The following chapters were written in collaboration with Cordao de Ouro Stockholm as part of their ‘Story of Us’ event in October 2020. Each chapter was read aloud between physical classes to help shape the narrative of the weekend.
Nerves bubble in my stomach. I have been waiting for this day for so long. An empty plate lies untouched in the yellowing grass, its surface naked and unglazed. Beside me lies a small dish of pigment. I want to use that pigment to paint something worthwhile and wondrous upon that lonely surface. Images dash back and forth in my mind. I cannot settle. I cannot choose.
Cicadas howl a weighty chorus overhead. Something that sounds like thunder rumbles in the distance and animals chirp in the trees. The sticky, warm air causes sweat to roll in rivulets from my brow and armpits. If I do well in my work, I will be taken on as apprentice to one of the most influential painters in the land. If I do well.
Symphonies of colour flicker before my eyes. If only I could capture them – use my mind like a mirror to reflect their beauty. I pick up my paintbrush carefully. The light is shifting now from yellow to amber. I close my eyes. I take in a deep breath. A boat. Clouds. Fish in the sea. The shapes shimmer and spiral against a darkened veil. A tiny blob of paint balances unsteadily at the edge of the bristles. Holding my breath, I make the first strokes.
A sudden rustle in the trees breaks my concentration. That was not the wind. I look up. A small dark shape rummages about in the branches. A pip-bird, with feathers of light brown. It pauses, then looks down at me with small, beady eyes.
“What are you painting?” the bird tweets. My mouth turns dry, then flops open in astonishment. The bird hums an irritated trill, then flutters down to land on the edge of the plate.
“It looks like cat vomit,” the bird concludes. Frustration burns within me, but I do not give rise to it. This is not real. It can not be real. In what reality could a bird have any sort of appreciation for the arts?
“It’s the sea,” I reply.
“Looks like cat vomit.” the bird asserts.
“You are looking at it upside down!” I snap.
The bird chirps, then flitters around to the other side of the plate.
“Oh… well that’s better… I guess…” it says, pecking thoughtfully at the lines and curves. “How much are you selling it for?”
My breath catches in my throat. I have not yet considered that my work is worth anything at all.
“Three coins?” I suggest. I tried to scrutinise the bird’s face for a reaction, but, as with most birds, this one was incapable of even the slightest change of expression.
The bird says nothing, then, with an insolent peep, takes flight into the trees. A shadow shifts in the canopy, and I think that the bird will return, but it does not.
What is the meaning of this? How dare that bird judge me before I am done? I would like to see it try to paint something! It couldn’t even hold the brush! Images spring before my eyes like lightning in a storm. I start to paint once more, letting the shapes flow through me, igniting my body into a whirlwind of colour. I swoop and my brush becomes a wave. I glide and paint the hull of a boat. I do not copy the sea, I am the sea. I sway and hop like the waves roaring from small sudden dots to sweeping heights. I seize hold of its flow.
The painting on my plate is almost complete. Good or bad, it is hard to say, but I feel at least satisfied. My eyes are growing tired and the shapes appear little more than shadows to me now, purple in the dying light. I need to be heading home soon. Black clouds have rolled across the sky, smothering the moon with their greedy grasp.
I leave the plate outside the entrance to my home. The paint needs to dry overnight. I am tempted sorely to light a candle, just to take another look at the work I have done, but I decide against it. There is no time to add any more tonight and my body and mind are weary. I must treat it well and reward it for the work it has done.
Morning rises like the breath of a jaguar, strong, proud and steady. In the far distance, I hear the whoop-whoop of monkeys playing in the waking sun. It is early, so very early. Sitting in the doorway of my home is a plate. It is simple in form, but made of the finest grade of clay I could afford. The image painted on the front… well… I’m not sure I know what to make of it. I had spent hours last night trying to create the perfect image. An image that would move an onlooker and capture my deepest expressions. Yet now, as I gaze upon my work in the naked light of day, I cannot tell if it is a thing of beauty, or not. It is supposed to be a picture of the sea but, those waves… are their curves a little too jagged? The boat is shaped well, but it is oh so small… and that line of the fish’s mouth, why, it is almost mocking!
A light golden song catches my ears. I look up. Perched on top of my doorway is a small brown bird with a belly the colour of rich honey. The tune that it sings so pure, so beautiful. I close my eyes. The sounds flicker in a shimmering array of blues, greens and ambers.
“Oh why does nature not distribute her gifts equally amongst all? Why can I not be as naturally gifted as you?” I question, not at all expecting a response.
