That Place Underneath the Spreading Ficus

by Loyola Landry

Once upon a time there was a young artist who was always working. From his earliest days this youth had been captivated by the idea of creating something from nothing; the very thought that with a pen and paper, a little imagination and the right organization he could create worlds or give life to his wildest flights of fancy had kept the artist practicing and refining his craft from the time that he could first hold a crayon. As he grew older his passion grew. He was never satisfied with his level of skill. In the name of progress the young artist learned to work in in pencil and pen and charcoals, in oils and watercolors and finally he even taught himself to sculpt, believing that this last was the closest he could get to truly creating life - although he practiced sculpting very rarely as he felt that his works in that medium were incomplete and that there was some vital spark he was unable to impart to his pieces.

This interested young man was so engrossed in his work that he had little time for much else. By the time that he was grown and on his own the artist had acquired the reputation of an eccentric who would spend entire days hunting in the wild places outside of his town for a particular flower, the better to copy its colors for a painting; or at a beach watching the waves breaking again and again, studying the fleeting sea foam left behind on the sand and rocks. On Fridays the young artist went to the next town over to sell his latest works to a gallery, although he never sold any sculptures as he was too critical of his own efforts. The gallery in turn sold the pieces for a handsome profit; it never occurred to the artist to inquire into how much his work sold for. Money only mattered to him insofar as it paid the rent and kept him fed and in art supplies. When the artist made his weekly trip to the gallery, and during his regular day to day activities, he spoke with others rarely. This solitary young man preferred whiling away his hours in a library in the company of books of art or in an unspoiled field alone with nature to conversing in cafes or at parties. The longer he spent at his work the more infrequent his contact with others became.

The artist lived in a cramped, somewhat dirty one-room apartment in an attic above a barber's shop. Loose hairs made their way up from the shop below through the poorly fitted floorboards to litter the corners and the scant furniture; because the walls were as equally ill-contrived as the floor there was always a draft. In addition the ceiling slanted from the west side of the apartment where a fireplace took up an inordinate amount of space down to such a low height on the east that it was impossible to stand erect, but the artist did not mind any of this. He didn't need the apartment to be spotless - in fact he was always spilling drops of paint and letting slips of paper fly about - so the hairs weren't a bother, and he used the low-ceilinged side of the apartment as a place to display his works, and he never, ever felt the cold because the draftiness of the apartment was the perfect excuse to keep a cheerful fire going whenever he was home. The artist lived by himself and never had visitors, but he didn't mind this either. Years passed by in this way.

One day the artist, maybe now not quite as young as before, found that he couldn't remember how to speak. He had gone to the gallery on a Friday as was his custom and when he opened his mouth no sound came out, no matter what he tried. He'd been working alone for so long with so few opportunities to communicate that the faculty had simply left him. He wasn't upset or afraid, just curious and surprised because he hadn't thought that such a thing was possible. It didn't matter, he told himself. The artist simply placed his paintings on a counter, waited quietly while the gallery's curator counted out his fee, and left for home. His routines stayed the same after the discovery. The artist's days were still spent exploring and learning, on Fridays he still went to the gallery, and his evenings were still devoted to improving his craft.

Two months after this realization the artist, having wandered far past the outskirts of his little town, came to a low stone bridge over a creek just as the sun passed its zenith. He had been lured that way by the sight of tall, lush trees in the distance that spoke of choirs of birds singing in the heights, and he had not been disappointed. The artist leaned over the bridge to look down into the crystalline waters and saw the creek bed and many small fish and his own reflection staring back mutely with the ficus trees looming behind, and he tried to think about how best to capture the moment when he got home that night, whether he would be able to mix the exact shade of skimmed-off-the-sky blue for the creek with the paints that he owned and how he would manage to capture the play of sunlight on the ever-shifting facets of water, and as he was thus absorbed another face appeared next to his at the bridge's railing. He raised his eyes and looked over at the owner of the face, who opened her mouth and said, "Hello."

