I’m still fighting the ultramarine depths of despair some fifteen years later, when I meet Joshua at the Club DeLisa. We get to talking, a fragmented conversation to fill the space between sets. He’s a singer and he used to play trumpet in a swing band, up until he got caught in Chicago by wartime travel restrictions. Little Brother Montgomery and The Red Saunders Band are playing tonight, along with a comedian and some dancers.
“I love the music, but what really brings me here is the energy. It reminds me of the Café Guerbois — in Paris. I used to go there with some artist friends of mine, painters who wanted to push boundaries and create something new.” There’s something about him or the music or the energy of the club tonight that compels me to keep talking. “The way the musicians build on each other, changing the nature of music, it fills me with nostalgia. They have a passion that I’ve been missing for a long time.”
He gives me a strange look. “You’re one of those immortals, like Pops.”
“Yes.” I’d heard him play once, back in the ‘20s before he moved to New York. I hadn’t realized he was immortal, but that did make sense of all the tall tales and inconsistencies when he talked about his childhood. I can’t help but wonder who turned him.
“You must really be something special, then,” Joshua says. “Show me your paintings?”
“Only if you’ll sing for me.” I’m flirting without meaning to, leaning in close as we try to talk over the noise of the club. He has the same vibrancy the performers here have, and I long to taste him, to connect at a deeper level.
We stay late, almost until dawn, drinking beer and discussing everything from the gorgeous poems in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s An Autumn Love Cycle to Archibald Motley’s vibrant paintings of nightlife — both in Paris and here in Bronzeville. Our conversation turns to the war, and he talks about the delicate dance of supporting the war efforts while simultaneously pushing for civil rights for Black folks here at home; the Pittsburgh Courier was calling it “the Double V Campaign.” At some point he mentions the Japanese internment camps, and we both go quiet for a moment.
“Must be hard,” he says, “having family on both sides of the war.”
“Honestly I’ve always felt more French than anything else. But I’m defined by what other people see, not by who I am. I have so little connection to Japan — to me it is courtesans in a ukiyo-e, brightly colored kimonos in Paris shops, faint memories of warabe uta my mother sang for me a long long time ago. And yet I’m still the enemy.”
“Tell me about it,” he says, and both of us drink.
Joshua walks me home, and I invite him to come in. I haven’t had anyone over in ages and there is clutter everywhere. I scoop up fabric scraps from the assorted seamstress jobs I’ve been doing on top of waitressing to make enough money to pay the outlandish rent — so high it’s illegal under rent control but who am I to challenge the landlord? And he knows it, knows just how far he can push and get away with it. Boarding at the Eleanor Club had been cheaper and the shared bathrooms there were cleaner . . . but I couldn’t bring men home with me. I sigh. There are always tradeoffs. “Sorry about the mess.”
He laughs. “You don’t have to — ”
“I do.” Not so much for the mess but because I need to shift my focus away from his delicious energy. He is too much temptation, but I can’t bring myself to ask him to leave.
While I try to tidy up, he studies the art on my wall. The oldest piece is a woodblock print, Night Scene in the Yoshiwara, by Katsushika Ōi, one of the few tangible items I have that belonged to my mother. I wait for him to guess, incorrectly, that it is my work, but he turns his attention to a far more recent piece.
“Is this . . . ?” he asks, leaving the question unfinished.
“The Tanforan Assembly Center.” I set down a handful of empty paint tubes. “Chiura Obata sent it with his last letter. Sumi on paper. I’m not sure how he managed to get it past the censors, maybe smuggled it out with one of the couriers that brings him art supplies. He’s starting an art school. I don’t know how he can make art in a place like that.”
“Maybe the art is what saves him, the thing that keeps him from breaking. Besides, if you wait for the world to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.”
He’s right, of course. There is always something — a war or a plague, a widespread catastrophe like the Great Depression or the more personal tragedy of a friend’s passing. Being immortal, it is so easy to put off the work, to drift aimlessly because there is no urgency without the ultimate deadline of death. “The frustrating thing is that Chiura can make art when I cannot. That he’s stronger than me even though I’m the immortal one. I’m angry about the camps but I’m not forced to live in one. I have only the most tenuous ties to Japan. My mother died more than a lifetime ago when I was young.”
