Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

http://www.artfund.org/assets/what-to-see/exhibitions/2015/DrawingInVenice/Titian,-Portrait-of-a-Young-Woman.jpg

Sfumato

 

1487

            The metallic tip of his silverpoint touched down onto the taught, tinted paper.  It was started.  He had begun what he knew would be his last.  The first line. The second.  Even at this early stage The Master could tell this one would come easily, and that was very welcome.  It surprised him, though.  His practice was to use a model when drawing the human form.  Not this time.  This would be from memory.  But it was a memory thicker and fleshier, more real than the world all about him.  No stand-in would do today, for she was long dead.  The sight of another body before him would simply disrupt the process. 

            But he had to slow down.  This quick pace, though exhilarating, might prove damaging.  After all, there was no room for error—or no time for error, to be exact.  He eased out each stroke of the silverpoint, feeling it not as the contact of metal on paper but hand on skin.  His own hand on her skin many decades earlier. 

            He took great pleasure in drawing, but again, caution was necessary.  His silverpoint and charcoal sketches had only ever been preludes to oil paintings before, a plan of something rather than the thing itself.  But he knew there was only enough time left in him for a drawing, and so it must be done with as much care, as much attention to light and form as possible.

            The lines flowed steadily, tracing the bold contours of the face he had never forgotten.

 

2016

            The last dose of morphine was wearing off, his pain returning.  That pain sat in The Collector’s gut like a jagged rock crushing and piercing his insides.  He felt that turning on his side might bring a kind of relief, but even that small feat seemed beyond his wasted body now.  It was on him, he could tell.  Hours, that’s all.  Maybe he’d see the morning, but he wouldn’t take that bet if it had been offered.  He somehow couldn’t imagine the sun, couldn’t imagine the light.  He was sinking into death, that stone in his belly dragging him down and down.

            A nurse changed the bag that drained into his arm, felt the pulse, and brushed her hand against his forehead.  He was alarmed that he couldn’t feel her touch.

 

1487

            The Master was surprised to notice the sun in its noon position already.  A small lunch of venison, grapes and wine had been placed on a table near him, though he had not seen his boy arrive or leave.  He ate reluctantly, afraid to interrupt the momentum of his work but even more afraid of the tremors that gripped him when his stomach sat empty too long.  The meat was sliced thinly, not much more substantial than the paper on which he drew.  But he liked it and required it this way.  Even so, The Master needed a sip of wine with each mouthful of meat, a warm bath to dissolve the flesh a little further.

            The grapes he saved for last.  He had always loved grapes like these, white-green and sweet.  It occurred to him, in a way that was more factual than sensational, that these would be the last grapes to touch his tongue.  He considered each one carefully as he ate, slowly piercing their firmness, one at a time, inside his mouth, an odd sense of kinship developing with each.  The Master almost chuckled as he thought how these grapes might not have the time to leave his body before his death, and therefore might justifiably be thought of as part of him now, just another bit of soft flesh to rot away in the earth.

            But no, not yet.  A little more work to be done first, and then time to rest.

            With his charcoal The Master began to weave threads of her hair, parted in the middle and cascading over her right shoulder.  It was the hair that had once draped his chest, stomach and thighs.  The hair he had watched her brush when she supposed he was asleep, his head on the pillow but eyes open.  With gentle strokes, he braided the strands along her neck.

               It was no surprise that she occupied his last thoughts like this.  He had often sought out her memory in times of trouble and pain, and now she sought him out, too.  Had she lived, they would have married.  Had they married, he would have lived, lived more in the world of flesh and blood and less in the world of light and fancy.  It was a kind of gift, he supposed, the inspiration and the passion she left him with.  But he would have gladly turned it down if given the chance those many, many years ago.

2016

            Somewhere, in the time it had taken his eyes to close and open, the nurse had left.  How strange to spend these final hours with someone whose care was purely professional, a service rendered. 

            But at least he was passing in familiar surroundings, not in some fucking disinfected, fluorescent-lit institution.  No, sir.  Dying instead with the things he had purchased and collected over the years, all beautifully arranged, a room of unprecedented value and significance.  Priceless.  Well, beyond the reach of all but a handful of people, such as himself, whose money was like air, an invisible but ever-present element that answered to his very breathing.  He looked around his great study, a museum curated by one man for the enjoyment and infinite pleasure of that same one alone. 

