Thresholds: “Behind Old Doors” and “Home” by Hannah Abrahamson

Due dates for papers, presentations, and exams are closing in. Someone (sidhe or brownies, I think) have strung blue fairy lights and even a chandelier over some of the streets in town. Between drinking hot chocolate and researching, I’ve been stealing golden moments outside in the dwindling daylight. Now that many of the leaves are gone, the woods are brighter.

Like Shera Moyer‘s contribution last week, Hannah Abrahamson‘s contribution to the Thresholds project, with its images of green hilltops and faded leaves, stirs up a mix of contentment and longing in me. Enjoy!

Behind Old Doors

by Hannah Abrahamson

A door! What slumbers behind that old door?
My feet skip a beat and so does my heart.
A door! The unknown leaves me wanting more:
A mystery I’ll awake with a start.

Will its joy fill my lungs like crisp fall air?
Will its scent linger like leaves limp and brown?
Will it sweeten my soul and stir up care
Like cider overflowing drips down?

The threshold sparkles like flurries in flight,
And beckons me to step frightfully near.
I push the door open with all my might,
And awaken whatever slumbers here.

The Builder knows the great mystery well;
What old doors will bring only He can tell.

Home

Home: a place I may never reach by road;
A cloud kingdom built by winds roaming free,
Where I may unpack my soul’s crushing load,
For I know the keepers and they know me.

Hello, blue house, you served us well a while.
I watched my children grow within your walls.
I see my children in the garden smile,
I see laughter in every leaf that falls.

Goodbye, blue house, now we travel onward.
Your memory stays with me as I go.
I look back with joy as I look forward,
I climb to windswept heights from valleys low.

O Lord, make this green hilltop house a home,
Although till Heaven calls this earth we roam.

Hannah Abrahamson

Hannah just moved back to her hometown with her husband, son, and daughter. Right now she’s living with her parents, but Hannah and her family look forward to moving into their new house soon, situated on a hilltop surrounded by miles of farmland, prairie grass, and country roads. Hannah spends most of her time homeschooling, but also pursues a long and eclectic list of hobbies including writing, kayaking, reading, crocheting, and playing the ukulele. You can find more of her work on her website, teacherbynature.com. (“Home” originally appeared here.)

Thresholds: “Vapor in Time” by Shera Moyer

I think this autumn will become a film reel of memories for me: gray-green hills surrounded by swirling mist and howling winds, red hawthorn berries and dewy cobwebs in hedges, gold weather vanes on top of church steeples, pastures of grazing brown-and-white cows, warm home lights twinkling against darkened landscapes at dusk. It turns out that going to grad school in Scotland is a great thing to do during a pandemic: a class schedule is more flexible than a work schedule, you get to enjoy fascinating lectures and fellowship with other students, and you can travel the wild even if you can’t tour palaces or go to ceilidhs. God is good.

This next contribution to the Thresholds project also ponders travel, home, and wonder: Shera Moyer‘s description of her life in Tanzania and Indiana makes me yearn to visit both…but also to explore and enjoy the ordinary, familiar wonders of my own place. Shera partnered with Hannah Abrahamson, who gave her the following artifacts (creative stimuli) to work from:

  • The moon rising over leafless trees
  • The smell of pumpkin and cinnamon
  • A soft and warm fall coat

Enjoy!

Vapor in Time

by Shera Moyer

Leaves in the sun

At the end of a sleepy siesta last month I found myself in that dreamy state where I was unsure if I was asleep or just thinking about dreaming as I woke up. For those few moments I relished the feeling of not knowing quite where I was, yet realizing it didn’t matter. I would find out soon enough. A while later, as I sat staring at the swirling steam rising from my tea, I was transported from an Indiana autumn afternoon to memories of October mornings back home in Tanzania.

Mesmerized by the same steam swirls in slanted sun rays, I sipped my morning tea to the background vocals of a rasping red-necked spurfowl. As he scratched around a nearby granite rock kopje, belting out his morning “kwa-lee’s”, a goshawk flew high overhead twittering while performing his routine territorial display. A hint of burnt grass smell hung in the chilly morning air, lingering from fires the night before – fires started to clear fields, but run wild with the wind, setting whole mountainsides aglow at night.

October skies are hazy. Dust, smoke, and ash particles suspend in the atmosphere, and in the evening, when fires are lit again, the skies blaze above as refracted sunlight ignites towering cumulus and bright streaks of feathery cirrus clouds.

With the rains still a month or two away, the weather grows continually warmer. It’s in the midst of this hot and dry that the miombo woodlands burst into leaf. While most vegetation is leafless after months of dry-season, Brachystegia trees release energy stored in their roots to adorn bare branches with new foliage. Initially, only a faint tinge of color starts to show on the brown hillsides, but in a matter of days the trees are covered with gold, red, and fresh green. A walk through miombo woodlands on a late October afternoon conjures up feelings I imagine stained glass artists hope to inspire in grand cathedrals. As I stand there on sandy, rust-coloured soil and can’t ever seem to stop gazing at translucent, tender new leaves absorbing sunlight.

More leaves in the sun

Perhaps trees just like showing off this time of year. Back on the north side of the equator red maple and golden beech leaves contrast with dark green conifers and earthy oaks blending into a rich seasonal colour palette. Walking through a stand of beech trees in yellow leaf gives the impression they’ve been storing up sunlight all year just to share on a cloudy autumn day. When I wander through an autumn wood I don’t know where to let my eyes rest for all the colors. Again, I often find myself just standing, breathing in the crisp air, eyes drawn to jaggedy-edged palmate maple leaves and smooth-lobed sassafras, then up to follow the crunching sound of a bounding deer waving its white tail-flag as it leaps and lands.

Here the colors herald an ending. By November most of the trees look like they’ve been inverted, doing head-stands and waving their scraggly roots skyward. The woods are quiet now, aside from the occasional squealing chipmunk as it darts away. Sweet, musty smells of decomposing vegetation fill the air, and the leaves underfoot make damp swishes. My legs are frozen numb through my jeans, I can’t actually feel my ears, and I can see my own breath. It must be time to add more warm layers.

Back inside, thawing out, I peer into another cup of hot black tea and blow the steam to make it dance. I wonder how I know when I’ve fully arrived somewhere? The process seems more gradual than the thunk of an official stamp in a passport on June 26th, 2019. Perhaps it’s finally having a driver’s license that matches my place of current residence? Indiana, “The crossroads of America”, the state tagline reads. Its regular train whistles, honking Canada geese overhead, and criss-crossed interstate highways easily lead me to nostalgia and thoughts of people far away.

But, my feet have also walked the ground here for over a year now. The paved sidewalks and roads have worn my soles smooth, and off-track meandering has often sent me home with damp socks. Lately, I’ve also begun exploring narrow country roads, the kind that run past old brick churches and mossy cemeteries, or through family farms and along rickety wooden fences covered in thick vines. I choose the turns that beckon or intrigue and eventually I drive back home with no map. Small adventures, sure, but it’s satisfying not to know exactly where I am, but still have my bearings well enough to find my way back to a specific address.

