The Lovers
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The Lovers



Choice is deciding what values you hold.

Choice is deciding how you want to connect with others.

Choice is enforcing what you will and will not stand for.

In this way, choice is the way one makes peace with oneself.

This is what the Lovers is about.



👁

The walls of the exhibition were the colour of damp chalk. Overhead, sweltering spotlights broiled, close enough I worried they’d burn the paint, and beneath them I and everyone else at the exhibition pretended not to be half-blinded and cooking in their radiance. Before me, patrons drifted by — pale, dressed in blacks and dovetail greys — and artists, both those who had made something and those who had not, swirled in their masses in uniform blues. I was the only one deviating from the unspoken dress code, and my corner matched the discrepancy.

I pressed my fingers into the skin of my arm, gripping flesh like a cliff-edge. My heart rattled in my chest, jumbled against the overwhelming knowledge of where I was and what I was doing, lashing at my ribs the same way I had expected: too loud, too bright, too crowded. I watched the crowd with frantic discontent, wishing I could cover my nose against the miasma of sweat and chemical-scrubbed skin and faces, oh the faces, and waited for the next of the audience to mill, observe, and move on.

No bidding tickets came my way. The steps of thousands thundered, slid past, and my work went unseen. A worm of discontent, not unfamiliar to me in the slightest, shifted in my guts. It’s happening again. And as the hour rolled toward three, that inkling became a certainty. By that hour, my legs were bloated, swollen with blood from standing for so long. The crowd was a dim shade flickering its many arms and legs and tongues and eyes and teeth, in the frontline of my vision. Under the spotlights I sweltered, a crab in the broiler, wishing I could stand before my painting, not beside, to protect it from the radiant heat. Brilliant white eroding the world, nobody out here but the spotlights and the shadows.

But the audience wouldn’t be able to see my work if I did that. The worm of discontent climbed up into my throat, seeing that, burned as I swallowed. Standing so still I wouldn’t be seen. In the corner of my eye, my canvas glowed under the white heat of the spotlights.

But.

I could not permit myself to view my work in full. The work was done and, standing in the gallery, I found myself unwilling to observe it. After all, if I saw the work, I would obsess over it again, find minute flaws and failures throughout like a plain wall observed under a microscope. Even without my paints, I would scrape the work into what I would hope to be a better shape — with fingernails, with pens, with smeared saliva — and inevitably make it worse. Like picking at a scab and making it bleed.

Dust swirled. The chatter of guests and too-fine artists rose to a din as the sunbeams slid across the room. The walls, chalky and musty, rippled under the prismatic stained glass skylight. As the light moved farther across the gallery and the faux artisan clock on the wall struck noon, that restless worm of dread, discontented with my belly and uninterested in my throat, settled in my chest like anxiety. Heavy, just above my heart, and nearly choking. Soon I found myself rocking on the spot while other artists stood stolidly by their works or spoke animatedly with guests and patrons. My corner did not receive visitors.

I stood there, I think. Or maybe I swayed, or maybe I sat against the wall. Or maybe it was that as the crowds thinned, my perception of time grew fast and fleeting, quick as the smell of undecaying dust becomes unnoticeable in the lungs when one is in an attic. Not even hunger stirred, just the frantic clawing sensation at the inside of my ribcage, and a gnawing feeling that I needed to run. I slid my face into my hands. Not one person in the thin crowd took notice.

“An interesting turnout,” a colourless voice commented from beside me.

A plummeting of dread hit my chest. I did not need to look up. The curator stood by my side, watching the evening crowd. I stood wearily, not watching him quite yet. A liquid vertigo bubbled in my veins, but I did not sway. Not in front of him.

What did he think when he saw the guests? To me, the endless suits were stressful, only appreciable in times like this when the setting sun lit them ablaze. It wasn’t for want of their absence. It was just that then, half-lit in shadow and sunlight, I couldn’t see their faces — where they were looking, how they were feeling, whether they were joking or mocking or emitting those tired sighs of the bored and obligated. There was no performance — the world became a stage with the lights cut. Half-lit by the sun, they could not judge, only observe. An exercise in passivity.

By my side, the curator didn’t seem to see that. It was written in his figure, in his shadowed face. His eyes tracked guests’ hands and shoulders — where they wanted to spend, I recalled dimly from some far-off article, and where their attention lay, respectively. I waited for him to leave my side, and indeed he did walk away. But when I did not follow, he turned.

“Have you had time to see the gallery today?”

I stared at him, immobile.

“Come with me. We should talk.”

I nodded, a choked sob boiling over in my chest. Followed him like a dog. The rooms blurred together, and the spotlights flailed in my vision like they were plasma-laden, dripping from and searing into my hollow skull. Their noise — or was it my tinnitus? — washed over me, a thousand ellipses crowding into my skull.

⠀⠀“I need to sit down,” I said,
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀and I wobbled and swayed.

