He walked down the path between the conifers and the edge of the lake where the water spoke to dead cinders, quietly. The sky was black except for all of the points where the light shone brightly. He understood why some used to believe that heaven was a sack-cloth through whose weave some other illumination leaked, from some unknown singular source. He heard coyotes laughing not far away. Fallen needles gave softly beneath his feet. The scent of the air was of oncoming rain, but he smelled a lie on a night so clear. He hummed something whose words he could not remember. It made him imagine someone dancing a waltz with an invisible partner, their hands and arms extended upward and outward, knees dipping rhythmically, hips moving in a way which suggested the rocking of a boat on a low-rolling swell. Just about then, he heard the crack of burning branches and saw the glow ahead. She would be there, waiting, on the other side of everything. From nowhere, he felt a raindrop on his cheek. And he didn’t want to turn around.
She went on and on in her sleep, after all of the wine we’d had after dinner, mumbling broken strings of words bound together with the occasional “babushki.” It made no sense, but I was awake. My mind went on like her tongue, restless, ceaseless, and mostly senseless. My legs hurt from walking up and down the hills earlier in the day. I thought about the warm bialy I’d eaten for breakfast, bought at a cafe up the canyon, its two halves bound together by too much salmon cream cheese. “People always add too much to the simple things,” I thought. And I found myself agreeing with my thoughts. People did that, too often, with too little consideration, to generally poor effect. She might have said “Bialystok,” though I couldn’t be sure. We had talked about that city’s square, as I wiped drippings from the leg of my pants. “It will leave an oil stain,” I complained to her. “Yes, but the church is lovely,” she responded. “And it has one of those black metallic things on top.” I knew what she meant, but couldn’t find the word for what she meant. Sometimes we have to know what we mean in order to find what we mean. I didn’t know, so I couldn’t know. Thoughts like this were why I was still awake. As we drove home from the hills, I remembered, but had forgotten again by the time I listened to her talking in her sleep. All I knew was that the peak of the tower had what appeared to be a dark bell-shaped dome. I’d seen a photograph of it once. The image, and the name of the city, stuck with me. Bialystok. Such a beautiful word for a faraway place. Maybe if we were there, she would find the babushki of her dreams. And maybe I could fall sound asleep more easily.
Restless, he gave up on the idea of a quick afternoon nap. He turned onto his side and threw off his last quilt. The music which came from the old record player’s speakers was coarse and metallic. Listening, he imagined a past in which the rasp and scuff and imperfection of such sounds seemed somehow perfect and elegant. He envisioned his room filled with the shades of people who felt free to dance gently in one another’s arms. And he knew himself as different than they had been. Less free and more inhibited. He realized that he was beginning to wish for more than a life of muted dreams and self-limiting inhibitions. Something about the present wasn’t right. More and more, he felt an uncomfortable degree of identification with the damn depressing half-winter of the low valley. His world seemed made of grey skies threatening no more than sputtering rain. Sad birch trees with branches weighed down by nothing but gathered starlings. A light too bright to be called darkness, but too cloud-obscured and feeble to clear and cheer the heart. He missed the brilliantly glittering seasons of cold he’d known in other places. And in all of those places, he realized, there were white lace curtains to catch the light and somehow transform it into a thing more energized than the comatose dim of this here and now. Perhaps he needed to hang white lace curtains tomorrow. But that would be a question for tomorrow. Now, he felt tired again and closed his eyes in the hope that he would find sleep waiting somewhere within himself. He counted his breaths. Everything was quiet but for the scratch of the Polish tango. Motionless, he drifted onto his feet and felt the cold of a parquet floor. He stared through a familiar window toward a field which spread between concrete buildings and rusting jungle-gyms. His fingers touched an age-yellowed lace curtain. Snow was falling, as it seemed to have been doing for some time. The rest of the scene was empty but for the shared luminosity of countless gathered flakes. He waited by the wooden sill, as if he already knew that, a moment later, without adding a sound, two dogs would run and leap into view. They seemed to pirouette before a bundled-up young woman who walked after them with two leashes dangling from her hand. She shouted at them, and he heard her voice above the phonograph’s scratch. He didn’t know what the language of dreams was called, but he (and the dogs) understood her meaning nonetheless. Almost everyone stopped moving. The young woman turned quickly to face him. The dream’s dreamer crushed the gathered lace curtains close against his face. Suddenly, and again, he heard the forgotten needle skip. He knew it was time to wake up.