Kari is gone. It’s the only thing Rebekah knows for sure and the only thing that really matters; because the world absent of Kari is Rebekah absent of cause, devoid of sensation and the basic human need to feel…anything.
Rebekah’s eyes attempt to blink away the dryness of staring long at nothing and she wonders again if she killed her love, if the paintbrush in her hand might be the murder weapon. There is small comfort in the realization that it does not matter what device stole Kari from the present; be it sickness or madness, she is simply not here.
Rebekah blinks again, focuses on the empty canvas before her, and questions whether she has what it takes to conjure her friend. This easel—holding a different canvas, filled with liquid blue longing—is the last place she saw Kari. That canvas is gone now, but she remembers its detail: Kari’s lips wanting to smile for her, and that awful resigned sadness in her eyes; a rendering of a blue Kari standing in a blue field under a blue sky, painted while Kari lay on the futon in the living room of the apartment they’d shared, two months past the date when her wasted legs decided they could no longer carry her.
If Rebekah is able to bring her back, what will she say? Will she be able to say anything at all? What could possibly be appropriate?
She looks at the palette with its swirls of blue and darker blue and wonders again if she might be losing her mind.
Kari died of a disease, she thinks. It had nothing to do with me.
If only she could believe that. If only she’d been able to talk to her after that last long sigh.
If only she had never learned to paint. Her skill is something she doesn’t understand. The ability to reproduce images is a product of long practice and detailed instruction, but it is her use of color that sets the images apart. Maybe it’s because she uses so little color, but to such great effect, working primarily with blue and purple, although rarely in the same picture. Her paintings are technically of one color, though with many different hues. Her purples always dark but never depressing; there is somehow an upbeat tone when she paints with purple. Her blues seem to whisper a quiet melancholy, but rarely fail to inspire calm. Whether purple or blue, she uses only black and white to mix and create the variations. She doesn’t know how she achieves her ends, merely that the color is right when it’s right.
And the color was right the day she decided to paint Kari, nearly ten years after the day they first met.
Rebekah was nine, Kari eight, both struggling with watercolors at summer camp. Kari had a way of slinging paint that may have ensured a career in modern art if the disease hadn’t begun that same year to eat away at her muscle tissue. Rebekah loved Kari from that first summer, the progressive illness only intensifying her desire to protect and nurture her younger friend.
Later, when Kari’s walking became limited to short stretches at a time, Rebekah broke her piggy bank and purchased a wagon to pull her in. They managed adolescence together, dated together, and—after a singularly unpleasant double-date—broke up with their boyfriends only minutes apart, flipping a coin to see who would go first. After that, boys had seemed pointless.
For a while Kari’s deterioration seemed to slow, not enough to hope for recovery, but enough to pretend. But it was merely hiatus, and one short year later they were attempting to hold each other’s tears at bay, Kari somehow the stronger of the two, as the doctor gently explained that Rebekah should take her home and try to make her comfortable. Make her comfortable—a benign phrase and yet…final.
The days ran together; seamless stretches of time defined only by shifting patterns of light at the windows. Rebekah quit her job. The living room became Kari’s dying room. They played every card game they knew, making up variations on old games as that limited knowledge played out; finally the cards were set aside when Kari’s fingers could no longer manage the burden. So it was television and music, and a kind of dreamy conversation that diminished with Kari’s decreasing ability to draw breath. Then it was simply waiting…Rebekah watching Kari fade and begging time to stop.
Until the night when an emaciated whisper caused Rebekah to look up from the blurred page of a magazine.
She laid the magazine aside and gently sat next to Kari on the day bed. “What was that, sweetie?”
Kari took Rebekah’s hand and pressed the fingertips against her dry lips. “You haven’t painted in a long time. I miss watching you paint.”
* * *
Rebekah lifts the brush, thick with paint, from the palette and holds it before her eyes. She makes a small stroke in the bottom corner of the canvas and feels the familiar calm settle over her—the color is right. It is the only thing that has ever mattered in her art, getting the color right, this moment always a little unnerving because she lacks a formula for her colors, has no recipe for her shades. She wonders if the day will come when the color balance eludes her. It might; she has no way of knowing. But this time it’s right, and this time it must be right. This is to be the final and enduring Kari. She begins to paint, calling not on her fingers and hands to create the image, but her heart; and the sense memory of how Kari felt and smelled and sounded. The image after all is already there, in the color. Blue on blue on blue.
* * *
That night, not so long ago, Rebekah picked up her brushes, her paints and palette, and settled before the canvas. She looked at her precious friend and said, “What should I paint?”
“Paint,” Kari said, pausing to draw a breath that seemed a long time in coming. “Paint something you love.”
Rebekah smiled, remembering. It was what Kari used to say when Rebekah was stuck for an idea, when the blank canvas mocked any attempt she made. Paint what you love, sweetie, it’s the only thing that matters.
She began mixing blues. “I’m going to paint you, girl.”
Kari’s lips formed the tiniest of smiles. “That will be nice.” Her voice was almost gone.
Rebekah’s paintings usually took a couple hours to complete. Blue Kari took two days. She became hypnotized by the process of glancing to Kari on the futon and back to the canvas, to Kari, to the canvas. It was automatic and the brush never stopped moving. She did not stop to eat, although there was a dim memory of feeding Kari and helping her with the indignity of the bedpan.
From the first couple brush strokes she knew something was different. Despite the intuitive method of mixing color, she was a literal painter. If her subject sat in a chair, she painted a picture of that person sitting in a chair. It was the striking, sometimes alarming use of a single, multi-hued color that set her work apart. But this time something odd was happening. Kari lay on the futon, mostly asleep, but Rebekah’s brush revealed her as she would be if she were standing in a cerulean field with a light breeze lifting her hair. The memory of a smile disturbed her pale lips, her eyes round and leaking a cobalt sadness so profound Rebekah could not look on them for more than a few seconds at a time.
