This short piece by new guest author Courtney Wakelin pulls us into a painter's studio, where she makes it clear from the start that something unsettling is happening. Wakelin twists together the uncanny and the horrifying with a thread of hope, all the better to reel in the reader...
Author's introduction: The insights of a woman trapped by someone suffering from quite a severe psychological trauma and how she contrives to survive within that situation. I was inspired to write this piece after reading Henry James' 'The Real Thing' and was fascinated by the idea of image, perception and the notion the person as an object.
by Courtney Wakelin
She sits in the chair, hands clasped firmly together, feet resting upon the cold hardwood floor. She does not look at the grain of the wood, but she knows it points towards him. In moments of passion, she wishes that the small wooden splinters would fly up from the granulose cracks and impale his body… they never do. Her face is vacant, her eyes void, she cannot help but set her shoulders as she rests her elbows upon the arms of the ancient teak chair. He thinks that they are set that way in gay abandon, in anticipation to raise herself and kiss him. They are not. She will not. One leg rises slightly setting her weight on her toes… in preparation to run away.
She is beautiful, he thinks, his reflection, in the mirror which sits behind her high over the grated fire, showing his care-free stance of artistic joie. His Karen.
She wants to block out the silence of the room, it seeps in through the chimney, the calm of the outer world. She wants to focus on the steady hiss of his brush strokes on the canvas; sculpting her body to fit his own sick desire.
“Don’t move, Darling. I want to capture you just right.” He pauses, tilting his head to gaze at her still form. She is a bowl of fruit, the dead fish in The Ray. “Oh, my Darling Karen, you are a vision.”
He says this every day, every time he tries to emulate her on the blank expanse. It is pointless, it is a warning… it is a lie.
She cannot move.
She has learnt to be his mannequin. Learnt to sit still as the day draws to a close, the sun moving from the east to west over the street as the glimmer beats from the burning star’s apex until late evening when they will come to rest upon her. Crawling up her body from her toes, sweeping over her left side until it finally comes to irradiate her face with a crowning halo.
There is an empty grate beneath the mantel behind her chair, he never lights the fire… he despises the smell… the stench of his secret. This, the heady beat of the sun, is the only warmth she feels all day: before it disappears behind the jagged rooftops and leaves her once more in the burning antifreeze flames of his painted hell.
She does not want to be The Ray, with its horror and death, she would rather be a De Zurbarán orange, lemon or rose, she would like to be filled with life as those things are… a frivolous hope. At least once a day she can pretend that she is out of Chardin’s cellar, at least once a day she can bask in the sunlight. She likes that he does not draw the curtain, likes that he lets the light shine into the room, illuminating the truth.
She is not Karen; she merely has a similar face.
She longs for the day to end… as it does each time the light touches her. His sin falling forth as if from a cupboard… She sees this each day, each time that he returns. She notices all these things that she had failed to before… now they are imprinted within her, engraved upon her soul. Yet she still tries to tell herself that it is a lie. Each day she sees his face. She knows that the reflection in the mirror placed above the hearth behind her is young. But the man before her, each day caressing a canvas in the deluded dream to recapture an image, is old. His skin wrinkled as a dehydrated plum, hair whiter than the fresh foam of the sea, lips sagging, puckering as he concentrates.
His Karen. His muse.
The mirror is merely a reflection of his mindset, his twisted delusion. His Dorian Grey sickness. The liar of twenty-five or so, suspended in a grotesque animation of loss.
Before her stands the truth; eighty-six and professional in his psychosis. Blue jumper settled over blue shirt and grey slacks. He wears no other clothes. This attire, that he wears each day, is wrinkled; soiled with the stench of sweat and grief. Moulded to his body- a knapsack. She has grown used to the odour, but the neighbours complain in the hall when he leaves, she hears them through the small crevice beneath the frame. Like the wind that blows down the open chimney it is her only escape to the outer world, through cracks and crevices.
How do they not know?
She is neither seen nor heard. She is a ghost. She is a secret. She exists but also does not. She is his- that is their relationship. Nothing more nothing less.
She knows there are bottles behind her, they litter the small bookshelf, some empty, some full and coated in a thick layer of dust: trophies. He uses one each day to numb her, to keep her still. Some days she is barely lucid enough to know he does it. Others she is alive enough to know that some of the bottles are the sort that scientists would use to pickle a foetus, formaldehyde. He has not had to use those on her: yet.
Her body has become used to the affects, this is how she is able to raise her shoulders, move her foot without him noticing. He only sees a doll, a mannequin. But each day as the sun settles its rejuvenating beams upon her flesh, she feels herself dispel a little more of the toxin he uses to pose her. His eyes have deteriorated, that is why he does not notice her small bouts of strength like a fresh shoot in spring. That is why each evening when the sun comes to rest in the room he screams, tearing the canvas from its easel and throwing it across the room. He will shout abuse, occasionally he will strike out… sometimes she wishes that he would put her out of her misery.
He leaves only to come back each morning: to begin again.
He will walk in with fresh daffodils, throw the old ones away, pour water into the simple crystal vase and set them afresh on the table before her, just to the side, never central. She must keep a clear perspective.
Each day she will try to look at the daffodils, move her eyes to stare at them. She counts them, the petals, the stigmas, the flowers in whole. Today there are seven… as always. Some days she ponders this, in some cultures seven is a lucky number, it is an omen of fortune, of prosperity. She does not feel prosperous. In total she has received one-thousand and one. One-thousand and one omens of rebirth, of new beginnings. But these beginnings are unlike most others, these are not happy, not sad, they are the beginning of her next purgatorial cycle. A simple fact.
“Oh, you are beautiful, Karen.” He smiles each morning.
My name is Nuala, she tells herself. I am not Karen!
Though Karen’s aged, half decayed, body sits just to the left of the vase, behind the table, as though she were to write a letter of apology, saying sorry for the hundred and forty-three days that Nuala has been trapped.
Karen’s dead hands do not move.
Karen can do nothing.
Nuala does not blame her; Karen did not know that she had married a monster.
Courtney Wakelin is a Doncaster born writer, who graduated York St John University with a first-class BA Honors Degree in Creative Writing. She has previously been published in; WASTE, York St John's own Beyond the Walls Anthology, on which she has edited, and Mindless Mag.
Cover image by Pierre Bamin via Unsplash