The August air feels heavy with the threat of a thunderstorm, but families still march the Garden Way, a shaded asphalt path through The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
For New Yorkers on a budget, the Wednesday free admission lets visitors enjoy the pleasures of the garden, like the Lillian Goldman Fountain of Life. Some sit on benches and read there, under the gaze of the fountain’s mythical bronze statues: cherubs wrestling down two crab-clawed seahorses, scaring a mermaid and a merman out of the way in the pool below. Below the wild scene, 30-some spouts trickle into the pool. The sound seems tame for the sculpture, but manages to drown out the buses and sirens from Southern Boulevard.
The splashes grab the ears of a young brother and sister walking up the path, maybe three and five years old. With her brother at her heels, the girl runs ahead of the two adult women with them, who seem to be the mother and aunt. The guardians lean heavy on their two strollers, as if they’d just walked the half mile of hills from the D train. The women settle on a bench across from the fountain.
The girl skids her sandals on the black stamped concrete. She tromps through two shallow puddles at the foot of the pool, remnants from the morning rain. Her little brother joins her at the marble edge. The pair slap their palms on the cool white surface. They stand on their tiptoes and peer in.
The sister dips her hand in the pool. She’s a head taller than her brother, and she can touch the water from where she’s standing. The brother can’t reach.
Seeing her youngest try to lift his knees onto the stone edge, the mother leaps from her bench and pulls the boy back down onto the ground. Her daughter giggles. The mother stands next to her kids while they watch the sunlight bounce across the rippling water. She then taps on the screen of her smart phone.
From her spot on the bench, the aunt suggests something to the mother. The mother nods and puts her hands on the boy’s shoulders. Time to go.
The boy begins to cry. He tugs on his mother’s coral shirt and stamps his feet. His mother picks him up and carries him to his red stroller. The aunt calls to the girl, who runs back over to the group to leave.
But when the family gets a few bench lengths away from the fountain, the mother and aunt get caught up in chatter. The girl glances over her shoulder. She pauses. She waits until the group walks a few paces ahead.
Then, stomping through the puddles again, the girl launches from her tiptoes onto her knees to perch on the fountain’s edge. She leans past the ledge, hovering above the water, ready to flop into the twelve-inch deep pool.
The aunt yells. She’s running to the fountain, stroller in tow, ponytail bouncing. She slips her arms under her niece’s armpits and scoops her up from the fountain’s edge.
“Hey!” the girl frowns.
The aunt scolds her. She sets the girl down in the black stroller and buckles the straps. Her niece looks like she may outgrow the seat in a few months.
“We’re going!” the aunt says.
The girl doesn’t cry. She turns back to catch another look at the splashing mermaids. Maybe she’ll join them some other Wednesday afternoon.