This episode is run in honor of Non-Binary People’s Day on July 14. If you are interested in reading more fiction by non-binary authors, check out A.C. Wise’s review series, “Non-Binary Authors to Read.”
by Penny Stirling
I brush water in thin lines down my right arm before adding green pigment. Colour spreads down each lane. I twist my arm to surface tension’s extent and then past it, letting the paint escape.
Think how lovely I could be covered in watercolours. Gradients with geometric patterns, perhaps, or precise stripes with thought-provoking colour-mixing drips. Now and then a performance piece, using my own sweat to blur and degrade my body’s art.
No I sloppily write in water across the smeared lines as disrelish seethes inside me, shaking my arm — no — and washing the brush — no — and writing no until my arm is clean.
I am running out of paints to try.
Red, pink, orange.
Older Brother wears the Duchess’s prizewinning roses, witch-tattooed to bloom and wither on a weekly cycle. When she entertains guests — usually inside but in her garden on warm summer days — he wears naught but a sculpted skirt to wander as a flower vase.
Every night he covers his roses with thick strokes of rainbow paints — more dollops than a coat — that do not dry but instead smear and mix and splatter as his body slides and rubs against the Duchess’s eldest son. Since the betrothal ceremony they are no longer allowed to flirt in public, but no one knows that the Duchess’s son prefers paint to engagement rings if they’re both clean and proper before morning.
“Will you go with him when he marries?” I ask Older Brother as he checks the garden’s roses for pests.
Of course. “You could take over my duties,” he signs, winking. The betrothed lady doesn’t care for roses, he later confides. The Duchess won’t allow it, he frets. But, he muses, if someone else could be roses, even unwitched ones, she just might.
I imagine being beset with roses, scentless yet still cloying, and I demur. After all, I am mid-puberty; our parents would never allow me tattoos yet. Even though he assures me he jests, I dream of their tattooed thorns slicing my skin.
Father’s back is a chess board, his chest backgammon, repainted every day. In his younger days his legs were strong and he could kneel or stand, bent over, for an entire game but now he lies on a divan while the Duchess and her mother play games on him. When the Duchess’s children were younger his arms were often covered in tic-tac-toe grids.
Sorting threads for his next embroidery project, he asks me how I’ll paint myself. I don’t know. I keep trying different things but . . .
“You’ll figure it out,” he says with a voice so full of trust and confidence it makes my stomach hurt the nights I lay awake staring so unsure at my unvarnished flesh.
Fountain pen ink.
Paint I write on the back of my hand. Paint. Paint. The black ink spiders.
I don’t paint. I don’t paint. Will I paint? Paint. Paint. Paint. Paint.
My pen has a thin nib and it takes a long time for the ink to overlap and coalesce into incoherency. It feels better than paint on my skin, but still it does not satisfy, does not reveal to me the pride I see on my parents’ and siblings’ faces.
Something must, surely. There has to be something that will bring joy to my skin and meaning to my life. I want, so much, to belong within my family not just in appearance or assurance. And yet I have tried so many paints. Will my facade be of happiness rather than pigment?
Mother most nights wears glass shard garlands over stripes of reflective paint and dances, surrounded by lanterns and brocade mirrors, for the Duchess. But on the eve of the new year she instead uses a mirror to ink faces of departed family, friends, respected enemies and honoured royalty onto her head and body. As the bells of midnight and the words of Auld Lang Syne usher in the new year, nestled between braziers she removes jacket and shirt then touches each face and whispers their names, her remembrance unheard but not unnoticed amongst the celebrations.
“What if I don’t paint myself?” I ask one day after previewing her new choreography. “What if I disappoint and find no paint that suits me? What if I am no colour but my skin’s?”
She smiles, shakes her head, and hugs me tight, stroking my hair like she would when I was a child waking from a nightmare. “Just because we all paint ourselves doesn’t mean that you must, my love,” she says and promises me I could never disappoint her.
(As a young dancer she had witched her painted stripes to undulate and coruscate as she moved — a performance I would love to see, but she gave up those routines upon deciding to continue courting Father. Magic residue on her arms sent him into anaphylactic shock during their first tryst. This eschewal of witched paints was one of many disappointments Grandmother never forgave.)
Mother’s assurances only make me more anxious.
Navy, midnight, umber.
