Reclining nude with machete
By Michael Loughrey.
Look at Greta now. Exposed within and without a timeworn mirror, about to let a man see her naked for the first time in more than forty years. Tarnished by a patina redolent of burnished pewter, the full-length looking glass was crisscrossed with meandering fissures erupting from a pox of rust stains, symbolically a mirror of the tort inflicted on her body by the arrow of time.
A gentle knocking on the bathroom door is followed by the voice of the artist’s assistant. ‘Maître awaits.’
To go before the artist bereft of the decoy provided by clothing was intimidating enough: but the thought of the young assistant’s eyes on her unclothed body verged on the incapacitating.
Arriving at the studio earlier, it was the winsome youth who had received her. Tanned, barefoot and lithe in baggy khaki shorts and a sleeveless, unbuttoned white shirt, his good looks and agitated behaviour were unsettling, dragging malignant souvenirs from the abyss of memory: voluptuous silky contours of a Cretan beach, a young fisherman named Andreas tracing erotic pictograms in the wet sand with the knife which he gutted fish with. Andreas, whom she took as another hapless victim of her habitually vicious adolescent coquetry and emasculated before a bleeding sunset. Andreas, an animated Adonis who had in turn conjured memories of a legion of naked Greek gods her father had taken her to see in museums when she was a inquisitive naiad, the ensuing nightmares where rough hands pried her legs akimbo to straddle a succession of flaccid marble membrum virile in an orgy of non-consummation.
Shame and remorse conspire to manoeuvre her away from what the mirror depicts. Fussing with the already orderly pile of her clothing on a rickety chair – old maid’s underwear concealed below mutton-dressed up-as-lamb outerwear – she picked up her handbag and excavated, items unearthed from the jumble placed on the cistern above the toilet. Spectacles, pharmacology, cosmetics, envelope – to whom it may concern – and one perfumed sheet of paper on which is scrawled her last will and testament.
Without her spectacles, hyperopia rendered her handwriting as blurred black hieroglyphs on a luminous white field. She sighed capitulation, sealed the paper within the envelope, swallowed pills needily, applied lipstick without conviction, crammed the items back into her handbag and turned hesitatingly to the mirror to scrutinise her body again. The toll of a distant bell announced the passing of time, another hail of arrows to further her undoing. Distraught eyes utter a susurrus to their reflection. Mea culpa. Bitch?
Maître awaits. Did that impudent assistant whisper bitch? Greta confronted the mirror, composing a garbled corporeal inventory:
Readying herself to enter the studio, she remembered the accessory the artist had requested she bring. Any object of your own choice, he’d said. The ironmonger had enveloped it in brown paper, binding it tightly with waxed twine so that its silhouette clearly identified what was within. Passerbys on the street had stared suspiciously at her, and the taxi driver who had driven her to the artist’s studio eyed her warily in the rearview mirror.
Picking the package up from where it lay on the toilet seat, she sniffed her armpits, raised her head, and in synchronous gestures of vanity and modesty drew in her tummy and shielded her pudenda with the package.
Opening the door, the youth’s dark eyes met hers. She blushed and lowered her gaze. Annex to corporeal inventory.
The youth ushered her into the voluminous studio, its dark oak floorboards and whitewashed walls flecked with polychromatic spritz of pigment.
At the base of a shaft of lactic incandescence emanating from a small skylight, an easel held a large gilded Rococo picture frame, conspicuously void of a virgin canvas, before which a wicker chaise longue was positioned. The stifling midsummer air was laden with a heady miasma of oil paint, turpentine, gum arabic and fine Havana, through which the delicate aroma of a bouquet of wilting roses struggled to compete.
Back turned to her, the artist stood before a small dormer window, his head shrouded within a nebula of cigar smoke. When he finally turned to greet her, Greta’s expression vacillated between a frown and a smile. Her first impression was that he was Father Christmas holding down an out of-season job as a magician on planet Bohemia.
Corpulent, with ruddy cheeks, his long salt and pepper coloured hair flowed into a totem of a waist-length beard covering most of the vibrant silk waistcoat he wore. The gilet and its matching tasselled pillbox hat were finely embroidered with stylised planets, stars and astrological symbols in psychedelic colours. His sartorial ensemble was completed with cavalry officer’s trousers, dark blue with a red stripe, white crocodile skin cowboy boots, a panoply of antique rings and bracelets and wraparound dark glasses made even more hermetic by clusters of greasy fingerprints on the lenses.
As he took few steps forward, the dark glasses and the faltering nature of his gait augmented her apprehension.
The artist’s smile was beatific, his response unequivocal. ‘I am not.’
His assistant repressed a manic giggle by placing both hands against his face and slapping his cheeks violently. ‘He…is. Is…not.’
The artist shrugged. ‘An ocular examination would conclude that I am blind. But I see everything clearly.’
Breaking into a jig, the assistant chuckled gleefully. ‘Mud in your third eye.’
When the artist snapped his fingers the youth suspended his sprightly cotillion, dropping his head like an abandoned marionette.
‘A regular dip in the briny,’ the artist mumbled, stabbing his forehead with an index finger ‘wakes the dormant pineal gland from its slumbers. Our oldest ancestors – lower vertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, could sense light in total darkness via a third parietal eye associated with the pineal gland which resides between the two hemispheres of the brain. Pinealocytes – cells within the pineal gland – resemble the photoreceptors of the eye. The pineal gland excretes dimethyltryptamine, inducing dreams, meditation, hallucinations and…near-death experiences.’
