The second instalment of the short story.
* * *
His touch upon me was vile. His fat fingers, his greasy smile, his tiny eyes that had this triumphant gleam in them. As if he’d conquered me. He thought he’d conquered me.
But that was not the worst part, not at all. The way he forced his body into mine, stroked my hair, smothered my lips, that was not what I found worst.
It was being enslaved that burned me. Sent me spinning into a fiery rage. Having my identity taken away – that is indescribable. Cuts into you, scorches you, splashes you with flaming crimson paint. Making me bleed inside.
He forced me to paint, and then he stole my art. He sold it under his own name. Revelled in the glory of being the centre of attention. At every dinner, every ball we were invited to, men and their wives would marvel at his talent.
He is talented, yes. He has talent for cruelty.
I remember our wedding night. Consummating the marriage. It was not what I expected, not beautiful with the passion and desire and love that you hear about in the stories.
Instead it was painful, shredding me apart, sharp and abrupt. Absent of tenderness, reeking of his lust.
But I could deal with that; perhaps the stories were wrong. Since I had never known another man, I had nothing to compare to. Perhaps this was real. Perhaps this was it, just an animalistic meeting of bodies, void of a more intimate and deeper connection.
Yet what followed, the theft of myself, I knew instinctively was unnatural. How do I begin to explain, what it’s like when I place a brush upon canvas? The colours come from within, not from the array of paints on my palette. The richness and depth comes from my heart, the strokes of my brush each delicately placed with purpose and meaning.
I live within my artwork; I am what I create, and it defines me. I never asked for fame. I only ever painted because I felt compelled to do so, from within the depths of my soul. It is what makes me who I am, and the way I unravel and explain the world.
When I paint, I put forward my inner emotions, my musings, dreams… desires. And so when he hurts me, when he takes that away and claims my beautiful creations as his own, revulsion bubbles up. I cannot bear it.
And the colour fades. My work becomes black. Scarred by the ugliness within him.
* * *
I learnt the truth quickly, after he’d taken me from my family. Or rather after my mother sold me. Yes, I discovered that too. It is another certainty about my life, alongside Papa being gone.
At first I didn’t realise why he was buying me paints. Naively, I assumed he was being nice. Considerate. That he’d known about my love of painting, and wanted to make me happy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Making me happy was never on his mind. He never cared about me, only about what I produced, and if it was to his satisfaction.
* * *
He grabbed me by the wrists, his face twisted with anger for some reason or another. I’d obviously failed something.
He snarled in my face.
“What is this?”
I swallowed and raised my chin in defiance of the question. It is a stupid question and I don’t understand what he’s asking. I painted the woman, the woman as I’d seen her.
“You are not working hard enough. You’re not painting what is there, what is real,” he accused.
“I paint what I see,” I retorted. Did he not understand, not comprehend, that we all see things differently?
“This… this is monstrous.” He ripped the canvas from my easel, spat on it, then turned to me again with saliva bubbling at the edges of his mouth.
“She was ugly.” Those three words I said sent him spinning into an unimaginable rage and he struck me, his signet ring puncturing the skin of my cheek. A salty, metallic flavour burst into my mouth.
I imagined how I looked, droplets of sanguine blood glistening upon pale flesh. Staining it in sharp contrast, like cherry blossoms, with their ruby centre amidst white petals.
“You must remember better.”
I wanted to shout back that there was nothing wrong with my memory. But instead I simply sank onto my stool, trembling, unable to reply.
I had to do everything from memory, because to the outside world he was the artist. I couldn’t be seen alone with the models of the portraits he allegedly painted. No, he would sit there with an easel, pretending to work, and refusing the model a glimpse of his progress. He would say he could not tolerate anyone seeing a half-finished piece that was not yet perfect.
Whilst he hid behind his façade, I would sit in the shadows, observing the posed figure, committing every detail to memory. I would pretend that my presence was for him, in case he needed fresh drinking water or a brush cleaned. All the while I would see that what was on the canvas was nothing but an amateur splash of paints. He had no talent. He could do nothing.
Afterwards, late at night, he would shut me in a room behind the bedchamber where I would recall everything. Work by the light of a candle, until my vision failed me and the canvas blurred before my weary, watering eyes.
* * *
The outside world had never seemed so far away. When loneliness settles in, when you have no one for company but the raging thoughts in your own mind, everywhere else is as distant as a star blinking faintly in the heavens.
I lived, oblivious to the famine and suffering in the city of those caught on the wrong side.
I don’t even know what happened. Not properly. I heard things, of course. Several more months had passed, and it was around the time that only a year ago I’d seen those heads in the piazza.
