A contemporary Lovecraftian tale of art, obsession, and elder gods.
There were no monsters at first, only “Arthur Dufresne Crispin,” who met me on the front steps of his apartment in the Village: towheaded, tall, and lean, with long spidery fingers that closed mine in a strangler’s handshake. He had an accent that would have told someone from Boston or Providence a lot about his parents and the pedigree of his dog, but told me jack-all, except that he was the kind of guy who introduced himself with his middle name. He wore a green Brooks Brothers shirt, and men that pale should be careful wearing green. It seeps into the skin.
“I’m Deliah Dane,” I said, and followed him up three flights of stairs to his studio. “Good light in here.” Crispin kept the place neat. A few still life setups in corners, a shelf of sketchbooks and anatomy texts and older leatherbound tomes. A folio of Dali prints, another of Bosch, and one of a Swedish painter whose name I don’t remember. Canvases draped with light silk leaned against walls and doors and furniture. Through the silk I could see the canvases were painted, but not much more. The floor was strewn with lights: lamps, reflectors, mirrors, even a kerosene lantern. “Bet your landlord doesn’t like you having this.” I nudged the lantern with my shoe.
“I have no landlord,” Crispin said, which told me more than the accent. “Ms. Dane, we should discuss the nature of my work. Previous models have expressed reluctance to operate under the conditions I require, and if this will be the case, I would rather find out now before we waste our time. Don’t you agree?”
I’d been afraid of this when I couldn’t find pictures of his recent work. My hand tightened around the cell phone in my jacket pocket. “I don’t know what conditions you require, but I won’t take any drugs for you, and no pegs go in any holes. I show up on time, I sit still. You paint, and you pay me.”
“In terms of your responsibilities, our visions align. No drugs will be involved. Reality interests me, not psilocybin abstractions. As for”—and there it was, the dust of blush that meant maybe even Arthur Dufresne Crispin was human—”as for the rest, I will require no more of you than any other artist, insofar as poses are concerned.”
A gorgeous red leather divan lay upon on the stage, with a scrolled wood headrest and a fringe of trailing beads like a flamenco dancer’s skirt. I stroked the leather. “Why the conditions, then?”
“I do not converse with my models. Your form interests me. Personal connection distorts perspective.”
“I doubt I’ll want to talk with you much, either.”
A ghost smile at that, faint as the blush. “I require exact duplication of poses from session to session. I may touch you, to restore a finger or an elbow to its proper place.”
“Ask my permission first.”
“Fair. And the last: You will not view our work while it proceeds. You may never see the pieces for which you pose. Should you happen to do so, you may not recognize yourself.”
That rang alarms I didn’t know I had. “What do you mean?”
“I paint the noumenal—that which lies beneath appearance. Some models take offence at my depiction, but no offense is meant.”
“So, what, you paint me as subhuman and I don’t get to call you racist afterward? Is that what you’re saying?”
“That is not my intent.”
“I want to see an example.”
“I have no finished model work,” he said, “and if I show you a still life, I will be unable to sell it.”
No sense asking artists why. They’re a weird breed. “Show me, and I’ll decide whether to sit for you.” The power had shifted in the room, as it always does when you learn someone needs you.
His eyes were gray and cold as fish scales. At last, he turned to a canvas propped near a setup of a bowl and rose. He peeled back the silk as if peeling off his skin. Beneath—
It wasn’t a bowl and rose. It wasn’t not a bowl and rose, either. Take the bowl, and take the rose, and shatter them, cubist-like, through time as well as space, so in one facet the rose blooms and in another it’s rotten, the bowl here tarnished and there radioactive gleaming. But that doesn’t capture the twisted, callous distance of the effect. There was more time than time in that painting, and more space than space.
There’s this Chinese story about a bird called p’eng, really big damn bird, flies so high the earth below fades to blue for it just like the sky does for us. To that bird, we’re motes in a sunbeam, sparks kicked up by a campfire, insignificant painful specks that vanish back into the burn. And that was what he’d done with a bowl and a rose.
What would he do with me?
It was disgusting. Exciting too.
“Let’s go,” I said, and unbuttoned my pants.
You have the wrong idea about me already.
I moved up from Savannah to be on stage. I write. I act. I love the way an audience looks when you have them stuck, I mean skewered, to their seats. When they’d stay for at least a second even if someone did shout fire. And yes it isn’t practical, and yes Mama writes letters every week and each one holds some allusion to this cousin or that who’s doing whatever with herself. Mama’s plumbed Michael Baysian depths of subtlety. I’m workshopping a one-woman show. I sent spec scripts around. An agent wants to see my next.
None of which counts for much rent-wise, in this city.
