There is a time in every child’s life when magic ceases to exist. A youthful disappointment when one’s own father reveals the intricacies of his card tricks, a crudely worded school handbook which quashes your beliefs, or even just a general maturing, and growing appreciation of the practical nature of the world. Suffice to say, this death defines most children, for the world never seems quite the same once the magic has disappeared. But I was fortunate enough, if that can qualify as fortune at all, to remain ignorant to the true nature of the world. That is, instead of facing an ever more lukewarm rendition of awe and wonder – emotional states that characterised me as a young boy – I was treated to a rejuvenation of these very same faculties, and it would be many years, decades, in fact, until I began to doubt them again.
Everything can be traced back to a brief, fleeting moment, in those dark September days, when mother was bed-ridden, and father absent at work. It was a moment I revisited fondly as I matured, from a child to a young man, and one that defined my professional career as an artist. I would like to think, as you would expect, that this ‘rejuvenation’ was not grounded in my tender years and lack of experience, but rather in the authenticity of the circumstances. That awe and wonder can revisit us, and the hold of magic over our mind strengthened, at any stage in one’s life.
However, for the sake of this story, I should perhaps return to the eyes (and mind), of my younger self, who experienced all that occurred first-hand.
We had been summering in Lienz with my parents when news of the assassination first reached us. Father, then a well-reputed lawyer, received a telegram on the morning of the 29th of June 1914. But by that time, he was already on the train back to Vienna, having heard the news on the radio the previous evening. Thus, it was mother who opened the envelope in his stead, ashen-faced and trembling.
“It’s nothing,” she had said, but I knew at once that this wasn’t the case. Father would not have taken the first train back home if it had been nothing. And especially not on a Monday morning, when the summer commuters would be crowding the carriages (he thoroughly despised sharing his compartment).
The next month passed in a blur, with father returning only a handful of times, and for very brief periods at that. Most nights he would arrive just in time to kiss me goodnight, and by the time I awoke he would be gone again, and mother would be left sitting alone at the breakfast table. He stayed longer once, and, was working at the table when I awoke. I greeted him happily and started to recount my adventures of the past week, but mother shushed me quickly. “Let your father be,” she had said, “he’s got important work to finish.” And she certainly seemed to be right, for I had never before seen such a serious face on him, scowling and smoking without paying any heed to his surroundings.
“It’s nothing,” she would repeat, when she tucked me into bed in the evenings. “Don’t you worry at all, it’s nothing.” But each time she said this, I grew increasingly convinced that something was very, very wrong
War was declared on July 28. This time it was a Tuesday, and once again, we received the news from the radio. Father had sent a telegram that morning, but amidst the general turmoil that the news had caused in the town, it ended up reaching our hands the next day. He must have been certain we’d heard of the news, but I presume he felt it was his duty to reiterate them and give mother instructions for the rest of the year. We were to stay in Lienz indefinitely, and he would send us weekly reports of any pertinent news. He had been placed on a ‘strategy committee,’ he wrote, although that meant little to the mind of a ten-year-old boy. Mother was the one that read the telegram again, although this time her arms didn’t tremble, and her face didn’t tremble. I sat at the table as her eyes scanned the brief note again and again, looking to extract further information. Once she was done, she folded up the telegram and placed it back in the envelope. I waited for the inevitable ‘it’s nothing,’ but it never arrived. Instead, she simply pursed her lips and poured out some more coffee.
The cruel truth of our new reality only made itself apparent to me in late August, when the other mothers in the town began sobbing and waving off their sons and husbands at the station. “They’ve been conscripted to the army,” mother whispered to me, “to fight for the empire.” At the time it was difficult for me to understand why the mothers were crying. Father had always maintained that serving one’s nation was the greatest honour, and the radio had not yet begun to report the first casualties of the war. All I knew was the school had stopped, and there was still not a single flake of snow in sight, so the political situation might indeed be serious after all.
However, the war itself is of relevance to the story only insofar as it guaranteed that my stay in Lienz would be prolonged, and that the closure of the schools (due to a lack of male teachers, more so than anything else), meant I had an abundance of spare time on my hands. Despite these circumstances being favourable for the mood of a young boy, I had no good friends there, and since father was no longer at home to take me fishing, and mother’s cough was worsening, I was left to roam the cobbled streets alone. Taking pity on me, the Weismanns, my parents’ closest friends in Lienz, decided to put me in the charge of their fifteen-year-old daughter, Rachel.
She was a tall girl for her age and had the most luscious head of chestnut hair (not that I paid it much attention at the time). Her eyes were always smiling, and when we sat to work on my lessons in the morning, she would always make sure to shower me with encouragement. But it was the afternoons, rather than the mornings, that I began to grow fond of.
Rachel’s father was an art professor at the University of Vienna, and having no other children, had channelled all his love for the craft into Rachel. As such, she had developed into quite a prodigious painter, and spent most of her spare time experimenting with pastels and watercolours. In fact, she was so prolific that all our family friends had at least two or three of her works hanging in their living rooms, with new paintings being added to their collections each year.
