Posts Tagged ‘Field of Dreams’

Places in the Heart

September 16, 2009

Today I collaborated on a poem with my mom. How is that possible, you ask, since she died several years ago? No, I didn’t hold a seance. As I was putting together the content for this posting, I came across a manuscript of hers she’d written in 1998, a poem she’d intended to submit to Cricket. It was in a rough, unfinished state, and somehow I just felt like working on it. I used most of her poem, revising many of the lines, and built a new poem around it. It tripled in length, but I maintained the spirit of what she was doing — now it sounds like both of us. I’m sure she’d approve; we did this sort of thing all the time while she was alive, so why stop now, huh? I believe I will try submitting it to Cricket. I’ve never had any luck selling a poem to them, but if they’d accept this one, it would mean Mom would have a by-line in Cricket at last.

Since I’m submitting it, I can’t publish it here — but I will if they reject it. (Don’t be disappointed — something of Mom’s is coming up here as soon as I’m done with my rambling report!)

As far as I can tell, the RSS feeds I tried to set up are working. One more time, to be sure you know what I’m talking about: when you first arrive for the day at this page, there’s a calendar and a lot of stuff in blue letters over at the right, right? Scroll down, and under all those Tag words in various sizes, there are two big buttons that say “RSS-Posts” and “RSS-Comments.” I tried clicking on the one for posts, and it took me right to a way to set up an RSS feed for this blog. (I didn’t go to the final step, because I don’t want notification when I post a new post: I’d rather not know. . . .) So I believe anyone who wants to be automatically notified when a new post is up can be.

Next: Nicholas Ozment, who appeared in an interview here a few weeks ago, has expanded on part of what he said about flash fiction, and you can read more from him on the topic at

Okay, here’s a true story: The following caption appeared under a photo in my hometown’s newspaper recently:

“Part of a tree was broken off on the courthouse lawn by the Abe Lincoln statue.”

[Shudder!] I knew there was something sinister about that statue! Apparently it comes alive in the dead of night and breaks municipal trees. There’s no horror like small-town horror.

The Christian County Courthouse in Taylorville, Illinois

The Christian County Courthouse in Taylorville, Illinois

There it is, the courthouse lawn, where the sinister statue lurks. (Ooh, didn’t Vachel Lindsay have a poem called “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”? [!!!] Strangely prophetic!) This was taken from the opposite corner to where the statue is. What you don’t see is usually scarier (in movies) than what you do see. . . .

Sure, we still have plenty of trees, but I’m certain you’d agree this can’t go on. I hope the Taylorville police are being issued bronze-piercing bullets.

All right, getting serious now (grroink!):

I want to be absolutely sure no one missed the last few comments on the post before this one. Please go back there and read them. You all who read the blog — thank you so much for being here. Just reading it is fine — you’re very welcome to do that. But when you take the time to comment, everyone benefits. What we have here is a fully-interactive salon for those who love stories, for those who love friends, and for those who love life. And like a college dormitory or a World Fantasy Convention, it goes on 24/7. We live in different time zones, different hemispheres, so you never know when something will pop up, when someone will have pulled a chair up to the fire and be ready for some merry company.

Anyway, in those last couple comments, Shieldmaiden and Marquee Movies were talking about the end of The Hobbit, how it’s one of the best endings in any book out there. And they were discussing those wonderful places we gather, the places we spend time doing things we love, perhaps with the people we love. (I won’t repeat them here, but I mean it — go back and read those comments!)

What places in stories would you add to the list? Places of comfort and peace, good cheer, replenishment, and comradery. . . . I think that’s where we want to go in our communal reminiscing this week. Tell us the places you love in books, stories, and/or movies where the characters gather — those best, unforgettable, infinitely inviting places that you wish you could go and live in.

And — you’re also encouraged to tell us about actual places that you love to spend time — either now, or at some previous stage of your life.

Who can forget Doc Graham in Field of Dreams, sitting Ray Kinsella down in his office on that magical night and saying, “This is my special place. When you find your own special place, the wind never blows so cold again”? And in the same film, Ray answering Shoeless Joe’s question “Is this Heaven?” with “No; it’s Iowa.” And then later glancing from the miraculous baseball field he’s carved out of a cornfield — gazing up to where his wife and daughter are sitting on the porch swing, and realizing that it really is a part of Heaven, after all — the place where dreams come true.

By the way, I’ve actually been to the Field of Dreams, the one where the movie was filmed. The baseball field, the farmhouse, and the cornfield are still maintained, just as they appear in the movie, in Dyersville, Iowa. You can still see, carved into one seat on the bleachers, “Ray Loves Annie” inside a heart. Marquee Movies and I went there together and spent an afternoon I will never forget, playing catch with a baseball, lounging on the bleachers, and venturing into the cornfield, where you can almost hear the whispers of Shoeless Joe and his teammates. Also, I ran the bases. And Marquee Movies walloped a ball way out into center field. You can go there, too, if you’re ever in Iowa. I totally recommend it.

The serendipitousness of this topic is that it segues perfectly into what I was already planning for this post’s main event. I’m going to take you back to 1991, to a pair of essays written by my mom and dad about their special places.

