Sunday, July 25, 2010
For the past two weekends I've been either driving to or from our favorite rental cottage in the Adirondacks, so I apologize for being so quiet. We had a glorious week doing nothing. Well, not really nothing. I wrote 20,000 words in my newest mystery, read three great books, waded and floated in the river, cooked gourmet meals for me and my honey every night, and sat beside her at the river's edge for hours per day. Sometimes with coffee, sometimes with wine. Sometimes holding hands. Heh. Yep.
The whole week was incredibly restful, and I really liked no going anywhere, just communing with nature, my wife, and my muse. Perfect.
Anyway, since I don't have a writing article to share with you today, I thought I'd share some writing.
Here's a short story I wrote for a contest (I didn't win, sob). Well, maybe it's because I usually don't DO short stories. I'm really a novel kind of guy.
Take that anyway you want. Ha.
- Aaron Paul Lazar
He woke on a secluded grassy riverbank to the sound of water lapping the shore. Like colorful smelling salts, the sharp scent of oil paints woke him. He stood, brushing bits of grass and leaves from unfamiliar clothing. On his legs, rough woven fabric. On his feet, clumsy black shoes. His shirt billowed in the cold breeze, covered with smears of cobalt, green, and yellow ochre. With a start, he realized it was a white man’s artist smock.
Across the river, a setting sun winked on windows and gilded thatched roofs at the water’s edge. Noise from the shore drifted toward him in lazy snatches of conversation and bubbles of children’s laughter. The language was unfamiliar. Perhaps French? He’d heard some of these words in the hallways of the White House during his many visits to the Capitol.
Chimneys puffed thick blue spirals into the air, coloring the horizon with smudges of indigo, champagne pink, and soft orange. Before him stood an easel with a partially finished painting. Brushes lay strewn in the grass. Soft wet paint lay in globs on the palette he must have dropped when he passed out.
When I passed out? What happened?
He scrubbed at his face, closed and opened his eyes. Startled, he studied his hands. Ivory skin stretched over long sinewy fingers; blue veins popped out of the back of his hand. He turned them in the waning light.
What happened to my hand? My skin? Whose fingers are moving at my command?
A chubby sparrow hopped toward him, aiming for contents spilled from a tin bucket nearby. The grass beside it was matted, as if someone had lain there, resting in the winter sun for hours, maybe days. He crouched and peeled back corners of a linen napkin enclosing thick chunks of stale bread and a wedge of cheese. Black grapes nestled in a tin dipping cup.
Sudden thirst constricted his throat. He searched for a nearby well or a pump handle. Around him, colonies of trees and shrubs dotted the grassy field. In the far distance, a pink stucco house with green shutters shimmered in the late afternoon light. Somewhere in his brain, it looked familiar, yet strange.
Too shaky to make the trek to the house, he glanced down at the water. It ran clean and clear.
He grabbed the cup and stumbled to the riverbank, kneeling on soft black dirt. With a ragged swish, he filled it with chilled water and drank greedily as if he’d been wandering lost in the Sahara. Sweet and pure, it cleansed his parched tissues.
He jumped. What was that?
The sudden murmur of a crowd in an enclosed space. The pressing of shoulders against his. The rose petal scent of a white woman’s perfume.
He dashed another cup of water against his face, then poured yet another over the back of his neck. His hair—cut short—dripped water on the black fuzz that grew from his face. He stroked the long beard, fascinated by its wiry texture. Droplets ran from it and splashed into the river with impossible rhythm, mesmerizing him in the flashes of light that swirled below.
He tore his glance away from the river and looked toward the island downstream, riveted by the wavy lines of shadows leafless trees cast in the water. Consumed now, he hurried back to the easel, grabbing the palette and brushes. A splash of transparent amber paint kissed the water next to squiggles of shadows. A touch of mint green filled the sky behind the trees. With sure fingers, he dashed colors onto the canvas as if this were his every day task, racing to beat the sun that threatened to sink before he finished.