Not the clothes kind, which work I doubt anyone would give me anyway on account of my having a body. But painters pay, and they like bodies, or at least they don’t seem to care whether you stop eating after the first half of the M&M.
Yes, painters. They still exist. I mean the ones who paint people who look sort of like people, or at least paintings that involve people, not the squares-of-solid-blue shit.
Here’s what you need to be an artist’s model:
Here are some things that help:
- Pride (If you get embarrassed when folk stare, this isn’t the line for you.)
- Honesty (Good artists draw what they see, so you might as well get to love that belly.)
- Active imagination (You’ll spend four hours at a time holding still.)
- Bathrobe (To wear on break.)
- Wristwatch with alarm.
The last is so important it should be first. Artists aren’t timely people as a rule, but if they’re paying for you, they expect you to be. A painter takes forty-five minutes to set up her easel, get the light just so, mix the paints—she expects you right at two, clothes off and in position, not at three thirty complaining about the subway. Get a watch. Or use that fancy phone for something other than taking pictures of your banh mi.
Some folks model to commune with an artist’s tortured soul, to be the fulcrum between created and increate. All that mystery goes out the door the first time they get off a four-hour sit and can’t feel their left butt cheek. For me, this was Something That Paid Twice as Much an Hour as the Restaurant. Each four-hour sit gave me a day to audition, to write, to please Ms. Agent.
That was what I told my friends. This other part I didn’t realize myself at first, and later it felt too private to share: my time modeling, standing or leaning naked in front of some desperate kid with an easel and a nose ring, belonged to me. It didn’t slip off like time does in your apartment where there’s always some damn thing out of place, or out in the world where fear’s a phone tap away. In those thirty minutes of pain and brush scratch, thoughts stretched long, and memories ran like rivers. I remembered being five, keeping time and singing on the back porch while Daddy played guitar. I remembered running when the grade school kids came for me, and how it felt to fight and lose and win. I remembered strawberries firm and rich as kisses. Hell, I remembered things that never happened. I climbed mountains on planets orbiting a distant star, with a purple sky overhead and a long fall below. Memories like that make you want like you have to, to do any kind of real work: you want from the bones out. After those sessions I’d write and write, and some of what I wrote I’d see the next day and think, good.
To those of you out there who think I could have earned more stripping:
I started modeling for Steve, who my roommate Rache knew, and I showed up on time for his sits, and he told his friends and I showed up on time for theirs, and though I couldn’t quit the restaurant I did take fewer shifts. The play took shape. I sent what I had to Ms. Agent, who sent back a sticky note with a smiley face that I took to mean, keep going.
But I never thought about the increate, or holes in worlds, until I met Crispin.
Crispin wasn’t like the others. Even that first time, I could tell.
There was no music, only the hush of his apartment. Neither of us spoke. His work was an exercise in stillness, a pressure of knife against skin. Into that stillness came the brushstroke, a rasp that ran goosebumps up my shoulders and back, like sandpaper drawn lightly over a nipple.
Stare at your own face in a mirror in halflight and it will warp to something hideous. Staring at his that first afternoon I saw his skin bubble off the bone, his forehead bulge and birth curving horns, his jaw distend like a snake’s about to devour the world. And then he looked up, and his face was a face again.
His brush left trails of poison paint—lead in the whites, mercury in the reds, fumes of alcohol and turpentine.
Sitting always hurts, but sitting for him hurt more. He’d asked for perfect stillness, so I had to show him. My heart beat against my will. People aren’t made to freeze like that. Our ancestors hunted by jogging, chasing prey over open grassland until it died. We live by movement, and when you stop us, we hurt. Even that first pose, simple, seated, felt like pincers piercing the muscles of my butt, back, shoulder, neck, and spreading.
And then his gaze. The stress of her regard, the poet wrote. His whole body leaned into me through the points of his eyes. I didn’t feel seen. I felt peered through, like the near lens of a telescope.
My watch chimed the end of our last period. It felt as if I’d sat forever, and for no time at all. I guess no time at all is forever, because no time means no time passing, and if time doesn’t pass then the moment just goes.
“Thank you, Ms. Dane,” he said, and passed me a cash envelope containing—yes, I looked—twice what I’d made on any other four-hour sit.
“Thank you, Crispin,” I said, and we set our next date.
I’d reached the street and made it halfway to the corner when I heard a crash behind me, of broken wood and torn cloth. I turned back, curious. The painting of bowl and rose Crispin had showed me lay broken on the sidewalk. Several floors up, his window closed.
We saw each other often that summer: I saw him behind the easel, and he saw me on the divan. We painted even through swampy August. He painted. I endured.
Crispin was slow. The first portrait, head and shoulders alone, a face made large as canvas, took twelve hours, three times longer than Steve needed for a whole-body nude. As we neared the end, he was soaked in sweat, eyes bloodshot. Done, he turned the canvas to the corner of the room so I couldn’t see myself. I thought the painting cast light into that bare cobwebbed corner.
