22 January 2017

Step Outside

In Madonna's speech at the Woman's March this week, she stated to her audience with several reiterations "we choose love." It got me contemplating on what the use of the word "love" means in such a context, and inspired me to write this song. I hope, however, that the words remain meaningful outside of one specific political situation. Sorry it's a bad recording--I have bad recording equipment. I personally think it would be much better with a female vocal accompaniment, a cello, and a flutist :)






Lyrics:
I embarked on a gallant quest
To the bottom of my soul
And all that I discovered was
What I already know
If you want to know the answers, son
Then you’ve chosen the wrong road
This one doesn’t take you very far

Step outside
You’ll be amazed by the things you see
When you step outside
Stop walking on your head and use your feet

If the problem’s not inside me
Then we need a new decree
So let’s erect our effigy
And go protesting in the streets
If this is what you fight for, son
Then you’ve chosen the wrong dream
Love is not a victory march

Step outside
You’ll be amazed by the things you see
When you step outside
Don’t be afraid for the truth to set you free

You’re walking on the water
But for me it’s sink or swim
I was looking for the answer
That was blowing in the wind
If you want to find love there, son
Then you’ve chosen the wrong friends
You’ll only find it inside My arms

Step outside
You’ll be amazed by the things you see
When you step outside
What a relief that the truth’s not inside me

Step outside
(Repeat)


-The Minstrel Boy


13 January 2017

A Prophecy for the Heavy of Heart

What with the whole earth turned towards the winter sky
On this side of paradise
The forests will echo with the wrong kind of laughter
For now. As green-faced elves hide in the night-shadows of the evergreen
Still one with the snow
The Saint, believing but not seeing, will almost despair
Falling on his knees and calling to those who see but do not believe
"Elves, dwarves, children of the spring-faced quarter
Come out, come out." A yearning that will ring out unheeded but not unheard
Not answered, but gilded and canonized into a yearning
Saved for later, another year, hour, day
When the sons of night will turn to face the Sun of Light
When the cloud of witnesses will uncloud their brows
And show their faces to Adam again.
But for now, like snow collecting on the slain
His appeal is cast into a triptych for another season
To serve as a reminder for those who are prone to forget
Except the wise and the desperate
But by then, there will be no difference.
Even if there was a snowflake that made no sound
When it came to the ground, no one would hear it.
It's not your fault, but the elves still think you could have done better.


09 January 2017

Born Again

Lord, I am buried by the weight of my sin
It hurts to think or lift my pen
My heart outstretches for a distant shore when
We will be born again.

A misty place, where footsteps tread
Without bodies to fill their stead
A land of spirits, but still, not dead
We will be born again.

A dragon by the pond undressed
Where morning and the night coalesce
And no sorrow left unconfessed
We will be born again.

O night, that tears and gnaws at me
And gives no respite for the weak
Your cunning claws claim not their meat
We will be born again.

I walk the path to you-know-where
I drink the dusty moonlight there
I breathe the air that we both share
And  we'll be born again.

O sing! for night, a thousand steps
Bleak, remain the fiends unmet
Swallowed is my sounding, yet
We will be born again!

Desperate, desperate, deeper still
Seeking some forbidden thrill
That can't be killed nor be fulfilled
But shout: we will be born again!

The morning greets my slumber here
Still and silent, like a deer
And lights the cross that bears my every tear
We will be born again.

I hear a song that chills the blood
The theme is so familiar, but
The strings are strung by springs that said
"They will be born again."



08 December 2016

Grace (A Response to James Joyce)

Tommy’s knees were hurting and he was longing to adjust his position, but he had not yet confessed a single sin. He thought of his big sins and wondered whether he would have time to address them before Pastor Henman moved on to the Scripture section, or whether he should talk about the little sins now and the big sins later. He imagined sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, which never happened in Seattle except once on Easter Sunday, and Tommy imagined that it was a spiritual experience. The window-sills were decorated with candles, but Tommy knew they were really lightbulbs made to look like candles. To have real candles would be a serious fire-hazard. No point in taking unnecessary risks. University Presbyterian Church was well-funded and widely attended. It was well reviewed, too.... Tommy broke into a coughing fit, and his mother offered him a cough-drop.

