By Helen C. Cook

Copyright, 1999 Helen C. Cook

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The air even smelled the same. Each breath I breathed felt thicker than black smoke, coating my lungs with the stain of death. My steps were slow and heavy, and I wasn't truly sure if the ground existed beneath my feet. I moved forward in a cloud, leaving behind me the only comfort I had found, pushing forwards towards the only comfort I had ever lost. My heart beat like the deafening cadence of a steel drum inside my frail chest, and I honestly believed I might break. Again. My heart was going to break again, but this time I was going to let it. I knew this as I trudged forward, through the dense air that choked off my breath, air that had once been so sweet upon my tongue, air that was so much the same that it made me want to die. Again. I wanted to die again, because I couldn't seem to stop myself from floating endlessly forward, to the valley of my broken dreams, my shattered hopes, and my everlasting happiness. The lovely world of my past lay only inches away, waiting in stillness for my eyes to touch the carelessly painted pictures we had danced upon so long ago.

Only inches away, but it seemed like years, or even eternity. Each step took a lifetime; but it never took my own, as I silently willed it to do. I pushed on, feeling the weakness of my old bones shuddering from the ice on my soul. Time rolled forward like a glacier frozen in space, until it all stopped. Everything stopped. Time, movement, everything. I think the world even stopped spinning. It was so still I was almost knocked over by directionless momentum, and I reached out to a blanket of memories to help steady myself. My breath caught somewhere in my heart, and my mind swam with the image that lay ahead. Paintings of a life I once knew, watercolor memories in my eyes. My tears ran blue and red and purple, while the sun refused to shine. The muddy colors sliding down my face were salty upon my lips, but even they could do nothing to dull the magnificent portrait that stretched beyond the hill.

I sat myself down softly on the cool wet earth, not even feeling the dampness as it seeped slowly through my clothes. I felt nothing, I felt everything, as I gazed down upon the playground of my youth. Mindlessly, I pushed a stray strand of gray hair from my eyes, not wanting anything to obstruct the beautiful view before me. More than anything, I wanted to be a part of that lovely world again, to dance among the colors we had scattered to the wind. I wanted to live my life in that painting, the painting we had created with our own two hands. The painting that was our heart, our soul, our lives. The painting that even time had failed to touch. The colors were still full of life, a canvas touched by shades straight from God's hands. They shone in the morning light, vibrant and real, colors so strong I could taste them on my tongue. Still sweet, but now a little bitter. My eyes swept the outstretched land before me, and I shivered as I remembered every feeling I had ever felt, all at once. Nature had been good to this valley, preserving every last bit of its beauty. The grass stretched fresh along the foot of the hill, and from the top it looked as soft and deep as a carpet of moss. Trees and flowers bloomed healthily throughout the orchard, and I remembered painting each and every one. Birds chirped and butterflies flew leisurely, as if they never felt the tragedy that hovered over the land of a thousand dreams. I could smell the sweet fragrance of the orchard even as I looked at it from afar, penetrating my soul with a stinging clarity. And beyond the orchard was the cottage we had shared, where we had let creativity blossom in the air. I almost didn't let myself look, but my eyes were finally drawn to the land just beyond the edge of the orchard. I tried to pull my gaze away, but with a mind of their own my eyes were pulled towards the cliff, with a force stronger than gravity. Slow and shallow, and in all my eighty years of life I had never felt like this before. I put my head in my hands and watered the ground with my tears. They fell like icicles from my eyes, dropping to the earth with the weight of lead. My tears hit the ground with a shattering thud, sending shards of rainbow colored crystals through the air. And the colors, they fell from my eyes, and stained the earth with hues so loud the noise screamed inside my head, and I painted myself back to a time when the lovely world was mine.

There was never a time when I didn't know love. I knew him the day he was born. Two years younger than me , the child of my mother's best friend. They said I used to watch him sleep in the crib, enchanted by his perfect innocence, or maybe just his smile.

I touched his precious fingers, so small against my own. I waited impatiently for him to crawl, for him to walk, for him to understand the words I had been whispering in his ears since the day he was born. I watched his first first step, the first time he let go of his walker and stretched his hands out towards me, bobbling forward awkwardly. I was with him when he banged his milk on the table of his high chair, when he threw his mashed potatoes at his mother and they stuck to the wall. I was with him on his first day of school, when we walked lazily through the field of cat tails to the red brick building, arriving an hour late and covered with burrs. I was with him when he drew his
first picture, a fat blue crayola in his hand. A picture of him holding a flower; he said it was for me. The picture I still have in a frame above my bed. The picture I see every time I close my eyes. I was with him always, forever, until time ran out.

