Monday, January 28, 2013

Man in the Water

The sun bled across the surf like a dying heart. Voracious waves gorged themselves on the red then were compelled to beach themselves over drowning sand. Grim clouds loomed in the distance, choking on coal fumes, thick pillars of black smoke coughed out of gray factories. Stones stood stern in the water, the only piece of the world refusing to kneel before the coming night. Upon it stood the already defeated John Morgan, a painter with a blank canvas and no desire to stare into the salty sea. The sea that long ago swallowed his mother.

But Clarice, childhood friend and woman of John's fancy, was entranced by the water. She said it was the sound of sifting sands rolled along by gentle waves. The vast infinity of the horizon, into which the gulls flew for distant lands which only they could find. Her eyes, however, spoiled all secrets. They were eyes in love. In love with the sea.

“It's growing dark,” John said, packing away his brushes. “Even when they set the lamps, I won't be able to see. We should head home now. At least to a lighted space. Should I take you out tonight, Clarice? Dinner?”

“You believe me, don't you?” She asked while staring intently at the sea. “The others think I'm either daft or a witch. Even my father...”

“Believe what? About the man? The finely dressed fellow who rises from the depths and woos you into a moonlit waltz along the shore? I can't say I do. Would you believe you?”

“Do you not believe me?” She turned on him hotly, her blonde hair lashing like snakes. “Or do you not wantto believe me?”

“Why wouldn't I want to believe you?” John stepped with one foot, but the burning gaze beneath her furrowed brows pushed him back. “Any man wants to believe his friends not crazy. And any friend wants those dearest to have healthy minds and healthy lives. But we've come here for a month now, Clarice, and there has risen no man.”

A teardrop of spurn flew from her lips to his face. It stuck fast, burning his cheek with fury. “You don't want to believe, John. You don't want to, just like you don't want to get it. I don't want you, John. Not for dates. Not for any dates. And I'm never going to. You're a sick, scared little man who hides behind canvas so the world won't see. Not once has that man ever actually set brush to that canvas, not that I have seen. You're a farce of a painter and a farce of a man. There is no magic in your soul, John. And magic is what it takes, John, to have me.”

Without another word she stormed away, leaving John alone with his paints and the sound of waves shattering on the bridge's granite knees below.

It was some weeks before they spoke again, weeks which John had spent in artless anguish. When the letter arrived, uniquely by a persistent pigeon pecking away at his window in the dead of night, it was a great shock. Clarice was hosting a party of some variety which she left ambiguous, though her words seemed to wink and dare the reader to find out. John fumbly folded the letter into his pocket and sent the pigeon out with a hastily scribbled reply.

John's heart drummed in his ears as he made his way up the stairs to the large apartment Clarice rented. The building was her uncle's, and he'd given her the largest space for an affordable penny. The entire upper story belonged to her. In the past it was used as a ballroom when the apartments were hotel rooms and the guests wealthy and sometimes royal. Clarice had felt it fit to leave the floor finely furnished, and often hosted many small parties. But this one was big.

Guests spoke of their travels to attend, traveling from countries over seas to see what secrets dear Clarice would tell. But try as they might, none had yet seen her. John made himself comfortable in a dark corner of the room, where he listened to idle chitchat and helped himself to a slice of pillowy lemon cake. It melted off his plate, and he made fast to find another.

He was found at the table, making notes of the cakes that would not fit on his plate. Clarice tapped him on the back, laughed at his overflowing tray, shook her head. Then her smile fell. Her gaze turned guiltily downward.

“John, I—I'm so sorry. What I said—I shouldn't have...”

“It's okay,” he lied, “I'm over it.”

“Are you sure? How can I make it up to you?”

There were so many ways he wanted to answer that question, few of which were appropriate for the time, place or company. Instead he simply shook his head and pulled her into a friendly hug. “Just forget about it.”

“If you insist.” She released from him and fell back. Into the arms of a tall man who seemed to appear from thin air. He was strongly built and immaculately dressed from head to toe in clothes some hybrid of successful stock trader and distant-related royalty. Gold pieces clung to his coat in odd yet not unappealing places.