Next to Tommy sat John Cunningham, whom Tommy didn’t think much of but whom he tried to be friends with because he was part of Power’s group. Michael Power was in the pew behind him, who scribbled a note on the service handout and handed it to the boys. John gasped and feigned mortification, turning redfaced with suppressed laughter. Tommy understood the joke in a vague manner, so he put his hand over his mouth and pretended to be affronted. Behind Michael was Wilken M’Coy, who strained over the pews to see what the note was about, but Michael ignored him, and the rest followed suite. 

Three pews ahead of Tommy sat Grace, who was busy unloosing her braids. Tommy watched her fingers elegantly remove the bobby-pins from the complex yellow loops of hair, and then watched it fall gorgeously upon her glowing shoulders. Tommy thought of passing a note to her, but he couldn’t think up jokes like Michael did. He wondered if the chandelier fell, would he have time to leap over the pews and throw himself over her before it crushed her. But now the confession was finished. Tommy resumed his seat and let his mind wander to other subjects.

Pastor Henman was reading from Romans. He said:

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Grace…grace…grace. What was he saying about Grace? No: now he was talking about his high-school days. I was never good at sports, he said. I tried out for the basketball team, but I was so short that the boys could dribble a ball on my head. 

Murmurs of laughter rippled through the congregation. 

— Now for the point, he continued.  We all have our failures. I have failed too. Show of hands: who watched the Seahawks game last night? Wilson should have made a pass to the thirty yard zone, but how could he have known, at the time? It’s hard to make those decisions when we’re caught up in the chaos of life. 

He made a few more jokes and sports and politics that managed to draw out some more murmurs of laughter.

— But the point is, he said, we all have our failures……Jesus says that He forgets our sins. He came to abolish the Law. He called us friends…

Later, Tommy stood in the foyer, pouring his coffee into a foam cup. Michael pulled him away by the arm.

—Catch a ride home with me, he said. You won’t believe what John and me picked up.

—What? said Tommy.

—I can’t tell you now.

—Aw come on, said Tommy.

Michael Power lowered his voice and said:

—John got his hands on a pack of camels.

Tommy was thrown into an internal panic. He had no idea…..he had forgotten what a "pack of camels" was. For a moment he thought he might have to confess to Michael, and then he remembered he had heard it once in a show, in reference to cigarettes. But you couldn’t know for sure. He tried to test it by saying:

—Isn’t that a fire-hazard?

—Naw, there’s no fire-alarms in the basement, said Michael.

—I don’t know, I’ve got a cough and… began Tommy, who was sure by now what it was.

—We’re just gonna try a little, said Michael. Tell your parents you’re just going to my place to hang out.

Tommy thought about it and said, OK.

Grace was sitting at the round table. Tommy thought of going up to tease her, but he couldn’t with her friends all around. Instead, he sat down loudly and tried to enter the conversation.  His forgery was successful, and he said something that made Grace laugh.

—You’re funny, Tommy, Grace teased him. Tommy tried to say something else funny, but the joke died out, and the conversation moved on. He remained silent for the rest of the dialogue, and began think that perhaps Grace’s crowd wasn’t so great, after all. He began to get excited about going to Michael’s, and wished to get away from Grace and her friends.

Then Grace came to him. Tommy, we’re going to get smoothies later, she told him. Would you like to come?

Tommy felt sick. Suddenly the idea of going to Michael’s seemed absurd. Why had he even agreed? For a moment he considered dropping the whole thing. He would tell Michael later that he had discovered other things he needed to do that afternoon.  But surely John and Michael would find out he had gone with Grace. And they would tease him about it.  So he said:

—I already said I was going to Michael’s, trying his best to sound reluctant and obligatory.

Grace gave him a disappointed glance. 

—O, she said. Well, it would have been really nice if you’d have come. What are you doing at Michael’s?

