“The ability to simplify means to eliminate
the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
Brushing a wisp of grey hair from her forehead, Mae applies a coil of clay to the nude she is sculpting. With her thumbs, she smoothes and shapes a ridge of tightened muscles across the stomach. Then she steps away from the sculpting stage and stares. Slowly encircling the form, she tries to memorize the various angles. There is still too much, she thinks, that is unnecessary. She chooses a small steel scraper from her tool tray and shaves off more clay from the waist and thighs. Then her practiced fingers, stained red by the terra cotta clay, reshape the hanging breasts. She dips her rounded end brush in water and better defines the cleavage. To create the look of skin, she dabs the surface with a slightly moistened sponge, softening the way the light hits the clay.
Two feet tall, the form will be a miniature of herself about to spring into a dive: knees bent, calves tensed, thin arms raised and flattened against the soft curls shoved back from the ears, toes starting to push off into whatever lies ahead. She had first planned a more traditional pose and had finished a sketch and fashioned a maquette of her seventy-five-year-old self draped in silk and seated on a stool, meditatively glancing over her shoulder as if for a great and famous artist. But once she finished these preliminaries, everything felt wrong. She didn’t like to sit. She didn’t own any silk. If nowhere else—she thought—she deserved the action of her imagination.
Besides, action meant change, and no matter whether she planned for it or not, change seemed to splash all about her. Better to bend her knees and prepare to spring forward. Of course, there was always the matter of losing balance while she waited. That was the risk. It had happened before. Even last week, waiting on her front porch for a ride, she had lost her footing and nearly toppled over the handrail into a pile of leaves she had raked earlier that morning. Had she instinctively prepared for her own fall by softening the ground with such bright colours?
Now, with wood ribs in hand, she scolds herself for being silly. In truth, she had been too exhausted to bag the leaves. And she had grabbed the handrail hard and righted herself successfully. There was nothing else to it. No need to tell anyone. She hadn’t said a word when her ride pulled up.
With the wood ribs, she trims more clay from the muscled calves, then looks again at the slightly off-balance form of herself. What was the best way to give the illusion of motion? To suggest movement without sending the statue toppling to the floor? She scores the base and shores up the foundation with additional clay. With a metal scraper, she arches the toes a centimetre more. Was that it? She takes a wire brush and textures the clay into long blades of grass curling in the wind over the statue’s heels and toes.
Again, she stands back, then reapplies the pressure of her tools. She scrapes away additional clay to better define the blades. More and more, they resemble waves. She rolls another coil. She attaches the coil with slurry then transforms it into a twirl of seaweed climbing one ankle. “Maybe,” she thinks, and steps back again to look.
Her upcoming exhibit—a retrospective—is two weeks away. “Self, Diving” will be the final piece. What she wants it to express, she is still discovering. She keeps the seaweed in place and looks again at the angle of the head. This is the last form friends and patrons will consider as they return to the ordinary world: a head slightly tucked but moving forward, a body following that determination.
Her opening sculpture is also a nude, herself at seventeen. In that one, she is kneeling, her head lowered in prayer, her palms raised in praise. If patrons were to look closely, as they should, they would see the statue has no eyes, merely large sockets where Mae has forced her thumbs to dig in. From experience, Mae knows most people will focus instead on the hands. With a metal teasing needle, she has carefully crafted each clay fingernail to point toward heaven.
Much of Mae’s other work is in oils, impressionistic paintings of her travels in France or the farmlands of southern Ohio where she played as a child. Points of orange and red merge sun and fields. Lavenders and blues blend to offer up a familiar landscape of hills. But there are unexpected pieces, too. Sharp angles and incongruities: it is a different type of sculpting. With colour and shadow, she can shape perception. She can adjust expectations. She can give the illusion of movement where there is none. She can soothe or surprise. Sometimes, Mae starts off trying to do the one, but ends up accomplishing the other. How long had she stood back and stared at “Prayer”? At one point, she had thought she was done, then surprised herself and rebuilt the lowered face, adhered more wet clay, and plunged her thumbs in.
The oils, also wonderfully messy, exposed the hidden. Even in the idyllic landscapes, something else lurked—a crow in the corner of the sky, the tip of a scorpion’s tail descending in sand. Yet in scenes she deliberately cast as unsettling (as in a series one reviewer dubbed “Angelic Nightmares”), something good crept in. The combination of color and line surprised and soothed. Fear transformed into worship. How this was possible, she could only articulate with brush or chisel. Words were relegated to short titles—unpolished doorknobs to push open the meaning. The eye should do the rest.
Even so, it could be troubling to title the character studies. Those of strangers were simple enough, but the paintings or sculptures of those she loved? How to suggest duality? To recreate the real but not harm the original? She thought of the details that made up love—the lifting of a tea cup, the sound of your name in someone else’s mouth, the glance sculpting years of recognition—not one seemed small enough for words. But art—that could begin to hold a life, all the dark curves and jagged edges. Mae ponders again her upcoming show. She thinks of those she’s loved these last decades. She does not know how the people she calls her family will react.
She is most concerned about Lauren. After Mae retired from teaching, she moved to the other side of this small Ohio town to that one-story brick home where her best friend, Eva, had lived. After Eva died at 60, her daughter, Lauren, offered Mae first choice of renting the house—not even renting, really, just occupying and paying the utilities. It was just two houses from where Lauren and her accountant husband were starting their family. How could Mae say no? She had known Lauren since she was a shy, introspective twelve-year-old intrigued by music. When Lauren and her mother had moved to town, the two had performed family duets on the organ at Mae’s church. It was there the young girl came alive, her thin legs stretching to push the pedals, her eyes lost in the vibration of notes.
It was the love of the arts, of worship, and of children that brought Mae and Eva together. Both were women without a husband (Mae never had one; Eva’s died in war when Lauren was young) in a church where men were the deacons and ushers. In her mind, when she thought of these men at all, they were standing stiffly at doors and under archways, pointing this way or that. Their suits were the dull grey of granite. They used words like road signs or exhibit titles—short and practical. Their presence was helpful but not substantial.
But the arts—music, painting, even Sunday school crafts and sanctuary “decorations”—these were the sole domain of the women, and Mae and Eva took them on together. They organized church luncheons complete with tea sandwiches, organ recitals, “tasteful” flower arrangements, and invitations with precise calligraphy. After two months of a class they called “Painting by Verses,” they led the Sunday school teens in transforming one wall of the Fellowship Hall into a depiction of The Last Supper. The younger children made stained-glass windows out of coloured cellophane and earlier—for Palm Sunday—choreographed their own dance of palms, complete with pirouettes and grand jetés. Mae remembers the pre-teen Lauren helping with both: a brush in hand, adjusting the tint of Judas’ hair, and with second-grader Jenny Mather, holding her hand as she attempted arabesque.
