She watched him pick up a stone and hold it up to the light like it was a ring he’d just found or a letter he was trying to read through an envelope. He squinted, turning as he heard her approach. She was twenty-nine, the mother of a child who was, at that very moment, putting together a Styrofoam puzzle on the floor with her husband, a tall sturdy man who wore a charcoal gray suit to work everyday. She had gone to the park to take advantage of the last days of summer and be alone.
“Come here,” he said, “you’ve got to see this.”
She’d been walking behind him on a trail near her home; he had started off onto the trail as she pulled her car into the parking lot. He gestured to her like—and she thought this with a smirk—the centaur from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. He was about the right height and his hair grew in a patchy beard around his face.
“Me?” she said.
“Yes, you.” His voice sounded almost impatient. “Come and take a look at this stone.”
She did the thing that the bookish girl does in a movie when the prom king asks her to dance; she looked behind her and pointed at her chest. She was mostly mocking him, his choosing of her. He looked impatient, but not unhappy. It was, from all she could see, a plain, gray rock, much like all the other pieces of gravel on this early part of the trail. She would give him his two minutes.
“Get on with the thing, come here.” He spoke as if he were talking to an old friend or a mother, or even, for the tenderness in his voice, a lover. He gave the command like there were years of intimacy behind them. As if she would never say, “no, no thank you, I do not want to see your rock because I have a hike to go on, and I’ve only scheduled myself forty-five minutes for the pine trees and the brook that runs just out of sight of the trail, because I have to get home to my stinky, chubby, rosy five year old and husband and laundry, and of course, dinner.” And because he spoke with such certainty, she did not say any of these things, even though they happened to be true. She eased into the false intimacy.
She got closer and found for certain now, that yes, the stone was plain and small and gray and unremarkable in shape—it was rounded on two edges, sharp on the other two. She sort of smiled as he gestured for her to lean in and she did, precariously, looking at the rock cupped safely in his palm.
“Not much to see, right?” He smiled and then flipped the rock over quickly and with gusto, as if unveiling a magic trick. And right on the other side of that stone was the tiny imprint of a tiny starfish. “Look at that starfish!”
She smiled back at him politely. “Wow,” she said. She traced a leg with her pinky finger. “It’s small.”
“Small? Small? This is a big, big, big starfish fossil. Do you know how rare it is to have a whole starfish preserved in one small little rock? Ok, so neither do I, but more rare than not rare. I think I can safely say that. And even if it’s not rare, it’s beautiful, right?”
She couldn’t decide if he was pushing her into finding the beauty in the rock or just pointing it out, but either way, she imagined feeling the wet, rough starfish in her hand, groping slowly toward her fingertips.
“Yes, you’re right, beautiful.”
“I’m walking along and I see this little guy staring up at me. And then I look behind me and here you come, this beautiful woman, and I think to myself, I’ve got to connect these two beauties.”
She felt herself smiling at his earnest use of beautiful. As if she and an onion would both get the same word from him and, she sensed, he would mean it just the same to her as to the onion. She could see now that he was younger than her, maybe by five years, maybe by ten or fifteen. The beard really threw off her ability to tell ages. As did glasses and height and the type of shirt someone was wearing. Really, she was hopeless at ages. So let’s say, for the sake of the story, he is twenty-four.
He didn’t really look so much like the centaur once she got up close. The nose was in the wrong place, and he was wearing flannel, not bare-chested, and you know, no horns or hooves or anything.
“Did you know,” he said as he began to walk, pocketing the stone, “that the reason there are starfish fossils here is not because everything used to be underwater, but because the Indians who lived here years and years before used to travel to the ocean to find the starfish and bring them back?” He walked along at a clipped pace and she saw no other option than to continue with him. She could not run ahead, that would seem ridiculous (and she wasn’t sure how long she could sustain a runner’s pace, anyway) nor could she stay behind twiddling her thumbs. He said nothing about her following him, but started hiking again as if they had come together and he had been patiently waiting for her to catch up the whole time. “It was this whole big pilgrimage. The Yoma tribe, I think they were called. Every year they sent their best men, usually fourteen year old boys, to the sea.” He looked over at her to make sure she was still with him. The soles of her running sneakers were filling with pebbles and bits of mulch. She smiled at him. Suddenly, he got very loud. “Imagine it! You’re fourteen, they paint you up and send you off towards the sea with vague directions—trees to look for, animal herds to follow, rivers to track—and tell you to come back with these tiny fragile animals. And all just so they could decorate the pregnant women in the tribe. Think about the adventure.”
