Fantasy brain tumor strange new worlds Muses imagination

A Hole in Her Head

By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Apr 27, 2021 · 10,088 words · 37 minutes

Artwork by Tristan Eaton

Photo by Mike Von via Unsplash.

From the author: Art imitates life. In 1992 I had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. The scene in ICU with the Dr. Tso is real (though the name is not) and almost word for word, except that my doc had a gaggle of med students with him. I also really did fall madly in love with James Earl Jones's voice. I love it to this day. I did not lose the Muse when the tumor was removed. I did, however, develop a sudden and deep love of baseball. My head sloshed and went popple, popple, popple for roughly two years.


Saffron bled to fire, bled to the color of a rising star, of the rising moon, of the sky at sunset, at dusk, at midnight. Indigo. 

Here, fire again, there a cascade of alien water—star color, moon color, indigo. Stroke upon stroke. 

Swiftly, softly, racing the pain. Indigo, saffron, fire, star color, moon color, twilight, indigo. Stroke upon stroke. Racing. 

Stroke...pause...stroke.

Karin laid the brush in the tray and sat back to look at the finished canvas. The brush, set down, would not be picked up again. The piece was finished, she knew it in a rush of exultation; today she had won the race. 

She breathed in contentment and breathed out satisfaction and, in that exalted state, selected a fine sable brush, dipped it in thinner and rolled it in a small dab of alizarin crimson. Her eyes found the place she would set her signature—more of a seal, really—Krneson. She touched the brush to the wet canvas. 

Colors blurred and ran beneath her eyes. The pigments seemed to dance, to wriggle to change hue and form. 

Dammit! Not again. 

Karin set the brush back in the tray and climbed gingerly from the stool. She had taken no more than two steps when the vertigo hit. Crossing the studio was a challenge; she was weightless, her head pulling her toward the ceiling like a helium-filled balloon. She concentrated on each step, on putting each foot firmly flat on the floor, lest she float away in a moment of inattention.

The kitchen; she must reach it before the aura shattered under a bolt of pain. 

She supported herself on the kitchen counter as far as the coffeepot, then leaned against it as she poured out the elixir. The carafe trembled in her hands, chattered against her mug. Its gleaming sides reflected a distorted portrait of anxiety—over-large eyes, furrowed brow, pale flesh.

Karin nearly gulped the coffee, barely noticing the heat. She was already rummaging in the cabinet above the counter for the second ingredient in the preventive spell. Her hand toppled the plastic bottle of ibuprofen off the shelf, made a belated attempt to catch it. Slow motion—her eyes followed the bottle to the counter. She waited till it had stopped moving to capture it, but was barely able to hold on. It took so long to finally get the medicine to her mouth, she was amazed that only two minutes had passed since the first warning wave of vertigo.

She swallowed the ibuprofen, praying her ministrations would be in time. They weren’t. A blade of pain sliced between the hemispheres of her brain, nearly forcing her to the floor. 

Karin crawled to her bedroom on hands and knees, feeling as if a lead weight pressed her head inexorably downward. She closed her shades against the wicked light, her door against the shock waves generated by the pendulum of the antique wall clock in the studio. Then, she lay down with infinite care and slept, exhausted.

She woke disoriented. Senses flickered on gradually—flesh told her it was cool, ears and nose announced that it rained. But her eyes refused to divulge whether it was morning or evening; the watery light creeping in about the shades was anonymous.

She moved her head gingerly. There was no vengeful shriek of pain. That happy fact encouraged her to turn her head to catch a glimpse of her bedside clock. 7:12. AM or PM? She squinted at the clock face. PM. 

She was going to be late for her own opening. She catapulted out of bed. 

Fifteen minutes later, showered and dressed, she grabbed her fanny pack and stepped out of her apartment into the hallway, where she tripped over two newspapers. She picked them up, barely glancing at them as she aimed them back through the door. Words caught her eyes—not headlines, but dates: Wednesday, October 16 and Thursday, October 17.

It was Thursday, October 17—7:30 PM. She was late for her opening all right—an entire day late. 

She called her agent first, noticing as she did that the message light on her answering machine was blinking wildly.

“Karin! Where the hell have you been? My God, I was afraid you were dead. I tried to file a missing persons report this afternoon, but the police wouldn’t let me. They said you hadn’t been missing long enough. Jesus—can you believe that? As if an artist would miss her first major opening if there wasn’t—Karin, what the hell happened? Where were you?”

The flood of words, delivered without a breath in between, finally ceased.

“Asleep,” Karin said and felt silly. She could feel silly now that the pain was gone.

“Asleep. But I pounded on your door for... You slept through your own-?“

“Yes, Rachel.” 

“Your first major gallery- “

“I know, Rachel.” 

Frustrated silence made static on the line. 

“How did it go?” Karin asked.

“It...it was fabulous. Better than even I expected. Toby is ecstatic because the critics will say he discovered you, you’ll get some great reviews, some bemused reviews and at least one, ‘I don’t get it—is this woman the reincarnation of Roger Dean?’”

“They’re nothing like-“

“Tell Mark Kellen that—and good luck.”

“Did...did we sell anything?”

Rachel chuckled. “Do you want the quantity or dollar amount?”

Karin held her breath. “I don’t care, whichever.”

“Oh, you’re no fun. You sold five of the eight. You are now $68,000 richer.”

“Sixty-eight...? I didn’t have anything priced-“

“The big one—‘Quest for Fire’—went in a positively torrid auction.”

“Auction?” Karin shook her head. “I don’t...“

“Two art lovers collided like bull rams, checkbooks drawn and blazing. It went for $20,000.”

“Oh, my.” Laughter bubbled out of Karin’s throat, born of elation and carried upward on absurdity. “Rachel Cowan, was that supposed to be a metaphor?”

“I have a check. Shall I bring it over?”

Unease punctured Karin’s elation. “So you can check up on me?”

There was a moment of silence. “Karin.” Rachel’s voice was entirely without humor. “I’m worried about you—can you blame me? You haven’t exactly been yourself lately.”

Waiting for Rachel to arrive, Karin considered that irony. Not herself. Inescapably true, and nothing testified more eloquently to that than the paintings she had just sold and the new one that sat on its easel in the studio.

