The Sky Painter lived on the mountain and painted the sky. He painted it blue for blue skies, and white and grey for clouds. At night he painted it black, with white for all the stars. When the sun rose he dashed its arcing yellow lines across the heavens, and as it sank he brushed it orange and gold over the horizon.
He knew he had to paint the sky. If he didn’t paint the sky, who would? Nobody would. He knew that. So he stayed, and he painted the sky.
He lived on the mountaintop alone. Sometimes it was cold, and all he had were his brushes and some rags left from his once bright raiment. He had been a king once, somewhere. He had a crown, now cast to the floor and grown through with grass and creeping ivy. Juniper bushes grew up around his feet and between his toes.
He never moved. He only painted the sky.
And he was lonely.
Image from here.
One day a young girl climbed the mountain and came to stand by his side.
“You’re the Sky Painter,” she said.
He turned to look at her. She wore faded blue dungarees. Her hair was hay blonde. A ragged doll hung from her hand.
“My daddy says you paint the sky blue when you feel blue, and you paint storms when you feel angry.”
The Sky Painter thought about this for some time.
“Did he say what color I paint when I’m happy?”
The little girl nodded. “He said that’s sunrise and sunset. He says you love sunrise and sunset more than anything.”
“So I’m happy twice a day, every day. Once at the start of the day, and once at the end.”
“You have thorn bushes growing between your feet,” said the little girl. “Is that your crown?”
“They keep me warm,” said the Sky Painter. “It gets cold up here sometimes.”
“My daddy says cold people shouldn’t stand on top of mountains painting the sky. He says they should close the barn door and make a bivouac out of hay.”
“Your hair is the color of hay.”
“My daddy says he thinks you’re lonely, and need some company. Do you want some company?”
The Sky Painter looked at her.
“You ask a lot of questions for a little girl.”
“All little girls ask questions. I used to ask more. Do you want to know why I think you paint the sky blue?”
“Because I’m sad?”
“No, because you’re in love. You love your queen, and her favorite color is blue, but she’s trapped in a castle at the ends of the earth where not even dragons can go, and you’re painting the sky with her color so she knows you’re still here. That she’s not alone.”
The Sky Painter watched her.
“My daddy says you’ve been here forever painting it blue, so she must’ve been in prison forever too. If I think about that, it makes me sad too, so I guess the color of love and the color of sad are the same, then.”
The Sky Painter turned to look back up at the sky. There were still patches of black where he hadn’t finished erasing the night.
“I have to finish this work,” he said. “You should probably go home now.”
“I will go home now, because it’s time for supper, we’ll have fried meatloaf. I love fried meatloaf. But don’t think I’ll forget about you. I drew a picture of the queen once. She’s very pretty. I think I’ll leave it here for you. It might make you a little more sad, for a while. I drew a picture for my daddy when mommy went away, and it made him sad. But after a while, he said it made him happy. Maybe it’ll make you happy too. Bye bye!”
Then she turned and danced off, through the mulberry fields.
The Sky Painter who was once a king looked down at the picture she’d left on the overgrown grass. It was a crude tower against black, with a window at the top, and a woman’s face and her hay-blonde hair and a big blue tear in her eye.
The Sky Painter turned away. There were tears glimmering in his eyes too.
That day he painted the sky a deeper blue than ever he had since the day he failed to rescue his queen. He painted it so blue it hurt to look at it. It was blue like the depths of the ocean where it’s so deep it gets black, but you know it’s still blue. He painted it blue like sadness and love at the same time.
The little girl came back the next day. She skipped up to him.
The sky was slate-grey that day. He had his grey brush out and was slathering it over the world.
“This is a different kind of sadness,” said the little girl. “This is what despair looks like, isn’t it?”
The Sky Painter didn’t even look at her.
“I know what despair is because my daddy told me. He got drunk once and he hit me. I think this grey is the same as that.”
Tears rolled down the Sky Painter’s face.
