An Open Letter to the Night Circus

In Uncategorized on June 21, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Today I wandered to Baltimore and back. Thanks to a rather heavy foot having found its way to the end of my driver’s leg, the journey took a touch less time that one might expect, ushering me into the weekend a bit faster than I expected. I found myself back in Brooklyn just past four, and considered my options. It didn’t take long. There’d been a book weighing down my bag for about a week, and it all but squeaked at me realizing it had opportunity to be brought into the summer light.

I am not one to refuse the squeak of a hardcover.

So I found myself sipping whiskey for a couple hours in the back garden of a bar with no name, reading Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.”

I had two whiskeys, finished a chapter, and ran home. Then I wrote this.


I hardly ever dream. Waking in the morning is a simple sucession; shoveling bundles of mist away from my eyes, one after the other with each step across my apartment, and in every moment spent in the warmth of my shower.

I remember things in quick order; my name is John, my have to leave for work in an hour, the pitched vibrato coming from just outside the open bathroom door is my cat Cyrus. He knows food follows the sound of water falling, and he’s waiting. The cat can’t help himself but explore, and Quixote would love him. He turns from lovingly accepting a belly rub to eagerly wrestling the hand before him. Cyrus, my cat, is a creature aloof, but loving, even more so since he leapt, exploring as always, from the window of my third floor apartment. Ever since I plucked him out from under a bench in my landlord’s garden, he’s been following me. He sleeps close. He wrestles, and tumbles, and nibbles, but I am his safe place. I make sure to give him some treats when you fill his bowl this morning.

These are the things I remember.

The world seeps in as the sleep falls away. It comes in a common verse I know well, but it needs refreshing, every morning in the wash of warm water.

I know I do dream. And I know I need it, even if I can’t remember it.

It’s been a while now since I kept myself up all night, and denied myself the dreaming. When I was younger it was regular practice. I used to think it romantic to spend the entire night at my desk, my ears buried in vibrating headphones, tumbling out word after word onto a blank page. Maybe it’s the fact that I need to be at least somewhat awake for the job that keeps me in my third floor Brooklyn apartment, or the fact that I’ve grown up a bit, but I don’t respect those tumbled words gathered in a state of hysterical exhaustion as much anymore.

That doesn’t stop me from remembering what it felt like. Those mornings emerging from my apartment, having not settled my eyelids for a single moment; I remember the way the world greeted me.

It’s a broken metaphor, and I’ve always hated it, but in decades I haven’t been able to come up with better: on mornings without sleep, the fabric of the universe settles differently on the skin.

There’s a sensation you feel when you pull on piece of clothing that is supposed to be yours. The sleeves fall exactly where they should, and the shoulders embrace you. You snatch a coat off the rack at a used clothing store, and the moment it’s draped over you, you know. Looking in the mirror is part of the dance of convincing yourself what has always been certain.

Those mornings without sleep, you know the universe doesn’t fit, and every bad cut of the tailor’s blades creases your skin. You notice things you never have before. The rocks on the slope to the footbridge you cross everyday seem impossibly perched, as if about to tumble in an adorable approximation of an avalanche. The sky seems not to quite fit the firmament, and when you move your head to quickly, it stutters to keep up. Every breath tickles the nose with some scent that seems ancient, smells that have lingered forever, but blend in on all those other mornings. Today, it makes you twitch.

Smiles curl an inch too far, and colors seem just a shade to bright, and for a moment you wonder why everyone else on your sidewalk isn’t shading their eyes. The details are lovely but it’s too much.

I know that I dream to make the universe fit a little bit better, even if I don’t remember it. I know it’s a story my body tells itself to better slide into the morning. I know, with every certainty that dreams are meant for my body: eyes, nose, ears. My mind is not ready for these things.

That’s why it’s kept from me. My dreams are whispered secrets to my muscles and I’m not meant to overhear.

When I do, things go horribly wrong.

The stickiest of images linger all through the day, and those simple facts that I accept so easily in the shower most mornings become impossibilities. How could it not be that my friend Derek isn’t a vampire? In what world is it possible that there isn’t an elite team of revolutionaries waiting for me to help them with their pirate radio show? How can her face not be real when I’ve just had it buzzing under my fingertips?

I takes everything in me to convince myself otherwise. All the while, my body shakes, and fumbles, embarrassed that the secret it’s been bound to protect is out there, naked in morning light over morning coffee.

Those secrets don’t belong there.

So even as rarely as my dreams present themselves, it’s even rarer that I linger on them. Better to close my eyes, and let them pass through me. Repeat the morning truths I always know. My name is John. I have to leave for work in an hour. Cyrus is hungry.

