In the painting, the model sits there, lounging. The artist calls his work ‘Reposing’, but Magda doesn’t like that. ‘Lounging’ is better.
She liked to lounge, in much the same place – a cushioned chair, in the bay of the window. A rocking-chair.
‘Notice,’ Paul said, gesturing at the picture, ‘the light on the brow. As if she is alive.’
‘I am alive,’ Magda replied.
Did she know, then, that she would kill any rival brought to usurp her?
But she hasn’t. All she has done is cut off two supplicant hands.
And she has suffered weeks, months, of painful forbearance – waiting until this morning’s dawn, lying in cold, vengeful sheets – a second night when Paul had not come home. By then she had had enough, so she fetched a saw from the box under the sink, and begun her task.
It was harder than she expected. Back and forth with yellow, misshapen teeth; scrape, stick, drag. And there was blood. This surprised her. Straw, horse-hair; wax, paper; feathers stippling the air, sawdust drizzling to the floor. She had foreseen all these, but not blood. Perhaps she had imagined it, just as she imagined a cry. No-one came running, after all. All the neighbours remained silent – those who leer at her each morning after a night of pleading bed-springs, who lower their eyes after a convulsion of shouts and blows. So, yes, she must have imagined it.
Now, here she sits, cradling her prize, wondering why she had chosen to sever the struggling wrists instead of the single, unbending neck that was offered to her willingly, tauntingly. Surely a head was better? Weren’t heads meant to be picked up in triumph, to be displayed for all to see? Wouldn’t it have been perfect, to walk through the streets, carrying it by the hair?
‘This is what I have done! This is what he has driven me to!’ A Kokoschka moment – Paul had taught her so much about Kokoschka, his favourite artist. Kokoschka and his Alma, Alma as Gioconda, Alma in her red night-gown, Kokoschka and Alma together. Then ‘Alma’ lying on the floor, decapitated, drenched in red. Should she have done the same?
But no. That was all too histrionic. This is better.
After all, it was her own hands that beckoned him the night they met, catching his eye as she reached his drink across the bar.
‘They are so beautiful. I would love to paint them.’
No more than an artist’s chat-up line – she should be used to them, working in the Quarter – but she had fallen for it. Unlike all the others, what he said sounded real, so she followed him gaily home.
And almost at once, he wanted more. Canvas after canvas of face, bust, body; front, back, side; lying, sitting, standing, gathering dust in the corner. Naked – from discreetly coy to brazen full-frontal. Clothed – in dresses he bought for her, to magic her into whatever female incarnation he required.
The red party dress. The sanctimonious blue. The bridal veil.
Courtesan. Madonna. Bride.
Day after day of dressing, styling, posing.
Night after night of undressing, unravelling, abandonment.
But there was love, too. And domestic accord; she cooked, she cleaned! And respect, the first she had ever known. Why else would he teach her, talking to her, as he painted, of the places he had been to, the books he had read, and of art and artists, most of all. He took her to galleries, to illustrate their work. That was when he had shown her ‘Reposing’ – a painting she hated at once, without knowing why. But ‘liking’ did not matter, he told her. ‘Appreciation is what counts. Understanding.’
And he would go on and on about the merits of a piece, so that, soon, she understood it was something artists enjoyed – educating, moulding, the girls they picked up from the street.
‘The Pre-Raphaelites, Picasso! Kokoschka!’
And yet, who was he? How could he link his name with theirs? In all their time together, he had sold two paintings, and held one exhibition in the local hall.
Was that why, one day, he had brought this other home, and sat ‘her’ in the chair by the window? Magda’s chair. Magda’s place.
‘It is to help you.’
‘I have seen you are tired.’
‘I have noticed you shivering.’
Yes, she was tired. The moments of lounging in the rocker had grown fewer. Yes, she was often cold, naked by a fire kept alight with no more than unpaid bills.
And there he was again, quoting those artists. ‘Degas, Dali, Leonardo – they all use them.’
‘Look,’ and he rummaged through his art books, showing her first one, then another.
‘Here, Millais’s children in their bed. See, their faces are genuine. But, imagine, how could such little ones keep still for any length of time? So he replaced them with a mannequin. Who could tell the difference?’
She studied the picture. It was true she would never have known. Yet he had told her these artists sought nature and realism.
‘It is a cheat. They are lying.’
‘All artists lie,’ he replied.
Still, at first, she welcomed this new presence. It was easier, that much was true, with a few hours of modelling-time freed. Freed by ‘Sula’. Because, yes, Paul gave the ‘woman’ a name. Something else they all did, apparently. ‘An affectation! Or just short-hand.’
Then, one day, stepping silently in from the market, she heard his voice. ‘A visitor,’ she thought, though there had been none before.
And there was none now. He was standing in front of Ullie, mouthing fervently, gesturing plaintively.
But was that so strange?
Hadn’t she herself done it, moving about the house, making tea, or cooking dinner? A remark here, a question there. ‘Colder today.’ ‘Now, where is the sugar?’ (As if she would know, who had just arrived!)
Except it was no more than thoughts voiced into the steeping air directed instead towards the figure in the bay. Like talking to a cat or a dog.
What Paul was doing was different, she knew. It was… intimacy.
She began to watch them closely. It was easy enough. Her own chair had changed into the ladder-back in the darkest corner, its fraying wicker grating against her thighs. She saw the looks that passed between them. She heard their conversations, because, now, Sula answered in return. And every now and then, his foot would deftly strike the nearest rocker, so that the doll moved. Back and fore, it swayed, the daylight or street lamp fracturing the eyes, their shadows puckering the lips, so that it looked alive. So that it became a woman who could smile at him. Offer a kiss, perhaps.
