Most mornings I wake alone, eat my toast alone, take my morning walk in silence. Though I dwell not wholly in the past, neither do I live completely in the somber happenings of the present. My thoughts are like loose stones, the hand that casts them doing so ever backward across the still, dark pond of my mind, to a time years and years hence, a time when there was laughter. It is there that the greatest portion of my heart and mind remain, locked away in a small German village in years long gone. I am always either here in the world of the flesh troubling about the mundane—fixing myself coffee, fetching my paints from the shelf—or musing on those pleasant days of the past; I never stop in between to let my mind rest on the gruesome horrors that separate blissful childhood from quiet adulthood. In the afternoons, I paint, for if there is beauty still in the world it lies in the oils and paints wielded by those with a knack for beauty. In painting there is beauty, but also sadness for those who will see it, and a strangely paradoxical joy. All the while that there is light I sit on my porch, rain or shine, easel before me and paintbrush in hand, and paint without check until the lighting grows poor, at which point I wrap up and head inside for the evening. Occasionally I might read a book inside—I don't own a television, having seen far too much cruelty and violence in a bitter lifetime to hunger for more—but mostly I just go to sleep, early though it is, and rise with the sun the following morning.

I never paint the scenery before my eyes, though to most it is fairly breathtaking. Instead, I paint that which is before my heart, and I always do so from memory. Behind the easel there is a window ledge where for years two small pictures were propped up in the sunlight, to which I sometimes gazed if ever I allowed a brief lull in the strokes of paint that sing to me so fair. The first was an old photograph, tended regularly so that it does not fade, yet nonetheless showing all the telltale signs of age, as am I, for we have aged together, though I so much faster and less gracefully. Eleven happy faces shone through that polished frame, sprawled out across lush grass in days of peace with eyes that gleamed with laughter and smiles that rippled with an undercurrent of joy. Beside it stood a rough echo of similar shapes copied in a child's blunt, unsteady hands. Eleven crude figures, some tall, some short, the edges blending into the creamy white of the paper in soft, fading colors, though once they had been bright, bright and bold like the hand that drew them. As the years passed they have become less vibrant, even as the years have slowly pulled and frayed on the edges of those happy times, making them less real if not less powerful, until I wonder if there ever was such a time when happy children took to crayons in the glades of my former home, and whether such a time of peace would ever come again. Memory is a tricky and devilish thing, distorting the truth with the remembrances of the viewer, a childish perception of a childlike world. Seven brothers and a sister I had had once upon a time, in a happier time, but they were gone now, all of them, and none in a timely fashion, or one of their choosing. My life is bare of the simple pleasures of life born of ignorance of human nature, an ignorance to which I can never now return seeing as I have seen. I am altogether alone: alone with the memories which consume all that was once fair, or might have been, or still is to some eyes.

It is these faces that I paint, infusing among them others that I had known and encountered who will now speak no more, silenced by hatred and other person's fears, with all the haste that I can muster, for each day the images grow a little more cloudy, a little more vague, and I fear to stop lest I forget them entirely, lest the world itself erase all evidence of their memory.

The knock on the door then, was quite sudden and startling, a monumental occurrence in my quiet day to day existence, as anything out of the ordinary invariably proved. A man stood there on my doorstep, middle-aged and with a hard-set face, eyes drawn together to knit for him an expression of the utmost intensity. There was an urgency in his eyes that I recognized all to well, as if he were a savior of history however horrible in the retelling, eager to teach future generations about the sufferings that to him were matters of book and film and to me were matters of memory undying.

He stood there, neatly tucked into his business suit, and I felt a powerful wave of dislike sweep over me then and there, an old man's intense desire to be let alone, to return to my solitude of turpentine and memory. But I found my manners where I had left them, rusty from lack of use but still ready at my disposal. I invited the man in with all the courtesy I could muster, sat him down at my table and offered him something to eat, a bit of coffee, a bite of toast. He declined, insisting that he had to attend to his business, and I sat, unwilling, at the kitchen table to hear his speak, begrudging every minute of bright sunlight that was wasted while this man twisted his hands quietly in his lap and began to speak.

