Utopia – Marina Cooper

          She calls her home “Skellig Maureen,” after herself, though the island does not appear in any of the recent atlases. Someone must have given it another name once, but that knowledge has long since passed into obscurity.

          Unlike the paintings of the mainland harbor in her mother’s journal, the ocean’s dramatic color change is not a gradient, but a clean, sharp line: phthalo green near the shore, French ultramarine along the horizon. Maureen figures the colors correspond to the island’s barrier, but that it must be invisible from the other side; what other reason would her mother have for having crossed it and never returned?

          From the window she sees a boat materialize on the green side of the ocean. It is a yacht, and though she isn’t sure they will come to shore she decides to prepare. Visitors are not a common occurrence. Her mother, who has evolved into Kate in her thoughts, insisted that they couldn’t greet visitors looking like savages. So first comes her front-fastening corset, then Kate’s left-behind petticoat, a little moth-eaten after many months in a trunk. Over this she puts on the nicest dress she has: green silk, one of Kate’s from the mainland. She played dress up in it when she was younger, some years ago now. It has likely been at least ten years since her mother disappeared, but Maureen has trouble keeping track of the time. 

          The final step to any greeting is to ensure the paints are prepared. Maureen mixes them often — they do their work quickest when fresh.

          The yacht drifts closer, and she walks through the dunes to the flat, glistening black rock that makes up the edge of the beach. The yacht flies St. George’s Cross. Her mother would have hated it on sight. 

          The first visitor to the island, not counting Maureen and Kate or the long gone former inhabitant who left behind the cottage, had been an Englishman. Maureen knew Kate had never liked the English, but they had been so starved for news that Kate had gone to the beach to greet the man when his lifeboat washed ashore. 

          He sat at their table and told Maureen stories while her mother cooked a mutton and potato stew. How she misses mutton now — she hasn’t  been able to bring herself to kill any of the wild sheep since Kate left. Maureen rarely stops to think about it, but when she does it occurs to her that she has survived on very little. Dandelion salads, berries, and the occasional eggs and milk. She might have once thought it odd that the cow who had produced the milk then could still do so all these years later, but the island takes care of its own.

          Maureen was sixteen when the Englishman came, though she had looked about twelve, and she remembered fondly how he had entertained her with stories of the outside world. Her own recollections of that world were hazy and limited in all the expected ways that childhood memories are. Briny air and gray skies, smoke curled in the corners of the cramped kitchen and the cook scolding her for getting underfoot. Pinch-faced neighbors and their children who teased her for her talk of fairies and huntresses. 

          She might have heard about dock workers’ strikes, police mutinies, and unfair courts, and an older child might have drawn conclusions. But Maureen had only been seven when she left, and her primary observation of the nights before the uprooting was that her dining room had been full of strangers. She did not miss that world at all, but then there was the Englishman speaking of Kinemacolor moving pictures like real-life scrying glasses, and flying machines like mechanical dragons. Though she loved the tales, she resented him for laughing at her amazement, for blurring the lines between the real and the imagined.

          Kate let her daughter show the man around the island, and Maureen took great pride in it, pointing out all her favorite parts: the chalky, mossy cliffs and spongy heather, their sheep, the trees where she sometimes collected eggs, the wild horses, and the blue line in the ocean.

          “Don’t you get lonely out here?” the Englishman asked, and Maureen realized for the first time that the answer was no.

          Neither he nor her mother believed Maureen, and she resented that too.

          It was after she had been sent to bed, after the adults mistakenly believed she was asleep, that the real stories came. Maureen heard her mother press the Englishman for news of the mainland, heard him say he didn’t know, that he’d been in France. Even thinking of it now gives Maureen a slight chill. How he talked about the war that had come! How long its reach was, how indescribable! Yet he did try to describe it, and all her mother’s stories — tales of women beheaded and gods crushed beneath mountains and even her father’s hanging — seemed to pale in its horror.

          She decided then that she would never leave this island. 

          The Englishman stayed another few days, and

          Maureen knew by then that she couldn’t let him bring his world back to her home. Not if it were one in which the mechanical dragons spit their own fire. So, once he was asleep, she crept from her bed and went through her mother’s paints until she found the newest pot, mixed that day from the island’s flowers.

