by Clio Velentza
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Lore paints her face on everything. There is nobody to stop her; Father is always away and Mother is now a kindly young poplar, growing from the headstone of her grave. The nursemaid is fond of little Lore’s art and lets her fill the tablecloths, the walls, the floorboards with her scribbles. For her eighteenth birthday, Lore is given the keys to the house, the termination of nursemaid’s duties and a dazzling array of oil paints and brushes.
Lore attempts to paint the garden pond, the beech trees by the canal, the lustrous crockery and the dim copper of the aspic molds. Her art, emboldened by a series of deferential tutors, is tolerable: the pond looks like a pond, and the kitchen pump looks every bit its massive, imperious self. She sends sketches to Father and he sends back his congratulations. He suggests that, now that his accomplished young lady has mastered this craft, perhaps she would consider mastering the old piano, or take up the patronage of un vrai artiste.
Lore writes back to thank him and sends her dutiful love, but when the letter leaves she takes her pruning shears and cuts every single one of the piano strings which snap, whipping her hands with vengeance at their release. Father’s reply comes soon after. He has found a bohéme for her – an artist complete with secondhand gloves, debts to persons of ill-repute, and talent coming out of his threadbare cuffs. He is sending the young man over, with his hopes that his daughter will seize the chance to refine her skills as a hostess and patroness.
Lore has only a few days left to be Lore who paints, Lore who cuts the piano strings, Lore unchecked. She unfurls a blank canvas and cuts and trims it to a portrait. She stares out of the window at the dove-gray hills and their treacherous green hollows, clutches her pencil and, as the light casts the outline of her head onto the easel, she draws that. She sketches herself from the back, half turned as if to someone calling her name.
She doesn’t sleep, eat, take tea or answer calls. She piles paint on the canvas and scrapes it off again. Her hands are heavy and tired, but reckless with her tools. She paints her skin shadowy and warm, her hair thick and wild. The girl on the canvas has most of her face hidden, but the side of the mouth and the corner of the eye can be seen: they are Lore’s own, watching over her shoulder with a defiant glare.
Finally, she takes in her work. Her tutors would have hated its obscure subject and misty lighting, the obvious likeness to its maker. It’s ready, but she finds it too finished, too lifelike.
Driven by a half-superstitious, half-sensual urge, Lore leans in and kisses the portrait right on the visible side of its plump, dark mouth. The kiss leaves a smudge but she prefers it like this, incomplete.
In the morning, the portrait is gone. The study has been tidied, the paint has been scrubbed off the floor. Lore doesn’t ask about it. She puts on her mother’s jewels and makes herself ready for her guest.
The artist is a freckled young man, all knees and elbows, who has second and third helpings at dinner while she politely asks about his painting. He has brought some watercolors as a gift, and a portfolio of charcoal sketches of city life to show her.
Lore studies them. She is jealous of each one, but doesn’t show it. He looks at her as if about to eat her up too, and she can feel his heavy, starved gaze on her skin.
“I paint a little myself,” she says.
“I’m sure,” he obliges her. He throws about phrases such as accomplished beauty, gentle yet capable hands and feminine gifts, and doesn’t ask about her work.
Lore looks at his drawings and thinks of the medley of people who sat for him in bare rooms, of the richness of their hands and faces, the fluency of their gaze – and she feels a burning hatred. She wants to steal the life right out of him: all the streets that he walked, all the places he has seen. He mistakes her stony look for admiration, gets down on his knee and kisses her hand while she averts her eyes. If she would grace him so and sit for him, he begins, bashful, but she refuses and gets up to leave.
That night Lore is roused by the sound of feet shuffling outside her room. There are muffled voices, a door opening and closing, then silence. She falls back asleep.
During breakfast the artist stares at her and blushes so hard that his ears glow. He seems too embarrassed to bring a fork to his mouth. When she casually asks about his night he knocks his coffee cup over, apologizes profusely and flees the room.
In the afternoon they step out for a walk to look for paint-worthy vistas. As soon as they are out of sight of the house he pushes her against a tree and begins to kiss her. His hands gather up her skirts in clumsy, boyish gestures.
