In the mall, as the sunlight streams through the skylights and draws crosshatches on the shoppers below, a teenage girl passes through one particularly strong beam that has traveled barely undiminished from its origin. This beam casts her lovely face in such a way that it becomes an aesthetic moment for an old man sitting alone at a table nearby. He was once a graphic designer for a magazine, but has been retired now for over 20 years. What he really wanted to be in his youth was a painter, a painter of light, and so when he sees this girl he remembers his early ambitions and stares at her with a longing that even a casual observer might find unseemly. The girl, vaguely Asian, has large dark eyes that shine like moonstones in the light coming down through the glass panels of the roof. The man thinks, this girl does not know that she may never be as beautiful as she is now at this very moment. He also thinks that other people may be thinking the same thing, for others in the mall, eating lunch or passing by, give the girl a glance—more than a glance in some cases—more like a questioning look of awe.
The girl, however, doesn’t notice any of this. She continues walking through the food court, beyond the sunbeam, into the normal manufactured light. She walks slightly pigeon-toed, like a child, and occasionally bites her bottom lip. She is thinking of an algebra problem she got wrong in class, she is picturing a boy who always sits next to her, she is feeling the heart-wrenching loss of her dog who was run over two days before. She misses the dog more than her own grandmother, who died of lung cancer last December, a realization that made her feel ashamed. This is what she was thinking about when she passed through the shaft of light. Even though she adored her grandmother, she knows it is her dog she will miss forever. His death is more cruel than she can fathom. He was run over by someone who never stopped, never even slowed down, according to her older sister, who had accidentally left their front gate open. The driver just sailed away in his dark blue Mercedes sedan as if nothing had happened. Her sudden understanding about the existence of such callousness in the world is what made the girl’s eyes gleam in the light that had traveled down to reach her. And the old man who caught sight of her at that very moment, who continues to watch her slim figure as she navigates her way through the crowded mall, is himself the cause of this girl’s painful beauty, for it was he who two days before ran over something solid in the road and decided not to stop and take a look.
One of my favorite writers is Hans Christian Andersen. I realize his stories may be a bit too downbeat and moralistic for some people’s taste, but I’ve always loved the way he says so much in such simple ways, all the while taking his characters and the reader on fully imagined (and imaginative) journeys. Here is one passage I like to read every so often from The Little Mermaid. (For those of you who are only familiar with the Disney version of the story, the original tale is quite dark.) This scene, from the beginning of the story, depicts the little mermaid as she contemplates the world beyond the ocean. I like the sweep and feel of this passage—again, told with such simplicity.
“Many a night this quiet, thoughtful little mermaid would stand by the open window, looking up through the dark blue waters where the fishes swam. She could see the moon and the stars; they looked paler but larger down here under the sea. Sometimes a great shadow passed by like a cloud and then she knew that it was either a whale or a ship, with its crew and passengers, that was sailing high above her. None on board could have imagined that a little beautiful mermaid stood in the depths below them and stretched her little white hands up toward the keel of their ship.”
[From A Treasury of Hans Christian Andersen, translated from the Danish by Eric Christian Haugaard, c1974]