A Visit in the Night

By the light of the full moon.

The full moons of autumn are particularly spooky on those occasions when the mists ascend from the sopping marshes surrounding Isobel Ryan’s isolated, crumbling abode with is mansard roof and deteriorating widow’s walk. Summer’s lengthy nights are almost forgotten as winter approaches, and the days grow progressively short until Solstice and the return of hope. Isobel accepts nature’s rhythm, but the return of howling winds, dark days, and frozen ground is not like seeing a beloved old friend. Acceptance and joy are not the same.

Life off the grid, miles from even the tiniest of the region’s villages, provides an envious view of the sky on cloudless nights, but for most of the dark half of the year there is only a sense of the moon in all its phases. The rains are frequent, and when the clouds part, the fog encroaches. Isobel’s solitude appeals to those naïve souls who say they wish to retire from the hustle and bustle of modern life, but seclusion is not the answer in most cases. Peace and quiet is unachievable to those who hear every little noise and fear the unseen creatures that lurk in shadows and fog.

With only an oil lamp, two candles, and the fireplace embers, the room where Isobel sequesters herself during these endless evenings is cast in darkness. Light falls only where she sits or walks when she bothers to take the oil lamp with her. There are no insulated windows to block the sounds, and on moonlit nights Isobel Ryan likely hears the recognizable chorus of coyotes. In spite of her experience with these sounds, the forest’s mischievous acoustics deceive her. She’s unable to pinpoint the exact location of their lair. By the sounds of the eerie howling, these shy creatures could be anywhere, but she suspects they are near. She’s seen signs of them during the day. They eat the fallen apples, and occasionally there are clumps of fur on the trails where rabbits recently foraged.

The mind conceivably plays tricks on someone with no distractions like television, radio, electronic devices, or even the whir of trivial noises like refrigerators and fans. The closest the rest of us come to such off-the-grid silence is when the power goes out all over the neighborhood. But even then a city dweller hears traffic, sirens, and the sounds of other people bemoaning the inconvenience. Yes, the mind can play tricks on the isolated, but 27 years in her crumbling house in the clearing near the marshes, Isobel is attuned to nature’s noises. She has no reason to let her imagination run wild. She knows the silent steps of the deer. She can distinguish between the rustling of raccoons and that of the occasional bear. She knows of the big wild cats that occasionally move through the area, and she has come face to face with a wolf near the woodbin more than once. She’s cautious, but unafraid.

It was because of her peaceful existence that the urgent pounding startled her. Had she been dozing? Otherwise, why had she not heard footsteps on the porch? She couldn’t recall being so shaken. The cards on her delicate table went everywhere. Whether she had been playing a game or divining a message, the layout was ruined. With a rapid heartbeat, she remained frozen in her chair, her ears straining to hear the intruder. She rarely went to town, and she’d had fewer than a handful of visitors in a decade. The crumbling hermitage sat so far from the most primitive road in the county that it was unlikely anyone would bother to find it or figure out their way back without Isobel at their side to guide them.

The widow rejected the knock and told herself that something had fallen near the door. There had been no steps preceding the knock, but her body remained rigid as she stared into the dark and mentally inventoried the porch. An afternoon rain shower had interrupted her work, and she’d not bothered to put away the shovel and the hoe in the shed since she’d need them again the next day. The tools had somehow fallen over. Perhaps a raccoon had disturbed them in its search for food.

Another pounding knock! It was louder than before; the firmness and repetition indicated urgency. This was not the sound of fallen tools. Anyway, Isobel remembered having left the hoe and shovel at the back door. The front porch was as tidy as ever. Someone was standing outside, expecting someone to answer. What did they need? Shelter? Help? A telephone? Shelter was the best she could offer under the circumstances, but what if the visitor demanded more than she could provide? There was nothing worth stealing, but an incredulous thief could prove destructive.

How long before the unexpected visitor stopped knocking and broke in? Fortifying herself against the unknown, Isobel rose from her seat and quietly moved toward the window near the front door. She left the oil lamp on the table so as not to give herself away. She wanted to study the figure from the darkness before it could see her. With no porch light, inspection was difficult, but misty moonlight illuminated some of the visitor’s clothing. Was that a scarf or a cape whipping in the breeze? She concluded that the visitor was a woman and posed less of a threat. The fact that the unexpected caller had already knocked twice might be a sign that she – was it, in fact, female? – didn’t intend to break in. Or perhaps the trespasser remained outside, assuming that people who occupy lonely houses in the woods are heavily armed.

