A Cat in the Chamomile

by Lily Taggart, age 13
A Cat in the Chamomile My name is Lily Taggart, I am a thirteen year old freshman living in Los Angeles. I write primarily fictional or fantasy pieces that are detailed and visually descriptive. Over the summer of 2015 I participated in two Writopia Lab workshops over the course of two weeks. During this time I wrote an eight page piece entitled “A Cat in the Chamomile”. Being able to work on my writing without interruptions really helped me to put something that had been in my mind for a long time into words.

“He doesn’t seem sad or angry. He was satisfied to have finally finished the painting, and even though the woman escaped again, he was glad.”

The boy’s pictures lift from the page, the black cat and the girl standing on the bluffs are no longer trapped in his perilous paper. The cat is curled around her shoulders observing the rise and fall of the tide against the rocky edge of the bluffs. Fear of the rocks, and the cold water prevent the cat from taking a no doubt foolish leap of faith into the foamy waters lapping up against the sharp cliff. However, the cat’s human couch holds no such fears, and now that she is a tangible being she has nothing left to lose. She is nothing but a miniscule girl standing at the edge of a teacup, the cat on her shoulders so small you have to squint to see him. By some miracle, the tea in the cup is moving of its own accord, crashing brown waves of steeping Chamomile against its porcelain walls. The boy stares intently at his little monsters, waiting to see the girl jump into his boiling hot breakfast. The cat can sense something, a shift in her footing or a slight bend of the knees as if to tell the cat she’s preparing and he should either stay along for the ride or hop off now. She jumps and the cat is digging his claws into the girl’s shoulders trying not to let himself go flying in the air, because being separated from the girl in an ocean of tea is far worse than being forced into the murky brown waters in the first place.

The boy takes no notice of the sacrifice either of them have made because he is busy creating a new image to bring to life. This time, he paints with vibrant colors, because the pencil gray of the cat and girl was too bleak.

Center stage in his colorful masterpiece is a fountain, and all around it are children playing and parents talking, men and women selling things on the cobblestoned street corners fading into the edges of the paper. The children are reaching their arms into the fountain trying to grab at pennies that have been tossed in for luck, they’ve rolled up their sleeves and lie flat on the edge of the marble fountain. Their parents are walking around chatting, and wheeling their little ones about in push chairs. Those selling goods around the square are bargaining with men and women trying to get what they desire for a price they think to be more suitable. All of these things are in beautiful colors, shades made meticulously over time by someone who cares deeply about having just the right shade of green or lavender. The grass sprouting from cracks in the bricks, the water spouting out of the fountain in graceful arcs, the pennies glimmering under the water, all of these things are beautifully crafted by someone who knows the painting is more than a painting. The boy makes a final mark and sits back in the couch, he smacks the pillow and a cloud of dust rises from the green velvet, in the dust the scene takes place, as each mite moves in the sunlight coming from the windows the people in the square are going about their business as if there’s nothing out of the ordinary happening in their little town, parents are scolding their children and making them throw the pennies back into the water and salesmen are shouting at irritating bargainers, bothering them with their constant need for a lower price than what’s been offered. The iridescent dust floating through the air is colored beautifully by reflections of the different shades coating the room. The boy leans back in the couch and watches as the people he has created play out their every-day lives for him, it’s like a movie to him, he sits and watches, silently observing as they go about their regular business. At the door he hears a knock and he’s standing up on the couch in a flash, waving his hands around in the air trying to make his images dissipate into nothing more than dust again.

 

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When his mother entered the room the boy was standing on the couch waving his arms about like a madman. Because she was unsure what he was attempting to do, she didn’t notice the dust particles stretching apart and dissolving, the faces of the townspeople turning into what they used to be — dust.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Leo?” his mother asked, stomping into the room, “the neighbors will think you’re insane.” She walked to the curtains, pulling them closed, the dust only visible in the light streaming in from the windows was gone in a flash and the boy was left standing on the couch staring into the air with a blank expression. “For god’s sake Leo, get off the furniture!” she shouted walking across the room to fluff the pillows on the couch, “you shouldn’t even be in your father’s study, you know how angry he gets when he sees that things have been moved around in here.”

