In a dank, cluttered room, the giant canvas stood on the easel like a half-completed color by number monument to what could be. It looked vaguely like the Romantic study of a valley, with barely penciled lines in the foreground as a placeholder for something rather large.
In a corner of that room, a disheveled artist rummaged in a pile of rubbish. Paintbrushes were flying over her shoulder like twirling batons and palettes like cracked Frisbees. A brush found itself snagged in cobwebs. The rest littered the floor, next to the dust devils fleeing her search.
A near silent sigh escaped her lips as she leaned back and settled down, still hunched over and hugging her knees. She stared at the canvas for a few minutes, then collected herself and left the room with measured, muffled steps, as though she were a game hunter on safari and there were lions on the loose.
The rest of the house was as clean and clear outside that pit as it was dank and dark inside. A lone bulb flickered in her kitchen, while the one in the attached living room hung dark. She tugged on a forgotten drawer that had been caked shut with crud, and when it gave, she almost fell over backwards. Recovering, she reached into the drawer and drew out a dusty telephone.
A wire dangled from the phone like an afterthought. It wasn’t wrapped around the phone like you’d expect. Tangled like her hair and just as painful to untangle, the wire confounded her attempts to unravel it. She twitched in rising frustration.
“How does this happen?” She asked of the silence in her house. She bit her upper lip absentmindedly, puzzling over how strings and wires become knotted like they have a will of their own. Even though regular people still think that there is no magic left in the world, she knew otherwise. It’s just that she knew that the magic is malicious.
Finally, finding her way to the plastic connector and holding it delicately like it was the frayed end of a rescue line, she began to look around the kitchen for the socket. She hadn’t used the phone in so long that it took her about fifteen minutes to discover it behind the microwave. After shoving it out of the way as though she were cracking open a sepulcher, she plugged the phone in and lifted the receiver with ginger fingers. The dial tone was insistent.
Fingers poised over the number pad, she stared off outside the window into the night, still biting her lip.
She hadn’t forgotten the number. He had been special to her. Taking a deep breath as though preparing to swim underwater, she punched in his number. The phone rang on the other end.
It rang again. And again and again with a strong, unwavering rhythm. Her heart thudded in time.
Just as she was about to return the receiver to its cradle, a bleary voice breathed into the phone. “Who is this? Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Hey Dost… it’s Jenny Kravitz here. I’m… really sorry about the time,” she said haltingly. She hadn’t realized that it was past four in the morning.
In all the time that she had known him, she had never known Dost to go to bed early. He was an artist just like she was. Dost was short for Dostoyevsky, and he had been named for the famous existentialist Russian author of Crime and Punishment. The only problem was that Dostoyevsky was his first name. His last name was bland like unsalted butter and from South India to boot. Many of his college friends thought it was Thai, and he felt no urge to disavow them of this impression. His South Indian friends, on the other hand, never failed to remind him that his name meant “friend” in Hindi. His closest friends made fun of him by yelling “Mellon!” after ringing his door-bell, like they were the Fellowship of the Ring claiming entry to Moria.
Dost’s voice rang out clearly, amazed.
“Jenny? Kravitz? Good God, it’s been almost a year! Where are you?”
“The same town. The same house. Listen, I need your help. I’ve run out of paint. I cannot paint without paint. Can you bring me some paint?”
Dostoyevsky cleared his throat, obviously confused and itching to ask a million unfathomable questions. But then he said, “I’ll be there in about a half hour.”
Jenny didn’t even offer the niceties of a goodbye as she slammed the phone down. She went to her couch and sat erect, stone rigid. She did not appear at rest. Her left foot tapped out a demented tattoo and her fingers rapped down on the coffee table with the force of rock hammers.
About forty five minutes later, hearing a car pull into her drive way, she didn’t walk as much as run outside, wrenching the front door open and staring expectantly at the car. A shadow sat inside, unmoving. Impatient, she called out, “Dost?”
The figure finally stirred. The door swung open and her old friend stepped out holding a bag from an all-night department store. He just stood there for a moment, studying the disheveled appearance of the figure on the porch. Gathering himself, he walked up the stairs, set the bag down carefully and enveloped Jenny in a bear hug that seemed like it would last hours.
