by Christian Sexton
She looks like a common painting, so common that I can’t decide which one. And she’s plain. She’s the person between girl and womanhood that’s not stunning and not ugly. You walk by her every day and forget her seconds afterward.
“I am not from here,” she tells me. “I am not from this time.”
I resist smiling and nod my head. It’s always best to mimic their expressions.
She has blue eyes – not bright but deep and greenish, like the painter tried to mimic the color of a puddle from the forest. Dark green water reflecting the blueness of the sky. Her dark hair is pulled back loosely. A few stray hairs have broken free and stick out defiantly beside her ears.
“Then where are you from?”
“Not where. When. A time where we cannot speak, and if we speak too much, they put cages on our faces.”
I ignore her. She’s wasted enough of my time, and I’m not going to get paid unless she spills whose muse she is.
“Has anyone ever painted you?” I ask. “Has anyone ever made you smile?”
She stares at me, eyes neither darkening nor lightening. They are masked like a veil of ice over a black lake filled with dead bodies chained to the ground because the cremators knew it would be cheaper than actually putting the souls to rest.
“We do not smile where I am from. Smiling makes a person look insane.”
“And if you’re happy?”
“We are not happy.”
What’s with this woman? Can’t she just tell me what I want? I hate looking at her. There’s such a darkness in her expression, but it’s masked by cold indifference. It unsettles me. Even as a lifeless painting, her eyes would pull me in until I was trapped in another place at another time.
She looks me over from head to foot, moving nothing but her eyes. Then her eyes move back and forth between mine.
“What of your time?”
“I’m not allowed to tell you.”
Normally, the muse would demand why, would look away embarrassed, would shrug and pretend not to care, but she stares at me, never faltering, like she can still find the answers if she looks hard enough into my eyes.
“Are you used to getting that answer a lot?” I ask her.
“I do not get answers because I do not ask.”
“What don’t you ask?”
My mind automatically shifts the word to anything, but her answer wasn’t anything. It was everything. Everything. Anything implies what could be asked. Everything includes more. What could be asked? What should be asked? What must be asked? Everything.
I purse my lips and look at the ground.
“You know, when I first saw you, I thought you were screaming for help.”
She raises her eyebrows, but it’s not like she’s going to answer me anyway. I have nine minutes before the interview concludes. I may as well speak my mind.
“No one else saw it, but it seemed you were wearing this indifferent mask over a very distressed expression. Most paintings aren’t like that. They are partially smiling. Arrogant. Bored. You – you’re… angry?” I look at her, but her expression hasn’t changed. She sits as if carved from stone. I shake my head. I know I’m not wrong but–”
“Not everyone can see things through the eyes of a woman.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
She smiles, and I can’t tell if it’s relief or sadness.
Did she even know that someone painted her? How could her creator know how to see things through the eyes of a woman?
“I’m supposed to learn who painted you.”
Her eyes begin to shine, but she says nothing.
“Do you have any idea who would have painted you?”
“Is that why I am here?”
I’m supposed to learn about her painter, the master artist, probably male, who found her so intriguing that he’d turned her into a priceless piece of art. Newly discovered and nameless. Her plainness struck everyone as extraordinary, and they tried to pair her with the greats.
My colleague and trainer Seth had told me, “She’s all yours. Look at her. What mysterious elegance and beauty.”
“She looks… upset,” I had responded. Sad and angry were not the right words, yet the emotion portrayed both.
“What are you talking about, Sarah?” Seth had laughed. “I’ve been interviewing paintings for nearly a decade. I know how to read them.”
I wanted to say, Every painting is unique like a human, Seth. You can’t just read them. And you’ve never interviewed a woman from the fifteenth century. How could you possibly assume that?
I am supposed to discover what her artist may have named her, what else he may have painted, what he may have been like. This is the job of an Art Inquirer, and it’s what I’ve spent eight years’ training in languages, dialects, cultures, and psychology for.
“Were you painted because you’re so different?”
“I am not different.”
Since learning that she is actually a painting brought to life, she’s turned her gaze away from the unfamiliar woman who had attempted to blend into her culture, but had not been careful enough to cover her ankles.
I glance down at the bare skin appearing between my skirt and shoes and realize why her gaze had held at my feet for a little longer when she’d looked me over, but I figure it’s too late to cover the bare spot now. She probably already considers me a floozy or whatever they thought of ankle-showers back in the fifteenth century. Or, maybe it just adds more questions. Questions she won’t ask.
