He dreamt of cutting a body to pieces. Like a butcher breaking up a pig carcass: this part for chops, that part for bacon. An awful dream, repulsive. Not just gross, but he was more disturbed by how he’d behaved in the nightmare: passive, apathetic, annoyed at the chore. His stomach churned when he woke, sitting up in the rental cabin’s bed. Sick. What the hell was wrong with his brain? He didn’t even enjoy watching horror movies, let alone that gore shit. And he wasn’t prepping a Thanksgiving turkey recently or anything; he’d been vegetarian since junior high, save the occasional accident.
He fumbled around the cabin, knocking his hip into the cluttered furniture. Cute place though. Cozy. Six days remaining, pre-paid, but he still felt the money draining minute-to-minute. At least he’d gotten up early, after leaving the bedroom curtains open so the sun could wake him. The kind host had made good use of the cleaning fees: the carpets shampooed, the upholstery Febreze’d. Even left a stack of board games and puzzles by the sofa. But who’d drive two hours into the countryside to assemble a thousand-piece patchwork of kitten parts? That wasn’t what he was here for. His eyes wandered to the easel set up in the living room. It waited with a blank canvas pre-toned in rusty burnt sienna, ready to receive his vision. Not yet, not yet. The mantra of his life. Morning light streamed through the sliding glass door: a white overcast sky, warmth already hanging in the air. Gonna be a real scorcher, he thought in his dad’s voice.
He broke out the loaf of bread he’d packed, made a PBJ with the complimentary jelly packets the host had left on the kitchenette counter. A salad bowl-full, so deep he could bury his hand like he was fishing around in a trick or treat basket. How much did they think he needed? The Jelly-du-Jour was classic grape, squirted over his sandwich with a humorous squelch. It’d be good to get outside early before locking himself indoors with the A/C blasting. He took his breakfast out to the patio table to admire the view. That’s what you paid for, the pics that enticed you to impulse-book a week. A pond with croaking frogs, a patch of dense forest. No neighbors to rev lawnmowers or kids tearing around on dirt bikes. The sandwich gummed up his mouth, and he choked it down with a glass of tap water. The modern monk, fueling himself for a day of illuminating manuscripts. More like daubing around paint for twenty minutes then wiping it all off. But you could hope.
He stood, stuffing the bread crust into his pocket. Almost tossed it in the pond, but that’d give the ducks a stomach ache as bad as his own. A nature walk sounded nice. Clear his mind, be a chance to think. He’d follow that rasping bird call, see what little weirdo was making it. He set out, passing the pond, the frogs sleeping off last night’s concert. The woods were cooler, made him glad he bothered with the flannel shirt. He hiked over lumpy ground, still achy and groggy from poor sleep. Chopping up a body, for fuck’s sake. Sawing at an ankle, dead foot clammy under his palm. Passive, emotionless. He shuddered, shaking his head to knock the thought free.
Leaves rustled, branches creaked, and that distant bird-call rang out. Squeaky, manic laughter: more birds chattering over each other, having a little shindig. A streak of scarlet flitted through the boughs, a latecomer to the party. Weep-weep, one of them bleated like a depressed dog toy. He followed, taking a deep breath of fresh air. A woody scent, that Christmas smell. Expensive turpentine, not the cheap turps he bulked out his brush washer with. He leaned against a trunk, closing his eyes to feel the peace. Turning into a real Bob Ross out there, just needed a squirrel in his pocket. Bob probably never got much into abstract expressionism though.
A tapping sound emerged—tonk-tonk-tonk, like tiny wooden mallets. Woodpeckers? Pockmarks studded nearby trunks, holes seeping gooey sap. Looked like they’d been mowed down by gnomes with tommy guns. There—more red, a riot of woodpeckers swarming an old stump. Ten of them maybe, all crowding in. He watched them and laughed. Too bad he left his phone on the nightstand; Dad would love this. But you couldn’t pack that shit around if you really wanted to unplug. The birds went to town on that stump, hammering away, cramming their beaks into the gnarled wood and gulping tree blood. A new scent—something sweet, maybe whatever got those little guys so amped up. Apples… baked apples, fresh out of the oven. And an animal musk, like a fox marked its territory. Wasn’t the birds. Birds didn’t smell, did they? They were so absorbed in their meal, you could reach out and grab one. He crept forward. How close would they let him get? Closer, though he couldn’t move like a ninja. Leaves crunched under his boot, but the birds didn’t flinch. Another woodpecker arrived, fighting for space at the buffet. The bird it displaced squawked and waggled its long, creepy tongue.
