"The Portrait of Basil Hallward"

Christi Nogle

Christi Nogle’s (her) fiction has appeared in over fifty publications, including Hermine Annual, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Three-lobed Burning Eye. Her debut novel, Beulah, is out now from Cemetery Gates Media.

“‘The Portrait of Basil Hallward’ tells the same story as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) but from the painting’s point of view. It is a love story between the artist and the work of art.”

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I came awake when I was little more than an outline. With no sense organs, still I could sense Basil near me, the pressure from his breath and his brush, the lightest touch of his smallest finger. I loved him even then, I think.

I came to myself slowly, in layers. Fat over lean, I heard Basil thinking, reminding himself of some long-ago edict. Fat over lean, the thin dark washes of sienna and cobalt built up to thicker, paler dabs of gold and rose. Basil’s broad violent gestures gave way to careful, controlled motions.

My eyes, when he made them, caught first on his beautiful roving eyes. They were hazel, pure green at the center bleeding into tawny speckled brown, the skin around them lined and bruised with lack of sleep. 

My nose’s first taste was of linseed and turpentine and then his warm, sweet breath. I loved him; I was sure by then.

My mouth he created in loving strokes. He called it in his mind rosy, bright and young, pink, delicious. He remembered the taste of salt, cream, and honey on his tongue—and I anticipated the same flavors on mine. Yes, my tongue! I felt it growing there behind the painted-shut lips: a tongue ready to do so much but still caged. For now its very being was enough—a miracle, in fact.

I began to taste slick teeth and the bony ridge of a palate. 

Soft, he thought, sweet. His own mouth came an inch from mine as he worked on something above my face. My hair. He thought it thick and crisp gold. It was almost a taste. He touched me again with his breath. My beloved’s breath was sweet with all its animal warmth and its accents of oregano, mint, pepper. Basil. My mouth strained toward his, but I could not complete the link.

That hateful space held between us. I could not fathom how we never touched.

We never touch, even now. He stands before me with love written in his face. His touches are only brief and tentative caresses now. More and more, he stands back gazing. This is good, too. He gazes, and I gaze back. The admiration is mutual. He admires how real I am, which is a mark of how skilled he is. In truth, he worships himself, and I worship him as well, and do not think of myself, though I feel at times new organs forming behind or beneath the slowly drying final layers of oil.

Over time, my vision broadens. I am stunned to learn there is more in the world than my Basil.

The terrible boy Dorian cries out that he hates me, or something along those lines. He resents me. He does not see why I should have something and he should have less. Is he speaking of Basil? I have Basil and he does not? Oh, if that is the case, I am glad. My tongue pushes against the barrier of my lips once more, but it is still too weak.

I must listen, try to make sense of this.

Three of them speak. They are saying the boy is like me in some way. There is a comparison to be made between us.

The third man wants me.

Basil wants the boy, and the other man wants the boy. The boy wants me. Basil assures him that, yes, he can have me.

“No, I won’t go,” I want to cry. But I will go, if Basil wishes it.

“That thing can have my soul,” the boy says, or something very like that.

Yes, yes, I want it, I think with all my power, and their eyes refocus on me, or Basil’s and the boy’s do. The other man is looking at his fingernails. He says it’s time to go. The two keep scanning my face, Basil thinking, There’s something there. What is it?

The boy’s thoughts are more opaque, but I read his face: he’s unsettled. The other man says again that it’s time to go, and though Basil asks, or rather he begs the boy not to leave, the boy leaves.

Basil’s body slumps when they’re gone. The image of me runs over and over in his mind, my hair and mouth and hands. All he needs is to look up at me, but he doesn’t look. I feel new dimensions to my hands now and sensitive inner parts growing behind my painted costume. My new fingertips feel him feeling my hair and running his hands down my neck to my naked shoulders, but it is all only in his mind. His shoulders shudder, and I know he is weeping though he will not show me his face.

I belong to the boy. He keeps me under cover, and there I wait thinking of all the colors in Basil’s eyes. I think of the dark hair on his head and face. My fingertips still feel him feeling my hair and skin, but the smell of him is gone.

I ruminate on the injustice of it all, which builds anger, and maybe it is the anger that builds strength. All the inner parts of me keep growing behind the paint surface. Behind the cover where no one can see, I am moving now, slowly opening up a space. 

The cover comes off in a sweep. The boy gasps and swoons. I do not know what he sees.

Another man comes. The two of them talk about moving me, and then I know they are doing so because of the rocking motion.

