Stanley Patrick Stocker "The Habit of Sleep"

The sun breaking through the clouds awoke him. Or so it seemed. When he looked up he saw that the clouds had not parted; no sunlight had broken through the uniform sea of gray-white clouds. Instead, it was the intensity of the woman’s gaze that caused him to stir.

           

Marina smiled as he opened his eyes, and because she could think of nothing else to say, she offered him the fruit from the canvas bag slung across her shoulder.

           

            “Would you like it?” she said, the orange’s faint citrus scent mingling with the salt air.

           

Stephen blinked and stared at the fruit. The orange seemed to fill his field of vision except for the piercing eyes beyond it. Gently – as he might if he were dreaming or underwater – he shook his head, declining it, but the woman insisted so Stephen relented, sitting up and taking the fruit from her hand. He glanced up the beach, then out over the blue-gray sea, and back again, as if he suspected one of his housemates with whom he had been renting a little beach house of playing a trick on him. But there was no one, just the woman whose beauty caused him to thrill inside, as if an alarm were sounding.

           

Every year on the anniversary of their first encounter among the dunes he would present her with a single orange, and she would close her eyes and drink in the aroma of the fruit and then peel the orange, separating the sections with her thumbs and fingers, and together they would eat it, dividing the pith-covered segments between them. Sometimes instead of discarding the skin she would gather the pieces and lay them in the sun to dry. Afterwards she would grind them into a fine powder, and once she knew he was asleep she would sprinkle it on the bed covers and over his sleeping head so that his dreams were filled with the pith, flesh, and aroma of the fruit. Sometimes he dreamed that he himself was born into the cocooned heart of it and only when she peeled it could he emerge into the light, born anew.

During a getaway to the shore a month after they met, Stephen resolved to ask her about the one thing that puzzled him.

            “Marina,” he said, “when do you sleep?”

The clouds were low and watchful, as if they too were a party to the conversation.

            “I don’t,” Marina said.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean I don’t sleep.”

Even as Stephen frowned incredulously he somehow knew it to be true, as if he had always known. Back when he was an intern, before he became an emergency room physician in Center City, Philadelphia, he had heard of such cases. Whole branches of an Upper Darby family that did not sleep, the gene passed silently down the generations, seeking out and finding a brother while sparing a sister or vice versa. But in those cases its appearance inevitably led to death, to sickness and early death, the disease coming upon its victims suddenly in the flush of their otherwise good health. One day they were healthy and robust and the next they were wasting away, incapable of sleep. It was a plague of wakefulness, robbing them of rest like a shadow passing over a city, claiming some and leaving others untouched.

           

But this was nothing like that. If anything Marina seemed the picture of good health.

            “For how long?” Stephen said. “How long have you not slept?”

            Marina waited for him to see something that was self-evident; when he refused she sighed gently.

            “I have never slept.”

The last of her kind to sleep was a grandmother, she said, her mother’s mother whom she regarded as a kind of antique, a curiosity that she knew only from stories her mother had told her when she was a child. On the morning of her grandmother’s 16th birthday in late July 1933, she awoke with the sun, and as it made its way across the arc of the sky the girl stepped across a kind of divide: she had entered a new realm the sights and sounds of which were exactly as they had been before except now her sight was infused with a kind of keen attention that made her view life with the kind of intensity a poet might—realistically and in great detail. The smallest thing could capture and hold her attention: a hairpin she found on the trolley car that still smelled of the woman’s hair pomade, the plaid thread that unraveled from the sleeve of her gingham coat. Standing at the end of a long line at a butcher shop she saw how a young clerk carried the burden of being upbraided by the store’s sullen owner as clearly as if the boy spoke from within a dark cloud. She watched as two young lovers stood facing backwards on an escalator as it descended deep into the earth, the man rubbing the woman’s swollen belly as she read silently from a newspaper. Was the woman uneasy about the steep descent? Is that why they faced backwards as they descended?

As she went about her day, she witnessed a million little kindnesses and with equal interest a million minute cruelties that surrounded her. As she watched the crowds of people pass by on the street she thought, How brave and sure, though how often wrong, misguided, misspoken we are. How random and unexpected the kindnesses. How inevitable the cruelties.

