Moonlight and Melancholy
In a short time, Bemis grew to hate the painting. He had bought it at one of those art auctions on a cruise ship, and only later did he learn that the auction house was under indictment for peddling forgeries. Carol had told him he was crazy to spend that kind of money on shipboard, where it was impossible to verify anything. They were sitting ducks, didn’t he see that? Now it turned out she had been right, and the painting hadn’t even arrived yet.
When it did, he unwrapped it and took a good, hard look. It was a painting of a clown sitting on a bull’s back, right up behind the horns. The clown had a sad face and was looking off to his right, as if listening for something. The bull had lowered its head slightly and was staring straight ahead at the viewer, looking like it was about to charge. Its horns flared out and up, one of them traversing a large, round moon the painter had hung in the corner of the painting. The whole thing was washed in blue, to suggest moonlight.
Bemis remembered reading the identifying label on the ship a fraction of a second before looking at the painting itself, and being charmed by its name, “Moonlight and Melancholy.” Even then, he thought it predisposed him to like the painting. But what did that matter? What mattered was whether you could live with it on your wall, and as he stared at the bull with its sad voyager in the bright moonlight that seemed beyond question. The label had a red dot on it, which meant that a bid had already come in. It was for forty-seven hundred dollars, the auction agent told him when he asked. He would have to do better than that. Carol was not there. She had left after lunch with the snorkeling party in a zodiac that zoomed off into the distance and then disappeared. She wasn’t interested in second-rate art, as she called it. She wanted to see the coral and tropical fish the area was so famous for. Bemis felt exactly the opposite way. He didn’t care if he never saw what was under the sea.
At the auction, the agent told him all about the artist, whose work was beginning to turn up in museums in the States and Europe. It usually sold for a lot more than forty-seven hundred dollars. The agent had papers to show that. Bemis put a bid in for forty-seven fifty, figuring that someone else would better that and he’d be off the hook. But no one bid any higher, and when Carol came back she told him he was a sap, and when he showed her the painting she just stared at him. He could tell she was trying not to say anything hurtful.
Bemis had been so excited about the painting, but now it seemed a dead thing, now that he had it home. It had no light, it was blue, and mottled, like fish skin. He wondered if it was even the same painting he had seen aboard the ship. He propped it on the hall table, turned toward the wall, and only then did he see the sticker on the back that said “Studio 23,” and the phone number. He dialed it, and a woman who identified herself as Brenda answered on the other end.
“How can I help you?” she asked, in a beguiling voice.
“I have a painting,” Bemis began. “I think it’s yours. It has a sticker on the back that says Studio 23.”
“Could you describe the painting to me?” the woman asked, and when Bemis did she said, “Oh yes. Moonlight and Melancholy. A fine work by”—and here she mentioned the artist whose name Bemis already knew. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m not sure,” Bemis said. “I bought it on a cruise ship. I think it may be a forgery.” He could hear a crackling sound on the line when he said the word “forgery.” It sounded like the signal might be fading. “Oh no, sir,” the woman said when she came back. “Studio 23 stands behind all of its paintings one hundred percent.”
“What is Studio 23, anyway?” Bemis asked.
“We are a clearing house for fine reproduction oil paintings,” she answered, reeling off the words with practiced fluency. “Our artists copy only the best of what is licensed for copying. If you like, I can put a brochure in the mail to you.”
“What about”—and here Bemis mentioned the artist’s name. “Did he paint this or not?”
“Oh yes, of course. The original,” the woman answered.
Bemis felt like an idiot as he asked, “The original? This is not the original?”
“Oh no,” the woman said, her voice deepening with what sounded like genuine compassion. “I hope no one misrepresented Studio 23 to you. We handle fine reproduction oil paintings.”
No one had said a damn thing about Studio 23, Bemis wanted to tell her. He never heard of it until he turned the painting over at home and saw the sticker. And even the sticker didn’t say anything about reproduction oil paintings or licensed copies. Just “Studio 23” and the phone number.
“Sir,” Brenda was saying. “Sir?”