“I think it’s terrible she’s locked up in that tower. I don’t know why she’s there. But I know she won’t want to see this grey sky. This grey sky tells her only that you’re giving up. It tells her you’re sad, and broken.”
The Sky Painter dropped his hand from the heavens and hung his head.
“My daddy got better,” said the little girl. “I think you will too.”
The Sky Painter threw his paint brush to the ground. Where it hit, the bushes sparkled into emerald flame.
“You’ll feel better tomorrow,” said the little girl, watching the flames simmer down. “I know my daddy always did.”
She turned and left.
The Sky Painter stood there, great silent tears rolling down his face.
The next day was grey, but the grey was starting to run at the edges, seeping into black and dripping down to the earth in great gloopy drops. Everywhere across the land, and the mountain, and the little girl’s house, a grey rain fell.
She hurried to the Sky Painter’s side with an umbrella open over her head.
She found the Sky Painter laid on his massive side. Hid feet were still tangled up in the bushes, his brush lay on the wet grey ground just out of reach. He was barely breathing.
“Leave me alone,” he said. “Little girl. Go away.”
“I can’t go away Mr. Sky Painter. The sky is dying because you’re not painting it. It’s all grey. Don’t you see the grey falling around you? It’s the grey of despair, and it’s raining down on all of us.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “It doesn’t matter any more. Nothing matters any more.”
“Don’t say that!” protested the little girl. She ran around to his face, to look into his big empty eyes. “My momma’s buried and there’s violets on her grave, and your big grey gloop will spoil her grave, and that’ll make my daddy sad again, and he’ll get like you and lay down and give up too, and then who’ll look after me?”
“You seem to look after yourself well enough,” sneered the Sky Painter. “With your silly little doll and your paintings of queens in towers. Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“I made the painting for you!” said the little girl, stamping her foot. “And I’m not silly, I just ask a lot of questions, though not as many as I used to, and my doll’s not silly either, her name is Marcy and she’s just sad because you’re going all grey, and everything’s going all grey, and..”
The wind was knocked out of her when the Sky Painter’s great hand whipped across the mountain-top and sent her reeling. She flew 100 yards and smashed into a rocky outcrop.
Her blood ran red down the grey rock, mixing with the grey gloop of the sky.
The Sky Painter watched her silent body slide down the rocks, and began to cry again.
She didn’t come the next day. She was dead in the rock-pile. The sky rained grey.
She didn’t come the day after that. She didn’t come because she was dead.
He lay and the grey smudged into grey and white, and the color drained from the world around him until everything seemed like white-grey smog. He couldn’t see his hand before his face. He could barely feel himself breathing. The paint-brush with its emerald flame was out of sight.
“So this is what dying feels like,” he said to himself.
The next day, or it could have been the same day, it was becoming hard to tell the difference as all the paint ran down, he heard a voice in the gloom.
The Sky Painter recognized the anguish in the voice. This was the father of the dead little girl with the hay blonde hair in the rock pile.
He recognized the anguish because he recognized himself in it. When his queen had been stolen away, to a tower in a land where even dragons couldn’t go. He’d crawled and climbed and fought at the border for a thousand years, and still he couldn’t get in. He’d screamed out her name every day, every hour, every minute and every second, and still it had done no good. It had done no good, and he’d torn his voice calling out her name, and the world around him was only black and spiky with his rage and the lightning that flickered around him.
“Hello,” said the Sky Painter.
“Hello!” replied the man, invisible somewhere in the gloom. The tinge of sudden hope in his voice made the Sky Painter feel sick. “Is somebody there? Have you seen a little girl, her name is Violet, she went missing 2 days ago and now I can’t find her in this fog. Have you seen her?”
“I’m the Sky Painter, and I have seen your daughter.”
“You have? Where is she? Is she safe? Is she alright?”
“She’s in that rock-pile over there. She’s dead.”
“She’s what? Did you say she’s dead?”