Eldest Sister is painted camouflage during her nightly patrols of the estate, her muscles dyed with rumours and nuisance for poachers. Before breakfast — her dinner — she trains, and when dawn is early I sometimes watch her lift weights and such.
“What will you do if you don’t paint?” she asks as she checks her wrist strapping. “You hate studying, you can’t witch, you lack the endurance for a trade, you’d detest marriage. Are you going to dust shelves or cut lawns? Really? When you could earn your keep by just getting the twins to paint you as illusion and sitting around all day? There’s a lot of people’d be envious of the chance for an easy job.” She jabs at her punching bag, eyes narrowed at a target I can’t see. “Paint is a tool. It can grant us what we desire, but it doesn’t require being loved to do so.”
What is it that Eldest Sister desires? A frame and future never perfectible due to inherited hypersensitivity, their semblance only possible through hard work, no matter what designs she might try to paint on her body.
After the wedding of the Duchess’s eldest son, hours after his new wife has roused and made an appearance, servants go to wake him — and find Older Brother too, both of them still a union of limbs and paint, drying and sticky. But though solvent separates them, the Duchess does not. When the young husband and wife depart for her mothers’ country, it is not only her retinue that accompanies them. There were handprints in the paint, a maid tells me, too small for either man.
In exchange for Older Brother the Duchess is sent a gardener and seedlings. Before the wedding’s first anniversary we have beautiful kangaroo paws growing in the glasshouse. I feel the allure of committing their colours and strange shapes to my flesh, of never worrying again about how to paint my skin, but when I imagine them persisting in six or sixteen years’ time I feel only cold.
“Follow your heart,” Older Brother bid me, but of course a man whose lust was suddenly rewarded would.
Paint I write on my left leg with the flat of the lead. Paint. Is this my paint? I continue until there is more smudge than words on my leg and then, biting my lower lip, paint I write in the smeared graphite with an eraser.
I stare at the new paint — an absence, not paint at all — for a long while.
Younger Sister-Brother and Younger Brother are prodigies, fraternal twins with identical talent: the Duchess’s pride. They painted before they could talk, she tells her guests; pity they can’t test their genius with witched-paint. Their favourite performance is painting one another invisible, colours and patterns carefully matched to wallpaper or painting behind, but they are too talented for stagnation.
After pleading one day to borrow me they turn my body into a contest, two halves of a van Gogh recreation. “Which side wins?” they ask anyone passing by, and I restate for those who don’t understand sign language. My left is Younger Sister-Brother’s painting, my right is Younger Brother’s. No one praises one more than the other.
“Tomorrow da Vinci?” they ask and it is tempting to give in to the thought of paint without predilection, of appreciation without effort, but I tell them no, not tomorrow. I cannot imagine my happiness in their paint. But maybe sometime, I relent, because their matching disconsolate expressions are masterpieces unto themselves.
Flesh brown, chestnut brown.
Mother’s twin visits after zir latest exhibition and gifts her an unsold melancholic study of a beachgoer’s rainy afternoon. Four years ago ze was commissioned for a portrait of the Duchess but has been too busy with success and its opportunities; ze may not have taken to painting zir skin, but paint is still essential to zir. Now at last ze’s come, promising the delay’s experience will mean greater art, showering us with accumulated trinkets from the cities ze’s visited.
After the night’s patrol and breakfast Eldest Sister talks with zir about those cities where no one would know enough about a newcomer to misremember their past, where physical martial arts has a dedicated following even amongst the multitude of magic-enhanced fighting styles. Before lunch and schooling Younger Sister-Brother and Younger Brother, ecstatic in the presence of a trained and established artist, get critiques on their recreations and illusions with Mother translating. Come evening ze shares card games and stories with Older Sister, and once she has gone to bed ze talks with Mother and Father late into the night. (Ze and I speak, before breakfast, of relationships beyond romantic and platonic, the ways ze loves zir partners, the family ze has made.)
It is while the light is good in the afternoons that we watch zir work on the Duchess’s portrait, sketching her posed and painting her eerily lifelike. How strange zir paint is in comparison to everyone else’s: more properly artistic and yet less creative in zir technical prowess. Within me stirs an appreciation for what my parents and siblings accomplish with neither formal training nor traditional canvases, for how their paints display their practicality, personality and pride.
