The artist, Kuki, wanders the night. She is restless and does not know why. Perhaps it’s the lack of city noise, flashing lights, bodies that bump her as she walks. There are none of those here, in this remote place. She left the compact chaos of Tokyo three weeks ago for this retreat. She’ll be here another two. There’s been a change in her, and she is only now realizing it.
A new moon hides overhead, and although she has never seen this many stars in this clear a sky, the stars are not bright enough to light the gravel path. She left her sleeping chamber half an hour ago, telling her bunk mate that she was going to her studio, knowing full well that what she really wanted was to explore the darkness.
“I thought I might go into town tomorrow,” she had said at dinner.
“Do you need supplies?” asked the faculty member sitting at the table. There was always a faculty member within earshot of anywhere the artists gathered.
“Yes. Some plaster. And wallpaper.”
“I could use some acrylic,” said JonJon. “I’m having trouble with texture.”
“After dinner we’ll go to the office,” the faculty member said. “We’ll order what you need and it can be delivered tomorrow.”
“I also wanted to see the town,” Kuki said. “Maybe visit a restaurant.”
“We feed you everything you could want and more,” the faculty member said. And it was true, every artist at the table had to admit. The food was like something they’d never tasted before. Yes, it was all recognizable: roast pork loin, pea soup, pasta and tomato sauce, peppered salmon, apple pie and ginger cookies. Everything was healthy and hearty. The artists seemed to be eating more and more with each meal.
“It would be nice to explore,” Kuki said as she washed down her peach crisp with Zen tea. Having noticed her fellow artists gorging themselves, she realized that she, too, was eating more than usual. Accustomed to eating a light breakfast of toast and tea and only one full meal a day, usually around 3 p.m., she now found herself filling up on the wonderful cuisine three times a day. She couldn’t quite explain the change in her appetite. Everything was being made for her and put in front of her, so it was only right to take advantage of it.
The faculty member smiled. “We try to make it possible for you to explore your art, your inner self. We strive to meet your every need so you don’t have to bother yourself with the outside. It’s all about you and your art.”
“It’s like heaven,” JonJon said. He gorged himself with a second helping of peach crisp and cream and a steaming cup of hot chocolate. “Read, paint, the bell tolls and you drift out of your studio to eat, then paint, read, the bell tolls again. How perfect is this?”
Everyone at the table agreed. Even Kuki had to agree. Is this heaven?
“Maybe I’m just a little restless,” Kuki said.
“If there is anything you need,” the faculty member said, “anything at all, you just let us know and we’ll do out best to provide it for you.”
“Thank you,” Kuki said. What more could she say?
So these days, Kuki eats and sculpts and sleeps and eats and sculpts and reads. Now, most of the artists are sleeping. A few are in their studios; they can be seen through the large windows as though on display, lit up works of art themselves. Kuki should be sleeping now. But she wants to move beyond the confines of the artist colony, to see what lies outside.
Something’s amiss. It’s a foolish thought, she knows. Just the result of a life in Tokyo, where you’re always brushed up against people and buildings. But sometimes she gets an ache in her gut that tells something is wrong here, an ache that can’t be attributed to the alteration of her diet. In the dark, she feels her way to make sure she doesn’t bump into a tree or building. She can feel beneath her feet that she is no longer on a gravel path, that she is on leaf-covered earth. Looking up, she sees the tops of the trees waving in the breeze and can see the stars and the shadowy wisps of clouds. But below, she sees nothing.
She hears something rustle in the unseen distance and stops. A deer? Squirrel? Have the chickens left the coop in the night? She hears the flick of a lighter and sees a flame, then the red-hot tip of a cigarette.
“Could I bum one of those?” The woman’s voice is familiar.
“Help yourself,” says a man.
Yes, Kuki’s eaten with them before. These are faculty members. At first Kuki thinks she should join them, but she holds tight. Something tells her to freeze, not to move, not to alert them to her presence.
The red tip glows. “The new group is nearly ready.”
“Yep.” Another red glow. “Almost ripe.”
“Not as many as the summer batch. But not bad for an autumn harvest.”
“Nope. Not bad at all.”
Kuki slowly begins to slip away from the cigarette tips and the searing voices.
“No one’s tried get out this time.”
“Give it a few days. Someone always tries.”
“But no one ever succeeds.”
Kuki backs away from the conversation and cigarette smoke, returns to the gravel path and follows it to her studio. She begins to work, putting to use some of the tools. A chisel. A hacksaw. An axe. As a sculptor, she’s often considered doing a series of ornate furniture or decorative weapons. She puts aside her current project, decides she’ll no longer need the plaster or wall paper. She will experiment with a line of beautifully carved weapons, perfect for hanging in the walls of studies or dens. Perfect for breaking out of heaven.
Morning comes before she knows it. The bell tolls. Kuki goes to the main inn for breakfast.
“You were working late last night,” says a faculty member at one of the tables. He washes down his French toast—made from local grain and the retreat’s own chicken eggs—with organic coffee. “I saw your studio light on.”
“Yes,” says Kuki. “Inspiration hits when you least expect it.”
“That, it does,” agrees the faculty member, and the rest of artists at the table nod. The faculty member stares at Kuki. “It’s just that element of surprise that keeps art interesting.”
Eric Goodman is a full-time writer and award-winning author of literary fiction. His novel in stories, Tracks (Atticus Books 2011) won the Gold Award for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. His next novel, Womb, is being released by Merge Publishing in fall 2016. He’s also author of the children’s storybook, Flightless Goose.