I don’t know why I used to read so many books while lying in my bedroom closet, but I did, and my earliest memories of “Anne of Green Gables” are there, while my mom was cleaning and blasting Alanis Morissette and Celine Dion. It seems fitting, now.

Sometimes, when you reread books from childhood, you find that they don’t quite hold up. Nostalgia alone isn’t enough to make the story carry you away like it used to. You find the characters lacking in depth or originality or relatability, you realize that harmful messages are subtly woven throughout, you just aren’t the person you were when it was fresh and new and you fell in love for the first time. Not so with Anne. Perhaps because I never really stopped rereading it, taking out a copy to read over my favorite passages and chapters whenever I need them, returning to the book in full each spring for a reread, carrying Anne in my heart wherever and whenever I am. Perhaps because Lucy Maud Montgomery managed to tap into something fundamental about childhood, the longing and the loving and the leaving, the changing and, at the same time, the holding on and the holding close. The book grows with you as you grow into yourself and there’s always a part of you that is still and always Anne Shirley.

“Well, don’t cry any more. We’re not going to turn you out-of-doors to-night. You’ll have to stay here until we investigate this affair. What’s your name?”

The child hesitated for a moment.

“Will you please call me Cordelia?” she said eagerly.

“Call you Cordelia? Is that your name?”

“No-o-o, it’s not exactly my name, but I would love to be called Cordelia. It’s such a perfectly elegant name.”

“I don’t know what on earth you mean. If Cordelia isn’t your name, what is?”

“Anne Shirley,” reluctantly faltered forth the owner of that name, “but, oh, please do call me Cordelia. It can’t matter much to you what you call me if I’m only going to be here a little while, can it? And Anne is such an unromantic name.”

“Unromantic fiddlesticks!” said the unsympathetic Marilla. “Anne is a real good plain sensible name. You’ve no need to be ashamed of it.”

“Oh, I’m not ashamed of it,” explained Anne, “only I like Cordelia better. I’ve always imagined that my name was Cordelia—at least, I always have of late years. When I was young I used to imagine it was Geraldine, but I like Cordelia better now. But if you call me Anne please call me Anne spelled with an E.”

“What difference does it make how it’s spelled?” asked Marilla with another rusty smile as she picked up the teapot.

“Oh, it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an E I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

For me, it’s more than a part. For me, it’s the whole. The whole of me is and has always been Anne Shirley. It’s not just the way, when I was six and seven and eight and beyond, I longed to change my name, before I had ever even heard of Green Gables. I refused to answer when people spoke to me unless they called me by whichever name I had decided I wanted to go by that day, ranging anywhere from Beth to Matilda. There is something about Chelsea that has never felt like me, something I wear like Anne’s too tight wincey dress and that, when I hear myself called by my name, always makes me flinch a little inside. I know this bothers my mom, because she gave me this name, but I can’t help it.

“Fancy. It’s always been one of my dreams to live near a brook. I never expected I would, though. Dreams don’t often come true, do they? Wouldn’t it be nice if they did? But just now I feel pretty nearly perfectly happy. I can’t feel exactly perfectly happy because—well, what color would you call this?”

She twitched one of her long glossy braids over her thin shoulder and held it up before Matthew’s eyes. Matthew was not used to deciding on the tints of ladies’ tresses, but in this case there couldn’t be much doubt.

“It’s red, ain’t it?” he said.

The girl let the braid drop back with a sigh that seemed to come from her very toes and to exhale forth all the sorrows of the ages.

“Yes, it’s red,” she said resignedly. “Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who has red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much—the freckles and the green eyes and my skinniness. I can imagine them away. I can imagine that I have a beautiful rose-leaf complexion and lovely starry violet eyes. But I cannot imagine that red hair away. I do my best. I think to myself, ‘Now my hair is a glorious black, black as the raven’s wing.’ But all the time I know it is just plain red and it breaks my heart. It will be my lifelong sorrow. I read of a girl once in a novel who had a lifelong sorrow but it wasn’t red hair. Her hair was pure gold rippling back from her alabaster brow. What is an alabaster brow? I never could find out. Can you tell me?”

It’s not just the hair, either, although that did give me a thrill when I first read the book. I have been by turns in love with and sick of my hair, and when I was a teenager, I was desperate for what I perceived to be a more interesting color. Black, I thought, or green. My mom said no to both, and rightly so. I was never teased for it that I can recall, but I nonetheless empathized with wanting something more elegant and attractive.

“This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress. All the orphans had to wear them, you know. A merchant in Hopeton last winter donated three hundred yards of wincey to the asylum. Some people said it was because he couldn’t sell it, but I’d rather believe that it was out of the kindness of his heart, wouldn’t you? When we got on the train I felt as if everybody must be looking at me and pitying me. But I just went to work and imagined that I had on the most beautiful pale blue silk dress—because when you are imagining you might as well imagine something worth while—and a big hat all flowers and nodding plumes, and a gold watch, and kid gloves and boots. I felt cheered up right away and I enjoyed my trip to the Island with all my might.”

