[ Guest editor: Adrienne J. Odasso ]
Introduction Adrienne J. Odasso
"Mountain-Hunting for Beginners," Yaroslava Strikha
"Peering Through," Cynthia Odiorne
"Shadow Box," Esther Bergdahl
"Stone Windows," Julie K. Rose
"Windows on the World," Sara Polsky
"The Window Within my Window," Ro Smith
Why wish for the moon? Outside the window night falls,
slender women rush to meet their dates. Men whistle
on the dark blue streets at shapes they want
or, in the pubs, light cigarettes for two. Big Sue
unwraps a Mars Bar, crying at her favourite scene.
The bit where Bette Davis says We have the stars.
—Carol Ann Duffy, from "Big Sue and Now, Voyager"
My aim for this issue is to present pieces of writing that explore windows in all their various representations, both literal and figurative. A window is an opening through which we view the world—or, indeed, an opening through which the world views us. Windows with glass can mimic mirrors, and windows without glass may serve as doors. However, there are some windows—those of time, chance, and opportunity—that can't be seen or peered through at all, unless one really squints. Seek a window on the past or a window on the future, but be careful what you wish for. Bricked or blocked, curtained or closed, windows have the potential to obstruct equally as effectively as they reveal.
Adrienne J. Odasso is currently completing the first year of her Ph.D. in late medieval English literature at the University of York. Her poetry has appeared on Strong Verse and in Aesthetica and Hum-Drum magazines (both UK publications), and will be appearing in issue #5 of Sybil's Garage and in the 2008 Exhibition of Farrago's Wainscot. Her short fiction first appeared in issue #2 of Behind the Wainscot, and a new short story will be published in the Ruins anthology from Hadley Rille books at the end of August. She lives with her husband, James, who graciously tolerates the incessant typing.
[ Yaroslava Strikha ]
In Ancient China, it was widely believed that, in times of great turmoil, mountains tear themselves up from the ground and travel all over the country.
Lies, I say. Well, either that, or the Chinese were blessed with the most well-mannered mountains I've ever heard of. Trust me, I have more than a little experience with the bastards, having lived on the most temperamental, volatile mountain one could ever imagine—which, to top it all off, was afraid of thunder.
. . . Later, names were named, fingers were pointed, and allegiances formed around the matter of who forgot to fasten it to the ground. Who was the last to leave for a nearby fair and did not double-check the lock on its pen. Or maybe it was some vile intruder. Perhaps it was one of those fairy folks that had taken to looting our gardens. Afterthoughts are as childish a game as picking scabs, but there's not much else to do on a train as we are chasing the mountain across the country.
We are quick to settle into a routine of the conjunctive mood, trapped in a web of calls not done, questions not asked, flowers not watered, words fluttering in little flocks above typewriters. It's too easy to believe there is some other version of ourselves getting on with life while we are stuck where we are, our eyes trained on the horizon.
"I might have left an iron on," an elderly lady frets, rearranging her purse on her skinny knees.
"Hope that the Well of Living Water doesn't dry up while we are off," a grumpy man says, clutching a skull to his chest.
"Don't get too comfortable," others say. "This is a temporary shelter."
The train smells of second-hand dreams, stale cigarette smoke, and incense; smells clinging to sweaty skin, smells carried in inner pockets like smuggled coke. What goes on beyond the window, this vague possibility of a mountain, is the only thing real, the innards of our train but a cardboard cut-out.
Sometimes we see our mountain through the window, but through the window only—its shape hazy beyond the thick glass, looming mistily at the horizon. At times like these, the deities of railroad stations, with their heavy army boots peeking out from beneath the ceremonial robes, motion at night for the train to move on in whatever direction the mountain is running off. But most of the time, peeking out of the window at night, we see nothing but ourselves; no more so than at any other time, though.
Sometimes we do leave the train—never for long—for occasions like weddings or burials, and our eyes never for a second stray off the skyline, as we are ready for the whistle to blow.
