Portraits

~ a short story

Beau stood in the center of the gallery like a towering panopticon, a radial agent of eyes upon the fruits of the artistic labors about her. Glowing in the dimness, she was hungry, she’d come to consume. And that is just what she planned to do.

Two white walls, long and high, housed the frames on either side of her. Placed at equidistant passage along the way, the young woman had no heed to favor one way or the other. The hall itself fell continuously to either horizon. As far as the eye could see, there was the stretching wall and its paintings. No entrances, no exits. Strangely, these facts comforted her.

Hands behind her back, Beau bobbed over toward one of the walls. Her dress swept the marble floor as she strode in her trusty walking shoes within striking distance of the first painting that drew her eye. Quietly confident in her lavish look, she unconsciously struck a pose before the frame, hand on her hip, pleasant smile turning to a discursive biting of her lower lip. This was a habitual tick she had, triggered when she held something with sincere regard for longer than a moment. The strange gallery being lit for mood, Beau had to strain her eyes to see weigh the painting’s full expanse.

A portrait of a woman presented.

Beau regarded her with delight. A young woman, a peer, beautiful but stern, stared back at her. Abyssal black hair, unkept and striking, draped over her bare shoulders. Piercing stare paired with lush lips. Brown, uncertain, loving eyes. Her brow raised in exasperation. Or was it due to the sighting of a novelty before her, unknown to any but her? At the periphery of the piece, the edges faded into a grey-blue shore, surreal with the promise of forever. Only the woman’s face existed in this micro-universe upon the canvas. Only her. Beau realized they shared many features. Her heart warmed at such solidarity upon the canvas.

Satisfied, Beau began to walk to her left, on to the next piece. Her eyes, however, stayed momentarily on the portrait. The eyes of the woman in the grey-blue forever followed her right back. The blueness turned red, sharp and animated suddenly, as if the paint was melting down and away. The lapping shore turned to licking flames. Not only that, but her features shifted. Or rather, they receded and decayed. The right side of her face, the side furthest now from Beau’s stand, sunk and melted, revealing the stark white bone of her skull underneath. Her face now divided, continued to shear away as Beau leaned forward.

Gasping, Beau rushed back to the fore, staring square at the portrait again. The woman’s full face, full of life, carrying that eternally curious gaze, returned. Their gazes square, Beau took a deep breath, and then jumped twice the distance to the right that she had previously ventured left. Her eyes locked on to the portrait once more, expecting more mad changes. Fearing them, she held her breath with anxiety.

The portrait’s face became that of a ghastly specter, a fleshless skull grinning with terrifying and carnal intention. Beau jumped back, away from the wall. Even so, knowing it somewhere within the pit of her gut, the pupiless, abyssal eyes of that skull followed her, carrying their promise of undead animus with them.

Beau worked hard to calm herself, flexing her calloused fingers and counting her breaths. “No,” she finally said, and walked determinedly to the other side of the gallery. On the opposite wall, directly across from the daemonic shapeshifting portrait, she found a different style and a new scene. Another young woman, in a sparkling white dress, posed morose and away from a mirror she sat up against. Her arm, sleeved within a tendril of the strange dress she wore, lay upon a cushion at neck height. Assured in comfort, where the daemon-facer was uncertain, this woman was assured in her comforts. Her gaze fell to the floor, contented, or maybe even bored. Just below her, upon the same couch, a grey cat prepared to pounce onto the ground. Both of the denizens within the scene held their eyes fixed to something below. Beau diverted her attention below, too. Below the painting, imagining what it was that they might be looking at. She first imagined the body of a man down there. It having such a distinct impression upon her, she could not just then imagine anything else. So it was.