"I know that this must be dreadfully awkward for you," he began. The dreaded, formal beginning. The pretense of care, a gentle way to stir up and probe a painful past, only to be shattered by harsh demands minutes later. I had endured dozens of these solicitors, asking me to speak on behalf of my kindred, to share my experiences with schoolchildren, middle-aged history buffs, congregations of pitying mourners, and yet I steadily refused, over the years, until the stream of beggars at last drew to a close. I was surprised that this one had not yet heard tale of my reputation for reclusiveness. Solicitors cursed me and my fellows called me selfish, uncaring. I waited quietly, recalling a speech that had once been second nature to my tongue, and waited for an inviting pause in the man's speech during which I might interrupt.

"I know that you have never been a great fan of speaking out about your experiences," he went on. Unexpected. I wondered vaguely why he was still here. "But I have a proposition that you might wish to consider." Though I doubted it, I felt it would be rude to turn it down until I had heard at least half the proposal. Despite what my contemporaries might think, I did, after all, have a sense of decency. "I have read memoirs and listened to speeches, multitudes of each, depicting the horrors of your past. But I have heard that you make paintings of surpassing skill, preserving those whose names and faces might otherwise be lost in the retelling. Six million is, after all, an extraordinary number. And yet," Here he puffed up a little, sticking his chest out with all the air of a pompous and ridiculous baboon, "I consider it my mission to make sure that not one soul is forgotten if there are any left to remember them. And so I have come to ask, nay, rather to beg," his tone grew solemn once more, and businesslike, bereft of its former frenzy but containing still a soft plea, "that you would loan these masterpieces to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., where they might forever be preserved. I assure you that there, at least, they will have a good home, and their stories will never be forgotten."

Oh, how severely was he mistaken in this line of thinking! I had boycotted the museum for years, even now I refused to set foot in it. Stupid people, ignorant people, innocent people, all watching short clips of film, glancing at pictures, crying with feigned understanding. There could be no understanding for those who had not endured it. Those memories were the burdens of the survivors, and them alone.

"I'm sorry sir," I said, masking the rising snakes in my stomach behind false face and tense smile. "But this I cannot allow. My paintings will stay here, with me, as they have always done."

He acknowledged my refusal with a slight incline of his head. "I feared you would say that," he said, and there was no hint of blame nor anger in his voice, only a deep sense of sadness. "But I felt honor bound to try." He paused and got to his feet, turning to leave. "But I do have one more favor to ask of you, and a strange one, as it seems." I steeled myself up for the long and wearying argument which would surely ensue and the stream of insults that would follow as he cursed my stubborn unwillingness to cooperate. "Might I perhaps stay to watch you paint?"

Caught off guard, I glanced at the man. Kindly enough, I deemed swiftly, and with no alterior motive that I could find hint of. And I did not really want to endure another wretched argument like those of my youth. I felt old just then, and terribly weary, beaten down at last by this last stone the world had strength to hurl at me in my old age. I said nothing, but I nodded my head just once, curtly and with unwarranted vehemence. He followed me out to my porch in compatible silence.

At first, I resented the intrustion into my quiet little world. My hands quivered ever so slightly as they picked up the brush, the paints themselves seemed tarnished and the memories foggy, unwilling to present themselves for this strange eye. But he proved a good observer, quiet and still so that I almost forgot his presence as the slow, mournful minutes passed, timed only by the steady strokes of my brush. When the sun at last began her downward descent, I packed up my paints and turned to the man in the corner, feeling myself stiffen slightly at this unusual change in routine. Seeing me on my feet the man rose also. "Thank you," he said, reaching out for my hand to shake. "It has been, I assure you, a pleasure. There will be no need to show me to the door, Mr. Burke, I can do so myself. Good day," he said, and with that turned on his heel and vanished from the room. From outside I heard his engine rev to life, leaving me alone to contemplate the strange turn of events the day had taken.

That man's name was Gale Brown, and I was much distressed to find him at my door the following afternoon. "Just to observe," he assured me. Though I was unwilling to grant him this request, I went once more to my abode and began to paint, not wanting to waste precious hours of daylight in disagreement with this strange man. I could, at any rate, so no harm in his observing me. If he thought that this would give him subtle influence on me, that slowly, day by day, he could break me down, change my mind, then he was mistaken, and this did not disturb me in the slightest. It was, after all, his time to waste. For months afterward he would come every afternoon to watch me paint until I grew almost accustomed to his presence. There would be, every so often, those returning moments of initial discomfort, but these were washed away almost instantaneously by the familiar smell of paints and turpentine and the scent of laughter and sweet memories.

