Capturing Perfection, Chapter 2

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.

 

Repulsive.

 

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.

 

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.

Prisoner

Prisoner. Of this modern life, this complex way, a web of stress, pressure and drive. You run, racing forward, oblivious to the present and too forgetful of a past you should learn from. What use is success when you become suffocated by it? Caught in the chase, always yearning for more, you are never satisfied.

Each day, body rousing weary to a blearing alarm, tugging you from peaceful slumber that has lasted for too little. Dragging you, feet stumbling, whipping you forth with the burden of sorrows and worries, if only you could see they were irrational.

Alone, in exile from fellows, you strive to cut above the rest. In this ruthless race, you regard those close with suspicion and fear. Your friends are your rivals, competitors, just waiting for you to weaken, to let the guard down, reveal your secret.

But prisoner, what secret is yours? It is not the golden treasure you think, not the shining dream of glory, not the heavenly escape from hell on earth. It is nothing but a chain, an empty promise, a brutal spear weakening you from the core, destroying all you love, you hope, you wish for.

Abandon it. Escape. From this false vision, this broken ambition, this ruinous goal. Break away from the bars holding you to a barren future; a future of ruin where you will live forever lacking in the satisfaction you desire, the passion you crave and the beauty you wish for. It’s nothing but a con, tugging you deeper into the sands, pulling you under and into an inescapable darkness laced with regret and fear.

Release, let it all go. Abandon the anxiety, the rush to achieve, the burn for dollar and all things permanent. For the transient beauty of life will pass you by all too soon; speeding along, the boat will sail. Before you know, you’ll be left on the shore of an island, rapidly drowning beneath an incoming tide. Galloping across, the waves will sweep you from the fragile sanctuary you thought you’d created, that would last forever as a fortress strong. But devoid of the light to fuel your crops, the joy that inspires innovation and creativity, even the most fortified walls will crumble.

Prisoner, within your walls and outside, the sea surrounds you and keeps you hostage.

So run, run while you can, while you still have the chance.

Then stop. Stop once you’re free. Delight in the moment before a new life takes you a prisoner once more.

Hold my hand

Those moments that lift you up, after you’ve been torn down
Nurture your spirit, and erase your frown
Coming all of a sudden, a gift on the wind
Whispering softly, a song just for you

When you hold my hand, and never let it go
When you seize me strongly, and take me away

*

I gaze to the future, always dreaming for more
All these goals and ambitions, and things to be done
On my mind it plays, and fills with me worry
For life is too short, to ever find oneself

*

So hold my hand, and take me into the clouds
Show my heart where the light falls, and chase night away
As life races beneath, teach me how to forget pain
Forgive those who’ve wronged me, forgive my own sins

Then higher and higher, in the present I’ll soar
With childish wonder, and ecstatic joy
As I find new beginnings, on the endless roads
Weaving and turning, they’ll shape your soul

Insomniac

She walks, barefoot,

Across the shattered glass of her broken dream.

Soles, tender like those of a child,

Cut open, bleeding upon those splintered shards.

Waking pain, a tender agony, at least they

Bring something to this timeless abyss.

 

She groans, rolls over,

In the infinite spirals of her mind she turns.

Staring, eyes blank, she blinks,

Then gazes at you with an awkward bemusement.

Curious, like a lost faerie creature

Searching for a place to belong.

 

She smiles, a demon’s grin,

Lips cracked from stinging frustration.

She screams, a lonely howl,

Agony from trapped corners of a breaking heart.

Then she sighs, slipping back to

Hollow calm without rest or respite.

Book 1 preview: Chapter 1 & 2

1. Shadow on the Rainbow:

A streak of red.

Red.

The vivid tone of the tulip field gleamed through the thin arrow slit of the keep’s walls.

She moved on, past the next tower.

Pink.

And the next.

Yellow, yellow like the glorious sun when it shone in the springtime. When it shone over the colourful paddocks, and there was no…

Black.

