They should have been her last pictures. The weather was perfect. The light was perfect. Everything seemed right. She was standing among the gigantic, smooth rocks just above the shoreline, looking like a mermaid that had sprouted legs. I hadn’t asked her to take off her clothes. That was her idea. With the springtime sun shining on her pale winter-whitened skin, I would have been a fool to stop clicking the shutter. So I kept at it like a greedy voyeur.
We had just met a few days before. She had been standing next to me in my drawing class crafting renderings of the model that made my sketchy efforts look like stick figures. She had turned to me and asked to borrow my pencil sharpener. When she handed it back, she extended her hand and said, “Arianna.”
It was that very weekend when we had our one and only date. I took her to lunch, to a place that didn’t look like much, but made great tacos. While sitting there near the shore we talked about the old 35mm camera that I had recently acquired at a yard sale. I had worn it around my neck like a medal won in a war.
“Do you have any film for that thing?” she asked, mischievously.
“A pocketful,” I smiled. “It came with the camera.”
With that, she dragged me to the beach. I worked to keep up as she ran across the sand. Winded, we arrived at her favorite spot, a towering hill of smooth, sun-warmed boulders. It was lovely. Then my mouth dropped open as Arianna stripped off what little she had on. I knew in that moment I would remember this day for the rest of my life. As I shot pictures, she climbed the rocks. She would alight upon a surface high above me and pose like a statue or dance like a ballerina on top of a giant stone. I kept snapping away and she kept climbing.
Ninety minutes later our impromptu photo shoot was over as I had to scurry off to a horribly timed dentist appointment. As she buttoned up her blouse, she said with a pout, “Sorry you have to go. Can you bring the pictures with you to our next drawing class?”
I waved to her saying, “I’ll bring them. I promise!”
She waved down to me from her position high on the rocks, calling out, “See you soon!”
Soon never came. An hour later, she was dead.
Twelve years later I boarded a plane bound for Ireland. I’d won a fellowship that allowed me to make a brief visit. I was scheduled to show my paintings at an Art School near the town of Wicklow. At some point I was also supposed to give a lecture; date, length and topic to be determined. The best part, to my mind, was the four nights all expenses paid at an old manor house near the beach. The grand old home had been converted into an Inn, and I was eager to set up my easel on the nearby shore.
Perhaps “eager” is the wrong word, “terrified,” would be a better choice.
As I got off the plane in Dublin, and then again when I climbed onto the bus, headed south, I wondered if I would actually find the courage to face the sea. From the moment I had learned of Arianna’s death, I had pulled inside myself, and for my own protection, had moved far from the ocean.
On the very day that I had left Arianna high up on the rocks, our seaside town was hit by a rogue wave. They can occur at any time, and the reason for their existence is as mysterious as the sea itself. Without warning, an eighty foot high wall of water crashed into our town like a monster rising from the deep. Then, a moment later, the rogue monster was gone, but my life was changed forever.
The police had come to my dorm room that night, and were soon demanding answers. I told them where I had been. My mouth was still numb and swollen from the Novocain, and yet, they still questioned me.
“You were the last one to see her alive,” they said. “Did you have an argument? Did you hurt her?”
I told them that I couldn’t hurt her. I didn’t know her well enough to know how.
Then, they set pictures in front of me, and I wish they hadn’t. These weren’t my photographs of Arianna, alive and beautiful. No, these were theirs. Her brains had been knocked out on the rocks. Her battered body was found soon after, at low tide. Her lovely fair skin was in the process of being devoured by crabs.
She had been swept from the rocks by the rogue wave. It had done damage up and down the coast, but only Arianna had been killed. Even though the police were quite aware of the wave, they still believed that they had to rule out foul play.
The bus ride south from Dublin was just a bus ride, like many others I’ve sat through. Rested but concerned as I stepped off in Wicklow, I wondered again if I could really do it. Could I stare into the face of the ocean and render its image? I had painted ocean scenes before, but always in the safety of my studio. Could I honestly call myself a realist painter if I only painted the sea from post cards? I kept asking myself the same question, If all the pictures I ever painted of the crashing surf were copied from frozen images in photographs, what respect would I gain in the Salon in heaven? None, I’d say, none at all.
I have to do it, I thought. I must brave the wind and the salt laden air. I need to hear the sound of the surf and the clanging of ropes upon sailboat masts. I must prove that I can fight for the picture as the light changes moment by moment. But, can I do it? Can I really confront that power and come home with the truth? Do really I have the courage to face the sea?
On that terrible night when the police left with their horrid pictures, I wept for Arianna, and for myself. They had taken away their photos of her broken body, but the awful images had been seared into my mind. The thought of that dark giant wave slapping her against the rocks kept rolling in my thoughts. The terrible image of her death constantly swam through me and the power of the ocean rattled me to my core. I had only known Arianna for a few days. I had known the magnificence of the ocean for many years. And yet, one mysterious wave had crashed ashore and taken the beauty away from it all.
