Nouveau-Riche

Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.

 

Waves of Panic

It didn’t last for long.  But for the briefest of moments, the ocean’s surface had begun to buzz, bubble and boil – like a cauldron’s substance, sprinkled with green salt and membranes of kelp.

Breaking through the surface were the bodies of fish, their muscles and spines contracting in uncontrolled leaps, their efforts evaporating in the air before they fell, helpless, back into the toothsome waters.  Their panic was anarchic; a school of bedlam.

Danger surrounded the little fish.  Danger sought them.  The sense of the coiling progress of a hunter, its quiet and bloody hunger, pricked their nerves into a scintillating panic.  Their only means of escape was a quick, confused leap into the suffocating air followed by a helpless collapse into the sea’s watery embrace.

The fish repeated their chaotic vaulting – the ocean’s surface was dimpled with the tracks of their frenzied attempts.  Instinct told them that the aerated arc above them was their only hope of escape although their gills fluctuated and gagged at every contact with the arid tides of barren molecules.

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But suddenly the air was torn apart by an approaching mayhem. As it drew closer it was heralded by cries that were sharp and pitched, by feathers that wandered into the froth – soft, curling messengers that presaged a secondary slaughter.  Like an armada the color of dusk, they floated on tiny, aimless journeys before sinking – to warn a terrified, submerged population.

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And just as the cries became shrieks, the water was assaulted by all the tools of hunger.  Screaming avian jaws lanced the surface of the water like needles perforating a quilt.  In a tumult of competition gulls, cormorants, shearwaters and terns plunged their faces into the ocean, their sharpened beaks an affront to the watery, fish-frenzied world.

And then just as suddenly, it was over.  The anarchy of the waves became serene; the muddle of violence was silenced.  The sky was unpopulated:  the dialogue of birds became a distant murmur, hidden in the pockets of salt and fog.  The predatory fish, sated and sleepy, sank into dark grottoes thick with alloys of green and coral.  As for the rest, the panicked prey, all that remained was a scent of oil and blood in the water and a silent flurry of scales beginning a slow descent:  witness to the terrible plan Nature had in store for them.

 

You Can’t Deny A Whim

I’m not used to drawing with pastels.  But I had a whim, so…just don’t harsh Aubrey out, please.

 

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What I Brought Home

Summer comes hurtling towards earth on its heated equinox, an axis brought to a boil over months that travel at a fierce, flaming gallop.  Their intense progress swirls the sky into a seething panic.  And on its first day, the sun will bear night and day aloft at equal height, as Justitia holds the scales of justice.  The hours share the benefits of the new season, before autumn begins to claw its way towards its dark, harvest dominance.

I would venture out into the early summer evening, to watch the changing sky, the skeins of evaporating clouds, the caramel sun.  But when I returned, the only souvenirs I had were the constellations of mosquito bites on my arms and legs.  There was a cache of stars inside my elbow; burning recollections.  As I walked, I felt as if the remnants of that angry, heated day were seared into my skin…as if I carried shards of moons and stars back into my home.

Mother-Of-Pearl

I had a grain of sand caught in my eye. For days it nestled between cornea and eyelid, a microscopic foreigner buried in its viscous confines. For days my eye was as irritated as an oyster that feels the initial birth pangs of its pearl, the hoodlum particle invading its soft flesh.

The pain increased, spreading beyond my eyelashes, pooling in the corner like a red shadow – all of the physiological consequences of a battle with an unwanted object. My eye felt as rough and dry as the hide of a mollusk. I waited for it to glaze over with nacre, for the hazel-colored iris to turn iridescent: opaque with lavender and turquoise. I waited for my vision to be awash with the ocean, its incandescent light challenging the reflections and refractions of my new eye.

The act of blinking became difficult – as if the stubborn child was grating against the ceiling of the lid: a crib too small for its subtle growth. Every time the grating pain returned, I wondered at the strata of translucence that layered my infant gem. The pain wasn’t curved, but jagged: perhaps my pearl wasn’t round; but malformed, Baroque. Such stones were rare, impossible to match: they were not used for necklaces, to be threaded with a string of equals. They were singular, their bodies used in brooches: as the hull of a ship; the torso of a god. My pearl was going to be unique.

