When she presented her ticket at the front desk, the clerk asked if she wouldn't like to take a map with her? She'd never needed one, but she responded that yes, of course it wouldn't do for her to wander the museum without a map. She took one from the counter and tucked it into her back pocket when she was out of sight, around a corner and down a hall and another after it. She placed the headphones of the audio guide on her ears and chose the track, letting it play for just three seconds. The first second was silence. In the second there was a measured intake of breath as the guide began to speak. To get a first taste she always let it play through the third second, in which the voice began her sentence: "It is...." She paused the tape and climbed the flight of stairs up and turned once more around a corner to the hall that housed her destination. She pressed play.
"...a marvelously strange, enigmatic painting...."
The voice on the audio guide continued at a measured pace as the clouds cast their shadows through the windows on the opposite wall, dipping close to catch her words.
"And note," the voice said, level and not too quick, "the effect of motion given by the leaves, their soft edges implying a breeze passing through the garden...." She looked at the painting, saw the leaves and their languid borders, and considered soft air moving through her spread fingers. That's right, she thought. An effect of motion. She turned to the windows, the tape murmuring on. The windows arched almost to the ceiling, and looking through the thin latticework she heard the painting's leaves rustle at her back and watched the leaves in the breeze outside.
I am a leaf whose soft edges imply a breeze, she repeated, I carry an effect of motion. Her eyes closed. The rustling gained urgency (the wind must be increasing, she reasoned) and picked her up with it; her toes had just left the floor when the leaves' whisper faded a shade. As she tuned into that subtle difference, the leaves fell away, losing any pretense, and the tile was solid beneath her heels. She heard only static as it filled her ears and became marrow in her bones.
She breathed out slowly; for a moment longer she examined the window, gathering herself close, and then pressed the button to stop the tape. Encouraged by the height she'd been granted, she retraced her path down the hallway, around a corner, down the stairs and two more halls, and past the final corner and the desk where the clerk sat and carefully, carefully, drew straight lines and marked exhibits and folded papers into maps. "Welcome," they say, in meticulous lettering above the finely arched windows of the main hall whose curves make the clerk narrow her eyes in concentration.
Lying on the riverbank, she watched the clouds play tag, always heading east. When she felt she'd seen enough she closed her eyes and pictured what new clouds would have drifted in when she opened them next. The river flowed towards the cliffs where it would have no choice but to continue flowing, and the clouds moved on in patterns she would never be able to predict.
In front of her stood a mirror many times taller than the museum, and yet she matched it in height. In this mirror she reached her arm up, stretched to her tip-toes, and brushed the bottoms of the low clouds. They wiggled away from her touch, wisps of laughter spreading in waves across the land below them.
"Landscape itself skipping a breath under the painter's brush...an exquisite rendering of some ephemeral moment..." After this sentence, she recalled, the voice on the audio guide would hum softly on her exhale.
Low and close to the river, the clouds too far to hear anymore, she imagined the new ones already en route, letting their shapes escape as her own hummed notes. The edges of the map scraped her back, so she tugged it out of her pocket and held it up so that the sun pulsed behind the diligently latticed windows. Her eyes traced the orderly lines of the halls and the stairs on the paper. "Welcome," said the curve of the riverbank as it snaked to a sharp edge. The clouds passed her by.
"Continuing out of frame, the trees act as a physical barrier from the outside world. Beyond the marble pavilion of the garden...do you too have a wall of trees? Have they ever succeeded in protecting you? Who is waiting behind those half-visible trunks?" She leaned closer, drawn by a stroke of dark paint that could betray a person's shadow.
She stood just at the front steps, the shadow of the museum looking over her shoulder at the blankness beneath her feet. She tilted her head down so that she could see only the untouched snow beneath her shoes and directly surrounding her. As the cold air settled against the exposed back of her neck, the shadow receded from behind her and she looked into the snow, falling as deep as she could into it and feeling the whiteness soak up the periphery of her sight. It crept up the walls of the museum; the neat stone seeped into pockets in the snow and dissolved within it. The snow buzzed with static and she was drifting between planes, an unmoored point; she lifted her chin and took a step forward-she could get that much closer, at least. The pressure of the snow under her feet squeezed the tips of her fingers, and she walked away from the museum and its shadow that would stretch after her at its own pace. The bare trees that lined the path were quiet beneath the unceasing static, and beyond them the insurmountable mountains stood their vigil.
