You Don’t Have To Sell Your Soul To Become An Artist (Trust Me, I Used My Wife’s Instead)

An artist with a tattoo on his arm working at a desk
Allef Vinicius / Unsplash

Madness isn’t usually loud like it’s portrayed on the screen. It’s not bright either — no supernova of unfettered emotion or physical deformity to hint at the rot inside. I didn’t bellow until my throat was raw or bloody my hands on my walls and mirrors. I didn’t splatter my paints across my skin or shred the half-finished canvases which mock my chosen identity.

My wife Joana even commented on how methodical I was when I gently placed each brush in their case, never to be opened again. If you count finger painting in pre-school, then it’s taken me 41 years to fully accept my failure. I should have realized it sooner, but I always managed to concoct an excuse before.

I didn’t try hard enough. That’s a good one. It makes it sound like I could just flip a switch in my mind and force myself to become a master through sheer willpower.

I wasn’t taught well enough. Even better: shifting the blame onto someone else. If only my teachers had been more qualified — if only they’d devoted themselves to nurture my potential like Domenico Ghirlandaio devoted himself to Michelangelo.

I’m not good enough — the hardest pill to swallow. I set out to capture the intrinsic beauty of the human spirit and display it for the world to see, but there is no beauty in me to share. I didn’t scream and throw a fit. I didn’t think much of anything at all. I just let my body move through the familiar motions of life and hoped no one would notice there was nothing below the surface.

Joana asked why my eyes were watering, but I blamed it on the movie we were watching. She punched my arm playfully, calling me a big softy.

“Aren’t you working on something tonight?” she asked.

I blinked hard, not taking my eyes off the TV.

“I remember you talking about that comic book store commission. How’s that coming?”

“It’s coming,” I lied. She tried to snuggle against me, but I slipped free and snuck off to the bathroom. It felt wrong to even let her touch me. She had this conception of who I was in her mind — just like I used to — but that person doesn’t exist. I’m a failure, a hack, a fraud. And that’s all I’d ever be. I stared at myself in the mirror, tracing the unfamiliar lines on my face. Poking at the bags under my eyes. Hating what I saw, and hating even more what I couldn’t see.

I mimed a gun with my fingers and put it against my head. Cocked the thumb, grinned my best phony smile, and BLAMO.

“Honey, can you get me a soda on your way back?” I heard from the living room.

But I couldn’t take my eyes away from the mirror. My reflection showed a crater in the side of my skull where the imaginary bullet entered. Blood, fragmented bone, and fleshy gray lumps splattered across the bathroom walls, more gushing from the exit wound on the other side of my head.

“Ooh and one of those Nutella cups,” Joana added. “Thanks, honey!”

I traced my fingers over my temple, withdrawing them clean. My reflection still wore the phony smile, although it was barely visible now under the torrent of blood flooding down its face.

“Two years, maybe less,” came a voice. I spun, startled, unable to find an orator in the empty bathroom. “First comes the depression. Then the withdrawal. Joana will pretend she’s just going to visit her family for awhile, but you’ll know she really just can’t stand being around you.”

My bloody reflection was talking to me. That’s normal. This is fine.

“She’ll expect you to call and explain what’s going on, but you won’t. She’ll extend her trip, thinking you just need time to yourself. And you do, but just because you’re too much of a coward to pull the trigger while someone’s watching. The silence will become too loud, and before you know it…”

The bloody figure mimed a finger to its head, the phony smile flashing through the red.

“You okay in there?” Joana called from the living room. “Mama wants her chocolate!”

“Okay,” I mumbled, replying to both.

“Or…” the reflection said.

“Or what?”

“Or you become the best painter the world has ever known, your name spoken with reverence a thousand years after your death.”

“Okay,” I mumbled, numb to the whole show. “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

“This is where most people ask ‘what’s the catch?’” My reflection’s voice was coy.

“Probably my soul or something, right? That’s okay. I’m not using it for anything.”

“You don’t have to sell your soul. Any soul will do.”

“Never mind I’ll get it myself,” Joana said. “Geez, I wish I’d married a butler instead.”

“Think about it,” the reflection bubbled rapidly, spraying blood between his teeth as he did. “You won’t be able to enjoy your success without a soul. And your wife — she was going to leave you anyway. If anything, this would spare her a lifetime of regret and guilt over your death. You owe it to yourself — you owe it to both of you.”

“I can’t give something that isn’t mine,” I replied, immediately hating myself for even entertaining the thought.

