map Watercolor Photograph

by Sandra Norsen

Published in Issue No. 264 ~ May, 2019

Watercolor runs down the paper like tears, like blood. She wears a beret because she is an artist. It is sky blue, but she is not keeping the peace, nor is anyone or anything united by her. ‘My name is Magritte,’ she says, ‘it is Picasso. I tear the world apart.’

She can be found in a shed out back, with the cans of weed killer and motor oil left on the shelves because she hopes they will keep her grounded. It’s not working. Her head is far above the clouds.

Memories blend and blur. They slide away, evasive, elusive. ‘If you look at them sideways,’ she says, ‘you can see them scurry. Most people look at things straight on, so they miss them entirely. Me, I discover traces, find bites taken from leaves. If you know where memories have been, you might find where they go. It stands to reason.’

She has not always been an artist. What was she before? She does not remember. That was before. This is after. She has angled the easel, taking notice, taking notes. The colors run. She pretends that it has taken years to perfect her technique. But she is a liar. She wants the colors to hold fast. She wants them to take form, to come alive and be TRUE. But despite her desire, she fails again and again. The colors run, and her fingers drip with tears.

At night, her head is crammed with shadows. They frighten her. She runs TV shows on a loop on her computer, the flickering light casting darkness about like discarded clothing. She refuses to look. She is drawn into the screen. Images infect her mind like a virus; music runs through her brain like a rat on a wheel. She can suspend time. This is her superpower. It is keeping her alive.

Some people die. Bodies are burned. It leaves nothing but ashes, so they tell her. She wonders about fragments of bone, pieces of teeth, defiant reminders that persist. Bundling ashes in pretty canisters do not, she thinks, somehow turn them into something pure — the smoke at Auschwitz stank of burning people. Particles still go up, go out into the atmosphere. You cannot pretend otherwise. She knows she has breathed it in. She has drawn death inside herself. She is death walking in the flesh. It is a miracle and a curse. The dichotomy scratches at her skin until it tears. She wants to slough off her skin like a snake.

She had a friend, but her friend is gone now, lost in an opiate nimiety. It was no accident, she is told, and she believes it. Her grief washes over her like a giant wave, and she is shocked by the volume it contains the power of it to hold her down by the back of her neck until her lungs are desperate for air. She begins to let go. But then she feels herself rising to the surface, gulping in breath despite the calm that descended mere moments before when her grief had expanded to fill the ocean.

Drowning leaves its mark. She looked up through the wavering light, and it was like peering through the green glass, or swollen tears. The colors ran. ‘I’ve seen the world through this lens before,’ she thinks. ‘Color running, blending, blurring.’ But she cannot quite remember when or why.

She has gathered paint brushes, tubes of color, canvas. She creates pictures. She blends pain and beauty, spilling onto the paper, bleeding from the tips of her fingers. ‘Images can replace words,’ she tells herself, ‘but will they make as much sense?’

Dreams precede the memories they hold. Her subconscious sets her adrift, watches her row away. There are storm clouds low and bruised on the horizon. She comes about, the oars dip and splash, but the clouds follow her. She rows harder. She wants to be lost. Row under the radar. Fade from sight.

A hand reaches out, and she takes it, lets it draw her up onto the sandbank. The hand holds a glass; its liquid glitters like jewels. The hand presses the rim to her lips, tilts her head, and ice-cold color runs down her throat until she gasps for air. ‘Relax,’ a voice says. ‘Close your eyes. Trust me.’ She obeys, lets herself drift until she cannot feel the sand between her toes, the sun on her face, his teeth beneath her lips. ‘You don’t need to breathe,’ he says, ‘I will breathe for both of us.’ And she has to believe him because otherwise, she will drown as her lungs fill with water and all that’s left will be her bleached bones washed up on an empty shore.

Another dream, another ocean. He is there. Smoke drifts. Liquid glitters. Her mouth tastes like someone else’s. She feels the world turning, and the colors begin to blur. She cannot feel her feet, her hands. Her skin is gone. She is flayed flesh, and he is there above her, shaking grains of salt. She screams. ‘Hush now,’ he croons. ‘Aren’t we having fun? Isn’t this what you wanted?’ But she knows he didn’t ask, and she didn’t say. Perhaps she isn’t even there. She drifts above herself in the smoke. It blurs the colors. She has never felt so alone.

When she wakes, her skin feels raw. She wants to crawl out of it, leave it behind like soiled clothing. She wants to feel clean. No amount of bathing in the ocean will make her feel clean again. The bathroom mirror shimmers. She has no face.

The tram surges like the tide, and passengers ebb and flow. Her skin is tight. Perhaps she is a chrysalis. She hopes to emerge, transformed and beautiful. But first she must liquefy. You have to die in order to be reborn. It stands to reason. Otherwise, you will stay a caterpillar forever and never get to do anything but crawl on your belly and hide from sharp beaks and angry claws. If you can learn to fly, you at least stand a chance. She scratches at her arms until the blood runs.

She descends into the bright night, blind as a newborn. Alone and supremely focused, she is led by determination. Her nails trail her cheeks, her forehead. Her skin glistens. All she really wants is to float up into the sky. It’s just her skin holding her in.

Tall walls and white light block out the stygian sky. This place frightens her. Asylum has more than one meaning. She is shattering into a million pieces. She is fragments of teeth and bone, coated in ashes. Arms reach out. Voices whisper and weep. This is the place of healing where stillness prevails, and words find sanctuary.

The beetle of memory creeps. Her pin is sharp, her aim true. It stains the paper. When she opens her lips, words spill out.

‘I got lost,’ she says. ‘It was a long time ago. The ocean beckoned, and I came. No compass. No map. I kept going back. It was my secret. I was away for days sometimes, but nobody came looking. I was missing in action. A lost cause. A lost soul.

I met a man. He smiled at me with dripping teeth, but I only saw his unique beauty. The innocent know no fear. That comes later when you’re a mess of torn flesh. He peeled back my flesh and crept inside. He crushed my chest until I couldn’t breathe, and all the time he was telling me that this was how you cared for someone, that this was what love felt like and it was the same for everyone. I wondered how that could be true – we wouldn’t be able to hear each other over the screaming.’

Through the window, gulls circle the light towers, their bodies orange in the sodium glow. Grey clouds flow through the darkness. Only the moon stands still.

‘Can someone be strong and fragile at the same time?’

‘Definitely. It may be inevitable.’

‘How do I stop the colors running?’

‘You need to remember when they stayed still. Remembering takes time.’

‘I have time,’ she says. ‘Time is all I have.’

When she leaves, she does not float; she does not sink. Her feet connect her to the ground. She can feel the living earth through the bones of her toes.

Through the lens, her world pulls into focus. Colors emerge like vines in a vineyard, intertwining, but standing fast. She wears a beret because she is an artist. It is blue, like the firmament reflected in the surface of the ocean. ‘My name is Melissa,’ she says, ‘and I bring the bees. When you crush me between your fingers, I smell of lemons and starlight. Today I will capture an instant and draw a frame around it. It will be my gift to the world. The sun is shining. It shines for me. It makes the world dance.’