Artist As Witness
He placed his foot onto a small ledge, testing it before he transferred his full weight onto it and climbed further. The slope became steeper as he neared the crater. Earl paused for a moment, wiping the sweat from his face. He had taken about an hour to get where he was, he estimated. He could stay for a couple more before he had to head back.
Earl took a deep breath and started moving again. He was in good shape for his age - the benefits of having to defend himself on a daily basis - but climbing the last few meters, he felt each one of his sixty-two years.
When he reached the edge of the crater, Earl looked down and frowned. He had heard the explosion the previous night and assumed it was a bomb (after that the major cities had been turned to ash, the pilots had started dropping bombs at random), but now that he was looking at it, he saw he had been wrong.
Must be a meteorite, then. Earl had never seen one. The rock stuck at the center of the crater was a smooth, matte black freckled with rust-colored spots. It was as high as Earl’s leg, and about four times as large.
He took his time walking around the crater, studying the strange object from a distance. The meteorite was beautiful in a stark, foreign sort of way. He had lost his faith in religion years ago, but he still remembered the shiver of awe that had run through him on visiting some of the great European cathedrals during his honeymoon. The feeling the meteorite inspired in him was very similar.
From a certain angle, the rock looked like a weapon. A sharp, oversized dagger. Liking the image, and the gigantic, unearthly creatures it called to mind, Earl sat down on the edge of the crater and opened his bag.
As always, he counted the pages left in his drawing book before starting anything. One, two, three, four, five. He wasn’t sure what he would do when he reached the end of the book. He hadn’t seen another one in a long time. Even if he did miraculously find one, how would he afford it? People knew the value of paper. You had to have something they wanted, something they were in desperate need of, in order for them to consider a trade.
Putting his concern aside, Earl reached into his bag and took out his brushes and watercolors. He looked around. No one else in sight. This hill, as far as he knew, stood apart from the several shelters in the area, and the desert landscape made it easy to spot anyone approaching. Reassured, Earl gently took the lid off the tin watercolor box.
Some of the shades he had run out of long ago. Ultramarine, Sap Green and Phthalo Blue were just empty compartments, and he was nursing the last of his Chinese White, trying to preserve it as long as he could. Paint wasn’t as difficult to get as paper, because most people didn’t care for it, but the suppliers around the area knew Earl by now. They would bargain hard.
Dabbing his forehead with the handkerchief, Earl slipped his other hand in the bag again. The small bottle of water he extracted was nearly empty. He uncapped it and, very slowly, tilted it so a few drops fell into one of the box’s empty compartments.
If anyone had seen him, they would have thought he was insane. Water was the most precious possession of all. To waste it on something like painting, something non-essential to survival, was incomprehensible to most people.
Earl, however, wasn’t most people. Though he did not believe in God anymore, he was convinced that one day, the general situation would improve. The human race was capable of the worst, but also of the best. Things would get better. And when they did, the new civilisation would need a trace, a record of what not to do.
The future, in Earl’s opinion, was well worth a few drops of water.
He had only just outlined the meteorite with his brush when a voice to his right made him jump.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up. A girl of about ten or eleven years old was standing on the edge of the crater, her head tilted. She had long red hair in a plait. Her clothes were a mismatch of items, a sleeveless white dress on top of worn jeans, green plastic boots completing the outfit.
“I’m painting,” Earl replied carefully, glancing around. The girl seemed to be alone. “Is there anyone with you?”
She shook her head.
“Where do you live?”
No answer. Earl looked down at his sketch, then back up at the girl. “Do you know what painting is?”
She shook her head.
“If you will sit by me,” he said, gesturing to the ground, “I can show you.”
She took a step forward, then another, and another, until she could squat at Earl’s side. She didn’t sit, but he couldn’t blame her: the life of a child was even harder than that of an adult these days. You had to be ready to run.
“See,” Earl said, “what I’m doing here is I’m trying to create an image of this rock on my paper. I have to try and get the shape right, and then get the colors right as well. I can’t go too fast, or I might ruin it.”