Here we go, then. Ladies first: these are the words of my mother, Mary Anne Durbin.

Mary Anne Durbin as a senior in high school

Mary Anne Durbin as a senior in high school

When Joe and I first married, our kitchen table was small because the kitchen was small.

After our son Fred was born, we added first a bassinet, then a low “play table” and finally a high-chair off to the side, so our son could learn what to do about food and books.

Then we doubled the size of the kitchen, so that meant a larger table.

We went shopping, which consisted of attending auctions until we found a wooden table to our liking. Somehow chrome and Formica can’t make a proper kitchen table. This one was perfect — a long harvester’s table that can sit four on each side and two on each end.

As I sit at the kitchen table, the stove and refrigerator are behind me. When a meal is ready, I tell Joe and Fred (if he’s home), and they come with books in hand to enjoy a good repast.

Something from the garden is at almost every meal throughout the year. In season, and especially in the springtime, flowers from the yard also have a place on the table.

I fill the plates from the stove, and pass them to Joe and Fred, along with the proper utensils for the meal.

In the center of the table is my German grandmother’s “spoon jar,” in case they need a teaspoon.

I have never mastered the art of reading and eating at the same time, but it is fun to hear the comments and views of what is current with Joe and Fred, or to hear an occasional passage read aloud.

When a meal is not in progress, the table is mine!

Upon arising, the little Bible and daily devotions at the table set a proper direction for the day.

At my left elbow is the “slush pile” of incoming mail. We subscribe to a few good magazines and contribute to a few good charities, so there is plenty of mail each day.

The Smithsonian goes directly into the bathroom for serious reading; others go onto the slush pile to be read as time permits. When I have finished with something, I pass it across the table where Joe has a similar pile at his right elbow.

Also on my slush pile are blank backs of junk mail for creative composition. The telephone is at my right elbow. In front of it are letters to answer and small pieces of blank-backed paper for taking notes.

A chair to my right holds my purse — the filing case for letters to mail, coupons to use, papers to take to town, and bills to pay.

Beyond the phone, on the far corner of the table, are the phonebook, writing tablets, papers to file in other locations throughout the house, and papers to recycle.

My dining room table is reserved for more exacting work — treasurer’s reports, income tax preparation, and newsletter mailings.

A final professional polish is put on all our creative work at the word processor on my desk in my office.

But it is the kitchen table, with all its mess of creativity, that is my favorite spot. Life is a prayer to be lived, and at my table are nourishment for the body, mind, and soul. Here is the stuff of true freedom — to worship God, to serve a husband, to nurture a child, to welcome friends, and to truly fulfill oneself.

There you have it. All my deepest conversations with Mom took place, usually late at night, at that table. That’s where we’d sit when relatives came to visit: Dad’s side of the family are living-room sitters; Mom’s side are kitchen-table sitters. And I always had better luck writing at the kitchen table than at any desk I ever set up.  There’s something homey and approachable and forgiving about a kitchen table. You’re under no pressure there.

Moving along, then, here’s Dad. The following essay is by Joseph Durbin, summer 1991:

Joseph Durbin at about age 20

Joseph Durbin at about age 20

My little pond, located on the southeast corner of our 10-acre plot, is the place dearest to my heart at my home.

My wife, Mary Anne, and I had the pond dug when our son Fred was 11 years old. That was in June 1977. He and his friends spent many happy hours there growing from children into young men and women.

In addition to being the site of much swimming, fishing, boating, and camping, it also was the premier locale for my son’s many home movies, and later, video films.

He had a passion for writing his own scripts and then enlisting his friends to act them out for the camera. Many times I was drafted to perform at the video camera when the script called for my son to appear in the production.

I was part of the gang, accepted by the group. I can remember the day when the boys had me film them as they rode their bicycles, one by one, down the hill and into the pond, reciting poetry all the way. It was hilarious! The short, bumpy ride, the brief airborne phase, and later, the huge splash!

The pond is an enchanted place because in most people’s eyes it would appear to be no more than a mere mud hole. That is because they see only with their visual senses. If they could see with their hearts, they would view an ever-changing panorama of life. The pond itself changes in size and content of life depending on rainfall or the lack thereof.

In the drought of 1988, Fred and I grasped the opportunity of low water to build a concrete retaining wall across the base of the earthen dam. Fred had never worked with concrete, but as a child had seen me pour sidewalks around our home. After I explained the process to him of the proper proportion of sand, gravel, cement, and water, he was great.

I was able to work on building the forms and putting them into place. And he kept the concrete coming to me. It seemed as if we could read each other’s thoughts.

Later Fred journeyed to Japan to teach English as a second language. In addition to his classes of school children, he also had a group of about a dozen housewives as students. Fred must have told them many wondrous tales about the “enchanted pond,” because one of his students, Michiko, and her two small sons, came to the United States in August 1990 for a visit with us. They just had to see all the places that Furedo-san had talked about in his classes. Needless to say, they also became enchanted with our pond.

As to the future of the pond? If I were younger, I would build a “yellow brick road” around the perimeter. At various places along the path, I would have figures of fairy-tale characters hidden in the grass or beneath the trees. I would have a footbridge across the shallow end, and also several little waterfalls to slow the water down as it entered the pond from the fields.

