First light skips from the surface of the Charles River, tossing sparkles in its wake.
The hour remains quiet, the murmur of early morning traffic across the river soothing.
Sitting on a favorite bench I rub palms over painted wood planks, still cool from evening air. Moisture clings to exposed skin, sticky like a healing balm.
The earthen path before the bench remains quiet, trodden by only ants, frogs, a beetle and me.
To my rear, church bells mark the passage of time in Harvard Square.
Over the opposite bank of the Charles, day breaks like a stick bent too far, splintering light across nature’s mirror.
As sunlight tumbles over stretching trees I close my eyes. Bright light leaks through shuttered eyelids. The levee breaks, and the world becomes pink.
I sit in silence.
I sit alone.
Then, soundlessly, someone approaches from the left.
And with eyes shut tight I do not see the interloper. The approach is silent, transparent.
It’s not that I hear the stealthy presence. I sense it, a tug growing stronger as the sun pours over me.
All about seems to vibrate. The vibration – not unlike the rumble of a subway train underfoot – drifts through me with a shudder.
And just like that the feeling’s gone.
Pebbles click and clack.
The sound of feet shuffling along the dirt path confirms the visitor is near.
And taking a peek I spy a shadow to my left.
Backlit by pouring sunlight a slender man comes into focus.
My squinting eyes adjust as the stranger approaches.
I take his measure.
Hands clasped before his chest, the stranger glides to a stop before the bench. I cannot help but notice the man’s bare feet, finely powdered by the dusty path. His brown feet are well worn, as if hardened by a lifetime of wandering. My gaze drifts up baggy pants. They’re faded and stitched at the right knee and draped gently around a hungry man’s waist. A rope, cinched in a perfect knot, keeps the oversized pants from falling. His bright white shirt is buttoned haphazardly, exposing chocolatey skin and a wiry body. Around his head a halo forms as uncoiling sunlight leaps from his shoulders.
His chin hangs low, resting on his chest. He seems to study the path before the bench, or perhaps, he prays. His face remains hidden in a shadow of his own making.
Homeless, I assume.
And raising his head to face me he spreads hands wide.
Bright pink palms are sullied with jagged scars. Deep puncture wounds, long ago healed.
Startled by the ugliness of the stranger’s scars my head jerks up to catch his face, framed by a thicket of sunlit hair.
The stranger takes my measure.
“May I sit?” he asks. His voice is soft, confident.
As he speaks a breeze blows along the river, scenting the air with warm earth.
His is not the voice of a homeless man.
I cast my right hand over the empty portion of the bench.
The stranger bows before taking a seat just to my right.
As he sits I cannot help but notice the scent of fresh cut grass, my favorite smell.
He offers a quick smile before stiffening his spine to stare across the river.
Together, we sit in silence.
Together, we sit alone.
After some time he tilts his head to face my direction. And feeling the weight of his gaze I turn to my right.
From two feet away he admires me without restraint.
His face is smooth, graceful.
His cheeks, high.
His nose is Roman, broad and regal.
His eyes are two black pools, timeless.
And staring into his eyes I fall in.
He whispers; so softly I am forced to lean forward to catch his words.
Slowly, deliberately, he traces an arc with his left hand over the expanse of the river. “It’s all so very beautiful, yet at the same time, so very painful, isn’t it?”
He leans in before continuing, “Life, I mean.”
I nod my agreement.
Placing a hand across his chest he bobs his head. “If you don’t mind me asking, if you could live forever would you?”
I spit a piece of dust from my lower lip before cocking my head toward the stranger. I frown.
“I see. Perhaps a bit too painful at this point in time?”
My head moves up and down.
“I understand.” He looks away, speaking to the river, “It should be lovely; full of love. But it’s not, is it?”
Staring ahead I do not answer. The stranger draws a slow breath.
“You know, my friend, I see you. I see all of you. Even as I look away.”
I offer a modest shrug.
The stranger sits still as a pair of ducks drift along the river. He juts a sharp chin toward the ducks. “Love; perhaps the greatest gift.”
When I do not answer he shakes his head, as if saddened by my lack of response. “The opportunity for love is so often squandered. The simple beauty of that precious sensation so often overlooked.”
And watching the ducks I nod my head.
The stranger snaps his fingers. The sound is substantial, like that of a snapping branch.
As if electrocuted, the ducks spring from the water. And soaring from the river they hurtle toward the sun, disappearing into the light.
He chuckles. “Just a little parlor trick.”
Impressed, I give him a smirk.
He clears his throat. He clears it so roughly I assume he’s going to spit onto the dusty path.
Shifting on the bench he squares his shoulders to face me. “You’re the writer, aren’t you?”
My eyebrows float upward.
He points to my chest. “Your shirt. I saw the logo on your shirt. I mean, there aren’t too many GITMO t-shirts running around Cambridge. I knew it was you.”
I move my head in the affirmative.
“And do you know who I am?”
I shake my head no.
He smiles, amused. “All in good time.”
And growing weary of this game of 20 questions I look away.
The stranger sighs. “Deep inside we all have reason to be sad.”
He taps the bench lightly. “This is the place from which you wrote the story Broken, is it not?”
I stare into the stranger’s black eyes, now narrowed like those of a predator.
