Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie




After the museum, Cross looked up into the gray sky and thought he would risk cutting through the park. It had been some time since he'd walked through Central Park in its autumn glory, and as he worked his way south, kicking up endless eddies of dead leaves on the path, he thought perhaps he would visit The Redhead.

She stood at the south end of the Great Lawn, and even from the northern edge of the oval he could see her, lonely and softly blazing, like a bonfire spied through a veil. He walked onto the lawn itself, past a father and daughter tossing a softball back and forth; the sun broke through with heat but no light, and Cross took off his hat for a moment. Depsite the threat of rain, it was warm for a cloudy November day. Like the trees themselves, balanced between green and orange, the afternoon felt poised between two states of being: as if the world was briefly of two minds.

Cross was of many minds of late, many of them turned to the distant past. Strange to think a decade or so would feel so distant... or, rather, strange to think that it wouldn't. As he approached The Redhead, he thought back on just three years before, when he first noticed her--when she worked her way into a poem, and the poem into a manuscript, and the manuscript into... well, the manuscript had yet to work its way into anything.

It was the brilliance of her leaves, the deep, blood-bright red of her turning: leaves like curled flames. Cross was a sucker for trees that turned pure red, and he felt the usual pang of idiocy that he still didn't know what kind of tree she was. She only stood out, amidst so many other Titians, because she stood alone at the Great Lawn's southern arc, like a signal beacon below Belevedere Castle to the right and above.

"She..." Did trees have genders? A muddle of half-forgotten biology rose up in Cross' mind, and he pushed it away. She was a redhead as far as he was concerned, even if she only dyed her tresses once a year for a few weeks.

This year her upper branches were nearly bare from the recent storms. As Cross walked beneath her, a carpet of crimson tugged at his feet. He bent down and picked up the dark red leaves, still a little soft but tending toward crispness.

He couldn’t really explain why he felt such affinity for a tree, except that he loved autumn (yes, in New York, and, no, he couldn’t answer why it felt so inviting), and that those first few walks through Central Park when he first arrived were simply enchanting. Sometimes, his explorations of the park loomed larger in his experiences of the city than the city itself. It was, Cross supposed, part of Olmstead’s intent: the one place in Manhattan where you didn’t stride purposefully, head down, intent, but you strolled reflectively, meditatively (unless you were just in a hurry to get to the East or West side, of course).

Cross felt the pull suddenly. He did have somewhere to be, after all. He placed two leaves in his notebook and nodded up at The Redhead’s branches, promising to visit again next year. As he set off past the Delacorte, he thought of past walks, moving back and back until he thought of his very first day in the park, four (thousand) years ago. Thinking of it, he found himself retracing steps, until he passed Daniel Webster (and was happy to whisper “The Union stands firm” as he did so) and crossed the road into Strawberry Fields.

But not forever, no, and there was doubtless something to get hung about, if only memory. Though the usual peace sign composed of roses and votive candles adorned the IMAGINE mosaic, Cross’s thoughts didn’t turn to Lennon or peace or even the song... Just to the north of the mosaic, there was an entry into a long, wide clearing, ringed with dense trees of various kinds. Fifty yards in, the clearing narrowed, and the earth rose a little to a bit of a hill before it ended in dense bushes that concealed a sloping bluff. Where the clearing narrowed stood a large, low-branched tree, obscuring the smaller, higher part of the clearing the way a rock in the middle of a stream would hide the shape of the waters beyond. There was often some one or two people in the larger part, by the path, but the smaller clearing was nearly always empty when Cross visited it.

Today someone slept against a tree to the east. Cross strode past them and around the tree in the center, thinking back to that first walk: how he had looked up, just about here, to see a hawk circling, drifting, above his head. He walked to the very slight rise at the end of the clearing.

For some reason, the clearing always put him in mind of the one in Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Cross often felt that there was some aspect of this spot that he should be inspecting very closely, as if something lay hidden in the grain of green and gray. Why else would he always be so drawn to it?

But, really, Cross knew what drew him. He looked up to see the twin towers of the San Remo Apartments, looming like a fantastic castle above the trees—from this spot on the rise, they were otherworldly in their beauty. He knew, as he had known when he had first discovered this very quiet, empty spot in the teeming park, that this spot was where he would ask someone to marry him... if he ever had the occasion to ask that question again.

Once again, Cross stepped over that invisible barrier that separated New York as soundstage from the real city. A pathetic fallacy, of sorts, but one he made often—for without that sense of the city as a stage, the city itself would crush you in its monotonous indifference. To stand in that spot, remembering the omen of the hawk, and how a cloudburst soaked him to the skin just minutes afterward, the same way the sun, now fully shining through a break in the gray, was soaking him—well, it was another moment of pure potential. Not hope, perhaps—but potential, possibility. To stand in a clearing was to remember that possibility had not been closed off: that a clearing was just that, a respite, an opening that promised further expanses, and not merely the wide, sinister outline of a noose.

Would he ever stand here with someone else? Cross sighed, realizing the question itself as on the verge of maudlin. But such questions crowded the solitary’s existence, no matter how often you cast them aside. Cross shook it off, and retraced his steps, and as he walked around the dark mass of the gatekeeper tree, he was rewarded with a vision.

Of sorts. Standing now in the wider clearing was a variation on the dream—Cross was instantly startled and bemused. She was tall, tall even if she had not been wearing five-inch heels. Her long legs, sheathed in black stockings, met the hem of short, tight black skirt; above, her smart black jacket with ringed in a faux-fur collar. Her chestnut hair was tucked beneath a pillbox hat, and the black net that fell from it couldn’t hide her clear blue eyes. Very red full lips offset her pale, high cheekbones, and she had one black-gloved hand at her ear, tugging at it to dislodge a bit of burnt orange that clung there: a leaf. Her whole appearance was incongruous, as if a marble faun had appeared in the washed-out cubicle of a corporate skyscraper.

Next to her stood two women, both dressed in shapeless clothes, one in a dark down-vest; in her hand she held the black mass of a camera and flash. The other held a black duffle and was helping, Cross now saw as he circled past them, the model (a model, of course) to remove the errant leaf. A photo-shoot: there were hundreds such scenes, every day of the year, in Central Park.

As the vision coalesced into something understandable, even mundane, Cross shook his head and turned his eyes to the path. Somewhere, a director was crying Cut!; somewhere, a voice was saying, low and intimate, Action. Cross felt a pang and stepped out onto the path, threading his way past Lennon’s pilgrims. But, true to his vocation, he turned and looked back once more on the tableaux.

The assistant now held up a reflector, a gold disc she raised behind the model as the photographer took one, two, three steps back. The model struck a pose; Cross couldn’t see her eyes, but her profile against the disc, like someone standing suddenly between you and sunset, was sharp, and somehow perfect. Whatever the photographer, who was now snapping away, would capture couldn’t compare to this glimpse, brief as autumn color, that Cross now filed away as he turned his face away, forward again, toward the city.


Reader Comments (2)

No doubt that you will ask that ? again and the woman will blush and get lost in the leaves!

November 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I feel present. Very nice.

November 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTroy Darling

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