On The Value of Negative Space
by Ruby Walker
Poor thing, her body is all tangled in the crystal chandelier. Light flails over the ceiling as she thrashes, without thoughts but with one all-consuming desire for freedom. (In all honesty, I am making that part up. I have no idea what is in her head. But she has the same blank determination as a fish flapping in a net.) Glittering strings break and baubles fall onto the hardwood floor like frozen rain. She reminds me of some creature out of the Grotesque period! I imagine giving the tour, and even after two years I remember my script: “This artistic style featured metamorphosis, exaggerated proportions, dream-like elements, and bizarre macabre imagery.”
(I have so far retained a sharp mind in my old age. I have friends who have not. I have no idea what is in their heads, either.)
“Unnatural depictions of people, mythical creatures, and animals invoke both discomfort and pity in the viewer. Let’s take a moment to examine this fresco from 1578…”
By now, that fresco is scratched, pecked, and broken. I’m afraid even Restoration can’t do it much good. Even if it could somehow be saved, it’s useless to think about, because the entire restoration team is dead.
Her flesh glows red in front of the lightbulbs of the chandelier, translucent as the membrane of an egg. Skin hangs from her body like party streamers. She is a new one. I can tell because her wings have not fully developed. They are more like the limbs of some beast inside her, pushing out with splayed hands. She still wears a pair of black pants, but only one leather shoe.
She opens her long beak and screams. It reminds me of a heron’s beak. (That’s what I call them: herons. You call them zombies, because you like to think you’re in a movie and you like to hate them.)
Bang! You shoot her. She slumps and hangs there swaying, as if napping in a hammock.
This room has mostly avoided destruction from the herons, but one of the artworks is lying face down on the floor, and another has a scratch running across it like a checkmark. The faces of nobility, biblical figures and nameless peasants stare with painted eyes at our strange tableau: two women beneath the limp body of an angel surrounded by jewels and light. (Truly, I do think this way. Externally, looking in. It tires me out, frankly.) It could be a Renaissance composition like the grand scenes surrounding us, if not for our modern clothes and the Remington rolling block rifle in your hands. It has only one shot. We found it in storage, among other Civil War-era artifacts, and learned to use it with a YouTube tutorial before the internet went down for good.
“We should just leave her here,” I say. “She’s not bothering anyone – look darling, I can walk right under her.”
I demonstrate. My feet hit a few crystal baubles on the ground, which roll slowly. When I’m right beneath her I look up. “She’s like installation art!”
You have already reloaded your gun. You are wonderfully fast at it.
“Keys,” you announce, after a moment of intensely scrutinizing the heron’s corpse. “Look.”
One thing I have learned about you: you are a woman of few words, but they are generally good ones. I walk back to stand next to you, and look. The chandelier is still swaying, but I notice a ring of keys hanging from one of her belt loops.
“She worked here?” You say.
The heron’s hair is in her face. I run through my memories of the museum staff. “I don’t recognize her, but there are a lot of employees and I was just a volunteer. Should we get her down?”
We have hope for what lies behind locked doors: packaged treats to provide a break from canned cafeteria food, more .43 Spanish cartridges and refills of blue bathroom soap.
You reach up on your tippy-toes to grab one of her party streamers of skin. It begins to detach from her back in a sheaf slowly coming unbonded. Some of it is pink and shiny, and at certain points begins to bleed in little red slivers. We both make gagging noises for fun. Well, mine are for you. I know you are more comfortable when I pretend this doesn’t bother me.
To be frank, killing herons makes me sad. It does not make you sad though, because you think you are ridding the world of a horrible thing and putting them out of their misery. I do not think they are horrible things. Everything they do seems motivated by instinct. And I do not think they live in misery. I do not think they live in joy, either. Sometimes I try to imagine it. It is difficult.
“Who cares if it’s not their fault,” you said, on the one occasion that I explained this. “Or they’re having a good time, or whatever. They’ve ruined the world.”
