Autumn Light

Since moving to our cottage in Berkeley my favorite place to read is the corner seat of the couch, looking out of one of the south facing windows. From that seat I can gaze across a low, moss-grown rooftop over which a towering oak spreads its thick branches, rising higher than my sight can reach. The oak must be centuries old. Each evening as the Sun hangs low in the western sky, the leaves of the oak catch the beams of golden light, and small winged beings fly in the amethyst air between the branches. The tree shines in its majesty, echoing a time when such trees might have been the place of worship.

Autumn LeavesLooking across the mossy roof to the neighbors home, which has a cleverly-built deck railing constructed of former bicycle wheels, I can see leafy grape vines trailing along the railing and the awning of the first storey. All year I’ve watched these vines grow, mere sticks when we first arrived here in the heart of winter, growing pale green shoots and curling vines through the spring, and then a spreading glory of wide, rich verdant leaves covering every available surface. Autumn turned the leaves to flaming red, a deep crimson that draws the eye like the cloth of a royal garment. Just in the last few days these red leaves have begun to fall, some blowing even to the threshold of our doorstep. The magnolia in the next yard over is now withered yellow and brown. But in the spring I know it will once again burst to life with thick white and pale pink blossoms before the dense, green spring foliage replaces the flowers. I’ve watched nearly one full seasonal cycle from this seat, countless books open on my knees as I’ve done so.

Walking through my neighborhood late this afternoon the crisp fall air rattled the leaves overhead, a welcome alternative for the moment to the sound of the turning leaves of books. Fruit trees are heavy with figs, apples, and persimmons, while the branches of the plum and loquat—so abundant this spring and summer—await next year’s rejuvenation. This will always be my favorite time of year, when the world becomes misty and golden, and the overlapping worlds of inner and outer saturate my imagination with flowing images. A quietness is whispered in the autumn winds, a song not heard any other time of year.

The world is in chaos, but moments of peace can enter in. Perhaps they become more poignant to savor when held up against the dark mirror of the outer world. The Sun is setting now, and I light a candle to awaken the golden autumn light within the darkness.

Redwood Fog: A First Dip into Phenomenology

The sun’s warmth calls in the fog. The air feels heavy, the world enclosed around me. I can see the droplets of fog moving toward me; I breathe them in, swallow them; the drops cling to my hair, my eyelashes. The sky feels close. The sky does not exist.

As I step off the hard concrete of the sidewalk and onto the soft, leaf-strewn path, the world shifts. The density of the trees now surrounding me begin to block out the reality that I am in the heart of a thriving city. With each step I enter further into a quieter world. My footsteps are muffled and the ground has a certain give, almost an elasticity beneath my feet. Before me, on either side of the path, redwood after redwood stands in silent vigil. Their dark trunks seem quiet, but the further I walk the more I hear new sounds. A slight creaking in the upper, slimmer branches. The softest splattering of water drops on leaves, as the fog condenses on twig and leaf, descending in widening pearls of water. The smallest drops of water can nourish these trees as they drink in through both their roots and branches. The fog lies so heavily upon this city grove that it obscures the uppermost branches of the redwoods, making the height of the trees seem nearly infinite; they disappear long before they end.

As I move toward the heart of this small yet encompassing forest the landscape becomes darker, the few glimpses of light beyond the woods standing out more starkly than the tree trunks themselves. Walking up to one of the redwoods I lay my hand upon its bark. At first sight it seems to be so rough, split open with massive chasms as the tree has grown ever larger over the decades. Yet under my fingers I realize this bark is soft, the fibers feeling like unwoven fabric to my touch. The faintest trace of moss grows upon the outer surface of the bark, fading imperceptibly to the reddish-brown of the tree’s natural hue. Beneath my hand the tree feels so richly alive, yet so still, existing at a pace almost, but not quite, slower than I am capable of imagining.

Redwoods in Fog

As I turn my back to the tree and lean against it in full repose, I see a single leaf fall into my line of sight before settling anonymously upon the forest floor. The ground is everywhere strewn with brown leaves, a full covering that lets off a rich, fragrant scent; yet watching this single leaf fall I recognize that each of these leaves has made the journey from branch to floor in its own time and in its own way. Each one has a story, although perhaps few have a witness other than the tree that released it to the ground.

At last I separate myself from the tree on which I am leaning and continue through the woods to its edge. The pathway opens out; the pathway ends in rose blossoms.

