Instructor: Kate Webb
The Unraveled Girl
The Unraveled Girl
There is a girl sitting on a chaise in the center of a bleak room. Rusted golds and red velvets surround her. A bowl of plums sit, rotting, on the windowsill. Sunlight baldly dusts the easel that stands in front of them like a lone prophet beneath a halo. There is no canvas on the easel, and the ink has been spilled, all the brushes swept aside. She looks all around her at the paintings on the walls. Strange, phantasmal faces stare her down from every corner of the room. There's something incongruous about them: a mouth where an eye should be; the red of blood in bloodless places; and a certain vacancy, a bleakness, like peering through an open window into a dark, colorless winter.
Venus steps into the room now, the door echoing behind her for hours. She says to the girl, "You like my paintings?"
"You made all these?" the girl asks. It must have taken years to fill each of these walls.
"Yes," Venus answers. "I used to be an artist, you know. Not a writer or a singer or anything like that; only an artist. I made beautiful things."
The girl has never seen her face before. Venus always wears five veils, each sewn over the other, around her head, and her body is cloaked in satin. Every part of her is hidden except for her hands. When she is standing, she keeps them clasped together behind her back. When she sits, she rests them on the table in front of her, always curled around a fruit or around the air, always seeking the brush, aching to create, to give life.
"Why did you stop painting?" the girl asks.
Venus stands behind her, shadow spilling over the chaise. "My art demanded too much. No matter what I fed it, the canvas asked for more. It took and it took and it hardly gave me a thing in return. Now, there is nothing left of me."
"Do you miss it, painting?"
"Oh, no. In my retired years, I've had a lot of time to think, too much time. I wondered, what is paint to blood? Canvas to the breathing, moving shine of skin? Nothing. If I ever wanted to paint again, I knew I needed a muse."
The words escape the girl's mouth in plumes of blue smoke. "And that's why you brought me here."
"Yes." Venus's fingers begin to dance around the slope of the girl's jaw. She is pale, and so stiff she may be made of mud and clay. "When I saw you, it was like feeling rain for the first time. I knew then: I could make something out of you." Venus's crooning voice comes, quiet, from the cave of her veils. "What would you like me to do?"
The girl stares straight ahead. A man's black, probing eyes gaze back at her, as if he is seeing her and reminiscing life beyond the rusting frames of the canvas. She pleads, "Deconstruct me. Build me again."
"Because," the girl says, "I want to be beautiful."
As a formality, Venus sits her down in front of the easel. Of course, there would be no paints or half-fashioned pencil sketches; but here, the process feels familiar. As Venus circles her, the girl thinks of when it first struck her, sitting alone on bathroom floors, gazing into cracked mirrors. She recalls the bitter sting of adolescence, how frail she felt when she saw herself and, for the first time, watched her body decay. There were the raw scars on her cheeks where the acne had been clawed off. The hypnotic blackness of her eye pressed to the glass, her coltish fingers straining the eyelids apart, seeing the red tissue surround the white and knowing that, on the inside, red tissue was all she was. The infinity in wrapping her hands around her own body and seeing the fat pool between each finger, and the burn of dead air in her lungs as she sucked her breaths in and became small.
"I think everyone is beautiful," Venus says. "Isn't that a lovely thought? We're all pretty things, on the inside but our bodies are diseased. We sag and we wrinkle. Fissures come to our skin. But when we strip away the sickness, piece by piece, we'll find the pretty thing buried beneath."
A nervous joy flutters through the girl. She feels it in between her ribs and in the pits of her stomach.
Venus's fingertips no longer dance across her face—they scope, they calculate, like the tip of a scalpel between a surgeon's fingers. The girl thinks of long-gone winters when she was a child, the snow speckling her skin, cold and enchanting.
"Sit still now," Venus instructs. "Have a cigarette."
She feels beauty's first aches along her temples, the other woman's nails sinking, the pinch. The scalpel makes its first incision. The room fades in and out in shades of blue and the portrait no longer gazes back at her with the expression of a rodent caught in a snare and her eyes fall, like alien fruit, into Venus's open palms—
(See now: The girl, as she was, whole. The worn blue dress. She is so thin she is hardly there. Taffeta hangs off her wasted limbs. Think of vines sagging off the bent brambles of a willow tree. She is sitting on the dresser in her mother's bedroom, watching the woman shed her face, become beautiful. Snakes must shed their skins every few months, or their dead cells smother them. The body cannot remain forever. See the subject in blue taffeta;)
and then, the girl sees nothing more.