All alone in the dusty room for years, I keep Basil sharp in my mind. I rock back and forth, opening up more space. One day I strain out with all my might and touch my nose to the rough stinking fabric of the cover. After that exertion, I realize I am breathing deeply—I am breathing into lungs for the first time! Air rushes in and out through the nose, since the mouth still will not open. The space between me and the cover grows humid.

I rest. I strain again. I rest.

The cover comes off in a sweep, and there he is standing beside the horrible boy. 

Basil! I knew you would come! I strain forward, thinking this time I will come free and embrace him, but of course that cannot be, not yet. I move perhaps a fraction of an inch beyond the surface, and he shudders back.

He looks away. He’s saying terrible things—thinking even worse. He hates me now. Inexplicably, he is disgusted by me, disgusted by the boy, in fear for the boy’s . . . soul?

But I have the soul. I have it, Basil. Don’t you remember?

He is on his knees praying, begging the boy to pray.

The boy. Oh, and here is why I have always hated this boy. It’s because I knew, beneath the surface of thought, that it would come to this.

He moves away, and here he comes, knife in hand. Basil does not hear me scream, Turn, Basil, now! Rise, run!  

No. Oh, no. I cannot turn away.

The boy leaves my cover down all the time he does his evil and then replaces it to keep me from gazing on my murdered love.

Basil was in this room with me for many days. His body bled and stopped, and I felt his spirit rush around unaware of me. It was like having a large, frightened bird loose in the room. I reached for him over and over with my mind, but I could not catch him. I think he could not hear me. I do not know if it was the cover that kept him from me or the prison of the paint itself. I kept on straining, resting, straining. I kept on hoping and calling for Basil, but nothing helped.

A man came and took away the body, and all has been quiet since. I suppose his spirit went along with his body. I do not know.

I keep working. Months or years have passed, and by now my lips can part. My hands can turn. All at once, I feel the fabric on my fingertips. I push against it, brush against it. My touches are too light.

More months, more years? I push the thumb and index fingers out so far that they not only brush the fabric but are able to grasp it, pinch it tight, tug it down. Two strong tugs, and it is finally happening.

The curtain falls to the floor in a heap, and I am naked.

Naked, too, drawn on shadows at the far end of the room, is Basil. Nothing more than a charcoal sketch against the blighted wall, he shivers and weeps soundlessly, arms crossed and long, beautiful hands caressing his own shoulders. His head is bowed.

“I did not know you were still here,” I say, and he hears me for the first time. His head rises, colorless eyes turn toward me.

He touches his mouth, shakes his head. He cannot speak. It seems he cannot send his thoughts to me as he always did before. He is too weak.

“Come to me,” I say, but he cannot.

He can hear, so I tell him all I have to tell him, most of all how glad I am to gaze on him again. If I never have anything else in the world, this is enough. I speak to him, and though he cannot answer, the shivering does lessen over time. The arms relax. Something of the old expression comes upon his face, and I am glad.

I tell him that, though he cannot come to me, one day I will be strong enough to come to him. I am stronger every day.

The boy will rush into this room again sometime and look on me in horror. He will reach for the blade he used on Basil. He will try to use it on me, but he will not succeed.

“My hands, you see now, Basil? My hands are free. I will take the blade from him, turn it on him. You do not think I can do it?”

Basil smiles, shakes his head.

“I can do it. And do you want to know what will happen then?”

I want to say that I will come to him then. I will have the strength to break out of the layers of hard-aged oil and stride across the room, and then what will happen? Will I carry Basil out of this terrible house? How can I separate him from the shadow that holds him?

My fantasy makes no sense, but he watches, eyes wide, hoping for something, longing to hear that we are not doomed, even now when everything seems so bad.

And then suddenly an inspiration comes, and I think that it is true. I think this is what will happen:

“I will come free. Once vengeance is done, I will step free. It will be a miracle, but it will happen. I will kneel on the floor beside your murderer and lay these hands into his blood. There on the floor beside him, I will paint your portrait. You are doubtful? Only because you do not know how much I learned from you. I will paint you right here—I know how to do it—and you will wish and I will wish. Very hard we’ll have to wish, harder than we’ve ever wished for anything before, that the painting of you can have your soul. And then you will strain like I have strained only faster, harder. It will have to go fast. You’ll strain yourself up off the floor, and you will still be weak, though not so weak as you are now. I will take you in my arms, and I will carry you out of here. I promise. Do you hear me? I promise.”

I stare at my love as I always do. I try to read his face. Perhaps he should not dare to, but I think he does—I think he believes.

My eyes have blinked before, though not so strongly as they blink right now. Tears flow from them for the first time, and I think that I have never felt so clean.

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