art: Linn Bankson

 

 

Spinning … laughing … the rise and fall of horses painted in reds and golds … the clang of music telegraphed through the pole beneath her grip.

Laura woke with a start to the vibration of bells, a blur of shadows and a cold breeze biting at her cheeks. She leaned out from under the concealing safety of the park bench. A bronze goat, then an elephant spun and danced while monkeys, gray against a black sky, struck at a giant bell. Each swing sent an echo through the ground that hummed at her bones. As she huddled in the darkness, her trembling knees were calmed temporarily by her tightening grasp. Weary and finding little comfort in her own embrace, she closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.

The carousel stopped and she saw them walking away. She climbed down from her horse and struggled through the crowd … a sea of coats and purses and shoes and bags. Gone.

She woke and crawled from under the bench, resting against the trunk of a tree, perched on a cluster of roots that broke through the surface like dark sea serpents from a picture book. Afraid to close her eyes again, she watched wind-blown leaves scatter across the asphalt path, gray under the shadow of the tree then faded greens and yellows in the glow of the lamp post.

A figure broke the light and she scrambled to her feet, her Mary Janes skating out from under her as she started to run. She turned to look back, wanting to find the phantom gone, while her forward motion propelled her into something unyielding. The impact of the collision sent her to the ground. She was lifted to her feet and pulled off the path. She could make out the features of a man with a whiskered face. He held a single finger to his lips. Laura watched as two dark forms passed under the lamplight, a glint of silver reflected off their chests.

***

“Thank you, Robert, for the supplies … and the news,” Father said.

Robert rose to his feet, brushing the wrinkles from his suit and reaching for the topcoat draped over a pile of books. It looked like the library had grown since his last visit.

Father placed a hand on Robert’s shoulder. “Are you positive that Sal can’t be persuaded to return?” he asked. Father looked old, with his layers of sweaters and cane. Able, but old.

“I’ll keep trying,” Robert replied. He knew that Father cared, that his instinct was to shield those in need, to provide a home. “But I don’t think he’ll ever come back … he says he doesn’t belong here anymore.”

“Well ...” Father gathered some rolled plans from his desk and tucked them under his arm. “I’m grateful you’ve been able to maintain contact with him. You’re a true friend … to Sal and to us.”

***

The man took Laura’s hand and led her to a bench under a bulb-less lamplight. His knit cap was pulled low over his ears and his collar tugged high against his neck. Curls of brown-gray hair filled the space between. A beard covered his chin and blue eyes glinted from behind wire rimmed glasses. He unbuttoned his coat, then unzipped the jacket underneath and pulled out something wrapped in silver. The foil glinted in the moonlight as he unwrapped a piece of bread. He held it out to her.

Laura reached and, uncertain, changed her mind and pulled her hand away. The stranger’s fingers quickly closed around the precious item … then he turned his hand and dropped the bread in her lap. Laura looked at him, doubtful, but hunger won out and she lifted the scrap to her lips and took a tentative bite. The taste and texture were familiar and comforting. She took another, larger, bite.

The bundled man stretched his arms over his head as she had seen her father do when he got out of bed in the morning. Then rising to his feet, he walked away ... leaving her by herself on the dark bench. Her mouth grew dry and trying to swallow down the last of the bread was painful. She buried her face in her hands, pushing away tears and shutting out the night.

Startled by a tap on the knee, Laura uncovered her eyes to find the man had returned and was kneeling in front of her. He brushed the moisture from her cheek with a gloved thumb and from a large white plastic bag, produced a blanket and wrapped it around her. She tucked her hands under the knobby throw as he sat down beside her, pulling his own covers under his chin. Exhausted and happy not be be on her own, Laura leaned into his shoulder, tugging the blanket up around her ears and closing her eyes. The carousel spun and the horses bobbed, and she slept.

***

Robert crossed the traverse to the center of the park. This had been his morning routine for many years. He enjoyed the fresh air and sense of connection. Later, he would catch the subway downtown, where he would spend his day in an office high above the city, isolated from all that happened below.

