The Orange Woman
Short story I wrote a few years ago
Emilian had begged her to let him paint her. He had followed her down the street, pleading, cap in hand, right up to her father’s door. She had been holding oranges, fresh ones brought in across the sea, and they looked like the most precious things in the world, pressed up against her palms. He had noticed her hands first, before her face; small, long fingered, the colour of pale coffee, each smooth nail immaculately polished. Then he had noticed her arms, softly resting on the stall, and her thick dark hair that caught the sun and set it ablaze with red. And her face, the face he had never seen before, with wide olive eyes, the colour of sunlight in spring, and a thin nose, and a small, worried mouth.
Too many things to take in at once. She was a painting already, leaning against Omar’s stall. Oh, and the earring, the round greenstone earring that slipped like a raindrop against her neck. When he had ran along after her, she had smelled of ginger and cinnamon. He imagined her skin tasted the same. She only agreed to get rid of him, in the doorway of the last house in the marketplace. Alright, she had said, reaching for the door handle. Alright, but only for an hour. Come here Friday morning. She had shut the door. For young Emilian, it was as good as a marriage proposal.
Zahra Baroni had sat opposite him in the great whitewashed room, on an ottoman made of blue muslin. The room was bare, apart from blue painted tiles, and large tapestries of strange shapes and domes he did not understand. A small bowl of oranges sat at her feet, and she peeled away the skin with a knife, sucking at their white flesh, pulling the juice to her mouth. To anyone else, it would have been inelegant. To him, it was perfection. He'd started with blue, filling in the holes of dark on the canvas, until the shadows built up around her eyes and the nape of her neck, until a ghost of her dwelt there. Then he had filled in with orange, bright shamouti orange, catching the fire on her forehead and the blaze in her mouth.Her eyes were dabbed with navy and umber, her earring the only oasis of green in the vermillion blue print of the canvas. In a few flicks, he caught her childish amusement, an orange resting in her palm, half peeled, it's juice just escaping her cupid's bow. It felt strange, in those few seconds, as if the painting had stolen part of the light in her soul, part of her beauty. It made him uneasy, wondering what had happened to cause this strange reaction. When the clock chimed, he stopped, obediently, and without a world she had waltzed over, staring at the image.
"It's all blue. And orange."
"But I am not blue and orange, boy."
"It's a new style of art. I saw it in Marrakesh. They're calling it Fauvism."
"It's very babyish."
He smiled up at her, displaying all his teeth. "Just you wait, I'll make you famous, just you wait and see. The Immortal Woman."
In fact, it would be the only painting that Emilian never sold, even as an old man. It was his most admired work, printed in a thousand papers, but it would never leave his studio until his death, fifty eight years later. It would hang over the chaise longue, where his models and lovers would flit to and from, admired and fought over by tens of patrons and rich visitors, but Emilian would simply shrug and say the woman with the oranges was not for sale. He couldn't sell a painting where he had accidentally stored someone's soul.
When he was forty three, he had sat back and looked at one of his tempestuous blonde lovers and decided there was no more room in his heart, or wallet, for another love affair. The very same day, while out drinking at Cafe Aishe, he had met Drina Barbas.
She would be his longest term lover, right up to his death. She was the opposite of his usual muse; small, stout with mousy hair clipped at the shoulders, a plain face and flat, waddling feet. And slitted mud-brown eyes, like a rat. She dressed as she imagined a beautiful woman would, but only ever pulled off the arousal of sympathy. She had attracted him through her slow reliability, her intense affection for him, and her desire to learn. She would sit and watch him paint, quietly, never pulling out unnecessary praise, always ready with wide arms to hold him. At his age, he was too tired to look for much more. The artisan lifestyle had aged him, sapping out his youth with long nights of absinthe and fast women. Occasionally, she would flush with hot tears and resentment at her plain, secondary nature to him, but he let it pass like the easing of a storm. Women were temperamental creatures, filled with all the coloured ink of Paris, ready to flutter to blue, green, red or black with the loss of a hat pin. Drina was, at best and worst, an average woman.
