– simple thoughts & writings &c. by Elizabeth Heimbaugh –

Category: Prose

Afternoon Tea

Teapot

The bell was sounding time for tea as monks walked barefoot into the empty parlor. Every monk wore a flower pinned lightly to the top of his long brown robe, and the room smelled delightful.

Once all the monks were settled in—there were ten or twelve altogether—the bell ceased its chiming and the tea was poured. Green, black, hibiscus leaf—each cup was chosen according to the mood and sensibilities of its drinker. If the tea was too hot, a monk passed the cup to his neighbor, who would blow on it politely with a modest puff of wind, and then consider it cooled by the breath of the Spirit.

Meanwhile, outside, as the monks enjoyed their tea (one slow sip at a time), a nightingale-bird began to sing a beautiful song. It was the sort of melody that made a man remember all of his sweetest loves and the happiness of moments long ago lost to time. But since it was still only afternoon, the appearance of the nightingale caused some surprise, and the monks widened their eyes in glee. Most remained silent, though one or two laughed or hummed with pleasure. In the corner, the oldest and most venerable of the holy men—whose name has been forgotten with the haze of years—smiled mysteriously and closed his eyes. The tea bubbled warm in his belly as the nightingale sang, taking him, as if in flight, to distant lands of the most impossible beauty and the simplest repose.

A Kiss of the Cross

My notes from this afternoon.

In a country town fifty-seven miles south of Lexington, Kentucky, a woman found a cross lying in the dirt, just beside a patch of lilies in their springtime bloom. The woman knelt to look at the cross; she held it in between her fingers and felt the wood, which had been smoothed by time.

There might not have been anything remarkable about the incident, except that the woman had been praying in the church for many days, petitioning for a sign that the stirrings of her heart were leading her to solid ground–to something not buffeted by the velleities of the town’s politics, or fashions, or weather. This was a simple plea, borne of a desire to grasp that which demands to be felt in the soul. That is to say, it was the act of a woman living only in the hope that whatever mystery congealed and grew in her heart was the truth of existence as such. There could be no arguing this point, as those who have been acquainted with a similar sensation–with an urgent insistence on confirming that belief on which everything, everything, hinges–can only agree, remembering their own pain and yearning.

Does this seem abstruse or impossible to make sense of? Doubtless, the words I have found to relate this incident are sloppy, only half-suited to their purpose. But they will do. For the chief thing is this: when in possession of a truth which is greater than the sum of its parts, the soul must burst into being in the conviction of this truth, and its utter essentialness to life as we know it–or else the soul will be silenced into a state of non-being, a non-life spent suffering the pain of being denied that which is believed, in the deepest parts, to be true.

But enough of these abstractions. For the woman, the cross, found so suddenly and so simply in the dirt, brought a moment of joy which none but herself could have understood. For her, the cross was a powerful assent to the conviction that had been pounding in her chest these many days–a sign of her holiness in the midst of something ugly, common, and unkind. If you wanted to ask the woman why she was so affected by the sight of the cross, she would not have been able to say. But that is only because the soul, when it wants to talk of the things it holds dearest, loses the power to imagine that words are somehow sufficient, or even relevant, anymore.

The way of the soul is to simply lose itself in the knowledge of that which it desires, and to leave the rest to unfold as it will. If you have doubts about what I have said, you must only ask yourself–“What is the meaning of my life?”–and observe the ponderous silence that follows as your whole being is engrossed in the contemplation of indefinable things.

Beginnings Are Easy…

It seems that all I write is nonsense, or else beginnings. I combed through my journal and found these odds and ends, many of which remind me that I rarely get beyond the first two or three or four sentences of a story before abandoning it. Oh, boy!

John was a boy I knew when I was young and growing up. He is impossible to forget. He charmed some and sent others angrily huffing away. He was no stranger to controversy and paid little mind to tact. This was, some thought, a blessing, for he said what he meant and there was no fussing around. He was unashamed of speaking his mind and unapologetic for his way of being: an existential success, you might say, for to do otherwise would mean saying sorry for being himself.