“Yes,” Bemis managed to say. He felt groggy and half-drowned.
“Sir, I want to assure you that you are in possession of a first-rate work of art. Hardly anyone owns an original, you know. Almost everything you see is a copy. If you’d just let me send you our brochure.”
“No, thank you,” Bemis said, because he didn’t want to be rude, and then he hung up. He had a lot to think about. In the meantime, he was not going to look at the painting. There were so many things he didn’t care if he never saw again, things riding out into oblivion away from his caring. Here was another. Only, he thought perhaps if he left the painting on the hall table, where no one would disturb it, turned toward the wall, he might see the Studio 23 sticker with the phone number whenever he passed, and hear Brenda’s beautiful voice saying, “No one owns an original, sir. Everything is a copy.”
Michele Stepto lives in Connecticut, where she has taught literature and writing at Yale University for many years. In the summers, she teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Her stories have appeared in NatureWriting, Mirror Dance Fantasy and Lacuna Journal. She is the translator, along with her son Gabriel, of Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.
Editor's Note: This image was chosen by the editor to illustrate the story. The inspiration for the writer's story was an imaginary painting, not this one.
On the Shore of a Woman
A red-headed man in his late thirties collapses onto farmland from a bullet in his side. Anvers, France, 1890.
I am ever on the shore of a woman. Lap upon her sand, then withdraw. Wet salt bristles my nostrils. In boggy regions fish die and I chew her salty bread. Pores appear on her moss-slick skin, but I see them only as stars faraway. My pulse swells and breaks like surf. Her heart foghorns across the blackness. In pools I near her grace, then ebb. Her undulating body pulls then repels. Compressed air belches and grit grinds between us. I squeeze into her mud. She opens and then me. I am milk-white. She is liquid eyes. However deep I wash into her, more of me remains outside.
I come from inside a woman and try always to return. I began in the black womb but found no black in nature. Not in the beginning—my stillborn brother in the grave outside the family home, my name upon his cross—nor at the end, my sky clotted with ravens.
Sunlight dances into my wound. Zinc yellow glints off the bullet and sparkles my red lakes. Aquamarine and vermillion skitter about distant silver hills. Cerulean sky rushes forward. I open into mother earth. My blood, darkening to carmine, mingles with this soil a breathing colour, tinting torso and limbs in arc and sinew. Like a woman divulging herself at the moment of climax or a teardrop turning out its salt. Never has pigment been more true. The freshly turned, sweet earth blossoms her fragrance to me while I soak into her dark, forgiving soil and pass through her muscles and her sighs.
No, I found no wife. But I have mated: the involuntary trembling, the opening, the emptying, and then the cooling blood, peace in the limbs, the dissolving across the earth.
To the women I found: Cousin K., how I still hear your, “No, never, never,” as you ran from my proposal. Was my love frightening? Its vessel horrid? And to Sien, the same storm that cast you onto my shore in one wave reclaimed you in the next. What worth my arms not strong enough to save you from the streets? Lastly Rachel, you thought it mad but I cut for you the lobe of flesh I tread to the truth in me.
Now I lay open the whole of my body. I slough in the sun, expose the genuine, strip the profane. Cocoon-like, I writhe to free myself. I unfold to a new, beautiful form. Oh, if a woman were to touch her bare love to mine, what suns we would excite.
My colleagues, sisters, brothers, have I convinced you of the sinew in nature? Lifeblood courses through her veins. And light. Yes. Light. The sun’s chrome yellow works into the life of a thing, almond leaves, sunflowers, cornfields, all shards of a single mirror. Luminous light. Pregnant hills, sweet orchards, tender meadows—visions to calm the skin. Whorls of starlight in a dark universe spiral beyond like the generation of children to come.
I will have no children, but I explored life as a child, like the meadow near my home in Zundert. One day a butterfly, the Apollo, fluttered just above the reach of straw grasses. My eyes traced its bobbing path through the air until it dipped below the horizon where a stream bordered the meadow. When it didn’t arise again I followed. I stood at the stream edge and saw the shapes and oil tints of its wings varying in the sun. Rocks sparkled beside it. It fluttered some seconds below the water.