“After Ma died, back in ‘37, I couldn’t . . . ” Joshua waves his hands as he searches for the right words, “I just couldn’t anything. I’d open my mouth to sing and nothing came. There was too much joy in a cheerful song and too much sorrow in a sad one. Ma sang the blues like nobody’s business, taught me everything I know. She was forty-three when she died and I was so angry with the world for taking her.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. Well it’s not about strength. Music is the thing that saves me, usually, the thing I escape to. But when Ma died, everything I tried to do reminded me of her, and the pain was still too raw.”
“So what did you do?”
He laughs. “Enlisted in the National Guard. Powered through basic combat training. That’s probably not going to work for you, Mariko. But mostly what I needed was time. I found my way back to music again, and you’ll get back to the painting. That’s where your heart is.”
“How do you know . . . you haven’t even seen my paintings — ”
Then I notice what he’s looking at.
I never even tried to sell it, and I haven’t finished a single painting in the decade and a half since I’d poured my depression onto the canvas in blue paint. It’s a painting of my heart, and my heart is broken. The canvas isn’t hung or even framed; it simply leans against the wall in the darkest corner of my apartment.
“This is amazing,” he says. “Powerful.”
As he studies the painting — intensely, intently — I can feel the barest shimmer of a connection, a faint suggestion of how it might feel to take a fragment of his life, and like a shark frenzied by a drop of blood in the water I am suddenly overwhelmed with need.
I draw him close and we kiss, deeply, bodies pressed together. I tremble with desire and with anguish, for I am determined that I will not consume him. “No, this is wrong, I have to stay away from mortals. You burn so bright, so briefly.”
“Are you protecting us, or are you protecting yourself from the pain of losing something so fleeting? How can you paint if you refuse to live?”
“I can’t,” I admit.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, his breath hot as fire against my skin. “I want to know how it feels, how you feel. Live with me. Everything in this one moment.”
I slide out of my dress. “We can have the one without the other. I’ve heard what people say about immortals, about stealing away people’s lives with sex. That’s not how it works.”
“Never?” He unbuttons his shirt.
We have sex in broad strokes of fiery vermillion shading into crimson, building to a deep connection, something beyond the raw intensity of our physical passion. I transform into mist at the moment of his climax and bask in his passion, his energy, his health, his life. When I withdraw, I try not to take anything with me, though I’m not sure I entirely succeed.
Unlike my immortal artist, I do not disappear into the night. I return to human form and sleep in Joshua’s arms.
In the morning, I start a new painting. A Black man, talking to a woman who has her back to the viewer, both of them standing under a streetlight in front of the Club DeLisa. The streets are empty save the couple, and I paint the center of the canvas in a realist style reminiscent of Edward Hopper, but as I move out from the light into the shadows, surrealism creeps into the painting — the buildings in the background morph into barbed wire and the full moon hangs crimson in the sky.
I title the painting Night Club and sign it Mariko. It is both bleak and beautiful. Chiura would be proud. At Joshua’s encouragement, I sell it to the Art Institute of Chicago, along with Futility.
Full of life and finally painting again, for three months I am the happiest I can remember being since I became immortal. Then Joshua is called to service with the 370th Infantry Regiment. He goes to a training camp in Arizona. In his last letter before he ships off to Italy, he proposes.
When Joshua returns from Italy, he brings me a gift. An enemy parachute, salvaged by a fellow soldier. He’d traded some cigarettes and a pair of wool socks from one of my care packages to get it. There are twenty panels of useable silk in the canopy once I’ve discarded the burnt bits. The material is thin and slippery and difficult to sew, but I manage to make myself a wedding gown. The color is a delicate cream, a beautifully warm tone — zinc white mixed with cadmium yellow and the barest hint of alizarin crimson.
It is a warm August afternoon, and raining, which they say is good luck for weddings. Ours is a quiet Sunday afternoon affair. A few of our musician and artist friends attend, and three soldiers from his company. No family because all of mine passed away before Joshua was born and none of his relatives that live near Chicago approve of our relationship. He wears his uniform and I wear my gorgeous parachute gown. Looking at us, no one would guess that I’m three times the age of my groom.
The cake is a cardboard cutout, but Joshua surprises us all by opening it up to reveal a stash of Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bars he’d saved from his rations, enough for each of our guests to have one.