While there are still plenty of things I’d like to do out there in the world – learn new bird calls, climb boulders to watch the sunrise, swim from deserted rocky lake shores, identify new species of flowers, and discover hidden waterfalls in deep ravines – for now I’ll boil a kettle in the kitchen. Then I’ll pick a sprig of fresh mint, drop it into the hot water, and nestle into a large beige armchair with a fluffy blanket. Cradling my mint tea, I’ll breathe deeply of its sharp aroma as I stare out the window to the stubbled field beyond.

Shera Moyer

Canoe on a misty lake

Shera enjoys playing with words, good conversations, and spending time outside getting to know the surrounding world. One day she might start a blog for fun, but until then she has piles of notebooks full of happy scribbles, and for now that’s quite all right.

Thresholds: “Martinmas” by Miriam Novotny

This past week taught me some important lessons: lemon & ginger tea heals any ailment, including those you didn’t know you had; hiking through fog is breathtaking, almost better than hiking under clear skies; the British honor Remembrance Day, a memorial day for World War I and military conflicts since then, with scarlet poppies.

Last year in New England, November painted the woods gold, and we had the first snow around Thanksgiving. I will miss the magical quietness and transformation of snowfalls here, as well as an official celebration of Thanksgiving, but swirling mist, thundering sea, and golden fairy lights are treasures enough.

This week’s Thresholds piece, a short story by Miriam Novotny, reminded me of the joys of cold, snowy, cozy weather. Her story meditates on thresholds of time and space, now and not yet, yearning and fulfillment, and gave me a new respect for November 11 as the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Enjoy!

Martinmas

by Miriam Novotny

Lanterns in the snow

I put on my gloves and took a last look around the kitchen. The golden light glinted on the tea kettle, and the warm scent of spiced cider hung in the air. I was reluctant to leave, but I didn’t want to disappoint my siblings. They deserved to experience the tradition that had brought me so much joy, so I picked up my lantern and turned the knob. Together, we entered the frosty night.

The bitter chill in the air stung my cheeks and pinched the insides of my nostrils. It was almost too dark to see the leaves that littered the ground, but they crackled under my feet. Suddenly a gust of wind whisked them away, leaving the yard even bleaker than it had been before. My breath rose above me and melted into the stars.

My sister followed my gaze. “The stars look like windows into heaven, don’t they?” she asked. I didn’t answer. I could remember saying the same thing at her age, but the stars had felt nearer then. They were so far away now. I looked at the lantern in my hand, at the dancing light inside it. It was only a jam jar decorated with bits of colored paper, but I had been proud of it when I’d made it years ago. It was beautiful. Not as beautiful as the stars, perhaps, but it echoed their beauty.

Just then, I felt a tugging at my jacket. It was my brother. “What is it, Michael?” I said.

“Why do we take a lantern walk on Martinmas?” he asked me. His little nose was red with cold, and his brown eyes shone. He was the youngest, and this was his first lantern walk. I suddenly realized that he didn’t even know who St. Martin was.

“I’ll tell you,” I said, kneeling down beside him. The other children knew the story by heart, but they gathered around us with eager faces. “Long, long ago,” I began, “in the days of the Roman Empire, there was a young soldier named Martin.”

“A soldier?” asked Michael, becoming excited.

“Yes,” I said. “One day, as he was riding to the city, a great storm arose. The wind howled like a wild animal, and the snow came down in great sheets. He was glad that his military attire included a good, heavy cloak, let me tell you. Well, when he had nearly reached the city, he came upon a beggar sitting by the roadside. The old man had hardly anything on, and his frail body trembled violently. He implored everyone who passed to spare him a cloak or a bit of cloth to wrap himself in, but no one seemed to hear him. At last Martin could stand it no longer. He reigned in his horse and began to dismount.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ one of his officers demanded.

‘This man is going to freeze to death,’ Martin told him, shouting above the wind.

‘So will we, if we don’t get a move on. If we stop now, we won’t reach town before the closing of the gates.’

‘Go on without me then,’ said Martin, and that is what they did. They kicked their horses and rode away, leaving him standing by the roadside.

Martin looked at the beggar. He wished he had an extra cloak, but all he had with him were the clothes on his back. Well, there was only one thing to do. He drew his sword and cut his cloak. Kneeling down, he wrapped one half around the old man’s body. The beggar looked up at the soldier in surprise. ‘Oh, thank you, sir!’ he said, his eyes filling with tears.

‘Don’t mention it. I only wish I could give you more,’ said Martin, trying not to cry himself. All at once, he remembered the gates. Before the beggar could speak again, he mounted his horse and was gone.

By now it was quite dark, and the road was empty. Martin leaned over the horse’s neck, urging him to go faster. Soon the city walls loomed before him, dimly visible through the curtain of snow. Martin’s heart sank. The gates were closed. They would not be opened again till morning. Dismounting, he made himself as comfortable as he could on the ground, thankful for the half-cloak that remained to him. At last he drifted off to sleep.

And as he slept, Martin had a dream. He dreamed that he saw a group of people coming over the snow, bearing lanterns bright as stars. The lantern-bearers climbed up, up into the sky, till they came to a vast gateway. Unlike the gates of the city, it was open wide, and a blinding light poured forth.

Standing on the threshold was the beggar. He was still wearing the half-cloak, but he seemed different somehow. As the beggar’s eyes met Martin’s, such love and power shone within them that Martin could hardly bear it. Those eyes could only belong to Jesus. Then the Lord raised his arm, and in a loud voice he cried to the lantern-bearers, ‘See! Martin, who has not yet been baptized, has clothed me.’ And Martin remembered the words, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

“What happened next?” Michael asked breathlessly.

“Well,” I said, “Martin awoke the next morning and entered the city, but he didn’t forget his dream. He had been studying the Faith since he was ten years old, and now he was baptized as soon as possible. Eventually, he left the Roman army to better focus on serving Christ. He had many other adventures and even became the bishop of Tours. But above all, he longed to enter the shining gates that he had seen in his dream.”

“And did he?” Michael asked.

“Yes, he did. When Martin was an old man, weary from his work for God, Christ came and took him home.”

“I want to enter the shining gates, too,” said Michael.

“So do I,” said my sister.

“We will one day,” I told them.

I rose to my feet, and together we walked into the darkness, our hearts and lanterns like little stars.

Miriam Novotny

Miriam Novotny

Miriam Novotny believes that storytelling is an honor, a part of being made in God’s Image. While she waits for the great Happily Ever After, she spends her time reading books, spinning stories, and drinking cinnamon tea. Read more of her work on her blog, The Glass Hill.

“Thresholds”: All Saints Day, 2020

When I started planning my own contribution to the Thresholds project, I knew from experience to pick a publication date right away. I started looking at holidays and astronomical events. Halloween was the obvious choice, but somehow I didn’t want to do a Halloween story – I have too many memories of neon-orange pumpkins, sugary candy corn, black-clad witches and goblins, grotesque masks at CVS, neon green and bright purple to leave much mystique and grandeur in that holiday. I decided to do All Saints Day instead, a holiday I knew almost nothing about beyond the name.

My most recent short stories have been dystopian, science fiction, and fantasy, so I decided to experiment with another of my favorite genres, mystery. It’s very difficult to cram a full detective story into a short story format – even Agatha Christie’s are a little cramped – so I wasn’t completely successful, but it was fun to try.

