Kiyani Carter


“Do you do commissions?”

I look up from my sketch to see a middle-aged woman marveling at one of the paintings I have on display. My legs are crossed against the creaky, wooden floorboards of the dock. I’m a bit startled by her question, having been immersed in working on my new piece uninterrupted for the past hour or so. “Uhm,” I begin attempting to answer, setting my sketchpad aside, rubbing at one of my eyes, blinking with the other one.

“Your name’s Orion? Or is that the last name?”

“First,” I answer quickly, bringing myself onto my feet. My head gestures for me when I speak. “I’m so sorry–what was your initial question, mam?”

“Why sign with the first instead of last?” she asks, ignoring me as she inspects my signature on the waterfront scene painting further.

“Just a preference, I suppose,” I answer politely, smiling at her admiration of my work.

“And what is your last name?”

“Embry,” I say, my smile tightening.

“A boy with English roots. I can see it in your facial features,” she smiles, finally looking past the painting and at me. I nod respectfully.

“You asked about a commission?”

“Yes, well,” she begins, her eyes flicking back onto the painting. “I’ve noticed you’re wonderful at painting these pastel water scenes. But you know, I’m surprised you haven’t taken inspiration from this dock itself.” She turns around, facing the body of water the wooden bridge suspends us over, backing up slightly into my workspace. “I’m not going to be staying here very long, but I wanted to be sure to bring a souvenir back to my daughter. I would buy that other one you have on display, but she likes darker colors. Do you think you could paint the dock for me? So I can take a bit of my trip home to her?”

“How long will you be staying here?” I ask, a bit desperate to get something sold.

“About a week.” I inhale sharply, although inaudibly at her response.

“I’m not sure if I could do that while keeping up with my normal routine for the same price range as the other one–”

“I don’t really care how much you need, I could pay triple the other one, I just–”

“Triple?” I ask, wondering what sort of profession allows her to spend so much on a single gift.

“We’ve settled on a price then,” she replies, smiling, shifting her body weight.

“If I make it my first priority, I can have it done for you in about two days.”

“Will you? Make it your first priority?” I pause, contemplating. Then I nod, coming to the conclusion that this would be worth more money than I can generally make in a standard two weeks.

“Two days then. I’ll be back.” I notice her deep smile lines as she grins once more at me, making a mental note of the date, holding her parasol closer to her body, walking further down the dock.

I’ve always wanted to use deeper colors, anyways. As I get to work on the commission, a deep part of me is thankful to have set my watercolors and pastels aside for a moment, pouring and mixing copious amounts of black and dark blue and grey acrylics onto my palette. It’s not typical for me to paint at the dock this late, but it would bypass the point if I were to attempt painting this from the backyard of my home as I always do. I must admit it’s more comfortable there– in my mind, I can still hear the gentle swishing of our pond, the contrast of the bright green lily pads against the murky water.

I’m frequently looking up at the sky, trying to see through the bodies of passerby as they get in my way. I have to furrow my brow to envision the deep colors that were asked of me, squinting, drowning out the colors brought out by the sun in favor of those by the rising moon. There are a few curious glances at my other paintings, still on their displays for the evening tourists, but overall, no serious inquiries. I’m more relieved than usual when I arrive home, but I leave the next day at the same time as always, working religiously on finishing the painting in time.

Luckily for me, I do. Looking down at my work, comparing it to the realistic version of the dock directly, I’m filled with an immense sense of satisfaction. Its tone is rather broody and stoney, like a Romantic-style painting minus the romanticism. Returning home on the second day gets me a few comments on the absurdity of my having black paint over my hands and clothing, but nothing else of note. I fall asleep quite excited to see the response in the morning.

I show up to the dock with greedy eyes, searching for the middle-aged woman, obsessing over the maturity of my newest painting. I even put it on display alongside the other, more joyful and serene paintings. As the woman approaches my small display corner, however, it doesn’t seem as though she shares my eagerness at the sight.

“It’s done,” I explain, reeling in my emotions.

“I’ve noticed,” she replies, glancing at the painting, which is now being held in my hands, being presented to the woman as if it were an award being photographed with me. “It’s nice,” she says. Her eyes glance to the other painting she once marveled at, then back to this one, hoping to retain the same look of wonder. She sighs. “I’m not sure this matches what I intended to–” she pauses. Looks at me. “Do you have any sisters?” she asks, as if trying to convey some sort of deep train of thought to me.

“Yes,” I answer simply, my pride having taken a hit by her obvious dissatisfaction in my work.

“Don’t you think they would be excited? If they had their last names written in the corner of every one of these paintings?” She asks again, stepping over to the same paintings I’ve had on display since she last came.

“Sure,” I answer her. “Though I don’t think my brother would. Or my father. Which is why it’s best for me to keep it ‘Orion,’ don’t you think? Plenty of artists have names for show.”

“I see,” she answers, her lips twisting into an unsure pout on her face. “I hate to have wasted your time. I’ll be back here tomorrow, though– regardless of whether you have anything new for me see, I’ll buy something. For the same price as what we agreed before.” As she walked away once more, I heard the hidden implication in her tone. If she had only wanted to compensate me, she would’ve bought something on the spot– perhaps the painting which inspired her commission. She expects something new, something better tomorrow, and for whatever reason, I’m motivated to deliver.

As I sit in the garden, I’m not very struck by inspiration. Instead, all I can think about is the small pond in front of me, it’s tranquil trickle sounds distracting me from any other ideas that come to mind. I paint the lily pads I’ve admired every time I’ve sat here, scattered in the middle of the canvas, offset by a light gray-blue pool of water with a  spiraling depth to it. I add pastel pink flowers in the corner, their petals breaking off into ripples caused by a rock– one that I personally threw into the pond myself (for science). There’s a textured, jagged (in a natural way) background to the scene resembling something you might see on the side of the cliff. I’m motivated enough to work late into the night, awarding me curious glances from my two sisters, who peer at my work through the windowsill that sits just above me– their interest attracts my brother for a few minutes as well. I pay them no mind, signing “Embry” in the corner in white paint.

When I add it to my display on the dock, the new painting is not positioned in the front or on any sort of silver platter. It’s not particularly more or less flighty or colorful than my other paintings– I’ve used pastels again. The middle-aged woman, who I later learned was named Maitland, was immediately drawn to it, though, and told me her daughter would love it. She paid as much as she had promised for it, and she asked me to attach a note to it for her daughter to read later, as if I were a modern Piccasso:

This took me quite a while to complete and find the inspiration for, but your mother was wonderful in helping me get there. Based on her description of your preferred colors, I can tell you have lovely taste. I hope you honor this painting, as it is so very special a scene to me, and my second attempt at being honorable to myself (and your mother gave it to you, of course). Have a joyful birthday.-Orion Embry

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