She paused, exhaling sharply upon seeing them.

The army stretched out to the horizon, covering the fields as they surged forth. Trampled beneath the feet of enemy soldiers, the beautiful flower petals no longer shimmered in the morning light.

“Taali!”

Taalin turned at the sound of her younger brother’s urgent voice, hammering in the reality.

No more flowers. No more colours.

“Taali!”

Christophe appeared, running around the curved wall with an oversized velvet coat swishing at his heels. But it gave the boy no grand appearance, his blond hair lacklustre against the royal purple fabric. Dwarfing his young body, the battle garb made him look small and weak.

Inadequate.

“I know, Chris,” Taalin whispered, lips stretched tight in a grimace. She saw her brother tremble, his hazel eyes darting from side to side, betraying his fear.

Taalin pulled him into her embrace. But clad as they were in their rigid armour, it offered little comfort. No warmth of flesh and blood.

“We’ll defeat them. We’ll fend them off like always. And survive,” she said with all the courage and defiance she could muster.

Christophe pressed his adolescent body closer, nodding his head senselessly. Shaking fingers entwined in hers, but Taalin pulled away.

The touch of her brother’s clammy hands did nothing but sap her spirit. She fought to hold on to the resilient voice inside, and convince herself it was only another siege.

Yet…

Taalin looked out through the arrow slit, at the shadowy expanse encroaching upon the outer city. Limestone houses huddled together, long-abandoned by residents who had left to seek shelter in the fortress.

Soon it would all turn black, creamy walls and navy slate rooftops alike.

“Taali, father wants to talk to you.”

Taalin pulled her eyes away from the ominous sight. This was going to be different. The other forts along the river had already fallen, after only several days of assault.

The hope of the nation resided with them.

“Chris?”

“Yes,” came the soft reply.

“If they penetrate the walls, go to the temple.”

And if it came to that, she prayed the Gods would protect him.

* * *

Taalin ran up the stone stairs, making for the highest point of the fortress. Screams echoed in her wake, from those witnessing the death of the King of Regofala.

Her father.

Mighty warrior, reduced to nothing but a moaning heap.

Taalin squinted through her tears, pressing on. One, two, then three at a time, she took the steps of the winding staircase.

There was no time to think.

No time to feel.

She had to execute her father’s instructions.

“Filpai,” she murmured when she reached the top. At once, a dove flew to her outstretched hand.

Taalin paused for a second to stroke his white plumage, but the silky feathers only brought tears to her eyes. Swallowing, struggling to suppress emotion, she thrust the roll of parchment into her dove’s clawed foot.

“Fly! Fly southwest to Soonada, where the air is clean. Warn them of our plight. Then go east, to Linuina. Go, Filpai, my hope ”

The dove gave a soothing coo and nibbled her finger. Taalin bit her lip, summoning her strength. The little self-induced pain helped. Reminded her that she still had some power over her body.

* * *

Voices of chanting priests reverberated up to the arching marble ceiling. Strings of sound bounced back and forth between the walls, entangling Christophe in their web.

He huddled against a nearby column. The deafening, desperate prayers filled his ears, while the pitifully hopeless image battered his swollen eyes.

The Gods had abandoned their people.

Christophe cast a despairing glance up to the four petals of the cloverleaf carved in the dome. There would be no more beauty. No more Justice, Faith or Love. Nothing…

Different cries pierced the humming, and soldiers appeared at the front entrance to the temple. Christophe gulped and slipped out the side door.

And he simply fled, away from the slaughter and the crying and the screams of the dying civilians.

He ran, down and down, into the bowels of the fort. Light faded to shadow as he made for the underground passageway, the only escape route not blocked by the enemy.

And he knew he would be the last to bear message of their downfall.

* * *

Misty rain dampened Taalin as she turned to meet the soldiers. They were tumbling atop the tower in a continuous stream, armour clanking against the stone archway, evil touching the highest point of her fortress.