Venus plucks two roses from a pink china vase, and she presses them into the gaps of the girl's eyes. Where there had been a hollow, vacant cold, there is now the weight and the warmth of the wilting petals, the morning dew falling down her face like tears. "You will get used to the empty space," Venus says. Her liquid voice dances on her lips, and the girl envisions honey dripping from the corners of a mouth, curved around the spoon.
Venus sucks on the sawed-off end of a stem, inspecting her piece from all angles. She clicks her tongue, discards the flower to the floor, and brings her hands to the girl again. Fingertips, ghostly, hover over the middle of her. Venus reaches deep beneath skin, beneath flesh, into the interior. She fishes through organ and tissue. Her hands are as red as war, and gentle, so gentle. She pries the ribs out of the body and like an origami doll, the girl folds in on herself—
(Space. A woman always feels the space she holds pressing against her. The snakeskin tightens. She was sitting on the bus when Venus first saw her. Legs crossed. Spine bent. She had been born small. Small dresses, small soda cups, small pains. But soon, she changed: Her limbs lengthening, skin loosening. Blue taffeta tears. She remembers her mother's embrace swallowing her, afraid of its bigness, the doomed omens of age;)
and the girl can never embrace again.
For a moment, both women are still. The girl hears Venus's breathing—frantic, elated. She thinks of her mother on the day she was born; she had heard that breathing before, touching her mother's gray smile, the tired look in her eyes. Had she known then, looking at her only daughter, of the sickness she would inherit? The one that stirs in every woman's blood and passes from one daughter to the next? The one that her grandmother before her had tried to comb out her frizzy hair and that her daughter's daughter would surrender herself beneath the surgeon's scalpel to cure?
She feels dizzy. The chair rocks her like the warm lap of a relative and she only realizes she is falling to the floor when she feels the dull thud of impact.
"I'm sorry," Venus murmurs. She says it again and again until the words slur together. "I'm sorry. I know it hurts. I'm sorry. Aren't you gonna be gorgeous?"
Now the girl feels those hands—the cold, cracked flesh of an artist worn down by her craft—dig into the roots of her hair. She feels her mother's black hunger as she looks into the mirror, the hunger to shed her skin, there is hunger in her collapsed stomach and in every inch of her body, and Venus's nails dig canyons into her scalp as she pulls back skin, pulls, tears—
(Years ago she sat under that old willow tree and the bark dug grooves into her back. Mama, can't you peel off the bark, peel off the hurt? You can try, girl, but it'll take years. Wear your fingers down to stubs. How can a thing breathe when it's covered—covered in bark, blue taffeta, skin? Strip. The girl must strip, she can't breathe. Years have passed. She has grown, she will grow, but there will always be the thing molding around her, always—)
and all at once, she breathes. She breathes so deep the air fills all the emptiness in her.
The tap of Venus's shoes echo against the tiled floor. She circles the girl, admiring her own work as she has done so many times before. The room is pink; every corner of it, every drop of wax from the burning candle, littered over the lampshades and the soft velvet sofas. The girl and her insides are scattered all throughout the room, and they are pink and shining.
Venus lets out a low, humming laugh. "It hurts, doesn't it?"
The girl tries to nod, but there is nothing left of her to nod with.
"Oh," Venus says, "but you're beautiful."
Her voice is so full of joy, it's close to bursting. She picks the unraveled girl up off the floor and holds her, gently, for a second. Venus wipes the dust from her face and the thing that used to be her body and sets her down on the chair again, where the light falls over her and washes away every blemish. And in her ache, in her agony, the girl finds her mouth somewhere in the ruins of herself, and smiles. She wonders, if Venus were to take off each shawl, one by one, beneath the faint blue light, would she be beautiful too? Unraveled, cured, free?
"My God." Hearing the woman's voice waver, the girl knows she must be crying. "My God. I have made something beautiful."
(See now: Venus, as she was, as a girl. Cradling her head, pressed up to the cool bathroom tile. Before the silks and shiny things, it was love. She wanted the whole world's love. Love that made you live forever. She wanted love. Could she pry it out of a boy's heart? Dig it out the center of the earth? No. Not there. Where? She knew this: she would not find it between these grimed white tiles. She brushed the hair out of her wet eyes. Stood up. In the mirror, in her own eyes, she saw all she wished to be and un-be, all at once, like the half-flash of a fading dream. Stretching. She could not breathe. Something in her was too big for her body. Her nails dug into her flesh. Strip. She must strip. Let it out. Let the love gush into her open wounds. Mother said, braiding her hair, wipe the dirt off your face and a good man will love you. Paint your face. Cut a little of the fat on your stomach off. Someone will love you. But mother, I want the whole world. Well, girl, it doesn't want you. When she finished with herself in the mirror, she was all pink. Nothing of her still beat but the frail, gasping lungs. And she was beautiful.)