The Artist’s Hat

For Rene, who saw all of us, before we could even see ourselves.

It was a night soaked with rain. Cascades ran down the brick arches and columns which surrounded the town square. Mothers rushed along the colonnades avoiding the water. Drinkers slinked between doorways and alleys – each trying to make their way to the next destination remaining as dry as they could.

He stood in the square, a light from a nearby window washed down over him, highlighting the rain as it fell about him. He remained stock still, saturated.

He stood head bowed. One hand gestured gently palm upward, seeming to emanate gratitude. His other hand was pressed sincerely to his chest. He had been posed like this since late morning. Not long after he had climbed up on his place on the small box, the grand clock in the archway that faced south chimed, and businessmen had begun streaming past him to their places of employment. Shoppers and boys on bicycles carrying packages, turned their heads as they zig-zagged between errands. Young girls in flowing floral dresses greeted one another chatting casually, their eyes rested upon the man on the box a moment before conversation and eyes drifted elsewhere for morning coffee.

As morning turned to early afternoon, an older woman grasping the hand of a small boy strolled slowly across the cobbles and paused, when the small boy asked his grandmother “Nonna – who is that man?”

Pausing a little way from the gentleman, she leant down toward the child and spoke softly “That man is an artist”.

“What does that mean?”

“It means he creates things.”

“Creates things?”

“Yes. you know how you like to paint and draw, with your coloured pencils and crayons? Sometimes it is like that.”

“But he hasn’t got any pencils…”

“No, but remember how your Nonno used to like to play the piano for us in the evenings? Sometimes it is like that also”

“What is he making now?”

“Some days he comes here to the square to share his art with everyone. Sometimes he is just here to remind us to stop and look around at our little town. See how pretty the flowers are?” She pointed to a small window box that overflowed with small, soft yellow flowers. “Did you notice how pretty they all are, placed about the square?”

“Not really…” replied the boy looking up, down and around him now.

“These are my favourite flowers…” said his grandmother gesturing to the little flower box again. “…and yet we would have walked right by them without my noticing. Today he is simply here to remind us. We should say thank you.”

She took the boy’s hand again softly in her own and they approached the man on the box.

“Good morning”, called out the boy.

The man did not speak a reply, but suddenly his chin lifted, and his eyes opened, he grinned widely. Then he gestured deftly – beckoning the boy who passed an anxious look toward his grandmother. She smiled and nodded, comforting him.

The man’s eyes looked gratefully towards the woman, and then he learnt down, urging the boy to come yet closer. He whispered in his ear, before turning him gently by the shoulder and pointing him back toward his grandmother.

“He said that somebody told him when you were my age, you were the prettiest young girl in the whole town”. The boy looked up at her a little confused.

“Oh did he now?” the woman responded curiously. The boy continued “…But he does not believe it – because he thinks you are too beautiful now, to ever have been more beautiful before.” The lady felt the corners of her lips raise.

“He also asked me to give you this” The woman smiled further, as she watched her grandson’s small hand open to reveal a yellow flower. “He said they are his favourites also.” 

As she took the flower from her grandson’s hand she looked back at the man on the box, who was now bowing deeply.

“Take this and give it to him please” she said producing a small coin from her pocket, placing it into her grandson’s open palm.

Now more confidently, the boy approached the man again and placed the coin on the ground, just in front of the box. As he did, he felt a hand shake the hair on the top of his head. When he jumped back to look up the man was stood stock still again, a hand out blowing a kiss, extended toward his grandmother who now grinned broadly.

From where he stood between them the boy watched his grandmother’s eyes make contact with the man on the box and he thought her expression looked familiar, like when he and his mother arrived on Sunday mornings with pastries, or just before they all sat down to eat a large meal she had prepared. When she spoke to him in stories about how funny his father, and his grandfather had been.

As the boy watched her, she reached out her own hand for him to return to her. He waved back at the man on the box one last time before re-joining his grandmother. They turned to continue on with their day. As they walked away, the man on the box could hear the boy ask his grandmother one more question “Can we come back and visit the man again soon? I would like that”. “Yes, my beautiful boy I would enjoy that too”, the women replied.

So, the day passed slowly, as did small groups visiting from the other towns in the surrounding hills. They thought the man upon the box curious, as they had never seen somebody perform in such an odd way. Yet they laughed and delighted at the faces and poses he pulled in quick response to their questions. Individuals would stand and admire him, saying nothing but watching him remain stock still, mirroring the stone statues between the colonnades.

As the changing light of the day passed over him, occasional passers-by left coins, for which he expressed his gratitude as he had to the old woman and the boy. Some stood simply holding his gaze, which he also returned gladly. Meeting their eyes each felt held up by one another for a moment.

The stools and tables of the small cafes around the square slowly filled and emptied, with those eating and smoking. The sights and sounds of food, plates and coffee cups filled the square and then again became quiet. As evening came, the sunlight trickled back over the terracotta rooftiles and peaked tops of the buildings. As it retreated back into the shade, the clockface in the highest arch illuminated.

From a far corner of the square a small figure appeared in a long coat, carrying a suitcase. Methodically he approached the first of the large glass domes which adorned the various corners and entryways of the square. The man on the box watched him pass from one to the next. As he reached each one he unscrewed a cap from a small container, placing it gently inside of the larger glass orb, where small flecks of bright dust gingerly floated from it. Once a few hovered inside the dome he carefully screwed back on the cap, returning the container to a little pouch he wore on his belt. Placing a hand to his mouth he blew into the lamp, and as he did the small specks multiplied, sparkling to life. They created a radiant ambience which filled the glass dome and lit the small area of the square around it. He closed the door of each dome gently and passed on to the next lamp until each had been danced into life. By the time he had finished his round, the square was lit by a swirling luminescence radiating from each dome.

The lamplighter folded up the small ladder he used for the taller lamps and removed the small tube from where it hung on his belt. Placing it ritualistically back into his suitcase he then exited from the same side of the street he had appeared from. Not long after, the man on the box felt the first drops of rain.

Within the hour the rain had begun to teem down, overflowing the gutters of the roofs. While others carefully tried to skip their way around puddles and beneath dripping awnings, an old man in a dark hat and suit strode slowly across the open square. When he reached the man on the box, he paused and looked up. Where he stood on his stage in the middle of the square, the light split the man’s features into contrasts of light and dark. The rain continued to run down his face in streaks, but he made no motion as the other man gazed on.

Without speaking the old man doffed his hat as if in recognition of the artist. Then bending one knee, he placed the hat at the base of the box gently. Raising himself back up, he glanced around the empty square before clearing his throat to speak.

“Look after this hat. Whenever you wish it, you may place it upon the ground like this and speak the name of the one you love. Speak it honestly and with relish and they will appear, and you may both share the rest of your days happily together”

From the box, the artist saw only dimly in the rain the elongated features of a face with deep eyes smiling up at him, before they turned and shuffled into the rain.

Late in the evening, the rain slowed, and eventually as his shoulders began to ache, the artist stepped down from his box, collected the flowers he kept in his pockets, picking up both the box and the hat (pausing to turn it over a moment) he placed it upon his head and walked home through the lamp light.

Some years later the artist had collected enough money from performing on his box in the square to become comfortable renting a small studio a little way outside the town, north of the river close to the parks and cemetery. As he had been able to afford more materials, he had begun to expand his work. He now regularly filled notebooks with poetry and sketches. Occasionally able to come across canvases and paints, he was able to create larger pieces. His paintings and work were often a topic of discussion in the nearby cafes and salons. Some Sundays along with friends he would exhibit a few of his favourites in the park, while he painted the pretty figures of passing girls with parasols, and the boys in their shorts as they swam.

