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With Courage

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The gallery was exceptionally quiet.

Amber ambled through the almost silent building, excluding the occasional cough or heels clicking across the floor of the rare visitor, and found herself following her usual path despite scolding herself to go somewhere new. The Dulwich Picture Gallery housed a large and impressive collection, one that would be hard to appreciate in its entirety in a singular day, and yet she found herself not even attempting to explore its many depths and treasures. Instead Amber travelled the route she’d fashioned for herself 3 months ago and had since taken every week since. Her eyes skimmed over the work of Rembrandt and Poussin, though she loved them dearly, and found herself where she always ended up (much to her annoyance), in front of a painting of the ocean.

3 months ago, Amber stumbled upon an odd little corridor within the gallery, void of all decoration and art bar from this singular painting. There was no plaque to honour its creator, no name, no security patrolling, and lit only by a lone bulb in the centre of the ceiling. She had been tempted to question the staff multiple times, but always hesitated. The second her eyes lay on the painting, she found herself never wanting to leave; No matter how annoyed she might have been finding herself drawn to it time after time, to the point where she could easily map out the brush strokes and multitude of blues with her eyes closed, all of that negativity vanished as she stared at the piece. As much as she adored the details of the ocean, how vast and endless it appeared and yet comforting all the same, she loved the ship to the right of the scene just as much. How the sunlight warmed the curved bowsprit, uniquely shaped like the head of an armoured dragon, how the overwhelmingly large purple mast stood proud, billowing as if just caught in a gust of wind, and especially how the entire vessel sailed before the most stunning sunset she had ever witnessed. Rose clouds sponged with violet underbellies lay like brushstrokes against an electric cobalt sky, intersected with rays of pure gold and reflected onto the ocean for a doubly breath-taking view. It never ceased to draw her in, homing in her vision until it was the only thing she sensed, gently escorting her out of the gallery and into an infinite sea. She could smell the salty water, feel the spray from the waves across her face and hear the gentle squawk of a nearby seagull. In those stolen moments she found peace, but that’s all they ever were. Moments. She eventually snapped herself out of the atmosphere as if she was coming up for air from a dive - though she felt as if she was truly breathing easy when lost at sea and not back in the gallery - drowning instead in reality and longing. Amber had grown used to yearning for the world inside the painting.

This day, however, was different. Typically, Amber would curse herself when exiting the serene trance and leave the gallery, promising herself to never return but her resolve never lasting more than a week, but now she dared not to move.

The ship was coming closer.

Amber stared in amazement as the vessel crested a wave and she noticed for the first time a minuscule crew on board, adjusting the mast and sparring casually upon the deck. Baffled as she was for missing this detail during previous visits, she had to remind herself that the painting had also been stationary up until now. The pull in her stomach that ate at her whenever she strayed from the painting returned stronger than ever, nagging her to step closer. So, she did. Nose practically touching the paper, Amber watched the ship continue its journey and found herself unconsciously raising her hand to touch the sea. Just to see if it felt as wet as it looked - that was all, she told herself.

Without warning she was sent off her feet and into the ocean and no longer aware of which way was up and which was down. Her winter coat hung heavy on her frame, weighing down her arms as she frantically tried propelling her body upwards. At one point she thought her hand had surmounted the waves and found crisp air, but that was quickly destroyed by another vicious swell of the tide that plunged her back into the unwelcoming deep. This, she decided, was not what she meant when she said she wanted to be lost at sea.

Fighting for breath Amber hopelessly gulped for air but only felt water fill her lungs all too quickly. It was as if a weight had been attached to her foot, struggling organs and quickly extinguishing oxygen sending her away from the little light she could see. Everything was being swallowed up by the darkness quicker than she could panic about it. Her thoughts turned quiet, limbs useless and flimsy while her eyes failed to stay open. Then suddenly, without a moment between, she breathed and found air - not water. Her lungs immediately tried rejecting the briny liquid inside, coughing until her knees gave out and sent her crashing into the narrow wooden platform she’d been hauled on. As her surroundings solidified, she noticed the new weight of an arm around her waist, keeping her firmly in place as the platform jerked forward and bumped against the side of a ship. She was vaguely aware of being supported onto the deck and having something warm and dry placed across her shoulders, voices asking questions and the unrelenting heaviness of her head. It was only when an out of focus figure squeezed her shoulder and she mustered the energy to raise her head that she saw past the boat and into the view beyond. Specifically, the most stunning sunset she had ever seen.

Amber collapsed onto the ship deck.