But the first thing her people noticed were the checks. Drawers full of uncashed checks from her part-time job as a clerk at the perfume counter at Wanamaker’s in downtown Philadelphia. When her mother asked why she had not deposited them she shrugged. “Why would I?” she said. She said it was the work she enjoyed, that the checks were just something that went along with the work so she had stuffed them in a drawer and then another after the first became full.

            “Did her family know about her not sleeping?” Stephen asked.

            “No, at least not at first,” said Marina. “Because she pretended to sleep. She was afraid of what her mother might think so every night she washed her face, put on her night clothes and went to bed and stayed there until she knew her mother was asleep. Then she got up and read or watched the stars until just before sunrise then got back in bed until she heard her mother’s footsteps in the hallway. She stayed still as her mother tiptoed into her room and stood at her bedside, whispering her name, then her eyes fluttered open, as if she were fresh from sleep. I understand it was quite the performance.

            “My grandmother later learned that her mother knew she was pretending to sleep, but the pretense satisfied her mother’s desire for the appearance of normalcy. As long as she appeared to be like everyone else her mother was satisfied.”

            “What was your grandmother’s name?” Stephen asked.

            “Evangeline,” said Marina.

           

It was only after Evangeline came of age and left home that she stopped hiding the fact that she had no desire to sleep. And after a long time she slowly began to meet others like her, those whose outward appearance gave no clue to the secret concealed within. It was a retired school teacher named Helena who instructed Evangeline in the tales of her kind.

According to the stories, angels had descended and breathed into the bodies of early proto-humans that burning particle of God called the soul, and like the angels the resulting creatures were tireless, sleepless, and heaven a living memory in them. But slowly as they evolved and explored their surroundings, spreading across the earth and travelling the seven seas, the memories of their origins began to fade until eventually they slumbered into legend, and the people acquired the habit of sleep.

And here now for some inexplicable reason was an evolutionary reversal in which sleep was elided from the lives of some of their descendants. The only remnant of sleep in Evangeline and her descendants was the “torque” or standing sleep in which they dreamed while standing so that Stephen would find Marina seeming to gaze out at the sea, as if transfixed; no sound or touch could disturb her reverie in those moments. It was then that they were said to hear the call and to answer back in the voice that those around them could not hear. It was during the torque that the origins of humankind were passed down the generations.
 

            “But every creature has its rhythms,” Stephen said stubbornly. “Every creature has periods of greater activity and less. What are yours? What do you do?”

            “We pray,” Marina said.

            “When?”

            “When called.”

           

She explained that it’s like walking in a thick forest and hearing your name called somewhere behind you in the distance, out of the shadows, and turning to listen.

 

            “Prayer is like that,” she said.

            “So you’re called,” Stephen said. “But by whom?”

            Marina was silent, as if words could only fail her.

            “Is it the same for each?” Stephen said. “The intensity of attention like your grandmother?”

            “It’s different for everyone.” Marina said. “For some it’s an intensity of sights and sounds, for others of feeling and insight. Some experience visions. Some live longer than average, some much shorter.”

“And with you?” said Stephen.

            “Ah, with me you know it’s being compelled to record what I see.”

 

            Stephen thought of the many times he had been out with her and she had stopped whatever they were doing and pulled out her camera to capture it. They could be in the middle of dinner with friends or alone and she wouldn’t hesitate to get up and leave, apologizing profusely, but she would leave nonetheless. Once they were celebrating the birthday of one of Stephen’s friends in Fairmount Park when Marina said she had to leave that very moment in order to travel to Mississippi to document the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Mound Bayou, an all-Black town in the Mississippi Delta. This kind of thing confounded and infuriated Stephen, but the work she produced was so stunningly insightful and beautiful, and Marina was always so apologetic after she returned and so wholly present after having immersed herself in her work that Stephen forgave her. It was, he understood, the price of the ticket. It didn’t hurt that their love-making was most intense after she returned, as if it were made possible and enhanced by her time away from him.

            “But what’s true of all,” said Marina, “is the torque which gives us access to that forgotten part of ourselves, the part with a living experience of God.”                  

