‘Strange Moonlight’ by Conrad Aiken

Strange Moonlight by Conrad Aiken, 1925

The magic trick:

A boy processing death through his imagination

In “Strange Moonlight,” our young protagonist processes the death of a girl in his neighborhood by filtering it through his own imaginary world. That world is a world influenced by horror, mythology, and romance. So he almost seems to enjoy placing this young girl’s death into the stuff of his dreams. The reader, of course, knows better, so we take in the entire process with a feeling of reality and tragedy. It’s a very affecting combination.

And that’s quite a trick on Aiken’s part.

The selection:

Upstairs, in the playroom, they found Caroline, sitting on the floor with a picture book. She was learning to read, pointing at the words with her finger. He was struck by the fact that, although she was extraordinarily strange and beautiful, John Lee did not seem to be aware of it and treated her as if she were quite an ordinary sort of person. This gave him courage, and after the air-gun had been examined, the bag of BB shot emptied of its gleaming heavy contents and then luxuriously refilled, he told her some of the words she couldn’t make out. “And what’s this?“ she had said—“he could still hear her say it, quite clearly. She was thin, smaller than himself, with dark hair and large pale eyes, and her forehead and hands looked curiously transparent. He particularly noticed her hands when she brought her five-dollar goldpiece to show him, opening a little jewel box which had in it also a necklace of yellow beads from Egypt and a pink shell from Tybee Beach. She gave him the goldpiece to look at, and while he was looking at it put the beads round her neck. “Now, I’m an Egyptian” she said, and laughed shyly, running her fingers to and fro over the smooth beads. A fearful temptation came upon him. He coveted the goldpiece, and thought that it would be easy to steal it. He shut his hand over it and it was gone. If it had been john’s, he might have done so, but, as it was, he opened his hand again and put the goldpiece back in the box. Afterwards, he stayed for a long while, talking with john and Caroline. The house was mysterious and rich, and he hadn’t at all wanted to go out of it, or back to his own humdrum existence. Besides, he liked to hear Caroline talking.

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