Handling a Harpoon

The student doodled, wondered why a whale would be white, made a note in the book’s margin, underlined a sentence.

His pen descended again but couldn’t harpoon words. The elusive whale submerged into unseen pages.

The young man slammed the book shut and jammed it into his heavy backpack. He slung the bundled freight over one shoulder and rose from the desk.

The white whale moved, too.

It swam inside inky darkness, from one book to another.

It moved through Physics, Biology, Sociology, Philosophy, Religion, Statistics, History. It migrated from ocean to ocean.

The student quickly navigated to his next classroom. Thinking of nothing. Thinking of everything. Suddenly he felt the whale slip into his bent back, shiver up his spine, then a whirl of awful whiteness in his head.

Anxiously he sought a harpoon.

But the whale swam away.

A Brief Note

Even if nothing really matters–
and nothing endures–
and nothing counts.

Even when nobody cares–
and nobody knows–
and none remember.

Even when a thousand mouths snicker,
disbelieve, mock,
pummel with scorn.

Even at life’s end, twisted with regret,
thinking I might have–
could have–should have–

Even though a world becomes dust,
I did a few things
I felt were good.

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 Perfect Snowflake

Sanji was aware that he was dreaming.

He was walking through a silent white forest. Pine trees blanketed with snow rose on every side.

When Sanji was a young child, the lucid dreams had been frequent. That was a lifetime ago, when he spent his waking hours pretending to streak past a billion billion stars as he traveled in a spaceship to the far end of the universe.

As a middle-aged man he slept without dreams.

Until this night.

Sanji moved through the white forest deliberately and searched the snow with devouring eyes. He turned his feet in every direction, crushing fresh powder with every step, and at last halted on the bank of a frozen river. He could hear running water bubbling beneath the emerald ice.

Sanji had searched the unknown his entire adult life. Somehow, after many dreamless nights, he had become a leading theoretical physicist. He lived in a small world of unending numbers, odd symbols. Penning equations, scratching them out. Now he gazed down at the frozen river and knew for certain that he was asleep and dreaming, and that what he saw before him was absolutely real.

Looking up, he saw white particles floating from the trees. One drifted down, landed on his fingertip.

He held the snowflake next to one eye.

He stared at its shape.

The tiny snowflake was an infinity of jigsaw pieces fitted together into one seamless whole. Pieces of infinitesimal essence.

He caught his breath in the airless cold.

He had found something that he had never seen before. A perfect snowflake. The most simple of all possible truths.

The crystal snowflake was an unbidden, elegant revelation, like inspired strokes of chalk on a newly-cleaned chalkboard: a brilliant equation of white: a mathematical certainty that explained all things.

All Sanji’s life he’d grappled to unravel the truth. He had fought to weld together that desperate mathematical Theory of Everything.

Now it was on his finger.

In the perfect snowflake he saw the precise truth that was written at the beginning of all things. He saw the origin, the movement, the destiny of the universe. The final equation shimmered before him. He saw each finite number distinctly. It was simple. He’d found it.

Sanji heard a patter of rain.

He listened to the rain and was aware that it was dark. And that he was warm in bed.

Outside his bedroom window streaked dark ghostly rain.

Suddenly he remembered his dream.

Despair.

He had to write it down. That equation.

He knew there was a notepad on the desk by the window–and on top of the notepad a ballpoint pen. He jumped up.

The ghostly rain outside his room drew his eyes to the window. Softly glowing raindrops were coursing separately down the pane, like pulsing atoms or universes, flowing, colliding, combining, accelerating, vanishing. The raindrops followed defined courses, courses easily formulated, with destinies known. And yet each was a mystery. Each drop was birthed out of darkness–each was a vision beyond his reach.

Sanji blinked. He’d forgotten his dream.

A Ship Without Ghosts

Simon had felt curious about the century-old ferryboat. That’s why he sat for a few minutes in the center of the elegant passenger deck. Nobody else was present. Even on an early Saturday afternoon, the museum ship was dead.