Behind her, Filpai stretched his glistening white wings and took off in proud flight. She saw him arch towards a rainbow that had formed from the blurry drizzle, and a faint ray of sunlight illuminated his body.

Then she saw it.

The strange arc of black in the sky; as if the rainbow had a shadow.

It reached up to greet Filpai.

That was the last thing Taalin saw, before the soldiers descended upon her.

 

2. Voice Like No Other:

One step

I take, and another

Towards this light

Pulling me on

One step

Through a tunnel of shadow

Pain and burden

I feel before I rise

For there is no escaping

No shortcut for mortality’s weeping

That we must live and breathe

Through every second

Appreciating

The lessons come

To prepare us for

The stairway up to

Heaven

* * *

His heart thudded in time to the rolling syllables of the storyteller’s words. Louder, faster, it thumped to fuel his body with the zeal of a religious madman.

Magical sounds twisted through the air to join with the throbbing energy of life itself. Like musical notes, their harmony tugged at his soul, beckoning softly and drawing him into a hypnotic trance.

“… And on this Midsummer Eve, we look within ourselves and we honour that place where the Universe resides; the Love and the Light and the Truth and the Peace.”

A sigh escaped his lips, a soft moan of pleasure as the words made his body tremble and ache with awe.

“In times of difficulty, we run from Truth. Failing to be Just, we are no better than grovelling cowards, who betray their families to save their own pitiful lives. Starved spirits are those beggars who turn from Faith, traitors to the Gods themselves!”

  He shuddered, gulped, the words striking him as physically as an anvil on a lump of hot metal.

A pause.

He leant forward in his seat, tunic sticking to his body in the heat of the crowded tavern. The air hung thick with fiery silence, yearning to be filled again by the storyteller’s words.

He waited. Motionless. Dozens of other bodies around him were likewise caught, held captivated.

A word.

Another.

“Go to the girl. Stay by her side as she walks the beach, bare feet treading the pale sand. Smile at her; illuminate the bleak coast. Be the sun that is missing from the dismal sky, covered with clouds to protect a wounded heart of blue.”

  Softer now.

He shivered. A cold touch on his neck, a ghostly finger trickling across his skin, he quivered with fear and anticipation.

“Shelter her from the bellowing wind. Lick the salt stains from her cheeks, white rivers formed by the union of sea spray and ancient tears. Blow life into her hollow, sunken features, and wipe away the sooty smudges on the flesh beneath her eyes.”

  Body tense, he gasped. Heart pulsed like a glowing star. Warmth radiated from his body to weave between the smoke rings that curled from pipes lying abandoned on the benches.

  “Tormented, the waves roar high as the wind drives them against the jagged cliffs on the shore, and trails of foam from the whitecaps linger like the remnants of a binding memory.”

  He gripped the table, fingers clutching at the wood as the desperate words reduced him to shakes.

  “But remember happiness in its pure, glimmering form, and swallow the sea, her grief incarnate. Drink the salty waters, and once and for all, banish the pain from mind, the agony from spirit, and the darkness from heart. You can relieve her burden.”

Tranquillity settled over the hushed audience.

Then murmurs sifted through the stillness. Content sighs blended with the sound of a gentle breeze tapping the windowpanes.

He sat, transfixed. Wanting nothing but to remain forever, listening to the words that sustained him in more ways than food ever could. But rowdy cheers erupted, in harsh contrast to the storyteller’s voice, joining the tinkling chime of coins that showered through the air.

Exhaling slowly, Cain stirred. His mind crept tentatively back to the present, while around him the tavern buzz inched closer to normality. Serving-girls rushed to fill the jugs of thirsty men, and a group of dancers prepared to take the stage.

Through the smoke and the crowd, Cain eyed the storyteller gathering his earnings into a leather pouch. A low hood masked his features, revealing nothing but a smooth chin cast in shadow. Narrow shoulders, slim body, he could only be a young boy. Yet despite his age, he held such a powerful gift. He could even remind the men, rough from poverty, of their faith.

