The Revenant’s Gift
by Richard Ong
It was shortly after midnight when the wind suddenly blew the door to my cabin wide open and a young woman stepped in shivering from head to toe. She was dressed in a simple dark woolen frock that clung to her skin. Her lush long hair dripped rain water that soaked through her dress and formed puddles on the floorboards around her bare feet.
I felt a chill that permeated through my bones when she entered. Perhaps it was just the cold air from outside.
It took me several seconds to come to my senses, to force myself to rise from my stool and quickly shut the door behind her.
“Damn it, lass! You’ll catch your chill of death. Come, sit by the fire and I’ll fetch you some dry clothes to wear.”
She nodded and turned to look at the glowing embers of the hearth. When she didn’t move, I took her to be in shock and therefore unable to respond to my voice. I took her gently by the elbow and led her to the chair by the fire.
I strode towards the bedroom and ransacked the chest box for one of my mother’s dressing gowns. I returned to the studio only to find her standing with her back towards me. Her arms were outstretched towards the fire, letting the heat drive the dampness from her skin.
“Here, put this on.” I threw the gown at her feet.
She looked up and said, “I don’t need it.” Then she turned and rubbed some heat onto her hands, ignoring the dry clothing.
“Suit yourself,” I said, forcing back anger that threatened to erupt from my lips. I snatched the gown from the floor and started to leave the room when my feet were frozen in mid-step. I felt my heart beating faster and in spite of the cold, my brows were damp with sweat. Somehow, I could sense the intensity of her gaze on me without looking at her, almost as if I was being summoned against my will. I slowly turned around until my eyes met hers.
She smiled. It was a bittersweet smile filled with hope almost as if in remembrance of forgotten promises. It held a beauty buried beneath a mountain of despair and melancholy. It was the briefest of moments begging to be captured and frozen for all time had I but the power to do so.
Perhaps, in a way, I did. “Can I paint you?” I blurted out, not fully realizing what I was asking.
She looked at me but didn’t say a word. The smile was now gone, but my need to capture its essence remained. An artist, especially a poor one such as I, desperately starved of those moments when the soul was driven with an overwhelming need to create, to nurture his creation and never to deny a moment when it comes.
I attributed her silence to nothing more than simple ignorance combined with whatever kind of shock that brought her rain-drenched form at my doorstep. “I meant to say, that if I may be so bold as to request your consent in sitting in for me as my model tonight.”
I carelessly swept the lamp to throw some illumination around the room: over a dusty collection of half-painted portraits of oil on canvas. I winced as the light from the lamp betrayed a toppled can of red and an overturned palette staining the floorboards and several scattered brushes.
“You’re an artist?”
“Of a sort,” was my half-hearted reply. “At least I’d like to think I was.”
“And now?” Her tilted head indicated the unfinished portrait of a woman painted in a saturation of green, red and blue. I could almost picture her in her favourite spring dress as if it was yesterday.
I shook my head and said, “It is nothing. An artist’s whimsy, nothing more.”
“Yes. Look, forget about what I just said. But you do need to get out of those clothes.”
“They are dry.”
“I will pose for you.” She turned around and, under the silhouetted glow of the fire, her face seemed more melancholy and tired, yet still determined. “But you will paint me as I am. You must render me as you see me now. You must never exaggerate beyond the truth. What your heart knows you must do or you will surely fail...” She nodded towards the mottled canvases of unfinished images of people I barely knew, except one. Her green, red and blue spring dress was still livid in my mind’s eye.
“As you’ve done so many times since you lost her.”
I was thoroughly shocked and couldn’t say a word. My throat was abruptly hoarse and dry yet the words came unbidden. “H-how did you know? Marianne was the kindest and most thoughtful woman I’ve ever known. I would have given up making a living as an artist if I only knew what terrible fate was in store for her when she chose to marry me!”
“Would you, though?” Her eyes were unflinching and burned with intensity as she slowly walked towards me. “Would you really have given this all up? You were born an artist. This was your passion, your joy, your unrequited love. Would you deny your soul its need to create?”
“Yes! On a moment’s notice, I would!”
“And throw away everything you’ve ever lived for?”
“If it would have prevented her from dying, yes, without hesitation!”
“Then you are a fool.”
“A fool.” Her brown eyes burned with spirited intensity. I did not realize how young she was till I saw her clearer in the light of the fire. The locks of her light brown hair fell listlessly over her eyes even as she tried in vain to sweep them awat with her left hand. “She would have left you then, long before her time had come, had you been less than truthful about yourself. How dare you belittle her sensibility and her sacrifice!”
I was so flabbergasted by her unsolicited outburst that for some moments I did not realize that my mouth was open nor did I care at the time how long I had been staring at her. I blinked back my surprise as I saw her lips draw thin once more. She was, as before, the very image of a young woman who had so recently came out of the cold.
“Paint me,” she said.
My mind was still reeling from the revelation of her intimate knowledge of my personal life that her words did not immediately register in my consciousness.
“You know that you must paint me.”
My hands shook. And yet, I found myself walking towards where the discarded palette laid upside down on the floor. Before I realized what I was doing, I had already picked up a brush and was vigorously mixing up shades of brown and black on the palette and laying out a fresh new canvas for the stand.
In moments, I was immersed in a feverish frenzy, vigorously sketching out the soft lines of her face, the shadows around her eyes and the long arch of her eyebrows. The thin line of her lips was fuller in my mind’s eye.
“I cannot do this.” My hands dropped onto my side and the brush slipped from my trembling fingers, hitting the floor almost at the same time as the palette thudded and bounced off the timber. I sat down heavily on the stool, ashamed of what I had lost over the years.
