A blur of purple and red flashed through Roger Johnson's mind as he stood by his easel. He saw it quickly, a long, purple streak, headed in a ball of blood red that reminded him of a flower petal. He thought suddenly that he might paint a flower, or a bloom of some kind. He caught on this word, bloom, and repeated it to himself. Bloom, he thought. A bloom. He pictured a flower bursting open but did not see the petals, only their motion. He could not focus on them though he tried. He asked himself why he should paint a bloom. He hit on no answer and felt that he might have to paint some type of bloom to learn why he wished it. As an artist, he believed the question one worth considering. He wanted perspective on the matter. He decided he could find some more readily if he went for a walk in the city.
On the morning he made to go out, Roger surveyed the scene outside his window. Among the old buildings across the street was a square-fronted one with a checkerboard of windows. Beside it stood a warehouse building of bluish stone, worn and old. Two limestone office towers flanked its right. The young artist imagined the buildings across the street as large, hard blocks belonging to a long wall. This wall he thought might hide something he should see. He pictured not having the blocks of the buildings so that he could see past them. By the last building at the street corner, the light of the new day shone. It edged the side of the building, the sky a solid yellow beyond it. He would go toward that light and walk into the town he thought. Roger dressed in an old blue shirt, khakis, and worn sneakers. He went from his apartment down the stairs and emerged at the street. On the sidewalk, a man in a suit and a fedora walked, his briefcase in hand. Next came a woman in a dark outfit, the new morning light before her. Roger knew the people were walking for the bus stop down the street where they would get taken downtown to work. They walked and Roger went with them. He went with the warm, bright light in his thin beard and large, brown eyes. When the people reached the bus stop, Roger continued past it further east.
He turned onto a new street. He saw the cement walk beneath him had broken into large, jagged plates along several cracks. Within the cracks grew very short grass and weeds. The weeds in many cracks were bent, their stalks coiled against the cement. The weeds’ green and yellow heads showed strong against the sidewalk’s gray as they pushed the cement upward in small bulges. Roger thought of the force pent inside the cracks and believed the weeds would come through despite the cement. He imagined without knowing the reason that the half-hidden weeds would be tall and strong and grow large.
Roger continued along the walk and saw one of his friends ahead. Fred was another young artist as he was. Fred had a dark wavy bush of hair on his head and a wide pale forehead. His eyes were set, dark and wide. He walked as if tired. When he approached, he failed to see Roger because of the bend in the street. As he took the bend, however, he recognized Roger and his face changed. His eyes softened. The grey in his face left and a light pink entered it. His lips lost their hard line and rose at the corners in a knowing smile as he came toward Roger. Fred had come to life when it seemed he would not, Roger thought.
“Hey, Roger, good to see you,” Fred said, arriving before him. “Nice day to be out, isn’t it? Just look at this sky we’ve got.”
Roger peered toward the sky to confirm it was. The open blue above him had a few white clouds passing. The tallest and thickest of these had white, fat billows emerging from its side. The sunlight in the clear sky gave the cloud a bright sheen. Roger remembered his idea for the bloom. “Yes, it is a good sky. Should be a beautiful day. So how have you been? Painting?”
“Trying anyway. I always can try if I don’t succeed.”
“I don’t think you should say that. Not when you go at it like you do.”
“Hope that I can keep it up.”
“How is it you’re out?”
“I’m going to the store for paints. I’m dong a panorama and it’ll need a full palette. I’m trying to make something of the picture this time. And why are you out?”
“I had to get outside, away from my studio. So I’m taking a walk.”
“To anywhere special?”
“I don’t know yet. Just out.”
“It can be fun avoiding the easel. The canvas needs to relax its charm sometime.”
“No, I really do have to get today. For my own reasons.” Roger disliked to say he had thought of a painting. He had spoken early about other ideas for paintings and been embarrassed at his words. “Well, I don't want to hold you any longer from your painting. I promise I’ll stop by your place soon.”
The friends parted and Roger continued down the cracked sidewalk. He took a new street and arrived at the city park. The park was many small green hills on the side of a larger. Its dark green maples and oaks stood in fours and fives separated by wide stretches of grass. The grass was spring green and grew fine. Throughout the park were asphalt paths that cut between the many hills and clustered trees. Roger walked one from the street and went until he spotted a purple aster in the grass by his way. Since the flower seemed like the one he hoped to paint, he thought he might glean something by observing it. He sat on the nearby bench and studied the aster. The purple aster was short, standing hardly an inch taller than the grass. Its head was larger than that of most asters he had seen and this bowed its stalk. The flower’s many, close petals made a neat ring around its centre.
As he watched, the breeze came and shook the flower, so that it bobbed, swishing side to side. The flower bent, twirled and again bent showing its lighter underside in rolls. As the small aster shifted, Roger considered drawing it. He felt it would be hard to decide on a starting point after he mulled the different views he had of it. Any flex and bend of the flower might have made a good angle for it. He thought it might help him if he had another flower to compare to the first. He surveyed the grass near him and discovered none. However, he saw a garbage can up the path that held an uncoiled, candy wrapper. The wrapper was peeled back in strands, white and red on the outside, silver inside. The sunlight shone on it as on true silver. When the wind blew, the wrapper strands rustled, twisted and curled. The light on them rose and fell. The wrapper and its motion were very much like the aster, Roger thought.
As he observed it, he heard a louder rustle from somewhere else and raised his head. Further down the path, a grey-haired man in a business suit was reading the newspaper on a bench. The man held the paper before him so the folds showed where the newspaper had bent. The folds bulged and the light reflected white along them. The man bent the newspaper to read some item on the bottom half of the sheet. He read it quickly, straightened the paper, and turned to the next page opening the paper wide. He skimmed, bending the page up then down. The paper rose and fell. The man folded and bent the newspaper much as the aster and the wrapper bent with the wind. Roger left his bench and walked down the path, now curious in the park scene. He rounded the corner and stopped by an ice cream someone had dropped on the asphalt. The vanilla was melting in the midday sun, the wafer cone atop it tilted and sinking. The melted cream lay thick and white in a puddle that oozed outwards. He watched the cream spread in streams rolling outward. The cream puddle expanded and whitened the asphalt path. Roger liked seeing the cream expand like the cloud in the sky earlier. Somehow it made him think of painting the bloom. He did not know why.
Roger took the park path to the street and followed it to a diner. It was near the end of lunchtime, and Roger took a table near the window and had a sandwich and grape juice brought him. He let the food sit as he took some paper napkins from the dispenser and a black pen from his pocket. He sketched the bloom he planned to paint. He drew first a small, round button for the centre of the flower, exactly as he had imagined in his vision of the bloom. The button appeared on the page too small when done, even while it matched his idea of the thing. He embellished the button by ringing it in petals close together like on the park aster. He drew the petals thin. Beneath the flower head, he added a toothpick stalk. He found the petals in the sketch too difficult to see due to the picture’s perspective. The drawing appeared more like a T than a flower because of it.
Setting aside this sketch, Roger seized a new napkin and drew a water lily. He drew it with wide fat petals upturned in a half circle. He drew the back petals raised in a wall, the two largest petals furrowed. He believed the furrows were too dark for the lily once he set them. In the lily’s middle, he set a dark, patch-like blotch. He left the blotch ragged, unsure whether to round it. Then he drew a pair of antenna-like pistols to the flower. They were dark, straight, and knob-ended; he thought they did not belong in the picture.
On a new napkin, Roger drew a second aster. He tilted the flower head, so that its face turned part way to him. He made the petals very thin and fine, but rounded their ends. The petals appeared very regular, any difference in them hard to find. He set a rounded button in the flower face, raised like a small mound. Taking his next napkin, Roger sketched a daisy’s head from the side. He showed the left side of the flower raised in a half cup, blocking the view of the flower centre. He drew the petals on the daisy’s right side peeking above these. He studied the picture when he had done and dwelled on the flower’s hidden centre. He felt he should have shown it. The centre had to be seen, open and developed, he told himself.
On another napkin, Roger drew a new aster. He set its petals flat in a circle seen from above and marked them off by clear, thin lines. He left the inside of the petals unadorned. He drew the flower centre as an O and bordered it in heavy black. He considered the neat, blank O but saw no good way to develop it. He set aside the sketch with the others. He found he was hungry now. He picked up the sandwich that had sat untouched on his plate and raised it to his mouth. The sandwich had a lettuce leaf, a wedge of red pepper, and a long, accordioned cold cut between two pieces of wheat bread. He liked the coloured layers of the sandwich. Sort like a sunset at the beach, he thought. After taking a large bite from the sandwich, Roger drank some grape juice. The juice was purple and went down cool. As he finished the sandwich and his drink, he studied the napkins sketches on the table. They sat in a disheveled pile. He felt the overlapped napkins had something to do with his idea of the bloom, if not more. He studied them hoping to grasp how but could not. He rolled up the sketches, put them in his breast pocket, and left the diner.
Roger followed the street down to the one with the cracked sidewalk. The sun had come more overhead, its light a strong white on the cement. The cracks had lost their morning shadow and their innards showed. They glared with mica and small, pale pebbles. The grass in the cracks had become a vivid green and the largest blades showed bent like bows against the cement. The weeds’ heads around the grass had turned into blotches of yolk yellow. The whole scene had a gaudy look and he disliked it. He sped for the shade of a building up ahead, glad to go.
Roger made the avenue he had taken east that morning and returned to his apartment. He walked past his living room and kitchen space straight to his studio. The room was the quietest in the apartment so he did his art there. The studio had a bare wood floor and white walls; a few canvases sat in a corner of it. A steel framed easel stood in the middle of the room; by this on the floor were a palette and paint tubes. Amber light came through the Venetian blinds from the long bay window to the street. Roger set a blank canvas on the easel and placed his palette beside it. He smeared different colour paints from his tubes onto the palette and mixed a few with a brush. He had done deliberating on flowers, the park, and the sun and meant to paint a bloom. He seized his paint brush then and mulled his first stroke. He dabbed his brush in some black and brought it to the canvas bottom. He thought to create the flower centre as a long blotch. He made a blot with his paint and spread it some on the canvas.
However, he stopped and withdrew his brush quickly. The blotch did not seem right for a centre, he felt; it was too dark and solid, the black too thick for the petals of a flower. He cleansed the brush of black and dabbed it in some purple and grey that he thinned with water. He brought his brush just above the black blotch he had done and made a careful, first stroke. He drew the brush upward and put a short, grey-purple streak on the canvas. He hesitated as he studied it. Suddenly, the white canvas and the purple on it seemed to go fluid and relax. He extended the purple stroke rightwards in a short, low arc before bending it downward. He made the stroke level near the canvas bottom and ended it by the corner. He studied this line and rendered another above it. He began this right over the starting point of his first. He brought the new stroke toward the right, leaving a wide gap above the first. He arched this line long while letting it bulge upward. He then had it drop and flatten as the first line had done.
He returned his brush above his starting point and began a next stroke. He watched the lines unroll and take shape. He considered how to paint each. He saw the long arc that started the third line he set and decided to bulge it in the middle to contrast the two flatter lines beneath it. He had a sense of freedom in adding this line; he did not hesitate and set it feeling it was rightly done. He made the arches that began his new lines lengthen and flatten and the curves that descended from them drop more sharply and shortly the higher he moved on the canvas. After he had added several of the thinner lines, he saw how they had mounted. He felt the lily, for this was the flower he was creating, should stay low and close to the canvas bottom so made the next lines of purple grey closer together than the earlier. He finished the top of the lily petal with them. He filled the gaps between the lines in broad strokes of mauve. The mauve gave a somber, still mood to the petal’s image.
Roger brought his brush to the canvas bottom to start the lily’s left petal. He did not mean for the petal to be a copy of the right side, which would make the picture too symmetrical. He would not believe in the flower if it were. He decided therefore to paint the petals of the left differently than the right. He made the first line for it arch low and long, its tail flat, nearly straight. This line hugged the canvas bottom closely unlike the one across it on the right. He had the next line rise shallow and hook downward in the middle before going to the canvas’s edge. He made the line’s descent quicker than and not as deep as he had in the second line on the right of the flower. As he painted, he considered the petal colour that he had kept a uniform grey-purple. He dabbed his brush in grey and produced a greyer stroke than earlier. He added purple to his brush and created a thick, vivid line of that colour. He added blue and violet. He finished the petal lines and painted mauve in the gaps between them. He had the mauve dark in the bottom strips but graded the rest darker to lighter toward the left. He found the effect like a change of light across the flower, making it more realistic.
The two petals that made the close-up of the lily sat in the bottom two thirds of the canvas. Above them, Roger added light, graded tones to the canvas. He set strips of yellow, orange, and red among the grey bands. He made the strips thin and uneven, sometimes bent, sometimes rippled. He painted the strips fainter and thinner as they rose above the lily.
When he had done, Roger looked at his painting as he thought of his day. He remembered his first idea of the flower bursting open. How wonderful that had been, he considered. He dropped his eye and saw the black blotch in the bottom of his picture. How he had disliked painting that, he told himself. He admired the purple stroke on the right side of the flower, the first that he set down. He believed it a very neat mark. He remembered the ugly buildings outside his window that he had hoped to see past. All of them should go, he felt for the second time. He noted next the many long strokes that went into the flower on the canvas. He remembered the grass and weeds in the sidewalk that he imagined unfolding when they grew. He revelled in the painted flower's many different shades of colour. He thought of the aster in the park that bent and straightened in the wind. He saw the soft, undulating look he had given the picture’s petals in the centre left. He remembered the neat folds the man gave his newspaper. He pictured the ice cream melting and flowing away on the park path. He remembered folding the piled napkin sketches at the diner.
Roger looked at the lines in the space above the painted flower. He loved all the things he saw and remembered. He sensed a great energy in their number. They all had their beauty and wonder. He could not separate them, excited as he was reflecting on them. He felt then the day with its variety and brilliance had to have fed his painting. Fred’s change of mood, his own new vision of the painting. All of it. Roger felt both glad and proud he had painted the bloom. The bloom had become in its way, he thought, a vision of his life that day, its labour, its bright insightful bursts.
Norbert Kovacs is a short story and flash fiction writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been published in Squawk Back and Darkrun Review and has a story forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review.
The Love Letter
My name is Pieter van Eyken and I put pen to paper to let you know of the great injustice done to me. The year is 1667 and I live in Delft, Netherlands, where both men and women know of me as an excellent swordsman. Women wish to experience my prowess with the sword I keep in my elegant codpiece, whilst men rarely want to experience how I use the sword I keep in my scabbard.
My friend, Johannes Vermeer, or Jan, has landed me in a pile of manure that reaches my neck and threatens to engulf me.
Jan and I met in ‘56 when we were both twenty-four. He had recently completed a painting named The Procuress that showed himself and a friend in the company of a woman of easy virtue. One day, I was drinking in the Yellow Partridge Inn when an oaf started to berate a gentleman at the table next to me. The lout claimed to be an agent of the Roman church and wanted to punish the artist who dared to depict such a licentious scene. Did I tell you? The times were indeed licentious and the church was doing its utmost to stop people like me from living a life of revelry and lechery. You will therefore understand how I quickly grew tired of the belligerent boor. When some of his spittle landed in my tankard, I leapt to my feet, drew my sword, and threatened to disembowel the man if he did not leave the inn immediately. You must have guessed by now that Johannes Vermeer was the man at the next table. That day saw the start of our friendship.
The incident served to bring about a change in Jan and his style of painting. He turned his eye to peaceful domesticity. Perhaps the move by decent society away from characters like me pushed him in that direction.
His wife of three years, Catharina, was a kind, clean, domesticated woman. She looked up to her Gods whenever I appeared at their door. “Are you yet a libertine?” she always asked before giving me a welcoming embrace.
The city fathers appointed Jan to head one of the town’s guilds, but the honour of the position was less than equalled by the annual stipend that went with it. Catharina’s parents had money, but they gave little, if any, to their daughter. She was, after all, married to an artist. Being a clever (and not entirely honest) gambler, I was able to give a little cash to Jan now and then.
I often hire myself out as a debt collector and take a percentage of whatever I recover as my fee. The debtor, be he a bumpkin, occasionally pays me the same fee. There are times when I offer my services as a protector to escort merchants and their families on their travels. Some say I am mercenary in that I might, on occasion, be one of the bandits from whom they need protection.
Wealthy ladies are often generous to me after I have impaled them on my sword. There is a certain lady (I am sure you understand her name must remain unwritten) who regularly gives me fifty guilders. Not on every visit but on a regular enough basis to keep me interested. As I write these words, I sense you asking why I need money to keep me interested. I shall give you the reasons. One; she demands my undying love, which I tell her she has. (I feel I can tell you that she does not have it, as my heart belongs to another.) Two; the woman is married. (Actually, one would not normally need money for this reason. However, if I am to perpetuate my regret at her status, I must allow her to assuage my angst in the only way she can – with her husband’s money.) Three; she is considerably older than I am. Four; her overweight body is not kept as clean as it could be. Five; and this is a direct result of reasons three and four; the games she likes to play turn my stomach. I would be happier if she played these games with her husband so that she and I might perform manoeuvres that are more conventional. But when all is said and done – and, believe me, this lady has been done every which way - fifty guilders is a considerable sum of money, thus I constantly return and put my nose to the grindstone, so to speak.
The woman does have a delicious sense of humour. She likes to undress me – well, the lower half of me. She often orders me to slowly remove my collar, cuffs, shirt and undershirt while she watches me and sips her wine. Once I stand half-naked before her, she puts down her goblet and reaches for my codpiece. We have developed a game in which she allows me to twist my hips to prevent her from attaining her goal. I must not move my feet, bend at the waist, or employ my hands and arms to defend my personal jewellery. The wheezy woman loves the game so much, she sometimes disables herself with her raucous laughter. Once she gets the last lace sufficiently slackened, she shouts with joy, “Once more into the breeches!”
