Noche de San Juan
‘TWAS THE NIGHT OF JUNE 21st, and noble hedge knight Peter van Tassel was on his way home after another productive day of acquiring honors and assets for his lords, Morgan and Stanley. After passing three long summers as a squire, with countless vigils in front of his computer and quixotic quests for parking spaces for his superiors, he was now jousting with the most able gentlemen in all the Emerald Isle.
Manhattan is verdant not for its bushes and trees, however, but for the color of the currency that abounds there. To most men, finance is a mystery: they haphazardly sow their investments with no strategy from one day to the next, and pray to the rain gods for success. They subsist but rarely produce anything more. Peter’s comrades, however, needed no superstitions or harvest festivals, for they understood the science of the matter. Everywhere they wisely sowed their dollars, businesses sprung from the ground.
Whenever he closed deals or received his paycheck, Peter felt like quite the magician. There were other times, though, when he felt something itching him. Like when he missed an entire rainstorm because he was sitting in his cubicle the whole time. Or when he returned to his matchbox apartment and his sleeping roommate was a veritable lord of the forest, so lively was he in comparison to the bare walls and mute appliances. Or when he saw the dirty hands of sun-baked workers on the subway, and he struggled to remember what mud felt like.
The itch had Peter tonight. He’d heard it was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and yet he hadn’t been outside for one minute of afternoon sunlight. From its peak, to the middle, to the setting, the daylight changed, but the whitish tint inside Peter’s office was exactly the same. Now, he was finally outside. He’d only had to work until 3 AM. He usually took a taxi from his Times Square office to his home on the Upper West Side, but today he felt a compulsion to frolic, so he elected to walk through Central Park. Sure, there was the threat of robbery, but police would be around. More importantly, if petty criminals had the discipline to work as late as investment bankers, they would have never run afoul of the law in the first place.
Our man enjoyed himself from his very first steps into the park. He was not too old to feel ashamed of adventures, and as he strolled down the path, he felt like one. The wind soothed his face, and so romantic was he that he imagined it was singing to him. The trees were leaning over him, shielding his path. “How are you guys doing?” he said in a voice that sounded loud to him but was really quite quiet. He reached out to touch the bushes and was surprised when they scratched him. Clearly, he’d forgotten much since the day Little Pete crashed through the forests, nicking himself in a hundred places, in order to escape a single bee.
Peter’s Cub Scout reverie was shortly broken, not by any sudden event but because he couldn’t concentrate amidst all the noise. The cicadas, crickets, and frogs were having a contest to find out who was more irritating. There was the low buzz of moths around the lampposts and the twitter of ever-more-numerous fireflies. Odd raccoons and squirrels and other animals were scrambling for food. (These curfew-breakers must be the teenagers of the breed, thought our very funny protagonist.) Most disconcerting were the things that would suddenly fall, causing Peter to whirl around and clutch his hand to his wallet in defense. Were they branches? Acorns? Men? In his apartment, objects only fell when something went wrong. Here, he didn’t know.
He tripped. What was…ah, it was just a vine caught on his ankle. Which was strange, really. He wasn’t walking through any shrubbery. He pulled it off his shoe, only to have it stick to his hand. Didn’t it get the message the first time? He sighed and turned into a faceful of bird. He cursed and knocked it away, after which it yelped and fluttered into the trees. Peter stomped forward, indignant, pushing aside both tree branches and his brain, which was telling him birds don’t sound like that-
Another tug, on his right wrist this time. He thrashed his arms, and light scattered. He paused too long; the lights flashed in front of him, and then twenty pairs of fingers pulling at his hair. Something grabbed at his eyelashes, and he blinked it away, but not before catching a glimpse of something he’d never forget: a tiny face, an inch away, laughing at him. He felt naked for the proximity. As he asked himself whether he’d ever looked at a lover as closely as he’d seen that mysterious visage, he felt his watch go loose. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it fall to the ground, but too slowly, as if someone had penalized the laws of physics. The pressure on his head loosened, and the things – fireflies? – flew toward the timepiece. He reached to grab it and then stopped. He recognized them now, and he was so awestruck he had to shout their name like an infant: “FAERIES!”
