“[It is] Always and definitely the Outside, just as the House is, respectfully, the House.”
– Caítlin R. Kiernan
Marie sat in her dark room, searching the internet for the perfect purchase. There was an empty space in the corner of her living room that had always bothered her. During the day, she could not stop staring. At night, it was a chill silent shadow that lent itself to certain anxiety and nightmare. Even while away at work, she was distracted by the random thought of that empty spot. It was wrong. Marie needed to fill that space – to undo it. It ate at her thoughts.
Several times before, Marie had tried various things to fill the space. A lamp. A cushioned chair. Many different throw rugs. Once she went so far as to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a taxidermy bear, poised for attack. She was satisfied with nothing, though she found a use for most things elsewhere. She was still stuck with the bear, unsellable, up in the attic covered by a sheet. Still being paid for.
Marie would occasionally listen to the radio, and it would temporarily stop her irritation. Eventually, the silence of that empty space would overpower the music. There would be an end to that silence soon, she was sure of it. She had thought of the perfect solution, if she could afford it. This time, Marie was looking to buy a piano.
FOR MOST OF US there is an inside, and there is an outside. There are certainly doors – wood, metal, glass – all three, perhaps. The inside is home, and work, and places to obtain things for a price, and a place where things are kept, stuffed, stored, forgotten, looked at, ignored. Outside is big. It is the place of the sky. It is where there is sun and moon, grass and cement, graves and birds in graceful flight. The Outside encompasses all of the indoor places – home, workplace, automobile, the small tent in the middle of nowhere, the densest, darkest part of the forest. We go day to day, night to godforsaken night – musically composed montages that we may forget about, if we even thought about it to begin with. Whether we thought of anything at all. Our lives are inside places. We go and sit by an ocean, on the hot sand, on a blanket, on a towel, and we watch the sunset, the waves, the crashing foam, the seashells that hopefully have not broken our feet – bleeding – leaving perfectly round shining spots on the public bathroom floor (and who knows what may have leapt up into the wound as the blood passed the opposite way – some miniscule beast that may or may not be harmless, but were we to view it through a microscope we would run screaming. Or limp away screaming. Or just scream. Water bear! Tardigrade! Whimper. Cringe…)
We are at the edge of the ocean. We are at the edge of all things. The border to the eternal sea. We are at a shoreline that must have cost a pretty penny. “A pretty penny.” What exactly does that mean? Is a shiny new penny, unblemished by human touch – fingerprints, germs, grease – more valuable than a penny dug up by a young child with a plastic yellow shovel in his backyard as he was searching for smooth rocks, or digging a cave for his action figure to hide away in, or digging a grave for a dried-out toad that he found on the edge of the sidewalk and shed a small tear for? Slowly wipe away the wet dirt from the coin with a firm thumb and discover Lincoln for the first time. Wheat. We are still at that edge. A seagull slowly passes. It passes regardless of its desires.
There is music here. It is not our music. It is the Outside music. There are no orchestras. There are no electric guitars, screaming. There are no amplifiers. There are no drugged-out long-haired wild ones with faded concert tees raising their swinging outstretched pale arms to their arrhythmic anti-melodic gods and goddesses, praying for the next big hit. No. There are a few here that belong in the outside places. They have found their garbage bags. Black plastic. Their shopping carts, steering inevitably to the left. Rust. Phosphorus. Rather than swing their arms and heads in worship to their heaven-realmed music, they hang their heads in shame. Dirty. Wrong. Failed. They have forgotten. They cannot hear the ocean, nor its flutes. They will not hear the seagulls though they try very hard to understand their message. (Do they? Or do the seagulls?)
There are no pianos here.
In the emptiest time of night, Rún stared into the black painted mirror upon her desk. She slowly filed away the rest of her surroundings into their proper places in her mind, and shut each drawer. All became dark beyond the deep of the mirror. There was nothing now other than Rún and her reflection. Her image soon turned and walked slowly away beyond the mirror’s edge, leaving a purity of black – the perfect void.
Rún concentrated on that void. Her focus was strong. Blurred images gradually swept behind the glass surface. There was nothing more than smoke-like filaments streaming randomly about. From random direction to a steady current. Soon, the images became recognizable. Alectoria ochroleuca. Angelica archangelica. Salix phylicifolia. Plectrophenax nivalis. She wandered through an imagined tundra at first, and then, ever so gradually, she knew exactly where she was. Central Iceland. She headed north – towards where she existed in reality. She paused a moment at Nonnahús, a place that made her happy, one of those rare Inside places that was not her own. Rún went on, and soon stopped outside of her own home. Normally, this would be her final destination within the mirror. However, this journey was made for a friend – not for herself this time. She kept walking, letting the unknown guide her.
