The Artist

artist: cabecadaShe hadn’t known Stephen long; he’d come into their lives a few months ago. He had emerged from that mental twilight that always separates the us from the others and had joined their friend group with all the ease of a cat settling onto its perch. Even though he was the youngest of them – only seventeen – sometimes he seemed as though he were the most adult, the only one among them fully formed and ready to take on the world.

He had always been so comfortable with himself. It was what made the funeral so strange – the stiffness and awkwardness with which he lay in the coffin. He seemed ready to leap up at any moment, straighten his tux, and go play the part of best man for some older friend’s wedding.

Did he really look so solemn in life? she wondered as her hand skated across the page. Should she look just as solemn? Most others did. Anna was seated across the room, sobbing into a black lace handkerchief. Then again, that numb and callous part of her brain reminded her, Anna had a flair for drama. She was probably the only person in the city who even had a black lace handkerchief.

Anna had also been Stephen’s girlfriend.

She hated funerals. She hated the way that no one seemed comfortable in their grief, and that no one seemed to know what to say. And she was no better than anyone else. She only knew how to talk with her hands, and she did so now, sketching without really thinking. Because thinking would make her just as uncomfortable as the rest of them.

No one noticed her as she sat with her open pad. Or if they did, they pretended not to. They wanted their time alone with him to seem real, perhaps – as though they were in a little bubble around the sarcophagus, and only they could speak, and only he could listen. They murmured and they cried, and they said goodbye. And as they left the church, she heard many of them say, “why?”

As if the corpse would sit up and reply, or the church would split and some angel would emerge from the steeple to tell them. Maybe they wanted reassurance, that this death had some grand significance and the young, brilliant man had been taken for a reason. Whether the reason was there or not, it was an answer they would never get. And if they could, she wondered as she drew, would they have been able to handle the answer they got? Would they even have been able to understand it?

Drawing was the one thing she had really shared with Stephen. She was always a little too quiet, a little too off to the sidelines while he seemed caught in the spotlight on a regular basis. But they were in art class together, and it was the one place in which she seemed to outshine him. He wasn’t jealous of her talent, just admiring. He’d asked her once to make a portrait of him.

“If you don’t think it’s too weird,” he’d said with the half-smile that seemed to get him anything.

Well, she was making his portrait now.

She became aware, suddenly, of a presence just above and behind her. She picked up her pencil and half turned to see who it was, and found herself staring into the red-rimmed eyes of Anna. She still held that ridiculous lace handkerchief and she leaned over to scrutinize the sketch. Her eyes wandered over the shape of his head, his eyes, the bridge of his nose. Then she hissed with all the venom of a rattlesnake, “It looks nothing like him.”

Anna stalked up to the coffin, looked down for a moment on the last expression of her beloved, and burst into a loud wail, throwing herself down over the upper half of his body. The artist held up her sketch and compared it to the corpse that was now being given the extra burden of his former girlfriend, who didn’t seem inclined to let go or even muffle her shrieking.

Anna was right. It looked nothing like he did now.

It looked the way he used to, when they sat together in art class. Pensive, focused, iconic. And with a strength hidden in him that couldn’t be expressed through that stiff stillness.

The artist closed her sketch pad and stood. The others could mourn their dead comrade in his wooden box. She, at least, would leave with something living.

***

Thanks to cabecada for the inspirational piece of art, which was originally brought to my attention by bwthoughts. I wish I could have done it better justice but sometimes I guess you just have to put out what’s on your mind.

If you’re interested in getting some of your own art exhibited on this page, why not send it on over, or link me to its location? Visit the Call for Art page for more information. And, of course, comments and constructive criticisms are always welcome.

Travelling to England and a Hopeful Piece for this Blog

As much as I’d like to be posting a crisp, clean chapter (I feel as though it has been far too long), right now I feel a bit like a train wreck. Last night my boss scheduled me to work from 8:30 PM until around 2 AM. I had to catch a night bus home, then get up at ten minutes to five in order to catch my plane.

Which means: I’m in England! Hooray!

I am currently staying with another wonderful writing friend, catching up on old times. She has a beautiful poetry/photo blog worth taking a look at. I am trying not to fall asleep. In a minute I’ll probably give up.

The main purpose for my visit to England is to go to a wedding in Taunton. Two old university friends will finally be tying the knot, and I’ll get to meet a lot of people that I haven’t seen in years and re-engage with them. I also hope to write about the experience. Poem, short story, I don’t know what yet. But if I’m successful, it’ll be up here Tuesday.

I also have to do research while I’m in the UK, so I don’t know how many chapters I’ll be able to write. But at least I can try for another book blurb or two. Maybe that’s what the wedding will give me – my nanowrimo novel.

Does anyone else find other people’s weddings stressful? Difficult? The stuff of stories?

