She would paint in blood, she thought: arc her claws outwards and inwards, drawing canyons through splitting skin, leading the flood of scarlet towards gravity’s sucking mouth until the drops burst like over-ripe melons upon the floorboards.
Her favorite paint was sun-yellow, the color of the flowering weeds that crowded against the sidewalks and pressed upwards against faded brick walls. The paint was thick and took days to dry when she pasted it onto canvas, smearing her padded fingertips across off-white stitching, singing nonsense songs in the back of her furred throat.
A Failed Experiment, they called her, not sure if she could understand the words but certainly not caring enough to hush their melodic, machinae voices. She only tensed her haunches until they cramped, careful not to let them see any tremors in her thin arms, in her sweeping hands stained a cheerful gold. Her ears never fell so much as a single degree. She knew the cameras were there, even when her masters were not.
When the yellow dried in its myriad patterns, she dipped a curving clawtip in primary blue and etched scenes into her sunlit setting. Never figures, not even objects – those could be interpreted, analyzed, used against her – but only symbols. She created a set of characters that meant other things, and she knew she was making language under her masters’ disinterested eyes, but without a reaction from them, she did not know if this was a surprise or the lowest possible achievement.
A new person came in, as occasionally happened, and she ignored every sign of presence, outwardly enthralled by the incomprehensible marks she made on oil-caked canvas. But a faint clicking sound reached her keen still ears, and though the lighting in her single room never changed, the entire atmosphere lurched with a sudden difference. She didn’t let herself pause in her painting, but every molecule of her being strained to identify what had stopped, what had come into being– strained so hard that the person coming to stand over her was not noticed until its shadow blocked the light on her immature, ungrown art.
She looked up, fingers ceasing, and in the silence left by her stillness, she realized that a soft whirring that had underlaid her entire reality to date had gone away. The space she was in felt colder and bigger and bleaker for the lack.
The person stretched its face wide and did not show teeth, gentled its staring eyes by half-closing them. Hello, it said. How Are You.
She stared at its mouth, at its rubbery lips and distinct lack of whiskers. She watched it with all the fascination a curious animal can give to things that move in a world that is otherwise motionless. She knew this game.
But the person knelt, bringing itself to the ground and to her level. I Like Your Art, it told her slowly, enunciating the words. The notes of its voice slipped from pitch to pitch like a slide whistle, like a siren approaching and then receding. She remembered what those things were like, from the early days when they thought she was still worth teaching. She kept watching its mouth, but her eyes flicked away when it moved a hand towards the glistening canvas and its symbols.
I Think I Know What This Says, the person whispered, mouth forming the syllables awkwardly around its binary-regular breath. This One, it pointed a flat, squared fingertip to the first symbol she’d etched, Means Frustration. This One, it continued, moving to the symbol opposite the first, Means Outside.
She wasn’t sure what to do. The person wasn’t completely correct, but it wasn’t completely wrong, either. Perhaps it was guessing, wanting to see if she would react and be lured out into confessing her craft. Would she be rewarded or punished if she admitted? Or if she corrected it?
She stared at its hand, then gave a perfunctory low growl when its finger clumsily smudged part of the thick paint. The person did not shout at her for the warning noise, like some of the other masters did; it simply drew its hand back and tucked it against its lean, suited torso. Its skin was grey against the grey of its clothing, but the spot of sun-yellow stood out brightly, a trophy, a scar.
The person extended its other hand, slowly and steadily, soft palm upwards and fingers closed flat like a plank. Can You Say Anything Anymore? it asked, still whispering, still hard to understand without its voice powering its breath. I Saw Tapes Of Your Younger Days. You Were Like A Little Parrot. You Tried So Hard.
She watched its hand, glancing up to its strange dark eyes briefly, then to its half-curled mouth, then back to its waiting palm. Her ears quivered with uncertainty, with the effort required to hold them aloft and unresponsive. Her whiskers tingled, electrified by the nearness of the person.
Neither of them moved, and she got tired of waiting, her inner reserves no longer lasting more than a few minutes of company. She reached out a paint-soaked hand, the yellow so common on her skin that the blood in her fingers was surely colored like sun, and drew a tiny symbol on the person’s palm. She was very careful not to use her claws, only touching the blunt overcurve against the wrinkled skin.
The person looked down. Hello, it said thoughtfully. I Think This Means Hello.
It did, but she didn’t give any indication of it, watching the person lip its words like a horse might lap up an apple in bites. The base of her ears was sore with straining. She was tired of the game now and wanted to be done with it, so she uncurled her lithe body and stood, bounce-balanced on the balls of her claw-toed feet, half a tail making half a circle behind her thighs. Even standing while the person crouched, she was not much taller, the top of its gleaming scalp even with her heart.
Thank You, the person told her, looking from her face to her canvas to its palm again. Would You Like Me To Come Back Again?
She didn’t respond, moving away in a crescent, never fully turning her back on the person. The silence in the room was echoing without the familiar, almost cozy buffer of the whirring machines.
When I Am Here, the person said, I Will Make Sure They Keep The Cameras Off.
One ear twitched like a fragile bone snapping, nerves flushing with blood as it turned to face its listening cup to the person. Her eyes followed her ear, and she stared at the person with its stretchy mouth and dark gaze and did not know what to do.
The person stretched its mouth more, like an upside-down horizon. I Thought You Might Like That, it said softly, placing its hands on its slackclothed knees and standing stiffly. She wondered if she only imagined the faint whine of gears and old joints in the base of its spine. I Will Be Back, it said, nearly dusting its legs off before remembering the bright paint on its finger. It looked curiously at the yellow stain. Be Well, it finally said, turning to leave the room.
As the door sealed shut behind the person, the background whirr of machines slowly spiraled into hearing, an incoming helicopter whose sole purpose was to watch her with all its encircling eyes.
She walked back to the painting, straightened her skewed ear, and dipped her fingers in the color of the sun.