This story is by Julie Meier and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rubber soles squeak on polished marble tiles and the high-pitched trills of elementary school children echo through the foyer.
Dust motes float lazily through the air as Amber lowers herself to a bench in her favourite secluded gallery away from the noise. Her own private sanctuary.
She closes her eyes briefly, taking in the hush of the gallery and allowing it to drape a blanket of calm around her. Although she has seen the painting many times before, she always gets a thrill when her eyes open and she sees it hanging before her.
This gallery feels like an afterthought, and the artwork displayed here does not belong in any prestigious collection. The school children will not be coming into this gallery today, of that she is quite certain.
Amber has been drawn back time and time again to the picture before her. She finds herself mesmerised by the brush strokes. She traces them in her mind, as if the painting is her own. Her body sways, fingers gripping an imaginary paintbrush, as she is consumed by the rhythm of creation. Caught up in the moment, she inhales deeply, expecting to smell turpentine and oil paints.
The ache in her lower back reminds her that she has been waiting tables since early this morning, and the only smell that lingers is the aroma of stale coffee and toasted bread which has settled upon her skin.
The realisation that she is no longer a promising artist hits her anew, a wave of grief crashing down upon her. She no longer spends her days in solitude, giving birth to beauty through paint and canvas.
Amber thinks back on a conversation she had this morning with Jackie, the buoyant waitress who seems to take all of life’s twists and turns in stride, in a way that makes Amber jealous.
“Have you decided what to do?” Jackie whispered, a plate of toast in one hand and a precarious stack of dirty dishes tucked in at her hip.
“Not yet,” said Amber, attempting to hide the conflicting emotions that threaten to engulf her.
“It’ll be ok, you know,” Jackie nodded convincingly, her blue eyes solemn for a moment.
She stepped in close and Amber found herself admiring Jackie’s perfectly manicured eyebrows to distract herself from the decision at hand.
“Have you been thinking about how wonderful it might be?” Jackie asked as she rushed away, looking back quickly to wink at Amber with excitement in her eyes.
If Amber could bottle even a small portion of Jackie’s enthusiasm, perhaps she would be alright. She would pop the cork and take small sips, feeling the excitement as it trickled down her throat, making her eyes sparkle and her toes tingle.
She sighs and allows her gaze to settle on the painting again.
It is a large canvas. Almost pretentious in its size, and still it spills over the edge. As if the artist had so much to paint that the canvas could not contain it all. The brush strokes are bold and earnest, though some would consider them almost desperate.
She imagines the artist drawing inspiration from the tales told by weathered mariners. Perhaps he sat in a seaside pub, listening to their stories – of legendary storms, and the one that got away, and the ones that never returned.
The bench shifts slightly, and she glances over to see that a man has settled himself beside her. Though she has no ownership of this particular bench, she gnaws at the inside of her lip to keep from speaking up, suggesting that he find another spot to rest.
Amber turns back to the picture and focuses on the waves, painted in cool greys with a touch of sea-foam green. Shivering slightly, she imagines what it must have felt like to be caught in such a storm. She wishes, once again, that she could see the faces of the sailors in the picture, but their backs are turned away from her.
The stranger beside her reaches into a bag and pulls out his lunch, the plastic wrap making ferocious crinkling noises in the quiet gallery. The smell of egg salad reaches her nostrils, and she comes to the sudden realisation that she is ravenously hungry.
“Would you like a half?” His voice is muffled through a mouthful of food.
“No. Thank you.” She answers stiffly, thinking about how odd the offer is, coming from a stranger. However, her stomach has other plans and betrays her hunger with a loud growl, which seems to echo through the hushed space.
He sets the sandwich on her lap with a laugh, and says, “Art should not be considered on an empty stomach.”
“Thank you,” she says, and takes a bite. They chew in silence for several minutes.
“What do you make of this piece?” he asks thoughtfully, wiping away the crumbs that have rained down onto his pants.
“I like it,” she says, not meaning to share anything too deep with this stranger, but sensing that he may at least know a thing or two about art. “When I look at the waves, and at the tiny fishing boat being tossed about, I feel hopeless. I think the painter must have felt that way when he was creating it – hopeless, helpless, in despair. The brush strokes tell the story.”
The man leans back, interlacing his fingers behind his head and squinting in concentration as he studies the canvas.
“You could be right,” he says thoughtfully. “But, when I see this piece, I see the opposite. I see a promise for the future. Have you ever noticed what the artist entitled this piece?”
A small plaque announces: The Way Home.
“Yes, that’s the one thing that’s always puzzled me. Surely, the ship would have capsized soon after this scene,” she says with a sigh. “The sailors must have been terrified, knowing they would never reach shore.”
The man shifts in his seat, turning towards her. She looks at him properly for the first time, taking in the deep crags of his weathered face, wisps of greying hair that gently brush his collar, and eyes that shimmer like sun-dappled water.
“I once heard a mariner’s prayer, and it always stuck with me.” He clears his throat and begins in a soft lilting voice,
“May your compass point true,
May your vessel stay strong,
And when the winds of change blow,
And the storm seems too much,
May you always find your way home.”
She finds herself with tears in her eyes, not knowing exactly why. A hand reaches over, offering a tissue and she looks at him through blurred vision.
“But they don’t find their way home,” she states bluntly. “They are lost at sea. Consumed by the storm.” She curses her emotions, so hard to control these days, for allowing her to cry in front of a stranger.
“I don’t believe that to be true.” A smile plays on his lips as he opens a package of cookies and hands her one. “Look in the upper right-hand corner of the picture. Now, that’s what I call hope.”
She eases herself off the bench, tucking a stray wisp of hair behind her ear as she approaches the painting. And there, in a corner the gallery lights fail to properly illuminate, she sees it – the clouds are clearing, and the sea is calming.
She turns back to the man with a new look of understanding, and he smiles at her.
“Do you think they actually survived the storm?” she asks reverently.
“I know it for a fact,” he says, as he looks down and absently runs his fingernail over a spot of paint that lingers on his sleeve. “A sailor always looks to the skies and has hope that he will be granted safe passage home, even in his darkest moments.”
She sits back down on the bench and looks at the picture through fresh eyes, her hand resting protectively across her abdomen.
The stranger stands and stretches, then reaches out to shake her hand, leaning in close as he whispers, “May you find your way home.”
He smiles and winks at her, then turns and walks purposefully from the gallery.
Amber is sure she smells it in his wake – the freshness of the air after a storm has passed.
She reaches into her purse, pulling out an impossibly tiny pair of shoes, and smiles as they sit there, cradled safe from the storm in the palm of her hand.