by Josh T. Alto
Do we really know who we are and where we come from?
It was half past six, Monday morning, birds were twittering outside and the first rays of the sun played on my palette mixing me bright new colors, painting a brand new day. I just sat there for a while watching the painting, imagining the willows bowing in the faint wind. I could even feel the wind caressing my neck but it was not the wind, it was Michael.
A kiss on my neck, our morning ceremony for years but I really asked myself sometimes whether he still cared for me. He just looked so distant sometimes as if he lived in another universe. “Good morning Sweetie,” he said, then sat down with his newspaper and started reading it from the last page as usual, the sport pages and the advertisements.
“Were you working all night?” he finally asked, as if he did not know I can only work in the night, but he was apparently not interested. He continued reading his newspaper, then he looked up and saw the painting for the first time. All of a sudden I discovered a glimpse of interest in his eyes.
“I know this place.” he said.
“It cannot be, it is only my fantasy.” I answered. I know, if you keep your eyes open you could probably always find a might-be setting for any landscape and on the other hand even other paintings you have seen somewhere might influence you, but I was sure this landscape came out of my fantasy.
“No, definitely not. It is the river bank on the other side of the hill.” he said. I did not know he was hiking around here in the neighborhood although he did not really tell me anything lately. He is selling properties, real estate and building plots, sometimes he just walks around for the whole day to find free lots, old castles or houses hoping he could make a good bargain and then sell them to some eccentric millionaire.
He put down the newspaper, looked at the painting for a while though he did not say anything then he went into the kitchen to make the coffee. This is also part of our morning ceremony, the first coffee of the day together.
“I did not know you knew the other side of the hill that well.” I mentioned while drinking the coffee. “I was there maybe once or twice but I am not sure anymore about your painting. You are probably right, it really can be any landscape with a river.” he said.
Not because I am especially jealous but I always wondered what he was doing all day and this morning incident was more than suspicious. I just had to go there and have a look but I also needed some sleep so I said good night to Michael, went into the bedroom and fell asleep immediately.
I had a terrible dream. My painting suddenly came to life and I was part of it. Someone was chasing me although I did not know who or why but I was running for my life along the river trying to find a boat and I could hear a motorcycle coming closer and closer. I woke with a start. I still heard the faint noise of a leaving car. Michael had left.
My name is Karen Svensson in case you know any of my paintings. My grandparents are from Sweden and I probably inherited my enthusiasm for nature from them. And certainly from my parents as well, they traveled a lot. My father told me that once they had spent a whole month in a boat paddling down a river just a few months before I was born so it is logical that I mostly paint landscapes, woods, rivers but I tell the truth, I paint anything people ask me to paint. Those who buy my paintings say that they like them because they are the landscapes or whatever they would paint if they had talent.
After drinking my late morning coffee I checked my schedule and found that I had to drive into town to meet my agent so I postponed my visit to the place that Michael was talking about, the river on the other side of the hill.
The next day it was Tuesday and after Michael had left I put on my trekking boots and a raincoat, because the weather had not been very promising, and started up to the hilltop. We moved here just a few months ago so I did not really know how to get to the other side but I guessed if I kept on going upwards I would reach the top and then it was a piece of cake to go down on the other side.
After a while the hillside indeed started to descend and I simply followed the narrow, winding path downhill. Suddenly there was an opening and I could see the whole landscape with the willow trees and the river. What was it that Michael had said? “It can be any landscape with a river.” Yes, it probably could have been if there was not that watermill on the other side of the river that stood exactly there where I had imagined it.
I just could not believe it. I was so excited I ran down to the river and wanted to see it immediately. Maybe I was afraid it would disappear if I waited too long. But it was still there, the exact settings of my painting: the river with the willow trees and the mill-house. I decided to find a boat somewhere and paddle over to have a closer look but the only boat I could see was anchored on the other side near the watermill. Suddenly I caught sight of two figures partially hidden by the bushes coming out from the mill-house and slowly disappearing among the trees.
One of them was a woman, laughing and the other one, a man, talking in a low voice but somehow I was almost sure there was something familiar in it. Either the voice of the man or the way he walked but unfortunately it was a very short time before they disappeared, I could not be sure. Could it be Michael? Was it the reason why he did not want me to come here? I was still standing there watching the trees when it started to rain and it was necessary to search for some shelter and after the rain stopped I just walked back home.
Michael was not at home so I hid my wet clothes, I did not want him to suspect that I might have seen him near the watermill. As it turned out there was no need to rush, Michael called around seven that he would be late and I did not have to wait for him with dinner.
