A whisper of blue: a light, soft and shimmering. It floats in from a place beyond the rise of mountains, the wilderness of rock – from somewhere out there.
Blume’s glad of it; the company. It feels familiar. It gives life to his roughened hands. It electrifies the blue in his eyes.
His glasses are taped together, grubby. There’re smudges from the night before; touches of fingertips – he always pushes them up off his face as he checks his work, steps back, dives in – flecks of acrylic, gesso. He grabs the end of his clammy shirt to wipe them. He has to see this new and delicate light.
It’s shy. It slips through the wrought-iron grille and hovers next to Blume. It has a texture; body. He reaches out, tries to take it. It throws little looping shadows on the bare floor, across his bony feet. It seems to pulse. Or else Blume’s in a daze. He has one of his morning heads. He’s not getting younger: the years pile up like stones. He can’t remember much about the night just gone: the hit of sleep. He remembers working, feeling alive, possessed.
Outside, the light swells. Blume pushes up his specs and peers through the opening. He doesn’t know this place, or its ways; hushed talk of mountain gods, a high cave. He’s the outsider, the loner. He isn’t trusted. He took the empty upper room as a retreat; somewhere to be unseen; to see. Rugs hang from a half-built house across the way. There are diamond shapes, ladders: reds, browns. Electric wires hum high up, swing from a sun-fried pole.
There’s panic in the air. Black sickle shapes dart across the sky. Swifts scream. Blume leans his lanky frame further in, desperate to see. They shoot past his window – an explosion of birds. Three, four, a multitude. They’re fleeing. And Blume wants to fly with them. If they can fly, why can’t he? Retreat to the mountain shadow: escape the sun.
Where’s the flat brush? And the palette knife, the pointy one: the scraper, the digger? Blume roots about, scuffing his heels. He’s lost: distracted by dreams. In the dead of night, it’s a grim world: the abandoned room, the naked bulb dangling low, crackling in the cooling air. He has to get going. He folds the mattress up, kicks it to the side. He rummages in the mountain of paints piled in the corner, and grabs the pumice. How did it get in there? He needs the ground-up rock for roughness, for bulk. And it’ll draw the light. He can’t work in the day. The heat rattles him: the sun cooks the tiles over his head. The light blinds.
With a rag tucked in his jeans, a plastic bucket by his feet, he looks down at his work, at the six-foot boards lying next to each other, laid out. Already – it’s only been a day – he doesn’t recognise it, what’s happened. It doesn’t belong to him. It’s someone else’s palette: hard, forced. Someone else’s brush. He doesn’t know how to approach it, what to do.
Then, in the dim umber light, they gather; the company. Blume can feel their presence as they shuffle in, dragging slippered feet, as they find a spot, a place by a wall to stand, to wait. Some stay behind, huddle near his shoulder. Some are on either side. He doesn’t look up, doesn’t see their faces.
–You’ve come, he whispers to the empty room.
He knows they come for warmth: to observe the living and the doing. Maybe they fear him, pity him. Maybe they come to wake him, to make him see. His father, his disapproving father, Blume knows his father the farmer is among them, is one of them for all time.
Blume grips the handle of the painting knife. He’s ready to hack, to cut away.
Shouting, banging. The door rattles, shakes on its hinges.
–Blume, you there?
The knob twists furiously back and forth.
It’s Melon Man. That’s the name Blume’s given him, but not to his face. He runs the place: operations. His name’s Barq – that’s what he goes by. It has a certain ring.
–Barq, I’m busy?
Blume slides the bucket, scrapes some pots.
–You pay Barq. Cash.
–But … I have a painting, it’s nearly done!
–Picture! No good. No one wants, Blume. Can’t sell. It. Dead.
The door strains against its frame.
–Months. No cash. Piss me off.
A fat fist thuds.
–Many people, Blume, want room. Quiet. Fucking nice view.
Blume curls his toes. He can’t face another spat with Melon Man: his burnt-black eyes. And a quiet falls, looms. Outside, Barq: unmoving, wide as a mountain. Inside: Blume and his visitors. They linger. His father: immovable. Untouchable. How long can Blume live the wandering life: flitting from one hole to another, from the shade of one wall to the next?
Work. He has to bury himself in work, in boards and paint. Ignore what’s out there: Barq, lurking, laughing now.
–Blume funny … like joke?
He chuckles again, down to the tar in his lungs.
–Listen, Barq no joke. You … fuck!
Blume holds his breath, doesn’t budge.
–Pay double, Blume! Or Barq board up room. Good joke?
His laugh bounces off the door.
–Blume? Barq friends. Not nice. Don’t like foreign shit. Knock Blume’s lights out. Disappear.
And he does. Blume retreats from Melon Man and his heavy-handed charm. He buries himself in memory, a past time. He scans the boards lying on the floor. On each panel, there are darkish sunflowers: an army of giant heads seething in the sun. They’re witnesses. They bow and sway and strain towards a swirling mass of yellow. He has to fix the yellow: he’s struggled for days. It should flare and scorch. It should be indomitable.
At his feet, where the deep green stalks are, he’s splattered threads of ochre light, criss-cross lines of reddish yellow that slice through the stems, singe the edges of the heavy leaves so they shrivel, blacken. In the undergrowth, it’s cramped, claustrophobic: the thick stems fight for their patch of earth.