I was not saying I believe killing them is wrong. I was saying killing them upsets me. But that distinction is difficult to explain. (Doesn’t our moral compass come from our feelings? If it doesn’t come from our feelings and comes from our minds instead, then is it even our moral compass, or one taught to us by other people?) I’ll leave it alone. I’m not a psychologist. Neither are you.
You have grabbed bunches of the heron’s skin and are pulling her back and forth, but she is stuck. Then the chandelier falls. I realize this too late. For a moment I wonder if it is moving, or a trick of the eye, and then it is tearing out of the ceiling, wires trailing like the roots of a tree. I see you leap backwards in a haze of plaster dust, and involuntarily I close my eyes and hunch over.
An enormous shattering. When I look again, you are already climbing into the body of the chandelier, carefully picking your way through broken glass and over its brass arms, in search of the heron and her keys.
“Are you ok?” I ask.
You do not turn to look at me. “Yep.”
You lean over the heron’s body, then jump sideways and awkwardly collide with the chandelier’s center stem. What’s happening? You fall into the glittering strings, which catch you like a net, and shriek suddenly in surprise… or is it the heron shrieking? I realize she is twitching with life. You shout something. Bang!
When you emerge from the crystal nest, the side of your pant leg is sticking to your ankle and soaked red. You are limping. You have the keys clutched in one hand.
There was nothing to say about it. I said things anyway. (Oh my god. No. Are you absolutely sure. I’m so sorry. It is going to be okay. Things like that.) You were silent. Sometimes I have no idea what is in your head.
Four days have passed since the chandelier fell, and we have found a vending machine. It is in a narrow cinderblock hallway behind a locked door in one of the staff rooms. It is preserved like a time capsule of brightly coloured brand names. Looking at your reflection in the plastic panel, you take out your ponytail, snapping the elastic onto your wrist, and pull your hair back into a neat bun. Carefully, you loosen two strands which hang on either side of your face. This is a good sign! I must keep track of how long you recognize yourself.
I know, I know. This is far too soon to be worried. Isn’t it foolish, my beautiful girl? I have begun to say your name more in conversation to make sure you don’t forget it.
You take a final look in the reflecting plastic panel of the vending machine. Then we kick it until it breaks, and stuff our pockets with snacks and relax on the floor for a while, eating potato chips.
“What a plentiful harvest,” you say brightly, licking the salt off your fingers.
Sometimes you get into a funny mood. Usually I feel like your grandmother but occasionally I feel like your friend.
We make base camp in the decorative arts collection of the Sanders Wing. To reach it from our current location we must walk through the gallery of Italic and Etruscan Antiquities. This is a safe stretch, until you pass the hallway which leads to the taxidermy collection. Then it is not so safe.
In the taxidermy collection there are birds: stuffed birds with marbles for eyes, hung on wires from the ceiling, wings spread, forever flying in one place. Beneath these, herons gather. Perhaps they mistake the stuffed birds for members of their own kind? They congregate in a frenzy there, and drag their kill to eat there. They also sleep there, standing on one leg, beak tucked down. There are rows and rows of them at all hours of the day. The floor is littered with strips of skin.
As we walk past that doorway, we are silent. We choose each step carefully. We do not dare to breathe. Herons play and nip at each other’s wings beneath the taxidermy.
You have the Remington rolling block rifle pointed in their direction. You practiced loading it over and over last night. You never fired it. We only have twelve .43 Spanish cartridges left. That’s twelve dead herons, if we’re lucky. Once I pointed out that we will soon be defenseless, and you said that we will move on to using swords from the Medieval Artifacts collection. I do not know if you were serious.
(You constantly try to make me use the gun. But we are almost always together, and you are far quicker on your feet. And you don’t mind shooting herons. I mind.)
(What is going to happen to me when you’re gone?)
(I suppose I should start practicing.)
There is something I will never tell you.
Here it is: I wish it was me.
Here is one way to say it: You are young, and I am old. I wish I could take your place, to allow you to live a long life.
I will not say that, because it isn’t true. Old people in movies are constantly sacrificing themselves, declaring that they aren’t worth as much as the younger characters. Of course I understand that, but you have to be a saint to follow through with it.
