Here, for your entertainment, is the product of that first automatic writing journal entry. I gave the story a happy ending, but I’m not sure it’s warranted. For what it’s worth, this has been edited very little–cleaned up for spelling, grammar, and redundancies, and that’s about it. Enjoy!
Woman in a Red Dress
It couldn’t work. Forty years of church services and eighteen years of church school argued against it. One spin per paying customer; that was the rule. The Bible said so; it couldn’t be wrong. Actually Narrow Way biblical scholarship as handed down by a wide assortment of church fathers said so. Surely they couldn’t all be wrong. But what if they were?
She picked up the book. It fell open in her hand. She read the first few lines and thought of all the reasons the Narrow Way ministers of her acquaintance might hope they only went around once. She thought of the day long ago when she had realized that being born to Narrow Way parents didn’t necessarily mean a life sentence. She thought of all the little ways she had come to not only doubt the faith of her fathers, but to believe all the way to her soul that the church fathers were wrong about a lot of things. What if they were wrong about this? She picked up the book and strode to the clerk. “I’d like to buy this, please,’ she said.
“Cash or charge?” asked the clerk, snapping his gum.
At home she lit the fireplace, propped the book up on the mantel, and looked at it from the safety of the sofa. The next day she cleaned house, and as she vacuumed she looked at it. That evening, tucked up the sofa again, this time with a quilt and a cup of Earl Grey tea, she looked at it some more. It looked back, small, tastefully designed, demurely dust-jacketed and somehow threatening.
She opened the journal lying in her lap and wrote, I live between two unknowns, the future and the past. Do I really want to change that? She snapped her journal shut, grabbed her jacket, opened her front door, and stepped out onto her stoop. Countless feet had worn a shallow dip into the stone. She pulled the door shut behind her, twisted the knob to be sure it was locked, and ran down the worn stone steps to the street.
She walked fast, navigating the sidewalk’s familiar obstacles—here a flower wagon, there a coffee cart, here a sand painter, there a motionless overcoat-wrapped figure. She dodged by instinct, rather than intent. She crossed the street, wove between the parked cars, walked along a long, stucco wall, stopped at the last coffee cart beside the wrought-iron gate, bought a coffee, and turned into the dusky winter stillness of the park.
She walked slowly along the curving paths, hands wrapped around the hot cup, breath steaming. She had the gardens to herself; their grays and browns attracted few visitors even on sunny days, and none at all on foggy gray days like today.
She reached the end of the path, turned and climbed the steep frost-slick hillside to a bench nearly hidden in the trees. She gave it a few perfunctory swipes, sat down and propped her elbows on her knees, curling both hands around the hot cup. Hills rolled gray and misty into the fog. Trees huddled in the narrow valleys between, black smears rising from shadowy clefts. Her breath mingled with the coffee’s steam, wrapping her in fragrant fog.
She sat and sipped, finished her coffee, sat some more. The bleakness around her echoed the bleakness within, where dead winter had lived forever.
But maybe not. Maybe there had been a green and verdant spring. Therein lay the dilemma—maybe there had been spring. But what if she looked, and found not spring but endless dead winter? Or worse yet, what if the elders were right? What if she looked and found nothing at all? And so she sat in the gray evening, while trees in the valleys turned spread smears that engulfed the hillsides and then the world.
“We’re locking the gates, miss. You’ll have to leave.”
She squinted. A darker smear stood on the path below her, veiled in drifting mist. She stood, dusted the chilly damp off the seat of her jeans, and half ran, half slid down the hill.
“Sorry, miss, but we lock up, you know,” the ranger said again.
“Yes,” she replied. She turned and strode, head down, collar up, along the winding stone path toward the brightly lit street beyond the gate. The ranger snicked the gates behind her as she passed through, locking her into the bright, noisy street.
She bought another coffee from the cart by the park gate, then walked slowly home through the cheerful hubbub that had enchanted her in the beginning, in the time she could barely remember, when everything was new and fresh, and anything seemed possible—in the time before she had known, and the dreams had died.
It hadn’t been anything big and dramatic, nothing she could point to as the end, more a slow eroding of hope, of color, of life until one day she woke and knew that something had died inside her, something she hadn’t even known was there until it was gone. Exactly what that thing was she didn’t know, and feared now she never would. She knew only that the book standing on her mantel might hold some little, not-quite-dead piece of the thing.
She reached her front door, unlocked it, and stepped into her chilly hallway. Its stark, clean lines, broken only by the one perfect table, the rough blue bowl filled with the sparse and elegant ikibana, had pleased her once. Now they looked bare, meager, poor.
She shrugged off her coat and hung it neatly on its carefully positioned hook. Instant art, she had thought when she planned where the hook would go, and told herself she was following the Shaker tradition, where things of daily life became still lives when not in use. Now it seemed pretentious and silly. It’s only a damned coat hook, she thought angrily, and suddenly found herself blinking away tears. The coathook had died for her along with the rest of the hallway, but when? And why had she not noticed?