The trouble had started, as it always did in Emilian's life, with another woman. Not the usual blonde harlot with the long legs and daddy's money, or a fiery redhead with all the intelligence and cruelty of Voltaire. No, just a woman made of cheap moroccan oils and stretched canvas, smiling over an orange. Drina hated her with all the venom and fury in her body. She let it linger in her, the jealousy and sadness, until it poisoned her blood. Who was she? Why did she get hung on the wall for all time, when Emilian raised not so much as a paintbrush to her? Did Emilian love her anywhere near as much as the painted peasant woman? Or at all?
Gradually, day by day, the questions rose like a kettle to boil. She had erupted over supper, a quiet meal of peas and roots. He had looked up at her, with tired eyes, surprised at her sudden outburst.
"Why is it, that I, your wife of sixteen years, cannot be mistress of this house?"
"Why can't I move or sell that peasant woman? She's not your wife. I am."
"You are being ridiculous, Drina."
"Am I?" Drina replied, her eyes acidic with tears. "Or are you in love with her?"
Emilian had got up, taken his plate, and shuffled off to read his papers in his study. Drina had wanted to get up and slash the stupid bitch with the kitchen knife, but sat down and calmed herself. Emilian would never forgive her. She got up, wiping her face fiercely, staring up at the painting. She was beautiful, that was her greatest flaw. Smooth soft skin, clear eyes, and lips that hung on the promise of sex. Had he fucked her? Did it matter? Emilian had fucked half of Morocco, she thought bitterly. She must be an old woman now, or dead, she thought, staring into the young eyes. If she was about twenty in 1903, what would that make her now? Drina tried to picture the old woman shrivelled like a prune, her breasts sagged, hands clawed. It didn't help. She just imagined them as the fabled fated lovers, hand in hand, asleep under the stars in old age. No, this wouldn't do. She needed to be clever about this. She needed this painting to feel all her pain and jealousy, when the time came.
It would come in about six years time, in the last week of November. Emilian had caught a cold painting the peasant children in the gutter, and had slowly regressed to his bed, holding Drina's hand for two days. I'm giving you everything, he had said feebly. You get everything, the money, the royalties, everything- that's my gift for you. My poor dear little Drina. She had said nothing, holding his hand softly, kissing his wrist. He had slipped away later that night, like a candle blowing out on the end of an era. She felt free, suddenly, in her moments of sadness. Wanting to be closer to him, his voice, she shiffled through his study, looking for the will. There, in grey parchment, it spoke what he had promised. She would have everything. There was only one pin prick of a hole in the entire document, and it filled her with rage: he wanted to be buried with her.
Screaming in frustration, she stalked over to the orange woman.
"I hate you." She announced loudly. "I won't let you be with him, never."
The painting said nothing.
"I've wanted to burn you for a decade. But I'm not going to." She put down the candle, her hands on her wide hips. "I've had a much better idea." Kicking a can over, she rifled through Emilian's paints, violently pouring out gold, purple and green, slashing strokes over the woman's face with all the anger of her failed marriage. The long nose was replaced with her own, short, fat one, her delicate brow replaced with her sparse ones, capturing all her ugliness with a cruel honesty. She would be buried with her husband, no one else, least of all a long dead peasant whore. When it was done, she fell down, exhausted, laughing, into a deep sleep.
The funeral went as planned, perfectly, the painting wrapped in red silk so no one could see it. A last honouring of his request, Emilian's widower told the wake. There was a strange sense of unease about her, something too calm, too poised. She seemed almost ghostlike behind her veil, drifting through the ceremony with a strange elegance no one had seen before. One of Emilian's oldest patrons came up to her, eager for the last words on his friend.
"He was truly one of the greats, Drina. I was lucky to have known him."
"Indeed, Samuel, I feel the same. I hope he finds peace, for all his wanderings."
"Yes, quite. My sincere condolences, Drina, truly."
"You are very kind."
She waited silently until the ceremony was over, waiting for the last man to leave, and walked out to her car. Pulling away her veil, she admired her eyes. Olive, like the sunlight in spring.