The Mirror of Venus
by Steve Jensen
She has the colour of my eye,
She has the body of my hand...
~ Paul Éluard
This is my voice. You cannot hear me, but I hope you will read my thoughts.
Mariana will relate our story, smiling to herself all the while, secure in her wretched vanity and the knowledge that the chances of a stranger reading this journal are small. Besides, she may just burn these pages, and my words will have been in vain. That would amuse her, I imagine...if she is capable of such a human trait. She will use my hands, the hands of a writer, to set down this tale. I hope someone finds my journal and, having read it, fashions a way to destroy Mariana, even at the cost of my life...
"I've found her!" James Bradbury said.
Those were his very words. But truth be told, Mariana found him, marked him out; well, she left her mark on poor James...on all of us, in fact.
He pulled away from our table, took the girl by the arm and pushed her forward. She appeared to glide, or float, towards the three of us, and even when the cause of her strange and somewhat comical motion came into view, the eerie effect remained. The girl gave the impression of perfect control - of herself and of events - although seemingly at the whim of her master. She did not stir, did not blush.
With his usual carefree, infectious enthusiasm - the joie de vivre which so endeared him to his friends - James presented his new plaything for closer inspection. Or perhaps should that be 'delectation'; I'd noticed Julian Flynn averting his eyes, but I wasn't fooled - the way he licked at his lips gave his game away. I began to pity his prospective model.
Certainly, she was beautiful, but in a strangely bland, indistinct way – not unlike an elder sister of Mr Carroll's 'Alice', I thought. Her complexion was simply too pale, as though cold milk crept through her veins, and her fine hair had none of the lustre of true health.
We sat outside a small café in Thurzon Street, the men daydreaming, no doubt, that they were kindred souls of the Parisian bohemians they had read about; I, the sole female in this circle of art lovers, admitted only by virtue of my writing pastime and of course, because of my brother Matthew's presence. Although our parents had passed on, keeping company with these 'radicals' would have been unthinkable if not for my beloved chaperone.
James held the girl by her shoulders, and addressed us again:
"Well actually, Cristian Salazar found her, or rather, he bought her. Made a gift of her to me. Say hello to Mariana."
They greeted her respectfully enough, I suppose, though Gabriel Navarro made a show of slowly raising his hat, a display of ironic homage unworthy of him, I thought. Matthew hailed her cheerfully, as I expected, and Flynn stared openly before finally mumbling a few indecipherable words. The girl remained silent, expressionless. James stood apart from her now.
“Ah, my apologies, gentlemen – and Caroline, of course – I should have mentioned that Mariana is a mute...or at least, she says she is.”
I felt ashamed as the others laughed at the girl's expense.
“I thought you had broken with Salazar, James? Are you so easily bought?” Navarro said, a sly but affectionate smile gracing his handsome face.
“Now, now, Gabriel, you know I never compromise in matters of art. As you're aware, I paint those dreary society stalwarts and their charming little cherubs solely because of the challenge to my technique; not because of the few pennies they bestow upon me...” At that precise moment, James pretended to consult his gold pocket watch, sunlight catching its ornate cover. We laughed at his playful self-mockery.
“Anyhow, the scoundrel made me a peace offering. Said he bought her for a sovereign from an old woman in the East End.”
I spoke up, and every head turned my way.
“But surely no mother would ever sell her child?”
James became serious, for once, his voice almost plainitive.
“My dear Caro, even love has its price...especially in the places Salazar and his kind haunt.”
The mood had darkened, and James attempted to lift the gloom once more by making a show of choosing which of his friends would be the first to make use of Mariana. You see, this was how they worked (I had witnessed it a few times before now) - one of the circle would find a 'stunner' amongst the city's waifs and strays and they'd pass her along between them. Granted, they only used the young women as subject or inspiration for painting and poetry, but I had never been struck by its heartless quality until that day.
Perhaps my sentimental empathy was wasted on this particular unfortunate; as I tried to look upon her countenance, sunlight drained the little colour her skin possessed and made her appear featureless. But my unease did not concern her and instead she turned to face her captive audience. In that instant I saw her, not as she really was, but as she appeared to them - Mariana was the mirror in which they saw themselves reflected. She would be whatever her admirers wanted her to be.
With good-humoured mock protests hanging in the air, James gallantly allowed Gabriel Navarro to lead her away. I almost desired her to look back, even if her bold stare would pierce my very soul. But she did not hesitate nor falter – she merely walked behind the man she would ruin; her new plaything...
At first, Mariana's presence inspired Gabriel to ever-greater heights of artistry. Whereas his painting once paled in comparison to James Bradbury's superb, albeit saccharine work, now the Italian surpassed his friend's abilities completely. Before long, his peers claimed that, no matter who sat for him, his subjects wore the mask of Mariana in some fashion. In time he refused even these few clients.
He painted her against a Scaean backdrop; captured her in the briar wood; laid her to rest in a Capulet tomb. When she played the late Ophelia to perfection, his obsession only grew. But it wasn't simply the case that Mariana was the perfect materia prima for the artist's lurid 'penitent Madonna' paintings and suchlike; when he attended our meetings, the light of love shone in Gabriel's soft brown eyes. On these occasions, his beloved was left behind, embowered in his apartment, perhaps because he feared someone would steal her away from him. He was charming, he was garrulous, then...he was gone.
