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Portrait of the Artist Ohno Satoshi as a Young Man

Chapter Text

London, 1886

Ohno set down his paintbrush. He was out of yellow, and the light was fading. Stopping felt like waking from a trance, so absorbed had he been in his work. But if he did not stop now, he would miss the sunset.

Dizziness overtook him as he rose to cover his easel; he felt his arm tremble and a sweat start on his brow, but in another moment he had mastered himself. After covering the painting carefully, he looked with expectation towards his garret’s skylight; already, the sky was taking on the pinkish glow of sunset.

The skylight was why he had chosen this place, which had little else to recommend it. It was somehow both drafty and cramped, with a sharply-sloping roof that he still occasionally bumped his head against. In summer, it was close and hot, and in winter the wind rattled the floorboards while he shivered beneath the bedding that was the room’s only real furniture besides the chair he worked at and the table below the skylight.

But when he sat to paint during the day the room was flooded by a clear, dancing light unlike any he had ever seen, and at night his attic’s dust motes continued to dance in the bright moonlight.

Rising from his chair, Ohno jumped to stand on the small table at the center of the room. With practiced motions, he took a leap and caught the edge of the roof’s opening, pulling himself out through the skylight and onto the roof. Another wave of dizziness washed over him—when had he last eaten—yesterday?—and then he shivered. He had been hoping to leave his skylight open for several more weeks, but autumn was arriving early this year.

Ohno tucked in his legs and rested his chin on his knees, suppressing another shiver. He watched the sun set behind the blackened chimneys of the surrounding tenements. He had rented the garret because of the skylight, but he had stayed for so long—longer than he could remember staying in any one place since his mother’s death—because of this view: the sun sinking behind the dark buildings with a vividness of fiery color unmatched in his whole previous experience of the London sky.

Ohno couldn’t help but smile when the gray sparrow approached him, hopping gently as it chirruped hopefully. “I don’t have anything for you,” he rasped, surprised when his voice cracked—but then, when had he last spoken to another living creature?

Ohno felt vaguely guilty but still pleased when the small bird settled on his hand, its keen eyes examining him quizzically. He really had nothing to give him—the last crumbs in his house had been given to this same supplicant last night. But, oddly, his friend did not seem to mind; Ohno’s smile widened as the sparrow continued to rest on his hand and chirp. He stayed with him until the last rays of the sun had faded and been replaced by the glow of candles in windows and—in the distance—the white pinpricks of street lamps.

Ohno waited until his teeth started to chatter and the sparrow had flown away—back to its nest in the building’s unused and crumbling chimney, Ohno suspected—before he slipped back through the skylight, his hand moving instinctively to shut the window behind him as he remained suspended in the air.

But the pane of glass would not budge. Ohno tried again; the bars that raised the glass from the roof were stuck. He jerked at it again, and he saw stars; he realized that his arms were shaking.

He landed on the table and stepped down heavily, almost falling to the floor. He managed to crawl into the mattress on the floor that served as his bed, his hands shaking as he pulled the bedclothes over him. It would be a cold night.

 

*

 

Except that Ohno was burning with fever. He felt as though he were on the roof again, only now the sun was setting on top of him, blinding him with its light. He knew that he must drink water, but his limbs would not obey his mind’s commands; he thought he was halfway to the pitcher, but then realized with a start that he was only at the foot of his bed. His head was on fire. And then he was falling into darkness.

 

*

 

Slowly, he became aware of something cool touching his lips, and then water soothing his parched throat. He drank eagerly; only after his throat had quieted did he realize that there was a hand on his neck supporting his head. The hand disappeared, allowing him to fall back onto the pillow.

“Annngh,” he whined softly at the loss.

He was happy when the hand returned, this time to his forehead; it was cold, and small and soft, like a woman’s hand. He raised his own hand to press the cold hand more firmly against his brow and struggled to open his eyes; like his limbs earlier that night, they refused to obey him.

Now the hand was caressing his brow lightly; it seemed to want to calm him. Using all his strength, Ohno wrenched open his eyes.

A pale white face floated above him in the moonlight, its dark, almost black eyes wide and searching. Ohno was not certain whether his next word was a greeting or a prayer. “Mother,” he gasped, as his eyes fell closed again.

There was a strange snuffling noise—almost a huff—but the hand remained on his brow.

