From The Wild Reel by Paul Brandon
He comes for me when I sleep.
Resplendent atop a huge, ebony-skinned charger, its mane and tail rippling with white fire, he rides surrounded by the squalls of the seasons. I feel the gentle fingertip touch of midwinter snowflakes against my cheeks, the dusty, summer-dry sound of the beach swells in my ears, the bright, sun-sparked aroma of spring's early blossoms fills my nose, while the russet and ochre leaves of autumn skirl around my feet.
I am in a field, a field of such incredible beauty that my mind cannot possibly hope to comprehend the depths of the emotions my body is experiencing. I long to paint it, to somehow capture this scene I hope will live with me forever. I stand waist-deep in wildflowers and tall-stemmed grasses that hiss and sigh gently in the playful evening breeze. The small rise before me is crowned with a ring of ancient oak trees, their lower limbs reaching out almost lazily to shelter the close-cropped grass beneath. I fancy I can see figures there, almost-human shapes dancing within the coruscation of suggestion and shadow. The sky seems impossibly near to me; an unfathomable sea the color of moorside heather with vast, ever-changing clouds of burnt sienna floating directionless upon it. I'm clothed only in a thin white dress that drops away alarmingly at the front and barely reaches my thighs. My feet are bare, nestled somewhere in the grass. The ground feels soft, like moss.
I hear the horse's hoofbeats pounding the rich soil of the slope, echoing the distant drums that throb at the edges of my perceptions-or perhaps it just mirrors the deep, erratic pulse of my heart-yet the horse dances over the tops of the flowers, without even stirring the fragile blooms. Trappings stream from its body, like liquid twists of vivid silk, caught in the eddying currents of the wind.
The rider reins in, the magnificent stallion snorting and tossing its head, angry that the run is over. There is no saddle, no bridle, and I wonder at the balance of the man that he can stay seated so calmly. Fear catpaws up my spine, fear and a strange sense of arousal, as if I were reacting to the sheer masculinity of the image. It does not look real; the juxtaposing of the ebony stallion and scarlet rider against the pastel colors of the hillside and sky. I stand still, my breath ragged in my ears, my arms hanging loosely by my sides as I regard my pursuer.
He is tall, perhaps as much as seven feet, maybe more. Wet-looking plates of crimson armor are attached to his body like a second skin, realistically fashioned with the details of the powerful body enshrined somewhere within. It looks like metal, yet at the same time it is alien, almost like a carapace, but there is only a fraction of doubt to me that this is anything but a man. My eyes are about level with his feet, and even they are encased in dozens of small circular disks that glimmer in the evening sunlight. My eyes travel slowly up his body while my mind, and my heart, try to take in every detail. The mail between the plates is also red, red as if freshly dipped in paint, or blood. The codpiece would be almost comical if it were not for the power of the image. Long-fingered gauntlets hold a pair of thick, course-woven braids of the horse's mane loosely, with just the barest suggestion of control, yet it is obvious who is the master. Not an inch of skin is visible, except for the two eyes that look down on me from within the stag-horned helmet. Two pits of violet flame, they seem to bore into my soul with an intensity that truly terrifies me. He knows me; all I am, all I am to be. My deepest dreams and my darkest fears.
I cannot move. My feet are fixed to the ground as if rooted. His gaze travels slowly down then up my body, a physical caress more intimate than that of any lover I have ever known. I feel naked before him, no, more than that. I feel emotionally stripped bare too. Goosebumps rise over my skin, though the afternoon is bright, and the breeze warm. I feel sick in my stomach, not unpleasant sick, but rather, ill with anticipation.
He drops the braids and slips off one of the huge gauntlets as if it were no more than a silk glove. The hand within is pale, tipped with black-painted fingernails that look oddly effeminate. He slowly raises the bare hand and removes his helm.
My breath is caught in my throat. I can hear the dulcet chirp of the crickets, the almost silent murmur of the breeze, and the faint tattoo of the distant drums. My nose is filled with the smell of him; the smell of the seasons and the drowsy fragrances of patchouli, sandalwood and something else, something like the musky aroma of sex.
I feel the spring coiling, tightening within me. I can't believe how aroused I am. He lifts the helmet clear and shakes free his long, impossibly black hair. His features are as pale as his hand, but despite the fine, almost aquiline cast, he could in no way be called delicate. He is timeless; as old as the earth but as young and vibrant as the fresh spring winds. His face has been painted a thousand times down through history, in a thousand different ways. He smiles at me, revealing a blaze of perfect, star-bright teeth, but there is a formidable, almost cruel twist to his lips, as if I am but an object. Those violet eyes lock onto mine, gripping my soul like a vice. Mentally, I struggle against him, though I know it is futile, and I myself am unsure why I resist. A pencil-perfect ebony eyebrow raises questioningly, almost mocking, and I brace myself as he leans down toward me, reaching out with his ungloved hand.
