By Vita Forest
She sits on the edge of the bathtub and trails her fingers in the water. The water is hot, but she knows it will not stay that way for long. Still, she finds she feels slightly touched that he has tried to make it comfortable for her. A lesser man would not have bothered. She knows plenty of that kind. She hopes he will work fast however, it is not the weather for spending long in the water. He has moved the tub in front of the fire but she does not have great faith in that gesture either, although it too, was kindly meant.
She decides to sit there waiting until he is completely ready. How they fuss these fellows! She looks down at the dress he has procured for her and runs her hands over the silver embroidery. It is finely done. She squints down at the stitches, noting the skill in the design. She wonders who he borrowed it from.
He clears his throat. She looks up a trifle scornfully. She will make him speak, she decides. She will not splash eagerly into the water like a playful puppy. This is not an ordinary request he has made.
He has already described the scene to her; the dark water, the rushes, the ferns and flowers, the muted, cold light. And the body of Ophelia reclining in the current, dead and beautiful. Luminous and mad. Yielding to the river. Her fingers curled over a garland of wild flowers, the current gently loosening them as she floats downstream. The flowers drifting over her skirt. Lips parted, palms turned upward in surrender.
Lizzie had sniffed loudly as he demonstrated the pose (standing up, mind you). He was quite caught up in it all, she must say. He reminded her of those pictures of Mary or the saints. Their palms exposed, a look of ecstatic agony on their faces. Like they were enjoying the pain, finding comfort in the life draining through the holes in their hands. She could understand that look. She thought of Dante and sighed.
He clears his throat again and gestures to the bath.
‘Would you mind?’
She swings her legs over the bath and sits down in the water. She grimaces as the water penetrates through the folds of the brocade, to her skin. This was not going to be pleasant.
‘Now if you move down the bath a little, so your hair will float.’
He gestures again. She stares up at him balefully. He had it all worked out didn’t he? She sighs and lowers herself down. The water rises and she tips her head back, shaking her hair onto its surface and then pushing her head down through its web. The water fills her ears until she is lying alone in a silent void.
She looks up and sees him doing that saint imitation again. She raises her hands out of the water curling her fingers against each other. She looks down the length of the bath and settles her gaze on the top of the window behind him. She glances quickly at him. He nods at her. She looks back at the window and tilts the top of her head under the water. She can feel her hair drifting around her and then settling.
She can feel him looking at her. She stares fiercely at the window. She thinks about drawing. Dante has been trying to teach her. He stands behind her and points out small details that he feels she should include in her sketches; the shadows in the depths of a rose’s petals, the pearl of light in the eye of the stuffed pigeon he brought out one time. She can see what he means. It is as if she has been given a magnifying glass. There is more to things when you actually look hard at them and forget about what they actually are. She raised her pencil to the paper, fully aware of his solid presence peering over her shoulder. She felt them both hold their breath.
Forget about the word – forget Rose, forget Bird.
Just record what you see…
If this was so, why is it Dante doesn’t see the shadows under her eyes, hear the fury in her voice when he talks of doing another painting of Fanny?
Her hands are sinking beneath the water. She adjusts her elbows and lowers them down onto the bottom of the bath. It is entirely uncomfortable. She will have to get something to make it more comfortable. She sits up hurriedly and the sound of water rushing back into the bath is as violent as an avalanche.
John frowns at her.
‘I need something for more head,’ she says. ‘To hold it up.’
‘I want your hair to float around your head,’ he mutters as he rubs his chin.
She waits in the bath, not looking at him, looking around at the room. She needs to be made more comfortable. This is not an unreasonable request. He leaves the room and comes back with a blanket which he folds up into a parcel and then passes to her. She adjusts it, then lays it down in the bath. It should work. She lifts up her hair and lies back down again, resting the back of her head on the wad of fabric. Now she can relax her neck. She nods up at him. He stares at him a moment then hurries off. What is it now?
He had forgotten the flowers.
She looks up and sees him standing above her clutching a hearty bunch of wild flowers, full of colour. He stands solemnly over her and one by one, tosses the flowers about her face and along her body.
Blue cornflower. Red poppy.
She feels a chill run through her body; it is as if she is looking up at a mourner at her own grave. She remembers her mother’s burial, the gash dug out of the earth, the open grave, peering down into the darkness as she dropped the small posy of violets among the clods of dirt.
John opens the palm of her right hand and closes it again over the few remaining stalks. He walks away again. She settles back.
She imagines wading into a river in this dress. The ripples swigging at her fingers, the iciness of the water making it tempting to go no deeper. And this dress – the fabric so heavy and long, she would have to fight it too. Hauling her feet, one by one, into the cold, over the smooth stones, through the current, until suddenly it would be deep and strong enough to lift her and she would be part of the river. She cannot quite think how death would occur, not knowing how to swim. Would she float for a time before drowning? Or perhaps this dress was so heavy there would be no floating. Perhaps she would end as a pile of brocade and swirling hair among the stones of the riverbed. She will have to ask John how it would happen.
She glances at him. Not now. She knows that look. She has ceased to exist. He is busy with Ophelia. His eyes move back and forth between her body and the easel but his mind does not register what he is doing. He is under a spell. He is possessed. His brush is guided over the palette. His eyes squint and frown.
Lizzie looks away.