Red Squirrels

by | Apr 25, 2017 | Fiction

 

She was lying in the tub when the lamps went out. The water had grown distinctly colder, November’s chill seeping in, the chill the lamps were meant to hold at bay. Lizzie looked sideways until her eye sockets ached, but the tub’s rim obscured her view of Dante and his easel.

“I will paint you as Ophelia,” he had said. “A work to rival Millais.”

In order to do so, Dante had declared the tub a necessity. He must actually see her half-submerged, dress sodden, her red hair haloing in the water like diluted blood.

The studio lacked a fireplace. It had been his idea to raise the tub on blocks so it rode above the oil lamps, wicks set low, the flames gentle tongues that licked just below the steel and kept the water warm.

There came the sound of a furious dabbing at the canvas, then palette, then canvas again. Lizzie wished she had taken the merest additional drop of laudanum this morning. But a fragile border existed with laudanum, the slightest extra made her drowsy, and she dared not fall asleep. Not for her sake. The water was shallow. She wouldn’t drown. For Dante, who needed her, his model — his only model, he professed — to keep her eyes half open and her lips parted in the mask of the recently drowned.

“Ophelia must hover between life and death,” he’d said.

She had the pallor of such a woman. Everyone remarked on her alabaster skin.

Lizzie shifted her buttocks, hoping movement might warm her, and water coursed beneath her body. Ripples tickled across her front like waves riding over a beach.

“Could you turn your left hand up,” she heard Dante say.

He painted using the window’s light. He’d never recognize the lamps were out.

Lizzie cleared her throat. The brush gently swished as it ran across the canvas. The noise resembled the patter of cat paws on wood floors. Or the whispered conversations men held when they spoke of important matters.

Her father had often done so with his solicitor. Heads bent together, they conspired in the front room. Lizzie would hide behind the kitchen doorway and listen, their voices percolating like the bubbles from the stew pot on the stove. Her father said the family was due an ancestral estate stolen from them by a distant relation.

That his children were not meant to dodge cart horses in alleyways, his wife to mend clothes for wealthy London ladies, or him, to fashion cutlery. Words: “inheritance” and “scion” and “Hope Hall.”

When her mother discovered Lizzie snooping, startling her with a slap to the backside, she marched Lizzie upstairs and beat her calves with a hair brush. Afterwards, she made Lizzie look up those words in the dictionary and copy out the definition for each. The dictionary, thoroughly foxed and buckled, nevertheless, Lizzie’s mother seemed proud to own it. Hope Hall was not there.

+++

Lizzie woke. She was in bed. “You’re shivering,” Dante said. He must’ve been worried, unsleeping, his eyes turned to pouched oysters.

Her head felt huge, Brobdignagian, as if it hung over the lip of the mattress. And it burned, a chorale of heat that sounded in her ears.

On her side, Lizzie could see her tresses run to the bed’s edge like a smear of crimson paint, streaky white with the underlying sheet. The fireplace was dark. “There is no light.”

Dante looked around and parted a shade. “I’ve summoned a doctor.”

She groped for the duvet and pulled it tighter across her shoulders, but that didn’t cease the chill.

The doctor placed a cool palm on her forehead. “She has a fever.” He wrapped thumb and forefinger around her wrist. He poked her hipbones through the bed coverings. “Has she always been like this?”

“Lizzie stopped eating days ago.” Dante’s voice. “She believes thinness pleases me.”

“Otherwise I am nothing,” she said.

“Artists,” the doctor muttered.

“He borrowed money.” She was so thirsty. The words clawed up her throat. “He borrowed money for our wedding license.”

“You must eat, Lizzie Siddal,” said the doctor. “I tell my wife how beautiful she is for every stone she gains.”

Hot water seeped down her cheeks. “And he spent it on brushes.”

“Lizzie,” Dante admonished.

“On brushes for his painting,” she coughed out. “The laudanum makes me forget.”

The doctor’s lips tightened. “That will only worsen your condition.” To Dante he said, “The laudanum can kill her. Make sure she does not take it.”

+++

That was a year ago. They were married now.

Lying in the tub, water pocking her ears, Lizzie’s shivers became uncontrolled spasms. The lamps had gone out. She held her breath and stiffened her limbs against the trembling, a respite that lasted as long as her strength. Relaxed, her shivers began again.

There was the ticking of the clock. She had been here for what seemed, what probably was, hours. When she’d lowered herself into the tub, it had been nine in the morning. Had it rung noon? She wished she had attended to the last chimes. At least she would know how long she’d lain here.