Most often, though, Mae thinks how she and Eva read Bible passages aloud to each other, then tried to convey their essence through notes or form. Their experiences of awe similar, their expressions of such nonetheless remained different though complementary. Where Mae questioned, Eva encouraged. Where Eva doubted, Mae clarified. “In the beginning was the Word. . . .” Eva had recited one Sunday afternoon in her kitchen, then stepped quickly to the parlor to bring alive the beginning of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
Mae, on the other hand, had immediately envisioned bold charcoal lines streaked across a canvas as large as a refrigerator. All she had wanted to do was bow down. She had opened her sketchpad and begun the first confident strokes of what later became an abstract rendition of Creation. Near the end, she had positioned her own form in the lower left-hand corner: small, prostrate, alone.
Even so, she had felt less alone with Eva than with anyone else. That they could share the intimacy of prayer—of both doubt and belief—in a small way made up for the expected institution of marriage that Mae had wanted but somehow missed. It was companionship, not romance, that she felt had eluded her. It was the symmetry of family.
Having no children of her own, such proximity to family was at times enough for Mae. Sundays after church, while Mae and Eva sat lazily in Eva’s kitchen, sipping tea and talking, Lauren was always nearby drawing pictures or practicing her scales. Her slight movements were the backdrop to their conversations. The shape of her shadow added to their light.
Often, of course, the proportions had shifted. Groupings had naturally realigned themselves. Some Sundays, Mae would paint the mother and daughter playing at Eva’s organ together or leaning against the magnolia tree in their backyard, sharing a memory. At these times, it was enough to be the one recording the relationship—the artist observing. It gave her time to step away, to see the forms anew and how they adjusted to each other in different light. And, of course, there were the times when Mae was absent altogether, when she was not even there to observe but across town at her own apartment, in a life she sometimes forgot was separate from this other duo.
Still, she had created with them more than a decade of such mother/daughter portraits—from twelve-year-old Lauren in braces to the new bride handing her bouquet to a kerchiefed and frail Eva determined to play at her daughter’s wedding. In those last months of struggle, Lauren had performed at church alone. Sometimes, though, with her daughter’s help, the old Eva had resurfaced, had leaned into her own organ, sounding her notes vehemently, passionately, running over the more polished, careful playing of her daughter. Those days, both Mae and Lauren had applauded.
When, in her will, Eva had left the organ to Mae but the room to Lauren, both were surprised. They knew one couldn’t be separated from the other. Eva’s music belonged to both of them, but only within the context of the home she had created. When the lawyer added that Eva had left the study to Mae but the deed to Lauren, their surprise transformed into a slow, soothing understanding. For a week, both dwelt in their own quiet grieving. Then, as if Lauren were simply arranging to again pick Mae up for church, the younger woman offered up her mother’s home. It was a type of sharing she had grown used to. Lauren’s entire family helped Mae move the following month. The girls carried her paints and clay. Daniel helped Lauren with the paintings, pottery, and statues. The moving men he hired did the rest. When the transition was over, the first thing Mae did was hang the mother/daughter portraits facing the organ. Without a word, both women understood each other’s gratitude.
Now, a decade after Eva’s death, the house sustained, developed, and redefined these connections: the kitchen where Mae and Lauren drank tea together, the parlor where Sunday afternoons Lauren and her girls huddled close at the organ, Eva’s decent-sized study that got the morning light and became Mae’s studio, and the two-minute walk to a family Mae could claim.
Mae was Me-Ma to Lauren and Daniel’s girls: Elizabeth Eve, 11, and Mae Lynn, 9. Last summer, she had again sketched their portraits in the small backyard: Lizzie, her arms crossed in defiance near the rosebushes; Mae Lynn, dreamy-eyed and upside down, dangling by her knees from the magnolia tree. Of course, they had made her promise these portraits would also be in the upcoming show. It was not a promise Mae had thought she could make. Instead, she had nodded that they—each sister separately or together—would certainly be present.
And so she started another portrait of the girls, but for this one there was no sitting—at least not one of which they were aware. She began in secret, moving the organ bench to her studio and covering it whenever Lauren knocked at the back door. The mahogany became a magnolia branch with Mae Lynn’s dangling knees. On the young girl’s nail-polished toes, Eva’s eyes winked. Everywhere magnolia blossoms opened in welcome.
When she was finished, Mae propped the bench up vertically near the keyboard. She brought in more portraits of Eva and Lauren, of Lauren and her girls, of Lauren and Daniel, and of the girls together and individually. Once she talked the newspaper boy into helping her; three times the mailwoman. She covered the parlor walls with the family’s faces and bodies. Then she stood back and observed the crowded room. Twice she lost her balance, but started again. She moved “Prayer” to the forefront, just inside the front door. Its hands lifted toward the instrument.
Those days when a concerned Lauren called, Mae feigned a cold. When Lizzie and Mae Lynn wandered over, she blamed exhaustion. When her “inherited” nieces begged to come in, the older woman admitted she was working hard on the “secret” exhibit and that she wanted to wait until she was finished before showing even them. She would visit them soon in their home, she promised.
When she did, they ran to her with Super Good! scrawled across the top margins of math tests. Lauren made Mae’s favorite meal— Blanquette de Veau—while Daniel explained, again, how to report income on any artwork she would sell. Then Mae announced that she had spoken to the director of the Community Center and that the exhibit could now be at her home. She would, she explained, note the change of location on her calligraphy invitations.
Just afterwards, when she glanced at Lauren, Mae couldn’t interpret the canvas of her face. Too quickly, her friend’s daughter stood to clear the dishes. Once at the sink, her back turned, Lauren added, “Of course, we’ll all help.” A second later, Daniel smiled his half-smile, gathered the dirty silverware, then asked, “Mae, how about some dessert to fatten up those bones of yours?” The girls, anticipating a place in the exhibit, jumped up and down, then danced around the room, striking poses and chanting “Me-Ma, Me-Ma.” That night, Mae had begun work on the lower-left leg of Eva’s organ.
Now, weeks later, Mae stands back from her work on “Self, Diving” and walks into the parlor to study the transformed instrument. Intricately painted seaweed spirals around the dark wood of each leg and up toward the keys. On the back panel, she has outlined Lizzie’s foot tapping the rhythm from her iPod. Eva’s praying face hovers in the background. On one side panel, Lauren—standing tiptoe on the top of a cross—reaches for a half note that dangles from one of her mother’s raised hands. On the opposite panel, Mae has painted in oils her charcoaled rendition of Creation. On the organ’s front piece, she has shaped the dead and smiling Eva, huddled together with her daughter and granddaughters beside the magnolia. In the background—and much smaller—Mae has drawn a pregnant replica of herself bringing to life the promised family portrait. Even now, Mae imagines Eva’s impromptu performance of “Appalachian Spring.” The elderly artist stands back and stares. What is the best way to give the illusion of music? To suggest the notes of someone’s life? After all this, she is still not sure.