Even though I might no longer take for granted the beauty and skill that have surrounded me my whole life, when Younger Sister-Brother and Younger Brother paint on me a replica of the new portrait — to great applause by both its artist and the Duchess — I feel no inspiring surge of feelings towards the pigment on my skin, no sudden revelation or desire to replace my siblings’ work with my own paints.
It is later, contemplating my family’s creativity in removing paint from canvas, that inspiration arrives and brushes aside ingrained ideas of what paint and art can be.
Paint I cut out — the inside of the a a bit wonky — and lightly affix to my right arm with water drops. The dye in the paper runs a bit. Next I tear the paper sheets into small squares and overlay them into the word paint, water-gluing each square into a mass on my left foot, but upon standing up I see that distance smudges the torn edges and that layering variegates the saturation too much like watercolours.
So back to the scissors for sharp, exact squares. This time paint I mosaic, and when again I stand and check my foot it looks unlike anything my family paints. It’s not perfect, not yet, but it’s the closest I’ve been so far.
I will get there. I will.
Older Sister mixes floating paint baths and every day dips herself into new patterns. She favours swirls and zigzags on her limbs, imprecisely styled by brushwork and paint added to the bath, but for her torso she creates impressionist scenes. This week she has been illustrating Donkeyskin. I sit with her to see how she details the dresses.
“I don’t understand why you all paint,” I admit.
She can’t really explain why she chose these paints, she says, and taps my nose with a dress-the-colour-of-sky–marbled brush. It was, you know, “it just felt right,” or something. And continues to, she supposes.
Plum, grey, copper.
For the Duchess’s evening parties Father shows off his makeup. His gaming boards’ colours and lines are simple and strict; his face is where his expressiveness is displayed. Smokey look is his favourite, a meticulous blend of liner, mascara and four or five eyeshadows together with contouring and layers of lipstick and gloss. Backgammon is always played in the evening, so that his face is not upside down and ignored.
As he dabs concealer across my acne, so the twins won’t complain of hues clashing with the Starry Night they’ll reproduce on me tonight, I ask him to write paint across my cheeks before foundation is added.
“It’ll be too — wait, I know,” he says, and after some comparing of eyeshadows selects a neutral shade. Using his smallest brush — without questioning or deprecating — he writes the word on my eyelids and then covers it evenly.
The first who sees my paint is Eldest Sister. When she promises not to laugh I remove my jacket and reveal bared arms covered in layers of tissue paper, pencil and ink all spelling paint over and over. There are no patterns, there is no overall picture or purpose. Just paint paint paint, sparse enough in some areas to read individual letters and elsewhere too cacophonous to see anything but accumulation. She regards it with surprise.
“What . . . What do you think?”
“I think you’ll make everyone proud,” she says, and smiles and hugs me. “I hope it brings you closer to your dreams.”
When I begin to cry in relief and automatically wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand, smearing ink and graphite, she still smiles but she doesn’t laugh. Cleaning the mess from my face she tells me she used to do the same constantly and then, after a pause and with a low voice, says that if I also promise not to laugh she too has something to share.
(It was not a secret, as such, but it was significant to say it aloud.)
Later, after a weekend trip to town buying his first binders and new clothes, he gifts me a box full of patterned fabric squares, bright stiff paper sheets, jewellery wire, beads, drafting tape, calligraphy pens, and crayons.
Over Older Sister’s shadowy drowning scene from The Nixie of the Mill-Pond I chart constellations for the Duchess’s youngest child, bedbound with joint pain. We stand in eir darkened room and teach the winter sky from the glowing stars on Older Sister’s body: swan and hare beneath breast and the huntsman’s horrified face, centaur and scorpion touching hip and the nixie’s legs. The paint is witched and I wear long sleeves and long gloves, but the Duchess’s youngest has no allergy and soon eir cheeks are covered in luminescent celestial bodies.
“What do you think about me learning witching?” asks Older Sister. She points to her abdomen. Her illustrations have been getting less impressionist. “Imagine the water moving, bubbles rising, the huntsman’s fingers twitching.”
I grimace at the thought and the Duchess’s youngest begins offering even more grotesque animation ideas. It’ll be a lot of hard work — she knows — but Mother could teach her. And she would have to be careful around us. Unless . . .
“Of course I won’t stay here my whole life.”
One sibling gone already and now two more planning to leave. Almost all of my time is spent with family. What will I do when we are scattered?
(What . . . ? What will I do? What would I do if we did not scatter?)