I don’t know why I bother with so many varieties of containing my thoughts and making sure everything in my essence is perfect. That’s incredibly impossible. I can’t contain myself—I’d be a walking bubble-wrap. How dull.

A short exercise of expansion and contraction: writing 1, then 2, then 3, … then 10, then 9, then 8, … then 1 sentence(s). 

Oh! Dear me! I can’t believe! John is getting married! I never would have thought. He swore himself an eternal bachelor. The young lady must be something special. Nothing short of a miracle could tame him. He was the wild bird, always spreading his wings. Freedom, he cried, was the sole master of his life. And now his yawp is replaced by wedding bells. I wonder, has he finally let himself love? His heart has been shivering for years. Always the adventurer, but too aloof. Something stubborn in his solitude. But his heart changed! So I’m told. What news! My!

The tales we choose to pass on
Are always the ones
That found a place in our hearts
That no one had tapped on before—
No one had knocked on the door—
And made—one—from many parts,
As warm as the suns
In the dreams we thought were gone.

There was a boy—they called him Luc—with a simple heart and an imagination that never slept. His appearance was unextraordinary, for his face was milk-white, his hair the color of straw burnt in the sun. His legs were neither long nor short, with little muscles that contracted when he ran the way home from school.

A painter lost his will to see.
There are no flowers worth recording
Unless the breath that animates them
Passes through and tickles them with a breeze.

Once upon a time, there was a boy with beautiful blond hair and sad brown eyes. He grew up to be a kind but quiet man, handsome and generally admired by the people of the town, but he himself never expressed anything beyond what politeness required of him. His father was a nobleman and a widower, for his wife—the boy’s mother—had died the day her first and only child was born. The father had a forgiving and gentle nature and the boy never once saw his father stirred to raising his voice or his hand in a menacing way. The boy took after his father—his mother was of a more outgoing and sanguine temperament—and walked and sat and rode and slept all with a gentle mien.

The word beautiful is not a harmless word. In fact it carries inside its compact quarters a great wealth of power.

There are noble people who do what needs to be done, simply because it needs to be done.

My body, though, is stubborn and resists a thousand times over the inclination to act from duty alone. It is a herculean struggle: a fight—invisible to the onlooker—but crying war at the level of my cells. I won’t act for the sake of mere necessity. I should, and I would like to, but I won’t.

There must be a fundamental part of me that holds out for the ideal of desire. The need to do things from desire, rather than from mere compulsion or feelings of duty. Desire is the ingredient that makes an action come alive.

Ultimately,  I don’t think we can ever miss out on the desires that are really centered in our hearts.

Sometimes the moon
Knows your thoughts
And shivers with light.

The illumination
Touches your chin
As you sit in the garden and think.

The dead man rang a bell from under the dirt.
All the mice ran toward it.
It had a shimmering sound: thin, light, scattered into pieces of earth.

Fishbone soup:
A bone and a scale
Float like a sail
In a sea of goop.

I wish people would be sensitive enough to be sincere and respect another person’s vulnerability. It’s a rotten thing to lead someone to care about you and then leave her lost and confused because your trust was shaky and flew into pieces when the pressure was on.

Once upon a time, a boy married a girl. The girl was pretty and the boy was handsome, of course. Their names were forgotten a long time ago, but we can call them Daniel and Emeline, for these names are unobtrusive and dignified, so they will suffice. Emeline doted on Daniel and he was kind to her all their days.

This is just to say:
Your eyelashes are long
But your attention is short.

There is no room in the lunatic bin for you.
We only accept the really crazy ones—and, as far as we can tell, you are merely offbeat.

The cat and the rat sat down to tea. You didn’t expect that, now, did you!

