ARTIST UNKNOWN

My name is unimportant.

I did not see that when I was young and capable of so much more. In the daylight, when my mind was limber and my strength a deep well easily drawn from, I thought I was someone to be known. I was ready then to be all they called me to at any moment, within a mere moment, if need be. There is little need now. And there was little need then.

At least not in the way I thought.

What did I think, then, of this day before me now? It relieves me to say I do not recall the vanities, though they linger over my shoulder, as present as this morning. They frighten, on the edge of my sight, and sometimes at night, I shake like the late leaves that somehow held into the last month, knowing they shall not see the first.

You might think me bitter, or worse, maudlin. I do not deny these shadows. They live just up the stairs, in rooms I will not visit in mind and cannot visit in body. Perhaps that is the grace of enfeebling. Perhaps it is a kindness that my feet, my knees, yay, my whole corpus betrays me. The stairs can only taunt. They have no real pull.

Yet the memories travel up the winding, and sometimes they do not return. My dreams draw down at night, in the bending dark, tangled in sheets, reluctant to wake. Time frays thin with each morning, and soon the mist will burn away before the full sun. So, I must make my choices: where to walk, what to let in, what to let out.

That is how I ended up here.

I was a dreamer, a builder, a craftsman. In deed and in word.

This room my forge. This space, my home in the field, where I would tame the forest, finding its roads, vanquishing its beasts. Yet, my refuge withstood me, with a quiet that lasted far longer than its walls could accept. They longed for more.

They needed to hear us fight and frolic.

I remember when I laid these stones. They hold the warmth in winter. I walked those stairs, when they were new. We were the original owners here. And though I did not know it then, the materials were richly supplied – in youth, in vigor, in friendship and toil, in promises, in pain.

And parting.

No man makes his own soil. No man speaks the seed to sprout. The trees were here before me, yes. But these boards I planed. These joints I fitted. Chisel or saw, axe or spade, quill or brush, these did not move without my hand.

My hand, with its thin scar, still visible within the wrinkles and spots. I remember how I got it, hastily upon the nib’s edge. And I alone carry it. Who I am, pressed into the soil, or laid upon the parchment, cannot be taken and remade. The scars stay here, as do the stories.

I alone carry them.

The clanging of wrought things reminds me I am not alone this morning.

What is this home, with its hearth? Who is this woman tending the fire. Who does she tend to? Will she draw a glowing coal to remind me? Ah, now I know her. She sees to me when I cannot see to myself.

You were renowned,” she said once. I have no reason not to believe her. Yet, I do not recall the days she speaks of. Just as they do not recall me. Perhaps that is for the best. Perhaps, like the stairs – like my dreams – it is best for it all to lay quiet.

She rattles the flue. Sparks whorl into the black, and for a moment the phantoms stir over my shoulder. I hear you, roaming about up there, in here. I might grab one and wring its tale loose. Too slow, though, and they are knotting again. Quickly, now, I rescue one thread before it’s lost in the tangle. I have it. I have it, and will leave the rest to their Gordian fate. If any sword can be found to sever them, it is only this: laughter. My laughter at them, their laughter at me.

Laughing past each other… is this not what we do as we chase what cannot be caught? Each of us, thieving away, looking to be had. Looking to close upon whole and close. I was arrogant enough for all of them. First they were my friends. Then they were my critics. Soon, they shall be my eulogists.

Hold the thread. Do not lose her.

I hope they laugh long. I do. I hope they scorn my hours, those many spent, and the few remaining. I hope the jeers fly. If they can’t be original, at least let them be true.

Peaked too soon… too late… not at all. His best years far behind him.”

(or over my shoulder)

As if I had not felt these brands deeper and fiercer from my own hand. I chuckle right alongside them, for all I can summon. You have me, at the last. I confess. I did not do all I could. And what I did manage to set down were only scribbles at best, doomed to dust bins, forgotten on shelves, molded and moth-worn in weakly-lit homes, saying little, meaning less. I always knew it to be so.

But they were my scribbles.

And for a time, Heaven only knows how, they found a place beyond the page. Beyond the frame. The place all artists long to lodge, if only for a passing night.

Can my critics say the same?

Are you warm, Sir?” the woman asks.

Warm enough,” I reply.

Is there anything else I can get you while I’m here?”

Only quiet now, thank you.”

She gives me a nod and shuffles out the door. Now, I remember her name, and I would call it out if she were not already gone.

No, not the housekeeper. Kindly-cross woman she is, her name is not the one I was looking for, up there in the dark, down here.