On these morning walks, the air was filled with the sounds of the city. Even here in the heart of the park, the buzz of traffic and honking of horns mixed with the sound of birds singing and rustling in the trees.

It was just after dawn and the park was sparsely populated. In the summertime, there would be much more activity by this time of day, but the mornings were growing cold and the daylight came late, and the park at dawn was a lonely place. He pulled a black square of plastic from his coat and flicked it open into a bag. Bending to reach beneath a bush, he pulled out a soda can and dropped it in the bag. He made his way along the walkway, adding cans to the sack as he spotted them.

“Hey Billy,” he said as he approached the man asleep on a park bench. He sat the bag of cans on the ground and gently touched the man’s shoulder. “Billy …”

“Robert!” Billy greeted him with a sleepy smile. “You’re here early today.”

“Same time, Billy,” Robert said, pointing to the bag of cans. “I brought you something.”

“You always do,” he replied. “Sure you don’t want to keep some of these for yourself?”

“Nope, they’re all yours, man.” Robert replied. “See you soon.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Same time.”

***

The cold air knifed at her lungs as she stepped out of the restroom and into the early morning air. Bouncing on cold-numbed toes, Laura stood outside the entrance in the shade of a large tree. She spotted him sitting on the one bench completely exposed to the warming sunlight and as quickly as her shiver-hunched body would allow, she rushed to where he waited.

He held up two large gray socks and motioned for her to sit next to him. He swung her feet onto his lap and pulled one of the socks over her foot, right on top of the shoe. It was warm, but looked funny, she thought. She was pretty sure socks were supposed to go inside the shoes. While she contemplated this, he slid the second sock over the other foot. She fidgeted with them a bit, pulling them tight up over her shoes. She took a few tentative steps while he watched her, eyebrow raised. She shrugged acceptance and took his extended hand, following him down the tree lined path. Her feet felt warmer and her cushioned steps fell soft but sure.

Laura looked at the park around her ... at the trees, the fallen leaves, the birds fluttering around. Everything looked less threatening in the daylight. A squirrel darted in front of them, paused, and darted back as if he had forgotten something important. He sat on the arm of a bench, twitching his tail at them as they passed.

She looked down the path and saw a man, sitting on their bench, waving to them as they approached.

***

“Good morning, Sal.” Robert said as he slid to one side of the bench. “Who’s this?”

“I don’t really know,” Sal replied, looking down at the little girl. “She found me last night.”

Robert gave Sal an inquisitive look, trying to read his expression. Sal tended to keep to himself … so it was unexpected and odd to find him with a child in tow. Robert turned his attention to Laura. “What’s your name, honey?” She reminded him of his niece, Clare, small and timid.

“She doesn’t talk.”

“Whose child is this?” Robert asked, concerned. “How old is she … three? four?”

Sal shrugged. “I don’t know much about kids.”

“Sal …”

“Somebody dumped her in the park.”

“Dumped her?”

“Left her …”

“Where are your parents?” Robert asked Laura.

“She can’t hear you,” Sal said, reaching an arm behind Laura’s head and snapping his fingers.

“How do you know she was abandoned? Maybe she’s just lost ...” Robert got up to take a closer look at Laura.

“Because I saw it.” Sal said.

“Saw it? When?”

“Yesterday afternoon ... Billy didn’t show up for chess, so I sat by the carousel for a while.“

“Billy plays chess?”

“He’s learning …” Sal tugged the cap from his head, running a hand through tangled hair. “I saw them put her on the carousel …“ he said as pulled the cap back over his ears. “And I saw them walk away.”

“They just walked away? And left her there?”

“They just walked away,” he said, looking at Laura. “I thought they might come back … I hoped maybe they went for cotton candy or something ... so I kept an eye on her.”

“And they never came back?”

He shook his head. “She climbed that big rock across from the carousel and just sat there. I thought good maybe she’ll spot them.” As he spoke, he pulled an apple from his coat and started to pare it with a pocket knife. “Then some kids came up to her, wanting to play I guess, but they must have spooked her because she ran off.”

