The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a faded city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I gathered!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

The Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

A Secret Junkyard

Pender glared at his marvelous invention. No matter how hard he hammered, the critical gear refused to turn.

Which meant the pendulum could never swing. And the pulley could never pull. And the mainspring could never spring.

And the crystal wings that projected from either side of his shining golden hummingbird would remain lifeless, eternally.

Pender’s invention lay motionless at the center of his desk.

He couldn’t bear to look at it.

Reaching across his desk, Pender pressed several keys of an antique black typewriter. A fatal click sounded in his private study. A bookcase swung open.

Pender jumped up, roughly grabbed one crystal wing and whisked his failure across the small study. With one lunging step he carried it through the bookcase . . .

Behind Pender’s books stretched a junkyard. An immense junkyard: his infinite, private, painful secret. His manifold failures littered a bewildering expanse. Scattered to the right and to the left, his wrecks had been thrown carelessly into chaotic nonexistence. Pender felt bitter revulsion for that junkyard. So many marvelous inventions, each aborted.

Pender tossed the shining hummingbird over a few broken things and it landed in a lifeless heap. He turned, determined not to see.

So many aborted dreams.

Every one wonderful.

An elegant baby grand piano, attached with baling wire to the top of a diesel locomotive. But the train was too loud.

A fifty-foot mechanical clown powered by the sonic energy of human laughter. But nobody laughed.

A glass carriage containing one thousand red roses and an Egyptian mummy. But the smell was horrific.

A flying saucer built with toilet paper tubes, tinfoil, rubber bands, white multi-purpose glue and three jet engines. But the rubber bands inevitably broke.

A magnificent hot air balloon of sewn-together silk stockings. A few stockings had holes.

A gigantic pirate ship carved out of Swiss cheese. The rats fled.

An upside down triangular house. That had a tendency to tip over.

A contraption consisting of a warped lawn chair, a pair of skis, one rubber tire, a bicycle chain, a mannequin, a cuckoo clock, a stove pipe hat, goose feathers, profuse sweat and shed tears.

Pender’s brightening eyes lingered on the contraption.

It had so much potential.

Impulsively, Pender grabbed hold of his preposterous creation, lifted it with all of his strength and carried it out of the secret junkyard into his small study. He placed the thing on his desk. He tested the bicycle chain and straightened the stove pipe hat.

Pender touched several keys of his black typewriter, closing the bookcase.

He feverishly went to work.

A Long, Deep Drink

A painter stepped carefully across tumbled rocks to the very end of the jetty. She placed her easel on a flat table of rock.

She opened the menu:

Sea-splashed rocks stretching back to the shore. Glistening cubes of jello.

Blue ripples of water on the sheltered side of the jetty. Spatula-dabbed blueberry frosting.

The mast-filled marina. Toothpicks in marshmallows on a bright silver tray.

The lighthouse at the end of Moondown Point. A peppermint stick.

The clouds above a shoulder of mountain. Whipped cream.

The contours of Earth. Spooned chocolate pudding.

Nearby cottages. Gumdrops.

The beach. Gently rolled, sugary white fudge, with a mouthwatering variety of tasty sprinkles.

Umbrellas along the sand. Tempting lollipops.

Her eyes turned.

A rimless bowl of water. Only water . . . and formless light.

A long, deep, quenching drink of simple water.

She drank.

The Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like immense bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary art installation. At night hundreds of suspended lights illuminated the space beneath the bones. The effect was fantastic. The bones vanished and the colored lights became a galaxy of stars.

During lunchtime many in the plaza paused to read the sign. The thing was titled Earthbound. Predictably entering the yawning entrance, a line of people passed through unelectrified bones. When they exited they walked on as though nothing had happened.

I watched people move through the bones from a bench as I devoured my sandwich.

People walked steadily through. I’m not sure what they expected to see.

