Estimated reading time: 16 – 27 minutes
Image Credit: dimitri_c @ Stock.Xchng
I’m playing on my canvas yet again, Angst Junkies. I have had the pleasure of meeting via Twitter an extremely talented writer by the name of Penny Jane Goring. She weaves passion with a lyrical tongue. Her work is raw; chaotic in perfect order. Bone, Dust, Disco is a glorious example of Penny’s unapologetic, always moving, evolving poetic style. It is raucous, whispering, lamenting, shouting, loving all at once.
Reading Penny’s work has inspired me to experiment with my prose. To push the boundaries of how I tell a tale. I am not a poet but I would like to create with a poet’s freedom. The story is ragged about the edges. Not polished and written right off the cuff. Part literary storytelling mixed in with ambiguous imagery. It may develop into a novella. It may not.
Paint by Numbers is a story about love but it is not a love story. Not in the traditional sense. The adoration is circular, familiar patterns repeated in unfamiliar ways. I don’t know how it will end but maybe that’s the point.
“Paint By Numbers”
Life runs in cycles. It is guaranteed when nothing else can be.
Love always drove the cycle. In its basest form at times, barely distinguished as such, but there nonetheless. Another tick to the tock. Another way to begin. Another way to end.
They had many cycles. Many lifetimes of love, hate, denial, betrayal.
Though they never called it such.
The first had been eons before in a place where time meandered instead of flowed. The world, faithful to its virgin cycle, stood on the cusp. Knife above the wrist, all it needed was a handful of giants to see-saw the blade.
He had been the one to kill them all.
She had been the one to see it coming.
Kae and Kaen. Names so much like keen.
“It will change everything. The Gods sanction it. This. It is my duty to serve. We will be safe when the culling begins.”
“No God’s word can be trusted, Kae. You know that.”
Still she welcomed him inside her, despite the worries gnawing her mind. Her love for him, purest, devoted like a simple-minded pet, drank the madness siphoning off him.
If her smiles lost their sun brilliance so be it. If her eyes dimmed as she looked about so be it. If her shoulders buckled more and more so be it.
He loved her for it. He hated her for the same. His caresses, once so tender, amalgamated into something else. Bit by bit—poison in a matter most tolerable until it kills.
Walking so close to the Gods did something to his psyche. Burned it, molded it, worked it into something new. Something monstrous.
He plucked her out of the glittering purple towers, cordoned her into a cage of his making. Deprived of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste of anything but him.
The last night in that world of forever finds her suffering courage.
“I want to go home.”
“This is home. I am home, Kaen. Where I go is where you live.”
First thrust of the blade leaves the victim numb. She bleeds out in ignorance. Her words, staccato bits of pleading fall out of his ears as quickly as they enter.
“Please, Kae. I don’t like this. Just stop this. Don’t do this. Don’t help them kill us all.”
“Kaen, it is over. There are no more tomorrows.”
Her heart shrivels. She continues to move. Empty spot where flesh mated love.
“You’ve lost your mind. You’ve lost everything that made you. You’ve lost me.”
A rough shake, hair twining like spider webs around his wrists, before he pushed her down onto the bed. Sprawled legs, bite marks ravaging the tender skin, bruises replacing kisses. Liquid slides, fun for all and fun for none, leaving her gasping muttered incantations of loathing.
He kisses her. Blood stains their lips. He whispers, “You’ll like the new world. It’ll be perfect, free from our flaws. Absolute. It goes back to absolute. We can start over. You won’t even remember this.”
“You’re wrong. I’ll find a way. I swear it.” She takes him inside her mouth, sucking, pulling, lapping, swirling her tongue along the head in mimicry of unfound magic, setting a spell to her curse.
Somewhere in the night the sky turns orange. Everything is incinerated. Including an entwined couple whose names sound so much like keen.
The Gods came. They didn’t need the bodies. Just the newly-created souls.
The second. Much like the first and nothing like it at all.
He loves her. She doesn’t love him.
She’s drawn to his devotion. She loves to see herself in his liquid eyes. She accepts his overtures, his food, his strength, but not him. It doesn’t matter to her that he’s loved her since she was born and he only a few winters old.
No. She hates him.
She doesn’t know why. There are many things she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why the sun leaves the sky. She doesn’t know why the moon cries when dark is its sharpest. She doesn’t know why he keeps after her when all she wants is for him to go.
It is violent. It is glorious. She hates him more than ever before even while she hungers to have him mate her again. She thinks if he can just stay behind her, inside her, she’ll love him a little.
