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.

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 shouldn’t ever 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 is alive. If you catch it you’ll kill it.”

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

“The poor thing will starve.”

“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. A trillion 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 gone, 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 mother.

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

“I don’t care.”

The 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 that cold blackness, 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 wrong what I said. It was mean. I promise I will never hurt you again.”

“I’m sorry, too,” replied Mia. “I was wrong to kill it.”

Relief. Freedom.

The firefly danced. Simply, brightly, joyfully.

In two hearts, new life.

One Magic Bubble

Every morning, during my walk to work across the East River, a man would be standing on the bridge conjuring bubbles. I never saw such fantastic bubbles. He produced them by dipping a loop of string at the end of a long wand into a bucket of his own secret concoction. Then he’d lift his wand up to the breeze and watch the bubbles fill and grow exactly like living things.

Then, woosh–there each would go! Lifting into the sky, undulating like crazy. Bending the morning sunlight into spherical rainbows.

Out across the sparkling river the bubbles flew. The bubble man and I got to know each other after awhile and we’d make preposterous bets.

“I bet it makes it to the next bridge. That’s got to be at least a quarter mile,” I offered with a smile.

“Farther ‘n that. I had one go all the way to those roofs, over by that silver building.”

“You could actually see it that far away?”

“It was a big one. I saw it pop.”

Most of the time the man just silently conjured bubbles, and we two would stand on the bridge watching them birth and take flight. Some burst too soon. The duration of their flight seemed completely unpredictable.

The ever-shining river welcomed bubbles along its endless path. Our backs were to the rushing cars.

I’d slip a few dollars into the man’s hat when he wasn’t looking. I always meant to ask him if there was anything he needed.

“Check this one out!” Holding his wand above the river, he suddenly became enthusiastic. An impossibly gigantic bubble filled with the wind’s breath, taking form. Somehow, without bursting, the quivering globe launched from his upraised wand.

It must have been a world record. It was at least six feet in diameter. The conditions must have been exactly right. The living bubble rose into the sky and floated on the unseen wind out over the river. Its changing colors were fantastically vivid.

The once-in-a-lifetime bubble rose and rose and rose, became smaller and smaller as it vanished down the river. We stood very quietly and watched.

One morning I passed over the bridge and the man was gone. I never did ask his name.

Following a Tortoise

Fascinating creatures can be observed on ordinary sidewalks: a green parrot riding atop a baseball cap, a spiny iguana clinging to human shoulders, a poodle with a purple mohawk.

But the morning I caught sight of a young man in a bathrobe and sandals inching down the sidewalk behind an enormous tortoise, I had to chuckle.

Both were moving very slowly.

I sat at a table outside Starbucks and downed my espresso and had a whole twelve minutes to kill before work. There was nothing else interesting to watch, so I watched.

The young man took one tiny footstep every eternity. In eight minutes he had moved perhaps three feet.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where he and his tortoise were going.

I had to jump up.

“He’s really big,” I said, stopping beside the young man.

She is.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Betsy,” replied the young man. As if my question were impertinent, he stared at me squarely in the eye. “What’s it to you?”

I almost flinched. “Nothing. I’m just curious, that’s all. I saw you both coming down the sidewalk. One doesn’t expect to see a huge tortoise in the middle of a city.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It just strikes me as something that’s funny. At least you don’t need a leash! Don’t you get tired of moving so slowly?”

“Why would I?”

Now I was becoming annoyed. This unaccountable person was trying my patience. I managed to find polite words. “It seems like you would get really bored after awhile, staying in one spot, without much change of scenery.”

“Do you get bored?” asked the young man.

“Sometimes.”

The young man stared at me for a long while, his unblinking eyes peering directly into my own. “Maybe you get bored because you’re moving too fast.”

As an excuse to flee, I glanced at my watch.

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 of 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.

The Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like human bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary 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. It included the word: Earthbound. Finding the proper entrance, people proceeded to pass 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 gobbled 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.

Waving at a Distance

Joey liked to talk to himself about deep mysteries.

He often talked about religion, and sacred texts, and sleeping outside in moonlight, and the little-known teachings of prophets, and the cruelty of rich people, and the innumerable conspiracies of the Masons and the Illuminati.

Most days he sat on a bench halfway down the pier waving at people. He really liked to wave at people passing at a distance on the big harbor tour ships. They were the nicest.

When those people saw him they all waved back. Leaning on the ship’s rail, or sitting in rows on white plastic seats facing the water, the people upon seeing him would all wave at him with happy faces and genuine smiles. They’d wave and wave and wave, as if they couldn’t wave enough, and Joey waved happily back.

Even at a distance he could clearly see their faces. He could see how the free wind moved in their hair and he could see the strange way that passing sailboats tugged at their eyes. In their eyes he saw a deep love for the gentle, rippling water and the floating clouds in blue sky. He loved those things, too.

He easily saw their joy. As he waved, he could feel an electric love and yearning passing between them, like radio waves across the water.

Even at a distance, Joey could see the light in their eyes.

When Joey waved at people who were walking past his bench on the pier, they ignored him.