One such Sunday a respectable couple, whom the artist was faintly familiar with, approached him and spoke generously about his paintings, use of colour, the motion and subtly of the images he created. As he gently held her hand passing encouraging looks, he insisted Ana was typically much more expressive. But as she greeted him that day in the park Ana only smiled shyly at the artist whom she so much admired. Still it seemed enough, not everything can be conveyed in words.

The artist thanked them both sincerely for the kind words. He was himself shy in discussing his work, but it made him immensely happy that others should enjoy it so much. After a time discussing art, and in turn many other things, the husband offered to collect some bread and cheese. Returning a little while later with a blanket for them all to sit on, they passed the early afternoon in one another’s company.

As the sun dropped low and the warmth from it dissipated, each began to speak of returning home. The artist offered that the couple would be very welcome to any of the smaller pieces of his work with them. It would be more than any price he could ask that his work found such a good home. At this Ana again blushed but also began to enthuse, that he ought to arrange an exhibition of his work in one of the capital’s galleries. She and her husband had discussed it and would be happy to help the artist to do so.

“In fact” her husband continued, seeing Ana’s bashfulness again cut her short “We would very much like to take you up on the offer of taking some of your work home today.”

The artist replied again, that they were welcome to any of the smaller pieces they would like to choose from.

“It is only that, we have both long admired this larger canvas we saw you complete some weeks ago while walking here in the park. We have picked out a place of for it in the home we are building together, a large wall in our library has been reserved just for it in fact”

Again, the artist was a little taken aback by their enthusiasm but knew the worth of such a large piece and moreover the time and cost in materials it had taken him to create. He admitted to himself he was also, somewhat selfishly, found of it – knowing the landscape was some of his best work.

Sensing his hesitancy, the gentleman continued, “We both saw how diligently you worked upon it. How you seemed to condense the colour and senses of the park here around us down into it. For such talent we are privileged and happy to be able to offer a price we feel at least reflects a little of such skill”

Here the artist fell backward, knocking his hat from his head rubbing the back of his neck more vigorously than he intended in nervous response to the number suggested – more than he would have dared ask and many times that which the paint and canvas had cost.

The gentleman taking his hand from the palm of his wife, laughed brightly and lent down to retrieve the old hat from the grass, dusting it and handing it to the artist. “Perhaps we could also find you a new hat”. He smiled kindly, “It suits you well – but is a little worn” The artist smiled in response, glad of the swift change of topic, “It was a gift and I am fond of it”.

“We also appreciate that some works must be hard to part with, so as for your painting you would be most welcome to come and visit it in the library at any time, to work or read. We would be only too happy to share company and tea with you any time”.

As they departed, the artist again thanked them for their encouragement and generosity and assured them he would see them both soon. Later that afternoon the artist arranged with a friend to have the canvas placed in a better frame, wrapped in brown paper and delivered it to the address of the couple’s newly built home in person.

It was not an overly large house, grander by far than the homes of most friends or colleagues the artist generalised socialised with, though to an aesthetic eye it was obvious that it had been built with consideration. A minimal but elegant, the single indulgence had been the addition of a dome roof to the entrance hall which contained the main staircase. The couple had been adamant the interior of the house receives as much natural light as possible at all times.

On arriving, the artist was welcomed in and shown the space in the library where the couple had told him they intended to hang his work. The Library was easily one of the largest rooms in the home. It contained two tall bookshelves on opposing walls. One side featured a small brass staircase allowing access to the uppermost shelves. The rest of the house was beautiful if not elaborate, a good size kitchen, smaller drawing rooms and a glasshouse with a beautiful range of plants and flowers, few of which were like anything the artist had seen. Ana’s husband worked as botanist. As a result, he had travelled widely for work, but now looked forward to settling here to study the plants and notes he had collected. He looked forward to writing about the experiences and was glad to hear the artist mentioned an interest in literature and illustration. Having been shown around, the artist declined the offers of tea, still timid at overstaying his welcome as it became late. He created a probable polite story pertaining to plans with friends elsewhere, promising to return not too far in the future.

He remained true to his word, and in turn the couple remained true to theirs – he was welcomed at any chance or occasion and made to feel very at home.

The next time he returned to the couple’s home, he entered the library to see his painting of the park hung prominently between the shelves of the library, washed in a clear light from the windows. He blushed a little at seeing it’s place of prominence in the home.

Just opposite, a set of comfortable but modest sofas and a table had also been installed and Ana insisted he sit and consider if he liked how his work had been situated. As he perched upon one of the sofas to look upon his work, the botanist carried in a tray with tea, madeleines and sandwiches, repeating their hope that he would feel comfortable to visit it at any time. They thought of it as merely “re-homing” his work, and certainly did not like to think of it as belonging to them.

And so, on quiet days the artist would often find himself returning to spend time with the couple in the library. The three spent more and more time together, discussing art and travel, writing and the world around them at great lengths.

He noted that many of the shelves of the bookcase remained empty. Though over time they did accumulate new volumes. Often the artist found that if he expressed an interest in a topic, perhaps a week or so later there would suddenly be included on the bookshelves a number of works by prominent authors on the subject. In this way he continued a broad education and the couple seemed continually excited to hear his ideas and opinions on the things which they all discussed.

In time the couple also made good on their promise to help arrange an exhibition of the artist’s work in some of the capital’s many galleries. On those occasions they introduced him to many friends, businessmen, academics and other artists. While Ana and the Botanist chatted amongst groups of friends, The Artist would mill amongst the frames and canvases studying, trying to understand the elements each was made up from.

On such an evening, the Artist found himself studying the composition of the images and the techniques applied to one particular canvas. He was taken by them in such a manner that as Ana approached with a small group of other guests, she was drawn to ask him, “What are you admiring  so intently my friend?”

Without turning away the Artist replied faintly “This work. It’s extraordinary. The colour and boldness of the landscape. The movement of the people – seem so honest, and relatable, I find it remarkable.”

“I’m very glad you enjoy it”, a deeper voice than Ana’s responded, taking the Artist by surprise. He turned from the painting to see who had spoken.

One of the gentlemen who accompanied Ana now stood with his hand extended as if for the Artist to shake it, Instead he stood a moment in awkward silence. The Artist looked at the man curiously, noting the composition of his face, the colour of his brown eyes. The man in turn seemed unphased by the artist’s curious lack of social cues, and so placed his hand upon the Artist’s shoulder with a gentle demeaner. “I’m pleased you find so much to study in my work, I’ve admired many of the pieces of your own which Ana has shown me.”

At this the Artist felt his cheeks blush, he stuttered out a few words of appreciation before insisting he return to his rounds of the gallery.

Seeing the admiration, the two men shared, Ana took it upon herself to ensure the two had reason to spend time together, in studios and galleries. While both seemed happy in discussing work, though Ana recognised her friend’s trepidation regarding other topics. On rare occasions she would tentatively press upon it, yet the Artist spoke only of “training at the academies, differences in technique” and good looks which made him feel “less than uncomposed.”

Through the couple’s kindness, and the many connections and relationships that flourished from those exhibitions, the Artist found he was able to create a good living for himself.

He found a more permanent address, not far from the couple and his friends in the now fashionable artist’s district of the town. Still only a little distance from the parks and solitude should he feel the need of it for working.

He purchased little furniture for the new home but did salvage an old piano he purchased at little expense from the house of a lady who stated she had little need of it after her husband had passed away. With nearly as many dead keys as those which produced notes, he enjoyed tinkling short single-note tunes from it. He found time to read, even to compose poetry, this last activity he began sharing with the Botanist, who had an accomplished knowledge of languages. Both men would take turns sat at the old piano bench hopelessly picking out a melody with one finger from amongst the dead keys, while the other read and discussed one another’s writing. Through these exchanges of verse and stanza, the men became close, confiding many of those things which a person may allow themselves put into poetry, but may continue to omit from the proses of their everyday life.