They are not at all what I expected, difficult to chew and far less sweet than what I remembered of the chocolate I’d tasted before the war. I must have made a face because Joshua laughs. “Why do you think I had so many left?” He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And these are the new and improved variety.”
We can’t afford a honeymoon but we both manage to get Monday off work and we spend the entire day holed up in our apartment, newlyweds basking in the joy of being together after spending so much time apart.
It isn’t until I leave for work Tuesday morning that I see what has happened, sprawled across the top of the Chicago Tribune at a corner newsstand: ATOMIC BOMB STORY! The news is a stark and chilling white — the flash of the weapon itself, the coldness of a headline that speaks not of the people killed but of the power the American country now wields.
I let the white consume me. I transform into mist and careen through the streets of Chicago, then out over the vast ultramarine depths of Lake Michigan. Yet even here I cannot escape the war, for I find myself sharing the sky with warplanes from the naval air station, pilots training to fly in formation and land on aircraft carriers. Pilots not unlike the one who flew the plane that dropped the bomb.
What right do I have to feel this pain, I, so distantly removed? I feel guilt for being free instead of interred, for being American instead of Japanese, for failing to connect with my mother’s country. Her country, never mine.
And then, Nagasaki. The city where my mother was born.
There are no words to describe the horror. I am only at peace when I transform into mist, mingling with the clouds above the city. It would be so easy to remain this way, to disperse in the atmosphere, to thin into nothingness. I am immortal, yes, but only so long as I choose to endure.
If not for Joshua, I might never have returned to human life. He is my anchor in the endless sea of time, my shelter from the nightmare storm of mushroom clouds. And I, in turn, am his calm harbor when the flashbacks hit, his comfort from the pain. We fight together against our demons from the war, stronger for being able to lean upon each other.
I paint Nagasaki in abstract, a monstrosity of crimson and white. It is passion and anger without form, in a style I have not mastered, and the result is garbage. I destroy canvas after canvas, unable to paint but determined nonetheless to try.
“Would it help to talk about it?” Joshua asks.
I’m painting over a ruined canvas, making it ready for my next attempt. I stop partway through, leaving streaks of color in between the broad stripes of white. “They’re the only ones who start with a blank white page. Their story is the default, invisible, a crisp new canvas. Our stories, our history, our pain — that’s color already on the page and we have to work around that, we have to explain why there’s a burst of crimson seeping through where our people bled, why there’s a vermillion rage underneath the calm surface of white.”
“And then they’ll tell you that they don’t want your explanations because it complicates the story, sullies the art. They’re always erasing the past — that’s how they get that fresh white page they like to start with.”
“Like snow covering the filthy streets of Paris,” I say, remembering the time so long ago when I looked out the window of my immortal artist’s studio. I wonder where he is right now, where he’s hiding from the war, for that has always been his way, to withdraw when the world of mortals was too intense or dangerous. “The memories are harder to visualize now, there are so many of them and they blur together. I suppose I wasn’t meant to remember more than one lifetime.”
“You should write it down,” Joshua says. “Tell your story.”
“I thought they didn’t want my explanations.” I study the canvas, partially repainted.
“Since when do you care what they want?” he replies.
“Never. And always.” I leave the canvas to dry, my previous failed attempt still showing in the gaps. It is better this way, somehow, with white to cover the things too horrible to bear. Pain avoided and erased. There is truth to that, in the things we hide, the things we omit, the things we do not even think to include. Words unwritten.
I title the painting History and sign it white on white, nearly invisible, erasing myself before anyone else can.
For thirty years I live an almost human life. I can’t bear children, but after the war there are so many orphans, and particularly unwanted are the mixed-race children, the children most like me. We adopt Midori when she is four years old and Joshua is forty and I am one hundred and six.
They grow and change and age and I — well, I don’t age but having them as a family alters me forever. I learn more about Japan, my interest spurred not by my past but by Midori’s future. She looks like I did when I was young, and I want her to have the connection to her birth mother’s country that I have always lacked. I try to give her a sense of belonging to both places instead of neither — and it strengthens my own connections as well. Maybe what I needed, all this time, was an excuse to explore a culture that never felt like my own. But it seems fitting, somehow. As a tree grows, so too do its roots.
