The day was a hot and cloudless, much like the many that had preceded and have followed it. I was sitting in my living room, reading, when a friend stopped by and suggested that we walk down to Lake Calhoun and take in the last few events of the Aquatennial celebration, which is held every year at this time. “Good idea,” I said, putting down the book and going out the door with him. “Glad you stopped by. I’d have spent the day reading, and would have missed everything.” I had no idea just how prophetic my words were to be.
When we arrived at the lake, we came upon a huge crowd watching a gymnastic exhibition. “It’s so hot out here, I don’t see how they can do that without dying,” I said. It was a marvel to watch the young men and women flipping and spinning in the air, and I began to think about the comfortable chair in my living room again. One young man kept leaping higher and higher above the trampoline until I though he would disappear above the trees.
“It makes me dizzy watching,” my friend said, turning his gaunt frame and pushing through the crowd. “Let’s go where there are fewer people.” As we walked, the crowd fell away except for large groups of sunbathers lying in the sun tanning themselves. “Sun cultists,” my friend remarked, indicating the sunbathers with a backward nod of his head. “Did you notice the smell?”
I nodded. A heavy, sweet smell hung over the lakeside like a blanket. “What is it?” I asked.
“Cocoa butter,” he replied. “They use it to tan themselves.”
“You can use the same thing for popping corn,” I remarked, and we both laughed. Soon we had left even the sunbathers behind, and were walking alone down the footpath, bicyclists whizzing by on the bicycle path that ran parallel to ours, the sun so hot it was crackling. I looked out over the lake where there were dozens of white-sailed boats looking like flocks of butterflies chasing each other low over the water. “What an absolutely magnificent day!” I remarked. “Thank you, again, for stopping by.”
He smiled and nodded his head. At the south end of the lake, we bought ice cream cones from a vendor, then started back in the direction from which we had come. My friend said little as we walked along. When his ice cream cone was finished, he lit his pipe and smoked it, his head bent, thoughtful. It was too beautiful a day to ask him what was on his mind. The water rippled, blue and iridescent in the crackling yellow sun.
Soon we were upon the sunbathers again, and again the sickening sweet smell of cocoa butter settled over us.
“Have you noticed,” my friend said, breaking his long silence, “how they love to turn themselves as brown as Samoans? They’re here every weekend, always the same ones, always in the same place, and always a shade or two darker than the week before. Take that young man,” he went on, pointing with his pipe to a blond young man who was walking toward us on the balls of his feet. He was a deep walnut in color and was covered with curly blond hair which stood out all over his body like fur.
“He looks like a Viking,” I remarked.
“That’s the impression he’s trying to create,” my friend replied. “Color has something to do with virility. He’s always walking around like that, showing off for the women. You’ll notice how some of the women over there are ogling him. He’s very aware of the impression he creates. And that old man,” he went on, pointing with his pipe stem at an elderly man, white hair curling like foam on his bronzed chest, who came running by, dressed in bathing trunks, “he is here every weekend. You’ll notice how he keeps his chin just high enough to look powerful, but not arrogant. Neither of them ever sits down, you know. The point seems to be in the parade. You’ll notice how both of them walk,” my friend went on, pointing to the ball-of-the-foot gait both men used. “Walking like that makes their calf muscles bulge. It’s part of the cultic experience, if you know what I mean. If they didn’t put on their act every weekend, someone else would step up to take their place. The effect of all this just wouldn’t be the same without them. Well,” he said, abruptly turning and starting off down the path, “let’s go on. There is more to see.” He put his pipe stem in his mouth, sucked, and blew smoke.
As we went on, I saw the young Viking walk to the water’s edge, dive in, and swim vigorously out into the lake, leaving a churning white wake behind him, while ahead of us, the old man’s prow-like chin cut its way through the crowd, which continued to grow larger by the minute.
Stopping, my friend pointed out another group of sunbathers who had recently arrived and were disposing themselves on the grass. “Notice how they glisten” he said, “especially the women. It’s as if they bathe in cocoa butter.”
