Song of the Lark
P eople drifted in and out of the galleries, passing Monets and Manets with the speed of shoppers looking for shampoo at the drugstore. A couple engaged in conversation, heads angled toward each other, walked down a hallway of the museum blind to a row of Rembrandt etchings that Sotheby’s would be hard pressed to value. Seated on a bench in one of the smaller galleries, Luke Fredericks watched the hive around him: people darting in and out of the honeycomb of rooms trying to absorb the entire Art Institute of Chicago—suits of armor, stony Buddhas, Greek and Roman statues, medieval altar pieces, European and American masters, lithographs, Picassos and Miros.
Most days, Luke avoided the Impressionist paintings, which always attracted the biggest crowds because of their familiarity on calendar scenes and notecards. “My mother has that one,” Luke had once heard a young woman say. “It’s on her refrigerator.” Toulouse-Lautrec reduced to a two-by-three magnet. They aimed their iPads and iPhones with flashes disabled to capture Degas dancers and Renoir water lilies, and take selfies with Van Gogh’s sad-eyed self-portrait.
A stoop-shouldered man with long graying hair, the pockets of his rumpled suit bulging with a folded newspaper, shuffled into the gallery on swollen feet that spilled over the tops of his shoes. His face, clean-shaven and jowly, relaxed at a portrait of the Madonna and Child; the young mother with an aquiline nose and thin arched brows of Northern Europe and her baby, blond and rosy-cheeked. The man stood for several minutes, knees angled toward each other.
Luke stared down at his own jeans-clad legs and feet in hiking boots, necessary given the wet snow that had been falling on and off all day. Walking from the El train to the museum, he’d made his way carefully along scraped and salted sidewalks. The runoff filled gutters with icy rivulets that widened into deep puddles, which he tried his best to avoid. He still had trouble with circulation in his feet; keeping them warm would be a problem now for the rest of his life.
The sweater Luke wore had been a gift from his sister Gloria the previous Christmas. It had a shawl collar and a placket in front that closed with a wooden button that reminded him of a miniature version of those barrels carried by Saint Bernard dogs on their Alpine rescue missions. The wool was slate-blue, almost the same shade as his eyes—not that he would have worn it just for that. But color mattered, even for an artist who worked mostly in pencil: graphite arcs and lines, smudges and shadings that quickly filled his sketchbook.
A freelance computer programmer by profession, Luke preferred to work at night, drinking thick espresso shots that kept him going until three or four in the morning. He’d wake up at noon or one in the afternoon and head to the physical therapist or, more recently, the gym; sometimes he walked a bit in the city, now that he could do that again. At least once a week he headed to The Art Institute, thanks to the membership given to him by his parents. He came whenever he wanted, sometimes just popping in to browse the Japanese prints, and other times to sit for hours staring into the depths of somber oil paintings or studying a Rembrandt etching to pick out the individual lines like notes on a sheet of music. Days like today he drew whatever he saw: the arch of the gallery entrance, the curve of the Grand Staircase, the school children, the old man.
Getting up from the bench, knees stiff from the physical therapy session earlier that afternoon, Luke took a tentative step, reminding himself to be grateful that he was standing unaided. After his accident six months before, his doctors had steeled him for the possibility of a severe limp, one leg noticeably shorter than the other. But surgical skill and bones that had knitted around the titanium rods and screws had put him back together. Under his jeans, though, scars etched his legs: arcs and long straight lines as if the doctors had drawn on him with thick pencils. With each step his left foot tingled, the residue of nerve damage that might always be there. The old man in the corner of the gallery walked with uneven gait from the Madonna and Child to a portrait of Saint Sebastian shot through with the arrows of martyrdom. Luke looked over with a glance of empathy and nodded. The old man smiled.
Leaving the gallery room, Luke paused in the hallway lined with small portraits: a woman wearing a frilly lace-trimmed cap, a circus performer in tights walking a rope with a balancing pole, an elegant young man in fur-trimmed velvet. Looking down the hallway, he saw her: camel coat unbuttoned, flowing in good lines from her slim body; blonde hair pulled back with bangs that brushed her eyebrows and cascaded longer on the sides to tendrils at her cheekbones. Her face turned in profile, attention directed to the row of paintings: firm jaw, glint of gold at her ear, gray slacks and a rose-colored shirt. Stopping, she pulled her phone from the leather bag on her shoulder and tapped the screen.