—O, I don’t know what the heck they’re up to now, said Tommy, waving his hand. He wished he had gone all the way through with the swear word, but he couldn’t do it in front of her. Infirm of purpose!

Grace looked as if she was going to say something, but then she simply shrugged and bade him see-you-later.  Tommy wished dearly that things have gone differently, and called after her:

—Come by later.

Grace threw a glance over her shoulder, wearing a half-smile on her face, but not enough to reassure him.

◆   ◆    


Michael Power’s house was in the more wooded part of Tommy’s neighborhood. It was dimly lit and smelled of cat-fur. But what really made it odd was the life-sized likeness of Mr. Power painted directly onto the wall by the staircase. Tommy had passed it often as he descended into the basement, but he never asked about it, for fear it would appear anxious or childish. Tommy once came over for dinner, and Mrs. Power had politely cross-examined him about his family and his school. Tommy only managed to stammer out a few unsatisfactory replies and a lame attempt at humor before lapsing into silence. Mr. Power tried to make a comment, but Mrs. Power shut him up, reminding him that they had changed the subject now.

—Gotta keep up, she said, snapping her fingers.

Mr. Power looked down again and poked at his cold dinner, saying nothing.

The basement door was always hard to identify. More times than once, when Tommy had come upstairs for a bathroom break, he would open up what he thought was the basement door and instead find himself in the food cabinet. This was embarrassing enough, but he became even more self-conscious when he realized that Mrs. Power was always sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of black coffee, watching. He pretended not to notice, but he couldn’t help muttering to himself, loud enough for her to hear:

—Stupid. That’s the food cabinet, not the basement.

When the boys arrived, Mrs. Power informed them that John and Wilken were already waiting downstairs. She also reminded them that when the movie was finished, they were not going to stay down there chatting, or she would come down and send them all home personally. I’m leaving the house to run some errands, she said, so remember not to answer phone calls or anyone who comes to the door. Michael gave Tommy an inside-look of elation. Before he led Tommy into the basement, he locked the door behind them. 

—Just in case she checks in too soon, he told him. Tommy’s heart was thundering horribly.

At the bottom of the staircase, Tommy saw John and Wilken poke their heads out from the door.

—There you are. Where have you been? We tried calling you.

—You better not have started without us, said Michael.

—No, of course not.

Tommy followed Michael down the stairs, and Tommy thought he could already smell the cigarettes.

—Guess what else we got, said John, and he pulled out a cardboard caddy of Jack Daniel’s from a grocery bag. Michael slapped him on the back and congratulated him, asking him how he got it, and everyone seemed extremely pleased. Tommy felt he ought to put something in.

—Hash-tag real-talk, he said. Everyone gave him a look, and Tommy wished he hadn’t spoken.

It took a while to get one of the cigarettes lit, and John wasted three of them before Michael, cursing John, snatched the lighter from him and grabbed one himself, expertly twiddling the small roll in his fingers, as if he had done it all before. He got it right on the first try, which was just dumb luck, as far as Tommy was concerned.

—You exhale through the nose, he explained. In through the mouth, out through the nose. 

He demonstrated. A few weak coughs tried vainly to escape his lips, but he manfully suppressed them by transforming them into a clearing of the throat. He passed it around the circle. All of them coughed some. Tommy figured that it shouldn’t be that hard not to cough. If he could just keep it down, maybe they’d even think he’d done it before.

When Tommy inhaled the smoke, he felt a horrible burning sensation in the back of his palate. The coughing began almost immediately, but it was far worse than his usual coughing fits. This one seemed to resound throughout his head like a gong, and sent a sharp sting up his sinuses. Weak wisps of smoke escaped from both his mouth and nose. 

—Woah, Tommy, are you crying? said one of them.

Tommy tried to say he was fine, but he couldn’t. He gestured for something to drink, and Michael handed him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Tommy chugged down three unhappy gulps, and nearly gagged from the taste of it. This set the three of them laughing.

—You can’t just gulp down whiskey, Tommy, they cried. 

Tommy wiped his eyes. It seemed his whole throat was on fire, but at least he was able to speak.

