Dream. Paint. Write.
I unwrapped the course hessian sacking very carefully. Whatever was inside felt heavy, although it was no bigger than my fist.
‘Magic paint…’ is what the ancient woman at the antique store had called it.
I still don’t know why I went into that store today; I was on my way to the bakery to buy some fresh, crusty bread to have with the soup that had been chilling in my fridge since my mom had given it to me over the weekend. I’m sure it’s still edible – it’s only been four days – well it may be on the verge of becoming inedible, but I live on the edge. I laughed sadly at my own joke. I was so far from living on the edge; I lived in the middle of the vast flatness that far preceded the edge. My solitary existence was a cause of great concern for my dear parents, but I enjoy my own company. No, that’s inaccurate. I prefer my own company.
Two shops away from the bakery I saw the antique store, it must have been there for years, because the contents of the shop were well settled in the untidy order that is typical of such a place, but I had never noticed it before.
I didn’t feel any magnetic pull to enter the store; nor was there any accompaniment of anticipatory music. I simply changed direction and walked through the door.
I was disappointed when the clichéd bell tinkled its announcement of my arrival. I would have loved to have entered anonymously and left unseen. I stood amongst the aged and timeless pieces and glanced noncommittally at all that was on display. The obligatory ticking of clocks was the most obvious noise; the flurry of papers being stirred by a desk fan assisted the clocks in breaking the silence.
With my shoulders hunched and my hands in my jacket pocket, I took a deep breath and realised that I may well have stopped breathing when I walked into the shop. Expecting the musty smell of old stuff, I was pleasantly surprised to inhale the scent of pine.
I chose to begin my explorations to the right and slowly made my way through the organised clutter. I hadn’t walked far when the sound of footsteps alerted me to the fact that I wasn’t alone. I turned, expecting to find a bent, old man with glasses and dishevelled grey hair, looking at me reprovingly for my apparent disinterest in all things old and beautiful, but instead, there stood an old woman. She was more wrinkled than I believed humanly possible. In fact, in my mind, I made the immediate assumption that the oldest of items in this store, be it two hundred years old or more, were probably hers to begin with.
“Hello.” I said, hesitantly. Not sure if she had seen me or just happened to be on the same side of the store as I was.
“Yes.” She replied. “I see you.” Her eyes were silvery-grey, like the eyes of a puppy before they turn brown.
“Oh…” Was all I could muster in response.
“I have what you’re searching for.” She said, and gestured for me to follow her.
Well that’s great. I thought. I’m glad she knows what I’m searching for, because I sure don’t.
We reached the desk with the fan. I stopped a fair way off and she walked around to the front of it. Opening a drawer that I could not see, she lifted out a bundle of hessian sacking. Cupping the parcel in two hands she made her way towards me. I felt awkward; was I supposed to move closer to receive what she was offering?
I didn’t. I stayed put. There was no lead-footed feeling and, again, no musical accompaniment to hint at how this exchange might turn out. I simply had no inclination to step forward. All too soon she stood directly before me; her arms extended, palms up, offering the wad of hessian and its unknown contents to me. Dumbly I responded by taking it from her. I stood looking at her, holding the package the way she had, palms up.
“You’ve been searching for this.” She said simply.
“What is it?” I asked.
“But I don’t paint. I’m not an artist. I’m a writer.” I explained, feeling a bit let down.
If she knew what I was searching for, why was she giving me magic paint? I would have preferred a magic pen, especially seeing as lately I was struggling with an all-too-real bout of creative writer’s block. No doubt it was brought on by the career choices I had made. I was trying to make an independent living from my writing, but creative writing didn’t pay well, so I had conceded to write in the creatively-restrictive field of business and commerce. Now I found myself in a trap of deadlines; brain fatigue having robbed me of my imagination.
“You are a writer.” She said.
“Yes.” I was becoming a bit exasperated now.
“You are a writer.” She repeated; this time she emphasised the word.
“Yes.” I said softly, and I hung my head as I absorbed the words. “I am a writer.”
“Take the paint. Paint. And then write.” Her grey eyes were soft on mine when I looked up.
“Thank you.” I whispered.
“Go.” She said; a small smile showed through the lines on her face.
“Okay.” I obeyed; turning slowly, I walked out of the store.
Outside, on the pavement, I stood for a while with the bundle in my hands, not sure where to go from there. I forgot about the fresh, crusty bread. I turned in the direction of my small apartment and, like someone carrying a bird’s nest with eggs in it, I walked home.