One afternoon as Ana, the Botanist and he were preparing tea in the bright kitchen of the couple’s home, the Artist thought to himself that he had come to feel as peaceful in that place as anywhere else he had known. While they chatted, the Botanist smiled gently at Ana, and he from across the room, while opening and closing some of the many dozens of stone jars which lined shelves in one corner. The scent of the leaves and botanicals filled the kitchen with aromatic notes, complimenting those of the butter and baking.

The large copper kettle began to whistle on the hob, and as its pitch increased the Artist was taken back from his thoughts, by the sudden sound of stone on stone as one of the botanical jars hit the floor and rolled across the tiles. At this, both he and Ana turned at once from what they were doing. As Ana turned, her hands raised to cover her mouth and she gasped. The Artist moved to attend his friend the Botanist, who lay slumped on the floor, no longer breathing. The tea leaves had spilt across the tiles beneath him. A tray with cups, saucers and an empty pot all sat readied on the counter. The copper kettle was still whistling.

The funeral was a small gathering, Ana preferred it, as with all things, to be uncomplicated. The cards and messages of condolences easily eclipsed ten times the number of people sat sorrowfully filling the pews. Most suitable perhaps, the flowers and arrangements which filled the chapel had been sent from as far across the continents as it is possible for flora to flourish. In the front row the Artist sat black-tied, his hat upon the pew to one side, on the other his hand held that of the widow. She wept quietly in front of the alter, at the casket, through lunch, dinner and for many evenings afterward.

After that day the Artist saw in her a melancholy that never lifted. He would paint it on rainy afternoons in the glass house, attempt to draw it as Ana turned the pages of books on the sofa of the Library. Some part of him felt that if he could capture the pain accurately enough, there on page or canvas it might by some trick unburden itself from Ana’s complexion, untangle its barbed choke upon her broken heart. Try as he might, filling notebooks and whole rooms of the now quietened house, the raven-like-shadow of unkindness never seemed to depart completely.

Still he continued to busy himself (and in turn Ana) with projects about the house, they continued to bake (she teaching him), paint (he teaching her), read, write and occasionally even turned their hands (together) toward the pruning of the plants and flora that still flourished around the house’s rooms and hallways. Afterward on warm summer evenings they would prepare tea for one another, and sit in the small glasshouse, Ana would speak contentedly of the Botanist as they both enjoyed the scent of the flowers and warm honey-dew light.

In the days and months that followed, the pair passed their time in good humour, and companionship. Though the conversation seemed to turn (more often than the Artist would have liked) to the topic of if and when he would find a partner for himself. Shortly after the funeral of the Botanist, Ana had received many more cards from all around the country. Amongst which more than one from the handsome artist in the capital. Each enquired gently into the good health of his fellow colleague. The Artist however, continued to decline Ana’s suggestion to return correspondence himself. In as remarkably generous a friendship as ever there was, it would be the only thing to come close to annoyance the pair ever shared between them, until the day they were parted.

On that day, Ana lay upon a bed she felt now much too large for herself. Many said she had grown old faster than seemed fair after the death of the Botanist, but as with the flowers the Artist had painted her amongst nearly every day since her husbands passing (which blossomed and wilted in turn with each seasons) he thought only that Ana seemed more beautiful now than on the day he had first seen her. From the bed she took her friend’s hand, thanking him for his love, his companionship and his work. It had been the thing which had brought them all together to begin with, and she was so grateful for it – for everything that had come from it. As he kissed her hand, the Artist promised her solemnly he would continue to create after she was gone – and in keeping with the precedent set by his friends, he kept his word.

The Artist remained in the house which Ana left to him, its content included. The paintings and books of the library, where now all but the very top shelves were filled. He had little to move from his old address but paid two young farm boys to assist him moving the old piano, which though still untuned he enjoyed attempting to play. He continued to paint, draw, and sculpt. Gradually his projects began filling whole rooms of the house. Slowly, absent-mindedly he transformed each into his ad-hoc studio, before moving to the next when it became too cumbersome or difficult to remain amongst the pieces he lingered over.

Each evening after eating a small supper, he would return to the library and gaze at the painting of the park. He saw it now as the image which had begun everything. He looked at the figures beneath the parasols, in bowler hats, wondering if he had known then that any of them might have been Ana or the Botanist? Curious if any of his work after would ever bring him to feel the way he did about this piece. It’s light, colour and composition – the way it held him in the moment of its creation.

As he gazed upon it, he concluded that he would continue to turn what remained of the empty house into his greatest work, in honour of that memory.

Over the coming weeks and days, he collected materials, summoned favours from neighbours and friends from all over the town to help collect supplies. Then inside the main hall of the house, around the spiral staircase they constructed scaffolding stretching from the floor up to the domed roof. Once the construction was complete the Artist began to brandish colour and texture. First flooding the hallway with light, pastel blues and white, then shades of violet and ambers. From the borders of the floor, until he lay flat upon the upper rafts of the scaffold painting the dome itself with such abandon and openness that those who watched him work, (coming to deliver gifts of fruit, and baking, lunches and supper) stood in wonder seeing it unfold.

When he reached each of the lamps of the stairway, he began to construct elaborate works in stained glass, which fragmented light into elegant and precise spectrums. He finished each case by hand in decorative brass and copper. As he moved upward, he created even more elaborate pieces for each of the many ornaments, and the windows themselves which flooded light into the house.

When needed, carpenters and stoneworkers would join him to lend their hands and talent. As the years passed and the work continued not a single person in the town remained unaware of the work that went on, and when eventually it was completed not a person who visited could stand in the hallway and not feel themselves moved, uplifted by the shafts of light and colour which washed over them. If he doubted it even a moment, the glint as eyes dilated, assured the Artist that he had transformed the beautiful arches and angles of his friends’ home into something of unique beauty.

He enjoyed many years of community and warmth in the house before an afternoon came where he sat alone in the Library. On a small side-table was a saucer and cup scented of lemons and verbena. In his lap he held the old hat he had carried with him for so long, and he smiled, remembering the evening in the rain when the old man had gifted it to him.

As he smiled, he leaned forward in his chair, carefully now, his back and knees did not move as easily as they did when he had stood upon the box in the square all those years ago. He placed the old hat on the floor, closed his eyes and through wrinkled lips whispered.

He opened his eyes and no sound came. No movement other than that of the light which streamed through the library’s windows between branches of the trees outside. He lifted the saucer and cup to his lips. Laughing lightly at his old romantic heart, even after all these years he believed in magic.

As he placed the saucer back upon the table-top, he heard a knocking from the hallway. Steadily he lifted himself from the chair, calling out a welcome to whomever it was had come to see the house and stairway. The town folk had begun telling friends and relatives of the house. He received visitors from all over who came timidly to request to see “the museum” as it had become known. He was of course happy to play guide and shake the hands of those who admired and lauded his work, sometimes traveling long distances to visit, he enjoyed sharing in the stories of their own homes and lives.

As he stepped through the doorway of the library passing down the hallway, the figure of a man stood leaning one hand on the frame of the front door, where he knocked again and spoke out. “May I be so bold to enquire if the great artist of the house might be accepting company?

The artist then recognised at once the face of his colleague from the capital. Standing there in the hallway the two embraced. Though they had known each other only a little over the course of the years, they shared a unity in their craft, a lifetime of creation and composition, washed over them now. One was as deeply pleased as the other to be reunited. And so after brief chatter of the city and offers of tea, the Artist began to guide him amongst the hallways and rooms of the house. As they spoke, a sense of lost time was discovered amongst each object and artwork, they spoke long into the evening and as such the Artist felt it only fair that his colleague be invited to stay. It seemed clear they had much to speak on, and with both the Botanist and Ana now gone, the Artist admitted to being more glad of an old friend’s company than ever.

