A wet wind blew through the trees as Gene Dahlbeck sat down on a conveniently-placed log and set his knapsack beside him, enjoying the breeze. Even though he’d already been out for three days and was dirty and grungy, with a dozen minor insect bites, it was still one of those moments when he wished he could stay on the mountain for the rest of his life, far away from the crowd that seemed to be interested only in sweating and grinding for the dollar bill. He pulled his sketchbook out of his pack and began drawing the pine tree across the trail from him, impishly turning the large knot halfway up its trunk into the face of a bearded gnome. It reeked of Disney but right now he didn’t really care.
In another day or two, he would be back in the “real” world, rapidly painting vapid copies of Rembrandt, Degas, Warhol, or a dozen other famous dead artists. Or he’d be down at the Mall, doing two-minute insipid watercolors of the Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian, or any of the monuments, that he would sell to tourists for ten or fifteen dollars (depending on his mood), autographing them “To Jim, Jill, Jack, Joyce. Hope you enjoy our Nation’s Capitol.”
It was a far cry from his dreams when, as a so-called talented teenager twenty-five years earlier, he had sketched his friends and drawn Santa Claus figures on the blackboard with pastel chalk. “Some day you’ll be famous, Gene, and I’ll be able to say you I knew you way back when and I’ll have the proof. This’ll be worth thousands of dollars some day.” Gene had just smiled, certain that they were right.
But, good as he was, he couldn’t bring himself to paint squares on white squares or squiggles of paint squirted out of a tube. Instead he continued studying the old masters, learning everything he could about them, stretching his own canvasses, grinding his own pigments, searching in vain for their secrets.
“Gene, these are great. You’re a fine artist. But this isn’t what people want any more. If Michelangelo were alive today, he’d be out on the street doing caricatures.” The “people” the gallery owners talked about were, of course, those with the wherewithal to spend thousands of dollars on unknown artists who could convince them that purple circles and green triangles were great art.
If only he could create the vibrant colors of Van Gogh or the brilliant hues and shadings of the Renaissance masters, then it wouldn’t matter. He dreamed of stumbling across a magic paintbox left in someone’s dusty attic, the long-forgotten paintbox of Tintoretto or Gauguin. Of course, if he found it, the paints would be dry and useless. Magic existed only in books.
He sighed, rose, and put his knapsack back on. That wet moist wind felt good but he was afraid that a wetter time lay ahead of him. He came to an overlook with a spectacular view—an octopus of roads and houses, centered on a fairly large town stretched out below him. Beyond it, at least ten miles distant, there was another range of low mountains with a storm hanging over them and coming in his direction. He would have to get moving so he’d at least have a little cover among the trees by the time the storm reached his overlook.
Still, there was time.
He sat down again and took out his sketch pad, drawing the scene in front of him, then details of churches, houses, the distant mountains, the woods beneath him, cows and horses on a hillside. The sun, still shining where he stood, dappled the leaves in a pointillistic manner. Occasionally he took out his binoculars to get more details of a particular subject. He made color notes whenever possible: light green, burnt umber, sienna.
Meanwhile he painted the scene in his mind. Currier & Ives would’ve loved it. It could be a Japanese-style watercolor sketch or perhaps like some of Durer’s work. Or it could be a Bierstadt, with the other-worldly luminescence of some of his paintings, the dark ominous storm looming over the town, luminous in the foreground.
It could be a pastoral, with the storm hanging over everything to totally change the mood of the scene in front of the dark clouds, their shadows slowly moving across the valley floor toward him while some plump Brueghel peasants danced and reveled in the tiny town square.
The shadows slowly gained speed as they approached his perch, where he sat entranced and hypnotized by the scene, storing as much of it as he could so he could paint it when he reached home. If only he had brought an easel and oils with him. Sure. As if the knapsack didn’t weigh enough already.
He was tired. He’d been out too long and he just wanted to go home, take a hot shower, go to bed in a nice warm soft bed, and sleep till he could sleep no more. But his car was at least four hours away and then it was another four-hour drive home. The very thought exhausted him. His head drooped for what seemed no more than a moment then he awoke to the sound of the wind blowing wildly about him and he opened his eyes to the sight of trees bending madly in the wind.
He stumbled to his feet and his cheek was immediately stung by little stars of raindrops blown up at him from the storm that now was below the cliff. The dark clouds parted below him, streaming to the valleys on either side of the range, while the wind blew tiny stardrops of rain up the shallow clefts in the bluff on which he stood.
He was captivated by the sight of the storm clouds rolling below him, like a large river at flood, full of dark tumbling muddy water. But this flood carried no trees, no trash, none of the debris of people’s lives being carried away by the current.
Gene suddenly realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime view. Normally a storm would have passed over the bluff where he stood, leaving him drenched and soggy. For some reason, however, this storm had stayed close to the ground, trying to go around the ridge rather than over it. Gene figured it was some kind of temperature inversion. Whatever that might be.
