Isabella Rodriguez de Fernandos sits still as a cat, perched on an ornate drawing room chair. If she possessed a tail, the very tip of it would be twitching. She stares out the window behind the painter-boy, watching as a small wisp of a cloud begins to extend itself into the starkly naked horizon.
SCRRRRRRRRRITCHHHHHHH — his stiff brush rakes across her dress, recreating its velvety texture in a glistening sheen of oil. She imagines it’s the cloud she hears scratching its way across the sky, like a ball of steel wool scouring the color from a porcelain blue bowl.
With jabbing strokes, he pokes pearls into place, encircling her neck like a noose. He knows to paint them bigger than life, like the diamond on her fourth finger and the opal brooch pinned to her chest right where her heart should be. He picks up his pallet knife and begins scraping indifference into her green feline-shaped eyes, then blackens her barely-focused pupils. He knows she’s destined to become just another portrait on the family wall.
The cloud begins growing darker in front of Isabella’s eyes, becoming opaquer with each dig of the painter’s knife. He adds more red to his palette and selects his finest brush, ready to tightly seal her lips, flawless in line for eternity.
Innate fear rumbles inside Isabella and a low growl begins to rise up through her throat.
“May I stretch my legs, please.” It’s not a question.
The painter-boy’s hand freezes, his brush hovering over her lips as Isabella springs from the chair.
She stumbles towards the window, not looking at the sweaty artist or his three-legged easel, her eyes now so clouded she can barely see, her throat so tight from the fumes of his oils she is gasping for air.
The painter-boy lowers his brush and wipes his brow with a rag stained in a cacophony of color. He sighs. He’d been so close to finishing her off. “Well, then Ma’am, will you excuse me while I get a drink?”
Isabella does not answer, does not watch as he scurries from the room like a rat. She reaches her pale arms out in panic, groping to unlatch the window. She pulls on the handles with every inch of her body, the catch releases its hold, and the wind comes swirling in. It spins her in a whirl and she tumbles into the canvas, merging with it, then the wind picks her up and she soars out the window like a kite.
She’s frightened at first. The worry lines he’d carved into her forehead begin to deepen. Help me, I can’t fly, she cries as the wind hooks into the tightly-twisted bun on top of her head and starts pulling her along. Her crushed velvet dress flutters crimson around her limbs. She reaches to grab onto it and watches, horrified, as the Bible he’d painted into her hand falls, plunging the rules to the ground. She grabs hold of the wooden frame she’s been crucified onto, gripping the sides for dear life as she climbs higher and higher into the late August sky.
Over the garden wall she goes. Sunflowers nod their clown-like heads to the master’s wife as she soars by. Isabella screams to the willow trees that stand guard like sentinels along the private lane but the trees just creak merrily and continue to frolic in the wind, waving good-bye to Isabella with their long branches as if she were a ship setting sail.
Anxiety engulfs her as she looks for someone to reel her in. She spots her husband below, hunting pheasants with the dogs and his gun. She calls out but he doesn’t hear her. She’s always been silent in his eyes; just a pretty face he might like to mount on his wall.
Westward to the country she flies, completely out of control. There must be something I can do, she thinks, completely unfamiliar with what it means to take action. Below her lies a golden field of corn stretched out like a straw mat. She takes a deep breath, then, like a bird, turns her canvas on edge and begins to spiral awkwardly down.
A young woman walking in the field doesn’t notice the portrait falling like a bullet-riddled goose from the sky. Her mind is racing, her body walking quickly trying to keep up. She’s pretending to look for a lost cat so she can lose herself in her thoughts, free from the prattling of her uncle who says he knows what’s best for her. She knows the tall stalks of corn hold the answers if she can only hear their whispers, their silky husks that rustle as quietly as bridal lace dragging across the wooden floor of a church.
The painting comes down with a thud — there is no graceful touchdown for Isabella’s first attempt at a three-point landing. The young woman moves through the cornrows towards the sound. She parts the thick stalks and finds Isabella staring up at the sky with startled, unfocused eyes.
She reaches down and picks Isabella up. The thick oil smell catches in her throat as she scans Isabella from head to foot. The scarlet dress is laced so tightly she appears stuffed like a trophy hunter’s prize. Similar to the branding on a cow, the monstrous ring on the older woman’s finger labels and tags her as something destined to be penned in. Is this the fate that will trap the girl if she consents to her uncle’s wishes? She scans Isabella’s face for an answer, seeing only bitter green eyes saturated in loneliness and ringed with sadness — eyes that no longer see clearly.
Isabella remembers her younger self, searching for similar answers once upon a time. She squeezes with all her might until red from her dress bleeds onto the girl’s hands, warning her, Run! Run away! And don’t be afraid to fly.
