One night Mary, a little girl with sisters and parents who loved her, woke in a dark forest. At first she was afraid and then she realized it was her backyard. During the day she sometimes pretended her backyard was a forest and now, in the dream world of night, it had become a forest. During the day she pretended there was a door on the floor of the forest, and so now she went to look for it. She found it between the garage and the fishpond, and she opened it with excitement and a little fear. During the day she had imagined that under the trapdoor there was a staircase lit with lamps, and so there was. Knowing by now that she was dreaming and that this chance might never come again, she went down the stairs, closing the door behind her.
As Mary descended the stairs, she became me, or, to put it another way, I became dimly aware of her, descending down into herself as I, a middle-aged woman, drove through the town where I live on a rainy spring night listening to an old song on an obsolete tape. The music in the song started with the sound of a crippled machine stripped to its barest function, turning unevenly round and round on a cockeyed pivot, screeching sweetly and brokenly. There was a sound like slow-struck bells and a voice like that of somebody looking for something in the dark. I used to listen to it years ago, lying drunk on my floor in the dark. I would listen and think of a woman I loved, or tried to love. Her name was Karen. We did not belong in the same world, but somehow our separate worlds had overlapped. I see your wishes on the wall. Karen was overspilling with impossible wishes and so was I. Our wishes were glowing, and always out of reach; they made life around us blurred, magical and painful. Our wishes were not the same at all, but somehow, we had met in the dark and, for a moment, our wishes had overlapped.
Meanwhile, the dreaming little girl named Mary continued down the stairs in the dark. Outside the glowing perimeters of lamplight, the dark was deep and physical. As she walked, a voice spoke. She could not tell whether it came from inside her or outside. It said: Now you must choose. You can keep going down and visit the Devil. Or you can stop on the landing and visit life on earth. Mary said aloud, “I choose life on earth.” And she came to the landing. The landing was an enormous room, luxuriantly carpeted with nice little tables and chairs placed at intervals. There were pictures on the wall, and they were like paintings and movies combined; the figures in them were loosely formed like the figures in paintings and yet as defined and mobile as the characters in movies. In one of them a child looked out the window at a beautiful woman in the sky and longed for her. Music played; it was like the grinding of a machine with a personality, a personality that was sad and sweet and had to grind the same way over and over. The singer sang, and Mary understood the song to be a song of the child’s longing—ancient longing that had taken new life in the body of the child. Mary looked at another picture; in that one a musician and a beautiful model kissed each other on the street at night, outside a bar called the White Rose. They were like little pieces of glitter in human form, and they were sad because they knew that the lifespan of glitter is not as long as the lifespan of humans—that they would die shortly and yet be forced to live on in the body of a dull, sore human being for years after. The music was singing of their sadness, too.
The windshield wipers rub back and forth, bearing rippling streams of wet light. The wet windshield catches the lights of stores and street lamps and, for a second, I glimpse, between reflections of drugstore and laundromat lights, the reflection of something that
has accidentally shown itself long enough for me to see its bright silhouette. I see you run to make a call, putting up to someone free. Far away and hard to see, Karen runs for the phone in a forgotten room down a long, long hall that twists and turns through a house with hundreds of rooms in it. I am in another room now, and in this room the song is about another person. It is about a girl, a poor girl named Kassandra. She came to me through charity. She came to stay with me in the summer. I was supposed to help her; I wanted to help her. Her mother was cruel and she was wishing for a new mother. I had no children and I was wishing for a daughter. We came from different worlds, and each of us spoke languages the other did not know, but still, for a while, our wishes overlapped.
On the luxuriant, carpeted landing, the little girl named Mary looks at another picture. In this one a dark, beautiful girl some years older than her is sitting on a bed in a dingy room, looking at wishes. In the picture, Mary can see the girl’s wishes; they are wonderful and terrible. She wishes she was not poor. She does not know she is beautiful and so she wishes she was beautiful. She wishes she was a queen, more powerful and perfect than anybody, telling everybody what to do. She wishes to lay treasures at her mother’s feet. She wishes to chop off her mother’s head and put it in a goldfish bowl. She wishes to ride horses. She wishes she would be adopted by a woman who has money, who would love her and buy her things. Mary can feel the girl who sits on her poor bed, wishing and being pulled apart by the power of her longing. Mary can almost see the woman with money; she is pale and worried and she is going back and forth from young to old very fast. During one flash of youth, Mary realizes that the woman with money is her.
There is the sound of bells; Mary is distracted and forgets what she realized. The picture of the beautiful dark girl becomes a picture of ringing bells; a big iron bell high up in a stone church; handbells rung by town criers; the electronic bell of a phone; the digital bell of a cell phone. The bells vanish. The girl is on her cell phone, but the person she is trying to call isn’t there.
The phone is ringing. Your life and my life, they don’t touch at all/And that’s no way to be. I am home, turning on the lights, trying to get to the phone. The music continues in my head. We’ve never seemed so far. I bought Kassandra clothes and helped her with school twice a week on the phone. The other poor girls beat her because they were angry at her for having good clothes. They mocked her for doing better in school. Her mother mocked her too. And so she stopped calling me for help. She put the clothes I gave her in the bottom drawer.
The caller hangs up as I pick up. We’ve never seemed so far.
When Kassandra was ten years old I would read to her at bedtime. She would look at me with big glowing eyes, golden with wishes that overlapped with mine. I wished her to be a success. I wished her to be a champion horse rider. I wished her to grow up beautiful. I wished her surrounded by jewels.
The little girl named Mary is looking at a painting of the dark girl and the pale woman; the woman is holding the girl, and, even though she is the smaller of the two, she is able to hold her all the way. “Your weight feels good to me,” she says. “Lay on me all the
way.” And the dark girl does.
Now Kassandra is following her dreams in the street among louche criminals, but I know her wishes are still golden and glowing. Our wishes no longer overlap—but they do. I know they do because sometimes when I am sick with sadness I feel her at my side with her hand on my shoulder. Though I can’t say that it is really her I feel or just my wish.
The phone rings again. Come wish beside me—don’t you know you know what’s right. It is a wrong number.
Mary looks at the next picture; in it the dark girl is holding the pale woman as if she is the woman, and the woman a girl.
Somewhere a bell is ringing, getting louder.
Come wish beside me—don’t you know you know what’s right. Mary opens her eyes. She is in her bedroom and it is flooded with light. Her mother is gently shaking her. She closes her eyes again.
The picture of the dark girl and the pale woman becomes a picture of bells: a big bell high up in a stone church; handbells rung by town criers; the bell of a mechanical clock struck by a tiny gong. Mary opens her eyes, and forgets what she has seen.
The phone rings again.
From the collection Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth.
Copyright © 2009 by Mary Gaitskill.