She always has mourning clothes with her. That way, she can begin a portrait as soon as a request comes in.
And so it is today.
Having slipped into her mourning dress in the shed on the pier, she boards the downstream ferry. Her hands are full: one holds the case with her painting tools and the other the garment bag for her mourning dress.
She has heard that a rich man lies dying in a town twenty kilometers downstream.
Her name is Rosa.
"It's a race against time," she says with a grim smile. "I have to start as soon as possible, before the face changes."
"Changes how?" Kaim asks.
"It's hard to say."
There is a deepening strain to Rosa's smile.
"But I know it when I see it - when the person has gone from 'this side' to the 'other side'."
"Once they've gone over, I can't paint them - at least not in the way that will please the family. It just can't be done."
Rosa is a professional portraitist of the dead.
The custom of preserving death masks is now widely practiced in this area. Families too poor to hire an artist daub the face of the newly deceased with dye and preserve the loved one's deathbed expression on a cloth pressed against the dyed face. Some families make a death mask with plaster. Only the wealthiest families can afford to hire a professional like Rosa, so that lurking in the background of an individual's death there can be a variety of disputes.
"I have heard families quarreling over the inheritance behind my back even as I sit there sketching the dead person. One widow presented my portrait of her husband to the court to prove that he had been poisoned. Another time, some loan sharks waited until the moment the man died and charged right into the house. One husband tried to spit in his wife's face as soon as she gave up the ghost. Apparently, she had been unfaithful to him for years."
Rosa tells her stories with utter detachment. She reveals no emotion at all.
This, she says, is indispensible to be becoming an outstanding portraitist of the dead.
"You have to open your sketchbook and get your brushes going with the bereaved family members right there, overcome with grief. There's no way you can produce a good portrait if you become emotional or allow yourself to be swept up in emotions of the other people in the house."
Kaim responds with a silent nod.
His only connection with the woman is to have boarded the same boat and sat at the same table. Only a few minutes have passed since she started volunteering her stories, but that is all it has taken for Kaim to perceive the hint of nihilism lurking in her beautiful features.
"The more respectable artists despise painters like me."
"Why is that?"
"Well, half of them accuse us of making our living from people's deaths. The other half look down on us for not being moved by what we do. I see their point. I mean, the emotions are what give rise to all the arts, whether it's painting, sculpture, music, or literature. We don't have emotions like that: we're nothing but craftsmen."
Rosa speaks without a hint of either self-mockery or pride.
Her tone suggests that she is merely stating the obvious in an obvious way.
Kaim takes a sip of his rye whiskey, and Rosa drinks from her rose-petal tea.
The boat makes its leisurely way downstream.
The season is spring.
The river is high with snowmelt, and white water birds have settled on its surface.
"Strange," Rosa says with a giggle, "when I first saw you, I thought you and I must be members of the same profession. Which is why I took the initiative to speak to you..."
Kaim gives her a strained smile. He knows nothing about painting and he is fairly certain there is nothing about his appearance that would cause him to be mistaken for an artist.
It well could be, however, that in the profile of this man drinking whiskey alone in the afternoon Rosa has recognized the hue of nihilism like her own.
Or then again, she might have perceived the shadow of 'the other side' clinging fast to Kaim's back.
Until a few days ago, Kaim was on a battlefield.
There, he witnessed the killing of many enemies and many allies.
But he was unmoved by any of it.
Such youthfulness had long since vanished from him.
Though outwardly unchanged, Kaim has lived through several centuries.
Rosa says that she is in her mid-thirties and in her tenth year since becoming a portraitist of the dead, which apparently puts her near the beginning of her career.
"If you wouldn't mind," she adds, "I have a few more things I'd like to discuss with you."
When Kaim nods silently in compliance, Rosa thanks him and gives him her first heartfelt smile of the day.
Portraitists of the dead are never present while the subject is dying. The very fact that such a professional has been called means that the person's death is imminent. And so theirs is seen as a presence of ill omen and even defilement.
A family member or friend who has been at the bedside dares to broach the subject quietly in another room.
"Don't you think it may be time to call the painter?"
The answer—whether "Too soon for that" or "I think you may be right"—is delivered in guarded tones.
Introduced to the family by the church, the portraitist never enters the house by the front door. Rather, he or she goes around to the back and is shown to the room where the sun cannot penetrate. There, the painter changes into mourning clothes and waits for the announcement of the death.
