“Ummm, yeah. Yeah!” I stammered as what she was suggesting sank in with increasing gravity.
“Yeah! That would be awesome!”
She nodded, “Good.” Then rose from the wicker chair, grabbing her mug of rich, dark aromatic tea from the small table between us.
She’d seen me photographing the waves and rocks, and her home perched high up on the rocks. I was quite thirsty and graciously accepted the offer of tea she called down to me from above.
We’d talked for hours, as morning turned to lunch, (which she made for me with ingredients fresh from her garden) and then, hours later, to another round of tea. We’d talked about photography, about art, about beauty. She was remarkably well versed in art history, in aesthetics, in how to set a frame so the elements within it worked in harmony, to create beauty and meaning.
After lunch, she’d let it slip that she was a painter, herself. And of some renown, though I’d never heard of her before. “I’m very popular within the Folk Art movement,” she demurred. I had just asked if she would show me some of her work. Instead, I was going to have the treat of watching as she created it. Wonderful!
Now she rose with a regal grace, an effortless gravity, the mug wrapped snuggly between the palms and fingers of both hands. She drew it close to her breast, as if she were lovingly cradling an infant. In retrospect, I really can’t be sure if it was so she could feel its warmth, or whether the force of her presence was keeping the tea warm.
She was five stately strides away by the time I snapped out of my reverie, hastily pushed my chair back and reached for the mug I’d been sipping from for the past half hour. Strangely, it was still full, and vapour curls caught the sunlight.
“You won’t need that.”
What? She hadn’t looked back…
“Just bring your camera,” she finished, then began lightly and confidently stepping down the rough rocky descent to the beach below.
I grabbed my camera from its bag and hurried to catch up. She was halfway to the sand by the time I reached the edge, where I shouted down over the sound of the crashing waves, “I thought we’d be going into the house!?”
“Why would we do that?” She replied, in the same soft husky whisper she’d used moments ago while sitting across from me at the table. It reached my ears easlly, a sonorous song which touched me as though the song had been written and sung only for me.
In just a few more steps, she reached the beach and stopped. A dozen or so heartbeats later, I realized I’d stopped as well, and she was probably waiting for me. I started the awkward and somewhat risky downclimb, clutching the camera close to my chest while using the other hand to assist myself down the unruly rock.
Then I realized I hadn’t answered her question yet. In halting words, broken into spaces by grunts and the occasionally painful wince, I stammered out, “Isn’t your studio in your house?”
I nearly tumbled from the rocks to the sand, managing only just to get my feet under me, juggling the camera between both hands while staggering to stay upright. I came to a full stop about ten feet away from her, gathered myself up and faced her.
She shook a little with the tremors of soft, gentle laughter, the sweetest laugh I’d ever heard, bemused yet somehow loving, like when you see someone do something so damn kind you just want to smile and laugh at the perfection of the world. She was laughing not because I’d just reprised the full catalogue of physical comedy in my decent down the rock face, but because I’d done it with complete humanity, and stood before her with a sincere dignity.
And so I laughed with her. The little laugh that’s mostly in your eyes, and the way your mouth curves up on one side. The knowing laugh you share with someone known to you intimately for years, and years.
She looked at me. Looked into me. And winked. I wished right then in my heart that it would be more than the one afternoon I would ever spend with her.
God, she was a magnificent human being. Long grey hair cascading over one shoulder in a braid. Browned skin, taut yet wrinkled, drawn smoothly along the contours of finely chiseled features. But it wasn’t the features that made her magnificent.
“Silly man!” She said, then, throwing her arms out and up, “This is my studio!”
A lot of men might have been intimidated by her. I was. More than a little. And maybe some men would have been insulted, being called silly by a woman who intimidated them.
What made her magnificent was her presence, her bearing. Some people just seem to belong in whatever place they are. She had all that, and more. It seemed like, well, she was the place. Not that she owned it or anything. Or that it existed for her. But… it was there because of her.