Dream of Disconnection

“We cannot make a blade of grass. Yet there is liable not to be a blade of grass in the future unless it is accepted, protected, and fostered by the human.”[1]
Thomas Berry

I had a dream a few nights ago, one which seemed to carry a deep and powerful meaning, bearing both my fears and hopes for the future of the earth and the future of humanity. I was aboard a spaceship, a translucent, streamline vessel made of glass and white metal. Despite its sterile futuristic qualities the ship was filled with growing plants, their green curling leaves contrasting the stark white of the craft. Six of us were on board, and each person seemed familiar although I could not now say who they were. They each had a particular characteristic that defined them, more of an archetypal person than a dynamically complex human being.

In the ship we were orbiting the earth, not too far from the ground, on a dark, murky night. We were above a vast, endless city, one that covered the entire surface of the earth. It was soiled by pollution and waste, with no growing thing in sight, not even a blade of grass.

The moon began to rise, enormous in the sky. Yet the lunar sphere was too enormous, and was quickly growing in our sight. It seemed that the gravity that had kept the moon at its precise distance from earth no longer operated, and now the moon was drifting over our horizon and through the earth’s atmosphere.

Suddenly we found ourselves in our ship hovering directly above the moon. Moments later we landed on it. For some reason we expected the surface to be hot, yet it was not. Instead the moon was dead dust, no longer luminous. It was no longer reflecting the sun’s light, and thus was cold. The cosmic connections had been broken.

Without the sun, we soon realized, nothing would photosynthesize on earth, and the last of the earth’s oxygen was quickly being used up. Our supply on board our ship would keep us alive far longer than those on the ground, but not indefinitely. Somehow, we had the vital, and time-limited task, of creating a way to perpetuate our supply without any support from earth. And if miraculously we succeeded in that, we would have to attempt the impossible task of reseeding the oxygenating process on earth.

To complete the task we landed the ship back on earth. One person on our crew wanted to leave to find something important in the city, and when she and I stepped outside we could feel the constraint in our breathing as the last of earth’s oxygen was being used up. We knew life was dying everywhere.

I do not know if we succeeded or not in our task.

Work Cited

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.

[1] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 21.

Jupiter and Hope

As I was walking through Golden Gate Park last night I began to feel arising in me a deep feeling of compassion, of heartfelt love and lament for all around me. It was the desire to cry and smile simultaneously. In the darkness of the park I saw through a gap in the trees the pure shining light of Jupiter. It was the only light in the sky, dazzling between between dappled purple clouds. I left the path to stand in the darkness of the trees. I had the feeling in my body of beginning a sacred journey, and wondered, only momentarily, if this might be the beginning of what it was like to have a spiritual emergence.

As I gazed with true love upon Jupiter it appeared to grow brighter as a communion seemed to be arising between us. As clouds passed over the planet it still managed to shine through radiantly. I was suddenly reminded of the moment in The Return of the King when Sam looks up at the smog covering the desolation of Mordor:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach[1]

It suddenly dawned on me that part of the archetypal character of Jupiter is Hope. I had the sense I was looking directly at God and feeling Hope. The Shadow of our times, the great devastation of our Earth, will also pass in the end. There is always Hope. I felt the drive within me knowing one day we will succeed with the power of Hope.

Work Cited

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954), 901.

Holotropic Breathwork

I began to breathe deeply, as I never had before, sensing out my own sustainable rhythm, wondering if I had the strength for a full session of such intensity. My body began to rock back and forth with the force of my breath.

Soon the pain in my neck injury became overwhelmingly dominant, tensing my jaw and seizing up my mouth. I desperately tried to release it. I felt that this pain was all there was, and all this experience was going to be. The image of the place I injured myself appeared clearly in my mind, and began to feel a surge of anger for the burden of this injury. I cried burning, angry tears. My body started moving, to find any way to release the pain, stretching through various yoga poses and finally pushing my head into the ground. I asked to have my neck pressed against, while I pushed back with all the frustration and anger of built-up pain. With a yell that surprised the quieter side of myself, I felt spent, and dropped to the floor. Curiously, the pain seemed gone.

Pale greens and blues appeared below me. I was a butterfly, with the orange and black patterning of a monarch. I was drifting over a pond, seemingly endless: a sky blue pond covered in a sheen of green plants.

I lay on my back and felt my belly swell, pregnant with the whole Earth. I could see the oceans and shapes of the continents in their rich colors across the surface of my skin. A question kept running through my head: “How do you give birth to the entire Earth?”

