Posts Tagged ‘The Knife Thrower and Other Stories’

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.

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The Old Well

March 19, 2009

The following is an excerpt from A Green and Ancient Light, an unpublished collection of vignettes which I wrote in the summer of 1990. It has been slightly edited for readability.

The Old Well

Nothing can keep a secret like a well. Nor is anything or anyone half so skilled at dropping hints of the most sinister nature.

You stand in a closet, and everywhere you see light pouring in, seeping through the slatted door. But the old well lets in darkness. The well is a starless universe in the shape of a shaft. A peek inside it is a peek into the Coke-bottle eyes, the tin-can fangs of the Thing That Lives Down There. You see the concave wall of bricks from above. That Thing sees them from below.

He’d be delighted if you’d fall in. That’s what he’s waiting for. He’s sizing up your house, too, or at least the little bit of it he can see framed behind your tiny head when you move the stone. Maybe someday your house will fall in; it’s possible.

You and your best friend take a kind of morbid delight in watching that covering stone from day to day, because you know — you know — it moves periodically. It slides just the smallest fraction of an inch during the night, during the dew hours. When you find it, that cover is allowing just an insinuation in, just the merest shadowy film of darkness up along the corner of the stone. Just enough darkness for the slugs to see by as they slowly, methodically measure your house after moonset.

Where do slugs go in the daytime? Whom do they work for? You and your friend get three guesses.

You keep moving the stone back into place whenever you can; you always peek down there, and that Coke-bottle glitter never bats an eyelash. The Thing sees you whenever you come. He has nothing but time. He waits.

Boy, are you and your friend relieved when your dad decides to fill in the old well. You’re relieved, and a little sad. A ton of bricks, a half-ton of earth rains in and closes the door, closes the shiny glass eyes forever. The irrelevant capstone is the last to fall.

You walk back and forth over all that’s left of the Thing’s pit: a shallow depression in the grass, just at the corner of the confident new sidewalk. This hollow will never cave in, not ever, because it’s packed full and tramped down hard.

You’re old enough to help plant the flowers that grow over his grave.

Your legs are too long to let you hear his last whispering sigh.

 

Fun, huh? By the way, not long after I wrote this, I discovered an old Algernon Blackwood story called “The Other Wing,” which develops a similar theme — growing up, crossing the threshold out of childhood, and the bittersweet losses that brings. I highly recommend Blackwood’s story, along with Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets” (same theme again), which can be found in The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories.

Here’s another invitation to unlock the treasure-vaults of your own tales and memories, dear readers! Share with us, if you will, your descriptions and recollections of those nooks and crannies in your childhood that didn’t feel quite right to you. Was it a closet? — a back stairway that always seemed a little too dark? — an attic, perhaps? — a lonely stretch of road? Was it a time of day? An abandoned house two streets over? We’ve still got more than half a year till Hallowe’en — let’s all do our part to tide one another over!

Enchanted Night

July 7, 2008

First of all, I wanted to include a visual or two as a kind of follow-up to the “Glory Day” posting. This is the view westward from the end of my driveway in Illinois. So the fireworks were happening in this direction, and more importantly, every evening, the sunset happens in this direction. Twilight has always been one of my favorite times. Perhaps it’s the edge-ness of it: it’s the boundary between day and night, so it seems a natural time for the boundaries between worlds to go all thin. I’ve always thought that one might see anything at all in the twilight. That thought fascinated me as a child — and scared me a little — but then and now (when I’m back there), every single twilight hour that I’m free, I’m wandering about outdoors. In rural Illinois, there are still fireflies winking in abundance. Lord Dunsany wrote a poem about wanting to go inside, because the evening is getting cold, but being held by the thought that he might miss something if he doesn’t stay to watch the whole sunset until it’s over. You never know what’s going to unfold in the sunset.

It may be those colors, too, that make the hour so magical. The sky throws off its responsible blue that it wears to work in all day. The sky does extraordinary things in the hour of dusk. And the Earth responds, dimming its own hues to black in awe. My parents told me that one of the words I learned to say very early on in my life was “silhouette.” I’d point at the oak trees in the gloaming, gazing at them in round-eyed wonder, and proclaim “Silhouette. Silhouette.”

Anyway, this is the time of year when I have to recommend the perfect book for this season:

Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser.

I discovered this book in a Tokyo bookstore. It was the title and the cover that compelled me to buy it. The moment I saw it, there was no question of not buying it. On the cover, we see a low-aerial view of a small-town neighborhood in the beautiful blues and purples of moonlight, punctuated by the warm yellow glows of some lighted windows and the effulgence of a big round moon in the sky. All over the picture are the characters from the book, some in the windows, some out in the dark. All the people and poses are suggestive of story threads that will intrigue and delight.

It’s a slim novella told in short episodes, glimpses into the lives of its diverse cast — all linked by the town they’re in and by the single summer night in which it all unfolds. Millhauser is a virtuoso. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful, the elements vibrant, nostalgic, and haunting. Here is a writer who understands that a summer night is something sacred, a time like no other. The book reminds me of how wonderful it is to be alive, and to be able to go through summer every single year.

I first started reading the book at 11:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 29, 2000 — a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I finished it at 2:04 a.m. on Saturday, July 29, 2000 — also a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I read the book entirely during late nights, and not a single word by the light of day; this is a book for summer nights. The hotter the season when you read it, the better.

I’ve also read Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower and Other Stories and loved it, too.

By the way, since I’m writing this on July 7: this is the Star Festival (Tanabata) here in Japan. According to an ancient legend, a prince and princess (not related to each other) were deeply in love, but circumstances kept them apart. They became stars in the sky, and once each year, the two stars meet; once a year, on 7/7, the lovers come together. So this is the time of year when what people desperately long for may be granted. In Japan, hopes and requests are written on strips of paper, which are then tied to the branches of a delicate bamboo tree. These aren’t pleas for objects (like a Christmas list), but generally less material things, such as prayers for healing, or for wisdom, or to pass an all-important test . . . or, in the spirit of Tanabata, to find true love.