Mutable Sky

Bettina

Four squares of paint stood out from the wall where Bettina had been trying out different colours for the living room. She had tied back the flimsy curtains, which had embroidery at the bottom and a few holes in them here and there. A large vase, which she had found in a cupboard in the living room when she had first moved in, sat on the wooden table and held a few dried flowers. The mustard coloured wing chair was where she would sit and write letters. She looked at the chair and thought about replacing it, or perhaps just leaving the space empty. She then sat in it for a moment before standing up and walking around the room stopping by the window to absorb the light. It had taken her three months to settle into the house and it had taken a lot of resilience to stop herself from thinking that she could not make a life here on the island of Hydra. At night her thoughts were often about the house and what needed doing to it, but other times it was about being alone. More recently she had just given in to her thoughts as they interspersed with her day-to-day activities. She moved away from the window, picked up one of her art magazines from the table, turned the pages then closed them and set it down again. She had no TV and the sounds she now listened to seemed more vibrational, in fact all sensations were heightened, she had noticed recently. Noises from the house would arise and then pass and she wondered whether she would have ever perceived them without the silence. One evening after dinner, she had pondered over whether her values had altered since moving to Greece, but then thought they had just become more recognisable. Often, soon after she’d woken up, she would look around the room and just stare at a small crack on the ceiling or a tiny spider’s web in a corner. It wasn’t as if other things didn’t matter, but her own deeper priorities had been surrendered to, her painting all-consuming at times. On the patio or at night in the kitchen, she would stand and stare at a canvas for hours, then be captivated by a richer perception, and in those moments she would isolate her mind as if she were bringing something back to herself from far away.
She placed an old sheet under the window ready to start painting. Slowly the brushstrokes took on their own momentum. An hour later she put the paintbrush on the lid of the paint pot and went to the bakery where she went most days. She bought a loaf of bread and two cakes. The last time she had ventured further than the island had been when she had gone to Athens to finalise some paperwork regarding the house. She had visited the small café she had been to frequently when she had first arrived. The owner was always in there, usually wearing a large shirt of some kind, playing with komboloi, speaking with his staff, Bettina by then understanding a fair amount of Greek. Not many people spoke in this particular café, apart from the owner; the patrons mostly too interested in their food for anything else. Bettina liked its modesty and the food was good. And it was the place where she had established a sense of home from home, not that she had ever been anywhere like it before. She left the bakery with the bread and cakes, said kalimera to one of the women she’d pass most days. The walk back to the house was familiar now and her stride the same.
Back home in the kitchen, she cut the bread and took out feta and olives from the fridge and set it all out on the table outside on the patio. After sitting for a while she went back inside to the living room and picked up a book on Suzanne Valadon from the coffee table and returned to the patio, and before turning the pages, she took in the scent of the island, the candescence of the light.
After lunch, Bettina immersed the paintbrush in the pot of paint, a few drips fell on to her wrist and she wiped them with the edge of some bundled up newspaper. The house had belonged to an old couple that had not decorated in years. At first she had lived with the flaking paint and the strange smells. And then slowly she had started to make changes. Her bedroom was first, and then the bathroom. Linoleum in the kitchen, she had ripped up last month, taken a pair of scissors to the corners and then thrown it away with the green curtains.
She painted quickly. After forty minutes she had finished. Her body ached so she sat on the stool for a moment and picked at the paint on her fingers. She then stepped outside, put the brush in a jar of water, and stood straight, pushed her body back, closed her eyes tight. When she opened them she saw a bird fly overhead, heard a dog bark in the distance. That morning she had received a letter from the gallery owner in Athens who she had kept in contact with since moving to Hydra, saying they would very much like to take a couple of her new pieces next month.
Scrubbing the last of the paint from her hands, she put on her bracelets and made her way to one of the tavernas. She was reminded of the bird she had seen earlier when Spiros, the owner of the taverna, told her that Leonard Cohen had lived on the island, and it was the birds which flew on to the newly installed telegraph wires in the 1960s which inspired him to write Bird on a Wire, a song Bettina had a vague memory of from her years at college. And as he set down the salad, he told her about Hydra’s other artistic inhabitants, about them sitting under the pine tree at Douskos Taverna. When he returned at the end of her meal with a glass of ouzo, he asked her if she had read The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. She said she had not. He said he would bring it in for her to borrow.
She walked back to the house via the harbour and watched the sky, the intense stillness of it, the sea, the dark blues and greens overlapping, the mountains and the houses spilling down to the water. Back home, she took out her oil paints and set up her easel in the kitchen. She painted the horseshoe harbour, the palette filled with blue, green and white. She could see the influence of Durain when she squeezed the tube of vermillion on to the palette.

*

In the morning she studied the ceiling in her bedroom, then went downstairs and considered the orange painted wall, then the paint on the canvas in the kitchen. She made Greek coffee, wrapped the dense thorny flavours around her tongue and then took the cup outside. She had been waiting for this moment. The air was soft and full of some kind of treat. The sun had just come up and the light was hazy. There were tiny flowers glowing yellow between the paving stones, a few droplets on leaves from the morning dew. No sound, just close observation belonging to time passing. After a while the warmth on her skin started to dissipate, fine hairs stood more boldly, a breeze settled.
She went back into the living room and looked through the books she had piled in a corner of the room because there were no shelves and she hadn’t gotten around to buying any. She found Henry Miller’s Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, underneath a number of art books, one detailing the works of Thalia Flora-Karavia, books she had bought while in Athens from a used bookstore in Monastiraki, and had not yet read.


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