We started the nudes next. He wanted a pair, three-quarter sized, my leg up on a block, one hand resting on my thigh. By the end of the first day the hip of my raised leg hurt like I was sixty. The whole time he stared through me. I might have been a piece of tissue paper held to a halogen bulb, smoking, almost aflame. After those sessions I rode the subway home gazing blank faced as a junkie at the wall, staggered back to my apartment, drew a steaming bath in spite of the heat, and waited for my body to return. I floated like a fetus in the womb.
My memory didn’t work while I posed for him. I don’t just mean the way I talked about remembering before. I couldn’t remember how it felt for time to pass. I couldn’t remember ever speaking. Sometimes I forgot my own name.
Air hung still in the studio while he worked. He wanted, and reached, as if diving into deep water after a receding light. I dived beside him, though I could not see the light he chased. Maybe he couldn’t, either.
“He’ll chop you up when this is done,” Rache joked. Good roomie, always looking out for me. “Store you in the freezer. Some Craigslist killer shit.”
At least, I hoped she was joking.
The money let me take fewer shifts. Acting dropped off the ambitions list, for the moment—I didn’t need more people watching me. I paced the apartment like pacing a cage. I wrote compulsively, but where before I’d shaped my bones to words, now my work felt like the words had always been there, waiting for me to sift white off the page and reveal them glistening black. My play’s last act skewed weird, full of silences and dread. The windows in my head through which light came were shut, and I’d opened others to let in the dark.
I studied Crispin, but learned less than you’d expect to learn about someone you spent a summer with naked. He mixed his own paints, ground his own pigment. Steve had known him in art school, said he was weird even then, old-money weird, and he got weirder after his mother’s illness, a cancer of the mind that warped her first, made her suffer, turned her inside out before it let her die. There were rumors that they cut it out of her and he kept it after; there were rumors that he watched them do it, that he sat with the growth and asked it questions as it floated in green. Mean rumors. But I could see where they came from.
Crispin made his name young, and his fame grew as his work got strange. He hadn’t shown in years. The auction price for his last painting, Still Life with Wriggling No. 9, was a four with so many zeroes after it I thought there must have been a typo—until I checked the price for Still Life with Wriggling No. 8.
With that kind of money, he could afford to pay me double.
He used last names exclusively, and knew everyone’s—the mailman’s even. He rotated between three shirts and two pairs of ratty khakis. He kept a fiddle in his apartment, though he never played that I saw. He skipped meals often; we ordered sandwiches once, and he said that was his first food of the week, this being Wednesday. Once I arrived to find a large man crying on the stairs outside Crispin’s apartment; Crispin gave no explanation. I didn’t ask for one.
Sometimes, in his eyes, I thought I saw worms turning.
We made four paintings that summer. I saw none of them. After the final session, he passed me two envelopes instead of one. The envelope with the cash was cheap, unmarked, and extra fat; the other was of textured paper and addressed in spidery calligraphy to Ms. Deliah Dane.
“An invitation,” he said.
“You’re getting married? You should have told me.”
He didn’t hear the joke. “We are putting on a show.”
I had, as who doesn’t, a nice black dress for formal events, and on the night of the opening I for once made it all the way to midtown without a single catcall. So it was a good day, at least until I reached the gallery.
The galleries where my friends showed were ripped-jeans joints for the most part, dresses on a strict irony-only basis. That wasn’t the deal at the 512. Cloth-of-gold, labels, gossamer, yes. My nice black dress looked bargain basement in this crowd. Some of the men wore tuxedoes, which I didn’t think you were allowed to wear except to weddings, funerals, and inaugurations. Then again, the gentlemen—and I use that term loosely, based on where their eyes went when they thought no one else was looking—the gentlemen at the 512 for Crispin’s opening seemed like they went to a lot of those.
Tonight the 512 was a white box, walls the color of one of those old fifties asylums where men used to check in their wives for “rest.” Aside from the buffet table, the gallerist had set up four black velvet booths, and lines of patrons waited outside them. Black tripods near each booth displayed a cream paper card, typed, actually typed, on Crispin’s Underwood. To the left, Face. To the right, Back. To the rear, Nude 1 and Nude 2.
That was all.
Of course Crispin would show the paintings, but I’d expected still lifes too, the flower bowl, a broken dead thing, some relief from me. All these so-called gentlemen in their tuxedoes had come to see pieces of me naked. I felt scared, and a little flattered, and a lot angry that I felt either.