Isobel stepped back from the window, picked up the lamp, and approached the door. Just as she touched the knob there was another series of urgent blows. Isobel recoiled. Why doesn’t she realize that no one is home and go away? In more populated areas an unexpected visitor would have realized by now that no one was home. Even if they needed help, they’d move to the next house. But in this case there was no other house.

“Yes?” Isobel asked as she opened the door slightly.

“Oh! Someone is home,” came a pleasant young voice from the shadows.

“Can I help you?” Isobel strained to see the face, but she didn’t want to step outside and place herself at a disadvantage. Not that a woman of her age holding an oil lamp in her dominant hand while maintaining a light grip on the door with her left could prevent a determined intruder from barging in.

“I hope so. You see, I was walking in the woods tonight, and I slipped on some loose ground. I slid down a muddy slope, and I’m a mess.”

“Are you hurt?” Isobel extended the lamp in an effort to see the woman’s face, but she was unsuccessful.

“I don’t think so,” said the woman. “I’m just a mess, and it’s a long way home.”

“How did you find your way here?” Isobel was dubious.

“Could I come in and get clean? Perhaps you would let me dry off by your fire?

“The moon may be full, but the mists have obscured the trails. How did you find your way to my door?

“I really would like to come inside. It is rather cold.”

Isobel raised and lowered the lamp. The stranger wasn’t dressed like a hiker with gear. She wasn’t even wearing boots or jeans. It was as if the woman had decided to traipse through the forest wrapped in a bed sheet.

“What’s your name?” Isobel asked.

“I won’t stay long. I promise.” Had the woman not heard Isobel’s question or was she simply ignoring her?

“Young lady, I’m asking you again.” Isobel’s voice was abrasive. “How did you find my house? I haven’t had visitors in many years. Not a single person has reached my door uninvited. Identify yourself and tell me how you came to be here.”

“I’m such a mess, and I feel so foolish. Sliding down that muddy slope.”

“It’s no wonder. Look at how you’re dressed!”

“But if I could only come in for a few minutes to get clean and dry, I’ll be on my way.”

“You shouldn’t be out here dressed like that, and if you need a telephone to call for help, I’m sorry. There’s no phone here. The cistern is over there,” Isobel said as she gestured with the lamp toward her withered vegetable garden. Isobel instinctively felt that she should make the woman remain outside.

“I’d like to come in, please.”

“There’s no running water, and I haven’t hauled any up. Nor have I chopped wood to heat any for a bath tonight. The cistern water is cold, but it’s the best I can offer.”

“Then all the more reason to let me come inside.”

Isobel’s heart was still racing. The creature simply refused to identify herself no matter how she was pressed. No sane person would glide through this wilderness on an October night dressed so inadequately.

Gliding was the best way to describe the intruder for she had made no sound before each knock. The voice contained no discernable accent, but its pleasant quality was beginning to sound more determined. How much longer until she became enraged and pushed her way in?

“I’ve told you where you can find water.” Isobel was irritated. “I can offer you nothing more! Clean yourself or not. Just be on your way!”

“Madam, I really must insist that you let me come inside.” The voice had become seductive and slightly Gaelic. “After all, this used to be me home.”

Isobel softened for a split second, but regained her presence of mind. “Liar!” she shouted. “I’ve lived here almost thirty years, and my husband’s family was here for two generations before that. Though I can’t see your face, you don’t sound old enough to have lived anywhere that long ago.”

“But it’s true,” said the trespasser. “I’ve been away for many years, but I’m back and would like to come inside and warm me bones by your wee fire.”

“Go away! I might seem old and weak to you, but if you take one step closer you’ll regret it!”

“Madam. I only want to come inside.” There was a pause, but suddenly the creature advanced from the shadows. Isobel saw its sunken eyes contrasted against its luminous skin, as it begged to be let in.

Isobel gasped and cried, “Be gone you malignant phantom!” From the depths of her memory it occurred to her that a Liahnhan Sídhe [lan-hawn shee] had found its way to her door. Her late husband had described his father’s encounter with a similar apparition that had once emerged from these woods to approach the house. The fiend’s wretched prey soon lost his faculties and died within the year. Isobel had doubted the tale, but she couldn’t deny the creature standing before her. Was this the same Liahnhan Sídhe?

“Please forgive me,” the creature pleaded. “I didn’t mean to offend. If you’ll just let me come inside to get warm, I’ll be happy to repay your kindness.”