Wingbeats, Part IV

Click here to start from the beginning

***

The next night, Arianne leaves the window open and sits at the cherry-wood writing desk. She has brushed the tangles out of her hair and smeared some foundation onto the dark, bruiselike circles under her eyes. It is a long wait until the allotted time, but she does not read, nor write, nor sleep. She simply waits. There is a hope that burns in her stronger than any fire. She can think of nothing else.

She does not flinch when a swan lands on her windowsill, stretches its long neck forward, and steps into the room. It hops down onto the floor, scratches under a wing with its beak, then looks up at her.

Arianne kneels so that her head and the swan’s are close together. She pulls the head forward until her nose touches its beak. “It has to be you,” she breathes. “Tell me it’s you.”

And suddenly, she’s not touching feathers and down, but soft skin and the strong muscle beneath. “It’s me,” he says, and it’s not wings but arms that come up to enfold her and press her tight against his body. He feels so corporeal, she can’t help but run her hands up and down his back, along his arms. She touches his hair and shudders at the exhale of his breath on her cheek. So real.

When she tells him so, he laughs. “But I am real. Just for tonight, I’m real.”

“It was you, all that time?” she asks. He nods. She strokes his throat, looks for the pulse of life that used to throb in the well of his collarbone. It is the only thing missing in this otherwise perfect vision. “Why didn’t you just come to me? Why all the birds?”

He cups her face in one large hand. They were always soft, the hands of an artist. They were no rougher now. “There are rules,” he murmurs. “There are always rules. You had to realize yourself, and you had to want it, truly want to be with me again. And it can only be tonight.” He stands, and pulls her to her feet, then pulls her in again.

She has a million more questions – about how real he feels, about where he when he disappeared in the river, about what happened to him after he died – but instead she’s choking up and the tears are streaming down her face like waterfalls and all she can manage to say is, “Why you? Why did you have to go and leave me behind?” Then she is overcome, her voice falls to pieces and she can do nothing but sob into his chest.

He shushes her and strokes her back until she subsides. When she is a little calmer, he draws back and regards her. His gray eyes are kind but firm. “It was not something I meant to do. But life takes a strange course for all of us, Arianne.” He lifts her and she wraps her arms and legs around his trunk, holding on against tomorrow and the worlds that separate them.

He whispers into her ear, “Don’t lock yourself away here for the rest of your life. You deserve happiness and a future full of laughter and light and hope.”

Beneath the thin shift of her nightgown, she feels the steady thump of a heart. Is it his or her own?

“I can’t,” she says. “There are so many things – so many people waiting to say they’re sorry, to see whether I can make it, to watch me struggle on without you.” Her future feels like the house – it’s too big.

Maybe being dead gave him the ability to read her mind. Or maybe he just knows her well enough to understand what she’s thinking. He turns his head and kisses her, slowly and sweetly, the kind of kiss he always gave her. Her heart leaps at the touch of his mouth.

When their lips part, he carries her over to the bed. “The house isn’t too big,” he whispers as he sets her gently down. “It’s just the right size.”

***

By the time the sun has risen, he is gone. But so are the dreams, she knows.

It will still be hard. There will be tears and little stinging memories. And there will be questions when she starts to show, she thinks as she looks down at her belly. But she can weather them. And life will bring joy, in time.

And she’ll leave water out for the birds.

Wingbeats, Part III

Click here to read from the beginning.
***

The next day Arianne can hardly move. Two sleepless nights have taken their toll. She ignores calls from her mother, her friends, her husband’s publisher. She wants to rip the phone cable out of the wall and throw it into the ocean. Around noon, unable to hold herself up any longer, she collapses on the couch. His book sits on the glass coffee table, bookmarked to page five. She hates looking at it but lacks the strength to throw it away.

Black and white, she thinks. A black and white living room, with white walls and a black couch, black bookcases crammed with volumes, a black and white grand piano. Alan loved the way she tinkered on the piano. The simple harmony of two notes together, he said, was more beautiful prose than he could ever write.

Her mother said she should try to play, after he died. She said it might help with the pain. But the notes fall in single file, discordant and rhythmless. She hasn’t touched the piano in weeks.

There, on the couch, she slips into sleep. Her dreams return, strong and angry and brutal, and she cannot escape them. When she finally wakes, thrashing and shouting, she’s covered in sweat and the afternoon has come and gone. She’s shaking.

She manages to eat. It makes her feel sick.

When night falls (mercifully late, with high summer approaching) she goes up to the bedroom with its dark furniture and its crisp white sheets and lies down. She does not move, and she does not sleep. The sky turns purple as night blooms and the world outside goes to sleep.

When the tapping comes, she is not startled. She is not surprised. It is 4:32. She slides out of bed, fetches the glass of water, and opens the window. Tonight it is a dove that alights on her wrist. It is lighter than the touch of a child, she thinks. And it is not afraid of her touch.

“Why have you come?” she asks. “Why don’t you sleep?”

