~4000 words, approx 25 min reading time
Dear Miss Beatrice,
You must think me a thief, the way I stole away from our home last week, unannounced. I hope this letter suffices in describing my trajectory, if not my intent:
At night, while the corridors slept, I packed a small duffel bag and some currency. Halting under the front door, I glanced back and observed Renoir’s bronze fur glimmering by the fireplace, and for a moment, nearly believed the velvet curtains themselves had grown feet, to come and bid me a ghostly adieu! But it was just my longing and light-speed imagination, which evoked Ma’s presence, her gentle hands that instructed me to ‘Leave, now.’
Descending the staircase, I recounted stories of my mother’s youth, of her attraction to aquatics, nearly a romantic sentiment. Grandly she leaned into the mythos of her own name: Apsara, celestial maiden, nymph of the seas. She considered things my father never could; ants and whole monuments blink past him, even today.
Often, Ma spoke of Viareggio, a resort with sandy beaches and a pirouetting breeze of possibility. ‘When the time is right, you’ll find your perspective,’ she mused, alluding that some discovery awaited me in the waters there. From such intrigue, and with an inarticulate expectation, I’ve travelled two nights to her getaway in Italy, within the mountainside province of Lucca. I am neighbour to Pisa, Pistoia, Firenze, and Carrara.
‘My dear—’ I hear you interceding already, with a finger on your redcurrant lips. ‘I won’t recall any of those names. The city is Viareggio, is it not?’
So, it is, Miss B. Such admonishments and your company I missed especially, earlier today, as I surveyed the Ligurian seaside with my eyes very much open. In the afternoon, I found a store with endless sketchbooks, canvases, an actual wilderness of paint. Over the shop counter, my grasp of Italian proved insufficient, but an older gentleman intruded and haggled on my behalf, arranging that I should get my supplies for close to nothing. His name is Jan Vanhoven, he’s an expressionist painter from the Netherlands. With imposing kindness, he made enquiries into my interest, and subsequently invited me to his studio for art lessons, as and when I pleased.
‘Together—’ he urged, ‘we will uncover your personal points of focus. What cliff jumps out? What breach in the horizon? Is the afternoon a shade vibrant, in your private recollections?’
Around dusk, on the defunct fridge of Ma’s apartment, I found an old note which described the insignia of the nearby marina, alongside a man’s name and phone number. I cycled fifteen minutes to the shore, and through divine contrivance, discovered the noted gentleman sitting inside a booking office, sipping coffee in the grey twilight. After some squinting, he recognised the handwritten cursive of Ma’s writing, and looking up at my face, his expression transformed; he left his den of comfort and embraced me tightly. Together, we sauntered to the pier, stopping at a regiment of catamarans and dinghies and motorboats. Though I insisted that I was well versed with sailing, he stood over my shoulder as I boarded Ma’s yacht and lopped into the water. When I turned back, he had vanished, but the entire province was watching me in his stead; the night-time lights were a binocular lens that surveyed my uncertain gait, that imbalanced me from the dangling bow of the yacht, and caused me to slip and fall to my knees.
I didn’t careen out of the craft, gratefully, but the water was infested with sharp violence; a mutiny of waves arose out of nowhere. Rancorous thunder clapped above, and in front, with a stuttering gasp, I discerned two eyes (pewter stones) piercing into me: there was a man in the water, looking up and drowning.
Compelled by instinct, I leapt out to save him. Immediately, the tide thrashed me, and it gulped down my ears and throat, as I attempted to swim forward, even a small pulse, to catch the innocent by the waist, the arm, anything at all. Through rain-struck eyes, I saw his head fall under the surface and I gasped inwardly, swallowing outwardly, and there was no lifeguard to help, nor a saint in heaven, because I was a feeble pebble in Neptune’s hand, and down the cyclonic tumult, I was sinking.
‘My urge to live is the death of me,’ I decided, as my eyelids closed and the world adjourned around me. Water mingled adamantly in my nose and mouth; it singed my eyes and skin and tugged at my jacket, and what wilful mind this water possessed! That it had fingers, that it held me by the nape and flung me up into the sky, from the confine of an early grave, onto the deck of the yacht, to safety, even breath. Opening my eyes, I turned turtle-like in my shell, and spied two arms, a torso and head, lifted above the hull and peering down at me, with a bemused face.