She walked into her living room. The book taunted her. She strode down the back hall, flopped onto her bed, thumbed on the remote, clicked, clicked, clicked again, again, again, faster and faster. She swung off the bed, threw the remote at the television, strode back down the hall, grabbed her coat, and slammed back out into the misty night. She walked fast from circle of light to circle of light, hips and arms swinging like a skater’s. She pushed into a bright, noisy bar, but turned and left at the thought of drinking alone.
She tried a restaurant next. She sat down at the table, opened the menu, and stared at the food. When the server came she ordered at random, waited until the food arrived, asked for the check, and paid on the way out, leaving her food abandoned on the table.
Back in the street again she walked, jaw tight, until at last she faced the truth. At some point, she would have to go home. Defeated, she turned and made her way up the silent, empty street, hands jammed into pockets, shoulders slumped. Back at home she hung her coat on its perfectly positioned hook, wandered into her kitchen, switched on the bright lights, stared around at its tidy barrenness, walked down the hall to her bedroom door, and stood.
What do I do now? she asked herself, and it was more than just the next few minutes, the next few hours, she meant. She picked up her journal and padded down the hall to the living room. She relit the fire and uncapped her pen.
The worst of it is, she wrote, that I shouldn’t feel this way. I am a fortunate woman. I have a job I should love. I have the house I dreamed of. I have a relationship. Her stomach knotted. It might not be great, but we’re working on it, and anyway, I shouldn’t need a relationship to feel happy.
She snapped her journal shut, ignoring the sinking feeling in her belly.
I’ll call him, she decided. We’ll talk, and it’ll be fine. Maybe he can come over.
She picked up the telephone and dialled. The phone rang once, twice. His machine picked up, but there must be a mistake. Instead of his wife’s voice instructing her politely to leave a message there was another woman’s voice.
“This is Joe and Diane,” said the husky, seductive purr. “We can’t come to the phone, never mind why. Leave your number, and we’ll call you back when we come up for air.” A giggle, squeak, and gasp. The machine beeped.
She listened to the recorder’s faint hiss, then gently replaced the receiver. Then she pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and just sat, rocking, rocking, rocking, curled around the pain, trapping it before it escaped and filled the whole world.
The telephone rang. She looked at caller ID. “Joe and Diane,” it read. She let it ring.Eventually the machine picked up. “Hey, it’s me. Pick up. I know you’re there…come on, Randy, pick up…the machine timed out. The phone rang again. “Come on, Miranda, we had problems…you know we did. Or you did. It was time. We both knew it. I didn’t want you to find out this way…”
She snatched up the phone. “Five years!” she screamed into the receiver. “Five fucking years! And you couldn’t even have the courtesy to tell me in person. You let me hear it on your fucking answering machine!”
“I said I—”
“So did you tell your wife, or did you just record the new message and let her figure it out on her own, too?”
“—none of my business? Is that what you were going to say? Because it sure as hell feels like my business. How long have you been screwing her?”
“You promised…you promised it was going to be this month. I believed you. I waited for you. How could you?”
A low voice murmured in the background.
“Listen, honey, we’ll talk about this tomorrow at the office. I have to go.”
“No we won’t. I quit.”
“You can’t.” Joe’s voice rose, high and panicky. “We’ve got that event at the Waldorf. No one else can handle it. You have to do it. You have to give me some notice.”
“You’re right,” she said coolly.
“Thanks, babe,” he sighed. “We’ll talk about this, work it out so we’re all happy. Gotta run.” The phone buzzed in her ear. She dialed his private line at the office. When the message machine came on she spoke.
“Please consider this your two weeks’ notice. I’m taking my accrued vacation time starting this morning. Since I have a month coming I won’t be back. You can cash out the balance on my final check.” She hung up. Let him find out on his message machine. What’s good for the goose…
Rage buoyed her through yanking his spare shirts and pants off the hangers and shredding them, through tearing his letters and pictures into confetti, through piling everything onto the coals and watching them catch. The past five years made a pathetically small blaze; not enough to warm her hands, certainly not enough to warm her heart.
The rage burned out as the flames died. She had known it would, known she would be left only with the cold, dark ache, the confusion, and the sure knowledge that she had no one to blame but herself.
She sat huddled by the ash-filled fireplace, and waited dumbly for daylight.
She woke with a start, disoriented. The fireplace was full of stinking ashes. What had wakened her? The living room lay quiet and gray in the dawn. And then she saw the book lying on the floor, just a few inches from her hand.
She rolled onto her side, pillowed her head on her arm, stared at the book, and thought about her life. When had it gone wrong? She reached for the book and ran her hand over its cover, then picked it up and opened it to the first page. A line halfway down caught her eye. “Sometimes to go forward we must first go back.” She scanned back to the top of the page. She had tried every other direction. “Back” was the only one left. She read to the end of the section, slipped the CD into her player, lay down on the sofa with a pillow under her head, pushed “play,” closed her eyes, and listened to the soft, soothing voice.
