"That's right, maplem flowers. You don't know that maple trees have flowers? Come here; see." The old woman reached up and plucked a sprig from the low branches. Sure enough; the boy could see this was a flower, or a miniature bouquet of flowers. "But they're green, like leaves. Can flowers be green?"
"I don't see why not," the woman laughed."But look here; look at it with your best eye."
She held the flowers up to the light. The pale green sepals beneath the bud were shot through with faint red bands and covered on the underside with tiny black hairs.
"Indeed! Touch them; see how soft?"
He cupped the flowers in his small hand and tried hard to be gentle as he turned and examined the green spray. From this single sprig, six delicate stems emerged; and from each stalk he counted a half dozen more flowers branching out, some still closed, some full-bloomed with ten lime-green petals and eight yellow specks fanned out like wheel-spokes.
"Little pods-on-a-stick, see them? Those are the stamens. And that little forked tongue at the center . . ."
The boy touched one with his finger, a little watery-yellow curl. ". . . That is the pistil. Yes-siree, a flower, complete," the woman concluded admiringly. "But take a look here."
She probed with her finger beneath the sprig-bouquet. Her young friend leaned closer, trying to guess the secret. Half-hidden in the sepals were tiny scraps of green, nearly translucent, wrinkled and pointed like . . .
"A withered leaf?"
"A leaf indeed, but not withered; the opposite. Just being born." She unfurled one of the green patches and -- "There, you see: the little five-fingered hand of a maple leaf."
For a while then they sat together without speaking. For some reason -- or for no reason -- an uneasiness crept between them. And, for the first time in half an hour, they remembered that they were strangers. The woman, 82 years old , lived in the nursing home on Prospect Street, a busy truck route through the city. She hated the noise and the smoke, so that, once April's weather banished the winter storm windows, she spent her afternoons in a small park nearby. The boy, nine years old, had a week-long vacation from school ("nine days if you counted the Saturdays and Sundays stuck on eithr end"). And today, he was just wandering around the neighborhood, killing time until lunch.
A flock of sparrows descended on the park and took up residence with a great whistling clamor in the maple trees. The couple on the bench watched in silence. The boy thought to speak again, or perhaps to stand and walk about or leave altogether. But the woman stilled him with a quick sharp "Shhh!" The cautioning finger at her lips then ascended slowly to point to . . . .
A sparrow, only inches above their heads, dancing up and down the branch. He stroked his beak from side to side on the branch like a man sharpening an ax on a whetstone, and then hopped nervously to a new stance. Gently he pushed his face into a bouquet of maple flowers. His beak, sheathed in the petals, seemed to pick and eat. Was it the flowers he ate the boy wondered. Or just the petals? The little yellow seeds? Maybe he just smelled them? Or perhaps he just liked to hold the green close to his eyes? The sprig of maple flowers was a viridine candelabrum, luminous, delicate, pulsing with the April sun. And the sparrow, eating or admiring, fussed over it with motherly attention.
"He must be eating them," the boy finally said."See?" And yes, as the sparrow moved to a new twig, a few shreds of green were caught in his black bib. For several minutes more, the two of them watched in silence.
While the woman was intent on the bird, the boy cautiously looked up at her face. In all this time, he hadn't really lookedm at her. Now he noticed her short-cut hair, yellowy like fresh corn silk, and her white and wrinkled cheeks, like the not-yet-opened maple leaves, he thought. Her eyes were a milky blue and now, staring so hard at the treeful of sparrows, she had a look in her eyes that the boy had never seen before -- never in his parents' or teachers' or friends' faces. In a curious way (that he couldn't put into words), it pleased him to see that look, and it made him shiver a bit as well.
"Well, I gotta get home for lunch."
Slowly the woman refocused her attention on her companion. "Goodbye, dear. If you ever need to talk to someone again, I'm here most times when the weather's fine." Her hand half rose in a wave and then settled back in her lap.
As the boy walked off, he was confused: "Im didn't need to talk to her. I thought shem wanted someone to talk to." For half a block he wondered about the woman. Then he skipped once and broke into a sprint. The running felt good in his legs. The wind was behind him, and his sneakers charged each step with extra spring. As his arms pumped to the stride, only then did he notice that he still carried the small bouquet of maple flowers i n the grip of his right hand.