With trembling fingers, the old man gingerly unhinged the tiny clasps and slowly opened the wooden box.
It was an unremarkable container, about a foot and a half long and half as wide, constructed of crumbling, red-stained cedar. Despite its battered appearance, it was his wife’s favorite possession. In it, she kept various mementos from her past – photos of their vacation to Alaska, a writing journal, figurines from her childhood dollhouse, tickets to their first opera together, various pieces of jewelry.
Five excruciating years and still the crushing weight of her absence all but immobilized the old man. He knew sifting through this box might bring more pain, more grief, but the compulsion that brought him up to the dark, old attic to sift through her belongings, to feel something, anything, was simply too strong.
For the old man, the past five years were an oppressive, anesthetized stupor; all but the most fundamental necessities were lost to him. His prior life simply vanished; hours were no different than days, and days were no different than nights. Curiosity and passion had been shackled by numbness.
And there was something else, something just out of conscious reach…
As the old man slowly sifted through the personal items, he felt a wave of grief rising like the tide. There were simply too many memories and they all came flooding back with alarming intensity. He shook his head. It was too hard. He started to gingerly place the items back when something new caught his eye. Half-revealed by an old letter, lay a kaleidoscope in the far corner of the box. It was constructed of two concentric tubes wrapped by an outer dial, about five inches long, old-world cartography printed on the outside in various shades of sepia. The old man squinted in puzzlement at the unfamiliar item, reached in and ran his finger along its skin. It felt rough and fibrous, like old, dried bark. Had this always been here? He placed the scope in his hand and tested its heft – it was much heavier, denser, than it should be given its size. He removed his bifocals, slowly raised the kaleidoscope to his left eye, and peered inside.
A multitude of cascading colors exploded into his vision. Brilliant reds, blues, yellows and greens fractured and splintered in every direction. He momentarily lost his balance as geometries of light careened in and out of view. As he steadied himself, he slowly turned the outer dial, and a ballet of renewed incandescence pirouetted in rapidly changing color. He continued to rotate the outer ring slowly, and between the fractal colors, he began to see something else, something amorphous, just out of reach. He concentrated harder, slowly twisting the dial as a dark silhouette began to emerge. He felt himself leaning forward, leaning into the scope, trying to focus on the emerging shape, the forgotten wooden box dropped off his lap with a solid clunk, spilling its contents, and then he felt a sudden warmth envelope his body…
I feel a strong heat coalesce around my body, a tidal current of warmth that just as quickly recedes.
I’m standing in a park. I have no idea how I arrived, or even how long I’ve been here. I look around…and suddenly realize, I can actually look around. I put my hands to my face; I don’t have my glasses yet I can see. I look at my hands and the crispness of my vision startles me. I take a few small steps forward, my legs wobbling slightly from the newness of this place. Inexplicably, I feel as if a heaviness and dread have suddenly vanished. Instead, I feel light, I feel free, I feel young.
I stop and consider my surroundings. It’s a beautiful sunny day, billowing clouds scattered across the sky. I can feel silky grass under my bare feet, and a winding fence-lined trail zig-zags into the distance to my left. A large pond sparkles just in front of me, its blue-green water shimmering in the bright sunlight. Small lapping waves ripple from a stone thrown by a small girl a few feet away. The child looks up quizzically, then walks toward me. The geometric shapes and bright, vivid colors of her dress seem familiar.
“Hi mister,” the little girl says.
“Hello” I said, looking down at her. My voice sounds oddly light to my ears.
The little girl studied my face. “Are you new around here?”
I take a few seconds to answer, shuffling my feet. “Um, I’m not sure. Where are we?” My head is still swirling.
The little girl looks at me curiously, as if I’m a science project that doesn’t quite work. “We’re at the park. You know, p-a-r-k.”
“How did I get here?”
She shrugs. “Like everyone else, I guess.” She picks up another stone and throws it into the water. “But don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll like it here.”
I again look over my surroundings and try to determine what brought me here. I open my mouth and start to speak, words fail to materialize, and I close my mouth.
The girl giggles. “You’re funny. I hope you find what you’re looking for,” she says and skips away.
I silently watch her leave, fixated on the chromatic patterns of her dress. Looking for something? I start walking around the edge of the pond, closer to the water. Despite my confusion, my body feels light and my legs untethered, like gravity has taken the day off. The anchor of old age has been replaced by the buoyancy of youth. I feel like running, but not sure where.
I kneel down and look into the calm water. The reflection that peers back at me features only a few small wrinkles, full brown hair, strong jawline, and eyes that appear sharp and alert. I barely recognize the shape of the mouth, the corners ticked upward in a smile. As I stand up, a pocket watch dangling from a thin, silver chain, lightly taps my leg. I reach down to check the time. The two hands appear to be frozen.
