It seemed as if she had always been alone. Maria was successful in almost every area of her life, save the one that really mattered; or so she felt in those endless moments at night before sleep claimed her.
Most of the time her lack of a permanent partner mattered little. Certainly when she was painting, aloneness seemed a blessing rather than a curse. Nobody to make her leave a semi-completed canvas for such mediocre reasons as mealtimes or sleep, nobody to question the flow of creativity when a work turned out particularly abstract.
Yet when another card dropped through her letterbox celebrating the news that another old friend had successfully produced a child, the underlying frustration she tried so hard to ignore would resurface. It was November 2012, she was thirty six, and the fear that she was going to spend the rest of her life alone with her paintings seemed to grip more tightly with each passing day.
To the rest of the world everything seemed normal. She made a good job of going through the motions of Christmas preparations, sending self-designed cards to every friend and client she had in her address book, attending seasonal dinners and agreeing that it had been a wonderful year. On the whole, it had. Four large commissions together with the sale of myriad regular prints and originals was good for any artist, let alone one who had been teaching at a primary school just five years earlier. When she thought how everyone had been proved wrong when she’d started to sell her paintings, she permitted herself a satisfied smile.
Yet she couldn’t help feeling it was all for nothing if there was nobody to share it with. With both parents passed away, she had nobody to answer to, but also nobody to truly feel the joy when an exhibition opened. Worse, there was the growing sense of time running out, something she blamed on the silly book she’d been reading in bed of an evening, an early Christmas present from a new age friend.
Apparently, the world was going to end. She had laughed when she’d started reading, but the trouble with reading last thing at night was that even the flimsiest theory seemed more believable, even if it was based on the simple fact that an ancient calendar ended on the twenty first of December 2012. Conspiracy theorists took this as a sign, not that a three thousand year old race couldn’t be bothered to write out dates so far into the future, but that the Mayans had some supernatural knowledge and knew there was no point in creating a calendar past that date when nobody would be around to see it.
How this would all happen was all rather vague. Certain groups of Christians seemed convinced that a great deal of smiting would take place – from which they alone would be exempt – while those of a less spiritual nature apparently favoured earthquakes or nuclear war. Maria herself doubted any of that would happen, but nonetheless she felt a vague sense of strangeness as she went to bed that night. That day, perhaps prompted by descriptions of the Mayan empire, she had painted a lush, exotic canvas dominated by jungle plants, with small birds and insects that flitted amongst the leaves, and a sandstone temple visible in the distance, drawing the eye into the scene.
There was one she would never sell, she thought as she glanced at the book on her nightstand. The last chapter remained unread, and she decided to leave it that way until the morning. It was a ridiculous thought, but she somehow felt that was long as the book went unfinished, the world as she knew it wouldn’t end. All the same, it took her a long time to fall asleep.
Her first thought when she opened her eyes was that something had changed. From a warm Scottish bedroom simply decorated in pine and white linen, she had somehow been transported to a lush tropical forest, resplendent in a thousand shades of green; the lively buzz of insects punctuated by parrot squawks. She began to walk, sensing that she was on the edge of something wonderful, heading in no particular direction other than the one she was already facing.
She ended up in a large clearing that was already filled with people. Maybe two hundred were already there, with more wandering in from other corners of the jungle. She started to ask what was happening, then quietened as she saw them. Priests and priestesses, approaching each man and woman in turn, taking them by the shoulders and bestowing a blessing of some kind. It was then that Maria remembered the painting, and the vague sense that she was dreaming crystallised within her mind.
The priests moved through the gathered crowd. The one who reached her was young, much younger than she’d imagined, with flowing black hair and blue eyes. Barely out of his teens he grasped her shoulders, leaned forward and murmured “Your heart’s desire.” Stepping back with a smile, he was gone, moving on to the next person.
Maria felt vaguely annoyed, as if she were missing something. Surely the three simple words weren’t all she was here for? A child’s giggle caused her to turn, a frown marring her face as she stared at the little girl in confusion. Surely children weren’t allowed here? But this little one with her long brown hair and dark eyes was undaunted, coming forward and tugging on one of Maria’s hands.
“Come ON! There’s so much to see!” she exclaimed. Bemused, she allowed herself to be led away from the crowd, though she glanced back over her shoulder to be certain she wasn’t missing anything important. But the young priest was nowhere to be seen.
