Sample story written to cultivate the Air Element (From the “Write a story” mission on page 178).
Washington Square on the 29th © by Izolda Trakhtenberg 2006
Writing Mission words: Moai statue, subway, February 29th, Leon
The rumble of the subway had relaxed Leon a bit. Despite his best efforts to keep thinking it through, he had even felt his lids becoming heavy and the sounds around him had begun to recede in the first blush of sleep. He had been riding the 7 Train out to Flushing and back for the last eight hours. Sitting in the last seat of the last car, and despite the fact that he no longer felt cold, he hugged his threadbare green coat to his gaunt frame like a shield. “Don’t see me. Don’t talk to me,” his eyes said what they always said to anyone curious or concerned enough to look his way. What they would have seen was a sunken man with skin the color of old mahogany, grayed with age. Despite the fact that he was only 41, he had an old man’s hands and his hair, once rich and curly now sat in short, limp clumps. Yet, his eyes were a startling yellow with a copper ring around the iris. In his youth, many a girl had fallen for those mysterious cats’ eyes. He had been quite the charmer until everything had changed and he had shown the world just what he was. He sat in his Salvation Army coat and clutched a purple paper bag as people walked around him and only some even noticed he was there. “This is not the drunk you’re looking for” he misquoted to himself with what might have passed for a smile on another face.
He hadn’t felt comfortable riding the Subway ever since the Mayor had cleaned them up – erased all the art and conversations from the walls. He had sanitized all the personality away as far as Leon was concerned. Now, there wasn’t even anything to read while he rode the 7 and so he stole occasional glances at the paper bag.
Today had been a special day – February 29th. He celebrated it because even as a child he had been fascinated by the addition of a day where none had been before. The fact that it only happened every four years served to make him appreciate it all the more.
The morning had dawned bright and cold and he had left the 17th Street mission and decided to make his way down to Washington Square. The chill would keep away the tourists but a busker or two might still make their way to do a show even in the cold. He reached the Square with its bare trees and black benches and found it completely deserted. Normally the Square bustled with people running this way and that like frantic squirrels but today, no one was even walking across it to reach Bleeker Street. He chose his favorite bench on the north side and sat down to wait and see what the morning would bring.
He didn’t have long to wait as within minutes, he noticed that a young woman had come into the square. In spite of the cold, she wore a simple blue dress, hiking boots and only a sweater across her shoulders. She walked purposefully yet with a light step as if she wasn’t quite touching the sidewalk. Rather, she was almost floating above it. Leon shook his head once, twice and glanced again at the intriguing young woman. Her hair was dark and curled around her shoulders in soft waves. Her green eyes when they saw him lit with pleasure and recognition as well. Quickly, she schooled her features into a friendly smile and moved towards him.
“Hello and good morning,” she said slowing and waiting for a reply.
Leon put on his best, “don’t look at me, don’t talk to me” face and looked past her.
“I’m Monica,” she said as she sat down near him on the bench. “And you are?” she asked with a mixture of hesitation and expectation.
“Leon,” he grumbled.
“Well, what a pleasure it is to meet you, Leon. I’m so glad to see that someone else came to Washington Square to celebrate the 29th.”
“What? Other people celebrate what?” Leon asked his curiosity more than a little piqued that she could sense why he was here.
“Oh yes,” Monica replied. “There is an old tradition of coming to Washington Square to celebrate the 29th and to bring offerings of wisdom or beauty for the day that is not here. It’s like making a pilgrimage I suppose, but it’s a pilgrimage for the sake of art rather than religion. And since we can’t get to Paris, some people come to this Arch.
Leon looked away. “I didn’t bring anything and didn’t know I was supposed to.”
Monica nodded and a small smile played on her lips. “That’s OK. Not everyone does or has to. We can share mine if you like.”
Leon turned to look at her and once again found himself a little captivated by her open air and understanding eyes. It had been a long time since someone had spoken to him and even longer since he had been moved to reply. Something about her inspired honesty and even a little happiness. He looked from her green eyes to her long, tapered hands and saw the purple bag she carried.
“Is that your offering?” he asked.
“Well, yes, actually it is. I made it in my sculpture class. Would you like to see it?”
