Early November. We’ve had a late fall, and the weather remains warm. The trees whose branches touch to form a golden tunnel each year over Ave. de Lorimier have dropped their leaves, but in the interior of Parc Lafontaine the autumn colors are still at their peak. Last Thursday evening I left my house at 5 pm and walked through the park, where the late afternoon light filtered through the yellow and red leaves as if through a silky, patterned umbrella. How can I describe the tenderness of this northern autumn light, as the day gently gives way to evening? Like a melancholy song heard from afar, it is blue, diffuse, and soft, but multiplies the intensity of all colors before gradually dying away.
In Iceland this light began much earlier in the afternoon. One day, when J. and I had taken off on bikes, we noticed the sun beginning to go down around 3 pm, and decided we should start thinking about heading back home. But we had judged the signs wrongly. There, so much closer to the Arctic Circle, sunset takes forever. We rode home, and several hours later, still in daylight, Elsa and Hörður suggested a walk to the top of the hill in back of their house, where we stood together, looking over Reykjavik toward the ocean. Even at seven pm the kind of low, glancing light we recognize here as day’s final signal still illuminated our faces, and turned the eroded slopes of Mt. Esja, in the distance, into folds of gold and blue.
Last night it was raining lightly, and the wet pavement reflected the sky and branches in the spaces between its pasted mosaic of leaves. I walked down the park’s long formal <em>allée</em> of trees toward the fountain, which was turned off for the winter a week or two ago, and then went left along the path above the first of the park’s two serpentine lakes, both drained now to reveal pebbled basins coated with green algae.
Just a few weeks ago, the park would have been full of people, on benches and blankets, catching the last warmth of summer, and the sounds of guitars and African drums would have mingled with children’s voices shrieking with pleasure as they threw bread to obligingly-eager flocks of ducks and gulls. Today, the paths were nearly empty, and the birds gone. I passed a handsome man with tousled grey hair and a brown leather jacket, riding home on his bicycle, and, at the northern end of the drained lake, a much younger man walked a small dog clad in a dog-coat so brilliantly yellow it mocked the trees.
I passed in front of the park’s new cafe-resto, shut tight, its oversize terracotta planters empty now, and stepped onto the path above the lower lake. Here, at last, were the ducks and gulls, splashing in the remaining pool of shallow water. A larger shape stood poised at the top of this pool, and, squinting now in the low light, I saw that it was a great blue heron, an opportunist no doubt drawn here by easy fishing for trapped minnows, or maybe goldfish. One night, returning home in the opposite direction, I’d seen a school of them in the light cast by a streetlamp, shimmering beneath the dark surface like shreds of copper foil. Now the heron presided over his domain: the lord of the manor calmly watching the squabbling peasants, his slate-blue coat turned up at the collar against a north wind.
At the end of the park, I waited for the stoplight and then crossed, keeping out of the way of the cyclists coming off the bike path on rue Cherrier. A young woman waited there for her bus. Tall and slender, with her black hair piled in an elegant knot atop her head, she wore a long black trenchcoat with a cinched waist, and black high-heeled boots. She held an oversized umbrella, the kind golfers use, with an outer border of black and an inner circle of alternating trapezoids of black, and a brown that matched the color of the face that it framed. Calmly, she waited, every now and then raising a cigarette that trailed across this background of black, like a lecturer’s piece of chalk.
I had been on my way to the Sherbrooke metro station to catch a train for a 6 pm choir rehearsal at the cathedral. But, after checking my watch, I walked on, mesmerized by the falling light, all the way to the center of the city.