Albert lived alone in a dank, cramped two-room apartment, unable to afford anything much better. Even if he could have, it was unlikely the thought would occur to him to move to a place that had regular heating, or didn’t attract rats, cockroaches, and other vermin. He was a very single-minded man, a man who only cared for one thing in the world, a man who ignored everything else. Above all, Albert was an artist.
He preferred using pen and ink, and thought it fitting that his medium consisted of blinding whiteness and equally blinding blackness. He liked the idea that tigers and oceans and trees and fairies could sprout from his quill as easily as written words, and how they could tell the same stories, but in a way that anyone, literate or not, could understand.
He liked this idea, but he never shared it. His artwork was stashed away, mole-like, under his mattress, in between the pages of books, above the ceiling tiles, to be enjoyed only by the rats that used it as bedding. He would spend his days perfecting his pictures, then declare them too perfect to part with, and thus they piled up in rotting, fragile stacks.
One night, Albert awoke with his blankets soaked in sweat, shivering uncontrollably. It felt like, he thought, some divine inspiration had touched him, as if God or another great deity had granted him a task. In his dream was a mer-creature, unimaginably beautiful and unobtainably distant. She was beckoning him, and he tried, oh he tried, to reach her, to touch her, but she was the stuff of dreams, and thus intangible; when he almost had her in his grasp, he had woken.
Feverish from this angelic vision, he rushed from the bed to the desk, turned on the blaring orange lamp, and squinted at the blank, blinding paper. He uncorked a little ink bottle and, with the sureness that only comes with experience, he drew. The mermaid flowed from his pen: her luscious hair flew in the wind, her misty eyes pierced his soul, her powerful tail, with its delicate scales, balanced upon a rock that broke free of the waves. Oh, how carefully he drew her, never before had he concentrated so hard upon such minor details as the veins in her fins or the nails upon her fingers. She was clutching a seashell in one hand, one that spiraled to a point, and this she held with the spiral pointed towards her face, as if she had been examining it, but then quickly turned to look towards the viewer.
All night he drew, until eventually the dank, cramped apartment grew lighter. Then, it seemed, Albert could find nothing else to perfect about his mermaid: he was finished.
And yet, the mermaid was not stashed under the floorboards or hidden in a desk-drawer. She stayed on top of the desk, and Albert pored over her. He would go eat breakfast, then between bites of cereal he would run back, examining her from every angle, trying to find some non-existent imperfection. He stood the picture up and watched her from the other end of the room, wondering, perhaps, if she looked different from a distance. And then he would bring a magnifying glass to the paper, his nose almost brushing against it, as if her secrets would be revealed in the pores of the wood-pulp she was drawn on.
It was late in the afternoon when it finally occurred to him: perhaps the mermaid would look better in color. No sooner had the thought come to his mind than he knew it was true; it was so obvious! Of course his mermaid would look even more beautiful if her ivory skin was rosy and warm, if her pale hair was shining gold, if her eyes were sapphire blue.
He dashed to the little art-supply store at the end of the block, clutching the bills in his hand like a miser. He needed ink, colored ink, and he was prepared to give up his life-savings to obtain it. Brown and orange and blue and green; his right hand shot out again and again to snatch up the colors while his left hand kept a firm grip on the money. He reached out for the red ink, but as he did so, another vision came into his mind: his beloved mermaid with the seashell pointed towards her throat, bringing it closer and closer, preparing to kill herself.
“No!” he gasped, and he turned quickly, throwing the money at the cashier before belting from the store. It seemed as if he could not get home quickly enough. He was running out of time, and he had to get back before she could bring the sharp point of the shell against her delicate skin.
And there she was, on his desk, the seashell still pointed towards her neck, and her eyes still staring out at him; he fell to his knees and tears of gratitude leaked from his eyes that he had made it in time, that she had not harmed herself. She accused him, with those piercing eyes of hers, and he promised never to leave her alone again; he would not leave her again.
He wanted to comfort her, to stroke her cheek and murmur in her ear, but as always, she was intangible. He deluded himself into thinking that, once he finished the picture, once it was full of color, then too it would be full of life. He began to ink in her scales, creating tiny blue-and-green rainbows of each one. Then he colored the rock she was perched on, then the sea which was her home. The sun set and still he worked, coloring while her crystal eyes stared at him.
She was almost done, almost perfect; the only thing missing was her lips, her beautiful lips. He reached for the red ink, but there was none; he had left it at the store.
Her lips were the only thing colorless, lifeless. Red. He needed red. He stood up and searched through the cabinets, and opened the drawers and looked there, and looked in the tiny bathroom for red paint, or red pencil, or red dye, something, anything red! More frantically he searched, tearing through sheets of exquisite artwork, all black-and-white and meaningless. Nothing, nothing red!
More tears came to him, and Albert apologized to his mermaid, begging her to forgive him for failing her. All he needed was something red.
Her seashell gave him the idea; quickly he stabbed the sharp quill into his neck, drawing it across that precious, life-giving vein. Red sprouted from the wound, and, trembling, he filled in her cherry lips.
And as the red poured out from him and the blackness poured in, Albert thought that his mermaid had never looked so close, so real; it was only a matter of time before he could hold her.