Here is another way to say it: You are young, and I am old. Before I die, I would like to live life in its purest form. Not through the lens of other people’s thoughts, or other people’s art, not even my own. The blankness inside the herons scares you, but it doesn’t scare me. They do whatever they want. They do not know they exist. They don’t have anything kept secret. You are newly forming your identity, and I am tired of mine.
I will not say that, either.
Are you still the same? I overthink everything you do. Did you always blink so rarely? I never used to count.
“What are you going to do?” You say one evening, in a casual tone, staring straight ahead at the wall.
You are cross-legged on our bed. It is a cushioned bench in the Medieval Art gallery. You sit wrapped in a blanket we found in storage, which was being used to cover an ancient statue of the Buddha.
It has been three months. I have gotten into the habit of watching you when you are not looking. From my position on the bench, I have been scrutinizing the angle of your jaw, trying to discern if your face has elongated slightly.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“What are you gonna do,” you repeat. The light from the display cases paints your face chiaroscuro style from one side, with a triangle on the opposite cheek. “You know- nevermind. Whatever, if you won’t talk about it.”
“Well, I’ll just stay here, darling, and live as we always did. I’ll see you flying around and ask you how your day was. I’ll throw you malteezers and you’ll catch them in your beak.”
You don’t answer. You are looking up at the high windows, filled with blotchy sky.
From somewhere in the museum, a noise scratches a jagged line into the silence. It sounds like a 259.1 x 304.8 cm. Minimalist painting being ripped, pulled from the wall, and thrown to the floor. Herons have an affinity for destruction, especially in the Modern Art gallery. (I understand. It’s the animal instinct.)
You’d get mad at me for saying that. You were a Drawing and Painting major in your second year, and your best friend’s artwork consisted of enormous canvasses painted all one colour with a single black line across them. As a result, you are committed to defending that sort of thing.
I wait for a moment, but nothing happens. Good. Early on, we attempted to disable the security system so that we wouldn’t have to deal with constant alarms caused by the herons’ clumsiness. Mostly, we were successful, but occasionally they go off anyway.
The grey clouds outside the windows remind me of a marble countertop. Slowly, they shift and move and darken. One thing about me: I spend time imagining things being different than they are. Throwing your head back, the world pouring into your eyes. Blue, and deep space, and the feeling of your feet on the gravel.
“Do you want to go outside?” I say, after a moment.
(I want to go outside.)
“What?” You whip around and look at me. For a moment I am reminded of the jerky head movements of a bird. “We said never. I swear, we stick our heads out the door and-”
You smack your hands together vertically, arms outstretched, miming the closing of a beak.
“No, no,” I clarify, “You could do it later on, when they would recognize you as one of them.”
“Oooohh, when I am one of them.” You shrug and lie back onto the cushioned bench, eyes closed. “I guess by then, I won’t have a choice either way. I’ll just do it, or not, without thinking about it. You know, just…”
“Sure. Sorry if this is-”
Yes. From this angle, I am sure of it. Your ears have begun to flatten back under your skin. Your chin is longer.
A little bit of fear, now. It skims through me like a stone bouncing on water. Perfect! This is how I am supposed to feel. I try to make it last. Horrified! Uncomfortable! Disturbed! But the stone sinks, and I am left wondering about the last words you will speak to me before your mouth loses its shape. I won’t know, in the moment, that they are the last. You are fading to black every single second, a tragedy so gradual that it feels like nothing at all.
This type of thinking is acceptable. Grief, though not as ideal as fear, is a valid emotion for this situation. But fascination and desire cling to the underside of my heart like barnacles to the hull of a ship. I cannot scrape them off.
(There are no right or wrong feelings for a heron. They will rip a person’s arm off and not bother to eat all of it.)
“In 1886, a painting technique called Pointillism was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, starting the Neo-Impressionist movement. As can be seen here – come up close, they’re very small – this technique consisted of tiny dots of colour which make up an image.”
That was a minor part of one of my tours. I have a soft spot for Pointillism, which I suspect you do not share. (Once I mentioned the Alex Colville print hanging above my couch, and you made a dismissive tsssss noise between your teeth.)
