About an older woman, her artwork and life. And about light.
|A clam shell is a functional work of art, much more than a simple purse to hold a living thing. From a point at the edge -- a beak, it's called -- a whole intricate structure fans out in waves. Near the beak, a hinge opens or closes the shell, and from there a tooth-and-socket arrangement firmly secures the shell against predators. You have to look at both sides of the shell to see how all the parts fit together. Once the shell clamps down tight, the clam is safe from anything that would want to bother it.
Very sensibly so, thought Paloma, tossing the shell back into the tupperware container. The clam made her think of her favorite restaurant down the California coast at Half Moon Bay. She’d enjoyed a cup of clam chowder on her last visit there -- probably the last time she’d gone anywhere. Two years ago? No, it was right after Christmas, must be more like two and a half years. That was the last thing she’d really wanted to do outside of her home: have a good cup of soup in a Portuguese restaurant, in a town where she’d spent part of her summertime with relatives as a child. Good soup, some yellow Portuguese bread, a little nostalgia -- the best things you could find out there. But for the last two and a half years, remembering those things had been enough.
It was on a beach not far from Half Moon Bay where Genna had found that shell, years ago. Paloma remembered her little daughter running on her tough bare feet, so excited to have found both halves of the clam shell lying next to each other. She brought it to her mother, and proudly demonstrated how the two sides fit.
But that shell wouldn’t do for the project at hand. Its back was too smooth, and what Paloma needed was sharp ridges. She had in mind to shine the bright bulb from her sewing lamp just so across the back of a clam shell, capture the texture in contrasting light with a digital photo, and after taking a long look at the results, use her new drawing program to play around with the image. The looking part, that was the part that too many people would forget. If you don’t look carefully you only see what you think you’re supposed to see, instead of what’s really there.
She dug around some more. The Tupperware bin contained years and years worth of shells, from up and down the California coast. This one, too small; even with her bifocals she would never be able to see the amount of detail she wanted. This one, too blotchy. This one… it would do. She set it aside and opened a new file, and titled it “CAML SHELL." That didn’t look quite right. Her letters couldn't seem to sort themselves into proper order since her stroke, but trying to fix these things usually created further scrambles. So she left it and started fussing with the light. For Paloma this could take a very long time, but today that wouldn’t be a problem. Her husband and middle-aged son would be out all day.
Today something seemed funny about the light. She stood back to assess it. Too… wavy? Jumpy? The bulb was almost new, so it couldn’t be that. It wasn't funny in a bad way, really. It almost looked as if it were alive. Strange. Time for a cigarette break.
She went into the kitchen and picked up her pack of Camels and matches, but couldn’t find the ash tray. No reason it should be outside the kitchen, so… ah, there, unaccountably on top of the refrigerator. “That there who put!” she grumbled to herself, followed by “Men!” She started to sit down at the kitchen table, but it was such a fine cool day she decided to go out on the patio instead.
She noticed in passing that the outdoor light seemed different, too. When she lit the match, her eyes went wide. The flame coming out of the match flared up in magenta, darkening to crimson and then cherry around the edge. Paloma had a trained eye for color, but honestly, anyone would know this was wrong. A little frightened, she shook the match, but it wouldn’t go out. She dropped it on the pavement and stepped on it. There. Hesitating, she lit another match. Its flame seemed to wave a little, but at least it was the proper yellow-orange, a bit of blue at the base. She lit the cigarette quickly, shook out the match, and sat back to look out over the well-tended flowerbeds of her backyard.
It was because of cigarettes that she had refused to see a doctor after her stroke. What could a doctor do anyway? Give you more pills, that’s about all they ever want to do these days, she thought. But he’d also nag her to give up smoking, and she wasn’t about to do that. Maybe she would have another stroke and die, but so what? Old people die, nothing unusual about that. And that was all there was to it: she was old, she would die; she liked to smoke, she would die happy. It was a conscious decision that was hers to make. It’s not like anybody’s forcing me to smoke, she had told her husband. And God help anybody who tries to force you not to, he had added. Damn right. And she didn’t need any Dr. Do-good telling her otherwise.
