Disclaimer: This was written for the Academy of Bards’ Challenge - thanks as ever to Steph for the invite to take part.
Copyright to the author October 2005
We'd met under the moonlight many, many times since that first, fateful day I had seen her. She was pretty under the bold rays of the sun, but no more than that. Just pretty, with the buttery gold sunlight bouncing off her blonde hair and chasing the shadows under her cheeks and eyes. But the stark daylight had illuminated the small imperfections in her face; not revealing the hidden beauties but laying bare the deepening lines around her lips, the blemishes on the skin, the tiredness around her eyes. Even with all that, she was pretty enough to spare a second glance.
Pretty, but not unusual. Not outstanding. I was interested, but only as a master painter, searching for his Mona Lisa, comes across a pleasantly diverting landscape. I would've painted her in watercolours, while waiting for my beauty in oils.
I had been surprised to hear myself asking her to pose. She looked uncertain and I didn't blame her. After all, my clothes were shabby and encrusted with paint, but her flirty refusal told me she was interested, if I cared enough to push deeper.
I offered her money. Not much, as she was only a diversion, and after much bargaining, she accepted. She refused to come to my studio until she had 'gotten to know me' so she arranged to meet me at the Cock and Crow tavern that night where - she happily informed me - I could buy her a few drinks and do some pencil sketches.
My interest was waning even then. But the day was slow and the night slower. And I thought her a sufficient diversion to warrant spending an evening out, even if it meant divesting myself of a portion of money that, small as it was, I could ill afford. So, bearing the cost and my boredom in mind, I resolved to make the most of her. Who knows, I may even find myself a useful model for the future commissions that might come my way.
I packed a small satchel with papers, pastels, charcoals and sketching pencils, stuffed a small pocket pouch with coins and set off, half-hearted and hardly hopeful but determined to make the most of the evening's entertainment nevertheless.
The velvety blackness of the night enveloped me in its warm anonymity. I made my way through the narrow, crowded streets which bustled with night-time life as the drinkers and gamblers and whores and thieves settled into their trades under the faint illumination of the hissing, spluttering gaslamps.
I loved the city at night. It filed itself with raucous, ribald, saucy life that felt safe in the night-time, hidden away in the faintly lit cobbled streets, protected by high brick and stone walls which reached up toward the moon like sturdy, straight fingers.
And the light! Forget the daylight - that was one dimensional, marked only by the intensity of colours and contrasts. The harsh, unforgiving yellows and reds and greens of the daytime hurt my blue eyes. Even the shadows it cast were straightforward. No challenge there for an artist – a half mix of the colour palette and you were practically there.
But the moonlight! It softened harsh lines and bathed everything in an ephemeral sheen, sending droplets of shimmering silver to cover the world. There was the painter's challenge - to mix the monochrome palette, to capture the subtlety of moonlight and shadow as it played across form and texture.
The world looked different under the moon. People looked different - maybe because they acted different? I didn't know; I didn't really care. Whatever it was, the moon brought it all out. I had been her eager student for almost a year now, painting under her light as it waxed and waned. I thought I was a better painter by moonlight, and I practised as much as I could to perfect my art.
The woman was waiting in a pool of sickly light cast by the doorway of the Cock and Crow, her shawl artfully draped across one bare shoulder. She had freshly painted her face and her dress was clean, though heavily mended. She saw me, broke off her conversation with an interested gentleman, and waved, an artfully saucy and inviting smile on her face.
Inside, she fleeced me for a flagon of porter and her fee upfront. "Let's get everything straight before we start," she said, so I paid up.
Her name was Alessandra. An unusual name, but she said she wasn't from these crowded shores. She said she came from the countryside abroad, where the lemon, walnut and olive groves fought for space on the hills. It sounded glamorous, even though she was not.
We talked awhile - although to be more precise, she did most of the talking and all of the drinking. After a few attempts to find out about my circumstances and getting nowhere, she gave up and proceeded to chatter away about herself. I didn't mind too much, but when she wheedled for a second jug of porter, I drew the line. I wasn't that interested in her conversation.
"Let's go to the park," I said.
"What for?" she replied. "Here is fine. Is light and warm, and is dark and cold in the park. And lonely. Nobody is there."
"All the better to sketch you," I responded, anxious now that I felt the pleasantries were over.