He was right on them, ready to live that childhood dream of sneaking up and petting a seagull. Did he dare? He reached for one, its back turned. Close enough to see the stark mosaic of its wings, the crimson head, total Woody Woodpecker style. Inches away, his hand poised, wavering. He went for it, biting back a smile. The bird’s feathers were silky smooth, its skin warm beneath. Man, what Snow White shit was this? He stifled a childish giggle. Another one, feathery soft. It vibrated, boring a hole into the wood. The scent—stronger now—apple cinnamon Pop-Tart, like when he was a kid. They didn’t even make those anymore.
A flow of sap trickled down the knotted bark. The stump stood hip-height, roughly torn, the wood crackled and grey. A dead tree, rotted apart. Why was it dripping sap then? Had to be something alive in there. He reached for a rivulet, and a bird shrieked and flapped at him. He jerked back, not wanting a hole in his painting hand. The animal smell grew stronger, like sweat? Fresh sweat, not rank B.O. Apples and sweat, a little vanilla.
A ray of sunlight peeked through the canopy, lighting the sap a brilliant crimson, candy-red. His stomach ache vanished, and now he only wanted a taste of that stuff. The woodpeckers wouldn’t clear space, crowding every inch. An impulse struck him, tingling down his arms. He lunged forward, kicked the stump, waved his hands and shouted. But why? What an asshole move, scaring off some creatures enjoying their breakfast. They stayed rooted longer than he expected, but flapped off in time, trilling and screeching.
All for him now. He knelt, eyes tracing over the twisted wood. This was what got them so hot and bothered? A pool of the sap glistened translucent scarlet, and he dipped his finger in. He thought it’d feel like stand oil—sticky as honey. But it was slick, and he dove to lick it off before it dripped down his shirt cuff. You’d imagine maple syrup, the expensive stuff, but it wasn’t sweet really, almost savory. Apples cooked in salted butter? The taste changed in his mouth, even with one drop. Apples, to a salty, musky taste on the afterburn. He dipped into the pool again. Wouldn’t drown your pancakes with it, but there was something compelling there. He sucked on his fingers, rolling his eyes around like an amateur sommelier, considering the flavor. No, it was sweet now, more cinnamon sugar. He took another sample, laughing: pretty Winnie the Pooh of him. He had to pull himself away, wipe his hand off on his pant leg. Maybe he’d find a jar and get a souvenir to take home.
Back to the cabin, and the color of that sap stuck in his mind. It’d look good on the sienna. Just add some black and white streaks like those crazy birds. He slid onto the stool, picturing the composition already. Yeah, a dark rectangular frame, then red in concentric circles. The colors were barely on the palette before he was laying them on the canvas. He worked steadily, only stopping to switch brushes, dab more medium. Didn’t even need music to get in the zone. He stretched back, and sweat trickled down his spine. Christ— he was still in his flannel, and the sun was blasting through the window. The thermostat read 89F.
He tore off his shirt, set the A/C to full bore. No way it was that hot already at… The wall clock read ten till noon. Hours had passed like nothing. He stuck his head under the kitchen faucet and let cold water run down his neck. Felt great with the A/C rushing on his wet skin, but how’d he let it get this bad? Was the work really so absorbing? He turned back to the easel, staring in amazement. Halfway done, maybe more. Remarkable headway for a canvas that size. Looking sharp too, that black, white, and red so striking with the sienna peeking through.
He slumped onto the leather sofa, eyes drawn to the painting, itching to return to it. How long had it been since he was this focused? The next move was obvious: get the palette knife in there and make some vertical streaks like the birds’ feathers. He forced himself to choke down another PBJ before returning to work. Nobody back home would’ve dreamed he’d make good on his talk of getting away and finally finishing something. Probably thought he’d be jacking off 24/7 and crying about the Wi-Fi. But it didn’t matter what they thought. This was what he paid for, what he took time off for.
