My submitted piece for the Modern Fiction module, which was also published in the Brunel Creative Writing Anthology.
The Sinister Art of Anatomy
Her pupils, like two black holes, seemed to absorb everything in her proximity. Even the navy blue dress she wore lost some of its light to those eyes, the material’s colour darkening to something more sable. It snaked around her figure, squeezing her breasts, gripping her waist, suffocating, like a boa-constrictor. She stood tall despite the clutch of her clothes, her right leg stretching out through the slit of the dress, inky silk spilling either side of her thigh.
Below the knee, he opened her up.
Rosy muscle sheathed around creamy bone, a miniscule layer of yellowish fat embracing the tendons. Campbell pressed himself in closely towards her, back curved and aching, as he trimmed away the skin down to her ankle. He stepped back to regard her again, the painting having made an evolutionary leap with the forbidden ingredients of her anatomy displayed so brazenly. Campbell thought she was even more beautiful this way.
This woman was not the first to undergo this procedure. He had dissected the torsos of men wrought in oils, lifting away the armour of their muscles with the stroke of his brush. He had lacerated women, transforming the unbroken smoothness of their necks to the segmented structure of their spinal cords. Every organ, bone and artery was formed with textbook accuracy. In fact, if anyone were so inclined, they could use Campbell’s paintings in lieu of a medical textbook. His works were perfectly, factually magnificent.
And yet Peter Campbell had no line of medical students outside his door hoping for a commission. No buyers interested in purchasing from him. No letters. Silence.
Around three months ago Campbell had been described, in one of the most influential magazines for the arts, as ‘The Artisan Butcher’. He might not have minded if this were in ARTnews’ ‘Upcoming Talents’ section. However, he had found himself and an image of one of his paintings at the back of the magazine, squashed under the title ‘BIZARRE AND BARBAROUS’. He could not recall the article without also inviting a grimace to his face.
‘Peter Campbell’s art undeniably does not lack for skill, but the openly barbaric nature of his works is unsettling, and some would claim the reveal of a person’s innermost substance signifies almost as an expression of rape.’
His reputation was torn apart, tatters of his creative dignity left barely clinging onto him. The article, pandemic-like, had spread across the U.S., the critics and connoisseurs of paintings shying away from Campbell and his art as if he actually were infectious. His work was dismissed as nothing less than the incarnations of an innermost depravity.
‘Expression of rape!’ Campbell scowled to himself, looking over his latest creation again. There was no violence to her, no gory leakage of her innards or pained rictus in her expression. It was a literal look at the person inside: what truly dwelt under the skin. And had he not done the same to the men in his art? To animals? Did ARTnews think his ‘expression of rape’ stretched to bestiality? Campbell pushed the thoughts to a dustier corner of his mind, where they would undoubtedly spread their negativity, rotting whatever else was sheltering there.
As the sun collapsed, falling under the horizon, Campbell finished the painting. He decided to show off the anatomy of the woman’s chest too, painting the pink, spongy lungs and the encircled claws of her first two rib bones over her previous coat of skin. His style was old-fashioned, still-life as seen by the human eye. The new-fangled Pop Art movement ill-suited Campbell. What benefit could there be to make a woman in one less dimension, to fill her with a single shade when there were so many she could be adorned with?
While the canvas dried Campbell cleaned his brushes. He simply dropped them into the cart where he kept his tools, allowing them to mingle however they wished. Four pots, previously separating brushes by their size and purpose, were empty. Globules of dried paint, dark pinks and whites and some green, stuck to the lids of the paint pots and handles of the brushes as if they had grown fungi. Campbell could clearly remember how the mess had gotten to be there, seeing in his mind’s eye how the brushes, tips heavy with paint, bounced and spun across the cart’s compartment as he had thrown them down in a rage.
When his latest work had dried Campbell would take her from the easel and settle her with the others. A congregation of painted men, women and animals, all with patches of them missing, had invaded and colonised what was once his living room, lounging across his fraying sofa and loitering against the flaking walls. Campbell had closed the blinds to keep them out of the light, although that did not stop the feel of their eyes on him whenever he introduced another to their dismal horde.
For now there was little to keep him occupied.
Campbell picked up the bottle of whisky, finding it where it had been granted permanent residence on the desk in his workshop. He felt a slight grease around the neck of the bottle where he must have been holding it the night before. Falling into the wooden chair, he encouraged the amber liquid to visit him again, welcoming it with gratified gasps as he competently slicked it down. On his eighth drag his throat constricted.
He heard her moving.
His palate was afire when he finally swallowed, a taste of dread following the whisky. Campbell set the bottle down and tried to work his way to his bedroom. He swayed, feeling like a blade of grass caught in an unpredictable wind that would suddenly gust up, battering him into the walls and doorways. The shoes she had left in the hallway made a minefield of his path as he tried not to crush the assortment of high-heels.
When he passed the stairs he saw her standing at the top, statuesque.
“Good evening Peter,” she said brightly.