Did I ever paint anything so tender?
I sold but one work—to a woman painter. That and praise in Paris embarrasses me after all this time. I did not do enough. Yet I did profit; I tendered everything. The creations I leave behind will also find rest.
Dear brother, dear Theo, what was I without you? We will be, as always, side by side. In all history it is couplings that conceive. A handshake in thought.
My alizarin blood and the sienna manure couple in this farmland. Here—with my finger draw a line, a curl there, a hard curve, more maroon here. Incline her head look back across into the distance. Hair waving on one, yes, off one shoulder. Yes. Finished.
I create my end. Liquid, I return to woman. I return to her at last.
I sign my life—Vincent.
A version of this story previously appeared in Art Times.
Hank Lawson has written two pre-published novels, short historical fiction published in the Chicago Quarterly Review and Art Times, songs, a range of music, and occasional poetry.
Stopped by a red light, the driver—whose mother, at the library book sale (which had been over for almost thirty minutes), breathed her last goodbyes, drowning beneath the weight of crisis—inched forward, reluctant at first, then with less caution, emboldened by the stillness of the other drivers. A second driver, turning right on green, noticed the driver, hesitated, signaled, and turned. The driver too hesitated. Then, a white car—like a gentle bolt—joined with the driver’s car at corners and spun the driver ninety degrees. Car wounded but not incapacitated, the driver yelled, Whaasshole! The other driver, who had every reason to yell the same, instead thought, Cha-ching!
Ben Atwood is a writer and gardener in Albany, NY.
Still Ugly Inside
I sit writing in the treasure room, puffing my cheeks, ready to exhale my seminal work. The room is flooded with water and my keyboard is on fire. I see you at the edge of the cliff with your lyre in your hand. Your eyes gaze resolutely downward. The wind blows through your loosened hair. The sea lashes below and the seagulls coo violently behind. Your bosom glows with the riot of your passion. You leap into the abyss…I scream myself awake in the middle of the night.
I remember how you used to fill every room that you have entered; how you would suck all the oxygen out. I remember how you invented the love song at age ten. I remember your Aragon, your musk and your black cumin. I remember your restless flame, your unruly ruminative lines. I remember how you slept with a dagger under your pillow every night when I was away. I remember how afraid you were to lose your mind. I remember how you fought life and won.
You come to me with a riddle:
There is a female creature who hides in her womb unborn children, and
although the infants are voiceless they cry out across the waves of the
sea and over the whole earth to whomever they wish and people who are
not present and even deaf people can hear them. The female creature is a
letter and the infants she carries are the letters of the alphabet: although
voiceless they can speak to those far away, to whomever they wish
whereas if someone happens to be standing right next to the reader he will
You, the self-willed daughter of Pegasus, wrote yourself into history. You were the muse that muses longed for. How I wished to be one of your scribbles.
You put yourself to sleep in my arms as we sit in the elephant garden. We were madly, clumsily, brutally, agonizingly, shamelessly, childishly in love with each other. I should add hopelessly, because we never had a chance. I was not equipped to carry your love in me. Not yet a man, but no longer a boy, I had nothing to offer but foolish pride. I was given beauty, but still felt ugly inside. I kept one eye always opened while you beautifully slumbered in love. I let you practice the art of our love all by yourself. I heard that you said:
I wish I were eloquent now! Sorrow checks my art and all my genius is
halted by my grief.
My old power for poetry will not come at my call;
My plectrum is sorrowing and silent, sorrow has hushed my lyre.
Daughters of the island of Lesbos, children married and soon to be wed
[ …] Phaon has stolen everything that once was pleasing to you,
Phaon, alas, I came close to calling him mine.
Bring him back; your singer too will return.
He gives power to my genius: he takes it away.
