The Story of the Painter

 

the most beautiful sunset in the world is on a greek island

http://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/ – Rusty Russ

High above a village on the Greek island of Kalos, there lived an old painter in a small stone house that he’d inherited from his father along with an orchard of olive trees which he harvested alone, allowing him to exist on an austere but independent budget without having to ask any favours from anyone. Indeed, no one had managed to ever get a word out of the old man on the few occasions that he came to town to buy salt and flour, oil paints and canvas. He passed over the coins for his supplies in silence without making eye contact. No one had ever seen any of his paintings and they liked to say that, in his own way, he was as stubborn as the goats that had left the island sparse and rugged

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But though the earth had long ago become hard and infertile so that only the resilient olive and fig trees managed to thrive, Kalos was spared the poverty of the neighbouring islands by an extraordinary circumstance – the island enjoyed the most beautiful sunsets that anyone had ever seen. Thousands came from far and wide each summer just to spend a few days drinking raki and eating fish lunches, patiently waiting for the early evening hour when this isolated little village was transformed into the most beautiful place in the world.

 

No one was ever quite prepared for their first sunset on Kalos. They’d seen the sun go down countless times before, how different could this be? But then the sun would reach a certain angle in the sky, the length of two outstretched palms above the horizon, and the atmosphere seemed to melt; light fell on every surface like the adoring gaze of a lover, softening colours, smoothing out edges and everything glowed under the kind attention of the setting sun.

 

Frowns were replaced with smiles, grudges were allowed to slip away and whether people came together on the terraces of the quayside restaurants or sat alone on a rock gazing thoughtfully west, they all knew in their hearts at that moment what a beautiful world it was and how lucky they were to be alive.

In the enchanting light the chat in the cafes fell quiet as all the politics and philosophy the customers argued about suddenly seemed quite absurd. Even the village priest who wrote eloquent sermons about how the glorious sunsets were surely a proof of an all-powerful, all-knowing God – even he found himself without words when confronted with the miracle of light itself and in that moment he probably couldn’t have said just what it was that he believed.

What began as an enchantment swiftly evolved into a magic show. Slithers of bright green would streak across the sky close to the sea and a rosy haze might cast a blush around the sun that shone a yellow as soft as butter. Tufts of cloud floated in from nowhere to reflect the concert of light across the sea that always grew calm at this hour, becoming a mirror of the swirling reds, greens and blues that daubed the sky with pure emotion.

 

The sun would slide ever closer to the horizon and people found themselves on the edge of their chairs, watching with baited breath as the god of the hour took his farewell bow and began to slip slowly but surely over the lip of the western sky, a fanfare of colour saluting his departure. In the moment the sun vanished there was an instinctive cry of dismay and it was hard to find a dry face in sight, eyes glistening everywhere in a kind of ecstatic grief, a longing intensified by the amber radiance that arose from the sun’s death bed, a sense of loss that could hardly entertain the notion that it would return the next day.

 

Then, when the embers of the sunset had turned a dark, smoky red and the moon and stars tried in vain to follow such an act with their pale, ghostly light, only then would people begin to sigh and pour themselves another drink, turn towards loved ones and wonder how they could have forgotten how lucky they were to have each other.

 

It was said that a glimpse of the wonderful sunsets could also be seen in the eyes of the local women but few tourists ever got the chance to verify that. Kalos was a deeply conservative island and the women occupied themselves out of sight with their household chores, rarely venturing out across the village square and certainly not when boats arrived from the mainland.

 

Instead the women of Kalos enjoyed their freedom by walking up the mountain to gather wild figs and trade flour with the shepherds for the milk of their goats. Far from the watchful eyes of the local community, the girls’ voices could be heard singing and laughing like the streams that came tumbling down the slopes in the spring and they danced and chased one another in a way that would have been considered quite scandalous in town.

 

If the rumours of feminine beauty on the island were often exaggerated, no one would have denied that a little of the sunsets could be seen at least in the face of Dea, a 17 year old girl with long black hair that flooded from her head like strands of the night; her eyes were phosphorescent green and a rosy light lit up her cheeks. Her lips curled like the horizon and her skin seemed to be imbued with the soft amber light of the late afternoon.

