View Across the Bridge
The painter sat at the end of the bridge facing the gatehouse. Its towers gazed down upon those entering the city, silent but unimposing. The church steeple rose high in the distance behind them, not to be outdone. His eyes darted between his subject and the paper in a rhythmic pattern. This dance frequently changed pace, keeping time with the late afternoon sun and its moods. People passed to and fro, going about their daily errands. Here a vendor selling his wares, there a couple meeting, here a woman conversing with a friend, there a family taking in the view. In a moment, it would all be gone. It was his task to capture this ephemeral time that encompassed the past, present, and imagined. He had carefully placed the fixed features of this scene on the paper. At least, the features he wished to remain fixed. Now he must determine who would become the permanent inhabitants.
His eyes grazed across the bridge, searching for something inexplicable. They settled on a group of three, two women and a man, rapt in conversation. The man held a portfolio under his arm. Another artist, perhaps? But he did not hold it as if it contained his very world. He accentuated the air with his walking stick as he spoke. Slashing and jabbing as if in some invisible duel. Parry, lunge, feint, fléche. The ladies laughed as he gestured, much to his delight. He had won their attention and their enjoyment, but could he win a place in their memories? What title would be written above his image in their mind’s eye? This could only be guessed at. So, he fought on against his unseen foe. Courage and determination in his heart.
The painter’s eyes passed to the next member of this trio. The curls in her hair caught the light as well as any jewel. She was polished and preened to her satisfaction. She stood seemingly engrossed, oblivious to all else around her, testing her charms on her companions. This was all practice. Her mind wandered away from the bridge, down thoroughfares and alleyways, past courtyards and facades, into the presence of another. But she wouldn’t share this. She smiled and gladly gave her remaining attention, pretending her world was right before her.
The other woman turned to the painter. Their eyes met for a moment. It was not a meeting of two individuals, but of a subject being examined. She held his gaze, though she knew not why. Even at a distance, she could feel the painterly stare soften into a human one as the guise of specimen fell away. There was a brief and subtle connection between two who may never meet again. The artist’s brush hung in the air in a pregnant pause, sensing the change, unsure of where to fall next. Her companions beseeched her attention once again and she turned away, breaking the newly formed bond. Though outwardly engaged, her mind wandered back to the painter. She wondered how she would appear in his work, if indeed she would appear at all. A part of her wished to approach him and see what hand was fed by those eyes. Decorum bade her stay. Her feet never strayed, but in her mind, she boldly traversed the bridge. She remarked how well he had captured the scene and was then met with her own image staring back at her. Would she like it? Would it shock her? It is not often that one gets to see how they are perceived by others. A part of her ached to see it, to know.
She glanced back towards the end of the bridge. The painter betrayed nothing. His eyes had since wandered. Forgotten so quickly? Her companions had not noticed, but they grew weary of their current locale. There were better places to be. She could not agree with them. The sun was casting its rays far and wide as it began its slow descent. Shadows formed and fell away in gentle play. They left no trace in this world but returned again and again in the memory of man and stone. In that instance, she could see through the painter’s eyes. Though they never spoke a word, though she never saw his work, she understood it all. The companions turned to leave, reentering the cloister of the city. She paused and looked once more to see the sun, and the water, and the forest, and the bridge standing as the gateway between it all.
The painter watched them leave, yet there they remained on his page. Forever standing in a moment of conversation and curiosity. Two eyes emblazoned in ink. Two eyes seeking his own. He broke away from them and renewed his search. They still needed company. A solitary figure leaning against the edge of the bridge caught his eye. He blotted this figure in, an uncertain smudge hidden from the light, an enigma. The figure had paid no heed to the artist or any other passerby. His gaze was drawn deep into the river below, exploring its murky depths. He imagined hidden kingdoms far beneath where no mortal may venture except, perhaps, in dreams. He journeyed to these realms and their shimmering halls, a wonder to explore, if indeed he sought to explore. In truth, he sought to escape and chose the waters of his childhood as a reprieve for his troubled mind. He sighed, drawing his eyes away from the glistening waters and up to the statue whose shade he occupied. There was no fantasy in its stone features. No fairy worlds to be found. He turned towards the bridge and its ever-abundant flow of faces. Some fair, some course, some severe, some pleasant, never knowing what lay beneath their feet.