In all the afternoons that he sat on the stool behind me, nibbling without complaint on an old man's dry toast, only once did he ever interrupt my quiet process. "It is truly a marvel," he had said, breaking an hour's warm silence of snug hold over the air. "Some preserve the world in words and writings, others shrink from that which they don't choose to remember and other's dwell on it too bitterly. But no works of your contemporaries—willing or unwilling as they may be to share their memories—have ever told the story with such perfection." He paused. "You see, my father and mother are both Holocaust survivors. They both escaped, though all their family was lost to the hellish flames of Hitler's concentration camps. I never had a lot of family growing up, and I want to make sure that the memories never fade, and so I read and I read, memoir after memoir, even unto my adult years." He smiled gently, wryly. "Yet nothing speaks to me as do your paintings. They have an eloquence, my friend, that is all their own."

I did not respond, nor did he seem to need me to. He had said, it seemed, what needed be said. After another three hours of cozy silence, when the sun began to slip, he rose to his feet. "Thank you," he said, "It has been a pleasure." Day in and day out, that small sliver of interaction was the most interaction that we ever had—silence in the morning and a few gracious words of thanks in the afternoon—and yet I found that silence more compatible and informative than any number of words and lengthy conversations could have conveyed.

One day, as I sat before my easel in the afternoon, with the intent to paint a young girl I had once known, a small child who had been my playmate in the early days of the war, and whose fate I had never discovered, I found that her face, which had been so vivid in my mind when I awoke that morning with the intentions to paint her, and whose voice so plaintive as she called out to me in my dreams the night before, seemed fuzzy, somewhat less than tangible. I struggled, paint in hand, to recall to myself the freckly features that had once been so beloved and dear to my heart, the spread of dark hair across her petite shoulders, the knowing gleam in her eyes as she laughed and sparkled—but though I described her over and over in my mind with the most lyrical ands specific of phrases, they sloshed across my brain, in and out, only words. I felt as if I were recalling phrases from a book read long years earlier, and often though I repeated them I could find now no essence of the personality that they embodied. I had the ingredients, but the recipe was gone, and I was afraid. I got to my feet and shook my head, and for the first time in fifty years I walked away from a blank easel, washed an unblemished paintbrush clean in the sink, and sat on the couch, staring silently into a vast space of nothing that I did not see. Mr. Brown, taking his cue as a gentlemen ought, rose to his feet, thanked me, and left, though he had come a mere half hour before. I spent a sleepless night with my head in my hands.

The following morning, I ate my toast and took my walk in edgy silence, forcing my thoughts back farther and farther, watching as each stone sank into an abyss of unknown with a deep fear. When Mr. Brown arrived at his usual hour I had already been sitting at the easel for a full quarter hour, staring blankly at the usually inviting white that now seemed so hostilely and treacherously blank. At long last, I picked up my paintbrush and, slowly, with trepidation, I began to paint.

The hours passed slowly, slower than ever I remembered them, and with an underlying tension as the bristles scraped against the paper and my thoughts scraped and dug through the fragments of vibrant memories to find the one I so desperately sought. After five long hours of painting, I had my portrait, but it was not a portrait. There was no persona, no shining innocence poking through, no message of laughter, no hint of hope. She was less than a person, less than a memory. She was paint on a canvas.

Almost without meaning to my glance strayed to Mr. Brown's face, seeking for the first time in my life a second opinion, hoping against hope that my eyes and senses were at fault, that a little girl's spirit was indeed encased in this mess of colors, but I saw his own shock and confusion as clearly as a mirror image of my own. He excused himself for the evening and I sat alone, rubbing my aching skull, staring at the nothingness I had created and the hours I had wasted. In the end I threw it in the fire and watched as the flames slowly licked it over, the first time I had ever failed in any such expression, any such memory, and spent another sleepless night in tormented disbelief.

From that day forward, painting grew ever more a laborious task, a strenuous one. My head ached before I started as I sought to find suitable, vivid memories and throbbed after hours of tension, hours of rocks hurled backwards against the walls of my skull with the force of a bullet, desperate for any contact at all.

