Call this a painting? Looks like Walt Disney sneezed.

Skating in Prague
by Emily Cataneo ©2010

Three times in my life, the city opened up and I saw her.

It’s over now, you know. She got what she wanted, after I stopped fighting her. But I hate her. My God, I wish I could smash her face into the train tracks. Or go back to Boston and hang her by the neck in front of a jeering crowd in the Common, like they did to Mary Dyer back when we were all more honest.

But there’s a problem. Whenever I dream of watching her suffer the way we suffered, I remember something else: I owe her everything. It’s when those four words get stuck in my head that I paint those twisted apocalyptic paintings that you people analyze so pretentiously

You’re probably wondering why I agreed to this interview, since I’ve made it my policy to dodge journalists like you. I’m not sick, if that’s what you’re wondering. This isn’t the tell-all deathbed interview. But this is your lucky day, because I’ve decided that I’m going to tell you some things about my past that I’ve never told anyone before. And that’s just because I’m getting older, I’m not going to be around forever, and I guess my conscience is catching up with me. There are thousands of bright young bohemians who love art in this city alone, and I think I owe them an explanation, so they don’t turn out like I did.

So I’m going to tell you the story.

The first time I saw her, I was just a kid, barely ten years old, wearing a newsboy cap and trailing after my parents in the Common. I’ll never forget what the Common looked like in the middle of winter: mottled gray trees, branches straining to touch the sky, dirty snow clinging to the edges of the paths. That particular day, melting snow seeped through the sole of my left shoe.

When we rounded a bend in the path near Frog Pond, my mother gestured at the red and yellow-painted playground where a single swing swayed in the winter wind and suggested that I go play.

I obeyed and trotted off. I paused for a moment next to Frog Pond to watch the skaters spin around the ellipsis of the rink, laughing and falling and carving awkward figure eights into the ice. I eagerly pressed my gloveless fingers against the bumpy frost on the pond’s railing and leaned close.

The shouts of the skaters and the roar of the cars on Beacon Street echoed and overlapped as though they were coming from the end of a tunnel. The skaters twirled faster, their dance more frenzied. When they opened their mouths, they cawed out the sounds of the screeching cars like frantic birds.

The benches on the snowy hill above me, the cheerful colors of the playground, and the leafless trees loomed higher and higher until I was standing at the bottom of a cauldron, until the slope to my left and the street to my right were hemming me in. I whirled in a circle, the city flashing around me: brick-brown townhouses with their Mary Poppins-style roofs, the glinting blue-green skyscraper, the dome of the State House glaring down at me like an accusing eye. My chest tensed, my jaw clenched, my fingers curled. I slipped on a jagged bit of ice and skidded onto the hard concrete.

And then she stood in front of me. She had turned down the volume on the cawing skaters. I was riveted to my patch of concrete. I couldn’t see the skaters or the brownstones or my parents anymore, because she took up everything. Even the skyscrapers looked small next to her, although she was no taller than I was.

“William.” Her voice was throaty and rich. I noticed ten things at once: her preternaturally huge eyes, pale blue like the one patch of exposed sky behind the winter clouds. Her lack of eyelashes, her swooping eyebrows, her red-brick hair that fell almost to her waist in a curling mess. She was draped in soft folds of white cloth. When she extended a hand to help me to my feet, I noticed that she had the stub of an extra finger on her left hand. She was pale with a faint cranberry-colored blush on her cheeks, and she wore long silver earrings that jangled when she turned her head.

“Sorry,” I said.

She smiled. She had a babyish face. “William, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be doing something?”

“Should I?” I asked. I looked into her eyes and saw that they weren’t really light blue. They were more like the color that shows up under dead people’s eyes. Back then, my knowledge of dead people’s eyes came from TV.

“What should you be doing?” She pouted at me, her plump lips moist. “Not this. There’s absolutely no reason for you to be standing here.” She looked over at the skaters and did a little twirl herself, and for a moment, she sprouted blades out of the bottom of her boots. “I skated in Prague yesterday, you know. Have you ever skated in Prague?”

“No.”

“Would you like to?”

“Rollerskate, maybe.” Even though I didn’t know where Prague was, I decided that it would be a great place to go skating.

“Well, you could,” she said. “You could skate in Prague. But listen to me go on.” She laughed lightly. “I didn’t come here to talk about skating in Prague! I came here to tell you what you must do.”

