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.

A Monument to Remember

I’m not exactly sure why I spent Sunday mornings sitting on a cold bench near that monument. It seemed a suitable place to read a book. I suppose my attraction to the place had something to do with words engraved in marble. A feeling of permanence.

Those mornings I wasn’t the only one drawn to the park. Rested and ready, fresh out of nearby hotels, tourists hurried past beds of flowers in order to conquer the city.

The shining monument, in the shape of an erect, pointed obelisk, was so conspicuous that eager eyes couldn’t possibly miss it.

Legs inevitably turned. Feet halted by the solemn black plaque at the obelisk’s base. Selfie sticks rose. Satisfied poses were effected.

If I really wanted to hurt myself, I lowered my book and opened my mouth to play a simple game. “Do you know why that monument is there?” I asked.

Most couldn’t say.

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!”

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.”

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.