Slowly the good days dwindled and the frustrating ones grew: now it was 50/50, now 75/25, now 90 of all days ended in wasted canvas and frustration. Through all this Mr. Brown had stood, silently taking in this crisis in my painting, until one day on the verge of leaving he turned suddenly and said, "Let me take you to my doctor, Eli." I refused. He sighed and shook his head but said nothing more, excusing himself from the scene.

The next few days were fairly up and down. I'd wake up with a clear vision of a possible subject to paint and it would be gone before lunch. Paintings went unfinished, uninspired; they went the way of the first wayward stray and the way of their subjects—to the furnace. And yet when my memory was clear, my paintings were stunning, more poetic and eloquent than ever before. They spoke with their own voices, so reminiscent of those cheerful ones of yesteryear that I would sometimes sit and cry for the loss of them and their terrible silence. Sometimes I would not remember just why I had started crying, though I sat and cried anyway for the weight that had been placed on my heart.

When Gale came one day several weeks later to find me there, strangely weepy over an unfinished portrait, he asked no questions. "Eli," he said. "I'm taking you to the doctor."

Ordinarily I would have refused. Truly, I would have. I hadn't been to a doctor since I was a child, I hadn't swallowed a pill or a teaspoon of medicine, believing that my ailments were beyond the skill of science to heal. And yet over the past month and a half I had watched my very world crumble to nothingness, the memories on which I built my world around disintegrate to nothing, to dust. Maybe my principles, too, equally long standing, were wearing thin. At any rate I nodded, too tired to argue.

The doctor's office smelled old, and musty, and decrepit, tired and sick. He asked me a lot of questions and I answered most of them, though some stuck in the back of my mind and though I should have known them they went unanswered. The minutes passed, slow and endless, each running into the next. He took some tests and told us he'd have the results in a few days time. I shook his hand and Gale drove me home in silence.

When the diagnosis came the following week, I did not cry. I lay alone in bed that night, and cast my thoughts every which way, remembering a lifetime of sadness and desperately seeking for something, anything, to hold on to. Everything seemed so vivid, so sharp—it was hard to imagine that soon, very soon as the doctors would tell it, all would be a cloud of vague, nameless shapes—and then a blank canvas with nothing at all, like one of my paintings drawn up in reverse. In my panic I even clung to memories of despair, ripping down the doors I had nailed shut so long ago, just to feel, just to make sure that they were still there.

All at once I couldn't stop the flood of memories that hailed down upon me, biting and burning with a deadly cold. A stream of faces who laughed no longer but shrieked only with voices that cried for death and cursed the agony of life. Twisted faces, agonized faces, gaunt faces, and hollow ones. Portraits of pain and misery tied together by a recurring theme of dead, haunted eyes; here brown, here black, here surrounded by a pool of sagging skin, here drooping downward with despair. The eyes of a people degraded to nothing, robbed of laughter and bereft of hope. Even now, so many years later, laughter tasted funny in my mouth. Even now a smile felt foreign, disfiguring my face as it warmed my scarred features, even now it seemed cruel and unnatural, and I wondered for a brief instant whether it wouldn't be better, kinder maybe, to just forget, to slowly but surely erase all evidence of what I had witnessed as though it had never been, and to know life as it should be and view it without such a hard, cynical gaze. I wondered what it would be like to throw away pain and experience, to know for the first time since I was a small child in years half remembered what it truly was to feel joy.

The faces blended into one another until I could no longer tell whose pain belonged to who, whose laughter, whose grief, whose loss, and whose joy, until I perceived that each emotion belonged to everyone, that no one person was isolated in his emotional turmoil, however old, however feeble, however scarred. I saw so clearly in my mind's eye the blend of emotions in which the complex human form was swathed, the good and the bad, the laughter and the grief, the terror and the hope, all intricately and inexplicably linked, and I knew with a sudden rush of clarity that I didn't want to forget. For if I forgot, who would be left to remember?