They cleave to a scraped out portion of the cave. It’s theirs alone. Scratching, biting, moaning. More moans than screams lately. Somehow she found herself atop him and stayed. Variety has introduced more love in his gaze.
She is repelled.
Not by his dirty fingers, musky odor, or even hers. She is repelled because she’s sticking to him. She’s forgetting the hates and remembering something different. She sees a flower and knows it is purple. Purple like the rocks spiking into a sky that used to be another color.
She leaves. Quivering like the beasts roaming the earth, she becomes half-mad with memories slicking through her like stagnant water.
She remembers. She doesn’t. She remembers more. She slams her head against a tree in time to the thoughts collapsing her mind.
More. More. More.
She finds another. Same hair, same eyes, same body. It’s him but not.
She mates him too.
Physical pleasure is scarce, satisfied like an itch before it starts up again.
He finds her. He finds him. He kills him in a matter most savage.
Sticky with blood, he comes to her. His grunts, screams, and cries morph into a slur she’s heard in her head. She looks at him, seeing him but seeing someone else. She hears him and another him all at once.
He rips into her and she screams. His echoes. Her stomach heats as hot as the blood smeared across her neck. She understands him. She understands herself. She hates him still but she hates herself more.
Her lips smash against his. She dribbles stone memories. They flow down his throat in a cadence he’d understand if only he could remember.
The Gods have been forgotten and this is her punishment for disjointed recollection.
Once finished but not sated, she pushes off of him. She runs away. Not in fear. Not in hatred. Her feet cut across the rock, leaving pieces of herself as red as the sky in her mind.
When she jumps off the cliff he follows. Always following, always loving, always forcing her to remember.
She angles her body, seeing him coming for her. The wind pulls at her skin.
She whispers garbled memories. His old name keens.
They both shatter against rock.
Enough time passes. The Gods, fickle and sincere as they may be, realized the bones needed to stay buried until forgotten. Resurrect the souls too quickly and the meat puppets end up splattered.
The world evolves into something predictably destructive. The end is beginning again even if the final chapter is too far off to be considered a threat. Primitive roaming stops. Humans swarm like ants—localized and territorial. Stone rise in neat patterns.
He is now a man of wealth and power. The need to acquire rides him. Hardness blunted his limbs from memories he’s buried deep so they can’t ever hurt.
She’s a slave in his sand fortress. Her name is, “You there!” At first it frightened her beyond speech to be addressed by him. His temper ferocious, his power infinite, he had complete dominion over her. Night-black stare followed by curling hair, he is beautiful like a knife.
The first time she came to his bed it wasn’t a bed. He grabbed her by the arm and thrust her to the ground. Her arm throbbed in time to her ragged breath. She wants to speak, to plead for gentleness, but the words die.
They’re reborn into stingy bits of air.
He put his head down between her legs. His tongue rasps down and up. She’s reminded of the furred creatures roaming at will. She’s too afraid to let herself feel. It’s only after he’s withdrawn that she remembers the virgin bliss she’s had in a life too hard to be enjoyed.
He pushes into her, clamping his stone hands around her hips. She doesn’t even realize she’d been sliding away like sand. Afterwards, he tells her to go.
When she cries in asphyxiated silence he looks away as if she’s not there.
Somehow she didn’t expect it of him. Even she knows she deserves a slap for thinking blasphemy.
He never calls on her. She’s not worthy to be one of his perfumed, jeweled concubines. Instead, he pushes into her when there are no eyes to see his preference. Their couplings are rough but not violent.
Like a cut, painful but without the devastation of a missing limb.
He takes her everywhere but in his chamber. She’s not allowed to cross that threshold. He doesn’t speak to her except to tell her, “Turn over. Stand up. Come here. Down on your knees. Up on your knees.”
She likes those commands.
“You there! Get out.”
She doesn’t like those.
It’s the Sun Celebration. He marries a woman from far across the desert. She’s beautiful in the way of exotic.
She looks nothing like her lady.
She cries again but knows there’s no helping it. Such was the way for a girl named, “You there!”
He doesn’t fall upon her for many, many days.
She begins to forget the couplings. She forgets what it was like to clasp muscled arms. She forgets his stolen taste.
Her body can’t forget. It thickens into a small hard ball. She knows what is to come.
She wonders what will become of her, of her little seed. She touches her stomach often. A smile finds him on such an occasion. Stroking, touching, protecting with her fingertips she stands in one of the labyrinth corridors, unaware of him watching her.
Her heart bursts for this small part bulging out her always-too-flat belly. She loves the boy/girl child without fear. She never thinks of death in the beginning of this life.
Stone hand pushes into underdeveloped flesh. She captures the scream before it runs. She’s too terrified to feel anything else.
