The Audacious Magpie
A Novel in Real-Time
Chapter 4: Fever
March 15, 2014
My eyes popped open at 6am to the xylophone of my alarm. Time for the next gift.
I sat up to ears stuffed with cotton and a nose stuffed with mud. I swallowed. Yaowch. The sandman had left a ball of sandpaper squarely on my tonsils.
Falling back into bed, I felt the trifecta of airline travel, jet lag and erratic weather stick it to me. There would be no gift giving today.
I pulled up the still-warm covers into a cocoon that I hoped would heal me and drifted back to sleep. That's when the dream began.
I found myself in an expansive field, gray clouds filling the distant sky. On the horizon I made out a line of waving flags and slowly approached. Small groups of people were gathered, clad in white aprons and busy sculpting. Their chisels and mallets chipped away at various mediums.
One group was shaping ice into characters from the Wizard of Oz. Frozen chips flew everywhere as perfect likenesses of the tin man and lion took shape. One woman was bringing the wicked witch to life by giving her wrinkles and crow's feet using a little dentist's drill.
Another team carved an army of gnomes out of butter. It was a creamy yellow legion in pointy hats.
A dozen others scooped at blocks of ice cream the size of refrigerators, shaping them into wild animals. There was a rocky road grizzly bear, a butterscotch lion and a vanilla bean rhino. These sculptors kept spoons tucked in their aprons and took bites while stepping back to evaluate their work. Even though they were made of frozen milk and sugar, the beasts looked formidable.
I wandered from group to group and couldn't believe the talent. These were masterpieces to rival the David.
As I approached the group sculpting the more classic medium of marble, the atmosphere suddenly changed and everyone stopped working. Then I heard it -- an ominous beat of distant drums. I looked around and everyone was still, listening. Slowly, the artists tucked their tools into their aprons and knelt down.
I was confused by this sudden change but joined them on my knees, not wanting to be the only one left standing. The beats approached and suddenly we were surrounded by men on stilts wearing black rubber aprons and metal helmets with only small slits for the eyes. Everything in me wanted to run, but I waited to see what the others would do. All of the sculptors were simply staring at the ground. They didn't wear expressions of fear, but resignation.
The men on stilts held large canisters with nozzles, which I quickly realized were blow torches. My heart dropped. I looked around again at all the perfectly-carved replicas standing whimsical and stoic. The men's intention was clear. They lifted their torches and blazes of fire lit up the sky. I attempted to yell, but as in so many nightmares no sound emerged.
It took only a quick burst from the torches to make every figure dissolve, even those made of marble. Like snowmen melting in fast forward, the statues quickly lost their detail and dripped into nothing. The only remnants were little mounds where the figures had stood.
The sculptors stood up and waded through the melted swamp of butter and cream. I waded too, angry at the men on stilts who were now simply standing and watching. Suddenly I felt an urge to run and knock them over. Just as I started to move, everything stiffened and I was stuck. I felt myself falling over and only then did I wake up.
I lay there breathless and feeling otherworldly. It was rare that my dreams were so clear and left me so emotional. I felt a surge of anger at the waste of so much work. My blood coursed with vengeance toward the men in black. I wanted to return to the dream and push them over into the swirling mess they'd made. There even remained a tinge of hunger wishing for a lick of the grizzly bear's paw.
In response to this thought, my stomach growled. The real world beckoned. I looked at the clock. It was noon.
I stood up and felt even worse than before. My crawling skin balked at the rub of silk pajamas. The hiss of the radiator poked mercilessly at my sore eardrums. My throat was no longer on fire. It was charred.
Forcing down some bites of oatmeal, I resigned myself to the couch. My current editing project wasn't due for 4 days. If my body was telling me to slow down, I'd give in and rest.
Like a bad song stuck in my head, images from the dream wouldn't leave the periphery of my consciousness. I kept imagining the swirling pools of melted ice cream mixing with melted marble. The disfiguration of the statues had been haunting. Stronger than any recollection was my angst at the pointlessness of so much effort, the loss of the meticulous creations.
I remembered Gus's F-word poem and words starting with that consonant streamed through my thoughts -- frustration, folly, foe, fleeting, forfeit, fury, fire, failure, falling. Among all these, one word rose to the top. So much work had gone into the masterpieces and in moments they were gone. It was an exercise in perfect futility.
Whether drawn down by my raging fever or the nightmare, I was dragged to a place of melancholy that went beyond the dream. Suddenly so much of the real world seemed futile, so much of my own life an exercise in futility.
I thought of my never-ending work correcting and wordsmithing others' blunders. I reflected on my newly-made list of goals that included learning the harmonica and running the length of Manhattan. To what end were these aspirations meaningful? Finally, I looked over at my desk where the messages for the next gift were waiting to be delivered. The entire Big Ample venture felt like a misled craft project invented by a kid who'd outgrown her childproof scissors.
Entirely cranky, I turned to Hulu for a comedy that would take my mind off these escalating doubts. The newest New Girl fell flat and after 10 minutes I turned it off. Schmidt's humor was lost on the darkness I felt.
Turning to the stack of books on my coffee table, I opened Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If the cold outside and the cold in my head kept me a prisoner of the couch, at least I could read about running.
The gifted author's simple reflections proved soothing. I flowed through the pages and was especially touched by his reflection that to the outside observer all of the training could seem futile and pointless. However, the effort remains and therein lies the beauty of the process.
My mind went back to my race in July. He was right. You train five months for an event which is over in three hours. There is an air of futility to it all. But the glorious rush of crossing the finish line is so delicious that all the time in training is worth it.
With that memory, I fell asleep with the book across my chest and the little image on the cover of a running Murakami emanating directly out of my heart.
I woke from the nap just as the sun was setting. It was as if the author's hopeful words had waged war with the lingering nightmare and a new inner dialogue had taken over the territory of my mind.
I thought again about The Big Ample project. Yes, it was simple with a touch of silly, but it was worth the effort. Wasn't it little projects like these that breathed life into the world's greatest cities after all? The locales were mesmerizing not because of grand skyscrapers, but for the small mementos that filled up the spaces in between -- a solo saxophonist playing on the corner, a graffiti artist painting a jaw-dropping mural, a subway car transformed into a formal dining room by jovial teenagers. Like invisible bricks, these actions built the great foundations of urban life. They formed the informal architecture that made cities truly beautiful.
My line of thinking shifted. More than adding to a city's beauty, I thought, the greatest building we can do is building up ourselves. The goal-setting and the aspiring are not in vain if they help to grow the heart.
I picked the book up off my chest and finished the last few pages. Murakami reflected that to an outsider, long-distance running might look like filling an old pan with water. What was it worth if all the liquid flowed out of a hole in the bottom?
I thought about this imagery for some time and it took on a new meaning outside of running. Yes, efforts to fill such a pan would be wasted if filling the pan was the end goal. But what if effort for the sake of effort was enough and we had to have faith there would be a positive outcome? Perhaps water dripping out of the hole would fall onto latent seeds unbeknownst to us. Perhaps the effort wouldn't be wasted because we were actually watering a garden unawares.
Just as a teacher may never know how his lessons transform a student's life or a songwriter may not see the eventual impact of her stanzas, perhaps it is the effort itself which allows something beautiful to grow, even if we don't always witness the outcome.
Maybe life was an exercise in futility, my feverish thoughts volleyed back and forth. But maybe, just maybe, it was a chance for us to lay our proverbial bricks and build something wonderful. Maybe it was a chance to inadvertently water barren earth that would soon become a field of flowers.