“The Traveler’s Guide to the Goblin Fells is an expansion book for the 5th edition of the world’s most litigious roleplaying game, about halflings riding giant pugs fighting against goblins piloting arcanotech mechs for control of valuable farmland at the onset of a brutal winter. The harvest is lean and there’s not enough to go around, someone’s going to go hungry this winter, but it doesn’t have to be you. The Goblin Fells can be easily located in any campaign setting and use the Creative Commons Weskven setting by default, so look for it on Kickstarter now or DriveThruRPG in the future to support the open source setting and indie development.”
[Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part novelette. Visit our previous post to read Part 1.]
Colors of the Immortal Palette
by Caroline M. Yoachim
I paint the English Channel at Étretat, shortly after sunrise. The sun is a fiery vermillion and the water shimmers cobalt blue. It is roughly my hundredth impression of a sunrise, spread across the year on whatever days I can gather up the energy to greet the dawn with my easel at the shore.
I have painted skies both cloudy and clear, water in a variety of hues. When the tide permits I paint from the beach and include the white cliffs, and when the tide is high — as it is today — I paint the vast expanse of the channel from atop them. Sometimes the dark silhouettes of ships break the line of the horizon, and sometimes there is fog, a thin white mist that gives me shivers not entirely accounted for by the crisp morning air. Monet set off a movement with his Impression, Sunrise, painted not far south of here. Monet, and before that Manet, changing the world of art forever. Or so the historians like to spin the tale, imposing order onto the chaotic jumble of the past, pulling a single narrative thread from the fabric of time. Providing a focal point, like the bright orange sun that hovers above the water. And their focal point, of course, must always be a man.
“You could have painted a hundred portraits of me, and instead you paint the sunrise.” Victorine has come up the trail behind me, carrying her own easel which she sets up next to mine. Her hair is like the sunrise reflected on the water, vermillion streaked with silver. She arrived here last week, at my invitation.
“Manet painted the definitive portrait of you years ago,” I say, teasing.
“And Monet painted the definitive impressionist sunrise,” Victorine replies, “yet you seem to have no issue painting those. Besides, I painted the definitive picture of me. They showed it at the Salon. Honestly, it is unfair that you should be immortal and I am not. Clearly I am the one with all the talent.”
Her voice takes on an edge of bitterness as she says it, cobalt blue tinged green, like the underside of a wave in the bright light of a midday sun.
“I would turn you if I could.” I hadn’t known how precious the gift was that my immortal artist gave me, or how rare — he had gathered time for all the centuries of his existence, and even so had only barely enough to share his gift with me. The process had nearly destroyed him, leaving him unable to take any form but mist for over a year.
“Then paint me,” she says. “Give me that at least.”
I cannot paint her without stealing precious moments of her time, and I cannot bear to lose my oldest friend. She is already slipping away so fast.
“Please,” she says. “Just this once.”
I let her convince me because in my heart of hearts I long to paint her. I direct her to an outcropping of rock and have her look out over the water, her face glowing in the morning light. Her dress is a pale blue, the perfect contrast for the orange-streaked sky, and, of course, her hair.
The wind has freed a lock of it and when I go to pin it back in place the edges of my hands thin into mist and I can feel her energy, the wildness only barely contained beneath her skin. Where my immortal artist was cold and white, she is a fiery vermillion, and this neatly composed painting is entirely wrong.
“Let your hair loose in the wind and take off your hat.” I tell her, my fingers still brushing against her face, the tiniest sliver of my hands still within her, our energies pulsing together, her passions tempting me to drink deeper, to take more of what she unknowingly offers. So sweet and heady, this sensation of pulling her out of herself.
I force myself to withdraw and she gasps.
She stares off into the distance and for a moment I am not sure if she heard my request.
“Is that always what it’s like?” she asks. “The thrill and then the loss.”
Victorine removes her hat and takes down her hair, then tousles it — carefully but with a result that looks careless. The hat she lets dangle from her hand. Everything about it is exquisite, and I paint in frantic dabs of color to capture it before we lose the light. Victorine holds her pose flawlessly, and I know from experience how difficult it is to stand so long, especially in the sun. I highlight the graceful curve of her shoulder, the determined set of her jaw.