There was a distinct brogue this time, and Isobel knew for certain. She remained immobile, calmly trying to remember what her late Irish husband had taught her about the various creatures living beneath the forest’s canopy.

Suddenly his words of protection came back to her, and with great faith and without a hint of skepticism, Isobel shouted with all her might: “BY WIND AND FIRE AND WATER AND SOD, THOU ART DEVIL AND NOT A GOD! I BANISH YE INTO NIGHT, UNHOLY SPIRIT NOW TAKE FLIGHT!

A gust of wind whooshed through a pile of leaves under the old oak, and the chill of night grew even icier as they rose in the air. A trio of rats in the garden squealed and scampered, and Isobel fought to keep her door from opening further. The wind seemed to be pushing against her, but it might have been the creature. The placid face of the Liahnhan Sídhe contorted into a sneer before morphing into an anguished visage. Isobel closed her eyes and braced for retaliation, keeping them shut tightly until she heard the scream. There was a blur of white or a flash of light. The sorrowful shriek peaked quickly and faded over the course of a full minute before Isobel was left standing alone in her doorway.

It was past sunrise when the widow finally woke in her chair. The candles had burned out, and the fireplace was cold. The cards were still scattered on the table, and the globe of her lamp was smoky. As she became aware of her surroundings, Isobel gradually remembered the terror of her nocturnal visitor. She hurried to the door to look outside. There was frost on the ground and a chill in the air, but the yard was undisturbed. The bucket at the cistern had been left untouched. The leaves were still piled beneath the oak.

The experience seemed like nothing more than a horrific dream, and Isobel would have believed that to be the case were it not for the muddy footprints on the porch.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, the two featuring Maggie Lyon and two that are not as scary as this story, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

 

 

 

A Most Unusual Visitor

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From a distance, she looks sweet and cuddly, but I don’t want to get too close.

So there was a bear in the yard. For those who know that I live in the woods, it seems obvious that a bear in the yard is more likely than not, but after four years without any bears this one came as quite a shock.

I was gazing out the kitchen window the other morning and out crawled a bear from the breezeway that separates the back door from the garage. I may go in and out of that door several times a day, and after an uneventful first year in the woods, I stopped peeking out to see what manner of wildlife is on the porch waiting to greet me. At first I thought it was – well, I don’t know that I thought it was anything. I saw movement, and then a mass of black. A pair of St. Bernards  had been by recently, and there is a pair of black dogs that shows up from time to time. I guess I thought it was a big dog, but I figured out rather quickly that this was a bear!

A friend asked me what I would have done if I’d been outside working when it came along. I have no idea, but inside the house I can tell you that I stood as still as I could lest the creature take notice of me beside an open window and decide to find out what kind of food I was making that day. Recent news stories about the couple who surprised a bear in their kitchen, and another of a cub stretched across the sinks in a Montana ladies room were running through my head as I watched the curious creature sniff around and meander about as if he or she owned the place. I had the violated feeling that I was being burgled.

The bear took its time and stopped along the way to admire some chairs and a couple of yard ornaments as though it were checking out the merchandise at the garden center. It was thoughtful enough to walk around borders and beds rather than through them on its way to the back deck. I remained still. The last thing I needed was for the curious bear to crawl up the deck and hoist itself over the railing. A few minutes later, I caught sight of it down the slope. It admired the apple tree nearest the house, and decided to swing on some lower branches of the largest conifer on the place. Seeing that I cannot reach those same branches from the ground, this wild beast stretched to an impressive height once it decided to unfold.

I finally had the presence of mind to snap a photo, but he was on all fours again and about to head down a distant trail. He looks like a cute cub in the shot, but he was not anything I want to encounter without a barrier between us.

I have a book that explains the lore and lessons of wildlife visits. Each time I encounter something new, such as the wolves that I thought were coyotes, and the owl that perched outside the bedroom window for a few hours one morning, I read about my visitor to see if I should be listening to a hidden meaning. The bear’s message was pretty accurate, and since I was the only one that day to see it, I want it to know that I’ve taken the symbolism to heart. I understand completely, and there’s no reason to return.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

One More Thing I’ve Been Reading

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With enough books to choose from, you’d think I would have settled on something more interesting. 

I grew up in a family of readers, and it’s rare when I’m not in the middle of at least one book even though it’s more likely that I have three or four going at once. Some books are compelling, some I read for reference, and a few I savor for long periods of time, such as Jessica Kerwin Jenkins’s Encyclopedia of the Exquisite or the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker. Such books bring me back often without tiring of them.