Paloma started thinking about what colors she would select from the palette on the computer. She had no use for grayscale images; she loved color. In recent years her tastes had tended toward earth tones, warm browns with subtle shadings of red and yellow, complex blues and greens. A hundred shades of brown to choose from on her custom color toolbar, probably more. She was so deep into the colors and her ideas for shading that she forgot to put out the cigarette when she placed it in the ashtray. As soon as she got up to go back in the house, the smoldering cigarette winked at her, then put itself out.
Entering her room, Paloma angled the shell around a little more. It looked familiar. She tried to say “you look familiar” to the shell – she’d raised five children and was used to talking to odd things – but the only word that would come out was “look”. Maybe she’d drawn it many years ago. Or used it as a model for the ocean-themed quilt she had made about ten years ago. She sighed. She was cut off from quilts now. The arthritis in her hands also kept her from sewing, or painting, or embroidery, or drawing.
Paloma had cut herself from photography too, but for more complicated reasons. Photography involved going into the outside world to take pictures. Not that Paloma was afraid of the outside world, exactly -- more that she was sick of the world outside her home. She’d seen what she needed to, and seeing -- well, that was what she did best. But now she hated being seen. She'd hated it ever since the first gray hair appeared. People told her she was still beautiful, but Paloma knew they were wrong. Now it wasn’t just the hair, but also wrinkles, sags, lumps, mastectomy. That wasn’t the real Paloma at all. The real Paloma was a petite, vivid Mediterranean beauty, and the years be damned.
There now, she had the colors set up on the computer. She placed the shell at the correct angle. “Be good!” she admonished the sewing light, before switching on the small, bright bulb. She swiveled the lamp on its flexible arm, finding just the right angle, and picked up the stylus.
For some reason she couldn’t take her eyes off the shell. Not the shell actually, but the light reflecting off the shell. Light is all we ever truly see -- you don’t see the shell itself flying up to touch your eyeball. It’s the minuscule rays, each one so small on its own as to be invisible, that reach up and touch the eye. Light directly touches you, and sets off a thousand messages in your brain.
The light suggested that she turn the shell a little bit, just three degrees or so counterclockwise, which she did. Yes, that gave more shade to the color by extending the shadow. She knew she had that shade pre-programmed somewhere in her colors, but she couldn’t remember what she'd named it. “Prune,” suggested the light.
Don’t be ridiculous. That color doesn’t look a bit like a prune. Then a moment later: That's right, I was in a hurry that day and couldn’t think what to call it. Didn’t just want to assign a number and so I called it something silly. She found “prune” and clicked, and there it was.
“Good light after all, maybe,” she muttered. And as she worked with the program it was so easy. The lines seemed to direct themselves from the shell through her eye to the screen by themselves. The color and shading flowed through her gnarled fingers. There. She would work on some kind of background later. She switched off the light. It didn’t actually go out, she noted with only half her mind. She sat back and looked at the screen, and then looked off at nothing, allowing her eyes to unfocus.
“Now why don’t you pick up that clam shell Genna found,” suggested the light. “Both halves.”
“All right.” Paloma dug out the two halves, which fit together as easily as they had that day at the beach long ago. She held them up to the light. Suddenly she saw the humor in the situation, and it tickled her. “I’m not talking funny any more, and my hands don’t hurt. And what am I doing talking to a light?”
“You've always talked with light,” the lamp replied. “And we've always spoken to you. You're one of our people, Paloma, one of our intimate friends. And now we want to take you someplace.”
“I don’t go out much anymore. I can’t…”
“I don't mean you have to go out. I mean for you to go in.”
The light indicated the shell. “Hold it open with only the hinge together. You see where? A little to the right of the beak.”
But Paloma remembered perfectly the hidden contours of both halves of the shell. She held the two parts together, then opened it. The light was in there too. And as she looked she saw not a simple, single light, but varied colors, lines, shades, textures and shapes. So much to explore! Fascinated, she fixed her mind on the little sewing light, and it guided her into a new world.