It was the drowned man who had saved me, instead—!
I mustered to both feet and ambled to the edge to thank him. Seeing my advance, the stranger bounded backwards into the fount of roving water. Before he disappeared, I assimilated only a glimpse of his lithe shoulders, that glinted in the lunar spotlight. Afterwards, afloat in impasse between sky and Earth, I stayed a while longer, shivering into my clothes. Finally, the need for warmth begged me return to the shore, to the apartment, dry clothes, and a steaming cup of tea.
I must conclude now, because I’m due before Mr. Vanhoven at dawn. The painter endeavours to teach me to perceive a landscape correctly, because according to him, I’ve been looking at landscapes incorrectly my entire life. Somehow, I feel prone to believe him.
Dear Miss Beatrice,
How is the Sun today, from the window where you sit?
It’s been a week since the incident on the yacht, and four of these seven days I’ve met with Jan Vanhoven at some viewing cliff or beachside or restaurant terrace, overlooking the gemstone shore. My tutor isn’t a freeform artiste, like I expected, but rather, he is a ruthless raven reincarnated as a man. Certainly, his fingers are claw-like, when he hooks them on my shoulder, to orient my body to his perspective of style, events, and eyesight. He insists I shouldn’t gawk at any landscape overlong, that I should only allow a shallow glimpse, after which I must close my eyes and exaggerate the image mentally.
Comprehending this advice, I’ve stood for hours in front of easel and palette, and peered within my mind’s store, but my meadow is prickled with a sonorous feeling that reverts me to thoughts of home, or flashes on me a frightening countenance, of the man who appeared on the edge of Ma’s yacht: that spectre who sank himself.
I know you’d chastise me, Miss B., for having ventured into tumultuous waters in the first place. But to your concern I refute:
Did you ever believe my mother’s stories, Beatty?
I picture our abode now, in the veil of my closed eyes, and a breeze taps on our first-floor balcony. There, under my brow, monotony and bohemia unfold in every aspect on the ground level, in pacing feet and sulking mouths and sultry jest and glasses of wine, a cornucopia of new thought (a seed in every artist’s mind), but I am locked ostensibly out, gone, goodbye! How immovably fixed I am. Behind me, Dad opens the sliding door and beckons me inside, were I to catch a chill, or worse, a new perspective on being! It is crude to admit, but nonetheless true: Ma’s ashes have travelled a greater distance than my own two feet.
Earlier today, when Mr. Vanhoven analysed my drawings, he assured me that I am free, that painters are instrumentally free, given to reorder elements of a landscape in accordance with their inner nature, their true being. My creative element, as you’re aware, I’ve kept hidden under an old yew tree, behind my wardrobe of boorish winter clothes, for years. A confession now, Beatty.
On Ma’s yacht, I took the dive despite my acquired fears.
It was the man’s face I had seen. His upper body, unaccustomed to the norm of clothing. The long hair, dark eyes, and steel jaw: a symphonic sequence framed by acrylic moonlight. In profile he was neither Grecian, nor Saharan, and as I searched for the texture of his origin, I recalled neither human cells nor blood, but cold and metallic scales. Reflected like deep tanzanite, a woven armour of blue, which belied his nature as purely human. For this surreal delight, I leapt into the churning sea, to clasp upon myself a momentary grace, a mercurial surprise.
Such fleeting compulsion would be unimpressive to Dad. A month ago, when you were away, he shook the linens at the dinner table with his clenched fists, startling the dead fowl on the salver. His stern notice followed:
‘Will you heat the floors of your home with a canvas of the sunset?’
He speaks with unanticipated poesy; he is Ma’s betrothed, after all. I expect some correspondence from him, any day now. A letter, perhaps, since I haven’t reinstated the functioning of most appliances in the apartment. Not yet.
I sit by the window this moment, and am warmed by the falling sunrays. Downstairs there is bonhomie, and I will go there shortly, to eat fish and fresh bread, and sip a night-time coffee, in view of myself.
Afterwards, I may return to the water. To not return would be to drown on land, if such a thing even exists.