My brief, unofficial, scattered research of All Saints Day showed me that this day is just as mysterious and otherworldy as Halloween, or even more so, since it deals with transcendent mysteries. Sources like this one taught me that this feast honors all saints of the Church, the living and dead. Other sources like this one suggest that this Christian holiday is meant to replace the Celtic, pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) on October 31, when Druids lit bonfires to celebrate the end of harvest, beginning of the darkness of winter, and night when the dead could come back to visit the living.

Bonfires and moonlight, restless sea and brooding sky…my imagination began to churn. I liked the idea of a night filled with holy fear; not the dark, hopeless terror of pagans trying to satisfy ruthless, capricious gods, but the sacred fear and reverent wonder of Jesus Christ and His Church.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter II [speaking from a demonic perspective]: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.

Day/night, living/dead, autumn/winter, invisible realities and visible illusions… The theme of this project is thresholds, a physical and metaphorical term for a boundary, liminal space, beginning and ending and in-between. The tale took shape. My partner, Karlee Lillywhite also gave me “artifacts” that sparked new ideas:

  • Gregorian chant
  • Woolen shawl
  • Decomposing apples

In the end, I spun this story between discussing the theology of music and re-enchantment in class, walking in golden woods and on windy clifftops, going on coffee dates and skimming scholarship on fantasy and faith. Enjoy!

Note: I recommend listening to INTROIT: Gaudeamus omnes in Domino as you read this.

All Saints Day, 2020 

…gaudent Angeli,  
et collaudant Filium Dei… 

It was the evening of November 1st. On the beaches, gales whipped the waves into a foaming fury. No one heard the silent keening or saw the dark mass huddled on the eastern shore. 

In a church in town, echoes and shadows danced among the columns. Drafts of chilly air made the candle flames shudder. A girl with wavy hair dyed black and a pale, freckled face exhaled softly. Kat’s breath fogged up her glasses through her face mask. She inhaled white rose perfume, musky cologne, and the smell of old stone walls and wooden pews. The small choir group separated from the congregation by plexiglass screens sang with voices of north wind and night. 

Exsultate justi in Domino… 

Someone touched her arm, making her jump. Her new housemate, Dan, stood in the aisle wearing his gray mask, eyes wide with urgency.  

“What?” she whispered, glaring at him. Other household groups, spaced six feet apart on either side, glanced at her. Dan turned to leave, beckoning her to follow. 

Sighing, Kat followed him outside into the chilly air. 

The streetlights were glaring after the warm golden glow of candlelight. “What’s going on?” Kat asked, pulling her mask off of one ear, then the other. Dan shivered in a thin argyle sweater, coatless, his neat blond hair ruffled by the wind. One shoe was untied. “I thought you had to study tonight.” 

“Do you know where Naira is?”

“Uh, I thought she was staying in tonight, too,” said Kat. “She said she was tired. Did you hear her go out?” 

“Yeah, I heard her take out the trash an hour ago,” Dan said. “But she didn’t come back in. Her curry burned on the stove. Her phone’s on the counter. I found this on the ground outside.” He held up a woolen shawl, crimson and gold.  

“You think something happened to her?” asked Kat. “Did you ask the neighbors?” 

“I asked everyone in the building,” said Dan. “It was awkward, but I just…it felt weird. No one saw her or heard anything. She can’t be visiting anyone — we’re still not allowed past the threshold of other houses.” 

“Ok,” said Kat, pushing her glasses back up her nose. “That does sound weird. Let’s go see if she came back while you came here.” 

They set off towards the house. A strong wind ruffled their hair. They passed closed cafes and the iron gates of one of the colleges.  

“I’m sorry I pulled you away from the service,” said Dan. “The singing was beautiful. It’s All Saints Day, isn’t it?”  

“Mm-hmm.” Kat kept her eyes on the ground. 

“Celebration of the whole Church, right? All the saints?” 

“Yep,” said Kat, nodding without looking at him. 

“That’s cool. Does your family follow the liturgical year?” 

“No.”  

Dan glanced at her, frowning, and then turned back to the uneven cobblestones. They waited for a car to go by, yellow headlights spilling on the pavement, and crossed the street to their housing block, stone with bright red doors. Dan unlocked the door, and they went in. Kat saw Naira’s wool coat hanging from a hook and her black boots on the mat.  

The kitchen light was on. Though the window was open, letting in a chill, the air smelled like burnt curry. “Naira?” Dan called. Naira’s iPhone lay on the counter. 

“She’s not in her room,” said Kat, coming down the stairs a few minutes later. Dan was scrubbing the blackened bottom of the curry pan in the sink.  

“This isn’t like her,” he said. “She doesn’t go out late or leave things on the stove.”  

Kat leaned against the mock-granite counter. “So she went outside to empty the trash,” she said, “and didn’t come back.” She and Dan looked at each other. 

“She’s a black belt in karate,” said Dan. “This is a very safe town.”  

“Let’s look outside again,” said Kat. 

“So she came out here,” said Dan, walking from their door to the trash cans, “and I found her scarf here.” He pointed to a patch of pavement.  

Kat walked up and down the street, studying the ground. “Asphalt and cement, so no footprints, obviously,” she said. 

“You’re Nancy Drew-ing it?” Dan asked, examining the sidewalk in the other direction. “I have five younger sisters,” he said when she looked at him. “I know all the girls’ books. It was self-defense.” 

“Yeah,” said Kat. “I used to read them.” She studied him. “That explains the Prince Charming.” 

“What?”  

“Uh, it explains why you’re so – why you – act so charming,” said Kat. “Asking questions…Naira and I couldn’t figure out if you were flirting or just that nice.”  

“Oh,” said Dan. “Uh, yeah, I’ve gotten that before. My female friends sometimes warn me about being creepy. Sorry.”   

Their phones chimed. Kat flipped open her iPhone; Dan opened his Android. 

“Drat, it’s another COVID update,” said Kat. “Dear students, I regret to inform you that the number of COVID cases in Fife has started rising again … high population of elderly…we are instituting another voluntary lockdown for students starting at 7 pm today.” 

“Please do not visit any pubs, coffee shops, or restaurants this week,” Dan continued.  “Please do not socialize with anyone outside your household, and avoid crowded areas where social distancing is compromised.”  

They looked at each other. “Naira’s so careful about the rules,” said Dan. “Her asthma…” 

“We need to find her,” said Kat. They were silent for a moment. “How do you track someone if they don’t have a phone?” she asked. “Satellite footage? Bloodhounds?” 

“Traffic cameras?” said Dan. “Wait. Bloodhounds. Dogs. She went out at 5:30 – that’s when Mrs. Morison takes Sausage out.” 

“Sausage?” 

“Her dachshund. Let’s ask if she saw something.”  

“Naira? The Indian girl with the pretty hair?” Mrs. Morison asked. She held her scarf protectively in front of her face with her right hand and her red door open with her left. “Yes, I saw her earlier when I took Sausage out.” Her Scottish “r”s and “oo”s were rich like dark chocolate. “She barely stopped to greet me, asked if I’d seen a child run by.” 

“A child?”  

“Aye, a wee lad running by. She said he was alone, going toward the cathedral. I said I hadn’t, so she took off in that direction.” 