The day drained by, and he was still focused enough to swap that finished canvas for another. Cobalt and Hansa yellow now, in overlapping triangles like the gleams in the starlit sky outside the window. Night already! The frogs had been singing for hours, and his back screamed at him for spending all day on that awful stool. He hobbled to the living room couch and refueled himself with a bag of gummy worms. Gelatin wasn’t vegetarian, but they were sitting on the counter and he couldn’t be fucked to make another PBJ. Sorry horses, or whoever’s bones got boiled. He looked back at his work, shaking his head. Now this canvas was almost done too. Crazy, absolutely crazy. The creative bug got him again, like the old days of studio all-nighters, only stopping when campus security came around to kick him out. Maybe it was as simple as getting out of the house.
The painting still called to him, but he’d be crippled tomorrow if he didn’t rest his spine. He scraped layers of paint from his forearms and flopped on the stiff bed, mind buzzing. Corny decorations clustered the room: wooden unicorn, a framed bible quote. That lame print of a pink sailboat on a purple ocean—you could do something with those pastel colors. Break out the silver paint and palette knife, scrape it on thick for texture. Let some black streak through: the shadows beneath those mellow waves. Exhaustion overtook him, and his plans interspersed with dreams.
Carving pumpkins at the kitchen table, scooping out their slimy guts, seeds raining on the newspaper Dad had laid out. Smelled like sour tomatoes, but he’d imagined pumpkin pie or Mom’s nice autumn candles. Back in the old house, but he wasn’t a kid. Orange goo clung to his hands, strings of slime hanging down. The dream changed and Dad became someone else, watching him with an unkind presence. Maybe Kyle; he didn’t get it. Ab-ex is for boomers, he’d say as a joke. That’s art, huh? Splashing paint around like a 1950s alcoholic? Rothko wanted to do realism. Kind of sad, yeah? And then he couldn’t change. Everyone wants color fields forever. What if you got stuck that way? Couldn’t make anything real, just blobs until you die.
Wasn’t Kyle though, with his lip-ring accenting that permanent smirk. It was a stranger. How’d they get in the cabin? The doors were locked. No one should be there. Yet, there they sat in the old IKEA chair, just out of sight, just on his periphery. Their presence was overwhelming, vibrating, like fingers working into the whorls of his brain.
A song—he didn’t recognize it, but it fluttered in and out on a fuzzy connection, playing on a decrepit, tinny speaker—Got to get to you, baby—the pumpkin vanished, the table vanished—Honey, come set me free—nothing in the dining room but a face it hurt to look at, like peering at the sun.
Later, painting like crazy again. When had he woken? Couldn’t remember. He reached for another candy and found the bag empty. The foil stuck to his paint-covered fingers. He’d been chowing down and not even paying attention. When he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, a stripe of yellow ochre came off his lips. Wasn’t cadmium or lead, but it’d probably still knock a few years off the lifespan. Afternoon sun beamed in already, the grass outside so neon he had to squint, eyes watering. Paint splattered his shirt, his pant legs, some splotched on the carpet. Well, there went the deposit. Couldn’t find it in himself to care.
A third canvas down. He’d finished the last one before noon. Hadn’t been like that since school, working his ass off for a deadline. And these weren’t rushed class projects; these were the real deal. A little rough, but they had a spark. Shit he hadn’t been daring enough to create before—big bold angles, sharp color contrasts. God, he wanted to keep going; who knew when this bubble would pop? But he forced himself away, into the cramped shower. He’d regret it later if he degenerated into a total slob. Shave, dress, eat. Gotta be human, even if no one was there to see it. The whole time, something itched under his skin. Hungry? Thirsty? Didn’t seem so, but what wasn’t hitting him right? At home he would’ve had a beer, had a smoke, worn the edge down. But there was a reason he didn’t pack that shit.
Kitchen table, PB with marmalade, choked it down. The sun microwaved the cabin, fighting the A/C with all its strength. Light gleamed through cheerful translucent decals on the glass door—cute sunflowers, daisies, red roses—reflecting colorful patterns on the table. They shimmered in the heat, luscious as candy syrup.
