He flicked the switch and the small area near the basement door filled with a weak light.
“Ahh. I see you are still here my friend.” The old man spoke to the painting setting on the easel.
He sat on the folding chair in front of the painting, grasped the wooden stem of a brush lightly, dabbed the bristles on the edge of the glass and watched as the watery drops hiding within the fine hairs escaped and slid down the side of the glass. He focused on their silent movement.
Like tears, he thought.
He felt one consistent sensation pulsing within him….. pain. It was persistent, relentless. He felt it while he slept, wrapping itself around his spirit like a cobra, tightening at each breath. During the day he felt the ache clawing at his insides. He tried to ignore it, act as if he was happy, but it was always there. He just hoped it would go away. At least lessen. So he could function.
“Why did you leave me?” he whispered. He knew it was not her choice. She'd fought hard against the disease; fought until she could fight no more.
At least, he thought, your suffering is done. I am glad for that. I'm sorry. I just miss you so much. I don’t know if I am going to make it.
Mentally, he turned away from the pain, aimed his attention at the painting.
He’d painted a little in the past, but this was different. Now, there was a need to put the colors onto the canvas and with that, he felt a slow release or numbing of that pain. Something inside him desperately needed to get out and he was drawn, as unlikely as it was, to do this. Maybe painting was the way for the monster to get out, the way through the pain, the loss of his best wife.
At least, it gave him a direction, something to do other than be immersed in the misery.
The canvas sat on the easel he’d purchased at the art shop in the mall by the parkway. He’d purchased the paint and brushes there also; bought five canvases in varying sizes. He’d bought whatever paint and brushes the young woman told him as he knew nothing about it and couldn’t make any decisions as weighty as what type of brush to grab, or what colors, etc.
He wondered passively if it was significant, that he had so little will of his own left. He drifted past that feeling.
As he looked at the shapes and blurs of color on the canvas, he was vaguely surprised that he felt an indifference to it. He tried to ignore the hurt still throbbing in his chest.
Not bad, he thought listlessly.
He looked more closely, studied the points of the waves: looked for movement in them.
“Angry,” he said without emotion. “The classic murderous waves.”
He judged that the work was almost done and spent a few moments assessing the remaining touches needed for its completion.
The clouds were heavy, riding low to the raging seas.
Obviously, going for the “big ominous”, he thought. So predictable. But not bad.
But were the clouds strong enough? He judged that they didn’t capture the feeling of anger he sought, nor the power of the storm or the depth of his struggle.
No, he needed more. They weren’t anywhere near the intensity of the fire burning in his heart. They didn’t match the power of the churning ocean. Not yet anyway.
What was it? Their depth in color, which he considered to be in the medium range, foretold of the coming storm. That was the weakness, he decided. The storm, the murderous shrew, was already here. The clouds, in the center of the fury, shouldn’t be forecasting her approach. She was here now, pounding whatever was in her path.
The storm was here because he was living it, and the painting didn’t reflect the throbbing hurt, battering his spirit. Smiling and laughing with the people drifting through his life was exhausting. It seemed, there was no other choice. He had to keep staggering forward, as if everything was ok, as if the sense of loss, and the pain, would diminish.
He pulled his attention from the cloud, looked to the ocean. He liked the colors there, especially the blood red accents at the curling edges of the waves which were a harsh mixture of greens and greys.
Freezing cold, he thought studying them. He sensed their brutality. Their might.
It was interesting that he could pull his focus from the clouds to the sea as if they were separate entities, even though they bordered each other. Individually they were beautiful, but together they were somehow clearly distinct. They just didn’t fit.
He studied them for a moment. The strengths didn’t match. That’s it. Sea raging now…..clouds... mmmm….foreshadowing.
Yes, he judged, the waves are good. He felt the movement in them and the power. The anger and the danger. The brutality. He followed them in from the edge of the canvas to the ruddy craft in the center just below the horizon of water.
“He’ll never make it,” he said dipping his brush in the charcoal gray, “but, he thinks he has a chance.”
He paused, wondered if he’d thought or spoken the words. He really didn't know.
Just another sign he was losing his grip, he thought.