It trickles into my paintings, as everything always does. Art has a way of absorbing all that I am — in its content and technique, but also more literally, for ever since that ultramarine night of losing Victorine I always leave a fragment of myself in the paint. In one color of each painting, as the emphasis, a focal point. When I paint my family, I am in the crimson, the color of love and passion.
The mortals around me begin to see the truth in my paintings. It is the most miraculous of things, for as I pour myself into the paintings they begin to sustain me, stealing brief moments from the audiences that study them, only the tiniest sliver of time from each but adding up to eternity as my popularity grows.
Three precious decades, vibrant like springtime, warm as summer, beautiful and fiery even in the autumn, when I know that Joshua’s eternal winter is near.
He is laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery. Whatever my immortal artist might say, Joshua is no less for being one lover of many, our marriage no less meaningful to me for being a smaller fraction of my existence than it was of his.
On a sunny spring afternoon, I go to visit Joshua’s grave. I’m sitting in the shade of a cherry tree, reading the latest John le Carré novel — Joshua had developed a fondness for spy stories in his later years and sharing a book seems more fitting than leaving behind a bouquet of wilting flowers — when my immortal artist finds me.
“I tire of the endless cycles,” he says without preamble, “the constant turmoil of the world.”
We’ve exchanged the odd letter here and there over the years, but I haven’t heard his voice since we’d shared an exhibit at the Art Institute, for he travels widely and hides from mortal society for years at a time. He can’t stand such newfangled technology as the telephone or the ever-present cars, nevermind flying from one place to another in planes. No, he travels by shifting into mist, he communicates only by post, and hearing him again for the first time in so long I am struck by how thin he sounds, almost hollow. Like an echo of the immortal artist I once knew.
“Hello, old friend.” He hates when I call him old, and I love to tease him. As usual, he doesn’t take the bait.
“There’s an impatience in the mortals now, as they rush through their fleeting little lives, and all I desire is a peaceful time to paint. To retire to a garden, perhaps, as Monet did in his final years.”
“Then find a garden, or make one.” I remember something Joshua once told me. “If you wait for the perfect moment, you will wait forever. Even we immortals paint in stolen bits of time, for the demands of the world expand to fill whatever time there is, no matter how vast. We must fight for it. For art. For time. Even when our lives are endless.”
“I am weary of the fight.”
I realize that I can’t remember the last time he’s exhibited a new painting, and his more recent letters have not mentioned models or even lovers, only his travels. “You’ve stopped painting.”
“You’ve finally won them over to your way of seeing things, your muddled mix of influences, that complex stream of new ideas and techniques.” He stares at a mausoleum in the distance, and I wonder if the pillars remind him of ancient Greek ruins.
“I’m persistent,” I tell him.
“Yes. And I’ve learned to care less what others think.” I run my fingers over Joshua’s headstone, letters and numbers cut deep into the granite, shadowed in ultramarine.
“Is that the man you married?”
“Joshua,” I say. “He died a few years ago. I miss him dearly. But I’m glad he’s here and not in one of those crowded city cemeteries like the ones in Paris with graves practically stacked one atop the next. He loved plants. Trees. Gardening was one of his many attempts to escape from the horrors of war. We had a beautiful garden out behind the house. It looks a mess now because I’ve never been able to create plants from anything but paint.”
“He was also a painter?”
I shake my head. “No. A musician, a composer, a civil rights activist, and, for a time, a soldier. He was the one who suggested I take control of my narrative, preserve my memories in writing. I haven’t quite the knack for prose that Émile did, of course, but I want to have a record of my past.”
“You’ve kept your connection to the mortals,” he says, his voice wistful. “Yours was the last generation that really moved me. The last to draw me in.”
He speaks of my entire generation, but I’m better at seeing the negative spaces now, hearing the words that aren’t said. No one since me has moved him, there is no one but me in his heart after all these years . . . and I have well and truly moved on.
I can’t help but think how far we’ve diverged. He is tradition, isolation, stagnation — all things I see within myself but which I fight so hard against. It leads me to think about duality, the way we often divide ideas so neatly into opposing pairs. Artist and subject. West and East. Life and death.
