Folktales of North America

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Tilted Building

As everyone knows, the streets of New York are hollow; their paving is the shell of a dark egg. When you walk along them, you hear your steps echo in the city’s smoky inner cavity, where fires that eat up the evidence of unsolved crimes are kept burning by workers who’ve grown allergic to sunlight and slightly translucent over the years. It has been this way from the earliest days of European incursions into the New World, when Dutch settlers first hollowed out Manhattan Island’s interior to store contraband, liquor and slaves en route to the Caribbean.

Sometimes, at night, a hole will crack open in the crust and buildings will begin to sink toward it. Because the buildings are so tall and close together they almost never fall. They tilt inward until their upper stories touch. Then they rest, propped against each other, as though they were kissing or telling each other a secret. Their residents slide down the floor to one end of their apartments in their sleep. They wake up pressed against a wall, crushed beneath their own books and furniture and houseplants. As they fight to free themselves, they often find things they thought they’d lost years ago but which were really only buried in the sediment of their possessions.

In the morning, workmen from the city come and set these buildings upright again as though nothing had ever happened.

Once, in summer, a man had left his window open because of the hot weather when his building shuddered, creaked, and began to tip over. There are several different versions of this story. They do not agree about the man’s age or race or name. But they all tell how he rolled out the open window and onto the fire escape before he even knew what was happening. He woke up just as he tipped over the edge of the metal balcony and out into space. He managed to grab the railing as he fell and held on, his legs dangling down toward the street. He shouted at the top of his lungs for help.

His wife heard him shouting. She had been in another room when the building began to tip over: she suffered from insomnia and often stayed up reading long after the man went to bed. At first she didn’t respond because he was the sort of man who often shouted and made a fuss out of proportion to its cause, and she hoped that he’d stop and she could go back to her book. In truth, theirs was not a good marriage: they didn’t get along well enough to be happy or badly enough to divorce. After several minutes, the man was still shouting, his cries growing more urgent and panicked. His wife put aside her book and slid down the floor of their apartment and into the bedroom. She slid to the open window. She looked out at him hanging from the fire escape by his hands. She folded her arms and shook her head. He shouted at her: Don’t just stand there, do something! She sighed and went to get one of their bed-sheets with which to rescue him.

But back at the window, she stopped and looked at him again, considering. Had he been a good husband? Had he been a good man? He was a tax assessor for the city (in one version of the story, originating in Queens, he owned a check-cashing franchise). He liked to go golfing and to the movies. He liked to read books about true crime. He was a decent cook, though he would only make dishes containing chicken. When he traveled, he always brought something back for her, a spangled elephant statuette or earrings or a scarf. Occasionally, he still made her laugh. On the other hand, he often smelled bad in the morning, some indefinable combination of cinnamon, disinfectant, and cheese. He’d hit her once, early in their marriage, and though he never did it again, when he was angry he would tell her she was stupid. He was angry quite often. He did not like it when they disagreed about something, even something trivial, and his voice would take on a flinty, imperious tone when she told him she felt differently than he did.. Also, she’d never much liked chicken.

His fingers were slipping, losing their hold on the metal rail, and still she could not make up her mind.


 The Innkeeper’s Spyglass

In Cumberland, Maryland, there was an innkeeper called Fallon. More than anything else, he longed to travel and to see the world. He’d been born in the inn, in one of the upstairs rooms, because his father had been innkeeper before him and his father before him and so on back to when the westward road was first laid down. When he was a child, Fallon listened to the travelers talk over supper in the inn about where they’d come from and where they were going, and he imagined these places must be wonderful if people put forth so much energy and expense to reach them. But he couldn’t travel anywhere himself, because he couldn’t afford to close the inn.

So Fallon had never been farther from home than he could walk in a day, and the narrowness of his world filled him up with angry, biting dreams. He imagined stowing away in a barrel. He imagined waking up in a faraway city where the people spoke a language he didn’t understand and wore hats like chandeliers. He imagined what the sea looked like, but he’d never seen it and so he got it wrong and pictured in his mind something like a large, round kettle. He was perpetually jealous of the travelers who came to his inn with their bent-up, dusty shoes. To their faces he was hearty and obsequious, but sometimes he stole things from them out of spite, small things that they wouldn’t notice were missing until they were already gone .

In November of the year 183-, a man arrived in town late at night and knocked at the door of the inn. Fallon answered it himself. It was a man on foot, very tired and wearing worn and dirty clothing. He was carrying something over his shoulder that at first Fallon thought must be a sack of clothes but which he saw, when the man stepped into the front hall, was a body.

The man set his burden down with great gentleness, and Fallon could see that it was small, the size of a child, and that it was wrapped in bandages from head to foot beneath its clothes. The man stood up and spoke to Fallon. He said he was traveling to Washington with his son. His son had been burned in a fire, so badly that he would probably die. The father was walking to Washington, carrying his son on his back, because he’d heard that the doctors there could perform miracles, and he hoped they might save his son. They had no money, but he was carrying some of their possessions, hoping to sell them in return for treatment.

Obviously, the father said, they couldn’t pay him, but they’d be grateful if they could stay the night at the inn as charity.

Fallon agreed that they could sleep in the kitchen. They could eat what was left in the pan from that night’s dinner. The father thanked him and picked up his son, and as he did something fell out of his pack and onto the floor. He didn’t notice it fall, but Fallon did. He waited until the man had carried his son into the kitchen and then picked it up. It was a spyglass.

Fallon looked at the spyglass. It was well made, with a case of carved oak and bronze, and when he took the cap off, the lenses looked like they’d been skillfully made. He thought, The man must be taking this to Washington to sell. I should return it to him. But then he thought: Why? I should take it as payment for their lodging. Let them fend for themselves. The boy will probably die anyway, and I would like to have a spyglass like this. If I look through this from the roof, I’ll at least be able to see beyond the narrow, constrained boundaries of my world. So instead of returning the spyglass, he kept it.

In the morning, when Fallon got up, the man and his son were already gone. He took the spyglass up with him onto the roof of the inn. He looked out over the surrounding buildings, in the direction of the old highway. Of course he couldn’t see the ocean, it was much too far away, but in the distance he could see something coming toward him on the road: a group of black shapes. They looked like smoke walking, like ghosts made of coal dust. He could not bring them into focus. He felt disappointed. The spyglass must be flawed, useless. He took it away from his eyes and stared at the road, but he couldn’t see any sign of the shapes he’d seen.

A second time he put the spyglass up to his eye, and this time the figures on the road were closer and clearer: they looked like the ghosts of insects, gnarled and wiry but still too vague to properly discern. Surely, he thought, he could at least see their outline with his own eye by now. But when he took the glass away from his eye, again the road seemed empty.

Feeling upset and afraid, he raised the glass to his eye a third time. There were the figures again, much closer now, marching down the center of the carriageway. Dead trees, the twisted husks of objects burned in a fire down to their skeletons, ink drawings done by a trembling hand. Close enough now that he could see eyes blinking and glinting like beads, three or four in each charred face. They were entering the town. They were coming toward the inn.

When he took the glass away from his eye, the road was empty. When he put it back, the shapes were there again.

Fallon was shaking so hard from fright, he dropped the spyglass and it rolled off the roof and fell down to the street. The lens shattered on the pavement. Fallon left it there and ran down and hid in his bed for three days. When his neighbors finally coaxed him out of his room, he told them what he had seen. They didn’t believe him, of course, but those who knew Fallon said he was never the same again, and he did not talk of traveling anymore.

The glass from the shattered spyglass was taken by a local lens maker and melted down and turned into eyeglasses that a young man bought who was passing through town. What became of him is not related in this tale.

Thursday, July 1, 2010