On the pond itself, I would float replicas of Viking dragon ships for the boys to ride on, and for the girls, perhaps swan boats.

But, alas, I’m getting too old, and the task is beyond me. But I can dream, and that is what the “enchanted pond” is all about.

And that’s Dad. You can see why I love that little piece of land so much. I have the best memories of summer twilights, the fireflies winking all around, sometimes a startled deer fleeing before us from the water’s edge as we approached. Dad would sit beside the water, smoking a cigarette, basking in the serenity. The purple woods marched away to the south and east. I would sit and read Stephen R. Donaldson, or Stephen King, or Clark Ashton Smith, or Lord Dunsany (those are some specific “pond books” I remember). Down there, I’ve encountered a wild fox red as fire. And once, I was stalked by a bobcat while camping with the reader of this blog whose icon is a brown snowflake! Wonderful place. Wonderful time.

Wonderful parents!

So, tell us your stories! Places? From your own experience, from stories . . . places in the heart.

Oh, yes — I stole that title from a beautiful movie starring Sally Field, Danny Glover, and John Malkovich. You should definitely see it!

Okay, we’ll close with a few pictures from the actual movie-location Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.

Fred on the bleachers at the Field of Dreams

Fred on the bleachers at the Field of Dreams

The place where dreams come true.

The place where dreams come true.

"If you build it, he will come." (I'm in this picture -- see me?)

"If you build it, he will come." (I'm in this picture -- see me?)

Fred on the pitcher's mound at the Field of Dreams (I'm in this one, too! See me?)

Fred on the pitcher's mound at the Field of Dreams (I'm in this one, too! See me?)



Bright Regent of the Heavens

June 27, 2009

In case you missed it, our friend SwordLily shared with us this enchanting, original poem of hers in a comment on the last posting:

Midsummer Night

Under a silver moon

Heat sings the ground alive

Fey dance in rainbow shadows

Winter is only a fond memory of gray


Very nice, huh? We’ve just passed the solstice — did you all enjoy Midsummer’s Eve? I hope no one got your head turned into a donkey’s head — or if you did, I hope it got turned back. I spent the holiday writing away on The Sacred Woods, my new book. Today it broke the 40,000-word line, so it’s now officially a novel! 2,342 words today, 1,016 yesterday! How near am I to being done? I keep saying I’m about 2/3 done, but I realize I’ve been saying that for a couple weeks now.

But anyway, we’re in the last days of June, moving from early summer into High Summer. Deep Summer. The moon is waxing now, waxing toward the next full. Since the moon is such a big part of summer, I figured it deserved a posting all its own.

When I was a kid, my mom introduced me to the fun of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas — I balked at the idea until I realized how much they had in common with Monty Python. Here’s a quote (though not a silly one — sorry to have raised your expectations with that mention of Monty Python) from their operetta HMS Pinafore:

Fair moon, to thee I sing,

Bright regent of the heavens,

Say, why is everything

Either at sixes or at sevens?

And I don’t have a copy of Watership Down here, but I remember from it the line: O Slug-a-Moon, O Slug-a-Moon, / Grant thy faithful hedgehog’s boon! 

The moon rides the welkin. I suppose we’re more aware of it in the warm months because we have the leisure to notice the sky; we’re not huddled indoors. The moon has elicited the attention of man’s best friend — the dog — from time immemorial. That silver orb in the air is ever worthy of howls. And it has captured the attention of poets and writers, painters and lovers. We love the moon. It gives us a focal point in the deep blue. It casts a frosty, chromy light over a landscape that would otherwise be dark. The stars comfort us with their (relative) permanence, their fixed quality, their infinite number. But the moon is a more personable companion in a way: it’s so much closer, and it moves and changes all the time, like us. 

I remember my delight when I discovered that I could see my own shadow in moonlight, just as I could see it under the sun. It was unquestionably the moonlight: I was nowhere near any source of artificial light, alone among the fields, on the tar-and-gravel road near my Illinois house.

Here’s from Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night:

“She looks at the moon, up there in the sky. It’s almost perfectly round except for one side that looks a little flat and smudged, as if someone has rubbed it with a thumb, and she has a sudden desire to be there, in that blaze of whiteness, looking down unseen at the little town below, the toy houses with their removable chimneys, the little maples and streetlights, the tiny people with their tiny sorrows.”

Ah, Millhauser’s extraordinary book is filled with so many moon quotes I could be here all night:

“The moon, climbing so slowly that no one notices, shines down on Main Street. It casts a deep shadow on one side of the street and an eerie brightness on the other, where the sidewalk is bone-white and the little glass windows of the parking meters glisten as if they are wet.”

This is the time of year when I implore people to read Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser. It is a fantastic summer experience: a very short novel-in-discrete scenes, the adventures of a group of diverse people linked by their residence in the same New England town on the same summer night. The book takes place entirely within one night, under the almost-full moon. “This is the night of revelation,” says the Chorus of Night Voices: “This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.”

“From the woods in the north part of town there rises a sound of flute music, dark and sweet. It rises in slow ripples, falls, in slow ripples it rises, again falls, a tireless slow rising and falling, insistent, a dark call, a languorous fall. Perhaps it is only birdsong, there in the dark trees.”