She opened the bag and Leon looked inside and saw a delicate sculpture of a dancer. Next to it, he glimpsed a small stone carving. He thought to ask about it but then Monica removed the dancer from the bag and the other statue was momentarily forgotten as he took in the lovely and simple lines of the figure. Formed of clay, she stood with her arms opened wide and the muscles of her legs poised to leap into the air. She had been glazed in blues and greens and the swirling patterns made her look as if she could come to life at any moment.
“It’s good,” Leon said gruffly feeling both pleasure and apprehension about being so near something so fragile.
“Thank you,” Monica said as she reached into the bag once more and pulled out a second carving. This one was made from a dark stone and seemed older, much older.
The carving looked like something he had seen before, maybe in a filmstrip in grade school. It was a carving of a bald, rectangular head and it had a prominent nose, a strong line for a mouth, and sunken eyes. The statue tapered down to a cylindrical end. Where had he seen it before? It looked so familiar. Ah, now he had it. It was a Moai statue from Easter Island. At one time, he had loved archaeology and now some of that knowledge came flooding back to him. The Moai statues were all carved in one piece and were made from compressed volcanic ash and weighed many tons. They were supposed to have been the embodiment of living chiefs or a way to honor ancestors with art and beauty. No one was sure exactly what they were, but they were said to be a wonder.
“That’s a Moai,” Leon mumbled. “I remember those.”
“Yes, it is,” Monica laughed delightedly. “I’m glad you recognized it.”
“Did you make this one too?”
“Oh no. I’ve just been holding on to it for the last few years – the last four years in fact.” She looked down at the statue and he noticed a satisfied and yet uncertain smile on her face. “And now, it’s your turn to hold on to it.”
“What? What do I want that thing for?” Leon asked, his suspicions a rising dark tide.
“You need it more than I do. More than anything else, it’s here to give hope, and it may just surprise you.” Monica carefully placed the statue in his hands and put her own in her lap. “It’s a special little statue. It brings hope and a little bit of luck. You won’t feel quite so cold or quite so hungry. And you’ll find that you don’t really want your next drink. You get to keep it for four years until next February 29th and then you must come here and find the person who comes to celebrate the 29th. Give the Moai to them because they will need it more than you.” Before Leon could interrupt, she held up a hand and continued, “I know just how you feel, believe me. I was here four years ago without quite knowing why except that it was February 29th and I wanted to see the Arch. And a man named Jonathan came up to me and handed me this statue. And he said to me that it hadn’t been my fault. I hadn’t deserved to have my father hit me like that. He told me that he knew just how I felt and that I probably wouldn’t want my next fix. And I didn’t.”
Monica stood from the bench and moved toward the Arch to place the little dancer at its base. After a quiet moment, she turned to him as a slight breeze played with her hair. “Leon, what happened wasn’t your fault. Joshua had an accident. That’s what it was, a tragic accident.”
“Wait, how do you know anything about Joshua?” Leon was angry, curious, dizzy. How could she have known? He certainly hadn’t said anything about it to anyone, not for years. And if it wasn’t his fault, whose was it? Could it just have been an accident? Was it possible?
Monica walked to the edge of the Square and looked back at him. “Remember,” she called. “You have four years. What you do with them is up to you.” Leon had watched her walk away and noticed that she was shivering slightly. And even as she had shivered, Leon suddenly had begun to feel a little warmer. “Must be the sun,” he had thought as he began making his way towards the Subway.
More than once in the last eight hours, he had thought of just throwing the bag into a garbage can and walking on, but he found that he kind of liked the way he was feeling. He was a little warmer than before. He felt a little less hollow as if something was filling him from the inside, and he found that he walked a little more lightly on the ground. As he had left the Square, he had found a fiver on the street. Immediately, his thoughts had turned to buying a malt liquor but then something had made him want a slice of New York pie instead. He couldn’t make heads or tails out of this, but he had always liked puzzles and maybe if he just thought about it hard enough, he might figure some of this out.
What if it hadn’t been his fault? What if Joshua’s death had been an accident? What else might be different then? Leon released a breath he had been unaware he was holding and stood from the subway seat. “What else might be different? What are all the things I could do?” He thought as he climbed the Subway stairs to the surface. A small smile escaped him as he reached into the bag and touched the Moai. It felt warm. “Must be the sun,” Leon thought with a small smile. “Must be the sun.”