Short Story by Kevin Lenihan and Dena McKinnon

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Black Canvas

Written by Kevin Lenihan & Dena McKinnon

 

 

August, 1914, Munich

 

In the little cavern she had created under the bridge by pulling out loose bricks, Elli jolted awake from a fitful dream in which her grandfather warned her that only she could save them all, only she could stop the war. He begged her to rise and act before it was too late.

 

She climbed out of her little nest of brick and shook off the dust and morning chill. Escaping the protective shadows of the bridge, she emerged into the warmth of the sun-dappled road along the languid river. The summer sky was a blue canvas which promised heat, but this early in the day the dew glistened off weeds which poked through cracks in the cobblestone despite the city’s efforts to prevent their growth. It had rained in the night, leaving small puddles which she avoided looking into, afraid what her twelve year old face looked like after months of living on the streets.

 

How do you take such a dream seriously? The winds of war were gusting through the Empire and through the world, the city was alive with it. All summer the headlines shouted of mobilization. Who was she to stop it? Perhaps it really was her beloved grandfather’s spirit, for he had always been a little crazy in life. She was as much a nobody as there could be in this world. She had no money, no friends, and the only family she had were miles away in Austria, and they too were nobodies. She could sooner stop the sun from rising than she could stop a war. And what business of hers was it anyway?

 

And still the dream had shaken her. Only once before had grandfather come to her in dream, warning her to take her father’s money and hide it from him before it was too late. She had ignored the dream warning and Father had spent their last on drink, such a heavy bout of it that he had choked to death on his own vomit. She left his body there on the hotel floor and fled to the streets, where she’d now been since the snows had melted and the war drums began beating and the summer sun baked.

 

Grandfather’s spirit had been right that time. If she had hidden the money it would have saved her father’s life. But now Grandfather left no specific instructions, he merely shouted that she was the only one, the only one, the only one who could stop what was to come. His voice

had been more pained and desperate than it had been the night before her father’s death, a feeling of dread leaking from the smoky-dark places of her mind, the places where her best artwork

came from.

 

For that’s what she was, an artist, a painter, a prodigy some said. Her father had taken her on the road for that reason, first to Vienna, and then here to Munich when his drunken tantrums had worn out their welcome in Vienna. She had a rare memory which allowed her to glance at anything, remember it down to the finest detail, and then recreate it on the canvas. Her best

work, however, were the original pieces which sprang from the murky depths, a process she couldn’t explain, not even to herself.

 

Shapes hovered within those places now, unearthed by the dream, images forming, still unclear, filling her with terror. Somewhere within those smoky-dark places lurked the spirit of

 

 

her grandfather…and what was she born to do if not to paint?! Somehow the answer lay in that. She was hungry and the soup kitchen beckoned but now was not the time for soup, now was the time to act, for she was the only one he said, and maybe this was why she was who she was, why the secret depths had always been open to her.

 

So she turned back to the bridge and returned to her cavern within the rubble where she had hid all her earthly possessions: her easel, her paints and brushes, and the dozen or so paintings she refused to sell on the streets for they were far too valuable. These were rolled up and stacked in a hole in the concrete. Her supply of blank canvas had run out, so she would have to reuse a painted canvas today. And what would she do with this canvas? She had to trust she would know, that she would take her direction from the smoky-dark place whose cracking crevices went beyond the frontier where Elli ended and extended into the All.

 

Her fingers searched through the rolled up paintings, knowing each one by feel. Which to destroy? There was nothing so obscene as the purposeful destruction of a painting, even an unfinished one, an act of anti-creation, a violation. And yet today was a day for violations, for breaking patterns, if a path was to be broken it must begin with a small breaking. Feelings of anger and love and resentment and longing welled within. She had made her selection, her most prized work. Keeping the canvas rolled, she left the bridge carrying her easel and paints and traveled into the heart of the city.

 

Months since her father had died and she had not spoken a word to anyone. With pride she had learned to steal the paints when the shop owner was not looking, and from watching the Gypsies she learned to pick a pocket. Some of her work she was able to sell, though Munich was not a place where art was much loved, not like Vienna. Did she still have a pretty voice like her mother had always said she did? Did she still have a pretty face that her mother had always been proud of? She asked these questions to herself from time to time, but she did not speak and did not look at her reflection in the shop windows. Her mother too was dead, they had received word in Vienna…and had Father known she was dying? Was that part of why he had fled with Elli?

She could not remember her mother’s face, which was fine because maybe it was the wife’s fault that the husband did drink so much.

 

This early there were only a handful of others in the square, moving among the pigeons that picked through the litter left over from yesterday’s protests and rallies. With the war drums beating, every day the square filled with soap box preachers, rabble rousers, communists, anti- communists and anarchists. Mostly it filled with nationalists clamoring for war against the Russians or the French, something about an archduke from Serbia. Young men with bleak futures and empty lives drifted around the square waiting for something, anything, to fill their lives with meaning.

 

She set up the easel just outside the square on a side street. Craning her neck into the square she could make out the stone lions of the Palace of Field Marshals. Solemn ceremonial soldiers guarded its entrance. If war came it was said the announcement would come here. This was as close as she dared go without risking being trampled when the crowds came. Beside her easel, water dripped from a storm gutter and puddled below, and though she did not look at her

 

 

reflection, the water was necessary for her work.

 

She unrolled the painting and placed it on the easel. It was of Father. Two years they had been alone together, first Vienna and then here. They’d known no friends and few friendly faces. Everything of the memory of him burned fresh within her. The playful sound of his laughter, the crumbs in his beard, the dreamy look in his eyes when he talked of plans and seemed to forget she was there. The way he snored when he returned drunk, his gentle singing to her when she

was ill, his buying meals for her when there was not enough for two, his spending on drink when there was not enough for meals. Towards the end, it was her father that had taught her to watch the pick pockets and to wait until the shop owners were distracted.

 

This painting was her only image of him. Many times she had tried to remember the face of Mother, but nothing came. She could recall some of her words, if not quite the voice, yet the face remained a blank. She could describe the dark hair, the slender hands, always clean, always fidgeting, always fixing her only daughter’s hair, the eyes which she knew to be brown, but she could not assemble the pieces into an image. Would that soon too happen with Father? This worry had prompted her to paint his only portrait days after his death.

 

And now she colored it in swift strokes of black. Smear by destructive smear the canvas surrendered to the paint until it was covered in black. The last to go was his eyes. She expected herself to cry, but she did not. Now that the face was gone, she tried to imagine it, and already it was fading. Had she made a mistake? In the smoky-dark place where the dreams hid she felt her grandfather approve. Now she had to wait for the canvas to dry, and when it was ready she would begin the work which she now felt she was sent here to do.

 

The crowds again grew and she was an unnoticed ghost among them. Behind the great lions and the columns she imagined the field marshals debating war. Perhaps one of them would dare to come out among the crowd. But what difference could a painting make even if it caught his eye? And what could she possibly paint? Her mother had never wanted her to leave the village. She had admired Elli’s talent as much as Father, and had encouraged it, but to Mother

the city was a place that the broken fled to, a place from which there could be no true return. And wasn’t her mother right in the end? Wasn’t she, who could not remember her own mother’s face, broken?

 

The pencil was in her hand now, drawn to the black canvas as though by magnet, and from the smoky-dark place the images came and her hand brought them into the black canvas. Children, images of children, dozens of them. Above them she began to draw a larger portrait, but was compelled to stop after a few strokes. She returned to drawing the children, and she felt the crowd swelling in the square, pockets moving along the side street behind her. She drew from the hidden place within and was within the hidden place, all the time working furiously.

 

Until she sensed someone behind her looking over her shoulder from a distance. She glanced back. A young man, mid twenties, just another protester. A vagabond, she’d seem him before in the soup kitchens, a loner, a drifter, broken like she. He always had that faraway look, like his eyes were on something only he could see. Her nerves tightened, anguish filling her

 

 

from the shadow places inside, her hands moving unbidden on the canvas, faster, pencil and paint, pencil and paint, she had never worked so fast.

 

He edged closer, drawn to her work, eyes moving from the materializing children to the empty black above. When he reached her, his foot touched the puddle and he looked down, mesmerized by his own reflection. He smoothed a loose lock of hair on his forehead, smoothed it over and over, and a million voices wailed within her to do something, do something, do something. Frozen, she could not, and he remained absorbed in his own face, until his reverie was broken by cheering before the palace. He turned toward the square, his fellow protesters streaming behind him toward the maelstrom. Finally, her voice became freed.

 

“I can’t, please…” The first words she had uttered since her father died. He turned again to the black emptiness above the painted children.

“My mother,” she said. “I can’t remember her face.”

 

He nodded. She continued to craft the children and other things that came from the secret well within. He seemed to understand what she wanted but wouldn’t admit it to himself. Something he could not yet see, something in the way. And she knew that in his mind’s eye the black space was not all black, he had placed the image there which he held most dear.

 

“Your mother…” she said.

 

For a moment he looked at her. Reluctant, frightened, he started to look down at the puddle again, but she knew not to let him find it with his eye.

 

“Please,” she said.

 

He stepped forward into the puddle, breaking the reflected image, and took the pencil.

She continued coloring the children below, many dozens, some hardly more than shadows, while

he took the pencil to the black space and began to draw the face of a woman. Elli stole glances

at it while working below. The crowd buzzed in the square. His face was intense. A handsome

woman came into view in pencil above the children. More cheering in the square and he started

to turn towards it.

 

“Please, you must finish it.”

 

He focused again on the portrait. They were surrounded by a cacophony of shouts and protests and more cheering. A couple of men running by spotted the young man transfixed on the painting.

 

“Come on, Addie,” they shouted. “They’re about to make an announcement!” “Ignore them,” she begged, tears on her face. “Please, finish it!”

 

 

 

She thought of her own mother and to her astonishment her mother’s face came into her mind as though she had seen her only this morning. He reached for a paint brush and slowly dipped it. Raised the brush toward the black canvas.

 

“Finish it, please!”

 

She scribbled her own work faster, desperately, saw that behind the children were train tracks…when had she drawn that? And a train car, its door open like a mouth. She wet the brush and began to color the faces, working too fast, blurring their features…

The man’s friends now tugged at him. “Hurry, they’re going to declare war, hurry, Adolf!” He returned the brush to her palette as the men pulled at him. Only with difficulty did he

pull his gaze at last from the canvas. He looked at her a moment. She tried to hold him with her

eyes.

 

But he turned and ran into the square where he was swallowed by the excited throngs. Her heart was heavy with the senseless feeling that she should have done more. The desire to paint, which had been within her as long as she could remember, left her then, and she abandoned it all there, paints, brushes, easel, walking away from the square, against the tide of the crowd.

Short Story ©Kevin Lanihan and Dena McKinnon

Picture©Daniel Miess

 

 

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