That’s powerful. That’s presence. That’s gravitas.
I wasn’t insulted, because she wasn’t belittling me. What she was saying was, “I’m going to show you something extraordinary, something exquisite, something you really, really do want to know.” Don’t ask me how I knew that. It was… apparent. There for anyone to see. There was no meanness in her. There was nothing so petty as a put-down in her, no desire to demean anyone.
“Come over here!” She said, practically skipping to a section of the small, sandy beach below the high tide line, but above the point the waves were then reaching with the advancing tide. By the time I caught up with her, she was crouched down, on the balls of her feet, one hand on a knee, the other delicately tracing lines across the sand.
So I crouched beside her, watching her. “Do you see the patterns?” she asked, still looking down at the sand. I looked down, where she was tracing figures, and for the first time noticed the sheen of lightly coloured sand resting on top of the denser sepia-toned sand. I’d thought the whole beach to be sepia, but there was this light, glimmery sheen on top of that. More than that, there were indeed delicate patterns formed by the lighter sand.
And the darker sand, it wasn’t sepia at all. It was a grey/green, sort of a sage.
How did I not see that? A trick of the light? A trick of my eye?
“Oh, come on,” she prompted me again, “you have to see them.”
“Oh! Yes! Yes, of course I see them.”
“Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t they just perfect?”
I looked for a moment. Saw sweeping lines formed by the lighter sand. Some dead straight. Some organic curves. And between the lines, light sand or dark sand filled in, creating patterns of darkness and light. Much of it was, indeed, beautiful in that way that nature is beautiful. But, some of the lines and shapes in the area she was gesturing toward seemed more chaotic to me. Discordant with the long sweeping arcs. There seemed to be no… harmony to it.
“Yes,” I responded, “this over here would make a beautiful photograph.”
“Oh yes!” She actually beamed at me. “You do have a good eye! Why don’t you take that photo?” So I lined up the frame, checked my meter settings and clicked the shutter. We both looked at the display screen. It really did look great.
She pointed to the discordant area. “Why don’t you take that shot too?”
I looked at it again. Tilted my head sideways, looking for an angle I could frame something interesting. “I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be anything there.”
She smiled. The smile my favourite teacher used to give me whenever I had asked the right question in class.
“Why not? Aren’t there some shapes, and lines? Is there nothing at all beautiful in there?”
I thought about my answer. “I don’t see any order there. It’s a jumble. I like clean, precise lines. Complex is OK. But there’s almost always somethinģ that seems mathematically perfect about a good line. Those lines are all chaotic.”
She looked at me, thoughtfully. “I see what you mean by “chaos”. That nobody has come up with a mathematical formula to describe what’s going on the the nature at work. But do you really think that means it’s not beautiful?”
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “Isn’t it the math that makes a line perfect, defines a shape that is beautiful?” I started into an explanation about the Fibonacci sequence, and bifurcation, and how these mathematical formulas could be used to describe teh utter beauty and perfection of nature, but she interrupted me before I got very far.
“No. No no. It’s the patterns that make the math perfect! It’s nature that makes math beautiful!”
I gave another shrug. “But if there’s no math, then there’s no order. No order, no art.”
That teacher smile again. “There is order in everything. If mathematicians can’t find that order, that just means they have something to learn. Just like you mister.” And on that note, she practically beamed. “No matter. If you can’t see it yet, there are other things I can paint for you.”
And with that a wave came through with a thin film of water, just enough to wipe away the patterns and rearrange the light sand into new patterns. The red carapace of a dead crab floated into the frame, adding a new colour and texture to the frame. As the water washed up by the wave drained away, I shot a couple new images before she could ask.
She actually “Oooh”ed, then smiled at me. “Nice shot!”
And then another wave rolled through, changing the patterns again.
We kept this pattern up as wave after wave kept creating patterns for me to photograph. I couldn’t find beauty in all of them, but she would always assure me there was.