The Beginnings of a Story about Joseph

The beginnings of a story about Joseph. I don’t know where it’s headed. Perhaps I will sit down to continue it soon. But, for now, the rough sketches of an entry-point: 

Joseph was a fine man born in the latter part of spring. He was always working in the fields, growing wheat, until the time he was eighteen. At eighteen, he was called away to war and rode in a boat that carried him overseas and dropped him on shore many miles from home. He was a good soldier, tidy and loyal and not inclined to dispute. He simply did his job without remark and each night he came back to his bunk and fell into heavy and dreamless sleep. Sometimes, on Mondays, he wrote letters home, to his aunt and his uncle who raised him (for his parents had died when he was three years old). He wrote simple and affectionate lines, never filling more than a page or two, undramatically sending his love and relieving any fears that he was underfed or underslept, &c. &c. And then, at last, after many months—more than a year—the war tapered off to a few diffuse skirmishes and Joseph was sent home. He was nearly twenty by then and his aunt and his uncle, after making sure all his limbs were intact and his belly full of biscuits and cream, started to talk to him of marriage. Joseph, it happens, was a handsome, if solemn, man. His chin was cut clean and sure and his eyes were deep and brown. No one could pretend that his was an unattractive face; although, for some, its solemn expression marred the beauty and made it undesirable.

Joseph stayed mostly quiet through the whole affair. His aunt stuffed him with gossip about the girls from town—how they admired his curls, how they blushed when he walked into the post office to send some letters—and he would smile at his aunt obligingly, saying little. From time to time his uncle shot him a look of compassion, but he, too, had decided that marriage was the only happy fate for a young man. Joseph, always dutiful, nodded his head and did not protest.

One day, while Joseph was out in the fields (for he had returned to his old work of growing wheat), a great gust of wind blew across the earth.

Quick Nonsense

A few quick exercises in nonsense. Read only for fun!

The fish and the cat became friends when the dog died. They lived in a blue house on a suburban street in the middle of a country whose name I forgot. It was well and good to say they were an odd couple—for surely they were—but it was also true that they had a striking synergy that kept them in good spirits all day long.

Dear John,

There are too many ways to tell you to get lost.

I can’t settle on just one.
So why don’t you try on a couple of these for size?

Your beard always scratches my face.
I bought you boots for your birthday because boots are made for walking.
The hair on my head is not yours for the counting anymore.

Sincerely,
Me

Oh my, how the weeds have grown! I can’t stop counting their seeds. Soon they’ll be bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than the house we live in! How can anyone stand the attack? They advance fast and lively—quicker than a dart—and then, before you can blink, they’ve surrounded you. What do you make of that? It’s a metaphor for life, you see. It’s a way of talking about evil without really naming the beast. Clever, isn’t it? The weeds are doing us in. They’re ugly: a canker sore on the mouth of man. They’ll make us dead to the earth before we know it. They’ll make us think of the things we love and twist our minds until we believe we hate them. Oh my, how they weeds have grown!

Old: Imitation (I)

Some of my own writing, styled in the manner of various texts by authors studied in a literature class.

In the style of Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” 

Akaky Akakievich was seated at the far end of the table, from where he could catch a glimpse of the kitchen as the door swung open and closed and the platters, piled with all the supping things, came floating through. At the sight of a particularly delightful torte, he jumped a little in his chair and bumped the arm of his dining companion, who, Akaky Akakievich saw as he turned to extend an apology, was hovering with his nose very near the surface of the table at Akaky Akakievich’s left. He seemed not to have noticed the disturbance. There was no one on the opposite side of the man – in fact, there were no other chairs this far from the host, who sat, reveling, at the head of the table – and Akaky Akakievich privately thought that this, very possibly, was a fortunate thing. The man was dressed in such finery befitting to the most senior of clerks; his jacket was blue with velvet lapels (and here Akaky Akakievich felt a sudden pang of longing for his own coat, which he pictured in his mind, luminous in the dark of the crowded cloak room), and at each wrist a gold button shone, engraved with some complex figure Akaky Akakievich could not make out. But beneath the fine jacket the man wore an unpressed shirt, half-unbuttoned and revealing a pneumonic chest, lined with blue veins and thin white hairs, curly, the same kind that made a ring on the crown of his head. His nose, so close to the table, was crooked and made no pretense of being otherwise; it might have been the nose of an old warhorse, the worse for the wear, or else the inherited nose of an unhappy line of people. Why it hung so perilously close to the table, Akaky Akakievich could hardly guess. The man was gazing directly in front of his nose, where there was nothing, as far as Akaky Akakievich could see, beside a small green-gray stain on the linen cloth. And all through supper, even after the pastries were served (Akaky Akakievich’s heart leapt at the torte, which was more extravagant than he could have imagined), the man kept his head bowed over the spot. He did not say a word, even when Akaky Akakievich made some good-natured remark on the weather to-night; but he kept up a low monotonous groan, which rumbled as a low tenor to the clinking of toasts and chirping of ladies in gowns. When he was red in the face after his second glass of champagne, Akaky Akakievich clapped the man on the back, saying Sir, what an evening!; and the man rumbled more loudly than ever, before suddenly dropping off to sleep in front of a bowl of prune-and-ice cream pudding.

