A Line in the Sand

He picked up a worn, wooden brush and dabbed it gently into a puddle of brown paint. He pulled some yellow into an open spot on his palate and mixed them together, licking the tip of the brush to keep a fine point. Gently and deliberately, he applied his brush to the canvas in short strokes. His leathery skin tightened at the brow when he squinted at the canvas, pulling a loosely rolled cigarette from behind his ear and pinching it between his lips. His face lit up from below in the light of the match, before he extinguished it and reached for the brush. He hesitated for a moment, covering his mouth with his hand as he held the cigarette between two fingers. He looked at his model, sitting on a stool in front of him, then back again to the painting. She tilted her head to the side and asked if something was wrong, if she could do anything to make it easier, maybe move into the light a bit more. The room was lit by several bare bulbs which cast a pale, yellow light on her as she nervously shifted her weight, the wooden stool beneath her cracking and settling. He looked up at her over the top of his oversized thrift store dollar bin glasses and pulled a little more brown into the middle of his palate. Almost done, he said.

She reached across her body to scratch her opposite shoulder. She had been sitting for most of the day, something she had never done before and hadn’t planned to do that day. You look nervous, he said, smiling, but you’re doing very well. He seemed younger as he painted, the years sloughing off his shoulders with every brushstroke. His face, the color and consistency of an old saddle, radiated energy. His eyes were bright, and danced quickly over her seated form, to the painting, and back again. Something in those eyes had told her to accept his offer. He had walked up to her, right up to her, ignoring her friends, who were staring at his matted black hair and blue, faded tattoos, and asked her if she had ever been painted. His voice had a rich timbre and was surprisingly steady, and she agreed to do it. It will only take a few hours, he said, but we have to start now. It has to be finished by sunset.

She shifted her weight on the stool, and he asked if she had ever seen a Navajo sand painting. He explained that they were made by mixing different pigmented minerals and pollens with sand, then letting it slip through the fingers to form an image. They say the paintings can heal the sick. The idea is, all of a person’s negative energy can be released through a painting. You see, he said, a priest pours sand to make an image, and the image is supposed to pull the sickness from whoever sits at its center. Then, when the painting has done its work, they wipe the floor, pushing all of the colors together, and they spread the sand back out into the desert. All the negative energy goes with it. The whole thing is created, used, and discarded in a day. They don’t put it in a museum, he said, they don’t auction it off. They don’t even take pictures. Hmm, she said, no. She hadn’t ever seen one before, but she would like to. That’s a shame, he said, looking into her eyes for the first time since he picked up his brush. Art isn’t just for museums.

He licked his brush and dabbed at the canvas again, this time with charcoal black. She studied him, tracing the creases that radiated from around his eyes. They were a cobalt blue that almost looked gray in the dim light, which made him look much older. Maybe it was the beach sun. His blackened bare feet told her stories of many long walks on the hot sand. Maybe it was the smoking, she thought, as he puffed on his cigarette, leaned back on his stool, and covered his mouth again. She asked him how long he had been painting. Two hundred years, he said, but I took a break around the turn of the century. She smiled and almost laughed, but his eyes were serious again. He tugged on the beaded bracelet that hung loosely around his wrist and looked up at the painting. Okay, he said.

He picked up the painting and walked past her, setting it on an easel on his porch. He sat on a low bench a few feet in front of it and stared. She crept up beside him, pulling a wool blanket over her bare shoulders. She set a glass bottle between them and put her hand on his. I like it, she said. It’s beautiful. The best she’d ever seen. He didn’t respond at first, he just listened and let the waves crash on the beach behind them, spraying briny water into the cool night air. He smiled at her and said, yes, this is a good one, then slowly stood and picked up the bottle from the ground. Nothing this beautiful was meant to last, he said, and he poured the turpentine over the front of the canvas and reached for his box of matches.