Ghostly legends have haunted the Catskill Mountains since the early Dutch settlers—and there was no better place to find them than Dusty Rand’s Kindred Spirits, a quaint sort of bookstore, housed in a Victorian on a narrow side street. There, beside rare books and tinted engravings, one could discover maps of the old villages, postcards written in war and peace, diaries, recipes, even love letters.
No one knew how Dusty happened upon his exotic stash, but then again, no one knew much about Dusty Rand. In truth, most of his merchandise had little conventional value. It appealed to history buffs or artists and writers in search of that elusive “local color” and a dash of romance. Perhaps because of that, the travel guides praised Kindred Spirits as a “must-see” for tourists.
Especially in late August, when days got rainy, Kindred Spirits was crowded with vacationers needing to “kill time” before drinks or dinner. Anyone was welcome to lounge for hours in one of Dusty’s soft cushioned armchairs and sift through his piles of antique postcards.
On one such soggy afternoon—a thick white rain had poured for days—a vaguely bohemian woman lingered until closing time. She wore the air of Manhattan, with long skirt, denim jacket, and lacy scarf—and she had the impatience of a city person as well.
Dusty had an old-fashioned courtly manner. “The rain’s let up now. I don’t mean to rush you if you’re waiting for someone, but…”
“I’m not waiting for anyone, that is, except you,” she let him know as if he were a friend. “My name’s Elizabeth Fairwell. I’m never Lizzie, by the way, in case you were wondering.”
He continued to neaten up, returning each waylaid book and postcard to its rightful place. “You’re an artist?” he asked. It was an easy guess since the area was a mecca for landscape painters.
“Yes, but it’s not going so well, to be honest. I quit my job in advertising and decided to spend a week here alone to get ideas. Now, I need inspiration, what can I say.” She pushed her hair back from her face. Her dark eyes were restless, as if expecting a surprise at any moment.
“You have the entire Catskill Mountains to inspire you and you end up at a bookstore,” he joked. “But you’re not the first—artist, that is, to come here.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Isn’t that why you named the store Kindred Spirits? The painting has a poet, not just an artist in it—William Cullen Bryant with Thomas Cole. And the painting’s based on a poem. But Kaaterskill Falls is disappointing, I think. I was there yesterday.”
“The painting mixes vantage points,” Dusty said. “Maybe that’s the way the artist remembered it. The mountains have a way of playing tricks like that.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I’ve heard that you have special things here, things you show by appointment? I know this isn’t an appointment, but…” She smiled at him—a smile of mischief—and waited for his concession.
“Well, Elizabeth who isn’t Lizzie, now we do have an appointment.” And he led her by both hands into another smaller room, pulling her along as it were.
He climbed a frail ladder while she steadied him. “You don’t need to do that,” he said, but she ignored him and held on tightly. He removed an oak box from the topmost shelf and once down, handed it to her.
Inside the box was a sketchbook marked with the initial LV, in a curving script. The sketches were tinted—twisted roads and stairways, blue and grey, with cobblers, and sawmills, and seamstresses and children eating pies, and a town by a narrow canal; another of an underground city, black tunnels and waterways with miniature boats.
Dusty traced the path of one of the painted roads in the air with his index finger—his motion was graceful. “The cities were of Leopold Vale’s invention,” Dusty said. “I’d date these about the same period as the other Hudson River painters, although I haven’t been able to learn much more than that.”
Elizabeth said, “How could such a great artist stay unknown?”
“History’s filled with battles you never heard of, churches that got destroyed—much less people,” Dusty replied. “Some artists get remembered, some don’t.”
“I want all of them, anything he ever did. I am not rich, but I’m not poor, either, just to be clear.”
Dusty was accustomed to wealthy clients who ate up estates and anything else they could find—and beautiful Elizabeth seemed spoiled enough to get her way. Still, he suspected that her talk of money was a bluff. “I hadn’t planned to sell it yet—the work’s not authenticated. That could take years.”
