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.

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.

The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a bleached city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I’ve brought!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes suddenly widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

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.

The Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like immense bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary art 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. The thing was titled Earthbound. Predictably entering the yawning entrance, a line of people passed 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 devoured 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.

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.