- Author : J. T. Glover
- Narrator : Heather N. Thomas
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
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“En Plein Air” first appeared in volume two of Nightscript, an anthology series edited by C.M. Muller that focuses on “subtle and darksome literary horror.” Stephen Jones subsequently picked it up for reprint in his Best New Horror anthology series, for volume 28.
“A colleague in the English department at VCU, where I work as a librarian, gave it to the students in her Gothic seminar to read. I sent them the following notes: Writing and reading heavily, as well as being a librarian by profession, I found several years ago that I needed a pastime that was not about words. I have a longtime interest in the arts, and so I decided to try my hand at painting. As often happens, I rushed in headlong, taking classes and working late into the night. The more I painted, though, the less I was writing, and eventually I had to step back from the easel for a while. I still enjoy painting occasionally, but it’s produced an unexpected side effect. Some authors frequently use writers as protagonists, and I now have a similar tendency with artists, though I try to cycle through different media, with a sculptor in one story, a photographer in another. “En Plein Air” came along just after I’d been working on a landscape, as well as finally reading all of M.R. James’ ghost stories, so I expect both of those things influenced the story. I like to think that my art-inflected work fits into a lineage that includes The Red Tree, “Pickman’s Model,” “The Mezzotint,” The Picture of Dorian Gray, etc. These stories are a pleasure to write, in any case, and I’m always pleased when they make their way into print.”
En Plein Air
by J. T. Glover
A gust of wind boiled off the James without warning, flattening cattails and clumps of spikerush as it swirled around the inlet where I was painting, and of course it caught my canvas. The morning’s work rushed away from me like a sailboat before a storm, taking my field easel with it. Just as I was sucking in breath to howl with frustration—it shuddered to a stop in midair. Two pale hands held it fast, reaching around from the back.
“Whoa,” said a woman with frizzy brown hair as she looked around one side at me. “I expected a lot of things today, but not an easel attack.”
“Damn, I’m—thanks. That wind came out of nowhere.”
“Been there,” she said, smiling.
The woman walked toward me and set the easel back in place. I was instantly delighted and wary when I saw her umbrella, pochade box, and other painting supplies. On closer inspection, I noted that her gear was highly customized, and showing the kind of wear that came with long use.
“I’m Sharon,” she said, sticking out one hand.
“Delia,” I replied, appreciating her firm grip as we shook.
“The wind comes up suddenly here.”
“Yeah? This is my first time. Usually I paint in the country, Goochland or Louisa, out that way.”
“Nice,” she said, nodding. “I’ve been out there a few times, but I’m mostly a city girl. I probably paint right here more than anyplace else. Something about the way the light falls, and this stretch of Cherokee Road doesn’t get much traffic.”
“Huh. Didn’t mean to poach.”
“No worries! I don’t own it, and every so often people come by here anyway. I don’t think it’s actually all that scenic, but it’s isolated enough that people sometimes assume it is. They don’t hang around very long.”
She nodded amicably and walked a little distance away, far enough to be out of my picture plane.
Courteous, and not falling all over herself to tell me about her work. How quaint.
The woman wasn’t a complete exception among artists I met in Richmond, whether life drawing at VisArts or touring galleries on First Fridays, but an awful lot of them just seemed to want more followers on their Instagram. Sharon appeared to be most interested in painting, and that’s what we both did, largely in silence, for the next couple hours.
The wind didn’t kick up that strongly again, but the clouds thickened partway through, going a slate gray that promised rain. I’d chosen this spot at random while driving along the river, thinking it was a nice blend of dry land and tidewater, and as the light faded, I was mildly surprised by how the shadows thickened, falling into a startling range of hues and values. Most people wouldn’t have considered it beautiful, but it was the kind of challenge I liked as a painter.
By the time I packed it in, a thin drizzle had started to fall. I walked over to Sharon, halfway thinking about seeing if she wanted to grab lunch. She’d popped her umbrella, though, and even if it was there to diffuse sunlight, it didn’t do a horrible job of keeping off the rain, and she was still at it. Her brushstrokes were fewer and more precise than mine, and large piles of paint remained on her palette, even after most of a day’s work. Her picture was dark and muted, with little visible gloss, entirely unlike my cheerfully over-bright painting.
“Hey,” I said, “thanks for saving the day earlier. Are you. . .”
“I think I’m still going to go a little longer.”
“Okay. Don’t get caught if it storms.”
