By: Jenna Sparks
The photograph leered downward at the woman, offensive in its starkness; two arms raised above an invisible head, the elbows bent into sharp, pointed angles, like horns of a beast. Like a minotaur.
"To think," the voice came from a figure in a handsomely tailored suit, posed in front of the woman in a leather wingback chair. Between the two, a canvas with several hours of work separated them; a stage's curtain between the artist and her subject. "A woman painter. I thought woman painters only painted lilies in the shapes of their tender bits."
The artist seemed to have appeared from nowhere earlier in the day. She offered no name nor discernable history, and she only said, "Your wife found and hired me." Now, hours into the session, the artist tilted her head to peer at her subject, a now-retired surgeon. He was looking her up and down, deciding whether he liked the way her cigarette pants sat on her waist. The artist smiled pleasantly, though her eyes were empty of any warmth. "Mmmyes," she acknowledged with her crackling, whiskey-poured voice, her gaze catching the surgeon's stare as she prepared the next movement of her brush on the painting. She watched the shiver captivate him, the whispers of tiny hairs of his neck rise along the edge of his tidy haircut. His chilly stare flickered hungrily from the artist toward the framed portrait of the horned beast and the artist could feel the room swell with his excitement.
"Well," the surgeon sniffed, jumping to his feet and striding toward a gold cart topped with glistening decanters of expensive drink and sparkling tumblers beneath another photograph. This one featured the pale and precious face of a woman in anguish, her monochromatic eyes wide as bulbous, crystalline tears washed her cheeks. Her pain was the beauty of the photograph. "You might've at least arrived in something entertaining to keep my attention," the surgeon suggested as he fixed himself a neat drink. "At least had you been a man or even an established artist, I could have made interesting conversation."
The artist chortled, mixing a dab of yellow ochre into burnt umber and just a dash of ultramarine blue. "A burlesque performance before I started, perhaps," she entertained him as she accented the mustache on the painting that mirrored her subject.
The surgeon returned to the wingback chair, posed as though it were centerstage. As he plopped down, a gush of air released from the cushion. With a practiced coolness, he crossed his leg over his knee and produced a cigarette from a fine silver case. "Where did you say you were from?" He wondered, looking at the artist and then back to the photograph of the naked torso with the pointed arm-horns.
But the artist could not tell him where exactly she came from; the information might cause a premature death from shock. And she doubted he'd even believe her. Then again, she allowed herself the thought, most of her subjects weren't always surprised. So rather than tell him the explicitness of her provenance, she simply said, "Los Angeles."
"Ah," the surgeon inhaled his cigarette as though he were seducing the thing. "Los Angeles," he smiled longingly. "I had a beautiful home in Los Angeles," he continued. "Custom built and oh, the locals thought it to be a true eyesore, but it was marvelous. Marvelous indeed. Beautiful large rooms to entertain in. Hidden corners and all sorts of splendid secret little rooms. Twenty or so years now since I've been back." He daintily knocked the ash from the end of his cigarette.
"And you said it was my wife that put you up to this?" The surgeon continued, chattier in the evening than he'd been throughout the sun-bearing hours. The artist continued articulating her brush atop the canvas, untired after so much of the day spent in silent conservation with the surgeon who seemed to have very little regard for her. She had been able to work fast, faster than most portrait painters. But she was hardly like them.
"Indeed," the artist accommodated, her tone sugary sweet. "Your wife. An anniversary gift, as she told me upon my hire." And she could recall the mousy, frightened woman in the bleakness of their meeting, her hands quaking as she held out an envelope of photographs she said she'd found a month prior when she had been asked to find a stack of receipts for their accountant in the very study the artist and her subject sat and worked now.
As her eyes darted toward the surgeon, she caught his interest again, glaring at her from beneath his heavy brow. She smiled, still pleasant, then returned her attention to the canvas. "Funny little thing, your wife. Very bright. I'm not easy to find, you see, but she called upon me, summoned me really." The artist might have been relaying the peacefulness of a summer in the country as she spoke to the surgeon.