When preparing to move to the woods four years ago, I parted with a number of books that I finally realized that I could live without. I’ve always found it difficult to part with any books, but at one point I was acquiring more than my available storage space allowed. I also decided that the library should become my first source for new reading material. Borrow the book, and if I found I couldn’t live without it, I’d buy it later. There are dozens of books that I own, which I wished I’d borrowed first. They’re good books, but I probably won’t re-read them for many years, if ever.

Among the books I’ve kept are three that I’ve never read in over 30 years of lugging them about. They were gifts that bear special inscriptions that remind me of the giver. The books are first editions, and I never like to part with a first edition of anything lest books become collectible again one day and the sale of one of these tomes provides the means of retiring to the French Riviera.

On three previous occasions I’ve pulled out the first book of this series. Chapter one begins on page seven, but I’ve never made it past page ten. It seems that the archdeacon’s meandering about the graveyard whilst reciting Robert Blair’s The Grave made me dead tired. I’m currently on the waiting list for approximately six books at the library, and I’ve finished with my summer reading list. My only choice was to peruse my shelves for something interesting. I came across this book once again. I sighed heavily and re-read the jacket. Perhaps I was finally mature enough to understand the subject matter even though I couldn’t imagine what I have now that I didn’t have seven years ago on my last attempt.

I’m a great fan of E. F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia novels. Within those pages, there are dozens of village intrigues centered around two formidable women and their friends. I can also be amused for hours at a time with Agatha Christie’s murderers and the locals trying to figure out whodunit. Since the plot of this novel in question centers on English village life of a certain period, I decided to give it one more chance.

It was best to begin reading when I was fully alert rather than wait until bedtime when the novel had usually affected me like a dose of Midazolam. Adequately caffeinated, I opened to page seven and began reading. The next thing I knew, the book was on the floor and I was achy from having slumped over for a few minutes. Is the book’s page 11 coated in an opiate that my skin keeps absorbing? Why else would this novel induce sleep at the very same point?

I’m a determined person who will see a great number of things through to the end even when a book’s plot is nothing but an old maid darning a curate’s sock while his wife ponders whether to serve beetroot or potato for the cold Sunday supper. I kid you not, and this is coming from someone who has spent many hours delighted by chapters having little more going for them than whether or not some bridge novice inadvertently finessed an ace of out of a veteran opponent who bid no trumps, which eventually led to a grand slam and a war of words.

Three weeks of fortitude, and I’ve made it to page 128. The church organist’s wife is taking the curative waters somewhere on the continent while he remains behind rehearsing the choristers, and the harvest festival bring-and-buy was a success. One of the village’s yarn shops has stocked enough wool for all the single ladies to knit scarves for the clergy’s Christmas gifts, and the lead spinster’s new cook is working out nicely.

I’ve given some thought to this book. The prose is rather nice, but the chapters are less interesting than a fifth-grader’s journal. The characters don’t do much except quote literature and silently worry about what the other characters are silently worrying about.

As with all novels set within English villages, someone is eventually coming for tea. I don’t mind reading a page about how the scones were burned and the marmalade was disastrously runny, but something is going to have to amuse me, touch me, or frighten the hell out of me to prevent my hurling this book against the fireplace. By page 128, the mysterious new cook should’ve begun poisoning the spinster or the archdeacon should’ve run barefoot into the High Street on Sunday morning before Divine Service. As it stands, they’ll all die of boredom before Evensong, and I won’t be far behind.

The best thing about this book is that I’ve been falling asleep effortlessly for a change. Not once have I glanced at the clock to realize I should’ve been asleep two hours ago. You may ask why I continue to stick with this bleak book. Well, I’m number three in the queue for next available library book, and #95 for the new Margaret Atwood. That said, I have a feeling that even if a new library book shows up tomorrow, there is a part of me that wants to reach the end. How else will I find out that the shepherd’s pie was burnt to a crisp and they all had to eat cold pigeon sandwiches for New Year’s dinner?

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Humanizing Our Character

Which of you has a guilty conscience? Please private message me and give me all the details! Did you nick something from the drugstore like the homeroom mom I mentioned in a previous blog post? Did you write an anonymous letter to someone in your supper club telling her that the group was appalled by her liberal use of canned Parmesan? Did you hurt her feelings by restating the club’s purpose to elevate the food and not appease adolescent palates?

