Dear Clara,

Do you remember that evening we spent in that runny little bed and breakfast halfway out into the International? Out in the feeble wisps of Iowa, plopped down like fallen crumb beyond even the cornfields and meshing pastures of medicated cattle, a plump grape amidst desert dust. We broke down two miles out from its lot, down on water, already a day late to the festival’s opening notes, and strength sapped from the wayward push and haul under an unforgiving sun, we stumbled in, collapsing onto crisply cool bedsheets, only to be riled awake in the early morning hours by the sighs of coyote packs.

Do you remember now, my dear?

I have taken it upon myself to pause momentarily here and consider that night we sat there with the lights off, wide awake but deadened with exhaustion, streams of sweat spilling down our brows as the air conditioner sputtered to a stall. Bribing the driver to let me out on the side road near that gnarled oak past the Steiner family burial bound, I set upon the ten thousand foot plod, bags in hand.

The doorway of the inn has been repainted since our visit—in fact, much of the building seems new, replaced. Almost not its own. It was like setting eyes on old Doctor Fun as as he walked out of the hospital with his new arm of plastic. It’s the uncanny valley effect, one could argue. The sign though, an aging oak board with letters scooped out of its belly by some rough hand reading “Only One For Miles”. I recollect we argued whether the sign bore a joke or a morbid truth, and, as if to demonstrate to the healing graces of truth, I considered approaching the keepers with the question upon throwing open the doors, but fell back in retreat. It was a slippery question, I contend, on that I would feel ill uttering—what could be accomplished, I ask you? A braggadocious mirror smile or a return sickening, lovely memories of a sunken center spring mattress, declaring your accuracy in exchange a wry peck goodnight.

I am again an anonymous ghost returning to his haunt, unremembered by those wrapped in his chilly embrace of past life. I have again found a question for the crooked ears of fate: is it my duty to be forgotten until I can remember to forget? There is a part of me that knows you would be able to answer that question—you always seemed quick witted toward twisted logic as such—though another part dreads the answer too much to voice my wonder.

There are several that would fling themselves from their own bramble ridden cliffs for the opportunity I continue to squander with each grasp beyond my pale cocoon—true removal from one’s life and its imposing travelers finds itself in sparse company in these hours. I resist only because of the faintly cooing child within me still clamoring for company, an entity so intertwined with our natural beings that to see him cast out brings upon me a most violent revulsion, one deemed foolish by those who have become numb to both the horrors and beauties of true life.

I found myself under the eyes of Tim and TJ once more, the only ones so far in this journey who I bothered to label within my own mind, if only because of their blatant love and proliferation thereof. I declare this in the most learned of terms, but only to undercut the moral laceration burning within the depths of every muscle. Look, I say not to you, but to any who will listen, look at how they called my name with same glee and remembrance as the door clattered close, spewing dust about my tired ankles. They, with me in their eyes both now and on that quiet night. Something in me broke under that look, and I collapsed at their loving feet, tears swilling about the floorboards in puddles as they consoled me, not as an understanding couple, not as responsible innkeepers, but long lost friends who had never forgotten what the look of light in my eyes meant. They had never forgotten, and though now it all returns, I cannot claim the same without dousing myself further in white lies and ill wrought hyperbole.

Forgiveness is something I cannot give myself, though they need not supply it, I contend. The peace of the first night in our old cabin on the hilltop has not returned, nor has the warmth from the last night spent here returned.

Forgive me, my dear Clara.

an unfamiliar face

May 30, 2012

Dearest Clara,

I have boarded a bus bearing west—the only one that runs out of that town of ours: the E5. As I moved to sit, I wondered if the little old man behind the wheel recognized me. My dear, please understand: along this journey I am to take, I do not mean to resurface amongst the lives of any aside from myself, but I cannot deny those tiny grits of recognition sticking itself in the corner of my eye as I pass through this narrow history. I did not recognize the driver, nor have I recognized anyone since I first set foot toward the unfinished puzzle under the arbor beams of that empty church—the grit seems lodged not in certainty, but rather in a thousand blind grasps.

If I create my own history, what can I term delusion? “Perhaps succumbing to another’s history,” you once suggested.