He had begun the collection many decades earlier, his response to the unreliable and ephemeral nature of people.  They altered too much, could not be relied on.  They changed their minds.  They grew old.  They died.  Initially, this collection was simply a safety net of sorts, a constant to cherish amid the wavering of human health and life.  But then, when his daughter passed, he decided it was unwise to continue the self-destructive practice of giving a shit about human beings.  Instead, it was best to direct his innate need for connection towards objects.  The right objects, stored with love and care in ideal conditions, made for outstanding emotional investments.  People were like stocks, up and down.  Objects were the equivalent of investing in gold, a safe-haven from fluctuations of boom and bust, bear and bull. 

His faltering eyes roamed the room, tottering among the objects that sat obediently in their death watch.  And then he saw her.

 

1487 

            The shadow on her upper nose darkened, stretched more definitely, became an eyebrow.  Below it, her eye glanced off to the edges of his imagination.  There was a sadness in her expression that he hadn’t intended, a gentle melancholy that, if anything, heightened the love he felt for her.

            The afternoon wore on; feature by feature she took shape.  By late afternoon the folds of her dress were falling softly into small pillows of shadow.  After this, he took white chalk and gently raised her face from the stained paper’s pinkish hues.  

            His hand was hurting now, numbness eating its way up his forearm.  Every minute or so he squeezed his fingers into a fist, let his nails press hard into his palm,  and opened his hand again, hoping to maintain enough feeling to continue the piece.  It had been years since he’d labored with such devotion.

 

 

2016

            She was a later acquisition, but one of his finest.  There was nothing remarkable about her; in fact, she was rather dull looking.  The Collector would never have given her a second look in any other context, but, of course, the beauty of this object was not in her features but in the traces of the artist himself, his inherent value.  This was one of the artist’s later works—one tradition even suggested it was his very last, though the man mistrusted all things sentimental. It was celebrated for its intimacy and mystery.  The majority of the artist’s work, after all, depicted suffering Saints, eyes upturned in supplication, or allegorical renderings of Biblical myth.  Nothing else like this drawing of a plain young woman had survived, a thing apparently crafted for The Master’s own purposes rather than those of some grand benefactor.  In other words, this object was unique even within the canon of one the fifteenth century’s better known artists. 

            The Collector’s eyes struggled to focus on the drawing.  Yes, this was the one he should focus on now.  It was the most expensive in his collection, after all.  Proof of how much he had achieved.  Objects were indeed more reliable than people, but they also came at a higher fiscal cost.  The price of a perfect object was very high, while the cost of even a very fine person was shockingly low.  How easily their service, affection, fear, or love could be purchased (though they could not be relied on to provide these things for more than a few years; in this way they resembled the lesser objects of the world—disposable razors, say, or cheap pens that momentarily bleed ink and then must be discarded, dry and useless).  There are just so many people, after all, and the vast majority of them utterly indistinguishable from one another.  But not objects like this.  It was unique in the way that liars and half-wits usually claim people are.

            Further, he understood ownership of this drawing as possession—or, perhaps, in a sense, employment—of The Master himself.  Five hundred years ago, the artist had labored on this piece and, eventually, The Collector had purchased it for a startling sum.  This ownership, he believed, was pre-ordained by each and every stroke on the paper all those centuries ago. The meaning of the image was his to determine, and its beauty his alone to behold.  The great artist, then, despite his exalted place in the history of his species, proved finally to be no different from anyone else.  Even in death, he could be purchased, and everything he represented bought part and parcel with him.

            The Collector drifted into half-sleep, disturbed by the mis-firings of a dying brain. Long-forgotten fears emerged from his mind like maggots from old meat, squirming, touching and polluting his thoughts.

 

1487

            It occurred to The Master that he was losing his dimensions internally as she gained hers externally on the paper; she was being drawn as he was being erased.  It was a fair exchange, though, he thought, and one he only wished to see completed.  He muttered under his breath, pleading with death for just an hour more.  The Master felt sure these prayers were being heard and answered by the delicately encroaching darkness, though.  He fought on, struggling to steady his hand while shading the left side of her neck and the ridge of her shoulder where shadow connected it to her turning head.      