I sat up and felt myself transforming into a tree, my hair going deep into the earth as roots seeking out the waters at the heart of planet. My arms extended toward the sky and sunlight as growing branches.

As the music shifted, I plunged into tropical seas, still in the form of a butterfly, yet able to easily swim through the waters. A great whale appeared before me, swimming with me, over me, around me, twisting and diving. It was a dance through the undulating waves. I learned how to keep breathing beneath the water, and also how to breach the surface for greater quantities of air. I saw a tropical volcanic island rising out the ocean beside us.

The whale and I dove down, deep into the purple-black depths of the ocean. I was not afraid, although I felt I should be. At the base of the volcanic mountain a small, glowing opening became visible. The whale entered and, a moment later, I followed.

Inside the volcano stood a column of glowing flame, reaching to the mountain’s summit. The whale was gone, yet seated by the inferno was a golden griffin, embodying the whale’s spirit. The griffin looked at me, then flew straight up the flames of the volcano and out of my sight.

I wanted to follow, yet found I could not fly. I saw I had arms and legs and though I still had butterfly wings they could not bear me through this heat. I looked up, not knowing how to proceed.

As though in answer to my question, a thin ladder descended to me. It was made of spun ropes of white light. I gained my footing and began to climb, continuously looking below as the floor of the volcano moved further and further from me.

As I reached the volcano’s top and ascended out of the mountain’s core, I realized the volcano was now dormant. The rim of the opening was covered in rich, green mosses and tiny white flowers. I ran my fingers along the edge, feeling the soft sponginess of the plants. I stepped out of the opening and began tentatively to descend along the rocky slope. A valley lay below me, with the turquoise sea along the shore to the left, and a line of hills and mountains to the right. I was looking at the world with which I had been pregnant.

As I departed the slopes of the volcano and entered the lush valley, I encountered the tree I had previously become. I looked at her and knew she was me, yet was also aware that my consciousness inhabited my current body. I lay down at the tree’s base, curled around the trunk. I felt my body transform into an earthworm, and began burrowing into the Earth, descending and burying myself deeper into the soil among the tree’s roots. I consumed the rich, moist earth and felt it pass along the length of my body.

After some time beneath the ground, I looked up at the tree and into its branches far above. Purple butterflies danced among the emerald green leaves. I longed to join them. I started to climb through the rough bark of the tree, inching my way along, until I became aware I was now a little, fuzzy caterpillar, climbing up the trunk, hoping to reach the branches and the dancing butterflies.

I found a branch, my branch, and hung off of it. I began creating a dark cocoon around myself. It was sightless black inside, yet after some time within the chrysalis a peach glow filled my sight. The space was dark and light, ebony and warm pink, in the same moment. I lay there, waiting, for an eternal expanse of time.

My physical arm was wrapped around my body and my hand rested on my left shoulder blade. My hand was tingling with numbness, and I felt this tingle spread from my hand throughout my back, the growing pains of wings sprouting. I lay still within my cocoon.

Slowly, so slowly, I at last started to emerge, but the crack in my chrysalis let in cold air. I was not yet ready to encounter the world.

At last the time came for my debut into the great world. I crawled out and perched on a branch. I sat there for a long time, perfectly still, with my wings spread open wide. Then, with the aid of a soft gust of wind, I fluttered onto a breeze and truly flew for the first time.

I dipped and soared over purple and yellow fields, through white dandelion puffs, and over a sparkling, indigo river that hugged the roots of the encroaching hills and mountains. Riding an air current, I was carried to the mountain summits, and viewed an unknown land beyond. Small cottages dotted the pastoral landscape. A stone church with lavender glass windows stood on a rosy slope.

I alighted on the church threshold. I was colored entirely white, with a human body and expansive, ivory wings. Barefoot, I walked into the dark, empty interior of this place of worship. I danced on my toes along the aisle, both defying and paying homage to this sacred space.

Beating my wings, I ascended up through the church toward one of the open windows and perched on the ledge. I looked below me to the stone church floor, then gazed out the window into the twilit landscape.

I took wing again, and flew into a majestic redwood forest, passing between the massive, ancient trunks as a tiny, bright butterfly. I began to hear the cries of those breathing around me, cries that sounded like every animal and every stage of human life. I felt their pain and knew it was my own; it was the pain of the entire Earth. Compassion and empathy poured from me like a warm stream, holding those around me, caring for these differed embodiments of our single universal soul.