Campbell felt only a numb nervousness as he stared up at her. She had dolled up for going out. Her dress was as red as poppies, and the belt cinched the material at her waist while the hem blossomed at her knees.
“You look beautiful,” he told her, slurring the u’s and feeling the organs inside of him all askew and a-jumble. Campbell imagined capturing his own anatomy, pictured his engorged heart, his brain drowned in golden whisky, and his knotted stomach. He wondered if it would be bad practice to paint the butterflies he felt in his stomach.
“You’re sweet,” she beamed, delicately pricking the ‘t’. The material of her dress sighed as she brushed her hands across it. Campbell staggered out of the way to let her descend the staircase. Her movements seemed so solid to the artist after all the time he had spent with his painted creations, the slaps of her bare feet on the wooden stairs and the scrape of her nails on the bannister asserting that this woman was real. “You won’t have to put up with me being here much longer,” she said as she stepped into a pair of black shoes. “The repairs on my house should be finished by next week. But thank you for letting me stay for as long as I have.” The end of the woman’s blonde fringe skittered across her cheeks. Campbell could smell her perfume, tangy like fruit.
“Your cheekbones are so lovely.”
“Oh, uh, thank you,” she tumbled the words out, the heels of her shoes stuttering as she made for the front door. The sound stopped abruptly when her eyes snapped across the hall to something behind Campbell, her pupils gaping and her hand flying to cover her mouth in shock. Campbell turned to look. The door to his workshop, usually shut, was bared open.
In the lurid evening light he could see far into the room. Staring serenely back at them, still lofted on the easel, was the painted likeness of Campbell’s temporary resident. He looked away from the painting and back at the real woman, whose expression was far from calm. Her blue eyes were narrowed, lip curling in disgust.
A fire leapt up in Campbell’s gut. He felt the whisky drain from his head and pour through to his burning stomach, dousing the butterflies. Their wings shriveled and disappeared as they caught the heat.
“I made you beautiful!” Campbell attempted a placating tone but his internal blaze spat all the way up to his tongue. He reached out to snag the woman’s wrist and, as if burnt, she whipped her hand away from his fingers as soon as they stroked her skin.
“Don’t touch me!”
At the outburst they both stood still, as still as the paintings.
“I would never hurt you,” Campbell murmured. The fire in his stomach had reduced to a simmer. “I painted her – you – to be beautiful. Every layer of you is beautiful, don’t you see that?” He tried to advance on the woman but lost his balance, having to take hold of the bannister.
“That is not beauty. That is only a, a…a desire to control!” she finished triumphantly, pointing at Campbell. “You want to control, to have your way, and the people you paint are the only ones who don’t talk back.”
Campbell struggled to sort through the onslaught and form a response.
“You’re wrong, that’s not what I do,” he managed. “No one understands, no one even tries to!” He took a step towards her. “It’s about what we can’t see in others, what’s under the skin – layers!” As he spoke Campbell could see he was not reaching her. She had wrapped an arm over her chest, covering the area where the painted version of her was stripped to the bone.
“What’s beautiful about dissection? What are people supposed to think when you paint pain and tell them it is beauty?”
She began backing away towards the door, keeping her eyes on Campbell, like a wary animal anticipating an attack. He made one last attempt to latch onto her, almost toppling over but succeeding at last.
He yanked her to himself, her shoes squealing against the wooden floor. Campbell had both hands on her upper arms. He felt her muscle, her fat, nearly oblivious to the woman’s nails digging into the skin on his own arms. She threatened to scream if he didn’t let go. Her face was rippled in distress, mouth drawn wide, teeth bared.
Dipping his head down, Campbell kissed her. The only thing he could think was how he wanted to feel her teeth against his tongue. He had hardly begun to appreciate the intimacy when the woman swung her arm up in a vicious arc, wrist and palm clapping across his face. Campbell’s control was broken, and she hastily backed up as Campbell drunkenly pondered the pain in his cheek.
The woman pressed herself against the front door. They both listened to a car rumble close and the engine cut out.
“Please, please understand,” Campbell beseeched, sobering somewhat, “I did it because I see the beauty underneath you, you are so beautiful underneath and I want to understand it – you. I am an artist and you are my art.”
The woman shook her head.
“My cousin told me you were strange before I moved in, but not…not this. I will be gone in a week. If you do – do that – again, I’ll scream and tell everyone you tried to kill me.”
She completed her journey to leave Campbell’s house, stomping outside. The door banged shut.
For some time Campbell lingered in the hallway, thinking about the kiss. He remembered enjoying it, but already it was faded in memory. How exactly had her teeth felt? Eventually he stumbled back to his workshop. The woman on the easel drank in the scene as Campbell returned to the chair and took up the whisky.
“Don’t look at me.”
The painted woman could not turn her eyes away. Twisting in his seat, Campbell took another look at her. He assured himself that she was still beautiful this way, that there was no real pain she could feel, and so it did not matter if Campbell felt a pressure in his stomach when he looked at her organs. Anatomy was art.