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The wisdom of shadows

WHAT could I do on my free day, alone, and frugal, in a big city? I could observe people in the morning sunshine. There they went, right in front of me down the sidewalk, a young man and woman. They were having a fantastic quarrel.

He was accusing her of being flighty, and she was accusing him of being insufferable. Each of them spoke rapidly, each had a different set of gestures. She shrugged her shoulders and shook her long, flighty hair; he flung first one insufferable arm up in the air, then the other.

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It was like watching a dramatic turning point in a tempestuous opera.

But what was more interesting was the life of their shadows on the sidewalk. They moved along without quarreling, and sometimes, with the secret help of wind and light, they even held hands. While those who cast them wrangled, look, the shadows made peace and had a good time together. A contrast like that made me philosophical, deep.

Why was it, I asked, that people persisted in their folly when, if only they had looked under their noses, they would have awakened to the wisdom of their shadows? Shadows, after all, were like a primitive, unspoiled people, full of stories and poetry, and there was much to learn from them.

In the afternoon of my day the sunshine allowed itself to be blotted out by clouds, and a heavy rain began to fall. I took shelter in a doorway. Perhaps the sunshine was angry that the shadows it had helped to make were being ignored. But no, though heavy, it was a gentle rain, rather like a big paintbrush sweeping back and forth in reverie-like strokes, painting everyday things new colors, making me see them fresh, not just look and forget.

A fire hydrant on the corner turned the vibrant red of a rose in full bloom. What a wholesome thing was a fire hydrant in the world, I thought, no more redundant in rain than a blessing in abundance. What a monument to the strivings of hope. It was like a lighthouse in a stormy sea, a help always there. And yet . . .

A childhood memory suddenly came back. It was that curious moment I'd noticed , for the first time, that those projections on the sides of a fire hydrant looked like stubby robot arms. Leaning close, I'd even seemed to hear unearthly machinery whirling inside. What if, I'd asked myself, a fire hydrant wasn't what it seemed? What if it was a mini-robot in disguise? And I'd had a vision of all the fire hydrants in my city suddenly, at a signal that would sound as eerie as the siren of a fire engine on the moon, clanking off their corners and marching on the world.

Mercifully, the rain stopped, showing me that it was not afraid to leave the city in the care of the fire hydrants, reassuring me my young fantasy would never come true. I stepped out of the doorway, patted the fire hydrant on the head, and walked on.

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Finally, at dusk, on a street near where I lived, I saw a sight that I felt sure the whimsy of time had prepared just for me. There, sitting on a curb all by itself, was a tiny kitten, looking as soft and rollable as a ball of yarn, and waiting very resolutely. It wasn't watching the lonely faces behind the windows of the apartment building nearby. It wasn't watching the large man being dragged, ludicrously, like a leaf, by the little dog he was walking. It didn't even watch me as I crouched down beside it to puzzle out its vigil. Its green-eyed gaze never left a dim, suspenseful corner up the street.

After a while, from around this corner came another cat, much bigger but equally oblivious of me. It padded nimbly over, stopped, took the kitten by the scruff of its neck, and then galloped away, disappearing around another corner. I stood, or rather, a feeling of sweet and rare elation lifted me to my feet. What I'd seen could have been simply the mother coming to fetch her strayed and frightened offspring. But more likely, I thought, it had been a rendezvous, long arranged, to go off on a great adventure, perhaps to meet with mice in some peaceable kingdom and drink at last the milk of contentment together.

Seeing what spirit had spread even to the very creatures of the city, what could I do but forbear to be outdone, and rejoice?

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