by Xenia Dylag

I peeled a sliver of the paint from the wall. It was strangely satisfying. Like pulling that layer of peeling skin from your burnt shoulder.

I stuck the paint in my mouth.

When I first caught my brother doing it, I warned him not to eat the paint chips. He said he wouldn’t do it anymore, but he told us what we wanted to hear so we would stop nagging him. Apparently, it was a thing. Eating paint chips.

Dad neglected the house. He meant to patch the holes in the walls, re-paint, or unclog the gutters, but there was always something more pressing to take care of. A broken wrist, a crashed vehicle, a busted tooth, a hospital visit, a lawsuit. The house slowly crumbled. The paint cracked and peeled and peeled and peeled.

My brother picked the paint like a scab and stuck it in his mouth. He rolled it around with his tongue until it was soft and malleable. The paint turned claylike after enough moisture. He discovered that he could mold it. He formed what he called his figurines. A frog, a dwarf, a princess, a fairy, an eagle, a mermaid. I just saw blobs of dry paintballs. He intently counted each scale on the mermaid’s fin and proudly pointed out the contour of the princess’s nose.

“This is the princess from the Brazen Mountain,” he said. “The prince stole the princess’s wings when she was bathing with her sisters,” he said.

Suddenly the spark of an idea raised his brows: “I should mold wings for her!”

I asked him where he learned of these characters.



“Yes, these are tales from Poland. She whispers them to me each night.”

Grandma had died before he was born.

“Here. Look,” he picked up another blob. “This is the ugly dwarf. Look at his long beard. I tried to make it long to touch the ground at his feet.

I didn’t see anything but a mass of green eggshell paint.

“He has an invisible cap. It makes him invisible. He kidnapped a princess, a different one from the Brazen Mountain, and well, she managed to steal his cap and got away.”

“How did she steal it from him?” I asked.

“Shh,” he said. “Listen. Do you hear that?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

“It’s the sound of waves gently rolling in a stream. The sound of nature resounding in the ear. Stunning. The ferryman. I need to mold the water nymph!”

And he ran off.

Mom tried to keep him away from the walls, but he found a way. He ate less and less food. He chewed more and more paint. I didn’t notice he was withering until the summer I went away for volleyball camp. I was gone for a week, and when I returned it was the first time I noticed his sunken cheeks. He was walking bones. He had a wild look in his eyes. It scared me. He stared at me like I was a chimp from another planet. He touched my hair like it was glass and if he squeezed it too hard, it would break. He held my hair in his hands awkwardly and didn’t say a word the whole car ride home.

As soon as I walked in, I noticed the walls in the house. Paint stripped away revealing the ugly brown color beneath it. My brother went straight for it. With that same slow motion that he touched my hair, he pet the wall. Then, I watched him curl his fingers into a claw and he scraped his nails against it. Pieces of paint drizzled to the floor. He continued to scrape up and down. Slowly. Deliberately. My mom walked in and screamed as soon as she saw him. She dropped to the ground. Crawled to him. Grabbed him by his knees. She got up and picked him up like a little child and rushed to the kitchen. She spoon-fed him yogurt from a giant container. He was motionless. The yogurt dripped out of his mouth spilling down his chin onto his shirt. He stared off beyond us, like we didn’t even exist.

He was different from that point forward. More distant. He didn’t speak. He played with his figurines and drew pictures of them in crayon on the walls in his bedroom.

I shook my head trying to shake the images of my childhood away. My brother’s face hovered like a phantom. I gnawed on the paint chip in my mouth and tried not to gag. I spit it out, molded it into the shape of a cap, and put it on my head. 

Xenia Sylvia Dylag is a Polish-American from Chicago. She’s inspired by Slavic folklore, and you can find snippets of it weaved in her writing.
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