And registering my unease he holds hands high so palms face me. In the glare of morning sun his scars are red and angry.
“I mean no harm, writer. I mean look at me. Like you, am I not broken?”
Looking around he continues, though now in a whisper, “Truth is, we are all broken.”
He takes his right index finger and presses it firmly against the scar marking his left palm. “As time passes though, we heal.” He eyes me before continuing, “If we allow it to be so.”
He smiles; like how a father might at a child struggling through a lesson.
“You’re no Philistine are you?”
He answers his own question with a quick nod before continuing, “It’s through art that we capture moments of beauty, those fleeting moments of love.”
He pauses for a moment. “We live – and endure our pain – for those precious moments in life, don’t we?”
It’s not so much a question as a statement so I do not respond. I cast my eyes about, catching the light as it skips and dances along the smooth surface of the Charles.
Silence returns to find the space between us.
The interloper leans forward as if to look past the invisible presence joining us on the bench.
He whispers, “I adored her long before you, my friend.”
I look to him, confused.
He smiles knowingly. “Silence, my friend, silence. I must confess I love her too.”
I look away as silence, embarrassed and bashful, takes her leave.
The wind rustles green leaves behind our bench.
Propping elbows on my knees I cover my face with open palms. My hands are warm and sticky against my face.
Again the stranger clears his throat. He speaks softly and as he does the trees, the river, the world about grow quiet. “When you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid.”
The words hum and vibrate as they join moisture, clinging tight to exposed skin.
The stranger pauses before continuing, “Oh, I do like that verse, my little one.”
He touches my right shoulder with his warm palm and, seeing me look up, points across the river. “Look. For you.”
My hands fall from my face.
There, on the opposite bank of the Charles, I spy my mother and father. Standing together for the first time in 15 years. They hold hands, radiant under morning’s first light. Their shoulders touch, bumping affectionately. Their demeanor is that of high school sweethearts. Mom stands on tip toes to kiss Dad’s cheek. And as is his habit, he scrunches shoulders tight and squirms, embarrassed at the show of public affection.
Unable to speak, I float upward.
Standing before the bench my right hand covers a gaping mouth.
Turning to the stranger I find him sitting cross-legged, eyes closed. He beams as if consumed by a movie now playing on the inside of his skull. Then, sensing my stare, he looks to me and smiles broadly.
He snaps his fingers.
All around, the sound of snapping wood.
I do not look across the river for I know they are gone.
The stranger taps the bench, inviting me to return. “Please, join me.”
Stunned, I obey.
As I sit the stranger leans toward me as if in conspiracy. “They’re here, with us.”
He throws his hands wide, nearly striking me in the chest. “They’re all here.”
His eyes sparkle as sunlight reflects from bottomless pools.
He speaks with authority, the trees swaying in time with his words.
“I am who is and who was, and who is to come.”
He smiles, satisfied, before continuing, “We have a bit in common, you know. Like you, I’m a Messenger.” He adds with a smirk, “Though perhaps we operate on different scales.”
His demeanor changes as he leans toward me. He rests his hands across his lap.
“Perhaps now you know who I am.”
And though I do not speak, inside my head I say it.
The stranger’s eyes narrow. “Of all the things to think of me you think of me as a murderer?”
I hesitate, unable to move my head.
Like the world about, I’m shaking.
Coursing blood pounds my eardrums. My heart races as the stranger places a hand over his heart. “Perhaps I am. Yet, my needs are far reaching, little one.”
He looks away before continuing, “And do you know what I need right now?”
Shivering like an animal exposed as prey I move my head slightly.
“It’s not money. Or power. Or glory. But you know that. I need to be treated with dignity; ‘like a human’ as you say. I need to feel warm inside. And not so empty.”
And recognizing such needs I struggle to hold it together on this bench on the banks of the Charles. Collecting myself I nod in agreement.
He smiles, though this time his smile wanes like the morning moon.
“I see you. And I see you are alone and trying to fill an empty vessel.”
My hands grip the edge of the bench as I keep myself from toppling into bottomless black pools.
The stranger places an index finger to his lips before closing eyes tight. He turns his head toward the sky, his face bathed in a beam of rippling sunlight.
Facing the sun he queries me, “You’re not going to join me, are you?”
My breaths are short and shallow. I bite my lower lip before shaking my head no.
And though his eyes remain closed he knows my answer.
“Shall I pity you or admire you?”
Choking, I look away. I wipe my eyes.
He nods his head. “I understand, little one.”
His words are warm and velvety.
My heart pounds as I dare not speak.
Together, we sit in silence.
Together, we sit alone.
And sitting in silence he glows, an unrelenting magnet to the sun’s bending light.
Slowly the stranger’s hand slides across the bench, coming to rest halfway between. He flips his palm upward exposing his scar. It seethes in the morning light.
And drawing a deep breath I take his hand in mine. His scar rubs hard and calloused against my palm.
His hand is warm.
Tenderly he squeezes my fingers. As a patient father might.
Warm; so very warm.
All about seems to vibrate.
I close my eyes as church bells mark the passage of time.
The chimes followed by a mighty snap, like a tree splintering.
And soaring from the bench we hurtle toward the sun, disappearing into the light.