When I return to my studio, I paint a canvas on both sides: one a lively picnic in Burnham Park and the other a funeral at Graceland Cemetery. The grass of both is a vibrant green, and instead of placing opposing elements on opposite sides of the canvas I jumble everything together. There are hints of death at the park, and life in the cemetery. Even the style of the painting is a chaotic mix of impressionism and realism, ukiyo-e and abstract expressionism.
I call it Two Worlds, and it is what some consider my greatest masterpiece.
The latest fashion in Paris is voluminous and flowing, with hidden pockets and hooded capes. A decade ago it was sleek minimalist cuts in patterns reminiscent of Rothko. It’s fascinating to watch the way trends disappear and return, the throwbacks and the updates, the new combinations and perspectives.
The city itself follows a similar cycle, though far more slowly since a building is less easily changed than a frock. The arrondissement of my mortal youth is recognizable again, recreated as a historical preserve. They’ve managed to keep something of its underlying character, though the streets are far too clean, and the towering mid-millennium arcologies block the morning sun and make the light all wrong.
The Café Guerbois is a museum — a static recreation of the buzzing artistic scene it once was — but there’s a dive bar around the corner called le Salon des Refusés where artists gather in their various groups and have heated discussions on the nature of art.
I sometimes go on Thursdays.
The new generation isn’t weighed down by centuries of history, the experience of how far we’ve come. Their basis of reference is the time of their childhood, not of mine. They are at once refreshing and infuriating, and they inspire me to push forward — in my paintings and in my life. My once-immortal artist would have liked this bar, for the nostalgia of it if not for the modern conversations. It is strange to think of a world that doesn’t have him in it.
The Musée de l’Orangerie houses the last remaining trace of his existence — Woman, Reclining (Mari). The museum has continued to restore it for centuries, using the best technology and the most skilled conservators.
On the surface, the painting is much as I remember it, faint though the memory is. But he is gone from it, the paint that he himself applied replaced bit by bit like a colorful Ship of Theseus until little of the original remains. His other paintings are lost, and have probably long since crumbled into dust. Poor Suzette. She’d thought herself immortal at least in paint, but that tribute is fleeting. History has forgotten her, even as a footnote. It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time I’d been jealous of the attention he’d paid her, so many lifetimes ago. And jealous of him for being an artist when I was a model. Now his painting is preserved, not because it was painted by him, but because it is the earliest known depiction of me.
Time eats all things in the end. Entropy brings everything back to white — a chaotic jumble of all the colors mixed together, if you paint with light. Now even my once-immortal artist has succumbed to the unending white. An artist must struggle to find meaning, to put order to chaos — and he no longer wished to fight.
He is a mist too thin to ever recohere; the strongest notion of him that remains is the splinter of his being that lives on in me. His model and his student, shining so brightly that I can never again be placed in his shadow.
In honor of his passing I paint Entropy in a palette of colors I mix myself, using formulas from both ancient times and modern, carefully applying the colors so the painting will change as it ages — chrome yellow that darkens to brown, red lake pigments that quickly fade, an ordivant green that will darken through emerald and into a deep blue over the course of several hundred years. I put myself into the titanium white, mist into paint, adding nuance to the crisp bright hue.
It is a self-portrait, though my physical likeness is not in it. It is historical painting, though it does not depict any recognizable moment in time. Even the signature will shift, as mine has over the centuries — briefly it will read Mari before the rest of my name emerges. Mariko means truth, so this appeals to me conceptually: over time, the truth will be revealed. Then eventually the letters will fade until only the M remains. The details of history, given enough time, are mostly forgotten.
I have the Musée de l’Orangerie display the painting in carefully specified values of light, with strict orders never to move it, repair it, or alter anything about the painting or the room. Its true glory cannot be appreciated within a single human lifetime, but mortals flock to see it nonetheless.
And even now the doubt remains, the lingering fear that I will be forgotten. Perhaps the time has finally come to share my story. I’ve been writing it in dribs and drabs ever since Joshua suggested it, the words accumulating like dabs of color on a canvas. There are moments I choose to describe and moments that I omit, deliberately or otherwise. When you outlive everyone you’ve ever known, there’s no one to remind you of the things you’ve forgotten, and no one to contradict your version of events. I find myself always returning to white. Beginning, again and again.
This is not the end. I’ll leave my mark on the blank page of history, and I’ll paint the world in colors so bold and bright they cannot be ignored.
There is beauty in my truth, and I have so much to share.
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.