She wants to live in a van down by the river.
She wants to live in a van down by the river.
All things considered, it's not such a great leap of the imagination. She spends all her time down there anyway; lure bobbing gently in the still waters, her fishing pole stretched over the mirrored surface of the river. Some of the older folks called her a 'quiet lass', but there really was more to her than that.
You saw her in the same place every day after school… No one really remembers who it was that first went to her for advice. Some say it was a girl from the fifth form, distressed over a breakup, others say it was a bullied first year.
But as the months and even years wore on, the presence of that girl sitting serenely, became as much a fixture of the school as the library or the gym.
Sitting a little further up the slope, my hands busy sketching the river in my exercise book, I paused- about to draw her into the picture. I hadn't spoken to her myself as among other things, she was older than me and, well…
My mind paused, stumbling over some internal error.
Why hadn't I talked to her? Well, I suppose the same question could be asked about most of the students at my school. Why didn't I talk to her now?
My hands, which had been idly sketching until now, pressed down on the paper of my sketchbook, snapping the lead from my pacer. I couldn't think of a reason why I shouldn't walk over and talk to her, right now.
Clicking out a new lead, I tried to ignore my unease and continue sketching, but it was no good-
my hands kept drifting towards where she sat, fishing on the paper river. Closing my sketchbook, I walked down the slope towards the riverbank. She was sitting on a small chair, its three foldable feet spread on the sparkling white sand, her neat ponytailed hair hanging down over her shoulder.
I squatted next to her in silence, searching my head for something to say. Trying to hide my indecision, I opened my sketchbook- and quickly learned how difficult it is to draw something with your knees in the way.
Just as I was beginning to wonder if I should just man up, quit worrying about my uniform and sit down, she took one hand away from her rod and picked up a plastic box that she had sitting next-to her. She held it out.
Her voice was neutral- not questioning, or forceful, just, there.
I took the box and realized it was an icebox, of the kind you put fish in after they'd been caught.
Sitting on it brought our heads to about the same level and, at a loss for any openers for conversation, I opened to a fresh page in my sketchbook and started drawing the river.
It was slightly strange, yet I found myself trying to imagine the scene as she must have seen it, the same location, but viewed over months and years.
The page filled up and I sat back for a moment. I'd just started sketching to distract myself, but here… I glanced at her and saw her eyes were shut and her head slightly bent forward, the faintest of faint smiles on her face. Now that I was close to her, it had become a little bit clearer- why other people told her their troubles, what it was that made her special;
It was Tranquillity.
She was like a still pond, something about her presence seemed to shed urgency and anxiety- it was by being near her, you could reflect on your life and see clearly what was really important.
Tranquillity, Serenity, Clarity, nothing quite truly described the way she made you feel.
She opened her eyes.
It wasn't a question, but I felt compelled to answer anyway.
"Uh, I guess, yes. I draw."
Stumbling over my own words, it was all I could do to keep from smacking myself in the face.
"I'd like to draw, I'm not too good at it though."
I desperately searched for something to say;
"Maybe it's just the wrong sort of lines, for you- I mean, never-mind."
Her smile broadened a little at my stumbling, failed attempt to weave a pun into the fledgling conversation. All the same, I was determined to say something the momentum of our almost-conversation going-But looking at her, it… just… It was like facing a blank page, whenever my mind would try to grasp a word or two, they'd just slip away further.
She turned her head toward me - and I flinched slightly. Her eyes were green with flecks of golden brown. I was like she was looking though me. I'd lost track of time, how long had I been staring?
A little snap came from near my knees as I tensed- I looked down and saw what my hands had been idly sketching. It was a picture of her, as I was seeing her. I tried to blurt out that I hadn't meant to draw her, it was just something I did unconsciously and if she wanted I'd throw the page, the book, into the river.
I'd handed it over before I could come up with an excuse to keep from showing her- she took the book in both hands, letting go of her rod. Wondering why it didn't fall, I saw she was gripping the slender pole with her knees instead.
Tracing the thin lines of graphite shading with her finger, she closed her eyes and her smile turned radiant; like the reflection of sun on surface of the water. It was somehow both lovely and painful to look at.
"You can do better."
I was taken aback, but before I could go on the defensive, I realized it was true.
I hadn't even been aware that I'd been drawing- heck, If anyone else in the same year as I was had tried the same exercise, I doubt they'd have ended up with a barely recognisable scribble rather than a shaded sketch.