“All right. Maybe see you again.”
I said the same and walked off toward the embankment that led up to the road, slogging through brush and the band of trees, mostly elms and redbuds, that started where the ground angled up. When I had everything stowed in the Jeep, I looked back toward the river. She was still working, carefully and deliberately. From this distance her painting stood out like a wedge of night in the rain.
That week I stayed late at the office, trying to finish a new client’s website, and painting had to take a back seat. By Thursday I’d overdosed on screen time, and I saw style sheets every time I closed my eyes. When I hung up my coat and dropped the keys in the bowl by my front door, I knew just where I was headed for the night.
My apartment was in a subdivided house in the Fan, an old brick building that sat on a corner of Grove Avenue. It was close enough to the bustle of Robinson Street that I could meet friends at Starbucks or a bar five minutes from my door, but my block sat in one of those oases of quiet you get sometimes in Richmond. I’d lived there since I got my first design job after VCU, and so far I hadn’t wanted a house badly enough to move, or found anyone comfortable enough to bring home for good, so I stayed where I was. Shabbily ornate window frames and chipped bricks had been elegant enough to see me into my thirties, and the tiny parlor that the landlord had apologetically offered as a living room served nicely as a studio.
Visitors occasionally commented on the odor of linseed oil, but I never noticed it anymore, so the smell in the studio that evening took me aback. It was a little bit oil, a little bit miscellaneous art junk, and something like. . . standing water, undisturbed for long enough to grow algae. My aging tortoiseshell cat, Rollo, had died during the winter, and I hadn’t been able to bring myself to replace him yet, but he wouldn’t have stood for this. I smiled sadly, imagining him squeezing behind boxes and jumping from shelf to shelf, trying to find the source of the stink.
I circled the room until I stood in front of the canvas I’d started the previous weekend. Even under color-balanced lights, the thing wasn’t right. I’d always been drawn to the Fauves, and Pop, and the garish proclamations of poster art, but somehow my painting no longer looked so vibrant to me.
What the actual fuck? You aren’t supposed to paint like a web designer. You have a style, and that’s it—right in front of you.
No matter what I told myself, though, something felt off about it. I loved landscape paintings, however uncool some of my college teachers had said they were, but subtle palettes weren’t my thing. Never had been.
So why does this one feel weird to you? It’s not like all the rest of your paintings went bad.
Looking around my studio was unexpectedly distracting. It was as if I were peering through a pane of dirty ice. The bright, saturated colors that I loved were a mess. The self-portrait I’d been lazily hacking away at for a few weeks looked dead as a monochrome underpainting, despite the wild impasto and glass granules I’d worked into it. Not bad, just. . . not for me, not right now. It was the strangest sensation, like looking at pictures from childhood, at a part of myself walled off by time.
“You need a change of pace,” I said aloud. “And it’s summer, so why not?”
That felt right, and the thought of sun and fresh air was a tonic after the long week. I wandered back toward the kitchen, thinking vaguely about making stir fry. I paused at the bookcase in the hall, looking at spines and gravitating almost unconsciously to a book of Charles Burchfield’s winter landscapes. I pulled it out, glad I’d held this pale, slender volume back from the thrift shop box the other day. My appetite vanished as I studied gray skies and empty houses. The pages weren’t free of color, but it was a near thing. Soft rain started outside, and something coiled up inside my heart, sleepy and well satisfied.
The weather stayed shitty for a while, but on a Sunday late in June I finally got my act together, hopping in the Jeep and tooling around town from Short Pump to Manchester and back again. Nothing felt quite right, though, and eventually I got tired of dodging church traffic while waiting for inspiration. Soon I was following that same cracked, potholed road along the James River, looking for the place I’d last painted. I found it soon enough, and although there weren’t any cars in sight, I spotted a familiar shape out in the dead field. I parked on the muddy shoulder and hoofed it down the embankment and through the trees.
“Hello again,” I said. “No wind this time.”
Sharon turned and gave me a little smile. “Maybe later. Doesn’t look like rain today, but we’re going to get a cold spell soon.”
I made a noncommittal noise and started setting up within earshot. After I figured out my scene, I took a surreptitious look at Sharon’s work so far: mostly brush and stagnant water. Not surprising, given what she’d said last time, and the fact that she could have passed for Wednesday Addams if she were twenty years younger. What she’d laid down so far struck me as—
Beautiful. All that brown ought to feel like just an imprimatura, but it’s got polish. What does she have on her palette? Looks like umbers, sienna, ochres, lead white. Dang. Girl knows how to paint.