There were three separate layers of hessian surrounding what I soon discovered to be an ancient clay pot with a cork stopper. The cork was brittle, I was afraid that it would disintegrate when I tried to pry it open. A few pieces of cork crumbled in my hand, but the stopper popped off easily enough. Curiosity made me cautiously place my nose over the opening to get a whiff of what magic paint smelt like. Nothing. No fragrance.
I swirled the jar slowly in my hand to see if I could glimpse the paint through the small opening. Nothing. It was filled with darkness. I was tempted to dip my finger into the pot so that I could see what colour and consistency the paint had, but I was concerned that if the paint was waterproof or worst still, toxic, I would have an odd coloured fingertip or possibly no fingertip at all.
While I contemplated the situation I looked up at my grandfather’s old writing desk; an inherited piece. He had been a writer too. He had written with a pen and paper in the days before computers. My computer looked so out of place on his old desk, but that’s how I write – I type actually – but it’s still called writing.
Next to my computer was a pen holder filled with pens and pencils. Even though I type most of my stuff on a keyboard, I do still like to make notes with a pen and paper. I scratched through the writing apparatus and found a pointless pencil. I grabbed a piece of paper and made my way back to the magic paint pot.
Carefully I dipped the pencil in and pulled it out, the end was covered in black paint that had the consistency of regular acrylic paint, the kind that kids use for school projects when they have to build and paint a model or something.
I touched the paint-filled pencil tip to the paper and it made a blob of paint. I moved it along the paper and it made a line. I twirled the pencil in my hand and the painted point made a swirly paint pattern on the page.
“Magic paint huh?” I said to no one but myself. “Looks like ordinary black paint to me. Black? I mean, why can’t it be blue or something?”
I had hardly said the words when the paint on the paper turned blue.
“Oh my socks!” I exclaimed as I looked around the room. I don’t know who I was expecting to see; I was, after all, alone at home. A pot of magic paint didn’t change that fact. I looked at the tip of the pencil, definitely black.
The paint on the paper, definitely blue. I dipped the pencil back into the pot and brought out another blunt point immersed in black paint. I followed the same routine – a dot, a line and a swirl, in black paint.
“Red.” I said, and the newest applications of paint turned red. The initial ones stayed blue, and the tip of the pencil was still black.
“Oh my socks!” I squealed again.
I repeated the exercise until I had gone through all of the primary and secondary colours and was beginning to try weird and wonderful colours like magenta and puce. The paper was nearly full and I suddenly realised I was really hungry. I ate the reheated soup, without crusty bread, all the while staring from the paint pot to the black paint on the pencil-tip to the rainbow of colour on the paper.
“I need a paintbrush.” I announced, once again to no one in particular. When one lives on one’s own, one is inclined to converse with oneself.
I glanced at the time. Today’s writing deadlines were, for once, not the reason I looked at the clock. Deadlines forgotten, I wanted to get to a craft shop so I could buy some paintbrushes. I carefully placed the cork back on the jar and then dashed out to the nearest general dealer to buy a variety of paintbrushes. While I was there I bought two canvases, one medium and one large. I knew I couldn’t really afford these things, I was using bread and butter money so to speak, but I’d been without bread today and survived. I felt sure I could compromise a little in some way to make up for this unprecedented splurge.
Back at my apartment I propped the medium sized canvas up on my kitchen shelf. I had the paint pot open on the shelf next to the canvas and an assortment of brushes rested in an old vase. I stared blankly at the canvas. The blank canvas stared at me.
“I don’t know what to paint.” I said. “I’m not a painter, I’m a writer.” I walked to the window. I didn’t know a thing about painting. I didn’t know if I was supposed to do the outlines in pencil and then fill in with paint, or start in one corner and work my way down and hope that whatever I painted came out in the right proportion.
As I mused, a thought occurred to me. What if the paint was so magic that it not only changed colour, but it also knew how to paint. If I held the brush and said “tree”, would the brush be able to paint a tree?
From my spot at the window I looked beyond the pot of paint to my bookshelf and my cosy reading chair. On the chair lay a book of poetry I’d been reading and I remembered that my bookmark was on the page that marked the beginning of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven.
I walked up to the canvas and picked up a medium brush. I dipped it into the paint pot. I held the paint-soaked brush against the canvas and whispered, “Raven.”
No magical feeling overcame me; no melody accompanied the brush strokes. It was my hand that was doing the painting, even though I had never painted before. At unplanned intervals my hand would dunk the brush back into the pot. Occasionally my hand would choose a different size brush. Intermittently my mouth would utter a colour and the most recent application of paint would change to various shades of blue, purple and grey, intermingled with the black. I was astounded to see how much colour went into the painting of a black raven. The attention to detail was infinite; the bird’s pupil and iris, although both black, where differentiable. Minute brush strokes created the wisp of feathers. Talons and beak appeared glossy and sharp due to the accuracy of the highlights.