I have always signed my paintings Mari, but this painting of Victorine captures her with such honesty that on impulse I sign this one with a name I have not used since my mother died — Mariko. In red as a nod to tradition, but spelled out in the French alphabet for I do not trust my ability to write the kanji even for my own name. That, too, is honest — an admission that I am of neither world and of both.
“This is your best work so far,” Victorine says, admiring the painting. “We can go in turns — you shall paint me and I shall paint you. It will be a series of a hundred portraits and historians will speculate about — ”
“No, I cannot. Never again.” I know the longing she feels. It was cruel of me to paint her. Cruel of me to invite her here, to ease the loneliness of being fixed in time as the world keeps passing on. And in truth, I hunger for her as much as she does for me, for the taste of her humanity. I can feel my fingertips thinning into mist, reaching out for her . . . but no. Already her life flits away far too fast, and I will not speed her to her grave for the sake of my art. I will find another way.
“I cannot stay, knowing what I will not have.”
“Take the portrait, if you like.” I turn away from her and look out over the English Channel, pretending that I don’t care what she chooses.
She leaves without another word. She doesn’t take the painting. The water stretches out before me, an endless chasm of blue.
My work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, thrilling for the venue but disappointing for the exhibit — Cassatt merits an exhibition composed entirely of her own work, but I am tucked away in European and Oriental Art. Still, they have invited me to the opening, and I have done my best to look fashionable though I cannot pull off the yellows that are quite popular this season and the angular lines of flapper dresses are better suited to women who are straight where I am rounded. Never have I paid so much for so very little fabric, though I must admit the beadwork is lovely and the freedom of movement compared to the dresses of my youth is divine.
The exhibit is laid out so that I must walk through the European artists in order to reach my own work, and I am startled to encounter a painting with which I am intimately familiar — Woman, Reclining (Mari). It is, to my surprise, exactly as I remember it from the Salon. By now the varnish should have darkened and the yellows should have shifted brown, for he had favored the cheaper chrome yellow during that period.
“I had them restore it.” He has appeared from nowhere. Like the painting, he is exactly as I remember from our last meeting — only his clothing has changed. “It seemed fitting, given the subject. An unchanging painting of an unchanging model.”
He means it as a compliment, but I am half a human lifetime away from being the woman that graces his canvas, and no longer mortal. To imply that I am static and unchanging simply because I do not physically age . . . I had thought him more insightful than that.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” he says.
“And I you.” I’m flooded with emotions. Surprise, yes, and also a longing that I thought I’d put behind me, that old familiar yearning to connect with him, to let our energies flow together and feel the pulse of time itself. But I pity him, too, because for all his success as a painter, he is not keeping up with the world, and his popularity is fading. If he cannot come up with something new, he will be swept into the past as a historical footnote, or perhaps be forgotten entirely. “What are the odds that we would finally be in the same exhibit, after all these decades?”
He shakes his head. “What I meant was why Chicago? Why not San Francisco or Seattle? You could blend in there.”
“The handful of Japanese living in Chicago are a curiosity, like kimonos displayed in a department store. People aren’t as hostile to me here as they might be on the West Coast because they do not see me as a threat. I’ve taken up correspondence with a young artist there — Chiura Obata, who is doing some promising work — and he says resentment for the Japanese community there is building. Besides, it isn’t my intention to blend in. I want to be remembered.”
There are three of his paintings in the exhibit, and the other two both feature Suzette. Time has not been kind to these. The thick strokes of paint are cracking, darkened in places with grime, faded in others from light.
“Yes, but you want to be remembered for your art. Being so out of place will only distract people from your paintings — ”
“And yet you are also here, some 300 years older than everyone else.” I tire of looking at Suzette, indeed I tire of looking at his paintings at all. I drift deeper into the exhibit as we continue our conversation, searching for my own work. It is quieter here, away from the growing crowd of patrons who have not yet made their way this far in. “Why must I blend in when you do not? Why is your story so much easier for them to accept than mine?”
“They can see themselves in me. Envision themselves as immortal. I am what they wish to become. You are the foreigner they fear. The outsider.”