“The dark sand is the canvas, and the organics are the paint. The waves are the paint brush. So, every time a wave comes through that’s just me — I mean, nature — that’s just nature painting a new picture. And nature never paints an ugly picture. It’s always beautiful.”
When a new wave would “paint” a beauty I couldn’t see, she’d try to give me a perspective or an insight that would help me see it. And sometimes I would. So I was learning a lot. Learning new ways of seeing.
My time for departure was drawing near, so we clambered up the rocks back to the house. Rather, I clambered while she seemed to glide through the sharp angularities with feline grace. By the time I’d breathlessly crested the top, she was waiting with a large glass of water. She just smiled as I drank it down between breaths.
Our conversation had grown increasingly casual, and we’d mixed in some topics that weren’t wholly about art. I was still curious about the white sand. Where did it come from? So, handing back the glass, I asked her.
“Oh, that’s not sand,” she said, holding up the crab carapace she must have picked up from the beach. “It’s shell. From crabs, and mussels, oysters and clams. Barnacles.”
“I had no idea!” I said, while packing my camera into its bag. Just about ready to leave.
But she wasn’t finished.
“Yes, it’s not sand but the ground up shells of thousands of animals. I guess, in a sense, thousands of animals had to die so I could paint for you today, so you could learn about what’s perfect, what’s beautiful.”
I stopped, and looked at her. “Hmmm…. I’d never thought of it that way before.”
That smile again. It warmed me. I wondered what was coming.
“So what do you think that means for you? Does it make you want to do anything differently when you photograph?”
“Hmmmm,” I thought. “I suppose I could express gratitude to those creatures. Thank them for offering me such beauty.”
The gentle laugh, again. “Well, yes. That too.”
Then she fixed me with a look deep into my eyes, deep into me. “What it really means is, ‘Don’t fuck it up!‘”
She held that look, held me to the depth of my core, for a number of uncomfortable seconds.
Then leaned back and laughed in a hearty guffaw. Even slapped me on the back.
We said our goodbyes. She gave me the most wondrous of hugs, a kiss on the cheek and sent me on my way with a wave and a blown kiss.
I never did see her again. I went back to the area on another trip a few years later, and went to look her up. But she wasn’t there anymore. There wasn’t a house there. As far as I could tell, it didn’t look like there ever had been.
But I still carry her with me. Or rather, she is in everything I see, everything I photograph. And I’ll never forget that last bit about not fucking it up.
I’ve tried to be authentic and sincere in my photography ever since. In my photography. In my art. In my life. And I’ll never stop looking for beauty, the beauty in everything.
I must be doing OK. Something makes me think I’d be getting a visit if I wasn’t.
This story continues in The Seashell Nebula
British Columbia, Canada
Taken during travels, June 23, 2015 (Today!)
This is Day Two of my responses to the Five Photos, Five Stories challenge. The challenge rules: “Post a photo each day for five consecutive days, and tell a story about each photo. The story can be truth or fiction, poetry or prose. Each day one must also nominate a fellow blogger to participate in the challenge.”
Since I post at least one photo and story a day already, I’ll up the ante… Wednesday, I started what will probably work out to be a five day road and ferry trip. So, on each day I’ll post a photograph taken that day, along with a story. (Which should be interesting as I’m still working out the kinks of my photographic workflow on this tablet I’m travelling with.)
For the last bit of today’s challenge, I nominate Chloe Cocking, a fellow member of my writer’s group, New West Writers. Chloe just got the ball rolling for the second edition of our group’s NWW Photo Prompt challenge, with the post, Dimples, and is hot to have a go at more photo prompts. Looks like I’ll be offering her some of my photographs from my Pix to Words posts, so it’ll be interesting to see what she comes up with. 🙂
As I write these, they’ll show up on the Five Photos Five Stories tag page, but in reverse order of the days posted.
Finally, here are a few more images I shot on the beach on which this story occurs.