After a moment she found herself standing at the entrance to the Municipal Library of Akureyri. A book? she wondered. Rún closed her eyes, and concentrated. She slowly rose from the ground, and hovered mere inches above. She let the In-between guide her, and she floated into the library. She passed great shelves of books, sorting librarians and their rolling carts, scholars at desks who were lost within the works.
Pages flipped and turned, bindings stretched, an occasional curt “shh” quickly after a sudden noise. Rún found herself in a small room of the library she hadn’t seen before. A study room perhaps? It was very bright, the sun’s rays found their way easily in. Rún’s eyes slowly adjusted to the light as her feet touched down lightly upon the floor. Well, that’s strange. What is a piano doing-
Rún found herself looking at her reflection in the black mirror. She took a deep breath, and gathered her thoughts, took in her surroundings, back from their drawers. She sat up, and carefully placed the mirror aside, covering it with cloth. Rún consulted her cards – major arcana, minor arcana, her own expanded star guide spread. She pulled her laptop over, and woke it up. A few mouse clicks away, and she sent a chat request to her friend.
Connections are everywhere.
E l e c t r i c a l.
M e n t a l.
E m o t i o n a l.
There are more types of connections than can be possibly named.
They are real…
…and they are imaginary.
There is m a g i c within them all.
Marie sat at her desk, looking over at that horrible empty place. Her arms were heavy; her shoulders drooped. She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream obscenities and spittle and nonsense at the world. Marie lifted a hand half-heartedly to her laptop and shoved it further away. “Why? Why is it so expensive? I can’t… I can’t deal with this!” She sat motionless, tears threatening to burst from her eyes, but not quite finding their way.
There was a peal from her computer. Marie sat there. Another, and Marie blinked. A third beep and Marie gathered the energy to pull her laptop toward her and look.
WildRun [7 mins ago]: Marie! I see that you are on-line… are you there?
WildRun [4 mins ago]: Hello? Marie! La Di Da – Can you see me? \/\ Wavings! /\/
WildRun [1 minute ago]: …Are you OK? I am here.
Marie half-smiled, and responded.
WildRun: Ah! Marie! You are not feeling well, I see! Don’t you worry. I think I have found something that will make you feel better!
Marie shifted in her seat. Rún had such incredible intuition. She did not believe in magic, but if ever there was something close, Rún certainly had it. Marie relaxed a bit; the pressure behind her eyes lessened.
ANoseForTreble: don’t just show me another cute baby puffin pic. anything but that.
WildRun: No, no! Although… I always have one at the ready! >wink<
WildRun: Link incoming!
WildRun: Just kidding, just kidding! Actually, I believe that I have found what you have been looking for.
ANoseForTreble: and what would that be?
WildRun: Okay. Look. There is no good way to explain this, but tomorrow, you need to go across your street to the blue house that has the black bird on it…
WildRun: …This is what I see. I think you know him there. Knock on his door – he will have what you need.
WildRun: Marie! Just trust me. Do this tomorrow.
ANoseForTreble: alright. we’ll see. you should sleep.
WildRun: I will do so very soon! Góða nótt, my friend across the sea!
ANoseForTreble: good night. (and thanks for the puffin pic.)
Marie signed off, and shut her laptop down. She yawned and stretched a bit, releasing much of her stress from her system. A blue house with a black bird on it, Rún said. Off the top of her head, she couldn’t think of which house that could be. There were at least three houses of various shades of blue across the way. Strange, Rún, strange. We’ll see in the morning. Marie stood, paused for a moment at the empty space as she always did, then went upstairs to bed.
There is the Inside. There is the Outside. Then, upon realizing this – upon creation of these two entities, these two states of being – a third is placed into quiet existence. There is the In-between. Those who walk the In-between know. They are aware that there is not just an inside, but an Inside. They know the Outside holds not just the winds, the grass, the planets, the racing fiery stars; it also holds that which we never want to find, to never want to know. It holds the pain. Those who are of the In-between can separate themselves from it all, and are able to manipulate, or perhaps at least recognize that they could manipulate, both Inside and Outside. Both spheres. Both ends to the hourglass. They hold the sand. They may hold it so tightly that not a grain could escape. They might hold it such that streams of sand whisper through their fingers and rush dancing off with the wind to unknown realms. The rarest of those of the In-between know of those realms, and rarer still are those who have been there. They are the true dreamers. They are the artists. They are the writers. Poets. They call up that which could never exist otherwise into being. They are sorcerers, witches, magicians. Pull a manticore from a hat; draw a rope of whispering willow branches from a spectator’s suit pocket. Lightning emits gently from the fingertips, crackling. Pick a card. The ones who are In-between are doors – what else could they be? They pass through others, and everything. It is clear – they open themselves.
