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It is dusk. I am in the museum alone, the only “artist in residence.” For a week, I have the honor of being scared by great art—day and night. I sleep on a cot. I wander the rooms in bare feet. Before me is Gauguin’s Riders on the Beach. Two half-naked men on steeds turn toward rough surf as cobalt blue stretches beyond. Two women chat. One is on bareback, the other has bare breasts, belly hidden by a gold cloth.
“I sit in front of nature. . . then dream about it,” writes Gauguin.
I close my eyes and press into the canvas. My shoulder, my soft hip and breast. Rough smells of pigment fill my nose. I strain through scratchy layers, break through aged gesso into sky. My core is stuck. My cheek can’t move. Polynesian sun warms my side. Inky museum shadows chill my other half. My paintings of flooded cities, bloated suitcases and ruined pipes haunt me. Dark fragments drain me of desire. I need to run free by the tropical shore.
I hear the guard’s footfall on dull museum floors. A bony boy, blank eyes of an addict. His jacket cuts into his crumpled khakis. “Stay here,” he shouts. He aches to talk, to hold me.
My free arm yanks his lapelled shirt. “Push me now.” And he does, trembling.
I land flat on pink ground. Horse hoofs rise. Bronzed torsos and heads with black locks surround me. No one sees me. How can that be? The green surf pounds white. Two riders look far beyond the shore. One dons an orange hood, the other yellow. They are getting ready to leave earth, to carry off Gauguin.
Syphilis twists in his groin, ulcers mar his legs. His dark eyes are dim. Only fifty-three years old. Eager for wild untamed growth, he longs to paint frescoes with blue trees and women with walnut-colored skin. He craves noa noa, fragrance. His wife and five children stay in France, waiting for his money, his success. I have left my family too– my son and lonely husband.
Help, I call to Gauguin. How do I lose the swell and stink of city alleys, the sirens’ wail, the wretched heat of pavements? The headaches that lure me into dark rooms. Show me how to turn leaves vermillion, to pour gold on raw canvas, to find your stillness.
“The silence of the night here is absolute,” writes Gauguin.
Not even a bird’s cry breaks the quiet.
I follow a path of ferns and palms. Green and purple slash the sky. I hold his brush. No one lingers so I may paint their strong sable bodies. I am a pale spirit of the dead disturbing their day. Steep cliffs, dry land. I lie down in pink sand and ask the spirits to take me away too.
No, Gauguin chides me. This is my path. Live yours. He steers me sideways. Forehead and cheeks square, his body is a brute sailor’s strung out on morphine. He pushes me and I fall into the dank museum with pigments on my legs and fish in my hair. Bah! I call out. The sand sticking to my skin will
The guard bends beside me. He folds a towel around my neck and offers a glass of water. I gulp it. He plucks seaweed from my forehead and asks me what I’ve seen. An endless beach, the will of nature. Death closing in. I speak my vision as he cradles me.
Published by Linden Avenue Literary Review, click here