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.

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.”

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!”

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.”

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.

Another Page

Becky turned another page of her scrapbook.

She peered into a faded photograph.

Flying that kite in the backyard on the green grass. A small yard bright with summer sunshine. The day she found an Indian arrowhead under a stepping stone. Ants in the picnic brownies. That silly dog–his silly name–what was it–Wiggles, and the waving armlike branches of the old crooked oak tree.

That slow rope swing, and cool, satisfying shade beneath wind-rustling leaves. That crazy squirrel. Darting around and around, between the trees. That funny, unstoppable squirrel. The shy small sparrows in the azalea bushes. Dragonflies like green jewels, ethereal pale moths.

Billowing white clouds shaped like sculpted marble, or towering castles high in the sky, shining exactly like heaven at the edges.

A clay pot full of cheerful dahlias. Dandelion fluff that rose like momentary dreams. Sudden hummingbirds. That friendly robin. Diamonds of early morning dew. Gentle waves of tall unmown grass in a soft summer afternoon breeze. The oh-so-sweet smell of green grass.

Her kite, so bright, almost touching the sun.

Becky’s thin fingers turned the pages.

Birthday parties, picnics on the lawn, hide-and-seek, cutting beautiful red roses under the kitchen window, arms twirling wide in a warm summer rain, lying flat on the lush grass, meeting that friend, drinking lemonade from a glass bright with clinking ice, watching for the gopher, painting at a tipsy easel, laughter, idle chatting, repeated bad jokes, learning the guitar, nodding, teasing, stealing kisses, daydreaming, talking with long-vanished best friends on a magic carpet blanket, feeling the so, so soft caress of those passing summers.

She turned through every page. Her scrapbook was just about full.

Becky closed the heavy book and with difficulty set it down on the end table near her wheelchair. Sitting alone, she gazed about the empty, curtained room. It was cold. The room was dead.

Her great-granddaughter flew through the door.

“Hi Great-Ma! What are you doing?”

“Resting. I’m very tired.”

“Why are you tired?”

“Because I’m so very old.”

“Won’t you please come outside with me?” the tiny girl asked. “I’m going to fly my new kite!”

Becky smiled. “Okay.”

A Steep Hill

The old man bent slowly. He set a heavy black garbage bag down on the sidewalk. He stood on the hill and rested. The five block climb to the church seemed more steep than ever.

I can’t do this forever, he told himself.

The shrugging shadows from a crowd of downtown buildings were very cold. The old man zipped his jacket all the way up. He gazed down at the sidewalk and the garbage bag.

He lifted the bag and resumed his way up the hill. One careful step after another. He waited on a corner for a traffic light, even though there were almost no cars about on a Sunday morning. Litter blown by the November wind had collected in the gutter. On the opposite sidewalk several people were sleeping among discarded bottles.

The apples in his bag felt like stones.

He wondered why he carried them.

His parents had built their modest house a long, long time ago, decades before the city swarmed around it. When he was three years old, his mother had planted an apple tree in the backyard. Now, suffocated by high-rises, it was a miracle that tree grew at all. It was a miracle the harvest remained bountiful. No sunlight now reached the tiny house.

For a painful instant the old man barely recalled the radiant face of his mother: her shining eyes and bright fiery curls. The apple tree was just as generous as her unpent heart. Pies, cakes, muffins, cobblers, jelly, sauce, cider, enough for a large happy family. But those years were long dead. The only hands that remained were his own.

He now despised apples.

A smiling man in a sideways baseball cap hurried rapidly down the steep sidewalk. The smiling man stopped a few feet above the old man and stared down at him.

“What you got there buddy?”

“A garbage bag.”

“Find anything good?”

“No, just garbage.”

“Too bad. Look what I got. The idiots at City Church give them away for nothing.” The smiling man pulled a red apple out of a pocket. “They don’t even care who you are. You can take as many as you want.” The smiling man suddenly pitched the red apple across the street. It struck the side of a cold building and exploded. He laughed loudly.

The smiling man pulled out another apple, tossed it onto the street, watched it roll down into the gutter.

The old man shrugged, continued up the hill with his garbage bag.

. . .

The tree was unrelenting. Those beautiful apples seemed infinite.

The old man ascended the hill to church Sunday after Sunday, transporting a terribly heavy bag, one careful step following another. He often wondered why he did it.

It was fate, probably.