By Prashanth Sankaran
Arts Illustrated’s short story contest, first runner-up
The blue was still wet and sticky on her fingers, her palms, when she broke out of the dream and slowly found her way back into consciousness. It wasn’t deep under water, wherever she was. It felt rather like layers and layers of thick, opaque mist – coloured the same shade of blue that were on her hands. And just as sticky.
Her mind searched for a place to drop anchor, bobbed around for a while till her bare right foot found the cold touch of the studio floor. The anchor dropped and reality surged up through her body. Awareness sputtered to life, bringing with it flashes of the walls of her tiny studio, the cracked mirror on the wall and the broken reflection of her face in the mirror – dimpled chin below an oblong face, smiling even when she didn’t feel like it, and eyes big and deep below untended eyebrows.
Despite being pushed back by the acute tiredness constantly pulsating inside her, reality expanded from within and her eyes wandered to the painting on the easel. She stared at it. It was done, finally. Not believing what she was seeing, she shut her eyes again.
She had forgotten the last time she had completed a painting. Every time she had started one she hadn’t been able to complete it. Sometimes, she couldn’t even get so far as to finish the first coat of base paint, let alone start on the top layers. Discarded canvases were strewn all over the studio, along with torn paper with half-done sketches and drying paint that had spilt out of open tubes. This was over and above the heaps of random junk, including bubble wrap and cardboard boxes from takeaway packaging, and hundreds of balls of silver foil with chewed gum dried up inside.
Reality, most of the time, didn’t come alone. She waited for the familiar fear to hit her. For her heartbeat to start racing, all her senses to be taut, and for those real and imaginary visions and sounds that often drove her to the edge of panic, made her turn on her tummy, bury her face in the pillow and sob. Uncontrollably. Fighting forever the urge to race to the window and jump out.
She waited. But this time the fear didn’t come. She waited some more. Still it didn’t come. Strange, she thought. Her body refused to believe it, stiff and unyielding to the awareness of this abnormality. She took slow deep breaths to test it, waiting to see if it was just a delayed hit today. But no. No fear. No panic. No attack. She slumped on the thin mattress and began to sweat. She had gotten so used to the turbulence that its absence felt odd.
She opened her eyes, brought her hand closer to her face and licked her fingers, tasting the now-dry blue paint.
She jerked back. Let us not go there. Not again.
She threw off the blanket now and stood up, making the world spin slowly ever so slightly. Her unzipped shorts dropped down to her ankles. Stepping off them, she walked around the studio, noticing things in the room as if for the first time. Soon her eyes came to rest on the canvas on the easel again. Shades of blue, violet, some green and then some yellow. Making a picture of possibilities. Possibilities of doorways and windows, of entry and exit, into darkness and into light.
The sleepy rays of the sun from the open window shone bright on a part of the painting. Not right, she thought. It had no right to do that. She walked to the window to close it and paused, looking down at the faraway world.
She had not been down there in so many days. She had lost count. She had shut herself up with home-delivered pizza, and finding sustenance in alcohol and cigarettes till they lasted, and the regular blue-and-white pills. Never without the pills.
On a whim, she opened the window wider, climbed over and straddled the sill, one leg dangling out and the other folded against the window frame. The sun felt shy and went behind a cloud for a few moments, then yielding to the temptation, peeped out again. She smiled. She could be a bird and fly out, now that she is done. Or she could remain.
She turned and put her questions to the painting. Her eyes large with hesitation. The painting stayed mute, but its doors and windows spoke out loud. Shades of blue, violet, some green and then some yellow.
She felt the room fading, slowly seeping into the doors and windows, disappearing into the dark recesses within. She could sense movement now, inside them. Somewhere a bird cried.
Suddenly tense, the sun shut its eyes.
Prashant Sankaran is a Bengaluru-based writer and photographer, whose day job is at Interweave Consulting as the Executive Director. His zine titled ‘Home’ and children’s picture book titled ‘Tutu plays hide n’seek’ were published earlier this year. Indian Institute of Human Settlements had also exhibited his works combining photography and haikus in an exhibition titled ‘Seen-Unseen’ in Bengaluru recently. He is also part of the organising committee of the Bangalore Poetry Festival.