"The thing is," she continued, stepping back to appreciate the progress of her painting, "your wife has quite an eye for skill. We spoke at length about my talents. I pride myself, you see, at my abilities. Unique, as they are." She swiped her brush on a paint-sodden rag then pressed the bristles to her lips, pointing the fine-hair brush before poking it gingerly into a mound of pale yellow. "There are some artists," she nodded toward the photographs on either side of the room, "who strive to manipulate their creation. They merely will something into existence based on their desire. For instance: a minotaur. Or even," she looked over the top of the surgeon's head. It was a violently large canvas-wrapped reproduction of painting. It loomed nearly three feet wide with two long lamps on either side of the top of it aimed downward to accentuate the gross lips stretched thinly along the length of the canvas. "Lovers," she finally finished.
"You're familiar?" The surgeon nodded to the room surrounding the two, the three works of art so proudly displayed, and the artist pondered if he thought of his own photographs his wife had discovered. They were grotesque, cruel, and worst of all, the artist knew at once, his pride.
"But there are others who have the uncanny ability to see what's already there. The dreadful truth," she explained, ignoring his inquiry. "Sometimes it's age. A wrinkle in your eye or a silver hair or a lazy eye that you've never seen that only I see."
The artist scooted some vermillion into a pat of burnt umber on her palette, then tapped the tiniest touch of ultramarine blue. "Other times," she stressed, dipping the squirrel-hair brush into the concoction, "it's secrets. Shame. Embarrassment. A pursed, uncomfortable mouth is very telling."
She snaked the brush along the painting's mouth, stretching the subject's lips into ghastly, violent stripes along his cheeks. "There are no manipulations in what I see when I look at you. And you'd be gob smacked at what I do see," she breathed and rested her arm momentarily, peeking beyond the canvas. The man's eyes were wide, startled. His upper lip trembled ever so slightly, his mustache bristling.
"I've no shame," he announced, his throat tightening around his words. He looked away from the artist, absentmindedly prodding his cheek.
"I believe you," the artist grinned playfully, almost deviously. "If there is shame in your face, it's not for the thing you've done, but that you never did more."
The surgeon blinked, a slow panic rising and burning at the base of his cranium. His tongue lapped at the corner of his lips, annoyed by a tickle. "And what is it you think you see?" He wondered, trying to disguise his discomfort.
The artist sighed sadly. "She was beautiful," she began, sitting herself on a stool before the easel, tenderly aiming the brush toward the painting's torso. "I could see how easily one might have fallen in love with her. Dark, luscious hair. Crimson lips and bright eyes. Confident and eager and wild. But it wasn't love you felt for her, was it?" The artist didn't bother to pay any mind to the surgeon. With few feet between them, she could feel his heart racing, reverberating into the air as though it were her own, guiding each stroke of the brush as her hand fell into a synchrony with each painful thrum. "You might tell yourself love and hate are very similar things, very nearly an invisible line to cross into either. But even hate does not give reason to the repugnant things you did to her."
"What are you getting on about?" The man demanded, gulping and as predicted, looking to the photograph of the beast.
The artist dipped the brush into yellow ochre mixed with a speck of titanium white then glided her brush along the bottom half of the man's emptied, naked torso of the painting.
"No," she shook her head as she detailed the cavernous, gaping wound; the upper portion of his body not attached to anything beneath in the imagery she so skillfully translated onto the canvas. "It was neither love nor hate. It was pride."
"Enough of this game! What are you talking about? What have the two bitches been discussing in secrecy, hmm?" The surgeon roared as he leapt to his feet. In that instant, he felt the nagging stinging at the corners of his lips, a dull ache like a cold sore.
"You don't even understand why, do you?" The artist mused. "You craved to devour her, to degrade her and humiliate her. To ruin something so pretty in the sake of conquering her. You made sure of it, to ensure she felt the torment of her existence in your presence. How your skilled hands sliced her skin, forced shit into her mouth, filled her with pieces of herself. You wanted her to suffer, to starve her of any power she might have over her own self until she was nothing but a shell. And you thought she belonged to you, didn't you? You thought by carving her up and leaving her on display, of photographing her so vulnerable in that field, would give you the satisfaction of your greatness. She was your subject and you were proud of what you'd done to her. Your own work of art. Except," the artist got to her feet then, her smile rich and broad with euphoric mania. "You didn't create a work of art. You only copied him. His repulsion of women hidden behind his mystique," she waved her brush toward the Minotaur and then to the tearful woman, and then to the painting behind him.
