The artist put a wet brush to the canvas, tracing myriad graceful lines that would coalesce, she hoped, into an abominable enough shape. Not in her eyes, perhaps, but her work had a certain reputation among her enthusiasts of late that she wished to maintain, and she hated to disappoint.
She began the work in her studio loft early in the morning, shortly past six, and determined she’d finish it no later than midnight. Her process was raw, rhythmless. Some called it haphazard, but she resented that. What it was, truly, was unpredictable. She didn’t fully understand it herself. Her current burst of prolificity was a recent phenomenon beyond her comprehension, but one she was grateful for.
By seven she’d more or less finalized the outline of a large human cranium and the muscular shape of the strong long-limbed creature that held it, vise-like, in place; a preliminary expression she wished to let marinate for now.
She elected to take a break and brought her cup of coffee upstairs to the large dormer window. She took in the taste of the coffee, cold and stale, and absorbed the sight of the city below. Los Angeles had changed. Or it hadn’t, but she had. Her eyes for it were different now. For the first time in a long while, she felt again with relief that she could, after all, conquer L.A., make her mark in it the way she’d always intended. She’d tried to avoid thinking about the man with the tattoo, but the memory of him was fuel now, sparked by the lingering sting of repeated failures. She wasn’t entirely used to success yet, but recent victories had emboldened her; nothing could stop her, not now, not in this state.
The man with the tattoo was an artist hunter. She’d seen him multiple times before at galleries and conventions, seeking the young men and women whose paintings hung on the walls, approaching them with a calm confidence that belied any strangeness or sense of danger he may have exuded. This she’d heard from others who’d encountered him, and she confirmed it herself when she took him into her bed. He was a tall man with heterochromia; one eye blue, the other green. His age was something of an indeterminate factor; he carried himself like someone in his forties, but his face was youthful enough to fool one into pegging him at mid-twenties. The tattoo on his neck, that of a three-headed jester of sorts, was done by no mere amateur and merited close inspection. After they’d made love, she couldn’t stop tracing her fingers along the intricate line work on his tanned leathery skin. “You have no idea how blessed you will be,” he’d told her.
“You don’t even know anything about me” she’d said. “You can’t really know that.” Nobody had elected to purchase any of her pieces and she’d received no remuneration for that exhibition. At best, her work had been called “edgy.” At worst, she’d heard the words “pretentious” and “mediocre” regarding a painting she’d poured six months of her life into.
“You’ll be known everywhere for years to come. You only need to keep painting, and the rest, now, will come together.”
Those had been his parting words. She’d fallen asleep on his shoulder shortly thereafter and she never did see him again, nor did she particularly want to. The encounter itself had been as much of a haze as the leadup to it. She’d never taken anything he’d offered besides his body, and she was certain she’d been entirely lucid throughout the evening, but the whole occasion had the quality of a dream that, though not entirely unpleasant to recall, knotted her stomach with a timid confusion and sense of wrong she couldn’t quite pinpoint.
The next two hours were fugue-like, chaotic. But they were productive. The piece was coming together, and as she worked she began to think about potential titles for it. She didn’t tend to title her work, but this one in particular demanded a name, an identity, something more solid. The word “Dantalion” came to mind. Or was that a name? She liked it, at any rate.
By two o’clock, she’d exhausted herself. She took a long nap on the couch and dreamed a pleasant enough dream that faded gently from memory upon waking. But when she opened her eyes, a wizened face looked down at her from the ceiling. It passed and dissipated into the deep shadows of the loft, fleeting like her dream, as though it’d never been there. She didn’t scream or cry out; it was a silent terror she’d felt, gripping her entrails for one cold second then making her feel silly for it. It could have been anything. Nerves, most likely, or the remnant of a night terror.
She worked. And as she worked, she basked in her new creativity, the limitless energy she had for art, the joy of art for art’s sake. The nights she’d curled up in her bed and cried herself to sleep for want of friends or family or any modicum of artistic success and integrity were distant, ancient history that she’d thoroughly surmounted. They were her power now.
When she was done, the fruit of her labor looked back at her: a three-headed terror, squeezing the head of a poor unfortunate woman with its bony, long-nailed fingers, wrenching the life and spirit out of its hapless victim and directly into her, the artist, the one who’d seized opportunity and avoided a fall to her demons. The woman in the painting was a lost, pathetic soul to look down on, a grotesque word of caution.
Filled with light, she opened the window and let the cool breeze hit her face. At that moment, things became clearer. With a soft giggle and a smile she appreciated her new cognizance, and breathed a sigh of relief before she put herself on the ledge.
J.W. Gomez is a Latino writer currently residing in the Midwest with his wife. When he is not writing or drinking inordinate amounts of coffee, he enjoys a good horror film and tabletop gaming.