“Sorry,” Leo said, tromping out of the room in a daze. With a lack of things to do, he decided to go back to his room. In the back of his closet Leo kept a collection of drawings. They weren’t any good though because most of them were just boring sceneries; the people in his pictures liked to run away. Leo wasn’t upset that they wanted to run away, he often felt the same way he imagined they did.

From his room the garden looked shady and relaxing, and from the garden his room looked luxurious and better than how he remembered it. He ended up going back and forth between his room and the garden a few times before deciding to stay in the garden, because he was far too tired to go back up the stairs another time.

Dusty pieces of chalk were lying unused on the pavement that wrapped its way around the garden. Leo sorted through bits of chalk trying to find a blue piece but the only colors he could find were white and yellow, and obviously yellow was too happy of a color for his current inspiration, so he left the chalk on the floor and promptly began to sketch the outline of a woman. She was trapped under the concrete. He drew her furled brow and clenching fists, her face twisting into a silent scream. The grainy pieces of chalk moved about on the pavement and told him the woman’s story. She pounded on the ground beneath him and the boy took a step back, afraid that he might of made his newest creation a bit too life sized for his taste. When the concrete gave in to the woman’s fists she exploded into the air leaving Leo a stunned chalk covered mess. He could only imagine what the neighbors would think; purely for his mother’s benefit he hoped the shade that slid from the tree boughs had covered his chalk colored mess in the garden.

The first time Leo drew the woman was in the garden. He was ten and he wasn’t aware that it would be more than just another drawing to hide away in the back of his closet. He kept drawing her, over and over again on every scrap of paper he could find, and each time he drew her she changed a bit, sometimes she would be too tired to break out of her little scrap of notebook paper altogether and Leo would wake up the next morning to see that she was gone, maybe she had slipped off the corner, or maybe some time during the night she had broken free of her paper walls. Leo started drawing her just to see the different ways she could escape. After a while, he began to choose his favorite ways in which she managed to free herself. There was the time that the tiny piece of paper she was trapped in managed to fold itself into an origami person and ran off his desk only to find death waiting for her in his trash bin; that happened when he was eleven. There was also the time that he drew her on a napkin he got from a breakfast diner and she ripped open the flimsy tissue paper holding her back; unfortunately the waitress was responsible for her demise that time, the glass flattening the small girl made of ink, when Leo was only fourteen. At the age of sixteen he drew her in the margin of his sheet music and she sailed away on an eighth note, she stood on the F sharp and clung to the stem gazing towards the edge of the page and just like that she sailed off the corner of his paper and into oblivion.

As Leo began to realize that he couldn’t paint or draw as a profession he started exploring other things that he thought he may enjoy. He was terrible at dancing, in the course of his first lesson he managed to break three toes, and wedge multiple shards of a mirror into his left knee. After dance, he tried to immerse himself in the art of cooking, but he seemed to overcook everything he touched and sometimes, if the mood was just right, set a couple of things on fire. However, it wasn’t his decision when his mother banned him from the kitchen after he broke her favorite mixing bowl, burnt a vintage dish towel and accidentally melted a pair of scissors with a plastic orange cover on the handles oo the top of their stove. After cooking was soccer, you’d think that after he tried dancing he would know better than to try something physically demanding, but no, by some miracle he believed that he would be fantastic at it. Not the case. In fact, during his first game he ran into the goal and had a purple bump on his forehead for a week. Shortly after he tried soccer was the first time he picked up a cello. His first turning point was when he felt the chords produced by bow on string resonate through his body. After that, he started taking lessons regularly and auditioned for summer conservatories and started going to a performing arts school when he was sixteen.

He knew that playing the cello wasn’t something out of the ordinary like drawing a picture that comes to life. He knew that playing the cello wouldn’t get him poked and prodded in weird labs far from home. Besides, what if it wasn’t real, what if he was just crazy? If he was crazy he didn’t want to know, he didn’t want his whole world to crumble around him like the people in his paintings worlds had disintegrated.

 

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I leaned over the curving piece of wood and put my pen to the page. I began to draw the woman again. She was standing on my eighth note with her arms wrapped around the stem, she was gazing across the page at all the other notes clustered in their individual little groups, each bar told a story like the stories my pictures told. I felt like she was trying to read this foreign language that presented itself in dots and lines strewn about over an unrecognizable grid.