And Cain had to thank this teller of fables. For the calm brought to his own life, words that made him feel purposeful. Like more to life existed than the fight to get food on the table.

More existed than forging blades, day after day, hammering at the molten metal as though that action could beat out the creases in his heart, the etchings of pain.

Cain dug into his pocket, pulling out his week’s earnings. He tossed the chips of metal without hesitation, for the storyteller deserved it all. He had reached a new level tonight. Midsummer Eve.

A reedy sound of fiddles added to the vibrant tavern hum, and the dancers began twirling to the claps of excited men. All eyes left the storyteller to gaze lustily at the girls.

But Cain looked to the storyteller, who was sidling along the wall, making for the exit. He would catch him tonight before he slipped away so stealthily. His children would be spending Midsummer Day at the farm with their grandmother, but perhaps he need not celebrate alone.

Maybe the storyteller could use some company too.

Cain drained his mug of ale, relieving his throat that was parched from the smoky atmosphere of the room. Then he rose, hurrying for the door, before it was too late.

“Adrian?”

The storyteller stopped, the hood turned. “Yes, Cain?”

He breathed deeply. So the mysterious boy had remembered him. He was more than just a shadow.

“’Ave ye got someone to spend Midsummer Day with?”

The excited strumming of fiddle strings resonated in his ears, and colours flickered on the periphery of his vision. Whirling dresses, tapping feet.

And still, no response came.

“It’s fine, I know ye ’ave yer grandparents.”

The head dipped lower, the storyteller’s face just a black hood.

“No, Cain.” The voice sounded gentle, but laced with needy undercurrents, like a hurt child reaching for the comfort of a mother’s embrace. “I will come to the smithy in the morning.” The voice cracked. Words came out forced, unnatural for one with such mastery. “Be waiting.”

A command. Almost.

And before Cain could respond, the storyteller slipped out the door, into the summer night. Mysteries eluded him though he searched to understand, a quest as fruitless as a journey to the end of a rainbow.

But perhaps tomorrow he would make a new friend.

Capturing Perfection, Chapter 1

The first chapter in the short story.

The soul is born, alive with music and colour and beauty. Our talents, meant to be explored and celebrated and shared with the world. But when that is stolen, the inner beauty becomes twisted by forlorn rage and rusty fear. And then the soul begins to crumble.

* * *

There are some beauties in life that cannot possibly be described. To attempt to put such wonders into words would do them injustice. Impossible to capture Nature’s exquisite perfection, some things are better left unsaid.

And so that is why I wanted to show them.

I could sit in the garden for hours, a whole day. Perhaps I would spend even longer just watching the grass, if I didn’t have to eat or care for my younger sisters or help cook dinner.

I’d look at the way the light sifts through the trees, and spatters the ground with crisscrossing patterns of different shades of green. At the way the delicate blossoms would be swept up by the spring breeze, whirl through the air, and then gently settle down to earth.

All these things I watch, I see, I remember.

And then, then I paint. With my brush I gently stroke the canvas, bringing life to the brushed white fabric. Imprinting upon it the world. Imprinting it with myself. Immortalising the world’s beauty, with the delicate wave of my hand.

I look at what others create too. At the work of other painters, other pilgrims on this endless journey to capture the perfection of the world that we see. And I realise: our sight differs.

I suppose it is a good thing, it makes life interesting. But it also means the line between right and wrong is blurred. Some people think they can do things, that those things are justified, when they’re actually hurting and destroying beauty.

That is what I now know.

* * *

 

Milan, 13 August 1447

If change were to be pinpointed, to be attached to a specific event, this would be it.

This was the day that Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milano, died.

To me, what happened on that date has little significance. But everything that followed was another matter. The consequences surged forth, greater than a mere ripple, like the waters of the Po River in the springtime after the snow from the Alps melted and bled into the valley.

