TWO AMERICAN PORTRAITS
JOHN FREDERICK PETO
It is one of the small paintings he makes for the summer tourists who visit the seaside, or who are drawn to the tent revival services where he plays the cornet. It is already hot and muggy. He is finishing a picture that shows a crumpled paper bag on its side, spilling out pastel taffy, red and white peppermint sticks, divinity fudge, golden caramel squares, hard fruit candy. They pour out on a surface of black polished wood. They seem to float above their reflection
As a boy, he often went with his father to a store owned by a kindly widow who always gave him a piece of candy. When she turned her back, when his father also couldn’t see, he’d steal another piece or two, shoving them quickly into his pocket. He felt ashamed almost immediately. He is still ashamed. He cannot understand why he did it and did it often.
He looks at the picture. He is sweaty. His back burns with pain, but he is pleased. The miniature haphazard world of sweets is bathed in a silky silver light like that of Vermeer’s View of Delft. It is a veiled, silent seaside light where things may be themselves, isolated in their own secrets.
All around him was the night. Stars coursed silently in the depth of the sky. Below he could sense the dark fragrant cloud-forms of elms and maples. Scattered among them were a few windows still lit by sleepless watchers, readers nodding. Summer winds, scented with leaves and drying grass, moving across the stillness.
The dusty plank floor of the belfry creaked, just as it had when he stood there with his father long ago. The steeple below had a faint white glow. He remembered the excitement. The bands were arranged around the town, waiting for the sunrise. His father was tense and gleeful.
The sun rose, a shy pale red touched the treetops, the steeple was lit up, his father made the downbeat. Four bands in four parts of town began to play. A sudden brilliant gold brass, bright reed and rat-a-tat snare drum: not-quite-cacophony, brought all the atoms in the air to life.
2. It is in the night where, behind paler clouds, the ambient light of stars and moon appears and vanishes into a greater depth. It is from the depth and darkness that the subtle pulse emerges, a strengthening pulse that becomes a rhythm, deep and slow, subdividing into many rhythms, each beginning and sustained by many timbres, some thudding and almost inaudible, like the distant sea, some deep and round like iron being struck, or like the quick tapping of wood on stretched skin, a tree branch scraping a window pane, a man tapping his foot, thunder rumbling, a bell in the wind, an infinity of tempi like an infinity of colors and lights, all dwelling in the vast night and waiting to emerge, waiting but unhurried, ready to manifest into the brightness of day, pouring through the body’s veins as sound and bliss and elation and pain and heat. All the rhythms, coursing through the body, heart and soul, into full consciousness, as the immensity of harmony adored and sought and never, never, never final.
He knew that and never didn’t know it ever again. He found himself as an instrument, a lyre, a trumpet, a piano, a voice. He strained himself to the finest tunings, those most unimaginable tunings. The lilac clouds pervading night.
3. Now he was holding onto the banister and thumping down the stairs from his attic studio. She knew something was wrong, or different anyhow. He came into the dark paneled sitting room where she sat near the window, holding a book as if she were reading. When she looked up, she could see he was crying. Not sobbing, of course. He was too stoic for that. But tears were pouring down his cheeks, and he made odd hiccoughing sounds. In two hours he had aged a decade. He was an old man now. She waited. Finally he looked at her.
“It’s over.” The look of anguish was terrible, but she made herself stay still. Finally he came and took her hand. “I can’t do it anymore. It’s finished.”
He was a harp unstrung, a silence in the night.
Douglas Penick has written libretti for two operas, King Gesar (Sony CD) and Ashoka’s Dream (Santa Fe Opera), with composer Peter Lieberson. On a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, Penick wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic (Crossings on a Bridge of Light, Warrior Song of King Gesar, and The Brilliance of Naked Mind). He is also the author of the novel A Journey of The North Star (Publerati, 2012), as well as Dreamers and Their Shadows (Mountain Treasury Press, 2013). Penick’s short fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Tricycle, Parabola, Porte Des Singes, Publishers Weekly, Agni, Descant, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal and elsewhere. He has written novels on the third Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), the adventures of spiritual seekers (Dreamers and Their Shadows) and, most recently, From the Empire of Fragments, a collection about cultural displacement.