Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Chapter 2 - The Ruins

Technically, Jeremy shouldn't have been in the park at all.
Officially, Tower Grove Park is closed from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Jeremy often walked there late at night, however, and he'd never gotten stopped yet.
He liked to walk in the park at night, alone. It felt safer than walking the streets. He knew he wasn't really any safer in the park, but being surrounded by trees reminded him of his small town home, where the chances of being attacked by a stranger as you walked were virtually nil.

After six years living three blocks away, Jeremy knew the park better than he remembered the woods in back of the house where he grew up. He knew each tree individually, not only which one was oak and which one sycamore, but could call up in his mind the exact shape of the immense old oak tree by the north entrance, or the graceful maple by the pond.

It was toward the pond that Jeremy was walking tonight, not necessarily headed there as a destination, just walking in that direction. It was one of his favorite sights in the park, and one that he treasured knowing the utterly different look it had at night, a look he knew almost no one else in the city ever saw.

On one side of the pond were ruins, the apparent remains of some ancient building, perhaps a Roman or Greek temple. Of course, no such thing ever existed in St. Louis, Missouri. When the ancient ruins of Europe were being rediscovered in the Renaissance, there was indeed an urban civilization near St. Louis, but those people built in earth and stone and left nothing behind but their immense mounds when they moved on.

No, this set of ruins was entirely artificial, although they were actual ruins of a sort, since most of the stone came from a downtown hotel destroyed by fire just after the Civil War, when the park was being built. The stone was brought here and stacked picturesquely on the north side of the oblong pond in a nod to Romantic sensibilities. One looked at them and thought of Keats, or Byron, or Shelley's "Ozymandius."

They looked even more fanciful at night, gleaming here and there in silvered moonlight. It was cold enough that the fountain in the middle of the pond gave off steam, which added to the otherworldly air. Jeremy breathed a deep sigh of contentment as he rounded the path and the whole picture came into view, his own solitary fairyland, his imaginary retreat from the city.

Except tonight it wasn't quite solitary. He could see from across the pond that there was someone sitting on one of the rocks that made up the remains of . . . well, whatever one wished to imagine the ruins were the remains of. Usually Jeremy imagined it was a Temple of Diana, Goddess of the Moon.

At least, he thought he saw someone. Only because he knew this place so well could Jeremy see the figure, just a shape, really, a change in the way the rocks should look from here. Whoever it was didn't move, didn't make any sound that he could here from here. Jeremy felt both diffident and somewhat miffed. He hesitated to intrude upon the other's solitude, but at the same time felt that his own had been violated just by the presence of an interloper, though he knew that it was absurd to feel that way. It was a public park, after all, and he was just as wrong to come here when it was closed as whoever was over there.

He later wondered at the fact that it never even occurred to him that it might have been a police officer, lying in wait for someone just like him to come along, someone he could cite for violating the park's curfew. But his hesitation never took that into account, nor did his decision finally to continue his usual path around the pond and over to the ruins.

When he approached close enough for the figure in the dark to resolve itself into a recognizable human being, Jeremy stopped, stunned. Sitting on a flat rock near the ancient doorway to Diana's Temple was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. In the moonlight, her skin looked as white as the full moon itself, sailing overhead through whispery seas of thin clouds. Her hair was black as midnight, as was her dress, which seemed far too flimsy for the weather. She turned to him and regarded him with dark eyes, and he felt that he was being examined thoroughly and completely, as if she could see through not just his clothes but all pretense or concealment he might attempt, shining a spotlight down into his very soul.

She smiled, and he was captured.

He stood there, dumbfounded. She beckoned to him, and he came like a puppet pulled on strings, without even knowing that he moved his feet.

"H-hello," stammered Jeremy, though he wasn't prone to stuttering.

"Hello," she said. Her voice was rich and musical, the most delightful voice Jeremy had ever heard.

He stared down at her. She regarded him with apparent amusement, then lowered her head, indicating that he should sit next to her. Abashed at having made her strain her neck, he did.

"So, uh . . . " What should he say? Say something, stupid, he scolded himself. "I'm Jeremy. Jeremy Morrison."

"Pleased to meet you, Jeremy. You may call me Liliana."

"Liliana." It was the most beautiful name Jeremy had ever heard. He couldn't imagine anything more pleasing than the sound of her wonderful voice saying her alluring name. He was completely, utterly, totally enthralled.

Silence stretched until Jeremy felt the need to fill it. "I haven't seen you here before," he said.

"No? I have seen you here. You come here often, don't you?"

"Yes, I -- You've seen me?"

She nodded. "Many nights I have watched you."

"But . . . Where were you? Why haven't I seen you before?"

"Ah," she smiled again and chuckled a small, musical laugh. "You could not see me until it was time for you to find me."

Jeremy shook his head. This made no sense at all, and suddenly he was struck with the terrifying thought that it might all be a dream. That he wasn't actually here, in the moonlight, in this romantic place, talking with a beautiful woman. He might still be in his apartment, mumbling to himself as he tossed and turned in his bed.

He slapped the rock beside him. It certainly seemed real.

"You are not sleeping. We are really here, together."

He turned his head, about to ask her how she knew what he was thinking, but the thought dissolved into the dark pools of her eyes and her lips, dark, almost black by the moonlight that leached color from the world. She was so beautiful. He longed to reach for her, to hold her, to kiss her, but he could not even open his mouth to tell her of his desire, much less act on it. He was frozen in terror, afraid to act, afraid to let the moment pass without acting, afraid to even breathe lest he destroy the fragile illusion of the moment itself, him here with her, so close, so close.
And suddenly she was the one who moved, and their mouths found each other in a kiss such as Jeremy had only dreamt of, a kiss that seemed to merge their very beings, as if his whole identity was focused into his lips and tongue, and moved in harmony with Liliana's. It lasted for an hour, a week, eternity, but was over in a heartbeat. When she drew away, he was left short of breath, and awestruck.

"I'm glad you found me," she said. And all Jeremy could do was silently but heartily agree.