Image © Kate Dembski 2018
|by Rose Cullis||November 15, 2018|
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE CASES where the neighborhood recluse had died, and when they cracked open the door of the little row house where he had lived, it was discovered that he’d been secretly creating works of art that would likely prove to be of great importance. The house was temporarily open for public viewing.
Sophie, standing in the tiny front room with her boyfriend and an archivist, looked around and felt claustrophobic. The recluse had papered the windows shut, and the paper was cracked and stained. A small couch with a thin wool blanket was pushed up against a wall. The archivist explained that this was Silas Heinrich’s bed, and likely the only room he ate and slept in. The other rooms were too full of his constructed treasures to sustain the day to day.
Even this room was crammed with clay sculptures: strange animals hung from the ceiling with their mouths open and their arms splayed; columns, cast and constructed from a variety of materials peopled the room.
Sophie looked up into the face of a teddy bear. Heinrich had simply stuck a hook into the heart of the soft toy, and smeared it with clay. The fake fur showed through the caked muck, and the bear’s digit-less limbs hung from its speared heart.
That’s me, thought Sophie.
She looked over at Simon, who was listening curiously to the archivist’s comments. He’d left deposits everywhere: Sophie’s breasts were crusty, her pussy ached, and her asshole bloomed. But she still felt empty, even bereft.
“We call this Henrich’s columnar period.” The archivist pointed to a column that appeared in a hole in the floor and ran up through a hole in the ceiling of the living room. “You can’t see it here, but the base of the sculpture is littered with casts of rabbits. We think they must have been fertility symbols for him.”
The archivist reached under the couch and pulled out a long wooden box, with rusted hinges. Inside was the cast of a rabbit’s body. It lay on its side, skinned and paw-less.
“It might have something to do with his wartime experiences. People created secret storage places where they kept animals they didn’t want soldiers finding and confiscating.”
Sophie couldn’t help but think of Roman Polanski’s film, Repulsion, where a woman seemed to slowly lose her mind, and in the process of creeping craziness, left the carcass of a rabbit rotting on the kitchen counter. Time passing in the film was communicated by the number of humming flies.
“A lot of people are obsessed with rabbits. It’s a pretty common image.” Simon said. “This whole scene is just a trope.”
“It’s true,” said the archivist, and looked at Simon. “Are you an artist?”
Simon nodded. “I live right around the corner,” he said, “On Queen West.”
SIMON WAS AN ARTIST of independent means, who believed in himself with a fierceness that bordered on delirium, given how little work he actually produced. Family money well invested meant that he didn’t have to work for a living, and he enjoyed going into his studio every morning and mucking around enthusiastically, beginning projects and then abandoning them. He was currently working on a comic book that featured a character clearly modeled after him, called Real Boy. The character was hotly pursued by an unnamed woman—who ran after him in the first few strips with one hand extended to grab him and hold on—and then Real Boy received a sixty-page blowjob. Simon had been laboring on depicting the orgasm for weeks, and some of the cells were extraordinarily inventive, Sophie thought.
“I knew he was a wanker!” one of Sophie’s friends said, when she heard about the project. Sophie’s friends were worried about her.
Sophie taught public school and wrote when she could. She was terrified of not having an income, and painfully dependent on the opinions of others—which meant that her confidence about her work was subject to any critic (and there were many) willing to tell her how to do it right. Simon was barely interested in Sophie’s work. She was too earnest for his taste.
On their first date Simon had bragged about his achievements and his connections, and had even revealed his yearly income. “I’m not a poverty-stricken artist,” he said proudly, naming the figure, but not the source. At the few parties Simon was willing to attend once he realized Sophie was already gaga over his connections, people approached him and talked about mutual friends who lived in the Bahamas or Mexico City, or, of course, Berlin.
Simon was short and very fat, but lithe and energetic. He had a looseness in his hips that was attractive and appealing to Sophie. She loved the way he sat on a couch like a child, with his heels tucked beside him. When he danced he danced alone. He twisted beside Sophie with a mischievous grin, and leapt onstage so others could admire him. Simon wore vintage black glasses, and sometimes paired large pieces of costume jewelry with Adidas running suits (with the price tags still attached for ironic effect.) He’d even been featured as a freaky fashion plate in the local newspaper. In the picture he had a vintage children’s toy—a Fisher Price tape recorder—tucked under his arm like a large purse. Sophie had big eyes and a slender figure and tended to short skirts and combat boots. She was aware that they made an interesting and arty-looking couple, although his sense of style exceeded hers. When they first got together, Simon took a selfie ostentatiously licking Sophie’s face, and posted it.
