Reflections on Art and Life
Numbness does not have to be destructive. Its lukewarm embrace can be nourishing, sustaining, prove wonderfully protective. When all other emotions have failed, numbness remains to offer a guiltless escape. It makes no demands. It makes no promises. It accepts everything. It filters in the “What?” without the “How?” or, heaven forbid, the “Why?” Numbness allows just enough depth perception to get around but spares one the drama and the onslaught of glaring colors, sharp contrasts, and decisive statements. There is no need to experience deeply or to express oneself fully, since any deviation from indifference appears completely absurd.
To Claudia, the mysteriousness of the evening fog on the river and the quiet breaking of the water beneath the ferry’s bow seemed a waste of nature’s creative resources. She was unmoved by them and found comfort in not caring, in not having to notice the intricacies of the velvety green vegetation that covered the riverbanks or the brown-and-gray rooftops of the wooden cottages scattered along. She wasn’t curious about her surroundings and so did not try to soak them in as any newcomer would. It was liberating to feel no obligation to stare all around, or to expend mental energy on the optimal framing of photographs, or to commit to memory any trivial details. She had no strength to amuse herself. The slow passage was for her nothing but one giant sigh, a push away from the world that had rendered her entirely depleted.
The ferry was small enough to wobble with every turn. It wiggled between the islands like a young salmon in summer, eager to taste the ocean for the first time, so that one might think it a sightseeing vessel rather than one built for transport. Its constant, restless rocking and jittering made Claudia nauseous.
Only a few other passengers were on board. A couple leaned on the starboard rail, turning their faces to the setting sun. An elderly man read a newspaper on the bench at the stern. The ferry captain stood in his small steering cabin, the door swinging wide open. Though the word “captain” was undoubtedly too much of a stretch for this unshaven man in overalls whose straps were fastened with one loose button.
“We stop at Overlook Island first, and then I’ll drop you off at Watershed, lady!” he shouted to Claudia, leaning out of the cabin.
Claudia nodded, smiling, or maybe grimacing against the blinding sun. For someone so numb inside, she was still acutely susceptible to external stimuli. She had been warned the weather this August would be cool on the St. Lawrence River but had not expected the air to be so piercing. That the boat was traveling straight against the wind intensified the chill. She pulled the sleeves of her brown windbreaker over her knuckles and regretted that she hadn’t brought a hat or at least a hairband to keep in check her long and unruly red hair.
The boat slowed as it approached the shore. On the embankment, a row of herring gulls awaited the spectacle. The ferryman lowered the ramp, and the passengers clambered down to the asphalt pier without so much as a glance behind. A few cars drove by. Life carried on in all directions. Then, after a few moments, he raised the ramp, and the ferry gurgled as it pulled backward from the dock, spewing fumes from the exhaust. When they had reached a safe distance from the bank, the vessel was shifted into the forward gear and, with a wide left turn, drew a white circle of a wave onto the water’s still, dark green plane.
Claudia was relieved. A typical introvert, she always felt lighter when even small groups of people around her dispersed, and now she had the boat almost entirely to herself. She hoped the captain wouldn’t try to initiate conversation, and though he seemed lost in his own thoughts, absentmindedly patting his pockets for his cigarettes and lighter, Claudia moved away from the steering cabin, as if to distance herself from the fumes.
Only a few cottages dotted these riverbanks, and a flock of ducks frolicked between the carcasses of black driftwood that littered a large and muddy beach. They nibbled on the remains of shrubbery and poked their beaks into the mire in search of snails. The water current must have been stronger here, because the boat struggled to keep its course, without being swept to either side, and Claudia held on tightly to the railing. The wind rippled and creased the river’s surface, so that it looked like a discarded page from an abandoned sketch of music or an opening of a novel that did not hold any promise.
“That’s Watershed!” the captain shouted over the engine noise and pointed farther ahead and to the right. “I have to go around, and we’ll dock on the other side.”
