The summer I turned ten was filled with church bells and local choirs singing the town’s sorrows. The news blared from every television and radio –– they were investigating a death near my old house. A kid had died falling off a rocky cliff on the shores of Lake Erie, and the accident had awakened our small town. That night, police sirens screeched past our cottage. It took the entire fire department to retrieve his broken body by the rocks at the bottom. It had only been a dare. After the boy died, cliff jumping decreased in popularity.
I found Miss Marigold a year later on that same cliff. It was a day in early October, so it was too cold for swimming. The waves were too rough, and the clouds were too low. Miss Marigold sat facing the lake, her back against a boulder.
She was a colourful stain in a grayscale landscape. She looked like she had emerged from a mound of fabric swatches –– the textile equivalent of a scrapbook. Red and green ribbons in her hair, denim and suede patches to cover tears in her dress, a wide-brimmed yellow hat tied to her chin with twine. She balanced an oversized sketchbook on her knees and, trailed charcoal across the blank page in a sweeping motion.
I approached her from behind, half-hidden by the rocks. Her shoulders tensed when I stopped. I held my breath, stood still for a full minute. When I ventured upward again, she was back to sketching, her hat flopping in the wind.
She never acknowledged me, but I knew that she was aware of my presence. She waited for me. I waited for her. The sun waited for no one, and continued its slow descent behind the layers of clouds.
I closed my eyes for just a moment. When I opened them again, it was dark and she was gone.
I returned to the cliff the next day after school. Miss Marigold was back at her boulder with her sketchbook. Today she wore a red baseball cap and a skirt, layered like a wedding cake. A paint-splattered shawl was wrapped around her shoulders to keep warm.
I stopped a few feet before her and rolled up the collar of my turtleneck to keep out the wind.
“What are you drawing?” I asked.
She set down the piece of charcoal, her fingers smudged black. “It’s a self-portrait. Do you know what that is?”
I stepped forward to peer at the drawing. “That’s like, when you draw yourself, right?”
It was unfinished, but I recognized the image of a young lady’s profile, her small nose pointing upward, her eyes soft and shining, her lips full, smiling. It was only the start of a portrait, but it was radiant, even in black and white. I almost wished I could climb inside the picture just to be in the Beautiful Lady’s presence.
“So?” she asked. “Does it look like me?”
“I can’t tell with your hat on.”
She removed her hat. My initial reaction was to step back in horror, but my curiosity overcame my shock, and I inched forward to peer into her face.
Her murky eyes were wide-set. Her nose sank into her face. A deep scar ran from her hairline to her mouth. Her teeth were crooked and yellow, and her crayon-drawn lips were smeared across her face.
I grimaced. “That doesn’t look like you at all!”
She frowned at my words, her lips pressed together. Her eyes flared up as she glared at the image. She tore the page out of the book and crumpled it up, saying: “You’re right! Oh god, you’re right. She’s beautiful, she looks nothing like me!” She flung the crumpled paper over the side of the cliff.
“No, don’t!” I cried. I raced to the edge and watched it sink into the water. My eyes stung. Never again would I see those smiling eyes, the lady radiating on the page. “Why’d you do that? You didn’t have to throw it away.”
“Yes, I did.”
I softened when I heard her voice, high-pitched and near sobbing. She sunk her face into her hands. “I will never look like her,” she muttered. “Never.”
I stuck my hands into my jacket pockets and sat down, close but not too close. I saw the hurt I had caused, and needed to repair the damage I had done.
“You’re not ugly,” I said, and even as I said it I knew it wasn’t true. “Maybe you just need more drawing practice. My daddy says you can get good at anything with practice.”
Lifting her face from her hands, she asked, sniffling, “Really? You think so?”
I gulped and nodded. She smiled at my answer and wiped her face with some loose fabric on her sleeve.
Even now, I don’t remember if she ever introduced herself as Miss Marigold or if I baptized her myself. Her name came to me as I sat with her every day. It suited her, with her brightly coloured hats and clothing.
I’d come home from school every day and find her at that same boulder like a stray dog. I didn’t know where she came from. My classmates shrugged when I brought her up at school. Perhaps she never left, never stood up and stretched her legs. I sat with her as she sketched.
As the month wore on, the lady in the portrait grew clearer. Her delicate features sharpened as Miss Marigold added detail to her sketch: her curled eyelashes, the blush in her cheeks, her slightly upturned nose.
But just when the lady became real, Miss Marigold screamed and tore up the page, whimpering as if she were in physical pain.
It became a pattern. With every attempt, she grew more furious. The mere existence of the image hurt a deep part in her, and she wouldn’t keep quiet until it was destroyed.
The destruction of the image pained me. The lady’s existence, or perhaps her inexistence, haunted me. I woke up in a cold sweat from dreams in which she was burning, writhing in the flames. Her arms flailed like tree branches in the wind, reaching toward me. I watched helplessly.