In the face of that, I was at a loss. I looked into my paint box, and that moment in the studio the other week echoed in my mind. The tubes before me were too bright. Couldn’t do for painting unless I mixed them to mud, so that was what I did. Sap green blended with Venetian red, dioxazine purple with Hansa yellow, and before long I had a palette full of no-colors. With them in mind I looked around, eventually settling on a cluster of stumps where the water deepened, with a stand of trees off to one side.
As I worked into the painting, the world faded away like usual, but the color did as well. What remained were mostly darks and lights.
“Wow, that’s toned down,” Sharon said some time later, when she’d paused for a drink and come over to look.
I turned away from the canvas and blinked to refocus. She was smiling almost sardonically. It struck me that I didn’t know her at all, not really, and yet we seemed to mesh perfectly in our desire for uninterrupted painting. It was a thin bond, perhaps, but camaraderie nonetheless.
“There’s something about this spot, isn’t there? Makes you feel like, well, lots of things don’t matter.”
“I guess,” I said slowly. “I thought I just needed a change of pace. Back to basics.”
“Hmm. I like what you did with the trees there. Is this going to be that stump’s root structure?”
I looked where she was pointing and saw that I’d somehow rendered it less fully than I’d thought. Looser than my usual brushwork, the tree faded into rough strokes that could have been many things—worms, braided hair. Seeing how the shadows came together, possibilities floated through my mind. I felt a lethargy creeping over me as I tried to imagine what it was supposed to be.
“I guess I’ll know eventually,” I said.
She laughed. “Everything becomes something eventually, even dust.”
The weeks passed, and my color sense kept changing. It was strange, given I painted to free myself from the strictures of design work, but when I gazed out at the world, increasingly I sought out shadows and dying plants. They were always there, of course, because that’s the world.
One day I drove out to Louisa and wandered the back roads until I found a big field lying fallow for the summer. The remains of last year’s crop made a web of fibrous browns and almost-blacks atop the soil. I found myself looking for hollows in trees and dark spots in the sky.
What’s this about? Yeah, a change of pace is a good thing, but. . .
I tried to put it out of my head. I squeezed out this color and that on my palette, wanting the purest hues, entirely unmixed, but before long I found myself taking a swipe of this or that and dulling what lay at the end of my brush. It wasn’t like I was trying to paint landscapes full of nothing, but that’s where I kept ending up. I felt frustrated by it, but there was a painful satisfaction in looking at my canvas and then back at the world, thinking about the canvases stacked in my studio, or hanging on buyers’ walls. Today I felt like I’d painted a secret world that nobody else could see, one where no decay was possible because everything had already happened.
Two kids walking a dog came into view, crossing the opposite corner of the field from where I’d set up. They were wearing brightly colored shorts and tank tops, and their golden retriever sported a red bandana around his neck, but clouds had occluded the sun and washed them out. I heard their high voices raised in argument, and the dog was dancing around them, and yet I felt removed from it all—cut off in a way that normally didn’t happen when I was painting outside. It was the opposite of why you were supposed to paint outside. The clouds passed, but not before the kids vanished into the trees, joining the rest of the shadows and leaving behind only silence.
As the light was starting to fade, I looked at the canvas carefully, trying to decide whether I liked it or not. Eventually I took out my pocket knife and cut a slash through the heart of it. Usually that gave me a perverse kind of pride—knowing that I had judgment enough to recognize my missteps—but this time I felt only tired, a failure for having brought nothing to life. I looked back at the field, wanting to see what had drawn me there in the first place, but night had taken it.
A late August heat wave turned my apartment the kind of unbearable that only happens in old brick buildings, where you actually bake if you stay inside. I drank endless iced coffees, ate cold bean salad for dinner, left for work early to get more air conditioning than my tiny window units put out. The Fan got even quieter as wealthy residents headed to the beach. Painting was on hold along with everything else, aside from one disastrous attempt to “fix” an old piece I’d kept lying around.
One day I decided to take a sketchbook over to the VMFA, wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. A few blocks’ walk later, I was entering the vast, cool lobby, passing the greeter and guard, and picking up one of their collapsible sketching stools at the coat check. There wasn’t a traveling exhibition on at the moment, and apparently other people were equally forgetful about the pleasures of a cool museum, because that day I was alone in most of the galleries where I walked.