The clerk told her that a map would certainly make her visit more enjoyable. And why would she ever expect a refusal? She took a map and tucked it into her back pocket. "Welcome," it said to her waist, today in a flourish of Victorian script. Two halls, two corners, stairs, and one more corner. She stepped carefully in the center of each tile.
"The three even arches, coupled with the framing of the trees, place the focal point within the center arch, begging us to come closer, to see farther...but who is this, so close in the foreground?" A lucky man, she thought, to be so close, to be on the stout marble steps. She shifted her weight to match his mid-stride posture, which would always be just as it was. She thought about running her hands over the fabric bunched at the back of his bent knee. He was almost there, almost upon the shining marble, but he would never make those final few steps. The leaves stirred and the arches stood steady. She was a smudge of a shadow, only implying a presence, poised to bolt past him.
In all her dreams, she stood before it, of course, and the arches seemed just that much higher. She would watch the hairs on the back of the man's neck shine with sweat; the wind was marvelous, and the shadows behind the tree trunks were nothing more than that.
She was looking at the painting, in the hall of the museum where it hung, and the trees that framed it spread their branches over the wall, the roots through it, delving deep to the other halls. The leaves fluttered off the wall to her feet, she caught one from its path; it was soft and green in her palm. The branches creaked overhead, the light filtering through them dappling the tile floor. The birds were singing the best of their songs and she knew every note. Looking far through the arches, her gaze swept over the fields, following the rise and fall of the land stretched before the forest. Atop a hill that seemed so small she could climb it in a step rose magnificent turrets. It was a castle, no doubt, if the pavilion and its three arches belonged to someone who could see the trees from their tower window and take solace in the glimmer of marble. The grass was soft between her toes, the sun bright in her eyes. It would be nothing, she told herself, to step right over that hill, over the castle, hardly a few steps at all and I would be everywhere I'd ever thought to go. The thought brought happiness brimming up from within her, and her fingers curled tight over her empty palm where she had caught falling leaves.
The clerk asked if she wouldn't prefer to take a map with her? After all, the museum was quite easy to lose your way in. And so she thanked the clerk and took a map and tucked it into her back pocket. She counted her steps through the halls, and as she climbed the stairs she thought about the height of the hill and the castle upon it. Steps just like these, she reminded herself. It would be nothing.
"In the leaves that hover over the arches, you can see a softness, that characteristic blurring of the edges. A breeze is passing through the pavilion. Can you hear it?"
I am very close now, she thought. So, so close, and then it will only be a matter of taking a few steps and feeling the sweat bead on my neck and the cool marble under my hand. I will cross the fields and step over the castle like it is a dollhouse, and in the distance the pavilion in the forest will glow in the sun and reflect marble like a gem among the trees to me.
The desk, a map in her back pocket, two halls and two corners. She savored every step of the staircase, feeling the cloth of her pants bunch and smooth at the knee. Around the final corner, the tall windows breathed sunlight into the museum. The opposite wall, empty, soaked in every ray; she was suddenly cut adrift in a sea of static. She heard nothing but its thrum in her ears, saw nothing, not trees nor arches nor man mid-stride on the steps, but the empty wall.
Back at the front desk, the clerk put down her ruler and fine-tipped marker to address her. The little painting you've asked after won't be returning to this museum, she was told. The clerk was sorry she couldn't give more detail.
They stood in silence as wind howled against the arched windows of the hall. The wind spun through the static and rattled screaming through her bones before lunging out from her throat with a dying gasp.
Your maps reflect great care.
She stood on the stone steps outside the museum, looking up at the sky, thinking of the texture of low-lying clouds she had reached in a mirror. "...a fragmentary glimpse of that landscape, pure and unadorned...if it is so simply itself, then what are you? Did you ever expect to grasp it?"
She supposed she hadn't. Those arches remained steadfastly above her, the castle a shimmering horizon. After all, she could not yet predict the clouds, nor could she hear through the static, nor could she feel the fabric of those pants bunched at the knee mid-step.
The clouds hurried her east as she followed the river's path. If she looked out from the top of the cliffs here there would be no castle in the distance, but she knew it was there and that it would not fail her. As she took that small step to close the distance between them, she felt herself bunch up and smooth, felt the sweat beading on her neck. The land rushed in a blur beneath her and she saw the forest and the glint of marble in the sun; the air was gentle and warmer than she'd expected, the arches as tall as she ever could have hoped. The leaves rustled and trembled with radiance in the gentle breeze, and she saw their every edge with clarity.