issue four

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(1800 words)
Eternal Life
Annemaria Cooper

       masterpiece, but to Jennie it was conformity. A submission of other thoughts, other rules, not hers. It lacked something, but Jennie could not quite figure it out. Her head tilted to one side, and she stared at her statue, standing cold and rigid, on its granite pedestal. A modern woman of glittering marble, sculpted with fine features, and protective hands caressing pregnancy. Morning sunlight sliced through a spectrum of colour set in the large mullioned windows of the exhibition hall - a modern expression of pinewood and steel blended with gothic architecture. Warm rose tints breathed fleshy tones to the statue's finely veined legs whilst blue shadows sucked mortality from its smile.

     "A woman in life," she called it, but Jennie's artistic soul was less than fulfilled. The lifeless statue had not - could not, capture the essence she as a sculptress desired. Creped soles approached from behind, squeaking on the floorboards of light beech as they stepped closer to where she stood alone in the vast room.

     "Congratulations, Jennie," said a dulled voice beside her. The footsteps stopped. She turned to see Peter, the runner-up in the competition. She extended her hand in friendship. He kept his hands in the pockets of his over-sized jacket.

     "Congratulations to you too, Peter. I thought your 'Lion in sleep' very impressive. I loved how you layered the aluminium with iridescent colour."

     "Yeah! Well, naked pregnant ladies win these days," he answered, his face twisted with an envious scowl as he looked at Jennie's sculpture.

     "I'm going for a coffee. Would like to join me?" Jennie could sense his disappointment, but it wasn't up to her to choose the winner. Time and determination would heal his dented pride.

     Peter removed one hand from its safe hiding place, and brushed a lick of greasy hair from his forehead.

     "Only if you're buying. Put every penny I had into my piece. No takers though, not even a commission. Hear royalty is interested in you."

     It was true, but Jennie's modesty prevented her from bragging. "It's only a rumour in the tabloids. You know how they are. Come on, I'm buying."

* * * *

       The café was empty, except for a fresh-faced youth who bombarded them with his newly acquired customer training skills. It was too early for tourists to view the exhibits below. The scent of freshly roasted coffee beans hung heavily in the woodsy air and they settled for a regular, low-fat, latte. They sat opposite each other with an awkward silence, and Peter leaned back on the wicker chair, throwing his arms limply to his side. He opened his legs with macho confidence, and stared upwards at the iron chandelier.

     "You know Jennie, I don't get it."

     Jennie tore a corner off a sachet, and poured the brown crystals it into her cup. "Get what?"

     "Life. What's the point? We live, we die."

     Jennie sipped at the dark liquid, an aromatic whirlpool sucking the bubbles into its centre. "Perhaps that's why artists create things. A testament that we were here."

     "Yeah… I suppose. Others just have kids eh!" Peter smiled. His jealous mood seemed to be lifting.

     Jennie, though, felt like someone had stabbed a burning blade and twisted it into her heart. Her shoulders slouched and she breathed a silent sigh.

     Peter lowered his view to stare into her despairing mood, grinning as if he opened a box of treasured secrets. It annoyed her; he was gloating. The dark doubts in her mind cleared.

     "That's it! That's what's missing."

     Peter straightened his back, and looked puzzled. "What is?"

     Jennie raised her palms upwards, and smiled broadly. "It's her smile," she said, leaning over the glass table to invade the space between them. "It's not a happy smile. She's ashamed." Jennie stood up and walked over to the railing to look down at her sculpture.

     Peter joined her, leaning over the rails with his hands firmly clasped in front of him. "She's naked. What do you expect!"

     "But, she should be happy to be bringing life into the world. She is part of the process of life," said Jennie, glancing quickly at his sharp profile.

     He sneered revealing a flash of white beneath the black bristles that brushed his top lip. "She's probably feeling sorry for it coming into this world."

     "Do you know why I sculpted her, Peter?" asked Jennie, staring down at her sculpture with wide limpid eyes.

     He turned towards her, propping himself against the handrail. "To win the competition and draw attention to yourself."

     "No, because she is me. I mean, I want her to be me. Except, I'll never be pregnant. I'll never have a child of my own." She returned to her seat, and drained the last of her coffee.

     Peter sat down, dragging his cup closer to him. "You're still young, plenty of time to meet the right man."

     Jennie shook her head. "No, my brother was a haemophiliac. I carry the gene. I can't. I mean I won't, have children. It's my choice. I sometimes wonder why I'm here. As a woman, I serve no purpose."

     "Hence the sculpture," said Peter, pointing in its direction. "It's a symbol of your life, your passion to live on. You want to be your sculpture, immortal for all time."

