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Second-Place Fall Contest Winner: “Safety Yellow”

It is BEYOND annoying to have your comadres on your back, nagging and commenting on every little thing. My comadres, or godmothers, are little angels, whispering in my ear, day and night. I didn’t grow up in a large family. I just had my hard-working Mamacita. That means no meddling relatives or overbearing fathers, right? But you see, although they may be invisible, my comadres are mighty.

     “Do your homework!” they pester.

     “Pick up your room!” they chorus.

     “Watch her, she’s a bad girl.  Stay away from her!”

     “Eat more.”  “No, eat less.”  “No, eat that!”  “No boys!”

     My comadres are more than just angels.  They have a unique magic of their own.  When I was little, I thought of my comadres as playmates because they shepherded me through the long afternoons when Mamacita was away at work.  From them, I learned to cook and read and draw and do math.  Eventually, I learned more advanced lessons such as how to balance Mamacita’s checkbook and deal with the school and the bank and the INS. When Mamacita tried to bring home a man, the angels would tell me how to scare him away by putting yellow sand in his shoes or in his food so that he would disappear.  


     As I grew older, the comadres began to annoy me.  They warned me against boys or nagged me away from making friends at school.  When I turned twelve, I started to argue back when they told me to look both ways before crossing the street.  I’d shrug my shoulders or swat at them, but they’d never stop their harangues.

     Against their strident advice, I began hanging out at the school’s art studio.  I discovered that when I did art, I could push aside the comadres’ hectoring voices about what to draw and how to feel so that by the time I was ready for college, ignoring them completely came easily.  Instead of voices, they now sounded like waves breaking on the sand:  ever present, noisy, but calming in their way, more like background noise, white noise.

      In the studio classroom, I wielded the tools of the artist with growing assurance.  Many days happily passed while applying paint and chalk and pencil, producing canvas after canvas, hardly eating or sleeping.  I painted many subjects and experimented with many styles.  Favorite subjects were of children and pets posing like Renaissance figures crossed with the iconography of ancient Mexico.  For instance, a Chihuahua might sit with a ruff around his neck, next to a classic column with drapery in the background–only the Chihuahua has a third eye and grips the Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Sun in his teeth.  Or I painted an indigenous girl dressed as an Edwardian child with a cornhusk doll in her dark hands, amidst a garden of cultivated flowers and a saguaro cactus draped with pearls against the backdrop of the dormant volcano Popocatepetl.  Or a boy dressed as a Napoleonic soldier, standing in a nursery, an adobe dollhouse in the background and a monkey on his shoulder.  In my work, I aimed for incongruity, scratching fingernails across the blackboard of colonial domination, making the wincing viewer look twice and think twice.

      Those crazy comadres sometimes turned against my art.  Since I’d learned to tune their voices out, they retaliated by smearing my palette with yellow or knocking over jars filled with brushes. Many canvases were pelted with yellow dust while they chanted that I was never going to amount to anything as a painter, that I should pursue accounting or medicine.  

      Their words slid off my brush and flowed onto the canvas where they appeared as tiny yellow bubbles, which I popped, their power disappearing, burst by burst, like foam in surf.

      Thanks to a professor, my work caught the eye of a dealer in the city.  She invited me and a few other students to bring our works to her gallery for a show.  Mamacita was dead by this point, so I dressed to please myself.  I wore a flounced yellow dress and put an orchid in my hair.  Too risqué, the comadres intoned.  They were duly ignored.

     The gallery was long and white and cool; it smelled of freshly cut wood and wet stone.  Waiters in black walked around with silver trays of champagne.  I sipped from a flute and wandered amongst the works, mingling with other artists and their families, and enjoying the accolades as my work was lauded as best in the show. Take that, I silently told my comadres.  


     One man, with wavy black hair, stood up close in front of one of my paintings, hungrily studying it.  I approached him and he turned, beaming a smile of white even teeth, offering his paint-spattered hand.  When he said his name, my heart leapt to my throat constricting my voice, flooding my brain—I recognized his name:  he was a master of some fame.  He’d heard of my work from his former teacher, my professor.  I experienced two powerful but opposing forces:  roaring, gripping passion and shrill voices of warning.  Stay away, my comadres shrieked.  Yellow flowers blossomed in my periphery, but I’d learned by now to blink them away.

      Naturally, I was young and beautiful and, I thought, accomplished.  The famous artist and I fell into deep conversation.  He quizzed me on my influences, techniques and ideas.  The crowd ebbed and soon we were finishing off the dregs of champagne, his arm around my shoulder.  My brain was alive with his attention and I fantasized about a future of collaboration and romantic fulfillment.

     As the waiters cleared away the party, I went with the famous artist to his studio, a loft in an industrial area, the very image of the working artist’s milieu.  He slid aside a giant metal door and I beheld a professional artist’s studio.  Stacked with canvases, dotted with easels of various sizes, ladders and long tables loaded with props and drapery hanging here and there against cinderblock walls.  In the center of the room, as I later learned from historical photographs, stood the famous chaise lounge, a piece of furniture that figured in many portraits, both by the artist, himself, and his father.


     I draped myself there where so many others had draped themselves before.  Would I become his muse?  Would I be painted in this place? Would he and I paint together?  Would our collaborations rock the ages? My imagination tumbled wildly.

