Tuesday, May 15, 2007

water over wood.

It was long ago. In another life. I came upon it as if by accident. I was thirsty. The dust from the road stung my eyes. There was a dry parched feeling in my throat. I had been travelling for weeks. My boots were broken, my feet burned, my head swam. My lips were swollen, cracked and my voice weak.

I had come from the plains and across the mountains. I noticed the change only slowly. The cultivated fields giving way to wilder landscape. Then the winding pathways with sheer drops either side. By day the sunlight was bright, at night it was hollow and cold. The coast was still ahead of me. I knew it lay just beyond the mountains. I believed I would be safe there. It would be a refuge.

They were bitter days. Days when hand rose against hand. I first saw the fighting in the cities. Hatred. Hysteria. The carnival becoming a feast of killing, of death. The banners, the royal golds and purples were replaced with simple black, white, the red of blood. It drove the crowds on. I saw death itself dancing over the corpses in the streets. I smelt the stench of decay, of the rotting flesh.

It was learning they first attacked. Reason thrown aside, the fruits of the mind torn in two. Books, documents, manuscripts were burned. Bonfires, piled high with paper, flamed up into the night. Paintings were torn from walls, from churches and palaces. Beauty trampled under the feet of an angry mob. And ash, thick like a rain, fell over streets.

I was attacked by a crowd while walking one evening. An evening when the light of sunset was dimmed by the glow of bonfire. The insults, the taunts, the venom were directed against those who did not take part. I was afraid. I was concerned I had been marked, had been followed to my studio. Among the pigments, the paints, there would have been no denying the evidence of where I stood. I only narrowly escaped, turning, when the crowd, distracted by the sound of horse's hooves from a nearby square halted, and I fled quickly down a dark winding alley.

I decided that night I must leave and determined immediately to find the mountains, to cross the border at all costs.
It was painful to go. In my small studio I had spent many evenings working, the brushes gliding over the rough canvas. I could not say I had known the patronage of the court, or of the wealthy, but I had lived, prospered in my own simple way.
I took little with me. A book of poems, paper to write on, some food, and the clothes I stood in. I counted on travelling inconspicuously.

I left the city before dawn, heading south-west. It meant I would travel with the sun at my back. It was the dry season. Cicadas could be heard from the roadside. Birds still dared sing in the trees. The grass was dry and yellow. There were oranges ripening in the groves. I hoped for the generosity of wayside farms, small villages, that the peasants would not have lost their principle of hospitality. I reckoned the journey to take eight days.
When I had reached it I had been three weeks on the road. I looked through my swollen eyes and it had seemed like a dream. I thought it must be something sent to torture my fevered senses. Bit it was real.
A girl standing by a well, a town in the background. When she offered me the water, I fell on the ground in a stupor. I could have eaten the dust with gratitude. I heard her words, sweet, and foreign. They fell on my ears like music. I had crossed the mountains. I had crossed the border.

A river ran through the small town centre. It split lazily in two before rejoining and flowing on to meet the sea. People crowded around me. I was a stranger. Someone was found who could speak my language. I explained where I had come from, why I had come. I learned I was not the first refugee; and nor would I be the last.

I stayed there months. Resting in the cool of a small room. Stone walls and the breeze from the sea blowing in at night. The girl would sometimes come to me, shyly, offering me a bowl of water. I would look at her. She would look away. Her face was tender yet knowing. She had dark eyes and long rich hair. I wanted to touch her. I wanted to thank her. It was there I dreamed. There I woke sweating one night, frightened, confused.

I dreamed I saw the country I knew ringed by a great grey wall. It was made of a metallic substance, something I had never seen before. The surface was smooth and shiny, cool to touch. Within it, the once rich lands, the wooded hillsides, the husbanded fields were dying. They were coated in ash. In the cities the walls of buildings were faded. They were fragile to touch. They could be scraped at with little effort. The fabric of life itself appeared only to be held together with the barest of threads. And nothing bled. Faces had a ghostly pallor. This was only a shadow of life, a shadow of living. It was there in eyes. Eyes, contracted, frightened, unable to respond.
I moved through this in confusion, able only to look, to observe.
I came to a river. It was stagnant. Its water lay motionless. It appeared familiar, yet not quite recognisable. Great pipes, like tentacles, stretched up from it to houses. Some were on stilts. Others it appeared were stacked one on top of the other. A silence, a peculiar fearful silence was everywhere. I felt if I raised my voice loud enough, shouted, everything around me, would have fallen, crumbled to dust. I would have brought everything down. Only, I could not shout. And I knew the wall would have remained. I would have destroyed only what lay within it, but not it.
Its strangeness, its unknown quality was what confused, what frightened. It seemed impenetrable. Immovable. I beaten my fists against it, but they only bled. I knelt down in front of it and cried.
Then I woke with the same tears in my eyes, the same tears running down my face.

I stayed in that town until I was sufficiently strong, sufficiently recovered. Then I moved further down the coast. I went back sometimes to visit. Occasionally on market day there would be the thunder of horse's hooves and a messenger would appear bringing news of where I had come from. In those moments, I would feel sadness, some longing for the home I had once known. Yet later, as I headed back up the coast it would pass.
I built myself a small house overlooking the sea. I took the girl to live with me. And once again I put my, as then yet unsteady hand, to canvas. Once again the brushes moved, dipped into a palette, rich in colour. The colours of the sea mixing with those of the land, those of the coastline. Blues, greens, browns, reds, yellows. Our bodies, their shadows falling on the wooden table in the flickering candle-light.
I prepared to let the images burning on my dream-haunted mind mark the space, run wild from out of my mind, into whatever future awaited me. They started with the well and the girl.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington

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