Crispin wasn’t hard to find. The room had four corners, and the front two were too near the door for his comfort. My first guess was wrong—the crowd there surrounded a woman I took for the gallerist, an elegant scarecrow laughing at a joke I doubt I would have found funny. I wormed through the crowd again, past the lines outside each nude and the buffet table. Crispin leaned into the far corner, staring at his glass of white as if wishing he could make it darker. In this sea of evening dress, he wore rumpled wool slacks, that same green shirt, and a blazer with a loose thread in the left shoulder. His shoes had never felt the touch of shine.
“Just me?” I said.
Wine slopped over the rim of his glass, and he looked up; his smile seemed warm at first before he remembered to turn it cruel. “You came.” But I’d seen enough. The coldness was a mask, though he wore it well.
“No flowers. No still lifes.”
He shrugged, that first slip covered now. “Those weren’t good enough. You are.”
I wanted to shout, but didn’t. The chatter and the drifting atonal music and the clink of glasses against teeth forbid me that. I realized I was alone—there was an empty circle of floor around Crispin even here, all these people watching him as if he were a tiger or a shit-throwing ape. What did that make me? His target, or prey, and I wasn’t about to let these inauguration-goers cast me in either role.
“Look at them if you want,” he said.
“What’s with the curtains?”
“I will allow indirect light only, under these circumstances. No one but a buyer gets to see them unveiled.”
It’s hard to storm away in heels, but practice makes perfect.
“Deliah!” I heard while forcing my way through the crowd to the door. At first I mistook the voice for Crispin’s, though it was all wrong—female, for one thing, and happy, and using my first name. I turned and saw—
“Ms. Agent!” Shannon Carmichael, to be exact—I realize I haven’t given her name before. A full woman, billowing out of the mass of blacks and grays in a bright orange dress, arms wide and one hand wined; she reminded me charmingly of an octopus rising through ocean murk. If you can’t see how an octopus might be charming, don’t blame me for your lack of imagination. If I’d been caught in anything so simple as a bear trap I would have chewed my arm off to get away, because oh my god my agent had seen me naked. “What are you doing here?”
“Crispin’s show, of course,” she said. “His new project! Have you seen them yet?”
“You know Crispin?”
“I didn’t realize he was such a thing. I just—” But if she’d seen the pictures and didn’t recognize me, why clue her in? “I know him from around.”
“I wish you and I got to the same around. He’s a recluse, you know, never comes to anything. You must see this Face!”
She grabbed my wrist and pulled. That woman has better traction in heels on hardwood than most semis I’ve known on open interstates. By this point the lines had died down, replaced by clots of chatting socialites near each booth, and Shannon pulled me past those with an apologetic smile and no drop in speed. I heard snatches of conversation:
—cold like space, only the colors—
—imagine what it would look like on a wall / can’t imagine a wall to hold—
—conversation starter, or, you know, ender—
—those eyes, deeper than wells, and all the world inside—
—audio component, maybe, in the frames, I heard pipes—
And something about “jog” and “Sabbath” from a young Chinese woman leaning against her date, drunk or faint. Sweat beaded through her makeup. Her hands twisted, fingers twining, locking, gripping as if to break.
Shannon shoved me through the velvet, and I tripped, my only thought that I would tumble somehow through the painting and ruin what, fifty grand at least of Crispin’s opening, if not more—
But I caught my balance, and looked up, and stared into an unfamiliar face.
I couldn’t see it all. They’d covered the booth with cloth, so inside everything should have been shades of gray, but wasn’t. The face on the canvas shone. She pulsed in a rhythm exactly out of time with my own heartbeat.
No wonder Shannon hadn’t recognized me. Crispin broke my face, or peeled it apart. I was fissured and fused and melted and monolithic, distorted into something more real, full, there than I had ever felt. My painted eyes were pits you could tumble down and fall for a million years into blackness charged with sick galaxies of staring, slitted orbs, space filled with the piping of a mindless master whose music was a scream.
Craquelure legions danced in the fissures of my skin. The red muscle of a peeled-back cheek was a field that grew unholy thorns, and corpses twisted in my hair, pecked by carrion birds. Yet they were only shadows, brushstrokes, suggestions my mind added to a canvas face that did not resemble me at all.
Or did it? And were those in fact suggestions, or was something moving beneath the paint?
I can’t write what I saw, and I call myself a writer. But saying you can’t say something, that’s one of the old tricks, right? And—hell.
I looked at me. I mean, the canvas I looked at fleshy me with my eyes that were doors, and something behind pressed out, against, through those doors. I reached to touch my cheek, trembling, and as I did I remembered museum field trips and Miss Alva saying “Deliah, don’t touch,” and of all the damn things that saved me. I drew back my hand and the painting was paint again.
I stumbled out, glazed, sweating. The lights and walls and shirt fronts were too white. I held out a hand, but no one steadied me. I saw a blur of faces—and a spark of sympathy in that Chinese girl’s eyes, before her date guided her off toward the wine.
