The streets of the artist’s hometown were cold and quiet. A few dimly lit streetlamps were the only guides he had as he wandered aimlessly about, a little drunk and very sleep deprived. It was a quarter past three o’clock in the morning and he had no desire to return to his shabby, pear colored flat that reeked of rotten fruit and disappointment. Perhaps he would finally follow through and throw himself into the river. What a beautiful picture that would be. He closed his eyes and imagined himself submerging into the black water, weightlessly falling deeper and deeper until the icy release filled his lungs. His body would contort for a brief moment until he would stop moving completely.They would find his body the next day, floating face down on the surface, arms flailed out like a martyr. More importantly, he would never have to deal with another rejection again.
Fernando had wanted to be an artist since he was a young boy. He often drew pictures for his mother to display on the refrigerator, something that pleased her very much. She was less pleased when he scribbled along the walls in crayon and after a few good spankings, he ceased the habit and stuck to paper.Every year for his birthday, he requested anything he might use from chalk, pastels, and watercolors. His father saw the pastime as frivolous and wasteful, but his mother always encouraged him, even going as far as enrolling in some amateur painting courses as an after-school activity. As Fernando grew up, he continued to improve and was heavily invested into his work. He captured nearly everything in his view, from the old, gnarled trees outside his bedroom window, the backs of his classmates’ heads during lessons, to the stray dogs that begged for scraps when he passed by on his walk home. In short, Fernando painted life wherever he saw it.
Though despite the clichés, he was not the introverted type. In addition to his parents, Fernando was always happy to show off his drawings to his classmates and teachers, seeking praise wherever he could find it. When he was chastised for not paying attention, he would simply make the situation work into his favor. He painted over the old walls in the hallways, covered various spots of the building that was marred with graffiti, provided a clay sculpture of the planetary system for the science teacher, and even painted a mural of his graduating class during his senior year. Successfully impressed, the faculty boasted his talents, and his father finally eased off and for a while, believed that his son would prove him wrong and make a fine career of being an artist. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.
Though Fernando’s portfolio was sufficient enough to grant him enrollment to the local arts academy, the compliments and cheer he was once met with werereplaced with endless criticism.
“This is too linear. You need movement!”
“Pretty but where is the meaning?”
“Where is the passion?”
“You lack focus, vision, conviction!”
The words roared like a cumulonimbus cloud over his head and drove him into a depression that progressed throughout the course of two years. Seeing his peers thriving as his own work was demeaned as trivial hurt his soul. Had he burnt out all his creativity in childhood? Was he doomed to give up on his dreams and succumb to an average life? A colorless life? Some supportive peers, particularly a girl in his Art Fundamentals class, Natalia, tried to encourage himwhen he expressed his worries.
“You’re being overly dramatic, Fernando. We’re here to learn. We’re going to get criticism all the time before we improve.”
The memory of her painted pink grin brought a momentary smile to Fernando’s lips, but it quickly faded. How could she possibly understand his struggle? She was one of the top students in the course and didnot likely share the same worries that he did. Of course, his father was of no help, back to the same cynic he had been when he was a child. As the old man griped about the money he had wasted to send Fernando to art school, his mother tried to diffuse the situation by being practical. It was not too late to attend another school, she proclaimed, maybe explore options for a more stable career. Stable. How he hated that word. It was dull. As dull as his art had become.
As his drunken stupor finally led him to the bridge, the image of himself drowning plagued his mind once more. Fernando debated taking the leap, ending it all now before things could any worse when he heard some rustling in the bushes nearby. He groggily turned his head and wondered if he should investigate. After reasoning that he had nothing to lose, he followed the noise and pushed the green shrubbery apart with his hands. A startled yowl erupted from the bush and Fernando nearly fell back as a cat sped past him. Fernando exhaled, about to turn and go back on his way when he noticed why the creature had been lurking. A chill ran up the artist’s spine as stared down at the gruesome image at his feet. There on the ground was a dead woman.
Her arms lay above her head, elbows pointed, and palms opened as if she had lost her grip on something. Her long legs were twisted and contorted like a spider, one of her high heels askew and nearly falling off her foot. Her thin, dark hair was sprawled across the grass and one of the straps of her dress hung over her shoulder. The most disturbing part was her eyes, wide open and in a permanently petrified state. Crimson lips were parted open, adding to the shocking expression on her face. The back of Fernando’s mind screamed at him to run and call the police and his stomach threatened vomit rising up to his throat. Yet, his hands appeared to move on their own accord, reaching into his pocket for his cell phone. He did not call the police. Instead, he opened his camera, turned the device horizontally, and snapped a photograph before running back to his apartment.
Fernando did not sleep, working for hours to enhance the photo from his phone and transfer it onto his laptop. Once the pixels had cleared up and the haunting image was uploaded properly, he grabbed his sketchbook. His pencil worked furiously, gnashing at the paper so hard that it was a wonder it did not tear. It took a few attempts to capture his muse’s visage just right but once Fernando was satisfied, he went over the sketch with pen, making the image sharper. He worked well into the late afternoon. His hands agonized, knuckles bruised, and the pads of his fingers covered in lead and black ink. By the time he allowed himself a break, his desk was covered with scattered papers, each one portraying a different angle of the beautiful dead woman. Some featured her hands, her spiderlike legs, and her crinkled dress. The one that featured her horrified face was the one that Fernando chose to tuck into the folder of his canvas bag and present to his professor.
