When Kiku climbed upon the table and curled like a foetus, she was gilded by light. Behind her, the flames, primitive, sensual and pagan, cradled her in a golden aura, dusting her flesh with a mystical glow and shining her black hair to the blue of a magpie feather.
Josef’s arrangement of white pillar candles, like organ pipes, gave religious weight to the tableau; the pleasant crush of something sacred squeezed his very soul.
Kiku’s eyes slid closed. Warmed by the fire, and heavy, she was relishing the anticipation of that moment where Josef would paint her body in oil and then recreate the image on his canvas:
First, the warm bristles tickling her toes, slipping between them and circling them, making Kiku squeal with pleasure. Josef drawing the brush in long strokes along her soles, a squirm, but then the slow painting of her calves and the promise of what was to come slowing her breathing until Kiku fell into a stupor where her very being condensed into the union of brush and skin.
Josef plunging the brush into the depths of the tucked-away place at the backs of her knees, working it in, before spreading the warm slick up the length of her thighs and over the curve of her buttocks. Then, meticulously covering her back, up and down, up and down, rippling over her spine, his wrist furling and unfurling like the graceful flow of a ballerina’s hand. Lifting her hair, stroking the oil around to the front of her neck, caressing her throat like spread fingers, and having dipped his brush to replenish it, coiling her breasts and plastering the crescent of her abdomen. Lastly, taking each draped, limp arm, holding it by the fingertips of his left hand, coating it with the brush held in the right and gently staging it as though fragile.
By this point, Kiku was a ragdoll.
Josef’s paintings of Kiku were beautiful, the way that he captured the powdered light on her skin, framed her with fire.
At the first touch, Kiku jumped. The oil was cold; it dragged and pulled on her skin. She lifted her head.
‘Shh.’ Josef continued to work. ‘Today, Kiku, something different.’
Kiku’s head dropped and she tried not to quiver by focussing on the heat on her back. The oil opened and freed her, limb gliding across limb, contentment oozing from her very entity, but this was not liberating. This was enclosing. The liquid immediately dried and tightened on her skin like clay.
This new technique will give Josef’s painting a completely different tone, she thought, a muting of the aliveness which his work typically encapsulated.
As Josef painted, Kiku was being knitted into something whole and unforgiving. Tightening chainmail. Bit by bit her body was getting stitched together, the tension increasing with each tiny motion. She tried to edge her foot forward to open up her folded leg, but it was cast into something solid.
Josef said nothing as he worked up her back and around her neck. Whatever it was dried instantly, and Kiku’s swallowing was constricted by the unmovable shackle now gripping her throat. She grabbed at Josef’s arm, her eyes like black moons. Making no eye contact, he lifted off her hand and held it firmly, pulling it away from her body as he painted from the mound of her shoulder towards her fingers. Her arm remained extended, stiff as a bough, reaching into nothingness. As she gasped, he painted her chest, locking in her heart. He continued to cover her lower arm, and, as her attempt at a scream became a diminishing gurgle, he held down her eyelids and painted them shut.
Josef bent down and kissed her lips before covering the rest of her face in the silver-grey slop.
‘Beautiful,’ he said, slicking the liquid over her hair and pulling it back away from her face where it set into a silver sheet.
When Kiku was dry, Josef carried her to the display room she had never seen –
his sculpture room – and placed her on an empty plinth, between Maria and Ayah. As a finishing touch, he draped a swathe of white silk over her arm.
Helen Laycock’s short stories, flash fiction and poetry have been published in a variety of anthologies and magazines and, recently, she was commissioned as one of the leads for Visual Verse. As well as short story collections, she has written several children’s books.
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