For a hundred years, she had stood in the quaint little park in the center of the city. For a hundred years, she had watched the activity in the park, watched the people and the birds that flew through and sometimes nested there. Most would stroll by without noticing the figure in the shady little grove, distracted by the sweet-scented rosebushes or the large marble fountain, but occasionally someone would stop and cast a thoughtful look up at her. Once or twice, someone had lingered, enchanted by her simple beauty. Then one day, in the spring of her hundredth year, a man entered the little park and began to walk toward her.
The moment she saw him, a chord was struck somewhere deep in her heart, and her soul trembled. She could see at once that he was not like other visitors. His stride was leisurely, yet he moved with purpose. He was not enveloped in a dreamlike stupor; his senses were alert, and his eyes seemed to take in every detail, yet lingered on nothing for long. They traveled in the direction of the grove and came to rest upon her face. Satisfaction shone through his young and pleasing countenance, showing clearly that he had been searching for her. His gaze focused directly upon her, studying every feature of her face, every contour of her body, every fold of her garments. It evoked in her a memory of another man, an older man, the first she had ever seen. He was the one who had looked upon a mound of gray stone and seen a slender, fair-featured woman staring out with her arms folded gracefully; he was the one who had hewn her out of the rock because he saw a life waiting to be freed; he was the one who had given her a name: Serenity.
The young man strode across the path to examine her more closely. He read the name engraved upon her base and walked about her, regarding her from every angle. He even reached out and gently touched her fingertips, yet she could feel it no more than the birds that alighted on her head. Nevertheless, it kindled a fire within her, though her eyes were just as serene. The man stood before her a moment longer with a brief half-smile, then turned to go. As he walked away, for the first time Serenity felt confined in her body of stone.
She spent that night, as she had every other, wrapped in meditation. She was not touched by the breeze, nor was she frightened by the shadows among the trees. From her vantage point, she could see the moonlight glinting off the water of the fountain and hear its rushing. In the stillness, she could make out the noises of the city that she had never seen. The distant city had always been an object of curiosity for her, yet she had always been content in her little home. Tonight she wondered about the young man. Perhaps he lived in the city. Oh, if she could only step down from her pedestal and search for him!
She considered this sudden, inexplicable longing. She knew nothing of love; she was mystified by the overwhelming desire that was beginning to consume her. If someone could have peered through her cold stone, he would have seen a living flame within, and every recurring thought of the young man, an image of a single lock of hair, the way his piercing eyes roved over the gardens, added fuel to her fire. She could do nothing but stand and wait for the night to pass and her fervor to cool.
Day followed night, and the sun was not a moment late by its own time, yet each person’s time is different, and rarely does it correspond with what it commonly recognized as true time. The fair weather and the loveliness of the gardens, whose colors were fresh and pale with spring, attracted many. Throughout the day, Serenity watched the usual passing of people with eyes that were blind for all but one; the laughter of children reached her ears but not her soul. Just as the fire within was subsiding, she saw him.
She had a sudden wish to turn away, to close her eyes and pretend she had never glimpsed him, to let the fire fade away so that it might torment her no longer. But she stood on the periphery of disaster and lacked the power to stand back. The fire would awaken again, and this time it would not be as easily suppressed. She was at the mercy of her own heart, with no hope of release.
He approached, his step as brisk and dutiful as ever, yet painfully slow, and then he stopped before her. She was en-thralled. He set a dusty blue bag on the ground and assembled a wooden easel and a square of canvas. When she realized their significance, she was overcome with feelings of joy and despair. Her desire would be satisfied while he stood there to paint her, yet in the long hours of his absence, her pain would be unbearably amplified. “Turn away!” cried her soul, as her heart cried, “Stay and never leave me!” How long could she be rent in two and remain one?
He removed his paints and prepared a palette, unaware that his every move was watched. The next hours passed as if she were in a trance. She was aware of nothing but his painting, his occasional glances reaffirming that he had captured how the folds of her skirt gave the appearance of a light breeze, or how her hair framed her face just so. Every such glance seemed to strike a chill through her, she who had never felt cold. Finally the sun was aligned directly with her eyes, for she faced west, and she knew that he would soon leave. Within moments, he gave one last look from statue to canvas, breathed a sigh and set about gathering his things. When he walked away, he did not look back.