I want to close my eyes, but I can't. The feeling of expectation is too much for me. I have never felt such attraction, such raw animal desire. I want him to leap from the horse and fuck me here and now, and yet, in some small, rational part of my mind, I am screaming.
His fingers are inches from my face now. My breath is shallow, rapid, and as my chest rises and falls, I can feel the agonizing brush of my erect nipples against the gossamer thin cotton of the white shift I am wearing.
He pauses, the corners of his mouth lifting slightly as if he knows what he is doing to me.
I stop breathing, unaware at just how much noise I had been making. The silence that engulfs us is profound. The birdsong stills, the insects are hushed, even the wind has paused in its travels to watch.
He brushes my cheeks with a feather-touch caress, nothing more than the barest tips of his fingers, but it is enough.
The orgasm explodes from me with a frightening fury of sound and motion. The scream that rips from my throat shatters the sudden stillness like a hammer against glass. I flail backwards, my cheek burning as if it were on fire, and fall. Instinctively, I reach out my hands, but the wildflowers cushion my tumble. Straight away I'm on my feet, and like a wild, released animal, I run.
Behind me, I hear the stallion bellow, yet over it, like the crash of the sea against the black rocks, I hear his laughter.
And the chase begins again.
Dogs Bay, County Galway, Ireland
A line, a stroke, an errant swatch of shading, and what was once nothing more than pencil marks on paper now resembled a shoreline.
More movement; she held the pencil loosely, palm downward, index finger extended along its length as she waved it across the pad: Clouds, sky.
As would be expected at six a.m. on a Monday morning, the beach was deserted. Although it was the beginning of October, the sun was out, splashing what could only optimistically be called warmth across the sand. Tiny waves licked quietly up the gentle slope of the shore, lulled by the sanctuary of the little crescent-shaped bay. Huge, flat-bellied clouds floated aimlessly in the grey-blue overhead, seemingly undecided whether to head back out to sea or explore inland a little further. Besides the rhythm of the ocean and the thin chatter of the wind as it brushed through the dunegrass, the morning was silent, infinitely peaceful.
Natasha Newlyn, or Natty as she was usually called, put down the soft 6B pencil for a moment and, leaning forward, she rested her chin on her hands and gazed out to sea. The pure, breathy notes of a flute drifted around her like smoke, as much a part of her creativity as the swish of a soft-tipped brush or skritch of a charcoal stick.
She closed her eyes, still retaining every gamut of the scene in her mind's eye. She could see the pair of courting black-backed gulls that spiraled over the hills to the east-nothing more than flecks to the naked eye-that delicate shape in the cloud, was that a face? And just off across the water, were those ripples caused by a fish jumping, or just the ebbing movement of the tide?
Without opening her eyes, she reached for her pencil and carried on sketching, not concentrating on the picture as a whole, but rather as a series of small studies that would come together later. The sun was warm on her face, and bright even through the closed lids of her eyes. The pencil tip danced over the smooth white paper, filling here, highlighting there. Without looking, the soon-filled page was turned, and a fresh one started. Natty retreated down into herself, unaware of the immediate world, instead only concerned with her interpretation of it.
The low flute continued to play, an old air, its origins lost in the grey moments between sleep and wake, between the artist and the subject. It tugged about her like a gentle, inquisitive child, forever peeking over her shoulder or brushing at her leg. Occasionally it would hover at the very periphery of her daydreams, content just to sit back and provide a counterpoint, but mostly, it was by her side, an unseen musician conjuring the accompaniment to whatever it was she drew. It wasn't always a flute; the instrument changed to suit the atmosphere and feel of the locations she had chosen. On the wild, barren Connemara moorland it had been the solemn scull of a lone uilleann piper, while on the purple-sloped mountains of the Twelve Bens, it had been a vibrant, almost jaunty fiddler. While she was out scouting, sketching the studies that would eventually become pieces, the performers were nearly always solo.
The concerts were saved for her studio.
The flute continued on, the even, steady notes rising in tempo and volume suddenly as she once again turned the page.
As if responding to the hidden instrument, the wind picked up suddenly, sending a tiny twister of sand up the beach. The dunes rattled their thin, saber-like leaves suddenly, as if angry at the wind for playing such games, and far away, she thought she could hear the surprised cries of the gulls as they battled the squalling currents.
