The bottled blue ink is best for skies, skin, eyes, and shadows. It’s too purple for water unless the water reflects the sky.
I spilled the bottle on my table, which used to be in my parents’ kitchen before I was born, scarred with knives and encrypted with the marks of years of drawing. There are cysts of dried hot glue and acrylic paint, there are the initials of people I don’t know carved into it.
I spilled the ink with the back of my hand. It’s a concentrated watercolor ink, so it flows like cold water. It raced down the scars in the table. It fanned out like the veins of a new leaf. Like a river delta. Like lungs. The old wood drank it and choked.
I snatched at it, righted the bottle: empty. I held my breath.
In the crevices and depressions of the table swirled the colors of dusks, snowdrifts, the eyes of fish.
Once you study how to sculpt eyelids and lips and palms and bellies and hip bones and the backs of knees for five or six decades, then you can sculpt figures that look more alive than real people, whose bronze fingers twitch with an inaudible heartbeat.
The city of Geneva clings to the parabolic northern shore of Seneca Lake, the grid of the city arranging itself around the curve. Here and there on the map, other streets bend or run briefly askew—Castle Street follows the creek, Route 20 follows the shoreline—but they always right themselves sooner or later. The geometry prevails.
In the summer, Linden Street is open to pedestrians after the post office closes. Cobblestones and Corinthian columns support the entablature of an old white-marble bank (which is now a restaurant you can only go to with a reservation). Next to the bank is a brick apartment. The two buildings are separated by a narrow alley protected by a locked wrought-iron gate. The walls that frame the alley are three stories high. All the windows are dark.
Vines growing from plastic planters behind the gate twine up the twisted iron bars, the heart-shaped leaves ducking between them.
Ingrid draws the columns. I draw the alley.
The sky behind the street’s western façade is lit with the brilliant gold of six o’clock summer sun. In the alley, between the flat brick walls and on the window ledges, dozens of pigeons flutter. They roost in the gutters. They rest on the jagged shingles at the back of the alley. They trade positions, shifting from the top of the air conditioning unit to one windowsill to another, twirling in their descents, settling, folding their wings, bobbing and nodding their heads—only to take flight again.
When the glow in the sky drains down behind the rooftops and I pack up my sketchbook to leave, they are still performing their restless, whirling dance, choreographed the way the wind directs dried leaves to dance in autumn.
Ingrid wanted to show us the long way home. Not back through town, but across the highway to the point where the pavement becomes gravel and the gravel turns to dirt, along the lakeshore through the deep shadows of the July woods, through the swarms of dusk-bugs. We metered our footfalls to step onto each splintered railroad tie. We cut through backyards, yanked wild onions from the side of the path. Slipped down the wet grassy bank, averted the mud. Over stone walls and up private stairs carpeted in vines.
Ingrid draws topographies of disease. Geographies of grief. Imagined landscapes in red ink. Unnavigable. We may wander through them until our pens run dry. We may never find our way.
She doesn’t hang the topographies on her walls. She keeps them on the bookshelves, between the books, and can’t always find them when she wants to.
One artist I know makes watercolor wedding maps. White flowers grow out of the places you met, the places you traveled, the places you promised, the places you hope for, each labeled in ribbony cursive. All roads lead to the same place. The altar is sprouting with tiny ink-hearts.
One artist I know makes maps that make no sense. Pennsylvania is long and narrow, everything is upside down. Roads without names. Uncharted oceans. Disorientation the only destination. Nowhere else to go.
Ingrid says she wants to downsize, get rid of the thousands of books in her living room and her office. Their weight—thousands of pounds of paper—keeping her here.
She made many of the books herself—the ones with the most beautiful spines that nestle between the glossy jackets of the machine-printed textbooks. Hers are the crisp ones with untouched ivory pages, with ribbons, bound in fabric: feats of delicacy. She also made the written in-ones with the falling-apart spines. They are filled with diagrams, diary entries, solar houses, street plans, lake-views, columns, smokestacks, furniture, scribbles. The red pages, the graphite. I would inherit it all if I could.
I stand in front of the old church at the ledge of a fountain and look up at the sandstone steeple. Behind the old church is a 100-story skyscraper with sheer glass sides that reflect the blue of the sky. The clouds pile halfway up the façade.
The fountain pool behind me is sheer with the pavers of the square, lit from the bottom with a blue like food-coloring.