He studied the boat, a sturdy wooden craft. A man, in a tawny rain slicker, sat low in the back, hunched against the storm. His wide, floppy hat was pulled low over his eyes, his head tucked down in the slicker, and he had the oars clutched tight in his hands.
Maybe the fisherman had painted the boat recently. Ugly job, he thought. Dark brown exterior with a canary yellow interior. Made sense though. When you run out of the brown, go to the next available paint color in the shed; in this case…yellow. The working class was interested in sturdy practicality. Not beauty.
His focus turned to the boat itself. She’ll never make it, he thought, sturdy, but too damn small for this one.
Look at those waves, mean and angry, punching the sides of her, raising above her gunwales like a horrid monster waiting for a mistake, ready to wash over the sides and take him. They were jumping high next to the boat, trying to dive in, sometimes washing small amounts over the sides, but the angles were wrong, and they missed, time and again.
The boat, not built for the high seas, or any sea really, he surmised, kept riding them. As the waves jumped and clawed, the boat bobbed between them, staying just beyond their murderous grasp.
It was the oarsman that drew his attention.
Very skilled, he thought, watching him guide the craft on a weaving path through the troughs and crests.
The oarsman was, he judged, courageous, heroic. He kept looking over his shoulder, checking the seething waters coming up on him from behind, always finding the safe route away from the foam, finding the curved backs of the waves, and he’d ride them, let them lift him for a few moments at a time above the freezing beast pounding hungrily at the wood.
“Do you really think you’re going to make it?” He asked the man hidden in the heavy rain slicker, paused, looked at the tiny oarsman, his back bent resolutely to his task.
“Here’s the real question sailor,” he said. “Why’d you take the boat out in this weather? You should have known better. You saw the storm coming and you went out anyway. Why? I can’t even see the land from here.” He stopped speaking, suddenly aware that his voice was rising. He looked around the room at the unpainted granite walls. They stared back at him, not understanding, betraying no emotion. They’d seen his rage before.
He ignored them and looked at the man, tried to see his face, tried to look into the eyes of this man battling nature at her meanest. They were too far back under the hat, hidden in shadow.
“Hiding little man?”
No, he thought. The air was filled with needles of icy spray, and anyone would be tucked down in their rain gear, as far back as possible, trying to find some warmth, and the will to fight, like a boxer rolling with the punches, absorbing the blows.
You’d put yourself there on purpose. Didn’t you?
And now you’ve no choice. You must fight your way out. Fight a monster to the death. If you’ve got the strength.
He paused a moment, looked at the man in the canvas, said, “maybe, you want to die; want to join her. Sometimes it appears that death would be easier. Doesn’t it?”
“Or maybe you just want the pain to stop. Because it doesn’t look like it will, does it? It hurts too much.” He felt the pressure of missing her swirling in his heart.
Maybe you just don’t care anymore. He paused in his thinking, added, because you don’t. I know I don’t.
No, that’s not right. I still care too much. I just wish I didn’t.
How do you like this my heroic battler? He dipped the brush in the charcoal paint, lifted it and added darkness at the edges of the clouds, bringing them closer, compressing the freezing rain and air down tighter against the ocean.
“Fight my friend,” he commanded in a harsh whisper as he leaned forward, streaking the clouds with darkness, adding weight to them, pressing them closer to the tiny craft.
“I hope you make it,” he whispered, “I just don’t think you will.” He paused, put his hand to his heart.
He stood up his eyes still on the painting.
Good luck thought the old man. He turned and walked to the door, switched off the light. With the pain bandage wrapped tightly around his chest, he left the room bathed in darkness, and the fisherman fighting for his life.
The waves lifted the boat above the freezing waters and exposed him to the lash of a blasting, icy wind.
There she is, the fisherman thought. The shore.
“I see you,” he yelled angrily into the howl of the wind. He ducked quickly back into the feeble protection of the gray slicker, the floppy, brown hat.
At that moment the wave carrying him towards the shore slid below the craft, which then slid down that wall of water. So close it was, he could have plunged his hand into it.