She walks back to her studio, then turns again to the unfinished statue. She pinches the fluid blades into more definite waves. She adds note-shaped leaves to the climbing seaweed. Again using her metal teasing needle, she heightens the illusion of tightened calf muscles atop the layered water. What is beyond the statue refuses to be known. Under water, sound waves bend differently. Once she accepts such changes, she will let the clay harden to the leather stage. Then she will need to cut open the figure and hollow it out. Otherwise, it will explode during firing. As she learned long ago, only at 1100 degrees will the necessary transformation take place.
She knows just where she’ll position the finished statue: on the top edge of Eva’s organ and closest to the side door where her frequent guests will exit. She may need to change the work’s title. She may need, at seventy-five, to learn how to swim. It should not be that difficult to teach herself.
This story was previously published in The Art Times and in What She Was Saying (Fomite, 2017).
The accompanying artwork by Hans Hoffman was an editorial selection, not the inspiration for the story.
Sage Graduate Fellow of Cornell University (MFA) and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published eleven collections of poetry-including True, False, None of the Above (Poiema Poetry Series and Illumination Book Award medalist); Local News from Someplace Else; Wives' Tales; Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); and Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award)-the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite Press), and over 500 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. Co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (Penn State Press), she also has published four children's books: A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry, Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems ; A Man Named Branch: The True Story of Baseball's Great Experiment (middle grade biography); and Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems + Insider Exercises. For more information, please see www.marjoriemaddox.com
"A child has beaten me in plainness of living." - Diogenes Laertius of Sinope
Little Sita walked to the edge of the sands slowly. She watched the ebb and swell of the cerulean waves in quiet melancholy. Everywhere she turned the ghostly outlines of beasts and brutes followed. She lingered in expectation, waiting, watching, as the sea-gulls dipped and soared in loud
symphony. Everywhere she looked, an unquiet greeted her for the search that would not end. The earth had offered up its wisdom to a child. But she had chosen the pocketbook world of painted apricots, instead of partaking of the real ones. It was not a fishing expedition. There was no enchantment left.
In her hands she held an old oil lamp. It was an earthly lamp. She carried it wherever she went. She had looked at it often. When lit, it glowed, with a flickering light of the rise and fall of blue embers, gauntly gashing. It was a leftover from a bygone past of a former Deepavali, oh-so-long-ago. An odd forgotten curio which she had retained, as a much wanted heirloom, one she could never let go.
Daily she nursed her treasure, lighting the lamp, as the apocryphal story had foretold, attributed oh-so-long-ago to Diogenes Laertius the Cynic. Everywhere he went, his prophetic lamp of ancient wisdom had accompanied him in his philosophical wanderings. Centuries past, when the
world was a place for fables and legends, a man of virtue leading a frugal life, had vainly roamed through the streets of Sinope, in search for an honest man, in search for the speaker of truth, a truth he would never find, even when the sun of burnished gold was brightly flaming, and the moon of
pearly silver was asleep. He poured scorn wherever he went. For who but a "mad dog" or a "wise fool" would light a lamp in broad daylight? The last laugh. Some odysseys would never find an end.
Through dim alleyways Sita crawled. She would wipe her lamp clean and polish it with an old rag, till it glowed brightly. But try as she might and however harder she scrubbed, she was compelled to accept with fine distinction, that no magic genie would mysteriously appear through the bowels of the lamp, spreading red sparkle and aura. Not as Aladdin's had illustrated, when summoned. Only some lamps were predestined to greater glories it seemed. Others were not inter-connected to higher reckonings.
One day a beautiful Goddess appeared, drenched in the mantle of the earth. She glowed in a brilliant green luminescence. Sita could not tear away her gaze, not having seen such a grand vision before. The specter shimmered in overlapping flux. The earth was alive! She stared strangely, overcome by
the mystical sight.
"Come little one, follow me if you seek the truth," the vision spoke to the little girl, taking her gently by the hand, "Nature is being conquered by concrete and asphalt."
Sita trembled in silent cry, filled with awe as she watched her thin and bony fingers protruding sharply, like broken cracked twigs, from under her thin translucent skin, being softly wrapped in the pale porcelain of the Goddess' delicate palm.
"Will you light my lamp?" Sita asked the strange lady, filled with trepidation at her bold request.
The Goddess did not reply. Infused instead with a comely grace, she led the quivering girl up the nearby mountain side, to the Tree of Resource and Research. It spread invitingly. Beckoning.
"Why do you deceive the child so?' mocked the Tree. 'What's the use of a lamp with no bearable planet to light? What's the use of a lamp when honesty as a paramount virtue is no longer the order of the day?"
"You lie!" replied the Goddess unafraid, "We must go to the land where the green grass grows. It is that abode we seek."
The sun had slid into the ocean waters leaving a slash of coral peach sky. Tepid twilight was descending. Sita curled herself on the cold pavement into a fetal position as she slept. The streets were her home. The plain speaking Diogenes who had met with philosophers and kings, had lived in a tub, a simple wooden barrel, on the bare pavements, surrounded by street dogs. He had taken pleasure in it, preferring his frugal lifestyle to one of artificiality and pretentious luxury, as depicted in the frescoes and art works of Waterhouse and Jean-Leon Gerome.
As she slept little Sita dreamt of her lamp extinguished. It was always the same dream. She would trade it for postage-stamps or quails' eggs. It was not for her corner of the earth.
Rekha Valliappan holds an M.A. in English Literature from Madras University and an LL.B. from the University of London. Her passion is fiction writing. Her prose works are more recently published or forthcoming in Indiana Voice Journal, Friday Flash Fiction, Third Flatiron, Scarlet Leaf Review, 100 Voices Anthology, Intellectual Refuge and Boston Accent Lit which adjudged her the 2nd Prize winner in their Annual Short Story Contest 2016. She is an avid reader of mysteries, fiction and literary classics. She lives in New York where she stays actively involved in community service. Born in Bombay she looks to Asia for inspiration. Https://silicasun.wordpress.com
As the Fox Bones Speak
Under the whitest moon she finds the body of a fox,
shot, the bullet hole like punctuation
By midnight she has scoured the forest for the missing bones. Arranged the skeleton of Vulpes vulpes beneath a tree. Her neck’s bristling, which means a man has crossed her path. Her legs freeze.
