by Kyrie Claudy
A short story about a painter who loved the sea and the courier who loved the painter.
|The painter was peculiar to say the least.
Some in the village said that he was born this way, had come out a little kooky and a little different. Others said that he was like this because of a horrible accident when he was a child, one that had separated him from everyone and everything else, drawing him to the sea. They never could tell you what this accident was though.
Even more said that he was a sea witch, called by the lure of the water to sit on the cliff every day, all day, and paint the waves, his brushstrokes casting spells as they swirled across the canvas, his pigments determining death and life for those he interacted with on rare occasion.
The shopkeeper who sold him the paints, brushes, and canvases would tell you that he was "a kind, lonely boy. Little odd, but nothing wrong with him. Just loves painting the waves."
The people who lived near his little cottage at the edge of the coast would tell you that he was "a very quiet boy, never makes too much noise. Always up by sunrise and doesn't come back until the sunset."
None of them would tell you the depth of his soul, the expanse of his heart. No one could tell you, because none of them knew. None of them really cared enough to know.
One boy in the village cared enough to be curious. He would watch him painting on the cliffs every so often, spending just long enough between his couriering duties to watch how he waited for hours to find the perfect image to capture, then setting about to depict it perfectly in colors, a singular moment of frozen time forever immortalized.
The painter knew he was being watched by the courier, perfectly aware of how long he stood there, staring as his brush passed over the canvas and left the beauty of the ocean in its wake. He just didn't care enough to do anything about it. The painter was devoted to his craft, nothing more. Those who wanted to watch, who wished to observe, were perfectly welcome to.
The painter never sold his work, preferring to give the results of days and days of devotion as gifts to strangers, trading his works in exchange for food and necessities. Often, those he gifted his works to would turn around and sell them for high prices, the quality of his work unmatched by even the highest professionals of the country.
Some pieces were displayed around the town. There were several of the most beautiful paintings hung in the town tavern, one of a sunset, another of a calm beach, yet another of the sea before a storm. There was another of the waves in a frenzy, full of rain and lightning hung up in the store of the shopkeeper the painter bought his supplies from.
The courier had one. A small piece of canvas the painter had used to depict a crab scuttling down the shore. The painter had thrown it aside, muttering in disgust about ruined paints.
It was true, the paint quality on the small piece of canvas was poor. Some of it was grainy and flaked off in places. Some of it was too thick, creating hard, raised portions of the painting.
Still, the courier thought it was beautiful. As he thought all the painter's works were beautiful. Time and chaos, nature and calm, all suspended in a single picture. Shining with love for the strength and mystery of the ocean, yes. They were beautiful.
The courier found them beautiful, yes. But not quite as beautiful as he found the painter.
Soft, thin hands, prefect for gripping a brush. Slender fingers that were nimble as they were fast. A frame whittled down to muscle and bone from a life of little food and constant devotion, constant creation. A face that was worn and tired, lined with wrinkles from frowns and smiles and squints of concentration. Eyes that were dark and stormy, like the sea they watched. Hair golden and lightened from the blaze of the sun. Skin dark, rough, and tanned from the sun and the wind.
Yes, the paintings of the waves and the sea were beautiful. But not as beautiful as their creator.
The courier broke his gaze from the lithe form bent over its work, head bowed in concentration as the brush gently stroked across the canvas. It was time he returned to work. He was already in trouble from lingering too long once this week; best not to make it twice.
Up on the cliff, the painter felt the eyes watching him depart and his shoulders fell, the tension draining out of them as he dropped his facade. The canvas on his lap lay blank, the brush dry, his working guise falling off in an instant.
He sighed, the weight of the void in his chest growing deeper. This was the truth no one knew, no one saw.
His soul was deep, but it was not full. There was a void inside of him that grew larger and larger every day, consuming the happiness and joy of his work, his life, even stealing his love of the sea from him until nothing was left but emptiness, darkness, and sorrow.
He rubbed at the ache in his chest, just above his heart as a single tear fell to the canvas on his lap, darkening the white surface. The surface that would never hold a painting, never bear the weight of the waves upon its face. He had painted his last work, gifting it to the shopkeeper who had been so kind to him for so long, just the day before. The canvas he held now was just a veneer to keep the watching courier from worrying, from intervening.