Meanwhile little stardrops kept being flung up at him by the wind, reminding him of the moments in science fiction movies when a rocket ship goes into overdrive or whatever they called it. It was like moving through a galaxy of stars at some kind of super light speed.
As the far edge of the storm moved closer to the bluff, a rainbow began to form, as if some invisible winged creature was slowly moving a multi-colored paint brush higher and higher in the sky. It was the brightest rainbow Gene had even seen. Even the narrow violet band gleamed brightly as the rainbow slowly formed above him.
He turned to see another arc of a rainbow forming behind him, as majestically as the other one, two curved columns of bright color moving closer and closer toward each other, until finally they met and a brief spike of bright gold flash-welded them together.
Looking back down, Gene could see where one end of the rainbow melted into the forest below. Down there would be the mythical pot of gold but, even if it really existed, it was too far down for him to reach it before the rainbow melted away.
He spent a few more minutes sketching the turbulent sea of dark clouds below him then retreated as the clouds finally began moving up the cliff toward him, bringing gusts of rain instead of mere drops.
The rainbow still held reign over the sky as Gene retreated back to the trail and the shelter of the trees. The trail seemed to head straight for one of the rainbow’s legs. Maybe I’ll find that pot of gold after all, Gene thought to himself with a grin.
The forest was already darker than it had been before he had come to the bluff. The trees still waved menacingly, moaning and creaking as if they were alive. Gene hadn’t seen any lightning in the storm but nonetheless he moved rapidly trying to somehow outpace the storm. Every once in a while he would look up to see through the trees a piece of the rainbow still up there, glowing more brightly than ever, seeming to be closer and closer as he moved in the direction of its non-existent origin.
The world seemed to shimmer with its prism of colors reflecting off every leaf, even as the air itself seemed to get darker and thicker till each breath became an effort. Ahead of him, around the next bend, Gene could see a glow where the path probably opened out into a clearing where perhaps the truant sun had broken through the gloom.
But it wasn’t a clearing and it wasn’t the sun. It was the magic that every little child in every grown-up still believes in. It was the rainbow, flowing down into a large cauldron, its colors getting brighter and more dazzling till it hurt Gene’s eyes to look at the rainbow where it entered the pot, so bright that he almost didn’t see the tiny malformed figure poised on the lip of the cauldron, painting madly away where the rainbow entered the pot.
Suddenly Gene realized that the rainbow wasn’t going into the pot, it was flowing out of it, upwards into the sky. He put his pack down softly and moved swiftly behind the artist then grabbed the lip of the pot and hoisted himself up alongside the creature, who immediately tried to get away but Gene grabbed its shirt and then its narrow arm.
“Let me go! Ye will ruin it. It is not time yet.” The rainbow was beginning to break up.
“No, no. Finish it. Keep going.” Gene held it from behind while the creature, the leprechaun, continued its painting, frantically dipping into its paintbox before using its brush to weave the rainbow back together.
“I suppose ye will be wanting the gold.” The words came in a thick accent from the narrow-lipped mouth.
Gene stared. The leprechaun was two feet tall at best but its face was worn and haggard, its nose sharp and beak-shaped. A shock of dark red hair flowed out from under the green hat.
“So what are ye staring at? Do ye want the gold or not?”
“No,” Gene said slowly. “I don’t want the gold.”
Below him the gold in the pot flowed upward to the leprechaun’s brush, which transformed it into the colors of the rainbow.
“Ye do not want the gold?” The leprechaun was incredulous but its hands still moved madly as it dipped into the paintbox then spread out the rainbow that leapt into the sky.
“I want your brush. I want your paintbox. I want your colors.”
The leprechaun glanced briefly at him. “Are ye mad, human? Think what ye could do with all this gold.”
“It’s just an illusion. It will disappear as swiftly as this rainbow will leave the sky.”
“It is beautiful, is it not? It is sad that its life will be even briefer than yours, mortal man.”
“I could paint a thousand permanent rainbows with your brush and paintbox. I could make paintings that would live a thousand years.”
“Could ye now?” The creature’s pointed ears suddenly picked up like those of a cat. He thrust the brush and paintbox at Gene. “Here then. Take it. It is yours. I can get another. I have given ye what ye want. Now let me go. It is time.”
“Time? Time for what?”
As he took the brush and paintbox, he had to let go of the leprechaun, who leapt off the pot and dashed into the forest. The rainbow started to fade and Gene was dumped painfully onto the ground as the pot faded away too.
He looked at the paintbox. Its colors still glowed and the glow seemed undiminished. Just seven colors. Would that be enough? If he mixed any of them, would he get an eighth color that was just as brilliant or would he just get a muddy brown? How long would the bristles on the paint brush hold out? Would the colors last? Leprechaun magic was a tricky thing, according to the legends. By the time he reached home, he might have just puddles of water in his knapsack.
Well, he would just have to find out. It was worth the gamble. He put the paintbox and the brush into his knapsack and began hiking toward his car. The knapsack seemed a lot lighter now.