I sit quietly and watch him through the leaded glass panes for a long moment, trying to decide whether this will be a good place to seek eternal shelter. Other windows hold candelabras as a reminder of the upcoming festivities that always take place this time of year. His, however, do not, and I prefer it that way. The room holds faint echoes of a woman’s presence—a lace doily draped across the back of the sofa, a flower arrangement on the end table, a dainty teacup and matching saucer on the mantel—and a woman’s sensibilities are nothing to be trifled with, but no woman seems likely to have crossed the threshold in many days, nor likely to return presently. The doily is askew, the flowers bereft of water, the teacup veiled in fine dust, and the man barricaded behind heavy volumes stacked precariously on the floor. It will no doubt take effort for him to rise should I choose to interrupt.
I hesitate to bother him as he stares into a curious book written in a language I cannot read but have grown to understand quite well, nonetheless. He appears not to be reading either, merely lost in thought at things he will never understand. I ponder the melancholy expression of his mouth beneath hollow and haunted eyes the likes of which I have become fairly acquainted with during my travels. I hold out for as long as I can, but now the fireplace embers have begun to die and with them, I fear, my chances of being invited in on such a dreary night as this, especially given the lateness of the hour. The man begins to nod off, and I decide it must be now or never. I give a gentle tap at the window.
The man hears me. He stumbles sleepily to his feet while muttering indecipherable words. He looks around but does not see me. I wait patiently. The poor man looks as if he has not slept in many nights, and I feel badly for having disturbed him when he was so close to slumber. He turns and moves slowly to the door, as if unsure that his legs still work. I wonder how long he has been sitting there amidst that pile of books, searching vainly for salvation within their leather bindings.
He has taken notice of the time now. Indeed, it would be impossible not to as the clock has begun to chime the midnight hour. We both wait for the chiming to stop; me, in the cold drizzle that saturates the air, and him, standing near a window on the far side of the chamber and softly stroking the silkiness of the purple curtain. I have never seen anyone touch a curtain this way before. He seems unaware that it is a curtain, acting more as if it is a check he caresses.
As the chiming stops, I hear him call out an apology to the visitor he expects to meet when the door is opened. He is sorry for his hesitance and the wait he has forced upon them. For a moment I am confused myself. Perhaps there is someone outside that door, and I had somehow covered the sound of their knocking with my own. I wait in stillness just to be sure.
Even so he seems conflicted about whether to open the door to a late-night visitor. His face has grown pale, as if he fears what might be on the other side. I think again that I should not have disturbed him so close to the precious sleep he appears in such desperate need of. But it is too late now. The wind is picking up and I eye the warmth of the room with a sudden yearning. I hope no more than a ghost of a presence stands idle on the other side of the door so that he will hurry back to where I wait.
He has regained his courage. I can tell because he pulls himself up to his full height and reaches for the door with a sudden strength he seemed not to possess just moments ago. He opens wide the door. There is no one there and I am gladdened. I will rap again on the windowsill when he returns closer, but he makes no effort to close the door and return just yet. He stands there transfixed and transformed, having become no more than a shadow in the night himself. I wait. I am used to waiting.
“Lenore?” he calls out loudly to the darkness of the night and stands there for a good while, listening intently for a reply. I do not hear the darkness respond, but I wonder if he does. And if so, what circumspection does it proffer? Is it kind and comforting, or cruel and taunting? Does the darkness bring peace, or does it wage war? As he turns round finally, I see his countenance has once again gone pale, and I have my answers. The poor man could use some company. I will surely be a good distraction from the grief he carries so openly upon his shoulders.
I tap again at the windowsill, somewhat louder than before. He hears me and looks around wildly before turning his gaze in my direction. I am not sure yet if he has seen me as it may very well be his own reflection that has caught his attention. But no, he comes my way now, speaking loudly of mysteries that must be explored. Not a moment too soon either, for now the wind has begun to knock branches against the façade and I am afraid that he would soon attribute my knocking to the same.
I step to one side of the ledge as he flings open the shudder. This is the invitation I have been waiting for. I shake out my wings as I step through the open window. He is momentarily surprised by my appearance, but I do not wait to be asked in further. I spotted the perfect perch during my earlier vigil, and now I hurry to it without even a bow of thanks in his direction. It is rude of me perhaps, but I am cold and ready for him to close the shudder behind me.
He does, and then follows me to gaze up in silent contemplation at the Greek goddess of wisdom. Or perhaps it is me that he contemplates. I contemplate him as well, just as I have done for an hour now without him having been aware. I wonder what hidden treasures he reads about beneath the fantastical book jackets. I wonder what has happened to the woman who left in such a hurry that she could not be bothered to put away her teacup. I wonder why he has chosen this particular bust that I am now perched on above his chamber door. I assume he chose it with care long ago and fancied himself having grown wiser simply in the choosing. But now? Now he has become both disillusioned and simultaneously aware: aware of his disillusionment, aware of the depths of his ignorance, aware of the vastness of unanswerable questions. He is haunted by all of this awareness.