Perhaps two weeks into this endeavor, whenever I felt one of Miss Marigold’s fits coming on, I would ripped the book from her hands before she could tear out the page. I stood up and held it behind me, stepping back. I thought that after a few seconds, she might calm down from her fit. She would see that she and the picture could coexist in peace.
Instead, Miss Marigold pulled at my hair and scratching at my face until I returned the sketchbook. I tried to push her away, but she was stronger than she looked. I stopped struggling when my chest began to hurt from the weight, and only then did she let me go. Once I had regained my breath, I found her a few feet away from the ledge, staring at the water below. I stayed back until she turned to me, smiling.
“Well,” she said with a contented sigh. “Let’s try again, shall we?”
My parents wouldn’t allow me to go out when it rained. “Your Miss Marigold will survive one day without you,” Mom would say.
I wondered if she sketched then, too. I’d ask my parents if she could come inside from the rain, but they laughed and told me not to be silly.
The day after a bad storm, I found her by the waves. I noticed that her picture was a smudged, watery mess. The pages of her sketchbook were wrinkled and deformed. But Miss Marigold only smiled and continued sketching.
I don’t know why I kept returning. Perhaps it was because I wished to see the Beautiful Lady again. I was drawn to her. At school, at home, in bed, I felt a string tugging on my heart. She called to me. So I returned, day after day, just to see her portrait be torn apart or crumpled or soaked in the lake.
The pain that came with her destruction only increased. I knew what would happen if I tried to stop Miss Marigold from destroying it, but something within me still made me want to try. The Lady stared at me through the paper. She called to me, begged me to save her. I cried at night, wishing that I could.
Snow began to fall. We went to the city for the holidays to visit family, and those two weeks I spent away from the Lady were spent in pure agony. I grew irritated at my cousins and snapped at family members. I spent most of my time in any empty room I could find, lying on my back and staring at the ceiling. Only then could I attempt to visualize the Beautiful Lady. Still, it wasn’t enough. Her image liked to slip away from me just as I began to get comfortable.
When I returned from the city, I rushed back to Miss Marigold’s side and sat by her as she put the finishing touches on the picture.
I knew what was coming. I knew that in just a few moments, Miss Marigold would lose her calm and wouldn’t regain it until she had destroyed the Lady.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Miss Marigold got to choose whether her artwork lived or died, whether she existed or didn’t. I wanted to decide, I wanted the Lady to be mine. That’s what she’d say in my dreams.
I’m yours, she’d call as she folded in on herself in the flames. I belong to you. Why would you let a stranger do this to me?
“Yes,” she frowned. “She is, isn’t she?” Her lips twitched. “Too pretty.”
Her body recoiled like a spring preparing to be released. But before it happened, I grabbed the sketchbook from her lap.
“No!” I screamed, sprinting away from her.
“Give it back!”
“Stop it, it’s mine!”
She ran after me, but I tripped on a loose stone and fell onto the rocks. Sharp pain shot up my leg, and my palms tingled when they hit the ground. The sketchbook slid on the icy floor toward the edge of the cliff. The world froze. If the Lady fell over the edge, into the water, it would all be over. But it stopped a few inches from the side, and I jumped up and raced toward it, Miss Marigold a few steps ahead of me.
She stopped at the edge and leaned down to pick it up. Pick it up or push it over. She seemed to catch fire before my eyes, her skirts billowing about her in reds and oranges, a blazing sun silhouetted on a grey sky. In the back of my brain I thought, water.
I slammed into her thin body. Her weight dragged her over the edge.
I didn’t hear her screaming. I didn’t hear her bones crack on the rocks or her body hit the lake below.
Instead, I picked up the sketchbook, and gazed at the Beautiful Lady. She was nearly finished, but a few curls at her shoulders were only outlined, not filled in with charcoal. I didn’t trust myself to complete it. It was enough.
I kicked the charcoal over the edge and tossed her yellow hat away like a frisbee. The rock ledge was just as I had found it that first day in October. Only this time, Miss Marigold had been traded for her artwork.
“Where did you get that?” my parents asked later that evening.
“Miss Marigold gave it to me.”
“Aren’t you getting a bit old for that imaginary friend stuff, Sweetie?”
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m done with Miss Marigold, now.”
I hung the picture in my room, and the lady watched over me at night. Outside, tree branches tapped on my bedroom window. The rest of the world was quiet.
DANIELLE EYER is an emerging writer and playwright based in Montreal, with a fondness for musical theatre, big cities, and typewriters, although she’s never used one and doubts she would enjoy it. Roman Payne said that “all forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.” Luckily, Danielle benefits from every one of these.
Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Eyer. All rights reserved.