The Colours of Chaos
She closes her eyes to the hush of waves on white sand, no footprints to speak of but her own. The sun sits on the line of the horizon like a drop of blood, painting the sky in hues of orange and red more vivid than a flower.
This is the scene in her mind as she tries to block out the noise from the surrounding city: the rush of cars and the screech of tires scraping against abused asphalt. Emptiness is the space where her inspiration resides, yet she is forced to concede defeat as she drops the brush, eyes skimming over the sidewalk. Her eyes drift to the great golden face looking over Union Square and she fancies it is watching her, trying to gauge her potential, to grant favour, or turn to another with talent and the emaciated body of one who needs something more than luck or passion to make it another step. But there is little beyond this moment if she cannot find the next slip of green paper, the next clinking coin. There is little in her mind beyond the image of sand she has been attempting to paint, besides the tantalizing smell of food she cannot afford and the memory of soft blankets she no longer has. Each passing face used to spark a glimmer of hope in her chest, the whisper of a possible customer more than her heart could take. Now, she stirs only for those who pause at her display, and mostly to make sure others’ quick fingers stay far away from her smaller pieces.
“How much?” they ask, and she responds with one number or another in the soft ash that has become her voice; speech is saved for bargains with her landlord and talking her way out of trouble. She gets by with clever, guilty fingers, saving money for large canvases because they are too hard to steal. But today is a good day; she’s sold two pieces, and the fifty five dollars might bring her up to the month’s rent, if she’s remembered correctly.
A young man stops at her table, handsome if she remembers how to care. He smiles genially at her as he examines her pieces, and she responds out of reflex rather than any emotion sparked in the hollow where her soul used to be. She thinks she has left it in a box somewhere, but she cannot remember or bother to look for it.
“I rather like this one,” he says, voice ringing with some sort of accent. She does not know which one. Instead she looks at the piece he is admiring with some trepidation; it’s her largest painting, a sunken ship filled with sinister, shadowed shapes and all manner of fish she cannot name. It’s beautiful, but the supplies were expensive and she’s marked it for a hundred. Mostly she keeps it out to draw the customers, knowing no one will pay the price.
Remembering not to say this, she nods instead. “I do too,” she replies, ashen voice caught by the wind and brushed across his ear. He looks at her with a smile. “Shadowed Depths.”
“I’ll give you three hundred for it,” he says, bold as brass, and her heart nearly stops. His eyes are crinkled at the corners, mouth twitching, and her expression turns indignant.
“I have no time for games,” she says coldly, turning back to her canvas. She adds pale caps to the red waves of her sunset, anger broiling in her chest. She expects the fool to leave, but when she looks he is still standing there, mouth spread in a smile. She offers him a glare.
“Fine, three fifty,” he says, and she sets her jaw. She can feel the anger pooling in her throat, and she tries to rein it in. She imagines her next painting; black volcano, rationing sparks of gold fire and ruby rivers, a city beneath with fleeing shadows running as their homes are cast to the demon-fire…
“I’m serious,” he says, waving four bills in front of her face. She looks at him with wide eyes, and he laughs, deep and throaty. “Here, take it.”
She looks at his hand, the expensive watch, the crisp collared shirt. “Why?”
He shrugs and puts the money down on the table, picking up the painting like fine crystal. “Because. I can.”
Her mind is a chaos of images; places she has never seen or heard of, things she has never experienced. She wonders if she can hear people’s thoughts as they pass or if she’s gone mad from cold, her visions of utopia brought about by some terrible unheard of disease; a nameless parasite, fed by lack of human contact and malnourishment. Each night is a splash of colour and a battle with a brush, each breath she takes inhaling the salt of a sea she has never tasted and the thick sweetness of a flower she has never smelled. She has never been anywhere but this city and the little town where she was born, a place she’d wanted to escape if only for a dark metropolis with darker people, arrogant or angry as they pass. She wonders how a city so full of life can hide the beauty of its soul, how the song of inspiration does not spring forth like the water from the beautifully sculptured park fountains. Still, some seem to be able to recognize beauty when they see it, as displayed by the young man from the previous day and others that have placed their faith in her art. Today she’s sold three pieces, including one of the medium-sized ones; enough for a hundred-dollars.
She has finished her bloody sunset, the volcano now blooming on an enormous canvas she’d only been able to afford because of that strange man. Her brush has just begun to reveal signs of an eruption, the sky not fully blackened by ash: Santorini, untouched by streams of fire. Still, the shadowed figures have begun to flee, racing across the canvas clutching little children and what few possessions they can clasp to their chests. Some have made it to blue-black waters, leaping into boats and helping their comrades aboard as the volcano continues to stir, erupting across the canvas with a splash of gold and a blooming flower of smoke.
“You make chaos beautiful,” a familiar voice says behind her, and she starts, nearly smudging out one carefully painted mother and child in a sling running for their lives.
