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Every night, I used to paint until I was unable to continue. I left the studio, fingers bleeding and eyes bulging red from strain and an overdose of stale scotch. They say, artists and alcohol are closely related. I never thought that way of blood.
I had finally completed painting the Widowed Virgin. My Elizabeth!
The picture looked almost real. Her eyes, translucent beneath the dark netted veil, shone with lust and longing. Her lips, gently parted, seemed to be quivering with regret. Her pale features were tinged with the blush of youth.
That's how I left her. Trapped in the seclusion of her lifeless canvas, amidst the warm blood now drying with the turpentine, on the palette. She looked sad. Abandoned!
The next evening, when I entered the studio, trampling over the scattered regular artists' stuff, my eyes got enchanted by the beauty I had created.
She still stood there, surprisingly stunning. The closest I had ever come to a 'masterpiece'.
I was suddenly overcome by an absolute desire to touch her. In a trance, I walked toward the easel and stared at her, mesmerised. The elaborate floral net, veiling the dark beneath her skin, added an aura of secrets to her otherwise vulnerable self.
Ah! The eyes! If only I could stare for hours into those deep luminous pools!
Absent-mindedly, my fingers started running along the coarse texture of the canvas. It felt raw and sticky from the drying paint. My eyes fell on a smear of blood on the bottom right, where the signature ought to have been. That would be a better mark of my hard work!
As I touched her veil, playing a thousand different possibilities in my mind, a strange sensation ceased me. I felt a pull, a pull that seemed to overpower me. It made me feel drunk, unable to control my emotions. Unable to resist. The canvas suddenly felt like smooth silk. Fluid. My fingers seemed to have wrapped around softness. I was groggy.
I don't recall if I had fainted or fallen asleep. However, when I opened my eyes, the strangest of strange scenes greeted them. The canvas was empty. Where was the beauty I loved?
"Thanks for freeing me", said a sing-song voice. I started to my feet. What was happening? Was my mind playing games with me? Or was it the scotch?
As I searched frantically for this source of voice, a gust of wind threw apart the curtains. My eyes were still disoriented; so I found it really difficult to trust what stood before them.
Elizabeth was sitting on the floor rug, in front of the fireplace, with her back toward me. Dark brown curls had come undone from her graceful bun, and fell carelessly over her bare back.
"You?" I whispered. "How did you? I mean, how did you become real?"
She laughed. A beautiful sound. Like the gushing waterfall, the chimes of a chandelier, the song of the cuckoo. It captivated me. I could keep listening to her all night.
"Why? That's what you wanted. I could feel your heart. Your heart, which so unconditionally and unknowingly, you put into your paintings."
I turned back toward the portrait uncertainly. Just like before, it was empty. All that remained was the delicate couch, now empty and the intricate tapestry adorning the back wall. The pillows still looked recently slept on, the sheets all scattered in a hurry.
"Why did you make me so pathetic? So naive? So virgin?" She asked me, gradually turning her veiled face toward me. "Have you no pity? All my life, sitting there, a maiden. Are you so surprised I left that dreadful place to fill your empty frame?"
"No. But I am finding it hard to believe. Elizabeth, I've waited my whole life to create a masterpiece. And now..."
"You've also waited your entire life to fall in love too, haven't you? I have felt your heart. Why deny yourself the simple pleasures of life?"
"How did you leave the canvas?" I asked her again. Even as I replayed the question in my mind, the stupidity of it hit me.
"You freed me."
Slowly, she raised her gloved hand and began stroking my unruly hair. I tried to feel her fingers but was taken aback by the contorted expression on her face.
"Why. Can't. I. Feel. You?"
Her fingers were going right through me and this time, I could feel an undertone of anger in the lilt of her voice. She looked desperate.
"I really don't know what is happening! You are like fluid mist", I told her, equally longing for her touch. "When you touch me, it feels like cold, liquid velvet. You are not...solid"
Her eyes looked big with tears. "Not solid, eh? That's what you call me? I am as solid as your imaginations are."
"That you are." I was transfixed by her beauty. "I want to touch you too. I want to feel the beauty of my creation! I want to love you."
"So, my knight, won't you tell me stories of deep sea voyages and ventures of your merchandise? How you saved many a maiden from sorcerers and monsters and how they sought your love! How you dotingly waited on returning home and falling into my arms instead!"
"I'm just an artist", I said, without conviction. "I don't have journeys to boast of. I can only create journeys!"
I could see the frown beneath her veil. "Then create."
This time, I took her hand in mine. It was like immersing it in cold silk. She looked excited, her eyes sparkling in anticipation. I led her along the other paintings, and began to tell her their stories. Stories of the seven seas, the Lords of Boston, the crystal waters of Thames and of the minarets of Taj Mahal.