The artist couldn't remember what to do. He knew he was supposed to say something but the how of the saying escaped him and so instead he simply stood there and took in the sight of the newcomer: the shoulder-baring summer dress, red with a yellow floral pattern, snug about her slim waist and flaring below, stopping at her knees; the hay-colored hair that was cropped even with her jawline, except for the the bangs in front; the laughing eyes and delicate nose. His mouth mirrored hers when it turned up at the corners and opened to reveal teeth.

When he got home that evening the artist went over every particular of the encounter again and again, as if by repetition and sheer will he could impress the form of the memories indelibly onto his mind and thereby retain forever at least a fragment of the afternoon. The girl - younger than he and seeming to proclaim the fact with every movement - had asked the artist his name and he hadn't responded. She had told him she was on the way to visit a friend and he had remained mute; "My, aren't you shy!" she'd said.

The breeze had picked up and ruffled her dress and done the most amazing things with her hair. He recalled vividly when she'd said goodbye and walked away, leaving him to watch her figure recede across the bridge with a dappled pattern of sunlight filtered through the high leaves playing over her skin. As he pictured all of this the artist took a sketchbook and drew her again and again - her reflection in the water and her smiling face in front of his and her back as she left. With each portrait the artist felt that somehow he was getting farther away from the original even as the image in his mind's eye grew more focused. He became fed up with what increasingly felt a pointless exercise. Finally he couldn't look at the portraits anymore. The artist had a merry fire that night, brighter than usual.

The next day the artist woke early and went back to the bridge, stood still and patient under the spreading arms of the ficus trees, leaned over the creek from time to time in hopes of catching a flicker of reflected beauty in the pristine waters. As the sun began its lonely descent the artist, sympathetic, turned his feet homeward and shuffled back to the barber's shop, shrinking in upon himself as he went and moving so unobtrusively as to be almost another of the gathering shadows in the twilight. Once home the artist again spent the evening trying to bring the girl from the bridge to life on paper. All of his years of work, all or the skills he had collected and honed throughout his career served only to produce what was to his mind a gross caricature of the vivacity and force of personality that shone from that girl's countenance. Never before had the artist felt so defeated. He knew that each of his sketches was more nearly perfect in its depiction of the girl than the last and yet they all remained deficient as well; there was something about her the essence of which defied translation to another medium and without which his most painstaking labors became mere exercises. About midnight the artist tore up all of the work he'd done and collapsed onto his bed exhausted and unable to sleep, a fire burning low on the hearth.

The artist continued to return to the bridge day after day, praying to meet her again, to overcome his inability to speak, praying for the courage and the words and the chance to approach and win her, his sly and alluring phantom - and later, as the months fled and spring gasped and gave way to a summer that inevitably chilled even as the artist's own hopes chilled, in the rust-colored rain of fall's leaves the artist wished only for a glimpse of her skirts swishing a farewell as he arrived at the uncooperative bridge. Winter came and the artist no longer returned to that place underneath the spreading ficus.

His thoughts turned increasingly to sculpture. There was that about the girl which seemed too expansive for a paper or a canvas, no matter how large. The quality of this thing that the girl had reminded him of that thing his sculptures had always wanted for and he knew that there was only one way he would ever be able to faithfully reproduce her as her, but, much like that day on the bridge, though he knew what he needed to do the how of the doing escaped him. He understood how to begin only, and for the rest he trusted to some small whisper that said his work would not be in vain.

The artist began to spend all of his time at home sculpting a life-sized replica of the bridge girl; the longer it was since he'd actually seen her the more she shone out in his memory. All other work was neglected entirely and he soon ceased going to the gallery on Fridays as there was nothing to sell. His savings, never robust, grew perilously meagre but this garnered no more notice from the artist than did his increasingly poor fare or his dwindling supply of firewood. Days went into perfectly recreating the sloppy stitch in the fabric of her dress near the shoulder, the slight wrinkle that developed in the middle of her nose when she smiled. As he worked on a small stain at the hem of the dress, and then on her delicately turned calves, down to the almost fragile toes, the artist looked up occasionally and it seemed to him that the statue was growing taller and he kept almost expecting to see the top of its head brushing the rafters. Eventually he could find nothing more to add.