The imagination thing gets a little closer to the heart of it. I never thought much about my blindness as a child, never really resented what I couldn’t see because what was going on in my mind was so much more interesting to me than anything in the outside world. I had friends, and I must surely have done things with them and slept over at their houses and all the other hallmarks of being a young girl, but what stands out most clearly to me are all the hours I spent with my imaginary friends. I had an entire imaginary town, peopled with my friends and their families, complete with full names, phone numbers, trips to the skating rink (a pair of rollerblades and a back porch), dramas and domesticities. Unlike Anne at the orphanage, I had so much scope for the imagination–a front yard with a weeping willow tree and wild onions, trees to climb, plenty of nooks and crannies to hide away in because I was very small–but there were still things I wanted and didn’t have, or had and didn’t want. Aren’t there always? I took care of them all with my imaginings, and, often, I think I even believed the things I made up. I knew I had made them up, of course, and if you’ve never done this I don’t know how to explain it to you, but alongside that knowing was also the certainty that I had made them up into actual existence. It wasn’t always a good thing, but mostly it was.

As much as she hated Gilbert, however, did she love Diana, with all the love of her passionate little heart, equally intense in its likes and dislikes. One evening Marilla, coming in from the orchard with a basket of apples, found Anne sitting along by the east window in the twilight, crying bitterly.

“Whatever’s the matter now, Anne?” she asked.

“It’s about Diana,” sobbed Anne luxuriously. “I love Diana so, Marilla. I cannot ever live without her. But I know very well when we grow up that Diana will get married and go away and leave me. And oh, what shall I do? I hate her husband—I just hate him furiously. I’ve been imagining it all out—the wedding and everything—Diana dressed in snowy garments, with a veil, and looking as beautiful and regal as a queen; and me the bridesmaid, with a lovely dress too, and puffed sleeves, but with a breaking heart hid beneath my smiling face. And then bidding Diana goodbye-e-e—” Here Anne broke down entirely and wept with increasing bitterness.

This, though, is the true heart of it, I think. I identify with Anne so strongly because I, too, love my best friends passionately and I, too, hate their imaginary future husbands. When I picture my best, most ideal life, it’s full of women, myself and all my closest soul sisters living and working near each other, holding dinner parties and sleepovers well into our twilight years, raising animals but never any children, maybe having the occasional romance but never the lifelong commitment of marriage.

I know, obviously, that this is far from realistic, and is not the best possible life for all my friends. I know that some of them do want marriage, and maybe even children, and would probably be unhappy with their lives if they never had those things. I know that. But I am very sparing with my affection, and it takes a lot for me to bond with someone on a level where I would call them friend. That word means something more to me than just “person I like and whose company I enjoy”. It means kindred spirit, bosom friend, confidant. It means love that is not exactly romantic but maybe is, kind of, a little bit. I have trouble with the blurring of the line that often occurs between women who are friends and women who are partners. I am jealous and greedy and I want everyone I love to love me best and put me first. This is an unattractive and sometimes destructive quality, I know that too. But I have never related more to a character or a passage or a sentiment, and I feel in my bones that I will repeat this scene whenever one of my friends gets into a serious relationship, because, like Anne, I am overdramatic and painfully full of feelings and all of life is for me one long romance. Just not with a man.

OCTOBER was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

“Messy things,” said Marilla, whose aesthetic sense was not noticeably developed. “You clutter up your room entirely too much with out-of-doors stuff, Anne. Bedrooms were made to sleep in.”

“Oh, and dream in too, Marilla. And you know one can dream so much better in a room where there are pretty things. I’m going to put these boughs in the old blue jug and set them on my table.”

There’s also this, which is just … you know. October is my favorite month of all months, and, for someone who is so reluctant to spend money or do anything else extravagant for myself, I do love pretty things. And puffed sleeves. Last year, at an antique shop, I bought myself a dressing gown with puffed sleeves and every time I wear it, I think of Anne and feel ridiculous and glad.

I could go on. There is so much about Anne that is also about me. I hold wild, awful grudges, I have never let go of anything in my entire life. I resented Anne a little, the first time, for eventually forgiving Gilbert. I resented her even more for marrying him. I also used absurdly pretentious words in everyday conversation when I was young, and still sometimes do in writing. And so on, and so on. I’m convinced that Lucy Maud Montgomery looked into the future from 1908 and saw me, a child desperately in need of a literary kindred spirit, and she wrote this book for and about me. I thank her for it every day of my life.

This is kind of cheating because I wrote this poem months ago. But it’s been a bad week, so I hope you’ll forgive me, whoever you are. I had vague aspirations of getting it published somewhere, but I’ve since decided that I only want to try to publish essays, not poems or short stories or anything else, because the weight of publication makes the creating so much less fun for me, so I’m putting it here instead. It’s also kind of cheating because I haven’t given it a real title, but in my defense, coming up with titles is awful.

Growing up, I had a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales on tape from the Library for the Blind and I listened to it on constant loop for years. “Jorinda and Joringel” was one of the stories on it, and for some reason, it embedded itself in my brain and I never entirely stopped thinking about it. But, me being me, I wanted a version where Jorinda told Joringel to get lost because he was boring, and, naturally, I also wanted some depth given to the witch. Preferably in the form of Jorinda and the witch falling in love. I thought I would write it as a short story, and I kept thinking I would do that until suddenly, finally, I wrote it as this poem instead. It turned out to really only be tangentially a retelling of the story, and of course I made it more about being trapped in a body than in a literal birdcage because again, I’m me. But, anyway, here it is.

You can read the original story here if you would like context.

—–

When you’re a girl, your body
A cage, and you, a nightingale
Without a voice,,
What do you do to survive?

He claims your salvation
As his cross to bear, says
Love, says forever,
But you know better.
She claims your warmth as her due, says
Wisdom, says truth,
And you begin to understand.

You say love and it burns, poison
On your tongue. You say
Please and it presses
Heavy on your shoulders,
A weight you can’t shake off.