"Sketch? Why you want to do that? I do many things better than just sit."
"I don't. I paid you to pose for me, and that's what you're going to do."
"Sketching," she snorted dismissively. "You can do that here, no? And I will drink more wine, and we both will be happy tonight."
"I don't draw in this light unless I'm being paid. When I'm doing the paying, I draw by moonlight." I picked up my satchel and slung it casually over my shoulder as I rose to my feet. "Come with me, or I'll have my money back."
She looked sulky - mutinous, even - but reluctantly accompanied me, trailing behind and complaining loudly as we made our way to the small patch of trees, fountains and grass that passed as one of the City's many parks. Already I was regretting the assignation but it was too late to do anything about it, save accept the loss of the coins she refused to give back.
The sky was clear and studded with stars. The moon hung in the sky, an almost full silver disc cascading beams of grey and white all through the park. Alessandra paused beneath a patch of sky. The moonlight reflected off her shoulders and hair, turned her worn dress into a cascade of shimmering silver silk, and my breath caught. Under the moonlight, she was really quite beautiful. An elven princess, proud and scornful. My heart thudded with welcome surprise.
A tiny cloud scudded across the shining disc in the sky, and the moment was broken.
I set her pose, draping her along a leaning tree trunk, sat myself upon the ground and proceeded to draw a rough pencil outline with bold and careless strokes. She proved a somewhat restless and talkative subject. Eventually, I had to break my drawing. "Stop talking,” I snapped. “I can't concentrate with you chattering on at me."
"I have to. The silence, he is too much. I feel the quiet in the air and I feel cold." She huffed, and shifted about against the rough bark of the trunk. “Is no sun. No light for sketchings.”
I spared her a brief flicker of a glance. "What nonsense. Look around you - there is plenty of light. Enough to sketch by. Now, keep still and keep quiet, for Heaven’s sake." With a few brief touches I quickly roughed in a few folds of her skirt, marvelling at the effect that the soft light was having on her features. "Look at the way the light filters through the leaves above you,” I mused whilst working with my pencils. “It makes you look like you're wearing a delicately wrought silver tiara." The moon had been exceptionally generous and was bathing her in its beautiful mercury rays. I blew out a sigh. "It’s really quite beautiful. I wish I had my colours."
I sketched on in peace, altering her pose a touch and trying charcoal and chalk to better capture her filigree halo of silvery moonlight. She quickly became restless again, and recommenced her chatter. Angrily, I ordered silence again.
"I need to talk," she shot back, her rouged lips turning sulky. "Why don't you talk to me? I pose better with talk." Her eyes glinted artfully, and she arched her back deeper into the trunk, causing her small breasts to perk.
I paused my rapid sketching, irritated. "Stop moving. You've spoiled the pose now. I'll have to start again."
Once more I rearranged her, and once more she moved, until I threw my charcoal onto the ground and stamped on it furiously. It crunched into pieces, and I ground them fiercely into the dirt.
She stared at me levelly as I ranted and raged about the little parkland. "Time's up," was her only response. She pulled away from the tree and started re-arranging her skirts. "You've had your money's worth."
"Damn you, these sketches are all spoiled! There's nothing I can work with here. I should demand my money back!" And I almost meant it, but I was fascinated by the way the delicate light played across her blonde hair, and I knew that I would have to see her again.
"Sue me," she retorted, swinging her skinny hips away from me. "Your money I keep. For the cold wind up my ass and the lousy company. Not my fault if all you want to do is silly drawing."
"Damn you." I threw the chalk after her.
She merely laughed, waggled her arse and said; "If you want more silly sketchings, you try Alessandra again. Except maybe price go up next time. Moonlight is madness."
I gathered up my belongings, resolved to see her in Hell first, and left.
I saw her again almost every night that week, always meeting outside a different tavern. She would laugh at me, fleece me for food and ale or wine, depending on how warm the weather was, and then I would take her to a park or courtyard – anywhere private and open to the skies - where she would adopt the pose I arranged her in and charge me for the privilege. Never by day, though. By day she was merely a youngish, vaguely pretty woman who strode the streets and chattered too much. Nothing of interest there – I could have had a thousand of them, if my purse were full enough.
