A Song for Old Warriors

The old men sat under a canopy before the marble monument. They had fought in World War II. Many were in wheelchairs. All would soon die.

The warriors struggled to stand up for the advancement of the color guard, and they remained standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer. They quietly retook their seats.

A retired general approached the podium and spoke about the nightmare war long ago and those who fought. He recalled how a multitude of ordinary citizens–janitors, farmers, factory workers–had come together to defend high ideals. The heads of the very old men did not move.

A singer was then introduced. She was a little girl, just seven years old. She wore a vest of silvery sequins. Her face was made up with red lipstick. Microphone in hand, the very young girl glided confidently onto the stage and raised two pale arms. With a booming voice she began God Bless America while her grinning father circled with a video camera, recording his starlet.

As she sang the tiny girl stepped down from the stage and sashayed with her microphone up to the inscrutable faces of the old men. Her own face beamed with affection, and her hands formed exaggerated gestures as she directly addressed each gray head. The performance seemed an act learned by a child from television. The bold familiarity, perhaps tolerable in an adult, was unsettling from a seven-year-old girl.

The girl’s voice climbed until it wavered. Her high voice strained to exploit every syllable of the song. It sought to imbue every word with an infinity of feeling. The child floated in front of the very old men with her twinkling eyes, and she smiled with absolute sincerity.

The heads of the warriors did not move.

As I observed this strange performance from the back row, I was struck by the eyes of the precocious little girl. Her eyes were so bright.

Then I understood.

The performance came from a little girl’s heart. She was a budding life. Her ambition was to shine. Her hope was to shine a bright light upon those who listened.

Before her sat warriors who had fought against darkness, and who would soon return to the inescapable darkness.

The song reached a resounding crescendo. The very young girl raised her hands theatrically, palms upward.

“. . . my home sweet home.”

Some of the old men struggled to their feet for a standing ovation. Some sat and wept.

The Silent Woman

Those who sought the heart of the library had to pass a granite statue. The Silent Woman stood a few feet inside the entrance to the Reading Room. The gray Silent Woman had been sculpted by a famous artist. Her bowed head was wrapped in a carven scarf. Her eyes were down and closed.

In a dim corner of the Reading Room I took off my winter coat and settled into a plush armchair. Wooden shelves heavy with gilt-lettered books enclosed the silence, like the walls of a cathedral. My seat faced one side of the Silent Woman.

I opened a book. For an hour I read. Then I shut the book. The dry pages seemed unimportant. Small voices from the nearby Children’s Room had tiptoed up to me.

I listened to the little voices.

Like a bubbling stream of soft, musical notes, the voices pattered and splashed and giggled. They chimed like crystal water cascading over stones. From the Children’s Room I heard glee, excitement, surprise . . . softly running feet . . . a sudden cry of delight. I heard the joy of eager spirits that refuse to sit.

I tried to understand the indistinct voices, that swelled from a knowledge of life’s immediate fullness.

As I listened to the happy voices, I lifted my eyes to the Silent Woman.

Her head was bowed. Her eyes were closed.

She seemed to be waiting.

Litter

There is no street parking near my apartment building. I have to park several blocks away.

One day I was walking out to my car when my eyes chanced upon a piece of litter.

Nothing angers me quite like litter. People who blithely toss trash into their neighborhood are so careless and selfish. I’m tired of picking it up.

The discarded thing lay on the sidewalk. It was a tiny notebook–one of those cheap notebooks people jot quick notes in.

I stooped to pick it up.

I had resumed walking, and was searching for a trashcan, when all at once it occurred to me that somebody might have accidentally dropped this tiny notebook.

I turned it over to examine the front and back cover. No name. I opened to the first page. A couple of sentences had been carefully written in pencil.

I love my uncle Ernie. I love how he makes me laugh and how he makes pancakes for me and my sister.

All of the pages that followed were blank.

Oh wow, I thought, this isn’t quite what I expected. Evidently a young person had begun to write some happy thoughts. Perhaps it was an essay for school. Or the beginning of a journal. The tiny notebook had probably fallen out of a pocket. A worried somebody would probably be looking for it.

My course of action was obvious. I turned around and retraced my steps. I sought the exact spot where I had found the dropped notebook. I carefully set what I had first thought was litter back on the sidewalk, so that it could await its destiny.