All three of them looked left down the street, where the ruined cathedral stretched toward the sky. Through the black iron gates, yellow spotlights lit up parts of the structure: an archway, towers, a few walls, and gravestones on either side. 

They thanked Mrs. Morison. As the door shut behind them, they started walking down toward the cathedral. “She saw a child,” said Kat. “So she followed him to make sure he was okay.”  

They reached the sidewalk in front of the west entrance. The ruins were surrounded by a stone wall that reached chest-height and had an iron grill on top. The black iron gates were locked.  

“Naira!” Kat called. The heavy wind stole most of her volume. “Naira!” Dan called too, but when they paused to listen, they only heard the rush of the wind and the faraway pounding of the waves. 

“Scott and his flatmates are going to check Castle Sands,” said Dan, checking his phone, “Flat 6 is going down South Street, and the philosophy people upstairs are doing Market Street. I think we should look for her here. Maybe she fell and hurt herself? They have a couple of open vaults in there.” He put his hands on the iron grill at the top of the wall, hoisted one leg up, and jumped over.  

“I don’t…” Kat looked around.  

“I’m a volunteer warden, remember?” Dan called. “I have a key, but climbing over is more fun.” 

“Well, we have a good reason,” said Kat.  She climbed the wall and hopped over, too. 

The grass was slick with rain. They went down the stone steps to the western entrance, where the door’s archway and the vaulting remained intact. They crossed the threshold into the nave, of which only the wall on their right remained, lined with high-arched windows. They wandered towards the presbytery at the other end, checking various open vaults Dan knew about, around the stumps of the arcade piers, and then left into the north transept and around the graves and crosses on the lawn. They checked every corner, calling to Naira with no answer. 

“Some of these are unstable,” said Dan, looking around at the gravestones in one corner, dark gray granite with light green lichen. Kat pursed her lips and looked away. 

“You okay?” asked Dan.  

“I’m – it’s fine,” said Kat. “We had some deaths in my church this week.” 

“People close to you?” Dan asked. 

“Yes.” Kat looked towards the presbytery. “Wait – do you see a light over there?”  

On the other side of the site, the ocean-facing side, a light hovered among the gravestones: something small, flickering, and golden, unlike the glaring yellow spotlights.  

“Yeah,” said Dan, quietly. “That’s a lantern.” He gestured for her to walk in that direction. The grass muffled their footsteps. They dodged around several empty, open graves with stone coffins, through the foundations of the chapter house to St. Rule’s tower. When they reached the grassy area in front of the tower, Dan stopped so quickly she bumped into him.  

A man with snow-white hair and beard and a black coat stood at the door to St. Rule’s tower, holding the door open with his left hand, iron keys jangling in his right. Hooded figures were disappearing into the tower. “Thanks, Pearson!” the last said cheerfully.  

“Just an hour, mind!” said the man, closing the door after them. 

“Pearson!” said Dan in a voice of deep shock, walking towards him. “What are you doing? No one’s allowed in the tower! You can’t social distance in there.”  

“Hello, Dan,” said Pearson, showing no surprise as he pocketed his keys. “And who’s this with you?” he asked as Kat approached. She smelled the rich, autumn-wood smell of pipe smoke coming from him. 

“We’re housemates,” said Kat. “Are you a warden?”  

“Aye, of a sort,” said Pearson, nodding. In the eerie light, his face was pale: laugh-lines around the mouth, frown-lines on his forehead, light crow’s-feet around his eyes. “I coom out for holidays like this one. It’s tradition, Dan,” he said to Dan, gently. “They’re the SOMA, you know.” 

“The what?”  

“Society of Mystical Astronomers,” said Pearson. “They read poetry on cloudy nights. Usually in the castle, but that’s booked for a midnight masquerade tonight. Do you like poetry?” he asked Kat. 

“Sometimes,” said Kat, smiling a little. “I like the Irish poets. Seamus Heaney. Yeats.”  

“It’s a good night for it,” said Pearson. “The thresholds are thinner.” He looked up at the cloudy sky. “He reached a middle height, and at the stars, / Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. / Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, / The army of unalterable law.”  

“Pearson, we’re looking for our other housemate,” said Dan. “Naira. Have you seen her?”  

“Pretty girl with dark hair?” said Pearson. “She dashed through here a while ago. Said she saw a child running by. Headed towards the sea.”  

“We need to find her,” said Dan. “Thanks.” He touched Kat’s arm, and they walked quickly towards the other gate. 

“He’s not all there,” said Dan softly, when they were out of earshot. “He’s not supposed to have keys, even. I like him, but…” 

“He reminds me of my grandpa,” said Kat dreamily. “He died last month.” 

“Oh,” said Dan. “I’m so sorry.” They were quiet as he fished out his own keys and let them out the iron  gate in the stone wall on the other side. A sea breeze hit them immediately. 

“Do you know what they call the two parts of the Church?” Dan asked suddenly as they turned right on the coastal path, toward the beach.  

“No.”  

“We, the living ones, are called the Church Militant,” said Dan. “The dead are the Church Triumphant.”  

The sea lay before them, dark and rippling. The waves were roaring tonight, receding from high tide. The yellow, white, and green lights of the houses and caravan park twinkled all the way up the coast past East Sands.  

“Do you see something down there?” said Dan suddenly. “By the water?” 

In the faint gleam of streetlights and dim glow of the sky, they could make out a dark patch on the beach.  

“Let’s look,” said Kat. They ran down the rest of the sidewalk over the bridge that spanned the river inlet and down to the sand, slipping and sliding.  

“Naira?” she called. The faint echo of an answer came through the wind. They ran the rest of the way down the beach, huge at low tide. Something fishy and seaweedy hit Kat’s nostrils as the wind shifted towards them, blowing her hair back.  

They reached the dark mass. “Oh,” said Kat, stopping. “It’s a whale.” 

The creature was the size of a car stretched into something long and narrower. It lay on its left side, fins splayed. “Oh, no,” said Dan. “It’s beached.” 

“Hey,” said a tired voice from the sand. Naira sat there, one leg stretched in front of her. A little boy with curly brown hair sat beside her, staring at them. 

“Naira!” Kat knelt beside her. “We’ve been looking for you! What happened?”  

“I saw a kid run by,” said Naira. “This one – his name is James. I followed him down here to make sure he was ok, and I saw the whale – he was sneaking out with his friends and they found it. I fell and hurt my ankle – I can’t put weight on it at all – and I left my phone. I can hear it trying to breathe,” she said shakily. “It’s going to get crushed under its own weight if we can’t get it back in the water.” 

“I’m calling the police,” said Dan, pulling out his phone again. 

“People are coming,” said Kat, taking off her coat and putting it on Naira. Voices echoed from up the beach; groups of iPhone flashlights wobbled toward them. In a few minutes, they were surrounded: people from Duke’s Court, St. George’s, George’s Place, and a few students from South Castle Street. 

“Don’t touch the whale!” Naira called. “It might have bacteria!” 

“Oh, the irony,” said Kat, massaging Naira’s hands to warm them up. 

A half hour later, even more people lined the sidewalk and clustered on the beach. The police cordoned off a perimeter around the whale as marine biologists from the university gathered around in lab coats and rubber gloves. 

“I really hope this doesn’t cause an outbreak,” said Naira, shivering and looking over the crowded beach as a paramedic examined her ankle.  