“I hadn’t planned to find it either, but here we are,” she insisted.
“You didn’t find it—I did,” he reminded her, not unkindly though.
She laughed at her own arrogance. “Yes, that’s true, but I need these. You understand, don’t you? I can’t leave them behind, not now. The price is up to you. ”
“This could be a forgery,” he went on. “Someone could have invented Leopold Vale. Nineteenth-century fakes are fairly common, and I’ve seen it done even with Asher Durand or Thomas Cole, much less an unknown artist like this.”
Elizabeth squared her shoulders. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” she said. Then she looked into his mild light eyes as if daring him to disappoint her.
“Then it’s a gift. It’s yours,” he said.
“If you want to give it away, I won’t stop you.” In minutes, she left with the sketchbook. She dashed to her car, fearful he might change his mind. But Dusty Rand did not seem fickle, and later, she felt no reason to worry.
The next day, Elizabeth visited “Artist’s Rock,” which lies along the rim trail that overlooks the Hudson River. The light was silvery from white slender birches and the rocks were carpeted with deep thick moss, velvety and moist. Only shafts of afternoon sunlight penetrated through the leaves—and the rain had cooled the air.
She perched herself on a large boulder, as Leopold Vale might have and tried to imagine his vision. Under the green mountains lay the graves of whalers, miners, loggers, tannery workers, and farmers, even railway workers. Now, the mountains were reduced to a sadly tamed wilderness.
And at that moment, she saw—squeezed between two narrow rocks—another sketchbook, labeled The Lost Cities of LV. Its pages showed streets that went in circles and led to other streets where children played and others were lonely, houses lit by candles and houses lit by chandeliers, and bakeries that stayed open all night in case a hungry beggar passed by.
Out of nowhere, or so it seemed, Dusty appeared. His steps were so light than he left branches undisturbed. “I see you found it,” he mumbled as if apologizing. “I must have left it behind.”
‘If you say so,” she said, skeptical. Dusty Rand hardly seemed the type to lose books, especially one so precious as this.
Their pace matched as they climbed the long rocky trail. After a long silence, Elizabeth said, “I guess I owe you. I don’t think I can accept another gift.” She hadn’t spoken that day and her voice cracked. Still, she took it for granted that the sketchbook was already hers.
He gently placed his hand on her wrist, as though it might shatter. “Let’s call it a loan then. You’ll return it when you’re ready.”
“But how will I know when I’m ready?” she asked.
“That’s up to you, Elizabeth,” he said, facing her. Then other hikers passed by—and the trail was filled with talk and jokes and even litter.
Over the next months, Elizabeth searched for the real Leopold Vale but the trail ran dry, and quickly. There was no proof that a Leopold Vale had ever existed.
Leopold’s sketches suggested proof of another kind. With eyes shut, she saw winding secret roads, cities bathed in blue twilight or gray mist. And she began, object by object, street by street, to recreate Leopold’s world. Her early efforts were a disaster of uncertain lines and garish colors, but she persisted. She worked late, she rose early—her friends fell away, but she paid no attention. Once in a blue moon, she wrote Dusty Rand about her progress. He replied on an antique postcard, never signed love, only D.
Eventually there were paintings based on the single city of the twisted roads. One showed a window with a spinning wheel—another, a narrow stairwell leading into a court infused with coppery light. On impulse, Elizabeth spotted an out of the way, smallish gallery that had recently opened—and introduced herself to its sharp-tongued young owner, Nina Silverstein.
Lively Nina had the eye, as she put it, and she was eager to make a name for herself. “Well, you are a real painter,” she said.
“Please understand, the images belong to Leopold Vale, That’s why I call them Leopold’s Cities. I’m not original. That’s not my intention. In fact, it’s the opposite of my intention,” Elizabeth insisted in her deliberate manner.
