How to Paint Angels

Another angel, not quite perfect. Carol snatched the canvas off the easel and balled it up hard. She flung her creation into the fireplace and watched the devouring flames turn wings black.

Like a dead weight Carol sank to the carpet, then lay on her back and shut her eyes. She tried to shut out the world.

That evening, after some television news and a bite to eat, she was compelled to place a new white canvas onto the empty easel. She stared at the blank space. She dipped her delicate brush into silver.

As usual she began with the angel wings. Her strokes were precise, slow.

The most difficult part was always the eyes. They never came out right. Angel eyes were a puzzle. She would do them last.

A knock at the door.

“Come in!”

It was her new friend Monique. “I’m sorry–I didn’t know you were busy–here’s the jacket you left in Tony’s car. I’ll leave you here to your work.”

“No! Please stay for a minute! The apartment can feel so empty. It’s nice to have some company for a change.”

“What’s this? You painted all these?”

Carol laughed. “It’s my hobby, I guess.”

“Seriously? It beats making tin foil Christmas tree ornaments, or any silly thing I’ve ever attempted. I didn’t know you were an artist! They’re absolutely beautiful!”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Wonder what–if they’re beautiful?”

“If they’re as perfect as angels should be.”

“They’re angels. How can they not be beautiful?” laughed Monique, wandering slowly about Carol’s small apartment, turning right and then left. She gazed with increasing wonder at a dozen silvery canvases on easels. There was such a clutter of angels that it was difficult to maneuver.

Monique looked quickly at each canvas. The heavenly paintings were exquisite but something about them was odd. They felt unnatural. Something vital seemed to be missing. And there were so many. She didn’t want to say anything. That would be impolite.

“You might have noticed that none of my angels have eyes,” Carol remarked, trying not to sound embarrassed. “Not yet.”

“Oh my gosh! I was just thinking there was something kind of strange about them. Now I see why! They’re absolutely wonderful but the faces are wrong. So you’re waiting to paint the eyes on all these? Are they difficult to do?”

“I always have trouble with my eyes.”

“Me, too,” smiled Monique. “That’s why I wear glasses.”

They both laughed.

Carol rolled in a nightmare. It was another lucid dream of Hell.

Blackness swallowed her. She was spinning, drowning in an infinite void, suffocating in ungraspable nothingness. There was no light, not a trace of substance or form.

A tomb.

In the blackness she struggled to find her hand. She was desperate to lift her hand and touch something, feel anything. She could find nothing. Spinning, spinning, she was alone, less than nothing in the consuming nothingness.

It was a Hell without flames, without demons or evil, without time, only emptiness. A devouring nightmare that had erased her entire world.

No hope.

Panicking, she strained in her mind to remember some known thing. A face, a ray of sunshine. Something in a vanished life she understood. Something near. Deep in her mind she tried to grasp at anything, a momentary spark, an atom, to cling to, to push back the black, ruthless, eternal Nothing.

Nothing.

In the blackness she caught a glimmer.

She woke.

Her dark apartment was strangely aglow. She lifted her head from her pillow. All about her were living eyes. Eyes of pure light, living light. Warm light.

Carol jumped out of bed and flipped on the cold apartment light.

She began painting eyes.

Dew on the Grass

Missy smelled dew on the grass.

She smelled the damp earth and yesterday’s rain. The roots of trees, mouldering leaves.

She smelled freshly broken twigs, the scent of crisp, tart, yellow and brown autumn.

And a newly blue sky.

Simply by breathing, Missy understood everything.

A ten-mile-away fireplace, a nearby muddy puddle.

The rising warm sun, startled birds taking flight.

Bees, butterfly wings, the erosions of mountains, dandelion dust and the movement of time.

From beyond the horizon, just as clear as that smell of autumn, Missy sensed all of those infinite things. Their unending motion. That residue of untold lives.

She smelled happiness and fear and the atoms of those long-vanished.

