Sometimes, the canvas stays blank.
Even when the ideas are there. But, if the idea isn’t a winning idea, why bother? Naomi exhaled. She spun her brush around her fingers. The drops of paint on her palette board, seven different colours, had already begun to dry. It wouldn’t be long until the candle melted to nothing, too.
Better get to it. Are we starting today or tomorrow?
She ignored the thought. A light breeze passed by, fluttering the curtains, warm air in Tien’s summer. The nation of art and forestry. Conquered once, freed, now twice as proud. Naomi stopped spinning her paintbrush. People always love to see art of their home, don’t they? She dabbed the brush in water, wet the colours on her palette board, and began.
A couple minutes became hours. Moonlight glowed, reflecting off the glass of her table-side lantern. She replaced the candle between brush strokes. A verdant green worked for the forest, foliage dense and almost overbearing. Enough roots spread across the dirt to trip somebody a dozen times over. A deer, Tien’s favourite animal, drinking from a clear pond-
Naomi stopped. She sighed, then dropped her brush into the water bucket.
“What am I doing?” she mumbled.
Oh, is it that time already? Okay, grand reveal, what do we have here?
“Another mess,” she said. “Something I hate, and I already want to burn it. Set it aflame. It’s all been done before. Nobody would like this.”
Good thinking. Throw it into the trash, try again next week.
“I can’t keep doing this. How do I…” Naomi tapped her fingers against her palette board. The deer looked wrong. No life to it. The pond had zero depth. A glimmer existed on the water without any sunlight above. Another failed idea. Would’ve come off as an insult to the people of Tien. A waste of time.
Well, what were you saying?
“How do I stay relevant if I don’t paint for weeks at a time?”
Why are you asking yourself? You know the answer. Paint something decent.
She breathed in. Out. Naomi stood, stretched, and made her way to the washbasin. She scrubbed the palette until it shined. Washed her brushes until they looked like new. Set up a fresh canvas, fully opened the blinds to the starlight, then took a seat.
“I’ve won a couple times,” she said. She set herself up, dotting her palette with a new array of colours. “I’ve been runner-up even more. At my age, I’m as good as it gets. These other artists should all be worried.” Naomi readied her brush, spinning it around her fingers. “This…shouldn’t be hard.”
Let’s try again.
She nodded. A new idea, then. Clear skies and pegasi abound—the unstoppable flying cavalry of Middknight. Home. Riders with their bright, cyan-coloured jackets, lined with plates, a lion in mid-roar engraved on the right shoulder. Who in Tien wouldn’t want to see a painting of their neighbouring country, who had rushed to their aid during the great war?
Pegasi done in a pearl white. Skies a light blue. The moon descended outside, and the early morning birds made their appearance. Chirps and whistles. One landed on the windowsill, viridian green with red eyes, and watched as she painted the clouds grey. Silver for the riders' swords…then…
This one, too?
“Quiet,” Naomi said.
Maybe you’ve lost it.
“Shut up. I can paint. I’m good at it…” The pegasi didn’t look right. How high were their wings supposed to be? And the clouds didn’t seem to match the rest of the painting. “Goddess be damned,” Naomi mumbled. She dropped her brush, then rested her hand against her forehead. “Nothing works.”
Why don’t we try something else?
“Like what?” she said. “This is it. This is what the judges want. I have to paint like this, because it’s what wins, and the Goddess knows I can’t paint what I like, because the judges won’t spare it a glance.” Naomi raised her head to the painting. Her eyes watered. “If I want to be the best damn artist there is, I have to win…”
Is it worth this madness?
“Yes,” she said. “Because it means everything to me.”
Naomi stood and wiped the tears on her sleeve. She walked over to her desk, its surface littered with crumpled papers—dozens of drafts all for one letter. She found a clean piece, a quill, then pulled up a chair. Naomi took a seat and sighed.
Miss Vali, she wrote.
I can’t get myself together. Every idea I have fails.
I want to quit I’m trying my best to keep at it, yet everything I paint looks flawed. I don’t want anyone to see my work like that.
I moved to Tien since it’s the kingdom of art, but now I’m out of place.
I’ve taken a break. It was hollow. I used to enjoy painting so much! Now I feel like I’m bent on winning, painting only for the judges, and have lost all passion along the way. I’m writing to you for advice, because, well, you’re the greatest person I’ve ever known. An unmatched foster parent.
I’m sorry you have to hear from me like this. I know you raised me to be resilient to everything.
She read it over once, twice, then rested her head against the desk, and slept. Send it come morning, or whatever time it would be.
- - -
The days passed, one after the other. Night shifts at a soup kitchen—mornings staring at a blank canvas. Motivation nowhere to be found. A palette of dry paints always in hand. Doubtful thoughts louder than ever.
Knocking interrupted them. She got up, and opened the door.
“Naomi Amaya?” a messenger asked. A leather satchel lay opened at his side, a deer with thick antlers etched on the front. “Got a letter for you from Middknight.”
“That was fast.”
“That’s Tien for you. Tell your cavalry to keep up with us in skirmishes.”
She closed the door, then turned, letter in hand. It couldn’t be good. Grief. Disappointment. Regret. Vali had always been compassionate, but tough. Naomi backed up, rested against the wall, then slid down until she sat on the stone floor.
She ran her thumb under the seal—a wax print of a lion.
Naomi, the letter read.
Let all those judges eat dirt.
Paint what you want. Be that kid who would beg me to buy her charcoal sticks, then stays up all night drawing void creatures and horrors beyond mortal comprehension. That’s you. You’ve made it this far. No reason you can’t stick with it.
And there are other contests, child! Don’t be bent on one that does not care for your style. There’s the whole world waiting for your talent. You need to keep your passion over everything—it’s worth it over keeping yourself up at night.
Know that I love you, Naomi.
As you are in mine, you are the most important person in your life.
Treat yourself that way.
Tears escaped her eyes as she finished reading.
“I’ll try again,” she whispered.
- - -
Naomi spun her paintbrush around her fingers. A different set of colours took up her palette board. No nature this time, no landscapes, or anything bound to fail after a few hours’ time. She smiled.
I doubt this will do well. The judges will laugh-
“They can all eat dirt. You know, I can’t believe we’re arguing over this, still.” She readied her brush—a painting of a leviathan from the void, with tentacles and sharp jaws, would catch someone’s attention. “I mean, you’re helpful, but I like you more when you’re quiet…er.”
With black and silver, she painted space and the surrounding stars. The world below rested as a small sphere on the canvas. The colossal beast, done in dark shades of purple, loomed above with its hundreds of eyes, sleepless and all-knowing. Its appendages shadowed the globe. Ready to consume and devour. Naomi laughed.
The voice in her thoughts had faded away.
For what could’ve been the first time in ages, she looked at her painting, and adored it.