“What? I’m supposed to do something?”

She smiled then, her child’s face twisting with a dark savoir-faire beyond her years that looked horribly uncanny on her cranberry-blushed cheeks. “You are. And you will spend your life searching for it. You will join them, William—they will speak of Mylers in the galleries the way they speak of Klimts and Munchs. You will spend your life in search of the sublime aesthetic ideal. That is---“ She smiled again. “That is, if you’ll consent to it.”

She held out her hand, spreading her six fingers to welcome mine. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I didn’t know that those men were artists, or what sublime or aesthetic meant. But she was offering me something. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted it.

I was confused, but I was enthralled. I was a ten-year-old boy, after all, and here was this grotesquely attractive girl telling me that I was going to do great things. Who wouldn’t have stared at her with a longing glint in his eye?

I grasped her cold, dry hand in mine and clasped it firmly. Her mouth twisted again and she held my hand in hers, cradling it as though it were a prize.

Then she let go and stepped backwards. “I’ll see you again, William.”

She faded away as quickly as she had come, blending back into the trees and the pond. I stood awkwardly in the middle of the path, watching the place where she’d disappeared.

That night when I arrived at home, I searched my bedroom for my Crayons. Instead, I found a paintbrush and three tubes of acrylic paint (colors: brown, black, and red) nestled among my Matchbox cars and comic books. I squeezed the plump tubes, whisked the soft brush bristles over my palm, and for the first time in my life, I found myself longing for a canvas.

Believe me when I say that I never forgot her. In the years after the incident in the Common, I lost my newsboy cap, my family moved out of the apartment and into the suburbs, and I grew eight inches. I began to apply myself in art class. My teachers began to pronounce my work decent, then good, then surprisingly good, although I had to endure a few meetings with school psychologists because my sixth grade teacher decided that my chosen subject matter indicated that I was maladjusted. In middle school, I learned to use oil paints, and by high school, I was painting everything in sight: plump nude models splayed out in the middle of classrooms who came out as dark seductresses in my paintings, depictions of the restless dreams that kept me tossing and turning every night, and the twisted underground that I imagined haunting the subway tunnels after the trains stop running for the night.

I won contests, I went to camps, I got into art school. Critics and judges all said that my paintings had an air of desperation, as though something dark was gnawing at the edges of all the canvases. I guess you could say that they were more right than they knew. In long afternoons in class and even longer nights at home, as I slaved away, the jangling of silver earrings rang in my ears like a constant dirge.

I grew up, and then the day in the Common was as distant as the butterfly embalmed in the paperweight that used to sit on my wife Jenna’s desk.

That’s right. Jenna. I met her in my freshman art history class at a school in downtown Boston. We sparred about our favorite artists (she preferred Monet and other cutesy artists whose light-infused works had never seen darkness) and I listened to her talk about her dreams of being a professor. I loved Jenna, her frank open face and her clear green eyes, her high laugh and her easy smile. She liked pretty, soft things, which I found naïve and charming. By my senior year of college, we were practically engaged.

But through it all, I never forgot her. Sometimes, when my eyes were heavy with exhaustion as I stretched canvases at four in the morning, when I longed to go sign into Jenna’s dorm, I remembered my muse and kept stretching. I even tried to paint her, tried to capture her grotesque child’s face and the sweep of her tunic on a brown gessoed canvas. But I was never talented enough to capture her completely. No one is.

One spring day when I was twenty-two, I sat in my dorm room overlooking the Charles River. The windows were wide open, a breeze and a bird-song wafted into the room, and the trees below were bursting with the kind of vitality that seems impossible in mid-January.

I was sitting at my desk, reading a book on Klimt, when something stirred in my stomach. I looked up at the Charles, at the currents and the sailboats, and I imagined the whole thing opening up in the middle, stretching its mouth wide, the city breaking in two like a cracked egg and the glop inside rising up to meet me. I ducked down, terrified, hiding my face in my hands, smelling the acrid oil paint stains that I could never get off my fingers. And a knock reverberated through my room, inviting me, calling me to the door.

When I opened it, she was standing in the hallway.

“William.” She smiled a crooked half-smile and cocked her head to the side. Her long hair was swept up into an elaborate coif. She was draped in green, and she had changed her eye color to match. She was as tall as I was, and her face was dented with cheekbones. “William, I’m very pleased.”

