“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”—Colette
Esmeralda looked out the window, her eyes finding a little rest in the Gothic cathedral spires and the filigree crowns of luxury hotels which seemed lost in the crowd of masonry-and-glass boxes that marched up the avenues. The scale of the world had changed. Her preferred scale was that of the tree, to be seen on the distant hills over the shoulder of an old factory wedged against the Allegheny, or inserted in pocket-parks in Market Square, on Fourth and Smithfield, at Third and Wood, and she was unduly fond of the two lovely sycamores that spread tranquilly over the bus stop at Fourth and Grant.
She had worn her bangs off her face today, exposing a high forehead that gave her the aspect of those 15th century Flemish ladies with their plucked hairlines, though hers came naturally. It pleased her to vary day-to-day, and this occasion saw her in a brown velvet walking suit of an almost Victorian cut with low-heeled ankle boots. Instead of her cape, she had thrown a paisley shawl about her neck and shoulders. She still wore it; there was a chill in the office, probably due to the bank of antique windows that rattled in their frames. Sometimes there was a price to pay for hanging onto outdated things.
She was expected to lead a conference call in half an hour, so she set about putting her mind to rights. With the current economic crisis ushering in a round of Federal funding cuts, the Art Field project she had been shepherding the last two years was likely to go under, just as site work was set to begin. She’d devoted the previous evening making calls and researching available grant monies, local funding sources or benefactors that might come to the rescue of an inspirational project that was more than a community resource, more than an ecological habitat for numerous species on the waterfront of an old industrial town in West Virginia, it was also a sculptural masterpiece: the Park Commission had engaged an international artist to do an earthwork. Though she believed in the value of all the other elements that went into the program for the park, it was the 5-acre earthwork conceived by Stewart Monteith that stirred her. Monteith was a reclusive Australian sculptor whose quest for larger and larger venues for his hand-built clay and then concrete work eventually lead to molding the earth itself. The art he had conceived was her motive power, hers the job of protecting the hands that did their master’s work, and the great caring heart and soul that moved them.
Arranging the colored folders on her desk, she lit a votive candle and lifted one of the charm strings from her wall. Circling the candle three times clockwise over the folders, she chanted an improvised verse, her lips moving silently over the words.
In the power of the earth
In the power of the work
Soil and soul are healed and whole
Heart and hand in balance fold.
Then, replacing the candle in its safe spot before a small mirror, she withdrew a silver oak tree charm from her pocket and attached it to the tasselled braid. With it cupped in both palms, she closed her eyes and said a prayer. Headset looped over her ear, she dialed the phone and began the call. To those who listened, she was a cheerful ball of energy, a little sun that showed them a new path with a lot of advantages, blissful unaware that in her terror of letting Monteith down, she’d gone to battle against bureaucracy and economic downturn with every weapon at her disposal. The money had been found; the Commission was ecstatic—a clear victory. When the last line clicked off, and she’d tossed aside the headset, she sat still for a long time, staring blindly at the conical thrust of pale limestone that was the rising steeple of the Episcopal Cathedral, her thoughts inaccessible to consciousness, betrayed only by a shiver that traveled up her spine and bloomed in the middle of her brain. A flock of ascending pigeons, white and ethereal against the dark brick masses across Fifth Avenue, soared toward the surmounting wrought iron cross, like prayers with bodies, dissolving into the watery blue sky above. Then, release: a relaxing sigh terminated her reverie; her breathing, deep and even, filled her with peace. Now to tell Monteith the news. The talisman, clammy with perspiration, had never left her hand.
Two hours later, a tiny green spot on the blue Thunderbird icon signaled a winging electronic arrow.
You’ve saved me. Love, M
It was unseemly in a woman over thirty to giggle and grin as she did the rest of the morning, but Esmeralda did not care what the world believed about most things, including the mysteries of the human heart. For something was astir, and though she did not know for certain what it was, it gave her joy.
Fred came around to find Esmeralda at 12:30 as planned. Her lips twitched at the sight of him, and hastily closed down an email she was reading.
“Where would you like to go?” she asked, drumming her nails playfully on the table.
“I would like to try that new café on Market Square, unless you have an objection.”
She stood up, rearranged the shawl across her shoulders, grabbed her capacious handbag and put her hand on his elbow, leaning into him affectionately so that he’d feel her approval.
“French vanilla,” he murmured approvingly and she nudged him with the soft curve of her hip. Why, yes, young man, I aim to please.
It was sunny, still a little cool as they dodged traffic, strolling through the reflective black glass passage of the PPG buildings toward the square. Esmeralda pointed out the new, cold weather plantings of violas, evergreens and purple cabbage flowers in the gigantic pots scattered among the benches and scrawny trees of the plaza.
