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Boy, Reclining


Boy, Reclining
By Jason L. Corner 

Georgette Devismes saw the boy through the window, and time stopped.

There was no mistaking the face, the skin of cream, the lips of raspberry. She swept through the door of the shop, making for him, barely noticing that the shelves were full of witcheries – frog eyeballs packed in brine like olives, herbs as red and smelly as Sheol – because the young man in the back was the only real thing for her.

Georgette walked towards him, each tense step coaxing her excitement upward as if she were being handled by a skilled masseuse, until a woman, about nineteen, intervened. She spoke in halting French with an American accent. “Madame,” she began, but Georgette waved an open palm.

“I speak English,” Georgette said. “I want that one.” She pointed at the young man, who had not yet noticed her, and was placing a sealed jar full of black peppercorns on the wall.

The young woman to whom Georgette was speaking -- her hair was long and stringy, and she was wearing a flowered skirt and vest that identified her, Georgette supposed, as one of those “hippies” the American press had been talking about -- walked over to the young man and took the jar out of his hands.

“Black Durango?” she said. “Grown by blind monks in southern Morocco. You have to be very careful with it. Dissolve one in water, have wild hallucinations that take you to the very edge of the most perfect wisdom. Dissolve two in water, go over that edge -- but die shortly after. How many would you like?”

“No. I want him.” She pointed again at the boy.

“The charms up on the ceiling? Some are based on ancient Egyptian models, but I should tell you that the only thing they’re good for is keeping away the servants of Set. Is that a worry of yours? Because...” It seemed to Georgette that perhaps the young woman was deliberately pretending not to understand, to visit vexations on Georgette’s head. But she was trying to be patient.

Georgette was tall and had the cold and serious beauty that some women acquire at thirty-five: her pale skin was stunningly set off by her dark hair and especially her dark eyes, like blackberries in snow, and her angular features framed the softness of her skin, which flowed like waterfalls of milk over the triumphant architecture of her bones and chin. In a word, she was far more beautiful than the American standing between her and her boy, and between two women, superior beauty is no small leverage.

Georgette didn’t like to use such leverage. She was are of her own beauty impersonally, as she was are, as part of a neutral inventory of facts, that she was left-handed; still, she felt keenly the nastiness of it. But she was being driven.

“I do not want love-charms, mademoiselle. I am not in love. I did not come in here to discuss your witcheries at all, interesting though they may be. I want,” and she pointed again, her white finger like a swan darting through the air, “him.”

The young woman looked at the boy, who now seemed aware that he was the object of whispers, and then back at Georgette. Georgette saw her eyebrows were arched and rose above her violet sunglasses.

“Mark? You want Mark? What for? Does he have something of yours?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Georgette said, indulging in a smile. “I want to make use of him for an indefinite period of time. I will pay whatever is required to make up for your loss of him -- perhaps a monthly rental fee, I am not particular about the vulgarities -- and will of course attend to his board in the meantime.”

The young woman repeated her one-two, back-and-forth, looking-at-Mark-and-then-looking-at-Georgette.

“What?”

Georgette sighed and threw her hands outward. “Mademoiselle, although I appreciate you have some interest in this matter, you are hardly the boy’s -- Mark’s? -- owner, as this is 1968 and not the middle ages, and so I would prefer to present my offer to Mark himself.”

Mark walked forward. He started to speak in the most atrocious French imaginable, so garbled that to Georgette’s ears it sounded like a literal transliteration of alphabet soup. Georgette reached forward, her eyes never leaving his face (his corn-yellow curls of hair, almost like a girl’s, his soft cheeks not without their hint of babyfat) and pressed her fingers against his lips.

He stopped speaking before she even touched his mouth. His blue eyes turned placid and watery, and Georgette felt an icicle of fear pass through her, for she sensed, with the twofold intuition of a woman and an artist, that Mark had entered the most dangerous state of all: he was falling in love.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Hilda said. “Look, come into my office. Mark, get back to work.”

* * *

Hilda’s office was like the study of some archetypally detached scholar: heaps of books outnumbered and outsized the furniture. Georgette scanned a few titles: Secrets of Starry Wisdom, Druidic and Pre-Druidic Magickal Ritual, The Numbers of Kali.

Hilda climbed over a desk -- the paths around being blocked by pillars of dusty tomes -- and threw herself into a chair, motioning for Georgette to sit across the desk from her, which Georgette did, with an unconscious sense of noblesse oblige.

“Look,” Hilda said. “If you want to fuck Mark, you can fuck Mark without my permission. I don’t care who he sleeps with.”

By the lilt of her voice, by her rush of syllables, Georgette knew that Hilda was lying, that she did care, quite a lot. But Georgette let it pass.

“I don’t think that’s what you want, though,” Hilda said. She was right. Georgette had not had a man in her bed for more than ten years, and this Mark would certainly not dirty her sheets.