“Let’s let old Leopold Vale take care of himself—those old guys always do. We can call your paintings Elizabeth’s Cities, and no one will mind, really,” said Nina, amused.
“One man might. He gave me the journals of Leopold Vale as a gift—just because I loved them.” Elizabeth avoided mentioning the name Kindred Spirits since her own ambition was no smaller than Nina’s. Elizabeth Fairwell hardly needed to play second fiddle to a tourist attraction.
Nina said, “We’ll put that story in the catalogue, it’s a charming detail. Leopold’s Cities, they’ll remain then.”
By any standard, Elizabeth’s first exhibition was a success. By the second day, not one painting was unsold. It was rare for a new artist, and an unknown at that, to sell out this way.
“Old Leopold’s worked his magic,” Nina said, pleased as punch.
“Not according to the critics,” said Elizabeth, gloomily. Reviews had been mixed. Some had labeled her work as hopelessly retrograde and few had taken it seriously. She had expected more.
“Silly, don’t pay attention to reviews,” Nina laughed. “There’ll be other shows. And when you’re famous everyone will come around. That’s the way it works.”
By the second show, the New York critics, having heard of Elizabeth’s robust sales, described her paintings as “luminous” and “important.” Again, the paintings sold out by the second day. Success felt like a drug to Elizabeth Fairwell and she felt ready to return Dusty Rand’s favor.
Armed with Leopold’s sketchbooks, Elizabeth drove to the Northern Catskills. It was autumn and the mountains were fiery red. But on Artist’s Walk, she knew, birches were silvery, the rocks moss-covered—and Kaaterskill Falls hid in the mountains. And she entered Kindred Spirits again. It had been years, but the years, in her mind, had brought her closer to Dusty Rand.
“Elizabeth who isn’t Lizzie,” Dusty said, as if no man had ever seen a woman.
She had prepared a little speech—it was to be witty as well as grateful. As a formality, she would offer to return Leopold’s sketchbooks, and she had anticipated Dusty’s chivalrous refusal. But before she said a word, she noticed what hung on the walls. For there were Elizabeth’s paintings—a deep blue canal with no one beside it, only a slither of pale moon above—the entire heartbroken world beyond its limits, battlefields and cemeteries and hospitals.
She forgot where she stood—so tangled were her feelings. Yes, she had longed for Dusty to admire her work and she had even hoped for more. But equally, she had wanted worldly success, a genuine reputation, not this sickly imitation. She turned away, crying.
“I know it’s a compliment but I’d thought I’d sold the work. Nina probably knew all along.”
Dusty held her shoulders and allowed her to cry. “I’m sorry that you’re disappointed. I thought you’d be pleased. They were a kind of insurance policy.”
“You didn’t need insurance. You knew I’d be here,” she said, only half in anger.
“I hoped so, Elizabeth,” he answered. “But now the paintings are yours again.”
The two of them walked to the ruins of the old Mountain House, which once looked onto the face of Kaaterskill Clove. That night, Elizabeth stayed with Dusty; and autumn turned into winter and winter into spring. “It must be the mountains, but the work’s easy now,” Elizabeth wrote Nina. “I wake up, and it’s all there.”
Elizabeth and Dusty might have enjoyed a happy life together. Dusty was at home in the secret cloves of the Catskills and Elizabeth felt at home anywhere. But months later, Dusty Rand was found dead in his sleep: a congenital defect, the doctors said. And after that, Elizabeth felt the loneliness of the mountains—they were nothing to her without Dusty, or so she claimed.
Nina Silverstein handled the sale of Elizabeth’s work, and the rest of the objects in Kindred Spirits were to be sold in lots. To Nina’s consternation, she spotted the sketchbooks of Leopold Vale on a jumbled heap along with the antique postcards and love letters.
“These don’t belong here,” Nina said.