~ art by Jeremy Mann

Beau shifted her focus onto the woman’s face, both in reality and in the mirror. She wore large hoop earrings, like her own. A tight banner circled her hair, which was raised up, only a few strands of bangs falling over her delicate face. A chill fell down Beau’s back as she began to walk to her left, eyes staying on the painting, as before. To her great relief, nothing changed about the painting, in the woman’s face, in the cat’s position…

But then she saw it. In the reflection of the mirror, the woman’s head began to move, her neck twisting it around to look through the canvas’ opposition straight ahead. Directly at her, two glowing yellow eyes illuminated and burned. The reflecting relaxer became the grinning jester from inside of the mirror dimension…

Prepared in part for such trickery, Beau did not scream or jump or panic this time. She simply moved her eyes to the next painting. She kept her walk up as she inspected them, arms behind her back tensed and strong. Even as her heart pounded, she steeled her toes against her flats to keep upright. Doubly prepared with the existence of two of them within the gallery, she kept her cool and refused to let her mind fly to any more imaginary terrors. More women presented themselves there in the next paintings. They were different women, but composed in a similar style making up the preceding portraits. Each of them depicted with singular clarity a woman as the centerpiece, with graying and fraying, even chaotic, outward flourishes of discordant colors and shapes making up the universe around them. They were not in homes, or even places persay. These women existed inside of their own little pocket universes, designed for them by their creator. Whoever that was painted with precision. For however long it took, these beautiful, mystical creatures were the object of their whole focus; the absolute apple of their eye.

The next subject was a brown woman in a blue dress. With jewels adorned in her hair, she gleamed out from the canvas and into Beau’s heart and mind. Her face was in profile, one hand upon her chest and the other grasping a bunch of her dress behind her. On her wrists she had golden bracelets. They glowed as brightly as her countenance. At the periphery, there were dark and golden flourishes of uneven light. As Beau walked by, the woman raised her head, closed her eyes and screamed into that golden darkness. At every step, her environment clarified from shapes of errant brush strokes into a ruined world of crumbling structures and everflowing winds of irradiated dust. She screamed into an abandoned world. A lone survivor, still there, glowing within the shade.

~ art by Jeremy Mann

Beau next regarded a woman with no eyes. She had them, presumably, but the painting shadowed them away upon its subject gazing downward. A yellow sundress filled out her position upon a wardrobe. Her well-honed arms rested upon its surface next to her bottom. She wore high boots, which peeked out of the base of her flowing, but frayed dress’ ends. Her hair was tied into a bun, but exploded with strands and bangs, covering most of her face, including her eyes. She wore a smile. Was it mischievous? Or just simply pleasant? Emeralds adorned the ends of the luxurious studs in her ears.

~ art by Jeremy Mann

As Beau passed by, she noticed the mirror making up the central pillar of the wardrobe. Another mirror. A throughline. And aren’t portraits mirrors, the viewer must see themselves in order to garner anything from them, in order for them to take on that “life of their own” that Oscar spoke about… The woman’s reflection showed her other arm, which had a red band upon it. Red as blood, the reflection turned and the woman did with it. The face in the reflection however, was blank. Utterly absent of features, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. For a moment, Beau hesitated, noticing something in its empty countenance that made her profoundly sad. In the next moment, the smiling woman producing that reflection turned with ferocity, reaching through the mirror with her right hand to grip the throat of her doppelganger with glee.

Beau blinked such madness away and looked upon the fourth painting with urgency. A risque portrait. A woman with luscious blonde hair, free and long, draped over her nude body, back turned and laying there upon the folds of silk bedding. Her legs were lost in a maroon and silver sheet, with spade-like designs along its bulk. Her back was barren and arching down to the initial curve of her buttocks, where it then became lost. Her face was obscured by her own sleight right shoulder. One hand lay upon the pillow, buttressing her head there. The other hand lay hidden along with her legs. Her eyes struck down, somewhere towards the hidden hand.

~ art by Jeremy Mann

Desire burst into Beau’s own bosom at the sight. Exquisite. A specimen. Hard to believe a creature such as this might ever exist in this world… In the desiring assumptions, she wholeheartedly believed that someone like this did exist, and must have been the reference for such a piece.