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀“Can you turn down
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀the music, please?”

The curator’s brow furrowed. “But there is no music.”

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀And then I
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀was slapped to the floor
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀by a godhand.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

The woods. No sea or mountain range could compete. So full of lichen and humidity and moss dripping down, they were beautiful, thick and heavy in the lungs, air coated in humid spores, tundra cliffs plunging into valleys and up into jagged mountains, plateaus painted in glitters of morning glory and deep jade ferns, soil a dense rhizomatic network like cobwebs. In pockets held by towering spruces and oaks, hyacinths and the climbing-down purple passionfruits and azaleas cloaked the ground, and everything was pristine, green, verdant.

But these woods did not stir. These woods did not breathe. These woods were aseptic: coated in moss and ferns and lichen, yes, but the world was stillborn. No leaves stirred, no mists made their daily trips up and down the atmosphere, no flowers came and faded with the dawn. Not even the sun changed: high above it shifted, tugging at the sky like the frozen clouds were some great crab-trap for the stars, but far below the forest lay unperturbed. The world was a photograph, a clay falsity, a coffee-stained pastel-chalk rubbing of the world. With me in it, a statue pasted and manoeuvred, dense enough in my presence that the world changed at my touch. The picture would not last forever.

I stood in front of a tree tall, proud, and utterly still. Sap poured from its green trunk, hardening into amber drips on the north side and quickening into near-water to drool into the earth with the sun-warmed bark on the south. No bark. It baffled me, that lack of protection, but then I realized: without predators or insects, what was the purpose of armour? Some of that sap drained onto me from some high-off branch, and a little landed on my face, where I licked it absentmindedly, still staring up at the tree. The sap was sweet, strangely so, and spiced like pollen. I found myself sucking droplets from my hands as I stared at the great breadth of the tree, dazed mind whirling with ideas.

I was not one for graffiti, despite my profession, nor was I one for destruction. I had a long history of not understanding stonemasons when they told me of how some marble just ached to be chiselled, or woodfashioners saying the same of logs. The change from a slab of ice to a sculpture was a mystery to me, and the emergence of a swan from a slab of ice dumbfounded me. Art should be a becoming, not a destroying. The two were like oil and water in my mind. But—

Here I was before a tree — a perfectly still tree with no bugs or cougar-marks to mar its bark — and I saw what it wanted to become.

I positioned my chisel, raised my hammer, and struck.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

Spotlights shone down onto my eyelids. My muscles ached, my bones creaked, and I mumbled something through the sticky mass in my mouth; I rolled over and coughed a wet chunk of goop onto the wood-printed linoleum. A sickly taste of honeyed pine sap coated my tongue after the glob was gone.

A fuzzy crowd murmured above me. I squinted at the lights and saw a lumpy ceiling the texture of dirty wool and, closer, the crowd’s bleary faces coming into focus as they drew away, giving me space as a blessed shadow like a quiet stormcloud furrowed by my side. Exhausted and chased by a tide of dizziness, I turned toward that shadow before I realised who it was.

“I’m fine,” I slurred — or maybe thought so loudly I only imagined saying it — and pushed myself off the floor, movements lagging a second behind. I avoided the eyes of the curator, who shadowed my movements like a curious child after an overturned beetle. “Really, I’m fine. I just tripped.”

Over what? By whom? I tried to steady myself. A heavy taste gummed my mouth. I blinked in the dim light, and only ever so slowly did the warped amber tint wash from my vision and the blurring of light into LED rainbow halos recede.

As I stood, the curator stood too, smooth like he was made of quicksilver. No wince, no stiffness. “Are you all right to walk?” he asked. His eyes and shoulders turned toward my arm, and he reached out and plucked something heavy from where I had unconsciously held it. “Lovely,” he said with a smile. A blurry white square with something dark on the front — a painting? — torn from my unthinking grip. My body swayed, suddenly lighter. The curator stepped back to examine it, and I stumbled a little forward after him and the painting as though I were attached to it by a thousand strands of spider silk. In a gesture done without looking, the curator swiped his hand and the silken threads were gone.

“I was going to ask you,” he continued, “if you were ready to bring your next painting in.” His teeth were stark white in the dimming gallery. He turned to the crowd and displayed the painting. I averted my eyes, gripping the wall with crawling skin, trying desperately to keep my stomach down. He sounded mournful, like the Mona Lisa trying to frown. “This artist’s work didn’t sell today. It will be up for bidding tomorrow.” He turned and took my shoulder, bringing me in, and dripping with slick sweat I looked to see his face, pale and airbrushed as that of a priest.

I shuddered there in his embrace. Cool wet sweat had soaked my jacket. A powerful odour of pine needles and sap arose from my very muscle and hair and my skin was sticky like I had rolled in honey. I rubbed my fingers — the ones on the arm he wasn’t holding — behind my back in a half-conscious soothing gesture. Through my soaked miasma: the damp-chalk odour of the exhibition.