The assistant momentarily broke his statue-still posturing, twitching maniacally.
‘See the sea! Anyone can see!’
Squinting, Greta took a step closer to the artist, wishing she were wearing her eyeglasses. ‘We’ve met before?’
Reaching out to a cluttered trestle table, the artist selected a handful of brushes.
‘Why euthanasia?’ He said, fumbling amongst a clutter of materials until he located a large palette knife. ‘You know about my art. I paint people to death.’
Nodding her acknowledgment, Greta stammered. ‘It is time for me to repent.’
Stroking his beard, the artist inhaled deeply. ‘Repent.’
‘Castration,’ Greta hissed, ‘I have castrated men.’
A turbulent outburst of bitch? flatulence from the assistant.
‘Assume a reclining pose.’ The artist growled, indicating the chaise longue with a flick of his head. ‘Not as comfortable as the couch your man in Vienna had.’
Seated on the chaise longue, Greta was abashed by folds of overlapping flesh in her tummy. Bitch? She assumed a reclining pose, desirous of pulchritude past.
‘Vienna?’ She said, feigning nonchalance.
Peering through thumbs and index fingers circled over his eyes, the assistant screeched. ‘See? He can see!’
Unravelling the twine binding the package she had brought, the artist peeled way the brown paper.
‘Befitting.’ He said, identifying the form of the machete with his hands before placing it against her prostrate body, cylindrical wooden handle aligned against the cleft of her mons veneris so that the tip of its blade pointed at her midriff.
Whilst artist and model faced each other through the empty picture frame, the assistant loaded the circumference of a palette with bright swirls of glistening oil paint before thrusting it into the artist’s hand and mimicking a robotic voice. ‘Act-i-vate third eeyyee.’
A beguiling kinesis took place as primary colours became complex hues on the palette, a dash of vermilion fusioning with titanium white, a dab of burnt sienna with Naples yellow, cerulean blue with a soupçon of cadmium green.
Right arm at full stretch through the empty picture frame, the artist began to paint over her body, first a wash of rose madder diluted with turpentine applied with cheesecloth rag, then a broad palette knife with which he began to build an impasto.
Abandoning brushes and palette knife, the artist continued painting her with his fingertips, enhancing details of the portrait. Pinched lips were transformed into a provocative scarlet pout, lax nipples teased erect, fleshy folds crafted into svelte contours, haggard epidermis refashioned sheer as Saxony porcelain.
‘This is you,’ the artist announced, stepping back to admire her through the picture frame, ‘when you were thirty. A duplex apartment, rue de Seine, I believe. Shall we continue?’
Admiring her desirable anatomy of yesteryear, Greta bit her lower lip. ‘Yes, my brief exile in Paris. Please paint me as I was on my twenty-first birthday.’
A thin brush dipped in raw umber refining her pubic hairs caused her to flinch.
‘Your father gave you a guided tour of Roman antiquities in the British museum, and on to lunch at Simpsons on the Strand.’ The artist said, spreading fresh pigment from the palm of his hand over her buttocks and along her lissome thighs. ‘You took men’s breath away.’
As he caressed her hair, neck, cheekbones, lips, belly and breasts, fingers spreading an unctuous alchemy of purple lake, transparent white, Alizarin crimson, Prussian blue, Bismuth yellow, and rose doré, Greta glanced at the assistant, who’d unfastened his belt and dropped his shorts to his ankles. When he realised that Greta was watching him, he picked up a copy of Popular Mechanics magazine, leafing through its dog-eared pages until his erection dwindled.
‘The boy.’ Greta blurted, unsure whether she simply wanted to change the subject or if memory and intuition prompted her curiosity. ‘Is he your son?’
Shaking his head, the artist mixed fresh paint. ‘You did ask if we’d met before.’
Hopping forward on one leg, the assistant grabbed the machete and threw it through the dormer window.
‘Vienna?’ The artist whispered.
‘No. Nothing you can say will take me back there.’
‘Be it upon your own head.’ The artist whispered with pronounced gravitas as he took a fresh brush and began to efface her head, torso, arms and hands masterfully replacing flesh with a realistic facsimile of the woven wicker of the chaise longue on which she reclined.
‘You chose to conceal the truth.’ He continued. ‘That you’re frigid. That you’re a sixty-one year old virgin. Your man in Vienna believed that you transmitted Vagina Dentata to males, a phobia common to our gender, the fear that intercourse will result in castration. Do forgive me if this request appears improper, but the time has finally come for you to open your legs.’
Closing eyes as floodgates to her tears, Greta slowly parted her thighs, the artist deftly painting over them with the continuation of the wicker seating until the only part of her body which remained was her vagina. The artist’s final brushstrokes were magisterial, transfiguring her anaemic labia into glistening lips through which incisors and molars gleamed brightly.
Head askance, the artist stood before the empty picture frame, studying the finished portrait before turning to the assistant.
‘Well?’ He said. ‘What say you boy?’
Intently poring over the Yellow Pages, the youth shrugged. ‘I say we find her a deaf dentist, pronto.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Loughrey‘s short fiction has appeared in Dogmatika, Word Riot, Hobart, Serendipity, Laura Hird’s Showcase, Cherry Bleeds, Sein und Werden, Underground Voices, 5_Trope, Aesthetica, Half-Cut Publications, The Future Fire, Aphelion, Byzarium, The Raging Face and Zygote In My Coffee. ‘The Ruins of Fleisch’ was named one of the StorySouth Million Writers most notable short stories of 2007.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 26th, 2009.