The Autobiography of a Faerie
Francis Donald Grabau
‘ The elaborate feathers of the priest
rise up out of the sea
in an impassioned utterance of wind, and in
the elegant night
leaps from the ends of the trees.
Then the rattlesnake coils
in perfect elliptical undulations
that no one will ever understand, but
the time will come when
I will listen to you, and you will listen to me
and this burden
will lay itself down. ’
Of course, I can’t remember how or when I lost the sound of my own soul singing in my ears, for the wind of Spirit blows as it wills and no creature really knows the time of its’ birth.
But in this world where I awoke and looked around me in awe, my mother, a woman of extraordinary fancy and elegant delight, was pleased to tell me (many years and in many ways later) that I came in on a ‘Stork’ at sixteen minutes before High Noon on December 8th, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, in the (almost) winter of the year 1942 when the (always) ‘Last Great War’ was raging.
The Angelic Beings, however, together with the Daemons, Djins, and all the Elementals with whom I was and am in league, dutifully noted down that this was the time of the union of the Sun and Moon in the sign of the half-human/half-beast, Centaur, and as I was busy struggling against the waters of forgetfulness, they graciously tucked this bit of knowing together with a lot more that you shall hear of, into the envelope of my subtle body from whence it would emerge quite organically when the moment was ripe.
Be that as it may, or as folks say these days, -‘whatever’- I opened my eyes laughing and full of a fierce dream of joy. This dream was not clear to me, it had no reasonable explanation for its being, but it was. And it exuded itself like a flower’s scent from every pore in my body. It wrapped itself in the gentian blue of my eyes and rang like the stream of sounds that poured at once from my throat. Oftentimes, my mother used to delight in telling me that I was born talking, that I walked royally forth from her womb reading a newspaper, -OUT LOUD! I tell you, that woman was mad with exaggeration. It was as natural to her as breathing, or smoking her cigarettes, or arguing with my father. All of which activities she performed with great enthusiasm and a certain fetish for drama that took my breath away.
Quite literally. For it was determined by my genetic human family and the doctors that attended them that I was born with chronic asthma and would suffer from it all my life long. Or short, as the case might be. But of that, we shall speak later. The fact is that I was totally befuddled to find myself caught in the web of the world and for the life of me I couldn’t quite remember how I’d gotten myself into this pickle.Faeries, we are told, are mythical creatures of the imagination who do not exist in real life, and the greatest proponent of this view of reality in my newly arrived human ‘family’ was my father. A man more determined to come to grips with ‘reality’ cannot be imagined; but he was in many ways the perfect mate for a mother such as mine who never thought to turn off the electric light switches even in the fullness of day. This would lead to my father complaining that we didn’t own the electric company and couldn’t somebody in this house understand his point of view ? That point of view could be called ‘reasonable’ or so he thought and never tired of repeating to us. ‘Us’ consisted of myself, my mother, a brother and eventually a total of two sisters all of whom were regarded by my father as somehow apart from himself, - as if he were Job and all of us were sent to test him.
Probably we were, for his intense and rather sober ‘reasonableness’ seemed to affect us all in similar but different ways. Dad was a being we all cajoled, flattered, and argued with as naturally as mom smoked cigarettes and trucks honked their horns. He was like a puzzle game with several missing pieces and a mousetrap in the gap. He could snap at you suddenly when you didn’t even realize he was around, awake, or aware that you existed. Imagine opening a kitchen drawer for a spoon, but encountering instead a small thundercloud that jumps out, crackles with lightning, and rains on your shoes. That was dad. We all knew it, we knew he was a cantankerous mystery hidden in a veil and looking for a way out.
He seemed to think that ‘Dotsie’, as he called my mother, was that way out. He pursued her with a passion that was every bit as dramatic as her own but quieter; a reasonable passion he was desperate to have her understand, but which for years only made her zany and full of a certain concern for him which she expressed as a kind of motherly patience with his enigmatic mind. And if there was one thing my father prided himself on it was his mind. He knew he was clever and saw things in peculiar ways because he could ‘tinker’ as he called it, with almost any old car and get it working. He didn’t have to buy car parts, he could take a tomato juice can and flatten it out turning it into a tailpipe, or use a curtain rod to make a missing piece from the carburetor.
On those rare occasions when he cooked, he could take all the leftovers out of the icebox and make an omelet which offended the whole family. He couldn’t see why sauerkraut should not appear mixed with cranberries and peas in a plate of eggs even if everyone else ran away from the table repulsed. And, actually, I couldn’t either. I turned out to be the one child in this family who’d sit down and eat with my father almost any concoction he made. Once, I ate a fried snake with him which he thought was somehow very important to eat. Another time I tried to eat some cow’s brains he fried up, but that proved to be impossible when I realized as he talked to me that this was a ‘real’ cow’s ‘real’ brains.
My father liked to challenge me about what was real and what was not. I used to be quite puzzled by this distinction he made between the real and what he said was only ‘made up’. As far as I could tell everything was made up including us, and as far as he could tell I was seriously devoid of something he called ‘common sense’. Still, even when everyone else was repulsed by his cooking, I could sit down with him and try eating what he called his ‘experiment’. Faeries are like that. When a faerie takes on a physical father he takes him on for good and all, - the way the moon takes on the sun. He takes him on as a worthy opponent for a lesson in love.Love was a happy and easy thing that flowed between my mother and me, naturally, -like waves washing in from the sea. We played together in it day and night and day. Eternity was something she felt instinctively and fed to me. We were long lost friends finding each other in the pages of a book of dreams, two entwined dragons dancing like letters in a Celtic manuscript, we were as close as Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
I remember momma, my mother washing me in a round tub of warm water on the kitchen table. It was nighttime and snowing outside. The windows were frosted with thin ice, little angels with blue and white wax wings were lit, melting on the wooden window frames, and dripping down the glass. The radio was playing Christmas carols, for it was Christmas time, and I was two years old -or maybe four, and we were singing together, my mother and I, along with the radio:
O come, all yee faithful,
joyful and triumphant .
And when we weren’t singing, the radio still was, and mom was melodiously chattering away to me of her feelings and dreams, of how sweet I was and how happy she was; and the sound of her melody mixed with the warmth of the water and called down the angels who swam all around us on the kitchen air. I could see myself swimming with the angels and sitting in the tub. Both at the same time. But the me who sat in the tub singing, with my mom’s hands rubbing soap bubbles all over me, seemed less real than the me who was singing in the air. And I wanted both of me to come together the way the angels in the air came together with the angels on the window ledge through the light rising from their wicks. I wanted to dance with my airy double. This, as I have come to see, is a clear sign that one is bound to Faerie, that one has heard the call of that far distant memory, that one is awake in a world of sleep -and asleep in a world that wants so earnestly to awaken!
I shall go on with this tale of awakening, this story of my childhood and later life, and of all the times I found myself asleep in the world of my father’s ‘reason’. I shall tell of the memory of my mother and my father who have entered now into what we call death, and of how I came to know them and they me. And of how my sisters and my brother came to think me crazy. And of how I never knew my grandfathers except in pictures. How my grandmothers helped me. And how my many aunts and very few uncles acted in the stories of their lives. How the last ‘Great War’ continued to rage, and my body grew dense, and my vision left me. How I came to understand the riddle of the bones, or at least to guess at it. But we must be clear about this from the very beginning: in the Land of Faerie everyone breathes easy, for there are no bones. Bones, like reason, war, and chronic asthma, come from the realm of the Father, from the realm of the priests and their gods. In my struggle to regain the truth of my faerie origin I have succumbed to the magical game of the priests; I have wrapped myself in a mantle of feathers, and it is these feathers which shall come off now as I strip them, one by one, from the truth of my being. Secrets are like feathers, but only humans are foolish enough to wear them.Welcome, then, to the feather dance of a Faerie in whose movements you shall find the perfect elliptical syntax that leads to the fire. Each word, gesture, and rhythm will be a spell cast upon you, and you shall participate in the unraveling of an utterly unreasonable mind. If the thought of such enchantment strikes you as lewd or indecent, if it frightens you, repulses you, or tickles your fancy, you are already in its thralldom and it shall present you with your own queer head on a platter ...as in the biblical story of the ‘Baptist’ and the veiled dance of Salome.
The Book of the Bones
‘ No bones are straight. They come
out of the black
forest, curve into trick
bags, turn into
Woodsmen are haunted, windmills
The process of numbers, the magic of
climb out of a music box,
align their costumes, and declare
of paper and cardboard houses, pirouettes and
measured circles drawn from figures of invisible
and lipless smiles. Poems
and eyeless sockets. Grins
from the dull trees.
Then, when no one is looking,
-they unplug, and come
down on us. Tricks
A piece of punctuation
pushes through the bag. Tiny
tendrils emerge from a torn belly
to swim the water, and climb up
a falls. ’
Death was a permanent part of my life from the very beginning, for aside from the fact that literally millions were dying in the war, I was named after my mother’s only brother who died rather ingloriously at the age of five. She called him mostly ‘little brother’ as did my five aunts, her sisters. From all of them, and from my grandmother, I heard the tale of his death repeated as I was growing up. He was, according to the tale, a happy and delightful little boy who somehow one day got hold of ‘raw sauerkraut’ and ate it. It made him terribly sick. He developed a high fever and ‘inflammation of the intestines’ so that finally they had to give him ‘a mustard bath’, but that didn’t help for he screamed and screamed in his pain which made them all ‘cry their eyes out’. And then he, the only boy among six sisters, died.
I was less than two years old when I first heard this story. It made me feel quite sad, for everyone said my blue eyes and blonde hair were just like his, and my mom even said that having me was just like having ‘little brother’ back again. So, as far as I could see, I was little brother come back from the dead. But there was a problem for me with this story aside from the fact that I, like most very young children, could not grasp the meaning of ‘death’. And that problem was this: how could my mother, my grandmother, and all five of my aunts say they cried their eyes out when I (and anyone else who might be interested) could see that their eyes were in ? There were no holes in their heads where their eyes should be. They all had their eyes in their faces each time they told this story to me; and besides that, why did they put a little boy in a bathtub full of mustard if he was already hot with fever ?
I could not understand their story at all, but each time I heard it I heard a ‘tone’ or a feeling in them that I didn’t like. It scared me, and I guess it scared me mostly because I could tell they really liked repeating this story. They always told it in that voice grown-ups use when they mean you to understand that what they are saying is very, very serious and ‘real’. They loved to tell it. -‘Poor little brother’, they'd say, ‘he went to heaven and now he's one of God's little angels !’ -
And all this happened because he ate raw sauerkraut ? We ate sauerkraut too, almost every Sunday night at dinner, but only after my mother cooked it all day long on the stove. Still, what is ‘raw’ sauerkraut ? What incredible secrets rest within it, giving it power over human life and death?
After years of hearing this story, I was eventually able to ask my mother: -‘ Mom, if little brother was dying because he was so hot, why did you all put him in a bathtub full of mustard ?’- The first time I asked her this, she burst out laughing and assured me that the mustard in question was not the mustard I knew from one of my favorite snacks: mustard bread. She said something like,-‘Oh, my little Donald, you’re such a funny, curious boy ! How could you think a thing like that ? It wasn’t mustard like you get from the jar. It was a mustard plaster, and the doctor told us to do it! It was the only thing we could do; and don’t you worry about poor little brother because he’s happy with God in heaven where we’ll all be someday.’-
And with that, she no doubt grabbed me up in her arms as she liked to do, and kissed me and sang to me and danced me about for a while. And I would have laughed with her and kissed her too, letting go in that moment of the ‘tone’ of the story that so disturbed me and the question that I had finally managed to put into words.
But I was a feye little boy marked with the sign of Faerie, and though I could always be counted on to enter into the joy of any moment, to laugh and be happy, yet I could not finally forget. There was something ominous in this world, something terribly sad, something people were afraid of and wouldn’t talk about. I could feel this fear and knew it was something I could and would talk about. For a Talkabout is a magical rite like the Aboriginal Australian Walkabout rite. Its purpose is to lead us into the dreamtime, into the realm of the dead. Faeries are creatures of such a dreamtime and we naturally talk with the dead since they, like us, search for the key to the living, seek that fabled elusive thread that weaves the past to the future of the present, and the living to the dead. So, while I let myself be caught up in my mother’s cheerful change of mood, I did not forget.By the time I was six or seven, after endless probing of my maternal aunts whenever they repeated the story, I asked again of my mother why they put poor little brother into a mustard bath of plaster. All she could do was repeat to me that the mustard was ‘dry’ mustard, and that plaster didn’t mean the stuff they fixed the kitchen ceiling with when it fell down one night right onto the table. It was a ‘figure of speech’, she said, just a way of speaking...a mustard plaster was something that made you get well if you were sick. She repeated with marked and tell-tale defensiveness that nobody was trying to kill little brother, (as I had said they were trying to do, on more than a few occasions by this time). Then, she began to retell the story speaking with so much intensity, such sadness, and at such great length that as she spoke her words changed into a series of musical tones, and then a strange waltz of colors and sounds, and gradually, as if in a waking dream, I could see my namesake, ‘poor’ little brother Donald trying to stand up in a bathtub full of dry mustard; reaching his arms out to them, crying and pleading for help. Yet, there stood my Grandmother, my mother, and all five of her sisters gathered around the tub pushing him back in ‘for his own good’, and especially because the ‘doctor’ said it was the thing to do. They were all crying copious tears, and their tears were falling into the tub making the dry mustard wet while they pushed his outreaching arms off them. Little brother kept slipping and falling back down into the tub despite his struggling, and I could see the mustard plaster made wet by their tears and his burning into his eyes, his ears, and his nose, until he finally disappeared like a drowning person under the golden thickness of the mustard bath, and was gone.
Slowly coming out of the reverie I had been in while she spoke, I saw tears streaming down my mother’s face and could feel her very real suffering. I think it was then that I decided tears were suspicious things which hid from people the truth of what was going on in them; that tears were things people shed to feel good, that tears were a terrible testimony to a blind sleep all of us seemed to be sleeping in the name of life. And who shall wipe away all our tears ?
God, the Sandman, or the alligators ?I knew I did not belong to, and couldn’t live in, a world of tears; for tears turn into bones, and there are no bones in the Land of Faerie. But there is sunshine, moonlight, and millions upon millions of living and breathing stars! I used to sit out on the side porch of their corner row house in Baltimore with Granny and my Aunt Pearl to look up at the stars. They’d come out just as the twilight faded into night and the old lamplighter came to the corner to put his ladder up against the green lamppost, lift its glass, and place inside the burning tip of his magical fire-staff . Its globe would glow with a kind of golden twinkle and just about then, if you looked up, -there you’d see them …all the millions of differently colored stars, quietly beginning to peep out. Granny would be rocking in her chair talking of this and that, and Aunt Pearl would cough quietly from her tuberculosis. Then, suddenly, one of them would say,
-‘Look there, Donald, there goes a shooting star !’-
And the other would tell a tale about how everytime you saw a shooting star, - that meant an Angel was shedding a tear for a poor soul who had fallen into sin. Or it meant that an Angel had fallen out of heaven, or a new child was being born. Whatever it meant seemed to be dependent on the mood of the moment and who was sitting on the porch.
Granny, as we called her, was my father’s mother and Aunt Pearl was his sister, or sometimes people would call her his ‘half-sister’. When someone, like my mother, called Aunt Pearl a half-sister it usually meant she was mad at her over something or other. As a child you know these things because you say to yourself, -‘ What is a half-sister ? It must be like a half-fish, or a half piece of cake, or a half-car.’- Somehow it isn’t whole, something is missing from it. I learned that Aunt Pearl had only half her lungs, that they had ‘collapsed’, and that’s why she had tuberculosis. She was a frail and very graceful lady who moved with a kind of mellow, tinkling, music and a deliberate pace. She sewed lace.
There was a beautiful picture of her in the house where she lived with Granny and my Uncle Will. It was their wedding picture, and in it she was wearing a white satin gown that clung to her thin body and trailed out behind her on the floor in a wonderful arabesque of a swirl. Her head was covered with a white lace veil, and on top of that she wore a crown of lily-of-the-valley flowers intertwined with pink rosebuds whose green leaves peeked from between the flowers and made the circle come to life.I loved this picture of my Aunt Pearl dressed in white like a Queen of Faerie, carrying a huge bouquet of calla lilies and baby’s breath mixed with plumes of maidenhair ferns. I used to tell her she was the prettiest lady in the world which would make her otherwise pale face blush pink. Uncle Will was standing behind her in the picture, off to the right side, in a light brown suit that blended with the sepia background just the way he blended into their lives. Granny was not in the picture, but she was always in whatever house Aunt Pearl and Uncle Willie lived in, and they all seemed to just naturally go together like turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. Greevey was, in fact, Uncle Willie’s last name and it seemed to fit the atmosphere around them, for there was a sense of loss in their house, a feeling in the air of something sad that must have happened long ago. It was a pleasant sense of loss, though; not the kind of feeling that is brutal, but the kind that is wistful and even nostalgic. I shall tell you of the roots of this lost feeling for they were intimately bound up with my own. Grief. Greevey. Grieving.
Besides myself and little brother, there was another Donald in the family. He was my ‘Uncle Donald’, the only child of my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Will. He was alive when I was born, but quickly drafted into the army to serve in the ‘Great War’. My mother used to show me pictures of Uncle Donald in his uniform and tell me I was named after him too. From all the stories I heard as I grew up I have come to realize that my mother and Uncle Donald must have been good friends. They were almost of the same age since my mother was only twenty-six when she had me even though I was her third child and second son. I think that he liked my mother because she was a wild spirit with a free mouth who talked and laughed a lot in contrast to his own mother who was delicate, quiet, and could hardly breathe. In fact, it seemed that Aunt Pearl’s tuberculosis began with the birth of her son. But he was destined to die long before his mother when I was only three and a half years old.
I have seen a black and white picture of my Uncle Donald standing beside my mother who is holding me as an infant, -so he must have actually touched and held me and even talked to me before he went off to the war; but I can’t seem to remember him as a living person, only as a memory and a symbol. That’s how it was with my Grandfather too, my mom’s father, who died five months after I was born and of whom I can remember nothing except from stories and old photographs. Yet, both these men, one very young and the other somewhat old were always around me as very real presences felt through all the photos I was shown and the stories I heard about each of them. They were the dead with whom we lived.
Uncle Donald’s death was the death of a hero the way it was told. He actually survived the war, (he was stationed somewhere in Italy) but only a few days after the Armistice was declared he was killed. The story was that he and his fellow soldiers were busy defusing bombs in a minefield when one of these bombs was accidentally triggered, so he pushed his friend out of the way and threw his own body over the bomb scattering his limbs in all directions. What was left of him, mostly bits of bones I’d guess, was sent home after the ‘Great War’ ended a few years later. They arrived in a sealed coffin which no one in the family ever opened.This coffin was one of a number carried by other soldiers in a great parade of caskets, flags, and tanks that came right down Fulton Avenue past the block of row houses in which we all lived at the time. I watched the whole thing from the rooftop of Granny’s house, waving a little flag they gave me and listening to the dirge of the military band playing a slow, elegiac, funeral march. I think this must have happened in late summer because the sun was shining and it was hot out, as it was several days later when we all stood in the cemetery, and his coffin was lowered into a deep hole while identically uniformed soldiers stood in a line and fired their rifles into the air. Everybody was crying then, including me, for I had witnessed a three day vigil at Aunt Pearl’s and Granny’s house which left a deep impression of grief on my soul.
They had carried Uncle Donald’s coffin into the house draped with a full-sized American flag and placed it directly in the living room in front of the mantelpiece over which hung a great bevel-edged mirror in a baroque golden frame. It stayed there for three days, and during that time, in the late afternoons and early evenings, two soldiers would come dressed in their uniforms and carrying rifles. They would stand at attention on either side at the head of the coffin and never say a word. It was all very solemn, and during those days the very thick and heavy burgundy drapes on the windows were closed, - shutting out the sunlight. But the table and floor lamps were kept on. Their dim light glowed through lampshades covered with cloth, fringes of lace, and colored glass beads, giving enough illumination to see by, and even to reflect off the shiny brass handles of the coffin and the carefully polished metal segments of the soldiers’ rifles. There were several floor-length candle holders with various candles burning in them, and a small wooden thing called a pre-dieu at the foot of the coffin upon which people kneeled and prayed when they came to pay their respects. I remember kneeling there myself, the top of my head not even level with the coffin’s lid so that my eyes couldn’t see the stars on the flag.
But the great glass mirror hanging above and behind the coffin was tilted forward in such a way that when I looked up into it I saw the whole flag-draped coffin lid from above, and myself like a disembodied head floating at its feet. This angular perspective had a curious effect on me: I felt awkward seeing myself kneeling there and praying. Probably because I knew that I didn’t know how to pray. I think it was on the third and final day of this vigil that I witnessed the event which jolted me onto a new plane of awareness for which I had no words.
Hanging on the wall of the living room in which Uncle Donald’s coffin rested, (surrounded by great clusters of flowers whose perfumes blended with the scent of burning candles), was a richly carved, wooden cuckoo clock. This clock would chime on the hour, but at those hours when the hands of the clock came together at 12 on the top, or were exactly opposite each other at 6 on the bottom and 12 on the top, a more elaborate event occurred. The cuckoo would come out from a little door in the middle of the clock at the top and say cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo etc. -either 6 or 12 times, depending. But at the same time two additional doors would open below it to the right and left, and from out these doors would come a tiny and brightly painted little man from one side and a little woman from the other, and they would slowly move toward each other, meet in the middle, and proceed onward to disappear into the opposite door. Simultaneously, two brass pinecones suspended from miniscule links of metal chain would slide up and down beneath the clock while chiming bells blended with the sound of its’ shifting gears.I had always loved to watch and listen to this rather quaintly operatic event but on the third and final day of our vigil around the coffin it jolted my awareness. It was, I suppose, a very ordinary thing. But you be the judge. The two soldiers standing guard at the head of Uncle Donald’s coffin were relieved of their duty and replaced by two other soldiers who came into the house. This ritual change of guard must have occurred on the previous two days at six in the evening just as it had on the last day of the vigil, but if it had, I hadn’t noticed it, or it hadn’t occurred the way it was occurring now. For precisely as the clock struck six, and the cuckoo sang, and the little man and woman changed places, the guards did too. The front door opened and two new guards entered the room saluting the two old guards in complete synchronicity with the movement of the little figures on the clock. The real life soldiers actually duplicated the mechanical movements of the cuckoo clock figures while the brass pinecones slid respectively up and down on their chains, and the gears made their metallic sound, and the bird sang cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo; cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!
Maybe, as I’ve said, the eerily curious feelings I felt then had something to do with the angular vision from which I viewed the event. I was always fond of lying on the floor and crawling under tables and chairs, and I wasn’t very tall yet either. Maybe it was the peculiar view from down so low, for the image that persists in my mind is one of seeing the figures on the cuckoo clock moving in the background with the grace of human dancers, seeing them look down at me with deep understanding and compassion in their eyes, -while the ‘real-life’ soldiers in the foreground just jerked about rigidly with wooden and expressionless faces. It seemed to me as if the little man and woman did not disappear into their closed doors, but into the wooden faces of the two standing soldiers.
