By Alexandra Grunberg
Bernadette ignored the young woman’s muffled screams as she added another coat of paint to the canvas. The piece glistened in the light of her tiny studio, the window shut against the pressing darkness of the night outside. The woman’s body was tightly contained between the wooden back and the canvas surface stretched taut across the frame, though her minimal bucking caused the brush to jerk off course, just as Bernadette had planned.
When she was done, she would be left the outline of a moving form against an abstract background, this one done in orange. “Flare in Orange.” The body would be discarded, but the life would remain. Life in art. Art from life. It was her third piece in the series, and she was getting quite popular.
It was messy, difficult work, but after years of struggling and starving, it was worth it. Bernadette remembered attending the opening of Angelo Viscari’s “River,” nothing more than blue liquid moved around the floor of Le Musée de Moderne by air currents, the dull and impressionable public sheep laughing as they trailed the blue behind them while they moved on to the next exhibit, staining the white marble floor with Angelo’s so-called artwork. Nothing more than currents!
She remembered Lucas DeJour’s naked women, standing motionless at every doorway, children giggling openly as they pointed and adults trying to hide their smirks as they took in the view, while taking plenty of pictures. She took off her clothes every night. It was not art.
“But it’s life,” explained Angelo, her ex-lover, part-time friend. He smiled at her, his smile condescending, the smile of a winner to the person who jogged across the finish line last, who people cheered as a winner for just competing while laughing at them behind their backs.
“You paint beautifully, but people don’t want paint,” Angelo was kind enough to explain to her, as he smiled his little smile that burned like red fire through her blood, tightening her throat, shortening her breath, clouding her vision. “They want life. Your work is static. Your work is dead.”
Your work is dead.
Bernadette knew that, at that moment, she snapped.
The closest thing to her was a canvas, so she grabbed the thick fabric and pressed it over Angelo’s face, pressing harder and harder with increasing resolve and a surprising and frightening joy. He struggled against her, but she was strong in her rage, and he had been caught off guard, still in complete disbelief as he died by her hand. In a desperate attempt, he lunged away from her, throwing himself headfirst into the brick divider of her small studio with a loud and, to Bernadette, satisfying crack.
He fell to the ground, his body limp, his limbs splayed at odd angles, blood seeping through the rug from the freely flowing break of his skull. A paint can, balanced on the divider, fell on its side from the impact, and a lighter, pinker red, splashed on the fabric that sat loosely over his still twitching face as he eased slowly and painfully into death.
Angelo went still, but the movement remained, stained red and full of life. He had given up his life and had become her art. “Rebirth in Red.” Bernadette eased her conscience, convincing herself that if an artist could choose their death, what better death than becoming what they loved?
His body was found the next morning, floating in the river by Bernadette’s apartment, but she was never considered a suspect as it was never considered a murder. The police ruled Angelo’s death a suicide. A common fate for an artist. They all seemed to die so young with so much unfulfilled potential. Bernadette dedicated her piece to him, and critics swore they could feel Angelo’s spirit in the violence and passion of her piece.
The next one to go was Lucas. She invited him over for drinks, drugged him, and trapped him inside her specially made frame, large enough for a body to move within, tight enough that he could not escape. She was able to work on her piece, entitled “Life in Purple,” this time a whole body instead of just a face, without worrying about her work being judged as static, or dead, though Angelo’s grating words still echoed in her ears. When she was done, she hit Lucas repeatedly over the head with her paint can. The critics stated that the faint red hues, almost like a halo, were a lovely homage to her last piece.
When they found his body, in the same river, Bernadette was once again skipped as a suspect, as no one was looking for a murderer. The police decided that Lucas’ suicide was a copycat of Angelo’s, another example of the unstable mind of an artist. His head injury must have been caused by hitting the edge of the bridge he jumped off of, or the jutting top of a pipe under the water. Journalists hypothesized that they were lovers, and Lucas killed himself in despair over Angelo’s death. Bernadette told reporters that, no matter the cause, their deaths were a tragic loss to the art world, and that her new piece would be coming out the next week.
Bernadette did not know this girl, an art student studying abroad who had been inspired by her work and was ecstatic that Bernadette would take time out of her busy schedule to chat with her about art, careers, and life. It was as easy as preparing Lucas, easier actually because Lucas was not exactly a slim man and this girl slid easily into place.
Bernadette poured the last few drips of golden-orange by the girl’s feet. Her limited ability to kick still made the paint flow beautifully, a clear struggle trapped in a modern still life. Bernadette picked up the now empty paint can and with great joy and gusto added the final touch of red, the necessary thread tying her pieces together. She sighed as she admired her work. She was not worried about the girl, who was now motionless, still trapped. Young ladies disappeared in Europe all the time.
Bernadette took out her cell phone and called Le Musée de Moderne. Tomorrow night she would install her new piece.
“You can leave now,” said Bernadette.
The two workers who had just fastened her canvas to the wall nodded and left her. They were used to temperamental artists, and Bernadette was known to become enraged if someone crowded around her pieces for too long.