He hisses questions at her, demanding to know who’s tasted her, who has put his bastard in her. She shakes her head, unable to form speech. He crowds her. The questions tumble over her like chains.
“Who? Who did this to you? Who?!”
Finally, she finds courage to name him. She expects to be murdered. Her tears run hot like his rage.
He takes her. Tiptoes strain to fly over stone to match his ravenous strides. He puts her into an empty room. No eyes to see what is to come and no mouths to repeat it. He demands for her to repeat herself.
She does. Her hands tingle with something forgotten. She feels rage lick at her restraint.
His black stare devours her. He takes one step towards her. She takes one to meet him. She knows there is no good ending for slaves who do what she is going to do.
He reaches out, enormous hand hovering above her cheek, and then thanks her.
Murderous self-destruction halts. She thinks he’s already killed her with a blow to the head.
He sees the confusion. He knows its cause. He repeats himself again. Again. And again. He confesses many things. He shares how she dances in his mind and has since they were children. His admits how his eyes never see anything but her.
She stands mute, mouth stitched by words.
When he lifts her gown she remembers to breathe. He goes down to his knees. His cheek rests against the tiny life they created. She sees herself in his shiny gaze. She wonders if he’ll dig out the child in his eagerness.
He takes her into another room. This one enormous and nearly empty. A bed, bigger and more beautiful than she can imagine, crouches in the center. She wonders if she’ll get to see it as he pushes himself inside her.
He barks her name. “You there! What are you looking at?”
His gentleness evaporates like their rain storms. She realizes they are no longer alone. Several slaves scurry about, bringing in wares she’s only allowed to touch in duty. She notices she’s been staring at a male slave and not seeing him.
He dismisses them. His brow snaps together. His expression terrifies, reminding her again how much power he holds over them all.
He tells her never to look at another man. Ever. He tells her she is his private slave, beholden only to him and their child. He describes her life from that point forward.
There’s nothing. Nothing to fear, nothing to do.
He chews his words. They nourish him in a way she doesn’t understand but accepts.
They bathe together. He keeps touching her despite the blushes. He slides into her. Their hips undulate in the hard rhythm that marks their couplings. He’s spent but she’s not. He drinks of her over and over again. She’s cleansed inside and out.
When he finally takes her in the bed she lets her cries fly.
Her cage is her own and she is pleased.
Time passes far too quickly. She loves her rooms. She loves the freedom of nothing. She loves to eat. To sleep. To love.
He comes to her every day and many nights as well. Very few eyes are allowed to see the thickening waist draped with gauze. She is his and his alone and he will not share.
Their lady hears tales of his slave-queen. She cares for none of it.
Bit by bit, grain by grain, poison will have its way.
She feels the weights dragging at limbs gone numb. She reasons it must be because of her pregnancy and hours spent in love. His eyes miss nothing. They gleam like polished rock.
She doesn’t question the new slaves about the old ones. Slaves like them, like her, were as numerous as the sand in her food. They never fully went away.
Finally the day comes when she must bear fruit.
She keeps the agony inside, contained in the muscles to be used as strength. This she has learned well. Too well. Pain, her faithful companion, is so common it can’t be distinguished from its plethoric variations.
He comes to her. He sees a living corpse. Whiter than white, she lays there, pushing, fighting, living only to die. Fear claims him. He knows she won’t see the morning.
It takes her many moments to realize he’s speaking to her. About her.
“My name. You know it?” She pants in a long version of speech.
She smiles. Shiny with sweat, in agony that rends her womb useless but for this one time, she smiles. He wonders why only now does he remember seeing her before. Later he dismisses the memory as those spawned by the drugging incense.
She pushes out their son. He’s small but strident. His screams bring more smiles in his mother.
She dies with a smile.
He sits there by her side and keens out her names.
The Queen dies without a smile. She chokes on her own blood.
He never remarries.
His son is a greater king than him.
Many grandchildren are born before he finds death.
That life produces a line greater than the star-filled sky. Too many to count. The Gods are pleased. So are they. For a time that feels like forever and never all at once, they see each other and remember. Cleansed of the hate but filled with regret, they are eager to try again. They believe the next life will be better, longer.
They are wrong.
This time she is white like a flower. White hair, white skin, eyes so light a blue they’re silver. She is cherished, adored, and worshipped for looking like a goddess. Hidden in a temple, kept sated, she is happy with her life. Peace is like a net. It allows her safety from the hungry pinchers of man.
This time he is colorless with power. Whiter hair, whiter skin, eyes so light a brown they’re gold. He is brutalized, hated, and tethered for looking like a spirit. Exposed in an army, kept hungry, he is miserable with his life. Hatred is like cage. It keeps him embittered from the endless cruelties of man.