“How do you know? Are you sure? Is she really dead?”
The man howled.
The Sky Painter listened to his rage and anguish. It felt like the spiky raw pain he felt inside. It felt right. He was broken. Everything had been stolen from him. Everything was gone. Why shouldn’t this man’s daughter be gone too? Why shouldn’t the world be grey and dying.
“How did she die?” wailed the man. “How did my sweet Violet die?”
“I killed her,” said the Sky Painter, his voice flat and dead. “Just as you struck her once, I struck her too and killed her.”
“It was me.”
“I’ll kill you, then!” screamed the man. His anguish was suddenly wild rage, and his voice rang out red through the grey gloom. “I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”
His rage shot red spikes through the gloom that hit the Sky Painter in the head and stomach, doubling him over. The man chased the beams of color to the great Sky Painter’s face and beat upon his tough skin with his bare fists until his fists were bloody and mashed, while the red beams of rage still coursed into the Sky Painter and doubled him over in pain.
After the red fury had passed, there was nothing but the sobbing of the man as he lay encircled by the great bulk of the Sky Painter in the grey smog.
“I’m sorry,” said the Sky Painter, his deep voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t mean to kill her.”
The man just sobbed.
In time the man fell silent. The Sky Painter felt it when he died.
The grey thickened around him like dust. Like the ocean a hundred miles down, only grey and powdery, and thick like cotton wool.
There was no sound. Only the beat of his heart and his long slow breaths.
He was truly alone.
One time he thought he heard her, dancing through the smog towards him. He thought he heard her father. He thought he heard them talking about the color of the sky on their porch. The father was telling his daughter, Violet, about the Sky Painter, and how the blue sky meant he was sad, but also in love, and sad.
The Sky Painter lay in the grey nothingness and waited for death. But like every other time he’d waited, death wouldn’t come. Only the vision of his queen in pain came to him, her face wrinkled with the agony of separation of imprisonment. Only the agony of his own impotence, his own sickness, his own broken mind were the friends that curled up with in his grey fog and danced in his mind.
He tried to remember other things, to escape the dull pain of the past. The little girl dancing up to him. Her voice, and her questions. Her confidence that all was well in the world, that all would be well.
She’d drawn a picture of the Sky Painter’s queen, and showed it to her daddy. Her daddy said show it to the Sky Painter. She’d shown it to him.
“I painted this for you,” she said, “because I know you love her.”
He’d dropped his brush. His brush had lit emerald fire on the earth.
Her father had shot red beams of anger at him. Her father who had no brush. Who was no Sky Painter. He had shot red beams of anger that hurt his head and hurt his stomach and doubled him up for days.
Thinking about those red beams, and that green fire, something flickered to life inside the Sky Painter’s heart. Something he hadn’t felt for the longest time. Something he hadn’t dared dream could exist ever again.
He reached blindly through the smog. The vines and bushes in the bleak grey nothing tugged at him like shackles, but he strained against them and his great muscles snapped them through. His fingers clasped over the mountaintop, first settling on his old crown, then the decomposed body of the father, and, finally, upon his brush.
He seized it. He hauled himself up to stand in the powdery grey gloom. And he began to paint.
He painted faster and harder than he’d ever painted before. He painted the sky in first, a beautiful clear blue, with the sun a bright yellow orb millions of miles up. Then he painted the land, all green and purple and red and black and green again for the trees, and the town, and the smoke from the potter’s kiln and the black of the blacksmith’s beard and his iron ingots waiting to be smelted. He painted himself, and he painted his crown in the tangled rushes, and he painted rivers and roads and horse-drawn carriages and yes and horses too.
And he painted the man. And he painted the little girl.
He looked at them, lying in their places, and he watched them, and he concentrated, and he remembered the red spikes of anger from the man, and he remembered the deep blue he’d painted the sky when he’d thought again of his queen, and he focused all the power of his great body and his great mind on the brush in his hands, and on the red spikes of anger and love, and the blue of sadness and love.
