It feels like there should be a story in all of this.
I walk along, looking down, thinking. It’s wet today. Bare tree branches and patches of mottled gray sky glimmer up at me from between grass blades and shine out of the pavement blackness. They draw my eyes as though into another world – into the muted, fading new colors and the vast expanse of clouds. And then- all of that crisp, clear existence cuts off abruptly against an edge, dissolving into submerged ice and green and long-dead leaves. I somehow find myself surprised.
It’s that other world – that feeling of a story. Except the story is missing: a story-feel without a story. So what is the story to go with the feel?
I don’t know, and I continue walking. It’s cool today. A stirring haunts the air, drawing across my face a cold that’s almost warm as well. The motion is lighter than a caress: it’s almost nothing. But I can still feel it on my face, the only part of me left uncovered for it to reach.
I look around. I’m on a way I know well –I walk it each day, to and fro. Going from one thing to the next.
But I’ve never noticed that crack in the sidewalk before.
It’s not a crack right now. In the flooded walkway, it’s become a watercourse. A liquid wavering fills and overfills it, and seals it into itself. The flow smoothes sand and stony asphalt into swerves and curving shine. And it arrests me. I stop to study it. What is it, exactly, that makes the sight mesmerizing? What traits of form, what elements, create that feel? That feel, again – as of a story in some other world. The question holds me motionless, gazing. Perhaps if I could answer, I would also find the story in it. It seems unlikely, but perhaps.
“Are you okay?” The voice breaks in, unexpected. I look up to see a girl passing by, looking at me as I stare at the ground.
“Oh, yes. I’m just looking. It’s very interesting.” Which doesn’t explain anything, doesn’t fit at all, I know. But I still drop my eyes again, not waiting to see the response to my half-answer. She doesn’t stop, anyway. We are agreed, then: there is no time, no reason for something more complete.
But the exchange prompts me to motion again, at any rate. After all, I can’t stand here staring all day. So I walk again, think again, look again. I leave the sidewalk for the grass, and the sodden ground responds to my step with a squish. It really is wet today. And cool. And the air carries that hinted scent of moisture that makes it seem fresh, washed clean, and somehow new. A squish attends each step I take, except when I reach a lingering, icy patch of snow, which offers a rustling crunch to accompany my walk, instead.
And I wonder, Is it forced, and if so, false, to look at things this way? My mind flits back to the image of my sidewalk rivulet, and transforms it into the sheltered swimming-hole of a tree-lined stream. I survey the melting snow around me with a gaze-turned-aerial view of a realm filled with writhing, tossing torrents carving out an ice-bound mountain range. That haunting stir to the air has shifted at last into a breeze, and the hauntedness itself seems to have shifted, as well – diffused into everything the breeze has touched.
And I shake my head to myself. Do I try to see the transformations, the shadow-traces of the large within the small? Perhaps. And yet they are still beautifully haunted, haunted by beauty. Indeed, that – that, I’m sure, is what I’m feeling. A sense of beauty, a soothing burning that swirls passion and peace into one.
What need have I, now that I think of it, for a story? Why go searching for one, when I have this? I have worlds filled with beauty, and all they require of me is to wander, wonder, absorb…
I could be happy with that. Is it not more than enough, indeed, a wealth?
Yet even as I think, the swimming hole rebukes me. It knows nothing of swimmers except a phantom possibility. Is it to remain forever empty? The mountain range reminds me that it has never seen an explorer’s tread. Will it always be a vast, unexplored unknown? My glimpses of cloud and branch through the puddle windows join the questioning, saying, Silence and No One alone people your worlds, your realms. Should they truly continue empty?
And it strikes me: Continue empty? But that is what I cannot bring myself to change!
I had not expected that thought. It catches me off guard. But I realize now that in a way, it’s true. I cannot see a story in my places… but I also cannot truly look, for fear of finding one. It is an odd fact to come to: I have not been looking for a story, really; or I have been looking and not looking at once. But why?
Why, I wonder, and my way leads me at length to another sidewalk. It runs one way and the other, and branches off some way down in a third direction as well. Which way? Left, right, the branching off, or the grass on every side? Choose. That’s what I have to do, what I hate – choose this or that when after all… do I know where I am heading? A choice again. But before it’s made, does direction really matter? But I must choose, regardless. For the moment I can no longer amble along without thought or considered decision. Choice, choice… I hate choosing.
Who and what would I want to see in these worlds? I ask myself as I step onto the sidewalk and turn to follow it, mud-steps following me for several strides until the dirt has finally almost cleared. Who and what, indeed? For even given a who and a what, would their presence not ruin the place?
Yes, ruin. Even my own presence – I think as the sidewalk and my steps turn up a hill past some trees – even my own presence could not fit them for long. But a story? Part of the beauty is peace, after all. Introduce the mess of events, personalities, conflict that is the essence of story… and the silence would be shattered.
I look around me. Trees with upraised arms stand to one side and another, their browns and moss greens nearly set glowing by the dampness. The faintest of musical patterings hangs in the air – the landings of droplets gathered on branches and fallen to the snow.
Does the silence sometimes exist to be broken?
Or is the real question whether or not I could hold any place or anything silent – and unmoving and unchanging – forever? But put this way, the answer is clear. There are some things you cannot hold without destroying them, just as surely as would an attempt to reach in and hold a puddle world. The first brush of fingertips, and the mirage would fragment, solidity would flee in wavelet ripples. And what would you have left? In your hand you would find… cold, and wet, and a withered, muddy leaf disintegrating like the image you broke to touch it.
So, what now? My walk and my pondering keep on as always, when a voice from somewhere ahead cuts through them. “Hey! How are you doing?” I look up at the words to see a slightly familiar face – one I recognize barely, a passing acquaintance mostly unknown. I hesitate for a moment, deciding how to respond. Yet at length I’m settled – I pause, and meet the speaker’s eyes, and speak in turn. “I’m doing well enough today, thank you. And how are you?”
This was another story written for a creative writing class my senior year and refined for use in my senior thesis. It was, at least in part, an exploration of my lifelong love of fantastical settings… and my frequent inability to really create in those settings due to the fact that the tranquility I often loved in those settings stood at odds with every story’s need for conflict.
The line, “In your hand you would find…” is a near-quote from and direct reference to the poem “Up in the Tree” from The Poetical Works of George MacDonald in Two Volumes, published in 1893:
Up in the Tree
What would you see, if I took you up
My little aerie-stair?
You would see the sky like a clear blue cup
Turned upside down in the air.
What would you do, up my aerie-stair
In my little nest on the tree?
With cry upon cry you would ripple the air
To get at what you would see.
And what would you reach in the top of the tree
To still your grasping grief?
Not a star would you clutch of all you would see,
You would gather just one green leaf.
But when you had lost your greedy grief,
Content to see from afar,
Your hand it would hold a withering leaf,
But your heart a shining star.