Someone lit a bonfire against the stone wall that bordered the beach, its red-orange blaze a fiery echo of the lights on the coast. The surf pounded as a team of researchers, police, and other volunteers started pushing the whale back into the sea with grunts and shouts of encouragement, a team of spotters rushing in to replace anyone who got tired.  

People cheered: the whale was only a few feet from the pounding waves. People slipped, slid, groaned, pushed until it was inches deep, a foot deep, pushed up by a wave and pulled back as it receded. Kat’s tiredness wove a dreaminess over the scene, so that individual moments swam by: Naira being carried off to the hospital for an X-ray; James being found, scolded, and carried off by his mother; the whale-pushers wading back through the surf, talking and laughing in ragged, triumphant voices; a small group of people in front of them suddenly beginning to sing. It was the group from the church.  

Gaudeámus omnes in Dómino, 
Diem festum celebrantes
Sub honore Sanctorum omnium: 
De quorum solemnitate gaudent Angeli, 
Et collaudant Filium Dei. 
Exsultate justi in Domino: 
Rectos decet colaudatio. 

As the police herded them back to their houses with warnings of forced isolation and fines, with the few words she heard and recognized – Gaudeamus (rejoice), Domino (God), Exsultate (exult) — echoing in her mind, she pictured the whale swimming back to the deep. Cloud-mountains sailed across the silvery patch of night sky where the moon hung. 

Thresholds: “The Clearing” by Kori Frazier Morgan

When I chose “thresholds” for this project’s theme, I liked how the physical meaning of the word, “the floor of a door or entranceway,” corresponded with a figurative meaning, “the level at which something starts to happen.” After a couple of months in Scotland, I feel myself crossing the threshold of familiarity: golding trees and sea gulls’ cries shift from magical to ordinary, and poor water pressure and COVID restrictions become everyday. I hope I can hold onto my sense of wonder while settling into the rhythms of this place.

Kori Frazier Morgan‘s delightful contribution to the Thresholds project, a flash fiction story, explores thresholds of familiarity and boredom, safety and adventure, physical and metaphorical. I identified with the main character so closely, it startled me.

Kori’s partner for this project was Aaron Stephens, who gave her the following “artifacts” or creative stimuli:

  • Cat whiskers
  • Clouds moving quickly across the sky
  • A small patch of earth in an otherwise grassy place

The Clearing

by Kori Frazier Morgan

Charlotte awoke to her cat’s whiskers needling her cheeks, his head gently butting against her forehead, as if saying, “Wake up, I’m bored.” Bergamot was the neediest cat she’d ever had, a plain yellow housecat she’d rescued from a shelter. Charlotte blinked several times, meeting his aggressively green gaze, then groaned like a sick dog as she forced herself to get up.

She grabbed a pair of sweatpants out of her dresser and the Ohio State sweatshirt she’d worn for the last three days. “You should dress like you’re still going to work,” her mother had said the last time they talked. “This won’t last forever. Do you want to lose your routine?” Charlotte snapped back that she’d already lost it.

Downstairs in the kitchen, she poured a cup of coffee and scrolled through Facebook. This had been her routine since the beauty salon where she worked shut down last month—mindlessly scrolling through the latest bad news, charming photos of her friends’ kids learning on Zoom, Instagram-worthy loaves of homemade bread and DIY crafts.

A text from her mom popped up. U okay? Charlotte rolled her eyes. Bergamot jumped on the table, sidling up to her shoulder. “Please leave me alone,” she said, unsure whether she was talking to him or her mom. The cat just stood there looking confused, then leapt onto the floor.

The phone dinged with another message. I can see u reading my txts. Please go outside or something?? 

Charlotte glanced at her watch. It was 10:30. She’d only been up for an hour, but it felt like five. She thought of the groceries outside that had been delivered two days ago, and remembered that she’d ordered chocolate chip cookie dough. Cookie dough for breakfast might switch things up.

She opened the front door and tried to gather as many bags as she could. Struggling to balance it all, she dropped a bottle of wine and it shattered, broken glass and black-red liquid sinking into the pavement. Charlotte swore loudly. She tried to manipulate the screen door so she could get everything else inside, and it was then that Bergamot darted out of the house.

Charlotte yelled the cat’s name, dropped the rest of the groceries, and flew after him. He ran like crazy, the allure of the fresh air seeming to intoxicate him, and she chased him down the sidewalk, across the street, down another block, until she reached the end of the road, where Bergamot darted up a maple tree. 

Charlotte looked around and found herself in a clearing. There used to be a house here, all swaybacked and crumbling from years of neglect, until the city finally tore the eyesore down. Now, the grass was lush and green, except for one wide, circular patch beneath the tree where nothing grew.

Bergamot scaled the higher branches of the tree. Charlotte grabbed the lowest branch and tried to walk her legs up the trunk, but the bark scraped her hands and she let go and fell on her back into the dirt. The heaviness inside her was unbearable, but she was too tired to cry. Bergamot was now a tiny yellow dot bouncing from branch to branch high above.

“Please come back,” she said, her voice cracking. “Please.” Her legs shook—she hadn’t run like that in years—and she let herself sink onto the patch of earth, curling into it. She wanted to stay here forever in the barren patch of earth, letting the grass grow over her, until there was only a slight rise in the grass, blending into the roots.

She was half asleep when she felt something wiry poke her cheeks. When she opened her eyes, she saw Bergamot, curled up on her chest, his long yellow tail curled around his body. He stared down at her, opened his mouth, and yowled, almost snarkily, as if to say, I finally got you to go out.

Kori Frazier Morgan

Kori Frazier Morgan received her MFA in fiction writing from West Virginia University. Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, Forge, Switchback, Blanket Sea, Prick of the Spindle, Scarlet Leaf Review, & other publications. She is the author of two books, Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime & The Goodbye Love Generation: A Novel In Stories

Thresholds: Three Poems by Aaron Stephens

In this small haven on the North Sea, green leaves are turning yellow; waves rise and fall with a thundering murmur; hot drinks like chai lattes and caramel mochas warm you up after walks through the cold winds. October is slipping away in later dawns and earlier dusks. Next week is Independent Learning Week, when classes are suspended to let students study, work on papers, and (in ordinary times) travel.

Now that I’ve had a month to settle in, I want to keep exploring the roles of maker, cultivator, and collaborator in my artistic work. After having so much fun with the Summer of Faerie project last summer, I longed to do another creative collaboration this autumn. I reached out to some artist-friends from The Habit and St. Andrews and invited them to join me.

Here is the full description and prompt for the project:

Project Title: Thresholds

Prompt: In her Rabbit Room article “Weathering the Books,” Rebecca D. Martin talks about reading books seasonally, and names The Fellowship of the Ring (especially the chapters up to Bree) as perfect for autumn. In honor of that beautiful thought, I invited some other artists to do a collaborative project.

The theme is thresholds: physical or metaphorical, small or great, looming ahead, just underfoot, or behind you. I took this definition of “threshold” from the Cambridge Dictionary:

1) The floor or entrance to a building or room
2) The level or point at which you start to experience something, or at which something starts to happen
3) The point at which something starts

Threshold synonymsbrink, verge, dawn, door, doorstep, doorway, edge, entrance, gate, inception, origin, outset, point, still, start, vestibule, point of departure, starting point

Medium: Anything: creative nonfiction, academic essay, fiction, poetry, visual art, theatrical script, Spotify playlist, etc.

