A Canvased Soul

Sariah Williamson was born purple and blue but not because she wasn’t breathing. She leaked colors, warm colors when she was happy and cool when she was sad. The nurses cleaned her up cautiously and handed her to her mother, and Sariah’s skin sweat shades of orange as she nursed at her mother’s breast.

Fearing their daughter’s life would be under a microscope somewhere, the Williamsons fled. They found a back country town few people wanted to visit and made a home for themselves. And Sariah would have grown up happy there had it not been for her mother’s discovery.

One morning when Sariah had soaked her cloth diaper, Sariah’s mother stripped her of her clothes and placed her naked on the newspaper. As her mother went about doing the laundry, Sariah leaked happy colors onto the paper. When her mother returned, she found a wonderful masterpiece under her daughter’s bum. She took it into town to show a friend and a passerby bought it on the spot. “It’s just so beautiful,” he had said.

From that day on, Sariah’s mother would place her down on a canvas to nap, and as the naked babe dreamt, the canvas would fill with colors that dazzled her parents and art collectors alike. And soon these paintings were sold all over the world.

Sariah grew older, creating masterpieces from her sweat and tears. Her parents built her a studio where she would strip her clothes off and ponder the day’s emotions over a canvas. She’d think about her poor brothers and sister who were constantly criticized by their parents for not being as gifted as her. The canvas would swirl in blues and greens. Sariah would think about learning to drive in secret, for she was the only Williamson child forbidden from doing so, and the canvas would soak in oranges and reds.

After the piece was finished, Sariah would promptly then take a picture and send it to her agent who would then find a buyer. The Williamsons grew wealthy and their little cabin in the woods became a mansion with four wings, a high fence, and an Olympic-sized pool within it, though Sariah didn’t swim in it often because she’d dye the water for a week.

But lately, Sariah’s paintings were growing dim. “I think I’m running out of soul,” she explained to her mother.

“That’s ridiculous. How does someone run out of their soul?”

“I don’t know,” Sariah said. “I just feel really tired all the time, all dried up and spent.”

“Well, you can’t take a break. Perhaps you should drink more water,” her mother said.

Her father wouldn’t let Sariah take a break either. “How will we pay for all our things? Would you have your brothers and sisters wear hand-me-downs?” he asked.

Thus, Sariah was resigned to create more canvases, but sadness overwhelmed her. The artwork became grey and black with a rare slip of color or two when she thought about running away. Her parents grew angry.

“The agent says your work isn’t selling because it’s so lifeless. Paint something beautiful. Paint something happy,” they said.

“I can’t,” Sariah said. “I don’t know how.”

“Quit that silliness,” her mother said. “You’ve been doing this since you were born.”

“Don’t squander your gifts,” her father said.

But Sariah’s depression did not subside. She kept thinking of her family’s expectations, of her talentless brothers and sisters who depended on her, and the only color her soul let out was grey.

“You will stay here until you paint something happy,” her father said in desperation after a month of unsellable paintings. “Too many depend on you for you to give up.” He locked her in the studio for weeks at a time. Her mother insisted Sariah sleep on canvases like before when she was a baby, but there was no change. Every canvas was darker than the next until Sariah could only create pure black canvases.

Sariah stopped eating. Her eyes were blank, and she’d often spend hours staring at the same spot on the wall.

The Williamsons started beating her siblings. “Why could you not be as gifted as your sister?” they would scream. “Why can you not save us?”

Then one morning her eldest brother came to her side and held her hand. “Please, save me,” he said. “I will never ask anything else of you ever again.”

Sariah looked into his eyes and saw purple tears. “You must run away,” she said. “They will take your soul. Run away and take our brothers and sisters.”

Silently he packed the car, and the night they were to run away, Sariah approached her parents.

“I’m going to try once more,” she said. “But I don’t think it will work unless you watch me.”

The parents agreed, and that night Sariah made her last painting. She thought of her escaping siblings, and the canvas soaked in red.

“It’s working,” the parents marveled.

She thought of her life before the mansion, and the canvas soaked in purples.

“Keep going,” they said.

She thought of the gift she had never been free to use. She thought of every canvas she had ever been forced to paint, drew from that energy, and put what was left of her on the canvas, creating a ribbon of silvery black through its center.

“That’s enough,” they said, taking her worn body off the canvas.

“It’s your best one yet, Sariah,” her mother said in wonder. “What were you thinking about?”

But Sariah didn’t answer. She body lay silently on the floor next to the canvas, her soul used up. She was dead.

The next day Sariah’s agent called: “All colors on all the paintings are gone. It’s as though someone has whitewashed them all. People are demanding a refund.”

And this was the first time the Williamsons grieved.

Mandy Brown is A Room of Her Own Foundation’s 2013 Tillie Olsen Fellow. Her short story “The Last Silver Button” was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and she is internationally published. When Mandy isn’t writing, she is working as a book editor in Central Texas. Follow her at mandyalyssbrown.weebly.com.

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