On the first day she painted nothing. She breathed in the cool lucid morning and watched the light cast her husband’s skin red, then gold, then glaring white as the sun edged above the house and scared away the shadows. He lay twisted away from her, face down on the driveway. She had him stretch his arms by his sides and splay his legs akimbo. She worried that his knee and back would bother him but she had no other choice.
She had raked aside the coat of mulching leaves to expose dirt, skimpy gravel and a few fresh green weeds. How tall were the weeds in September? Shorter, probably, so she ripped out the tall grassy ones but left the ground ivy.
It was November and the oaks were bare tangles of branches and sunshine. After his mother left them the farm, he had gathered the rusting snapshots of his ancestors into a few orange envelopes and squirreled them somewhere in the attic. The pictures proved that the trees had been giants since before his mother was a girl, and now the branches bowed and twisted under their own weight. He wanted to wedge wooden crutches under each limb to support thick straight limbs but she told him it wasn’t worth the trouble. She enjoyed their inward growth.
One of the Griggs children had set a fistful of silver balloons free the week before and two or three had caught in the branches.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” the balloons gleamed down. They changed the quality of the light. At ten in the morning the sun glanced off of a balloon and shone onto his back and right arm like a selective halo.
“How many Griggs kids are there now?” she asked.
“They’re religious. They think it’s their duty to continue mankind,” he said. He didn’t move from his crumpled pose. She couldn’t see his face and his voice seemed ghostly, or as if it came from inside her head.
“Good thing we’re not,” she said.
She tilted the easel so the canvas faced away from the breeze. She had gessoed it the day before, thin white paint smeared on with a sponge so that whatever came next would stick. But now no colors were strong enough. She felt leaden, heavy, inadequate. How could she get the texture of his skin and the skew of his limbs?
“Hey. We’re fine, just you and me,” he said, but she was no longer listening. Burnt sienna. Flesh hiding blue. No.
A gust of wind swept dust and specks of dead leaves onto the blank canvas like a mockery. She brushed them off with her fingertips. Good thing she hadn’t managed to paint anything yet.
She hated working outside. Usually they shared the barn as a studio, their paintings stacked side by side in what used to be a cow stall. She worked in the hayloft and he stayed down below. He had built her an unstable table to hold her paints and she had driven a row of nails into the walls to hang her stretchers. On good days sunlight streamed through the slats in the roof and carried the smell of the garlic fields. The hayloft felt like a secret place, though they had no secrets.
On the second day she began the earth. Orange and ochre. It was a clutter of debris from the end of the world, eggshell stones crushed to crumbs, some the size of an eye, most on their way to sand. Fourteen years here and she had never noticed the ground of the driveway before. She imagined herself as an archaeologist examining the unseen valuables that litter the earth, petrified arrows and bullets and ancient teeth grinding into dust. She switched to her finest brush.
They lived on what once was a garlic farm. No one had tended to it for years but stubbornly it yielded rows and rows of heads of garlic. After a good day she liked to walk between the rows. Her going-nowhere walks, he called them, but of course the rows meant she had to meander in straight lines. She had learned to love the farm’s heavy smell. In early spring, when the plants were still young, she would root up a head and bite into a raw clove.
On the third day she began his body, life-sized. She wanted to see him as she had that morning in September: framed by the kitchen window, his head cut off by the faucet, his body blurred by the kitschy lace curtains. She left him sprawled on the driveway. She carried the canvas into the kitchen, propped it against a cabinet and the drying rack, and watched him through the lace curtains. She wanted to pin the memory of September to her canvas and let it beat and shiver its wings to stillness.
On the fifth day she saw where she’d gone wrong: everywhere. She needed to see him afresh, as a stranger, as she had not done in twenty years. It was hard to break him down into his parts. She saw the blue shirt she had bought for him, the faded pants she had told him to throw out, the vein on his temple pulsing in reassurance or in threat.
She moved back outside, rubbed out the canvas with rags soaked in turpentine, and then painted it back clean with the cheap white house paint they had used for the porch. The sky
was stainless. The fumes made her dizzy and glad. The sun disappeared and then the light left, too, and that was the sixth day.
She had it. She needed to see his face, his childish pout, the fat top lip jutting over the bottom one. Puce and ashy pink. How many shades would she find in the curve of his mouth?
“Can you turn your face towards me?” she asked.
He moved slowly, stiffly. She hoped he wasn’t feeling pain. His eyes were shut against the dust. She knelt beside him and brushed the gravel residue from his skin.
She widened the easel legs further to the ground, further still. Careful not to scud the earth, she nudged the whole contraption to the left. Yes. His profile would cut the canvas on a steep diagonal, a backward push against time. Yes!
