Laddered


You stare out the window from your mattress on the floor. You have been living on this mattress, with this window, for three months. You feel the freezing wind coming through the crack between the window and the floor every day as you wake up and still, you haven’t plugged it up with a towel or a t-shirt. Even that much effort feels like a statement of ownership, of permanence. You haven’t put all your books away yet, and you won’t. You refuse to believe that this is home now.

Across the street, through the grimy glass – the place was filthy when you got here and you barely cleaned it – you can see a face peering out of another window. There is a fire-escape ladder beside their window, not the old New York kind of wrought-iron staircase but an actual ladder. You assume it just leads up to the same boring old roof as the one outside your window does. But wouldn’t it be something – you think this as you finally begin to make yourself vertical – wouldn’t it be just something if that ladder went up to her apartment?

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Night Birds

Our apartment has huge windows in the adjoining kitchen and living room. It’s almost a balcony. Only it’s not. We have blinds that we lower and raise, depending on the hour, on how brightly the sun is shining, on how much privacy we want.

Big windows can be horrible if all you’ve got to look at is the inside of someone else’s house. If that’s the view you get, you have a sort of forced intimacy with whoever lives across – you know they see you, and you know that they know that you can see them. It can become very awkward, trying to time things right so as not to spy on each other. Maybe then you both become recluses and never catch a ray of sunlight.

We don’t have those kind of big windows. Ours overlook a relatively large oval-shaped park, surrounded by trees and lined by paths going around and through it. There are benches there where the Filipinos hang out and talk while their elderly charges sit, awkwardly, either unable or unwilling to talk with their peers. There are mothers and fathers walking strollers along the paths, trying to lull to sleep screaming babies, or maybe just sitting by empty strollers while their toddlers delight in the sandbox and the wooden pirate ship that dominates it. There are elementary-school kids and high-school teenagers walking to and from school every day, backpacks weighing them down, some in groups and some alone and some even more alone than the others. These are the things we see during the day.

At night, it’s harder to see. The lamps in the park are yellow and dim and sometimes blown out or simply not turned on. So we use our ears instead of our eyes. On some nights, we can hear teenagers sitting on the benches, whistling and yelling, the glowing red of their cigarettes the only light in the park. On other nights, it’s so silent out there that we long for a storm to come along, to thunder in the sky, to pour down rain so we can hear the tip-tap-drip on our windows.

The best nights, though, are when the night birds sing. We’ve never yet seen them, only heard them. Their cry is shrill, like a whistle, but it’s melodic as well. They seem to be yearning for something, missing something or someone so deeply that it hurts them. Their sound makes our hearts melt a little bit, and even as we smile and pause to listen to their lonely, beautiful cries, our hearts seem to tug at us, feeling a little sore and swollen all of a sudden. Our night birds let us share their desperate want for something unnameable, they nurture our longings, even if we don’t realize it’s happening.

I sometimes wonder if our night birds are like emotions – unseen, only heard somewhere deep, sometimes shrilly enough that it’s impossible to ignore them.

An Excerpt

I have a few different stories that I’m working on. I always seem to have a few stories that I’m working on, and I never seem to continue writing enough of them. This, however, is part of a story I began thinking of a few months ago. I have a general plot laid out and a beginning scene. This, though, is a scene that I thought of in the middle of the night a few weeks ago. It came vividly into my mind and I fell asleep thinking about it. When I woke up in the morning, I wrote it down.

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The first time my mother lied to me, I was sitting at the window-seat in our large sitting room. My governess had caught a bad cold, and she was confined to bed. I didn’t know this at the time, but her confinement was probably more to do with the risk of her infecting me than with any goodwill towards her. Nevertheless, I’m sure she was grateful for the rest, for I was quite a difficult child at the age of five.
I was sitting in the window seat that day while my mother sat by the fireside. She was doing some fine needlework, embroidering a kerchief of my father’s with her own special design; a rose, its petals not yet fully open. She’d given me a cotton kerchief of my own, and a needle and thread as well, and bade me sit by the window quietly and try to embroider something. I had stuck the needle in the cloth a few times, but seeing that I didn’t get any pretty designs, I had given up and started watching the dismal outdoors. It was raining heavily, and every few moments lightning would flash. I would count, then, along with my heartbeats, and see how long it took the thunder to clap loudly after the lightning. My count grew shorter and shorter as I stared, transfixed, at the raging torrent outside.
I knew I was safe on this side of the glass window. I wondered if anyone could be outside in a downpour like that and live.
“Mama,” I said once the count between the lightning and the thunder was only one heartbeat. “Is anyone outside now?”
“No, Miyara, no one is outside,” she said serenely.
“But Mama, what if Pirima wasn’t sick? We would’ve gone out to play in the garden. It was sunny this morning. We would’ve. We would’ve been out there now.”
“No, darling, I’m sure Pirima would have seen the clouds and wouldn’t have taken you outdoors. No one is out there in the rain. Who would be silly enough to wander outside in weather like this?” She didn’t even look up from her sewing as she spoke. Anger flared in my five-year old self. She didn’t understand! I could easily have been out there with my governess in that frightful rain! It would have hurt us!
“But what if I was outside?” I demanded fiercely. I stood up, letting the cloth, needle and thread fall off me and roll to the ground. My hands were balled up in fists, and I could feel my lip beginning to pout in that way that signaled I was going to start crying. My mother gave me a stern look and finally rose. She placed her sewing things on the dainty table beside her chair, and came to me.
“Firstly, Miyara, get off that window-seat this instant. You are a lady, not some bar-maid to go standing on chairs and making a fuss,” her voice was mild, but then, my mother was always at her most mild when she was angry with me. Later in life, I understood it like this – it was as if I were a simpleton and she thought that if she only spoke clearly enough and rationally enough, I would go along with what she said and stop angering her. Mostly it worked. “Second,” she continued once she’d sat me down and settled herself beside me. “You will never need to be outside in a time like this. You are, as I said, a lady. You will always be able to be safe inside, by the fireplace, as is proper. If you’re on a journey, you will be settled comfortably in an inn. I promise you, you will never need to find yourself out in the rain. There,” she patted my hand with satisfaction. “Does that make you feel better?”
It did. It did, then. But that was the first lie my mother told me, for ten years after or so, I found myself outside. In the rain. All alone.