She swept into my room and leaned against my desk, her back arched in a perfect crescent, a pale taut sliver of her calf peeking out from the folds of her dress. But let me clarify. I didn’t want her; remember, I was practically engaged to Jenna at the time. No, it wasn’t that. She disgusted me, that was it, and yet I still felt an incredible longing, an irresistible pull towards her. Like I said, it wasn’t sexual. It really wasn’t. Yes, I wanted her to bring me places, to flood the galleries of New York and Paris with my paintings. But that doesn’t mean that I wanted her.

“You’ve done well.” Her voice was throatier now. She laughed and reached forward to trace one of her six fingers down my cheek. I shivered. “Remember when you were just a little boy and I described your mission? You’re doing everything you’re supposed to do. You’re on the path to greatness, William. And I congratulate you.”

She twirled again, trailing her skirt behind her, and curtsied as though she were dancing the quadrille.

“Who are you, exactly?” I asked, letting the Klimt book fall from his hand. It landed on the floor spine first and split open.

She smiled that disconcerting half-smile again. “It doesn’t matter who I am, William. What matters is who you are. Besides, who do you think I am?”

“I think…” I swallowed. “Are you, I mean, are you a part of this city?”

“I’m part of every city.” Her eyes trailed over the Klimt book. “Ah, Gustav. He was ever so despondent when the University of Vienna called his paintings degenerate and amoral.” She smiled. “Of course, I took care of the situation.”

“You knew Klimt….”

She laughed. “Listen, William. You’ve done well. Your paintings are sublime. You’ve done far better than we ever imagined. But I have an assignment for you. It’s a big one, believe me, and it will change everything. I have the canvas here, and you’ll start it tonight…”

“Tonight I’m going to the North End with Jenna.” I immediately wished I hadn’t spoken.

She paused in her circuit of the room, trailing her fingers over a curled color photograph of Jenna that lay on my dresser. “Jenna,” she spat. “Who is this Jenna?”

“She, well, she’s my girlfriend.” I could see the cold rage in her eyes, the verdict: guilty. To my surprise and horror, I found myself wondering if I should call Jenna and break it off.

“Girlfriend? What do you mean?”?

“She’s, you know, well, she’s the girl I’m dating.”

“No, no, no,” she said. With a careless flick of her wrist, she ripped the picture in half. She slid the two halves of the picture into her mouth. The jagged edges of the photograph pulsed against the thin skin of her throat when she swallowed.

I almost leapt to my feet, planning with naïve bravado to tell her off for tearing up and eating a photograph of my girlfriend. But the words died before I spoke them.

“This won’t do at all,” she said, pacing around the room. Her black-buttoned boots made no sound against the floor. “What can we do to extract you from this situation, William? Have you promised this girl anything?”

“Well, no, that’s not exactly…I mean, that is, I do think that we’re going to get married. Someday, maybe after we both finish school…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t marry. What about your art?”

She clasped her hands together, then turned to me with a perky light in her eyes.

“I have a lovely idea. Shall I kill her for you? Remove the nuisance?”

I was horrified. I really was. I mean, I think I was. But she had strange powers over my mind, and although I was horrified, when she suggested getting rid of Jenna, a tiny voice somewhere in the back of my mind pointed out that I’d heard worse ideas. Jenna had been making a lot of noise about getting married lately, after all, and I had my portfolio to consider, as well as what I was going to do after I graduated. Besides, Jenna’s squeaky shoes really grated on my nerves, as did her habit of double-dipping crackers in peanut butter. Besides that, she hated Munch. Could I justify giving up everything that I wanted for a Munch-hating squeaky-shoed co-ed?

“You can’t kill her,” I said weakly.

“Of course I can.” She was cheerful. She was happy at the idea of killing Jenna, as though killing my girlfriend would be like a Saturday night party or a picnic in the Public Garden. She danced to my window, where a hornet buzzed angrily against the screen. She lightly brushed the pad of her finger against the hornet, and it thudded to the windowsill.

“Please don’t,” I said, pushing the nagging voice away. “I can make this work. I can marry Jenna, and I can travel around and paint. I can do both. Seriously.”

She was skeptical. She twisted her lips and narrowed her green eyes to slits. She tossed her skirt and stalked about the room. I watched her lithe body in silence for—oh, it must have been ten minutes, but I can’t say that I could ever keep track of time when she was around.