“Can you take off your shirt?” she asked. She had always found his shoulders beautiful: freckled, raw-boned, years younger than the rest of his body. She switched to a fatter brush and touched it to her cheek. Sable hair, softer than skin. Expensive. They shared it. They had given it to each other a few Christmases back.
They shared a birthday, too, November twelfth. Ever since they moved to the farm they had spent the day cut off from the world. No phones and no internet, they promised each other, as if they weren’t isolated already.
Burgundy. Bismuth. Black ivory. That one always made her smile. Anxious patient, original copy, all alone—
“What are you so happy about?” he asked.
“Don’t move,” she said. “Close your eyes.”
He always slept with his eyes shut tight, as if flinching could fortify thin skin into a guard
against the night. Some mornings she stroked his eyelids with her fingertips as though to brush away their strain. Once she shook him awake.
“What are you dreaming?” she whispered. The curtain fluttered. Sunlight streaked the whitewashed walls. His face flooded with rapture, gentle, wild. She could tell he wanted to explain it all to her but before he could find the words his eyes had sunk shut and he was asleep again.
She didn’t notice the daylight emptying early for winter until, on the morning of the fifteenth day, she slipped outside to set up the easel and tripped on the darkness. The shock kept her there for several minutes as she processed how she’d got there. Her knees had never been strong. She noticed a dull glint of silver in one of the oaks: the last of the balloons, filthy and shrunken but still tangled in the oak. She could hear the patter of the coffee boiling on the stove and her body flooded with the irrational fear that the coffee would burn dry and then set aflame and burn the farm to cinders while she watched. What if the smell of smoke didn’t wake him?
Slowly she remembered how to stand again. She turned on the light and poured her coffee into a chipped blue mug. She poured him a cup, too, and covered it with a saucer to keep warm until he woke. She looked out the window above the sink and watched the driveway.
On the seventeenth day she told him she did not need him. She had decided to paint herself into the picture’s bottom half, her profile his mirror, her eyes and mouth shut to match his. She tried to watch herself slant-eyed in his mother’s handheld mirror. His mother used to teach Classics at the local high school. The mirror’s rim was crowded with gold-muscled Greek heroes.
She started with the steel of her hair. Each spring she told her haircutter to think Louise Brooks, but by September it had grown out to chin length and by November she could feel it brush her collarbone when she shook her head. She sketched a fast gist of her features. Her eyes were too deep set and her mouth too wide. She reshaped and reshaped her face.
On the eighteenth day she painted their mouths closer together, as though sleep had severed a kiss.
On the twentieth day she wiped herself from the canvas. She painted back the earth.
On the twenty-third day she asked him to come back. She watched him fold his shirt and settle on the gravel. The cold would soon be unbearable. She wished he would complain and tell her to give up so she could finally stop this impossible task, but he had a gift for silence. Maybe he knew this was beyond her. Maybe pity made him pose each morning. They both heard the change in her breathing. He propped himself up on his forearms
“We don’t have to do this,” he said. The gravel had imprinted itself on his cheek and stippled the skin pink. He moved gingerly and she thought maybe his back was acting up. But by now it was too late to start again some other day.
“Stop squirming,” she said. Calm, calm, she thought. He lay his head back down. He looked like a crumpled paper doll. She pulled her sweater tight around her. She dipped the brush.
On the twenty-fifth day the rain kept them inside. And it did not stop on the twenty-sixth day, or the twenty-seventh, or the twenty-eighth. He fled to his studio. She found a pile of yellowing Latin textbooks in the attic, picked one up, and flipped through.
“This homely little book will teach you to dissect language,” it promised. The sound of the rain made her feel safe. Even in the windowless attic, the air was thick with the sweet smell of garlic.
That night, still cloistered by the downpour, they made a feast of bread and beef stew. He cooked, she baked. He washed, she dried. But his mother the classicist could have told her about the gradient from shared to shorn, heart cut clean. She could have explained that forever means for all of life. It does not mean for always.
She had been washing the dishes and watching him through the kitchen window that September morning. At first she had thought he had tripped. For a moment she had laughed at the slapstick of his distorted fall. Disaster only ever swoops out of a clear sky. Only after he was face down on the gravel and clutching his heart did she notice the blue. Cobalt, manganese extra. She remembered the difficulty of finding a dishcloth to de-suds her hands so she could pick up the phone and dial for the ambulance. She remembered the stainless sky, cerulean light, cerulean dark, permanent blue, unnamable blue. She could not remember running to help him.
On the twenty-ninth day the storm had slaked the earth and left. The last balloon had freed itself from the branches. Clouds streaked the sky. Leaves eddied and clotted the ground.
“Ready?” he asked her. The sun hid behind a cloud. The gentle light strayed, and vanished, and then returned.