I wouldn’t know it at first. I wouldn’t have expected it. And I was only a girl, barely a woman, who lived in her fantasy worlds and daydreamed and painted. My family was wealthy, and I could do what I liked. I didn’t have to work, and I would go to the markets with my amateur pictures and feel important whenever anyone glanced my way.

I suppose that’s what its like. Change, that is. Things aren’t obviously different, all of a sudden. It’s a gradual process. And when things start getting bad, initially you don’t notice. You adjust, day-by-day and week-by-week, to new circumstances. You don’t realise at first that you’re sinking.

Then it hits, and you’re submerged.

I was a young woman, and I’d never had to think about such political matters. First I didn’t understand anything. Then I became vaguely aware of some sort of power struggle.

Problems, my city was reeking with problems. Our Duke had left without a male heir and various parties attempted to seize control. It seemed there would be order, with the formation of the Golden Ambrosian Republic. But nothing is ever so straightforward.

My father was a Republican, one of the true ones, who fought for democracy and opposed some man called Gonzaga. Too many intelligent men, men who could have governed our city and ensured its prosperity, were being replaced by clueless and greedy aristocrats. There was no one to manage affairs properly. No one to ensure the heart of beloved Milano kept beating steady.

Instead, it faltered and struggled.

Other cities declared their independence: Pavia, Lodi and Piacenza. They wanted to detach themselves before the disorderly undercurrents manifested into greater, more tangible problems that could crumple their walls.

It was a real threat, not an imaginary one. Not to mention the on-going clashes with Venezia.

That is a fact of this existence I wrestle with, constantly torn by a futile search for understanding. Why, why in the midst of such a rebirth of culture, a renaissance of ideas, is there still conflict? Whilst art and music and life are celebrated, still people die senselessly as men struggle to prove their dominance.

It is as if the beauties, wonders, creations that surround us, cannot exist without the ravishing of land and people alike. More than we dare to accept, than we would ever admit, the darkness is inspiring.

It is brighter than this reawakening of past glory.

* * *

Piazza Broletto, Milan, February 1449

She remembered being caught up in the crowd that day. The chaos. The sweaty stench, bodies pressed together and a mob of citizens pulsing down the streets that flushed into the market square.

Some clambered eagerly for a glimpse, as if drawn to the abhorrent sight. And the very thought that those people actually wanted to see such things made her want to retch. Sent her stomach into spasms, her throat clenching tight, her mouth so dry that even had she wanted to scream, she would not have been able to manage.

In the mayhem, the air seemed to sizzle with a sickening odour of rotting flesh. A strange heat warmed her, despite the winter cold and the wind that lashed the exposed skin of her face.

A man jostled her and the next moment she felt the freezing stone of a marble column against her back. She drew a square of cloth over her nose and part of her mouth, trying to catch some respite from the smells. Closing her eyes, she let blind relief consume her senses.

Then the tide of people swept her up again and she stumbled into the piazza.

There it was, right before her eyes.

Heads. Human heads, of men her father had once worked with. Ghibellines.

Maybe he was there too. Maybe

Some people were crying out in voices that, to her ears, bore hints of glee. It’s as if the suffering of one brought, to another, the thrilling shockwaves of glory rippling through their body.

At once, you feel fragile, as pain and death rears before you in a startling reminder of human mortality. At the same time, there is this hideous rejoicing that you are still alive, still present on earth, still there to see this sight and record history with your eyes.

I’m going to paint that day, paint its horrendous magnificence. Lord help me, for I should but do not feel ashamed.

* * *

Paula watched her daughter, Cecilia, where she sat cross-legged in their little courtyard, her eyes glazed and misty in her own dream world.

Once, Paula would have smiled. Now, she cringed. The prospect of what was coming wrenched her gut, and little beads of sweat formed upon her brow.

Life was about to change for them. No more idle summer days, drinking fresh juice and basking in the sun. No more cosy winter nights with warm red wine, and bowls of polenta groaning beneath a heap of mushrooms and chunks of roasted veal.