And if you’ve read that book, and if you want more Millhauser, read The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. From it, see especially the story “Clair de Lune” (though the whole book is amazing):

“The moon was so bright I could not look at it, as if it were a night sun. The fierce whiteness seemed hot, but for some reason I thought of the glittering thick frost on the inside of the ice-cream freezer in a barely remembered store: the popsicles and ice-cream cups crusted in ice-crystals, the cold air like steam.”

This is one of my favorite short stories ever. The main character, a 15-year-old boy, goes out walking late on a summer night when he can’t sleep. His steps take him, accidentally-on-purpose, past the house of a girl he likes.

“Oh, I knew where I was going, didn’t want to know where I was going, in the warm blue air with little flutters of coolness in it, little bursts of grass-smell and leaf-smell, of lilac and fresh tar.” . . . “I could not understand why no one was out on a night like this. Was I the only one who’d been drawn out of hiding and heaviness by the summer moon?”

When he gets to the girl’s house, he discovers her and three other girls playing ball in the backyard:

“They were playing Wiffle ball in the brilliant moonlight, as though it were a summer’s day. Sonja was batting. I knew the three other girls, all of them in my classes: Marcia, pitching; Jeanie, taking a lead off first; Bernice, in the outfield, a few steps away from me. In the moonlight they were wearing clothes I’d never seen before, dungarees and shorts and sweatshirts and boys’ shirts, as if they were dressed up in a play about boys.” . . . “The girl-boys excited and disturbed me, as if I’d stumbled into some secret rite.”

He is invited to play Wiffle ball with them, which he does, and they all have a great time, an enchanted time that is totally apart from their mundane lives and the societal roles they play out at school. He talks with one of the girls in the kitchen. And finally, he makes his way homeward:

“. . . All this was as unique and unrepeatable as the history of an ancient kingdom. For I had wanted to take a little walk before going to bed, but I had stepped from my room into the first summer night, the only summer night.”

[Don’t you love that?! “The only summer night”! That brings to my ear echoes of Doc “Moonlight” Graham’s line in Field of Dreams about the one single half-inning that he played professional baseball, how he didn’t know then that that was the only time he’d play. And so it is with so many moments in our lives — those moments that Shieldmaiden calls “flow moments” and I call chairos, a Greek word for “the eternal now.” The same one won’t happen the same way twice, so we’d better be watching and always in full absorption mode. Or again, it’s like the line Marquee Movies cited from Casualties of War: what we do in this moment matters, because it may be the only one. As Bilbo wrote: “In every wood, in every spring, there is a different green.” Or Robert Frost, choosing between his two famous roads in the yellow wood: “Oh, I left the first for another day, / Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back.” The blooming of the sakura is precious and transcendent because it is so brief!]

But “Clair de Lune”: I won’t tell you precisely how the story ends, though it’s pure magic and virtuosity of storytelling. Again — it’s one of the best I’ve ever encountered, and Steven Millhauser (in these two books, anyway) is Mr. Summer Night. I get the books out nearly every year at about this time. Read them by night, when the moon is in the sky. That’s what you must promise me. (You’re allowed to use artificial lights, and you can be indoors. I’m a reasonable man.)

Here’s a poem of mine:

Eclipse Enigma

They say a mirror is the Moon;

How strange it seems to me!

It’s silver-brilliant for the Sun

Who gazes in when day is done;

Yet when Earth takes the place

In front to see her shining face,

The silver mirror of the Moon

Is dark as dark can be!


I like that one because it’s mindful of the science of a lunar eclipse: the moon is a blazing silver mirror while the sun is “looking into it” — but when Earth crowds up in front of the sun to “look into” the mirror, her own shadow blocks the light and makes the mirror black. (As I said, I like this poem a lot, but the one time I sent it out, it came back with a form rejection. Well, well.)

In my early twenties, before I’d made any real professional fiction sales, I was writing stories that wanted so badly to be there but weren’t quite. There are three or four I remember that went pretty much like this: A character in the story (not the narrator) is odd, eccentric, but hauntingly admirable and seems out of place in this world. The character teaches the protagonist a thing or two about how to live better. At the end, the character vanishes under highly mysterious circumstances, leaving the protagonist to conclude that s/he has passed beyond the fields we know into another reality, the one in which s/he belongs. Ta-duummm!

Yeah, I know. That’s why they weren’t getting published. But isn’t it significant that I kept returning to that theme of passing through the doorway out of this world and into one where things are better? And, yep, I’m still writing about that: in The Star Shard, Cymbril and Loric want to escape from the world of slavery into the Fey Country. In “The Bone Man,” Conlin essentially steps through a doorway of sorts into the Hallowe’ens of his youth. In Dragonfly, you get two for the price of one: a trip down a laundry chute and a lot of stairs into a kingdom of dark magic, and then the struggle for passage back into the world of air and mercy, which turns out to be the better place after all — or at least the place you want to live, though Harvest Moon is nice to visit. (While we’re on the subject of Harvest Moon: there’s the moon again! That fiery moon balloon, the Jolly Jack, casts its lurid shine over the ground.)