          She painted his portrait by the fire’s dying light and trapped him inside of it. When she spoke the spell, needing only to say aloud that her painting was finished, the air around the Englishman shimmered like the mirage around heat. 

          The Englishman would never return to the war.

          The island would be safe. 

          Now the yacht has dropped its anchor in the shallows, a good twenty or so feet away. It rocks gently and one of its occupants — a man — crosses the deck to lean over the railing and wave.

          When he spots Maureen, he calls “Hello” and jokes, “Have you washed up from the Titanic?” 

          He sports a collared shirt in a scandalously saturated yellow, though the brilliance is nothing compared to the coat of the bird in the tall gilded cage on the deck behind him. In addition to the man and the bird, Maureen sees two women, both around Kate’s age though far more glamorous.

          “Don’t mind him,” the blonde woman calls. “He’s just having a bit of fun. Your dress is lovely, though, I think my mother wore one like it at her debut.”

          They make other small talk — the weather, their journey, their names (the blonde is Bernice and the other woman is Sophie) — though Maureen keeps staring at the bird. Its feathers are a color she has never mixed before: green and yellow and something that hangs between both in the light. It chirps weakly. She wonders if she has a fondness for the creature because it looks so small and pathetic, or if it is because it was a bird that sealed her grasp of the island’s potential.

          Kate had discovered it first. Because Maureen loved hearing her mother tell of myths, and because Kate had only brought three books to the island (the Bible, The Tempest, and The String of Pearls: A Romance), it became Kate’s project to write and illustrate a new volume of stories with her Winsor & Newton paints. It was on the story of Atalanta winning her race that Kate ran out of green. The following day, she and Maureen went out and Kate taught her daughter how to mix a new color; she tested the paint with a simple study of a leaf on the table. A dark stroke for the stem and central crease, a diluted wash for the part lit by light. A simple rendering, monochromatic, but Maureen marveled at its beauty.

          “So it works?” Maureen had asked.

          “Looks like it,” Kate replied. “I think it’s finished, don’t you?”

          Maureen picked up the painting for a closer look. She marveled at its minute detail, the leaf’s thin veins and the irregular edge. The shadowed part had taken on a deeper color than the original paint, the stem’s undertone was more yellow, and the whole painting looked remarkably three dimensional. 

          When Maureen set the paper down, she noticed that the table, aside from the newly mixed paint, was clear. She crouched to the floor, looking for where the leaf must have fallen. 

          “Paint another,” Maureen said. She ran outside to pluck a second leaf, and her mother cheerfully obliged.

          This time, Maureen held the leaf in her palm and kept her eyes fixed on it. When her mother said the second painting was done, the leaf’s edges shimmered, like heat. And Maureen’s palm was empty. 

          Later that day, Maureen tried to paint a little tree from her own imagination. When she proclaimed the painting finished, however, nothing changed. She took the burnt umber from her mother’s Winsor & Newton set to give her tree a properly colored trunk and said every powerful phrase she knew. She took her mother’s first leaf study and poured water over the image; it rolled off the paper in glistening droplets, unwilling to be absorbed.  

          After that Maureen began her experiments in earnest, mixing new island colors and painting tiny things that wouldn’t be missed — the shard of a broken teacup, a single bud of a thistle. When she showed her mother,  Kate did not deny the phenomenon; it was around that time that both had noticed Maureen was not getting older properly. They assumed the island must have something to do with it, and though Kate appeared wistful, Maureen did not mind. 

          A few months later, after mixing herself a new green paint, Maureen noticed the bird that had landed on the rock beside her. Though Kate had cautioned her against testing the island’s power on live creatures, Maureen had a child’s unbounded curiosity. On a whim, she took down its shapes with fast brushwork and said “it’s done,” though it was only a silhouette. Still, the air shimmered faintly and the bird disappeared. The painting’s details were much improved.

          Upon showing her mother, Kate said only that it was a very useful tool. She didn’t act at all as excited as Maureen felt. But Maureen also noticed that a few weeks after the bird incident, her mother made herself a whole new batch of island paints.

          “You don’t mind if we keep the boat anchored for a bit, do you?” The man asks. “We’re not distracting you from your sketching? It’s a nice spot for lunch.”

          “That’s fine.” Maureen is pleased they are not planning to come ashore, though she is glad to hear them talk. It always takes a bit of time to draw out some proper news of the world. 