She handed the book back to me and took up her rod again. It quivered in her hands. Her expression didn't change, even for a moment- She gave a long pull on the rod and then with an effortless flick, there was a silver fish dancing in the air in front of her. Standing up, she traced the line down to the water and dipping her hands in, unhooked the fish. The moment it plopped into the water, it disappeared with a flick of its tail and a flash of silver.
"I can do better too. Sometimes, like today, I don't even use bait. I stay in the same spot and the fish become wary." I found myself waiting for her to continue, but the pause stretched out for so long that I began to wonder if that was all of her speech. Then quite abruptly-
"How about we have a game, you and I- I'll do my best to actually catch a fish and you, you actually do your best to draw."
That was the first of many afternoons that we spent together- we didn't always talk, sometimes it was just enough that we were both there. People would even visit sometimes, pouring their troubles or worries into the silence.
From where I sat, I saw that she didn't need to speak to them, either. For our visitors, be they teachers or students, it was usually enough for them to just speak their troubles- and then realise just what it was they were saying.
For me, it was enough to forget my worries for a time and make my way down to the river for our game. There were no rules, we didn't need them.
It was just me and her, doing our best- and there was no doubt that I did my best. I started bringing along a seat of my own and more pencils, sketching and shading trying to capture every nuance of the world I saw. She started bringing bait and… well, I'm not sure what else she did, but her catch improved.
One day, she came with two boxes- I thought it was just because she was going to stop throwing most of her catches back. Instead, when the sun had turned the horizon the colour of burnished gold, she handed one box to me.
The next day, I brought an easel I'd managed to beg from the art department and a sheet of canvas.
I sat away from her and painted her, in her element. I was so absorbed in my task, I didn't notice the very details I was immortalising in oil on canvas. When I was finished, heavy clouds had crossed over the bright afternoon sky, ushering in the evenings gloom early.
She turned at my approach- an odd look flashing across her face, a little fear and hope mixed with sadness; the first real emotion I'd seen from her. For some reason my throat seemed to dry up.
"Um. I painted this, for you… as, thanks, you know- for the fish." I said the last part in a rush, not sure what I'd say if she asked why I thought a painting was a good exchange for a fish.
"I thought, that you hadn't come." She gripped her rod with her knees and took the canvas from me.
She reached out to touch the surface- "Uh, be careful, it's still wet-" I blurted the words out and flinched as her hand fell back like a receding wave- all its energy spent.
"Is it your best work?"
I almost didn't hear her, she was that quiet- but of this at least I was certain.
"Yes." I could feel my pride swelling with certainty. "I did my best to try and capture every detail."
She didn't look up. A wave of unease swept through me- something was terribly wrong here.
I was standing right next to her, but… I wasn't calm. In fact I was more nervous than I could ever remember, as skittish as an animal before a tsunami, unable to explain what was wrong, yet knowing it implicitly.
Her rod quivered and shook but she didn't reach for it, she simply sat, hunched over the canvas.
"I wish I could see it."
Spatters of water started to appear on the painted river.
Her tranquillity was gone.
The puzzle clicked together and the rain fell. Fat droplets that fell upon the canvas and left pockmarks on the glistening surface- the oil paint slick with rainwater and tears.
Her sobs, almost lost amongst the whispering of the rain, brought me back into the present.
Taking her hand, I guided her back to the school proper- she refused to let go of the painting as we walked and try as I might, she remained silent. Guiding her to a wooden bench that was under-cover and dry, I told her to wait while I went back for our things and returned to the river.
I was already soaked by now, so I didn't mind that I'd probably be making several trips- only when I arrived at our spot, there was already a woman there- armed with an umbrella and fretting over the abandoned fishing things.
"She's okay." I gathered up my stuff, only a little annoyed at how wet and sandy some of it was.
I'd never seen the woman before- but then again, I'd always gone home first.
I must have been picking up a kind of tranquillity of my own, the lady didn't ask who I was- only hesitated and then gathered up the angling gear and followed me back to the school.
Things were uneasy between us after that.
The next day when I found her sitting in the same place, I couldn't help but realise how wrong I'd been when I thought of this place as 'hers'- in a different light, this location held her as tightly as binds of steel. The silence between us was still there… yet it was an uneasy silence, not the golden colour of peace but instead a brooding void that magnified doubt and fear.