I’m dying to find out why you’re feeling guilty, and I promise not to make you feel bad. There’s enough guilt going around already.

One of my concerns these days is the guilt we have over the time spent enjoying art, music, books, or anything that we humans take the time to create. There is peer pressure in contemporary society, which is directly connected to the attitudes of commerce. On the job, we must crank out an increasing number of widgets per hour, we must drive up profits, we must streamline. We have to be more informed, we have to standardize, we have to become proficient in the shortest amount of time.

We’re supposed to get an overview of art, listen to snippets of music, watch 30-second videos, speed read books, and scan articles. I am also guilty of having recorded classic films that every American should be familiar with only to fast-forward through what I have determined are less important scenes. I’m sure a film’s director would passionately disagree with my editorial choices, and the director might even become violent by hearing me say, “Okay, got it! Moving on!” as I press the button on the remote.

I’m ashamed to admit that I once watched a certain revered sci-fi film in 25 minutes, but when I savored the entirety of Lawrence of Arabia after having not seen it in decades, I felt terribly guilty for not doing a single thing while it played. I sat and watched with deep appreciation, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I could have at least made dinner or ironed a few shirts as the film ran. I was so pleased to have seen that beautiful film again, but it took me a few days to stop wondering how I could have made better use of my time while sitting there.

I recently saw a video clip of a college friend performing The Lord’s Prayer by Alfred Malotte. This is the arrangement familiar to most on the Barbra Streisand Christmas Album. There’s an introduction, a vocal passage, and the piece continues for a few minutes with instrumental interludes, and it all builds to a bold climax until the a-men. My friend is still amazing, and I shared the video with someone I thought would appreciate it.

“Seems like it could go faster,” he said. What?!? What about my friend’s vocal range? The accompanist’s skill? That artful crescendo contrasting the hush of the last few notes? Was he mad?

I didn’t overreact. At least I don’t think I did because I immediately knew what was bothering him about the performance. The music was composed in 1935 when radio was the medium. The country was in the midst of The Great Depression, print news dominated, and talkies were relatively young. There wasn’t as much media to fill the waking hours, and there certainly weren’t a dozen cable stations with 24-hour news cycles. Monthly and bi-weekly magazines didn’t post special articles online every few days with the caption to indicate how many minutes a piece takes to read. Listeners and readers in those days were not pressured into rushing.

For anyone who hasn’t read “Moral Ambiguity” and would like to indulge in some guilty pleasure reading, it’s available at Amazon. Follow the link to my author page at the bottom of this post.

Speaking of captions that indicate how long a printed article will take to read, content providers are obviously aware that we feel guilty for taking more than two minutes to read something that might actually be very important information. Networks with political axes to grind operate in sound bytes because they know the average American isn’t going to actually read a well-sourced investigative piece that took days or weeks to write. Probably not weeks because editors have felt the pressure to get the story out first and earn the biggest profit, so they don’t give their writers the time it takes to really get to the bottom of things.

When I thought about the reaction to my friend’s vocal performance, I realized that my realization of guilt is not unique, and it certainly isn’t new. I’ve been aware of guilt feelings for quite a while, and I’ve scanned dozens of online articles that probably explain our guilt for taking the time to seek answers, discover new information, closely listen to, view with greater understanding, and savor the words that writers have slaved over. I should make a note of all those articles and actually read them when I have the time.

For me to suggest that we resolve to do better and commit more time to the intelligence and beauty within the world will seem like a lecture or sermon that will soon be forgotten. Personally, I know that I’m going to continue scanning dozens of memes each day that make me smile or put that political foe in his or her place because someone attached two sentences to a stock photo in order to say what we’ve all been thinking.

I know myself, and I know that I’m not going to change my ways, but I was shocked to hear someone describe a piece of music that is well under five minutes as “way too long and goes pretty slow.” When researching for this article, I discovered a quote attributed to Ovid: “Note too that a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.” I’m using this quote as a reminder to once again take my time to go back and look closer at a particular Matisse, re-read a classic novel, and linger over dinner and good conversation with friends.

I might not have realized the depths of my guilt had it not been for Alfred Malotte and my friend’s rendition of his The Lord’s Prayer. You might be interested to know that Malotte was a sports organist in Chicago and wrote musical scores for Disney. He composed the music for Ferdinand the Bull, and he did a bunch of other stuff. I didn’t have the time to read the entire Wikipedia article.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1