At night, she still chattered too much but the magic of the moon found something more attractive in her. At night, she captivated me. Truth to say, she haunted me. I could barely get through the daylight hours without my fingers twitching to hold a brush, without imagining the smell of oil and linseed. Needless to say, any painting I did in the daylight was unsatisfying; merely a distraction – a pale, insipid attempt, a warm-up for the real art of the evening when I could again try my moonlight-drenched beauty, deserving of my best painter oils, colours carefully selected and blended and lovingly brushed on with the hint of a touch.
My sketching was growing increasingly frenetic in my quest to capture the moon-struck perfect piece of art. But I already knew that pencil, charcoal and chalk would not be enough to fix on paper the milk-white skin with its silvery sheen, the pearlescent shimmer of teeth and nails, the softened form with its plumped curves and secret, moon-filled hollows. I yearned to turn to my oils, my canvas and easel but she refused to come indoors with me and I couldn’t carry my material out. I had managed to persuade her to let me draw her in pastels as they were easily portable, but as I couldn't blend the colours properly, I just couldn't capture exactly the right shades and contrasts. I had not felt such frustration at my own lack of artistic ability since my first foray into painting many, many years ago.
She was nearly bankrupting me, and I was really having to hustle to find and complete commissions to keep me in supplies, rent, food and her. Sleep was a luxury I had decided forgo until this moon-struck madness was out of my blood. I just needed to get her to my studio. Then I knew I could fix her on canvas. And I knew that when I did, she would be my life’s work. My masterpiece.
It took me another week before I persuaded her there. It took me two solid evenings of porter and a price hike before she would even consider it.
"Why you want keep the sketchings? You have enough now, no? I get bored with the sketchings." She waved her hand dismissively, and gave me a crooked smile as she gestured towards her empty glass.
I tried lying. "I have a commission. I want to use you as my model."
She narrowed her eyes, and shrugged, a sly smile on her plump, red lips. "You have pictures already. Use one of them. I pose no more." She nodded with finality. I wasn't unduly worried - this was the pattern; the regular dance we went through. It was almost like foreplay, and I was nearly getting to like it.
I leaned closer to her, as if to whisper confidences. "I can't. This is a big commission. The client is too important." I was already lying, so I decided to lay it on thick.
"Important?" Her eyes glinted. "Alessandra is important model?"
"Absolutely. I wouldn't use any other model for this. But the client insists on a full-size canvas. In oils." I sat back, my hand shown and my cards on the table.
She smiled knowingly. "I cannot do." I eased a brimming demi-jug of red wine in front of her. "I think about it, maybe." She poured a glass, and drank it down. "I cannot do. I no go to your home. You are very strange. I not do."
“I understand that.” I reached out and poured her a second glass. “But you should know me well enough by now to trust me.” I paused momentarily. “Of course, I would pay you for it."
She poured another glass. "Flat fee as usual." Her eyes grew calculating and clever. "Plus ten percent of profit."
That caught me off guard. Of course there was no commission and would be no profit, but I would cross that bridge later. "Deal."
We had settled into a routine. I would meet her at the tavern of her choosing, feed her and buy her wine and then bring her back to my studio, where I would unfurl the curtains, open the casement windows, drape her in silks and robes and then have her take various classical poses on the couch while I sketched or mixed up my colours and set up my easel. She would squirm on the furs and soft cloths, enjoying herself while I bustled about the studio until I was ready to recommence work.
I painted like a being possessed. In a matter of days, I finished my first oil portrait. It wasn’t good enough. Nor was the second, or the third. I couldn’t paint perfection. The vision of what could be haunted me, tortured me, but I refused to give up trying.
I was working on a reclining Venus type pose which showed off her pale, plump arms. She had kindly allowed me to arrange the draping of her gowns and garments, and in return I allowed her to chatter away, on the understanding that she probably wouldn’t get an answer. As an arrangement, it seemed to be working perfectly.
Until the day she said to me, “Why you paint me this way?”
I didn’t pause from the work I was doing, but answered absently, “In this pose? I’ve told you before. It’s classical. It’s what my client wants.”
“No, not the pose. This I understand. We have great painters in Italy, I see their works. But they all... how you say? Worship the female form? Why you no worship?”
I flicked her a quick glance, and sighed impatiently. “I do. I’m trying to paint it, aren’t I? Under the most captivating light I can. Why else do you think I do this?”
