BY ANGELA WOODWARD
The artist neighbor clutched her coffee cup but didn’t drink, almost staggering while stationary up against the counter, her agitation unstoppering the mother, who called the artist’s name sharply, “Lois!” as the artist wept. When she was five years old, her mother’s neighbor had gathered all the kids on the block and given them a painting class. Money must have changed hands, and there might have been start times and stop times, but all she remembered was the voluminous smock made of her father’s blue shirt turned backwards, and the colored waterfalls streaming off the bristles when she held the brushes under the faucet in the artist’s sink. They may have gone every day, and her sisters were there too, and Sally Finnegan, and many of the teeming Quinn family, or it may have been a onetime event that Lois Cajolis had set in motion and then brought her foot down upon, she was so unnerved by the unfettered vigor of the neighbor kids. For a short time, her mother had kept dime-store watercolors in the kitchen cabinet for her, rather an aberration in her self-absorbedness, but she remembered getting black mixed into every hole that had once been vivid, hopeful yellow, orange, and green, and her mother calmly reaching down for a new set kept in reserve. Maybe Lois had given them to her mother, and her mother had for some reason accepted this gift for her heretofore-almost-unnoticed child, one of five siblings, like the rest of them, lost all day in the herd of Quinns and Bolgoses and Jacksons, who taunted the chained bulldog and dammed sewers and fell off fences in the untrammeled neglect that almost liberated them. The little girl, it seemed, had produced gorgeous watercolor birds one after the other in the art class and after, painting nonstop in a fluid manner, the birds getting darker as the paint muddied and so seeming to deepen naturally in emotional intensity, while Lois Cajolis’s own painting had stalled out and only crept from her brush in timid, derivative strokes. Therefore Lois cried over the head of the little girl, who pretended not to hear and not to notice the commotion she was making in the heart of her neighbor.
It would not be possible to find the artist again, even with that distinctive name, because people like that changed names, she thought, and moved to the desert and back to the city and then to a farm, or settled down as designers or marketers or telemarketers, the shameful weakness of that breakdown in the neighbor’s kitchen stuffed down like a moldy sleeping bag into some interior closet, where if it came out again it would be worse yet than the first time, more distressing and revolting, and could only be thrown into the landfill. Even with most of the family gathered for the first time in ages at her brother’s funeral, she didn’t bother to ask her mother or oldest sister what had happened to the artist. No one would remember her. They sat in the funeral home padded folding chairs, all of them unbelievers though the brother had died inside a Methodist church, and maybe not coincidentally. They had called it a psychotic break, and then not mentioned it again when the toxicology report came out, proving without doubt that his tragic mental illness had been brought on by a combination of cocaine, heroin, and white port. She could have predicted that he would be the first to go, even before the withered mother, though his friends kept saying that they didn’t believe it, he was so full of life, he was so positive, he was on the upswing. When she had last lived in the same city as her brother, she had often imagined the cops coming to the door, a pair of them standing soberly on the threshold to tell her they’d found his body. She would have asked them if he had murdered his wife before killing himself, or had Connie turned the gun on him in self-defense. Though she waited and waited, and had even at one point bought shoes she thought would be appropriate for his funeral, he had lived on, past that wife and another one, and she had flitted to the opposite end of the country. Even if it had happened back then, she wouldn’t have been the one the cops would notify. She would have gotten the news from another sister, who would have boasted at being nearer to the calamity.
Her brother had not called her in his final week. As a matter of fact she hadn’t spoken to him, in person or otherwise, for seventeen years. When they were kids he had terrorized her with stories he read to her out of a book of ghostly tales. She couldn’t even look at the cover, it scared her so much, but he sat on the floor with his back against his bedroom door to keep her prisoner, reading patiently while she sobbed. A man had gone on a canoe trip alone in a remote northern summer. As he left the motel with the boat on his trailer, a woman by the side of the road stopped him and warned him not to set out on that haunted river. He had disregarded her. After his first day of paddling, he had come across a couple lying dead on a sandbar. The man’s chest was bare, and in the center of it coiled a spiral hole, as if made by a corkscrew. It couldn’t be called a wound. It was clean, without blood. He lay peacefully on his back, this hole the only thing untoward about him. The boater unbuttoned the blouse of the dead woman lying next to the man, and she too had the identical hole in her chest, sitting clean and pink between the lacy cups of her bra. She had screamed at her brother to stop reading, stop the story, but he had gone implacably on, the canoeist continuing up river and finding at the end of each day more and more dead. A cool wind had shaken the leaves of the birches, and the canoeist considered going back to the town to report the deaths. Instead he paddled every day upstream, farther from the motel where he’d left his suitcase, hauling the canoe along muddy paths where fallen branches barricaded the river. Always, as he neared the evening, the light slanting low and orange through the leaves, and he began to think about finding a place to rest for the night, the bodies appeared to him, stretched out peacefully on the bank, exhibiting the spiral concavities through their breastbones. The story must have been thirty pages long, possibly a condensed novel fitted into this teen tales of terror book her brother treasured for its ability to provoke. He should have been an actor, his somber delivery unfazed by the most strenuous vocabulary, projecting his voice even through the fingers she held over her ears and the chant she counteracted him with, mumbling into the multicolored shag some useless words of protection. Instead of getting louder, he brought his voice lower, and she had strained to hear him over her own racket, and cried more out of habit than intent as the canoeist launched into another day up the narrowing stream. He heard a slithering along his tent at night, and in the morning, the zipper had been crusted with phosphorescent mucus. The boater had touched the goo with an ungloved finger and felt cold penetrate into his bones. He had set the corpses into the stream and floated them back behind him, where the current would carry them into the town. As he set the boat into the water at dawn, he watched the bare feet of the dead twinkle palely, until the river took them around a bend. Under the dark overhang of the sandy bank, he thought he saw the whiplike shapes of eels, sinuous flash and sidle.