On Wednesday I set out early in the morning hoping to find a boat on this side of the river. The path across the forest was muddy and I almost fell a few times but finally I arrived to the river and luckily even the boat was there only a few hundred meters away. The current was rather slow so I could easily row over to the watermill.
From the outside it looked very abandoned; the dripping mill wheels and the soothing murmur of sound reminded me of one of my books from my childhood. My father used to read me “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, when I was a child; it was my favorite book. I could almost feel Mole and Water Rat watching me as I opened the door.
To my surprise it looked like no one entered the mill for years. There were spider webs all over; I could not take one step without getting tangled into one of them. Although I was almost sure the two figures came out of the mill-house yesterday there was no sign of it.
Suddenly I heard some noises from the inside and I was so frightened that my dream came true and some creatures would start chasing me that I just ran back to the boat and paddled back to the safe side of the river. Later I just laughed at myself; it was probably a water rat or an otter. Can it be that I only imagined it too realistically?
At home I left my muddy boots outside in the garage; I thought they might make Michael suspicious if he saw them, although he never asked me what I was doing all day. Just when I entered the house the telephone was ringing, a Ms. Thomson called from the village library and wanted to speak with Michael. She did not tell me what it was about; it was strange, was it not?
“Who is this Ms. Thomson?” I asked Michael almost furiously when he came home but he only said “Please Karen, Susan only helps me in some matters.” and that was all. He did not tell me anything more. How was it possible that someone I did not even know called him Michael and he called her Susan? It might seem strange but after this conversation I did not even want to know who this Susan was. I thought if Michael were fair to me he would tell me about her if he felt it was necessary.
But next day I discovered something that made me think it over and over again. In the morning I found some mud stains in the hall and I almost thought that it came from my clothes when I saw Michael’s boots that he wore the day before. They looked as muddy as mine. Had he been there yesterday? But where? Could he see me? Was he alone or with someone?
As we were drinking our morning coffee there was something else that Thursday morning that made me suspicious. The telephone was ringing and as he answered the phone call, maybe from the same Ms. Thomson, he apparently did not want me to understand what it was about, he only said “Yes”, “Thanks”, “No”, “Fine” and then told me there was something of importance and he had to go into town but would be back sometime in the afternoon. I just could not believe it, after all these years he just kept on lying to me.
I watched him when he came home in the afternoon; I thought I might find some clue about his peculiar behavior. He parked the car in front of the house and he took out something from the back seat. He normally drove directly into the garage but then I could see him coming from my workroom so I thought he did not want me to see him. At dinner he did not tell me anything about the parcel or whatever it was that I also found very strange. What was he hiding from me?
We did not have any children. Only in my dreams did we sometimes have a daughter. However, the years went by and somehow neither of us really bothered; we were probably too egoistic to think about adopting someone else’s child. Anyway, I thought our life gave both of us that kind of togetherness that we really appreciated from time to time, but also the freedom that we needed to achieve something, maybe our dreams, you might say. I thought we were the perfect couple, but after that evening there were only questions in my head.
Friday morning as he left I went in his study and I could not resist rummaging his things, his cupboard, his drawers, everything. I had just found the parcel he was carrying the day before when the door opened and he stood there.
“Open it! It is for you.” he said looking at me with the parcel in my hand.
“For me?” I asked. “I thought you were hiding it from me.”
“I was.” he said “But you have found it. It is for your birthday. Open it!”
After all anxieties of the last few days I had totally forgotten my birthday. But he did not. He just looked at me then he came near, held me tight and said “Happy birthday Sweetie.”
Then he kissed me and conjured a bunch of flowers from behind his back; life can be beautiful after all.
As I opened the parcel I just stood there and it felt as if the universe stopped moving for a second; I did not know what to say. There was a frame in it with an old photo of my parents; my mother apparently pregnant with me, standing in front of the mill-house under my willow trees smiling in the afternoon sun.
“But where did you find this picture?” I asked Michael when I was able to speak again.
“I have passed by this frame several times in the village library without even noticing its motive, you know they have lots of old frames from the village archive, but after I saw your painting I thought you might find it interesting.”
“Yes, it’s amazing that you could find a photo of my parents. I did not know this was the river that my father was talking about.”
“No Sweetie, they cannot be your parents, this photo was taken 90 years ago.”
“But then who are they?”
“Look at this birthmark on the left hand of the woman! It is you Sweetie. It is you.”
I looked at him and then at the photo again in disbelief. The resemblance was obvious and as I looked at the man in the photo suddenly everything became clear. It was like standing there at the river bank again, feeling that light breeze caressing my hair, with the willows over my head bowing in the faint wind.
(Word count 2,350)