Natty opened her eyes and let out a pent-up breath, absently tugged a thick strand of curling brown hair out from the corner of her mouth. Fishing into the pockets of her huge woolen duffel coat, she pulled out her fingerless gloves. She couldn't work with them on, but as soon as she stopped drawing, she noticed the cold. She sat back in her old canvas director's chair and just watched the land, soaking in the silence, listening to the hidden music as it gradually faded away.
In the six or so years that she'd lived in Connemara, she'd never once grown tired of the constant, heart-stopping beauty. A land of surprise and legend, she'd moved here rather than return to the constant bustle of her hometown, Dublin, when she'd graduated at twenty-one. She'd shifted from home to 'further her art'. At least, that's what she'd told her parents. If the truth be told, it was to get away from the whole family thing as much as it was for the scenery. Four years at the Royal Academy of Art in London had whetted her appetite for freedom. Sure, it was only a short drive back to the hum-drum of suburban Galway, but still, it was something.
Natty often wondered if her mother still thought that art was merely a passing fad, and that someday soon she'd ring home to say she'd got a job in a bank, or perhaps as a secretary. An honest down-to-earth job with a future.
Leaning back in the creaking chair, Natty reached her arms up over her head and stretched, trying to shake the lethargic feeling from her body. It was always the same when she was working. The yawn seemed to last an improbable time, and when she flumped back forwards, she felt nothing more like curling up on the cold sand and going to sleep. Blinking like an owl, she brushed back the heavy cuff of her coat and glanced at her watch. Not in the least bit surprised to find it was after lunch, she quickly flicked back through the dozen or so pages of her sketchbook briefly before stowing it away carefully in her wooden drawing box along with everything else. She leaned down on the other side of the chair, where her knapsack sat, and ferreted around inside until she felt the familiar bulk of her Thermos flask. Unscrewing the cup and the stopper, she poured herself a generous amount of steaming black coffee. The aroma drifted up before her, riding on the waves of steam. She took a sip, letting the warmth seep slowly down inside. From somewhere inland came the sound of children playing.
The sun was almost directly overhead now, gilding the placid waters of the bay with a shining amber sheen that was almost the same shade as the sand. There were a lot of old memories here, on this beach. Her best friend's father had proposed to her mother on this beach, Natty's first true sale of a painting had been a scene painted from this very spot, and then of course there were the evening walks here with Sean, before things had turned sour.
Natty frowned, angry that he'd managed to sneak into her thoughts again. It had been nearly two weeks since they'd split-on her demand-but somehow he'd always manage to be there; in the shop when she was buying milk, the pub, even that other day up on the cliff-top path. It was almost as if he were doing it on purpose. That would be just like him though, she thought. Always the shite.
After trying to briskly rub some life back into her cold legs, she bent down to close the lid of her box, then stood up. With a sudden flurry of movement she snapped the chair shut, picked up her pack and turned toward land. Her yellow Timberlands sank into the soft sand as she slowly trod back along the beach to where her car was parked. The clumps of dunegrass to her right waved goodbye momentarily, before the wind dropped again and they were still. Gravel crunched underfoot as she made her way across the small square of tarmac that passed for a car park.
Just along from where her old green Volvo waited, a bright new four wheel drive with foreign plates sat, all doors and tail gate open, and a veritable picnic spread out over the lush grass of the verge. A pair of cheery, European-accented children greeted her, and Natty smiled and waved back as she fumbled her car key into the lock.
The boot of the old wagon squealed in protest as she lifted it open and bundled her equipment and her knapsack in. Giving it a hefty slam, she walked around to the driver's door and got in. The engine fired on the third turn, spluttered a while, then evened out to a low, if somewhat erratic, grumble.
With the heater on full, she sat there for a long moment, her hands held out before the vents, warming up. Slipping the worn T-bar into R, she maneuvered around the other car then pulled out onto the thin ribbon of grey road that led back to Ballystone.
Her studio was basically a whole floor above the Ballystone Newspaper and Gift Shop. It was almost an ideal arrangement for her, for not only was the rent cheap and the room perfect, but the landlady that owned the shop, Ruthie, had turned into a good friend. Pulling out her gear and putting it on the grass for a moment, Natty shut the car boot and locked it, more from habit than any real need. Four years of living in London had ingrained a few habits.
