Appeared in Communicators League February 20, 2017
Landscape With Frogs by Steve Carr
My hand lifts the brush from the palette to the canvas, flicking the tip covered with bright orange oil paint on the prairie of bright golden yellow grass. I stand back and observe it, squinting my eyes as if the sunlight in the scene is causing me to do so, and tilt my head, listening carefully for the meadowlarks I’ve painted on the posts of a barbed wire fence and for the sound of the breeze whistling gently through the landscape. Beneath my bare feet the red oilcloth feels like the bottom of a pebble-laden stream, slick and cool. I take another step back, the naked flesh of my ass being jabbed by a dead tree branch brought into the studio for the artistry of its curves and twists. A small fan sitting on a stool with bright blue duct tape around the middle of one of the three legs whirrs noisily as it fills the studio with the summer heat brought in through the second story open window. On my foot a drop of cobalt blue paint, a color melded into the distant mountains, stares up at me like the iris of an eye. I bend down and take the paint on a fingertip, then dab it on the canvas at the bottom of a dead tree beside a dry creek bed. I wipe the paint from my fingertip and hands with a rag damp with turpentine, then pull on my pants.
“I’m going out,” I yell as I slip on my shoes.
“Where are you going?” Lisa asks from the kitchen.
“Just out,” I answer. “I won’t be home for dinner.”
“Why the hell not?” Lisa asks, her voice strained, shrill.
“I want to look at something,” I say, pulling a t-shirt down over my head, then go down the stairs and out the front door.
On the highway the hot air blows in through the open windows, filling the inside of the car like a trapped twister. The hills and plains on both sides of the highway are covered with sun burnt knee high yellow and brown prairie grass. Cattle graze in small herds behind the stretches of fence that are linked pole to pole by tightly strung barbed wire. What few trees there are, stand leafless and gray, as if they had grown out of the earth dead. The songs of Nina Simone playing on the CD are practically inaudible even though the volume is turned all the way up. I pull off the highway into the small town of Wasta, and turn down the volume on the CD player and pull into the only gas station in Wasta and get out of the car.
“How’s the Cheyenne looking?” I ask the clerk behind the counter of the small store inside the station.
“Couldn’t tell you,” the clerk, an old man with brown leathery skin and rheumy eyes says. “I ain’t been out that way all summer.”
“It’s not far down the road,” I say.
“No one even mentions it?”
“Why mention it if it’s right down the road?” the clerk says. “You buying something or just looking for answers?”
“Looking for answers,” I say, leaving the inside of the station with a bottle of water and getting back into my car.
Standing at the edge of the road, I brush gnats from my face as I watch a thin band of the Cheyenne River wind its way between clay colored banks. The water is murky and almost rust colored and situated between two small plains of mud. On the distant bank a small rock-strewn incline leads to a grassy summit; beyond that I can see nothing. The aromas of wet earth and decaying plant life hangs in the air as thick as the humidity. Now headed toward twilight, the sun is descending behind my back, its gradual falling casting long shadows over the mud. I remove my clothes and sit them in a pile at my side and pick up my sketch pad and water colors.
I don’t hear the woman until she speaks. “You could get arrested.”
I look up at her.
Her age is indeterminate, but she isn’t young. There are streaks of gray in her short black hair and she has the mixed facial features of a Caucasian and Sioux Indian; brown skin, blue eyes, delicately shaped nose, prominent cheek bones.
“Arrested for what?” I ask.
“Being naked out in public,” she says.
“There is no public around here,” I say. “Do you live nearby?”
“Up the road a little ways,” she says. “My name is Mona.”
“As in Mona Lisa?” I ask, smiling.
“As in Mona Two Feathers,” she states, turning toward the river.
“There’s not much to sketch if you’re looking at the river.”
“I just need to get a sense of it,” I say. “I’m working on a landscape that needs some water running through a creek bed.”
“It’s getting dark,” Mona says, looking up at the darkening sky.
“Is it a night time landscape?”
“No,” I say. “I just didn’t realize that I needed to look at some water in a natural environment until it got late. I guess I’ll come back tomorrow to get the lighting correct.”
“You can stay the night at my place if you want to,” Mona says.
“Your husband won’t mind?” I ask.
“He hasn’t minded anything that I know of since he died ten years ago,” Mona says.
Mona’s house is small and sits on the side of the road opposite the mud plain along the river. The exterior of the house is weather beaten, and what little is left of the white paint on the siding is peeling like dead skin. There is a small porch and on it two old wood kitchen chairs on each side of a small round table painted bright blue. Wind chimes made of metal tubes hang from the gutter in front of the porch, barely moving in the still air. Her front lawn is a mixture of scrub grass, dandelions and other weeds; all wilted and overgrown. As she opens the screen door it creaks as if in pain and protesting at the movement.
Stepping into the living room, my olfactory senses are assaulted with the scents of herbal incense and boiled cabbage. It is a sparsely furnished room with only a faded green sofa, overstuffed blue floral chair, coffee table, a pole lamp, and an empty fish aquarium on a small table by a window. The lack of and the condition of the furnishings is overshadowed by the frogs of every size and color painted on all the walls and the ceiling.
“Why?” I ask, waving my hand around the room like a compass needle, taking in the entirety of the room, the hundreds of frogs.
“They please me,” Mona says. She goes to an open doorway and leans against the door frame and places her hand in the folds of her skirt between her legs. “My bed is in here. You are invited to share it with me.”
In the middle of the night as moonlight streams through the open curtainless window I can hear Mona, who is lying on her back against my side, breathing gently. A slight breeze washes across my naked body and brings in the scents of the outdoors: grass, earth, water. On the ceiling and on each of the walls are more frogs and as I hear a chorus of croaking frogs from along the river there is a dreamlike quality to the night, to this place. I get up from the bed and stand at the window and see the moonlight spread across the muddy flats in shades of bright white to dull gray.
“Are you okay?” Mona asks raspily.
I turn and see she has turned on her side and is looking at me. In the dim light and shadows she looks much older; older than any woman I have ever been with. “The frogs are singing,” I say.
“They sing because they don’t want to clutter up the world with talking,” she says.
On the highway headed home I drive slowly inhaling the scent of prairie grass dripping with dew at morning time. I know I won’t be able to explain to Lisa why I was gone all night and so my mind turns from things I could say to her, to things I will not say. I will not tell her I still love her, because I truly love only one thing, putting paint on a canvas, forming images and landscapes with the strokes of a brush or use of a spatula or palette knife.
As I enter the house it is quiet. Even before I reach the bedroom I know she is not in there. Opening the door I see the bed is unmade and her drawers in the dresser are open and empty and the door to her closet is open and her clothes are gone. There is a note on my pillow. On the note are three words: “I hate you.”
I turn and run up the stairs, fearful she has taken out her anger and disappointment with me out on my studio, my paintings, those that are finished and those I am working on. I open the door and see the landscape I had been working on still on the easel and unharmed. The dab of cobalt blue paint beneath the tree jumps out at me.
I take off my clothes and pick up a fresh brush, a tube of cobalt blue paint, and the palette. I squeeze a dab of paint onto the palette then my hand dips the brush into the paint then lifts it to the canvas, adding legs to the spot of cobalt blue forming the shape of a frog. I switch colors, crimson red, and in another spot on the landscape I form another frog. Color after color I do this until the landscape is covered with frogs singing to me.