I was overcome by such violent sobs that I could not utter a word for quite some time. Finally, I resolved to maintain a modicum of control and I furiously wiped the tears with the sleeve of my shirt. “Forgive me. Forgive an old man’s weakness, for it is all that I have left. Even my hands have failed me! Can’t you see?”
“No.” The unexpected softness of her voice belied the youthfulness of her face. She held my trembling hands with surprising strength and gentleness till my spasm stopped. “How long has it been since you last completed a portrait?”
In spite of the roaring fire in the hearth, my breath came out in puffs of ice-cold air. “Too long. Too long since Marianne was taken from me.” I trembled, but she held my hands firmly until her warmth overcame the chill in my soul.
“Tell me about her.”
“Why? You seem to already know so much about my wife, yet I know nothing of you. Who are you? Where did you come from? Why do you persist in tormenting me so?”
“Shhh...” She sealed my lips with a gentle touch of her finger. “Who I am and where I come from are not important at this time. I wish to know more about Marianne. I want you to remember and tell me in your own words how you’ve missed her. Please.”
When she finally let go of my hands, I was somewhat restored, if not absolved of my grief. And so it was that I found myself confessing to a strange young woman the story of how I met and captured the heart of my partner in life.
Many years ago I used to believe I could live out the rest of my days painting and indulging in my own creativity, not caring whether the rest of the world lived or died around me. My works of art, though bold and daring, depicted the faceless images of people flat and devoid of life other than the pretentious and garish actions that they seem to portray. Little did I realize till I met Marianne, how dull and unimaginative my work had become. People stopped buying my work, and I fell onto hard times as my name began its downward spiral into gross anonymity.
Marianne, however, changed all that. She came from a wealthy and well-connected family. It would not have mattered even if she had been a cobbler’s daughter. All I knew was that the moment I met her by the pond where I sketched, we were destined to be together. I had found my muse at last, and she was utterly beautiful. Those brown eyes...
Dear God, those... brown... eyes. I quickly turned my head hoping to hide my embarrassment.
“Forgive me, lass, for staring. I did not mean to be so rude. It’s just that... that you remind me... so much... It is nothing. Nothing at all.”
“You started painting differently since you met her. Your work, your art, took on a very different path, a path that was full of life and joy without compromise. People came and bought your portraits. Some even begged to pose for you to be your next model. She came into your life and sated the emptiness in your soul. You were never truly alive till you met her. This is the truth, is it not?”
Though her lips moved, her voice seemed to echo from a distance. I felt a warm wetness in my eyes and quickly averted my face, hoping to lose my guilt in the shadows of the room.
Like a phantom, her hand emerged from the dark and gently turned my face towards her. “Shhh... It’s all right,” she said. “I understand. I promise you that everything will be all right.”
How could she, this strange young woman? She was probably no more than a babe when Marianne was struck down by the plague. The town was so paralyzed by the epidemic that the adjacent municipalities agreed to quarantine the entire population from the rest of the province. The local doctor, himself weakened by the disease, was baffled by the swiftness of the affliction that ravaged the town.
Everything seemed hopeless, and all they could do was wait. When it was finally over, one quarter of the town’s population had been taken, including my beloved wife Marianne. Her family blamed me for her death. She was promised at birth to marry a rich diplomat. But instead, she chose to live in squalor with me, who barely made enough money to get by. It would have been better for all had she not met me that day so many years ago by the pond.
“That is a lie!” the young woman cried which brought my thoughts back to the present.
“You loved her and she loved you. Had you met under any other circumstance, the results would still be the same. Time is immutable, but more so is the love that brought you together. You could no more change the course of the sea than divert the tides of your love. Your work was nurtured and brought to life by your love for each other.
“That love still exists in your heart, even though it is buried under a mountain of guilt and self-pity that you tried so hard to build. I saw that moment, that spark of life, a glimpse of that love the moment you picked up the brush and started work on my portrait. I knew right away that you hadn’t lost your gift, the gift that her coming brought into your life.
“If you ever cared for her, if you ever cared for the time that you shared with each other, please, do not let it have been in vain. You must forgive yourself. Let the flame of your love for her light anew. Let it guide your hand right now.
“Here is the brush. Feel the strength of its handle, become a part of it once more. And now, you must paint. Paint me with a passion like you’ve never painted before in your life!”
Her eyes grew bright, and I felt my hand grow steadier. The weight of the brush felt true in my grip. I saw my hand move, touch stroke upon stroke, brown on black, lips that were full drawn thin across the face with but the hint of a smile. The intensity was gone from those soft brown eyes, yet the strength in them remained, a reminder of how life tempered with bitterness could still recapture a soul. I worked with a flourish I’d never known possible since Marianne passed away. I had found my muse once more.
Where did she come from? Why did she choose to be a part of my life that night? Would she have stayed with me?
“Does it matter?” she asked and her body began to lose its substance. I froze in shock with my brush inches away from the canvas as it dripped scarlet onto my shoes.
“Does it really matter now if I stay?” Her voice was just a faint echo before her form faded like a mist into the wall.
I didn’t move for quite some time. I remained transfixed by her sudden disappearance, staring at the empty space where she once stood. Embedded in my memory was the lasting image of those eyes that bore all the love in this world.
I dropped the brush and felt a sudden, unexplained force that compelled me to reach into my shirt to pull out the gold necklace and the cameo on its end that bore a miniature portrait of my wife. She was just a young lass of twenty when I painted her likeness on this keepsake. I cried and then sobbed when I saw the resemblance. I felt as if a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
“I shall always love you, Marianne,” I whispered and touched my lips on the cameo. “Thank you for coming back to me.”
I turned around and bent down to pick up the brush. My hand remained steady as I spent the final hours of the night, till dawn, painting the canvas on the stand until my wife’s last portrait was complete.
Copyright © 2018 by Richard Ong