Having suspended his disbelief this much already, he asked no questions when a crowd of little bearded men rumbled out of the forest and clustered around the watch like ants. “Hey!” “That’s ours!” “Ya damn faeries!” they grunted. The watch clattered on the asphalt path like a tin bell, and the match began. Gnomes leapt into the air, tackled the faeries, and slugged them. The faeries, in turn, blasted away with their wands, sending many gnomes hopping around, holding their rumps and yelling “HOT! HOT! HOT!” Beards were tugged; wands dueled with pointy hats; faerie dust splattered against the pavement.
Peter could have easily taken his watch back, but he was laughing too hard. This was air v. land, brains v. brawn, beauty v. money, and most importantly, “metros” v. “real men,” and just another installation of a fight that had raged for thousands of years without our knowledge. All he needed was some popcorn and a buddy.
Something nuzzled against him. It was a white teddy bear which stood on its hind legs. It had bat wings, but how could something so fat fly? It had a filament on its head with a bright yellow ball hanging off it – why? The most ludicrous thing of all, though, was the leather pouch hung over the bear(?)’s shoulder. Inside it was…mail?
The being, as he would learn later from Wikipedia, was named a moogle. He had to rub its belly, it was too adorable. It was appreciative but focused instead on pulling something from its bag. Peter’s jaw dropped to the earth. The package wasn’t just bigger than its own mailbag; it was bigger than the being itself. The beast, which had carried himself with such ease moments before, tottered and fell to the ground from the object’s inertia.
Peter tore off the wrapping paper like a kid expecting a Nintendo 64. This was not a good idea, as he cut his hand open on the object inside and bled on his nice work clothing. (What was his job again? He couldn’t remember.) The bear noticed the blood and backed up. “No! Don’t go away!” Peter protested, but he didn’t have to, because it was instead clearing room to break-dance. It shuffled its stubby legs, pumped its wings so its body could move in directions no human being could go, spun around on its side, and then bounced up and down on the ball on its head. The being’s strange anatomy suddenly made sense to the man. He was astonished, and he felt much better. The best part came, though, when he looked at his wound: thanks to the dance, it was gone.
“Thank you!” he said. Then he turned his attention to the package which had bitten him so badly. What was inside was even better than video games…it was a sword! His very own! Peter jumped to his feet and swung it every which way, yelling “Hyaa!” and nonsense Japanese. The moogle ducked around his awkward swings, then tugged at his pant leg and gave him a handwritten note:
“Good luck! You’ll need it.”
And that’s when the evil cackling started.
“This man’s soul is ours!” shrieked voices from behind Peter. He turned to see three cloaked wenches flying on broomsticks. He wanted to make some kind of joke about his ex-wife, but he didn’t have one, so he ran instead.
And what a chase it was! The little stone animals from the clock at the Children’s Zoo followed him, playing urgent music. Imps prodded him with pitchforks and snickered, an activity they usually reserve for people who are desperate to hail taxis. Trolls cast bets on whether he’d live or die. When he ducked inside bushes to hide, he swore he could hear animals whispering about how slow he was. And everything, from trees to lakes to flowers to water fountains to the clods of dirt he kicked behind him, at some point transformed into a beautiful woman importuning him to sleep with her. Not only from running was he hot around the collar.
Hours, even days passed, it seemed, inside the forest. He almost didn’t want it to end, so much did the place match his childhood dreams. He’d never seen so many new colors. He felt like he was on the edge of something big: only an investment banker would walk through the park at 3 in the morning, and only he was brave enough to do it. His world, so sterile before, was now teeming with life. It was never quiet here. There was always something behind the next tree: something to fear, yes, but something to anticipate for the same reason. Had the homeless men known about these creatures the whole time? Were they then cursed or blessed?
He stumbled into a large clearing in the middle of the park. He’d seen a massive green structure inside it, and he hoped inside he could find allies, weapons, anything of use. When he came within ten feet, however, he slid to a halt. For the mass was no building at all.
The witches knifed into the clearing and into the mouth of the dragon.
