[Eleanor]: 668.Prose.My neighbours, the Zwierszowskis

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2007-05-26 15:57:16
short story
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This piece won first prize in “The secret life of your neighbour” contest at Elftown.

My neighbours, the Zwierszowskis

     I live in a quiet neighbourhood on a street that quickly turns into a dead end as it comes up against a barricade of pine, spruce, oak and birch trees. On a summer’s evening you can hear the call of the white-throated sparrow and the scream of the bluejay as they mark their territories. Deer live in those woods: it is not unusual to open the door and find one grazing in the front yard, staring at you with wide, wild eyes, before bolting, as though found guilty of something.

     There is a house on the lot just at the edge of those woods, an old house, one that was there before I moved to the area, made from weathered wood and shingles, surrounded by bushes and trees. At first glance there is nothing unusual about the place. It has a mailbox at the curb and a second box for a newspaper, a non-descript automobile sits on the gravel driveway, and a couple of feral-looking cats prowl the yard, hunting for mice and birds. Even the occupants, Mr. and Mrs. Zwierszowski, are quite normal seeming at first glance, an elderly couple, gray-haired, kindly looking. They put their garbage and recycling bins on the curb every Wednesday just like everyone else does.

     However, last summer I started to think maybe I was missing something. Going for my evening stroll as I usually did up to the end of the street and back down again, I heard a strange sound coming from the Zwierszowskis’ place. At first I thought it was the wind soughing through the pines before realizing that the air was particularly still that evening. I stopped and tried to pinpoint what it was I was hearing. It was definitely coming from the weathered wooden house next to the woods, and the more I listened, the more it sounded like music, like the singing of many voices, high and eerie, beautiful and ethereal.

     I felt drawn to that music, felt my body turn involuntarily toward the sound and my feet start to crunch up the gravel driveway before I realized what was happening. My head was level with the bathroom window at this point and I could see into the house through the open doorway. There were sparks of light flitting along the hallway, like fireflies, except they didn’t wink out. Stronger light came from what I gathered must be the livingroom, multicoloured rays that reminded me of the rainbows on the kitchen walls and ceiling and floor when the low sun of winter shines through our backdoor and is caught by the prisms hanging in the window. 

     As I was standing there mesmerized by the music and the lights, one of those sparks flew into the bathroom toward the window through which I gazed, and I realized that it was not a firefly at all, but a tiny, perfectly-formed person airborne on dragonfly-like wings. The fairy-like creature, for that is the only description I could think of, came right up to the window, directly in front of my face. The sun had set and twilight was turning to night, and it could in all likelihood only see its own reflection in the window glass, or I surely would have been discovered. Even so, I held my breath and waited for it to fly back into the hall before I dared move again.

     The memory of what I witnessed there that night stuck with me. I was convinced I had been bewitched. Out of the corners of my eyes I started to see things that couldn’t possibly be there, shadows moved, everyday objects changed shape, and over it all, faint and far away, was the sound of that music like the wind soughing through the trees, songs of small voices lifted to unimaginable heights.

     I continued my daily activities, including my evening strolls, but I tried to avoid walking to the woods and back. I admit it: I was afraid, afraid of what else I might see if I heard that music again. But it is a small town I live in, and an even smaller neighbourhood. I could not avoid bumping into Mr. Zwierszowski as I went to get my mail, or Mrs. Zwierszowski when I went into town to buy my groceries. They seemed so ordinary, it was hard to credit them with this enormous secret.

     Finally, as fall was waning, the trees bare of leaves, the songs of birds muted, replaced by the honking of southbound geese, the houses in the neighbourhood decorated for Hallowe’en and bags of raked leaves adorning curbsides, I decided I had overreacted and resumed my normal evening route. The birches and oaks had shed their leaves leaving a partial view into the forest. I decided to venture in, taking a path periodically worn by the tires of an all-terrain vehicle owned by another of my neighbours.