Tea on the train tastes of chlorine and faintly smells of watercolors. We take to gathering around imps in jars, semi-transparent storytelling imps that whisper stories about the mountain and its shady orchards in sweet, dizzying voices.
People die with their eyes on the windows, and we carry the newborns up to the frames so the horizon gets imprinted on their irises; not a trace of the mountain though, no trees broken in its wake.
Some shuffle guiltily closer to the exit and leave, never to be seen again. Some board the train to occupy the vacated seats—idle anthropologists, pent-up literary critics, noisy students with catchy bad poetry written in black ink on their wrists.
The trick to hunting mountains is, you give them all that you have left.
We wait, as we are not of the Impatient Folk. Could have been forty years, could have been more; it's been quite a while since we've last seen it. The youngsters learn the mountain through stories and pictures, its hazy sepia outlines etched into their skin. The speculations come and go, of the mountain dancing its way into the sea, of the mountain taking off and vanishing into the open skies.
And some of us have gone so far as to say that there was no mountain at all.
Yaroslava Strikha works as an editor and translator (from English, Russian, and Polish) for several Ukrainian publishing houses. Her credits include, though are not limited to, editing the Ukrainian translations of books 3-6 of the Harry Potter saga. She is a regular contributor to various magazines on issues ranging from book reviews to legends about dogs. Her first fantasy novel (Dunno, or The Last Game of the Lord) won 3rd place at the Smoloskyp Publishers young authors' contest in 2004 and was published in 2006.
[ Cynthia Odiorne ]
"For your hopes or fears—" Raven laid down the card in what she hoped was sufficiently ominous fashion "—the Tower. 'Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.'"
Usually, the Yeats quote got her a quick smile—or at least an eye-roll. This was a college town, so her chances of hitting an English major who was writing a paper on the poem were better than average. But the girl in front of her flinched, and looked up from the cards. "And . . . how does it turn out?" Her eyes were red and watery.
Raven put down the final card. Two of Swords. Dammit, how was she supposed to spin something positive out of that? "A knife's edge," she said out loud. "A delicate balance. Not even the cards can say for certain what will happen. I'm sorry." The last was involuntary, as the girl started to cry, face scrunching up like a child's, shoulders shaking silently.
The girl shook her head. "It's okay," she said, and hastily bent down to her purse, rummaging for—tissues, probably. Raven looked around, but she didn't keep tissues near her table unless she had a cold. By the time she looked back, the girl had found her tissues and was wiping her face with them. "It's just been a bad few days."
Raven hesitated a moment, then leaned forward. The boss didn't frown on being a shoulder to cry on, as long as it didn't take too long. "What's wrong?"
"It's a friend of mine." The girl wiped impatiently at her eyes with her wad of tissues. "Nobody's seen her for two days, and she isn't answering her phone, and the police won't listen to me—"
"She lives right down the hall from me. I know her. She wouldn't just run off like that." The girl took a long, shuddering breath, then stood up. "Thank you for the reading."
"My pleasure," Raven told her automatically. "And, er, good luck."
"Thank you," the girl said with a tiny smile, and left. Her face was still tear-streaked.
"I don't need a full reading," the guy said.
Raven studied him for a moment. Sitting all the way back in the chair, arms loosely crossed, mouth tight, hair unbrushed—okay, college town, not unusual—and shadows under his eyes as if he hadn't slept for a week. Not worth the argument, she decided. "Of course, sir," she said instead. "I can do a three-card reading—"
"Yeah, sure. My girl—" The guy cut himself off and waved one hand.
Well, then. Raven cut the deck, then began to lay out the cards, reading them off as she went. Querent: Seven of Cups, the Dreamer. Influence: Ten of Swords, betrayal and Ruin. Final outcome—oh, Goddess.
"Two of Swords," Raven said. Coincidence. Had to happen sometimes. "A dangerous balance. I—is your girlfriend missing?"
