I wipe the sweat from my face, leaving a streak of robin’s egg blue across my forehead, and step back on my platform. If I squint, the brushstrokes almost resolve into the highlights and shading of a cumulonimbus summer evening, but I can’t see the sunlight dancing on my skin yet, can’t hear the thunder grumbling ominously in the distance with the promise of rain.
I lean on the cool metal railing and look down the length of the wall where a dozen other pictomancers are hard at work on their sections of the mural. My sister Dex’s hair ripples gently in a breeze that comes from nowhere as she expertly sets down layer after layer of paint just so, and a small puddle shimmers on the stone floor as another artist perfects the rivulet in his dry river bed.
Even the children, with their heavy hands and uncertain brushwork, elicit a chirp of birdsong now and then as they fill in the forest at the edge of town.
What am I doing wrong?
I wave a hand over the control panel, and my cherry picker lowers with a tired groan. It runs just as well on magic as it does on electricity, but that doesn’t mean it has to like it. Tech doesn’t always appreciate reminders that it isn’t in charge anymore, or that it never really was.
Stepping off the platform and walking across the old church, taking care to avoid overturning any of the many paint cans scattered about, gives me the perspective to see the mural as a whole.
It’s a landscape, at least it will be when it’s done, a sleepy farming town plagued by the drought-of-a-century and bordered by an endless forest and hazy blue mountains. The town is a metropolis now, the forest a single tree in a micropark, but the mountains are still there, hiding somewhere beyond the smog.
Each section of the mural, which stretches from floor to vaulted ceiling and takes up an entire wall, comes alive with the unique style of the artist. Dex’s clouds spiral like a Van Gogh fever dream, their wisps reaching out to make friends with Elara’s brighter, almost Fauvist shapes. The road tracing through the town winds around Matthias’s delicate fences and Carly’s bold cubist buildings, trees made of single brushstrokes and trees so detailed that you can see the texture of their bark.
The blank swaths of wall show the sketched-in pencil marks of the elders, waiting for us to paint-by-numbers the magic in. I colored inside the lines, I did everything the others have done.
So why aren’t my clouds fluffy? Why don’t they take on fanciful shapes? Why are they just flat, cloud-shaped clouds?
The dried paint on my knuckles cracks as I flex my hands, jagged lines of brown skin cutting through the spatters of blues and grays, and I feel the magic course through my joints. I just can’t transfer it to the canvas the way I used to.
My head throbs. Too many hours of straining both my eyes and my magic. I go down the aisle between the pews, tracing the footsteps of countless brides and babies and caskets, stopping at what used to be the altar but has become something of craft services for us painters.
Ronaldo, resting on an old plastic lawn chair in the kaleidoscopic light of a stained glass window, smiles from beneath their elder hood. “It’s coming along nicely, isn’t it?”
I make a noncommittal gesture as I look through the food for something with caffeine. “Not my section. I should be better at this by now, shouldn’t I? People used to tell me I’d be an elder by the time I was twenty.”
“Elder” is a bit of a misnomer, as most of them are no older than myself. Maybe Circe in xyr thirties. In the old days, when our kind were still persecuted as witches, you got to be an elder by being, well, elderly, but sometime around the industrial revolution, the term evolved to mean the people who were most connected to the magic inherent in the universe.
Most of them end up being outside the gender binary, like me, people who just didn’t feel comfortable being forced into a male or female box. I identify on the feminine end of the spectrum and am comfortable with she/her pronouns, but parts of my body will never feel like they truly belong and the idea of people seeing me as soft and nurturing is just abhorrent to me.
That combined with my once-prodigious skills with magic made people think I was destined for elderhood, but something hasn’t felt right lately and I can’t identify it. Just a nameless emptiness, like a black hole in my chest, slowly expanding and consuming everything in its path.
Not only the good emotions, either. The bad ones, the neutral ones, the get up and go.
But we don’t talk about those things.
Society only accepted us witches once we convinced them we were pure, unsullied by negative feelings that could lead to us turning people into toads and cursing their land, which aren’t even things we’re capable of, but that was beside the point. Those not touched by magic had it in their heads that we can do evil, so we have to be perfect.
