The third instalment of the short story.
* * *
I wake up, aching all over. I am naked in bed, the covers pulled up around my thinning body.
I see that he is at the window, and when he realises I am conscious, he strides over and strikes me again on my face.
We are alone. So I don’t have to pretend anything to the outside world. I should strike back. I would have struck back, a week or even a day ago. I would have bit his fingers and barred my teeth, snarling at him in a desperate struggle for my freedom.
I don’t now. I just lie there. My anger is tempered, cooled by some other feeling I am not sure what, that is rippling over me like water.
His accusation doesn’t even sting. I don’t care. He can beat me, he can hurt me, but he can’t break me.
Whatever happens, I will find a way to let that feeling from last night sweep me up and soothe my pain. It will show me a new world, a world where the edges are blurry.
Everything looks better when it’s blurred now. When I see, I see too clearly, and the clarity stings.
* * *
I have a new project now. I like this one.
Because I’m not confined to depict a false reality, distorting the truth of what I see. Instead, I can paint anything on the cards. I can paint anything I imagine, as long as I follow the basic structure of the tarocchi deck.
There are to be seventy-eight playing cards in total, with twenty-two trump cards and fifty-six minor cards in four suits: cups, coins, swords and batons.
Sforza himself commissioned my husband to paint the set. Which of course means work for me. But at least this work offers some freedom. I can reach above and beyond reality, into the ethereal dimensions of my mind and the layered levels of existence.
I burn with the throbbing hunger of inspiration, from nowhere and everywhere at once. Questions rise up from the world outside me and the feelings within, and the maddening corners of my soul.
Now, I have an answer to find.
* * *
Sometimes my husband let me wander outside, though only with a chaperone of course. I had to be guarded, more closely than a valuable artwork.
One of my favourite places, aside from summer days in the gardens, was the San Marco church. It is not as grand as the magnificent soaring spires of the Duomo di Milano, but to me it evokes tremendous sentiment.
Its splendour lies in its relative simplicity, humility, and the tender frescoes that feel like family. I would sit within the church, and look up at the impossibly high domes, and the way the stone curved and folded in the most elegant of lines. I would wonder how humans had ever succeeded. In conquering the stone, in the mastery and dominance that sent a structure such as this reeling toward the heavens.
It would make my head hurt, thinking about it. Just how humans have achieved so much, and yet how vain we are becoming. Once we placed all belief in a divine being, and now we worship ourselves. Both faiths laced with folly, lacking compromise, deficient in balance. There must be another way, a key that is neither black nor white, but somewhere in between.
Yet even this church, humble compared to the Duomo, speaks otherwise.
These structures are not in honour of the Lord. They are a stark reminder of our greatest shortcoming.
Wars will keep raging, as ambition to conquer reigns untamed.
* * *
Sometimes I would pause from my work, to play with the unfinished deck of cards. I couldn’t help it. They fascinated me.
Is that strange, that something I create fascinates me?
Perhaps myself fascinate me. I confess, sometimes I look at a painting of mine, and I smile. It makes me feel good. I make myself feel good.
Then other times, I scare myself. I think I am mad. It frightens me where some images come from, when I have not observed them myself in the real world. It’s out of thin air, out of my head, drawn from the depths of some god-forsaken corner of my mind.
I don’t know where it started, where my thoughts began to come from. I cannot place the source of this invisible whip, lashing me in a vicious chase to unearth an abyss of unknown realms.
I knew I had to break away. I had to stop looking at the cards and believing in the images, and thinking about whom I was and why I was here, where I came from and where I would go. Fate taunted me, like a jealous sister.
And if I didn’t cut her loose, I would truly turn insane.
* * *
I found myself a lover. His name was Lorenzo. He told me that his name meant from the place of laurel trees. And in Roman symbolism, the laurel means victory.
We met at some dinner, some function, while my husband chatted and relished in his fame. I had slipped away for some fresh air in the courtyard, away from the heat and the bodies that were making me feel nauseous. I was always tired and fragile, from my late nights working and days focussing and trying to remember the tiniest details of what I would later have to paint. Mindless socialising and hanging off my husband’s arm, so that he could show me off as his lovely and dutiful wife, bore down upon me.
Then Lorenzo was there, outside at the fountain. He had sleek chestnut hair that gathered in youthful waves around his ears, with a few strands covering soft brown eyes. They had reflected the moonlight that night, shining bright.
He asked me who I was. I hadn’t replied, just stared at him, captivated by this mirage of beauty. He was beautiful as an angel, a true angel, like the ones only in my dreams. His soul radiated with light and I wanted then and there to paint him.
He was balm to my sore eyes, eyes that had strained for too long in a dark room, forced to produce only what I was told. Conforming to every request, whether commanded by my husband or my own tormented spirit.
“Take me away,” I uttered. My voice sounded foreign. I was used to it being laced with bitterness, resentment and anger, from retorting to one of my husband’s comments. This time the sound was a gentle purr, as if I was a stray cat, meowing a mournful call for the loving stroke of a stranger.
He raised a brow, a brow of thick and unruly hair that made him seem wild and free from the harsh constraints of reality.
He took my hand, he kissed it, and he told me I was a maiden in distress who he would save. He would be victorious, in conquering my heart and saving me from my troubles.
Lorenzo, from where the laurel trees are.
Where victory is.
* * *
I started eating more. I grew hungry again. Before, abstaining from food had been my rebellion. It was my one way of proving to myself I still had control.
Food had always been a love, a passion. I remember cooking with Mamma, preparing meals for our family. All of us together, back when Papa was still around. Crispy bread doused in rich, golden olive oil, and served alongside fresh tomatoes with bursting skins they were so ripe. Silky, bright saffron risotto melting upon my tongue and gliding fluidly down my throat…
Resisting the delicious food cooked in the kitchens of my husband’s manor had been difficult. That was the point. Resistance strengthened my mind, whilst my body weakened.
Yet suddenly I was hungry again. I couldn’t resist. My self-control crumbled and I couldn’t be bothered fighting in that way.
I realised I didn’t want to whither and die from starvation. I just wanted to escape into another world with Lorenzo. This would be different to the loneliness, where my only company was the crazed thoughts in my head.
* * *
We talked in secret. I left him letters, letters that I slipped out of the small window in the room where I painted, where he would collect them. We shared our secrets. I told him the truth. He didn’t seem to mind, he didn’t care that I was married to another.
I wanted him, ached for him, burned to spend precious time in his company. And one night when my husband was away on a visit to Florence, he came to me.
Never for a moment was I guilty for being unfaithful. Not after what my husband did to me. Lorenzo was a chance I had, a way out, a spark of happiness in a world where slowly my life drained out onto the canvas.
Over and again, I would relive those moments with him.
* * *
“Lorenzo,” I murmured.
When I heard him say those words, saw him reaching out to me, my breath caught in my lungs. Left me trembling with some emotion I knew must be love.
His arms closed around me, protecting me in that moment from the world and all it’s harshness. Away from my husband, finally my body melted with tenderness and relaxed against his.
I could hear the beat of his heart. Feel the pulse in his veins. Pulling back ever so slightly, I could tell that sincerity shone in his eyes. It was true. This was real. This was beauty and I would remember every tiny detail. From the curve of his nose, to the smooth lines of his lips, to the slight indent in his left cheek that suggested an injury from a childhood brawl.
I would remember.
* * *
My affair with Lorenzo was different. I wasn’t like the other ladies, other wives I had met.
Many of us had lovers; I knew because we would confess to one another after several glasses of wine, giggling about secret escapades down the canals in the light of the moon.
They did it for excitement, to add flavour to their boring lives. But I was not with Lorenzo for the thrill. Not for the danger, of riding on the edge and running the risk of being caught. Not for an amusement to fill my time with.
It was something different that drew me to him. This beauty of his heart and soul, as well as his body, called to be captured.
He restored my passion to paint reality. He revived my hunger to immortalise the world and it’s wonders, the love and the joy and the sparkling golden droplets of sunlight, spangling the canal waters and reflecting off the ripples left by little boats.
I wanted to do this, and more. Finally I could be true to my sight, I could depict what was before me in its raw magnificence.
I had to paint. I was driven to paint.