I smile subtly, wily, as his wet brush strokes my cheek, dabs my lips; the mystique of the moment, a certain look, slowly descending upon the canvas until every inch of its surface has been conquered, stands down.
His hands move thoughtfully, the raw smell of earth — of iron — escaping as he carves out scoops of composite. Through repetition his process has become ritual; there is a certain rhythm to the movements, an aura stroked by candlelight. I watch and breathe in chipped stone, stifling ash, the musk of old hide, dream of wild breezes and candlelit skies, remember a time when I moved in the same melodic pattern, pressed hand and paint to wall.
Despite the reputation of the artist, I know what they will say: boorish, degenerate, vulgar. Who am I — who is any woman — to smile so openly? To allude to a knowledge we’re not allowed to have? With pride my eyes steer through the fog, navigate restless waves of inspiration bound by sfumato shores, all the subtleties that together create that magnetic look: the charm of deceit, the seduction of master by muse, before I am rolled up.
A century or two later, I am hung up. I am the jewel in my husband’s collection. I smile timidly, the contour as faint as my resolve, a string of unassuming, pearly whites asleep behind my childlike lips. Even the youthful spirit my eyes once voiced has been dulled, smothered by heavy Vaseline-like varnish.
In a hundred-years’ time the first films will continue to fasten a woman’s smile to sin and scandal. I am no temptress, just a mere girl, and so I consign myself to prudishness, revel in its concrete walls, its barren floors.
From my place high on the wall I forever survey the limits of my kingdom: my cage. I find solace in female companionship: marbled maidens with heavy bust, the other, celibate, members of his concubine. Together we dream secret dreams of shattering casings, scratching itches, spreading limbs, for this is a century of tight social movement, tight facial muscles, tight cunts.
Ten miscarriages, a touch of typhoid, the ring of death, all are surprised when it is my husband who before me departs, leaves me to an empty cell. Upon his death I weep, and then smile demurely.
I throw myself into work but after two centuries remain confused, directionless. I am a high-heeled wanderer, unable to discern the oasis, my tangible independence, from yet another mirage. Parched, I try not to speak unless required, offer a cheerful smile.
A devoted consumer, I shiver with electricity as the new technology styles me, tattoos me with curtains, aprons, cleaners, all in hot ink. Mass produced, its smiling pages hold sway like black-and-white scripture. We revere it as we would a religious text, its relentless undertones, torrid winds, forever seeking to erode. To remind our porous minds our place in the grand scheme of things, why we were placed on this earth. Those whom we should worship. And in its name we march on — chipper soldiers of capitalism — laden with soap, perfume, rouge, embossed with Kodak smiles.
After the volume of domestic miracles dispensed it comes as no surprise that my trappings, my very essence, should calcify and become synthetic, all noxious plastic and phony gloss.
We have already forgotten that just a century earlier we uncovered proof of sophistication without such sanitation: ancient Troy’s charcoal floors stratified shelves of consumption on a once similar scale. When for a single clammy moment the world held its mouth open in surprise, congregations of saliva crippled in awe. Before it guzzled stale rumours of a time when so many soldiers of a different kind embarked and set sail. Likewise imprinted by thoughts of my smile.
At last it is I, the artist, to be admired. Gallery to gallery I stand aloof, smile so as to appear agreeable, available for comment or question. Marketable. Forever smiling on the side, the work — “Modern Woman” — an exhibit in its own right.
I learn to measure the success of my shows by the number of male artists, male buyers to compliment this same smile. Behind the adulation is the scent of machismo, an oniony aftershave with subtle notes of fear and contempt, following close on its heels. The lingering reminder that I will be forever more decoration.
No longer desert wanderer, I am unable to reserve my resentment, my malice, hump my disappointment around on my back. Nor can I retain the evening’s free flowing glasses of wine. I wander through this Minoan maze of corridor, stumble from cross-section to cross-section, and plead mercilessly with uniform Minotaur for any whereabouts of the washroom’s direction. Here I hit a wall, his bargain: a smile.
Perhaps it’s a trick, a looking glass, for here we switch places and I become beast. Bear my teeth. After so many centuries I have at last reached capacity. Glass shatters and anger is strewn across the floor. I teeter backwards in rage, smear my outrage in swirling reds and orange along the wall while thick black outlines no longer strong enough to hold hemorrhage pigment and burning scorn.
LAUREN HOWLETT has had work published in Every Writer’s Resource (EWR), Impressment Gang, litbreak, Kallisto Gaia Press and Meat for Tea. Her short story “Grey” was named “Highly Recommended” as part of the London Independent Story Prize (LISP).