There are perfectly rational people who believe in magic. They consider reality suspect after years of observation, after ten or a hundred not-quite-explicable encounters. They keep a list, and perhaps, under the influence of literary pretensions, they'll show it to you.
I am not such a person. I have a talent for bringing out the plainness in things. Ghosts elect not to reveal themselves to me, generally speaking.
But there is one thing. I was four years old, and I suspect that what follows has as much basis in reality as anything else I remember from that long ago.
I attended a preschool affixed to a Methodist church, which meant that, when Christmas loomed, we four-year-olds were made to sing about it. Some weekdays they herded us before the pews and led us in practice. And we practiced, forever. I remember the boredom, and that the little choir-herd seemed anonymous enough to me that I felt at liberty to pick my nose. I don't remember the music, or anything else; at any rate I never actually sang.
On performance night—it wouldn't have been Christmas, or Christmas Eve, but it wouldn't have been long before—I became so absorbed in my not-singing that I nearly failed to notice the gold lady above the door.
This was not, I think, one of those churches with a balcony that cuts from one side to the other across the front wall. There seemed no room up there for anyone to stand—and yet there she stood. She may have been dressed in tight-fitting clothes, or nude, for all I knew, but the whole of her, torso and arms, hair, the flesh of her broad face, shone dimly gold. I felt certain that she was a woman, though she had no sex-betraying feature, no breasts to speak of. I remember most clearly her color, and second-most clearly her short hair, her angular head, her half-closed eyes that may have been too big. She was not pretty.
She swayed and flailed in time with the scattered childish singing, and, in lieu of daydreaming, I fixed my attention upon her. I could only assume that she was some adult, someone or other related to the night's events. A music teacher, maybe. And she didn't seem strange to me—who knew all that adults did?
Perhaps she noticed me; she never seemed to. By the time we finished, and began to file out into the audience, toward our families, she had gone. I did not see her go.
Later, riding home in back of my grandmother's minivan, I asked whether anyone had seen the gold lady above the door—asked and insisted, and my mother and grandmother insisted that there had been no one. I understood then that perhaps something unusual had happened. I didn't mention it again.
"Something unusual"—that's how I recall it. The gold lady appeared in church, but she fit nowhere among the religious iconography I knew from my four years as a member of a vaguely Catholic family, and the decades of reading I've done in the meantime offer little help in making sense of the experience.
I've never entirely trusted my memory. I grew into a skeptic.
But I haven't forgotten. And it affected me, perhaps.
It always begins when autumn begins in earnest, and everything withers and retreats. Autumn to me seems suffused with strangeness, with anticipation and traces of dread. Autumn is when the net of sanity breaks in places. It stretches and snaps, and disintegrates on Christmas Eve—and when the 25th of December dawns properly, everything feels normal again, and the Christmas parades herald disappointment and relief.
This because the gold lady crept into the house of Christ undetected, and appeared before the most unlikely observer. Or so I remember, and the truth of it hardly matters anymore.
BIO:Z. J. Woods writes stories instead of working on his M.A. thesis. He fails to maintain a preliminary web presence here.