He’s pressed to the earth in front of her, squinting over the lip of a ridge; nose twitching, stink rising, quickening the air.
It’s a week since he jumped ship and started hacking his way back to his slim-hipped vixen waiting for him in a hidden cabin. She’s sick.
It takes him a month to reach her. A month to lay out the bones he’d taken from the woman in the forest—tarsals, carpals, fibulas, tibias, ulna, sacrum, distal phalanges, ribs, scapular and skull—rearticulated to form the mandala she’d bewitched into being.
Done, he turns to his dying lover. Traces her like the fox. Begs the bones to speak.
Author's note: "I saw Jessie Imam’s Untitled #4 (fox bones – pattern) and it made me think of oracle bones, and how ancient Celts and shamans inscribed questions on bones, and believed that bones have voices (much as some people today still believe their dead ancestors speak to them). Imam hoped her artwork portrayed ‘acceptance of our bodies’ inevitable destruction, rather than one of fear’. But I’d already conjured a man who could not accept the destruction of his lover’s body—and was desperate enough to resort to many things, including ‘scrying the bones’ (in his own way), to try to heal her."
Marjorie Lewis-Jones is an award-winning Sydney writer whose poetry and prose has been published by Spineless Wonders, ABC Radio National, Picaro Press, Poetry Australia, Cordite, Uneven Floor, Hunter Writers Centre, Best Australian Writing 2015, the ACU Prize for Poetry 2016, and other anthologies. She runs the literary blog, www.abiggerbrighterworld.com
José of Lisbon
In the small hours of the first Leap Day in the Gregorian calendar, José of Lisbon was born. He opened his eyes against the smoky light of the candle, smelled the fish rotting under the piers, and heard the grating mews of the stars moving in the black sky. José cried, hiccupped, and went straight to his mother’s breast. But even that first night the path of stars never let him rest.
José’s mother used her breasts to mute the clacks and squeals of the stars for José, but still the baby cried in frustration. By the age of five, José cringed at sunset; the North Star twinkled like a rusted gate creaking back and forth. Never mind the cacophony of screeching and caterwauling of the lesser stars. At night he would fill his ears with straw or wool and bound his head with a cloth. His mother would recite the prayers every good Catholic knew, and José knelt alongside her, hoping God would listen to their pleas. On Sundays they walked to the cathedral and knelt before the statue of Mary. “Please, God,” José prayed. “Let the sun remain in the sky if not for the rest of my days, at least for one. One night’s peace is all I ask for.”
When José came of age, he left home to claim his fortune. He walked up the gangplank of a ship bound for the Americas, bowed once to his faithful mother, and prayed the restless sea would be the solution. Surely the lull of the swells, the fury of storms, would drown-out the stars. He sailed for five years and became a rich man; his skin became swarthy and salt-ridden; he grew a beard and tied his hair back with a leather thong. Many men feared his strength and prowess on the ship and in far-away lands. The gold in the ship’s hull gave him security but no peace. At night he prayed like a child in his grand chambers. “Please, God. If you won’t halt the sunset, please stop-up my ears against the stars.”
On the seventh Leap Day in José’s life, a rogue wave swept across the Indian Ocean and dashed his ship to pieces. Another wave dumped him on a lonely shore at dawn. He walked inland until he found a group of pilgrims on their way to Mecca. A very old man, with a myriad of wrinkles and yellow fingernails listened to his tales of woe. “Your fortune may be lost,” the ancient said, “but no longer will the stars be an affliction.” Without ceremony the man tapped José on the forehead twice with the knob of his walking staff. “May Allah always be with you,” he proclaimed in a voice of aged authority.
“Am I cured?” José asked and took the man’s gnarled hand in gratitude.
“No, my son.” The man looked up at José with a toothless grin. “But now, you have two gods to complain to.”
This short story was first published as a chapbook by the Harvard Bookstore.
The story was inspired by a character in a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Click here to read "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings."
The painting was selected by The Ekphrastic Review and was not the source of inspiration for the story.
Sarah Kilgallon is a Boston writer who studied at Lesley University and the University of Massachusetts. She is also involved in initiatives to help refugees and immigrants.
The painting is precise, photographic. It features industrial buildings with paned windows, a few propped open to release fetid air. It shows aluminium pipes and rivets, steel cables and junctions. The brickwork is meticulous. The perspective is definitive: five railroad tracks converge a third of the way up the picture - linking the world outside this painting to the dead centre of the canvas - and then they slip away into the bright indistinctness of the distance. This is a street in the heart of Detroit depicted in grey and sepia.
The people in the painting are almost invisible by virtue of both size and colour. One by one they emerge, three men heading away along the front of the building on the left hand side, two men lower down to the right - a white man glancing back at an African American man. Starting a conversation? Ending one? Staring blankly through him? And then there’s the man anyone would miss, high overhead in the centre of the painting, walking across a gantry.
The hatching on one of the steel cross members is detailed, the shadow of a window intricate, yet the people are indistinct pokes of a brush, almost incidental. This is the 1930s when Ford’s mechanisation of manufacture is king and men are ten a cent. While agricultural land decays into dust, this street in Detroit is pristine.
Imagine a woman coming into the bottom right hand of this picture, an African American woman in a place where even the men barely belong. Perhaps she is heading towards the African American man - his wife or sister? But she ignores him, as though he is invisible, and steps over each of the tracks with a flick of her heel. And just as we think she is going to speak to the man in white shirt, we are startled to discover a seventh man, one with only one leg and one arm protruding from behind a vertical iron girder, his face barely visible under the peak of his cap. He is painted from the same blend of grey oils as the girder he is half-concealed by, and now we have seen him we wonder how we could ever have missed him, for it is this man that the woman is staring at as she purposefully crosses from right to left.
“Frank.” The woman calls the name that she has used ever since the days when he delivered blocks of ice cut in winter from the great lakes and transported south by cart, by wagon, by train till they finally reached Plainfield. On the back stoop of Mrs Kennedy’s house she waited to watch as he took a saw to the dripping giant on the back of his truck, resting the off-cut on the wet piece of sackcloth slung over the shoulder of his leather vest.
“Hoo-whee,” he said. “It’s a hot one.” And he raised a hand to his forehead, pretending to let the ice block slip, winking as she reached forward to prevent the contrived catastrophe. “Would you like me to set this in the ice box for you, Hattie?”
In the painting the man doesn’t so much as smile, he glances around to see if any of the other men have noticed a woman in their midst, an African American woman at that, one who is now talking to him. He puffs out and then says, “Why you here?”