“If an otter aspires to be a monkey, it will find its paws much too stunted to swing gracefully from branch to branch, but if that otter takes to the river instead it will be able to somersault and glide like the most graceful of acrobats,” the bird cheeps in a manner much too profound to have come from the brain of such a little creature. I realise then that this bird is the same that had visited me the previous night, only then it had been much more concerned with ridiculing my work than acting the sage.
“I don’t need philosophical advice from a bird,” I answer tartly.
“You’re the one asking,” the bird retorts, then sits in silence for several seconds whilst I consider this reply carefully. I wonder if I am dreaming… or perhaps I am going mad.
“You’re saying that my efforts are wasted,” I say, slowly.
“Merely, misguided perhaps. The beauty of a natural gift is that it requires no effort. Think on it.”
I feel that I am drifting in a deep blue pool. The water around me is neither warm nor cold, merely the perfect temperature to keep my body afloat. Above me the air is crisp, cool and dark, whispering with the echoes of the ancients. I am in a cave, a cave of my mind, and in here no thoughts can disturb my peace. I watch them flow by, fluttering back and forth like restless fireflies swirling in the sky. How tempting it is to get wrapped up by their flow. I turn my attention back to my breath. The soft whooshes in and out at the edge of my nostrils.
Somewhere in the distance I hear a faint chatter begin to arise. It is twittering music of animals dancing in their treetop homes. Leaves shuffle. Branches creak. It tugs at the edge of my consciousness, calling me toward it. I want to go to them. My feet itch and twitch. Should I go? Or should I stay here in the stillness, cooling and training my mind?
”Are you ready now?” a familiar voice echoes from outside. Slowly, I open my eyes. The morning light is grey and misty, bringing with it the faint taste of salt. On the ground before me lies a set of footprints in the dirt. They appear almost human, but the toes are extended and hooked.
”Ready for what?” I ask, but receive no reply.
A flurry of movement whooshes from my side. I see a trail of honey-amber dancing its way toward the jungle, following the path of the tracks. The pip-bird flitters away. My pulse begins to rise. I feel the pounding rhythm of the earth beneath my feet. It is time. I let my body awake, my muscles engage. Grabbing my brush and my plate, I race after the path of the forest. I surrender to its call.
I am in the jungle now. My surroundings hum with the primal energy of nature. The trees shimmer the brightest of greens. Bugs and small creatures sing the chorus of life. My heart dances in rhythm to it all. Everything is connected, the big, the small, how had I not seen this before? I glance toward the plate still hanging in my hands. The sea. I had been trying to draw the sea. How had I thought I could do so without experiencing it first hand? Without being a part of it? I needed to go there.
I glance down at the trail of footprints. They have led me to the base of an old, wise tree. Cracked coconuts and broken branches lie entangled in its roots. I peer up. Branches spiral thick and proud into the canopy. Somewhere up there, not so far away, something is rustling amongst the leaves. I watch, filled with curiosity.
Suddenly, a furry hand shoots down, then my plate is snatched from my grasp.
”Hey!” I shout up into the tree. Rolling my sleeves, I haul myself onto a low hanging branch. I am not about to let my plate get away that easily. Growing up close to the jungle, I am used to climbing. The creature above me is better though. I hear a chuckle as it jumps away.
Further and further I climb. I can see the monkey now. An acrobat with perfect control, it swings from branch to branch, dancing, flipping, leaping, purposefully choosing branches that are just on the verge of stability, then gliding away gracefully before they give way. With a surge of determination, I pull myself faster through the tree.
The monkey wraps its tail around a branch not five handspans away, then spins itself to a standstill. I pause. Is it giving up? The monkey balances tauntingly on one hand at the edge of the branch, waving my plate in its tail. It is trying to trick me. I will not be fooled that easily.
Carefully, edge forward, making it seem like I am preparing to take the leap. The monkey watches me closely, switching balance from hand to hand. I touch the branch, then bend my knees. The monkey laughs, edging forward as if to goad me on. I wait until the monkey is just two handspans away, then I strike. I jump into the air. My fingers graze the terracotta of the plate. They seize hold. My feet land back down safely onto the branch. I smile… then I hear a crack. The branch beneath me… my weight has broken it! I had been so intent on the monkey that I had forgotten to examine the stability of my own base! I sway back and forth, trying to grab hold of something, anything to stop myself from falling. It is too late. My balance is thrown. As I tumble from the top of the tree, I hear once more the monkey’s chuckle.
