Once upon a time there were three daughters born to the Master Painter (the one who had inherited the secrets of color).
The first daughter had eyes that saw sharp and clear (they were the color of moss after a rain) and she spent her days at the library devoted to studying art technique and art history. People said she was surely going to be as famous as her mother one day.
The second daughter knew the exact shape of things and understood the direction of the world. Her hair was as wild as the hinter brambles and as black as moon shade. She spent all her days in the marble quarry creating statues so lifelike it looked as if they were breathing. People said she was destined for greatness.
The third daughter’s eyes were askew and she had an awful sense of direction (once got lost on her way to the mailbox). She spent most of her days wandering around the forest, tending the orchard, singing soft songs and cuddling her puppy named Trebel. No one believed she could even make a cake, much less make her way in the wide wide world.
Well, the sun ran and the moon chased it until the time came for the Master Painter to pass on her secrets of color.
“Daughters,” she said as they gathered in her studio. “You must complete a task for me. Whoever succeeds shall earn the secrets of color.”
Her eyes were mostly on the eldest two daughters. The youngest daughter’s eyes were mostly on the chocolate pastry that sat upon her mother’s side table, for it was her favorite kind.
“What is our task, Mother?” they asked.
“You must bring me the sky,” the master painter said. “You have one year.” Then she went back to her painting.
The eldest sister got to work immediately. For 1/4 of the year she studied blue and gray pigments—should she use the lovely indigo, or a stark cerulean, as the ancients did? But what about lapis lazuli? That blue could calm even the fiercest soul. Finally, she decided on painting the sky over a stormy ocean, which of course must be indigo.
Then she bought a horse. For 1/4 of the year she rode through the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus—searching for flowering woad, and begging everyone, low and high, for the technique used to transform the plant into a bright pigment.
After successfully learning everything there was to know about woad, she returned home, and spent 1/4 of the year making indigo pigments of all colors and consistencies. She worked so long on them her hands turned blue (and are still blue to this day).
For 1/4 of the year (minus one day) she watched the sky. Eyes wide, lips parted, the color sunk deep in her soul and bits of cloud and atmosphere clung to her spirit.
On the very last day, she painted the sky on a 20×24” canvas. Then brought it to her mother.
The second daughter knew right away how to give her mother the sky. She climbed the tallest mountain in the world, far above the trees, far above the clouds, far above the air, and she carefully shimmied up the crest and chopped off a large triangle from the highest peak. That triangle had to be full of sky, hadn’t it? It tickled the sky’s belly every day and touched fingers with starlight every night.
She took it home and started carving. Some days she would but stare at the piece of mountain. Some days she would carve the tiniest sliver, as if shaving an ant’s mustache. Other days she would carve great chunks out, and dust and grit would fly everywhere and her hair would stand on end and no one would come within one-hundred feet of her.
She finished fifteen days before the year was up. And when she beheld her masterpiece she knew in the pit of her heart that she would win the competition.
The third daughter had a wonderful year. Her eyes worsened, but her dog learned how to lead her everywhere and she caught glimpses of colors and shapes, and well . . . even if she couldn’t see clearly, she always had the wind to translate for her. All her days she spent in the gardens and forests, tending the earth and singing love songs to the fruit trees and folk ballads to the vegetables.
One day before the year was up, she remembered her mother’s command, “Bring me the sky.” And since her mother was a great comfort to her and she didn’t want to disappoint her, off she trod to the forest. Trebel bravely led her through brush and blade, hill and dale, and kept the sprites and goblins from bothering her.
Sure enough, as soon as she stepped foot into the heart of the great forest she spied a bit of sky trapped in a net. This surprised her, for she did not know sky hunting was legal. Especially this late in the year.
But when good luck flies your way, you do not dodge.
So she reached into the net and grabbed the glistening blue flit of sky and strolled back home and put the sky in a picnic basket. “What do sky’s eat?” She worried. And hoped it wouldn’t fade by the time she brought it to her mother.
That same afternoon the Master Painter called for her three daughters and they proudly presented what they had.
