This story was previously published by TracerPublishing and will be featured in a podcast in September 2016. Copyright is held by the author.
DARLENE HURRIED down the steps, past the garbage bins and raspberry canes that lead along the beach to the ferry dock. She carried a rolled up canvas, two large bags and a knapsack on her back, but, even burdened, she was almost running. She didn’t see the flock of geese or the swaying tree boughs. Willow leaves delicately brushing the ground were invisible to her. Surf burst over the breakwater as she hastened, intent on reaching the docks and the ferry.
The orange cat, in Darlene’s room, watched the departure from the window, idly flicking his tail. The room was left empty except for crumpled wrappers in the waste bin and the grains of coarse sand that gathered between the sheets. The window faced the courtyard’s garden and bins of ripe compost. Beyond the courtyard was the sandy path to the beach. The cat breathed in the rotting aroma that wafted through the open window and stretched on the rumpled bed, listening to the tide and chirps of crickets.
On Darlene’s first night of the weekend retreat, she showered in the shared bathroom and stepped on the tiles with bare feet. The tiles felt sticky with grime. A man’s razor and shaving foam crowded the sink. Returning to the bedroom, she heard heavy footsteps in the narrow hall and a key turning metallically in locks.
“No!” a muffled voice exclaimed across the hall. “Do they realize what it’s like? I can’t . . .” Darlene dug earplugs from her bag, pushed them deep in her ears and retreated under the covers.
The next morning before dawn, Darlene crept down the gloomy hallway towards the kitchen, watchful of the unlit alcoves and broken floor tiles. The only light was the glow of salt rock lamps placed along the corridor. In the silence and grey light, she felt like she had spent the night in an abandoned building. Turning the corner of the long passageway she was startled by a tall figure constructed of driftwood. Bleached limbs glowed in the dim light. Down the hall, the cat stood like a ghostly sentinel, staring belligerently.
The cat watched Darlene plug in the kettle and prepare her tea. With cold green eyes, he observed the man from the bedroom across the hall burst into the kitchen. The man prepared coffee with a tension filled face and footfalls that sounded as though his feet were filled with lead. “Have you seen my milk?” he demanded. Darlene shook her head. “It was there on the second shelf,” he complained, bent over, eyeing the refrigerator shelves. “I know it was here,” he muttered, slamming the door and stalking out of the kitchen, holding his coffee cup like a gun.
The cat was unmoved. People of all sorts came and went from the arts centre. They were all the same to him. He noted Darlene’s wide eyes and strained face as the man stomped out of the kitchen. She took only a few small bites of the bagel before tossing it in the compost bin. Why hadn’t she given the bagel to him?
On the hallway wall hung a large painting of a girl with long hair and vulnerable hazel eyes. It was winter in the painting and the girl’s face was vivid. In the distance was a stand of poplar trees in a snowy field. Darlene gazed at the painting the day she arrived when the sun shone and the sound of the tide was soothing. Excitement bubbled up when she looked at it.
“She looks like you!” exclaimed the coordinator, who was showing Darlene around. Darlene blushed, observing the resemblance. “The fields remind me of my hometown,” Darlene replied, changing the subject. The woman smiled and said, “The artist spent last winter here, when we had so many snowstorms. No ferries ran and he was stranded . . .”
Touring the courtyard gardens, the woman nodded towards the beach and observed, “The beach is eroding. That’s why this building is no longer a school. They didn’t think it was safe for children.”
“This island is so beautiful, and wild,” Darlene said, wind lifting her hair. “I can see why artists come here.”
Darlene could hardly wait to begin. She wanted to paint the sand dunes and the sky. The wind, whitecaps and erosion created a feeling of being under siege. Darlene wanted that turbulent quality to enter her painting. She felt excited about beginning. It had been months since she had embarked on something new. In the classroom studio in the city, she had felt restless and constrained. A lack of energy had weighed her down.
The woman showed her the studio down one of the hallways. “Isn’t it spacious?” she said. “So many creative people come here! It’s exciting to think about the art this centre has inspired!”