“Chaos is beautiful,” she replies, turning to look at her benefactor. His hair is a mop of blackish brown, equally dark eyes kind and rimmed in long lashes. He smiles at her, but she only looks at him suspiciously.
“Gone feral from so long in the wild?” he asks, and she responds to his smirk with a glare. Still, the image is springing into her mind; a tiger stalking through the skyscrapers, buildings crumbling under vines and tall grass. The bridges are too precarious for the traffic of cars, but there is plenty space for herds of antelope to track through, providing enough prey… Yet the huntress stalks a nervous man in a tattered three-piece suit, tie askew as he runs towards the Plaza. He will never make it if she springs, and timid faces peek out of the windows, looking at the overgrown jungle that was once Central Park…
“I like this one,” he says, breaking her out of her reverie. She looks at the painting; a tall mountain encased in white clouds, small clumps of dwellings hung precariously on the few flat spaces of the monstrous mass. It is barely morning, unidentifiable white birds soaring through the misted air before a pale blue sky. Another of her large paintings, also one hundred.
“Lucid Sky,” she says, trying too hard not to hope. She looks instead at the golden disk looking over the square, wondering if this young man is her fortune.
“Same price?” he asks, looking at her. She stares back, swallowing. Could she? Yes. Shame was something she lost in the absence of bathwater untouched by rust and dirt.
“Four hundred?” she says, not quite managing to sound convinced herself. He laughs his arrogant laugh.
“Perfect,” he replies, holding out the money, and she almost snatches it, afraid he will take it back. He smiles genially at her, and she clears her throat.
“Would you like a bag?” she asks, voice still soft as ash. He chuckles, shaking his head.
“This is perfect,” he says instead, taking it just as carefully and disappearing into the crowd.
She frowns after him, the image of the tigress still bright and fresh in her mind.
She does not know his name, but she thinks of him as inspiration. She wonders where he is from, and why he has chosen her. She is not half as beautiful as her paintings, hair a plain shade of brown and skin a common cream. Her eyes are the only remarkable feature she possesses, green and blue and brown mixing into something akin to hazel, but even a young woman with naught but colours in her mind knows that the beauty of one’s eyes is not enough to win seven hundred and fifty dollars.
She has finished the volcano’s eruption already, faster than she has ever done a painting before. Now she is brushing fear into an anonymous man’s face, the tigress watching him with her tail flicking silently on the ground behind her. Her haunches are closer than anything else, the spread of her fur apparent to the point of a claw. Her ear is poised to twitch, and still the faces begin to peek out from behind the broken glass, shadowed expressions unreadable. The vines have just begun to twine their way up the buildings, breaking off pieces of gilded white stone and twisting metal frames beyond recognition. The statue in the square is choked by one green tendril, the motionless fountain filled with rainwater. Ripples spread across the sparkling surface, stirring tall grass into motion.
“Regression. Interesting portrayal,” she hears, and this time she does not start; she simply turns to look at him.
“I don’t see it as regression,” she says contemplatively. “It’s all the beauty of the world together. You wouldn’t have to choose between city or nature. It’s all there.”
He looks at her strangely, then smiles at her, another blinding grin. She smiles back, not knowing why, but she thinks she found the box with her soul in it. Perhaps that’s where it’s sprung from.
“Your philosophies are as beautiful as your paintings,” he says, and she feels something in her chest flutter. She smiles her thanks, but he doesn’t see it. He is looking at her display.
“The volcano from yesterday. You finished it.”
She nods, brush moving over the canvas again. “Burning Chaos.” The vines have almost finished their slow advance on the soaring glass structures, cars already engulfed in a sea of green.
“Four fifty?” he asks, and she looks at him. It’s her largest piece yet, but his prices seem to be getting increasingly outrageous. She bites her lip. “Five hundred?”
“Gods, no,” she says, horrified, and he laughs. His eyes are sparkling, but they turn serious on a dime.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he says, and she looks at him curiously. “But I’d like to keep acquiring these paintings of yours.”
She stares at him, confused. She has no way to transport them, and she has no idea where he lives. The idea of her paying for shipping and handling when she can barely afford to pay rent is absurd, but for some reason she does not tell him this. This man, who has done nothing but throw money at her from the moment they first met.
“What’s your name?”
He smiles broadly. “Koli.” He looks at her still, face serious again, and she shifts uncomfortably.
“What do you want, then?” she asks, before she can stop herself. He seems pleased by this question.
“I can make you this offer once,” he says, face earnest. “Sell me this painting and that one, the rest as payment for transport to my land. There you will paint for the court.”
“Court?” she repeats, poleaxed by his sudden offer. He smiles.
“Court,” he confirms. She blinks, and his smile is gentle as he places the money on the table and picks up the oversized painting. “I’ll come tomorrow for your answer. Have the painting ready.”
