The Soul in There (copyright 2005)

Hey, hey, it stopped raining, the boy exulted, bursting through the doorway and out under the vine covered pergola on the flat roof of the great museum.

Hey hey, and I see some patches of blue, his Uncle Richard shouted in his turn. It’s going to clear up, my boy. The fleet rolling scud rushed past like a thick swarm of insects just above the tallest of the great buildings lining the horizon in the two visible directions, the blue patches as impermanent as a pinprick.

Chris stepped out into a shallow puddle left on the rectangular paving stones and turned his face into the breeze for a moment. Feels good after all that time in there, he said.

Uncle Richard joined him, face turned up and eyes closed as though he were under a shower head. That it does, he said. But you liked it in there, didn’t you? Hearing no answer, he turned and found the boy a dozen paces away at one of the featured artist’s structures, an octagonal dome made of rough narrow rails, raw, unvarnished and untreated, stacked horizontally, their ends resting on each other as on a log home but without notches, leaving several inches between each rail. Chris was peering through an eye-level crack at another structure within, a tower maybe twenty feet high made of smooth round stones one placed atop another, progressively smaller from a large base to what was no more than a large pebble which he could cup in his hand, like a knee, at the top. It’s like a soul in there, he thought. And then he wondered about his thought, skewing his face, as he surveyed the floor littered with ground stones, a loose sheet of paper. Everywhere, on the floor and on the tower, light and shadow played, shifted, modulated as the clouds raced along, thinning in their haste, letting in the sun, teasing it and then shutting it out again.

You like that? his uncle called to him. He hadn’t left the pergola for watching the boy.

Chris turned to him, stepped away from the dome. It’s neat, he said.

You know there’s another one.

He approached his uncle, then turned and saw the second behind the first, identical in size and shape. He rushed over to it, noticing for the first time a few other museum visitors milling around. Stopping between the two domes, his head swiveled from one to another, jerkily measuring their dimensions, shapes, content. They’re the same, he called.

His uncle nodded. They’re called Stone Houses.

Chris walked around the perimeter of each, then wandered onto the planked flooring of the roof as it extended to its southern border. Here he stopped, took a deep breath. His lips separated, his eyes grew as wide as when he first saw Karen’s breasts last month, the last time, out of embarrassment and shame, she had permitted him to see any of her again. But what lay before him now was a substitute equally scintillating, miles of treetops spread out to the south and west against a background of buildings gray and tall and eerily stoic looking, stone solid against the whizzing clouds and the green vitality of the sea of trees.

That’s Central Park down there. It was his Uncle Richard’s rich baritone. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

It looks lile, like . . . um. Broccoli, he asserted triumphantly. Miles and miles of broccoli heads.

You’re right, it does. Uncle Richard seemed excited. And beneath it all is traffic. Cars and buses and motorcycles. People walking and rollerblading. Dogs on leashes.

Raccoons?

Uncle Richard looked down at him. He smiled, nodded. Yep. Of course. Lots of them.

In silence Chris raised his hand, and his hand took on a life of its own. It reached out and began to roam over the treetops and Chris’s eyes and his head followed its smooth undulating flight like a bird’s almost brushing the topmost leaves, gliding effortlessly on a current of freshly washed air, a refreshed cosmic sigh. He listened for the sounds down there, heard hums and coughs and sputters, but they probably came from the traffic on the adjoining Fifth Avenue, not from the creatures and vehicles burrowing under the trees of the park. Retrieving his hand, he gazed at it for a moment as if asking something of it, then let it roam again. The treetops seemed so delicate against the hard edges of the gray buildings beyond, but as he scanned the scene even they took on a new appearance, they seemed like guardians, a wall of guardians around the park, each building a skin around its denizens and all of them a skin around the park, with its broccoli tops a living parasol for the creatures thriving beneath. He looked to his side but his uncle was gone. Turning, he saw him on a bench near the pergola, head back, eyes closed, hands folded over his belly, just breathing. Chris’s eyes settled on the domes again, and in them through the tiny horizontal cracks he could make out fragments of the stone inhabitants, the earthy souls. He walked toward them slowly, measuring their growth against his casual approach. There was an evergreen hedge growing in a long planter that served as a rail, and he crouched low and from this perspective saw the dome rise from the greenery as if spawned by it. To the west rose also from the hedge two towers of a massive building far away on Central Park West. The hedge seemed to connect the towers to the dome in a long green passage, and Chris exhaled and held his breath.

Uncle Richard, he called without movement. Uncle Richard. Come here.

Look, Uncle Richard. Crouch down and look, he said breathlessly when he saw a beige pantleg almost touching his side. What does it look like?

My God, Uncle Richard said.

It looks like some cathedral. I’ve seen pictures of a cathedral that looks like this.

The Florence Cathedral.

That’s it. Yeah. Yeah. The Florence Cathedral. I saw pictures of it in my history book at school.

Look at that. You’re right. The dome is the same shape, even the ribs. Except the cathedral has only one tower.

That’s okay, Chris said. Wow.

Uncle Richard returned to his bench. He’d seen all of this before, though not the cathedral illusion. He closed his eyes and was once more interrupted by Chris’s voice, cracking in adolescent excitement. Again he rose and strode over to him, his eyes following the direction of his outstretched arm. He saw a flagless vertical pole against a sky now mostly blue and still, and on the tip of that pole perched a large bird, majestic and motionless, from the top of this monument to civil sentiment, to universal vision and experience, surveying its domain of harnessed woodland, cultivated imitation of the wild with its outcroppings and paved trails and open grasslands and its broccoli trees. Can you believe it, shouted Chris.

It’s unbelievable?

How does this happen, Uncle Richard?

What’s that, Chris?

Everything. All of this. His arm, independently alive, swiped over the whole scene. And now the bird.

It’s a red-tailed hawk, Chris.

The red-tailed hawk. And all the rest of this. How does it all happen to come together like this?

Uncle Richard looked down at him. Fate? he said.

You mean God? asked Chris.

I mean Fate. Whatever that is.

Fate.

It’s either that or Chance, and I much prefer Fate.

He reached around the boy, gripped his shoulder. Chris felt the pressure and liked it. He stood transfixed, then his head began to move slowly, aimlessly, his eyes scanned the stolid buildings now quite glittering in the bright sunshine, the large domes before him, the stone towers inside them, the hawk, the sky, the broccoli trees. He became acutely aware of the sound and feel of his breathing, felt something like a warm bubble swelling his face, his chest. I can do that, he thought.

He stood stone still, all processes cerebral and corporeal in a state of unwitting suspension, only a fine emotion like a soft drizzle touching the edge of his consciousness, until he felt a pat on his shoulder and the abrupt withdrawal of his uncle. I can do that, he repeated to himself. All of it. I can. He raised his hands, gazed at them, gently interlocked the fingers and rested them against his stomach. I can take stuff and make any of this, all of it. Anything. Anything at all. He thought of dirt and bone and the smooth sheen of leaves, of gossamer wisps of hair and the ethereal softness of earlobes scented with the perfume of youth, he thought of shape and form and the exudation of life from wood and boulder, the malleability of flesh. All of this he thought and pictured, and then he walked to his uncle and sat beside him. I can do all that, he said.

All what, my boy?

He held his arms out like a savior and he felt emotion fill his eyes. All that.

Uncle Richard looked out there at all that and then at Chris. He tilted his head and sighed, twisted in his seat and extracted his wallet from his back pocket. He opened the wallet and took out a small piece of paper, unfolded it, said, This is the only thought of mine I ever wrote down. It’s the only thought I ever had that was worth writing down. I’ve always like it. He offered it to Chris, who took it as if it held a mystery. There were two lines:

Life is fleeting, precious

Kiss the moment in art.

Chris read it, did a double take, his head snapped up to see his uncle who was gazing at the hawk, then it swirled leisurely like a curl of smoke along the plane of the sculptures to the buildings beyond, the green green treetops below, and up again to the hawk’s perch and the white patches of clouds, high and starkly white against the forever azure.

I can do all that, he thought.

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