“William,” she said finally, clapping her hands in front of her. “I have decided. You can marry Jenna, but you must be careful. You are very close to having something, but you are also very close to losing everything.”

She marched to the windowsill, her jaw set. She bent over the hornet and trailed her sixth finger over its body. The green folds of her dress blocked the windowsill, but a strangled, coughing, tortured bird’s caw escaped from beneath her finger.

She laughed and faded away, her earrings jangling faintly. The distant shouts from campus and the roar of cars on Storrow Drive faded back in. I rose from my desk chair, my hands quivering. The hornet’s body was gone from the windowsill.

That’s the day I realized that I wasn’t the first artist who she visited. Have you ever seen Munch’s painting “The Vampire”? It’s a woman, bright red hair, bending over a faceless man in a gray suit, about to sink her teeth into his neck, her hair strangling him, her naked arm snaking around his shoulder. Let’s just say that Munch didn’t base that painting on a vampire.

I know what you’re thinking. But I was never sexually attracted to her. I was in love with Jenna, my wife. She was grotesque. She was disgusting. There was nothing about her that I….that I wanted, at all. I hated her. When I’m in my right mind, when she’s not around to influence me, I’ve always hated her. Always.

So let me continue. The next time I saw her, she was angry.

It was a fragile spring afternoon in May. Jenna and I had taken our daughter Lena into the city. We went to the Children’s Museum and the Aquarium (I still remember Lena’s laugh when she brushed her fingers against the stingrays swimming in one of the tanks). Then we took the T to Government Center and walked towards the Public Garden. Lena’s hand was nestled in mine. She slurped her strawberry icey and chattered about all the different animals that she’d seen that morning.

“The whale was my favorite. And the stingrays. They were both my favorite ones. Do you think I could write a story about a whale whose best friend is a stingray? Will you help me, Mom?”

“I think Daddy’s the one to go to for this, sweetheart.” Jenna plucked at the collar of her blouse. “He’s the creative one in the family.”

“Not anymore,” I said.

The only painting I’d done since Jenna and I had bought our first house had been a poster-paint mural for Lena’s room. I’d put away my books on Klimt and Munch and stored my oils in the attic long ago.

“Do you miss it?” asked Jenna quietly.

“Miss what?”

“Painting.”

I shrugged and smiled. “Sometimes. But it wasn’t worth it.”

Half an hour later, Jenna crouched in the grass beside the pond in the Public Garden, fluffing Lena’s dark, thin curls and wiping a strawberry stain off her cheek. I was thirsty and Jenna was hungry, so I wandered down the path towards the bridge that would lead me to a vendor. When I reached the bridge, I saw that the plump green bushes on the other side had faded to a washed-out gray.

And the city shuddered. The ground beneath my feet threatened to throw me off like a runaway horse. Earrings jangled, a bird’s cry ripped from its throat, and I sank to the edge of the grass, waiting for her to appear. The robust green of the weeping willow next to me faded into gray. The pond iced over into shades of thin blues. The Public Garden turned into a black and white photograph of winter.

And then she rose to her feet from a bench beneath the willow tree.

“William.” Her voice was nothing more than a hiss. She swished her black skirts. Her eyes were black too, and they consumed almost half of her face. “What are you doing?”

I mouthed wordlessly and gestured back towards where Jenna and Lena were watching the ducks.

“You’re with them.” It wasn’t a question. “You’re with them, and on Monday, I’d hazard a guess, you’re going to go back to a climate-controlled office building with sterile walls and fake plants and tame Monet prints hanging on the walls. Am I right?”

Little wrinkles had appeared beneath her eyes and around the corners of her mouth. I thought of Jenna’s crisp green eyes and the sway of her hair. I imagined Lena playing with her train set and scribbling in Crayola colors all over her Disney princess coloring books, bending over so that her wispy dark curls flopped over her shoulders.

Compared to my fresh young family, my muse looked old, faded, washed-out.

“Well, William? Are you just going to stand there? Don’t you have anything to say?”

“Fuck off.” I said it quietly, but she heard me.

“Excuse me? You dare to speak like that to me? William, I gave you everything. How dare you repay me like this? Do you realize where you’d be if I hadn’t come to you that day?”