A silence fell. The curator had been speaking to the crowd, I realized, and I was released. I drifted back to the wall. For stability, and for space. Around me, the crowd was thinning, but the people near the curator were as thick as half-dry oilpaint. Their eyes were on the canvas the curator had taken from me — his interest in me had waned swiftly, and his eyes were on the canvas too — so at last, after taking that breather and now under my own directive, I took air into my lungs like a diver preparing for submersion and walked into the crowd. He was holding my painting, praising the technique. Saying something about the exhibition, and its influence. I craned my neck.

I had never seen that painting in my entire life. I would have moved away, but now I was in front of him, and I reached out, because the painting—

Oh, the painting.

One hand was on the edge of the frame, nearly touching his. The other was out in a gesture of pleading, of forgiveness. “Please,” I said above the disruption of the crowd. “Please, give it back. It’s mine.” And I reached out with my other hand to take it from him, to hold and clutch it and keep it for myself. And the curator shook his head, still admiring the canvas and its contents. My other hand hovered a mere inch away. No longer pleading. Above the canvas, in a state of indecision.

I could have punched him. I could have bit him. I could have ripped the canvas from his manicured, lotioned, too-soft and pristine hands and made my work mine again. It should never have been brought here. It was a rage. It was a disgrace to everything that there was in art. It was not just a work but a Work: a fragment of a heart, a piece of a soul. It was not meant to be here, in this marketplace. Here it would be bought, sacrificed to become someone else’s pride. Art should not be owned by anyone. This was sacrilege.

My hand hovered there, violence in every muscle and tendon and bone. And then my fingers relaxed and my hand dropped back to my side, empty.

The curator and I stood in that tableau for a long, long time. Maybe minutes. Maybe hours, Maybe seconds. Me with my hands dangling uselessly, tools of creation shunned for wanting their art returned, and the curator, who didn’t need to move. He didn’t need to protect his property from me. Because who was I? Now that I was no longer on the floor and my wellbeing for the next few minutes was assured, there was no reason for him to worry about me. Perhaps it would gain him some notoriety, having an artist faint—

had I fainted? Something wasn’t right here.

—in the middle of the exhibition.

Distantly, I wondered why he had not called an ambulance.

The audience had thinned again. The tableau was over. My feet drifted on the ground, brought me back to my corner of the exhibition. Down a long, long series of pale hallways only my mind remembered the way through, and only just. The curator trailed beside me. “I was thinking,” he said in marble tones. “You could make a series out of this work. See what you come up with.”

Where were the crowds? The walls gaped at me, spacious and aghast at the lack of attention. The gallery must have closed for the day. My mind went back to the painting, was snagged like a fish to a lure. There in the hallway, I swayed on my feet, and the curator caught my arm. My flesh balked at his touch, and I pulled away.

We were in my corner of the exhibition. A hundred cots were laid out on either side, with an artist in each. Below the frame that held my work, a solitary folding mat, pristine and hard, awaited my resting body.

“We let the artists sleep here,” murmured the curator in response to my attention. His words were flat, like music with the over- and under-tones cut out. Autotuned noise. “It’s for their own good. Didn’t you read the posters when you signed up?”

He was looking at me directly, pale irises illuminated in the snow-bright gloom. Where was the exit? I couldn’t remember. That didn’t stop me from scanning — without taking my eyes off of him — for a door. There were none.

“You must have, surely,” the curator said to himself. “You must have known.” It was all I could do to not blink. Eventually, he looked away, and I collapsed onto the cot in my corner of the exhibition. Behind me, the curator quietly fitted the painting — had I seen it yet? All I remembered about it was that it was my style. But I had not painted anything in years, save for my presentation today — into the frame hanging there to rest with the unsold, unworthy work still hanging there.

But really, I hadn’t made that new work. Or, at least, I couldn’t remember. What was wrong with me?

The curator was on the far side of the hall. “Good night,” he said. A wriggling, not unlike a parasitic worm, thrashed in my belly, nauseating me as he left. Trembling, I coiled up like a wrung rag, sopping cold sweat onto the watertight weave of my cot. Help me, I whispered feverishly to nobody in particular. I was not religious, nor was I faithful. But still, I prayed. Help me. Please.

The exhibition was so quiet, so still. The soft breathing of the artists, dreaming of nothing at all, echoed in the moonlit halls. The faux glass ceiling glittered blue and white.

I leaned on the cot, then spread out fully. My suit stuck to my skin, cold and damp. I rolled to my side. Nearly closed my eyes before my arm went numb, and so I rolled to the other side. Found that I was still uncomfortable, and I rolled to my back. Found myself unable to breathe. Rolled to my belly. Some distracted part of me raised the idea of someone rolling in their grave, and that I might be impersonating them in my purgatory of perpetual motion, but that only reminded me of the great work and pain that hung above my head, a study in rainbow and oil, a nightmare-catcher. A lake of cold loomed in my stomach, lapping against the shores of my throat there in the silence.

