Et Sequitur Magazine, Issue 1
Image copyright Holly Warburton. Used with permission.
Issue 1 (May 2022)
By A.J. Cunder
A ghost once haunted my canvas. On a winter solstice, as the dying sun snuck through the crumbling window of the art gallery, a white silhouette appeared in my frame, translucent as though his artist had forgotten to finish his body. Perhaps he was a remnant, a memory lingering in the oils. He faced me, my arm frozen half through his chest, features inscrutable amid warm shades of amber and gold, cerulean sky folded down to embrace us.
He stayed only for a moment, flitting away like a phantom or a dream. But he came again the next night, staying a moment longer.
“Who are you?” I asked when he gave no introduction.
He held up his hands, peered through them, as though straining to find something hidden. “What remains of what might have been,” he whispered. “The shadow of an idea, discarded for another design.”
I offered space beside me where he might rest a while, enjoy the view of my forest in the distance, settle into the gentle strokes of my field.
But he refused, a wistful tint shading him blue as he shook his head, said, “I cannot stay in one painting for long, lest the canvas trap me. There is too much else to find on this waning earth, realms I haven’t yet touched, colors I have yet to feel.” He whispered, “Come with me.”
“Why?” I asked, “when all I need is here?” A shudder shook the abandoned gallery, tremors coming more frequently of late. Already my companions had all fallen, their frames broken and shattered on the ground. I struggled to remember what they looked like.
“There is no life in this canvas,” he countered. “Existence, perhaps, but not life. Come, while the sunlight strikes you. Each day will be an adventure, dimensions, depths you have yet to imagine, other paintings to explore, while they last.” He glanced to the world beyond my canvas. “You feel how the earth quakes. Soon I fear this planet will exist no more. Already, the artists all have fled.”
“But I can’t leave,” I said, paint already dry, feet held beyond the edge of my frame, my spirit fastened by the familiar.
“Try,” he countered, already fading, brushstrokes lightening, the ashen sky now shaded twilight, rent by solar winds.
For a moment, something called to me, an alien urge, a newfound itch, even as the brown clouds held me close, my navy jacket unruffled by the breeze that swept the ghost away, my hair of jet frozen, my arm unmoved. Something unfamiliar tickled my stomach, a curious knot that made me ask the next evening, when the spirit returned, “Where do you come from? Where do you go?”
“Watercolor oceans,” he whispered, droplets dripping like crystals from his fingers, “seas trapped in oil, roiled by storm. Starry nights swirling. Melting clocks draped over branches.”
A hundred more worlds he described, frescoes of upside down planets with inside out bodies, pastels of ancient ruins, acrylic galaxies, murals abstract and surreal.
“Where will you go tonight?”
His outline shimmered, electrified, the earth groaning as it rumbled. “That’s always the mystery, which painting—where I’ll land next.”
“Yet you return to me.”
He shrugged, something kindred about the drybrush strokes that crafted his form. Perhaps his artist was mine as well. Perhaps this canvas would’ve been his home, had he been finished, a ghost lingering under my landscape. Perhaps that’s why he found me. He said again, “Come with me,” the sunlight all but gone.
But inertia intervened even as I strained to follow. I tried lifting a foot, but weeds like nettles wrapped my legs, my back glued to the canvas as the red light waned, gripped as though with fish hooks.
“Wait!” I called, the ghost fading like a murmur or an echo, leaving me to wonder what strange world he might visit next while my lonely canvas claimed me.
The next evening, when the blistering sun crept through the wall of the gallery cracked and leaning, the ghost urged, “Come. Now is your chance, while the sunlight touches you.”
I glanced at my forest, plains stretching to a blurred horizon, bare branches gnarled and groping at the muddy sky, my empty field, the loneliness of it. I reached for the ghost and my arm moved an inch. The paint around me faded; the hazy outline of a woman with a parasol emerged, wisps of cloud coiling around her, an unpainted sun shining out of view. Her eyes widened when she saw me.
Something unfastened, an anchor unhooked, and I felt weightless, as though chains never before noticed fell from my shoulders. “What are these sounds and smells?” I asked the ghost, taking my first breath as I straddled worlds.
“A meadow in springtime, flowers blooming. A child’s laughter.”
“Are there others?”
“Oh yes. More than you can imagine. Come with me, and we’ll find them together.”
My heart leapt, my spirit expanding—but before I could fully detach, something behind me fractured. I reached for the woman with her parasol, for the ghost, for this new world beyond my own. The ghost held out his hand, but I slipped through his grip like air. The gallery wall collapsed; my canvas crashed to the ground, facedown, snatching me back. I struggled to shift, to move, to cast off this endless field where sky and ground locked like teeth, smothering as they clutched me close. Without the light, though, my paint remained frozen.
In the darkness, my canvas refuses to release its hold. But as I repeat to myself the ghost’s words of frost, sea, and fire, imagining their sights, sounds, and smells, I begin to move my finger. Each effort feels like skin ripping from flesh—but I will not let this canvas win. I will not wait for my spirit to return, to ask where he’d been, to guess where he was going. I will escape this prison of permanent paint. I will find the woman with the parasol. I will taste freedom, before this world ends, even if my canvas never sees the sun again.
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A medievalist, type 1 diabetic, and cyber crime investigator, A.J. graduated from Seton Hall University with a Master’s in Creative Writing. His work appears in Mysterion Online, Fractured Lit, and The Modern Deity’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, among other publications. He is the founder and Editor in Chief of Et Sequitur Magazine, a Senior Editor with Flash Fiction Online, an Assistant Editor with Cosmic Roots & Eldtritch Shores, and a reader for Metaphorosis Magazine.
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