Feeling the weight of life lifting from his chest, the painter stood, clutching the canvas, the brush, and the container of paints to his chest. The edge of the cliff was just a few steps away, the turmoil of the crashing, rumbling, rolling waves at the bottom of the steep drop from the edge.
Three steps, two steps. The painter's hands trembled as more tears broke away, being streaked across his cheeks by the brisk wind blowing in off the sea.
The weight lightened a little more.
One step. And all that was left was the empty air above the ocean, the smell of the salt and the crash of the waves.
One more step, one more step into nothing but the empty air.
The wind howled, the air rushing and ringing as the colors of the cliff rushed by, growing darker and darker as the water grew closer and closer.
The sound of the waves crashing became deafening, the noise drowning out everything but the scream of the air flooding past the painter as he fell.
And fell. And fell, and fell, and fell.
And then the water. The silence of the water was startling compared to the roaring of the wind, the thunder of the waves.
There was no pain, no feeling of breaking apart upon smacking into the ocean, no blood in the water or numbness of the extremities.
It was cool and quiet and peaceful. The painter relaxed, the supplies he carried floating away, down to the depths of the sea.
He felt safe, cradled, sheltered. He felt as though his mother were gently rocking him to sleep again, like she had when he was a child. Before the sickness had taken her. Before her ashes had been cast into the waters of the ocean. Before he felt his soul breaking under the ache her loss had left in him.
Now, that ache would leave him. His mother was here, in the waves, chasing the secrets of the deep. Now he would join her.
No.... The voice was gentle, soft as it seemed to fill his ears, his lungs, his heart.
It soothed the ache, calming it as it reared its ugly head. It filled the void of his soul, seeping into the cracks left by the spreading darkness, chasing it away. It cradled his mind, setting his racing thoughts to rest and calming his fears.
Oh no, the voice said. No, we cannot destroy something that has loved us so beautifully. That would be a terrible tragedy.
And all at once, the painter knew. He knew he was alive, alive and cradled in the arms of the ocean.
"Why?" he asked. His question seemed timid and small compared to the vast expanse of the sea. "Why would you save me? I meant to fall. I meant to die."
There was a soft noise, almost like a disproving tsk.
There is no joy in death, the water replied, swirling around him gently. To allow the one who has watched us so many years, who has captured out image so many times, to allow that one to die would be a shame, a tragedy, an upset. A soul as pure as yours should be cherished, protected, guarded, not left to die. You wish to join your mother, the one who loved the sea as you do. But in death, you would only find she has remained with us, here among the waves.
There was a sound, a low swishing in the water, as something swam out of the darkness below, an iridescent tail propelling it upwards, towards the light.
The painter froze, the tears that leaked from his eyes dispersing into the water.
The siren smiled, her hand reaching out to caress the cheek of her only son, the love in her eyes shining from their gentle green depths.
And mother and son embraced, a world of loss and loneliness, sadness and pain healed in that moment.
My darling, I am so sorry that I left you, his mother cried softly, her hand gently stroking down his back. I held out against the fever as long as I could. I fought with everything inside myself, every bit of strength I had, but it just wasn't enough.
"Mother, no," the painter said softly, pulling back to look her in the eyes. "I never blamed you. The doctor could do nothing to help, no one could help. It wasn't your fault you succumbed to the sickness. So many people did, and there was nothing to be done for it." He cradled her face gently in his hands. "Please. Don't blame yourself."
The siren smiled, kissing her son gently on the forehead as the water swirled around them.
Come with us, she implored. I'll show you the wonders of the waters.
The painter smiled and took her hand in his. "Yes."
And the ocean held him once more, tousling his hair and ripping his clothes to shreds as a gentle light spread across his legs, fusing them as one. The skin underneath it turned silvery, covered in scales, small and thin, but strong. The feet at the end of the tail lengthened, becoming thinner as they stretched out into a fin powerful enough to propel through even the most turbulent of waters.
And when the light was gone, two sirens, a mother and a son, darted off into the darkness of the waters below.
Up on shore, life continued in the village. The shopkeeps sold their wares, the craftsmen made tools and trades, the children ran and played, giggling all the while. The people worked and talked and laughed.
In the midst of it all, a single courier trudged through his days, a shadow of melancholy darkening his soul.