She threw me a glance in return, knowing and artful. “Is the light you worship, not the woman. The great masters; Titian, Donatello, Botticelli, Tintoretto and all the others. I see their paintings at home. They see a beautiful woman, they want to paint all of her. They create the light to show her off best.” She stopped, and stared at me thoughtfully. “Why you no paint me naked?”
I smudged paint all over the canvas. “What?”
She shrugged, but smiled encouragement at me. “I pose for you without the clothes. You are very strange, not to ask. Michelangelo, Botticelli and the other great artists - they do not wait to ask their models. They expect naked. I wait to be asked, for a long time, but now I have to ask you.”
With this, she slipped the red silk sheet I had carefully arranged off her shoulder and then further down until it pooled at her waist in rich folds of scarlet. I stared at her small breasts as they rose and fell with her breathing, their tiny, rosy nipples laying sleepy at their centre. She shoved the red silk further, revealing her rounded stomach, her fingers pointing downwards in the classic position, signalling those places still hidden from view. I couldn’t have posed her better myself. The way the moonlight creeping in from the open casement bounced off her skin, giving it a shimmering coating of mercury against the dark blue of the couch, her eyes mere slits of sparkling silver as she laughed over at me.
“Now you paint a woman, no?” she said, knowledge edging her voice.
Of course, she was right. I understood immediately why my previous paintings had been imperfect. There had been too much colour in them; not enough pale skin, monochromed by the moonlight. I had tried to craft beauty, when all along it had been here, stark and bare and natural before me. I understood.
I cast aside the half-finished canvas I had been working on, and started again.
I suppose it was inevitable that we would become lovers. She had said that I was paying for it anyway, and I thought that touching the woman in the most intimate of ways might help me to transfer some of that intimacy onto the canvas. It didn’t, not entirely, but there was no doubt that my painting began to improve. I felt it was more human. More real, somehow.
And she was a very, very good lover.
We continued to meet at night, at different taverns around the city. She said she liked the variety, and that suited me, because I liked the anonymity. I didn’t want my daytime acquaintances and prospective clients to see me in those places, with those types of people. She, on the other hand, didn’t want her acquaintances to know that she had regular work and consequently a regular income - albeit small - so it was perfect for both of us. It also gave us the thrill of illicitness, even though it wasn’t. We were both single and perfectly within our rights to enter into whichever liaisons we fancied.
After our drinks, we would wander the city until we found a place which she pronounced fine, and I would paint her body with my tongue and fingers and lips until she cried out with pleasure and sank into a sated doze. Then, we would retire to my studio where I would continue my painting, in oils, with her supine and dozing on the settee. The perfect model, for once; it was one of the few ways I could get her to stay still.
One day, she claimed she loved me. “Only a little,” she qualified. “But is good to love a lover only a little, no?”
“I guess.” I shrugged as I mixed colours onto my palette.
“Do you love me?” she enquired archly.
“Of course I do,” I replied, even thought it wasn’t true. I was no fool. She was many things to me - my muse, my art, my perfect marriage of light and form; my future career, quite frankly. A lover, but not a love. I had no problem with that, and I didn’t think she would either.
She got the joke, and laughed. “Yes, sure you love me. You love the me on your painting more than the real woman, I think.”
“And so what? You love the coins I give you more than anything, I think.”
She laughed again, her rouged lips glistening as they parted in merriment. “We are good together, you and I. No? I help you paint, you help me live in a nice room. Is warm and light and I no have to sell myself so much through the day.”
“It’s a perfect arrangement.”
“I think so. And the sex is a - how you say? Bonus? I am very good for you. You have colour in your cheeks and flesh on your bones now. And look at how your paintings is better.” Lazily, she stretched out a bare leg, draping it over the arm of the settee, while cupping her pert little breasts in her hands. “I think we work good together, for a long, long time.”
I paused with my scraping and mixing, a frown on my face. “A long time?” I hadn’t ever thought about time; the thought that there could be a natural conclusion of our relationship hadn’t occurred to me, in my ongoing quest to capture perfectly my visions in moonlight.
“Si. Why not? There is many monies to be made from art. Maybe you learn to sculpt, when you have finished with the paintings. Or maybe you become big person, much in demand, and will always need to do paintings of Alessandra.”
