She was walking her dog near the Stone Arch bridge, high above the Mississippi. The day was a day of dreams, sun and wind and sky and every flowering tree mad with blossom and scent. Far below the water of the mighty river raged and foamed and spun itself over falls.
Her dog was tired and because of his tiredness, well-mannered. They had some extra time and she was tired, too, and so they slowed from their characteristic near-trot to an uncharacteristic amble. Coming toward them on the same path, next to some tall oaks lit by sun, was an old man.
She admired him the way she often admires old gentlemen, the gentlemen who always wear hats, and suit coats, and leather shoes. They remind her of her grandfather, the one she knew, who stooped over the wash basin with Lava soap, and the phantom one she barely remembers, the one who played the violin and emigrated from Russia, or was it Poland, when he was four years old, to escape the pogroms.
The old man brightened when he saw her and smiled at her.
“Isn’t it wonderful, to be a dog?” he said, gesturing at her black, four-legged companion.
“It is,” she said.
“To be free,” he said.
“To be nothing but yourself,” she said.
They stood smiling at each other. He was much shorter than her, and she tried to place his accent. Eastern European, she decided. He reached his hand down to the dog, who sniffed him and wagged his tail and then lay down in the shade.
“I am an old, old man,” he said. “I am more than twice your age, young lady.”
“You don’t look it,” she said.
He took off his hat. Wisps of silver hair shone in the sun. “Now you can tell,” he said. “Now you can tell what an old, old man I am.”
She shook her head. They kept smiling at each other. He noticed the pendant, her talisman, hanging on its chain around her neck, and asked her what the Chinese characters meant. She told him. He pulled a battered copy of “Japanese in Three Weeks” out of his pocket.
“I was so young when I was a soldier,” he said. “And I almost died the third time the Russians captured me, and I escaped through China, and were it not for the kindness of those people I would have died.”
“Where are you from?” she said.
He traced a map of his history on one of the oak trees. From Poland through the war, and on to Asia and the Himalayas and, after a long time, here. To this city built on either side of the mighty river that bubbles up out of the ground in northern Minnesota and threads and spreads its way south to the Gulf of Mexico.
He told her of his life. He was a child in that war, a child who was a soldier, a child who killed, by his own count, many soldiers on the other side and felt, what? He is not sure, other than that he doesn’t blame them, really, for capturing him.
“It is strange how quickly war strips everything away,” he said.
She sits now at her desk late at night and pictures him in his dark coat, his hat in his hands, that beautiful smile that he kept smiling as he looked at her, there where they stood by the river. He wept at one point, and she put her hand on his shoulder. He kept talking about the war, so very long ago, and the soldiers he had killed, and how he felt, what? nothing? not much? so long ago.
The Mississippi spun and danced far below them.The black dog lay quietly at their feet.
“On that last prison train, the one where most everyone else died, I managed to hoist myself up one day,” he said, “up to where there was a window above us, and I looked down. And I saw a river, far below. And on the river, a boat. And in the boat, a boy and a girl. And I could tell that he loved her, and that she delighted in his attention. And every once in a while, one would reach an oar out, to keep the boat straight. And the sun was shining.
“And I was fourteen,” he said. “And I thought: the river. The river. How beautiful.”
Now he was an old man. She watched him as he stood next to her and spoke to her, a familiar stranger, of matters of the heart. His heart. His life. His youth. All those soldiers. The bright and beautiful river, then and now. Had she been alive seventy years ago, and known him.
When she took her leave he bent over her hand and kissed it.