You finally lose control over the complications of your myth. You beat your chest, you tear your hair and you wail and wail. You say “Unheard I mourn, unknown I sigh; unfriended live, unpitied die.” Quite the opposite, my dear. You leap into water, and I leap into fire.
Hakim Bishara is a writer and an artist based in NYC. His latest work is a play titled It’s Only Through Your Thoughts that I Can Remember Who I Am.
Quotes from Sappho: First, from Antiphanes’ play Sappho (fourth century B.C). Source: Kock, Theodorus. Commicorum Atticorum Fragmentafr. Leipzig: Lipsiae B.G. Teubneri, 1880-88. P 196. Second, Sappho’s words in Ovid’s Heroides 15. Source: Greene, Ellen. Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. P 85.
A Background Job
They had evacuated the paintings during the War. She did not know where they put them. Almost a month after the evacuation, she had received a call. They wanted her to give a tour.
‘But there are no paintings.’ she had said. ‘A tour of what?’
‘Of the paintings that are not there.’
And so she started giving tours of the empty museum. The walls were bare. In some places, they were peeling. The lighting still worked. It mostly cast shadows off of piping, and the occasional fire extinguisher. She did not remember dates or names, just colours, shapes. Sometimes the people on the tour would complain. ‘But who drew what was once here?’ They would say, and she would just shrug. ‘Would it matter what I told you?’ She said. ‘There’s nothing there.’
She particularly enjoyed remembering a nude reclining on the bed with her arm stretched out.
‘Her stomach protrudes slightly. There is a great deal of shade near the pubic regions. Her legs are tucked together, partly covered by a white sheet which is pleated and folded many times. There are slippers on the floor. One of them is open, turned to the viewer — the other is on its side, with its back to us. By the bed, are soft fabrics. They are mostly brown and a dull red.’
She would talk endlessly about the background. She forgot the figure completely, describing every bit of cloth she could remember. She knew how many tiles were used to build perspective, and that the furthermost one on the left was slightly smaller than the rest.
It reminded her of the life drawing sessions she would attend as a student. She would quickly sketch out the body. She saw it as a ‘thing.’ How quickly bodies became things when you looked at them for long enough. They floated.
After making a rough outline, she would focus on the walls. Other people called it background but for her that was it. She loved the peeling paint. The roughness of wood. The dustiness of concrete.
This short story was inspired by the evacuation of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg Russia during WWII. The painting shown is an editorial selection, and was not the prompt for this story.
Omer Friedlander was born in Jerusalem. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bastille, Litro Online, The Airgonaut, Notes, eyot, Eunoia Review and The Dial. His artwork was published on the front cover of the poetry collection And There Were Other Matters by Chagit Kahan. He is currently studying English Literature at the University of Cambridge.
I was holidaying in France on the night that it occurred.
The summer evenings had faded gradually into a bleak, funereal autumn, and the air was heavy with the smell of wood smoke and leaf mould. Feeling the chill of the evening - and my hosts remarkable lack of affability – I had taken myself to bed early that night and had drifted into slumber with unusual celerity. I am often troubled by insomnia; especially when sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings such as the ramshackle inn that was my home for the night in that alien region of the Loire valley. I must have slept from some time before I was awoken by a relentless, rasping sounds.
Zig, zig, zig.
The rhythmic, recurring cadence of the night.
Rising from my bed, I ventured across my narrow, ill-lit chamber. Pushing open the heavy oak shutters I gazed from my window. All was darkness in the tavern in which I stayed, even the most enthusiastic of revellers having quieted now. The countryside too showed few signs of life, and after a few minutes contemplation I returned to my bed and tried to go back to sleep.
Zig, zig, zig.
The sound scratched at my brain. Although not loud it seemed to bore deeply into my consciousness. It ran like sandpaper over my mind. Rising again, I strode back to the window and flung the shutters wide furiously. This time I had been quicker. On the pathway below, briefly caught in the moonlight between the trees, I perceived a cloaked and hooded figure. He hurried away towards the slumbering town. He did not glance back.