Averting his stare, Luke focused on a small etching of a man with a cart on the opposite wall. Walking slowly, trying not to limp, he passed her and slipped into the next room. He took a seat on a wooden bench and stretched out his left leg, the only onlooker in a small gallery of late 19th century European art. Through the doorway, he saw her pass and heard the stacked heels of her boots rapping softly against the floor like gloved knuckles on a wooden door.
From the way she paced the hallway near the top of the Grand Staircase, Luke surmised she was waiting for someone—a friend, her mother, a sister, who knew? Yet, as he sketched out her story in his mind, Luke imagined she waited for a man—perhaps a former lover or a new interest. Maybe someone entangled or unavailable. Who would keep a woman like that waiting?
He’d broken plenty of dates out of self-absorption, indifference, or the desire to keep his distance. Wonderful, kind, pretty, funny, intelligent women had tolerated his lack of punctuality and aversion to commitment, which inevitably ended with one or the other of them moving on, without much of a fuss or a fight—except Cassandra. She’d loved him deeply even to think she could change him or at least wait him out. He loved her, too, in his own way, but not well enough and certainly not in the way she deserved. Their breakup had been angry and messy with the guilt of how badly he’d treated her during and after the relationship. Then riding in a summer rain early on a Saturday morning, on the roadway where he didn’t belong instead of sticking to the bicycle paths, he’d skidded on a slick patch, lost control and veered toward an oncoming car driven, thankfully, by someone alert enough to brake and swerve or else he would have been hit head-on. Cassandra came to the hospital a few times, but from breakup to physical brokenness he couldn’t even comprehend the needs of another human being.
Luke shifted on the bench in the gallery. The velvet tread of footsteps neared, and the woman entered, now with the camel coat draped over her arm as she stood with her back to him, but near enough that he could see the tortoise shell design of the clip that held her hair, the shoulder blades that pressed against the back of her blouse. His pencil traced the lines. Her eyes were on the paintings—his on her.
Then the phone came out of the pocket again. She glanced at the screen one more time, turned on her heel, and walked out of the gallery. Luke imagined the rest: tired of waiting, she headed down the stairs to the first floor, passed the entrances to other exhibitions and the gift shop, and exited to the street to hail a cab.
Closing his sketchbook, Luke got up slowly and headed out of the gallery, but wasn’t ready to leave the museum without stopping by one of his favorite places. Small and dark, almost always unoccupied, it wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet, sheltering a half-dozen medieval treasures: crosses with cabochon jewels and reliquaries of saintly curiosities, and a hinged diptych with its two facing frames of Madonna and Child on the left and Christ crucified on the right. A silver cross, rubbed smooth by seven centuries of devoted hands, displayed the medallions of the four evangelists like compass points: the winged man for Matthew, the winged lion for Mark, the eagle for John, and the winged ox for Luke. As a namesake—although neither he nor his parents were particularly religious—he’d looked the meaning: a symbol of service and sacrifice, higher callings than he’d ever seen in himself.
Luke left the tiny gallery, and his eyes readjusted to the comparative brightness of the next gallery, more 19th century European art—French realism, landscapes idyllic and tranquil, the work of peasants sanctified by the artist’s stroke. Song of the Lark: a sturdy peasant girl, a sickle for cutting grain in her hand, stood erect—alert, listening. She wore a simple white cotton blouse, a rough brown homespun skirt that revealed strong ankles and broad, bare feet. Her eyes searched the distance for the source of the sound.
As he stood there, the dull ache in his leg, so common now Luke barely registered it, escalated to an urgent throb with the sudden onset of fatigue. He had pushed himself that day by walking to the museum and then standing too long. Lowering himself to a bench in the gallery, Luke tried to get comfortable, but couldn’t find the right position. Just as he was about to get to his feet and make his way toward the elevator, he saw her again. She hadn’t left the museum after all, but was standing there, studying Song of the Lark, just as he had moments before.
Luke opened his sketchbook and studied them both: peasant girl and Chicago woman, barefoot and shod, roughly clad and smartly dressed, oil on canvas and flesh on bone. The woman leaned in, raising her eyes toward the peasant girl. Then Luke saw it, the twinning of expressions: both with lips parted. The peasant girl tuned into the lark song that gave the painting its name, and the woman, perhaps, intuited the reverberations.
“Am I in your way?” the woman asked, turning from the canvas, her eyes on Luke and his sketchbook.
“Not at all.” Luke closed the cover. “Just doodling.”
As the woman drifted around the room, painting to painting, Luke fought the urge to let his eyes follow her. He opened his sketchbook and drew the peasant girl, but her features, he noticed, were the woman’s.