Peter looked up. The reptile was about thirty feet tall, and more fat than strong: likely, this was one of Giuliani’s schemes to solve New York’s crime and stray animal problems. It had the same rich green tint as the Manhattan grass which is watered every day. It seemed to have gills, all the better for hiding in the ponds. Cracker Jack boxes, Poland Spring bottles, and other refuse were stuck between its scales. Most importantly, it didn’t seem hungry anymore.
Peter backed away from the dragon diagonally, thinking that taking the more difficult route would improve his chances of success. No good. It spotted him and lazily swatted its tail. Sending Peter flying twenty feet backwards.
He was sore, all right. He was bruised and cut everywhere from his run, and on top of that, he hadn’t exercised in three years because he worked such long hours. But that was no reason to cede his honor! Trumpets blared, and faeries threw flower petals on him, and our hero clambered to his feet for battle!
Peter charged. The dragon yawned, and the heat from its breath singed our hero. He danced forward, imagining he was floating like a butterfly, and jumped and stung the dragon with his sword. It reflexively kicked back, but Peter rode the kick, flipped, and received an 8 from the judges for his landing. Pant, moan, repeat.
An experienced knight would have found the disjointed efforts of Peter and the dragon humiliating, but inside the young man’s mind, he was going full speed. Eventually, he became familiar with the dragon’s movements. He learned to hop sideways to avoid its swipes, that his magical sword repelled fiery breath, and most importantly, to only attack when it wasn’t looking. The grass was soggy from the day’s rainstorm, but he thought he was sloshing through the dragon’s blood.
Then, from nowhere, came the climax of the fight. The reptile had digested the witches and was ready to feed again. That bothersome boy and his fishing rod would do. So it leapt to its feet and struck its head down, opening its jaws wide to eat Peter. The man’s eyes grew as wide as the full moon in the clearing sky. He slid to the side, feinted unnecessarily, and stabbed the dragon in the cheek.
Its roar was not as mighty as the cheering that came from the woodlands. All of a sudden, dozens of people were around them, tending to Peter’s wounds in one corner and muzzling and leashing the dragon in the other. Peter collapsed in the grass, basking in the adulation from all sides. He hadn’t felt like this since he’d won a game of Red Rover for his class at the age of ten. “What if I-bankers lifted the boss up on their shoulders after a big deal?” he thought. “Wouldn’t the world be a better place?”
The faeries laid him on a seat of laurels. A spry young man bowed and sat across from him. He wore a sepia suit with vines and branches strewn across it. On anyone else, the outfit would seem disheveled, but with his ruddy countenance, thick brows and open face, such decorations gave him vitality.
“Do call me Robin Goodfellow.” He tipped an imaginary hat and twinkled his eyes as if on cue. His wild hair did not distract Peter from his wilder eyes; the man seemed to be thinking faster than anyone he’d ever seen.
“Well, hello, sir,” he responded. “My name is Peter Van Tassel. I work for Morgan Stanley.”
“Ah! Mucho gusto,” he laughed. “We’re always hoping more of you boys will come down and play with us, but you always just taxi by.”
“Indeed! The chaos of finance! I love it! Everybody running willy nilly, stocks falling, crashing, crazy hunts for parking spaces…oh, ho, ho! The faces I see here are priceless. You stockbrokers punk each other in ways I never could have imagined.”
“But it is ordered…it does all come together…”
“Come now, don’t spoil the fun! Do you know, really know, what’s going to happen to any stock over the course of a year? Oil shocks, new technology, personal scandals, there are hundreds of ways to confuse things. More than once have I witnessed secret deals, even – ho, ho, trysts! – happening here in this park. Sure, it all holds together and has its own distinct character, but be honest, Peter, if the game weren’t thrilling, you wouldn’t play.”
“Well, that is a fun way to think of it.” Peter smiled. “Perhaps I’ll have the courage to leave this magical place after all. By the way, if you don’t mind my asking, what the hell is going on?”
“What’s going on? My good man!” Robin grabbed some grass and blew it into the wind, just because he could. “¡Es La Noche de San Juan!”
