by Tomas Beranek
Pen to Print Short Story Competition 2018/19 Runner-Up
This is what I remember from the afternoon she began to work on my face. The moment she carved my lips with a small gap, which was big enough to feel the cold air frisking inside me in circles. Even though I couldn’t really tame the air and take it as mine, it was still close enough to think of it as breathing. For that, I was entirely grateful. She outlined my jaw next and I could feel the definition and sharpness of the imaginary bone emerging underneath the clay. Then she filled the empty space above my lips with a nose. And even though I could not seem to use it right, as I couldn’t recognize any scents that the space around me was surely filled with, I wasn’t upset. The eyes made up for it. I remember receiving my eyes, and with them the gift of seeing that I had waited for like the patient child I was then.
An image of a room. A room with three windows. A room filled with warmth, walls filled with paintings. Her paintings. The image of her sitting with crossed legs on a pedestal made of three wooden boxes that had once contained cheap chardonnay. There was something intimate in the way she held her sketchbook. Her hands carried the dark marks of homemade charcoal that she had made the same day she made me. Her eyes were fixated on the paper that started to purr under the heavy weight of the lines she drew so urgently. I wanted to ask her if she’d show me the picture. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move my lips. That was the way she created me.
Her. The woman that gave me life. My mother. She was so beautiful. I spent hours and hours looking at those delicate features of her face and imagining if my own face could compare to that kind of beauty. You know, in that you-look-just-like-your-mother kind of way. I studied the sharp lines of her jaw, the way it disappeared under her long, thick hair tied up in messy ponytail most of the time, with two, sometimes even three pencils stuck in it. I remember wishing my hair could be freed from the clay somehow, the roots growing like a first grass appearing after so many joyless, hungry winters, covering the nude and vulnerable surface of Earth.
That was all then. I don’t know how many months or years have passed since I last saw my mother. Her wrinkles could be now spread across her whole face as delicate maps created by time and too much of that cheap chardonnay. Her hair could be snowy white waterfalls covering her entire body. Perhaps she was laying down with her eyes closed in a place where no eyes could see her. Or she was still alive sitting in a rocking chair, sipping liquor instead of her afternoon tea.
I am stuck here. Different room. The room with no windows. The room full of empty, dull walls too cold and hostile to call it home. I truly hate being positioned in the middle of this empty, unwelcoming space. But there is no other choice. No possibility to escape. The most difficult part is seeing people constantly walk pass me. All day, every hour, each minute. Always engaged in some kind of movement. A fast train in motion that I cannot take a seat in. There are just a few of them that actually take time to stop and examine me in detail. Like this kid. He might be in his early teens, maybe even the same age as me, but for some reason he looks even younger with his index finger exploring depths of his left nostril. Disgusting, but strangely entertaining at the same time.
I do not take particular pleasure in taking enjoyment in a boy sticking a finger up his nose, but you see, examining humans is the only way I can amuse myself. He looks at me with the expression of pure curiosity that I get to see so rarely. His head tilted to one side, his hazel eyes bulging with fascination, his half-open mouth failing to keep long strand of saliva from escaping and ruining his dove white shirt.
‘Fuck!’’ yells the boy, his voice coloured with surprise and frustration, rubbing the dark spot on his shirt with the kind of intensity, no, urgency, that I have seen somewhere before. In her drawings, filled with urgency. Her squeezing the bottle, urgently. Her, desiring to sell me.
A woman, sitting on a gray plastic bench placed on the left, next to my stand, stands up and walks up to the boy. They are now facing each other and even though they are the same height, there is undeniable aura of authority rising from the woman’s posture, her body filled with tension, eyes fixated on the poor boy’s face, fists clenched. The creator dissatisfied with her creation.
‘Anthony Niziałek, do my ears deceive me or did I just hear what I think I’ve heard?’
‘What did you hear, ma’?’
‘Nah, mamma. I – I said yuck, cause I think that sculpture looks weird.’
‘What are you talking about? I think this is a very interesting piece of art.’
‘That’s because you’re an artist. All artists have no sense of style.’’
My mother was an artist, but not very successful one. I knew this because sometimes, she would come into my room to show her frustration. She talked to pictures, cursed people for not buying them. Screaming. Drinking. Tearing the new, blank canvas off the easels. It wouldn’t end there. She would often turn her anger against me. She would punch my fragile head, which would then fall off the wire and roll into a corner of the darkened room. It would stay there the whole night. Those nights were terrible, because there was nothing I could do about it. My body simply could not walk off the stool and pick up my head.