When you’re a girl, your body
Unyielding, a stubborn outlier
Refusing to conform,
What do you do to feel real?

You offer as sacrifice your breath,
Your blood, but she
Scoffs, says she has no need.
You offer as penance your tears,
Your sweat, but he
Is too far away, occupied
With a quest for which you have only ever been
The catalyst, never the true goal.

when you’re a girl, your body
An inconvenience, a commodity
You no longer wish to trade,
What do you do to transform?

You say stop and
It feels like relief,
You say no and
It feels like release.
You have always belonged to yourself.

He comes bearing gifts:
The flower red as blood,
The enchantment broken,
The happily ever after.
She says this is not for you,
This was never for you.
You already know.

You rise up, you turn your back,
You hold out your hand.
Her smile is an awakening.
Together, you wield the dagger
Of your power to
Unbecome and rebecome,
Skin shed, flesh unbound,
Monstrous and finally free.

I can’t seem to do anything else right now but reread Stephen King books and Jenny Trout’s Fifty Shades recaps, and I really don’t want to write about the latter here, so instead I’m going to write a kind of love letter to the former.

Everyone who knows me is undoubtedly sick of hearing me talk about Stephen King, or, as I like to call him, my problematic father who raised me. That’s a shame, because I’m not even close to being sick of talking about him. Since I either haven’t loved or haven’t finished a lot of his more recent output, I’m going all the way back to my childhood and adolescence to share some of his works that have imprinted themselves on my mind and my heart and, let’s be honest, probably influenced my development and contributed to the person I am now. thanks a lot, Steve.

I. “It”

There are several parts to this first and largest one. In the first part, I’m eight or nine years old, standing petrified in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen while someone, I don’t remember who, is watching it on TV. I want to leave so that I’m no longer hearing what’s happening, but I can’t. Pennywise has reeled me in just like he reeled in Georgie, just like he reeled in all the other dead kids.

Later, I’ll take the most reluctant shower of my life, one during which I aim the showerhead as far from the drain as I can get it, as though that would stop It if it really wanted to get me. For years after, and, if we’re being honest here, right up until the current moment, there will be repeats of that first shower, times when I don’t want to get too near the drain, when I hurry out into the too-cold air before I’m thoroughly dried because the water is gurgling as it runs out and I don’t want to hear any voices down there.

In the next part, I’m only a year or two older, and I’m trying to read the book. The massive, meandering, time-jumping, POV-shifting book full of words and concepts I don’t understand yet. It doesn’t work, but it embeds in me a desperate desire to finish it, someday.

In the next part, I’m another couple of years older still, and I’m in my bedroom, reading the bird scene. You know the one. Mike, in the smokestack, at the Ironworks. I’m home alone, it’s early evening, and I’m terrified. I know I should put the book down and do something else, something brighter and lighter, until my parents get home, but of course I don’t. Because there’s something about that kind of fear. You know what I’m talking about. Something that makes us keep seeking it out, in movies and books and haunted houses and, sometimes, in real life situations. Especially for kids and teenagers, who believe they’re invincible. I keep reading, and it keeps getting later.

In the final part, I’m reading aloud the way I always did when I was young, not to anyone in particular, just because it made the reading better. But sometimes one or the other of my parents would listen, or my sister, or whoever happened to be around. I’m in the car, in the backseat, on the way home from a family gathering, and Bev and Tom are about to sleep together. It’s not nice, not a positive thing for Bev, but even if it had been, my voice would have faded away when I got to, “Sliding into her was like sliding into some exquisite oil.” I understand, now, the things that were beyond me the first time I attempted this book. I read silently from then on, and when my mom asks why I stopped reading aloud, I say I don’t know, I just did.

II. “The Shining”

I don’t know exactly how old I am, mid-teens. I’m in my bedroom again, but this time I’m not home alone. All the more inexplicable, then, that I’m so, so afraid. It’s that woman in the bathtub. She has haunted me all my life since the first moment I read about her.

The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time. She was bloated and purple, her gas-filled belly rising out of the cold, ice-rimmed water like some fleshy island. Her eyes were fixed on Danny’s, glassy and huge, like marbles. She was grinning, her purple lips pulled back in a grimace. Her breasts lolled. Her pubic hair floated. Her hands were frozen on the knurled porcelain sides of the tub like crab claws.

Danny shrieked. But the sound never escaped his lips; turning inward and inward, it fell down in his darkness like a stone in a well. He took a single blundering step backward, hearing his heels clack on the white hexagonal tiles, and at the same moment his urine broke, spilling effortlessly out of him.

The woman was sitting up.

Still grinning, her huge marble eyes fixed on him, she was sitting up. Her dead palms made squittering noises on the porcelain. Her breasts swayed like ancient cracked punching bags. There was the minute sound of breaking ice shards. She was not breathing. She was a corpse, and dead long years.

It’s also the hedge animals, when they start to move, to creep up the path to the fence, to Jack. Miranda laughs about that, but they made me deeply uneasy the first time I read about them, and they still do. I could go into the living room where my mom is watching TV, and eventually I think I do. I tell her I was reading “the Shining” and I actually got scared, and she laughs. But during the reading, all I can do is take another breath and turn another page. Stopping is no more a possibility this time than it was the last, or ever will be in the future. The family drama, the alcoholism, all of Jack’s inner turmoil, that will all be important later, during rereads, but this first time, it’s all about the woman in the tub and the hedge animals and Danny.