“Pardon? Noche de San Juan?”
“Ahh yes, I’d forgotten that you Anglos don’t celebrate it. This was the longest day of the year, which makes it the shortest night of the year as well. This is the night the Chinese wall between the world of magic and the world of men is broken! It is a night of adventure!” He was on his feet now, striking various poses usually reserved for football players. “And you wandered right into our spectacular!”
“The world of magic? For real? I mean, it seems more likely that I worked too late, and I’m making this all up…where have you guys been all this time?”
“Oh, we’ve been around. There are as many of us now as ever. Didn’t one of your playwrights say that a faerie dies when no one believes in her? Bollocks, that idea’s part of the problem. Humans – especially the ones who say they’re open-minded, like that writer – assume that nothing outside their perception can exist.” He couldn’t concentrate when he wasn’t moving, so he picked himself up by his hands and slowly turned in a circle. The rotating soliloquist was childlike but compelling. “Your grandfathers had a better sense of it because they slept and worked their days out here with us. There is no privacy in a forest. You always have the sense that something is out there, moving, even watching you. So the fellowship between your kind and ours was strong.
“Then came big houses, high walls, running water, and air conditioning. Life was safer for you, but our fellowship was broken. We didn’t leave, Peter; you left us. Well, don’t you feel lonely sometimes? Shut up in your walls, totally alone? Going to a tanning machine because you can’t make time for the sun? Turning up the stereo because silence is so unnatural?”
“Yes,” he responded softly. “That’s it. The romance is missing. We tell our children stories about it, and then we forget it all.”
“Perfect!” he clapped his hands. “Well, my friend, I’m glad we could bring you a night of adventure. Come back and commune with us! Bring a potted plant to the office! And have lots of children!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me! Do it!” He whisked Peter to his feet. “Now, it’s time for you to go to bed.”
“No luck. The sun’s rising already. It’s time to get breakfast and go back to work.”
“Ho, ho, ho! The shortest night of the year, indeed!” He clapped Peter on the back. “And here’s your watch. To get to your company, take the first star on the right and go straight on ‘til morning…hmm…” he pointed. “Which is that way. Goodbye now!”
Peter made his exeunt to applause. Everyone, from the largest troll to the smallest imp, wanted a piece of his sound financial advice.
“Say, Pete, I’m taking a trip to the end of the rainbow this weekend for a pot of gold bigger than anything we’ve seen before. When I find it, I’m going to turn it over and invest it in the market. Want to come with?”
“Gold’s hot right now, but I’d feel badly about making like the Spaniards and adding to our inflation rate. Thanks anyway, mate.”
“It’s taken me thirty years of trolling fountains, boy, but I’m finally sitting on the largest stash of spare change in all of New York. Aren’t you proud?”
“Actually, I’m disgusted. Why don’t you use it to use any of it? It doesn’t matter how many shekels you have if you smell like compost.”
“So I’ve always wanted to know, what’s bond liquidation? Is an investment bank really a bank? How can you split a stock into the present and the future? Doesn’t that require time travel? And how is it possible to have money that doesn’t even exist on paper? Is it just a concept in everyone’s head?”
“…I don’t even know what to say to you. Just stay here with the pixies and don’t think about it.”
The walk down Broadway had never been more captivating. He saw each detail clearly. The people crowded on the sidewalk became individuals to him, each walking with his own distinct gait, hundreds of moving parts within a single frame. Nor were the humans alone. Was that a faerie in that orange tree? A gnome treasure-hunting in that squeaky garbage can?
One, two, three, forty floors on the elevator, and he entered his office. Donuts and orange juice were set on the table. The herd stood around it and chewed. Peter cut through them and tore into the spread with abandon.
“Hey Peter,” muttered a body next to him.
“Hey! How are you?”
“Um. Fine. Um. Is that a tree coming out of your collar?”
“Oh, just a branch! Haha, that tickles. That’s great! I think I’ll keep it there, it’ll add some life to the place.”
“Um. Okay. Good luck with the pura vida, Tarzan.”
“Thanks for the support! But you can just call me Puck.”