What I wanted to know was this: What does it feel like to create something wondrous? To have a vision and then to perfectly translate that vision onto canvas?
Only sentimental valuenothing expensiveVillageCity
None of her belongings—a mix of coldly modern acquisitions and colorful trinkets from her rural upbringing—were appealing, and yet I wanted all of them. The stained coffee mug. The china soap dish. The chandelier and the claw-foot bathtub. I would be a genius, too, if the university paid for me to soak in this tub, if I had the time to soak in it, if I didn’t have four courses to teach at three different colleges, if I didn’t have my two sons. But, of course, people don’t give you things so you can become a genius. They give them because you are a genius.
I sat on the edge of an overstuffed armchair. She lay deflated on the sofa, her kimono like an enormous blanket.
“Well?” she asked.
“This chair,” I choked, because I had to choose something.
“That’s it?” she asked. “Fine. I’ve already added you to my will. The chair you can take. The money is contingent upon a favor.”
It was in college, the Genius told me, that I sold my soul to the Devil. I asked to be the greatest artist of my generation. Not of all time—I was modest. That’s a joke. I know this makes you uncomfortable. You can’t even look me in the eye. Karla reacted the same way. Wondering if the cancer has gotten to my brain. It hasn’t. It’s just that these matters—death, the Devil—don’t make me uncomfortable. I’m still a village girl. The Devil is a part of our world. He isn’t hard to summon, either—a candle, a mirror, some blood. You can use any language. You could probably summon him right now. Rip off that cuticle you’re chewing on—a spot of blood is enough. It’s not the ritual; it’s what’s in your heart.
I asked him to make me the best and now here I am. The best. The price is what you expect—my immortal soul. An easy trade. It’s hard to explain—how I could believe in the Devil, talk to the Devil, but be so skeptical about Hell. Maybe because I was young. Now I am a little more concerned. I am very concerned. Don’t let my calm nature fool you. I am terrified.
She didn’t seem terrified. She didn’t seem like she was joking or delusional from disease. She simply watched me. I was curious what the Genius saw. Perhaps my face deconstructed into her signature black shapes; her talent biological, a lens in her eye, something no amount of study or hard work could achieve.
“Of course,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Goodbye.” A curt farewell, especially considering the farewell might be our last—or perhaps it was because every farewell might be her last. She was tired from all the possibly-final farewells. Her face turned to the side, her eyes fluttered shut, and she was asleep before I closed the door.
In the lobby, I saw the Genius again—the Genius, but thicker, wearing the kerchief and black shoes of an old woman.
Her sister. Together with Karla, we would fulfill the Genius’s final request. Three women, three days, guarding against Hell.
I understood why the Genius didn’t like the sister, didn’t associate with her. She would be embarrassing at a reception or gallery, just as she was embarrassing here in the art deco lobby of this expensive building. Too embarrassing for me to introduce myself.
Yet it was as if she knew who I was. She stared at me through eyes of different sizes, appraising me like she was the judge, the innkeeper, the Lord, and I the ragged stranger appearing out of the stormy wilderness, asking for shelter.
I could tell she found me wanting, but the decision had been made. The Genius asked me and I had agreed, and as if she had been waiting to secure my agreement, the Genius died that night.
We were eighteen years old when we met; Karla from the city, me from the suburbs, the Genius from that backward village, all sheep and cabbage and bare-shelved markets hung with flypaper.
Karla’s mother was a professor at the university and her father an art dealer. Karla knew the galleries, had attended dinner parties with famous artists. I was in awe of her sophistication and knowledge and was certain that, of us all, she would be the famous artist. Parentage is destiny, I thought.
On weekends, I went to the museums Karla knew too well to visit. I frequented the cafés she mentioned, ordering the cheapest wine, writing down the names of the most expensive in my little notebook. Karla’s father had gifted us all little notebooks, rough-cut pages with leather covers and leather cords to tie them closed, raw on one side like a cat’s tongue.
Karla’s notebook was full of quotes—Rilke on the nature of art, Einstein on the nature of space. The Genius’s was full of black-ink spiderwebs and words that meant nothing to me: thread the needle, cumulus, dark bark quark. When she wasn’t in our flat, she was in the art building’s basement studio, splattering canvas after canvas, juvenilia long since destroyed. A lone scrap, now, would be valuable enough for me to stop teaching and splatter my own canvases.