We spent countless days laughing beneath the sun. We shared our childhood hopes, our childhood dreams. We ran barefoot through the summer grass, dancing to the music in our own heads. We made angels in the winter snow. He was an angel, I think, put on earth to teach me to spread my wings and fly. And now his wings were spread, and he was flying high above the sky; but somehow, somehow he had forgotten to swoop down and take me with him. And I remember the way we were when we were children, and the way we seemed to complete each other. We helped discover each other. He seemed to read my mind, and I read his, and we each painted the other's thoughts a thousand times. Endless days we spent in creative silence, painting ourselves a lovely world. Since almost before we could talk, we colored a fantasy land of innocence on white construction paper. We matured from crayolas to colored pencils, from watercolors to oil paints, decorating our lives with happiness. We never stifled our creativity with stencils, but simply let the lovely world inside our heads flow to the white slate before us, unbridled and free.

Seasons turned into years, and as we grew older we grew into one. Lazy days of Grammar School lapsed into lazy days of High School. We were no longer naive and carefree, but we were blooming into intelligent adults. We were growing, we were changing, and as time sped forward I began to see that he was no longer a boy, but almost a man. And inside of myself I was becoming a woman. The childhood love I had felt for him was being replaced by a deeper, more intense feeling that I had never felt before, but had painted countless times. I began to realize that everything in my life, I had created around him. Everything I was and everything that I did, I did for him. I was not me, but I was us. I was not myself without him, and I did not believe that he was himself without me. I wanted to hold him, I wanted to kiss him, I wanted to be him. I wanted to feel him breathing softly on my neck each night before I fell asleep. I wanted to wake each morning to the feel of his soft cheek gently pressed against mine. I wanted to love him, to tell him I loved him, to be love with him.

So I touched the feelings I felt in my soul, and I took them in my hands. I sat a pure white canvas in front of me, a canvas that shone brighter than a star with the luster of newly awakened innocence. I chose colors carefully from my pallet, using only the colors that sang when I held my brush near. They fell smooth on the white background, becoming clear as I contoured the feelings in my heart. The picture began to paint itself, and even when I shut my eyes my hands stroked the canvas with an ease and perfection that I never knew I possessed. Like a precious flower in the spring of its life, I had opened a new bud and allowed beauty to blossom. My brush danced across the smooth white surface until my heart lay not only in my chest, but also before my eyes. It was there in front of me, inside me, thickening the air all around me. I had not ceased movement for hours, as I let my heart take over my body and create all of the longing that I had felt inside. Only now I sat motionless, and let the feelings I had just put on canvas take hold of me and warm me to my bones. I didn't even move when I felt him gently place his hands upon my shoulders. I didn't jump to realize that he had been standing behind me all this time. Maybe I had known he was there all along, unknowingly guiding my hands in their voyage across the blank page. His hands moved slowly from my shoulders to my hair, and I felt the warmth of his body as he leaned forward towards me and softly kissed the top of my head. My eyes still closed, I heard him walk in front of me and stand between me and our portrait. I smelled the sweetness of his skin then as he leaned close to me, brushed his eyelashes gently across my face, butterfly kisses on my cheek. Then his lips on my eyelids, and I finally opened my eyes to look at that face I had loved all of my life. He whispered, "Love, I love you too. I want to give you everything as beautiful as you are to me." He pulled me to him then, and wrapped the graceful hands of an artist around me tight. I felt as if I had been there all of my life. I think the hollow of his chest was created just for me. We stood there basking in the glow of our love, the portrait I had painted with him by my side.

Our childhood had ended, and a new part of life had just begun. We were
different somehow, like butterflies emerging fresh from the slumber of a cocoon. So when his mother, my mother' s best friend, began packing to move away from the life she had given us, it tore us apart to imagine a lifetime of separation. The world was cruel, as hard as stone. I could not imagine breathing in a world without this man. So late one night, as the moon shone with the eternal light of optimism, we thought, 'Why can't we leave this place behind, and together paint ourselves a lovely world?' So we gathered our childhood hopes and our childhood dreams. We gathered every piece of our past and bundled it together tightly. We wrapped them like the gifts they were, and packed the past away to inspire us to begin a future. Boxes and crates overflowed with the numerous pictures we had painted, the many sketches of our lives. With a gentle
kiss goodbye, we parted with the world that had so lovingly guided us into each other's arms. We took a part of this world with us in each other, but moved steadily forward to the brand new life that awaited us ahead.

We stole out in the blanket of night, flying through darkness in search of some light. The earth was still, the air silent. We aimed in no particular direction, looking for no particular place. We simply moved forward, through the black silence. We were alone here. There was no sweet song of a cricket, no welcome sign of night life. The world felt big and empty, and I felt small and weak. I told him, "The sky, it's so dark. I can't see myself in it the way I used to. Why is it so dark?" So he removed his oil paints from his bag, and he painted the stars in the sky for me. He took my hand, and I smiled.

We walked again, but I still didn't feel right. "The night, it's so quiet," I said. "It doesn't sing to me the way it used to. Why is it so quiet?" So he removed his watercolors from his bag, and he painted a bubbling brook for me, over clean white rocks. He painted soft grass along the bank, that I might sit by the water and rest. He sat with me a while, and held my hand, and I smiled.