The painting by the first daughter looked so real it was as if the misty cloud reached through the painting and held you with its cold tendrils.
The carving by the second daughter captured the very night sky itself. Every constellation, every planet, even every glowing wink was there in the rock. It was miraculous. No one had ever done anything like it before and no one has ever done anything like it since.
“And what do you have for me, pumpkin?” The Master Painter asked her youngest daughter, who held a small picnic basket very close to her heart.
“I’ve caught you the sky.” The youngest daughter threw open the lid and the sky flew out, twittering and fluttering around the ceiling.
The first daughter gasped. “It’s a bluebird!”
They watched it soar and flap around the room. A burst of color and flight and impossibility. And the eldest sisters’ hearts sunk.
For they all knew right away.
She had won.
But as the Master Painter looked deep into the youngest’s crooked eyes, one of which was pointed at the ceiling and other pointed at the window, she was not quite ready to declare a winner.
“That was the first test,” she declared. “But not the final test.”
The two eldest breathed a sigh of relief. The youngest’s mouth split into a grin—for the sky had just pooped on her mother’s chair.
“This challenge is difficult. You must transform one of the Anderson girls.” She went back to mixing her paints—adding powdered pearls and egg yolks and dried blood into a pestle. “You have one week,” she added over her shoulder.
The Anderson girls were not like the artist family. Their skin was ivory, their hair was as pale and wispy as milkweed tufts, and their limbs were as thin as newborn fawns.
The eldest took the tallest Anderson girl, stripped her, and shaved every hair off her body. Then she exfoliated the skin with sugar, honey, and lime until it was perfectly smooth.
She did not stop painting for seven days. The servants brought in tangerines and refreshing rose water but she ignored them, too engrossed in her work.
When the sun rose on the seventh day she had completed the painting. As they walked through the streets to the studio, people cried out in wonder and no one could believe what they saw.
For it looked as if a metal robot had the breath of life and was walking among them. So great was the detail that every reflexion, every minuscule line in every crease was drawn on. “Surely,” the townspeople said amongst themselves, “this is the daughter who deserves to earn the secrets of color.”
The second daughter went to the forge and started creating molds. Carving one appendage after the other, she crafted tentacles and snake-hair so life-like that Medusa herself would have been afraid.
When the youngest Anderson girl came on the last day, there was the second daughter, all sweating and fire-lit in front of the furnace. Before her stood a machine. Once the Anderson girl slipped inside, it was as if she had eight tentacles squirming out her back and there was a head piece that, once she slipped on, looked as if she had writhing snakes for hair.
The townspeople cleared out when they saw it coming.
The youngest daughter went straight to the kitchen and ate her fill of chocolate pastries. After pruning the plum tree and watching over the butterflies, she played fetch with Trebel until dusk. Then she snuggled into her coziest quilt and fell asleep. She repeated the next six days in much the same manner.
On the seventh day, the second Anderson girl came and found her. “Will you not transform me, as your mother said?”
The third daughter grasped the girl’s hand. “Will you be friends with me for an hour or so?” she asked.
The girl nodded, and away they went. First, the daughter led her to the top of a cliff and they stripped naked and jumped off. For two whole seconds, they flew. Then they landed in a deep pool of sweet, mossy water and floated on their backs and watched the wind carry the clouds in its arms.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” the Anderson girl said.
After sunning themselves on a rock with the lizards and snakes, they ran through the forest and looked for huckleberries. Trebel found the berries down a little ravine, so they shimmied down a vine and fed each other the sweet fruit until their stomachs were round and satisfied.
Oh, such bliss.
But they were not through.
The third daughter led the Anderson girl up a towering pine, which they climbed to the tippy topmost branch. It smelled so enchanting and swayed so roughly that they near lost their heads from giggling and shrieking from the tree-ride.
After the tree calmed down and held still for them, the third daughter put her hand gently upon the Anderson girl’s knee and said, “Tell me everything.”
And the Anderson girl did—she gave up long-held secrets and searing sadnesses and bright fiery dreams that burned to even utter. Into the bole she uttered her soul, and the tree held them there respectfully, as all trees do. She suddenly gasped. “Should we not attend to your mother?”
