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Landscape

September 5, 2012

“What?”

You look around incredulously. There is only a small stair-case in the near distance, and a nightstand with a tall candle flickering. All else is black. You make your way unsteadily, off-gait, feeling with your arms for the abrasive corners of furniture. All that reaches your fingers is the lingering air, quietly cold, sinister in its sorrow, crouched in transparency.

At least there’s a candle. You take a deep breath and walk towards the flicker. The nightstand seems precariously together, a thin plateau on waved legs. The candle rests lightly in faded brass and dust blankets the table-top. You notice another item on the table – a paintbrush – and reach for it. You feel your fingers grip it solidly but somehow you drop the brush and as it bounces off the table, there is a little splash and you blink.

The paintbrush lies on the floor; a fading ripple rolls on the table. You don’t understand. You bend to pick up the brush and realize the floor ripples slightly under your shifting weight. Your hand half-outreached, your eyes sweep to the edges of the light. The floor itself seems to simply end. You pick up the brush, pause before gently prodding the table. The brush sinks into the top and the wood ripples. You touch it with your hand and find it as solid as you’d have expected. But, still the ripples move. You withdraw the brush and find the color of wood clinging to it like paint.

Interesting. You pick up the candle with your free hand and look around. The only way to go seems to be up. You take the stairs, watching the concentric circles echo your steps, pausing halfway to inspect a painting on the wall. It is very abstract. There is an oval off-center, overlaid in part by a green square. A red line runs perpendicular in the upper right, vanishing with the edges. The background is yellow. You step back, logic halted, worrying that if you get too close you might fall into the painting – and getting stuck in a world of abstract art would inevitably lead to madness.

You move farther up the stairs, hand trailing against the wall, your shadow loyally scouting the way ahead. As you reach the top, the candle in your hand nearly goes out and you realize the wick is all-but spent. For a moment you panic – being stuck in this half-formed place, cradled in the dark, would be the penultimate Hell. But your mind arrives with the obvious; you take the brush and touch the candle. You look about for a good spot to paint.

“Why not here?”

You sort of reach out into the air and brush it. A candlestick follows your stroke. For a moment it just hovers, not quite opaque, and then it falls to the ground and breaks in half.

“Dammit.”

You set down the dying candle and try to paint another one. This one seems better and you deftly snatch it from midair before gravity. You light it from the first and place it in the brass holder.

“That’s better.”

You’re pleased with yourself – this painting thing isn’t so strange after all. In fact, you feel you might grow accustomed to it. Leaving the dead and broken candles on the floor, you begin making your way down the hallway. The walls are planked with wood and various paintings hang spuriously, while unlit chandeliers haunt the ceiling above. You walk slowly with some caution, feeling the air pressing against the candle’s bubble of comfort.

You come to a door and are overcome with déjà vu; there is a small rectangular grate at eye level. You reach out to open it, realize your hands are full; you brush it open instead and peer through. Black canvas.

“That’s odd. Why is there a door if there’s nothing behind it?”

A thought slips itself to you.

“Maybe there’s Another around here. After all, how else did all this get painted?”

You look on down the hallway. It might never end.

“Maybe… maybe they already went through the door. Maybe the painting fades with time.”

You glance anxiously back the way you came. It doesn’t seem different, but there’s no sense in taking undue risks. You turn the handle with your elbow. The door swings away but there is still nothing there. Now a new problem presents itself. A candle is one thing – a whole setting seems like quite another.

“Yet, perhaps scale is only a matter of perspective.”

What, before God, is the universe but a brief candle? You think thoughtfully for a moment and reach out with your brush.

“Who fucking knows?”

Something pastoral: you move the paintbrush with no small degree of clumsiness, envisioning the small wood off to your left periphery, the naked rolling hills in the background, the pond just ahead, the nearly-cloudless sky. But when you are done, you can’t see anything except the grass a few feet ahead, shifting illuminated. What are you missing?

“Of course!”