After a few days, the suggestion was made (though neither would remember whose suggestion it had been) to remain a while longer. AS both had become so comfortable in one another’s company it seemed foolish to part. And so, they spent the days walking the parks and town. They sat in the cafés of the square, shared stories of art and life. In the evening, as had become the custom of the house, they took up place in the Library, reading, exchanging theories, recipes, stories – gradually the Artist felt himself fall in love with life and work once again. He revelled in the colour and harmony of their relationship, though he had reached an age where he knew they could not have many seasons left to share, he could not regret any choice he had made – for each had brought him to this point.

One evening on finishing a volume from amongst the upper most shelves of the library, his friend enquired of the Artist

“Why was it you waited so long?”

You came to visit me, as I remember it,” The Artist chuckled in reply, looking up from his own writing toward the bookcase where his friend was returning a book. He was easily able to guess what it was that he hinted at.

“Yes, perhaps that is true,” came the response “…but the messages and cards which I sent – you never responded. Ana always spoke so highly of you and assured me you thought something the same of me, or of my work at least, yet not once did you reach out.”

The Artist felt himself grimace a little, first at the mention of Ana’s name, then at the awkwardness which he felt considering the idea he may have caused a man with such beautiful sensibility doubt, or unhappiness through neglect.

Why did you wait?” his friend pressed on now, descending the steps from the bookcase to sit beside him.

As he reclined in the armchair opposite, the Artist still saw in his friend’s features, that which he had seen when they first met. The broad shoulders, refined gesture and poise. The confidence with which he carried himself. But more than that, now he recognised also characteristics from elsewhere. In his words he heard the reassurance and intellect of the Botanist. In the quiet company that they shared he felt Ana’s compassion and perceptiveness. His skills and ability matched any of their peers, yet amongst it all there was an expressiveness which was unique to him alone. He considered all this a moment before he began to speak.

“I count myself amongst the most extraordinarily privileged and fortunate of men in my own time or in any place which history or geography might teach me about. I found everything that I might have hoped for from love in those around me. Yet even as I look at you now, I feel the lightening of a burden I did not know I was carrying. Even after all that I have learned from each of those who have helped me, loved me, I was afraid.”

The other man waited a moment now too, before speaking his reply to the Artist. “I love you now surely, as I would have loved you then, but I wished so much to watch you paint these beautiful pieces, to talk with you as you crafted them, in some small way to have been a part of them too, not only to view them in frames and mounted on walls.”

The Artist held his friend’s gaze as he spoke looking into the dark brown of his eyeshe continued. “As for my work, I feared that I myself would not be all you thought me to be. But you must know, that you were with me each time – you were the idea that drove me on to better myself each day. Painting, drawing, reading… I continued to pursue each one, and improve, hoping to eventually feel a little of the confidence and ability I saw in you.”

“The confidence I wore only hoping to impress you with it” His friend did not wait to speak this time. The reply came knowingly, and he smiled as he spoke it, but there was a sadness in his eyes and the Artist saw his mind search at the thought of all that lost time.

“We cheat ourselves by forgetting to leave a little space in each composition. So keen are we to perfect each brush stroke that we lose sight of our perspective – the very thing which makes our work unique. We forget to include space for ourselves in our work. Do not lose sight of yourself, do not doubt that the love with which you create is the same love that holds those closest to you near. Do not be afraid to share it – it is for that purpose that we begin all art. I have been so glad of the time we have spent together, and I am proud that after it has passed away, you will at least have my work to remember me by.”

The Artist’s friend spoke no more but took the other man’s hand, kissed it softly and walked to where the old piano sat. From its crooked keys he produced a melody which floated through the rooms of the house. At first the Artist wondered ‘how?’, but without saying anything smiled as he came to realise, he knew the answer. He simply played the keys which were there. He sat happily, listening to the strange beauty of the melody as the sun set, and the fire they had lit together in the mantlepiece burned quietly low.

It was a short few months later that the Artist passed away. For the funeral he was laid to rest on a bed of yellow flowers, in a dark suit, his old hat placed upon his chest.

The other artist remained in the house, though he was seldom alone, teaching classes for students of the village and elsewhere, guiding tours of the house and its contents. He gave talks and wrote papers on the life and works of the man who had made the house famous. Having studied the artist’s work his whole life – there was no better authority.

In that way the house traded one artist for another, and when in turn that artist’s time came to depart, arrangements were made. The town council were provided the keys and last testament of its most famous occupant. The terms of which ensured it would become a place of education for all those who sought it out.

In the months that followed, a statue was erected in the town square. A small statue of a man, the likeness of a face bowing low. One hand pressed to its chest, the other holding a solid brushed bronze hat outstretched.

Just in front of the statue, a small stone square, not much more than a couple of feet across in either direction was raised about a foot from the cobbles around it to create a small permanent stage. Atop it the only inscription informed those who read it, that the statue and memorial were paid for by voluntary donations from the citizens of the town.

The owners of the carts, stalls and cafes of the square in particular had each eagerly contributed. Many of the town’s most eminent businessmen, elected officials and academics from as far as the Capital had heard of the fund and wished to contribute.

The town Mayor himself had made a generous personal donation toward the monument and at the opening of the town’s new, now official Museum, he had given a speech.

In it he declared that the remaining money (a not unsubstantial and increasing amount) would be used in the maintenance of the Museum and as a fund for those who contributed to “the preservation and continuation of the artistic and creative values which this town holds self-evident as part of its identity.”

Remembering an occasion from his childhood the Mayor spoke of a time he stood in the town square as a child, observing an artist who had handed him a small yellow flower as a gift for his grandmother.

The memory he said, had been something which had guided many of his ideas of beauty, compassion and fairness in the decades that came.

It seems” he said, now addressing a large crowd which had assembled amongst the shade of the trees, and the thousands of newly planted bright yellow flowers which had been planted along the borders and paths leading up to the Museum. “It seems,” he repeated – pausing a moment to take in the view “as through that one small flower blossomed into a most extraordinary garden”. As they applauded, it seemed an entire town very much agreed.

Dive

For McKenzie. 

In the hope that you’ll always be just a little out of your depth, so you learn to swim that much stronger.

“The ocean connects us more than it separates us”

– John Pule (British Library Exhibition James Cook: The Voyages).

He heard the tones of the ships bells and the washing of the waves on the hollow hulls. They had become his anchors in a year spent passing from port to port.

It had been a brief but welcome respite spending time in this small coastal town, with local cafes and food. All the things he didn’t miss until he caught sight of land again.

At sea it was easy to get lost in the pull and draw of the waves the pulling in and unfurling of the sails.

As he neared the harbour at the bottom of the hill, his small canvas ditty bag over his shoulder, the scent of the sea salt became more defined on the breeze. 

As he approached the ship, Thoma ran a hand though his sandy coloured hair, and straighten the front of the fitted, blue and white striped shirt the company required all deck hands to wear as uniform. 

He felt sorry to be leaving the small town with it’s pastel coloured houses and welcoming hospitality, but the sounds and scents of the harbour and her boats had become home.

He was onboard knotting ropes, by the time the sun was high enough to give any warmth, the ship was due out of dock early that afternoon. As he shouldered and wrapped the rope from the deck, he continued to gaze out over the small port town.

As he did the shape of somebody walking along the pier caught his eye.  Other than the fishing boats they were the only ship in port this morning. The fishermen had been up even before him and wouldn’t be due back yet, at least not by his reckoning.

He paused a moment to watch the figure, who seemed to 

notice as he did, and redirected himself to come closer toward the side of the ship. As he approached he waved as if in recognition (to which Thoma half heartedly raised a hand) and then passed right by toward the end of the pier, where he promptly turned his back again to look back at Thoma, wave  dive backward into the water.

Thoma laughed to himself. The locals, much like the town and it’s architecture has been charming and colourful, but this was a little unusual even by their standards.

He returned to gathering rope, and as he stooped down to knot it he noticed another figure waving toward him again.