“Oh!” The third daughter said. “I suppose we shall. Let’s go.”
And so they ran through the forest and into the streets, toes light and hair flashing in the sun, their joy proceeded them wherever they looked.
They were the last ones to arrive at the studio.
“You’re late, youngest—” Master Painter began, but then she stopped, awed by what she saw.
The Anderson girl’s lips were red from berry blood, her skin was golden sun-kissed, hair wind-curled, cheeks smile-blushing, smelling of glorious pine, and her eyes shone with the light of someone who had just been heard.
“Oh, fuck,” the eldest daughter said.
For they hardly recognized the second Anderson girl. And the transformation was not one that could be washed away or stripped out of. How had the youngest daughter done it? They marveled.
The second daughter put her face in her hands and wept. “Oh please, Mother,” she begged. “One more test.”
“We shall not fail you this time,” the eldest swore.
The youngest daughter just grinned and clasped the hand of her new forest friend. “Is it supper yet? I’m hungry. Those huckleberries didn’t stick to my ribs. I need a chocolate pastry.”
The master painter looked over her daughters in thoughtful reverie.
Finally, she said, “There is one closing, crowning, and ultimate test. Tonight, by the light of the new moon, you shall sacrifice your art to me. Whoever’s sacrifice pleases me the most shall earn the secrets of color and take my place as Master Painter.”
And so the eldest and second sister walked away with heavy hearts, laden with what they had to give up in order to gain their deepest desire.
They did not hesitate once as they collected their art and supplies, though their tears ran like rivers.
The youngest daughter ate a big meal of curry and rice and mangoes dipped in chilis for dessert, then she cuddled with Trebel and took a little nap, then skipped out to meet her mother and sisters in the light of the silver moon.
They were on a cliff that jutted out like a roof over the crashing ocean waves. The sea sprayed them from below, and stars stared at them from above.
“What have you brought me?” the master painter asked her eldest.
Gritting her teeth, the eldest flung oil over her paintbrushes and canvases and works of art, and then flicked a match and set it all on fire. The aroma was that of burning skin.
“What have you brought me?” the master painter asked her second.
The second daughter stepped forward, wheeling her chisels and hammers and calipers and smoothing ribs and cutting loops and knives that had grown thin and worn from the oils of her hands. Then she threw the wheelbarrow off the cliff and the cold thud of the fall sounded like a heart beat.
There were tears on the master painter’s cheeks. “Now, youngest,” she said. “Sacrifice to me your art.”
And there was a balm for the other two sister’s hearts for the youngest had not brought anything to sacrifice.
“What do you want of me?” the youngest asked.
“Your art,” the master painter said.
“My art?” she answered, looking around and thinking. “But, what is my art?”
Was it the pruned trees? The loved puppy? The happy vegetables? The new friend? Those wouldn’t do at all—they were not hers to sacrifice.
For a minute the only sound was that of the hungry waves taking bites of the cliff face.
“Ah!” she said. “I have it.” Then she knelt before her mother and drew her pocketknife. Taking a sharp breath, she slit her slender wrist so her heart pumped warm blood at the master painter’s feet.
Jumping to her, the master painter tore off her shirt and staunched the bleeding wound. “Why would you do that?” she cried out.
“I have no other art but myself.”
That next day, the youngest daughter was crowned Master Painter and earned the respect and accolades of the entire art kingdom. Every night for the next thousand nights, her mother whispered to her the secrets of color, and she in turn whispered the secrets into Trebel’s ear, so neither of them would forget it.
Her sisters eventually learned to appreciate the wondrous taste of chocolate pastries and huckleberries, which was exactly what they needed to learn.
Ellie Ann says she’s an award-winning snake charmer, goat cheese maker, unicyclist, and nose flutist.
She also likes to make up tall tales, so you can’t trust everything she says.
But from some deductions and second-hand accounts it looks like she’s a NYT and USA Today bestseller of thrillers, science fiction, and comics. Check out her newly released comic Tale of Frida from Motionworks Entertainment.