Silence. Raven looked up from the cards. The guy was staring at her. He stood up, scraping the chair back, and left without a word.
Raven linked her hands and stretched. God and Goddess, it had been a long day. Too many silly people asking silly questions. It paid the rent, but it just felt—
"Excuse me? Are you still open?"
"Of course," Raven said, hastily sitting down again. Dawn must have decided she could fit in one more quickie before leaving. "Please, sit down." When had the girl shown up? She hadn't heard any footsteps. "What sort of reading would you prefer?"
"I don't know." The girl spoke so quietly Raven had to sit forward and strain to hear her. "Something simple?"
"Sure! How about a—" Not a three-card; that would look like she was rushing her out the door. "A six-card reading?" Raven shuffled the cards as she spoke, then offered the pack to the girl for cutting.
"Six is fine." The girl didn't touch the cards. If anything, she seemed to shrink back from them.
"Okay," Raven said, cut the deck herself, and began to lay out the cards.
Querent: Seven of Cups, reversed, the Dreamer entrapped by her own dreams. Not getting out enough. Maybe that was why the girl was so pale. Crossing card: The Tower. Shit. Raven hesitated, trying to think of some way to gentle this—the girl yesterday had started crying—but this one nodded, intent on the cards.
Far Past: Five of Wands, conflict. Near past: Two of Swords. Again; third time in two days. Raven looked up, about to ask if the girl knew someone who was missing, but the girl still hadn't looked up from the cards or said anything. Coincidence, Raven told herself sternly, and returned her attention to the reading.
Major influence: Ten of Swords.
Coincidence, even if she was a fortune-teller. The point was to give the clients insight into their own lives, not use the cards to peer in herself. "Betrayal," Raven translated, biting her tongue on the urge to suggest whose, and turned over the final card. "Leading to—er, a great change. It doesn't necessarily mean death."
"It's all right," the girl said. She looked up from the cards finally, and she was smiling. "I understand. Thank you." She stood up and walked out without hesitation.
Raven caught herself halfway out of her chair. She couldn't go chasing after clients, not even ones that saw the Death card in their future and smiled. Too many unanswered questions, too many possible connections and no answers.
She picked up the cards, shuffled them without cutting, and laid them out one more time. Answer hazy; try again.
Cynthia Odiorne has been writing since she was twelve and got her hands on her first computer. Her most recent story, ". . . And The Door Will Open," appeared in the first issue of Unlined.
[ Esther Bergdahl ]
Paolo woke up one morning to find that Adorno, his next-door neighbor (for we must call him this for the rest of you, to convey the proper relationship between them), had installed something in his dwelling-area. He rose up from his pallet on the bare ground, yawned, stretched, scratched his stomach, and found himself confronted with the most shocking abnormality to visit Pelato-Spoglio since that loose elephant had escaped from the traveling circus nearby and eaten the mayor's wife's hedges.
"Adorno!" he cried, holding out his hands at it. "What is this?"
"It's a window," Adorno said dreamily, still reclining on the ground.
"That's not a window! Even if we had windows here, which we don't, because buildings are the great stratifier and all men are absolutely equal here, that would not be a window!"
"It is a window," repeated Adorno. "It lets the dark in."
The object in question was an enormous block, dull black and floating some three feet off the ground. It cast a long, precise shadow, which to Paolo seemed to creep outward like a sly and hungry octopus. Paolo shuddered, and checked on his own shadow, which was safely behind him. Standing there with your shadow hanging out and getting it on other people was one of the rudest things you could do in Pelato, yet here was Adorno with this thing and its shadow and basking in it.
"Old friend," Paolo announced, "you have lost your mind."
"Look what you're doing!"
"I'm sitting here."
"You're sitting in it!"
"You make it sound like it's something revolting."
"No, it's actually quite pleasant. Have a seat?"
Paolo threw up his hands. "No, thank you. I'm perfectly comfortable out here being decent and civilized."
