The Painter

For all the pomp and presence of summer air, the sky breathed autumn that evening, the visible red of blood beneath a skin of atmosphere. It was a startling sunset, and one passing their window could be snared by it, taken aback and forced to look once more, parting the curtain and peering with unfamiliar intent up, up, and west. She needed not be snared, though. This was evening at the end of each day, although not always so beautiful as this particular twilight, this sunset, and the word 'blood' did not once cross her mind to describe it. The light that was left whole and white passed through her kitchen window, dancing on the fading cream sill before diving through the tall glass bottle filled with bright dish soap, flaring in some childish emerald fire that raced over the metal of the sink and onto the backs of her hands, small and womanly, washing. She planned her dinners around the time of sunset, to place herself here at exactly the right moment to witness the end of the day. It was traditional and balance, a source of peace and sweetness in a home where she was so lately alone.

Completing the rinsing of her teacup and placing it upside-down beside her, water dripping down from its top like a slow fountain, painted in blue veins of vine, she leaned over the slowly draining water in the sink to contemplate further the singular colors of the coming dusk, her forehead nearly touching the smooth, cool glass of the window. The sun was sliding below the tree line in the distant west, flaring square in her warm brown eyes, making them bright and hot, a searching and half-smiling look on her face, a look that is terribly and obviously amused by nearly nothing. She was standing on the tips of her little blue house slippers, held up by her splayed fingers on the counter, using the full advantage afforded by her minimal height to see the end of the day. The ring of the doorbell came as a surprise, and she nearly slipped and bumped her face on the window. Laughing at herself and wiping her hands on her apron, she turned around and began down the hall toward the front door.

Halfway there, a thought struck her, and she broke into a run. It was about the time when her husband should be returning for a short while from the war. It was his way to surprise her, to come and lift her off of her feet when she was least expecting it. She grasped the door handle and turned, opening it up to the world and to the shaded image of two men on her home's threshold. One was holding his hat in his hands and gazing down at the mat on which they stood. The other lifted his downcast face to meet hers, and his eyes were crowded with words. They stood a moment like this, the street behind them bright and soft with the sunset before them. She leaned heavily on the handle to the door now, feeling the strength run from her legs, her knees buckling slightly, hands shaking.

"Madame," the man looking at her began, but stopped, looking suddenly lost, his eyes wandering away from her face, anywhere but there. They ranged to his hand, where he was reminded of the letter he was holding, a government seal on it. His arm lifted as if on its own, holding the letter out to her. She reached out with one hand to take it, her arm feeling weak and heavy. His task complete, he dropped his gaze once more, taking in her little blue house slippers. He choked on his words at first, and then tried again, "We're sorry for your loss." The other man looked up now and put his hand on her arm, squeezing and nodding, smiling uncomfortably and sadly.

She looked up from the seal on the paper, which looked as if it were burning in the glow of the dying sun, and into the face of the man whose hand was on her arm. The blank grief in her eyes startled him, and he recoiled, regretting it immediately, but as he reached out once more, the door swung to meet him, and the men were alone at the door, the wife gone. One turned to the other.

They left.

She turned away from the door, but dropped the letter. The sound of its impact with the floor was amplified a thousand fold, ten thousand fold, and her shaking hands raced to her ears, her legs crumbling beneath her, sending her to her knees. The window above the stairs translated the light through its glass into three bars that peered around three colorful streamers that moved not an inch in the dead air. The light from that window fell over the wife like the bars of a cage, trapping her on the wooden floor for the duration of her sentence, her hands over her ears, her eyes grotesquely wide and unseeing. She was a doll, filled with dust, eyes of glass. The envelope lay half in shadow, half in dusky light. Between her trembling hands, her skull seemed to crack and part open, and she rose into the air through the fissure of flesh, watching herself from the ceiling, every bit as numb as her counterpart below. Her hands slipped from her ears into her lap.

