THE INSPIRATION

by Marie Iida

The Inspiration - 01v2 copy.jpg

Maggie Jacques was an inch and a quarter tall. Her husband, Theo, was taller by half an inch, and this extra height gave him the authority to declare that the world was too dangerous for Maggie to face on her own. On the day Maggie decided to go out alone for the first time in her married life, she opened a hatch in the floor of her home that connected to an abandoned rat’s tunnel. A string of battery-operated Christmas lights, a fortuitous find during one of Maggie and Theo’s past scavenging trips, glowed inside. Maggie threw a long cloth ladder into the tunnel and began to climb down.

For the last four years, Maggie and Theo had lived inside the kitchen cupboard of a trendy Los Feliz bungalow. Neal and Jenna, the young owners of the bungalow, were the size of ordinary humans who bumbled through earth, and they had no clue that if they were to dislodge the crown molding at the top of their kitchen cupboard, they would find Theo and Maggie inside, sipping tea or having breakfast. This secret living arrangement worked so well that Theo finally felt safe enough to leave Maggie while he embarked on the most important mission for a husband: securing an animal as a means of travel. Most men of his size, if they survived the hunt at all, came home with a domesticated cockroach or mouse; the boldest among them returned astride lizards and garden snakes. Theo, a proud and confident man, aspired toward the latter. Maggie insisted until the morning of his departure that he should take her along, but Theo only smiled, kissed his wife, and told her that her place was at home, where she would be safe.

Theo had equipped Maggie with plenty of food and supplies before he left, ensuring her survival until his return. He had prepared for everything. Everything, Maggie realized, save for this unexpected turn of events that she now faced alone. After entering the tunnel in the cupboard and climbing down the length of the wall, Maggie reached the ground. A vast expanse of tessellated tiles lay open before her as she peered outside. Maggie tightened the straps of her favorite yellow clogs and stepped out into Neal and Jenna’s kitchen.  

Maggie could hear Neal snoring as she crossed through the kitchen and into the living room.  When she neared the couch, she saw the tip of his nose, and the cavernous mouth beneath, hanging half open. His socked feet were piled over the armrest. Stupid giant,Maggie thought as she hurried past him. No wonder Jenna left him. 

Jenna and Neal broke up two days after Theo left on his hunt. Maggie watched from the cupboard as Jenna, dragging a suitcase behind her, stormed out the front door. A few days later, when it became clear that Shane was not coming home, Neal began to throw out her clothes, books, plants and records, anything that represented her taste. Maggie could only see into the kitchen and the living room from her cupboard, but she could hear Neal rummaging through the other rooms with his vacuum and trash bags. Maggie was particularly concerned with the state of Jenna’s bathroom, from where she and Theo regularly stole useful knickknacks, like dollops of Vaseline, hair pins, and elastic bands. Maggie knew she had to act before Neal discarded everything precious from their home.  

When Maggie crawled beneath the bathroom door, however, she discovered she was too late—all the colors and charms of Jenna’s bathroom were gone. Jenna’s bathroom used to be a pink-tiled green house, crawling with devil’s ivy and electric blue orchids, where shimmery beaded curtains dripped over the windows. Maggie once tried to emulate Jenna’s decorative style, spreading a green quilt over her matchbox bed, but Theo would not allow it. He considered bright colors dangerous because it drew attention: their furnishings had to blend into the shadows in which they lived. Maggie consoled herself by dying her wooden clogs yellow with a little turmeric. 

Maggie walked inside and climbed on the open shelf beneath the bathroom sink. It was empty, save for Jenna’s cotton ball jar. Maggie’s eyes welled with tears at the sight. It was impossible, but she felt that Jenna had left behind the cotton for her. She opened the jar and transferred the white puffs one by one into her backpack. When she finished, she glimpsed a flash of red behind the jar. She saw that it was Jenna’s old lip pencil, used down to a nub. Maggie picked up the pencil and tucked it carefully into her bag.

Neal was still snoring when Maggie slipped out of the bathroom. As she made her way back, she glanced at him again. Pastel chalks and balls of paper, crushed tightly in frustration, dotted the floor around his couch. Every morning, after Jenna left for work, Neal would sit on the floor by his couch and draw. Maggie knew he fancied himself an artist, but on countless afternoons, she saw his efforts end with him smoking weed and falling asleep on the couch. Maggie now noticed that one sheet of drawing paper lay intact on the floor, clipped to a wooden canvas. After she made sure that Neal was still asleep, she walked over to it.  It took her a moment to patch together the eyes, nose, mouth, and the cascading braids into a familiar face, but Maggie soon realized she stood before a pastel portrait of Jenna. The portrait was a monstrosity rendered in despairing blues and vengeful grays, displaying an almost leering ignorance of the beauty of its subject. Maggie stood, shaken to her core. Such hollow parody could only be made in the hands of a spiteful former lover. 

