The Painting

Putrid, her mother called her. A stench. Though the words strangled Karsten’s heart, she clung to them like a well-loved quilt. Here in Seattle on the brink of either a wildly successful art career or another artist-meets-poverty sob story, she clung to what was familiar—her mother’s words. It was the only thing she knew to do, the only words that echoed through her head now that Christmas loomed.

Karsten walked downtown beneath a canopy of mocking white lights. She bustled through shoppers who pushed past her, unseeing. She walked faster now, click-click-clicking on the wet pavement while the rain seeped into her soles. Even her soul felt drenched, like it swam in a puddle of depression. With every step, another word slapped her.

Foolhardy.

Clumsy.

Naïve.

Ungrateful.

Stupid.

Worthless.

All mother’s words.

I am loving and lovable, she willed. Karsten remembered the mantra she’d learned from a college roommate whose pet philosophy was self-esteem. Every day Janice told Karsten if she’d repeat those five magical words, in the mirror no less, she’d emerge at the year’s end a competent, happy person. She emerged as a person, but not competent. Not happy. And today, the only mirrors capable of hearing her despair were distorted reflections of her face in the puddles she trudged on her way home.

Self-esteem didn’t lift her heaviness. Neither did a brief dabbling in something called Youth Group, where popular girls flirted with the youth leader, he reciprocating. Though Jesus intrigued her, she couldn’t reconcile the gentle Man with judgmental eyes. What did Christian post-pubescents know about art anyway? Why’d they feel it their holy duty to frown at her creations?

Art was her one salvation, she knew. As she unlocked her apartment and turned on the lights, she smiled. Although canvasses grimaced back at her, Karsten felt pleasure in them. She wondered if that’s what mothers felt about their children, their creation—that even though children howled, they were still loved because they simply were a part of who made them. Across her mantle, her recent painting looked through her, examined her. Medusa and Child, surrounded by black and blue swirling clouds, both looked downward. Rain emitting from the clouds gave the two a sodden, yet ethereal presence. “Heavenly Waters,” Georgia named the painting when she first met it.

Karsten kept watching the two who brooded above her fireplace, whose downcast gazes resembled hers. The snake-haired mother encircled the child with vipers; her face was arrogance. The child’s look was a mélange of panic and longing, as if he knew he wanted to tear free but couldn’t. Both were haunted by dark clouds. Both were drenched by them. And both were trapped within the four beveled pieces of wood that framed them.

The phone rang, breaking the painting’s spell over Karsten. “Hello.”

“It’s me,” Georgia said. “You’re coming with me tonight. I’ll be over in a sec.”

Before Karsten had a chance to protest, Georgia hung up, leaving her alone in the cold apartment, wondering what crazy outing Georgia concocted.

Five minutes later, her friend appeared in the doorway after knocking the familiar shave and a haircut. Two bits.

“I know you’re not much for church, but it’s nearly Christmas, and, well, you are coming with me.” Georgia grabbed Karsten’s arm in a playful sort of way. “Come on, get a coat on.” Georgia wore a goofy smile. It suited her and meshed well with her equally quirky outfit: combat boots, candy-cane striped long-johns, a plaid mini, a fisherman’s sweater, all covered by a funky dime-store see-through parka. “We’re going to be late.”

Karsten pulled away. “Last I looked, I was in charge of my life.”

“Not tonight. I’m taking over. I’m just obeying you anyways.”

“Obeying me? What?”

“You told me last week, when you showed me that painting—” Here she motioned to Medusa and Child, though she did it with such a fast flourish that the water from her parka rained on the floor. “You said, ‘I want this Christmas to be different.’ Well, going to church is different, isn’t it? Besides, you can’t stay here while the snake lady looks at you.”

“You called the painting ‘Heavenly Waters.’ I thought you liked it.” Karsten could feel bile burn her tonsils. She hated, hated, hated rebuke. Sure, she nursed her mother’s rebuke, but friends were supposed to praise, not criticize. She shut the door behind Georgia, hoping the noise of the slam would change Georgia’s mind about going out.