He smiles and I am glad, although it is a sad smile that moves slowly across his face, as if he had to consciously remind each muscle of how to make the gesture. Still, it is a smile, and I am sure now that he is happy of my company. I cock my head and look at him with unblinking eyes. I would smile at him if I were capable, assure him that I understood his sadness, and explain to him that I had seen sadness too. But I cannot, and so instead, I cock my head and look at him with unblinking eyes.
He speaks to me now in soft tones of admiration. He regards the iridescent plumage of my cropped breast but tells me it is of no consequence; my daring knock at a stranger’s windowsill has assured him of my courageousness. I am flattered. He wonders what I have seen in all my many years of travel and surmises that it has not all been pleasant. He thinks, perhaps, I have flown across the shores of death itself where the beautiful nightshade grows and is well attended all but one haunting night each year. I will admit that it has often felt that way. We are kindred spirits, he and I. If only I could tell him, but the words will not form. I tell him instead that I empathize, that I am here now, that he need not be alone.
“Nevermore,” I say.
He steps back quickly at the sound of my voice and now it is his turn to cock his head and look at me with unblinking eyes. He seems confused, as if trying to decide which of his many questions I had answered. He mutters now about the wonder of it all and seems particularly amazed that I have chosen Athena as my perch. It seems a silly thing for him to fixate on. I have chosen it merely for its height in the room; a birds-eye view would be impossible elsewhere. But fixate on it he does, eventually deciding that Athena has named me, and that I myself gave introduction.
He addresses me now as Nevermore but fails to return the introduction. It is of no significant matter. Although it is not my name, I am offended neither by his inference that it is or his lack of etiquette in offering his own. I have given him the comfort of the word, and I am well pleased with myself for the effort. I have poured out the entire contents of my soul to him and am spent from the exertion. Too spent, in fact, to give more at present. And now I am silent and unflitting, having settled in for the length of the night to come. The calm is welcoming.
But no, it is not to be for long. He is unsettled now, agitated even. He is lost, although whether merely to himself or to all remains to be seen. He frets over the loss of others, worried that I too will abandon him. He bases his concern upon precedence and fears that current hopes lie always upon the precipice. And I, having seen far into the black abyss of mourning and despair, understand that comfort is incremental and that he needs more to build upon. He worries only about the immediate future because he can see his way no further than the morrow. I do not envy him the journey that lies ahead. I have made it myself before and have come out on the other side a little less than the going in. Or perhaps I too am fooling myself. Perhaps I have yet to emerge from the beyond I once entered, and there will be less of me still when I do. And so, I offer again my assurance that tomorrow, at least, will pass without the gloom of loneliness.
“Nevermore,” I say.
I realize too late that I have disrupted his thoughts. He stared not at me, but through me, and his unseeing eyes were ill prepared for my reply; but I have given it nonetheless and roused him from the darkness within. He tells me now that the darkness which envelopes him must surely have enveloped some other that I was bound to before. It is not untrue. I am drawn to express compassion for those I perceive upon the brink, but to say I have been bound to anyone is to overstate my associations. Still, there is such truth in his bewilderment as can only be found in the overwhelming anguish of heartsick oppression.
It is an agony I have seen far too often, and of its returning, I can offer no assurance of ‘Never—nevermore.’
But now he smiles at me again, the sad smile of disconsolateness with primitive goal of tricking its wearer into illusory mirth and sets before me a pillowed tuffet to rest his wearied bones upon. I watch him, melting gently into the crushed softness, and am reminded of the curtains he caressed with unconscious movement just a while ago. He is lost in thought again and sees me not with his unblinking eyes and quizzical frown. He nods, to himself most likely, and cocks his head askance once more. It is something I was prone to as well, before the frightening realities of savage world imprinted upon me the portentous gloom of yesteryear.
Now no longer, indeed nevermore.
He mutters again, the unintentional habit of those who have grown accustomed to the availability of someone else’s ear, but now are left in solitude with only themselves. And then his own voice surprises him, much as mine had done, and he falls silent. Nevertheless, I have heard enough to know he struggles to surmise the purpose of my visit. He wonders from whence I came and if I bear messages from another, and in these thoughts he is again lost, but this time, I believe, it is for the best. With heavy eyes and lolling head, his slackened frame now rests easily against the violet tufts he caresses softly beneath the lantern’s glow. But no, he stiffens as his mind registers the ill-fated touch of hand against velvet that is not really velvet, merely a shoddy stand-in for something else, or someone else–I would wager to bet if ever a gambler I had been–entirely.