 

Like many beautiful girls, Dea had no idea just how lovely she was and knew little of men other than that she was to avoid them if she wanted to maintain the honour of her family. So it was with utter shock that she skipped out of the forest one day up on the mountain with a basket full of figs and almost collided with the old painter. His face was grave and austere and his leathery hands caught her by the shoulders and he held her tight, staring at her intently with his old, grey eyes. Dea wanted to scream but no sound came out and only by squirming hard did she manage to slip free of the old man’s grasp and run down the mountain, leaving her basket behind her. The painter stood where he was, silently watching her depart.

 

By the time Dea had reached the old dry river bed she had recovered her calm and only lamented having lost her basket. It wouldn’t do to tell her family what had happened and so she began to construct a story about a mischievous young goat that had snatched her basket away and dashed down a mountain path too steep to follow.

 

But as it happened no one even noticed the missing basket as the first large ferry of the summer had arrived and the town was a-buzz with busy restaurant kitchens preparing dinners and families cleaning out their spare rooms to rent. Word of the legendary sunsets was evidently spreading and the people of Kalos looked forwards to a profitable summer.

 

Dea herself quickly joined in the hum of activity and her mother sent her down to the back garden to beat the dust out of the carpet and blankets intended for the guest room and this she did willingly, even though she knew it meant missing the first part of the sunset. At least no one had noticed the missing basket. Now that she thought of the encounter earlier in the day a smile came to her face – the old man had been alone for so long that he had probably been as scared as she was! He might even bring the basket back, she mused.

She had almost finished with the blankets and was getting ready to go and watch the sunset when she heard distant cries of alarm and anger from the quayside. She left what she was doing and hurried around the side of the house and saw her two brothers running down the path towards her, their faces flushed molten red in fury. Without saying a word, they rudely grabbed her arm and dragged her up the steps to the porch.

“What is the meaning of that?” they yelled wildly. Dea looked back at them in confusion but then followed their accusatory fingers towards the western sky where, above the horizon there floated a portrait painted with all the hues of the sunset; smoky red lips set against an amber complexion, flashing green eyes and stands of night descending as hair – it was unquestionably a portrait of Dea herself.

She rubbed her eyes, glanced at her brothers who stood trembling with anger, then once more looked back at her perfect likeness set in the sky for all to see and promptly fainted.

She awoke with cold water thrown on her face and found her mother and brothers gathered around her where she’d been sat on a wooden chair in the kitchen.

“How could you bring shame on the family like this?” her mother wailed.

“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Dea shrieked.

“How do you expect to get married after this?” her eldest brother yelled, “Who was it? The miller’s son? Did one of the shepherds follow you into the forest?”

“There’s nobody!” Dea screamed, her head swirling in what she hoped might turn out to be just a bad dream, “I didn’t meet anyone in the forest, I… the painter…”she murmured, suddenly remembering her encounter earlier in the day. “But where are you going? He didn’t do anything!” she cried at the murderous look on her brothers’ faces who exchanged a fierce glare and stormed out of the house. She would have run after them but her mother held her back and a moment later they were gone into the night.

Dea’s mother wouldn’t speak to her all evening and time dragged as she tried to absorb herself in her sewing. Eventually fatigue got the better of her and she drifted off in the chair where she sat and her needle went tumbling to the floor when her brothers marched in later that night, sacks slung over their shoulders. Without saying a word they emptied the bags and five canvasses fell to the floor. They glanced at Dea meaningfully and then went off to their beds.

Dea knelt down to pick up the canvasses that had fallen to the floor and discovered that the first four were paintings of the sunset and, for a moment, she felt she was looking through a window at the sky itself; the colours floated before her with a radiant depth and the setting sun glowed such a fierce red that she feared she might burn her fingers if she were to touch it.

