Still Life by Rachel Kendal

still life

by Rachel Kendal

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Ahunger for flesh desire. But not for taste, because the pleasure does not flower from bud to blossom in the fissure of an open mouth. Neither does it bleed through the pores in a salted skin du jour to lick clean with a dry hooked tongue. It is not found in the whisper of a breath like distant purring, nor the scent of sweat long turned stale. The pleasure — the hunger sate — lies in the sight, the appearance. And any person who enjoys upon them the gaze of the voyeur is rich in temptation like the serpent. An exquisite, vulnerable serpent on whose scabrous form the artist will never cease to tread.

Three mirrors to provide three sides of the same face: the lie, the truth, the imagination.

Candles melted the air into suspended dusk, drawing the ceiling in tones of pink and yellow, casting an ashen shadow over gauze. A book lay open on a wooden block, the chopping block, with a basket beneath to capture the bloodied scraps. The pages were a manifestation of colour and shadow, makeup, blending, touching up and toning down. Notes and symbols in pencil, words underlined — a subtext written by the artist’s hand. Guinevere was the artist. She was the defacer and the self-defaced, the God, the voyeur, the introvert and the exhibitionist. And tonight she was going to try something new.

Creatively mutable and of fertile mind. Hair raked back from clean scrubbed face. A kimono wrapped and fastened tightly around her childish waist. A rapid movement, a flickering of the hand. Eyes pierced their reflection; eyes times eyes times eyes times eyes. In her hands a whisk and a glass bowl, pestle and mortar. She annihilated the egg white into a creamy cream and then rubbed the gluey paste onto her face. And idea stolen straight from the book. She had tried her pancake makeup, moisturisers, foundations, powders. And today had learned of an age old trick for whitening the skin. A natural cosmetic from a plain old chicken egg.

Full lips powdered in white, darker in the cracks, like parchment; eyes pastilled in ochre, sunken, shadowed. And now her face was a void, a creamy white mask to conceal the salubrious glow which usually surrounded her like an aureole. She let down her hair, a dark mane that alighted on her shoulders like a flock of birds with feathered feet to grip the flesh. The look had a certain charm, a quality that was more realistic than her previous attempts. Still, it did not really meet expectations. There was charm, yes, but no solid structure, no molecular motion to bring the vision to life. Ha, irony. But isn’t that what art stands for? It is irony in its most singular form, a parody, a juxtaposition, a complimentary disagreement, a hybridism. It is black and white in colour, depth in superficiality, love in hate and life in death. She dropped her kimono.

Naked, draped on the bed, limbs silken, hair like lace, eyes of velvet agate. Unblinking, tunnel vision, tuned into space, a dead star. Arms open in commandment, legs parted, bestial, folded and scrapped like the victim of a sex crime. The sparse mound of hairs below her navel were beaded with sweat and her nipples were erect as though ready to give nutrition. This game always aroused her. It was the tincture of aphrodisia in her exorbitance, her exuberance, her extroversion. In putting on the mask she was erasing her spectral genesis. She was Venus in a death shroud; she was Persephone at the gates of the Underworld. She was a genius. But still it was not right.

She sighed and rolled off the bed, covered her body in silk, sat down and began to scour away her outer skin. Pasted to the mirror and the reflection which presided there, were photographs dotted like a verse, chorus, verse, tomes I and II, pre and post. Pictures of herself, the watcher and the watched. Her face stared out in the same guise over and over. A death pallor that lacked the fruits of cessation. She had not bothered to take a snap shot of today’s effort, it would be a waste of a frame.

And there were other pictures. Other girls, other faces, other flesh. These were her guides, her mentors and her work. She had photographed them to retain the image, the perfect moment. Because in reality it would never last.

She showered, slipped on a lace black dress which revealed her perfect shoulder blades and spine. She knotted her hair, stepped into black stilettos. The mirror in the bathroom was steamed up, weeping in condensation, condescension. She wiped it down and painted her lips like a cut. Admired her look, stained her wrists and throat with the perfume of voodoo and then she left the house.

 

*

It was an early morning return and she recognised the rich smell as soon as she stepped through the front door. Moist, malodorous, malignant. It was faint, but still she wondered how she could not have noticed it earlier. Smeared lipstick, a saline rim around her lips from the man she had just tasted. Hair ripped down, almost taken from the scalp. Her thighs ached with a heat, bite marks patterned her back and the scruff of her neck from a vicious act of love-making. Now all she wanted to do was sleep. Alcohol had drained the energy from her body, her insides permeated with its impure properties. To sleep, to dream . . . But first, the smell. She had to get rid of it. This was the one thing she hated, the smell. And the decay.