She wandered over to it, turning on the studio lamps. The soft light washed over the canvas, bringing the colors to life. It was like switching on the lights in another universe. Up close, you might mistake it for a spacescape, but one without planets. A step back and you could imagine a sleeping landscape, but the colors—the vivid, fiery, midnight colors—belied that. Back another step or two and you looked at a cityscape. But what you might take as a thousand tiny lights, glinting from a thousand windows and strung down long boulevards, resided in buildings without angles and avenues that possessed no straight lines. Back up yet another step and a face came almost into focus, coalescing from the city streets, the hills and valleys, the star-stuff. It peered out of a canvas in which it did not live and into which Karin could not say she had consciously painted it.

The paintings she had just sold had been similar, though they showed other landscapes, other faces. She thought of them as soulscapes. They captivated her, drew her in and pushed her away until she found herself on a pilgrimage, circumambulating the object of veneration, trying to comprehend her fascination with it. And they seemed to have the same effect on others. 

They were not like her previous paintings—the ones critics had found uniformly pleasant, but unexceptional and unevocative. 'Likable' was the kindest word an art critic had used to describe her former work. It had sold in extremely modest amounts and for equally modest prices to people intent on matching a particular décor or color scheme. It was artfully framed wallpaper. 

Her newer work demanded attention, evoked strong emotion in the viewer—and in herself. It had also begun to evoke these hellish headaches. Each new piece was a race with agony. And the agony stole her coordination, her coherence, and now, her time.

No, she was not herself. And yet, when she was creating this new art, she was bringing to light things she suspected were painted in her very soul. Didn't that mean she was more herself?

She was. Oh, yes, she was. 

Tears welled and blurred the new soulscape. Worth it. Worth the pain. She wondered if pain wasn’t a part of the process—as necessary to it as brushes, paint, or canvas. She knew it drove her. She suspected it made her work immediate, fierce, clean, and free from self-analysis or critique.

She tended to over-analysis, she knew—both of herself and her art. A mentor had once chided her for her sometimes-tentative approach to the canvas: "For God's sake, Karin, embrace the Muse, don't give her a polite peck on the cheek!"

"I'm being careful," Karin had told him. 

"Bullshit. You're not careful; you're ambivalent. Great art is never ambivalent."

When she'd whined to a writer friend about how difficult it was to shed that ambivalence, he'd told her, “While you’re creating, don’t edit. Don’t even think. Just feel the work.”

Because of the pain, she'd had to take that advice to heart. It was only a step or two behind her from the moment the first torrid rush of inspiration sent her scurrying for a fresh canvas. She heard its footsteps after every brush stroke. 

She had not analyzed this mysterious gift beyond noting that there had not been any catalytic moment from which the change dated. There had been no moment of epiphany save the initial inspiration that had driven her to paint her first soulscape. It had simply emerged from her, replacing the mundane with the original.

When Rachel arrived with her check, Karin was sipping coffee and staring at a blank canvas, waiting for the moment to occur when she would pick up palette and brush and dive into her work.

“You see, I’m fine,” she said. “I got lots of sleep. I feel great.”

Rachel nodded, skeptical. “Fine. If you’re fine, why did you sleep for two days?”

“It was less than twenty-four hours, Rachel. I had just finished a long stint at the easel. I had a migraine. I needed the sleep.”

“You could have set your alarm.”

“I had no reason to think I wouldn’t wake up at a reasonable time.”

“You missed your opening.”

“There’ll be others, won’t there?” She was confident. No, she was pleading, begging the continued indulgence of her Muse.

“If you keep painting, you’ll have more openings.” Rachel strolled over to the newest canvas, drying on its easel. “Oh, by the way, the disappointed art buyer would like to talk to you about a commission. Is this the new one?” She shivered visibly as if someone had tickled her with a feather. “Eerie. Sometimes you scare me.”

Sometimes I scare myself, Karin thought. Aloud she said, “A commission? I’m not sure I...I’ve never painted anything to order, Rache. I just do what I do.”

“And Jackson Waterhouse likes what you do very much. We might show him this one. It’s nearly as large a canvas as ‘Quest for Fire’ and has similar light play.” 

Karin moved to stand next to her. “What if he doesn’t like this one?” 

Rachel’s tone became slightly condescending, as if she spoke to a child. “Then we’ll discuss the terms of a commission. Look, Karin, I know you’ve never done a painting on demand, but I can assure you, Jack Waterhouse is not going to dictate content or composition.”

Karin laughed. “Of course not. I’m just going paranoid, I've heard other artists-“

“Sure. Artists who paint landscapes or portraits or stilllifes and therefore get asked to paint someone’s favorite wife holding a pineapple in front of the view from their Aspen ski lodge.” Rachel put a hand on her shoulder. “You don't do wallpaper any more, Karin. You do...something unique. Can I ask you something?” She didn’t wait for an answer, of course, the preliminary question was rhetorical. “What made you change your style so radically?”

She had done enough thinking about that to have a ready answer. “Nothing made me change. I just reached down a little deeper. Tired of painting pieces of décor, I guess.” As she said it, she felt an insistent tug at her imagination. Her pulse quickened. “Look, Rache, I’m feeling a bit of inspiration coming on.” She gestured toward the pristine canvas, hoping Rachel would get it and excuse herself. 

“Go right ahead,” she said. “Don’t mind me, I’ll just pull up a cup of java and watch... Good Lord, don't look so stricken. I’ve watched you paint before.”

Karin dog-paddled mentally. “Not since-“ popped out of her mouth before she could stop it.

Rachel, being Rachel, understood the situation better than even Karin did. She fixed her with a cool, dark gaze and said, “I will leave if you want me too. But let me just say that the fact that you have turned out nearly two dozen great paintings and are about to roar off another would seem to indicate that your talent is not some fragile bit of luck that’s going to evaporate if someone breathes on it. It’s not made of gossamer and neither are you. Now, having said that..." She picked up her purse from the divan in the living room.

Karin smiled sheepishly. “Rachel, you’re too astute. Please. Stay.”

“You’re sure?” The purse slipped back to the divan.

“Sure. Make yourself at home.” She was already in motion, gathering up her palette and pigments. Already images were beginning to form in her head—like a doorway opening, letting in light, shape, even sound, she realized. She was enveloped in it, imagining a stroll through a jungle dense with birdsong—at once familiar and alien.

Her hands shook slightly as she set up her palette, automatically picking colors. The strange bird voices swelled. She almost could see them—blurs of color as glimpsed through a slightly distorted lens. She loaded her brush together and began to paint.