“Sorry, Mister Finch.” She shouldn’t have called him Frank just now. She realises that in this formal city the codes that were bent on a back stoop are as absolute as the iron work surrounding them. She knows how the rules of this painting work. She adjusts her glove, hoping he won’t notice where the thumb and forefinger have worn through, and whispers, “It’s concerning your brother, Mister Finch.”
And she searches the grey face shaded by the cap for a reaction, remembering when that face was sun-reddened, when the eyes reflected the blue sky and the cheek bones the white sun. She remembers the time before refrigerators reached Plainfield when ice came with a kiss and a tingle, when hands were held out of sight, the time when people had food in their ice boxes and stomachs. But the man won’t look at her.
“Ain’t he dead?” he says.
Hattie twitches her elbows to her sides, holding her purse firmly in her gloved hands, and notices the indent of a bristle across his forehead which speaks of guilt. He hasn’t written to his family back in Plainfield, not since who knows when. Now Hattie is here she partly understands why. Things are different here. There can’t be much to say about attaching fenders to automobiles, about precision. She’s got plenty she could tell this Mister Finch about Plainfield if he wanted to know, how the store’s closed down, how the cattle are all gone, how Mrs Kennedy moved to live with her sister somewhere in this city.
“No, sir,” she tells him. “He ain’t dead.”
The man straightens, but still remains in the shadow where he has been painted. His brother isn’t dead. All is well. No need to talk to her any more. He stares over her hat and Hattie is caught between one leg and the other, not comfortable on either. Not happy at being here in this painting at all.
“He, Mister Finch, the other Mister Finch.” Hattie pauses. “It’s my sister Minny. You remember her, sir?”
“Mister Finch, well he’s gone and, and now Mrs Gregory has let her go and she can’t feed herself let alone a baby. She gonna starve, Mister Finch, and he, the other Mister Finch, he don’t wanna know nothing at all. So I was wondering, whether you could see your way to giving her a dollar or two, just a bit, to keep her, for a little, till the baby comes.”
The man pushes tightly to the girder. The man in the white shirt moves on obliviously, permanently in half-step, and the man on the gantry looks down on the scene, tapping the ash of a Marlboro. He doesn’t really have a role to play, just stuck up there by the painter to break the skyline.
“I thought you might, you know, after, well,” she looks down. She wouldn’t be asking at all if it weren’t Minny, barely grown up enough to work let alone anything else, all skin and bones as it is.
“Nooo,” he says slowly, shaking his head. Plainfield is as far away as the other side of the gallery. What happened back there, back then, means nothing, not here.
“She’s carrying your blood,” Hattie says.
He shifts, as though deciding on something.
“I’ve got me a plan you see, Hattie,” he says. “Get me a tyre shop, make a little money. Need every cent I earn for my plan, I do. Can’t go sending none to Plainfield.”
He settles back. He belongs here now, this is his world.
“Could have been us,” she says, wishing she didn’t have to say it out loud, even if her voice is no more than a gallery whisper. “I could tell them that.”
The man shakes his head.
“Makes no odds to me,” he says.
Hattie looks around at the scene depicted in this barely more than monochrome painting. The almost incidental people pictured are here for good, stuck together for ever, each alone. Who here cares about anything beyond the frame? And even though he is the man and she is the woman, he is white and she is African American, he has money and she has none, she feels sorry for the half-man the ice man has become.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines, including Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017, Bristol Short Story Prize Vol 4, Litro, and Neon, nominated for prizes including the Pushcart Prize 2016, read at festivals and performed. She lives in Woking, England and has two delightful sons. www.RuthBrandt.co.uk
The Light of Their Lives
It was perhaps inevitable that some bright spark in the Research and Development Department of a certain, internationally famous company would, during a brainstorming session, come up with the idea of a beverage consisting solely of pure light. The essential concept behind it was simplicity itself: Why, in these modern, fast-paced times, go through the lengthy and convoluted process of needing the Sun's light to be photosynthesized by plants into chemical energy, which then has to be converted into carbohydrate molecules, which we then have to consume and digest in order for us to finally incorporate the energy from the Sun into our systems? Why not bypass all the intervening stages and just capture, bottle and imbibe the sunlight energy directly?
The management loved the proposal and supported its realization by all means possible. Thus, less than a year after the go-ahead was given, the product appeared in the shops: a soothing, delightful elixir of natural sunshine, free of any preservatives, added sugar or artificial flavours.
The drink provided an instant energy boost, sating hunger without any necessity for digestion, as well as immediately quenching thirst and making one feel warm all over. And, of course, it was suitable for all types of diets including but not limited to kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, raw vegan, gluten-intolerant and fruitarian. No one could take any issue with it, for it was pure light straight from the Sun. And, fortuitously, it was also very suitable for those dieting, for according to the famous E = mc^2 equation, even a tiny amount of mass released a tremendous amount of energy and thus one could quaff great quantities of this potation with hardly any weight gain.
Amazingly enough, apart from satisfying the most basic physical needs (food, water, warmth) in the hierarchy of needs, this beverage also enabled the consumer, and this was a completely unforeseen consequence, to become instantly spiritually enlightened once they have drunk it and thus fulfil the highest need in the hierarchy of needs - the yearning for self-actualization. (Perhaps it should not have been so unexpected, for, by ingesting light one, ipso facto, became illuminated within, which is exactly what enlightenment is, and also as the very morphological structure of the word "enlightenment" indicated its intimate connection to light.)
This serendipitous effect was perfect for the contemporary society, for given that the online world now provided instant information, instant communication, instant entertainment and instant gratification of needs and desires, it was only natural there would also be a great demand for instant self-realisation. And with this product, one no longer had to spend countless hours meditating and repeating the mantra, or sit at the feet of a guru, or clamber up the Himalayan mountains in search of monasteries. Instead there was the convenience of immediate spiritual awakening in a bottle, accessible to all.
The advertising campaign was built around the slogans "Instant EnLIGHTenment™ in a Bottle!", "Fast Food for Body and Soul!", and "Let the Light DeLIGHT You!". For once the reality corresponded exactly to the promotional claims, as it truly was a unique kind of an invention the likes of which had never been seen before.
And so, as was to be expected, everyone flocked to buy the new drink, for, apart from its obvious appeal to the general public, its attraction was also irresistible to a diverse range of people with specific needs, such as the athletic types looking for an immediate energy fix, the spiritual seekers looking for the truth about themselves and the Universe, and the weight-conscious dieters, who immediately added it to their fastidious regimens. Of course children loved it too, given its novelty value and its almost-magical properties.