Her parents took her body back to their small town for the funeral. I rode the bus up from school. It felt like just another bus ride until I arrived at the cemetery. I tried to speak to her parents, but the words turned to ice in my throat. At the grave site, I watched the service in silence then left without saying a word.
Returning to my room that night, I had only one thought; I had to restore her image. I had to grab hold of something that could push out the horrifying pictures that the police had forced me to see. I had to recharge the vision of life that had once flowed from Arianna. I gathered together all of the little canisters of 35mm film that I had shot of her that day, the beautiful nudes of her playing on the rocks. Those pictures would be my tribute to her. They would restore her. I carefully processed the film myself, one roll at a time, but the tragedy continued. I discovered too late that the lens on my yard sale camera had a broken shutter. All of the negatives were blank. Running from the darkroom, screaming youthful curses, I tossed the impotent camera into the sea.
The manor house outside the Irish town of Wicklow, was magical. The elderly Innkeeper was lovely. June was her name. I followed her up three flights of gorgeous creaking stairs. When I stepped into my room, I thought, I could die here. The gentle sound of the nearby shore was soothing, not threatening at all. The room was ancient, yet cozy and familiar. June told me what time she’d expect me for dinner. I nodded back to her as I set down my suitcase and painting supplies. As the door clicked shut behind her, I fell onto the bed. It felt like heaven for a soiled angel. In an instant, I was asleep.
The next morning, after a hearty meat-filled breakfast served by the smiling June, I gathered my paints, my easel, and my canvas then walked to the shore. I was nervous, but I kept walking. It was an overcast day. Every day was an overcast day, so I was told. Good, I thought, consistent light. I saw no tourists on their way to the beach. Good, I thought, fewer distractions. I saw on TV the night before that a powerful storm had just battered this part of the shore. Fine, I thought, more shells for my collection. Then I saw it, the great green sea.
As I worked my way to the top of a dune a blast of briny air knocked my hat off my head, and the sound and fury of the waves buckled me like a punch to the gut. Just what the hell am I doing here? Who do I think I am? Turner! For the love of god, someone could get killed standing on this beach in the frigid wind. What am I going to do, stare out at the waves like some kind of madman? This is no way to paint! This is insanity! I’m an idiot! Go back to the Inn, order a bottle of Scotch and pretend this never happened!
Then I took a deep breath of the bracing air. My heart still raced with fear but at least I wasn’t running away. I calmed myself and cleared my eyes. That’s when I saw it, a huge dark shape up the shore, like a beached whale or the upturned hull of a sunken ship. I moved closer, trying to make sense of the shape, when slowly, my mind found words for what I was seeing. It was a gigantic trunk of an ancient tree. The massive dark form was three hundred yards away, but even at that distance, its size was nothing short of impressive. My easel and paint box weren’t heavy, but by the time I reached the hulking trunk, my arms and legs were burning from the struggle through the sand. The tree was gorgeous and horrifying at the same time. The black slime-covered trunk looked like something from another eon. No trees this size had grown here for centuries. It must have been lying on the ocean floor for hundreds of years only to be coughed up onto the shore by the passing storm. I looked all around in amazement. Had no one else noticed? How could they miss it? But I was all alone with the dark and frightful thing. Nearly a hundred feet long, the tree trunk had a diameter capable of besting a diesel locomotive in size. At one end was the jagged broken memory of the rest of the gigantic tree, and at the other end, a root ball that could easily be mistaken for a giant squid towering a dozen yards above the surf. The roots were as thick as a strongman’s chest and were splayed out like a giant’s hand ready to slap a naughty boy flat. Looking up at the magnificent organic monstrosity, I knew that I had found the perfect subject for my next painting.
Ignoring the cold and the wind, I quickly set up my easel and got to work. My hands were guiding themselves. I was so practiced in doing quick oil sketches that I knew what to do without thinking. With my colors set out on my palette, and brush in hand, I arranged my composition and made note of the light. I started with the large masses of form – an easy task with this hulking shape. I blocked in a drawing with my brush then quickly assessed the light again to make sure I was still on track. Then it hit me, how will I convey the otherworldly scale of this thing? Add a human figure I suppose, but where? Don’t worry about that now, just paint. Perhaps someone will come past and I can ask them to stand beside it.
I completed the painting in two hours and never saw another person in all that time. The painting was nice – just nice – but incomplete. Even through the overcast sky the light had changed enough that I had to stop for the day. Besides, I was spent. I returned to my room then fell asleep. My dreams were filled with images of the tree.
