Sybil Bruncheon’s “Aren’t People Fascinating?”…. Fiona and the French Horn.

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Fiona Farlywell was a nice enough girl! Charming at parties, respectful to her elders, considerate to strangers, kind to animals and people with strange moles or twitches…. And yet the terrible secret she hid even from her parents was the gnawing angst that eats away at those of us who are deeply philosophical about life…who wonder what this is all about…. who are always told “You think TOO MUCH!”… usually by well-meaning grandparents or sweaty next door neighbors… It started when Fiona was five, at her 5th birthday party actually, when she had her first suicidal thoughts. She’d seen a movie about Nero on the local tv station’s Saturday Tea-Time Matinee, and was stunned that someone would kill themselves. It had never occurred to her. She could barely conceive at her young age of someone really dying, let alone making themselves die, so as her birthday party started that evening with her family gathering around her, she asked them what would happen if she killed herself. It was right before her mom and grandmother were going to bring the cake out from the kitchen with its pink candles twinkling cheerfully as grandpa turned off the lights in the dining room… Needless to say, her sweet little voice piping brightly such an existential question, and so bluntly, “What would happen if I killed myself?”….well, are you surprised to hear that the entire party stopped dead? Cousins, uncles, aunts, some nice people from next door, her father’s boss and his chubby wife…. Everyone! Everyone stopped dead. They were too shocked even to gasp. People, nice people in the suburbs didn’t say such things…or even think them.

       And so, that was the beginning of Fiona’s …shall we say “estrangement” from the world around her. As I told you, “Fiona Farlywell was a nice enough girl! Charming at parties, respectful to her elders, considerate to strangers, kind to animals and people with strange moles or twitches….”… but being “nice enough” was a euphemism for being …”kinda strange” as her family’s neighbors would whisper over their shopping carts at the grocery store in the cereals and jellies aisle…. “Oh look. There’s Fiona Farlywell. Pretty enough..but… well… you know.”

      It was at Fiona’s seventeenth birthday, without a party, (“Why bother?”, she told her mother when it was offered to her. Her mother got tearful and fled the kitchen) It was that night when Fiona went out for a walk in the frosty air at about two in the morning. She tiptoed down the stairs, avoiding those twelfth and thirteenth steps that creaked and the fourteenth that groaned loud enough to wake her restless dad. She bundled up in the pink and fuchsia super-thick scarf and tam that her grandmother knitted for her the year before. She wrapped herself in her super-toasty down puffer jacket in the matching pink, but cropped so that it showed off her beautiful legs and behind, not that she cared really. She never really thought in those terms, and now…well… tonight on her seventeenth birthday, she was thinking of something totally different. “Why am I bothering to dress so warmly? Why …when I’m going to….??”… but what was she going to do…or how? What was it going to be? She was strangely calm and resigned… but oddly disorganized. Even as she bundled up, and carefully tiptoed out so as not to wake up anybody. She even chuckled to herself about how considerate she was being…on the last night of her life. “Typical me!” she whispered as she eased open the front door carefully, and then silently latching it behind her. She stepped carefully out onto the icy front porch so as not to slip. The night had been sleeting, and everything; the porch, the walks, the yard, the trees and every branch were coated in glassy sparkling ice. “Yes”, she thought, “the whole world on my last night has been dipped in molten glass and is frozen perfectly. Beautiful. Brittle. Forever. That’s how I’ll be when I leave it. And how I’ll remember it…if there’s something after this…”.

           And then she began her journey. Down the curving little street that she had known all her life. Where she had first learned to walk, her chubby, dimpled little hands held high and tightly in her adoring father’s as he helped her stand and toddle in her first Spring. The same sidewalk that she had learned to first ride her tricycle, her Mary-Janed feet barely reaching the pedals, but gradually grasping the concept of pedaling, and in a very short time, propelling her round and round the block to the delight of her laughing grandma and her friend, Mrs. Jollup who made the delicious chocolate chip cookies, always warm from the oven with great chunks of dark chocolate and a sprinkle of sea salt. The same sidewalk, where she rode her bicycle, bright red with the fluttering hot-pink streamers in the handles, the horn AND the bell, the reflectors AND the bike-light, and the baseball card that her neighbor, Mr. Greenleaf had placed just-so on the back wheel so that it ratcheted crisply as she rounded the corner. How funny, she thought… that day when her dad suggested that they remove the training wheels and let her try riding her bike without them. No! No, she was too scared! And then she remembered her father’s twinkling eyes, the way they crinkled so handsomely when he was laughing from his heart, and sometimes how they would sparkle, maybe with tears when he was feeling that deep joy that he would try to explain to her, especially when she delighted him…or made him proud of her. His eyes had teared up a little when he chuckled as he told her that he had secretly been raising her training wheels week after week so that she wouldn’t even notice that she had been confidently riding her two-wheeler with no effort at all… Fiona had stared in disbelief until he showed her, wobbling the brilliant red bike’s back wheel. The training wheels barely touched the sidewalk. “Of course”, she thought. “I’ve had to lean the bicycle against the garage wall every evening when I’ve come home.”… the kickstand didn’t seem to be holding it up anymore. And it was her dad’s cleverness that had done it all…as usual.

        She stepped carefully down the sidewalk of her life, her short but eventful years, her memories, bright and sunny even on this black and brittle night in the dead of Winter. She was unafraid, almost expectant…and elated. What was she walking towards? What was she going to do…and where? She finally reached the corner of her street and the avenue that led to her school to the right, and to the left to the deep woods by the river. She stopped and looked both ways, straight ahead, and then up…up to the sky that was blacker than she had ever seen it, except for the sharply studded stars that twinkled more than she ever remembered seeing them ..and in greater numbers than she had ever seen as well. Millions of them. Millions. Whiter than ever against a sky that was blacker than ever. How strange and perfect for her last night. She was deeply comforted in all that vast openness…and didn’t feel empty in all that emptiness. She reveled in how delighted she was to be that small in a universe that was so big. She felt immensely warm and cozy knowing how unimportant she was in a cosmos of such gigantic movement and meaning. “I’ll walk to the river” she decided, but paused, and then, “I’ll go look one last time at my school. One last time…just to say goodbye”…. Fiona turned to the right, inching her way on the frozen ice covering everything. Had there ever been a night this cold? The whole world seemed to be made of pure ice. Here and there as she moved down the block, block after block, she slipped a little, but she caught herself each time. How ridiculous she thought that she could slip on the ice, knock herself out on the pavement, and freeze to death during the night, to be found in the morning…inexplicably... staring up at the fading stars and the dawn beginning to turn the Eastern sky a brightening pink....

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