She did not resist, overwhelmed with memory. She just murmured into his chest, “Hi, Dost.”
His voice returned heavy with long forgotten emotion., “Now, that’s how you say hello. I see that you still haven’t learned how to talk on the telephone.”
Laughing a little as she disengaged, she picked up the bag, led him into the house and bade him sit. The familiarity of the house comforted Dostoyevsky at first. The bookshelves were lined with the same books he remembered so well. They only looked heavier and wiser. The television was missing, but the rack of records sat with the gramophone exactly like it had when he had been a regular visitor there. Nothing had changed, Jenny seemed to have dusted and wiped around them without disturbing them, like they were graves in a cemetery and she had to be solemn and respectful. Dost reminisced with these old friends while Jenny fetched him something to drink.
Just like old friends, Jenny and Dostoyevsky spoke first of immediate things that had no relevance to the milieu, and then, inevitably, the conversation turned to their mutual history.
“I remember when your father died, Jenny. You went away and you never came back. All of us wanted to be there for you. There was no one to be there for. We came here. We tried to find you, we did.”
“I know.” She said nothing after this, but Dost’s silent response was as insistent a prompt as his ringing telephone. Jenny sighed and continued, “I heard you and the rest of them knocking on the door. I couldn’t get off the couch those days. Everyone went away eventually. No one knocked after a few days.”
“I missed you.”
“I know. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to call you.”
“For paint, no less,” Dostoyevsky laughed. They both knew how serious the situation was, though. Jenny looked like she was holding on to something Dost couldn’t see. She looked awkward and out of place in her own house. Her hair was matted and she looked like she hadn’t bathed in weeks. Dost could see the dirt that remained under her fingernails despite the fact that they had been chewed off until there was nothing left to chew. It was odd, when the house was so spick and span. Jenny looked downright uneasy, her eyes jumping in unblinking sockets like they were moths near a flame. She didn’t even smile back.
“Well, I’ve been dreaming something very often. Sometimes, I dream it when I’m awake. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, whether I’m watching television, or sitting in the bath, or brushing my teeth. The real world goes away and there’s just the dream and I’m walking through it with Virgil.”
Dost blinked as he absorbed the Inferno reference and reached across, worried. Holding her hand, he said, “Maybe you need to get some help, Jenny. I’ve heard about the dreams people have when they’re depressed.
“I have this friend who is suffering from Depression, and he always says that his dreams are more lucid and real than any he’s ever had when he was happy. He says that they’re so real that sometimes he cannot find his way out. He just sleeps all day because when he wakes up, the mood of the dream follows him here anyway. I’ve seen it happen. You can get help…
Jenny shrugged her hand free as he trailed off. “This is different, Dost. I don’t see the dreams like they are mere hallucinations. They are real. I see them when I am awake. I live them! I’m afraid to leave the house. What if I find myself in the dream and I’m walking on the street? What will happen to me then?”
Dost was silent again. He did not know how to ease her discomfort, so he decided to take a different tack.
“What is the dream about?”
“I cannot explain it. Today, I finally thought about painting it. Maybe it’ll go away if I paint it. There were no paints in my studio. I can’t go outside! I had to call you. I don’t know what to do, I can’t live like this… I can’t keep this up…”
She broke down into cupped hands that covered her embarrassed face. Dost was stricken. Still, without hesitation, he was beside her in a second, his arm around her, stroking the side of her neck like he had so long ago in another intimate lifetime. Crooning words of encouragement into her ear, he held her while she shook uncontrollably, trembling as though she were cowering from a monstrous, unseen fear.
“It’ll be alright, it’s okay, paint it, paint it. Do you want me to be here while you do?”
“Please, please, yes. I don’t… I don’t… I don’t know! I just wish he was still here. I’m lost at sea. I’m… adrift, and my anchor haunts me.”
Dost could make nothing of that, but whispered, “I’m here. Paint it, I’ll be right beside you. It’ll be like it was back in school.”