Still, Georgia stood by the door, even moved toward it and grabbed its knob. “I never said I didn’t like the painting. It’s excellent, probably your best piece. It’s just, well, a little creepy.”

“Creepy?” Karsten’s voice had that tight, ringy quality about it, what her mother would call hyper-hysterical.

“Don’t get your corset in a tangle. We both know what that painting means.”

Karsten did not get her coat. She did not move. She took shallow breaths. “Why don’t you clue me in since I obviously don’t know?”

“You’re going to be cold out there if you don’t get a coat,” Georgia said. She shoved a thrift-store trench at her and poked her with a spindly umbrella.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Come with me,” Georgia said, “and you’ll understand.”

There was no use arguing with Georgia. She was the kind of painfully stubborn friend whose magnetism made you overlook nagging insistence. Karsten followed out the door into the rain. “I am not into church,” she said.

“There aren’t any art critics, there, Miss Paranoid. Follow me.”

They navigated puddles, panhandlers, and carolers for six blocks until the street water filled Karsten’s shoes afresh. Four more blocks and she was completely waterlogged, wondering if her feet were wrinkled.

“Here we are!” Georgia stood beneath a behemoth cathedral. “St. James.” She said it as if those two words would clarify everything. “Come on in.”

Their steps echoed as they walked inside. “I have the perfect seat picked out,” Georgia whispered. They sat on the left side between two arching windows directly under a painting of Madonna and Child. Karsten’s heart quieted itself, both from awkwardness and a wild sense of reverence.

From behind her, she could hear shuffling, like a hundred slippered feet waltzing. Not knowing what was proper, she stared straight ahead at a hatted lady and son. Wafting from behind, voices sang.

O come, O come Emmanuel.

“The choir’s in the loft,” Georgia whispered.

And ransom captive Israel.

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Ransom.

Lonely.

Exile.

Rejoice.

All at once, Karsten understood Israel—in need of ransoming. As the music moved through her, she caught the gaze of Madonna and Child. Tenderly, the mother cradled the baby. Her eyes fixed themselves on the Son, as if her eyes were tethered to earth and man. His face looked heavenward, arms outstretched and free. The mother couldn’t cradle the baby there forever, Karsten knew. She loved the mother of Jesus because of it. A mother who loosed her Son to be what God made Him to be. A ransom-maker. A captive-emancipator.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Thine own from Satan’s tyranny

The word free resounded in Karsten’s chest. Something she’d always wanted. An elusive commodity, like fickle Seattle sunshine. Freedom. The tyranny of her mother’s words muffled beneath the weight of that word; in one musical moment, she understood Jesus bore Satan’s tyranny. That He’d been called worse words. That He’d been maligned, ridiculed. She looked again at His baby face, haloed in paint, and quietly thanked Him for bearing the words of others.

Karsten connected the faint dots between the flirtatious youth pastor’s words, “Who is this, that the winds and the seas obey Him” and Janice’s “I am loving and lovable” with the song’s haunting melody. Random dots, seemingly unrelated. And yet, the connections birthed a holy hush in her, like God was painting a picture of Himself through the outline of her life.

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

The malevolence of her own shadowed painting now contrasted itself with the brilliance of Madonna and Child, the loving mother and the heavenly child. Karsten looked at Georgia, then to the painting, and back to Georgia again.

She understood. Her own painting meant something. It portrayed her pain, her emaciated heart. It represented gloomy tentacles that locked her small soul in the prison of her mother’s words. She was captured by dark shadows. And she wanted freedom. Freedom not merely to eradicate herself from her rainy canvas, but freedom to be painted anew, with bolder, broader strokes.

When Georgia stood to leave, Karsten smiled at the Madonna and Child, held their eyes. As her marshy shoes puddled the floor beneath the painting, she felt her soul’s tiny emancipation. For a blessed instant, her mother’s words dissipated, no longer pocking her mind.

“Merry Christmas,” she whispered.

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