Enchanted Night (Steven Millhauser)

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A hot summer night in southern Connecticut, tide going out and the moon still rising. Laura Engstrom, fourteen years old, sits up in bed and throws the covers off. Her forehead is damp, her hair feels wet. Through the screens of the two half-open windows she can hear a rasp of crickets and a dim rush of traffic on the distant thruway. Five past twelve. Do you know where your children are? The room is so hot that the heat is a hand gripping her throat. Got to move, got to do something. Moonlight is streaming in past the edges of the closed and slightly raised venetian blinds. She can't breathe in this room, in this house. Oh man, do something. Do it. The crickets are growing louder. A smell of cut grass mixes with a salt tang of low tide from the beach four blocks away. She imagines herself out there, on the night beach, low waves breaking, crunch of sand, the lifeguard chairs tall and white and clean under the moon, but the thought disturbs her--she feels exposed, a girl in moonlight, out in the open, spied on. She doesn't want anyone to look at her. No one is allowed to think about her body. But she can't stay in her room, oh no. If she doesn't do something right away, this second, she'll scream. The inside of her skin itches. Her bones itch. So how do you scratch your bones? Laura steps onto the braided throw rug beside her bed and pulls on her jeans. They are so tight that she has to suck in her flat stomach to get the hole over the copper button. She pulls off her nightgown and puts on a white T-shirt--no bra--and a denim jacket with a lump in one pocket: half a roll of Life Savers. She has to get out of there, she has to breathe. If you don't breathe, you're dead. The room is killing her. She won't go far.


This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.


At exactly midnight by his strapless watch, Haverstraw puts down his No. 2 hexagonal yellow pencil beside his spiral-bound notebook, which he leaves open on the desk, and leans back in his chair. For a moment he feels dizzy, and grips the edge of the desk; it is hot in the attic room, and the air feels stale and close, despite the twenty-year-old rattling window fan that is supposed to draw the hot air out and somehow leave coolness in its wake. The attic room, lined with bookshelves, is above the second floor of the house, where his mother has her bedroom. Haverstraw's bedroom is also on the second floor, but he prefers to sleep in the old guestbed in the attic study. The mattress sags, his feet stick over the end, and the room is poorly heated in winter, but Haverstraw does not seek comfort. Haverstraw is thirty-nine years old and lives with his sixty-six-year-old mother. For the last nine years he has been at work on an immense project, an experiment in memory, which will justify him. Tonight the writing has gone well, or at least not badly, though perhaps his ideas have carried him a little astray; he has the sudden sense that the whole project is astray, his whole life astray, but the thought is so terrifying that he quickly suppresses it. He must get out and walk in the night. His waking hours are divided into three segments: from one in the afternoon to six at night he gets through the day, from seven to midnight he writes, and from midnight to five in the morning he gets through the night. He sleeps from five in the morning to one in the afternoon. Dinner with his mother is from six to seven—always. His work will justify him. People will understand. He will be redeemed. Remember old Haverstraw? Guy who lived in the attic? Well! Seems that he. Turns out he. Haverstraw needs to get outside and walk. He turns off the bent-neck standing lamp, pushes back his chair--an old kitchen chair with a pillow on the seat--and stands up, wondering whether his little attacks of dizziness are something he ought to worry about. After all, he's a man almost forty, a man stuck in a bog. His back hurts. His eyes burn. His life hurts. He will be justified. He picks up his watch without a strap and thrusts it into his pocket. Haverstraw crosses the room, switches off the overhead light, and makes his way through the unfinished part of the attic, filled with the abandoned games of his adolescence, the stuffed animals of his childhood. He never throws anything out. Somewhere in a shoebox are all the little prizes from the cereal boxes of thirty years ago, still in their transparent crinkly plastic wrappers. In a drawer of the old dresser sit piles of old bubblegum cards no one has ever heard of: science-fiction cards, movie-star cards, fire-engine cards. He still has his old patrol-boy badge on its white strap, his old paper targets full of BB holes. He ought to clear out all this junk, but it would be like throwing away his childhood. Haverstraw tiptoes down the wooden steps of the attic and makes his way in the dark along the second-floor hall, past his sleeping mother--he can hear her breathing--and down the carpeted stairs. On the dark landing he passes a black, invisible picture: Hokusai's Great Wave. In his mind he sees vividly the little yellow boats, the little white heads, the towering waves that frightened him as a child, and far away the wave-like top of Mount Fuji. He continues down the carpeted stairs to the front hall. From a hook on the wobbly clothestree he removes his blue nylon windbreaker. He opens the front door quietly, for his mother is a light sleeper. When he steps outside he sees, high up in the dark blue sky, the big white summer moon. His heart lifts. The night will forgive him.