Upon the light of dawn, Rún left her house. As she warmed up her motorcycle, she gathered in her surroundings. It was a day free of clouds; there was just a brisk chill wind to remind all that the sky was still there. Rún smiled, pulled her helmet on, and rode off, keeping the dirty side down as always. After stopping for a cup of coffee – a welcoming warmth, steaming and energetic – she headed to the library. She wondered if the room she saw during her In-between travel last night would actually be there. As she drew nearer, she saw a plume of dark smoke, and heard sirens. Her wonder quickly changed to fear.
Workers were in fire uniformed obscurity, scattered about. The smell of burnt wood and hot metal were prevalent. A mist was in the air from hoses still spraying, cooling. There was chaotic noise of fireman’s chatter, the sirens, hissing, and low creaking – a sad settling noise. Even with the moisture, a charred page blew by Rún in the wind, its knowledge lost to this reality.
The library had caught fire just as Rún had gone to bed in the earliest hours of the morning. She had asked a fireman resting by one of the trucks. “An errant cigarette, it was, miss. No one hurt, þakka Guði. Devastating, though, just devastating. All of those books. We should be able to go in soon to see the full extent. Now go; be safe.”
Rún went and sat on the curb, stunned. Nothing during her time in the In-between last night gave any indication of this. Nothing. She grew angry. At the carelessness of the smoker. With herself for not seeing – not preventing this. Rún fumed, and hit her fist against the curb. This act calmed her a bit, and she stood, licking blood from her knuckles. She walked briskly up to one of the firemen who seemed to be in charge, and asked how she could help. “Not now, girl. It is still very dangerous. If you want to help, go home, and come back in a few hours, in clothes that you don’t care so much about – you’re going to get dirty. Then it will be safe to start cleaning and salvaging, once you check in with the Library Director. He is here now, but in no condition to speak with – he is devastated, as you can imagine.”
Rún thanked him, and walked back to her motorbike. She rode slowly home under skies turned cold. An exhaustion came suddenly upon her; the effects of a fine cup of coffee nullified. She set her alarm to 1pm, just over three hours away, and fell immediately into a dreamless sleep.
FOR SOME, there is not simply an inside, nor an outside. There is an Inside, a Home. It is a place of safety – the only place. There are cushions, there is warmth. There are items owned, possessions, collections. There is Familiarity. The Inside is where one can truly be themselves, and sigh, and breathe. Sound is welcome, color is accepted. The Inside is where one can lock themselves in, sometimes throwing away the key – heavy, iron, black – and sit, close one’s tired eyes, and stop thinking – start dreaming reality. The only reality – to dream a safe dream. No nightmares. Nightmares are the stuff of the Outside.
For those that are of the Inside, the Outside is an evil thing. It is everything that Inside is not. A pressure of the mind, tightened thoughts, near-bursting blood vessels of the brain. The Outside is a slow ache. Unwanted. It is work. It is tedium, and nervousness. It is the rustling of leaves in the obscurity of twilight. A nervous ticking taps at the nape of our necks, coldly, clicking, reminding us of everything that shouldn’t be and yet still is. Unresolved childhoods. Deadlines. Necessary things that were we not to worry over we would smile just a little bit more each day. Deep lines in our foreheads and darkness under our aching eyes. Necessary things. The roots of all evil, entangling our lives in their dead brown claw-like tendrils.
Marie awoke from a restless sleep. She remembered a flickering of images, and trying to read words and strange symbols from random scattering pages. The more she tried to remember what she had seen, the less she could actually recall. She shook her head, and sat up on the edge of her bed. Marie was glad to have the day off from work; she didn’t want to wait to figure out what Rún was talking about. She took a quick shower, got dressed, had a bite to eat, then went and stood outside of her doorway.
It was a dark morning – the clouds and the misted rain an obscurity over all – the horizon threatening worse to come with occasional flashes of light from afar. Marie shrugged at the weather, threw her sweatshirt’s hood over her head, and walked quickly across the street.
