180: Easel of Memories (Stocks Prize Assessment)
In the visible landscape, the wasteland white greedily swallowed everything. Blackened trees with heavy arms loomed over the broken body, curiosity animating their unmoving features. His vacant eyes traced the lining of sparse grey clouds. For a brief moment, he thought of his younger brother, who had had his knees drawn up to his chest, his eyes perpetually gazing into a void the living could not see. He wondered if he would be contorted in a similar posture while he stole a glimpse of dark curtains concealing the conclusion of a long-winded saga.
A freezing lethargy gripped his bones as the winds of winter strangled his exposed throat and ate at his rapidly drying eyes. He wanted to grab at the falling snowflakes and watch them with hopeful eyes. He wanted them to blossom into memories of autumnal contentment from when he was in his hometown.
He thought of his mother’s peaceful countenance. His early morning walks through grass glistening with dew and the previous night’s rain, watching gold and brown autumnal leaves breaking away from stark branches and coming to rest on a desolate dirt road. Watering his younger brother’s dead pot plant with its withered brown leaves. He thought of a saturated panorama of a picturesque town he did not understand, nor did he associate sentimentality with it until he graced it no more. The mental picture was whisked away, the howls of the winds enough to snuff the fires of memory.
Miniscule snowflakes pushed down his weary eyelids. Upon the black canvas he saw shadows roll a grainy film of a young boy standing in his mother’s room. Steadily he watched the rise and fall of the woman’s chest until the boy turned, the neck of a white bottle of medicine clutched by stubby fingers behind his back. He surmised that the boy had given his mother the medicine, but the woman’s features now seemed to be unnaturally still. At what point can a rescue become a murder? Small, spindly legs with ice for feet skated down his spine as he realised the woman had surrendered her right to wake again. The moving picture blurred in his vision as his tears stained the canvas. The little boy’s new companion, regret, drained the picture of any vivid colour. The fiery heat of his tears melted the canvas, and the picture fell away.
Shadows repatched the canvas, replacing stained patches with new quilts of black until they stood aside in silence. A new sequence of shots began; their salient feature his younger brother fiddling with broken twigs in their cramped backyard with a lone tree and a vast expanse of inky blue sky smiling upon their heads. His younger brother was carefully placing them side by side in a childish pattern. Some of the shorter lengths hugged each other while gnarled brown fingers were carelessly tossed aside as if they were outcasts.
“A new artwork?” he asked.
The younger boy stiffened at the sound of his voice, but continued intertwining stems with stems and discarding the unusual lengths on the sides. A tense silence ensued between them before the younger brother paired a stem with a twisted knot for a twig. The young boy stood up and glanced at him furtively before snapping both of the twigs in one swift motion and darting back into the house, his steps echoing fury and angry frustration. Spring grass engulfed the broken bodies of the twigs, and he was left with his jumbled thoughts. The shadows shook their heads and drew a thick, velvet sable curtain over the picture. Instead of relaying a new film, the shadows belched plumes of thick, black smoke. Instantly, he recognised this preview – it was a preview of a grand show he didn’t want tickets for, but somehow had one seat reserved under his name. He tried batting the shadows away, but they would not stop coughing up what he realised was slow poison. His limbs weakened as the smoke wafted through his mouth and nose, crawling through every nerve in his body. The shadows stopped coughing so that they could laugh, their cacophony of accusation reverberating deafeningly within his ears. Somewhere, a pair of fingers sealed themselves together, and the laughter of the shadows was cut off. Not even an echo remained. He held his breath and waited.
There are blissful memories, and there are woeful memories. Sometimes, the sun will routinely cast its rays and somehow they will gracefully filter through a poorly shuttered window. Other times, the sun may not shine at all, and instead it will be muddy rain pounding vulnerable blinds. On most days in a given winter, a loving mother will prepare a hot breakfast for her children and promise that the winter will move on soon. When winter will finally exit, so will a mother who leaves behind her children in a strange world she has yet to finish teaching them about. A house filled with light and life had been severely dimmed. A house where the children had taken their first steps and learned their first words was now devoid of any vibrancy and warmth.
There is a first for everything. The first breath, the first laugh, the first cry, the first photo, the first step, the first kiss, the first argument, the first gift, the first book, the first lesson. But there is never a first death.
In the morning, the winter’s winds washed him clean of the sins and suffering of life.