“Paint it again.” His voice is a whisper in my ear, breath brushing the skin. My paintbrush trembles against the paper. Paints blur together and another brown blob forms with each flick of my fingers. “Capture the feeling, the moment.” I can feel his hand hovering over my shoulder. He doesn’t touch me, not quite. “Not just the action.” His fingers curled against my shoulder in gentle and unwanted sympathy. “You can do it. Just a little more practice.”
“Yes, sir.” I want to scream. Always he says to paint it again, always takes my brush and my work and throws it away. I’ll never be done. “Of course, sir.” It’s been years of this same class, of these paints and these easels and this teacher. “Right away.” A flash of pained smile is all I can manage, peeling thinned lips away from my teeth. He smiles back and breezes away.
“Good.” His back fades behind another student. The sound of clattering brushes fades away I fold the canvas into tiny squares, slurring paint in a colorless blob. Just another failed painting, another failed attempt at glory. But fingernails scrape across the easel as I reach for another sheet, the unblemished cloth waiting to be marred. There’s no hopeful dream left. All I want is one painting he accepts, a single drawing he doesn’t sneer at. I want to see those perfectly manicured fingernails point to my face and feel his nod against my shoulder. Everything in my mind, everything in this world; I’d give it all up for his approval.
The paints are bright on the pallets, reds and blues and yellows calling out to my brush. I’ll make it, just this once. This painting will come to life. He’ll smile at me for this one. I’ll find the feeling he wants. My eyes flutter closed for a moment, images fighting for my vision. Sunsets and blizzards and a single flower on a solitary hill. But I’ve tried them all before and none of it worked. He sees through my metaphors, sees what I dare not speak. The nothingness at the bottom of my soul that cries out as I paint, the darkness that forms into nothing as I paint my heart onto perfect canvas.
Colors come and go, flashes of inspiration as I mix purples and greens and oranges with the tips of my brushes. I can succeed, just this once. My fingers tremble against the wooden handle, blurring a pale brown in the center of the board. I flick a few dots onto the page, watching the color spread. Brown and white and a hint of pale green drip down to the floor, staining the tiles. My hands are a flurry of motion as the painting forms, blobs of color dripping together, forming black and rainbows between burst of red and a single daffodil that grows in a pot of nothing.
His hand rests on my shoulder, fingers squeezing. I can feel the brush of his nails against my top button. “Perfect.” He breaths into my ear and it’s a gentle breeze, warm and calming. I let the brush lay limply in my fingers as he leans closer, chin brushing my cheek. I can feel everything I’d missed. He touches my painting, scraping a thin line in the paint. “You’ve done it.” His voice is sad. I turn to face him and find I can’t move. The brush clatters to the ground from my nerveless fingers. “You weren’t supposed to do it.” A tear falls onto my shoulder, splatters on the ground.
I can only barely look down to see my fading feet and fading limbs, the ground visible through my shoes. “Professor…?” Panic trembles my voice but his hand is still on my shoulder. His fingers are touching through the cloth, through my flesh. “I don’t understand.” The words rise in pitch until I can barely hear myself. I can’t move anymore, can’t feel anything. Even the painting is fading before my eyes, an empty, blood-stained easel taking its place. I want to stumble and falter, staring at the dripping liquid that falls to the ground at my rapidly disappearing feet.
“It’s over.” He’s farther away, though I know he didn’t move. His breath is gone but his hand is still on my shoulder. “You found the painting you always wanted, found your soul.” Are those tears in his voice, a sadness I can’t seem to name. “It’s hanging in my office. Don’t worry.” And his voice fades away slowly. “You won’t be forgotten.” I want to grab him, hold him by my side. I want to scream and cry and beg him not to let me go. Because I’m leaving him and that’s the one thing I never wanted to do.
I try to speak but only a scream can be wrenched from my disappearing throat. The easel sits before me, like a spotlight that won’t fade. Bloodstains mar the wood, the scent of rotting flesh covering the acrid smells of ancient paint. I wonder how long I’ve been here, waiting. His voice is gone, his hand isn’t on my shoulder. And I can see my own body laid out on the floor. My eyes are lifeless and I wonder how long it’s been. He’s kept me here, teaching me to paint; showed me my soul and I don’t know why.
The door behind me clicks open, footsteps and light falling through the door. I know they can’t see me here but I turn anyway, eyes widening at the sunlight. Police sirens wail louder than before, swarms of SWAT teams and officers converging on my body. I can hear wails and weeps that echo through the tiny room. My mother stares and I know she can’t see me because she’s crying, clinging to father with hands and arms, her whole body. I try to reach out. But there’s no moving as a quiet sound attracts my attention. The professor stands in the doorway, fingers curled at his side. He’s as still as I feel, tears gathering on his cheeks. I can hear his voice, a quiet murmur beneath the screams of fellow students and my mother’s tears. But the words blur together and I can’t understand.
I watch my body unfold, straightened out and placed on a clean white stretcher. My blood mars the stretch of canvas, reminding me of an older painting I did. My teacher hated it, pointed out each and every discontinuity. That was before him. When I would sit before pages of white and scribble out my thoughts in pictures and pencil shavings on ripping paper. No real thought, just metaphors for something I know I never understood. And though I tried then, I know I’d never have succeeded. There’s nothing sadder than a picture with no meaning, those old painting now kindling in an ancient fire. He burnt the pile for me, took matches to the old thoughts and started me anew. The smoke was acrid, hanging in my room for weeks after I opened the window and began his class. Sometimes I would smell as I fell asleep, burying my face in my pillow to find the hidden scent.
He’s still standing in the doorway. I think he’s talking to my mother, offering her his hand and an envelope. I can’t make out his handwriting, the slow cursive loops taking up most of the folded paper. He gives her that smile, that quiet sad smile that made me want to be his perfect student. That look, it was that look that drew me into his studio after classes. He’d watched me draw. And then taught me what I’d never known. Held my hand, my creativity, the darkness of my soul and showed me how to share it all. And in the envelope I know is my painting. A copy of the painting he has hanging in his office; his peace offering to my mother. He chose me to teach, found me in that courtyard and he’ll never forget me.
The scene slowly fades away as his voice echoes, words falling in and out. My mother sobs but I know it was nothing. They could accept. I have found my art, my color and my feeling. I will never be famous, never shown in a museum to thousands of guest gawking at photographs in over-priced gift stores. But they will see. The ones who need will see. And everything moves to pinpoint the envelope still in my mother’s hand, the handwriting forming before my eyes. And as the heavens hearken me, call my name in sing-sing sweet voices, I know he wrote the right words for her. My laugh is quiet as I touch my wings, brushing my fingertips across the bright feathers. Forever, he wrote, forever and ever he’ll be mine; it’s true. I may be gone, but he’ll never forget. Not even if he tries.