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 Deal

Sophie reached down to pluck a flower.

A bee landed on the back of her hand. It moved awkwardly over a knuckle and onto a finger.

Sophie froze. “A bee!” she screamed.

The bee walked slowly to the end of the finger.

“Go away!” Sophie screamed.

“Why?” asked the bee.

“Because you’re a bee! You’re dangerous and you might sting me!”

“I promise I won’t sting you if you accept my offer,” said the bee.

“What do you want?”

“If you do not pluck that flower, I will make this finger magic.”

“Deal!” said Sophie.

The bee turned around several times on the fingertip. “Now if you touch that flower very gently,” the bee explained, “you will give it a second life.”

The pollinating bee vibrated its delicate wings and departed.

Sophie looked closely at the end of her finger.

The Highest Seat

I had a friend named Nick. We used to have long conversations in the city park while sitting on a bench: I on one end, he on the other.

Nick would sit there with his eyes closed, listening through headphones to what he called the music of the spheres. I never heard his music, so I couldn’t tell you what he meant.

While he was listening to his music, I’d sit on the other end of the bench people watching. Watching random joggers and walkers. He and I were quite different.

When Nick opened his eyes and they met mine we talked.

Nick loved to talk about astronomy. For many years he’d worked as projectionist at the city park’s planetarium, operating a unique device called a star projector. From the projector’s starball shined points of light. Thin rays of light formed constellations on the planetarium’s black dome-shaped screen. The starball slowly revolved like the Earth.

Space was his obsession. Nick knew the orbit of every planet and every moon. He could name hundreds of stars. He knew everything there was to know about comets, and Saturn’s rings, and Jupiter’s spot–I forget what it’s called–and far galaxies at the very edge of the Universe. He knew the date and time of every eclipse. All he ever talked about was space.

He’d been retired from that job as projectionist for years and now he sat in the park and listened with eyes closed to his music of the spheres. A few times I caught him on that bench after dark. He was staring up at the twinkling stars.

He used to tell me that the best seat in a planetarium is the highest one–right up near the domed ceiling. It’s the seat nearest the stars. But people seldom climb those steep stairs. People like the easy seats.

He finally retired from that projectionist job when the planetarium began to show nothing but documentary films on its giant, curved screen. You know, those movies that take you soaring above skyscrapers or for a ride on a roller coaster. The world around and under you seems so solid that you get motion sickness. He hated those films. I didn’t understand why.

He once told me he’d been born too early. He wanted to go flying through space. Among the stars.

After he passed away, I still would sit on that same park bench.

Whenever I walked past the old planetarium-turned-theater I wondered what the stars might have been like in there.

One day I saw the theater was showing a documentary film about outer space. I decided to buy a ticket. To see what the experience might be like.

I made my way into the dark theater. I found some ascending steps. It was so dark that I had to feel my way with groping hands. Nick was right. The higher seats were mostly empty.

Up, up those steep steps I climbed through the darkness until I reached the last seat. The highest one. The one nearest the screen. Still standing, I tilted my head back to examine the black, arching screen. It seemed so vast, like space. It appeared almost close enough to touch.

Suddenly the movie started. Stars appeared.

When I looked down, ready to sit in that highest seat, I discovered a faintly glimmering thing. A brass plaque.

Bending down to look closely, I could barely read: In remembrance of Nicolas, projectionist. His light made every star.

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 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.

The Wheel

The potter sat before a turning wheel making a bowl . . . or a vase.

The potter’s hands expertly manipulated the spinning clay. Several visitors stood watching. It was a late Sunday afternoon at the Artist Collective.

I looked up at the many glazed ceramics on nearby shelves. My eyes took in row upon row of shining bowls and vases and cups and plates, in every possible shape, each and every one beautiful.

I observed the artist. “How do you know when you’re done?” I asked.

The potter laughed and shook her head. “Good question!”

The wheel kept turning as the potter’s hands compelled her creation. The clay suddenly grew tall like a tower, then expanded outward like an opening flower.

The spinning thing bulged, narrowed, ripples appeared, were smoothed away. Like soft skin touched with a finger.

Something organic emerged from the potter’s clay-covered hands, developed shoulders, a neck, a lip. Perhaps it was a vase.