Elizabeth explained, “They do. I always had suspicions—and apart from these sketches, there’s no proof of a Leopold Vale. It would be just like Dusty to spin something from thin air, like a trickster. If Dusty had lived longer, I would have confronted him.”
Nina slowly collected Leopold’s sketchbooks from the floor, one by one. “Of course Dusty had the talent to invent Leopold Vale.”
“So you agree,” said Elizabeth.
“No, I don’t, not at all. Even if he had, it would be harmless caper. But this is different, Elizabeth. You shouldn’t sell a gift—not one like this, not one that you can’t replace.”
“Then you take them,” Elizabeth said. “I can’t waste my time with Leopold anymore—it was a game. The world’s filled with them.”
Nina replied with an air of grim recognition, “You’ve enjoyed your success and so have I. But sometimes a step forward is just downhill.”
In New York, Elizabeth dabbled in different styles—abstract, impressionist, post-modern, and so on—but her results were as hollow as furniture reproductions. Worse yet, when viewed in light of the new work, her early paintings lost their allure—they, too, appeared artificial and mannered. Her reputation faded swiftly as reputations do. Rumors floated that Dusty Rand himself had painted Elizabeth’s early works—little else could explain the dismal failure of the later ones. Elizabeth remained stubbornly silent.
“It’s a common story,” Nina Silverstein said when asked about her once-famous client. “Fairwell had great promise, and then, who knows? There’s been no new painting for years and for some reason, she lives up in the Catskills, doing God knows what, she won’t let anyone see. She’s a hermit.”
Nina’s gallery had become a fixture in Manhattan’s art world, with a large stable of successful painters. But not one, in her mind, had the genius of a young Elizabeth Fairwell. None would be remembered in the long run.
Nina did offer to return Leopold Vale’s sketchbooks—it was but a few hours to reach the Catskills. But Elizabeth replied, opaquely, that she no longer required them. “I know that Leopold Vale is real,” she wrote. “I never should have doubted it.”
With effort, Nina pushed Elizabeth to the periphery of her thoughts—that is, until she learned of Elizabeth Fairwell’s death at the age of forty. In the will, Nina was named beneficiary of the paintings of “Leopold Vale.” She also was given a letter from Elizabeth.
My Dearest Nina,
I found Leopold Vale’s paintings and now they belong to you. Oh, they are marvelous—with bridges and moon-lit canals and ponds with white swans! I stumbled upon them, by accident—how is not important. All that matters is that Leopold’s paintings are real, as real as the memory of Kaaterskill Falls.
Yes, Dusty might have created Leopold—he had the talent and the imagination. And such a fiction might have suited him. But that is not the truth. Leopold Vale’s work came to him—as I came to you, as one kindred spirit finds another.
Even in grief, Nina felt new purpose and energy. At last, she thought, Leopold Vale would find his rightful place in the museums, perhaps as a branch of the great Hudson River tradition—and Nina would be the person to introduce him to a new century.
But when Nina examined the paintings, she became confused, even lost. True, all had the signature LV and some offered the patina of age, with telltale cracks. And the images recalled Leopold’s sketches in minute detail. But for all that, they looked exactly like Elizabeth’s, with a haunted and sorrowful light that was Elizabeth’s alone. Beneath the glowing surfaces of the canvases lay pale vestiges of other images, like memories. Where Leopold’s world ended and Elizabeth’s began was impossible to say, at least with the clarity that the world demanded.
It would take years to sort out. Even then, there would be questions unanswered, motives unknown. By that time, the two painters would become yet another secret of the mountains that are without boundary and forever haunted.
Within the past year, Carla Sarett’s short stories have appeared in The Linnet’s Wing, Subtle Fiction, Eric’s Hysterics, Scissors and Spackle, The Greensilk Journal, Ear Hustler, Absinthe Revival, The River Poet’s Journal, Loch Raven Review, Danse Macabre and The Medulla Review, among others. Carla is a Ph.D. whose careers include academia, TV, film and market research.