The summer before our final year, the Genius painted her first black outline. It was marvelous, striking, experimental. A breakthrough. It was obvious she would win every accolade at our final student show. She refused to speak of such things—Was she modest? Was she superstitious? Did she care for nothing but the art itself?—but she invited her father to school for the first time. He was thickly built with wind-chapped cheeks, and he crossed the university gallery in rubber boots. I wondered if he understood that his daughter was a genius. Because it was apparent, by then, that she was the special one. How awkward he must feel in these academic trappings, I thought pityingly, as I watched him shake hands with Karla’s father, who wore a silk tie and matching pocket square, and my own father, who occasionally took us three students to dinner at one of the passable restaurants near campus.
After the Genius received her awards, Karla’s father treated us to a round of top-shelf liquor, toasting our successes and our futures. The Genius’s father cleared his throat and I braced myself in anticipation of some stilted speech in that awful accent they shared, but he spoke eloquently. The Genius, who had remained stone-faced all night, burst into tears and kissed both his cheeks.
They’re long since dead, our parents. As you grow older, you meet more people but grow ever more alone. Or so it’s been for me; I shouldn’t speak for others, certainly not for the Genius, who always had a coterie, an entourage, and if our friendship faded it was only because it embarrassed me to hover around her. It exhausted me, to always wonder how much of my affection was hunger for status or favors. To have tea with the Genius was a test, like a finger pressing meat on a grill. Is it tender or tough, is there any blood left. Except not a finger, but my soul. Or perhaps my soul, the meat.
This was what I agreed to: For exactly one night and one day, I would sit by her corpse, refusing entry to all visitors except Karla and the sister. In exchange, I would inherit enough money to buy a year of time, time all to myself, to paint. To—maybe, finally—paint my own masterwork.
As I packed my things—a toothbrush, a change of clothes, my sketchbook—I wondered if it was all a contrivance so I might save face. The money was charity, as was her playing the fool. The Genius was not known for her sense of humor, but she did have an appreciation for the absurd, and whatever levity she intended was often masked by her seriousness. How arrogant she’s become, I thought more than once, only to realize later that she was kidding, testing the sycophants around her.
It exhausted me, to always wonder how much of my affection was hunger for status or favors.
But if she was testing me now, she would never know the outcome. She was dead, lying on her bed beneath a heavy black blanket, her hair bright against a black pillow. I wondered if this was her normal bedding—each night a rehearsal for the grave—or if she purchased the linens specifically for this bizarre wake. Macabre ambiance; camouflage for unseemly leakage or stains.
Karla stood beside me, smoking a cigarette, exhausted after her shift. I shouldn’t ask about the sheets, I thought; I was only obsessing over them because I didn’t want to think about how small the Genius looked, like a mummified cat posed in her enormous bed.
“You let me in,” I said. “How could you be sure I wasn’t the Devil?”
Karla exhaled a bitter cloud, adding to the smog from the thick ivory candles and the bouquet of incense sticks. I felt like I was breathing in cloves and dirt.
“Are you the Devil?” she asked flatly.
“Good.” She sucked the cigarette, hissed smoke. “This—this is peasant shit. But she was a peasant before she was a genius. I guess we all were. It’s still legal to keep a body at home for religious reasons—even in summer. There are ice packs under the blanket.”
“Did you . . . place them?”
“Not me. The sister.”
She had taken the first day, Karla the second, and I would now sit for the third and final shift. Why can’t we wait together? I wondered at first. It had been years since I had spent so much time alone with Karla, or any friend; it could be like our college days. I rejected the idea quickly, though. It was too late for that kind of intimacy.
“Her sister was reluctant to leave,” Karla continued. “She didn’t trust me to do a careful job, and perhaps she was right.” She paused. “Maybe you are the Devil.”
Karla left and I took out my new sketchbook and freshly sharpened pencils.
I used to draw at night, long ago, before my children. My whole life was divided into before my children, when my ideas mattered, at least to me, and after, when everything else mattered more. But I loved my boys and I could hardly blame them for existing, since they were my idea in the first place.
Karla had lifted an eyebrow when I announced my first pregnancy, though she also had a baby. (“I can afford to hire people!” she said.) The Genius was pleased for me. She held the infant in her arms, spit on his head—an old protection ritual—and cooed that she was his Aunty. The title didn’t stick. It was awkward, I think, even to a baby. The Genius had never been demonstrative.
She promised to paint a mural in his bedroom, and though I had planned on doing that myself, I was grateful. I left the walls blank. Ultimately, she sent a check instead, and like the moniker, the mural was never mentioned again. So I painted it myself—a moon and sun, a boat on a river, baby jungle animals. It was good—great, even, for nursery art, but that’s all it was.
Now I set the book and pencils on the Genius’s dining table. Amazing, to work at the same place she did. She had a studio, but surely at some point she must have sat at this table and sketched or jotted an idea in one of her little leather notebooks—she still used the same kind Karla’s father had given us so many years ago. (I found a shopping bag full of them, all blank, beneath the rolltop desk.) At the very least, she must have had an idea at this table, eating cabbage or sashimi or whatever it was she ate.
I remembered I hadn’t brought anything for dinner.
The refrigerator was empty except for supplemental milkshakes and the cabinets held only a small canister of oats, store-brand tea bags, and a couple cans of beets.
I called the restaurant where we’d celebrated the Genius’s college awards, Karla’s wedding, and the Genius’s first six-figure sale. (By the time she was receiving seven figures, and more, it would have been gauche to celebrate). My ex-husband had suggested it for our son’s graduation, but it didn’t seem right. It wasn’t for family.
I ordered a steak—bloody, dressed in marrow sauce—and waited among the flowerpots on the narrow balcony. Here, the Genius must have had ideas too. She must have always been having ideas. I had ideas all the time. I maintained a careful inventory of them in my own little notebooks. I tended them like a virgin might fold and refold the linens in her trousseau, dreaming of the day when I might immerse myself in them.
But now that the time was here, I didn’t want it. It was like a bad smell hovered over my sketch pad. I couldn’t get near it. The very best of my ideas, the ones that seemed tender with ripeness, suddenly felt soft with rot. As soon as I placed pencil on paper, I would ruin them.
So I called home instead. My younger son answered.
“Are you with Karla?” he asked, his words slurred. It was 10 p.m.; I had woken him.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a kind of vigil. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s just that I have a test tomorrow.”
Bad artist, bad mother. Good for what?
“Yes, I remember now,” I lied. “Go back to sleep. Give the phone to your brother.”
He hesitated. “He’s sleeping too.”
I lied to them, but should I let them lie to me? It didn’t matter; my good boy was too good. He admitted his brother was at his girlfriend’s house.
“Are you okay by yourself?” I asked.
“I’m fine, Mom. See you tomorrow.”
I had dreamed of this for seventeen years—to be loved but not to be needed so desperately. And yet, hanging up the phone, I felt empty.
The rot wasn’t over the sketch pad. It was inside me.
There was a knock at the door.
Could it be, already, the restaurant? No, it was far too quick. I imagined the police demanding entry, finding me alone with a dead body, and me explaining: In her will, you see . . . I’m just drawing, you see . . . (but the pages are blank).
I hesitated at the door. “Yes?” I called.
I swung the brass panel from the peephole.
The fish-eye lens distorted the cloaked and hooded figure outside, swelling his chest, his whiskery chin. He leaned in, as if he could see me through the peephole, and his wet lower lip expanded like a balloon.
I stepped back, let the tiny brass door close.
“Ma’am,” the man repeated, his voice deep and cold. The skin on the back of my neck prickled. “Ma’am. I have your order.”
I pulled the door back the two inches the chain lock allowed. I folded up a bill and slid it through the gap. I shut the door again and twisted the knob lock.
“Leave the bag,” I said.
“Leave the bag,” I repeated, my voice creaky with anxiety.
“It’s not right,” he said. “The money. Let me show you.”
The knob shuddered in the door.
“It’s too much,” the black-cloaked stranger insisted. “Let me show you.”
“Leave the bag,” I said one more time, and, finally, silence.
I peered through the peephole. He was gone.
Shaking like a fool, I unlocked the door, snatched the bag from the empty hall, and slid the dead bolt into place.
A crack of thunder.
The delivery man’s cloak—it was just a rain slicker.
I stepped onto the balcony. I wanted to see the man, this ordinary man, but the glistening sidewalks were deserted.
I came back inside and locked the French doors, a simple hook latch. I unknotted the drapery ties, and the pale linen expanded like wings over the glass.
I sat at the table and opened my dinner beside my blank sketch pad. I was no longer hungry, but I ate every bite. When I stood, the paper was spotted with grease.
At midnight, I lay down on the sofa, my head on the opposite end from where she slept during our final visit. I pulled my knees to my chest, so my feet wouldn’t touch the cushion where she sat. Rain spattered the windows, the French doors rattled, the wind whooshed against the high-rise like a river through a gulley. I listened to the storm for hours, or so it seemed, until some tide shifted within me and I woke. I realized I had been sleeping, and then I fell asleep again, and my consciousness rocked gently between waking and not.
And then a knock at the door.
I sat up, pushing my hair back, licking the film from my teeth.
Another knock. It wasn’t against the front door, but the French doors to the balcony.
A tall silhouette loomed behind the drapes.
It must be a trick of the light, the wind, I thought, though the storm had died down, just a distant current of tires on wet asphalt.
The deliberate knock came again.
He was here.
The Devil is like genius; you know it when you see it.
“Go away!” I shouted.
The silhouette shrunk to half its height.
“Help!” a child’s voice cried. “Help me, please!”
I stood, but moved no closer to the door.
“Please let me in!” the voice said and punctuated its plea with a sob.
I was frightened, but I was also insulted. As if because I was a woman, a mother, I would be scammed by such low tricks.
“I am not opening these doors.”
“Please! It’s slippery! I’ll fall!”
I didn’t move. The insistent knocking became a series of violent bangs, though the silhouette itself remained still. The doors shook, but the latch held.
The Devil is like genius; you know it when you see it.
The Devil could not enter without my permission. For an instant, I felt powerful, but then the Devil shrieked, a needle sliding into my ear; the silhouette blew up and darkness filled every window. Frightened, I ran into the Genius’s bedroom and slammed the door.
Nothing had changed in the bedroom since I arrived; even the thick white candles hadn’t burned any lower. The storm had returned and drummed against the windows, one on my right and one behind the headboard. I detected another sound, too, a whirring.
It circled above the candles, like it was born of their thin smoke, and then it came to rest on her forehead. A chill slid down my neck. I was here to protect her, if not from an imagined Devil, then at least from indignity. She was one of my oldest friends though I barely knew her; I hated her, but I loved her too, and love is responsibility. Who, I wondered, would keep watch over my body?
I walked toward her. My leg brushed the tightly made bed with a crackle—a plastic sheet beneath the black linen. Quickly, as quickly as I could, I brushed the fly from her forehead. So quickly, I didn’t even register the quality of her skin—warm or cold, supple or stiff.
The Genius’s eyes opened.
I leapt back, straight into the dresser, a knob sticking into the middle of my spine.
Her eyes were half open, less than half open; just the slightest space where her lashes once met. So slight that perhaps they had been in this position the whole time and I had failed to notice.
I sat on the floor. I did what I had promised to do; I guarded her soul, wherever it might be. Perhaps it sat by the bed like a nurse, spirit hand atop cold mortal hand, or it hovered against the ceiling, or flitted corner to corner, a trapped moth. Or it was inside her body still, peering through eyes too enchanted to close.
Was it worth it? I could have asked. But she wouldn’t know yet; she hadn’t yet fulfilled or canceled her deal. And anyway, sitting on the floor, the air thick with smoke and incense and the scent they were meant to mask, I only had one question.
“What does it feel like?” I asked. “What does it feel like to be a genius?”
I didn’t mean what does it feel like to be wealthy, to be loved and revered, to receive awards and be hosted at parties, to receive fan letters and nervous introductions from young artists. I didn’t mean: What does it feel like to have people eagerly await your work, a hungry audience, pregnant with awe? I didn’t even mean: What does it feel like to have enemies and critics, just as eager for your work so they might condemn it? Those answers are easy to imagine. For example: It feels good. It feels fantastic!
No. What I wanted to know was this: What does it feel like to create something wondrous? To have a vision and then to perfectly translate that vision onto canvas? To will your hand into a certain movement and have it obey? What does it feel like to see the world the way the Genius did, and to move other people to see it the same way? What does it feel like to have a once-in-a-generation insight about color and space, and to see that insight spread like wind across a field?
Or, no, forget the field. Forget the audience. Forget the electric spark of one mind stirring another. What does it feel like to be that first mind? To produce that spark? What does it feel like to have a truly amazing idea?
What does it feel like to create something wondrous?
Is it lonely? To live a kind of life very few—if any—can relate to? To have no one who can say, Ah, yes. Me too. I understand.
The Genius never married. There were a few men and one woman, always introduced as friends, sometimes called, by third parties, “partner.” I assumed she was married to her work. That she didn’t have the time or energy one must devote to a relationship. Or, perhaps, she could never love any person the way she loved her painting.
Who felt pity for the Genius’s loneliness? Not me. I took a spiteful pleasure in telling her about my family. Many have said to me—so many, all women—that my children are my greatest creation. That no canvas can compare to a child, that no artistic triumph can compare to a mother’s joy and love.
Those people are idiots, and they are legion. Even the Devil, here to seduce me, saw me as no more than a mother.
At 3 a.m., there was a knock at the front door.
I returned to the main room.
The apartment was milky with storm light and smelled like meat from the leavings of my dinner, still on the table by the blank sketchbook.
I swung the brass panel aside and put my eye to the peephole.
First, there was just an eye, a bloodshot planet with a black core, and then she stepped back and her body reformed into its natural shape. The sister. She wasn’t supposed to arrive until 7 a.m., to end our watch and summon the funeral home, but I was glad she doubted me. I didn’t want to be alone in the apartment anymore.
I slid the bolt back, unhooked the chain, and opened the door with such enthusiasm I nearly lost my balance.
“Come in,” I said. “Come in! What a strange night! I thought it would be easy—I mean, I thought it wouldn’t be so disturbing—I mean, I thought I would manage by myself—but . . .” I rambled on to this woman I had never met, except for passing each other in the lobby. I felt repulsed by her then—so old-fashioned, so unstylish, so the opposite of the Genius, and even though I rarely felt like the stylish one myself, beside her, I did. I felt superior. No longer.
She shut the door behind her, closed the bolt, fastened the chain.
“Has the Devil come yet?” she asked. Her voice was high, sweet—not what I expected. The Genius herself was slight but her voice had a gravity to it, unless that was something I imagined, something I attributed to her.
“Well,” I began, wringing my hands. “I swore I heard someone, saw someone, on the balcony. No, I did hear him. He pretended to be a child so I’d let him in, and when I didn’t, he disappeared. And there was a delivery man too. I ordered dinner. I know, it was against the rules! What can I say? I’m sorry. It was a mistake. He was very strange. He wore a hood and he tried to turn the knob. Sure, it was raining, and I did eat the food.” This admission as she rounded the table, tapped the wood beside the greasy container, disgusted by the cold bone, disgusted by my rambling.
Why shouldn’t I ramble? My friend was dead and the Devil was afoot. And I was an artist! A mother must keep her sensitivities to herself, lest her children be traumatized by seeing the strain and heartbreak they inflict upon her. A teacher must be organized and competent, maintaining a constant judicious tone, turning in her grades on time, lest she be replaced by one of the many qualified candidates queuing by the door. Couldn’t I, for once, be indulgent?
She gestured to the notebook. “Did I interrupt your work?”
“No. I thought I might, but . . . I couldn’t.”
“I admit, I’ve always been jealous of you,” the sister said. “You artists. I’ve never been able to draw. Or sing or dance or write. Well, I have done all of those things. I was in the school choir. I’ve danced at weddings and written letters. It’s something deeper I lack. The urge to sing. The connection between mind and body. The ability to craft a turn of phrase that might express my ideas’ distinctiveness. For our ideas do seem distinct, don’t they?”
“They do,” I agreed.
“I wonder what it feels like,” she said. “To create.”
“It feels like being alive. It feels like being in love. It feels like a wave inside you.” I paused. “But it feels miserable too, trying to put that idea into color or line. Or afterward, when you appraise the color or line, and see it’s not quite what you meant. Not what you meant at all. And you try to fix it, but with each attempt the idea recedes, until it’s gone, and you can barely remember it.”
“Or remember how good it felt,” she said. “I imagine.”
She sat on the couch, right where the Genius sat when she told me about the Devil. “I’m glad I came early so we could talk. My sister never did like to discuss her process, as she called it. It’s nice to talk to an artist.”
I sat beside her. I didn’t tell her that it was nice to speak as an artist—no one asked me these questions, not anymore. Occasionally a student would, but it was always just so they would have a turn, so I would ask them about their artistic life.
You don’t know what it’s like to be an artist until you know what it’s like to have no one care about your work.
The Genius knew. She knew that pain so well that she was willing to trade herself to the Devil.
“She never told me about her process either,” I said. “Or about life in the village. About . . .” About you, I thought.
She laughed. “We had very different lives,” she said, as if reading my thoughts.
That’s when I knew. The fly buzzing at her head, the liquid darkness of her eyes, the faint smell of rot, which could be drifting in on the tide of incense from the Genius’s bedroom but was in fact coming from beside me.
The Devil rose from the couch. She didn’t stretch any taller, didn’t take on any sheen or glamour. In fact, she grew uglier, her body lumpy, like a straw doll in the rain. Her hair was like straw too, muddy and coarse. Her teeth, when she smiled, were gummy and brown.
“Why should I dress up for you?” she asked, reading my mind again. “You’re no one special.”
I pushed her aside, grabbed the tarnished cross from the wall, and heaved it at her. It hit her head with a thunk and fell to the wooden floor, scratching it.
The Devil laughed deep in her throat. “What an unoriginal idea,” she said. “And ineffective—in concept and execution.”
“I’m here to stop you,” I said. “To stop you from claiming my friend’s soul.”
“No, no, no,” she said. “Once again, you misunderstand. You’re here to refuse me entry. You have failed. But you know how that feels.”
“It’s not true,” I protested. “There must be a way. There—”
She held up a hand and my voice turned solid in my throat.
“Let’s not waste our time,” she said. Her girlish voice frayed into something breathy and hoarse. “Her soul is mine. It always was. You cannot save her through wit or virtue. The contract is unimpeachable. You have nothing I want.”
My voice freed itself. “I do have something,” I said. “My soul.”
“You would trade your soul for your friend’s?” the Devil asked.
I remained silent. Of course, that’s not what I meant; we both knew this was not what I meant.
I told myself I came to do a favor for a friend, but all along I had another reason. A genius must be selfish. What’s different for them is that other people believe they’re right to be selfish.
I had come to make my own deal.
“One genius dies,” the Devil said. “One genius is born.”
A genius must be selfish.
After I made my agreement with the Devil, she walked into Mila’s bedroom and disappeared. Mila’s sister, clearly human this time, arrived as scheduled at 7 a.m. I returned home, received my inheritance, resigned from my summer classes, and rented a studio.
I looked at the blank canvas and I understood.
Mila had her birds, her patterns, her black on white. Shapes. Space. Presence and absence. The Devil gave me color. I saw so much more.
But there’s no point in trying to articulate that. The only way to understand is to see the work. And there’s no point in trying to describe it here, in this document to be delivered to you, Karla, upon my death, which I sense is drawing near. Not because my body is failing, though it has been for years now. I know my death is coming because the Devil is lurking. Lightning and the smell of burning, rot and flies. Sometimes I see her in the shadows against my windowpane.
So we must talk—or I must talk, and I hope you will listen—about the Devil.
When I showed you the four pieces I painted my first summer as a genius, you said, “Mila would be thrilled.” You meant that I had used her money to return to art, but you also meant the canvases themselves. You loved them. You immediately knew they were special. They were the work of a once-in-a-generation talent.
You tried so hard, Karla. It wasn’t because we were friends. You run a business; you have a reputation to maintain. You tried because you knew my work was brilliant. A few others did too. One of our old professors stood before one painting for the entire show and returned the next day to stand in front of it again. A stranger knelt and kissed my hand. The critic who wrote the blurb in Artforum pitched a review, an essay, an interview to a thousand more publications—I know, because she appeared at my studio door with tears in her eyes. She had tried, she had tried so hard. “They’re genius,” she wept. “Why won’t anyone pay attention?”
Oh, how I had longed for someone to call my work “genius.” But it was the bitterest thing I had ever heard.
You didn’t sell any of my canvases. You advised me to wait until I got the price I deserved, the kind of sale that launches a career. Finally, when I told you I was too busy teaching to paint—Mila’s money had run out—you sold them for a pittance so I could go on working. But why? What was the point? What is one to do with one’s genius if no one sees it?
It didn’t bring me joy. It was just there.
“Don’t give up!” you told me. A familiar cry; we repeated it together in college and afterward, as everyone we knew slowly gave up in one way or another—gave up the hope of great success, or the hope of making a living, or even love for the work itself.
I refused to give up. I painted Mila’s Village.
The thing about genius, I once thought, is that it’s unique. You see the world unlike any other. Not true, not always true. For I saw exactly what Mila was doing in those last paintings, and through them, I could imagine her plan for the project she never completed. When I finally finished, months later, I invited you to my studio.
As soon as you entered, you saw the canvas—huge—and it silenced you. You were surprised, and then emotional, and then calculating. You narrowed your eyes at me.
“It’s Mila’s final painting,” I said.
“Where did you find it?” you asked, though there was paint stuck under my fingernails like a victim’s blood.
“You’re the executor,” I said. “Where did you find it?”
I need not recount what came next: the conspiracy, the grand sale, and then the “new” pieces, sixteen small and unfinished canvases that the sister discovered in Mila’s village residence. The sister got a cut too, though not as big as mine. It has been enough, more than enough, for me to retire, if not enlarge my lifestyle. Which is fine—we don’t want anyone asking too many questions.
And all the while I’ve painted my own work. A few people see that I’m a genius. Most don’t. I can’t stop myself from giving paintings to my sons, though they only hang them in guest rooms or put them in storage. No one “likes” genius. No one “enjoys” genius. One experiences transcendence or one is put off. I’m ecstatic when I’m working—though no more, really, than I was before. The rest of the time I’m cranky, and soon I will be dead, and none of my paintings will be any more valuable.
So there you have it. My story. My confession.
Mila admitted to me she was terrified of damnation. Perhaps that terror will hit me too. Mostly, though, I think of seeing loved ones again. My ex-husband, for one. He was no demon, but I doubt he was saved, unless he repented in his final moments. It would be nice to catch up, to look back on our lives when none of it matters anymore.
And Mila. I would like to see Mila again. I would like to tell her what I did and what I saw and how it felt. I would like, finally, to have a true conversation with her, as equals. We were friends, after all, for so many years. She can’t hold my failure to save her soul against me. Who can defeat the Devil?
Mila asked us to guard her body, to save her. I could ask you the same, but the request is unfair. So I’m just telling you, Karla. I received everything I wanted in life and it was fine. Let them bury me swiftly, and do not weep at my grave.
I’m also telling you that if you’re curious, open the second envelope. It has all you need to keep my body at home—permission from the city, notarized instructions that my sons will hate but cannot defy. Wait with me, if you will, and the Devil will come. I know you want it too—to be a genius. We all want it. It’s not worth it, but that doesn’t matter. The disappointment of receiving is far less painful than the hurt of wanting. So if you’re better than me, refuse, and if not, well, perhaps Hell is just another version of our college studios and student bars, and we’ll be together again—you and me and Mila—painting for eternity, showing our work, being sent back, and painting again.
Stephanie Feldman is the author of the novels Saturnalia, forthcoming in fall 2022, and The Angel of Losses, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the multi-genre anthology Who Will Speak for America? and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Electric Literature, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Maine Review, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She lives outside Philadelphia with her family.