The young man and the older woman met at an artist’s colony. They were both in the habit of walking on the wooded paths in the afternoon, so they began walking together, talking mostly of music. The young man, a promising Spanish composer named Luis, had a brash confidence that was at times over-bearing. His work was already gaining accolades for his minimalist pieces which stretched a few notes into a sustained mood, and he had ambitious plans for his career. His walking companion, a woman from the upper Midwest named Althea, almost twice his age, prided herself on being a good listener. Growing up as a middle child with a talented older sister and a charming younger brother, from the time she’d begun to speak she learned to stay silent and listen, letting others take center stage while she acted as an accompanist to their genius. She was a painter who had once aspired to be a professional concert pianist but gave up her daily practice to raise a family. When her son left home for college, her husband abruptly left as well and, it seemed to her, instantly had a second family.
As consolation, Althea took up painting, and had in less than a decade built a solid reputation as a landscape artist, specializing in watercolors. Her Winter Series, a subtle blending of grays and off-whites, shadows on the snow, the striking contrast of a crow against a white sky, had appeared in a well-regarded art magazine. She was at the far-end of middle-age, so she took chagrined pleasure at being called an emerging artist. Although she rarely played the piano anymore, and had never considered herself a composer, she had held onto one melody, a series of notes that had come to her after her son was born and she spent long afternoons with him, singing the wordless song which she knew the boy came to think of as the mother song. At one time, she’d composed words for the song, but she liked it best as a hummed lullaby. Now that her son was grown, he sometimes hummed it in his pleasant tenor when he visited, which wasn’t often, making his visits even more important to her. She understood he was honoring her and showing affection by humming the song which had come to her one winter afternoon as she sat in the morning light of her kitchen nursing him in her arms, and the song had always evoked for her the sweet loneliness she often felt in those days. Althea had given up her art for her son although she’d never told him of her sacrifice, not wanting to burden him with guilt. Of course, Althea had seen other women continue their art while also raising children, but she had always thought she had to choose between her two great loves.
One day as she and Luis, the young composer, were walking through the wooded estate of the artist’s colony, she felt moved to hum the tune. She acted as if it were a spontaneous act, but she had been thinking of doing it for days. She’d even practiced it. Perhaps she was showing off a little, wanting to impress the young man. She was in fact falling in love but knew she could never tell him for fear of destroying their new friendship. So, she kept secret the ravenous desire that swelled in her when he swung his long dark hair out of his face in a gesture which called attention to his aquiline nose, his fierce green eyes, his lean muscular body. Wait, he said, stopping on the dry path, the light coming through the trees and catching in his thick black mane. At that moment, she wanted to paint him, capture him in this moment when he was excited by her, or at least excited by the few bars she’d hummed.
It’s nothing, she said, offhandedly. Just a little song I sing to myself.
She hid her excitement that he’d noticed the genius of the melody. She’d always known there was something in the progression of notes that was almost transcendent. Can you sing the whole song to me? he asked. She did as he asked. She’d always had a lovely voice, and when she was young had thought of giving up the piano and becoming a singer, but she was worried that her voice, though precisely musical, had never been strong enough for her to be a soloist, so she’d stayed with the piano until… the demands of her family had pushed out everything else. And now this beautiful young man was interested in her. She gladly shared her song with him, hitting each note exactly, keeping time with the palm of her hand against her thigh. She felt flattered by his attention, and for the first time in their weeks of conversations, she was the artist, and he was the listener. It felt good, she thought, even though it was only for a few minutes. She could see him listening to her, his gaze vacant, unaware of anything except her voice.
When she finished, they stood in silence, and then close by, a bird, she didn’t know what kind, sang a few notes that contrasted nicely with her song. Then far away, she could hear a train passing. It was a perfect moment. He roused himself, came back to the present, as if awakening from a trance and smiled at her.
That is beautiful, he said. She loved the way the slight lisp of his Castilian accent gave a fullness to each word.
In her studio the next morning Althea painted furiously. She wanted to capture the feeling she’d had in the woods when she sang softly to Luis. She painted the subtle fall colors, the blending of joy and sadness, the juxtaposition of contrasting sounds. The first canvas filled quickly with a whirl and a splash, and she created another and another. She felt she was close to a breakthrough in her art. She knew she had the skill and talent to be a great artist, but she’d always lacked single-minded devotion to her art. This is what she was learning from the young composer, to have confidence in oneself, one’s vision, and to pursue it selfishly, putting aside everything else, everyone else who makes demands on you, keeps you from the driving force of creativity which is life itself. For the first time in her memory, she felt confident as an artist.
After a few hours of painting, she took a break and made a cup of tea, feeling full of creative energy. She thought that she might start playing the piano again although she’d sold her piano years ago when she was short of money. She looked around the studio, wondering why she hadn’t requested one of the studios that had a piano. She slowly ate the cheese sandwich which the staff kindly put outside her door at precisely 11:35 each morning, and thought about the young composer, how he’d brought out something in her that had lain dormant for many years. She felt grateful to him.
She finished her sandwich and went outside into the cold November air. A few flakes fell and the light was bright gray, with silver light coming from the snow at the edges of the path. She knew just how she would paint this scene. Would she put the young composer in the painting, perhaps as a figure far down the path, turning toward her, his hair like a black flame? She mentally composed the new painting, the proportions, the colors, but most of all the energy, the feeling that something large and beautiful was about to happen, an impending storm, the edge of winter’s first breath.
Walking down the path absorbed by her own process of mentally creating the painting, she suddenly found herself on the path next to Luis’s studio. She knew it was against the rules to visit another artist’s studio except by invitation, but she was tempted to do so anyway. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind if she just briefly interrupted his work to tell him about her breakthrough? She wanted to tell him how he’d inspired her simply by listening to her sing. Perhaps she could move close to him, touch him on the arm as a sign of how close she felt to him? Perhaps she could move into his arms, and they could embrace for the first time?
