The Snipe Hunt

Fifty eight adventurers sat at folding tables in a building made of pine logs. It was summer. They were eating hamburgers.

“You have two choices,” explained a camp counselor while everyone guzzled. “After dinner you can either go with me on a snipe hunt, or you can follow Janine down to the lake. She’ll show you how to make paper sky lanterns. Does anyone want to go on the snipe hunt?”

Many hands shot up.

“You should probably know,” the counselor explained, “snipes aren’t real. There are no snipes. All we’ll do is hike up the hill behind the cabins and poke around in the dark. We won’t actually find anything.”

Blake continued to hold his hand up. Nobody else did.

. . .

Blake followed the counselor up the steep desert hill. Both carried flashlights. After nightfall the blazing heat had rapidly vanished. The air was already chilly.

Two small wavering circles of light fell upon cacti and broken rock. The counselor stopped to beat on a thorny bush beside the trail with his hiking stick. “Keep a sharp lookout!” he urged with enthusiasm. “It’s a well known fact that snipes hide around here!”

Blake moved past the counselor and plunged ahead into the night’s darkness. The rough trail, at times difficult to follow, cut back and forth up the rocky hill and the climb was slow.

“Don’t forget to hit the bushes with your stick,” the counselor prompted.

Blake ignored him. He continued up the trail. As he climbed away from the cabins and their dwindling light, the black sky deepened. Sprinkled stars appeared.

It would be ridiculous, Blake understood, to search for things that aren’t real. But there was strange mystery in the deepening night–there was freedom, the limitless air, the unknown–

He climbed eagerly. He wanted to see what starlight falling from unreachable distances might touch.

The night became colder. His flashlight wavered right and left. All signs of the trail had disappeared.

“Don’t get too far ahead of me!” the counselor shouted. “Don’t become lost!”

Then, Blake, turning to peer into even more darkness, saw them. A handful of sky lanterns. Small lights slowly rising among the stars.

They rose like tiny distant suns. As he stood, he watched them drift away, becoming fainter.

One after another they winked out.

Nothing was left above but those unreachable stars.

“Beautiful, weren’t they?” the counselor said coming up beside him. “It was worth climbing up here just to see that. But it’s getting late. We should turn back.”

“Why?”

Blake ignored the counselor and started climbing the steep hill again, more restless than before. The night breeze was increasing, becoming colder. The wavering circle of light offered by his flashlight discovered more of the same cacti and rocks. The counselor quietly followed.

What can a person up here actually find? Blake wondered. More prickly cacti, more of the same broken rock, and perhaps, eventually, the summit of this one barren desert hill, and a night sky with far horizons filled with even more stars. Things nobody else will see.

Perhaps it was the sharpening wind, or his adjusting eyes, but as he climbed toward the stars the night became more alive. He heard rustlings, saw shapes and shadows swaying slightly, moving on the ground around him. Certainly not snipes. But there was a thrilling, unexplainable something up here. Probably only the wind.

Blake was sure he could see the hill’s top. He was almost there. The stars were all around.

In the gentle starlight, he switched off his flashlight and looked all around with wonder.

But he could go higher.

Looking up, he thought he could see a thing moving on the dark hill’s summit. Something very small and glimmering.

He climbed toward it.

“I found a snipe!” shouted Blake.

The counselor came up, his light off, too.

And there it was.

A fragile living thing.

Sent by wishful hands toward the stars, a paper sky lantern had returned to Earth. It had tangled in a low cactus, where, extinguished, it shivered in the cold wind and faintly reflected starlight.

The Weed

Jules sipped a rum and tonic by the rooftop pool. He regarded a weed in a flower box. He didn’t recall seeing it before.

The crooked, gangling weed must have grown quickly. It towered above the trimmed flowers. Its wild green had unfurled like a flag.

Jules relaxed in his chaise lounge and knew that if he carefully watched the weed for hours and hours he’d observe its ascent. He took another sip.

There was a sudden vision of Jack’s beanstalk.

He saw the green weed growing higher.

The weed rose from the rooftop pool and the surrounding rooftops up into blue sky, and the city streets below became very small. The weed penetrated a white cloud. It emerged above the cloud and continued to grow.

It passed a flying dragon.

It passed a witch on her broomstick.

It neared a castle.

From the castle an astonished giant watched the green weed shooting past.

The weed left Earth’s atmosphere and passed a cow jumping over the moon.

The weed, whose seed must have been blown to the rooftop on the wind, passed Martian canals, a whirling space ship, and peculiar stone heads on a desert island. It passed a mummy walking upon the rings of Saturn. It passed ghosts and angels.

It passed Hermes returning to Mount Olympus, a flaming Firebird, and the imagination of a young boy taking flight.