The wonder she felt at the old painter’s skill turned to fear and confusion, however, when she picked up the fifth painting; there, above the placid blue sea and simmering sky, was the very scene that had scandalised the village that night; her face painted above the horizon with such detail and vibrancy that it was like looking in a mirror.

Her hands trembled and her head began to swirl as she tried to understand what was happening. How did the old man have the power to do this? And why had he chosen her? She realised just how little anyone knew about the painter and shivered as she wondered what her brothers might have done to him.

As it happened the painter wasn’t home when Dea’s brothers had puffed their way up the mountain to his house. Pushing his creaky door open, they lit a candle and it didn’t take them long to find the evidence. It was quickly apparent that the old man repainted over old canvasses to save money and that explained why he only needed to come down to the village for new supplies once or twice a year – he’d get a rude shock if he came down any time soon, they growled to themselves. To make their point they emptied the pots of paint all over the floor and snapped all the brushes into little pieces.

The painter himself had been walking high up in the hills, his eyes drinking in the moonlight falling on the distant waves, the soft, blue radiance falling like a soundless rain, making everything it touched sacred.

And yet for the first time in his life it was not enough.

He’d spent all of his 60 years here on the mountain in a lifelong love affair with light. He revered everything that light touched and saw miracles in every glint of water in the stream, longing in the dark shadows cast by the tall pines.

But now as he walked among the trees, stripes of moonlight falling on his stocky body as he went, he could only see one image in his mind: the beautiful young face of Dea. After a lifetime of painting the sunsets he felt like he had only begun to learn the meaning of colour in her bright red lips, her hypnotic green eyes. All the beauty and magic of nature seemed concentrated in her face and he no longer wanted to paint anything else.

The painter was so obsessed with the vision of Dea that he didn’t even notice the chaos her brothers had left in his house and went to bed dreaming only of her. The next day when he saw the sun was sinking low in the sky and the hour was approaching for him to create yet another stunning sunset, he picked up the end of a broken brush from the floor and tied it to the index finger of his left hand with a strand of his own hair. Then, stepping outside, he took the sky itself as his canvas and began to paint another portrait of Dea above the horizon in homage to her beauty.

To create her complexion he dipped his finger-brush into a small dish of butter, daubing her likeness with bold strokes on the sky; to get the colour right for her eyes he dipped his brush into the sun and then mixed it with a patch of blue sky until he got the green he was looking for; he pricked himself with a pin and squeezed out a drop of blood to get the colour of her lips and he painted her cascading hair by using the black of the approaching night in the eastern sky.

Satisfied with his work, the painter stood back and gazed in awe at the portrait of Dea now floating above the horizon. He fell to his knees in tribute and knew in his heart that he would never paint another sunset ever again.

*

“Do you know what they’re saying about you in the marketplace?”

“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Dea yelled back.

“Then why isn’t someone else’s sister hovering like a shameless ghost in the sky? Why did the painter choose you?”

“How should I know? Ask him!”

“We’ll do better than that – we’ll show him what comes of ruining a girl’s reputation – first thing in the morning.”

Dea knew her brothers well enough to believe they meant what they said and the thought of what they might do kept her awake all night. Shortly before dawn she heard the door slam and she trembled for the old painter’s sake. It was late morning by the time her brothers returned and she found them around the back of the house cleaning the cuts on their fists.

“What have you done?” she cried.

“Let’s just say he won’t be painting any portraits for a while.” they answered without bothering to look up.

Dea shivered at their words and all love for her brothers died at that moment in her heart. She knew at once what she must do but wondered where she might find the courage to do it and walked slowly away.

Dea’s house wasn’t the only place in the village to be suffering discord, however. The tourists in town wanted to know what on earth was going on with the legendary sunsets of Kalos that they’d traveled so far to see. Their landlords and the managers of the restaurants hurried to assure them things would be back to normal soon and all waited the sunset with anxiety and apprehension.

But that evening as the sun began its sloping descent to the horizon… nothing happened. It just slipped lower and lower in the sky, losing its brightness gradually until it was simply snuffed out by the sea like a candle flame dipped into water. Night fell with as little ceremony and the tourists began to book their passages out for the next day, grumbling at all the time and money they had wasted in coming here.