He looked to the end of the bridge, the last extension of the city, an arm of human vision reaching out into the forest. Reaching, but for what? He turned to the gatehouse from where he had come. The entrance to a city that wound and turned in on itself. Enclosed in its own embrace. Did he wish to be free of it completely or merely carve out a new path within it? Had those arms always been so cold? No, no. They held the warmth of familiarity and the promise of possibility. Of new streets to be traversed and new companions to be met. All within comfort’s reach. He turned back towards the forest’s edge. There too lay possibility. But of what nature? Only experience would tell. His eyes caught the figure of a woman looking back in the same direction. He watched her turn and pass the threshold of the gatehouse. Back into the known. Would he follow? He stared in the space where she had been, almost expectantly, then returned his gaze to the water. For the moment, he would remain between it all. Enjoying the dimming light that brought his fantasies to life.
The painter’s eyes stole away from this scene, feeling they were intruders in a contemplative affair. A contrasting event soon arrested their attention. Sound and movement filled the once murmuring air with energy. A group of students stood near the gatehouse after breaching its defenses. Eager minds and eager limbs vied for attention and excitement. The hard-earned pleasures of the day. Future doctors and lawyers, businessmen and bankers, professors and poets, husbands and fathers, but they did not think of this. They resided in the present. The sun on their faces and stones underfoot. They jumped and joked, lifting their voices to the sky, content in the eternity of the moment. The artist captured their essence but not their individualities. More mob than subject. Their noise held his attention longer than his brush. In a few strokes, they were captured. A mass of colour and shapes.
The lively amusements of the students were also noted by a group of nuns who stood nearby resting in the shade against the wall of the bridge. The painter did not recognize their habits. They stood together in a way evocative of paintings through the centuries. The artistic eye could not help but be drawn. The steeple also kept its watchful eye upon them, within the gates and without. A towering shepherd over its flock. They spoke closely among themselves, passing smiles and absolution to those who crossed their path. Whether there to redeem or merely celebrate creation, each found their own enjoyment in the world outside of monastic life. The artist did not rush his brush. This was a solemn occasion. Soon however, the cathedral beckoned them to return. Its clamorous voice echoed across the valley in a symphony of tones. The day had come to its close. The spell of the bridge was broken. Consciously or otherwise, the many figures and their stories began to desert the artist’s stage. The light was now fading fast, encouraged by the din of the bells. The sun spilled across the trees and water in pools of crimson and orange, rose and violet, and finally inkwell blue the harbinger of night. The painter sat transfixed watching the dying light. Try as he might, he never could seem to capture it.
As the bridge emptied of its inhabitants, he began to pack up his belongings. Brushes, cloths, paints, and paper were all tucked away with care. He examined the result of his labors with a keen eye. Each person stood as they should, caught in the midst of their experiences. He placed the page gingerly in his portfolio and stood to watch the retreat of the sun. It slowly faded back, allowing shadows to creep and stretch forward over the once illumined surfaces. The streetlamps would soon be lit to keep them at bay. Their glow would meet the weary traveler at their journey’s end, guiding them to safety. For the painter, they signaled that his day was done. He gathered the fragments of his world and made his way across the bridge, stepping through the very scenes he had created. The gates welcomed him as an old friend. He turned back once more to the view across the bridge, a view that would never again exist as it had that day, and smiled to know that it would always remain just as it was on his page.
Anastasia Gumbiner is a writer, artist, and art historian. Her work is inspired by art, music, and history. It has been published in Conceptions Southwest.
The Ekphrastic Review
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