Of course, such a passionate man could never be faithful to those he loved best. Even as he sketched her flawless face time and again, he still patronised the streetwalkers and shopgirls as he always had. Later, shamed and elated all at once, he would return to her. I can see him now, such is the undesired gift of shared memory that Mariana has forced upon me - Gabriel's elegant hands tracing the lines and curves of her body until he knew them by heart, if not by sensation. Sometimes he would simply stare into her eyes, and she into his, until candlelight yielded to the morning sun. More often, he begged her to succumb to his caresses. In the final, dying hours of September, she surrendered, and thereby he lost his soul.
Not a moment after Gabriel pulled away from her frail body and made himself half-decent, he was perplexed to find that she remained prone. He called her name, shook her gently then desperately, but in vain; Mariana appeared to be dead.
Perhaps she allowed herself a secret smile as her lover cursed himself and paced the rough floorboards of his room. Perhaps she spied those elegant hands as they tightened around the laudanum bottle. To my horror, I know that she watched through half-closed eyes as Gabriel drank himself to death. Only then did she raise herself from the bed and walk into the night.
Gabriel's increasing absence from our meetings was duly noted and regret soon gave way to concern. Finally, after they had gained entry to his studio, his friends concluded that he may have returned home to Florence as there was no sign of life to be found, nothing indicative of Gabriel's recent presence. Curiously, not a single finished portrait of Mariana remained, only a 'study': the faint outline of a face and body surrounding emptiness.
Two months after James Bradbury had introduced us to his latest Muse, I forced my way into my brother's bedroom, having had no reply to my calls and cries for three days. Matthew was nowhere to be found but Mariana slept upon his bed. The tone of her flesh was unnatural, reminiscent of rosé champagne; an insane thought flashed through my mind: had Cristian Salazar somehow painted Mariana into existence? She was unfinished, incomplete...
As I hestitated, a breeze unveiled a picture my brother had been working on, the rough blanket which had concealed it from the view of strangers fell away. I had anticipated a painting of Mariana, in one of her many guises, but instead Matthew had composed a self-portrait. It was an awful thing to behold – he looked desperate, his widened eyes beseeched me to rescue him. One could not see the full span of his fingers, as his hands groped beyond the edge of the canvas; it was as if he had reached out and tried to escape but he no longer had a place in this world. The painting's background was entirely black – the colour of mourning, the colour of night, the void between being and nonbeing. Matthew was lost to me, perhaps forever.
In mental torment, I cried out weakly and began to falter. As consciousness started to seep away, I fell against Mariana, whose form rippled like a body of water disturbed. I am unsure if she sleeps as humans do, but if she dreams, the dreams belong to others...
I never truly awakened again. I finally saw Mariana as she really was when she admired her new face and body in the bedroom mirror – Mariana looked like me. She had taken my life for her own. She preened, hands on hips, turning this way and that, and I could only watch through the eyes which were once mine. The tears I wept were of joy, but all the while I died inside.
Now, as one with Mariana, I was obliged to seek out Julian Flynn. In my previous life, I cared little for his coarse manners but I must confess that Flynn's talent brooked no argument. I had no love for the risqué poems he composed - those feverish songs of femmes fatale, vampire queens and wanton harlots – but as he had desired, they cast their spell, that much is certain. The tragedy is that no-one was more beguiled by them than the man himself.
A few weeks after we left him, a friend of his found the Irishman's body after breaking into his house, having been concerned for Flynn's welfare. The fragments of poetry lying upon his writing desk were testament to a style that had become an obsession, one which harkened back to his Waterford childhood or perhaps the ancestral memories of his people. All of them related how the Leanan Sidhe fired his vision, and promised him riches, fame, 'the glory of the world'. There had been, however, a terrible price to pay for her favours – the life had drained out of Julian Flynn. His pitiful corpse bore the ravages of starvation and the poet's hands were nearly stripped of flesh.
James Bradbury's mind had given way under the terrible burden of guilt he felt; the curse – Cristian Salazar's dark gift - he had unwittingly passed onto his friends haunted him endlessly. Now, as one with Mariana, I learned that his family had taken him to the continent, and so we followed in his wake.
We watched over the invalid as a fever took hold and tortured him. In a rare moment of lucidity, James noticed the woman in mourning dress standing at his bedside.
“Caro...Who do you mourn?” he asked, “Your brother?”
Mariana spoke for me; I was condemned to silence, as she had once been.
“I mourn for you.”
James wept, and clawed the air in his delirium. At this, his mother returned to the room to calm him, and we departed.
It is the hour after the funeral, one of several we have attended recently. After the ceremony, the Bradbury family told me they appreciated the comfort I brought to James in his final moments. They must have been perplexed by Mariana's laughter. We left the mourners to their confusion and outrage.
In short time, we returned to England and I endeavoured to record my experiences in writing. I am certain that Mariana relishes the telling of her legend but I can only hope that such vanity will be her undoing. If by chance you have read this, I beg you, destroy us both...
Steven Paul Jensen was born in South Wales in 1965. He is seeking publication of his first novella, The Poison of a Smile while writing his second book, Ariele – A Ghost Story. Steve is working on a number of literary projects with Frank Duffy.
Steve can be found at Shadows & Illusions: and The Journal.
Where do you get the ideas for your work?
Much of my work is inspired by Victorian art. The Mirror of Venus was not only inspired by Edward Burne-Jones's painting of that name but also by Thomas Cooper Gotch's The Child Enthroned, and Helen at the Scaean Gate by Gustave Moreau. Mariana, supposedly my story's villainess, is no such thing: she is animated only by male desire, like the Image of Burne Jones's Pygmalion series...