She-of-fifty-guilders once daringly asked to visit my favourite tavern and so I took her to the Yellow Partridge Inn where we joined a friend and his mistress for supper. The four of us drank litres of beer and dined on salted cod, potatoes, and cabbage. My benefactor caused gales of laughter when, with her mouth full, she cried out; “This is the tastiest cod that has ever been in my mouth.”
I do maintain a genuine interest; one might even say ‘love’, for an unmarried female. Myn Boogan and I met several months ago when I called at her father’s bakery to purchase a cake for she-of-fifty-gilders. A kite hung on the wall at the back of the shop and I asked the girl behind the counter if she enjoyed getting it up.
“I would, if I knew how,” she told me.
“This is your lucky day!” I replied. “I am famous for getting it up. Allow me to take you and your kite to the fields by the river on Sunday and we’ll soar to great heights.”
“And show me some fish on the river bank, no doubt,” she said impishly.
“I’m sure I will find a piece of cod for you,” I replied.
Kites and cod filled our happy Sundays until a few weeks ago.
Myn’s father had a regular order to supply bread to a rich merchant’s family. Unfortunately, the merchant’s wife was unhappy to discover a dead rat in a loaf the family ate one Sunday after returning from church. The hysterical woman told everybody she knew about the incident and the bakery suffered a severe downturn in business, forcing Myn to find work as a maid.
Jan’s paintings were taking on an importance that socially elevated his subjects. Consequently, he knew many rich and influential women in Delft and I asked him if he knew one to whom Myn might apply for work. I was not pleased to hear him tell Myn that she-of-fifty-guilders was looking for a live-in maid. What could I do? Jan was unaware of my visits to the house. I could hardly tell Myn not to seek work in a house that Jan recommended, so I remained silent. As I have already told you, fifty gilders is a lot of money. I wracked my brain but could not think an acceptable reason why Myn should refuse the job.
When she-of-fifty-guilders had not seen me for three weeks, she sent a letter asking me why I had not called on her. I wrote back and told her of an injury from a duel. The woman wished me a speedy recovery and sent me one hundred guilders. I concluded my secret was still safe.
I missed Myn more than I liked to admit. On her one day of freedom each week, she visited her home to give her earnings to her father. She allowed me but an hour of her time under the proviso, “there will be no silliness”. We have been unable to meet for the last two Sundays, as a protracted visit by some of his lordship’s relatives has caused the cancellation of ‘days-off’ for all staff.
I started calculating how much I would need to earn if I became the sort of man Myn would agree to marry. What pastimes would I have to abandon? Perhaps I could buy a horse and cart and start a bakery delivery service. Then I had a brilliant idea – sliced bread! How much further would a loaf stretch if people ate slices instead of chunks? No more dirty hands tearing odd-shaped chunks from a loaf. I would get Jan to help me design a machine to carve a loaf of bread into even slices. I might suggest changing the bakery’s name to Boogan Villa and calling my sliced bread Flour Power.
Then, on a night when I visited my artistic friend, he told me, “Pieter, my friend, you’ll be interested to learn that my latest commission is to paint the woman who is your love’s employer.” He believed that she-of-fifty-guilders had convinced her husband that Jan should paint her portrait to demonstrate her social standing to her husband’s relatives. She did not want a formal painting of her head and shoulders, but preferred a style of painting for which Jan was acquiring an enviable reputation. A scene wherein domesticity is preponderant and the characters exude silence.
It was my opportunity to get a message to Myn. I wanted to tell her to quit her job and marry me. I spent hours choosing the right words. I told her how much I loved her, nay, worshipped her. I told her of my hopes and dreams and how she was an integral part of them. I told her how much I missed her and longed to hold her again. I asked her to give up her position. She should leave everything and start a new life with me. Once the letter was completed, I gave it to Jan to pass to Myn the following day when he went to the house of she-of-fifty-guilders.
I arrived at Jan’s house at sundown the next day. He had not yet returned, and so Catharina gave me a glass of wine and asked if it was true I intended to retire from my life of lechery. Before I could answer, Jan strode noisily into the house, kissed his wife and children, cast his eyes on me, and burst out laughing.
I was not pleased. “What’s so amusing?” I asked.
“You didn’t tell me you service her ladyship,” he accused me.
“It’s none of your business,” I said bluntly.
“It is now, Pieter, it is now.” He started laughing anew. He laughed so hard, he had to hold his ribcage.
Catharina gave him a cup of water. “Tell me, Jan. What gives you so much joy?”
“Not joy; sorrow. The sorrow of seeing such a libertine as Pieter brought so easily down.”
I grasped the hilt of my sword with a threatening manner. “Damn you, Jan. Tell me what has happened.”
My artistic friend held up his hand, took another sip of water, then put down the cup. He opened his leather carry-case and extracted sketches made that day. “Her ladyship wants to use this scene for the painting.” He held out a charcoal sketch showing she-of-fifty-gilders sitting with a mandolin on her lap and holding a letter in her right hand. Myn stood in the background, looking as if she had just delivered the missive.
I let go of my sword. “Please tell me that is not my letter.”
“I’m afraid it is, Pieter. Did you not know Myn cannot read? She handed your letter to her ladyship and asked her to read it aloud. I was there, in the room with them. It took all my self-control not to laugh as her ladyship’s reaction to your letter made me realise that you are in the habit of poking both women. The words left her ladyship’s lips with increasing reluctance as she realised they came from your hand. Poor Myn; she had no idea that you were diddling her mistress. Of course, her ladyship did not tell her servant the truth of the matter. Instead, she related that she knew of you, that you are a libertine and a bandit, and that Myn should never again acknowledge your existence. Furthermore, if she should ever hear that Myn continued her association with you, she would be dismissed without a reference.” Jan wiped a tear from beneath his eye. “Oh, this is so wonderful. I can hardly control myself. I shall call my painting The Love Letter and be amused for the rest of my life at the varied explanations romantics will attach to it.”
And so, here I stand in my pile of manure. I have lost Myn, the occasional fifty guilders and civilization will never know of sliced bread.
This story won second prize in The Best of Times (2009); it was also published in Contemporary World Literature and Alfie Dog.
When a youngster, Peter Lingard told his mother many fantastic tales of intrepid adventures enjoyed by him and his friends. She always said, ‘Go tell it to the Marines’. When he asked why, she said, ‘They’ve been everywhere and done everything, so they’ll want to hear about what you’ve been up to’. Of course, Peter joined the Royal Marines as soon as he was old enough and now has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales to tell. He has had 300+ stories and poems published, as well as having many pieces aired on Radio NAG, Queensland and 4RPH, Brisbane. Professional actors have performed some of his poetry and he has appeared as a guest on Southern FM’s program ‘Write Now’ to read and discuss his work. He recited and chatted about some of his poems on 3CR’s ‘Spoken Word’ and had a monthly spot on 3WBC (94.1FM) to read his tales.
Pygmalion stepped back, dizzy. He wondered whether it was his senses or his common sense deceiving him. He had not felt warmth under his lips, had he? Of course not. He stood shaking his head to rattle out the nonsense. He didn’t see a tint of flesh-pink blushing her lips, did he? Of course not.
There. The hallucination passed, and her features were white marble again under his cool glance. He poked at her flawless lips with his coarse finger: cold as stone should be. The doubt—or was it belief?—flickered and went out.
Once faith had flared inside him. Once he had almost believed in miracles. But he had rallied his manhood and snuffed all that. His fingers were singed from pinching out the sacred flame of faith—but he had not been fooled. Had not Aphrodite tricked him with one woman’s body after another, always promising perfect beauty? Hadn’t she always laughed at him when he stumbled, hopeful, past the veil of vestments only to discover ugly flesh, time after time?
But now he had subdued even Aphrodite with the skill of his sinewy arms. He had bested her. Not even she could steal this Ideal from him. There it stood, solid stone, with curves so graceful they gave back the dusty light as if illuminated from within. He had, in spite of deity, created the perfect woman. Hadn’t he?
Down the corridor of his mind, past the columns of tradition that held its roof, past the chambers in which he kept his separate lives—father, sister, teacher, friends, food, prayer—past the closets in which he packed his stone-carver’s skills, he had worked his way along his mental hallways in the preceding year, and faced up to the fog. At the end of the hall, the cool white lines and sharp angles of his internal architecture were always obscured by a mist floating in his mind. He could not see through it, but he knew his masterpiece waited there. If only he could break through that fog! Then he would see it—see her—and then he would be the greatest artist this side of Olympus.
He had done it. At least, he had done something so difficult, and so apparently wonderful, that it felt just as good as if he had, and he did not stop to question whether he had really broken through.
Dedication to sleepless nights of sweating, mind-cracking, body-bruising labor had brought his creation to the point of birth. Single-minded concentration on the sketches and the sandstone model had paid off at last. He had seen her.
Past the mist in his mind, there she was. Solid (maybe a bit hazy around the edges), perceptible. There stood the woman he dreamed about most nights, the one with the beautiful body. This was the one he had imagined under every woman’s clothes. Here, at last, was his object.
Then he set to work in earnest, switching from sketch and model to the final block of stone. By forcing his body over the edge of endurance (taking nothing but water, standing until his knees shook violently, scowling while perspiration stung his eyes) he nearly ruined his physical sight, but he matured his spiritual vision.
With his sight blighted, he worked the marble nose-to-chisel, feeling his way across the surface with his fingertips, testing proportion and dimension by instinct and touch. He often kept his eyes closed for hours at a time to ward off the fatal marble dust, working with the image before his imagination and pressing it onto its three-dimensional copy.
Once he was assured of her shape, he slept long nights, on a cot near the sculpture. Every night he dreamed about her over and over, but calmly now. The mad passion of the early sketches cooled into professional judgment that appraised and analyzed. No attraction or affection drew him. He drew her. He analyzed her lines and angles like those of an architectural structure; he critiqued her form and color as he would a tile mosaic or frescoed wall. She became his field of study in his sleep.
Morning woke him late, full of calculations and barren plans. He did not complete her in the fruitful dawning of his mind, but in his twilights and nightmares. He felt aged past his thirty-three earthly years, dragging a sack of disappointments on his hunched shoulders. He carved her savagely. She was an act of revenge, not regeneration.
But when she stood before him, she had another plan. Cold, flawless, and unresponsive, the sculpture’s uncaring eyes fell on her creator, and turned him inside out. All the soft faith of his youth churned again restlessly in his bowels; all his contained and entombed desire stirred like something unsettled, undigested.
“Galatea,” he whispered, “Galatea.” He reached out and pinched along the ridge of her collarbone. “Galatea.”
For the rest of that still afternoon, while the air hung motionless over an unstirred floor of autumn leaves and the sky stayed in one place, while the heat faded out of the sand and the sun-touched waves, Pygmalion sat still in front of his marble idol. He was utterly exhausted. And yet, for the last several months, since he had first seen her shape beginning to emerge from the marble, he had slept long and deeply, eaten when his body hungered, rested his hands when the tools became too heavy. But his eyes were damaged, and a new brutal longing shook him. He sat heavily while some new animal tore inside of him.
Something bothered him about his statue. Something was not quite right. He wondered if Aphrodite was having the last laugh after all. Because although this statue was certainly the most beautiful he had ever seen, and although it captured the vision he had seen in his mind, he had a nagging suspicion that it was not, after all, perfect. Something was wrong or incomplete. There was something odd and unsettling about the face.
Or perhaps he himself was incomplete and longed for a comforter. He had completed the work, yet had no sense of consummation. He stared at the figure, adoring and despising it. This stone woman sapped him of strength and took from him his frantic purpose. She was altogether vengeful, altogether desirable, and he must possess her. His creation must not be allowed to stand in cold serenity, or indifferent senility, while writhing burned his insides. He had made beauty, and he must absorb it into his own being. He must—devour it.
Suddenly, he snapped. He jumped up and began wildly, senselessly caressing his statue. He put his arms around it and massaged its shoulder blades as he pressed his chest against its beautiful breasts. He stroked its waist and hips, he licked its lips and kissed it crazily. Over and over, desperately, he mashed his mouth against its unyielding stone lips until his own were cold and bruised. He threw his body against it, moaning, until he felt it totter on its stand.
Its rocking startled him back to some sense, as his hand automatically steadied the statue against danger. But he was frightened, for he did not know what beast gnawed inside him, nor what was wrong with his art. With a wild noise, he staggered back and stumbled into the streets. He must get to the temple, he must pray. Perhaps Aphrodite was real after all; perhaps this was her revenge.
He blundered through the streets, walking firmly to control his raging hunger to possess and assimilate beauty. But the thought nagged: something funny lurked in the pretty face of his marble girl.
He carried his bewilderment into the temple. He paid for a minor sacrifice and offered it up in the usual manner. Then he began to pray. His prayer circled around and around the periphery of his real intention. He thanked the goddess for blessing him with some talent; he confessed his arrogance in trying to surpass her power of creation; he begged for forgiveness; he groveled in self-abasement; and he prayed for something.
That was the fuzzy part. What he was praying for was not even clear to himself, for he would not let it come into focus. It seemed to have something to do with being content now that his work was complete. Perhaps it was related to appreciating real, fleshly female beauty. He even tried to pray about finding a real woman as beautiful as his petrified Galatea, but he had to give that up. That was pure hypocrisy. He had spent almost two decades looking for that woman; why should he even pretend to hope to find her now? Wasn’t that the whole reason he had made a stone goddess in the first place? Then he heard that he had called her a “goddess,” and had to begin the confession and forgiveness bit of his prayer all over again. This was getting ridiculous.
He left the temple and barely remembered not to slam the door. He sighed, slamming doors in his mind instead. He refused to look at his own craving, just as he refused to look at the sordid playback of afternoons spent objectifying female models, nights bribing harlots to pose for portraits, and that most recent scene of shame: kissing a chunk of rock. He was a mess.
So he went home. He thought he would make a meal, then walk in the garden and clear his head out among the flowers. But after eating, he found he had to see his statue again. This was reasonable, he thought. He often needed to look at works over and over when they were completed, sort of memorizing them before they were taken to the market. But he usually felt an objective distance from his sculptures. Once they were finished, they were no longer his. They belonged to whomever would buy them, to whomever would gaze on them with joy. He had never had troubled letting a work go; especially since they always fell short, always wore something of the fog they carried with them from the inside of his head.
Galatea was different. For one thing, he had never come up with a name for his sculptures out of his head like that. They were always named after mythological, religious, or historical characters. He had no idea where Galatea’s name originated. It was simply her name, the same way that he was her—her what? What was he thinking? His thoughts hinted that he belonged to her instead of the other way around; as if he had to walk into her presence so that she could gaze on him, or require some service from him, instead of the other way around. Terror took him. Perhaps he was losing his mind. He glanced at her: she was getting decidedly creepy, with that flicker of something not quite right on her otherwise adorable features.
Tiptoeing across the studio, he began to circle Galatea, pacing warily. The time had come to critically assess her symmetries and find the design flaw or errors in execution. He gazed at her back, her buttocks, her legs. He didn’t see any mistakes. But something was still wrong, as if the lady were tired, or weak, or ill. He walked around to the side, and felt a strange heaving in his stomach as the rich, plump tip of her nipple peaked over her curved arm. He just had to touch that curved shoulder, that gentle elbow, to see if it were right….
And a moment later, he was kissing her again, madly, with a sick feeling at his heart something like what he had felt when starting to make love-talk so many years ago to his sister before he knew she was his sister, to the only kindred of his heart he had ever met and the one he could never see again—and what in the world made him think of her now? And what on earth could it have to do with this stupid statue? What was wrong it?
Well, for one thing, he must have chosen a poor piece of stone. This one didn’t have nearly the pure coldness of most marble, nor did it have the impermeable solidity of the really good pieces. It almost felt soft—no, that wasn’t quite the word—pliable or something. Certainly, he thought with professional precision, this piece of marble is far too tainted with veins of an inferior mineral. He was even able to step away mentally and notice how weird it was that he could process these technical details in his consciousness while simultaneous rubbing his palms over her stomach and thighs.
Stop, just stop! he thought, but did not stop. He cupped his right hand over her right breast, and it fitted exactly. Terrible. He thought he might vomit as his left hand gripped the round of her left buttock. Beautiful, and forbidden. But why did he feel the tension of a muscle under the bones of his left hand? And why did he feel the soft yielding of flesh under his right? And why were his lips no longer bruised against her tomb-stone lips?
Her mouth most distinctly moved; he gagged. Her breast conformed to his hand, her buttock tightened and relaxed. He moved his arms around her waist and back, embracing her as if to hold himself steady. She stirred, and he felt the pink warm life bloom all over her skin.
Twelve years earlier Pygmalion’s concentration on some minor work had been shattered by shouts in the marketplace.
“Aphrodite has fallen from the sky! Aphrodite has cast her image down from Olympus! Come and see, come and see! Come and gaze upon the beautiful image of Aphrodite herself! Praise be to our great goddess!”
He had watched his hands begin to tremble. He followed the track of the thrill, the shudder from his clenched fingers up the ropes of muscle on his arms, into his brain, down his spine, through his loins, out along the dust smudging his feet, the floor, the road, everything. And he was with them, one of the uplifted thousands, his voice was up in the single-hued sky somewhere with theirs, his footsteps flapped against the stone streets with the dozens of hundreds of pairs of theirs, his sight darted down along rows of columns to the pillared vanishing point with the sight of so many other worshipers, his cloak streamed its faded colour with the many faded colours of theirs—they were a river of lust and a fountain of devotion, thousands of men going to devour the goddess through their foul sight, thousands of women going to degrade themselves with their poor bodies set up against hers in the small chambers of their minds.
“O great Aphrodite,” he had prayed in a murmur beneath the many-murmured throng, “are you the one who feeds weak men’s passion? Do you teach us to direct our desires into the pure river of worship? May even my body praise you? Goddess, have mercy!”
