By Paul Holler
The apprentice awoke before the rooster’s crow. He lay in the quiet and watched the black sky take form inside the window frame. He knew how to make that black. He knew precisely how to char the dried bones with a flame, scrape the ash into a mortar and grind it into a fine powder. He knew how to add just enough linseed oil give it form. And he knew where to find the linseed and how to press it to extract the finest oil.
At the sound of the rooster’s crow, the black sky gave way to a low ochre light, rolling in soft waves through the flaws in the windowpane. The early morning sky reminded him of the pitch black soil of the Southern hills and how he had once scraped it with his hands to uncover the ochre beneath it, just as the dawn pulled away the darkness to reveal the heavens.
He rose from his bed, stripped off his nightshirt, pulled up his pants and slipped his shirt over his head. Leaving his shoes behind him, he slid down the stairs barefoot, taking care so that their rattle and squeak would not wake the Master. He walked softly across the darkened shop where the Master’s work, a scene of an unearthly angel rising above a supplicant old man, sat unfinished on an easel. He stopped and inspected the Master’s pig hair brushes, setting aside the ones that were worn beyond their usefulness. He would need to find the time to make replacements for them.
His own work, a portrait of an old man he had seen on an Amsterdam street, stood on an easel in the corner. The Master had told him that his vision was wrong, his settings dirty, his subjects old and ugly. And who would ever want a portrait of a rheumy old man? What patron would ever commission such a thing?
The apprentice shook his head and stood before the Master’s easel. The Master had learned from the Italians and strove for a kind of perfection that could only be on canvas. But was his old man not one of God’s creations? And if he was, how could he be less than perfect? Still, he could not see that perfection on his own canvas and he turned his eyes to the floor.
He walked into the courtyard and looked up at the sky, now a bright orange. He imagined how much ochre and perhaps saffron he would use to make that color. The thought left his mind quickly. The answer was in his hands.
He walked barefoot though the dewy mud, stopping on his way to the well to pick up a bucket. A door slammed across the way. An old man sat down beside a fire, drew a pipe from his pocket, clenched its long, curving stem between his teeth and stuffed the bowl with tobacco. He then drew a lit twig from the fire and held it to the end of the pipe. The flame rose and fell with the old man’s breathing and on each rising flame, a different story emerged from the shadows cast by the changing lines in his face. The apprentice stood unnoticed and watched.
The sun was hidden behind a circle of houses, but its light filled the courtyard. The apprentice regarded a puddle of bright orange, less ochre and more saffron and almost perfectly encircled by a wall of mud. A slight breeze disturbed the surface, but only for a moment. As the water grew quiet, the apprentice saw his own face. He stared at it for a moment, watching it change as the sun grew brighter and the breeze moved the water. He felt his bare feet sink into the mud.
And then the face he saw in the water was no longer his own. He saw in the water the faces of his Master and of the old man on the street. He saw his mother’s face and the faces of his children yet unborn. He saw the face of Homer emerging from shadows, light falling around his darkened eyes. He saw the down – turned faces of Philemon and Baucis under the fire lit watch of Zeus and Hera. He saw the weary face of Jeremiah, grieving for Jerusalem. He saw the face of Abraham spared from his son’s murder. He saw the faces of Christ on the cross and of Christ risen. He saw the face of every child who ever lived to grow old. He saw the face of every woman whom every man had ever loved. And he saw his own face as an old man. And he could feel the light and shadow of those faces as keenly as the mud that cooled his feet. He looked up at the fire in the sky and felt one with it. He spread his arms, unclenched his fists, closed his eyes and breathed in the air of Amsterdam. He was as wide and as deep as the sky and as bright as the dawn. And he knew now what he must do.
The apprentice heard his Master stirring in the house.
“Remy!” crowed the Master. “Remy, where are you? What are you doing walking barefoot in the mud? What’s the matter with you? Get in here and clean your feet before you track it all over the workroom!”
The apprentice smiled and picked up a trowel to scrape the mud from his feet. But he would leave some mud in the crook of his toes. He would return to his easel soon and he knew he would need it.
Paul Holler is a writer of short stories and an occasional journalist on literary topics. His previous works have appeared in Copperfield Review, Eclectica, Southern Cross Review, Critique Magazine, Bookslut, Skylark, Conversations with Jay Parini and Portraits De L’Escrivain En Biographe. His current project is a series of short stories about the life of Aesop, several of which have been published on line at SouthernCrossReview.org.