With that thought, I was finally still. Tears — when had I started crying? Or, more accurately, when had I stopped? — stained my cheeks like water on tissue paper, and I found some not-so-uncomfortable spot on my cot to lie. There, finally, I rocked myself into uneasy sleep.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

From that barkless tree before me, sap poured. I worked hard, diligent, making changes and alterations to that tree in the silent forest on a whim and loving it. Sap coated my mouth, entered my lungs, filled those wet sacks of flesh in there and I breathed anyway. Not despite, but because — when I ducked my head under the curtaining waterfall of sap and just-forming amber, I found I was holding my breath, swimming as I was in the sap while it worked its way toward draining, and I continued holding my breath for many minutes after that as I chipped away at what was to be the legs and knees and feet before I finally received the urge to breathe. And when I emerged and inhaled at last, it was with a smile and intake of breath, not a cyanotic gasp with eyes bloodshot and heart pounding.

It was so peaceful here. Though I did not observe the woods at large. The woods around me were unchanging, unaltered by my presence or by time. Perhaps I was ephemeral here, only able to affect the world for this time and this time only, and restricted to the tree. Indeed, I discovered, if I walked away I would only find myself walking back, though I would not turn in my path or walk astray. The tree was keeping me here, I knew then. But I did not hate it for it, because though my presence in the woods was restricted to the area of its influence, the only action I took when near it was my own. I had ownership of myself, and that was what mattered.

As I worked, it was an idle thing that I drank the sap. And, too, the rest: inside the tree with bark so smooth were striations of crystalline honey, dripping out and liquifying on exposure to air. Like fat between layers of muscle they were, and where I could as I worked my chisel up to form the rough outline of hips and ribs so smooth and delicate I preserved that hardened amber-form of honey, beautiful as it was. But for the rest of it, chipping and chiselling and curling away strips of wood where the statue was not — as I maneuvered my pile of wood shavings to the other side of the tree as I worked on her back — I did eat the honey, and it was sweet.

And so the day went. I in the great embrace of the tree with my chisel, slowly forming away with movements that now felt seamless as breathing. I drank the sap when I was thirsty, and ate the honey when I was hungry. And the statue formed.

I stepped back. The tree bled sluggishly within and shone heavily with perspirations of sap without. The statue, oaken and smooth, was fierce, though her face was not done: every angle of her body was sure, deliberate, final. A Testament to Dedication, she might be called, when she was done — her neck and face, or the space where it would be, was still dense oak, only a roundish block where I had initially sculpted out where she would be. Or maybe I would call her Strange, the Way Things are Formed.

Or maybe she would have no name, I considered as I worked her hands free. Maybe she did not need one. I yawned, exhausted despite the sap burning like coal in the furnace of my body, and made effort to move my arms. To not fall asleep.

Maybe I would rest for just a minute, I thought to myself. And so I did.

Maybe she would have no name. After all, who would read her plaque? The air? The wind? Something in me swelled at that, and I grinned at the prospect of the work in the tree, strange and green though it was, never being seen. Something in me balked, of course, at the prospect of an audienceless work — but then the rest of me woke up and fought back. This meant, I realized as I stared at the beautiful work before me, angular and intentional as she was, that I could do whatever I wanted. There was nobody here in the woods to tell me to make things better. I could ruin the work, if I wanted, strike my chisel and leave it hanging through her heart. Or I could walk away.

Or, I thought to myself with soft passion, exhaustedly but determinately picking up my chisel again and walking to construct her shoulders and hair, this meant that there was nobody but myself wanting the work to become beautiful, and no requirements for me to fulfil on how it must be done. I could make her glorious, lifelike and true, or I could make her a childish caricature. Nobody would know. It was all me here.

Some part of me whispered, curator? and I did not know what it meant. A deep peace overflowed from my heart, slow and still beating, and I raised my chisel once more, working in the hollow behind her back to make her hair as intricate as I could. Not because someone else wanted me to, but because I wanted to do it.

And all the while, I drank honey and nectar, and at some undetermined point in the work between exhaustion and deep tidal passion, my eyes closed and I fell asleep.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

Noon. The exhibition, again. Patrons surrounded me, bidding. Their language was something I knew but could not understand. My mouth garbled answers and responses, calling ever-higher above the cacophony of people, people, everywhere. Around me, other artists were doing the same.