Whatever the cause or explanation might be from the point of view of a reasonable person, I understood when I saw this synchronous and automatic dance that people were like machines, -like flashlights turned off in a dark room. < Although this expression, ‘people are like flashlights turned off in a dark room’, was spoken to me many years later by a man I loved -named Emory- who eventually killed himself. > Whatever we were doing in that room with Uncle Donald’s casket was a dumb show, we were wooden dolls, -statues moving in an air of emptiness and a state of sleep. We had forgotten something very important which, if we could only remember it, could help us wake up. Cuckoo, Cuckoo, Cuckoo! All the flowers in the room, the purple and pink gladiolas, the white calla lilies, the deep red roses, and the mists of baby’s breath seemed to breathe the same message onto the air: Gypsophila !
I don’t know what came over me that evening but whatever it was I carried it with me to the cemetery the next day, and when Aunt Pearl and Granny both began to cry, and when the soldiers fired their rifles up into the air, I watched Uncle Donald’s casket go down into the ground and cried too, -inconsolably. I felt an unutterable loneliness, as if I had felt this same feeling forever; it was a feeling of deep and ancient loss trailing back through ages of time, a feeling of unnameable sadness that I knew everybody everywhere always felt.Of course, I know now that this was the call of my airy double to the immortal music of Faerie, to the distant memory of that other world. It’s a call I still hear, a world I am still seeking, a world we may yet discover together, you and I, as we lift the bones of our ancestors to the light of mind and see them for what they are: -the bones of loss, the bones of hardness, the whitened bones of purity where purity is a bell that doesn’t ring (as the celebrated Gray Monk told us) and death is the rule of reason.
With Uncle Donald’s casket I buried my first bones, and I knew with a knowing only small children know that in my family there were three dead Donalds.
Once I looked up the derivation and meaning of the name 'Donald' in a modern book purporting to reveal the truth of such matters (though I may tell you I don’t put much stock in such books nor in the modern minds that write them) and I read there that Donald meant ‘Dark One’. That would seem to fit, but later in another book the name was said to mean ‘World Mighty’. That has a certain appeal. But what of the fact that when you’re a kid with the name Donald growing up in the Disneyland America of the nineteen forties-fifties you can’t possibly be spared the appellative, ‘Donald Duck’…quack, quack, quack…being hurled at you teasingly by your fellow cohorts in kiddom ? I enjoyed it, myself, as much as I enjoyed Donald Duck and his miserable relative, Scrooge McDuck. But what of all the Don Juans, and Don Diegos, -the Dulcineas, Don Quixotes and Don Pasquals ? Or the great Stone Guest in Don Giovanni ? Or the river Don that flows to the sea ?
Ah, the whimsical Faerie turns within his dance
to don his name, and throw (with a flourish! ) this feather
to the wind: my ‘real’ and legal name is not Donald at all, but
I did not learn this truth until I was in the throws of childish angst over the teasing (which finally did begin to get to me) of my peers around about the age of eight. Weeping and sobbing to my mother and asking her why she ever gave me such a stupid name as Donald, I listened amazed as she pulled the truth out of her brain and tossed it to me:
-‘Well, Mr. Invisible, Mr. So-Sensitive, if it bothers you that much just hold onto your britches and let me tell you, - your real name is Francis! I swear to God, Francis is your true christian name. And if I’m lying, may God strike me dead with a bolt of his lightning! Right here, where I stand, this very minute!’
Of course, I didn’t believe her. My mother could lie until the cows came home, she could lie so often and so outrageously that she must have been the person who inspired the phrase: to lie like a rug! I knew I couldn’t believe her, -even though God never struck her with his Lightning! But she was a strangely wise woman, a mother all the way, so when I protested through my childish tears that she was too lying she said to me:
- ‘ Now just you wait right here and calm yourself down. Listen to you wheezing like that, you calm down or you’ll end up in bed again with another asthma attack. Come on Donald, stop that crying and be still; just wait; I’ll be right back and prove it to you!’ -Then, off she went mumbling more of the same under her breath. And of course, I didn’t wait but instantly began to follow her about the house as she went upstairs and down opening drawers in one piece of furniture after another looking for her famous ‘proof’ which I knew must be a lie and she would never find it.
My mother’s sense of drawers was one of those things about her which infuriated my father. The drawers in our house were likely to have within them virtually anything. Mom used to go into a panic if Granny or Aunt Pearl (or anyone else whom she knew to be tidy) happened to enter the house unannounced. She’d run all over picking up whatever made the place look ‘messy’ and stuff it into whatever drawer was closest to hand. We had drawers which when you opened them disgorged stray high-heels, hammers and screwdrivers, knives and forks, ash trays filled to overflowing with butts, boxes of unopened lime Jell-O, cameras, shoestrings (often with a shoe attached), penknives lost by my brother two years before, the ivory tops of piano keys guiltily stashed beneath the rubble by whomever had broken them off the old piano, birthday candles half burned and carrying the petrified icing of cakes they had long ago adorned, photographs in black and white or color -cracked, bent, or folded over themselves; why go on, you get the picture, I guess ? The infamous drawers of the Grabau household, blamed by my father on my mother's so-called ‘looseness’, on her lack of ‘reason’, on her ‘impracticality’, on all those traits of her character which anyone could see were the very reasons why he loved her so. And I followed close on her heels while she opened all these drawers one by one looking for her ‘proof’, and of course she was always vulnerable and feeling ever-so-slightly guilty at the sight of them opened, and this suited me just fine since I was my mother’s son and felt that any mother who was so stupid as to call her own child ‘Donald’ deserved the torments of hell at the very least. Thank you, quack quack !
After awhile of this following and haranguing of my mother, and since she still hadn’t found her celebrated ‘proof’, I left her alone with her drawers and her lies and exited onto the street to rejoin my friends in play: all my fury vented and dispersed by blaming everything on my mother. You can imagine the shock when I came home later for supper and she greeted me with open arms and her ever-tricky smile saying (suspiciously) that she wanted me to sit down with her on the sofa. And once we were comfortably snuggled together on the soft, green sofa cushions she pulled from her blouse a piece of folded paper and said,
-‘Look here, these are your own little footprints from when you were a teeny-tiny baby and only just born. This is your ‘Birth Certificate’ and if you want to know, just read here what it says.’-And I read it all out loud because, as my mother knew, I loved to read and was already deeply impressed by anything expressed as writing on paper. This is what it said:
‘ University Hospital
Birth Certificate And Foot Print Identification
This is to certify that on the 8th day of December A.D. 1942 at 12:44:00 PM.
there was born to Mrs. Dorothy Schmoll Grabau and Mr. Frederick Grabau
an infant son, named Francis Donald Grabau weight 8 lbs. 11 3/4 oz.
and these footprints of the baby and the right thumb print of the mother
were taken by A. Magalotti
I was flabbergasted! And saved from the clearly cursed name of ‘Donald’.
From now on I could call myself Francis and hear no more of the quack-quack jokes from my friends. Exuberant with my new found name, and feeling it gave me a fresh lease on life, I hugged and kissed mom and apologized for not believing her in the first place. We went like two peas in a pod to the kitchen where we ate kale greens, potatoes, and ham (all boiled in one pot) -one of my favorite dinners, while mom announced to my brother and sisters (of whom we must speak later) that I had a new name, Francis, which was my real name, my ‘baptismal’ name. There were snickers and protests all around from my siblings since they all claimed my mother loved me more than them, and because my mother knew they felt this way, (and because she sensed the sense in which they were right) she rather adroitly steered the conversation to the topic of names in general: all our names, Joan, Freddie, Francis, Doris Ann. This put the matter to rest for awhile, but not for too long.Whether it was weeks or months later I can no longer remember, but one fine day I went off to the movies with my friends. It must have been a Saturday since we always and only went to the movies on Saturday if we could find enough soda bottles to cash in so as to come up with the enormous amount of ten cents (count ‘em, ten pennies; -
‘ Those were the days, my friend.
We thought they’d never end!’)
that got us in the door. Or, if we were really desperate and nobody had enough money or soda bottles, we’d pool what we had to get at least one of us in the door with an official ticket so that that one could, when the lights were dimmed and the newsreel beginning, sneak to the back exit, open it slightly and place a piece of cardboard in the door in such a way that it couldn’t lock shut, then proceed to find and distract the usher… while the rest of us, in ones and twos and threes, slipped in thru the dark, -like ghosts unseen.
You understand, of course, that I always held my breath when the cartoons came on hoping that Donald Duck would not show up rousing the group to their old quack-quack jokes at my expense. Thank god, that day there was no Donald Duck and besides, I had pretty much converted everybody to calling me Francis. But, wouldn’t you know it, I had another horror in store for me. When it came to the third ‘Coming Attraction’ the screen was suddenly full of scenes showing a donkey, a mule, a jack-ass and it was talking! Yes, this was the first any of us had seen of what was to become a series of films starring Donald O’Connor and his sidekick, ‘Francis, the Talking Mule !’ Double jeopardy; both my names succinctly bound together in one hilarious joke. Oh, fated destiny! Such accursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!Ah, but alas, good friends, I’ve done it again, I’ve rushed ahead of myself.
For there was one movie, the first I ever saw, that brought out the real Hamlet in me, and it too had a lot to do with names. I shall speak of this movie next, but first I call upon you to reflect on the naming of names and the wording of words, for it is written that in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God and though this, itself, is from the mouths of the priests who betray us all, nevertheless, it is true that no name or word can be uttered without the breath of our lives shaping it.
I am breathing my life into the words of this book and I am doing so to recall us all to the truth of the Land of Faerie which, when we try to enter it using only the bones of reason, can be a harsh place indeed. Faeries, such as I, are often thought to be sissies corrupted by too much sweetness and light, little people arrested in their development who succumb to the ‘puer aeternus’ or the ‘peter pan’ syndromes and cannot cope (cloak, cop-to, be concerned with, care enough about, concur, concede to, collude with) the adult world of harsh reality but, in fact, just fancy this: there is no harder or fiercer ‘reality’ we can face than our own fear of Faerie. For who is not an ass on midsummer’s eve, who isn't stubborn as a mule when it comes to change, and who doesn’t tremble at the prospect of his own imagination revealing to her the truth ?
Only the Fool says in his heart there is no Faerie. (But she’s obstreperously precocious, beats baroquely about the bush, and never gets to the point!) Buckle-up then, and hold on to your Bette Davis seat belts, for we are off again to the movies.
What, after all, is a movie but the magic of Faerie; a dance of light confined within a darkened room giving the gift of movement to a series of photographs otherwise negative, frozen, and still ?
I had seen lots of photographs by the time I saw my first movie; photographs of my Uncle Donald and myself, photographs of my dead Grandfathers, photographs of my sisters and my brother, but I had never seen a ‘moving picture’, a movie. And luckily, nobody seemed to think it was important to explain anything at all about movies to me. It just happened that one day, my big sister Joanie, -who was in my earliest years like a second mother to me- announced that we were going, she and I, to the movies. I must have been about five years old by then, and I know it was a sunny and warm day, and I have a feeling it was a day in early Fall, though why I feel it was Fall rather than Spring or Summer I cannot say, but I know for sure it wasn’t Winter. Anyway, I can see myself holding my big sister’s hand as we set out on our adventure to go to the movies.
Down to the streetcar tracks we walked, for this was Baltimore in the late 1940’s, and streetcars ran down the street like trains on tracks. I can see myself looking up to the clear blue sky criss-crossed by wires to which yellow streetcars were attached by long flexible kinds of antennae with grooved wheels on their tips that fit snugly onto these wires. The streetcars ran by electricity, and if their wheeled antennae slipped out of the groove and came loose from the overhanging wires they just stopped running. When that happened, the streetcar man, who was called the ‘conductor’, had to get outside and move to the back of the car to turn a little crank on a spool of coiled cable that pulled the antenna down a bit; and then he’d have to try to coax it back up in such a way that the groove in the wheel on the tip of the antenna aligned again with the wires above so that the streetcar could get some ‘juice’ and move. All this activity was accompanied by flashes of blue fire and electrical sparks that were quite fantastically wondrous to a five year old such as myself. It was a little bit like watching a fisherman in a windy lightning storm with his rod, reel, and all his billowing string trying to catch a fish.
Sometimes the conductor just couldn’t get his cranks, wheels, antenna, and wires to fit together. Everybody on the car would make wisecracks at him, though these were mostly of a friendly kind because in those days people had not yet fallen so deeply into the frantic game of the Sacred Banks and their Time-Priests as they have now. Few people, even in Baltimore City, lived by today’s adage that ‘money is time, and time is money’. Or so it seemed.Joanie and I rode the streetcar for several miles before we got out through the folding doors which hissed with air pressure and awkwardly cranked open. You had to go down three little steps to get out through the doors and you had to be quick too, for if you hesitated the doors could close right in on you and squeeze you, or you could get your clothes caught in them while you were stepping outside onto the ground, and then what would happen ?
My big sister scared me by repeating the story sometimes told in our family as to how ‘Pop’, (the name by which my mother and all her sisters called my missing maternal Grandfather), had died trying to get off a streetcar.
The story went that he was drunk, (and here they’d mutter under their breath, ‘as usual’) when he exited from a streetcar wearing his long coat. They said that his coat got caught in the closing doors behind him and the streetcar started back up dragging him banging over the tracks for blocks before anyone on the car noticed and could tell the conductor. He was taken to a hospital where he died shortly thereafter due, however, mostly to his badly damaged liver from all his drinking. This happened on the fifth day in the month of May, 1943, five months after I was born.
Joanie really scared me by telling this story during our long ride. When it came time to get off the streetcar and we stood on those little steps, and that loud hiss accompanied the doors folding open, I just froze there terrified, afraid of moving. She had to push me in front of her and out the doors. Besides, Pop, my Grandfather, was really named Frank, (and it would turn out that Mom, my own Mother, would die in my arms on that very same day, the Fifth of May exactly 47 years later) !
We had to walk, after that, a few more blocks to the movie theatre. I had never seen such a place but I had seen and been in churches a lot. Roman Catholic churches, with high steeples and great doors, and inside there were vaulted ceilings and rows and rows of benches called pews all facing in one direction toward the altar where Holy Mass was said. So, when we entered the theatre together, and since it was my first time in such a place, and since there were rows and rows of seats all facing in one direction (toward an elevated platform with a great red velvet curtain hanging down onto it), I think I just naturally assumed it was going to be like church and we were going to see some kind of a Holy Mass called a Movie.
It was dark and very mysterious just like church, but there were no statues of saints around the walls, just little stained-glass lamps making rather faint streaks of colored light that flowed up and down the walls and onto the ceiling and floor. Suddenly, even those lights went out and it was pitch dark. I started to ask Joanie what was happening but she covered her lips with her finger and blew a ‘Shhhh!’ at me just like they did in church if you tried to talk. So, I just had to sit there quietly in the dark.What happened next totally startled me: simultaneous bursts of sound and light lit up the red velvet curtain. But I only glanced at the curtain for a second. What mostly caught my eye was the long beam of light, sharp as a searchlight, which shot across the top of the dark air down to the curtain. I looked up at it and turned around to see where it was coming from, and what I saw was that it narrowed down to a pinpoint coming from a window high up on the back wall, and in that window I could see the outline of a person moving. But only for an instant, and then the window was dark and I couldn’t see anything but the pinpoint of white light. So I turned back around to look at the place where the wide end of the lightbeam was pointing. The curtain had a picture of a lion on it who was growling over the music; the lion looked really silly because the folds of the curtain made wrinkles all over him. But slowly the curtain began to part right down the middle, and the picture got clear and straight and the music began to sound like something familiar, -I was hearing the overture to ...
The Wizard of Oz !
Mind you, there were no televisions back then, and I had never before seen images moving like this -except in ways that I couldn’t talk about to anybody, (like at Uncle Donald’s vigil when I’d seen the little wooden people on the cuckoo clock come alive and disappear into the soldiers’ faces) so I was completely enchanted right from the start.
There was this pig-tailed little girl holding her tiny dog and she was talking quickly and excitedly just the way everybody did at my house, and everybody was telling her to shut up and go away just like they told me to, and they kept calling her Dorothy. Well, Dorothy was my mother’s name, even though my father mostly called her ‘Dotsie’, and I was always told by my mother that she grew up on a farm on the eastern shore of Maryland. Now, here was this Dorothy on a farm too, and I began to assume that I was watching the story of my mother as a little girl growing up.
I didn’t consciously think about this, you understand, I just vaguely felt it. But when Dorothy stood by the wheel of the wagon and began to sing about going over the rainbow where she could live with people who would understand and listen to her, I felt sure she was my mother as a little girl, for I often confused my mother with myself, -she was like that to me, and she loved to sing, and we often sang together this very song: ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’.
So, when Dorothy decided to run away from home I was right there with her. What kid does not feel that need at some moment or other while ‘adjusting’ to the ‘real’ world of his parents after falling out of ‘heaven’ ? I certainly did, and by the time I was five and seeing this movie, I had made a number of such attempts, but of those I shall speak, perhaps, later on. At the time I was totally engaged in willing Dorothy to succeed in her efforts to get away from old, grumpy Mrs. Gulch so she could save her dog, Toto. When she got as far as Professor Marvel’s camp and the sky was darkening with the winds waiting to blow, I was hardly breathing with anticipation. Where could she go to get in safe out of the coming storm ?
Professor Marvel seemed familiar to me from the instant I saw him with that funny turban wrapped around his head and his wooden house on wheels elegantly inscribed with swirling letters which are always the same alluring magical hints to those of my kind.I was glad for her when he invited her inside his house, and I felt as comforted as she did by his gentle, whimsical voice. But when he pulled out his crystal ball he captured my fullest attention, for I had heard it said that ‘Pop’, -my mom’s father, had used a crystal ball and yet, until that moment, I had never seen one and I wondered what they did.
All you safely buckled-up moviegoers out there know what that crystal ball did, right ? It did absolutely nothing; it just sat there, still as a prop supplied by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Right ? (Gong; bong, pull yourself off stage by the neck, -with a hook.)
Wrong ! It showed us how the heart of Professor Marvel needed no technical tricks to divine what lay in the heart of Dorothy. It showed us a feisty old man who had learned that when we play the role of shaman or priest we cannot dispense with the glamours of show-biz and must use the best of our human wits. That sweet old buzzard sneaked a hand into Dorothy’s basket and pulled out the picture of Auntie Em for a look-see! I assure you that few kids miss this trick and I sure didn’t, it instantly told me that ‘Pop’ had been a very bad wizard but a very good, (or at least, a very well-intentioned) man. Whatever became of his crystal ball ?
It’s a mystery to me, folks, but I shall tell you what I know of it when and as the knowing unfolds. For the moment, we must watch as clever Professor Marvel looks into his crystal and pretends to see Auntie Em standing in her polka dot dress before her house while the furious twister approaches.
Remember how he tells Dorothy that he sees a woman standing there, and remember how it is Dorothy who says, ‘That’s Auntie Em!’ ? Then he tells her this woman is very worried and calling out for someone, and again Dorothy offers, -‘That’s me!’ But when he tells her he sees this woman putting her hand over her heart and falling down as if she’s in pain, well, that’s what finally prompts Dorothy to hurry back home. She springs up from the table leaving the crystal ball behind, as does Professor Marvel, and the two of them go outside where the dust and leaves are blowing and the twister approaching.
-‘Poor little kid,’ we hear him say, ‘I hope she gets home alright ! ’-
Who knows whether Dorothy ever got home ‘alright’ or whether any of us ever will ? This notion, ‘home’, has always been befuddling to me, from my earliest childhood I recall constantly protesting to my family that I knew they weren’t my real family and this wasn’t my real house and, in fact, this wasn’t the real world that I used to live in. I was always asking everybody what had happened around here and why it was all so thick. I always wanted to go home. So I was pleasantly excited when Dorothy got knocked on the head in her ‘real’ home and the whole house went twirling up into the dark air of the twister and crashed down abruptly into Oz. This was certainly more like it, opening the door into Oz opened a rainbow of colors revealing the flowers and all the little people who lived among them, people who laughed, giggled, danced and sang. My people, my family, my home…or something very like it!Yes, Donald had seen Oz before, it was familiar to him. He had been playing in the back yard of his row house in Baltimore, when the lilac bush in bloom down by the gate caught his eye and seemed to call to him. He was four and a half years old and just naturally wandered over to the bush whose blossoms gave off such sweet air that he could breathe deeply and feel free.
I remember him crawling under the bush feeling very happy to be able to hide there where he knew no one could see him. He always liked to hide, (indeed, he probably still likes to hide, so if I were you, dear reader, I’d think twice before believing his current claims to be ‘dropping his feathers’ or revealing himself!) no matter where he was: outside or in.
One of his favorite hiding places had been under Granny’s kitchen table where he could sit quietly all folded up on one of the strong oak beams that came out from the central post beneath the table and ended each in a hand-carved, clawed, wooden paw grasping a large ball. He’d sit there barely breathing, looking out through the down-hanging lace tablecloth watching feet move by, and listening to the voices that came with them.
But on this particular day he hid himself under the lilac bush all in flower by the gate and breathed deeply. Very relaxed he was, and happy; he had never before smelled such wonderful smells as he smelled here, and all these smells were laughing with tiny voices that tinkled like bells. He looked about himself and saw between his legs and through the splayed fingers of his hands a carpet of purple, white, and green light which slowly resolved itself into clumps of violets and stalks of lily-of-the-valley.
The purple violet flowers were moving; they were spinning and twirling in circles, and in the very center of each one was a palely glowing golden face, - like the face of a tiny person. And these tiny purple persons with smiling golden faces were embracing, in their quicker-than-lightning rounds of dancing, the luminous rods of the lilies-of-the-valley, the green glowing stems, as if they were dancing around little maypoles. From out of each bell-like blossom, on every stem of every lily-of-the-valley, a wisp of a person arose who twirled at once among the others diving into a sea of purple-golden music where they all could swim forever.
And Donald began to feel he was one of them, -one of these flower people singing and dancing in an air of totally delicious freedom. But he felt, too, like a great dumb giant who gasped with a sharp intake of breath when he realized in sudden self-horror that he was sitting on some of the flowers and crushing who knows how many little people to death! Yet, no sooner had he thought this thought than there arose around-within him a whole chorus of unanimous voices assuring him that all was well, that he wasn’t crushing anybody, that all the flowers beneath him were within him as well, that when he would get up so too would they; that his giant weight was merely a feather. They tickled him so with this feather of his weight that he let go of whatever he was holding onto and laughed with them. He looked up through the branches of the lilac bush toward the sky and saw beams of light pouring down through the leaves, beams which seemed to have floating within them particles of dust, - like the smallest of nutshells or seashells or fragments of rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearls. And to his utmost delight, he came along -joined and jumped with the flower people (who were holding his hands and coaxing him to follow them) into the little be-jeweled particles which, themselves, knew they were alive and were glad to carry their passengers within them ...he jumped, I tell you, up through the branches and leaves of the lilac bush, along the beams of light and into the sky.Whether Donald actually, technically went to Oz at that time, or any other, or not at all -is impossible for me to say. But I remember coming into fuller being myself while he was busy visiting his friends, leaping from star to star, from flower to flower, skimming the rings of galaxies, sliding down the sides of great black holes right through their singularities and out again into other regions of the light we call darkness.