“Why?” the girl asked. Her voice was very quiet.
“Why am I trying to create an image of the rock?”
“Because I think it’s beautiful,” Earl said. “And I think, years from now, people might be interested in looking at it, and knowing the rock was here.”
She peered intently at the drawing book on Earl’s knees. “Can I touch?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
She extended a brown hand and stroked the paper slowly. “I ain’t never seen anything like it,” she said with something close to reverence in her voice.
“Paper is hard to find nowadays,” Earl commented. He glanced over his shoulder again. “Do you want to watch me paint?”
Another nod. He picked up his brush and dipped it in water, then in the ocher shade. He would do the crater first, then let it dry for a bit, and focus on the meteorite’s irregular surface. At his side, the girl watched his hand move in silence.
He never knew where the blow came from. He only knew the pain, and immediately after, the darkness.
The suggestive squeeze of an arm, the intensity of a glance, the plump, Cheshire grin of stained, bloody lips, these details were seen in high definition through the voyeuristic glare of the lens.
Unnoticed, he coveted this world. With the camera pressed to his unblinking eye, he was able to deconstruct the minute detail of the scene. Viewed as a unified mass, the crowd was overwhelming. The individuals within the group organism were indecipherable. The combination of the rich colour of sweeping dresses, the clinking of glasses and the low urgency of conversation was too much to absorb. The power of the lens, however, was an advantage. The momentary touch of an arm and the resulting wry smile of a lady in green was analysed in extreme close-up. Across the room, a seemingly indistinguishable whisper into the ear of a severe man was reconstructed through the zooming precision of the camera. Incapable of contributing to such a world, he chose to scrutinise and dissect that which was inaccessible to him.
He longed to step out of himself. A cerebral and awkward young man, he had never been comfortable in social situations and took refuge in his imagination. He visualised himself striding up to the circle of men and fearlessly introducing himself. Again and again, an idealised episode played out: a gruff handshake, a nod of approval, a satiric comment about foreign policy. Alternatively, he would offer a girl a drink, something sophisticated, he didn’t know what- perhaps she would suggest something herself. Smooth and charming, he would dazzle her with several intelligent remarks about French Realism. She would, of course, be fascinated and utterly infatuated with him, despite his lower class and undeniable plainness.
While these scenes played out in his mind, he remained a spectre in the corner, engaged but unengaging. He was a shadow, parasitically latched onto a world that he could not be a part of, a world that he was paid to immortalise in pictures. Candidly. Not mere commercial photography, but art. He was an artist. The camera was his simultaneously his livelihood and his defence from the vivacity of life.
Face. Click. Flash.
The flash was an unexpected jolt, suddenly illuminating the room with a harsh white light. Heads immediately snapped round to look at him, disapproving eyes narrowed. He felt exposed. His gaze fell to the ground. He was ashamed and drew into himself, wanting not to be seen, inviting people to turn away.
‘Excuse me, please could I have a photograph?’
The voice was low and musical; the face was wide and beaming. Without responding, he acquiesced, careful to make certain that the flash was switched off. He expected the girl to disappear back into the crowd, and was surprised to hear her speak again.
‘What’s your name?’
He looked at her very hard. He knew his voice would be harsh from negligence. He knew, also, that his conversational skills were not sparkling. He was not a self-deceiver. She returned his stare for a moment, waiting expectantly for a response. He wanted to give it, he was determined to do so. His lips parted slightly, the word caught in his throat- struck dumb, afraid to speak, pressed into the wall, he was mute. She raised an eyebrow, turned slowly and deliberately, and walked away from him.
‘What a rude man’, he heard her say loudly to a friend.
Harry put the camera back to his eye.
I looked and saw. The steam ship held firm against the seemingly almighty force that surrounded it. Technology and progress at its finest.
Yet my eye was caught and kept returning to a small, red fishing boat in the corner of the canvas. It had not the might of steam, nor the weight of steel. I thought I saw the despair of a life caught between what has been and what is to come captured in the eyes of the tiny figure within.