This unqualified success gave the company the freedom and the impetus to experiment with new varieties of the product. The flavour of the original sunlight brand was a mixture of melon and orange. Later on, many more flavours became available, as the company's researchers went about capturing and bottling light from other celestial objects, as well as from man-made sources.
It was discovered that each planet and star had its own unique taste: Moonlight was cooler on the palate than sunlight and had an indefinable element to it one couldn't quite put a finger on; Mars tasted a bit like tomato juice; Venus was quite tart and almost vinegary, and thus was best drunk in combination with light from other sources; Jupiter and Saturn, as befitting their gaseous nature, were like the finest bubbly champagne; and supernovas had a mouth-exploding, extremely hot chilli flavour that only the very brave and the foolhardy dared to sample. It was also found that the illuminations of every city had their own particular flavour, although the health-conscious preferred only drinks made from natural sources and scorned the artificial flavours of light globes, fluorescent lights and neon signs, which invariably tasted like cheap wine.
With this product on the market, many believed the world was surely heading towards a utopian existence in which humanity would finally be liberated from its burdensome, imprisoning dependence upon plants and animals for nutrition; and the common man, having become instantly enlightened, would see beyond the constricting confines of self-interest and self-preservation and realise everything is inextricably connected and we are all one.
Yet, those who were optimistic that an idealistic state of being would at last be achieved had forgotten all about a deep-rooted and paradoxical aspect of human nature, namely that anything that brought pleasure and enjoyment was open to abuse, misuse and overuse. Consequently, the very source of gratification and bliss, like for example alcohol, could and did mutate grotesquely into a dire threat to one's very existence. Thus obesity and all the maladies it caused was rife in those societies in which food was in ready supply; alcoholism was the scourge of many a land; addictions to both legal and illegal substances destroyed countless lives.
Given the way this beverage immediately satisfied, in one neat package, a person's needs on so many levels, it was inevitable some would become hooked on it. As is often the case with addicts, they found ways to bypass the option of legally purchasing a limited quantity of the product, instead consuming for free limitless amounts by staring directly at the Sun and letting the light flow both into their open mouths, as well as into their eyes. Imbibing light through the eyes was something non-addicts would never do, and that particular experience was likened to mainlining heroin, giving an even greater kick.
These addicts quickly became known as "sunkies" (a portmanteau word blending "sun" and "junkie"), and this word coincidentally had the additional connotation of "sinking" which was very apt, for no drug addict had ever sunk as low as these sunkies. Most of those hooked on narcotics could be rehabilitated and again become respected members of a community. The Sun junkies however voluntarily gave up their sight and their mobility, two of the most precious and vital features a human being possesses, and assumed a static, plant-like existence, remaining rooted to one spot. They cared for nothing else but to follow with their turning heads the Sun's daily progress across the sky, using their sense of warmth to locate it, their retinas having been burnt out, and to drink in the light.
"In Sol Veritas", in Sun all Truths lie, was their motto and guiding principle, believing as they did that the Sun is the portal to the ultimate reality and the sole source of eternal, absolute truths. Their proselytizing spiel to the non-addicts was quite persuasive, claiming that once you started staring at the Sun, you would quickly realize how petty and drab are the affairs of daily life, and how overflowing-with-meaning and magnificent are the inexhaustible revelations and infinite beauty emanating from the Sun, the place where perfection, transcendence, purity lies. The sunkies also extolled the stability and the security their lives now possessed, for the Sun's motion, perfectly regular and unvarying each and every day, scorched away the unpredictability and the uncertainties of their previous everyday existence.
One saw these sunkies everywhere one went, sitting, standing or lying on the pavements, roads, grass, in the mud, in puddles, in gutters, totally oblivious to their surroundings. Their limbs became atrophied from complete lack of movement and turned into something resembling gruesome, withered tree branches, further accentuating their plant-like appearance. The sight of these addicts was both sickening and unspeakably sad, especially as many of them were young people who had sacrificed all the promises the future held out for them.
The greatest tragedy was that the sunkies denied their lives had turned into an irrevocable tragedy. Not only did they become physically blind, they also became blind to the reality of their situation, convincing themselves into believing they were the superior beings living superior lives, and the only ones in possession of the ultimate secrets of existence. They saw themselves as part of an elite caste, the vanguard of an egalitarian utopia to come, for, before the Sun everyone was equal. These Sun's Sons (as they preferred to call themselves, in reference to their claimed filial kinship with the star, for they felt reborn through gazing unwaveringly at the Sun, and also in reference to the brotherhood they felt they had entered into) were totally untroubled by their loss of sight and mobility, for there was nothing down on Earth they wanted or needed to see or do. Indeed they considered their blindness and immobility to be a godsend, for not only did it stop them from being distracted from giving all of their attentions to the Sun, but, even more importantly, it prevented their minds and souls from being contaminated by the imperfections and iniquities that so marked and defined earthly existence.
Thus, light in a bottle, previously the greatest blessing to mankind, became its greatest curse, causing a calamity the likes of which could not be imagined before its arrival on the market, for who could ever envision healthy people willingly becoming immobile vegetables, sacrificing their lives just so they could stare at the Sun and feel its warm smile upon their faces. The sunkies were now completely lost to society, both bodily and mentally, and no kind of rehabilitation was possible for them. In the bitterest of ironies that occur so often throughout the course of history, mankind, having liberated itself from its dependence upon plants, and thus attaining the greatest freedom it had ever possessed, now found an ever-growing proportion of its population choosing to lead a plant-like existence.
But this unfolding global tragedy was of little concern to the company that brought the beverage into the world, for its technicians were busily working on an even greater creation which would undoubtedly trump the bottled sunshine for popularity. Inspired by instant coffee, the new invention-in-the-making already had the brand name of Insta-Life, and, once completed, it would allow a person to experience their whole life in an instant. This surely was, or so the management thought, the ultimate desire and goal in this instantaneousness-obsessed era, for by condensing all of your life into one single moment, you no longer would have to trudge through decades of endless drudgeries and tediously repetitive routines of daily existence, through all the banal and boring stretches of life, and instead get it over and done with in a jiffy. Additionally you would gain an unbeatable upper hand over your rivals in the field of fast living.
With the lure of holiday profits in their minds, the management kept prodding its engineers and scientists to work harder and harder, so that Insta-Life could appear on the market around Christmas time. And so it was only a matter of time before this new invention swept the world, and people would begin to live and die faster than mayflies.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
Lullabye of Uncle Magritte
Salvador Dali never was a person at all.
Overweening pride led a half-mad eccentric - also named Dali - to concoct a chimerical entity of a plastic head grafted upon a waffle iron torso. Dali then set out to convince the whole world that his creation was a human being of great artistic talent.
