Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Painter

Abel sat by the window all night, staring at his ghost in glass; bravely, he waited to witness his last sunrise. Now he could see the first blue streaks of morning growing behind the winter bare trees, the squat brick buildings of the camp still dark silhouettes holding on to the reprieve of night. The silence between darkness and light brought with it a stillness that negated the horrors of the place Slowly, the sun crept over the edge of the world, bathing the few wispy winter clouds in pink and orange. Abel sat with his forehead pressed against the glass until the shimmering sun broke free of its earthly bonds and hung low in the sky. Abel turned to his own canvas, waiting for the brush strokes that would give it life. His oils lay scattered among the neatly trimmed camel hair brushes like little drops of life on a barren field. These too called to Abel, beseeching him to create. With a sigh, he picked up his palate knife and carefully carved a notch in the windowsill. There were two hundred neat little notches, each one a representation of a sunrise he had survived. “One hundred and sixty-three days since they took Tobar…” The once-green sill now showed more wood than paint. Like Abel, others had spent their nights here, picking at paint chips and dreaming of freedom. “One hundred and thirty-five days since they took Reznek…” Abel examined his reflection in the window again. It was getting hard to remember how he had looked before they came. His once hale face was now a thin and hollow shadow of his former self. His eyes were sunken and dull, his hair gray and thin. His lips cracked and pale, while his once broad smile was now a forgotten piece of a past life. After sixty five years of life dedicated to doing God’s work, hadn’t he earned a better fate? Abel was a Gypsy; --- God’s chosen people, the vassals of his will; ---so why had He abandoned them? “Ninety- three days since they took Mara away…” Abel turned his gaze to the notches, his finger following the path of his eyes. One of the notches looked out of place, cut with an uncontrolled hand, crooked with jagged splintering edges. Abel let his finger rest on the notch and closed his eyes. “Twenty- four days since they took my Nadya.” In their forty-seven years of marriage, they had never been apart. Now, after only twenty four days, Abel could barely recall Nadya’s face without using his Gypsy gifts. His inability to paint a picture of her in his mind, to recall how it felt to kiss her neck, smell her hair or remember the sound of her voice, was agony. Abel had no doubt that in his place, Nadya would never lose the memory of his face. “And today they will take me away,” he thought. Color began to creep across the camp as the sun crested the worn brick buildings across the yard. Abel sat transfixed as he watched God add color to the world one brush stroke at a time. He started with dark tones as the foundation and then, slowly, He added vibrancy and warmth, painting with the light of the sun. The miracle of it was that despite the horrors that men committed on Gods canvas, --- the vandalism they perpetrated on His masterpiece,---He never stopped painting. Abel picked up a brush and rolled it between his gnarled fingers. He picked up a similar brush the day he met Nadya the first time. Almost instinctively, he reached for his memories of that day but stopped himself before they could coalesce. He hadn’t used his Gypsy memory or his Dook ability to pass memories to others, since they took Nadya from him. Recalling old memories would only stoke the flames of loss. No, the emptiness was better, easier. Abel set the brush back on the table and took up his palate knife. He pressed its brick honed edge against the palm of his left hand and with gritted teeth, sliced deep into his flesh. Dark blood welled from his hand and dripped onto the table. Abel held his hand over one of his mixing cups and squeezed, his fist white knuckled, until it shook. “Forgive me.” Abel reached deep into his Gypsy memory and felt his body expand. He passed the places where he stored the memories of Nadya, his childhood, his birth and the lives of his ancestors. He continued to expand, every pore of his being an enormous library of time and memory, Every cell spreading out like stars in a vast universe, each one holding memories lost in time. At the center, his center, there was a blinding memory, pulsing like a living sun. Abel reached for it, feeling its power. Abel realized that his seemingly distant body had stopped breathing and forced it to inhale. He feared that God would have taken it from him. Could God forgive him? He longed to touch that memory, to draw it in and know it. He could feel it pulling him close, wanting him to command it. This was the memory of