She shouldered her bag and crossed the grass toward the two back doors. One led up to her studio while the other, which was presently ajar, opened into the shop's storeroom. She paused to wipe her boots dry then entered. Before her, the room opened out into a small store-cum-kitchen, with short corridor that went through to the shop itself. The back room always smelled nice; a heady mixture of all the different confectionery and fizzy pop. Even today, with the door wide open, there was still the warm aroma of chocolate. The shop itself was empty. Ruthie was bent over the sink rinsing out a cup. She was a large woman, pushing toward the more distant side of fifty years, but she possessed a huge heart and a devilish sense of humor. They'd both taken an immediate shine to one another when Natty had answered the small add for a lodger that Ruthie had run in the county paper. It had been one of those wonderfully coincidental moments when she'd found out that not only was the space ideal, in exactly the village she wanted to live in, but the landlady was a hobby painter herself.
Ruthie had continued running the small shop when her husband had died nine years earlier. It did a reasonable business, and had the benefit of being popular not only with tourists, but with the locals as well. The off-season was quiet, but it was never too lean. She herself lived in Clifton Cottage, an attractive, small stone building on the other side of the road.
Natty leaned against a shelf, and in a soft voice, said, "Morning there Ruthie. Quiet one is it?"
The old lady turned, a welcoming smile on her lined face. "Well hullo there dear," she said, reaching for the towel that hung over the sink. "Aye, quiet enough. Still, they'll be by in droves come fourish, when the coaches head back toward town. I was about to fix mesself a cup of tea, do you fancy one?"
Natty shook her head, stirring her dark curls into life. "No, thanks, I've just had a coffee. I might go and unload this stuff, then have some breakfast."
"For God's sakes girl, 'tis nearly one in the afternoon. No wonder you're so thin."
Natty frowned at her, mock-serious. It was a common tease of Ruthie's. Poking out her tongue, she shrugged the bag strap over her shoulder and went back outside to her separate door.
"Oh, before you disappear," said Ruthie, coming to the bottom of the stairs, "Sean came callin' by for you again."
Natty sighed. "What did he want this time?"
"He didn't say. He asked if your were in and I says you was out working. He wanted to know where, but I told him I didn't know."
"Thanks for that Ruthie. Last thing I could have done with was having him blunder down the beach being a nuisance."
"He's certainly a persistent one, isn't he."
"Sean Lavelle's just a gobshite," Natty replied, somewhat surprised at how annoyed she was feeling. The morning had gone well, and she had been looking forward to locking herself away and starting this new piece. Now she'd have to work at recovering her good mood and trying to dispel the feeling that any minute he might walk in.
Seeing her expression, Ruthie said, "I know it's not my place to say, but I really don't know what you saw in him, Natty."
She let out a breath, "Neither do I. He's handsome but. . . I don't know. There's not much else there other than that, at least, not that I can see." She sighed and shook her head.
Ruthie took on a mischievous air, her eyes glinting, "Was it the naughties, Natty?" she asked in a stage whisper. "Did he do things no-one else had done before?"
That popped the bubble of depression that had been gradually inflating, and Natty burst out laughing. "Ah he should be so lucky now! It was bad enough having him paw at me like a bear," She shivered exaggeratedly then grinned. "Jay, you're a filthy old lady, Ruthie O'Brien!"
"Why, less of the 'old' if you please," she replied indignantly.
She was about to say more when the bell over the front door jangled. They both looked at one another, and Natty mimed and mouthed that she wasn't here. Ruthie winked with a smile, then straightened her apron and walked back into the shop to greet the customer. Natty listened for a moment, then continued up the stairs when she heard the gruff voice of Rossy Baxter asking for tobacco.
Pushing open the top door with her foot, Natty stepped into her studio. Light streamed in through the pair of closed sash windows directly opposite, and through three more in the wall behind her, and dust motes swirled within the criss-cross of bright shafts. Her studio and home was essentially one large room, except for the small bathroom and semi-partitioned kitchen. At the other end of the room, where the three huge bay windows overlooked the ocean, was her small living area; her bed, wardrobe and dresser, a stuffed bookshelf and an old imitation Chesterfield sofa. It was slightly screened from the rest of the studio by a couple of hanging curtains of bright green cotton. The centerpiece of the main studio was the vast old wooden desk that Natty primarily painted on, while three thin-legged easels stood guard around it. An old set of angle-iron shelves took up almost the whole length of one wall, positively overflowing with supplies ranging from a thousand tiny tubes of paint to enough brushes to build a house with. There were multi-colored jars of dry pigment, tall bottles of everything from distilled water to turpentine to ox gall; pencil sets, pens, palettes, all manner of weird and wonderful implements that looked best suited to the area around an operating theatre. Though nowadays she mainly painted with watercolor, occasionally she'd turn out an oil or an acrylic, if she thought the piece needed it. The other wall and part of the floor was covered with a collage of studies, some new, most old, and over by the window, in a slatted box, carefully stacked, her finished pieces waited for her monthly trip into Dublin. The honey-colored varnished floor boards were surprisingly free of paint, and despite the surrounding chaos, the main desk was ordered and tidy, with most of its area taken up by a stuck down piece of cold-pressed paper that Natty had left to stretch. Her favorite palette and two-dozen or so tubes of watercolor were stacked within easy reach to one side, while a sheaf of more recent sketches was stacked neatly on the other side.
