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The Lady of Shallot
A mythological retelling of art, obsession, and yearning by Claudia Hunt
Let me tell you a story. Sit down, sit down, we’ve got plenty of time. The fire is lit, the sun is setting, and you have nowhere else to be. Listen.
Our story begins with our heroine trapped in the confines of a photograph. The date scrawled on the back reads ‘July 2000’. A portrait of the artist as a young girl, about thirteen, though she’s tall for her age.
Two families stand on the steps of Tate Britain. They’re crammed together in a bedraggled cluster beside a Victorian-style column, beneath the high entranceway with winged women carved across the arch. The three adults in the shot are smiling bravely out at the camera – Mr and Mrs McCall and their good family friend, Mrs Adams – carrying battered umbrellas slippery from the rain. Mrs McCall’s curls are plastered to her face in wet tendrils, and Mrs Adams is clutching her handbag protectively to her chest, sheltering it with her body. There are two children. One for each family.
Eliza Adams is small and mousy, halfway through explaining something to her mother as the shutter closes. Her pale, pinched mouth is slightly parted. Her thin hair is tied in braids, like the character of her new favourite TV show. Her mother’s free arm is around her shoulders. Eliza is not our heroine, though she would very much like to be. The other child is standing off to one side. Jemima McCall (Jem to everyone except the worst kind of adults) has her arms folded tight against her body, turning away to look at something just outside the frame. Her mother’s arm is outstretched, fingertips almost brushing one hunched shoulder. Jem’s face is slightly blurred, caught mid-flinch.
The shutter closes. The group breathes out as one, lets their smiles drop. As soon as Mrs McCall’s hand settles on her daughter’s shoulder, Jem twists free and sets off into the gallery.
Her sneakers squeak on the polished marble as she rushes through the ground floor. The rooms flash by: here, a red-walled wing of hazy, indistinct landscapes, here a room full of paintings entirely in earth tones, here a statue of a man whose flesh is peeling from his bones, blistering like bad sunburn. It’s still raining. The grass beyond the windows has been churned to mud. The white paving stones shine slick with water.
Jem comes to a halt, slightly out of breath, back in the circular entrance room. A staircase is sunk into the tiled floor, descending in a snail-shell curl to the level below. She takes the stairs two at a time, jumping the last three and landing with a thud. Nobody looks her way when she hits the ground, not even when she stumbles and nearly falls, grabbing the banister for support. They’re too absorbed in the artworks.
Jem does her best to imitate the other patrons, to blend in. It’s like a game. The woman beside her has her arms folded across her chest, so Jem folds hers too. The man to her left leans closer to examine a particular detail, face scrunched in a squint, and Jem does the same, close enough that she can see a brush hair trapped in the red folds of a woman’s gown.
A security guard pointedly clears his throat. Jem steps barely a centimetre back, the toes of her scuffed sneakers just below the velvet rope, and turns her gaze upwards to the next painting. No longer allowed to examine its minutiae, she’s forced to take in the whole portrait.
The woman looks as if she’s just stepped out of a fairy tale. Or rather, floated out; she sits in a boat with a gold-painted flourish for a head, draped in a white gown with sleeves that trail from her arms into the river below. The tapestry she sits on has its edges in the water too, and Jem thinks it’s a shame the woman hasn’t been more careful with it. It is too beautiful to be ruined by the dirty river water, the golds and blues and indigos of the tapestry brighter than even the green-brown reeds crowding the edges of the painting.
The Lady of Shallot (that’s her name, though Jem doesn’t know it yet), is letting the damp and grit and cold of the river water seep its way up the scarlet border of her life’s work. Shining Camelot in all its many-towered glory, with the lives of thousands stitched into the cloth like Fate’s thread, turning sour with algae and scum. The Lady herself doesn’t glance at her work, nor does she stoop to pick up the corners. Her head is tilted upwards, eyes downcast, lips parted in song.
She never meets Jem’s eyes, but Jem gazes at her anyway. Wide-eyed rapture, the kind echoed in so many of the religious paintings she’d barely glanced at. To her, the Lady of Shallot is more a moment than a painting, a second suspended in time. The hand that holds the boat’s chain is poised to let it go, the slow-moving tide ready to carry her away. If she can get close enough (the security guard is still watching her warily), Jem would like to reach out and touch her.
Eliza finds Jem soon enough. It takes two plaintive cries of “Jem, hey Jem” before the other girl answers.
“What do you want?” Jem replies, without the bite it would’ve ordinarily had. Eliza, and her annoyance, seems very far away.