Dear Miss Beatrice,
Do the flowers in the terrace garden weep in my absence?
Some weeks have gone in a cacophony of movement, where I’ve played trickster with the seafaring sprite, and with my own burning spirit, and with Mr. Vanhoven’s patience (that thins and exudes with the temper of a young cloud). Every occasion I’ve returned to many bowers in the open water, with pen, paper, and determinate mind: to capture a shallow glimpse of the silver custodian, the disappearing scout on the breach of Circe. And I’ve succeeded! Spotting the elusive fellow not once, but thrice—in span of dawn, dusk, and starlight, his shining face and torso recreating the many phases of a Saturnalian moon. From a careful distance, dozens of impressions I’ve returned to paper. The very best of these—my vigour, truth, and priority—I’ve thrust in front of Mr. Vanhoven, under his crooked nose and white plume, but he remains dour and frankly, unimpressed.
‘This is symbolism,’ he scolds. ‘Don’t subvert reality for the sake of a romantic picture.’ To which I’ve asked, ‘What romance, Sir?’
A few days since have been spent in the library of this quaint town. Like Martians dropped into the vast Patagonian Steppe, we walk with careful tread across tomes and gargantuan shelves, peeling manuscripts and discovering new colours of dust, and within dust: bright diamonds. Just yesterday, my tutor wandered off and returned with a woven manuscript, and urged me stand closer. In a hymnal whisper, he told the story of the Franco-English poet Peter Vitalie, who spent many an inspired season in Lucca, during a mission of meaning and search for a consolidated craft.
‘What happened to him?’ I asked, with a wistful feeling.
At which the old man unfurled the script, tapped on it with a strident nail and assured, ‘He’s right here with us, of course.’
Reacquainting with the text for hours, Mr. Vanhoven finally lifted the papers above his head and muttered, ‘Sanctity!’ His meaning, in fact, was to declare “serendipity,” for in that golden chest of ruminations, was a short Romantic poem titled The Divine Spring. ‘I studied it in my youth,’ he professed, proceeding to a breathless, emotional recitation. The gist, if you care for it, relates to the advent of a sudden civilisation in the sea of this attractive town, a faerie population and futuristic, sovereign structures (castles and sanctums of beryl), that clipped the tread of sailing ships and sent the locals into a simultaneous terror of damnation, and rapture of wonderment. Here I transcribe two lines, that have committed themselves to memory,
The horizon did yawn to reveal a truth
In sirens, standing water, my planet redoubled
It is stark and symbolistic, not real—Mr. Vanhoven insists—despite holding the manuscript into his heart, like a sworn locket. But on the point of symbolism, I disagree with my sage. For these last few weeks, I have stormed mental corridors that remained but wisps, fantasy, in my preceding life. There is certainly something that ties me to this place, that keeps me here and compels the action in my feet. To retreat now would be to flourish ignorance, invite the death of knowing. Instead, I choose wilfully to dream in art, to paint for work and apprentice in Lucca for longer, the foreseeable future.
I intend to confront the Prospero in the water, to ask him what he knows. In haste, let me add: a letter from my father has arrived. His tread marches like fury in my ears, outside the door of this apartment—he is constantly forthcoming.
Let me escape now and fiercely, to myself.
Yesterday’s events, for your gaze alone:
At nightfall, I risked the implacable tide. Upon the water, I shouted from the brink of Ma’s boat—as if rekindling an old, dwindled flame—imploring the drowned man to reveal himself.
Within minutes, his faceted form broke the surface, and he climbed onto the deck with a swift gesture. His two feet were astonishingly human, and he wore tights of slick, tensile black. At his intrepid advance I fell back: seized by fear of this sentient unknown, both dazed and elated. Crouching low, the glistening man or entity—I will call him Pietro—administered into view a snakeskin of similar fabric, a bodysuit resembling scuba gear. He wouldn’t speak, but in his potent eye, I drew a clear intention.
Composure returning to my limbs, I raced into the cabin and returned with my notebook. I attempted a brief dialogue, ‘Come ti chiami? What is your name?’ but it altered nothing; Pietro regarded the sketches absently and pressed the diving attire further into my person. At near distance, I noticed that his chest did not move, and he was straining to hold his breath. Retreating to the boat’s edge then, with gentle, pointe-steps, he beckoned me follow him, down the unlit corridor.