Donald was a natural-born friend of the elementals, a child born with his fancy (as well as his pineal gland) fully active, a gifted geometrician of whimsy who could see on the so-called ‘inner planes’ the dance of light that is life. He would have continued inter-acting with these light forms for untold hours were he allowed to! It was I who wanted to hold back, and it was I who constantly tried to get his ear, to urge him to listen to the far away voices of his parents calling him to dinner. When I finally succeeded in my efforts, however, he failed utterly to even notice me, but assumed that I was merely himself; and so agreed to listen.
Yes, way down there, very far away were the voices of mom and dad calling to him from inside the house, and he could see himself or the body of himself sitting there hidden under the lilac bush as if it were asleep. He rushed into it at once waving goodbye to all his subtle friends, and made his body get up. Together we walked, Donald and I, through the back door of the house, and on into the kitchen where mom stood smoking her cigarette and scraping dishes while dad sat, not far away, holding a newspaper in front of his face.
-‘Well, well, well, -Little Mr. Invisible!’ said mom, in her half-annoyed, half-teasing voice, ‘here you are at last. And what were you doing down there under that lilac bush ? Your father and I have been calling and calling you, but you just wouldn't come in (here there was a rustle of his father’s newspaper, and a throat-clearing but muffled cough) ...so, well, your brothers and sisters, -all of us have eaten and the food’s cold. Do you want to eat it this way, or would you like me to heat it all up for you ?’-
But we just stood there watching his mother talking while she moved back and forth scraping dishes at the table in front of the kitchen window through which we could still see not more than forty feet away, the lilac bush he’d been sitting under.
-‘Really, Donald, whatever were you doing down there all that time ? Did you think you were hiding, -cause we all could see you, or were you just trying to get your father’s goat ?’-
-‘Oh, no mom,’ I heard this little Donald saying, ‘I wasn’t hiding, I was playing with these really tiny people who came out of the flowers and I flew away with them and we went…’-
but here his mother, whom he has already told you was his best friend and could lie like a rug, interrupted him to ask whether or not these little people wore little coats and hats, and were they boys and girls, and did the little girls have pocket-books, and gloves, and did they wear shoes, and did they have wings, and what color were their wings, and so on and on. And to each of her questions he gave detailed answers. The two of them continued on in this fashion until I, who had been anxiously watching his father grow more and more disturbed behind his paper front, managed to catch his attention. I was about to speak to him when his father spoke instead:
-‘Dotsie, what the hell are you doing ? Stop encouraging him, you know he’s lying ! He makes all this stuff up, Dorothy, you know he does, the same way you do. You’re supposed to be his Mother, for Christ’s sake ! Now both of you just cut this damn stuff out!’-Donald and Dorothy looked at each other, both grew quiet for a moment or two, but then they were off again talking about the purple-golden people and the land he went to, far away in the sky. It was I, once again, who sensed what was going to happen next and tried to warn him, but he was too caught up in his mother’s questions to give me his ear. Quite suddenly and abruptly Fred, for that was his father’s name, threw his newspaper down on the floor and grabbed his son tightly by the right forearm saying as he did so,
-‘Now listen here, boy, I want you to stop that silly lying right now. You know there’s no little people in the backyard. You made that up. And Dorothy, don’t you look at me that way either! You’re coming with me right now, boy; we’re going to put a stop to all this...sure as Hell, right here and right now !’-
And he pulled his genetic offspring, rather roughly as I recall, along with him and out the back door into the yard. He walked him down the sidewalk to the gate beside which stood the lilac bush whereupon he stopped. Then he stood Donald opposite to himself and pointed to the flowering bush:
-‘I want you to look at this bush and see it. See it, god damn it! It’s only a bush with some flowers on it, nothing else!’- He raised his foot and stamped it down hard on the concrete, -‘And this,’ he said, ‘is cement. It’s hard concrete! Now you stamp your foot down on this concrete like I’m doing. Go ahead, do it, dammit!’-I watched as Donald lifted his foot, but he hadn’t lifted it very high when he forgot to remember what he was doing and just stood there with his right foot in the air, staring into the lilac bush in what seemed to be a state of pure amazement. Tears began to rise up into his eyes, tears of hurt, woundedness, self-pity; and though I felt concern for him, I thought I’d rather go away somewhere if this was how things were going to be. Yet, no sooner had this feeling brushed over my heart than Donald saw me, he really recognized me, and together we put his foot down and looked into his father’s eyes.
We saw there a long line of pain stretching back beyond Fred to his own father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, and farther and farther back into the deep folds of human time. I felt that at last Donald was beginning to understand who I was even as he began to understand his father, for he saw his father’s hurt; he saw that man’s anger and fear; and he knew now that this was the reason why he could no longer see the flower people, or the colors of the light that had made the lilac bush (and even the concrete sidewalk) appear so beautiful. But most importantly, he glimpsed what his father had meant by the ‘real world’ he was always insisting on. We agreed in that moment, Donald and I, that when you look out on the world full of pain and hurt it hides its real self from you, all you can see is a crust, a collection of shapes and forms quite dried up and lifeless.
-‘Gosh, daddy, what happened to you,’- came tumbling out of his mouth before he could even think to want to stop it. His father said nothing but smiled very slightly until his smile disappeared in a grimace of pain; he turned away from his son and headed back into the house. That was a most important turning point in Donald’s life; he realized he knew now in a whole different way what so many people meant by ‘real’, and ‘evil’, and ‘bad’. They meant pain and fear.
A great wave of calm had fallen over him, and it held him suspended outside of time; he understood that he was not just Donald, that he was other than just a person, that we were some kind of ancient being assuming a body intent on fulfilling a task taken up in eternity. We came here to be his father’s new friend, to help him find his own little boy in hiding, to heal all the fathers from hiding the little boys inside themselves.
He looked once again toward the world of the lilacs, violets, and lilies-of-the-valley wrapped in the splendor of their colors, and the music of their scents, and he promised himself he would always remember this moment, that he would never allow himself to become hurt like his father. (Ah, but you should see him now; more than half a century older, secretly grimacing with his pain and fear!) Finally he took a deep breath filling our lungs with all the joy of the flowers, and turned away with a new found resolution to follow his father into the house like a sunflower follows the disappearing sun.
Could we say Donald made it home alright ? Did Dorothy ? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, for after leaving Professor Marvel and his crystal ball she bent her back into the wind, and with Toto in her arms, entered Auntie Em’s and Uncle Henry’s house only to find that everyone else was gone. The ever-approaching twister finally caught up with Dorothy and her home and carried them over the rainbow, but not until she was knocked on the head with a window and laid to rest on her bed. It was at this moment in the movie that a new ‘time frame’ came into being so that we and Dorothy could enter the Land of Oz, and for adult reasons concerned with denial and logic, we were given a rational ‘excuse’ for all that followed which allows us, ultimately, to dismiss ~Oz~ and its inhabitants as Dorothy’s dream. When the movie ends she will be waking up on this very same bed, of this very same room, in this very same house, and Auntie Em will be telling her it was all just a bad dream. Yet it wasn’t just a bad dream for Donald or me, my friends. It was a clue, a hint, a sign of confirmation that somewhere there really was a place that was our true home, just as we had always (though in slightly different ways) felt and hoped.
But in this tale of childhood and its momentary awakenings to the call of Faerie, in this rhythmic counting of the bones, I have promised to strip away all the secrets I hide in, all the secrets I hide from, all the secrets period. Secrets, as the worthy Wizard himself might say, are ‘very mediocre commodities’. And so, my friend and fellow faerie, you –whoever you are, hearing yourself reading, listening to yourself sounding these words in your head, have patience and fear not that I lead you astray with archaic talk of different Donalds and of Oz. Relax, come along while the tale unravels itself telling you of how my mother, Dorothy, and her marvelous father, Frank, were pleased to weave their own stories before me in a dark theatre of light. How the crystal ball turned opaque, solid, and threatened to crush me. How all our many faces, yours and mine, became more apparent too, as this, the very first movie I ever saw unfolded as if it were a sacred ritual, a Holy Mass.‘Introibo ad altare Dei’ … let us go then, you and I, back into the movie theatre, back into the memory of childhood’s paradise, the magical domain threatened by the priests, the enemies of Faerie, the weavers of the false runes and the stone commandments. Away from those who thrive upon the secrets of ‘reality’ and speak the dead language called ‘thou shalt not!’ Let us seek together the sacred words which can change the very real and physical substance of things. Let us perform the real memory rite of ....
While I was very pleased to see all the flowers and brightly colored houses of Oz appearing when Dorothy opened her bedroom door, and while the Munchkins dancing and singing - ‘Ding, dong, the Witch is dead’ – delighted me to no end, as did the sudden revelation (with the appearance of Glinda floating in on a rainbow bubble) that there were good witches and bad witches, what I really liked most was the sudden appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West in a cloud of red-orange smoke!
Her curdling screech of a voice, her green face, her long-warted nose, black conical hat, and broomstick held me spellbound, -as did her bony hands with pointy fingernails. For months after seeing the movie I imitated her voice and gestures better than any kid on our block and could make everybody laugh and get scared at the same time. Yes, I thought I could understand what made old Mrs. Gulch so mean and why she wanted to take Toto away from Dorothy: it was because somebody, apparently Dorothy herself, had dropped a house on her sister -killing her dead.
(‘And she’s not only merely dead,
she’s really most sincerely dead!’)
I felt that the Wicked Witch had every right to her sister’s ruby slippers and that Dorothy should give them back. But why didn’t she ? Because the good witch Glinda told her not to, told her that she needed those slippers because they were very powerful and could help her. And besides, when Dorothy made the very natural gesture of telling the Witch she could have her dead sister’s shoes, it was the shoes themselves which flashed with lightning power and burned the witch’s fingers. I felt a real fondness for this wicked old Witch all through the movie. But when it turned out that she too had a crystal ball just like Professor Marvel’s, -except that her’s was better because you could really see Auntie Em inside it, and the poppy fields, and the haunted forest…well, I thought then that she must be using the same kind of magic which ‘Pop’, my grandfather, (and Professor Marvel) both tried to use. What was this ‘magic’ that could be good or bad depending on who used it and how ?
It doesn’t take too long before you can answer these questions for yourself while the movie unreels. For one thing, it’s already clear that the Witch is ‘really’ Mrs. Gulch, -since you’ve already seen her magically transform herself on her bike into herself on a broomstick inside the twister! The scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion all seem vaguely familiar too. But the absolute clincher is the gatekeeper of the Emerald City who sounds just like Professor Marvel, then becomes the driver of the carriage (pulled about by the famous ‘horse of a different color’), then becomes the personal gatekeeper guarding the famous Wizard, and finally is exposed by the dog Toto ( Latin, -Totus, total, all, whole ) as none other than Professor Marvel, the Wizard, hiding himself behind a curtain! (Ah, the curtains, the words, the fumes and feathers, the unending veils of the ever-circuitous dance of Faerie!) In his disguise as the Wizard he too has appeared behind bursts of flame and smoke, and like the ‘Wicked Witch’ he's not a very friendly sort of person.
When Toto tugged back that curtain and I saw ‘the wizard’ standing there pulling levers, moving switches, and booming his haughty commands into a microphone something ‘clicked’ in me. A feather fell into place. It was an obvious revelation. It was like waking up to the fact that life is ‘magic’, a secret game of hide & seek tricks played by people who are either Witches or Wizards, Women or Men, people who seem to have to be both asleep and awake, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I wondered if my Grandfather knew this when he played with his crystal ball. I wondered why he was my Grandfather and if he had tried to help my mother, Dorothy, to get out of ‘Oz’ altogether. I wondered why people acted one way in Oz and very differently in their homes on Earth in Kansas, -or Maryland. But most of all I wondered whether there wasn’t some sort of connection between the curtain the Wizard hid behind and the curtain on which the movie was playing. What was hidden behind that curtain ? What was really happening way up in the back of the movie house behind that little window from which the beam of light was shining making the movie come to life ?
After Toto pulled back the curtain exposing the Wizard I actually climbed up onto my knees and turned around in my seat to look up again into what we as ‘adults’ call the ‘projection booth’. I felt like Joanie and I were being tricked by that lightbeam the same way Dorothy was being tricked by the Wizard’s machines belching fire, sound, and smoke. And as the movie ended and Dorothy was back in her room in her house in black and white Kansas and saying repeatedly how there was no place like ‘home’, well I felt sorry for her that she had fallen out of Oz ! No more ‘magic’, no more color, just black and white people in black and white houses on a black and white ‘earth’ called Kansas or the ‘World’. Some home!
Just as abruptly as the building had gone dark at the beginning of the movie, it was flooded with light when the movie ended. Music played and Joanie took my hand and led me out of the rows of seats up the inclined plane of the aisle and out the door. The sun was shining brightly outside, and I kept squinting my eyes to look at it, but all I could see was the pinpoint of fire at its center reminding me of the lightbeam at its narrow end in the projection booth at the movies. It seemed amazing that I had never thought before about what was behind the sun. I got goosebumps all over as the realization dawned on me that I was just like the people in the movie, that I was just a picture projected onto a screen, the Sun was the projector and the screen was this world. So, WHO was I?
Joanie was talking to me, pulling me along with her, telling me not to keep stopping and staring into the Sun, telling me I’d go blind, asking me if I liked the movie. I seem to remember her doing that and me answering her, but that memory is dim compared to the state of absolute amazement I was in wondering if the me they called ‘Donald’ wasn’t just a picture of some kind while the ‘real’ me was actually living in Oz. The whole world seemed different, and I can tell you now, half a century later, that the whole world was, indeed, different after that and has never been the same for me since I saw ‘ The Wizard of Oz ’.
When we got home I tried to tell my mother all about how the movie was the story of herself as a little girl growing up on her farm on the ‘Eastern Shore’, and how ‘Pop’ was in it with his crystal ball, and how Oz was my true real home and her’s too, and how we were all asleep right now in a dream but we could wake up if we really wanted to. My mother disappointed me with her reception of my amazing discovery; she spoke to me once more as if I were her little baby boy. She laughed nervously and with agitation at everything I said and dismissed me as if I were just a child, explaining that although she was Dorothy she was not Judy Garland, and although ‘Pop’ did have a crystal ball he was not Professor Marvel, - nor was he the Wizard of Oz or anyplace else! No, he was just a confused and lazy man who never could hold down a real job or support her and her sisters and mother. Didn’t I know that all that was just a movie, just a ‘pretend’ thing, and couldn’t I just go and play while Joanie and she talked about some important ‘grown-up’ things.
I couldn’t believe it, even though I had witnessed my mother changing over the years. I felt just like Dorothy in the beginning of the movie being told to get out of the way while my mother and sister talked about their important things. Such dismissal just seems to ‘come with the territory’ when you’re five years old. (Not to even mention what happens when you’ve reached ninety-five years!)
That night I ‘dreamed’ the whole movie all over from beginning to end and woke up full of excitement convinced that I could soon discover the way to wake up permanently, once and for all, and be in my true home. At breakfast I explained everything again to my mother who listened this time with a little more patience. But I could tell that she didn’t understand what I was trying to say, and I felt very frustrated with her and Joanie, as well as my older brother, Freddie, all of whom kept repeating to me that it was ‘just’ a movie. But I said,
-‘No, you don’t understand. This house we live in is the movie. I’m not really ‘Donald’ and you’re not really ‘Freddie’ and not ‘Joanie’ and not ‘Mom’. We’re all different people, really. We’re just asleep and this is the bad dream! The whole world is just a movie place and the sun is what makes it all look real. I want to wake up and see what’s behind the sun!’-
But this only made them laugh harder and besides, we had a new baby in the house now, my little sister Doris Ann who had just been born a few months before in March. They’d been telling me that I had to grow up because I wasn’t the baby anymore. Doris Ann was, and I was just trying to get attention because I was jealous of my baby sister. Can you imagine! Such simple mindedness! I wanted to talk and I wanted some serious answers, and nobody would talk with me seriously.
That night’s dream of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in exact detail from beginning to end (with the switches from black and white to color) was the best dream I had ever had. Until that moment I hadn’t even realized that I dreamed at all. But after that night I dreamed every night for at least a month, and I always dreamed the movie. And every morning I tried to talk about it with anyone in the house who’d talk with me. But everybody thought it was just ‘interesting’. True, Joanie sometimes asked me questions about details in the movie but only because she wanted to see if she couldn’t catch me in a mistake or a contradiction to prove that I wasn’t really dreaming the movie but merely trying to take attention away from the new baby.
I stopped talking to them about my dreams, but I discovered something new about myself that I never realized before, and that something was this: until I had seen the movie of Oz the only dream I’d ever had was always in black and white, and was always the same dream exactly, night after night. It was a curious and rather scary dream, and I shall tell you of it now.
I used to dream that I was just a head without a body. This head was resting on top of the ground in some unnameable place. Its’ eyes were perfectly level with the ground and it was looking straight ahead toward a far distant point on the horizon where the sky and ground met. But everything was gray and the sky hardly looked any different than the ground. Gray was everywhere. Everywhere gray. For what seemed the longest time within the dream that’s all that was going on: ‘me’, as a pair of eyes in an immobile head, staring forward to a far distant vanishing point on the gray horizon where the gray sky met the gray earth.At some moment, each night in this dream, I’d notice a small speck of blackness out there on the horizon and begin to focus on it with a rather aimless curiosity. This seemed to cause the speck to grow bigger. Curious as to why that happened, I would focus even more intently on it and it would, accordingly, grow even larger. Eventually, as this dream continued, I could detect that the speck was changing into a kind of round ball. Again, this would increase my curiosity and I’d strain my eyes to see it more clearly. Gradually, I’d begin to understand that it was moving forward toward me with relentless, purposeful, rolling motion. But I’d just keep watching it while it approached me, - growing bigger and bigger as it came.
A vaguely unfocused sense of apprehension would arise in me as the blackness continued to grow nearer and this apprehension would slowly crystallize into a distinct feeling of anxiety. I thought it was obvious that the ever growing black mass of matter would crash into me. Yet, since I was only a head with open eyes level to the ground, I couldn’t move to get out of its way. At that point, a kind of detached, obtuse fear would suffuse my whole being, but this fear was combined with absolute amazement that a black ball seemed to actually ‘want’ or ‘intend’ to hit me. I couldn’t imagine why it wanted to smash into me, though I felt that if it succeeded I would be shattered into a nameless and unconscious ache of pain, into someplace or something I didn’t want to be, into Oblivion.
I’d fix my gaze ever more intently upon it trying to understand why it was threatening me this way. As I did, I’d notice that tiny flecks of its blackness were spinning off while it rolled forward gathering speed. Then there would dawn on me this perfectly clear understanding that my eyes could go out from my head toward the black ball as if they were looking through a telescope or a magnifying glass allowing them to ‘touch’ it with their seeing, their light, and their focus. I’d reach out to look at it in this way with a growing sense of certainty that if I did so it couldn’t hurt me. It seemed to sense this, and increase its speed onward -toward direct collision with me. Faster and faster it moved, closer and closer it came, as if it were a bowling ball hurtling down a lane at the end of which was my face instead of bowling pins.
I could sense that by looking unflinchingly into it I was somehow causing more of its’ blackness to fling off into space where it dispersed and became harmless. I would always resolve to continue looking directly into it, -even if it collided with me, even if I was shattered into billions of shards.Though there was increasingly less mass to it, it remained huge, and its blackness continued to rush toward me threatening my annihilation. But just as it reached a distance of maybe thirty feet away, just as its darkness was about to engulf me like a moving Mountain of shadowed obsidian, I’d wake up in my bed, - soaked in urine, amazed and glad that I was still alive. Shocked, that once again I had wet the bed!
In the weeks and months that followed I began to understand that Dorothy was dealing with something similar in the movie. Night after night in my dream she’d get up off the bed in her twirling house, go to the window, and look straight down into the twister’s black funnel cloud. She’d look intently into it the way I looked into the approaching black ball, and her apprehension would send her back to the bed; it was at that point that she’d see outside the window Mrs. Gulch on her bicycle turn into the Wicked Witch on her broom. There seemed to be something important about daring to look into the darkness that threatened.
I think that in some way which was not to surface into my consciousness until many years later, I understood that the crystal balls of both the Wicked Witch and the Wizard were magical balls related to my Grandfather’s fabled crystal ball, and to the ever approaching black ball of my earliest childhood dream. What makes a crystal ball turn opaque, solid, and black as obsidian ? Why, throughout so many nights, had this hard dark ball threatened to destroy me ? How could such a black sphere have the power not just to ‘kill’ me but to actually obliterate my consciousness ? Was a clear ball ‘good’ magic, and was a dark ball ‘wicked’ magic ? Who or what was after me with that black ball, and why did I always focus fiercely into it trying to understand it the same way I tried to understand the scary ‘Wicked Witch’ ? Why was I so intent on contacting the essence of a darkness that threatened me ?The answer to these and similar questions rests, I believe, in the Land of Faerie so rapidly fading from our collective mind...
For there was once a perfection all over the Earth, and the trees and the flowers spoke to the animals and the sky, and the rivers ran pure with the sounds of that speech, and the winds spoke it too through the ears of the stars down the seashells of labyrinths into our hearts. We were infants then, this race known as man, and we lived our lives in a paradise of trust. And our bodies never aged, and our bones were like mist, and our shapes ever changed as we moved in full bliss to the songs that the waters, the winds and the grass whispered among us and laughed as they passed. And there was no suffering, no pain, and no death but a constant unfolding was the way of our breath.
So how came this ugliness surrounding us now, this bitter pretending that…well, perhaps I do get carried away...
but I remember something that is so full of joy, and I know I was remembering it when I was a boy. It wasn’t like a picture or a thought, not that kind of memory; no. It was more like a sound or a song, a long-breathed melody that rose at night from the Earth to the Moon and moved on out to the shining stars, who kissed it and curved it back to our feet.
It was a heartbeat away in the roots of the trees.
It was a memory of murmurs and a magic of ease.
It was a way of seeing every infant sees.
I saw myself once, reflected in a pool of amber fluid within a glass retort. Sorry, friends, this did not occur in a ‘past-life’ recall with Donald as alchemist concocting the elixir of life. No, it happened one night when I was eight years old. I had been home absent from school for a few weeks with one of my never ending bouts of asthma when my father came in early about eleven o’clock that night. He usually came home between two and three in the morning from his work as a trucker for Esso Standard Oil. But that night he came home early all excited with a box wrapped up in a brown paper bag. He was glad that I was still awake and told me he had found something that could cure me of asthma and make me well. My mother, of course, asked him endless questions as to what he had in the bag but he gave her few answers and, instead, he brought me into their bedroom, took the box out of the bag, and lifted from it a curious glass ball with two long and curved beaks extending out from either side. It was like an alchemist’s retort, and it had a small glass stopper located on top between its beaks. (Beaks, beakers, -the Stork brought me here in its’ beguiling beaks. Ah, little Disney Dumbo!)