Lizzie cleared her throat. Speaking while posing was bad form; it might disturb the artist. She so wanted Dante to succeed. But she required distraction, a moment from the cold. She whispered, “Has the clock struck twelve?”

The brush slathered the canvas. Stool legs drew across floorboards: Dante stepping back, assessing. A furious scraping as he removed paint.

+++

He was always scraping, always peeling away paint. The artist’s perfection.

On their honeymoon in Paris, he wrote home to have a painting shipped over: How They Met Themselves.

He’d worked on the piece for a decade, never quite satisfied. Gripped by inspiration — it must’ve been the scenery, the foreign streets, the babble of French — he said he could not let the work flounder while they were away. His friend Boyce lent them a studio room in his Paris home.

The work was of her and Dante in a dark wood. Mirroring them were their doppelgangers, ghostly forms, pale and washed out. In the painting, she swooned, terrified, and he gently supported her at wrist and hip.

“Is that how you see me?” She mightn’t be truly lovely – too broad a mouth, eyes too heavy-lidded — her extreme paleness at least raised her above the working lady’s dun skin. But confronted by Dante’s image of an ashen, emaciated figure, she wondered why he’d married her. Annie Miller and Fanny Confirth were so much healthier, and lovelier.

A fleck of blue paint dotted his bottom lip. He licked his brushes to mold them into fine points. “You are beautiful.”

She stabbed a finger at the image. “That woman is grotesque.”

“Ethereal.” He hastily turned from the canvas, obviously reminded of, and uncomfortable with, her most recent depressive bout.

Dante blamed the laudanum, because he refused to accept the source of her illness. She never ate much when he was with his other women. At least by starving herself, she remained thin and pale, that figure men declared worthy of immortality, that figure of marmoreal skin, pointed shoulders and thick, blazing red hair. A month ago, just days before they were married, he was with Annie Miller, painting her, a privilege once reserved only for Lizzie. And then, Lizzie was sure, making love to the woman’s healthy, pillowy body, a body Lizzie could never, even in her first youth, hope to match.

+++

She was well again, and they took a health tour to Bath. At dinner in the hotel, Lizzie spat out, “It makes things bearable when you’re with one of your women.”

Dante checked if those seated around them had heard. “Guggums, please.” He used his pet name for her.

How she hated that name.

Almost as much as those other names: Annie Miller. Fanny Confirth. Women discovered, much as Lizzie was years ago, slaving away as a hat maker with no hope of escape. Their one grace: they were, and remained, what Dante and his cabal of fellow painters termed “stunners.” She’d once been a stunner. Illness and despair had robbed her.

Lizzie stood and went to their room. The laudanum bottle was no longer in the bag that stored her hairbrushes. She yanked open the dresser drawers, groped far back into the cedar smell, behind the shirts and undergarments, hoping perhaps she’d mistakenly put it somewhere else.

When Dante appeared at the door, she was on her knees, digging through the lowest compartments. How she must resemble a zoo ape trying to grab food just beyond reach outside its cage.

“The doctor said it would kill you.” His voice was cold, and she knew he had taken it.

“Where is it?” she demanded.

“Gone.” He came and stood above her. “For your own good.”

She wanted to strangle him. An occasional dose would hardly kill her, and every lady she knew now and then required its succor. What right had he to take this decision from her?

“Go away,” she said. “Be with the women you love.”

“You’re upset.”

She yanked a drawer out of its slot, and he backed away, hands up, heading for the door.

“Leave me alone.” She flung the drawer box at him, clothes spewing in a linen flower burst. The crash sent him scurrying.

+++

Cold water reached up her sides, cresting the two horns of her hipbones jutting from beneath her sodden dress. The depth was such Dante could envision Ophelia floating among the weedy trophies, her dress spread, mermaid-like.

After one of their early nights, he said, “I should take you to Italy. Then, it was his hipbones that stuck out. Pale points from his shadowed pubis.

“And when the sun burned me a deep brown?” she asked.

He rolled atop her, his body warm from earlier exertion. His draped and massy hair tickled her cheeks. “I would paint you.”

“You lie.”

“Perhaps not Italy.” She felt him stiffening again. “I sometimes think I’m living in the Dante’s shadow.”

Yet, he had changed his name. Son of an exiled Italian poet and translator, he was born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti. He had rearranged his names for their drama. Dante held the ultimate poetic cache. Gabriel the angel with the horn announcing the presence of the infinite. And Rossetti, exotic, elegant, the way he hoped his paintings were received. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

“O brave new world, that has such people it,” she said.

