By Rachel Heffington
“I love big cities,” I confided, jog-stepping around a pile of half-melted slush and colliding with his dark gray jacket.
He laughed and pulled me to his side, pinning my arm under his. The corners of his mouth tried to sober and failed. “Really? I thought you begged me to change jobs so we could live in the countryside and you could forever and always take your dreamy little walks with your little umbrella.” My companion’s strong pull dragged me away from imminent collision with an Asian bicyclist, and into his arms.
“Smooth,” I said, and tipped my head to one side to see him smile with that rogue’s light in his eyes.
He laughed and took a step backward. “You don’t belong in the city, minka.”
“What is a ‘minka’?”
“You are a minka.”
“Ah. I see.” Funny thing is, I rather did see after he said it that way.
“What is it you like about the city, you quaint little changeling-child?”
I scuffled a leaf or two and wished I had a woolen pea-coat so I at least appeared to fit in with the city-dwellers. His words had made me doubt myself and what I liked and didn’t like. But I liked when he teased me, for it was in teasing me that the last of the almost sorrowful tilt to his brow-line smoothed away and he was merry.
I tugged against his grip and pushed my copper-brown hair from my eyes. “What I like about the big city is everything our cities lack.”
“Such as?” He pulled me to a stop as I tried to jaywalk through an intersection. “Outlaw.”
I shrugged. “Small cities have all the big city squalor with none of the attractions.”
His laugh was short, knowing, and the wind pushed his light hair into his eyes. “The attractions seem to me somewhat limited. Traffic, crowds, stressed pedestrians—oh! And the occasional homeless beggar who always pegs me as a philanthropist. Tell me, minka…” He lifted his hair with one hand and the sunlight jigged in his blue eyes. “Do I have a benevolent forehead?”
I slapped his arm with my Library of Congress brochure and forged the way across the street on my own. He caught up with me—I heard his chuckle and the thud of his feet on the pavement, and even after all this time belonging to him, my breath snatched wonderingly in my throat. Two muscular arms wrapped around my waist and squeezed me.
He popped around to my left side and quirked one eyebrow. “Tell me, what are its attractions?”
“What’s attractions?” I played dense, that I might organize my thoughts before speaking them.
I was quiet a moment longer. “Noble buildings…busy life everywhere. People. Restaurants. History. Sights and sounds.”
“Ah, minka, you’re a blithering chicken.”
We walked for some time without speaking. It was enough for me to know he was beside me, thinking me a ‘blithering chicken,’ calling me ‘minka’, with the sorrow-lines away from his eyes. It was enough for him to watch my fluttering from one side of the walk to the other when a thing caught my fancy.
I looked up at the towering buildings above and ahead and wondered at the thousands of stories the people within must hold. Each a story—each a book, if only I had the time and talent...He, of course, would laugh at me and tug my hair, but it would please him all the while.
As my thoughts drifted back to my companion, my fingers stole into his. He wore smooth black-leather gloves. I felt small. I needed the touch of his work-scarred hands against my skin.
“Take them off,” I said, my voice a half-whisper.
He grunted softly and pulled the glove off with his teeth, then wrapped his warm supple fingers around my hand.
I tugged him to a low wall enclosing a green area with a marble hall behind, and sat on it.
“Are we watching?” he asked, and lifted his chin so the sun picked up the highlights in his three-day’s scruff.
I reached a finger up and brushed his cheek. “You are a swift learner.”
“Mmm.” It was half pleasure, half acknowledgement.
He set his arm firm against my back and I leaned into it, watching this bit of the City spring to life in my small-sight…A man kissed his wife on the steps of the Supreme Court building across the way. Two college students dashed across the road and a blue cab protested with its horn. Down in the gutter a pigeon strutted, the sunlight gifting the feather on his neck with plum and emerald tones. I watched the pigeon and sighed kitten-cat soft.
“Incandescently happy?” he asked of a sudden. I could hear the sorrow-lines in his voice, as if he did not enjoy the small-sight as I did. I wanted him to love it. I wanted him to see as I saw—to feel as I felt—in this, as he did in most other things.
“Teach me, minka,” he murmured into the top of my head. I twisted to see him, and he kissed my forehead.
“Your way. What makes you so happy about a dull city block?” His tone was playful, but I caught the shadow in his blue eyes like an uneasy current. I had a wish to dabble my fingers in that blue and change its course to a happier way.
“All right.” I shifted on the wall and blew on my numb fingers to warm them. He tossed me his extra glove and I slipped it on my left hand, covering the precious band of gold linking my soul to his. “It’s only a matter of looking quietly enough. Of…caring enough to notice.”
My gentle reproof caused him a quiet wince and I put my words like a gentle scalpel into the wound to widen the gash for better healing. “You won’t see if you don’t care to. Look now, listen, and wait.”
I held my breath and he held his, the both of us cupped in breathless small-sight. The cars sloshed through a puddle of snow and water, and it tinkled like tiny bells after their passing. I pointed, and he raised his chin a fraction. A mother with a stroller hurried by and her baby yawned. I pointed again, and my companion’s mouth quirked into a fragment of a smile. Above us the early-budding arms of a cherry tree waltzed against the pale, cirrus-strewn blue. He jinked and eyebrow in a question and I nodded, smile spilling into laughter.
I scooted close and rested a hand on his shoulder. “It makes you feel there’s still some good in this world, doesn’t it?”
He turned to me, a wild, tameless sheen in his eyes. “Nooo.” He drew the word out as if tasting it.
My heart started dove-like from its covey, then fell, dead with disappointment. I could not make him see what he purposed not to.
“It doesn’t make me feel there’s good in this world.”
I startled to again to hear him speak so soon.
“It makes me know there’s good out of it. Perhaps…perhaps, minka, the world is as twisted and barren as it has ever been since that Fall.”
I had to say something to break the cool quiet. “Cheering, isn’t it?”
He patted my knee and tipped his head to one side. “No, listen. These things—these little beauties—they are not from this world. And the other, finer things like courage, honor, and…love…” he squeezed my hand, “they’re not here-things either, are they?”
I couldn’t laugh with him because of the sudden tears.
He clasped his hands between his knees and leaned forward into that keen, critical stage which never ceased to enthrall me. “Minka,” he said of a sudden. “Take notes because this might be clever….perhaps the good we see in people isn’t in them at all, but on them. Like a coat. Like a veil. Maybe it’s not because they’ve withdrawn enough to see into the world. No.” His lips were firm, his brows working to aid the thoughts to come out right and shapely. “It’s because they’ve left this world behind, for once, and have seen out of it. They’ve reached up to Heaven, and all these things are God-gifts. Aren’t they, chicken? And our hearts have poked holes in the bottom of Heaven to let the giving through.”
I was silent and stunned by his sudden gripping and vocalizing of my own soul-thought. “You are…”
“Am I right?”
I didn’t answer—couldn’t.
But he threw back his shoulders, finished with his philosophy for this moment, this day. “Say truce, minka. You’ve taught well and I am a swift-learner. We’re like, you and I.”
He stood and offered me his hand, dragging me to my feet. “So you like the City, my girl?”
We started down the sidewalk, and I smiled, drawing my shoulders up. “I do.”
“Funny thing, that,” he muttered, and jammed his fists into his pockets, taking long-legged strides I had to jog to keep up with.
“So do I. I like it minka…for a change.”