The island’s bank was steep and inaccessible. Tall coniferous trees crept all the way to the edge, exposing their hanging roots in a cross section of the red soil eroded by the river. A few birds flew into the branches, but Claudia didn’t know to what species they belonged or what might be their habits. It made no difference to her. The boat edged neatly into a channel that led to the center of the bay, where a small wooden pier was perched, with a gravel road that stretched away into the forest. The island looked more secluded than she had anticipated. A lone blue Chevy truck, which hadn’t seen its glory days since the 1980s, was parked farther up the road. Its driver climbed out, slammed the door behind him, and walked toward the docking ferry. Claudia gathered her small suitcase, her laptop bag, and her large black portfolio, preparing to disembark; then she stepped onto the pier.
“Hi, I’m Victor. The house isn’t that far, but since it’s getting dark, I thought I would give you a ride up the hill.”
“Claudia. Thank you.” She pulled her suitcase over the gravel, following him.
“How was your trip?” he asked, turning back but not slowing down.
“Uneventful. And long.” She wasn’t keen on stretching the conversation beyond the bare minimum required.
“Oh yes. Where are you coming from?”
“So, the train and then the bus?” He kept his hands in his pockets.
“Yes, exactly,” she said, without looking up, trying to watch her step.
When they reached the truck, Victor didn’t offer to help lift her luggage into the bed, but Claudia didn’t struggle. She had only packed the essentials and a few random items, since the last few days had been rather improvised. The artist retreat coordinator had notified Claudia of the sudden opening—caused by a cancellation—but Claudia delayed committing to the spot until the last possible minute. When it came to packing, she hadn’t given much thought to appropriate attire or the weather forecast.
“Is that a drawing portfolio?” Victor pointed to the large black folio.
“Yes, it is. But I don’t keep any drawings inside.”
“What then? Treasure maps?”
Claudia smiled politely.
“Just some large manuscript paper.”
“You’re a writer, then?” he asked, as he climbed into the driver’s seat.
“I’m a composer. I like to sketch my musical ideas on large sheets of staff paper,” Claudia replied, situating herself in the passenger seat and fastening her seatbelt.
“But I see you also have your laptop with you. Not averse to technology, then?”
“I like computers, but there are times when nothing beats a simple pencil. Whatever aids the creative process.”
“I hear you.”
He turned to look through the cab’s rear window and backed the truck out of the spot. He was a tall man in his thirties, skinny but muscular. His thin hands were riddled with bulging blue veins in the same way the uneven road was crisscrossed with narrow tree roots. Dressed in a loose black T-shirt and black cotton pants covered in dust, he gave the impression of someone who might work outdoors, but his soft face and dark wavy hair that fell to his cheekbones betrayed a more sheltered life. He drove slowly over the gravel, lazily leaning his forearms on the steering wheel as he squinted at the road ahead.
It might help to turn on the headlights, Claudia thought—after all, it was nearly dusk—but she wasn’t about to instruct him. She was too tired to care. She hoped to see the house emerge at any minute now, so that she could finally stop being shaken, jolted, tossed, and swayed.
If there were any buildings along the way, Claudia couldn’t see them through the dense forest. Thorny blackberry bushes stretched from the road into the thicket, and the pines towered in the background. The road branched a couple of times, and an unexpected clearing revealed a large patch of soft grass that looked well cared for, though uncut. The island, clearly, was much larger than she had supposed.
“Here we are,” said Victor.
Watershed Villa appeared on the left. Its brown and weathered cedar-shake siding contrasted with the gray stone foundation and metal roof. Wide concrete stairs flanked by two stone columns led to a spacious veranda that stretched the length of the façade. The house had one level and possibly an attic, judging by the steep pitch of the roof. It wasn’t opulent or extravagant, yet everything about it spoke of solid craftsmanship and elegance. Warm, soft light emanated through the windows, and a vast courtyard stretched from the bottom of the stairs all the way to the forest’s edge. It was paved with tightly compacted gravel that, over the years, had sunk deep into the soil, forming a smooth abstract mosaic. There was no landscaping to speak of, no flowerbeds or obligatory suburban shrubs. Instead, the forest crept in from the back with its lush, flowering grasses, green herbs, thorny branches, and unwieldy climbers, creating around the building a quiet nest.
“I’ll drop you off here,” the driver said, pointing to the entrance, “and will catch up with you later. I have to park the truck in the shed. Feel free to head straight in.”
Claudia pulled her luggage out of the truck bed and up the veranda stairs. She opened the heavy wooden door, revealing a spacious hallway.