“Now I like to smoke some grass and get one with the cosmos as much as the next chick, but at bottom I’m a practical person. When Mark’s cousin, a friend of mine, wrote and said this cat couldn’t stay in school because of his grades but didn’t want to go to Vietnam but also wasn’t hep on going to jail or anything like that, I approached it practically. So he works for me now. You don’t keep a store like this afloat, solvent, and profitable for five years without having some of the ol’ business know-how.

“So, Miss – Devismes? – you can do what you like, but I need to know what the precise angle is with Mark.”

Georgette crossed her legs, folded her hands on her knees primly, and nodded. “I understand. Have you ever been to the Louvre?”

Hilda nodded.

“Are you familiar with the painting Boy, Reclining, by P----? It is seventeenth-century Italian. No? I am not surprised. It is a work that is only mentioned in footnotes; it has escaped the notice of scholars except as an example of P----'s early work. But you need only see that painting to know the story of my life.

“It was three years ago that I first saw it. I had just finished my term at conservatory, and, given the size of my inheritance, did not anticipate needing to work at any time for the rest of my life. I painted, but my work was lackluster, for I had no ambition, no reason to paint. I preferred to gad about galleries, attend parties, and delight myself in any number of trivial ways.

“The painting -- Boy, Reclining, by P----- -- caught my eye by chance one day when I was alone. Had I been in company -- for I had many suitors then -- I might actually not have noticed it. Instantly I was transfixed. Its subject is an Arcadian youth, just in the bloom of adolescence, naked, about to eat a grape -- in short, a rather typical subject for the period. Its perfect balance of colors, its diagonal symmetries, its combination of innocence and melancholy...” Her voice trailed off. “Ah, I can’t really speak of it. You might find, in my desk, five hundreds of pages towards a treatise on it. And all those pages are worthless. Words – words are nothing.”

As she said it, Georgette felt the pang of how true it was and, aptly, how little meaning there was in saying so. Words are nothing: missing in those syllables was the harsh hunger, the cold loneliness. She felt again how vast the separation between her and the world was. To be alone is one thing, but to be alone with line and color, with some secret source of life behind them that seems to bubble the canvas out into a womb that never gives birth is a tragedy that hurts more because of the refinement it requires, and because it cuts off the victim of that tragedy all the more from the rest of the world, from the ordinary hurts of ordinary failure.

For, since that day – and Georgette said nothing of this, because even when she tried to say it in her own head the words slipped around it – there had been, in Georgette’s heart, a silver box, ornately carved with clawed legs. Something was locked in that box, and unless it was opened, Georgette could never love.

Even to come near it in her thoughts made her wrists stiffen and her stomach twist, so she went on: “Since that day, my life has been a quest to, somehow, participate in its beauty on some deeper level. I began trying to paint it, or to make a painting that would -- I dared not think to equal it -- pay tribute to it. But it was so hard. I spent hours at it, sometimes days, without sleeping or eating. Finally I went into a kind of frenzy. I walked the streets raving, all night, every night, drunk, but never having touched wine. It was on one of those nights that I saw your Mark, and I followed him until I found your shop, which is as hidden away as my painting.

“Because you see, your Mark is as much like the boy from that painting as one coin is like another of the same value.”

Hilda nodded slowly. “So . . . you want Mark for . . .”

“For my model,” Georgette said. She was so excited and so scared, because her desire was in sight. “I only want to get closer to the painting that way. Oh, do not begrudge me! I will take care of your Mark.”

Hilda sighed and looked out the office door. “He’s not my Mark,” she said, and Georgette again heard the lie. “But he is my responsibility, Madame Aesthete. I won’t lie to you. He’s not the brightest guy who works here; he barely speaks French and he’s always putting things in the wrong places. But in this line of business, you can’t just hire anybody. Magic has its own hipsters, dig?”

“Of course,” said Georgette, who dug nothing.

“So it’s going to leave me a little shorthanded for a few weeks if you take him. Of course, a little remuneration would lighten the load . . .”

Georgette took out her sleek leather pocketbook and placed a pile of bills on Hilda’s desk. She heard Hilda suck her breath in.

Not long after that, Georgette was walking away. With Mark, her new model, in tow.

* * *

When they arrived at her home, she ushered him into the studio. This was a room to the east, generously lit by many windows, with an easel, paint, and a plain white table with a perfectly round bowl on it, ringed with yellow and green stripes, holding a bunch of grapes. Georgette ushered Mark to the other side of the easel. “Strip,” she commanded him.

Mark blushed, then began to grin, then suddenly became serious again. Silently, he removed his clothes and put them aside. Georgette examined him clinically. His body was pale and slender, his muscles were small and tight, and his penis was neither too large nor too small, arching just then in moderate tumescence.

Georgette pointed to the bowl of grapes on the table. “Hold those above your head,” she said.

He walked over to them, but instead of picking them up, ran a finger in a circle around the bowl, following the stripes. “It’s a nice bowl. Where did you get it?” 

“I made it,” she said automatically, moving over to him, putting the grapes in his hand for him and adjusting the angle of his arm. “No – that’s not true. Somebody else did.”

Georgette returned to the easel and frowned at him; Mark’s face was stupid and confused.

