September 27, 2010
When I was younger, my mother had a book of fairy tales she would read to us. That book is long gone, maybe still in a box somewhere in Mexico, but I’ve always held hope I would find it again. This story is based on the only tale I remember from that old, cracked book.
I’ve spend the better part of my life trying to figure out what it means. Every time I think I know, it throws a curve-ball. Maybe someone out there will have better luck. It’s one of my favorite stories from my thesis, and I’d like to share it with you.
Happy reading, artists…
Once upon a time, there was a man known as the Painter. The Painter lived a long time ago. It seemed like everyone in Via Rosa knew him only as the Painter since no one knew his name and he didn’t have any family. He lived in a house near the edge of the city and, every morning, would open his windows to let the sun in. For the rest of the day, the street smelled like paint as he worked on every bit of canvas he could find.
In the afternoon, he put his paintings out in the yard and set out a table with mangoes and pineapples. Just like his name was a mystery, no one was sure where he got the fruit. It just appeared, and for a few dollars, he’d cut a piece for you to take home and enjoy. The children liked the warm mango and the neighborhood mothers frowned upon the juicy mess their children made. Sometimes, someone would buy one of the paintings, too. The Painter usually created portraits of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and angels. He said they were angels, but no one bought those. Men with eyes of two different colors, gringos with pale blue eyes… these were not the angels of cathedrals. No one knew it, but the Painter was the only person to ever draw Jesus as he really lived.
No one knew except the angels who bought the pineapple and Jesus paintings.
No one knew they were angels, but then again, no one knew the Painter had talent. They bought the paintings because they had Jesus on them, much the same way people exchange money because it has God’s name on it.
The Painter didn’t care. He was just happy for the attention.
One day, a storm came through Via Rosa. It was the biggest storm anyone had seen since people had panicked from the last storm. People panicked, but the Painter just saw the way the drops splashed on his windows and the plants outside and made it a point to draw that moment between the perfect drop and the splash.
Just then, a butterfly flew into his room.
Like many in Via Rosa, he’d never really paid attention to butterflies. They flew with the dust in the summer. Most people thought they were leaves. The Painter, though, saw the butterfly and expected to see the patterns of God’s design on its wings. However, this butterfly was special.
It was a metaphor. Like angels.
Its wings were almost clear. Only the tiniest bit of color clung to them. The Painter saw this sorry excuse for an insect, a failed creature that lost its only reason for existing to something as simple as rain, and felt sorry for it. Most people would have taken the butterfly by the wings, but the Painter cupped his hands and let the paper-light creature crawl towards him. When the butterfly was safely within his palms, he took it to the desk by the lone light in his bedroom and studied it. The rain washed away the fine powder on its wings and it was a miracle it managed to fly at all. The Painter took one leather-like hand and picked the finest brush he owned. It was a thin, chipped thing with only a few bristles left, but it would do the job.
Slowly, as though he were writing an illuminated manuscript, he painted the butterfly’s wings. It was a Monarch, he could tell. A little copper and a touch of black slowly moved onto the creature’s wings. The pale, gray material turned back into a vibrant canvas. A few hours later, the Painter put the brush away and watched as the butterfly stood by the window, waited for the rain to stop, and left. The street smelled like heat and vapor as the sun came back out. Even though it was nearly evening, the Painter took his mangoes and pineapple outside to see if anyone would buy any.
The next day, the Painter received another unexpected guest.
Another butterfly landed on his windowsill. At first, the Painter was confused. He’d never really seen more than one butterfly in a week. Well, that’s not quite true. He didn’t think he’d ever seen more than one butterfly at once, maybe one every few days in the spring, and now he was looking at his second miracle in two days. This butterfly was smaller, red by the looks of the faded markings on its wings, and it nuzzled against the Painter’s fingers.
Any artist would know what to do next. The Painter took his fine brush and repainted the butterfly’s wings. With the last day’s work, he knew enough to paint this butterfly’s wings in half the time. He was done so quickly he had time to set his fruit and paintings outside. He didn’t sell any pictures of Jesus, but he was content with his work with the butterflies.
That night, Via Rosa drowned in a storm. It was the worst storm since the last time it rained. People said the bridges were washed away. Entire sections of the market and even the cathedral were rumored to be underwater. The Painter stayed inside. He readied his brushes, waited, and before the last drizzle went away, his windowsill was covered in dulled butterflies. Anyone walking by, and that would be no one after it rains, would have thought the Painter’s house had been covered in tissue paper because of all the butterflies covering the garden and windows.
No one bought mangoes or pineapple for days.
No one saw the painter for just as long. Eventually, old ladies wanted their mangoes. Angels wanted their paintings. Demons wanted the chance to seduce him with promises of fame and fortune.
He never appeared. Someone finally went to knock on the Painter’s door. It made a hollow sound that no one could really place. The door stayed locked, and after a few more days, someone called the priest and asked if it was proper to enter someone’s home to check on the person.
The priest said yes, it was proper, and a brave young boy from the neighborhood finally entered through a window into the Painter’s bedroom. Inside, he found the old man on the bed, paint in every color drizzled on his fingers and a workbench with a hundred colors standing by the door. The Painter didn’t move.
The boy checked him and found he was dead.
After much deliberation, the priest confirmed the Painter was dead. The old ladies wept for their mangoes and pineapples. Angels held on to their paintings. They all felt bad enough to put some money together to give the Painter a funeral with a nice casket, a good piece of land in the cemetery, and a ride from the church to his final resting place. The old ladies thought it was the least they could do. The angels watched on.
As the casket left the church, the real procession started.
Butterflies in every shape and color and even some moths swarmed the casket and followed it all the way to the cemetery. The ribbons of red, white, yellow, green, and white stretched for a mile. People had never seen that much color in Via Rosa. They’d never seen that color anywhere except the Painter’s work. While they pined for mangoes, the butterflies stayed and swarmed over the gravestone. They stayed there and kept vigil until the next rain came along. By then, the butterflies were careful to keep their paint out of the water.
And what’s the moral of the story?
Who knows? Maybe everyone eventually appreciates art. Maybe you have to die for your art to be appreciated. Maybe there is no moral. Maybe it’s just a made-up story that means nothing and you’re supposed to listen to it or read it until you fall sleep.
Or maybe it’s all completely true.
Good night, and sweet dreams little one. Maybe, someday, you’ll paint a butterfly, too.
Want to read more? Just visit the main Charcoal Streets page and take a look at the complete stories, samples, and other fun features, and stay tuned in 2011 for the release of the first volume of collected stories!