The bathroom. Rose coloured bath. Candles dotted around the floor had leaked their waxy essence in globules of white and red, Guinevere’s favourite colours. The symbolism of evil good, virgin whore, still life. She kneeled before the enamel casing of the bath as though in worship, slipped her fingers into the crack at the edge. When she first moved into this flat she had considered making a complaint to the landlord about this broken, removable piece. And then she had discovered its properties. By some form of magic she had found it to be the perfect storage compartment.

The girl was all bunched up and Guinevere turned her face away in disgust as a sirocco of death perfume ate at her nostrils. She was tucked up in utero, knees up to her face, feet turned in on one another, hands twisted on brittle wrists, torso ragged and creased. Sea urchin water logged twists of hair limbs like tendrils,

left overs. Rigormortis had long since departed, leaving in its wake this velvety pulp, soft sand patterns of blissed out skin. Guinevere grabbed the girl by her rough edges and heaved. The body flopped out like a fish. The artist hated this. She was always cursing herself for leaving it so long. She ought to destroy the body as soon as it had served its purpose.

The girl was disintegrating. Her beauty had faded as beauty does. She had journeyed past the stage of pearly queen with eyes barely glazed, lips still tinged in pink, body just beginning to cool. This girl’s flesh had turned a slight blue hue, a bitter tangle of veins that felt strange to Guinevere’s fingertips. Around her throat a trace of wire was still embedded in the skin, the wire which Guinevere had used to kill her.

In truth it was all mimicry. This one and that one. Guinevere was trying to capture something special, a twin gem, even just an essence, of the girl she had discovered that night in the park. Dead on arrival. Strung out on gravel, bathed in moonlight, starlight, stoned like a statue. Her face serene, almost smiling like a Mona or a Lisa, fingers closed tightly around a silver cross at her throat, skirt hitched up to reveal thick thighs, long legs, bare feet. Guinevere had studied her closely, this Japanese girl with golden skin and sensual black eyes. Had turned her over, fascinated like a child trying to find the name of the manufacturer. How had the death instinct become so strong? She saw ripped clothes, gravel crudely forced into skin, a small pooling of blood. This girl who had jumped from the old bridge was perfect. Guinevere had taken her home.

And now, an eon later, she had the body of a different girl in her arms, a girl of woad, and still she had not found a trace of that near smile, that serenity. It was the way they died, with fear in their eyes and a scream on their lips. It spoiled the effect. Perhaps now she had reached the top of the hierarchy of her creativity, the level of self-actualisation. Perhaps finally the artist in Guinevere would merge with the woman. Perhaps tonight things would take a different turn.

She huddled the body quietly into the car and drove away, wine-filled veins pumping their elixir around her body as the exhaust fumes fired the night air with a Hiroshima poison.

A dark embrace of soil and clay did not even render a look of surprise from the girl in the grave. Festering eyes and open mouth filled with earth soon to translate into dank bliss for the worms and the maggots. Somewhere around here those blind pink and brown digits would be dancing through the humus and feasting on another six bodies. Ruined, empty, each one a fraction in Guinevere’s creative search for the perfect semblance of Still Life, the title of her current piece of work. She had long since passed the submission date to the gallery but it was not something she could just give up on. It had taken a hold of her mind, as though an accommodating section of her brain had expanded and enlarged to destroy all other thought processes. She could not just say goodbye to something so consuming, so intoxicating. And it came to her now that what she had been doing was all wrong, using these girls. It was not a remorse she felt, a guilt, it was simply annoyance at a waste of time. As she tore at dead leaves with her shovel, her heels sinking into soft soil, her brow creased with exertion, she knew it was the right and only moment, the only way to get the picture she desired, to make the piece complete. She had everything she needed right here and it was to be the grandest finale every played out on a live stage.

Her camera, her tool, her melody maker, was in the boot of the car. With trembling hands, for excitement had risen to invigorating propensities, she combed her hair and tucked loose strands into place. She reapplied her lipstick and wiped the dirt from her dress. She darkened her eyebrows and picked the soil from beneath her nails. She was feverish, eager, perfect for an epilogue.

The camera had a timing device, all she needed to do was set it to go off in a few seconds. That would be all the time she needed, all the time in the world, all the time she was owed. She balanced it on the ledge where she sat with her legs dangling, the hem of her black dress pulled taut around her thighs. From where she rested on top of the old bridge she could see the gravel path directly below where she had found her prize one night a lifetime ago. She had no time for thoughts now, to time for last minute thanks, no time for a threnody. She swallowed a last trace of adrenaline-flavoured saliva, and let go . . . She hit the ground like a bomb, sending stones flying out like shrapnel, her legs broken, her head cut, her fingers clutching the ankh around her throat, one shoe on, one shoe off, her eyes calm, her mouth contemplating a smile . . . The camera did not flash. It lay before her, shattered, brought to the ground as its owner leapt to her death, brought to the ground without a single shot of the most perfect picture of death, a still life.

 

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