Sophie was desperate to hob-nob with the cool art crowd, who were largely queer—which appealed to her own inclinations and aesthetic—and Simon seemed to be the way in, as well as a way to be with a man without being straight. She felt guiltily aware of her own strategizing with respect to their relationship. She admired his irreverence and his cruelties, and repressed what she presumed must be a puritanical streak when Simon laughed with delight over scatological porn his friends sent to him for his amusement. Sophie identified as sex-positive, and believed in respecting complex expressions of intimacy that might not be her thing. But one day she cried over a video that struck her as particularly degrading and even injurious to the women involved. The video was called “Fart Balls” and featured vigorous anal sex and women who ate the semen that other women expelled from their stretched assholes. Simon comforted her by telling her that the participants were just professionals doing a job. It isn’t real that way you’re thinking about it, he said.
Simon didn’t seem to get frayed by hours of fucking. In the mornings, after a blowjob, he shook his cock into Sophie’s mouth like he was finishing a piss. If they broke up, Sophie thought, he’d be back in his studio the next day, humming and occupied. She knew from bitter experience that heartbreak was sudden and inexplicable. When relationships ended—with men or women—she went through the process of emptying her phone and computer and apartment of all evidence with as much dignity and indignation as she could fake. The last abandonment she’d suffered had been particularly sudden and unexpected. Her skin ached; her pulse raged. Her mind was imprisoned in self-deprecating narrative loops. Eating and sleeping became difficult. Then, she’d met Simon.
IN THIS LITTLE HOUSE on Robinson Street, Sophie envied the reclusive Heinrich’s ability to live alone and channel his pain into art. If only she could establish the same vital relationship to words that Heinrich had to form. If only she could abandon the desire for approval that held her captive, and kept her ripping the stitches out of work she’d barely begun. If only she could eschew her degrading and common and lazy—yes, there was an element of laziness to it—obsession with sexual relationships.
The archivist led them into the tiny kitchen. The sinks were clogged with plaster. They had to maneuver around pieces of sculpture that filled every available space with phallic determination.
“Oh my god!” Sophie said. “Where did he eat?”
“The pipes in the bathtub are still clear and usable. He must have used the tub. But notice how the sculptures are changing,” the archivist said.
It was true. The hapless clay creatures dangling from the ceiling were sending up shoots now. The bony ribcages of the rabbits were bulging with breasts, and the truncated thighs swelled with the nubs of human legs.
“The rabbits are going through a metamorphosis. They’re taking on the form of a woman,” They entered a small room at the back of the house, where Heinrich had stacked drawings and plans of his work on every available surface. The archivist showed Simon and Sophie a drawing of a woman. The lines were thin and cruel, but the subject was brooding and beautiful. Her expression was somber and direct, like she’d made up her mind about something.
“This is the woman he used as a model for all of his work. We don’t know much about her —we’ve named her Laura—but we do know that she lived here, in this house, about forty years ago. The two of them may have been lovers; we can’t be sure.”
Sophie looked at Laura’s resolutely impassive face and realized she felt jealous of Laura’s relationship with herself. Jealous of Simon’s relationship with himself. Jealous of anyone who had developed a solid sense of independence.
She reached for Simon’s large warm hand, and traced a circle in the center of his palm. Simon squeezed back. Sophie was euphoric. He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He—
Simon dropped Sophie’s hand. “What happened to Laura?”
“We’re not sure,” said the archivist, scratching at a chunk of plaster on her immaculate lab coat, and turning it into a smear. “Come and see this.”
She led them upstairs to the second floor of the house. The hallway was so narrow that they had to go single file. At the top of the stairs two doors faced each other. The archivist traced the doorjamb on her left with her fingers.
“When we first got here…” she said, and her voice dropped to a whisper, “…this door was taped shut.”
She pushed it open. It was Laura’s room, preserved with a taxidermist’s attention to detail. There was a dressing table, and a dresser—with one drawer still pulled open, and a stocking dangling out—as if Laura had just been rummaging there, before running to the corner store to pick up a can of peas for dinner. On the bed was a life-sized cast of Laura, naked, with her back arched and her face turned toward a mirror on the wall. Laura’s eyes were empty moons; her breasts were to die for.
“We aren’t sure where she ended up after her time here.” The archivist looked pensive, as if she was even now mulling the possibilities over.
“Maybe he killed her.” Simon suggested. “Maybe she’s buried right here, under this house.”
Or maybe Heinrich was like me, Sophie thought—a monster, an intimacy junky—and too needy and greedy for affection. His insatiable longing for Laura was repugnant, and her abandonment had forced him into this lonely productivity. Why, just the other night, Simon had warned Sophie that her insecurity would drive him away. As if it was simply a matter of changing course. As if she chose to be fatally flawed and fundamentally fucked.
