Where Are The Castles In The Sky?

ADKclouds

When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river.  There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river.  Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course.  I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.

My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky.  She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.

“Look,” she’d say.  “See that cloud?  It’s shaped like a whale.”

I’d look and wonder.  Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.

“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.

“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine.  Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.

I think this is what she said.  I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words.  But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.

I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.

In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“What do you see?” I asked Erin.

She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.

“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said.  “Daddy, do you see it?”

“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday.  That cloud is only yours to imagine.”

Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up.  “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book.  It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said.  ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.

“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.

Many years later, I would  manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created.  My children are both adults now.  I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights.  The castles I saw were dark and menacing.

Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes.  I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.

After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up.  I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.

I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren.  It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky.  A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.

A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river.  I was with my wife.  The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods.  When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course.  This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable.  But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.

Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky.  She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes.  I asked her what she remembered.

“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.

“Maybe someday,” I said.

Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife.  Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.

“Yes, mom,” I said.  I see it all.”

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My Grave Nightmare: A Halloween Story

SpookyImage

Was it a day in full blinding sun or a night in deep gloomy shadows?  Was I asleep?  Awake?  I don’t remember.  No, it was both.  I wandered about in my dream with my eyes open, my dream that quickly became a nightmare.

What I looked upon were reflections of my darkest thoughts and fears.  My sub-conscience was trapped in the dreaded landscape of the land of the dead–the churchyard, the cemetery, God’s Little Acre, the lawns and fields of the departed.

AngelOverlookingGraves

The angel stood on the rock and watched over the mute stones.

“O, What has come into this world that these once vital souls, who lived, loved and danced and sang must now repose until the Day of Judgement?”

I stood watching a man mourn the loss of his wife, lover, child, parent or self.  He cannot bear the loneliness of existence.  He pulls at the door.  It is solid and firm in its closure.  The door is thick bronze.  I touch his shoulder to offer solace.  He, too, is bronze.  It’s all metal and stone except for the dust that lies within.  He will remain in this torment until the acids of the rain reduce him to molecules.

BronzeAtDoor

I walk on.  I don’t know why I do this.  I know what awaits me behind the next tree or over the next hill.  I walk into the trees.  Roots have begun to ensnare a gravestone.  The trees will absorb the crystals in another century.  Then, who will remember?  Where will the flowers be placed?  Where will the tears be spilled?

RootedGrave

The only comfort for my eyes are the green and living leaves, mosses and lichens.  Objects with life hold firmly to the ultimate symbol of death.

True irony.

I leave the dark trees and stand to meditate the monument before me.  I read the inscription.  It’s not an epitaph–it’s a promise:

Somewhere in Mexico–when you were hurting and in despair, I sent my angel to comfort you.  You are not alone.  I will be with you even unto the end of the earth. 

ComfortAngelCaption

There is an old house with an open door.  I grew up and passed from childhood into manhood in an old house.  I must enter.  I walk into the foyer and along the hallway.  There she is.  The transparent image of a long-ago lover.  Or is she the sister I never had? Or is she my mother as a beautiful youth?  Or is she someone unknown to me–coming to hold my wrinkled hand and place her young cold lips on my warm cheek.

Instead, she passes through me and ascends the stairs to meet another shade–someone her own age to play with–someone as spectral as she.  I watch her ascend the stairs and experience an overwhelming sense of melancholy.  I wished to know her in life.  I probably would have given her my heart–the heart she would break when she passed away.  My heart breaks as easily as ancient Oriental porcelain.

SpiritGirl

I leave the house to her spirit.  I whisper a prayer for her restless soul.  Does anyone hear my words?  I walk on into a monochromatic world.  There at my feet is the grave of a man who is holding…is it his own face?  The head of someone he is longing for?  The visage of a family member?  I walk by and he continues to stare, without terror or anger into another pair of eyes.

HoldingHead

I have seen too much for a living and mortal mind to comprehend.  I want to be awake.  I don’t care if it’s just past mid-night or if the sky in the east is becoming pale.

Pale!  Enough pale! I want to be amongst the living and the breathing.  I want to mingle with lovers who embrace with a terrible passion for life.  I want to walk along flowered paths rich with bees and insects and birds singing for the company of a mate.  I want to help a lame farmer till his field, an old woman with arthritic joints knead her bread, a teacher tell his students the truth about life, calm a couples angry words, write a song a child will love, write a book that will make a man weep, kiss a wanton woman, drink a dark ruby wine, eat a mushroom in a desert, draw a picture that a blind person could see, dig a grave, speak words at a burial, pour Holy Water on an infant’s forehead, stand on a mountain peak so very sharp and pointed that the highest crystal pierces my thick boot soles and makes my foot bleed so that red stains on the heather will guide a lost soul to the low meadows.

