers. Bertie wanted to play the bongo drums and dance of her own volition and, regardless of what sort of creature she was supposed to be, she wanted to live in a hole in a river bank, ride about in boats, and sleep in a luxurious four-poster bed.

All of these thoughts went through Bertie Rathbun’s head during the many days she spent smothered in the darkness of her box and being jostled about and then, eventually, dangled and jerked around in a store full of other bright and noisy toys.

A fat and smiling woman finally purchased Bertie Rathbun one day and took her home and hung her from a fireplace mantle alongside a glowering nun and a stern gladiator, both of which were clearly as devoid of feeling and soul as the leering nutcracker displayed on the ledge above them.

The next morning a little boy came down the stairs and squealed with delight when he saw the puppets hanging above the fireplace. Bertie watched as the boy first took down the gladiator and swung him around the room gracelessly, tangling his strings and then letting him drop in a heap to the floor. She saw the boy crouch to remove the giant sword from the gladiator’s fist, and Bertie felt a spasm of hope and excitement jigging in her chest.

With her eyes Bertie Rathbun tried to implore the boy to cut her strings and set her free. And then she watched with horror as the little boy took the gladiator’s sword and, rather than cutting Bertie’s strings, plunged it directly into, and through, the neck of the nun.

The nun did not make a sound or shed a single tear, but slowly at first, and then in a bright torrent, blood began to stream from the wound in her neck and started to drip, drip, drip down to the fireplace hearth, entirely unnoticed by the little boy, who had moved on to play with the other toys that were splayed beneath the Christmas tree.

And at that moment Bertie Rathbun watched as the translucent screen on which the old man’s dim dreams were displayed in her head went entirely blank, and she felt her soul leave her body.