For a moment Lore is too stunned to resist but then tears herself away. The young man looks bewildered.
“I thought—” he stammers. “Last night—”
He swallows his words when he sees her pale, stern face and storms off in humiliation. Lore stays back, alone. She feels a failure as a hostess, a painter, a woman. They retire immediately after dinner, leaving the food untouched.
In the middle of the night she’s woken up by the same shuffling, the same creaking door. She gets up and steps barefoot out into the dark corridor.
There is a sliver of light stealing out from under the guest bedroom door. Lore steps closer. She can hear thumping, creaking, the muted echo of sighs and grunts. She pushes the door quietly and peers in.
The artist is lying disheveled and flushed on the unmade bed. On top of him sits a naked woman, rocking back and forth. She has Lore’s dark hair, Lore’s breasts and soft belly. Her brown eyes are Lore’s eyes, her blushing, sweaty neck is her neck. Only the mouth is different: the woman’s is drawn and misshapen at one corner as if smudged, and it gives her face a fiendish air.
The man doesn’t see Lore but the woman pins her eyes on her, and stares insolently as she continues to move, the man’s fingers digging into her thighs. Lore retreats and stumbles back into her room.
The next morning the artist has dark circles under his eyes. He’s watching Lore as she eats and twitches at her every move.
“Please,” he whispers. “Please…”
Lore ignores him and butters her toast loudly. Tears brim in his honey-green eyes.
“Your charcoal,” Lore says at last. She takes a sip of coffee. “It needs work.”
His mouth trembles and his Adam’s apple bobs up and down. He nods meekly and stares into his plate. This time, when they take their walk, he doesn’t corner her, but lingers back obediently. At dinner Lore is lively: she talks, smiles and eats hungrily, while he stares and doesn’t touch his food.
Lore sleeps peacefully that night. Even though the footsteps and the familiar sound of the door disturb her rest for a moment, she doesn’t get up.
She wakes up refreshed, late into the day. There are unusual sounds of a commotion in the house, doors slamming, but she doesn’t want to rush. She dresses lazily while shafts of light warm her skin. When she steps down for breakfast, the table has been laid for one. She takes her time to eat and read her letters, then walks back upstairs and into the guest bedroom.
The room is littered with the remnants of the artist’s work. Every single sketch and painting has been torn up or fed into the fire. The carpet is strewn with ashes, the bed is still unmade. The air is thick with cloying, heady smells. Lore opens a window and takes deep breaths, and her eye is caught by a scrap of paper at her feet. She picks it up.
It is the quick, rough drawing of her face in the artist’s hand. Only part of it is visible on the fragment: one dark eye and half of a clever, smiling mouth, its corner smudged over.
Lore laughs, kisses the drawing and rips it up. She tosses the scraps out of the window, and watches them dance as they are carried off wildly with the wind.
©️ 2021 by Clio Velentza
“Smudge,” by Clio Velentza, was first published on June 3, 2021 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe, Volume I: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe.
Interview with Clio Velentza, Author of “Smudge”
What inspired your story?
I’ve always been very interested in narratives about artists of all types, and their relationship with their art, especially how it affects and changes them. This time I wanted to look at this through a woman’s eyes in a thorny setting. Like Virginia Woolf wrote, “it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.” I thought about how the creative urge could become so repressed and vengeful it would take up a life of its own, and how the subject could reclaim agency through that, and the result was Smudge.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
“The Monkey” by Karen Blixen. I read it fifteen years ago and barely remember it now, but it had a huge effect on me. I didn’t think stories could be like that – so mysterious, sensual, inexplicable, violent and bizarre at the same time. I find the delicately woven fairytale atmosphere of Blixen’s “Seven Gothic Tales” rare and precious.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
Clio Velentza is a writer from Athens, Greece. She has studied Chemistry and has attended Postmodern Writing, Flash Fiction, and Creative Non-Fiction classes, as well as the 3rd Playwriting Studio of the Greek National Theatre. She is a winner of The Best Small Fictions 2016, Wigleaf’s Top 50 2019 and Best Microfiction 2020, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in several literary journals, along with some anthologies in both English and Greek. She is currently working on a novel and a play.