“You know, Nameless Lady. You don’t seem so upset now that you’re not trapped in that frame.”
She stifles a smile and glances around. I catch the judgment in her eyes as it falls on all the props of what should look like a common house contemporary of her time as if to say, You all did a terrible job at capturing what it’s actually like.
We did what we could in the Envision Warehouse, the only place the Enlivener can be used. Professional artists and designers worked for weeks to ensure the muse never discovers it had been dragged from its frame to modern times. Art inquiring is an expensive business, usually funded by museums, art societies, and curious millionaires. This isn’t something we can just pull off at the drop of a hat any time we want.
She asks, “When?” then turns to me with a livelier but still protected gaze.
I stopped sweating after the first five minutes of our interview. This woman is a basket case for my job, at least, what my job is supposed to consist of.
“I can’t say. Do you want to talk about anything?” I ask. “About yourself,” I add, because anytime this woman has spoken, it has been nothing but a steady outpour of grotesque facts of how women were treated during the Middle Ages. It’s enough to make my stomach turn.
Her eyes darken, and she looks away, her mouth stretched into a thin line. The dark emotions inside her are bubbling like heat rising under tar. My hands start sweating again.
“Are you indifferent to me? Are you indifferent to what I have said?”
“I am not indifferent, but the reason I’m here is to find out about you and–”
“Who I am does not matter.” Her eyes snap back to mine, smoldering under a stony exterior. “None of that matters.” She lets out a sigh, and the stony exterior cracks. Her head tilts to one side, and her averted eyes cloud up like muddied water. Cold, dark, defeated puddles littering the battlefield between the fallen gunpowder and corpses. “I thought you perhaps would understand.”
For the first time, I see her as a person, something I’ve never done before with past muses. I don’t care about the artist. Not in this case. All the art I’ve ever interviewed has been extraordinarily beautiful or extraordinarily plain, both in looks or personality, always depicting some monumental event or some everyday event, but this woman is a paradox. The wise artist knew this and made her immortal.
“Do you know your name?”
“You already asked this.” Her gaze returns to its former controlled state, and her emotions are once again completely obscured from my view.
“Yes, but…” If an artwork did not know its name or any other personal information, then we had determined that it had been painted post-mortem. But I think this woman knows. “…I’m just curious. My name is Sarah.”
“Sarah. A Christian name.” She bows her head slightly. “Pleasure.”
“You have an important message. I know that. You want the focus off of you, but shouldn’t there be a spokesperson for your message?”
“Tell me, what do you think my message is?”
“We don’t have much time left,” I say, pulling my sleeve back slightly to glance at my watch. Her eyebrows twitch at the action.
“When you made all those comments about us, you were talking to me as another woman, weren’t you? That’s what you meant when you said that you thought I, of all people, would understand.”
I had only been chosen for this assignment because they suspected The Nameless Lady would not speak to a man. Her message had been abouther and me… but it applied only to her time. She could never imagine that we have massive steel machines to ride in, to drive, to fly; that humans have been to the moon; that there exists a machine to bring paintings to life; that the owner and ingenious architect of my company is a woman. But to tell her any of that would overwhelm her.
“It gets better,” I whisper. “It won’t happen in your lifetime, but…”
I glance down at my watch again, struggling to find the words that can explain voting, or even women politicians, teachers, soldiers, and judges. It was impossible. Six centuries is too far a gap to bridge. I look back at her and realize that I don’t have to build a bridge.
For the first time, a different expression enters her eyes. They widen and seem to be glowing, like lightning had struck the lake and broken apart the ice and all the corpses were floating to the surface.
“Why don’t you want me to know your name? Don’t you think you’re important?”
“We are all important. We are all one.”
I understand. And it hurts. It feels like my heart had been grabbed and squeezed.
She reflects the women of her time. Common. Nameless. Everywhere. A crushed, silent rebellion hidden in plain sight.
The bridge between our centuries, the bridge to where we are now, had its foundation laid by her and her sisters. Our mothers and grandmothers. Quiet and determined. Committed to laying down one brick at a time for the granddaughters who would follow them centuries later.
There are so many questions. I can see them in her eyes, but we only have three minutes before she will be transferred back.
“Please. Tell me everything you want me to know about your time. Tell me from the point of view of a woman. I know why he painted you.”
The Nameless Lady folds her hands, and for the first time, a faint smile breaks through her painted mask.
What would she tell me? Would she lie? Would she change the way we view her time? The way we view women of her time? The power is in her hands.
“Please. First tell me… did she paint me well?”
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story