The Artist with the Frozen Teeth
by William Michaelian

Dusk settled on the city and a breeze drifted in from across the plain. The stone buildings sighed, releasing their heat. High up in an apartment building, a boy stepped out onto his family’s balcony overlooking the street. Like a mournful bird, he sat on the ledge and began to sing. The words of his song were about a young man who had gone off to fight for his people in the mountains and never returned. Left alone, the wife of the fallen soldier wept. She wept for her husband, and for his child growing within her. She wept for the eternal brevity of their love.

The room was quiet. The electricity had gone out. A husband and his wife were sharing a glass of cool water. They spoke to each other in the failing light. Earlier in the day, they had visited a small museum, the home of an artist who had died. The artist had died at a very old age, but somehow all his life he had remained young. The bright colors of his youth were splashed on his many canvasses. Right up until his death, he painted, remembering his home in the village, remembering his mother and father when they were young, remembering the birds digging for worms in their garden. There was a painting of the village church. In front of the church stood a newly married couple. Instead of looking at each other, the bride and groom were looking at the painter, who had painted himself sitting on a wide stone in the foreground, facing the couple.

At the museum they had talked with the painter’s daughter, who proudly showed them everything. “I used to sleep in this room,” she said. “Now it is full of my father’s work. He used to paint downstairs, in his studio. When we were grown, he took over the entire house. My poor mother stayed in the kitchen. There was no other place for her to go.” They followed her outside. “He planted this apricot tree,” she said. “Look at the fruit, so beautiful. Come. Have some.”

They stood in the shade of the tree, eating ripe golden apricots as sweet as honey. The artist’s daughter told them that she was also an artist, but not a very good one. “My life is different,” she said. “I am too busy and selfish, and so my art suffers. It is the same with many of us working today, but few are willing to admit it. That is one reason I am not liked.”

Later, the husband and wife went to one of the modern galleries to see some of the woman’s work. It was completely unlike her father’s. It was cold and gray, and it depicted some of the bad things that went on in the city. One canvas showed a beaten man lying in front of a wall at the end of a dirty street. Beside the man there was a dog howling. The time was early morning, or evening, it was impossible to tell.

When he came into the room and saw them looking at the woman’s paintings, a young hungry-looking man with wild black hair and dirty clothes asked them in a loud voice why they were wasting their time in that part of the gallery. They tried to ignore him, but he started to argue, saying people like her have no right calling themselves artists. Finally, they escaped.

Outside there was a fountain, but the water was off. Instead of children splashing each other and playing in the cold water, the wide basin was empty and dry. Old men were sitting along the edge talking, their backs to the late-morning sun. The man and his wife looked back at the entrance to the gallery. The wild man appeared in the doorway and started walking toward them. But soon they could see that he wasn’t looking at them, or at anyone in particular. He stopped by the fountain and held his hand out to catch the water that wasn’t there, then brought his hand to his mouth to drink. One of the old men sitting along the edge laughed. “Be careful, artist,” he yelled, “or your teeth will freeze.”

The artist with the frozen teeth looked at the old man and smiled. “Hey,” he said, almost singing, “this water is pure, it comes from a spring far beneath the city.”

“May God help you,” the old man sang back. “Your noble city is sinking like a ship.”

This made both men laugh. “Vye,” they called out to each other, “vye,” for each of them knew the world was a crazy place, and that everyone in it was crazy — though just how crazy was up to each person, as it was also up to the people around him. “Vye,” they said, laughing at the undeniable truth of their understanding.

Greatly pleased with himself, the artist wandered off.

And then, like a miracle, the street shook and the fountain began to run. Clear, cold water splashed on the stone, filling the basin. The old men laughed and raised their voices. Soon, a young woman and her unborn child approached. Smiling to herself, the expectant mother dipped her hand in the water and rubbed the moisture on her forehead.

After this, the husband and wife went home, grateful for everything that had happened.

And now it was night.

The boy on the balcony stopped singing and the electricity came on. The husband and wife kissed each other, turned off their light, and went to bed. While the ancient city slept, the soft breeze blew in through their open window, cooling their skin.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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