The dove watches her, and waits. When she sets the water on the table, it steps down delicately and drinks. Its head bobs back and forth in a nodding motion.

She wants to speak to it but she doesn’t know what to say. It’s just a bird, but why is it visiting her? Why now? She and Alan never got birds like this, stepping through their windows, drinking from their kitchenware.

Alan. Even thinking his name brings tears to her eyes. “It’s not fair,” she chokes out as the water rolls down her cheeks. The dove pauses. It watches her with one bright eye.

She still feels somehow at fault.

They were walking along the edge of the river, one of the many paved paths in the tourist district. Alan loved walking beside the river. He took her every day, pointing out the new shoots that edged their way out along silver-brown branches, daffodils poking up sunny faces, all the sights and smells and sounds of life emerging after the winter’s sleep. The river was swollen from spring rains and the current poured over stones, creating rapids and little whirlpools in its haste to reach the ocean.

She recalls his smile, vibrant and infectious. It was a smile she couldn’t see without smiling herself. It grew wider as he pointed out the robin building her nest, or bent down to pick her one of the season’s first wildflowers. It faded when he saw the woman on the bridge, tremulously putting one foot on the rail. He started shouting when she stood, balanced like a dancer. When she dove, he broke into a run.

He leapt into the icy water. He was an excellent swimmer, and the current carried him down to her. She was fighting the water, bobbing up and down like a cork in her panic. When he reached her he picked her up and struggled to the river bank. She was able to grab hold of a tree root that had been exposed by erosion. He was not.

The last thing Arianne saw of him was his hand, reaching up as if in farewell. Sunlight flashed off the golden wedding band.

His body was never recovered.

“Sometimes, after the dark dreams, I have another. I’m floating down that river. The current swirls like a storm but I’m moving so slowly. It’s a warm day and the sky above is blue, bluer than the ocean, without a single cloud. I know I’m following him because I can hear his voice. He’s singing for me. And his voice gets nearer and nearer, but all I see is the sky, and before I reach him – ” She breaks off. Before she reaches him, she wakes. And every time she wakes she fears she’ll never have the dream again, and he’ll disappear forever. “I want to join him so desperately,” she whispers.

The dove hops into her hand. As she brings it up to her face, it leans forward, pressing its forehead against her own. Then it flaps away, through the window into the gray night.

Birds that act like men. Men that loved birds. Her hand comes up to her mouth.

***

Click here to read the conclusion.

Wingbeats, Part II

Click here to go to the beginning of this story.

She tosses and turns that night, unable and unwilling to sleep. Her red-rimmed eyes itch from exhaustion but the notion of sleep terrifies her. She grips her wrist until the bones grind together and sallow bruises appear under the skin, but the pain isn’t enough and she slips into a fugue state, entering the strange twilight world nestled between the realms of asleep and awake, living and dead. She slowly becomes aware of a soft breathing and her eyes fill with tears beneath their lids. He’s so close to her – yet when she reaches out, she cannot touch him.

A tap on the windowpane jolts her into full wakefulness. It’s 4:32. The breathing was her own.

She wipes her eyes on a corner of the sheet and goes into the bathroom. She comes out again with a glass of water, then goes over to the writing desk and opens the window.

A pure snowy owl steps delicately from the windowsill onto the smooth tabletop. Feathers ripple down: white edged with black, shadow and light. Tawny eyes settle on her face. When she sets the glass of water down, the bird drinks briefly.

“You must be a long way from home,” she murmurs. The soft rustle of feathers is her reply.

Hesitantly she runs a finger along the soft down of its back. She’s heard that owls can bite, and bite hard. But this one allows her to stroke its back and wings. Her hand – so pale when twined through his tanned fingers – seems so dark against the predominant white of the owl. “White and black,” she muses. It was the color scheme for their wedding. Her parents had thought it strange, but her favorite color was black, and his white – and the more they thought about it, the more perfect it became.

“I was a night owl once,” she says. She gets the same sense of attentiveness from the owl that she got from the crow. It wants to listen to her. “I thought that the shadows were my place, that the daytime would only show everyone how dull I was. But Alan reveled in the sun. He wanted to show me how things could shine in the light…and so I wore black to my wedding, and he wore white. He said it was a union of opposites.”

The wedding featured in his novel. He told her she could read it when everything was finished. He said that it should be a surprise for her.

“White and black for the wedding,” she says. “But just black for the funeral.”

The owl leans forward and takes a strand of her long dark hair in its beak. She winces in anticipation of a sharp pull, but with great gentleness the creature lets the hair slide. Alan used to run her hair through his fingers like that.

Then it hops away. The wings flap like heartbeats and a few moments later it has disappeared in the gloom. A low fog has risen around the base of the trees outside. Tomorrow will probably be rainy, a day to stay in. But she never leaves the house anyway. Her nest, her prison, her future.

***

Continue to Part III