“Maybe.” Thoughtfully, I returned to my easel. I hadn’t ever considered this before. It suddenly hit me - every single day that passed was a day where I had not created my masterpiece. Could I envisage a lifetime spent in frustration and bitterness, searching for something I would never find? Never realising my potential; never painting my Mona Lisa?
My blood ran cold.
But how could this be? I was a true artist - talented, gifted. The conditions were perfect - the moon tonight was at her fullest, cascading pearlescent light across the frost-hoared world, sending the scene outside shimmering with soft, white light. The woman was beautiful, inspiring. How could I fail?
“A lifetime together. Will be good, no? We are good together.”
I don’t think she noticed, but our relationship shifted that night. I genuinely do believe that she did love me a little, but I became even more obsessed with the paintings I was doing. Even our lovemaking changed, in my eyes anyway. Looking back, I can see now that I took my frustrations and bitterness out on her when we were having sex - I was rougher, more passionate, more demanding and more angry. She mistook it for ardour, and maybe she was right - maybe it was the only way I could be.
As the intensity of our intercourse grew, so the intensity of my painting did. My studio was filling with half-painted canvases and finished works - all good, but not good enough for me. I had even managed to sell some of them. They were proving to be popular, and I was starting to be talked about as an up-and-coming young artist. But they just weren’t good enough. They lacked the vibrancy, the earthiness of the original whilst not capturing that ephemeral, ethereal quality that the moonlight always brought out in her.
We had met, as usual. Made love, as usual. Retired to the studio, as usual. We looked at the recently finished canvas, and she pronounced it delightful. I told her I already had a buyer, and we celebrated with wine and sex. Then she posed herself, and I stared at the new, empty canvas I had placed. And I just couldn’t find anything new there I wanted to paint. I’d posed her in every conceivable position, in every conceivable light. All the canvases which lined the walls stood testament to that. I was done.
“Let’s take a night off,” I said.
Her rosy mouth dropped open with pleasure. “Really? We take night off? I no pose?”
“Sure.” My voice lacked enthusiasm, but hers more than made up for it. She shrieked, and clapped her hands.
“We be like normal people? We eat dinner, maybe? Go for a show? Or a carriage ride? We be like proper couple?” Her eyes grew round with eagerness.
I was a little taken aback with the excitement and pleasure she was exhibiting, so I agreed. “Sure, why not.”
Again, she shrieked with pleasure, and lunged at me with a kiss and a hug. “I love you! I must get ready, I have no proper gown to wear for evening. What I do?”
“Wear what you’re wearing now. It’s okay, we won’t be going anywhere too fancy.”
“I bath first. You will wait?”
I couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm, and I felt a pang of guilt at not having treated her better before. Our times together had always been so furtive. “Of course. Take your time, relax. There’s no rush. In fact, let’s go out to dinner and a show tomorrow - you can buy a beautiful dress especially for it. Would you like that?” Her face fell. “Tomorrow, we will go out on a proper date, I promise. Tonight, you shall have your bath while I light some candles, and we shall sit together, talk and drink wine. And you shall stay the whole night. Would you like that?”
“I stay the whole night?” Her face creased into a shy smile. “Si, I like very much. Tonight and tomorrow, we be like a proper couple? You promise?”
“Si,” I replied, as I kissed her.
She lay in my old roll-top bath with her feet hanging over the edge of the stained enamel, a glass of wine in one hand, her smile lazy and happy as she chattered away to me.
I had pulled up a chair beside her so I could soap her back and drink wine with her. With one hand idly trailing in the water, I admired the way the flickering candlelight gave warmth to her skin, already rosy-hued from the hot, soapy water that lapped at her shoulders, breasts and thighs. It really was amazing, the way different lighting illuminated Alessandra's body. I was used to seeing her aloof and silver-sheened by moonlight. Watching the shades of her skin change as the honeyed light teased it revealed another beauty to her which I hadn't known or expected.
"You're beautiful in this light," I confessed in admiration, vacating my position so I could walk around the bath to view the many angles of her. In the candlelight, she was a revelation - warm, glowing and earthy as the delicate light played amidst the dips and curves of her body. It was as if I was looking at an entirely different woman.
She rested her head on the side of the bath, and followed me with her eyes. "Stay still. You make me dizzy with the walking."