She stood on the sidewalk, blackened from the rain, and looked up at the house before her. It was a three story Victorian, painted sky blue, trim of a mismatched deep brown. She walked up the stone steps to the front door and hesitated. Marie was not the most social of people – she was an Inside person through and through. She had never actually reached out to meet any of her neighbors. Thus she had quite a bit of uncertainty regarding Rún’s “I think you know him there.” She sighed, brushed herself off, and after another few seconds pressed the doorbell.
After a moment, the door opened. An older, slightly rotund gentleman, with short white hair and wearing a blue polo shirt that exactly matched the color of his house stepped out onto the landing to greet Marie.
“Marie! How are you? What brings you here, across the way, as it were?”
Marie was baffled. Upon his speaking, she recognized him as the owner of the antique shop across town that she went to at least every other week. The casual polo shirt rather than an old stuffy brown suit, and lack of feathered derby hat had initially thrown her off.
“Mr. Wootensmith! Hi! I didn’t know you lived here.”
“All the more reason for my wondering what brings you to my home, and on this dreary day, no less…” Mr. Wootensmith tilted his head slightly.
“Well, hmm. This is weird, I know…” Marie sputtered. “Okay, so. I’ll get right to the point. Do you have a black bird on your house?”
Mr. Wootensmith raised a wizardly eyebrow at Marie. “What a fascinatingly strange question. There is indeed a black bird, as you so call it, upon the roof of my house. It is not in view from the street. Curious. I’ll tell you about it if you wish; it is really quite a story worth the telling. Whether it is worth the hearing on the other hand is another thing altogether. Come on in, Miss Marie, and I shall make you a cup of oolong to go along with my tale.”
The Tale of the Black Bird
“A well fermented batch of Camellia sinensis leaves. Boiling water, like a storm. Leaves to teapot, and add the water. Brush aside any foam, cover and steep for no less than two minutes. Pour fairly, and enjoy. This is the start to every good story, I say. Sit, sit. There you are. Make yourself comfortable. Careful! – It is still quite hot. Smell it – bring its scent into yourself; allow it to permeate the senses.
“So, the black bird. Strange that you come to me today of all days to ask of it. It was, in fact, forty years ago to this very day when I first had the encounter.
“I was just a young lad of nineteen years, wandering the city’s streets for something new to catch my fancy. My collection was only beginning you see, ‘twas just a child being carefully raised by my greedy hands. I certainly loved it as it were, and still do.
“Yes. It was a rainy day, just as it is today, and I was walking along Second Street, unafraid of getting wet, just swinging my umbrella along as I would a cane. It had a different feel back then, that street did. All sorts of interesting things those that lived there had displayed for all to see. Well, I hadn’t any real hope to actually find anything out there on that stormy day- my goodness, was that lightning just now? Wonderful, that. No hope on finding anything out there, but I had a well-known acquaintance at the end of the street that I was certain would be holding something for me. As the lightning struck at that moment – coincidences, coincidences! – I saw something that held me to that spot immediately.
“I was just outside a small house, with an open porch. I had never paid it much mind before. It was one of those quiet places, do you know the type? But of course you do. Upon that porch I beheld an item that entranced me – an iron cast raven, four foot wingspan, solid, black. It was perfection. I had to have it. I walked up onto the porch, half expecting the statue to act as guard to the home and attack. I’m still here today to tell this tale, so clearly it did no such thing! As I rapped on the door with my umbrella, my eyes stayed on the bird. I hadn’t even noticed when the door opened; I was transfixed, riveted, enchanted, bound.
“When the woman who answered my rapping ever so politely cleared her throat, and I finally looked away from the winged guardian and up to her, I was enraptured all over again. I almost forgot about the bird. She was beautiful – long flowing black hair, perfect body, eyes that were… that were labyrinths for the soul. Madeline was her name. She knew I was lost, and she smiled and winked at me. She invited me in for tea – oolong of course.
“That day, I did forget about that wonderful item on her porch, but it has never left my mind since; it brought to me the most treasured thing in my life – my wife.
“Where is she now, you ask? Well, she grew sick after a time – she passed in the autumn of ’04. No, no, it’s alright. I accept it now. I’ve accepted it for a while now. An appropriate question though…
“Yes, really. How is it appropriate? Well, upon her passing, once I could endure life beyond my pained soul and darkened bedroom, I placed that raven upon my roof, in view of my bedroom skylight. It brings me great joy to this very day – in fact, every now and then that raven winks at me just as Madeline did on the day we met.”
Rún hit her palm against the screaming clock, silencing it. She jumped out of bed, briefly confused at the light coming through the window. Then it came back to her – the terrible burning of the library. Having slept in her clothes from earlier in the day, she just threw her jacket back on, smoothed out her hair a bit, and rode back to the ruined Municipal Library of Akureyri.