But here’s what I was getting to when I brought up those early stories of mine: There was one called “A Tale of the Moon.” I remember writing it in one evening (it was quite short) outdoors on a tiny verandah (in Japan), with my word-processor set up on a folding table, and using an oil-burning camping lamp for light. Yes, I certainly went to a lot of trouble having fun in those days! The story had a somewhat fairytale-like tone to it — not grittily realistic. It described the plight of a group of children in a town who feel oppressed and overburdened with school. The world of the outdoors and adventures and books-for-fun calls to them, but they have to suffer through lessons and lectures and piles of homework.

One by one, individually, the children begin to notice (peering out from the high windows of their house-prisons) that the moon every night seems to be getting bigger in the sky — as if it were coming closer. At school, they whisper about this together when they get a chance, before some teacher orders them back into line. They all agree: the moon is coming closer! Somehow, it gives them hope, because they know the moon is coming to save them, but they don’t know how.

One night, the moon lands in a big field at the edge of town. The kids all break from their houses. [In the story, we get no glimpse of loving families — all the adults are Oppressors. I was exploring one narrow aspect of childhood, not going for a balanced picture.] They climb out of windows, scramble down trellises, burrow under hedges, hoist themselves over walls — and all, from near and far, from every corner of town, converge on the field, where the gigantic, glowing, beautiful moon sits.

A door opens in the moon’s side, a stairway folds down, and the children all pass inside. Then the stairway retracts, the door closes, and the moon lifts off again, gliding up into the dark sky.

Every day, the cruel old teachers sit alone in their classrooms and fiddle with their soulless teaching equipment, or pace the empty hallways in a daze — and every night, the moon seems a little smaller, a little farther away. [The End]

Heh, heh, heh! Yes, in a way, this story was a form of sweet revenge against the public school system. Don’t misunderstand me: I had many a wonderful teacher, and good friends, and I think the administrators meant well. But . . . you know. I was a kid. I’d rather have been reading and climbing trees.

Editors hated the story. (They were probably parents. Any parent, I think, on some level would be horrified by this story — it’s basically “The Pied Piper.”) It certainly wasn’t very well told. I remember one editor sending me a note that said it seemed like “much ado about nothing.” After all, school isn’t that bad, is it? [Well, yes. For some of us, it’s that bad.]

But . . . now we’ve got the idea of the moon as a doorway — my, how these posts interlink, an endless chain of daisies!

I recycled that idea, partly, in a story that did sell, “Ren and The Shadow Imps.” This story tells of a time when the moon was much closer to Earth, and if you were really determined, when it passed over a high mountain or the top of a tall building, you might just manage to get aboard the moon . . . and of course, there’s a frosty, magical kingdom inside . . . which Ren has to reach in order to secure help to save the world below. (Interestingly, the story provides a reason for why the moon is much higher in the sky now.)

Well. . . . This post is longish, and it’s more a ramble than anything coherent. But moonlight is like that, I suppose. Here’s the main focus for discussion (though you’re not limited to these questions — I think we’re often better off when you have minimal direction — so go ahead and clamber out the window and don’t listen to the cruel old teachers):

1. Are there uses of the moon, moonlight, or moonlit scenes from books or movies that you’d like to talk about?

2. I don’t want to invade anyone’s personal life, but are there any of your own moonlight experiences that you’d care to share with us all? (I realize some stories will be intimate and private — I’m not after those! Just the ones you see fit to tell us about: maybe the view from your window as a kid, and how the world looked different at night; maybe a restless walk you took in your student days . . . you get the idea.)

Finally, here are a few pictures:

I discovered an amazing place today -- within about a ten-minute walk of my apartment!

I discovered an amazing place today -- within about a ten-minute walk of my apartment!


This is the Toyano Inverted Bamboo Grove, declared a government designated natural monument on October 12, 1922.

This is the Toyano Inverted Bamboo Grove, declared a government designated natural monument on October 12, 1922.


It's "inverted" because, whereas most bamboo has branches that angle upward, this extremely rare variety, called <i>hachiku</i>, has branches that bend sharply downward.

It's "inverted" because, whereas most bamboo has branches that angle upward, this extremely rare variety, called hachiku, has branches that bend sharply downward.


According to legend, this priest, Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, was spreading his doctrine here, in the Toyano region. . . .

According to legend, this priest, Shinran, founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, was spreading his doctrine here, in the Toyano region. . . .


In this very grove, Shinran thrust his walking-stick into the earth, and it took root and sprouted -- yet with down-bending branches, as if the bamboo were growing <i>backwards</i> out of the ground.

In this very grove, Shinran thrust his walking-stick into the earth, and it took root and sprouted -- yet with down-bending branches, as if the bamboo were growing backwards out of the ground.


Hence, the "inverted" part of the grove's name.

Hence, the "inverted" part of the grove's name.


This deep, dark grove, right here in my own neighborhood, is officially classified as one of the Seven Mysteries of Echigo! (Echigo is the old name for Niigata, just as Tokyo used to be Edo.)

This deep, dark grove, right here in my own neighborhood, is officially classified as one of the Seven Mysteries of Echigo! (Echigo is the old name for Niigata, just as Tokyo used to be Edo.)


