My heels click on the polished parquet, resounding in the silence of the wide, empty hall. It’s past ten at night and the last visitors of my exhibit have just left. In my hands there is the chèque I’ll cash tomorrow from the sale of one of my paintings. The exhibit has been more successful than I could have imagined. I sold four paintings and was offered a corner at the art gallery. A real gallery, not this gym in disguise, as much as I’m grateful to my Pilates coach for offering the space.
Shoulders against the front door, I give one last look at the visual impact of my creations hanging on the walls. I wish my family were here, I wish I had a family for once, someone to share this precious moment with. I never met my real parents, at least as far as my memory can travel. I’ve been told my mother died giving birth to me. As for my father, nobody ever bothered to mention him, so I grew up with the notion that he simply never existed. With a bittersweet smile and an exhausted exhale, I take in the effect of the last seven years of my life animating the sterile walls with decided, deep strokes. There is a bit of everything. Most of them are landscapes of places I’ve never even been, others are reminiscences of dreams, sometimes nightmares I exorcised and trapped on canvas. When I feel especially alone, I convince myself that all those dreams are memories from a past life. Only when the image is finally engraved in every detail, do I turn the lights off and carefully lock the door behind me.
The October air is brisk at night and I find myself rushing to the bus stop, hunched in my beige leather jacket, for the shelter will shield me from the wind. I peep at my left, hoping to see the number 23 approach, but as I do, a figure catches my attention. There is someone standing on the sidewalk, right in front of the gym. Though I can’t see in the dark, the petite figure, dressed in something that looks like a long wide skirt – or is it a coat? – is definitely a woman. Her head keeps turning left and right. Damn, what if it’s a thief? I shake away the bad thoughts and take a better look. Maybe she’s a homeless? Fighting the bone-chilling wind I walk back to the gym, approaching the woman with cautious steps.
“May I help you?” I offer.
My voice startles the woman, who turns to stare at me. Her wide eyes, deep and shiny in the night, are full of questions. “I think I got lost.”
“I live here, maybe I can help you? Where do you live?”
“On Maple Street, the Newtons’ farm.”
My brows knit in confusion. A farm on Maple Street? There’s nothing but stores there.
The woman keeps looking around, she seems in a confused state. Or maybe she’s just tricking me? No, her panic is real. I’m conflicted whether to call the police or an ambulance, until something makes me decide against both. There is some kind of charisma, a gravitational pull that I can’t pinpoint.
“You seem to be freezing, can I offer you something warm?” I ask, more softly this time.
She hesitates, reluctant at first. Then she peeps at the surroundings, looking scared, and nods faintly. I open the gym door again and show her in.
In full light, I finally have a better picture. Her dress is indeed a long skirt, the color of moss, her hair is tied in a loose honey chignon that’s now lightly ruffled by the wind. On her shoulders a frayed off-white knitted cardigan. She’s definitely not from the city. Yet, there is something oddly familiar in her. There’s a feeling of deja-vu, as if I’ve seen her before.
With discretion, I start asking her questions, while preparing some hot tea for both. Rose Newton, that’s supposedly her name. The Newtons’ farm. I write down the phone number she gives me, ask her again where she lives. Maple Street, she keeps repeating, but I know it can’t be. I should have listened to my tired, freezing bones and just go home, pretending I hadn’t seen her. Now I’m stuck here with Miss Farmer and a phone number I don’t even dial because it’s positively nonexistent.
While I try to figure out what’s wrong about this woman, my gaze lands on one of my paintings.
My hands nearly drop the cup of tea they’re holding, as I finally recognize the disturbing resemblance. A woman with a green skirt, wide golden fields, a willow tree and, in the background, a farm. The willow farm. One of my first paintings, and still today one of those I cherish the most. So much that I always refused to sell it. I remember the night I dreamt it, its warmth is still so vivid. I remember waking up with my heart full of something I couldn’t quite explain. Belonging, reassurance, quietness, as if that place was part of me.
But there is nothing quiet or reassuring in what I’m feeling now. Barely breathing, I’m almost frightened to turn my head toward my unexpected guest. When I do, I find her still standing a few feet from the door, sipping her tea while stealing fascinated glances at my paintings. Until the inevitable happens.
Her mouth drops half open, as her eyes study the canvas from a distance. Her features wear my own turmoil. For a moment we both can’t speak, powerless, unable to grasp what’s happening before our eyes. Until the woman manages to catch her breath again.
“That’s…” She points at the painting, her gaze still taking in any inexplicable detail of the painting. “That’s me… that’s… that’s my farm,” she stutters.
That’s her. That’s her farm. My words die in an unvoiced thought, as my mind refuses to make the idea real. “You… You don’t exist… You can’t exist… That painting is only a dream.” Maybe this way she will disappear. Maybe I’ll wake up from the weirdest nightmare and make it into a new painting in the morning. But she’s still here. She’s still real.
“I exist. That’s my home, that’s my farm, those are the fields around Maple Street,” she insists, backed by the vibrant strokes.
“There are no fields around Maple Street, only stores…” At least not today. Those stores have all been built in the past few years. I have no idea what was there before. Maybe she’s telling the truth? This still doesn’t make any sense. “Who are you?” I ask again, and I don’t know why I’m expecting a different answer this time.
“I’m Rose Newton,” she repeats her name.
“Did you…” Why am I using the past tense?” “Do you live there?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying from the start.” Her perplexed stare shifts between me and the painting, then rests again on the feast of straw-yellow.
All I see though is the delicate expression of her painted face. “You looked so happy here,” I whisper.
“I was pregnant,” she confides with tenderness.
For a brief moment, my eyes rest on her, catching a glimpse of that same bliss. “Where is the father? Maybe he can help us.”
The question that seemed like a good idea quickly becomes a regret, as her eyes turn sad. “I was alone. I’ve always been alone.”
“But you have a child?”
She freezes, loses herself in some blurry reminiscence. “I don’t know. I think I do.”
“You don’t remember?”
Her gaze is blank, her breath is slowing turning laboured in raising panic.
“What’s your last memory?” I venture to ask, while starting to dread this conversation, more and more with every passing second.
Her forehead clouds, her head lowers in focus. “I remember giving birth. I remember a wail.”
My heart sinks and bleeds. “Then… then what happened?”