She was lost I suppose; she was always trying to escape the piece of paper that she was confined to one way or another. She started to lean down on the note and she pushed her makeshift sailboat off into the waters of music ahead. She was drifting across the lines letting a nonexistent wind carry her and her precious eighth note ever closer to the edge of my page. Her tangled hair was blowing behind her as she drifted off the paper, she tumbled onto the stand and started running until she leaped off and fell surprisingly gracefully to the ground. She spent a short time living life out of her paper because she was promptly stomped on by a violinist who was quite unaware of the fact they’d ended a life. If you could even call what she had a life. All that was left was a black puddle of ink, that slowly seeped into the carpet, leaving what would no doubt be a permanent stain.

As Olivia settled back into her seat she made the casual remark, “there’s supposed to be an eighth note there,” and carefully penciled in one of her own making. If I had attempted what seemed so trivial and basic to her my eighth note probably would have lifted off the page and exploded, leaving ink all over my papers. There was an eighth note there, and now it was gone, because of what I drew, but does that really make it real? Am I just seeing things?

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He started playing the cello when he was fourteen. It was a foreign idea to him at first, he thought it would probably be another thing that he could add to his list of failed hobbies. It didn’t come naturally to translate the notes into sounds and the sounds into emotions. He grew to understand the language these sounds spoke and he enjoyed it more and more as he continued to play. There was something about the instrument that intrigued him, but he could never understand what.

 

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I’m still not used the the way I have to sit. It hurts my legs to be in such a weird position for so long and my back starts to ache. I’ve been lugging that cello around on my back to and from school but now that it’s getting hotter I get tired more easily. I get home late from practice and I haven’t been drawing lately, but I can’t decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

Even though sometimes playing the cello hurts and carrying it around is tiring, I think that I’m starting to like it, and at least I’m not as bad at this as I was at cooking. I mean I wish I could draw, but my drawings aren’t for other people, they’re for me. Mainly because I think other people would think I’m weird, and if they don’t think I’m weird they’ll probably think that I’m insane. Maybe I am, I keep drawing the same thing over and over, like I’m addicted to making that one image. Crazy people are the people who do the same thing over and over again thinking that there will be a different outcome each time, but there isn’t because every time that I draw her, she leaves.

I feel like the woman is tormenting me, following me wherever I go, making me draw her, but I’m probably the one tormenting her. I keep trapping her, and she has to get out over and over again, maybe I should draw something else for a while. Let her rest, let her not be trapped for a bit. I have a strange need to draw her, though. I don’t understand why, I think it’s because I need to reassure myself that she can get out, that she can leave whenever she wants. Sometimes I want her to stay, not because I get lonely; I have friends, but I want her to stay because I never get to finish drawing her before she leaves. That’s why I keep drawing her, because she isn’t finished. I’m not done drawing her, she’s not complete. Yet, she never is- she always leaves before I get a chance to finish her. Does that still make me crazy? I’m not expecting her to change every time I draw her, and I’m not expecting her to stay, I’m trying to finish drawing her, because I never have, not in the garden not on any scrap of paper I’ve ever put her on.

 

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I’m not going to draw her here again, I can’t. It was too close this time, she’s real. Olivia saw the missing note, she may as well have seen her jumping off the paper. I can draw something else, I should draw something else. I need to draw something else. Rain will cleanse it, it’ll cleanse the paper. Like she was never there. Olivia’s gone, I should do it now, the worst that can happen is that a sink faucet will start leaking.

I turn the packet over to the back page. I start drawing the rain dripping from the top of the page in rounded furious drops racing towards the bottom of the paper. That’s when we start hearing it. Thundering drops of rain smashing against the rooftop, the drops on the paper start vanishing and the rain gets lighter, the alarmingly loud drops of rain against the roof settle into a light pittering.

“I didn’t know it was supposed to rain today,” Olivia says, sitting down again and lifting her cello from the floor.

“It wasn’t,” I reply, opening the packet back to the correct page and leaning it against the stand.

The rest of our rehearsal is by most means ordinary. I don’t like drawing in public, somehow it makes me feel vulnerable.

 

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I need to find a way to finish her. If she leaves again I can’t finish her. She’s always found a way to escape, and I need to paint her somewhere she can’t leave.

The piles of empty scenes painted on used papers could be her new prison. Could she be trapped in this new environment?

