This early, the East River takes on a thin layer of translucence, a bright steely skin that appears to float over the river itself as the water turns from its nocturnal black to the opaque deep green of the approaching day. The lights on the Brooklyn Bridge go pale against the sky. A man pulls up the metal shutter of his shoe repair shop. A young woman, ponytailed, jogs past a middle-aged man who, wearing a little black dress and combat boots, is finally returning home. The occasional lit-up window is exactly as bright as the quarter moon.
Isabel, who has not slept, stands at her bedroom window, wearing an XXL T-shirt that reaches to the middle of her thighs. The ponytailed woman jogs past the man in the dress as he fits his key into the lock of his lobby door. The shoe repair man pulls up the steel grate, preparing to open his shop. Why does he open so early, who could possibly need shoes repaired at five a.m.?
The first tentative signs of spring have arrived. The tree in front of Isabel’s building (a silver maple, which, according to Google, is “messy and shallow-rooted”) has produced hard little buds that will soon burst into five-pronged leaves, unremarkable until a strong enough wind flutters up their silver undersides. On a windowsill across the street, a bouquet of daffodils stands in a water glass. The winter light which has, for months, been so still and pale, seems to have quickened, as if the molecules of the air itself are newly activated.
Early April in Brooklyn might be spring by the calendar, but true spring—its hints of greenness, its awakening of stems and shoots—is weeks away. The buds on the tree are still just cankers, waiting to crack open. The daffodils in the window across the street mean only that you can buy them at the corner market, that they’ve started arriving from wherever it is they grow.
Isabel turns from her own window to check on Dan, who is still deeply asleep, breathing heavily, as childlike in slumber as a forty-year-old man could possibly be, his mouth slackly open, his white-blond hair bright in the shadowy room.
Imagine being able to sleep like that. Isabel begrudges Dan his talent for slumber but is grateful for it, too. During the hours Dan and the kids are asleep, she—for whom sleep is rarely more than a skittish, dream-flecked attempt at sleep—might as well be alone in the apartment, immersed in her own waking dream of nightly solitude, marked only by the green LED numerals on the kitchen clock.
She sees the owl when she turns back to the window. It seems, at first, like an outgrowth of the tree branch on which it roosts. Its feathers are an almost perfect match for the dusky, variegated gray-brown of the bark. Isabel might not have seen the owl at all were it not for its eyes, two black-and-gold disks no bigger than dimes, blazingly attentive, utterly un-human. It seems, momentarily, that the tree itself has chosen this moment to inform Isabel that it is sentient, and watchful. The owl, small, about the size of a gardening glove, seems at first to be looking at Isabel but, after Isabel has adjusted herself to its gaze, is clearly looking only in Isabel’s vicinity, staring not only at her but at the room in which she stands—at the bedside table with its unlit lamp and its copy of last month’s Atlantic; at the wall behind the table with its framed photograph of the kids, a professional black and white in which they are disquietingly innocent, docile-looking versions of themselves. The owl aims its unblinking feline eyes at everything on Isabel’s side of the window glass, does not appear to distinguish between Isabel and the lamp and the photograph, does not comprehend or care that she is alive and the rest of it is not. She and the owl remain briefly in place, eyes locked, before the owl flies away, so effortlessly that it seems not to beat its wings at all but merely to consent to flight. It arcs up, and vanishes. There is, in its departure, a sense of abdication, as if its presence in the tree outside the window had been a mistake, an unintended opening in the fabric of the possible, quickly and efficiently rectified. The owl seems already to have been a waking dream of Isabel’s, which would make sense, given that she was not able to sleep at all last night (she can usually manage a few hours), that another day’s difficulties are about to roll in (Robbie still hasn’t found another place to live, Derrick isn’t likely to give up on the reshoot), and that soon she’ll be compelled to join it all, to muster the most convincing possible manifestation of herself, a person who can do everything that’s required of her.
The owl has disappeared. The jogger has jogged on. The man in the dress has gone into his building. There’s only the shoe repair man, who has turned on the shop’s fluorescent light, a light that does not radiate from behind the glass of the shop’s window, does not offer any added illumination to the street. Isabel has no idea whether the shoe repair man, to whom she has never spoken (she has her shoes fixed in midtown), opens so early because he’s escaping some ongoing domestic struggle or if he’s merely eager to revisit his rectangle of light, because he takes pleasure in turning on the blue neon sign that says shoe hospital (Isabel really should start taking her shoes to him, if only because he thinks of his shop as a shoe hospital) and in reactivating the three-foot-tall mannequin in the window, a sun-bleached . . . fox, raccoon? . . . that sits at a cobbler’s bench, raising and lowering a miniature hammer, which, now that the shoe repair man has switched it on again, now that the shoe hospital sign blazes gas-blue and the animal has resumed its labors, will do as an announcement of the start of the day.
Copyright © 2024 by Michael Cunningham. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.