 

So not unlike Marina’s great-grandmother before him, Stephen asked only that when they were at overnight gatherings – vacationing at the shore or at family events in the city – that she appear to be like everyone else, that she lay down when he lay down and she rise up when he rose up.

           

Marina agreed and eventually she moved the sixty miles from the little beach town of Toms River to Philadelphia to be with him.

And together they lived happily for several years until the voice out of the darkness announced the birth of the child.

Marina came home to an empty house on a Saturday afternoon from a long day of teaching photography as the neighborhood children played in the street outside. The youngest and most technically gifted of her students had remained after class to share some of her work, and Marina, determined that the young woman would one day be more than a merely competent photographer, had exhausted herself in doggedly pressing the young woman to see beyond composition and to listen to what her instinct told her about when and where to shoot. The young photographer was barely able to comprehend what it was that Marina was attempting to teach her so that when Marina arrived home she fell into the standing sleep within moments, her keychain dangling from her hand.

When she emerged from the standing sleep she looked around the room with a puzzled look on her face, as if only gradually coming to terms with the fact that she was alive and well in the house she shared with Stephen.

That evening on the living room sofa she said, “It’s a vision I’ve had over and over again this past month. I’m swimming in the ocean at night. The moon is full and suddenly I’m swept out to sea and one wave after another is crashing down on me, and I’m struggling to breathe as I rise to the surface in the trough of the waves. Then a gigantic wave comes up out of the darkness, a deeper concentration of night so that even the moon is blotted out, and I know then that I will die when the wave crashes down on me.”

Stephen held her and kissed her, soft kisses that travelled down her face to her neck and lingered there. Marina closed her eyes and let the kisses unstring the tension in her neck and shoulders.

            “I’m sure it’s the long hours you’ve been keeping, right?” said Stephen.

            “Maybe,” said Marina.

The voices of children echoed from the street. 

            “I’m pregnant,” she said.

Stephen’s eyes widened.

            “No,” he said, surprised. “Really?!”

 Marina nodded.

            “How far along?” Stephen asked.

            “Three. Maybe four weeks.”  

            “How can you be sure?”

Marina frowned.

            “All right, all right,” Stephen said, the joy leaping up in his chest. “But you’re sure?”

If Stephen had been another kind of man he would have felt excluded from the growing communion between mother and child as the child grew in its mother’s womb, but he felt a part of their budding relationship because he understood his role as one who supports and encourages, particularly in the final month of pregnancy when Marina’s belly was round and low, indicating that the child might be a boy. Then in the fortieth week of her pregnancy her water broke as Marina worked in the kitchen, steaming spinach mixed with bits of mushrooms and corn. As the warm rush of amniotic fluid descended, she thought of the sea and how the earliest creatures crawled up out of its depths and took to the land. Marina calmly turned off the stove and removed the pan from the burner.

Stephen knew by her call that it was time.

The baby was crowning as they wheeled Marina into the operating room. Stephen thought the child’s scream even before the child had fully passed through the birth canal and especially its wide eyes boded well. Thirty minutes later the baby, a girl, took to the breast, suckled hungrily for nearly twenty minutes then fell contentedly asleep. Marina did not mourn when she learned that the child was a sleeper. Stone-faced, she stared at the far wall, as if she could see something cruel and implacable beyond it.

It took some time for Stephen to notice the withdrawal: Marina’s reluctance to hold the child for longer than absolutely necessary, the milk weeping from her breasts as he gently bounced the child in his arms. They named the child Frances after Stephen’s mother and Evangeline after Marina’s grandmother.

In the days and weeks that followed, Stephen told himself it was post-partum, the hormones raging and predictably so after the trial of pregnancy and childbirth. And there was science to support him down to how long he could expect it to last. He wrote the head of his unit about cutting back on his hours in order to care for Marina and was met with nothing but support. First, Stephen’s mother, then one of Stephen’s closest friends, Sienna, came to stay with them to help out and the days assumed a dream-like regularity: feeding and changing the infant Evangeline and Marina standing by the doorway, watching the rain fall, no longer mimicking the rhythms of Stephen’s days and nights.

            Two months after the birth of the child Marina told Stephen she wanted to return to Toms River and the sea.

            “It was a mistake,” she said, and began to cry.