Eliza tugs at the hem of her jacket, adjusting and re-adjusting the way it hangs over her skinny shoulders. “We’ve all been looking for you. You said you’d wait for me.”
If Jem cares enough to listen she might hear the note of hurt in Eliza’s voice. It’s a child’s cry, the kind usually accompanied by a pout or a trembling lower lip. If she cares enough to listen, Jem might tease her about it.
“I got lost.”
Another lie, obviously. Jem is watching the Lady’s face very closely, trying to catch a sign of movement. If she could only touch her, she’s sure she’ll feel blood beating beneath her pearlescent skin.
Is she mournful, she wonders, or merely resigned? It certainly isn’t a happy expression, but it isn’t twisted in rage or pain. There’s a finality in the way she lets the chain fall. Where is she going?
Eliza is now looking at the painting too. “Who’s that, then?” She still sounds a little put out. Being outshone by a painting can’t be very nice.
“Dunno.” Jem realises she hasn’t even thought to read the little card beneath the frame. There it is, in neatly printed letters: “The Lady of Shallot.”
“Is she named after the vegetable?” Eliza asks, snickering a little, glancing up to watch for Jem’s reaction.
Jem takes offence. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course it’s not like the vegetable.”
“I know that.” Eliza hurries to explain. “It’s just spelt like the vegetable. It’s confusing.”
“For some people.” Jem says, turning away dismissively, satisfied in the knowledge that she, and only she, has seen the painting properly.
It gives her a sharp sort of pride, to be able to brush Eliza aside like that. She simply doesn’t get it. Eliza seems to sense she’s missing out. When they reach their parents again, she’s trailing a few steps behind Jem, every so often glancing back over her shoulder to the room that holds the Lady.
For the rest of the afternoon, Jem is quiet, behaviour which the adults attribute to sulking after a very thorough telling-off.
It’s still raining when they leave the Tate, the water in the gutters rushing down the main road, picking up leaves and debris and carrying them into the depths of London’s storm drains. She follows the raindrops that race themselves down the windows of the car as they ride back to the hotel, and is careful not to slip on the blue tiled floor of the lobby. A trail of droplets track her footsteps from the elevator with its dirty mirrors, along the pilled beige carpet of the hallway and into her family’s two-bedroom room, finally coming to rest at the edge of a lone single bed.
The water fills her room that night. Long after her parents have fallen asleep in front of a late-night game show, long after she’s turned off the lamp beside her bed, she wakes to water rising all around her. The Lady of Shallot sits on the end of her bed, legs folded on the starched hotel linen. The river pours into the room with her: reeds reaching up nearly as tall as the iron bedposts and lily-pads floating over the ugly carpet. Peering over the edge of her bed, Jem can just make out her own face in the moonlit water below. Ruddy-cheeked with dark, thick eyebrows draw together in confusion. She wants to ask the Lady what’s happening, but speaking at a moment like this feels wrong. Instead, she scrambles back against the headboard and watches the Lady warily. This is only a dream, she reminds herself. There’s no danger.
The Lady doesn’t glance her way. Her pale face turns to catch the moonlight like a mirror as she gazes out the window. She begins to sing a prayer, in a language that Jem can almost recognise as English.
Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
Stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn.
Hollow and haunting, like the last strains of the organ in an empty church, it keeps Jem quiet. There is a powerful longing in the simple lines, an ache that Jem has never experienced but feels as keenly as the Lady must. Now the song ends, and the Lady turns to face Jem. The only sound in the room is the frantic beat of Jem’s heart, loud in her ears now the song has ceased, and getting louder as the Lady moves closer. Even in the low light, her hair is as bright as a candle flame. She reaches forward. Her arms are very thin and very pale. The skin that looked firm and flush in the painting has sunken a little, the half-light of the room casting her hollow cheeks and the shadows under her eyes in sharp relief. Jem feels a sudden stab of revulsion, but the headboard is hard and unyielding against her back. Whatever dream this is, it isn’t the kind that’ll let her escape.
Her touch is as cold and smooth as marble. Jem keeps her breathing as shallow as she can, her chest barely rising beneath its flannel pyjama shirt, but she doesn’t flinch away.
“Hello.” Jem croaks, her voice cracking on the second syllable. “You’re the woman from the painting.”
The Lady doesn’t respond. Jem admits she hasn’t said much worth responding to. Instead, she runs the pad of her thumb across Jem’s cheekbone, and Jem shivers.
“I liked the painting,” She tries again. “Really liked it.”
The Lady smiles at that, the barest twitch of her lips.
