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The Lorelei Signal


A Beautiful Riot of Colors

Written by Sarena Tien / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow


The stars will be my lullaby

Once I learn how to paint the sky

I’ll paint its gossamer threads of moonlight

And weave its gentle ribbons of sunlight



Elina’s brother sang her to sleep every night with the gentle, hushed lullaby. Her parents had stopped months ago, claiming she was too old for cradlesongs, but Edgar always snuck into her room and stayed there until she drifted off. Sometimes, he’d still have paint from the ateliers on him, and Elina would find the colors on her forehead and blankets when she woke up.


Mother and Father never said anything, though, despite how obvious it was Edgar was the whimsical ghost whom Elina blamed for all the multihued marks. He was, after all, the only one in the household who constantly wore smudges of paint on his skin now that they had both retired.


Sometimes, even in the darkling quiet of her room, Elina swore she could see a rainbow of colors swirling in his eyes. Entranced by the idea of creating the beauty Edgar produced upon his canvases, she started losing herself in charcoal, watercolor, oil pastel, and finally paint.


Paint. Every Anatolen artist wanted to master the medium the way Edgar had, to capture the gentle glow of sunrise and the radiant inferno of sunset.


~ * ~


Years later, Elina sang the lullaby to herself as she struggled in the celestial ateliers of Anatole. It was her only source of consolation, the only way she could forget her ineptness at painting sunrises and sunsets.


Her first attempt at creating a sunset had been terrible. She’d aspired to recreate her brother’s canvases, the swirls of painted fire that blazed with unrivaled light. Instead, Elina had ended up with splotches of scarlet, amber, saffron, and cobalt.


Edgar had been forced to find a master who could paint over her disaster, only because he didn’t have the heart to do it himself. The Anatolens couldn’t have the humans seeing an unsightly sky full of blobs of unblended color. In the end, most of the pigment she’d used had been too dark to paint over, so the masters were forced to let some of the paint fall to the earth as rain.


Elina had tried again, deciding to make something simpler. She’d settled for shades of red, thinking a monochromatic sky might be easier to create. But her sunset didn’t look anything like flaming silhouettes of sunburst and shadow. Rather, it looked like the sky was weeping blood, the rays of the dying sun a lattice of bleeding veins.


The masters hastily fixed that catastrophe with rapid brushstrokes of gold and ocher, which cleaved the sky in flashes of lightning as Elina’s paints showered the earth with rain.


Edgar put her on sunrise duty instead, thinking the hushed watercolor palette would be easier for her to manage than the kaleidoscopic flames of sunset. Elina, eager to redeem herself, had worked diligently to produce a work of pastel hues.


The end result had been a muted mélange of colors, the combination of rose, lavender, lemon, and peach a slightly less hideous fiasco—or slightly more chaotic mess, depending on how one looked at it.


After one look at Elina’s sunrise, Edgar gently delegated her with the task of painting the night sky.


~ * ~


Elina wouldn’t have minded so much if it weren’t for the fact she was trapped with this duty because of her inability to create anything else. She actually enjoyed painting the darkness, because it was so simple yet so intricately beautiful—all she had to do was fill an endless black canvas with splatters of stars, gossamer threads of moonlight, and the occasional sliver of a moon.


Plus, it was pretty hard to botch a painting when you were using just two colors.


But Elina didn’t want to keep working with canvases of ink and accents of silver. She wanted to work with a rainbow of pigments. She wanted to move on to sunrises and sunsets like Edgar.


She begged him to let her try again until he finally relented.


~ * ~


Elina’s second sunrise was a soft combination of lilac, mauve, coral, and cerulean. It would have been relatively decent if it weren’t for the fact the colors resembled a strange sort of striped anarchy, as if she’d mixed too much water with her paints and left streaks of unblended brushstrokes across the sky. 


Seeing how dejected this made her, Edgar encouraged her to try again. But try as she might, she couldn’t replicate anything that resembled gentle ribbons of sunlight stretching across a backdrop of blue and puffs of white.


Somewhere in her series of botched sunrises, Elina even managed to mar a painting with streaks of emerald, a hue that belonged in the sky about as much as she belonged in the ateliers.


That was it. She chucked her paintbrush into a can of indigo, spraying her tan apron with flecks of blue paint.


Dawn and dusk were her least favorite parts of the day.