            “What was?” Stephen said, his voice a loud whisper as he held the baby. “Our child?”

            “Of course, not.”

            “What then?”

            “To think that I could have a companion.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I didn’t know how much I wanted someone by my side until she was born.”

            “She is by your side. If you’ll let her. Does she have to be by your side all day and all night? You knew there was a chance this might happen.”

            “That’s not it. I want her too badly.”

            “Aren’t you supposed to want her too badly? Isn’t that motherhood?”

            “You don’t understand.”

            “Then make me understand.”

            “I’ll smother her. I’ll ask what isn’t fair to ask. For her to be like me.”

            “Then I won’t let you. We’ll find a balance so you can love her but not smother her. Isn’t that possible?”

            “You don’t understand,” Marina repeated.

            “I don’t? How many times have you said that? How many times have I not understood but accepted anyway? This I won’t take. Not this. Not you running away.”

Marina turned away.

            “Look at me, Marina,” Stephen said, grabbing her hand. “Why did you bother that day on the beach, if you planned to cut and run when things got tough? So what if she’s a sleeper? She’s your daughter. Yours and mine. Why did you even bother that day? Tell me.”

            “Because I was tired of being alone,” Marina said. “And because I was drawn to you.”

            “You were drawn to me, but now because our daughter has the nerve to sleep like the rest of the human race you want to run?”

            “That’s not it.”

            “Then what is it? Tell me. If that’s not why. Aren’t we happy? Don’t we love each other? You aren’t alone anymore. You have me and you have Evangeline. We’re a family.”

Marina just shook her head.

            “Then you tell her,” Stephen said. He pushed sleeping child into Marina’s arms. “You tell her why you’re running away! Like you always do.”

As quickly as he had pushed the child into Marina’s arms he took her back again as the baby awoke and began to cry. Stephen’s body sagged as he leaned against the wall, and he slid to the floor. He sat there for a long time holding the crying infant in his arms without speaking. Marina stood above him, her face in her hands.

Then Stephen said, “What will I tell her when she asks me where you’ve gone?”

* 

Stephen and Sienna had been married for fifteen years when Evangeline said she wanted to find Marina.

For most of Evangeline’s life, Marina had almost been like a figure in a tale. Evangeline only remembered seeing her once when she was a toddler. Although Evangeline was curious about her, Evangeline’s life had been full and happy in the home she shared with Stephen and Sienna first in Philadelphia then in Pittsburgh, and some part of her feared she would hurt Sienna if she asked about Marina. But on the threshold of her sixteenth birthday the equilibrium in which she balanced her desire for knowledge and her desire to care for the woman who had raised her would not hold, and her desire to know won out. It was an element of her character to ponder these things long before she spoke them so that she could first understand how she felt about them. But once she made up her mind her resolution did not waiver, and she approached her father.

Stephen had long ago turned from practicing medicine to research, specializing first in psychology then in neuroscience with a focus on the mysteries of sleep. Thanks, in part, to several popular books he and others had written, sleep was slowly ceasing to be a mystery and instead was becoming something that was scientifically proven to have myriad benefits, and as knowledge of sleep’s true nature had grown so had Stephen’s renown as a researcher and writer at the University of Pittsburgh. Still the mystery most central to his life and that of his daughter remained unsolved: Marina and the sleepless ones.

So Stephen gave Evangeline the information he had on Marina with whom he had only maintained intermittent contact, and one early morning in June Evangeline boarded a bus and traveled the three hundred and sixty-six miles east to the little town of Toms River. After she arrived, it didn’t take long for Evangeline to find someone who knew Marina and who pointed out a modest little house high on a bluff in Seaside Heights overlooking the sea.

           

            “My name is Evangeline,” the girl said, as Marina opened the door of the cottage. “I’m Stephen and Sienna’s daughter. And you are my mother.”