Adorno shrugged. "Have it your way."
"Where did that thing come from?"
"It was here when I woke up."
"Just as I said. I woke up, and there it was. It's rather fascinating, really."
"Someone is playing a ghastly trick on you!" Paolo cried. "We must find out who it is."
For the first time, Adorno's mouth twisted with something like annoyance. "Aren't you interested in it?"
Paolo circled the block, squinting at it. "I'm interested in getting rid of it, and if you won't do it for your own good, consider doing it for my peace of mind. It gives me the creeps, just hovering there."
"It's just a shadow," Adorno sighed. "Everyone has one." Paolo huffed and looked somewhere else. The sere flatlands stretching out around them thrummed with cicadas and sparrows.
"Maybe it's a sign," Paolo announced.
"Maybe it's here to make us appreciate what we have."
Adorno frowned. "We don't have anything, and you didn't answer my question."
But Paolo was rubbing his chin. "I'll bet the Edifists put it here. They snuck in while you were sleeping and put it here to try and bring you over to them. It's not a sign—it's a test! Adorno, you have to resist it!"
Adorno pulled himself upright and drew his knees to his chest. "What is there to resist? It's not doing anything. It just sits there."
Paolo squatted to lean close, all concern. "I think you and I both know it's doing more than that."
"Good heavens! What's this all about?"
The two men turned at the interruption. The mayor stood some distance off, staring at the block. Paolo leaped to his feet.
"Good morning, sir!" He kicked at Adorno. "Get out of the shade!" he hissed. Adorno frowned again, but didn't move.
The mayor raised a benevolent hand. "Morning, my friends. Calm down, Paolo, we'll get to the bottom of this." Decisively, he ventured closer. "Adorno, what is this?"
"He says it's a window, sir," Paolo volunteered.
"A window? In Pelato? That's Edificism, young man!"
Adorno blinked up in the glare. "It's not a normal window—"
"I can see that!"
"It lets in the dark."
The mayor seemed baffled, though affably so. "Whatever would we want with that?"
Adorno shrugged. "Paolo thinks it's a sign."
"From the Edifists!" he sputtered. "Trying to lure us away!"
"Interesting . . ." The mayor examined the block. "I can't imagine what's holding it up. Something sinister, surely, but interesting nonetheless."
Paolo hurried to his shoulder. "It's entranced him, sir. He won't get out of its shadow."
The mayor took the initiative. "Now, Adorno, Paolo and I are both your good friends, but you must stop this wallowing in the shadow. I know you're intrigued, but use your head for a moment—what if someone sees you?"
"And whoever heard of a window that lets in the dark?" added Paolo.
"Windows are complicit in constructs that oppress and stratify," the mayor continued gravely. "You let one appear, no matter how harmless or unusual, and soon you'll have walls, rooms, storeys, houses, and before you know it, we'll find ourselves in a hive of buildings. We'll be no different from the Edifists, with their servants' quarters and iron fences and jailhouses and tenement blocks. Do you want that for our community?"
Adorno kept his eyes on the block. "I'd never thought about it before."
The mayor gathered his momentum. "We can't have this, you know. This sort of thing promotes obscurity. It stands for everything to which we are fundamentally opposed. It's like an open endorsement of secrets, do you see? No one in Pelato keeps anything from any other! We did away with that long ago, and now look at us! All equals! Aren't we the happier for it?"
Adorno looked up at the mayor. "How are your wife's hedges?"
The mayor's aspect went rigid. "Now see here," he growled.
"No," he said mildly. "It's all right. She should have them."
Paolo stared from man to block to man. The sparrows and cicadas flitted overhead, and where they landed remained hidden.
