by Washington Irving
“Let’s just get to the cabin. I’ll show you my childhood haunts,” says Summer.
We pass through the town with its small, grassed circle, flagpole planted in the center. Blink past a gas station, general store, and diner. Then a winding dirt road up a pine-shadowed hillside. Sunlight, a grassy drive, and a crumbling Italian villa that looks over treetops to the cerulean lake below. I stop the Rambler. The late-afternoon sun is still high, beginning its westward arc.
“My parents’ place is closed up for winter. The cabin’s in the woods.”
She turns to me and smiles.
That dear, sweet child bent over and kissed me with the tenderness of a fresh peach brushing its libidinal delight across my lips.
Flings open the door and jumps from the car. Spreads her arms wide and pivots in a widening gyre, her face merging with the azuline sky, saffron hair dancing in the sun, faerie shadows skipping about with her. I exit the car and look around. We’re in a high field surrounded by forest. A lake shimmers peacock-blue and silver beyond the treetops below.
“Where’s the path to your cabin?”
She gestures into the woods. A ta-da kind of plié.
I see no path to the cabin. Zero. Nada. The absent other. Tall grass, rising pines, maples, and unbroken growth to the interior. Lurking la perruque. The zero time forgot. The isn’t that is everything, hidden; then a backdraft smoldering—exploding from containment.
She barefoots into the forest, sneakers left askew on the floor of the car. I follow. Soon we stand before a tiny wooden shack. Loose screen door and broken window. A hermitage with no pretense of comfort, yet there is comfort here.
No kidding. We’ll stay in this cabin and stuff like that. We could get married or something. I could chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all. Honest to God, we could have a terrific time! Wuddaya say? C’mon! Wuddaya say?
“Don’t move,” she says.
I halt midstride, antennae on full alert. Snake? Bear?
“Do you hear?” she says.
I hear the rush of the leaves and creatures in the flora and fauna of this enchanted firmament. Here we are no longer bound by the shell of the universe. The rock of this tomb has moved, and we can exit the cave of the world, free as doves, winging our ascent. Clinging to the sun, feathering the wide blue sky. The dome of the world stretches above, primordially ribbed, falling to the currents below. My wax is melting. The wind no longer buffets me. I fall. I fall. The sea will swallow me up. Pater, ait.
“What happens when it gets cold?”
“Here? I’m never here in winter.”
Enter the cabin. The screen door swings shut, pulled by an aging spring. There is a contradiction in the temporality of space. An iron bed, rusted from years of exposure. Space ages. Time stays—is atemporal. Metal slats bear the weight of a roll-up stained mattress with gray and white stripes—what I would have found in the cells of abandoned Alcatraz, or here behind bars mon semblable.
On a wall next to the door is an open cupboard: shelves of well-thumbed books. Spines alive with mold. Parasitic. Sustained by the text, that ambiguous gift, host in the sense of victim, sacrifice. It is broken, divided, passed around, consumed and is parasitical in its turn on other texts…cannibal consumer of earlier texts. But, Hillis Miller points out, the presence of a parasite is often necessary for the health of the host. Parasites at work within the text, rising into the light like vines on trees, always in the realm of the uncanny, bringing to light that which should have remained hidden, striking opacity with lightning, playing on shadows and ghosts, forming and reforming meaning as parasitical food for the host, always in movement, a going beyond which remains in place, as the parasite is outside the door but also always already within, uncanniest of guests.
“If you put a wood-burning stove in here, fix the window, and add a door, you could come in winter, cook if you wanted, and your books wouldn’t grow moldy.”
“It’s just a place to get away.”
Books in piles, nestled between odds and ends. I pull out Plath’s Collected Poems. Virginia Woolf, propped next to her. Hart Crane too. Thanatized. Summer watches me fondle the spines.
“Suicides,” she says.
Move on. Stacked akimbo on the edge of a shelf are Franny and Zooey, Slaughterhouse Five, Blood and Guts in High School. A flurry of MAD magazines strewn on the floor in the corner.
“They’re all suicides when you think about it. Erased themselves as soon as they put words on paper.”