His eyes widened. “I’ve never met anyone like you Elizabeth Siddall.”

“My mother made sure of my lessons,” said Lizzie. Charming him seemed almost too easy. He hadn’t expected she would know the Bard. She recited, “In truth I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me.”

+++

Bobby said they should all go to the park and hunt red squirrels. He gave Lizzie a narrow look and she felt herself blush. Bobby called out notices for shops in Southwark, his voice clear, not buzzy like the voices of so many other young men and their intermediate state between boy and man. “Shoes cobbled,” he sang. “Bridle and tack. Knives sharpened.”

He already had a group enlisted, including Janice, a girl Lizzie knew from her street. Lizzie followed them to the park, but declined to help as they gathered rocks along the way.

Rolling a stone between his palms, Bobby said, “The red ones have the mark of Cain.”

“What’s the mark?” Janice asked, smile barely contained, staring at Lizzie.

“Red fur,” Bobby said. “Lucifer’s brand.”

“The mark of Cain is a scar,” Lizzie said. She’d read it in the primer her mother made her study every night.

“A black scar,” she continued. “Like spilled ink.”

“Listen to Miss Fancy.” Janice squeezed her face at Lizzie. “They say the devil talks pretty.”

Just inside the park gate, Lizzie was the first to see a squirrel. It watched them in profile with a single, glinting and marble-black eye. The squirrel clamped a nut in its claws and worked its mouth around the edge, rolling the thing with a potter’s skill, paws like the hands of a monkey. Mischievous animals have thumbs Lizzie thought.

“Red squirrel,” Bobby shouted. A fusillade of stones followed. The animal bolted,
zigzagging through the grass, and then spiraled up a tree trunk.

“That squirrel had brown fur,” Lizzie said. Brown, and a tail striped white and grey.

Bobby kicked at rocks half-buried in the dirt, dislodging more missiles. “Looked red.”

They spent the afternoon diving at squirrels like Indians, a gang, hooting and fearless. It didn’t matter the color of the squirrels fur. Any squirrel they saw they pronounced “red.” Lizzie wished an adult would order them to stop.

As the day progressed, their numbers dwindled, and near dusk, Lizzie found herself alone with Bobby. He touched her hair.

“Stellar,” his strong voice pronounced.

She smiled. His breath was hot on her face. He moved his hand downward, past her shoulder, to tickle along her breastbone. She slapped his hand away and ran.

Escape. After dodging trees for several minutes, she realized she headed the wrong way. Lizzie halted to catch her breath, and then walked for home, praying Bobby had done so as well.

She came around a broad oak. Janice was holding up her dress and Bobby’s hand touched between her legs. Janice leered at her like a greedy clown.

+++

She and Dante took a flat in Chatham. They weren’t married. She could never invite her sister for a visit. When Dante’s family paid a call, she hid in the bedroom. Even Dante’s friends were ignorant of their living arrangement.

But the small income Dante earned giving lessons allowed her untrammeled leisure. How luxurious it was, not bent over and punching a needle through cloth, stabbing your thumb, and then trying to ignore Mrs. Tozer’s grimace when you halted work to suck at the wound.

In the flat, they had no one but each other. They became recluses. Dante sketched her. Out of whim, she took up some of the same pencils.

“You’re quite good,” Dante told her. “I can teach you to be better.”

He purchased Lizzie her own reserve of paper and charcoal, paint and brushes for when she was ready. She took on subjects Dante and his compatriots, the Brotherhood, preferred: legends of the Round Table, scenes from the Odyssey with its bewitching women and supplicant men. Dante assured her one day her paintings would hang in the Exchange.

When she neared the completion of her first drawing, The Lady of Shallot, Dante suggested Lizzie change her name.

“My name?”

“Sign it with one L,” he said.

She wrote the word on paper. Siddal. There was symmetry, elegance to the consonant-vowel pair balanced on either side of the double-d.

And now her name was his product as well, the same way her face was his invention. In the mirror, Lizzie recognized her overly broad mouth, her heavy-lidded eyes. She certainly wasn’t the imperious lady of his Beatrice Scorns Dante. His paintings of her were a woman of his dreams.

The difference made Lizzie want to cower in her bed. The only truth was her crimson hair.

The lamps had gone out.

+++

After another of her melancholic bouts, they traveled to Hastings. The seaside sun and air were to do her good, increase her appetite, and clear her lungs of any possible consumption (hadn’t Simmons just died from it, and so young?)

