"MT's Painting" by Clio Contogenis

Clio Contogenis

Clio Contogenis

Clio Contogenis was born and raised in New York City. She attended Stuyvesant High School, and is now a junior at Yale University, studying English and Theater Studies with such teachers as Cynthia Zarin and Donald Margulies. She has appeared in a number of Yale productions, including Shakespeare's Richard III and Noel Coward's Private Lives. Her writing has been published in Stuyvesant Literary MagazineYale Daily News Magazine,Vita Bella Magazine, Bluestem Online Quarterly, and several anthologies. She has also won multiple Gold and Silver Key Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

MT’s Painting


The painting has no title. My aunt painted it when she was in college, and it hung on the wall of my grandparents’ house in Greece for many years afterward. I slept beneath it when I visited that house as a child, and something about it informed my dreams. When my grandparents died, I took the painting with me to college. It is a painting of a forest, though not one that I or anyone else has ever been to. The trees are yellow, twisted, with bluish shadows creeping around the edges of their trunks where the dark background tries to engulf them. A strange species with no name. The leaves of these trees melt into the background entirely, forming a solid curtain of ominous foliage. The roots of the trees dig into the earth in a convoluted mess. My aunt has painted the dirt in so many different colors that, from a slight distance, they all blend into each other, forming a glowing brown. There is a tension in what I can see of the roots; they hold the dirt in place, preventing it from collapsing into the river that flows between the trees.

I imagine that, if this river were real, it would be so clouded with silt that I would not see the bottom. I place my fingers on the canvas, trace them along the ridges of paint that make up the river. These ridges are so smooth they almost feel wet, like real waves. I imagine sinking my hands into this unnamed river, pulling them out wet and covered in sediment. I imagine touching the trunks of the gnarled trees with my dripping hands. Looking at the painting, I wonder what the sounds of this forest would be like, but I can think only of silence. I want to know for certain, though. I want to comprehend this place. I imagine stepping into the painting with my whole body, not just my hands.  

I now stand in MT’s imaginary forest. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and a shiver passes through my limbs. I take a step forward, but the sound of my movement is absorbed by the blanket of blue moss on the ground. There is no discernible path through the forest. The only landmark is the river. Something tells me I should not stray from this river. Yet I cannot help but imagine wandering out into the depths of the forest, to be swallowed up by the dark and the nameless creatures that inhabit the spaces between the trees. 

The mysterious expanse of the forest terrifies me. I know nothing of the place that extends beyond the frame of the painting. Kneeling down, I dig my fingers into the earth as if taking root. As I pull them out, I see the dirt has stained my skin with its blend of colors. I think maybe I can blend in if I cover myself entirely, rubbing away my human identity.  I paint the dirt over the rest of my skin. Now that I am camouflaged, I can venture out into more of the forest, while staying safely within the painting’s frame. I creep silently across the moss, leaving no footprints. I am thinking that I would have to become this disguise entirely to belong here, when I suddenly come to what must be the lower right-hand corner of the painting, where my aunt has signed her work. Her sloping handwriting stands out against the forest floor, and her name, “MT Creede” claims a place amongst the foliage. From here, inside the painting, I place my fingers on her signature, trace them along the letters. There is something familiar about this, to my fingers. I think of the real trees surrounding the house the painting once hung in, and remember another time I found a name, walking up that mountain in Greece. 




Dawn is beginning to creep over the crest of the mountain. The air is slightly cold and heavy with early morning moisture that will evaporate in the midday heat. The island, Ikaria,is so quiet that I imagine I can hear the swishing of the Aegean sea a mile away. Then a goat-bell tinkles somewhere amidst the cypress trees. I walk, climbing over the rocks of this little path, called a monopati in Greek. My sandaled feet slip briefly, and I let out a little yell that should echo through the valley, but is simply swallowed by the silence.

I think that right now I could be the only person on the island, maybe even in the world. The scents of thyme and dill mingle in my nostrils, but are then pierced by the slightly acrid smell of asphalt, which reminds me of the Mavro Mati, the road I am slowly approaching. This road will lead me to the village of Koundoma, and the whitewashed house my grandfather (“Papou”) grew up in. The house itself is over a hundred and fifty years old, and some of the trees that surround it—the olive tree and the almond trees—have been there since Papou was a boy. 

A few more minutes of walking and the dry dirt of my path is cut across by the harsh line of paving that is the edge of this road. I have inadvertently kicked up a cloud of dust around me as I have climbed, but now I step out of it and onto the neatly paved road.   

The sun is visible now. This makes me realize I have been awake too long. I have witnessed something private, something only the animals are supposed to see: the transformation of night into day. I continue walking. Eventually, I come to a peak where I can look out above the trees and survey the sea stretching out around me. My view of Fourni and Patmos, the other nearby islands, is blocked by the mist that surrounds my mountaintop, and my breathing is suddenly loud in my ears.  I am utterly alone, seemingly the only human on this mountain. Plant and animal life throbs around me: the cicadas are singing and the sea breeze stirs the branches of the scraggly cypresses I walk among.  But I am not part of any of this. Even my feet are unsuited to walking here. 

If I were to wander out into the woods surrounding this road, I would lose my way almost immediately. It has happened to me before. I was walking home from the town at night, and the  darkness twisted shapes that should have been familiar, isolating me in a world of fantastical terrors. I still remember the shock of relief when I suddenly stumbled onto paved road once more. I am not afraid now, though.  Now, my path is lit.

I soon reach the olive tree near the house. I know I will be home soon, so I allow myself to rest against its trunk for a moment. As I do so, however, I notice something I have never seen before. Carved into the bark of the tree is a boy’s signature: “Kosta.” That was my grandfather’s name. I place my fingers on the wood and trace them along the ridges of the word. I imagine my grandfather as a child, signing this tree as my aunt did her painting, confidently laying claim to his home, just as she claimed the forest she created. 




I am glad the painting doesn’t have a title. I can think of it simply as MT’s painting, the one she painted in college and that now hangs over my bed in college. Each night I close my eyes, comforted by this portal to another world.  It is not the other world of the forest that interests me most, however, but the signature itself. It should seem out of place in that dark forest, but her confident placement of it makes it belong. She and my grandfather both left their marks somewhere, creating a sense of belonging for themselves. My dorm room is nothing like the wild expanse of MT’s forest or the Ikarian mountainside, but it is a start. Kneeling on my bed, I take a pencil and lightly, on the wall under the painting, sign my name.