The ground beneath me is soft and warm. I blink open my eyes. I see the sun shining hot and yellow in the bright blue sky. I sit up. Before me waves are rolling up and down, their white frothy caps breaking gently on the shore with a wush-hiss sound. The beach. I am on the beach. I must have rolled here after falling from the branch. The tree line is close behind me.
Quickly, I do a body scan. Apart from a few scrapes and bruises, I seemed to be okay. Cautiously, I draw myself to my feet.
All around me is quiet I cannot hear the sound of the monkey anymore. Sadly I cannot see any sign of my plate either. My heart sinks. It must have shattered during the fall, or the monkey must have it. Either way, my work is long gone.
I cast my gaze out across the ocean. The salty scent of high tide hangs thick in my nostrils. Even from here I can see dark shapes of the colourful reefs that hide just beneath the surface of the water. A whole other world just waiting to be explored. I look toward the horizon. The still blue sea appears so peaceful, so calming. Perhaps I could voyage out there, gain new ideas and inspiration to craft my painting anew. Even as I think this, I spot an old reed raft tucked up beneath the treeline. The moss and seaweed that gathered on its surface tells me it has not been used for a long time. Staring at it, an idea begins to form in my mind. I look back out across the sea. Surely, no one would mind if I borrow it for a few hours? It almost feels as if it has been left there for me specifically. I hurry over to the raft, then, with gentle tugs, begin to undo its mooring. The rope practically disintegrates in my hands, but I do not think about it. With a strong heave, I usher the raft out onto the water.
As the logs slosh their way through the cooling tide, I realise something. It is not just the sound of the monkey that is missing. Even the birds have stopped their call. No parrots squawk in the trees, and no gulls cry in the sky. Strange. It is as if nature itself is holding its breath.
I give the raft a final push. Seizing hold of the paddle, I climb onboard, then thrust it down into the water’s depths. I cast a glance back at the treeline, then freeze. There is something moving there now. Something strong and regal. Something that moves with perfect stillness and a commanding sense of grace and prowess. It steps out into the sunlight. I take a sharp inhale. I realise now why the jungle had stilled. I am staring into the all-seeing eyes of a jaguar. In its mouth it holds a round, painted plate. My plate.
Adrenaline courses through my limbs. What message does this creature have for me? Why is such a grand beast interested in my plate? I paddle furiously against the water, trying to bring myself back to shore, but the current is strong. It is dragging me out to sea! I have to make it back! I have to! I look up, locking eyes with the jaguar. It stares at me, then fixes its gaze on the horizon. I turn around to see a dark purple bruise forming in the clouds. .
I am in the midst of the storm now. The sky is distorted with rain and lightning ripples with might through the air. Back on the beach the jaguar seems to have lost interest in me. It is staring up into the treeline, tail wagging. Something falls from the leaves, a stone, or perhaps a branch, I cannot quite see. It misses the jaguar by a hair’s width. The jaguar flexes its hind legs, then launches up into the tree. I see the monkey drop down, swinging teasingly about the lower branches. Together, they dance.
The waves around me grow higher, laughing at me with their chuckling roar as they splash over the side of the raft, causing my feet to slide. I dig the paddle deeper into the water, but the currents are strong. They seize hold of the paddle, trying to pull it down into their murky depths. My muscles ache fiercely with fatigue. I want to give up. The sea slams fiercely into the side of the raft, jolting it one side. Relinquishing my grasp on the paddle, I dig my fingers into the netting. The weight of the water howls around me, threatening to drag me down into its spiraling depths at any moment. Buried deep within the howls of the storm, I hear the laugh of the monkey and the jaguar’s roar.
All I can taste it salt. It stings my eyes and burns my wounds. My muscles twitch and tremble in some distant part of my body, but I am unable to bring them to move. Somewhere far away I hear a chorus of gulls, swooping and gliding. Their cries sound like children playing. A smile flickers across my face. I am floating in an ocean of white. I am floating in an ocean of non-time. I feel that I am safe, but what is safe? I feel everything. I feel nothing at all. I am content. I drift on and let the bright light engulf me.
I made it through the night. The morning sun glows behind my eyelids, caressing my skin in its warm embrace. I open my eyes to the sky. No longer am I floating. The tides of nature have turned in my favour and washed me up onto a nearby beach. The frothy waves lap softly against my legs. I take in a deep breath. Every inhale invites soothing, life-giving air into my lungs. Every exhale allows my still tired muscles to soften. I am thirsty, oh so thirsty. I haul myself to my feet. I need to take care of myself. Nearby, I find a low hanging coconut tree and, after several feeble attempts, manage to draw down one of its lush green fruits. I crack open the top with a sharp stone. The nectar inside is sweet, sharp and soothing. I feel myself being nourished back to life. Nourished with energy enough to fully enjoy what the day shall bring.
