I climbed a tree today.
It wasn’t my brightest idea but I needed a new perspective on the hills and mountains in the distance, one I couldn’t gain from the ground. If I was back home in Rim Country, I would’ve hiked until I found the right vantage point.
Actually, no. Fuck that. If I was in Rim Country, I’d be scavenging for stone, clay, felled trees. I wouldn’t be sketching ridgelines. I’d be doing something useful, not…whatever the fuck this was.
With a resigned sigh, I brought my charcoal back to the sketch book. It was another in many pages of dark, smudgy scribbles. Flowers, trees, hills, clouds. Each more uninspired than the one before. If you’d asked me two months ago, I would’ve said my creative well knew no bottom.
That was before creating in captivity.
When the biggest, most recognized internet firm in the world announced a residency at their California campus, complete with a hearty stipend, living quarters, all the bells and whistles, I didn’t think twice before applying. I never expected they’d select me. I figured they’d see my name, see my decidedly unimpressive pedigree, and move onto someone more suitable.
I wasn’t classically trained or celebrated, and I didn’t envy that path. Not entirely. I did well, and knew acclaim in small doses. A centerpiece sculpture in the New Mexico statehouse. Several community art installations across the Southwest. Exhibits in San Francisco and New York. A revolving collection feature at a new hotel in Vegas. I made my way on my terms, and that was essential.
But a slim part of me wanted this, wanted the stamp of approval. No matter how often artists said they did it for the craft, we also did it for the love. The adulation. It bit like a bug, and the venom was addictive.
That venom had me up a tree in Silicon Valley, staring off at the natural world while my fingers scratched out the shape of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The lines started out soft, almost downy. Lamb’s wool in shades of green, yellow, brown. Nothing like the Kaibab Plateau or the Buckskin Gulch, or the raw magnitude of the Mogollon Rim.
But I had to do this. I had to stretch my fingers, translate shapes into stories. I’d draw my way out of the driest spell in my thirty-six years and eventually, I’d find my way back to the beginning. If I could do that, I’d learn how to create again. Even if I had to do it from the inside of a fishbowl.
I was betting on this. I couldn’t stare at the walls and walk in circles anymore. I had to get out of my head and get my hands moving. I never went more than a month without a new project taking over my existence. It always went that way. An idea tickled the back of my brain until it consumed my every breath and thought. After submitting to that cycle for more than twenty years, I didn’t know how to function without it.
I would’ve been rocking in a corner right now, scratching my skin off like a junkie in need of a creative fix, if not for a whip-cracking executive vice president. One frigid look from her and I felt the fire kindling inside me. She brought to mind steel-tipped arrows and lush camellias, and a dozen other contradictions.
And doves. Graceful, regal doves.
When I’d rifled through the warehouse-sized supply room in the studio after she deposited me there on the first day of my residency, I hadn’t intended to sculpt anything. But I’d happened upon some pale birch and the magic took charge. Two hours later, I had a dove in my hands.
Since then, I’d fever-dreamed a small flock of birds to life. Goldfinch, chickadee, sparrow, meadowlark, dove. I’d decided it meant absolutely nothing. I wasn’t sculpting birds that reminded me of her in certain ways for any profound reason. Muses came in all shapes and forms—music, weather, nature, women—and they went just as quickly. None of them meant a damn thing.
Save for the small issue of me gifting her those birds. All previous muses served me and my needs. I’d never served them. I didn’t intend to change my ways now.
Except…I already was. I was crafting by her and for her, and that was the last fucking thing I wanted.
I shrugged off that inconvenient realization and went back to my mountain range. Several pages filled with increasingly twisted interpretations of the geography. I couldn’t sketch anything without traveling down a winding path and then turning it inside out. As far as my mind’s eye was concerned, nothing was what it seemed.
These mountains were born from of a blood feud, rock against rock, one rising up as the other bowed down. The Santa Cruz range stood as a tribute to the victor but also a reminder of its strength. The cost of that strength was in its scars. The San Andreas Fault, a terrible, rippled lesion, served as a reminder of the fight, and it was spoiling for a rematch.
Everything was a product of a long, blistering history. I couldn’t see it any other way.
An airplane sliced my line of sight, its roar echoed by my growl at the interference. I glanced down at the sketch. The page was a mess of anthropomorphic earth at war with itself, line and smudge void of purpose and composition. If there was any vision here, I couldn’t find it. Burning the whole damn thing down would be the kindest solution by far.
I pocketed the charcoal and closed my sketchbook. “That’s some real shit,” I mumbled to myself.
I ran the back of my hand over my forehead as I frowned at the sunlight blanketing the cloudless sky. Today was the warmest since my arrival in early June but a hot day in the Bay Area had nothing on Arizona’s heat. I missed the wilderness and my place in it, but I took no issue with temperate weather.
Then I saw her in the distance, zipping down the sidewalk like a hummingbird. “Speak of the fuckin’ devil.”
Miz Malik. She introduced herself that way, like some kind of prim old world maiden.
But there was nothing prim or maidenly about her. She wanted to play the part of the proper businesswoman but heaven help me, she failed miserably. Anyone with lips like that would. Full, plump, pink. Always pursed, as if she was biting that silver tongue of hers.
Luscious. Ruben was rolling in his grave and cursing the limits of his natural life for missing the opportunity to paint this voluptuous woman.
It was too bad she was so fucking insufferable.
The lady didn’t know how to slow down to walk. If she’d ever stopped to smell the roses, I was certain she’d follow it up with a performance evaluation on the quality of their blooms.
But that hair. Dark and silky, just long enough to brush her shoulders. The kind of hair that shone like obsidian and spilled like a waterfall. My fingers itched to stroke those strands, feel it sliding between my fingers, then carve an ode to it in stone.