It passed through galaxies of gravitational planets where insect civilizations rose and fell as dust and the stars were too numerous for any sane person to count.

Jules sipped his rum and tonic by the pool on the rooftop. Fairy tales.

The tall weed in the flower box disrupted his view of the city.

He sprang from his chaise lounge and pulled it.

To Last Forever

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. That was the classroom exercise on Wednesday.

The teacher had reminded her students that even the pyramids were crumbling.

Wagner looked at the objects spilled on the classroom floor. There were hammers, brushes, a box of nails, plywood in different dimensions, cans of paint. And fourteen minutes.

Wagner wondered what he could make in those few minutes that would last forever. Forever was a long time.

Perhaps a masterpiece that ended up in a museum. But he wasn’t a famous artist, and he had a strong hunch he never would be. Now thirteen minutes.

Or he could create an artifact to be discovered by an archaeologist in the distant future. But wood rots. Twelve minutes.

Thinking about world history, Wagner realized that in thousands of years museums disappear, too. Eleven minutes.

Like the pyramids, everything in the world eventually crumbles. Ten minutes.

Forever has no end. Nine minutes.

What is forever?

He tried to visualize the immensity of forever.

One moment in forever is almost nothing. It is a drop in the ocean that is the cosmos. An infinitesimal drop, in an infinite ocean that unifies all things. With ripples that expand outward without end. Only five minutes left.

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. Wagner figured there must be a solution to the problem. His teacher had a purpose. Three minutes.

He looked across the classroom at his teacher, who stood in a corner smiling at her students. Most of the students were busy painting or hammering. Wagner wasn’t. Two minutes.

Wagner saw in his teacher’s eyes that there was a solution. Her eyes turned toward him and she nodded. One minute.

You have fifteen minutes to make something that will last forever. Suddenly Wagner knew the answer.

He walked up to his teacher and reached out his hand with gratitude. They made the connection.

“This is the answer,” he said.

Night Walking

The house had eyes.

The porch was a chin. The front door, a mouth.

Eli arrived home late, exhausted after another day’s work.

He parked on the driveway, locked his car, crossed stepping stones and climbed to the porch. The porch was a chin. He entered the mouth.

Late that night, after Eli had turned off all the lights and wrapped himself in warm blankets, the dark windows of the house blinked awake. Starlight filled eyes.

Rising from the ground, the house began to walk.

It walked past a row of gray lawns and sleeping houses and turned at Elm Street.

It walked past the dark gas station and the dark liquor store.

It turned onto Main Street and walked past the post office, bank, supermarket. It walked through the black shadows of the junkyard.

The eyes of the house twinkled right and left as they searched the night.

The house passed a cat prowling through an empty lot. It passed under a bat fluttering into the night from under a bridge. It walked past a row of black cedar trees and a lifted finger that was a church steeple. It moved beside pale nightshades that tumbled from inside the iron fence of the cemetery. It observed the hands of the town clock grasping eternity.

Under remote stars the house roamed.

A strange dream moved it. An impossible dream that was wrapped behind its eyes. A dream that was brighter than the stars, that turned gray shadows to certainties and the solemn dark to a thousand brilliant colors.

Walking through the night, the house at last found what it sought.

Eli woke as the sun rose above the horizon.

He looked out at the familiar street from his bedroom window, at the newly mown lawn and bed of cheerful yellow gardenias.

He was ready for another day.

The Specimen

A golf ball flies much farther on the moon. A rock will, too, reasoned Amelia.

She knelt to collect another specimen. She regarded the mass in her gloved hand. She was a geologist. She understood a thing of value waited in the moon rock. But that precious thing was impossible to see.

45.4% SiO2. 14.9% Al2O3. 11.8% CaO. 14.1% FeO. 9.2% MgO. 3.9% TiO2. 0.6% Na2O.

The specimen turned over in her gloved fingers. It was colorless, dull. She remembered her childhood. She pictured the grassy bank of the river by her home where she unearthed smooth stones for skipping. She’d find one, turn it over, hoping it was perfect, then skip it as far as she could across twinkling blue water.

She clutched the specimen. She was a geologist. She had lifted the small rock from the surface of a lunar mare. A place once thought to be a sea. She looked from the dust at her feet into the emptiness above.

In the blackness, far away, was a bright pool of blue.

Amelia threw the rock with all of her might.

The Shining World

Ceci was determined to jump into that other world–the shining world that opened at her feet.

Through the silver portal she saw a strange city of bright crystal buildings, rising down into depths of blue sky and white clouds.

She jumped.

“Hey, stop it!” her big brother complained. “You splashed me!”

The rain shower had let up. Her brother carried a black umbrella and held her hand. The sun was coming out.