The itch took him over. Not thinking, he grabbed the peanut butter jar and emptied the contents onto a plate. Jar in hand, he marched into the boiling hot day, arid wind blowing like a giant hair dryer on his face. The canopy’s deep shade welcomed him, and he traced his way back, not needing the bird calls to guide him this time. No woodpeckers today, but a doe, chewing on the stump. Her big eyes rolled madly as she chewed, the sclera pink and bloodshot. She didn’t budge as he approached. Some cartoon fantasy; who can just stroll up to a wild animal? He stamped his foot, waved his arms.
“Go on, fuck off!”
Her fur bristled, and she bared her teeth and grunted. Would’ve been funny on another day: Bambi cracking a grin. She lurched forward, snapping and honking. No way, he wasn’t giving in. He lunged at her, struck the side of her neck. She honked again and ceded ground, letting him bully his way to the stump. What the fuck was he doing? Squaring up against a gentle forest creature? But she retreated, and he had it all to himself.
He knelt, hands scrambling to undo the jar’s lid. The deer had broken a chunk of the wood, releasing a thick stream of sap flowing down the crackly bark. He scraped the jar along it, cursing as it refused to go inside the plastic. God, so stupid. It oozed over his hand, and he licked it off.
Back in the cabin, darkness. His stomach groaned, shocking him awake. He banged his elbow on the easel and tried to stand. His foot tangled on the stool, and they both crashed to the floor. He laid flat on his back, head pounding. Oh, just kill me. He raised himself with sticky hands smeared dark—paint, sap, blood—hard to tell which. Splattered over his shirt, on his jaw, down his neck. He stumbled to the wall and pawed for the light switch.
Snap—An unfamiliar painting sat on the easel. Another lay on the coffee table. Another was propped up on the sofa cushions, two more on the kitchen table, three on the counter tops. The whole trunkful of canvases he’d brought, covered in slashes of color and dynamic compositions.
Hot magenta, neutral grey, deep crimson. Rainbow goo coated his entire palette, brushes scattered, paint tubes mangled. The board games lay strewn on the floor, puzzle pieces scattered like autumn leaves. Some stuck to his flesh: a kitten’s toe-bean glued to his forearm, a bit of fuzzy tail on his elbow. He squinted at the clock. 1AM. It’d been afternoon before; no way he finished all those in a few hours. Fuck’s sake, he was going insane…
He grimaced at the phone, checking the time, checking the date. Two days gone. He must’ve been painting the whole while. Who else would’ve made those things? His body ached so badly, his back strung tight, he could barely turn his head without wincing. Two days—no wonder he was starving. The peanut butter had melted into a brown puddle on that plate, so he just swiped the bread through it, slopped it over his hands. He choked it down, gagging, stuck his face under the faucet to drink. He ripped open every jelly packet in that giant bowl and sucked them down one by one. Red raspberry, black currant, strawberry, apricot. Not good enough.
Outside now, stumbling into the oppressive dark, stars hidden under clouds. He barely remembered how to turn on his phone’s flashlight, blasted it into his own stupid eyes, and nearly dropped it. It lit his way, but he still tripped over his shoes. Hadn’t bothered to get them laced, just crammed his feet inside, mashing the backs down. The frogs quieted as he passed their pond, then returned to their monotone chorus. Here he was, a junkie for maple syrup. Maybe the stuff wasn’t vegetarian. Could almost be funny.
Deep in the forest, chilly and nearly pitch-black. The wind rustled the leaves, insects grinding and whirring in the lingering summer heat. Up to the stump, a harsh crack had split through the bark. Maybe he’d done it, or some other animal. He set the phone on the ground among the roots, its light shooting up like a little lamp. Had to get that sap, all of it. He pulled the snarled wood apart, and it separated with a groan, scraping his bare skin. A rich fluid sluiced within the shadowy hollow, and his belly growled. The scent—he couldn’t even think of what it was. Food, delicious food, and he was so desperately hungry. Another yank, and the wood splintered, revealed a smooth, writhing shape inside. A pale snake? It squelched around, making its way free. Human fingers curled over the stump’s ragged edge.