But one day my eye began to water. And in the belly of one of those tears the infant grain escaped. It traveled a smuggler’s way down the cartography of wrinkle and jaw. The saline tracks curled down my face like the footstep of a snail. Then, in a fit of forgetfulness and annoyance, I brushed the tear away

No matter. I would have been a terrible mother.

The Three Sisters

The sisters were bored. Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak had grown weary of their life in the sky, caught in the luminous circle of Orion’s belt: an existence of being mere accessories to an ancient, hunting constellation.

And to make matters worse, every October they observed, like envious astronomers, the descent of the Orionid meteor shower. They watched the bright veil bound for parts unknown: the blue and green planet that patiently awaited the radiant visitation.

Repeatedly they begged the night sky’s very patient empress – for the moon was surrounded by stars of varying ages, and had grown used to their supplications – if they might not just once be included in the festivities, just to see what the flamboyant illumination was all about. Surely Orion could look after his silly buckle and sword by himself.

Though the meteor shower never seemed to return, and despite the moon’s tedious explanations of atmospheres and ozones and burning dust, making the sisters wild with impatience – Alnitak actually swelled into a supergiant in her annoyance, threatening her figure – their opportuning continued.

Finally, weary of their tiny voices bouncing off latitudes and longitudes, traveling through endless light-years, the moon gave in.

On their given day of release, the sisters began their journey downward. They noticed the change in the air – its shape and texture: becoming thinner, harsher. Instead of the soft unchanging shadows at the top of the sky, they saw rushing by them a prism of colors: cobalt, turquoise, lavender, emerald, tangerine, bronze, cherry, ivory. They thrilled at the swift-moving kaleidoscope.

But this wasn’t the only change that the stars noticed. The moon, ever considerate of her wayward children, made sure that the stars’ arrival would be no cause for alarm. The stars would not crash into the earth with an undignified thump, to be left wallowing in the depths of their personal craters. And as they were promised a jaunt amongst humanity, they were given the shapes of women. And since they were the daughters of the lunar queen, they were given royal status: the three sisters became princesses. Finally, feeling creative and compassionate, the moon also made them impossibly beautiful. Their flesh became as fragrant as tinted power, their cheeks, fingertips and elbows were touched with rouge, their lips were as soft as honey. Their substance was made from the delicate wreckage of a ladies boudoir.

They journeyed through histories and centuries. Their gowns and veils swirled about their bodies and faces like galaxies. This irony was not lost on them and they made a note to thank their clever mother for her wit as soon as they returned. Mintaka, at least, the most distant and introverted of the sisters, intended on keeping this promise.

They had a lovely time. The irresponsibility, the freedom from the astrological maps embedded in the charcoal-colored firmament…the earth was such a lovely place. But then they discovered something else.

It made a rushing, cold sound that vibrated beneath their feet. There was a sense of movement, of hidden life – of a foreign world made of silver, salt and scales: if they knew what those things were.

Beyond curious, they once again asked to be shown one more new world. Beyond annoyed, the moon listened…but to the sisters’ surprise she quickly agreed upon realizing the nature of their request. So a basket was fashioned for the girls to delicately step into – and they were softly lowered from the green bluffs onto the gentle, sighing ocean.

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And they enjoyed themselves mightily. The pale horizon, the glitter of shark’s teeth and fishes’ breath beneath the water, the kelp forests, the tireless birds, the grottos made of pearls and coral. They could have floated aimlessly forever.

They did not realize that the moon had a plan. For she was ruler of the oceanic rhythms: every time she had a whim to do so, she would cast a silken line rigged with invisible hooks and pull the tides towards her. And on the evening when Orion’s complaints got to be too much- something about a lack of embellishments – the moon, as well as catching the tide, made sure that she secured the sisters’ floating basket as well.

