We are surrounded by vignettes: obscure stories that evolve around us, constantly renewing, or vanishing forever after a single arc. Whether the living curve occurs beneath our feet, or whether it expands into a blithe composition beyond our grasp, they all beg for our distracted attention.
This past week, these little dramas did not escape my notice.
When I walk to work, I pass by several garages. One in particular has a faucet which empties onto the sidewalk. I look at it with distaste every day, but this time I did not, for attached to it – waving like a dried flower – was a butterfly. It was a Gulf Fritillary; its colors were white and copper – the type of melted element that would be buried in an alchemist’s library.
Timidly, I touched its wings, hoping they would open, and dust my fingers with its bright frosting. But it remained still, save for the delicate movement vouchsafed by the morning breezes.
How did it die? Perhaps it has taken a rest on that faucet, and had been drenched by a sudden run-off of gasoline-infused water. Its compound eyes, over-sized and amber, looked stunned: it had not expected such an end. It had not expected to brandish its final colors like a flag, warning other butterflies to Abandon Hope, should they decide to rest there.
Ballona Creek runs close by where I work. It has a concrete belly, and runs beneath the sidewalk, below a freeway underpass, and through some of the worst areas in Los Angeles. But it does rest in pleasant pastures – Marina Del Rey and Santa Monica Bay – and it is from those marshy havens that some visitors wander into the city.
I happen to walk over that creek on my way to work. And as it is my firm belief that one should never let ironies go unnoticed, I always stop and look – hoping to see something other than the urban detritus clogging this particular tributary. And last week I did.
It was standing in the turgid shallows, very patient, with a neck bent into a very feminine, very recognizable S-shape. It was pure white, its grace shocking against the greens and grays of the thick water. Its legs were elongated, and I saw its yellow feet moving in the water – bright and unexpected.
It was a Snowy Egret. I’ve seen them at the beach, walking through mounds of dry kelp, or standing on their private kelp islands, past the kayakers, past the surfers, waiting for the fish whose destiny does not lie in a pelican’s pouch or on a shark’s tooth. But I never expected to see one a few yards from where I worked. I watched it as it grazed, every now and then disdainfully pulling at a piece of submerged moss. I watched it as it approached the underpass, wondering what it must have made of the noise and smell: so different from its wide, salty home.
These past days, night has been coming earlier and earlier – and I am rarely home before it has descended like a gentle, lavender-gloved hand. The sky becomes dim and soft, and the moon rocks in its corner, as content as a sleeping child.
During this time, one must be especially attentive when crossing the street. One must always be aware, but with the light becoming increasingly fey, especial care must be taken.
One such early evening, I recall looking deep into the horizon as I crossed a particularly daring street. And I was momentarily confused.
The familiar placement of the buildings, their details gradually draining away to their finite point, seemed to have altered. A layer of mountains, distant but firm, had been added, half-hidden in twilight’s fog.
But there was of course no such flying geography. The clouds, bulking above the streets, beyond the Santa Monica mountains, had created their own dusky range. They had just the texture, depth and ferocity to map out their own cartography, equipped with their own peaks, valleys and confusing distances.
The final day of the work week I walked beneath one of the small, gallant trees planted along this city’s major streets and I was surprised to find myself walking through gold.
Tiny leaves, disengaged from the mothering branches, lay at my feet like a bronze harvest. I thought that I had somehow walked into Danaë’s golden boudoir; and I hoped that I tread carefully through such riches.
Now, unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me to document any of these vignettes. I have no visual aid to offer. You will just have to take my words for it.