The Artist’s Lot

“…round…around…around…red, on black, on blue…” 

The old painter-woman pauses, her attention listing to the juicy black fly that buzzes around the sweltering, wallpapered room where she lay. She does not watch the fly—cannot, in her growing blindness—but lolls with it, following the sound as it moves from the outer edges of the room’s damp walls to the branches of her four-poster, and from there to her bedside table, attracted by the dim dying light of a single, orange lamp bulb. The room’s lurid magenta walls cast their sickly shade against the old Crone’s wrinkled-white skin, staining pink the whites of the woman’s roiling, unfocused eyes—staining even the backs of the hundred or more wall-facing canvases lining her room.

“All me…all me…on black, on blue…” she says again, or tries to say, her twisted, aged speech barely audible above the clicks of death in her throat, her wain right arm (her once painting arm) gesturing to the back-turned paintings she can no longer see. 

“Round…around…red on…black…on…red…”. Her breaths rattle between the outer shell of each word, between each ‘oou’ and ‘eeh’ of her barely-there garble, no one there to listen. Her lips and tongue are dry, but it is not thoughts of water she searches for as her throat croaks again: 

“All mine…all mine…” she repeats in the half-pink dark, her arm still up and pointing as if she is unable to put it down now, as if rigor mortis has so quickly set in; as if death would come soon, or is already coming, marked by the setting of the orange, everlasting moon that during the day shines on the pitch-rooved halls of the Artist’s Lot. 

But this time, someone is there to listen. Strangely, in that suffocating place, someone is there to hear more than just the undertones of the dying woman’s nonsense; who will be there to hear her very, 

last, 

breath. 

“Emily,” the Newcomer whispers, slinking in from the shadows outside the room’s first door, which is much smaller, and much less Brutal than the second. Her thin, spidery legs are well-fitted in night-black trousers, her porcelain-grey fingers clutching an acid-black ink pen in one palm and a clipboard in the other, it’s clasp hinged onto a single, blank page. She glides toward the old woman’s bedside chair, her long black hair swaying in a perfect square at her back with each subtle step.

“Emily, over here please,” she says, hushed, her voice practiced, calm, forgettable. The old woman, this Emily, attends to the Newcomer—looks to her as if she were not blind; as if she can see the woman who bends to pick up an old, beige, kimono-type shawl from floor, who uses it to dust off a spindly wooden bedside chair before sitting down, straight and still and swallowed by purple shadow. She checks the time on a too-silver wristwatch and marks it at the top of the blank page of her clipboard. Then, almost as quickly as the strokes are drawn, they disappear—disappear, as if nothing writ or penned or paged could exist there, or anywhere else in that place.

“Emily, do you know how long you’ve been in this room?” The Newcomer asks, her voice low and steady as she stares with hard black eyes that bore into thin skin—a gaze which Emily ignores. Another disappearing mark on the clipboard. In the next moments to pass, the painter-woman’s blind attention drifts toward the room’s second, impossibly black door, mid-wall on their left. And while she cannot see the sweating pink walls of the room, cannot see even her own hand—which still stands slightly elevated, blue for loss of blood—she can see the two blacknesses on either side of her now, both of them much too close at once. She chooses the one closest to her, returning again her attention to it, wondering, wandering…certain she had heard it speak.

“…I was painting. A circle. A big, red, circle,” Emily says to it, without exactly knowing why.  

“No, I don’t think that’s right,” responds the Newcomer, quiet, serious. She checks her watch again and makes another note of the time on her clipboard only for it to vanish, the pitch-dark door across from them both just a little darker. “You’ve never painted circles,” she continues, starting to draw her own slow, determined circle on the page of her clipboard. 

“…hmm? No…no…I suppose…” stutters Emily. The circle goes on.

“…you suppose…?”. The Newcomer lifts her chin, letting her words hang in the air. The door, the second door, seems now to pull at the very shadows surrounding it on all sides.

“…maybe not…” then, after a minute, “…no…”, says the old woman.

No.” the Newcomer repeats, closing the black circle on the page with a slice. Already it fades away into the paper. 

Satisfied by this, a terrible smirk making her blank-pretty face harsh, the Newcomer uncrosses and re-crosses her spider-legs, touching the tip of her pen to her tongue. Yes, the Newcomer thinks to herself, the old woman is quite entirely gone. It’s almost as if, she thinks absently, forgetting the thought as quickly as it comes, as if this old one’s known all her life that this is how it ends.

For it is true that all who create are forced to relinquish what they’ve stolen, there, in the Artist’s Lot, where each talent is lost to the Door so soon after passing. 