The sky, he’s not unhappy with. Above the nodding flower heads he’s thinned the paint, poured it. It’s a milky black with little succour, on the edge of turning sour. He doesn’t have a blue to speak of a distant, departed God.
So: to work. It’s all he’s got. Glasses up, his hands become his brain. On his knees, Blume hacks at the boards, at the stalks bursting out through the dark earth. He’s crackled it and the paint’s split. He digs into crevices to open them, make the earth look thinner. He wipes it with the rag, checks it through his specs. He’s pleased. But he hasn’t pleased the company. He thinks that some have left, disappointed – his father.
–Don’t go yet. Take me!
He throws his glasses off to grapple, to fight for something like a finish. The flowers should be weighted. He’s made some pumice, ground the rock, mixed in a thick burnt brown. He clambers between the boards and daubs it on, so the seed heads droop like clusters of stone. With a mars black he scores the petals, so they burn in the furnace of the sun, yearn for the thing that kills them.
He sees himself outside, up, past the village. Only he can’t see the sun – as if it’s lying low, camouflaged. This mountain world is barren, bleak. The summit is sacred and not for any living soul. But Blume’s dying to go: to follow the birds. Escape. And if it’s cooler, he can climb forever, he can struggle to the top, if there’s time. The day’s highly charged; the light quivers. A wash of turquoise floods the sky. The clouds look brushed-in: yellow, cobalt blue.
He ploughs on, finds the flatter bits on the mule path; his boots are dusty, coated. At times, he has to manoeuvre round a monstrous rock. His legs ache but get used to it. He’d love to stop, catch his breath, but he can’t. Something in him driving: desperation.
The trees spring up like sentinels around Blume. And he’s wary. They look oddly angled, parched. As if, somehow, they were upside down and their trunks, branches, their leaves grew down through the rock, into the earth; their roots above, flailing in the air.
He thinks it must be part of a tree, a gnarled bit. But then the wind rustles up from nowhere and he sees a feather ruffle. A flat, black bird painted on the branch with its eye fixed on Blume. On its way to the top, it’s exhausted, weak. And it busies itself with resting and sleeping and dreaming of the end. He doesn’t reach out to touch it. He brushes it away. He has to get up to the pass, to the cave.
The final bit is tough. The path disappears. He has to figure out a way; find a stone that doesn’t slide, keep an eye out past boulders for what’s beyond. He can feel himself cracking up, flaking. He’s not used to mountains: false peaks, tricks. Sometimes he thinks he’s arrived, about to touch the sky, and another stretch appears still to go.
A loose stone skitters by. Something’s coming: a shape, a mountain shadow. A figure leaps into view. A man. A goat. He springs from ledge to ledge then races down in free fall. Blume tries to catch his face. And it … it’s him. It’s Blume … running away. Scared. In a blur.
The air thins near the pass. Ragged rocks become open scree. It’s a steep, sloping desert: a forbidden place. And Blume trudges on. Every step is an effort. He has to drag the air into his lungs. It feels like he’s climbing into the wind, into its cold heart, taking it on. He angles himself to stay on his feet, scrunches his face.
A gust, like the hand of God knocks Blume over, flings him back, sends him flying. It’s light and wind joined together; the forces of life. A clash. A test. And Blume’s ready to fight, whatever it is, to make it past.
–Come on! he screams.
He scrabbles to his feet, faltering. His legs give way in the brunt of the gale. He slips on the scree, tumbles down. When he’s up again he launches into it. He grapples with the strength of the thing bearing down on him. He wants to overcome it, master it.
–Let me pass!
He tries to wrestle himself into a better position. His opponent comes at him from every angle, bombards him, blinds him. Blume somehow elbows his way on top.
–Please, he begs, –let me reach the cave … see what there is.
He gains a better grip, a stranglehold. And for a moment, Blume has the upper hand. But then his opponent slips away; becomes transparent, no one thing. And Blume’s left empty-handed. His body slumps forward.
And he stirs. He’s back. His neck’s stiff. It aches unforgivingly. He’s lying in a heap, face down in the paint; stuck to it. He has to peel himself away; his hands speckled, caked.
The company has left. They’ve slipped silently from the room. Until … they decide to return.
What happened in the night? It was a dream. A quest. He tackled the light: the sun. He pulled it down on the board. He fixed it, made it leaden. He can see it’s dying now too, burning out.
He clambers up, gets away from it. He bumps his head on the unlit bulb, has to duck when it swings for him. He feels battered, defeated. He’s at a loss now. He heads for the door but hesitates. The window. The intangible light, reaching in, embracing – it’s something for Blume to grasp. He doesn’t need to know if the door opens. Really, he has nowhere to go.
SP Hannaway is fairly new to writing short fiction. His first short story appeared in Litro Online in 2014. Since then his stories have featured in Dream Catcher, The Sonder Review, Gravel, Brittle Star, Selected Places (an anthology), Abstract Jam and Lighthouse. He’s completed the Short Story Writing course and the Writers’ Workshop course, both at City University. He’s worked as an actor for a number of years and lives in London.