The potter removed her dripping hands to examine the whirling creation. It was not quite born, suspended in space. She changed the posture of her fingers and the clay resumed its undulations.

The eyes of the artist seemed never satisfied.

The creation spun through endless permutations of beauty, and I didn’t understand how one curve would be considered more beautiful than another. There was an infinity at the center of the wheel: a door to a place of transcendent possibility: the eternal dream from which all things spring.

But only one fleeting vision would be subjected to fire.

The wheel stopped.

The potter thrust her clay-covered hands into the air, as if in surrender or triumph. “Done!”

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.

The Pier

A short wooden pier extends from a secluded beach on the northern coast. The pier doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. It’s too high for a boat, and it doesn’t even reach the surf. Fishermen seldom use it.

Sometimes during my long morning commute I’ll pull off the coast highway, turn down a dirt road and into the little parking lot by the pier, just to open my window. The sound of the ocean is very soothing.

When I have several minutes to spare, I’ll walk out over the water.

I’ll lean on the rail at the end of the pier, nobody around.

All along that part of the coast unbroken forest sweeps down from a line of hills to the ocean, and at the end of the little pier a fresh green scent merges with the salt smell. Seabirds fly overhead. The faint chatter of water on small round stones rises from the beach below. Standing there, I like to gaze down at the water as it steadily rolls in and out, then raise my eyes to the horizon, the ocean breeze on my face.

One morning as I stood at the end of the pier I became aware that a person was walking toward me.

A man my own age, dressed in a business suit like myself, was advancing down the pier very slowly. He moved with the aid of two crutches. It appeared to me that he had cerebral palsy.

Embarrassed, I looked away.

The man faltered and struggled along the pier and finally came to a halt several feet from me. He leaned his crutches against the wooden rail and stood quietly gazing out over the ocean.

I finally turned to him meaning to say hello.

But the man’s motionless eyes were so far away. They were riveted to the ocean’s horizon beyond the line of breaking surf. His face bore a complicated expression that I couldn’t quite untangle. I saw regret. I believe I saw resignation.

I looked again his crutches and kept my mouth shut.

The man stood for a while with fixed, unreadable eyes, then he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out something small. A coin.

He turned the coin over and over in his fingers without looking down at it. The coin flashed in his hand like an ember from a hidden fire. Suddenly with an easy motion he tossed the coin from the pier. It dropped shining into the ocean and was gone.

The dropping of the coin seemed like a surrender. I yearned to say something sympathetic. I finally spoke. “It’s like a gigantic wishing well.”

He turned and regarded at me. “You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a payment of my debt.”

With a sudden smile, he gathered up his crutches, placed one under each arm, and with a lurching effort began to walk away. He lifted his legs one after the other as he struggled back down the short wooden pier.

I watched him become smaller.

His debt?

I stood perplexed.

What could a man in pain possibly owe the ocean?

I turned to gaze again at the breaking surf from the short pier’s end. Beyond the line of surf the ocean pulsed to the horizon like an ethereal thing. So unfathomable. And I so small.

My thoughts turned to the ocean’s salty smell and how it permeated my life. How I longed to smell it, along with the green. How it made me feel alive.

I thought of the vast world that encircled me. Of the living forest rising up hills from the stony beach, of moving clouds and wheeling seabirds, and silver water rolling back and forth across rippled sand.

I thought of my daily drive up and down the beautiful coast highway, when I considered my life’s lofty goals, and listened to my favorite music.

Then I thought of my home halfway up a green mountain, with its porch swing and warm fireplace, its modest yard and few flowers.

I thought of my family. That very morning they had given me a thousand reasons to smile.

I thought of my friends who provided encouragement and bursts of laughter and a feeling that somehow, in this crazy mixed-up world, I belong.

I thought of sunshine and rain, good times and bad, the mixture of pleasure and pain that constituted my own life.

As I gazed out at the surf crashing beyond the pier’s end, I realized that all things obtain their life from a churning ocean–a generous ocean whose depths lie beyond any man’s reach.

I took a coin from my own pocket. Thoughtfully I turned it over in my hand.

I tossed it into the water.