Quite unexpectedly though, Emily’s frozen arm drops, stuck now to her side like glue, her eyes still pink but no longer roiling, almost, one could say: focused. The Newcomer, who had been checking her watch yet another time, freezes, her own pupil-less eyes wide and fire-like in the reflective flush of the fuschine walls that seem to close in all around them. She watches the old woman closely, like a predator to their prey, her bent knees and elbows sharp like razor blades, the rest of her poised: agile. 

Then, the Newcomer grins—an even uglier sight to behold, the shadows across her face creating monsters all their own. What could such a wraith-woman do? Passing through the first bedroom door instead of the second. Wouldn’t the Crone simply try to crawl through the halls, having forgotten how to walk? She would see a doorknob and not know to turn it; would see a pencil and never know she had held thousands in her hands. To her, there would be little left but fog and cross-hatched grey. 

“Well,” Emily croaks, interrupting the Newcomer’s thoughts, “Then I should have to paint one. A…a…” 

The room is quiet save the rattling of the old woman’s deep inhale, and another sound, one so faint amidst her subtle pause: the sound of the room starting to shift. And then:

“A circle…Red. With blue…on black…”

The Newcomer’s eyes grow wide, knowing the woman should not be able to say such things now. That colour and form should be all but lost to her.

“I asked you a question Emily,” the Newcomer soothes, an attempt to distract her from whatever seed she’d managed to keep. “Did you hear me? How long have you been here?” she asks again.

The old woman looks slowly away from the Newcomer, who is nothing more than a dark obscurity beside her, and then around the room, her eyes crossing the threshold of the black-space door far to her left. Once, she passes it, then twice and back again.

“You can see the door, yes?” the Newcomer tests, watching as those horrible blind-pink eyes are fixated there—watching the old woman’s chin tremble as she nods, a yellow string of drool sopping a wet spot on her already sticky linen bedclothes. The Newcomer moves to mark yet another disappearing scribble on her page when Emily speaks again, her voice however faint:

“A circle…on red, on blue…”

“A hole!” the Newcomer snaps then, her voice changed to anger as she stands suddenly from the spindle-chair and shares the full depth of her emptiness with the rose-room that itself seems to rise forever without a ceiling, on and on now into the black.

“Empty!” she says more loudly, her voice as even and unbroken as a pure eastern half-note, her hands free for a moment of the pen and pad, moving toward the canvases all around the walls and turning them; turning them even though the old woman can not see their blankness; can not see what had been erased—what is no longer there. A life’s work: Relinquished. Taken back to the ether and lost to the void.

Yet Emily resists the frightful motion of the black blight on her vision, the growing of the dark door as it begins to swallow even the walls around them, the rest of the room still shifting in its unnatural upset. And while the wraith-woman’s next words are unsaid by any mouth, they are understood by the Newcomer all the same, who begins to shake with fury at their meaning, their insolence:

“I’ve…created…so many worlds…”

You’ve created nothing!” 

This new voice is much lower, and comes not from the Newcomer, but from the silent black-space that pulls and pulls and pulls, devouring every atom in its wake, it’s tenor adding to the blanket of building quiet that follows the sound, the dim-bulb lamp choosing that very moment to go out. 

The Newcomer waits…and waits…and waits in the deafening silence, the anticipation killing the now-silent fly.

[Where am I?] the old woman finally asks, her voice now fully forgotten to all but this Newcomer, who would herself soon be swallowed back into the shadows of the Lot.

“Not where! How long?” goads the Newcomer, as if performing the woman’s last rite. Then another silence. Another pause. The black-hole door looms. The old woman squints, fully blind now, confused and awash in the growing-smoke darkness.

[How long have I been here?] the Emily croaks, her fingers curling in on themselves like a pair of pale-dead roaches on their backs. Triumphant this time in the non-light, the Newcomer traces a final, disappearing mark on the page, her voice bleeding into that other voice, the unknown one behind the shadow, as they both say the old woman’s final, sealing words:

You haven’t. You were never here at all.” 

All around finalizes the rush, the Process: the taking-back. The old woman’s pallid body crushed; buffeted by the sound of rushing wind, deafening, the grey-pink of her artful subconscious painfully and finally lost to the ever-encroaching black of the Lot’s second door.

Yet still, and always, the walls leave their glowy flushed sickness against the etched ancient-wood floors, waiting, waiting for the dead to arrive at the Artist’s Lot. To turn them—to turn you—into Nothing: from red, to blue, to black.

Header and Footer Photos by @thosepicturesshetook

Published by Jessica Barratt

Writer, Photographer, Academic | Founder of JB Editing, wordsofhers.com, and thosepicturesshetook.ca

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