This time he laughed out load and waved back “Your friend’s already gone in!” He called toward the figure, as it passed down the pier. The board shouldered silhouette looked strikingly similar. blinking, as the figure waved at again, he took the weight of the rope from his shoulder, placed it on the deck and walked to the port side of the boat. 

“Your friend… he already dived in without you” Thoma repeated, not sure if the man understood him. Knowing however that most of the locals seemed to have a minimum of two languages.

“My friend?” Returned the stranger, he was close enough now that could see his smile, the same bright smile he’d seen go past a moment ago he thought.

“eh, Brother…”  tried Thoma, thinking out loud.

“Just me out this morning, best as I can tell. Unless you fancied joining me?” The stranger replied in a mellow accented tone.

Thoma smiled again, and two bright blue eyes looked up at him. He couldn’t help noticing they seemed the same colour as the early morning sea.

The man was barefoot, and dripping water onto the wood of the pier.

Thoma laughed. “Not worth my trouble, you know what captain’s are like about us deck hands swimming or diving.”

“Can’t say I do” The local stared back at him earnestly “Never had one myself”

“That must be rather nice” Thoma looked back at him, replying with a slight but honest yearning In his tone.

He no more wanted to go diving with the man, than walk the plank. Weighted and bound or not Thoma was not one for swimming or diving. He had what he thought of as a myriad of sensible reasons for preferring his place on deck, and as it happened it was also how his captains tended to like it – which suited him fine.

“Very nice” the voice jarred Thoma back to the conversation. 

“Nearly as nice as the water feels this morning” the stranger went on.

“You’re sure I couldn’t convince you to join me?” He seemed to open his deep eyes just a little wider, and hold Thoma’s gaze just a little longer than seemed absolutely necessary.

“Quite certain I’m afraid, not worth my neck. Besides you seem in good company, there was another broad shouldered chap dived in just before you.” Thoma tried to make the comment seem incidental.

“Only one set shoulders out this morning my new friend” the man on the pier replied now also grinning broadly. He playfully stretched a himself a little – by all accounts trying to make it seem incidental. 

“I think the heats gone to your head my friend, I was the one who waved at you the first time as I jumped in.

He raised his hands above his head making an exaggerated waving motion as he did.

Thoma laughed.

Looking at the length of the dock, Thoma found it hard to fathom somebody diving in at one end and managing to swim back so quickly, still perhaps the heat was getting to his head, he thought he could feel the back of his neck begin to scratch.

“Perhaps next time then, my new friend, or perhaps I might see you for a drink at your next port?”

“Perhaps..” Thoma stuttered, equally confused, and taken aback by the directness of the offer “You’re sailing out today as well?” He looked around the near empty port.

“No, but who knows where the tides take us!”

With that he half waved half blew a kiss in Thoma’s direction as he jogged to the end of the pier and disappeared over the edge with a splash.

That afternoon the ship passed out of the port, and steadily moved down the along the coast, The crew spent no time on shore, eventually passing out into the ocean and the leaving the blue eyed waters of the coastline to pass away into the distance.

As the waves carried the ship, it’s crew and Thoma with it he could not help but feel he had somehow left some small intangible part of himself, drifting in those light blue waters of the coast around the little seaside down.

After some months passed the ship made shore again. For Thoma disembarking for two nights ashore did not hold the same excitement as it did for his shipmates. “What ails you lad?” one of the hulking crew-men slapped him on the back as they crossed down the ships ramp to the new port. “No urge to have those scrawny legs back on land?”. Thoma smiled politely back “a little homesick perhaps” he suggested, part winded from the slap on his back and slightly bewildered by his crew mate’s suddenly apparent maritime accent.

The crew shared a meal nearby and that night Thoma sat drinking amongst them, but spoke little and had little appetite for much.

As soon as he thought the others had enough rum to keep them from questioning his absence, he excused himself and made his way through the small damp allies of the town back toward the harbour. As he did it began to rain. 

He wrapped his coat collar around him and trudged on through stone streets and allies following the rain water as it flowed down toward the harbour.

Along the dock, he took a seat on one of moorings where the ship was tied, it was a large harbour and stretched in a semi-circle out from where he sat. He looked out into the darkness and could hear the waves lapping further out. The dark line of the harbour was broken only by occasional sulphur yellow lamps, flickering reflections in the water. He watched the shapes cast by the one nearest to him in the water lapping at the hull of the ship, and as he did he saw the reflective flicker break and heard the sound of a splash.

He peered a little closer over the edge to see if he could see the what had made it, but noticed nothing. He stood up and hopped onto the ships ramp. As he reached the top, a voice behind him called out “Fancy that swim?”

Surprised, Thoma turned suddenly and lost his footing on the wet wood. He managed to grab at the railing and steady himself.

As he looked back at the dock he saw the shadow of a figure standing at the bottom of the ramp.

“Trying to get a head start on me?” The voice chuckled. Thoma stared down the ramp and in the dim light somehow recognised the shape of the silhouette.

Straightening himself up he walked a little way back down the plank toward the man and this time recognised the voice as it spoke. “Not so welcoming in these parts as back in San Juno is it?” He chuckled again, Thoma could see the breadth of his chest rise and fall beneath his shirt as he laughed. He was soaking wet, and barefoot.

“You’ve been out in the rain?” Thoma’s voice seemed to break a trance, as if he hadn’t really been sure the man was real until now, like he might just as soon vanish if Thoma asked him a question.

“I guess I just can’t stay out of the water, and I’ve always hated flip flops”  Thoma could see him grin wryly at his explanation of his lack of shoes. 

“Well whatever it is you ought to get dry, It’s certainly not as warm in these parts either. Thoma suggested.

“I wouldn’t worry too much, I suppose I’m used to it. All this whale blubber helps” The swimmer smiled and slapped the firm small of his stomach as he said it.

“Hardly” Thoma replied and heard himself laugh too.

“Well look, come aboard and I can at least let you wait out the rain”

He had suggested it, and regretted it before the words passed his teeth. But an invitation was an invitation, and the swimmer seemed eager to accept, hopping to the ramp softly and gesturing ahead.

“Lead the way”. He smiled. Thoma was able to see his eyes again for the first time so he smiled back and turned to walk up the ramp.

Thoma woke to the sound of waves washing softly on the ships hull, and the dull ring of a ships bell In the distance.

Panicking he leapt up blankets on the floor where he and Erik had slept. Erik, the swimmer, with those blue eyes was… is here… he focused himself looking around, there was no sign of him.

The cabin door creaked open and Thomas’s heart raced.

“Good morning” it was Erik, barefoot, topless and holding two small enamel mugs.

“Coffee?” He asked holding out one of the mugs.

Thoma could smell the aroma “Where the hell did you find…”

Stopping himself short.

He saw Erik’s curious expression “Thank you, it’s just…  what time is it?”

“It’s fine the rest of your crew are far down the harbour, still trying to hold down breakfast, they won’t be here for another few minutes.

“Oh … good, well then maybe we could take the coffee down onto the pier?”

“Of course, the suns starting to warm up a little, now the rains stopped. But first I should probably put my shirt on”

“You might even find a pair of shoes”  grinned Thoma standing the up and taking one of the enamel cups from him.”

“Don’t get carried away” Erik returned, kissed him gently on the cheek, took his shirt from a peg on the wall and he turned back through the cabin door. Thoma followed the small of his back with his eyes, and noticed the water dripping around his ankles, leaving thick foot prints as he went. 

Before he could ask anything he heard the sound of voices on the pier through the port hole. He quickly collected the last of the blankets, bundled them into his hammock and went to job Erik on the pier.

The morning on the stone dock was bright, the line of the horizon hung along the water, the low morning tide ebbed against the dock wall.

Thoma stretched and yawned, Erik leaned against a mooring sipping the coffee.

“I never did ask you how you came to be here or why”.