III. “Pet Sematary”

I see the movie first, and the absurdity of it puts me off the book for years. I think of it as something a little silly, not well-written, despite having never actually read any of the writing. My mom likes the movie, so we see it more than once. Gauge gets to me, kind of, mostly at night when all manner of things both frightening and not have a much easier entry into your fear spaces.

Finally, because I’m a Stephen King completionist and even as a teenager I have a goal of eventually reading all his published work, I decide to read it one night while my parents are out at a party. This is a theme, if you hadn’t noticed. I’m not known for learning from my mistakes. I huddle under a blanket for hours, immediately enthralled and ultimately so afraid that when my parents come home and the garage door bangs, I almost die of fear right then and there. I hurry into the kitchen, for once needing to be surrounded by voices and activity, and I tell my mom what I’ve been doing. She exclaims in horror, why would I want to do that? I don’t have an answer. I still don’t. It’s a hard one to get through, as much because of the deep, brutal depression hanging over the entire thing as the fear, but, oh, the fear. It’s Pascow I always remember, Pascow who scared me so much, even though he’s not the antagonist.

Something woke him much later, a crash loud enough to cause him to sit up in bed, wondering if Ellie had fallen onto the floor or if maybe Gage’s crib had collapsed. Then the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, flooding the room with cold white light, and he saw Victor Pascow standing in the doorway. The crash had been Pascow throwing open the door.

He stood there with his head bashed in behind the left temple. The blood had dried on his face in maroon stripes like Indian warpaint. His collarbone jutted whitely. He was grinning.

“Come on, Doctor,” Pascow said. “We got places to go.”

Louis looked around. His wife was a vague hump under her yellow comforter, sleeping deeply. He looked back at Pascow, who was dead but somehow not dead. Yet Louis felt no fear. He realized why almost at once.

It’s a dream, he thought, and it was only in his relief that he realized he had been frightened after all. The dead do not return; it is physiologically impossible. This young man is in an autopsy drawer in Bangor with the pathologist’s tattoo—a Y-cut stitched back up—on him. The pathologist probably tossed his brain into his chest cavity after taking a tissue sample and filled up the skull cavity with brown paper to prevent leaking—simpler than trying to fit the brain back into the skull like a jigsaw piece into a puzzle. Uncle Carl, father of the unfortunate Ruthie, had told him that pathologists did that, and all sorts of other random information that he supposed would give Rachel, with her death phobia, the screaming horrors. But Pascow was not here—no way, baby. Pascow was in a refrigerated locker with a tag around his toe. And he is most certainly not wearing those red jogging shorts in there.

Yet the compulsion to get up was strong. Pascow’s eyes were upon him.

He threw back the covers and swung his feet onto the floor. The hooked rug—a wedding present from Rachel’s grandmother long ago—pressed cold nubbles into the balls of his feet. The dream had a remarkable reality. It was so real that he would not follow Pascow until Pascow had turned and begun to go back
down the stairs. The compulsion to follow was strong, but he did not want to be touched, even in a dream, by a walking corpse.

IV. “Bag of Bones”

I first read this in midwinter, and, from then on, it becomes my winter book, despite the fact that it’s set in summer. I check it out from the public library on tape countless times, each reread burying it more indelibly in my consciousness. I never love Mike, but I come to care about Kyra and Mattie so much that I think about them at random moments and am shocked and hurt all over again by the unfairness of their story. I wish for my own John, someone funny and kind and enthusiastic and so, so sweet. I am furious about Max and Rogette, about everything they say and do. I am torn about Sara, at once sympathetic to her story and motivations and deeply upset and frustrated by her methods of revenge.

There are troubling dynamics in Mike and Mattie’s relationship, and Stephen King shows his typical lack of sensitivity or grace in writing about race, but I won’t pretend I care about those things as a teenager first gripped by the story. I don’t. I care about the relationships, but in a simpler way. I want Mike and Mattie to be together because the story wants them to, and I want Kyra to be happy, and I want Mike to be at peace with Jo’s death, and I want John to be friends with everyone and for them to have endless barbecues and picnics and laugh and talk and laugh.

When I’m home alone, again, again, I am made uneasy by Max and Rogette pacing Mike and then throwing rocks at him in the lake. When I fall asleep listening to Stephen King reading me the story and I wake up to Mike talking to a ghost in the cellar, I’m so filled with panic that I’m barely able to turn it off. And every time, no matter how many times I’ve already read it, when I read about Mike’s dream of the shroud thing, I have to take a break and do something soothing before I continue.

I’ll run away, I think. I’ll run back the way I came, like the gingerbread man I’ll run, run all the way back to Derry, if that’s what it takes, and I’ll never come here anymore.

Except I can hear slobbering breath behind me in the growing gloom, and padding footsteps. The thing in the woods is now the thing in the driveway. It’s right behind me. If I turn around the sight of it will knock the sanity out of my head in a single roundhouse slap. Something with red eyes, something slumped and hungry.

The house is my only hope of safety.

I walk on. The crowding bushes clutch like hands. In the light of a rising moon (the moon has never risen before in this dream, but I have never stayed in it this long before), the rustling leaves look like sardonic faces. I see winking eyes and smiling mouths. Below me are the black windows of the house and I know that there will be no power when I get inside, the storm has knocked the power out, I will flick the lightswitch up and down, up and down, until something reaches out and takes my wrist and pulls me like a lover deeper into the dark.

I am three quarters of the way down the driveway now. I can see the railroad-tie steps leading down to the lake, and I can see the float out there on the water, a black square in a track of moonlight. Bill Dean has put it out. I can also see an oblong something lying at the place where driveway ends at the stoop. There has never been such an object before. What can it be?