As a result, on that night the tide was unusually high…and stargazers were amazed to see a trio of stars actually ascending, until they returned to their homes, becoming the stationary jewels decorating Orion’s belt once more.

Dapper Couldn’t Make Me Happier

First, this is a submission of an admission:  I have a  Facebook page.  On a “suggestion” by my boss, I set up a page a few days ago.  My initial impression is that FB is a time waster sans pareil, and that as one spends hour after hour exploring it, one feels the onset of increasing stupidity, the tiny dips downward of the IQ quotient.

But hey, golly, friend me, won’t you?  I have wresting kittens, surfing dogs and everything!  You’ll even know my real name!

Still.  One thing of value/interest I did mention.  This past Friday, I attended “Dapper Day” at the L.A. County Museum of Art.  The event merely encourages visitors to dress beautifully and come to the museum, look around, look at each other and listen to some jazz music that is free to all.  It wasn’t asking a lot – surely we all have beaded gowns or two-toned loafers tucked away in our closets?

But upon arrival, it seemed that everyone had given in to the wretched heat, foolishly choosing comfort over style.  I was considering aborting the mission, but happily decided against it.

I had chosen evening dapper – floor length gown, long gloves, evenings.  Most of the women I saw elected the look I prefer to call “1955 hausfrau chic”.  But en masse – and as the evening wore on the masse did seem to appear – the overall impression did border on the dapper.

And I must say that people were very kind and generous…I did get some compliments. Some wanted their pictures taken with me though one seemed to do so as one would take a selfie with a circus animal.  No matter.  It was all rather fun.  And all the attention was much needed – as needed as the cup of wine I purchased immediately upon arrival.

I met a lovely woman – Debra – who was kind enough to take some pictures of me:

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And towards the end of the evening my trepidation had actually transformed to confidence:  and it was as wonderful as it was unexpected.  The next Dapper Day is in November; and while lightening wouldn’t dare strike twice, I do have this sequin and taffeta trapeze dress…

Milky Lady

Her heart was made for freedom and scandal. It carried her far from her English home, for there were many willing takers, daring to stand up to her spirit, thinking they could face her beauty unmoved. When her career took her to Syria, she was called Shaikhah Umm al-Laban (Shaikhah Mother of Milk) for the color of her skin, poured over her bones like a white ganache. She was also called “Aurora” for she was as bright and golden as the goddess who flew across the sky, gilding the air to prepare for the arrival of her brother, the Sun.

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Lady Jane Elizabeth Digby was a young woman in the early 19th century, when ladies’ gowns rode low on their shoulders and curved gently across their backs. This was fortunate, for Lady Digby had a swan-like neck which merged with a pliant spine, its vertebrae fluttering just below the skin’s surface. Her hair was a deep honey color which dripped in corkscrew curls as was the fashion. And her eyes were pale blue, rimmed with a darker blue – they glowed like cathedral glass.

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She married the 2nd Baron Ellenborough in 1824, when she was 21, and he a decade older. But she was too romantic for marriage, and quickly embarked on an affair with her maternal cousin, Colonel George Anson. He was handsome and subtle – a dangerous challenge for a girl just sprightly enough to pick up the gauntlet through down by a charming reprobate.

But she did not care about the fluffy judgements of her peers. In 1828 her attentions turned to Prince Felix of Schwarzenburg, slim and swathed in military severity, when he was still a London attaché for the Austrian embassy.

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After two years he deserted her, leaving her pregnant with their second child. The affair left Jane to face scandal, divorce and society’s shocked, albeit fascinated twitterings, and it left the Prince with a new title: the “Prince of Cadland”. Outside of a few brief visits, she never saw England again.

In Munich Jane became the mistress of King Ludwig I, who despite his quiet shabbiness attracted such luminaries of the demimonde as the dancer/courtesan Lola Montez.

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It is not known who felt the urge to move on first – Nancy or the King. But one of the partners did and in 1833 Jane had married the Baron Karl Von Vennigen. They had two children, and her mettle was calm for five years.