I beat them back. Except for one. One that beats back at me.

I’ve had one recurring dream my entire life. Just the one. It pops up like a familiar door, and I can’t help but push through. It’s the one dream I’ve never been able to convince myself to discard. It stuck like a bit of wood in the third finger of your left hand. After hours of trying to stroke it away from you, there is no choice but to just accept it.

This is my one dream that refuses not to be real:

I walk into a store. When I was young it was a gift shop in Disneyland. Now it’s just the store. It’s expansive, no mere boutique or curio shop. There’s expanse; not an everlasting one, but the walls feel a little distant, and they leave you room to breathe. The room might feel larger than it is because everything contained within the store is white; a perfect pristine white. There are shirts, and sweatshirts, and coffee mugs, and little plastic heroes all wrapped up in plastic, but the color scheme over every object is the palest of all possible whites. Looking over the store, the white gathers, and the difference between one object and the next is simply a crease in the texture.

I take my time walking between the displays. I never hide, but I have the feeling that I’m not supposed to be there. It’s after hours, even if the glow of the room doesn’t give the slightest hint of night. I whisper past circled racks of pure white tennis shirts, and slink by the stacks of white toys in their white packaging. Disturbing even one of them could bring ungodly hordes down on me and I know it.

I’m making my way to the back of the store, and I’m going to get there. I’m certain of that.

There are three stairs leading up to a barely raised platform that runs along one wall no more that eight feet. The whole thing is bounded by a guard rail and at the far end is a white door. Printed there, the only thing that isn’t white, are two black words etched into the door itself: “No Admittance.”

Every quiet movement I have made is one towards that door, and it is with some relief that I find myself planting a foot onto the steps just beneath it. I’ve managed my way across the floor without a flutter of fabric. Nothing has been disturbed, and now it’s just stairs and eight foot falls to the door.

They’re steps of victory, but I take them slowly, reverently. When I reach the door and the cold of the doorknob wiggles into the spaces between my fingers, it always makes me smile. When my wrist turns, it does so with care, but when I hit the limit, I can’t help but smile. All that care falls away as I throw the door open wildly, and throw myself inside with equal abandon.

The room I find myself in is impossibly black. There are folds in the room, hard right angles somewhere, but they are impossible to see. The boundaries absorb so much light there’s no method to divine them. The floor, ceiling, and walls curl into each other perfectly, and my only sense of each in this absolute stark is one that only exists in dreams: the facts that you simply know, without needing any press of palm to confirm. The black would be all enveloping if it weren’t for the fact that one large object squats in the middle of the abyss, glowing without a single light pointed in its direction.

A book.

Leather bound, with foxed pages tattered around the edges. Every page is taller than me, but only barely so. The book is large enough that I could nestle myself into the crease and make myself a fine bed. I never do, but the thought always occurs to me, as I kneel in front of it and lean myself down over the hand scrawled ink.

The pages are corse. The texture of the paper rakes across my open palms as I lean down to make sense of the letters that seemed so mangled from the entranceway. They need me close to rally into something intelligible, close enough that I can frame my hands around a single word.

I lay out my palms with my thumbs out over the corner of each phrase. The symbols aren’t anything I could recognize or describe, but as soon as I have them under my fingers, I know what they mean. I’m not reading exactly. The words in this haphazard script are confessing themselves against their better nature.

It’s a story.

As I slide my hands over the sandpaper leaves, I know princess knights, and sweet tongued dragons. I meet gleeful spaceships, and stones that can sing albeit a little off key. I’m dragged into open fields that smell of direction; grass reaching up to an insistently blue sky. A scent of ascent. I hear the sound of an asteroid spiraling in empty space, and the way the nothing curls just a little differently when a tiny furless marmot chatters itself out of its home and into the gaping emptiness around it.

I slide my hands and the dark lights up around me in ways more amazing than anything I could have dreamed. Or so I think at the time. On reflection, I suppose I have. But it doesn’t feel that way.

But, for all the joy in the exploration of symbol after symbol, world after world, there is something dark lingering. The longer I go, absorbing page after page, the more I am aware that something is watching me. Closely.

Never once do I ever look up from the sheets of paper I am nestled into, but I know what’s above me. I can feel the heat of something bearing down, and I can see the wisps of smoke falling out from its snout.

Every symbol I discern is bringing it into being. The father I travel, the closer it comes. I never look at it, but it presses on me so entirely that I remember every last detail of its face.

Impossibly green scales, loping one over the other, in a menacing lattice, each tempered to a sharp point. Eyes utterly crimson, beyond the dank dark red of blood but ever so much the same quality. The snout is a pointed arrow, directed at me, following my heart as I shift back and forth over the pages.