Outside a heavy blanket lay on the town. It was the fourth day of snowfall and a brief lull in the storm had occurred. Inside, the artist began filling page after page in his notebook with a tight, feverish script, recording everything he could remember about the girl from the bridge: her exact words, the way she stood (one knee bent slightly, left hand hanging at her side with the thumb and middle finger touching gently), how many hairs had been out of place atop her head (sixteen). Soon his pen grew tired of facts. The artist began to extrapolate from what he knew, to envision her private life. He saw her sitting in a bay window on a sunny afternoon with a book and a cup of tea, and was with her as she walked home alone in the night after a date with friends, singing a wordless tune and afraid of nothing, and he knew that she owned three typewriters and that one was missing a key and that another still had hidden in its case a registration card signed by the original owner forty years ago.

The artist went further. He wrote of the first winter they'd spend together, the way the windows would fog over, and all the hours they would spend talking. He wrote of the secret language of time, a web of soft lines and wrinkles that the years would softly and unhurriedly lay over her features - a web for him alone to decode and which would settle in more and somehow make her more beautiful with each passing decade.

Snow began to fall steadily outside once again and to refresh the town's pristine covering. In his little attic the artist stood up, stretched muscles that couldn't remember the last time they'd moved, put the last of the firewood on the hearth. The statue looked at at him and he sensed the question, hard and unforgiving as the statue's own curves. The artist had been waiting eagerly for the question to be put to him. It was a question that he had been unable to ask himself, one that he hadn't been aware of until he'd started work on the statue at least, or possibly since the bridge that spring afternoon. It was one that had plagued him silently ever since he'd come to the realization that there was something deficient in his sculpting, something that no amount of skill could replace. The artist suddenly became aware that this question had dogged his every step from the time he first took up a pen and was the truest reason that he'd continued trying to improve his craft up until that very moment; he had somehow known the question and sought to sidestep it by technique alone. It was a question he had never been able to ask himself for to utter it, even to think it, required a wealth of courage and the strength to admit weakness, and therefore instead of asking he had waited to be asked, and to be asked in such a way that something greater than himself depended upon the answer. For a moment he hesitated, knowing even as he pretended to debate with himself that if he loved his art, and if he loved this girl, his answer could only be - was only ever - yes. When the knife pierced his wrist the artist had a bowl ready. The cut wasn't too deep; there was still work to do and he didn't want to waste anything. Selecting from his paint supplies the slimmest brush he owned, the artist started at the top of the statue's head and began to work his way down.

Upon the statue's hair and brow the artist wrote first, copying from his pages all of the girl's hopes and desires, likes and dislikes and inmost thoughts in that glistening red ink, using the smallest and most careful hand he could manage. The lips he covered in the words he'd heard her speak. On the left arm he put her past activities and on the right the things they would do together. As he wrote his bowl of ink would occasionally run dry and the artist was forced to tap his veins again and again. A cold sweat soon covered his body; the pace of the writing slackened so that the artist could contend with sudden bouts of the shivers. His arm began to waver and he was thankful when, upon reaching the hips, he was able to sink to his knees to continue the work.

The fire in the hearth was very low but still giving off heat; even so the artist felt that the room was colder than it had any right to be. He was almost prostrate on the floor of his little apartment, writing between the toes of the statue of all the places that he and the girl from the bridge would one day walk. The statue was now adorned all over in sinuous red lines and the artist was weakening, his vision growing dim as he wrote the final word. The artist closed his eyes and embraced the floorboards. He didn't need to see to hear the faint rustle of a dress or to feel the warm caress across his fading cheek.