If I look straight ahead, the façade of the skyscraper extends past my periphery so that the sky behind the old church is a faceted, reflective wall. I go around the fountain along the edge of the square to the crosswalk. I wait for the traffic. The skyscraper lengthens as I walk away from it. One block away and the old church has been swallowed by the skyline.
I feel unseen among the shifting streams of pedestrians and cars and drifting smells. I might end up by the river, but I don’t know.
When my grandparents lived in the apartment on Magnolia Circle on the fourth story, they had a 100-year-old piano in the living room, sunk deep into the teal shag carpet.
When they moved into a bigger house in Honey Grove they kept the piano in the garage. No one played it there, except my sister and I, sometimes, when we visited. My grandparents only listen to classical music, which they play from CDs that they keep in shelves with glass doors. The floor of the garage is always cold, even in the summer.
Eventually, they gave the piano to my aunt, but my cousins never played it, so my aunt disassembled it and threw away the wooden frame. She gave me the guts of the thing, all the hammers exposed, the raw wires. She thought I might want to make art out of it. I get an eerie feeling when I look at it all in a pile in my basement, the same feeling I get when my friend who works for a veterinary surgeon sends me pictures of tumors he pulls from dogs and worms he extracts from rabbits; everything outside that’s supposed to stay in.
There were depressions in the top of every yellowed key from decades of gentle prodding of fingertips, like the wear of footsteps on an old stone staircase. Ivory keys are not solid pieces: they are made of three parts joined together, which you can see if you look closely.
Ivory has a grain, just like a fingerprint does. It gives in over time: it soaks up the oils from your fingers. It bears its history: Khachaturian’s Toccata, Schumann, Chopin, Béla Bartók. The pounding, the trills, the sweeping, slowing and sighing.
Ivory is a tissue composed of collagen and mineral; like antler and bone, it will deteriorate but never decompose. Nowadays, most piano keys are made from a durable plastic which does not yellow, texture, or wear the more it’s touched. The only thing I can think to do with the remains is to bury them.
• The bookshelf in my room where I keep my unlaced shoes with all the toes toward the wall
• The row houses on South Main with wreaths on their doors
• The lemon tree Ingrid keeps in her dining room with two green lemons that have been growing since February
• And her cat, which sleeps next to the lemon tree in the mornings
• The blue bakery
• The entrance to Building 9, which lies at the end of a long straight path past Building 3, Building 5, and Building 7, which all look exactly like Building 9—bird silhouettes painted on the windows, weeds peeking up through the riser-less stairs, blue paint and German graffiti on the walls, and the pink door outside which some silent person always stands smoking a cigarette, watching the cats wander across the path and the blue sky turn gray
• The dogs and people at the farmers’ market who only stay still for a moment
They’ve mapped the bathymetry of the bottom of the lake, and the patterns of wind and clouds above it. Thousands of cars pass down Route 20 every day: many of them probably know the way by heart. Even the trees downtown have been labeled with little bronze plaques so when the leaves of some of them change to red and others to yellow in October no one is surprised.
Ingrid said to me that she never really thought she had a style, since everything she does, she took from someone else. She borrowed the way she writes the capital-letter N with the long descender. She borrowed the way she uses purple-blue for shadows. She borrowed the stitches she uses to sew up her spines.
After Ingrid showed me the path that runs along the lakeshore where the wild onions grow in July, I went back almost every morning when the water was beginning to tremor with dawn. The ducks, upon hearing my feet on the worn earth, would take flight.
At home, the flowers in the old olive jar are a week old. The petals have shriveled. Pink stems bristle with tiny thorns; the edges of the leaves are grape-red.
Two filaments of spider’s web drape between the green thorns and dried petals. They catch in the pale light only thanks to the specks of dust that cling to them: nearly dimensionless, colorless, impossible to represent with the stroke of a pen.
I notice them now, in the afternoon sun.
There are some things I won’t try to draw.
Last night I read for hours at my desk, but I never looked to inspect the shadowed petals of the gone-by blooms on the windowsill. Past midnight, I turned off the lamp. I fought to sleep and, eventually, dreamt.
Perhaps it was then, when I lay curled under my blankets, that a spider, eyes smaller than pinpoints and fingertips as light as dust motes, stepped onto the stage of the windowsill and, cast in the white light of the streetlamp from the road, found its way up the side of the jar, crept across the landscape of the drying, dying blooms, and made a web.
Abigail Frederick is from Saratoga Springs, New York. She studies architecture and English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. More of her work can be found at her website.