As she stood on the path, lost in her fantasy, she abruptly realized there were voices in his studio. Could it be the radio? No. It was the young man’s voice and another voice as well, a woman’s. They were laughing. She recognized the voice as that of a young poet who’d performed her work a few nights before in the front parlor. The poet, Jocelyn was her name, had a cascade of curly blonde hair that fell below her shoulders. She also had a deep sexy voice and pronounced every word slowly, extending the last syllable of each line in a way that was at first annoying, but as you got used to it, strangely moving. It somehow reminded Althea of Luis’s music, his method of taking a few notes and repeating them with variations. She had thought when listening to the young woman’s poems that this was the art of hypnosis, somnambulant aesthetics, sleep-inducing, seductive in a crude way, but Althea had kept the thought to herself, and after the reading thanked the young woman and praised her work. It seemed the thing to do at the time.
But what was Jocelyn doing in Luis’s studio? How long had this been going on? She felt a surge of jealousy. Then she had to laugh at herself. The composer was merely a friend of hers. If he chose to carry on with this shallow untalented poet, then so be it. It was none of her concern.
She turned to go back to her studio, and then she heard it, just a few phrases of music from Luis’s piano. They were phrases from her song, the melody she’d hummed for him. He played the notes again, slightly changing them, and again in a different key, then he hummed the melody, varying the rhythm, bending the notes, creating a new composition from her song. She was transfixed by what he was doing. It was unbelievable. It was outrageous. He had stolen her song and was transforming it into his own. She wanted to bang on his door and demand to know how he could do such a thing. But she stopped herself. She knew she would look like a fool, and Jocelyn would undoubtedly tell the other artists about the incident. Althea may even be asked to leave for breaking the sacrosanct rule about not visiting another artist’s studio.
She turned and walked away. Her anger faded, and she felt used and empty. She went back to her studio and sat on the bed and looked at the paintings she’d made that morning. She hated them. They were all lies, every one of them. She looked around the studio at the other paintings she’d made in the weeks she’d been here. They were lies as well, complete crap, pretentious experiments in color and form. No heart. No radiance. Even as experiments they were failures. They were meaningless exercises in form. Everything in her life was a lie. Her marriage had died of her husband’s boredom with her. Her son had become a boring man who worked in a bank, had boring friends, and a girlfriend with glossy looks and the mind of a cow. All the people Althea knew had tedious jobs, loveless marriages, and empty lives. Her body, a wrinkled bag of bones, was decaying. Her life was an absolute shit-show.
Althea skipped dinner, not able to face Luis. He’d stolen her song and used it, no doubt, to seduce the young poet whose lustrous golden hair was a perfect contrast to the black hair of the young composer. They would have babies together with perfect lustrous hair who would steal other people’s work and laugh about it.
The next day, she was startled by a knock on her door. No one had ever come to her studio before. Luis was standing in the cold November air without a coat, his arms crossed, shivering. He is such a ninny, she thought, surprised by her continuing affection for him. I’d better let him in before he turns into an icicle.
Luis sat down in the only chair in the room, an overstuffed broken-springed monstrosity that must have sat in that very spot since the 1940s. He struggled to cross his legs, but he’d sunk so far down in the old chair that he just floundered. She turned away, so he wouldn’t see how amused she was by his awkward plight. She put on the kettle for tea.
I hear you’re leaving, he said, looking around at the half dozen canvas folio cases holding her drawings and paintings. Her clothes were folded on the bed beside her.
Yes, she said. I think I’m done here. I need to get back to my life.
He nodded. I have a gift for you, he said.
Startled, she looked around the room as if he’d brought a bright package with him.
It’s back in my studio, he said, smiling good-naturedly at her confusion.
As they walked next to each other down the path, their hands brushed, almost accidentally, and she felt her heart leap. She wondered whether Jocelyn of the golden hair felt the same excitement about this man. Probably not, she decided. She turned and looked at him with a full stare he noticed and looked confused by, but she kept staring at him. She knew she was being rudely bold, but she needed to see him for what he was, not what she’d projected onto him. She could see now he was simply a young man with musical talent who was at the beginning of what may turn out to be a brilliant career. Or perhaps he would never fulfill his promise, as most of us don’t.
She realized that when he talked about his career he always compared what he was going to accomplish with what older composers actually had accomplished, so in his fantasy, he was always better than they were. This is the folly of youth, she thought, to compare a fantasy of oneself to the reality of another. Then she realized she had done something similar: she’d compared her own sense of failure to his unfulfilled promise.
Luis had her sit in an overstuffed chair identical to the one in her studio. It felt like sitting in a pile of soft lumpy mud. Having learned from watching Luis’s struggle, she didn’t fight the experience, instead allowing herself to sink down into the formless mass of the broken chair, letting it comfortably absorb her.
Luis sat at the piano and started playing the same piece she’d heard the day before. It was an improvisation on her song, expanding, stretching, transforming the phrases it borrowed until it was a fully realized etude. It was so evocative, tears came to her eyes. He played the last notes, slowly turned to her, and looked down. It was the first time she’d ever seen him look humble.
I need your permission to use your song, he said. It’s yours, and it’s so beautiful I made this etude as a setting for it. If you give me permission, I will credit you as co-composer, and your name will always be listed. May I have your permission?
He didn’t look at her as he said this, instead staring at the floor in front of her. He was — for the first time since she’d met him — showing her the respect a young artist has – or should have — for an older more accomplished artist.
Oh yes, she said. Yes. And she went back to her studio and unpacked her paintings.
Copyright 2023 Michael Simms
Image source: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation