The fourth and final instalment of the short story.
* * *
Never have I worked so hard on a painting. Never. This had to be perfect because Lorenzo was perfect, and to picture him anything but was a travesty and a sin.
I ordered new brushes, tiny ones made from a few threads of delicate horsehair. I needed them tiny, in order to depict every curl upon his head, every shadow of every shade, when the light fell upon his features.
The picture was my obsession. It was a mission to capture perfection. It became the only thing I cared about and the only thing I wanted to do. The thing that kept my heart beating, sustaining me, giving me purpose.
So long as the painting remained unfinished, imperfect, I knew I had to live.
* * *
My husband found me working. I couldn’t conceal it. He knew I was up to something else because I was late with the other piece he’d been commissioned for. The cards; I hadn’t completed them. There were four to go, the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords and the Knight of Coins. The deck needed to be finished, for a celebration of Sforza and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the deceased duke.
At first my husband seemed angry. He struck me. He demanded I finish the cards and he asked me who this man was. Of course I didn’t speak the truth, I merely shrugged and said it was all from my imagination. Not one person but a collection of assorted beautiful attributes from different people I’d seen.
My husband was angry I hadn’t painted him.
But then he let me continue. He must have realised it was the most wondrous picture I was ever painting, and his greed had taken hold. Of course he wanted me to finish, because he wanted to sell it for a fortune.
I didn’t even let that bother me. I couldn’t even think of the future. Placing every brushstroke with certain, exact precision was the only thing that mattered. The only thing I could possibly think of, because it consumed every fibre of my being.
Still the beauty of Lorenzo eluded my hands. And I would crumple into bed, body aching from its hunched position over my canvas, tears leaking from my eyes that had spent too long squinting at the tiniest detail.
I could not rush this project. Could take no shortcut, could be satisfied with no flaw. He had no flaws, and the painting could have none either.
* * *
I could not pause, could not give the portrait a rest. It demanded my entire attention. Commanded me to work, and never to stop, until I had achieved a masterpiece.
It even haunted my sleep; for I would paint Lorenzo in my mind, recalling pictures stored in my heart, a gallery of memories from our secret meetings in the starlight of crisp autumn nights.
At first the thought of him would warm me, when the breeze blew cold outside, and stiff joints ached and groaned.
But then the feeling became too hot. An obsessive, fearsome burning propelled me forward, emanating from my heart and scalding my fingers whenever I touched a brush.
I should have stopped. I should have ripped myself away, then and there, whilst I could. Whilst I still had a footing in reality, had Lorenzo’s arms wrapped around me, I should have broken free.
I could have broken free. I could have run away; he would have cared for me and we would have found a way. Yet it was I who trapped myself. In this endless journey, to strive to capture upon the canvas my feelings and what I saw.
This image of beauty, it was more important to me now than any tangible love, any physical connection with him and the real world. I wanted to realise my ambition more than anything else, this was my existence now and it was the painting and the painting alone that mattered.
At first, Lorenzo had been my freedom. My escape. A sanctuary and a sparkling light even though we could only ever meet in darkness.
Yet too soon, the greatest flaw of my being awakened, this accursed fault that try as I might I couldn’t suppress.
I blamed my husband for it, for making my entire existence revolve around my art. Depriving me of anything beyond it, so that I could not appreciate love. Could not even cherish my own memories, because everything was about the paint. My life was the canvas and each stroke upon it was a stain, tarnishing me further, binding me closer. To complete the painting was to secure the curse.
And because Lorenzo had been too perfect, too good for me, he would be the one to suffer when I morphed into this monster.
There was no other way. There could be no other way. In a scary moment, amidst the turmoil, time seemed to freeze and I saw clearly once again. I teetered on the brink of an abyss, on the edge of chaos, realising everything. Knowing my future, understanding my fate, and conscious that I could not avoid it.
* * *
The painting was gone. The painting had been taken. It must have been my husband, for to another’s eyes, it was finished.
But I had failed to complete Lorenzo, to preserve the fabled history of our love.
In a fury, I ripped out my brushes and I grabbed the final four blank cards that needed an image. They would be the last reminder of this world I would have, the last visible tokens. For Lorenzo was gone: and I started to lose my sight.
Perhaps it had been coming all along. A culmination of the long nights, working away by the feeble candle glow.
But though I blamed it on that and on my husband, I knew it was simply my will to see. Nothing could ever compare to such beauty, and now Lorenzo’s beauty was fading into the night whilst my rage swept me up into a fiery vortex. I didn’t have his portrait. I couldn’t see his face. I had nothing to hold on to and my memory was twisted by the tingling rage of betrayal and insanity.
It could have been perfect, with Lorenzo. If I’d nurtured that feeling, truest of true, bringing happiness always and forever.
But life isn’t like that, life isn’t smooth, life stabs at you and cuts you and lets you down time and time again.
Sometimes you manage to hide it, and shut out your troubles. Concealing them beneath a smiling mask, you hide the flaws even from yourself. Ignore them. The cracks, the tiny fissures that with time will only grow into a vicious rupture that splits you apart.
And in those times when you really need strength, when you really need to show courage and hold yourself together just for a minute, that is always when your mind fails you. Giving way to heartache. Pain.
A burning hot bubble of fiery shame and frustration seizes hold inside your chest. Tears burst from the corners of your eyes and scar your cheeks as though they were acid.
You tried. You thought you’d conquered the world. That you were invincible and finally all those complicated pieces of life had just fallen into place. The puzzle solved, problems resolved. Everything just fine, or more than fine – perfect.
But perfection itself is flawed. The mission to capture it reveals your incompetence. The closer you look the more you realise your inadequacy.
There had been no problem, but I’d created one. I’d fabricated a problem within myself. Because he’d been too perfect, and I’d wanted to capture him.
Tears stormed from my eyes and I pressed something to my face to try and muffle my grief. I realised it was a card: The Tower, struck by lightning. Some oil paint that had not quite dried yet smeared upon my face.
I struggled to my feet, but my legs wouldn’t hold me and I tumbled back down to the floor. My arms had swung around in an attempt to stay balanced, but it only served to bring a box of tools crashing along with me.
I gripped a palette knife. I looked towards the window. Glimpsed a figure, a shadow slightly darker than the night outside.
* * *
Before my marriage, I’d been free as an autumn leaf, whipped up by the breeze and roaming wherever the wind took me. My talent flourished, I was happy, I was fertile. At ease with the world, unconstrained by expectation, calm and content to float where fate would take me.
And then, then my spirit froze within a cage of loneliness. I shut out emotion, for it hurt too much, and feeling nothing was better than pain. But when I don’t feel, I can’t paint. Not truly, not in the way I was born. I know I can’t paint because I can’t picture things in my mind. Images are sterile, colours stark and refusing to blend together. I was ceasing to exist, as the emotion that defined me disappeared.
Then my lover, he had warmed me. Nurtured my bleeding soul and melted the icy shackles of bitterness and abandonment. Gave a kiss of life to a barren womb, awakened feeling in a numbed heart and eased those lips once more into a smile, out of their expressionless line.
But the damage was already done. My life had already been defined for me, fixed by those long winter months, alone and afraid. Defined by my brushstrokes, by the blended paints on my palette. I was and could be nothing more.
The eyes that once saw beauty, holding me together and fuelling my soul, are blinded. Furious desire and raging ambition burns my sockets, so I will never see again.
* * *
Lorenzo held the girl’s frail body in his arms. He whispered her name, ever so gently.
She cried up to him, said she couldn’t see, that her vision was fading and plunging her into a world, darker and darker.
He rocked her back and forth, like a child. He told her she was just tired. Her response was a feeble sob of acknowledgement. That she was in fact exhausted with life.
He stayed there, afraid to let go. And when they finally did part, in the mournful predawn light, he took four cards with him. Four cards, soaked with tears and blood.
* * *
She couldn’t describe things for herself. She preferred to show them, actions louder than words and images so much more powerful.
And so I tell her story. I tell it for her as the life seeps out from the cuts she carved into her wrists with the too blunt palette knife.
She told me things, as she lay dying, while I sat helplessly there. Frozen in time. Unable to move, unable to leave her, there was no going back and we both knew it.
Somehow she conjured visions in my mind. I saw her face in intricate ways, new ways. Every fibre of her being sang its unique song, spinning a miraculous web of multi-coloured light before my eyes.
I kept on blinking, wondering what it was.
She said she died so I would be free. She didn’t want to imprison me.
And I’m still struggling to understand.