                  

2016

            The way she looked away from him.  He couldn’t abide it.  There was something in the gesture that angered him, even now when he thought all his fire extinguished.  But what was it?  He hauled himself out of the half-sleep, and, as part of the same effort—although it was not something he had planned and was shocked to the point of being fearful when it happened—he hauled himself into a seated position on the bed, sinking sideways onto his elbow. 

            She wouldn’t look at him.  Why?  She was taunting him somehow.  The Collector thought to summon his nurse, to have her bring the drawing to him so he could examine it more closely, but he decided to approach it himself.  It took several minutes to stand, his atrophied legs drooping after weeks of bedrest, and he had to support himself with the mobile stand that held his IV.  Short as the path from bed to picture was, his heart thumped at the realization that he would not make the return journey, and that these minutes of exertion were being purchased at the expense of a few more hours of bedridden life.

           

1487

            The sky was darkening now, but just a few strokes remained until the drawing was complete.  The shadow that began on her neck and shoulder must now be stretched upward across the left side of her face.  It was proof of the light shining on her.  He shaded the edge of her face deeply, then more softly until the shadow dissipated just short of the tip of her nose. 

            It was done.  The Master sat back, and looked upon the miracle.  Never had he worked this way, never had the lines seemed almost to render themselves, and with such precision.  He spoke to her, and, he was sure, she to him.

 

2016

            Five minutes, perhaps ten.  The Collector didn’t know.  He would never have gotten there if the intravenous stand hadn’t had wheels, but, equally, those wheels threatened to spin out of control and send him crashing to the floor.  That he reached the drawing struck him as something of a marvel.

            Now, let’s take a look at you.  You’re fucking with me, but how?  Look at me!  Why won’t you look at me?  You think you’re better than me, eh?  Do you know who I am?  Do you?  An object talking back, after all these years?  Causing trouble and pain, just like a person?  Fuck, why now?   

            Then it struck him.  She does think she’s better.  In a few moments I will be gone, he thought, but she will still be here.  And then the most unbearable idea of all.   I believed I owned her, but she is the master here, not me.  She will live on, find another ‘owner’ to deceive.

            Where the energy came from, he didn’t know.  With his left hand he ripped the intravenous needle from his arm, pulling with it small strands of flesh and a stream of blood.  He felt nothing.  Perhaps the body shut off the ability to sense pain in the final moments, perhaps the endorphins were released all at once, like happy schoolchildren at the end of term, to bundle away all feeling.  He gave it only a split second’s thought.

            The Collector took the bloody needle in his right hand, his forearm now glistening a deep red with only thin triangles of grey flesh left untouched here and there.  He stabbed—and that was the word he used in his mind to command the action, stab—her, ripped at her.  He experienced a small hint of aesthetic pleasure as his blood mingled with the white chalk to create tiny clumps of pink.  But mostly the pleasure was in knowing that she would not outlive him, that, to the very last, and to her infinite surprise, he possessed her.  Again and again he lashed out.  He must have been screaming now because the nurse came running.  But it was too late.  Too late for the woman—whoever this ancient bitch had once been—and too late for The Master—fuck him!—and too late for himself.  He admired what had once been her face, now shredded into ribbons of brown and stained paper, but from a strange angle that he slowly understood to be the result of his looking up from the floor.  The nurse fell upon him, frantic to help, but he could not feel her, or see her now.  Or see anything at all.

 

1487

            They sat peacefully in the garden, bathed in the cool air of early evening.  Two lovers of old, bound together by promises and secrets and the miracles of imagination.  She whispered to him that, flattered as she was by this fine drawing, it was not in that that she now lived—that they now lived.  No, it was in the substance of things that had once been, clad in the true but unseen flesh of the forgotten.  He raised his hand into the empty air and, with his final motion, touched her fingertips as they reached him from beyond the setting sun.  

 

 

 

Paul Gleed holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo and teaches writing at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania.  In addition to short stories, he is currently working on several novel-length projects. You can find him online at  www.paulgleed.com






(illustration: Titian, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1515)