Marc Nieson Excerpted from "SCHOOLHOUSE: Lessons on Love & Landscape," a memoir forthcoming from Ice Cube Press in Oct 2016.
12 March. Never mind yesterday’s -5° windchill or last night’s lullaby of flurries, this morning you could smell a shift in the air. Hear it even, in the syncopated dripping from the eaves. Or the trill of that first redwing blackbird down by Lower Pond, a returning male staking out his nesting ground...Spring, it’s coming! I swear.
For the last six months I’d been living in an old one-room schoolhouse on a remote Iowa hillside. A native New Yorker, I’d moved ostensibly for a stab at graduate school, which seemed level-headed enough given the growing list of random jobs behind me—in construction, a Montessori pre-school, a stint in Italy teaching English, even a season with a one-ring circus. In short, a virtual diploma’s worth of detours and detachments. Foremost in mind, however, was a decade-long affair with an older woman whose unfathomable end had sent me into a tailspin. So I’d retreated west, hoping to pull myself together and OK, feeling a bit on the lam, too. The plan was to lose myself in a wholly new geography. A wholly different rhythm of life. To start afresh, apart and alone.
Early autumn had gone well enough. I focused on my classes in creative writing at the university in town, then attended to my confused heart back out in the country. Each day I took solo walks in the surrounding woodlands, introducing myself to the local flora and fauna. I learned how to birdwatch, how to recognize wingbars and song patterns. How to be more observant. To listen better.
Then November came and most of the birdlife abandoned my hillside. The cold started seeping in through the schoolhouse’s stone walls, and before Thanksgiving snow banks were on the rise. Day by day the world was growing more muffled and dissonant. The walls starting to close in. Those long nights of a long winter, seemingly interminable.
14 March. Another three inches of snowfall today. Out here crunching under the pines again. The ground glowing blue, the moon just shy of full. No doubt it’s shining down on Manhattan right now, too. Always pulling, pulling...This old ache, relentless...Tomorrow, the ides of March. Something’s gotta give.
16 March. Nearly 1 AM. Lying here listening to some choral music by Arvo Pärt. Borrowed it tonite from Beth, that woman I met at the dance concert. Yeah, I know, I know. Said I wouldn’t get involved with anyone again, but this was her third dinner invitation. And actually, the evening was lovely. All candlelit and cloth napkins, a delicious fish and cilantro stew, and her other guests equally spicy and entertaining. Most of them actors or modern dancers like her, who all seemed much easier going than my classmates. Far more physically present and in their bodies. Unfortunately, writers live mostly from the neck up. I like Beth a lot, too. She’s damn honest and direct. Smart, pretty. And obviously she’s not short of dinner guests, so I’m guessing there’s a reason she kept inviting me. Yes, definitely something there...
Anyway, Pärt’s liner notes talk about his style—something he calls tintinnabulation—his compositions as reliant on their pauses as on their sparse tones. The silences resounding...Reminds me of being in Venice. Late in the afternoon, pausing on that bridge near Calle Lunga to listen to church bells. The wake of each knell receding into another until at some point you’d realize they’d long since stopped, and vespers already begun...
I recall reading somewhere that the blind can still logically orient themselves in space, but that for the deaf, at least in certain fundamental ways, the world refuses to make sense. That what goes unheard can create incomprehensible and unbridgeable gaps.
The next time I entered the woods, I sat down beneath a tree, closed my eyes, and didn’t rush to identify each birdsong as cardinal or peewee or dove, but listened instead to the softer lulls between each call. And within mere minutes, I started to discern a larger harmony at work. Stunning, really. A whole system of communication in which each species awaited its respective turn to speak, not unlike the way cars merged among parallel lanes of flowing traffic.
I opened my eyes onto a naked tree branch trembling above me. It felt as if I’d suddenly unveiled some lost and unspoken language.
At my writing desk, too, I was learning to harness the power of pauses, of white space. What I’d always presumed as the private domain of poetry could prove critical in the rendering of prose, too. Those overlooked spaces between scenes and paragraphs, sentences, words. Those breadths, and breaths.
Narratives, after all, were compositions too. They needed not only find their right rhythms, but proper pitches and tones and meters. Reciting my sentences aloud, I could literally feel them emerging from between my lips, and sometimes I’d even tap them out on the balls of my feet while pacing about the schoolhouse. Stories were journeys as well, moving us through time and space. Dimensional in design. Were they a kind of dance then, too? A choreography of characters?
18 March. Locked up the gate today so no one mistakenly drives up here. The gravel’s all spongy now, and it could be another month or two till it fully dries. In the woods some mosses showing orange sprouts, making way for the coming wildflowers. A whole sub-terranean world of change going on right beneath me. Upper Pond’s ice floe has receded a good twenty-five feet from the southern bank. Strange, only ten days ago I walked across, listening to its deep thunders.