Always calm, always smiling, don’t let them see that you’re human because humans are scared, angry things who let their fear and anger destroy the things they love most. They’ll blame this drought on us the first chance they get, even though we’re the ones exhausting ourselves to bring rain.
“Your clouds are lovely,” Ronaldo says, though I don’t think I’m imagining the slight disappointment in their eyes.
None of the food looks good, and only decaf coffee is left. “My head is killing me. Do we have any aspirin?”
They look at me, mouth a tight line.
“I know,” I say, “but it’s interfering with my work.”
Reluctantly, they hand me a bottle from a first-aid kit stowed beneath their chair. I smile my gratitude and down a pill with a glass of water. I feel the spirits dissolving almost instantly in my stomach, breaking free from the capsule and flowing into my body.
Ronaldo gives me a look of mild disapproval.
Most people don’t think it’s right to let spirits in so freely. I get it. I mean, it’s technically a minor demonic possession, and yeah, that sounds unnatural, but there are literally spirits all around us. A hundred billion humans have lived and died on this little blue marble, and that figure doesn’t take into account all the animals.
The air is absolutely lousy with spirits. They enter our bodies with every breath; all the necromancers do is concentrate them in capsules and give them a purpose. Once they serve that purpose—in this case, relieving the pounding in my head—they leave the body and go on with their afterlives.
It’s not worth having that argument again, so I just smile and go back to work.
I wash my hands at the end of the day, watching the water strip the clouds and sky from my skin as they swirl down the sink. All the colors that promise a heavy downpour, washed away by water we can hardly afford to waste.
The drought isn’t dire yet, and the city gets its water from a few different sources, so we’ll be okay for a bit even if they start drying up. But the supermarkets are down to pre-packaged foods and we’re reaching a breaking point. The seers at every paper are predicting another dust bowl.
My apartment is dark, save for the fairy lights glowing dimly along the tops of the walls. I don’t dare turn them up; the little creatures inside need massive amounts of water to generate their electricity. Their sleepy ambient light is sufficient for me to walk without tripping over my cat.
I should rest, but I drift over to my easel instead. Its half-finished sketch taunts me, the charcoal rose exuding a faint sweet scent from the canvas. Every time I try to finish it, the smell fades, little by little. A few more lines and it won’t smell like anything but failure.
On the walls, other pieces of art come to life. Grasses sway in their own personal breeze, stars twinkle, crickets sing out.
My early work, from before this happened, this thing we don’t talk about because naming it gives it power. I’ve hardly touched my supplies in months; if not for the mural project, I might have given up completely.
That’s a terrifying thought, that something can so easily sap anything resembling joy from your life without you even realizing. That I could just put down my brush one day and never pick it up again. This used to be my purpose. How did I lose it?
Cassidy, my fat calico, leaps onto a stool and mrowls at me. “Volunteering to be my model?” I ask with a tired smile.
The charcoal and paper are right there, waiting, but I don’t reach for them. As long as I don’t try, I can’t fail. Can’t feel the frustration of going through the motions and having nothing come of it.
That all-too-familiar void forms in my chest, sucking at the framework of my soul and threatening an implosion. What if this is all there is? What if I can’t find that spark ever again? What am I if not an artist, and does it even matter anymore if the world is going to hell and we’re all screwed?
I bite my knuckle hard enough to leave red marks that will last for hours, just to bring myself back to the present. I can’t let myself get caught in that spiral, like colors washing down the drain, because it won’t stop. I get trapped, one tear turned to a night of sobbing into my pillow, my life turned completely hopeless.
I can’t do that again, so I force myself to pick up the charcoal and put it to paper.
Cassidy sits for me as I scratch out her form in quick strokes, but my hand moves without any real input from me. Just going through the motions.
The drawing comes together with little effort—I have the talent, I know I do. I can break down an image into its basic lines, get the proportions right and add all the little highlights and shadows just so.
