Sand as far as the eye can see, between the last hills and the sea -- the sea -- in the cold air of an afternoon almost past, and blessed by the wind that always blows from the north.
The beach. And the sea.
It could be perfection -- an image for divine eyes -- a world that happens, that's all, the mute existence of land and water, a work perfectly accomplished, truth --truth -- but once again it is the redeeming grain of a man that jams the mechanism of that paradise, a bagatelle capable on its own of suspending all that great apparatus of inexorable truth, a mere nothing, but one planted in the sand, an imperceptible tear in the surface of that sacred icon, a minuscule exception come to rest on the perfection of that boundless beach. To see him from afar he would be no more than a black dot: amid nothingness, the nothing of a man and a painter's easel. The easel is anchored by slender cords to four stones placed on the sand. It sways imperceptibly in the wind that always blows from the north. The man is wearing waders and a large fisherman's jacket. He is standing, facing the sea, twirling a slim paintbrush between his fingers. On the easel, a canvas.
He is like a sentinel -- this you must realize -- standing there to defend that part of the world from the silent invasion of perfection, a small crack that fragments that spectacular stage set of being. As it is always like this, you need only the glimmer of a man to wound the repose of that which would otherwise be a split second away from becoming truth but instead immediately becomes suspense and doubt once more, because of the simple and infinite power of that man who is a slit, a chink, a small doorway through which return a flood of stories and the enormous inventory of what could be, an infinite gash, a marvelous wound, a path made of thousands of steps where nothing can be true anymore but everything will be -- just as the steps are of that woman who, wrapped in a purple cloak, her head covered, is pacing the beach with measured tread, skirting the backwash of the sea, her feet tracing furrows from right to left across what is by then the lost perfection of the great picture, consuming the distance that separates her from the man until she comes to within a few paces of him, and then right beside him, where it takes nothing to pause and silently look on.
The man does not even turn. He continues staring out at the sea. Silence. From time to time he dips the brush in a copper cup and makes a few light strokes on the canvas. In their wake the bristles of the brush leave a shadow of the palest obscurity that the wind immediately dries bringing the pristine white back to the surface. Water. In the copper cup there is only water. And on the canvas, nothing. Nothing that may be seen.
The north wind blows as it always does and the woman pulls her purple cloak closer around her.
"Plasson, you have been working for days and days down here. Why do you carry all those colors around with you if you do not have the courage to use them?"
This seems to wake him up. This hits home. He turns to observe the woman's face. And when he speaks it is not to reply.
"Please, do not move, he says."
Then he brings the brush up to the woman's face, hesitates a moment, rests it on her lips and slowly runs it from one corner of her mouth to the other. The bristles come away tinged with carmine. He looks at them, dips them ever so slightly in the water and looks up once more towards the sea. On the woman's lips there lingers the hint of a taste that obliges her to think "sea water, this man is painting the sea with the sea" -- and it is a thought that brings a shiver.
For some time now she has already turned round, and is already pacing measuredly back along the immense beach, her steps a mathematical rosary, when the wind brushes the canvas to dry a puff of rosy light, left to float unadorned amid the white. You could stay for hours looking at that sea, and that sky, and everything, but you would find nothing of that color. Nothing that may be seen.
The tide, in those parts, comes in before night falls. Just before. The water surrounds the man and his easel, it clutches them, slowly but with precision, they stay there, the one and the other, impassable, like a miniature island, or a wreck with two heads.
Plasson, the painter.
Every evening a boat comes to pick him up, just before sunset, when the water has already reached his heart. This is the way he wants it. He boards the boat, stows away the easel and all, and allows himself to be taken home.
The sentinel goes away. His duty done. Danger averted. Against the sunset the icon that has again failed to become sacred fades away. All because of that manikin and his paintbrushes. And now that he has gone, time has run out. The dark suspends everything. There is nothing that can, in the dark, become true.
Only seldom, and in a way that some people, in those moments, when they saw her, were heard to whisper
"She'll die of it"
"She'll die of it"
"She'll die of it"
"She'll die of it."
All around, hills.
My land, thought Baron Carewall.
It is not exactly an illness, it could be one, but it is something less, if it has a name it must be lighter than air, say it and it's already gone.
"When she was a little girl, one day a beggar came and began to sing a lullaby, the lullaby startled a blackbird that flew off . . ."
". . . startled a dove that flew off and the fluttering of wings . . ."
". . . the wings that fluttered, the faintest sound . . ."
". . . it must have been ten years ago . . ."
". . . the dove flashed past the window, in a trice, so, and she looked up from her toys and I don't know, a dread came upon her, but it was a blank dread, I mean to say that she was not like one afraid, she was like one on the point of disappearing . . ."
