Posts Tagged ‘Dunsany’

The Enchanted Hour

June 12, 2010

It’s been called the Hour of Magic . . . the Enchanted Hour . . . that time when the sun only just peeps over the edge of the world, going or coming . . . when shadows take prominence, shapes become fantastic, the sky is painted with extraordinary hues, and the light is soft and strange. Even the words we have for it are beautiful: dusk . . . twilight . . . gloaming.

The transition time between day and night has always been seen as mystical. Ancient fairy-lore suggests it is a prime time for encounters with the Good Folk. How often it is recalled in story, song, and poetry! And I’ll just bet we all have some vivid memories of twilights — long ago or not-so-long ago. Among this crowd in this season, I think this topic could be one of our best times yet!

Since I’m wearing the blog conductor’s hat, I’ll start us off. First, I’ll go back to summers in junior high and high school. My dad’s favorite place in the world was the pond at the back of our ten-acre plot in rural Illinois. In the corner of the long, thin property, behind the field, and accessed by a quarter-mile of grassy lane, the pond was bordered on two sides by wild timber teeming with wildlife. Many’s the time we’d startle a deer drinking at the water’s edge. At our approach, it would spring away into the trees, a flash of tawny grace. The chorus of coyotes is typical night music there. I’ve met bright red foxes near the pond; opossums, raccoons, skunks, more snakes than I care to count . . . and you’ve heard, I think, of the adventure Mr. Brown Snowflake and I had down there on a moonless night, being stalked by a bobcat.

The hike down to the pond was the perfect length: long enough that you felt you were leaving the everyday world behind, but short enough that you could get there pretty quickly. Of course, we always had special pond vehicles: a barely-running car or a pickup truck with no doors (for easy jumping in and out of) — vehicles that were just for our land, not road-licensed; and, like most farm kids, I learned to drive them when I was about ten years old. [The problem with no doors on a farm truck is that wildlife thinks the truck belongs to it: more than once, we found discarded white snakeskins, disturbingly long — and diving into the truck without looking could mean diving through a giant spider web, spider present. In the country, you learn to keep your eyes open.]

But anyway, I was talking about my dad. He loved to go down to the pond and work: mowing with his weedcutter, sickling by hand, or reinforcing the dam, all of which we did together, and I’m sure there must be a place in Heaven for doing it again. As it got too dark to see the weeds, Dad would retire to a bucket seat out of some old car that he had placed on a high point a few feet from the water. He’d sit there wearing his ever-present bill hat, smoking a cigarette. (Can I say “cigarette” in a public forum?) From a long way off through the dusk, I could see the red spark of the cigarette’s end, a little beacon showing me where Dad was. If we’d stopped work early enough, while there was still light, I’d sit on a rock, or the concrete retaining wall — or best of all, on some piece of rusting farm machinery half-overgrown by weeds — and I’d read fantasy as the light faded. I specifically remember reading parts of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and parts of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane down at the pond.

Mom, for her part, loved to pull weeds in the garden until it got too dark to see. Or to pull weeds in any of the dozens of flower beds she had all over the yard. She was a firm believer in pulling weeds, not cutting them. “You’ve got to get the roots out,” she said. I always tried to convince her that, if floating seeds and spores had planted the weeds there once, they would do it again — it was the wonderful way of the green world — and that cutting or mowing was faster (and much more fun!). But she’d have none of it. I think we were both partly right.

So I’d help her pull weeds as the sun went down, and we’d have itchy hands that smelled of plant juices, our skin needing the occasional spine or bur removed with tweezers in the bathroom’s yellow light. And Mom and I would do the same: when she’d pulled enough weeds, she’d sit on the porch with her cigarette glowing, and I’d sit on a lawn chair or a cart and read H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Lord Dunsany. . . .

Childhood games were the best, weren’t they? Playing and playing with the neighborhood kids as the purple shadows deepened, as the sky shifted from gold to red to lavender to purple, and night came on with slow wings. If you were playing hide-and-seek, the twilight helped you hide. The dark made your dramatic charge back to home base all the more dramatic. And always, just before you finally surrendered and went inside to baths and beds, you would stop just for a moment and gaze in awe toward the west, where the last glow was crimson behind the silhouette trees, and the soybean mill stood like a black castle.

I remember the summer of 2006, after both my parents had passed away, and I was living in our old house, slowly cleaning it out, discovering all the old relics of our pasts — long lost toys, photos, Dad’s early writing, the treasures of my parents’ combined libraries. . . . By then, the pond was overgrown — ringed round with new trees, high with weeds — but still there, a haven for the deer and the foxes and the birds, which would make Dad happy. Weeds had taken over much of the yard, sharing the space with Mom’s flowers, some of which are still coming up unassisted to this day. (In her last years, when Mom was too arthritic to do much weed-pulling and Dad was too frail to mow, Mom declared that she was deliberately letting the yard grow into a “restored historic Illinois prairie,” which was a good thing, recommended by ecologists. Always looking at things from the best possible angle, my mom!)

During that summer, I nearly always made it a point to be outdoors when the sun neared the western horizon. I’d walk around the yard, studying the trees and the weeds, always accompanied by the dogs, who understand a person’s moods at least as well as any human being. Sometimes they’d wag and jump up and ask for petting; sometimes they’d sit quietly beside me on the sun-warmed road, peering west across the fields, watching the light go behind the bean mill.