I can feel sleep falling away.  But, I sit up in bed, still in a deep slumber and see my last vision for the night.

It’s the Angel of the Fog.  But is she fading away or growing more real?

FoggyAngel

I rise and boil water for tea.  I wrap myself in flannel.  I rub the Sandman’s leftovers from the corners of my eyes.  I am fully awake and fully alive.  I will use and live this day to its fullest.  I will live with faith and hope.  As I slowly stir a drop of honey into my tea, I begin to wonder…

What will tonight bring me as I put my book down and let the dark envelop me?

My Dreams Are Made Of Iron And Steel

GoyaNightmare

I don’t dream the way I did in past years.  I miss that because those nighttime adventures were something to behold.  The visions of H. P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker and Steven Spielberg were mere cartoons when compared to the places I would go in the hours beyond midnight…when REM sleep was most active.

Very rarely do I wake in the morning with the words, “Holy Crap” on my lips and the burning desire to tell my wife what just happened inside my brain.  But, I found I couldn’t put my dreams into words that could come close to describe the worlds I wandered in while my eyes were closed and reality didn’t exist..for those moments.

Some people claim they don’t dream, but scientists find that nearly everyone does…they just don’t remember anything.  I still remember, in vivid detail, the landscapes of the night that I found myself wandering in sixty years ago.

Some of those after images are a delight to recall…but many are places I never want to revisit.

When I was a little boy, I had a great deal of trouble falling asleep.  I still do.  But, my dreams as a child were not of lambs jumping fences or riding across the prairie, bareback, on “Old Paint”.  No, I had odd dreams of odd objects that would sometimes chase me or kill someone I loved.  We had a long hallway in our house.  I had this one frequent dream that a giant ball was rolling down the hallway and if I didn’t move, I would be crushed.

I always moved.

There was a dream (?) I had in my youth that went like this: My brother, Chris and I were walking through the woods of Beecher Hill when we pushed through the trees and found ourselves in Evergreen Cemetery.  I remember being terrified enough that Chris had to carry me like a baby until we made it through to the front gates.  The odd thing about this, is that I’m not totally sure it didn’t really happen.

As a teenager, I began to have dreams that were intensely erotic.  Most males (if not all) go through this.  As I moved into adulthood, the nature of the eroticism changed, but it still left me with sweat on my forehead in the morning.  The females in these dreams were people who I knew, sometimes.  But, more than once, these beings were goddesses, sirens and dreamy forms of feminine beauty.  Alas, these kinds of dreams rarely visit me.  Perhaps its my mind’s way of giving me a visual demonstration of my lowering hormone levels that come with aging.

Too bad, I had some good times with some naughty ladies of the night.

FairyOnCresentMoon

But often, too often, my night-time travels would take me to dark and desolate places where death sat in old wing-back chairs, layered in dust.  That image comes from a monumental dream I had in the 1970’s or ’80’s.  I found myself on the edge of a city.  I needed to pass through to the other side of town…but to do so, I had to walk through an immense cemetery…a necropolis…a stone city of mausoleums and crypts.  In these large houses, I would encounter the dead positioned in the manner of their lives.  I recall a table of gamblers, covered in cobwebs and dust.

I hesitate to describe what the rest of my trip to the far side of the city was like.  Just know it wasn’t pleasant, but it was memorable.

DarkSpookyWoods

When I went to live in England for a year in 1984, I knew I was only going to see my daughter at the Christmas holidays when she would fly over with my mother, brother and niece.  I had numerous dreams about her being in mortal danger.  Once, I was caught in a basement of a store in Owego, NY when tornadoes struck.  I looked out the windows and they appeared like black vipers, twisting and hissing and snapping at everything.  But my daughter was back at my home on Front Street.  I had to get to her and rescue her.  When I finally made it to the back door of our house I went into the kitchen and found her sitting on a stool crying.  Once, in an Owego that really wasn’t Owego, I stood and watched her being crushed by a flying Brontosaurus.

Now, that’s strange stuff, but the images are still with me.