I nodded in agreement. The women fairly shone in the sunlight, giving off a glow as though the sun had transfigured them, combining with the cocoa butter to create supernatural beings of light and air. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were shimmering, iridescent, golden-brown chimeras! As I stood transfixed, I noticed that a calm had suddenly fallen over the crowd, creating a hush in which not even birds or cicadas could be heard. I turned toward my friend. It was then that I learned the origin of the quiet that had silenced all living things.
Walking toward us through the crowd was a young woman, so slim and beautiful that she could have been the culmination of all our expectations and dreams. She had the grace and self-assurance of a goddess, and wore a smile that gave evidence of a deep awareness of the impression she was creating. As she walked, the crowd parted, and she moved through it, swaying her hips and torso in a way that would cause the most decrepit of old men to rise up off his bed in the sure knowledge that he had had his youth miraculously restored, and the youngest of boys to image that he had been catapulted into virile adulthood. She wore the tiniest of bikinis, which was bright lemon yellow, and set off her beautiful, golden-brown skin in a way that no other color could possibly have done. I wanted to murmur “exquisite!” but found myself as tongue-tied and silent as everyone else. Her golden hair caught all the sunlight that existed on that day, and it gleamed on her head and shoulders like a crown or a halo.
As she came nearer, I noticed that her body glowed, from her hairline to her toes, as if from an inner light. “A radiant faerie princess!” I wanted to say, but found myself robbed of speech. As she walked past where we stood I saw that her body was covered, as if by a fine spray, with cocoa butter, and gave off a maddeningly sweet odor that took my breath away and filled me with a hunger and longing such as I had not previously experienced. I turned, slowly, and watched as she walked on and into the crowd of sunbathers we had been watching. She stood out from them as the moon stands out from the stars which surround it, and as the sun dominates the daytime sky.
It was as she stood there in their midst that the miracle occurred. Out of the sky there appeared thousands of huge monarch butterflies. Looking like flecks of gold falling from the sky, they settled over the crowd, settling on our shoulders and heads, then fluttered on until they reached the young goddess who stood sparkling in the sun. For a moment, I thought they were attracted by the smell of cocoa butter which rose up from the sunbathers, but it was soon evident that they were headed straight for her. One by one and in dozens and hundreds, they alighted in her hair and on her body. She held out her arms and let the butterflies alight on them. Her face was bathed in an expression of utter and profound joy and transcendence, as if all of her life was meant to culminate in this moment. Then, with a furious fluttering of wings, the butterflies and the goddess rose into the air and, rising higher and higher over the lake, disappeared into the light of the sun.
The crowd was too stunned to respond to the miracle it had just witnessed, and remained where they were, hardly daring to breathe. My friend touched my arm and we moved through the silent crowd toward the boulevard. Later, as we sat at the Rainbow Cafe sipping glasses of Mavrodaphne wine, I commented on his peculiarly quiet mood during the day, and wondered if he had been expecting something like the incredible event we had just witnessed.
“Yes,” he replied in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper; “I have been expecting something like this for some time. You see, it was inevitable . . .” and he fell silent, lit his pipe, and shrugged, as if further words were useless.
In the two weeks since we witnessed the miraculous Ascension by Lake Calhoun, I have said nothing about it, though the papers have been full of it. As you can imagine, the event caused quite a stir, especially since it was witnessed by everyone there. As to who the young woman was, no one can say. She has not been seen since that day; neither has anyone been reported missing. I just have to chalk it up as a miracle, the kind of thing that happens rarely in the lives of ordinary people, and not worry about who she was or where she came from or where the butterflies took her. Some said she was a nurse from Dubuque, while others speculated that she was from Sioux Falls and was visiting relatives. One person reported seeing a flying saucer hovering over Lake Calhoun the next evening. As for myself, such speculations are useless and a waste of energy. What happened, happened, and I am content that my friend and I had witnessed a miraculous event.
~ ~ ~
An earlier version of this story was published in “The Lake Street Review”, Minneapolis, Number 6, Winter, 1979.