 

*

 

Ohno woke with a start. From the way his room was flooded with light, he knew it was nearly midday. He saw his water pitcher beside his bed; he drank from it until it was empty. Then he spotted the loaf of bread and lump of cheese beside it; his hands shook more with anticipation than with weakness as he tore off a piece of the loaf, pausing to take in its fresh scent before beginning his meal.

Ohno surveyed his attic as he chewed. The bedclothes were in a tangle beneath him, but the room was otherwise serene, the canvas that covered his painting lay exactly as it had fallen the night before. The skylight was still ajar.

Only once he had finished the bread and cheese could Ohno think. If he had doubted whether the dark-eyed, cold-handed attendant of the previous night had been anything but a figment of his imagination, the meal left at his bedside convinced him of its reality.

But who could have nursed him? There was no one. He had never invited anyone to his garret—indeed, it would be more punishment than hospitality to subject someone to its conditions. Ohno reached his garret by a long, crooked flight of stairs that separated it from the building’s other rooms, and the man in the room at the bottom of the staircase languished away his days in an opium-induced haze (Ohno had once joined him, but, perversely, the drug had made him more alert, almost paranoid rather than serene).

Thoughts of his father’s family came to him—but they were equally impossible candidates; they did not know where he lived, and he could not imagine any of them caring for him and then disappearing. They would not, Ohno knew, ever assist him without expecting something in return.

Ohno moved through these reflections methodically, as though striking them from a mental list; he felt that he must be careful, that he must consider every rational possibility before giving way fully to the conviction he had held since the moment he awoke—that his mother had come and cared for him last night, saving him from what might have turned into a fatal illness.

He knew those eyes. True, the eyes last night had not been quite the same; they were darker, colder, more brilliant that his mother’s—and the hands were wrong, his mother’s fingers had been long and thin like his own—but surely a journey from the afterlife might alter such superficial details of a person’s appearance? The way the fingers had passed gently across his brow, and the absorbed concern of the eye’s expression—they were unmistakably known to him. They belonged wholly to the only person who had ever cared for him.

The thought that his mother’s ghost had visited him (and, apparently, made a stop at the bakery down the street—Ohno recognized the scent) did not frighten Ohno but filled him with a grateful happiness. He felt suddenly strong and certain, full of good resolutions: he must work; there was no other food in the house, and he must recover his strength; and he would need tools to mend the skylight, and more yellow paint—all progress on the painting was halted until he could purchase more. He would go to the mason yard and earn enough to eat and paint. If his mother had come back to this world to save him, then he could no longer be so careless of his life.

 

*

 

Ohno returned to his garret long past sunset. He had been fully absorbed in the gravestone he had been shaping at the yard; it was not that ecstatic absorption that accompanied his own work, but at least for this project there was enough detailed tracery required to prevent his mind from wondering. He had been hesitant upon first entering the yard, wondering vaguely if perhaps the stonemason he worked for sporadically had been his midnight visitor, improbable as it would be—but the master greeted him with such perfect unconcern that Ohno rejoiced, free to return to his conviction of his mother’s apparition.

Ohno had enough for a little paint, but remembering his weakness (his arms ached from even the initial work of design) and recalling the faintly accusing look in his mother’s eyes, he bought food instead; he carried his groceries in a small paper sack under his arm as he made his way up the dark and narrow staircase that evening.

Ohno was mentally calculating when he would have earned enough for a full, fresh tube of paint—the end of the week?—when he caught sight of a faint light glimmering beneath his door: the glow of a lamp.

Ohno’s heart raced; for a moment, he was seized with panic. But then something like a half-hope—un-formed but passionate—gripped his heart. If only…if only he might see her again…he pushed open the door (it was never locked—he had nothing to steal), unconsciously holding his breath as he stepped over the threshold.

His eyes were briefly stung by the sudden brightness of the lamp; it sat on a chair beside his easel. The cover of which had been removed and tossed carelessly to the floor, exposing his work to the sight of a young boy with dark hair who stood before it. His arms were folded behind his back, and he was apparently scrutinizing the piece intently; he appeared totally unmoved by Ohno’s entrance.

Ohno was too stunned to feel the full weight of his disappointment. He simply stood dumbly at the door, watching the boy examine his painting.

Then he turned around. At first, Ohno could not make out his features, but then the boy stepped towards him and out of the shadows. They were the same pair of eyes; they shone just the same in the dark. And they still held a look of accusation.

The boy walked towards him, reached into his grocery sack, and pulled out an apple. He took a bite, and then pointed up at the open skylight, “You ought to have that fixed, old man. Otherwise anyone might drop in.”