“Think of childhood. Think of games. It need not be your childhood, just any childhood.”
An image flashed on her closed eyelids. Children in faded clothing, the girls in round gowns and pinafores, the boys in ragged trews and loose shirts. They played in a dusty dooryard under a vine-covered pergola. Thick beams supported massive stone walls and surrounded a dark, open doorway. Trees lined the road, fracturing early summer sun and dappling the children playing in the dirt.
“Now think of yourself playing the games. Did you have a favorite toy? Game? Picture yourself playing.”
She looked among the children, but she was not there. She looked around, and felt her gaze sucked up by a small girl kneeling before an open dollhouse. She drew nearer and realized she was wrong; the building, openfaced to show its interior, had rooms, and the girl’s hands moved busily, moving figures in, out, and around. But the figures were animals, not humans. The playhouse was a battered stable.
“The child is you,” came the voice. “Now, picture yourself as an adult, doing the same things. Where are you?”
In a flash she stood in an old byre, the scent of horses, cattle, hay, and manure strong around her.
“What are you wearing?”
She looked down. She wore a simple, coarse wool dress. Once it had been red; now it was faded almost white except in the seams. An apron was pinned at her breasts, and tied over her faded skirts at her waist. A bucket full of milk dragged at her shoulder. She stood on fouled straw, lantern light gold around her. It felt like coming home.
“How do you feel?” came the voice.
And suddenly all peace was gone. Voices and metal crashed around her. She stood in the straw because she had nowhere to go, and then the barn was full of huge, bearded men dressed in faded blue, gray, and brown wool tunics, and muddy leggings. Metal-studded leather shields hung from their arms. Short swords—long knives, really—flashed in their hands.
“How do you feel?” the voice insisted. “Put it into words.”
She stood ankle deep in the straw, the bucket pulling at her shoulder, opened her mouth, and said, “I fear I will die of the pain.”
The men jostled and laughed, eyeing her. And then there was nothing, and then the milk bucket rolled on its side in the wet, dank straw, and then nothing again, this time for good.
“You will come back to yourself, remembering what you have seen and done,” the voice soothed through the darkness. “Nothing you have seen has power to harm you now. When I count three you will open your eyes…one…two…three…”
Her eyes flipped open. Her heard raced.
“The next exercise—”
She reached over and snapped off the CD player. One was enough—more than enough. What had happened? Had she imagined it? Why that? She thought of the children playing in the dirt. She had never done such a thing, and certainly never in such a place, in such clothes. And the woman in the stable:. She had no such experience. She would have been inclined to dismiss the whole experience as a useless flight of fancy except for one thing: the words she had spoken: “I fear I will die of the pain.”
All the times that phrase had screamed in her mind, had held her immobile, had swallowed the rage that might have saved her, swamped her mind. The images flashed and ran, and every time the fear was there first, a known thing, a part of the equation. The images were terrifying not in and of themselves, but because the terror made them so.
I fear I will die of the pain.
She thought of the woman in the stable, her pain a physical presence, and then she thought of Joe, who had interpreted her fear as acquiescence, as tolerance, as love, until it no longer suited him to do so.
She opened her mouth and said, “I fear I will die of the pain” into the quiet, chilly living room. It sounded false. It didn’t hurt, not really, not compared to the woman in the barn. She didn’t fear she might die. If anything, she feared she might live, and that was a different thing entirely.
She lit the fire and sat cross-legged, staring into the flames. What had happened to the woman when the darkness fell? Who was she? Was she real?
The telephone rang. She jumped and picked up. “Hello?”
“What do you mean by this?” Joe screamed. “We have a meeting this morning with the mayor. You’re supposed to be there. This is your project.”
For a second she felt the pull, saw the men leering in the byre, stalking the woman in the red dress.
The fear swelled, but whether it was the woman’s fear or her own she could not say.
The fear swelled, but she forced it down, pushed the woman forward toward the thing she feared, swung the aching arm high in a great arc, clouted the boldest man with the full bucket’s heavy side.
He swore, dropped his sword, stumbled into the other men. Milk was everywhere. The woman in the red dress leaped past, through the swinging door, past the stamping and blowing horses filling the cobblestone yard, across the road and into the forest while the men shouted behind her.
“Have Diane do it,” she said calmly. She placed the phone gently into its cradle.
The woman in the red dress raced through the forest, into the dark, into the unknown, into uncertain, dangerous safety. The men’s shouts faded behind her.
Miranda stood, the vision of the woman in the red dress before her, put on her pea jacket, and walked out her front door. The telephone shrilled behind her.
She walked down the street, bought a coffee, turned into the park, and followed the cobblestone path down, down, down to where the park became tangled, overgrown forest. She left the path at a break in the trees, slipped between, between, out of the old life, away from pursuit, into the unknown, into danger, into safety, into a place where one might feel pain, but one could still fight. And the woman in the red dress led the way.