IN A NORTHERN TOWN, A GIRL
This is the third northern town you’ve been to. You’re certain you’ll find the answer here. Three is a magic number. You’ve started chanting that to yourself. “Three is a magic number. Three is a magic number. Three is a magic number.”
When the clerk at the Motel 6 asked for your credit card you told him, “Three is a magic number.” Maybe he rolled his eyes at you and called you a crazy. You don’t know, but he gave you a key to a room and besides you know you can’t help it. All your hope, all your life relies on “three is a magic number.” Because if it isn’t, then what number is? There are a lot of northern towns. How many, you don’t know, but enough, you know to spend your whole life sifting through. Enough to get lost, to fade away, and to eventually die in with nothing but sore feet, threadbare jeans, and dirty empty hands.
“Three is a magic number,” you say as you slide the key card into room 207: queen-sized bed, stand up shower, glass ashtray on the nightstand, and a neon light glowing through your window. You can hear it buzzing from across the street. One more broken thing. It flashes “L QUOR.” You close the drapes.
“Three is a magic number.” You unlace your boots, kick them off. Across the room, they thud against a wall. One just before the other.
“Three is a magic number.” You go to the bathroom, pee, wash your hands. Your toothbrush got lost somewhere. You don’t remember. You put toothpaste on your finger, rub it into your teeth, and spit. It occurs to you that you’ve turned none of the lights on.
“Three is a magic number.” You go to bed, to sleep, and dream that a large green number three is chasing you through a wet forest laughing.
Every Christmas when you were a girl, to keep you from the room full of adults drinking eggnog, champagne, or whatever else they liked to drink, to keep you from seeing your father get drunk, and as he got drunker, get closer to your mother’s friend Barbara until his hand was resting on her knee, so that you wouldn’t see your mother grip her gin and tonic so tight her knuckles were white, so that you didn’t hear your uncle Pete call anyone a motherfucker and throw his glass across the room as he tried tearing off his jacket and flying into a fight, and uncle Brad and uncle Carl, lift him up and take him outside and tell him to cool off in the snow, your grandfather tucked you in, sat on the edge of your bed and told you a story.
Once upon a time in a northern town there lived a boy who wanted to know everything there was to know. He had picked up many skills and had learned a great deal about life by watching other people. What the boy couldn’t learn by watching people he learned from books loaned to him by Mr. Papers, a quiet, gray old man, with a quiet gray old twinkle in his eyes. By the time the boy was fifteen, he could name every plant, flower, insect, and animal that lived in or around the northern town and a great many of those that didn’t. He could paint a portrait of anyone in his town and build furniture for them just the way they wanted it. He could point out constellations in the sky and tell the myths about them. He could cook, ride a horse, milk a cow, grow vegetables and flowers, make a flute, and then play it; by the time he was fifteen, the boy decided that there was nothing in the world he’d ever need or want to know that he didn’t know already. He was feeling very satisfied with himself that day and walked home from Mr. Paper’s book shop sure that he would be prepared for anything, and that nothing could ever surprise him.
As fortune would have it, at the minute when he was feeling most sure of himself, a red paper heart caught up in the wind flew up to the boy, slid against his face, and stayed there. The boy peeled it off and read it. It said, “I love you.” The boy was emptied. He did not know what this meant. This red heart. This “love” it spoke of. In not knowing this one thing the boy felt as if he knew nothing.
On his way home, the boy paid special attention to the people he passed by, maybe by watching them he could find out what love was.
Among the normal late afternoon routine of people buying the last provisions for dinner and finishing up their errands before going home for the evening, he saw: a young couple smile at each other, embrace and then kiss, the baker and his wife shouting at each in the bakery, a sobbing man throw himself at the feet of a woman.
When the boy got home, however, he still didn’t know what love was, so he decided he’d do the next sensible thing and ask someone.
His father was in the front yard throwing a stick for the dog, the boy asked him “Father what is love?”
His father pulled the stick from the dog’s mouth, looked up at his son, chuckled and said, “Love is nothing son.”
Inside, the boy’s mother was sitting at the kitchen table writing a letter. The boy asked his mother, “Mother, what is love?”
