I have always painted the visions I have seen—the gifts of my Muse.
In my youth she visited often, and I thought of her as my own magic dragon. With each visit she treated my eager eyes to extraordinary new sights. As the other students honed their skills painting bowls of fruit and model’s hands, she would ration out whimsical fantasies as a wicked stranger might hand out candy. I painted fanciful scenes-pictures born of that land of innocence that exists in the collective imagination of the young. She was the only constant in my life; she never failed me and she never abandoned me. Her inspiration became my air; and children breathe deeply.
By the time I was six I was attending an arts magnet school. Technique, color, light and texture were my multiplication tables. I knew who Dali was long before I heard of George Washington. As my skills grew, so did my visions. When I learned light, my visions had shadows, and when I learned movement, they came alive. My teachers marveled at how realistic I could paint my fantasies, and when I told them of my Muse they simply smiled.
At times my visions were so vibrant, so full of fancy, that others were immersed in their energy. One day after I spent hours playing with a mischievous little fairy, I painted the most enchanting picture. A Chihuahua wore a tiny green saddle, and riding him was an adorably fierce, winged fairy holding a tiny spear above his head. My daddy loved it, he couldn’t stop talking about it. And when my professors explained that no one would buy a painting from a nine-year-old, he wrote a children’s book, and put my painting on the cover. It was the only book of his that ever sold. He named the Chihuahua after our own, and the fairy Rowan, after me. It’s all I have left of him now.
But my Muse exacted a high price for her inspiration. As living has a way of killing innocence, the torment that became my life gave her fodder. My father’s lingering death and my long depression changed me, but it affected my Muse as well. The beautiful world she had once shown me soured, turning black and hostile. Teen angst took on a new dimension as it wept from my palette. My muse brought me the darkest relics of my past, and would show me nothing else. The childlike wonder was gone, and my paintings took on a grim magic. As often happens in the shadowy world of art, that darkness was mistaken for maturity. After a score of local awards I was offered scholarships to some of the best art schools in the country.
For a short time, during my first year at Boston University, the crushing joy of love brought beauty back to my paintings. My Muse continued to show me images of deepening horror, but I ignored them all, turning out canvas after canvas of the deceptively vapid images of love. I knew they would never sell, and I didn’t care—they were for no one but me.
As the money from my paintings slowed to a trickle, my new husband’s anger swelled to a flood. He railed at me, and my paintings. He learned to hit, and I learned to cower. As my marriage degenerated my Muse became insistent, showing me vicious images of bloody, ruined bodies. The paintings from our early relationship were replaced, each canvas covered with deep layers of paint, black and grey and red. He was jealous of the time I spent painting. The night I told him I was pregnant he destroyed every one of my works in a bonfire, fueled with jealous rage. That was when I stopped painting.
The visions never stopped. But eventually I learned to ignore the images of bloody babies and broken bodies that became her new prose. It wasn’t until years later—after I buried my son, after the bloody end to my marriage, after I cut my wrists, and after my Muse fell silent-that I realized she hadn’t been taunting me. She had been warning me.
It took me seven years to pick up my brush again. The doctor’s tried, for all that time, to get me to paint again. They called it therapy. At first the brush felt unwieldy and awkward in my hand, and though my skill returned quickly, my Muse did not. Without her my works were beautiful but empty, barren of inspiration.
Once out of the hospital money became a pressing need. I quickly turned back to the only skill I ever had. With a bit of luck I found someone willing to put a small amount of faith in my reputation and arrange a show at a local gallery. I needed twenty paintings, the exhibition was four weeks away, and I didn’t have one canvas worth showing. I had stories to tell, but my brush couldn’t find the words.
Staring back at me was a half-completed painting; a woman, whose face I had yet to discover, standing in a patch of impossibly brilliant grass. It was pathetic, uninspired, trite—all my canvases were. I waited for my Muse’s voice, but she remained silent. In the woman’s vacant face I saw failure-sneering at me. I was at the edge of an abyss, my feet hanging over the edge, and I was scrambling to avoid the long dark descent into a life of doctor’s office paintings and lobby murals.
I stood in front of the canvas, and felt completely alone for the first time. Though I had forsaken her, she was always there when I needed her. She had been my only constant, unwavering, undying. I hated my Muse for her desertion, and I cursed her again and again. Nausea welling in my stomach, I had no reason to hold back my tears. I fell to the floor and wept. After a time the knot in my stomach uncoiled and my sickness took on an urgency. My stomach convulsed and I tasted bile in my throat. I suffered through three convulsions before I realized what was happening.