Ceci twisted free.

Another silver portal opened in the sidewalk a few steps ahead and her brother circled around it. Ceci stopped and stared down.

Through the portal bright tall buildings rippled in sunlight. They seemed fairy towers that stretched just beyond arm’s reach, those shimmering visions in storybooks. They were shining beacons that summoned a troubled heart from a dark place.

Splash!

“Stop it! Why do you keep doing that?”

“I don’t know,” Ceci replied. But she did know. The world she saw through the portal was where she wanted to be.

It was a world as limitless as the bright sun’s light in wide open eyes.

Where cities were made of sapphire and topaz and amethyst and emerald. A place like heaven.

Another entrance to that other world loomed ahead. This portal, beside a curb, was wide and very deep.

While the two waited to cross the street Ceci stood at the edge of a high precipice staring down. Far below her beckoned the other world. But she realized she couldn’t jump into it. Not without shattering the dream and soaking her feet.

Ceci was surprised to see a nearby pigeon on the other side of the portal. The pigeon stood upside down.

Suddenly the pigeon flew up through the silver portal and out into Ceci’s world.

With her eyes Ceci followed the bird up, up, up, up–and there it was: a crystal city–a city of brightly shining buildings newly risen around her.

She looked all about with wonder.

A Bowl of Soup

George carefully arranged a few letters. He maneuvered an O next to an N and poked about with his spoon searching for an C. There had to be a C in there somewhere.

“This alphabet soup is really yummy,” said Abbie, finishing her own bowl. “Eat it before it’s cold.”

With an additional letter George completed a word. Then he started working on his next word. “You know,” he said, “with a large enough bowl I could finish writing my novel. This isn’t just any novel, mind you, but possibly the most brilliant novel ever written. You’re probably sitting across from the next Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Leo Tolstoy. Generations of readers will admire my soup.”

“Oh, seriously,” laughed Abbie. She sat watching him incredulously.

George labored with his soup for a good five minutes.

“My novel’s opening sentence is almost done. Fortunately it isn’t as long as It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. I’m keeping it simple.”

“Because alphabet pasta is slippery,” Abbie laughed.

“Because brevity is the soul of wit!” George replied cheerfully, feeling a little hurt. “Sometimes an author can say more by saying less.”

Abbie rolled her eyes.

“This construct of pasta floating before you,” he continued, “is no different than literature. What you see are the few letters writers combine to produce profound revelations. Assembled brilliantly, these are the same letters great novelists use to convey a reader to new heights, to lofty regions previously unexplored. These are the very same letters typed out by the world’s most celebrated poets and philosophers. Sequenced in the correct way, these small symbols help a mind perceive truth.” He floated another letter into place to finally form a sentence. “See!”

She dipped her spoon into the sentence and tested it. “Your soup’s cold.”

Father’s Paintbrush

My father’s hobby was painting. You’ve probably never heard of him because he never became known. He never sold anything.

When I was a very young boy I often watched Father standing before his easel on our green lawn, painting ordinary scenes from our backyard. It’s one of the few things from my early childhood I still remember.

He’d paint the old oak tree with its rope swing. Or the hibiscus bush with its flaming red flowers tangled in the dirty white fence. Or that small birdbath at the center of our lawn.

His act of painting had seemed magic to me. I remember how I’d look up to watch him paint a cat on the fence, and then he’d smile down at me and point to the fence. There was the cat!

I’d watch him paint a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky. And he’d point to a cloud that looked exactly like a mountain peak in the blue sky!

His paintbrush, to me, was a magician’s wand that created the wonders all around me. His brush created sudden tiny flowers in the grass and shining golden leaves. It materialized an entire bright world. When you’re very young, you believe anything.

His finished paintings were hung in a corner of our garage until the dim garage resembled a dusky art gallery, crammed with oak trees and red flowers and birdbaths and mysterious cats and clouds that resembled many things. When the big garage door opened it seemed as if the sun had just risen: and there in new light were those moments of magic, framed by hanging garden tools!

I remember something else. When my father painted, I’d beg that he summon impossible things. I wanted his magic paintbrush to create an elephant in our backyard. Or a dinosaur. Or a castle. A spaceship popping onto our lawn would be so amazing! But, no, he explained, he didn’t know how to paint those things. It was a big disappointment to my credulous mind that a shiny silver spaceship would never pop into our backyard.

Of course, the day came when I learned paintbrushes aren’t magic. That was the day I ran outside and stopped beside my father and saw that he was painting a strange man. The strange man stood mysteriously on the green lawn, between the oak tree and birdbath. I was confused. I looked from the painting to the lawn and nobody was there. Just grass.

