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Cruel Madonna

Ten Tales … Dieci racconti … Decem Fabulum.

English, Italian, Latin … in whatever language stories have come down to us as a delightful medium to offset worry or boredom … In the time of The Plague in Italy, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote of the stories told by just such a group as they while away the hours in isolation from the Black Plague.

In keeping with this tradition, we offer you likewise some stories here. These stories may or may not have appeared on this site before, but it could be from a long time ago and many may not have read them. Let us now go to story number five:

Cruel Madonna

It was a month now since he had first gone to her, and his perceptions of her had shifted from that initial phase of blind adoration to a more abstract collation of her little mannerisms.

Malcolm was twenty-seven years old, an illustrator-painter who, like most artistic types that arise from the ranks of the working class, made his living from menial labour: Malcolm worked in a shop selling pizzas! His illustrations were sometimes commissioned by obscure magazines and he also sketched houses for real-estate agents’ catalogues. He never associated with any ‘artistic’ set, in fact he winced at the pretentious grouping of that elite class. Instead, he spent his spare time nurturing the skills for his temperamental dedication to his craft that helped him to produce, for his own needs, a creditable portfolio of water-colours, sketches and pastels which he kept in a room of his small flat at The Bay. Now it was high summer, the acres of beach thrilled to the delightful squeals of childish glee and the shoreline oozed that faintly sulfurous tang of heated sea-water that flares the nostrils and excites the brain! Like a beacon to the idle and dispossessed it lured youth to that sandy expanse, the gentle lapping of waves playing a sweet tune to the laughter and cries of a delightful seraglio!

Malcolm stood under the kiosk verandah. He had come to buy drinks and an ice-cream for themselves and her children. He paused under the shade of that portico and gazed out with his artist’s eye over the road to the sea. All was opposites; black to white, sand to bitumen, light to shadow, silhouette to glare, diamond to iron. The shadow of the verandah cut a sharp, precise line edge to the bitumen footpath. The sun was at its zenith, there was no blurring of shadow to light, just a clear-cut concise line to demark one from the other.

He grimaced as he stepped bare-footed out onto the waxy bitumen, then juggling drink and ice-creams, danced with a fire-walker’s jerky step as he tiptoed swiftly but painfully across the scorching road. With each placing of his foot the hot road ‘bit’ and the sun seared down onto his sea-salt dried skin so it raked across his shoulders like a harridan’s claw! But oh! that lovely sea air and the cries of happy children, a gull banked spread-winged against the azure sea – a collage: a fixed image in his mind – another time will recall … Pausing momentarily under the shady boughs of a small tree on the edge of the path to the beach, he gazed hungrily at the long white of sand sweeping north to The Bay with the ‘stretched’ optical illusion of the seashore and esplanade buildings all a-wobble in the rising waves of heated air. He inhaled ecstatically …

A sigh! …

“Sometimes (he reflected for the words) … there is too much of nature and not enough of human,” he said, again sighing.

“Malcolm,” she called …

He turned and went down the path to the expectant faces crowded under the beige ‘moana’ beach-shade. As he came close to her, she turned her gaze upon him, stunned, he stopped for a moment to admire her flawed beauty, flawed, for a small scar penciled over her left eye from a motor accident in her youth, but still so beautiful for her obvious Irish features and that calm patience that seemed to weigh down on motherhood as an accepted fate.

Malcolm stared at her for that moment and a thought arose in his mind:

“I’ll have to paint a portrait of her” … he decided all of a sudden … “a portrait of a Madonna!”

That evening he broached the subject of his painting a portrait of her.

“Uh huh,” … she responded calmly … “with or without any clothes on? And will there be any paint on the brush?” she finished with a wry smile.

“With clothes on, of course!” he answered defensively, “and what do you mean by ‘paint on the brush?’ ”

She smirked cheekily, with worldly knowledge of men more sophisticated than she let on.

“Oh, you would read of those men that were always looking for “photographic models” but there was never any film in the camera!” And she tossed her blonde tresses back carelessly and laughed and her eyes sparkled for that worldly absurdity and naivety of men’s hunger for the female nude.

Her laughter awoke insight in Malcolm just at that moment (for isn’t it always only given in fleeting moments? … A spice scent on a zephyr sent … a stranger’s eyes reflected upon a window pane in passing … should one stop wasn’t that … ? No, moment gone!) and he realised that encompassed within that feminine physiognomy of beauty are all the genetic instructions for confounding the male of the species; all the wilyness of thousands of years of the socially bludgeoned “faithful servant,” against which the male has but one advantage: physical strength, brute strength and in degrees does a man grow weaker and more feeble, in the same measure must women lose their youthful allure..yet their character grow stronger … the man cannot win!

For the next few weeks he worked at the portrait, the portrait he had fixed in his mind from that afternoon at the beach. Sometimes he would paint from memory of her; at other times she would model, draped with a silken cloth so he could capture light and shade within the folds of the cloth as it curved over her shoulders.

It was at these sittings she would tease him, not taking seriously that desire of artistic creation sought by Malcolm … the artist, but already unknowingly possessed by herself … the woman.

“Some native tribes would refuse photographs to be taken of themselves as they feared it was stealing their spirit,” she coyly said … “Are you trying to steal mine?” she smiled.