"Will you make me a mausoleum too? Like Shah Jahan?" She asked me, with a smile.
"Why not?" I felt devoid of sense. "I will make you the best there is. You are my love."
I gently moved my hands toward her face. However, no matter how much I tried, I couldn't remove the veil. My fingers kept going through her. It was dismaying.
"Why did you bother to make me this way? The wretched veil doesn't even let me admire you properly", she complained.
"Can't you remove it yourself?" I asked her, frustration echoing in my voice. "I would like to see your eyes. The eyes that captivate me so."
At this suggestion, she started tinkering with the veil with utmost vigour, but it just wouldn't budge.
The entire night, we sat close to each other, feeling the warmth of the fireplace and the cold of her touch. I told her about myself, though she already seemed to know all about me. "Your heart is at its most vulnerable when you are painting. I know you since you marked the canvas with your own blood", she told me. "I know how you have loved me."
"So I have. But you're just my vivid imagination, not human. I can't even touch you."
At this, she gently cupped her hand on mine. To my surprise, it wasn't going through me as completely as earlier. She felt more solid. Her hand felt more like bleak sunshine. Not cold anymore. She looked ecstatic.
"Am I human enough for you now, my knight?"
"How? Are you any more real?" I asked, suddenly feeling more vulnerable and drained. I started seeing stars and thoughts of far and wide mausoleums started flooding my mind. A very disturbing vision of drowning in blood gripped me.
"Take my hand, James", she said, touching me again. Instantly, a surge of gloom and senselessness started engulfing me. I had a sensation that I was floating. Floating away!
"What are you...don't, no, please..." I pleaded with her. "Stop this. No, leave my hand! What?"
I was in a trance. I pictured Elizabeth and me walking in a garden, a sweet fragrance filling up the air. I was like a ghost, trailing after her, head over heels in her fantasy. No, wait!
I was the ghost. She was the one without the aura of shimmer. What was happening?
"Your flesh and blood will rejuvenate me. Your energy will flow through my hungry veins. You will be the Virgin. I will be the one making our mausoleums! No?" Suddenly, she felt much less lovely. Much more menacing. Suddenly, I didn't want to behold what lay beneath the veil.
I felt drawn toward her by an invisible force. It felt pleasant to be in love with her, to let her be my own master. However, deep within the core of my mind, I felt pangs of doubt. What she was doing to me, was wrong. She was driving me mad, gradually.
'Sweetly', added the dying part of me.
'She is killing you!' My subconscious screamed.
Then, it hit me hard. Looking at my hands, I noticed the strange shimmer around them. I couldn't feel my own hands any more.
"Elizabeth! What are you doing to me, love?" I asked, in a panic.
"Nothing. It's what we're meant to be. I will be the one with warm blood in my veins. You'll be the naive one. As you grow weak, I become more than your imagination". Her maniac laugh sounded strange in my fading ears.
I felt helpless and trapped. All my life, I had waited to create a masterpiece and fall in love. Now, both had drained me. I didn't want to let go of Elizabeth, not after having waited so long.
But her love was killing me.
I was the one who had created her. Now, she was destroying me.
She left me no choice.
"Elizabeth. I want to look into your eyes!" I told her longingly.
"So do I." She said, a bit too earnestly. It broke my heart to betray her.
"Do you want me to remove the veil?"
"Can you?" She asked suspiciously. "You tried and failed."
"I have different plan". My head was throbbing with pain. 'Fool! You are a fool, James!' .
"Please." She whispered.
"You have to have faith in me".
"Please don't put me back there! I hate that place."
"Don't you want me to kiss you?"
At this, her shoulders relaxed and she sighed deeply. At that moment, she looked like a goddess.
She stood solemnly before the portrait, weighing her options. "I trust you, James. Please make it quick."
"I'll paint you without the veil, Elizabeth."
In a blink, she was gone. Even as she did, I came out of the daze. Reluctantly, my eyes flitted toward the canvas.
Elizabeth was back on the couch, staring back at oblivion with those deep, blue eyes. I felt a strange pang of loneliness and guilt.
But this was the only choice I had.
With shaking fingers, which had lost the shimmer as soon as she had left, I picked up my paintbrush.
A familiar feeling of longing grips me. She sits there, seemingly lifeless. I know better.
I wish her veil never lifts. For if it does, I don't know if I'll ever be able to meet her eyes.
As if to remind me of my plight, the dark black strokes of paint shine menacingly bright against the contrast of her hazel gown. Those metal bars, sheer miracles of an artistic hand and a paintbrush look darker than the deep scars of an unrequited love etched permanently in my heart. The rusty shackles now binding her wrists are less painful to watch than the expression under her veil.
'She was killing you!'
'But I was loving her!'
Even as I stare at the portrait of My Caged Love, I can swear that those are almost real tears rolling down her angry cheeks.