—You didn’t tell me it was whiskey, he managed to say. 

This made them laugh even harder. Tommy, you didn’t know what Jack Daniel’s was? What did you think it was, apple-juice?

Tommy tried to laugh with them, as much as he could without starting the coughing fit again. This was fun, he thought. He was having a good time. But then the thought occurred to him that right now, he could have been getting smoothies with Grace—beautiful, golden-headed Grace—and for a moment, real tears threatened to form in his eyes. But he mastered it.

—It’s not the smoke, he said finally to Michael after the commotion died down. It’s the phlegm. I told you I was down with something.

Michael’s gaze wandered away from Tommy’s, wearing that half-smile expression. A sudden chill possessed Tommy, because for a moment it looked very much like Grace. The association repelled him, and he pushed it out. If it looked like Grace, it was only a kind of vulgar parody. Both possessed the absence of reassurance; both looked on him from the inside of city walls, but while one seemed to pity him, the other withheld entrance in scornful triumph. Grace shut him out because she couldn’t let him in, but Michael shut him out because he wouldn’t, and relished in the injustice of it. 

 —Have some more whiskey, Wilken said finally. That’ll help you.

Tommy shook his head. He hated Michael’s crowd. He wanted to get back to Grace. He stood up and announced he was ready to go. Michael Power said:

—Hey, hey, come on man, we were just teasing. Can’t you take a joke?

—I have somewhere to be, said Tommy, trying to look as if he were going to cry.

—Where? Where do you need to go? demanded Michael.

Tommy didn’t know. An insane plan began forming in his head to find out where Grace and her friends were getting smoothies. Somehow he would get there, maybe take a bus. And perhaps it wasn’t too late; perhaps they were still there and would be elated to see him. Tommy! Grace cries out. We were hoping you would comeHow was Michael’s?

Ah, boring, replies Tommy, as they pull up a chair for him.  I only went there ‘cause I promised. Gosh, what a stick in the mud…..

—Hey, hey, Tommy, are you listening? interrupted Michael. We’re sorry, okay? Besides, not until Mom gets back …

—Come on, try another whiskey, said Wilken. You’ll get used to it.

They were all staring at him now: the moment was his. Michael sensed his hesitancy.

—You gotta harden up to this stuff, he said. You’re a man now. He’s a man now, right guys?

The other two cheered in approval at Michael’s comment, and various reiterations of you’re a man now, Tommy, circled around the room. Then Michael said:

—But first, we gotta fix you up. We gotta liberate you. That’s what friends do. Trust us; you’ll be grateful we did.

Tommy stared at the drink in his hand. He was still lightheaded from the smoke, but now he saw this to be an unbearable shame. He was resolved to crush his sensitive, understimulated Presbyterian upbringing, for he hated the way it looked on him. At last he would purge himself of all childish traces of naivety and softness, command his body to succumb to his will, beat his unsteady hands into submission and swallow the pain that swayed his purpose. With renewed vigor, he opened the drink, sucked the vile substance, and once again thrust himself into the conversation.

◆   ◆    

When Tommy woke up, the first thing he noticed was that the smell of cigarettes seemed considerably stronger than it had before. Secondly, although he had fallen asleep comfortably on Wilken’s lap, it appeared he had been thrown aside like a parcel, and was dangling half upside-down on the couch. Thirdly he felt a strange warmth on his skin which delighted him, and he wanted to get nearer to it. Lastly he noticed the voices of the boys, all cursing and running about the room.

—Throw your clothes on it! came Michael Power’s voice. Throw your clothes on it, you sons-a-bitches!

Tommy turned himself upright, and saw thin, pale fire, already spread to multiple places on the carpet, now catching the wooden stand where the TV stood.  He never noticed before how beautiful fire was. He wanted to get nearer to it, for he was so very cold…

John and Wilken were now half-naked, having flagged their shirts uselessly and lost them to the fire. Tommy was not frightened, but he felt some vague obligation to assist them. He cracked open the last bottle of Jack Daniel’s and dribbled the contents over the flames. The flame leaped to life and Tommy was engulfed in wonderful warmth and brightness. He glanced at Michael with a watery smile, hoping he would give him a word of approval. But Michael’s expression was incomprehensible; his eyes so wide the lids had nearly disappeared.

