His only memories of his mother were an angle of bone against his cheek and a rattling cough that shook her whole body. When she died, he was looked after by his father, a poor sculptor trying to sell life-sized marble Madonnas to the church. When they turned him down he chiseled off the faces, carving famous Florentine women on top. Camus grew up in his father’s studio, eyes bleary from marble-dust, sleeping in the laps of mourning Marys as his father’s chisel pounded away. When he had a nightmare, he left his bed and snuck down to the statues, slipping his hand into cool marble fingers, resting his head on a stony knee. In the morning, his father would scold him, telling him that an artist never sleeps in his studio.
Somehow the silent women, as Camus called them, seemed so much more reliable than his own father was. While his father warped and twisted, eyes failing and fingers trembling around his chisel, the silent women remained upright, always gently smiling, arms always open. When his father died, Camus placed the most beautiful Madonna over his grave and bought his own studio, leaving the other statues behind. He liked to think they would stay there forever, a legion of motherly ghosts.
Once upon a time there was a painter who fell asleep in his studio.
His father’s warnings were nothing against the fervid ambition that had gripped him for months. Camus had always felt he was meant to make a masterpiece — a capolavoro, a painting so beautiful it was better than real life. He had decided when he was still a teenager that this masterpiece would be a woman. How better to attract the attention of Florence’s important men than the idealized form of what they loved best?
She came to him in a dream, just a few days after his twentieth birthday- the layers of olive and russet that would outline the turn of her lovely wrist, the crushed carmine to give the black ringlets of her hair a rich lustre. He woke up shaking and ran to his studio, working through the night with charcoal and graphene burning his tongue. When the sun rose and illuminated the girl he had sketched, he cried at her beauty. He decided to call her Carina- beloved.
But paint and fervor cannot quite substitute for rest. After months of nonstop painting, he was nearly finished- her skin glowing, pulsing in the setting sun- when he finally allowed himself to relax. Just the background, he thought, and his signature, and then she would be perfect. It was the thought of her perfection that bore him off to sleep, as formless white skins danced before his eyes, gently smiling, arms open.
Once upon a time there was a girl who stepped out of a painting.
She had watched this man putter around his studio for days, ever since he had painted her eyes. He ate a thin slice of bread, or a single grape, and then turned back to his canvas. He crushed insects into paint with his bare hands but outlined each hair on her arms with a brush finer than a fly’s wing. He lay his cheek against her stomach, once it was dry, and she could almost feel his tears trace over her thighs. She hadn’t even been aware that she was trying to leave her painting, until she was watching the sun set outside and longed to see beyond that tiny scrap of sky. Her foot moved.
She stepped out of the frame, leaving marks of peach-colored oil paint on the floor. She thought of rushing to the window, but before she could the man’s eyes peeled open.
“Who are you?”
She didn’t know how to answer- she was just now feeling the sting of air in her lungs, the swell of blood in her fingers. Names, like most things, existed to her in vague suggestions, the scribbles at the edge of a paper that were not yet defined by paint. He took her wrist in both his hands, pressing a kiss there as though to prove that her veins could pulse against his lips.
“Are you Carina?”
And because she didn’t know how to answer, she said, “Yes.”
The man smiled, his eyes so large she could see herself in them, a blade of white in the darkness of his pupil. “I’m Camus,” he said, “And I made you. You are mine- you will be my wife.”
She looked down at him, and for the first time in her life, felt cold.
“What is a wife?”
“Someone who will love me,” he answered. “Someone who will make my bread and hold me close at night and kiss me whenever I want.”
“I don’t know how to make bread or kiss,” she answered. She took a deep breath, her thoughts beginning to fill in with color like a butterfly’s new wings. “The only thing I know how to do is paint. I have been watching you paint. I’d like to try it.”
“Paint? You want to be a painter?”
“Yes! And… I’d like you to teach me.” Carina spoke quickly, anything to get his too-cold fingers off her too-wet wrist. “You’re the best painter I know. I’d like lessons.”
Camus let go of her wrist and he stalked the room for a few moments before replying. “You will stay here unless I tell you to go out. You will have lessons- and then, when you know more about wives, you will marry- you will consider marrying me.”
Carina nodded, feeling the flutter in her breast of a heart just starting to feel pain.
Once upon a time, a woman’s mind grew like a weed.
For the first few months, she never disobeyed Camus, taking in knowledge like paint drawn out by linseed oil. The four walls of the studio might as well have been the borders of a map; she studied every floorboard with the meticulous attention of a cartographer to a mountain range. Sometimes Camus would come home and find her with her cheek pressed against the floor, watching dust dance in a sunbeam, and remind her of her chores with increasing impatience.
Slowly, by learning how to make a bed and sweep a floor and lay out paints in the sun to thicken, she earned tiny expansions to her world. Camus started her with canvas that had been painted over too many times to be of use, but she soon graduated to apprentice’s scrap. Camus began getting commissions again, and he gave her small liberties so he could focus on painting: buying flowers from the marketplace, making small choices about her clothes, sometimes letting her walk as far as the bridges to watch the ships float along the Arno.