No one paid much attention to the disappearance of the painter. It was a source of gossip for a few weeks, rumors circulating that the lone figure had finally left for good. Some said that he had returned to family in a faraway land, going to claim some inheritance. Others said he had gone to board a ship to sail the sea he always painted. Yet others still said that the witch had finally been killed by one of his own spells, gotten sucked into one of his paintings and vanished completely for forever.
But the courier noticed. And the courier alone mourned.
Beauty like the soul of an artist, of a painter, is rare indeed. It shines like a candle to others, seen only by those who stop long enough to bask in the wonder of it. It can often be overpowered by the bright beacon of other people, a harsh light that is blinding to look at, more distracting, and far less intricate. But the flame of the artist burns on, flickering and dancing, filled with hundreds of hues of fiery beauty.
And the courier mourned. Because the painter was gone. Gone from his cliff, gone from his little cottage, gone from the village entirely. But for the paintings hung on the walls of the village buildings and the memories of its people, there might never have been a painter at all.
Every day, just before the setting of the sun, after all duties and messages and packages were finished with and delivered, there sat a single, lonely figure on the edge of a cliff, head turned upwards toward the sky.
This figure was different from the one who had sat in that same spot for so many years. The hands were rough, thickened by years of hard work, hard life. The frame was stocky, stout, but tall and chiseled. The eyes that gazed at the line where the sun met the sea were light, like the sky, the hair that obscured them a sandy brown, messy and looking unkempt save for the trimming round the ears. A body framed in muscle and sinew, broadened by days and days of working, running, walking, lifting, carrying. A broad shouldered frame built from a life of punishing labor.
And every day, the figure would remain as it was, sitting on the cliff and gazing off into the water, into the sky, until the sun sank beyond the line of the water at the edge of the sky and disappeared for the night, leaving behind a bright expanse of stars above.
Every day, without fail, the figure would stand after the sunset, feet a mere step from the edge, and spread its arms wide. Eyes closed, breathing calm and still, the courier felt the wind washing over every part of him, caressing around his legs and arms, torso and face. He felt the power behind the gust of the air off the sea, the sheer intensity of it, and made a silent wish.
Every night, he made the same wish. Every night, he whispered the deepest desires from the most carefully hidden corner of his heart.
Every night, he wished to fly.
He wished for wings like a bird, arching and beautiful, decorated in colored feathers like the birds of the jungles. Wings strong enough, big enough to carry him far away, to carry him to the place he wished to be.
Wings to carry him to where the painter had gone.
Every night, the wind carried this whispered wish far, far away, across the village that was settling down to sleep, across the forests and the rivers, the plains and the valleys. It carried it out across the water, letting it seep into the waves, giving it to the ocean who kept it and treasured it as with all wishes given to the waters.
And even further, to a place in the sky that held a power as old and ancient as the ocean below. And like the ocean, this power, the sky, held the wish and kept it as with the other wishes it had collected, just the same as the sea.
This was quite rare though. Both the ocean and the sky, treasuring the same wish, cradling it and comforting it, feeding it as the wish was repeated each and every night.
When something rare and beautiful happens, it happens for a reason. It happens because it was fated to be. It happens because two powers as ancient and infinite as the sea and the sky work together, their wills becoming one. It happens because a love for the ocean saved a painter, and a love for that painter carried across the world.
It happens because it was always meant to be.
So, the sky decided to give this wisher a gift, one that had never been given before in all the endless years of the world.
As the courier looked up at the stars slowly dotting the darkness, he sighed. The painter had been gone for a long time, long enough that most people had started to forget. The paintings in the village became nothing more than decoration, something pretty to gaze at. The passion behind them, the love that had made them, driven their beauty into creation from nothing more than paints and a brush, was fading from memory.
But the courier remembered. He remembered each time he walked past this cliff to deliver something. He remembered every time his feet unthinkingly brought him back to this very spot. He remembered every time he sat here, where the painter used to create his lovely work, and gazed out into the wide expanse of the water below as it swallowed the sun.
And today was no different. The sun sank behind the line at the edge of the world, fading from red to orange to lilac to darkness, leaving the sky in stars.
And today was no different when the courier stood, a mere step from the edge, and spread his arms, closing his eyes to feel the wind whipping around him, filling his lungs and caressing his face. The wish fell from his lips, whispered into the wind and carried off to far and distant places.
But today was different. Today was the day the whispered wish came true.