My father lifted the glass stopper and poured a little water into the ball, then he added a few drops of a medicine very familiar to me called ‘Tincture of Benzoin’, -at least I think that’s what the medicine was. In any case, the water turned to an amber, golden brown color and he whirled it around for a bit in the retort. I was completely fascinated since it all seemed like some kind of magic and I was not used to my trucker father acting like a magician. But he was quite excited and unusually enthusiastic as he whirled the fluid about repeating that he was sure this potion would cure me of asthma forever. He explained to me that we had to hold the retort between us and that I should put the opening of one beak into my mouth while he put the other into his. He would breathe out or blow into his end and I should breathe in or inhale at my end.
We did it, but my mother kept talking about how she was afraid we’d drop the retort and I’d cut my bare feet on the glass and, besides, why did he think these fumes from Tincture of Benzoin would cure me since I spent every sick day under a tent of sheets in my bed breathing these very same fumes emitted by the electric vaporizer, etc. etc. & so forth! But I was very happy to be playing this new game with my dad even though the fumes I breathed did smell like the familiar medicine, and I wished she’d just shut up and go away.
Pretty soon, she did go away but she took my father with her. They said they were going right across the street to their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Michaels, who owned the neighborhood grocery store, and if I needed them all I had to do was to blink the venetian blinds. Just open and close them. They would let me keep the light turned on in their room and since it faced across the street to the Michaels’ they would come right over if I needed them and gave this signal. But I really didn’t want them to go because I could hardly breathe and it was late at night and everybody else in the house was asleep. Nevertheless, they went.
I climbed back into my bed and tried to go to sleep in my usual position sitting up with pillows piled high behind me since, if I laid down flat, I’d choke and gasp and couldn’t breathe at all. I was often awake all night when I was sick like this, and would fall asleep on and off during the day.
There was something about the absolute quiet of the night when everyone else was asleep that I found very pleasant. But that night it was not pleasant as far as I was concerned. I kept my eyes closed and tried to fall asleep but I just couldn’t. This was probably because being sick three or four times a year with asthma, each bout lasting anywhere from two weeks to three months at a time, was no fun for me; and my father had been so sure that his new contraption was the cure that I wished he’d come back home and try it some more with me, rather than be so easily discouraged by my mother’s disparaging remarks.
His face came floating up to the surface of my mind and I realized I was seeing it as it had been reflected on the smooth amber surface of the fluid inside the retort when I put its beak into my mouth as he had bid me do. For an instant then, I’d seen my own face reflected on the clear glass of the retort while my father’s face (with his day-long growth of black beard) floated below it, -reflected on the fluid. And when I’d moved my eyes in a certain way I’d seen both our faces blended, superimposed one upon the other through the play of light upon the glass with its magical medicine that he hoped could cure me. In any case, he was gone, and the house remained quiet as a tomb for what seemed like hours while I waited for my dad to come back home and help me breathe easier with his new discovery.
At last, I felt like they’d both completely forgotten about me. Breathing became more and more difficult and I felt sad, abandoned, and depressed. Why was it that my brother and sisters could breathe and sleep normally, that all my friends could too, that even my mom and dad could go over to the neighbors and have fun playing cards while I had to stay awake and alone night after night hardly able to breathe ? I felt very sorry for myself, so sorry for myself that I couldn’t bare it anymore, so I got up and went over to the windows to blink the blinds.It was a memorable night; for I sat in that window seat and blinked those blinds forever, but nobody came. At first I didn’t understand why, but eventually I sat gazing through the blinds staring at the Michaels’ dark storefront windows realizing that they were all playing cards in the back of the house and would never see the supposed ‘signal’. But maybe they came to look out and check every once in awhile, so I kept opening and closing the shutters of the blinds, pulling the strings up and down, waiting to see a light come on across the street in the windows of our neighbors’ storefront house. It never happened.
My breathing became thinner and thinner and my self-pity grew deeper until finally I was hardly breathing at all. I had reached a place with my breath that was familiar to me, one in which I hardly moved my lungs but simply kept very still and entered a state of mind in which I experienced myself not to be a person at all, just to be a kind of impersonal witness to the human condition. Anger with my parents for not keeping their word had long since left me and I was aware, once again, that people barely realized each other were real. People forgot each other all the time, just the way Winter came and its coldness killed the flowers and made the leaves abandon the trees to nakedness. No one was moving on the streets outside, and the winter cold was pressing through the glass windows while I stared out into the darkness.
I remember deciding that even though I knew my parents and other people loved me, they would never be able to help me because none of them could remember. It wasn’t just a case of my parents not remembering to look for our mutually agreed upon signal, it was a case of all human beings everywhere forgetting to remember. And what were we to remember ? I finally fell asleep sitting on the window seat trying to remember what it was that none of us could remember.I remember weeks, months, and years of sitting propped up in bed with asthma. I remember going every Saturday for a time to Dr. Gimbel’s office where he would stick me with a needle to keep away the asthma. I remember being told that I was ‘allergic’ to milk, to cheese, to bread, to cats, to dogs, and even to flowers. I must stay away from all these things. I remember being given as medicine the bitterest thing I’d ever tasted. It was a blue-green powder folded up in a paper like a stick of chewing gum. You dissolved it in a spoonful of water and put it in your mouth. When I did that, the sides of my mouth would actually pucker inward, my stomach would convulse and I’d have to spit it up. Still, the doctor said it was the thing to do so my parents did it, -that is, they tried to force me to swallow this stuff. In fact, I think it consisted largely of alum and a bit of copper sulfate. Whatever it was, I positively hated it. One day I finally just said no, I’m not ever going to take that medicine again.
My mother was furious with me and threatened repeatedly that if I didn’t take it before my father came home she’d make sure he forced me to. Whenever my mother became distraught like this, whenever any of us kids wouldn’t do what she said, she’d threaten to sick our father on us, -as if he were a fierce guard dog and she a prison warden. And he’d always do it too, he’d beat us or curse at us and threaten us. They were quite the team, those too! In any case, on that particular day when my father came home she sicked him on me. He made a spoonful of the bitter blue-green gunk and told me to open my mouth and swallow it. I told him I would not. He insisted. I protested. He became very mad and cursed me and threatened to ‘knock my block off’. I said I was never going to take that medicine again and that he ought to listen to me instead of playing ‘tough guy’ for my mother. This, of course, was a very stupid thing to say because it was the truth and my mother was standing in the background egging him on, but I said it anyway and I meant it.
My father brought the metal spoon up to my mouth saying that if I didn’t open it he’d ‘beat the shit’ out of me. I didn’t even open my mouth to answer him because I knew if I did he’d shove the so-called medicine in, so I just glared at him, -mouth tightly sealed. He pushed the spoon between my lips, cut my gums, broke off part of a tooth, and deposited the bitter solution in my mouth. Blood was dripping off my chin, but I didn’t swallow and after a few seconds I spit it all right back into his face yelling at him and my mother that they were both completely crazy, that I’d never take that medicine again even if they killed me. But they’d have to catch me first. I ran out of the house, down the block, through the park, and into the woods where I hid playing till near nightfall when my brother came and found me.
Freddie, my brother, was named after my father. My mother called my father ‘Big Freddie’ and my brother ‘Little Freddie’ and it caught on throughout the whole family, -aunts, uncles, grandmothers and all. Sometimes my brother liked being called little Freddie, but most of the time he hated it. Probably because it was so diminutive. But he had the dark brown skin of my father, the same dark black hair, and the same hazel-brown eyes. So did both my sisters. I was the only child in our family with the pale white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes of my mother. So I was programmed as ‘mommy’s boy’ and my brother was programmed as a smaller version of my father. O, the unending scripts of the Holy Family ! Cloning is nothing more than a technical continuation of the mechanical concept of the family ‘tree’, a diagram of who begot whom and in what order, -a continual perpetuation of the feeble-minded ‘game plan’. (Alas, dear friends, ‘tis true, ‘tis true. But we faeries are here to break that spell and reveal how families are not doing so well!)
My brother, of course, ‘hated’ little mommy-boy’s guts. That was the program. How could he not ? He was only four years old when I came along and my mother had her first and only blond haired, blue eyed child. And I came all wrapped up in the special category of "chronic asthmatic" at birth.
-‘Little Freddie, you must be careful of your poor little brother’, –thusly would my mother speak to him, ‘for he’s not strong like you. He’s your sick little brother and you must watch out for him.’-
Well, at least there was someone littler than little Freddie ! My brother grew up sleeping across the room from me in a matching bed, but of course he rarely got to sleep easily when I had asthma. He had to breathe all the same fumes, listen to my mother’s voice pitying me with sweet talk, and wonder if I was going to live through the night. I think it made him somewhat angry and resentful. I was the ‘special’ one and he was supposed to watch out for me. He did, too, in his own special way…but of that we shall hear more later. Suffice it for now merely to say: we were pitted -each against the other- by decree of the royal, unconscious, (but holy) family tree.
Although my brother was all the time being programmed as a ‘little’ replica of the ‘big’ Fred, our father, and although I was named ominously after the two dead Donalds and programmed as ‘mommy’s boy’… this unconscious programming didn’t really work. Clearly, I was supposed to be frail and sick in constant danger of death, while my brother was supposed to be strong and silent like my father; but this was not exactly a workable hypothesis. I never felt like I was really frail when it came to things that mattered to me while I often felt very sorry for and protective of my older brother who seemed weak in his inability to confront our father. A scene from our shared childhood lingers in my memory which, I think, will help you understand what I mean. It’s a Winter scene that occurred on New Year’s Eve when I was between the ages of six and seven while Freddie was either ten or eleven, and it took place in the kitchen of our new row house at 2704 Harlem Avenue, in the marble city of Baltimore, in the Land of Mary, in the State called Maryland historically named for the Mother of God. She of whom they said, ‘Immaculate Conception’ –the only human being ever born without ‘Original Sin’ !
Our kitchen was divided at that time by a new and temporary wall constructed by my father and my Uncle Jimmy because my mother’s sister, Aunt Grace, together with my uncle and their two small children had moved in with us since they had no place else to go. My brother and I found ourselves in a new bedroom on one side of this wall in the kitchen; it was really small with only enough room for one double bed in which we both slept and, as I say, it was New Year’s Eve and we had been allowed to stay up to ‘welcome in the New Year’ by following the custom in our neighborhood of running out front at midnight to join all our neighbors standing on their marble steps and banging pots and pans together while screaming ‘Happy New Year’ and jumping up and down. (Shades of the ‘aboriginals’ …thought, by anthropologists, to be warding off the great Dragon in the Sky who was about to swallow whole the Sun or the Moon!)
Of course, both of us loved this chance to be wild and noisy and we found it impossible to suddenly be quiet and go to sleep a little later when mom and dad told us to. After all, we were in our big bed together on the other side of the pretend wall in the kitchen where our parents, aunt, and uncle sat smoking cigarettes, talking loudly, drinking beer, and eating pickled herring. The wall didn’t even go all the way up to the ceiling and we had already discovered that if we jumped up and down on the bed like a trampoline we could sometimes bounce up high enough to look right over it. And there was no door into our new bedroom either; you just walked out one end of it right into the kitchen. And furthermore, as if that were not absurd enough, in the ‘pretend’ wall there was actually a glass window which couldn’t open but which did have curtains hanging on it. The upshot of all this was that Freddie and I could hear everything going on in the kitchen and could stand up on the bed and peak through the curtains at the adults eating, drinking, laughing, and having a rousing good time right beside us. So we could not get to sleep and we kept giggling, jumping up and down on the bed, and peaking through the curtained window at the ‘grown-ups’ while mom kept yelling over the wall at us to shut up and go to sleep.I can’t say how long this scene went on, but they kept up their activity on one side of the wall while we continued ours on the other. Repeatedly, my mother yelled at us to keep quiet, settle down, go to sleep etc. but we never did, and so her yelling began to be peppered with threats…‘Shut up and go to sleep OR…this, that, the other’…finally, she resorted to her old standby threat that she’d have our father beat us with his belt. What I remember most emphatically about her behavior that night was the way she goaded my father into acting out her violent impulses for her by manipulating the scene in such a way that he finally felt he had no choice but to do what she threatened he’d do. Her favorite threatening phrase at the time was,
-‘I’ll have your father take his belt to you!’-
So, when Dad rounded the corner of the pretend wall to stand at the foot of our double bed he melodramatically whipped his black leather belt out from around his waist, folded it in half, smacked it with a loud whack against the open palm of his left hand, and said:
-‘Ok, which one of you is gonna get it first?’-
But my brother and I didn’t really take him seriously and we matched his melodrama with our own by ‘screaming’ in pretended fear while giggling and throwing the pillows and covers at him. Our father was not a violent or mean spirited man –though he did have what he called an ‘Irish Temper’; we both knew he was only doing this out of pressure from my mother, so when he tried to grab hold of us we’d squirm, pull away from him, and yell while he lurched this way and that over the bed trying to get a firm grip on one of us.
Feeling slightly ridiculous in his role as ‘the great punisher’, and being a bit tipsy from all the beer he’d undoubtedly consumed, he was not, at first, a very effective threat for he couldn’t catch hold of either of us. And I suspect that it was this feeling of appearing ridiculous before the other adults who were watching, especially mom but particularly Uncle Jimmy (who had been in the U.S.Marines and was rumored among the family to be a ‘tough guy’)…I suspect, as I say, that it was all this that led my father to finally become very focused and intent on whipping us with his belt. He stopped groping toward us, assumed a fixed stance, and declared:
-‘Enough of this. Both you brats deserve a good whipping, and I’m going to give it to you. Neither one of you can get away from me so you might as well stop running and jumping and just settle down. Now, who’s gonna be first. Come on, you boys, take your punishment like real, grown-up men.’-
Personally, I thought this little speech was even funnier than all that had preceded it, but to my amazement, ‘little Freddie’ let ‘big Freddie’ grab him and looked quite scared. He knelt on the end of the bed and pulled his pajamas down just as my father told him to, and then he let dad smack his bare butt with the black leather belt many times till it was bright red and never said a word or uttered a sound. When it was finished, my father actually congratulated my brother for ‘taking it like a man’ and not crying, and I could see that my brother, despite his sore ass, was ‘happy’ to get this ‘compliment’ from dad. I, on the other hand, had no intention of cooperating with my father or allowing him to hit me with his belt. I was furious with him for hitting my brother, and even as he had beat him with his belt I had demanded that he stop. So when he was finished with Freddie and reached out for my hand, I ran down the other end of the bed and yelled,
-‘Don’t you hit me with that belt. It’s not fair, and it’s stupid, and I’ll hate you forever! You get away from me and leave me alone. You’re a bad man!’-But because I was so intent on my father hearing and listening to me, I had come closer to look him in the eye while I spoke, and he took advantage of my proximity to grab hold of me, pull down my pajama pants, and begin smacking me with his belt. I screamed, kicked, jabbed, giggled and kept getting away from him, but he kept just as determinedly pulling me back. I don’t think he succeeded in smacking my butt more than three or four times with his belt, but it hurt anyway and he was able to feel that he had completed his mission before he stopped.
My brother had been quiet while my father attended to me, but after dad went around the unfinished wall back into the kitchen proper, Freddie said to me,
-‘It’s Ok, Don, the sting will go away. He hit me more than you, and I already feel better. Don’t cry, little brother, you’ll be Ok, really!’-
But I was not ‘Ok’, I was furiously angry with both my parents and especially with my father. I climbed down from the bed and followed my father into the kitchen where I stood crying and facing all four of them, -dad, mom, aunt grace, and uncle jimmy. Then, with the dignity natural to all members of the etheric clans of Faerie, I drew myself up to my true stature, wiped away my tears, and pronounced an indictment on the ways of my human family. A sense of the eternal had once again engulfed me and through that sense I was able to imbue my speech with the power and tone of occult truth even though I spoke with the language of an extremely feye five year old boy:
-‘You’, I said to the four of them, ‘are very stupid big people. It’s bad to hit little people and bad things are going to happen to you for what you did. I know you’re not my real mother and father’, said I, turning from direct eye contact with my mother to the same with my father, ‘and don’t you ever hit me again. Or I will wait until you’re asleep at night, and I’ll sneak into the kitchen drawer and get a big knife, and then I’ll come and find you in your bedroom and stick you both till your killed!’-
None of them spoke a word back to me, I looked from eye to eye at each of them in turn, then lifted one foot, pivoted round on the other -turned my back to all of them, and returned to bed with my brother on the other side of the phony kitchen wall.
In a moment or two, the affect of this unexpected appearance and shocking speech wore off; the adults began to talk and move again, but they spoke quietly among themselves of what had just happened, of little Donald and his strange ways. My Aunt Grace knew more than the rest of them concerning the truth of what I’d said, and she tried to talk to them about it, but my brother moved away from me to the other side of the bed saying he didn’t want to sleep with a brother who was a murderer. He never said anything else that night and quickly fell asleep. So much for my ‘big brother’ who was supposed to be programmed to ‘protect’ me !
But I lay awake for hours afterward wondering why it was that during the time my father actually managed to hit me with his leather belt, what I mostly felt was a kind of excitement that he was touching me at all. My parents were not particularly tactile people and although my mother hugged and kissed everybody frequently, she did so lightly, unthinkingly, as if she were a ballerina-puppet, a dry and man-made Coppelia, while my father rarely touched anyone except her.This occasion of his beating me with his strap, -the very first and very last occasion on which he was ever able to hit me, occurred only several months after the time in the backyard when he had tried to tell me I’d made up the Faeries, when he had squeezed my arm so hard that I’d caught a glimpse into the source of his pain;
that night I lay awake thinking how sad it was to be my father, to be a man whose vision stopped abruptly short at the surface of things, to be a man afraid of his own magical feelings, to be a man at all.
Being a man, what was that supposed to mean ? I had no idea. It seemed the same thing as being a woman, it seemed to mean ‘growing up’ and becoming what big people called an ‘adult’. But there were increasingly fewer adults that I liked, and the ones I did like were called ‘old people’ by everybody. My mother, of course, was an adult; but I didn’t really think of her in that way. To me, my mother was a friend and an equal during the first three or four years of my life; it was only later that I began to see she was, indeed, an infamous adult. She spoke with me less and less about the little people or the colorful, musical world in which they lived ...and to which, from time to time over the years spanning my childhood, they continued to invite me.
Nor did I understand that world, why it seemed to suddenly appear and disappear, why it usually faded when adults came onto the scene, why I couldn’t live there always. In fact, at times I would find myself overwhelmed by a very deep yearning for what I used to call the ‘real-true’ world. I felt that I had gotten mixed-up or confused and came ‘by accident’ to this false world I witnessed which surrounded me as a small child.
I’d often ask my mother where my real-true mother was, where my real-true sisters and brothers were. I’d look around me at three and four years old and feel this loneliness, a great sadness seeing that all the light had gone out of things. I’d stop moving, right in the middle of the kitchen, for instance, like a puppet whose strings had just been cut, and ask my mother to please tell me where my real-true family was and how I could find them. My mother would look frustrated, but she’d usually smile at me and ask why I thought that she was not my real mother. Her tone of voice would often convey such genuine love and concern that I’d suddenly feel she was, indeed, my real-true mother just as she’d always said. Then, we’d laugh together and I’d be able to join again right into the family’s life going on around me.But I remember one occasion when I was about four and the whole issue came to a kind of climax. I was asking again those questions concerning the whereabouts of the ‘real-true’ world and my ‘real-true’ family, but this time my mother simply told me that she didn’t know and asked me what I wanted to do about it. I told her I was going to run away because I felt so bad. This scene took place in the kitchen again; it was nighttime and Freddie and Joanie were playing with each other, and my father was out driving his Esso gasoline truck. My mother simply told me that it was dark outside and even if I did run away to find the real-true world I might not get there until the next day.
-‘Meanwhile,’ she said, ‘suppose you get tired and want to lay down and sleep. Where will you find a bed ?’-
I remember her in the kitchen smoking her eternal cigarette, wearing one of her flower-patterned house dresses, standing in her dime-store, pink, cotton-plastic slippers speaking to me:
-‘Well, Donald, don’t you think it’d be nice if you had your own soft pillow to lay your head on ...I mean, just in case you do get tired and feel like sleeping before you get to your real-true world ?’-
I see myself looking up to her face saying, -‘O, yes, mommy, my soft pillow would be nice!’-
-‘Well then, says she, why don’t we go upstairs to your bedroom and get your pillow and your blanket too, so you can take them with you?’-
I was confusedly happy to go with her upstairs to get my things. And when we came back to the kitchen she said to me:
-‘And suppose you get hungry ? You could get hungry, you know. You’re going on a big journey that might take a long time. Don’t you think you might want some food to take with you ?’-
I was glad she thought of this, too, and I said: -‘O, yes...mom...can I bring some food with me ?’-
-‘ Why sure’, says my mom, ‘And what kind of food do you want to take with you? Let’s go look in the ice box and see what we can see.’-
I remember being about three feet tall and looking into the ice box with her. It was pretty dark inside, and I could only see what was on the bottom shelf: big jars of mayonnaise & mustard caught my eye and I reached for them. Mom helped me carry them over to the table.
-‘O, I see,’ says she, ‘ You want to make some sandwiches. Well, okay. I’ll get the bread and knife and we can make you some sandwiches to take with you.’-
And we did make sandwiches together; mom let me spread mayonnaise on the bread and sprinkle it with white sugar. Then we made mustard-bread, too. We wrapped them up in wax paper and put them in a brown paper bag which I began to carry proudly around the kitchen. I picked up my pillow in my other hand, draped my blanket over my left shoulder, and walked about in circles carrying all of them.
-‘Well,’ says my mother, ‘ don’t you want to give me a big kiss before you go?’-
-‘O, yes mommy,’- says I, and we kiss while Freddie and Joan laugh, and Freddie says I’m really dumb. But I go to the backdoor of the kitchen and open it, and I look down the yard into the dark alley. I distinctly remember peering up to the stars and feeling very happy that I was finally going to be free to find the real-true world and my real-true friends; I turned back around to my mother, sister, and brother and told them that when I got home I would send them a message by a bird and they could come to visit me if they wanted to. They all laughed together and waved goodbye to me. Then out I went into the magical night. Such a joyous sense of elation when I closed that door behind me!
It was a wonderful, warm night –perhaps, in early Summer- and I felt the familiar cloak of invisibility gently settle around me while I walked very, very slowly down the yard to the back gate. Carefully, I listened to each of my footsteps so I could feel where they were going. I heard distant dogs barking on the breeze, and listened to the leaves of the huge pear tree rustle across the alley in another yard. When I reached the back yard gate I had to put my bag, blanket, and pillow down so as to press the latch and swing the gate open. In continuous slow-motion I moved into the alley, watching myself lift up and put down each foot in a kind of deliberate, somnolent dance.
The alleyway was lined with smoothly humped stones leading to the red brick gutter that ran down its middle. I was very fond of these rounded, humped, and mica-flecked stones and sat right down on them, my feet folded in front of me in a sort of criss-cross fashion, my pillow and blanket across my legs, my brown paper bag on the stones beside my right hand. There I sat physically unmoving and inwardly very still. Slow, deep, breaths carried my eyes up to the stars again until I could feel we were face to face. I could shine with them, and they could breathe with me.