He had felt again, as always, tranquility sinking through him. Some vast smooth surface (heavy as basalt, but smooth and sunlit as marble, the queen of stones) pressed the voices inside of him into calm silence. The whispers that gnawed at truth, the shrieks that slashed assurance into shreds, the madness mumbling about failure, the insane gibberish of blasphemy: these were slowly silenced the way olives are quieted into oil, the way grapes are stilled into wine.
His youth leapt up, and there she was. A cloth veiled her, a cloth that shone with light from the surface of an unbroken waterfall. Her figure was set upon a rough-hewn pedestal in the center of the courtyard. Pygmalion’s habit of critique appraised the shrouded shape inch by inch. The cloth followed, even expressed, every curve. Something seemed wrong, but he suppressed the feeling. Tilt of the head, perfect. Shoulders, superb. Line of the arms, magnificent. But the torso, stomach, legs—well, he would wait until the cover came off. For a time, he was scarcely aware of the bodies of women pressing around him in the crowd. He saw them, as always, as if they were before him each in her own unveiled glory, but they filled only the corners of his thought. Even they could not distract him from a single conception: She, the one great Female, Aphrodite herself, stood before him imaged beneath that shining cloth. Perhaps.
The foolish ceremonies unwound in complex tedium. He laughed inside, because he knew that she loved simplicity. She loved the sweet gesture when the sheet was pulled aside and the bride lay revealed. She reveled in ease of love, in limbs that came together without questions, in consummations as innocent as children plunging into the Pedieos river to cool their bodies under the open sun.
But what do I know? he had thought suddenly, savagely, I who have never known a woman! Though I see them all, know them all, I am always turned aside at the last moment by the lie.
But the moment of the unveiling was near. One of Aphrodite’s disciples, a slender priest, glided forward reached out his graceful fingers, and Flourish! There she stood.
There was a silvery-gray figure of a woman. It was clumsy and poorly executed. Its breasts were far too large, far too round, and set too far apart. Its belly was oversized and rounded. The legs were spindly—any real woman with that bust and tummy would fall over on those sticks, or snap them at the shins.
For all that, though, he knew the flaws were just subtle enough to deceive most. He had one moment of adoring desire before he had saw the flaws. Indeed, he only saw the errors of proportion because of his training in visual critique. Always finding fault, always aggravating his own restless mind with dissatisfaction. Perhaps he was the only person there who felt his stomach go hollow, tasted something watery and green on his tongue, felt bruises somewhere where his heart should be.
“Another sham,” he growled, turning away.
In the moment that Galatea’s marble lips breathed warm sweet breath, Pygmalion remembered his dream. When he was a youth he had dreamed it every night, sometimes many times in a night. Throughout the last hideous decade, the dream had come more and more rarely. Then, finally, it had come again on that glorious night, bringing with it the inspiration that led to Galatea’s creation.
It always happened the same way. Aphrodite herself came to him. All she did was walk by. She came into his vision from the left side and walked slowly across. He was somehow fixed in place and could not turn to follow her. She moved very slowly, deliberately, with stately motions. She stopped directly in front of him and looked straight into his eyes. And, as always happened with women in his waking hours, he saw her through her robe. He saw every curve, line, and contour of her form. He saw every color and shade of her skin. He saw every inch of her body, and her flesh was seared on his memory. Each morning when he awoke from that dream he could recall every detail, as plainly as if he had sculpted her himself and was turning the work in his hands. But no, not cold marble: living, tinted, pulsing, flushed flesh, warm over moving bones, soft under stretched skin. And the colors and the folds of her!
He had tried time and again to sketch her, to paint her, to fashion her in clay. But he did not have the skill.
Yet that was not the entire dream. There was more, a little more. Aphrodite walked past him, slowly. When she got to the edge of his vision, she reached out her hand beyond his sight—as if she were plucking fruit from a tree just beyond. But it was not a fruit. She was taking someone’s hand: the hand of a maiden, a mortal girl, and leading her into his sight. Then Aphrodite began walking backwards, leading this unseen woman into his view.
And there it had always ended. He had never seen that mysterious woman from beyond the dream’s frame. He had always believed that this woman was the one whose body he always imagined through other women’s clothes: his one true soul-mate, his beloved, his wife, and one night she would finally step into his dream-frame, and he would awaken to find her the following day. But the dream always ended there, and he had found no wife.
Finally he had given up hope, and given up faith. He had blasphemed Aphrodite with coarse words and coarser doubts, had violently jettisoned all that part of him that had worshiped and adored. He had rejected all women and all thought of love in one gesture, tossing earthly passion out with its divine patroness. He emptied his mind of every loveliness connected with that imposter, as he now called her. The height of his sacrilege came when he decided that in the dream, that had not been Aphrodite after all. It was just some chick. And he would have her: have her down in marble, degrade her with heatless, heartless material existence. And he would also cast her perfection in the face of all other worthless mortal women whose bodies had fooled him. No one looked like that. Not even the non-existent goddess. Only his lump of stone looked that good. And even that had something wrong. He wondered what it was that was wrong, even as her lips pulled away from his.
Her mouth most distinctly moved; he gagged. He clutched at her to hold himself steady. She stirred, and he felt the pink warm life bloom all over her skin. Something exploded into his brain. Alive!? ALIVE?!? He grasped at her again, this time to embrace, to shatter into ecstasy. Prayer and passion surged through his gut. He moved to hold her out at arm’s length, to admire and adore—and lurched to catch her as she sagged.
Her whole full-grown woman’s weight fell against his chest and on his arms, and she wailed. She just opened her beautiful lips with unconscious abandon and let out a cry. He staggered to support her, for she could not stand. She went on wailing high-pitched, loud, eerie cries—the squalling of a newborn. He struggled to hold her up, because she could not stand. There was no expression in her gorgeous eyes. They were completely devoid of any scrap of knowledge. She seemed an animal. A blank. A baby.
A baby. That was it. That was what had seemed funny in her face and in her posture. His arms gave way, and she fell on the floor, screaming and screaming the cry of a newborn babe from the lungs of an adult woman. He had carved her to possess the strength and beauty of young maturity, but she was an infant. Of course: this was the moment of her birth. She came into the world as a blank and had all to learn. This was what he had fathered: a child, not a bride. So this was his miracle; this was what he had to love. He looked He looked on her sprawled, flailing limbs with disdain. All the fog and pain and desire died.
Pygmalion shrugged. She was probably hungry.
Sørina Higgins is an English teacher, writer, and editor with two volumes of poetry: Caduceus (David Roberts Books, 2012) and The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her website is http://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com/, and you can follow her on twitter, @SorinaHiggins.
India 1853. As Buddhist monks chanted very quietly outside, a bearded, disheveled, dirty, paint covering his face and clothes, Preston Morrison slept on a carved nook in the rear wall of a cave, a blanket covering him. There was a large sketchbook beside him, on the wall hung his army uniform, and leaning up against the wall was a gun. The entrance to the cave was directly opposite to him, and beyond the entrance a cliff. It was daylight, but Preston had worked all night at his copying and forgot to snuff out the small fires across the front of the cave entrance to scare off wild animals.
The light from the fires revealed that all of the walls of the cave were painted, though they were too dark and distant for anyone but Preston to see them clearly without a lantern. In the centre of the cave was a massive sculpture of Buddha, whose head almost reached the cave ceiling, and around which there was sufficient room to walk.
The tour guide entered the cave, stepped around the fires, stopped and spoke to the tourists in a styled, arrogant, insincere and professional voice.
“Now please stop here and huddle together so that you can see this fresco behind me. Watch out for the fires which the natives use to frighten off tigers when they are working or, if monks, when they are sleeping.
“This particular work, only partially restored for reasons I shall explain presently, was painted by local artists and wandering Buddhist priests while taking respite from the monsoon and inclement weather. No one knows the names of these artists, but we do know that many of them were ascetics who lived off the local villagers and traveling tradespeople. To these and other caves they would come for meditation and community with other monks.
“You will note that most of the symbols of the work have been damaged or obliterated. Various religious zealots from different sects attacked the work and in some cases would slice it off the wall. What remains is a bodhisattva—a being that foregoes nirvana in order to save others—garbed in the fashions of the princes of those days, holding a lotus flower. Note how well the artist has captured the real-life posture and expression of the body, and how transcendent is the look on the bodhisattva's face.”
“Please follow me quickly,” the tour guide said, “and we will examine a different kind of Buddhist cave next door.”
Preston was having a nightmare, one of many. For a minute he moved around restlessly in his bed, groaning and talking incoherently, then he jumped out suddenly, grabbed the gun, pointed it forward, walked around the statue as if searching for something, mumbling to himself without sense. His eyes were very large and scared. He then returned to his bed and laid down. A minute later he was startled by what he thought were the growls of a tiger beyond the entrance to the cave. He anxiously grabbed a thick stick, ignited the end of it, and walked to the entrance waving the lit end. The tiger, he thought, snarled and continued to growl. Preston walked back and forth across the entrance waving the stick at the tiger. He leaned down and threw a few sticks on one of the fires that seemed to be going out, yawned, returned to his bed, and laid down, exhausted.
Then the tiger growled again, much louder, and only stopped after Preston sat up, shook his head, then picked up his sketchbook and the burning stick, walked over to a section of the cave, shoved the stick in the wall for light, opened up his sketchbook to a particular page, yawned, and began to copy the paintings sitting in the same lotus position as the statue. He painted for a while, then his head dropped and he fell asleep. The fires went out and the cave became dark for a brief period, then a dim light returned.
The tour guide returned with another smaller group of people and stood in front of the Buddha. The tourists stood to the right of the Buddha.
“Please watch your step,” the tour guide said. “Sir! Please do not wander off. Thank you. The lights as you can see are very dim in this cave because the paintings on the walls are very sensitive and are slowly deteriorating even without light. You’ve been told not to take any flash photographs and I would hope that you’ll abide by the rules. These caves were usually either living quarters or places for religious ceremony and meditation, and were carved out of solid rock. Around the edges you would see paintings of the various reincarnated lives of Buddha, known as The Jataka Tales. In the center of the room would be an enormous statue and/or a bell-shaped structure. Let us walk around it and exit.”
They slowly walk around the sculpture of Buddha as the tour guide continued.
“This path we are taking is the exact path that the Buddhist would take in meditation. People did not live in this sort of cave. You will not notice any of the little stone ledges or rock-cut compartments that we have seen in other caves. This cave was only for meditation and ceremony. Imagine if you can what it must have been like for these people of old, in a time when there were still many Buddhists in India, and how these monks chipped away at this cave rock to hollow out these caves for revelation. Imagine also how they expected no recognition and yet they created these wonderful works of art. My assistant will now briefly flash some light on each of the paintings around the hall. Please do not touch them or come too near them.”
A spotlight moved across several paintings as the tour guide and tourists left the cave.
Preston was in the lotus position with his head hung, the sketchbook on his lap. However, at every wall and at the sculpture there stood monks in long orange hooded robes painting. sculpting and repairing.
The monks disappeared when Parvati, a young local woman, Sanchi, her father, Commander White and Lieutenant Fisk, two British army officers, entered, all out of breath after climbing the cliff to reach the cave. White and Fisk violently swatted at bees as they entered. Parvati carried a sack and Fisk two large bags.
They saw Preston asleep. White, Fisk and Sanchi walked around and looked at the frescoes while Parvati shook Preston gently.
Preston awoke and saw Parvati.
“Parvati!” he said joyfully.
Preston reached out to hug her but she shyly pointed to the others with her.
“What bliss! To see your face first as I open my eyes.”
Parvati took his hand and brought Preston to Sanchi, Fisk and White, and they greeted each other.
“And my friend returns,” Preston said to Fisk, “looking weary from the journey, even dragging up the mountain the Commander. Welcome!”
Preston shook heartily the hands of Fisk and White.
Preston extended his hand to Sanchi.
“And you, father of Parvati, will always find a friend in me. Thank you for coming. You may now see how brilliantly your daughter has copied some of these works. But all of your eyes tell me that you all bring some sad message.”
Sanchi shook Preston’s hand.
Parvati excitedly ran over, picked up the sketchbook, returned, and showed proudly Preston’s work to Sanchi, White, and Fisk. They all examined the book.
Preston went to a corner of the cave, returned with a bag of coins and offered them to Sanchi.
Sanchi took the bag and looked inside it.
“A small reward for your people helping to unearth this artistic miracle,” Preston said.
“I thank you for your gift,” Sanchi said with a heavy accent but clearly. “And I thank you for your most kind affection and admiration for Parvati. Still I must speak to you openly and sadly. I and the others of the village have become fearful of this place. Many think we should have left the caves untouched. Our villagers have had many misfortunes since we cleared the caves out with you. The tigers have multiplied. None of the villagers want to continue the work, and I urge you too to abandon this place too. We fear for you. Here the tigers now rule. Here many men have died. What does this mean? It means that Allah does not want us here. Indra has cursed us all. I hope and pray that you will leave for your safety.
“I have also forbidden my daughter from returning, since there will be no one to accompany her. If you want to see her, you must come to the village. And I believe that the people of the village will not accept her if she comes here anymore. They will call her sorceress.”
Sanchi waved his arms around the walls.
“All of this is against the prophet and should remain in darkness.”
“Sanchi,” Preston pleaded, “we have trod this path before. There is nothing to fear...”
Sanchi shook his head, waved his hand to interrupt him, extended his hand to Preston, shook it again and quickly exited, beckoning also Parvati.
Parvati and Preston approached each other closely and looked into each other's eyes for a moment, then she departed with Sanchi.
“Parvati,” Preston said tenderly and quietly.
He followed after her to the cave entrance and stared as she descended the gorge.
Fisk and White meanwhile observed this scene and exchanged glances as Preston continued to watch Parvati and Sanchi walk down the mountain.
Fisk put his arm around Preston’s shoulders.
“How are you, my old friend?” Fisk asked.
“How am I? My condition? Tired. Often sick,” Preston says, still looking in Parvati’s direction, his tone of voice without its prior enthusiasm. “The bees and tigers won’t let me sleep. But what matter? My work continues. Now I fear I shall be alone, abandoned by the villagers and Parvati.”
During the following conversation, Preston gathered some of his paints and brushes, walked over to the spot on the wall that he was copying, picked up his sketchbook and began to paint the area of the wall he had worked on the previous night. White and Fisk follow him.
“We were attacked by the Bhils,” Fisk said. “They only scattered when we showed our weapons.”
Preston laughed heartily.
“They are a harmless tribe if you have weapons,” Preston said. “They haven’t come near me for months…Parvati says that they think I’m mad. They call me Tiger Man because they think I’ve killed one hundred and fifty tigers.”
He laughed again.
Fisk gave White a worried look.
“What will you do now about Parvati?” Fisk asked
“What any man does who misses his inspiration,” Preston replied. “He moans and grumbles and mourns. Such beauty, kindness and talent. But she is a daughter, and has a duty to her father who overwhelms her with fear of abandonment.
“Fisk, her talent is greater than mine and equal to any of the cave artists! If I could keep her here, working, painting, I would, but you heard Sanchi.”
“Is Sanchi right?” Fisk asked. “How many people have the tigers killed? Sanchi tells us the white rags hung on the bushes indicate another killing.”
“But there are white rags waving everywhere!” Fisk said. “The bushes look as if snow has fallen.”
“Many have died because they don’t understand the tiger,” Preston said. “I don't know how many!”
White and Fisk glanced at each other again with faces of alarm.
“My God, Preston!” Fisk said. “Tigers, crazy tribes, angry villagers. This is madness! In light of that, perhaps our news isn’t as bad as it might appear. And please, listen to me, as a friend, before you judge. Will you listen?”
Preston nodded, but continued to paint.
“At headquarters they want you to drop this project—but only for a short period—and return to duty. The war against Russia has started!”
“Wars spring up and die like dandelions,” Preston said, “while this work is a sacred duty. What good is a painter in a battle?”
“This project too can wait,” Fisk said. “The caves will be here.”
“Wait? Wait?” Preston shouted. Then his anger ended. “Have you informed them that they march for tokens and trample on beauty?”
Then Preston added with a tone of sarcasm, “Perhaps your war can wait.”
“You must listen,” Fisk said. “They are no longer interested in a soldier copying ancient wall paintings. Your responsibility is elsewhere, your talents are needed elsewhere.”
“Images endure but paint decays and disappears from time and the hand of man.”
“You’ve been here nine years!” Fisk said. “Look at you! You've aged twenty years! I left you a young man, but now, now your hair is turning gray. You should stop for your health if for nothing else!”
Fisk saw a scar on Preston’s arm.
“How did you acquire that scar?”
“I was trying to help a wounded tiger and it accidentally scratched me.”
“How many caves have you finished?” Fisk asked.
“Art is never finished,” Preston said.
“This is the last cave, isn’t it?”
Preston did not answer.
“Preston, you’re still in the army. It’s time to leave India. When the war is over, you can return.”
White had been walking and staring at the paintings on the opposite wall.
“These are not Christian images, are they, Lieutenant?” White asked Fisk.
“No sir,” Fisk replied. “They reflect the Buddhist faith.”
“Then why are we so concerned about them?” White said. “Why has the department allowed Preston to remain here at all?”
“Commander Wylie,” Fisk explained, “your predecessor, was here when the discoveries were made, and Lt. Preston convinced him that they were of great cultural and artistic worth, created by artisans and monks over many centuries with what he believes are the finest creative talent. The artists actually lived in some of these caves as sanctuaries and retreats. According to Preston, nothing in their time is comparable in the West or East. If they are not copied, they may disappear forever.”
“Do I understand you?” White asked. “Preston is an army draftsman, trained and employed by the armed services to serve its needs. Are you saying that we are supporting him in...?”
“The army hasn’t financially supported Preston for several years, sir. Commander Wylie simply refused to recall him.”
