Throwback Thursday: The Girl Who Painted Death by Amy Bennett-Zendzian
Once upon a time a farmer’s wife stood looking out of her window. “If only I had a daughter with hair the color of our wheatfield,” she sighed, “I would love her, even if she could speak no more than the wind rustling through the sheaves.”
And soon enough a little girl was born to the farmer and his wife; her hair was a golden as ripened wheat, but she never made a sound. They named her Hush, and she learned to write and draw, chattering away as gaily through her scribbles and drawings as any child ever did through speech.
The girl was as pretty as a picture and as good as gold, and no one ever minded her silence, or the way she had of staring as if drinking them up. Hush drew things into herself and poured them out again in paint.
By the time she was a young maiden the farmhouse was decorated with Hush’s paintings, beautiful things that glowed as if with an inner light. But one day the farmer’s wife fell ill. Hush sat by her mother’s bedside, stroking her hand, but her mother did not respond.
Days went by, and her mother worsened. Hush and her father sat silently together as the mother’s breath slowed, and finally stopped. Hush looked up through her tears to see Death standing at the head of the bed.
But Death was not looking at her mother. He was looking at the painting behind Hush, a golden summer afternoon. Then Death looked at Hush. “There is little beauty in my home,” he said. “Come to my house, paint the most beautiful picture of your heart for me, and I will spare your mother.”
At the empty castle of Death the dead souls filed by the arched windows, silently, endlessly. Death brought paints and canvases and brushes, and gave Hush a wide dark room lit by many candles. “Paint,” he said.
Hush painted. She painted from her memory, the animals and landscapes and people she had loved every day of her life. But she felt that something was not right, and tore the canvases apart.
More paints, Hush wrote to Death. Silent, he brought pots and tubes and jars from all over the world. He bought colors she had never seen before, heavy blocks that had be ground into fine powder and mixed with water.
Hush painted. She painted from her imagination, storybook creatures and mysterious grottos and fairy lights dancing. The wondrous pigments gave her paintings an ethereal quality they had never possessed before. Yet still something was not right, and again Hush destroyed her paintings.
More candles, Hush wrote. Death brought tall white pillars and surrounded the easel with flames so that the room was as bright as noon. The souls filing by the windows shielded their eyes with their withered hands.
Hush painted. She painted from her dreams, shadowed and ominous. Her paintings were as dark as the room was light. Grim faces seemed to leer from her backgrounds, and her subjects grew strange and tormented, mouths twisted in silent screams.
She did not destroy these, but sat troubled, looking at them as they dried. Death came to look at her latest works. “You can no longer paint beauty,” he said. “You must return and I will take your mother.”
Hush raised her hands in mute despair.
“One last night,” he said.
All night Hush sat in front of her canvas. Not a single beautiful image would come; her mind was in darkness and turmoil. Finally she began painting, slowly at first but then faster and faster, as the candles burned lower. When morning came she collapsed to the floor and slept.
Death returned and looked at Hush’s final painting. It was not beautiful. It was a portrait of Death himself, and he saw that it was more terrible and magnificent than anything she had painted yet. He leaned in and looked closer, seeing himself the mirror of Hush’s despair. She had drawn him into herself and poured him out again on the canvas.
Hush awoke in her own bed, with her father and mother holding her hands on either side, crying with joy at her return. Hush squeezed her parents’ hands and smiled. But she did not understand why Death had sent her back and spared her mother when she had not fulfilled her promise.
She stood by the window, staring out at the wheatfield. As the wind rustled through the sheaves, she felt her heart lift. She picked up her brush.
Amy Bennett-Zendzian holds an MA/MFA from Simmons College and an MA from Boston University. She is a Lecturer in Writing at Boston University, where she teaches courses on fairy tales. She has published poetry in Gingerbread House Literary Magazine and the NonBinary Review, and her short plays have been produced around the Boston area.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AMANDABERGLOFF