The man painted on the canvas resembled nobody I knew. To me it seemed as though Father had summoned a stranger into our backyard, but the stranger had not come yet. I stared at the painting feeling disappointed. Perhaps the strange person would leap over the dirty white fence at any moment and stand before us.

Obviously, it didn’t happen.

That painting like all the others ended up in our garage, and so did the strange man, standing between the oak tree and bird bath and the hanging garden tools. That my father’s paintbrush wasn’t magic after all saddened me for a day or two, but I soon was laughing. Paintings are nothing but paintings.

As you grow older you discover the truth. You learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

You understand there is no magic. And you become embarrassed about silly things you actually believed as a child.

After my father died, my wife and I returned to the old house. We inventoried the clutter in the old bedrooms, the kitchen, dining room and family room. I lifted open the big garage door and there in that new dawn of light were all the paintings exactly as I remembered them: oak tree, small birdbath, cat, clouds.

Gazing at scenes that had been rendered by Father years and years ago, I wondered if anything I faintly remembered had been real. Had that cat really been sitting on our fence or had I merely imagined it? Had there been a cloud of that particular shape in the sky?

My wife, standing beside me, suddenly pointed at one painting just above eye level.

She put her hands to her mouth. “Oh my God!”

It was the painting of the strange adult man standing on our lawn. The man appeared exactly like me.

Twinkle

Shannon carried a bag of garbage to the row of cans by the sidewalk. She shoved the garbage into an overflowing can, waved a fly away and turned about. She paused to look at the apartment building where she lived. The poor place was all she could afford. The front yard was nothing but bare dirt and weeds.

She looked down at the dirt. A single dandelion grew by her feet.

A child’s rhyme entered Shannon’s mind.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

Shannon, her eyes fixed on the small yellow bloom, suddenly realized that the star-like dandelion was made of sunshine. It had grown from the sun’s light and warmth.

And somehow, grown from sunshine, too, was the busy worker bee searching the small flower for pollen.

And birthed from the sun’s heart was the nearby chestnut tree whose roots had badly cracked the sidewalk. And the flighty little birds that perched for a moment in its branches.

Shannon stared across the dirt toward her apartment building.

She blinked at late afternoon sunlight reflecting from the building’s half open windows. They appeared like half open eyes. Suddenly she remembered a thing she had learned once upon a time. Stars had made everything in the world. Even her home.

The furnaces of an ancient star had forged every element of the building: the half open windows, the peeling paint, the creaky wooden steps leading to the porch, the potted geraniums and tinkling wind chime. A star had created the ordinary buildings to her right and to her left, and the building across the street.

A star had created the complete world around her. From a child’s small red rubber ball that had been dropped and lost near the single dandelion, to sprouting green weeds around it, to the talking, smiling people who were walking their Yorkshire Terrier down the cracked sidewalk.

A star had created all that was and might be.

She regarded the dandelion.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

Small Pleasures

“The concept is to make your world more real. You apply a tiny stain to one place, or add a smudge of grease, or even use a fine brush to paint graffiti.”

The model railroader was showing a visitor his layout.

“Look at these boxcars. They look exactly like miniature versions of the real thing. You can’t make your objects too dirty.

“See that train coming across the bridge? I aged the locomotive with a mild acid solution, then I carefully added soot, dust and exhaust. I used acrylic paint to blacken the grills and create rust.

“Over here, I weathered the train station with sandpaper and deliberately broke one of the steps leading to the side door. I even put some mold in the waiting room. But to see that you have to peer through this little window.”

The model railroader laughed. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to make this layout as realistic as possible. Look at the steel bridge and the forested mountain, the city park and city streets. Look closely at the sidewalks, the litter, the shop windows and busy people.

“But you know what makes this world really convincing?

“Trouble.

“See that railroad crossing gate? I made it drop down on top of a car.

“A driver has jumped out of another car in the traffic jam and is waving his fist.

“A delivery truck has suddenly veered to avoid an accident, and a load of barrels has tumbled out.

“One barrel is still rolling two blocks away.

“The ladder of the arriving fire engine is swinging out of control. It knocked over a pretzel stand. And here come dozens of stray dogs.

“Frightened by stampeding dogs, two lovers in the park have jumped up onto a bench.

“A police officer has climbed a tree.

“The pilot of a hot air balloon, watching the chaos below, has become tangled on a church steeple.

“Down every little street, around every corner, trouble percolates and spreads like ripples on a pond. It’s a world made farcical by trouble. And not a single little person has the ability to escape. They remain where I glued them.”

The model railroader waved an arm proudly above his meticulously constructed world.

“When you look down and find unbounded chaos, you know it’s real.”

The visitor gazed at small pleasures and laughed.