The Muse

Fiction
Andrea Stephenson


Photo Credit: Valeria Mezzano/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

She has created me so many times that I don’t know who I am without her.

‘I’ll call you Claudette,’ she announces on the day we meet.

I am standing, naked and posed, waiting for her to pick up the brush. I should be annoyed at her arrogance, instead I tremble with the shock of exposure. She couldn’t know that I have no name, yet she knows enough to christen me. As if she was with me from the very beginning.

That first day I stretch into my new name. My skin feels loose, my limbs lengthened. I have to reach out to find the limits of my body. There is a blush on my olive skin that I have not seen before. Maggie doesn’t talk to me. Her intensity at first makes me cower, until I settle into her gaze. There is a tiny gash in her forehead where she frowns. Her eyes slit in concentration. Her mouth is always in motion: chewing her bottom lip, gurning as she considers the canvas, sucking on the end of a brush.

When I break and stretch, she sits in an old red leather wing chair, watching. I roll my shoulders, stretch out my legs, arch my back. Usually, I would put on a robe, but Claudette likes the weight of the artist’s stare. I strut around her studio naked, studying the paintings on the walls. She doesn’t ask me if I like them.

I don’t tell her my real name and she doesn’t think to ask, until it’s too late to matter.

*

They found me on the platform of a railway station, tucked in a corner beside the ticket machines. I was in an old baby carrier, wrapped in a threadbare blanket. There was a worn cloth rabbit clutched in my fist. I was found by a conductor finishing his shift. I didn’t cry for days.

I made the national news. They appealed for a mother, someone who might need medical treatment herself. But nobody came forward and nobody was found. My first baby photo is a black-and-white newspaper print of the conductor holding me. He is beaming for the camera.

Before that photo there is nothing but blurred lights and the thunder of trains passing.

*

Maggie creates me. I wouldn’t exist were it not for her. I am used to costumes and props. I have been painted as many characters. My face is one of those unremarkable faces, ready to become anyone the artist wants it to be. But Claudette is no tabula rasa. It is as though she has been there all along, squatting in a neglected part of my body, waiting to be drawn out.

Posing for Maggie, I become loose and languorous. Opened up. She paints every part of me, brush plump with paint, lingering over each area of the canvas. I watch the narrowing of her eyes, the flush of her cheeks, and try to guess which part of me she is bringing to life. She is putting me together piece by piece. Bone, flesh, skin. I hear the scratch of bristles on canvas. Each brush-stroke like a caress. It’s unbearable.

After a dozen sittings we collapse onto paint-stained sheets. She smells of oil and sweat and turpentine. The bed holds the scent of my perfume from all the times I’ve posed on it. When she whispers my name, she whispers Claudette.

I never go home again.

*

My parents didn’t tell me until I was sixteen. I had failed just about every exam and was about to make my meagre mark on the world. They chose that moment, not only to tell me I was adopted, but to tell me I was a foundling without a history. They showed me the blanks on my birth certificate that usually contained names. It felt like a punishment for everything I hadn’t done right.

No matter how many times my feet took me there, the railway station held no clues to who I was. If my mother named me, she kept that name to herself. I would never know her name, or the name of my father, or any of the people I came from. Before the railway station there was nothing.

I tracked down the conductor. Tom Ramsay was his name. He was retired and invited me to his home for tea, which his wife brought in on old-fashioned china. I made him describe everything in minute detail. He did it gladly, like a proud parent. He produced the photo and made me a copy. Sometimes, when I was particularly lonely, I went back to visit him. Each time I had him describe that night—until he passed away and another link to my beginning was broken.

*

In me, Maggie finds something she has been struggling with. Her brush strokes become assertive; they make shapes they hadn’t made before. Through me, she tells the story she wants to tell. She becomes hungry for information about me, but there is only before her and after her. I gloss over what came before.

It’s easy to become Claudette, to settle into a way of being with Maggie. I am her model, her assistant, her wife. When we are hungry, she sells me, for just a few pounds at first. When she becomes successful, it is our success. I look after the house and her. I entertain her friends at parties and am suitably enigmatic at her exhibitions. They can find no information on my past so I am the mysterious Claudette who has somehow brought out the genius in Maggie. They seek my opinion on her work and discuss my influence on it.

She has sold me a hundred times over. Now, I go for thousands. Even so, I will always remain here. The walls are always covered in me.

*

When I saw the gaps on my birth certificate, everything made sense. It explained why I never felt comfortable in my life, why I struggled to pin down an identity. I belonged nowhere, because I would never know where I belonged.

I went to a support group for a while. Some foundlings were philosophical about their lack of baggage, others never got over the hole inside.

My adoptive parents took the time to choose me, to name me, to raise me. Perhaps the knowledge should have pushed me towards them, but instead it pushed me away.

*

Maggie dies a legend. I inherit everything, including the responsibility for the estate. There are tributes and retrospectives. I am no longer Claudette, I am ‘the muse’. They talk endlessly about my face and my body and how she has portrayed them until I am no longer sure what I am. I began life with no records, but since Maggie, my every move has been documented and analysed.

I see my faces staring down at me, from every wall. They are propped on the floor and stacked on tables. I watch them watching me. I sit in the wing chair in which Maggie once sat and I hear them whisper among themselves. What did you do but pose? they ask. What value do you have except in paint? They will still be selling her paintings of me when I am long forgotten.

I find myself wondering who Claudette really is and why I was so eager to become her.

*

I could sell the paintings and be rich a dozen times over. But as I feed the first portrait into the flames, a tiny spark of my energy returns. I watch unmoved as the fire melts and blackens paint and canvas, until every last one is consumed.

The critics will hate me for destroying works they could have pored over for posterity, but I don’t care. The empty walls fill me with energy. I dance around the studio. Now that the paintings are gone, there is light and memory. I remember how we really were, Maggie and I. Our lives were about more than her painting me.

I was a child with no past who found a future. I was a woman with no name who found an identity. She has created me so many times that I don’t know who I am without her. Yet. But I have destroyed a hundred versions of myself and I will find me in the spaces left behind.

pencil

Andrea Stephenson is a writer and libraries manager from the north east of England, where she lives with her wife and a Border Terrier. Her stories have been published in Popshot and Firewords magazines and in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. She is inspired by nature, the coastline and the turn of the seasons and she writes about creativity, magic and nature at Harvesting Hecate. She is currently seeking an agent for two speculative fiction novels for adults. Email: beltane27[at]yahoo.co.uk