Movement caught his attention. There! In the distance, two boats floated past the isle. He grabbed another brush and dabbed black onto the purple-gray water. A few quick strokes mimicked their wavy shadows.
He jumped. Someone, some ghostly hand, touched his fingers. Was it a spirit from beyond? Had the spirits transported him to another realm? With a shudder, he stepped back and scanned the area. No one. Not a soul for miles.
What’s happening to me?
The sun, vibrant orange now, approached the tops of straw roofs, tinting the sky with rosy hues. He refocused on the canvas and slashed brilliant tangerine strokes across the image of water to mimic the sun’s reflection.
Shivering, he watched the sun fuse with the horizon. He swore he heard ice cubes clinking in a glass, and once again jerked around, looking for the source of the noise.
Nothing. No one. A group of wild turkeys squawked to his left, hurrying into the underbrush with waggling tail feathers. The Tom sported a feather that would have graced his headdress, had he the energy to give it chase.
His stomach rumbled. He sank to the grass, set his paints aside, and lay on the flattened grass. There would be time to untangle the mystery after he rested.
My head thudded hard on a marble floor. Crystal chandelier prisms swam before my eyes and people in ballroom dress thronged around him in the high-ceilinged room. Paintings lined the far hallway, hanging from gold chains secured high on red satin walls. Several guests ran to my side, faces crumpled with worry.
A silver-haired lady in a long black gown patted my hand. “Red Cloud? My dear! Are you all right?”
Although I spoke little English, my brain translated the words as if I’d been born in London. I stared into eyes the color of blue cornflowers. Thin circles of icy white rimmed the iris. Although she acted concerned, the woman’s eyes registered no warmth.
With a shiver, I sat up. “I’m fine. I think.” For a moment, the scene around me blurred. My riverbank shone through in rippled windows, as if vying for space in my mind. Yet the sound of birds singing, of water lapping the shore, and of the breeze rustling in the leaves soon disappeared, to be replaced by gold filigreed mirrors, marble statues, and waiters bearing silver trays with fluted glasses of bubbling champagne.
A man in a tuxedo touched my arm. “Mr. Red Cloud? May I interest you in a glass of champagne?”
Thirstier than I ever remembered, with a tongue that stuck to the roof of my mouth like sticky cotton batting, I reached for the glass, then pulled back when I saw the hand that stretched from me. Dark copper skin covered strong fingers. Beadwork trimmed a deerskin sleeve. A string of bear claws encircled my neck, hanging low on a tunic. I grabbed for the drink again and drained it quickly, nodding to the white-haired gentleman who held my elbow and looked with concern into my eyes.
“Yes, thank you.” My voice growled deep and rough. Familiar, yet unfamiliar.
What in God’s name is happening?
I shuffled toward a gold leaf mirror, afraid, yet hungry to learn more. A sharp angled face returned my gaze. High cheekbones. Long glossy black hair, falling well beyond my shoulders. Prominent nose. Straight, strong mouth. Eyes that bore into mine with iron grit.
With an excited intake of breath, I stared at my reflection. God in Heaven. I’m a savage!
I turned this way and that. Pinched my arm. Real pain. I exhaled, fogging the mirror. Pride and strength flowed from my eyes.
I’d expected confusion.
“Everything okay, Red Cloud?”
With deliberately slow motions, as if I needed to concentrate on the words, I answered. “Of course, Senator.” Senator?
“Come. I wanted you to see the Monet we have on exhibit. It’s quite valuable.”
I jumped when he said my name aloud.
He led me past hordes of men in tuxedos and women draped in jewels and furs. With great ceremony, the Senator ushered me downstairs through a long narrow corridor into a room flanked by two guards who stood at attention with rifles on their shoulders.
“Here we are. It’s entitled ‘Sunset on the Seine, Winter Effect, circa 1880’.”