His mother dabbed at her eyes, put her arms on the table, covering the letter, and said, “Love is everything son.”
The boy was puzzled. Just then, there was a knock on the door. It was the priest who was good friends with the boy’s family and sometimes came over for dinner. The boy let the priest in, watched him take a seat, and then he asked the priest, “Father, what is love?”
The priest looked up at the boy, pushed his glasses up his nose, a little closer to his eyes, and said, “Love is God, son.”
The boy still didn’t know what love was so he ran back to Mr. Paper’s bookshop to get there before the old man closed the store for the evening.
“Mr. Papers,” the boy panted, as soon as he landed in the shop. “I need to know what love is. Can you give me some books to read?”
Mr. Papers laughed. “Sure I can,” he said, “I can give you lots of books to read. But none of them will tell you what love is.”
“Why not?” the boy demanded, “I’ve read books that have explained everything from biology, chemistry, and botany, to shipbuilding. If there is a book that can tell me what the sun is, why shouldn’t there be one that can tell me what love is?”
“Because,” Mr. Papers said, “There are some things in this world you can’t learn from books, from watching people or asking people, there are some things you have to learn for yourself. Love is one of them.”
The boy stared at Mr. Papers. He was thinking “Why? Why? Why?” He wanted to know what love was now. He wanted someone to tell him. But since no one was being very helpful, he ran out of Mr. Papers’ shop determined to find out for himself.
He walked into the forest looking at every tree, stick, rock, and squirrel as if it knew something it couldn’t tell him. He wished he could ask them. He wished he could say, “Mr. Pine Tree, what is love?” and the pine tree would cough, clearing its voice of needles, and it would say, love is this or love is that, whatever love was, the pine tree would know, and it would tell the boy, and then the boy could thank it and get back to dinner, and knowing everything again.
The boy walked through the forest for three days and three nights. He was getting tired and hungry. He knew which berries were good to eat of course, but berries weren’t enough; he wanted bread and meat. The boy became delirious, he stopped wishing he could ask the trees, leaves, sticks, rocks, and squirrels what love was, and he started asking them. He went so far as to ask a bear in a stream what love was, but when the bear looked at him, the boy thought that the bear probably didn’t know what love was, and he didn’t want to bother him. That night he begged the stars please. And he asked the moon to take pity on him, he had been walking a long time, and couldn’t she please tell him what love was?
The boy sighed but his next step took him to a hidden grove. In the middle, surrounded by a circle of trees, stood a beautiful girl. Her hair was long and glinted white, blond, and silver in the starlight. Her dress was bone white to match the moon and was as flowing and fluid as any river or stream.
He walked closer to her and suddenly felt small, dirty, and silly. He wanted to ask her what love was, but he couldn’t speak.
The girl smiled at him and motioned for him to come closer. He wanted to. He would have walked towards her forever, but he couldn’t move.
She giggled and her giggling quivered through the night.
She walked to him. Glowing. Luminescent. Everything in the night was suddenly white. Everything in the night was suddenly her.
He wanted to touch her. His skin felt rough. He wasn’t breathing. She was so much shorter than him, but she lifted herself up on her tiptoes, brought her hand in front of his face, and smoothed his eyelids down.
She still glowed through the darkness of his closed eyes. Closer. Closer. And he leaned in as much as he could and pressed his lips against hers. They were cold and sweet. He felt himself glowing, radiating a strange heat, and he knew. He opened his eyes to see her, but she was gone.
There was no forest near the first northern town you went to so you went to a bar.
You met a woman there who wore a red summer dress and jewels in her hair. The syllables of her laughter knocked against each other like wooden wind chimes. Her teeth were white -white, and her fingers were thin.
She laid herself out on your coarse motel bedspread, a water lily on a stale pond, and said she didn’t know about happily ever after, but she could show you happily for just one night.
You kissed her, pulled back her petals.
But when she screamed, “Fuck me,” you knew that you would, so you put her back together, straightened out the jewels in her hair, smoothed her down, put a kiss on her forehead, and offered to drive her home.