Confined in a book, the text randomly injected with cyanide, like Schrödinger’s cat. The world is and is not. The real, furry creatures do a backward flip from referent to signified to signifier and “poof,” they are now only graphic images on a page, played with, stroked by a particular sense—a particular sensibility. Specters emerging from the text, weaving their forms in and out of us—shape-shifters. Ghosts that turn a screw. Do damage. Torture.
Gassed. Smudged into ashes, dying to create.
“You read all these?”
On the opposite side of the one-room cabin is a bureau, its once-white paint flaking, institutional green primer bleeding through. Its top is a mess of loose paper, pads and spiral notepads chaotically stacked. Predictable unpredictability.
“How do you live? Get around?”
“Take stuff from my parents’ place.”
She’s sitting on the bed in the cabin, the mattress sagging with her mood, the events of the last week seeping in. Her silence, like the ending of a sentence. Outside, the late afternoon has turned to evening. Like an angel, she lifts her head from its bowed position, smiles in tepid Mona Lisa inscrutability, says:
“Wanna see the lake?”
The words float, bubbles that burst against my clammy skin, revive my thickening blood.
“There’ll be a moon tonight.”
We merge into the moonlight. Fetching goblins. An old pine thrusts upward, crusty comfort to the starry sky, leaves branching in floating silhouetted pirouettes, tumbling shadows to the needled ground, and the soft scent of sweetness fallen on a bed of memory as we make our way to an open field.
“First, I’ll show you the view.”
She holds out her hand and leads me to her parents’ place. The cracked, neglected stucco house looms, a lofty perch, topping trees ripe for felling. Kesey’s great notion. Look at the lake, glinting pure, deep sapphire. Wowza.
“Now to the lake. Ready or not.”
And off she goes, into the darkness.
Two paths before me. One, more moss and clefts of rock—the other darkens farther down, descending. More loosely bent. Longing grass reeds weep laments, a whispering breath on naked calves, demanding touch.
I follow darkness. An eerie gesture from a low-hung branch makes me pause, as Ichabod had done. What lies ahead? What broken promises? Quel parjures? I push ahead, a childish dread returning somewhere from the past. Restless visions thrill me. But there is still the path to navigate—shadows beckon luridly, twigs snap, darkness rustles. And just ahead, sitting atop a boulder, feet dangling in the moonlight, Summer poses in nymphonic grace. Crickets do not sound. An old owl hoots, lets us know we’re not alone—or reminds us that we are. The guinea moon performs. No chorus of angels. It is Diana’s gaze chaperoning over me, hair billowing in the passing cirrus sprinkled with the stars. Dido bereft of her Aeneas, Troilus sighing for his Criseyde, Jessica and her Lorenzo deriding and delighting in their love. Ah me.
Summer slips from the rock and trips a barefoot fandango down the sloping path. Every summer barefoot from June to September. Sacrilege to cover up her feet. They’re connected to the earth, mantle of protection—entranced and accepted in the kingdom of enchanted animals and faeries where fallen man is banned.
The lake spreads its doleful calm before me, lurking in the moonlight, while Summer sheds her shorts and T-shirt and steps into the lake, a bathing Diana in the melancholy of the listless water. I stagger at the image. Metamorphosed. The sky ripples below me as she wades out and sinks to the unaccompanied music of water turning into her. Emerging from the depths, her hair clings to her back in remembrance of her body. She floats on her back, lets the water swaddle her, languidly strokes her tadpole self farther toward the open center of the lake.
Diana, smiling now, embraces me. Water lapping as Summer slowly moves her arms in an arc to the sound of soulful quietude outside time and space. She returns to shore and, like Spitzweg’s Bathing Nymph, runs her fingers through her hair, shedding the water as through an ancient drum roller, squeezing the lake from her. Her feet are naked. A child’s toes, twinkling in the starlight, sprung from this earth, this sandy shore, this molten sea. Each toe an errant fugue, a lullaby curling about the sand, delighting the night. This sky, too, is folding under you. Her prints leave a fading trail from the womb of the lake to the tiny heel of her foot. Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you. The path in only one direction now. Where are you going? A distant howl. Love of the wolf, says Cixous. Love of fear. Those pearl-white teeth. It’s all over now, Baby Blue. Becking at your heels, your glance swept back, a slide descending; your mouth an awful Oh, an open invitation. Diana’s moon shadows sprouting vines over your thighs, spreading up from the ground, entrapping your calves. I wear my thorns in place of laurels; sacrificial, ready to bleed for the harm I cannot stop.