“Why have I never seen you in the office before?” Fred ventured.
Esmeralda shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh, that’ll be because I just transferred up from Atlanta, to manage the Connor Art Field project. I’ve been in and out a lot the last few weeks making arrangements.”
“How do you like it here so far?”
“Much more than I would have thought. There’s a nice hometown quality here—without being Mayberry RFD.” That remark seemed to please Fred inordinately, as if the town was his own personal domain.
In an amphitheater constructed in one corner of the square, a gospel singer was belting out her Jesus message to the accompaniment of accordions. Fred steered Esmeralda to the right and into the café. Luckily, they did not have a long wait for a table. They both ordered ridiculously large, bloody burgers with gooey cheese, sautéed mushrooms, one order of fries to split, and two beers.
“Why not?” Esmeralda said, looking again at the description of the IPA she’d ordered. She was in a celebrating mood.
Fred had ordered a lager, by far his favorite when it came to beers. And why not, indeed? It seemed a good way to defy the orderliness and rule books of the corporate octopus that held their souls captive.
The beers arrived in short order, and two men in suits at the next table looked on with contempt.
“Salut!” Fred said and raised his glass to them. Esmeralda giggled.
He studied her face for a moment, savoring another sip of his beer. “Ike tells me you are a witch. Is that true?”
“Yes, it is, dear. Who is Ike?”
“My roommate and my friend. He’s an architect, he works for FKRS, too.”
She sipped the IPA, placing it on the table as the fries arrived. “Do you know anything about witchcraft?”
“Not a thing. There’s no such thing as magic, so how can you be a witch?”
“Well, you start with a faulty premise: magic is very real.”
There was something about the ping of emphasis in her voice that slowed Fred’s ability to marshal his arguments. “If you outline your empirical evidence, my understanding would no doubt be enhanced,” he managed finally, diving back into that lager. Its sharpness sharpened him, for the moment.
“I could give you any number of examples, but it’s something that you need to experience for yourself or you’ll think I’m blowing smoke up your ass.”
Fred gazed off, bemused.
“What?” Light flashed off her rings; her dimples deepened.
“That image conjures… is all.” He turned back to her eyes. “Accept my apologies. Please do continue.”
And so Fred listened, mesmerized by the sound of her voice, listened and asked questions, alive with fascination. She couldn’t have asked for a better audience. The burgers came and dripped down their hands as they ate. It was heaven.
“I don’t believe in any of those things,” he said, when she told him about her coven, about the goddess, transcendence and higher planes of being. “I believe in the revolution of everyday life.”
The lager, nearing its conclusion, was good, better perhaps because it was a sneaky pleasure. Esmeralda was daintily mopping up her plate with the last morsel of her hamburger roll.
“You strike me as too much of an individualist to subsume yourself in a corporate identity,” he said. “It is a wonder that you have been welcomed into the bosom of such a conformist culture.”
“You should talk, Mr. Accountant type! Architects are hardly as conformist as most businesses; there’s at least an element of style, or the artistic, in everything we do. And FKRS has designed a few lovely public parks. It was a strong selling point. To tell you the truth, I think I did push their limits a bit. I guess they found it hard to ignore my qualifications.”
“You are connected?”
“So to speak.”
“Communitas felix,” he said lifting his glass.
His eyes were black coals alive with merriment as he thumped the empty glass onto the tabletop.
“I want you to know that I am involved,” she said, sensing the right moment to nip his fascination in the bud.
“That’s disappointing,” he said, without sounding too disappointed. He ordered them another round.
They talked of many things: about organic gardening and GMOs, office politics and the Situationists, and about an architect whose writings on vernacular architecture shared some of the same ideas.
“He wrote about your “Spectacle” without calling it that. One essay in particular—I think you’d be very interested. I’ll lend you the book.” She extracted a glittering golden notebook from her purse and jotted down a few words in her big, graceful scrawl.
“I’m glad we’re going to friends,” she said, raising her glass when the second round appeared. “Friendships can last forever, while love…. love is fickle, is it not?”
“I’m not sure I’d know,” Fred said remorselessly, clinking his glass with hers.
Esmeralda tilted her head to study him. It really was too bad if he’d never been in love; not like she could say…
“It’s not like I could…” she began aloud, but she did not continue. Not with conviction. Bottle half way to her lips, she sat there, while miraculous Grinch-like explosion were happening inside her chest.
What Fred saw was a kind of light that began to emanate from her skin, a light that caught and danced around in her eyes, dampening her eyelashes. If his name had been Max, he would have stared in wonder at the beauty that had just been added to the world. Alas, as his name was only Fred, he glanced in bemusement at her plate, wondering if she was going to eat her pickle.