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But a roving eye cannot be shuttered for long. In 1838 Jane fell in love with the Greek Count Spyridon Theotokis.

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Baron challenged Count to a duel, and though wounded Vennigen agreed to set Jane free but kept custody of the children. They remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives.

Though not legally divorced until 1842, Jane converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and married Theotokis in 1841. Oddly, Jane showed a particular lack of patience for a lack of loyalty, and when Theotokis returned to his old habits – which were the very antithesis of fidelity – he and Jane were divorced.

Jane then turned not to her old friend Ludwig I – perhaps getting up in years – but to his son, the far more dashing King Otto of Greece.

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However the King was married to a fierce and politically formidable woman – Amalie of Oldenburg. The Queen wouldn’t have her dark and slim-waisted husband sleeping with this adventuress and Jane was forced to leave Athens.

She turned next to the hero of the Greek War of Independence, Christodoulos Chatizipetros, who had led the rebels under King Otto with flamboyant and successful distinction against the Ottoman forces.

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He rose to the rank of Major-General, but his debauched habits attracted Amalie’s disapproval. Her fury must have been intense upon learning that one of those habits included Lady Jane Digby.

Christodoulos continued to lead a guerrilla campaign, with Jane acting as queen of his rough army, living in caves, riding horses and hunting in the sparse mountains. They roamed the Thessalian plains, where Odysseus once visited; where Jason and the Argonauts launched their search for the Golden Fleece, and now where a lady who did know her place could journey at will.

But Christodoulos’ weaknesses, long offensive to Queen Amalie, now became an annoyance to Jane and she walked out on him for his numerous infidelities. In the late 1840’s, Jane continued her journey East, stopping in Syria.

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She was now forty-six, and her soft beauty had become resolute and mature. She would fall in love one more time, and he, though twenty years her junior, was not seeking the pretty follies of a young girl.

He was Sheikh Abdul Mijwal al-Musrab, sheikh of a sub-tribe of the Anizzah tribe of Syria.

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The two were married under Muslim law and Lady Jane Digby became Jane Elizabeth Digby el Mezrab. Jane added Arabic to the eight other languages in which she was fluent. She adopted Arab dress which buried her face beneath sheaths of fabric so long they erased her footsteps from the sand as she walked.

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Half of every year was spent in the nomadic style of the Bedouin, while for the rest of the year they lived in a palatial villa she had built in Damascus.

Their marriage was a happy one and lasted until she died in 1881, twenty-eight years later. She died of fever and dysentery – the nightmares of soldiers and other adventurers who find themselves in faraway climates. At the funeral her name was written in Arabic on a block of limestone by her widower and then carved into the rosy granite by a local mason. The sheikh then rode alone into the desert and sacrificed his finest camel to honor her departure and her memory.

But maybe he should not have grieved; perhaps he should have spared that most excellent beast. For Aurora returns to the quickening of every morning, when dawn stirs between day and night. And then one can look into the sky and watch the stars as they spiral through the Milky Way, outlining the Milky Lady’s eyes and lips; her curving, radiant profile.

No Distinguishing Marks

In 1897 Max Beerbohm wrote a charming little bon mot entitled ‘The Happy Hypocrite.’ The titular character was a shocking, shameless dandy. He enjoyed a graceful, debauched life.

Until he fell in love.

However, she was a strong-minded innocent and repulsed by his approaches, by his face made ugly by a dissipated life. The man she marries, she declared, must have the face of a saint.

Distracted, this dandy found a very specific artist, an architect of masks. He had one made with the face of an angel, and it was molded to his face. He searched out his love once more, unrecognized and beautiful. They married.

But a woman from this rake’s past approached him and demanded that he remove his painted visage. Reluctantly he did and was amazed – along with his former mistress – to find that contentment and true love had wrought a remarkable change on his face. It was now indistinguishable from the mask.