“Did you make half of it, or . . .”

“Quiet!” she snapped. She regretted it, partly because the hurt in Mark’s face was not quite the right expression either, though it was better. She sighed and said, “That bowl is from another period of history. In my life, you see, there is B.C. and A.D. The bowl is from B.C. It is the last work I ever did that satisfied me. Then came the Louvre, and a new dispensation for the ages. Quiet please now.”

She began to paint.

* * *

A routine developed. Almost every day, Georgette would paint. Mark went through a variety of poses, but all were more or less related to the original arrangement of Boy, Reclining. Georgette sometimes painted in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoon; sometimes in the evening, and sometimes until very, very late at night. Sometimes she would sit behind the canvas all day, and then throw her hands up and leave the house. She knew that Mark would then look at the canvas, and see nothing there but a single stroke.

Mark was always on hand -- because she would need to have use of him whenever she felt something akin to inspiration, he was generally forbidden to leave the confines of the apartment, and had his own room, which was sparse. When she went on occasional trips to the market, Mark followed her like an eager animal, bouncing forward at times and attempting scraps of conversation, then trailing closely behind with a silly smile. Georgette discouraged conversation and, when she was not painting, entirely ignored him. She was not interested in Mark’s brain, with gnarled contents of pot and the Grateful Dead and the S. D. S. When particularly exasperated, she wished it were possible to remove that brain. Then, she would relent, because he was so eager to please, and wish she could remove her own brain.

This went on for some weeks.

And it wasn’t working.

At every opportunity, Georgette would dive into that world of risk and failure, that delirious dimension of terror and possibility, in which she moved when she painted. Mark was nothing if not pliable. He learned very quickly how to respond to her orders for new poses, and he never complained, even when she woke him up in the middle of the night and made him stand motionless for hours while she gnashed her teeth and pulled at her hair. And at first, it had seemed that she, in her discovery of this doppelganger, had found the magic key to unlock the silver box within her.

But the key, when she turned it in the lock, transformed to a wet noodle that slipped right out of her hands. She knew she was on the track, but every stroke that she painted seemed to go around, rather than on, her conception. And she didn’t even know what her conception was anymore. She had found everything she wanted when she saw Boy, Reclining, and she only wanted to get inside it, to participate, somehow, in it at some deeper level than just looking. It was as much like male impotency, she thought, as a woman can know: the tool is in one’s hand, but it won’t function, and one is thus outside looking in.

And so, one month after her purchase of Mark, Georgette woke up and sent him away.

“Can I get you some wine, Georgette? Or fruit?” he asked. Georgette shook her head without looking at him. She knew what she would see, his need, and she felt sorry for him, but her own troubles were worse.

After he left, she hunched over a cup of strong coffee and stared out into the white mist of morning, letting the wet cloud of dew wash her face.

It was clear what she had to do.

She was going to kill herself.

* * *

"Ah, Madame Aesthete. What did you do to Mark?” 

Georgette paused. She had returned to the store and was speaking to Hilda.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“He came back to the store yesterday morning, saying he was ready to start working again. But I had to send him home. He’s been sniffling and moaning like a schoolgirl; he’s no good to me. Did you beat him up?”

In a way, Georgette realized, she had.

She steeled herself and pursed her lips. “I’m not here to discuss that. The last time I came here, you showed me a jar of...they looked like peppercorns. You said they gave visions. I would like to purchase them.”

Hilda stared, obliviously, and then started. “You mean Black Durango? Yeah, I have some in stock. Come over here.” They walked to a corner of the shop. “This is the stuff. It’s still pretty fresh.”

“I’ll take it all,” Georgette said, removing a pile of bills from her pocketbook. “This should cover it; keep whatever you have left over. It doesn’t matter. Now you said that one will --”

“One,” Hilda said mechanically, “will give you visions, two will give you more powerful visions but kill you. You want to drop them in water and let them dissolve. Do you know Mark is in love with you?”

“I know. Tell him to forget everything about me. I – I don’t exist.” She felt a wave of pity wash over her at that moment for the sad little triptych of them: pity for Mark, staring up at her at a devotee’s distance from a goddess, roiling with confusion and desire; pity for Hilda, jealously clawing for Mark, hating her rival without knowing what to do; most of all, pity for herself, her heart locked away in that silver box without a key, doomed to love the two-dimensional and to have her own life flattened as a result.

“You don’t what?”

“I don’t exist. I’m – I’m an absence.” And soon, not even that.

“Are you listening to me?” Hilda was trembling. “I know he’s not an eighteenth-century Italian painting, but you’ve really gotten under his skin. Don’t ask me why. He’s a sweet kid and he’s in a bad groove right now.”

“Seventeenth century,” Georgette said. “You are making me impatient. I thought you were a practical person.”

Hilda rolled her eyes, and opened the jar, placing each small corn of Black Durango in a sack. “Just remember, more than one will kill you. Still, they say the visions are so powerful that it’s almost worth it, and that death is painless. So use, you know, your own best judgment.”

