S H O R T S T O R Y
b y m o n i c a k i l i a n ~ c o l o r a d o s p r i n g s, c o l o r a d o
THE MAN who painted black-winged angels lived two blocks away from us. Whenever he walked down our street, my mother drew the curtains, leaving just a slit through which she peered nervously, waiting for him to pass our house. There was no good reason, she said, why he should come this way. We had no shops, no phone booths, no post office. Our street was not a thoroughfare. Only residents used the sidewalks, and rarely at that.
There was no reason why he should walk here, no reason at all.
"Unless–" my mother said.
But she shushed me, pressing her forefinger to her lips.
When I tried to steal a glimpse of the man, she closed the curtains with a firm swish.
"Who is he?" I was burning with curiosity.
"That's not for you to know," she said, and I knew from the tone of her voice that insistence was useless.
The man didn't walk down our street often, but when he did, all the windows of the neighboring houses went blank as curtains were drawn and blinds lowered. I could hear his steps on the pavement. His footfall was light and swift, as if he were apologizing for walking down our street, making people black out their windows and wait silently inside their houses, fearfully following his progress, until he was gone.
One day I was faster than my mother, and I caught sight of the man.
"Get away!" She pushed me aside with such force that I almost stumbled.
But I had recognized him. Small and lithe, with a mop of curly black hair, he didn't look like much, certainly not worth all the fuss everyone made. I couldn't have seen him for long, no more than a second or two, but in that small fraction of time our eyes met, and his glance was as familiar as the first time I saw him.
"Don't let him in. Ever." My mother pressed her lips together.
"Why is everyone afraid of him?" I asked.
She stared at me and opened her mouth as if about to answer. Then her lips closed again, and she swallowed whatever she was about to say. But her eyes never left mine.
"What does he do?"
"He paints people," she finally said. "And then they die."
I must have looked disbelieving, for my mother continued, "Remember Mrs. Golubek from two houses down? He painted her, and a week later she was dead."
"But she was sick!" Mrs. Golubek had been ill as long as I could remember.
"Then there was Larry."
"He was the one who painted Larry?"
Larry was my classmate. I had a schoolgirl crush on him, and I'm pretty sure he was sweet on me, too. Then one day about two years ago, he didn't show up to class. His desk was cleared quietly, and we were all sent to a memorial service in the school chapel. An oil portrait of Larry was resting on a stand, the same easel our teacher used in art class, the one with Larry's and my initials carved clumsily into the left leg. A dare that had landed us in detention when we were caught.
The principal had just started to speak when the door opened and Larry's mother entered, dressed in black. She dragged her feet across the stone tiles, her strength flagging with every step. We turned to look at her, but all she had eyes for was Larry's portrait. We made room for her in the first row, next to me, and she sat down stiffly, not paying any attention to anyone. I glanced at her surreptitiously, uncomfortable with the stillness of her grief.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed her lifting her hand. It shook as she pointed at the painting.
I stared at Larry's portrait. There was movement. Small black and white shapes fluttered around like butterflies. I leaned forward to see what they were, but couldn't decipher it until they stood still. A cloud of white robed angels with black wings crowded around Larry's head. They were squat and fat, and stared at me defiantly.
"Oh," I breathed to my best friend sitting on my other side. "Look at the angels."
"What angels?" She leaned forward, frowning. "I don't see any."
"I see them," said Larry's mother. "Black-winged angels, just like he said there would be." And she started to wail, keening in the drawn-out way I'd heard tribal women do on television.
The principal stopped speaking, looking embarrassed and helpless. Finally, a teacher stood up and led Larry's mother out of the chapel like a child who didn't know how to behave.
On the way out, I noticed a dark-haired man, a stranger, leaning by the door. As I passed him, his eyes met mine, and his tired gaze was so familiar I forgot to be surprised at his presence.
I had forgotten about this man until I saw him again, through the slit in the curtain, walking down our street. But now I remembered the pull of his gaze, how it penetrated into the depths of my being, revealing a truth about myself I didn't understand. And I knew I had to find him, the painter of black-winged angels.
The man didn't come by again for many months. But one day, Mrs. Carstairs telephoned to report to my mother that he was walking down our street again. While my mother was busy drawing the curtains, I managed to sneak out the back door. The garden gate creaked when I opened it, and I heard my mother shouting for me to come back. But she didn't rush out behind me. Her fear of the man must have been stronger than her concern for me.
I hid in the bushes at the end of our street, waiting for him to pass my hiding spot, so that I could follow him from a distance. He didn't turn around, not even as he unlatched the gate in front of the house where he lived.