As he rested on one of the many varnished wooden benches, Simon was touched with wonder. The eternal sun was beaming through the wide, open windows on the port side; it shined through panels of stained glass that crowned every window. Rays of bright colors made small rainbows in floating dust. Obviously, ordinary people had once traveled in high style. Light reflecting off the water outside twinkled on carved rosettes in the ivory-like ceiling. The spacious passenger deck seemed almost holy: perfect, light-filled, quiet.

Empty and quiet.

Simon tried to imagine passengers sitting all around him on those rows and rows of elegant benches. He tried to imagine what they might talk about, crumpled newspapers in hand. He tried to imagine what they wore, their facial expressions, their innumerable stories, their hardships and destinations.

He struggled to see it.

Simon did observe in a shadowed corner near the ceiling a place where the wood was rotted. He noted dust under the benches, mildew along window sills, missing tiles on the dirty turquoise and gold checkered floor.

“Do you have any questions?” a voice startled him.

He turned about to see a white-bearded museum docent. The gentleman in a ratty sea captain’s cap stood with a small smile, patiently awaiting a question.

To his own surprise, Simon’s mind was blank. So many vague questions–he really didn’t know what to say. None of it seemed to matter.

“Why does nobody come here?” Simon finally asked, ending an uncomfortable silence.

“People no longer care about ships,” came the smiling reply. “Ships are old news.”

“Old news?”

“Passengers don’t travel by ship anymore. Not the way they once did. People nowadays just see them in television or movies. Pirate ships, mostly.”

“But aren’t people even curious to see what it was like to ride on a vintage ferryboat? When I was a very young child I rode on an amazing old ferryboat. I still remember the shining ornamental brasswork. I remember that feeling of floating on the water, and gazing out a window at the sparkling bay. I remember my sister buying me a Hershey’s candy bar from a man in a uniform behind a polished counter. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“Look around at this big crowd. How curious do you think people are?”

“I see what you mean.”

The docent smiled. “Any more questions?”

“Yes. Wait–” Simon searched his mind. “I don’t get it. There are thousands of people who drive down the highway past this old ship every single day, going to and from work, or going somewhere else, but nobody even wants to stop and take a look inside? Do you think that’s because people are too busy?”

“Yes, everybody’s busy. But there’s no need to stop. See this?” The man pulled from his pocket a brand new smartphone. “Today every one of us carries a tiny universe in the palm of our hand. Everyone can see a nice picture of everything.”

“But it isn’t real!”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“But what about the sea breeze coming through the windows . . . and the ship’s roll . . . and the salty smell . . . and the wood’s shine? What about the piercing cries of gulls above . . . and the sparkling water below . . . and sunlight through stained glass? What about the faint echoes of those who lived . . . words spoken stranger to stranger over crumpled newspapers? The infinite stories that speak from the dust?”

“Only this ship’s ghosts can remember those things,” replied the white-bearded docent.

The old man waved his smartphone, jammed it back into his pocket. “And ghosts, as you know, don’t exist.”

“But you– And me–”

The man turned away.

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.

A Small Fountain in Green Park

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie was too busy to hear her mother. She leaned over the edge of a small fountain in Green Park, peering into the basin. Her two-year-old eyes took delight in the swirling reflections.

The water bubbled, whispered, leaped. It splashed cool kisses. Maggie extended her arms and laughed. She touched the rippling surface with a tentative, curious finger.

Strangely, she saw her own small face in the fountain, crowned by sunlight, wrinkling brightly and dancing.

The water in the park’s fountain was alive like an inexplicable wonder. Its light contained a secret. Maggie gazed at her own small reflection, trying very hard to see herself clearly. Her face was there, then–poof–gone. A flying drop landed on her nose and she laughed again.

“Don’t fall in!”

Mrs. Spivey, the third grade teacher, frantically counted heads. Eight-year-old children become spinning whirlwinds on a school field trip.

The Natural History Museum and its dinosaur bones were located in Green Park, across the plaza from a small fountain. The fountain around which her students were running wildly.

