Wednesday, July 24, 2013

M.L. Weaver #2: The Lightness of Dust: Chapter 8 Excerpt

Here is the second of three excerpts today from M.L. Weaver's Lightness of Dust! Come back at 1 p.m. for the third!

If you'd like to read the excerpt from Chapter One, head there first!

Chapter 8: Plato’s Rail Pass

“Not curious, Sam?”

“How did you get back in?”  Sam looked up sharply.  “What are you doing here?  I’m sorry, Ms. Ostendorf.  Ma’am.  What I mean is, the show was one-night-only.”  That made sense, he mocked himself.  The Persephone was nearly ready; floors glistened in the dim light, rubbish bins awaited the flotsam of the next crowd, and freshly scrubbed windows peered into the city.  Only repairs to the furnace, which had begun to blow cold halfway through the evening’s entertainment, remained undone.  And then Sam could go home.  He kept telling Mr. Craddock that the furnace needed replacing.  It wouldn’t even cost all that much, but Craddock always insisted that Sam could do anything he liked to effect repairs to the Persephone, except spend money.

“My point, exactly, Sam.  And if you call me that one more time I plan to have a little conversation with your Mr. Craddock about your manners.”

Sam backed up.  “Call you what, Ma’am?”

“That, Sam.  Ma’am.  My name is Lily.”

Lily smoothed the pale blue fabric of her simple cotton dress and pulled it tighter under the thin rope sash.  Her hair, he noticed, no longer trickled down her neck but instead was pushed up under a feathered hat.  Absence of jewelry magnified her strange beauty.  He thought she expended a great deal of care to appear little different from any other woman he might pass on the street but doubted she would succeed. No, he was absolutely certain that she would not.

“I ask you again, Sam.  Were you not curious?”

“I don’t follow, Ma’…  Lily.”  Though he tried, Sam couldn’t guess at the meaning of her question.

“Earlier I told you that I had to settle some of my things into the Persephone, Sam.  Did it not occur to you that a performer might not keep her things in a hall she only planned to play once?  One-night-only, as you yourself put it?”

Sam recalled her saying so, but hadn’t thought about it.  Now it was too late.  His embarrassment over his behavior prevented the admission.

“I have decided to stay a while longer.  This city warms something inside me.  Perhaps the scent of moisture risen from the Sound, or the sound of the tide-driven wavelets echoing across the water.”  A smile played at the edges of her lips.  “Perhaps it is simply that I have been traveling for so long, Sam, and I need a new place to call home, if only for a while.”

Lily turned and walked to the middle of the lobby.  Four small sofas, each large enough to hold two people (if they knew each other very well), bordered a small table.  Lily sank deep into worn leather and gestured at the seat opposite.  “Sit.  Please.”  Sam did, and held his back stiffly straight and pressed the palms of his hands over his knees.  His thumbs rubbed his index fingers.

“Do you know from where I came, Sam?”

“Europe?”

“Yes, Sam.  But can you guess where, specifically, in Europe?”

By his silence Sam indicated that he could not.

“Do you know why I came here, Sam?

When he again did not reply, she continued.  “Then I shall answer your questions with a story.”

Sam was sure, absolutely sure, that the questions had been hers, and not his, but said nothing.

“Before I sailed to America, Sam, I traveled, exploring Greece and its islands.  So many islands.”  Her gaze extended through him.  “Did you know that someone once described the Greeks as frogs around a pond?  An acquaintance of mine, when I was younger.  A most fascinating man, he was, with a command of language that I have never had the pleasure to find in another.”

Sam didn’t know that; he’d had little schooling.  The year his parents died was the year he left school to work for Mr. Craddock.

“At any rate, I was there.  Looking for something, or somewhere, you might say.  One night a young couple walked into the cafe where I was dining alone.  The young man was tall.  Taller than even you, Sam, and far taller than his wife.  Dark-haired, both of them, and both of them together beautiful in a way that only the young and in-love can achieve.  They walked, hands entwined, through the cafe as though all eyes sought them and time itself might wait.  An elderly local couple greeted them with relief.  The young man, as it turned out, was their son—the young lady his new American bride.  The purpose of their visit was to introduce the young wife to the parents.  One purpose, at any rate.  Can you guess the other purpose?”

Sam shook his head.

Lily removed the pins from her hat and shook her hair.  “Gods!  How can they stand it?”  She tossed the hat to Sam.  “Get rid of that, will you?  Not right now!”  Sam sat.  He balanced the hat carefully on his palms.

“To finish my tale, short as it is…the younger couple presented to the older a painting. “
What a coincidence…I painted a Greek man and his American wife.

Lily continued.  “The old woman wept; the old man embraced his son across the table.  Tears escaped his eyes, as well.”

Sam daydreamed about his own painting.  Her story barely registered.  He imagined his painting traveling all the way around the world to live in the place where art began.  He knew nothing of frogs, or of their ponds, nor why they should be compared with Greeks.  But art, he knew, sprang from Greece.  The wonder of it!  No sooner had the thought occurred to him than his joy was shattered against reality.  My painting is here, in Seattle.  And will always be.

Sam didn’t notice that Lily had stopped speaking.  She peered at him intently with her head cocked to the side as if listening to a far-away conversation.  Sam’s thoughts returned to the fantasy of his painting traveling the world.  Lily let him wander for a moment.

“They were so pleased by the painting, Sam, that the three of them lapsed into Greek, leaving the young woman quite left out of the conversation.”