The first few times Grandfather surprised you. But then you came to expect him sitting on the edge of your bed in your dark bedroom. He’d plug in a strand of Christmas lights, lift you up when you were small and light enough, and when he was young and strong enough, set you down on your bed and tuck you in.
“Snug as a bug?”
“In a rug,” you’d say. Or if you had had a lot of pie, were not at all tired, or were very excited to hear the story again you’d say, “In a rug, in a rug, in a rug, in a rug, in a rug,” until you were shouting and bouncing.
But all Grandfather would have to say was, “Shh, they’ll hear us,” and turn his head towards the door, and you’d shh and you’d stop bouncing, and push yourself towards the middle of the bed so Grandfather could sit down.
“Once upon a time,” he would start, and you’d breathe in his dinner, wine, and cigar breath as fully as you could so that you could get used to it right away.
He would always stop after the boy had kissed the girl, after the girl had vanished and ask if you wanted to hear the rest of the story. You always said yes, but then he always asked if you were sure, because it was dangerous, and became more and more dangerous each time that you heard it. You didn’t know what he was talking about and you always said yes, yes please. You always said you didn’t care how dangerous it was, you wanted to hear the rest of the story. He would say, “Ok, if you’re sure, but you can’t say that I didn’t warn you.”
“But?” you asked him, once “Could you make the boy a girl?”
Grandfather smiled that of course he could, “Do you want a prince instead?”
“You can keep the princess,” you answered, and Grandfather looked at you a little bit longer, then smiled a thoughtful smile and continued.
The girl who now knew what it was to love, loved. She was full of it, swollen with it. But the girl who now knew what it was to love also now knew what it was to be truly miserable, because the girl she loved was gone, and she didn’t know where to find her.
The girl didn’t know what to do, so she kept walking. She walked through the forest night and day, and one morning as dawn was approaching, she walked into a town that was not the town she came from.
She came to a house. Smoke was billowing from the chimney, and she could smell good things cooking. The girl had not eaten anything but berries since she left home, so she was very hungry.
She knocked on the door. An old woman with strings of gray hair fallen from her bun and pasted to her face in sweat peeked her head out of the door.
“Henry you’re way too early,” the woman said.
“Sorry,” the girl said.
“Oh, you’re not Henry,” the woman said. “But you’re dirty, looks like you haven’t eaten for a month, and those clothes are too thin for this weather. You’d better come in.”
The woman led her inside the house and pulled out a chair from the table.
The girl sat down while the woman disappeared. “Just getting breakfast ready,” she called out, “But in the meantime,” she said and she came out to the girl with an armload of clean warm clothes. “Try these on, my sister was a big woman, but I’m sure something will fit one way or the other, and it’s all I have besides.”
The clothes were big for the girl, but she found a pair of thick black pants, a thick purple sweater, and a long black coat that were clean and that didn’t look too bad.
There was a knock at the door. “That’ll be Henry. Let him in, would you dear?”
The girl answered the door. Henry was a tall round man; his cheeks were red from the cold. “Replacing me already?” he called into the house as he entered.
“Sit yourself down,” the woman answered as she brought plates of eggs, sausages, and fresh bread to the table.
The girl was very hungry, and she ate in silence until she was done.
“Tell me,” asked the woman, “how did you end up here?”
“Love,” she answered her.
Henry and the woman looked at each other. “Not sure you’ll find that here,” Henry said.
“Not these days,” the woman added, “Sad times.”
“Yep,” said Henry, “not much love here, not the sort anyway young lasses like yourself come looking for. If you were here a couple of years ago maybe, but not now. Ever since loneliness claimed the princess . . . . well ever since then, it’s been a sad place.”
“She was a pretty thing too,” the woman said, “Glimmering white hair, grace of a swan, the moon’s own daughter.”
The girl wanted to know what happened.
“What indeed,” Henry said.
“Oh,” the woman said, “She was beautiful, and young men came from everywhere to see her. She was peculiar though, didn’t want to leave her town, didn’t want to be an accessory to someone else’s kingdom, things like that, and the men, well that wasn’t what they were looking for, so they left as soon as they came, then word got round of what she was like and they stopped coming. Poor dear. Just wanted love though. Those nurses princesses grow up with tell them too many stories,”
“She stopped eating,” Henry said, “Stopped going outside.”