The locals knew that it wouldn’t be long before word got out that the breathtaking sunsets of Kalos were now a thing of the past and a committee of village elders headed over to Dea’s house that evening, supposing that somehow she was at the heart of the problem.

“We’ve come to talk to your sister.” Styros, the manager of the quayside restaurant said, when Dea’s brothers opened the door.

“We don’t have a sister.” they replied.

Dea had gone missing that afternoon and a shepherd boy had already brought news that she had been seen walking up the hill with a bag on her back towards the old painter’s house.

*

When Dea had pushed open the door that had been half-ripped from its hinges, she’d found the old painter lying on the floor where her brothers had left him in a pile of broken furniture, his face battered and bleeding. His eyes were puffy and swollen from the beating he had taken and it was only at the gasps of pain the old man gave as she tried to move him to the bed that she realised his arms, hands and fingers had been broken in several places.

The extent of the violence brought Dea to the verge of fainting but then she swallowed back down the nerves and tore a bed sheet into strips to use as slings. The painter offered no resistance to her nursing but didn’t acknowledge her presence either and seemed to be wandering deep inside his own mind, far from the brutal reality of the day’s events. Once she had put him to bed, she swept the floor of all the debris and then walked out to the forest to gather wild herbs that would help her patient deal with the shock and sleep soundly.

Discovering to her horror that the old man seemed to exist on a diet of olives, figs and hard, homemade bread, she gave a few liters of olive oil to one of the shepherds with the promise that he would return with bags of flour, rice and vegetable seeds. She got to work cleaning out the old stove that looked like it hadn’t been swept out in 30 years and while the old man spent his days and nights lying in bed, Dea dug a vegetable patch not far from the stream.

Summer came on and the old stone house turned out to be quite cool in the scorching heat. Dea passed the afternoons sewing or singing to herself while she watched the old man recover; it became apparent that his hands would never really heal and she quickly got used to feeding him herself. As the weeks turned into months, the anguished mist began to fade from the painter’s eyes and she could see a glint in them each time she drew close.

But it was only one afternoon in the autumn, when she had come in from harvesting the olives that she approached the old man’s bed with a cup of sweet peppermint tea, that he finally raised his head to look at her and smiled. Dea would never forget the look on his face that day – indeed, he had it every day after that – it was like the sun coming out after many months of overcast weather and there was such an innocence to it, such a genuine love that she felt something deep inside her melt and it felt like she was being seen for the very first time.

News that Dea was living in the old painter’s house would normally have been fertile cause for gossip in the village but with the disappearance of the sunsets people had other things to worry about. Tourism had all but dried up and already many of the younger people had left for the mainland to look for any kind of work they could to send money back home to feed their families. Almost all of the bars and restaurants had closed and the ones that stayed open did so only because they didn’t know what else to do with their time.

So when word of the painter’s death reached them that winter, most people were too busy feeling sorry for themselves to pay it much mind. There were a few though who still believed the old man was responsible in some way for the disappearance of the sunsets and hoped that now he was gone they might return. But they didn’t and they would have forgotten about the painter altogether had not the goat herders brought down the shocking news that Dea was several months pregnant.

Opinion in the village was divided between those who condemned the old man for taking advantage of a young girl who was young enough to be his granddaughter, while others affirmed it was simply proof of the virility of the men of Kalos. Either way there grew a sentiment that Dea had been too harshly treated by her family and, despite the hard times that everyone endured, no one envied the girl what she must be going through up there in that freezing cold house, heavy with child.

And so it was that Dea began to find small parcels of nuts and cheese, dried fruits and rice outside her doorstep early in the mornings. No one ever came to visit her but she understood this was part of the path she had chosen and had no regrets. She had buried the painter under the shade of the oldest olive tree in the orchard and while he had never quite recovered from the violence inflicted by her brothers, yet they had spent a last few happy months together, never needing to exchange a single word, the light in their eyes saying it all.