Unpacking in the hotel, Lizzie found a vial of laudanum at the bottom of her valise. Dante had made her promise to leave any at home. She must’ve stowed it without thinking, as a matter of course.

But she abstained, for in Hastings her lethargy really did seem to pass. She woke early the third morning and took a stroll along the shore, the sand damp and firm from the receded tide. Dante was busy sketching the townscape. Only an occasional lone, distant figure violated her isolation.

The wind blowing onto shore invigorated her. She turned into it and closed her eyes, letting the salty current run fingers through her hair. With the warm sun, the rolling sigh of the waves, her dress fluttering behind her, Lizzie imagined she posed at the prow of a ship. She imagined herself a vessel’s figurehead, forever fixed in place and tossing above deep, green water.

A boy riding a pony came up alongside her. The animal’s backside was coated in sand and its hooves sank deep. She smiled at the boy even though she wished to remain alone. Between his teeth, he clenched an unlit pipe.

“You’re young for a pipe.”

His eyes widened. “You speak English.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” The wind curtained Lizzie’s hair around her face and she heaved it back with a toss of her head.

“Are there elephants where you come from?” the boy asked.

“Elephants? Shoo away, you’re being silly.” She walked.

The boy paced her, the pony’s head working up and down on each stride. The boy’s naked heels reached to the creature’s mid-rib.

“You’re from across the sea,” he said. “My mother says people with red hair come from the same place they capture the circus animals.”

“Don’t be rude.”

He reached out splayed fingers. He wanted to touch her hair.

She clasped herself and cut behind the pony, ran back up the beach. Her knees heaved against her dress, thrashing as fast as the dry sand allowed. Beneath her shawl, for there was a slight chill at the seaside, even in summer, was the hard roll of the laudanum bottle. Lizzie’s heart beat fast and a gust delivered an icy draught.

When she reached the town, people were making their way to the water. They stared at Lizzie as she rushed past. Their eyes jumped over her skin, then her hair. She saw thoughts register on their mean, little faces.

“Your mother can go to the devil,” she called out to no one. “Your mother can go to the devil.”

At a hotel off the main avenue, she requested a glass of water. She counted the drops. No more than two, added a third. It tasted especially bitter. That boy. The race from him, from his dirty fingers. He had frightened her terribly.

+++

The tub pressed at her heels. Lizzie raised her feet and the blood rushed into her calves, but her legs tired, and soon her dress again billowed in the water.

“Sit up straight.” Lizzie’s mother slapped her back with a wooden spoon. “Now, let me hear you.”
Lizzie read.

“Are you trying to whistle?” her mother demanded. The spoon came down on Lizzie’s naked thigh. It left a glowing, red welt. “The tongue must touch the front teeth.” She reinforced the command with another blow to Lizzie’s leg.

Her mother hated the way Bobby talked: “Nuffing.”

“You stay away from him,” her mother said. “He’s poorly raised.”

+++

But she had her revenge. Years later, but she had. She and Janice worked in Ms. Tozer’s millinery. In the evenings, Ms. Tozer had them wear bonnets and parade around Southwark, hoping women would ask where they had purchased such lovely hats.

Every night a man came and spoke to Janice. Lizzie had seen him from a distance. He had a young, buoyant tread and fervent eyes.

One morning Janice leaned conspiratorially over the stitch work. “He’s asked me to model for him.”

Lizzie did not look up from her needle. “A painter?”

“So he claims,” Janice whispered. “Tonight I will tell him yes.”

Lizzie followed Janice at a distance and watched as the artist approached. Earlier, she’d gulped a tincture to still her shaking. When Janice and the artist were engaged in conversation, Lizzie rushed towards them, removed her hat, and pulled out the pins holding up her hair, spilling it around her shoulders. “Janice, who is this gentleman?”

The man had a boy’s broad forehead and narrow chin. She thought him kittenish; wide, brilliant eyes, and a lean body.

His gaze followed the swirl of Lizzie’s red hair. He took her hand, an excuse to move closer. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” he said.

His flesh was dark against her skin. She stared at the divide between their palms like the line between day and night.

“I would very much enjoy painting you,” he said.

Janice huffed. “What about me?”

She turned on Janice, spinning her smile into a toothy grin. “Mr. Rossetti is the artist.”

“Ladies, you are both lovely.”

Janice pushed between then. “Look at her. She’s strange.”

“Striking,” Dante corrected.