Something was inside me, struggling free, fighting for a new existence. I could feel my skin tearing, the pain distant, as if a fading memory. The struggle was brief and as I felt this. . . this thing slide free I felt something else, something soft. As the pain ebbed I raised myself onto my elbows and gazed between my open legs at the horror that I had born. A baby lay still on the wooden floor; but not a newborn—older. He was dressed in a blue jumper, the left side of his face, above the eye, crumpled, covered with a thick armor of dried blood. Clutched. to his chest, as if it offered solace from the agony he had suffered, was a plush, white unicorn.
I cried for Lucas, my twice born, twice dead child. As I watched he began to fade. Slowly he lost color, until pale skin, black blood, and white fur were the same mournful shade of grey. Then he crumbled, the air hammering away at his fragile body until there was nothing left of him but a fine pallid dust.¬
My Muse hadn’t abandoned me. This new facet of her was unknown to me; her gentle guidance replaced by a cold hand pulling me where I didn’t want to go. Two days later when I returned to the house, my legs aching, he was gone.
I completed twenty-six canvases in the next fifteen days. I barely slept; my eyes burned. The centerpiece of my exhibit showed a young woman standing over a child’s open grave. As her legs neared the ground they gave way to the craggy trunk of a tree, the roots plunging deep into impossibly green grass. Most of the paintings featured dead children.
Year’s earlier, pictures of dead children would have led me to a therapist’s couch. But art and life are often a paradox. Instead I became a celebrated artist, dead children my medium. My show was acquired by a major gallery, and all twenty-six canvases sold. Had I a choice, I could have stopped painting then and there—I had enough money to live comfortably for a long time—but she’d shown me just enough to know she hadn’t left me. Though the air had soured, I wasn’t ready to stop breathing.
Over time I began to think of my paintings as our paintings. I saw her as my palette—color and raw energy; and myself as the brush-focus and discipline. My skill and technique ware apparent, but fame does not come to skill alone; commas and periods don’t make literature, and pigments and textures don’t make art. I knew I needed her, and I thought she needed me; but as I came to understand, she did not hold me in such high esteem. Eventually, she even denied me the courtesy to endure my pain in private.
Eight years after dropping out of Boston University, they awarded me an honorary Master of Fine Arts; their indifference of years past swept away by the tide of fame that seemed to follow me everywhere, filling in my footprints, erasing the evidence of my passing.
The University organized an exhibit of their graduates’ work, and commissioned me to complete a painting to promote the show. They also asked me to paint one canvas for display. Overwhelmed by their enthusiasm for my work, I agreed.
They insisted on sending a student to model for me. I painted her nude, sitting on the edge of a bed, her back towards me, with her right hand running through her hair—think of her getting out of bed in the morning and you’ll have a good idea of what it looked like. A rather bland pose, I know, but she had the back to pull it off.
We worked for most of the day Saturday. Though the canvas was far from complete, with the photos I had taken I could easily fill in the gaps, and she had gone to my bedroom to dress. I sat on the couch in my studio and studied my work, paying special attention to her wrists. I envied her. I stared at my own mangled wrists and traced the rough T-shaped scars with my fingernails. Exhausted, I pressed the heels of my hands into-my eyes.
When I opened my eyes the world was red. Thick warm liquid surged from my wrists and the tide flowed down my arms. I spat as I tasted the coppery fluid in my mouth. I wiped blood from my wrists, but found only clean, smooth skin-the flesh of an earlier life, free of bruises, bandages, and scars. My blood reappeared slowly, leeching through my skin, keeping time with the growing pounding in my ears. Blood soaked my jeans, running into my shoes and pooling on the wooden floor.
The rhythm began to fade as the floor reached up for me. The arms I felt encircle me were not welcome. Once I had once invited them, encouraging their advance as the steamy water surrounded me. But now their presence was an assault, as was the darkness they brought.
Threading through the darkness I heard the student’s voice, calling my name. I clung to that thread, struggling to pull myself free of the clinging shadows. My head cleared and I ran my fingers across my wrists, comforted by the familiar presence of coarse skin. I wiped the blood from my face as I saw her rush into the studio, her shirt open, her hair unkempt. As I sat in the spill, struck by the absurdity of my situation, I felt a gentle pull on my skin. I watched as the puddle darkened, drying and cracking, losing its gory pallor for the blackening burgundy of spilled acrylic.