I pulled over the chair and sat behind her so I could stroke her hair, the buttery blondeness of it glinting in the candlelight. "It's the wine that's making you dizzy."
She laughed, dropping her head back to stare me full the face. The motion revealed a foreshortened view of her. Her ripe breasts bobbed on the water, long legs rising from the suds. The effect was quite striking - all the peachy pinkness of skin, set against the white of the bath, the dark blues and reds of the room, all cast with the honeyed glow of the candles which flickered about her. The unconscious pose spelt confidence, sexuality and the promise of rich, ripe womanhood, hidden beneath the water, waiting to be explored.
She read my face and laughed again, and her red lips parted further in invitation.
I licked my lips and fought the urge to drag her out of the bath - or jump in there with her - and ran to fetch my sketch pad.
It took me weeks, but I got it. I had her, full and resplendent in her bath, on the canvas. Her direct stare issued a challenge and confidence that many would find unacceptable, pronouncing as it did in no uncertain terms a woman at the height of her sexuality, unashamed, enjoying it and inviting the observer to enjoy it too.
I had her. My masterpiece. At last.
Needless to say, she loved it.
And I hated it. The painted glow of the candles which suffused her skin tortured me, because they reminded me that I hadn't been able to do this with my first love - moonlight. At first, I had blamed myself; a lack of vision, a lack of skill, a lack of discipline. I was the painter, and she was my failure. Clearly, though, I was quite capable of producing a great painting - I had it here, in my hand. I had the skill, the art, the discipline. It couldn’t have been my failure at all. It must have been hers.
I came to understand that, in spite of the way the moonbeams had lit up her form, she had been entirely the wrong subject. It was plain now, that where the candlelight had given her vibrancy and vitality, she had leached the life out of the moonlight. It had been too delicate for her.
Not that any of that mattered now. I had my masterpiece, and I knew I could never better it, not if I painted her for another thousand years. Here was the pinnacle of my artistic achievement. It was both an exhilarating realisation, and a depressing one. Any painting I did from this moment on would be a pale shadow; a mere wraith, a spectre which teased and tortured me with visions of possibilities never to be realised. You see, I knew that I could never completely turn away from the moon. I knew I would always keep trying to capture that perfect moon-struck vision on canvas. I knew it just wouldn’t be with Alessandra.
I had arranged to meet her at the Cock and Crow tavern. She was waiting for me, her shawl slipping over her bare shoulders as she chatted up a client. Always the working girl, she never could let that go. She saw me, broke off her conversation and sauntered over casually, as though I was just another pick-up. Just like all the other times. I gave her the money, and led her towards the park where I had taken her that first evening.
"You sell my painting? We do good, no?"
"Yes, I sold it," I lied, knowing I could never let it go.
"Is good. We do lots of paintings. Sell all and make lots of money. We live very good life together," she pronounced, full of confidence. "Oh, look! Here is where you draw me first!"
"Yes," I smiled, tugging her into my arms. "I wanted us to remember where we met." I drew her down to the ground, laying her beneath me gently.
Her eyes twinkled as she wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. "Where I first model for you? Is special. We make new special memories now?"
"Indeed." She was beautiful under the moonlight. I was reminded of all the times we had worked together, loved together, hoped together and I almost cried at the injustice of it. How ironic, to have the perfect model and the perfect light, and never being able to bring the two together.
Tenderly, I held her face between my palms and admired the way the moonlight played across her features, stroking her cheeks and eyes with my thumbs as I did so. Then, I kissed her deeply, brushing her body with mine, stroking and playing with her buttocks and breasts in the way I knew she loved before laying her gently down onto the grass. The moon stared down at us coldly, blankly; her weak rays gave our flesh and hair a grey tint, like frost on a wintry branch. I undressed her slowly and laid myself next to her, tracing with my lips and tongue the silvery beams of the moon as they played across her succulent flesh and luscious contours.
I raised the shawl from her shoulders to gain better access to her long, smooth neck, then felt her body begin to shake and buck against mine. Her breath began to come in short gasps as we built towards the end, and I whispered endearments and explanations until I felt the final shudder of her release.
Then, I loosened the ligature from around her throat and dropped back into the shadows, under the cold, welcoming gaze of the moon. My quest for a moonlight masterpiece beckoned me once more.