I’m supposed to be at my girlfriend’s. I had a pass for the weekend to go to her house for an early Christmas visit. But we had a fight and she got on the bus without me. She didn’t even look out the window as I waved, hoping she’d change her mind. There’s no way I’m going back to the retreat tonight.
I’ve got my meds and my money. But where will I sleep? “Sleep in a church,” Charles says, the voice that is loudest in my head. Even these yellow pills I take that rot my teeth can’t quiet Charles.
They’ve quieted the Mayor’s assistant and the Duchess who argue about what flags should be hanging in city hall, and whether people should be flogged or kept in stocks again, rather than let loose or kept in hospitals, people like me, that is.
I like the Duchess except when she’s tapping her fingers which she does repetitively, so much so I get a migraine and the migraine meds interfere with my yellow meds and sometimes make it worse, rather than better. More voices or more headache? It’s hard to choose, so I don’t.
I have my migraine meds with me and I might just take one, because seeing Charlene ride away on the bus made my head pound.
She’s what I think the Duchess looks like, if the Duchess were out of my head and walking on the street, only she wouldn’t be wearing stonewashed jeans like Charlene or have a nose piercing or have sex with someone before they were married.
That’s what Charlene was mad at me about, these pills affect my doing, you know, with her. And she wants it three or four times a day. In the bathrooms at the retreat or hidden behind a tree.
The Duchess was yelling at me as Charlene unbuckled my jeans, “No young man allows a lady to do that, not in broad daylight, where you’ll be seen,” and when I spoke the words out loud in the Duchess’s English accent, Charlene bit me and it still hurts, a lot.
To make matters worse, my parents were unexpectedly supposed to arrive any minute and I needed to pretend I was glad to see them, not frolicking, as the Duchess says, with Charlene. Then my parents cancelled, so we used Charlene’s three day pass instead, as originally planned, but she refused to talk to me.
“No matter. Find a church to welcome you,” advised Charles. He looks like a butler more than a Mayor, wearing a black suit with starched white shirt and something he calls a dickie, and he’s tall and slim with polished shoes, not that I could tell my counselor that- she wants me to notice what’s outside me, not inside me- so I button my coat, which is hard, because my fingernails are long and I walk up to the first church I see.
There are people on the steps blowing smoke on each other as they walk up. It’s not cigarette smoke or that other smoke that the Duchess’s sister Mary despises, but something else that makes me sneeze. “Do you want me to smudge you?” the tall woman asks as she waves a mottled brown and white bird’s wing towards me, blowing smoke from burning embers held up in a wide shell, or maybe it’s the soul of the bird.
I walk by her, afraid to open my mouth because the Duchess is angry, “What right have they to send the souls of birds flying, what right have they to their wings?”
As if the woman heard the Duchess, as I think other people do sometimes, heard her as loud and clearly as I do, she holds up the wing, large as her face, and says, “It’s owl.”
The Duchess screams so loud, “It should be sleeping in a tree or catching mice, not blowing smoke,” that I clamp my mouth shut and walk inside the church.
Some people hang up their coats and take off their shoes. I never take off my coat or shoes unless I’m in my room, and sometimes then I still keep my coat on when I lie down to sleep, so I walk right by the foyer and enter the room. They want money; a lot.
Charles says, “Pay up, old boy, pay up,” so I give the man a twenty, instructing him to keep the change.
“Here are ribbons to tie on the alter,” says a woman, handing me a bowl of multi-colored strips of cloth to tie onto the wooden bower we walk under, but the pieces look too much like a shirt my mother didn’t like that she cut to ribbons, my favorite shirt with the skulls on it, that I walk past this woman too, and sit on the floor, where others have seated themselves, blending in, as my counselor would say.
No one knows but you about your voices. That’s your business, says my counselor. These people do not know by looking at you that you hear voices or that there’s anything out of the ordinary about you. Except my teeth, I answer, that are rotting from the medicine but it’s the last resort, my doctor said, so I am taking it. I feel my pill pack in my pocket and check my watch. It’s ticking and reads, 8:00 p.m.
We are sitting in a circle and then a man stands up who hasn’t shaved and wears dingy clothes, who says to lay down your pain, it is the longest night, to think about your pain, your sorrow, to let it go. After the darkness will be the light and I sure hope so, that they will turn the light back on but it stays dark. Some of them murmur, eh, eh, and I start getting up, but Charles orders me, “Sit, boy. Sit, do not break the circle.”