She smelled the new moon and hidden stars.

A human pulled impatiently on her leash. Missy followed.

An Old Man on a Bus

The old man was frail.  From the few white hairs on his scabbed head . . . to his watery eyes . . . to his trembling hands.

“Good morning,” he said politely as he boarded the city bus.

The driver ignored him.

The old man nodded and struggled down the aisle to get to an empty seat. His feet shuffled. Slowly, painfully, he turned his body, grabbed the rail, bent like a skeleton to sit. The passengers on either side did not look up from their phones.

The bus started with a sudden jolt and the old man tipped into a neighbor. “I’m so sorry,” he laughed with embarrassment.

No reply.

Each stop on Fourth Avenue brought a fresh tide of riders. The old man sat without moving–except trembling hands. All eyes avoided him.

Until the arrival of a young man.

“You’re really, really old,” said the youth, who sat across the aisle, and stared directly at him from behind dark sunglasses.

“I am.”

“Doesn’t life suck when you’re old and about to die?” The young man spoke mockingly.

“It does.”

“You have to be at least a hundred years old. Don’t you worry someone like me might beat you up?”

“I can tell that you won’t,” smiled the old man.

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because I can see you’re just an ordinary person.”

The youth turned his head and laughed at the window. Outside the city blurred past.

The old man said: “I know you’re an ordinary person because a long time ago I was precisely like you. I thought I was something special, nothing could touch me. I could insult the entire world and nothing would happen.

“I was all talk.

“I would beat up everybody. I would crush every repugnant thing that stood in my way. The future was mine. Nothing could stop me.

“Now all that’s left is what you see.”

The young man regarded the old man’s smiling reflection in the bus window.

The young man jumped up at the next stop and hurried off.

Waterfall Tears

Laurie lost her love and came to the garden to grieve. She stood on the arching bridge above the small stream.

Leaning on the rough wood rail, she gazed nowhere. The cherry blossoms around her, the cheerful bubbling at her feet, the fluttering leaves: she saw nothing.

Children ran past her. One sweet voice cut her heart. She cried.

Tears spilled into the nowhere. They poured out. Her grief mingled in the water, began coursing along.

Her tears passed a willow tree. They passed the small turtle rock. Around gentle bends her tears coursed slowly, glistening over green pebbles. Her tears mixed with the spring rains. Like lost silver they shimmered in sunshine. Her tears ran and ran as the stream narrowed, in a growing hurry, it seemed, to go somewhere.  Elsewhere.

Suddenly, over a steep waterfall her tears thundered. They turned to mist.

Laurie straightened her back and breathed in deeply. She vaguely saw the shapes of white blossoms around her. She moved on.

A Dance in the Lightning

Angie was dead tired. The steep, stony hike up to the mountain’s summit had taken longer than she and her sister had planned. The air was very thin.

Karen was anxious to begin back down. “I don’t like this. Look at the clouds.”

“Let me rest for a minute,” said Angie, gazing down.

Silent, very far below, the familiar Earth seemed empty, unpeopled. The tan and green plains, like a rumpled quilt, stretched curving into the distance. A river one hundred miles distant made a loose thread. The world’s floor was dappled with creeping shadows.

It seemed the two sisters could reach out to touch moving white clouds.

“We better head down. Staying up here is dangerous,” warned Karen.

“Just one more minute,” begged Angie.

The shadows of scattered clouds marched across the world below. The amorphous shadows seemed like creeping ink. Up on the mountain’s high summit the atmosphere was clear and icy. The wind shivered Angie’s skin. Range upon range rose to the east, raking more boiled white clouds. The farthest peaks were minuscule and dreamlike.

Up in that heaven everything was like perfect crystal: the air, a shining glacial lake nestled straight below in a cathedral of rising granite, the sharp stone walls, panels of sky painted blue. The white clouds, now so close, seemed the only things that were alive.