The world soon grew bored of the Anthropomorphised Dali and forgot all about him. And that's how Rene Magritte, going for his daily constitutional, found the discarded remnants of the Dali Simulacrum melting under the hot hyperxiological sky, the golden metal endoskeleton grotesquely twisted and exposed.
Taking pity upon the atavistic vestiges, Magritte placed them tenderly upon his lap, shielding the molten body with his umbrella and caring not that Dali's aristocratic blue blood permeated and stained his hands, suit and shoes.
Pablo Picasso remained aloof, watching the scene from a distance, his arm resting upon cubes of sky he had carved off with his chisel.
The geometrical sky looked on approvingly from above, happy in the knowledge that the events down on Earth mirrored the events in the celestial sphere.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
Somewhere in the West
Madge the Mysterious, what he called her when they met, waits stiff-backed in red dress on red bed in room with red chair. Viking bones could conquer his pasty freckled skin, towering insecurity about her towering height. Instead, she wears low heels, slouches beside him. She hopes he will admire her from the west-facing windows when he returns with another pack of cigarettes. He yelled last night. Because she needed a restroom? Because she turned the radio dial? They didn’t speak for miles. Didn’t speak even when he took her from behind in the night, then rolled over. He’s a good man, mostly, she had told her friend Lena. He just gets mad sometimes, over details. He likes order. Likes his way more like, Lena said, having seen blood flush his face on their double date when Madge ordered another drink. They walked behind the men after dinner. Madge whispered, I hate how he tastes after a smoke. She didn’t smoke but always kissed Hank back, not saying anything, not since a few weeks after they met. Wealthy, well-traveled Hank made her want to abandon her hometown, secretarial job, family, her life. Madge wants to be irresistible so Hank will take her farther in his peacock-proud green car. He said they’d see red-pink-beige mesas; mountains; canyons. But all she’s seen is miles of crop fields, crosses, red-white-blue flags, cattle, ranches, so many star symbols, barbed wire. She said, This isn’t what I thought the West would look like. Hank flicked the burned down Camel bud out his open window, the window that let wind in to whip her ash-blonde hair into her eyes. This ain’t the West yet, honey. She’d never been this far from Baltimore, thought, This must be the middle-west, or thereabouts, a godforsaken place of tornados raging, tossing, tearing, taking at whim. Hank talked nuptials but hadn’t proposed, had wandering eyes that glue-stuck on other women. Madge formulated the plan while he drove, while she pretended to sleep. She had money in her suitcase lining. She would leave where and when he least expects. Not Vegas or Hollywood. Not that far. Madge will disappear in some city with a bus or train to take her to a place that shows a shade of red she recognizes in herself; a place that cannot own her; a place that will save her life.
Janet St. John
Janet St. John lives and writes in New Mexico. Her poetry and flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines includingThe Nebraska Review, Poet Lore, StepAway, After Hours, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Canary: A Literary Journal of Environmental Crisis,and bosque: the magazine. With arts funding under attack, she is dedicated to writing and creating even more art, keeping convos about the arts even more alive, and personally supporting as many artists and arts programs as she can. Her weekly blog series "Art & Soul Shorts" is part of that mission: https://www.janetstjohn.com/blog
Homage to L.A.: a Slaughterhouse of Dreams
The smell hits you as soon as you step out of the air-conditioned airport. You feel the residue, the fallout of broken dreams hitting your palate. The charred remains of incinerated hopes mix with the omnipresent smog and invade every pore of your being.
The shuttle bus takes you to your hotel over miles and miles of pulverised aspirations paved over by concrete highways. From the bus window you can see Hollywood Boulevard, where gold stars are set into asphalt, merging imperceptibly with the Promenade of Dead Dreams where the stars are wrought of dirty, soggy cardboard and are stuck onto the pavement with scotch tape or wads of old gum. Each star marks the exact spot where a particular dream breathed its last.
Different dreams die in different ways. Some shatter into jagged shards and one gets badly cut trying to piece them together again. Some fragment into neat, symmetrical fragments and reconstruction is a relatively straightforward task, sort of like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Others just crumble away, like burnt paper, and nothing is left to do except to warm your hands over their long-cold ashes.
Around each broken dream throngs of people sit in huddles, protecting it as best they can from the elements and the vagaries of fate, and keeping a vigil just in case it stirs and shows signs of life, for no dream can be obliterated completely.
L.A., a Dream Slaughterhouse masquerading diabolically as a Dream Factory. The city takes particular delight in finding new ways to kill dreams, in finding new dreams to put to death. Special extermination squads roam its streets, ransacking every nook and cranny of the peoples' souls and minds for any treasured hopes that might be in hiding there. The perversity of L.A.'s depravity is such that it even gives birth to dreams just so it can shoot them and watch them die.
The dream incinerators keep working around the clock, day and night, producing clouds of smoke that comprise of dreams reduced to their constituent elements: deep yearnings, life-long desires, burning ambitions, great hopes, ineffable hunches rumbling just below the conscious mind, indestructible beliefs, faint, half-remembered childhood premonitions of future glory that are more potent than any Law of Man or Nature, secret aspirations that one does not dare to share with others lest they be derided, yet which are a crucial part of one's identity and which one is absolutely certain will be realized.
The city makes you come face to face with your shortcomings, makes you confront your failures. It knows all the delusions that comfort us throughout our lives; the delusions that get us out of bed in the morning and inspire us to do things with our lives; the delusions that keep us warm and secure at night; the delusions that sustain us through our daily struggles; the delusions we use to solve our existential crises and that provide us with reasons for living; the delusions that help us through our darkest times; the delusions we stubbornly hang on to, nurture and cherish and that we would defend to our very deaths.
Every delusion gets hunted down and taken care of in this town: the delusion that you are special and unique; the delusion that you have singular and extraordinary talents; the delusion that you are in possession of insights into life the rest of the world lacks; the delusion that you possess fundamental truths everyone else is blind to; the delusion that you are destined for greatness; the delusion that you are a genuine genius whom the world doesn’t appreciate or understand; the delusion that you will find a soul mate meant just for you and whose love will save you; the delusion that the convictions you tenaciously hold on to are not delusions at all but are rather veracious, valid beliefs derived from experience and insight, and are supported by evidence from both the outer and inner worlds; the delusion that you are above the laws of humanity and deserve to be treated differently; the delusion that a lucky break will come to you in the end; the delusion that somewhere some person, angel or god is looking after you, working on your behalf and trying to help you with your journey through life; the delusion that you are protected by fate and special good fortune from bad things happening to you; the delusion that there will come a day when you will begin to live happily ever after; the delusion that some day you will find meaning in your tribulations and thus your life will be retrospectively justified; the delusion that it all will turn out well in the end; the delusion that all is well that ends well; the delusion that your life is just a bad, absurd dream and that you will eventually wake up to find yourself living a happy life that makes sense; the delusion that you alone, out of the multitude in the present world and throughout the course of history, will be spared from death; the delusion that you are dead; the delusion that you are alive; the delusion that you do not have any delusions.
