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.

The Station Sparrow

It was funny how birds often walked into the enormous waiting room at the city train station. They waddled right through the open door. The birds seemed fearless as they roamed about the tile floor looking for food, deftly avoiding the feet of passengers.

Two or three pigeons liked to strut among passengers near the snack kiosk, cooing and pecking at crumbs. A chirping sparrow hopped along the rows of varnished wooden benches where passengers sat quietly, thinking or looking at their phones as they waited for trains.

The tiny sparrow, which actually seemed to live in the cavernous waiting room, was very brave for its size. It easily outmaneuvered the gigantic humans. It was also surprisingly strong, able to carry away a whole cracker with ease.

Sometimes one of those big, clumsy humans would be startled by the flight of something near the train station’s high ceiling. “What the–?”

When anyone observed that the sparrow was building a nest up in a hanging light fixture, a laugh was sure to follow.

“What a perfect place for a nest,” one gentleman chuckled. “Lots to eat. All sorts of messy people.”

“Messy birds, too,” his friend frowned. She motioned toward fresh droppings on the floor.

“I’m sure there’s much worse than that around here,” asserted the gentleman, nodding with exaggerated disgust at the many bedraggled strangers who sat on the varnished benches, clutching their baggage, staring dully out the large windows at the station platform.

With a rumble a scheduled train arrived. Passengers stood up, formed a line, filed out. New people trickled into the waiting room. Every passing soul chose one particular spot on a wooden bench, sat down.

Few would look around with curiosity, until they noticed that endlessly busy sparrow.

The sparrow hopped about the tile floor, gathering bits of material to build its nest. A leaf blown through the door would be flown up to the nest. So would a discarded candy wrapper.

The small sparrow, as it moved among the feet of several sitting passengers, cocked its head right and left. It hopped up onto a bench, moving in small, effortless hops toward one lady who sat talking on her phone. Suddenly it flew up to her shoulder, grabbed a loose hair from her sweater, and flashed up to the ceiling and its nest in the light.

The lady shrieked and looked about. People jumped, turned. She was gazing up at the ceiling. Suddenly she broke out in happy laughter. “A bird was on my shoulder!” she told the person at the other end of her phone. A passenger on the bench facing her was smiling.

Up near the ceiling, the station sparrow weaved its nest.

The precocious bird emerged from under a bench and made a dash for another passenger. It attacked a loose shoelace, gave it a tug.

“Oh my god! Look at that bird!” exclaimed the owner of the shoe. “It’s crazy! What’s that bird doing?”

A child sitting nearby joined in the laughter.

The sparrow moved mysteriously from bench to bench, its chirp heard at one end of the large waiting room, then the other.

A quietly sobbing passenger sat in one corner of the waiting room. She daubed her eyes and carelessly dropped a tissue. Like a sudden bolt of lightning the small sparrow swept down from somewhere and stole the tissue and carried it up to its nest. Her sobs were relieved by a lighthearted laugh.

Later in the day the bird flew down to the ticket counter and stood cocking its head right and left as it watched a transaction.

“I want a one way ticket for the next train to Los Angeles,” demanded a passenger.

“A one way ticket?”

“Yeah, I don’t intend to return to this place.”

The passenger carefully counted out bills and placed them upon the elegant wooden counter.

In a flash the thieving sparrow swept past. It easily stole a twenty dollar bill and flew up to its light near the ceiling.

“A bird stole my money!”

“They better return that money,” the next person in line said angrily. “You have the legal right to get it back. If they don’t give you every penny, you should call the police.”

But the paying passenger, staring up at the small nest in the dirty old station light, suddenly smiled and exploded with laughter. “Oh, does it really matter? That was actually hilarious. That little bird is going to have the most fantastic nest ever built!”

As passengers sat on the waiting room benches, or stood in line for arriving trains, the station sparrow stealthily gathered scraps for its nest. Those who noticed enjoyed a laugh. Some, peering up toward the ceiling, wondered what the nest contained.

One Lone Candle

The weekend before her first day of college, Maisha moved into a small studio apartment on Sandrock Bay.

It was a nice, clean apartment, with brand new carpeting, and a large window that opened to a wide ocean. The perfect headquarters to begin her adult life. She had already decided upon her goal. She would change the world. Make it better.

The apartment itself wasn’t terribly remarkable. A bed occupied one bare corner. On one blank wall she hung a wrinkled poster of the planet Earth.

When afternoon transformed into dusk, and her few things had been neatly arranged, Maisha noticed that a dim, barely perceptible light periodically entered her room. It winked from a place very far away up on the headland enclosing Sandrock Bay.

