Thursday, August 11, 2005

Chapter 1: August 31, 2030. A Military Ball.

Lily’s job was almost the final step in the preparations. The shrimp, the vegetable trays, meatballs, dumplings and gouda were all in their places on the banquet table at the Governor’s mansion. Pots of chocolate sat at the corners of the room surrounded by strawberries and toothpicks, waiting for the burners underneath them to be ignited. Every windowsill was adorned with a small cup of Columbines and African violets. Streamers festooned with flags dangled from the ceiling like a spider’s web. A cello case, two violin cases, and a viola case were opened next to their respective chairs with music already spread across each stand.

It was only three o’clock, but the sun looked ready to set in the haze from the fires in the mountains. The orange glow, reflected through the crystal waiting to accept fine wines at the bar cast an odd gleam through the ball room. All the windows were closed and taped to keep out the smell. Peach incense smoldered from the center piece of every coffee table in the room to disguise any haze that had made its way in. Drought notwithstanding, the gardens from the wrought iron fence to the grand entrance were absolutely dazzling. In half an hour, the Governor, the Adjunct General of the Colorado National Guard, the Ambassador to the United States from Nigeria, military attaches, senior advisors, and a few dozen notables, most from Colorado, but a few of national stature, would fill the room. Lily wasn’t sure exactly why these people were having a ball, but the seating charts her boss, Mark DeVeux, had stayed up all night working out with the Adjunct General’s wife made it clear that this was an important occasion. The jogger with an ear phone in just one ear who had been circling around the block for the past half hour, and the pure white car parked on her side of Eighth Avenue were a testament to the fact that security was not being taken for granted here either.

Lily’s work awaited her on a folding table sitting atop an eight by eight foot velour towel. Now, it was just a block of ice encased in Styrofoam cooler. In forty-five minutes, it would be her master piece. Lily pulled her sketch out of her portfolio and starred at it one more time for about five minutes. Then, she took her chisel and her hammer in her hands, lifted the cooler off the ice block and starred at the ice, circling it, sizing it up, looking deep into its swirls and crevases. She took a damp white cloth out of a bowl of cool water and gently swabbed all the frost away so her view was not obscured. She struck a tuning fork on the side of the table and then gently applied it to the surface, listening intently, at several places. By now, Lily’s mind was racing, totally absorbed. She hummed a voiceless tune. She breathed on the block a particular points as she again circled the block, first one way and then the next. She raised her chisel, lifted her hammer, blew one more breath, breathed in, winked and struck the block of ice.

From that moment forward Lily’s actions were deliberate and trancelike. She was not frenzied. She looked, raised her chisel, and struck it. Look and strike and pause. Look and strike and pause. It had a rhythm. As she worked, she whistled her otherworldly melody, not in any scale familiar to the Western ear. Occasionally, she stopped, damped her white cloth in the cool water, lifted the cloth delicately out of the bowl, and lovingly applied it to the sculpture that was forming, wiping away debris and looking carefully at the inner makeup of the ice. Lily didn’t even glance at her sketch once she began. Sand in an hour glass she’d set up on the corner of the table continued to flow, her only link, it seemed, to the real world. The faces of each of the guests of honor, with their escorts in the background, slowly emerged. She didn’t even notice that the door had been opened, or the tall, wirey man in uniform utterly transfixed as he watched her work. Her form as he viewed her from just inside the doorway was tiny, and her face looked so pure and young she could be a child, but her mastery was undisputable. Every strike of the chisel decisively, indeed almost miraculously, advanced the sculpture as a whole, rendering it all in simple, sketch-like lines. In a distant corner, with only a few minutes left in the hour glass, she carved a perfect rendition of her own face in just a handful of strikes and as the last sand fell through the gap she kissed this image of herself, raised the cloth one last time to clear away her lipstick, took a deep breath, and stepped back. The man in uniform applauded with a sound that filled the empty ball room.

“What are you doing here?”, Lily asked crossly, “The doors aren’t supposed to open for ten more minutes?”

“My apologizies, ma’am, I’m the military attache for the Adjunct General. One of my jobs is to make a final security check before he attends public functions. You can’t be too careful these days, especially at an event like this one. In any case, I’ve never seen mastery like your in my life. To watch you work is to watch magic unfold.”

Lily sucked in a quick breath, felt a look of consternation and annoyance come over her face, and then forced herself to blush, although it was hard to see on her olive skin.

“Well, my assistant seems to be running late, so maybe you can help me.”, Lily said.

“How can I be of service ma’am?”, the attache asked, his eyes a little glazed.

“Do you see the empty pedestal front of the hearth? I want you to help me lift this there. But, you must only touch it in exactly where tell you. You need tp match my speed and level exactly. It may look solid, but it is really more fragile than glass.”

The man came forward towards the sculpture. Lily took one of his hands and then the other in her own, gently, but firmly placing his fingers exactly where she wanted them and indicating in exactly which direction he would lift when the time came. She, then placed her hands on the sculpture, as casually as if she was lifting a sack of potatoes, counted to three, and they brought the sculpture to its resting place. Together, they lowered it.

“Don’t move your hands again until I move them for you. I know you’re almost numb by now, but this is a very delicate moment.”, Lily said, and then finger by finger removed his hands with her own. “Please stand back.”, she said. He did.

Lily strode back towards her table, picked up a spray bottle, opened the cap, sprayed it once or twice on her hand, and then directed four or five delicate mists from the bottle at the sculpture. “Good enough.”, she said. “Thank you for your help.”

“Cass Jackson, United States Navy, at your service, ma’am.”, he said. The insignia on his uniform identified him as a junior officer, but he had no idea if this woman could read that code.

She extended her hand to shake his firmly.

“I imagine you have some work left to do now that I’ve distracted you.”, she said with a wink in her voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”, Cass said, and headed towards the hallway. It wasn’t until he was walking out the back door that he realized he’d taken a wrong turn.

By the time Mr. Jackson returned to the hall, three minutes before the doors where scheduled to open at five minutes before the hour, there wasn’t a trace of Lily, her table, or her tools. But, Cass Jackson spent at least another half a minute starring deeply into the glimmer in the eyes of the tiny, but perfect face of Lily Matsunaka tucked away just behind his own image, standing back far enough that his breath couldn’t reach the surreally perfect sculpture hewn of ice. As he turned away from the sculpture to open the door, Mr. Jackson gently rubbed the back of his hands, where her hand had touched his. They almost tingled.

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