I’m looking through pieces of paper that hold memories of past paintings trying to find a place for her, a place where she can’t leave. There are the bluffs which she would probably find a way out of and the valley with a winding river where she could easily sail her way downstream and into the real world, where I would never be able to catch her. To her there is always a way out of the paper, she always finds new ways to escape the pages that I put her in, I shouldn’t put her on paper this time, I need to find a new stage for her. What if I were to paint her on the mirror. Could she break it?

I begin to plaster her image to the glass, and I can’t help but see myself in her now that I’m drawing her over my own image. She isn’t moving as much as she usually does, she’s just looking, she’s trying to find a way out of the mirror. It’s like she can see herself for the first time. Come to think of it, she’s probably never had the luxury of looking in a mirror, I wonder what it feels like to look at it from the inside, can she see me. Maybe she doesn’t know that I’m painting her this time, maybe that’s why she isn’t trying to escape, she doesn’t know that she has to.

At least it gives me the opportunity to finish painting her. I’ve given her more detail than ever before. Her eyes are more blue, her face looks more real, her freckles and the curve of her nose are more complete than they ever have been. I didn’t even know that she had freckles before, but now she’s done, her eyes her mouth her hair, all of it is perfectly finished, exactly the way that I never knew it could be.

 

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I’ve always had to find my way out of the paper I’m stuck in or the floor I’m under because the stupid boy that paints me can’t let well enough alone, but now I’m not trapped in some gloomy place. I can’t see the boy any more, and I hope that means that he isn’t here. I can see so much now, the things I could never see from inside my paper. I can see people. Just one person, she moves the same way that I do. Slow and careful, watchful, I’m always watching, watching for an exit, any way out of the paper. I can’t see any way to leave this place though, and while at first it was excitingly new, and beautiful now it seems like a carefully designed prison. One that I can’t find my way out of. Every time I approach a visible edge or any sort of empty space the girl follows me, making sure to keep a careful eye on me and stick close.

 

I think that she’s starting to realize where she is. She keeps coming closer and farther to the face of the mirror staring intently into the open space between her and the glass. All I can do is wait to see if she can escape this time like she did all the other times she’s run from my pages. I sit watching her from my bed seeing if she’ll slip out of the glass surrounding her. What she does is always unexpected though so I’m not completely sure what she’ll do, I never am.

I feel as if the glass is far more fragile than she is as she poses more of a threat to the mirror than I, or the mirror does to her. She knows that the glass can be broken, and now she’s preparing, her fingertips spread on the floor, she’s bending as close to the ground as she can, leaning forward resting her weight on her fingertips ready to fling herself towards the glass. When she does begin to run she is fast, rushing towards her only exit in sight, and the glass is breaking leaving shards of the mirror on the floor and paint puddled on the ground marking the loose sheets of paper that were left empty by the others who had escaped the way she did.

 

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He hasn’t drawn since the woman escaped his mirror. He picked up all the pieces of glass and cleaned up the splattered paint, he put the empty papers back in his closet and he left all his supplies there too.

He doesn’t seem sad or angry. He was satisfied to have finally finished the painting, and even though the woman escaped again, he was glad. Because he knew that she couldn’t stay trapped in his mirror forever, but he was at a loss, he had no motivation to draw something new. He was done drawing the woman for now, maybe forever. He didn’t know what else there was to draw because for so long now the woman was the only thing that he drew. He was stuck.

The summer heat seemed to swallow him whole and he didn’t know how to keep drawing now that something he had been working on for years was finished, but had disappeared like all his other work. It wasn’t sad so much as it was disappointing. He wanted to be able to keep the things he’d made, but they had minds of their own and didn’t want to be trapped in his papers, and he understood why, but he still missed them.

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After that, I was nothing more than paint soaking into floorboards and once the boy finally found the courage to come anywhere near me, all he did was wipe me away, cleaning up the mess that he’d made, or was it a mess that I’d made. It’s so confusing here. It was more confusing in the mirror though. I think that’s what it’s called. A mirror.

It’s been so long since the last time that he painted me and it’s something of a relief not having to break out of so many prisons anymore. Each one was more challenging and confusing than the last. Even though part of me is glad that he doesn’t draw or paint me anymore I always feel on edge, because I know that eventually he may paint me again, but I’m not worried about that, I always have that nagging thought in the back of my head though.