Still sniffling, she got up and led the way back into her studio with the paints. Dostoyevsky crinkled his nose in disgust as he entered and looked around at the moldy walls and the cobwebs that decorated them like birthday streamers and confetti strung up at a long forgotten funeral home. As he fought back a sneeze, he felt that this was where all the dust in the house was drawn as though to a magnet. It was a room for the death of things, not for the creating of them.
“I haven’t been in here much since Daddy passed.”
Dost looked at the slush pile of art supplies in the corner. Somehow, he knew that she had destroyed this room when her father died. He could understand that. He also noticed that she had rifled through the pile only recently, from the fresh scuff marks in the soft dust that carpeted the floor like gray snow. He looked at the landscape on the canvas, with its incompleteness hanging off the wall like an ellipses, as if waiting.
“I can see that. Why don’t you get your stuff ready, I’ll go get a broom and try to clean this place up while you do.”
She smiled a smile that never reached her hazel eyes. Leaving a hollow silence, he left the room more quickly than when he had entered it. He not only found the broom, but decided to put a record on the player to fill the emptiness that choked the air like a vaccum. Wagner had always relaxed Jenny.
By the time he returned to the studio, she was already standing in front of the easel. She had cleared the table beside it off in one fell sweep and had left everything on the floor. A bowl of turpentine sat on the table, offering silent company to a stand of brushes. She was squeezing color in curling snakes out of the tubes onto a clean palette.
When she was done, she cleaned a thick brush meticulously and dipped it into the darkest color on the palette. She almost looked excited, and moved with a new energy. Tentatively, she raised the brush to the canvas and drew a long gash across what was to be the sky.
Dostoyevsky smiled then for a moment and began to sweep the room dry of dust, remembering art school. Jenny had been the prize student of their class. He had never heard of Synesthesia until then, about artists whose brains were wired so differently that ideas themselves had colors, shapes, a life and soul of their own in their minds. Jenny had this gift. She could assign life to words, to sensations and whatever she had the wish to imagine. Their professors had raved of her talent, and disparaged Dost’s.
Her art was more real than any other work Dost had ever encountered. It was as though her paintings contained more clarity than life itself. Her work peeled away the thin veil covering the sight of men and leaped out of the page as though it were more than alive. The colors she used were more than colors, the proportions ethereally perfect. Normal human beings could not perceive such flawless universes, let alone imagine them.
He had watched her paint innumerable times when after Freshman year, he had worked up the courage to ask her out. Her single-minded concentration when she painted had suggested that she actually traveled to another world to bring back her paintings. Dost had sat beside her and watched as those worlds came to life on her canvases, and he had learned.
She would have been famous one day, but her father had committed suicide before she could finish her training. She had then quite effectively disappeared off the face of the planet. Their professors framed her paintings and hung them up in the main hall of the Art Department at the University, awaiting her return. However, the vagaries of life awarded her a diploma in pain instead of art, like so many great artists before her. She never went back. People at the University still spoke about her as a legend.
Her absence had broken his heart and it had never quite healed over again. As he rearranged the art supplies on the floor and tore down the cobwebs, he realized that he still loved her. It was more of a remembering than an epiphany. Time had only covered his feelings with a thin tarpaulin. His presence at that old house full of memories had pulled the sheet off, as if the memory of love was a piece of furniture in a house and the old tenants were moving in again. The remembering was why he had come so quickly, and it was why he was still there.
Dostoyevsky eyed her progress as he worked. He noticed that not much had changed about Jenny painting, even though she had to be completely out of practice. She had started slowly, but her motions had gained a sense of urgency. She was painting the enclosing hills of the valley like she was running out of time. Her breathing had grown heavy and labored and the music did not help her escape the horror of the nightmare she was reliving. He was growing more worried about her state of mind by the minute, but kept to the task at hand quietly.
When he finished cleaning, Dost stood in the new clearing of the room and looked properly at what she was painting for the first time. His jaw dropped from the sheer beauty of the landscape in her dream. In front of a sweeping valley that was more ephemeral and unreal than anything he had ever hoped to see in his life, she had painted a giant oak tree. It framed a sky that was blacker than night and more glorious than the Milky Way as one would see it from the black center of the galaxy. She was finishing up the stars and as her brush moved across the canvas making the little bright dots, it looked as though actual suns were coming to life, blazing through the canvas.