One night she woke up and saw a wide, staring eye watching her from the crack in her door. The next night, she leaned a chair against it. The next week, she found the wood from her chair in their scrap pile for making frames. They never spoke about things like that, but Carina learned to sleep facing the wall, and dreamt of flying.
Once upon a time, a woman was trying to paint the sky.
Her mentor leaned over her shoulder, making that annoyed little grunt he always did when she was not following the exercises he laid out for her. He compared her canvas to the set of fruits he had carefully arranged, and scoffed.
“Who is that?”
“A woman.” He said, doubtfully. “With hair like that?”
“I saw her at the market,” Carina answered, continuing to mix manganese and ultramarine to try and capture the shimmer in the woman’s eyes. “She was buying flowers- those flowers, the ones that are exactly the color of her shirt. She said her name was Gardenia and she writes poems. She gave me one.”
Camus shook his head. “Someone like that will never look right on the paper. There are certain things that are worthy of being captured in oil- fruits, cities, beautiful women.” He twined a finger into one of her curls, and she felt a shiver run down her back. “She looks like a prostitute. Her hair was probably cut off after the war. Why would you want to paint a woman like that?”
“I like it,” Carina said sharply.
“You better not do anything like that to your hair,” Camus said, continuing to play with her curls. She reached back and grabbed his hand, startling him.
“And what would happen if I did? Would you leave me alone?”
His eyes clouded, and his hand tightened until tears sprung to her eyes. “I think you are going out too often. I should never have let you go to the market. In the future, I’ll do those chores. You’ll keep the studio clean and tidy.”
“No, please,” Carina begged, moving her head back towards his hand, inviting him to caress it again. “If I will ever be a good wife to you, I’ll have to know how to buy things in the market. You’d have to take the time away from your painting to go.”
Camus watched her for a long time. Then he sighed and moved back to his easel.
“Alright. But stay away from that woman.”
Once upon a time there was a writer who cut her hair short because she liked it.
Gardenia was engaged to one of the wealthiest men in Florence, because her parents were well-known in the church and her husband-to-be didn’t mind that she talked to herself or wrote her letters in meter or stole her brother’s clothing every once in a while. She met a woman who left oily fingerprints on her shoulders and had long black curls of hair, and wrote a poem on the spot to try and capture her smile.
They met the next day beneath the lemon trees by the Ponte Vecchio. The painting-woman listened to Gardenia speak the way a flower turns towards the sun. Her lips tasted like carmine and cinnabar. She saw the world in slices of color, in brilliance and shade, and Gardenia tried to see through her eyes, to write the way she painted.
They met up in secret. Carina’s hands were long and slender, and Gardenia’s were short and inkstained, and they laughed whenever they interlocked their fingers. They wore the same colors- a blue handkerchief and a blue stomacher, or a yellow flower and a yellow stocking- so even when they just glimpsed each other in the street they knew they were thinking of one another. Carina asked Gardenia endless questions, about her family, about her writing, about her feelings, and Gardenia learned that her usual air of mystery could provoke Carina into a laughing fury that ended in a kiss. Sometimes Gardenia awoke in whatever bedroom they’d been able to sneak into with Carina tracing her lips, her cheeks, her eyelids, as though trying to memorize every angle of her face.
They were happy, for a time.
Once upon a time there was a woman who held a painting like a baby.
“Where are you going.”
It was not a question. Camus was standing in the doorway, something shining in his left hand. Carina clutched the painting to her chest, one leg already out of the window.
“Away,” she said, her mouth dry. “Thank you for your guidance. I’ve left money—”
Camus slammed the knife into his palette.
“Money? Four years, I’ve been sheltering you, tutoring you, waiting for you to be ready. You think money can make up for all those lonely nights, burning, knowing you were in the other room? For letting you stall and turning a blind eye to lipstick marks on your collarbones? Christ, Carina. You’re the most selfish woman I know.”
“Why would you want to marry a selfish woman?” she said, suddenly aware of how her eyes had been designed to fill becomingly with tears.
“Because I can make her better,” he said, and advanced towards her. She looked between him and the window, and jumped.
When he ran down the stairs, there was a long scrape along the street where she had dragged her broken leg, but neither painting could be found.
Once upon a time there was a painter who fell asleep in her studio.
Gardenia had tended her broken leg, bringing pomegranates and news of Florence into Carina’s makeshift studio while she worked. Their life in the mountains was simple, a pair of amorous stowaways renting from an old widow who owned a lemon orchard. Gardenia picked fruit to earn part of their keep, and Carina made small paintings of the azure curve of the shore below them. Each day brought some new, glittering mundanity, rich black dirt underneath Gardenia’s fingernails or gold crescents of sunlight on leaf-edges, made special because they were experiencing it together for the first time.