How did I get here? The memory of what I was doing before has now all but faded away. I only remember the vague feeling of …despair, was it? The little girl was right though, I think I am looking for something. I just don’t know what it is yet.
Suddenly, that flush of warmth returns…
The old man put the kaleidoscope down, tendrils of confusion threading their way through his consciousness. He looked down at the inert tube-like object with trepidation, and placed it quickly on the small table next to him. His hands were shaking.
Fragments of the experience lingered like a day-old dream. He tried to recall exactly what had just occurred, but the harder he tried, the more the experience slipped away. He remembered no details; only traces of the euphoria remained.
As he sat in confusion, the overwhelming weight of her absence began to wash over him again, devouring the pleasant feelings like a virus. He glanced downward, to the spilled box at his feet. He began to place the items back in the wooden box, slowly, each item adding a layer of anguish, the pain again numbing him to the outside world. The old man glanced uncertainly at the small tube next to him, reached out, and picked it up once again.
He lifted the scope to his eye, the explosion of geometric colors not as jarring this time, almost comforting, and leaned forward, searching, then focusing on that distant silhouette inside…
“Kate, I know it’s a tough decision, but what else are we going to do? It’s been five years since grandma died, and he barely can take care of himself. He never leaves the house. He never smiles, never talks. He’s just an empty shell. He can barely feed himself. Kate, to be honest, I’m not even sure he’ll care where he is.”
Kate looked down, resignation pulling on her face. “I know, I just hate the thought of him in that place. I can’t believe it’s come to this. Mom and dad would have known what to do.”
Peter looked at his sister with compassion. Yea, mom and dad would have known what to do. “Well, they’re not here anymore to take care of this. We both know he’s been a completely different person for the last five years. We have to do this Kate.”
Kate looked at her brother, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes. “I know. Better that place than the prison he’s made for himself. I’ll call tomorrow.”
I’m standing on a stone bridge, looking down at a small creek, its champagne waters bubbling below me.
I’m in the park again.
I feel the strange sensation that I was just here. How long ago, it’s impossible to say; it feels like a vaguely indefinable gap in time, only a general sense of now versus then.
I take a deep breath. The fragrant, pleasantly bitter smell of grass and flowers, the distant bark of a dog, a gentle puff of wind at my back – I sense these things with complete clarity. I feel like I could reach out and grab the smell of the grass and the bark of the dog. I take another deep breath, filling my lungs with pristine air. These sensations fill a deep hole in me, a hole whose origins I’m unaware.
I watch the trickling water below me, smile, then look up. In the distance, a small copse of trees sits atop a hill, colorful birds fluttering between the branches. A man jogs towards the hill, an unleashed dog at his side. Everything is so vivid, amplified. A fleeting thought occurs to me and I begin to distrust my own eyes. I know I see and feel these things, but how can I be sure? Is it all the same to everyone? Is what I experience even real?
A woman walks toward me. She walks with a casual rhythm and a confident stride, her arms and legs swivel freely, without a hint of restraint. Her hair is shoulder length, framing her beautiful face in dark curls. She wears a canary-yellow dress as dazzling as the afternoon sun, and a straw hat in dazzling ambers and aquamarines jauntily sits atop her head. She’s whistling.
As she approaches, I begin to recognize the melody.
“That’s a beautiful tune,” I say.
She grins and responds in a voice as smooth as the satin dress she wears, “Thank you. It’s my favorite.”
“I think I recognize it. It almost sounds familiar.”
She looks at me closely. “That’s funny. I thought I made it up”. I see her eyes dart around my face. “But then, funny things happen all the time, don’t they?”
She steps up to the wooden railing, takes off her hat, and runs a lithe hand slowly through her dark hair. She sets her hat down on the railing. We both stand in surprisingly comfortable silence, each with our own thoughts, and gaze out over the park. A young couple is flying a bright red kite, laughing as they run, letting the kite rise higher and higher.
“Can I ask you a strange question?” I ask, turning to look at her.
“Of course,” she says.
“See that kite?” I ask, pointing to the sky. “What color is it?”
“No reason, just curious.” I turn my gaze back to the kite, now indistinguishable against the deep azure sky.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see her turn her head slightly, and look at me. “Have you figured why you’re here yet?”
I consider her cryptic question, not really surprised that she asks it. “Not really. I just know that I like it here. I feel…safe and alive.”
“Well, you’ll know when you’re ready. These things take time.” She puts her hat back on; the shadows cast on her face somehow make her even lovelier. “By the way, that wasn’t a strange question, it was a smart question.” She looks at me closely, and extends her hand. “Anyway, I have to go. It was nice meeting you.”