Hastening back across my room, I pulled a shirt over my head and boots onto my clumsy, fumbling feet. Moving swiftly and silently, I crept through the darkened house and let myself out into the yard. Bright moonlight lanced its way across the scene, casting illumination and shadow in equal measure. Within minutes of seeing the apparition I was on the road; racing along the rutted track that wound its way through the village. Not a light showed, nor a breath of wind moved the leafless linden trees. I moved as briskly as I could along that broken road, I dared not move faster for fear of twisting my ankle. There was no other track however, and I continued along my lonely and unsettling pilgrimage. With every step the sound grew louder, and always in the same triplication;
Zig, zig, zig.
I left the village and stumbled on into open country. Before me the road wound away, and in the near distance the spire of the church arose high above me. I shuddered in the chill night air. The noise itself had reached a huge crescendo now and had taken on a beautiful yet sinister melody.
Zig, zig, zig.
As I drew nearer however, I caught a clearer glimpse of my quarry. He flickered in the strips of light and whipped ahead, the hem of his robe flicking around the corner of the church and into the cemetery as I approached. He moved lightly, as if floating over the ground rather than treading it as a man should. The yard itself was hidden behind the bulk of the church, however I hurried around the corner before halting abruptly in amazement, at the very moment that the church tower beat out its mournful midnight toll.
Throughout the churchyard, and with more flocking to join at every moment, were an army of skeletons. It looked as if every corpse in Christendom had been called to participate in that macabre ballet.
These were not however dry heaps of bone, but animated, leaping, twirling, dancing skeletons. Running and spinning, joining together and then springing apart, and all to the morbid song of that deathly dance-tune. Oblivious to my presence, they waltzed and pirouetted in the blackness of the night; marionettes of that most fearful and grotesque of puppet-masters.
For He is there, oh yes. He, with his violin clasped tightly in his skeletal hands, his funeral shroud clinging to the bare bones of his form.
Death stands alone; lord of all that he surveys. His violin sends forth a torrent of notes as his boot heel strikes out the rhythm of the dance upon the tomb stone that he bestrides. At the centre of the swirling mass of cracking bones, he calls the tune that the dead must obey. At the heart of this grim and macabre spectacle stood He – and as I gazed upon him his countenance slowly turned upon me. Not once did he break from his unholy melody, however he inclined his head mockingly, almost as if to say;
“Soon, soon enough. Soon you shall join my dance, like all the others.”
The flashing white of the bones as the skeletons pass. The discordant shriek of the boot upon stone, harmonizing, rhapsodizing with the eerie wail of the violin and the moan of the wind through the trees and tombs. I stood entranced; unable to move. I cast a terrified glance towards the church; the glimmer of salvation in the dark. Nothing stirred in response, no help could be called forth. It were as if Christ and all his angels slept.
Meanwhile the dancers frisked about me until abruptly;
The nightmare draws to its inevitable but temporary close. The cock crows and the servants of death must return once more to their earthy sarcophagi. He stands above it all, defiant to the last. Shaking his fist and rasping out his anger, his frustration, his certainty. He looks once more at me - his knowing smile still haunts my fevered mind – and then he is gone. Slowly, thoughtfully, I quit the dance floor. My mind whirling and swimming, dragged round in a vortex of delirium. Slowly I awake. Slowly I return to the world of the living. The sun has risen on a clear, cold Autumnal day. The 1st November has arrived; signalling a new month, a fresh start, a rebirth. His music is quieted; for now.
I made my way back through the still slumbering town – only now do I notice the heavy bars and bolts that hold doors and windows closed on this most unhallowed of nights. Is it my imagination or do they all look newly-fitted?
I return to my tavern bed, but sleep eludes me. I desire only to put as great a distance between myself and this accursed place as possible, as quickly as possible. I rise and pack my things. Stumbling towards the door to take my leave I come upon my host. He says not a word, but holds the door open for my exit. As I leave he flashes me a brief, knowing smile.
As I move away I seem to hear on the breeze a distant and familiar cry.
Zig, zig, zig.