The whole room was filled with the sharp odor of paint, turpentine, and the surprising brightness of the vases of fresh flowers that sat in the sun opposite one another on the wide windowsills. The ceiling was lofted; open plan and slashed with the huge old rafters and support beams of the roof. The cross bars were pasted with a confusion of postcards from all over the world, newspaper cuttings, photographs of family and friends and of course, more sketches. The height gave the studio a bright, airy feel, but did make heating it in winter a bit of a pain.
To Natty, it was just about perfect. Nestled in the heart of Connemara, in one of the few Irish-speaking, gaeltacht districts left, it was just about one of the most remote places on the mainland. Sure there were the bus-loads of tourists, a never-ending stream of hikers and all the usual sightseers, but at its core, Connemara was still wild. As an artist, she reckoned she'd be hard pushed to think of anywhere else in the world she'd like to live and paint-except perhaps the wilds of North Canada or the African savannah.
Though her agent, Rosemary Jackson, lived in London, she had an associate in Dublin that Natty delivered her finished pieces to. Rosemary had a network of small, hand-picked shops and galleries that she tried to keep stocked with the much sought after Newlyn originals. The arrangement suited Natty fine; Rosemary took a percentage in exchange for placing the works and dealing with all the ordering, shipping and paperwork. Of course there were the occasional exhibitions, in fact Natty was due over in London in just over a month for a "spring into summer"-themed exhibition of which she was a major part. She never accepted commissions, for Natty preferred to paint whatever took her eye, rather than to someone else's prescribed vision. She was only just twenty-seven, but already she had a reputation as possibly one of the best new painters to emerge in the last twenty years. It was an image Natty did her best to dispel. She just loved to paint, and if she could make a living doing what she loved, then fine, and if not, well, she'd had plenty of part-time jobs before. The fact that she earned a pretty decent amount doing it placed her with the rarest of all the artists, writers and musicians.
Natty slipped the heavy coat off her shoulders and hung it on the wooden stand by the door at the top of the stairs. She dropped her work box on the floor and walked over toward the kitchen, tossing her bag onto the unmade bed as she passed.
Mechanically, she filled the kettle and set it to boil then leaned against the counter, running her hands through her hair then slowly down her face. She let out a low moan as the lack of sleep suddenly caught up with her. Pushing herself away from the benchtop, she moved back past the bed and entered the bathroom. Running the tap for a moment to let the warm water through, she cupped her hands and splashed some over her face. Blindly, she reached for the hand towel. With another sigh, she put it down and regarded herself in the large mirror. The deep brown eyes that stared back were tired looking; weary and underpinned by shadow. Her usually healthy, pale skin seemed almost translucent, bloodless, and the laughter lines around her mouth looked more like wrinkles today. Even her chestnut tumble of hair looked lifeless and dull. Although she was spare of frame and only a few inches over five feet tall, Natty usually abounded with energy, but even that was lacking. The morning had been fine; her mind had been taken away by the work, but now, back here. . .
She scowled at the image in the mirror, and left the bathroom. Passing the disheveled rumple of blankets on the bed, Natty paused a moment and tried to mentally grab the ghostly half-images of the dreams that floated through her mind. They were fleeting, like childish shadows that only barely hinted at their form and shape. The faint lingering traces of the eroticism lingered on, drifting like lazy smoke through the sudden sparks of terror and exhilaration. No matter how hard she tried, the images would just not stay, and thinking on them only made them all the harder to recall.
She entered the kitchen just as the kettle clicked off, and wearily, she filled and assembled the small metal stovetop coffeepot. The reassuring aroma of fresh coffee filled the small room, and as she had done for the past weeks, she cast the lingering images from her mind and began mentally picturing her next piece. With the steaming mug of thick black coffee in her hand, she ventured back to her workroom, stopping on the way to pull the sheaf of fresh sketches from her box and kick off her boots. By the time she was sitting at the oak desk leafing through the work, the dreams were almost forgotten.