Something grabbed my hand, and I barely contained a scream. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Shannon, her smile still plastered on.
“That’s a word,” I said.
“A different world, seen through the intermediary of the model. Morrison wants to buy the lot.” She introduced me to the man behind her, a thickset robber baron type with white hair and bushy mustache and the tuxediest of tuxedoes. “Morrison, this is my client, Deliah Dane. She knows Crispin.” With a conspiratorial edge on Crispin’s name and the word knows. Morrison took my hand and said something vacant and polite, and Shannon added, “You absolutely must see the Nudes.”
I wanted nothing less. “How long was I in there?”
“Five minutes,” she said with a glance at her watch. “Or so.”
That felt too short, and too long.
Morrison cleared his throat—did he recognize me?—but before he could speak or I could recoil, the scarecrow clinked her glass. All eyes turned upon her, and she effused—for a scarecrow—about Crispin and how glad she was “all of you” had come, meaning everyone with money to spend, and she asked Crispin to say a few words.
“I have to go,” I told Shannon, and as I slid through the crowd toward the door Crispin read from notes typed on index cards.
“—to portray a deeper world than the one we see. Vision is a kind of—exploration, frontier seeking: each sensory impression is a sheet disguising a universe of processes, not all—amenable to human understanding. And in that dialectic between our naïve comprehension and the vast and pitiless truth, we find—”
The door closed, and rain and the buzz saw of taxi tires through puddles replaced him.
I tore up the doom-ending of my play that night, but I couldn’t think of anything to write in its place other than “and monsters ate them all,” so I stopped. I lay awake listening to Rache and her boyfriend have messy sex on the other side of my bedroom’s thin walls. Even that sounded wrong.
But I am a professional, and I keep my word, so even though I barely slept that night I was still on time for my next session with Crispin.
He met me at the door with a glass of scotch, a bonus envelope, and a bouquet of star lilies. “They sold,” I said, and set the lilies down, and he said, “Yes,” and “All to the same buyer.”
“Morrison Bellkleft, yes,” he said. “For a considerable sum.” He sat, silent, and waited. I drank.
Whiskey warmth eased the next bit: “Those portraits don’t look anything like me.”
“No. Hell, your roses don’t even look like roses. Not like normal roses.”
You don’t say that kind of thing to a client who’s paid you better than you’ve ever been paid before, but I was done not knowing. Knuckle on temple, he considered. He had a silence like glass.
“Have you ever watched someone you love die?” He spoke flat. “Not just known they were dying, but sat beside them, felt their pulse, watched their eyes as they failed, again and again, to understand what was happening—then the horror when they finally got the joke? Only to forget it all, and minutes later remember once again.” He stood and walked to the window. “There comes a moment when the doctors stop giving them water, you know.”
“The world is sick. Life warps itself. We ignore—everything. We blind ourselves to the writhing truth of the rot beneath our skin. We call a storm sky black, when the fiercest storms are all awash with color. I was taught to paint what I see. I force myself to see deeper, truer. To see beneath, below, beyond. I hide my work so its unveiling will shock the viewer, and open a gate to the truth they’ve ignored.”
“I know truth,” I said.
He didn’t answer.
“You think I don’t? Rich white guy like you, you think you have an inside line on how messed up shit really is?”
“No.” He turned: a silhouette. “The world is horror, and sickness, grotesque realities we suppress and ignore. That’s the space to break open, that’s the frontier. Not stars. What’s under the flesh.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“Art isn’t moral.”
“Bullshit. It’s my body you’re painting.”
“It isn’t you,” he said. “You’re just the gate. You’re the best model I’ve ever had. I’m trying, so hard, to get this right. To show them.” I recognized the pleading from boyfriends past, but this felt more sincere. Diving, always diving, toward some light he could not see. “I need this.”
He pointed with his head toward a massive canvas by the wall. Eight feet across, five feet high. White, and waiting. For me.
“Will you help me?”
And God help me, I said yes.
We started that day. I wake up some nights thinking we never stopped.
Modeling for a work that size differs in degree and kind from sitting for smaller portraits. The canvas looms over the studio. Crispin, working, disappeared behind it. I heard him breathe, I heard the serpent-over-rock slither of his brush. My watch and his ticked just out of time.
Pressure built inside me, and out.
He posed me on the divan, rising as if from sleep. The poses had been simple before: stand here, sit, turn your head. This time, Crispin wanted to catch me in the moment of waking: one arm back, eyes half-lidded, mouth open. When we got the pose right, hunger and fear mixed in his eyes.
It hurt worse than any posture I’d ever held. Half-risen, half-lying, pressure on my left arm while my right drained of blood, legs parted and one foot trailing off the divan, it wrecked me. After the second thirty-minute sit I was all sweat and jellied nerves. I collapsed on the bed for our break.