The girl asked if she died.
“Well . . . ” Henry said, “Don’t know for sure. But if she’s not dead, she’s just like it.”
The girl thanked the woman for breakfast and for the clothes, and she told Henry that it was nice to meet him, but she had to get going.
“Good luck,” the woman said.
“You’ll never find it here,” Henry said.
The girl waved goodbye and walked away.
She walked further and further into town until she came to a house that was different from all the other houses, and bigger than all the other houses and she thought that it had to be where the king lived.
There were no guards and no locked doors. The girl walked into a large room. At the end was a man slumped over himself on a throne, crying into his hands.
“Excuse me,” the girl said.
“Don’t bother,” the king said, “She won’t go anywhere with you and besides she doesn’t wake up anymore.”
“I’m looking for love,” the girl told him.
The king looked up from his hands and motioned for the girl to come to him.
“What did you say?” the king said.
“I’m looking for love,” the girl said. “I found her in the forest, but she disappeared. I was wondering if she might be here, because now I don’t know if I can live without her.”
“What are you talking about?” The king said, so the girl told him the whole story about leaving his town, because no one could tell her what love was, about walking in the forest, the girl she met in the grove, about how he now knew what love was, but was miserable because she was not with her, so she kept walking, hoping and knowing that she had to find her.
The king had stopped crying and when the girl was finished with his story the king wiped his face and blew his nose. “Really?” the king asked.
The girl nodded.
“What about your home?”
“Love does not live there.”
“What about your position? Pride?”
The girl laughed. “I’m not a princess or anything,” she said, “but I never knew what love was, and now that I do everything else seems silly. Can’t I just see the princess and see if she’s the one I met in the forest?”
“Not a prince?” the king said raising snowy eyebrows, “Not even a boy,” then he said, “hmm . . . maybe . . . ” and agreed and led the girl into a large white bedroom with a large white bed, in the middle of which was a thin girl.
The princess did indeed look wasted away. Her eyes were closed. She was not smiling, and she was not glimmering, but the girl knew her love when she saw her, so she bent down, and kissed her on the cheek, and this time instead of vanishing, the princess opened her eyes and smiled.
“I hope that was ok,” the girl said to the wakening princess.
“You’re the one from my dream,” she said. “That was more than ok.”
The girl lifted the princess up to her feet and kissed her.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” the princess said, “I won’t follow you to where you come from, I like it here, and I’m never going to leave.”
The girl kissed her again, because she liked kissing her and she didn’t care if he never saw her northern town again, as long as she was with her love.
That was good enough for the princess, and they lived together, and then got married and the girl was very happy and never thought about her home, or about having to be the smartest person there was ever again. She was with love and never wanted anything else. And for that she lived happily until the end of her days.
The second northern town you went to didn’t have a forest, but it did have a park. You went for a walk there and met a small woman walking a large dog. She was bundled up in an orange coat, and a fuzzy blue scarf. She said you looked lost. You told her you were looking for love. She smiled. You leaned over and petted her dog. It licked your hand. The woman laughed and said that it looked like you had found it.
She took you out to dinner because she said you looked hungry and besides, she just happened to be an expert on love.
She took her dog home and met you at the largest restaurant in the northern town.
You were waiting for her when she skipped inside, and when she sat down, she seemed to have carried the wind in with her.
Love, she said is easy to find. She ordered wine. You picked up your menu. But love, you said, isn’t easy to keep.
She said, ah now, it isn’t that hard, why her and her husband had been together five years now.
When you left her, you said, “Give my regards to your dog.”
Every year on Christmas Eve, your parents invited family, friends, whoever they knew, to a late dinner and an after-dinner Christmas party. Christmas day was kept for you, your mom, dad, church, presents, and a quiet dinner, but the night before your mother prepared a feast: turkey with rosemary stuffing, potatoes, yams, green beans prepared in a creamy sauce that made you forget they were green beans, and a whole table full of round bowls with steamy things that smelled good.
At six thirty your mother dressed you and washed you and when you got older, yelled at you to hurry up and wash and put on the clothes that she had laid out on your bed. And for God’s sake, this time, she’d say, put on the good shoes, not those damned dirty sneakers with the holes.