“And who is this?” John asked, trying hard not to grind his teeth. He looked the man down and up—all the way up. At least seven feet up. Past the curling black hair that fell near the waist, past the shoulders with over-the-top red and gold tasseled pads, past the dubious dimpled chin, to the long, slender face. A familiar face. A face with bony curves and deep shadows straight from John's nightmares. A face awash with water and salt. A face looming over the shoulder of his ill-fated mother.

“This,” Clarice's voice snapped John back to the party, “is my fiance, Cedric.”

“Fiance?” John asked, astonished.

“Yes. We are to be wed tonight at the shore where we met.”

Cedric stepped forward then, extending a hand with a pleasant smile. He sloped slightly, so John wouldn't have to reach. “It's good to meet you, John. I've actually been told quite a bit about you. I hear you're a painter, an up-and-coming sort of chap. I'm a man of the arts myself, and would be interested in seeing what you've done.”

“Yes, I do like to paint. I wouldn't quite say that I am a painter. Hobby, perhaps, but not a trade.” John shook Cedric's hand. It was sweaty, moist. When they released, he quietly wiped his palms inside a pocket.

“A shame. More men should live for the arts.”

Clarice cleared her throat. “Actually, John, I was hoping you would do us a favor.”

“Hm? A favor?”

“Yes. At the beach tonight it will be just Cedric and I and the priest. I was hoping you could paint our marriage. I know you think it will be too dark but Cedric has the most brilliant lanterns you've ever seen, and they can light the night as though it will be day. You really are a wonderful artist, John, and I'd love to have your hand capture this moment forever.”

John was torn. On the one hand, he'd do anything for Clarice, but on the other there was Cedric. Cedric whom he didn't trust at all, and Cedric who had stolen her from him. “I don't know. How strong are the lanterns?”

“I could show you,” Cedric offered. He turned to Clarice. “I should show him, dear. It will only be a second. And an artist has to know what he's getting into, after all.”

“Yes, of course.” Clarice placed a kiss on his high cheek. John silently seethed. “Hurry back.”

Cedric stalked away from the table, John reluctantly following suit. He scrambled to keep up with Cedric's long steps, nearly jogging to keep from falling behind. The man led him out of the ballroom and into the oriental-themed hall. The red carpet flickered orange in the dancing lamplight. Gold dragons raced from end to end, falling away beneath John's frantic feet. Finally they came to one of the converted apartments, where John supposed Cedric was staying.

It was dark inside, too dark to see. John could hear Cedric rummaging around in the darkness. He expected that soon the room would be lit, a show of the supposedly brilliant lanterns. Suddenly the door slammed shut, choking off what little light came in from the hall.

“You know what I am, John.” Cedric's footsteps were loud, the ruffling of his pant legs deafening. “I can't let you stop me now. I'm too hungry. Much, much too hungry.”

John gasped, tried to leap back to the door. There was a crack. Pain splitting the back of his head, through his eyes. Jagged bleeding lines of light over the darkness. And then nothing.

John awoke later, not knowing how long. His skull ached, and for a moment he wondered if he was hung over. Then he remembered not having any alcohol. Then he remembered a whole lot more. Frantically he scrambled for the door, expecting it locked. It flew open easily and he dashed out into the hall. It was dark, with only the silver moonlight cast through a window to light the way. The grand clock against the wall called the hour. Midnight.

“Oh no, no!”

John raced down the stairs, nearly tripping on the third flight. The adornments of the walls flashed by, and shortly he was in the streets clutching his elbows against the bitter wind. It was a short run to the shore, where the waves carried a good way up the beach, roaring like lions and shaking their manes. The sand was empty. No footprints, no trash, no distraught priest.

A light plunk drew John's eyes to the bridge where he spied a fisherman who'd just cast a line.

“Sorry, boy,” the fisherman called. “Ye just missed 'em. I doubt you'll find 'er by now. Kelpie's probly got a full belly. My sentiments.”

John fell to his knees. Warm tears battled the cold, ultimately losing to the biting wind. The fisherman called out again: “Cheer up, lad. Ye'll get yer lass. There's plenty o' fish in the sea!”

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