Back through the jungle she was led, this time seeing more of the beauty around her, the impossible variations in the shades of green she would never manage to replicate with her paints; the iridescence of the insects that darted amongst the leaves and even once or twice landed on her. Somehow she knew they wouldn’t bite. The little girl was pointing things out; small birds and animals that would otherwise be missed.
They still held hands, though now it felt less like she was being led and more as if they were exploring this quasi-dreamscape together. A small hut stood off to one side of a clearing; a shared glance led them towards it. Expecting to find a crude fire, pallets for sleeping and a few pots and pans, Maria was amazed to find herself stepping into a library.
“Read to me!” the child exclaimed, dropping her hand as they entered and running to choose a book from the shelves. A thick brown leatherbound volume wouldn’t have been Maria’s first choice, but as she opened the book the tale and pictures within seemed to transcend age, and for the first time she had an understanding of why she was here. It seemed to take no time to finish the book, and her suggesting of choosing another was well-received. As she stood though, a figure who they had not noticed before, yet who seemed to have been there from the start, kindly blocked their way. Clad in golden-accented robes, he had the air of someone who had no need to shout or bully in order to be obeyed.
So they left, smiling and content, stepping back into the clearing that seemed even more full than it had before. People stood or sat, or just milled around, but the sense of peace from earlier was absent. One man had such a vast heap of gold bars he would surely have been the richest man in the world; yet he was agitated, constantly rushing around the pile and yelling accusations of theft at anyone who looked his way. A woman stood on a stage, desperately trying to gain attention, her appearance and clothing becoming steadily more outlandish and her expression sadder and more desperate as she was consistently ignored. Still others stared into space, seemingly grasping at something that wasn’t there.
The child yawned, thankfully distracting her from these unfortunates, each engaged with their own private hell. “I’m tired” she mumbled in a tone that automatically had Maria lifting her, carrying her past a woman adorning herself with endless diamonds until they came to another hut. Within, this one was just as it seemed, comfortable sleeping pallets with pillows and sheets that nonetheless didn’t quite fit the ancient surroundings.
Putting the little girl to bed as if it were something she’d done for years, she invented another story; a poor, thin thing that thankfully sent the child to sleep before the end, thumb firmly in her mouth. Suddenly tired herself, she laid down next to her, closing her eyes and thinking how peaceful everything was, aside from the poor people she’d so recently seen…
Light streamed through the white linen curtains as she opened her eyes. It had been a dream of course, and yet she felt utterly bereft, as if something precious had been snatched away. Things that had made no sense last night now shone with crystalline clarity. Of course a person desperate for wealth would obsessively cling to the money itself, ignoring that such a commodity is utterly worthless if not put to some use. Someone desperate for fame would never be satisfied, always striving for more publicity, more recognition…
But what of her? To spend one night as a mother, seeing how things might have been? It made no sense, and right now she didn’t even want some unknown generic child, she wanted THAT child, the one who had pointed out butterflies and chosen stories and fallen asleep sucking her thumb. The empty feeling continued as Maria dressed and wandered downstairs, though the memories of the dream were so strong she already knew how she would be spending the day. The child would at least exist in portrait form.
She glanced at the calendar. December twenty-second. She smiled vaguely to herself as she poured coffee, thinking that all the new-age believers had been wrong, that aside from a particularly vivid dream, nothing had happened. She had survived.
She spun round in shock at the unexpected voice, seeing an impossible vision at the door – impossible, yet real, she realised as she crossed the pine-accented kitchen and lifted the child. It was impossible for a dream figure to become real, and yet somehow it had happened. Instinctively she knew that there would be no problems proving this. Papers and documents would be in the file where she kept everything else important. Were others waking up today to vast riches or reunited families or as-yet undiscovered talents, she wondered?
For now, it didn’t matter. She had Maya – for the child’s name had slipped into her mind as easily as the little one had appeared in her home – and everything was going to be fine. Perfect, in fact.
Her little face solemn, Maya was playing with Maria’s hair, tying it in knots that would be no annoyance to untangle. “What are we going to do today?” she asked, just as if the same question had been posed every morning for years. Putting the child down, Maria went on with preparing breakfast, this time putting out two of everything. She smiled as she gave her answer.
“First of all…I’m going to paint your picture.”
Copyright © 2011 Carys