Enchanted doorway, anyone?

Enchanted doorway, anyone?


It's surprisingly dark within: this picture was taken at about 3:00 p.m. today.

It's surprisingly dark within: this picture was taken at about 3:00 p.m. today.


There are springy, well-maintained paths all the way through it, and not a scrap of litter.

There are springy, well-maintained paths all the way through it, and not a scrap of litter.


Here's the temple half-engulfed by it near one end of the grove: the Temple of Inverted Bamboo.

Here's the temple half-engulfed by it near one end of the grove: the Temple of Inverted Bamboo.


The shadowy corners lookin' good. . . .

The shadowy corners lookin' good. . . .


This dragon presides over the water devout Buddhists drink (with the dipper provided) as they enter the temple grounds, to purify themselves.

This dragon presides over the water devout Buddhists drink (with the dipper provided) as they enter the temple grounds, to purify themselves.


So, yes, this dragon is definitely more "wise, powerful guardian" than "brute beast."

So, yes, this dragon is definitely more "wise, powerful guardian" than "brute beast."


This picture has no caption. Or . . . it <i>didn't</i>, a minute ago.

This picture has no caption. Or . . . it didn't, a minute ago.


I'll let this tree have the last word.

I'll let this tree have the last word.

Dark Doorways

May 29, 2009

Updates first: This week I made a good exchange with Emily, the illustrator of “The Star Shard.” I sent her a signed copy of Dragonfly and she sent me a signed print of Minstrels’ Song, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent singing in the wagon bed. (I still believe that’s my favorite of her illustrations for the story, but several are right up there almost even with it.) If anyone else is interested in the artwork for this story, keep watching Emily’s website (see the blogroll at right); I think she plans to make prints available for sale in the near future.

This is not really an update, but I’m on something of an Enya kick lately. I just got her CD The Celts and like it a lot. (When I go to karaoke, which is not often these days, “May It Be,” “Only Time,” and “Orinoco Flow” are in my regular repertoire.) What impresses me about Enya is that she seems to see herself as just one component of the musical tapestry. The instrumental parts are often as important as the vocals; it’s about the whole, not about her being the star.

Third, my current project has now passed the 20,000 word mark (20,450 words as of quitting time tonight; 1,300 new ones today). I’m happy with it; it’s going well, by grace! Looks as if it will probably be a novella — possibly a novel — magic realism for about a teenage audience and upward. No caverns and no balloon craft — I know, that’s weird, right? Don’t ask me anything else, because I never talk much about works in progress — always afraid of jinxing them. [Unfortunately for everyone, I talk endlessly about projects that are finished. Blah, blah, blah, blah. . . .]

Groink. On to the main event: as an intro, I’m going to quote two passages. (In answer to my recent poll, one reader asked for occasional glimpses of works on the drawing board. This is a good chance to deliver just such, because they’re to the point.) These are from my manuscript Agondria, which is currently out under consideration. It’s a bigger story made up of smaller stories. In both of these excerpts, note that the characters are venturing over dark, perilous thresholds into the unknown. . . .

1. From “The Heir of Agondria”:

Beneath the arch, the reek was stronger. Even Ancaea seemed loath to go onward. She glanced at Lorian and paused at the edge of shadow, squinting up the dark track to the next patch of daylight.

“The air is foul,” murmured Iphys, behind Sarath. “There is a part of night that remains here, even in the day.”

“It’s the way of tunnels and caverns,” said Peleagar, his mace upon his shoulder. “They’re dark, and bats foul them.”

Elina, blue-eyed and slight, drew her sword in a slow, ringing glide from the scabbard.

Arlas leaned on his spear. “Should we return, and bring a greater strength of arms?”

Lorian considered, then shook her head. “Until we know what danger may be here, I would not lead our crew into it. Wait here, all of you. I will go a little farther on—“

“No, my Lady.” Ancaea glanced around at the others, and several chuckled. “Do not tell us to wait while you go on, for all will disobey. You must get used to that, before you put on a High Queen’s crown.”

Lorian smiled back. Arms akimbo, she surveyed the other warriors. She started forward, and again Ancaea and Arlas preceded her.


2. From “Lucia’s Quest”:

Hand on her sword-hilt, Lucia could feel the tension of the warriors around her, though all held their peace.

Then, in the rocky vaults ahead, a light began to grow. Red and flickering, it cast wavering shadows over great piers and buttresses of stone.  “Forward,” called Ethani, and the oars dipped again into the waves. Passing beneath a last stalactite-fringed arch, the bireme emerged into a subterranean harbor — a wide, calm lake in the caverns.

An uneven ceiling hung near the limit of vision. All around the harbor at varying heights, tunnels led away into obscurity. Beside these dark mouths, upon ledges beside endless stairways carved into the rock, torches flared. Even as the ship arrived, dim figures were carrying these lights, setting the last of them in place. These shrouded shapes must be the Chalybes, though the firelight did little to illuminate them. They wore black cloaks with peaked hoods, but their white arms protruded from the garments — spindly, sinewy arms so long they nearly reached the floor, the hands doubly broad.