“So we are allowing one of our staff to wallow away here in the midst of the jungle infested by bees, tigers, a wild tribe called the Bhils, villagers who fear the caves, copying a bunch of pagan images of foreign gods or whatever these images are? Is that what we’re doing?”
“Yes,” Fisk said, “that is what we’re doing.”
“And Wylie believed he could claim this as some form of ....what? I now understand why you didn’t want to explain our visit until we had talked to Preston.”
“Wylie, sir, felt some responsibility for the decay of the art,” Fisk said. “He felt guilty he did not speak up sooner. Pirates and souvenir hunters have already attacked it. I wanted you to see the images and his work. I had hoped that if you saw them....”
“Where is your reasoning, Fisk? You didn’t realize that I would find this business ludicrous! You believed that this so-called work would affect me, that we all don’t have better things to do than think about some old caves in the midst of India? Art, my friend, will not win battles.
“I'm tired, Fisk. I've made this trip up here for God knows why! I'm sick of India, I'll probably get malaria, I've already got diarrhea, tigers await me in the valley below, I've been stung by I don't know how many bees and other insects, the Bhils probably await again, we had to dodge outlaws and thieves everywhere on the roads, and I'm confronted not with a soldier sworn to duty, but an artist concerned with the work of some dead atheistic monks!”
“No journey for vision is wasted, Commander,” Preston said.
“As you wish,” White said in an official tone. “But sir, I must advise you, I’m a strategic adviser, and I’m here to evaluate what our role is in all of this. Obviously I know little of art and I’m flabbergasted how the service got involved in this. Now that I have been here, I must say I’m astounded. What strategic advantage could these caves have?”
“They’re artistically strategic,” Preston said, “like other ancient cultures could have been, if they were not destroyed by ignorant invaders. We don’t want to be one of those, do we, Commander? Knowledge is advantage.”
“What?” White replied, somewhat confused. “Who?”
“Preston too feels a certain responsibility,” Fisk intercedes. “He and the villagers cleared away the debris, and he’s trying to preserve the art for posterity.”
“So now it is our responsibility to preserve the ancient culture of India, a land that isn't even Christian?” White asked.
“Preston is convinced that this work is his destiny,” Fisk said in support, “that he alone has been given the sacred duty of copying the caves, and that he must, well, be part of them in some sense.”
“You look like a pathetic sick creature to me,” White responded, “and I'm not sure you're mentally all present. It's damp and dark in here even in daytime. And you’re living like a wild animal. Have you forgotten civilization? And I must agree with the old fellow Sanchi: There’s something eerie about this place!”
“Your youth is wasting away, Lieutenant!” White said to Preston. “Come back to us.”
“And become important!” Preston scoffed to himself. “And fight wars!”
“Commander,” Fisk added, “I don't think he’s in any condition, in any case, to join the forces immediately. He’ll need a couple of months of rehab.”
White motioned to Fisk. They moved to an area away from Preston to converse confidentially while Preston continued to paint.
“Is this the man you knew?” White asked.
“Yes sir,” Fisk answered.
“Perhaps he’s mad or going mad,” White said. “This all could make any of us a bit strange.”
“Not mad, sir,” Fisk clarified. “Obsessed.”
“How long will it be before he finishes the draft of this cave?” White asked.
“Two or three weeks perhaps.”
“Fine, I will give him a little time, but after that, if he does not return, I’m giving the order to drag him out of here. I will not be responsible for this insanity!”
White and Fisk returned to Preston.
“Lt. Preston, I order you to report to Madras in eight weeks,” White said, “no more. Good luck and good bye.”
White and Preston shook hands. White began to walk out of the cave.
“I would like to say a few words to Preston, sir, before I leave,” Fisk said.
White acknowledged Fisk and left the cave.
“My old friend,” Fisk said, “I know what you’re thinking, but you must finish and return in eight weeks. I don't want to lose you to this tropical madness.”
Preston did not respond but continued to paint.
“Something stronger than what drew me here must draw me away,” Preston finally said.
“How can you stand it, Fisk? What shallowness the fighting machine of civilization creates: Does White see the wonder here, the greatness that lies before his eyes, what these artists endured to create this magnificence?”
“White is a soldier,” Fisk said, “groomed for war, as am I. He has his own duty and work. As do I and as do you. We took an oath.”
“That is truly your concern?” Preston asked.
“Right now, I am concerned about my friend,” Fisk said. “You know that I admire what you are doing, but there comes a time for an end. May I speak personally?”
Preston stopped his painting, still holding his brush, and faced Fisk.
“Your father and mother asked me to tell you they want you to return,” Fisk said.
Preston put down his brush and stared ahead, shaking his head.
“Your father said,” Fisk continued, “well, you can imagine what he said. ‘This work is not worthy of a Preston.’ And your mother is just worried. A copy of Robinson Crusoe in the bag is from her, a weird choice, is it not? I’ve tried to assure her, but she’s not stupid.”
Fisk gently laid his hand on the Preston’s shoulder.
“I'm sorry. I struggled whether I should tell you, but they made me promise. You need to remember that there are others beyond the cave who care about you. We all want you to return after you finish this work here.”
Preston nodded and started painting again.
“Return? Don't you see, I have returned. I have meaning here.”
Again Preston laid his brush on the easel and stood beside Fisk.
“Think. What is there for me? That society. Parents whose idea of growth is conformity and achieving what everyone thinks is achievement, who want others to brag about their son, who want guns in the cellar more than paintings in the hall or music in the parlour…”
Then he shouted, “I know why they want me back there!
“…and teachers who love knowledge more than wisdom, and everywhere, everywhere, a lust for the little bags of shiny coins and stones and power. We all scream: See me, see me, see me, see me.
“You know I went to that godforsaken school for my father. I know I did. I went into the army because of my father. Oh, he didn't force me to go, but I went because of him. I didn't marry the woman I wanted because of my father. My mother stood by quietly saying: Oh my, oh my, oh my.
“Compare all that to this. Look at this work, Fisk! What did the parents of these artists think? Where were the parents of these artists when they were painting these walls? Do you not think they were proud? Even if they weren’t!”
“You'll be more alone than ever now,” Fisk said sadly, “if Sanchi and the villagers live by their word.”
“Sculpture breathes life in me, thanks to Sid.”
Preston pointed to the giant statue of Siddhartha, the Buddha.
“Sid! Trust me, the stone moves, the arms use gestures, the face communicates.”
“Part of me wants to stay. If I could, I would share this adventure with you. You know that.”
Preston acknowledged him.
Fisk indicated the two bags he had brought with him.
“Some more books and other items I thought you might like. I brought as big a selection as I could carry. There are also the paints and materials you wanted.”
Fisk pulled out a musical instrument.
“And your recorder.”
Preston suddenly dropped everything and began to rummage through the bag, excitedly looking at the items one by one.
“Thank you so much,” Preston said.
Fisk approached Preston, Preston stood up and Fisk hugged him.
“Good-bye for now,” Fisk said. “I will see you in eight weeks. Remember. Eight weeks.”
Preston went back to the bags, his head hidden by the bag.
Fisk stared at him and shook his head in concern.
Fisk waved and left the cave.
Preston picked up the bags and brought them to his area in the back in the cave.
The tour guide entered, a small entourage following, the guide talking as she walked.
“Now I assume that you have noticed how the styles and techniques of the artists have changed in our tour of different caves. In the early era they paint and sculpt quite simply, with little ornament, almost no symbolism and when there is symbolism, it is the most simple type and with no figures. Indeed in the beginning the Buddha himself never appeared in Buddhist art, and when he did appear, often we see no more than the figure in various gestures, each gesture significant. This accords with the early philosophy of Buddhism, for, we must remember, Buddhism was a reaction or reform movement to Brahmanism, which had elaborate ceremonies and mythology, in which the divine figures were made into dolls. In this sense, in its iconoclastic primitive beginnings, Buddhist art is quite similar--is it not?--to early Christian art, to Muslim art and to Judaic art. However, as the religion grows older, extraordinary complexity also appears, and with it, intricate carvings and paintings of people, Bodhisatvas, animals, plants, and so on, plus, of course, the most complex symbolism. So we see in these caves literally a history of the Buddhist faith from one stage to another.”
The tour guide and tourists walked once around the Buddha sculpture and left.
Preston was once again alone and returned to his painting for several hours.
As the sky darkened, he placed the fires across the cave entrance and set up the lit stick in the wall. Along the walls have appeared monks in orange robes painting the wall and working on the sculpture of Buddha. Preston waved his hands in the air swatting bees and other insects attacking him. He covered his head with a hat Fisk had brought. Suddenly he jutted forward and ran about the cave, brush in hand, trying to avoid a swarm of bees attacking his head. When it subsided, he returned to his lotus position and spoke to himself, in a grumbling manner, while painting.
“With its razor sharp sword of convention lunging at me with the force of centuries, history is the great foe of growth.
“Don't you see me working?” Preston spoke to an invisible presence. “Is my cave less a womb than an office or field? Come at me! Strike me, oh friends, family, traditions and customs! The bright lights of me and them descend into the night clay of ignorance and arrogance. Let them mire in the mud of their own thick insecurities, loving their arms and legs and mouths and the tiny things they do with them, locking their potential growth in the traps of recognition and approval.”
Preston waited, then shouted: “I hear you!”
In a normal volume, he said, “Who can ignore the blaring colours of those hopes and dreams in the forest of opportunity when it is the most trodden trail?
“Why am I doing this, you ask, why am I doing this, why am I doing this?”
He shouted: “You ask: Why am I alive?”
In a normal volume, he spoke: “The stuff of my being stinks from rotting too long in the sun of limited vision.”
Preston laughed and looked over at the statue.
“You find me repellent, don't you, Sid, you of the full spectrum of colours? I denounce black and white and I am black and white from head to foot. I can fool only fools because the sage cannot know foolishness without being foolish.”
There was a loud growl of a tiger. The growl startled Preston, but he returned to his painting.
“I have seen the tigers' eyes glistening in the darkness and they have seen mine in the fires of fear, and we discern the same thing: an animal hungry for his food. What gourmets we are, seeing others as no more than a meal, tasting the delightful stupidity in human flesh and drooling for more. Oh, tigers, after you have taken me, romp over and become sated on the battlefields of yonder war, where we, like you, are protecting territory and pride, and are gluttons of property!”
Parvati rushed into the cave out of breath. When she did, all of the monks disappeared. She hugged Preston.
“Parvati!” Preston said in surprise.
“Preston, I had to come,” she said. “I'm really worried. Despite the protests of my father, the villagers are planning to come and seal the entrance to all of the caves! There is even talk of destroying the paintings and sculptures.”
“History again,” Preston said to himself.
“I cannot stay away from you or the work,” Parvati said. “Like you, I am bewitched by these images and I must disobey my father and the tradition. I too yearn to paint them.”
Preston hugged her tightly.
“The tigers will not care about your sacrifice, you know that,” Preston said.
He held her face gently in his hands.
“Danger begins in darkness, sweet Parvati. Our love cannot trick the night.”
“I do not care about the tigers,” she said. “I have lived with them my whole life. If that is the will of Allah, then so be it. My dream is to paint like you and become one with these images. Like you, I want to sleep little and paint more.”
They heard the sound of voices outside the cave. Parvati ran over to the entrance to the cave and looked out.
“They’re here. The villagers are here! What should we do?”
Preston shood his head.
“I am afraid for you,” Parvati said.
Preston walked to her, gently hugged her again, then gave her a brush and sketchbook, pointed to a particular section opposite to the wall on which he is working.
Parvati confusedly walked over to the area and began to sketch.
The growling of tigers was growing louder and the voices of the villagers diminished until they could no longer be heard.
The tour guide said outside the cave,
“Structure is everything. When we examine these works, we must look for form and structure and how colours and lines are used to make the most sensitive expression. These artists had models. They knew what they were doing. Notice the juxtapositions, the intermingling of lights, avoidance of three dimensional thinking and depth perception. See how sculptural the figures are.”
The tour guide left.
There was silence until they retired from their work and went to sleep.
During the night Preston, laying in the darkness, screamed an incoherent word and then went back to sleep.
The sunrise appeared and a bright light shone on the entrance to the cave. Buddhist chanting sounded very quietly in the background.
Preston, in the midst of a nightmare, screamed out again in his sleep. Parvati was asleep on another stone ledge near him.
Preston turned restlessly and talked to himself, the mumbling grows louder, finally he jumped up, still asleep, and grabbed his gun and faced the entrance.
“Stay there! Come no closer!”
He swung around, pointed the gun, and shot. The bullet struck one of the paintings.
Parvati had now awakened from the gunshot.
“I am warning you!” Preston yelled.
Preston swung around again in another direction and shot again. Another section of the paintings was damaged.
Parvati ran to him and struggled to grab the gun but she failed to stop him, falling backward. She stood up and hit him, trying to wake him up.
“Preston, wake up! Wake up! You're dreaming! You're hurting the paintings!”
Preston shot again in another direction and again it chipped away at the painting. He reloaded.
Parvati tried once more to grab the gun but without success
“You will not make war here!” Preston yells. “We are artists! We will not bow to you.”
He fired again and pieces of the fresco fell to the floor.
Parvati was crying and becoming hysterical.
“Stop it, Preston! Stop!” she pleaded with him.
Preston fired again and the sculpture was damaged.
Finally she succeeded in getting the gun from him and threw it down the cliff.
Preston collapsed to the floor. Parvati, still sobbing, dragged him to his bed in a dazed state.
“Parvati!” Sanchi shouted from outside the entrance, “you and Preston come down the mountain!”
Parvati, startled, jumped up and walked nervously about the cave, not knowing what to do.
“Please, Preston, please wake up!” she said, shaking him.
Preston slowly awakened.
“The villagers,” Parvati said. “They have returned. They are here, with my father.”
“Did you hear us?” Sanchi spoke. “We have sealed the other caves and we are going to seal yours. Come out now!”
The villagers were beginning to pile rocks and boulders. Parvati and Preston could hear the sound of their work and the rocks smashing up to each other.
Preston rose up quickly.
“Where's my gun?” he asked
“I threw it down the mountain.”
She pointed to the paintings.
“Look!” she said in tears.
Preston saw the damage to the paintings and the sculpture, and rushed from one painting to the other and felt them.
“The paintings! What happened? Those devils!”
Preston ran to the entrance to the cave.
“Never! Never! I’ll never come out,” he screamed to them.
“No, Preston,” Parvati said, pulling him near her, “they did not do it. They were not here. There was only the two of us. You had a nightmare and you, with your gun...”
“What? I?” he said, shocked by her words.
“No! No!” he hollered, hitting his head several times with his hands.
He picked up his sketchbook and threw it to the floor.
“You were dreaming,” Parvati said gently, holding his hands.
Preston started to walk about the cave in great agitation at what he had done.
“What kind of beast shoots beauty in his dream, tell me that?” he said. “What dream would kill your dream! What madness brings this madness! Could I not see? Did the colours not enter my eyes? Did my joy not overwhelm my fear?”
He brushed his hand gently where the bullets damaged one of the paintings.
“How can I repair and overcome what my unconscious will not allow?”
Sanchi rushed in and grabbed Parvati’s arm, pulling her from the cave.
“Come now!” he said. “They are blocking up the entrance. Only a rat will be able to come and go in a few minutes!”
Sanchi looked at Preston.
“Will you come or will you die here? Escape Preston, while you can.”
Preston did not move and was oblivious to Sanchi and his words. He was transfixed by the damage to the paintings.
“Preston!” Parvati cried out. “No, father. I want to stay with Preston. Preston!”
Preston, with his back to Sanchi and Parvati, continued to gaze at the sculpture and the damage done to it, running his palm over the damaged area, shaking his head in despair, tears flowing down his cheeks. He began to sob heavily.
As Sanchi succeeded in dragging Parvati from the cave and Preston was left alone, the shadow of a tiger appeared on the wall on the other side of the cave, unnoticed by anyone.
The sound of large rocks and boulders being piled on top of each other and sealing up the entrance grew softer and softer until it ceased and then too the amount of light slowly leaking through ended.
“Preston! Preston!” Parvati’s muffled and desperate words were heard for a time but soon there was only the art sitting in silence and darkness.
Preston built a fire and sat in the lotus position reflecting and playing his recorder.
The monks reappeared and returned to their work on the statue and paintings.
The tiger growled. Its shadow indicated that it moved around the statue and began to come near the fire. It saw Preston, and turned away, but changed its mind, came closer to him, smelled him. Then he laid down next to him by the fire, listening as Preston continued to play the recorder.
D.D. Renforth: "Cave Man is about the aftermath of the rediscovery of the Ajanta Caves in India. It is a fictional account of the artist who copied the Buddhist frescoes and sculptures and his struggles.. The actual artist is today buried a few miles from the caves. The story is a result of a personal visit to the caves."
D. D. Renforth, a graduate of Syracuse University, Duke University, and the University of Toronto (Ph.D.) has three short stories forthcoming in the next months and has published in commercial presses two non-fiction books and several articles, including two articles on art. Renforth taught a course on the interrelationship of the world arts, including the Avant-garde at the University of Toronto.
It was the noise at her back that confused her. Not the heat. For some reason, she had expected heat. But not sound. She listened more closely. It reminded her of the market, if the market had been full of grief – if all the goats and chickens and sheep had known their fate and had cried out unto the Lord.
Her husband's back was rosy and he wore an old garment. She wished briefly that he had worn his newer one, and then shook herself. They were fleeing, after all. Her two daughters carried the oil and a few pots, led the goats. Such good girls. She wondered that their fiancés hadn't come along, but young men had lives of their own, and girls didn't count for much. She sighed. Her husband hadn’t told her why they were fleeing. Of course, her family was hated there. Men came pounding on the door in the middle of the night. Maybe after this flight, they would find neighbours like themselves.