I should’ve stayed in the tree. I should’ve kept my distance. Should’ve drank in the sight of her and then attacked some wood.
Instead, I swung down from the tree and landed on the grass with a thud. It was one part Olympic gymnast save for the tights, one part overgrown Peter Pan. Also without the tights.
“Good afternoon, Miz Malik,” I called.
The simple black dress she wore, the one crafted for the singular purpose of showcasing her hips, defined entrapment. I couldn’t stop myself from tracing the lines of her body with my gaze. I figured the dress hailed from a boutique for serious, reserved businesswomen, a shop that knew only the coolest hues of the color wheel. She didn’t look serious or reserved. She looked like loosely restrained sin, and the shiny marigold shoes she wore only validated that. There was brightness and warmth inside her, but she kept it on a leash.
“What brings you out of the ivory tower?” I swiveled my head from side to side. “And where are your minions?”
She skittered to a stop, her hand pressed to her chest as she blinked between me and the tree.
“I—I mean,” she stuttered. She gestured to the oak. “Did you climb that tree, Mr. Guillmand?”
I tucked my sketchbook under my arm, dipped my hands into my pockets. “Yes, Miz Malik, I sure did.”
She shook her head in tiny, tiny movements. All hummingbird. “But—why?”
“Why not?” I shrugged. “What are trees for if not climbing?”
She shifted the hand on her chest to her forehead, and murmured, “That’s a logical fallacy.”
I turned away, wandering over the grass as she stared after me. “You never did answer my question,” I called. She huffed out a snarl as I continued walking. “What are you doing out here on a nice day when you could be inside with the machines?”
I sensed her staring after me, a hot and unyielding glare. Here I was, walking away from her when most people devoured every word and bent eyebrow. It was several minutes before she abandoned the structure and comfort of the sidewalk, but even as the grass rustled under her steps, I still felt the heat of her gaze.
“And what are you doing out here when you could be in your studio?” she replied. “The one we designed to your exacting specifications, sir?”
On the other edge of this knoll sat a cluster of yucca and sacred datura. They grew in disorderly clumps, like anything truly wild. I wanted to understand the ways they attracted and repelled each other, and I wanted Miz Malik to follow me.
As she approached my side, she announced, “I’d like to speak with you.”
Her hands were on her hips and her lips were pulled tight, and goddamn me, I wanted to taste the cove where her neck met her shoulder. I couldn’t pretend I’d find my fill with one taste. Somehow, in the convoluted maze of human consciousness, I was able to find her desirable and annoying all at once. I wanted to fuck her, and then I wanted to tell her to fuck off.
“Go ahead,” I said, my attention squarely on the yucca. “Speak.”
“Would it be too much trouble for you to look at me while I speak?” she asked.
With all the impatience in my body, I shifted to face her. “Go on, Miz Malik,” I drawled, an eye roll tossed in for good measure. “You have my full attention.”
She nodded in response, piercing me with another sharp look before she said, “I’m curious, Mr. Guillmand—”
“Gus, please,” I interrupted.
“Gus,” she repeated with a sigh, her shoulders rising and falling at the concession.
“Why are you so formal?” I asked. “No one else around here insists on the Mister and Miss business. Should I curtsey, too?”
She offered no reaction beyond a slow blink, and that only agitated me further. This woman. She only bit so much of my bait.
“Mr. Gui—I mean, Gus,” she said, her eyes fluttering shut as she corrected herself. “From what I hear, you aren’t spending much time in your studio. Is there an issue with the space?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Is there an issue with me spending time outside the studio or am I required to stay at my desk all day?”
She waved at the open space around us. “By all means, enjoy the grounds.”
“But spend more time in the studio,” I added, crossing my arms. “Right? That’s what you’re trying to tell me. I’m on the clock and you want me churning out one masterpiece after another while the citizens of this strange corporate colony watch. You don’t want an artist-in-residence, you want a dancing monkey.”
“There is nothing farther from the truth, Mr. Guillmand,” she snapped, slicing her hand through the air as she spoke. “We appreciate and admire your talent, and we want you to be comfortable here. Even if that means spending most of your time up a tree. My only concern is whether you have everything you need.”
“Is that what got you out of the office, Miz Malik? Your concern for me?”
“No, that’s not the only thing,” she said as she glanced at the wildflowers. “I’m curious why you’ve gone out of your way to leave birds in my office.”
“Is there a problem?” I replied, taking a step toward her.
“Is there a point?” she retorted, taking a step toward me.
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do here?” I asked while I stared down into her coffee dark eyes. “Bring art to the people. Wasn’t that the high-level objective of this gig?”
Another slow blink up at me, and then, “You are not required to literally deliver art to individual staff members. I apologize if that was unclear.”
I scratched the back of my neck, humming. “Ah. I see. My misunderstanding.”
Her gaze was locked on my eyes but for a split second, it flitted to my lips. It was nothing more than a glimpse but it struck me like a challenge. Without allowing myself time to examine my actions, my hand darted out and curled around her elbow. Heat coursed through me, a flash of fire a thousand times more powerful than anything else in the world.
She glanced down at my hold on her arm and up at me. “I’ll leave the birds with my assistant, and I’ll ask him to work with the appropriate teams to get the pieces on display. If you need any help gathering the others—or whatever you’ve given other staff members—we’ll allocate someone with extra capacity this week.”
She didn’t know. She was the only one, and she didn’t know.
“Now that we’ve cleared these matters up, I’ll be on my way.”
I didn’t get a chance to reply. She shook out of my hold and walked off with her marigold shoes and plump lips, and didn’t grant me even a passing glance.
This fucking woman.
Rough Sketch is a standalone novel releasing in 2018.
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