—You idiot! he cried. You f—ing idiot!!!

Tommy’s smile faded and the fluttery feelings of comradery and good humor turned into sudden contempt for Michael. He gave an animal-like growl—grrr…ow! and made a lunge for his throat.

For a while several things were happening. Tommy’s arms were interlocked with Michael’s, hands about each other’s necks and faces inches apart, as if they were lovers ready to kiss. Flames flickered around them like the tongues of serpents, while the other two boys, scorched and shirtless, had run up the stairs to the basement door, and had discovered that it was locked. Tommy heard them hammering the wall with their soft fists and crying:

—O my God! O my God!

For a moment Tommy believed he was frozen in that image for all eternity. No one else was there to witness it besides the tall greyscale image of Mr. Power who surveyed the scene with his hands in his pockets, half-smiling, and unable to assist them. In the next moment, it all dissolved, for a blinding light had come flooding in from the top of the stairs. Michael went limp and his body crumpled at Tommy’s feet. Tommy wondered if he was dead. Then he saw the two boys become absorbed into the light, and a white figure standing in their place. He wondered whether he recognized the figure, and then, with a strange mix of relief and fear, he saw Grace come bounding down the stairs.

Tommy! he heard her cry. TomCome out!




27 November 2016

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

This blog is not "moving" strictly speaking, but recently I have become a creator for a student-run newspaper called the Odyssey Online. For a newspaper, I write very little news (nothing's news to me) but if you want more posts of the thoughtful/philosophical bent you are well-advised to find them here, at my very own corner of internet real-estate! It's called "www.theodysseyonline.com/@dokupil". I've already created quite a few figs for your mental consumption, and new content comes out every week! You can also follow me, which benefits the both of us, because you get to stay updated, and I get to have five followers instead of four.

I will still be cranking out content on this blog, but it will probably lean towards more creative and experimental writing like poetry and fiction. And possibly art. So stick around and leave comments, so I know that someone reads this.

Stay beautiful,
-The Minstrel Boy


17 November 2016

Unbound

I had a dream that a thousand books were crashing down on me
yellowed, dusty hard covers that had aged and aged like wine
pages torn from their spine, come to the end of their line.
I braced myself for the overwhelming wealth of words
fluttering fervently with impending proximity
but as they hit my head,
they turned into birds.

they brushed past my cheeks with swift and silky lightness
(some blue, some yellow, some red)
but their talons did not scratch me
and the multitude of beating wings
engulfed me in a whirlwind of breezes
from all directions, the air was thick
with the vibrant spectrum of feathery colors.

every bird (that was once a book) was different,
shimmering with every splash of ink the book once contained
and contained no more. Each was singing
the melody of a story that had at last escaped words
the masculine became males, the feminine, females
and not a single melody felt wrong or out of place
amidst the wild warble of primeval music.

the sound itself I could not understand
but the sheer concentration of urgent energy
caught me up within it and had
me shivering with excitement, excitement
for I knew not what, but it did not matter,
for now I was one of them, dancing, singing, (flying?)
who could say, playing my part
in a four-part symphony larger than life.





And every word was set free
From the tyranny of words
What every word had wished to be
Before it became a bird.





14 October 2016

Farmer Brown

“Hush, Joseph. Someone’s coming up the hill.”

“Another dead one, I’ll warrant. The pace picks up every year.”

“No. Alive.”

“What’s his business up here? Admiring the view? I swear to God folks are so much more sentimental than they used to be. Why, when I was among the living—”

“Hush, Joseph!” said everyone.

It was Farmer Brown. He was carrying a bouquet of flowers in his hands, just like last week.  This time, he chose to lay them on the gravestone of Julia Brown.

“Well, one thing’s certain, he likes you the most,” said the grave of Joseph. “He’s given you more flowers than anyone else. Are you sure you don’t know who he is?”