I felt myself pregnant with the Earth once again and knew I had to birth it, to rebirth the Earth. How? I kept asking. How? I felt the immense responsibility of this task, knowing that if I did not accept it, no one would. But, how? Tears streamed from my eyes as I struggled to bear the weight of this realization.

I saw the whole Earth before me, suspended in blackness, and I fluttered around it as a giant monarch butterfly. I heard the joining of all voices; all sentient beings, every human and every animal, joined together in song. As they all sang together, I knew the Earth was healed. I cried to the depth of my being.

Painting by Becca Tarnas

After a long period of resting, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, I found myself on a beach after sunset, the painted waves lapping around my ankles and calves. A tropical forest stood behind me. The waves were crashing, the trees swaying in a great wind. The trees began to fall, and I heard the wailing and mourning of the people who called the forest home. I stepped among the people in the forest and looked at the severed stump of a mighty tree. From the trunk’s center a shoot began to grow: fresh, supple and spring green, crowned with a single white flower. There always remained hope, I communicated to the people around me.

I stepped alone into a forest pool lit by moonlight and bathed, drinking deeply straight from the pouring waterfall.

I found myself again among the same tribe, and together we began to walk. I was leading them out of the forest and up a steep hill. As we reached the hill’s crest, a vast plain spread before us out to the sea. The sun hung low in the sky, coloring the landscape ruddy gold. These rich grasslands were to be our new home.

I was transported into the night slums of an endless, ruined city. Trash and broken glass, twisted metals and decrepit houses filled my entire vision. Once again I was the white being with ivory butterfly wings, and I stepped barefoot through the destruction before me. Shades passed silently among the buildings, indicating the presence of other beings, wrapped in tragedy.

Looking into the sky I saw this wreckage was illuminated by the full moon. Stepping onto a moonbeam I walked upward into the sky to dance with the moon. I felt as though I were escaping, yet when I looked below I saw green plants growing up between the cracks, covering and weaving together the broken world below. I looked around myself and danced among the silver gems of stars and the hanging pearl of the moon. I danced until my breathing slowed and I came to rest within my own body once again.

Northern California Sunrise

In the stillness of the world at the breath of dawn, I stand upon the deck of my longest home in this lifetime. Balanced upon the edge of a mountain, this house faces South poised in anticipation for the winter sunrise. A thick layer of pearly fog lies like a downy blanket over the valley below and stretches to the edges of the world. During the depths of the night the fog poured in from the ocean like wolves running stealthily over the Western hills. Yet it all lies calm before me now, appearing as a flat field of snow in the shadow light.

I am set high above the world, my vision unobscured by the fog, like a queen in an unwritten fairy tale, with a clearer view of the heavens than the earth below. As dawn approaches the veils of night are pulled back one by one, turning the sky from midnight black to a misty periwinkle. Where the sky descends to kiss the horizon it blushes a vermillion and rose glow that spills out onto the duvet of fog and stains it a pale magenta.

In the moment before sunrise the surrounding world holds its breath. An outline of pure, molten gold appears on the fog’s edge at a single point on the horizon. A moment passes. Then two. Not until after these moments have gone does one realize the sun has already begun to rise. These brief minutes are the only time of day the sun casts its long shadows with a coral-hued light. A wide scene unfolds below as the dark curtain of night is rolled back. The sun reveals the peeling olive paint and the warped boards of the deck upon which I stand. Growing on the railing are faded lichens entangled with brown pine needles that fell long ago. Pine cones become one with the balcony wood as they are overgrown and once more return to an earthy wholeness. Each ancient iron nail that dares poke its head above the surface of the wood casts a timid shadow. Yet the disrepairs of home can be forgotten in these brief minutes at the day’s commencement.

Each needle of the pine overhanging the deck fades from teal-black to a rich green in that moment when the sun ascends above the horizon. Secret crevices in the tree bark are momentarily unveiled as light pours in to awaken any sleeping creatures hidden during the night. A solitary hummingbird rests upon a slender branch. He is an old friend; the dancing hummingbird we call him. With each dawn, music pours forth from the open glass doors of the house to act as an instrumental mirror to the sunrise. The dancing hummingbird sways in rhythm to Grieg’s “Morning Mood” from his Peer Gynt Suite. A light breeze picks up the melody while the yellow California grasses whisper back in a sighing harmony. The air is crisp and fresh with the scent of dew upon the flowing breeze.

