Sunglasses and an open book, my essential people-watching tools, rendered me invisible and ostensibly disinterested.
An old man and a little girl, hand in hand, made for the bench next to mine. They sat, and said nothing for a few minutes. The old man just another statue in the park, bent, and slow, but not done; his age still had strength; his shrewd blue gaze took everything in. The little girl wore a plain pink and white dress, and her small face and intent eyes showed genuine curiosity. The hair on their heads was virtually the same color in the baking sun. The little girl’s was longer and it kept getting in her eyes on account of the breeze.
One June day last year I sat by the rush of the fountain in my favorite park. The sun was shining as it never had and never would again, powering down upon the full green trees, making the life all around felt and known. Visiting the peace of the trees and the crashing water has become imperative. Life bombards me there by ‘my’ fountain, the occasional birdsong not entirely drowned out, and the smell of nature quietly proving stronger than the surrounding cluttered concrete of the city. A breeze made its fickle way through the leaves behind me.
“Grandpa,” the little girl said, “I wonder about things sometimes. Do you ever wonder about things?”
I couldn’t see them very well, but I was certain the old man smiled.
“Sassy,” he said, “Of course I wonder about things. But I’m careful these days to leave the mystery where it is.”
What do you mean Grandpa?” the little girl said.
“Just what I said, Sass,” he said.
The old man turned to the little girl. “Why Sassy, what are you wondering?”
The little girl shifted a little, her legs not nearly long enough for her feet to reach the ground. I thought she was about six, maybe seven.
“Well I wonder about where people go when they die, Grandpa.”
“Ah Sassy, you shouldn’t worry about things like that, you’re just a little girl. Why are you thinking about that stuff?”
“Well, Mommy said that we wouldn’t see Gran again. Daddy didn’t want her to say that, but she did. She said it was important to tell me. That I might not understand now, but she had to tell me.”
This little girl was going to be something else someday; she already was. I felt as though I should give them some privacy, but I couldn’t move; I was rooted – part of the bench now.
“Sassy, I don’t know what you want me to say,” the old man said.
“Is it true Grandpa? Are we never ever, ever going to see Gran again?”
Silence dropped, even, it seemed, over the tumult of the water splashing and flowing.
I did not envy the old man. The need to leave them to their conversation was stronger, but now I was as interested in the old man’s reply as the little girl was.
“Do you have a question for Grandpa?” he finally said. He was wise. Old men didn’t always come in that variety, but this one did. I envied the little girl.
It didn’t take her long to say, “What happens after we die? Where do we go? Can we see Gran again?”
“That’s three questions young lady, and I don’t have the answer. I’ve never died.” He drew a ragged breath. “Nobody really knows the answers to those questions, Sassy. Tha’s just the way it is.”
“Does that mean that Mommy might be wrong about us not seeing Gran again?”
“I hope so,” The old man said with a gusty sigh. “She might be, Sassy, but it might be better if you didn’t tell her I said so.”
Pigeons invaded the space in front of my bench. The sun pounded down on them and us.
The old man leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs, his head turned level with Sassy’s eyes. “Sassy, I think I’m just going to tell you the way I see things, and I think you’re smart enough to figure out how you see things after. But, for what it’s worth, I really do hope that it’s possible to see Gran again.”
“So do I!” said Sassy.
“Do you remember that time you put a caterpillar in a jar in the cupboard?”
She looked up at him, “Yes, and it turned into a butterfly!” She almost squealed, kind of dancing there, sitting on the bench.
“Right. Well, I think maybe something like that happens. I think when we die, we turn into something else. And it might be something totally different, the same way the butterfly is different from the caterpillar.”
She was quiet, and looking up at him again. “So you think Gran is a butterfly, Grandpa?” She stopped squirming, becoming serious, and faced the fountain.
The old man snorted a little, shook his head slowly, and said, “No, Sassy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she has wings.”
Previously Published for an Anthology by the Canadian Poetry Institute.
Copyright © 2020 Rick Hayes All rights reserved.