Another two or three steps, and I know. It’s a coffin, the one Frank Arlen dickered for . . . because, he said, the mortician was trying to stick it to me. It’s Jo’s coffin, and lying on its side with the top partway open, enough for me to see it’s empty.

I think I want to scream. I think I mean to turn around and run back up the driveway — I will take my chances with the thing behind me. But before I can, the back door of Sara Laughs opens, and a terrible figure darting out into the growing darkness. It is human, this figure, and yet it’s not. It is a crumpled white thing with baggy arms upraised. There is no face where its face should be, and yet it is shrieking in a glottal, loonlike voice. It must be Johanna. She was able to escape her coffin, her winding shroud. She is all tangled up in it.

How hideously speedy this creature is! It doesn’t drift as one imagines ghosts drifting, but races across the stoop toward the driveway. It has been waiting down here during all the dreams when I had been frozen, and now that I have finally been able to walk down, it means to have me. I’ll scream when it wraps me in its silk arms, and I will scream when I smell its rotting, bug-raddled flesh and see its dark staring eyes through the fine weave of the cloth. I will scream as the sanity leaves my mind forever. I will scream . . . but there is no one out here to hear me. Only the loons will hear me. I have come again to Manderley, and this time I will never leave.

V. “Night Shift”

It is again midwinter, cold even in the house, in my bedroom, and I’m reading “The Boogeyman”. It is not, in all honesty, either a very scary or very good story, and yet there’s something about it. Something that creeps. Something that unsettles, in the awful way Billings talks, the things he says and the way he regresses into child speak, the way you can almost remember something from your own childhood, the monster you knew was hiding in the closet. I alternate between bursts of reading and then hurrying to the other unoccupied bedroom, where my desktop computer is, to distract myself for a while before gravitating back to the story. I’m not home alone this time, but it doesn’t matter.

I am always drawn to “I Know What You Need”, something in its occult premise calling to me. Something about tenderness, something about ruthlessness. Something about the things love and the need to be loved will drive you to. I say it’s my favorite story in the collection, and maybe, for a while, it is.

My experience with “Sometimes They Come Back” is much like that of “The Shining”. Not home alone, my parents in the living room watching TV, and yet. My bedroom might as well be the only room that exists in the world, isolated from any other life, any other contact. I am as terrified as if I were the one being driven mad by boys who can’t possibly still be boys, summoning the devil himself, seeing my dead brother get his revenge.

I am who knows what age, it could be anywhere from 11 to 16. I’m spending the night, or the weekend, or the week, at Miranda’s house. Her dad is reading “The Ledge” to us. I’m only partially paying attention because I’m sleepy and, as much as Miranda enjoys being read to, I do not. But later, I imagine myself onto the ledge, the wind, the pigeon, and adrenaline spikes through me, even as I’m lying in bed.

Phrases from “Night Surf” and from “The Lawn Mower Man” work their way into the vocabulary of my friendship with Miranda and into our everyday speech, the way we randomly quote the things we love most during situations where they seem to fit. Even if we’re the only ones who know what they mean.

VI.

Stephen King gives me language for things I don’t yet know how to say, comfort for the times in my life when I’m too depressed or too anxious or just too much, familiarity and dependability when nothing else feels familiar or dependable. I can always count on him to be exactly what he is, on his stories to do exactly what they’ve always done. I learn to be critical of him, to acknowledge and not make excuses for the many, many ways he fails. I love other writers more. I love his son Joe Hill’s writing more. My feverish obsession rises and falls. But he’s always there, and always, I come back.

Sometimes, I don’t write anything because I feel very bad and I would rather save my words for nicer things. I’ve always been this way, withdrawing rather than spreading my bad feelings. But I believe poetry is a space where those feelings can be safe. So here they are. I’ll get better, and my words will be happier, but when I sat down to try to start this feature, this is what came out. I don’t think it’s a particularly good poem, but if I waited until I could write one I’m happy with, this blog would remain poem-free forever. I’m sharing it with you with the disclaimer that I’m fine, no one needs to worry, I don’t really hope to never wake up so much as I hope to never have to deal with anything again. I’m fine. Just mentally ill, constantly in pain, and tired of my life.

—–

I am trying to write a poem,
and what I keep coming back to is this:
my life is a forest where nothing grows,
a farm where the crops have all been poisoned,
a fire whose wood is too damp to burn.

I don’t know what poetry is because I have forgotten
how to look for it,
I have forgotten
how to feel it.
I have forgotten
how to feel.
I have forgotten.

My days are one long forgetting,
a fog that never lifts.
Remember when? Remember when?
Remember?
No.

To survive, you have to let go.
To survive, you have to move on.
To survive, you have to forget.

I am a spilled vase,
the water puddling around me slowly evaporating.
I am every clumsy metaphor contained in this not-a-poem,
not-a-confession, not-a-salvation.
I am a passive observer in this not-a-life.
I am not a monster, no teeth to bare,
no claws to extend. I am tired.

They say the body is a poem,
its skin, its bone, its veins and vessels,
its miraculous, marvelous blood.
Its breaths, in and out, its lungs expanding and contracting.
Its muscles and sinews.
When I stretch, I feel the ache,
the despair of joints and muscles that have worked too hard
with nothing to show for it.
They want to quit.

They say love is a poem, the yes,
the I will, the I do.
The hands clasped, the lips pressed,
the sleep-warmed skin and the mundane intimacies.
When I love, it is furious, it snarls,
it demands and takes and is never, never satisfied.
It blazes, a brightness that cannot be sustained.