The winds descend into a small vale directly below the dilapidated deck and rustles amongst the foliage. The breeze turns the leaves in every direction revealing their pale bellies to the sunlight. Some leaves glimmer silver in the dawn’s light, others sparkle with a gold-copper tone. The little valley rises in the South-West to meet a low, rolling hill covered in a sea of short emerald grasses. The proudest feature of this hillock is a pair of redwoods growing side by side, one slightly taller than the other, standing like an amorous couple fixated only upon each other.

The redwoods are the only obstruction to the view laid out below me on the balcony. They hide the scene that lies beyond and also frame it, giving the view both perspective and depth. Beyond the redwoods stretches the melting blanket of fog which cannot remain under the sun’s rays. It dissipates into isolated patches and finally becomes nothing more than memory. Below, the interwoven valleys stretch on, filled with layers of misty trees backlit by the new sun. Full clarity has yet to come into the scene. Just beyond the edge of the last definable tree comes the golden glint of a vast expanse of water. The sun will never reach into the expansive deep that lies below the imperceptible waves of that bay. The morning sky unifies into a pale blue and the last stars are veiled. The sun reveals the earth only to hide the heavens. Everything the sun reveals will also cast a shadow and nothing in this scene will ever be entirely visible to our eyes or our minds.

Photo by Richard Tarnas


The day was grey and windy and drops of fog hung to the soft, dark curls surrounding the little girl’s face. She was holding a bouquet of golden daffodils in one clammy hand, while the other clung to the hand of her mother. Her mother’s hand was dry and cracked from washing dishes and cleaning house. The little girl bent down and laid the flowers at the base of a black marble tombstone set deep in the damp grass. Across the face of the stone were carved images that set the little girl’s imagination to work. On the left side of the stone was carved a forest of pines, while on the right was a magnificent castle perched upon a cliff. Between the images was the inscription:

Merk Malcolm 1914 – 1986

Doris Malcolm 1920 – 1990

Mr. Merwin Eldred Schlarbaum hated his Christian name. As a baby his father’s best friend protested the name and insisted he be nicknamed Merky. World War I was nearing its end by the time Merky was four years old and his father chose to change the family name which tied them to the despised Germans. He shed the name of Schlarbaum, whose hideous sound did not reflect its meaning “Tree of Paradise,” and instead adopted his mother’s maiden name, Malcolm.

By 1939 Merky, then known as Merk Malcolm, set out from his home in Campbellford, Canada and traveled with a friend to Europe. Upon reaching Scotland the Second World War broke out and Merk was stranded for the time being. While using his engineering training as the manager for wartime projects, Merk chose to live in Wick, Caithness on the north-eastern tip of Scotland.

Wick was a tiny fishing town with its harbour open to the cold, blue waters of the North Sea. Thousands of fishing boats came in daily bearing pounds upon pounds of fresh herring. The docks were steeped in the tangy scent of fish and the sky was blocked out by the swooping wings of gulls.

Mr. Malcolm, upon arriving, took to exploring the town, all four corners of which could be reached within an hour from any point. He stopped in front of a classy hotel and glanced up at the swinging metal sign. The letters, spelling “Station Hotel” stood out clear and gold on a crimson background. He stepped over the threshold and noticed he barely had to lift his foot, the wooden step was so worn by passing feet. Above the light-filled entrance was a glass portico with great metal arches. A chipper old man standing behind the counter greeted Mr. Malcolm with a Scottish accent thicker than pea soup. After paying at the counter Mr. Malcolm was shown to his room. The furniture had a refined but well used look to its deep mahogany wood. He walked across the room to set his suitcase down by the roll-top desk. The brass plate on the desk said “Mackenzie’s Furnishings” in a curling script.

That night as Mr. Malcolm lay between the flannel sheets he realised he could not afford to stay in a hotel for an indefinite amount of time while the war raged on in Europe. The next morning he got up early and walked to the old stone church at the upper end of Wick. It stood overlooking the bridge which spanned the mossy green river that traveled out the mouth of the harbour. Looking up, Mr. Malcolm saw the river wind its way up through thick, pink and green grasslands dotted with white sheep.