But soon I grew tired of evening, and longed to feel sunlight once again touching my face. "It's always night time," I told him. "It's like the sun doesn't want to shine for me anymore. Why doesn't the sun want to shine?" So he reached into his bag and grabbed a fat yellow crayola, and he gave me the sun in the sky. And as the sun warmed the earth and awoke its beauty, it awoke something in me as well. I wanted to give to him as he had given to me. I wanted to spread the colors of my pallet before me as well, and help him to create a land of a thousand dreams. So then together we made everything we had ever dreamed of having. We made rolling green fields the color of deep moss, a cherry orchard as red as bright fire. We made a comfortable little cabin, where we would grow old together gracefully. We painted ourselves into a nook in the valley, surrounded on three sides by lush green hills, and on the fourth side by a steep brown cliff. We spent many hours leaning against the wall of that cliff, admiring all that we had created, admiring how beautifully this world had grown. We painted two unique wild flowers blooming healthily on a small ledge of the cliff, just out of reach of human hands. We were these two flowers, blowing happily in the wind. Last of all, we made a baby child grow inside of me. I could feel the life inside of me the same way I felt life in my hands whenever I held a paintbrush. And when we were done painting, we were left with the most perfect, the most lovely world either of us could ever imagine.

But even in a perfect world, perfection isn't there. In my blind happiness, I never imagined I could lose anything that was precious to me. We were both immortal in the land we had created. We had painted it that way. But one day, rain beat upon the walls of our small cabin as I waited, alone, for him to return to me. The pounding rain seemed to be knocking on the door, beckoning me to come, to hurry, because I may already be too late. I ran from that lonely cabin, my long hair trailing in the wind, whipping my face and stinging my eyes. I ran blindly through the orchard, screaming at all that surrounded me, cursing the very world that we created for leaving me behind.

And when I got to where he lay, I threw myself down on the cold wet earth, trying my best to become a part of it, to smother myself with the muddy brown paint smeared cruelly on his cheeks. In his hands he held a single wild flower for me, one of the same flowers that had once grown so free and fresh on the small ledge of the cliff. He held one of the flowers that had lain just out of the reach of human hands, and I realized that both of us had made the mistake of believing that we were immortal. He held one of those same wild flowers that had once been us, and now there was only one left.

He spoke softly, his voice weaker than I could have ever imagined it would be. He said "Love, I leave, but only a little. My body may die now, but these paintings are real." I screamed to the wind, choking on my own breath as I wished I could join him there, wherever he was. My cries were lost in the pounding rain, and I dug my fingernails hard into the ground we had made, grabbing fistfuls of mud and trying to throw it back to wherever it had come from. I didn't want it anymore. None of it. I wanted to cover myself in it until I could no longer breath, until I had no choice but to leave the lovely world we had made behind me as well. But inside of me, a tiny life growing told me 'No.'

Seasons passed, and the world kept turning. I left behind me the land of broken dreams and moved on to give life to the only thing that mattered to me anymore, the only creation left that was truly both of us in one, the way we used to be. I tried to leave the rest of my past behind me, and to live only for each day. Yet somehow, my love refused to leave me. I saw his face wherever I would go, could hear his laughter in the wind. I heard his voice in our child, who clung to me with a love so fierce I believe he was telling me to remember. For years I tried to escape the venom that was festering in my stomach, refusing to let me remember the way we had painted carelessly. But
through it all, on rainy nights when I lay awake in bed with tears streaking my cheeks, I always believed I felt him hold me as I cried.

Years flew by, and life continued. I was a grandmother now, of two beautiful children. They made me smile, and they made me happy, but I never again tasted happiness the way I had so long ago. I began to remember the way I had once painted so freely, scattering colors to the wind. I remembered then, what he had said to me just before he left me alone. "My body may die now, but these paintings are real." I would go back, and I would remember, and I would paint, just once, again.

There I was, an old lady now, surrounded by the lovely world that had lay untouched for so many years; for too many years. It had remained, and it was indeed, as he said, real. I wandered the playground of my youth for awhile, simply touching and smelling the memories I had tried so hard to forget. Almost without knowing where I was going, I found myself at the wall of the cliff. Looking up, I saw that one wild flower still grew, tall and strong in the wind. It made me sad to see the flower, that while strong, was still all alone. Maybe, I thought, I can put it out of its misery if I only pick that one too. I walked towards it, ready to reach with outstretched hands, when I realized that maybe this flower was really no longer in misery. Maybe this strong wild flower was finally at peace, enjoying watching the lovely world that blossomed all around it each and every day. Maybe I, too, was no longer in misery, and was finally able to simply appreciate the happiness that had once been mine. Looking once again at the flower standing strong, tears of a different kind began to wet my cheeks. These tears ran yellow and orange, coloring my world with happiness once again for what I had shared with the only man I had ever loved. I painted the sun once again into my life, to shine upon all that had once been mine. And these, the last tears I would shed, tears the color of a monarch butterfly, lifted me upon orange wings and carried me high above the lovely world that was finally my world again.

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