           

Marina embraced her and urged her to come inside though Evangeline had already crossed the threshold. Marina invited her to sit in the little parlor. After a moment of silence, they began to speak. About Evangeline’s life as a rising junior at the Friends School in Pittsburgh and the books and games she loved and her friends. Her devotion to contemporary dance. Marina listened, and the words reached her the way your name sounds as you’re walking in a dark forest and the listening is delicious, and the desire to respond, too, is delicious, though Marina largely remained quiet and let Evangeline do most of the talking. Evangeline had thought she would ask all manner of questions – about why Marina left and what it was she left to find and whether she had found it, but as she sat across from the little woman who stared back at her with Evangeline’s own eyes those questions somehow felt unnecessary, at least for the moment.

Evangeline peered around the sparsely furnished rooms. It took a moment before she noticed them, framed photographs of herself at various stages of her life placed unobtrusively here and there throughout the rooms. At first, Evangeline thought that Marina must have taken them herself, but then she recognized them as photos Stephen and Sienna had taken over the years. Stephen must have sent them to Marina little by little over time so that one could trace the development of Evangeline’s life by following the trail of photos throughout the cottage. Evangeline looked up at Marina in surprise as she held one of the photos. Marina’s smile was apologetic and forlorn and proud at once. After setting the photo down, Evangeline continued to look around, fingering the dish cloths that hung in the kitchen, tracing the pattern of designs on the bowls and plates in the cabinets and playing single notes on the little upright piano in the den.

When by means of a glance Evangeline asked whether she could see the upstairs Marina nodded her consent.

The second floor was just as unadorned and simple as the first had been. There was a little bathroom and two little bedrooms – one which faced the sea and another, smaller middle room, the only one containing a bed.

           

            “I keep it for guests,” Marina said, as Marina stood at the top of the stairs. Evangeline stepped into the little room and ran her hand across the bedspread; it was woolen, from India or Pakistan, she guessed, with intricate patterns running from head to toe.

Evangeline rubbed her eyes; the long bus ride and the hours of talking and listening weighed on her.

           

            “I would like to sleep,” she said.

            “Please, go ahead,” Marina said, smiling.

            Evangeline produced a cell phone from her bag and punched in a number.

            “Mama?” she said. “I’m at Marina’s. No, I’m fine. I meant to call earlier. I’m going to stay for the night. I’ll call you and daddy in the morning. No, it’s fine. I’ll tell you later. OK? Kiss daddy for me. OK. Bye-bye.” Evangeline paused for moment. “Thank you.”

 

She placed the phone in her bag then removed her sandals, letting one then the other fall with a pleasant clatter on the wood floor. She lay her head on the cool of the pillow, pulled the cover up over her shoulder and quickly fell asleep.

In the hallway, Marina pulled the door closed then cracked it for a moment and watched the girl as she slept then she closed the door and descended the stairs.

The next morning before sunrise, Marina and Evangeline enjoyed a breakfast of toast and jam, boiled eggs, and hot black coffee, then Marina led Evangeline down the stone path to the sea.

The early morning was cool. Gulls called out, hovering over the dunes in the salt air that blew steadily from the east. Marina and Evangeline walked along the beach then sat in the darkness at the foot of a dune, a crescent moon high up in the air.

            “Are you lonely?” Evangeline eventually said into the darkness of the breaking waves.

            “Sometimes. But I have my work.”

            “What do you do?”

            “I teach at the local college. Photography mostly, though I do some writing too.”
            “That’s right. My father said so. He doesn’t know it, but I’ve seen your book of photographs. He keeps it among his science books where he thinks I don’t look.”

            “What do you think of them?”

            “I’m drawn to them, but … I don’t know. It’s like overhearing a conversation in a foreign language. You love the music of it even if you don’t understand the words.”

            “You’re honest and intelligent,” Marina said. “Your father must be very proud of you… Is he well?”

            “He is. He works too much, but that’s him.”

Marina smiled at the memory of Stephen’s long days at the hospital.

            “And Sienna?”

            “She’s well too.”

Together they sat, listening to the waves that rolled to the shore and up the slope of the beach. There was a hum in the air like the sound of a florescent light switching on.

            “Why did you leave me?” Evangeline said.

Marina turned to her but couldn’t make out the girl’s face.

            “Because I knew I would fail you,” Marina said.

            “Fail me how?”

