Where the young girls sat in the sunshine along the river and the young men strutted and swore, thunder was heard. Night came suddenly, sun sliced to darkness. A curtain dropped before the eyes of a thousand people, millions more. Memory was blind to the iron and rust of history. No one had thought the cities would swirl up again in flame, dust and ashes eager for the sky. The tulips were profligate that spring, blood-red cups brimming, the sun pouring into them like gold. For Lent that year, they gave up fear.
I wake up from rivers running through my dreams. When I say dreams, I don't mean ten impossible things I have set my heart upon. When I say set my heart on, I'm not casting my heart overhead, tossing it up like a grappling hook, hoping it will catch on the best. When I say I hope for the best, I haven't abandoned the rest — that which I live toward each day, one day much like another. When I say one day is much like another, I mean every day carries its sorrows, I can breathe any day to gladness, each day is a spring of new beginnings. When I say new beginnings, it begs the question of old beginnings, broken ones limping through deep ruts, world without end. When I say world without end, I wonder how long these dreams will pulse through my heart, new water flowing each moment down the river, bearing its sorrow, carrying its hope.
In a diner, making for the coffee stand, I paused for an aged woman, as fragile as a shell. Our paths wove together in a stitchery of chance. She would have given way as rough custom demands: old age bows to youth, female to male, height and impatience trumping courtesy and care. "Thank you for noticing me," and her eyes glinted a little. "When you're my age you are invisible." In the counting world youth rises and whirls, broad strokes and flash springing off the feet. Old age lifts memory to its ear, a conch shell's far-off ocean calling faintly from within.
Then there is that anticipation as the arm swings stiffly over, pauses and delicately descends upon the first groove. If we still had carriages, this would be the moment when the beautiful young duchess alights and glides up the steps of the opera house. Or when the angel touches down outside Mary's door, having burned across the cosmos at the speed of light, briefly touching up its hair, then bowing. Just now, on the branch outside my window, a thrush has landed. She will shake out her wings, jitter to one side and back, cock her head, and open her throat in a delight of song.
I cannot remember the stories I heard as a child at bedtime. I must have taken them in, laughing softly, stored them carefully in a room in memory's house, where I could find them once again. I was not thinking of them when I hacked through jungles of algebra, swayed in the crow's nest of Magellan's fleet, carved the water behind Nick Adam's paddle, or stepped carefully across the stones of Greek on the river of St. John's Gospel. Much later, with my son fresh-scrubbed and nestled in my lap, his blond curls soft and damp, we found where all the wild things are, why Peter ate the parsley, what the two bad ants got into, and every night we said goodnight to the red balloon, a pair of socks, the bowl of mush, and the moon. I have not found my bedtime stories. They slipped out through a window, shinnied down the tree and crossed the yard into the forest, as quiet as a fox. All these years they have been free, living off the land, circled round the fire each night, waiting for a distant time to be the gift for someone else's child.
My umbrella is blue and white, with spots of rust where the bones and joints of this ancient pterodactyl have bled into its skin. More than once I have gone back to some coffee shop or restaurant to rescue my umbrella from under chairs or from the Lost and Found, which umbrellas call The Orphanage, and where on moonlit nights they gather, whispering of how their People will return at last to claim them. They do not talk about the ones flung off in wrath, their limbs awry and twisted, their People stomping them in fury. On sidewalks and in vestibules or getting into cars, they are pounded, torn and kicked, jammed headfirst into trash bins, abandoned in the gutter — ancient birds brought down at last. My umbrella rolls around the floor of the back seat in my old car, to live its days in comfort there, stained, arthritic, loved with care.
When I leaf through the poetry book from the secondhand shop, the Polaroid photo falls into my hand. The young man in the foreground has curly blond hair, a white shirt, and black khakis. His arm is raised to the camera at his eye. His gaze is on the young woman, as dark-haired as he is blond, as olive-skinned as he is fair, in a white dress gathered to her neck, her tanned shoulders bare, her hair draping soft around her face and down to her shoulder. She sits side-saddle, long legs crossed at the ankle, espadrilles braced against the black cold barrel of a cannon. It's a summer afternoon, maybe four o'clock, the light slanting in from the west. Just over the ramparts, the wide horizon of the river. He swings her down and they wait for the Polaroid with his best friend, the one who took the photo, and the three of them look for a coffee shop before they drive back to the City. And she keeps the photo in the poetry book he gives her for their anniversary. When she moves out, she drops the book off at the library sale for homeless vets. She's forgotten the photo, pressed between the poems, but she remembers that afternoon, the soft, creamy light, the stiff cold muscle of the cannon, and the one who took the Polaroid.
Sundays I slip through the dozing streets at dawn, down to the boat house by the river. The owner, brisk and abrupt, not unkind, takes my card. I, with the skin on my back warm from the sun, my feet cold in the slosh of water in the canoe, watch the jeweled line of drops from my paddle. The bridge looks closer than it is; the arches flame in the light. The piers are smooth with strength, green under the waterline, the water purling clean around the base, and all in red the words, "Paula, I love you." Paula, if you're reading this, I was stroking up the river, a solitary voyager, wishing you were there.
I keep coming back to it — this word "faith" — like someone trying to finish the crossword in the Times. If I throw down the pencil and walk away, I know that will end it for good. So I doodle in the margins, reluctant to stop, helpless to go on. We've worn our faith like a baseball cap, sifted it like salt upon our hearts of ice, sandbagged it along our swollen rivers of fear, talked it comatose. I declare a moratorium on the word "faith." Do not use it to seal the deal. Don't call it "money" by another name. Please, do not count your miracles by it. Foolishness cannot be reversed by it: it is not a vaccine. It cannot be bought, but it will cost you everything. Let us speak of hope, endurance 'til the end, joy in all times. Feet walking, ears open, eyes to see. And in another place to hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
We don't really want to know what you are feeling when we say, "How are you?" By the time you answer, we're already down the hall. That was just a comma in the sentence we have meted out to you. "Do you have anything to declare?" asks the official at the border. "Don't get me started," we think. "What I have to declare you don't want to hear," but we say politely, "No, nothing." "I'll be honest with you," says the politician, and we whisper to ourselves, "When did you stop lying?" but we respond with a smile and an attentive cocking of the head. You want to talk about honesty, really? You want to admit to a slew of wordless crimes, crimes of thought and passion conceived in silence and excuted deftly without apparent motion? We're as honest with each other as gears which need the oil. Time counts more than tenderness; efficient are the boundaries drawn clear. Humble friendship bumbles artlessly along, throws its arms wide in a yes to all of life, its truth a tree whose roots go deep in every season.