The woman returned to the painting. “Do you think she was changed?” she asked. “By hearing the lark, I mean.”
It was a good question. “I hope so,” Luke answered simply, refraining from throwing around his meager knowledge of the artist Bretton, who had idealized the country life of his youth. “I’d like to think that, having heard something so beautiful, she was changed—even for a moment.”
“Beauty does that,” the woman agreed. “I rarely come here, but when I do, I’m always surprised by how—” She paused, seeming to search for the next word. “—refreshed I feel.” She took a step closer, halfway between Luke and the painting, now behind her. “You draw them?”
Luke shrugged. “I sketch—sometimes the art, sometimes the people.” He thought of the pencil drawing he’d made of this woman and the peasant girl with their twin expressions of attentiveness. Showing her would be a mistake, he told himself, making her feel self-consciousness and suspicious of him and his intentions.
“What made you come today?” he asked, hoping the question sounded light, and not weighted with every ounce of his curiosity.
She shook her head. “Just did. A friend was supposed to come, but didn’t.” Her lips closed, holding any more of her reasons inside. “Well, I’ll let you get back to your sketching. Nice talking to you.”
Just then her phone rang. Hurriedly, she pulled it from her pocket. “This is Adriana.”
The name went through him like the peasant girl’s sickle against a stand of wheat, catching him around the ribs that had been bruised and broken in the accident. He straightened his spine to give his lungs more room to expand with his breath.
Ridiculous, he told himself. A crush at his age.
Her voice faded and not even her footsteps were heard. Luke got up from the bench, felt the stab of tired muscles, and made his way toward the Grand Staircase. The elevator would be wiser, but he refused to give in to his body, taking each step like penance for every time he’d been thoughtless and rude. When he got home, he’d call his sister and tell her that he’d come for Christmas. For the past two weeks, Gloria had been asking him to come, but he’d been noncommittal for no reason than the selfishness of feeling sorry for himself.
Finally reaching street level, Luke retrieved his leather jacket from the coat check, adjusted his scarf, pulled on his gloves, and left. Snowflakes swirled in a steady wind along Michigan Avenue. No snow globe softness, only the flintiness of ice crystals. The first step down shot a pain to his kneecap. Hand on his thigh, Luke willed the muscles and nerves to get him to the curb and the taxi he prayed for with the agnostic’s pleading of please, let there be one soon…
Preoccupied by his own discomfort, Luke didn’t see Adriana at the crosswalk until he was five feet away from her. She turned, as if feeling his eyes on her back. Luke knew he could pretend not to see her, or nod and raise his hand—maybe even wish her a good evening. She turned back to the street before he had a chance to do anything. Her pace was quick across the street, faster than he could go, and she was on the other side before he reached the median. The light turned against him.
The peasant girl stood on sturdy bare feet in a moment of transformation. The lark’s song had lifted her out of her toil, raising her up to become aware of the beauty around her.
Had the peasant girl been changed in that moment? Yes, Luke decided, yes, she had.
“Adrianna,” he yelled out once and then again.
The woman turned at the sound of her name, her face registering surprise.
The light finally changed, and Luke continued across Michigan Avenue toward her on the opposite corner. “I heard you say your name when you answered your cell phone,” he explained quickly.
“I wondered,” she said.
Luke turned to the left and pointed. “We can get a coffee, if you have time.”
Adriana looked in the other direction, up Michigan Avenue now crowded with people leaving stores and offices, heading into restaurants, and leaving to start their commutes home.
Luke’s leg throbbed with cold and pain. He clenched his free hand into a fist and clutched his sketchbook more tightly. “There’s a Starbucks nearby,” he added. “Unless you’ve got to get somewhere.”
Adriana shifted the strap of her bag on her shoulder now dusted by snow. Two flakes landed in her hair, a tiny icy tiara. “Okay,” she said, and they started walking. Luke tried to keep pace, but his limp became pronounced. “Bicycle accident,” he said, wincing. “Last summer.”
Adriana nodded, slowing to a stroll.
“I’m Luke, by the way,” he said.
“Luke?” she repeated. “That’s my brother’s name—actually it’s Lucas, but we call him Luke.”
“Just Luke for me,” he added.
A glove extended toward him. “Nice to meet you, Just Luke.” He gripped the hand with a gentle shake and laughed. A smile parted her lips as if she were listening to something heard far off that caught her attention and drew her in closely.