Circa 1880? It is precisely 1880. But I haven’t finished this yet! I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the canvas. Before me were the strokes I’d forced while I languished on the riverbank, praying for solace. Camille had given birth to my son, Michel, and shortly thereafter succumbed to cancer. Since her death a year ago, I’d been unable to paint. Unable to socialize. Unable to eat and barely able to breathe.
A horse-faced woman decorated in emeralds appeared around the corner. The Senator’s brow wrinkled.
“Senator? Can you spare a moment?”
The patrician turned back to me, rolled his eyes, and touched my shoulder. “I’ll leave you with the Monet. Stay as long as you like, Chief.”
My eyes raked across the painting, taking in the bold orange of the sun’s reflections rippling on the water. The touch of green behind the trees. The pastels fogging the horizon. Pride swept through me.
After resting, he rose and blew into his cold hands. The river had turned dark and unfriendly. Deep purple whirlpools threatened and bubbled with what had to be evil spirits. Lights flickered on the opposite shore. Cooking aromas drifted over the water, sending pangs of hunger through him. With a sudden shiver, he collected the paints, brushes, and easel, and headed for the pink stucco house in the distance.
When the Master came in and set his painting by the door, I sensed something amiss. I trotted from my place at the fireplace and shoved my muzzle into his dangling hand. With a start, I backed up and growled. Something was wrong.
He crouched and held a hand out to me. “Come, boy. It’s okay.”
Slowly, I crept toward his outstretched fingers. The scent of my master mixed with an unknown smell, that of wild prairie winds and open cooking fires. I wagged my tail, slowly at first. When my master’s hand touched my ear, I capitulated. He knew just how to scrub behind my ear where it itched. Wiggling all over now, I jumped up on him and licked his face.
“Whoa! Good boy, good dog. Get down, now.”
He picked up his painting and headed for the kitchen, from whence tantalizing smells tempted me all afternoon. The roast had been simmering in the black pot, smothered in vegetables, and fresh bread baked in the Dutch oven. But something was still off—my master walked with a different gait than his usual Steady and calm, it reminded me of a wild cat padding on soft grass.
The Mistress—the new one—smiled over her shoulder at him. “Monsieur. I’ve fed the children and sent them to bed early. I know you need your quiet time after a long day of painting.”
The Master looked disappointed.
This woman, whom the Master called ‘Alice,’ was the mother of six young hooligans who played with me in the nearby fields and gardens, especially in the summertime. When the old Mistress died a year ago, Alice moved in to help with the Master’s two boys. Eight children lived in our new home, and I loved each one.
The Mistress turned to my master with a frown. “Is something wrong?”
He set his still wet painting on the sideboard and dropped into a chair, rubbing his eyes. “No. Thank you. Just tired.”
She sat beside him and took his hand. Lately, her ministrations seemed more loving, and less sisterly. “My dear Claude.” She stroked the back of his hand and looked into his eyes. “How did it go?”
He stared at his painting, and refocused on her face. “Strange. I felt as if I’ve never been in this body before, as if I don’t know where or who I am, yet I was consumed by the scene. The reflections on the water, glistening green behind the stark trees, the wavy silhouettes of the dark tree shadows…”
She looked at the painting as if a lustrous silver angel perched on the shelf, blessing her by waving his soft-feathered wings. “Oh, my.” She moved closer. “You’re back.”
He looked at his hands. “I’m not sure. Something’s wrong with me. Very wrong.”
“It will take time, Monsieur. The loss of our dear Camille will pain you for a long time. Perhaps your entire life.” Her voice cracked, as if emotion swilled beneath the surface.
He looked at her as if he didn’t understand, then sighed and pulled his chair up to the table. “Thank you. But now. Let’s eat. That much I remember.”
He woke in his own bed, a straw mat on the floor of his wooden hut, covered in colorful woven blankets and serenaded by birdsongs. His last memory had been at the Senator’s home in DC, where he represented his tribe with dignity and honor. The thoughts that crossed his mind were instantaneous. I have returned!