Maggie had never intruded on Jenna and Neal’s life before, but now she slipped off her clogs and climbed on the canvas. The fear of discovery melted away in the face of a moral urgency. Standing barefoot, she pulled out the lip pencil from her backpack. Maggie positioned the pencil with both hands, letting it hover above Shane’s lips, and pressed down. Her strokes, light and timid at first, grew bold as she did. She scurried up and the down the portrait and added streaks of red into Jenna’s hair. Then, she took out a cotton ball, shredded it into strips, and rubbed the portrait over and over. When mixed with the blues and grays underneath, the red transformed into a muddied purple, a fine approximation of thelavender tips of Jenna’s braids in real life. As Neal’s snoring softened to a shallow hum behind her, Maggie knew her time was up. She packed up her things, put on her clogs, and headed home. Later, standing before her kitchen mirror, Maggie found that she was covered head to toe in gray and blue powder, and she could hardly recognize her wild, limpid eyes.   

The expression on Neal’s face when he discovered the portrait was delicious. The utter shock and befuddlement—Maggie witnessed them all from the cupboard. Waking up from his nap, Neal rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and stared at the portrait for a long time. Then, a curious thing happened. He sat back on the floor, picked up a chalk, and began to work.

Maggie waited until Neal had retired to his bedroom that night to see what he had done to the portrait. Neal left the canvas leaning against the foot of the couch as usual, and when Maggie walked up to it, she stared, enraptured and in shock. Neal had darkened Maggie’s lip pencil strokes with rich, red pastel. He yoked a lavender hue to the muddied purple that Maggie had made with her lip pencil and cotton, gently highlighting her work. Jenna’s portrait looked majestic, and Maggie knew that it was her intrusion that made it so. No, Maggie thought, what she did was not an intrusion, but an improvement. There was an unmistakable care in the way Neal retained the touches she had made to the portrait — it was a capitulation before another artist’s genius. 

In all the years she lived under his roof, Maggie could only remember a single moment when she felt her taste align with Neal’s. One sleepless night, Maggie looked out of her cupboard and saw that Neal was awake, watching a movie projected on his living room wall. It was a documentary about an artist named J.M.W. Turner, and before she realized, Maggie had watched the whole thing in tears. Turner’s paintings emerged from a luminous gossamer of light, and she longed to walk among the tiniest details the artist depicted on his canvas. If only she could slip into Turner’s ports and harbors, her size would be proportional to the world at last. 

In the days following the first time Maggie contributed to the portrait, she and Neal established a kind of rhythm. Neal, working for a few hours in the morning, would hit an impasse by the afternoon, smoke his weed, and fall asleep. Maggie took over from there. Since Neal’s pastel chalks proved too heavy for her, she continued to use Jenna’s lip pencil to make guiding sketches. Maggie decided that Jenna would be naked in the portrait. At first, she worried if this was a cruel choice for Neal, but he rose to the occasion and filled in Maggie’s rendering of his ex-lover’s nipple with an unflinching shade of Burnt Sienna. With every layer they added to the portrait, Maggie felt herself growing closer to Neal. They were communicating through the portrait. They understood what the other desired. 

When the portrait was complete, Jenna stood naked against a European harbor at sunset. Then one afternoon, Neal invited his friend Joe over for drinks. Joe wore a t-shirt that refused to meet his pants over his pudgy midriff, and his eyes looked sleepy behind his glasses. Maggie would not have chosen such a character to appraise their art. Yet when she saw Neal wheel in the portrait, mounted on a French easel and covered with a golden cloth, she could not contain her excitement. She held her breath as Neal unveiled the portrait. She watched Joe bend over and bring his face close to the canvas, adjusting his glasses on his nose and scratching his chin in contemplation. Joe’s tone was subdued, but his words, when they came, echoed through the room and washed over Maggie: It’s good, very good, man. It’s the best thing you’ve drawn in years. Maggie closed her eyes and smiled. And then, Joe inquired what Neal had done differently, what made him improve in such a short time. Neal grinned as he tapped a plastic bag of weed on a square of paper. Maggie waited. 