She had never seen such strange light - it might be sheets of falling stars that made the animals prance and shake. The cries simmered behind her, and she turned slightly to listen as her shadow ran forward. Underneath she could hear a deep rolling note like a distant sea. She must be wrong; grief did not sound like that. Maybe angels were singing in the city. Something great and entrancing that they were leaving behind.
She imagined behind her, in the light, the beauty of wings and singing, and her hated family cast out, never to see the glory. It was a trick of the Lord. They would always be despised. Flight would change nothing - every day she would milk the goats and try to make her husband happy; the girls would never find husbands and would be barren unto the earth. Behind her the angels flew and sang. Radiant, feathered. She could hear them and feel the heat from their wings. Gloria, gloria!
Suddenly, she turned. Fire, brimstone. She had time to weep one salt tear. Her family hurried on.
She spoke no French but heard the people of Paris pushing through the streets singing an excited, urgent song. No need to understand. She had come only to frequent the sainted chapel.
Its beauty was legendary. The walls, if walls they were, lifted coloured glass entire. Burnished red, deep sleepy green, blue the colour of the sky behind a rising moon, joyous gold. Brilliant colours set in black, forming pictures of ancient holy stories, of long-dead nobles and their wives, of kneeling animals. She visited daily, pondering the lives of the men who now lived only in glass. She understood the artists’ visions as gifts to the Lord.
Every day it rained.
On the last day, the chapel was empty. Yearning to see colour riding on streams of sun down through the nave, she sat on the stone floor and steadfastly prayed for light. So deep was her meditation, she heard nothing: the horns and planes, the frantic cries in the street, the sirens were dead to her. She felt no panic. She simply stared into the ancient space. Finally, an absolute light and for an infinitesimal moment she saw the tremendous gathering of splendour, the brilliance of all the old stories, the hope and the faith of the men who had created this masterwork. Glory. Glory! Then everything and everyone was gone. Exploded and shattered and lost.
Terri Lewis: I studied writing at the University of Denver and the Writers Center in Maryland. Two of my short stories received awards from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, I was the winner of a Bethesda Literary Festival Writer's contest and was recently chosen to participate in the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University. I have completed a novel and am looking for an agent.
The Art of Addition by Subtraction
"Hey, Marie -- see the couple staring at Janette's Pomegranate #5?" Buster nodded toward the two men, one tall and slight as a whisper, the other squat, the pleat of his suit coat flaring out like a ladybug's wings.
I'd shoved show catalogues into the hands of the two as they entered the gallery, but they'd looked right past me to the twelve-foot tall nude that Buster had hung in the entryway to aggravate a yawping neighbor who thought of good art as Norman Rockwell. "Window shoppers?"
"They're going to buy your Brooklyn Menopause and All Dog's Children." A wry smile split the thatch of Buster's beard. He held up a fist.
I bumped my fist into his, weak-kneed with relief. After a three-week run, my first gallery showing was due to come down in a few hours, and until that moment I'd sold exactly nothing. Buster, who'd taken a large risk giving a relative unknown half of the wall space in his gallery, would have had nothing to show for his generosity. "Full price?"
"Me? Discount? Please. But the best thing is those two are alphas in the collecting community. This almost guarantees I'll be able to sell the rest of your pieces."
From across the room a bejeweled matron, giggling at Jeanette's Beautox, curled a forefinger to beckon Buster. He gave me a sheepish look and headed her way. I snatched a glass of champagne from a caterer's tray and tossed it down in one unladylike gulp.
One night a month ago, guiltily tempting fate, I'd totaled up the prices of the works I had on display. Absurd. $600,000. Even after subtracting Buster's half, and allowing for taxes, I'd clear enough to finally quit my job at the library to concentrate on my art.
I giggled at the irony—it had taken me twenty years of schlepping my booth from one street fair to the next to become the "promising new talent" the Times had mentioned the week before in an Arts Section tidbits piece. I went looking for my sister Casey to share the good news.
She stood at the foot of the iron spiral staircase that led to Buster's office. She was flirting, as usual, this time with a younger man, mid-30s perhaps, with copper hair and a bushy goatee. He had the almost translucent skin of a true redhead, with protruding ears that begged for a nip and tuck, and doleful eyes behind glasses with thick chartreuse frames. He was dressed in a fire-engine red turtleneck with leather pants to match.
I pushed my way through the crowd surrounding the refreshments table to join the two.
Only the flutter of Casey's eyelids tipped me to her annoyance at my imposition as she pivoted to make room for me in the conversation. "I was just telling Dean here," she touched him lightly on the sleeve, "how hard you worked to get this show. He thinks your stuff is super."
Dean nodded, peering at me over the glasses suspended on the flare of his nostrils. "Dean Lyons. Right. Yes. Super is certainly a word."
I was familiar with the contempt that Casey's ebullience brought out in some men, but he seemed sincere.
"Thanks for the compliment," I said.
"You're welcome. I was particularly taken with this piece." He made a hitchhiking gesture toward the centerpiece of my show in the spotlight behind him. Justice was a full-sized, freestanding sculpture made of human hair on a hidden wire framework; curly, straight, black, brown, red, blond, and white. Very conceptual, in that it didn't resemble anything except perhaps a whirlpool. I'd spent over five years collecting that hair, which had been trimmed by undertakers from the heads of corpses while sprucing them up for their funerals. It was the piece I'd been working toward my entire career.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Lyons said. He tapped the open catalog in his hand with his index finger. "$75,000. Now, how can you justify such a price?" His tone was playful. Casey sidled closer.
I replied in kind. "Justice weighs almost forty pounds. Christie's just sold Femme by Miró for $2 million, and I'll bet it didn't weigh more than a pound."
"Stalin said quantity has a quality all its own," he replied, smiling as he idly tugged on his goatee. "What's with the title?"
"Do you really expect any artist to answer that question?"
He sighed. "I never give up hope." He rolled up the catalog and thrust it into the inside pocket of his suit coat. "Anyway, I'm going to buy it. The hair thing. All forty pounds."
I almost peed my pants in delight. Casey took a step back, though, and I was puzzled at the sudden suspicion, perhaps even anger, in her expression. She eventually turned on every man she took up with, but never within the first ten minutes.
"You're joking," I said.
"No joke," Lyons said. "Justice will fit perfectly into my collection."
Hoping to draw out the conversation so I could savour the moment, I said, "You're an artist, too? Might I have seen some of your work?"
Casey discreetly kicked my ankle as Lyons replied, "I doubt it. I'm a performance artist. My audiences are very intimate."
"What kind of performances?"
"Hard to explain. Maybe you'd like to attend one?"
"I'd love to," I said. Casey kicked me again, and I kicked her back.
We exchanged business cards, and Lyons promised to call me later with the details. He then excused himself to search out Buster and arrange the purchase.
"What?" I said to Casey as soon as Lyons was out of hearing range. "I'm not trying to steal him from you, if that's what you're worried about."
She put her hand on my shoulder and turned me to face the wall before whispering, "I just figured out who he is. He's that guy that makes bonfires out of art."
I had no idea what she was talking about, but before I could ask, a stocky young man trying to decide between Crass and Boring and Arrogant Prick cornered me with a multitude questions about how each should be hung, curated, and which one I thought would be worth more in ten years. A few minutes later, Buster appeared, carrying a SOLD sticker before him like a communion cup. He transferred it with great ceremony to the label of Justice.
After the gallery closed, Janette, Casey, Buster and I crammed into a vinyl-upholstered booth in the bar next door, Muscadet. I waited until the cocktails were delivered before asking the group about Lyons.
"Dean Lyons?" Janette said, frowning. "The pyro artist? He was there tonight? I read a profile of him in the Village Voice. He calls himself "Mr. Addition by Subtraction." She swirled her martini olive. "He buys art and burns it in public."
Just that quickly, my joy turned to ash. Casey patted my hand.
"He used to come around the gallery every six months or so," Buster said, "asking me to show his paintings. He had some talent, but his technique was sloppy and his subjects were vapid. Still, he has a shitload of money, so I kept thinking that if I got desperate enough I could sell him a few weeks of wall space. Fortunately, I never reached that point. Yet."
Janette asked Roscoe, "You didn't sell him anything of mine, did you?"
When Roscoe shook his head, I said, "He bought Justice. You think he means to burn it?"
"You dickhead," Janette said, glaring at Roscoe.
"What?" Roscoe replied. "A customer buys a piece, he buys the right to do with it what he pleases. It's not like we don't charge him plenty for the privilege. And Lyon's money is as good as anyone's. Right, Marie?"
"But why would he burn Justice?" The notion was intolerable.
Janette said, "In the profile, he said that eradicating bad art was as valid a form of artistic expression as creating good art. I think he even got a grant from the NEA."
"He can't burn Justice," I said. "I don't care what he paid. I poured my soul into that piece."
"You go, girl," Casey said, raising her wine spritzer in support.
Roscoe rest his chin on his fist. "Money is money. It buys you the time to make better pieces. Some artists do commercial work to pay the bills. Is this so different?"
The insult to the quality of my work implicit in Roscoe's words hurt. "If I do better work," I said, "maybe he buys and burns that, too. You think people will remember me for the money I had?"
My tablemates snarled at Roscoe as he replied, "Then think about me for a minute, OK? A sale like this allows me to show more new artists like you two. Besides, the contract's been signed."
"Stop the check," Janette said.
"He paid cash. And he had the piece picked up at closing time."
"Oh, bite me," I said, stood, pulled a ten out of my billfold, tossed it on the table, and stomped out.
I stood on the street corner outside the bar for fifteen minutes before I finally flagged down a cab to haul me from Tribeca to the Upper East Side address on Lyon's card. Along the way, I wondered if our mother would have been as proud of Justice as she'd been of Casey's firstborn, Troy, whose birth she'd regarded like a biblical miracle.
It was midnight when I jumped out of the cab in front of a high-class apartment building overlooking Central Park. I felt like a hobo in the simple pants suit and sensible flats I'd worn to the gallery, and the stare of the doorman implied he shared my opinion. Rather than try to fast-talk my way into the building, I took a few steps to the side of the entryway, pulled out Lyon's card, and dialed his apartment.
He answered on the first ring. Crossing my fingers and trying to keep anger out of my voice, I told him I had to speak with him, right away. I was relieved when he agreed to let me come up. The doorman didn't take his eyes off of me until the elevator doors closed.
The elevator opened on the 30th floor to an apartment the likes of which I'd only seen in high-end decorator magazines. The walls were covered in chartreuse silk wallpaper, and the living room beyond the foyer was decorated in blended curves and playful takeoffs on vegetation; a chair made in the shape of a bunch of bananas, asparagus floor lamps, garlic pillows. Spotlights in the ceiling reflected from the chrome of empty art hangers lining the walls like sconces.
Lyons, still dressed in the clothes he'd worn to the gallery, was leaning against the wall waiting for me, his eyes half open. "It didn't take you long," he said. There was a sag to his face that I hadn't noticed earlier, and he spoke so softly I could barely hear him. He turned and waved an arm toward the living room. "You're not armed, are you?"
"Not this time," I replied, feigning amusement, since I still had a faint hope of reasoning with him. I preceded him into the living room, taking in the panoramic view of Central Park and the West Side. Empty celery-stalk display stands stood like pilings throughout the room. A see-through glass cabinet separated the living room from a music room, but the shelves were also empty. "You have the whole floor?" I asked.
Lyons pointed me to an orange sweet-potato couch in front of the window, and collapsed into the bananas. "Three floors, actually. My grandparents were talented capitalists."
I sank into the couch. A spray of fresh-cut pink orchids on the coffee table concealed Lyons face. He reached out with a socked foot and shoved the vase aside.
"I’m surprised you invited me up," I said.
He shrugged. "Might as well get this out of the way as soon as possible. You figured out why I bought your piece." He yawned. "And you want it back. They always want it back."
I leaned forward to escape the lethargy of the overstuffed furniture. I'd steeled myself for a pitched argument, but Lyons seemed abstracted.
"Of course I want you to stop," I said. "I'll give your money back."
He slid lower in the chair, like a bored child in a pew. "Does a car mechanic worry about what becomes of the spark plugs he installs? Have you ever seen a short-order cook try to buy back a breakfast?"
"Are you comparing my art to a spark plug?"
"Why not? Art isn't holy, is it? It's a product. Mostly a defective product. A few years ago, a hundred paintings by leading British artists were destroyed in a warehouse fire. You know what I call that? A good start."
I bit my lip and replied, "I leave a piece of myself in every work. You burn my work, you burn me."
Lyons removed his glasses and rubbed his face with both hands. "I used to say shit like that, back when I was painting."
"Then you know what I mean. Why I need my piece back."
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "My paintings were crap. All they did was obscure other people's brilliant work. Every mediocre piece taints the art world like a drop of soap in a pot of coffee."
"So my piece is crap?" I clasped my hands between my knees.
"Duh," Lyons said, and yawned again.
"So burning it accomplishes what? Beyond stroking your ego."
He lifted his feet onto the kiwi coffee table. "I call my art addition by subtraction. And yes, I realize how pretentious that sounds. I’m sorry about the harsh appraisal of your work, but I'm not giving your piece back; I need it. Take my money and try harder next time. Or find another way to scratch your art itch. I understand quilting is fun."
I sat seething quietly for a couple of minutes, trying to frame a response that didn't include screaming. Before I could speak, Lyons began to snore softly.
I stood and turned to the window, tempted to chuck one of the end tables through it. When Roscoe had, at long last, agreed to show my work, I'd spent hours digging up the addresses of the teachers and classmates who had ridiculed my ambition. I'd sent them all invitations to the exhibition, and a few had even come. Now, in a few minutes, Lyons had made a cruel joke of my revenge.
I waved a hand in Lyons' face, but he didn't respond. Still furious, I crossed the room and passed through the folding glass door dividing the living room from the music room, which was dominated by a Bösendorfer grand piano beneath a crystal chandelier. The walls in this room were also bare. I took out my house key.
As I gouged Art is sacred into the walnut top of the piano, I wondered if the pieces Lyons had gathered for his next bonfire were somewhere in the apartment. Maybe if I acted quickly, I could still liberate Justice.
I passed through the music room to the dining room, then the kitchen, breakfast room, restroom, pantry, and back into the foyer, checking closets and cabinets as I went. No art. Into the library. No art.
A side door from the library led to a winding staircase. I returned to the living room to check on Lyons, who was sound asleep, a thin line of drool trickling into his beard.
I climbed the stairs. The upstairs hallway opened first onto a massive media room that had escaped the attention of the psychedelic decorator. The only seating, a battered leather recliner, was placed at the focal point of the sound system.
I gave the room a quick once-over. Still no art, although two empty cabinets bookending the entertainment console were purpose-made for displaying sculptures.
I searched the guest bedrooms -- under the bed, in the bathroom cabinets, the walk-in closets. Nothing. My last stop was the master bedroom. Strewn clothes, piled magazines, a 60-inch plasma TV, and a dirty breakfast tray on the floor suggested Lyons spent a good part of his day in bed. A hypodermic, lighter, and silver spoon on the bed stand explained Lyons lethargy.
The only piece of art in the apartment was hidden in a cardboard box under the bed. The small abstract acrylic painting was done in five primary colours. Straight horizontal lines at the top and bottom sandwiched other lines which curved, looped and twisted like intestines. The piece lacked unity, and the color pallet wasn't harmonious. Still, not altogether hideous. It was unsigned, but on the backside was a faint note in pencil: DL '01.
The wronged dream first of vengeance, and I was no exception. But I also recognized the danger in confrontation: some people are willing, even happy to burn, in which case everybody loses. I decided to wait until Justice was in sight before proposing a trade.
I removed the painting from the frame, then cut the canvas free from the stretcher with my Swiss Army knife. I shoved the frame and stretcher back under the bed.
I rolled up the painting and slid it under my collar at my nape and down along my spine, under my bra strap and tucked it into the waistband of my pantyhose. Standing up straight, the canvas was barely noticeable beneath my blouse.
The doorman didn't.
Lyons had left a message on my answering machine earlier in the evening with directions to his next performance, on Saturday night five days hence. A written invitation followed two days later.
I spent the week hounding Buster, fruitlessly pleading for him to negate the deal. I talked with a lawyer, who agreed to pursue it if I gave her a $100,000 retainer. I even stalked Lyons for a couple of days as best I could via public transportation hoping he'd lead me to his cache, but a burly marine-type accompanied him everywhere he went, and he didn't leave his apartment very often.
"Grieve for Justice," Casey counseled me. "Then let it go. Remember when Catigula ran away? We got over that."
"He was a kitten. We were children. There's no comparison."
"You should have had children," she said. "You'd have more perspective."
"So you keep telling me." She'd had two, by partners unrevealed, and now that the kids were grown she had convinced herself that all those years as a single mother had been joyous. I knew better. I'd been there with her, every day, every tear, and every day I had returned home thankful beyond words that I'd chosen art.
Because Lyons had told me his audiences were very small, I was surprised to find over 100 people gathered on the roof of an old brick high-rise for Lyon's performance. Caterers were serving wine at one white-clothed table, canapés at another. The attendees ran to tattoos and trashy-chic clothing. The air was redolent with wood smoke and marijuana.
Lyon's bodyguard collected my invitation and checked my name off the list on his clipboard. He also ordered me to uncap the cardboard mailing tube I was carrying. I told him the painting rolled up inside was a contribution for Lyon's performance. He waved me in.
After grabbing a glass of wine from the table, I wove my way through conversation clusters toward a theater-in-the-round stage which filled almost a third of the roof. It rested on layer after layer of fireproof insulation and was surrounded by a phalanx of fire extinguishers.
Another goon stood guard at the bottom of the ramp to the stage. In the center of the stage, a bonfire of hardwood logs was already sending up flames six feet high. A few steps to its right, a blue tarp covered what I presumed was the artwork Lyons had chosen for the event.