“You promised me a drink” was all he said, his blue eyes did not falter.

“Ha! Seems like a lucky chance, I mean how could you even know if you had wanted to follow me.”

“You followed the sea, I followed the sea. Easy really”

A hell of a sailor as well as everything else then I take it? Thoma looked on mockingly.

“Hopeless actually” Erik replied.

“So what on earth are you doing this far north?”

“I already told you that” his reply came and he looked straight at Thoma his eyes sincere. “…and” he continued “if you want, I be there next time too.”

“Our next port? That’s ridiculous I don’t even know if the the captain charted a course yet, if he has done he hasn’t told us lot about it…”

Before he could finish Thoma was cut off by a booming voice from behind him.

“Well! Looks like Thoma found a friend last night after all” the rest of the crew had made their slow way down the pier and one of them was waving and smiling as he staggered gently toward Thoma and Erik.

At the sight of them Thoma looked nervous and Erik noted him blush.

“Don’t be shy about it lad, more luck then any of us wasters here had last night, good call quitting the rum when you did fella” tight he same ship mate who had been confidently brandishing his maritime accent last night seemed to have a much more regional twang this morning

“Morning mate!” Another of the crew hollered. They each nodded to Erik as they passed and he smiled in return.

One of the larger deck hands, turned back as he boarded the ramp and winked toward Thoma, grinning wide and toothlessly before disappearing on to the deck.

They cast off from that small northern town and left behind the rain. The weeks at sea passed, the winds and the waves provided each of the crew enough to fill there time and more, so when they collapsed into their hammocks in the evening they dreamed little, but when he did dream Thoma dreamt of peaceful turquoise waters and the sun. On the rare occasions when the crew did have down time they were sure to remind Thoma of his friend back on the shore.

So it would have been a lie for Thoma to say he rarely thought of Erik, but in truth he tried not too. In much the same way it would have been a lie for him to say he was entirely shocked when they did pull into their next port, and Erick was sitting on the edge of the pier, swinging his bare-feet in the water waiting for them to arrive.

“Hello there” came the same deep gentle tone, sometimes as Thoma steeped down from deck of the ship. Sometimes sitting in the first cafe or bar that the crew found their way to. But in time Thoma became accustomed to it, realised he even began to anticipate it.

Like any one who spends time at sea, they begin to anticipate land before they can see it, they smell the change in the air, see the first signs of seagulls or birds over head, and eventually feel the change in the current and winds that drive and carry them.

“Hello stranger” Thoma’s reply came, and as ever he couldn’t help smiling when he saw him. Despite it being a span of time since that morning when he and Erick had first spoken on the dock, he still referred to him as ‘stranger’

And so he it was for a whole year, Erik was waiting; in cafes, on prier sides and harbours, always smiling, always barefoot and always happy to see the ship come in.

Eventually as time passed, the crews Thoma sailed with changed, and even the ship, but Erik was be there when Thoma landed.

Erik had introduced Thoma to what seemed like an endless line of friends, colleagues and other locals. Many of whom treated the couple like celebrities, free pastry when they strolled into the bakery, coffee from stands by the sea wall, and sweet rum in the evenings.

“You’ve still never told me how you’re doing this”

Thoma did not open his eyes from where he lay a short distance from the water, in the shade of a palm. Thoma had arrived back in San Juno, two nights ago, and as had become customary they had spent the long days leisurely.

“I think by now you know.” Erik’s mellow timbered voice replied from where he lay in on the sand beside Thoma, his eyes closed softly.

“In all this time you’ve still never agreed to go swimming with me, you must know. You hear fairytales and nonsense like every child”

“You mean to tell me you’re a mer-man?” Thoma rolled onto his side to look at him.

“Well it was either that or some sort of wizard wasn’t it? I mean which would you prefer?” Erik didn’t open his eyes but he stroked his chin with a long motion, signalling as if he were a bearded magi.

Thoma looked at him raising an eyebrow. “I’m not sure which seems more likely.”

“Why? You have a problem with fish breath?” Erik looked at him smug and expectantly.

“Be serious” said Thoma. “I am” replied Erik “About as serious as anyone can be about something you mainly know from children stories and wive’s tales. Really it’s pretty straight forward, I get in the water…”

“and your legs just turn into a tail?” Thoma cut in.

“No. What did I just say you about believing fairy tales?”

“So what am I supposed to believe!?”

“Just what I tell you.” Erik began, sitting himself up “But it seems it would be easier to just show you”

But as every good child knew they should Thoma had avoided getting in the water. Had no more than splashed up to his ankles In the shoreline at Erik’s chiding.

Now they walked down to where the waves swept gently onto the warm sand, and he felt it wash over his feet. Erick stood in front of him, knee deep. “Try not to think too much, don’t talk until I tell you, just try to relax, and breath”

The instructions seemed at best contradictory to Thoma, who was about to say as much, but Erik seemed to have read it on his face.

“Just trust me ok, it’ll be fun”.

Thoma nodded, and waded a little further out into the waves. As the water began to come up around his chest Thoma could feel his breath and heart begin to speed up, he tried to focus on Erik who was looking concentrating hard on maintaining eye contact with him, while walking backwards into the water slowly. No, not walking Thoma now realised, already floating, kicking gently and rhythmically bringing them further out, until he felt it, Thoma’s feet left the soft sand too, as they did he felt himself go ridged, his stomach drop, then float up.

“I don’t want to…” 

he thought. 

“I can’t…”

And as he thought it, he felt Erik let go of his wrists. 

He kicked, flayed, and was suddenly washed over by a wave. 

He felt himself sink and the panic rise.

 “I’m going to be sick”

“I’m going to drown”

“I can’t swim”

“I can’t..”

“I can’t breath!”

…and then felt Erik’s hands on his chest.

He opened his eyes and saw Erik’s face in the water, his eyes looking back at him saying “Trust me”

Then he heard him, clear reverberating gently between his ears “Just relax, breath”

As suddenly as the fear had risen up, on hearing Eriks voice, seeing his eyes looking back at his, Thoma felt calm. Erik’s hands pressed on his chest and seemed to still him.

They were both floating now, further out then Thoma thought they should be,there was a rhythmic motion of the water around them.

Then he heard Erik say again.

“Just. Breath”

Thoma chest relaxed, watched the bubbles rise up and away, as he breathed out…

And then.

In…

He felt the water rush into his mouth and nose, for the briefest instant felt like he would choke, needed to sputter, gasp.

… But he didn’t.

His chest fell, he breathed out again, this time the bubbles were small, seemed to glitter as they raised up, and he noticed for the first time the shafts of sun light in the water around them, the water that was same colour as the eyes that were still in front of him, still looking directly into his.

They widened.

And then that grin, as if the whole thing had been no big deal.

He felt Erik’s arms around his waist, his lips, and then his voice “I told you it would be fun”

“wait you can hear me?!” Thoma thought, or thought he thought, but then thought he must have said it as Erik’s reply came “Of course I can how else did you think we were going to communicate down here, clicks and whistles?”

And with that he leaned back, doubled over himself and swam to beneath Thoma who flailed around a little uselessly, then tried to replicate some of the same motions he saw Erik make.

“Don’t worry you’ll learn fast, you’ve got a good teacher” at which Erik grabbed Thoma by one ankle and tugged him downward, Thoma spun a little,  disorientated then felt Erik’s hand pressed on on his shoulder blade and he pushing him as they began to swim.

It took a short while for Thoma to catch on, but eventually he was able to keep up without Erik having to propel him.

That afternoon was, quite obviously like nothing Thoma had ever seen on earth, as they swam, and spiralled close to the surface seeing the weed crystal patterns of the water and the sun playing above, or diving down through the streaming turquoise and teal, over rock beds filled with turtles, fish and corals. Erik enthusing about each patch or stopping to play with each animal. At one point they crossed paths with a diver, slippered and moving a long a coral bed, a little way below the surface he seemed clumsy in the diving mask, shouldering a oxygen tank and apparatus.