She had not yet fainted, but was gone anyway. Her heart thumped dully in her chest, seeming to struggle with every contraction. She was empty, though her blood rushed through her, though her stomach was tight inside of her. Tears were a far-off thought, and nothing rushed about in her mind. It was still, serene, and vacant.

Until the moon replaced the sun, its silvery light becoming new bars to her cage, its roundness tinny and out of focus. Then her mind came crashing back into her body. And she screamed.

She rose from her knees to her feet and screamed; screamed into the kitchen, crashing into the counter, sending her well-dried teacup flying out onto the floor to break, the veins of blue disconnecting, dying, drying up. She clawed at the handle to the cabinet door and wrenched it open, flinging an arm across it and sending pill bottles and cups crashing to the counter and the floor. She was screaming continuously, ripping hideous lungfuls of air from the stillness around her, filling her empty house with her grief, sending her suffering through the windows. She attacked the bottles on the counter and floor, cutting her hands with ceramic and glass in the process, pausing only to wrench the tops from the bottles. She stilled her screaming only long enough to swallow dry handfuls of pills. She gagged briefly but swallowed more, until it felt enough. Then she was once more to her feet, the moon upon her from the window over the sink, the lovely visage of earlier in the evening now a garish affront to the truth that now was. All was changed. She screamed again.

She fled to the stairwell by the door, pulling herself up one step at a time by the banister on now uncooperative legs, hearing but not registering a frenzied pounding on her front door. The top step came and she pulled herself onto it and onto her feet, tripping once on her skirt and teetering briefly over the drop, but flying forward rather than backward, into her bedroom (no longer his) onto her bureau, ripping the child-safe tops from her allergy medication, his old antibiotics, various over the counter medications. She downed them all with a sickening gargle, rasping out her breath with weakening screams, throwing herself at the door to the bedroom, at the banister to the staircase, but missing, and falling, striking one stair with her left leg, the banister with her right shoulder, another stair with her still-screaming mouth, finally landing at the bottom, broken, twisting and screaming. Her cries were more like breath than sound in her torn throat.

The door crashed open and paramedics found her there, staring up at the ceiling, her mouth hanging agape, a wheezing cry escaping her.

It was crisp outside that night, far too crisp for summer, as if the air were anticipating, holding its breath, prickling with excitement. Alternating blood and bruise washed over her face as the paramedics wheeled her to the ambulance, and once she was safely packed away inside it whined away into the night, setting its dooming colors on every streetlight, tree and home it passed, red of blood and blue of bruise. It whined into an intersection, to be silenced instantaneously by an inattentive eighteen wheeler, which sent the smaller vehicle flipping through the night, reduced to scraps and gore.

When she was a child, she had seen a carnival freak, handless and gleaming under lights. He had been outfitted with a head level adjustable ring stand, in which he stored brushed of varying sized and type. He painted. His portraits were eerily accurate to the ones they were based on, displayed to the side as he worked currently on a popular Monet. He took the brush in his teeth. The effect was ghastly and mesmerizing, but she had not wanted to stay very long; the ragged stumps of his missing hands frightened her terribly. She had clung to the hand of her older sister and shuffled her feet along the hay-strewn floor, afraid to look up in case he would reach for her, his teeth covered in paint.

The image clung to her, and when she awoke in a hospital bed bearing fractures, breaks, punctures and her own fleshy stumps, her mind burned with paintings.

At home, after the months in that hospital, the treatments and rehabilitation finally over, she stepped over the threshold with the final cries of day at her back, illuminating the foyer before her as if she had never left it. As if nothing had changed. Someone had picked up the envelope from the floor. She had missed the funeral. His ribbons were beside his picture on the table beside the door. It closed behind her. She was alone, but for a litter of cats who had infiltrated the kitchen through the basement.

