Shortly after dawn, Le cygne drifted from the Telefunken radio, and Violet’s eyes grew moist at the rise and fall of the quivering cello. She turned from her lamplit canvas to the windows, the sun radiating edgewise across the yard, the garden brightening with greens and golds. This too gave her heart a clench.
She stepped away, brush in hand, to the windows, where the air felt charged, expectant, in the way of spring. The wooden floor creaked and clunked beneath her clogs, perhaps loud enough to wake her son, Francisco, and his wife, Penny, downstairs, though in the forty years they’d lived beneath her, Violet had never asked about the noise, and didn’t want to know. Speckles of pale ochre slipped from her brush to the dropcloth, and now to the fir floor. She was fond of the groaning planks, their bricolage of color and grooves running from one end of the loft to the other, crisscrossing from her work bench to the canvas, to her reading chair, kitchen sink, and bed, like a map chronicling her days.
She swiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her smock. The morning still held a promise like so many that had come before. The ides of March had arrived, and the Irish moss between the walkway stones was now a rich emerald green. At a distance, the soft shapes resembled parakeets nestled along the path.
Violet’s emotions were tender as ever, humming close to the surface, her love for this world often seen through a swift convulsion of tears. But lately it felt as if the world was dismantling her into something puny and indecisive, and this was not how she imagined the end.
Ever since her diagnosis at the start of the year, the days felt squeezed and the nights stretched on, hours threaded with fragments of sleep and dreams that were fleeting and strange. Lungs full of spiders. Hands dissolving into dust. But this morning she woke to the gentle voice of her old friend Ada Dupré—Bonjour, sweet Vio-lette—as sharp as any memory that Violet had carried for decades. Ada’s olive skin and freckled nose, her eyes the color of jade, lingered beyond the dream, her voice floated through the room: Dance with me, Vio-lette. Why don’t we just dance?
Violet had jerked out of bed and gone straight into a coughing fit.
Her concentration was slipping. The base coat on her canvas was only half finished, and still she remained at the windows, distracted by the light, the yard, and the thick forest beyond the grass, the warm sun drawing heat from the trees, an orange gas rising. Periwinkle crocuses streamed the lawn like lightbulbs with golden filaments. Barn swallows flitted to and from phone wires, their steely-blue wings and mustard bellies flashing in the sun. The Oregon coast had finally thrown off its gray-sky cape and stepped into the fuller light of spring.
Violet coughed into a tissue from her pocket, catching rust-colored flecks against the white. She wiped her mouth, balled the tissue, tossed it into the wastebasket, and looked west through the opposite set of windows at the curved horizon where the sky met the ocean, blue against blue. The cool colors had a way of tempering the heat inside Violet’s lungs.
She swiped her tears with the back of her hand and returned to the large canvas, braced on the wall by brass hooks. She painted vertical strokes in time with the music, and moments later, traces of ordinary happiness began to sift through.
The mottled scars on her right hand appeared shinier, richer, through wet eyes and morning light. At ninety-three years old, nearly all of her was mottled in swirls of pink and red and honey brown of parched skin, the discolorations no longer assigned to the scars that covered her right side, from shoulder to foot. Her body resembled the leaves of the variegated shrub near Francisco’s work shed—which he hadn’t been spending enough time in lately, always watching the evening news or staring at his phone instead of creating something new with his hands, and she would tell him this, even when— ?
Something was happening.
Tin cans full of brushes and pencils began to rattle, skip across the work bench, and crash to the floor. Rulers, notebooks, and masking tape plunged into easels against the wall.
Violet’s knees gave way beneath her. It seemed as if the house had come unmoored and was drifting out to sea. Walls trembled, floorboards heaved, and down she went, letting loose a throaty cry, a mercy me.
She was flat on her back when scenes from her past flickered like an old film crackling, in and out, in and out.