It looks like a cat. Looks just like Cassidy. But the paper doesn’t purr, doesn’t feel like warm fur under my hand.
There’s no life on the page.
The next day is Sunday, but the drought doesn’t take a day off so neither do we, filing into the old church and opening cans of paint.
My sister and I share a platform today, and enjoy good-natured ribbing as we steal each other’s brushes and see how much paint we can get in the other’s hair without being noticed. It feels good to laugh, but it does nothing for my magic, and Dex has to point this out.
“Your clouds aren’t as soft as mine.” She says it like she’s bragging, and I know she means no offense but it still hurts. “Am I finally the better artist?”
If there’s anyone in the world I can confide in, it’s Dexter. She’s the first person to know all my secrets. When I kissed a girl in middle school, when my magic accidentally caused that blackout, when I thought I was a man, when I knew I wasn’t a man but still not quite a woman.
If I can’t tell her, safe way up here in the painted sky, I don’t think I can tell anyone.
“There’s something wrong with me, Dex.”
She swirls her blues and grays into the color of falling barometric pressure. “There’s something wrong with all of us.”
“Not like this,” I say quietly, and check to make sure everyone else is too preoccupied by their own work to eavesdrop. “I’m …” The word sticks in my mouth “depressed.”
The way she turns sharply and looks at me, she reminds me of our mother. Dex’s skin and hair is lighter—from the Caucasian half of her sperm donor’s family—but those are Mama’s eyes, critical and hard, and just like that I’m a child again and I don’t understand why I’m in trouble.
“Say something, Dex.”
“What do you have to be depressed about?”
It isn’t an accusation. More of a plea. Please have a reason because we can fix that, because we can help if there’s a reason.
I’ve tried to find a reason. Searched my life for anything that could cause this feeling of impending doom, but there isn’t one. I’m at a happy place with my gender, don’t want a romantic relationship. I’m not rich but I don’t have to worry about money, my health is good, I love my family …
Yes, the drought seems endless and there are always political extremists trying to outlaw magic, but plenty of people have to deal with this and they can still follow their joy.
Or maybe they just hide it better.
Part of me expects Dex to react badly, to hush me and say that we don’t talk about those things, but she’s just like our mother. Maybe too much.
“You’re so lucky,” she says with a small smile. “It might not seem like it now, but your suffering will give your art depth and meaning.”
That’s what Mama used to say, but she didn’t live long enough to reach meaning.
Her depression killed her first. Maybe Dex was too young to know that, maybe she still thinks it was the spirits in the pills that killed her, not how many Mama took, how many she washed down with another kind of spirit.
Well, that settles that, I guess. No way I can talk to Dex about taking anything for this. She might be the most loving and open-minded person I know, but she’ll never let me take pills.
Suddenly the world feels like it’s going to collapse in on me. I have to get off this platform, away from Dex and her smiling insistence that I’m lucky to have this thing inside me, eating away at my hope and whispering little lies in the quiet moments about how much better everything will be when I’m gone.
“I need more paint,” I mutter, though the platform is full of every color I could possibly need. I duck under the safety railing and climb down the cherry picker, not sure where I’m going. Just away.
Out of the church, onto the busy street. I find an empty plaza that should be a bustling market, but no farms have enough crops to make the trip worth the fuel, and I sit on a bench and try not to fall apart.
I don’t know if talking about the demons really gives them power or if I only feel infinitely worse because I just lost the support of the one person who truly matters. I just know it all feels so hopeless and those lying whispers in the back of my head are screaming now, and they don’t all sound like lies anymore.
Of course they don’t need me to paint the mural. I’m not doing any good there, anyway.
Yes, there are people who love me. Cassidy. But I’ve lost people, and I got through it. So would they.
And what if I never find something that makes me happy again? Is it fair to force myself to slug through a life of pain?
“Oh, child,” comes a soft whisper.
I look up to see Ronaldo standing above me, their robes traded in for a tank top that puts all their living tattoos on display and doesn’t risk heatstroke in this oppressive sun.
“You’re not supposed to read people’s minds without their permission,” I mutter halfheartedly, scooting over to give them room to sit beside me.