“It sounds like an amazing thing,” she said. She couldn’t tell if he was full of shit or not. A pilgrimage for starfish? But the way he’d said it, she wanted to believe him. He believed him.
He veered off the path, quickly and silently. There was a dead tree lying, wet and mossy, slick and green to the touch. Another tree curled around it, one that had grown out from under it after it had died. He leapt over some small plants and went over to the tree to touch it and did, stroking its bark. Although now it was less bark, more tree flesh.
“You’ve got to come feel this.” She had been standing on the path, not wanting to take his momentary diversion to continue hiking alone, but rather waiting for him, rocking back and forth. Either consciously or not, she now too had decided they were partners.
“You know, I’d better not. My shoes are all full of stuff and I think I’ll slip where you jumped over the bush before.”
“Suit yourself.” He spoke louder now that he knew she wasn’t going to be coming to join him. “This feels like the time I took a new egg from a mother hen when she died. I didn’t realize the death until the morning—I was in Bogota, working on this farm, WOOFing, you know—and when I went out the egg had become kind of cold as the mom had lost her body heat through the night, but it was still damp and cradled in her hay. Get it? Life coming out of death. All, like, right there for me to see.”
She’d jumped the bush and walked over while he was talking. It wasn’t as gracefully done as his jump, but still, she had crunched over the bush and made it to the tree.
“So you worked in Bogota?” She touched the tree and was startled by how new the feeling was. She was impressed.
“Yeah, for a short time. Only a few weeks, although I keep in touch with Eduardo—that was the name of the farmer. He sends me milk from his goats in the wintertime. And usually a poem his niece has written. Sweet people.”
Everything he said was a story, very matter of fact, never bragging. The story told itself like it was something he had gotten from a novel or a particularly vivid dream. Maybe it was this storybook quality, or the idea of birth and hens and saving a baby from a mother’s death, but something made her think she was falling in love with him. She had forgotten her motherly duties, her husband, the placemats, the forty-five minutes, the child, etc. She was with him in Bogota, she was feeling the chicken’s egg, she was thinking, absurdly, that she would go with him and meet Eduardo and the niece who wrote poems and drink warm goat’s milk. That she would always stop to touch a dead tree, because it was, after all, a sign of life and death, and wasn’t that what we were all really dealing with everyday?
Isn’t the dead tree really what it meant to be human?
She was thinking so intently that she’d lost him on the path; he must have maneuvered back over the bush and the other dead plants without her seeing. She was panicked. My god, she thought, this is the man of my dreams, who knows about chickens and the Yoma Indians, etc., things I did not know, until now that is, were part of my ideal man. She scampered back to the path, hoping to find him. She realized, as she got back on the path that she had no idea what to call out to him. What would she yell? Hey, you, man who looks like a centaur, but not really, don’t take that offensively, come back here or, I think I’m in love with you, I want to wear the starfish fossil when I’m pregnant with your child. The you that I am in love with, come back! This caused even more panic. It was the notion of losing something she hadn’t wanted, correction: hadn’t known she’d wanted, something she had never really even had, just as she settled on her desire for it that scared her. It seemed a great loss.
And then. He popped back from the turn in the path.
“I thought you weren’t coming. Tree’s magical, isn’t it?”
Was he an apparition? As quickly as she had fallen in love, she was sure she was crazy. She touched him. Just lightly, on the arm. Yes, that was light hair covering his forearm. Yes, he was warm like she was, no—she was not crazy.
“Yes, it is. I got all wrapped in thought back there. I missed you coming back on to the path.” She laughed softly. She knew this was the nervous laugh that had attracted her husband to her in law school—they took constitutional law together their first year.
“Have you ever held a new egg?” he asked. His first question about her and an odd one. He did not seem to be one to ask: what do you do, or where are you from, or do you live in the area, and so on.
“I haven’t,” she said. “I’m a lawyer and so I don’t get to farms, just the white supermarket eggs for me, brown if I’m feeling risky.”
“A lawyer. How cool. So you’re basically the one arguing for everyone else, the belle of the courtroom. Do they give you your own chair?” He seemed genuinely excited. She didn’t think he really understood what a lawyer did, but what did she care? She was rosy in love, or at least, feeling less crazy. If he were an apparition, he would know a little more about being a lawyer. But now she thought, yes, how cool, a real live lawyer.
She recognized the bend they were coming to in the path. They were almost all the way safely looped and ready to be dumped back in the parking lot. No, she thought, oh no, no, no. Damn and crap and all of those words for anger-disappointment. Then he stooped down on the bridge that crossed a creek.
“This creek. Check it out,” he said and lowered himself to the bank until he came upon a rock. She wasn’t sure what he was doing. Another starfish fossil?