You haven’t made that noise in a while.
This is how I think of you now: from afar you seem like yourself, but up close I see you are made of pieces. They are disintegrating and drifting apart as the year goes on, until you are more empty space than person.
It is seven months since the chandelier fell, and we decide to wash ourselves. This can be accomplished by filling a plastic tub from a bathroom sink, standing in it, and scrubbing our bodies with blue soap from jugs we find in the storerooms. It is exceedingly awkward. You always used to say something about that: “there’s a reason they don’t mention personal hygiene in apocalypse movies”. But today as we walk into the bathroom, you are silent. You do not look in the mirror. As we fill our tubs, you stare at me as if you don’t know I can see you watching.
“Come on,” I say, turning off the tap once my tub is half full. “Let’s get undressed, yeah?”
“Yeah,” you say, an automatic response.
You do not move. Water continues to pour into your tub, nearly at the brim now. Turn it off, that’s enough!
For a long time you stare at me without blinking, and the hiss of the tap is like a carpet of noise, and the walls are empty and the mirrors are huge, and I feel like I am standing in a void. It is bright nothingness. This must be it. This must be what it’s like in your head. Water sloshes over the side of your tub, collecting in the sink. At the sound, you turn to look at it, and watch it with interest but absolutely no understanding.
I say your name, hoping it will bring you out from the negative space in your head, but you continue to stare. Negative space, in the fields of art and design, refers to the empty area around the subject. It becomes meaningful when it takes a recognizable shape of its own.
I hurry over and turn off the tap. Water is overflowing and pooling on the floor. Your eyes look like marbles. Hey, are you there? Are you there? I tap on your reflection in the mirror with my fingernails, drawing your attention with the sound. “This is you,” I say. “Look.”
You look. Skin is wrapped in strips around your neck like a gruesome scarf. Your beak is half-formed, stumpy and wide. Your eyes are widely spaced. Your wings are paper thin. Your hands… could they be called hands? I wonder if you stopped recognizing yourself because you lost your sense of identity, or because you have changed.
Oh, god. I don’t know what’s happening now. I’m undoing your braids. You did your hair one morning sitting upright on a bench, fingers moving quickly, more habit than choice. I unravel the criss-crossing strands. Your hair falls in waves as I loosen it. What I am even saying? (Come back. Oh god, I’m sorry, this is a horrible thing to want.) I wrap my arms around you, at waist height beneath your wings. (Come back. This is a horrible thing to want. Come back. I’m sorry. Do I really want this? No. No. Of course I don’t.)
I look in the mirror. It frames us in the bottom left corner, under harsh white light, and for that flash of a second I see myself with tears on my face, lovingly embracing a heron.
“Hmmm?” You say. “What’s happening? Are we going to have a bath?”
You speak so suddenly that I almost jump backwards. It appears you’ve left the negative space.
”Yes,” I say, “I was just undoing your braids.”
“Oh, sorry, that was weird, I must have gone somewhere.”
“It was only for a minute,” I lie.
Your voice sounds strange and slurred, nearly incomprehensible through the beak, but you are still able to form words.
“Ok, here’s what I’ve been thinking.” You reach up and continue where I left off, pulling locks of hair out of the pattern. “I won’t become a zombie if I’m dead. I won’t hurt anyone if I’m dead. So I should die.”
I knew you would bring this up eventually, so I say what I planned to say. Your tone is light and conversational, and I copy it, despite the skipping stone feeling that has collected at the base of my throat. “You’re right, that would probably be ethical. But don’t worry about doing it yourself.”
“Is it… ok if you do it?”
I hate this entire situation, little one. I truly do hate all of it.
“Of course. I’ll do it,” I hear myself say, and the words feel unimaginably permanent. “I’ll wait until you’re 100% gone, completely heron, and then I’ll shoot you.”
You shrug. “Ok. Thanks.”
We return to business and have a bath.
Before, in University, you liked to work with inks and thick paper. You had a special pen from Germany with a sharp nib. Now, you sit across from me with a blank sheet of printer paper and a pencil.
“Can you put one hand in your lap?”