A tiny girl with an ice cream cone came flying across the plaza. She darted straight into the bones. She sprinted wildly to the opposite end, twirled around, ran back out into the open. She jumped up and down excitedly, laughed, yammered something I didn’t understand, then dashed once again into the bones. Stopping halfway through, she began leaping up and down with abandon, swinging her arms with glee, sending the pistachio ice cream on her cone up through the air like a green rocket. I don’t believe she read the sign.

Beth’s Window

Beth loved to sit by the blue ocean. She loved to watch the clouds, the sea breeze sway white sails.

Her special park bench was planted among flowers. Like the dancing sails, the flowers came to life in the breeze, their bright colors tickling her eyes, tickling the sparkling blue that stretched away beyond sight. At the horizon the aquamarine water transformed to topaz.  From there, ascendant magic lifted sun-sculpted clouds.

The world of flowers, water and sky seemed to her like a living window. A window with no frame.

. . .

The afternoon of the total eclipse brought a wall of people to the water’s side. The wall stood in front of Beth’s bench.

The wall’s eyes were down.

Anxious hands clutched a blank piece of paper. The people minutely examined a tiny crescent of light produced by a pin hole.

At total eclipse, the people craned their necks momentarily toward the appalling black hole in the sky.

Then stared again at slivers of light.

The wall finally crumbled.

Sitting on her bench, her small, single perch beside the stretching ocean, Beth breathed in with relief.

The shutters of her window had been reopened.

Beth gazed with her ever-thirsty eyes at the water, the endless sky. Above crushed flowers white sails still swayed in the ocean breeze, moving across the blue water. The living clouds were touched again by eternal light. And she knew her flowers would regrow.

The Piano Player Sat Down

The piano player sat down. For a moment he paused. Then he opened his hands.

From his fingertips emerged a shining coin.

The pianist spread 88 playing cards smoothly in a row. Every listener picked one card. With a touch he found it.

A flower sprang from his sleeve.

Inescapable ropes were cast aside with the twist of his hand.

Handcuffs fell off.

Into the black cauldron his moving fingers stirred fallen tears, a sprinkle of stars, lost memory, alchemy.

A white rabbit leaped from the cabinet, vanishing.

Applause.

How to Paint Angels

Another angel, not quite perfect. Carol snatched the canvas off the easel and balled it up hard. She flung her creation into the fireplace and watched the devouring flames turn wings black.

Like a dead weight Carol sank to the carpet, then lay on her back and shut her eyes. She tried to shut out the world.

That evening, after some television news and a bite to eat, she was compelled to place a new white canvas onto the empty easel. She stared at the blank space. She dipped her delicate brush into silver.

As usual she began with the angel wings. Her strokes were precise, slow.

The most difficult part was always the eyes. They never came out right. Angel eyes were a puzzle. She would do them last.

A knock at the door.

“Come in!”

It was her new friend Monique. “I’m sorry–I didn’t know you were busy–here’s the jacket you left in Tony’s car. I’ll leave you here to your work.”

“No! Please stay for a minute! The apartment can feel so empty. It’s nice to have some company for a change.”

“What’s this? You painted all these?”

Carol laughed. “It’s my hobby, I guess.”

“Seriously? It beats making tin foil Christmas tree ornaments, or any silly thing I’ve ever attempted. I didn’t know you were an artist! They’re absolutely beautiful!”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Wonder what–if they’re beautiful?”

“If they’re as perfect as angels should be.”

“They’re angels. How can they not be beautiful?” laughed Monique, wandering slowly about Carol’s small apartment, turning right and then left. She gazed with increasing wonder at a dozen silvery canvases on easels. There was such a clutter of angels that it was difficult to maneuver.

Monique looked quickly at each canvas. The heavenly paintings were exquisite but something about them was odd. They felt unnatural. Something vital seemed to be missing. And there were so many. She didn’t want to say anything. That would be impolite.

“You might have noticed that none of my angels have eyes,” Carol remarked, trying not to sound embarrassed. “Not yet.”

“Oh my gosh! I was just thinking there was something kind of strange about them. Now I see why! They’re absolutely wonderful but the faces are wrong. So you’re waiting to paint the eyes on all these? Are they difficult to do?”

