Errata Literary Magazine

Bucks County Writers Workshop

Waking from a Trance
by Jeanette de Richemond

The Green Pages
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Long ago on endless summer nights when I went to bed early and stayed up late, I knelt on the floor next to my bedroom window and watched the family on the porch across the street. As the twilight slowly dimmed to dark, I studied the madras summer dress of the young woman as she gently rocked -- heel to toe -- back and forth on the porch swing, and talked to the older woman beside her while the men leaned against the porch rail. I imagined that I really belonged to the family across the street. In my mind, I sat on the front steps at their feet next to the girl, who already went to school for the entire day and not just for the morning like me. We drank Kool-Aid and played jacks while the desultory conversation of the adults wrapped around us like a comforting blanket. Sometimes, I imagined that I traded places with the girl across the street, and she watched with longing out of the bedroom window while I sat between the mother and the grandmother on the porch swing, softly rocking my way toward bedtime -- their hushed murmuring a lullaby in the summer night.

On the nights when my imaginary family failed to appear, I puzzled through the pages of a reading workbook in the dim twilight. As the evening grew dark, I tipped it toward the streetlight so I could still make out the line drawings. The book, which had a flimsy seagreen cover, was about a boy named Peter, who didn't have much hair, and a duck.

Then, one summer dusk, as I looked at a picture of Peter and the duck and then at the words beside it, I suddenly realized the clump of letters "P-e-t-e-r" meant the boy and "d-u-c-k" meant the bird, and I stepped right out of the stifling, cluttered bedroom into Peter's orderly world of ball and box and shoe, and realized that everywhere around me there were other worlds in words.

I was intoxicated by the Green Pages of the Milwaukee Journal -- the section at the back of the newspaper that held the funnies as I lay on the floor in the hall or on my grandmother's front porch, and studied the wonderful, cool, pale green color of the paper, the curlicues of hair and noses in the comic strips, the neat checkerboard of the crossword puzzle, and the secret code of the words that I couldn't yet decipher. I loved to run my fingers over the Green Pages, which were much smoother than the ordinary newsprint, and then look at the ink residue in whorls of my fingertips. It didn't matter that I couldn't read the paper. I was thrilled to look at the words -- the mysterious combinations of letters, the winding shape of the "s," the sheltering curve of the "e" -- and know that they meant something.

Soon, I went right out of my house into the pictures in my mind conjured up by words, pictures of Robert, the Rose Horse, who sneezed in middle of the big parade, Bartholemew, whose world was festooned with green gook, and a friendly owl named Sam and his friend, the firefly, who weren't afraid of the dark.

I ate long perspiring loops of melted goat cheese toasted over the fire on a long fork in Heidi, the sweet stretch of hot maple syrup poured in a circle on cold, white snow in Little House in the Big Woods, and the mysterious nectar and ambrosia of the Greek myths that I pictured as a chalice filled with root beer float, which we occasionally had when my parents bought a glass gallon jug of "A&W" root beer from an orange and brown drive-in stand on the way home from my grandmother's house.

And I found myself in Hans Christian Anderson's little mermaid, whose tail had been torturously divided to make legs so that every agonizing step felt like walking on broken glass. This story, which I read the bitter winter I was seven while locked alone in the station wagon parked on an empty street in downtown Milwaukee amid towering gray buildings, was so sad that I couldn't bear to read it and couldn't bear to stop. It was impossible to turn the pages of my library book with my mittens on, and yet, when I took them off, my fingers froze. With only my book for company in the bitter cold, I read the story to the end, knowing perfectly how it felt to be split in half between one's legs, to hurt so much internally that it seemed impossible to walk, to have one's voice taken away, and to be utterly rejected. And the end of the fairy tale, when the little mermaid, denied a soul, dissolves, becoming foam on the waves of the sea, seemed comforting to me. For I, too, was without a soul, destined for hell as my mother told me repeatedly. It seemed so peaceful to silently fade away, and become a drifting snowflake, a falling leaf.

For years, I lived in my books. I was forever hiding -- behind the floor-length drapes in the living room or in a tussock of wild flowers in the fields -- and stepping into a book. In my books, I flew right out the window to live for a few brief hours with the family across the street. I loved stories about misunderstood children who finally found friends, orphans who finally found homes, abandoned children who were finally claimed, mistreated children who were brave enough to run away and finally found safe places to live. I went to the worlds in my books, where mothers raked leaves and sang to their children at bedtime; where groundhogs and beavers could talk and cook supper; where timid children fell down wells into another world where they were buffeted by ceaseless winter winds, chased by fearsome creatures, forced to take part in life-or-death games when they did not know the rules, captured and enslaved by brutal woodsmen, and, through their intuition and cleverness (with the help of a few magic gifts), broke one enchantment after another, and finally made their way back to their original home, which was somehow more bearable now that they had proved they were strong enough to drive back the Dark.

When, dazed and blinking, I came back to my parents' house, I knew that it was all wrong. Somehow, I had ended up in the world where everything was upside down, where my protectors tormented me, where the food was poisoned, where holy was evil, and true was crazy.

Tripping through the house strewn with unopened mail, piles of mildewed clothes waiting to be ironed, and heaps of old magazines, I carried my library book before me, a shield keeping the chaos at bay. Drowsing through endless, black night, I clutched my library book in my arms, an amulet protecting me against evil and injury. Through the years in that crazy house, I held a library book before me, a touchstone of the real and true.

I imagined that people who loved me, but couldn't be with me had written my books just for me. I read them over and over, long letters written to a prisoner telling of the outside world. In the authors, I found my real parents, who fed me with their words.

For words were magic -- transporting me to a different time and place, transforming the endless, unspeakable, incomprehensible present into a trial that would eventually end, into a journey that must be completed before I could leave the dingy, gray, littered house for a brilliant, lucent world. Words were magic -- with the right combination, transformation was possible, the transformation of chaos to order and crazy to true.

Now, as I write, I know once again, that when one finds words, the world changes.

Bucks County Writers Workshop