            “When you grow up without a grandmother you don’t ask why. It just is. I later learned that my grandmother and my mother were estranged though I never understood why. Perhaps it was the burden of wakefulness. They were together too much; they didn’t spend enough time alone. It takes a toll, and I swore I wouldn’t repeat that mistake. I knew I would fail you by wanting you so badly. I knew it as soon as I saw you. As soon as I looked in your eyes. It wasn’t because you were a sleeper. It wasn’t, though I know your father believed that. Even if you had been one of us, I wanted you too much, and I knew I would hold you too tight, too close; I would smother you. And it was the one thing I vowed I would not do. So I ran.”

            “Not very far,” said Evangeline.

            “No, not very far,” Marina said.

            “Does my father know that that was the reason?”

Marina shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “I tried to tell him but I don’t think he understood.”

The wind buffeted them as the moon rose higher in the sky, and the gulls wheeled above their heads.

“It’s my birthday,” Evangeline said softly.

            “Happy birthday,” said Marina, reaching for Evangeline’s hand in the sand.

A band of pink blossomed in the distance with a deeper concentration of color at the center of the horizon. The hum grew louder, but now it seemed to come from every direction, as if the air were alive with an electric current that caused the surface of Evangeline’s skin to tingle.

Evangeline turned to Marina; she could now see the woman’s face, but not so clearly that she could tell what expression her face wore.

As the band of orange broadened, the hum of the electric current slid into a low rumble, and the weighty darkness lightened to gray. Evangeline clutched Marina’s hand. Wave after wave of the sea arrived and broke at the shoreline, ran up the beach, and touched their feet then retreated again, then repeated the movement, as if paying homage to the woman and the girl as they sat at the foot of the dunes.

The splash of orange at the center of the horizon darkened and encircled itself, becoming an orb, and the waves heralded its formation, thundering now as they curled and crashed in on themselves as they climbed the slope of the shore.

Then the orange ball itself thundered like the liftoff of a rocket as it rose up new-born from the sea and wave after wave boomed in thundering hosannas.

            “Oh!” Evangeline gasped, clutching Marina’s hand. “Marina, the light! The light!”

 

*

Marina and Evangeline spent the entire day together. Few words passed between them about what they had experienced that morning on the beach or much of anything at all. Marina asked Evangeline if she wanted to talk about it, but Evangeline said she wanted to sit with it in order to come to terms with the experience in her own time. Instead of speaking, they worked in silence side by side in a garden surrounded by a low ivy-covered wall where Marina grew a variety of fruits and vegetables: blueberries, melons, green beans, carrots, peas, radishes, summer squash, and spinach. The work was difficult beneath the hot sun, but they worked steadily and without complaint, and their silence was easy and companionable.

In the afternoon, Evangeline donned Marina’s apron and prepared a simple lunch of vegetable soup and freshly baked bread. They ate quietly and slowly, enjoying one another’s company. After lunch, they sat on the stoop of the little house and together read the runes of the sea – the congregations of waves, the slow inexorable movements of the tides, the circling currents – and breathed in the salt air. As the afternoon wore on, Evangeline understood for the first time that the sea was eternal, sleepless. Tireless like the stars.

At dusk, Evangeline gathered her things and prepared to say goodbye.

            “Shall I accompany you to the station?” Marina said on the doorstep of the cottage.

            “Thank you,” Evangeline said, “but I’d like to walk by myself if that’s all right?”

Marina smiled and they embraced, holding each other for a long time. Marina placed a kiss on Evangeline’s cheek.

 

            “May I see you again?” said Evangeline.

            “I’d like that,” Marina said.

Evangeline descended the stone path to the beach. When she reached the dunes she turned to wave but Marina had already gone inside and the house stood silently, but Evangeline waved nonetheless, then she walked the half mile along the beach and turned west on Mantoloking toward the bus station.

The pines began to sing as the wind began to pick up.

At the station, Evangeline boarded a crowded bus bound for Pittsburgh after a stopover in Philadelphia and found a window seat near the rear. A young father and mother and their two young children sat in the seat across from her. A middle-aged woman dressed in a gray-blue blouse with her name on the breast made her way slowly down the aisle and took the seat beside Evangeline.

The bus pulled out of the station and onto Mantoloking. Five miles later it turned west on Route 70, and the woman sitting beside Evangeline began to nod. After a while, Evangeline told her it was all right for her to rest her head on Evangeline’s shoulder.