“Anyone who loves without reservation exposes their soul. Paint her — not as she appears, but as she truly is. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“What are you doing, giving birth in there?” Joana asked from right outside the door. The handle rattled. The door wasn’t locked. I leaped to stop her from entering — too slow. The door swung inward and there she stood: tank top over pajama bottoms, hair frizzy and wild, licking Nutella off her fingers. My heart was beating so fast, but as much as I loved her, I think my fear was even stronger.

Back to the mirror, I stared at my reflection. No blood. No bullet wound. Just a tired, aging face, equally terrifying in its own way.

“Come on,” Joana wrapped her arms around me from behind. “The movie’s no fun without you blubbering over the dialog.”

“I can’t,” I said, still staring into the mirror. “I have a painting to finish.”

A feverish intensity imbued my work all night and into the next morning. A drowning man struggling for air could not have done so with more urgency than the flight of my desperate brush. No thoughts endured more than a second before they were replaced by the endless cycle of anticipation and release each stroke demanded. When my canvas was filled, I didn’t hesitate to slash the lines onto the walls on either side of my easel. Then the table — the dresser — my own body a vessel to carry the glory of her design.

My brush was unconfined by any shape, but in its erratic patterns, I felt myself carving something out of nothing — something that had never been seen by mortal eye before.

In the subtleties of the blending colors, I captured Joana’s wry humor and gentle grace. Her laughter exploded like shrapnel across the space, the light in her eyes reflected in my cascading colors. The way her heart broke when her aging dog nudged her goodbye — the anxious thrill of stepping off the plane in Paris — even her love for me and her unspoken dread of the great beyond, naked and frozen for all the world to see.

Paint beneath my fingernails, in my hair, blazoned across my body, a testament to the frenzied passion which had possessed me. Though working alone, I danced with Joana the whole night through. I have never seen her more plainly nor loved her more strongly than those forbidden hours, and not until morning’s light did I stop to understand what I had done.

‘Are you insane?’ That’s what I was expecting to hear. Any second the door to my studio would open and Joana would see the chaos I had the audacity to unfurl. She’d laugh at me, making a thousand playful guesses at the madness which leaked from my mind all night. We’d both laugh, then she’d say something like ‘I’m just happy to see you enjoying your work again,’ and offer to help me clean. That’s how kind she was: when I did something stupid she’d be there to help me fix it, no pointing accusation or blame.

Maybe I really was insane. But either way, she couldn’t fix this one for me.

She didn’t enter the room. Not in the kitchen making her coffee, not in the shower singing herself into lucidity. Joana never got up that morning. She said she wasn’t feeling herself, and I was too much of a coward to tell her why. If I’d taken a break in the night to check on her, I might have noticed the rot that had already started to set in. She managed to prop herself up on her elbows, leaving several layers of flaking skin on the pillow. Ashen cracked skin, yellowed eyes, balding patches where clumps of hair had already started to fall — my wife was still in my studio where I’d captured her. The woman struggling for breath was nothing but a stranger to me, and I left her without a word.

I slept little and ate less. I sought only to paint, vainly trying to recapture the intimacy I’d felt with her the night before. There was a brief thrill as I marveled at the dexterity of my fingers, although they lacked the passion that haunted me before. I could trace every mental image I dared conjure and map them flawlessly onto the canvas, but they were dead things being carved into a dead world.

It didn’t take long for me to sit back in exasperation. I had the technical skill to conquer any challenge, but it wasn’t an infernal magic which had possessed me the night before. I knew at that moment that there was nothing I could ever create that was more beautiful than the pandemonium of Joana’s soul. I heard that hollow thing call my name from the bedroom with a voice like wind through dry leaves, and Heaven and Hell as my witness, I wept for what I’d done.

“Give her soul back to her,” I begged the aging face in the mirror. “Take mine instead —”

“What an ugly painting that would be,” the demon with my face replied.

“Then another — it doesn’t matter whose. I’ll give you as many as you like!”

“Does another love you as she did? Have they exposed themselves as she has done?”

I had no reply to give. Coward that I was, I merely returned to my painting. Lifeless hollow forms came marching through my work, each accompanied by the soundtrack of my wife’s body slowly deteriorating without its soul. Each time I looked at her there would be another piece missing: fingers decomposing and littering the mattress around her, cheeks worn so thin that I could see her blackened teeth and languid tongue even when her mouth was closed. I’d listen to her moan while I worked, always stealing longing glances at the portrait of her soul splashed across the room.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I set fire to that place with her inside. And watching the smoke curl into the night sky, all that’s left is to hope her soul escaped its prison and is now soaring somewhere with its dignity returned.

As for me, I returned to my work. Until the day I paint something so marvelous as to trick some poor innocent into loving me. Then I will paint what I see, and sell them until Joana is home again. TC mark

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