The next morning, June told me that the school had called. “They want you to drop by later today, dear,” she said with a smile.
“When, exactly, do they want me to arrive?” I asked.
“Later, today,” she said, pleasantly.
I returned to the beach and was happy to see that my gigantic subject was still there. Oddly enough, when I reached the enormous tree trunk, I wasn’t winded at all. Glancing back to the spot where I topped the dune, on the path from the road, I realized that I had not walked three hundred yards up the beach, but only two hundred, if that. Had the giant tree moved in the night? How could it? The weather was calm. I disregarded what my eyes clearly showed me and got to work on another painting. All the while, I was hoping that someone would come by so I could include them in the composition.
I began as I had the day before, but as I started, I noticed something in the water just behind the massive roots. At first it looked like the flash from a golden fish swimming in the shallow water. The color and light was so odd that I had to get a closer look. As I approached, I wondered if I should include this glowing form in the painting, but then, it moved. I didn’t want to step into the waves, but something compelled me. I kicked off my shoes, quickly rolled up my pants and waded in. I placed my hand on one of the thick ancient roots, but my palm instantly slid off, the black slime was so slippery and thick. I glanced down to where the gold light had been shining, and again saw subtle movement just below the water. It was then that I felt something heavy, bump and slide across my leg. I panicked, turned and bolted for the shore, splashing and yelling out as I ran.
Safe on the beach, but out of breath, I was horrified to see a local man gazing at my unfinished painting. He frowned at me then said, “Durn’t look like much.”
He then strolled up the beach, climbed into a dingy filled with nets and rowed away across the waves.
I then cursed myself for letting the fisherman get away. He would have looked fantastic standing next to the hulking tree trunk. I checked the time and decided to make my way back to the Inn, then continue on to the school. It was time to do my duty as a teacher. I’d have to try again in the morning to capture the true spirit of this gigantic uprooted tree.
The school was charming. The students were bright and eager, but my thoughts were deeply wrapped around the massive ancient form that waited for me at the beach. At one point, I actually referred to it, assuming that they all must have seen it. When I was met with nothing but blank faces and silence, I chuckled as if it was a joke and quickly changed the topic. As soon as I sensed a moment when I could politely depart, I said my goodbyes.
When the sun came up the next morning I was back on the beach. I had not waited for breakfast at the Inn. This time, as I came to the top of the dune, I knew for certain that the tree had moved, as it was now positioned right at the edge of the water, directly below the path that led me to the beach. It had shifted three hundred yards in three days. How could it have moved so far and so fast with these calm seas?
I couldn’t let the mystery keep me from getting to work. I set up my easel again, but this time, I thought to begin with a quick pencil sketch. I pulled out my pad and pencil and stared up at my subject once again. The drawing took longer than I had hoped, but the ancient tree was so seductive in its menacing presence that I could not escape its power. As I continued to draw, I found myself moving closer and closer to the top of the trunk where it had long ago broken loose from the rest of the tree. I gazed into the dark space at the top of the stump, and realized for the first time, that the trunk was partially hollow. The diameter of the gaping cave that was formed there was so massive that it could’ve easily been mistaken for a train tunnel. I decided to draw it from this angle and turned the page in my sketchpad. When I looked up from the blank paper, I was horrified to see something move inside the dark hollow of the tree trunk. This something was no small something, but a black mass the size of a building. So dumbstruck by the quivering from within the darkness, I stood there, just watching. It was in that instant that I saw the gold light once again appear at the back of the tree, behind the towering roots. This time, the gold form rose from the water. The shape shifted and changed, and all the while seemed so familiar. The glowing became solid. The form became human. Then, a beautiful glistening woman with slumbering eyes stood between me and the tree. It was Arianna. When she looked at me, the cold wind suddenly transformed into a warm breeze, and the world turned beautiful again. Perfect in her nudity, she was even more stunning than she had been in life. She was separated from the waves, but the water still clung to her. I instantly understood that she was made of water now.
Behind her, the dark form inside the tree trunk pulsated and began to crawl.
Arianna’s lips parted to speak. I then felt her words more than heard them.
“Run, darling! Run!”
So I ran. Gripping my sketchbook tight in my hand, I dashed for a group of rocks and then dove to a safe spot. Fighting through my fear for every move, I looked back toward the beach. Arianna was still there, but then all at once she disappeared with a splash as if she had been nothing but a woman-shaped water balloon. Suddenly, she reappeared beside me, her skin glistening and wet. Without a word she extended her hand toward the beach, pointing to the giant tree.
The quivering from within continued, then as if shot out by the giant trunk, a titanic, slimy black sea slug emerged from the ancient oak in a spray of ooze and froth. My hands were frozen. My legs were frozen. My spine was frozen in fear. All I could hear was a high pitched gasping, and then, was ashamed to realize that the sound was coming from me.