As I completed the final stroke and put the brush back in the vase, I looked at the painting with a mixture of awe and astonishment. The raven looked so real that I almost expecting to see it blink and ruffle its feathers before flying off the page.
I looked at my hands. Spills and splashes of black paint decorated my fingers – only black, no other colour. No blue, no grey, no purple. The same applied to the brushes in the vase. I had used all but the largest brush, and they were covered with black paint alone.
I went to the wash basin and was pleasantly surprised to find that the paint simply rinsed off under the warm water. I brought the brushes to the basin and rinsed them clean too. When I put the brushes in the vase I touched the raven painting. The paint was dry. It did not smudge. The unruffled, realistic looking raven stared back at me.
It was late. The sun had set without me noticing. The only light on in my apartment was the kitchen light. I was hungry again. No bread. I made myself a cup of tea and nibbled on the last of the short bread biscuits my mom had left for me. I walked around my small apartment closing blinds and switching on a few more lights. One gets lonely and a little afraid of the creatures in one’s imagination when one lives by oneself. I may have creative writer’s block, but my imaginary thoughts still work; overtime. I took the book of poems and put it next to my bed, switching on the bedside lamp and turning down my duvet as was my nightly routine.
My shoulders were unbelievably tense from the time I had spent painting; more so even than when I write for the tightest deadline. I was surprised because while I had been busy, it had felt so effortless. I took my tea to the bathroom and ran a nice hot bath. While I soaked in the bubbles I thought about how unexpectedly my day had turned out. I was awake much later than usual so I was quite tired. The hot water eased the stiffness in my shoulders. The water waned from hot to warm. I climbed out of the bath and went to bed. I didn’t have the capacity to read more than half of The Raven before I drifted off to sleep. It was a fitful sleep.
The melodic rhythm that my mind had created for the poem kept going round and round in my head like a monotonous carousel.
The Raven’s raspy voice that my mind had created for the bird kept squawking, “Lenore. Nevermore.”
It was hardly dawn; I didn’t even give my alarm clock time to chime before I was awake. While lying in my bed I had a worrisome thought. What if, when I got to my kitchen, the raven is gone? Not just the raven. Everything. What if all that had happened the day before had been a dream that I dreamt after reading The Raven? I lay a while longer, pondering my thoughts until I a different worrisome thought occurred to me; what if it had all been real?
Unable to bear the self-inflicted suspense I jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen – completely unsure of what I wanted to find. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the raven staring back at me. The paint pot, the brushes, the painting, it was all there the way I remembered leaving it the night before. It was all quite real.
I made myself a cup of coffee and walked through the apartment opening the blinds. There was an invisible dawn behind heavy clouds. It would rain today. I rummaged around in the grocery cupboard and found half a Weet-bix biscuit and some All-bran flakes dust. I added the last drop of milk to the cardboardy cereal. It was so dry I had to sip coffee in between mouthfuls.
“Dreadful waste of coffee.” I muttered through a powdery spray of bran.
I looked from my computer, with the sticky notes all over the side of the screen alerting me of pending deadlines, to my now empty grocery cupboard, desperately in need of re-stocking with items I did not have the money to buy, to the lifelike raven that I could hardly believe I’d had a hand in creating, to the large blank canvas that was waiting expectantly for a masterpiece of its own.
“Ugh,” I moaned. “I have to work or I won’t eat.”
I looked at my reflection in the mirror while I brushed my teeth. My plain, un-made-up face stared back at me dispassionately.
“How can you be so calm?” I asked myself with my mouth full of toothpaste foam. “You have a pot of magic paint in your kitchen, you have three deadlines pending, you need money, and you need food.” I told myself. “Food? I can get some from Mom. That’s never a problem. So much for being independent.” I answered myself, rolling my eyes.
“Deadlines? They’re pending not imminent. I can take another day. I can work over the weekend. That’s the advantage of being a freelance writer isn’t it?”
I shrugged and spat the minty foam into the basin. I also had to wipe some white foam specks off the mirror. Talking with a mouthful of toothpaste foam can be a bit messy, especially when there are words that start with ‘P’, ‘B’ and ‘F’. I really do need to stop talking to myself – but who else do I have?
