Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Approach to the City (6)

The city's elongated central plaza occupied a kind of plateau, partly natural and partly sculpted out of the hill by human hands. A park, shaded by oak trees and crisscrossed by carefully maintained brick paths, ran down its center, and there were three gazebos or small bandstands, currently deserted, at regular intervals. The downhill side was tenanted by a row of prosperous shops -- a goldsmith, a bookshop, a furniture store, and others he couldn't see from the corner -- while facing them on the far side of the park stood the towered municipal building, a bank, a library, and some modestly imposing white mansions that he took to be the homes of the wealthy. The pedestrian traffic here was the heaviest he had seen, and he had to keep a sharp eye out for bicycles, which veered through the crowd at alarming speeds.

He crossed to the municipal building, the lower storey of which was bisected by a broad flagstone arcade. He followed this until it intersected with another, perpendicular passage; here there was a little enclosed garden, a goldfish pond, and a bulletin board covered with a variety of notices, not all of them official. After giving the papers a cursory glance he continued on his way. Where the arcade emerged at the rear of the building there was another garden, this one planted with azaleas and rhododendrons, then a strip of green lawn, and finally the base of a long series of timber steps that zigzagged up to the top of the hill. The steps were slick and a little arduous to climb -- no surprise, then, that he was the only one using them that morning. The surrounding hillside had been terraced and planted with dwarf willows and Japanese maples, a little too fussily for his taste, he thought, but when he turned around and rested for a moment a magnificent view of the city and the river in the distance lay before him. He stood for a while even after he had caught his breath. The hills on the opposite shore were partially obscured in mist, but he could make out the far end of the bridge and the lot where he had left his car the day before.

It took him another ten minutes to reach the summit. As far as he could see from where he stood the undulating ridge had been planted with great beech trees surrounded by expanses of green lawn. A dirt path wound through, paralleling the river until it suddenly made a sharp turn inland and down a long gradual slope. He followed it until he came to a little pond, on which a dozen or so ducks and geese, and farther off, an aristocratically aloof pair of swans, were floating and dipping their beaks beneath the surface. There was a wooden bench by the pond and a petite young woman was sitting upon it, alone. He guessed her to be about twenty-four; she wore a dark floral print skirt, a white blouse, and a little open jacket that was, perhaps by intent, a size too small. She had a kind of little carpetbag next to her on the bench, and on her left shoulder perched a single white dove that swiveled its head alertly at his approach.

He stopped a few yards away and called out a good morning; she responded with a rather birdlike nod and a chirped hello, then immediately turned her attention away from him and began rummaging in her bag. After a moment she stood and held up five uniform light blue rubber balls; with a sharp snap of her hand she tossed first one, than another, than the rest into the air in quick succession. As the balls descended she caught them with quick, even motions and sent them aloft again; they rose, arced, and fell, she rolled them onto her shoulders and down the back of her arm, she crossed her hands and wove them around herself in intricate figures. After thirty seconds of this she took a deep breath and her face assumed a graver expression, then she suddenly closed her eyes and slowed her pace; impossibly, the balls found their way back into her hands again, time after time, without the slightest deviation from their circuit, like particles orbiting the nucleus of an atom. He stood astonished and motionless. Finally she opened her eyes again, seemed to reorient herself, picked up the pace once more, and in a final flourish whirled the balls into a pattern too intricate for him to make out until all at once they came to rest, all together, perfectly nestled in one outstretched hand. The dove had not moved.

She remained frozen for a second, until he began to applaud wholeheartedly and shouted "brava!" She executed a curt little bow, straightened again, shrugged her shoulders like a marionette, then, smiling shyly and barely glancing in his direction, she sat back down, stowed the balls in her bag, and began whispering something to the bird. He stood stock-still, debating whether to speak or what to say, but already she seemed to have broken whatever connection had briefly existed between them. There was no hat beside her or any other sign that she expected remuneration for her performance. After a moment he said "good day" again, she acknowledged it with a quick nod without meeting his gaze, and he walked slowly off, still spellbound by what he had just witnessed.

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