In the style of Chekhov’s “The Darling.”

On those trips to the market, Olenka could scarcely contain herself for joy. Of course she related as much as she could of the schoolwork, the teachers, the pupils at lunch, all that Sashenka had told her; but the raptures she felt over the boy! “He is the handsomest child in all of Russia!” she would cry to the ladies. “When he sleeps it is like – like – ah well!” And she would drift off into some private reverie unknown to the other women, for whom she felt a small, sad pain of sympathy, for certainly they could not feel such joy as hers (His pale lashes as he dreamt so soundly – oh, he would grow to have such a lovely wife!). Then she would think of her younger years and the days after each husband’s death – of how quickly she would exchange one set of opinions for another. It was too much! Frightfully silly! And oh, how the neighbors always responded in such surprise! Now this formlessness had gone, and such meaning glowed at her from every dawn, converging in some untoppable bliss, full of light, which she could hardly describe. It was all she could do to keep from falling into a swoon as she looked out upon a table of plums; she thought of Sashenka and the great feeling of meaningfulness swelled in her chest and the light of the sun grew whiter, and –

Oh, if I could be such a mother…!, she thought, and the thought slid over her with heaviness in the heat of the day.

In the style of a story by Kafka. 

It is lately all the vogue to style one’s hair flat against the face, long and hanging straight like so many dying blades of grass. It used to be otherwise; fortunes were dispensed to build hair to the most towering glory; but today that is all quite distasteful. Therefore when Milena Procházková wandered into the salon one weekend afternoon her throat was tight with fear; she wore her brown blouse not even fully buttoned up, for the strain would have been too much, though her mother had wagged her finger upon her leaving at what she thought was provocativeness in a young woman’s heart; though in fact Milena Procházková was the whitest flower among all her girlish peers, and her thoughts were crowded with things that indeed could be said unto the open air but then, of course, no one but she herself would understand. She sat down in the whirling chair at the furthest wall, where the mirror was fogged by the boiler in the closet room next-door; and she asked the stylist, who wore a violet streak in the fringe across his forehead and a silver earring in his nose, to be blindfolded before the procedure went forward. Of course the stylist could not produce a blindfold, but wrapped Milena Procházková in a great black cape of crinkled cloth; and ducked her small head into a shining black tub, which was hard and full of hot water; the shampoo scrubbed into her scalp smelled too fat and too sweet, as if it had been overfed on all the ripest flowers; dreadfully, the bottom of Milena Procházková’s stomach turned. After some minutes with her head pressed to the tub, during which the girl kept her eyelids pressed tightly shut, and you could see her tiny eyelashes flutter, the stylist pulled a sopping head from the black bowl and produced a black spider comb from the pocket of his apron. In a whisk he dragged it through the dripping hair, intent to dispose of the knots that were collected at the nape of the neck; and in a sudden swallow of air the bundle of hair dropped to the floor, where it lay in a diminutive brown mound; and the eyelashes squirmed in unease as Milena Procházková’s pallid face glowed bare in the fogged-up mirror.