“That would be like telling you not to read a neon sign flashing everywhere you look,” they say as they sit. “Your emotions are flashing, Emi. Big hazard lights all around you. I can’t help but read it.” They talk with the easygoing concern of a grandparent, and I almost forget that we went to school together. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing. That’s the problem. There’s nothing to fix, so this is just the way I am, and now I’ve talked about it with Dex and given it power.”
“That isn’t true.”
I frown. “Which part?”
“All of it, Emi.”
Those words seem to skip my ears and brain entirely, going instead straight to my heart. I grasp desperately to the miniscule bit of hope they create there.
“This isn’t the way you are,” Ronaldo says earnestly. “It can’t be, because I know you and you’re not miserable and hopeless. That’s the depression.”
I stiffen at the word.
“Depression,” they say again. “Depression. Words have a lot of power, you’re right. Maybe as much as art. But talking about mental illness doesn’t give it power.” They point to my chest. “It gives you power.”
For a second I don’t recognize the emotion that jolts through my body and causes me to let out an ugly sob, but I think it might be relief.
“I don’t know who first said we’re not to talk about these things,” Ronaldo says, “and I don’t know why we all let the power of their words seep into our minds, but I do know they’ve never had a mental illness because if they did, they would know the best thing you can do is talk about it.”
They put their hand on mine, their grinning pin-up girl tattoo waving to me from their forearm. Petunia, as they call her, exudes confidence and happiness, a testament to the artist’s skill with magic.
Ronaldo sees me looking at her and says, “She’s not real. Nothing but ink and intention, but she gives me strength because I chose to let her be part of me. We can choose what beliefs we let in, too, and it’s important that we don’t let the harmful ones in. Talking will make it better, and the people who lie to you about that don’t want you to be powerful.”
“But what if talking isn’t enough?” I whisper, as if speaking too loudly will extinguish the flickering hope in my heart. It isn’t that I want medication. I don’t. I’d much rather be able to do it with willpower and support, but I need it to be an option.
And … I hate to even think this way, but what if I don’t have time for talking? Mama probably thought she had time.
Is it okay not to want pills but know you might need them while you work on more internal methods of healing?
Ronaldo nods slowly, absorbing the desperation of my thoughts. “It’s dangerous to put anything in your body,” they say finally. “Food and old world medication included. You can never guarantee the safety of any substance, nor the way your body will react to it.” They stare, unfocused, at the passing traffic, introspective. “Spirit pills … are an advancement that will be invaluable when the process is perfected.”
I slump back against the hard bench. One time. One documented time, a malevolent spirit got past the screening process, was put into a cough suppressant, and possessed a child until she drew sigils on the wall in blood.
It happened one time, and now everyone is afraid to take pills that could really help them.
“And of course,” Ronaldo says, “the pills for mental illnesses are designed to last longer than a simple allergy pill. I cannot in good faith condone anyone letting themselves be possessed for an indefinite period of time, but that’s a decision you’re going to have to make for yourself.”
They say it without judgment or bias, but it still feels like there’s a right answer and I’m never going to choose it.
When the drought got really bad, the Elders devised a grand plan.
Get all the art mages together, they proclaimed. Everyone who can turn paint or ink into something more. Bring them together, and we’ll pool their magic to create the most powerful spell the world has ever seen.
With enough people painting their magic with a singular goal, they promised, the mural will do more than stir the air into a warm breeze. More than turn the smell of turpentine into bright floral scents.
The mural will summon a rainstorm. Torrential downpours to quench the thirsty land, to bring life back to the soil.
For a while, as we laid down the first coats, our spirits lifted. We could see the storm clouds on the horizon, hear the patter of rain on the sidewalks.
But that initial surge of hope faded, for me at least. I can’t speak for the rest of them. It started to feel like a chore, and the shadow of despair that had been lingering in the back of my mind for years slowly crept its way to the front until it was everywhere and in everything I did.
The pills creep slowly, too. Little by little, each spirit breaking down the walls my brain put up to protect its faulty wiring.