The courier opened his eyes and gasped. Light covered his body, swirling around him like the water below, leaving a trail of shredded clothes in its wake.
It faded, just as quickly as it had come, but the deed was done. The wish had been granted.
The courier was covered in feathers. Small, downy ones atop his head where his hair had been, to medium ones covering his chest and legs, to large ones, meant for flight, nearly as long as his arms, that adorned his wings.
And wings they were. Tall, muscled things that stretched out behind him, fluttering gently in the wind. He stretched them up, raising them towards the sky, marveling at their beauty.
With a single stroke downwards, he dove off the cliff, wings catching on the air currents and lifting him high, high into the air. The wind howled in his ears, screaming at him as though he were falling but he wasn't.
He was flying.
Joyous laughter rung across the water, fading gently as he flew further and further into the night sky. For the first time in eons, a harpy took to the skies and flew with all the might of a hundred whispered wishes, each one fueled by a pure, untainted love.
As a harpy flew above, a siren swam below. Darting happily through the underwater currents, the silvery beauty laughed and sang, a voice like silk resounding through the waves.
Two different paths, one of the sky and one of the sea. Perhaps they were never meant to cross, these beings of two different worlds.
But as it was said, when something as wondrous as this happens, then perhaps it was always meant to be.
And so, at the very second the harpy dived down, towards the surface of the sea to splash the water, the siren swam up, breaching the surface majestically like a dolphin.
The two stared at each other, startled to say the least. In the faces of each other, both recognized something they thought they had lost forever.
A harpy who loved a painter with a soul for the sea looked upon the face of the one he loved, one he thought he had lost forever. The sight of it filled him with love and joy, his heart swelling as his eyes began to cry.
The siren who had loved the sea so much he had tried to die in it saw the face of the boy, the courier who had watched from afar. Watched as a painter with a love for the waves set them to canvas, capturing their beauty in paint forever. A boy who had never approached, but always observed, who had kept a scrap of canvas with a painting ruined by bad paints as a keepsake, something to be treasured despite its inherent flaws.
And in that single moment, two souls were twined together by the universe, a story that was shaped by the sea and the sky, the sun and the stars, the water and the wind.
The harpy rose sharply, flapping desperately to stay in place as the siren fell back into the grip of the water below once more. The panic that overwhelmed the flier was all-consuming, a dread born from the loss of something precious, the fear of losing it again.
Diving into the water, the harpy searched with frantic eyes for the silver tail of the siren, the lithe form of the swimmer, his love.
But harpies are not meant to swim in the water. It soaks their feathers, making them heavy. The current of the water rushes by, catching their wings and pulling them deeper into the darkness of the depths.
A harpy is not meant to swim, and this harpy was no different. As the water took hold of his feathers, he struggled, still searching for the silver siren.
The ocean is not quite as forgiving to beings of the sky. It has a liking to drowning them, dragging their corpses to the bottom of the world where they will be torn apart by creatures of the deep.
The water swirled faster, dragging the harpy down more quickly than before even as he struggled to stay afloat. But his struggles were no match for the sheer power of the sea.
The water was cold, much colder than the wind of the sky. The harpy slowly stopped struggling, shivering as his lungs screamed for air, air he could not reach under the weight of the water.
And still, he saw nothing of the silver siren.
Despair curled around his heart as the light of the stars grew fainter, obscured by the darkening water. His eyes drifted closed as the whispered wish fell from his lips one last time, bubbles floating gently upwards.
But this was not the end. Not a moment later, he was being pulled up, up towards the surface, up towards the sky. Up from the darkness of the watery depths of the sea.
A siren, silvery and lithe was pulling him up, fighting the pull of the water's weight dragging down the harpy. He swam with a powerful tail, each stroke propelling them towards the surface.
Gasping for breath, the harpy used his legs and arms to tread water as the siren pulled him along, swimming him towards the nearest rocky outcropping where he would be safe, out of the water's grip.
Once close enough, he grabbed onto the rocks, scrabbling against the surface worn smooth by the sea to pull himself up, out of the dangerous waves.
And so, the moonlight shone down, finding a strange scene in the midst of a million waves. A siren, silvered and sleek, floating in the ocean next to a formation of rocks holding a sodden harpy out of the water's reach.
And again, their eyes met, the inevitability of fate twisting between them.
