Drawing the Dead – Chapter 1

Doubt filled their eyes, and hope and fear. But like all of Madam Valarka’s clients, there was mostly desperation. The man and woman sat at the small round table across from her, their hands clutched tightly together as they watched her draw. It was to be expected. What followed would be either an amazing miracle or a huge disappointment. There was no middle ground.

A single light illuminated the silk festooned table in the otherwise dim room. The man and woman huddled close, leaning into the light as if afraid of the surrounding darkness. The room was silent and the air smelled of sage and sandalwood.

Madam Valarka paused, smiling at her clients, trying to put them at ease. Her heavy makeup, hoop earrings, jangling bracelets, and silks covering her slim body added to the mystical atmosphere. Valarka was a gypsy, and even though they sat in a small room above a bookstore in Sedona, Arizona, this was her domain.

A photograph of a smiling young man with unruly brown hair sat upside down to her left and in front of her was the portrait she was creating. Valarka always worked upside down. That way her clients could see their loved one clearly, but mostly because that was the way her grandmother taught her.

“It draws on a different part of the brain,” the older woman had said. “I know it feels strange to do it this way, but it works.”

She hadn’t believed her grandmother, of course, and had tried drawing from a right-side-up portrait, but only once. That was all it took.

Valarka searched through her pastels finding the three shades of brown she needed for the hair. The silence wasn’t good, so as she outlined and started filling in the hair, she asked, “Tell me more about Cole, what kind of child was he?”

“Oh…” the woman began, her shaking hand brushing at her hair. “He was such a boy. When he was just a toddler he would love to go outside and play in the dirt.”

“And eat bugs,” the man added with a thin chuckle. “That boy loved to eat bugs, he’d stick anything into his mouth.”

They continued on, with occasional prompting, telling little stories and anecdotes about their son. Inevitably, each story would lead them back to the motorcycle accident and his death.

Each time she would prompt them again, taking them back to birthdays and vacations and other fond memories. Madam Valarka took these in as she worked the pastels, blending with her fingers, bringing the portrait to life. She moved from the hair, to the nose, to the lips, and finally back to the eyes.

She spent a lot of time on the eyes. They had to be perfect. They were brown, like his hair, soulful and expressive. She worked hard, giving them depth and feeling, framing them with their heavy lids and long lashes.

The man and woman stopped talking, but she didn’t prompt them to start again. She was almost done. She let her fingers guide her, choosing black, and began working it in around the face, filling in the blank portions of the paper. When she had first started drawing the dead she would have been scared by the choice. Black was often not good a sign. But, she had learned to trust. She had to trust.

“Okay,” she said, putting her pastels away. “I think we are ready to try this.”

“If… if it works. How much time will we get?” the woman asked.

“Just a few minutes,” Valarka answered with a smile. “Just a few.”

“That…” the woman said, tears forming, “that would be wonderful.”

“Okay, I need each of you to place the fingers of your left hand on the bottom of the portrait, and I will do the same on the top. Only those touching the portrait will be able to see what happens.”

Madam Valarka placed her hand so that her index finger touched the top of the young man’s head.

“Now,” she continued, “I want you to take a deep breath and see Cole on this page. See him alive and well and healthy.”

She looked at them and saw they were holding their breaths. “Breathe, deeply,” she continued. “See your son as smiling and happy, and alive.” She led them, breathing deeply in and out, focusing her gaze on the portrait, feeling the energy build, feeling the portrait grow warm under her fingers.

When the moment was right, she leaned down and gently exhaled onto the drawing of Cole.

At first nothing changed, but slowly the picture began to look more three dimensional as the eyes came alive. The woman gasped and the man said, “Oh my God!” as the drawing began to move.

Fully alive on the paper, Cole’s mouth opened and he said, “Mom? Dad?”

Keep reading

Drawing the Dead is available here:

Signed copies are available in the bookstore.

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