Unable to resist Erik had suggested “Lets say hello” the diver of course didn’t have the first idea what to do seeing two ‘mer-men’ swim toward him, Erik spun circles around him, literally spiralling above and below him caressing him playfully as if flirting with the confused man, who felt clearly out of depth.

As he watched Thoma noticed that Eriks legs seemed to have small fins around the ankles, his skin in places seemed a metallic colour in the light”

As they sped up and waved good bye jovially, Thoma was finding it harder to keep pace with Erik, years of serving on ships had keep him active and fit, his body was not used to moving like this.

“Could we slow down a little, I’m getting a little tired out”

“Of course, sorry I’m just excited I suppose. I know a good spot to take a rest just up ahead.” Erik circled around to swim back beside Thoma until then reached another patch of brightly coloured coral. 

As they approached it Thoma noticed a kind of horizon line ahead where the water seemed to change colour, they floated over the coral, Erick took him again by the wrist and drifted down to sit on a lip of rocks, in front of them the water spread out in every direction, beneath where their feet dangled over the edge of the cliff, the water ran so deep it turn to an utter blackness, above the surface shimmered a great circular window of light seemed miles away, the expanse was at once over whelming, but perfectly serene. As Thoma sat on the rock peering out he gripped Eriks hand a little tighter “Breath” Erik’s voice came again as if replaying that morning when Thoma was swallowed by the first wave, and 

Thoma realised that he had been holding his breath. “Why do you ever come up?” He continued staring out into the vast blue shifting light as he asked.

‘For you” Erick replied. Thoma turned to look at him, his expression seemed shocked, or angry.

“For others too, and the coffee –  but for a long time now, mostly for you.”

“They don’t have good coffee down here?” 

“Nope” their words seem to reverberate in the water, as if carried out on the current over the cliff edge.

“The things you must have seen…” 

“Are the same things as everywhere.”

“It’s so beautiful, so peaceful”

“There is cruelty too, perhaps not like we have manufactured up there, but there are things In measure to the beauty, down in the cold, if you look for them, they will find you.”

Thoma felt a chill as he looked down past his bare feet into the dark.

“So what about these?” Thoma reached out and lifted Erick’s hand examining the length of his wrist where small silvery blue fins that protruded from his skin”

“Spend long enough down here you begin to adapt, You spend ten minutes in the water and relax you’ll be able to breath, ten years you’ll have a tail.”

He smiled at Thoma, twisted his head and flexed his ears, when he did Thoma could see slits open along the side of his neck, small gills flapped open and close as he moved his ears comically.

“Don’t worry they’re not permanent, they go away again, after a little time back on land”

“So how did you know I’d be able to?” 

“To swim?”

“well yeh, I mean, how did you even know I’d be able to make me breath?”

“Make you?… it’s nothing that I did Thoma, it’s you”

“wait, you’re telling me I was born with some magic Mermaid gene?”

“No, I’m telling you anyone can do it Thoma, it’s only a matter of being able to trust yourself, or perhaps being able to trust somebody else to show you”

“I told you, it’s not fairytales, parents don’t tell their children because they’re afraid of losing them, afraid if they go they might never come back”

So then enlist them with shipping companies, voyage them on trade routes, on charters, on courier vessels, that way at least they have a schedule for when they’ll return home.

“You can’t blame them, you said it yourself – why would you ever come up?

You have to find those reasons for yourself. I’m just glad I found you on that stupid ship that morning. It’s no better living a whole life down here than it is living one on a shipping boat it’s just different. Like I said they’re the same things everywhere it’s just different perspectives”. He put his hand gently on Thomas chin, tilted it upward.

Above a school of dolphins crossed through the centre of the circle of light above them perfectly for a moment.

“It’s all just about perspective”

They returned back to the shore line after that.

When they came out of the water, it was late evening, the sun was setting a little further down the coast behind small terracotta roofs.

The air felt strange to Thoma, seemed to burn the back of his throat slightly.

It seemed colder than what he expected, and he shivered a little as they both walked shirtless, by the time they reached the lights on the edge of the town the moon had appeared over head. Thoma sat at the base of a tree a little back from the water, not far from where they had lay side by side this morning. He stared out at the moon and the waves.

Erik saw Thoma shiver again and moved to sit by him,intended to try and keep him warm.

“You might feel a little weird in the air, it’s a lot for your body to adjust to after the first time”

“I don’t understand” replied Thoma, he didn’t look away from the moon which passed behind clouds, and itself seemed as if it could be underwater.

“Breathing underwater is kind of a big change, it’ll make you tired it’s probably why you’re shivering” replied Erik.

“No I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me…” Thoma’s voice trailed off.

“About being able to breath water?”

“Yes, About everything”

Erik looked expectantly at him. “I told you, I figured you already knew. Everyone gets told the stories to scare then, keep them out of the water. To keep them doing what the companies need them to.”

“You think that’s it, you think it’s some huge scheme to line the pockets of merchants, and the banks on the iron isles?”

“I chose to be on the ships, I didn’t have to, I could have done whatever I wanted”

“What would you have done?” Erik’s tone was still soft, steady.

Thoma could not maintain the gentle composure any longer.

“I don’t know. I could have run a restaurant, I could have studied maps like my father, I could have stayed at home, done whatever I liked”

And you’d have been happy?” Erik voice cam again soft like the waves.

“Perhaps I don’t know, maybe. Are you happy?” Thoma snapped back now. “…Down their with nothing but sharks to worry about?”

“There are more than sharks Thoma, trust me, but you know the answer to that, If I was happy I would never have wanted to come up I the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with the companies, it’s not an evil plot, they do what they do because they have to. And yes merchant kings and their son’s grow fat, but I have no desire to grow fat and old on one of your a cold rocky island…” Eriks voice was still steady, but it seemed to swell a little.

“Fat and old, like me, like my parents.”

“I can’t help if you parents raised you to be afraid of learning things for yourself”

“I’m afraid?! Me and everybody I’ve ever known. You said it yourself, there’s more than just sharks down there Erik. The company keeps us out of the water so everything else that’s down there stay DOWN THERE”.

Erik looked at him, his eyes seems to have deemed in the dying light, and Thoma began to feel the first drops of rain he had not noticed the rain clouds collect”

“You’d rather everything that is ‘down there’ Erik stressed the words “simply stay’s there?, Simply rots in the oceans that your companys pollute?” We won’t always have a choice Thoma, that a few of us who can leave do” 

“And what do you expect? Jobs with the company, money? Compensation for dead coral reefs?” Thoma was angry in a way he’d not felt, for things he’d never had to consider before.

But his parents had raised him, worked hard to get them where they were and now he was being told that that was wrong?

The rain was coming down hard now, splashing heavily in the waves that pooled on the sand.

‘Then go, back into your water, back down and drown for all I care, you cannot take me away, you can’t take the life me and my family to make.”

Erik stood for a minute looking at Thoma, the rain washing down him. “If that is how you feel.” He bowed his head, turned and walked into the waves.

It was a night far off the shore of that port down or any coast that sleep deprived, and still sorrowful Thoma’s worse fear finally came true. Still hurting and hollowed he had been distracted from nearly everything by thoughts of his last words with Erik for weeks now. Weeks of cold sea he no longer counted.

It was in this cold stupor Thoma did not hear the screams of his ship mates as the wave washed over and he was blasted out over the edge of the deck, with such force that for just a moment he felt his weight suspended in the air, before his was plunged into the dark dread and turmoil of the water below.

The darkness and the storm consumed him. The other deck-hands who had seem him go over, shouted and pitched on the ship’s deck but carried no hope of seeing him in the maelstrom below.