“Yes . . .” Darlene hesitated. A table, desk and chair were haphazardly placed about the room. The floor tiles were lifting and a parched bouquet of wildflowers drooped in an empty glass bottle. The studio felt abandoned, like no-one ever created anything there. But later, when Darlene brought her supplies and pushed up the heavy window, a breeze drifted in with subtle freshness. Slowly, the room came alive with the sound of tide and scent of leaves. Through the screen, she could see the man from the bedroom across the hall descend the steps into the courtyard. He paused as if he could sense her watching him. He met her gaze coldly, then disappeared around the building.
The girl’s face in the hallway painting kept coming to Darlene’s mind as she began to work that first morning. She painted a worried face in the foreground. Then a hallway appeared, dissolving into beach grass and a surge of water. It was almost as if the images were taking shape by themselves on her canvas. Hours passed and the sky lightened. Darlene sank into a chair and studied her painting. She felt energized by what was appearing on the canvas. Her back was tired and she felt hungry for the first time since she arrived.
The cat observed Darlene working steadily in the studio. He watched her make cups of tea in the kitchen, wander the beach, and return to work. Her face took on a focused expression as the art centre took shape in the painting. Wilted leaves, rotten posts, ghostly hallways and the gold glow of the salt rock lamps appeared on the canvas as if they had volition of their own.
The coordinator was leaving for the weekend. She stuck her head through the studio door. “There’s a list of phone numbers on my office door. Maintenance, water taxis, and the mental health crisis worker.” She slipped into the studio and closed the door carefully behind her. “Artists can be very sensitive, as you know,” she began in a cautious voice, nodding towards the heavy footsteps in the hallway. “The mental health line is available 24/7 if someone is in crisis. They’ll give you all the help you’ll need.”
She glided out the door before Darlene could reply.
The heavy-footed man came and went from the kitchen. His hair stood on end. His face was sour and pale. The cat had heard him in his room in heated conversation with someone on his cell phone.
“I thought I would have the place to myself,” he complained. “I’m feeling pretty raw. I wanted some privacy, but there’s somebody in the bedroom across the hall.”
Neither Darlene nor the man were of interest to the cat. People who came here were irrelevant. The expressions that passed over their faces were nothing but a repeat of others who had come before. He watched them come with brushes and paints, laptops and cellphones. Then, unaffected, he watched them go.
On Saturday, Darlene wandered the island. She’d spent the morning studying her painting and thinking about what to do next. She explored the courtyards, the old lighthouse and the long road around the lagoon. She met the man from across the hall walking the leafy lane. His hands were plunged into his jacket pockets and long nose protruded from his hood.
Darlene rested in her bedroom in the early evening with a book, then returned to the studio, inspired. A gloomy hallway dissolved into a surge of tide in her painting. Furniture was tossed on the waves and a gale whipped the trees. Rain fell in swirling torrents. Faces appeared on the canvas, wild eyed, and rain drenched. She continued to paint for hours, engrossed. She looked up for a moment to see the man staring through the studio window. He looked pale and alarmed before entering the building. Darlene listened, frozen, for leaden footsteps to approach the studio.
“She’s painted me!” the man hissed into his cell phone in his bedroom. His breath was ragged and voice shrill. “I’m almost positive. I saw it through the studio window when I came back from a walk . . . I’m not being paranoid!”
The sun hadn’t yet risen when the cat watched Darlene pack up her paints, dismantle the finished painting and hasten down the road towards the ferry docks. The face in her painting had become the tormented man. His hair stood on end and his eyes were wild with fear. Rain lashed from a black sky. The building was flying apart; furniture, beams and roof spiraled through space. The man’s clothing was soaked and ragged, and, painted feet, in windblown beach grass, were giant sized.
The cat, too, had found his way into the painting. With emerald eyes, the painted cat gazed at the dissolving hallway, flying furniture and tormented man, impassive. He was the only image in the painting that wasn’t in motion. He sat on his haunches, through the chaos and destruction, unmoved. None of it mattered.