I made up my mind that I would visit my parents first and pick up a few items from their grocery cupboard just to tide me over until after the weekend. Then I would paint whatever the magic paint pot decided on; once that was out of my system I would be able to focus on work. Isn’t that what the antique lady said after all; “Take the paint. Paint. And then write.” If I recall correctly?
I made my bed, got dressed, applied a bit of make-up (more for my mom’s sake than for my own – she really does worry about my reclusive, anti-social choice of lifestyle), remembered to brush my hair at the last minute, and then took a brisk walk to their place. They live a mere 3 kilometres away from me. I had hardly left my building when the rain started, so by the time I reached their home all my make-up and hair brushing efforts were in vain.
Mother dear flapped about my state of being the entire time I visited. She gave me her warm, fluffy gown to wear while I waited for the dryer to finish with my clothes. She insisted I dry my hair properly. While I used her blow-drier and luxurious face moisturiser she made some French toast drizzled in honey, and expensive filter coffee which she served with a generous dollop of fresh cream – just the way I like it but could never afford. As much as I was acting nonchalant on the outside, I was revelling in the attention on the inside. She packed a box full of goodies from the grocery cupboard, all the while chastising me for moving out, thus depriving myself of the comforts and luxuries of home. Finally she ushered me into her car and drove me the short distance back to my apartment.
Hardly an hour had passed since I walked out of the door and I was back inside. Tummy filled, heart warmed, and grocery cupboard re-stocked. Because of the rain, my mother had declined my half-hearted invitation to come up to my apartment. I was quite relieved – I don’t know how I would have explained my impulsive interest in painting; never mind the unmistakable artistic talent that I had suddenly developed.
With a mug of frothy hot chocolate in my hands, I made way over to the raven. He held my gaze while I once again admired the fine detail of the painting. I touched the beak and the talons, almost expecting them to feel as three dimensional as they looked. I ran my fingers over the wing and imagined I could feel softness in the vane and the downy barbs of the feathers.
“Magic paint.” I said, “Magic indeed.”
I glanced over at the large empty canvas and wondered what I should paint on that one. The inspiration for the first painting had come from a book of poems. I am a writer who loves to read. I ambled over to my overstocked bookshelf. Before I got close enough to recognise books and titles I closed my eyes and held out one hand. My idea was to pick out a book and allow that to be the inspiration for the next painting.
I ran my fingers along the spines of the books feeling the hard covers mixed with the paperbacks, trying not to remember the order I had last filed them in – not that they stay in any order for long. The few friends that I do have often help themselves to books from my library. When they return them they are not nearly as fastidious as I am about putting them back in order. My hand rested on a thick hard cover but I chose to pull the smaller book out that was shelved to the right of it. In anticipation I opened my eyes to glance at the cover.
The Man Who Lives with Wolves: Shaun Ellis
I looked up at the thick hard cover I had by-passed in favour of this one.
Cook with Jamie.
“Oh, okay.” I said with a resigned shrug, “I don’t fancy doing a portrait of him, so I guess I’ll be painting a wolf.”
I moved the painting of the raven over to the left and propped the empty canvas in its place. I took a deep breath and, choosing a medium brush, I dipped it into the paint pot. As I placed the brush on the canvas I said “Wolf”, and the same thing happened as the day before.
My hand knew what to do; which brush to choose and which brush stroke to use. My mouth knew what colour to call, from dark grey to light, from brown and beige to white. The wolf’s irises were yellow; the fangs were white. It was fascinating to see how black paint could become so light. A soft pink tongue lolled between the canine teeth. I had completed most of the wolf; a contemplative face, a pensive stance. Ears tilted slightly back, listening. Eyes gazing forward, looking. Shoulders tense, waiting. I was about to start painting the hind quarter when I noticed that the brush was coming out of the pot dry. I picked up the little paint pot and peered inside. Of course I could see nothing. I plunged the brush back into the hole at the top but when I drew it out there was no paint. I looked at the raven. I looked at the partially completed wolf. I had run out of paint.
Without a moment’s hesitation and despite the falling rain, I dashed outdoors and made my way back to the antique store. When I walked passed the bakery I realised I had walked too far. In my hurry I must have walked right past. I turned back and, slowing my pace a little, paid attention to the shop fronts. After the bakery there was a shoe shop, then a barber, then a pet supply store and finally, before the end of the building, there was a chemist.
I was confused. I walked back again.
Chemist, pet store, barber, shoe shop, bakery.
I walked passed the bakery and studied the shops on the other side of it, just in case; a bank, followed by a tailor, and then the end of the block.
I turned back once more and looked at the row of shop fronts before me. Because of the dreary weather the daylight was dim. The shop lights were bright as they displayed the store names.