This short story was inspired by artwork by Remedios Varos, music by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the poem of the same title by Charles Baudelaire. Click here to read it in original French and also in English translation.
Steve Hosking is an emerging UK-based writer. He enjoys a wide variety of literary genres; however
historical fiction, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and gothic are amongst his favourites. His literary
influences include, but are not limited to, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Robert Harris, CJ Sansom,
and Stephen King. Steve has had one story published so far – The Princess and the Tower – in
Aphotic Realm magazine (Apparitions, June/July 2017). Another of his stories – The Writer – will be
appearing in CLA Magazine in August. Aside from short stories, Steve also writes poetry and flash
fiction, and has had a Sestina published online. He is working on his first novel currently and hopes
to have completed the first draft by Christmas 2017. When not writing, Steve enjoys running,
walking, swimming and tennis.
You Cannot Imagine What is Before You
It is a curious fact that when something lodges in your mind and will not go away you come across it everywhere. Take the colour red for example.
One day I picked up a second hand paperback copy of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, somewhere, I forget where now. It was an Everyman edition that used Paul Gauguin’s painting Landscape with Peacocks as a cover illustration. Since becoming aware of his work many years ago his bold use of primary colours has been an abiding pleasure to look at, both his Pont-Aven school Breton pieces through to the later Tahiti ones.
Reading the first few chapters of the novel I could see why this illustration had been chosen even although the novel is set in Borneo rather than Tahiti, and peacocks are never mentioned that I could see, unless they become symbolic of the ‘folly’ in the book’s title.
The editor of this edition tells us that Conrad revised the novel for the collected edition of his novels and excised many phrases and images. Perhaps he was interested in the more sombre vicissitudes that aim for posterity. For example, Conrad took out a philosophical phrase spoken by Almayer: “You cannot imagine what is before you.” It carries a neat ambiguity. Does it mean what is physically before you, or what your future is to be? Luckily this edition of the book follows the text of the first edition and retains such gems.
Where has red got to, you ask? Also excised in the early chapters of later editions are references to Almayer’s estranged Malay wife spitting out betel nut juice onto the earth floor of their dilapidated house and making red splash marks. The Sumatran servant has the same habit. Betel nut juice also stains the mouth, tongue and lips; the nut is chewed as a mild intoxicant.
Around the feet of the peacocks in the Gauguin picture are splashes of red, perhaps they are exotic flowers, again they could be juice spat from someone’s mouth. This is impossible to judge. A yellow path winds up towards two female figures in the mid-distance that stand side by side beside a small native house. One figure is dressed in white, the other in red. The former could represent Almayer’s beloved daughter Nina and the latter the deranged wife and mother of the girl. The house has a reddish orange glow and a fire burns in the foreground with the same colour and a puff of white smoke. It is difficult also to judge what time of day is being depicted as off to the left is dark green jungle. In the top right hand corner is a weaving block of red and orange that could be sky at dawn or dusk. Much of the action in the novel takes place in the short dawns and dusks of the tropics. The final red in this short novel is: “a long strip of faded red silk with some Chinese letters on it.” This, in the closing pages of the novel has been hung up in Almayer’s house by Jim-Eng, an old Chinese friend and opium smoker, who moves in after Nina departs with her lover and mad mother. Almayer dies; we don’t learn the true cause just that he has been “delivered from the trammels of his earthly folly.”
The last owner of this particular copy of the book had left two airline boarding passes tucked between the last page and back cover. They belonged to a Mrs Patricia Salvi, whose name is on them. Both flights were taken about six weeks between each. The first was a domestic flight in Portugal from Lisbon to Porto with Portugalia Airlines on 1st March. The second was an international flight with Philippine Airlines to who knows where and marked by a red immigration departure stamp; this journey taken on 24th April. I could see from the stamp that the flight was in the year 2000. I noticed, almost in passing, that the logos of both airlines contain the colour red.
