Monday, November 15, 2010

Magnificat

NPR's Three Minute Fiction winner has been announced... sorry to say, it's not me. But for your reading pleasure, below is my submission to this year's TMF contest.

Magnificat

Some people swore that the house was haunted.

There may have been something to the rumor, I suppose; cool summer evenings with the window open, the breeze, never steady, would maneuver into the room and toss the paper-lantern light like the proverbial park swing devoid of a child. Hell, some people swore the whole city was haunted. There were six distinct “World Famous” ghost tours one could join on any given night.

It had been a cold year in the north of England. The usually prolific blackberries were few, small and unpleasantly tart. A weak sun hardly broke the clouds, I swear not even trying, despite the elongated hours between sunup and sundown. The whole year seemed to merge into one damp, milky twilight. I was forced to rely on externals: so many cups of coffee, so many hours with the SAD lamp, so many pints of beer at the local pub. Heavy British ales almost as depressing as the weather. I was a child of the desert, solar powered, so what was I doing here in this soggy, godforsaken flatland where the daylight was simply a milder shade of grey? In those awful early hours of the morning, everything seemed so soft - and here I was, incessantly smothered by the unending greyscale softness.

But I knew why I was here: that grand and imposing Gothic cathedral. I was here to study the intensely colorful and iconographic stained glass windows – one cannot do it from photos alone – and though I made a point to visit other smaller churches and chapels, ruined abbeys and cloisters-turned-libraries, the draw of the Minster was like a drug. I chose this flat because I could see the Central Tower from my bedroom window, lit from below like some ghostly movie set, towering over the Victorian houses and Georgian market streets that filled the intervening two miles. Around my neck, a tiny piece of purple glass set in filigree; it was a polished, thousand-year-old chip from the Five Sisters window in the North Transept.

And, of course, you were here.

I first encountered you during an Evensong that summer. There was a benefit to my arriving under academic auspices, for I was able to move freely throughout the ancient building, into the Chapter House and undercroft without paying admission; but I tried weekly to attend a service, to see the warm trimmings of the Anglican Church festooning the cold stone and feel the reverberation of the gilded organ in my chest. I noticed you immediately, across the Quire, obscured partially behind a lectern. You glanced up, and I caught the emerald shimmer of your eyes and held it for one ecstatic, eternal instant.

I choked; a searing pain welled up behind my ribcage like a fanned flame. The whole chapel was suddenly alight, walls crumbled, ceilings dissolved. Was anyone in the whole of England but you and I? I don't know what happened next – all I could recall was the deep, living forest in your eyes, and then the organ voluntary. You had disappeared, along with everything else, into that murky, overcast twilight which eventually tainted the whole of life.

Of course you were here,” I thought, but were you? I never saw you again. I was convinced the entire occasion must have been mere dreaming, my subconscious acting out against the mundane, colorless circumstances of my conscious life, except for one thing. Since that night, when I had arrived home, the chip of stained glass around my neck was green.

Nothing was ever the same again after that.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On travel and home

I know the tones of the different rumble strips cut into the pavement along the shoulder of the Eisenhower Interstate System. I have traveled extensively, if selectively, and I know the strangest airports, the best restaurants along Historic Route 66, and that there's nothing like a week of hotel soap to make you long for a loofah. I have traveled by car, bus, plane, train, and boat. My friends, my coworkers and my colleagues have traveled more than most, just as I have, and together we have an insider's knowledge of the various destinations - and methods of getting to them - where we constantly find ourselves. Places as far-flung as Chicago, Vancouver, Caen, Canberra and Tokyo. Collectively, we have millions of frequent flier miles, thousands of road hours, and our names on a hundred different accounts for rental car and hotel upgrades.

I am a child of the American southwest. I am a daughter of the high desert, the land of the Sun, of steer and sagebrush, adobe and mesquite, mesa and arroyo, pinon and ponderosa, mountain and plain; the land where the Railroad is King, where pronghorn and roadrunner and tumbleweed roam freely, where elk and mountain lion sleep in the cool shade of high evergreen forests, where the sky is a bright painful blue emulated nowhere else and the mountains are purple silhouettes against an orange sun. I know this place because it is in my blood; this place where we use the name river mainly as a synonym for stream, where being in the shade actually is cooler, where coyotes and cactus and volcanic rock slowly turn to dust. I am intimately familiar with the way the desert makes the horizon look like a painted backdrop, the way the road surface bakes in the sun and burns your bare feet, the way tiny lizards and ground squirrels and jays move amongst the stones and gambol oak. I can mimic the sound of crows, ravens and sparrows (and peacocks, but we won't get into that...). I can recognize the sweet scent of an alpine park, the syrup flavor of prickly pear, and the distinctive whisper of the wind through tall pines. These are my "purple mountain majesties," my Colorful Colorado and my Grand Canyon State and my Land of Enchantment. I know the rattlesnakes and the saguaro. I am a Sonoran; I can laugh with the mestizos and tejanos at el gringo from New York; I can palate spicier peppers than most of the people I know. While others learned about the Civil War or the Norman Invasion, I learned about the Anasazi and the Trinity Test. To me, the Four Corners of the southwestern US are the Four Corners of the World.

I just returned from a week in New Mexico for a conference, and in another week or so I'll be in Michigan for an experiment. Traveling to New Mexico reminded me of what I love of the place I call home, and traveling anywhere else reminds me of what I miss.

I think I'll have a piece of cactus candy and a nice local microbrew.