The place was loftier and more terrible than the Temple on Vorcyra, even though Lucia recalled that edifice from her childhood’s perception, which made all structures larger. More frightening this cavern was, for it felt hidden from the sight of the gods, its dark masters a race who held no fear of Olympus or of any mortal army.

Ethani gave an order, and again the rowing ceased. Behind, a second gate groaned shut within the tunnel, as mighty and ponderous as the first. When silence reigned again, Ethani paced forward along the deck, hands on her waist, her cloak trailing. The firelight limned her bronze helmet with its tall comb of dyed and stiffened horse-mane. The Vorcyrans flanked her. At the bow they halted and waited, searching the shadows.

. . .

Ethani turned her rain-gray eyes on Iloni. As the leader of this quest, appointed by the Oracle, it was Iloni’s place to speak.

Taking and expelling a deep breath, Iloni moved another step closer to the prow. “Hail, Chalybes!” she cried, her clear voice ringing into the vaults. She spoke in Anren, the language of Vorcyra, Shandria, and the lands to the west, a tongue generally understood upon the rims of Middlemere. “Hail, sons of the Earth, lords of fire and iron! We come to you with honor and reverence for the great King Agetychus, whose name we know: may it please the Sea and the Rock that he still rules here, and shall till the mountains fall!”

The echoes of her brave shout faded. Stillness returned. Iloni’s Shandrian helm turned right and left as she scanned the cavern. She drew breath for another cry, but Ethani laid a hand on her arm. “It was well-spoken,” the captain murmured. “Let them see that we can wait as well as they.”

And well we may wait until the mountains fall, thought Lucia. The silence was oppressive, disheartening. She had the sudden notion that the indistinct figures might be no more than wraiths, the ghosts of a people long dead, with no more power to answer than the stones.

But at last, from a balcony at the head of a steep stair, one of the smith-folk replied in a voice dry and cracked, also speaking in Anren. “A fair speech, seafarer. Agetychus reigns indeed, and has for fourteen lives of the kings and queens under the sun.”

. . .

“It gives us joy,” Iloni continued, “to know that he who was mighty in our grandmothers’ days is mighty still. We have brought him rich gifts, beseeching one kindness in return.” Iloni spread her arms, bowed her head, and knelt on the deck. Ethani and Lucia mimicked the obeisance, though Lucia sensed it ill-pleased the captain to kneel.


The Doorway

The Doorway

Back in my junior high days, my Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set came with a playing module called “Descent into the Depths of the Earth.” It had me hooked with its very name. What could be more appealing than that? That is the essence of fantasy role-playing . . . and, in a broader view, the essence of fantasy reading, isn’t it? — the question of what lies beyond the dark portal ahead — of what’s around the next corner or just past the circle of torchlight.

Westering LightIt occurs to me that the passage of dark doorways is a primary element in the vast majority of these stories we hold so dear. Sometimes it’s a literal door, and literally dark. Sometimes it’s a figurative doorway, and the “darkness” is rather the mist of the unknown. Let’s consider a few examples, right after the following pertinent side note.

Traditional Japanese Noh play often deals with ghosts and the supernatural. The Noh stage doesn’t use painted flats or furniture; it’s very austere. But an essential element is the placement, along one runway leading to the main platform, of three small pine trees. These are set in a staggered line. They’re not all equally distant from the viewers; and this variance of depth represents an open passage into the spirit world.

I won’t even mention the authors and titles: you know them.

Max wears his wolf suit, and that night in his bedroom, a forest grows. He sails away through a year and a day to where the wild things are.

Children who don’t want to go to bed are given the chance, instead, to fly with a mysterious boy out the window into the starry night, all the way to Neverland.

The one good thing about being sucked up by a tornado is that it might plunk you down unharmed into the land of Oz and take out a major bad witch in the deal. (What darker doorway can there be than the dirty, freight-train-roaring, snakily-writhing, unpredictable, unstoppable vortex of a twister? Those things are the nightmares of kids growing up in the Midwest. You may run and you may hide, but you can’t take your house with you: it’s either in the tornado’s path or it isn’t.)

Alice slides and tumbles down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.

After a long voyage to the Island of Tangerina, Elmer Elevator walks along the coast until at last he locates the string of ocean rocks described by the cat, and he leaps across them one by one to Wild Island.

Lucy pushes her way through the coats in the wardrobe, and what does she find?

At King’s Cross Station, Harry finds his way onto a train platform that isn’t supposed to exist, and the train departs from there.

Beneath the Paris Opera House stretch flight after descending flight of stairs, dungeon after dungeon, down to a subterranean lake, and a boat, and beyond that. . . . (I’m just now realizing what an influence this book had on Dragonfly. I read it just before or after I came to Japan, at the end of my college years — immediately preceding the writing of Dragonfly.)

The Sumatra makes a long sea voyage for reasons unknown even to her captain, and within a perpetual fog bank she reaches an island bisected by a cyclopean Wall . . . and in the Wall there is a colossal gate. . . .

The U-33 limps along with her seething, conglomerate crew to the beachless, cliff-walled island of Caprona.

Before the coming of the white man, two Mandan Indian youths wander into a cave, become hopelessly lost, and eventually emerge into the Lost Land, a valley world beneath the desert, where prehistoric life still thrives in all its carnivorous glory.

