Driving down route 14 to Elmira this morning, around the crack of dawn, I saw an elemental. It was a pocket of fog or low-hanging cloud suspended in the most sharply chiseled part of the valley, orphaned just above the grey roof of the old farmhouse wedged between the steep hills. I always think of that spot, somewhere between Montour Falls and Millport, as the Chemung Valley, although of course that name refers to a much greater region. I should think of it as the Bermuda Triangle for vintage tractors instead – there is always a lineup of these sturdy machines by the roadside, and there used to be an antique farm equipment field day in the pasture every summer. Maybe the tractors are still there, and maybe the field day still goes on – I was too fixated on the atmospherics to notice. Whoever put that house in that locale must have had an eye for the mystical, as that is a particularly damp, dusky valley. The sun shines only a few hours, lost as it is behind the east hill at sunrise and the west hill at sunset. Elementals must be a regular feature in the landscape, and they are too magnificent to be the souls of rusted-out tractors.
In case you are not familiar with the terminology I use here, I’ll quote from the definitive source on spine-tingling mist effects. Here is Cassandra Mortmain, speaking to Simon Cotton in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Cassandra is celebrating her childhood “Midsummer Rites” for the last time, putting on perfume and lighting a sacramental bonfire on the mound outside the ruins of a medieval castle:
The mist from the moat was rolling right up Belmotte; already the lower slopes were veiled.
I said: “It’s like the night when we saw the Shape.”
I told him about it as we carried the branches to the fire: “It happened the third year we held the rites, after a very hot, windless day like to-day. As the mist came towards us, it suddenly formed into a giant shape as high as – oh higher than – the tower. It hung there between us and the castle; it seemed to be falling forward over us – I never felt such terror in my life. And the queer thing was that neither of us tried to run away; we screamed and flung ourselves face downwards before it. It was an elemental, of course – I’d been saying a spell to raise one.”
He laughed and said it must have been some freak of the mist: “You poor kids! What happened then?”
“I prayed to God to take it away and He very obligingly did – Rose was brave enough to look up after a minute or two and it had vanished. I felt rather sorry for it afterwards; I daresay no one had summoned it since the Ancient Britons.”
Simon laughed again, then looked at me curiously: “You don’t, by any chance, still believe it was an elemental?”
Do I? I only know that just then I happened to look down towards the oncoming mist – its first rolling rush was over and it was creeping thinly – and suddenly the memory of that colossal shape came back so terrifyingly I very nearly screamed. I managed a feeble laugh instead and began to throw wood on the fire so that I could let the subject drop.
I didn’t feel terror at the sight of the Shape on route 14, but I came rather close a few minutes later when I was lying on a narrow plastic table with a blanket swaddling my middle and a massive x-ray device hovering centimeters away from my torso. It was a routine medical test, and the idea was to take a look inside my gallbladder. Perhaps the sight of medical technology is more scary than any mist cloud, or maybe it’s the hospital that does the trick, with all the departments and clinics and wards for all the various things that can go wrong in the body. Or perhaps it’s just being told to hold still that made me edgy, because of course at the bottom of it I’m just a wild animal like everyone else. Or at least an Ancient Briton.
I held still -- for an hour and ten minutes -- and closed my eyes and listened to literary interviews on my iPod. The theme of the interviews was: literature is hard. Giving your life to art is hard; finding an audience, getting your work into the world without being shaped by a market or a corporation or starvation – hard. Holding still under an x-ray machine is no big deal, in the scheme of things.
I Capture the Castle is my perfect book, the one that initiated me into the mysteries of literature. I don’t suppose it’s the only book that could have worked – the right book at the right time is what’s needed. Age 12, plus summer in a lush green place (Pulaski), plus English castles, struggling families, and the literary potential of romantic struggles (Hello, Stephen Colly!). Plus elementals – great humid shapes that materialize out of mist and air, ideas, or conceptions, that emerge against the backdrop of everyday life and tower over everything.