We breathed together in a harmony of colors, our voices blending through the dark sky holding us all in its’ deep tone. I could feel that tone pulse with the earth’s beat in a calm and comforting song. Fireflies blinked all around as if they were the twinkling stars come down to earth! Then the stars, the night sky, the fireflies and I danced with the dog barks filling the air to the swoon of union in a fragrance of pears. The rounded stones under me actually throbbed, embraced like myself in the melodious arms of comforting night. I was home, -finally home.
Strange, it seemed, to be wearing the long silver hair of an old man sitting before a vast table of clouds. On that table rested a beautiful old book. My fingers, like all the rest of my body, were made of moving fluid lit from within by its own flow. I was writing something in the book, but without any effort at all, -as if the letters simply poured from my fingers, which, as a matter of fact, they did! They swam like fiery salamanders turning this way and that. They shed multifarious skins of many-hued colors in lines that curved like serpentine prisms casting rainbow shapes on the luminous air filling the book. Marvellous!
But stranger than all of this: I could still see myself as little Donald sitting squat-legged in the back alley, eating my mustard bread, my mayonnaise bread, opening and closing the brown paper bag, watching the fireflies thru the waxed paper I held in front of my eyes. I saw Donald slowly dance down the alley, turn the corner, and follow the sidewalk all the way up to his own front door. There he put down his bag, spread his blanket on the pavement, put his pillow on top of it, his head on his pillow, closed his eyes, and went to sleep. He was happy to be home with all the others he could sense moving about him in this queerly familiar scriptorium in the sky.
Next morning, I awoke in my own bed with my brother still asleep in his on the other side of the room. He and my mother had carried me off the front sidewalk and placed me there. Later that day they told me I’d been sleeping like a log the whole time they moved me, and never once opened my eyes. But I spent that day vaguely remembering (on and off) a book I had been writing somewhere as a very old, silver-haired man. I’d catch glimpses of this old man’s right hand holding a curious quill pen, a long feather from some bird’s wing which had the odd characteristic of changing into filaments of light descending like beams from the stars all about him. He was writing with starlight sounding music as it formed in colored inks onto transparent pages. I could hear what he was writing, but I couldn’t read the words. He and his writing kept disappearing from my view while the music of his letters shifted this way and that. At times I found myself pleasantly dizzy, revolving in a rapid vortex of colors where purple and all its’ many hues surrounded me.
But I also found myself, of course, having to do things like put on my clothes, eat breakfast, and talk with everybody in the house as the day’s routine unfolded. There was no point, I knew, in trying to tell anybody around me what I was seeing or thinking about. For one thing, I had no words to describe it at all, and for another...I knew none of these people could hear me.
I don’t recall how one thing led to another, but I do know that at some point that day I discovered myself meandering up the back alley until I was looking thru a kind of black screen mesh of fence into a yard full of flowers. There were tiger lilies, banana lilies, all kinds of day lilies in bloom in that yard; there were red and purple bee-balm blooms and great clumps of white shasta daisies with their deep golden centers glowing. And roses everywhere. Great pink bushes, and dark red ones, and white, saffron, and even lavender ones. Bees were buzzing from bloom to bloom, and graceful monarch butterflies glided among the quick-darting dragonflies alighting momentarily on the petals of this flower or that.
Pigeons cooed from their cages in the yard on the other side of the alley. Their sounds mingled with the whir of so many wings and the smells of so many blooms that a veritable chorus of perfumed humming arose. I began to dimly sense again the presence of the old man from my ‘dreams’ of the night before. The flowers in the garden assumed the shapes of his letters, and I backed away from the black mesh fence instinctively -to get a clearer focus, a larger, more encompassing perspective on the garden seemingly becoming his desk right in front of me.
I focused my eyes on the black grid of the fence, and that’s when I noticed that there were round, silver balls balanced on the tops of the fence posts enclosing the yard. I thought they were beautiful, that the whole yard was beautiful, that it was the most beautiful yard anywhere up or down our alley. And while I was enjoying its’ beauty I saw thru the fence a tall and silver haired woman moving in a long black dress out of her back kitchen door into her garden. Her silver-white hair was wrapped atop her head like a twine of honeysuckle about an abandoned clothesline pole; it twisted and turned this way and that winding its’ way to the top where it rested like a bird’s nest on the very tip of a tree’s sturdy branch. She had a high and wide forehead beneath which her eyes shone like tiny robin’s eggs, only they were translucent blue -changing from azure to green as she looked toward me while she moved. For an instant or two those eyes even flared into a kind of amethyst tint overlaying a turquoise gaze!When her eyelids blinked, the gleams in the blacks of her pupils flashed with the sounds I’d heard among the stars, and I knew right away that this Lady was my friend, one of my own kind. She moved with a gentle and quiet majesty about her person while the silver balls atop the fence posts stood like so many protective sentinels floating in the realm of a noble queen keeping watch over her. She smiled and nodded her notice of me, and as she did so the wrinkled but lustrous skin grew taught and smooth over her high cheek bones momentarily restoring to her a much more youthful look. A great wave of warmth moved back and forth between us causing me to come closer to her fence, to press my nose right up against the black mesh.
-‘Hi, Lady, I said. Who are you ? Your garden is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and look at how many big butterflies come to see you! Can I come in too, and play with your flowers ?’-
She extended her hands toward the gate and I could see all kinds of lights flashing thru the rings fitted on her fingers. Long rows of black cloth buttons lined the sleeves of her dress, and where the sleeves ended at her wrists they did so by gathering themselves into diamond shapes that cuffed her hands. She opened the gate carefully and spoke in a voice filled with tones of playful irony:
-‘Well, let me see about that. And who might you be, little boy ? And why should I let you into my garden ? Are you one of those nasty children around here who reach their fingers thru my fence and break the stems of my flowers ?’-
-‘O, no mam, says I (wondering <oddly> if I might not do just that!). I never saw your garden until today and I would never hurt your flowers!’-
As I finished speaking that sentence I listened to the tones of my own words tumble away into silence on the air leaving behind nothing but the sounds of the pigeons and the bees. I noticed then that I had heard not only the literal words I’d spoken, but even the thoughts that I hadn’t spoken -as if I had, in fact, actually spoken them. And I knew the silver haired Lady all in black had heard the same thing too. Sometimes this happened with my mom, sometimes she could hear and even help me to hear my thoughts, but never before had any one else even come half as close as this Lady did to hearing my thoughts. I felt weirdly uncomfortable about it, and did what I still often do at such times, -I giggled nervously.
-‘Well now there, wee little boy, you seem like a bright and cheerful fellow, so yes, please do feel free to come in. Come into my garden and smell all the lovely roses. Go ahead, stick your nose right inside their petals there and, mind you, -listen to what you smell.’-
I followed her suggestion eagerly smelling rose after rose, and even sniffing the paler scents of the day lilies. Between sniffs, I watched amazed as the butterflies continued to float effortlessly thru the air. But in no time at all, I found myself facing the strangest flower bush I’d ever seen; it had light green leaves somewhat reminiscent of those on a celery stalk, but lighter in shade and finer in texture. All along the innermost stems hung pink, heart-shaped blooms no bigger than the smallest of my fingernails. It was a bush full of heart flowers; I couldn’t believe it! I reached out carefully with the tip of one finger to touch them, and when I moved it gently over them they all swayed on the stem as if they were little church bells ringing. My own heart began to quicken its’ pulse. It filled my whole body with trillions of softly pulsing flowers. I plopped myself down right there and then in front of those flowers, and thanked them for all the deliciously musical joy they gave, and told them how very beautiful they were.The Lady came closer to me and let her left hand quietly rest on my right shoulder. A wonderful smell arose from her long black dress and a nourishing calm from her presence.
-‘And do you know the name of these flowers, my wee little one? Well, let me tell you: they’re called Bleeding Hearts. I can see you like them and so do I ! My name is Miss Pierce. Can you see those little drops falling from the hearts? Well, they’re just like raindrops. And sometimes, in the very early morning, the dew drips off those drops. That’s something to see! But I’ve never seen you before, little one. Do you live on this block, and what might your bonnie name be ?’-
-‘O, my name is Donald Duck, says I. I live right down the alley with all the other funny quacks in my house. We have a lilac bush and even some violets and rose bushes, but they’re not like yours. Our yard is mostly dry dirt ‘cause mom has to hang up all the wet clothes there on the clothesline to dry. And then we have to build all these sticks full of pins in the yard too, so we can stretch mommy’s lace curtains on them. Our yard is never going to be as pretty as yours is.’-
-‘O now, little one, I wouldn’t say that. No, but I think I know who you are, after all; you must be Violet’s grandson. Doesn’t your Grandma live in the corner house ? She sews beautifully, you know; why, I have some of her fine lace doilies on my chairs inside. Well, well, well ...I never....and how is your Grandma these days, is that arthritis still bothering her fingers ? Oh, but you wouldn’t know about that arthritis...’-
But I broke in on her protesting that I did too know about ‘that arthritis’ !
-‘Granny tells me everything, I told the Lady. Granny says her fingers just get tired from all her sewing. She’s got herself a big bottle of stuff she calls Witch Hazel, and she’s rubbing it all over her fingers and they’re getting well! Are you a Witch, Lady ?-
-‘Well, let me see, says she, smiling with playful mystery. Some people, I’m sure, think I’m a Witch, and a mean one at that. What do you think ? Suppose I invite you to step into my house, will you come ? Or do you think I’ll cook you in my oven like Hansel & Gretel ?’
-‘I’m not afraid of you, I said, I like Witches! Can you make Witch Hazel for me and I can give it to Granny ? She says she needs a lot of that Witch Hazel stuff ‘cause her fingers hurt a lot. And I could take it to her. Granny’s just like you, she tries to scare me too. Do you know what she said ? She told me the Devil was hiding in her closet and he’d come and get me if I didn’t go to sleep. But you know what ? I got right up out of bed from her and walked over to her closet and opened it. And guess what ? There was no Devil in there. But then she told me that Jack Frost was under the bed and if I didn’t jump right in with her right now he’d grab my toes and freeze them off, but I crawled right under the bed and there was no Jack Frost just dusty boxes. I’m not afraid of anything. Just maybe a little bit, …sometimes... sometimes, when it’s dark and I can’t find anybody.’--‘Well, you know what I think, my brave little wee one ? I think you should come inside my house with me. It’s not as bright in there as it is here in the garden, but I have some chocolate chip cookies and some cold milk I bet you’d like, and we can take our little chat in there where I can sit down. Oh yes, and you, little Donald Duck can see some of your Granny’s sewing. She’s made an embroidery piece for me full of pink roses and green leaves for my table. Mind you don’t spill your milk on it though; if I let you come in you must promise me you’ll be careful. Can you do that ?’-
Of course I could, I liked this lady and her garden. And I liked her long black dress and her voice. I was sure I’d like anything else that might be in her house. But, until I’d agreed to come inside with her I hadn’t noticed the cane she leaned on; it had a shiny silver ball at the top just like her fence posts. As we walked thru her back door I looked down at her cane and could see it was made all out of dark, black wood except for its’ silver top. It fascinated me. Somehow it reminded me of the quill in my own hand the night before. It seemed to be walking by itself, and just letting Miss Pierce rest her hand on the silver knob of its’ head. It seemed to be leading her into the house. I really wanted to play with it, I wanted to lean on it and walk with it. It was very different from my own Grandma’s cane, but I couldn’t say why.
It seemed natural somehow that Miss Pierce should know what I was thinking, -so it came as no particular surprise to me that after she led us into her living room (never even stopping when we went thru the kitchen past the cookie jar and the ice box) and seated herself comfortably in a big, wing-back chair, she smiled broadly my way and said:
-‘So, you like my Walking Stick, do you ? I do too; it helps me get around. It’s not a plaything or a toy, but I’ll let you hold it if you want, -as long as you promise me you’ll be careful with it, and not swing it around in the air or knock anything over. Is that a bargain ?’-
I agreed to be very careful with her cane as she passed it to me. I asked her why she called her cane a ‘Walking Stick’ because all the old people I knew, including Granny, called these things canes. She told me she couldn’t speak for others, but as far as she was concerned a cane was like a crutch and implied that if you used it you were sick or hurt and might soon be hobbling helplessly to your grave. But a Walking Stick was a friend and a familiar. A Walking Stick looked out for you and sometimes even made sure you’d go where you needed to go even if you didn’t know where that was.
-‘My brother Louis found this walking stick for me, years ago back home in Carolina; he whittled its’ stems off very carefully and made it all smooth the way you see it now. But its’ color is changed; this Stick here is a Willow branch, don’t you know. But over the years, -and it’s been...let’s see...Oh, close on to fifty years now, what with all the oils I’ve rubbed on it and the passage of time...why, it’s grown dark like this, almost black. But it’s still a sturdy branch from a good tree who’ll stand by you the way good trees do.’-
And as Miss Pierce went on talking I found myself drifting away from her actual words which receded into the background becoming nothing more than a kind of plain chant, while I gazed obliquely at the Walking Stick which seemed to come to life in my hands. I was walking over low-rolling hills in long brown robes hurrying to a meeting place ahead in the dense forest. My Walking Stick was guiding and protecting me, its’ silver knob fading in and out of focus as it changed from metal to some sort of translucent green stone glowing within the sphere of its’ own pulsations. I could almost feel the urgency in my step and a sense of intent purpose impelling me onward while I tried to gather my thoughts and not stumble over any of the heavy stones in my path. Then, inexplicably, there was no Walking Stick in my hand but simply the slender quill I’d held the previous night when I was an old, and silver-haired fellow writing in a book of stars. But I was not that old fellow any more, I was just Donald holding a cane and sitting on the couch in the living room of Miss Pierce.
-‘Surely boy, you’re a true wee one by the look of you and the way your eyes have gone off there. Tell me, do you hear me now? Have you heard a word I’ve been saying? ... Yes, yes I see; ...well now you seem to be back with us, and back with yourself, too. So I think it’s time you should be getting on home. And don’t you be forgetting to tell your Grandma that Miss Pierce, up the block, says hello to her –will you now?’-
But I was ablaze with questions, and still wrapped in a kind of confusing awe. I didn’t want to leave Miss Pierce’s house, and I certainly didn’t want to let go of her cane. Besides, I never did have any cookies or milk, I never did find out if she could make me a bottle of Witch Hazel to give to Granny, and I never got to tell her about how her Walking Stick used to be mine. Yet I know now, looking back thru all these years, that she could read my heart and knew the thoughts I was thinking, for she sent me home with kind words which gave me a glimmer of feeling for who I really am:
-‘I’ll be taking my Walking Stick back from you now, but don’t you fret over it, my boy. You’re a bit too small this very minute, but someday -not too far from right now- you’ll be wondering in the Wood and the limb you need will catch your eye. Then you’ll have yourself a Stick, and a Grand One too, I’m sure it’ll be! Why, a clever imp like you will need your own Walking Stick...to catch up with the Stars! ... You can come back and see me another time, my wee friend Mr. Donald Duck, we’ll have those cookies and milk then. And I’ll show you the witch hazel shrub growing in my garden, and I’ll show you its tiny yellow blooms. But I’m not the clever Witch you think I am, I’m only a Widow Lady living here by myself, and you know, ...well, it takes a whole lot of work to turn that bush and its’ tiny flowers into the kind of Witch Hazel that your Grandma Violet wants.’-
I don’t remember how many times I visited Miss Pierce after that day, but I visited her a lot in the next year or so. I liked it when grown ups talked with me seriously as an equal, and Miss Pierce always did that. But she happened to live right next door to Louis McGuigan and his older sister, Cynthia, both of whom I met about a year later when I started going to school, and once I came to know the two of them I hardly ever visited Miss Pierce again except on rare occasions. It seems to me that she died a few years after I met her and no one ever spoke much of her after that.But I recall her now, so many years later; I recall her in the context of fishing thru my memory to catch the answer to the question I ask myself: What is a man ?
A man, I think, is just what Miss Pierce was. A man is a person alive with a sense of awe and a love of Tales. A man can be a woman or a man... once he lives the open secret she tells him. In fact, unless a woman is a man, and a man is a woman, and unless they each know that truth in their own weird way, the ‘World’ –as we know it can never come to rights. A man and a woman are a riddle in one, a mythical beast, and only when they weave their threads together can the fabulous tapestry of the Unicorn be born. I am a man and a woman, as I suppose you know you are too; we dance the horned and spiral dance that turns us inside out. I can see Miss Pierce singing it, I can hear it in her Walking Stick:
it’s the sound of the spiral, it’s the sound
of the horn, it’s the song we were singing
before we were born. And that means:
U-ni-corn, U-ni-corn, U-ni-corn
And that means one
and that means one
and that means
Love ! ’
Miss Pierce, I’m sure, came back into memory and this Tale to tell us just that. Don’t you think it’s odd...her name, I mean? Do you think I made it up? I assure you I didn’t. Do you think the Unicorn is just a myth? I assure you equally that it’s not; it’s a concrete manifestation of yearning. Miss Pierce walked into our lives bearing her name for a purpose; she’s just like one of those pioneering probes we’ve sent out beyond the planet Pluto.
She brings her name engraved as a song in her silver hair, as a comet in her garden of butterflies, as the signature of her Walking Stick pacing up and down, sounding in this book to remind us of the ever ongoing search in which we are actively engaged: to determine, to find out whether there might not actually be signs (symbols, significators, signatures, omens) of intelligent life in us and our Universe! She could penetrate the secrets of things with ease, and a fearlessness we’d all be wise to match: hearing the silence that surrounds us, probing in the book of the bones, penetrating the mask of evasive words that obscures the light of our doings. Each of us has our own Miss Pierce somewhere in the past of our childhoods, don’t we? She beckons to us from the far shore of memory calling us home, urgently rousing us from that amnesia that surrounds our childhood like a fog, demanding that we face our fears, stanching the wounds of our hearts, awakening us from the numbing grip of ‘reality’.
And just what is this thing, ‘Reality’ ? Why, don’t you know, -it’s the mystical handmaiden of that other Moloch called ‘Reason’, -the heavy hippopotamus of the brain. And where does it come from ? Well, as I’ve tried to indicate, it’s primary, initial proponent in my life was my Father, the would-be ‘Man of Reason’. But it’s the perpetual plaything of all Kings, Presidents, Popes, Priests, and Chief Executive Officers on the planet!
‘Reality’ is a sober, shrewd, and learned thing. And where do they send us children so that we might partake of the blessings of this holy ‘elixir of life’? Why, to school, of course. School, where we can learn how to swim reasonably with the other fishes darting in and out of the waters of feeling, ever watchful of those bigger, treacherous fish who might at any minute swallow us whole! School, where we learn all about how it’s a fish eat fish (and ‘dog eat dog’) world...‘out there’! School, where the importance of the ‘out there’ is indelibly imprinted on every fiber of our recalcitrant being. Yes, I’m afraid we’ve all been schooled in the lessons of ‘Reality’ ...reading and writing and rythmatic, taught to the tune of the money schtick. It’s real, you can bank on it, fish do eat fish. Don’t they ?
Donald, of course, profited from his schooling. I’m almost sure of it; witness the fact that he can now define for you the true nature of the infamous ‘mustard plaster’ which, as a child, he was so certain had killed his namesake, ‘little brother’: a mustard plaster is a kind of poultice made as a paste of mustard, flour, and cold water applied to cloth.
Simple. No intrigue, no intrusive or inflamed imagination leading to murder. Ah, yes, -schooling, one of those tricks of reason which strips people and things away from the feeling of imagination and renders them as ‘Real’.
In ‘real life’, he was attending grade school when Donald learned that ‘little brother’ died because of inflamed appendix which the doctor incorrectly diagnosed. It wasn’t the fabled ‘raw sauerkraut’ that did him in; it was the poisonous toxins which spread throughout his system from his ruptured appendix. Clear, succinct, logical: A-B-C, 1-2-3!
Well, perhaps, ...but I warn you: he still eats sauerkraut, and he’s studied the Notes From The Underground, too; two and fourteen can add up to seven in the book of his life, and seven and two can produce a hermit. Or a Princely Fool! Like Mr. Dostoyevsky, he’s a man fond of an old-fashioned Idiot. He’s both a Fool and a gambler; so school was definitely not his ‘cup of tea’, but it’s better, perhaps, than his interminable counting of these bones.
Let’s be off to school together with him, fellow fishes, let’s go (if you will) by way of the rousing words he heard repeated on sonic waves almost every night while he studied; the inflammatory words emitted by the radio on the bedroom floor, the words that introduced the Masked Man and his faithful Indian companion,Tonto:
‘Return with us now,
to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
The Lone Ranger
...upon the resurrected apple of the Wicked Witch Eve, that apple so carefully placed on the trusting head of his guileless son by one ‘William Tell’ who, in turn, pointed his true Swiss arrow directly at it and sent it singing on its’ targeted way to the music of Rossini’s un-comic overture! Let’s press earnestly onward to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the name-dropping, footnoting joys of learning and scholarship! Bring your notebooks, gather your pencils, pens, or quills. Turn your back on Gnosis; for behold, Thoth, the Great God of Learning and Letters is watching us, he’s making a list and checking it twice. That sack on his back is full of numinous presents. He brings us tricks, books, silver bullets, and bibles; fingers the synapses of our brains, fires his abstruse hieroglyphics there, they buzz and hum like ELF waves all wrapped up in Christmas bows: -ornate tranquilizers, fond memories, feeble attempts at crimson and purple palimpsests!
The Book of Learning
because the heavens hang
full of fiddles; Guttenberg
turns to iron in the black
broken book smiles
the youth’s magic horn
blows green thru the holes; rust
peels off windows where the scarecrow sits
telling snowmen all about life under the ocean
floor. And that is not unrelated
to the beginning of your bones in the middle
of ponds: enameled pavilions
sent to support whatever rots
when the eye blinks; and it blinks
all the time. I, for example, find myself
going to sea on a boat with your tongue
grafted to my ear. Father
Island. So i tell you
that you never forget are only what you want
to hear: eclipse of
coming thru the walls. All
we have to do is watchout for the fatboy guard
with his book of rules, and his gun. There is
a dark place
where trees grow downward; flowers
blossom out of it; water
Literally hundreds of boys and girls, all garbed in uniforms of navy blue and white, packed together on the streets of one city block, yet running, jumping, talking, and yelling, -somehow, all at once. A wild, if uniformed, crowd milling about on the asphalt street between the towering granite blocks of Saint Edward’s Catholic School on one side, and the row of equally uniformed brick houses dressed in marble steps on the opposite. So many kids, ranging in age from six to fourteen years, pressed close together, supposedly ‘playing’. And here and there moving among them, women in long black veils and dresses wearing huge strands of beads from the ends of which dangle crucifixes the size of your hand. Nuns, the Holy Sisters, whose pale faces stared rather frantically out from the stiffly starched white linen that framed them. All these people perfect strangers to me. I was terrified, and in no mood to move among them.
My mother and my sister Joan each held one of my hands, they were insisting that I was a big boy now and had to go to school. That’s what they were telling me all the while we walked to Saint Edwards; but nothing could have prepared me for this massive assault on my senses! I screamed and cried and begged them not to make me stay there, but my mother insisted saying that Joanie would watch out for me while she, herself, turned and walked away home. I was totally traumatized. I had been tricked, once again, and lied to by my mom. She never said it would be anything like this!