“I know I’ve seen him before, I just know it,” said Julia Brown helplessly, as she watched Farmer Brown weep silently at her feet. “But it was all so long ago.  You know when you’ve been dead for so long, all the faces of the living begin to look the same. You ought to know best, Joseph.”

“Yes, they all look the same. Ignorant and miserable.”

“Look here,” said one of the cleverer gravestones, who had been an attorney in his waking life. “There’s something fishy about this whole business. This chap has been coming up here for God-knows-how-long. And every time, he chooses the same four gravestones: Edith Brown, Robert Brown, Susanna Harrington, and Julia Brown.  Notice anything peculiar?”

“I don’t see much of a point,” said Joseph blankly.

“Isn’t it obvious?” expostulated the attorney. “Three of you have the same last name.”

“Why, he’s right,” said Julia suddenly. “Now that sure sends a chill up the spine. We could have been—we could have been—”

“So you all have the same last name,” grunted Joseph. “Lots of people have the name Brown. My mother’s maiden name was Brown. Besides, what about this Susanna Harrington? It’s all a coincidence, I tell you.”

“All the same, he still puts flowers on my grave,” said Susanna, a little defensively.

“Stratford has a point, Joseph,” said Robert Brown. “Look at us. We’ve all been placed right next to each other. I think the case could be made that we were all related in our waking life. What do you think, Edith?”

“Yes, it’s all very peculiar,” agreed Edith. “But if it’s true, why can’t we remember him? Surely we should remember him if he were family. If we were family.”

“Like I said, they all look the same,” said Joseph bitterly.

“The question is, who was he?” asked Edith, ignoring Joseph. “Father, brother, cousin?” she hesitated. “Husband?”

“I should have remembered him for sure if he were my husband,” said Susanna, almost dreamily. “He can’t have been that. At least, not my husband.”

“Well, there’s one thing we could do,” said Robert, who was always the reasonable type. “We could read our gravestones.”

“What a swell idea, Robert!” Edith beamed. “I’m proud of you. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“I’ve been meaning to do it for years,” said Robert humbly. “But you know how things are up on this hill. Things like that sort of slip from your mind.”

“Well then, let’s start with yours,” said Edith. “Hm. Here Lies Robert Brown: 1956-1989. Brilliant businessman and talented organist.  May God grant rest to his restless soul. Why, you were only thirty-three years old. Still, it doesn’t tell us much about this fellow here,” she glanced again pitifully at Farmer Brown, who was still on his knees before Julia’s grave. It had begun to drizzle, but Farmer Brown did not seem to notice.

“Read mine, read mine,” said Julia eagerly.

“Now, now, dearie, one at a time,” said Edith. “What does mine say, Robert?”

Edith Brown: 1932-1982. Wife, mother, and friend. Organist for Southern Orthodox Presbyterian Church, before Our Lord took her home. We will miss you, Edith.” Robert whistled. “So then, you were married.”

“I was a wife,” said Edith, in wonder. “And a mother. I wonder how I died?”

Stratford grew ecstatic. “See, see, it’s all coming together!” he exclaimed. “Could it possibly be a coincidence that two people, both with the name Brown, should both be organists? There’s no other explanation!” He sighed in contentment. “No other explanation” had been one of his favorite phrases in the glory days.

Joseph made a loud scoffing noise, but nobody marked him.

“Let’s recap,” said Robert. “You were a wife, mother, and organist. I was an organist and businessman. Could it be—could we have been…”

“There’s no way she could have been your wife,” Susanna interrupted, with a tinge of haughtiness. “First of all, no one would marry you. Secondly, look at your birthday. 1956. She would have been your elder by twenty-four years.  Imagine a marriage like that! She’s old enough to be your mother…”

She trailed off. They all fell into silence as Susanna’s words sunk in. It had stopped drizzling. Joseph coughed.

“That has to be it!” Robert burst out. “You—you were my mother! Well, I’ll be. All these years on this hill and I never knew I was standing right next to my own mother.  Funny what a little conversation can do, eh?”