     The artist poured me a drink from a crystal bottle and, with a practiced flourish, he offered it to me. As he stood next to an easel and watched, I swallowed in one gulp and turned to him, ready for a night of mutual pleasure, despite the rapidly ascending voices of my comadres.

      Suddenly, I felt my limbs turn to wood.  My mouth dried.  My heart grew faint, flitting away like a butterfly.  My lids began to droop.  A cacophony of voices shrilled behind my eyes, yellow bloomed and spread from my periphery, flooding my vision, dripping down my cheeks, seeping through my pores.

     At first, the artist observed me from his position at the easel.  As I stilled, he walked over and casually lifted my arm then let it fall.  Through the yellow scrim, I watched him circle the chaise lounge, stroking his chin, eyeing me with some kind of wild fury.  When he pounced, he tried to part my legs, and made to push up the yellow flounced dress.  When that didn’t yield, he leaned over and pulled at my bodice.  It didn’t budge.  Lightly, lightly, streaks of yellow came away on his hands, which he stared at, bewildered.  Again, he tried to raise the dress, more impatiently, he pulled at my arms and legs and because they were wood, they didn’t comply and I watched him grow alarmed as the color on his hands grew bright, bright as safety yellow.


     The artist pulled at his hair, leaving yellow streaks on black.  He groaned and gnashed his teeth, alternatively wiping his hands and yanking at the skirt of my dress.  All this I watched from a deep place, fully awake but unable to talk, move, defend myself.   Yellow was everywhere.  Moaning and shouting in despair, the artist grabbed a can of kerosene and desperately wiped the yellow, only to see it spread and deepen.


     Eventually, I could see without a yellow scrim.  I felt my body grow limber.  My mouth wanted water, my eyes were dry, my head throbbed. As I sat up, yellow powder sifted from my bodice and hair.  I shook it off my hands and felt for my shoes, all the while looking at the artist lying on the floor, naked and covered with yellow paint.  Yellow-streaked brushes and tubes of paint lay scattered about.  He reeked of kerosene and paint thinner.  I nudged him with my big toe but he just muttered and turned over. My lip curled in disgust.  I walked over to the canvas on the easel, which was blank.  I walked to the wall of stacked canvases and flipped through them.  They were derivative of his father, not an original one in the bunch.  

     As I slid the metal door in its track, I looked back at the scene of my attempted rape and snorted.


     Many years passed.  As you know, I did not become a famous artist.  Instead, I worked as curator and eventually became a director of a famous museum.  I rejoice in the discovery of new artists, while preserving and revering the old masters.  Occasionally, I paint for myself.


     A young curator came into the museum with an idea of pursuing some lost masters, including on her list the name of my aspiring rapist.  I cocked my head at the sight of his name, but coolly approved the list.   In memory of my old professor, I financed the old gallery to show the local unknowns alongside famous artists, a dubious enough move on my part, I admit, but I was curious to see what my attacker had accomplished in the years since our parting; I’d heard nothing of him since.  Before the show opened, I asked for the program and raised my eyebrow when I saw his name was missing.  

     What happened?  I wondered.

     That is how I came to travel down to the old industrial district and knock on a metal door, which slid back on its track to reveal a reedy woman with wild eyes.  She was, she said, the widow; once a muse and the last person to see the artist alive.  

     “Where is his life’s work?” I asked.  

     She wearily gestured across the room toward a stack of canvases against the wall.  I flipped through them.  They were the same ones I’d seen that night so long ago.  

     “Where are the others?” I asked. For there had to be more.

     She paused.  Then she pointed to a curtained-off area and there stood another stack of canvases.  These were all covered in yellow paint.  Safety Yellow.  

     “He just couldn’t get that color out of his mind.  He never painted anything but that.” She paused, as if the very thought was painful, “He agonized over these canvases and they were just yellow on top of yellow.”

     I picked up one canvas and held it to the light. I peered closely at the brush strokes. Only after a moment passed, could I make out a faint outline of a chaise lounge and a pair of legs sticking out from a draped dress, all smeared in more yellow. Was I just imagining things?  I looked at another canvas and another and there I was, time and time again, a pair of naked ankles, covered demurely with a yellow dress, flounces clearly rendered, hints of a bodice, face obscured.   

     “This is it?”  I asked.

     The widow nodded, her face grimly set. “It’s all he could do.”

     I smiled.  And the comadres sang a triumphant chorus of hallelujah.


Author Lisa Leyenda on “Safety Yellow:”

This story of comeuppance assisted by magic realism has its roots in the real life experiences of many people who are drugged and then sexually assaulted.  I wondered what would happen if a male artist, who is past his prime, decides to steal a younger female’s ideas, and then assaults her to boot?  What would be that younger artist’s ultimate revenge?  We all know legal systems don’t work well for rape victims, so what if all victims had magical guardians like the ones in the story? I suppose I could have had the male artist raped in prison, but using the color Safety Yellow in the form of a magical powder as revenge seemed more lyrical and, frankly, literary. My influences, aside from reality, include my father’s fellow countryman Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who I read early and read often, as well as Laura Esquivel, whose “Like Water For Chocolate” left me breathless and yearning to be a writer.