Donna Steiner


I live among trees in a house made of windows. Outside one is a stand of maples, barren except for the frayed kerchief of a single leaf that hangs on like one of those cartoon dogs that bites a human leg and gets flung about by its jaw, flapping about the hapless leg, or a cartoon vagabond who runs for a train and gets whipped in its wake, clinging by one elongated hobo arm. When the wind picks up it rips right through the tattered leaf, and reminds me of a house I lived in once, a different house, an old house. It, too, had many windows, dozens and dozens of them. A window installer had lived there before us, and we inherited glass panes of every size and shape, including 84 squares of windows overlooking the small cemetery in the backyard, and a half-moon window in the bedroom. That house had a foundation made of large river rocks that had been plastered into coherence at one time, but the plaster had given out in places and so when it rained, the run-off would stream right through the foundation. It sounded like we had a waterfall downstairs, but because the basement was quite shallow the water didn’t accumulate. The house was on a hill, so the rain would wend its way through the basement on its way somewhere lower. That solitary leaf is like that foundation – wind rushes right through it, like a ghost quivering through paper.

At night, outside this house of windows, the black mat of the sky is spattered with droplets of nickel and silver, stars that drip to the horizon. That’s not an exaggeration; the stars trickle from the heavens to the horizon, and there are no strip malls or street lights to dilute their shine, no light pollution to speak of. There are no office buildings alit well past dusk, no neon bar signs, no churches or temples shining their lamps to beckon the lost. It’s lonely, I’m saying, and I’ve found that beauty can be an antidote to loneliness. Sometimes, in fact, beauty is more of a companion than company is. Maybe that’s why certain temperaments will seek out a book or sit quietly in a dark theater, transfixed by ink on a page or light passing through images on film. Beauty is good company.

And so, from this window, I watch the stars tumble toward Earth. And so I observe that the battered maple leaf has quieted itself, become as still and potent as a flag at half-mast. And so the cough of a neighbor across the dark yard sparks the hopeful sack of the heart.


Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in The Bellingham Review, Utne Reader, The Sun, Fourth Genre, and Isotope. She’s been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Annie Dillard Award for nonfiction. Her work has been included in college textbooks, and can be found in the anthologies Women on the Verge, Under the Influence, and What’s Your Exit: A Literary Detour through New Jersey. She teaches creative writing at the State University of New York in Oswego.