He was nowhere to be seen, so I circulated, dipping into a few conversations long enough to confirm that no other artist whose work was to be burned had been stupid enough to attend. When the conversers discovered that I was one, they assumed that I was a willing participant, and made jokes at my expense. I pretended to be amused, holding my anger for later in the evening.
Finally, as a nearby cathedral struck 10 p.m., floodlights clipped to the roof antennas snapped on, illuminating the stage. I moved to a spot next to the ramp. Most of the crowd was surrounding the door leading onto the roof, twenty yards behind me. The guards quickly cleared a cordon for Lyons' grand entrance.
He appeared in the doorway dressed in a riotous brocaded and beaded robe with belled sleeves and a deep cowl. It reminded me of a Klimt painting; sumptuous, gold. He was wearing too much stage makeup, and his face looked like a mask in the spotlight glare. Following him was a fuchsia-haired girl with a video camera, shooting the festivities.
He passed through the cordon, reaching out as he passed to brush fingers with the hands held out to him. When he reached me, though, he stopped and brought both hands to his heart like an infatuated mime. "What a lovely surprise," he said. "You're the very first. You realize that?"
"The first artist to attend?"
He nodded. "Oh, this is going to be an epic performance. Can't you just feel it?" His face was flushed and his eyes darted around the audience.
"I'm not here to help you murder my art," I said.
"Murder means the taking of a life," he replied loudly, looking around to make sure the bystanders were enjoying his repartee. "Believe me, there's no life in the art we're burning tonight."
The people close enough to hear broke into laughter.
I, on the other hand, spit on him. Startled, Lyons took a step back and would have tumbled over the ramp if the guard had not propped him up. He scowled at me as he climbed to the stage.
In the spotlights, he appeared a foot taller. He stood, hands on hips, taking in the audience for a minute, which was applauding politely, before raising his arms. Music began booming from speakers behind us, a Dead Can Dance piece with the bass cranked up until I could feel it bouncing off my sternum. The onlookers fell silent.
"What is art?" he said, his voice rising in pitch as he strained to be heard over the music, "The struggle to find order in chaos? To bring meaning to meaninglessness? To return passion to a jaded world?"
The people standing next to me smiled indulgently. A goth on the opposite side of the ramp rolled her eyes and elbowed the man beside her. He thinks he's moving them with his so-called art, I realized, but to them, it's just bread and circuses.
"If so, then bad art can make chaos out of order," Lyons continued, playing to the camera. "And worse, it leaves us too numb to recognize the good stuff."
He wrung his hands. "I compare what I do to tearing down a billboard in Yellowstone. Burning a McDonalds on St. Marks Square, or blowing up an oil derrick on the Great Barrier Reef."
The crowd clapped politely as he paused.
Lyons' face was already covered with sweat. The ramp guard had turned his back to me. I eased myself around the banister so that I had a straight shot up to the stage. Now that confrontation was inevitable, I was ticking with anticipation.
Lyons crossed to the tarp, reached down, grabbed a corner, dragged it to the edge of the roof, and with a toreador's flourish sent it spinning into the darkness. Revealed were half a dozen unframed paintings, a misshapen glob of glass the size of a beagle, and Justice. The audience hooted like drunken soccer fans.
Lyons plucked a painting from the pile and held it aloft. "I paid $11,000 for this," he said.
The picture looked like vomit on houndstooth fabric.
"Burn, burn, burn," the crowd chanted.
"This one's for Modigliani," Lyons shouted, and pitched the picture into the fire. It caught fire immediately. I could smell the acrylics as they boiled away.
Lyons waited for the applause to recede before brushing his hands together and saying, "Isn't the world more beautiful now?"
As those around me cheered, I fought off the impulse to imagine the artists whose works were being burned. I had to remain focused.
Lyons returned to the pile, grabbed another painting, repeated the process. Then more self-aggrandizing gibberish. Then another. And another. A portrait of an old man with daisies for eyes. A solid black rhomboid. A puppy taking a crap. An abstract done with a paintball gun. All up in flames, except the glass piece, which shattered. The crowd egged Lyons on, and between each sacrifice, he implored their applause with come-hither motions.
Finally only Justice remained. A young couple behind me debated about how long it would take for human hair to burn. Lyons appeared a bit wobbly on his feet, and he kept rubbing his chest. He locked his eyes on me, though, as he grabbed my sculpture and dragged it to the edge of the fire.
He raised his hands for quiet, then said, "It takes a brave person to admit that the art world would be better without her work." He pointed at me. "A woman like Marie Shaffer. Can we have some applause for the first artist to watch her work burn?"
As the crowd craned to see whom he was addressing, I sprinted up the ramp and crossed the stage, pulling the rolled painting from the mailing tube as I went. I came to a stop a few feet from Lyons, a few feet from the fire.
Lyons, watching the audience, didn't seem aware that I had something in my hand. When the applause died down, he nodded in satisfaction and turned Justice to face me. "Would you like to do the honour?"
The audience fell silent, straining to catch my reply.
"No," I said. "But I will burn this." I unrolled the painting in his face. He staggered back a step and blinked several times. When his bodyguard took a step up the ramp, Lyons shook his head to stop him.
I held the picture up to the crowd, and paced across the stage so that everyone could get a good look. "It's the last remaining original work by Dean Lyons," I yelled. "Should it burn? Thumbs up or thumbs down?"
A multitude of arms shot into the air. Thumbs down. I turned back to Lyons, who sighed deeply.
"It looks like your friends have no pity. Lucky for you, I do. I'm willing to trade. Your darling for mine."
The crowd buzzed with pleasure at the high drama.
Lyons stroked the hair of Justice. "A trial by fire, huh?" To my surprise, he smiled but his eyes were wet. He thought with eyes closed for a minute before nodding, taking a step toward me, and bending his head to whisper in my ear.
"Thank you," he said. "I would never have been able to work up the nerve to burn that one."
He lifted Justice and heaved it into the flames.
I flicked my wrist. Lyon's painting landed beside it.
The crowd's applause was all but lost on us as we watched our art burn. I'll never forget the smell of burning hair, or Lyons, both hands up in the air as though celebrating. His posture was belied by the despair on his face as his painting turned to thumb-sized feathers of ash and floated away in the smoke.
Through my eyes, the world had never seemed so ugly.
Tom Barlow is an Ohio writer. Other stories of his may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Best New Writing 2011, and numerous magazines including Redivider, Temenos, The Apalachee Review, Hobart, Penduline Press, Thrice Fiction and The William and Mary Review. He is also author of the short story collection Welcome to the Goat Rodeo (long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Collection Award) and the novel I'll Meet You Yesterday.
La mariée à la lune
My father decided to use his inheritance to buy my mother a Chagall. I figured this would remain another of his unfulfilled schemes. He’d fly to New York or London for an auction, get distracted five minutes off the plane, and come home with tourist bric-à-brac rather than a painting. Even if he only went as far as the Toronto auction houses, driving our car down to Bowmanville and taking the GO the rest of the way, I could divert his attention easily enough with the sarcophagi at the ROM or the Hockey Hall of Fame or betting him he couldn’t climb all the stairs of the CN Tower in one go.
But then he told me you could buy art on the Internet, and I started to worry.
“Look," he said, having dragged me into a cupboard under the stairs where we had kept the telephone, before it was disconnected for non-payment. “Which do you think your mother would like?" He passed me a book.
Flying goats. Violins. Elongated women. Spheres of flowers in the sky above la Côte d’Azure. And all that blue. My mother loathed blue. We lived in a house bereft of blue. No blue plates, no blue sheets, not even blue jeans. We didn’t buy Rice Krispies because of the blue box. We filled up at the PetroCan because of the blue on the Esso and Ultramar signs. There was no way my mother would want a blue painting.
I hesitated and my father grabbed the book back from me and held it to his chest. The plastic library cover crackled in his hands. He must have used my mother’s card to take the book out; I’d hidden his card because we couldn’t handle any new overdue fees.
“Your mother’s happiness will be like an atomic bomb," he said. “Boom."
I might have only been in my second decade alive, but had I received the money, I would have used it in a less frivolous fashion. For instance, we’d had an estimate for roof repair next to the microwave for months. And most of the banister through all the three floors of the house had rotted through. Also, each winter the furnace took longer and longer to spring back to life. Plus the electrical in the house was original and ungrounded, except for the kitchen, redone on its own circuit breaker by a friend. We needed to use this money responsibly, as our only other income was the honorariums my father received from his few corporate board positions and some dividends from a few stocks he benignly neglected. This miniscule sum did not pay for the lifestyle to which he was accustomed, even out here in the sticks, with nothing to spend money on.
“We’ll have to keep this a secret," he said. “From your mother. This isn’t a surprise you are going to ruin. Not this time." He dropped the book and grabbed my arm. “You aren’t going to ruin this for me?" he asked, grip tightening. “Are you?"
I shook my head.
“Promise me," he insisted. “Promise me."
At dinner, my father slammed his plate onto the table. “Cookies," he announced.
My mother didn’t look up from her book, an orange Penguin with pages loose in their binding. “There may be a box in the pantry," she said, chewing from the edge of her mouth. “I’d finish your dinner first."
“I mean computer cookies," my father clarified.
“What about them?" My mother disinterest was palpable.
“We should delete them every day. Clear the cache. Like a garbage bin." My father mimed emptying a wastepaper basket into a larger bin and knocked a fork to the ground.
“I don’t see the harm in that," my mother agreed, head still down in her book.
I told her that the routine expunging of the cookies and cache would mean having to enter her library code each time she went to the library website since the browser wouldn’t save the twenty-two digits in memory for her anymore. Only then did she look up from her book and frown at my father.
“That," she said. “I wouldn’t like to do that."
“No. No problem," my father replied. “Already thought of. Already solved. I saved a text file on the desktop. Copy paste every time you want to go to your library account. Almost no additional time whatsoever."
My mother thought about this.
“Edward Snowden," my father said warningly.
“I suppose," she finally decided. “For safety."
“And that," my father told me later, “is how she won’t be able to search the history and see what we have been up to."
I disliked the way he included me in his we.
I decided an indirect approach might yield results. Thus, I pointed out each creak and hum in the car, wincing theatrically as we drove over speed bumps and commenting on the state of the shocks. I kicked at the back shed until it collapsed and then asked him where he was going to store the lawnmower. I grabbed calculations off the bank website about how much money one needed to get a professional degree Medicine/Dental and presented the printed-out spreadsheet to him.
“I don’t want to be a dentist," my father said. “Do you want to be a dentist?" he asked. “That seems rather," he thought for a while. “Pedestrian," he decided upon. “I always figured your work would be more substantial, artisanal farming or becoming an apiarist. Or an explorer." His eyes flashed. “You would be like Vasco da Gama searching for the Fountain of Youth."
I didn’t bother telling him it was Ponce de Léon who searched for the Fountain of Youth, not Vasco da Gama.
On Monday, I took his SIN card from his wallet and called Revenue Canada. Although the money had come to my father via a cousin, I guessed my father was still liable for paying some sort of inheritance tax. Obviously, my grandmother hadn’t left my father a quarter cent. But the cousin who’d inherited the lot felt sorry for us and had passed a chunk of the liquidated assets along to my father because, other than my grandmother, everyone in my family loved my father. He played the family mascot, an idiotic puppy, and made them all feel better about their own Ponzi schemes and tax evasion and the Rosedale branch who had lost all their money in Bre-X and Nortel stocks. They liked that we were country in that we lived near Peterborough and didn’t have season passes to the symphony and Soulpepper the way they did. They liked having people poorer than them in their periphery.
I couldn’t get a straight answer about the inheritance tax, although the gentleman with the thick West Indian accent did get very snippy at me regarding the back taxes and fees accumulating exponentially on my father’s account. I scribbled down some of what the civil servant said on a serviette, then hung up the cellphone before we could discuss repayment plans. To find my father, I followed the orange extension cord from the one grounded plug in the kitchen back to the understairs’ nook. He sat, cross-legged on the floor, with the laptop balanced on his lap. I started to wave the napkin of figures in front of his face but he pulled me down next to him so I could look at the computer screen.
“See," he said. We both couldn’t sit inside the cupboard, so I sat on the uneven marble tile of the hall. He turned the screen towards me so I would see more than the reflected glare of his face. The website listed a variety of Chagall’s available at auction or for purchase from private collectors. Scrolling down to the bottom were some relatively affordable lithographs: low five digits rather than high sixes or, the more worrying, Serious Enquiries Only, no price listed, ones at the top.
I found a small lithograph, second to the end, in ivory and red and black. Splotches of dark leaves and red currants, petals, hints of birds in the upper right corner. I moved the mouse onto the image to show my father. The painting matched the décor in the second floor powder room. My mother could hang it up there.
“Oh no," my father said. He shook his head so hard his tie rose up and smacked his sternum. “Not that. Too puny. Not grand enough." He scrolled back up to the top. The very top. “That one. Number one. Thinking." He knocked the side of his head with his fingertips. “Must be the best if they put it first."
Serious Enquiries Only. A painting. Not a lithograph or a reproduction. A full-on painting of a large blue bride in white, holding a red bouquet of flowers under a yellow crescent moon. Plus a man in a tree with a violin. Plus a goat. Of course a goat. I mumbled a dazed question about picking such a painting up.
“Pick up?" He sounded disgusted. “They ship. Fancy courier. Insurance. All ship-shape, top-of-board."
“Oh Marty," I could hear all the relatives say when my father told them this story, inevitably after the painting got lost or stolen or strayed or that the whole thing had been an Internet scam and no Chagall had ever been forthcoming, all the money squandered, our house’s shingles still shedding, termites dining on the original woodwork, our car’s transmission having dropped out somewhere by Fowler’s Corners on Highway 7, me in dental school on student loans, and my father in prison on tax evasion charges. “Always such a gas."
“Friday," my father said. “Guaranteed delivery by Friday."
My mother cried on Friday. She wept like an open tap on Friday in the entryway, surrounded by box cutters and Styrofoam packaging.
“Oh Marty," my mother cried. “Oh Marty, you remembered."
“I did," my father said. “I remembered. All by myself. Just me. Remembered."
“Oh Marty," my mother cried again and again.
And there I stood, at the edges of my parents’ lives. My mother crying, my father. I had to breathe through the clenched teeth of my smile to keep from crying too. Not out of their shared happiness though.
I hated being wrong.
Meghan Rose Allen
Meghan Rose Allen has a PhD in Mathematics from Dalhousie University. In a previous life, she was a cog in the military-industrial complex. Now she lives in New Brunswick and writes. Her work has appeared in The Fieldstone Review, FoundPress, The Puritan, and The Rusty Toque, amongst others. One can find her online at www.reluctantm.com.
The house of the sculptress stood in the middle of an abandoned quarry where limestone had
been carved away, to leave a powdery grey, almost surreal landscape. She had chosen this site
purposely, believing correctly that the starkness might force her imagination into blossom.
There were times in the night, when she heard the wind and the cries of coyotes, she felt she
was in the desert. Yet the house was only a short distance from Taxco, the silver mine town, near
enough to send her gardener Ramon for food and supplies when needed.
Now as she lay awake she felt something akin to doubt, or was it expectation? The moon full,
it glowed with chalky light and made her bed effervescent.
Moonlight played in her studio as well, making shadows on the walls and on her newly
completed sculpture. Moonlight danced on the figure of the Mexican girl still emerging from
stone, so much like Michelangelo’s captives from the Boboli Gardens.
She turned on her side, her insomnia gaining on her. She decided she did not feel fear. She
had lived alone so long she feared nothing. No, if she felt anything in her bed in the gleaming
quarry, it was regret. But she had made the right decision, to fire Ramon. But she knew that, after
nearly a quarter of a century, Ramon was the only family she had, perhaps ever had. She had
always felt distant from her own people, even as she lived among them. They thought her mad,
or at least unbalanced.
Now an occasional relative would come from Boston or Baltimore to visit her, the eccentric
Margaret. They would return to the East and make a full report to the rest of the family. The last
visitor had been a niece, Gloria, recently graduated from college. Her graduation gift was a trip
to visit Margaret in Taxco. While Gloria enjoyed the train ride through the South, crossing the
border at Laredo, she disliked Mexico immediately. She found the house in the quarry
forbidding, even with the lovely garden surrounding it.
“Aunt Margaret, how can you live in such desolation? There’s no one to talk to, and hardly
anything to listen for,” she had complained.
They had sat on the veranda overlooking the garden. Ramon was there, as he always was,
watering or clearing weeds. Ramon knew the garden as well as he knew himself, as well as his
family he saw only at night when he work was completed.
“I find there is much to hear,” Margaret told her niece. ”After all, we hear what we want to.
Silence is good. Here I hear only peace, something I never heard back home.”
It was this peace that brought Margaret to this place so many years before. Even then she was
certain the quarry stirred with life. In Boston she sculpted in a rented loft off the Commons. But
after spending countless hours starting and stopping, then staring while waiting for inspiration,
she realized that time was flaking away as quickly as the clay drying on the table. It was then that
she made her decision, one she never regretted, to move to Taxco.
As she lay awake in the moon white stillness of the room, she remembered discovering
Ramon. He watched her through the studio window as she stood before the nearly completed
sculpture of the Mexican girl. She had pretended not to see him.
Ramon studied Margaret’s rapt attention to detail as she worked on the sculpture. He was
mesmerized by the angelic face of the girl coming into being, emerging from stone. One foot
already stepped free of the limestone block.
In another week the girl would be completely free. She would no longer have to depend on
Margaret’s deftness with a chisel, with whims of her wrist in combat with stone.
Ramon, a voyeur in the open window, watched and learned. Behind him the hills rose like
heavy clouds in the afternoon sky. Margaret wondered how the girl’s hands should be shaped.
Would they be delicate with the fragility of youth, or would they be coarse from a hard peasant
life? There was still time to go either way.