Esther Bergdahl is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, with a degree related to the Great Books program. Her short play, Bluebirds Over, was performed in a reading by University Theater in May 2006. She is the 2006 recipient of the David Blair McLaughlin Prize for "essays demonstrating special skill and sense of form in the writing of English prose," for "To Be Counted with the Men: The Awakening of Telemachos in Homer's Odyssey." Esther has worked in many editorial capacities, including theater, publishing, and an online literary magazine for "unexpected fantasy," Unlined, currently preparing for its third quarterly issue.
[ Julie K. Rose ]
The November afternoon sun slanted away to the west, watery and pale, a ghost of its midday glory. It was in this dim light that I first wandered into the empty courtyard of the castle, a broad Norman keep built haphazardly of the local Saône Valley limestone. I reached out and slowly slid my hand along the courtyard's rough, pocked wall. A thrill of energy swept through me: voices echoing in the dark. I pulled my hand back and spun around. No one.
After a moment's hesitation, I turned and touched the stone again, resting my cheek against its comforting coolness. The voices swelled again, a confusing cacophony, frightening, yet somehow soothing. After long minutes rising and falling on the sound, mesmerized and clinging to the wall, a thought struggled through the voices.
I wonder if anyone lives here?
As though in answer, a door opened at the top of a set of stairs carved into the keep's wall. A woman, old as the stones, it seemed, stepped out, heavy gray cardigan held closed by her shaking hand over a light spring-print dress. The moment she appeared, the breeze of courtyard voices became clearer, insistent. She stared down at me; I stared back, shivering.
"Come in," she said, finally, in heavily accented English. "It is cold down there, come inside."
I nodded, and, as though in a trance, my feet were already leading me up the perilous stone stairs.
I stepped into a dark-paneled medieval hall, where the old woman was waiting for me. "Please, sit down," she said, motioning me toward two straight-backed cane chairs next to the great hearth. Behind the chairs, at the far end of the room, stood a spectacular bank of tall, narrow windows. Through them, I could see the last wisps of evening light lingering on the castle's rolling vineyards and sparkling on the winding Saône below: magical and gentle, delicate and comforting. Despite its beauty, I gave the view only a moment's consideration; the room, the old woman, the voices still called. Turning my back on the windows, I took a seat in one of the cane chairs.
The old woman settled into the broad dark oak chair across from me. She was pale and small against the chair's massive carved back, a child playing at being a queen. And yet, the tilt of her chin and slight arch to her eyebrow rendered her imposing as an empress.
After a few moments looking me over, she spoke. "You hear them?"
"I'm sorry?" I asked, startled. I looked at her, really looked at her. Her squinting eyes were yellow-green and clouded by cataracts, ghostly in her pale, wrinkled face. I had the sensation that she could see straight down to my soul. Every misstep and every sin, recent or ages old, rose to meet her gaze. I trembled, but did not move.
She nodded briefly. "You hear them."
I saw a shift in her face: aged and ageless, young girl and old woman playing across her features in an instant. In the silence, the voices soared, the words music and the music visions of every person to climb those ancient stairs. "Yes," I said at last.
She smiled and sat forward, her gnarled hands vibrating with excitement. "You see, the castle was built in 1257, enclosing a twelfth-century priory. The land was purchased in donation to the Abbot of Cluny in 1015. This was the site of a Gallo-Roman villa, and the vineyards are based on that ancient Roman stock. This land has been occupied for nearly 2000 years, n'est-ce pas?"
I heard the voices speaking, and their words brought them to life. I looked around the room, but didn't see the great hearth, or the ancient tools of winemaking and warfare lining the walls: I saw the hands that had created them, wielded them, lived by them, died by them. I rubbed my bare arms against the sudden chill.
She beckoned me closer. "You know what it is, don't you?" she asked.
"Ghosts?" I shuddered.
She shook her head. "The swirl of time. Here, in this place, in the stones," she whispered. "Alive. Time is not a line. They are gone and they are here, all at the same time."
Though she herself seemed to swirl in and out of time, face shifting and eyes ageless, she was a fixed point in the growing cacophony. I edged closer to her, a point of warmth in the cold room. "I've felt—something, before. In other places. At home, in California, this feeling of energy. But . . . never the voices. Why here?"