“I always have trouble with my eyes.”

“Me, too,” smiled Monique. “That’s why I wear glasses.”

They both laughed.

. . .

Carol rolled in a nightmare. It was another lucid dream of Hell.

Blackness swallowed her. She was spinning, drowning in an infinite void, suffocating in ungraspable nothingness. There was no light, not a trace of substance or form.

A tomb.

In the blackness she struggled to find her hand. She was desperate to lift her hand and touch something, feel anything. She could find nothing. Spinning, spinning, she was alone, less than nothing in the consuming nothingness.

It was a Hell without flames, without demons or evil, without time, only emptiness. A devouring nightmare that had erased her entire world.

No hope.

Panicking, she strained in her mind to remember some known thing. A face, a ray of sunshine. Something in a vanished life she understood. Something near. Deep in her mind she tried to grasp at anything, a momentary spark, an atom, to cling to, to push back the black, ruthless, eternal Nothing.

Nothing.

In the blackness she caught a glimmer.

She woke.

Her dark apartment was strangely aglow. She lifted her head from her pillow. All about her were living eyes. Eyes of pure light, living light. Warm light.

Carol jumped out of bed and flipped on the cold apartment light.

She began painting eyes.

Irresistible Gravity

A leaf blower came by every Monday.

A tree in a concrete planter had been placed at the center of a concrete plaza. It fed on the dark water of janitors. It shed a few leaves.

Around and around the spindly trunk rode a grown man on a motorized skateboard with a nicely groomed beard. Mounted on his head was a tiny lens. Around and around he circled one afternoon. Around, around, around.

The tree dropped a leaf.

The Nicely Groomed Man rode briskly away, and later that night he watched his twinkling video on a screen in a small dark room.  He then sent if off to a virtual place to show everybody, anybody. The blurred scene, he thought, was like art. He was a satellite. The lone tree was a strange sun. Its gravity was irresistible. He returned to work the next day.

During lunch the bearded man spooned a cup of drippy noodles and thoughtfully regarded the tree. Cigarette butts and litter had been tossed into the concrete planter. The tree grew in a false light reflected from a wall of sheer, faceless offices. A wonderful forlorn miracle. How did it grow? Why did it grow?

Where did it come from? Who placed it there? It didn’t occur to the man that they were alike. Both in that plaza. Waiting. Waiting.

Another day came. A janitor dumped a bucket of dark water.

A leaf blower arrived on Monday.

The Drawing of Leaves

Kayon seldom spoke. He preferred to draw leaves with a ballpoint pen.

Sitting in Lakefront Park under an old maple tree, he drew the veins of living leaves on clean bits of paper he found in the garbage. His hand was patient; his eyes were sharp.

Looking carefully from tree to paper, tree to paper, Kayon sat quietly. First he drew the stem of a maple leaf, which was easy. Then he drew the distinctive lobes. Then he drew the veins. Hours passed and people passed, and shadows in the park gradually shortened . . . lengthened. His pen moved.  The leaves that he formed with thin lines of ink were so close to perfect they seemed to come alive on the scraps of paper.

They became more than alive.

Whenever someone walked past the place where he sat, Kayon held up one of his beautiful leaves. “For you,” he’d say.

Many of the people cautiously, greedily took the small piece of paper. As they quickly hurried to the other end of the park, they glanced at the paper, wondering about that odd, useless man. All they saw was a simple leaf. They crumpled the paper in their hand, tossed it onto the grass.

And the fallen leaves of many trees, and the crumpled drawn leaves, were gathered by the wind. They tumbled and cartwheeled into in a hidden place between the park’s bed of roses and the old brick wall. Layers of leaves, damp with rain, collected, mouldering, returning to the deep heart of the Earth.

. . .

Linda had brought the drawing of a leaf home. A magnet held it to the refrigerator.

Her young son stood gazing at the leaf. His eyes were bright and unusually wide.

“That’s really amazing.”