Having been left out of quite a few conversations himself, Sam could imagine how the young woman might have felt.

“Now art was not born in Greece, Sam.  But nearby.  Somewhere nearby. Having seen a great deal of art in my travels, I just had to know what the fuss was about, so I joined them.  Quite bold of me, would you agree?”  She didn’t wait for his reply.  “And even though I speak Greek nearly fluently, I pretended that I spoke only English.  Just my little way of bringing the young woman back into the conversation.  What do you think of my story so far, Sam?”

Sam started.  “It’s wonderful.”  He wracked his memory for her words.

“The young man had moved to America to seek his destiny, or so he put it, as though destiny is a thing that one may seek.  Or should.  I thought at the time, and still do, that he left Greece because of the war.  A prescient young man, Sam.  Before it ends, this war will engulf the world.”  Lily trailed off.

On more familiar ground now, Sam spoke.  “Mr. Craddock says the war won’t get too big, though.  Some of the rich folks think it will, and the U.S. will end up fighting, too.  But others, those of a mind with Mr. Craddock, say it will peter out.  Won’t come to much, because people got most of the fighting out of ‘em in the last war.”

Lily’s glittering eyes pierced Sam, making him wish he’d had the sense to keep his mouth shut.  “Your Mr. Craddock is a damned fool.  A damned fool.”  The inferno behind her eyes died slowly.

Why does she always call him “my” Mr. Craddock?

“The war will be unlike anything the world has known before, Samuel.  I know it.  I think the young man knew it.  I even think his parents knew, but they were too old, too frail, too resigned to escape the storm.  To continue, then…the young couple somehow made their way through war-torn Europe to deliver their gift.  A bold, foolish journey.  They presented a painting depicting the two of them on the day of their wedding.  I have no words with which to describe it, though I am confident that there is no need.  Somehow the artist, a man of innate talent and beautiful soul, captured the sheer joy these two felt to be wed.  Yet at the same time the man’s painted eyes shine with grief that the day could not be shared with his parents.  Joy and loss infused the very canvas.  I wept a little.”

A wide smile spread on Sam’s face.  “That was my painting…”  A thought tickled the edge of his mind—that he’d presented the painting less than a day before—but drifted away.

“I know.  The young couple planned to leave Greece for home soon, within days.  They promised that they would return, or would send for the old couple.  Everyone agreed that they would be together again; by the time each could to pretend to believe it, the meal was done.  Before I left, I inquired as to the name of the artist.  Samuel Freeman, they answered, of Seattle, Washington.  America.  In return, I advised the young couple, in my own way, to spend a few more days than they had planned.

“Your own way?”

“I liberated the rail passes from the young man.”

“Why did you do that?  If there’s war, shouldn’t they have gotten out as soon as possible?  Why trap them there without tickets?” Sam wondered.  “That’s an odd way to repay them.”  Her duplicity troubled him, but only for a moment.  Likewise, the matter of how the couple could have traveled to the other side of the world in less than a day was a short-lived thought.

Her eyes relaxed into the distance.  “It would not matter, Sam,” she said slowly.  “They will never see the old couple again.  Not in this life.  Or in any other.  Whether they stay a week, or a month, or leave on the day we meet, nothing will change.”

“How do you know?”

Lily shook her head as though to clear it.  “Shall we speak of the reason for my visit, instead?”

“Alright,” Sam agreed, wondering just what she was leaving out.  Why so secretive?

“I want that you paint my portrait.”

That was it? The reason she had traveled through a war-ravaged continent, across an ocean, and to the far side of another expanse?  To be painted?  By him?

Curiosity bested deference.  “Why a portrait of yourself?”

“To remember, Sam.  To mourn.  To celebrate.  Just…to.”

“I don’t understand…there must have been dozens of better artists in Europe.  Hundreds, even.  Why me?”  What’s the real reason?  Why are you toying with me?

“You, because it must be, has always been, you.”  She leaned to look intently through his eyes.  “I am not toying with you, Sam.  I want you to paint a portrait of me.  You will make me myself again, if only in oil and canvas, and for the me that you create, the world will again open like a portal to itself.  Free.  As I was in my youth.”

“You don’t seem so old to me,” he said.  It was the truth.  Though he couldn’t guess her age—she exuded both youth and great experience—he guessed she was only about as old as he.  “Why don’t I paint you as you are now?”

“Absolutely not.  As I was.”  She was adamant.

“How am I supposed to do that?  I need a model to work from.”  He was beginning to feel frustrated.  Why couldn’t she understand that he needed something to work from?  I’m a handyman, an artist…but not a magician.

“I have faith in you, Sam.  Shall we start tomorrow night?  Say around seven?”  She shaped the words as a question.  Sam knew they were not.

“I have to work tomorrow night.  Harry Owens and..”

She cut him off.  “..his Famous Royal Hawaiian Orchestra and Stage Revue are playing.  Do you truly enjoy vaudeville so much, Sam?”

“It’s not that.  I don’t like vaudeville much, really.   But Mr. Craddock…”

“Will see things my way, Sam.  I have a great deal of influence over him. Take tomorrow off.  Relax.  Take a nap.  I will see you at seven.”  She paused in the doorway, letting the shuush of rain echo in the lobby.  “And Sam?  I had the furnace seen to while you were sweeping.  Go home.  And throw the hat out with the rubbish.”

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