“And a woman besides,” I mutter. “If I don’t carve out space for myself, they will steal whatever inspiration they like from my culture and my art and erase me from the conversation entirely.”
There is only one of my paintings on display, which I had been excited about before I’d known that they had three of his. My sole piece in the exhibition is the painting of Victorine, standing on the rocky shore, surrounded by the cobalt blue of sky and ocean, and seeing it I am filled with sadness.
“Have you seen her lately?” he asks. “Victorine, I mean.”
“Not for many years, though she writes me letters occasionally.”
“She must be very old now, yes?” he says. “She and Monet are the last of your mortal cohort. It is easier to bear after that, the fleeting nature of the lives around us.”
His expression is sad and I wonder about his mortal cohort, the people he had known when he was still alive. He never speaks of them, which I thought was for lack of memory but perhaps he is trying to avoid the pain of his loss. I put a hand on his shoulder, cold against cold. When he does not speak further on the subject, I turn my attention back to the exhibit.
The curators have opted to hang my painting at the transition point, the very edge of the European artists, for though I am French — or was, at the time of the painting — they clearly do not see me as having been truly European. Worse, they have placed my painting alongside two others, not a trio of my own work but with a pair of paintings that share the same model — Victorine’s self-portrait . . . and Manet’s Olympia, which bears more resemblance to Woman, Reclining (Mari) than it does to Victorine.
“Of the three of you,” my immortal artist says, “Manet has captured her the most realistically.”
Of course he would think so, for he sees the world through the same male gaze that Édouard once did, antiquated and narrow, dismissive of women. To him, Victorine was a model and a prostitute, elevated only by her inclusion in Manet’s painting. And I was similarly unchanging in his view, an object to be painted.
“All three paintings have elements of truth and falsehood,” I argue, “for each artist comes to the canvas with our own artistic vision and personal biases. How we wish for the audience to view the subject, the context in which we are working, the details we choose to include. And what is truth, anyway? We cannot capture the entirety of a person’s life on a flat piece of canvas. No matter how skilled the painter there are only hints — suggestions which the viewer of the painting will fill in with whatever it is that they believe . . .”
I cannot quite articulate what I want to say, perhaps that there is no underlying truth at all, only a myriad of perceptions, each slightly different from the rest.
“Yes,” he agrees, “that is exactly what you are missing, the ability to draw upon the perspective of the viewer, to give them an experience that is both familiar and new, to evoke in them a shared experience. That is the thing you must learn — to depict the universal truths.”
“Your truths are universal but mine are not,” I say, and he nods as though I am agreeing with him. “I’ve lived in two countries that do not consider me one of their own, and the lesson I’ve learned is that I must adapt, that I must learn to act as other people do. I did it as a young girl in the French countryside, and again when I came here. They will not make allowances for me as they have done for you — I am not permitted your eccentricities. I must behave as they expect, always, flawlessly.”
“You say the right words, but you don’t believe them,” he says. “You are fighting the inevitable; the world is what it is, and you are who you are. It cannot be helped.”
“But the world can change. It has changed. And so have I. You’re the one fighting the inevitable, not me.”
“There’s no audience for what you do, this blend of styles and inspirations and . . . perspectives,” he says, convinced that he can sway me to his way of thinking if only he can find the right words, the proper argument. “It’s too complicated, muddled — like mixing too many colors, overworking the paint.”
“When other impressionists were influenced by Japanese art there was an audience for that. Monet, even now, is painting a grand mural of his beloved water lilies, in a garden inspired by Japan.”
“Monet’s paintings are relatable.”
Relatable. Monet filters the world through a background that these art patrons understand. European. Male. He is relatable in ways that I will never be. My mere existence requires an explanation — how is it a woman like me came to be in France; why am I in Chicago and not San Francisco? If the story of my life focuses on the art it will be rejected as implausible, but if I pause to explain the truths of my existence the story is no longer universal.
Patrons and donors file past, many of them stopping to stare at Manet’s painting, which is here on loan from the Louvre. It remains provocative even now, though there is less scorn and more admiration in the bits of conversation I catch. They barely glance at Victorine’s self-portrait, or at my own painting.