God, a piece of it anyway, packed into a single mortal cell. This was the hope of the world and it was his to take, his to use. But he would not take it, would not use it. This was the grail, the holiest of holies and Abel would not such a thing out of selfish want. He shuddered and then collapsed mind and body and soul, releasing bliss and returning to despair. Abel wrapped his injured hand in what remained of his blanket. It was stiff in places with dried paint and smelled of linseed oil but it was the only comfort he had when the cold fingers of night embraced him. The others slept in large single room buildings, four or five to a bed, huddled tightly to ward off the cold. With Nadya gone, Abel had only his tattered blanket. They kept him away from the others in his own little room. They told him it was a privilege granted because of his skills. He was a talented painter, perhaps even a master, but that is not why they separated him. They isolated him because to the Gypsies and the others that shared this place with them, Abel represented hope. Unlike most of the Gypsy people, Abel was born with more than just the gift of memory. Abel was Gypsy Dook and he had the gift of passing. With these gifts, Abel could read what God had written in a man’s future, as well as pass memory or feelings from himself to the one he touched. Abel used this to fill the others with hope and a will to survive. In those early days, Abel was called the Light of Auschwitz. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s didn’t feel that Auschwitz needed light. Luckily for Abel, Auschwitz did need a painter. Abel squeezed a thick glob of crimson red paint into the mixing cup and blended it with his blood. Soon the camps officers would come and he would paint them. It would be one last portrait of evil before they killed him. They would lie and tell him they were sending him to an Eastern settlement to be with his wife but Abel knew the truth. For him, the only way out was through the chimney. The boy arrived with Abel’s breakfast just as he was finishing the preparation of his paints. Abel cleared a space for the pathetic meal. The boy then set the tray down, eyes downcast, and turned to leave. “I’m not that hungry”, Abel said. The boy stopped and turned. After a moment’s hesitation he returned to the table and picked up the tray. “Perhaps you are hungry?” The boy looked up at Abel, unsure what he should do. “Go ahead”, Abel said, gesturing for the boy to eat. The boy carefully set the tray back on the table before cramming the stale bread into his mouth. He paused; cheeks stuffed and looked at Abel. Abel waved his hand and the boy resumed his chewing. He washed the bread down with a swig of coffee that spilled down his chin. After a nervous look at the door, the boy hastily stuffed the sausage in his mouth and took another drink of the coffee. “Damn them”, Abel thought as he watched the boy devour his meager breakfast. The boy swallowed the sausage and quickly drank the rest of the coffee, wiping his mouth on his shirtsleeve. He looked at Abel for a moment, searching his eyes, then dropped his face to the empty plate and licked it clean of bread crumbs and sausage juice. “What is your name?” “Adam”, the boy said, his voice barely a whisper. Abel nodded and the two shared a few moments of silence before the boy spoke. “Thank you.” “They will take me to the showers today, Abel said. Do you know what that means?” The boy lowered his head in answer. Abel walked around the table and knelt, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He peered into the boy’s soul and sought out the memories that had been written but not yet lived. As he had hoped, the boy would not die here. Abel lifted the boys chin until their eyes met. “Can you do something brave for me?” he asked. The boy didn’t answer. “I have something that I want to give you, something that I want you to keep safe for me but I cannot give it to you until they take me away. When they bring me to the showers, will you come to me?” The boy searched Abel’s gaze for a moment and then nodded. “They took my father to the showers,” the boy said. Abel squeezed his shoulder and used the passing to fill him with courage and hope. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. You will never go to the showers… you will leave through the gate. I promise.” The boy cast another nervous glance at the door. “Go,” Abel said--,”And remember, watch for me.” The boy gave Abel a confident nod, and left. In the boy’s absence, Abel’s little room felt thick with emptiness. Although he had grown accustomed to being alone, he found the silent wake that remained after the boy left, felt unsettling. For the first time, Abel thought he might know what it must be like to lose a limb but still feel its presence. By noon they all arrived in the wake of chair totting soldiers, who seated themselves according to rank. Abel carefully situated them, smoothing wrinkles, straightening ribbons and reverently adjusting their vile insignia. Each touch opened the men’s souls to Abel, allowing him to take what he wanted and give what he needed. When he was satisfied that he had achieved the perfect gestalt, Abel used his Gypsy mind to take a mental photograph. Using it as his unmoving guide, he started to paint. With his mind expanded, Abel worked with uncanny speed. Brush strokes erupted on the canvas as he laid down the dark souls that would be the foundation of these monsters. Within an hour the individual faces were becoming distinct, each man a conglomeration of his crimes. As the end of the third hour drew near, Abel was dipping a fine brush into his blood tinted red paint. With a steady hand, he completed the little enamel swastikas at each man’s collar, filling the cells of his blood with unlived memories, unknown terrors. Abel collapsed back into his body and let his brush fall to the floor. It was finished, his finest portrait, his gravest sin. The officers stood before the canvas and offered Abel praises wrapped in hatred. Each man longed to touch their likeness in paint. Fingers twitched to brush the bright red swastikas before propriety would allow. “Soon”, Abel thought. Despite the compulsion he had filled each man to touch the painted swastikas, they dared not risk doing so before the paint was dry. Finally the men filed out of the room past a single saluting soldier in the hall. When they were out of sight, the soldier entered Abel’s room. “Pack your things and come with me.” Abel retrieved a pair of shoes from beneath his bed, reached inside one of them and removed two golden rings. “These are all I wish to take.” He said. The soldier considered Abel for a moment and then nodded. Abel and his killer crossed the yard in silence, Abel clutching his and Nadya’s wedding rings, the soldier clutching his rifle. They passed the gallows and the wall where the firing squads placed their victims, dark landmarks on the road to death. Some of the men that he had just painted would meet their ends in these places. Soon all the men he painted would see their deaths and be haunted until their last breaths. “Forgive me,” he whispered. Abel met the eyes of the workers who watched him pass. Some of them smiled weakly or waved, repaying him with some of the courage he had given them. Abel noticed Adam among the workers, looking frightened but determined. The moment their eyes met, the realization of what was happening struck and Abel collapsed. He hit the ground hard, driving the air from his lungs with a grunt. The smell of clean earth filled his nostrils and cleared his senses. Small hands encircled his waist and hoisted him to his feet. Abel looked down into the brave face of Adam. Quickly, he pressed his wedding rings into the boys hand and then expanded himself and the boy, slowing time as they became as vast as the universe. Abel used the passing and filled the boy with the memories of his people, the memories of his life and the memories of God. When he released the boy and returned to his own body, he was empty of all but one Gypsy memory. The boy’s eyes were wide with shock. He now carried not only the burden of surviving this place but also the burden of being a piece of the Holy Grail. Abel released the boy’s hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. The boy dropped to his knees. Abel turned and continued his funeral procession. The soldier opened the steel door to the shower building and motioned Abel inside. Hesitantly, Abel entered the building. “Remove your clothing and shower. When you finish, I will meet you with new clothes on the other side.” Abel took a deep breath and began pulling off his prison attire as the soldier closed the door. The door locked with a click. Abel sank to the floor and opened his most sacred memory. “Husband.” Nadya whispered into his ear. Abel rolled over and kissed her. “I wonder how many times I will have to say that before it stops sounding so magical,” She said. Nadya pushed him to his back and nestled her face against his neck. “I love you… wife.” he said. Nadya kissed his neck and began to sing a gypsy lullaby. Abel took a deep breath of the crisp night air and studied the stars. Somewhere in those stars, God was watching over them. Abel closed his eyes and kissed Nadya on the forehead. She smelled like lavender and honey, her skin as soft as silk beneath his lips. Nadya continued her lullaby and the warmth of her breath spread across his body like a blanket pulling him towards sleep. Abel took a deep breath and with his final exhalation, slipped free of the world and stirred no more.



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