By Beth Cochrane
A man sits at his easel and paints. Strong, obnoxious violets and hot flushes of burgundy are forced from paint pallet to canvas. Velvet navy, brashly disjointing the blank page, tackles and commands the white to disappear.
The man works steadily.
He is not a good painter. Colours and colours merge and seam and discolour: a tapestry of brushstrokes and ill-conceived vision. His work cries out for life, for form. Nonetheless, the man continues his work without regard to delicacy or passion.
Eventually the man’s arms lose any last sense of ambition. He moves in a daze of clockwork motions; putting colour to canvas and searching for something that evades imitation. His greying eyes are open, but we cannot see past the glaze which covers them.
The man is standing at the foot of a hill. Hued with the crimson tint of sunset, it is almost threatening. Drip, drop, drip: the light spills down. The hill rises to a curved top, towering and magnificent. The man does not climb it.
Instead he turns his back on the hill.
Clear space is in front of him. It echoes in silences.
He walks, right left right left, across the space. The grass is hard under his feet, it feels frozen and jams into his soles. It is unnatural, but he doesn’t look down. The forest steals closer with his footfalls, no longer faint in the distance. The horizon is coming forward to meet him.
There is a lake. It carpets the ground in front of the man. It laps at his feet as he steps back, realizing the water is wet. He gazes down: he becomes absorbed in its reflections.
A crystalised mirror image, edges crisp and clear on the surface. Clouds, sky, trees and rising hills frame the pool. Even the twilight sun reacts on the surface and dances amidst the ripples. Tall and towering trees climb through the image; autumn colours are embedded in the bark. Rusted, creaking.
The man, his face inches from the lake’s surface, stares into the water. It is thicker, brighter than it should be. He reaches down and caresses the liquid with the tips of his fingers. It’s too heavy, too shining to be water. Liquid mercury: the man wipes his fingertips on his trousers.
The man looks past the gleam of the mercury and closer into its reflection. Behind the curtain of sunset and autumnal leaves, the trees themselves are rusted. Bolts and screws fix the branches to tree trunks, old and worn now. The bark on the trees is fashioned from minute rivets of steal, eroded and coloured by age and nature and memory. Gnarled knots of twisted metal run away from the trunk, extending crooked tendrils to one another: branches that grow tarnished leaves. They are made from a delicate metal, engrained with rippling veins and distorted shades. But their sheen has dulled in time; rusted like the bolt which keeps them fixed to the branch.
He stands, and his eyes follow a bird into the trees, watching its wings beat with the rhythm of a clock.
The bird flies to a tree on the opposite bank of the lake and disappears amidst the leaves. They are closer, now, the trees. Crept and creaked towards him while his eyes were occupied by their reflection. But the man doesn’t want to concern himself with the mechanical trees, ever advancing, so he looks to his feet for comfort, for something else to do. But the grass has grown, reaching now to meet his ankles, obscuring his feet.
The tiny fibres of grass are growing, still, all around him. It is cold against his skin. He takes a step back, only to feel quick, sharp pains in his soles. The grass is sharper now, like frozen metallic wires. The blades are a sickened shade of green, almost transparent in their pallor. Individually they are nearly transparent, only attaining definition in their multitude.
Frightened, with the grass rising to meet his calves and shadows building amidst the reeds of the lake, the man turns back to the hill, back to the beginning.
The foot of the hill has merged with shadows; they swirl into place with an unnatural thickness. Wisps of it drift through the air and the man coughs. Smoke, not darkness, oily and dense; it tracks light through the air.
The trees have shuddered closer, now towering a mere few metres away from the man. Looming, ominous, their mechanical arms reach and twist and creak closer to him, closer to his eyes, so the man’s vision is obscured by metal and rust. The thin fibres of grass have reached his waist.
Left with slithers of the night sky, the man looks to the stars in desperation, the only things he can recognize as part of a familiar world. They are there, in the sky: beautiful clichéd diamonds, hollow sparks of light that exist too distantly to be of any comfort.
And soon they are taken from his sight, eyes no longer able to pierce the blanket of smoke encircling him. Choking, hazardous, chilled, it fills his lungs; freezing him like the metal of the trees that now grasps his figure and grazes his skin with their chilled caresses. He can feel his joints – his shoulders, his knees, his elbows – stiffen and crack into place. The blood in his veins freezes and hardens; he can smell the bold scent of copper in his nostrils. His skin is cold to touch, smooth and shining.
His easel is blank once more, cemented in white.