* * *

On a gray and foggy morning, she wandered out to the Louvre, clad in a flimsy blue dress and stole, dissolved the Black Durango in water, and drank the resultant potion. It tasted like rotten apples and the soft foam lingered on her lips, but she drank it all.

Almost immediately, her head began buzzing. She squeezed her eyes shut and put the heel of her palm to her forehead. Georgette was utterly foreign to pills and potions of any kind; more than a few glasses of wine confused and irritated her, and she passed on even the single perfunctory puff on a marijuana cigarette that was fast becoming de rigeur at parties. But desperate times call for desperate expedients, and Georgette had lost patience with ordinary comfort or even her own health.

For a few moments (or weeks?) she felt utterly weightless, as if she were swimming. A cool green light suffused the space behind her eyelids. Then it passed and she could feel her body again, electric tingles escaping from the surface of her skin like slender snakes.

She opened her eyes.

The people. There were so many, so many of them. They swarmed and cavorted, and for a moment it seemed to Georgette that she would lose her mind among their countless number, massed and ever-moving, churning, pulsing...were there really so many people in Paris? How could anyone live -- how could anyone move, even? She clutched her arms close to her side and felt her breath growing short...a sudden sixteenth-note of color caught her eye. A scarlet ball, rising and falling in a circle. Her eye followed its paddlewheel movement, up and down, round and round. By chance, she saw a violet ball, mounting skyward as the scarlet ball fell, and falling as its companion rose. Their motions, she realized after a few passes, were synchronous, and the two balls pursued each other as lovers do (or so Georgette had heard).

This magic was being worked by a juggler, a lanky young man with long hair and a beard: a hippie, Georgette reminded herself, giggling inwardly at the word. His hair was very dark and curly, and though Georgette was standing some distance away, she could almost feel its complex, prickly texture. And he was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

Everything was beautiful!

And a pang of hope split her from top to bottom. Because this was nothing, and what was on the other side of the juggler, in the Louvre, was the most beautiful thing in the world. She need only walk a short distance, and then...and then, she would die there. Die, in the midst of a vision that would magnify every particle of beauty into countless universes!

Georgette believed in no afterlife, but she believed that whatever state one was in when one died was, in some sense, the meaning of one’s whole life. And she knew what state she wanted to be in, what moment she wanted to drench in the waters of hot consciousness and then preserve, like a photograph developed in a dark room. 

And then she was running across the square toward the Louvre, running breathless through the funhouse tunnel of light and sound, thrusting a hundred-franc note at the guard, racing through the halls and up the stairs, towards a very particular spot.

Georgette stood poised before Boy, Reclining as she had before, so many times, and gazed at it, like a supplicant, and awaited her revelation.

It was beautiful, certainly. The depiction of the anatomy, so muscular and yet so delicate; the purple blush of the grapes, so vivid. But Georgette knew that already. Actually, something seemed flat somehow. But perhaps I am not concentrating, Georgette thought. So she attempted to will the beauty out of the painting, as the sun wills the lemon tree from the ground.

Things became worse. The shape of the grapes seemed arbitrary. All the shapes started to seem arbitrary, as if they could have been anything. The frame itself seemed in danger of dripping downward and dissolving into a gray lump. And at the same time, the look in the boy’s eye, so innocent and vulnerable formerly, had acquired an ironic cast, and appeared to be mocking her with its own shapelessness, its own meaninglessness.

Madamoiselle,” came a voice. “You ran by me so fast that you made me drop my balls. You must have discovered a true masterpiece here.”

She turned. It was the hippie juggler, looking ironically concerned. His beard again took her attention; so many curls, such intricate, baroque twists and turns. Her eye tried to trace one strand, following the individual hair into the dark thicket, then back out again away from the face, oscillating like his juggling balls. She looked into his eyes, blue as the sky. Then she looked back to Boy, Reclining -- the same azure eyes, the same look of condescension.

Since she had withdrawn her concentration, the painting had regained some of its charm. In fact, it was just fine, as long as she didn’t look too deeply into it. It was, she realized, a glittering surface. She looked back to the juggler, and he, too, was a glittering surface, equally interesting, and equally devoid of depth. And equally beautiful.

She felt her knees shaking and her throat closing up. This was the end, and she died not in perfect beauty’s mountaintops, but wandering in its lowlands. Her death was to be botched and miserable, and with her last breath she cursed the day she had first seen Boy, Reclining . . .

* * *

She awoke. Her vision was blurry. Sheets covered her.

“Oh, Georgette, Georgette,” a voice by her side wailed. Looking over, she saw Mark, his eyes red. He was leaning by the side of her bed, cupping his face in his hands. The walls around her were white.

Georgette groaned. Hilda sat off to one side, with a cigarette and a newspaper. Noting that Georgette had awakened, she nodded.

She stared at the ceiling. Blank -- absolutely blank -- white, like a sheet laid over a corpse.

“Why, Georgette, why?” Mark moaned. “The dosage was too big. I only got you to the shop just in time to administer the antidote.”