“What kind of a Catch 22 is that?” Sophie had asked Simon at the time. “It’s like warning someone who’s scared of dogs, that dogs will sense their fear and attack.”
“I’m just telling you.” Simon said. “Don’t you see the logic in it?”
THE FINAL STOP in the tour was the attic. The archivist gave them a flashlight and pointed up the dark, ladder-like stair. Simon went first. When he pushed open the attic door in the ceiling, his face disappeared in a shaft of bright light. He stood and gazed up at what he saw, and then let the door slam shut. And came back down elated.
“He killed her,” he said to Sophie, handing her the flashlight. “He killed her, and she’s buried beneath this column. I’m sure of it.”
Sophie climbed the steep stair carefully. There was a rectangular frame at the top, barely big enough to squeeze through. She leaned against the wall to steady herself, and felt the edges with her free hand.
“Push it! Just push it open.” Simon hated it when Sophie was tentative.
Sophie pushed. It was another statue of Laura, exposed in the heartland of the afternoon sun by a small dusty window. This time, Laura emerged out of the split skin of a rabbit with her arms raised in an ecstatic gesture, at the very top of the column that began beneath the ground floor. Sophie imagined Heinrich building this shrine, and felt fractured and ennobled by his extraordinary labour, by his productivity in his grief. I must change my life, she thought ecstatically. But then her use of Rilke’s line embarrassed her. Her epiphany became muddied by self-consciousness and self-doubt. No one she knew—certainly none of Simon’s friends—paid any attention to Rilke anymore.
Later, Simon followed the archivist to the back of the property, while Sophie sat out front on the curb, gazing at the glittering upper window in the late afternoon sun. A jet scored the sky overhead. Despite her self-doubts, she felt moved by her experience in the house, and wanted to honour it and cook with it.
“You’re a wallower,” Simon would say if he found her.
But I’m not, thought Sophie, wallowing, I’m phosphorescent. I glow long after the light goes out.
What an image! How could she take herself seriously when she was prone to these sentimental excesses? No wonder she craved Simon’s puncturing influences. He served up a tincture of the comic grotesque that was a necessary tonic to her romantic self-absorptions. She knew that. But still, there was something a little too destabilizing about his cruelties. She picked up a small rock on the street and started tracing. The sharp edge of the rock scraped a thin white stream on the pavement.
Simon appeared, grinning. “You’re not going to believe it. It’s all made up!”
Sophie dropped the rock, leaving a snake of an “s” before the final hook. She hooded her eyes with her hand and looked up. What?
“Heinrich never existed! That woman isn’t really an archivist. I thought the lab coat thing was a bit over the top! She rented the house, and created this whole thing as an installation!”
What a great idea! Simon was pleased. And the artist had chosen him for this private revelation! He grabbed Sophie by one arm and tugged her up. Sophie ground her remaining palm into the asphalt to avoid injury.
“Let’s go back to my place.” Simon’s mouth was warm against her ear.
“I can’t,” Sophie lied. She suddenly felt like she didn’t care about anything anymore. She was exhausted from trying to work it all out—and that exhaustion felt like a strange kind of bottom. Like she’d actually managed to land somewhere and look around. She wondered if this murky place was what clarity actually felt like.
“Don’t be like that.”
Simon was annoyed. Sophie always wanted sex. His desire was a gift he gave. She was just being difficult. “Is it about this?” he asked, gesturing toward the house.
IT WAS, IN FACT, the beginning of the end. Years later, when Sophie had quit teaching for the tortures of full-time writing, she would bump into Simon on Queen West. She’d had some successes and some magnificent and very public failures, but Simon was impressed with her ability to abandon him, and determined to show his devotion to everything about her. Sophie embraced him dutifully and Simon squirted tears of self-pity and talked about love. In her absence, Simon had created Sophie as someone he cherished and he was hurt by her disinterest.
Rose Cullis is a Canadian playwright/educator living in Toronto whose obsession with themes of madness and sexuality is grounded in her own experiences of being marginalized and pathologized. Her last play, The Happy Woman was shortlisted for the Carol Bolt award, a national award for new plays. Her work for theatre appears in a number of anthologies including, Outspoken, Two Hands Clapping, and Canada Onstage. She’s also had short stories published in a number of theme-based anthologies and has written text for dance performances. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph University and is currently at work on a new play called, The Amazing Grace Jones Spaceship.
Kate Dembski says, “painting is fun.”