Lizzie cast her head back. Warmth surged across her buttocks, up and through her arms. She focused on the sensation and wondered if the effect was laudanum or joy.

Dante let go. “Would you consent?”

Gauze closed over her thoughts, the trailing end of laudanum. Another drop would speed her mind, but she could not get away for a moment.

“My apologies, Mr. Rossetti,” Lizzie said. She forced words out of her mouth. “I was swept up by the honor and lost speech.”

“Please. Dante.” He tilted his head. “We are forging a new path.”

Lizzie hummed along for a moment, but then realized she was becoming dreamy again and brought herself around to Dante’s face.

His hair was long and curly. He remained a boy who needed a mother’s reminder to get it cut. He said, “Tell me, will you sit for my easel?”

+++

He was always drawing her. “You’re quite mad,” she overheard his friend Ford Maddox remark. Their sitting room was stacked with paper, each sheet bearing her likeness. She loved the compulsion. In her presence, his pencil always whisked at paper. Jane Burden certainly might be lovelier, Fanny Cornfirth might also have skin like alabaster, but he didn’t spend all day drawing them. He drew her, forgoing sleep, forgoing food. They were his models, his sometime lovers, but she was his Beatrice.

“And why won’t he marry you?” her sister asked.

She pressed him on the issue. “Once my paintings sell, I will,” Dante said. He flipped his sketchbook to a clean sheet, dove onto the page. “I could hardly ask for your hand and then not provide you with a decent home.”

+++

She modeled for his Twelfth Night — Viola in disguise. Other girls laughed at her refusal to wear a corset, her body like a scaffold supporting skirts that hung from her shoulders. And yet here she was in a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy. With her sitting fee, she’d purchased a new dress. She bought her mother a set of combs; for where else had she inherited her most distinguished feature if not from her mother?

John Ruskin published a review in The Times. Janice brought the paper into Mrs. Tozer’s shop. “Lizzie, you are mentioned,” Janice said. “You’ve gained notice.”

“Do read it,” Lizzie said, trembling, alive with possibility.

She barely heard the preamble — “skill with which we have noticed in this self-christened Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” — and then a summing up of the work’s qualities, techniques that heralded a new school. “The one detriment is the unfortunate type chosen for the face of Viola.” Janice spoke in an even, pleasant tone as if she read aloud from a summer romance. “She displays an uninspiring commonness of feature.”

There was more, but Lizzie didn’t listen and only stared at her idle fingers piled in her lap like unlit tapers. Possibility was forgotten. Cloth and thread were her lot. If only Dante had painted her hair. Mrs. Tozer and Janice went back to their lacework, pulling silently the rest of the day. But Lizzie watched Janice, who, whenever she thought Lizzie glanced elsewhere, smiled.

+++

And now the lamps had gone out. She shivered. Ripples sloshed back and forth.

Workmen were hauling the basin up the back stairs. She kept to her room, not in the mood for their glances or their remarks. Men their age commented on her hair, but their eyes roamed her body.

Then the tincture bloomed in her chest. She felt expansive. She went out and watched the men step the tub up the stairs, two in front, two in back, their grunts heavy in the stairwell, the odor of sweat wafting up on a draft. The rear pair caught sight of her and faltered, the men above them suddenly under the tub’s full weight.

The howls satisfied her and she went back to her room.

+++

A gathering at Ford Maddox’s home. “Lizzie,” Dante said. “May I present John Ruskin.”

The name made her start. She remembered. The critic whose words were thunder. Yet here in the salon, Ruskin, muttonchops grown wild like brooms, appeared much less than a terror. She almost laughed. She turned the impulse into an upturned mouth, bowed her head in case her smile grew wider. “An honor to meet you.”

“The honor is mine.” He took her hand, and his eyes, of course, jumped around her head. His grip was strong and thick, toughened along the lifeline, the same place drovers grew calluses from the daily working of reins and whips.

“Mr. Ruskin has made a fantastic offer,” Dante said.

Ruskin glanced at Dante, who retreated an inch. “Dante took the liberty of showing me your drawings.”

Lizzie tightened her stomach, ready for the patronizing rebuke, an assessment of her inferiority.

“Don’t be frightened,” Ruskin said. “Immediately, upon viewing them, I had to have them. I would very much like to purchase your drawings.”

“My drawings?” She searched his face for the lie.

“In particular, the Lady of Shallot.”