You’d dress and wash, put on your favorite sneakers, and then have a little war between your army men and Barbies. It scared you to have so many people over, even if it was only once a year. You weren’t an especially nervous child, but Christmas Eves with your aunts, uncles, and grandparents made you one. Everyone touched you so much. Having a war relaxed you. Your mother didn’t like it, but as long as you swept them under your bed and ran downstairs as soon as you heard the first doorbell ring she didn’t say anything about it.
Your father always bought the tallest tree he could find and then struggled strapping it to the car, hauling it in the house, and then setting it up. Your mother decorated it with lights and ornaments. She put you in charge of the tinsel even though she thought you used too much. “So it will sparkle more,” you used to tell her.
The guests arrived at seven. Like clockwork every year. All the main lights: the floor lamps, table lamps, and ceiling lamps, were turned off, so the Christmas lights could have their glory.
Your father put in the extra leaf in the dining table to make more table and he brought up extra chairs from the garage.
In front of each table setting was a tall white candle in a silver candleholder. Glasses of wine were set beside each plate, except for yours, which was grape juice, but in the candlelight, it looked like everyone else’s and for a long time you never knew there was a difference.
Before dinner, everyone was so rough, that’s when they did most of their touching, but as soon as your mother lit the candles and tinkled a little silver bell that she liked to tinkle, everyone quieted down, sat, and ate dinner in a hush. It felt like church. Plates were passed around the table. Everything was orderly. Almost mechanical, but in a gentle, respectful way. Talking was limited to compliments and requests for recipes. After everyone was finished, your mother took away the dishes. Your aunts and your mother’s friends would get up and help her in the kitchen. You stayed in your seat with the rest of the men waiting for pie.
After dinner, you were shuffled from relative to relative. They left their quiet at the table. Someone would find the piano and start pounding out Christmas carols. People would start singing, belting out songs from where they sat.
Your mother made you a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream on top. You learned to drink it slowly, because as soon as you were done, she would notice, even if she was across the room, or on one occasion out in the backyard, and tell you to get ready for bed. You didn’t want to accidentally see Santa Claus did you? Because if you did, he wouldn’t leave you any presents. You would tell your mother not to be silly. Santa didn’t exist. But she didn’t believe you.
You’d give the empty mug to your mother, pad up the stairs, take a bath, change into your pajamas, brush your teeth, and shuffle along the floor to your bedroom because you liked the way the carpet felt against your clean feet.
When you were eleven, the bonds of tradition came undone. You didn’t know what happened, but when you woke up on Christmas morning, your mother gave you your presents and then said that your father was gone, he wasn’t coming back, and good riddance.
From then on, nothing was the same. You’d spend some Christmases with your mother and her new boyfriend, and some Christmases with your father who seemed so alone.
Grandfather was right when he warned you. You should have let him stop the story with the girl alone and miserable. Hell, you should have let him stop with the boy alone and miserable. You should have learned that’s the way it works, that one day you’d be lost in a cold forest, empty and alone.
This is the third northern town you’ve gone to. You know this town has a forest nearby, a large one, that’s why you picked it. But you don’t know if there’s a hidden grove, and if there is, and if you find it, you don’t know that there will be a beautiful woman there and if there is you’re not sure she’ll let you kiss her, you’re not sure if she’ll show you love or your happily ever after, but you know you have to try, you know you have to look, you know you have to find her somewhere.
“Three is a magic number.” You smoke a cigarette in bed, when you’re halfway done, you stub it out in the glass ashtray on the nightstand.
“Three is a magic number.” You roll out of bed, strip naked, and step into the shower. The water is cold.
“Three is a magic number.” Your clothes, your boots feel tight, you don’t know if they can hold you.
“Three is a magic number.” You pour yourself a cup of complimentary coffee, shake in the complimentary creamer, stuff your pockets with complimentary donuts, and hand your key card to the clerk at the counter. He gives you a receipt to sign and asks where you’re headed. You tell him, “Three is a magic number.” He shakes his head at you and calls you a crazy, but you don’t care.