It was a strangely normal window. The green paint looked - while not fresh - likely to last for quite some time. The glass wasn’t the old sort that warped and shifted everything outside it, nor was it cracked or grimy. The latch was undone but still smooth, so that when Sophie carefully moved it back and forth all it did was utter one small whistling squeak of protest before quieting down. There was no indication whatsoever that this window was special in any way.
This, of course, was the exact reason Sophie had approached it. After all, what nine-year-old wouldn’t notice such an ordinary window in such an un-ordinary house? Built long before anyone had given a thought to mechanically openable windows or foundations, the building sagged in a melancholy, defeated fashion. Its walls were warped and its floor groaned even when there wasn’t anyone stepping on it. When it rained, the damp mist would make its way through the door that didn’t fit in its frame and settle over the spiderwebs set up in the corners of the rooms.
It was the spiderwebs that had caught Sophie’s eye. She had been walking to her own house, which was rather out of the way and required two bus trips and a ten minute stroll. She had also been humming, but when she recalled the moment years later she couldn’t for the life of her remember the tune.
“It was… sort of happy,” she reflected. “But also rather mysterious. Lots of short notes, and so forth. I remember because when I looked through that window, all the little notes got piled up in my head and came spilling out of my mouth at once.”
The window was so ordinary that Sophie had never given any thought to it until that moment. But that day, something caught her eye. A glint, a shimmer, some flash from inside that dark, lonely house that made her stop dead.
Approaching the front of the house, she reasoned with herself. It was a fluke. Something metal inside. The glare from the sun. And yet she continued walking forward, her bag forgotten at the edge of the road. Sometimes she would lose sight of the jewel-like gleam and her heart would stop, afraid that it had gone forever. But it always appeared again, not so much comforting or encouraging but terrifying, exciting. It felt like jumping straight into the ice cold mountain creek by the old schoolhouse - exhilarating. Her muscles were tensed, her heart in her throat and her eyes ready to squeeze shut at any moment and at the same time remaining wide, wide open.
Closer to the window she could discern more details of the strange light. It looked like a string of tiny pearls but more, like it was diamonds and candle flame and mirrors and rainbows all at once. It was strung, hanging, swaying slightly. Sophie stepped carefully over the dry grass outside the house and ever so carefully moved even nearer. It was a spiderweb. But like no spiderweb she had ever seen. It boughed down in a swooping arc, its many feet grasping the wood of the ceiling with an iron grip. And droplets of water covered it from head to toe, sliding along its arms and running down until they drip, drip, dripped onto the floor from the center.
Suddenly Sophie felt restless. She had to get in that house. She had to see the web up close. Crossing the few feet of space in between her and the door, she slipped through the sizable gap left by the warped frame and entered the dark, musty hall.
It was gloomy, and immediately a cacophony of screeches and creaks found its way out of the fragile floorboards. Sophie tread carefully, making her way towards the spiderweb. But when she arrived, when she tilted her head to stare at the tangle of threads - it had lost its glory. It lay crouched in the corner of the room, dripping with water but no longer with those jewels of beauty she had so clearly seen before.
This was, of course, no real hardship; but as nine-year-olds often do Sophie felt terribly as if she had lost something precious and would never get it back. She backed out of the room with her eyes fixed on the web, but her desperate hope to see it once again flare into life turned into bitter disappointment and - feeling slightly foolish - she picked up her bag and walked quickly home.
Later that evening the scene faded, plastered over with all the new and more exciting memories she had picked up on her way back home. Several days later, she had all but forgotten it and if she had been reminded of the incident she would have scrunched up her forehead like someone remembering an experience from many years ago. Such is the gift - and curse - of children.
It was in fact over a week later that she gave any thought to the old house at all, and it came on rather suddenly, during the organ’s plodding march. It was Sunday morning, she was tugging slightly on the frilly ends of her dress, and the plain green window popped into her head as if it had never left. Possibly it was the shards of green set into the tall stained-glass windows that brought it to mind. Possibly it was the echoing, mysterious tune bouncing off the cathedral-like walls. More likely however, it was the myriad tiny, neuron-sparking trains whose electric paths through children’s brains are so devastatingly ineffable.
That night, as soon as she was sure of the silence of the house, Sophie leapt out of bed and out into the woods. It was cold. Cold and dark. Dark and eerie. But Sophie kept going, the lantern she had grabbed at the last minute from the dining room table swinging from her hand.