The front door was open when I entered his garden. He stood leaning against the door frame, just like he had done at the school chapel, his head cocked to the side, his black curls skimming his shoulders. I knew I should be wary, a young girl alone, about to enter a stranger's house. But I felt no fear.
"About time you showed up," he said, standing aside to let me in. The front room was large, but held only an old sofa with a white cloth draped over it. No rugs, no book shelf, no pictures. I had never seen a living room so threadbare. I looked around, wondering if I was expected to sit down.
"Not here," he said and led the way through the house, out the back door, through a rampant garden, and into an outbuilding that smelled of oil paint and turpentine.
A red upholstered sofa stood in the middle of the room, looking out to the tree tops through soaring windows. Blank canvas panels of different sizes leaned against the wall, waiting. More panels were stacked together by the far wall, covered with a large blanket. Several easels stood around the room, all of them covered with a blue cloth, except for one, which was veiled by a heavy, white linen sheet.
The man gently lifted the blue cloth off one of the easels, and Mr. Carstairs, my neighbour, stared out at me. He looked older, more careworn than in real life.
"I didn't know Mr. Carstairs was having his picture painted."
He covered the canvas again. "It's not finished," he said.
I didn't know what he meant—it looked finished to me. But I didn't want to ask.
He motioned me over to the covered canvases leaning against the wall.
"Don't be frightened," he said, leafing through them gently, as if they might break. They were all oil portraits, and I recognized some of the people: my mathematics teacher, the sister of the woman who ran the corner store, my best friend's father. And my mother. She looked a little older, the lines around her mouth hardened into crevices.
"Why do you have these paintings?" I asked.
"It's my job. The portraits change over time. You'll see."
"Do you have mine?"
"No. Yours is not for me."
"And who has yours?"
A brief smile played on his lips, but he didn't answer. He went over to an empty easel and nodded towards the stack of new canvases. "Pick one out and bring it here."
I picked out the smallest one and placed it on the easel.
The man started squirting pea-sized mounds of paint onto a wooden board, a real painter's palette, with a hole cut out for the thumb. He pressed it into my hand and then he held out a brush. "Time to learn," he said.
I took the brush, weighing it in my hand. It was different than the brushes they gave us in school. Heavier, colder, smoother. A real artist's brush. My fingers curled around it, and as they did, a thrill of well-being flooded through me, unaccustomed yet familiar, as if it had always been part of me.
And so I learned to paint. Every day, straight after school, I came for my lesson. My mother was glad to have an extra hour to herself and didn't bother checking when I told her I would be staying for after-school art classes with my best friend. My mother never checked on me, never dropped by my friend's house unexpectedly to pick me up. After a while she forgot I was perpetually one hour late.
My painting sessions at the man's house were spent mostly in silence. We never discussed anything but colors, composition, the law of light. He would listen to me talk about school, my friends, my mother, but he never participated, never reciprocated with confidences of his own.
I painted whatever he asked me to: cups, flowers, chairs, windows, birds, landscapes. He set up still life arrangements, gave me reference photographs, asked me to copy old masters. He always gave me my assignments—I wasn't allowed to pick my own.
Soon I noticed that I was allowed to paint everything but people.
"You're not ready yet if you have to ask," he said every time I inquired if I could do a portrait next. I longed to paint people. Warm, breathing people with the glint of their souls in their eyes.
"Please, I really want to paint someone," I pleaded one day.
He folded his arms. "Go ahead, then."
"Aren't you going to tell me who?"
I faced the canvas, longing to paint a gleaming iris, the shadow beneath a bottom lip, a lock of hair nestled against a throat. Almost against my will, my hand reached out towards the canvas, the brush poised in my fingers, longing to make the first stroke. But as soon as the brush touched the canvas, the feeling was gone. The eyes I saw in my mind disappeared. The curve of the jaw I was itching to draw eluded me.
I stared at the green mark I had made. A jagged line. Lifeless, graceless. My hand dropped, the brush clanked against the wood frame of the easel.
The man handed me a clean brush. Then he took away the marred canvas and replaced it with a new one.
"Just keep on practicing the techniques," he said, pinning a large photograph of a complex seascape next to the new, blank canvas. "Your glazing still needs a lot of work."
And I practiced. Every weekday after school, year after year. I always hoped that the next time he would ask me to paint a portrait. But he never did, and I didn't dare insist.