As Rebekah glanced from canvas to couch, the figure lying there began to seem insubstantial, a shade of the sapphire Kari coming to life at her hands. She felt as though she were racing time, overwhelmed with the sense that she would lose Kari before the portrait was done. As the hours passed, the world became a dark azure swirl, no sound save the whisper of brush on canvas and the occasional whispered moan from Kari.
And then, the painting nearly complete, Rebekah did something she’d never done before: she got too much paint on the brush and touched it to the canvas where she had almost finished the shading around Kari’s haunted eyes. The thick glob began to run in a slow rivulet.
From the futon, Kari cried out softly.
Rebekah couldn’t believe what she’d done. She could fix it, but it would change the picture—an altered painting was not a true painting.
From a hundred miles away: “Bekah?”
Rebekah began to cry. She’d ruined it.
“Bekah, are you there?”
Something in Kari’s withered voice broke through and Rebekah looked to her friend. Her eyes were wide and staring.
Kari’s voice fluttered like the wings of dying moth. “Bekah…please answer me…I’m scared. Why…is it so dark?”
No. Please, God.
Full daylight streamed through the windows of the tiny apartment. Rebekah lowered herself to Kari’s side and tenderly stroked her forehead. “I’m right here, baby.”
Kari shifted her vacant gaze as Rebekah sat next to her. Her voice was rice paper-thin. “I so…wanted to see my painting.” The corner of her mouth twitched in what might have been an imitation of the smile on canvas had she been able to see it. “Thank you…for being my friend.” Then she frowned and her sightless eyes closed. “I don’t…”
Rebekah waited, her breath stalled and useless, her eyes filling with the truth of the moment. “What, baby? You don’t what?”
Kari’s eye’s shifted slowly beneath the lids, as if at the end of a dream. “I…don’t…think I’m much here…anymore,” she whispered, and Rebekah watched as a single indigo tear rolled down her cheek. “…miss you,” Kari said, and released a sigh that seemed to go on and on. Rebekah wasn’t sure when it stopped because her own cry of anguish overlapped and carried her into unconsciousness.
* * *
She stops before beginning the eye detail on the new Kari. She remembers the blue tear and doesn’t want to make the same mistake again. But she knows it is not within her power to deny it if the tear belongs there. She dips her brush again and watches her wrist twist of its own accord, dabbing the excess. She smiles. Maybe this Kari is done with sadness. She takes a slow breath, her hand poised, and waits for the eyes to come to her.
* * *
When Rebekah awoke, her mother was there. She was in the hospital.
“Where’s Kari?” It hurt to speak, as though her vocal chords had been long unused.
Her mother ran the pad of a thumb across Rebekah’s forehead. “She’s gone, darlin’.”
Rebekah knew that. She’d known from the moment the blue tear ran down Kari’s cheek. “I killed her,” she said.
“No, Bek. She probably lasted longer because of you. There’s nothing you could have done.”
Rebekah explained about the painting, and the blue tear.
“Darlin’, you’re just confused. Kari was lying very peaceful. There was no paint on her face.”
“It wasn’t paint. It was a tear.”
Her mother tried to explain how Rebekah, malnourished and sleep-deprived, had gone into a shock-induced coma after finding Kari dead. The coma had held her for the better part of a week. She’d missed the funeral. Her mother offered to take her to the cemetery to see where she lay. But Rebekah didn’t want to go. There was no point. Kari was gone.
Under strict instructions to rest and eat her way slowly back to strength, the doctor allowed her to go home. It was two days before Rebekah was able to convince her mother that what she need more than anything was to be alone.
The apartment’s living area was dominated by a sense of loss, the feeling intensified by the weeping Kari on canvas. Rebekah’s legs led her to the futon, where she sat to study the painting from what had been Kari’s final perspective before her eyes gave up.
“Why are you so sad,” she whispered.
Blue Kari just watched her, crying her single tear. The image became watery and indistinct as tears filled Rebekah’s eyes. She drew her legs up onto the small couch and laid her head on the pillow that had so long held that of her dear friend. She buried her face into the pillow, inhaling the last vestiges of Kari’s sickness, and watched the picture until she began to drift off.
“I miss you, sweet Bekah.”
She started awake and found herself staring, not at the painting, but at the small blue dot on the pillow. She touched it with the tip of her finger. It was dry, but felt almost…alive. It seemed she could feel a light breeze as she touched the dried tear.
And from the painting: a soft voice singing.
Kari was watching her.
And then the only thing she could hear was her own tired wailing and the tearing of the canvas.
* * *
She is finished. And it is better than before. She smiles as she remembers shredding the old Kari. She was afraid then; she is not afraid now.
That Kari is dead anyway.
She steps back for a fuller perspective, looking away then looking back. So much better. No tears. This Kari is not sad.
She leans nearer, closes her eyes and inhales the fragrance of her lost friend. She hears the faintest whisper: “Thank you.”
She opens her eyes and settles back in the chair. To the palette she adds just the tiniest bit of white. Kari is finished, but there is so much empty space next to her on the canvas. Rebekah shifts slightly to better view the full-length mirror she has placed next to the easel. Her reflection is smiling. A finger guides the hair on the left side of her face behind the ear—Kari likes it better that way.
Rebekah adjusts the mirror, locks the final image in her mind. “I’ll see you soon, sweet Kari,” she says and touches brush to canvas.
Martin “Mott” Reaves