Then he reached out to paint the little girl.
As his brush reached out to touch her he felt the map of her body fill his mind, only it was broken, the bones were smashed, and the lines were blurred, and the purple spark of life was missing from inside.
He painted the body over with purple. He painted inside and around the lines, where he knew the paint shouldn’t go. He painted her bones fixed, and her skull intact, and the red blood he painted over with hay yellow hair, and he painted her inside and out, and he dashed in dollops of purple with every lick of paint, and he painted and painted until his wrist grew numb and his arm fell exhausted by his side.
Then he concentrated. And he thought of her, and her mother, and his queen, and the red spikes of anger.
And a thin stream of purple drifted from his eyes. He watched it shimmer in the air. It lit up the mountaintop. The rushes and creepers beneath it wriggled and withered with sudden growth. And when it reached the little girl, she gasped, and was suddenly alive again.
The Sky Painter leapt for joy.
And then he painted her father in, and fed him the purple stream, and he came to life too.
The little girl stood looking up at him.
“I’m so sorry, my child,” he told her. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
“My daddy hit me too,” she said. “That’s what despair is. I understand that.”
“Child,” said the Sky Painter, the great sadness back in his voice, “you are wise beyond your years, but forgiving as an innocent. What has been done to you is none of your fault, and should never have been done. Your father did a terrible thing, at a terrible low. I, too, did the most terrible thing. An unforgivable thing. I regret what I did to you more than anything I’ve ever done.
The little girl cocked her head.
“Even more than losing your queen?”
The Sky Painter’s eye glimmered with tears, but he steeled himself against them. “Even losing her. I’m sorry to you forever, and I’m forever in your debt.”
The little girl nodded.
“I drew you a map,” she said, pointing at the drawing she’d made, which now lay crumpled on the ground by the Sky Painters feet. “To the place where your queen lives. If you’re truly in my debt, then you’ll go free her.”
The Sky Painter nodded.
“I will,” he said.
And he turned to the sky. And he began to paint.
It wasn’t like a storm. It was faster than a storm. It flurried and hummed and the colors raced and darted like the sparks in the blacksmith’s forge, only faster, and hotter, and whiter and all the colors at once.
The Sky Painter stood bent against the sky, his paintbrush a whickering blur in his hand, the sky bruising black and blue under his onslaught. Dragons flew in the sky, and were sucked back in, and volcanoes were spewed out and sucked back in, stars were born and planets collided, and the hole in the sky grew deeper.
“You’ll make it,” said the little girl, by his feet, her father standing by her side, his arm held around her. “Just don’t give up.”
The Sky Painter’s arm flew ever faster, on and on, blurring through the shapes of reality and the walls of life and death, through to the place where not even dragons can go. At glimpses he had the right shade of black, the deepest darkest night around the tower of his queen, and at the others the right color of her hair, hay blonde, and at others the brickwork on the tower, and the blue of her love and his love and the blue of her eyes and the room behind her, and he painted and painted and painted until finally in a bursting salvo of violet and black her world exploded into his.
She was there. She was there in the tower in the black in the land where not even dragons can fly, and she saw him across the gulf, and he saw her, and such a leap of love shot between them on blazing red wings that it built a bridge between her world and his, and he ran up the steps to meet her, and she came running out to meet him. As he ran he felt all his anger, all his pain and all the greyness inside collide with the blue of the love that he felt, and once and for all the sadness left the blue as he reached her, and looked into her eyes, and in her eyes he saw himself anew, as the man who didn’t give up, who didn’t surrender, who kept on and on, and in her eyes he found love and in her arms he rejoiced, and was no longer alone.
The little girl and her father walked down from the mountain. The sky was the most beautiful shade of blue, and the sun was setting and rising both at the same time.
They walked hand in hand.
The picture of the queen in the land where even dragons cannot fly slowly fizzled out into emerald flame, over the rusted remains of the crown of a man once king.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]