She approached the open window and saw a distant lighthouse.

As darkness grew, the circling beam of light strengthened. It cast a single ray of power miles out over its circling sweep of silver ocean.

At night, as Maisha lay in bed thinking about her life ahead, and her big dream, that powerful beam whirled, passed over her window, shining through to the black wall that faced her, passing over the Earth. It was like the rising of many suns.

On Monday morning Maisha returned to the open window. She breathed in the cool ocean air and anticipated her first class.

Walking up Campus Way to school, it was difficult to keep her eyes from that faraway lighthouse. Even after sunrise, in broad daylight, its tiny light kept winking. It seemed odd to her that a lighthouse would operate in daylight.

The first day of classes passed.

Maisha sat alone at a table by a window in the school cafe. She tried to remember what she’d learned during several lectures. The complexity. The fog of human action. The formulas, suppositions, limits, conditions. The outlines, demands, divisions and conflicts. The history, the hatred, the avarice, the vanity. The cruel truths of the world. The impossibility of soul. Theorems uttered by unconcerned professors.

And in that darkening shadow of near hopelessness, her eyes were drawn again to the lighthouse.

How did it shine for miles? she wondered.

What was its secret?

Slowly she remembered . . .

When she was a very little girl, and all the world was completely new, she and her parents had visited a lighthouse–another old lighthouse that stood at the end of another headland . . . overlooking a dim place . . . an elsewhere she had nearly forgotten . . .

She tried to see it.

She remembered being inside that narrow lighthouse, climbing circular stairs up and up and up . . . right up to an enormous shining lens.

The lens had appeared to her surprised eyes like an enormous diamond, finely cut and polished and infused with a heart of light.

Her parents had explained that the radiance of a single candle was refracted by the lens into a single powerful beam that could be seen for miles out at sea.

Saving countless lives.

As she sat at the table remembering, she suddenly wondered: would it be possible to change the world by refracting light from her own heart?

Could she shine her heart’s light through a jeweled lens, focus it, and send a beam of saving power beyond her small horizon?

Resolute, she was determined to ask the silly question of everyone in the cafe. “How do you refract a heart’s light?”

Maisha turned to address a student who sat at the nearby table.

A laugh. “You’re joking, right?”

Maisha turned to the table on her other side, where several students sat eating and staring into phones.

“How do you refract a heart’s light?” she asked the first student who looked up.

“You know, that’s really a weird question. Is it possible to refract what–a heart’s light? That’s literally impossible. You bend light, not a heart’s light. What exactly do you mean by a heart’s light?”

“I think I see what she means,” interjected another student. “Can you bend your soul or spirit or something and shine it around a corner–is that what you mean? The heart light you’re talking about can do anything you wish. It’s like poetry–a heart light can shine anywhere. You could pass it through a metaphysical prism and make rainbows, even.”

The final student laughed. “Oh come on, be serious. Metaphysical rainbows. The fact is nobody can ever escape from the Laws of Physics. If by heart’s light you mean something like love or compassion, then you have to bend it with something that actually works. But compassion isn’t a physical thing. So I don’t really know how you would do that. Is it possible to refract a heart’s light? I mean, really, why would you want to refract that? I’ve never heard a more stupid question.”

“Thank you,” said Maisha, turning back to her cold food.

When she had finished eating, Maisha quickly jumped up and crossed the school’s cafe to throw away the garbage that remained on her plastic tray. She had never felt so alone.

“It’s possible,” said a small voice behind her.

An old man with severely stooped shoulders was busy mopping the dirty floor. His mop worked in small steady circles. He looked up at her. His faraway eyes shined with knowledge. “It’s possible,” he said quietly.

“But how?” begged Maisha. “How? All I have is my one candle. How do I cut and polish the refracting lens?”

“You’ll work it out. Simply keep that candle lit.”

Skeleton Forgiveness

Bradley woke up in the middle of the night. The clock showed a quarter to three. His wife was asleep beside him.

Careful not to disturb her, he lay motionless on his back and reviewed another day at work. There was something important he was supposed to remember, to do tomorrow, but he’d forgotten.

His mind wandered. For a moment he wondered about the car–if he should have the oil changed that weekend. He thought about making reservations for the vacation in Hawaii. He thought about an appointment with the doctor. In the darkness, he looked along the length of his body under the sheet. Suddenly he realized that under the sheet lay a skeleton.

His mind quickly turned.

Another pressing thought came to him that he must buy groceries after work–he must ask his wife what she needed. He would try to remember. And then he fell back to sleep.