When I moved away from New York City in 2011, I had frequent dreams of being lost in a Manhattan that didn’t look at all like the real place.  And I had these dreams over and over…so many times that I knew which subway I needed to take to get home…a home that wasn’t my home and in a city that existed only in my mind.

Well before I retired from teaching, I began to have the “teacher’s nightmare”.  It’s quite common.  I’ve spoken to a number of educators and they all say that when they dream about teaching, it’s always the same.  With me, I can’t find my class, I’m lost in the school, I’m on a field trip and something happens and I know I’m responsible for those kids.

It fills your school holidays with anxiety.  There’s no rest from a group of 5th graders.

But, the oddest thing about my dreams is that I rarely dream about the most important people in my life.  My wife shows up once in a while.  When my older brother Chris, died in 1995, I had only a few dreams about him…and in those dreams, he was almost always standing in the yard or in the room and not saying a word.  Silently, he watches.

I went through a period of intense nightmares…ones that would have me sit up in bed and scream.  Often, these involved someone or something coming toward me with a noose or a gun.  The threat was immediate.

RedonFace

Not at all like the one dream my brother, Denny, told me he had in the early 1960’s.  His nightmare was that he was being chased down Main Street in Owego, by Nikita Khrushchev who was shaking an axe at him.

No wonder he turned out to be a Republican.

But, I feel now that the nights of my truly fantastic, sometimes morbid dreams, of flying, falling toward the ocean or swimming with a mermaid are drawing to a close.

Maybe I’m all dreamed out.  Maybe the incredible visuals I experienced are spent.

Sleep, when it does come to me, is getting boring.

Ship&Moon

[Note: The title is a line from Bob Dylan’s Never Say Goodbye.  Appropriate.]

My Search For The Mythic Buns Of The Woman’s Shoe Salon in Macy’s

Princess Leia Bun

This whole situation started because the front pockets of my jacket zip down instead of up.  This may seem like a small matter but it is not a good thing because it can make it easier to lose such things as Metro Cards, iPhones, keys, hotel key card, reading glasses, sunglasses, pens and notebooks.

Things I keep in the front pockets of my jacket.

So, I did what anyone in this neighborhood would do…I went to Macy’s to look for a jacket that had proper pockets.  The escalator took me to the second floor and I stepped off in the middle of the Woman’s Shoe Salon.  How could I know that the next few seconds would change my immediate future and put me  on a quest for a woman with the most interesting buns I have ever seen.

I first saw her as I was standing next to a single display of a Cut-out Booty with Wedge Heel.  I wasn’t here to shop for a Caged Heel With Open Mesh Fronts, Salvatore Ferragamo or a Low Heeled Mule by Manolo Blahnik (although the Leopard Print Cork Sandals did have some interesting features).

I was really looking for a jacket to solve my zipper problem.  I needed to find Men’s Outerwear.  I was thinking of a Barbour jacket…after all, my birthday was coming up.

Instead, she walked into my life and just as quickly, walked out.  Does that make for a simply passing encounter or was there something more mystical going on here?  I prefer the latter because she appeared and vanished leaving a deep and lasting impression with me.  That puts it into the mystical category in the notebook that I keep in life.

Sometimes the most extraordinary experiences can happen in the most ordinary of places…even a Shoe Salon.  Perhaps the stars were aligned in a correct way, or the waxing gibbous moon over the City carried a spell…or maybe it was the blankets of yellow tulips that covered the flower beds of Central Park and floral pots on every block.

Whatever it was, something fell into an order and set in motion a series of events that can cause a man to question his sanity, moral standards, and logic and simply leaving him questioning whether his heartbeats were visible to the public through his fleece vest and the jacket with the wrong zippers.

It happened to me on the last day of April, 2015.

This woman’s destiny is to haunt my nights, alter my daydreams and question if I was the only human to actually see her.  Actually, I wasn’t the only one to see her because I saw her stop to answer a customer’s question.  I noticed a lanyard around her neck with a plastic card attached.

She must work here!

She answered the question with a few finger gestures to direct the customer to what she wanted.  Then she vanished behind a wall…you know, the place in a shoe store where the clerk will say:

“I think I can find that in another color, just give me a minute.”  Then the clerk goes behind some wall and returns with the correct box.  But, this lady was no clerk.  She was a manager of some kind.  You can always determine this fact by watching how fast managers walk.

The woman didn’t reappear.  I stood against a column.  I looked to the right and saw six marble stairs that led to the Men’s Outerwear Department.