The jungle was velvet-dark and flame-bright. Arching trees wore lush colors Karin couldn’t name. She scrabbled among the pigments, only half watching her hands. Her eyes were on the jungle; her heart was in the jungle. Above, a sky dappled through waving foliage. It was not a blue sky; it was a hue only dreamed of as sky—a creamy lavender. 

Flashes of bright color snatched at Karin’s eyes, led them on merry chases into shadows. She was gliding down a path, slipping between branches, could almost feel the soft slip of foliage against her skin. Almost, because there was yet the sensation of being a camera lens, of peering through a window into another place. She swept the camera here, there, her brush moving with a whisper of sound over the canvas. The scene she painted had captured her completely. It seemed to live, to breathe, to move, to beckon. She breathed and smelled, not turpentine, but growing green. The scene shimmered and rippled.

Then, with a suddenness that caught her breath in her throat, Karin looked into what could only be a face, though it resembled no face she had ever seen in life. It was a part of the jungle, or was superimposed on it, or was hiding in the very fabric of it. Then it fled, morphing into a fleeting blur that tucked itself neatly into the blue shadows. 

Karin followed.

For a while, she was vaguely aware of Rachel's movement around her, but the painting subsumed that. She was in pursuit of the face, thinking only of capturing it with her brush. When it ceased to withdraw and allowed approach, she was ready, deftly picking up a new brush and loading it with fresh pigment. It seemed to her, now, that the face wanted to be captured.

A face, she called it, but it was neither human nor animal. There was expression in the pale, smooth oval. She wanted to capture that too—was it sadness, fear, loneliness—what?

"Hello," she said. "What can you tell me about this place, hm? What's your story?"

She had no sooner said the words than she was flooded with a wistfulness that hovered on the verge of sorrow. She applied it to the canvas. The face and its anxious gaze were swiftly fixed and Karin, caught up in the moment, realized that all distinction between her vision and the canvas had been lost.

She couldn't sign this, she thought. She had not created it, but merely copied it from life. She lowered her brush to consider her next move. The face receded into the abstract jungle. She cried out in disappointment.

Behind her, Rachel asked, "Karin, what's wrong?" and she was distracted.

The pain was swift. It drove Karin to the floor with the force of tornado's breath; she had no time to even think of the bottle of ibuprofen or the carafe of coffee. She heard Rachel cry her name and the sound of breaking glass and she was gone. 

Down the rabbit hole. 

She awoke in the pastel confines of a hospital room. IV tubes snaked from her left arm and hand. She felt light, insubstantial, hollowed out. If it were not for the carefully tucked bed clothes she might have floated away, or at least bobbed to the ceiling, where encountering the air-conditioning vent, she might escape.

The Jungle was gone, consigned to memory and canvas. The wretched pain was gone with it.

"You're awake!" Rachel, rising wraithlike from a bedside chair, might have startled her, had she the capacity to be startled.

"Hi," she croaked, smiled stupidly and added, "Ribbet."

Rachel didn't return the smile. "This has happened before, hasn't it? This is why you missed your Garfield's opening, isn't it? For God's sake, Karin, what's wrong with you?"

Karin rolled her eyes. They hurt. "Just migraines."

"Migraines? Dear God, I thought you'd had a-a seizure or a stroke or an aneurysm or-" 

"Get the picture." Karin turned her head toward the inevitable bed tray. "Water?"

Rachel handed her the water in its baby puke yellow sipper cup and disappeared into the corridor. She reappeared with a Dr. Cain who let loose a volley of questions. How long had she had the headaches? How often did they occur? Had she noticed a pattern—was there a particular thing that seemed to trigger them?

"A pattern?" Karin repeated.

"For example, do they occur just before your period or when you eat chocolate?"

"Good Lord, I should hope not. I eat a lot of chocolate."

Dr. Cain smiled. Good bedside manner. Kind, open face. 

Karin decided to tell him the truth no matter how crazy it sounded. "They happen every time I finish a painting."

Dr. Cain's eyebrows rose. "Really?" He studied her for a moment, then made a note in her chart. 

"You didn't finish the last one," Rachel observed. "You froze up like a statue. You didn't move until I touched you. Then you cried, 'Oh, no!' and collapsed."

Karin remembered. "The face was fading. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to finish it."

"The face?" Dr. Cain asked.

Karin felt her cheeks flush. "Did I say 'face'? I meant mood. The mood was fading. The inspiration."

"And when the mood snapped, the migraine came on?"

"Yes."

"Just before it hit, was your vision affected in any way?"

"What do you mean?"

"Was there...a strobing effect, tunnel vision, anything like that?"

The Jungle filled Karin's mind. "Mosaic," she murmured.

"Excuse me?"

"It was like looking at a stained glass window or a mosaic. The canvas seemed to crack, shatter."

More notes scratched across her chart.

"Is that significant?" she asked.

"It may be. I won't know until we've run some tests. I'd like to schedule you for an MRI."

"A what?" Rachel asked, looking devastated.

"They want to take pictures of my brain," said Karin and the doctor nodded.

"Magnetic Resonance Imaging," he said. "It will show us if there's anything in there we need to be concerned about."

Rachel's hand came to her throat. "What sort of anything?" 

Karin noted wryly that she was taking this a whole lot better than Rachel was.

"A tumor, swelling, something of that nature," the doctor explained.

"My God," Rachel murmured.

Dr. Cain laid a comforting hand on her arm. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Ms. Cowan. I suggest you reserve judgment until the tests are complete and analyzed. That's what I'm going to do."

The MRI was an interesting experience that made Karin glad she wasn't claustrophobic. She lay within a huge metal cylinder that was more like a casket than she cared to think about, while a hundred rhythmically challenged native drummers soloed wildly to different music. 

A mirror inside the cylinder allowed her feeble contact with the outside world; she watched Dr. Cain and a technician poring over their computer screens. The crawling light from the screens made it impossible for Karin to read those faces for clues. When Dr. Cain pointed, was it at something insidious in her head? When he spoke, was he diagnosing a tumor or was he just commenting on last night's episode of ER?

"The tumor appears to be benign," said Dr. Cain.

Only at the point of relaxation did Karin realize how wound up she'd been. She let out the breath she'd been holding and sagged back into the chair she'd taken in Dr. Cain's office. Seated next to her, Rachel echoed the motion.