Thoma was swallowed by the dark, a cold and consuming terror. He thrashed and his chest heaved a few fleeting times as he broke the surface, before a wave larger than any terror hauled him back, he lost all sense of up or down, he felt his heart and his mind begin to scream. 

Until amongst the chorus of squall and screaming he heard a voice whispering to him, “Breath”. He thought “just relax and breath.”

The water was cold as it filled his chest, but even as it did the dark water seemed to change around him, the crashing waves above seemed to grow quiet.

He floated down.

He breathed out, and watched the shifting clouds of foam that stirred above already metres above him move further away. He gazed through the dark green, as the hull of the ship above passed over head.

“How easy” he heard himself think as he continued to sink.

Knowing then that there was nothing more aboard the ship for him to return to, he breathed in one more time –  and then swam down. 

Thoma swam until he found a long rocky line of long sea grass which he followed the line of, from amongst it a few frightened fish scuttled out and around as he passed over. Some seemed to glow fainting in the grey and green. As he watched a ripple ran through the long sea grass, instinctively Thoma drew back. A small cloud of dust formed as a large stingray flapped it’s wings and parted through the grass. it swam in an arch over Thoma and then down over a long slope into the distance. 

Thoma followed after it, and as he approach the ridge he saw in the dim light a large dark shape, like the outline of a building, but as he drew closed the cracked hull and masts of a ship loomed over him.

The sting ray swim up and through the lines of the still hanging ropes on the mast and then back down through a large hole in the futtock. 

Thoma swam closer, and as he did he was able to make other shapes surrounding the boat. The sea bed was strewn with crate, some still sealed some cracked open, or half broken. Thrown among them were huge metal cogs and wheels, the barrels of cannons. Skeletons of machinery, some of which Thoma recognised from his time on the ships others, he didn’t

The more he looked the more wreckage he was able to discern, and then he began to look at the rock the wreckage was strewn across, had broken a top of. Even in the dim light of the glowing fish, it seem hard gnarled, fractured. Thoma recognised what he was looking at was a coral bed, but it was sickly and dead, as Thoma reaches out a finger to touch a piece is cracked, broke off and crumbled.

He turned to look back at toward the long grass he had swam past and realised as he did that the whole area, as far as he could was dead rotting.

Unsure where else to would go, he followed the path Stingray Ahd marked. Placing a hand on the fractured wood of the ship’s hull he swam inside, and found it filled with the tiny luminescent fish which had scattered from the sea grass.

They filled the inside of the ship’s hull and it’s hallways with a soft white glow, giving the familiar surroundings a strange light, he passed through rooms filled with over turned furniture, bottles, sacks and crates all In different states of decay. 

As he drifted he came upon the large captain’s quarters at the front of the ship. Large windows were still framed by velvet curtains, now twitching slowly in the currents as the fish swam between them. A heavy table still upright held fragments of maps and charts in it’s drawers, crustaions and small crabs scuttled around retreating into the body of the wood as Thoma opened or closed the drawers. Amongst the sand where the cabin floor once was objects were littered, picture frames, small carved boxes. An ornate looking sextant lay half buried, engraved on it’s side the Company’s logo.

He passed out of the large room, down among the long small hallways, and there in the corner of a small forgotten cabin, amongst the gently glowing fish, beneath the storm he slept on the soft sea’s bed.

It was early in the morning, by the shore where Thoma had last seen Erik. He had come back the coastal town, though it had taken him much longer than he had hoped. Having to hitch rides, or stow away without being recognised by past ship mates or company men. Should he have been caught they could have had him not only for being on board unlawfully , but also desertion. He had at times trusted himself to swim, but despite a new confidence in the water he was still a slow swimmer, even with the advantages he’d been taught.

He had thought along his way, why should he want to return? To make amends? To exchange apologies? For who, for Erik for his Parents, his sister? He knew simply that he wished to see Erik, his sallow skin and tranquil eyes again. To speak with him and hear the sound of his gentle laughter.

It had been more than a month, he spent wandering the small port town and then, finding nothing, the villages along the island’s coast.

He befriended a few of the fishermen, spoke with them. They all knew of Erik of course, called him a friend but had not seen him any time recently. They insisted Thoma should not fret, that Erik often was not seen for long stretches and frequently went traveling. They smiled at him kindly when they saw the disappointment in his eyes and they showed him kindness. They showed him many of the smaller islands and villages that dotted the waters around region, far off shipping lanes or charted maps he had ever seen. He traveled with them in a vague hope they might meet with Erik.

When they found no-one the fishermen invited Thoma to eat with them. Sometimes with their families, their mothers, grandmothers and fathers, their children. Despite having little he usually ate well and was told by many of the local mother’s (and a few the grandmother’s) that he looked well, tanned and cheerful.

Thoma spent most of his days on sea fronts, in docking ports, occasionally taking work to earn a little money. Mostly he slept by on beaches on the soft sand. But was never far from a warm bed and hospitality should he need it when occasional rains drifted in.

The feel of warm soft sand beneath him had become as comfortable as any bed. The sound of the ocean eased helped ease any concern he had, about Erik of what it was he should do. He had not dared return into the water for long since he was forced off the ship in the storm. His night spent beneath the waves had endeared him to it, made him respectful of the water in ways sailing never had. He appreciated it now for it’s unique nature, grace, even the necessity of it’s powerful cruelty.

That he supposed, was why on days like this where, despite the broad open hospitality he had been met with he felt alone. He would always walk back to sit by himself where the land met the water.

On this late afternoon he sat dwelling on the fact that he may never see Erik again. That he had learned to love others, and call these islands home and perhaps that would be enough.

And despite that, despite the kindness and generosity he had been shown. He could not help but begin to cry.

As he did he lowered his head to his chest, and the drops fell, met by the waves that were drawing in and out between his bare feet.

He tasted the salt in his tears as they ran down his cheeks, and gathered on his lip. And then he felt a soft hand wipe them away.

“I keep trying to tell you, this isn’t a Hans Christian Anderson story.”

“Erik” Thoma looked up, and suddenly feeling embarrassed, he wiped at his face.

“Nobody likes it when princess needs a gallant prince to come rescue her. You’ve been doing just fine by yourself princess.” He emphasised the last word.

Thoma smiled, laughing a little at his mocking, but still confused. “Why?”

“Because I hate seeing you cry.” Erik replied simply, moving along side him to sit in the sand.

Thoma looked around himself, where he now sat submerged up to his ankles as the tide water washed around him coming in and out, he wiped his face again.

Erik looked at him. “You think that this ocean is not your ocean, but it is. It is inside of you, you are connected, made of the same things: water and salt.”

Nobody tells you this as a child because they cannot bare the thought of you leaving. They heard the stories of monsters and krakens from their parents before them, and they want to keep you safe.

Yet they know they cannot not keep you safe on land at home forever, so the best they can do is ensure you are part of a good company. A good job in safe hands, that will navigate you away from rough seas.

But sometimes we want to go a little further, we want to know what is at the edge of the map. And those things you simply have to find out for yourself.

Industry tears at these oceans, attempts to harness them and divide them, own them. It can pollute them, dredge them, but eventually things move toward balance.”

Thoma nodded, looking at him, he had missed the blue of those eyes.  “Eventually people learn, We fight the water long enough it will drown us, even if it’s too late for yourself, there’s always somebody else waiting on the shore to be shown whats off the edge of the map.”

No one can fight the sea. The tide has all the time in the world, we humans grow tired fast, whole civilisations learned the hard way. And now they’re down there, and we’re up here.”

“At least for the moment.” Erik replied we could just as easily be down there, living – It’s all about perspective he said walking out into the waves and laying down to float on them.

So where to next? He called out to Thoma.

Wherever the tide takes us I suppose replied Thoma.

“I like the sound of that” said Erick and “Don’t worry, I’ll help you break the news to your folks that you’re a Merman”.