Dea gave birth alone on the first day of spring, cutting the umbilical chord of the baby boy with a kitchen knife. And on this day, despite everything that had happened in the past year, she was happier than she could ever remember being.

The years passed and everyone found that they were aging quickly. Time seemed to slip through their fingers like grains of fine salt. It wasn’t only the tourists and the money they brought with them that was missing, it was the sunsets themselves. The absence of the long, meditative mood as the sun descended and the storm of colours when it splashed into the sea – it was like the loss of something sacred, as though some favourite god had simply walked off and abandoned them.

The old people found solace in the company of their grandchildren whose parents had gone off to the mainland to search for work. The children were too young to have ever seen the sunsets and the adults never spoke of them any more; the spectacular evenings of the past now seemed as distant a memory as their own childhoods and there was an unspoken sentiment that it would be sacrilegious to put them into words. All they could do was hope for the occasional gift of a dream when they might see the glorious evening colours again.

Then, one day, some 5 years later, something strange happened. Almost no one gathered on the quayside any more in the evenings, people mostly preferring to busy themselves with some chore until the sun had gone down; and so happened that it was left to some children playing on the terrace of the last remaining restaurant to stay open to call for their grandparents to come out. They did so reluctantly but instead of the sombre, featureless evening sky they’d come to expect, they saw a horizon smeared with loud streaks of a bright, strawberry red. There was little art in their application – indeed, it looked like someone had painted it on with their fingers – but still they all felt their hearts leap to their mouths.

That night, after the vivid colours had faded, people gathered on the terrace of the restaurant, visibly anxious as hope rekindled in their hearts and left them mortally afraid.

“It’s like hearing someone you loved very much has died and then getting a letter from them and not knowing when it was sent.” Styros, the owner of the restaurant said, and everyone nodded in agreement. His bushy eyebrows came together as he added: “A great wrong was done in this village and now it’s up to us to do what we can to put it right.”

One autumn afternoon Dea returned from a long walk gathering mushrooms after the first rain had fallen and discovered an enormous store of wood outside her house, enough to last the entire winter. She entered the house cautiously and found to her shock that a brand new stove had been installed in the kitchen with a metal chimney expertly sealed into the roof so that she might not be troubled by the smoke. Her head swam as she considered how this could have been done in such a short space of time – it was the work of several men just to carry it up the hill and yet there was no one in sight.

“Look, mama, look!” Dea turned to see her son tearing open a paper parcel that she had failed to see by the entrance. Inside was a set of brushes, a couple of canvases and several pots of paint. Dea hesitated as she suddenly understood; when she had caught her son finger-painting on the sky with with an old pot of red paint he had found while playing around the back of the house, she had taken it away from him, worried about the possible consequences. Furthermore, the sight of her son with his hands covered in paint reawoke the memory of his father, the only other person she had ever really cared for. But the look on her son’s face was so joyous that she couldn’t help but nod when he asked if he might go outside and paint a picture.

The tourists took a long time to return. Word that the vivid sunsets had once again begun to appear in the western skies of Kalos were initially met with skepticism – a desperate attempt to lure visitors back to the notoriously poor island, no doubt. And, truth be told, the sunsets themselves, while bright and vivid, left a lot to be desired; the sun frequently departing in a dizzy mix of swirling greens, yellows and reds, almost as if someone had let a child loose with a paintbox.

But with time, people began to put aside their work in the afternoons to await the evening show eagerly. The colours, if still a little erratic at times, became more mature with the passing of the years and although a few of the sunsets were a little too experimental for the tastes of many of the older people, yet they displayed an imagination and an expression of hope that began to attract the occasional boat of tourists and some of the younger people drifted back to the island, encouraged by the optimistic letters of their parents.

If the sunsets of Kalos weren’t quite what the old people remembered, neither was life itself. Their children returned from the mainland with new ideas and values and ultimately, who was to say they were wrong?

They were sure of only one thing – as long as they paid the shepherds to keep carrying up the hill from time to time supplies of food, wood and the occasional pot of paint, the sunsets could only keep getting better and better.

Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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