Karin followed the tip of Cain's pen with her eyes, followed it to the backlit negative, to the bright, perfect ball of light that sat just inside the crown of her skull like a supremely well-hidden Easter egg.

"It lies exactly between the two hemispheres of your brain and atop the sagittal sinus," he said, "which is the major blood highway to your brain. It's what we call a meningioma. Now, migraines are vascular headaches—they come and go with the blood tides, as it were. When you paint, you undergo extreme stress." He raised a hand when Karin's mouth popped open in denial. "I don't mean that in a negative sense. Let me put that a different way. Painting excites you. This restricts the blood flow a little bit as you tense up. When you complete a painting, you relax. Blood flows more freely. Theoretically, the tumor could impede it from doing that."

Karin stared at the perfect egg, couched inside the cartoon outline of her skull. It was about the size of a quarter. "Theoretically."

The doctor scratched his head. It was an unconscious gesture that Karin found far from comforting. "Well, if the structure were larger—much larger—I'd theorize that it was impeding blood flow. But, frankly, I don't see how this little guy is doing that. Still, it's the only suspect we have. The tests we did for Parkinson's disease came back negative."

Karin glanced away from the tumor to the doctor's face. "Parkinson's? Why? I thought this was migraine."

"The description you gave of the mosaic effect; the fact that Ms. Cowan said you were immobile for several moments until she touched you meant we couldn't rule out Parkinsonism or some other post-encephalitic response. What you've described to me is asymptomatic of either Parkinson's or migraine, strictly speaking. But as I said, the symptoms are real and the tumor is the only thing I see that could be causing them, as unlikely as that is."

"Do I need surgery?"

He canted his head from side to side. "Need is a strong word. The tumor may be something fast-growing that arose in the last six months, or it may have been there for years with little or no growth. There's no way to know for sure. We could wait around another four to six months and monitor you with MRIs, see if there's any growth. Or we could operate sooner as opposed to later and eliminate the risk. Tell me, have you changed your routine in the last year or so—started exercising more, less, differently, for example?"

Karin shook her head. "I'm a creature of habit, doctor. I get up every morning, go to the spa, swim exactly one mile, go to a bistro on Columbus, have a latte and a biscotti, then go into my studio and work."

"Any irregularity in your menstrual cycle?"

"None."

"When you sketch, do you get the headaches?"

"No. No I don't, but I rarely get that involved in my sketches. I use them to block out paintings, to compose. Once I've got a basic layout down, I hit the canvas. Actually, I rarely sketch. Most of the time, I go right to the final medium." She shrugged. "When I sketch, the paintings aren't the same—not as...vivid. Not as good."

Rachel looked sideways at her. "Those little canvases you had lined up under the window in your studio—is that what you're talking about?"

Karin grimaced. "You noticed."

"I thought they were transitional pieces."

"No. Just failures."

Rachel snorted. "I'd hardly call them that. They were lovely paintings, if not as stunning as the others." She turned her head smartly to Dr. Cain. "Sooner as opposed to later, you said. How soon would that be?"

"Unless Karin has a reason to put it off, I'd like to move fairly quickly. Two weeks to a month, depending on schedules."

Karin nodded, feeling ill at ease. She had never had surgery in her entire life and the prospect of having her skull opened up was disturbing.

"Why weren't you completely honest with Dr. Cain?" Rachel asked as they drove back to her apartment.

Karin had been staring dreamily at the Bay Bridge. The question was jarring. "What do you mean?"

"When you were describing that last migraine experience, you talked about a face. 'The face faded,' you said. Then you corrected yourself and said it was just a mood."

Karin made a noncommittal noise.

"It was a face. You even spoke to it. And it's in the painting."

It was in the painting...when you stepped far enough away that you weren't lost in the weird green wilds. Three or four steps back and the face came right out at you, perfect, pale and smooth, eyes large and watchful, mouth open in a perfect "o." Seeing it, Karin was struck with the absurd memory that when Rachel had distracted her, that painted person was speaking to her in words she had been on the verge of comprehending.

Rachel insisted on staying with her the entire three weeks leading up to her surgery. "Just in case," Rachel said. 

Just in case she tried to paint something, Karin found. She had to content herself with visits to Toby Garfield's gallery, where she would eavesdrop on patrons praising or decrying the sensory overload her paintings evoked with their lush, wild hues and clandestine movement. She read the words of art critics. They were favorable words—no, better, they were wildly enthusiastic words. She was a phenom.

One evening only did Karin find herself alone. Rachel had to attend the opening of another client. She had tried to bully Karin into going with her on the grounds that her appearance would lead to good press for both painters. Karin pleaded fatigue, rubbing her temples and trying to look pathetic.

"No painting," Rachel scolded as she left.

"I wouldn't think of it," Karin promised.

Untrue. A week and a half without painting had been hell; her awareness of lost time, excruciating. She thought of nothing else; she stood in her studio, picking up her brushes one by one and putting them down again, considering the painting left unfinished by her last "attack." As if to rebuke her, a dull ache circled her skull. The remembered pain was enough to discourage her from using her stolen time to complete the painting.

Instead, she lined all the paintings in her studio up along the front wall beneath the one enormous window and studied them. They formed an anomalous group, the earliest ones so different from the newer pieces, it hardly seemed they could be the product of the same hands. All but two of the paintings were older, part of her more realistic past. Three, done on smaller canvases, were the works Rachel had commented on. They'd been done from sketches, but while they were not as mundane as the two early pieces, they lacked the disturbing intensity of the works she'd done on pure inspiration. The remaining two—the half-finished junglescape and the nightscape she'd finished the week before—stood at the end of the continuum.

And it was in that continuum that she made an impossible connection. The onset of the migraines precisely matched the transformation in her work. Like that transformation, the headaches had settled in gradually—so gradually, Karin hadn't seen the link. 

She sat on the divan in the studio, stared at the row of canvases, and cast her mind back over the past year. Dr. Cain had asked her if anything in her routine had changed. It had. She had moved from almost slavishly sketching out every idea in pencil to putting color directly on canvas. In between, she had hit a transitional stage during which she sketched until the Muse moved her to the easel. She had been methodical before. Systematic. Careful. Moved by the Muse, but not driven by it. Now she was driven. Flung at the canvas, or pulled to it. She threw herself into the work, into the world inside the canvas. 

