Chapter 1 of Suicide is for Mortals
POV: Miranda Hutchinson
A reasonable person with my history would not be so perverse as to haunt the former Rezarta after her death. Such reasonable people tend not to become ghosts precisely because they make better choices than I did.
The city of Athanoria was founded as the cultural center of Rezarta; it was the New York City of the magical Southwest. When Rezarta ceased to exist, Athanoria became more like a smaller Berlin with a better tan. Since late 2002, it was increasingly a place where mundane struggling artists went for cheap real estate and streets unburdened with the conventions of a privileged old guard.
There were numerous musicians busking on the sidewalks, painters offering portraits on the spot, and upstart filmmakers milking untested narratives from the vast, blue-skied open space. The city’s health department was so under-resourced that restaurants basically worked on the honor system, the healthcare facilities were a kludged-together network of earnest though under-qualified medical professionals and “alternative medicine” practitioners, and the school system was barely existent.
All that said, Athanoria was not a bad place to live if you were a healthy, childless young person with a high tolerance for the eccentric and bizarre. For a bull-headed ghost like me, it was an exercise in masochism until I spotted Meliana Lucas flitting through the paint-smeared hordes.
Many of the recent transplants to Athanoria were clever, expressive aspiring revolutionaries who struggled daily against the threat of invisibility, understanding that anonymity was synonymous with starvation. Meliana was the most talented, least invisible of them all. She had been making gorgeous art since she was less than three years old, and the artistic community tended to agree that there was no such thing as fair competition where she was concerned.
She was the kindest person I’d ever seen whose competitors threatened to break her arms if she didn’t price her work far above theirs. Even as she charged fifty dollars for a sidewalk portrait while other painters charged twenty, she had customers lined up for her chair when she set up her easel every Sunday afternoon. She rendered the most thoughtfully detailed likenesses with preternatural effortlessness. She understood that her fellow artists did not dislike her so much as that they warded off the threat of invisibility by placing her at a different standard from themselves.
They had no idea what it meant to be invisible.
Meliana neither sought nor shunned her visibility. It clung to her like a beloved infant strapped to her back. She was extremely tall, but missing the self-consciousness that affected most tall women, carrying her sweet face and enviably luxuriant hair imperturbably above the crowd. She was good-natured, but always observant, unburdened by presupposition. She cared more about making art than about getting credit. She was, in short, the very opposite of a politician.
The sun was brilliant on Sunday afternoons when Meliana set up her easel near Juan Carlo’s, the restaurant where her roommate waited tables. That was her chosen spot for sidewalk portraits, and that was where I made a habit of watching her do what she loved. On one of those afternoons in early April, she surprised me. I had been convinced that my total allotment of surprises was spent.
She let four people gather around to watch while she served a forty-year-old woman who wanted a portrait to frame for her mother. I positioned myself right in front of Meliana, just slightly to the right of her customer, and watched her face while she put color on paper. She worked quickly, but not with the least hurry. She was ambidextrous, using a different color pastel in each hand to work on a different layer of the painting on different parts of the canvas at the same time. Her facial expression suggested a fugue state, like there could be nothing else on her mind besides the picture taking shape in front of her. The way her hands moved about the canvas reminded me of a cat’s kneading paws. She went into a different world while she made the portrait, and that world was the most natural place for her to be.
When she finished a portrait, she would usually rejoin the citizens of Earth with a cheery smile and show the result to her customer. This time, she sat back in her chair, and with a frown, said, “This is odd.”
Her customer stood up and joined the handful of bystanders behind her to examine the anomalous artwork. “It’s beautiful,” she replied.
“There’s this shadow here,” Meliana said, pointing to an area towards the right edge of the work, where a mostly transparent, unfocused, though still human face could be seen. “If you just give me a few minutes, I’ll fix it.”
“No, don’t do that, it’s perfect,” her customer said, digging into her purse for the necessary cash. “I love it just as it is.”
As Meliana sprayed the board with fixative and covered it in a black trash bag for her satisfied patron, I floated above the crowd, no longer seeing the mortals who negotiated for their turn in the subject’s chair. I had underestimated Meliana. Everyone knew she was exceptional, but at that moment I knew she was more than talented. She had the eye to see ghosts. I would have to get to know her better, but first I needed to learn more about her.
I’m the late Miranda Hutchinson, forty-second President of the United States. In 2007, I died from complications of alcoholism.