The place where I am now is nice, it’s where all the people from his drawings go. It’s a town in a valley; there’s a river weaving it’s way through the town and there are little gondolas with soft cushions in them that you can ride downstream to the next town over. At night, the men and women sailing the gondolas hang lanterns from the boats and they cast shadows into the glittering water hugging the curving edge of the boat. There is a fountain in the square and the children throw in their pennies for luck, there’s a market set up lining the edges of the cobblestone square in the center of the town. Extending around the town are small cottages and grand Victorian houses, modern buildings and ancient crumbling monuments, it’s a mish mash of imagination of older times, and twenty first century architecture. The streets wind in confusing pathways where there is no definitive left or right, there’s straight-ish, left-ish, and right-ish, with the occasional left-ish straight, or straight-ish right.

The people here have their quirks but they’re nice and they seem to get along pretty well. I’m normal here, not invisible to the ignorant people who flatten me with glasses of water or accidentally step on me. I’m normal here because these things have happened to the others too. I live with a girl who fell into a tea cup and disappeared, she’s been looking for her cat ever since, but she suspects the worse. I try not to think about where the cat might be if not here. Then again maybe he’s on a gondola or sneaking into one of the old houses down the street. If not I hope that he’s okay.

I’m not sure if the boy’s going to draw me again and I hope he doesn’t because I want to stay here, I’ve visited before but never for as long as this because he would always draw me again, what bothered me is that every time he drew me I was a little different, sometimes I would come back and people would ask me where my freckles came from or how my hair had changed color. Most people don’t change once they get here, the children typically stay children and the adults typically stay adults, once people are drawn and they end up here, if they aren’t drawn again they don’t leave, and they stay the same, I was one of the few people who changed. Sometimes people would get painted again and they would come back very slightly different, maybe their teeth were a little straighter or their hair was a little longer, but every time I came back I had noticeably changed and it was never a bad thing but eventually it became frustrating, when I could never get used to my own reflection.  

 

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Lydia found her cat yesterday, he had been following people home trying to get food from them. She saw him trying to sneak into a gondola and managed to grab him before they left the dock. I don’t particularly understand her need for the cat but I like him, he makes funny noises when he’s prowling through the house.

There was never anything else with me in the paintings, I was always alone, sometimes there were other things on the page but never other people, or animals, no pets for me to bring home after escaping the pages.

I think that I’ve found a final home though, it’s one of the slightly newer houses the boy had drawn, lots of tall windows that filled whole walls, I’d never been in a house with so much light. Lydia and I have been getting along well, she was my first friend here. She works at the dock welcoming new people from the boys drawings and helping them settle in, we’ve assumed that we’re about the same age, whatever that may be. None of us know our exact ages, there are the children, the adults, the people somewhere between being children and adults, and there are the old people. Most of my other friends are the older people. They’re nicer than the little ones and they don’t make as much fuss about things, or at least most of them don’t. I met many of them at the market in the square, they sell things like antiques or vegetables, Marlene even sells wine that she’s been aging in her cellar ever since she arrived in this town.

I’ve been considering catching a gondola and taking a ride upstream to see what the other towns are like. We live in one of the farthest towns out but in the center there is a large city. That is where all the things he painted from the real world went, most of them are tall buildings he painted or drew as ways to practice perspective. The others are just more modern things and people, the farther you get from the city the older things become. In our town there aren’t many things that work electronically, but in the city everything works with a system of wires. Our town has older houses and even a cathedral he painted from a picture taken in France. It has stained glass windows and towers above all the other buildings in our town. The only thing is we don’t really have a religion here, we know who made us and we wouldn’t worship him in any way. Not to say that we hate him, because we don’t, but most of the people here just don’t really see him as someone worth worshiping. However, I definitely don’t consider him to be a friend, after all he’s the reason why I could never stay here for very long, and I resent him for it.

 

1 Comment

  • Lily this is such a magical story! I love the shifting points of view/narrators. I especially love the idea of art having a life of it’s own…the idea of creating a reality that takes off on it’s own!
    It’s clear that you are very gifted with words and have a very complex imagination.
    Congrats on your first published piece! Just the first of many to come I’m sure… xo

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