Her hand feels like silk. I don’t want her to leave. “Can I talk to you again sometime?”
“Sure, I’ll be around” she says, a warm smile on her face. She begins whistling that familiar melody, her yellow dress flipping after her, and effortlessly saunters away.
I first see the long line of people from about 500 yards away. Even from this distance I can see the resignation in their posture, shoulders slumped, feet shuffling slowly, moving their bodies inexorably forward. No one speaks, and they each look straight ahead with vacant eyes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people stand in line – men, women, young, old – a myriad of individuals creating one large, snaking organism that stretches as far as I can see. Grey uniformed men with clubs march back and forth at the periphery, maintaining order and directing the line towards a black, squarish cement building, charcoal smoke belching out of numerous chimneys. While I watch, the air feels thicker and heavier, breathing becomes more difficult, and a chill runs up my spine. That building simply can’t hold all those people.
I scan the cement building. Whatever that thing is, it fills me with a deep dread, a dread I want to run from, but it pulls at me. As if I’m supposed to be getting in line with the others.
I notice the little girl with the colorful dress is standing next to me.
“What on earth is that?” I ask, pointing towards the line of people and the ugly, squat building.
“Well, it’s different for everyone,” she says. “But they’ve each made a decision. They’re waiting for their turn.”
“Their turn for what?”
“Well, like I said, it’s different for each of them.”
I turn away from the strange scene in front of me and look down at the little girl. “Why does everyone here talk in such general terms? It drives me crazy.”
The girl smiles and laughs quietly. “That’s just the way it is here.” She then peers at at me with a strange look that belies her young age. “Let me ask you, why do think everyone talks that way.”
I shake my head. “I honestly don’t know. Maybe everyone wants to confuse me. Or maybe they’re just aren’t any simple answers.”
The little girl nods her head. “Or maybe you know more than you think.”
“I can’t see how.” I say. “I’m the newcomer around here. I’m the one with all the questions.”
A preternatural grin forms across her face. The geometric colors of her dress dance. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sorry about what I said,” the woman said.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
The couple lay in bed, an uncomfortable silence lay between them. Another argument. More hurt feelings.
“I didn’t mean to blame you. We’ve been together for a long, long time. We’re old now. But we’ll work it out. We always do.”
“Of course we will.” While feeling slightly better, the emotions from last night still lingered. They were tenacious, unwilling to be purged. But still, better.
She turned and leaned on her elbows, looking him in the eye. “If anything ever happened to you, I’d be devastated you know.”
“I would. Seriously. We’re meant to be.” She reached over and turned off the lamp beside her, then lay back down. “you know…I think if anything ever happened to you, I think we’d meet again.”
“Meet again? What does that mean? How would we meet again?
“I don’t know. Funny things happen all the time.”
The man grabbed the pillow from behind his head and playfully placed it over his wife’s face.
“You’re right,” he said in his play-scary voice. “Funny things happen all the time…”
“Stop it. That’s not funny,” the woman said, half-laughing, her voice slightly muffled. She grabbed his wrists, attempting to remove the pillow.
In his hands, the pillow felt light and fluffy, inert, non-threatening. He studied the pillowcase. It was bright yellow, with detailed stitching at the corners. How long had it been? Forty-four years? It had been a good marriage. Great even. They married young, right out of college, each successfully starting their careers, supporting each other in every way. They shared everything – their passions, their secrets, their lives – for a long, long time. Only in the last few years had their differences become more prominent, more palpable.. At this stage in life, it was supposed to get easier. They had their financial matters in order. They each had their hobbies and interests. But the arguments had become more frequent, more bitter. Sometimes the arguments were over small issues, sometimes over the important matters. They started to see things differently. He wasn’t sure how to deal with the change, it had always been so easy…
The stillness surprised him. His hands were shaking. How long had he been holding the pillow?
The boy peers at me with a look that lay somewhere between confusion and fear. He stands under a massive pine tree – a tree I hadn’t seen before – brushing pine needles off his shoulder. He looks to be about sixteen or seventeen.
I slowly walked up to him. “Hello” I say.
“Um, hi.” The boy turns his head from side to side, trying to establish his whereabouts. “What’s going on? Where am I?” His voice cracks slightly.
“Well, you’re in the park.” I say. “With the rest of us, I guess.”
“How…how did I get here? Why am I here?”
“Same reason we’re all here.” I say. I can see his hands tremble slightly. “Don’t try to understand everything at once. Just let it come to you. You’ll understand in time.” It felt good to say it. I may as well be saying it to myself.
The boy then notices something and stares, transfixed, at the watch hanging from my pocket. I had completely forgotten about it.
I lift the watch. “Would you like to see it?”
“If you don’t mind.”