There was some sort of a coup, and the people had surrendered to Sforza.
The name was familiar, yet also seemed too strange for me to ever have known it. He was one of the initial men who had had the support of the people after Visconti’s death. When all this started, back then. Perhaps I would have been better off if Sforza had gained power immediately. Then there would be no failed Republic, no conflict between different Republicans. My father would still be alive.
These thoughts swirl in my mind like disembodied voices, void of emotion, as if they are simply mundane facts. Not facts that have shaped my existence, put me in this place today, torn my safe and secure life apart to leave me hovering in a loveless chasm.
There is not even emotion when I think of my family, my younger sisters and my brothers, my mother despite what she did. They are far, too far away to think of. I cannot spare them emotion.
And so I live in another world. Within the corners of my room, the walls of this house, and even the streets when I am escorted for a walk, nothing else exists.
Such is my routine that I notice no change when, four years later, the House of Sforza become the established rulers of the Duchy of Milan.
* * *
He commands me to paint what is there: the world before my eyes, the person posing before us.
I do what I am told. I can do nothing else. I struggle to tell myself that at least I am alive, and that perhaps one day I will be beyond his clutches. I will have my own name, be more than a slave, and paint with the passion of my heart that has been dulled by his abuse.
I know what he wants now. He doesn’t want the truth. He doesn’t want the world as I see it or the people as I see them. He only wants to please his clients, only wants to make money. His greed makes me wish I was strong enough to ruin his paintings, and ruin myself to deprive him of his desires.
But I am too weak for that, or perhaps too strong. I don’t know what it is but I feel bound to, or forced to, share the one talent I was born with. Even if no one knows who I am, and even if no one ever will, I am an artist for a reason. This gift is not mine to destroy. It is beyond me, part of something greater, and the world deserves to see my paintings.
Yet still I hate what I do. I hate making ugly people beautiful, and disguising monstrosity. I want to depict what I see, the flaws and the blemishes and the inadequacy of humanity. Perhaps other artists do not think of it that way, but to me it is perfection. Showing what is, showing it bluntly.
And then when I paint beauty, the contrast makes it all the more wondrous.
* * *
We’re at a ball, hosted by some wealthy agent who is a fanatic of my husband’s work. There are other artists present too, the successful ones relishing in the prestige of being considered pioneers of renaissance art. But I have learnt these are but a few. To be invited to such events as this, one must be rich and talented. Talent alone never suffices.
Am I a living proof of this?
My husband looks at me, slyly, his dark eyes beady and twinkling. He is introducing me to someone, and delighting in the lusty looks this other man sweeps over my body. He is happy that he is married to a woman desired by others. Happy that I am his to do with what he wishes. His alone.
I glance downwards. Focus on the woven patterns in my pastel pink damask gown. Gather my wits and look upwards again, offering a faint smile. It is better to pretend to be happy in public, to look the compliant and content wife. To fight in public is to look insane to onlookers. I can struggle all I want in private.
A waiter approaches, a silver serving tray balanced on one gloved hand. I look at the wine glasses, at the deep mahogany fluid in some, and the glistening, pale lemon colour of the others.
I have acquired a new taste. I never drank much in the past, with my family. I suppose I was still a girl then. But now, I crave the juice of fermented grapes. White, I like the white wine. The way the chilled liquid feels like it’s sparkling upon my tongue, and then surges down my throat. Makes my head lighter, brighter, slightly dazed.
Aching thoughts that had hammered through my mind all day are now swept away by a thirsty gulp. It is a cure for my parched soul, deprived of the freedom that made me who I was.
I am finished with my glass already, and another waiter is passing with another tray. I reach out. I want more. I need more.
I take it and drink too fast, faster than before. The world is beating before my eyes, almost as if there are drums in my ears. Pounding out a rhythm. People are moving fast, too fast. Everything is a whirl of luminous shadows and I think I’m actually smiling. I’m happy.
This is one of those moments I would never wish to describe. I would only want to paint. Dresses merging with other dresses, as dancers twirl and fabrics shimmer, blending together they’re moving so quick.
I don’t make sense, I sound illiterate and the words babble from my mouth in gibberish nonsense as if I am an infant. It doesn’t matter, because the beauty is in the surging, pulsing, vibrating colours of the room.
I want to join them, want to leap amidst this rhythm and become one with it. This is my way out. This is how I can rebel. This feels better than struggling away from him, beating him with weak fists that are but hopeless and futile attempts to escape.
I am sinking.
Then I am aware that my cheek is stinging, my hair is pulled. My body feels trampled and my thighs burn as though fire is being rubbed between them.