One day when I was in junior high school, Mr. Albert played Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy. When he announced his selection to the class, which had been raised on Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull, I exclaimed involuntarily, “Oh, I love that piece!”
I paid for this outburst for years; no bully who had witnessed it could let me forget it. I’m not sure if the lesson was to keep one’s feelings or one’s weird music preferences to oneself, or both. It may have been after this that one of my classmates embedded chewing gum in my tangled locks.
What business did I have with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, anyway? I was quite possibly the only student in the school who had ever heard it, let alone of it.
My outburst may have been the result of emotional stupidity (the opposite of the famous emotional intelligence that successful people are blessed with), but appreciation for Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune came from a love of reading. The Girl Who Ran Away by Joan Robinson was the culprit. In the story, an English girl sent to live with an aunt instead makes shift to live in a nearby copse for the summer — thus avoiding the unpleasantness of older relatives while being close enough to feel secure.
One day, Charlie hears a flute playing a tune that climbs the scale, then descends — Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Entranced, she finds the musician, a young man staying in a caravan (trailer) in the woods, and they become friends. He is a young adult, and she is still a child, but their meeting obliquely reveals the possibilities of the adult world of romance. When I hear Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, emotionally I am transported to a late summer’s day in the depth of still, sun-dappled woods, a misfit, outcast child wanderer meeting a man, that is, a man thought of as a man, for the first time. It’s beautiful, wistful, and melancholy, a point in time that makes me forget the past and yearn to know the future.
Perhaps the bullies were right to mock me. If you have had the patience to read this far, though, I think you are not one of them.
As a child, I directed my limited book budget primarily to two types of books: horse stories and mysteries (you can imagine my feelings if the mystery involved a horse).
A great story, like The Island Stallion (Walter Farley), combines a noble equine enigma with mystery of place — an isolated, lost world known only to the horses and to the boy protagonists. The concept of a place that is remote and unknown to man haunts me. In a recurring dream, I take a walk in the tiny woods next to the trailer park. Just beyond the thicket behind our yard, I suddenly see an unlimited vista of trees, ravines, and meadows, unseen and untouched by humans. In the dream I am surprised yet joyous, wondering how I could have not known of such a marvel and how long I could hold onto the incredible sense of euphoria and magic before it disappears. Did Lewis and Clark ever have a moment when they wondered if the land was infinite, infinitely lovely, and lonely?
The island stallion is hidden, and so is The Mystery of the Great Swamp (Marjorie Zapf). As Jeb works his way into the seemingly endless Okefenokee, I am lost with him, hearing only the hush of the great wetland punctuated only by animal calls, the movement of the trees, and the slithering of snakes into the water. In this dangerous world of primordial beauty, it’s not surprising that a great secret dwells undiscovered. I wish it could have remained unknown.
I believed in the island stallion. I believed in the mystery of the great swamp. I may not have believed in them literally, but I believed that such things were still possible. When I stopped believing in the possibility, the best part of the child’s imaginative spirit died in me, I think.
Some of my favorite books proved to be straightforward mysteries, but there was always something special that appealed to me. In Mystery by Moonlight (Mary C. Jane), the protagonist discovers a comfortable little shed where she can be by herself to think and to write. Jane’s description of this place, amidst autumn leaves and under a moonlit sky, made me long for something just like it. The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (Phyllis A. Whitney) and Mystery in the Pirate Oak (Helen Fuller Orton) also create places that were so outside my limited experience that, while ordinary enough to most children, they seemed mystical to me. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) was another magical place, and I felt profound empathy for the three lonely children who discover its restorative powers. Even today, I could wish to find such a place, too — and a soul mate who appreciates it as much as I do.
While Avonlea is a wonderful place in Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery), I saw myself in the intelligent, imaginative, wistful, stubborn, and misfit Anne. Unlike me, Anne gives free rein to her dreams. Unlike me, Anne is blessed with more than one kindred spirit she can trust — she wins over even her opposite, Mrs. Lynde. When people look at me, I wish they could see and appreciate those qualities that make Anne so loved. And I wish I could show those qualities, and I wish I could trust.
The final three books are mysteries, but with a clear, understated, haunting element of magic. In The Magic Tunnel (Catherine D. Emerson), an ordinary mass transit ride ends in an extraordinary place — the New Amsterdam of Peter Stuyvesant. How wonderful life would be if, at least once in a while, an ordinary trip could turn into such an adventure. The vividness of the encounter piqued my interest in history, too.
Today’s plastic snowstorms are no more than a part of the household bric-a-brac, but The Snowstorm (also known as The Snow Ghosts) by Beryl Netherclift takes us back to an eerie, silent, snow-filled world of Victorian children who seem to be trying to lead us to something important.
The Secret Pencil (Patricia Ward) appears to be ordinary enough when Anna, on vacation with her family in Wales, finds it, but then it starts to write enigmatic messages when the mood strikes it. It’s up to Anna to determine what they mean.
I have not re-read any of these stories for many years. In a way, they all end sadly. The mystery is solved, and all that is left is a return to everyday life and a memory. Even Anne, with so much promise, is dimmed by the cares and constraints of adulthood until she becomes almost dull. The snow ghosts disappear, and the snowstorm returns to being a decorative object. The pencil, once communicative, has nothing left to say, and no amount of wishing will animate it again.
I have changed, too. I’m an adult, with too many years of having the real world, with its practicalities, prevarications, and needs, beaten into me, and I fear that I might not be able to read these stories with the marvelous childlike sensitivity, feeling, and wonder that has been bludgeoned out of me over time.
Magic, literal or emotional, is ephemeral. A child like the one I once was is open to its possibilities, but there is always a sense that it will end, just as summer ended for Charley and the young man. Perhaps if we could cling to it (just as if I could hold onto my vision of the infinite, unspoiled wilderness), it would no longer cause the thrill of discovery and the longing ache of loss. Whether magic comes in a book, a dream, a vision, or a kindred spirit, love it while you can and remember that feeling as best you can because you may never experience it again. It is that possibility, that probability, that makes my longing and my melancholy stretch as far as my forest.