"They are safe here," she said to herself, gazing out to a middle space that I couldn't see. "Come," she said suddenly. "I want to show you something."
I followed her through the flitting phantoms and rising voices to a narrow limestone staircase I had not noticed before. She laid her wrinkled hand flat against the whitewashed wall. "The monks at Cluny built this staircase out of a single block of limestone, hundreds upon hundreds of years ago. Feel the stones. Feel them," she insisted.
I was frightened, but did as I was told. The stone was smooth under my hand, and cool. At first, nothing. And then, I felt myself drawn into the swirl. I heard, I saw the thread of time that wound inexorably toward me standing right here, and then back and around into history.
I shivered with the vision and knowledge, fearsome in its scope and power, yet somehow comforting. I began to shake, nearly lost in that stream of time. The old woman laid her cool hand on my heated forehead, and I stepped away from the wall.
"People believe the windows have the view, but you and I know better, don't we, ma chère?" she said, patting my shoulder. "It's the stones that have the view." She smiled a strange, small smile and tottered away.
I followed her back to the hall, where she settled again into the intricately carved chair. I sat in my cane chair across from her and leaned forward. "What is this place?" I whispered.
She shrugged. "The same as any place. Time and history living together, right on top of each other."
"Do they always chatter?"
"Doesn't it drive you mad?" I asked, glancing around the room at the voices made real.
She grinned, turning her cat-eyes on me. "You tell me."
I shivered again, realization and epiphany an electric jolt. "It feels as if . . . as if I stayed here, I would become part of the stones myself," I said, eyes wide.
"You will become part of your own stones. If you allow it," she said, nodding. "And you must."
The voices grew louder, the faces clearer, and suddenly I was content. "And if you leave—"
"I cannot leave this place," she said, smiling. "I preserve the view."
Julie K. Rose was short-listed for the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom prize for an unpublished novel (The Pilgrim Glass). All of her information is available at www.juliekrose.com.
[ Sara Polsky ]
You're nearly dozing at your desk when you hear the first supersonic boom and see the first flutter of debris. Your feet hit the floor abruptly, and a frisson of fear and panic propels you from the chair. You're practically leaping over your desk to reach the window, your tie flying ahead of you as if you've put your superhero cape on backwards.
You think, oddly, not of escape or even of danger, but of a fifth grade lesson on prepositions. In, out, around, beside, through, below, beneath, outside. You remember your teacher, Mrs. Bellows, clambering through and around your classroom's first-floor window while you and your classmates, despite thinking yourselves too cool for class and far too old to be mesmerized by an adult's repetitive motions, sat there entranced.
The lesson has stayed with you, and as you crouch, now, in front of your office's sole window with its cool metal frame and beige shade, you mentally add prepositions. Behind. Inside. As the horrors mount in front of you, you focus on that sense of being protected, locked away, boxed in. Safe and, comfortingly, too far away to help even if you tried. Behind and inside, cradled within the office that had seemed mind-numbingly dull and imprisoning as recently as that morning.
The things that fly past your porthole—when you reflect on it, you realize you haven't a way of opening it after all—are nearly indistinguishable. Metal and paper bits, some colored, others alight, flicker by, the sort of screensaver that holds your attention all afternoon rather than allowing you to get on with your work.
The first body, then, is like someone abruptly hitting the space bar. Even as close as you are to the scene, it's only a speck. But you can tell exactly what it is, as if you feel a kinship with the flailing, frightened body in its dark suit and staid-patterned tie. Its passing brings into sharp relief the surroundings you've muted, the thuds and screams and flames. For a moment you sense each sound and scent individually, and then they come together in a roar so loud and terrible your hands are over your ears before you realize it, and you're cowering on the floor.