She speaks of living alone or with a kindred creator to fully develop her painting, that she’d love to write her own stories to illustrate. Her fervour slowly turns my possessiveness to shame. “Of course,” she adds, smiling at me until I realize how glum I look, “that is years away.”
Grandfather witch-painted the dead’s faces on vellum that the then-Duke dropped into fire. Weak magic, enough for ghosts to sing in the new year before they faded away, until the Duke died and Grandfather followed his will’s last request.
The Duchess tells the story best when she’s drunk on chocolate rum balls and gin, mimicking everyone’s voices and going on long tangents: Grandfather, experimenting with witched-ink more potent than normal, drew the face of the deceased Duke on his own skin and let the ghost possess him. The Duke (our Duchess’s own grandfather) spent nine long corporeal hours — until dawn burnt up his spirit — gossiping about his husband’s new partner, insulting his heir’s redecorations and being so boorishly true-to-life that everyone began taking credit for his death.
Grandfather never taught Mother how to summon the dead with either flesh or vellum, but with most of her children inheriting Father’s allergies, magic-tinged smoke is not something she would risk.
“She could have been a fine witch,” the Duchess once said, shrugging, and I dreamed of what a life hypersensitive to paint rather than magic would be like.
As the twins sketch on me to puzzle out a new perspective illusion, I have nothing to do but watch them. They are so engrossed in their craft and childhoods that even next month is too far away to plan for, and I wonder if they will be prodigies at deciding on their futures too. Surely their skills are too great to compromise with raising families. But what if I am the last here — if preserving an art form I only connect with through distortion and passing it on to lover (ugh) and family is my default future? I spent so much time believing that the right paint would result in happiness and now, having only just found my skin’s facade, I learn it is . . . maybe not even that important a decision. I once decided against effortlessness due to certain consequences; what antipathies will be endurable when faced with loneliness?
But what else is there for someone like me?
No one ever told me growing up would be so difficult.
“Look,” signs Younger Sister-Brother, pointing to the word paint newly drawn on my stomach. The letters are oddly warped with a shadow nonsensical from my viewing angle, but Younger Brother sees it three-dimensional and claps in delight.
My future is still years away, though, and I am not alone. Not yet.
Sun yellow, royal blue, tomato red.
Mail brings knitted scarves, flower seeds and semi-worsted Merino wool yarn from Older Brother and his lovers. We spend an afternoon dyeing skeins as well as Eldest Brother’s hand when his glove tears and — after he threatens to douse the twins with dye in reply to their teasing that it’s camouflage-enriching — several garments and Younger Sister-Brother’s right elbow. Later the Duchess’s mother teaches me how to crochet. As I master tension she freehand crochets everlastings to fill her vases until the real ones bloom, and she tells me of a time when the Duchess nearly drowned following a treasure map drawn on my grandmother.
E was a bestiary, she explains, covered in tattoos of birds, beasts and fish local and legendary. Most were tame, stationary, but a few were witched-ink. On that day a kelpie had smudged the painted map, luring the Duchess to the pond’s centre. I ask for more stories of my grandmother, as Mother only speaks of em with rancour. “Come seek my wolpertinger,” e’d say with a coquettish smile, but only two people ever found it, my grandfather and—
Suddenly the Duchess’s mother remembers her audience and, cheeks flushed, asks to see how my stitch decreases are looking.
Paint I crochet with a simple chain once my swatches are deemed adequate, and paint paint paint I crochet in shell stitch, and herringbone and Tunisian and crocodile and every other stitch the Duchess’s mother teaches me, alongside gloves and blankets. I tie the woollen paints around my legs and wallow in the texture.
What will Eldest Brother and Older Sister send me after they leave? And without my siblings’ painted bodies here will my not-painted paints be senseless and vapid? An adolescent’s folly only tolerated on faith that I’ll mature into someone more practical or visually pleasing?
Finding my paint was supposed to make me happy, wasn’t it?
With ferrets and the Duchess’s two daughters, Mother and I go rabbiting. If Older Sister is to learn witching she will need a reliable source of bones; it might as well bring decent meat too. Hopefully when we return she’ll have finished their enclosure. Next will be planting extra herbs and setting up fermentation barrels, and then eventually comes a day I won’t be able to watch Older Sister illustrate her body for fear of anaphylaxis.
“Everyone knows what they’ll do with their lives,” I say when the Duchess’s daughters have run ahead to find burrows. “When should I?”