Similarly, the street sign stood engulfed – it too was indistinguishable. It was obliterated by a curling garden that climbed like parasitic filigree, lissome and hungry. The steel marker was devoured, its banner threatened by a graffiti of roses and jasmine. Never had there been such a bower of vandalism, never had there been such delicate destruction.

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But this was not a hostile takeover. Rather, it seemed as if the metallic defenses of the city’s indicator welcomed the latticework of vines and the starry, chaste flowers. It must have been a ticklish business, feeling the tiny green movements and blossoms as fragrant as a boudoir.

The ascending growth dripped chlorophyll onto the cut and perforated metal. Butterflies visited to feast, dappling the structure with frost from their illustrated wings. The sign, blinkered by a bouquet of leaves and petals, had succumbed to a higher power.

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And perhaps, in the fullness of time, the invasive borders will be cut away. But the unknown gardener will be confounded, for he will find that the sign will have vanished, the street doomed to anonymity. All that will be left would be a single green sapling.

Maybe that is the way of all cities, to be replaced by networks of forests. Perhaps it is their destiny, to return to their earthly dominions, to dissolve into the twisting labyrinths of their fertile homes.

On Holiday

“Let us speak of the revels which are accustomed to be made on St. John’s Eve…”

– the monk of Winchcomb, 13th century

During the summer, the sky swerves and tilts on a new axis. It slides on its equinox like a child sliding down a stairway banister. Summer Solstice, bronzed as any sunbather, lingers high overhead, lingering in Cancer’s Tropic. The shadows of St. John’s Eve leach into the stones of Stonehenge and then are cast across the grasslands of Wiltshire. The stories and thoughts of the prehistoric builders are revealed – but no one has yet been able to read them.

At twilight, the whimsical sky is crowded with revelers. Constellations, long absent from the carnival stage, begin to arrive. A menagerie of holiday visitors – eagles (Aquila), swans (Cygnus), foxes (Vulpecula), horses with starry wingspans (Pegasus) dance an orbit to an astral harp (Lyra). The trace work of their steps pierces the indigo fabric in a metallic frost.

The astrological wheel turns along the summer ecliptics and celestial equators. When it stops, Sagittarius the centaur is rearing against the sky, pocked with nebulae and stars, shouldering his quiver of arrows. Scorpius, bright with novas and poison, waits. Libra, outlined with a distant harvest of blue, orange and red stars, prepares to carry its scales of justice and good behavior during the liveliest of seasons.

Sunsets are very gala. They are the color of sweet cocktails – honey and Benedictine, sangria with plums and nectarines, champagne and peach. They are warm and melting – coating the horizon with an invitation to an evening of celebrations.

During the carnival evenings, planets are eager to crowd into the sky. If the moon is curved into a crescent, they hang from her geometric grace like jewels. If the moon is full, wearing her summer colors – Strawberry, Rose or Red – she casts a cherry-colored cloak across her new neighbors. Mars and Saturn ride lowest on the horizon, drinking in the last of the sunset’s sugared alchemy. But Jupiter is bold and bright, sailing like a radiant ship towards the moon’s blushing presence.

When summer’s hot allure is exhausted, the sky revolves once more to reveal unfamiliar populations and landscapes that bend over a ripe solstice, a golden equinox heavy with crops. Constellations float in the thin, cold air: dolphins (Delphinus), fish (Pisces), whales (Cetus) swim in oceans kept full by the Aquarian water bearer. The full moon dons her working garb: Harvest, Hunter’s.

Breezes as chilly as lace curl like a fichu across the diamante bosom of the modest sky. They kick up gusts of meteors and shooting stars: the Orionids, the Taurids, The Leonids – even the final sweep of the Perseid meteor shower.

Stars that did not take these giddy rides are left behind, glittering and lonely in the cinnamon sky. They are scattered like the ribbons and furbelows of the departed revelers’ indulgences. They were the madcap reminders that tickled the crooked backs of the workers in the fields, the residues of warmth that whispered of the pleasures they had missed.