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Daily Science Fiction :: Iron Oxide Red by Gwendolyn Clare
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Art by Melissa Mead

Iron Oxide Red

Gwendolyn Clare has a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, and is currently working to add another acronym to her collection. Away from the laboratory, she enjoys practicing martial arts, adopting feral cats, and writing speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov's, the Warrior Wisewoman 3 anthology, Abyss and Apex, and Bull Spec, among others. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com.
I was working on a still-life when I discovered the paint in my veins.

I had gotten down the pale wood background of the butcher-block, the slick sheen of spilled juice, two half-spheres of a bisected orange, and the folded husks of its spent sisters. The suggestion of a white electric juicer hid in the upper right-hand corner. Fine, dark wood-grain curved across the surface of the butcher-block, painted in with a new liner brush (sable tipped, size one).
I selected a wider brush and began adding in the knife--a long hunting blade sunk tip-down into the wood--when it tilted forward and clattered to the floor. Carefully, I set my brush and palette aside, and I stooped to retrieve the wayward subject.
In my attempt to set it down in its exact former placement, I brushed against the sharpened edge. When I looked down at the sudden pain in my hand, I saw an oozing cut, but it wasn't oozing blood. Looking away, I fought to keep my lunch from making a second appearance.
Left index finger: Cadmium Yellow Dark.
I wrapped it in gauze and medical tape, and tried to go back to work. It bled until the gauze was soaked through with golden hue, so I replaced the dressings, thicker and tighter this time. Gradually, inexorably, the paint worked its way to the surface once more. I bandaged it again, and again, until I understood what it wanted.
It wanted to be used.
I couldn't bring myself to dip a brush directly into an open wound, so I sat in a kitchen chair for a minute, bleeding a glob of yellow onto my palette. But once I got working, that little glob disappeared in what felt like an instant. I wondered how to sterilize a paintbrush. Dunk it in alcohol? I didn't have any vodka, just Goose Island Nut Brown Ale, and I doubted that would work.
Gently, I used my brush to scrape up the paint that had oozed onto my hand, careful to avoid the cut itself. Then my focus returned to the canvas, and pretty soon I was dipping the brush straight into the wound, gathering up the paint as fast as the cut could bleed. It didn't even hurt that much.
And I must admit, the orange pulp looked good after I touched it up with the blood-paint. Better than good. My mouth watered just looking at it, and I might've licked the canvas if there hadn't been a real orange on hand. I had never eaten my subject material before, and I swear that no orange could taste sweeter than that one did.
Anyway, the bleeding stopped when I finished the painting.
I put the still-life away for a couple days and spent some time hanging out with friends, trying to forget about it. The kitchen had become a place to avoid--the memory of the blood-paint still turned my stomach--so I went out to eat a lot. I had almost convinced myself that I imagined the whole ordeal, but then it was Thursday and I needed something to show my Painting III class. What else could I bring?
It was well-received. I could see the hunger in my classmates' eyes. A few of them tried to touch the canvas, and I had to bat away their questing fingers. The instructor licked his lips, surreptitiously, as if afraid that someone might notice.
Carrying the canvas home that afternoon, I thought about their expressions, and I felt a vague unease. It seemed as if my blood was not simply high-quality paint; it had some sway, some kind of power to it. That idea made me squirm in my blue plastic bus seat. I decided not to use the blood-paint again.
But then my friend Mariela from fashion design asked me if I'd be interested in copying a photo taken at one of her shoots. She called the project an "artistic Russian doll"--an outfit nested inside a photo nested inside a painting. Sure, I told her. I'll try anything once.
The photo was from a shoot in the Japanese garden in Jackson Park; the dress was all flowing lines, eggshell and scarlet hugging the model's slim frame, purple accenting her billowed sleeves.
For a while, the painting progressed just fine with the usual materials. I was nearly finished when I put brush to palette only to discover that I had already scraped it clean. The tube, I knew, was empty--squeezed down to the last dollop. And I'd never make it to the store before they closed for the night.
I ran to the kitchen and reached behind the cereal bowls, where I had stashed the knife. It had known what I needed before--maybe it would work again.
Left forearm, two inches above the wrist: Quinacridone Violet.
Perfect.
You should know that I mostly go for guys, and skinny aspiring models are definitely not my type. But, by the time I was done with her, I was quivering and flushed, and that coy tilt of her head could have made a eunuch shiver.
The next week, I began to experiment. Lucky for me, it was October, and winter had already begun to encroach upon the meek Chicago autumn. No one would bat an eye at long sleeves, gloves, or a plaid scarf. Each new blood-color demanded a painting, and the cut would start to heal promptly upon completion of the canvas. There would be many scars to hide.
Left knee: Chromium Oxide Green.
Collar bone: Burnt Umber.
Chin: Titanium Buff.
I could only get Phthalo Blue from my right palm, which was a little awkward for dipping the brush. And Raw Sienna lived between my toes, so I had to make due with my right hip's Yellow Ochre. (I limped around for a couple days after finding Raw Sienna and decided it wasn't worth the trouble.)