His lips mouth silently, “Nevermore.”
His face betrays fear: fear of life, fear of death, fear that is ashamed to admit that it is fear, and fear filled so full of pain that it wishes to cease regardless of cost. He is wide-eyed now but tries to appear less so as he casts furtive glances about the chamber as if unconvinced of his own soul’s awakening. I am equally unconvinced, as his soul must be somewhere between the here and now that desires to know a future and the here and now that has resigned itself already to the past. He breathes in the air as if it has taken on new form: familiar form, form formed from memory and tears and form that will haunt dreams long after the shape of form has been forgotten. I have heard such burdened sighs before, heavy with sorrowfulness and quickly becoming more than was bearable to its bearer.
And, having heard such melancholy woes, I am not surprised by the tenor of his voice when next he speaks, nor by the words of anger he cries in my direction. I sit, unflustered and unfluttered, as he begs for relief of pain. I have none to offer, no soothing balm nor dram of tonic nor brief repose.
Long ago, I was fool enough to believe I did, but now am left to profess, “Nevermore.”
He beseeches me to unfurl my wings so that he may seek salvation within, just as he has attempted with the leather-bound volumes that still litter the floor. I decline, aware that no such salvation exists, and he would be all the more miserable were I to share this awareness when he seems to have so much awareness of his own to bear. This angers him more, but I am content to give him outlet for his pain. He accuses me now of having been sent from damnation to bring damnation, to ferry away the last olive branch of hope and resurrection.
Indeed, hope I steal as I naysay resurrection with the word he now abhors, “Nevermore.”
He is positive now that I forecast his fate as callously as the Fates when they recalled to distant shores the one he now laments. It is less accusation than it is desire and fervent need to be recalled to those same distant shores where the nightshade blooms peacefully. But Gilead’s agarwood runs dry and pomegranates shrivel on the branches in Aidenn where boats run ashore of the River Styx, of this he is sure. As am I, which is why I cannot do as he implores; I cannot quench his thirst, quell his fears, quiet his mind, or quicken his journey.
I answer simply, “Nevermore.”
He acquiesces to his own uncertain future. It is of little concern. He asks instead for news of his lost Lenore, begging to know who has taken here and to where they’ve absconded. He wonders at the jealousy of angels to steal such rarity of goodness from such darkness such as this. Or perhaps, he imagines, it was jealousy not, but rather a saintliness that had no place in such darkness from the genesis, and the angels, realizing the mistake that had been made, were rectifying the careless wrong. He implores I tell him this is so, so that his heart may be gladdened. He is insistent now that I have flown across the Heavens bearing this knowledge, released from the hand of God himself as confetti upon the sanctified couple as blessing.
But this is not the case, and I say only, “Nevermore.”
He screams at me to leave him be in his misery and despair, but I will not. Indeed, I could not even if I desired to. I have grown old and weary in my travels, more so than I would care to admit, but even vanity has an end. His rage is nothing compared to the storms I have seen waged outside of this chamber, away from the safety of this Pallas perch and the soft light throwing still shadows on carpet-muffled hardwoods. I have flown in great, dizzying circles over many a distant shore and lost myriad plumes to the call of the Siren, so that now, too tired to stir, I can only shudder at the beautiful voices of the wind and sea that have shown themselves a moment’s turn from horror.
I will not leave I tell him. Not now, nor “Nevermore.”
He ceases speaking to me and sleeps a fitful sleep beneath my perch, curled so tightly into the shadow I cast that he would seem intent to become a part of it. I wonder momentarily if he might succeed as the fire dies and leaves only a stream of lamp-light behind. He wakes occasionally and stares up at me, murmuring each time in amazement that I stare unblinkingly and unceasingly at him having now reached the conclusion of my journey. I do not sleep and, perchance he muses, I have no need of sleep, demon spawn that he accuses me of being. If only that were true then I would have no need of this perch, nor this chamber, nor this man whose ghosts grow longer with the length of the shadows, but soon enough sleep will claim me for its own. The daylight may rid him of ghosts, vanquishing them into the disappearing shadows until the night dawns, but I have no need of daylight to be free. Eternal sleep is nearly upon me, banishing my ghosts to the shadows and promising eternal life as a shadow on the bust of Pallas above this man’s chamber door.
He speaks now, with eyes closed so that I cannot be sure to whom he speaks. Perchance to himself or Lenore or Athena or me, or one and all, he says, “Nevermore!”
“Nevermore” is a response to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” from the raven’s point of view. As a long-time admirer of Poe’s work, she had often wondered what the raven was thinking and felt compelled to give a voice to the dark and brooding bird.