“And you found her?” Robert asked, wondering how Sal might have kept up with a frightened child.

“She found me,” he replied, handing Laura a slice of the apple.

Robert knelt down in front of Laura and she shrank back from him, hiding under Sal’s arm. The girl obviously trusted Sal, and no one else.

“They’d take her ... wouldn’t they?” Sal asked, setting aside the rest of the apple.

Robert knew what he was asking. He wanted to tell Sal to take her there himself - to go where they would both be safe. “I can ask,” he said. “I can go tonight … but we need to be sure she’s really alone.”

Sal looked at his friend, his eyes conveying a silent plea. “They didn’t even look back, Robert.”

Robert wanted to help … both of them. “Look, the nights are getting cold. Why don’t you go back?” he asked.

Sal looked away and said nothing.

“We can all go together. She trusts you,” he urged.

Sal stood, agitated. “Why can’t you just give this up, Robert? I don’t want to go back there,” he said, pacing the length of the bench. Laura stood and followed his path, tracing each turn.

“I don’t understand why you live like this,” Robert continued.

“Just ask them,” Sal interrupted, grasping Laura by the shoulder. “The girl needs somewhere to go.” Laura squirmed free of his grip and ran back to the bench where she sat, arms wrapped around knees.

“Ok … I’ll ask tonight,” Robert said. “And I’ll let you know in the morning.”

***

Robert looked toward the warm light that shone from beyond the iron gate. Sometimes he envied the people who made their home there. He knew it wasn’t as idyllic as it seemed, that although the setting was something from a fairy tale, the inhabitants were just people trying to survive as best they knew how. But he also knew it was a place of warmth ... of kindness and generosity.

“You’re sure she has no one?” Father asked.

Robert nodded. “No one who cares.” He was sure she would be happier here. Safer. Loved.

“The authorities should be notified. She might have other family.”

“No,” Robert said, adamantly. “The girl was left, abandoned … She doesn’t need the authorities. She needs what she can find here … a place where she can feel normal and accepted …”

“A home …” Father said.

Robert caught the old man’s gaze and knew he understood.

“Very well,” Father said. “The girl can stay with us. Bring Sal too,” he added. “Can you find them and bring them down right away? It’ll be cold tonight.”

Robert looked at Father and sighed. “I’ll bring the girl.”

Father nodded. “You’d better be on your way now … It’s getting late.”

***

She felt him stir ... She knew from the shifting of the bench that he had stood, from the shifting of the shadows beyond her eyelids that he was pacing. Don’t go. She didn’t dare move as he gently settled her blankets around her, adding his own on top. A kiss to the forehead, whiskers brushing against her bangs. She held her breath … arms hugged at her sides … lids pressed tightly shut … trying to contain the shiver that grew within … not wanting to confirm what she already knew. Wanting … needing to be wrong. Opened eyes revealed a shadowy figure departing. She was alone.

Her stomach cramped for want of food … every ounce of her being ached for want of what she didn’t ... couldn’t have … wanting ... wanting to go somewhere …not knowing where … where ... where had they gone … where was her home now … why had they left her?

She struggled with the smothering blankets, pushing them to the ground in a heap. Not hers. She couldn’t stay there … couldn’t sit through the night on her own. So she made her way through the darkness, one lamplight at a time.

***

Robert saw the heaped blankets from a distance but saw no sign of Sal or the child. He choked down the rising sense of unease in his throat. His pace slowed as he approached the bench. Picking up the blankets from the ground, he scanned the area for any indication of them. Nothing.

Robert dropped the blankets on the park bench. Where the hell did they go? He walked down the path, looking for them … and returned, waiting, impatient and concerned.

He wouldn’t take her anywhere … to the restroom … maybe … no … they’d be back by now … to another bench … no … always here. Always this bench.

For as long as Sal had been in the park, he had been here.

Sal …

***

She reached up and touched the pillar carved with painted carousel horses. Laura had noticed the miniature horses as her father carried her to the ticket booth. She had reached for them then ...