“Look at this dude.” He held up a little lizard for her to see. He marched up the bank to her, put his hand not holding the lizard on her shoulder, right over the padded nylon of her small backpack, and used his other hand to latch the lizard onto her ear like an earring. The lizard had opened his mouth like a guppy when he moved close to her face. The funny part was, she wasn’t even surprised by this move. She just focused on the way the lizard’s little bite felt on her ear. And she started to laugh, to really laugh, loud and rumbly.
She kept laughing as she thought, how had he even seen the small lizard sunning itself on the rock? Was he some sort of superhuman with x-ray vision and a tight spandex costume on underneath his flannel? What would his superhero name be? she wondered. “Life’s Little Wonders Man,” “Mr. Open to Nature,” or “Endorsed by Oprah Magazine: The Superman of Joy and Happiness and The Way You ‘Should’ Be Experiencing the World”?
He had found a twin lizard, put it on her other ear while she laughed and thought.
“A set,” he said. “Hold steady while you walk and they’ll stay.”
“What are you?” she asked.
He blushed, just a little bit, a flush that she thought looked like the same light pink as the roses she had planted in her first house with her husband. A summer memory she hadn’t thought about in years.
“What do you mean?”
“Where did you come from? Have you ever been on this path before? How did I miss all of these things? I walk here every other day, it’s a place I come to think and get away from the world, the busy bigness of having a job and living in the paved suburbs and I haven’t really seen it or felt it. Now you’re here and I’ve got lizards on my ears and I’m thinking about the pregnant Yoma women who might be buried here and wanting to ask you to take me to Bogota.” She exhaled. Her whole speech had been in one breath. Once she had started in, she couldn’t stop, though she had wanted to. The words were embarrassing, but compelling.
“I’m just a guy. I’m a student, geology student. I like starfish and I’ve never been to this path before, and I think the lizards look beautiful on your ears and that’s why I put them there. And I like the way you go along with me.”
“I have this baby at home and she’s waiting on me because she probably has dirty diapers and her hands are still so fat and knobby she can’t really use them so well and I have well exceeded my forty five minutes I had scheduled for my hike today, and dinner isn’t and laundry isn’t either—those thank you notes, etc. etc.” She caught up with herself. “I’m trying to say, I have to go.” She carefully took the lizards off of her ears, could feel their small hearts beating in between her fingertips and placed them into his palm the way one might a wedding ring after a divorce. They curled up, inexplicably, in his hand and went to sleep.
“So now, you’re what, a god damn lizard charmer too?” Her voice had reached an almost shrill level. “How am I supposed to be a lizard charmer and a mother and a wife and a lawyer?”
“I think they just like me. The doctor says I have very low blood pressure, so maybe they just think I’m a warm inanimate object. Ha ha.”
She could tell she had murdered the flow between them, slashed it up with a knife when she talked about her baby and called him a lizard charmer, as if implying that all he was doing was some elaborate trick. She could tell it was done when he made his joke about blood pressure. It was a thin rope out to her; she responded to it in kind.
“The doctors tell me I have blood pressure so high, I’ve got enough for myself and my husband. Ha ha.”
“Let’s keep walking,” he said. He put the lizards back on the rock where he had found them. She thought of him again as the centaur, but more kindly now, as a gentle grandfather of the forest, who knows its secrets.
No, she didn’t have to be a lizard charmer and a mother and a wife and a lawyer and a dutiful daughter to increasingly senile parents and a cleaner-upper of poop when she walked her dog, but maybe she could occasionally be a lizard charmer or a decorated Yoma woman or a feeler of trees.
They reached the bend in the path where they could see the parking lot. He was humming what she thought was “Mrs. Robinson” and they weren’t talking.
“My car’s over there,” she said, pointing to her gray car.
“I’ll walk you,” he said.
“Thanks.” She let him walk her to her car and she opened the trunk to put her away her backpack. Closed the trunk and then—what? Should she hug him? Shake his hand? Play a quick round of the hand game “Miss Mary Mack,” which was the seal of friendship at summer camp?
“Goodbye, it was nice to meet you,” he said and waved. Ah, yes, she thought, I should wave. That is the good, American greeting, no touching, implied casualty, no commitment. She waved back.
“Yes, it was.” And then more quietly, “thank you.”
She got back to the car and stomped her shoes, the mud and branches and bramble falling out. Then she thought about it again: what was he? What was he really? She pulled her feet into the car, smoothing the mud across its carpet. And then she took it with her: home to her husband and her baby and the yellow house they lived in, the Yoma, the eggshells, dead branches and squirrels and starfish, the lizards, the grass, yellow sky and creek water.