He is gone before she can say another word, but her heart is pounding in her chest. She cannot find coherency in her thoughts, so instead she moves her brush across the canvas. It is only when a woman interrupts her to ask if she may buy a small painting does she pause. It’s a gloved hand grasping the handle of a partially-open door, gilded wood all around and light spilling from the crack.
“I… can’t,” she says faintly, her voice far away. “I’ve promised it to someone else.”
She sits nervously in her stool, eyes searching the crowd. She has not unpacked her paintings, and they sit stacked up together next to a tattered suitcase she got at one of the thrift stores down by Baruch’s library. She’d spent the rest of the money he’d given her on clothes she desperately needed, blowing a whole fifteen dollars on a beautiful old dress she really didn’t need at Housing Works. Still, something about it had reminded her of the young man, and she’d decided that a court painter needed one, didn’t she.
She wonders if the proposal would have sounded as good if she was sane, but she supposes it doesn’t matter because she isn’t. For someone whose life is a chaos of colour and form, the beauty in a vista in her mind and the dream of a place she’s never seen, the idea of court is a fairytale dream of silk and masques and thrones. The vague logical part of her flutters feebly in the back of her mind, showing her images of Buckingham Palace, but she brushes the thought away. There is nothing left for her to lose, and she’s kept enough money to pay her rent for the next month in case she has to return. She hasn’t told her landlord she is leaving, either, but she supposes it didn’t matter. If she is gone for too long he’ll simply start looking for a replacement; that is the way things work in the city.
She is beginning to wonder if he is not coming when suddenly he is there, hair a blackbrown mop, face flushed as though he has been running. She has only left one painting out, the one he wanted to buy, and he hands her six hundred dollars wordlessly and takes it in his left hand. She tucks the money into her breast pocket, standing and taking the handle of her suitcase. He looks at it with a blinding smile.
“You’re coming, then?”
She shrugs, and his smile is soft as he reaches out and takes her hand.
She nods and takes the handle of the cart she’s strapped her paintings to, before realizing he never asked her name. She is about to tell him this when the Square blurs into splashes of greys and greens and blues, before all of it spins into black.
She awakes with a yawn to a pale blue light, and she blinks rapidly. The room she is in is a chaos of beautiful, constantly changing colours, the silken sheets iridescent white opal.
“I wasn’t sure if you wanted blank white to paint,” a voice says, and the walls immediately change, shifting into a wall-to-wall canvas. She blinks again, wondering if she really has gone mad this time. “I suppose I should apologise for the subterfuge as well. I couldn’t be honest with you either; part of the rules.”
“Rules?” she demands, turning around to try and see the young man. Koli, his name was.
“I’ve been watching you for a while,” he continues, and she finally pinpoints his location. The light from outside is streaming in through what she thought was a window, but as a dark shape approaches through the pale dawn light she can see that it must be a balcony. She’s never had a balcony before, and she strains to see, but suddenly he is blocking her view.
“Paint, struggle,” he says, smiling slightly. “I would have come for you earlier, but it wouldn’t have been fair to take you too young. Still, I didn’t expect the effects of hardship to be so taxing, but then again you’re all so delicate now.”
He reaches a hand out to brush a few strands of hair from her face with a small smile, and she shivers involuntarily. She wonders if she should have left her soul in her suitcase. Still, she gathers her wits enough to glare at him and motion to the walls.
“What’s all this? What are you?”
Koli laughs. “Very good,” he says, leaning closer to her with an arrogant quirk to his lips. Her heart is in her throat suddenly, and his smile is getting closer. “I, Inspired One, am a god. Every hundred years we must refresh our store of human inspiration, lest the world run dry of it. Gods cannot produce such things anymore; we are too bored with living. Finding a new human is my duty, as it has been since my existence began.”
“I’m just a painter,” she whispers, but her mind is blooming with possibilities. New creatures to create, just waiting to spring off a canvas. She can make something, be something. Unless, of course, she’s gone mad.
“Some humans have too much of the gift in them,” he continues wryly, hand still on her cheek. “It makes them… confused. Causes a bit of chaos in their minds. These are the ones we choose. But it will get better here, I promise.”
He smiles gently, this time, a shift from his usual smirk, but her mind is too busy spinning. Court painter for the gods?
“You will become accustomed to it,” Koli says, and he moves suddenly, giving her a full view of the vista outside. It is her mountain, houses perched precariously, seemingly on the clouds. A flock of large white birds passes by, and the one at the head spots her and soars in through the window, landing gracefully on the carved headboard and running its beak through her hair. The rest perch on the balcony rail, tittering to themselves in tones soft as ash.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispers, running reverent fingers along the bird’s wing. Koli smiles broadly, but she doesn’t see.
“Yes, it is.”