I unclip the watch from my pocket and hand the timepiece to the boy. He rubs the tip of his finger along the edge, as if testing to see if it was real. His eyes narrowed in concentration as he turned the watch from side to side. Just as he flipped the watch upright, the minute hand moved forward a notch. It was working.
“You know, the watch doesn’t mean anything to me,” I say. “Would you like it?”
He nods, unable to articulate his appreciation, still looking at the watch.
“Remember, take it slowly.” I say and walk away. I want to give him time to process things on his own.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been here now. Too many to count, I think. The gaps between visits seem shorter and shorter. I’ve met several new people, never more than once though, and each usually has something, some small little detail, that helps me understand why I’m here.
I have the strange sense that a different reality exists just beyond my reach, as if I could reach into the velvety sky, open a window, and jump to the other side. One memory has started to crystallize more than any other – that of a dark, old attic, and a lonely, empty chair sitting in the corner. But the memory is ephemeral and quickly melts away. I have no idea what it means.
I am, however, slowly beginning to realize what it is I’m looking for. It’s not really something that’s easy to put into words. I feel like an anthropologist, chipping away at an ancient fossil; the answer lies underneath all that accumulation of rock, sediment and time. I’m not even sure what I’ll find as I continue searching, digging. Part of me fears I’ll discover skeletons long forgotten. Maybe I’ll understand, maybe I won’t. But answers aren’t the only thing I’m looking for.
I need to find her.
I’m sitting on a bench watching two squirrels chase each other from tree to tree, their shadows create a tiny puppet show on the pavement in front of me. I notice bright colors shimmering from the corner of my eye and turn. The little girl appears from behind me.
“Hi again.” She says.
“Oh, hello” I say.
“So how are things going?”
“Wonderful.” I feel completely comfortable talking to her. “I’m starting to understand more of why I’m here.”
“Oh really? That’s great. Why?”
“I’m…” I start slowly, “looking for someone. I think I saw her once, but I need to find her again.” I hesitate, struggling to get the next words out. “To apologize.”
Her eyebrows rise. “Apologize? What for?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I feel I’m close…but I just don’t know yet.”
“Well, it’s wonderful you’re making progress,” she says. The little girl shuffles her feet, and looks up at the playful squirrels, now on a limb just behind us. I can tell she wants to say more.
“So… I need to tell you something,” she begins, “You have a decision to make. Everyone here has a decision to make.”
I nod my head. That realization had already occurred to me.
“What do most people do?” I ask.
She looks at me with her funny grin. “It doesn’t matter what other people do. You know that.” She turns slightly, preparing to leave. “Anyway, when you’re ready to decide, just let me know. I’ll find you.”
I look down at the little girl and think about what I’ve discovered here, about all the small sensations that seem so significant. I feel like an explorer discovering a new continent, fearful of what lies ahead, but excited by the unknown. I think of the long line of people and that black building with the belching chimneys, then quickly turn my thoughts to the woman in the yellow dress, and the familiar melody that accompanies her like a fragrance. I instantly become excited. I have so much to share with her.
I hold the little girl’s eyes for a moment longer. “I don’t need any more time” I say. “I’ve already decided.”
There is definitely something strange about sifting through people’s personal belongings, Becky thought, not for the first time, as she walked through the attic searching for various items that would sell in the upcoming auction. I feel like I’m prying. On her t-shirt, the name “Vintage Estate Sales” was printed in large blocky letters.
“The grand kids said we could go through some of his stuff”, she said, holding up a small Tiffany lamp and inspecting it from all angles. “They’ve already taken everything of value to them.”
“A sad story really,” she continued, “they found their grandfather up here in the attic, dead, sitting in a chair, probably that one”. She pointed to the plush chair next to her.
“Hmmm, yea, whatever…” her partner replied indifferently, surveying the area with her expert eyes, “I’m not sure we’ll find much up here. We might want to just stick with the big stuff downstairs”. She headed for the doorway.
“Wait, hang on, check this out!” Becky had set down the lamp and was crouched over, reaching under the old chair. She lifted up an old kaleidoscope, about 6 inches long, with a faded, old-world map printed on the outside. She studied the device, rolling it between her fingers. It felt extremely light and the map covering was well-worn in several areas, smudged fingertips dotting the exterior.
“Ooh, I loved these things as a kid. They’re all colorful and trippy when you look inside them!” Becky lifted the kaleidoscope to her eye, and peered inside. She rotated the outer ring expecting dancing patterns of bright color, but was instead met with a dark, lifeless grey. She tried again, rotating the dial in the opposite direction, the empty greyness growing only deeper and darker. With a disappointed shrug, she removed the kaleidoscope from her eye. “What a piece of junk,” she said, and dropped it to the ground.
**************** END ****************