He let the pieces snap shut and took a step back. His mind chugged as the stump shifted, something inside grunting in frustration. It should’ve been scary. Surprising, maybe, but he still found himself reaching to help push it apart again. A human arm rose from the split, stretched out to the elbow, and he grasped it by the wrist. Another arm wormed out, and he gave it a good pull, fingers slipping over wet, alien skin. Out came a head, shoulders, spine. A creature crawled out, slicked in bloody slime like afterbirth. It slid to the ground and stumbled its way up to stand. It should’ve been scary. He should’ve been scared. He knew that. The figure looked like Kyle—hard to see under that sap, but they had a similar shape. God, that guy was such a prick, cracking jokes constantly, even trying to be funny in bed. Just shit insecure boys do. Snark away before anyone can do it to you. Nice body though, enough to keep him coming back.
This man—man?—it turned to him, dark hair hanging limp, glued to its face. Like Kyle, fresh from the shower. The smell was so strong: raspberry, sweat, copper. The figure reached out with slender arms.
“Come to me.” A voice that slid off the brain, words ringing in his head. Couldn’t deny it. Had to lean in, let it tangle sticky arms around you. Had to press your body to its nude form, feel the give of its flesh. It pulled at his clothes, and he struggled out of them. It was too hot anyway, and the figure was cool against him. It wasn’t Kyle, he knew that. The sap stuck to his face, stuck to his lips. That taste mixed with salty skin really worked together. Nothing you’d pour on your pancakes, but perfect in the moment.
Patches of sap-coated skin came clean, greyish in the dim forest light, but hard to see with your face so close. Frozen hands cradled his face, fingernails purplish-black. Gentle sighs—was it him doing that? The stuff glued up his mouth, no drink to wash it down. Fingers parted his lips and a flood of mineral taste washed over his tongue. He chuckled. No, it wasn’t that, just blood. A mouth fastened on his: tender lips, their kiss like tinned fruit cocktail, like salted cantaloupe.
He lay back on the forest floor, sticky and overheated, but a crisp wind chilled his fever. The figure knelt beside him, a face leaning over his. Hurt to look at, bright as the sun. He reached out, expected his fingers to scorch, but the skin was chilly under his touch. The being’s eyes closed, made it easier to look. Didn’t hurt now, but his mind floundered to assemble the features he saw. See a nose, forget the eyes. See red-smeared lips, forget the nose. It ached in his brain, like watching that weird shit back in experimental film class. Made his eyes close, made him sleep.
Another dream: butcher paper packages. Irregular shapes, bound with twine, jumbled in a burlap bag. A cold autumn night in the woods, before they started building all these cabins and highways. Peaceful, almost. He’d already dug the holes, just had to drop the bundles inside. The work was nearly done: the carpet cleaned, the bathtub bleached, all the usual stuff. He rested, crouched on creaky knees, sighing at the annoying chore.
Boy, he had to quit this nonsense. A couple hours of fun, and then ages of clean up. That’s how it always went, picking up these pretty young things. He laughed and hefted an odd-shaped package. That song—they were listening to that together in the truck, weren’t they? You need some loving, tender love and care. He felt the weight of the package, the faint give to what lay beneath the wrappings. A toy he didn’t need anymore. Got to get to you, baby… The parcel tumbled into the hole, never to be seen again. Another package: a long cylindrical shape, less pliant. He dropped it inside too. How’d the song go? He hummed along, making up new lyrics as he worked. Maybe he could track that record down later.
Sunlight wormed through the canopy, a beam striking his sleeping eyelids. His skin prickled, slivers embedded deep, lying in dead pine needles. Sap everywhere, soaked over his body, insects crawling every inch. He leapt to his feet, his stomach sloshing with fluid, and he almost yakked it up right there.
Totally nude, middle of the day, middle of nowhere, tripping balls. What the fuck happened to him? The memory came back as shattered fragments—skin on skin and tongue on skin and the smell of sweat and the taste of someone else’s mouth. Great, weird-ass sex dreams in the forest. He glanced down; a sticky red handprint marked his lower belly, fingers splayed. More on the tops of his thighs, on his hips. All of them at the wrong angle. Not his own.
The stump lay split in two, sap pooled beneath and swarmed with squirrels and bugs and ten different species of small birds. They slurped and dug and scrabbled at their breakfast. He fished for his long-dead phone in the roots and found his clothes tossed about. What was he thinking last night? Animals squeaked and clucked and smacked their beaks. He clutched his belongings in filthy arms, shoved his feet into his sneakers. Into the open air, struggling to piece it all together. That shit he drank—some kind of hallucinogen, something fucked up. He almost waded into the pond to bathe, but it might turn the frogs psycho too. Last thing the world needed.