Mr. Malcolm walked into the holy stillness of the church. He had come here to find someone with whom he could stay, because he knew the most trustworthy people could be found through the church. Reverend Sinclair, also called the Reverend R. R., was standing at the back of the church with a handwritten sermon in his hand. Reverend Sinclair was known for his lengthy speeches, one of which was interrupted by a little girl yelling “Amen, Reverend Sinclair! Amen!” The slight breeze from the open church door ruffled the Reverend’s greying, patchy hair. He looked up when he heard firm footfalls on the cold stone aisle.

“My name is Merk Malcolm,” the young man said with his over-pronounced Canadian vowels. “I was wondering if you could possibly help me find a family to stay with in Wick. I’m working now as a project manager for the war effort.”

“Ach, I see,” the Reverend said, “Well, the Mackenzies are taking in officers at the moment.”

Mr. Malcolm smiled gratefully and nodded. Mackenzie, he thought. The name sounded familiar.

The following morning Mr. Malcolm could be seen trudging up the hill from the bridge carrying his one suitcase. The “Scottish mist” that had begun half an hour before had filled the collar of his coat with water and plastered his dark hair to his head. At the top of the hill the streets leveled out and he turned right onto Thurso Street. Glancing at the damp slip of paper in his hand Mr. Malcolm double-checked that the address was number six. The house was called Wyvelsfield. 6 Thurso Street. Walking on the right side of the street under a row of beech trees he looked left until he saw the brass address glinting through the rain: 6 Thurso Street.

Mrs. Mackenzie, affectionately called Mrs. Mack, was just finishing her early morning porridge. She sat erect in her chair at the foot of the table with her red hair pulled back in a tight bun and her pale lips pursed. Her lack of working taste buds concealed from her the fact there was more salt in her porridge than porridge. A normal mouth would be turned inside-out from the taste, and children were known to bring their spoons near their mouths and then drop the porridge into a well-concealed napkin. But to Mrs. Mack the porridge tasted fine.

In an old saying an Englishman was berating the Scots for eating oats, which the English found only fit to feed to their horses. The Scotsman replied airily, “That’s why the English are known for their horses, while the Scots are known for their men.”

Mrs. Mack was just finishing her tasteful porridge when a tall, dark-haired, handsome man walked in through her front gates. Oh, she thought to herself, it must be one of those young officers to live with us. He looks well enough though I fear this may bring trouble. And she rose from her chair with a sigh.

At the heavy knock Mrs. Mack opened the front door. She greeted her guest with warmth and made her introductions.

“Oh,” she said, “And I have a daughter who’s in the giggly stage.”

Mortified, the eavesdropping, nineteen-year-old Doris Mackenzie was determined to prove her mother wrong. Miss Mackenzie was not the type of girl who cared much for what people thought of her. She was rather mischievous and had been known to steal fishermen’s dinghies and to set dozens of barrels of fish rolling along the docks.

Composing herself at the top of the grand spiral staircase, Doris pinched her cheeks and straightened the fashionable dress which showed off her petite waist. She laid her hand on the polished wood banister, her hand sweating slightly. Setting her foot on the first green carpeted step Doris began gliding down the staircase. She glanced once at the handsome stranger at the foot of the stairs and nearly blushed. His eyes were following her every movement. However, she kept her head held high and her eyes straight ahead.

Suddenly, three steps from the bottom the toe of Doris’ little black shoe caught on the carpet. Both of her feet flew out from under her and all of her five-foot-two frame went tumbling down the remaining stairs. She landed in a disgruntled heap at the stranger’s feet. With apparent perfect dignity Doris held up her hand from where she was crumpled on the floor and, with her nose in the air, said, “I’m Miss Mackenzie.”

Cupid’s bow twanged.

Standing by the tombstone on the cold, grey day I knew the story of how my grandparents had met. For years I made up fantastic stories about my grandmother who had once lived in a great castle up in Scotland. The spiral staircase to me was larger than Jacob’s Ladder, and I pictured my beautiful grandmother tumbling, not down just the last three steps, but from the top of the stairs all the way to the bottom in flying somersaults. As I grew up I realised that the fairy tales I had imagined for my family were not true, but I did come to realise that the true love at the end of fairy tales did exist between my grandparents.

The Docks

The black waters caught the light of the swinging lanterns. The moon had already set, leaving the night blacker than before. The old guards on the docks splashed their faces with water to keep awake. Grains of salt stuck between their eyelashes as they looked up. The night would never end. And yet, somehow, it always did. At long last the silver line of the horizon became visible as the sky warmed into a dull vermilion. When the glowing sun crept above the ocean horizon, it cast shadows in the creases of the guards’ aged faces.