He was transfixed. Stuttering, he said, “Jenny, I’ve never seen anything like this!” The cliché was true. He hadn’t. She had never painted like this even when they had dated. This work was too beautiful to be human.
She continued as though she hadn’t heard him. When she finished the sky, she began to paint something life sized in front of the oak. Puzzled, Dostoyevsky studied the picture as a man began to take shape under her flowing brush. Her strokes grew more delicate as she added features to the figure.
A sense of disquiet crept over him as he recognized who she was painting. It was her father, standing serenely under a gargantuan tree in a world that could not be, a world that should not be. He grew increasingly disturbed because the man looked more alive than Jenny did. Then, Dostoyevsky noticed something that he should have noticed much, much earlier.
As Jenny poured life into her painting, she was growing paler and paler. It was as though her life force itself were the paint that she was using to recreate her dream. Dost was soon convinced as Jenny continued to paint that she was dying to bring her father back to life. Utterly frightened, he walked over to her quickly and tried to shake her free from the trance.
“Stop it, Jenny. Stop it. You’re killing yourself! Stop!”
Jenny was too far gone. Out of the corner of his eye, Dost saw then that the oak tree was growing. It was not just growing within the painting, but roots were starting to break through the canvas into the studio itself. The wall was turning into a gateway that connected the real world to whatever world Jenny was lost in. Life was seeping across as the paint dried.
As Dost tried to awaken Jenny, the bark came alive and the leaves poked through the wall. The branches made soft popping noises as they came through. The grass began to wave in an unseen wind and he heard a soft rustling sound, a sound that he could only attribute to the shadow of ghosts. The wind rose in power to a full fledged gale that came from nowhere and tugged on both artist and spectator like a whip that had caught.
Jenny Kravitz’s painting was turning real as she continued to paint. Dost realized with mounting horror that whatever magic was at work here was headed toward the figure of her father. The crescendo to Tannhäuser was completely distorted; a distant, demented motif that was rising and bending in pitch and timbre like the swell and ebb of choppy seas. It was as though the strings were screaming with Dostoyevsky’s panic. More fearful than ever, he renewed his attempts to rouse her.
“Jenny, stop. Please, please stop. You cannot do this!”
He tore his eyes from the canvas and saw that Jenny’s skin was drying up and peeling, that her hair was floating to the ground like recently shed feathers. The love of Dostoyevsky’s life was dying in front of his eyes and he could do nothing. He tried to pick her up but she was like a rock attached to the Earth itself. She would not budge. Sobbing, he took one last look at the eerie, otherworldly reality that was crossing over into the room and fled from it back into the kitchen.
All fell quiet, but for a sense of vibration under his feet. He turned back to the door of the studio, not quite believing that he had just seen what he had. As it began to sink in that he had, he understood what he had to do. Dostoyevsky ran back to his car still crying a river, opened the trunk to his car and grabbed the spare can of fuel he always kept in case of an emergency.
Distantly, he thought that this qualified as an emergency. He could not allow whatever it was in that room to come into this world. He set about stitching the rent Jenny was ripping in the world. As the sun peaked by inches over the horizon of suburbia, he doused the home of the girl he loved with gasoline. When he was done, he crept back to the door of the studio and peeked inside with his dying hope running down both cheeks.
Jenny was still alive, but barely. The painting was finished. The last brush she had used was on the grass beside her, still dripping sable paint. The record player had fallen silent as though its tongue had been ripped out. The otherworldly breeze whistled softly like tired breathing.
The figure of Jenny Kravitz’s father stood alive and vibrant, unfettered by the storm and beckoning to his daughter, but who knows if it really was her father that had come back? The last thing that Dostoyevsky allowed himself to see was the ghost of Jenny under an oak tree and the sky of Perdition itself, walking toward the open arms of her once dead father. As they embraced, he could watch no more.
He turned, lit a kitchen match, dropped it into the spreading puddle of gasoline and escaped in his car. He never looked back. He never spoke of it to anyone again. As Dostoyevsky’s car squealed away, his eyes took on the haunted cast they would carry for the rest of his natural life.