            “Are you sure, darlin’?” the woman said. "I was dead on my feet after working two shifts in a row, and I’d sure appreciate it. I’m headed to my son’s to watch my grans so he can take a job in upstate New York. You sure it’s all right?”

Evangeline nodded, smiling, and the woman settled her head on the girl’s shoulder. Soon the woman’s breathing grew slow and shallow. Evangeline imagined sleep acting as a balm on the woman’s body: steadying her heart, muting the clamor of her hurried mind, spreading the sweetness of dreams like the scent of fresh fruit.

As it grew dark, the bus wound its way through small towns lit by gas stations and one-story motels. When the bus entered the thick forests of the Pine Barrens, one by one the voices of the other passengers began to fall away like lights being extinguished as they too gave themselves over to sleep. Inside the cabin, the driver switched on the soft interior lights so that blue tongues of flame seemed to leap up above the heads of the many passengers.

Evangeline watched the many sleepers arrayed around her and marveled at their beauty – the young father and mother, the children asleep in their laps, the old men and middle-aged women, all those who found themselves dreaming as they sped through the whispering pines. Each of the sleepers had descended from a host of ancestors and like those ancestors each harbored within that original burning particle of soul passed down the generations, even if it slumbered and could only be found in deepest dreams and the most abandoned reveries.

When Evangeline arrived home it was nearly dawn. She carried her bags up to her room, walking quietly past her parents’ bedroom and sat at her desk, her jacket still on, surrounded by posters of dancers. Outside the window, beneath the street lamps, a stand of pines swayed silently in the wind.

Evangeline heard footsteps in the hall then a tap at the door.

Stephen appeared.

He knew as soon as he looked in her eyes. Somehow he had anticipated it: Evangeline was her mother’s daughter after all.

He closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed.

            “Daddy –” Evangeline said, her eyes wide. ”Daddy, I’m afraid.”

            Stephen embraced her, and Evangeline leaned into him, as if taking shelter from a storm.

            “I made a mistake,” he said. “A long time ago. I asked her, I ask Marina to be like me, at least to pretend to be. I was wrong. I thought I was protecting her, but I was protecting myself. I was afraid.”

            “Of what?” said Evangeline.

            “Of what I didn’t understand.” He cupped her cheek in the palm of his hand. “I won’t ask you to do that, to pretend to be like anyone else. All I ask is that you let me in, to help me understand.”

            Evangeline nodded.

            “Wait here,” Stephen said, and disappeared into the hallway. When he returned he was carrying a book. He handed it to Evangeline.

            “I should have given you this a long time ago,” he said. “This is hers.”

It was as if Evangeline were seeing Marina’s book of photographs for the first time. On the cover in black and white was some kind of shell, a nautilus, she suddenly remembered from her biology studies, the spiraling shell separated into chambers. Evangeline turned the pages. Here was a starfish on its back, its vulnerable mouth agape. A burnt orange dragonfly was perched on a piece of driftwood. As she examined the creatures, Evangeline saw with Marina’s eyes so that each of them suddenly, irrevocably came alive. Each vision was her own so that it was she who accompanied the family of horseshoe crabs on its journey to the sea, she who sat with the black skimmer and the sand fleas in the swash and stood in the sea marshes beneath noctilucent clouds.

When she looked up Stephen was gone.

Outside the morning sun sent tendrils of soft pink light into the chamber of her room as if to alert her to the arrival of a guest. Trembling, Evangeline stood and opened the window wide, facing east. Wave after wave of soft pink light enveloped her, flooding the room. Then as the sun rose higher in the sky the pink rays gave way to golden shafts that pierced her heart again and again with a painful yet sublime ecstasy as if each shaft of light carried with it a little fire that set all of her being aflame. With a sharp intake of breath, Evangeline closed her eyes, and gave herself over to the light like a lover to her Beloved.

Bio: Stanley Patrick Stocker is a fiction writer, poet, and lawyer living outside Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Kestrel, and he is the recipient of a 2019 Individual Artist Award in Fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council. His forthcoming novel And All the World a Dream is an early 20th-century take on the father quest of antiquity set in the American South.

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