Sometimes the man wasn't in when I came for my lesson. Occasionally, I saw him leave through the gate as I approached his house. He always carried a large doctor's bag and a flat carrying case. He set out on these expeditions looking preoccupied, and he returned tired, his eyes hooded and bloodshot. In the beginning I used to ask him if he wanted a refreshment -- coffee, or a glass of water -- but he always refused, preferring to let time conquer his tiredness.
I didn't like being alone in the studio. The covered canvases made me uneasy. My mother's picture was hiding under the blue cloth, and knowing that the man occasionally worked on her portrait made my stomach clench with anxiety.
But not knowing what was hidden under the big white linen cloth was worse. I didn't have the courage to lift the sheet and peak underneath. Oh, I wanted to. I really did. And I tried a few times. I walked up to it and lifted my hand to caress the material. I even took a pinch of cloth between my fingers, ready to lift it. But then a tingle ran down my arm, like an electric current, and I lost my nerve. The man had never actually forbidden me to look under the linen cloth, but my instincts told me it was off limits.
The last time I tried it, he caught me. I almost jumped out of my skin as I turned around and found him watching me, silently, from the doorway.
"I didn't look," I said. "Honest."
"I know." He stepped inside, his feet dragging as if he were immensely tired.
He wouldn't comment on my painting for a long time, as he reclined on the red sofa, staring through the windows into the distance. Then he'd sigh, a long deep breath that seemed to reach all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes.
"Right." He'd sit up suddenly. "Let's continue." And he'd step up to the painting I was doing and examine it, finding the tiniest flaws.
Six years later, when I had just graduated from high school, I still hadn't painted a person. When I was inside the studio, lost in the act of painting, I was convinced I was born to be a portrait artist. But doubts overcame me as soon as I left. The man hadn't yet trusted me with a portrait—whatever made me think that this was what I was meant for? I waited in vain for him to tell me that I was ready to do the one thing I thought would finally fulfill me. During my last six months at school I had repeatedly told the man about my plans to go to college, hoping he would ask me to stay and paint with him. But he never did.
And almost every day, new college brochures were delivered to our door. My mother eyed them nervously, especially if they came from far-away places. I hoped she'd ask me to stay close by. Yet she never did.
The last prospectus had arrived. I really had to make up my mind what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I flipped through the pages quickly, conscious of my mother staring at me and pretending not to. This morning she was more fidgety than ever, smoking one cigarette after the other.
"Bruce Carstairs was taken away this morning," my mother said. "Massive heart attack. He went at once." She shook her pack until yet another cigarette dropped out and rolled across the table. "Emily told me it would happen. She already knew yesterday."
I stopped reading the prospectus. "How could she possibly have known yesterday?"
My mother groped for her lighter. "They got one of those pictures delivered by that fellow, didn't they." She flicked the metal switch, waiting for the flame to catch. "She said it had angels with black wings buzzing around Mr. C's head. She came to show me, but I couldn't see them."
Irritated with the lighter, my mother discarded it and lit up a match instead. "I said to Emily, why did you open the door? You know what happens when that fellow comes around." She took a drag, her eyes squinting close, the lines around her mouth deepening into crevices, as if smoking a cigarette was hard work. "You ask me, I think she did it on purpose. Couldn't wait to get rid of that bugger, with all that sleeping around he was doing."
Yesterday was Friday. I remembered. I was alone in the studio most of the time. The man returned late, looking even more exhausted than usual.
"Today is my last day," I told him then. I was determined to leave this life, to bear my disappointment and move on.
He nodded, his eyes closed.
But I went to the studio Monday afternoon, the same time as always.
When I entered, the man was sitting on a stool, next to the easel with the white linen cloth. He looked at me, his stare unwavering. He didn't have to say a word.
I reached out to the linen cloth, lifted it off gently. As I took up my brushes I glanced at him, hoping he'd say no.
But he nodded.
I loaded a brush with paint and began to work. The portrait flowed effortlessly, as if I had been painting him all my life. I didn't even have to look at him. My brush led me around the canvas, guiding my strokes.
As soon as the portrait was finished, he stood up to inspect it. I waited for criticism, but he just placed a hand on my shoulder. It was the first time he had touched me, and I was surprised at the weight and heat of his hand.
"Thank you," he said. Then he turned and walked out the studio. I was about to follow him when a flutter on the painting I had just finished caught my eye.
I sank onto the red sofa, my limbs leaden with fatigue, and stared into the distance through the windows, just like he always had.
He wouldn't comment on my painting for a long time, as he reclined on the red sofa, staring through the windows into the distance. Then he sighed, a long deep breath that seemed to reach all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes.
"Right." He sat up suddenly. "Let's continue." And he stepped up to the painting I was doing and examined it, finding the tiniest flaws.
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