“Stop!” she chanted. “I don’t want to hear any more,” but even if she was truly not interested in coming to the source of the killings, she hadn’t had the power to halt her brother’s voice. The funeral home chapel, painted a soothing library green, sported a set of organ pipes, decorative and nonfunctional. Before the hymn channeled through the speakers mounted in the corners, the recording device started with a click and a slight white noise fizz. Her sisters sitting in front of her looked awful, one haggard, one gaudy, and the brother-in-law who had showed up imitated their mother’s blank disdain. The stepfather didn’t seem to know where he was, though someone had managed to get a tie clipped to his shirt. The oldest sister had put together a slide show, the five of them on the floor amid Christmas wrappings, the oldest two clutching borrowed tennis rackets at the city park, a few shots of him in an apron, face glowing between his sideburns, in what must have been the job as short-order cook that got him out of the house before the rest of them. There were no pictures of him past the age of twenty-five, and her sister must have affirmed with the funeral home director that these few photos should cycle through again and again while the music played, bleeding one to the next with a labored, old-school PowerPoint burst and fade. “The next morning,” he had continued in his relentless teenage baritone, and the canoeist kept on up the river, when of course he should have turned back that very first day. She had no idea whether it was that same summer when he read her that story that she went on painting on the kitchen floor as Lois Cajolis sniffled, sucking the snot up her nose as if she could reverse time and wind herself back to the point before she had burst out crying. While the artist must have supplied the paint, paper had been a problem, but her mother had let her use the white sheets that nestled in the bottom of the boxes of tea bags and the gray cardboard insides of cereal boxes. Her birds started out luminous pigeons, wings aloft, tails spread, and then as the black paint she used for their feet dripped into all the other colors, they came out grackles and crows, flashes of blue and purple mixed into black and brown. The artist asked if she could have one, just one, to take home with her. “No,” the little girl had answered, not looking up. Her brush floated into the jelly jar, the water mirroring the painting process, going from clear to thunderous black. “The next day,” her brother went on, as every day followed the night, more water, more soft splash of paddle, more long shadows at evening, with their dreadful revelation. He came on a whole crowd of dead bodies, a girls’ camp, thin, suburban lovelies flat on their backs under the twilight fog. He opened their white camp uniform shirts, and the spiral holes between their wobbly breasts seemed to invite him, not repel him, the deaths were becoming familiar and comforting the deeper he penetrated into the wilderness, until she had kicked her legs against the floor, screaming, “I mean it! I mean it! I don’t want to hear!” and climbed over him, shoving his shoulders aside and tugging at the doorknob until he, being so much bigger and heavier than her, must have decided to let her go.
What an awful little girl she had been, using the only power she had in order to torment the neighbor who was so foolish that she let herself come undone in that fearsome family’s kitchen. Lois should have known better than to have put a paintbrush into the hands of the little street demon. She probably thought she was bringing order, maybe helping out the harassed mother, by offering the art class. Better she should have helped herself, though how that was to be done the little girl couldn’t have said. The child continued to rub the brush around the inside of the oval indentations holding the paint, each of the eight ovals now approximately the same dark mixture, except the black, which had stayed black. The slide show clunked to the end of its cycle, lingering on the final page, his birth and death dates superimposed over a grayed phantom of the whole family posed against someone else’s new car. She looked at the shiny hinges on the coffin, the show model used to temporarily house those who would be momentarily cremated. The faces of the first row of mourners reflected in the gleam. No one in the second row was visible. As long as the funeral was going on, she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, wouldn’t have to agree that in a certain sense, certain things had come to an end. The canoeist set the boat into the water again at dawn, embarking on another day’s journey up the narrowing stream. The water must have seeped out of the ground at some original point, leaking out of a dark mountain. Whatever creature had killed all the couples and children was lurking there, ready to reach its arms up out of the source water and pull the canoeist to itself. The canoeist’s chest would open, like all the others, peacefully, with great joy, as he met his maker. But she had never heard the end of the story. He had let her go before he got that far. Her brother might have been making it up, reading far past the end of the chapter and going on into his own tale. The whole thing could have been his invention, a sonorous improvisation. If he had made it all up, her brother might not even have known the ending, and the canoeist could have kept on day after day, getting nearer but never arriving into the presence of the monster.
She imagined the little girl handing Lois Cajolis either the most beautiful or most terrible of the paintings. “For you,” the little girl might have said. The artist might have been at least temporarily consoled. The brush dipped into the black, setting a knowing eye into the blank head of the bird. It looked up at her appraisingly. No matter. There would be another bird when she was done with this one, until the paint ran out. The canoeist shoved the long lean body of his vessel into the stream and stepped in. The paddle pushed against the bottom, setting figures swirling in the sand. With each stroke in the water, a little whirlpool gathered and dispersed behind, the eddy created by the wooden blade. He maneuvered around a mass of floating logs and cleared the bend, where the water disappeared, a tightening thread under a tunnel of overhanging branches.
Angela Woodward's short fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, Conjunctions, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the collections The Human Mind (Ravenna Press) and Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc), as well as the novels End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna) and Natural Wonders (FC2). Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize in 2015. She won a Pushcart Prize in 2016 for her story “New Technologies of Reading.”
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