Five minutes later Sophie stood outside of the house, peering at the window with trepidation. In the dark it didn’t seem ordinary at all. It loomed, the dark wood around it fading until it floated in the air, beckoning her closer with wind-blown tree branches. She inched forward, her heart nearly beating out of her chest. Raising her lantern high, she peered into the depths of the window, searching desperately for the magic that had so entranced her before.
The lantern’s light fell over the window frame, bringing it into sharp relief. Some of it glanced off of the glass surface of the window, but the rest fell in a golden pool inside the building. It illuminated the rotted wooden walls. It shone onto the shadowy beams holding up the roof. And it caught inside the glitter in the corner of the room.
Sophie pressed forward. It was as if the lantern light were being sucked into the spiderweb. Instead of the glistening, glinting, diamond-esque droplets she had seen before, these glowed golden in the flickering firelight. Pressing her nose against the window, her eyes widened as she stared. Each droplet looked like a flame, golden-red swirls spinning through it as it rolled down the web to drip, drip, drip on the floor.
As she leaned forward, the window seemed to tilt away from her and she gasped as she stumbled, pulled by gravity and curiosity toward the strange, fiery beauty of the spiderweb.
She fell through the window with a surprised squeak, the lantern flickering wildly in panic from the ground beside her. Turning her shocked gaze to it, Sophie imagined that the flame was a golden fairy, beating her fists wildly against the walls to be let out. Something deep inside Sophie’s chest had sprung open - had been liable to ever since she saw the web for the first time and that scent of magic had reached her nose. She felt awake for the first time in her life, tingling all over with electric excitement. When she put her hand in the dirt on the floor the nerve endings in her fingers exploded with sensation and her knuckles spasmed, grabbing at the floor instinctively. It was as if all her life she had been wrapped in gauze and had never realized what it felt like to touch something.
Sophie stood up cautiously, eyes fixed on the web that still glowed in the lantern light. Her heartbeat felt unnaturally loud - she was suddenly conscious of her breathing and as a direct consequence was finding it more difficult to perform. Her mind skittered over the fact that her eyes were seeing fire, her nose was smelling magic, her ears were hearing songs, her tongue was tasting ashes, and her fingers gripped tightly over the lantern handle were feeling cool metal.
Stepping closer, she stared with narrow eyes at the rounded, glistening droplets that covered the web. She reached out a finger, and they drip, drip, dripped onto it before continuing their interrupted journey to the floor.
“What are you?” she whispered, but her voice echoed around the enclosed space like a foghorn. She imagined she could see her breath as it left her throat, jetting out like a gust of wind that could set a sea to storm, billowing out in a screaming mass that grasped the jeweled web and shook it terrier-like in its hands. The web trembled, then shivered, then shooke so violently that the steady drip, drip became a more rhythmic patter patter patter. Drops of molten fire fell to the floor in a mass exodus, where they collected in dark puddles which Sophie was scared would catch fire, they were so oily and black. She jerked back, but the damage was done and the thin strands of the web sat near invisible, devoid of their pearlescent adornments.
Sophie gasped in a quick intake of breath, the emotion of which she had trouble recalling later.
“I remember the feeling of emptiness,” she said, nestled deep in her armchair with her hands clasped on her lap. “And it was so powerful that I had to take a breath, as if I were trying to fill a part of myself where the things that were supposed to be there had gone missing.”
I was seated in the opposite chair, with my pen in hand. “But the experience didn’t leave you with any negative emotions?”
She laughed. “Not at all. In fact, I rather think that when I breathed in, I gained much more than I had originally lost.”
Sophie breathed in. She breathed air, yes, but also magic. And fire. And the tang of metal and the scrape of old wooden boards and the flaky green paint from the windowsill. And when she turned, lantern in hand, and walked out of that dusty room, she carried something different in her heart.
When I asked her about it many years later, she responded with “magic.” Then she elaborated. “I felt different. I felt as if my eyes had been opened to the things around me - as if when I walked back into the world I was aware of things that others were not. I noticed when people breathed, when they blinked. I never once forgot how lucky I was to be a part of such a living, breathing, blinking world.”
I thanked her, and took my leave. My goal then was to write an article about her upcoming novel, not quite finished at that point. But we accumulate many things throughout our lives, and not all of them are magic. Sophie died of lead poisoning later that year, and never lived to see the subsequent release of her book.
This - slightly fanciful, I must admit - article is dedicated to the children who seek knowledge in unlikely places, and find hidden things in that particular way that children can. May they never learn to ignore what is mundane and strange and wonderful about this world.