I was torn.  Wait or look for the jacket with the big pockets?  I reached (with difficulty) in my pocket and gripped my iPhone.  If she reappeared, I was going to do one of two things.  Snap a candid from the hip without her knowing it, or politely approach her and ask permission if I could take her photo.

By now, you are wondering what it was about this woman who so fascinated me.  Well, the answer is really quite simple.  It was her buns.

Now, those of you who think they know me are expecting me to make this some kind of lame joke about tushes.  Shame on you!  That’s not where this is going at all.

It was, you see, her hair.

I admit to being attracted to some hair styles.  Being Irish, red and curly is high on my list.  But this woman had two buns over each ear that made one think of an Art Nouveau goddess.  You simply do not see women in “real life” wearing their hair in such a fashion.  Along with her ankle length dress, she looked like she had stepped out of a silent movie or a work of art.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that the closest comparison I can give you is the style worn by Princess Leia in “Star Wars”.  But her’s were black and somehow unreal.  The woman I had seen…her hair was not golden, not copper…but somewhere in the spectrum between. (I think each bun sparkled slightly, but I wouldn’t give my good word on it.)

Again, she was real (?) and not on her way to a costume party.  I may never again see such a coif in my life.

I pulled out my iPhone and pushed the button for the Camera mode.  Then I realized that a man holding a camera in a woman’s Shoe Salon (wearing a jacket with odd front zippers on the pockets) might alarm Security.

I gave it up and went up the six marble steps to Men’s Outerwear.  There I found a Barbour with a price tag of $399.00 (plus tax).  It had the best pockets I’ve ever seen, but quite out of my price range.

Another dream shattered.  I’ll never own a Barbour.  And, I’ll most likely never see the woman with the beautiful buns again.  But, I don’t give up easily.  I put the Barbour back on the rack and went back toward the escalator in the Woman’s Shoe Salon.  I looked around again.

She wasn’t there.

But that didn’t stop me from going back for the next four days and having a look.

Cartoon Buns style

 

 

 

The Bubble Man of Montreal

He was a dream-maker, a writer of love letters and a magician in a black frock coat; he played out his act in the square in front of the Basilique of Notre-Dame in Montreal.  He was like a pilgrim doing his penance, with the Basilique keeping watch on his movements.

The man appeared, without seeming to come from any place in particular.  The space by the frozen fountain in the Place d’Armes was empty.  I turned my head to look at something and then turned back only to find him preparing his magic show.  He had a plastic basin that was half-filled with water.  There was a dark blue bottle of a soap making liquid.  In his hands, he held a long cord that had several loops along its length.

He seemed impervious to the gusts of cold wind in the square.  These gusts caused most of the people to turn up their collars and the children to reach to their parents for the warmer gloves.

As I stood on the curb of the Rue Notre-Dame, he began his act.  He mixed the liquid and the water, dipped his rope into the basin and, pulling it out, a hundred soap bubbles appeared and were promptly blown away by the wind.

Soap bubbles have always held a fascination for me.  They are indeed very strange objects.  Thin and magically iridescent they became symbolic of three things for me.  They are like dreams, appearing out of no place in particular and making their way through our sleep.  But dreams, like the bubbles can start out perfectly round and then degenerate into amoeba-like motions and become disturbing in their irregularity.  And then they burst, causing us to sit up in bed, shaken and worried about what went wrong with the dream.

They are like love letters.  Created by a motion of the hand and sent on their way.  Most burst like bubbles, but unlike bubbles, real love letters can be bundled in ribbons, boxed and put aside.  Someone, decades from now, will find them and discover secret loves and evidence of connections hitherto unknown.

Finally, they are also like a life.  They are born with a motion, then sent outward to drift, with or without direction and following the whim of the wind, they too, burst.

Curious.

The man had attracted a fair number of people of all ages, but most were children.  It was then that I noticed a pattern.

The young ones had an irresistible urge to pop the bubbles.  They were too young to see the symbolic nature of these amazing creations. They failed to see the future in the wobbly spheres.  They giggled as they ran among the shapes and popping them.

One thing I did not see was any older person chasing and bursting the floating symbols.  They were watching the shapes drift away.

They were watching their old love letters, dreams and magic drift away…only to burst somewhere, around the corner and down some side street.