When Rún arrived, there were still fire trucks there, though no longer actively fighting fire – it had been effectively put out. The Ríkislögreglan was there in full force however, having already put up caution tape, ensuring the scene was secure. There were a handful of people going in and out of the ruined library, seeming to take direction from a tall, bespectacled, and heavily sideburned man. Rún parked her Honda, and walked up to one of the police officers. She showed her identity card and asked if she could volunteer. He lifted the yellow tape, and waved her on through.
Rún made her way to the center of the action.
“Library Director, I assume?”
He nodded morosely, extending a hand. “Yes, yes I am…was rather. Jón.”
“Hello Jón. I’m Rún. I traveled here earlier today to confirm some information, when I saw the fire. I came here quite a bit as a child. Please tell me how I can help.”
“Thank you… thank you, Rún. Well, they tell me everything is safe, but to be cautious nonetheless. We are just salvaging what we can – books obviously, paperwork, electronics, artwork, anything that we can carry out such that when they demolish… when they demolish…” Jón lifted up his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose.
Rún nodded and went right to work. She put on a dust mask, grabbed an empty cardboard box, and went in.
It was devastation. So many ruined books. Char. Ash. There was no smell of books as there should have been, old or new. There was just the scent of burnt wood, of ruin. There was an odd mist-like darkness but for errant rays of sunlight shining randomly from holes in the roof. Every now and then there would be a book left mostly untouched by flame. Recoverable. Rún went slowly, thoroughly, through the library.
Rún wiped away blackened sweat from her forehead. It was then she saw the door to the room that she had travelled to through her black mirror – through the In-between. She put the box of books down, wiped her hands off on her jeans, and placed a hand cautiously on the door’s latch. Warm, but not overly so. Rún backed up slightly, and opened the door.
It was the room that she found – found her, really – in the In-between. It was completely untouched by the fire. Unbelievably so. What could have protected it from the flames? In the center of the room, Rún saw the piano, still and silent in the glory of the sunlight shining from the windows. She walked over to it, and ran a finger across its surface. Images quickly flooded her head – random colors, to flickering lights, to a glowing turning to fireflies dancing in an endless green field, to a blurred overview of houses in a small town. The streaming of images slowed as a blue house came into view, a black bird perched on its roof. The last vision was of a street sign, and Rún recognized it as Marie’s. The In-between confirmed Rún’s predictions. She was glad, and the rest of the day passed easily as she continued the cleanup of the library, and as more and more volunteers came to help.
Marie sipped the last of her tea. “That was… I have no words, Mr. Wootensmith.”
“Marie, Marie, Marie. I think you can call me Gerald, now. Not at the shop, mind you. I am still only Mr. Wootensmith there. How did you enjoy your tea?”
Marie smiled. “Very good. Let me clean up.”
“Certainly. Just mind the rats, and their sharp yellow fangs.”
Mr. Wootensmith chuckled. “I jest, I jest!”
Marie shook her head. She stood up and brought the cups and saucers back to the kitchen. As she rinsed them out, she thought about Mr. Wooten- Gerald’s story. Beautiful. Sad. Short, but sweet. As she walked back towards the table, she paid more attention to everything around her, wondering what of the home’s may have been Madeline’s, Gerald’s, what each of them bought together.
In her peripheral vision, she caught sight of it in a side room. A piano. Solitary. Mr. Wootensmith saw Marie pause, stopped mid-step.
“Ah, yes. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Marie nodded wordlessly.
“I don’t play. Nor did Madeline. Upon purchasing this wondrous instrument from a fellow collector; we found its place right away. And there it stayed. It was quickly forgotten as my collection kept growing.”
“It’s perfect.” Marie whispered.
“Well, Miss Marie, I certainly don’t have any use for it. I can let it go if you wish to own it… for a price.”
Marie turned to face Mr. Wootensmith. “How… how much?”
“Understand, Marie, the pristine condition of the instrument. Unplayed. ‘Unopened’ if you will. Let me consider…”
Marie paled a bit as Mr. Wootensmith pondered.
“It is yours for the cost of…” He savored the pause. “…Money doesn’t mean so much to me, you know. It can be yours, transferred to your home within the day, for the cost of coming and visiting me here every now and then to listen to my myriad stories. And to continue to browse my curio shop, of course.”
Marie let out a great sigh, and nearly laughed in joy. “Yes! How could I not!”
Marie placed a hand upon the piano. There will never be that empty space again.
The padded hammer crashes on its tightly-held string…