     Jennie's eyes sparkled as if a tear had washed over them. "I'm a living, breathing human being but my work will never reflect it. Stone is not flesh. The reviews say the piece is beautiful, but I wonder: if she came to life, would she really be beautiful?"

     Peter laughed aloud, spilling a little of his coffee. "Interesting thought. The epitome of beauty, Venus de Milo, walking down the street. You're serious though, aren't you. You're just going to hide yourself away in your work? Sculpt till the day you die."

     "What else is there for me to do? Relationships don't mean anything if I won't have children. My brother died you know. Just me now, and my work."

     "Well, there's no point me entering next year's competition then is there?" said Peter, dryly. "I mean, you'll always be the one who beat me." He stood up and forced his chair hard against the table.

     "Peter, don't be like that," said Jennie, a little surprised at his reaction.

     "You know Jennie. I've known you since art school. I've never told you before, but I always admired you. You sit there whining that your work is not good enough, yet you took the prize. Look at you, you're a beauty, an unbearably different type of woman. You could have your pick of men, but you're so pompous. What makes you think a man only wants a woman for sex, and children?" said Peter, fiercely.

     Jennie felt the disbelief of his outrage stick in her throat, and watched as Peter stormed away. She had no idea what caused Peter's emotional display. She knew he had his idiosyncrasies, but never such a dark temper.

* * * *

       A month passed, during which time her phone had rang every night. She had thought perhaps it was Peter, wanting to apologise for that day in the hall, but each time a silence hissed down the earpiece. Tonight the phone did not ring. Tired, she settled to bed above her studio. The volume of commissions exhausted her creative thoughts, and she drifted quickly into a deadened world…

     The sound of breaking glass; a sharp, acidic smell that pinched her nostrils; a soft cloth pressed tight against her face - now a hazy memory. Jennie's head thundered inside her skull as she emerged from her gaseous sleep.

     "You're awake, my darling Jennie," said Peter. He was standing in front of her, his clothes splattered with clay. Jennie tried to move, she couldn't. Her words mumbled, struggling against an invisible restriction - a film of tape pressed tightly against her stretched lips.

     Peter grinned as madness glinted in his dark, protruding eyes. "You said you wanted to be a living sculpture, didn't you?" His face loomed closer, making it harder for her to focus. "I understand, Jennie. I do."

     She could feel his wet, cold hands stroke her cheek. "I chose not to have kids either. My Dad died in the asylum, don't want my kids medicated. They tried to do that to me. They tried to dull the creations that sing in my head."

     Peter disappeared from her view. She could hear the heavy drag of metal scraping on wood, and the clang of hollowed containers. A steamy blue haze hung in the air with an oily scent, irritating her eyes and nose with toxicity.

     "The wire frame around you will last at least a couple of decades. Hope it doesn't hurt too much. You have quite a sensitive skin, smooth and warm. Quite sensual to touch. It's just a couple of nicks though, you bleed easily. Oh don't worry, my dear, misunderstood Jennie. I painted you first with a varnish so you won't smell as you rot." His voice echoed through the large room.

     She could see the hooked winches above, and lowered her sight to search for the door. Instead, Jennie saw her reflection in a large, misty mirror at the back of Peter's studio. Streams of tears streaking through the surface giving her the clarity of a macabre, sickening pose. Jennie was naked, her legs, a patchwork of drying clay, spread wide, knees bent. The wired frame, enclosing her arched back and despairing arms in a welcoming acceptance of a lover.

     Anodised aluminium sheets, green copper and silver rods lay on the floor beside the workbench laden with hammers and chisels. A rainbow of coloured pencils stood on guard protecting shimmering layers of gold leaf. She watched as Peter approached her from behind, his hands heavy with clay.

      The varnish had not sealed, and she felt the heavy coldness of the clay, cooling as it met with the taught stretch of her stomach. His breath, rancid and stale, made her retch, as he forced hollow tubing into her nostrils. The density of her shroud finally closed her eyes. Her hearing dulled to all sound except the occasional thud or nerve-grating screech of metal.

     Jennie would never see her jewelled sarcophagus. Dehydration and inhalation of the toxic resins and chemical processes assisted her demise. She was dead when Peter finally plugged her nostrils with brass rivets, and polished them like golden studs. Her body was lifeless, but her enamelled shell lived with a brilliance of shimmering turquoise, silver and gold, her hair curled with the satin finish of aluminium. He stood back, admiring his work.

     "A Woman Alive," he said softly. "You see, Jennie, my love, you did have a purpose in this world. Together, we are immortal."



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This work is copyrighted by the author, Annemaria Cooper. All rights reserved.
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