The tallest building in Kraków is a skeleton. I notice it when I step out of the central train station and ask Monika what it will become. “They gave up on it eleven years before you were born.” I’m not surprised I struck it from memory, preferring to think that the real creature watching over my birth was a dragon perched on the edge of the river and not a relic of stagnation on the edge of the city.
We walk towards it for many minutes, and even though Monika points my attention to the school she attends and the opera house and the brand new mall with a display of hundreds of flashing LED lights, I can’t look away from the serrated edges of the failed experiment, like an accordion stretched too far and turned upside down after a bad performance.
I’m haunted by it the next day when we climb a hill across the river to look at the old part of town surrounding Wawel, a spiky behemoth of a building in its own right, but a castle lived in, pillaged, emptied, cleaned up, and refilled with tapestries woven with some old king’s gold thread. It’s perched on a hill to attract attention to itself, parked next to the Wisła for medieval visitors trading in war talk.
To the east of the castle, the younger skeleton mocks. Industry never made it here. What we trade in now is the past, patching up battlements and letting fire pour out of the dragon’s mouth in a show of power for tourists who manage to climb down hundreds of stone steps. All kinds of factories at the outskirts spew more cloudiness up into the gloom.
“What do you think is inside the skeleton?”
“Nests for the storks.”
In years, it hasn’t been sunny for me in Kraków. I don’t cry about it into my tea. But when I get home, to where home is now, and right this instant it’s a coffee shop where I’m pretending to be a regular, I look for signs of the skeleton in Satellite View, willing myself to put it in the square of Monika’s bedroom window.
In Florida, I crouch in the middle of a deserted road and inspect the seashells trapped in the concrete. Barefoot, I feel the sharp edges of the broken bits, more uncomfortable even than the warmth of the heated rocks. I know I’m four miles from nearly open water, but by car, I’d have to wind my way through incomplete subdivisions that never quite bridged the distance between would-be towns.
Canals that manage the flow of rain water create tiny peninsulas like intestinal villi for homes. I’m curious about the path bobcats make behind my father’s house and across a street to hunt at the shore of one of hundreds of these waterways. They do not rely on regular roads the town built anticipating a population explosion of many hundreds of thousands, enough land to be the fourth most populous city in Florida. Enough beauty, too, to be Everglades-lite.
My father wanted it to stay clean, to look materially different from what was gray for so long in Chicago’s winter. What he didn’t know was that he was replacing winter grayness with the washed out greenish-gray of plants growing in iron-deficient soil. He also wanted us to like it, showed us the roads they were laying on the other side of the highway, zoning for sprawling ranches, Wal-marts, Publixes, and churches.
Above me, an army of Sand Pines sways in the lightest summer breeze. I’m waiting for the turtle to cross the road, I’m convinced I can document its daily travels with my handycam. I don’t care about the turtle. I care a little bit if it follows the path the bobcats cleared or if he finds another route to the muddy water.