The collaborative part: Once some people expressed interest, I arranged partnerships. Each individual came up with three “artifacts” or stimuli for their partner: concrete, physical objects such as “the color red, an iron key, and the smell of earth,” or “the taste of cinnamon, sound of a cello, and fog.” These “artifacts” didn’t have to appear in the final result, but they gave everyone a place to start.

Several artists took the challenge, and now that we’ve exchanged “artifacts” and had some time to work, I’ll start publishing the results here. This first contribution is three poems by Aaron Stephens. Aaron’s partner was Kori Morgan, who gave him these artifacts:

  • A tree with a trunk that grew up at an angle
  • An orange ball cap dropped on a hiking path
  • A windmill statue in a vegetable garden

He responded by capturing the beauty of a woodland with profound clarity and brevity that gives many phrases the emotional resonance of whole poems in themselves.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: Richard Loader

Autonomy

On our own
Lost in a
Maze of trees
On paths blazed by
Neighbors as blind 
As we

Trust

Change came
When I saw you
Step on a baseball cap
On the park trail.
An old orange hat
And I thought,
‘The hat was on the path
Now the path is on the hat.’

A new aroma
Finds my senses.
A patch of lavender
Hiding, waiting for me.
You found me.
So I prayed,
‘God, make me 
Walk more carefully.’

Breeze

White Birch trees
Straight and ordered
Sentinels of Law

Wild Beech trees
Angled trunks
Revelers of Gospel

Wind Blows
Through the leaves
Of the Beeches

We Begin
Down The Path
At last

Aaron Stephens

Aaron Stephens is growing more tenderhearted toward his wife and three children. Favorite color: blue. Have you had a dream that started before you were asleep? Have you had one so funny you laughed yourself awake? Aaron’s life has been like that. Just when he had settled into fearful religiosity, Jesus showed up like a belly-laugh for his soul. Find him at: aaron-erin.com.

Scotland: A Month in the Gray Havens

So, I’m here in Scotland. It’s October. I weathered two weeks of quarantine, cold winds off the sea, drizzling rain and blazing gold sun, walks down cobbled streets and runs up green hills. I’ve sipped mochas and eaten scones with clotted cream in little coffee shops with classmates, read long texts about aesthetics and Dante and postsecularism and a menagerie of other things, and listened to lectures on Tolkien and metaphysics and Song of Songs that made the world seem like a spinning toy carousel on a roof in Paris. 

I spent almost four years of my post-college life reading and studying, listening to and envying the beauty of others’ lives, of traveling writers and homeschooling mothers and brilliant academics. As I mentioned before, I want to be careful how I write about this year: it’s a grand adventure and glorious gift with a lot of hard work, stress, and small, dull, difficult tasks woven through it.

So here it is: a month’s worth of impressions of St. Andrews.

The town

Cobbled streets and winding roads; stone houses with slanted roofs or beige or white stucco houses with red tiled roofs; gardens of yellow rose-of-sharon or white roses; little shops of books, tartan, snow globes, scarves, golf gear, coffee, and pastries. The castle and cathedral ruins look mystical in the morning and eerie at night.

It’s charming and quaint, but also pays the price of its age: scaffolding and any kind of equipment looks out of place here, anachronistic in its bright colors and shining plastic or steel. Water pressure is piddling; mold and mildew are known hazards; they’re terrified of fire (we have three fire doors in our flat and warning signs everywhere).

The area

Steep hills of rolling green fields or plowed brown soil; pastures of black cows and white sheep; winding roads twined with blackberry plants, rose trees, and dead gray thistles; the blue sea calm and still or frothy with foam. One friend said she’s seen porpoises off the shore and rainbows on the horizon.

Fife itself is full of stone ruins and small fishing villages. I’ve only explored some of the Fife Pilgrim Trail so far, Crail, and Elie; small neighborhoods of stone houses, bright blue or red doors, ornamental wrought ironwork, gardens of orange roses and yellow begonias, and green hedges. 

Many houses and farms have cute or regal names: Kenly Green, White Cottage, North Quarter Farmhouse. 

The university

In my few days visiting Oxford last May, I felt the brilliance of the students and faculty almost palpably in the streets, lectures, and museum exhibits: we are the elite. St. Andrews has equally brilliant minds, but it feels more hidden and remote, like a secret society of astronomers meeting at the top of the world. I’m more of an insider here as a student (I was just a tourist in Oxford), but my program is also less well-known and feels delightfully intimate. 

In those soft spring days last year, Oxford was gold; St. Andrews is silver. Oxford felt like a smaller Gondor, dreaming spires at dusk; St. Andrews feels more like the Gray Havens, stone ruins at twilight. It has a special northernness, ruggedness, and loneliness from its brooding skies and wild sea.

The program

I knew so little about theology and the arts, and our discoveries are breathtaking. We’ve studied Giotto’s Arena Chapel, Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, the curio shop of religious kitsch and the wasteland/wonderland of postmodernism and postsecularism. We’ve really barely started, but here are a few curiosities I’m pondering as we read and discuss:

  • How can we value beauty without idolizing it? Protestant suspicion of beauty and visual art is well-known, and I think it has valid reasons: it’s so easy to worship beauty as an idol, as Dorian Gray did. However, driving through the industrial meadowlands of New Jersey and remembering churches with moldy gray carpets and barren walls reminds me that beauty has spiritual significance: it revives the soul and glorifies our Creator-God.
  • How do orthodoxy and artistic vision relate? In class, we’ve talked about the relationship between theology and art: are the arts 1) a mere illustration of theological truth, 2) a completely separate area of thought, or 3)  an equally authoritative source of truth? I am passionately orthodox, and the idea that an artist’s work could translate spiritual truths just as well as divinely-inspired Scripture makes me nervous. However, viewing the study of theology/art as wandering around with a doctrinal checklist and making sure every charcoal sketch or one-act play matches every cant and creed seems unnecessarily harsh and legalistic. 
  • How can I glorify God with my art? I yearn to delve into the mystery of the incarnation, the wonders of creation, and the richness of divine love with storytelling and essay-writing – but a work written with a teaching purpose behind it can become a poorly-dressed scarecrow sermon or a cheesy, flimsy thing that’s embarrassing to call yours. We’ve talked about how just following a thread of inspiration and focusing on the craftsmanship of the work in itself can create something lovely and meaningful, but I need to figure out how to do that practically.

The opportunities

After years of longing for intellectual and artistic community, I’m joyfully overwhelmed by the opportunities here. Other scholar-artists/artist-scholars here have fascinating interests and talents – just listening to them makes me want to go write a great American novel in the murmuring woods or compose poetry under the stars. You may see some of their work here soon – I started a collaboration project for autumn themed “Thresholds” and featuring some artifact-sharing that I hope will create a feast of beauty.

God is good. Through the maze of visa applications, pandemic restrictions, phone plan issues, and banking mayhem, He has upended the storehouse of Heaven and showered blessing after blessing on my head. I hope this garden-haven plants rich, lovely things in my soul to harvest for the rest of my life.