Eventually, a quiet knock on the door is followed by a summons to appear, and the painter dressed in mourning sets to work.
Not all deaths occur at the end of long lifetimes, of course. All too often the painter must depict the face of one who has died young of illness or accident.
The face that emerges in the artist's sketchbook radiates the delicate vivacity of the one who has just crossed the border dividing life from death, one who has only moments before transitioning from 'this world' to the 'other world'.
The work presented to the family is an oil painting done from the sketch, but Rosa believes the sketch itself is a far more authentic portrait of the dead.
"There is nothing quite like the atmosphere in a room where someone has just died. How to put it? It's as though the flow of time has stopped, or time itself has melted into the very air... the sobbing and the wailing sound as if they might last forever, the only movement of time in all this being the way the face of the dead person emerges little by little onto the blank white page of the sketchbook."
She hands him her thick sketch pad.
"See," she says, showing him countless faces of the dead.
"This is two years' worth."
Many of the faces are peaceful, but others are full of agony, and all without exception possess a mysterious presence. They differ unmistakably from faces in sleep. Neither, however, do they look dead. They seem as if they might open their eyes at any moment or just as easily crumble to ash.
They hover, men and women alike, on the very brink of death.
"After the body has cooled, it's too late. It's also too late if the family has begun making its preparation for the funeral. The game is won or lost in those very few minutes follow the death itself. All we can do is start sketching - as efficiently and expeditiously as possible."
With a painful smile, Rosa adds, "In the eyes of the family, though, that makes me a cold-hearted woman."
Kaim turns the pages of her sketchbook, saying nothing.
He would like to tell her that it is the same on the battlefield. There, no one has time to mourn the death of a soldier. If you're busy shedding tears instead of doing the next thing you have to do, you end up being one of those forced to travel to the other world.
The final sketch in the book is unfinished:
The face of a young girl.
The general outlines of the hair and face are sketched in, nothing more.
Kaim looks questioningly at Rosa.
"My daughter," she says softly.
"A portrait painter of the dead reaches full maturity in the position when she is able to paint a member of her own family. Which only makes sense, I mean, how self-serving is it if you can be coldly objective toward the death of a stranger but not toward a member of your own family?"
Her daughter died two years ago, the girl's three short years of life brought to a sudden end by a bad flu that was making the rounds.
"I was holding her hands almost until the moment she died," Rosa says, "I was in tears, calling her name and pleading with her to come back to me, not to die."
After the doctor looked at her with a shake of his drooping head, though, Rosa relaxed her daughter's hands and opened her sketch book. Wiping her tears she picked up her pencil and tried to sketch her daughter's face.
"But I couldn't do it. The tears came pouring out of me no matter how much I wiped them. I simply couldn't work."
Kaim turns his gaze on the unfinished sketch again.
Some areas of the white paper are wavy - perhaps where Rosa's tears had fallen.
"I guess I'm not qualified to be a portraitist of the dead," she says with a smile, glancing down at the river.
"But still... if I had to choose one work of art to leave behind, this would be it"
The boat gives a blast of its steam horn.
Frightened, the birds on the river leap into the air in a great mass.
Kaim closes the sketchbook and returns it to Rosa.
He considers complimenting her on the excellence of the drawing, but chooses silence instead. Such praise, he feels, could be a sign of disrespect for her work, for Rosa herself, and for her daughter.
"I didn't mean to bend your ear like this," she says, "I'm sorry."
She stands and peers at Kaim once again.
"Really, though, you look like a member of my profession."
Kaim gives her a strained smile and shakes his head.
"Sorry, I shouldn't have said that," she responds with a strained smile of her own.
"And you probably won't like my saying this, either, but please call me if you ever need a portraitist of the dead."
"I won't need one," Kaim says, "I have no family."
"No family? Well, then, when your own time comes..."
With a little chuckle, Rosa leaves. Her right hand grasps the case with her painting supplies; her left, the garment bag with mourning clothes.
Unfortunately, Kaim will never need her services. He will not—cannot—go to the 'other' world just yet.
On the long, long road of his life, how many deaths must he encounter?
The steam horn blasts again.
The boat gradually lowers its speed and edges toward the river bank.
The landing draws closer.
When he leaves the boat, his journey will begin again.
It will be a long journey.
The next battlefield lies far beyond the mountains that tower in the distance.