Had it been a dream guided by the spirits?
He stood and stretched, his long silky black hair tickling his bare back. Running a hand across his smooth chin, his lips spread in a wide grin. Yes. Only a dream.
His hut was perched a short distance away from the village, on a bare stream bank, very unlike the river in his vision. This wide clear creek sparkled turquoise in the prairie sun, shallow in its deepest section and pure as spring rain. Orange, yellow, and crimson slate rippled beneath the water, reflecting the new day’s energy.
He stood over the water, drinking in the morning, and finally stripped and knelt on one knee to wash and quench an almost unbearable thirst. With eyes closed and hands cupped, he scooped cool fresh water into his mouth and over his face, hands, and body, scrubbing away the strangeness of the recent illusion. Letting the strong sun dry the droplets, he stood and examined his copper brown skin.
With a start, he turned his hands over to stare. There, a patch of mint green. On his thumb, a smudge of vermillion. And on his wrist, streaks of pure white. He threw back his arms and raised them to the sky, asking the Great Spirit to help him understand. A warm breeze stirred over the streambed, calming him and lifting his long hair from his shoulders. When he received no further counsel, he redressed and headed back to his campfire to cook quail eggs for breakfast, with a sudden strong urge rattling in his head.
Maybe I’ll get a dog.
I came awake at the breakfast table, surrounded by eight noisy children and Alice. While the exchange of one day in my life with Chief Red Cloud was a puzzle, I knew it couldn’t have been a dream. How could I have dressed and been in the middle of a scrumptious bite of strawberry peach marmalade on a warm croissant if I’d just awakened? I sipped at my dark hot chocolate and beamed at my new extended family, who squabbled and stuffed their faces with equal enthusiasm.
The doubts I’d had over the last year about my ability to produce anything worthwhile on canvas had vanished. I’d seen my work displayed in a gold frame, hung in a fine home with guards to protect it. It had been revered, coveted. A strange situation, to be sure.
On the sideboard, the river scene beckoned. I studied it, realizing the green behind the trees was too faint; the black fishing boats needed to be emphasized. There was work to be done to make this version match the finished product I’d seen hanging on the red satin walls of the Senator’s palatial home.
Alice smiled at me from the stove. A tingle ran through my previously numb body. Could she? Would she? Am I as attractive to her as the bastard who had deserted her?
She rarely said an unkind word about the rogue, although my blood ran cold at the thought of him. Leaving six children and his wife behind to escape the hot flush of embarrassment from bankruptcy…there could be no greater evil.
Alice approached me, slid a fresh hot croissant onto my plate, and her clear eyes connected with mine. We held the glance for a few luscious seconds, and in minutes I was filled with the urge to paint. To paint, to never stop, to splash gorgeous colors on the canvas that mimicked and flattered reality. To paint for the memory of my Camille, of loves lost, and loves yet to flourish.
Ah, yes. I was back.
I thought of the Chief, and wondered what year he’d been transported from the gilded halls of Washington, DC. Had it been next year? Twenty years in my future? How long would it take my work to be known and beloved?
With a mental bow, I gestured to his fine spirit, wishing him clear vision and a long life. How it happened, I would never know. But I’d always be grateful to the tall proud man who had helped me relight my artistic spark.
I pecked a surprised Alice on the cheek, squeezed and hugged my eight children, scrubbed behind Antoine’s ears and received an enthusiastic tongue bath in return, and grabbed my easel. The early morning light was fading, and I needed to catch it before it disappeared forever.
Red Cloud, inspiration for this story. And Monet, in his younger years....
Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. For free excerpts, articles, beautiful photos, and recordings of the author reading aloud, visit his websites at www.legardemysteries.com and www.mooremysteries.com and join him on his collaborative blog: www.murderby4.blogspot.com.