Anticipated by some, here is another instalment of Lap of Fate. The short story is under construction and open to changes. I am grateful, well, hungry for feedback. Thanks.
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I recited a short prayer and pushed the wall section until the opening was big enough to step through. The staircase! … I rushed to get a candle. Bracing myself, I climbed up the spiral, shielding the wavering candle-flame with my hand. Sunlight needled through the shutters and revealed a lofty space with a further staircase leading to galleried sections under the roof.
I noticed a scattering of shrivelled oil-paints tubes, brushes in jars and an array of structures. Three easels held frames shrouded by dust-sheets. I removed the first covering. An exquisite oil painting of a beautiful woman standing naked and serene, eyes closed, in a pit of snakes – so lifelike I expected them to slip from the canvas and drop to the floor.
Absurd, how slithery creatures scare and repulse me. My feet itched to run. Instead, I warmed to the composed calm of the woman and had the sensation of a déjà vu that felt strangely like coming home.
Feeling brave, I pulled away the cloth from the second frame. Clergy never appealed to me, though this seated, scarlet-clad cardinal beguiled me with a beatific smile … until I noticed his hands caressing a snake coiled in his lap.
I drew back, not from the snake, whose singularity had a stylised quality, but from the allusion that piety and sexuality might energise each other, and the underlying desire for unity could be seen to satisfy the same end. An idea my adopted mother might have called blasphemous. The painting would cause a scandal in this still deeply-religious country. I stretched my imagination towards a symbolic interpretation, the lore of circular time, but dismissed it as an excuse to silence lingering doubts. I began to grasp the ambiguity behind keeping this space in darkness. Yet there was a sincerity. The depiction of sexuality, intimacy, devotion and parody showed no attempt to glorify or vilify.
Contents aside, I was awed by the genius of the artist and anticipated another masterpiece, being fairly snug about my capacity for tolerance. The third painting made me flinch – the same clergyman in the same chair, rapt by the same exalted smile. His frock parted, he held a young girl to his lap. What made the image truly disturbing were the hands of the man, fine hands, bunching the girl’s lifted nightdress round her waist ….
Abu was barking outside. I had been too captivated to hear the car. ‘Oh Madre de dios … me ayude!’ A woman sounded hysterical as she dragged herself up the narrow stairway, causing the metal structure to judder with the clanging prod of her cane.
‘La senora!’ called the familiar voice of the agent, anxious for his client.
‘Su estancia alli abajo, el Sr Lopez Diaz.’ The harsh command warned him to stay out of this.
I stuck my candle to the last easel and faced the inevitable showdown. A shock of white hair surfaced from the stair-hole. Fragile, much older than I had expected, she gave the impression of a china doll, dressed with meticulous care. Her gaunt body was dominated by intense blue eyes. Like mine – a fleeting thought. She was the woman in the first painting, and the girl whose trust and dependency for love was exploited by the cardinal. I reached out – afraid she might fall, but remained rooted to the spot, petrified. The exposed paintings seemed to claim her, pull at her with invisible tentacles. Finally she gasped for breath and shuffled to a table for support. She shot me an anxious glance, weighed my reaction to the appalling image, and stepped towards it, leaning forward on her cane. I sensed a struggle, as if she tried to borrow my eyes, while hers misted, veiling infinite sadness.
Candlelight caught on the cardinal’s scarlet skull-cap, the pale legs of the girl, and the angelic face, raised adoringly towards her abuser’s smile …