To Paint is to Live
(flash fiction story I wrote while on retreat this last weekend)
He was a regular Picasso as a kid. Always inventing new techniques, totally unrecognized by his peers, parents and school principle. Renditions of his dog, amber-colored and old, he’d even go down to the concrete skate park after built it and do portraits of dudes on wheels. Everyone mocked him, but a silent, reverent mocking, so that he felt their disdain but never had audio evidence of it. Somehow everyone seemed to know this was what he was supposed to do, that he loved it, and they hated him for it, but also admired him for it.
That all changed at age 13, when a lot of things change quite suddenly, all at once. First he stopped painting. He put away his oils, acrilycs, even the watercolors he hadn’t used in years. First into a box in his closet, then into the trash. Out went his pastels, his colored pencils and markers, his special pens. His parents showed more curiosity than concern, plus a little bit of stingyness, since they had spent many portions of paychecks paying for these supplies. He claimed he was aiming for simplicity, felt his work had gotten too cluttered, and they nodded as if they understood.
He kept on attending to his regular unrequested gigs – portraits at the pond, sketches at the skate park, landscapes. But they were all done in pencil, a bit like how he drew in elementary school, when his talent was first recognized, then denied. Even this struck him as too much, so he moved on to total abstraction, focusing on forms, simple squares and clutterless circles, pointed cones and long lines. Finally, even the pencils found their way into the same demise as the rest of his art supplies. Though he could still be found in his old haunts, he was at last only tracing what he saw with a finger in the sand, then, finally, toward the end, doing nothing at all, a ghost himself, staring at walls and speaking to no one, hands mysteriously still.
His parents, worried that he was ill, made him an appointment with a therapist, though generally they were against that kind of thing. He went, but said little, and was sophisticated enough that the therapist believed him. “He’s fine,” she told his parents, “just give him some time to come back around again.”
Soon after that appointment, maybe within a week, kids at school realized that their friends who lived on the edge of town were no longer coming to school. Within a couple of days, everyone could see the haze that encircled the entire town of only a few hundred folks – as if the horizon was made entirely of fog, or as if a huge snow or dust storm was encircling them from all sides. Everyone checked the weather, their farmer’s almanacs, even a few pulled out their witch books and did a few spells. But nothing changed; if anything, the storm, or whatever it was, crept closer each day. Boys would challenge each other to go up to the edge of it, whatever it was, and occasionally, some would get lost this way and never come back. Those who lived on the edge of town moved in closer, in with relatives or friends, or even enemies – everyone got so scared finally that they really bound together. The school took on the role of bomb shelter, like it had been designated in the Cold War period, and within a week of the haze beginning it was close enough to the center of town that all communications were cut off and no one could leave or come in.
Everyone huddled in the basement of the school, some praying, some singing, some going clearly insane. The boy was amongst them, having lived next to the school all along, and though his parents’ house no longer stood, he had been out on his regular course, wandering through the schoolyard, looking at objects idly, when the dean of the school pulled him in by the collar and dragged him into the cellar. He was bored down here, a kind of blank boredom that no one fights, you just sort of succumb to. In fact, it was a rather cool boredom, not idle at all, and out of his boredom came a clear desire to draw. Having no pens or crayons, he traced his finger for the first time in two weeks over the dust, and there was a lot of it, since they’d had no time to clean before the crisis, and drew a path from his school to his parents house. His dog, lame and nearly blind, but still loyal. His father, who never understood him but always loved him. And not long after he finished his father, there came a knocking at the door.
“It’s my SON! His lack of creating made our town disappear! Someone give him ink and paper and he can save us all!”
Now no one took art THAT seriously in the town. There was no theater to speak of, not even a cinema. You had to go down the road for that. A town newspaper never included poetry and was far too cheap to narrate stories with photography. Even puppet shows were not common amongst the children. So to say that an artist, to even call him that, then claim that it was he who put the town in peril, and was needed to be the superhero of the day, this was outrageous. But then again, the town completely disappearing was outrageous, too.
“Listen. It’s not a fog, it’s not snow. It’s not weather. The town is simply DISAPPEARING. I couldn’t believe it either. But look at his sketch in the dust!”
They did, the dozen or so crouched under a single lamp in the dank. And sure enough, the boy’s father, mother, dog and house stood clear as day on the bench.
Without further hesitation, the principal took the notebook he always carried with him, one of those tiny jobbers spiral bound at the top, and his best waterman pen, and handed them to the boy. “Go for it, son.”
The boy drew the skate park back in, as he knew it best. Soon they heard echoes of plastic wheels outside the steel doors of the school cellar. then all of the trees, the houses, surrounding the schoolyard, and by then he was out of paper.
“Draw yourself a new pad and pen, son.”
And so he did, and in a matter of only a couple of hours, he drew the entire town, give or save a dog or two, back into existence.
The dozen or so in the shelter emerged out of the darkness into their town. Or a sketch of their town. For there was no color, everything in grades of black and white and grey. The boy’s father knelt down next to him and gave him his very first phrase of praise: “Good job, son! You have saved us! Let’s go get some ice cream!”
Everyone went over to the parlor together, wondering at the reemergence of their home. Some of the kids went to get their parents, some wandered off to friend’s houses, but most stayed together. They entered the shop only to find a wan ice cream server, who quickly informed them that the ice cream no longer had flavor, because it had no color.
The boy spoke for the first time in weeks, in fact, some had never heard him speak before.
“I need color.”
“But there are no markers, color doesn’t exist anymore.”
“That’s not true. Back at the school, the bricks are still red, the sky is still blue and the fallout shelter sign is still yellow. Scrape some of each off into your hands and bring it to me.”
So they did. His father gathered some of the sky, the principal some of the school and some boys ripped off the entire shelter sign – the same one they had thrown rocks at nearly all of their lives for the delicious “ping” it created – and they all arrived back at the store with their hands covered in color. They found the boy had drawn a paint tray, with brush and all, and he requested they put the colors into certain slots, where he then mixed them with water, then each other, to make all the other colors he needed: green, purple, orange and even brown.
He started with the ice cream first, which made him a town favorite for years to come. Then he strung color along the path back to the school, made his favorite lifetime dog a sweet amber color again, and worked his way back out to the edges, bringing cedar color to the hedges and encouraging the flowers to bloom again.
PINGO EST VIGO was the motto for the new art school (mandatory for all kids and adults to attend at least one art class a week) built in honor of the boy saving the town. “To Paint is to Live”. Never did anyone again doubt the power of art.