~ * ~


Since Elina actually possessed some talent in working with a midnight sky, Edgar suggested she try using colors upon a canvas of shadow instead. So, rather than creating her usual painting of ink frosted with a shower of stars, she halfheartedly experimented with shades of red and violet.


She presented a black canvas filled with vertical brushstrokes of amethyst, fuchsia, and orchid, touched with hints of maroon, to Edgar.


He gave her a weak smile, saying the sunset did have a certain aesthetic quality.


But Elina knew he would ask a master to paint over her mess.


~ * ~


Next, she showed him a blend of crimson, magenta, and iris, interspersed with highlights of ultramarine and teal.


“It’s…” Edgar hesitated. “It’s, er, a beautiful riot of colors.”


A beautiful riot of colors—that was the only praise Elina could get.


The compliment didn’t even last long. The masters, tired of obscuring her disastrous sunsets, shoved her unsightly canvases to one end of the earth. There, her paintings were passed off as a beautiful aberration for the humans.


At least the few humans who saw her work appreciated it. They even gave it a name: the aurora australia, or the southern lights.


~ * ~


But Elina didn’t want the humans’ admiration. She wanted the Anatolens’ approval.


In her frustration, she stamped her foot, upsetting a series of paint cans. A flood of cobalt, aquamarine, malachite, and emerald spilled across her once pristine black canvas, marring part of the night sky with a curtain of blues and greens.


Fuming at her incompetence, she showed her sky to Edgar as it was, an accident that had been generated by shame and anger.


Head cocked, he studied the mishap. “You’ve improved,” he said at last.


Elina’s eyebrows drew together. “You like it?”


He shrugged. “You can almost see the passion behind the art. There are traces of it here and there. What’d you do differently?”


She had no answer for her brother.


~ * ~


Now thoroughly perplexed, Elina went back to the ateliers. She stood in front of a blank canvas, wondering what she had done differently with that chance painting. After all, she’d done nothing but indirectly kick over four cans of paint.


There was no way the secret to sunrises and sunsets as beautiful as Edgar’s consisted of spilling paint across a canvas.


She thought back to the moment she’d stomped her foot. Her brother’s words echoed in her mind. You can almost see the passion behind the art.


And she realized exactly what she had done differently.


This time, as Elina worked on her third sunset, she thought of how much she loved the feel of a paintbrush in her hands, the sensation of watching color bloom across a canvas, and the smell of turpentine and earth pigments and berries.


She remembered how she felt whenever she painted the night sky. This canvas was navy blue instead of black, and instead of lightly covering it with a silver splatter of stars and luminous threads of moonlight, she filled it with layer upon layer of pink, orange, and yellow, with splashes of gold here and there.


Time ceased to exist as she lost herself in the strokes of her brush and the streaks of color. Slowly, she began to remember why she had begun painting in the first place.


~ * ~


Finally, she stepped back, examining her sunset. The brushstrokes were graceful, the vibrant ribbons intertwining in an architectural use of color that soared across the sky.

Elina ran to Edgar, wordlessly tugging him over to her painting.


He stopped in his tracks, his expression blank as a cloudless sky. And then a wide grin broke out across his face. Laughing delightedly, he picked Elina up, twirling them both around until they were dizzy with happiness.


~ * ~


At last, the masters offered her the choice of painting either sunrise or sunset.


In a very uncharacteristic move for any Anatolen painter, Elina declined.


She’d realized that, even after successfully creating a sunrise, she preferred to work with the starlit shadows of the night.


Edgar and the masters respected her wishes. Elina continued painting the night sky in all its ink and silver splendor.


But occasionally, the two colors would get a little monotonous, so she’d turn to a palette with a rainbow of hues. She’d use the same black canvas she did for nighttime, but instead of painting with gossamer silver, she chose vivid shades that contrasted against their shadowy backdrop, like cyan and jade and cerise. The end result was a sort of chiaroscuro, of lyrical bands of color that radiated light as they danced upon the shadows.


Those paintings were still pushed to one end of the earth, but this time the masters moved them there out of reverence, where more humans could marvel over her work.


~ * ~


On the other side of the globe, the humans called Elina’s art the aurora borealis, or the northern lights.

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S Tien.jpg

Sarena Tien is a queer Chinese American writer and feminist who is currently a PhD candidate in French Literature at Cornell University.


Once upon a time, she used to be so shy two teachers once argued whether she was a “low talker” or “no talker,” but she's since learned how to scream.


Her poetry and prose have appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Bustle, The Feminist Wire, Decoded Pride, and Sylvia.

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