While they lived in a relatively small cottage at the outskirts of the town – much smaller than the one we rented – they had sole access to a large abandoned barn, that Rachel’s father had refashioned into a small studio. In the winter months, or even the chillier autumns – as that year was – Rachel would spend most of her day there, mixing different pigments of paint, and boiling material to make her own dyes. At times, she would even experiment with sewing thick, cloth canvases, and then cut them into the desired shapes. Thus, when we finished over the basic arithmetic worksheets, and endless tables of grammatical rules that her mother provided, we’d rush to the barn, where Rachel would instruct me on how to assist her. Most of the time this simply resulted in me handing her the requisite jars of pigment to boil in her small kettle, over the fire-pit just outside the barn. However, when she was feeling generous, she’d let me mix the colours themselves, and sometimes even provide input on what combinations I thought would look best.
Once the preparations were over, she’d sit me up on a tall stool beside her, and then set to work (always standing), rapping mixing the paints on her palette and applying them – in what often seemed a completely haphazard manner – the canvas before her. She demanded full silence as she worked, and, despite my general restless nature, I was more than happy to concur. You see, I had never witnessed a painter at work before, and the rapid transformation of the plain canvas before me, into an increasingly lifelike representation of reality enthralled me to no end. Every few days or so, in return for my diligent audience, she’d reward me with small sketches of bales of hay or flowers, which I’d clutch with glee to my breast, and run home to show my mother.
Having not had many older friends before, and especially girls at that, it never crossed my mind that Rachel might not be as excited by my company as I was with hers, and had the young men of the town not gone off to war, I doubt she would spend quite as much time with me. However, mother was much sharper than I, and one evening, as I was changing the hot bottle at her feet, she drew me close and instructed me to gather a bouquet to gift to Rachel.
“It’s what any gentleman would so,” she rasped, but my boyish fear of tenderness meant that I simply nodded and ignored her advice. Gentlemen fight for the honour of their country and family, I thought, they don’t sit around gathering flowers.
For the following week I carried on as before, and reassured mother that I agreed with her, and that I would give Rachel the flowers the very next day. Once this sequence had repeated itself a few times, mother realised she would need to employ a different tact to convince me, so she brought father in the loop. Thus, calling me up one evening, she said she had written to him about all the time Rachel was spending with me, and he had replied immediately saying I should give the girl a gift to show my gratitude.
“You don’t want to upset your father, do you?” she had asked, and I had shaken my head vigorously. “Well, I promised you’d find some flowers tomorrow, and we’d write to tell him how it went. You wouldn’t want me to lie I suppose.” I shook my head again, feeling my cheeks burn with embarrassment. At the time, I found nothing amiss with mother disrupting father’s work with something as trivial as a gift of flowers, but it’s now clear to me that that conversation probably never took place. However, the very next morning I was up at the crack of dawn, and gathered up the largest armful of poppies from our garden. Rushing up to show mother, I said, proudly, “You don’t have to lie to father now.” She smiled in reply, and helped me tie up the bouquet with a long piece of twine.
Rachel thanked warmly when I presented her with the poppies, and even gave me a quick peck on the cheek, causing them to redden for the second time in as many days. As I settled on my stool, she set about stretching a new canvas, and then put a pot of water to boil just outside the barn. I watched from afar, and, to my shock and horror, instead of using the pigments her father had given her, she ripped the petals right off my poppies and dropped them straight into the boiling water. I cried out and tumbled off my stool.
“What’s the matter?” she said, bemused.
“You destroyed them,” I shouted, even more angered at the smile that was growing on her lips.
“Just wait,” she reassured me, “I haven’t destroyed anything.”
Scowling, I sat back on my stool and stayed silent.
Her hands worked deftly and quickly, stirring the petals until the water had turned a deep red. Once she was satisfied with the hue, she carefully poured the mixture into an empty jar and returned to the blank canvas. For the next few hours, she painted with utmost concentration, her hands flying from brush to brush, only taking a second every now and then to wipe off a particular paint and supplement the colours on her palette. She didn’t turn around once as she worked, and her chestnut hair darkened in front of me as the sun fell.
By the time she was finished, the sun had nearly set, and the barn was cast in the deepest of rest, the dying light applying its own coat of paint on the wooden walls around us. Taking a deep breath, she stepped back and appraised the finished painting.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked.
I squinted at the canvas. It was a sunset. No, not ‘a’ sunset, but the sunset we were currently experiencing, portrayed only through the rays of light falling in the far corner of the barn. I took the scene in deeply, looking at the drying paint from my poppies on the worn planks. Then, raising my head, I looked at the corner that the painting was depicting, and saw the light, which mere moments ago had seemed to imprint itself upon the wood, was already starting to peel off, leaving in its place a dull brown.
“Do you see the poppies?” she continued.
I nodded, unsure of what to say. After a while, we stood and packed all the material in silence. As we left, I cast a final glance around. The hay and dirt was cast in darkness now, and light no longer entered through the cracks. But there in the corner, that fated corner, I could swear I saw I light tinge of red, glowing through the darkness.
“I see them,” I whispered finally, but Rachel had already gone. “I see them, right there.”