They had asked her, "what would you like?" and she had quietly requested of them canvas, paint, brushes, without once looking at their faces. Here they were, these supplies, stacked neatly in the sunroom, ready for her. She had drawn and redrawn "Christina's World" while in the hospital. The pencil in her mouth felt correct, flaking between her teeth, a vibrant yellow. From a childish, angular doodle there had thawed a vibrant world, shaded to match a failing day, and in the distance, signs of trouble. This was the first painting. She took weeks, obsessing over each detail of the grass, the sky, the distance and the woman. She touched nearly no food in her obsession, though it was delivered faithfully by someone. The cats ate well on what she ignored. She thinned, grew gaunt and ill kept, unwashed and unrested.

When finally she stood back to admire her finished work, a creeping dawn light beheld the figure of a woman on the canvas who leaned on ragged stumps. Christina had no hands.

From here, the collection of malformed portraits grew. It was always portraits; she needed people. The subjects never had hands. She needed eyes, to fill with as much horror as possible, with black and red. She found the inspiration in her madness, which spilled out onto the canvas like her own blood.

Paint was delivered with food, one generally ignored over the other until the need of hunger became too great, when she would drive the cats away and eat whatever they had left, however old or disgusting, kneeling before it and taking it in until it was gone, or until panic gripped her that she had not been painting, when she would flee to the room where her portraits lay and once more take the brush up into her mouth.

The room was splattered with the misdirection of her teeth, cats streaked with cobalt blue and black, once well-kept furniture and floor becoming their own palette, dusty and terrible. Tasks were difficult without hands, and the woman chose not to do them, letting filth pile around her, unaffected. People stayed away, and came only with food. She locked her doors, became lost in her own raving mind. She spoke to her paintings, to the cats, both of which ignored her, infuriated her. The portraits, though they ignored her, she loved as if they were children, family. They knew her situation; they felt her horror, her anger.

She grew older, more unkept and unhealthy. The cats ran her home with litters of young. The neighborhood spoke of her distastefully, some, the children, fearfully. She was a legend, a horror. They dared each other to run through her yard to touch her house, or to ring her doorbell, a sound always unanswered. They feared the day when she would answer that door, standing before them, handless, gleaming in sunset, her mouth filled with paint. They dreamed of it, woke up screaming. She never appeared, though.

They threw rocks through her windows and were scarcely discouraged. The rocks were followed by bottles. They screamed taunts at her. None had ever seen her, but in their dreams, their secret deaths when she came for them at night. She took no notice of their torment, but painted on, sometimes repainting an old favorite, sometimes making her own horrific scenes.

The young children became older boys, who said nothing to each other but were still haunted by dreams of her, cackling madly, spitting paint. They were vengeful, as if willfully wronged. A group of boys gathered at sunset with a half-empty beer bottle and a torn rag. With a shaking hand, one stuffed the rag into the neck of the bottle and lit it aflame with a cigarette lighter. Another boy leaned far back, his arm cocked, the wick burning merrily behind him, his face bathed in the flaming orange of the sun, and threw the bottle with all of his might through an already broken window of the woman's house. The boys raced away, laughing loudly to hide their unease, their bitter release.

The fire did not make itself known for a few minutes, taking its time in announcing itself, taking first a mangy couch, then a curtain, finally the carpet. It spread quickly, reaching the room where she painted. Cats screamed as they fled, burning, into the yard and through the streets. The woman looked up from the canvas she was working on, staring eyes widening even more as a tongue of fire ran up an old portrait, which exploded into flame along with a few surrounding paintings. Panicked, the woman gathered the paintings that were near her and trudged her way through her grotesquely uncared-for home, kicking trash out of her way with each step. One of the paintings she carted after her caught fire from a flaming wall, and her skirt caught from it. Still she dragged them after her, not bothering even to beat out her own flaming clothing. She reached the foyer, was almost to the door, when from the corner of her eye her husband looked at her. She turned. His picture was on the table by the door. Immediately, she dropped the paintings and lunged for his photo, cradling it to her chest and crying, then turned to open the front door.

The flaming second story collapsed upon the first.

In the wreckage of her home, they found her body, burned and blackened, clutching a charred photograph of her late husband.

(8/20/07)