Gardenia laughed at her fiancé whenever they crossed paths in the marketplace, recounting to Carina how he had asked her when she would tire of this particular flight of fancy and marry him. Carina didn’t say that the same question had lodged in her heart, the way a paintbrush hair became part of the canvas if it wasn’t caught before it dried.
“I wish you wouldn’t go into town so often,” she found herself saying one day, when Gardenia shared a particularly irksome story about the success of Camus’ new exhibition.
“And do what? Sit around here and watch the back of your canvas?” Gardenia leaned forward, trying to see what Carina was working on, but Carina drew a cloth over it just in time. “There’s more to life than painting. Aren’t you lonely?”
Not when I’m with you, Carina thought, but shook her head in silence, resolving to fix the painting’s eyes- they were too harsh, too vindictive, not at all like Gardenia’s ought to be.
Carina began to paint into the night, burning beeswax candles they couldn’t afford. When Gardenia tried to tempt her to bed, she would mutter that she would be there in a moment. Most of the time, Gardenia would find her hours later, sleeping atop her palette.
Carina didn’t notice when Gardenia began spending longer and longer in the town, and her stories about her day became shorter and less descriptive. Gardenia longed for someone to massage the day’s work out of her shoulders, to turn their ears to her words. Carina longed to capture the sky in a bottle, and failing that, in oil paint.
Once upon a time a writer left in the dead of night.
Nobody cared. It was quiet. The moon was a lemon-slice in the darkness. It reminded the writer of that first night, when Carina had woken her up with a broken leg and a half-finished painting and a promise- but already those memories were becoming poetry, locked in the safe predictability of rhyme and meter as she descended the mountains.
Carina lay in bed, face buried in her pillows, and the subtle breeze caused by Gardenia’s passage stirred the hairs on her arms and unfurled her like a flower- the awful, uncomfortable kind, with blood on the inside.
Once upon a time a famous painter returned to her hometown.
She walked the streets of Florence with confidence, her slight limp less noticeable than it was in her usual mountain abode. Sometimes people she had known before stopped her to ask if she remembered them. Sometimes they kept their distance and whispered, pointing to the scar that twined across her face. She bore it all with a firm smile. Still, she felt unbearably young as her feet lead her to a familiar studio door. He was still here, after all this time.
Camus was older, his skin weathered. His studio was taken over by statues now, his paints bundled off in a corner. When she asked why, he pressed his lips together into a hard, thin line. “They move less,” was all he would say.
Still, he seemed friendly, or at least tired, as he offered her tea and nodded to the cloth-wrapped canvas she had brought with her.
“A new work? I thought I heard you were featured in the Uffizi Gallery last winter. Impressive.”
She smiled carefully.
“It is a new work, sort of, made from an old one. I wanted your opinion on it.”
“I don’t paint anymore, Carina.”
“I know. I’m not named Carina anymore.”
“Really? What are you named?”
Her eyes flashed, and for a moment he saw the sky reflected in them. “You don’t deserve to know.” His hand tensed on the table, but he simply nodded with an exhausted sigh.
She unwrapped the canvas and held it out to him. It was a painting of the sky, except it was really a painting of a woman, holding a spray of white flowers that matched her blouse. There was a knife mark slashed down the middle, and dark red blood stained the upper third. With golden thread, the canvas had been sewn together, in stitches large enough for him to know they were meant to be seen.
“It’s ugly,” he said truthfully. She smiled. He ran a finger across the seam in the painting, then gently brushed a fingertip over the scar on the real woman’s face. She didn’t recoil.
“What happened?” He asked. “I thought you two were in love.”
“No one ever really loves you,” she sighed. “Not really. But sometimes they love someone you want to be. Gardenia loved a passionate woman, a woman who wanted everything. When I was with her, I became that.”
“Oh.” Camus’ voice was rough, the edges of his lips stained white with marble dust. “What was wrong, then?”
“I wanted too much. I asked her to run away with me. The portrait was to be our wedding present. I wish I’d paid more attention to the way she talked about the wedding- her other wedding, the man she was supposed to marry. She tried to spare me, to slip out in the night. I brought her the painting, to apologize, but I woke up her fiance too. He…” She touched the scar on the painting. Camus sighed.
“No, you aren’t,” she said without malice. “You would have done the same thing.”
“It wouldn’t work,” he said.
“Did you ever marry?”
“No,” he answered, avoiding her gaze. “I’m married to my work. Next to them, real women are disappointing.”
She drew the painting close, fingernails tense against the stitches.
“I came here to be angry at you. If I had learned differently- how to paint, how to love- if I had not tried to steal her for my own—” Her voice broke, and she looked up with a hurt deeper than tears. “I still wake up with her face written on the inside of my eyelids. I still feel her lips on mine.”
Camus just stared at her, his eyes tired and careworn.
“You cannot paint someone into loving you. You cannot have them forever,” she said.
He placed a hand on hers- not to lay claim to it, but as though they happened to be in the same place at the same time.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”