In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden the night heron is on his branch of his tree, blue moon curve of his body riding low above the pond, leaves dipping into water beneath him, green and loose as fingers. On the far shore, the ibis is where I left him last time, a black cypher on his rock. These birds, they go to the right place every day until they die.
There are people like that in the city, with signature hats or empty attaché cases, expressions of private absorption fending off comment, who attach to physical locations—a storefront, a stoop, a corner, a bench—and appear there daily as if for a job. They negotiate themselves into the pattern of place, perhaps wiping windows, badly, for a few bucks, clearing the stoop of take-out menus every morning, collecting the trash at the base of the walk/don’t walk sign and depositing it in the garbage can.
Even when surfaces change, when the Mom & Pop store becomes a coffee bar, when the park benches are replaced with dainty chairs and a pebble border, they stay, noticing what will never change: the heartprick of longitude and latitude to home in on, the conviction that life depends, every day, on what outlasts you.
In Europe you can see cathedrals from far away. As you drive toward them across the country they are visible—stony and roosted on the land—even before the towns that surround them. In New York you come upon them with no warning, turn a corner and there one is: on 5th Avenue St. Patrick’s, spiny and white as a shell in a gift shop; dark St. Agnes lost near a canal and some housing projects in Brooklyn; or St. John the Divine, listed in every guidebook yet seeming always like a momentary vision on Amsterdam Avenue, with its ragged halo of trees, wide stone steps ascending directly out of traffic.
Lately I have found myself unable to pass by. The candles’ anonymous wishes waver and flame near the entrance, bright numerous, transitory and eternal as a migration: the birds that fly away are never exactly the same as those that return. The gray, flowering arches’ ribs rise until they fade, the bones so large and old they belong to an undetected time on earth. Here and there people’s small backs in prayer, the windowed saints’ robes’ orchid glow, the shadows—ghosts of a long nocturnal snow from a sky below when we did not yet exist, with our questions tender as burns.