Mom disappeared but Joanie dragged me by the hand, tears streaming down my face, deeper into the mob. She was an eighth grader, while I was just beginning school in first grade; she was in no mood to have to pull me weeping and protesting through this crowd when, at any moment, she might happen upon one of her eighth grade ‘boyfriends’. She tugged me right into the presence of Sister Mary Bernadette, told the Nun and I each other’s names, and begged ‘Sister’ to take me, her crying little brother, off her hands.
I recall almost nothing of whatever Sister Mary Bernadette may have said to me, just that she was not smiling and radiated a kind of impenetrable irritability. I remember that she was a none, and that she told me I would be in her classroom; the next thing I knew this horrible metallic clang was sounding repulsively, and ‘Sister’ was arranging myself and about forty other kids into a single file line. All about us the mob was busy assuming a similar order until at last the street and sidewalks on both sides were full of single-file-lines of boys and girls with an Immaculate Heart Of Mary Nun at the head of each line clapping her hands, belligerently demanding silence.
Within minutes that silence fell all over the street; and then Sister Mary Bernadette led me and my single file line up the steps and through the doors of the school. We climbed two sets of stairs past puke green walls until we reached a great open hallway with wooden doors every fifty feet or so down each side. Sister led us through the door that had a silver letter ‘A’ over it with a smaller number ‘1’ below it on the right side. I entered the room of nothing, led there by a none to begin the process of lobotomy that would teach me I was a number, -just one of everyone or no one at all.
-‘Welcome, boys and girls, to your new classroom. Everybody just come on in, now. Sit down in any seat you like until I can get us all neatly arranged and teach you the roll call. Come on, hurry up now. That’s right, that’s it...’
Everybody seemed as terrified as I was; we were looking at each other with nervous eyes, and shyly, hesitantly, seating ourselves. I don’t know about the others, but I had never seen seats like these. They were more like dark-stained wooden benches screwed into the floor, and in front of each ‘seat’ was an iron frame with a wooden, darkly stained and lacquered tabletop affixed to it. There was a perfectly round hole cut into each tabletop at the upper right hand corner, and a little, horizontal groove running across the middle of each one too. Within minutes all of us kids were sticking our hands down the holes which we would later learn were called ‘inkwells’, -intended to hold bottles of ink for fountain pens we would not be expected to use until fifth grade!
Once she had us all in the room and seated, Sister Mary Bernadette grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door closed tight behind her, spinning around and facing us as she did so, -her dark gown billowing out dramatically behind her, looking for all the world like a great, Black Lioness in a Roman Arena ready to attack and eat her prey for the satisfaction of some invisible audience and, of course, the edification of ‘God’! It was the kind of dramatic movement you see in Opera, the kind of abrupt turn Tosca performs when she spins around, letter opener in hand, and stabs the beast Scarpia through the heart! Muori, dannato, muori, muori, muori!
But there was no letter opener in Sister Mary Bernadette’s hand, merely a long, wooden yardstick which she brandished this way and that while pacing back and forth at the front of the room back-lit by oddly glaring light bouncing off the heavy, slate blackboards:
-‘Alright now, girls and boys, I want you all to stand up next to your seats and place your right hands over your hearts. Good, now I want you to face the flag hanging on the wall over there (she gestured with her yardstick to the left front of the room, over by a row of huge glass windows which opened above the street), and now I want you to repeat after me...’
But she had to stop because we were confused, turning around this way and that, still wearing our coats and hats, asking each other where the flag was, what a flag was, and when would we get to go home. This frustrated and angered Sister Mary Bernadette so much that she swooped down upon us -grabbing one of us here and one of us there, placing our right hands over our hearts, and turning our bodies toward the flag. Once she had us all in place she told us again to repeat after her as she began: alright now, children…-‘I pledge allegiance...’
It was actually very funny when I think back on it because very few of us had ever heard of this ‘Pledge of Allegiance’; while one kid was saying ...-‘I sludged a pea once’, another was saying ...-‘I bet of me tonks’...and on and on in a cacophonous round of childish variations ending with a phrase that sounded suspiciously like ... -‘With Fibber McGee and Puss on us all’-.
Oh well, the year was 1948 and we all knew Fibber McGee and his wife, Molly, because they were heard on that new invention, the RADIO, found in almost all our homes. Suffice it to say we massacred the pledge of allegiance. But as soon as that was over with we were given another chance; this time we were to pledge our allegiance to God!
Sister Mary Bernadette tried to lead us all in reciting what she at first called the ‘Pater Noster’, but then explained was the ‘Our Father’ in English. Many, if not most of the kids, knew it and recited it along with her, but I and a smattering of others had clearly never heard of this thing.
I suppose I should explain that although my mother insisted on sending all her children to Catholic School, and although she considered herself a Catholic she rarely ever entered a church. And when she sometimes prayed with me, she mostly made up the prayers differently every time; even though she had taught me to sing the ‘Ave Maria’ (in Latin ((can you believe it !)) with her) and to recite the ‘Hail Mary’, I had never learned or memorized this ‘Our Father’ thing.
In fact, my mother called Jesus ‘God’ and told me that Mary was his Mother; so without really thinking about it, I kind of assumed that Mary was ‘God’ too, -after all, she was his Mother! We had pictures of her around our house in which she wore pretty blue and white dresses with light pouring from her outstretched hands while she stood barefoot on a snake. She wore a crown of stars on her head too, something like the crown of flowers my Aunt Pearl wore in her wedding picture, and I thought of her as the Queen of the Faeries, just as I thought of Aunt Pearl that way. I can’t remember having heard anything of this ‘God’ who was our ‘Father’. We certainly didn’t have any of his pictures around our house.But his son, Jesus, was all over the place -mostly nailed on a cross with blood dripping from his hands and feet, and a bunch of sticker bushes stuck on his head. Drops of blood even dripped down his face where big thorns stuck into him. I thought he died and went to Heaven where he was busy playing with other dead people. But his Mother Mary was around somewhere and very much alive because my Mom, and my Aunt Pearl and Granny were always talking to her right out loud. Anyone of them was likely to say something such as,
-‘Holy Mother of God, save us!’ Or, -‘Holy Mary, Mother of God!’
But my mom’s personal favorite seemed to be,
-‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!’
She’d always say that one with extreme frustration, she’d spit it out on the air like Maria Callas playing Medea:
-‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! If you brats don’t shut up, I’ll blow my brains out!’...or...-‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! What did I ever do to deserve these kids!’-
Rest assured, fellow fishes, it wasn’t long before I was saying to myself:
-‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! What did I ever do to deserve this school!’
Of course, Sister Mary Bernadette was there to explain to me and all my classmates in no uncertain terms just what it was we had done to deserve school, -we had been born with ‘Original Sin’. Adam and Eve, our first parents, had disobeyed ‘God’, they had committed the ghastly sin of eating an apple, and he had thrown them out of ‘The Garden Of Paradise’. They could never get back in either because he (Oops, ‘He’, you must always capitalize the pronoun that refers to ‘God’ !) had posted the Archangel Michael at the entrance gates holding a flaming sword to keep them out!
Just about every kid in the class had the same response to this news: UNFAIR! But few of them dared to express their outrage because by the time our ‘Original Sin’ was being explained to us we had already succumbed to the daily rigid ritual of sitting in the same row seats nailed to the floor, repeating the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning, reciting ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ on cue, and remembering always to hang up our coats and hats on the same numbered hooks in the ‘cloakroom’! Holy Regimentation, Batman!
Prior to my first day in Catholic School there had been no feeling of regimentation, no strict daily routine in my life. My mother was far too ‘scattered’ a person to impose any such routine on herself or any of her children. Our household did not function with tasks assigned to each of her four children by our mother, nor did we ever receive ‘allowances’. Our home was a rather bohemian hangout operating under very loose guidelines; all my cousins loved visiting us because in our home whatever happened just happened. Cousin Shirley, whose parents were obsessed with rules and schedules and ‘proper’ ways to do everything, loved to escape to visit ‘Aunt Dotsie’s’ because at our place she could bang on the old upright piano to her heart’s content. Mom loved it. She’d get Shirley to play all the old songs she liked so she could sing along, and she’d usually end up getting everybody else in the house in on these sing-alongs! If you wanted to have fun, all you had to do was get over to Aunt Dotsie’s house on a weekday or night when Uncle Freddie wasn’t home, and you could pretty much do whatever you liked. It was a regular kind of :
-Roll out the barrels, we’ll have a barrel of fun... sort of place!
Even suppertime was a loose thing; it could occur anywhere from five to nine in the evening. Breakfast was mostly a ‘catch-as-catch-can’ arrangement unless it was a Saturday or a Sunday morning when dad was home, and then we all ate together huge breakfasts of eggs, bacon, scrapple, fried tomatoes, toast, sausages, fried apples, fried bread, gobs of food! All us kids knew that this kind of Big Banquet Breakfast was staged by Mom so that Dad could sit ‘at the head of the table’ on the weekends and hold forth with his views, whatever they might happen to be at the time.
I suppose the point in all this is that our father was usually invisible just like ‘God, the Father’. His trucking schedule kept him working so much and at such offbeat hours that we usually saw him only on weekends. We just knew that he paid for everything, that he made our lives possible, and that we should never upset him. We knew this because Mom pounded it into our skulls: -‘Your Father loves you,’- was a phrase frequently on her lips whenever any of us asked why he was so grouchy, or why he rarely spoke with us except to tell us about something we did wrong, or why he so frequently called each of us ‘stupid’. Dad, our Father, wanted our household to operate on some sort of schedule, routine, or with ‘Order’; but Mom was a creature in love with Chaos & Chance.
School was synonymous with ‘Pater Noster’, ‘God, The Father’, order and routine. God, our father, seemed to love his rules rather than the people he was supposed to have created. He threw them out of paradise because they broke his rules. And the ‘Sisters’ who taught us in school acted the same way; what they wanted from us was routine, order, and the following of rules. Rote learning; ritual learning; memorization.
Every school day began with pledges to the flag and prayers to the god. The very first ‘lesson’ of the day was Religion. We were being taught the Roman Catholic Religion, the ONE, TRUE Religion! And we learned it by way of a book called ‘The Baltimore Catechism’. It was weird and utterly idiotic; it contradicted itself repeatedly. But the nuns didn’t care; they didn’t even notice. All they wanted us to do was to memorize the questions and give the ‘right’ answers:
Question: Who made me ?
Answer: God made me.
Question: Why did God make me ?
Answer: God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve
him in this life so that I may be happy with him in the next.
It was simple, it was obvious, there were no questions to be asked. Just memorize the TRUTH!
Oh, and he has his Angels watching over us; each person has his or her Guardian Angel. And we know this, they tell us (rattling our chains) because of the 'Holy Cards' they show us that ‘prove’ it: a little boy & girl walking hand in hand, carrying a basket of flowers between them, treading the half-broken planks of a rustic wooden bridge strung over a sharp chasm beneath them. A steep waterfall tumbling rapidly downward. O, Danger; O Fear!
Alas, look; -the sheltering, wide-spread wings of the Guardian Angels
floating, hovering as figures of LIGHT, as heavenly
UFOs above, behind, and beyond them!
[ Angel of God, my Guardian Dear,
to whom His love entrusts me here,
ever this day be at my side,
to watch and guard to rule and guide.]
Repetition, memorization, regimentation.
Choirs of little Altar boys, Angel boys; -ringing the bells for Father Fortenbaugh, for Father Murphy, for Father Tom at every Daily MASS; carrying the crystal cruets of water & wine, up & down the marble steps to the Altar, genuflecting, bending as we go back & forth in service to GOD!!!!
O, the delicious rapture of it all, Jesus, crucified
on a Cross, (not a weave) of tree-wood….
cut down, axed, (where were the Forest Guardians then ?)
spiked nails piercing his hands & feet; the pure white Lamb
sacrificed on the Altar of our Sins, the Great World Wars I & II,
Hosanna In Excelsis <trumpets blazing, beautiful, billowing brass notes>
Berlioz, Tschaikovsky <real cannons fired in the overture!>
Verdi, Missa De Requiem, Grand Messe de Mort,
<days of death & terror, Final Judgements>
–Angels of the Apocalypse; dies irae, dies illa
<those old trumpets again echoing again off ETERNITY!>
HELL just around the corner, sulfurous smoke, mustard gas,
SATAN leering thru his fire, his hoof held up, his tail
CHRISTOS, SAVIOUR, HOLY CRUCIFIED ONE,
sighted on a Cross, bleeding on a Cross-piece, bayoneted at the end of his own
father’s heavenly Rifle, a loose jockstrap masking his male organs; genitalia, GENESIS,
the STORK brings you, (Dumbo!) the WORD, the HOLY BOOK.
This is the really scary Movie; BELL, BOOK, and CANDLE
…Betty Grable, (Sanctus, sanctus) … Rosy the Riveter (Rosicrucians)
…A ritual mass (destruction) celebrated as THE BELLS OF SAINT MARY’S,
Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding- Bing Crosby as crooner Priest (Irish, Celtic, Gothic)
Ingrid Bergman as the singing Nun (Hebrew, Nun-Fish) found ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’
where ( Come on, sing along! ) …‘I’d Like To Get You On A Slow Boat To China’; Nippon, JAPS
bombing PEARL HARBOR; kamikaze suicide dives.
GONE WITH THE WIND, caught up in the spirit of things, the tornado of the Times,
the right hand doesn’t even know what the left hand is doing, ‘Oh, Fiddle-dee-dee!
-I’ll think about that tomorrow, there’s always Tomorrow, tomorrow is another day…’
But There Is No Tomorrow, Miss Scarlet, -when Uncle Sam Wants You, -poking his bony finger
from the Public Posters, red, white, and blue Top Hat, Stars & Stripes Forever, I Pledge Allegiance,
to God and my Country, no greater love has anyman than this: that he lay down his life for another;
SACRIFICE. Donald Greevey, -scared (juxtapose a single letter, sacred )
frightened, scarred, (Navajo code breakers) the Holy Mystical Grail, the Body and Blood of God
captured in a circle, cupped in a Chalice, held aloft by the tips of the fingers, a pure
white wafer, O the Monstrance (of it all!)
displaying itself in filigrees of golden greed, Steel & Oil, (hear the register ring)
International Arms Dealers, Esso Standard Oil, …my father works for the Rockefellers,
-‘Hey boy, buzz-off, I Must Go About My Father’s Business’ –
empty words intoned daily by petty Hitlers, fascistic Mussollinis, holy Hirihitos. Empires of the SUN crucified once again by that very same word, FATHER (forgive them for they know not what they do) …or do they ?
(Franklin Delano Roosevelt) good old FDR with whom they insist on doing a New Deal,
business as usual, a regular Holocaust, bloody concentration camps born of
concentration cramps (it’s a bull’s market) consecrated to the
perpetual re-enactment of mystifying money games, just
the old ‘supply & demand’ scenario.
Technological expertise climbing to new heights on the winds of
‘The Spirit of the Times’. The Zeitgeist demands invisible
RADAR DETECTION, ( O yes, Mr. & Mrs. Slaughterhouse,
here comes your future microwave oven right now ! )
Consumer deflection shields; Superman bursts out of the Comic Books and flies over Germany.
UBERMENSCH, the URFAUST, the ICE MAN COMETH, commie pinko queers dancing into Dachau
to die with the Jews, gassed by the pure breed, the holy ones, the white-skinned, blue-eyed,
blondes (O shit, that’s me!) breeding the pure race (running the good race) clever cloning
copy cats. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Hot and holy Angels, indeed!
O, Sanctus!Outside of school we kids made up names for everything, and told each other endlessly ongoing lines to a kind of lilting limerick repeated by us like lemmings clowning on the cliffs of the postwar city streets:
" ‘Twas Midnight on the Ocean,
not a horse cart was in sight,
so I stepped into a cigar store
to ask them for a light.
The Man behind the counter
was a Woman old and gray,
who used to peddle doughnuts,
on the road to Mandalay.
She said –Good Evening Stranger,
her eyes were dry with tears,
she stuck her head beneath her foot,
and stood that way for years.
Her children all were orphans,
but one –a tiny tot,
who had a home across the street,
above a vacant lot…"
Every day School was all about the Original Sin known as doubt…
-‘But Sister, I know there can’t be a Hell, because God is really Good, and I’d never make a Hell, and I’m not anywhere near as good as God!’- (Poor child, he’s fallen into that Gnostic Heresy!)
Sister Mary Bernadette, her face screwed up in a red rage racing down the aisle to grab some unfortunate boy by the ears and shake his head up & down, -good & bad because of a WORD, spoken or unspoken: damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. And if you don’t you’d better go to see Father in the confessional so he can forgive you this Sin, you naughty boy, you nasty boy, you know exactly what I mean, and don’t you sit there with that Smug look on your Face trying to tell me you don’t! Whack!
Whoever you were, you hung your head down in proper shame, you shrugged your shoulders, admitted you were WRONG and begged forgiveness, -on your knees publicly every Friday when you had to make the ‘Stations of the Cross’! Yes, a formulaic drone of crippling mea culpas:
-‘I confess to Almighty God, and to you, FATHER that I have sinned, it has been one week since my last confession and these are my sins…’-
Yep, that sure sounds like DAD, alright -THE FATHER, THE SON, THE HOLY GHOST;
THREE PERSONS IN ONE GOD! Ah, the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Tell me,
which shell is the pea under ?
Crap games, the big gamble, the Big Picture, Corporate America, Rome and the Catholic Godfather, Pater Noster, all our godfathers…the Pope, Orson Wells and Big Brother. The War of the Words, The War Of The Worlds, the Great World War II, the continuous WAR TO END ALL WARS; final defeat of the evil enemy. Satan. Hitler may be the Anti-Christ, but soon he’ll be gone and we’ll need another one –Chairman Mao, Saddam Hussein!
Hell, when you get over the rainbow just cry me a river ‘cause nobody loves you when you’re down and out. Except the Baby Jesus, away in a manger, no straw for his head.
The Birth of the Mystic Bomb, the ATOMIC BOMB, at Trinity Site, (-O batter my heart, Three Personed God!)
the ‘Christy’ Bomb immaculately conceived (yippee! just like me!), a good
Catholic Boy, a good Jewish Boy, a good
Buddhist Boy, a good ...
American -French -Italian-Japanese-German-Australian Boy ....
the Super Bomb ‘Big Boy’, the other Super Bomb ‘Little Boy’, -the newest kids on the block,
Big Bangs, The Second Coming, Born on the Fourth Of July, Ron Kovic & Jimmy Cagney
-Oh, I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Yankee Doodle Do Or Die-
Hail Columbia, Seig Heil, Amen, brothers and sisters, can you say Amen never again ?
So be it, Kate Smith sings when the Moon comes over the Mountain. God
Blesses America, and Betty Crocker knows how to cook it faster, better,
with less strain on your nerves already increasingly occupied by the
radio, the movies, the radar. Meet Mr. Ajax, the foaming cleanser,
and wash that dirt right down the drain. Sleeves rolled up and
ready to bat, it’s Babe Ruth, Mr. Baseball, Superman again,
secretly crippled by Kriptonite. Radiation, invisible
from Hiroshima, from Nagasaki, from Trinity Site at Mockingbird Gap,
the Journado del Muerto, the Valley of Death, New Mexico, U.S.A.,
the hangover from the psychic strain of trying so hard to be
perfect …in secret, encrypted codes just like
HAMMURABI, just like ‘GOD’! Jumping
JEHOVAH, the TOWER OF BABEL,
the Confusion of Tongues.
Dance, boy, dance;
the six shooter of Sexy John Wayne, the Golem,
the building of THE PENTAGON:
–‘That Old Black Magic has me in it’s Spell, that Old Black Magic that I know so well.’-
PACHAD, a room with no windows and only one door, the cunning of SECRECY, the Frankenstein of Fear, workings of the Lords of Karma, the Midnight Ride of the Valkyries, Götterdamerung –Twilight Of The Gods tumbling down through the fiery ovens of Buchenwald, Geburah, -the circle of SEVERITY!
But hey now, slow down there, Little Cowboy, you sound suspiciously like that Lone Ranger galloping off as the Masked Faerie filthy Lenny Bruce claimed he was. Shot like Quaker Oats out of a cannon far away from where you left us in First Grade. Whatever happened to Sister Mary Bernadette ? Did she stab Scarpia ? You’re confusing me here, you must have attended First Grade when you were six years old… back in 1948.
Are you crazy, or just speaking with forked and frenzied tongue ? Did those Nuns ever manage to pound some common sense into your head, did you ever learn the value of learning, did you memorize anything at all of practical worth ? Why of course, my father:
A, -your Adorable,
B, -your so Beautiful,
C, -you’re the Crap (Cross, Cripple, Cynic) in my eye!
I mean: -One, Two, Three, Four-
Who are we for ?
Rah, rah, rah!
Actually, my fair fellow fishes, I couldn’t learn a thing. I remained an impure, blank slate, I must have intuitively sensed from the swish of the hems on the Nuns’ black gowns that: ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’.
My reasoning remained obscure, untouched, slanted as the driven snow! But my bowels wouldn’t move much. Mom started giving me enemas all through the year, Dr.Gimble stepped up his needles every Saturday (Saturn’s Day, Satan’s Day) deep into my arms.
School took the wind out of my lungs, and I began my ritual enactment of chronic asthma for weeks & months on end. Jesus died for my sins, it was the least I could do to choke from guilt for my evil ways! And as an extra, added bonus such suffering got me out of classes and schoolbook homework. I lay at home working on my breath while frequently flat on my back, but propped up with pillows -not sitting rigidly like a pigeon parroting back from my row. O, Salutaris Hostia, qui coeli pandis saved by the bell.
Christmas came: it was a struggle between Baby Jesus in Bethlehem and Santa Claus laughing like a bowl full of jelly. I’m afraid my heart belonged to Santa Claus, certainly not to Jesus and his Unfeeling Daddy!
But my SOUL, my IMMORTAL SOUL was all the Nuns or Priests were ever interested in. Daily they poured that sweet poison of sin and guilt into my ears, -Hamlet’s father had it easy! Jesus loves you, he died for your sins! Jesus loves you, he died for your sins!
-‘O, that this too, too, solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew (adieu! goodbye to Dieu, there goes god; he’s tearing down the field at the 40 yard line, the 30 yard line…touchdown!) Or that the Everlasting had not set his canon ‘gainst Self-Slaughter!’-
This just in from the Associated Press:
"God shot himself through the head yesterday at Midnight E.S.T. –apparently he blew his brains out (the ‘Big Bang’) because his subjects failed to worship him. He is survived by all the many religious and financial denominations he engendered during his over-long existence!"
Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished for; ‘consumatum est’, says the dying Son on the wooden cross. The Earth quakes, and the true Sun hides his face in shame. I certainly did. I was horrified at what we all did to God, at what I did to God. But I couldn’t understand just what that was. Sin? But what is this sin stuff ? Well, according to the Catechism and the Nuns teaching it, this sin came in two flavors: vanilla (a ‘venial’ sin) and chocolate (a ‘mortal’ sin).