No more, now that Franco was gone.

There was no chance of them staying here. Paula did not know what she would do, or where she would take her infant daughters. Her sons would have to provide for them now, though they were not yet men.

It was Cecilia who had a chance for happiness.

“Cecilia,” Paula murmured. She approached her daughter, and gracefully knelt to the ground, her skirts sweeping around them. “Cecile…” Her voice trailed away. She could not speak, could not utter the words. Could not break the news.

She tried not to choke, had to hold herself together. Focussed her mind and repeated to herself that this was the right thing to do. Her daughter had a chance, her beautiful daughter who was now desired by a wealthy and powerful man. He could care for her, provide for her where her family could no longer. It was the best option.

Paula tried not to think about the money she would be getting in exchange for her daughter. Tried not to think about why such a sum had been offered. Tried not to think about what could happen, because the harsh truth was she needed the money for the rest of them. Otherwise they had nothing.

She would not feel guilty, could not feel guilty. And she pushed away the thought that Cecilia was merely being used.

* * *

 

When Mamma sat beside me that day, I knew from the way she looked that something was wrong. She was trying to hide it. The smile was false, I could tell because there was a strange glint in her eyes. A bit of sadness, anger, worry, all mixed together in a way that made it impossible for me to even begin to guess what she was thinking.

I never learnt the full story about what happened. I only could really speculate and try and fit pieces of the puzzle together. So many lost pieces too. Never granting me a full picture, although I had my own very probable ideas. I was getting smarter. I understood things beyond the paints and the palettes and the oil solvents I used to wash my brushes.

Yet there was one certainty. Papa had gone.

I think it must have been linked to the heads I saw, displayed like trophies in Piazza Broletto. They were Republican leaders, Ghibellines, advocates of a true Milanese Republic and democracy – just as my father had been.

I knew he must have held quite a senior position. And whether he’d been murdered for that, or just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, it didn’t matter.

I couldn’t deny it. He was most probably dead. And fear for the future filled all my heart, so there was no room for me to feel anything else. No bitterness or resentment that he was gone and our lives shattered, forced to pick up the pieces. Only fear.

There was this man I was sent away to. Mamma told me that he had heard of my beauty, that I had been noticed at the market where sometimes I tried to sell my paintings. Not many people bought from me. I was an ordinary girl, no one special. People who could afford the luxuries of art would always want to buy from someone famous. So they could brag about a name to their friends. Labels, that’s what people care about, more so than true talent placed before their very eyes.

But apparently I had been noticed, for my appearance, was what Mamma had told me.

Back then I remember wishing it was my art that the man had liked. But when we did marry, I learnt a very different truth.

My wish came true. This man, my husband, wanted me for my art. And it ended up being much worse.

Because stories are meant for sharing…

Writing has always been a part of me, as opposed to something that I do. It comes in sporadic outbursts and disjointed fragments, bubbling up from the subconscious parts of my soul, seeping from the closed corners of a heart that remains mysterious and foreign to me.

And at this rate, for numerous reasons, it may be a while before I finish the longer works that have been with me for more than half of my life. I blame it on my perfectionism – I’m never satisfied with the current state of a draft. I blame it on lack of time, on life and its many obstacles always getting in the way.

But the truth is probably deeper. I haven’t lived enough. I’m still, beneath the mask and the qualifications, a lost girl. Unknowing of who I am and where my place is in the world, there are pieces missing from the picture. My works are, simply put, incomplete.

So here I am instead, to share my musings, about life and death and the universe. Because my heart is filled with words that need writing, with stories that need sharing. Presently, all alone in my heart, they stir uneasily and demand attention, like an unborn child, yearning to see the light.

Here is a place where they can find their home. And perhaps, if there lies any wisdom in the gentle murmur of their whispering song, may that wisdom guide you, dear reader, in your own journey.