This must be a laudanum dream. In a few hours, she’d wake to the cold bedroom, Dante’s sketches of her looming on the walls, the creak of floorboards from the rooms above. She would pull the sheets tighter and wish she could remain in bed forever.

“I would like to put you on a stipend,” Ruskin continued. “So that any further work you produce, I acquire.”

Dante had regained his vigor and positively danced around the two of them. “Such an honor,” he said.

“You are what I like to call a primordial genius.” Ruskin said. “A glimpse of the artistic future.”

In place of joy, as sure as the warmth that followed a few drops, arrived knowledge. She was a genius as she’d always suspected, equal to the men surrounding her, the men who declared each other’s brilliance, yet harbored the conviction that they were the true prodigy, and at the same time worried a compatriot would be the historical figure. It made them hate one another.

Now she had the truth.

“I graciously accept,” Lizzie said.

“Of course you do.” Ruskin pinched a button on his coat. The gold disk shone like a treasure coin plucked from a lost hoard.

+++

The same smile on Fanny Confirth’s lips. “Why don’t you come to the picnic?”

Lizzie refused. Dante and his painter friends and Fanny bound for a week in the countryside. Fanny would model and the men would laugh and drink (except Dante, he never touched the stuff, even when she urged on him a nip at dinner or before bed when she was in a good mood, wanting him share in her elation, her humming freedom) and paint outdoors, painting from true light and color and objects, rather than from an academy tutor’s idea of reality.

Not with Fanny, her accent like rocks falling down a hill. Her expressions simultaneously dull and uncouth. But Fanny, with her cow eyes and broad, moony face, was also more beautiful than Lizzie could ever hope to be. Lizzie was distinguished rather than beautiful, a pallid queen, not a bold princess.

It had rained all week. Dante came home with a single sketch.

Upon seeing her he remarked, “You are too thin.”

“I had no appetite,” she said. “You and that woman. I failed to see the point.”

“Of her?”

“Of eating.” The laudanum coursed through her. She repressed an urge to laugh, feigned sadness. Then she laughed, thinking of the weeklong downpour, imagining the wet and wretched Fanny, her curls draping her plump cheeks the way clothes were plastered over rocks after washer-women had thoroughly beaten them.

The gray sky, the rain, the dull colors, and all those artists sitting in a room so damp the fire only supplicated a faint heat. Oh, what a story! What sweet revenge!

“It’s not funny, Miss Sid.” He held her weedy arm, clearly upset at her emaciation. Saints were divinely thin. “Come let’s find something to eat.”

+++

The news was all about Ruskin. His wife had sued for divorce, and won. Five years married, and she won on the grounds the union was unconsummated.

How Dante laughed. “They say his only acquaintance with the female form was from paintings. He’d no idea women grew hair in the same places.”

A letter arrived. She recognized Ruskin’s handwriting and wondered if he required commiseration, a friend’s shoulder. He apologized, but his stipend was no longer affordable. He prayed she understood: court costs, granting his wife an income, a separate home. It was all out of his hands.

+++

Though now, in the tub, her stomach scraped inside her like a bony fist. She was unbearably hungry.

Once, before they were married, she went a week without food. He was with Fanny again and she was determined to torture him.

“You must eat,” Dante said.

The laudanum made her not mind hunger, but that was not the reason she neglected food. Before she ever began laudanum, she often fell into a sadness that stripped her of hunger.

“Food does not interest me.” She believed she might go forever.

A doctor arrived, bringing a cloud of tobacco and camphor oil. “Curvature of the spine,” he said.

“But she refuses nourishment.” Dante. “She’s listless. Despondent.”

The doctor rolled her onto her stomach. “She is constantly bent over an easel or in a contorted pose for you.”

“That causes her state?”

A finger traced her spine and crawled up her neck. “The vertebral nerves feed directly to the brain. Deform one and the other follows.”

Dante grunted. “Thank you.”

“It’s the only cure,” the doctor said.

After the man left, Lizzie mumbled against the pillow. “He wants me to give up my work.”

Dante kneeled. “Never.”

The lamps were out. She was thirsty. Again stirred the pangs of hunger.

“It’s for my own good.”

The cold water had taken her warmth.

“Dash my family. I will marry you,” Dante said. “You can never give up art. You are my model.”

The lamps. She so desperately wanted to say something. She must not.

 

Stefen Styrsky’s work has appeared in “The Offing,” “Inch” and “The Tahoma Literary Review.” His website is www.stefenstyrsky.com. Stefen Styrsky also writes film reviews for Litbreak Magazine.

 

 

 

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