Though it was the dead of the night and my aging limbs still rusted and ached from sleep, I leapt to my feet with all the vigor of a much younger man. Within minutes I found myself in my outdoor abode, grabbing my paints and transmitting onto paper every detail of every face that my fading mind could still grab hold of. I painted and painted by the pale moonlight, tragic figures in happier times, with more zest, speed, and life than had ever been present before in all my years of work. My hand and mind were bound together in seamless remembrance, committing here to paper forever her round, coffee brown eyes; the tiny freckle above his lip; his wrinkled brow; her full, cherry lips; his toothy smile; her two-toned eyes. Frantically, ceaselessly, I worked to ensure that every face I had ever known who deserved remembrance earned their dues, earned their place in the tragic folds and unraveling of history, and ensured with every sweep of the brush that they would stay there, unforgotten.

And when I was done, and every face that I could still recall from the depths of my childhood had found home at long last on paper, and I cursed the slowness of my cramped, bony fingers and the short span of my aging memory, I turned at last to the portrait that I had been putting off now for some fifty some odd years. The one that I couldn't face and didn't want to, the one that I couldn't escape from no matter where I turned.

I started slowly, mapping out his face where it rose and swelled in knobs and taking careful note of where it sunk and caved in on itself, where the skin folded under itself, where deep crevices split ran down from his skull. I painted all my other faces in happier times, as they had once looked, or as they might have looked had not been as they were, had history taken a different turn and a better one. But in this face, I amended nothing, I recorded history for once as it was, and not how it should have been. An hour passed, then two. The sky grew darker, the moonlight thinner, but nothing could have stopped me just then. I painted and I painted until the sky once more began to grow light, and when at last I was done I stared into my own face on canvas, and saw myself, truly saw myself, for the first time in years. In his eyes, dark and solemn, I saw all too clearly the trauma of a darkened past but also a gleam of hope, an old fighter not yet ready to admit defeat, not yet ready to forsake the future altogether. The look in his eyes stopped an inch short of complete despair, and in that inch I knew that I had preserved forever the tale of a people, in oils and paints and colors I had left behind every message that a story like mine has to tell, given voice to grief and also to hope all in one complicated stroke of a brush. But for one last thing, I knew, I needed still to use my voice.

"Gale?" My voice echoed, eerily tinny and foreign to my ears, as it crackled across the phone line. It was not often that I heard myself speak, no more often than it was that I looked in the mirror. It was strange to me, gratifying and terrible, to find that after all that I had been through, still I was human.

"Eli?" Gale was disoriented. It was, after all, very early in the morning, earlier even than I normally rose. I had never before called him, and in our long year and a half of friendship I had said precious little. I could have counted every word I had said on my two hands. But instead, I made them count for me.

"I want you to display my paintings at the museum." Silence on the other end. Numb disbelief. I lowered my voice an octive, and I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyelids. I closed my eyes and lay back on the bed. "I really do."

When they finally come to cart off my paintings, I let them go without regret and without struggle, and along with them I packed something else, something unexpected. A single photograph and the faint echo of a child, the two treasures that had been my world for such a long time. My house feels empty without them, bare. But I still paint, if only for myself, if only for the beauty that I know is still there.

The first time that I walked into the museum, I did it alone. I would not let Gale accompany me, though he offered many times. I knew that this was something I needed to do alone. I took my time, hours, watching each movie, carefully scrutinizing each picture for a familiar face, though each time my stomach plummeted unpleasantly and my heart ached. Around me, children and adults alike moved together in packs, faces solemn, taking it in. When I looked around, more than half the faces I saw were stained with tears. A few, like my own, were marked with remembrances.

Over the last stretch I walked, crossing the bridge over which lay the shoes that they had taken, the shoes made to fit feet long gone. Above, photographs and portraits, including my own, glistened like stars, watching over it all from a remote world above. I saw the groups around me nudge each other and point upwards, where my faces glowed among others. I saw them take back at the number of shoes, the number of portraits. A soul above for each shoe sole that lay below. Unprepared tourists broke down and cried on that bridge, contemplating for perhaps the first time the meaning of the phrase six million. I knew with sudden acuteness I had done the right thing in making sure that those faces would forever be preserved in the annals of history, ensuring that their vibrant personalities would never be forgotten.

The last thing that I saw as I was leaving the museum, propped up right near the exit, was a childish drawing, a rough and unsteady depiction of eleven happy figures fading away. And yet when I looked again in this light, the colors seemed to glow almost a little bit brighter, my sister's personality leaking through, smiling despite the terrible intensity of the situation. Beside it was the portrait of an old crone, marked with memory, my memory. Then I cried.