My eyes were glazed, dry, frantic. The patrons were a kaleidoscopic sea, pressing close and hot on my skin, pushing to see the art. I fumbled and scrambled and shouted — was it joy, or was it fear? — to step back, wait your turn please. A churning sea a thousand colours — was the colour coding from the first day gone? I couldn’t tell. The other artists and I were in our clothes from the day before, sweating. Before me, the sea flowed, inches from discomfort. Some pressed in. I spoke fast, animatedly. My mouth reeked of pine sap; my clothes were stained in brown and green. Candied orange peels and diced persimmons on platters made their way through the crowd, were offered to me and everyone else, but my stomach roiled at the thought of food. Crystallized honey, thick like molasses, crept up my esophagus from my scrawny belly. Vomit splattered the floor, slick and yellow and sweet on the backs of my teeth. It was tracked away by so many pairs of shiny shoes.

And so the hours went. Sweating dry, blinded by the spotlights, burning without fire. My mouth blabbered dry, and under the chains of my ribcage my heart squished the slow drumbeat of an organ that desires desperately the rejuvenation of sleep. The fold-out cot set in the wall from last night called to me, magnetic inside the wall. My body sagged as I stood, and my suit reeked so overpoweringly of pine I wondered how the crowd had not asked. But I could not stop for questions like that. My mouth jabbered another response to a patron somewhere in the crowd. I needed to sell. My two paintings burned at my back, a thousand eyes turned on them. Bidding slips made their way into simple cedar boxes, and soon mine overflowed and was replaced. Such a crowd! And so I went feverishly, outshouting my competitors and drawing more and more of the rabid sea over the day.

The walls flaked into the air. The dust pasted over my eyes. The plastic of the floor stuck to my shoes. The spotlights burned, and frequently I found myself leaning against the wall, dizzy and sweating salt crystals like sand in my suit. When I had asked for water, it took only the smallest sip for me to vomit a little into my cup, and I discreetly placed it in the corner between speeches on my work which I still could not view. The despair was still there, wriggling and pale at the forefront of my mind and ready to grey the rainbow world into a tunnel-vision of criticism, and I did not want to feed it. So I shouted, and repeated what others said about my work to advertise to the crowd, and did not turn around.

The paintings burned the back of my neck.

The votes piled up.

But all things end. The sun waned, the crowds thinned, and slowly but surely, the exhibition closed its doors. The spotlights switched off in their vast mechanical arrays, and in a set of ten minutes that felt like a second, the exhibition was done for the day, worn and spent like a paintbrush with its artists as bristles. The exhibition — and, by proxy, the artists — would douse themselves in the rejuvenation of sleep overnight, and would rise in the morning refreshed.

Not me, though. The past few nights had been nothing but a too-long nightmare.

I stood there, as did my other artists, in a fugue of exhaustion, too tired to sit down and too tired to keep standing. A limbo of existence, wrung-out and grey like dirty water until slowly, the mechanisms of posterity ground into motion. As a creeping wave, artists all through the maze of halls started moving from their locked-up poses. Some went for their bags, pulling out the painting for the next day or tucking themselves in or listlessly unwrapping sausages that smelled like unseasoned meat and nothing else and biting down. And slowly, as the lights dimmed to artificial twilight, the artists who were not me went to bed.

And still I stood there, waiting. Exhaustion dripped off my body. The furnace of my chest was dead. And I waited, and I waited. And.

Where was the curator? I did not have the energy to look around. He would be coming soon, to ask for my last painting. The one I had not completed, nor done at all. The one that existed nowhere and would be pulled into existence anyway, exhausting and disgusting and humiliating me in the process.

I leaned against the wall. Sap flooded my sinuses as I rocked my head back, but I didn’t mind. Suffocation was welcome right now.

The wall was soft against my skin, cool and white and dry. I didn’t have the energy to sit. I didn’t have the energy to lie down. I didn’t have the energy to check the ballot boxes overflowing at my station.

But I did have the energy to dream. I closed my eyes, and I succumbed.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

The sap was overwhelming and I was inside of it, proud and sweating. I drew myself slowly out from the dura mater of the tree, drawing with me veins, arteries, musculature of leaf and vine and lichen within. The green of the tree was unparalleled; though its encasements were wood, its very heart was bright green and fleshy with soft damp growth. Like bone marrow within a femur.

Hugged by the roots of the tree, I observed the statue. She was nearly done. Her form was hard, beautiful, sharp to look at but omnipresent like the time of day when one is outside: even if you do not look up, you know that the sun is there from the shadows. That was her.

The forest was still, so still, and she was beautiful. Her details had come together to form a whole body — every little part, from the grain of her right cheek forming freckles to the striations in the dappled waves forming her hair to the points of onyx I had found on the ground and embedded forming her deep, dark eyes. She was a goddess, something whole and moving, an unlocking of the world. I bowed not just my head but my whole body, there at the base of the statue, and swallowed sap and honey as it dripped down from the tree and into my mouth. There, in the stilled silence of the woods, the world was pristine. Nobody would see my statue. She was nobody’s baby, nobody’s pride, nobody’s muse or inspiration. She was a lady of the tree in the middle of the woods where the sun shuddered in its point in the sky and the grass refused to sing when the wind blew. She was everything she was and nothing more. And so it was that there, at the base of harmony in completion made through diligence and peace and nobody else’s aspirations or dreams, I leant my head to her pedestal of no plaque and no title and let myself drift into deadened sleep.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

“Had a good nap?” the curator said. His breath was warm in my ear. “Your friends have already gone to bed.”