In the style of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” 

Lisa, Praskovya Fëdorovna’s daughter, who very much resembled her mother, sat with her fiancé outside the door to Ivan Ilych’s room. Impatient and enamored, she pulled at the thread of her evening gown while casting a faint smile toward Fëdor Petrovich. It was evidently a meaningful gesture, and no words passed between them for some minutes. Lisa heaved one sigh then another from her bosom, where a fly soon after landed, a black speck on plump and uncolored flesh. The girl gave a shout and waggled her fingers in front of her chest, moving them in an uncoördinated waltz before the vulgar wings. Fëdor Petrovich made to slap the fly from her chest, but Lisa shrieked at the assault; in any case, Fëdor Petrovich had a weak hand and was loath to upset the curls in his hair, which indeed had just been set earlier in the day. On the whole it was an unpleasant circumstance: neither could resolve the question, quite vexing, of how to rid themselves of the fly and yet avoid its death. After a moment the insect flew away. “How terrible,” Lisa fairly sang, straightening her gown. “What a loathsome sight!” And she commenced to speak on the opera and what a lovely soprano voice Sarah Bernhardt undoubtedly had.

In the style of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (pt. 2). 

All of this – the account of Akaky Akakievich and the stolen overcoat and the corpses – was transcribed in a neat, straight hand by a young and tidy clerk working in a certain government department, as we had agreed to call it. The clerk, being fond of precision, was known for his zealous and unbending work, and we can take it in good faith that not even a pronoun was altered. How fantastic reality can be! With something like tenderness, the clerk carried the quire of white government paper to the corner of the office and bent over, filing it away in a drawer. His superiors did not applaud him, but neither did they laugh; the clerk smiled inwardly at how fine the document had turned out. The ink bottle on the desk needed filled. All in all, one thought, it made for an interesting, nice little case.

The Smallness of Your Mind

This is the smallness of your mind. You are allotted two chairs, a bed, some linens, and a chest of drawers. If you want to bring a picture frame, no one will care. Make sure it’s a good one, because you will be living here and staring at the picture for a very long time. Can you paint the walls? you ask. Yes, well, we permit the painting of the walls once every fifteen years. Any more often and you might get radical ideas of change in your mind, and those are very dangerous sorts of ideas to entertain. We recommend a butter yellow or a pigeon’s shade of gray-blue. One fellow painted his walls electric green, and he was seasick for fifteen years straight. You are free to choose, but captive to the consequences of your choice. Oh, you are claustrophobic? you say. Well, they tell us books are good for enlarging the mind. You are permitted one volume every two weeks from the library down the hall. You may choose the first letter of the author’s surname, and we shall select the book from there. Saves you the exhaustion of the search. The mind is easily fatigued by words, you see. I don’t recommend reading in the evening-hours, since it’s been our observation that too many night-reading men are given to dark profundities that sooner or later make them mad. They fare best who read a page or two over a light lunch of muffins and tea.

Edward Hopper, 11 A.M., 1926

Across the street the windows are open – it is going to be a warm day – and there is a man in a green cap leaning out to the fire escape, making to grab for the silvery scarf that is caught on the stair. His arms are short and he is still losing his holiday weight. He is glad the wind is not blowing, for he would not like to lose his favorite cap. His fingers almost catch hold of the scarf. The woman watches the affair with a humorless face. She spoke to the man, once, in an exchange on the street, and he had laughed nervously then. Many times since she has seen him through the open window – she knows he is a luckless man.

At this hour the sun is lazy still and outside the light the woman’s skin is blue. She sits on a blue chair auctioned off in the hotel lobby one afternoon last spring. She had thought it looked glamorous and therefore sad, and had asked her husband for it. Sitting on it, she is alone in her thoughts and there are buttons sewn into the plush, and the blueness of the room is striking. In fifteen minutes the piano instructor will tap on the door and will want some tea. He is so old, the woman supposes him blind, and if she does not dress for the occasion, it will not matter – she has on small brown acceptable shoes and these will be enough. It is only eleven o’clock and the instructor will want to hear Moonlight Sonata, over tea; the woman will let her fingers fall politely on the keys and think of Beethoven in his grave.

Meanwhile, she stares ahead into the space between the buildings, which is a box. There is a simple window garden across the way. In college when her hair was short, the woman studied literature and dreamed of traveling the world. Now in the room the days are long and the books are new with yellow covers. Tonight she will attend a party downstairs in a similar room, and she will mingle with the neighbors, who will remark on how delightfully things are coming along. She will nod in reply and sit down by the ladies, who will be chatting in groups and tossing their hair, picking the sequins off ravishing gowns.