And the fireflies! At our place, they come out by the thousands — yellow-green, Earth-bound stars! Winking and winking, far and near, high and low, from the trees to the fields to the forest. They are the heralds of things ancient and timeless, things whispered and read and re-told, the emissaries of Faery.

Give us what you’ve got: stories, memories of the dusk — all the tales that are meet and right to share! (Dawn is okay, too!)

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Summer Nights and Reading Spaces

July 11, 2008

I remember the first time I noticed that a bright moon can throw your shadow as sharply onto the ground as the sun can. I made that discovery because I was out in a summer night, reveling in the cool breeze, the warmth rising from the land, the symphony of the crickets, and the smells of mown grass and horses and leaves.

In Japan, autumn is said to be the time for reading. Of course it can be done year-round, but for me, books and stories called most insistently when the world warmed up in spring, and when the spring unfurled into glorious summer. Naturally, there was the pragmatic reason: kids are burdened with school for most of the year, and it’s summer that offers the freedom to read unchecked, unhindered by that travesty that is organized education. In Japan, to describe hot, perfect summer weather, I still use the phrase bunshou no tenki — “writing weather” — which, yes, raises some eyebrows, since most people see no correlation between sweating profusely and a celebration of the arts. Sigh.

But as a kid, warmer and longer days meant that it was time for me to grab a book and go outdoors. Out in the shade of trees, out in that immemorial green light, was the truest and best place to escape into the worlds of stories. I can recall reading The Martian Chronicles in the open doorway of the barn’s hayloft, my bare feet swinging in space. I read Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon (a “double-feature” book that flipped in the middle, one novel beginning from each end) sitting cross-legged atop a barrel on the grounds of our local historical museum, where my mom was ever active. I read some of the post-Jaws rogue animal books there, too, on the steps of the courthouse where Lincoln himself once practiced law.

I had a “reading grove” in the northwest corner of our front yard (where my dog Hooper was later buried). I would sit there on a folding chair with my feet propped in the fork of a young oak, reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In the same spot, using a lapboard, yellow legal pads, and a soft mechanical pencil, I wrote a great deal of The Threshold of Twilight, my first full-length novel manuscript.

Ooh, check out this picture! This is in the backyard of my house in Illinois: the gate from a long-gone corral, leaned against young maples in years gone by, half-swallowed by the growing trunks. This tendency of nature to reclaim human artifacts has always fascinated and thrilled me. I was thinking of such things in college when I wrote the lines, from “Urban Requiem”:

“In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.”

But I digress. I read a whole lot of Lovecraft in various places in the yards. I read most of Stephen King’s It on the banks of our pond and on the back porch. I read on shed roofs, in trees, on the hoods and trunks of cars, in the tire swing, atop the root cellar, and everywhere in between. When darkness forced me indoors, yes, I read there, too.

When darkness fell, though, sometimes I’d wander back outdoors, not reading now, but marveling at this wonder that was summer. As a teenager, I was quite taken with celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big deal in Tolkien’s works, and I think those are what introduced me to the concept. “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars. . . .” Pretty much all folkloric sources agree that it’s probably the most favorable time of year for encounters with the Good Folk. The question arises, though, as to when exactly Midsummer’s Eve is. Some say it’s the night before the solstice — June 20. Some prefer the night of the solstice — June 21. Some Christians choose to go with June 24, the eve of the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth. I say that whole week is fair game. Go with whatever night it isn’t raining.

Yes, I haunted the yard on Midsummer’s Eve. I’d take along a lantern — an oil-burning lantern, not just a mere flashlight, though I usually had one of those, too; I’d take a wooden staff I’d found in the woods, a fallen tree branch that I’d sanded and varnished. I’d take a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and another book, the front cover long gone, so I don’t even know the title; but it was a collection of stories and poems about fairies. And I’d take stationery and a pen.

I’d wander along the hedgerows, run my fingers over the oak bark, gaze up into the trembling firmament of leaves and stars; I’d raise my lamp and stoop beside the knothole among the roots of the two-hundred-year-old oak, which seemed indeed a likely place for wee magical folk to live. I’d sit on the picnic table and read from the books. Then I’d write myself a Midsummer’s Eve letter, describing the sights, sounds, feels, smells — the whole of the night, as best I could; and I’d tuck the paper into an envelope, to be kept with the books and read again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, along with the other letters from previous years.

After coming to Japan, for three or four years I dragged a group of good-natured friends along and combined this letter-writing custom with the practice of reading poetry aloud, a la the movie Dead Poets Society. But that’s moving on into another set of stories.

Finally, I should add that summer goes on for a long time: there’s no need to confine the celebration to one week in June. July brings what I call the “Deep Summer,” and August brings the grand Dog Days. It’s the best of all seasons, and we shouldn’t miss a moment of it. Garrison Keillor advises, too, that we should make the absolute most of it: “Don’t try to sleep in the summer. You can sleep in the winter.” I remember a particularly nice June Eve, the last night of May, when I celebrated by watching Field of Dreams with my dad. If you’re blessed to still have your dad with you on this side of Eternity, that’s a really good movie to watch with him.

So, the discussion questions are two:

1. Does anyone care to tell us what is your best/favorite place to read in, either now and/or when you were a child? (It doesn’t have to be outdoors. Indoor reading is also condoned and encouraged.)

2. If summer nights are magical for you, what’s a way you’ve found to capture and enjoy that magic? What do you do (assuming it’s fit to print) to enjoy a night in summer to its fullest?