It was the Mortal Sin that got you a one way ticket to everlasting hell. (Why not go with a double-dipper ?) I think most of the Nuns who taught me throughout catholic grammar school were very interested in hell; they conjured up visions of people being tortured by demons while pleading for mercy from an unhearing god. He just put them straight out of his mind,
-‘You had your chance, now burn in hell!’- (Come on boys, take it like real men!)
Not a particularly gracious fellow, one must admit; nor was the self-satisfied glee on the faces of the sisters and priests something you really wanted to see when they engaged in their rap concerning eternal punishment for sinners in hell! Hell and sin were the daily fare at St. Edward’s School, and since the same Nun taught you all day long, hell & sin would pop up again right in the middle of spelling or reading or arithmetic:
-‘I see you can’t add two and two, young man. You haven’t been doing your homework, have you ? Well, just don’t forget to tell that to the Priest in the confessional this Satur(n)day. Frankly, boy, I’m worried for your Soul!’-
Ignorance actually seemed to be the greatest sin going as far as the ‘Good Sisters’ were concerned; after all, they were trying to teach us how to read, write, and spell. But their concept of 'learning' was inextricably bound up with sin, and sin was still some mysterious thing which the Catechism was supposed to explain and define. I’m afraid I never did get the meaning of this sin except that it was tantamount to breaking the rules. God, -the one who was the Father, the one who ‘sat at the head of the table’, had actually written down a list of these rules in rock while he was speaking to an old man named Moses on the top of a mountain. Then he shaped the rocks very neatly into two tablets (tabula, tabula rosa, latin, tables, pills) that looked just like cheap soldiers' tombstones in the national graveyards, and handed them to Moses who came down off the mountain giving them to his friends who’d been anxiously listening and looking up from down below. They had seen great clouds of fire, heard roaring sounds of thunder, and glimpsed lightning flashing as God talked with Moses.
Right before us, on a page in the Baltimore Catechism was a picture, a crudely simple line drawing of The Ten Commandments (always capitalize the name of a Movie), the list of rules made by God Himself! I remember the first words on the list:‘ I AM THE LORD, THY GOD;
THOU SHALT NOT HAVE STRANGE GODS BEFORE ME.’
Well, this certainly sounded very peevish and a bit selfish or exclusive, like one of your friends who insists that he or she is your very best friend, your closest friend, and you should always play with him or her to the exclusion of everybody else. You know, one of those special secret pacts ‘blood brothers’ make. It seemed a bit suspicious, (you’ll have to pardon me, I’m born with Aquarius Rising and (( they tell me)) traumatically ‘afflicted’ …a kind of Terminal Outsider !) ...but when we got to have a look at the other Gods around, it took on a definite appeal since they were all depicted as contorted looking combinations of half-human, half-animal creatures with horns on their heads, glowing red eyes, or a snake’s tail where their feet should be.
The Nuns could not hide their feelings of disgust and superiority as they explained that some foolish, ‘pagan’ people actually worshiped and prayed to great bronze cows or snakes. But we, they explained to us, were much more ‘civilized’ people who couldn’t be fooled by such beasts; we were the real ‘chosen people’ like the Jews before us had been. Except they made the big mistake of not accepting Jesus, God’s only Son, when he came to them as their prophesied Savior and now we, the Roman Catholics, were the true chosen people.
In fact, not only did the Jews fail to recognize the only Son of their own One God, but they were the ones who nailed him to the cross and killed him! We should all pray to God that the Jews wake up and become changed, -‘converted’ they’d say, to the faith in Jesus Christ. That’s what we were, Christians, people who got it all right and knew the score. We couldn’t be fooled by any of these ‘False’ gods. We had it all down in writing. We had the Bible! Jesus was our personal Savior.Now, if you haven’t guessed the truth yet, dear fellow hooked fishes,
(Ah, the Age of Pisces, that Age that’s passing away, the time of the Christians,
time of swimming together in holy schools!) I am a fairly gullible fellow. I confess it.
It’s one of my many sins, like flippancy, sarcasm, and scholarship. You try coming in at the time of the New Moon in the sign of the Centaur, and just see what it’s like! We goddam Centaurs always kick up a ruckus, and we certainly make excellent candidates for the position of ‘False Gods’, -what with our hairy loins, hoofed feet, and only half-human countenances. But Sister Mary Bernadette was standing right there before me in First Grade assuring me I was a Christian and didn’t want to go ‘horsing around’ with those pagans and Jews! Why, she thought I was positively Angelic with my blond hair, blue eyes, and very white skin. Besides, I was by nature a happy and trusting child with an air of something not quite ‘real’ about me, something that caused me to ‘go off’ somewhere, something rather … feye. My mood could change as swiftly as the hummingbird dips his beak in and out of a blossom’s calyx.
So, while Sister Mary Bernadette met me on that first day of school as a crying, petulant boy throwing a real fit, she soon after found me to be attentive and curious throughout the long day, and earnestly interested in, as well as full of questions about, -My Guardian Angel.
There was something about Angels which reminded me deeply of the beings I was always running into, beings who weren’t ‘real’ but who seemed to hover all around me. And while I didn’t like this tale of sin and hell, I found the tale of heaven she told to be quite delightful. In Heaven everybody would be happy and have fun, there would be birds flying about singing their cheery songs and Angels talking with us. And we’d all have these beautiful crowns of light called ‘Halos’ playing about our faces. Mary, the Mother of God, had a beautiful halo around her face, and there were pictures Sister showed us of people called Saints who had halos too. I could hardly wait to get to heaven and wear my halo! And Sister found out, by looking into a big book opened on her desk, that I was born on the very same day that the Mother of God was conceived without Original Sin. She pointed this out to the whole class while telling us all that we should be good boys and girls and try to keep our souls as pure, clean, and white as the Soul of Mary was at her birth.
We’d all been ‘baptized’ she explained, baptism had taken away our sins; we were reborn pure and clean and ‘washed in the Blood of Christ’. I’m sure she didn’t understand that no kid would be dumb enough to think he was clean if he’d been washed in blood! Just ask our mothers!
When the bell finally rang at 3:00 PM that first day I was a changed boy. I practically leaped out of my seat with the other kids and charged down the stairs onto the street of freedom! But that was actually just a feeling I felt; you didn’t jump out of your seat at St. Edwards, you had to say prayers again, go to the cloakroom one aisle at a time to get your jacket etc., and then walk in single-file-lines out the doors and onto the street. We’d done it all earlier in the day: once at ‘recess’, when we all got to play on the street for an half-hour or so, and once again at lunchtime when we got to walk home to eat, but had to come back in an hour. My big sister, Joanie, met me outside to walk me home after school just as she had done at lunchtime. And that was the other thing I liked about this school stuff, -you got to walk through the neighborhoods and cross some streets. You were becoming a ‘big boy’ when you started school, and soon you’d be able to go out of the house any time of day to explore the local world. I studied the streets and alleyways we walked down on our way home so that soon I could find my way alone without my sister. And I pondered off and on this scary idea of ‘SIN’ and ‘GOD, THE FATHER’.
I really think it was the first time I’d ever considered the notion and nature of EVIL.
The world had become a scarier place for me because Sister insisted that the DEVIL walked the World night and day never resting, always seeking to lead a SOUL into sin, and everybody seemed to believe her. Up till then I didn’t really take the ‘Devil’ or ‘Jack Frost’ seriously because whoever mentioned them to me (mostly Mom, Dad, Joanie, or Granny) obviously only did so to frighten me into behaving the way they wanted me to behave, and usually couldn’t even keep a straight face about it. But Sister had been totally serious and was positively certain that Satan stalked us all! Scarier still, she’d pointed out that this devil, Satan, had been an Angel himself once but he’d engaged in a big fight with God and refused to do what he was told, and that’s how he became the Devil. He’d been Lucifer, the brightest of God’s Angels, and now he was a devil, the demon, Satan.While I’d met a lot of good Faerie beings whom I now assumed must have been Angels, I’d never met a bad one, but now I wondered if one might not suddenly show up. That there might actually be ‘Bad Faeries’ had never occurred to me, and since Faeries seemed to just come and go whenever they wanted, I kept my eye out for them all the way home. Where might the evil ones be lurking? Were there any Faeries in league with the Devils ? Was I one ? Just what (exactly) was the nature of the invisible world I felt all about me, and who were the beings (sometimes small and other times very tall) whom I saw whenever the ‘mood’ was right ?
How many times did I walk home from school in the late afternoon sun stretching my arms out to cast a long, scary shadow on the sidewalk imitating a monster ? How often did I sing aloud at such moments one of those old tunes mom and I so often sang together: ‘Me, and my Shadow; all alone and feeling blue!’ ?
Broma Seltzer, Broma Seltzer, Broma Seltzer...
These words repeated with emphatic diminishing rhythm over the sound of a train chugging its’ way through a long, dark tunnel; the resultant mix pouring forth from the radio on the floor at night. It was an advertisement preceding a weekly, half-hour radio drama. I think it was called ‘The Shadow’ and after the train-chugging Broma Seltzer sound faded away, there was the eerie noise of an old, heavy door opening on creaky hinges. Then a deep, chesty, male voice pronounced these words with a mocking and mysterious tone:
‘ Who knows what Evil lurks
in the Hearts of Men ?
The first time I heard these words I was immediately all ears, certain that the radio story would be about Satan, Evil, and the nature of Sin! But I was sorely disappointed; it was just some story about regular old people walking about in very loud shoes and talking. Of course, in these shows somebody usually murdered somebody else…they’d shoot them with a gun and we’d hear a bang, or they’d strangle them with their hands and we’d hear a muffled, gasping choke, or they’d just push them off a building, down some steps into a dark cellar, or out a window, and we’d hear a voice fading as it screamed all the way down to death. Big deal, this was just murder, killing, and figuring out who did what, when, and how; just the usual human preoccupation with a plot and a storyline. That kind of thing went right past me, or perhaps it flew over my head. I wanted to know what ‘real’ Christian EVIL was!
But then in every episode this character would enter who was invisible to all the others, you could only see his shadow sometimes –hence, the title. And he always interested me because I had such a real ‘thing’ about being invisible! I identified with ‘The Shadow’ immediately; but he was, ironically, a good guy who’d always catch the killer.
Although I cannot consciously recall even one Tale from the show, I can still hear the squeaking door –ah, yes, I’ve got it now; the squeaking door introduced a different show called ‘The Inner Sanctum’. These two radio dramas are bound together in my consciousness, -perhaps they followed one another on the same night’s programming. I can see myself, and Freddie, and Joanie all lying across our beds with our heads hanging over the side and our hands draping down to the floor where we moved them whimsically over the floorboards as the radio played, and one dim lamp lit the hallway. The shaded lamp cast distorted shadows all over the walls, ceilings, and floors while we listened spellbound to the sounds filling the night air. We positively loved to be scared this way; we worked ourselves and each other up into a regular fit of pretended fear which, on occasion, actually turned into the real thing! O Titania, look at the neuro-linguistic programmers ‘out there’ positively drooling over this memory:
-‘Ah ha, (they say) neuronal engrams embedded at childhood, synaptical firings triggered by trains and squeaking doors, Pavlov’s dogs salivating as soon as the bell is rung! Conditioned responses! ’-Well yes, Mr. & Mrs. NLP, you’re right on target, so ‘have at me’; and feel free to call in the CIA or the NSA or the FBI while you’re at it. But DO realize, -you are dealing here with the dark side of Faerie, you’re dealing with the Faerie’s Shadow! Recall the cry of the Banshee, think on La Llerona, and take care; for you have entered now the squeaking door, chapter two of the Book Of Learning spoken by a Faerie so feye as to feel himself Hamlet:
-‘For I have that within which passeth show;
these but the trappings and the suits of woe!’-I am stalking my Father’s Ghost, your Father’s Ghost, the Ghost of all Fathers everywhere. Like the Dane wrapped in his long black cloak, I stand upon the battlements of the Castle of the World bidding that ghost come forth! I am now, and have always been, and shall forever be a bit caught-up in myself, outside of any State. Phone taps, satellite scans, and microchips don’t ruffle me. Behold, I dance the feather dance, toss fear and secrets away from me even while I laugh the Fool’s laugh of freedom. Recall, small tyrants everywhere, the floridly inverted theme of this second book:
‘there is a dark place
where trees grow downward; flowers
blossom out of it; water
And be gone from this place; your bone-ridden logic has no power here.
Here, we are exploring the nature of the inner sanctum where the shadow dwells, we are tracking down the earliest programming concerning the nature of EVIL in the young boy, Donald. He is clearly a boy who feels he was born as the third dead Donald in his family, and yet he also seems obsessed with the idea that he’s a faerie. Curious fellow, this one. Are we to conclude from his words that faeries are born dead ? Just what might be going on in this fellow’s obstinate head ? And what are we to make of this most immediate conjuration of his: ‘begone…etc.’ ? Is he a frustrated magician of yore; does he find himself propelled out of some medieval, middle-earth past into this modern world as his grandfather apparently was ? Is he caught in the crystal of his own conjuring ?
And who do you suppose he thinks I am ? Me, the voice who is speaking to you now.
Am I to be his Freudian ‘Superego’ ? His ‘Higher Self’ ? His ‘Shadow’ ? Does he think he’s ‘channeling’ from the Pleiades, perhaps ? Shall I tell you who I am, enter fully into this world of dense bodies ?
I think not. It is sufficient that I give name to this voice, and acknowledge your world of words: Call me Lavender, since first we met under the lilac bush; although, were the issue left strictly up to me, I’m sure I’d prefer the more explicit cognomen: Porpoise !
In any case, I can assure you that it is I (and others of my kind) who are urging this entity, Donald, to continue with his writing. He is not ‘channeling’ us, and we are in no way controlling his thoughts for, as you yourselves can see, he’s a feisty spirit with a will of his own. He would never accept this notion of ‘channeling’; he fears it undermines individual clarity and leads to the avoidance of responsibility. But, when we last heard his voice he was speaking, was he not, of his search for the meaning of christian ‘EVIL’ …and that, -while listening to the radio ? Jousting with windmills ? Let’s hope he hears the humour implicit in this fact, and can tune-in to his own self-image as a faerie-fool!
Faerie-Fool or Faerie-Tool ? I don’t know what this haughty ‘lavender porpoise’ thinks he may be doing by grabbing the spotlight in this way. Perhaps he thinks he can upstage me. While that is highly unlikely… I do confess I’m rather fond of his choice of the word Cognomen, it has a certain flair to it, a way of appearing on the page that appeals to the eye, don’t you think ? It reminds me of High School and the study of Latin and French; its’ roots must be back there in cognosco, cognoscere, cognate, cognition, recognition.
It must refer to gnosis, to looking within as a way of knowing, to a kind of remembering based upon a ‘calling-in’ of our members; reconstituting our forgotten lives (limbs), as if each of us were Osiris and Isis combined; awakening and attempting to recognize ourselves, birthing ourselves with a new name, a gnostic cognomen such as the lavender porpoise seems to propose.
Yet all this has strayed a bit far (I suppose) from my first few days of school, a bit far from the moment in which I was introduced to the notions of "Original Sin’, EVIL, and Satan by Sister Mary Bernadette. I remember the disturbing shock of it all, I remember the distasteful regimentation enforced on a daily basis, but I can’t recall many precise details as to what took place in those first days. In fact, they all blend together into an ongoing, wearying indoctrination intoned throughout eight years of catholic grammar school during which time we moved away from St. Edward’s into St. Bernardine’s parish where I completed the last two years of my programming in preparation for Catholic High School.
I’d have to describe that programming as essentially and unrelentingly about guilt. I’d say the Nuns who were my teachers were thoroughly saturated in it, aged in vats of guilt like fine cheeses or wines. They communicated it with ease, quite naturally; it permeated their entire view of life. Guilt was a given, a basic building block of life, and its’ origin was back there with ‘Original Sin’ when humankind were expelled from the presence of ‘God’. Every day of First Grade was focused upon making sure all us kids got the message; we were guilty of ‘SIN’ and were being taught so.
The entire school year was centered around preparation for receiving the ‘blessed sacraments’ known as ‘First Confession’ and ‘First Holy Communion’. We were being taught all about sins so that we could go to a priest every Saturday for the rest of our lives in his confessional booth where we could confess to him our sins and receive forgiveness from god through his ministry. ‘Absolution’ was what they called it: ‘Ego te absolvo, in nomine Patris, et Filiis, et Spiritus Sanctis.’ Our souls would be washed clean, said the Nuns, in the same way that they erased all the chalk off the chalkboards daily, and then washed them down with water and sponges.
Confession was presented as a kind of weekly laundry; we’d bring the list of our sins to the priest who, through the power of ‘God’, would ‘wash them away’ the way our mothers washed our bedsheets, clothes, and pillow cases clean. But we had to be prepared all year long for this great event, for our first confession. And after that we’d get to go up to the altar all dressed in white to receive the ‘Host’ at our ‘First Holy Communion’, the host which was the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.
All year long I struggled with this new idea of sin; it was very confusing to me, distinctly unclear. There were lists of sins which we studied in our Catechism, and I remember that when I finally did go into the confessional booth for the first time I actually ‘confessed’ my sins by reciting the ones that were in the book. Of course, I added details to them all so they’d have a ‘personal’ flavor. I embellished the examples taught to me. I made up stories about my sins. And I remember over the ensuing years that the priests in confessional would become irritated with my tales and interrupt me. They’d tell me that what I was talking about was just a ‘venial’ sin and I didn’t have to give them all the details surrounding it. I should just say I committed seven or seventeen ‘venial sins’, that was all that was necessary!
In fact, since there were only four or five priests to a parish, they’d come to be very familiar with your voice, they’d actually know who you were! I shall never forget the day I was standing [ instead of kneeling in the usually prescribed way because I was too short, Sister said, and if I knelt the priest would not be able to hear me; I’d be speaking to the wall below his sliding window ] in the dark confessional booth confessing to Father Fortenbaugh on the other side of the screen when he suddenly interrupted me saying:
-‘Donald, this is you isn’t it ? Stop telling me these long, flowery stories of yours, what do you think you’re doing ? Can’t you please just get to the point ? Now tell me, how many venial sins did you commit, and did you commit any Mortal Sins ?’-I was actually aghast! Father had caught me lying about my sins. He knew all along that I ‘made up’ my sins. That must be a Mortal Sin, to make up all your sins. Whatever would he think of me ? Would he tell my mom ? How could I explain that I didn’t think I ever sinned ? I mean, I knew I did things that were listed in our catechism as sins, things like sassing back at my mother or father, getting mad at my brother, disobeying my parents and all that. But I could never remember exactly when and how I’d done those things, and that’s why I had to make up long stories with imagined details like eating chocolate candies before dinner when my mother told me not to.
That particular one was ridiculous because we didn’t even have bowls of chocolate candies sitting on the tables in our house, but there was a drawing like that illustrating such a sin in our catechism so I ‘made it up’! And Father Fortenbaugh was a priest who happened to like my sister Joanie as well as my Mother very much; he sometimes just dropped into our house to hang around and chat with my mom while they both drank coffee or beer and smoked cigarettes. Or he’d come by to tease Joan about how popular she was among her schoolmates, -especially the boys. I was afraid that he’d tell my mom and sister how he caught me in the confessional making up my sins! Was it a sin to ‘make up’ your sins ?
Of course it was; it was a lie. I was that unique sinner who lied about his sins. Just to have a sin to confess I’d have to sin, I’d have to tell a lie! Whatever did this ‘God’ think of me, going around sinning by ‘making up’ my sins ?
‘ Who knows what Evil lurks
in the Hearts of Men ?
So the penultimate climax of First Grade arrived, the day of receiving the blessed sacrament of First Holy Communion. It was an especially big event in my family because my very own sister, Joan, was chosen as the ‘May Queen’. She would walk at the head of a Grand Procession dressed in a long, white satin gown as the ‘Bride of Christ’. She’d wear a white lace veil that was so long it had to be carried behind her by three little first grade boys. I was chosen to be one of those boys because I was her little brother and a ‘first grader’ who’d be making my ‘First Holy Communion’ on that same day.
And we had to ‘rehearse’ the whole thing; for days in advance. I had to learn just ‘how’ I was to walk as I carried my sister’s veil, what songs we’d all sing, what route the Procession would take down the sidewalks all around the neighborhood. It was a very big deal. I would be the first grade boy carrying not only my sister’s veil, but a white satin pillow on which a crown of flowers would be placed. My Grandmother and Aunt Pearl would make the crown; it would be woven of lily-of-the-valley, pink rosebuds, and baby’s breath just like the one Aunt Pearl wore in her wedding picture. And after the great Procession we’d return to the church and this flowered crown would be lifted off its’ pillow by my sister, the May Queen, who’d climb up a ladder and place it upon the head of the life-sized statue of Mary, the Mother of God, while all of us sang her praises.
There I was, all dressed in white; a white shirt with a white tie, long white pants and coat, even white shoes and socks. The perfect picture of purity in my white, Caucasian skin with blue eyes and blond hair! I was sitting with all the other boys in my first grade class on a long pew in the church with Sister Mary Bernadette at the end of the pew behind us so she could get up quickly and move about should occasion demand. And occasion did demand: after we marched with hands folded before us up the steps to the altar and received the host on our tongues, some of us found it stuck to the tops of our mouths. Sister had explained that this might happen, and if it did we were not to reach into our mouths with our fingers and try to dislodge it because it would be a very bad sin to touch the ‘Host’, the actual Body and Blood of Christ with our sinful, fallen fingers. Indeed, it would be a SACRILEGE ! Only a man ordained as a Priest could be allowed to actually touch God physically!
What to do ? The host was stuck to the top of my mouth and I was trying to loosen it with my tongue, wanting very much to stick my finger in there to pry it loose. But I was supposed to be having this profound moment of intimacy with God who had entered my body to become ONE with me.
My eyes were closed while I talked with the God now inside me, the ‘God’ I was struggling to swallow, but I opened them enough to peak a bit to my right and left looking to see if anybody else was having the trouble I was having. Just as I performed this covert maneuver Sister came charging into my pew with her hands extended and reaching. I was sure she’d seen me thinking about prying God loose with my finger. But no, it was the fellow next to me whom she rapidly whisked up and out of our pew (literally grabbing hold of his ear and pinching it hard) to sit him beside herself in the pew behind. And as soon as Mass was ended, she stood him in front of us all as an example of heinous sacrilege pointing out that she actually caught him TOUCHING the host with his fingers! O perfidy! But I had used the moment when she was busy with him to do the same thing myself, and I didn’t think it was bad because I figured God was my friend and understood perfectly well that I might touch him with my finger. Still, I felt that queasy feeling again, the feeling that I was a terrible sinner who sinned by lying and who didn’t even believe in his sins!The Great Procession was set to take place after Mass around one o’clock that afternoon; we were expected to gather on the grounds outside church so that the nuns could arrange us all in the proper order. We carried long poles adorned at the top with flying, lettered banners, for example:
(So much for LOVE, there goes
out the window;
-bye-bye LOVE, bye-bye Happiness; hello Loneliness-
this is serious love, we call it
< because you can BANK on it >
Some of us even carried the ends of great Arches made of woven grape vines further interwoven with all manner of flowers. We carried straw baskets, full cornucopias of fragrant blossom petals which we tossed in handfuls under the feet of the May Queen. And the Priest, -swinging a censor, accompanied by altar boys swathed in clouds of smoke, smelling of frankincense; petrified sap of pines rising in puffs of scent from the thuribles emitting metallic-tingling sounds as they tapped repeatedly against the delicate chains by which they were held. Little boys all in white holding the ends of arches above the May Queen, above the statue of Mary carried on a small dais. Banners flying on the wind, crushed rose petals trod underfoot -giving off sweet smells of holiness and piety, we ‘processed' down the streets like a medieval band of would-be gypsies. Father Fortenbaugh gleaming with a bright, magenta pompon balanced atop his black priest’s hat! Singing as we marched:
-‘Bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers of the rarest,
from gardens and hillsides and churchyards and vales;
our full hearts are swelling, our glad voices telling,
the gifts of the loveliest Queen of them all:‘O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May…’
This, you realize, was an event I could sink my teeth into! Music, colors, flowers, -all the ingredients for theatre, real opera, that strange gene I inherited from my Mother. And I walked exactly as I had been taught to walk, with the crown of flowers resting on its’ white satin pillow in one hand, and the end of the middle section of my sister’s lace veil in the other. And we sang as we walked, and the incense wafted over and around us, and I felt just like a Faerie in a Faery Procession attending to the Queen of the May, the Queen of the Faeries, my sister Joan.
