From this site, on the longest night of the year, native peoples, the Lenni Lenape and the Mahicans, anxiously watched the moonless sky. Huddled atop a cold granite hill, they encircled a fire, watching the orange sparks float upwards into the unceasing blackness. The People danced and sang, in supplication to urge the sun to remain longer, assuring Spring’s return.
Hundreds of years would pass before any statue would be erected here; before Henry Hudson would sail up the river that would, eventually, bear his name. There were only hills, waterfalls, hardwood forests, lush valleys and ponds. This was the home of eagles, hawks, buzzards, passenger pigeons, songbirds and seagulls. No park or plaza had been conceived by the few Europeans living at the base of the island they called, “New Amsterdam.”
Move forward several centuries at the same site. It is, once again, the night of the Winter Solstice; the twenty-first century. The Angel of the Waters statue, her surrounding fountain having been drained, is softly enveloped by swirling snow. Her bronze body is graceful but strong; the drapes of her Grecian gown catching at her legs mid-stride. Her thick snow-covered hair blows backwards, revealing a small serious face atop a muscular neck. She stands at the center of Manhattan’s Central Park with bronze wings outstretched, like a dark eight-foot tall figure inside of a snow globe.
Tomorrow, the park will come alive with sledding children, skaters, cross-country skiers, dogs of every description, photographers, and holiday shoppers. The winter air will be infused with the odors of hotdogs, warm pretzels, roasting chestnuts and coffee. At each of the Park’s many entrances, red-nosed Salvation Army volunteers will ring bells for donations, stamping their feet to stay warm.
Blending together, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, horns bleating from the 72nd St. cross drive, a brass band playing Christmas carols, the laughter and excited screams of kids and the babble of voices speaking in many languages will form an urban symphony. On the lower part of Bethesda Terrace, at the center of which stands the statue, a choir will arrange itself to perform near the grand staircase, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” A young couple in their twenties will pause, smiling before the statue, red-cheeked but un-aware of the cold. Taking the woman’s face in his hands, the man will push back her fur-trimmed hood to kiss her warmly, while she runs her fingers through his black hair, knocking off his cap.
But tonight, the Angel of the Waters, in snowy isolation, stands where she has stood since 1873, holding a bronze lily, the symbol of purity, in one hand. Her other hand is poised in blessing the absent water of Belvedere fountain. From beneath her long heavy skirts, her strong bare feet stride across bronze waves. All is still; all is blanketed with white in the holy darkness. The pigeons huddling on her outstretched wings are unrecognizable snowy bumps; heads buried under the warmth of their own living wings. The Boat Lake behind the angel is iced over; a blue-white field of frozen purity, innocent of marks.
The birds are the first to return. Some live in Central Park year-round; others stop by on their spring and fall migrations to rest and feed. From tiny songbirds to migrating hawks, they build nests in the thick tangle of trees, rocks and bushes known as the Ramble. Birders soon follow, bundled in more layers of down than their quarry. Several tote heavy equipment for viewing and taking photos; others travel in human flocks on guided bird walks.
Stark and somber since last Autumn, the trees are transforming their hard wood into new young shoots. Miraculously, branches grow, swelling with life, sprouting new twigs. Sap green buds unfold, revealing tender petals of rose, violet, white and pink which seem to appear overnight in fragrant profusion throughout the Park.
A few hardy people pass Belvedere fountain on their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They hug themselves against the chilly spring wind gusting across east 72nd St. from the East River to the Hudson. Nannies hustle by, pushing strollers with plastic fronts zippered closed; some carrying bundled-up toddlers; others, small lap-dogs. A laughing young couple holding hands pauses before the statue. They have come this way often since their first kiss in front of the Angel last winter. In place of her hood, the woman wears a red beret. Pointing at the statue they gaze upwards at the Angel’s serene face. The man gives the woman a squeeze before they walk off, arms around each other’s waists.
Strutting atop the Angel’s wings, male pigeons puff themselves out to appear as impressive as possible before the aloof preening hens. Adolescent boys on skateboards clatter down the grand staircase to the lower level of Bethesda Terrace. Dressed only in shorts and T-shirts, despite the cool spring air, they perform tricks on the red sandstone. Equally underdressed, overly made-up young girls perch on the fountain’s circular rim, pointedly ignoring the boys.
Behind Belvedere fountain, the lake swarms with boaters. Families, couples and assorted visitors with varying degrees of skill paddle rowboats in all directions. Lovers lie everywhere; on blankets, towels and each other in the surrounding grass. The same young couple has returned, hatless and tanned. While the woman unpacks their lunch, the man uncorks a Champagne bottle with a resounding pop. All around them, picnicking mothers are kept busy pursuing their barefooted toddlers. Suddenly, a bride and her attendants appear on pretty Bow Bridge. Hundreds of smartphones and cameras instantly record the moment.
Along the lake path a performer holds the attention of passers-by. Thirty or so people crowd together in the deep shade of a huge Maple tree to listen to the performer and his assistant sing and play electric keyboards.
Whether or not he performs on Broadway goes through everyone’s mind. The singing is occasionally drowned out by the strains of Middle Eastern music coming from a boom box at the foot of the fountain. Three voluptuous women in iridescent silk costumes decorated with gold coins expertly perform a belly dance. Their long black hair glistens in the sultry afternoon sun. They have drawn a large circle of passers-by who watch until the music ends and the dancers work the crowd for tips.
Two toddlers, one white, the other black, are delightedly splashing naked in the fountain amongst four bronze cherubs at the Angel’s feet. A Wire-Haired Fox Terrier, its front legs stiff against the fountain rim barks hysterically at them. Snapping pictures of everything they see, tourists in groups or pairs swarm over Bethesda Terrace. The Park seems to be bursting with life, dogs, squirrels, pigeons; people running everywhere, singing, courting and playing. Elderly men and women line the warm granite seats around the Terrace, turning their faces in the direction of the sun like drying sunflowers. The Angel of the Waters stretches out her hand in silent benediction.
Gold, yellow, orange, and red whirl-winds of leaves dance, swirl, and come to rest on Belvedere Terrace in every crevasse and seat. Behind the Angel of the Waters, park workers are loading the lake’s row-boats into trucks for end-of-season repair. The week before, the fountain was turned off. The Angel of the Waters, gesturing with fingers gracefully arched, slightly extended, seems to be saying, “Just a minute; have you carefully considered your action?”
High above the statue’s wings, smaller feathered wings of many species of South-bound warblers chop the air, to be followed later in the month by those of sparrows and finches. Monarch butterflies, like tiny winged leaves themselves, ride the warm currants of air above the trees.
Some Park employees are fencing off areas of grass for restoration. There are still plenty of pedestrians passing the fountain, but they are less hilarious; more purposeful-looking as they lean into the autumn wind. Under the Angel’s benign glance the same couple in their twenties pauses. One can see from the woman’s posture that she is upset. The man’s face wears a tense expression as he runs his hand through his black hair.
The woman holds her coat closed with both hands at the collar. In a sudden gesture of appeal, she reaches towards the man, palms facing upwards, elbows bent. Her coat whips open; she does not appear to notice. Her attention is fixed on the man’s face. He mouths a word; a single phrase and looks at the ground. The young woman’s expression shatters like thin ice. The man turns and walks up the steps of Belvedere Terrace.
Small and alone in the dying light, she watches him leave, unaware of the outstretched wings at her back.