You paint a sun in the sky and have to look away until your eyes adjust. The hallway is flooded with light and you step out into the world. Everything you couldn’t see before is still unpainted, so you paint in all directions until satisfied you haven’t missed anything. You are all but content with your work when you consider the door. It stands aloof now, alone, rather out of place. Does it still work? The viewport is gone and there is no handle. You try to paint a new handle, but nothing happens. You inspect the door and realize your brush can’t pick its color, that it doesn’t ripple.

“Guess that was the point of no return.”

With world enough, and seemingly time, you walk with newfound confidence away from the door and towards the pond. As your gaze drifts across the grass, you realize with a start that there is detail here that you didn’t imagine when you painted. It is as if the world took well to your imagination and filled itself in for you.

You spend some time sitting by the pond, letting your feet soak in the feelings of the water, being lulled to a doze by the sunlight, serenaded by the breeze. The grass is as soft as down and the ground is made of the same material as the clouds. This lasts for the better part of what might be called day, were there such a thing as night. Your dreams are bizarre and grounded, tethered and begotten by laws you cannot understand. They eventually devolve and dissipate until all that is left is a sort-of static, grey and fuzzy and buzzing.

You awake in a cold sweat and sit up. The water is no longer comfortable and the sun’s warmth seems held at bay. You pull away from the pond and stand up, breathing deeply until you feel better. And after a minute or two, you do feel better, but something is amiss. The world seems empty.

“Of course!”

You begin painting animals in dashed strokes: whole flocks of birds, herds of horses, entire ant colonies. You run through the fields, to the forest, a little up the hill, back down to the pond, past the door. Moles, fish, cicadas, a dog.

The dog is brown and black and tan with floppy ears. She’s part shepard, part lab. Her name is Mae. She wags and pants goofily and you can’t help but laugh, rubbing her head affectionately. You paint a perfect branch and throw it out into the field. Mae bolts off after the stick but gets distracted by a butterfly and you watch, amused, as she leaps and bounds and snaps as it flutters away.

There’s still something missing.

“I’m lonely.”

There is, of course, no reply, except for a twitch of Mae’s ear. You pick up your brush and frown to yourself. Who would you like to see?

You paint your parents as you remember them when you were young. Your mom in her business slacks, your dad in his jackets and a full head of hair. They blink and look around, their mouth’s a question of puzzlement. Their eyes find each other and their hands reach out to the other’s. They embrace.

Your tears of joy dry on your cheek and your happy shout sinks back into your diaphragm.

“Mom? Dad?”

They go on, talking hurriedly, looking around with a slight of fright. They can’t see you.

“Mom! Dad!”

Dad points off towards something you can’t see and he and Mom start away. You call to them one more time but it’s no good. Somehow, they’re not a part of this world. Maybe it was too good to be true anyways. You don’t know. They’ll be fine.

You turn back to Mae and call her name. She turns towards your voice and trots over, but as she does she looks around quizzically. You call her again. She looks towards you, but you know she’s lost you as well. Suddenly, you see your world for what it seems: a cheap facade; dry wall over concrete. In a rush you grab the paintbrush and grip it in two fists, straining to break it. It doesn’t break. You scream in frustration and hurl it out into the field and walk around the pond in a storm.

You might have persisted in this decadent state for much longer had Mae not suddenly barked and run off towards the hills. Anger interrupted, your intensity subsides in favor of curiosity; you follow. First walking, then running, an inarticulate anticipation mounts and you can but imagine what is over the rise. Just are you are beginning to gasp for your breaths, you stumble to a halt atop the hill, hands placating your knees.

“Oh. Right.”

You are standing on the edge of your world. The grass ends abruptly with the sun, stark against the void. That’s all you can see before you – a wall, dark and obscure, lacking even the hope of stars.

 

Even now, you wonder about the synchronicity between that thought and the moment you saw land ahoy.

Somewhere out there, there appeared a glint of something. You watched intently, daring barely to breathe, daring not to move, as the glint emerged into a green undeniability, as it evolved into a streak, moving closer. Closer, it was a hill, then a mountain peak, then an island, it’s shores drifting near.

