I come home early to our apartment, sweating my way up the steep steps, and grateful for every rare breath of wind and patch of shade. The sun is still floating above the dusty haze over the bay, and heat rises from every stone.
Our rooms are too tidy, and that's the only thing that has made me feel cold all day. Everything is in its place, sleeping rolls folded neatly, dishes clean and stacked. Zer is out on the balcony, reading. If I ask, nothing will be wrong. It's fine. It's all fine, Voss, don't worry so much.
I go out in the sun to steal a kiss. Zer smiles but doesn't look up from the page. From here you can look down to the sea, over roofs and a maze of streets. The tide is out, and the shore is dark-edged with rocks and seaweed, the waves glittering bright against them.
Zer's mood has tides too. Slow and deep. Less regular and reliable than the pull of the moon on the sea, but they are as much a part of my life as sea tides to any sailor. When inspiration is at its flood, Zer is a wonder to be with. New paintings every day, beautiful and inexplicable. At those times, the apartment is a mess. Scattered clothes, pigments everywhere. Pestles of earths and chalk and soot, and rarer ingredients when we can afford them. I tidy and cook, and delight in my lover's excitement.
But lately, that tide has been out for too long. There is no mess to tidy, and Zer doesn't want to eat. I come home from my work bringing only money, and feel worthless. On the worst days, I fear to find the apartment empty. Every loose thread tied off, everything set in order, everything made neat and final.
“You're home early.”
“Buran said it was allowed, for your birthday. I brought you a present.”
“Do you want to see it?”
“Buran doesn't pay you enough, you know. You are shamefully exploited, and then out of what little you get, you pay good coin right back to that soulless beast. I wish you wouldn't, Voss. Not on my account.”
I work at Buran's hardware and crafts shop. Zer used to work there, but they were simply unable to get on. Buran is … I'll be kind and say Buran is practical. Zer couldn't work within the constraints Buran set, and couldn't always be polite to some of the customers, so in the end, there was a vacancy for the position of sales assistant, and I took it. Zer was furious at first, but we have to eat.
I'm practical that way, too. The world values people like me: dependable, honest, hard-working, invisible. The world scorns people like Zer: wild rule-breakers, free thinkers. But I know, long after I am gone and forgotten, Zer's paintings will hang in richly-furnished halls and art collections, and Zer's name will be scrawled in the bottom corner of each one, noted and remembered for generations. I am merely respectable, and respectability is, if anything, about being forgettable.
But for now, Zer's works aren't the fashion. People buy portraits, landscapes, bowls of fruit. Pictures that look like something. I don't know what Zer sees, objects or dreams or just ideas maybe, that become such flows of shape and sprawls of colour.
Nor do I know how that flow can dry up. I don't know how you can not have more ideas for things to paint, when what you paint doesn't have to look like anything. But whenever I think like that, I just feel guilty. Other painters can copy whatever is lying around, and I suppose the supply of subjects is endless. Zer creates new things.
My favourite hangs in our room. I can't ask what it is, or I'd feel like I was shallow and ignorant like all the others, but I have a private idea, which is just for me. The canvas is mostly pale with a nest of dark markings, and a flash of vivid colour high up in the middle, and I think of it as the city: bright and dusty and bland under the sun, laced through with shadows sharp and deep, and in the middle is our little apartment, full of love and life. The only part that matters.
It's what I want it to represent, anyway.
“I didn't buy it from the shop, if that helps.”
“No. It's new. A formulist's apprentice came in, trying to interest Buran in stocking it, but no deal. Buran rejected it out of hand.”
“I'm liking it already, if Buran didn't.” Zer puts the book down, and I take out the little tin-alloy tube from my pocket. It is unmarked except for a paper label with a number on it.
“You see, Buran was in a bad mood, and bellowed `What use is this? What can you paint with it? Nothing is this colour!’ and threw it back in the apprentice's face. But as soon as I heard that, I thought of you. So I slipped out and bought a sample tube from the apprentice, who was only a little way down the street, and Buran got no profit out of it. The best thing is, maybe nobody else in the world has any of this paint, but now you do.”
Zer opens the tube and squeezes out a tiny globule.
In sunlight it is even more striking than it had been in Buran's shop. Shocking as spilt blood, bright as the summer sky, and in hue somewhere between the two. Zer squeezes out more, and smears a wet fingertip of it in an arc across the bone-pale wood of the balcony railing. Stares at it, and grins.
“I love it. And I love you.”
We kiss then, and Zer moves the kiss from my lips to my ear, down my neck, and draws me back inside, to shade and privacy. Hands inside my tunic, fingers slip into my waistband, tugging gently down.
The way we are together is also lifted and moved by Zer's tide, and when at its flood, I have often had to scrub paint from various parts of me before visiting the public baths, for fear of disdainful glances. But every streak and splash is a sweet memory.
As the poet Joruna says, “lovers, even if they have nothing else, wear fine silk beneath their rags.”
After we touch and kiss and move together, we roll apart and drowse, our sweat hardly cooling us in the still heat of the evening air. Zer's eyes are half-open, not looking at me, but gazing at the vision of a new painting that will grow on canvas tomorrow like a vivid flower among the mess and jumble of our apartment.
Such eyes. Nothing else is that colour.