The look in the girl’s eyes was a distant gaze. She would never be the kind to stay in one
place. Instead she would wander, always anxious to know what was beyond the next hill, or what
happens at horizon’s end. She would be enamored of rainbows, Margaret thought. Then, without
looking his way, Margaret could sense Ramon moving away, returning to the garden.
Then Ramon began showing up late for work, and when he finally appeared he was drunk.
His work suffered, but Margaret decided to over look it. After so many years she would give him
the benefit of the doubt. But she wondered what it was that made him drink. Probably family
problems, she decided.
But it continued, and it was the garden that suffered. Margaret was unsure what to do. When
she took her afternoon walks she came across butchered hedges and flowerbeds choked with
weeds. She found carelessness with every step.
“Ramon, what has happened?” she asked him finally. “The garden is ruined.”
He apologized and promised it would not happen again. But Margaret was unsure if he was
sober enough to understand her. She was disappointed. He had never acted this way, not in
One morning she sent Ramon to gather rosewood from a place in the hills not far from the
quarry. He left quite early and did not return all day. Margaret busied herself in the studio but she
found it hard to concentrate. She knew the rosewood was only an hour away. She imagined he
was drinking somewhere. She worried he might end up in jail or worse.
Finally, late in the afternoon, as Margaret stood in the garden among the ill-tended beds and
dried soil, she heard a car approach in the distance. She followed its progression by a trail of
white smoke rising up from the road as the car sped downhill from the main road to the quarry.
The car emerged in the clearing and steered wildly into the driveway.
Ramon got out with a dazed expression on his face. He was drunk, and as he tried to gather
the rosewood from the trunk, the pieces fell from his hands to the ground.
Margaret followed him as he staggered to the studio with the rosewood. After he dropped the
wood into the bin and turned to leave, she stepped in his path.
“Ramon, I can’t overlook your behavior any longer. You’ll have to go. The garden is ruined. I
want you to leave, and not come back.”
Ramon listened and then slunk off, not making a sound. He walked back up the dusty road he
had driven down so wildly. Margaret watched him, a lone figure that seemed to evaporate into
the distant hillside, arms at his sides and his shoulders slumped. He walked into the hill like the
Mexican girl stepping free from the limestone, Margaret thought. In a few moments he was gone,
as if he had vanished into stone.
In bed she decided this was what bothered her. It was as though Ramon knew something
about the quarry, perhaps that he had discovered one of its qualities. She gave up trying to sleep,
her insomnia winning out. She got up, and as the night was chilly she gathered a robe around her.
In the kitchen she made jasmine tea. She walked through the shadows to the Mexican girl in the
studio. The girl’s eyes were wide open. That makes two of us, Margaret mused.
“Soon, dear. Soon you will be on your own,” she whispered to the figure in limestone as she
began the final touches on the statue.
A week later Margaret was awakened at dawn by the front door bell. She roused herself, put
on a smock and rushed to answer it. She so rarely had visitors, she imagined it was bad news
from the East. But when she opened the door she saw Ramon standing there, a small cloth sack
in his hands. Behind him she could see the rose-tinted limestone coming to life beneath the
breaking sky of dawn.
“I told you not to come back,” she said. “I’ve no use for a drunk around here.”
She was intimidated that he would return so soon. But she could not help feeling sorry for
him. He stood before her in his tattered clothes, his dark eyes overflowing with sadness.
“I worked in your garden a long time, nearly half my life,” he said, his voice cracking with
emotion. “I made something for you,” he said, handing her the cloth sack.
“What is it?” she asked, now embarrassed as she took the sack.
She opened it and found a carved rosewood figurine of the Mexican girl. Margaret recognized
it immediately. But the figurine was unfinished.
Margaret then realized that it was at the point of completion her own had been, a week before
when she had fired Ramon. She had since finished her own.
“I didn’t know how to finish it,” Ramon apologized.
“It’s beautiful,” Margaret said, turning it over and over again in her hands, her astonishment
Though it was crudely crafted, Ramon had managed to endow the figurine with a primitive
beauty. Margaret saw that, even it was a copy of her own work, the style itself belonged to
“For a long time I couldn’t see your people in the quarry,” he told her, his head downcast. “I
drank. I thought something was wrong with me. But when I went to get the rosewood, I finally
understood. I knew there were people in the wood trying to get out. I knew I had to help them.
But I drank more because I couldn’t accept it. Was it the same way in the quarry?”
What Margaret had so vaguely expected was now clear to her. She could see night stars
fading in the morning light, but she knew the stars remained., One only has to know where they
are, she told herself. In this lonely place she had never felt alone. Now she knew that Ramon
understood this as well. There were so many in the quarry waiting to be set free, and so little
“Come with me, Ramon,” she said. “There is so much more work to do.”
The Quarry previously appeared in Stone Voices.
Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston and Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, THE DREAM PATCH, a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a book of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His work has appeared in THE SOUTHERN REVIEW, NEW ENGLAND REVIEW, NEW ORLEANS REVIEW, COLUMBIA and GLIMMER TRAIN, among others. His photographs can be seen in his gallery -http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/ He is currently compiling a book of photography prompts for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT.
I was waiting for a bus at Union Square East. It was cold and it was winter and it was night. I stood on the sidewalk by a black fire hydrant that was stuck in cement, cement that was engraved with dozens of names. The bus stop where I was waiting was in front of a building with four tall fake-looking Greek columns, right next door to a Babies ‘R Us. From where I was standing I could see only the last four numbers of the countdown clock.
I didn’t know it was a clock until last summer when I was walking with Avery across Union Square and a guy stopped us and told us the whole history. He explained that the orange LED numbers that were constantly changing showed the time. If you read the clock from left to middle, it shows the time in military time: two digits for the hour, two digits for the minutes, and two digits for the seconds. If you read the clock backwards from right to middle, it counts down the time left until midnight.
So, the two digits on the far right show the hours left until midnight, the two digits to the right of them show the minutes left, then the two digits to the right of the minutes show the seconds. The guy also explained those giant rings with the hole in the centre to the right of the clock, and pointed out an orb on the far right side of the wall that apparently rotates to show the current phase of the moon. I had never noticed that part, and the numbers on the clock part had just been mysterious to me. I had assumed that it was counting something, that it was representing something, like maybe the national debt. And I guess I was right. It was counting something. Time. After the guy explained the whole thing to us like a docent in a museum, he said that giving that speech about the art was part of how he earned his living, and that he appreciated donations. So we gave him money and went on our way.
I think about all he said sometimes when I walk across Union Square. I wonder how many of the people around me know about the clock, and how many don’t. From the bus stop, I could only see the last four numbers of the clock, the countdown to midnight. I looked at the four orange numbers. 1602. That means there are 2 hours and 16 minutes left in the day. But the four numbers together look like they could stand for a year. 1602. I wondered what was going on that year, 1602. Plymouth Rock? Then I realized I had never been in Union Square when the clock got to midnight and reset.
A fleet of yellow taxis was waiting at the red light. It was cold and I wondered when the bus would get there. MTA has a website called MTA Bus Time. I looked at it on my phone. There’s a list of bus stops named for their location and there’s a little icon of the bus next to the stop it’s stopping at or approaching. The little bus icon was getting closer to my stop. It was making its progress, climbing down its ladder, down the list of stops. It was another kind of countdown, this one in stops, this one in distance.
What if I decided not to get on the bus when it arrived? What if I decided to wait and watch the clock count down to midnight? The clock is like an hourglass, the sum of time on one side and the balance of time on the other. I imagined the clock getting to perfect equilibrium, all zeros, at midnight, and rainbow waves of light like an aurora borealis beaming and radiating above the Burlington Coat Factory. Could I miss such a gorgeous phenomenon?
Avery doesn’t believe in countdowns. Because in a countdown, you’re focusing on the numbers, on counting, and not on being in the moment. But looking at the countdown clock that night with the bus getting closer to me, stop by stop, I somehow felt consciously where I was at that moment in space and time. I was waiting for a bus in Union Square, and there were two hours and sixteen minutes left until midnight.
Jamie Christensen graduated with a B.A. in comparative literature from Brigham Young University. She currently lives, works, and writes in New York City.
Pushing through the throng inside Brooklyn’s Inverted Funnel gallery, one finds at the centre of the room a sizeable marble sculpture resembling a black bear hunched low to the ground. The object is so striking, it is a moment before one realizes that beneath the sculpture is a woman in her late twenties, thin with auburn hair and a pale, heart-shaped face.
It is the artist herself, Marilyn Stahl, pinned beneath the dark ursine form. Circling the sculpture and the ring of gallery-goers surrounding it, one gradually comes to realize that Stahl has had the sculpture lowered over her and bolted to the floor, thoroughly trapping her beneath it.
After standing for some time at the edge of the crowd, which conversed freely with Stahl, this critic was able to compose a list of Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: How long are you going to be trapped under that sculpture?
A: Until the exhibit closes, three weeks from now.
Q: How do you eat/use the bathroom?
A: I have an assistant who will prepare my meals and collect my waste.
Q: Why are you doing this?
A: In “Untitled (Protector 3)” I interrogate the notion of protection, suggesting ways in which custody, ownership, and even romantic attachment can verge on imprisonment. Also, I’m trying to quit smoking and this seemed like a good way to do it. (Laughter of gallery-goers)
After a time, the Inverted Funnel crowd cleared out and I was left alone with the work and the artist. I introduced myself as a great fan of Stahl’s, and remarked that I felt honored to bend down and shake her hand. Stahl assented to an interview, but cautioned that the gallery would soon close.
Q: Your previous installation work, “Untitled (Sadist Wars),” was a video game that allowed players to explore public spaces with an assault rifle, shooting anything and everything—including, controversially, an elementary-school field trip. Some were upset that you were not on hand to explain yourself. Do you feel as an artist that it’s your job to manage the meaning of a work, rather than just sending it out into the world?
A: I believe the role of an artist is to disappear, to remove herself from the work. That’s why I tend to make work critics have called “provocative”: it’s got to shock people out of their complacency without needing me there to explain what it’s all about.
Q: And yet . . . here you are, inseparable from the work.
A: Here I am. This time, I’m not going anywhere. Not for three weeks.
Q: There’s a courage to that, a vulnerability. I was thinking, watching you interact with the crowd, that anyone could come in and—I don’t know, do something—and you couldn’t get away.
A: You must have gotten here late—a woman spat on me. She said her best blouse got skunked at “Untitled (Sulfur Clouds)” [An exhibit in which gallery-goers were sprayed with a sulfur-based solution]. It was a big green pearl. The owner threw her out. It was tremendous.
Q: I’m sorry I missed it. Now, this brings to mind a rumor I heard, that the columnist Pam Fulton is going to be writing a piece on the exhibit, a kind of follow-up to her coverage of the “Sadist Wars” brouhaha. Is there any truth to this?
A: She’s coming down this Thursday.
Q: How do you feel about the prospect of facing her, after the things she’s written about you?
A: I regret I won’t be able to punch her in the mouth.
Q: Oh my.
A: “Oh my” is right.
Q: Switching gears, after the success of “Untitled (Jellyfish/Mother 1),” you moved to Manhattan, but after the muted reception of the sulfur clouds exhibit and “Sadist Wars,” you relocated your studio to Hoboken, which is where, if I’m not mistaken, you still--
A: I’m sorry. It looks like the gallery’s closing. I’m going to eat something and go to sleep. Good luck with your article.
This critic solicited permission to attend the meeting of the artist and her antagonist, Pam Fulton. The gallery owner approached and hustled me out, while a narrow-waisted attendant brought Stahl a pillow and a dish of some sort of ethnic food, very fragrant and appetizing. I stood at the window of the gallery, watching the attendant feed Stahl, until the gallery owner arrived and pulled down a great opaque window shade.
Stahl’s name was first heard in the art world three years ago, when her installation “Untitled (Jellyfish 1/Mother)” caused a frisson at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory. In that work, Stahl created a narrow Vaseline aperture across an entranceway, with a sign directing visitors to pass through the slit. Those who did found themselves in a completely empty room, with the options of climbing the fire escape four stories down or returning through the rather slimy entranceway. A photograph accompanying an Artforum piece on “Untitled (Jellyfish 1/Mother)” showed Stahl as a fierce, grimacing wunderkind swallowed up by a man’s Oxford shirt, auburn bangs spilling over her porcelain forehead and her hard green eyes fixed remotely, as if they had pinned the future and meant not to let it go. This critic’s interest in Stahl’s work can be dated from the moment of his seeing that photograph.
On the appointed day, I arrived at the gallery at eleven thirty and hung around outside the Inverted Funnel. I was looking through a narrow space between the shade and window frame when a loud, somewhat sultry voice behind me called out, “Look, everyone, a pervert.” Standing quickly, I recognized the long legs, alabaster skin, and silken black hair of Pam Fulton, accompanied by a cluster of handlers and photographers.
In person, Fulton is even more striking a presence than on television or the covers of her books, delicately thin and with bright, perfectly matched clothes: on this day, she wore an avocado-green pant suit with matching pointy-toed high heels that produced an exact staccato rhythm as she arrived at the door of Inverted Funnel and directed one of her hangers-on to knock. Although she continued to smirk at me, she did not spare me another word as the gallery owner held the doors open to Fulton and her menagerie. The critic coasted in at the back of this group.
After completing a languid orbit of “Untitled (Protector 3)” without acknowledging the artist, Fulton sneeringly commented that the piece “look[ed] like a turd that fell on top of another turd.”
Marilyn Stahl: Welcome, Ms. Fulton.
Pam Fulton: Cut the “Ms” stuff. Who am I, Gloria Steinem? (Simpering laughter from retinue)
Tarantula – turn brackets into parens
MS: Did you have a pleasant trip from Manhattan?
PF: If you don’t count the homosexual who tried to stab me with an AIDS needle, then yes, it was lovely.
MS: Look at it this way: now you can write a book about it. I’m sure he was a liberal. [Appreciative laughter from critic]
PF: Who’s Chuckles the Clown? I saw him peering through the window outside. I think he was about to drop his trousers.
MS: He’s a critic or something, I think.
PF: What’s he doing here? This isn’t one of those smear jobs, is it?
MS: He asked to observe our interaction. He’s harmless.
PF: Did you ask to be here, Chuckles?
Critic: I’m merely interested in what you and Ms. Stahl have to say to one another, in light of your past attacks on her and her work.
PF: Attacks? Where do you get off?
MS: Now, now. You have to admit you haven’t been friendly. Isn’t that the whole point? You’re here to write a slam piece?
PF: Don’t assume you know what kind of piece I’m going to write.
C: You did tip your hand, Ms. Fulton, in your newspaper column the other day. I believe you insinuated that Marilyn was quite familiar being pinned beneath big, black things, and enjoyed the sensation.
PF: Oh, what tripe! I wrote no such thing!
MS: It does sound like your m.o.
PF: My m.o.? Who are you to tell me my m.o.? Nina [Hartford, personal assistant], did you hear this? These clowns think I have a modus operandi. Ha!
Nina Hartford: Should I call your attorneys, Mrs. Fulton?
MS: I’ve been following your writing for a while now, Pam, and you do have a certain style.
PF: Do tell, please, what [air quotes] style you think I possess.
MS: Confrontational. Flamboyant.
C: Mean-spirited. ‘Slanderous’ would apply.
MS: Assertive. Telegenic.
C: Asinine. Seditious. The literary equivalent of torches and pitchforks.
PF: How would you like a knee to the family jewels?
NH: Mrs. Fulton, try to calm down. Your blood pressure.
PF: Someone throw a sandwich down the street. That ought to get Scarecrow here out of our hair.
C: My mistake. I sincerely thought you wanted an honest answer to your question.
PF: Don’t try that on me, that snide stuff!
C: I’ll leave right now if it will help your blood pressure.
PF: And now he’s a gentleman. Ha! Do you hear me? Ha!
MS: Yes, maybe you should go. This isn’t the exchange I expected. Mrs. Fulton, are you all right? She looks overheated or something.
NH: Mrs. Fulton? Mrs. Fulton? Barry, bring me the ice pack. It’s all this stress. It’s being constantly [significant look at Critic] under attack that does it.
My presence being a deterrent to the momentous meeting, I decided to remove myself from the situation. Barry, Fulton’s male lackey, followed me out the door and stood watching me walk down the street, hands on hips.
When I arrived at the gallery the following day to continue research for this piece, Marilyn Stahl informed me that Pam Fulton’s handlers had been inquisitive as to my identity, which publication I wrote for, and—in Stahl’s paraphrase—what my deal was. Fulton herself had left shortly after I had, complaining that she felt weak.
Q: I was up late dictating an apology. Do you think I enjoy having to apologize to Pam Fulton?
A: I don’t understand why you felt the need to do that.
Q: Why does anyone do anything?
A: Do you mean courtesy?
Q: You little baby lamb. An attack from Pam Fulton is great press. I wanted her to confirm that my work is subversive, destructive, anti-American.
A: [Nonplussed] I apologize. I suppose I thought I was sticking up for you.
Q: Do you know nothing about Pam Fulton? If I had given her nice little platitudes about what my work means, she would have been at my throat. But you had to go right at her, didn’t you? Now there won’t be any press from her—today’s column is about college Democrats or something. No mention of “Untitled (Protector 3).”
A: [Discomfited] But you yourself said the other day that you’d like to punch her in the mouth.
Q: [Turning face away] Part of the thing. The dance.
A: It didn’t seem like a dance. It seemed like an attack about to happen.
Q: It’s the dialectic. You win by losing. By getting beat down, I win.
A: I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.
Q: [Turning face further away] I’m not feeling well. You should go now.
When I returned to the Inverted Funnel the following day, I found “Untitled (Protector 3)” cordoned off, and was told by the attendant that Stahl had taken ill overnight.
