The artist turned his face away from the official-looking envelope so that when he coughed he wouldn’t mist it with droplets. Then, carefully, he removed and examined the contents, bringing them closer to the candle.
With laboured breathing, he unfolded the white cover letter typed out on heavy paper, read it through once, and then again. At long last, after all these years of effort, his work was recognized.
The Council itself had reviewed his art and now wanted to back it. Consequently, the city population’s collective eye had finally discovered him—this only sent the artist into another fit of coughing, since he had displayed his art in the streets for decades—and the people were so intrigued by the uniqueness of his work, now that they were told they should be, that he was invited by the Council to display his best pieces at the main art gallery.
He would be paid handsomely for each painting sold. In addition, the official letter stated, print copies would be created and distributed, adding to his royalties.
“We eagerly await your response,” the letter finished.
The artist paused in the candlelight, casting a looming shadow against the concrete wall as he stroked the wisps of his beard, and imagined being paid enough to eat every day. Paid enough to purchase real medicine at the apothecary. Paid to heat the stark room, with its stone walls and single window, enough to push back the chill that found him when he was hardest at work, the brazen chill that was a beast unto its own, and which seeped into his bones until his joints locked, were he not vigilant. He jiggled his joints preventatively and took some steps, checking over his shoulder with a wary glance, as if the chill were a solid presence in the room.
He shook the image away and breathed in as deeply as he could, inhaling the musty odour, musing instead about his younger days until his mind’s eye had reproduced Julie’s face. It hovered before the wall, just out of his extended arm’s reach, but he could smell her hyacinth perfume.
“I have sales now, my dearest,” he said, feeling his younger self rise up within. “We can finally marry—finally have that family we spoke of.”
The reverie faded, and his mouth turned to a frown as the image dissipated like smoke, returning the view of the slab above the fireplace—the single wall in the room that was decorated with spikes, streaks, and waves of soot from all the materials he had scrounged in the streets and managed to burn.
He let his arm drop to his side. “But, of course, we cannot. Time consumes all things. Even our chance to live is a window opened and closed by the hand of time.”
His attention returned to the Council’s package still in his other hand, the letter with its crisp folds and accompanying invitation emblazoned with gold swirls framing a script in meticulous calligraphy. Why? His art was the same. What had caused this change of perspective, this sudden sensation? Now that the Council was interested, the people were interested; and since the people were interested, the Council was willing to back the venture …
He would be paid.
“Paid,” he said aloud to test the taste of the word upon his tongue. “But who is to benefit now, since I have no children?”
He shrugged, smiled a humourless smile, and looked down at his haggard, plaid slippers, urging his feet to move. He shuffled past the easel with its comforting smell of oil, past the countless paintings of varying sizes with their frames leaning against the concrete walls and then layered one against the other, and set the Council’s package on the rough-hewn table. A few more steps and he arrived at the hearth, where he bent his stiff back to pick up the coal shovel. He filled the hearth generously and lighted the coals.
“Ah,” he mused, standing back to survey his handiwork as well as the glowing coals, “I will be warm tonight, for certain.”
On the shelf was his medicinal rum, the gift from a neighbour, long gone, for saving his choking boy’s life. The artist had cherished it too much to consume it, except for the time he had cut the finger of his right hand on some rusty metal and, in a panic, doused it in the rum to prevent infection.
With a smile, he gripped the bottle around its neck, poured the contents liberally into his tin cup, and swirled it around with flourish before reclosing the bottle. Shuffling to his bedside, he set the rum on the rickety bedside stand, in waiting. He would return to celebrate.
Back at his collection of canvases stretched over homemade frames—wood he could have burned but opted not to—the artist surveyed his life’s work and coughed into his sleeve, suddenly aware of the boniness of his arm even through his jacket. His lungs hurt.
A lifetime of paintings, of bleeding his heart in ever-exact brush strokes across multitudes of canvases. A lifetime of showing, promoting, following leads, and persevering. A lifetime of hoping, starving, and dying on the inside. A lifetime of begging eyes to recognize the voice of his work before time ran out …
Now, suddenly, something—not his artistic ability—had changed.
He shook his head and clicked his tongue in disgust. Human beings were fickle. Art, however, was art, whether in this century or the next.
His eyes grew sombre, old, and his smile dropped away. The coughing fit that followed bent him double and left him gasping for breath, but at last it settled, and he held out his trembling hands to the coals, relishing their heat. He would celebrate. Tonight he did not need to scrimp on heat, or even rum.
Then, selecting a painting from his collection at the base of the wall, he lifted it close to his face, pondered it, smiled as he reminisced, and fed it to the coals. It ignited. One by one, he handed the others to the reaching tongues of fire, which lapped each new offering more hungrily than the last.
By the time he finished feeding the fireplace with every painting he had ever created, he was wheezing and pressing his hands into the small of his back to relieve the ache and stiffness the effort had caused. Absently, he ran the back of one hand across his brow and examined the sweat with considerable interest.
“Now,” he enthused, “where is that rum?”
With leaden feet but a light heart, the artist shuffled to his bed and slipped beneath the threadbare quilt one last time.
“We eagerly await your response.”
He raised his cup to the air. “A toast to the Council,” he declared. “My eager response awaits you in my hearth.”