He placed her on the big white horse with the red saddle and golden mane. Wrapping her fingers tightly around the brass pole, he kissed her on the cheek and backed away.

Circling the pillar now, she slowly traced the outline of each horse, heads reared, strong legs forever frozen in a gallop … forever ready.

She sunk to the ground by the iron gate. And waited.

***

Robert searched around the carousel building, but it was locked up tight and the benches were all empty. He had thought – hoped – that this was the place she would go. Almost giving up, preparing to go to the tunnels and ask for help, he spotted her … huddled, small and solitary by the gate.

He went to her, stood before her with an outstretched hand. She didn’t shrink away this time, but stared past him into the darkness. He knelt down and gathered her up, feeling her tiny arms wrap around his neck as he lifted her. Instinctive, he knew … but reassuring.

***

She woke, warm, in a room like she’d never seen before. Candles flickered golden light against rough rock. The entrance to the room was just a man-sized hole cut through the wall, no door to keep her in, or keep anyone else out.

She sat up to examine her surroundings more closely. She was in a large bed, piled with layers of blankets and quilts, worn and faded but soft and warm and smelling of soap and flowers. A braided rug covered the floor next to her bed. A large cabinet carved with birds, flowers and vines sat in a corner of the room. An opening cut into the stone wall held a stack of books and a stuffed rabbit, gray with a patched blue coat. A small table next to the bed was covered with candles, short fat ones and tall thin ones, all lit and setting strange shadows to life about the room. She sat staring at her own outline cast large against the wall when, from the corner of her eye, another silhouetted figure appeared … large, cloaked, its face hidden beneath a hood. She blinked, wondering if she was still asleep.

The figure … a man … came closer and sat in the chair next to her bed. He pulled a small package from within the folds of his cloak and placed it next to her on the mattress. She caught just a glimpse of his hands – claws! fur! – before he reached to brush back the hood that covered his head.

His face was beautiful. Like a storybook lion, but more of a man. His features were strong but not fierce. His eyes were blue, like the clearest winter sky. Surely she was dreaming. She pinched herself and winced at the smart.

Vincent smiled and tapped at the box he had placed on her bed.

She lifted the lid on the box and pulled out a mobile … a camel, an elephant and a horse, colorful in purple and red and gold. She smiled as the mobile spun in a caught draft, the animals’ convoluted shadows dancing along the walls. When she looked back to the bearer of the gift, he held out his hands and she reluctantly returned the mobile to him, piling the colorful creatures into his open palms. He crossed to the other side of the room, reaching high to suspend the mobile from a hook in the ceiling … and the colorful creatures and their dark cousins danced once again.

A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth as he gently tapped the mobile, sending it spinning. Was this his home? she wondered. His bed … his room? She pointed to the strangely beautiful man, meaning to ask if these were his things, and he replied with words she couldn’t understand. She pointed to the dresser … the little table … the books … laid her hand on the mattress … Yours? she asked, pointing to him once again.

He shook his head and swept a hand slowly across the room as if gathering up all the items she had indicated … slowly pushing his palm, with all the imaginary gatherings, toward her. Laura looked around the room … at the quilts and the furniture … the books and the mobile. Mine? She looked at him, touching a finger to her chest.

He nodded, repeating the motion while gently laying his open palm on her shoulder, coaxing her back to rest against the pillows. He reached for the rabbit on the bookshelf, tucked it under her arm and covered her with a patchwork quilt of faded pastels. He blew out all but one of the candles that lit the room and once again settled into the chair next to the bed. She closed her eyes and dreamed of fantastic worlds and magical beings … of caves and candles … of warmth and belonging … of hope.

***

Laura woke … her heart racing … disoriented. She looked around the room. The single candle still flickered, shorter now … the stuffed rabbit, with his blue patched coat, still burrowed under her arm … the horse, camel, and elephant continued their shadowy dance … and Vincent’s hand, protective and warm, now covered her own.

The dream was real … she was safe.

She was home.