What else could I do?

As I finally approached my car, I came upon an unusual amount of trash by the sidewalk. A small heap of garbage had gathered between some dying bushes. I fought off my anger. Why can’t people control themselves?

There was spoiled food, discarded cardboard boxes, bottles and cans. The smell was unbearable.

Then I noticed a sleeping bag behind the pile. And someone inside it. A young man with leaves in his hair was bundled up, his face hidden.

A Heart That Would Not End

The faraway sound was familiar, but strange.

“What’s that?” asked the child.

Holding hands with a grown-up, the child circled around the bubbling fountain and arrived at a bench near the Natural History Museum, where a man sat playing a didgeridoo.

Others stood by listening.

A strange, pulsing sound rose from the speaking end of the didgeridoo. It was like the rhythm of the ocean. Like the beating of a heart.

The man’s cheeks swelled as he breathed life through the instrument. The slightly crooked didgeridoo, painted from one end to the other with blue moons and yellow stars, was simply the hollow trunk of a young tree. With his lungs the man produced an ancient music that was resonant, churning, pulsing, surging.

Surging, surging, echoing, echoing.

The child ran a few steps forward, halted within arm’s reach of the magic.

The music never paused or faltered. The man didn’t stop. His eyes were half-closed and turned inward as his head swayed and lungs worked. His cheeks swelled. Beads of sweat made his face gleam. Suddenly the man’s eyes opened wide and he looked directly at the child. An eye winked.

The child laughed and dropped down to the ground to look up into the open end of the didgeridoo. From fallen leaves the child peered up toward the source of the strange music, into the darkness of the singing tree, searching.

There was nothing to see. Only space. A vast, unbounded space more mysterious than the deepest ocean. A place beneath blue moons and yellow stars.

Unfathomable, untouchable, an infinity overflowing with invisible music that swelled like an exultant heart.

And somewhere above it all: a winking eye.

“You’re going to get dirty down there,” said the grown-up. “Come on. It’s lunch time. Aren’t you hungry by now?”

The child jumped up and the two made their way through the sunny park, in step with a beating heart that would not end.

A Wise Man

Another year, almost gone.

On a Sunday afternoon my family sat down in the hilltop park to listen to a community Christmas concert. The chilly outdoor amphitheater was packed. My wife and I sported Santa hats, and our kids dressed as elves.

Up on the leaf-strewn stage the New Life Choir sang Christmas carols. The audience sang along, clapped in time, jingled bells and keys on chains.

For some reason I couldn’t join in. My thoughts concerned problems at work and those toxic in-laws that would be visiting again. Christmas felt tired. I kept looking around at the crowd of easily excited strangers in the audience. It all seemed so predictable.

At the end of our row, near the exit, I spotted one man’s head that stood out in the small ocean of red and white Santa hats. It was his strange golden crown that drew my attention. I wondered what sort of fool would decide to wear a crown for Christmas.

The crown seemed absurd. It was one of those simple crowns that look like triangular steeples arranged in a circle, each graced with a single gem. Suddenly I realized the person had come to the Christmas concert as one of the Wise Men.

I looked at the face beneath the crown and saw a gray, very old man, who sat alone and apart.

A children’s choir was filing up onto the stage. Several dozen awkward children were all dressed like green elves. My son and daughter were very excited see more tiny elves, exactly like themselves. I looked at my wife as she gave Janie and Joshua each a quick hug.

The choir of bright-eyed elves gathered nervously in rows on the risers, smiling, squirming, turning their shy faces to the audience. Parents waved and held up phones to take pictures.

I regarded the eager audience. Above the swelling sea of Santa hats, I observed the crowned head of the very old Wise Man at the end of our row. He stared directly ahead, eyes unmoving. His weathered face was expressionless. I wondered what the very old man saw. Confusion, probably. The passing of too many years.

I turned to watch the children as they prepared to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas.

The tiny green elves stood side by side and began about that partridge in a pear tree. Their wavering voices rose and rose, becoming more certain as they sang about two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

The elves sang through the twelve days, brief days filled with abundant gifts of hens and geese and swans and gold rings, filled with gifts of dancing ladies and leaping lords and pipers piping and drummers drumming, drumming, drumming, repeating, repeating like strong, perpetual heartbeats.