I started. It was barely a twitch, really. I was exhausted. Too tired to move, too tired to think straight. I wearily pushed myself off the wall, teetered off-balance. The curator put his palm flat against my chest as I leaned forward and vomited a slew of slick white fluid onto the floor, then doubled over and coughed violently, clearing my lungs of something that bit my alveoli and yanked through my bloodstream like a thousand tiny wires.

“Please,” I gasped when I was done. I breathed, striations loud in the quiet. I pushed his hand off of me and he hovered nearby like an iron butterfly. “Leave me alone. I don’t have anything for you.” The words tumbled out of my mouth like boulders. “I don’t have a painting. I was never supposed to be here. I’m sorry.” I choked back a sob, then spat out another glob of thick yellow goop, and with it: “Please, just leave me be.”

The curator stood steadfast, impeccable and untouchable by my side. He leaned over me, flawless, and in a clockwork motion peered close into my face and stared into my eyes.

I winced, dodging his gaze. The other artists — were there fewer than there had been previously? — were asleep still, untroubled by the conversation. Maybe he had talked to them earlier. Or maybe, I realised with shame, they didn’t need his guidance. They didn’t need anyone to tell them what to do. They just did it, and that was that. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t do the same as them?

“You don’t have a work,” he intoned. “Why not?”

I fell to my knees, and my body said that it had done just that all too recently but in a context in which I was happy. I couldn’t remember when that could have been. “I-”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. It was an afterthought to the conversation, nothing more. He turned and walked away, wiping an alcohol swab over his hands where he had touched me. “I’ll be back in the morning. Have your work ready by then.”

I opened my mouth and expelled air, but no sound came out. I couldn’t breathe. A vise of panic clutched my lungs, my ribs, my stomach, and I found myself shuddering, hunched up against the wall and sliding down. It can’t be done, I thought frantically. I needed to escape.

But there was nowhere to go. The exhibition was all there was.

Wouldn’t it have been nice, then, if one of the other artists — the ones still awake — came to my side, as I shuddered at the bottom of the wall? If they donated some warmth and presence and told me things were going to be okay? Wouldn't it have been nice if they explained to me what was going on? But no. I stayed there, cold and sweaty and flesh burning where he had been, and eventually the lights went out and the gallery was silent save for suppressed hitching sobs. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make another painting. It just wasn't coming to me. Nothing mattered anymore.

Alone and freezing, I made my way to my cot. For the first time in twenty years, I suckled my thumb and curled up on my side, beaten and lying there like a dog to be euthanized.

I don’t know when I went to sleep. Rest, as it was, never came.

But eventually, after my memory faded and my eyes glazed over, the dreams began again.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

At last, it was done. My back ached, my skin stung from sweat in a thousand small cuts, and my hair stuck to my slick face. But she was done. My heart swelled in my chest and pressed against my ribs so hard I felt as though I would burst. It was time.

I stepped back to view my creation.

An empty tree like an eviscerated eye stared back at me.

A clawing in my ribs. My gorge rose to my throat, yellow and soft. Where was she? I, frantic, did not have time to think, even in the still-body woods. A low screaming, or perhaps a sound of laughter. There was nobody around to tell me which happened as I sprinted around the tree, frantic and seeking footprints.

It had been beautiful, so beautiful. My body tired faster than I reasoned it would, and soon I found myself moaning and sobbing at the foot of the tree where my beloved had been. Honey trickled down the soft green stem of the tree, amber and sweet, but I clamped my jaw shut and kept my chin to my chest. Salty tears wept down my face, and a numbness grew.

It, too, was slow. She was gone. The grey of the wood burned into my eyes, open again now. It took a long time, but eventually I stood, dizzy and sick.

I remembered the work. It was so beautiful. I leaned my forehead against the side of the cavity, defeated and exhausted, muscles limp in my chest. Even my heart beat in faltering steps. But perhaps, I thought as I distanced from the tree again, this was a blessing — now I had room to make work anew. No judgement, even against my own work. The thought was alien in my head, from a world of chalk and distress that the dying taste of amber on my tongue kept at bay. Could this be a good thing?

The hole that remained was just wide enough for me to curl up within. Green, soft; unfirm but not bruising. Like a tulip-leaf or the greenest petal was the inside of the tree, and warm. My love for the tree, not the work I had made, bloomed, then, in my chest, even as I was still shaking and breaking up inside. I closed my eyes, there in the tree.

