One more stroke of the brush, and a rich color with a thousand stories to tell tinted the shadow of a thought. Or was it a tree branch? How much of what she saw was paint, and how much of it was reality? Really, who could say?
Painting had always been there, like breathing. Now what? She could almost make out a long-lost face through the mist of her memory. She saw the paint, felt the brush in her hand, heard voices telling her she should sleep.
Oh, she was so thin, she should eat; here, have a sandwich, have a bite of the casserole Janette brought; darling, sit down. Look alive, my dear! Gracious sakes’, she should eat. Tsk. She should care. It was okay to cry; really it was. Crying was the first sign of healing. For goodness’ sake, cry already!!! Get back out there, because it’s really the best thing. Go to the salon; fix her face up a bit. It’ll make her feel better; for sure that’s what she needs.
Soon the litany of aunts, grandmothers, and widows from the Walterboro First Baptist Church had blurred into a dream, like so many brushstrokes painting brilliant autumn leaves destined to forever be frozen in their fall. She couldn’t remember eating. She saw dying autumn leaves and didn’t care to look elsewhere.
Hurry up and cry! For mercy’s sakes, what was wrong with her? Why wouldn’t she just cry?
Did she see what she was painting? Who could know for sure? Who could say what thoughts passed behind those pale gray eyes?
She lifted her eyes to the window of the veranda. It was a day. It must have been July, because it was still and hot as death outside. A discarded plastic bag rustled as a car drove by.
She felt the brush, still in her hand, heard the wooden floor creak as she shifted her weight and stared, all-seeing and yet unseeing, at the canvas before her. She mixed a shade of orange-brown and touched the brush to the canvas. With the bristles frozen in place, a spot on the forever autumn she was creating, she closed her eyes and packed away a bit more bitterness in the same place she’d hidden her salty tears.
A sound pierced the silent summer afternoon. It sounded like pain. No, it sounded like her voice. She dropped her paintbrush and found herself standing by a stack of unfinished paintings in a protected corner of the verandah. This one was draped with a paint-splattered dropcloth–drops of paint on the stained khaki fabric traced a lifetime of memories.
She could see the blue she’d helped her father paint the floor she was standing on, some dozen years ago. That spot was the sunshine yellow she’d used to paint the sunflower field they’d planted last summer. There, the color of her little brother’s bedroom walls; there, the mossy green of a verdant springtime; there, the watery blue, purple, and rich grays of rain.
She pulled aside the dropcloth and set the unfinished painting on an easel, seeing it as though for the first time. Mint grew in clumps beside a garden gate. A maple’s leaves barely rustled in the summer breeze. Mossy bark bounced velvety and rough under her touch. Thistles and maidenhair ferns grew wildly, unabashedly thriving in the smooth black soil. This place was foreign. It felt so alive.
Suddenly she was on her knees in the Saint Augustine grass, fingernails in the soil. There was rain, falling from the sky, falling from her untouchable gray eyes. What fine brush could have traced the knots of exposed roots and the veins in each blade of grass? From whose palette did those watery blues and grays fall?
Then came the rain. Thunder’s heads rolling in, one after another; lightning bright and sound sharp enough to rend the sky. Smoky grays, blues, and dreamlike purple hues mixed into the oils created a brilliant summer thunderstorm. She could hear the rain, could feel it drawing paths on her face, pooling in the kerns and outcroppings of the black soil below those masterpiece blades of grass.
Hot tears, cool showers. The sound of thunder, the sound of rain. She’d never heard a sound so right.