And ten years passed in the blink of his astonished eyes.

Another late night, after brushing his teeth to ward off decay, blinking at his face in the bathroom mirror. I’m starting to get old, Bradley thought. What a strange face.

He lay in bed beside his wife, feeling the aching years, unable to sleep.

He couldn’t stop thinking. Next week he would have to see the doctor again. And then do his taxes. And then plan for that critically important conference in Seattle. And then remember his anniversary. How long? Thirty years? And then the lawn needed mowing again. And the leaking faucet. And his daughter needed more money. And he had to write a reply to his older brother, Kenneth. He didn’t want to write words to Kenneth. Kenneth was a big-mouthed jerk. Kenneth was probably the one thing Bradley hated most. There had been no words for most of a lifetime. There was too much anger, bitterness and pain. There was a feud that would never end. He could barely remember why.

He lay in bed, mind rolling, staring up at a dark ceiling, when an unbidden thought returned. He lowered his eyes and gazed at a draped figure.

Under his sheet stretched a skeleton.

His own skeleton.

Then suddenly Bradley was six years older. And his happy younger brother, Ben, who lived halfway across the country, died of a heart attack.

The entire family flew to the funeral. Older brother Kenneth sat near the opposite wall. Everyone faced the open casket.

Bradley sat near the back, behind a strange family of bent people clothed in black.

And then he understood the truth.

With time–too soon–all of the somber clothing, the tears, the bowed heads, the pain, the hidden thoughts, the beating hearts, muscle and blood would fall away.

After the short service he rose, walked bravely up to Kenneth and hugged him.

“I’m sorry.”

One Word

As I stood on the corner of a busy intersection waiting for a green light, I noticed a man with a horrific beard sitting half-naked on the sidewalk. His fist gripped a magic marker and he was writing on a rectangle of cardboard.

From my distance I couldn’t read what the man had written. I did observe he was creating the large word GOD. He was broadening the lines of GOD with precise attention. Working carefully, very deliberately. Like a true artist.

Making GOD bold. Preparing for his daily appeal.

My eyes were drawn to the earthy arms, earthy legs, blackened feet in broken sandals.

As I waited for the light to cross, a clean-shaven man wearing khaki shorts came up to the writing man and stared down with a smile.

Just as the light turned, the man looking down burst out laughing.

“GOD!” he roared.

A Crown Above All

Gathering in the park around the central fountain. Eating at rusted tables under sun-faded umbrellas. Napping, with head tilted forward, on a bench. Roaming about disordered flowerbeds. Gossiping, laughing, reading.

As I sat in the shade of a straggly tree, it suddenly appeared to me the splashing fountain was a shining crown. Above every head a crown.

I saw it all in one enchanted moment.

Shining above the gray hair of one gentleman who walked very carefully with a cane.

Shining above the short curls of a girl as she petted a dog.

Shining above a runner, who flashed past the fountain, arms pumping.

Shining above two lovers on scooters, playfully circling around planters of summer chrysanthemums.

Shining above people sitting in disorder, like painted figures on a margin of green grass, talking, resting, thinking.

Above every soul, a waterfall rising into blue basin sky.

Water jetting skyward.

Breaking into atoms.

Shimmering.

Falling.

Gathering.

The Firefly

Cynthia and Mia loved being outdoors. Late in the evening, after dark, the two young sisters would stroll down to the end of their sleepy cul-de-sac, quietly talking, or singing, listening to the breeze in unseen oak leaves, gazing up at the ever-changing moon. Night was a place for dim lights and deeper feeling. In the darkness they’d steal aboard the slow backyard swing to float among infinite stars. Those beautiful nights were better than any dream.

“There it is again!” said Cynthia.

The firefly had returned. It seemed to show up every night an hour after sunset. The small light zigged and bobbed above the ghostly lawn. It disappeared behind the black shed. Suddenly it appeared right in front of the two sisters, who sat motionless on the swing.

“We should try catching it,” suggested Mia.

“Why?”

“We could bring it inside and use it for a night light.”

“That’s silly.”

“I’m serious!”

“You should never catch a firefly. You’ll be cursed.”

“Says who?”

“I don’t know.”

It remained a very great mystery–why there was always one firefly. Cynthia and Mia watched the small light flit here, there, here again, but always a shade beyond reach. Both young sisters understood that the small insect’s ballet was not arbitrary. Windblown, indecisive–but not without purpose.

The following night the two sisters walked down the cul-de-sac looking for bats. But it was getting too dark, almost a new moon.