It is eight months since the chandelier fell, and you have taken to drawing every day. Piles of pages depicting ancient Syrian statues made of clay and shell, realist landscapes from Northern Italy, intricate picture frames, and whatever else catches your fancy are stacked under our bed. Today, I am your muse. I am posing like the girl in Flaming June, relaxed on a couch with my head in the crook of my arm.
I have accepted this new habit without question, assuming it is something like a final wish: to create as much as you can before you can’t anymore. Even now, your skill is not what it used to be. Your hands are too curled to hold the pencil correctly.
“Can you just tuck your hair behind your ear?” You say. “Yeah, good.”
You make a tentative line, glancing back and forth between me and the drawing. As you dip your head down to examine your work, the tip of your beak pushes into the page and punctures a neat round hole in it. “Shit.”
“It’s Process Art,” I offer.
“I knew you were going to say that.”
You hold your pencil at an angle in front of you and draw imaginary lines in the air, tracing the slant of my arm, and then make the same mark onto the paper. It is a practiced movement you have made hundreds of times, which you will soon forget.
“Can I ask,” I say, “Why you’re doing this so much recently?”
“Mm,” you respond, focused for a moment on your work. “Uh- it’s like, I have a theory that it’ll help me stay myself for longer, because drawing is looking at the world on purpose.”
You squint at me and do a few sharp lines on the page. I endeavour to speak without moving my head. “What do you mean?”
“You know, when you draw from life… you have to pay attention to everything you see, and how to replicate it. What angle is the subject’s shoulders? What is the exact shape of her nose? How does the shadow fall beneath her lower lip, and how dark is it compared to the other shadows on her face?” You rub out something and redraw it, wiping eraser dust onto the floor. “You really have to look with your own subjective judgment of every thing, every detail. You have to be you, actively.”
“And the herons…”
“They kind of seem blank. Not really understanding anything they see.”
You go silent for a long time. I close my eyes. All I can hear is the scratch of pencil on paper, and somewhere in the distance a heron screams. I think for a moment it is you, and an image of you lunging towards me, wings spread, beak open, enters my mind. I move my hand slightly for the gun, which was on the couch, but remember you took it and put it under your chair. I do not close my eyes again.
“And,” you say, as though the conversation had never ended, “When I draw you, I’m kinda forcing myself to remember you, in a way.”
“Mmmhmmm,” I say. “I hope it works.”
It will not work. I think you know this, too.
Backlit by the orange glow of the display cases, you stand completely still on one leg. Your wings are folded around you. Your beak is tucked down. Your eyes are closed.
Silence fills the enormous, empty room around us, and the art is the only thing that is lit in the darkness. Museums are perfect at night. Whenever I brought this up, you always used to talk about some movie that was your favourite when you were a child… but you haven’t mentioned it in a while. You don’t talk a lot now.
You have begun to sleep upright. I observe you from the bed. It is my turn to be on watch duty, but I have spent most of it looking at you. You are so still, so silent, so perfect, and glowing with light that filters through your skin. If I squint I can pretend you are a stone statue, carved so finely that parts are translucent, like certain works by Bernini.
What happened? What happened? Alarms are blaring, a rolling sound of emergency. They crash again and again against my ears like waves. Excited herons join the chorus, beaks open wide, and I can hear them from every direction. You jerk awake, spreading your wings like the Nike of Samothrace, and scream so powerfully that I cover my ears on impulse.
A heron must have smashed into a piece of art in an area where we have failed to disable the security system.
“Come on!” I yell over the noise.
I watch you fade in and out of the negative space for a moment, and then you pick up the Remington from the couch.
We hurry into the gallery of Italic and a Etruscan antiques, look out! A dark shape flies over us and you shoot, Bang! Into the darkness, but miss. (The alarms always wake the herons and put them in a frenzied state of screaming and speed.) Crash! They are tumbling into the walls, and tumbling into each other. Their eyes are round as coins. Their beaks are snapping open and shut.
We are running. The alarms richoche through my brain. Are you there? Are you really there? In the darkness and the blur I cannot tell. Did you already reload the gun, so quickly that I didn’t notice? Or are you somewhere empty in your mind, holding an unloaded gun without understanding?