I let out a final deep sigh, dwelling in the moment for just a second longer, then I allow myself to return to my senses. I remember the tempestuous events of the previous day and I cannot help but laugh. Challenge a monkey to a climbing contest? Race out onto the sea and battle a storm? Who in their right mind would think they could manage that alone? I had and I did. I feel like a child, giddy with possibilities at the world around me. What else can I do, if I only put my mind to it?
”How can you make better your future, if you do not look upon the past?” I startle at the familiar voice of the pip-bird. I had not realised it had returned. I turn to see it seated lightly on an old, broken log, its amber chest beaming in the sun.
”Did you see what I did?” I proclaim excitedly, but the bird does not respond. I look more closely at the log it is sitting on. It seems, familiar in some way. My heart lurches. It is part of the raft. I look quickly around the shore. More logs, fractured, shattered and torn drift about in the tide. It comes as no surprise that the raft did not survive the storm. I need to fix it. I must build it anew.
I pull tight the rope around the final log, then stand back to observe my work. I do not know for how many hours I have laboured, but finally I have built a vessel worthy of the sea. The pip-bird lands atop of the new raft, then tweets in a satisfied manner.
”No amount of mealworm could persuade me to go onto the water, but it looks sturdy,” it chirps, then pecks at the rope as if testing its strength. The rope does not budge. ”There’s something over here you might want to take a look at,” it chirps.
With a frown, I edge my way around the raft, wondering if I have made a mistake somewhere. Then, to my utmost astonishment, I see it. There, half buried in the sand, is my plate. I pick up the plate, then hug it tightly to my chest.
”Colourful day you’ve had,” tweets the bird. Colourful. That is an interesting way to put it. The more I think about it, the more I feel obliged to agree. Green for the wealth of knowledge that nature provides. White for the spirit of the jaguar and the mischief of the monkey, for without these I may never have come so far. Orange for the colour of the wood that kept me safe on my journey. Purple signifies my storms and my power. Blue for the ocean wide that supported me from start to finish. The colours swirl and dance in fabulous unity. The shapes they formed look deeply familiar. The soft swish of the seafoam, the slight glisten of the rainbow fish. It is the painting. My painting. I gasp at the realisation. It is complete. I see now what I am missing. I need more tools.
Faster and faster I race back through the jungle. Under branch. Past boulder. Over stream. The image of the painting burns in my mind. I need to get back before it fades. I fly past the first buildings of the town. People see me. I don’t care. I must get home. I must!
Heart thrumming, I crash through my door. My colours are lying right where I had left them. I plant the plate down, then drag them out. I mix them in different shades to reconstruct the rainbow that is blossoming in my mind. Exhilaration thrumming through my veins, I begin to paint like I never have before.
I see things clearly now. The surface of the plate has become a mirror of my mind. I look upon the waves and I can smell their salt, hear the whisper of the distant trees and feel the movement of the fluttering fish. I am a soaring bird, looking down upon everything I have learned and, with every glance I learn them anew. I think of new ways that the sun can dance, new ways that the wind can howl. Lighten the purple of the storm. Deepen the blue of the sea. For now my painting is complete, yet in some ways it never will be. It will never be complete for it is still living within me and always will be. Everything that we create stays a part of us, a part of our mind. For that, I am glad.
I lay down my brush, cleaning the paint from its bristles. A spider lives life as a constant sculptor, spinning new threads for its web without concern for the old. When one web is broken, it spins another. It has no end goal. I will be like that spider and learn to revel in the moment. It is in the action, in the doing, in the experience that the true beauty lies. I will not add any more to my painting now, because the time for it has passed. Yet from its creation, I hope to spin many more.
I peer closely at my plate for one final time. As I do so, a small head pops up from behind the rim. A lizard. Quickly it scutters across the edge of the plate before hurrying away out the door. It must have run across my pallette for its feet have left little green footprints at the corner of my painting. I smile. It is a nice finishing touch.
Outside of my hut I hear the pip-bird sat singing in a tree. I smile at its song. Such a pure expression of being. It has not spoken to me since I left the beach, and somehow I suspect that it never will again. At the foot of the tree lie the jaguar and the monkey, resting in the late-day sun. I bow respectfully toward them, thanking them for their guidance in my journey. I will remember it for a long time to come.