I assumed that this novel of Conrad’s was in-flight reading for the lady; an interesting choice, as the Philippines is geographically close to Borneo. And why take the same book on two separate flights? Conrad is never the lightest of reads, even in this his first novel that was directed at an audience attracted to ‘romance’ and life in far-off places. Perhaps she is a lecturer with a specialist interest in Conrad’s work. If so I would have expected underlining and margin comments in pencil. I guess there are many reasons why somebody should pick up a book and read it. Personally I had always found Conrad’s prose a little difficult, having to concentrate carefully with writing by a Polish born writer who found success writing in his third language. So, I finished the sad tale of Almayer, congratulating myself I had done so and making a mental note to try some of Conrad’s later work sometime. The book went on a bookshelf as I dislike letting books go even if they are never read again.
That should have been the end of my association with Almayer’s Folly as it gathered dust on a shelf complete with Patricia Salvi’s two boarding passes between its covers. One day, a while later, I forget how long since reading the book, my doorbell rang. I went and opened the door.
A woman stood just away from the doorstep. She seemed to lean back a little with her right knee and foreleg bent forward. She was clearly striking a pose. I guessed she was in her forties, dressed in a dark blue jacket and skirt business outfit with a white blouse, black shoulder bag and shoes. The most striking features in her ensemble were a red silk scarf tied loosely round her neck and bright red lipstick. Long dark hair, brown eyes and olive complexion completed her appearance.
As I opened the door she broke into a broad smile like a stage curtain opening on a beautiful scene, for she was indeed beautiful.
“Hello, James, I’m Patricia Salvi, I’ve come to pick up my book,” she said in a friendly and melodious voice.
There were three questions I could have asked and asked only one: “What book is that?”
“Oh, come on now, James,” she began in a teasing tone. “You know, Almayer’s Folly. I need it back now. I could come in and wait a little while you look.”
Her voice was mid-Atlantic with a tang of what I took to be Spanish, maybe Portuguese. Somebody well-travelled, at ease in many countries. I was confused by what she said and the half-demand to come in. My wits kicked in a few seconds later, some synaptic processes having made a decision.
“No, it’s OK. I know where the book is. I’ll get it for you.” With that I shut the door on her still smiling face. Why I shut the door I don’t know, it was a reflex, some sixth sense that all was not what it should be.
I went to the bookshelf, pulled out the book like an automaton and returned to the door, pausing before opening again. When I did open the door again I found her in exactly the same position. The book was given to her without ceremony or any chatty exchanges. Our fingers touched briefly; hers were cold.
“Thank you, James. See you again sometime soon.” With this, the smile too, she turned and glided off more than walked.
Afterwards I felt shaken by this strange visit and had a stiff drink, a nice malt whisky that slipped down easily. I had another one. Then I asked myself the other questions. How did she know my name? How did she know where to find me? Another question was: How could she even know I had the book?
I decided to stay home for a few days and on the third a red envelope dropped through the letterbox. Inside was one of those greetings cards that are blank so you can write your own message. The picture on the front was the Gauguin, and I saw for the first time that the Almayer’s Folly publishers had only used a detail for the cover. To the right of the painting is a man chopping wood. I really couldn’t work out the significance of this figure. The card was signed ‘P’, nothing else.
Inside the card were two airline tickets, dated for the middle of May around about my birthday. The first was a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. I noted the red part of the airline logo. The second ticket was a domestic flight with Lion Air, with an all red logo, from Jakarta to the city of Balkpapun in East Kalimatan, part of Indonesia on the island of Borneo, where Conrad's book was set.
I have written all this to try and explain everything to myself. It is now barely two weeks to flight time. Another red envelope dropped through the letterbox this morning. I assume it will say how I get to Los Angeles. I reach for the malt and pour a good measure.
James Bell is originally from Scotland and now lives in France where he contributes photography and non-fiction to an English language journal. Also a poet he has published two collections to date and continues to publish work online and terrestrially. He was highly commended in the 2016 Tears In The Fence Flash Fiction competition. Recent poetry can be found in the 2017 ebook anthology Flowers In The Machine from Poetry Kit, available as a free download.
“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
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