April 17, 2017 by The Citron Review
by Kelley J. P. Lindberg
At sunset, magpies spring into the air in a hurried sketch of black and white wings, leaving the scrub oaks swaying. Buoyed by heat escaping from the ground, the birds scribe frenzied circles in the sky, screeching vespers at the fading sun. Clouds on the horizon stretch into painfully bright oranges and pinks, bruising to lavender around the edges, while a thousand more birds—smaller, hidden ones—sing their mates home. Dusk falls noisily here.
Everett shakes out his hands, then his shoulders, willing the muscles to release. For hours, now, he has been holding a paintbrush too tight, applying too much color. Greens are a whisper in this dry ravine, but he can’t seem to quiet the green in his palette. He has been failing all day to capture the light that is now escaping. In the darkest places beneath the trees, the shadows played at tans and grays, but he couldn’t find the right mix. Just a trace of black should have been enough to hint at shade, but instead it drew a knife into the painting’s heart.
Kestrels, two of them, dart past Everett so quickly that he ducks his head only after they’ve already vanished. Looking up, he wonders if they are a mated pair, or a late suitor being run off by the early bird. Mathew would have had a theory, thinks Everett. Nothing ever happened without Mathew noticing it and worrying it until he worked out what it meant.
Only Mathew had seen him that day he went into town for supplies. Plenty of other folks had walked by Everett, but only Mathew had really seen him. Quietly, he’d worked at Everett until he understood why the artist was here in this land of canyons and unpaintable light, instead of back in California with his family, and his school, and his girlfriend.
Ribbons of charcoal are scarring the face of the sunset now. Should have saved the black for the sky, Everett thinks, as he packs up his paints and brushes, trying to ignore how heavy they’ve become. The trees are silhouetted, their crooked branches tracing a twisted, inconclusive map across the darkening sky. Under the growing cover of darkness, the magpies return to roost. “Vagabond for beauty,” Mathew had called him once, late at night as they lay together watching the stars, but now Everett can’t for the life of him remember why.
When he turns around to head back to his camp, a man is standing on the trail ahead of him, and Everett pulls air into his lungs for the first time all day. Except it isn’t Mathew—it’s Mathew’s father.
“You should have left my son alone,” says the man as he draws the rifle to his shoulder.
Zodiacal light shimmers just above the western horizon, painting a hazy pearl cone into the sapphire sky, but the only witnesses are the handful of magpies still awake, and even they blink and fail to see.
When freelance writer Kelley J. P. Lindberg isn’t writing, reading, hiking, or sailing, she’s traveling as far and as often as she can. If there’s time left over, she’s blogging at www.KelleyLindberg.com.