Now that she’s spoken, Jem can’t seem to stop. The words pour forth. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. The more I think about it, the sadder it gets. Why do you look so sad?”
Finally, the Lady answers. “The curse.” She says, gesturing vaguely at the water surrounding the pair.
Jem nods, as if she understands what that means. “The curse. Right.”
The Lady has stopped smiling. A small furrow between her brows mars her porcelain face, and she glances to the window. Her hand on Jem’s jaw tightens.
“Thou shalt be half sick of shadows, child.” She says, and despite her soft, lilting tone, Jem can feel the force behind her words, the weight of a warning.
Jem can’t remember what she says after that. Sometime between those words and sunrise, Jem falls asleep, although she doesn’t remember laying down. When she wakes, she has a bad taste in her mouth and no Lady at the foot of her bed. It was a dream, she supposes. The carpet is slightly damp underfoot as she pads towards the bathroom. The socks she’s left on the floor smell like mud.
We’ll leave our heroine here, for now. This is only the beginning; we’ve still got a long way to go. I’ll put the kettle on – these nights can get so dreadfully cold.
Speak of the devil! I was wondering when you’d get here. Just in time, too, because look what I’ve found. Can you believe it? The hand of the artist as a young woman, moulded from clay. An original, of course. And here, scratched on the underside – you see it? – is the date. ‘October, 2010’. God, how long ago that seems. Right at the beginning of her career. I visited her studio then, you know. It was hideous, they always are, but in a very artistic, chic sort of way.
The studio is an old warehouse in Western Sydney, and although the many-paned factory windows are grimy, sunlight still manages to cast the man’s final expression in sharp relief. His skin is oddly smooth, face slack, malformed mouth open as if caught mid-sob. Shadows pool in his empty eye sockets.
Jem sits hunched on her stool, his severed head in her lap. With a swift, brutal motion she grinds her thumb into the man’s eye, gouging a hole beneath his brow. His body lies curled on the ground at her feet.
She’s the only living person in the warehouse. Despite having moved in a month ago, the space is already crowded. A large industrial metal sink takes up one wall, half full of dirty water with flakes of dried clay floating on the surface and crusted around the handles of the taps. Work benches stand at the other end, with wooden-handled tools of various shapes and sizes piling up next to stray body parts: a hand, reaching skyward, a child’s foot, a single, perfect ear. She’s dragged a mattress into the only empty corner. Figures are spread across the dented wooden floor. A tall, broad-chested man stands to Jem’s left, a great chunk torn from his abdomen. A young woman stares winsomely towards one of the windows, lips slightly parted. A couple melts into one another, fusing at the hip. The entire room smells earthy and damp, as if it’s just been raining.
Cold water trickles down her wrist and into the sleeve of her shirt as Jem dips her hand into the porcelain bowl beside her. The clay smooths easily under her fingers, melding the rough edges of the eye socket into the man’s brow.
Someone knocks at the door. Jem ignores it, frowning as she scrapes a crosshatch into the centre of the man’s face. The process is repeated on the underside of another lump of clay. Whoever they are knocks again. Jem presses the lump into the man’s face, squeezing and shaping it until it roughly resembles a nose. At the third knock, Jem puts down the head with a huff and stomps over to the door.
Wrenching it open, she finds Eliza Adams on the other side, flinching away. Nine years hasn’t changed her much. She’s still pale and small, a wisp of a woman whose baby-blue dress hangs off bony shoulders, mousy brown hair scraped back into a braid. Jem, in contrast, fills the doorframe. Carrying bricks of clay has given her hard lines of muscle across arms and shoulders, skin tanned from hours sitting under the warehouse windows.
“What’re you doing here?” She asks, too brusque, too sharp.
“You invited me?” Eliza says, clutching a small white handbag at her side. It looks almost like something a young girl might own. She has an annoying habit, Jem notices, of ending statements with upwards inflections, until everything is a question. “Remember? You have an opening at Roslyn Oxley in,” She pauses, checks her watch, “fifteen minutes?”
Now Jem remembers. She’s lost track of time, of the days – it’s October, isn’t it? – but Eliza serves as her alarm clock. It’s October, and her first proper exhibition is opening tonight, and she is stuck on her severed head. She knows if she has an hour or so more she can make it perfect, can carve away the flesh and reveal the man beneath.
To Be Continued in the next issue . . .
Claudia Hunt studies Law and English at the Australian National University. She is also Content Editor for the student magazine there, Woroni.
Copyright © 2023 by Claudia Hunt
Published by Orion's Beau
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