A lethargy of birds in humid trees. A density of clouds. That version of blue that Vermeer used in one torn corner of the sky.
I have four windows. They are narrow. I watch the world through two.
Downstairs, the distance of thirteen painted steps, Bill is making atmosphere. Building a still-life theater with an old wine crate, a clamp lamp, and a swatch of backdrop canvas that he crusted white with gesso. Two wrapped wooden blocks will elevate his objects when he finds his objects. His objects will be his subjects. He will photograph them first, then paint the photographs, then photograph the paintings. This is his process.
A squat glass vase with palest blue hydrangea.
A pair of metal-handled scissors.
A spool of waxed linen thread. Maybe a needle.
They have not been photographed so that they might be painted yet, but they are coming.
Just before I climbed to the second floor so that Bill might have, to himself, the first floor, I watched two cardinals—male and female—crash into a downstairs window. Side by side crashes, sputter of feathers. It wasn’t one bird first and then the second. It was a concurrence. It was the male who, in the aftermath, could not find the female. The brighter bird who, dazed but alert in the patch of weeds below the window, kept up his calling song, while the other, not attending to her bruises, flew.
Past the humid trees. Through the Vermeer blue.
Vermeer’s blue was the expensive blue, more valuable than gold. His blue was natural ultramarine, which is to say pure lapis lazuli, which is to say not azurite, which was the cheap stuff. When whomever it was stole Vermeer’s “The Concert” from the Gardner museum, they also stole more than a touch of crushed and purified lapis lazuli.
Did they know that? Did they value it? Did they touch their thieving fingers to it? Their grubby thieving fingers?
The sounds Bill makes in the silence of the house are the sounds of a jar lid, unscrewing. Of wood being muffled by a wrapping. Of a clamp lamp clamping. It’s hard to hear, because he is so quiet.
I imagine that he imagines that I am sleeping. That I have come up here in the middle of the day to close my eyes, but I came up here to watch the windows. I wanted to see what would happen to the sky. If it would tear into more blue, or thicken to the point of storm. If the bird that flew after the crash and flutter would stay away forever, or return.
It is a question of inevitability.
This house is more silent than it used to be. We have, through the years but more especially lately, become adept at eliminating noises.
We removed the furniture my mother gave us because it was heavy, and it was dark, and it contained (he said it contained) dark echoes.
We removed the rustle of books I could finally part with, the curtains that lashed back at the weather, the stomp of the boots that were no longer our fashion, the idea of having a dog, or a kitten.
From the excess of our lives we extracted, then dispensed with, the gratuitous slam, the unwarranted ching, the needless shout. I can’t remember, now, the sound of us shouting.
I still vacuum. I still sweep. I still run the machines, rush the water, snip with the scissors and stir in the bowls, but we wanted less noise, which is to say we worked on our silence, which is to say that we rattled the bones in all of our closets, we rattled them, we rattled them, until they were not bones but the dust of bones and the dust of bones is silence. So that in this house now, in this present moment, I listen for birds and I listen for Bill, imagine him in the downstairs space, building a theater with a wine crate, unscrewing the lid of a jar.
Vermeer painted small, he painted moments. He left no diary for history to read, no recorded plans for unfinished work, no words, explaining. His lapis lazuli, which he crushed and mixed himself, brushed himself, left to dry on the pitcher, the head wrap, the lap of the lace maker, the woman singing that he painted, is the rebound of his silence.
The bird who crashed and fell to the weeds has stopped calling. The torn place in the sky where the blue had been has clouded over. I guess that storm is coming. The noise of it will slosh the house when it does; it will slam against our silence. I’ll rise and descend the thirteen stairs. Bill will rise from where he’s sitting, before his theater. I’ll press my hand to my heart like I do when I see this thing that he’s been making. The pale blue hydrangea in their jar of water, waiting to become his photograph and then his painting.
It is a question of inevitability.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays, We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class, and And I Paint It: Henriette Wyeth’s World. She can be found at bethkephartbooks.com.
© 2021, Beth Kephart