Okay. So, what did that mean? That the migraines were linked somehow to her surge of creativity? Or that the tumor was? 

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Karin murmured. 

Had to be the tumor. The tumor was just there. Had probably been there for years. The tide of creative energy she'd fallen into had simply stressed her system. She had adopted a much more immediate, visceral way of pursuing her art and the migraines were a side effect. This new way of working called so much out of her, placed her under so much stress, that the blocked sinus became engorged with blood, resulting in pressure and pain. Simple.

Except that Dr. Cain was still skeptical that the meningioma was triggering the migraines and Karin could not say that she understood what had caused her recent supercharge of inspiration. She knew only that one day, some months before, the quality of her inspiration had changed slightly; she had painted beyond herself and had gotten a wretched headache to go with the intriguing painting she had produced. Since that day, her drive had increased, her painting had put on wings, and her headaches had become debilitating.

But that would change, she told herself, when Dr. Cain removed the tumor from her head.

And what else might change? 

The stray thought made her queasy. She pushed it down. It was absurd. The tumor might cause migraines, but that was all it caused. It was ridiculous to even think that it had also caused her to become a better painter.

It is to laugh, Toby would say.

Karin got up from the divan and moved down the row of paintings. She stopped before the unfinished one, feeling the pull of its raw spots as she felt gravity pull her to the earth. The face peered out at her, half imagined. 

Her hands shook, wanting the brushes as they might want a lover's touch. She knew what caused the migraines now—stress, over-excitement. She could control it. She could hold herself back.

She picked up her brush box stealthily, as if Rachel, across town, could see her. She shook off the ludicrous guilt and set up her palette, choosing her colors with care—blues, greens, purples. She loaded her brush with pigment, raised it to the canvas, and stared out into a desert.

At least she thought it was a desert, the shapes were right, but the colors were all wrong—too vivid, too sudden. 

Irrelevant, her mind told her, because you didn’t put a desert of any kind on this canvas, you painted a jungle.

By instinct, she looked for the face she knew was somewhere in the scene—that was in all the other imagined scenes. She found it peering through the branches of what might be a desert shrub or a peculiar mineral formation or something else entirely. The face was turned toward her, seeming perplexed, as she was perplexed.

"Where's the jungle?" she asked aloud, and felt incredibly stupid. "I need the jungle. So I can finish the painting."

It struck her how utterly insane this was; she was holding a conversation with a creature of her own invention. But, no, that wasn't strictly true, because this wasn't her painting, this was...well, a desert scene. Which she hadn't painted. Yet. Maybe it was a wannabe painting, an idea whose time had come. 

And maybe she was hallucinating. In fact, she must be hallucinating. Either that, or she had painted a desert without intending to do so—and without remembering she had done so. 

Dr. Cain hadn't mentioned hallucinations.

In the unpainted desert, the face had moved. It now seemed attached to a body of sorts. She was struck by the absurd idea that he/she/it was pointing at something out of sight within the canvas. This was followed by the equally absurd idea that she could follow where the guide led. If only she would.

She teetered on the edge of the moment. On the verge of motion. Pressing forward, reeling backward. And on the point of choice, she closed her eyes—barely a blink, really—and wondered if she could get the jungle back some other way.

It was simply there when she opened her eyes. 

She didn't pause to ponder—that would have been a futile waste of time. She simply worked the painting, swiftly at first, conscious of time passing, of a race being run. But no, it had to be different this time. There was no point running the race if there was no hope of winning it. She slowed her pace deliberately. Took time to caress the colors, smoothing them across the canvas, teasing them into place around the alien face.

Alien. Why had she thought that? But it was alien—as different and apart from the real world as Sun from Moon.

Finished, she sat back, lifted her little liner brush, and rolled it in thinned alizarin crimson. The completed scene was eerily beautiful. Possibly her best to date; the otherworldly foliage/not foliage seemed to grow into three-dimensional space. Trompe-l'oeil—a trick of the eyes. She chuckled at herself for being fooled by it herself to the point that she had, for even an instant, thought of following the creature of her own imagination into a scene she hadn't painted yet—hadn't even contemplated painting.

Karin signed the painting carefully. Straightened. No pain assailed her. Elation fluttered in her breast. Forgetting her promise to take it easy, she turned to look for another clean canvas.

The pain struck like a sledgehammer, exploding behind her eyes in a literal flash of glory. Then every scintilla of light was sucked from the world.

She came to in the Intensive Care Unit, connected to a battery of machinery. Liquids pumped in and out, every tiny function was being monitored.

"Damn," she said.

Rachel, sitting in the chair next to the bed gasped and dropped the copy of People she was reading.

"Caught you," Karin croaked.

"Caught me?" Rachel was on her feet and punching the call button in one fluid leap.

"Can't believe you'd sink to such cheesy reading material."

Rachel didn't rise to the bait. "Karin, how in God's name could you possibly do that? You knew what would happen. Sometimes, I swear, you're as irresponsible as a child. You don't need an agent; you need a mother."

"It wasn't irresponsibility," Karin protested. "It was... It wasn't something I could control. I had to try to finish it. I felt like I was that close."

"That close to a straight jacket." 

"I didn't think I'd get so...drawn in. I didn't think I did. I paced myself."

"For all the good it did."

Dr. Cain and a nurse rolled in then to check, poke, prod, and reprove. That was followed by yet another MRI. One that resulted in Karin being remanded to the hospital until her surgery.

"The structure has grown, Karin," Dr. Cain told her solemnly. "By half a centimeter. That's more than I would have expected in the short time since we last checked. I'm scheduling you for an MRI every morning between now and your surgery date."

Karin, much chastened, gave herself over to the nurses and technicians without complaint. But the next morning's MRI produced what Dr. Cain referred to as "anomalous results." The tumor had decreased in size so that it was only marginally larger than it had been during her original MRI.

"I've never seen anything like it," Cain said, "either in practice or in the literature. None of my colleagues has seen anything like it, either."

"These are not comforting words, coming from one's neurosurgeon," said Karin.

Dr. Cain shrugged, a gesture Karin found no more comforting than an admission of ignorance, but he smiled for the first time during the interview. "You're one in a million, Karin. You may get written up in the AMA Journal—or at least your head might. The good news is that the structure doesn't seem to have compromised adjacent tissue. The bad news is that every time you have one of these episodes, it may get a little bigger. I think you need to avoid having another episode." He gave her a disconcertingly direct look. "Are we clear on this?"