Too soon, we started again.
But pain’s not all I mean by “pressure.” In the shadows of Crispin’s room, under the weight of his gray eyes, which rose and set over the canvas like twin moons over an alien world, I felt something immense press against me from below. His earlier paintings broke me open—cracked like an eggshell in his hunt for that unspeakable truth. But now, I felt the truth he saw through me. There was a universe beneath us, a blasted, writhing, whimpering world. Great pale cities towerd on planes of black ice beneath eclipsed suns that were themselves eyes. Worms coiled and hissed in the shadow-corners of Crispin’s apartment. Strange lights reflected in his pupils, or caught, and glowed there as embers.
The horror grew on my second sit, and my third—the horror, and the excitement. On my subway rides home Crispin’s expression remained before my eyes, his rictus grin, triumph and pain and effort, like a man lifting a weight he can’t quite bear.
Rache says my dreams that month were restless and mewling.
But the work continued, the pressure built, and the season of storms arrived.
A month after the show, Shannon—Ms. Agent—called me. I stared at the phone too long, wondering if I should answer, thinking guilty thoughts about my abandoned manuscript and that night in the 512. But I picked up on the third ring, just before the call cut to voicemail. “How have you been, Deliah?”
“Fine,” I said. “Working.”
“And Crispin—how’s he?”
She didn’t know about my work with Crispin, and I did not enlighten her. Few professional relationships improve when one party has seen the other naked. “Well,” I said.
“I thought you might want to know—the paperwork finally cleared, and Morrison has all four paintings from the 512 show. Hasn’t unveiled them yet. He invited me to see them under full light for the first time. He remembered that you know Crispin, and hoped you might join us.”
No. Not considering what brief exposure did to me in the gallery. Not even to ingratiate myself with Shannon, whom I owed work, and who wanted to connect me to Mister Morrison Bellkleft of mysterious but ample financial resources. Not even considering how much help Mister Morrison Bellkleft of mysterious but ample financial resources could offer if I ever did finish the play—
“I’d love to,” I said, and copied the address. Central Park West, of course.
This was a hurricane autumn. Grace was due to curve east and miss us, but her northern lashings whipped up preliminary storms, so rather than walk from the subway I took a taxi, crawling north from Columbus Circle with the great dark park to the right and steel cliffs to the left, beneath sheets of falling water. The driver asked what brought me out on a night like this, but I didn’t answer and we both lapsed into the scared-mouse silence of the storm. Remembering Crispin, I watched the sky—and saw the colors that nested and weltered there, greens, yellows, and oranges, like rainbows bleeding.
We stopped. Everyone stopped: horns blared. And through the windshield, through the rain, I saw fire bloom ten stories up, from Morrison Bellkleft’s building.
I checked the address again. Apartment 1001: that would be, yes, the tenth floor, where smoke and tongues of flame flicked into the storm. Shannon was up there.
“Here’s fine,” I told the driver, handed him cash, and stepped out of the cab into stopped traffic. The rain hit me like socks full of quarters swung hard. Soaked and slick in seconds, hair water-straight and heavy, I stumbled past headlights in wind and thunder and horns, found the sidewalk, ran north. If I were in my right mind I’d have waited; the fire department would come soon—but soon enough? Rain carved the smoke into strange shapes, like bird-winged insects the size of helicopters cavorting in the sky.
People streamed out of the black building’s doors and back in again, repelled by the rain. In the chaos it was easy to force past the attendants shepherding tenants out. I body-checked my way to the stairs and climbed against the current. Alarm sirens hammered.
Floor ten, and out. Smoke, haze. I clutched my wet jacket over my nose and mouth. My eyes watered. Only two doors in this hall, not counting the elevator—there, at the far end, 1001, closed. Memories from safety films, check the handle, of course it’s hot, this is a mistake, wrap the handle in your jacket, turn, it’ll be locked—
But it wasn’t, and I stumbled into hell, choking, smoke everywhere. Morrison’s living room had been elegant ten minutes ago. Now, it was a mess. Soot coated the white carpet. The walls, floor, weren’t on fire—yet. Flowers bobbed in vases beside the couch. Wind and rain screamed through broken windows, lightning flashed, but only the paintings were aflame.
They stood at each corner of the room, propped on easels. The canvases seemed to have burst out from within, leaving holes of green fire that led to dark writhing depths. I stared into one of those holes, past the flame, though my stomach convulsed and mortal terror squeezed my heart—but I could not look away. What waited past the dark was grotesque, yes, but beautiful. I stepped toward the hole where the painting had been.