They say hope is a poem,
the thing with feathers, the lift of the heart.
The thaw after winter, brutal cold to gentle sun.
The ice that is slowly melting. A smile,
a spring in the step.
I hope, I hope for quiet,
I hope for rest, I hope to never wake up.
To be released, to be relieved.
To look around and see nothing,
nothing,
nothing at all.

DIAGON ALLEY!!!!

This is the longest chapter so far, and it’s so. Good. It perfectly encapsulates all the overwhelming joy and wonder of the wizarding world, both for Harry and for us as readers. Here’s how Diagon Alley is introduced:

“Welcome,” said Hagrid, “to Diagon Alley.”

He grinned at Harry’s amazement. They stepped through the archway. Harry looked quickly over his shoulder and saw the archway shrink instantly back into solid wall.

The sun shone brightly on a stack of cauldrons outside the nearest shop. Cauldrons – All Sizes – Copper, Brass, Pewter, Silver Self-Stirring – Collapsible said a sign hanging over them.

“Yeah, you’ll be needin’ one,” said Hagrid, “but we gotta get yer money first.”

Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping. A plump woman outside an apothecary’s was shaking her head as they passed, saying, “Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they’re mad …”

A low, soft hooting came from a dark shop with a sign saying Eeylops Owl Emporium – Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown and Snowy. Several boys of about Harry’s age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. “Look,” Harry heard one of them say, “the new Nimbus Two Thousand – fastest ever -” There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon …

How much would you give to be able to spend time there? Even just a day? Even just an hour? I would give a lot. And can you imagine what it was like for Harry to suddenly be bombarded with all this, only a handful of hours after learning that magic was a real thing? The mental whiplash he must have experienced. I love everything about Diagon Alley so much that I have to make myself not think about it, or I’ll break down in actual tears over not being able to go there and be a part of this world. This is the thing I’ve always praised JKR for–even if I don’t love her writing, her worldbuilding is spectacular from book one.

And can we also talk about Flourish and Blotts, which is described like this:

They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all. Even Dudley, who never read anything, would have been wild to get his hands on some of these.

Take me there, I wanna go there. This is where my Ravenclaw comes out most strongly, because I am more excited about this one bookshop than anything else in the entire shopping district. But really, all the wizarding world’s knowledge is contained in there, all the spells and potions and plant lore and dark arts and histories. Plus, I could finally find out the answer to the question that has plagued me for years, which is whether or not the wizarding world has poets and novelists and, if it does, why we never hear about them. So anyway, bookshops. They’re great, right?

What is not great is Malfoy. In just the one scene with him at Madam Malkins, he manages to insult Hagrid, display his anti-Muggle bias, brag about his mad Quidditch skills, and give the first (but far from last) evidence of what a spoiled brat he is. He’s the very definition of a privileged white (or, more importantly in this world, wizarding) boy who has never had to question his views because he’s never been exposed to anyone or anything outside of them. All he knows of Muggles comes from his parents, and especially his father, and even after he goes to Hogwarts and is around Muggle-borns, he still never has to really confront the reality of their humanity and their lives. That would be an interesting fanfic, Malfoy has to live in the Muggle world without magic for a period of time and finally gets some perspective. I’m sure it’s been written.

Aside from all the Diagon Alley specific stuff, there are a couple of interesting but troubling things Hagrid says that I wanted to mention. The first is when they’re in the boat on the way to land (which brings up the question of how the Dursleys got off the rock the hut was on), about separating wizarding people from Muggles.

“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”

“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”

“Why?”

“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”

I mean. That’s not true though, is it? Muggle-borns’ families find out about witches and wizards, and as far as we know from the books, there’s not an influx of Muggle parents and siblings demanding magical solutions to their problems. I get that it’s not on the same scale as if the entire Muggle population knew, but still, I feel like this is a pretty flimsy justification for segregation and it lends a lot of weight to the “the treatment of Muggles = racism” interpretation. It also doesn’t give Muggles much credit and furthers the othering of them done by wizarding people and, yeah, it’s pretty all-around bad. Really, all wizards would need to do is show Muggles the way their society is run and Muggles would realize they’re better off trying to solve their own problems.

The other troubling thing is this, after Harry talks to Malfoy:

“And what are Slytherin and Hufflepuff?”

“School houses. There’s four. Everyone says Hufflepuff are a lot o’ duffers, but -”

“I bet I’m in Hufflepuff,” said Harry gloomily.

“Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin,” said Hagrid darkly. “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.”

First of all, the fact that Voldemort was in Slytherin doesn’t mean that every Slytherin is Voldemort-level evil. Second, I find it unlikely that every single dark witch or wizard was a Slytherin. Just, statistically, that seems improbable. And third, even if it were true, it doesn’t follow that every single Slytherin is bad. If JKR really does want me to buy this, then I also have to point out that maybe the reason all Slytherins go bad is because they’re all painted with the same brush from moment one of becoming a Slytherin, always automatically assumed to be Voldemort sympathizers or even possible Voldemort successors, always treated unfairly and more harshly than any of the other houses just because of the possibility that they’ll end up turning to the dark arts later in life. This is so irritating, and remains so throughout the series. Give me nuance or give me death.

Next up, we’re on our way to Hogwarts. Finally!

In this chapter, Hagrid calls Uncle Vernon a great prune and a great Muggle and Dudley a great lump and a great puddin’ of a son, and it’s … great.