It was likely the tasteful and professional “Get Well” card that I then sent, which included my contact information and an invitation for Marilyn to call me whenever she was able, that allowed Pam Fulton’s handlers to get in touch with me. The phone calls began suddenly, coming several times per hour. After refusing, for a day or so, to speak with Fulton via telephone, I was surprised one morning when Barry showed up, lingering in a door across the street from the critic’s building and, after following menacingly for several blocks, accosted this critic in an alleyway.
Q: What do you want? My wife will call the police if I’m not where I’m supposed to be.
A: You don’t have a wife. Don’t bullshit me. I want to talk to you. We’ve been trying to get you on the phone for days. What’re you scared of?
Q: Isn’t this a little trite, cornering me in an alleyway?
A: My boss would like to speak to you.
Q: What does she want?
A: Call and find out. Be a man. [Confidential lowering of voice] Listen, if I can make a request: please call soon. We’re all getting sick of hearing about your conversation.
Q: What conversation?
A: Her words, my man. But . . . you might be surprised what Pam is like when you get to know her.
Q: Is she not obsessed with liberals? Does she not breathe fire?
A: No, she is, and she does. It’s just there’s another side to her.
Barry handed me a business card.
A: Just call and it can all be over. I’m going to be in this neighborhood every day until you call. And I really don’t want that. It’s kind of a shitty neighborhood.
The audacity of Pam Fulton in dispatching her lackey forced my hand. I called that afternoon.
Critic: I’m calling to end the harassment, by your staff, of me.
Nina Hartford: Oh, thank goodness. I’ll connect you to Pam.
Pam Fulton: Hello? Is this the writer from the gallery? The one who looked like he hadn’t had a hot meal in months?
C: Will this call suffice to get you to leave me alone?
PF: That depends. Would you be willing to meet to discuss the conversation we had at that art gallery? Remember?
C: As I told your hired muscle, Barry, A: I don’t recall it being much of a conversation, what with me listing adjectives and you threatening my genitalia. And B: I’m not interested in being ambushed on television, or radio, or whatever medium you have in mind for savaging me.
PF: [Laughing] Savage you? You’re not big enough for me to want to savage you.
C: I’ll have none of your insults.
PF: What about tomorrow night? At Fontina [posh restaurant uptown]? You could use a good feeding.
C: Will the tone be civil?
PF: That’s up to you, isn’t it?
C: Somewhat. [Delicate pause] I hate to be gauche, but--
PF: It’s on me.
I agreed, but with serious private reservations.
The following day I tried again to see Marilyn Stahl but was rebuffed by the increasingly snippy attendant, who told me only that Stahl was still not feeling well. I began to fear for Stahl’s health, imagining dire consequences from her digestive organs operating horizontally, and wondering if the woman who had spit on Stahl at the exhibit’s opening had spread some nasty malady. I also imagined the gallery’s tile floor getting very cold at night.
I left and came back an hour later to deliver a pint of vegan noodle soup and green tea with lemon, purchased from a local gourmet eatery at significant expense. Then I hustled away to make my dinner engagement with Pam Fulton, arriving at Fontina fashionably late. Pam Fulton wore a slinky red dress and matching lipstick, the effect of which when set against her alabaster skin and obsidian hair was, admittedly, stunning.
Pam Fulton: Where the hell have you been?
Critic: You look nice.
PF: Don’t try to butter me up.
C: Why would I want to butter you up? It seems clear our relationship is an antagonistic one. I’m your avowed enemy, aren’t I?
PF: Are you? My staff could only find one article you had written, for some pet-care website. I’d hardly call you a card-carrying member of the liberal media.
C: Do you think that if you had been born in another era, you would have built your career on attacking, say, abolitionists? Or perhaps those yellow-bellied colonists who dumped tea in Boston Harbor?
PF: I don’t know who you think you are--
Waiter: Good evening. Would you care to make a wine selection?
PF: A bottle of Gruaud-Larose. 1982, s’il-vous plait.
W: An excellent choice, Miss Fulton.
C: All our differences aside, Ms. Fulton, I hope you were all right the other day. You did seem overheated or feverish or something. I hope you’re feeling better.
PF: I was feeling much better, thank you. Until just now.
C: Ah. I see. The subtext being that I make you sick, is that it? That I possess some nauseous liberal essence?
PF: Let’s not fight. Please.
C: Do you have some other mode? Isn’t that all you know how to do, is fight?
C: Fine. But I’d just like to say that the way you spoke to Marilyn Stahl the other day, it was clear you had every intention of dragging her through the mud. I’m not proud of how I spoke to you, but please understand I won’t let a defenseless artist be attacked. As a critic, I see my role as championing artists, which entails defending them when necessary. I don’t take kindly to bullies, you see. No, in fact I rather pride myself on--
At this point the critic felt an unexpected pressure moving along the inside of his thigh, upward to the crotch, where the pressure sought out his genitalia and began the languorous process of frottage. Pam Fulton raised an eyebrow lasciviously. The waiter arrived, presented the bottle of wine, and poured a small portion into a glass. Pam Fulton sipped it, her eyes fixed to those of the critic, and then smiled to signal her approval to the waiter, who poured out two glasses. She then ordered for herself and the critic, her foot undulating steadily all the while.
Q: [sotto voce] Is this any way to behave?
A: Relax. The tablecloth is covering my foot.
Q: What is your game?
A: Isn't it perfectly clear?
Q: I mean I don’t understand what this sudden friendly gesture is to mean when you’re usually so awful.
A: [Cooing slightly] That’s it, baby. Tell it to me.
Q: I beg your pardon?
A: Tell me.
Q: Ah, I see now. You want me to tell you the truth about your work as a so-called public intellectual? That you’re a human Uzi for the conscience-less Right? That your writing resembles the contents of a spittoon wrung out onto the page? Is that what you want?
A: [Nodding, biting lip]
Q: I won’t do it! [Repelling foot] I have standards and one of them is not to be bought off—by any means. If this is a problem, I will remove myself from this restaurant tout de suite.
A: No. Don’t go. Let’s continue our discussion like two rational adults. . . . Or like one of us is a rational adult and the other is a liberal who happens to be of age.
Pam resumed her fully upright posture and made a show of scanning the restaurant.
A: Now, then—where’s that waiter? I’ll see if we can get you a bib.
Pam Fulton cycled between flintiness and cooing amorousness throughout a rather fine meal and during a cab ride uptown. She invited me up to her Central Park West townhouse, but I declined, and was subjected to the most vituperative abuse—continuously, for as soon as Fulton had quit the cab my cellular phone rang and I received verbal provocations during the rest of my own ride home. Before being permitted to hang up, I was forced to assent to another meeting several days later, once Fulton had returned from a speaking engagement in Pittsburgh.
Continued attempts to drop in on Marilyn Stahl at the Inverted Funnel proving unsuccessful over the next few days, I holed up at the public library to survey critical reception of “Untitled (Protector 3).” The work had received positive notices from a few small weekly newspapers in New Jersey and the outlying suburbs, but was savaged by the daily papers and a downtown art magazine.
“Predictably self-conscious and hollowly provocative,” opined one scribe. “And for God’s sake, why won’t she give any of her pieces proper titles?” I noted a jeering message on an insider art “blog” of some repute, to the effect that the prospects for the sale of “Untitled (Protector 3)” looked dire. To wit: “If nobody bought the piece at the opening, how likely is anyone to pony up $60K on a Thursday afternoon? Not very. Because what are you really buying? Without a person under it, it isn’t a very interesting piece at all.”
This snide “blog” entry perturbed me, lighting a long fuse in my mind as I left the library to meet Pam Fulton, who had called repeatedly throughout the day to needle me and remind me of our plans to meet that evening at Kawara, a fancy Japanese restaurant.
Fulton, waiting inside the designated restaurant, again looked spectacular, attired this time in an electric-blue evening gown whose neck dove steeply, exhibiting her smooth, milk-complected clavicle and sternum. She proved to be in high dudgeon over a crowd she had encountered in Pittsburgh.
The speech itself was a big success, she reported. But afterwards a group of college students was standing outside holding up signs, and had written things in chalk on the pavement outside the auditorium. She would not indicate what the signs and street-chalkings had said, but invited me to guess at their content.
Q: “Pam Fulton Hails the Dusk of American Democracy”?
A: [Sigh] Boring.
Q: “I’d Burn Your Books But I Don’t Want to Give You Any Ideas”?
A: [“Tiger eyes”] Not bad. Keep going.
Q: “Where are a House and a Twister When You Really Need Them?”
A: [Foot-to-crotch gambit]
Near the end of the meal, I begged off a cab ride uptown, explaining that I meant to return to the Inverted Funnel to conduct further research.
Q: That trollop? Haven’t you filed your story yet?
A: The piece is following her throughout the entirety of her exhibit.
Q: How much more time do you need with her? She’s a captive subject.
A: Unfortunately, she’s taken ill. Perhaps seriously. I haven’t had access in a week or so.
Q: What, did her scabies flare up again?
A: Now, now. I suspect that she’s subject to different drafts and cross-drafts, being that close to the floor. I’ve noticed too that she eats fairly spicy foods, and that may exacerbate the problem. In fact, I wonder if--
Q: Oh, put a sock in it. I’m so tired of hearing about Marilyn Stahl. [Putting down fork] I think you get off on standing over her. You like seeing her trapped like that.
A: That would be highly inappropriate to the artist-critic relationship.
Q: Maybe she’s not even there. Did you think of that? Maybe they peel that thing off her every night and she’s off in Soho, laughing it up with her artist pals.
A: I’m sure that’s not the case.
Q: Are you really going to spend all your time with that woman until her exhibit is over?
A: And a few days afterwards, most likely, for follow-up material: what it’s like to be walking around, using the bathroom again, and so on.
Q: Should make for riveting reading. So you’ll bail out on me like this regularly?
A: I’m afraid so. Unless—[clearing throat] well, unless someone for some reason were to buy the piece and demand that it be installed right away. But that seems unlikely. Between you and I, it may not sell at all.
Q: Would that really surprise anyone? It’s insolent art. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, which everyone knows is the only purpose of art.
A: Yes, unless someone buys the piece and for some reason demands that the exhibit end and the piece be moved immediately, I’ll be covering Marilyn Stahl for the next two weeks at least.
Q: I’m half tempted to buy that piece myself, I’m so sick of hearing about that sociopath. But then what the hell do I want with it. I’ve got a Klimt in my bedroom. I don’t want that leftist sculpture cluttering up the place.
A: You could donate the piece, I suppose. To a museum, or another individual.
Q: Another individual? Who do I know who would want that oversized paperweight? Nobody I associate with, I’ll tell you that.
A: I could keep an eye on it for a while.
Q: You? You’d let a woman buy you art?
A: I am a liberal.
Q: You are, aren’t you? To the watery marrow of your chalky bones.
Pam Fulton purchased “Untitled (Protector 3)” for an undisclosed sum the following day, insisting that the exhibit be discontinued and the sculpture installed in a private residence. Fulton visited the critic’s living space that evening to inspect the installation of the work.
Q: May I take your coat, Ms. Fulton?
A: What a dump. I thought I was going to get bit by a rat on the way in here. Did they convert this from the old TB hospital?
Q: I’d like to thank you for allowing me temporary custody of this masterpiece of contemporary art.
A: Temporary custody nothing. I don’t want to see that thing again, and that means when I come over. Stick a drop cloth over it, would you? It at least better be covered when I get back from Europe.
Q: If that would make you more comfortable.
A: I’ll tell you what would make me more comfortable.
Q: And what’s that?
I stopped by The Inverted Funnel the following day to inspect the residues of “Untitled (Protector 3).” There were bolt holes in the tile, and the sun had left an outline of the place where the sculpture had been. A few long auburn hairs were found on the floor. The artist, the gallery owner told me, had returned to her home in Hoboken.
Attempts to reach Stahl for a follow-up interview were, for nearly two weeks, as futile as my attempts to visit her at the Inverted Funnel had been. However, I was persistent and eventually persuaded Stahl to receive me at her studio.
On the appointed day I took the train to Hoboken and walked to the location specified by Stahl, a nondescript factory building with crumbling bricks and broken windows. On the ground floor was a garage whose surly mechanics jeered at me as I circled the building looking for an entrance to the upper floors.
Marilyn Stahl looked ashen and dour upon greeting me. Situated vertically, she is about five feet four inches tall and slender, with long unkempt hair that frames the smooth, clear skin of her face quite nicely.
I suggested a tour of the studio and Stahl looked at me morosely for a moment before leading me briskly around the space. Stahl’s studio is spacious and open, with here and there a pile of materials—stone, twisted rebar, an industrial-sized tub of Vaseline—set atop bare wood floors giving on to ceiling-high windows.
Rounding a corner, I was surprised to see a rumpled bed and an improvised kitchen situated in a far corner.
Q: Your studio is quite nice.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard of the offer to buy “Untitled (Protector 3)”?
A: Disappointment, mainly.
Q: I thought you might have been relieved at the condition that the piece be installed immediately. Since you had fallen ill.
A: Yes. But it was also a blow to have to suspend the exact piece that I had planned. The three weeks was integral to the work.
Q: But you sold the piece. That must count for something. That will keep you afloat, won’t it? And perhaps fund the next thing?
A: But look who bought it. Now she’s going to parade it around and put photographs in her next book: [air quotes] liberal art. Or she’ll have it crushed or something—I heard she had it installed in some fleabag place way uptown. Who knows what that’s about. I didn’t have to sell it to her. None of it looks very good.
Q: Pam Fulton won’t do any of that. She bought the piece for a friend. At the friend’s request.
A: Who’s the friend, Newt Gingrich?
Q: Well . . .
A: Do you know something, Mr. Critic?
Q: Marilyn, it was for me. The piece is in my apartment.
A: For you? [Long, inquisitive look] Why you?
A: That encounter at the gallery—that was all staged. It’s some kind of revenge. Is that it?
Q: I promise you nothing was staged.
A: What is this visit? There is no magazine, is there?
Marilyn backed several steps away.
Q: I’m not on her side. I’m on your side. In fact you might say I engineered all this—the purchase, and you being free from the exhibit. I worried about you. Your health. I felt I had to do something.
A: “Free”? Who said I wanted to be free?
Q: Because you were sick. I thought you might really be in danger, health-wise.
Q: I just don’t want you to think Pam is going to do something nasty with the piece. It’s on display in my home. She won’t be crushing it or selling it for parts or anything else. It’s mine, basically.
A: What is your connection to her? You’re her boy toy now, is that it?
Q: It’s hard to say. But I assure you, the piece is safe.
A: Great. Good.
A: I’m afraid I’m feeling unwell again.
I was stampeded toward the door and out into the hallway, but clung to the door frame, my head just inside the studio.
Q: Marilyn, it would mean a great deal to me if you would come to my apartment and let me take your photograph with the sculpture. If you would just lie beside it. Not now, of course, but perhaps when you’re well. As a sort of authenticating component, a signature.
A: I don’t think so.
Q: I wonder then if I might see you again some time? . . . I mean I’d like to see you socially.
A: No, I don’t think so. [Pause; long, coldly appraising look] You know—what is your name, by the way? I keep forgetting it—Listen, if you want to meet women there are other ways of going about it.
Marilyn gave a push that seemed all out of proportion to her size, shoving me clear of the door. Then she threw it shut. Inside the studio, bolts could be heard slamming to, and chains were drawn across the door.
I walked through the weed-lined streets of Hoboken back to the train station. The jagged skyline of New York in late afternoon had me convinced that the train would spill off the tracks into the river. When it didn’t, I disembarked miles earlier than I ought to have and wandered Battery Park. At a bench beside the harbor I sat and made desultory notes toward the conclusion of this piece. Tourists mounting boats to be taken out to the Statue of Liberty produced a goose-like cacophony that pierced me to my marrow, and I took to my feet again. I stopped in a coffee shop in Chinatown and watched the constantly moving knots of people outside, nursing a thin cup of coffee so stingily that the owner of the shop finally chased me out with a rolled-up magazine. I wended along the river, which percolated an acrid veil of fog that hung over the broken walkways as I trudged north to my own neighborhood and my own crumbling building.
It was deepening dusk and the apartment was dim by the time I entered my apartment, though it was not so dark that I felt it necessary to turn on a light. I was crossing my small living area towards the bedroom, tossing my raincoat over a chair, when I froze, my body going cold and rubbery with terror.
In the gloaming of the living room there squatted a dark, brutish-looking animal coiled to spring, its square forehead and face turned out as if with fangs bared. And in the dim space beside it a narrow body lay sprawled, in places as dark as the tensed animal and in others stark white against the murk of the room. This critic’s heart seized with mingled fear and hope.
Q: Don’t be afraid. It’s only me.
Q: Did I frighten you? I didn’t mean to. Come sit down.
A: I thought you were in Europe.
Q: A government fell in one of those post-Soviet countries. The currency’s no good so it’s no use trying to sell books now. I decided to come home. I came here from the airport.
A: How did you get in?
Q: Your landlord let me in. He’s a big fan of mine.
Q: I didn’t think you’d be so late.
A: I was in Hoboken. I just got back.
Q: You don’t have to tell me where you were.
Q: Come lie here. I missed you.
A: I saw Marilyn.
Q: Europe is so strange. Everything is old and pushed up against everything else. I don’t like it.
A: I don’t think I’ll be able to write an article after all.
Q: They said such awful things to me there.
A: Like what?
Q: I can barely remember, with the jet lag and everything. And it was all in broken English. I thought you could help me remember what they said.
A: Yeah, maybe.
It may make a fitting coda to note here that “Untitled (Protector 3)” did provide a modest sense of protection as I lay on the floor in the sculpture’s shadow, my shoulder touching Pam Fulton’s shoulder, and after some consideration took a stab at guessing the awful things the Europeans might have said.
Adam Reger is a writer living in Pittsburgh. His fiction has appeared in New Orleans Review and Cream City Review, among other publications.
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