“How --” Georgette said, coughing. “How were you there --”

“I followed you all that day, madamoiselle. Please don’t be angry!” Mark clenched his fists. “When Hilda said you had bought some, I worried. The drug is very unpredictable in its effects. And when I saw you drink the entire glass, I thought it must be a mistake; you must have diluted it with wine. And I followed you to the Louvre, and when you collapsed, I was able to get you to the hospital. Oh, madamoiselle, what was it? A mistake? Didn’t you know that two will kill you?”

Georgette’s voice came in a slow croak. “I knew.”

Mark wailed. Across the room, Hilda pursed her lips. Georgette continued to stare at the winding-sheet roof. It gave her a small comfort, its blankness, free of line and color.

“Why, madamoiselle, why?” Mark said.

“Maybe no reason,” Georgette said. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Please forget about me and be happy, for I don’t need a model anymore.”

* * *

Georgette left the next morning, her health technically recovered, and she emerged onto the streets like a lost ghost. Her skin was as pale and patchy as the blasted surface of the moon.

She went home. She did not want to go home, but she did not want to go anywhere else, and habit brought her there. Mark followed here there, and she didn’t try to stop him, but she had no real use for him. She ate from time to time, and occasionally sipped lukewarm coffee, and slept less, though she lay in bed more. For the most part, she sat in her studio, staring out the window.

Then, one day, Hilda came over. She didn’t look happy to be there, but Mark tugged her by the arm through the door and into the studio, where Georgette was lingering over a half-eaten piece of cake.

“We have an idea,” Mark announced.

You have an idea,” Hilda said, and walked closer to Georgette, who noticed an old book under her arm.

“Woman, if I had seen you in the park that day, I would have walked away and let you die,” Hilda said. “I don’t care about you. I don’t like you, and I don’t like what you seem to have done to Mark. But as long as you’re around, your happiness has become a precondition for his, and that’s something I do care about.”

Some fierce animal pride still lingered in Georgette’s wasted soul, and she drew herself up stiffly. “I care for no favors from you,” she said. “I don’t even recall inviting you in here. Kindly take your boyfriend and --”

“Be quiet,” Hilda said, thrusting a photo into Georgette’s hands. “Concentrate on this.”

Georgette’s eyes goggled. It was a photo of Boy, Reclining. She turned back to Hilda and said, “How dare you. How dare you bring this in here to --”

Hilda ignored her, and placed a disk of holly and berries on her hand. Mark had lit candles and incense. The two began chanting, nonsense words, not French, not English, not sounding like Latin, and Georgette slumped back in her seat. She was too weak to feel surprise or insult any more, and it did not matter. She turned her attention back to the photograph. Boy, Reclining could no longer offer her the heights, but a kind of cold peace, and that was enough for her.

As the chanting continued, it seemed that the smell of the incense grew stronger, the light in the room dimmer. Georgette began to feel somehow smaller -- like the water at the bottom of the glass as it evaporates down to a few straggling drops, like a dream that fades in the daytime, leaving only an aftertaste of fear or ecstasy, and then ceasing even to haunt. But it was as she were in a dream in which one forgot the waking world.

There was a powerful rush of wind. The candles blew out and, though it was the middle of the day, for a minute there was complete darkness. Georgette groped around for anything to lean on -- even Mark -- but found nothing, and for a moment it was as if she did not exist.

Then the light returned. Hilda stood off to one side, her face mingling pride and annoyance. A third person was in the room, between Hilda and Mark, a man. He was tall, lean but muscular, with a face just girlish enough to be heartbreakingly pretty on a man. And he was naked, but Georgette’s eyes kept circling back to his face, framed by a mass of golden curls, a face so delicate and yet so strong, so simple in its features and yet such an enigma, and somehow so familiar . . .

He was Boy, Reclining, by P-----.

Georgette turned pale and staggered as he rose up.

“Georgette,” he said speaking French with a slight Italian accent. “I am told that I have you to thank for the gift of existence. It is a gift I am rather enjoying, and I believe I shall keep it.”

“What . . . how . . .”

“A secret from Hilda’s archive, a spell rarely used,” Mark said. “It was all I could do for you, mademoiselle.”

Trembling, Georgette stepped forward, watching the Boy from the painting, watching his chest move with slow breaths. She put one hand on his chest. It was warm and smooth and hard. And her soul took sudden wings like a newborn butterfly and darted to the sky.

He lifted her up in his arms, such strong arms, and she was a woman-shaped mass of honey, just on the verge of melting but never quite. He carried her to her bedroom, and there she spent the night in the arms of her painted god.

* * *

Georgette became a success.

With Boy as her model, it seemed the canvas painted itself. Whereas before, she had agonized for weeks over a single picture, and in the end destroyed the result as a mangled abortion, now she tossed them off almost casually. And when she looked at them afterwards, she was something more than pleasantly surprised: she was awestruck. Harmony of light and color, of shape and line, were for her like the grammar of French, known unconsciously and serving, since perfectly mastered, only as tools for saying something.