Why Dogs Always Sniff Each Other

Once there was a grand convention, held in a sparkling ballroom with vaulted ceilings and gilded walls, and all the dogs in the world were invited to attend. Dalmatians, retrievers, collies, and St. Bernards; terriers, hounds, shepherds, and poodles: dogs of every pedigree came prancing or bounding or meandering in (as their temperament decreed).

Now, this being a convention of some distinction, certain formalities were observed. A team of Great Danes stood by the entryway and helped the guests to remove their coats. (For no one wears a coat into a ballroom, after all.) Soon, the coat closet was brim-full of furs: curly and straight, golden and white, coarse and sleek. Never before had you seen such a variety of colors and textures and shapes!

Then, after the dogs had doffed their coats, they entered the ballroom to find their bowls and plates. Dogs, as you know, are hungry creatures who love to eat. Therefore no one at the convention had troubled to plan boring preludes like slideshows or handshakes or speeches. Everyone had agreed that the best thing was just to start with lunch.

And what a lunch it was! Mutton pies and ribeye steaks; biscuits spread with marrow; uncooked trout and roasted salmon; peanut butter and blocks of cheese. It was a sumptuous, and very messy, feast.

But in-between mouthfuls (and gulps of water from the hydrant), a sharp alarm went screaming through the building. “FIRE! FIRE!” a German Shepherd howled, and suddenly there was a stampede of dogs rushing out of the room.

Barks and yips and yaps and whimpers filled the hall and bounced off the vaulted ceilings. The smoke appeared in clouds that were gray and thick. One little terrier in the back could be heard crying that her tail was singed. Everyone was making straight for the outside door.

Oh, but first the coats! The closet by the entryway was so dense with so many hundreds of furs, that it would have been impossible to sort out whose was whose. Every dog rushed in, grabbed whatever coat was in reach, slipped it on, and rushed out, into the cool, clear blue day.

The fire department was called, and the Dalmatians stayed behind to put out the flames. Meanwhile, the rest of the dogs could not flee the convention fast enough. They ran off in all directions, into alleys and apartment buildings, cafés and parks. There was no rhyme or reason to their scattered retreat.

Thank goodness, all the dogs escaped the fire unharmed (except for the poor little terrier, who had to have her tail mended by a nurse). But, in all the chaos, no one managed to claim his rightful coat. That is why, even to this day, you see dogs sniffing every other dog they meet. They are looking for their coats which were mixed up at the convention so very long ago.

Strawberry Hill

Who lives at Strawberry Hill? I have been passing by the road that leads there every morning about 10 o’clock. It sounds like such a charming place: something from a dream or a child’s play. As I walk, I get half a mind to take the fork in the road, to gather my skirts and climb the mysterious path to the house on the hill. But for some strange reason, I never stop: my boots keep shunting me forward, unhesitating along the straight little path they know so well. Is there fear in my feet, courage in my heart? It is a hard business, sometimes, to get the body on board with the imagination. Flights of fancy are hard on the legs, which, after all, are earthy creatures, and feel very much safer on the ground than in the air.

Still, I wonder who is the tenant of Strawberry Hill. What a disappointment if he should be a crabby old fellow, dull of mind with no imagination to tell of. How could one live in such a place without being seduced by its charms? No, the only acceptable thing is something romantic: a windswept fellow, beautiful of face, tossed with passion for the girl he saw once but never forgot. Or a small boy with tap shoes, who goes out in the night and dances all around the hillside under the light of the moon. Or perhaps a freckled old lady and her dog, both overfed on the strawberry pies she was famous for making in her youth.

Or it may be that a writer lives there, up on the top of Strawberry Hill. There is probably nothing remarkable about his appearance: an ordinary frame, a squarish face, a pair of spectacles for his blurry eyes. But he must be lit by some invisible flame: a burning world of questions and phantoms and dreams that keeps him up the night pecking at his typewriter like a lunatic hen. Yes, he must be a man of imagination; or he would never have chosen a home like Strawberry Hill.

I think I should like to meet him, rapping at his door one morning about 10 o’clock. Perhaps he shall invite me in for toast and tea, and I shall nod my head, murmuring thanks, and cross the threshold of that mysterious place.