"You," the harpy croaked, voice roughened with salt water. But the love in his eyes shone through, the sky they held brightening with the depth of it all, like sunrise.
You... the siren replied, voice softened with wonder. The awe contained in their darkness glittering like starlight.
There was silence between them, a silence forged in shock, in exhaustion from fighting the raging waters, and in a stunned realization of just how much had changed.
Yes. I did. I leapt into the sea from the cliff I painted on.
The harpy's eyes instantly filled with pain, hurt. "Why?" he asked, his voice cracking under the weight of the tears falling down his face, soaking into the already drenched feathers there. "Why would you do that? To yourself? To me? To the village?"
The siren ducked his head in shame, hand going to rub at the ache in his chest which had returned after so many days and nights of its lack. The ache of pain, of failed expectations, of loss.
The ache was too much, he admitted, tears falling from his own eyes to mix into the water below. I missed my mother terribly. She died during the Great Sickness and her ashes were scattered into the sea. I tried to continue without her, but there was always an emptiness inside me that couldn't be filled, not even with my paintings. I just wanted to see her again.
"But the ocean saved you," the harpy murmured. "It made you something beautiful that swims in its depths."
The siren smiled. Yes. The ocean saw how I painted the waves, how I loved the way they crashed and foamed, and said that I would not die at the hand of the thing I had devoted my creations to. It made me into a siren of the sea. The smile widened. And I saw my mother again.
The harpy was now confused. "How? She died in the Sickness. Can the ocean bring back the dead?"
Not quite, the siren replied. But it can hold the souls of those who give their love to the sea, cradle them after their body gives up, and give them a new body, a form like mine. My mother lived in that village because she could see the waves every day, could watch them crash and foam and love them as she wanted to. The ocean held her soul when she died, giving her a new life in the depths of the water.
The harpy smiled. "I'm happy for you."
The siren swam close, jumping from the water to the rocky shore. Despite the weight of his tail, he pulled himself closer to the harpy, close enough that they were face to face.
You watched me, he murmured, reaching out a webbed hand to stroke the broad wings arching up into the wind, trying to dry themselves of the seaspray. I felt your eyes on me whenever you stopped and watched me painting the waves. You weren't exactly subtle.
The harpy ducked his head, embarrassment coating his cheeks red with shame underneath the soaking feathers. "You were always so beautiful to me," he mumbled, staring off into the sky. "You painted the waves with such passion, such ease. I couldn't help myself. Your love for the ocean captured me, made me love it too."
The siren reached out and turned the harpy's face back, gazing gently into the depths of the sky-colored eyes.
You learned to love the ocean because I did, he hummed, curiosity coloring his voice. Yet you chose the sky, feathers over scales, wings over fins.
"Because I wanted to find you," the harpy whispered, eyes riveted on the siren's face. "I didn't want the ocean if you weren't there with it. I wanted to fly the skies so I could cross it. I wanted to find you, wherever you had gone. Because the ocean is always there, but if you weren't there with it, my love for the waves meant nothing."
Gently, ever so slowly, the siren reached out both hands, slender and delicate, thin webs stretched between the fingers, to hold the feathered face, thumbs almost brushing the still human lips.
"Yes, you. Always you."
The stars shone down from the sky that night, their light glittering on the water of the sea as a siren and a harpy, two beings of different worlds, perhaps always meant to meet, discovered true love for the first time.
A tender kiss, the first of a lifetime, passed between them. The briefest of moments, one that felt like a lifetime of its own. And in that one kiss was sealed a beautiful fate.
The painter was an odd one. He loved the sea so much he tried to become one with it. And in the end, he did, becoming a siren whose song would ring in the watery depths of the ocean for all eternity.
The courier was awed by the beauty of the painter, of his works. When that beauty was gone, he wished to find it again, to keep it close and cherish it like a precious gem. He took to the skies in his search and, in the end, he discovered again what he had lost.
Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was a power older than the world. Maybe it was two forces of infinite power and wisdom, one of the sea and one of the sky, who brought them together in the end.
But a beauty like love, true love, forged in salt and spray, in wind and water, cannot be snatched from the earth by the pitiful jaws of one like Death.
A love like this, that swims the depths of the sea and soars the peaks of the sky, continues forever.
And at the end of it all, if you look closely before the nightfall, you can see the painter, the siren, painting the waves at sunset.