“Don’t smile and don’t joke,” he commanded. ”Madonna’s are too sacred to be flippant,” and he bent close to the canvas to touch a little paint. She took this moment of his lack of attention to re-adjust, stealthily, the soft cloth draped over her breasts so that between the folds gentle, one erect pink nipple and a blush of oriole protruded proudly, she settled back poker faced and waited … he looked up again, palette aslant, brush poised … his brow knitted but for a moment at something different about her pose … then he saw … her left eyebrow rose ever so slightly, ever so slowly … he placed the brush and palette on the table and turned to her.

“That’ll be enough art for today,” he spoke quietly.

Her hand reached out and lifted a long stemmed rose off the side table. He sat close to her. Her hands cupped and cradled the pale, pink rose, its long stem lay across her garment, she lifted it gently to inhale its scent, his fingers softly flowed through her voluminous hair. A petal fell silently onto the folds of soft cloth; his eyes followed its descent, one eyebrow arched:

“Of jealousy … despair?” he teased.

Her lips formed into a confident smile:

“And why not?” she toyed.

”‘Tis woman’s privilege,” he answered gently, she settled back into the soft pillows on the couch.

“And man’s pleasure?” she coaxed.

“Ah! … ” and he bent down to kiss her, at the same time taking the rose from her hand and dropping it onto the floor, as it touched the tiles, some petals fell off exposing the rich , rosy heart of the bud inside …

The finished portrait bothered him, it was all there but it was dead, flat, strictly two-dimensional and if one thing killed the portrait it was the eyes … the eyes, the eyes … try as he might, he was unable to excite in that Madonna the life needed to complete the picture. He made visits to the art gallery to study portraits of past masters, but to no avail, he looked over prints of other Madonna’s by Da Vinci, Titian, Raffael … They had captured that serene beauty, that silent power of the patient pose. What was their twist?

Were the skills of those past ages so much greater than now? Was his talent that much inferior that given the same subject, same material, where they produced gold he could only master clay? Was it a greater affiliation with the artistic psyche, something which modern man has traded away along with so many other emotions?

Malcolm stood awed before these other portraits, just so much history now, yet greater than our own feeble posturing at art, he flung the prints to the floor, bitter and frustrated at his own failings.

“What is art now,” he asked himself, ”but a whore modern man satiates himself upon when he tires of the fight … ” he pursed his lip thickly, sulkily then spoke again. “Sometimes we admire it. Sometimes we are it,” and he threw himself down on the couch and stared fixedly at the portrait of his Madonna.

After dinner that night they sat talking to each other at the kitchen table, small talk of minor events of the day. The children played in and out of the kitchen, they played chasing games, dressing games and guessing games, they played continuously and as Malcolm talked he worked combination after combination of eyes over and over in his mind and applied them mentally to the portrait much as a police officer would do with an ‘Identikit’ portrait. He started pondering on a line of thought in his conscious mind.

“Could it possibly be that modern woman defies depiction in that once seemingly ageless style of motherhood?” he mused. “For here is a ‘single mother’ with three children, would the pressures of money, food, clothing, housing and then our relationship place such a heavy burden on her life as to extinguish all illusions of naive innocence?”

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“Oh,” he moved his arm, “of how you manage by yourself, with the kids … then me.”

She gazed at him squarely with deadpan eyes.

“Sometimes you silently scream, sometimes you softly soothe, and then sometimes you go a little mad!”

She turned her head and narrowed her eyes for just at that very moment, the youngest child reached up from behind the chair in playfulness and pulled her long locks of hair. She resisted, he laughed and pulled harder. ”Sam,” she spoke threateningly “if you don’t let go at once, you’ll – be – dead – meat!!” and as she spoke these words she turned her face down to him and her eyes narrowed cruelly.

Malcolm gasped as he witnessed this little scene … for there, contrasted against that Irish beauty of face, the long tresses of golden hair and soft mouth were the threatening eyes; there in an instant, alongside the wily eyes, the loving eyes, the caring eyes, the worrying eyes, the killing eyes … these were the eyes of his woman on the canvas, as changing as a chameleon’s colour, one moment as warm as an autumn sunset, then as cold as polar ice!

These were the eyes of a modern Madonna … a more worldly Madonna … a cruel Madonna!

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  1. June Currie

    Am enjoying your well-written short stories, Joseph Carli

  2. Joseph Carli

    Thank you, June…I’m glad they can be a distraction from the lockdown tedium…five to go!

  3. Anne Byam

    Bravo again Joseph – – – – beautifully written.

  4. Joseph Carli

    Thank you, Anne..so kind….five more to go..

  5. wam

    It is still the case that clothes on is invariably a sexier image than clothes off .
    Anyone with a phone can take a chance at felling a madonna these days, joseph. I chased mine for four years through the minefields of mum, dad, siblings and friends. My clincher was her dad loved crib and I was quick enough, at 15 2 etc, to impress him over the doctor types preferred by her mum.

  6. Joseph Carli

    But wam…that was in the days of “regulated courtship”..you know…: Introduction, wait a while. next meet either arranged or “accidental”…more talk..wait a while..make a date if possible or more talk, meet mum and dad…get the “hairy eyeball” from both..then get more serious…It took time and dedication…and THAT was the game-plan….ie; could you go the distance?…..don’t know about these days though…seems rather chancey…I don’t know if the genders have or want to have trust in the other…shame, because, speaking as a hetero male…there was nothing sweeter than the anticipation of the next meet..and the longer the wait, the sweeter the drink…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NwP3wes4M8 (Carly Simon..; “Anticipation” )

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