They were moving, growing, indefinite, changing. Becoming deeper. Deeper. Dark.

“Come on!”

But Angie couldn’t move. The strange beauty of the darkening arrested her.

The freezing wind became razor sharp.

A shadow came.

“Hurry!” shouted Karen, running over tumbled boulders to reach a small shelter that had been built on the mountain’s summit. The shelter was made of carefully assembled stones, built by someone long ago. One who feared heaven turned black.

Angie did not follow.

A cloud very close above blackened.  A hard rain began.  Angie stood alone, watched for the first flash of lightning.

That first revelation was a blinding, searing spear of fire. It pierced a mountain ridge just below.

The lightning flashed just a moment, a jagged burning finger, cracking open the height of heaven, transforming the rain into sparks. The booming rebound from unseen blasted stone was the voice of thundering, echoing power. A momentary awful power shaking the deepest foundations.

A second flash.  Closer.

The power descended from somewhere–from some place beyond the highest peak or reach of mind.  It was a pure light, a heedless Something, manifested from gathered blackness. A burning truth.  Then an explosion.

Another.

The white light burned in front of Angie. It was the light from an open door. Her eyes saw through for just a moment.

Then came another flash. And another. Even closer. Much closer. Exploding nearer and nearer.  Angie’s sky-reaching arms waved in abandon.

She felt dizziness, danger, amazement, joy.

Angie danced in the lightning.

Irresistible Gravity

A leaf blower came by every Monday.

A tree in a concrete planter had been placed at the center of a concrete plaza. It fed on the dark water of janitors. It shed a few leaves.

Around and around the spindly trunk rode a grown man with a nicely groomed beard on a motorized skateboard. Mounted on his head was a tiny lens. Around and around he circled one afternoon. Around and around.

The tree dropped a leaf.

The Nicely Groomed Man rode briskly away, and later that night he watched his twinkling video on a screen in a very small dark room.  He then sent if off to a virtual place to show everybody, somebody, anybody. The blurred scene, he thought, was like art. He was a satellite. The lone tree was a sun. Its gravity was irresistible. He returned to work the next day.

During lunch the bearded man spooned a cup of drippy noodles and thoughtfully regarded the tree. Cigarette butts and litter had been tossed into the concrete planter. The tree grew in a false light reflected from a wall of sheer, faceless offices. A wonderful forlorn miracle. How did it grow? Why did it grow?

Where did it come from? Who placed it there? It didn’t occur to the man that they were alike. Both in that plaza. Waiting. Waiting.

Another day came. A janitor dumped a bucket of dark water.

A leaf blower arrived on Monday.

A Small Fountain in Green Park

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie was too busy to hear her mother. She leaned over the edge of a small fountain in Green Park, peering into the basin. Her two-year-old eyes took delight in the swirling reflections.

The water bubbled, whispered, leaped. It splashed cool kisses. Maggie extended her arms and laughed. She touched the rippling surface with a tentative, curious finger.

Strangely, she saw her own small face in the fountain, crowned by sunlight, wrinkling brightly and dancing.

The water in the park’s fountain was alive like an inexplicable wonder. Its light contained a secret. Maggie gazed at her own small reflection, trying very hard to see herself clearly. Her face was there, then–poof–gone. A flying drop landed on her nose and she laughed again.

“Don’t fall in!”

Mrs. Spivey, the third grade teacher, frantically counted heads. Eight-year-old children become spinning whirlwinds on a school field trip.

The Natural History Museum and its dinosaur bones were located in Green Park, across the plaza from a small fountain. The fountain around which her students were running wildly.

Maggie dashed past the fountain, then suddenly stopped, turned around. The place seemed familiar. She approached the small fountain, stood very still and looked down into it. The water swirled and bubbled, rippled and whispered. Catching her breath, she looked curiously at her own reflection, becoming thoughtful. Her small face twinkled, the sun over her shoulder. Her face appeared to be a sudden vision in a wonderful dream.