Where is the girl, barefooted upon the shore? The spindrift in her curls, like indicolite drops caught in umber waves. Where are her cheeks of rose gold, and the tender pearl-pink mouth that would not turn down even when mine would not turn up. What words did she sing?

I must sit by the window, for I need the light to see the thread. And to remember. A man far wiser once said, “If your eye is good, your whole body will be filled with light.” I see that brighter now than ever I could then. I see that I did not always know what to look for.

Words that escaped me, and a word that kindly turned back.

Looking around this room – not upstairs, down in the dark – here in this light I recall the calling.

I remember the song and the labor. The smell of steam and doused steel. The ring of the hammer. The weight of the tongs.

These are the things I know, what the thieves in the dark cannot claim. “His time has past,” they said. Distantly past. Still, I know of a well that runs. I know who meets me there, speaking of things I am only beginning to see the surface of.

The thieves break in and steal. They copy without credit. They throw aside knowledge for the next thing. I could not stop them in the Summer, how much less when the hoar-frost descends?

But I am not through yet. No. Though my bones resist me, I have one last line to draw. My mind has woken slowly, but now aroused, I know I still have work to do, if only for today.

And I trust that those who loved me, in spite of myself, will work too.

I trust they will hear what for awhile rang dull to me.

I trust they will tell real things again, my friends. Only we can do this. For only we know the difference between what is fixed and what is false. The frame means little until the subject is right.

Alas, you must take up the fight! Against the feigned and uncharitable, against the stillborn skims. They cannot fly, so do not fear them.

Not for me, mind you, but for love of what is good. I will not forget that good.

But that I have been forgotten is a better thing. Yes. Yes, it is. For, you see, it has protected me from severity on one side, all the while warning me of sentiment on the other. And it has given me back the thread I lost in the dark, down there, upstairs.

The praise of men will enslave you.

This was the hardest lesson to learn, but finally it has struck fast, and will not be dislodged. I built things. I wrote things. Real things. Fading things, but whole. You must do the same.

When all is facade, they must still smell the body and blood on the breeze. It must go on, calling them out. Whatever you craft, let the stones speak of the hands that set them. Let the words rehearse the heart.

Do not be afraid.

The remains of who I was no longer frighten me. Yesterday, I ran down the sand-covered walk, the waves on my right hand, my bare feet never missing, though speed dared them. Sixty years of yesterdays it’s been. I ran with salt in my nostrils, the red-rimmed sunset in my view, afraid to fall, afraid to lose sight of her. Afraid I might not feel those fingertips again. The rush of reaching her in time was the sound in my ears. That is something the thieves will never take.

Stay. Please stay.”

And so she did. Till I sent her. Till the chorus rose above the song.

Too soon… Too late.”

Now only I remain. Too weak to fight, too slow to chase. The darkness is dying in itself. I am with it, but not in it. Let every shadow ever flee. Let my own eyes darken, as they must. I know it. The light remains. And so shall I.

Crow as you will, my failings. Contort among your endless lovers. Claim what you have not hewn. Tear what you have not sewn. You have lost yourselves – up there, in the dark, hung upon a tree – I have come forth from it, scarred, but clean.

Only this remains.

Long off, in those days when pride was bright, and wisdom’s keening ignored, I heard this, though I did not believe it then.

No man knows the hour of his end. And those that do, cannot speak it.”

I will not speak it, I promise. Rather, I will rest here, in the light of morn, and mourn not.

And I shall write the only lines left to me.

My hand quakes upon the quill. The page glances shy, wondrous as she waits. It is time to set to, again, at last. To loop and tie this thread. To close off the stairs and the hollow steps not taken. To let the rescued life walk out, to set the memory down, summoned by kindness, given in time, blessed in realms where image was first conceived. Where breath was always, lifting up, planting. Where my heart was resown.

I cannot go back. I never could. But for this shining hour, I will be found, finding and forging, recalling gems thrown aside, spinning silver threads anew, burnishing bronze, hammering out the misshapes. With small blows and little fires. Everywhere.

In the long, low lament of regret, there is a voice crying in the wild. The one that had slipped past the reconciliation of time and gentleness. Only one I held too far away.

But no more.

She should know. Before my head rests upon this table.

She should know.

My dear Grace,

You should know, that of all the work I left unfinished, only ours hurts still. I have not forgotten, but now I can only ask that you might forgive.

I do not remember everything. Indeed, I cannot. But I remember when I was your hero in the wood. And I am sorry I let the dragon speak.

I loved. I loved you. But not as I should have.

I will find you on shores better than before.

And I only pray you remember my name.”

 

He will fly away like a dream and not be found; he will be chased away like a vision of the night.
Job 20:8

More work by Plain Runner can be found here:

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