The pills don’t play well with my body. Headaches, nausea, dizziness. Painting is impossible, and every cell in my body screams at me to stop, that I’m only making it worse. That I’m being possessed.
But those are lies.
Pills or no, I can’t paint, and maybe the physical discomfort is worse, but there’s no way to make me feel worse than I already did.
As for the possession … yeah, it’s terrifying to let a spirit play around in my skull. What if it’s changing me, replacing my personality piece by piece? Would I even notice if I stopped being me?
But here’s the thing: I’m already being possessed by something that’s changing who I am. Depression is an evil little thing that has taken root inside me, and its only goal is to break me down and build me up in its image.
I am not quiet. Withdrawn. Miserable.
I am not directionless. Without passion.
I am not what depression has made me.
The pills have the unfortunate effect of making sleep elusive while simultaneously exhausting me. The days run together in a foggy soup, and I sit awake at night, idly doodling and listening to the sirens of a desperate city.
Riots have begun springing up every night. The thirsty and the water hoarders are at war; it isn’t just a farm problem anymore. I gave as much as I could afford to, but I had a cat to keep in addition to myself.
As if on cue, Cassidy mrows beside me.
“I know, baby,” I murmur. “But you don’t have to worry; I’ll go thirsty before you do. Promise.”
Cassidy pokes her head in the window, gives me an inquisitive look as if to ask who I’m talking to.
I sit up straighter. Has she been on the patio this whole time? But then who just mrowed?
I look at the paper I’ve been doodling on. Just a mess of inky scribbles, for the most part, but there, in the corner … a cat. A crude, half-smudged interpretation of a cat, but a cat all the same.
And as I stare, it blinks.
Goosebumps prickle at my skin, but I don’t dare hope. I’m tired. Hallucinating. That’s it, just another adverse side-effect of having a spirit take up residence in my body.
I get a clean sheet of paper, put my shaking pen to it.
The lines are imprecise, the shading and highlights lacking in depth, but I feel it. That tingle of magic in my hand.
I nudge the paper, and the image ripples, sloshing at the edges and turning the paper soggy. When I touch my finger to the page, it comes up wet.
But that isn’t ink.
With a laugh of joyous disbelief, I leave Cassidy lapping at the water I’ve drawn and I run. Out of the apartment, down the street, and straight to the church.
The mural looms in the shadows, sporadic shards of light breaking through the holes in the ancient roof. On the surface, it looks finished, but I can see it now. The gaps in the way my clouds were painted, where the magic doesn’t shine through.
I grab some paints and ride the cherry picker up to the sky. In my giddy haste, I realize I’ve forgotten brushes.
I dip my fingers in the paint, letting the silky blues and whites and grays blend in my hands, my skin giving their colors dark streaks where the paint is thinner. It’s a stormcloud in the palms of my hands.
The magic flows from my soul to the mural, every fingerprint bringing the paint to life.
I don’t have to force it. I don’t even have to think about it. It’s as easy and natural as breathing. I can do it with my eyes closed, feeling where each color should blend into the next.
Thunder whispers in the distance. I paint faster, with more vigor. It must look haphazard, like I’m slapping colors without regard for how they look, like I’m just trying to make a mess. But the wall is speaking to me, guiding my hands as they slide through the thick paint.
I’m too close to see the mural as a whole, and yet I can see the entire picture. The trees dancing in the wind, the sky growing dark, the first streak of lighting—
A flash briefly casts my shadow on the wall in stained glass light. The resulting rumble rattles the old saints immortalized in the windows.
The wind picks up my hair, twirls it in the wet paint and leaves thin brushstrokes in the cloud.
My heart is beating in my ears, my breath coming in fast gasps.
A single drop of cool rain falls through the holes in the roof, landing on the tip of my nose, and for a second, the world holds its breath.
I press one final handprint to the mural, and the sky erupts in rain that falls like static and applause.
I can’t hear my laughter over the downpour, can’t tell my tears apart from the raindrops, but I stand there on the cherry picker and welcome it. Let it soak into me, washing the paint from my skin in a swirling river.