May 18, 2007

What Sky Held and Water Knew

Once there were three little brothers who lived by a pond. Their parents must have lived there too, but the story doesn’t say anything about them. What do parents matter, after all?

The pond was so clear that it reflected the white house and the green trees and the blue sky perfectly, with only enough of a ripple to show that everything it mirrored was alive. When the brothers tired of playing ball or wrestling each other down or chasing blackbirds, they sat on the shore of the pond looking at themselves in the watery mirror, and when they tired of themselves there was the whole reflected world to admire.

“We could look at this forever and all it could ever do is show exactly what’s in front of it,” the oldest brother instructed.

The youngest said, “What if it decided to show something different? Like what if it showed the house orange?”

His two elder brothers were in the midst of mocking him when he stood up in the greatest excitement and, pointing down at the water, said, “Look, there’s a balloon in the reflection and there’s no balloon up there!”

While his brothers were turning this way and that, he ran along the rim of the pond, his forefinger jabbing down at the ripples to point out the red balloon. He splashed into the water and tried to high-step onto the balloon, but it bobbed in the reflected sky and rose toward the center of the pond, pushed by the kicked-up wavelets till it diminished out of sight.

“Hey, I saw it too,” said the middle brother, coming up beside him. “That was neat.” Then he returned to the lawn and pulled up a stalk of grass to chew and seemingly forgot all about it, for he always thought about where he was going to be rather than where he was.

“This means we can do anything!” the youngest said. He felt an urgent knot in his chest –- he tried to tell his brothers how important this day was -- that the balloon wasn’t only for them, it meant everyone and everything -- but he didn’t have words for it.

The oldest said in a knowledgeable voice, “All it means is that something unusual happened. Unusual things happen all the time.”

The youngest pointed to him: “You didn’t see it!”

“I did too!” the oldest said.

“Oh yeah, what color was it?”

“Red,” the oldest guessed, and the youngest turned away with a pout.

“Well, I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life,” he said.

All summer the three brothers sat at the rim of the pond hoping to see another gap, for “gap” had become their private word for the separation between what sky held and water reflected. But it seemed that the one small sign, a balloon escaping from somewhere unimaginable, was all they would be granted.

Summer after summer they looked, with this difference, that each year they talked about it less. With each inch they grew toward the sky, they grew away from the pond. Then came a summer when the youngest asked, as always, “You think we’ll see a gap today?” and his elder brothers told him, “Enough. That was just a child’s story.”

“I still remember it,” he muttered to himself, although perhaps what he remembered most clearly was not the balloon but the vow to remember it. At night in his bedroom he drew the scene on a pad, and played tunes on his flute, tunes that sounded like a balloon in a pond. The drawings and melodies became more and more wonderful, but at the same time of course they were less and less faithful likenesses of a balloon in a pond.

Then the children were grown and they went into the world to find their futures. The oldest brother did serious work and was much acclaimed. But the memory of the balloon he hadn’t seen nagged at him, and when years had passed he saw that his work had been too serious to really matter. One winter, telling no one beforehand, he returned to the house by the pond. And there he sat by the edge of the water, peering, peering. He cracked the ice morosely with his boot so it could reflect the sky. He took water samples and squinted through a microscope, he snapped photographs and blew them up, he hunkered at the pondside day after day, year after year, fiercely keeping watch for what he never saw, and when anyone asked if he had seen something yet, he snarled, “I will.”

The middle brother traveled far away and made an immense fortune. On his desk he kept a picture of a red balloon in a blue sky. But he thought one miracle was enough and never visited the pond again, and whenever he thought about that day of his childhood, he gave a little laugh and shrugged.

And the youngest brother? Ah, the youngest brother… Your guess is as good as mine, because he could do anything.