I can’t stop myself from turning the pages, but I know every time I shoulder roll a sheet aside, I am bringing down the plumes of smoke that burble out of those monstrous nostrils.

In those pages, I’ve felt the lockers of my middle school turn into silk, and watched a girl on her bike escort a firework display down the main street of the town that always hosts our county fair, but the wonder is curdling under his rancid breath.

It’s the smoke that always stops me. When it goes liquid, thickening so there are dew drops of coagulated menace forming on my exposed forearms, I pull away. My feet carry me back before my hands have the chance to reach out desperately for another word.

Down on one hip, I look up to where it had to have been, but its not there. There is something though. There is something like a shadow, even if this room of utter midnight couldn’t possibly allow one, there is a shadow. And I always stayed a moment, waiting for it to fade, before I slunk back to door I can always find without seeing it.

I stagger out of the door, searching for air around me, and I find the rail, supporting myself as I struggle to absorb all the things I’ve seen. My fingers clench at the cold shafts of metal, and I try to let that sensation lead me back. It’s all I have with my eyes clenched, and my ears ringing inexplicably from the escape.
It’s only when I open my eyes that I see her.

I’m back in the store; that white expanse muddied only by the stubborn determination of one object being distinct from another. At first, all I see is that white, blinding after the dark. But then I see her.

She’s decked in simple white cloth. A white skirt over white leggings over white sneakers, and topped with a white hoodie that threatens to envelop every last bit of skin on her, but doesn’t quite succeed. Her face is tucked neatly into the shadow of the hood, a face blurred with shade, but one shock of hair betrays her.

One lock of curled red hair stands against the white of the room. I can see that she’s watching me. Or I know it, the way you know in a dream. I know she’s searching my face to see what has happened to me in that room. She’s curious, but more than that, she’s scared for me, and I know there’s part of her that wishes she could comfort me and question me in equal turns after all I’ve seen.

But that part doesn’t rule her feet. When my eyes catch hers, she freezes for a moment, and then, when it’s clear beyond all doubt that I’m looking at her; when she knows I can really see her, and that blurry face starts to press forwards out of obscurity; when she knows I’m about to really see her, and have proof of the concern I can feel hanging in the air; when she knows I’m about to see her, she runs.

The care taken not to disturb the perfectly hung bleached souvenirs is gone. She tears through them, and I tear after. I’m still gasping and weak, but I follow, grabbing at the racks around me, clawing at displays and wrenching them down, as if I’m rowing myself forward, and I need them in my wake to propel myself towards the girl in white; the girl I can only make out because of that one shock of red hair dancing as she flings herself towards the exit.

I have no air for words, and no hope to reach her, but I make chase anyway. She knows more of what I’ve seen that I ever will, and I want to know what she knows. More than that, I want to know why she’s so scared. Why she cares so much. I need to reach her.

But then my foot falls one step out of the store. My awkward tear across the store leads me to that door out of white, and moment I set foot outside, out into the world she’s long since fled into, I wake up.

My mind begins shoveling bundles of mist from my eyes. The world starts to come back around me. My bed. My hardwood floor. My name is John.

I stumble towards the shower but the footfalls don’t bring me any closer to the world I know like a song. I’m still in the store, in the black, under the dragon, and just behind her.

When I stand under the steaming water those mornings, I don’t hear Cyrus crying out for food. He’s quiet. And instead of reminding myself of the desk I need to be behind in a scant couple hours, or the way to properly tie a windsor knot I’ll sloppily construct in a few minutes, I’m thinking about her, and the dream I just ran from.

On those mornings, under the water, I don’t think about where I left my wallet the night before. Instead, I wonder if Cyrus was ever crying out for food. I wonder if all this time my cat has been telling me about the visions I’d had the night before. He sleeps close. He’s never needed food. He’s eaten all of my dreams.

He’s quiet now, because he could not keep this one down.

On those mornings, when I reach for my tie, it seems the silliest thing I have ever done.


All of that had been bouncing in my head since page 242 of the hardcover, when Bailey loses track of a girl dressed in all white in a forest of ice. All he has to find her is the glimpse of red hair. The dream flooded back. I remembered it instantly, despite the dust that had been laid over it in the far away corner of my mind.

So…thanks for that Ms. Morgenstern.

(P.S. to Ms. Morgenstern: I met you at symphony space after the interview with Neil. I’m the slow reader who hadn’t finished your book yet. The one worried that my compliments would not be well taken considering I hadn’t finished yet. I hope this puts that question to rest.)


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