A man near the door at the end of the gallery cupped his hands to his mouth, trying his best to roar above the crowd. "The band will be starting up downstairs in five minutes," he bellowed.
A band? Sara must not have known about the band, Ben thought. He wasn't about to listen to music; the year of mourning wasn't over yet. For a moment he panicked. Then, as the hordes of jabbering singles began to flow down toward the door on the opposite end of the gallery, he realized, grateful, that he now had an excuse to go home. The room emptied quickly, and soon he was the only person in it, standing at the far end of the gallery next to a series of tiny paintings. He was about to turn around when a woman's head leaned back into the room from a nearby doorway, a blur of light brown hair. Erica Frank.
"Going downstairs?" she asked.
He was surprised to see that she was smiling. Had she forgotten their awkward conversation before? No, it didn't look that way. Her smile was different from before: dark, canny, her upper lip slightly curled as if they had shared a private joke. Suddenly he felt as though he were seeing an actress backstage, shifting from playing a part to being herself. She was forgiving him, it seemed. Or was she just laughing at him? He searched for something to say to make her stay a moment longer, to test her, to see. "I'll be down in a minute," he answered, and for a split second he wished it were true.
But it wouldn't have mattered. "I can't stay for the music," she said, and Ben briefly wondered why. But only briefly, because she was already moving away. "Have fun," she said with a wave.
It was a painting of a street. The street was covered with snow, and lined by a short iron fence and little crooked buildings whose rooftops bent and reflected in all directions. Above the street, a man with a beard, pack, hat, and cane hovered in the sky, moving over the houses as if walkingunaware, in murky horizontal profile, that he was actually in flight. The painting was tiny, smaller than a piece of notebook paper. The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia, titling it Study for "Over Vitebsk." This intrigued Ben, who despite his mastery of trivia on all topics, including modern art, had never before known this particular painting's name. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room of his parents' house.
Now in the silent white gallery, in front of Study for "Over Vitebsk," Ben stood still. He looked at the floating man with the cane, the dark late autumn or early winter of the painting's twilit evening, and thought of fall evenings long ago, years when his father would take him and his sister trick-or-treating. He and Sara used to take turns carrying a folded artist's stool along with their candy bags for when their father got tired and needed to rest, which was usually at every house. As the long night of house-to-house waned, Ben would try to walk more slowly, self-consciously copying his father's eternal limp, dragging his right leg deliberately through the heaps of leaves on the side of the road as if only for the joy of crunching leaves beneath his foot, but really, as the evening grew darker and the circle of trees drew the horizon closed like a drawstring bag around them, tightening the early evening sky with wrinkles of naked branches, he was thumping out his father's perpetual four-legged pace: left leg, two crutches, bad foot, left leg, two crutches, bad foot, left leg, two crutches, bad foot. His father, he thought as he looked at the painting, had probably wished he could fly.
Reprinted from The World To Come by Dara Horn (the full text of chapter 1). Copyright (c) 2006 by Dara Horn. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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