As I look around me, I see we are in sitting a circle and perhaps I am just like any of them, part of it, though I didn’t bring a blanket to sit on, and then someone starts dancing in a black shawl in the darkened room.
The light comes after the darkness, someone speaks, and it is not Charles or the Duchess, and the shawl suddenly sparkles with lights, multi-colored Christmas lights, and the woman lifts her feet and prances like the Duchess when she’s happy, and the lights sparkle and I wish I could give Charlene a shawl like that, maybe she’d love me again, and maybe it would light the dark yard where she pulls me when she’s hungry and not for dinner, only no one is supposed to see us and we are not supposed to have any interest like that in the other patients.
The lights spiral and the woman keens like an owl and I am afraid she’ll sprout owl wings and they’ll attach the other broken off owl wings to her and start blowing smoke that will make me sneeze again.
The Duchess says, “Oh, I was just a girl on a night like this when all the stars were out and my mother told me I could wish on every one of them,” but then she starts crying, because, as she cries, her wishes did not come true.
“But I still keep looking. You keep looking, Maxwell,” she cries, “Don’t give up.”
The Duchess never cries and I put my hands up to my head to soothe her, pat my ears to try to make her feel better. I would lie down and sing to her but the circle is packed too tight on either side of me and there is no room.
“All the bright lights and my dreams never came true,” the Duchess is wailing.
Suddenly the center of the room fills with people rising from the circle lifting the candles lit in tiny jars in front of them, and they twirl and dance around the lady with the black shawl lit with Christmas lights, and lift their candles up and down like giant fireflies in the dark room.
The Duchess starts clapping, while Charles harrumphs. “Folderol and fiddlesticks, I don’t want to be mayor of this town.”
I would give the Duchess a handkerchief but I can’t reach inside my head. She’s no longer crying, only clapping, “Oh, it’s so beautiful. Maxwell, get me a star, let me dance with the stars.”
I am afraid of candles even though I light my own cigarettes, though not at the retreat, and want one now, but I lift the jar filled with a candle and stretch out my legs, long as Charles’ legs, and dressed in black like he is, and hold my candle in one hand as I stretch up, then stand, and I lift up my feet, not too far off the ground, lift my feet, and join the other huge fireflies in the middle of the room, with stars in their hands. I am one of the crowd, blending in, and I lift my feet, first one higher, then the next, twirl, only in one place as the fireflies and stars and woman in the black shawl lined with Christmas lights circle round me. Perhaps I am the sun or only a tiny star. I hold the jar that feels hot from the candle burning, but I don’t let go, I don’t drop it.
“Oh, Maxwell, I am in the stars, you are making my dream come true, and I am dancing,” the Duchess says, and she is clapping as though she is a little girl, and I can feel the clatter of her silver heels as she taps her feet, twirling, a slightly different beat from mine as I lift my foot once, then again, careful not to falter.
Charles holds his arms across his chest and scowls. “Is this what the Mayor’s taxes go towards? Fiddlesticks. It’s disgraceful.”
The Duchess giggles, and I do too. I giggle as the fireflies dance round me. Then a bell rings and the fireflies set their candles down in the center with many others. I didn’t hear the order, Charles and the Duchess were so loud, but I can’t let go of my candle. I take it back to my place on the polished wooden floor and sit down with it, warming my hands.
A woman rubs a covered stick around the top edge of a white bowl, which looks like a mixing bowl, making a high-pitched noise.
The unshaven man speaks again, “Out of the darkness, comes the light. Lay down your sorrow, your pain. Tonight is the longest night of the year. The shorter days begin tomorrow.” I cannot bear the noise of the singing bowl but I cannot let go of the candle. I am bringing light to the Duchess, giggles, and happiness.
But the high-pitched noise makes it hard to hear them. I pick up my candle and walk past the people whose eyes are closed, not even looking at me, the Duchess and Charles babbling like a brook whose words I cannot make out.
Out on the front steps it is raining hard and I cover the candle so it won’t burn out.
“There are no stars tonight but the star in your hand, Maxwell,” giggles the Duchess, and I walk in the rain opening my coat to keep the candle burning, tucking it inside. My hand is warm but this is what I’m doing now, keeping the candles burning, keeping the stars bright though not a one shines in the sky, only here in my hand.