I tripped. Shannon lay at my feet, dress torn, hair tangled around her face. I looked back to the painting, into the hole, and I remember being annoyed at the interruption, at her for tripping me—but the easel’s legs gave way, and the frame, and the vast space beyond collapsed to burnt canvas, and I was free, and suffocating.
I hoisted Shannon onto my back and staggered away from the flames. She breathed into my ear, but I did not understand her words. Maybe they were in another language altogether. I don’t trust myself to write them down.
I do trust other memories. I trust my memory of footprints on the sooty carpet, prints left by clawed, inhuman feet. And, as I turned to the stairs, I saw, in the roil beyond the window, sharp starry glints of multifaceted eyes, and flickering curved wings. Of Morrison there was no sign.
I slammed the door behind us, and we rejoined the human current away from the fire.
Outside Crispin’s apartment, the sky was a dreadful yellow. Grace hadn’t swerved yet. Some weather folk still claimed she would. We were supposed to evacuate. We hadn’t.
“You’re late,” he said.
“I’m sorry.” He’d pulled a cloth over the canvas, as always when there was a risk I might look. Beneath, the painting might have been anything—or nothing. The drapery twitched in a draft, though there were no drafts in Crispin’s studio.
“I saw your paintings,” I said. “From the gallery.” That was what I led with, not the monsters, not the fire. That I had seen the paintings, or what was left of them, seemed stranger in this room than the rest. “Crispin, things crawled out of them. There were holes in the canvas, and on the other side of the holes, I saw . . .” I could not finish.
His grip tightened on the brush. “Good.”
“The police still don’t know where Bellkleft is. My agent almost died!”
“We’re so close.”
“Close to what?”
“The place beyond death,” he said. “The root of the horror. The place where they lie sleeping.” His voice caught. He looked away. “Will you pose for me?”
The storm weighed upon us, closing in as we sank. A hurricane is an ocean come walking. I did not understand the sickness I had seen in Bellkleft’s apartment, or the beauty, or the wings. Crispin’s gaze settled, not on me, never on me, but beyond. I should have turned away and left. But I had come so far down with him already, and I felt that I would drown, rising on my own.
I took off my clothes, and became awakening. My body knew the pose by now. Crispin removed the drape from his canvas, and painted.
The light changed. Yellow deepened to orange, and the orange tinted green. Wind keened through bare branches.
“Storm rising,” I said at our break.
“Yes.” Branches tapped our window, scraped through ten silent minutes. Crispin whispered, and I could not make out the words, or even the language. His brushstrokes grew surer on the canvas. Long spans of time would pass before his eyes dawned over the painting’s edge, and when they did, a feverish light burned within. Each brushstroke was a cliff collapsing. Rain lashed the windows. I felt full of waking, filled with it, in building waves, as if I lay in a lover’s bed about to come, only with everything twisted ninety degrees to the left, bliss, pain, release all askew.
“Crispin,” I said.
“No talking.” His voice was tight as over-tuned piano wire.
“Crispin, it’s time for a break.”
“So close,” he said, and “Sorry,” and I do not think he was apologizing for the delay.
The wind screamed louder, and branches struck the window.
“Crispin,” I said. “We’re three floors up.”
“There are no trees outside your window.”
“So what’s scratching?”
He did not speak. But I did not need his answer.
I had glimpsed them through smoke and flame and storm on Central Park West, the facets of their eyes, the stretch and shimmer of their wings. They had burst through the gate Crispin made of my face, and now they gathered close, to sing in the wind, to watch this new work end.
This work that I had not seen.
I had never looked at Crispin’s paintings of me, straight on in full light. In Bellkleft’s burning room, I had peered through a hole—but never seen the canvas itself. Crispin and I dove together, drowned together, but I had never seen what he saw when he looked at me.
I wanted, I needed, to know.
Rising from that divan felt like rising through an ocean of honey. My limbs strained to move, my breath came slowly, and the further I departed from my pose the harder it felt to do anything but return there, as if the substance of space had been reworked to fit me into that position, that warped pleasure, that broken release. He’d made me a key, and I dragged myself from the lock.
“Go back,” Crispin said. “Lie down.” His voice was so tight cracks opened in it, and through the cracks I heard the waves of an unlit sea wash a dead city’s shore. The screams outside the windows swelled, the clattering things clawed harder at the glass—they’d broken Morrison’s apartment windows no problem, but that was out and this was in, and the two directions are nothing alike. I walked to the edge of the canvas.
“Go back,” he repeated, louder, and damn if I didn’t almost listen. But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I had to see. God, it hurt; my muscles wanted to crawl from my bones, the whole world felt uphill, but I walked to the painting’s edge while his brush growled, and around—
Crispin caught me, or something that looked like Crispin but its pupils were worms. I pushed, and he pushed back, with strength those scrawny arms never earned. His thin lips rolled back to bare long teeth. I hit him in the nose with my forehead, heard bone crunch. His grip broke and he folded around his bleeding face. I swept past him to stand before my portrait, to see the monster he had made of me.
