The people of Marlborough all said that Danton, the sculptor, was eccentric. He did not wear his shirts the way that shirts should be worn – the cuffs buttoned so and the collar adjusted thusly. His hair was an odd shade of yellow, the color of fresh butter, and stuck up in little tufts and whorls all over his head. He did not carry a watch, perhaps did not own one. When asked the time he would reply ‘It is early’ or ‘It is late.’ Or he might smile and say ‘The time? I have no idea. What does it matter, really?’ It was most disconcerting. There were those who declared that something ought to be done, that such a situation could not be allowed to continue. Danton, they said, was a bad influence and a bad example. But most people, the majority of Marlborough’s citizens, agreed that Danton should be left alone. He was a sculptor after all, an artist, and as such he was granted a measure of indulgence.
Liam knew, of course, that Danton was eccentric. He knew that Danton was a sculptor and that he did not own a watch. But he did not hold this against Danton as the other boys did. He did not run fleeing past the gate of Danton’s house nor rumple his own hair so that it stood up in spikes and whorls to make fun of Danton. He was curious and, although he would not have admitted it, intrigued. Danton was unlike all the other people that Liam knew and had grown up with. He was different in a way that was puzzling and engaging. And he seemed content to be different. It was this, finally, that led Liam to the door of Danton’s house.
At the entrance was an elaborate brass knocker depicting a nymph peering out from behind a bower of fruit-laden branches and vines. It had probably been made by Danton himself. It surprised Liam and startled him and for a long instant he hesitated. Finally he took a deep breath, lifted the knocker and let it fall.
The door swung open almost at once. Danton thrust his head out, peered first to the left then to the right then finally looked down and discovered Liam.
“Yes?” he demanded. His hair stood up in spikes and whorls, bristled angrily in Liam’s direction. Liam shuffled his feet, not knowing what to say. Then it came to him.
“I am Liam,” he said.
Danton’s expression changed. His eyes softened and the lines around his mouth disappeared. “Liam, are you? Well, that changes everything. I thought perhaps that you were someone else. But I see now that you are indeed Liam. Here, on my very doorstep. You are most welcome.”
“I brought you this.” Liam held up an object that dangled from a length of chain.
Danton seized it in his hand, turned it first one way then the other, held it upright then upside down. “A watch?” he inquired.
“I heard that you did not have one and I thought perhaps . . .” Liam realized that he might have offended Danton.
“Why, it is the very thing, the very article, I wanted most.” Danton’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “I have just the place for it too, so that I’ll always know where to look for it.” Danton cupped the watch in his palm, slipped it into his pocket. “Now, how am I to repay such kindness? You must come in. I shall show you the studio where I work. Not everyone appreciates such things. But you, you have the sensibility of an artist. You possess a heart that is free and unfettered. That is all one needs to discover that there is magic in the world.”
Danton led the way into the house. Liam followed him down a corridor that snaked back and forth between enormous stone vases choked with plants, plants that spilled over onto the floor and sent vines and creepers climbing over the walls and ceiling. Sprays of tiny blossoms were visible everywhere, orange and scarlet and crimson, and, flitting amongst them, equally tiny butterflies. Their wings were a constant flurry of motion. Liam stopped to smell an exotic purple blossom and his nose came away dusted with pollen.
“Come along, come along,” Danton urged him. “We’re almost there.” Danton brushed aside a curtain of vines and they stepped into a large, open space lit from above by a skylight. “Well, what do you think?” Danton swept his arm around the studio.
“It’s very nice.” Liam stepped forward to examine a sculpture – intertwined ribbons of copper adorned with buds and shoots and tiny, furled leaves. Some of the copper appeared quite new while some had acquired a coating of verdigris, gave an impression of great age. Liam leaned over the sculpture, saw his image reflected in a dimple of copper. He looked much older, looked almost as old as Danton himself.
“That,” Danton proclaimed with satisfaction, “is poised to burst into life. It requires only a little more coaxing, a little more sunlight. Remember, a sculptor must learn many techniques. He must understand space and volume and perspective, must grasp harmony and balance. Above all, he must infuse his work with something that can not be seen nor heard nor touched. He pursues the intangible. Yet where is he to discover something so elusive and rare?” Danton leaned toward Liam, his manner secretive and hushed. “For every individual the answer is different. I am partial to Wet Glass. For there I brush up against magic. There I experience the world as it might be or as I should prefer it to be. Or perhaps even as it once was, long, long ago.”