When Ray Kinsella takes the suggestion of a disembodied voice and carves a baseball field out of his corn field, a magical world emerges from a door that is not dark, but whispering and green. (This one’s quite a reversal: build the door yourself, and they will come. This story appealed to me so much because I’d grown up knowing that cornfields were doorways into Faerie.)

Professor Challenger leads his expedition up the side of a South American plateau, at the isolated top of which is — you guessed it — a primordial world untouched by the passage of time.

In Jules Verne’s book, our intrepid heroes descend into the crater of Mt. Sneffels, an inactive volcano, following the promise made by an earlier explorer that they can “reach the center of the Earth. I did it.”

Burroughs again: the mole machine burrows into the ground, gets out of control, and takes its two occupants down, down, down to Pellucidar, at the Earth’s core.

The airship Hyperion braves the snows and storms of the frozen north to reach Astragard, a lost paradise of warmth and green growing things, populated by a colony of Norsemen.

Gandalf realizes at last the trick to the inscription above the gates Narvi made, and the wonder and terror of Moria is unlocked.

In my own stories:

Ren climbs the bell rope of a church steeple at the hour when the full moon is passing overhead; and so he comes to the frozen realm within the lunar shell. (“Ren and the Shadow Imps,” Cricket, October 2003 – January 2004)

The nameless narrator undertakes a journey no living person has ever attempted: to climb down the trunks of the mighty trees to a place described only in myth — the Place of Roots. (“The Place of Roots,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2001)

And so it goes. And so our childhood games involved imaginative forays into these otherworlds, always beyond a dark door of one sort or another.

It’s impossible to show this correctly in movies. When it’s done in cinema, the world completely changes around the child, and he’s in another place, with a different landscape, with 100% visual realism. But that’s not how it works, is it? When we’re really playing as children, we don’t actually leave our mundane surroundings. We can still see them as they are; but they become charged with a special significance, a symbolic meaning. The living room wall remains a wall, but it is also a cliff wall; the carpet remains a carpet, but it is also a perfectly rectangular bed of molten lava. How marvelous it is that these things can carry so much enchantment! They can, because we have passed through those dark doorways into the lands of shadow and wonder, silhouette and dream.

My cousin Phil and I used to play Journey to the Earth’s Core at Grandma’s house. The space behind the sofa was always the entrance crater. At times we would even force parents, aunts, uncles, and Grandma to watch this as a play: the scientists would clamber up the rocky sofa, surmount its summit ridge, and descend, descend, into the infinite depths behind it. And they would emerge into the world at the Earth’s center, where recliner chairs were great boulders, where closets were cavern mouths, and where, yes, carpets were pools or beds of lava that must not be stepped into if one valued one’s life.

So . . . questions for discussion [and you’re by no means required to comment on all three — or any]:

1. What are the elements of a good passage to an Otherworld? (In a good story, what aspects or conditions are present to make it “work,” to make the passage feel right, plausible, and attractive?)

2. Are there stories anyone cares to tell about your own childhood imaginative forays into Otherworlds? (Or those of your kids, if you’re a parent? Are you now being forced to watch intrepid scientists climbing the stone-strewn sofa to get at the fathomless depths behind it?)

3. Are there other good fictional examples I missed (or covered inadequately)?

Glory Day

July 4, 2008

Those of you who went to school with me will remember this poem, written one July 5th during my college years. I remember it was a July 5th, the day after the 4th of July. I took my chair and paper out to the northeast corner of our yard, where an old raspberry patch had gone back to nature, and a grove of fairly young maples whispered and dreamed together at the edge of the field. Behind me, the north wall of the barn was covered with Virginia creeper, that ubiquitous vine of the Midwest. I think this is probably my favorite of my own poems.

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a Dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.


Hallowe’en may be the most fun, but the summer months are the most numinous. Hope Mirrlees sort of dismissed trees in summer, saying they are silent. For me, there’s nothing like a summer tree: that bright sunlight hammering on the visible surface of the crown — while within, below, there are the darkest and coolest of green and blue shadows.

The cornfields are present in the Deep Summer: those green mazes that come with the hot months and are taken down in the fall. Now, in this season, they stand as the portals to other worlds. If you don’t believe me, watch Field of Dreams. But we knew about it long ago, long before the movie. Farm kids have always known.

The best part of July 4th, of course, was the fireworks. When I was little, we had a ring-side seat: the country club to our west had an extravagant fireworks show, and we could see it all from our front yard. We’d gather in the dusk — family, friends, neighbors, we kids with fireworks of our own (loud, explosive things during the day, beautiful and fiery glowing things saved for the night). The adults sat in lawn chairs and noticed the mosquitoes. We kids wandered barefoot, from the road’s day-long-baked tar, now soft and warm, to the sharp gravel at the verge, to the cool grass of the yard’s edge.

The loud reports of the noise-bombs would roll clear around the Illinois horizon, 360 degrees; we could turn ourselves and follow the sound. The brilliant fire-blossoms unfolded in the sky like benedictions over the dark world.

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Nobody that matters, that is.”

On Glory Day, we were all alive. The night was warm and full of visible miracles. And the summer stretched on and on ahead, waiting for us, full of promise.