". . . the fluttering of wings . . ."
". . . one whose soul was fleeing . . ."
". . . do you believe me?"
They believed that she would grow and everything would pass. But in the meantime all over the castle they were laying carpets because, it is obvious, she was afraid of her own footsteps, white carpets, everywhere, a color that could do no harm, soundless footsteps and sightless colors. In the park, the paths were circular with the single bold exception of a pair of snaking avenues that curled to form smooth regular curves -- psalms -- and this was more reasonable, in fact all you need is a little sensitivity to understand that any blind corner is a possible ambush, and two roads that cross are a perfect geometrical violence, enough to frighten anyone who possesses real sensitivity and all the more so her, who was not exactly possessed of a sensitive spirit but, to put it in exact terms, possessed by an uncontrollable sensitivity of spirit forever exploded in who knows which moment of her secret life -- the merest scrap of a life, young as she was -- only to return by mysterious ways to her heart, and her eyes, and hands and all over, like an illness, although it was not an illness, but something less, if it has a name it must be lighter than air, say it and it's already gone.
This is why, in the park, the paths were circular.
Nor should you forget the story of Edel Trut, whose skill in weaving silk was unrivaled throughout the land and that was why he was summoned by the Baron, one winter's day, when the snow lay as tall as children, as cold as the devil, and getting that far was hellish hard, the horse steaming, its hooves slithering about haphazardly in the snow, and the sleigh behind drifting to the leeward, if I don't get there in ten minutes perhaps I'll die, as sure as my name's Edel, I'll die, and what's more without even knowing what the devil the Baron wants to show me that's so important . . .
"What do you see, Edel?"
In his daughter's room, the Baron stands in front of the long wall without windows, speaking softly, with the courtesy of olden times.
"What do you see?"
Cloth of Burgundy, quality stuff, and a landscape like any other, a job well done.
"It is not just any landscape, Edel. Or at least not for my daughter."
It is a kind of mystery, but you must try to understand, using your imagination, and forgetting what is known so that the fancy may roam free, running far off deep within things until it can see how the soul is not always a diamond but sometimes a silken veil -- this I can understand -- imagine a diaphanous silken veil, anything could tear it, even a glance, and think of the hand that takes it -- a woman's hand -- yes -- it moves slowly and clasps the veil between the fingers, but clasping is already too much, the hand lifts it as if it were not a hand but a puff of wind and enfolds it between the fingers as if they were not fingers but . . . as if they were not fingers but thoughts. So. This room is that hand, and my daughter is a silken veil.
Yes, I have understood.
"I do not want waterfalls, Edel, but the peace of a lake, I do not want oaks but birches, and those mountains in the background must become hills, and the day a sunset, the wind a breeze, the cities towns, the castles gardens. And if there really must be falcons, at least let them fly, and far away."
Yes, I have understood. There's only one thing: and the men?
The Baron fell silent. He observed all the characters of the enormous tapestry, one by one, as if listening to their opinion. He moved from one wall to the other, but no one spoke. It was to be expected.
"Edel, is there a way to make men who do no evil?"
God Himself must have wondered about that, at the time.
"I know not. But I shall try."
In Edel Trut's workshop they labored for months with the miles of silk yarn that the Baron sent. They worked in silence because, as Edel said, the silence had to be woven into the fabric of the cloth. It was yarn like any other, only you could not see it, but it was there. And so they worked in silence.
Then one day a cart arrived at the Baron's castle, and on the cart was Edel's masterpiece. Three enormous rolls of cloth as heavy as the crosses borne in processions. They carried them up a flight of stairs and then along the corridors and through door after door until they reached the heart of the castle and the room that awaited them. Just before they unrolled them, the Baron murmured, "And the men?"
"And if there really must be men, at least let them fly, and far away."
The Baron chose the light of the sunset to take his daughter by the hand and lead her to her new room. Edel says that she came in and instantly flushed, for wonder, and for a moment the Baron feared that the surprise might be too much, but it was only a moment, because instantly you could hear the irresistible silence of that silken world where lay a fair and most pleasant land and little men suspended in the air, paced with measured tread across the pale blue of the sky.
Edel says -- and this he will never forget -- that she gazed around for a long moment and then, turning, she smiled.
Her name was Elisewin.
She had a most beautiful voice -- velvet -- and when she walked it was as if she slipped through the air, so that you could not take your eyes off her. Every now and again, for no reason, she liked to run along the corridors, toward who knows what, on those awful white carpets, she stopped being the shadow she was and ran, but only seldom, and in a way that some people, in those moments, when they saw her, were heard to whisper . . .