In the department-store window on Main Street, the mannequin stands in her night beauty. Her dark green sunglasses, black in the red-lit window, reveal their secret: they are a form of jewelry, which she wears solely to heighten the elegance of her small, delicate nose and well-cut lips, to give her an air of alluring mystery. Her pale summer dress, soft as rose petals, clings to her slender hips and her long, long legs, one of which stands a little in front of the other. She is wearing a white straw hat, broad-brimmed and tilted at an angle, and white leather sandals. As the stoplight changes from red to green, her hard, satiny skin gives off a glow now red, now green. One bare arm is raised before her, the fingers gracefully extended, in a gesture that in an ordinary person might be a sign of greeting, but that, in her, closes the perfect circle of her self-absorption. The rigor of her pose stimulates in the mannequin a secret desire: she dreams of release, of the dropping of her guard, of the voluptuous fall into motion. Sometimes it seems to her that she is simply waiting--waiting for the moment when she will be able to relax her will a little. Then the beautiful arm will begin to fall, her grave immobility will melt into motion. In the instant of that unthinkable swoon, all will change: she will leave herself behind forever. And at this thought, which makes her legs tingle, a new rigor of wariness comes over her, for the one thing she must never do is give herself away.


As Haverstraw steps out from under the thruway overpass, on his way to Mrs. Kasco's, he sees something moving in the black trees beside the low white-brick building set back discreetly from the road. Haverstraw thinks of it as the Whatchamacallit Building, though he knows it is the corporate headquarters of a manufacturer of ball bearings. He remembers when the land was a wooded lot between the thruway embankment and a back yard with a picnic table. Light from lampposts in the parking lot falls dimly on the trees, leaving black, inviting clumps of shadow, and Haverstraw wonders whether he sees the figure of a girl disappearing into the dark. He thinks of the outlaw band that has been preying on the town: a gang of high school girls, five or six of them, who break into houses at night, take food from kitchens, and steal small, unimportant objects like refrigerator magnets, toothbrushes, and eyeglass cases. They always leave a note penciled in neat capital letters: WE ARE YOUR DAUGHTERS The girls are sly and very well prepared: they enter through unlocked back doors or cellar windows, make their way noiselessly into the house, and always sit in the living room before slipping away. Once three of them were seen gliding through a dark kitchen, but when the woman who was sitting in her kitchen at one o'clock in the morning with a glass of Johnnie Walker Red rose screaming and turned on the light, the girls had vanished. The mothers of the town are anxious, and call the police frequently, but Haverstraw is interested: he envies the girls their freedom, their boldness, their pleasure in violation, their habit of irony. He hopes they will invade his house and steal things.


Half-past twelve on the digital clock, which casts a blue tint on her hair on the pillow. Janet Manning, twenty years old, wakes up suddenly in her big bedroom on the second floor. A pebble has struck the window. Has a pebble struck her window? She hurries over to the window beside her dark desk with its sagging beachbag, raises the shade, and looks down into the moonlit back yard. The rope swing hangs from the silver maple. In the yard, moonbright and empty, there's only the shadow of the garage and the brilliant bluish green of the moonlit grass. So green, the grass, so strangely moonly green, that it looks greener than green: silkblouse green, eyelid green, the green of transparent childhood marbles rolling in sun and shade. There was no plan, no agreement, and yet standing on the beach with a white towel around his neck he had looked at her a certain way and said: I can't wait till tomorrow. And she had said: Then don't!--and laughed. Stupid laugh! The laugh of a complete idiot! He is so beautiful to her that the thought of his cheekbone shining with water in sunlight makes her want to cry out. Nervously she runs a hand through her hair, jerks it away. Her hair is a disaster. Better go back to bed, pull the sheet over your head, live alone, die alone, but she stays kneeling at the window, drowsy-awake, wistful. The night reminds her of a painting, the one that's all blue night sky with a big white moon at the top, and near the bottom a clown in a white costume. Snowcool light, the air clear blue and still--and as she looks down into the hush of the yard, suddenly she is six years old, looking down into the same yard, glittering with new snow under the brilliant winter moon.


From the woods in the north part of town there rises a sound of flute music, dark and sweet. It rises in slow ripples, falls, in slow ripples it rises, again falls, a tireless slow rising and falling, insistent, a dark call, a languorous fall. Perhaps it is only birdsong, there in the dark trees.


On the wooded slope behind the white brick building, the leader of the gang stops for a moment, her head cocked to one side, her left hand raised. She is a tall girl, long-boned, lean-muscled, narrow-hipped, dressed in tight jeans and a hooded black sweatshirt, her blond hair short and thick and combed back on both sides behind her ears. From an elastic string around her neck hangs a black eyemask, which she will slip on when she enters a yard. In her pocket she carries a pen knife, which she is prepared to use against any attacker. She will never allow herself to be unmasked. Her name is Linda Harris, but she calls herself Summer Storm. The other girls, all in jeans and hooded black sweatshirts, stop below her, alert, their arms tense, their heads raised. Summer Storm hears something far away, a dim music, rising and falling. It is like something she remembers or is on the verge of remembering. Closer by she hears the sound of footsteps in the gravel of the roadside below. She steps back. Through the leaves she sees the bright white moon in the dark blue sky. Against the moon, close and black and very sharp, stands the single leaf of a sugar maple. They will have to be careful, on this bright night. Summer Storm beckons with her hand, and the band of girls moves on.

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Excerpted from Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser. Copyright © 1999 by Steven Millhauser. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.