Summer of Faerie: Poetry, a Golden Wood, and Departure

Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, chapter XV, “The Crickets”

I hope I never lose my awe at the change of seasons, the year’s wheel turning from red to white to green to gold. This year, the whispers of autumn in the cool breezes and silver-dipped backs of leaves hurts me as much as it excites me. This summer was a dream, from the beauty of blue horizons and pink beach-roses to the amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project.

I’m ready to go to Scotland; ready for the long flight, the two-week quarantine, the world of books and music and art I will enter with the other students in my MLitt program. It will be good and hard and beautiful and strange. I have never lived in a foreign country; I have been dreaming of going to grad school for five years; I’m longing to dig deep into the richness of study; I’m nervous about the many things I don’t know, like what grocery store brands to buy or whether I can keep track of the dollar/pound conversion in my head.

I wrote this poem to capture some of the beauty of this summer and a little of the scattered research I’ve done of Faerie.

Faerie Country

The lake

Dipping paddles into darkness, stirring
Pollen gold dust over pondering deep,
We tune our ears by cicadas’ whirring,
Hearing loons cry ah-oo, spell of noon’s sleep.

Dragons dream below us. We glide like ghosts
Over their ancient rest, tree-covered spines
Watching like guards of a distant outpost
Hungry, listening, waiting for mythic signs.

Staghorn sumac raises scarlet pledges,
Toasting endless sky, hailing dark green peaks.
Silver birches gleam at twilight’s edges.
We pause, haunted, as night’s veil speaks.

The dream

Golden moment: scent of pine in a glade
Swirling rich and sweet. Steep hills overgrown,
Tangled with roots. Heat shimmers; phantoms fade.
Did I dream it, or remember? Unknown.

The river

Eelgrass rustles; breezes finger willows.
Fireflies blink and twirl in shadowed trees.
Green-Guards conduct the peepers’ twilight show,
Their song of sleeping kings and emerald seas.

Orange seaweed drifts up from the sea caves
Remnants of the Sea Folk’s midnight fun.
Splashes: kids jump off the bridge into waves.
Tide-Keepers giggle, scales glinting with sun.

Mourning doves cry oo-ah while the Dawn-Beasts
Breathe on windows of a morning, fogging glass.
Packing quickly, I watch the kindling east
Turning green to gold. The zenith has passed.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that artists should never explain the meaning of their work: they can either remain mysteriously silent or drop cryptic hints. I’m going to break that a little now to explain the middle section of the poem, “The dream” because there’s a mystery there. Since spring, I’ve had a recurring daydream of a golden wood, a pine hollow baked dry and amber by the sun, full of hills that roots break through. It’s warm, silent, peaceful, safe, beautiful, sad. There might be a castle nearby; I think it has a wishing well. It may be from a book or movie (Ever After, Bridge to Terebithia, The Book of Three, Prince Caspian) or somewhere I have traveled (New Hampshire, Cape Cod, Pennsylvania, Yosemite). I thought it might be in Acadia National Park, but I didn’t find it there in June.

As I included that dream in my poem, I read Rebecca D. Martin’s beautiful article, on the Rabbit Room, “The Stories of Others.” I liked it so much that I went back and reread her Rabbit Room article from February, “Significant Lights.” The fourth paragraph brought me to a full stop: she describes a childhood dream

… infused with a beauty so rich I can still sense it. In the dream, I walked through a golden wood, as haunting as autumn, as living as spring. There were elements other than the forest, too: a castle, the sense of mystery, a deep feeling of belonging and hope, and even sorrow—a pervasive sadness that I couldn’t keep staying here in this most perfect place. . . . sometimes I still lay on the edge of sleep longing for a glimpse of that forest again.

Is my golden wood a subconscious memory of Rebecca’s article? (Probably.) Or did we both dream of the same place, miles and years apart? I have no idea, but the second idea reminds me of something I read in Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: L’Engle noticed that a certain image she used in her book A Swiftly Tilting Planet, a bonfire of roses, also appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, George MacDonald The Princess and Curdie, and T.S. Eliot Little Gidding.

Where did the fire of roses originate? I suspect that it goes back beyond human memory.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, chapter 10, “The Journey Homeward”

Is the golden wood a whisper of Deep Magic? I want to believe that.

I think the golden wood will haunt me in the darkness of winter in Scotland (six hours of light per day). I think it will come back to me when I slop through slush in the streets or feel cold, wet winds slicing through my jacket. I hope that instead of making me grumpy and discontent (as I can be), that fragrant silence, delicious heat, and golden radiance warm me from the inside out.

Summer of Faerie: “True to Me” and a Scottish Tale

Mountains at sunset on a lake

After some amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project by AJ Vanderhorst, Matthew Cyr, Loren Warnemuende, Rachel Donahue, Emma Fox, Rachel Greco, and William Stark, here is my own Faerie story for the summer. I wanted to do a retelling of one of my favorite tales – “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” – but a different, darker story called out to me this time. 

I first read about the “Two Sisters” or “Cruel Sister” ballad in Patricia Wrede’s Book of Enchantments; she did a retelling with her own spin on it, so my story is as much a retelling of hers as it is of the original tale. It’s actually a troubling, gruesome story, technically a cautionary tale instead of a fairy tale (according to Angelina Stanford, fairy tales have happy endings by definition), but I felt drawn to it by fascinated horror, sadness, and a desire to reshape it. You can read about the ballad itself and its many versions in this article. I used this version of the ballad sung by Peggy Seeger. I also threw in some research about Scottish Fae and superstitions.

Along with this tale, I have Scottish news. After about five years of waiting, praying, planning, scheming, saving, and doing a lot of paperwork, I’m going to St. Andrews University in Scotland to study for a Master’s degree in Theology and the Arts. The program will let me explore the curious, wondrous region between faith and human creation: how does theology relate to art, and art to theology? How do artists-who-are-Christians integrate what they believe with what they create? 

Most of my applications went to literature programs, and I was torn between this degree and one that focused more on the English-major topics I love. I meditated on the decision one bright, chilly morning in April, sitting on the black, red, blue, and gold rug in our front hall and petting our golden retriever as the sun streamed in. The choice came with a surge of joy: I felt that this program would best equip me to use my gifts for the Kingdom of God, to figure out how my writing can be an act of worship.

I have dreamed of going to grad school to study further since college and through various office jobs in a green farm town, silver seaport, and tinted-glass greenhouse. In those years of waiting, I often let myself sink into social media envy (a cliche of our age, I know): envying Facebook friends and Instagram profiles for their exotic vacations, gorgeous weddings, or grad school achievements. Now that I have a life event that looks good on social media, I feel shy.

This coming year is a divine gift, splendidly undeserved. It’s also the product of some hard and unglamorous work, like long periods of loneliness, bumbling through grad school research and applications, international wire transfers, and visa paperwork. Becoming a grad student is a fairy tale written just as much with stress and effort as beauty and adventure. And I’m so, so thankful for it. 

Anyway, here’s my story. Enjoy! 

True to Me

Seashore

Our backyard was dim with dusk. The harbor’s salty breeze mingled with the smell of scallops and haddock grilling on the patio.

My older sister Eara’s navy dress smelled faintly musty after 11 months in her closet. It fluttered around me as I rushed down the stairs to the rehearsal dinner laid out on the patio, carrying a flat package.