Where have you been? I pull myself back from the ether, embrace the coincidental moon, and sit down on the little beach, taking off my shoes one at a time, pulling my soul from my feet. The moon agape. Summer in coltish stance, one knee slightly bent, foot folded at the coronet, heel raised 45°, resting on folded toes, kissing the sand. Each calf a cupid bow, each tendon raised in lyric song, each phrase a gesture, a quivering note, a fluttering reed whispering up her inner thigh, floating round the slippered sweep of her dimpled cheeks, curling her teeny ribcage, spidered in the moonlight. Back arched, newly sprouted, swanning the sky; each breast a crescent half-moon in a Tinkerbell universe.
I wade into the water, feel the liquid cooling my feet as they merge with the water, becoming one with it, molecules embracing one another. The rolled-up hems of my pants float on the surface of the lake, slaking their thirst. My toes curl into the sandy bottom, kneading it, wanting to belong, to return to the beginning of things. See my narcissistic image in the black horizon at my feet, pulling me to the other side, the chthonic otherworld where anything is possible, even murder. Bend closer still, my eyeless face now broached with blind awareness. Stab the water with my fingers. The vision disappears, ripples out of sight. Wade from the water, the granular sand cratering beneath my feet. I put on my shoes, sitting in the sand, threading the laces, playing one end over the other in a narrative line, looping and knotting till there is closure. The corporeal world returns, full of coursing blood. Summer all glee, kid-like, in cutoffs and white cotton tee, feet unbound, ready to hike the wooded path back up to the cabin.
The screen door closes with a soft thud. She takes a match from the bureau and lights an old lantern. A yellow glow permeates the room. She unrolls her sleeping bag and spreads it on the bed.
“Lie with me,” she says.
We lie together and in this lie there is between us a world of make-believe, a quilted paradise spreading warmth in the entwining of our stories. Exchanging fluids. Staining the truth of each other. Unravel our sleeping bags like our lives, using mine as bottom and hers as top. Four legs and two voices: a most delicate monster! Open your mouth: here is that which will give you language, cat. I will help this ague. Doth thy other mouth call me? Mercy, mercy! Open your chaps. I will pour some in thy other mouth. Come. Amen.
The morning blesses the silence. A solitary titmouse sings, two lonely notes iterating into the dome of this earth. Otherwise, silence. No swift currents of wind or fluttering crescendo of leaves. Only just Summer asleep next to me. An infant sleep, flighting fancy in womb-begotten joys. In the distance the black-eyed tufted tit whistling far and wee.
I step outside. There is mischief in this childhood haunt. Pine needles soften under my feet. Morning sun filters through the tree trunks. Coolness in reds and yellows. Leaves recognize the fall. I slither into the woods—release my pollution into nature. Make my mark—claim this spot of soil. The coupler’s will. My lizard eyes watch through the screen door as she slowly slips from bed.
Comes to the screen; southern poor white trash in dirty white briefs and tank top—Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon—leaning against the door jamb, cigarette extending from her lips, one arm languidly heaped above her. Womb of sin. Throw my glance her way. Snake eyes. Papa’s little bedpal. Lump of love.
“Is everything okay?” she asks, her sleepy voice drifting through the thousand tiny holes. Immortalized in the frame of that screen door. Made not begotten. Create the fantasy. She opens the door, steps to the floor of this earth, little feet caressing the dander, playing her toes over the soft mantle, and enters into a shaft of morning light mincing through the pines; the sunbeam in which she halts.
Fall is coming.
“We should go.”
We roll our sleeping bags, throw them in the trunk.
Category: Fiction, Short Story