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 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.

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.