It gets no quieter, and it's suddenly as if the window doesn't exist at all, as if that earlier leap over your desk had carried you clear out into the sky. You're out there with the flailers and screamers, you're one of them, arms and legs almost spread-eagle as you stretch your limbs from their sockets reaching for human contact. If you can only link hands with one person, you think, but you're plummeting too fast for lateral motion. You see faces in other windows flash by you, pressed up against the glass with their identical, childlike expressions of wonder and incomprehension.
Returning to your office floor is like falling out of bed: you wake upon impact with a moment of disorientation so complete it banishes the horror, briefly. You cry out, though you don't know why you're shouting—perhaps for a mother or father to explain away the nightmare, or perhaps because it's the only sound you can summon amidst the smog and the suffering.
You used to like to imagine yourself in dangerous scenarios from history. You'd fantasize about the daring escapes you could have made—from a battlefield or the Titanic—even where such escape proved impossible for those who came before. But here there is no escape, even for the clever daredevil of your imagination. There are only two choices: to be a passive observer or an unwilling one.
You stand up long enough to snap the shade decisively shut.
Sara Polsky's fiction has appeared in AlienSkin and Fictitious Force. Her nonfiction has appeared in Renaissance Magazine, Student Traveler, Mystery Scene Magazine, and other publications.
[ Ro Smith ]
There is a window within my window.
I was four and three quarters when I first noticed it (five, actually, but I insisted that I was still in the "four" age-bracket—just). I had been conducting an experiment. Adults imbue their experiments with a sort of daunting weightiness; they feel the need to find a reason of some kind, a justification, an excuse. It will help cure cancer, or give us smoother skin. But I think the base drive of all experimenters is really just to find things out.
I wanted to find something out. I was curious, and I liked the idea of experimenting. So I just did it.
I wanted to find out what would happen if I crumbled a digestive biscuit in a cup of water, and left it on the windowsill.
I didn't have any specific thoughts about what would happen. Doubtless there was an element of childish mimicry involved. I was addicted to the magical mystery of the Open University. I wanted grow up to be an OU scientist, complete with flared trousers, tweed jacket, and a big, bushy beard. The beard didn't seem like too great a hurdle. Five year-old girls imagine they can grow up to be anything their hearts desire, and I wanted to be Just Like Them. I was enthralled by their vast understanding of lines and letters and figures; I wanted to know the secret of all those xs and ys.
Mimicry aside, though, I think it was just that I didn't know what would happen if I crumbled a digestive biscuit in water and left it on the windowsill; so I wanted to find out.
I checked every day. It didn't do much. I could hazard a guess, now, as to what would have happened, but at five years old (four and three quarters), such knowledge was not to be mine.
One morning, the cup was gone.
I was not best pleased, and I thought I knew who to blame. It must have just seemed like a dirty cup to Mummy; she knew nothing about my experiment.
I sat disconsolately by my windowsill, confronted rather starkly with the limits of my knowledge; knowing that if I were to try again, parental short-sightedness would interfere once more. I'd probably never know what would have happened. How many billions of other things would I fail to learn in my lifetime?
It was then that I noticed the window within my window.
I suppose most people wouldn't even think to look there. Why would you, from an adult point of view? It lay in the part of the window we have no earthly business to look at most of the time: the inside edge, where the glass meets the frame. Nothing to see there, except—there was.
A tiny sliver of brightness that looked out upon a whole new world. My heart beat faster in my chest as I thought of all the stories that had been read to me—stories in which children escaped into other worlds full of new things, new delights, real adventures.
With trembling fingers, torn between excitement and fear of being foolish, I touched the side of the pane . . .
What did I expect? The gap was plainly too small for me to fit through.
I sighed. There would be no magical adventures for me. Not that day, at least. Although, it was still my wonderful secret—a piece of magic that was all my own. That little sliver revealed more than you might think: an uninterrupted vista of grass sloping off into rolling hills, the occasional lonely-looking cluster of pines, and in the distance . . . mountains.