Soon, “La Mujer Muerta” was reimagined into various versions. Fernando had painted her, digitalized her, drew her in graphite, conceptualized her, even used the abstract and cubist methods. According to his professors, he had reached a breakthrough, found his niche. Fernando had achieved his magnum opus, something that other artists had not accomplished until years into their careers. That never suited Fernando. Fame was something he had been chasing from the start. His impatience had not failed him after all. After the praise he had received thanks to his muse, Fernando took to making art from similar influences. His other pieces consisted of various withered plants, the inside of a condemned house, a fog covered scene from the cemetery, and almost as jarring as his muse, a bloodied animal carcass laying on the street. Nothing could compare to her, of course, but it was enough for his first gallery opening in the city.
It was a glorious night to remember. The attendees consisted of his peers who had initially stolen his praise, his professors who once rebuked him now commending his keen eye as they discussed the dreadful pieces amongst themselves, and his parents, back to believing in their son. Of course, the question of where the inspiration came from was asked by many, just as it was when he first presented “La Mujer Muerta”. Fernando gave a well-rehearsed answer.
“She appeared to me in a nightmare. I was jolted awake and my mind wouldn’t rest until I brought her to life.”
It was a very typical answer but believable enough to not raise any suspicion. Besides, the room was full of creatives who simply adored the dark and disturbed. The grislier the picture, the more attention it received. Fernando knew how to work the system and was confident that he had a bright future ahead of him.
After toasting with his mother and father, Fernando could not help but notice one patron who appeared less than impressed than the other guests. He approached Natalia, tapping her on the shoulder as she examined his favorite rendition of his muse, a Van-Gogh inspired painting which gave off the illusion that she might surge back to life at any given moment.
“What do you think? Too ‘Starry Night?’” Fernando smiled, hoping to get her lighten up a bit.
His former classmate turned and maintained the frown on her face as she looked him over in disbelief.
“I think…that you went from overly dramatic to utterly insane.” With that, the young woman brushed past him, shaking her head at the nonsense that buzzed around her.
Her words stung at his pride but were quickly forgotten as one of Fernando’s professors approached with the promise of introducing him to a renowned art critic within the coming month. The rest of the evening was filled with laughter and conversation of sophistication. It was late when Fernando arrived back at his apartment. This time, the drab walls and simple furnishings did not bother him. He would not be there for long. As he lay back on his torn camel couch, Fernando closed his eyes and envisioned a grand upscale apartment. There would be laminated floors, a stone fireplace, a modern kitchen, and of course, wide windows and a balcony to overlook the city lights. His art would decorate the walls, framed and worth thousands by then. Yes, Fernando was certain that the life he wanted was just around the corner; however, the images of grandeur in his head were interrupted by a rustling sound.
The artist opened his eyes, glancing around the dark room in search of the noise. He nearly passed it off as nothing before he heard it again, louder as it repeated. Thinking that perhaps he left a window open, he stood up to check. It soon became apparent that the rustling was the sound of pages turning, beckoning Fernando to his desk. He stopped and peered down at the sketch he had drawn months ago, of the dead woman’s hands. He furrowed his brow, thinking that he had stored the drawings away. As he reached for the paper, he was gasped in alarm. The once lifeless hands had animated back to life, unclenched, and reached out for the top of the page.
The artist fell back onto the floor and watched in disbelief as the ink outlined limbs sprung from the page, crawled out and grasped at the air. Arms soon followed, then a shoulder, until a head with unmistakably thin hair emerged. The artist was frozen in fear as he was faced with the startled expression he had mulled over and immortalized. His muse slithered from the page she had freed herself from onto the floor and crept like an insect towards the artist who had disrespected her. Fernando screamed and backed against the wall. He desperately scratched at it as if he might escape but the monster was at his feet once more. The ink had dissipated, and the woman was as three-dimensional as she had been when he found her. Her face remained unchanged and her head tilted with a crack as she stared at him.
“What do you want from me?” Fernando shouted in his muse’s face, recoiling as she reached out a ghostly hand.
She gripped his head and made him look into her eyes. As she locked their gazes, floods of memories from that night flashed through Fernando’s head. He had not run home after taking her picture. No, he had dragged her lifeless body across the grass and concrete before dumping her into the river. That was why no one had questioned him. That was why she had been passed off as a nightmare. The worst part of it all was how easily he had buried his own secret. The shock brought Fernando back to reality. She was not the monster after all. He was. The artist opened his mouth to utter out an apology, but it was too late. The dead woman’s icy grip went to his Fernando’s throat, squeezing until he stopped moving.
When no one had heard from Fernando in a week, a knock came to his door. The sound echoed across the hallway and remained unanswered as the artist lay on the floor, cold and quiet.