“You still can’t know that,” Joseph mumbled, although he knew he has lost the argument.

“What about you, Susanna?” said Stratford. “Let’s hear it.”

“I’m always the last one,” complained Julia. “And Joseph said that the man liked me best.”

“You’ll get your turn, Julia. We’ve got plenty of time,” said Robert. “You’re not getting any older,” he added with the ghost of a smile. “Now, let’s take a gander. Here lies Susanna Harrington: 1959-1987. Loving mother of two boys. And then it has a Bible verse at the bottom. Well, that doesn’t tell us much.”

“28 years old,” remarked Susanna. “None of us lived very long.”

“None of us live very long,” growled Joseph.

Robert, losing his patience, turned upon Joseph. “You know, you’ve been griping and grumbling this whole time. It made me realize that we haven’t read your gravestone.”

“Hey now! That’s my affair!” Joseph started, speaking much louder than he intended.

“Robert’s right,” said Edith. “We’ve all been reading our gravestones, Joseph. It’s your turn now.”

“You’ve no right. No right I tell you. That’s private!”

“No one has rights after their dead,” said Robert wisely, “Come on, why get all defensive all of a sudden? There’s nothing to hide up here. Not on this hill.”

“Besides, don’t you want to know what’s written there?” asked Edith. “It seems we’ve all forgotten who we were since we came here.”

Joseph said nothing. He did not want to tell them that he already knew. Robert began.

“Here lies Joseph—” He stopped.

“What’s wrong, Robert?” said Julia, after a silence. Joseph expelled a tragic sigh. He looked as if he were attending his own funeral.

…Joseph Harrington,” continued Robert. “1977-1996. Who loved his mother and brother more than anything else in the world. Joseph, we wish you were still with us.

A deep silence fell over the hill as the sun, made bittersweet by haphazard drizzles, disappeared with disquieting finality behind the western mountains. Farmer Brown had fallen asleep at Julia’s feet.
Edith spoke first.

“Joseph,” she began, more tenderly than before, “why did you never tell us?”

Joseph began to weep sad, ghostly tears. “I just wanted to forget,” he moaned. “That’s all I wanted. Oh God, that’s all I ever wanted. Was that too much to ask? It’s not fair. Why did everyone else forget? I’m the one who wanted to. It’s not fair.”

“Joseph,” Julia whispered breathlessly. “You remember? You remember what was like to be alive?”

“Every damn moment.”

No one said anything. No one knew what to say.

“It was my own fault,” said Joseph miserably. “I was ten years old when my mother died--when you died, Susanna Harrington. You needed surgery, and the procedure went wrong. The doctors overdosed the painkiller and…” he trailed off. The faces of the dead were all looking at him, open-mouthed, mystified by his words.

“You,” continued Joseph, addressing Edith, “You died of breast cancer. Died in the hands of deceiving doctors and deceived loved ones, just like my mother was.  You, Robert, you fought the hardest. But you loved the wine-jar too much. Died of alcohol poisoning. Of all the people I knew in my waking life, you were the only one I remember who died with a smile on his face.” He paused. “I couldn’t stand that.”

“How do you remember all this, Joseph?” asked Edith in amazement. Joseph only shook his head mournfully. And then Julia, sounding reluctant, spoke so quietly it sounded like the rustling of the grass:

“Joseph, how did you die?”

The silence that followed Julia’s words lasted for hours. But no one spoke, and no one thought of changing the subject. It was as if the very air refused to receive words, and would continue to refuse them, until the question had been resolved. By the time Joseph spoke, the moon had taken her post and the sky was throbbing with stars.

“My father told me I needed to be strong,” he began at last. “He said my brother was counting on me. He looked up to me. It’s what Mom would have wanted. If it looked like I was losing hope, he would lose hope too. And I tried. God knows I tried.” He directed this last comment heavenward, with an unmistakable note of accusation in his voice. “But if you don’t have hope, what’s the point in pretending to have it? Even for someone else? You can lie to them, you can lie to yourself, you can dull the truth with painkillers and soften the sting with laughter, but we all know who gets the last laugh: Death.”