Later. The 19th, now. 2:30 in the morning. Stayed in town after class tonight and went to a bar to play eight ball with some friends. Noted the scattering of balls against the felt—the spaces left between—like little planets. The bumping of bodies on the dance floor, cornmeal sprinkled underfoot by the barkeep to keep us from slipping. What a GREAT jukebox! The Clash. Mack the Knife. Zorba the Greek. What fun to spend every penny in your pocket and close down the place. To let loose again...
20 March. Bizarre, this weather. Unnatural. Yesterday a sudden hailstorm around noon, then 50° by sunset. Then this morning, witnessed a snowflake fall onto open water and refuse to melt. Winter defies the calendar, clutching tight to its mittens and scarves, its kindling and maul. Me too, I guess, choosing barbed wire for neighbors. Maintaining my hermit’s pose. My distances. Another phone message left by Beth. Need reply, but...but meeting Chris for an equinox woodswalk today...
“So, how goes it with the dancer?” he asked.
The afternoon sun reached halfway down the ridge Chris and I were descending. He was one of the few friends I’d made out here. From eastern Kentucky originally, so he knew a lot about living in the woods.
“OK, I guess. We seem to connect,” I said.
“Oh you know, talking and stuff. She’s pretty damn insightful. I always feel like I’m learning something with her.”
“And she from you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think so. Different things.”
We’d been hiking for a good hour. Below us a creek bed trickled with the day’s melt, though patches of white still hunkered down in the draws.
“So what’s the problem then?” he asked.
“There is no problem,” I said.
“So then what’re you waiting for?”
“I don’t know...I guess she’s just not my type.”
Chris paused to face me.
“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
I glanced toward the ground. My boots were all caked with mud.
“Oh you know,” I said, “physically.”
He exhaled and looked off to the north.
“Physically, or historically?”
“Meaning your ex in New York.”
“...Both,” I said.
“No, choose one,” he said.
Now I paused. He was right. Beth didn’t look anything like my ex. Lighter haired and lighter skinned. A whole different kind of body and temperament. A whole different orientation toward the world.
I exhaled. “OK. Historically.”
“Well then that doesn’t mean squat.”
“Sure it does.”
“No. It doesn’t,” he said. “She’s the one standing in front of you now. That’s all that matters.”
He was right, of course. I was just afraid, cowering like some little bird in a thicket. Too afraid to even admit that’s what I was doing. Chris walked past and I watched him hop from one stone shelf to the next, down toward where the ground finally leveled off. The creek banks were narrow and littered with downed trees, some of which formed natural bridges. He stopped before one to inspect its peeling bark then stooped to pick up a rock with both hands.
“Look,” he said straightening, “you said you’re attracted to Beth, right?”
He stared at me then lay the stone up onto the fallen oak’s span.
“It’s not that easy, Chris.”
“Who said it was gonna be easy?”
“You...you’re married, got kids and—”
“And you think that’s easy?”
“You think I didn’t have a history? That my wife didn’t have a history?”
“But what? What?!”
Again he stared me down. Brown and white plumes stuck out from the daypack at his hip. A trove of hawk feathers we’d stumbled onto earlier. I searched their patterns.
“How old are you again?” Chris asked.
My birthday was in a week, but all I said was, “Almost thirty-three.”
“So?” he said. “Tick tock.”
He turned and headed upstream. Sunlight touched the brim of his bobbing hat and those feathers at his hip.
“C’mon, let’s go. It’s getting late.”
He crossed and re-crossed the tiny creek, choosing his footing among the mud and snow and rock. I caught up to him at the next impasse of tree trunk, where he again balanced a flat stone on its bridge.
“Hey, what’s with the rocks,” I called out.
“I like to leave them for the next time I come,” he said. “To see what’s changed...That’ll happen, you know, with or without you.” He wiped his palms against his thighs, then stared at me dead on. “And not making a choice is still a choice, you know.”
21 March. Well, Spring’s finally sprung. And not just on the calendar. The last of the ponds relinquished its ice today. No snow left either, not even in the draws. Spotted a couple more returning robins today, and a flash of bluebird at the pasture’s edge...Sat out under a tree toward dusk, just listening. Beyond the birds, beyond the silences, started wondering what music lay inside me? What notes, what rests? What possible melody? Harmonies?
Nearly midnight now. Got Arvo Pärt playing again...Will call Beth tomorrow...yeah, definitely...Outside, fires smolder on the horizon. Local farmers burning back their ditches. Returning geese eclipsing the moon...The seasons spinning. Music of the spheres.
Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. Recent fiction is in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53), Museum of Americana, and Tahoma Literary Review. His award-winning feature-length screenplays include Speed of Life, The Dream Catcher, and BOTTOMLAND. He serves on the faculty of Chatham University and is fiction editor of The Fourth River. He’s at work on a new novel, "Houdini's Heirs."