The slug was the size of a double decker bus and moved with a loping and quivering motion that instantly made me sick to my stomach. The sounds that accompanied its movements were the thing of nightmares, liquid and gaseous, greasy and ill. I watched in stunned, sickened silence, realizing that this horrible thing had been hiding right in front of me. My artist’s instincts then overrode my desire to flee. Peeking from behind the rocks, I had an unobstructed view of the horrible creature. I once again pulled out my pad and pencil, and began to draw. My sketch quickly progressed as the sick black slug continued its disgusting journey across the sand. I wanted it to stand still, so I could get a better sense of it, but silently prayed that it would keep moving away from me, forever.
Then it stopped. Now, the towering slug dominated my view in its entire vile enormity. I wondered why it was holding its ground on the beach, and then I understood. It had spotted something. Out in the water, the old fisherman was rowing back to shore. With his eyes out to sea and his back to the land, he hadn’t, couldn’t see the slug.
I shot to my feet to shout out a warning, but as soon as I had filled my lungs with air to yell, I was instantly pulled back behind the rock. It was Arianna. She held a finger to her mouth, silencing me. When I had the courage to glance back, I once again saw the fisherman rowing directly toward the slug. He was then too near it to be saved. The horrid creature opened a filthy gaping slit of a mouth, and then moved with astonishing speed. In one bone-crushing instant, the fisherman, his boat and his catch was swallowed up along with a giant mouthful of the sea to wash it all down.
The slug then reversed direction and charged at the tree. It sped into the hollow trunk like a train shooting into a tunnel. As it did, it drove its gigantic wooden home a hundred yards up the beach with its violent movements. When the tree came to rest, it was far enough away that I knew I was safe. I looked for Arianna, and was not surprised to see that she was gone.
As I climbed from my hiding spot, my legs collapsed under my weight. My heart was still pounding with fear. I looked to where I had left my easel and saw nothing but the smashed and splintered remains that had been crushed by the slug.
My supplies were lost, but I still had my drawing. Arianna’s guiding spirit had saved my life but not the life of the fisherman. I couldn’t let this thing survive. I wanted that slug dead.
On terrified legs, I dashed back to the Inn. June saw me approaching and quickly led me inside. She felt the cold that had chilled me to my bones and kindly poured me a whiskey, then another, then another. She finally asked what had happened as she sat me by the fire. I couldn’t catch my breath to speak, so I held up the drawing, my only evidence of the slug. She gazed at it confused as I managed to say, “Horrible, gigantic thing… ate the fisherman!”
June looked at me with kind, forgiving eyes as she leaned down and whispered into my ear, “It’s best if we don’t speak of it. Now that it’s fed a few times, it’ll soon be gone.”
With a gasp of disbelief, I watched as she tore the drawing of the slug from my sketchpad and fed it into the fire. The half-finished drink sloshed in my hand as I struggled, but I was unable to stand. All I could do was to watch my drawing turn from paper to ash as I slipped into unconsciousness.
The dreams that came to me that night were clearer than they had ever been before. There in my fear induced sleep, I saw Arianna, sitting on the rocks where I had left her twelve years before on that perfect day in spring. She was drawing in a palm-sized sketchbook, looking out to the sea. That’s when she caught sight of it, a giant wall of water racing toward her. In the body of the unspeakably powerful wave, she spotted an ancient tree trunk rising from the deep. Knowing her fate even before the Fates could speak it, she set her own course. She would not be food for a giant slug. She chose a better path. Just as the rogue wave was about to engulf her, she dived onto the rocks. There she was embraced by the crashing sea.
I woke, back in my room at the Inn. I had dark memories of the night before, being lifted from the chair, a sad drooling drunk dragged up to my room on the third floor. That was behind me now. Nearly morning, my head was singing an opera of metallic flavored pain, but I didn’t let it keep me from my task. In the half-light, I staggered back to the beach. As the sun came up, I saw for myself that the slug, and the tree that it called home, were long gone.
It had escaped and so had I. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again. If we do, I’ll finish my drawing, and then do what clearly needs to be done. I know from experience that ancient oak burns well if you douse it with enough gasoline.
When I returned to the States I took one extra bus ride, to the place where I last saw Arianna, the real Arianna. I set a bouquet of flowers on the rocks where she had once danced naked as I snapped useless pictures. On that one spring day we made a connection that has lasted a lifetime, and she has saved my life in more ways than she’ll ever know. I’ll paint her from memory now. I’ll bring her to life on paper and canvas. I’ll paint her to return the favor. I’ll watch for her near the ocean, hoping that one day she will again rise from the waves, so I can thank her for giving me the courage to face the sea.
Todd Messegee is a professor at Northern Virginia Community College