     Stepping in among the trees was like entering another world. I loved that hushed feeling, the sound of leaves underfoot, the softness that the fallen pine needles created. If I stood very still, I might hear a stag crashing through the underbrush, or the rustle of some small animal as it came out of hiding. It smelled differently too, of earth and leaf mould, moss and pine sap. Standing there, breathing in the autumn scents, I once more heard that music. It was so still, all the sounds of traffic and dogs barking banished from that magical place, that the otherworldly singing entered my soul unopposed.

     Turning around, I could see the side of the Zwierszowskis’ house that abutted the woods. There was just a narrow strip of yard between their north windows and the trees, enough space for a small shed and a woodpile, on top of which was perched a large owl. It took me a moment before I remembered that there are no owls in our woods, at least, I had never seen any owls there before. As I gazed at it, it wavered, seemed to shimmer in the darkening air, and as I was squinting, trying to keep this phenomenon in sight, suddenly there was no owl on the woodpile, but a tall figure in a long feathered robe was making its way to the Zwierszowskis’ front door.

     I could contain my curiosity no longer and quietly followed the path back to my neighbour’s yard where I timidly climbed the steps to their wooden porch and hesitated before lifting the ornate knocker on the door and letting it fall. The person who had entered before me opened it, a woman, just removing that feathered cloak and hanging it on a hook on the wall, her long brown hair hanging down around her shoulders like a living cloak. She was so beautiful, my breath caught in my throat and I was unable to respond as she opened the door wider and beckoned me inside.

     The hallway was brightly lit and I was momentarily blinded from coming in out of the twilit woods. As my eyes adjusted, I saw more of those sparks I had noticed on my first, clandestine peek through the bathroom window, airborne, flitting from guest to guest, for there were many people present, alighting on a shoulder here, a bookshelf there, never still for long, like glowing butterflies. Mrs. Zwierszowski suddenly appeared before me and said, “Mrs. Primkin! How nice of you to drop in. Let me take your coat.”

     Before I knew it, someone had thrust a drink in my hand and I was wandering around the Zwierszowski house shaking hands and greeting people the likes of which I had never imagined outside of fairy tales. They were tall and short, dressed in glimmering garments that seemed to be made out of dragon scales, or clad in rough homespun. Some had smooth ageless faces, pale complexions and icy blue eyes while others were as gnarled as tree trunks with hair that looked more like dried grass than anything I was familiar with.

     My drink felt like cool spring water that burned all the way down. Everything became crystal clear, the chatter of the strange folk around me, including the crystal bell sounds from the firefly-like fairies. I no longer felt strange or disoriented. Mr. Zwierszowski materialized from out of nowhere and I wasn’t even surprised. He took me by my elbow and led me to a quiet corner where we could talk more privately.

     “Mrs. Primkin,” he began, “I’m so happy you dropped in. We hardly ever get to know our neighbours from the street since we always seem to be so busy entertaining the ones from the woods. But it’s delightful to finally have you over.”

     Then he proceeded to take me around and introduce me to all sorts of people: a wizened gnome who lived in a wild apple tree just off the path, the flowers of which I’d noticed before in the spring; the tall owl woman, her eyes golden, with flowing hair and long fingernails on her graceful hands; an equally tall young man, or at least he appeared young, although his eyes spoke of long ages passed, dressed in a jacket of irridescent material that seemed to be constantly shifting colour; a petite girl all swathed in gauzy spiderwebs, barefoot and seemingly unable to stand still; and many more. 

     When I left to go home to my ordinary house at the other end of the block, it was already quite late. The stars were sparkling brightly in the velvety sky and I could see everything as clearly as day. Now, whenever the Zwierszowskis are having a party, my husband and I are invited. He’s proven to be quite a hit with the fairy folk: they like his quick wit and the fact that he golfs. I never knew it, but fairies also golf, although the rules are a little different. They haven’t invited Walter to join them though, something about mortals experiencing time differently in the lands beyond. But they sure do have great parties.

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