She laughed freely-something else I envied her for—and apologized for overreacting. She explained that she had panicked when she heard me screaming, but was relieved when she realized that I was only covered in paint. I found it difficult to laugh along with her. She helped me clean up the spill, and asked more than once what type of paint I used—she had never seen acrylic dry so quickly. It didn’t seem to bother her that acrylic paint doesn’t spill.
After a painfully hot shower and a brief dinner, she left. Immediately, I scoured the house for a blank canvas, but could find none. My Muse was restless; her voice shrieked through my head demanding to be heard. I picked up a brush, mixed a large amount of all-too-familiar red, and meticulously covered the canvas of the model with fresh paint.
BU still has the finished work—I didn’t want it back; a beautifully manicured foot, hints of lace above the ankle, a catholic rosary underfoot, blood seeping from under the toenails and collecting in a thick pool. The model kept the canvas of herself; I had to recreate it from photographs. I used the money to repair the wooden floor in my studio; I never could get the red stain out.
The comfort that came with my success was a luxury I was unable to savor, for eventually, even breathing can become unbearable. The price of my fame had become too great. My paintings were nothing more than violent reminders of a past I longed to forget. Each canvas was a private nightmare, pawned for my own celebrity. My Muse went out of her way to show me that she cared more for the art than the artist; and ultimately I thought of the paintings as hers. I didn’t want them anymore.
I bought the largest canvas I could find, almost eight feet square, and three times the paint I would need. I attacked the canvas with brush after brush, pouring out anger and frustration in a barrage of acrylic. I summoned my Muse with an incantation of rage, color and energy. I knew that if I painted long enough, she would come. The developing maelstrom was an assault on my eyes. For hours the canvas grew darker, the center bulging with the accumulation of paint.
I worked long after my arms ached—long after the light bled from the sky. When the canvas was almost black, and the room seemed unstable to my tired eyes, I heard the distant crying of a child.
It seemed to come from all directions. The dull sound of flesh against flesh followed, echoing in my ears, as the crying stopped abruptly, incomplete. I shut my eyes tight, forcing fresh tears down my face.
I heard soft footsteps behind me, and turned to see my dead husband stalk into my studio. His eyes were wide and blood shone from his right hand. In his eyes I saw all the anger and loathing he brandished when alive. But his face had changed. Now I saw both my tormentors, overlapping shadows, blended into one predatory mask.
He tried to calm me, but his familiar excuses sounded hollow. When he hit me, as I knew he would, I saw something in his eyes I had never seen before; something utterly foreign to his face. I saw fear. His and hers.
Blood spewed from my mouth, beating an unsteady cadence against the canvas. Buoyed by the fear I saw, I hammered at his with both fists. My hand and my brush sank deep into his flesh, his ghostly body lacking the strength he once wielded. I took revenge for Lucas, and I took revenge for my sanity, and I took revenge against them both for the years of torment and torture.
I tasted blood in my mouth and grit stung my eyes, but still I attacked, until I felt the cold wet presence of the canvas against my arms. When I opened my eyes I saw a dark canvas violently streaked with red.
I painted over it time and again, trying to drive her away. But layer upon layer of paint failed to banish her. I did finish the canvas, eventually. You’ve probably seen it-gazing down from high above the ground, over the shoulder of a richly black gargoyle a young girl walks alone along a darkened path. The woman looked a lot like me.
Ultimately, my Muse had the last word. That painting became my biggest success. The royalty checks come in every year—I’ve lost count of how many anthologies and textbooks have reprinted it. On each check I can feel the dusty grit of her presence. I’ve never cashed one. I never told anyone this, but the crimson blacks the critics raved about, the ones they said gave the gargoyle a palpable sense of fear. . . was dried blood. I still don’t know if it was mine or his…or hers.
I think the paintings were never mine at all. They are gone now; my early works burned in a fit of rage and resentment; my later pieces—the ones I should have burned—bought for extravagant prices by those who pay for other’s misery.
Now my Muse has left me, life and I have an uneasy truce, and an empty canvas sits, yellowing, in the comer of my living room, for I have no more pictures to paint.