After returning home, Mia couldn’t resist her heart’s desire. She darted into the kitchen through the screen door. A few minutes later she plunged into the darkness clutching an empty glass jar. She showed it to Cynthia on their swing. “I’m going to catch the firefly!”

“Why?”

“Because I want my own lightning in a bottle!”

“But a firefly needs to be free. If you catch it you’ll kill it.”

“No I won’t. I punched air holes in the lid.”

“The poor thing will die.”

“Just this one night. I don’t want to hurt it. I’ll take it back outside and let it go free in the morning. I promise.”

“You’re silly.”

Mia unscrewed the jar’s lid and sat on the swing with her sister quietly waiting. They could barely see one another. Infinite bright stars whirled above. Somewhere in the night, a lonely cat yowled. An owl hooted. The firefly appeared like magic.

For a long while the two watched the dim light swing through the air like a falling star. With a bound Mia jumped up clutching her jar and raced beside the star.

The firefly darted away.

“Almost got it!” Mia laughed.

Cynthia laughed with her.

Mia chased and veered. A metal lid clapped on glass.

“I got it! I got it!” Mia shouted.

“Quiet! You’ll wake everyone up.”

“But look! I really caught it!

Mia crossed the gray grass and quietly came up to Cynthia with the dark jar in hand. “Look!”

Trapped at the bottom of the jar was a small, indistinct shape. The sisters put their noses to the glass to see better. The captured thing looked like nothing but a plain beetle.

“Are you sure that’s the firefly?” asked Cynthia.

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Well, there. You got your lightning in a bottle. I hope that makes you happy.”

Mia carried the jar into her bedroom. The firefly was in reality just a tiny, rather plain-looking beetle. It crawled awkwardly around the bottom of the confining glass jar, its chemical light off. Mia stared at the hobbling beetle for several minutes, then placed the jar on the corner of her nightstand. She switched off the bedroom light and lay on her back in bed. Her eyes were on the jar. The room was pitch black.

Mia waited. Her eyes focused on the exact spot where the jar should be. She anticipated, hoped, held her breath, waiting, waiting. She wished for a star. She yearned for a rising star. A star of her own. But why would anything happen? It was merely a dull beetle.

Out of the darkness a soft light appeared before her. It grew slowly brighter, slowly brighter, filling the room. The light intensified, enveloped her, blazed and shimmered, lifted her into a dazzling universe of infinite stars.

The alarm clock jolted her from the dream.

Sunlight streamed through the bedroom window. Mia sat up and looked at the jar on the nightstand. The beetle was dead.

Mia stared at the dead thing.

Somehow she stopped her flood of tears when she finally joined Cynthia for breakfast. Mother as usual was drunk and said nothing. The two young sisters headed out into the glaring daylight and trapped themselves in the school bus.

“I told you you’d kill it,” chided Cynthia.

The two sat motionless on their swing in the darkest of nights. A cold night with no moon and no firefly. They sat outside anyway. Alone in blackness was better than nothing.

“I told you,” insisted Cynthia, “but you wouldn’t listen. Why did you have to catch it? Why did you have to kill it? Now our one and only firefly is gone. There’s nothing left. You murdered it.”

“Stop it! Shut up!”

The two sat motionless on the swing, like twin dead planets in that cold, black night. They didn’t see the bright stars. They didn’t look up.

Cynthia broke the silence. “Now that the firefly is dead, what’s the point in sitting here? I’m starting to freeze. Let’s go back inside.”

“I don’t want to go inside,” protested Mia, thinking of their abusive mother.

“But there’s no longer any reason to be here.”

“I don’t care.”

The two sisters had nothing more to say. Each young girl had reached a dead end. Inside and outside, nothing was possible but the suffocating emptiness. There was no place left in the world for either to go.

Two hearts had died.

They sat like gravestones into the night.

A new moon night.

Suddenly, in the emptiness, a ghost light appeared. A light flitted in space before the two sisters.

A firefly zigged and bobbed in front of astonished eyes.

Mia caught her breath. “Look! I don’t believe it! There’s another one!”

The tiny light had appeared from nowhere.

A new firefly bobbed and danced, twirled and weaved, like living magic suddenly risen from a well of utter blackness. Where it came from, neither girl understood. Where on Earth had it come from?

The firefly was a spark from an unseen fire, moving mysteriously, from silence to silence, from heart to heart.

Cynthia turned on the swing to face Mia. “That was terrible what I said to you. I promise I will never hurt you again.”

“I’m sorry, too,” replied Mia. “I’m sorry I was so selfish.”

Relief.

Freedom.

The new firefly danced: simply, brightly, joyfully.

In two hearts, new life.