The thing upon that canvas was beautiful and hideous, promise and trap and temptation and door. And I saw through it. Oh, you old desert God who calls for the sacrifice of children, I saw through it—through the eyes, through the cracked skin and the wet red muscle, through the flayed flesh and the bare skull, saw the thing he’d summoned, this creature his mad beholding had chiseled from raw space, cancer and mother and blood, swollen, breaking open, shaking ropes of flesh, hair a coil of serpents, panes of body and breasts and thighs venting vapors that were fingers reaching through.
“Crispin,” I said. “That’s not me.”
But I felt it inside me, around me, the form his eyes chiseled onto mine: fishhook pain twisted like a bad pregnancy. He’d made my image door and mother of monsters.
Outside the howls rose, as the mother’s children welcomed her.
“Deliah,” he gurgled through blood. “I see—”
“You see wrong.”
“I painted you.”
“No. Whatever that is, it’s not me. The sickness, the horror—it’s not in the world, Crispin. It’s in your eye.” I reached for the canvas, but the air around it burned. I fell back, swearing. The figure flexed. Cracks widened. I remembered chicks I’d seen burst from shells. Outside the mother-monster’s children circled in the storm, fanged mouths hungry to nurse. “You made this.”
“Beautiful,” he said.
I slapped him, hard. He lunged for me, and I shoved him back. He fell toward the painting. His oils lay in tubes on the easel shelf; I grabbed one tube and squeezed it across the false me’s face and body, an umber streak. I spread the paint with a brush, mashing bristles to canvas to obscure eyes and ruin the painting’s neck and curve of shoulder.
Crispin screamed and seized me from behind. The brush tumbled from my hand and we fell together, me on top, knocking out his wind. I grabbed him by the shoulders, pointed him toward the window. “Look! Just fucking look.”
Claws and wings scrabbled against the glass. But I only remember stillness, as Crispin stared into the facets of those glittering eyes, gray into gray, the inhuman faces pressed against his window. His jaw slacked, strange, wondering, like someone for the first time recognizing his face in a mirror.
The storm pressed us down.
He tore his gaze from theirs, and turned back to the painting, wondering, slow, for the first time scared. “She’s almost through.”
She strained against the paint, to burst into our world from Crispin’s mad fantasies. My smear would not seal her. She was a dream, and dreams can’t be forgotten, only deposed.
I dragged Crispin to the canvas.
He shook his head.
I grabbed another brush, loaded it with the paint he’d mixed that most resembled one of the colors of my skin—and forced it into his hand.
“Don’t paint her,” I said. “Paint me. As I am. Not as you see.”
He looked again, at me, and this time I looked back.
With trembling hand, he touched his brush to canvas.
The scream I heard next was not the wind. It howled inside me, with strange and deep words. I will not write here. You’ve heard them, I think, in nightmares just before they break.
The storm passed. We were spared the worst of it, they say.
To seal takes longer than to break. Two months have passed, and I visit him three times a week. We talk before he paints. Not about truth or horror or that other stuff. He talks about his mother, her death; about roasting coffee, and about a time he nearly drowned as a boy, at summer camp, and woke to find his ribs broken from CPR. I tell him about my brothers, about Georgia. He doesn’t believe about the roaches in Savannah. Northern boy.
And then we paint me over her. She’s stopped trying to break through. I think the talking is almost as important as the painting.
And then, Jesus, last week Crispin called me. He has my number, though he never used it before. Called me to say he was taking Steve and some other old classmates out for dinner, and would I like to join them?
He paid me a share of the Bellkleft take—the old man’s still missing—so money’s not a problem for the moment. Work continues. I’m acting again, and polishing the one-woman show.
Shannon’s recovering. The lung’s mostly better. The mind, too. She’s back to work, a few days a week, and she keeps calling me about the show. It’s weird to hope your agent likes your work because it’s good, not just because you saved her life.
As for the children of the paintings, with their shining eyes and curved wings—I don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they died without their mother. Maybe not. I read crime reports and watch to see if there are more missing dog posters around my neighborhood than usual. Maybe they’re still out there, hiding, building strength, waiting for someone else to shape their mother into being.
If so, maybe this will serve as a warning. If anyone reads it.
But it’s late, and I owe my own mama a letter. She wants news, though I don’t have much—just questions.
There were monsters. I saw them, and anyway if they weren’t real, where did Morrison Bellkleft go? They’re out there still. They always were.
They have no world but ours.
“Crispin’s Model” copyright © 2017 by Max Gladstone
Art copyright © 2017 by Samuel Araya