Each elf had eyes that shined like jewels.

For a moment I forgot about work and in-laws and looked softly at my own excited children, my two small elves that one day would don Santa hats.

After the final carol had been sung, as everyone left the small amphitheater, the very old man in the strange golden crown remained in his seat. I glanced down at him as we brushed past. His eyes stared directly ahead. They were filled with tears.

Here We Go

“Maybe I love trains because they’re a lot like life,” explained a father to his young son. The two sat together on the City Park Railroad, waiting for the short ride around the duck pond to begin. “You’re always moving forward, seeing something new–”

The small boy looked excitedly out the window.

He wondered what he would see.

He knew he’d see a whole lot of ducks floating out on the calm green water, and fishermen on the muddy banks casting their lines hoping to catch a prize bass.

He knew he’d see the short wooden pier jutting into the pond, and the bench near the end where he and his father had fished last summer.

He knew the train would eventually go over a bridge. His father had promised there was a bridge. It spanned a small creek that bubbled down into the pond through a patch of cattails.

And then the train might turn to follow the creek.

Looking out of the train’s window, waiting for his short journey to begin, the boy imagined the branches of willow trees fluttering over the sparkling creek. And dappled sunlight on long leaves. And a flock of blackbirds rising. And, as the creek wound upward into the nearby hills, a curtain of pine trees ahead.

Then the train might enter the pine forest.

And black towering trees would close all around, like a place in a dream, wind-whispering, wind-whispering.

The boy thought of stories he’d been told.

His father had been a young man hiking alone in the forest. Miles from home. He had heard the faraway sound of a wild turkey. He had turned to follow the call. It is rare thing to see a wild turkey. A very magical and lucky thing. His father had plunged forward through the deep forest, over slippery autumn leaves, pushing aside tangled branches, always turning, because that wild call kept shifting, from direction to direction, distance to distance. No, he never found what he sought. But he had found his way home.

And the story of how his very old grandfather, for one instant, had glimpsed a rare white deer in the forest. Nobody else in that forest had ever seen it. It was a chance encounter. Pure white. Like new snow. And then the vision had melted into shadow.

The magical deer was said to have vanished into the same dark trees where the boy’s great grandfather had faced a raging grizzly bear.

Perhaps, thought the young boy, he might also see a grizzly bear.

Then the train might emerge from the forest, climbing, winding, chugging over slopes of naked rock to high levels beyond the wildest turkeys, deer, bears. The cloudless sun, now so close, would shine brightly as the boy stared out the train’s window down upon a small patch of green forest and an endless world of hills, lakes and ponds scattered like shining pebbles below.

And then he would reach the highest mountain’s summit.

Suddenly the train rumbled and lurched.

“Here we go!”

White Marble

A toddler with a bright ball scampered across the Earth and fell down on green grass. He pushed himself back up, stood and wobbled. Laughing, the tiny child raced off with heedless feet.

His mother walked nearby. She closely watched her child play. She was careful not to step on graves.

The toddler didn’t seem to know where he was. He threw his ball up, missed it as it came down. He leaned over, grabbed his ball, twisted wildly and let it fly sideways. The ball ricocheted off a headstone and rolled down a green slope.

The bright ball rolled down and down, settled among some flowers.

Two small hands reached for the ball.

Suddenly the little person noticed a very old woman dressed in black standing high above him. The old woman didn’t move. She stared down at nothing.

The weathered face and deep eyes appeared to be stone. A face carved from gray stone. Etched with something unreadable. The dead eyes seemed not to know where they were.

The old woman stood beside a fresh patch of dirt.

“Want to play catch?”

The woman in black turned her head and regarded the little person who waited by her legs clutching a bright ball.

Her face softened. “No, thank you.”

“Noah!”

The toddler heard his name. He turned and with two unstoppable legs raced wildly back up the hill. Skipping and swerving, he bounded toward his mother, who sat waiting for him on her own spot of grass. A startled crow flew up.

She gazed upon the little person as he came to her side.

Her cheeks shined with tears.

“That’s Daddy!” the small boy explained, finger pointing to the nearby stone.

His mother smiled.

“I love you Daddy!” the child exclaimed, dropping his ball. He ran forward and hugged the white marble.