 

As landscape grows from the abyss, Mae barks excitedly again, running every now and then in a circle before resuming the call.

You turn on your heel and take off in a sprint down the hill towards your abandoned brush. The ground ripples underfoot like booming sub-woofers and the whole world seems to shake slightly at your movement. You slide on your knees – snatch – and are off again, full speed back up the hill.

Before you reach the crest, you already know what to paint. As soon as the dark nothing greets you, you begin. First comes a gentle slope down – anticipating Another, you paint in flowers and dogwoods and willows as you go – then a garden and a river and the flatlands. Your rhythm is a fluid stop-and-go: paint, walk and run, paint, paint and walk, run and walk and paint. At last, you look up and across the way you can make out blurs of trees, and sand and foam against the beach. Now what?

“Water.”

You paint a beach of your own from side to side, followed by the tide that recedes just as there becomes an ocean. The ocean races away from your brush, rapidly devouring nothing. Somewhere in the near distance, it meets its fellow. The joining is seamless. You paint the sky above, clear as ever, and exhale.

You lower your brush and consider what you ought to do. The other world is still blurry, more so than it seems it should. Might it be dangerous? Should you wait and see if anything happens? If there is Another, what will they do? What will they expect? You decide.

You walk down to the edge of the beach. The tide seems to bow out and away before you. You raise the brush and begin to paint a boat. It is much more difficult than painting a tree or a pond or a candle. You don’t know much about boats. The choppy ocean doesn’t do you any favors, either. After a few failed tries, you leave them half-submerged and beached and walked down the shore aways. You paint a dock, and calmer waters, then stride down it and at last manage to paint a canoe and a paddle.

You are just about to disembark when the trotting of paws gains your attention. You turn as Mae makes her way to the edge of the dock. She sniffs the air around you and cocks her head.

“I’ll be back, girl. Hold down the fort.” You paint her a treat and let it fall to the dock. If Mae found this apparition peculiar, she got over it quickly, wolfing it down. You smile at her, unseen, and get into the canoe.

The journey is difficult; perhaps you could have painted a bridge, but you feel as though it would defeat the sea’s purpose. Why have an ocean when you could have land? Why land if you can have pavement? Why pavement if tile? Why tile if carpet? Why distance at all? Your mind enjoys these wanderings as your body falls into the pattern of rowing.

“Steady as she goes, back and forth. Back, and forth. Back, and forth.”

After a while, you look back. The shore behind is growing faint, but before you the blurriness of the new world has grown only more apparent. It is though it was painted in blurs.

“Ah!”

You cannot but smile at the possibilities. Different styles; different worlds. How amazing! How wonderful! How –

Ah? I daresay that’s no way to greet someone.”

You drop your paddle in surprise and look towards the speaker. They are standing above you on a dock, painting stairs down to the sea. Like the world they stand in, their form is carved in waves and they shimmer as if liable to diffuse at any moment. You paint stairs of your own up to meet theirs, saying:

“Hello, there! Would you come down here? I cannot see you through the haze.”

“Haze? No, I can see clearly. It is you that is in the fog.”

Neither of you speak for a moment. You say:

“Well then I shall come up there.”

Arms outstretched for balance, you gingerly step from canoe to stair. You step up until you are but one away from the haze. Just beyond, you can make out the Other waiting. You turn around and take in your world. Somehow you know this is a one way trip, that this hazy boundary is but another door.

“One moment. There’s someone I’ve left behind.”

You bring to the bear your paintbrush, squinting with one eye as you line it up with your distant land. Bringing the brush down in one, long stroke, you paint a bridge to you. You wait. Before long, you hear the pad-pad-pad-pad of a dog. Mae breaks into a run as she nears you and flies past, bounding up the stairs, through and into the haze, her now-wavy form tackling your newfound acquaintance. The sound of muffled laughter reaches your ears as you step through the veil.

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From → Short Stories

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