Thank you, the young woman says, grabbing hold of the painting and heaving it back into the sky.
The jolt back into the air loosens Isabella’s bun and the confining hairclips can no longer hold against the persuasion of the wind. Isabella’s hair unfurls and flows like ribbons. She blinks and her eyes begin to clear as she races on to catch up with the cloud, no longer afraid of flying solo. Warmth from her dress spreads color into her cheeks and the harsh wrinkles the painter-boy had etched so deeply around her mouth and between her brows start to soften with the wind’s caress.
She sails on, closer and closer to the sea where the salt air makes her hair curl and the smell reminds her of days spent building castles and dancing with seagulls, free from chains around her neck and manacles on her fingers. Back before she had become just another pretty face. It makes her feel alive.
Along the coastline she dips, Isabella’s kite body coasting free for the first time in decades. She’s no longer someone’s niece, someone’s wife or someone’s mother, just a shimmering oil image of the woman she has always wanted to be.
The seashore is quiet on this late summer afternoon — no children with brightly painted pails, just an old woman staring out to sea, her smile as unreadable as the Mona Lisa. Isabelle gently swoops down and lands on the bench beside her.
It’s my husband, you see. He drowned in this bay so many years ago.
Isabella watches as the woman’s eyes begin to water, a stream of tears that flood down her black dress and pool on the bench before trailing down into the ocean. So many tears fall that the tide begins to rise when it should be waning.
Why not send him a note, then, and let him know?
Isabelle watches as the old woman places a note into a bottle and heaves it over the waves. It bobs up and down like an Adam’s apple as it drifts off towards her dead husband. The old woman’s tears stop and she nods as Isabella tilts forward to catch the next breeze.
As Isabella takes flight, she waves to her and yells, If you see him, tell him I love him. Tell him I still remember.
As Isabella streaks out over the ocean, her clothing slides away and she breathes deeply, no longer encumbered by the tight laces, girdle and bustier. The water calls out to her. Drop, it says. Drop into our lap and we will catch you and hold you in our light.
Isabella slowly dips one corner into the ocean, then the other. Seaweed softly wraps around her limbs to protect her from the coolness of the water. Soon she is submerged to her waist. Her arms break free and she raises them up over her head and dives, breaking away from the canvas to cascade down into the sea in a flurry of colour.
Starfish of the most vibrant purple imaginable come to dance with her hair. Oysters retrieve their pearls from her neck and replace them with a garland of kelp, green as her eyes. She watches as the canvas that had given her life begins to drop away, rocking softly towards the bottom of the sea. Down it spirals towards the corpse of a brokenhearted man trapped by the belief he’s unloved and has been forgotten. The man politely tips his head to Isabella. She tells him of the woman sitting on shore and her undying love. The last of the colors from her journey — the red that once threatened to seal her lips forever — floods into his heart and he swims away with a school of fish to find the bottled letter.
Isabella rises to the surface and floats on top like a leaf. Sienna from her skin melds with the forest green of her eyes and ochre brown of her hair, swirling together in the gentle, rhythmic shifts of the tide. She feels a bliss she’s never known before. The sunset gets lured into the mix, joining her to form a kaleidoscope of colors.
She knows the painter-boy would tell anyone who’d listen: it was the wind that caused Isabella Rodriguez de Fernados to fly out the window that afternoon. Yes, he would say, it was the wind.
So clearly, only the wind could fix things.
It begins with a gentle ripple — water rings caused from a small splash made by the sun tucking itself into the sea for the night. It progresses to a soft rocking as she lays on her back counting each star that appears. Then she hears it: hushed murmurs of a breeze telling her it’s time to go home.
Fragments of her soul begin to climb back into the atmosphere, riding shotgun on the water that had cradled her so softly. As the wind builds, more and more of Isabella fills the sky like paper lanterns until every inch of her is buoyant in the night air. It begins to gust as she bonds herself back together, storming higher, faster, devouring everything in her path, sucking in knowledge like a cyclone — this is true love, this is compromise, this is what it means to take action. She pulls and hoards, reining it all inside of herself. She examines the resentment, the hatred and abuse she’s known, smashing through the fences of expectation that had once held her bound. Into her garden and right up the wall she rages with a flash of lightning then beats her fists down on the shutters, her fingernails clattering on the panes like hail until finally, the window flings open again and she turns and walks back to her chair.
The painter boy returns to the room, his glass re-filled with water. He reaches over to close the window, unaware of the starfish dancing in her hair or the night stars that shine in Isabella’s cleared eyes. “Okay. Please take your position so we can finish.”
She begins to smile, her lips stubbornly open, and bares her teeth.