Perhaps Neal could have described her as a miracle, a divine hand from the god of creativity that inspired him to new heights. Whatever the explanation, one thing was clear: Maggie expected to be a part of it. In the end, Neal attributed the portrait solely to himself, to some rare, heightened state of mind which he achieved by smoking marijuana. He explained — with much humor and animation —that whenever he smoked weed and fell asleep, he would experience a sleepwalking episode that allowed him to draw in ways he had never done before. Maggie, having heard all this, withdrew back into her cupboard, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over her head. 

When Maggie opened her eyes again that evening, she saw a man peering down at her. A shaggy beard covered his face, and his hair dripped with rain, but she recognized his eyes. Maggie jumped out of bed and threw her arms around her husband. Theo laughed and embraced her. Maggie was surprised to learn he had been gone for two weeks. He had grown thinner, but otherwise he was in good health and ecstatic over his successful hunt. He told her he had domesticated an animal unlike anything their predecessors had dared to bring back. Maggie asked him what it was, but Theo replied it was a surprise. He insisted that transportation was no longer a problem. They could go anywhere. Maggie watched her husband beam with pride, standing taller and mightier than ever before.

Maggie did not mention the portrait to Theo, for he never perceived her sadness. Maggie only explained that Jenna had broken up with Neal, leaving him to make the bungalow a shell of what it used to be. Theo’s solution upon hearing this news was simple—they would move. Theo immediately set them upon the task of dismantling their furniture and packing enough food and clothes to fill two bags. Maggie had forgotten how practical and commanding her husband was. By the time they finished, their home bore no trace that an intelligent being — one capable of artistic endeavors — had once resided there. 

That night, after she made sure that Theo was fast asleep, Maggie put on her yellow clogs and climbed down from the cupboard. She wanted to take a last look at her work. The portrait, still clipped to the easel, stood in a pool of moonlight slanting in from the window. Maggie stared up at the portrait, searching for an answer in Jenna’s frozen gaze. She found none. Maggie lowered her eyes, and it was then that she noticed a screw halfway up the easel’s front leg was coming loose. 

Maggie looked around. Behind her was the couch, with its row of bullion fringe skimming the floor. She grabbed at the white cotton cords of the fringe and began to unravel them. When she had yanked out a sufficient length of thread, she cut it free with her teeth. Then, taking off her yellow clogs and picking up just one, she wound it over and over with the thread. She turned back to the easel. She wound up for the pitch, and when she let go, her makeshift lasso flew toward its target, coiling around the screw again and again. Finally, Maggie gripped the end of the thread and pulled, and the loose screw slid out with little resistance, clinking as it landed on the floor. The easel still stood intact. Maggie tossed the thread and the clog aside and backed away. Once she was satisfied with the distance, she took off, aiming straight for the easel’s skinny front leg.  

As soon as her body connected to the wood, the easel came down with a crash. The light switched on beneath Neal’s bedroom door. Maggie scurried away just in time as the door flew open and Neal walked out, his footsteps thundering behind her. Neal found his easel collapsed on the floor of the living room, its two front legs akimbo, like an insect turned on its back. The portrait—a ghostly sheet dancing in the air—landed gently by his feet. Maggie, breathless, turned in the shadow of the kitchen and saw Neal bend down to pick up the portrait. For a brief second, she saw something close to fear flit across his face. 

“H-hello?” Neal’s frail voice echoed in the room.

Maggie, with a final look back at him, withdrew into the wall as quietly as she had come. 

At dawn, Theo whistled into the sky. A mourning dove swooped down from a nearby tree and landed in the front yard. It waddled right up to where Maggie and Theo stood waiting and cooed in submission. The bird’s marble eyes closed as Theo ran his hand along the curve of its neck. Theo was right. Never before had anyone captured such a magnificent creature—her husband would be remembered for his feat. Theo mounted the dove and pulled Maggie alongside him and instructed her to hold on tight. When he clicked his tongue, she felt the bird’s wings brush her cheeks and the wind swallow them whole. 

Theo urged Maggie to open her eyes and look down. She did as she was told and saw the roads and cars, the trees and buildings growing smaller beneath her. Theo turned back to her, but his smile disappeared as he saw her feet. He asked where her yellow clogs had gone. Maggie shrugged and wiggled her toes, feeling the current of cold air in between. She looked down at the world beneath them—everything as finely detailed as a painting— and thought of Neal. Down below, at home, perhaps Neal was already up, trying to put his easel back together. He would be sitting on the floor, looking for the missing screw. He would find it near the couch, and when he picked it up he would see the thread coiled around it, with Maggie’s yellow clog tied to its end. It would be hardly bigger than a grain of rice, but what falls on his palm would unmistakably be a shoe. As the bird took her still higher into the sky, Maggie smiled and imagined how, at last, she would loom large and everlasting in his memory.  

             

###