***

My Dearest Clara,

I awoke this morning bathed in cold sweat and dusted with flakes of stone. It seems a fierce fever overtook me in the night, rendering me all but helpless. My damp form huddles weakly in the corner of our cabin, and a haze has fallen over my eyes. I long with each passing moment for a draught of water, though my supplies have already run dry. The blankets I had stowed in my traveler’s sack have all been thrown about my sodden skin, and though I pull them tight, a bitter chill still hounds my core.

In these aching hours, I find myself pouring through E.L. Wheatley’s tome further, hoping, perhaps in vain, for some manner of reprieve.

Following the tale of the man in the paper boat, there is a story of a boy and his dog, wound tightly in the space of a single page. Though they had always lingered close in life, the boy did not appear upset upon the untimely death of his faithful companion and only friend, who had been struck down by some strange pestilence in the eve of summer. On the contrary, his smile brightened with each passing day, and his jovial laughs rang clearly through the garden for all to hear.

It was only when his parents told him of his friends demise did the sun leave his face. He stared about his legs, horror filling his eyes. Upon their curious stares, the boy informed them that since that eve, his pet had found voice, and spoke to him in the garden while they played as a dear friend. It was only now, the boy said, that the dog was gone.

***

I have come to the conclusion that I must leave this place, though the mere notion of abandoning my search for Dana Elizabeth Allen burns hot and sick in the pick of my stomach. I wonder, dear Clara, if you could forgive me such a retreat, and if I may be able to reconcile the loss myself once I reach the base of this lonely hill. With a half day’s rest, I shall commence the first arduous steps down the path, leaving this spot of empty homes and paper swans in the hands of the slippery sea creatures. In its hands I lay the decision to drown alone, or resume eyes on the shore beyond parted waves.

***

Dear Clara,

I have stumbled upon a crack spread across the inside wall of the second to last cabin down the left. I would have passed over it—my heart pulls painfully to the west, and as soon as I have fully realized this place, I feel I must depart, lest become ensnared in the chaparral of past years—but the brazen, rusting nameplate over the arch of the door frame snared my trawling eyes. It read: “Allen”, but some rough hand had carved “Dana Elizabeth” into the margin. The marks looked ancient—I would gladly proclaim them older this hill, if I were to find some solace in self delusion.

Dana Elizabeth Allen. Could you be Dana Elizabeth Allen, or rather some other Dana Elizabeth Allen, name marked up in rust with by some rough hand with an old slippery knife. I could count all the Dana Elizabeth Allens in the world and still come up one short. But what of your crack, O’ house of Dana Elizabeth Allen? What of your sheltered pitter-patter behind hollow bricks?

I have begun to shift the stone of the bricks by hand and nail. Already, I find my blood smeared upon the stones in a crimson jigsaw, of muddled form and shadowed complexion. I cannot write you and slather a half cocked Mona Lisa smile upon granite canvas in congruence, and thus I leave the history in the hands of another, and make my own.

With traveler’s hammer clutched in bloodied fist, I lay down blow upon blow, widening the crack as with the line of my modern antiquities and threaded nows. I weave a history of my own, a timeline not of Mona Lisa and Easy Rider, but of missing puzzle pieces and all the other Dana Elizabeth Allens. With your voice at my side, I have turned this hollow wall into the jigsaw masterpiece, watched the chips fall away, leaving a missing piece shaped hole over the arch of the stone, like some rough handed sea creature has parted the stone before it, slippery voices whispering out.

I write you these final verses from beneath our arch. I cannot sleep through their fetid whispers.

 ***

Dearest Clara,

I have decided to stay up here one night longer—I feel as though its grasp on me is slipping, yet I fear cutting the umbilical cord too soon. There seems to be something out of place here, something in the wind that tugs on me unpleasantly, as though a great leech has found skin. I remember the girl Henry spoke of, Dana. There is a part of me that cannot help but wonder if her voice is what I hear brushing past my ears in the early morning hours, cradled in morning dew and crumpled letters, and that wonder has taken staunch alliance with my quest for the last piece of your puzzle, thrusting me out the door of our past cabin and about the faded grounds for answers amongst their hollow skulls.

Each untouched door upon unremembered home calls out in falsetto tones, each piercing deeper than the last. Still, I must hold myself back and go carefully. Perhaps under some stone, some discarded bed spring nestled in the corner, her stowed voice hides, waiting to unmask the secret of the paper swans.