Mother hmms and thinks for a while. “In a few years you’ll find that is usually not true, or doesn’t matter. But, look, some people are . . . Are you worried about your paint? You don’t have to . . . I know you’ve worried, but just because you’ve found a paint you like — or don’t dislike — doesn’t mean that’s it forever.” She talks of how she’s considering moving on from dancing. Maybe shadow puppets? Older Sister’s interest in magic has got her thinking about it again. Puppets and lights, witched to move and dance, just imagine it. Easier to keep away from Father and the rest of us than witched-paint, too, and—
“I don’t have any skills or interests like that.”
She tchs. “Neither did I, at your age.”
Next month is Eldest Brother’s farewell. I’ve been waking up early to spend time with him. Everyone’s been so supportive, even being happy that he’ll give up paints because that will let him focus on forging his own path. He explains this as encouragement to never fret or hesitate should I wish to replace or cease my skin’s veneer.
He’s always made time for me, always tried to help me even if occupied or unqualified. And here I am, having reciprocated so little yet once again seeking to impose my inadequacies on him. He’s stretching his calves, facing away and unable to see how much I’ve wrung my hands, when I finally manage, “Can I have a go?”
“Finally sick of just watching? Great!”
He talks me through warm-up exercises, wrist strapping, good posture and, finally, how to hit the punching bag. After several weary minutes I say I’m not sure about this, and when I turn around he’s smiling and holding a pair of wooden swords. I’ve never seen him with two swords before. Is there anyone Mother hasn’t talked to about this? (No. No, there is not. Within a week even the new gardener I don’t know is casually telling me about their job and hobbies.)
“Remember you’d ask what I’d do if I didn’t paint?” I copy his movements to jab and swipe with the sword. “You never asked what I’d do if I did paint.”
He corrects my foot placement. “None of us has ever had easy answers, you know, but I think you’ll find your desire. Looking for it can’t hurt. And if you think it’s not here, you’ll always be welcome wherever I end up.”
Eldest Brother’s one of the few who doesn’t tell me I’m just a kid, don’t worry. For that I’ll miss him all the more.
I am a reflection of my family, an interpretation of painted flesh illegible without their paradigm behind me. Where one would expect paint to bring function, art, story, beauty or tribute, instead there is just description — and a false one at that.
Paint in ink, paint in fabric, paint in beads, in paper, wool, fur, chalk, pencil, tape, eyeliner. Paint in cross hatch, paint in negative space, paint in pointillism, in mosaic, stamp, outline, calligraphy. Paint in layers and paint in discord and paint in anything but paint.
And one paint in dried chocolate sauce on my right arm because the Duchess’s younger daughter cannot be entirely rebuffed on her birthday. At first she proposed lipstick on my neck, ignoring previous rejections and my continuing attraction deficiency, and I almost acquiesced to the enticement of pragmatism and effortlessness. (Instead I counter propose a relationship whose paint is restricted to platonic intimacy; she says she will trial being any canvas I desire.)
The Duchess takes me around the party, showing me off to guests for my debut. Some recognize me and what I’ve done. I’m all grown up now, aren’t I clever, they’d assumed I’d go into tattoos. Some don’t, confused or guessing I’m a joke, and then the Duchess explains witheringly the charm and genius of my painted body until they apologize profusely, hoping invitation to her next party has been re-secured.
Obvious pride, approval and relief surround me. My family and the Duchess are happy, and I am — I’m neither all grown up nor happy, not yet, but I suppose I’m growing into it. If I can find a way to paint my skin without paint, to conform without feigning comfort . . . then maybe finding something to strive for, to enjoy and love and pass the time with once family has dispersed, won’t be impossible?
Future I will write. Happiness I will paint.
About the Author
Penny Stirling edits and embroiders in Western Australia. They’ve been indecisive about potential tattoos for over a decade. Penny’s speculative fiction and poetry have appeared in Capricious, Lackington’s, Strange Horizons, Heiresses of Russ and Transcendent, amongst others, and their queer non-fiction can be found on their website. For embroidery and cockatoo updates, follow them on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Their editing work has won multiple awards including the Hugo Award. Julia is a co-host of This is Why We’re Like This, a podcast about how the movies we watch in childhood shape our lives, for better or for worse. They’ve narrated stories for Escape Pod, PodCastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders. Find them on Twitter as @omgjulia.