A finger-picked, classical guitar gently wove the melody.
As always, the player sat masked and invisible in one corner of the studio, its face hidden by an androgynous porcelain mummery that fitted so close it could really only be skin. A wide-brimmed, black hat cast a crescent shadow across most of its bone-white features except for the mouth, a painted-on slash that either curled up or down at the edges depending on what Natty was painting. Its body was wrapped in a shawl of a thousand patchwork colors that looked part Romany, part Tibetan, all Faerie. The instrument, a battered old friend from the foothills of Spain, was cradled across its lap like a child, and the hands that caressed it were ghost-pale and wrinkle-free. Ageless.
The guitarist was an inhuman virtuoso; the slides into the individual notes were perfect, the changes precise, and the dancing fretwork flawless. The sound was such that it seemed there were two or three more guitars there than just one solo performer.
Natty laid in the wash; a thin veil of cobalt blue that swept over the upper, dampened half of the large sheet of paper. The thumb-sized mop glided effortlessly, laying down the base on which the detail of the sky would be set. The wet paper sucked at the paint, spreading it away evenly, except for the patches of mask that she had applied earlier. The brush was cleaned, then charged with a different color for the ocean, this time a delicate mix of cerulean blue with the slightest touch of viridian green.
A side-blown, wooden flute, played by a willow-thin sylph with hair like brambles gently eased in over the top of the guitar, sliding effortlessly into its own place within the melody. For a time the two instruments were content; they sparred gently, teasing one another with an effortless abandon that was hypnotic.
Horizontal strokes put down the beginnings of detail within the waves. Shadow lines were added, strengthening the crests and wash of the waves as they struck the still unrevealed shoreline. She leant back, regarding the rectangle of paper, comparing it to the image in her mind, then edged forward again, brush moving of its own will. As always when she worked, her feet were bare, and they whispered over the floorboards as she continually repositioned herself around the table.
A seeping quartet of viola, cello and a pair of violins joined the other two instruments from the shadows over by the kitchen. The slow stroke of horsehair bowing across strings filled the studio with warmth. The guitar dropped back, content to settle in with the others while the flute sylph continued to spiral upwards. Tonight, because of the subject matter, the music was like the sea; gentle, rolling, yet with an undercurrent of urgency, like the tide before a storm.
The breath died in the flute as the girl fell gently to the ground like a ballerina, the guitar was strummed into silence, the brim of the hat falling down over the mask as the strings dissolved into the darkness like mist in the sun.
Then, from the distance of the hills, the scattered, earthy patter of a lone bodhrán. The deep sound of the wood against goatskin swelled, filling with intensity as it came closer like a galloping horseman. The drummer arrived, moving past the other ghostly, curiosity-laden faces that peered through the fogged glass of the windows like an adult passing children at a sweet shop display case. He moved about the studio on cloven dancing feet, watching, looking. He was waiting on her, building the tension with the rapid flicking of his wrist and the click-clack of his feet.
The heavy brushes were discarded. Without even lifting her eyes from the painting, Natty reached over and took up the number four red sable. Loading the brush with neat indigo, she began settling in the minute detail she was famous for.
The sylph brought the flute back up to her lips suddenly, exploding back into life, matching the beat of the bodhrán instantly. For a moment, a heartbeat, they locked, then the flute was away, chasing the rhythm around the room like a cat. The guitar re-entered the fray, hat brim lifting to reveal a white face painted with a jester's grin. Its rhythmic ferocity was mad, astounding. The strings were there too, providing the solid background, the paper onto which the other instruments drew.
The concert was well and truly away now. The tip of Natty's brush danced over the paper, laying in sometimes imperceptible breaths of color. The music raged around her, swallowing her, almost deafening. She fed on its wild passion, drawing as much from it as she did her own mind.
The faces through the glass fed too as they watched, enthralled. A mixture of improbable legend and child's imagination, some were little more than etheric outlines, suggestions, while other were more corporeal; small colorful sparrows with the heads of little old men, complete with miniature tweed caps, long-limbed, pinch-featured creatures with sackcloth-bound bodies and tiny, flittering nude women with blue-veined dragonfly wings on their backs, all watched, hypnotized by the raw magic.
Around them, night fell, the sun rose, then passed again.
Natty didn't notice. She was on a burn now. All the earlier feelings of tiredness were gone, banished temporarily into some unknown place. She knew they would resurface again, but for the time being they were of no concern. All that mattered was the piece.