Hatred keeps him well-fed even when pushed beyond endurance. He grows larger, stronger than the biggest shadow. He kills without remorse. He fights his way to the top of their war machine. He controls them, directing their base savagery to benefit him. Disobedience is met with instant death.
None can topple him. What was once hated is now revered.
Love inspires her to serve those who serve her. The supplicants believe she can protect them from harm. Whispers of a black army tearing through their country drives them to her temple. Flowers adorn every inch of walking space. Her crimson robes drag the petals wherever she goes.
She can’t admit her fear. They love her too much.
Eventually he arrives. Knowledge of wealth beyond compare tugs him to their splendid mountain. His pitiless stare strips the walls clean of defense. He knows his soldiers will breach the temple before nightfall.
He sends them forward with a punch of his fist.
Inside the death cage, the supplicants swarm over their lady. They scream for divine mercy. Terrorized beyond coherency they beg for her help. She knows of only one way to do it. Her silver stare freezes, trapping the overwhelming love she feels for them all.
Dusk seizes the day when the walls give.
He leads them in, leashing their savagery with a bloodless stare that stretches to the very last man.
The streets are littered with decaying flowers and fresh corpses. They swarm in controlled patterns. Every man, woman, and child lie dead. Hundreds of them. Perhaps thousands. He eyes the slit throats with dispassion. This scene of mass suicide matters not to him. He doesn’t fear the revolt of an army filled with blood-lust. Gold will keep them in line.
He rides to the center. The ivory temple shines like his skin. He sees her seated on a throne and believes this little goddess to be dead too. Black robes, blood-red hair pricks his curiosity. Her swollen hand clutching the ceremonial knife snares his attention.
When she rises on swaying legs, the men murmur in death whispers.
He sees patches of white. Neck, crown, and leg.
Her hair is like his. So is her skin. In all the world he had razed, never had he come across another like himself.
She views them through bloodied lashes.
The love she had once, liquid and warm like honey, hardened into something malignant. Her beautiful world was gone. Beloved friends, disciples, and supplicants were dead by her hand. She looked down at it, seeing the puffy skin attempting to swallow the knife whole.
Memories burst all at once.
The faces dropping back like broken flower stems, necks exposed to her with precious trust and devotion. The skin so soft, so trusting, so pure for her silver death. The children cried. Their screaming terror, wordless pleads for a bit more life, drove into her ears. She remembered how the weeping mothers and fathers held them still. Their taut shoulders and liquid eyes pleading for quick, flutterless death.
Her hand, her rotted, deviant hand, had struck true. Their precious baby skin had parted the easiest. Severed cries morphed into pitiful gurgles.
She swayed before the white demon. She watched him watch her. He was pristine, clean in the middle of all that precious death. His white hair, braided back high on his head, shimmered like dying starlight.
His lips moved. Their fullness a tribute to crimson, clotted gluttony.
Her arm rose. There was no more reason for one such as her to exist. Goddesses could only live if someone believed in them. Her believers all lay dead. It was time for her drop among the sickly-sweet blossoms.
For a young goddess, she had become ever so wise to what awaited her. None would remember her. None would mourn for their beloved deity. She might very well have killed the mother who had birthed her and the father who had carried her to this temple the very night of her birth.
Eyes dropping, sewing themselves shut with blood, couldn’t see him approach. The world switched to black. Fingers tightened, nails digging into the sticky handle, needing to ensure her strength for one more slash.
Wrist locked, will immobile, she created the violently beautiful move to end her reign.
Liquid agony wrapped her hand. She screamed a tiny, pitiful sound. Lashes struggled to release their bloody hold. He stood before her. Gloved fist possessed hers. He shook his head once.
Rage. Unfamiliar, poisonous rage turned her into a paper monster. She roared at him. Her eyes became steel. They promised terrible suffering for thwarting her precious, pure will.
He squeezed his fist.
She keened. Her head snapped back. She slumped away from him.
He dragged her to him with restrained, careful movements. The stench of blood didn’t offend. It was familiar, if not always desired. He knew what he wanted from this child-woman. His burning stare flicked at the ebony men pacing about the perimeter.
Their base desire meant nothing. He would crush them like the flowers beneath his heel.
Let their fucking be assuaged when they returned to camp. Their followers were many. The conquered trinkets would be plenty to assure a pleasing romp and gentle hand for these hardened warriors.
He looked at the unconscious creature cradled like sin against his fighting arm. She pleased his need for likeness. She could’ve been his dearest sister. Instead, she would become his slave.