by Olivia Lee
The Muse was there. She came the way she always did, curving frame outlined against the light of the window overlooking the city. The veins of her chamber pulsed rhythmically, reaching like vines from a balcony in a Veronian tableau, pulling and pressing against the membranous tissue of her cocoon. Deep inside, the cells beat with life, stretching and glowing translucent with the weight of its contents as the Muse grew within. First came the sloping curvature of the forehead; the butterfly lace of her eyelashes; then the diaphanous wisping of hair. Veins pumped strange fluids in and out of the multitudinous ducts and passageways that snaked over and beneath the Muse’s feet—even in utero, those were the most beautiful feet he had ever seen.
And now the Muse grew faster and faster, bones molding and shifting at astonishing rates, tendons climbing and linking and seeking in the dimness like ivy leaves. Then all at once she broke through, tearing at the crinkling edges as if it were only paper. A sea of creased and crumpled atrocities spilled out upon the oiled wooden floors of the room, each bearing the torso and limbs of a different woman. These were the abandoned ones, the paintings half-attempting at the beauty of the Muse. There was no gauzing of salt spray, no winsome clam-shell edged in pink, only bodies and streaming light and the pre-possessing Muse in all her splendor.
She paused for a minute, stepping lightly from the crumpled remains of the uterus, sweeping olive ripples of cloth falling in hypnotic drapes against the small of her back, parting to reveal a swaying backdrop of faded yellow, not unlike the rusted ochre of mud lining Venetian riverbanks in the fall, and yet not a step from austerity. Behind her, dust motes wavered in the folds of her gown, illuminated by the shafts of light filtering in from the windows behind her. Her silk-slippered feet padded softly like a cat over the crushed limbs littering the floor. The unfinished masses amidst her toes seethed at Leonardo’s feet, clutching at his robes. He spurned them, kicked them aside, and then they lay still as the Muse crept closer and closer, stretching out her milky white fingers towards Leonardo’s face, and her lips spread slowly into an inscrutable smile belying a secret or perhaps a revelation. In that smile, Leonardo saw intelligence, he saw the mingling of equal minds—
The wooden door to his study was perched open, supported by a frail willow of a boy with a comical nest of curls. Leonardo looked about his study, peering at the chalk still in his hand. He yanked at a paper, flipped it over. It was another one of them—a torso, a face, but no mouth. Leonardo raised his hand to the boy and he bobbed out of sight, the door closing behind him.
Salai knew it too, that he’d been drawing again, and shuffled off for more paper. His master had been confined in his study the past few days and was burning through paper the way a rich man would. Maybe in the past he’d been in a position to indulge, but for the time being that was extravagant. Still, he was only an apprentice and the duty of an apprentice was to prep the master’s paper and the pigments until somehow, someday, he earned the right to actually put chalk to paper and draw.
Leonardo tossed the chalk and watched it hide away in the shadows of a stack of notebooks. The faces of a thousand wordless women stared back at him from their papers, murmuring. Not one of them he recognized. Not one of them was the Muse, and yet again it seemed he’d failed at capturing her likeness. And he’d been refusing the requests of numerous esteemed families, asking to paint their portraits, but now Leonardo could not bear to look upon another twittering noblewoman. When he saw the Muse, he did not see layers upon layers of velvet and pearls and finery, but some other pigment whose properties remained unknown. This frustrated him, and once in a rage he’d strewn paint across her canvas and marred her half-drawn face. He paid his penance in chalk some hours after and drew her a halo.
After a moment of contemplation, Leonardo found himself taking out the canvas again. There she was—that oval face, that gossamer veil, but no smile. She had slept for months and that was evident in the angry slashes of vermilion at her neck, now crusted and flaking. Leonardo picked up a brush, gathered a set of paints, looked in the mirror. The Muse nodded.
The garden was small, walled on all sides by ageing limestone and marble, and in the corner was an apple tree. At the foot of the tree was a rabbit, all brush and cottontail in the glow of the dawn. The sun rose high in light of the first morning and this, Leonardo thought, was truly the Garden itself, complete with its Adam and all of its creatures. And here was its Eve, hung with olive robes and lacy veil, the feminine counterpart for the helpless artist. She smiled at him again—that peculiar smile—but touched her neck, which weeped rivulets of crimson. It dripped onto the skin of her pearly chest and he wiped it away with a cloth, and the skin knit together and healed itself. The Muse cupped her hands together and drew out a string of silver light, criss-crossing a constellation, forming it into a glowing mask in the likeness of Leonardo’s face. The artist opened his hands to her and she placed a single star in his palm, with which he began to crush into a pigment.
Up above in the sky the sun swiveled out of view and was replaced by a pendant moon, which shed swaths of color upon the leaves of the apple tree. A large black wolf bounded over the wall of the garden and took chase with the rabbit. They began to circle the tree in infinite continuum, neither gaining nor losing position as they chased. Leonardo understood their inner workings and watched as they rounded the trunk, with each revelation exposing a little bit more of their insides, first a bit of skin, then a sheet of muscle; a rib; a skeleton. And each time they circled the sun rose again in the overarching sky, illuminating once but not twice the vast tapestry of planets filtering through the apple tree leaves. Leonardo pinched the intricate networking of light together, stretching and cross hatching the outline of the Muse’s face. Somewhere behind him the rabbit caved to the wolf and both collapsed into a heap of bones, and around them fell clumps of fruit. Flies swarmed about them and grew drunk on their juices, before lifting off in great buzzing clouds among the weeds. The apple tree shriveled and died and the carpet of grass grew brittle and gray, until the only life left in the garden was Leonardo, the stars, and the Muse with her phantasmagoric smile.
Salai knocked on the door. Unnecessary, he knew, but it had been months since his master had come out from his study and he could have counted on his fingers how many times he’d actually seen the man. Commissions had been backing up by the dozen, and frankly they stressed him out beyond belief.
“Sir, they’re asking for you.”
The door to the study creaked open.
“Sir, your pigments—”
Leonardo lifted his head and squinted up at the door. That boy again? He directed his gaze towards his canvas. Now the reddening streaks from before had disappeared and the face of his beloved Muse was revealed in its entirety, from the delicacy of her intertwined fingers to the smoothness of her skin. Those eyes still bore the sentience of before and that smile, it hid the same enigmatical silence of the garden. Salai knocked again and Leonardo rose to answer the door, but not before encountering an odd apparition in the corner of his eye. Startled, he sat down again, but upon seeing the mirror he touched at his robes, then the wispy tufts of hair. A feeling started with his eyes, crinkling the skin around the frame of his nose and slowly drawing down to his lips, before looking into the eyes of the one opposite to him. He saw intelligence, knowledge, personality, and it moved him to part his lips in a smile.
And the Muse smiled back.
Olivia Lee is a sophomore in the Creative Writing Conservatory at California School of the Arts, San Gabriel Valley. She is an editor for the school’s literary magazine and a staff writer and cartoonist for its newspaper club. Her writing has been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. As a poetry advocate, she has led a poetry workshop for elementary and middle school students at the Arcadia Public Library. When she is not writing, she creates and illustrates characters from her stories.