My oldest sister, Aileen, sat with her fiancé, Mike, a tall man with dark brown skin, broad shoulders, and gold-rimmed glasses. Aileen leaned forward to let him whisper something in her ear. A wave of her dark hair fell onto the shoulder of her green dress. Her expression relaxed into a quick smile before resuming its concentration.

Don’t forget to smile, I remember Eara telling Aileen years ago, before Aileen’s first violin recital. Your concentrating face is kind of scary.

My nervous smile is scarier, Aileen had said.

I looked up at the trees; my little cousins, the other bridesmaids, and I had had a hard scramble to string the golden fairy lights up there, but the looping pattern matched my concept sketches exactly. They completed the atmosphere I wanted: warm, bright, and safe.

You’re quite the Maid of Honor, my mom had said when we finished the lights.

Eara would have been chill about it, I said. But at least I can make things look nice.

Turning to the gift table, I put my package with the other presents: a watercolor painting I’d done of a sailboat on this very harbor, with the land in turquoise and the sail a vibrant orange.

My temples ached with exhaustion; I hadn’t slept through the night in months. Dreams of the pale sun glimmering from underwater and golden hair rippling in a current interrupted my sleep. In waking hours, I kept seeing weird images flicker across peoples’ faces and in their eyes, like shadows or prism-cast rainbows.

Jack, Mike’s younger brother, sat under the maple tree with his guitar. He was leaner than his brother. His skin was a shade lighter and had golden undertones while Mike’s were amber. I squinted: his guitar looked…white? Pale and yellowed, like the whale bones hanging in the Nantucket High School.

I collect instruments that carry stories, Jack told me when I saw him at Easter. He’d showed me his favorite, a guitar his grandfather bought in Berlin in August 1961.

Jack cleared his throat. Our gazes met, and I smiled. He lifted his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I found this guitar on the beach last week,” he said. “And this song kind of wrote itself.”

He began strumming, and in that moment, the instrument in its hand shimmered like a mirage of water – and golden eye in it winked at me. I looked around, but no one else seemed to notice.

I’ll be true to my love, if my love will be true to me, Jack sang with his amber river-voice.

While these two sisters were walking the shore,
Bow, balance to me,
While these two sisters were walking the shore,
The oldest pushed the younger o’er,
And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.

Audience members looked at each other. Whispers began like a breeze rustling leaves. “Kind of creepy,” my grandmother whispered loudly.

Then, Jack lifted his hand from the instrument, stopped singing, and stared at Aileen. The guitar continued to play on its own. Another voice, my older sister Eara’s summery tones continued:

While we two sisters were walking the shore,
We, Aileen and me,
While we two sisters were walking the shore,
Aileen pushed me into the wat’r,
And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.

Oh sister, oh sister, please lend me your hand,
Bow, balance to me,
I never, I never will lend you my hand…

Gasps; heads turned to the wedding party’s table. Aileen and Mike exchanged glances, then stood, their chair legs scraping the stone, and ran around the table to Jack. Aileen grabbed the guitar, and they disappeared into the garden.

I was the still point of a turning world. Relatives and friends turned to me, their eyes wide. Last September’s memories rushed through me: the Coast Guard report, Aileen’s days in the hospital, the empty coffin. I walked to Jack, my high heels wobbling.

“Jack,” I said quietly. “What the heck?”

He met my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They had to know.” Studying his dark irises, I saw swirling mist instead of the long golden shore I glimpsed in there the last time we spoke.

 “You’re confused,” I said. “Ok. Stay here. Tell everyone else to stay here and finish dinner.”

“Ok,” he said. I walked into the garden.

Last July, Eara had brought some grad school friends here for the weekend. I came back from my day camp job one afternoon to find them walking back from the beach, sandy and sun-kissed. As I closed my car door, I saw Eara drop her blue towel. One of the guys picked it up and put it around her shoulders. She laughed, flicking a strand of wet blond hair out of her eyes. I saw Aileen at the back of the group, looking at them. The guy was Mike.

Thick cedars screened the garden from the house. Lights glimmered on the harbor’s dark water. Mike and Aileen were in the white gazebo.

“Ow! Bracelet,” Mike grunted.  

I walked to the entrance of the gazebo to see Mike hanging onto the neck of a black horse – snap – a black goat – snap – a black rabbit with golden eyes. He managed to keep his grip around the thing’s neck, hanging on as if trying to tame a wild bull with his bare hands. As the rabbit appeared, Aileen snapped her silver bracelet around its neck. It squeaked and lay still. Panting, Mike sat down with a huff, and she sat beside him, holding it in her lap.

Aileen saw me. “Mairi,” she said.

“Ai,” I said, my old nickname for her. My lungs felt small. “Why did that thing say you killed Eara?”

Aileen looked up at me, her freckles standing out more than usual. “It’s, uh…it’s hard to explain.” She looked down at the rabbit, then back at me. “Do you really think I would do that, Mair?”

I studied her eyes: hazel, with flecks of gold. A dappled light like the sun shining through green leaves shimmered over her face – no mist, no darkness, only green and gold.

“No, you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “But what really happened?”

Aileen tilted her head, studying me. “This is a púca,” she said, gesturing at the rabbit in her hands. “It stole Eara’s voice.”

“A shape-shifter?” I said, bending over to look at the rabbit. It panted, meeting my eyes with that gleeful golden stare. “Why would it steal her voice? She’s dead.”

“No,” said Aileen. “She was taken by the Fae.”

When you jump into deep water, you create a thousand tiny bubbles that hover and pop around you. I felt that plunge and tingling sensation now.

“Eara and I were researching the Fae in grad school,” said Mike. “Faerie is drifting towards us again, close enough to visit. She took something they wanted – we don’t know what. Sea Fae took her.”

“We’ve been searching for her all year,” said Ai. “We thought she was in the Aegean, so we booked our honeymoon there. But púcas are Scottish. This is from the Unseelie Court. So she might be there.”

“You knew all year that Eara wasn’t dead, and you didn’t tell us?” I asked. “Ai, seriously?”

“I know. I’m so sorry,” said Aileen. “We weren’t sure anyone would believe us, and telling stories about the Fae attracts their attention. Mike found a safe way to tell me everything after it happened. We…pretended to be dating at first when we were hunting for her, and then we ended up actually wanting to get married. And the wedding was a good cover for quest prep.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“You were in Florida,” said Mike. “Sea serpent country. They’re vicious. All Fae can be, really. And capricious, like this púca. It must have convinced Jack it really was Eara’s bones. I need to talk to him.“

“It means we have to act now,” said Aileen. “Before the wedding. Tonight.”

“Yeah,“ I said. “You two get your marriage license and go to the Aegean. I’ll go to Scotland.”

“Mairi, no,” said Aileen. “You don’t know the Fae.”

“I’m the third daughter,” I said. “You don’t think that matters on a quest? Or the ocean dreams I’ve been having about her?”

We stared at each other. “Second sight,” Mike murmured. Aileen mmmed in agreement.

Another strange feeling came to me: I felt that there were four of us standing here instead of three, and tasted snow.

“We‘ll find her,” I said. “Before the winter solstice.”

My gaze drifted to the harbor, into the waiting dark. A cool breeze brought me a hint of music, like a summons.