Then, this time without having moved, feet planted in the same spot before the portrait, consciously admiring it, Beau began to see the transformation. The eyes of this blonde bare-backed beauty rose with the emergence of her hand, clawed and translucent. Clear at first, before it began to fill with deep, crimson fluid. Roiling with energy and strength, her hand filled out in composition, each of the pointed fingers flexing and flaring. The woman’s face revealed itself from behind her shoulder as well, sharply pointed teeth bared. Gritting against apparent pain, she kept her eyes open as the rest of her nakedness transformed in a similar manner. Translucent, clear as crystal before filling out with red liquid fast turning to a thick and bloody crimson flow of life within. Wings sprouted there from her smooth back, folding out from her see-through skin and exploding into a larger flourish.

Beau stayed there, transfixed, watching the birth of this daemon. No, not a daemon, something brand new.

Before she let the transformation complete itself there upon the canvas, Beau ran. On instinct, she sprinted by all of the remaining paintings. She ran toward the horizon at the end of the gallery. She ran hard and fast.

What am I doing here? Why did I come to this place? Who painted these abominations?

The questions had no answers. Every third piece or so, Beau stole a glance. Each was stranger than the last, the activation of their movements and transformations inevitably became mischievous and murderous, sometimes carnal and sometimes grim. Each bore themselves out inside of their singular universes.

Even in the glower of their skeletal, winged, crimson shifting, Beau could not help but see the beauty in their dark transformations…

At the dawn of the final painting, before she fell, Beau saw her first ensemble. Not a portrait, not a singular woman, but a collection, a veritable army of women, rose up side by side with some manner of unity. The canvas widened into a shot of the women, some of the changelings transformed into their ‘greater’, daemonic, or angelic, iterations while others stood in their original humanity. Naked and free, all of them shared such commonality. They all posted up on one side of the field, facing forward in some kind of unity at a common destination, or foe.

She tripped herself in the expedition, in this final sight so different from every one before. As soon as Beau fell, catching herself with her hands, one of her shoes loosing itself, she began to crawl. To escape. To get to the next painting. As she dragged herself over the marble, she watched the army take a few steps of determined marching. Then when she came to the periphery of the next canvas, they charged with furious animus in all their faces.

Glory and terror met upon Beau’s chest then, her soul thumping to the beat of their altogether charge.

With hope, she looked upon the next one.

But there was nothing there. Only a blank, beige canvas lay in a lean against the white wall. It was below the frame empty of its eventual artistic personage. Beside the unstarted piece was all of her tools. The cans of paint. The brushes. A jumble of pictures. References. Polaroids of all my best friends

Yes, that’s right … I haven’t painted this one yet.

Beau stood up to a crouch and began to go through them. How could I forget? Here in my own dream, in my very own gallery… It’s up to me to continue the story. My own story. Our story.

She gazed upon each of the photos, tears in her eyes. Some were still with her. Others were gone, elsewhere. Others were gone, forever. All of her singular interpretations of them and their lives, the personas they carried inside themselves and reflected in their companionships, the experiences they had shared together, they came to life within her heart. Then, she poured her heart out onto these canvases. All the mess and all of the daemons intact there upon the field of her regard. Memories of memories flowed from the paintings she’d seen. Connections reforged. She glanced around again, to the paintings past. On each side of the gallery, they ended here. All of the spots going forward held unfastened frames with canvases below, untouched chapters of their collective story.

Beau got up and brushed herself off. Kicking off her other shoe, feeling the inevitable warmth on the soles of feet through the coursing energy of this place, of her marble flooring, she returned the polaroids to the receptacle next to the paint.

Unless she was to join the fallen or the forgotten, Beau continued the tapestry by beginning to brush her legion of women back into the fray of their chosen conflict.

Before settling her vision of the next passage into place, she turned her attention shortly to the many canvases to come along the gallery’s coming horizon. She glanced back at the other wall, wondering what kind of tale lay there. In her heart, she knew somewhere down there was the end. A true conciliation. Once the moment was gone, however, her eye fell back to the canvas in front of her. Her focus honed in on the work to be done. The horizon, the other wall, work for future days. For now, there was only this battle…

Beau sighed and smiled. Shining in her menagerie, she was eager. She’d come here to create. And that was just what she was about to do.

Their battle was just beginning. ~