More players joined the wild reel; pipes, fiddles, mandolins, all blurring into one huge cacophony of marvelous sound that flowed through the air like the blood through her body. Paint smudged her face, dried in her hair, but Natty didn't care. She took a swig from her coffee mug, unaware that she had emptied it hours ago. Swallowing anyway, she picked up an even finer brush and bent closer. Her face barely inches from the paper, she worked the detail into the buoy that floated in the bay, taking the same extraordinary care over the reflection in the still water. The clouds followed. Not content to leave the spread of the paint to chance, she worked each ripple, each curve of vapor, each smear of shadow in by hand.
The reel changed key and tempo flawlessly, slipping into a jig that was somehow even more raucous than the tune before. The instruments took turns to play solo pieces, each taking the whole further, farther. Other faeries made seats from her stacked paintbrushes and pencils and sat on the shelves watching, clapping their hands or tapping out the rhythm on tins and pots. The rafters above her head were crammed with oddly-shaped hopping, dancing bodies.
With the waves dry, Natty picked up the bare razor blade and began flecking out the foam on the tips of the small crests. She gripped the half-sheathed blade loosely, scratching away the paint to reveal the clean white paper beneath. Natty held her breath, judging exactly where the attention was needed. She was close now, not a lot more was needed. It was as much a talent to know when to stop as it was to . . .
"Jesus Christ! Are you fecking deaf or something?"
The music stopped. Instantly.
Natty screamed and span, the razor blade slicing effortlessly through the paper.
Like a knife through flesh.
Her heart was in her throat, beating madly, and her eyes were wide as she looked at the intruder. He was a young man, tall, and dressed in a thick woolen coat that hung over a pair of black jeans that had seen better days. His face was darkly handsome, with a half-day's growth of stubble stippling his squareish chin. He leaned casually against the banister, hands in his pockets.
Natty managed to catch her breath, and the feeling of fright was gradually replaced by outrage. "What the fuck are you doing?" she yelled at him. "You scared the living shit out of me!"
His face instantly put on a display of mock hurt. "I came to see you," he replied somewhat lamely. "And watch your mouth."
Natty was stunned. "Watch my mouth?" she repeated incredulously. "You've just ruined days of work, scared me half to death and all you can say is 'watch your mouth'?" She threw the razor blade to the floor and marched across the floor to stand before him, looking up at his impetuous face. She could see that he found the whole thing funny, and that only angered her all the more. "Get the hell out!" she told him.
"Aw, come on Nat, " he said, taking a hand out of his pocket and laying it companionably on her shoulder. "Aren't you just a little bit pleased to see me?" he smiled; an expression that for some reason Natty had once found charming, but now only served to fuel her rage.
She bit back a furious reply, and instead, in an icy voice, demanded, "How'd you get in? I took back your key."
He pulled out his other hand. Between his fingers was a copper Yale key. "I got a spare."
Before he could react, Natty's hand shot out and snatched it away. "Not any more," she said.
He grinned impudently. "Perhaps I've got more."
"Come in here again and I'll call the garda."
"Natty, Natty, after all we've been through, you'd do that to me?" his voice was still mocking.
She put her hands on her hips, "And just what exactly have we 'been through'?"
He smiled widely, "Well, you know. It was three months, after all." Natty turned away from him, shaking her head. Nonplussed, he continued, "So where did I go wrong, then? Perhaps if I knew. . ."
She span, her eyes alight. "Where did you go wrong?" she repeated, incredulous. "For starters, how about fucking Mary Moran and Cath McDermott the whole time you were seeing me? At least, those are the two I know about. How many more are there, Sean?"
The amused expression fell from his face suddenly. Natty saw a flicker of embarrassment pass over his features, but as suddenly as it was there it was gone. He opened his mouth to protest, but before he could speak, Natty said, "Don't bother trying to deny it."
"You're full of shit. There's nothing going on."
"Christ Sean, wake up. If there's nothing going on then I suppose it's all right for me to go talking to Cath and Mary then."
He shook his head and looked down at his shoes. "Who told you?" he asked calmly.
"Does it matter? Do you think I'm blind or something? It was pretty obvious. You're too stupid to even be subtle. You're pathetic really."
She could see his anger rising, a twin to her own. He pushed himself away from the post, his face flushed. "Ever wondered why I did it though?" he asked, his voice rising slightly. "Perhaps if you'd paid a little more attention to me and less to your bloody pictures then things might've been okay."
Natty laughed ironically. "Oh come on, I know for a fact you've been seeing Cath for at least the same amount of time that you were with me."
He stood before her now, halfway across the low-lighted room. A car passed along the street below the window, its beams momentarily playing off the rafters above them.