That thought kept him from barfing into the sink instead of the trash. It’d go into the sewer and make everyone insane. Wasn’t hard to bring the stuff up; it came out thick as sun-ripened cough syrup, big goopy red strings of it. Didn’t taste so nice the second time, like he’d drunk a pint of sea water and rotten plum juice. He had to get to a hospital, get his stomach pumped. They could give him whatever they give ODing junkies. He shivered, still nude and bitten all over by anything hungry enough for a nibble. He rubbed himself raw with paper towels, but the sap wouldn’t come off. Used the entire roll, filled up the trash. Couldn’t take a shower or it’d go down the drain.
The cabin darkened, the shadows growing long and blue, the day’s heat mellowing. He rushed around, throwing on clothes, grabbing the paintings and ferrying them out to the car. Didn’t even recognize the things. They looked good, but his eyes kept falling on strange shapes in the swirling paint. A mouth, a foot, a nose, hidden in the contours. He never did figurative work. Wasn’t his style, but there they were.
Everything loaded, the stained clothes tossed in the backseat, the easel folded. Darkness fell, and the sap on his body stunk like a skeevy butcher shop. Every hoot and shriek of a night bird made him cringe, imagining them swooping to take a bite. He could just hop in the car, drive far as he could, but his phone was still in the cabin. He could get a new one, right? You could live without a phone. So what drew him inside? What made him stumble up to the sliding glass door like a sleepwalker?
Those candy-colored decals had melted in the heat, oozing down the glass in colorful streams. The figure stood on the patio, its form obscured by shadow. Couldn’t walk away, couldn’t turn his head. It stepped forward, leaving red footprints on the pathway, face blurred. Its hand pressed against the glass in a familiar print, the ones he’d been scrubbing off his body all evening. It lingered there, radiating that absorbing energy, calling him closer, calling him to press a palm to its reflection.
“It’s terrible to be forgotten.” That unmemorable voice, words left behind without touching the ears. “Take me with you.”
“I can’t,” he stuttered out, shaking in the dark. “I’m not… I’m not letting you in.”
The hand remained, the figure unmoving, unbreathing. “You’ll take me with you,” came the airless voice. “You’ll remember me.”
The hand drew away with a faint suction, leaving a bloody print among those melting flowers. By morning, wasps and ants and bees swarmed the glass, battling for a taste, sucking up every drop.
Everything was done. Just had to wait for it to dry and slop on some varnish. Looked great on the walls, even if he hated looking at them. Fourteen new works, so striking and original, but created with the same distinctive hand. They didn’t sell out the instant the show opened, but he already had a couple takers in the first hour. Sun gleamed in the gallery window, but the ventilation buffeted the heat from the stylish visitors. Kyle showed up, made a big deal of wandering around on his own, perusing each painting before he stopped to say hello.
“So you gave in,” he said with his infamous smirk. “Finally realize ab-ex is dead?” His smirk dropped, maybe noticing he’d gone a bit too far. “Anyway.” He brushed the hair from his face. “Can’t believe you got it done so fast. And nice to see you branching out. Don’t wanna get stuck doing one thing forever, right?” He glanced at a painting, eyes tracking to the red-smeared lips hidden in a cloud of silver paint.
“You still get stuck.”
Kyle turned back, confused. “Huh?”
“You can get stuck doing other things, you know.”
Kyle shook his head and took a sip of complimentary wine.
“Don’t be so negative.” He sniffed the cup, sniffed the air. “Weird. You getting into encaustics? Smells kinda sweet.”
“No. Well, thanks for coming.”
The sketchbook was more interesting than Kyle, or at least, more absorbing. He went back to it, balanced there on his lap. Draw a nose, scratch it out. Draw an eye, scratch it out. They never lined up, never matched. Hands didn’t connect to wrists, feet didn’t connect to legs. But they wanted to be seen, wanted everyone to see them. Maybe they’d put themselves together one day.
All content © Joseph Kelly & respective authors