          Kate had not been too happy when she discovered the painting of the Englishman, though Maureen explained that she was simply protecting their island. She was merely doing what she thought was right — and, anyhow, they hadn’t found a way to undo it. 

          “People are full of superstitions,” Kate said. “Think of Circe, Calypso, sirens, and sea witches. They don’t fare well in their stories.”

          “What about Prospero?”

          “He was a man.”

          “Well, none of that matters,” said Maureen. “We’re not like any of them. This island is my home, and I will never leave.” It must have been the first time she had said it aloud — Kate stared at her in shock.

          Though they dealt with at least five other visitors after the Englishman, Kate seemed uncomfortable with the growing pile of portraits. One day she announced she would make her way back to Inishark, their original island of exile, to bring back new cloth and paper. She’d only done it once before. Maureen didn’t want her to leave, but Kate set off in her rowboat and never came back.

          It couldn’t be because of Maureen. Kate’s interpretations of the myths were only those — interpretations. The paints’ power might seem wrong or dangerous, but it was simply the island’s way of keeping balance in the world, of protecting itself. The island had given Maureen so much, and she only wanted to live in peace.

          Her mother wasn’t incorrect, however. Three men arrived soon after Kate had left — men who were searching for the cause of the lost ships. She hadn’t known their mission then or she’d have painted away the whole boat — but they believed in superstition and legend, and they didn’t like Maureen at all. It didn’t help, of course, that the loom she had built was on display, nor that the sheep had come in from the field and that she spoke to them like friends, nor that she was boiling dye in a large black kettle. Circe, Calypso, sirens, and sea witches. How else to explain a woman alone on an island?

          Those men were the last to set foot on the beaches; Maureen learned to stop boats at the water’s blue-green line.

          All boats but this one.

          “What type of bird is that?” she asks, accidently cutting over Bernice’s description of a recent soiree.

            “Parakeet. He’s a bit sickly — I’m not sure he likes the boat.”

          “I’m not sure he likes my fiancé,” Sophie says. “And he chirps an awful lot.”

          “Perhaps he’d be happier here?” Maureen wonders if the poor creature can survive the climate even as she says it. She hopes the island will be welcoming.

          “Would you like him?” Bernice asks.

          “Why not?” Maureen wades into the water and takes the cage as Sophie’s fiancé passes it over the side of the boat.

          “He eats vegetables,” Bernice says earnestly. “We call him Oppie.”

          “How funny.”

          “It’s short for Oppenheimer.” 

          “Bernice just wants people to think she’s modern,” Sophie says, laughing. “She’s all done with folktales and home remedies, she’s looking to the future.”

          “And are you?” Maureen is still waist deep in the ocean, barely aware of her own strong anticipation for the answer.

          “I suppose,” Sophie says. “But aren’t we all?” 

          After another half hour or so, the visitors finish up their lunch and bid Maureen farewell. She has not yet touched her paints. Their faith in science and modernity is pleasant; perhaps some age came to an end while she was on the island. Perhaps now, no matter how strange she seems, people can rationalize their way around it. She might never have an encounter like those suspicious men again.

          “That would be nice, Oppie, don’t you think?” The bird chirps in response. She glances down at his cage and sees there is newspaper lining the bottom. Though it has some residual droppings, the pull of new reading material overcomes her distaste. She opens the door and extricates the paper. Oppie adjusts his wings but does not fly away. 

          Though the paper cannot be more than a month old, it has echoes of familiarity. The Englishman’s war is long over, but it seems there has been another. And something about doom and clocks, and an apparent fear of colors. Red, most of all.

          The yacht is moving slowly, only halfway to the blue line. She wonders if they will notice when they cross it, if the island will disappear behind them.

          Maureen reads the headlines again.

          The world is far more terrible than she imagined, so full of people, so many unhappy.

          Of course that’s not all of it. There are the Englishman’s moving pictures, benevolent versions of his dragons, Bernice and Sophie’s soirees and tennis courts and sparkling drinks. There is so much life beyond the island, but Maureen does not desire it. Not only is the price too high, it could never outbid the island’s offer of solitude and beauty and peace.

          So little has changed since she and her mother left the mainland. The details have changed, the players have changed. But the world is still so full of danger and despair.          

          She dips her brush into the paint.          

          The world need never find her.