Her eyes, before so empty, now looked upon the surgeon with an eager punishment. They shone nearly red, licking flames not reflected but emerging from within her. A current of all knowingness looked back to the surgeon, the torment his deeds had inflicted. Deeds that gave him sick reason to be able to make love to his wife. Deeds he thought of in the darkness of night, imagining his skilled hands marinating in the soft, squishing insides of a precious woman, dreaming of her unblinking stare as he severed her spine lovingly, as he lay her out, posing her arms above her head. Photographing his own homage in the dreariness of the wet, dark morning.
The artist's mouth contorted with glee as she plucked the canvas from the easel, carefully holding it before her as she stepped nearer the surgeon. And at a whisper's distance, she turned the portrait to face him.
He froze, his jaw quaking and quivering as his eyes grew round in horror. Bewilderment enveloped him as he stared at his reflection, his portrait. But then something new overtook him. He cried out as he closed the distance between himself and the artist, his preserved hand reaching to her neck and with all the might he could muster, he wrapped his fist around the artist's throat, feeling the serpentine tendons of her neck beneath the soft skin. But the artist beamed at him, unflinching as she watched the niggling little sores in the crooks of his mouth pull at the flesh of his cheeks, splitting the skin with the neatness of a scalpel. And his mouth opened, from ear to ear on either side of his skull, revealing his gums and molars and the sides of his fat tongue.
He screamed, his grip tightening on the artist's neck until his hand ached as though it were squeezing marble. Inhumanly, he howled, blood seeping through his tan jacket, until he released the artist, unfazed as the surgeon ripped at the hem of his dress shirt, pulling the crisp fabric upward as he felt the pain overtake him, burning from the inside as though he were disintegrating from his very center. Bellowing into the cavernous room, he clawed at the flesh of his soft belly, trying to comprehend the torture and curse being inflicted upon him by nothing of this world. He heaved, his chest hammering wildly as he quieted, his howls turning into low, swift grunts.
It happened so suddenly the artist could only marvel for a moment as she watched, in the surgeon's new silence, his eyes drift down; the slipping of his torso from his pelvis was without sound, like a baked cake releasing from a greased pan. It was as though he himself had performed the hemicorporectomy on his own spine in his perfection.
He fell at once, no blood to spill from him as his top half landed with a heavy thunk against the hardwood floors. A few moments passed before his legs slackened and slid to the ground a few inches from the base of his torso. The surgeon's lungs rattled; their ruin apparent with each tick of the passing seconds. He could feel the absolution of his expiration and he gasped, staring at the artist as she hovered over him, her eyes on his, unwilling to let him escape just yet.
The artist reached for each of his arms as the surgeon lay still, frozen in his terror, and arched them at the same sharp angles as the photograph the surgeon had sought comfort in, the same crude photograph he had mimicked all those years ago. "The Minotaur," she breathed. She ran her knuckles over his bloodied lips. "The Lovers," she said. And finally, almost lovingly, she cradled his face between her palms and traced his tears with the pads of her thumbs. "Glass Tears, by Man Ray."
When she rose, she bid farewell to a small fragment of torment that had lived inside her for nearly 20 years, since 1947. "I hope you understand, Doctor, this is your punishment. That's why they all call to me. Your wife, well, she had grown suspicious. You'd grown too comfortable in your escape," she said to the surgeon, whose lingering life was extinguishing hastily.
As the artist departed the study, she turned to close the door behind her, leaving her bounty in its isolation. "Did you leave the dahlia?" the woman's whisper of imploration came from behind. The artist looked to the surgeon's wife in the yawning hallway.
Draping her coat over her shoulders, the artist said, "that part wasn't him, you know? It was the papers that named her the Black Dahlia." With that, the artist nodded to the wife, respectfully disappearing down the corridor and letting herself out into the night to flee the gauche manor. And then she felt the begging prayers bleeding into the ether that seeped into the artist's pores, some of them alive, others long dead, seeking punishment for the violence that touched their own lives, hoping for peace.