During an exercise in my Painting III class, I felt around for the sharp end of a screw on my easel, and I scraped it along my finger. That's how I figured out that the blood-paint magic doesn't work in public. Or maybe it's something special about that knife. Anyway, I decided it was probably wiser to keep my unorthodox methods to myself, after that.
With practice, I found that the colors knew what sort of painting they wanted to contribute to. I stopped painting what I saw, and started painting what I imagined. The content was sometimes fantastic, but the style always had a highly-detailed realism to it.
Right shoulder: Pyrrole Orange.
Small of the back: Cobalt Turquoise.
In search of new colors, I had to explore--inner thigh, belly button, base of the skull, tongue. I began to find colors that I could not name. New colors, not made of minerals and chemicals, but composed entirely of blood and magic. These colors were precious; they felt like an electric shock to the optical nerve. My left eyelid required the most care, but that shade of cerulean was so intense, you could smell a tropical lagoon just by glancing at it.
The warmer colors were the hardest to come by; they never showed up in the places I expected to find them. Once, I spent a whole afternoon looking for Naphthol Red Medium. The painting that resulted from all those failed cuts resembled a Van Gogh, the colors arbitrarily paired with the objects they portrayed. Angry, unwanted colors.
Thanks to the blood-paint inspiration, I accumulated a rather extensive body of work. Cool colors dominated, with prominent splashes of saffron or magenta appearing here and there. I was absorbed in a frenzy of painting; as soon as one canvas became complete, I would start lusting after a new work in progress.
I could tell the finished pieces were a quantum leap better than anything I'd done before (before the blood-paint, that is), so I called up my Painting III instructor. Even though I hadn't attended class in weeks, he agreed to swing by my studio and take a look. Once he had seen the work for himself, he put me in contact with the owner of a local upscale gallery just off Michigan Avenue.
I invited a few friends to the opening, including Mariela and her model, since that particular work was on display. We stood in a loose circle, pinching the stems of our champagne glasses and trying to look as if we were engaged in a serious intellectual conversation. I'm not much for chatting with the patrons; I can't think of a single thing to say to a bunch of people twice my age with salaries ten times the size of my (not inconsiderable) student loans.
Hiding as I was within the comfortable sphere of familiar acquaintances, I didn't notice anything was wrong, not until a distinguished older gentleman made a grab for Mariela's model friend. His fingers closed on one strap of her cocktail dress and tore it off her narrow shoulder as she jerked away from him. Another guy quickly stepped between them, looming over the shorter gentleman, fists clenched tight.
The pleasant buzz of alcohol went suddenly cold inside me, and I glanced around the room. We were surrounded, all eyes on Mariela's model, and the patrons had the look of a starving pack of wolves. The men's eyes smoldered with their need to possess her, and those women whose eyes were empty of lust had plenty of jealousy to fill the void.
The gallery's lone security guard stepped in and attempted to diffuse the situation. That's when somebody started throwing punches, and the crowd turned into a mob.
The owner wormed his way through the melee and ushered us out the back door. Mariela's eyes were wide as a frightened rabbit's, and the model was sobbing uncontrollably. In the confusion, nobody seemed to notice our hasty departure. We made our way through the alley to the street and hailed a cab to take us home. I had just flopped down on the gray vinyl seating when I heard the whirr of police sirens, still a few blocks away but clearly coming in our direction. I slammed the car door and told the cabbie to get going.
If nothing else, it was a memorable opening.
Now I know better, now I'm careful. I don't paint anything that might be confused with a real person. And the gallery hires some extra security whenever they display my work.
I did a whole show centered on Ultramarine Blue. Cool, calming paintings and no crazy incidents. I promised Mariela that it was under control this time, but she still refused to go to the opening, and we haven't talked much, since. Maybe that's for the best. I'm bored with the safer colors, now. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for the cash flow--I'm starting to pay off my loans, and I moved to a loft on the North Side that's got great lighting--but I need to keep pushing the envelope. I crave the dark, unsettling colors; the hot, passionate colors; the colors that blaze so bright, it hurts to look at them.
I've got a blank four-foot by six-foot in front of me. It's going to be a nature scene: two wolves fighting over the carcass of a fawn. A sliver of moon in the evening sky, spruce trees bending in the wind, blood staining the soft snow crimson.
For this, I'll need Iron Oxide Red, but I haven't found it yet. I'm covered with half-healed cuts and slices, but the warmer shades remain rare, and such a red hasn't shown itself.
Where could it be hiding?
There's only one place left to look.
I place the tip of the knife against my neck, to the left of my windpipe, and I dig deep.
The paint gushes forth in erratic spurts, following the fickle rhythm of my heart. It soaks my shirt and spatters the floor. It sticks my fingers to the brush handle. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice observes that the canvas is far too large, and perhaps I should seek medical attention.
But the rest of my mind says, Yes, yes! Finally, here is the Red.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011


I blame my college buddies, who started me painting, for the concept behind this story. The most difficult part of the writing process was figuring out the voice; I needed a style to suit this narrator, and the result is, I think, quite different from my other work so far.

- Gwendolyn Clare

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