“Yes,” I said coldly. “I’d be watching the ducks with my wife and daughter right now.”

The branches of the willow tree rattled around her. From their depths, a black bird, its wings steely white and its eyes flat, fluttered out and hovered above her head.

“The daughter,” she hissed.

“No. No, you bitch. Stay away from my family.”

She laughed and turned away. And then she was gone, and I was lying on my back beneath a willow tree while color slowly bled back into the garden.

I raced down the path, searching for Jenna and Lena. I found them sitting on a bench. Jenna’s nimble fingers were weaving a series of dandelions together into a crown.

“Dad!” Lena jumped up. “Guess what I saw? A swan!”

“It was actually a swan boat,” Jenna muttered to me, smiling.

I scooped Lena up and held her to my chest, cradling her soft silk curls in my hand. Jenna stood up too, looking concerned, and I kissed her.

“Let’s go home,” I said. “It looks like it might rain.”

“No it doesn’t.”

“Come on, Jen. I’ve had enough of the city for one day.”

Two hours later, Jenna was unlocking the front door to our vinyl-sided house, which was indistinguishable from the row of other vinyl-sided houses that stretched around the cul-de-sac. Lena darted ahead of her, running down the hallway and shouting about pizza bagels. I heard my muse’s voice in my head, hissing “the daughter.”

“Will, what’s the matter?” Jenna grabbed my hand and steered me into the living room. She sank down in her favorite beige chair and ruffled the pages of her Jodi Picoult novel.

I shook my head. I pulled her to her feet and wrapped my arms around her, holding her sturdy shoulders close to mine, pressing her against me until I could feel every bone in her upper body.

But even as I leaned back from Jenna, assuaged her concern and brushed a piece of stray hair behind her ear, even as I gazed around our living room at the reproduction Monet over the electric fireplace and the Pottery Barn cushions, I couldn’t help but hear my muse’s voice:

You could have been great, William.

You could have made something great. You could have had the dark things you dream at night exhibited in every gallery in Europe. You could even have gone skating in Prague.

And instead…?

Instead, the faint jangling of earrings filled my head, spreading over the house, trailing the cry of a long-dead bird.

“Lena,” I whispered. I dropped Jenna’s hands and sprinted for the hallway, leaving dirty tracks in the freshly vacuumed wall-to-wall carpet, trying to get to Lena. Lena, my daughter, her thin curls and her hazel eyes, and as I ran, my thoughts tripped all over each other, even the unbidden thoughts that I wasn’t allowed to have:

I wonder what the painting would have been, the one that she had wanted me to do. Ice blue and red-brick brushstrokes, the color of souls under ice and the haunted ivy on the sides of the brownstones in this city, this fucking city that coughed up someone like her….I wonder if the painting would have been successful, my big break…I wonder if she would have been in the painting….

I burst into the kitchen. Lena gasped at me, her eyes roving the room desperately, and as she drew in one last rattling breath her eyes roved the room again, following the faint silvery jangling of earrings, and I knew that tonight, two magpies, two dead-eyed birds, would trail after the earring bells in a subway tunnel, as my muse instructed my daughter in the ways of the Underground, turning her into something wrong…

Jenna screamed. On the linoleum floor next to Lena’s body lay a freshly minted canvas and a set of unopened paints.

Naked women, distended bellies stretching out of their own skin, angular red hair lapping like snake’s tongues against the darkness closing in. A man screaming out of the abyss that had become the city where he lived. A twisted gnarled tree stretching up to a coal-black sky in a place that was never supposed to exist. This is the company that I keep now. These are the places where I live.

So I’m famous now. I’m also rich. My paintings are Mylers, and they’re exhibited in every museum from New York to Moscow.

I knew you would ask me about the murder accusations. Yes, of course I remember when they whispered that I’d killed my own daughter. But I’m only an artist, not a muse. I don’t have the power to turn living creatures into deadened magpies.

But let me tell you one last thing. Last winter, when I was at a gallery opening in Vienna, I had the opportunity to go to Prague. I skated around the rink and I listened to the faint sound of jangling silver earrings behind the echo of laughter.

Of course, I hated every minute of it.

x x x

Perhaps the strangest of our stories this year, I’ve saved it for this dark and wintery November. The second of my Editor’s Extras, I read this with a little chill. Did you feel it too? Tell me on the BBS. -GM



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