At this word, every clock in town—in homes, in churches, in stores, over all the unsuspecting heads of the living—struck midnight.  At that same moment, a chilling wind swept over the hill, passing through Farmer Brown. His body quivered for a moment, then was still: as cold as ice. The Moon, in the height of her glory, cast a single beam of cold melancholy on the hill, and at last the invisible was made visible. Each face in the Brown family, including Stratford, began to form—first hesitantly, then boldly, for they had always been there. Robert, Edith, Susanna, Julia, and Stratford, all glistening in the wispy blue moonlight like snowdrops, possessed a certain holy beauty that inspired awful reverence. They were like the saints of old, and Farmer Brown—if he had been awake—would have fallen on his knees at the sight of them. But Joseph, hunched in the shadows of the forest, only half-touched by the moon’s light, was barely recognizable. His shape, indistinct and beast-like, thrashed violently in the breeze and looked as if it bore some horrific scowl.

Robert spoke. “Joseph,” he said in gentle rebuke, “You know very well Death need not have the last laugh. You said yourself that I died with a smile on my face.”

Joseph did not regard this, but continued with his story. “I grew tired of pretending,” he said. “I loved a girl in high-school, but it didn’t last long. She said I took everything too seriously. That’s what everyone says, but that’s because they don’t know. They don’t know the truth about life. I know what’s beneath it all. One night, I was alone in my apartment. My room-mates were out for the weekend enjoying themselves—weed, orgies, nightclubs—the usual stuff. I locked the door, swallowed enough painkillers to kill ten men, curled up on the couch, and died.”

“Oh, Joseph!” cried Susanna, with real anguish in her voice, “if only you had waited! If only you had waited for Death to take you in his own time!”

“Did Death wait for you?” retorted Joseph, as he writhed in the darkness. “You were twenty-eight! Twenty-eight! And you, Robert, well, you practically killed yourself. What’s the difference between you and me, really?”

“Joseph,” said Edith, with sudden tenseness, “be careful what you say.”

“I knew I was going to die,” Joseph went on hysterically. “I watched every single one of you drop off like flies. For the love of Christ, Julia was only eight! I knew, I just knew down in my gut, that I was next. And I wasn’t going to let it get to me. I thought that if I approached Death first, I would at least have the better of him. I would seize his throat before he seized mine. And then, best of all, I would forget it ever happened.” And then, with a red-hot rage that had been burning in the bottom of his heart, he threw up his face and wailed to the stars in unholy wrath. “But still, after all I went through, the joke was always on me! I thought that it was the only way. I thought I could blot out every single moment and memory of my life. I never knew—no one ever told me—that when a man takes his own life, he remembers it forever. They make you remember it. They grind it into your head so deep that you have to watch it happen—over and over again—for the rest of your God-damned existence. Why did no one ever tell me? Did they hate me so much as to wish this upon me?”

His words seemed to be swallowed up by the blackness, and no one—not even an animal in the forest—rose up in answer.

Stratford spoke up, awkwardly. “You know, it just occurred to me: we never got to reading Julia’s gravestone. She’s waited long enough, hasn’t she?”

“Oh. Of course,” said Robert, a little surprised. “Julia, would you like…”

“No,” answered Julia, not unkindly, but with a mysterious firmness.  “I mean, it would be nice to know,” she admitted, somewhat doubtfully. Then suddenly, her face grew beautiful beyond description, and she said, “But it just occurred to me that it doesn’t matter.”

As she was speaking, the early birds of morning let out their first warble.  It was almost as if the very sound of her voice had commanded them.

Dawn was coming. Joseph, still muttering and groaning to himself, grew more and more indistinguishable under the budding light until his shape disappeared altogether. But the five other ghosts did not fade.  On the contrary, they seemed to be becoming more and more solid and wholesome by the moment.  Slowly, knowingly, they turned their faces to the East, where a gush of orange warmth was growing on the horizon so rapidly that they both yearned and dreaded its’ arrival…



And Farmer Brown opened his eyes to the brightest sunrise he had ever seen.