Painting, in fact, no longer felt much like work or art. She swam always in the aura of Boy, and thus producing paintings was a slapdash affair; as a snake who swims in golden-dyed water will shed golden-dyed skin, so the existence of Boy bestowed a sheen on Georgette’s most unconscious productions.

The painting-buying public was not, in 1968, so formidable a presence as in the past, admittedly. Nor was there room anymore in the halls of fame for a single, acknowledged best. The halls had been widened too much by the new rooms that had been built on the sides: Dada, surrealism, futurism, constructivism, and now the so-called “Pop Art” from America, which many intellectuals were beginning to take seriously. Too many rooms, and there was no consensus as to whether some of the rooms were proper fixtures in the hall or were, in fact, more appropriately attached to some other, inferior, building.

But for all this, Georgette’s work was a success, perhaps the greatest success possible under the circumstances. Newspapers and magazines had begun to speak her name respectfully, and not only in France either. A half-dozen of her paintings had been purchased by an American collector and displayed in New York, which had led to rather feverish attention from the states. This attention had led to a showing of her work at Paris’s most important modern gallery. There were rumors that a high-ranking Communist official in Poland had risked bankrupting his country’s military coffers in an attempt to amass the largest private collection of Georgette’s work.

And at night, she and Boy would step out on the balcony and drink wine and talk of nothing and everything or not talk at all and simply be. These nights were the best of all.

“Are you happy, Georgette?” he would ask her on those nights, his strong arms around her.

“Yes,” she would say. And it was true. At long last the silver box had opened, and out of it had fluttered butterflies, all in armies.

* * *

Boy enjoyed Mark’s company, and seemed to enjoy the bohemian circles that Mark moved in. Since Boy had had no life before the ritual at Georgette’s, it would be inaccurate to say that he had memories, but he did come equipped with a sort of shadowy background in his head, the pseudo-past that one accumulates as a painted figure: simple associations, a storehouse of background knowledge, and a reasonable amount of personality. He liked pleasure, it seemed -- perhaps, had he resided in, say, a Raphael painting, he would have been pious; as it was, he was more hedonistic. He enjoyed meeting people with Mark or with Georgette (the newspapers referred to him only as the artist’s “constant companion”). He liked wine. He liked food particularly, and seemed determined to make up for the centuries feeding only on that single grape. He liked music, and, to Georgette’s distress, was particularly fond of Mark’s recordings of British and American “rock” artists -- The Kinks, The Who, and The Doors. Georgette offered him Chopin and Berlioz; he liked that too, but he preferred, apparently, Bob Dylan and Cream. 

As a result of this association, Boy suggested that they attend the party at Andy’s.

“Georgette, it will be great fun. Andy knows everybody, Mark says.”

“I am not interested,” Georgette said, “in everybody. Only in you. And who is this ‘Andy’?”

Mark and Boy looked at each other. “He’s the, er,” Mark gestured. “The famous artist. The, ah, the soup-can man.”

Georgette laughed bitterly. “Oh, him. He is nothing but a fraud! Why should we pay court to this impostor?” But she knew that she could refuse Boy nothing. So she arrayed herself in a gown of sleek, deep black like a seal and made herself to glitter astonishingly with a galaxy of diamonds. Mark opened and closed his mouth, silent fish syllables. Georgette nodded absently and swept her eyes across the room for Boy, who smiled and led her across town.

Hot bebop brayed like a pack of rabid donkeys when they walked into Andy’s. The electric lights had been replaced by candles, which lent a flickering, cave-like atmosphere to the place. Georgette squinted as her eyes adjusted to the light. Every corner of the room teemed with dirty, filthy hippies.

Suddenly she smelled something that made her feel like vomiting. It was a bottle of cheap bourbon, thrust into her face. Georgette’s eye followed the bottle to the hand attached to it, the hand to the arm, and the arm to a woman dressed like a gypsy.

It was Hilda.

“Nice setup you’ve got here,” Hilda slurred. “Twins. Like identical dolls. Hey, you wanna have a foursome? Or is it a threesome?”

Georgette took one step back, holding up her black velvet stole like a shield. Hilda leaned in closer, and her breath was like a weapon.

“You get everything, bitch,” she hissed. “You steal Mark right out from under me. You did that, and you didn’t even want him, and you don’t even need him, and you still get him. Don’t ask me to do you any more fucking favors. Bitch.” Hilda swayed.

“I’m sorry. I don’t think my English is quite so good right now.” And she scurried away, grabbing Boy by the arm. She moved closer to his ear and whispered, “You must avoid that woman.”

“Indeed, Georgette?” Boy said calmly, moving to the hors d’ouvre table and placing a piece of cheese to his mouth. “I imagine it is because you consider her bulgar; I believe, Georgette, that you have class prejudice. It is not so easy for you to see, because you have been thoroughly conditioned. But I have been, after all, in a painting for the past four hundred years, where the situation of labour and ownership is very different.”

“I will speak to Mark about this jargon you’re learning,” Georgette frowned. “And try not to eat so much. You will put on weight.” She removed the cheese from his hand.