I was intrigued, not afraid. My inclination instructed, ‘Go,’ and so I left my papers and donned the rubber cloak. Taking my chaperone’s hand—which was icy, like a thrill—I stepped onto the treacherous hull and watched the water’s jaw clamp open-shut underneath. In the next breath, we had dropped. Down a gruesome void, where I recalled neither the movement in my lungs, nor a flicker of cognisant light. I became the aggregate darkness of all purgatory; a warning absence of faith remained the only sensation on my skin. When my eyes did open (as though tickled by air), I plucked a glimpse of a second horizon below, wider than any expanse of my dreams.
A township emanated from itself, like a steam engine of shining ore. Down a labyrinthine ecology of marine animals—eight-armed, billion-eyed—Pietro and I dove, scot-free, and through an ancient archway, taller than any civilisation in Abyssinia, I walked across the literal base of the ocean-floor: an unthinkable feat. My presence, though noticed, went wholly unremarked, permitting my pupils to count marvels at every turn: storeys of white topaz, meticulous tunnels and colonnades of glowing aquamarine. Out from windows and doors, a familiar arpeggio arose: the sound of debate, orchestral music, and frivolity. The spoken dialect was charming; the inhabitants shone violet and blue, like figments of a jewelled cosmos. The tour followed further into a towering conservatory, to a garden fashioned from the make of seeming prehistoria itself! A patch before Eden, with sparkling asters, lucent orchids, peonies, mimosas blooming madly for love. From this display I was tempted to reach out and collect a souvenir, but the natural arrangement was too serene-sacrosanct to interrupt, and so I feasted my primal eye, and together we carried on.
Pietro and I couldn’t dialogue in any real mode, my protective accoutrement prevented it. Still, I recognised a narrative in his step, as we swam past emerald promenades and fluorescent vaults. He desired to show me everything, and my mouth agape of ceaseless wonder pleased him, in spades. At one point, I took a brief repose against a rock tableau and some neon-phosphorescent weeds. Taking a circuitous glance around, I inhaled the oxygen of a borrowed life, and casually looked up. Pietro was examining me with a curatorial look, and he flashed a sincere smile, which jolted me.
The moment of departure arrived (too soon), and I intended to keep my shutters closed firmly for the return voyage. Yet, my instinct betrayed itself, and both eyes flickered wide open for a terrific instance—where I captured infinity in my vision, and Pietro’s arms held tightly around my frame, to a remarkable closeness. His skin was resplendent even in the void; he was the light-struck protagonist of a searing, dazzling Caravaggio. Soaring upward, agility and strength accoutred him, and even as my mind whizzed, I realised: athleticism and tour were firmly Pietro’s element; he mapped the sphereless sea with ease.
Upon breaking the surface, I clambered onto the boat and managed a repetitious ‘Grazie, grazie!’ back at him. The next moment unfolded precisely as so: he reached forward and our lips brushed suddenly, twice, before he descended into his hearthstone of icy coal, and the tide overcame him.
I have since returned to the apartment, and showered, and brushed and combed and attired and the stars are very much in the sky as I remember, as memory directs. But simultaneously I recognise that this excursion was crucial. My clothes and hair and words, even the pen in my hand seem unlike themselves now, for I am challenged to the breadth of my expression, the length of my perspective. My list of words is perennially incomplete, and my form imprecise. I await precision, inspiration: inspiration is outside the corner, the corner of my own mind.
You must think the oceanic air has abstracted me, beyond sense. But beyond sense I understand: To recognise one’s theme is pertinent. To unify one’s activity to the theme is to become an object of beauty, unto oneself. Looking at Pietro, I feel certain: He cannot suspire for longer than a kiss outside his theme, and similarly, I am otiose in deep water, even in my hometown, in the assembly line or manufactured world. ‘The pursuit’ is crucial to this understanding; in the pursuit of experience I become myself.
With morning, Dad arrives. Will you have accompanied him, I dream…
To Miss Beatrice,
Your perch at home must be the epicentre of air and light, because the apartment in Viareggio—across the world—is recently bereft of both.