Silhouettes of fishing boats meandered slowly into the sheltered bays. The only sounds that broke the quiet dawn were the splashing waves, the wet rustle of the gasping fish on deck, and the shouts of the young men who leapt to the pier with soggy ropes in hand to tie up the boats. The boats may have belonged to their great grandfathers, and the fishing business had passed from father to son for generations. “And some day, me boy, you’ll have this here boat and stories of yer own ter tell.”

The lads would hear wild stories of how their grandfathers had been out fishing and seen a pod of whales with backs glistening in the moonlight, and the water from their blowholes would spray across the sky like droplets of silver and pearl. They could hear the whales singing to each other, the calls of an undersea nightinggale. Or the would hear of the time when great uncle Bill saw a pirate ship.

“He was so scared lad, thet he didn’t even breathe. He just set there an’ watched the ship go by.”

“How’d he know it was a pirate ship?”

“’Cause of the flag on top. It was too dark to see the pattern, but it was a pirate flag ter be sure. All the other sails were white an’ glowed with the moon, if you follow me. This flag was all black an’ sorta sucked in all the light around it. That’s how he knowed it ter be a pirate ship. ‘Course yer great uncle Bill never thought that pirates might have no interest in a poor little fishin’ dingy.”

The stories played with the boys’ minds, sparking their imaginations to extravagant fantasies. As they grew older they would watch for that ship out at sea. If anyone asked why he was staring blankly at the sea, a lad might say he was only watching for dolphins, and the inquirer would chuckle inwardly to himself as he walked away. “Thet boy’s too int’rested with the sea. Will lose his mind to it if he’s not careful.” But the boy, straining his clear eyes for a black flag on the horizon, would still stand there as is soul streamed forth from his eyes and sunk just beneath the lapping waves.

As the sun lit the salt encrusted docks, villagers began to walk from the little seaside towns with wares to sell. They pushed little carts and trollies to the marketplaces near the waterside. The general noise of the morning rose like the sun, faint at first, but blaring by midmorning.

“Fish for sale! Nice fresh fish!”

And from another corner, “The nicest fish you’ll see fer miles aroun’. Caught jus’ this morning!” Giggling under their lacy parasols and muttering about the unsavory scent of the fish, two young ladies turned away from the vendors. Two carts further on, a sly-looking man with a squint in his eye beckoned to the ladies to admire the delicate silver brooches he had on display. The man gave the fish vendor a smile with the left half of his mouth, then turned to the ladies, his face a charming mask. The fish seller grunted in disgust at the man, then, as a matronly cook approached to bargain for the best price he grimaced through his smile.

At the wharf markets people came and went, came and went. Some people came in a hurry, and pushed past people impatiently to buy what they needed. Then they left as quickly as possible. They were the servants of some wealthy townsperson and had a deadline to meet. Others came as well: fashionably dressed ladies looking at what they wanted their husbands to purchase for them, or young girls admiring the expensive, impractical jewelry and clothing. Trying to see what mischief they could stir up without being caught by their scolding mothers, little boys darted between the legs of people, carts, trollies and horses alike. Their mothers always made the boys feel the age they were, not the age they thought they should be. Then there were those who were dressed in rags, and all they could do was watch the lives that could never be theirs pass them by. A kind lady might offer them half a loaf of bread, or a well-dressed gentleman might hand them a copper coin, maybe even a silver one, but that was all. They lived a life of judgement; they were judging how to survive and the world in turn judged them for it.

The sun passed along its high arc across the sky, and, as it sank behind the rich green hills, it cast long shadows off the carts being packed up. The fishermen rolled their empty barrels back to their boats and threw their tangled nets aboard. They would hurry home to a wife’s hot supper of soup, bread and cheese. The ale was poured by the fisherman’s blossoming daughter who was changing from a freckled, gangly thing into someone beautiful. The only one who really noticed the change was the dark-haired boy a few doors away. The daughter never knew why he had stopped speaking to her, especially because he always used to tease her about her array of freckles and her long, stringy braids.

After a few hours sleep, the fishermen and their sons would rise and go down to the chilled docks. They saw not a soul but the old guards who had nodded off at their posts. The fishermen would climb aboard, deftly untie the ropes, and set sail. They used the smallest breath of wind to push themselves over the black, silent waters, those black waters which reflected nothing but their one, swinging lantern.