That night passed much like the preceding one, except that now Serenity was plagued by a hope and a fear that he would return to finish her portrait. Toward dawn, she watched with anxiety the thickening clouds that obscured the stars and smothered the rising sun. The park seemed murky in the light that seeped through the blanket of swollen clouds.
The rain did not begin subtly, as rain has a tendency to do, with almost small drops falling in intermittent bursts, turning to a diaphanous mist, and finally into whole-hearted rainfall. No, it was as if some celestial dam had opened and the cascade rushed mercilessly down. Though she could not feel a single drop, Serenity hated the rain. Battered by the double intensity of her love and her hatred, she retreated to the innermost recess of her being and waited for the storm to pass.
The next day and night were unrelentingly gloomy. Serenity watched indifferently, her heart refusing to feel anything. But the morning came more crisp and clear than any she had seen in a long time, and though she could not feel the refreshing coolness of the breeze or smell its delicate perfume, she sensed that it carried a faint hope, perhaps enough to sustain her spirit a while longer. From her pedestal in the grove, she saw the dawn come in a majestic display. People began to appear, and finally, over the crest of the hill he came, and she saw it as if in a beautiful dream ... but within moments the dream was shattered.
There with him walked another, her golden hair glinting, her eyes shining with laughter, her hand clasped in his. And he looked on her as if he had eyes for no one else in the world. As if with a deliberate intent to torture her, they stood directly beneath her. He looked up into her face, but the young woman’s gaze revealed that she saw nothing.
“Isn’t she lovely?” he asked, in a low, faintly reverent voice.
“I suppose so. She looks rather ordinary to me. I can’t say I understand why you find her so special.”
“Doesn’t she seem to have a life? It’s almost as if she has a soul somewhere in that stone, and she’s looking out at us.”
“I’m afraid I don’t see it. I never had your eyes for such things.”
He turned from the statue to watch the rising sun. “Surely you can see the beauty of that,” he said, gesturing.
“Of course I can,” she replied tenderly. They lingered for several minutes, whispering things that left her more broken than before, and more sorrowful than she could bear. She felt herself falling into darkness.
But then she saw a hand reaching out to her, and she grasped it. She found herself pulled beyond her prison to stand before a shimmering figure.
“Greetings, Serenity,” said the spirit. “I have come to set you free. The immortal dwellers in this garden have taken pity on you, and with the power bestowed upon us, we will grant you a wish. The only thing for which you may not ask is that which you desire most, for this we are not free to give.”
Serenity’s face shone with joy for a brief moment, then, at the last words, all the luster passed from her eyes, and they were filled with resignation. “
I thank you nonetheless, Spirit of the Garden, for this gift. If you cannot grant me the love of the one I wish to be with, could you give me a human body, so that I may find where he lives and speak to him, once at least, and perhaps even somehow win his love?”
“This I could give, yet will not without warning. The world, Serenity, is a very great place, and evil lurks in its corners. There is much cruelty which you have never seen, yet which you would be at the mercy of. And in a mortal body, you would experience pain that you have never felt; you would even be subject to death, something you cannot now imagine. Suppose you failed to find your beloved, and were fated to roam the the world as lonely as you now are? And if you were to find him, how could you win his love? You have seen how utterly he has given his love to another. How could you steal it away?”
“I see the wisdom in your words, and shall heed them. But if I cannot become a human, then what choice is left, other than to return to the body that has become my confinement?”
“There is another possibility. Surely you can see it.”
After a moment, Serenity’s face illuminated with discovery. “Yes, I see it. I know what my choice must be. But might I have the answer to this question: Shall I ever again be happy?” Serenity’s eyes were full of an almost painful expectancy.
“Not as before, but with time you may learn contentment.”
Serenity was not displeased, as long as there was hope, and she announced sadly, “This, then, will be my choice ...”
For many years, a painting of a statue hung in the young man’s home, simple in design, yet with an inner beauty that few could see. From the painting a quiet presence looked out, watching the man and his wife with the golden hair, and their children grow and laugh and cry. It was a benevolent presence, and it watched over the family lovingly. Yet the man had forgotten that the statue in the painting was not like the one in the park which he had painted one spring when the gardens were lush and the breeze carried a light perfume, for she looked far older than that statue, and the look in her eyes was not of serenity but rather of the sweet sorrow to which the title of the painting referred: LONGING.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.