The answer came to me during art- an announcement that in moments gave birth to an idea so perfect I almost leapt from my seat. Later that day I wrangled a second easel and some other accoutrements from the art's building and with some difficulty, hauled it all down to the water's edge.
When I greeted her, loud and cheerfully, she looked more than a little startled.
I explained my idea to her while I set everything up;
"Let's play a game. We did our best before, with what we were good at- but you know, isn't a game something you play together?"
"What are you doing?"
By then I'd finished erecting both easels and clipped blank sheets of paper to them.
"Getting ready to teach you how to draw- or paint- or whatever medium you'd like."
"But, I can't- why would you even bother-"
I cut her off, gently prising the rod from her hands and replacing it with a palette and brush.
"Not everyone draws the world In front of them- it's just easier to start that way. But you know, after they've gotten good doing that, it's like they can't see any other way of doing things."
I paused. "Or maybe it's like they can't even think that there's a thousand different things they could do- just like there are different ways of us doing our best. I could paint a picture of you here, on the river, or I could show you how you could paint yourself- tomorrow, you could catch a fish and give it to me, or teach me how to catch them."
She smiled and nodded, understanding- so I pulled the easel closer to her and did my best, to teach.
It was quite some time before she started painting; I'd first thought to arrange paint on her palette in order of its hue, but she explained that it would be easier if I did it alphabetically.
She got the hang of it quite quickly and soon I joined in, the soft swish of our brushes merging with the lapping waters and the odd birdcall.
The next day, she brought an extra rod and tackle. First she tried to teach me the fundamentals as I had to her, what made a good cast and how to properly bait hooks.
It was an odd sort of lesson and despite myself I marvelled at how she could bait the sharp hooks with ease- and when I managed to get my line tangled with hers and I didn't know how to fix it, she asked that I hand it over and deftly separated it in moments.
I put the question to her a little less than a month later, when we were both putting the finishing touches on our respective artworks.
"You want to enter an art contest?"
I shook my head and then remembered myself-
"Actually, there's a joint entry category. I'd like to enter us in it."
Her expression turned a little tight.
"Please, though I like doing this, you're not going to win if you enter something like that with me."
I stopped painting and relaxed in my seat.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that. You know, I had another reason why I decided to teach to you draw and paint- more than anything, I wanted to be able to see the world like you did."
My words made her stop mid-stoke.
"Have you ever heard of not being able to see the forest for all the trees? Sometimes, you can get so wrapped up in how things look that you forget the ideas behind them."
The sky had turned the colour of brushed copper when she broke the silence.
When the exhibition day came, her mother dropped her at the Galley. I met her and took her hand and then together we wandered to where the contest was taking place, waiting for the judging.
We'd stop at each painting and I'd do my best to describe them to her- sometimes if the artist was there, she'd ask if she could touch it. Most refused, but all it took was a few small words from her to change their minds.
"That's okay. I wish I could have seen it."
When the judges called everyone over to announce the winners, we stood at the edge of the crowd and watched- well, I watched. As the ceremony wore on though, she turned toward me;
"I can't tell from just the touch, but, it helps me feel closer. When everything's dark and silent, I know I can still reach out. I can make sure it's really real." She reached up, her hand patting my shoulder and then her fingers bushing my face.
Before I could tell her, think of what to say- the judges called out our entries number for the second time. The moment was gone and I lead her through the crowd to the stage and helped her up the small steps. The judges said that they hadn't been able to agree on what style her painting was and asked if she could tell them what school she saw her work as belonging to.
"I wouldn't know, I haven't seen it."
It took some time for exactly what she meant to sink in- the judges, clearly embarrassed, complimented her diplomatically and moved on. Before we could leave, some man from a local newspaper cornered us on the edge of the dais and began to bombard us- well her, with questions.
We were still there when a medium sized oil-painting canvas was produced.
It was the winner of the open category, but somehow they were missing its registration details.
My eyes widened, I let go of her hand and pushed past the journalist so I could see the painting properly.
I looked from its rain-pocked surface, to the judges, to her.
"You didn't?" my voice was hoarse- but it sounded loud in the silence that had fallen over the room.
"I figured that if you were to lose because of me, you should get another chance to win- Didn't you say this was your best when you painted this for me?"
When she smiled, it wasn't at all painful to look upon.
They want to live in a house down by the river.