The museum was dark now, empty. Compared to the laughter and shouts of tourists, the clicking of cameras and squealing of children that filled the museum during the day, the quietness was eerie. Static. Dead.
Bernadette smiled. The museum could never be completely dead with her pieces hanging, so beautiful, so alive on the wall. And this new piece was really her masterpiece. The museum promised her that, as long as she kept painting, they would keep buying, but Bernadette wondered if she would ever top “Flare in Orange.” She wondered if it was because she had used a younger model than the first two paintings. The girl had more life to give Bernadette’s work.
The piece was gorgeous, oranges vibrant, and Bernadette swore that she could still see the figure move, its violent bucking manipulating the paint that flowed across the surface freely, dripping onto the floor.
She walked over to where the painting hung and knelt down, brushing her thumb across the two spots of orange on the white marble floor.
The painting had plenty of time to dry. Maybe these orange dots weren’t paint at all, but some kind of cleaning fluid trailing from the workers’ boots. Bernadette would have to tell them to clean themselves off before coming into her gallery again.
A third orange drop splattered by her knee.
Bernadette stood up and backed away from the painting. It was more than alive in the art sense, in the way the critics and public loved so much. The paint was wet and writhing over the surface, rivulets of orange flowing and splattering as the figure in the painting thrashed. Bernadette could see the canvas billow and flatten with the movement, the paint flowing around the imprinted image of the girl’s body as she desperately tried to escape. Bernadette clasped her hands to her ears, but could still hear the muffled sound of the girl’s screams.
Was she still in there? Had Bernadette made some mistake?
No, no. She had thrown the girl into the river when she was through, same as Angelo and Lucas. Another artist gone mad. Another grievous death.
Then why was the painting moving?
“Your work is dead.”
Bernadette spun around, and faced the flowing stain of Angelo’s head, as it rocked and turned the canvas. Red pooled beneath the piece, paint and blood, reaching out toward her feet. Bernadette stepped back, but had to avoid the purple that spilled from Lucas’ hands as his image pressed out from the canvas.
“You are life! I made you life!” Bernadette screamed. “Help, someone help!”
No one came.
“Your work is dead.”
The canvas had become soft like putty. Lucas and the young girl had reached out so far their torsos were free from the wall, their orange and purple arms pushing out towards Bernadette, grasped and leaving splattered drops on the floor and walls. Bernadette backed up and heard a dull thud behind her; something pressed against her leg. She looked down to see the wet, red form of Angelo’s head, free from “Rebirth in Red,” staining her stockings with sticky fluid. Bernadette screamed and kicked it away, then ran from the room.
She had to get out of there. She was losing her mind.
But it was hard for her to run. Her leg, where Angelo’s head had rested, felt unsteady and unsupportive. She reached down and grasped her paint-coated calf. The flesh was too soft, like a barely solid goop, like half-dried paint. The fabric of her stocking felt stiff. Like canvas.
She heard something wet and plodding in the darkness behind her. Three somethings making their way to her, trailing their mess behind them.
Bernadette ran, limping, crooked, racing as best she could through the galleries, hearing her art following relentlessly behind her. In her panic, all the halls looked the same. She could not tell if she was heading toward an exit or trapping herself further inside the museum.
She heard footsteps coming up closer behind her, and as she chanced a glance behind her, she fell flat through a doorway into another gallery, landing hard with a faint splash.
The front of her body was soaked blue, as the currents of Angelo’s masterpiece flowed around her, and then over her. She began to sink. Bernadette knew that the blue liquid was only inches deep, and yet her body continued to submerge itself into darkness. She kicked out, desperate, and the blue flowed around her beautifully, the struggle for life sinking into art, deeper and deeper until the currents flowed red.
The next day, Le Musée de Moderne was packed with critics, reporters, and tourists, all reveling in the glory that was Bernadette’s complete gallery. Many were surprised that Bernadette did not attend the opening, but few were concerned. Her body would not be found until days later, floating in the river by her apartment, her dress stained red, purple, and orange. Another unstable mind. A common fate for an artist.
But her legacy would live on in her paintings. “Rebirth in Red,” “Life in Purple,” “Flare in Orange,” and the greatest of all, “Finale in Blue.”
Critics swore that it was a self-portrait, a final flight into immortality before she abandoned the mortal, static world. Janitors claimed that at night the piece seemed to move, the canvas pressing outward, the paint still flowing around her form, though journalists wrote their stories off as unnecessary publicity for an already popular collection. The pieces were so alive. The public flocked to see the work that possessed so much talent, sorrow, and beauty.
But much sooner than anyone could have expected, the popularity faded. People stopped going into Bernadette’s gallery. People started actively avoiding it. They claimed the novelty had worn off. They claimed the work had too many sad stories attached to it. They claimed the pieces were haunted. They claimed a thousand different reasons.
Because no one would admit that, as hard as you tried, it was impossible to ignore the sounds of muffled screams.
Alexandra Grunberg is a New York City based author and actress. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Pantheon Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction, and more. Her story, “Any Ending,” won third place in Fiction Vortex’s August contest. You can find links to her stories at alexandragrunberg.wordpress.com.