In the trough, he turned the nose away from the oncoming wall of water, which picked the craft up again, and showed him the shore, a dirty brown line, fifty yards away.
Closer than he’d thought.
He was tired, his hands were numb, his rowing strokes guiding the craft were becoming clumsy, less efficient. His body was aching, he’d been fighting the worst of the gale for over an hour. His path between the waves and troughs had to be true, almost flawless and he was losing strength. He gained power by locking his arms on the oars and twisting his body, which was draining his energy faster, but he had no choice. Sometimes, he needed a stronger pull on the left, sometimes on the right and using his legs he twisted his body as needed.
He was grappling with the ocean, he thought, and she was winning.
The sky was pressing down, blocking the light, darkening the field of battle. The wind lashed him with icy spray. Still clutching the oars, he pulled his hands together, rubbing them with crude movements, gauging the feeling left in them, which now was almost zero.
Land is near, he thought.
His mind was not working well, created sluggish thoughts he had trouble connecting. Maybe it was his body which could no longer respond to the commands, but he was a bit slow on his next pull at the ocean and a wave poured over the front edge of his craft. The icy water was above his ankles, the cold biting at the still functioning nerves.
Too much water in her, he thought, she wasn’t responding to his steering any longer.
Another wave lifted the craft and he saw the shore was even closer.
He then devised, what felt like a complicated plan to his numbing mind. He would take the boat in as close as he could before the water swamped her, and then, he’d swim for it.
He sensed a chance.
Why did you leave me alone to fight this? He asked. Together, we could have made it.
The waves were slapping hard at the craft, and he focused again on the raging fight. The boat was making progress. The ocean was now helping her. Probably the terrain below the surface was creating currents favorable to her, he figured. The freezing waves seemed less brutal.
He was lifted again above the waters and was dully surprised at the progress they’d made. The shore was but twenty yards away.
He could do this.
He willed his arms to move in some vague semblance of coordinated movement. They weren’t working well but they were all he had. He ignored the aching muscles and the frozen hands. He glanced at his hands, bent hard at the wrists, confirming they were still curled around the oars, pulling them with crude motions. He could not determine the maneuvers to be made, he knew only to pull the oars as best he could and try to propel the craft forward.
The water in the craft was too high. The boat would be swamped soon. He was not moving her.
He had no idea how far he had to go but, he knew instinctively, this was his last chance.
He stood on numb legs, pulled the heavy slicker over his head, and the wind pierced him with a sharp blast of arctic air. He hesitated a moment, pulled a deep breath and dove into the freezing waves. The savage waters tore quickly through his clothes, shocking his numbing body.
He tried to make swimming motions, hoped his arms and legs were doing what he was willing them to do.
The waters came over his head. The bite of the icy water caused a slight gasp, and he took in a mouthful of water. He came up coughing and spitting. Couldn’t see the shore. He tried again to make swimming motions; tried to keep his head above the water; tried to take bites of the freezing air.
His kicking legs felt something under the water. It took moments for the dim realization that his numb feet, which now felt like stumps, were hitting something.
The shore was near.
The light clicked on.
“Well, my friend, how goes the fight?”
The old man walked over to the easel. There was something different in the painting.
Odd, he thought, the sun was spraying a soft light across the scene which, with the storm trailing into the distance, was filled with gentle stirrings of nature; seagulls soaring over blue waters, heaving cloud towers, a brisk wind.
The boat, he thought. Where was she?
It took a moment before he found her. There she was, overturned in some reeds on the beach, its ugly brown underside facing upward.
He bent over and looked closer. On the edge of the shore, he found a place where the sand had been beaten down, disturbed. A thin line of tracks led away from that space, off into the grass covered dunes towards the house nestled in the trees on the ridge.
“My friend,” he whispered, "you made it.”
He felt a happiness for the man, felt a slight release of the pressure wrapped around his chest. Still looking at the painting, he pulled a long, deep breath. Then another. It wasn’t much, but he felt better. There was less pressure, less pain.
There was hope.
He stepped to the light switch and turned back towards the painting.
“Thank you,” he said.
He flipped the light off and trudged slowly up the stairs; a small flame of hope, flickering in his heart.