Liam nodded. He had long suspected that there was such a thing, such a place, for everyone, however distant it might be and however long and arduous the journey.
“Come, I will show you.” Danton led Liam up a flight of stairs then up a second flight, the stairwell growing narrower as they ascended, choked with plants and vines and creepers, with cascading clusters of flowers and, everywhere, tiny, exquisite butterflies.
“Here we are.” They arrived at the very uppermost reaches of the house. “Careful now. You hadn’t thought to bring your swimsuit, I suppose?” Liam shook his head. “Well, no matter. One can only get so wet and then, why, one can get no wetter.” Danton opened the door.
Liam ducked a look in the room, saw that the windows were composed of triangular panes of glass and fit together in an intricate pattern of alternating diamonds and stars. They caught the sunlight streaming in from outside, transformed it. The light became saturated with a rich, soothing tint of blue, a blue that rippled and sparkled and filled the room to the very ceiling. It was like water almost, clear and beckoning and fresh.
Liam gave a cry of delight. “Can I go in?” he asked.
“Why, certainly.” Danton brushed aside a butterfly. “What would be the point of having such a room if it was only to look at? That wouldn’t do at all. And you need not worry. The air may feel wet, it may imitate wetness. But being wet – that is altogether different. That is another proposition entirely.”
Liam slipped off his shoes, waded into the room. The blue washed over him like a mountain stream, cooling his skin and plastering his hair against his scalp. He wiggled his toes, rubbed the soles of his feet and laughed aloud. “It tickles,” he said.
“Mind where you step. It will catch you unawares. Once, long ago, I was scarcely older than yourself in fact, it tickled me till I yelled and shouted with laughter, till I rolled on the floor. I did nothing but smile the entire remainder of the week. You can imagine the looks that I got.” Danton frowned at the memory but the frown dissolved into a smile. “Still it was worth it, don’t you think? To learn how to smile and laugh, that is a great gift. It is a thing that any man might envy.”
Liam paddled his way across the room, amazed at how light and buoyant he felt, almost weightless. Tiny bubbles issued from his mouth and spiraled lazily toward the ceiling – toward the surface? He did not know what he should call it. For if this was not water – and it was not – it was so very like water that he could not help but think of it so, could not help but treat it as such.
He spun slowly in astonishment as a fish glided past. Its tail and fins were gauzy works of art and waved back and forth as in a dream. It was green and gold and all variations of green and gold, so dazzlingly beautiful that it made Liam’s chest ache.
“There, a fish, do you see it!” he said to Danton. He held his breath and stilled his hands, afraid the vision might disappear should it notice him.
“See it? Why I should think so. A handsome fish, is it not? Is it more green than gold do you think, or gold than green?”
Liam stared at the fish. Gold, surely. Even the air around it seemed to sparkle and flash with gold. Yet the longer he observed the fish the less certain he became. Every flick of its tail and pulse of its gills revealed new colors: now gold, now green-gold, now green with a subtle under-shading of gold. It was always in a state of transition.
“But is it real?” Liam demanded, his eyes filled with green and with gold, with all the variations of green and of gold.
“You might as well ask if laughter is real.” Danton held out a hand and a school of fish flashed past, one after the other, brilliant streaks of silver that were there and then gone in the space of a heartbeat. “For where is it when it is not there and where does it go when it has departed? Who can answer you that, who would be so bold? Yet it carries joy with it always, it elevates and enlarges us. And its absence, its absence is an emptiness and a desert, dry and arid and parched. Would you declare that the fish is any different or its magic any less necessary?” Danton held forth his hand again and Liam saw a jellyfish floating past, its beautiful, bell-shaped dome translucent. He could both see it and see through it, see what lay beyond and see what lay within. It was dream-like, enchanted, and Liam felt, as he watched, that hours might pass so and he would never be aware of it.
When he stepped outside again, when Danton ushered him out of the house and bid him farewell, he was surprised to discover that the day had almost passed. The sun had just settled beneath the horizon and the sky was streaked with color, salmon and orange and gold. Liam stared at it as though he had never seen such a sight before.
He felt in his pocket for the gift Danton had given him: a small lens of wet glass that fit comfortably in the palm of his hand. He stared at the sky again, at the beautiful wash of color that was everywhere, and he understood that magic could be accessed by many means and through many methods. In truth, one had only to look – and there it was.