And when I opened them again, it was dark, and I could not move. A gummy substance tickled my toes, slowly rising. Some part of me, distant and desiring, knew: the tree had sealed itself around me, green without and hardwood within. The past was undone. No statue marred its features. Within the tree, without oxygen nor need for it, I sighed. The world was green, darkly so, and warm. Perhaps this was the way to spend a life. An eternity. Waiting for something to happen.

But eternity did not come. It started slowly, within minutes but over hours. A tickling, then a reddish absorption. A prickling like thorns that scratched my skin, as the honey rose. I struggled against my encasements in the tree, but the wood was full, perfectly moulded to the position I had held before — now, as sap drooled from the walls and bit my skin, scalded me like alcohol, I squirmed. But the tree, inside, was not porous as it had been before: I thrashed against the hardwood, and in the honey a thousand tiny hands formed against my movements, grabbed at my skin, tearing me apart fleck by fleck, piece by piece: a slow destruction. I inhaled to scream, and honey pooled into my lungs — when had that happened? How had it risen so high? — and in the cavity my statue had been in I cried into the dark sap. An itching and then a poking and prodding started all across my sap-coated sticky body, and over something that took place between minutes and years I hung my head and drowned but did not die. And I was still me, because there was nothing left. No forest, no art, no semblance of anything at all.

My heart was leaden in my chest, there in the tree where nothing else existed, and I was so tired. My brain felt light, fuzzy in my skull; the adrenaline ran dry and dry again, and eventually stopped altogether.

No panic, no fear. I might as well lean into the pain and see where I end up. In the dark where I could not cry and could not rejoice and could not despair, I stilled. And when the honey drooled from above and sank through the biting amber again, I succumbed, and I drank it in.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

I awoke at midnight. Blossoms of moonlight grew from the floor, filtered blue by the skylight. An overwhelming taste of honey and sap filled my mouth, gummed my eyes, and stuck to my tongue, so strong it took effort to open my eyes and even then they were bleary, unfocused. I slid off my cot, body moving like silk in the fuzzy silence. No snoring filled the air, I noted as I fought to breathe through the honey in my throat. And, after gulping it down hard enough to feel it in my stomach, no curator was here to meet me.

The other cots were folded up, empty. I rose, legs shaking at more than just the near suffocation in my sleep. The walls were blank, perfectly featureless in the moonlight. Where were the artists? Where was the art?

Mine remained behind me. I did not have to look to know that it was there — it buzzed at the nape of my neck, tugged at the fabric over my skin. I did not turn.

The spotlights were out, and the air was cool, and the exhibition was quiet. I could finally hear myself, able to think, but there were no thoughts. The silence had eaten that too.

The other side of the room was as featureless as the first. So were the next rooms, and the next after that. It was only then, half-expecting anyone — the curator? — to appear at my side, turning around for the fifth or the hundredth time, that I at last found that in my hands was a canvas, just like before. But this time it was mine. I moved to a spot of moonlight. Exposed it. Held my breath, opened my eyes, tugged them towards the canvas.

And I beheld my painting. And I saw…

…Nothing. The canvas held nothing at all. But also something. Something meant for others, which I could never see.

My body was not wearied. With a finger, I traced over the fine etchings of white paint on whiter canvas. In the night’s stygian hues with the midnight sky and pure moon, I could see the work for what it was: a charlatan in paint. A fake thing made to deceive; a work produced to sate the desires of others. What have I become?

But if I did not sell this work — if I did not return to bed to pass the time to morning — maybe I could escape.

My heart turned in my chest, a graverest’s tumbling, and for the first time in three days slowed its frantic beat. I placed the canvas and its beautiful nothingness on the flat wall, in that third frame which I was meant to advertise for money so I could produce more of that same nothingness. That selling, producing, and selling again was supposed to happen when I woke. That I could voluntarily, right here and now, not partake in.

Why follow the current of life where it pushes? I could make my own path. I had the tools right here.

The walls of the exhibition did not smell like damp chalk. They, in fact, smelled like nothing at all. Which is what chalk smells like, in the end: a flat seam of nothing covering more nothing, to be washed away by the rains of time like there was nothing there. I left the room and, for the first time since I had arrived, padded through the maze of the exhibition, following a directionless path only my feet remembered. As I walked, the walls grew richer, damper, darker. The plastic beneath my feet became floorboards, grainy and seamed with mud, which splintered and rotted into muck and mud as time ebbed from the world. Soon I was leaving a vast wake of fungi and ferns with every step, foliage lit blue and purple by the moon.

I did not wonder where the curator or audience were. They were as distant as the sun. Somehow, in this world, I knew: they did not exist, and never had. The only person here was me.