Eventually I settled down in early American, homing in on Hiram Powers’ Cleopatra, a sculpture that I always stopped to see. The glowing white marble stood out against the deep red walls, and I felt some of my heat-daze lift as I gazed at her cool bosom and shoulders. Pencil flew over paper, and minutes turned into hours.
After a time I stopped and really looked at what I’d drawn.
The Egyptian queen’s face had taken on the structure of Sharon’s. My sometime painting companion looked out at me with dead eyes and half-rotting skin, and that felt. . .
Right. It feels right. Jesus Christ. What is wrong with me?
I thought of the spot down by the river, how quiet it could get. When I stood there, the world seemed not to matter. Nothing mattered in that place. I looked back at Cleo, but she was pensive and silent. Her world had ended long ago, and even if her lips had moved, I could never have understood what she said, no more sense in her words than the whistling of the wind.
A week passed. Summer dwindled into the false autumn that sometimes comes to Virginia early in September, cooling the ground before the heat comes roaring back like a dragon in October. One day I got some time and walked out into an afternoon glowing with a peachy, golden light. There was only one place I wanted to go, of course. The ground under my feet was both soggy and covered with sun-scorched grass, and everything was silent apart from the chuckle of the river.
Standing there, I felt color fade from the world. My heart pounded as I looked around, half-wondering if I’d see Sharon, but there was no sign of anyone. In fact, there was nothing in sight to indicate that there were still people. No planes, no empty bottles, nothing. The pounding of my heart eased, and I felt myself sinking into a half-torpor.
This patch of ground stagnates, endlessly. This is an honest-to-God damned place, but I’m not going to let a fucking field get the better of me, however many ghosts or demons or whatever there are here.
I looked upriver toward a spot where big rocks rose out of the water and made my choice. I started blocking in the bank on my canvas panel, even as I grumbled about the shade of blue that I’d toned the upper half months ago, back when nothing could be bright enough. Now the color blared out at me like an alarm, volume beyond tone or sense.
“Going to have to knock it back,” I murmured, barely aware I’d spoken.
I got into a rhythm after a while, so that at first I didn’t notice when Sharon arrived and started setting up her own rig. I opened my mouth a couple times, trying to make the right words come out, to ask something—if she’d been painting here a long time before I first showed up, if she had been someone else once. Flash of tightness in my chest as I started to open my mouth, and so I turned back to painting.
The sun, when it started to set, burned a scarlet so clear that it could have come straight from a tube. My palette knife swept in blobs of ivory black and terre verte before I knew I was going to do it. Soon I was looking at a muddled, almost-warm color that might have glowed in cracks where the sun never shone and Hell was close by. Sharon came over and placed one hand beside the pile of paint. Her flesh had turned ashen as the day I’d sketched her in the museum, veins blue-black in the sunset light. Next to her my paint shone with hectic radiance.
“See?” she said. “Color comes from contrast.”
I looked up at her, watching how her cheeks changed as the sun touched the horizon, turning a vivid pink.
“But I don’t always paint at this time of day,” I said, “and I sure don’t look at my paintings only at this time of day.”
“I never look at mine again after I’ve finished them. They’re dead things.”
Her expression was wistful, and I wanted to know why she still came here to do this. Far downriver some people had gone out onto the rocks, and they were throwing a ball back and forth. Too distant to tell for sure, but they looked like high school kids, just on the verge of adulthood and at the end of sweetness.
“Paintings help me remember,” I said slowly. “They tell me who I am, what I saw. When I look at them, especially the newest ones, I know that I’m still alive.”
Sharon turned to face me, and her eyes were black like dusty basalt. She removed her hand from the palette and looked at her own setup, then back at me. The sun was bleeding the last of its light for the day, and her face had gone flat and entirely unreadable. She walked away then, toward the trees between us and the road, and soon she was gone. I didn’t know what to do about her easel and paints, so they stayed when I left.
That was the last time that I saw her. As time has passed, my vision has weakened, and if the colors don’t come clear like they used to, that’s okay. My paintings are as bright as I can make them, with nothing to dull their riotous, vibrant cries of life. In my mind’s eye, clear and cold I see her hand, and I feel the call of that place, where life drains out of the world. With each brushstroke I paint out the darkness, holding onto the light that lingers before sunset, staving off the grays and browns that creep in with the night.
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