This is the last time you will ever see this field, for the future is open wide before you, and when your back is turned from this place, the stagehands will appear and everything will change. We wished you god speed and all the best and hearty congratulations, and then you were gone. You said you would write and we said we would write and you said you would visit and we said we would always set a place at the table for you. We did not say we would save your room for you, a momento of who you had been, a museum to your time with us, but perhaps you thought we might. Or perhaps you were already looking so far past us and into the future that you had already forgotten the porcelain washbasin with violets painted around the edges, you had already forgotten the quilt of blue calico that every night covered your dreams. Perhaps we felt that you would return to us, chastened by a world that wasn't what you expected, or you would die from an epidemic of the flu or a runaway tram.
That was all many years ago. I wrote to you, long letters, but I didn't have an address to send them to. I told you everything, the change of the seasons, the play of light on the tiles, the search for a new minister, the market expanding and filling with the most unexpected tropical fruits that no one knew how to pronounce or how to eat. Then I folded my letters and sealed them and set them aside, because I had no place to address them to. You never wrote. It wasn't such a surprise, not really. This past is only a story we tell ourselves to reassure each other that we exist, and you always lived two steps into the future, even when you were right here, having Sunday dinner and eating the first sweet corn of the season, you were even then planning for the harvest and the winter, not thinking about the long days of summer that stretched away, full of moments of heavy calm.
By writing you would have been lying to us, giving us the false promise that everything was just as it had been, and you could never lie, even when it would have been better for everyone. Instead you simply left, smiling in that off-handed distracted way that said nothing about what you were really thinking, and my letters to you are now crisp with age, waiting to be read by a ghost. Even I have not re-read them, because they tell a story that was meant for you, and I could no more pretend to be you than you could ever return to this place and be one of us. Yet I still write these letters with no expectation, just a quiet, deep belief that somewhere there is a you that knows somehow that the past isn't completely dead, that it flickers and burns in a tiny quiet part of your memory, late at night when the moon hangs a barely suspended crescent over the horizon.
We were very, very young. We were so young that birthdays were counted in fractions, every month a momentous addition to our burden of years. I carried it with me everywhere, the turtle that we had caught, fishing for tadpoles that spring morning. The turtle never wanted to become a pet, but I prized it more than any border collie pup or any yearling calf, I painted its shell and constructed a terrarium for it, an entire turtle-world in the corner of the garden. We very, very carefully skipped stones, since to throw a rock without making it the best throw we had ever made wasn't a rock worth throwing. We started tiny small fires on the riverbank and tried to send smoke signals to each other across the water, and then we learned Morse code and tried to build our own telegraph line.
That was when we were older, long after the turtle had escaped and we had started studying algebra and civics. Short short short -- long long long -- short short short. I tapped it out on my desk instead of working on declining nouns and conjugating verbs, because, even then, I knew you were going to leave, and I thought that if things here were as exciting as Robinson Crusoe that you might change your mind. There was a sense of suspended animation, that you watched and experimented and studied with just a tiny fraction of your self, and kept the rest hidden away, the way a tadpole hides its tale when it turns into a frog.
I tell the story to myself, sometimes, when the evenings extend, long, long twilights where the stars come out one at a time, the Milky Way teasing her way into the night sky. On these evenings I tell myself the story you told me, the first time you said, out loud, that you were going away. You had known for a long time, probably since even before we caught tadpoles and turtles in the stream, even though I didn't even know there was any other place to live, I didn't even know it was possible to go away and become a different person, become a stranger to the past. It was several years later and we were watching the Big Dipper pour over the night sky, and you told me the story of your dream.
Every night, almost every single night, you dreamed about strangers, but in your dreams, you knew them, they were only strangers during the day. At night, asleep in that other world, you were among the people that you knew and recognized even better than those of us you had known your entire life. There was a woman with hair as red as the flames of a bonfire, curly hair that formed a wild halo about her head, and she wore capes lined with velvet and carried a fur muff and a fox stole. There was a gentleman, tall, tall and thin as a blade of grass, with a tidy mustache and little round spectacles, who always wore gloves, always. There was a boy, who you thought was about your age, because he was the only one who seemed to age in your dreams, and his hands were free from callouses, he had a checked waistcoat and a little white terrier, but you couldn't tell if he was you in the dream world or if maybe he was your brother. At night, all of these people gathered around you, and drove around a city that you knew as well as you knew our village, even though you had never visited there in the real life world of day.
You told me about the buildings built of shiny white marble with columns holding up the fronts, of purple houses and of riverboats filled with dancing and orchestras. Sometimes it was daytime in your dreams, and you went through this foreign familiar city as if you had lived there your entire life, going to museums full of statues of people and strange beasts, climbing to the top of skyscrapers and watching the city grow and breathe around you. Sometimes it was night in your dreams, and you were wearing funny uncomfortable suits and pointy shoes and eating out of china so thin and delicate the candlelight glowed through it. And sometimes in your dreams you were actually asleep and dreaming, and in that other place you slept not under a blue calico quilt but in a hammock, and you dreamt to the sounds of water quite nearby.
We had never seen the ocean, except in atlases, and I tried to imagine what it must be like, I looked at our pond swollen with spring rains and I closed my eyes and heard nothing but the water and with my eyes closed I imagined nothing but water all around me. I panicked and opened my eyes, touched the trunk of the elm tree, dug my toes into the loose dirt on the shore of the pond. I never, never wanted to see the ocean, there would be too much of it and nothing to hold on to. You told me that the ocean was like being almost but not quite asleep. Your eyes are closed and your mind is flying, drifting with the winds of thoughts, and the world is huge and empty and tiny and full and you become everything all at once and then you are asleep and falling into the heart of a forest. Except that's not at all how I fall asleep, I just lay down and close my eyes, and then when I open them again, it's morning and time to braid my hair and eat a great bowl of oatmeal with spiced apples and listen to the chickens cooing and scratching in the yard outside.
My dreams do not have beautiful perfumed strangers that I know better than my own family, my dreams do not show me towers made of glass that reflect the light like a crystal. I knew, when you told me about this, you were telling me that you were going to leave, you were going to find the woman with flaming hair and the tall, thin man with a mustache. You were going to the city on the sea. Then you never mentioned it again, maybe you were embarrassed or you thought that if you said it out loud it would disappear from your dreams and be gone, or maybe you were afraid I would tell the others and they would tease you. I knew then that you would be leaving and I would never see you again, but even though I cried and told myself that maybe I, too, could visit this city someday, I knew the city was only real for you, and not for me.
And so I have written you letters, so many letters, and I cross the field that is now newly mown, and watch the birds scavenge for grain, and wonder: now that you have found the place where you always belonged, at night, in your dreams, do you sometimes visit us, and read these letters by moonlight, set aside without an address? Do you remember, even in the shadows of sleep, what was once the earthy reality of minnows and lessons, do you hold us deep in the suitcases of dreams?