Alex’s Tailor. Infinite Bank. Denny’s Bakery. Bless Shoe. Cut Above Barber. Fluffy Friends Pet Supplies. A to Zinc Chemist.
The rain water was stinging my eyes; I realised I had stopped blinking. Maybe I had even stopped breathing because suddenly I felt very dizzy and my chest was tight. People were scurrying by under umbrellas or raincoats and I was standing in the pouring rain like a halfwit staring at blinking lights.
When I finally came to my senses, the baker’s wife was calling to me from the doorway.
“Yoohoo. Honey? Are you alright? Don’t you want to come in out of the rain?”
I looked at her dumbly and walked into the warm bakery, dripping wet and trailing streams of rainwater as I walked.
“Denny!” She called. “Bring us two towels, and a mop. And get Sandy to bring a cup of hot tea with lots of sugar. We have a customer here who doesn’t look well.”
Sandy, Denny and his wife fussed about and dried me and the floor around me. They poured hot, sweet tea down my throat and then thrust a donut between my paint stained fingers.
“Whatever is the matter with you, child?” Denny chided in a fatherly manner.
“Where is your jacket? How can you venture out in this weather without a raincoat or umbrella?”
“I left in such a hurry, I didn’t think.”
He just shook his head, tut-tutting, as he mopped the puddle at my feet.
“Where did the antique store go?” I asked. He looked at me, puzzled.
I pointed and said, “There was an antique store a few shops down. Where has it gone?”
“That antique store closed down when Mavis died; must be at least ten years ago. It was where the pet store is now. And before that it was a bookstore, and before that it was a stationery store. No one stays long in that shop anymore. Not since Mavis was there. And Mavis was there from the beginning of time.” He said with a chuckle.
“Good ol’ Mavis, as ancient as the antiques themselves.”
I realised I had stopped breathing again. I accidentally inhaled a donut crumb which left me coughing and spluttering for a while. When I finally got my breath back I was overcome with confusion and just wanted to get home.
“Thank you for the donut, and the tea, and, and everything …” I said softly. My words trailed off and I finished the sentence with a weird little wave and gestured that I had to leave. The three of them watched, flabbergasted, wet towels and mop in hand, as I walked back into the rain. One more time I studied the shop fronts and one more time it was confirmed that the antique store was not amongst them.
Soaking wet and very cold, I entered my apartment, fully expecting that the paint pot and the paintings would no longer be there; that the whole thing had been some or other fabrication of my suppressed creativity since the onset of the creative writer’s block.
I was almost shocked to see the raven and the three-quarters-of-a-wolf staring back at me. I had an idea.
I picked up the paint pot and said, “More paint.” I dipped the brush in hopefully, only for it to come out dry.
“More paint, please.” I tried. It didn’t work.
I looked at the wolf; so expectant and yet so incomplete.
“You will never get the opportunity to be complete. You will never look real, like the raven. The raven looks so real. The raven looks like it could fly off that canvas at any minute and disappear just like the antique store did. Like Mavis did. Fly Raven, fly!” I commanded.
At that moment a light flickered in Raven’s eyes. His beak and talons became three dimensional and they pierced through the canvas. The bird fluffed out its feathers and unfurled its wings. With a whoosh of air it flew from the canvas and circled the room a few times. I was shocked into immobility as I watched the raven, which had once been a painting, dive down from ceiling height straight towards my face.
Too late I lifted my hands to protect myself and I felt its talons dig into my cheek as it flew by. It circled again and flew back towards me. This time I covered my face but I felt its beak peck ferociously at the top of my head. Blood, from the gash on my head, now mingled with the rain water that was running down my face. As the raven circled to attack once more I reached for the paint pot and threw it at the bird. With a squawk of terror, the raven attempted to change direction in mid-flight, but the paint pot hit its mark. The bird and the pot tumbled in the air for a time that was gravitationally impossible.
I watched in stunned disbelief as the raven began to liquefy and poured back into the pot. The pot landed with a solid plonk on my reading chair.
The tightness in my chest reminded me to exhale and my breath left me in the form of a childlike wail.
Very, very tentatively I walked over to my chair to pick up the paint pot.
I could feel it was heavier; it wasn’t empty anymore. With trembling hands I turned to put the pot down on the kitchen shelf with the intention of re-corking it and throwing it far, far way.
From the canvas the wolf stared back at me. Pensive. Incomplete.
Mavis’s words echoed in my ears; “Take the paint. Paint. And then write.”
This is me; writing after painting.