Another shape rears in front of us, wings outstretched. This heron is still wearing a sweatshirt from Old Navy and a digital watch. Its beak opens and for a second I am staring deep into its mouth. Its talons swipe suddenly, I close my eyes, Bang! The heron falls. Smoke feathers into the air as you pull back the hammer and slot a new cartridge into the Remington. Your hands are shaking. (Talons are not meant for this delicate movement.)
I wait for the tiny splinter of remorse I always feel when a heron dies. It doesn’t come.
The alarms are incessant. We turn and run through the hallway, into the taxidermy collection. I nearly lose my balance in a pile of skin and blood.
The security system controls are located directly beyond. I can see the door dimly, but it seems hopeless. The stuffed birds with marble eyes hang overhead, and an enormous mass of herons writhe everywhere.
Multiple herons look up and notice us. I see their coin shaped eyes find a target. Their talons click on the floor as they scurry forwards, and I turn to you. Shoot them! Shoot them! I want them to die, do you understand?
But you have dropped the gun.
You step forwards, and I’m shouting something (What are you doing!) but you stare straight ahead. You spread your wings. The herons pause. You scream, a sharp sound without words, and turn to face me. No recognition registers in your eyes. Are you there? Come back! All at once, you and the herons begin to move, and I drop to the floor, scrambling for the gun.
Stop! Please stop!
The heron that once was you lunges towards me. I raise the gun and my finger finds the trigger.
It falls with a thud, blood leaking out of its neck. The recoil is surprisingly strong, and my elbow collides hard with the floor, sending bizarre needles of pain spiraling up my arm.
There isn’t even time to be afraid. My eyes focus on the dead birds hanging above, arranged in positions to emulate flight, and then the herons obstruct my view, reeling from the gunshot. They are monstrous. Their eyes find me.
I made a plan a long time ago: if I am ever attacked, I will let it happen. That may sound odd to you. It sounds odd to me, too. But in the negative space, isn’t there freedom from thought? From goodness and badness?
I have tried to imagine this moment so many times. It is difficult.
And what is the point of defending myself? Will I not fail without you, anyway, because I am not a fast runner, and because I will soon have no more .43s for the gun?
No, no, I don’t want to be a zombie. Do you hear me? I don’t want it! I don’t!
I am crawling across the floor towards you. You lie wrapped in your wings, head at an awkward side angle. I grab a cartridge out of your jacket pocket, and in the corner of my eye I see a heron moving towards me, piercing my mind with a shriek so loud I can barely hear the alarms.
I never hated them enough. I never learned to quickly load the Remington. As I struggle with the mechanisms of the gun, searching with my fingers in the semi-darkness, I feel a talon tear into my side. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. Stop. Click. Bang! The heron screams. I reload and shoot it again. Then another heron, then another.
I stagger upright and make it to the security room just in time, slamming the door and locking it behind me. For a terrifying moment I hear them scratch at the handle. I fall into the black leather chair, panting, warm blood sticking my shirt to my body. Oh. Oh, I can’t explain anymore. I’m tired. The desktop computer takes a moment to load.
Cancel emergency system response? I click on it so many times it lags, and my mouse pointer turns into a spinning circle.
Finally, though, there is silence. The alarms cut out abruptly. I sit there for a long time. The reality of the situation swings back and forth through my heart like the pendulum of a clock. My wound stings. I breathe and bleed and think fractured, disconnected thoughts. They got me. They got me, they really did, my beautiful girl.
Sadness is rich and deep, filling my body, rising into burning tears and then dropping away. I close my eyes. It doesn’t matter! I have no choice now! Even this pain will leave me. I will fall backwards into the negative space. It’s quite nice, really.
Ruby Walker grew up in Toronto, and is currently studying Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal. She has written and directed several short films, both animated and live action, which have been accepted into international film festivals such as the Philadelphia Youth Film Festival and the Newark IFF Youth Festival. She plans to pursue storytelling in many forms, from short stories to television to fiction podcasts.