Honestly, it isn’t a very long or eventful chapter, until you really think about it from Harry’s perspective. He starts the night cold and hungry, sleeping on the floor, thinking of all the terrible birthdays he’s had in his life, and ends it with the knowledge that he’s a wizard, that he’ll soon be escaping the Dursleys to go to Hogwarts, that his parents are famous and so is he. He gets a birthday cake and sees owl post in action and witnesses Dudley getting a pig’s tail. He has Diagon Alley to look forward to, even though he doesn’t really know what that is at this point.

And the way Hagrid introduces all these things to him is just so … I love Hagrid. He’s wonderful. So matter-of-fact about it. Just, “Harry – yer a wizard.” I keep trying to imagine what my thoughts would be after hearing that one little sentence, and I can’t do it. I wouldn’t believe him, almost certainly, I would think I’d misheard him, possibly, I would have eventually ended up at the same place Harry did, probably.

Hagrid looked at Harry with warmth and respect blazing in his eyes, but Harry, instead of feeling pleased and proud, felt quite sure there had been a horrible mistake. A wizard? Him? How could he possibly be? He’d spent his life being clouted by Dudley and bullied by Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon; if he was really a wizard, why hadn’t they been turned into warty toads every time they’d tried to lock him in his cupboard? If he’d once defeated the greatest sorcerer in the world, how come Dudley had always been able to kick him around like a football?

“Hagrid,” he said quietly, “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.”

God. These early chapters of baby Harry are still killing me, in a way they never did before. Impostor syndrome before he even knows what being a wizard entails or how magic works. A defense mechanism, maybe, to keep himself from getting attached to the idea of this power and ability, this possible future away from the abuse he’s known his whole life, so that if it’s suddenly snatched away from him as he must expect it to be, it won’t hurt as much.

And Hagrid is so good and kind, reassuring him without even having to try, because the idea of Harry Potter not being a wizard is so absurd to him that it doesn’t even warrant consideration. I’m very glad that it’s Hagrid who comes for Harry and introduces this world to him, because I feel like there’s something there that Dumbledore wouldn’t have been able to tap into even if he’d tried. I don’t know exactly what it is. Maybe it’s that Hagrid is himself so childlike in a lot of ways, and so invested in the wizarding world and Hogwarts as places where he’s been able to find belonging, so he can understand and connect with those things in Harry and build this instant easy rapport. Maybe it’s the way he instantly and aggressively condemns the Dursleys’ treatment of Harry, which I don’t think Dumbledore would’ve done quite so blatantly and which I think is so important to do, to show Harry that it isn’t okay and there are adults in the world who know that and are willing to make noise about it.

I just. I just love Hagrid, you guys. He deserves way more page time than he gets. It’s great to see the foundation built here of a friendship that lasts a lifetime, and that facilitates so many things in coming chapters. And it’s great to see the Dursleys being yelled at by a wizarding giant until they cower and squeak. I wish they had gotten more than a destroyed gun and a pig’s tail.

In this chapter, things descend and continue descending into absurdity, as Hogwarts tries to contact Harry to deliver his letter. The thing that struck me most while reading it is that Uncle Vernon, for all his professed knowledge of how “those people” think and act, is bafflingly ignorant of even the most basic concepts about magic. If I were a Muggle with no idea of the mechanics of magic or the culture of magical people, I feel like I would still probably be able to figure out that nothing I could do would actually stop a magical person (or school of people) who wanted to deliver a letter. Boarding up the mail slot, the cracks in the doors, fleeing the house for a hotel and then even farther for a shack in the ocean, all things Uncle Vernon tries. They’re magical people. They can use, you know, magic. Let’s see how many times I can use the word magic in one post.

I am very curious, though, about how exactly this works. What magical (sorry) system allows Dumbledore or McGonagall or whoever to know the exact location Harry is in, down to the room in the house/hotel? It seems like if it’s an ability that’s available to all witches and wizards, it could be incredibly dangerous and predatory. And if it isn’t, how are only the Hogwarts staff able to utilize it? I would love to read an encyclopedia of magical (sorry, sorry) mechanics, explaining how all these systems work. The way the house-elves deliver food, to name another one, or the specifics of Apparition. Failing that, I’d also take “Hogwarts: A History”, since no one else except Hermione seems to appreciate it.

Another thing I’m curious about: why do the Dursleys bother giving Harry any kind of birthday or Christmas presents? Why not just ignore him altogether on present-giving occasions? Do they do it just to rub in the fact that he has no one else to give him presents and they could be giving him ones equal to Dudley’s but aren’t? Especially once he’s at Hogwarts and they don’t even have to see him, sending him the fifty-pence piece just seems silly, but also giving him a hanger and a pair of old socks for his birthday.

Anyway. Maybe I’m too emotionally invested in this series, or, well. What I meant to say was, definitely I’m too emotionally invested in this series. But even so, Uncle Vernon’s madness is genuinely alarming to me. He’s always cartoonishly unpleasant, both in personality and in appearance, but there’s something else here. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Why does the very possibility that Harry might find out about his magic (okay, I give up, it’s a lost cause) upset him so deeply? It seems like more than just a fear and distaste for abnormality. Maybe he’s afraid that secretly, buried somewhere very, very deep, Petunia harbors some magic, and that by marrying and procreating with her, he’s enabling it to continue spreading, and that’s why his reactions to any hint of it are so extreme. Maybe he’s just an underdeveloped side character who doesn’t matter and I read too much fanfiction.