Karin picked at a piece of fluff on the sleeve of her bathrobe. "Yeah, I get it."

"Bingo," Cain said. "Try reading. A little TV, maybe."

With due ceremony, Karin was tucked back into her room where Rachel, smile falsely bright and encouraging, told her that Toby Garfield had sold two more of her paintings for extravagant amounts. She also told her the art critics thought she was brilliant, and produced a review column to prove it. She left the column for Karin to read—something to help her get through the days till she could be home again, painting again.

The column, written by Mark Kellen, a critic whose praise Karin had yearned for but never received, was titled "Who Are You and What Have You Done With Karin Arneson?" She settled down and read.

So I was wrong, the columnist admitted. Karin Arneson is not the reincarnation of Roger Dean. She's a completely unique animal. Hence the title of this column. I've seen Ms. Arneson's work over a period of several years. I once thought might buy a piece and put it in my dining room. Nice. Safe. Nothing there to distract from the food or ruin anyone's dinner. Over the past months, though, the lady has surprised the hell out of me several times over with paintings that are unlike anything I've ever seen on any art gallery wall. 

No, art fans, Karin Arneson paintings and prints are no longer something you want anywhere near your dining room or breakfast nook, unless you like stained tablecloths or having to hand out air-sickness bags to your dinner guests. Ms. Arneson's latest can bring on vertigo, euphoria, possibly even hallucinations. So if you're an agoraphobe or suffer from motion sickness, I suggest you forego a trip to view this artist's work. On the other hand, I'd hate anyone to be deprived of the experience. Take your Dramamine and go anyway. It's well worth the risk.

The article went on to describe a couple of the paintings currently in Toby's gallery, and Karin soaked up the heady praise, realizing, not for the first time, that a critic's words could also bring on vertigo. In this case, they also brought on the urge to paint. 

She clamped down on the desire, picked up a book, and read. But the prose of a favorite fantasy writer put pictures in her head and the pictures demanded to be realized. When Rachel visited just before lunch, she nonchalantly asked for her pastels. 

Rachel gave her a cold stare. "Do I look that stupid?" No pastels were forthcoming.

When her lunch tray arrived, Karin asked the student nurse for paper and a pencil. The girl smiled apologetically and said, "They told me you might ask for stuff like that. I'm sorry. I can't. Doctor's orders."

Karin fumed. 

"Look, I'm bored stiff," she told the next nurse she saw. "Can I take a walk or go into the courtyard or something?" 

"A little exercise would be good. But you're not to go near the bookstore or the gift shop."

She watched, too, the over-zealous so-and-so. Karin was forced to flee to the courtyard, where the neo-Spanish architecture and nodding cypresses only fueled the forbidden yen for pigment and canvas. She fought the impulse until she glimpsed a fellow inmate happily writing letters in a sunny corner. She cadged a some unlined paper, lifted a pencil from the nurses' station, and strolled nonchalantly back to her room, both items tucked into the pocket of her bathrobe. 

She had been timing nurses all morning, noted that they seemed to arrive every 30 minutes or so. She could do a lot in 30 minutes and the drive to do was almost overpowering. Just the thought of lifting a pencil, a brush, a pastel, the mere savor of setting it to page or canvas was...she searched for some way of explaining it to herself. It was delicious, exhilarating, breathtaking.

The 3:10 nurse arrived and departed on time. And after that train left the station, Karin hung in the quivering moment of anticipation, waiting to see if she would cave to the dread and delight of paper and pencil. There was no reason for dread, really, she told herself. And no danger. She'd never had an "episode" while sketching. There was no reason she would now.

She sneaked out her supplies, slid her tray into place, and settled the paper on it, bringing the courtyard with its march of cypress and arches to mind. It twisted subtly, becoming something indefinably to the left of real. 

Surprised and bemused, she began to sketch.

Not long after, an unscheduled nurse broke into her secret garden. Alerted by voices just beyond her door, she hid the drawing under the tray's paper place mat. The nurse checked her vitals and left, making a note in her chart. She waited breathlessly until the door swung shut, then brought the forbidden forth from hiding.

Color. The grays and blacks and whites she had sketched seemed faintly tinted as if she'd sketched in colored pencil, not an office supply issue Number Two. She trembled, touched the graphite gray lead to paper and drew rapidly, joyfully, pain the furthest thing from her mind. Buildings and gardens and walkways grew, fantastic, from her pencil tip. Colors spread, vivified.

"You again," she said, spotting a familiar face. "What are you, some sort of cosmic Tour Guide?"

She sketched the face. In her fertile imagination, it seemed concerned.

"Don't worry," she told it. "I'm taking it easy." But her insides were quivering and her pencil was sweeping through the landscape with increasing ease. It was like ice-skating on a smooth winter pond. But the color spoke of spring or summer.

There shouldn't be color, a sharp, nagging little voice complained. 

She ignored it. 

You're hallucinating, it said. 

She laughed at it. 

You should tell Dr. Cain, it said. 

You should shut up, she told it, and watched the colors pour onto the page from the dull gray lead.

Her Tour Guide seemed vexed. She tried to smooth the face, soothe it, but the pencil was inadequate to the task. 

"What's with you?" she asked and the Guide stepped out of his penciled place and gestured at her. 

She froze. Warning or invitation?  The sudden, insane idea that she could step into her own work was unbearably strong... and wonderful. Still, she hesitated to cross that threshold. 

Her pencil continued to scurry, the Guide pleaded silently, ambiguously, and the paper became too small for the vision. The colors escaped the page, the Garden shooting up in wild profusion like a psychedelic nature film on fast-forward. In moments, she was overgrown, overwhelmed. 

The pencil stopped moving; the colors did not stop with it.

When they did the MRI, Karin was laughing with elation and had to be sedated. The structure had increased by two centimeters during her episode. After the MRI, with Karin conscious, it collapsed back one.

"It increases with every seizure," Dr. Cain told her in the quiet of his office. "It pumps up like a balloon, then deflates. But it's measurably larger after each inflation."

"It wasn't a seizure," said Karin.

"Karin, I think Dr. Cain knows more about seizures than you do." Rachel sat in the chair next to her, pale and tight-lipped.

"True, but I know more about me and about this. It wasn't a seizure."