I paused for the evening at the ninth cabin, halfway through my excavation, having happened upon soggy, dust mucked copy of a book of stories with the title page torn out. All that remains of identification is the author’s monicker, listed in small silver print as E.L. Wheatley in the corner of the spine. But what has captured my eye most about this book is the engraving of a swan on upon the cover. I have committed myself to its completion. Perhaps Dana’s fate lies within it, and in hers, my own.

 ***

The first story in the collection tells of man adrift at sea on a paper boat, remaining aloft only by his faith that he would reach the far shore safely. The slippery creatures of the sea came up from the water to meet him as he furthered his trek, parting the waves before him in line with the rush of their slippery flesh. And their slippery voices called up from the foaming tides, a slippery hum of some lost ethereal ballad, a sensuous siren’s song culling back the waves in line and calling for his eyes. But still, he stood strong, and the folds of his boat held firm and onward it sailed, the far shore slinking ever closer, cutting through the tide as the creatures sank back below the surface.

Undaunted, the slippery creatures of the sea plotted against the man in the paper boat. He had sailed straight through their dominion on an impossible boat, and they wished to claim his soul to the ocean as an eternal warning to all who would trespass as he had. And all the greater, they said to one another, if he should choose his fate.

Once more, the slippery creatures parted the waters before him with a cut of their slippery tails and rose to greet him. The greatest of them rose up around the boat’s sides, slathered in earth, as if land had come to greet him early, and they called out to him as a lover would, begging him to leave his paper boat and join them in forever bliss. But still, the man stilled his eyes toward shore, his paper boat held steady, and the creatures silenced their slippery voices and dove back into the sea.

Rising once more, the creatures turned their slippery voices to the heavens and begged for winds and rains to wash the man away, and they came. But still, through the stormy haze, the man knew he would reach the shore safely, and thus remained dry and afloat. The slippery creatures, enraged by the mans persistence, moved as one, parting the waves before him a final time, all the way to the sea’s floor. As the boat settled onto the dry ground, surrounded by a torrent of swirling waves, the creatures laughed, expecting the man’s strength fail him, and the boat slip away as the waves came crashing down, but to their fury, the man stayed his faith, his eyes steady on the far shore.

Seeing this great show, the sea carried the man and his paper boat up from the sea floor and landed him upon the dry shore, where he was greeted by friends and strangers alike with feasting and celebration.

***

an absense

May 26, 2012

My Dear Clara,

I find myself roosted at the feet of giants–great, ashen aspens rise up in every direction, grave markers of our faded history, and still I am unable to to bear anything but a grin. My love, I have returned to the cornerstone of touching flesh. As my fingers trail along its walls, all cracked and dry, I see a mural of hands clasped over piles of unsorted puzzle pieces. Here, I have found dwelling in the annals of our wretched, beautiful timeline To have considered passing by this landmark now seems a bitter crime, of which I can hardly forgive.

Something has taken hold of me here, on this spot of creaking cabins and humming aspens, something I do not quite recognize. It has wrought in me a certain passion, alien in nature, yet somehow familiar all the same. It as though it commands me, yet frees me from the fetters and knots upon my mind. My merest whims seem as though they have clamored a certain holiness, though I am not a religious man.

As I gazed upon the shadow blasted wall you thrust me against with such shameless abandon and fervor in that year gone by, the very same undignified glee gripped me with iron tendrils. I rushed down the mountainside, falling twice, splitting open the skin of my shins and knees. The pain fell silent within the moment of my resume, though, and thus I pushed on until I reached the town once more. Procuring food for the evening and a set of paints and inks I returned to the cabin. I felt myself fade into a brief oblivion as my hands began to move, and when I resurfaced out of the miasma of mind, I saw, splattered upon the wall in crisp detail, the piece of the puzzle we never could find. I had near forgotten we had left it incomplete on the floor of that church that day, lonely and gathering dust.

I cannot help but admire that missing puzzle piece, that little wave washing our paper boat astray.

All these untapped desires, these paintings and laughs, had sunken in teeth and wrapped me in their ribbons, though I fear the marionette strings are beginning to come loose, looser still even as I pen this letter.

***