Magda threw accusations at him, along with plates and cold cabbage stew. More raised voices for the neighbours to lower their eyes at.
‘You look at her more than me, you look at her with desire!’
He said she was crazy. ‘It is intensity. It is what I have to do. Look and look again until the creative spark is ignited.’
‘You never look at me like that any more.’
‘Have you seen yourself lately?’
Was that it? Was that what this was all about? That she was no longer the perfect model? Unwrapping the mannequin, he had used the words ‘pristine’, ‘unblemished’. She had thought they applied to its shop-bought newness. He had spoken such words to her, too, at her first sitting, their early bedding. But had not said them for a while.
After he had gone, she dragged the cheval to the bay, then fetched that first portrait – still there, of course; unsold. Her gaze shifted back and fore between the image and the mirror.
In the face of her reflection, fine lines were pencilled in by weariness and hardship. Two thick charcoal strokes gouged down from the lips, come overnight the first time he failed to return. The pouches beneath her eyes were smudged in purple. ‘Crying is not good for the face,’ Paul liked to say, before making her cry again.
And her body… The sweeping curves of the canvas were nowhere to be seen, lost in hunger and despair. Her skin was shaded with the patina of age.
And what of those ‘beautiful’ hands? Pitted and foxed as much as the glass in front of her, the chipped nails full of grime, the knuckles gnarling from the flesh.
From the rocker, Sula smirked like a dabbler’s Mona Lisa.
Little by little, Magda faded from the paintings, legs, torso, arms.
Little by little, the mannequin took her place. Until only the eyes were real.
And, one day, pausing silently at the door again, she saw Sula sitting there, clothed in the red dress, nails painted to match. And Paul stepped from the shadows, and knelt down, as if in worship, and ruched stockings of the finest silk, inch by inch up each leg, caressing them, as he reached ever closer to their end. Once, he had wanted the same with her, but she had said no. Undressing, she could understand, but to dress again…? But Sula did not refuse; refused him nothing. She closed the door upon them.
The dress is beside her now, folded neatly. She removed it before fetching the saw, so there is no blood on it (well, of course, there is no blood!). She wants to keep it; it is hers. But the silk stockings she has burned. She watched them blacken and shrivel on a fire made from his brushes and palette – warmth, at last! There were other things she had done, too. Smashed his easel, cut up his clothes, thrown paint over the floor. China eyes followed her around the room as she worked, watched as she made a paste of red wine and flour to tip on the bed. From time to time a word was offered. ‘Childish!’ for the stamping and laughter. ‘Clichéd!’ – that was for the shredded suit.
And all the time Magda felt nothing.
‘Catharsis – it can be a reason for painting, and for many other things, too,’ Paul had told her, once. Another one of his educational lectures. ‘Car-thar-sis.’ But it was a word she couldn’t understand.
And she still didn’t understand when she took his canvasses from the corner and slashed each one from end to end.
It was waiting for Sula to speak of her failings. ‘Fidgety, talkative, bored – what good is that in a model? I am far more reliable. I am the perfect muse.’
Waiting for ‘He grew tired of you long ago. Your jealousy, your possessiveness.’
Waiting, finally, for ‘Do you think I am the only one? Do you not know about the others he brought here when you were at the market, or in the bar? Real flesh and blood women that he tossed on that bed. The things he did with them that he never did with you, like the things he did with me that he never did with you!’
It was waiting for her to cut off Sula’s hands.
She examines one, then the other. Beyond the frayed edges they are still perfect, the red nail varnish he had applied still intact, their surface smooth. The same cannot be said for the naked, handless doll that sits facing her. She is pleased about this. Pleased to see that Sula is not so perfect any more.
‘Keep the harsh sunlight away!’ Paul had commanded. But she would wait till he went out to pull the curtains wide.
‘Idiot! Fool!’ he screamed, the day she had dropped the poker on Ullie’s protruding right ankle.
‘It was an accident,’ she replied. What else could it be?
The paint speckling was his – he was never a tidy artist. They would serve as age spots, scars.
So… no longer perfect at all.
Still, he could return it to the manufacturer, have it repaired, touched up. And he could buy more hands. There were shops that sold them. Perhaps she should destroy it completely after all. Put it on the fire, perhaps. A real blaze!
No, the hands are enough. But there is something that must be done, first. She fetches more tools from the box, and drags the rasp over the skin. With the hammer and small chisel, she chips at the nails, until the varnish is scored, and the ends are hewn to the quick. There!
Then she places them together in the centre of the floor, as if in prayer. The red dress gets squashed into a bag, along with a few other belongings. Where will she take herself? The bar, perhaps? The neighbour with the dribbling leer? She doesn’t know.
Magda closes the door, without looking back.
Behind her, Sula rocks in her chair. And smiles.
In the painting, the model sits there… no, not lounging. She cannot lounge on the upright ladder-back chair. The street lamp flickers through the window, leaving its usual circle of light. Otherwise, she is naked. The debris of the room laps about her feet.
The work hangs in the city’s most prestigious gallery, and has been sold for an ‘undisclosed’ sum. It is to be the first of a series, and its painter is famous, now, throughout the land.
The girl in the red dress looks at it, this way and that. Where she ends, and the other begins, it is impossible to see. He has put them together, skin and varnish seeped inseparably; flesh and plaster set fast forever; glue and blood coagulating within. Only the hands – or lack of them – mark themselves as Sula. They give the piece its name. ‘The woman who never begs.’
If only she had killed her.