I appreciate your speaking with Dad in my absence. Of convincing him to postpone his visit till now, of begging his mercy and benevolence, for Ma’s sake.
The word rang out the windows with the storm of his footsteps, as he turned the apartment over in the tempest of his eye, he raged! With deliberate ardour, an inconsolable gait, he trampled and traipsed and dallied into drawers and closets and outside the window, searching, agonising, for the image of his offspring. ‘Where is my Inayat,’ he queried, walking past me, peering into the crypts of the fridge, microwave, and washbasin. When he settled on the sofa and lit a cigar, his eyes watered from tiredness: prolonged theatricality had emaciated his spirit, and I fetched him some wine, and he took the glass sceptically, as though a phantom had delivered it into his grasp. With liquor, his colour restored, and he admonished my composition under his breath and said, ‘You’re a child. You have so much to learn.’
I was shocked at hearing these words, because earlier that day, Mr. Vanhoven had uttered the very same maxim at me, with his own sneer of agony. I had rushed, at the first stroke of light, to the raven’s headquarters. Without any artistic appurtenance, how naked I felt! But I explained passionately to my tutor, that his mode of expressionism had inspired me to seek alternate shores, more definitions of aesthete, culture, and form. ‘It is a compliment, Sir,’ I said, ‘that our time together has moved me to seek further knowledge, further dimension.’ The painter construed it as an affront, and shuddered past me as an afterthought. He delivered a ringing conclusion:
‘Craft requires patience, but your well is drought-dry. Everywhere you go, you will recover the same prize: disappointment.’
How could I express that I was experiencing the very opposite sensation? That my time with him and his neo-Impressionism, equal to my time with Pietro and his neo-Pangea, had inspired an illuminating flame in my being: that urged not disappointment but hopefulness, a sense of optimism—an endless ravine or well, a dream of an eternal, internal spring! Everything I had learned or seen or experienced in Lucca, every extant of life here did present proof of even further life, yet unlived (but within reach). Mr. Vanhoven didn’t appreciate my presence further, and so I left gallows for gallows, returning to the apartment. My father, upon his arrival, echoed largely the same tone of despondence. A grim cortege did wreath over his head: poppies of grave pessimism.
I asked him plainly if I might create productive work for myself as an apprentice, potentially an artist myself, in several continents, so I could embark on the pursuit of some knowledge as to understand myself—because how could I be expected to adhere to some predestination based on his expectations of fate? And Dad replied, ‘Immigrants like us are not given the luxury of individualism.’
“Immigrant,” a word synonymous to him with indenture, harpooned out of his mouth to string me to a definition of fear and smallness, to capsize my ambitions and drawer them, to stop my tracks before I had even built them. To stop a dream before it was even dreamed—a hell on Earth; for me, a coward’s paradise.
I refused him, and stated I would pursue myself, regardless of his emotional support or finance. I recalled kind words you’d recited to me, once, to soften the blow of my future hours spent working under the knee of my father’s misgivings:
‘It isn’t what you do—’ you said, ‘but how you see.’
And I concur faithfully! Even at the peak of his riches and health, my father sees only famine and impoverishment. His immutable syndrome, even these Tuscan shores cannot fix. For those who do not wish to find a second sphere, there is none, will always be none.
In the span of weeks, I have observed a new skill, courtesy of the usher who lives underwater. I have discovered there is more than one way to breathe, see, hear, touch, and feel. If wonder thrives submerged here in Viareggio, could a banquet in the sky await someplace other?
In the spirit of drama, Miss B., I should confess: My next set of letters will arrive from a different postcode.
For now, I feel my fingers lifting off this pen, and the tide laps in my ears like a sweet melody. I must venture presently to the shore, where mirth awaits, and whatever, perfect, else?
Armaan Kapur (he/him) is a multidisciplinary artist from New Delhi, India. His writing has appeared in The Reader Berlin and Helter Skelter Magazine. He is currently completing two full-length works: a debut novel about existentialism, and a collection of speculative, queer nonfiction. Find him at armaankapur.com and on Twitter @armaankapur.
Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash