Every day, for the past six months I had watched the new girl paint in the park.
The other art students fumbled with their equipment feverishly, hurriedly, as if afraid that they would vanish with their vapid, vacant inspirations. I almost felt disgusted, watching their ruthlessly business-like brushes jerk along to faceless technique upon their blank, expressionless canvases.
But the girl always seemed disinterested in her canvas and the waiting palette. She would run her fingers along the sparse grass, watch the clouds scudding with the whims of the wind, her eyes unfocused, searching, always searching.
And then suddenly she would accost her sleeping canvas, its blind eyes unseeing. Her right hand, so fragile and beautiful, would clasp the eyelash-lidded brush in its vein-laced grasp. And quietly, softly, she would paint gentle caressing strokes, like she was awakening a dream asleep in itself.
While her counterparts devoured canvas after canvas greedily, in a matter of mere days, she worked unceasingly on her single canvas. Every day her painting budded and grew, petal by petal. It was the form of a flower, but it was a living, breathing flower, the colours alive with her changing moods. Butterflies slowly bubbled into existence from formless sloshes of wayward flames of contrasting hues. Some fluttered near the crown of the flower, and some were strangled by tendrils that shot up from the heart of the flower’s cruel red mouth. Shadows crept around the smiling voluptuous lips of the hungry face, eating away the velvet petals, bleeding into the blue of the fading background. The flower began to shift slightly, veering towards the left of the painting, imbuing a disturbing, jarring asymmetry.
At first I felt apprehensive of approaching her, but my piqued interest soon overcame my inhibitions.
After the first month of my secret ruminations about her work, and after completing the usual banal pleasantries and introductions, I asked her what she was painting, and why.
“I started out painting what I thought was a vivid, fertile flower…But somehow it seems to have become something else entirely. I don’t know what it is anymore,” she answered, her mouth twisting into a smile.
“So the captured butterflies represent the reapers of nectar becoming the hunted…it could mean a lot of deep things,” I ventured.
“No, I think it’s just morphed into some kind of Monster Flower…” she laughed light-heartedly, disparagingly, but I thought her eyes looked so delightfully earnest.
“Is the asymmetry deliberate?” I asked.
“Of course! I am an art student after all…I wouldn’t make that kind of mistake!”
I was captivated by everything about her, her willing smile, her seriousness, the charming blasé ease with which she embraced the possibility of being different. What had started out as a vague interest in seeing the creation of art, as a sort of closure to my own unrequited artistic impulses became a daily pilgrimage. I cajoled her into giving me her number, asked her out to coffee, and bored my friends with unceasing anecdotes about her endless eccentricities. I haunted the park with unbecoming lover-like tenacity in the hope of seeing her, talking to her, watching her paint her strange changing canvas.
At last her painting was finished. I was effervescent with blooming praise, complimenting her on everything from the hue of the petals to the unsettling sense of restlessness her painting seemed to embody. She blushed, and her eyes, timid for someone who had created something so visually arresting, grew bright and hopeful.
“I hope my teachers like it…My class mates have finished so many paintings, and I only have this one.”
“Don’t worry,” I reassured her, wondering why she needed encouragement from me, wondering where her indomitable fearlessness had vanished, “I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.”
And then I understood. She was baring her soul openly to the world, to a merciless world, that only wished to categorize everything into safe, neat parcels. She was afraid of the risks she had taken because they were a personification of herself. The possible rejection meant more than dry, impersonal criticism.
I left the park that day, hoping, praying, that my words would be portent of the future.
I did not see her for the next couple of weeks. She seemed to have vanished suddenly from the face of the earth.
She did not answer my increasingly frantic phone calls. As a last desperate resort that embarrassed me beyond measure, I even went to her apartment, which seemed empty. She no longer appeared in the park with the other students. I waited in vain, heedless of the jeering attention and mockery I inevitably attracted from the students.
One day I had been sitting on a park bench adjacent to the main road, when I saw her, carrying her usual art equipment. I resisted the urge to rush to her, and walked calmly towards her, as if I had not been waiting for her.
“Oh hi,” she said breathlessly.
“Hi,” I said, “You haven’t been coming to the park? Where have you been?”
“Yeah, well…” she said evasively, and I saw that her left hand was heavily bandaged. She looked different somehow, more subdued; something seemed to have been quenched from her. Her mouth seemed to have grown more tired; it did not lift itself into a smile as readily as before.
“My teachers didn’t like the painting,” she said, in a hollow voice, “They especially hated the asymmetry. They told me to center the flower.”
“I know it’s unconventional, but didn’t you explain how you wanted it to make the viewer feel uneasy and all that?” I protested.
She shrugged her slight shoulders in studied nonchalance; I could see the pain in the shifting, awkward fingers of her undamaged hand.
“So how did you center the flower?” I asked.
She looked me in the eye then, a dying dimple bruising her cheek. Her slender fingers reached up to her face in a nervous gesture, and my gaze strayed again to her injury.
“I cut the canvas.”