BubbleGuy2

The Thing in the Claw Foot Bathtub

Go ahead, think of a childhood dream.  Make it a cuddly, warm and fuzzy dream where someone you love is with you adoring you and keeping you safe.  It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it…recalling that dream?  You awoke in the morning with pleasant thoughts that stayed with you throughout the day.  Now, think of a nightmare that drew you from sleep. You jerked, cried and maybe screamed, that someone or something was going to “get you”.  Perhaps you awoke in the pitch dark of your bedroom and no one heard you cry.  That wasn’t nice, was it?

Now, think of a memory from childhood. Something you’re sure really happened. It may have been a camping trip where spooky stories were told around a bonfire.  Or, it may have been walking through Times Square, many decades ago, and seeing the Camel billboard with the puff of smoke blowing out from between the man’s lips.  You know this was real because you can read about the famous billboard in popular culture books of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  But what about that memory of you standing in some unknown relative’s house, with the entire family watching you, while your father struggled to get your thick bulky snowsuit off?  And what about another distant relative your family visited one afternoon so many years ago.  Did this “uncle” really have a massive model railroad setup in his basement?  That was probably about 1954…or was it 1955?  But the question nags you; did that really happen or was it just a dream?

These dreams, good and bad, and those troubling memories can get confused in your brain. You never really know for sure.

Like the time, when I was a child and I went upstairs to take a bath.

I lived in a large old house with five bedrooms.  There were two full bathrooms upstairs and a toilet near the living room, downstairs.  My parents bought the house in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so I spent my childhood years in that big, old and drafty mansion.  It had a cellar that terrified me with its darkness.  The attic? Forget it. Up there dwelt beings that spent all their time in attics, never coming down…always staying behind the door in the hallway that led up those old wooden stairs.

To avoid confusion, we gave names to many of the rooms in the house.  Names like “The Dogs Kitchen”, the “Back Room” or the “Upstairs Back Room”.  The bathrooms were “The Blue Bathroom” which was once painted blue, but I never saw it that color, only the pink flowered wallpaper that covered the old blue paint.  The other bathroom had two names: “Dad’s Bathroom” because it was close to the room where he slept alone.  Behind a glass door at the end of the hall, he had a veritable suite to himself. The other name was the “Back Bathroom”.  It was isolated and always seemed chilly even in the summer.  It’s tiny window faced east so it lost sunlight early.  I could scrape rime ice from the inside of the window in the winter.  It also had an old “claw foot” tub.  This is where I was heading to take a bath one evening.

I pushed the door open and nearly fell backward when I glanced at the thing in the tub.  I simply could not believe what I saw. How and when it got there was beyond me.  No one had said anything.  No one prepared me.  There in the tub, was a frozen pig, sliced neatly in half from snout to tail.  It must have been there all night because it had begun to thaw. A full-size pig that had been frozen as hard as granite would take some time to go completely soft.  But it had started.  I looked at the feet, the pigs feet, and saw blood slowly run along the bottom of the tub and take a few swirls before going down the drain.

I may have run. I may have walked. But I got out of the room faster than a rat heads for its hole.

My dad took me back upstairs and explained that he had joined a food buying program at the local GLF store. If you bought things in large quantities, you’d get a hefty discount.  So he bought half a pig.

Later my brothers stood around the tub and watched the slow thaw soften the flesh. My geeky older brother, the science guy, pointed out the various organs, despite the fact that most were shown in cross-section and were represented by only 50% of the original.  I avoided looking at the head, not wanting to see the half brain.  I assume it was dead and solidly frozen when the saw began its cut. But I couldn’t help to imagine how a thought or a memory gets split like that in only a few seconds.  I knew nothing about brain hemispheres then.  Perhaps, if the half pig were alive, it could have dreamy thoughts of the sow in the other paddock, but couldn’t comprehend the swill that filled the trough in the middle of the sty.  I wondered about these things.

Months later, the body was gone.  Some of it was eaten for dinner and some of it was cut up and placed in our deep freezer…the one in “The Dogs Kitchen”  that looked like an oversized white coffin. It too was also part of the buy-in-bulk deal.

I made my father wash out the tub several times.  He assured me it was quite clean, but the tub was never the same after that.  It was years before I could take a bath in it.  Can energies of the departed occupy solid objects?  Ghosts, we all know, can walk through doors, walls and even living people.

Can a tombstone, a house, an axe, a tree, a small plot on a battlefield become “owned” by something, some kind of spirit that we cannot see or touch?

I’m middle-aged now.  One hobby is to browse antique stores for interesting objects from the past.

When I come upon a claw foot bath tub…I keep walking.

 

© 2012 Patrick Egan