“Certainly, Georgette,” Boy said with an odd smile on his face. “I’m going to find some wine. Would you like a glass?”

“Yes, please.” She turned from him and wandered into the next room. It was an odd room, with one wall completely transparent, showing a balcony, the opposite wall a vast mirror. The room was also dark, also candled, also reeking of incense and marijuana and dirty hippies. In the center of the room, his right shoulder facing the mirror and his left the window, was enthroned Andy, the famous American artist of soupcans and stars’ faces. A circle sat around him on the floor: fashionable models, bearded art students, and pretty, hairless boys. Amused, Georgette sat down, somewhere on the outskirts and watched Andy hold court.

“Andy,” one of the bearded students said earnestly. “Are you the future of art? Is traditional painting dead?”

“Painting was always dead,” Andy said. His voice, like his smile, was as bland as white bread without butter. “Honestly, I’m very bored by it. I prefer Monopoly.”

This was appreciated. A hippie girl said, “Andy, who has the most iconic face of all? Is it Marilyn Monroe?”

“No, I think it’s you,” Andy said. Everybody laughed, then leaned forward for the real answer. But Andy was quite serious. “Really, I think you have the most iconic face. It’s absolutely perfect. Maybe I’ll paint you some time tomorrow.” He relaxed back in his chair, sipping a drink, looking moderately bored at his discovery.

“Andy,” said a tall model with an exotic accent. “What is beauty?”

“I’ll tell you.” This was Georgette, who had just stood up. All eyes fixed on her, including Andy’s. A wine glass fluttered into her hand at that moment. “Thank you, Boy,” she said, drinking it in one swallow. His lower lip quivered slightly, and Georgette saw that it was Mark, the poor boy. Then, emboldened by the wine, she began:

“Beauty. But how should I describe what is beyond all description? What is utterly out of reach of our language, and yet is our language’s only excuse for being? Well, I shall not try, because Beauty is not to be found in any words of mine, or, indeed, anything anyone might say or do. You cannot find it in yourself; you cannot find it in any person. But you might find those who are its slaves, and if you reach into their hearts, you will find the slaves’ chains. Follow those chains. Follow them, link by link. Follow the chain in your own heart, if you find it there -- how fortunate, and how blessed, if you find it there! For it will lead you upwards, towards the master, if you painstakingly grip every link and pull up. Oh, but you cannot truly climb the chain, for your fingers will slip through -- they are so porous, and we are such ghosts! Truly, though our bodies and our lives seem so solid, you will find them light and insubstantial as air, and the body of Beauty as solid as a cathedral, or a king on a throne, and he will breathe you in and out, you are so gaseous! And just as oxygen enters the lungs and leaves as carbon dioxide, so you might -- you just might -- find yourself transformed by the encounter with Beauty, more complex, with a foreign element somehow intermingled. Oh, trust this transformation! For here, and only here, will you find Beauty.”

Georgette was flushed. Her audience, utterly silent, looked back to Andy for confirmation or denial.

“Oh, I think that’s probably right,” Andy said. “Beauty’s nice. It’s very interesting. Of course, ugliness is very interesting too. Hey, it’s Georgette Devismes! I know you!”

“Yes.”

“I just bought one of your paintings. See, it’s over there.” He motioned toward the mirror wall, which reflected the balcony, except for three or four paintings directly on the wall. One of Georgette’s recent works, Guitar, which was simply a still life of a guitar, some colored balls, and a sleeping cat, was mounted on the mirror wall. Boy was on the sideline of the frame, looking out of the canvas -- he lurked in all her pictures; his mere presence -- not necessarily his centrality -- was all her muse really seemed to require. To the left of Guitar, Zach Lim’s Blue Canvas with Gray Stripe; to the right, Andy’s own Minnesota Viking Helmet: three rows and ten columns of the same helmet against different backgrounds. And anybody who liked, any person from anywhere, could walk out on the balcony, and reflections mingled with the paintings as if in a parallel-world party where people and works of art were interchangeable.

“I like the cat,” Andy said.

Georgette turned to him, eyes flashing. “I don’t know how you can make jokes like that,” she said. “You’re a symptom of decay. I don’t make any grand claims for my own work. But you and your mob, you hate art. Your work is the joke of a mean-spirited child, a cancer of envy on the body of painting. You are evil, evil, evil.”

One of the smooth-faced boys began crying. Andy handed him a hankerchief without looking at him. The boy sobbed and gasped out, “Is it true, Andy? Are you evil?”

“Oh, I suppose I might be,” Andy said. “Evil’s not so good but it’s sort of interesting, like beauty and ugliness and cats. I mean, even if I am evil, I still have to get up in the morning and make a living.”

Georgette would have said something else, but just at that moment Boy and Hilda, both naked, lurched out onto the balcony and began fucking noisily. Nobody except Georgette seemed to notice.

“Andy,” said the foreign model who had asked the question about beauty. “How can we get the American troops to leave Vietnam?”