Maggie dashed past the fountain, then suddenly stopped, turned around. The place seemed familiar. She approached the small fountain, stood very still and looked down into it. The water swirled and bubbled, rippled and whispered. Catching her breath, she looked curiously at her own reflection, becoming thoughtful. Her small face twinkled, the sun over her shoulder. Her face appeared to be a sudden vision in a wonderful dream.

But a classmate almost caught her. She darted away, laughing.

“Don’t fall in!”

Feeling slightly guilty, trying to keep her balance, Maggie leaned over the water. She crumpled the empty box of detergent and shoved it into a shopping bag. She glanced over her shoulder. Her high school friends stood nearby, laughing in the sunshine.

She stared down into the fountain’s shallow basin and was surprised to see an uncertain reflection. It had long curly hair and blinking eyes, and a thirteen-year-old smile that seemed rather crooked. Had she seen that face before?

The bewildering vision disappeared in a sudden brew of rainbow bubbles. Bubbles that multiplied out of control. Foam spilled all around her.

A shout echoed across the park’s plaza and Maggie and her friends ran.

“Don’t fall in!”

The two sat on the fountain’s low edge. Maggie’s new boyfriend gently pushed her shoulder.

She swept her hand through the cool water and splashed him. They laughed.

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie walked slowly past the fountain, hand-in-hand with Robert. The park was very quiet on a Tuesday afternoon. It was their honeymoon. The never-changing sun shone brightly high above them. A cool mist from the small fountain touched her warm face.

Suddenly, Robert bent over to kiss her. He lifted her up, cradled her in his arms, whirled about and–laughing–dangled her over the fountain. Maggie shivered.

She imagined falling through space, splashing into the water, dangerously, merging with a soft something that was completely permeating and mysterious. For an instant she saw the reflection of two lovers in the water.

She saw two faces crowned by sunlight, like angels, dreamlike.

She was set again on her feet, and the two walked slowly on.

“Don’t fall in!”

Sitting on a park bench, Maggie closely watched her first child. Her working mind was distracted. It was such a busy day, with so much to do. The tiny girl peered into the small fountain and suddenly reached out to touch the rippling water with a finger.

Maggie jumped up and hurried over. She never took her eyes from her precious child.

Maggie sat down on the low edge of the fountain and wondered at the actual depth of the basin. How dangerous was it, really? Just a few inches. But it seemed so dangerously deep. Her child stared down into the dancing water, so Maggie looked down, too.

Two small faces stared up at her, two faces that were different and alike.

How could she explain that shining, wonderful, perfect–uncertain vision of life in the water? A very young child would not understand. It all had something to do with wistfulness, love and memory. And time. She felt a moment of loss. She couldn’t explain what she saw, not even to herself.

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie’s happy children were racing around the small fountain like three frantic whirlwinds on a picnic Sunday. She rested on the blanket on the park’s grass. She watched those whom she loved whirl round and round and round. She couldn’t stop them. She did not want to stop them. She simply watched.

“Don’t fall in!”

The children were gone. Grown up.

Maggie and her friends in the Watercolor Society had dispersed themselves strategically around Green Park. Their mission was to create beauty. She had set up her easel right beside that familiar old fountain. It seemed the very best place, with so much potential. One of her old friends had shouted the silly taunt. But Maggie knew she wouldn’t fall in. Not now.

She had known that water all of her life.

Maggie studied the uncertain light on the moving water. Gentle ripples fractured unsteady reflections. It was like every piece of a world jumbled together all at once, but in constant motion. And the unreachable sun was the source. It was the point from which searing light descended to bless her eyes with a thousand living, rising fragments.

How was it possible to capture one brief, so-very-brief moment in a life? All of those passing visions in the small fountain were in her memory still.

At best, her effort–might–master one moment in endless–eternity.  At best.  But, still, she painted. She painted and painted.

“Don’t fall in!”

Her granddaughter was worried. Maggie leaned quietly in the wheelchair over the small fountain.

Maggie’s granddaughter regarded the old woman until she felt reassured, then comfortably turned to examine the small fountain herself.

It wasn’t her first visit to Green Park.

Compelled, she gazed into the water and saw her own rippling face.

It was a beautiful day.