To me we seemed to be floating on a magical mist that carried us down the neighborhood streets past gawking ‘Protestants’ (the Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Jews, ‘Pagan Savages’) demonstrating before their very eyes the reality of the Land of Dreams, the Pure Land of subtle beauty, the road to Heaven and to God.
I saw the shimmering colors of the Faerie Folk all around us, the wings of our ‘Guardian Angels’. The trees and bushes brightened in recognition as we passed by; the tulips, daffodils, lilacs, and forsythia all greeted us with love! A bright blue sky was full of whipped cream cumulus clouds, and robins and orioles flew over us darting down suddenly, swooping over our heads, chirping as they ascended back up into the branches of the newly leafed Spring trees, or glided far off into that immense heaven of sky.
It was a wonderful procession, and I loved it. Even when we wound our way back into the church itself. There we proceeded right down the center aisle and Joanie took the crown of flowers off the pillow I proffered her and ascended, very carefully, one step at a time up the ladder behind the life-sized statue of Mary, the Immaculately Conceived Mother of God, and brought the flowers to rest on her head.
Angels, church, flowers, music, faeries, my sister, the Queen of the May, and the Mother of God all blended together in my mind’s eye; in fact, they fused there, became one and inseparable. There was only one big problem: dominating the whole view, suspended larger than anything else, was the bloody corpse of Jesus still hanging on his cross over the main altar! Good old Mr. Pain, Mr. Suffering, Mr. I’ll Rain On Your Parade!
< Hey, you clowns down there, don’t you know what it feels like to have nails driven through your hands and feet? Don’t you know what Original Sin is ? Here I am, bleeding in the agony of death for you, and all you can do is sing songs, throw flowers, and have a good time ? >
I did have a good time during the procession, but afterwards things got a bit weird. When all the main events had ended, after I’d gone home and described the procession to my Aunt Pearl and Granny, I decided to come back to the church carrying my new rosary, prayerbook, and scapular because I thought I had seen the statue of Mary actually move and try to speak to me. That had been a queer moment, -I was looking very directly at the plaster form of the painted shape and trying to keep it in focus; the small cracks in the lacquer over the Virgin’s hands were clear to me, as was the worn and faded unevenness of the gold-leaf running along the borders of her blue mantle.
Yet there was something going on, some play of energy about the painted eyes and mouth of the face, some slight movement that seemed to pulse in the plaster of the outreaching hands. I couldn’t quite free myself of the feeling that the Mother of God was trying to infuse all this plaster and paint with her own life, that she wanted to break free of this form and come alive in movement and speech so that we could talk with each other, or go for a walk together. But, at the same time, I knew very well that I was staring at a plaster statue and I kept that awareness foremost in my mind when I stood before it again a few hours later.
The church was empty of people, but there were lots of black scuff marks left behind by all the passing feet of the parishioners on the highly polished surface of the marble floor; there were bruised petals fallen and trampled underfoot still laying about here and there beneath the wooden pews, and a faint hint of incense still lingered on the air mixing with the scent of the fading flowers. Even the sounds of our voices seemed to have somehow left their songs embedded on the slanted rays of late afternoon light pouring down like long chords of red, blue, green, golden, purple, and rose colored music from the high, stained glass windows through which the sun shone.
In this lush atmosphere I knelt looking up at the image of Mary asking her if she might not have something to tell me, asking her why I was born on the very day she was immaculately conceived, thanking her for being my true Mother. And as I watched these feelings (-for surely they could not be called thoughts, they were far too formless for thoughts-) waft in and out of my body, I saw a movement of light play again about the statue’s eyes and mouth as it had earlier that day when my sister placed the crown of flowers (still resting there now, alive and somewhat wilted) on her head. All the many subtle cracks on the lacquered statue filled with a flowing light which ran between them. They shimmered the way a spider’s web shimmers when it’s drenched with dew in the first light of dawn. A living emerald hue of the faintest sort danced all over the statue in continuous movement, alternately looking like little green snakes or dancing leaves transparent with the light of the sun-tree from which they sprouted!
Mary, the Mother of God, the May Queen was smiling at me from within her own bower of immaculate green. All the many cracks in the statue’s varnish assumed the look of living nature, the look of emerald vines and leaves seen through the silver transparency of that web of light. For the briefest of moments I felt like I was alone with the May Queen in the woods that must be heaven! Brown, and reddish-brown hues speckled the green all about her, and the painted blue of her cape blended with the daytime sky fading slowly into the night which was settling all around us. She had about her the hint of an artistic drawing that had come to life on a scroll of finely-veined parchment; there was something intimately strange about her, something Celtic, something gothic.
She was slowly becoming naked, her blue and white clothes dissolving away into the night’s stars, her bare body covered here and there only by the twining leaves, tendrils of branches, and delicate white flowers she moved among! Her whole countenance invited me to follow her under the light of the Moon and Stars into the deep woods of another time or a different Earth.
But I hesitated.
Then, confusedly, the feeling and the vision disappeared. I was kneeling alone in the empty church soberly suspicious of myself for playing such games with my mind. I was afraid that I’d been ‘making up’ my own ‘movies’ again while the real world was passing me by outside! I left at once, couldn’t get away from there fast enough.
Outside, the sky had changed. Huge, dark clouds were piling up and a gusty wind was blowing while I made my way down the church steps and across the street. The local Drugstore stood on the opposite corner displaying its’ neon-lighted snakes twined about the caduceus of Hermes; its’ windows filled with exhibits of syringes, vials, silk stockings, and enema bags. Though I always liked to stare into the windows when I passed by, I couldn’t afford to do so now since the clouds had let loose a veritable deluge of rain on the wind, a sudden downpour soaking into all my new white clothes. Even my scapular, rosary, and prayer book were soaking up the water and showing through the pockets of my suit coat.
I tried to run close-in to the sides of the buildings to find some little shelter from their over-hangings, but the wind whipped the rain right up against the bricks and me. Each time I came to an alleyway the water rushing down it became more and more like a torrent carrying old cigarette butts, paper wrappers, tiny whiskey bottles, -every discarded thing off the streets, down the gutters along the sidewalks and onward to wherever it may be that rushing alley water ultimately goes.
Finally, I came to a break in the pavement where an alley ran so full of water that as I tried to step quickly across it I saw it cover my shoes and socks and leap upward against the bottoms of my trousers staining all my whiteness with its dark color. I stopped still in my tracks, right in the middle of the alley, amazed at the amount of turbulent, filthy water surging everywhere around me. I pulled my prayer book out of my pocket to survey the damage I was sure it must have undergone, but it slipped out of my wet hands and tumbled into the water. I bent over grabbing for it under the surface, but it was not there. The rushing water had carried it a few feet in front of me where it bobbed momentarily on the surface before being pushed below again by swirling waves. I lurched forward to grab it, but slipped and fell face first into the alley.
Water was swirling all around me when I sat up, and I could see gasoline and oil-slick-rainbows moving on its’ surface. Then I stood on my feet, managed to retrieve my prayer book, and stepped back onto the sidewalk. From there I stared down at all my white clothes, my First Holy Communion suit -totally saturated with mud and oil stains. There was something going on that was really ridiculous, something that made me laugh.
I could see the whole scene replay all over again –instantaneously- as if I were watching myself in a movie, and the sheer absurdity of it seemed hilarious! But then I noticed that other people were watching from the windows of nearby houses and passing street-cars. Their faces were full of concerned looks, and I imagined Sister Mary Bernadette shaking her head at me in shame, and the look on my mother’s face when she’d see all my new white clothes covered with mud and oil. Quite quickly, and as unexpectedly as it had come, my laughter left me. In its place, there welled up from within an ominous sense of dread, a sense of something I’d done that was terribly wrong. I felt guilty for ruining my new white attire, and that guilt was somehow joined with the sense of guilt I’d felt earlier when I’d surreptitiously scraped the Host which was God off the top of my mouth with my own filthy finger! Aha, said some part of my brain; this is it, this is Sin !
( Score one for Sister Mary Bernadette! Let’s hear it for the Roman Catholic Church! Amen, brothers and sisters, Jesus done rained on my Parade! )
God, the Fault-Finding Father, had found a way to make it clear to me (and to all others who might look upon me) that beneath my white exterior I was a black sinner. He’d made this rainstorm just so I’d be covered in mud. Mud was sin; that’s how it appeared in our catechisms: a white heart blotched with black speckles, each one representing a sin until the whole heart become totally black with the mortal sin that would take us to hell. God, as the ‘good sisters’ said, had been watching me all the time, he knew how I’d been ‘making up’ my sins in confession, and he was determined that I should know I couldn’t fool him. Not him, Mr. God-The-Father manipulating his only Son, Jesus, onto a bloody, painful cross. Abusing his own Boy Child. We mustn’t blame him, -Mr. Maledetta!
Ah, perdonate, mea culpa….capital ‘Him’ ! The God-Father who defines that elusive Christian EVIL! The one who makes you the offer which you can’t refuse: Original Sin. Marlon Brando playing the Pope; Pius XII directing John Huston directing John Wayne. The men’s club, the Holy Mafiosi business supper, the contract taken out by your original Father on your life. The Dark Side of the Christian God and the ministers in his Church. The sin, guilt, shame, and suffering that is the punishment needed to set things straight in the ‘fallen’ world. The poison that tries to devour the Earth. You can always bank on it ! The ‘wages’ of sin make the world go around.
The memory of my wet and muddy First Communion surfaced years later in my teens while reading Oscar Wilde, when I again glimpsed myself as a boy in a white suit all covered with dirt, a secret sinner, a seven year old... Portrait Of Dorian Gray.
Someone reading this Tale of Entrapment might wonder how so precocious a Faerie as myself could possibly have fallen for such a mockery of life as christianity. Often have I pondered this question myself, and the best I can offer by way of explanation is that I was sadly disappointed in what I felt around me. I yearned for my own kind, for Spirits free from guilt and unhappiness, for a world different from the one in which I found myself. I knew that other world existed because I could feel it in my heart, and throughout my childhood (indeed, my life!) I caught glimpses of it in Nature and even in stray folks I met.
But no one seemed to think there was anything more to that world than the whimsy of imagination, and imagination –as we are all consistently taught- is nothing but a decorative and inferior aspect of the mind. I cannot begin to enumerate all the occasions, nor all the many not-so-subtle means by which this viewpoint was maintained on a daily basis by most of those around me. And if I’ve ever had one fatal flaw in my makeup, it has always been my desire to love and be loved by everyone. I wanted to please the physical people around me; I wanted to be happy with them. But the physical people were not the only people around me, nor was the physical world of my senses the only world I sensed. I believe I am constitutionally incapable of denying the aesthetic, ethereal, and astral senses we are all born with. Perhaps I’m a freak, and we are not all born with these subtler senses, but you could fool me!
How many times have I listened to others explain that I must not anthropomorphise inanimate objects! Well, I confess that I’ve never met an inanimate object, and I seriously doubt whether such a creature exists! Call me primitive if you like, but what will you say of the sea ? Is there really anyone among us who can say he has not felt the soul of the sea ? Yes, you say, -any landlocked fellow who has never been to the sea! Well, that’s a specious argument...
~~~~~ but let’s cut the sea down to a river or a stream, and if you still can envision so landlocked a fellow as one deprived even of rivers or streams let’s throw in the rain! Who has not felt the spirit of the rain ? Okay, so if you persist and postulate some ‘aboriginal’ in a landlocked desert wherein it ‘never’ rains, then I pray you consider a tear. Does not the poet tell us that a tear is an intellectual thing ?
Can there ever have been, will there ever be a man without a tear ? It’s as likely as a man without bones. I realize the Faerie in me has already equated bones with tears, but perhaps he was mistaken. All tears are alive and feel their way out of our eyes down to the sea. The sea is alive; all matter is alive. There is not the tiniest sub-atomic particle that isn’t thinking, feeling, and communicating with another! And the FACT that this is so, and the fact that so many among us find it necessary to deny this fact is at the core of what saddens me. We are all easily entrapped by what saddens us, no ?
Christians have no corner on the market; there are even atheists who believe that matter is inanimate ! Priests, Nuns, and Gods come in assorted flavors and wrappings. Some of them call themselves nothing more than bureaucrats, business men, or scientists. When was the last time you saw a bumper sticker asking whether or not you kissed the soles of your shoes today ? Don’t soles sound like souls, couldn’t a sole have a soul ? Wasn’t it our familiar friend, Jesus (of ‘New Testament’ fame) who said of him who has ears to hear, let him hear ? And he grabbed my attention too, when he spoke of how we see now through a glass, darkly ! Were we ever to truly look and listen what might we not see and hear?Perhaps what really managed to entrap me in the christian sense of guilt and sin is the willful blindness I often observe in myself. The refusal to stay awake, to look, smell, hear and taste with all my many senses. I am a physical fabrication, a figment of my own imagination, as you are of yours. Eat me, as you would eat god. It’s not cannibalism, it’s Transubstantiation!
I know we are beings predisposed to enchantment, we love the invisible and mysterious; and if there’s anything positive I can personally say of my catholic childhood, it’s that everything about it was enchantingly incomprehensible.
I was a member of something called ‘The Mystical Body Of Christ’. It was all invisible and mysterious theatre, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, replete with mellifluous, Italianate Latin. Lots of ringing bells, costumes ready at hand, flowers and candles and statues; relics and stained-glass windows, a truly magical, tragical, and Universal Operatic Faith! I played the part of Puck by way of Hamlet; and as for Jesus, he was a cross between Scarpia and Oberon:
‘ Believe me, King of Shadows, I mistook.
Did you not tell me I should know the man…?’
Yes, well, in my own empathic need to feel and eliminate from off this planet all suffering and sadness, I mistakenly embraced a picture-postcard Saviour who was choking on his own blood. I didn’t realize at first just how sexual he was, this sado-masochist with his lusting heart. Tosca said it all:‘ M’hai assai torturata ?
Odi tu ancora ? Parla! ’
Being my own sad shadow, he could not hear me, had nothing to tell me until I could absorb him, -blood, nails, Judas and all back into my own capricious soul: ‘ E morto! Or gli perdono! ’ Yes, eventually, I killed him. We all did. Just the way Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch. It was an accident, I swear it! I hit him with a bucketful of his own tears. ‘ E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma! ’
This crucified quasi-political-character was dead alright, but he lurked about me in the inner sanctum like the Phantom of the Opera, like my own shadow, like an isolated, discrete, and suffering photon of light seeking to join its wave. I shall speak more of the peculiar torments which the ‘Man Of Sorrows’ shared with me once I gave my heart into his keeping. We made a pact, he and I, just like blood-brothers do, and I am not so sure he isn’t a Faerie. There are Big Faeries, you know, Faeries who exist to embody in air the collective thought forms of the masses. The Gnostics called them "Archons". I’ll grant you such 'Faeries' are not real, true ones; they do not flit about with the likes of Ariel, or Titania, or Tinker Bell, they are far too serious for such frivolous stuff!
These ‘Faeries’ gather their very being not from the stuff of dreams, but from the persistent terror, suffering, and self-pity gnawing away in the minds of men. They consider themselves to be philosophical, high-minded, and religious. They crave the worship that feeds them. I suppose they are fond of giving themselves to humankind in a sort of eat, or be eaten way. They hang out above us in the clouds, on the Mountains –like Olympus, Everest, the Sierra Nevada’s. A kind of Donner Party in the sky! Who needs vampires with ‘Gods’ like this about ?
Certainly, Jehovah, father of Jesus was (in his day) a blockbuster of a beast; the kind of Faerie that made Dracula look like a cartoon cream puff ! Good riddance to his sorry ass! The vile blasphemer, why he spoke against and laid waste this beautiful Earth every chance he got. I was really upset with him when he trashed Sodom and Gomorrah, but his penchant for playing secret games with the likes of Job and even his own son (who must have been adopted!) was really beneath contempt.
Tell me, why do we feed such astral beasts as these ? Why is 'piety' so high on their list of desirable human traits ? What sinister force moves about within the collective psyche of mankind masking itself in the red velvet glove of religion ? Why do so many among the human species crave the conservative back-binding that is the very root of the word: re-ligio, re-ligere ?Words can be such religious things; through their good natures we can and often do tie ourselves in knots. Ah yes, and are we not told at some length:
-‘In the Beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God!
He was the Light, and the Light
shines in the Darkness, and the Darkness
grasps it not!’-
It is the Word-Spell attributed to John, the one disciple who laid his head to rest on the breast of Jesus at the celebrated Last Supper, the one disciple who I always wanted to be as a boy growing up feeling such empathy for the Son of God whom I killed thru my sins! I was so upset by the Bleeding Savior shown to me that I wanted to crawl right inside his skin and suffer with him, suffer for him, free him from all suffering.
Needless to say, this intense and long-held empathy did not do wonders for the life force, the kundalini coiled at the base of my spine. No; such yearning to identify with the Suffering Savior is an impediment to the flow of joy. It becomes its’ own addiction, a knotted fist gripping the root chakra, cutting-off one’s attunement to Life altogether. Sexual energies are misconstrued, become repressed and channeled into the sweet pain of guilt. And this, needless to say, is the sick root of religious sado-masochism, banking, and wars. Quoth the Raven, Nevermore !Come with me now, my equally abused brethren, as I sing the childhood song of innocence that leads the unsuspecting Faerie into those ‘quaint and curious’ actions which will ultimately elicit from his peers the damning label of fag, queer, and shameless homosexual. Let me be your guide and friend, return with me again to our childhood, to the scene of the original crime, to our parents, our schools, and what is left of the mystery of the woods.
It's probably fair to say that Baltimore City is not famous for the mystery of its’ woods. The city of marble steps and row houses in which I grew up was paved, cemented, and full of public monuments. The older, downtown areas were thick with cathedrals, museums, and other buildings made from large granite stones. But the endless blocks of neighborhood streets which sprawled out from the city’s core to where I and my family lived were routinely lined with rows and rows of red brick houses and their notorious ‘white’ marble steps. The houses shared their walls with each other, and so the people who lived within those walls often had to share their neighbors’ vocal histrionics and thoughts, too.
There were no front lawns to these houses, just concrete sidewalks with here and there every several yards a little open square of earth out of which grew ( Ah, there’s the mystery ! ) huge oak trees. Each house had in back a yard wherein there might be a rose bush or two, or a few other bushes & flowers, but really cared for gardens such as the one Miss Pierce nurtured were few and far between. The house immediately adjoining ours ( it would be on your right hand side if you were entering our house thru the front door ) belonged to the Fraziers and their yard was completely covered over by flat concrete. Granny, Aunt Pearl, and Uncle Willie lived on the corner of our block and we lived only two houses up from them, so the Fraziers’ were right between us. The stone walled garage behind Granny’s house was high and blocked the view in that direction. Combined with the flat cement of the Fraziers’ back yard this stone wall suggested a kind of bleak, prison courtyard adjoining us. But, as I seem to recall, the Fraziers’ were quite pleased with their concrete backyard and saw themselves as modern and up-to-date ! There was no grass needing cutting, there were no weeds needing pulling, and no mud to track in thru the backdoor on rainy days. Very progressive !
Oddly enough, a white wooden picket fence of the classical kind stood between our backyard and the Fraziers’ while the usual wire fence separated us from the childless older couple, the Balzers, next door on our other side. Their yard, I hasten to add, had both grass and rose bushes and was kept neatly trimmed. But our backyard was always something of a mess. My brother and I were rarely prevented from digging holes in the dirt between the sparse clumps of wild grass that struggled to survive us. We brought other kids over and carried half the kitchen knives, forks, and spoons into the dirt while we all built miniature castles and forts. Mom never seemed to notice what we were up to until the kitchen drawers were almost empty of cutlery. Sometimes, while hanging clothes on the clothesline which ran the length of the yard, she’d seriously flip into a yelling spree upon stepping into a hole or discovering a real silver spoon underfoot. But even that didn’t upset her for long because she had no particular regard for silverware –neither aesthetically nor financially.
Any silverware at our house had to have come from Granny or Aunt Pearl by way of one of us kids absent-mindedly carrying it out of their house to ours. They were always cooking food and feeding us. Both of them cherished beautiful and sometimes expensive things, and they owned silverware as well as delicate, German, crystal bowls and glasses. On occasion these items also found themselves filled with stones and mud or lying cracked and half-buried in the dirt of our backyard. It was just so easy for kids like my brother and me -in response to mom frantically yelling for us -to dash out the door of Granny’s house carrying along our crystal bowls of tapioca pudding and our silver spoons.
Using those spoons later to dig a miniature moat around a foot-high dirt castle or a lake to be filled with water came naturally to us. Our backyard was full of holes and moats, castles and forts in which we played with little plastic cowboys & indians and their plastic horses. Or plastic soldiers carrying rifles. When they’d shoot at each other we made explosion sounds and threw dirt & pebbles into the air turning the backyard into a ravaged battle field strewn with shards of expensive crystal, silver knives and spoons, and a weird smattering of plastic knights in armor, cowboys & indians with guns & bows & arrows , and miniature modern soldiers with tanks & bazookas. War games played by War Babies !The first ‘Woods’ I encountered as a young boy were located across the street from the public playground at the ‘end’ of our street. It was no more than an a few acres of unkempt land behind the nurse’s quarters near the ‘Lutheran Hospital’ off Ashburton Street. Buildings surrounded it on all sides, but there were wild mulberry trees within it and high grasses taller than me. I remember walking into those tall grasses alone and disappearing from view while the bees buzzed and the grasshoppers hopped above, below, and all around me. There were no lions or tigers or bears, but sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of a swift snake darting past, or a frog croaking, or a crow cawling as it glided by overhead.
At such moments I’d feel a quick thrill and anticipate the arrival of an elephant, a jaguar, or a giraffe. You remember what that’s like, don’t you ? The young child immersed in the high grasses of the local woods feeling blood contact with all of nature. Vision heightened. All the senses thrillingly attuned in expectation of the immanent arrival upon the scene of some great mystery, the hidden truth !
…to be continued…
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