“If they won’t leave, maybe we could get the Vietnamese to leave. We could do that by killing them all, or by offering them somewhere else to go. Four of them can stay at my apartment in New York, and two more can stay in our studio--" 

Georgette’s wineglass hit the floor and exploded. She ran out the door; Mark followed. “Look,” Andy said, motioning toward Guitar on the wall. “With the reflection of those two people having sex out there, it looks like Georgette’s painting has legs.”

* * *

Georgette got home and locked herself in her room. Two minutes later, Mark let himself in the apartment and banged on her bedroom door for some time. She lay in the dark without sleeping all night. Two or three hours later, somebody else came in. She heard a male and female voice, speaking brokenly, smelled cigarette smoke and alcohol, and, later, heard grunting and moaning and pounding bedsprings.

When the sun came up, it found Georgette still lying on the bed, in the dress and diamonds she had worn last night. The sunlight streamed blankly into her room. Her eyes remained open. The apartment was entirely silent.

She sat up and walked out into the kitchen. It was not nearly as messy as she thought it might be, though there were many wineglasses, half-full and some cracked or chipped, lying about. In the center of her table, though, was a large white bowl, a bowl of cold tomato soup she had made for Boy. It was about half-full, and there were two (she flinched at the number) used spoons sitting off to its side. Idly, she placed a finger in the soup and licked it. She gagged at the taste and, looking down, she saw a pair of cigarette butts, and attendant ashes, nestled in the center of the bowl, lying next to each other like two bodies in bed.

Georgette began to cry.

She cried ferociously, like a wounded animal. She lifted the bowl and flung it against the wall, leaving a complex red rune. She cried savagely, violently -- her tears burned in her eyes like the hot rage of rabies. She cried for what seemed like hours, hammering her fists into the refrigerator door. She cried without relent, until, spent as a used condom, she sank to the floor, tearing her hair.

Finally, she looked up and saw Boy standing there. He was naked except for blue jeans: pale, lean, delicate, and his eyes were sad.

Georgette rose and placed a finger on Boy’s lips. “Don’t say anything,” she said. He made to speak, and she clamped her whole hand on his mouth. “Please...please just don’t say anything.” She paused as his silence acknowledged her. “Now listen,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter, all right? I’m not sad. I’m not angry; I’m not sad. Just don’t speak, and give me this morning, and then you may do as you like. Will you give me that?"

Boy nodded.

“All right. Please -- to the studio.” Once there -- Boy meekly followed her stride -- she stripped him and handed him the toga. “Please,” she said. “You know the pose. Do it for me.” Mutely, Boy lifted a clump of grapes, and assumed the pose by which Georgette had first known him, and she sat down, apparently very calm, and began painting.

It was almost three hours later when she finished.

What she went through during that time -- she could not describe. Almost, she could not remember. She had taken her best self, the self that had been sold to Boy, Reclining by P------, even as Mark had been sold to her and as her paintings had been sold, and burned it all up, a last sacrifice to whatever gods had protected her once and abandoned her now.

Looking at the canvas, she realized that it was her best painting ever, and that fact gave her no satisfaction.

Boy sat there, still and sad-eyed, just as beautiful as the painting. Georgette walked over to him, staring into his eyes and smiling faintly. She reached out and stroked his cheek lightly, then produced a thin silk cord from behind her back, wrapped it quickly around his neck, and squeezed. Boy’s eyes grew large and his skin turned even paler, but he did not resist.

“Some will say that I am mad, for doing this,” she whispered. “But you and I both know better. You were never really alive, and you’ll be where you belong --” she motioned towards the canvas, “-- as is best.” He nodded, then swooned, eyes closing and body going utterly limp.

It was at that moment that Hilda emerged from Boy’s bedroom, naked but for a plaid scarf draped over her shoulders. Georgette glared -- then went wide-eyed as she drew, by the hand, Boy out of the bedroom as well.

Hilda pointed towards the body and screamed, “Oh my God! Mark!” She pointed at the body.

Georgette turned back to the body, her breathing like a hummingbird. She started to speak, but no words came; her tongue was a carp, dead on a beach in winter.

“Georgette,” Mark gasped. “I knew you thought I was – the other. That’s why I didn’t stop you. And at last you have – your masterpiece.” And he died.

“Oh God, oh no!” Hilda continued screaming, pushing Boy away and rushing for the phone. Georgette dimly heard her asking someone, in broken French, to bring an ambulance and the police.

But only dimly, for Georgette’s gaze was fixed on Boy, who was touching his own face, his mouth open and slack, and in his gaze, she saw reflected the image of herself standing over Mark, forming a perfectly balanced tableau.


* * *

Jason L. Corner lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, children, and dog. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. His fiction has appeared in in the anthology The Big Bad II and magazines including Abyss & Apex, Allegory, Perihelion, TQR, and Electric Spec.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I think the attraction of the fantasy genre is that it tells an essential truth about the world – that it is mysterious and has important features that cannot be accounted for by any rational scheme, that we dwell on an island amid an ocean of glory and (simultaneously) an ocean of terror.

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