There was silence while they regarded one another with cold stares, then Sean said, "You know what your problem is? The lads down the pub are right; you're fucking frigid. You come across at first as all friendly and the like, but when it gets down to it, you'd rather sit up here and play with yourself. That's why you've not had a boyfriend for longer than a couple of months, you're nothing but a tight cock-teas-"
She hit him.
Her balled fist smacked him fair in the mouth. She felt the soft flesh of his lips slap back against his teeth, and heard the satisfying wet clap. Sean's head jerked back, the surprise and pain evident on his face. His hand went straight to his mouth, coming away spotted with blood from his split lip.
Before she had a chance to step back, he'd reached out with his other hand and grabbed a fist full of her jumper and yanked her violently close. The other hand hung back, cocked level with her face. For a moment, she honestly though he was going to beat her senseless.
They both stood still, Sean's nostrils flared as he drew in breath, and Natty's eyes were wide, fixed on his as she waited with the fear deep in her.
Sean lowered his fist, released the knot of her jumper then slowly touched his fingers to his lips again. He reached over and rubbed the thin trail of blood off on the shoulder of her sweater. He shook his head, the disbelief still evident in his dark eyes and said softly, "You bitch."
Turning, he walked back toward the top of the stairs, turning as he reached the first. "If you tell anyone about this, I swear, I'll kill you."
For a moment, their eyes locked again, then he dropped down the stairs and Natty heard the door open then slam shut.
For a long minute, she stood there, her arms wrapped tightly around herself trying to stop the shaking. She felt sick in the pit of her stomach. It wasn't the first time she'd hit someone, but. . .
All she could see was the look in his eyes and the fist held ready. For an instant, he'd really meant it.
Natty took a deep breath. Dropping her arms down loosely by her sides, she walked slowly back to her desk. The single light suspended over it projected down a circle of yellow light that encompassed the workspace and a fair portion of the surrounding floor. Usually, it filled Natty with warmth. Tonight it looked more like the light over an autopsy table.
She reached the table and looked down at the painting. It had almost been finished too. At first glance, nothing appeared amiss, but as she lifted one corner clear, half of the painting stayed still, sliced cleanly through in a shallow arc. If framed properly, it could still be roughly salvaged, but Natty knew she would never let it out of here. It was imperfect, ruined. The magic lost.
Natty released the painting and slumped down into her chair. Putting her head in her hands, she gazed out of the window into the blackness of the night. For a moment, she thought she saw something there, strange distorted faces looking curiously in on her, but when she blinked they were gone, and she could see nothing but the muted wavery reflection of her home. She sighed, the pressure of the exhaustion suddenly falling down over her like a wet blanket, but she was fearful of sleep lest the dreams came again. Tonight particularly, she could do without them, but she knew after forty-odd hours of continuous work she'd have no choice but to rest.
She sighed again, and this time it ended in a slight shudder. She blinked back tears. Taking a rectangle of clean paper, she gently covered the spoiled artwork and folded her arms over it, resting her head down on them.
Only then did she let the tears come.
Outside, balanced perfectly on the inch-wide sill, the remaining creatures sat. The sparrow-men shook their capped heads sadly, their grey-feathered wings around each other. The sack-clothed hobgoblins were visibly angry, and they shook their fists and rained tiny stones down on the man as he walked up the street. The tiny winged sprites openly wept, the beautiful glow from their spiderweb wings subdued and still. Such potential, such power, destroyed by an ignorant.
The concert was over.
Each spitting a string of angry curses at the tall man, the hobgoblins stepped off the sill, walking vertically down the wall on loose legs until they reached the ground then, with a wild cry that sounded like the calling screech of an owl, they tore away between the houses. Dogs barked suddenly at their passing, then were silent. The three sparrow-men left shortly after, leaping into the air and fluttering themselves away back toward the shadowy surrounding hills.
The sprites lingered. They pressed their hands and faces to the cold glass, looking with sympathy at the woman crying within. But there was nothing even they could do. She was untouchable, the Lord himself's orders. Observe, revel in her magic, but do not interfere.
The wind picked up suddenly, and although they didn't feel its chill, they both shuddered involuntarily. There were other things that hunted at night, and without the protection of the hobs, or even the slight masking magic offered by the sparrow-men, they were vulnerable. Their own magic lay in healing and wonder, not defense.
The autumn-haired woman within rose from the table and crossed the room, moving out of sight. Satisfied that the man was not coming back, the wings on their backs blurred, effortlessly lifting them into the air. Like summer fireflies, they erratically wove their way down the street then on over the hill, toward the just-rising moon.