Over the eons, the native denizens of the city have evolved a protection mechanism— they dream only fake dreams and have only counterfeit delusions so that when their hopes are destroyed, it doesn’t hurt at all. Only the unwary outsiders possess no genetic defence system and it is their dreams the metropolis preys upon.
The mountains, mute witnesses to the adversities and sufferings down below, are always there, solid and eternal, their paradoxical presence contrasting sharply with the ethereal, evanescent dreams floating around in the valleys.
Yet there might be an explanation for this incongruity, for according to an old American Indian legend the L.A. area was once as flat as a pancake. Over time the detritus of destroyed dreams landed on the outskirts and amassed to create the mountains. Just as coral reefs are comprised of myriads of dead organisms, so the mountains around L.A. are composed of fragments of lost hopes, scraps of unfulfilled ambitions and shells of dead dreams, with each broken dream contributing about 2/7th of an inch to the mountains’ height.
The mountains, mute witnesses, say nothing, expressing themselves through that most ancient, most articulate, most authentic and most profound language of all—absolute silence.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
J. Petrinovic, to Her Viewer
The following interaction with Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Portrait of J. Petrinovic was recorded in the University's art gallery Nov. 13, 20__
Yes, it is me you hear. It happens, rarely, but sometimes.
Look at my portrait. Please see me, or at least how Brockhurst, as he had me call him, painted me. Don’t follow your gentleman into the next room. I need you more. Stay.
I heard the disdain with which he spoke. It’s how my husband and Brockhurst talked to me. Maybe that’s why you can hear what so many do not. We share circumstances, perhaps? You are his girlfriend? Mistress? Wife?
Did he present you those beautiful pearls and the matching teardrop earrings, or did you buy them? They frame your face perfectly, and I hope they memorialize a happy occasion. I purchased these graduated pearl strands from money my husband gave me to help me get over the loss of my daughter at the hand of that low, alleyway doctor to whom he sent me.
Do I see sadness in your face? Can I help? In life, I desperately wanted a friend with whom to share my story, trust in her response, and be, in return, her giving mirror. Instead, I am now an unsympathetic figure, my background a few hills and indistinct light, hung here unable to offer or receive comfort. Those who knew me in life are gone, and I am eminently forgettable to the relative few who take more than a moment to glance inside my frame.
At least the docents find me useful. A few times each day they gather groups before me, offering the same introduction each time: “With portraiture, the artist paints a story you get to tell about someone you didn’t know.” Then they ask for a story, and the criticism begins.
My jaw is too prominent; my blush or lip paint too obvious; my hair too severe, parted on the wrong side with an auburn shade unlikely for my colouring; my look accusing. I am not heroic like the woman seen around the corner on a Jacob Lawrence panel. I am just a stuck-up bitch, one young person said. Can you imagine such a horrid phrase?
How can people think they know me like that within seconds? Your clothes, like mine, are fashionable, not flapperish. Do people talk of you as they do me?
The nice things said, such as they are, are voiced by children. A particular boy and another girl said I was pretty, but then said no more after their teacher hectored them to explain why. In another group, a few children decided I must be rich, and they would be nice to me so I would buy them lunch, new clothes, sneakers, and maybe even video games.
For nearly every adult visitor who comments, I am the stooge they compare to my neighbors on this wall. Many see me lacking in natural graces juxtaposed to the innocence and natural beauty they find to my left in the smaller portraits by Milton Avery of a “Nanny,” and Daniel Huntington’s “Study of a Young Woman.” People’s faces light up with happiness when taking in Robert Henri’s young man, “Johnnie Patton,” to my right. A shadow falls as they shift their glance toward me.
It suggests paranoia if I talk of conspiracy. Still, I occasionally wonder if the curators have hung me in some way to make the boy seem more heroic by comparison. He is here courtesy of the family for which this gallery is named. But that is madness, yes? The result of too much time to worry my fate.
Brockhurst was celebrated and well compensated for making women glamorous with his brush and oils. His, I suppose, was the luster my husband wished to reflect through this commission. Everyone knew the artist’s history with women. His two wives often modeled for him because, like Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo, they foolishly thought reducing his intimate exposure to other women would keep him from cheating. During my sitting he joked about dabbing some of his wife into my features to keep her off the track. I did not accept or encourage his advances.
Do I read in your eyes similar experience? Will you trust that I am not lying? I am not sure my husband did, leading to the argument over money between him and Brockhurst that leaves me—this portrait of me anyway—undated. The omission must imply to many observers I am unfinished … unworthy.
Brockhurst would lecture while he painted and speak of how an artist attempts to capture the subject’s mind, brain, and especially her soul on canvas. Could there have been too much of the latter, which has given me this cursed afterlife? Was there too little, which is why nobody sees anything closer to the real me? Was I cursed into this eternal melancholy by his wife? My own husband?
Perhaps I lost a competition—one I was most unaware of—with that debauchee, Margaret Campbell, Dutchess of Argyll. Her sitting overlapped mine. Our portraits are similar, although hers is commonly discerned as a finer example of his work.
With forever to think, my mind stops, starts, and revolves on the same track like a boardwalk carousel. I am not, as I’d hoped, a figure inspirational and tragic, like the unknown woman of Poe’s “Oval Portrait.” Not a metaphoric expression of tortured artistry like Wilde’s closeted Dorian Gray. Regrettably, my definition has become what I am not—so much moreso than what I once was.
Funny, when no guard or visitor obstructs my view, I spend hour after hour staring straight across the gallery at Jean Dubuffet’s mostly golden “Geomancier.” Visitors kindly describe that heavily layered oil abstract. Somehow it comes across as three-dimensional and inspiring of multiple interpretations, while I am two-dimensional and easily dismissed. One day Brockhurst described the book he was reading, Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland,” about a two-dimensional world. Could he somehow have whisked those ideas onto the palette, defining the woman you see here? Some of the women who stand in your place--
Wait. Please don’t leave because he calls. I know what happens if you let him choose your direction for you. I am what happens. I need you. Stay.
This story first appeared in Easy Street Magazine.
Kent Oswald’s work has appeared in LA Times Book Reviews, Tennis Industry, Cigar Aficionado, Six Sentences, and elsewhere. He tweets @Ready4Amy and @CupidAlleyChoco
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