So I dreamed. I dreamed of a day mother’s art would finally sell for tons of money and she could come to my room with a bottle of wine that for once wouldn’t be there to drown her sorrow but to celebrate. With all of her children. With me. I would imagine her dancing around me, then touching my unfinished face and softly stroking my cheek, while smiling at me. Everything’s gonna change, little one, she’d say with tears in her eyes. And I’d be so happy, so alive.
She would find my shapeless head the next morning. With a silent growl of disapproval, she’d pick it up and placed it on top of the wire sticking up from my neck like a dried up, rusty vain. It didn’t hurt, I mean physically. It never did. I have never felt any physical pain. My body was a shell, unyielding, and motionless. A piece of art in making. A potential warranty of my mother’s name becoming immortal. Which it did, I think. After all, I got sold and her name is now imprinted on a small label positioned on the bottom of my stand alongside with my name. Offspring. Offspring of her love. Bearer of her resemblance. Me.
‘Nasty, just nasty!’
A raspy voice cuts through the air, killing off my train of thought. I look down. The woman and the boy are gone. Where they stood moments ago stands a balding man in oversized overcoat. He looks straight at me with the expression combining anger, confusion and… disgust? Yes, that was it. Disgust.
‘Hey Marnie, come over here. Look at that. That’s what they call art now.’ roars the man over one shoulder, dry lips shaped into smug smirk.
Marnie is a thin woman with enormous fur coat. Her beaver brown ushanka covers almost her entire face that is filled with wrinkles deep as cuts. She looks as if she is made from the cheapest, the most fragile clay in the world. She studies a small label with mine and mother’s name on it. I have always wondered who wrote it. If it was mother, what did she say about me? How did she describe me? Would it give me clues about my appearance?
‘They call it modern art, Marv. I’ve read an article in Daily Mail about that stuff. This kind of thing can sell for millions.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t pay one red cent for such a piece of shit.’’
‘You’re absolutely right. The woman who made it must’ve been one strange duck.’
‘Yeah, crazy bitch.’’ murmured the old man, his grin even wider.
I could see his rotting teeth growing in his gums like ancient stones waiting to be destroyed by the hand of time. The pair walks off and leaves me filled with bubbling anger that was never meant to burst to surface. My mouth is sealed and so is my body.
There is a sudden noise coming from the right side of the room. I look at its direction, glad for the distraction. There are four men carrying something huge and heavy, judging from the dark-red colour of their faces.
‘You know what, let’s take a five. This motherfucker’s heavy as hell and there are four more rooms we need to get through,’ says one of the men gasping for air. There are a few nods and growls of relief from the other three men as they put the heavy thing down and walk away.
It is an enormous mirror positioned in pompous golden frame. There, I can see small figures of centaurs chasing each other, two minotaurs clashing heads and long-haired nymphs engaged in some sort of a dance. Forever frozen in the bottom part of the frame. I look up, straight into silvery clearness of the mirror. There is some thing, living in the mirror, looking straight at me. Its body is deformed and skeletal, as if the deadly pale skin is the only thing that keeps its visible bones together. The joints that connect the bones are too big for its body, sticking out from the surface as bare tops of mountains, filled with lines thin as thread that I am sure will turn into deep cracks in a few years. And few years after that, the bones will disjoint. Its neck is a long snake trying to find its way to what has to be a head.
The head is a skinless non-human skull with empty sockets staring at me from its blind darkness. Instead of a nose the creature has a beak that could not belong to any living bird as it has little sharp teeth rising from the darkness beneath as cruelly white icebergs rising from a sea. The head is the most peculiar feature of the creature’s body. It is terrifying. It is the image that I am doomed to be haunted by. Because it is me. My mother’s finest creation. A beast, hunting children, revolting adults. I was never meant to be perceived as her reflection. I am Offspring. Offspring of every fear, every demon, every empty bottle, every gallery owner that she got rejected by. I am disgust for old men, a peculiarity for young boys. I stare at the image of me and while it stares back at me, the ideals of my mother, of me slowly crumble away like a clay.
Copyright Tomas Beranek 2019
I look up, straight into silvery clearness of the mirror. There is some thing, living in the mirror, looking straight at me.