None of these mortals has ever met Victorine, so the truth of the depiction matters to them very little. They only experience the art, whatever it might convey, and their attention is drawn to a naked form, a confrontational stare, a famous artist’s name.
I don’t need to capture the truth of my subject, I need to capture the attention of a broader audience, convey a deeper underlying truth . . . and I do not know how.
It’s a cold March afternoon in 1927 when a Western Union courier hands me the small yellow envelope of a telegram. It comes from a woman I’ve never met, though Victorine often mentioned her in letters. It bears sad news that I have known for quite some time was coming.
I had planned to paint the sunset from the shore of Lake Michigan today, so I force myself to go out with my easel, but the colors are wrong. Rosy pastels streak the sky above the water. Some other night I might have found it beautiful, but tonight I cannot think of anything but vermillion, and I let the light fade to the deepest blue without so much as opening a tube of paint.
The world has been a week without her in it, but her death did not become a truth for me until the telegram arrived. She is the last. Even Monet has ceased his endless paintings of water lilies, having passed in December. I’ve not seen either of them for decades, but tonight I feel the loss as keenly as if I’d sat with them yesterday, all of us gathered at the Café Guerbois, Victorine and I engaging the men in passionate discussions on the purpose of art, the role of the model, and whether critical outrage was an attack on the honor of the painter, this last being a topic that always irritated Manet.
They were my cohort — Édouard, Émile, Claude, Paul and Camille, and of course Victorine. I met them not knowing that I would outlive them, and without having the distance that knowledge brings. My immortal artist was right — I don’t get quite so close to mortals now; I no longer see myself as one of them. But I’m accustomed to navigating a world I do not feel a part of, a place where I am unlike all the others. This has always been my truth.
I sit all night beside my canvas, a lonely vigil for the last of my cohort. The sunrise is reflected on the square windows of the city skyline. It’s a fitting tribute. My memories of her life are fragmented as if by steel and concrete; everything but the fiery window-glass moments are lost to the passage of time.
I cannot paint the sunrise. Vermillion is her color and she is gone.
If my immortal artist is to be believed, I will grow accustomed to this. The pain that burns sharp within my chest will fade to a dull ache, not just for Victorine but for all mortals. Their passing will be easier when their lifetimes are but the merest fraction of my own. I will never share the length of history with them that I do with my immortal artist, and by comparison the loss of such shallow relationships will seem trivial. Or so he says. He is an ass, of course, and making excuses for his own inability to connect with those around him.
But the fact that he is an ass doesn’t mean that he is always wrong. Those things he’d said at the Art Institute, what if all of it is true? Maybe my perspective is muddled with too many influences, perhaps I have failed to synthesize such disparate parts into a cohesive whole. Maybe the failing is in my execution.
I have outlived my friends, my colleagues, and for what? All my paintings combined have not garnered the renown of Olympia or Impression, Sunrise. I am best known as the model from Woman, Reclining (Mari), and maybe my lack of success is not — as I have always told myself — because I am a woman and an outsider, but because I am lacking in talent.
Even being immortal, which should be simple enough, is a task that I am failing for I cannot bear the thought of stealing time from mortals whose lives are already so fleeting. I take just enough here and there from models — always with their consent — to maintain a human form, but if I cannot create beauty, cannot leave my mark on the world of art, their time is wasted, and nothing is so precious as time.
I’ve never done a self-portrait, but I am determined to purge these wretched truths. I paint the portrait and quite literally put myself into the work, thinning my fingertips into mist and leaving a sliver of my very being in the darkest shadows of ultramarine. I create the portrait in shades of blue, abstract and dark, shadows overpowering the light. I call the painting Futility, and I do not sign my name because despair is never done, it is unending and can never be complete. Critics will no doubt call it a feeble imitation of Picasso, but I cannot bring myself to care.
About the Author
Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, is coming out with Fairwood Press in August 2016. You can find her on the web at carolineyoachim.com, and on Twitter @CarolineYoachim.
About the Narrator
Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, educator, and the co-founder of Story Kitchen Studio, a community for exploring writing techniques. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and other venues.
She was born in Tokyo, Japan and now lives in Venice, California, with her partner and a little dog. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke. Follow her @miyukijane (Twitter and Instagram) and at www.miyukijane.com.