The first time Ástridr spoke to him three things happened: he dropped his fine round number six brush into his cup of scotch-er-tea; the scotch in the cup surged over the rim and crashed like a miniature tsunami onto the blue wash on the illustration; and the third was that his heart ricocheted around his chest.
“Lord Thunderin’ Jesus,” Ástridr said, when her artist didn’t respond. In fact he just sat there clutching the neck of his sweatshirt. “Whadya go and give me a mouth like that for?”
“Um,” her creator said.
“C’mon, c’mon, you think I want to have this thin, parsimonious mouth? Be a little generous if you’re going to draw me. Give me a collagen mouth, you know, with them full plumped-up lips, Mick Jagger-like, you know. Lips you could trip over.” Ástridr blew a raspberry that seemed to indicate she might be able to fly if she had said prodigious lips.
Her creator – Eric Conner – meanwhile dabbed frantically at the spilled scotch-er-tea, considered wringing out the contents of the sponge into the cup, thought better of it and swished the sponge around in the water basin that sat beside the glass painting surface. With his other hand, he drained the contents of the cup while holding the brush firmly in place, grimaced, set cup with brush down, and then tried to repair the halo effect growing on the sheet of paper where his tea interrupted the drying of the wash. It was better, he decided, to ignore the gnome glaring at him from the illustration. Story illustrations didn’t talk. They behaved themselves, politely if you please, and remained where they were drawn, keeping critical comments about physiognomy and most especially lips silently behind color and ink.
“Oy! I’m talkin’ to you!”
Eric made a noise he thought sounded like a whimper, and turned away to the desk drawer where he was sure he had emergency libations for his empty cup. But maybe that was the problem. It was only eight of the morning and he already drained two cups of tea. Well, one and a half. But still, the point was, even his granda would have disapproved of tea before noon. After that you could drink tea till you fell down snoring on the carpet. One needed to exercise a little decorum about these things.
And there was this deadline to consider. Damn all deadlines anyway. Reluctantly, he acknowledged time had a way of expanding into a deadline. Three months now shrank to tomorrow at noon. Noon, fergawdsakes.
He glanced back to the illustration that was to be the cover piece of a national SF magazine, a Canadian one at that. This was career making. Well, okay not career making, but certainly way up the ladder from his rung.
But there was that gnome. And damn him if it weren’t standing, hands on hips, glaring up at him.
“I’m not an IT,” the gnome said. “I’m a SHE. And SHE wants better lips than this. Didn’t you read that story you’re supposed to be illustrating? Plainly not, else I wouldn’t be yammering on about these pathetic lips you’ve given me. It says right there,” she pointed in the general direction of his laptop, “paragraph three, line eight: and with full and succulent lips, Ástridr said to her foe…. Full and succulent, it says.” Ástridr pointed to her lips. “If this is your idea of full and succulent, then you need to read the dictionary. Oh right, you don’t read. You just illustrate.”
“I think I’m drunk,” Eric said. He slumped into the chair. The back ratcheted down with a rasp and a bang. “Bugger.”
“Here, give me that brush!”
Eric glanced over to the brush that still protruded from the now empty cup. He rescued it, stuck the sable end in his mouth, and sucked on it, savoring the last smoky dregs of scotch.
If he painted out the lips would the gnome stop talking?
“What you starin’ at?” Ástridr said. “You need to start rectifying this botch of a job you’ve made of me.”
No argument there. Maybe he should just erase the whole damned character; in fact just chuck the whole sheet of paper into the recycle bin.
Did the story really say Ástridr had full and succulent lips?
He swung round to the laptop and scrolled down to the passage Ástridr – was it really talking to him? – had indicated.
Yep, there it was: and with full and succulent lips, Ástridr said to her foe….
Eric took the brush out of his mouth, waggled it in clean water and sloshed a pool of madder, sienna and aureolin together on the palette. That looked luscious enough.
“Hold still,” he said to Ástridr who rampaged around the confines of two dimensions, muttering imprecations about shoddy masonry and thatch, and how her bodice should be red, not brown, and that shield should be round, instead of pointy. “You’ll end up with a smear instead of puckering petals if you don’t hold still.”
Ástridr glared at him a moment, hanging upside down on the edge of the cottage’s thatch roof, appeared to consider the proposal and decided to trust her creator to set things right. She stepped from eaves to wall to cobbled street as delicately as you please, struck her original pose and batted her eyes in what she plainly considered an inviting manner.
Eric touched the paper with the back of his hand, feeling only a dry response, which was good: otherwise the pigment on the loaded brush would bleed out over Ástridr’s face, perhaps beyond, and there’d be more to worry about than full and luscious lips. In fact, there’d be full and luscious lips for gawdknew how far.
“Hold still,” said Eric. And held the tip of the brush to Ástridr’s mouth, scribing with fine, careful sweeps the suggestion of a kisser that would rival even Angelina Jolie.
“Tickles,” said Ástridr.
“Better?” Eric asked.
Ástridr started to purse her lips when Eric shouted, “Don’t!” Ástridr froze. “Move and you’ll disturb the pigment. You don’t want your mouth running, do you?”
Ástridr gestured with her hands to indicate she would hold her face perfectly still. In the meantime, Eric wheeled away from the work table and set about pouring together a cup of tea, no additives. Tea in hand, he scrolled to the top of the story the artistic director had sent him, and set to reading The Quite Curious Tale of Ástridr Grímsdóttir. Almost from the outset the story had Eric snickering, and by the time he reached the end of Ástridr’s gnomish adventures, he wiped his eyes, catching his breath and exploding periodically into fits of giggles.
Damn that was good! Why hadn’t he read the blasted story earlier? In fact, what had given him the idea he could just skim the adventure and get enough out of that to do a proper homage to the author’s work?
He turned back to Ástridr who waited demurely on the page, lips gorgeously plump. With the back of his fingers he tested the dampness of the paper. “You can move now,” he said.
Ástridr blew a kiss. “Thanks, eh?”
“You were right, of course. I should have read the whole story. Would have saved a lot of trouble.”
“Well, it was only me lips.”
“A little more than your lips. You’re right. The thatch is shoddy and so is the masonry. Apparently you gnomes build things well. Among other things.”
Ástridr flashed him a smile. “Now you’re getting it, me boy. Saves other potential problems too.”
“How many writers have fired off incendiary letters of complaint to editors and artist both because their work has been misrepresented?”
Ah. “That too.”
“And remember, no tea until afternoon.”
Eric raised his cup to her. “No additives until afternoon.”
“And then in moderation.”
“Right.” Eric set down the cup and picked up his round six and flat ten brushes. “Let’s just get these last details washed in, let you dry a bit, ink what needs it, and get you scanned and sent off, shall we?”
“Sounds perfect. Say, maybe my author will write another tale about me, and you and I can work together again.”
Eric laughed. “That’s an occupational hazard I’d be willing to risk. Now hold still while I deepen the red of your hair….”
This story previously appeared in Neo-Opsis Magazine, Issue 25.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Over the past 40 years I’ve worked all sides of the publishing desk: journalist, ghost-writer, author, editor, publisher. I have four novels, two collections of short fiction, and three non-fiction books in publication. I co-edited with Susan MacGregor, Tesseracts Twenty-Two: Alchemy and Artifacts. In tandem with that, I’m an artist, primarily painting landscapes in watercolor, although I do venture into oils, ink, and pencil. Apparently I also get my hands dirty in the garden. I can be found at Five Rivers Publishing.