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 such a thing 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 expectant 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 was staring directly ahead. His weathered face appeared like a rock. I wondered what the 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 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.

The Taste of Flies

A child raced out of the kitchen’s back door before bacon and eggs were ready and hid under a branch of the old acacia tree.

The child caught sight of a shining web. Diamonds of dew glittered before surprised eyes like a bright, luring treasure.

A curious hand reached out.

“Please don’t break my web,” said the spider. “It took me an awfully long time to make.”

“Hello,” said the child.

“Shouldn’t you be eating your breakfast right about now?” asked the spider. “Why did you come running outside like some sort of crazy person?”

“I don’t know.”

“That can be very dangerous. Just because a door is cracked open doesn’t mean a body should rush through it.”

“Sorry.”

“I can’t help but notice you admiring my spectacular feat of aerial engineering. Isn’t it amazing? Are you curious how long it took me to create this miracle?”

“Why did you make that?”

“Good one!” laughed the spider. “It’s what I do. It’s what all spiders do. We knit our silk into a perfect geometric pattern and weave a beautiful trap.

“What you see is my tangible essence. My daily masterpiece spun from insatiable instinct.

“It’s my Sistine Chapel, my Starry Night, my Water Lilies. It’s my Persistence of Memory, my Guernica, my Night Watch. It’s my Garden of Earthly Delights, my Last Supper, my Mona Lisa.

“It is my self-portrait. It’s the place where I stand. I really can’t help myself. We spiders have to eat, too, like you.”

“What do you eat?” asked the child

“Silly flies that I trap.”

“What does a fly taste like?” the young child asked, suddenly thinking again about breakfast.

The spider laughed ominously. “Bacon and eggs.”

“You’re horrible! You’re nothing but a nasty little spider! What will you do if I break your web so you can’t kill any more flies?” demanded the child.

“I will eat my own miracle and weave again. But you won’t destroy my web because I can see you are exceptionally wise.”

“What does wise mean?”

“It means you speak to tiny things like me.”

An Encounter With Santa Claus

The wait at the outdoor mall’s coffee kiosk was unusually long. Mary’s mother looked up from her phone. “Don’t unwrap your cookie until we get home. I don’t want crumbs all over my new car. You remember what happened when you spilled that sticky soda last weekend? I really don’t think I could stand another headache.”

Mary said nothing. As she stood beside her mother, she quietly watched thousands of Christmas shoppers hurry into and out of stores, into and out of elevators, up and down escalators.

An army of people hustled wrapped presents to and fro. Everybody was in a terrible rush.

Mary turned in a circle to explore the dizzying mall with her eyes. Strings of Christmas lights blinked around the windows of every inviting store. Dozens of merry Santa Clauses with jolly plump faces stared out from signs, shopping bags, bright window displays. Several stores down from the kiosk, shoppers in a long, twisting line waited in the food court to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus. ‘Tis the Season a nearby banner proclaimed in big letters.

“Didn’t you hear me? Let’s get going!” her mother said.

The two stepped into the river of shoppers. It was a torrent of urgency that felt irresistible. Mary marveled at the unending lights and the press of Humanity.

Mary continued to search about.

Two dirty pant legs were outstretched on concrete. The two legs stuck out from behind a trashcan near the front door of one very busy store.

Mary and her mother neared the trashcan. A man was collapsed behind it, his back leaning against a wall. The man was asleep.

The man was fat and wore very dirty clothing. His stomach bulged out from under his torn shirt like a bowl full of jelly. His bare feet were black with dirt, and an enormous white beard was splayed across his chest. Atop his nodding head was a Santa hat.

Shoppers hurried past him.

Mary stopped to look at him.

She bent to place her wrapped cookie by his feet, then hurried to catch up with her mother.

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.

Returning the Ball

“Try one more time! I know you can catch it!”

Randy’s father tossed the ball a bit too high. The ball sailed through the sun and bounced off a rusting patio chair.

“I got it!” Randy shouted.

The four-year-old boy scampered after the rolling ball. The ball bumped off the patio and accelerated down the sloping lawn. The boy pursued it with eager legs.

The ball wouldn’t slow down.

It zipped past the startled cat.

It rolled past the spot where Randy was destined to celebrate his fifth birthday on freshly mown grass with laughing friends.

The ball rolled down the steep hill, past the grassy spot where Randy would one day rescue a hummingbird. And learn to fly a kite.

The ball rolled past the sprinkler head that would break his leg.

The ball kept going. Randy chased after it.

It rolled past the pepper tree where he and his father would build a treehouse. But that was still a few years off.

The ball rolled down the green slope, past the sun-facing garden where he would be taught by his mother to plant cherry tomatoes, green beans and sunflowers.

The boy ran at full speed.

The ball rolled past the garden bench where, sitting quietly one day, it would dawn on Randy that he would grow old.

The ball rolled past a year and another year.

The ball rolled through the grassy spot where he would lie on his back looking up at the clouds, dreaming about winning an Olympic gold medal.

The ball rolled past the tire swing where he would dangle reading a favorite book.

The ball rolled past the dirt patch where his father would ask why he ditched class.

The ball rolled past the old stump where he would sit very close to a girl.

The ball rolled and rolled and rolled all the way down to the fence next to the busy street, where his parents would stand waving as he drove off to college.

“I got it!”

With a shout, Randy was sprinting back up the long hill with all of his might, his small legs flying. He smiled up at his father. “I got it, Daddy!”