"Karin, really-"

"You've never seen a tumor like this one," she said. "Isn't that what you said?"

He opened his mouth, hesitated. "No, I haven't. But I do know it's dangerous. And potentially fatal. I've moved your surgery up. We'll start prep immediately."

Karin sat up straight in her chair. "What? Wait-"

"For what, Karin?" said Cain. "For it to become inoperable?"

"You don't understand."

"What don't I understand?"

"It's not..." she stopped. She'd been going to say, "It's not a bad thing," but realized how crazy that sounded. She also realized that she didn't understand either, didn't know what to say. You can't operate, Doctor. It's not a tumor, it's an inter-dimensional Tour Guide, a portal to inner space.

Was that what she believed it was?

Prep took hours, during which she was under constant supervision. She was kept from paper and pencil with the same zealousness and concern a depressive might be kept from belts and sharp objects.

In pre-op, Rachel was with her, holding her hand. "When you go under, just think about what it'll be like after. You'll get back to your studio. Back to your art. Back to your future. Think of all the brilliant canvases you're going to paint, Karin. Pain free."

A needle pricked her arm and she thought, suddenly, clearly: But there won't be any more brilliant canvases. I'll have no Guide.

She opened her mouth to scream, to protest, to beg them to call the surgery off. But she was gone before she could do any of those things. Her last coherent realization was that the surgical team was into rock and roll. The strains of Born to Be Wild ushered her into darkness.

She spent the week after in the hospital—two days in ICU, three on the ward under observation. In ICU, she tracked her stay with a bizarre countdown of every IV line or shunt removed from a hand, a foot, a wrist, an ankle, an arm. Lift-off came when her catheter was removed, and was fueled by the news that the tumor was, indeed, completely benign. She orbited to the bathroom and back, feeling like a conquering hero.

Except that her head sloshed as if it were full of liquid.

"My head sloshes," she told one of the ubiquitous young doctors who came to learn at Cain's feet and who mimicked their master by regularly poking and prodding and pondering her chart. "Is that normal?"

The smooth-faced young man—Dr. Tso, according to his badge—gave her a bird-bright glance and asked, "Does it slosh all the time or only when you do this?" He waggled his head back and forth.

"Well...um...when I do that." She repeated the waggle. "And it goes popple-popple-popple." 

She knew she sounded like a five-year-old. Wearing a hospital issue stocking cap with alternating cream and mint green stripes, she felt like one too. Hell, she felt like a five-year-old cartoon character—Charlie Brown maybe. Her head must surely be too big and round for her body. She giggled.

Dr. Tso's face lit up with a broad grin. "Interesting," he said, and left the room, shaking his head and murmuring, "Popple-popple-popple."

Karin had to wait for Dr. Cain to appear to find out that the liquid was merely her brain's self-defense mechanism and that the popping sound was air that had intruded into her open cranium during surgery.

"It'll take a while to dissipate," he warned. "And you may snap, crackle, and pop for a year or more." 

Karin grimaced. "Great. And in the meantime, my friends can legitimately call me an airhead." She neatly intercepted Dr. Cain's answering smile by adding, "Will it come back?" Was she anxious or hopeful? With emotions scrambled by anesthesia, it was hard to tell.

He folded her chart to his chest. "I don't know. As I said, we've never seen anything quite like it."

She licked terminally dry lips. "What...what was it like? I mean, how was it different?"

He looked down at the chart, unreadable pressed against the front of his white lab coat. "Unusual. A tumor is different from the surrounding tissue. Denser, with different absorption properties. Which is why we use special isotopes to locate them. Your tumor had a layer of this denser tissue, but it was...wrapped around a hollow core. Like a...like a tennis ball."

"Hollow," she repeated. No alien Tour Guide. No sublime jungles or deserts or gardens that were none of those things. No interdimensional doorway. Hollow.

Out in the ward, there were anti-inflammatories to be taken, along with potent dosages of Vicodin to dull the pain. Karin spent most of her time in a semi-hallucinatory state of irrational euphoria, during which she watched CNN compulsively, albeit only half-consciously, learning that James Earl Jones's voice, crooning "This is CNN," could turn her bones to jelly. She slept fitfully, sitting upright, and dreamed that the Tour Guide spoke to her in James Earl Jones's voice. She couldn't remember what he said.

When Rachel took her home, it was to Rachel's house they went. It was clear Karin was not supposed to think about paintbrushes, pencils, canvases, paper or anything else that might be found in a studio.

Rachel needn't have bothered, Karin thought dispassionately. She had thought of none of those things since coming up from anesthesia. She was almost afraid to.

"Dr. Cain says you can go home when you're capable of taking care of yourself. Translated into Rachel-ese, that means when I'm convinced you're capable."

 "Rachel, I'm not..." A child, she'd been going to say. "...going anywhere," she finished lamely.

She stayed with Rachel a week, during which she received candy, flowers, a new set of sable brushes, and visits from friends who tried not to tax her strength and who chirped about her getting back to work. Toby Garfield was the worst, playing the stern task-master, telling her she'd best get back to work cranking out paintings for his gallery. 

At the end of the week, she was reluctant to leave her "halfway house"—something her perceptive friend didn't miss.

"What's the matter with you, Karin?" she asked. They were in Rachel's car, Karin tugging at the new, more stylish stocking cap. "You've been moping all morning. I'd've thought you'd be ready to run all the way back to your studio, screaming with boredom. Aren't you dying to get back in the saddle?"

"I guess I've gotten used to being waited on hand and foot," she lied.

Rachel wasn't deceived. "Bullshit. You're afraid."

"What? What are you talking about?" Karin felt as if she'd been stripped down to the baseball-stitched bald spot on her scalp and put on public display. How could Rachel possibly know the lay of her inner landscape?

Rachel put both hands on the wheel, but made no move to start the car. "The tumor is gone, Karin. Gone. No more migraines. No more hallucinations. No more lost hours or lost days. Your hair will grow back, your head will stop sloshing, and you'll stop looking like Ali McGraw in that dreadful, soppy movie."

"Oh." Karin smiled weakly. Her real fear remained hidden. "I thought I looked like Oliver Twist."

It was only fifteen minutes to Karin's apartment—fifteen minutes of hell in which Karin allowed dread to take hold of her. She hated the thought of walking into her cold, dark, dusty apartment, of seeing the easels draped like corpses in obscuring sheets.