Harry is pretty sassy and gets an actual bedroom in this chapter, and soon he’ll be able to (mostly) leave the Dursleys behind, so all in all, things are on an upswing. And in the next chapter, Hagrid! Which means things are on an upswing for me, too. I’m ready to put these prologue-y chapters behind me and move on to the actual meat of the book.

This chapter is profoundly sad. It’s also almost comically exaggerated, which kind of distracts from the heaviness of what’s actually happening, and I’m not sure if that was a choice since it’s a children’s book or just the way JKR wrote back then, but either way it’s a strange reading experience.

For ten years, ten of his most formative years, Harry was forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Full of spiders and not much else. He was used as a punching bag by Dudley and all his gross friends. He was used as a verbal punching bag by Mr. Dursley. He was used as a servant by Mrs. Dursley. He was spoken about as if he wasn’t actually there, and never, as far as I remember, addressed with his actual name. He had nothing of his own, only hand-me-downs from Dudley. He was almost never allowed out of the house, except to go to school or shopping with Mrs. Dursley, he never got to go on trips, he never got to celebrate his birthday. He was locked in his cupboard for days on end for the slightest things.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine going from this, the only life you remember, to being famous, beloved, and magical? How terrifying and disorienting that must have been. How undeserving he must have felt.

Even in this chapter, before he knows anything about himself or his world, Harry is so excited to be able to go along to the zoo with the Dursleys. He hates them and they hate him, he must know that they aren’t going to actually let him enjoy himself, and he’s still grateful to go, to be given a cheap lemon popsicle and to be allowed to finish Dudley’s unwanted leftovers and to not have to stay with Mrs. Figg. If he’d only known who she really was. This seems like luxury to him, like as much as he can hope for.

The glimpses he’s given of the people who know who he is and appreciate him are also sad. Like, “When he had been younger, Harry had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family. Yet sometimes he thought (or maybe hoped) that strangers in the street seemed to know him.” Break my heart, Harry. They do know you. Just wait, so much good is coming your way. I mean, also a lot of bad, but … a place to belong and people who want you. And magic!

The seeds of some of the series’ core elements are planted in this chapter–Harry being able to communicate with snakes, the bits of memory he has of the night his parents died, even a little of his saving people complex. Or, well, saving things complex. Without even knowing he can do magic, he still manages to free the snake and send it on its way to its homeland. I don’t know what JKR’s writing process was like, how much of the series she had planned out before she started writing, but it’s really interesting to see how early these things were introduced, and how casually. They hardly seem important at this point except insofar as they further Harry’s abuse and sense of alienation, but they build and build throughout the series. I love it.

I enjoyed this chapter a lot more than the first one, and, more surprisingly, I’m finding Harry much more sympathetic than I ever did before. I don’t know if it’s a result of being older and more able to recognize and appreciate nuance, or if it’s just that I haven’t gotten to the later books when he’s much more angsty and unkind to his friends, but I want to give him a hug and assure him that Hagrid is coming. And I want to have a stern talk with Dumbledore and ask if there was truly no other way to protect Harry the way he needed to be protected, because honestly. This is just cruel and unnecessary and surely he knows what’s happening. I really believe that so much could have been avoided or at least minimized if Harry had had a more stable, less abusive upbringing and if he had been allowed to know things about his family. True things, not that they died in a car crash and were freaks.

Note: I’m using the American title because that’s the title of the version I grew up with and the version I’m rereading from. Shhh.

My first ever exposure to Harry Potter was in sixth grade, on an afternoon when my class had gone out to a pizza place for lunch and stuffed ourselves silly. Afterward, we lay on the classroom floor and our teacher read us the first chapter, and, I’m going to be honest with you here, I fell asleep. I have hazy memories of Hagrid arriving on the motorbike, Dumbledore taking Harry and placing him on the Dursleys’ doorstep, their moment of silence, but not much else. It’s a mystery why I then went on to devour and shape my life around the entire series, with an introduction like that. But I did.

An even bigger mystery is why, during those early years, I was so in love with Dumbledore. If there’s one thing I took away from rereading this first chapter, it’s that he’s really unbearable. His constant deflections, his refusal to just answer simple questions, his secretiveness. How much might have been different if he had just talked to people as though they were his equals, rather than revealing bits of information to various people and creating a mess of an incomplete puzzle no one else had all the pieces to. He’s just one man, not god.

That aside, I was also surprised by the simplicity of the writing. I’ve never thought JKR was a brilliant writer–a worldbuilder, yes, but not a writer–but I guess I had forgotten just how basic it was in the beginning. It did start out as a children’s series, so it makes sense, and this isn’t really a criticism. Just an observation. It was like rereading the Oz books after years and years and fondly laughing about the writing of those. What you think is brilliant as a child is not always so brilliant as an adult. And I’ve gotten used to fanfiction, which, if you find the right authors, is much more impressive in terms of writing quality.

It was fun to see the first appearance of the Deluminator, so far ahead of when it becomes important, and to see Professor McGonagall in cat form (the perfect animagus form for her, by the way), and to see Hagrid and the trust Dumbledore had for him. Hagrid is wonderful and deserves every good thing. And it was fun to have a chapter that wasn’t from Harry’s perspective but, instead, from the absurdly over-the-top terrible perspective of Mr. Dursley. Imagine how much less volatile Harry would have been if he hadn’t been raised by people who hated him so much and were so irredeemably awful and boring. Like. Who doesn’t approve of imagination?

This is a short post, but it was a short chapter. So, until next time, to Harry Potter — the boy who lived!