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Beyond the Break
Valentine’s Day, 2009. My mother and I had some last-minute stops to make at the Kroger, and half the city seemed to have chosen that particular Kroger to make their last-minute Valentine’s Day stops. People crowded around us as we walked out of the store, mostly men buying roses and chocolate in a last-ditch effort to impress their wives and girlfriends (probably waiting at home for their big date) and harried moms buying groceries in a last-ditch attempt to get supper on the table. People jostled us, but no one spoke. There were no couples here, no smiles or hugs or kisses, only a crowd of strangers milling in and out of the brick storehouse. And as we stepped out of Kroger, I stopped. The sky was absolutely beautiful.
We lived in the country, where the trees bounce and sway in the wind, before moving to the big city, where the walls go up and up and the unending maze of houses winds its way in dark and crooked intricacies, and the asphalt and concrete chokes out all the living, breathing beauty of the forests and fields. Little burbling creeks are transformed into the fetid streams of runoff and wastewater beside the dull black highway; the wild joy of the trees in the wind, waving their green arms to God, is replaced by the stiff, stark walls of houses and stores; even the free and untamed graces of the birds in the sky are hemmed in, and the delicate creatures become overcrowded and learn to hunt and be hunted and fight for scraps of garbage in their hard black forest. The city is a wilderness too; a mortar forest and asphalt jungle where nearly all the soft and flowing grace of nature is cut down, burned out, choked up with a thick concrete blanket and people live in square brick boxes, surrounded by other square brick boxes and tall smoking towers as far as the eye can see. The open innocence of field and flower is traded in for the dull grey efficiency of motor and engine.
But still, not all of nature’s work is destroyed in the city; there is always the sky, and the creatures of the sky, who soar unfettered high above city and country alike, and pass over forest and field and metropolis and plain in a single day. In the city, far away from the wind and the grass and the trees that I love, I have learned to take pleasure in the sky. There is no city in the sky, not yet at least, and in a world of brick and steel and cement, I am starved for the beauty of nature, and view each new sky as a fresh painting. Every day brings a new and unique portrait, a piece of art that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. The moods of the sky are more beautiful than the most intricate portrait in the Louvre; the great clear blue-enamel of summer, with fluffy white clouds, delicately brushed with gold beneath and detailed with faint gray, cannot be duplicated. The autumn sunset, with great rose and violet clouds against a colored sky, which begins in flaming red and orange and fades to gold and purple and finally the deep hues of the night, cannot be reproduced. The winter morning, with its piercing china-blue backdrop and thin white strands, clouds pulled into long wisps by the wind and dotted here and there with the circling hawks, the children of the sky, cannot be copied. Neither paint nor pencil nor camera can represent the raw beauty and power of the sky; it is an oasis of beauty in the midst of a great steel desert.
On Valentine’s Day, nature exhibited a new style of art, a mood I had never seen before. It was indescribable. If I could frame it and hang it up, it would become more famous than the Mona Lisa and more lauded than the Sistine Chapel. I would take it home and call it “A Study in Slate”, and people would throng to my doorstep to see it again and again, and critics would praise its complexity and carefully shaded hues and exquisitely sculpted shapes. This sky was grey, but the word grey doesn’t do it justice. Away to the left stood a great hallway of ashy-white arches, an ornate corridor leading to a great and hidden cathredral, while the great eastern expanse showed wide brushworks of slate grey and steel blue, tempered here and there with a tiny break in the clouds where the sun showed through in gold and pink. And low in the sky hung beautiful deep grey storm billows, like a pile of lamb’s wool dyed indigo and oyster.
“There’s a storm coming,” my mother commented.
We walked out into the sky as the art unfolded and the low dark clouds flashed dully with lightning. It was magnificent.
By the time we reached the car, the first drops of rain were falling. The people filing to the store entrance walked faster. A few glared at the sky or looked down in disgust. As we turned out of the parking lot and began the long drive home, rain pelted our windshield faster and faster. A light breeze was blowing, and the rain did not improve the February temperature outside. Some people might have called it dismal. I called it beautiful. I gazed out the window, absorbed in the delicacy of the great grey sky. What skill God must have had to paint it.
Halfway home, something caught my eye on the road. It was a spray of feathers in the median, a twisted bundle of brown and white and red, still shaking a little. I sighed as I recognized it as one of the hawks who circled the upper atmosphere, soaring on the zephyr with ease. What had possessed a hawk to come down to the city? Its contortions ended and the body lay stiff and still in the center of the highway, the white median around it grotesquely reminiscent of a body outline. I sighed a little, and then I noticed something else: a second hawk, sitting quite still on the telephone wire directly opposite the dead one in the street. It shivered in the rain, shaking the water from its beak, and for a moment I could see the liquid gold of its eye and the downy white of its chest; then we whisked past it in a spray of dirty water. As billboards and street signs flashed past us, I strained to look back. Could the fallen hawk have been the other’s mate? Perhaps they were diving together and one didn’t pull up in time to avoid the oncoming traffic. The other hawk sat hunched on the wire, dripping in the cool spring air, the very picture of misery. Ironic that it was Valentine’s Day.
The rain was beginning to let up, and a tiny crack in the grey veil was leaking in rich sunlight, but I stared backwards at the grey sky behind us. I wondered if the hawk was still on the wire, waiting. What on earth would make a hawk—two hawks—fly down into the city? Then I remembered the lightning and the storm. Of course.
By now the sky had lightened somewhat. There were breaks of gold and pink coming through; in half an hour we would see a wonderful broken sunset. The main body of the sky was still heavy with grey and purple, but just to the right stood a magnificent formation, more beautiful even than the iron-grey art of the storm. It was a beautiful white fluffy cloud, the sort that become huge snowy mountains or white floating islands in the summer, when the sun can come and paint them all yellow underneath and glowing white on the top. But the sun was still breaking through, and the cloud was a dull, dark white, with a pink underside slowly brightening to a golden break at the head, which appeared as some fairy-land passage to the light and the sun. Great golden rays stabbed downwards, and I couldn’t help imaging the cloud as a great staircase leading to the other side of the clouds, where the light and the warmth of the sun always shone. It was absolutely breathtaking, and for a moment I almost forgot the hawks.
As our car turned the corner back into the brick-house-maze of the neighborhood, I twisted backwards and saw a silhouette against the golden glory of the break, a tiny black speck against the radiance which spiraled upwards and dissolved into the great golden pool that was the sun. It was there for a moment, a lone silhouette against the sun, before it vanished into the light and the warmth and moved beyond the break. Our car pulled up to the curb, and I stepped out onto the concrete walk and banged the car door shut. Before I turned to help my mother with the groceries, I stopped for a moment, breathed in the after-rain freshness, and tried to peer around the row of houses. Standing on tiptoe, I craned my neck until I could see the break once again and the sunlight pouring in through it, straining in vain to make out what I had seen, but it was no longer visible. I sighed and turned to go, wondering if I had truly seen, frail against the dazzling luminescence, the shadow of a single hawk.