It was nothing like that. Rachel, being Rachel, had the place clean, warm and bright with scented candles and flowers. Nor did Karin's easels look like a disorganized haunting. They were uncovered, filling the studio with vivid, sensual hues and textures.

Standing on the kitchen-level landing, twisting the soft, unresisting hat in suddenly tense hands, Karin felt tears overflow onto her cheeks. Behind her in the kitchen, Rachel prattled on about a European opening and the Guggenheim's interest in her work for a U.S. tour of emerging artists. Karin ignored her, moving down into the living room on numb feet—from there to the studio, where she stopped in front of The Jungle.

It was beautiful. More than beautiful. It was stunning, magical. She could look at it now as if someone else had painted it. They might as well have, for while Karin remembered painting it, she did not remember what it felt like to paint it. 

The disease might have killed her once; the cure was going to kill her over and over, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

"You're welcome," said Rachel, from the living room.

Karin turned to look at her, glad she had mistaken the tears for an expression of joy. Her real inner workings seemed mad even to herself. If she told Rachel what she was imagining—that there had been no tumor in her head, but a lens or window on another world or universe or dimension, and that with that conduit gone, she would never again paint anything remotely as original as this jungle or that city/starscape, or the desert she'd seen but feared to enter—Rachel could be forgiven for thinking she'd sustained brain damage. Such eccentricity might be considered charming in a brilliant artist. It would be pitied in a mundane one.

Rachel came to the canvas and put an arm around her shoulders. "This one's got to be nearly dry, right? I think we should send it on tour, don't you?"

"If you think so."

Rachel squeezed her, hard. "Hey, don't go all soft on me, Arneson. What do you think? Should we sent it on a tour of the states or ship it off to the Euros?"

What she thought was that she would gladly send it anywhere to get it out of her studio and out of her sight. "The states tour sounds fine."

"As it happens, I can take care of that little piece of business today. You'll be alright by yourself here? I figured I'd come back for dinner."

"I'll be fine," Karin said. "Dinner is...is fine."

"Thank God you're not a writer."

"Cut me some slack; I've got a hole in my head."

Rachel chuckled her way to the kitchen, snagged her purse from the counter and headed for the door. "That's my Karin. See you around six, okay?"

"Six," echoed Karin. "Fine. ...Rache?"

She paused on the landing, door half open.

"Thank you. For everything."

"Thank me by filling Garfield's with fabulous new art." The door snicked shut. 

Karin unpacked slowly, changed clothes, put on a new hat—festive, peacock green felt. Jungle color. She didn't feel festive.

Back out in the living room, she tried to avoid looking down into the studio and found it impossible. The canvases loomed, mocking and drawing her at once. They were oppressive, she told herself. She could hardly wait until Rachel sold them off.

She grabbed up a couple of dustsheets and marched into the studio, intending to cover them up. They refused to be covered. She could only stand and stare at them, sheets clutched in uncooperative hands. They were part of her—a ghost limb, lingering after the real thing had been severed. A ghost soul. She could never part with them. 

The apartment was too quiet after the controlled chaos of a busy hospital ward. Craving noise and coffee, Karin dropped the sheets, threw on a jacket and shoes, and left the apartment. Distracted, she caught herself in the act of snatching up the small sketchpad she kept in a basket on the little table by the front door. Habit. She pulled her hand back, wrapped her jacket tight around her, and slipped out, heading for the bistro on Columbus.

The bistro was warm, crowded, noisy. She'd come here almost daily to collect faces, shapes, patterns of light and shadow. She'd also come here to sketch. Once. Maybe she'd met her cosmic Tour Guide here.

Today, she was just here to sit and drink lattes. She ordered one and sat down, belatedly deciding she it was too warm to keep her jacket on. She wriggled out of it sitting, unwilling to stand up and court vertigo. She was wrestling it over the back of her chair when something fell out of the pocket onto the floor. 

It was a small sketchpad, a pencil stuck through the metal spirals. She picked it up, set it on the table in front of her and stared at it as if she'd never seen it before.

"Hey, Karin. Where've you been keeping yourself? And what's up with the hat? Bad hair day?" The waitress, a pert brunette named Kayla, delivered a latte with the once-over.

"Bad brain day," Karin said. "Had surgery. They cut a trapdoor in my head and removed my alien symbiont."

"Cute. You look like-"

"Yeah, I know—Ali McGraw."

"I was gonna say 'Oliver Twist.' Who's Ali McGraw?"

"Never mind."

She sipped her latte, watching the drawing pad as if it might do something of its own will. It didn't, so she started glancing around, falling back on habit, people watching. The pencil and pad seemed to come into her hand of their own accord. She doodled. A face here, a shadow there, a flurry of motion. All went onto the paper in black and white, and remained black and white, staying within the boundaries of the page. No mad color inserted itself. 

She tried to call The Garden to mind and found its contours still there. But it was frozen, static, no longer kinetic and alive. And it was empty. No Alien Gardener appeared to beckon her in. She sketched it anyway, leaving her earlier doodles intact so that they seemed to grow up in the garden like eccentric flowers. The face of the young man at the table opposite hers took the place of the Tour Guide. It was not what she would have liked to draw.

"Say, that's really good." The waitress took her empty latte glass. She shook her head. "And wild. Where do you artistic types get your ideas, anyway? I'd never think of drawing anything like that. If I drew at all, I mean. Want another?" She waggled the glass.

"Sure. Thanks."

Karin sipped a second latte, studying the drawing propped up against the sugar jar. It was nothing like her vision: it lacked the extra dimensions, the hint of "otherness." Then again, it wasn't like the competent but unexceptional sketches she'd done before. She wondered what color would do for it.

Latte half-finished, she wriggled back into her jacket, picked up the sketchpad, dropped some cash on the table and left. Ten minutes later, she stood in front of a blank canvas, sketch taped to the top left corner. Behind her The Jungle, disenfranchised, sat on the floor, its vivid, alien landscape turned to the wall.

The naked white surface of the new canvas filled her eyes. Polar bear in a snowstorm. She could just title it that, she supposed, and fake her way through the rest of her career. Or...

Her scalp itched. She pulled off the peacock hat, tossed it toward the divan, and took a deep breath. Then she picked up a wide sable brush, dipped it in pigment, and began to paint.

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.


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Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Writer of speculative fiction as the result of a horrible childhood incident involving Klaatu and a robot named Gort.