It looked absolutely enchanted.
Children get bored of things, even magic things, so I didn't watch it every day. Sometimes I waited hours, longing for something to happen. Other times a quick glance revealed nothing new, and I turned away. Sometimes, in the far distance, there was what looked like a flock of sheep, and a taller, darker speck, that I liked to think of as a shepherd boy. Oh, the pre-adolescent silliness that shepherd boy sparked! But for all my fervent wishes, he never became more than a speck.
The next house had no window.
Well, okay, it had windows, but if they held inner windows, I never saw them. I oscillated between thinking I'd made the whole thing up and blaming it on the double-glazing. I never have seen a hidden window in double-glazing; not that I suppose that means very much.
I didn't see another one until University. It surprised me, because it was in my boyfriend's room. I told him about it one night after our first (and last) go at tequila slammers. Once he realized I wasn't joking, he surprised me. He showed real interest. I assumed he'd have forgotten in the grey, awful tones of the hung-over morning. But when I awoke to nausea and delicate, slow movements, he was crouched by the window, peering and prodding, unable to see a thing.
I could still see it: the edge of his windowpane dark and speckled with the eerie starlight of foreign constellations.
He always could take his drink better than me. He barely seemed hung-over, and he probed me with questions. Said para-phenomena was quite the hot topic—especially doorways into other worlds—but he'd never heard of any research on the edges of windowpanes. He was excited; said it made sense, when you thought about it—something about angles and refractions, and things I didn't understand. Maybe it was the hangover, maybe it was his eagerness to rip away my little shard of magic and expose it to the world . . .
I blew up at him.
We raged at each other; I said stupid things and so did he.
And that was the end of that.
He never did see any windows within windows, but they continued to fascinate him. He made a success of it, you know, my ex-boyfriend. Learned how to force an "Edge Fractal Anomaly" (that's what they call them), and they've made this huge glass block with an inner window the size of a door.
But it's not a door, and I don't think it ever will be.
After the argument, I stopped looking. Didn't want to see, didn't want to know. What had seemed magical and personal had become painful and jagged.
Until three years ago (two years and three quarters), that is. Oliver and I (colleagues and lovers) had bought a converted barn together. The attic bedroom is mine; the view is stunning. I used to sit for hours staring out at the rippling corn. Sometimes deliberately, pen in hand, in search of inspiration. Sometimes I'd be halfway through a stanza, and some commotion amongst the stalks would catch my eye, and I'd be lost in corn and the cloud-mottled sky again.
One time I looked up to peace and stillness in the fields. It wasn't the view from my window that had caught my eye. It was the window within my window—the one I hadn't even known was there, all that time.
Once I'd seen it I couldn't unsee it—that hidden window, and the deep brown eye staring back. I don't know who she is. She tried to write her name down and show it to me, but I couldn't read it.
She's a child. I don't know how old. Pre-teen, I guess, but beyond that . . . ? I couldn't say. She's curious—watching her watching me.
I've written poems about her, but not ones I could share, not even with Oliver.
And that's adults. We imprison ourselves to ward off pain, asking only the safe questions: the ones we can justify, the ones we're sure we want answers to.
Maybe Michael's doing something right after all: not stopping just because he mightn't get much besides a pretty view, just wanting to see what we can do.
I can't help feeling we wouldn't develop this grown-up caution if there wasn't something to it. And yet . . .
I hope she doesn't—the girl in the window within my window—not fully and completely, and not just yet.
Ro Smith is a young writer with a taste for SF&F and related speculative genres. Although she mostly writes novels and short stories, she's also done a small amount of poetry (some of which is in print) and has a regular column in Word Salad & Art Chips (University of York student literary magazine) reviewing quirky internet sites. In her spare time, she's a part-time philosophy PhD student, editorial assistant for Mind (the journal, not the charity), and proofreader for the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, as well as holding down an admin job and occasionally teaching.
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