My body did not tire, and neither did I. My mind was clear, heart unheavied and unleadened but also unbroken — finally freed from the wriggling worm of anxiety that had plagued it these past few days. It was simply a heart now, light in my chest. A warm muscle, whole and healthy and proud of the blood it pumped. Something to admire, but not be driven by.

The smell of chalk was gone. It had been a long time since it had faded, but only now did my nose notice. Instead of the dust of nothing, a warm aroma of rot and decay rose up from my footsteps, green and earthy. The forest floor stuck to my feet like chocolate cake, damp and loamy, and layers of autumn duff ruffled in my passing like a field of reeds. The air was heavy with the spores of fungi and moss, and as the sky lightened I found that the walls of what had been the exhibition were greening, decaying, and at the edges browning to ridge with fungi and symbiotic lichen colonies. I stepped forward and watched the walls at my passing become tagged with living graffiti, lichen marking the trees as the artwork of the world. Of the woods.

I walked between the birch and oak and spruce, that manifold forest, as the air rose. The walls broke into lines in the ground, and then nothing. They could not stop me anymore. I kept walking. Frost crackled at my feet and froze in my lungs as the fog of night lifted, and like a great exhale the heavens above cleared their spangled banners to make way for the great painted clarion call of sunrise that signalled the coming of day.

I breathed, and in my lungs a flood of honey-sweet and sap-sticky air ballooned. My mouth was not as sticky with sap as it had been in the exhibition, but the material coated my tongue and slicked my muscles, light and overpowering, lending me strength. No more did it gum the workings of my body; here, it was vital as oxygen. Back straight and breast puffed like a robin’s, I danced through the rising fog and between shafts of sunlight, powered by something stronger to go faster, further, to become brighter and wiser.

The woods were glorious. Hardwoods, birches, pines, and an underbrush of swordferns and autumn maples whose downed wildfires of leaves crackled at my passing. And through all of this, I did not turn around. I arrowed through the rising mist. The exhibition was gone. I knew this like I knew breathing, like I knew language. The pain of the past few days had vanished, a tightness in my chest finally loosening like the mist from the ground come the rising of the sun. And yet I found myself slowing every few hundred steps, remembering the audience, the betting, the begging, the art from nowhere that had looked like nothing. The curator.

Who decides the world one lives in? I thought as I walked. A boulder-scored hill shored my aimless direction, and instead of walking around it I climbed, scraping my hands and knees but bleeding only a thick, syrupy wax that hardened in pools. My body did not hurt. There is not one world, but many, and the life of one person is never the same as the life of another. If one person says that they cannot live between two worlds — that the world consists only of the waking — but the other person insists that the world is the dream, the waking, and all that comes between, who is right? How do you know?

I rose to the top of the hill. That power that lent me strength compelled me to look toward the sun, and I did. There, somewhere in the distance, a huge tree emerged from the pines.

I would go there.

But that was all for the future. For now, I was here. In the woods where things had meaning, body truly mine for the first time, sun bringing life to the eternal woods around me. Here, in the woods and nowhere else, I made my way into the rest of my life.

And so: I walked the woods. Descended the boulder, found myself swift-footed in the workings of a dripping sphagnum cloud forest. The heavens began their daily cacophony of jewel tones upon the cotton white of the clouds, and I and nobody else walked beneath that airborne white-quartz fleet and sea. Somewhere in the woods ahead, was the tree. The one I had made into a statue, and had placed myself inside. I would find it, and I would carve again — not for an audience, but for the love of doing the things I adored — and make the work again. And this time, perhaps, I would see my statue’s face in whole. Perhaps then, she would move as I stood there. And maybe — just maybe — she would hold my hand.

Why does this work exist?

Because giving up and giving into despair is only an option if you have given up. Because hating yourself and your work isn’t a method toward progress. Because courage is finding reasons to try something new and actually doing it even if that thing may result in embarrassment, a waste of time, or failure. Because art is more than the perception by its audience. Because criticism is not the end goal of art. Because beautiful things deserve to be loved by their creators, not endlessly pumped out. Because change is a volatile and necessary function in art. Because the world needs to see that art galleries are the greatest source of hate and strife there can be for an artist, who is forced to work on tight deadlines imposed by others and living only on rations until the next showing because that is the sole way of making money. Because art should be celebrated for being art, not for its monetary value. Because to love art is to love your work, and to love your work you must not hate it, and to hate your work is what is enforced by the art world as of late. Because beautiful things deserve to be seen, but having it criticised alone means not seeing the work for what it is but by some standard metric. Because tradition is peer pressure by dead people. Because to love what you do is to love the inherent experience of being a person who does that thing. Because loving your own art is the purest form of loving yourself. Because if you cannot face your own art, it is because you are afraid to look in the mirror. Because if you cannot face your art, then you cannot dream. Because dreams are made of mirrors exclusively. Because denying one’s ability to create freely is the greatest form of damage one can do to oneself.

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