But a classmate almost caught her. She darted away, laughing.

“Don’t fall in!”

Feeling slightly guilty, trying hard to keep her balance, Maggie leaned over the water. She crumpled the empty box of detergent and shoved it into a shopping bag. She glanced over her shoulder. Her high school friends stood nearby, laughing in the sunshine.

She stared down into the fountain’s shallow basin and was surprised to see an uncertain reflection. It had long curly hair and blinking eyes, and a thirteen-year-old smile that seemed rather crooked. Had she seen that face before?

The bewildering vision disappeared in a sudden brew of rainbow bubbles. Bubbles that multiplied out of control. Foam spilled all around her.

A shout echoed across the park’s plaza and Maggie and her friends ran.

“Don’t fall in!”

The two sat on the fountain’s low edge. Maggie’s new boyfriend gently pushed her shoulder.

She swept her hand through the cool water and splashed him. They laughed.

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie walked slowly past the fountain, hand-in-hand with Robert. The park was very quiet on a Tuesday afternoon. It was their honeymoon. The never-changing sun shone brightly high above them. A cool mist from the small fountain touched her warm face.

Suddenly, Robert bent over to kiss her. He lifted her up, cradled her in his arms, whirled about and–laughing–dangled her over the fountain. Maggie shivered.

She imagined falling through space, splashing into the water, dangerously, merging with a soft something that was completely permeating and mysterious. For an instant she saw the reflection of two lovers in the water.

She saw two faces crowned by sunlight, like angels, dreamlike.

She was set again on her feet, and the two walked slowly on.

“Don’t fall in!”

Sitting on a park bench, Maggie closely watched her first child. Her working mind was distracted. It was such a busy day, with so much to do. The tiny girl peered into the small fountain and suddenly reached out to touch the rippling water with a finger.

Maggie jumped up and hurried over. She never took her eyes from her precious child.

Maggie sat down on the low edge of the fountain and wondered at the actual depth of the basin. How dangerous was it, really? Just a few inches. But it seemed so dangerously deep. Her child stared down into the dancing water, so Maggie looked down, too.

Two small faces stared up at her, two faces that were different and alike.

How could she explain that shining, wonderful, perfect–uncertain vision of life in the water? A very young child would not understand. It all had something to do with wistfulness, love and memory. And time. She felt a moment of loss. She couldn’t explain what she saw, not even to herself.

“Don’t fall in!”

Maggie’s happy children were racing around the small fountain like three frantic whirlwinds on a picnic Sunday. She rested on the blanket on the park’s grass. She watched those whom she loved whirl round and round and round. She couldn’t stop them. She did not want to stop them. She simply watched.

“Don’t fall in!”

The children were gone. Grown up.

Maggie and her friends in the Watercolor Society had dispersed themselves strategically around Green Park. Their mission was to create beauty. She had set up her easel right beside that familiar old fountain. It seemed the very best place, with so much potential. One of her old friends had shouted the silly taunt. But Maggie knew she wouldn’t fall in. Not now.

She had known that water all of her life.

Maggie studied the uncertain light on the moving water. Gentle ripples fractured unsteady reflections. It was like every piece of a world jumbled together all at once, but in constant motion. And the unreachable sun was the source. It was the point from which searing light descended to bless her eyes with a thousand living, rising fragments.

How was it possible to capture one brief, so-very-brief moment in a life? All of those passing visions in the small fountain were in her memory still.

At best, her effort–might–master one moment in endless–eternity.  At best.  But, still, she painted. She painted and painted.

“Don’t fall in!”

Her granddaughter was worried. Maggie leaned quietly in the wheelchair over the small fountain.

Maggie’s granddaughter regarded the old woman until she felt reassured, then comfortably turned to examine the small fountain herself.

It wasn’t her first visit to Green Park.

Compelled, she gazed into the water and saw her own rippling face.

It was a beautiful day.