Lacquer and Fire




Lacquer and Fire

 

            Wilhelm was alone in his fire-lit study, sitting in his chair of tooled leather among strewn papers and dancing shadows. He sipped the last of his watery whiskey, which was helping with the cough. The fire, hissing and popping, its flames protesting the marble mantel, vied with the rain, which pelted the colonial windows behind him. He would have walked into town if not the storm, so he told himself, but now it was best to edit.

            Seventy-one, arthritic, and battling pneumonia, he must have known his pen would be useless at this hour. After the coughing fit subsided, he scribbled out the few notes written and put down the pen. He finished the scotch, placed the crystal on a stray sheet of scrawl, and looked toward the fireplace. To its left hung an oil painting of docked sailboats on sun-streaked water. To the right stood a tall bookshelf, its thin boards bowed from their burden. Wilhelm went to it and scanned the printed bindings, the fire warming his pale cheek and liver-spotted arm. On the middle shelf and between bronze bookends stood his three novels.

            He took down his first published work, Into Hispaniola, written forty years ago. Thaddeus, a seventeenth century pirate, yearned for an island native during an expedition across Tortuga. He was bartering knives for tobacco when he saw her in a brook, cleaning land crabs. She caught his gaze and they stared, and in the days that followed desire for her consumed him. Under cover of night he would steal the silver from his ship and meet her in Cayona. They would cross the Canal de la Tortue to the mainland and with the bullion buy their voyage to the Old World. But the Spanish invaded before Thaddeus put his plan to action. He fell under a barrage of flintlocks, and lay dead on the lapping shore, having never spoken to the woman.  

            Wilhelm lowered the book to catch more firelight. On the left half of the cover was a man among ropes and square sails, gazing to a calm Caribbean. On the right half: a young woman among slim leaves of sugar cane, wielding a spear and staring passed its tip to the distance. If I had a son he might look like Thaddeus, Wilhelm thought. The cobalt eyes, the straight brown hair I used to have.

            Then he took down Venusian Entreaty, “a romance written for money,” he admitted after its publication. Young readers bought the book, but it disappointed critics (“Wilhelm Dore’s foray into eroticism is a meandering attempt to recycle literary trash” was particular feedback that stuck with him). The cover illustration of Venusian Entreaty, a pop art rendering of the planet itself, suggested nothing of the novel’s amorous and doomed affair. Wilhelm had been embittered about this art, but now the planet was fitting--suffocating, lifeless sentimentality.    

            Finally, he removed Copper, his longest and most technically adventurous work, written to finance the New England home. In Copper, protagonist Bill Bexler, like Wilhelm, was raised in rural Montana. Unlike his creator, Bill had a wife and daughter, whom he abandoned for promising work at a Chilean copper mine. Bill was imprisoned during a political coup, however, and became desperate to return home. He broke out and fled to the Andean foothills, but a Chilean Recluse bite, and subsequent renal failure, took him in the wilderness. Wilhelm flipped through its pages, seeing the blue ink of his obsessive, post-published revising.   

Wilhelm knew he wasn’t unlike his protagonists, those wandering figments of his imagination. They all shared the loneliness, sure, but now Wilhelm too felt victim to fate, destined for solitude. Even one of his aspiring-writer friends would be welcome company now, perhaps to watch the storm with, perhaps to advise that art must eventually be set free.  

            He gazed into the dimming fire, the books burdensome in his atrophied, cradling arm. Such devotion they demanded, but he was indifferent to them now. He thought about Emilie, the woman he forsook for his writing. He imagined the children they never had. If only I had stayed with her, he thought, she could be here now and I wouldn’t die alone. 

            He knelt in the glow of the fire and, one by one, threw the books in, embers spitting forth. Flames flickered violet as the lacquered covers caught. He waited, his forehead beading with sweat, his kneecaps raw, to ensure the books were wholly engulfed. From the gray-bricked chimney plumes of smoke joined the night.

            Later, he returned from the bedroom and laid the quilt and pillow on the hardwood in front of a smaller, retreating flame. He tossed a log in, closed the iron screen, and lay down in fetal position with his bony back in the heat to soothe his lungs. He heard the moist log gasp and steam. The hiss of encroaching death, he thought. And as the thunderstorm’s full fury enveloped his hilltop estate, it drowned the sounds of coughing into the night.

 
David Gershan
 



David Gershan works as a clinical psychologist in Chicago, IL. When not at his day job, David can be found indulging in his love of music, literature, and creative writing. David has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and has written numerous articles for an award-winning mental health blog.

 

 

 

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