"The Chrysalis"

Melinda Price Wiltshire

Melinda Price Wiltshire’s fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Story, Riddle Fence, Acumen, Cascadia, Queen’s Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review, and The New Orphic Review. She has work upcoming in The New Quarterly. She lives in Victoria, BC.

“Set in Montreal, ‘The Chrysalis’ explores (among other things) the depiction of women in the visual arts. Some of the works touched on are the problematic photographs of David Hamilton, Yoruba carvings of the early twentieth century, and Christopher Pratt’s nudes. But mostly this is about a student whose ideas on art, gender, and beauty are in a state of evolution.”

They were at an art show called Les Femmes Nouvelles, and Lauren stopped in front of a charcoal nude. The woman’s belly was fleshy, and a scar zigzagged across the folds, disappearing under her belly button. Her cousin Toby said, “All that fat’s kind of obscene, don’t you think?”

For a split second she’d had the same reaction. “What are you talking about? She’s just a woman.”

“For me, life drawing has to show skeletal structure. Too much flesh gets in the way.”

They had just come from his own opening at another Montreal gallery, where he’d sold a painting of his friend Sally for nine thousand dollars. Toby was a hyper-realist, interested in technique. He liked to paint blades of grass, and people stepping into traffic.

“You should rethink your idea of beauty,” she said, as they went on to the next display.

“Why should I? Fat is bad for you. So I’m never going to find it beautiful.” He nodded his head toward a man with a bowtie and red sneakers. “There’s the art director for Tremblant. I bet he’ll give this a schmaltzy review.”

Lauren tugged at her sweater, pulling it over her head. When she emerged, a woman was hurrying toward them. “Toby Aiken! How great to see you.” She held out both hands. “So what do you think of the exhibition? I’m one of the sponsors, so give me your honest opinion.”

“We haven’t had a chance to see much yet. We just came from my own show at Galerie Gauthier.” He nodded toward Lauren. “This is my cousin Lauren. Laure, meet Margot Binette-Duval, a great patron of the arts.”

The woman laughed, flashing her teeth. “Come on, I’m not that influential. Is it true CBC is doing a documentary on you?”

“Actually, yes,” Toby said modestly. “It’s airing sometime in February. We watched the preview today at my opening.”

“And I missed it! So are there any new paintings? Something I haven’t seen?”

“Only two since the summer. It’s been a bit slow lately.” To Lauren: “Margot and her husband Jannik Larsen have a great private art collection, one of the best in Canada. There was an article about it in Maclean’s.

“Oh, well, you know these ratings, they change all the time.” The art patron shrugged. “Invite a journalist to dinner and serve him a good New Zealand red and—poof—suddenly your collection is in the top ten.”

“Jannik Larsen,” Lauren said. “Isn’t that the architect who was opposed to the Biodôme project? He came as a guest lecturer to one of my classes.”

“You study architecture?” The woman’s eyes flickered over her briefly.

“Fine Arts. It was a course in three-dimensional design, and he came to speak on Danish art and architecture, but everyone wanted to know about the Biodôme.”

“Lauren is from Peterborough,” Toby explained. “When she moved here to go to Concordia, her mother asked me to look after her. I’ve been bringing her along to art shows.”

“Not quite,” Lauren said. “I brought you to this one.”

“Well, don’t let me hold you up any longer. You must see the rest of the exhibition.” She pressed Toby’s hand. “Are you free Friday night? I’m having a little soirée — nothing elaborate, but the editor of Les Arts will be there. I’d love you to come.”

“That sounds tantalizing.”

“Eight o’clock, then. You know where we live. Oh, and bring your little cousin.”

“Little cousin?” Lauren said, as she moved away. “Fuck.”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot. Most art students would love the chance to schmooze at one of her parties.”

“You mean soirée.” She turned to the exhibit of nude crocheted dolls—wide-hipped Asherahs with enormous brown areolas. One was birthing a fetus, and several were missing arms and legs. “Great,” Toby said. “Fat amputees.” He was already moving on, toward the fruit and cheese platters in the lounge.

Later, she hung back while he talked to the man in the red sneakers. A couple of months ago, when she was experimenting with Abstraction, he’d told her that Cubism was a preschool obsession with building blocks. They were in a bookstore and she’d walked out, made it as far as the Metro before he caught up. He was twelve years older than she was, the cousin who’d once been her babysitter.

Margot Binette-Duval flitted around the room, flashing her teeth. The architect husband had been fairly interesting three weeks earlier, slouched dismissively on the podium as he spoke. A stocky, arrogant Danish man, good-looking in an older way, with pock marks.

A girl came into view, juxtaposed against the crocheted dolls. Thirteen, maybe, with fine blonde hair; gangly in leggings and a mini-skirt. Like one of the waifs in the David Hamilton book Lauren had found on her parents’ bookshelf years ago; photos of skinny adolescents on the French Riviera, lounging around in white stockings and see-through dresses. The Age of Innocence. As teenagers, she and her sister Jenna had been obsessed with those Riviera girls, wanted to look like them. Then Jenna decided that David Hamilton was a disgusting perv, and made their mother throw the book away. Lauren was disappointed about the perv assessment because she still liked the photographs. There was one of a girl on a sea-swept beach, looking out into the blue. Maybe if the photographer had been a woman, Jenna wouldn’t have minded so much.

Two of Toby’s paintings hung in the Binette-Duval-Larsen house, one in the library, the other in a second-floor bathroom. The one in the library was called Yellow Leaves — a window on a late-autumn marsh, with a jungle of undergrowth and a foreground of slim birches. The other was one of his famed depictions of Sally, his childhood girlfriend, all grown-up and face-down in a swimming pool.

Around nine p.m. on Friday, Lauren stood in the upstairs bathroom, critically examining Sally’s buttocks. Someone had been in the washroom off the library, so she’d sneaked upstairs to find another one. There was a primitive-looking statue halfway up on the landing, but no colour on the walls, just cream and taupe and deeper tones of beige. Toby’s painting of Sally—mass of wet blonde hair, each strand articulated; rear end a seductive yellow hump against the blue—felt like a rude jolt of colour.

It was the thought of seeing Jannik Larsen that had made her come, but she hadn’t told Toby that. So far he hadn’t been in evidence. Maybe he didn’t go to his wife’s soirées. She finished washing her hands, and hitched up the shoulder of her sweater. Toby had said this was a black-dress kind of affair, but her only black dress was a canvas smock with a hole under the arm.

She went out to the landing and there was the architect, talking to a man in a dark suit. They both looked up. “Can I help you?” Jannik Larsen said. He sounded irritated.

“Sorry. I needed the washroom.”

“There are three downstairs. This part of the house is private.”

“These reporters keep tracking you down, Jannik,” the other man said, giving her a wink.

Jannik frowned. “Are you a reporter?”

She shook her head. “I was at your lecture at Concordia a few weeks ago. The one where everyone kept asking about the Biodôme.”

He looked maybe fifty, close up. Thick grey hair. Slouchy old jeans and a flannel shirt, which probably made his wife crazy. He relaxed a little. “So were your questions answered?”

“I didn’t ask any. I’m not really interested in the Biodôme.”

“I’m headed downstairs, Jannik,” said the man in the suit. “Come and find me.”

Jannik took a package of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and held one out to her. She shook her head. She hadn’t seen anyone with a real cigarette for a long time. “So what are you interested in?”

“Studio Arts. I just haven’t picked a medium yet.”

“Open to learning, then.” He lit the cigarette and took a long drag, observing her thoughtfully. “Would you like to meet real genius?”

“Not sure I believe in genius.”

“A cynic. Well, come and see.”

She followed him down the hall to a study. There was an iMac on a steel-top table, a wooden desk piled with papers, a black leather couch. Above the couch hung a picture—the room’s only source of colour, and even this was muted: long clean line of sky through a window, and below it a young female nude reading on a couch. Her head was turned away, and the book rested on her pubic mound. He was still watching her. “You like it?”

“Yes.” The light in the picture was extraordinary. “Is it Alex Colville?”

“Christopher Pratt, one of his lithographs. But he’s not the genius I was referring to.” He laid his cigarette down in the ashtray and took a little key out of his breast pocket. Then he unlocked a drawer in the desk and pulled out a Crown Royal Whisky Bag. “What I’m about to show you is in a class all its own.”

He took out an object and placed it on the desk. It was a wooden carving about six inches high, a kneeling human with torpedo breasts jutting out of its clavicles. “It’s an Orisha. One of the manifestations of God in the Yoruba belief system. This one is Yemoja, the divine mother.” He was watching her. “You don’t like it.”

“I don’t know. Not really.”

“Nonetheless, it’s genius. In ancient times, genius was the guiding spirit or deity of a place. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the word began to refer to exceptional intellectual or creative ability.” He picked up the carving and turned it over in his palm. “She’s holding an offering bowl, probably for palm nuts. And look at her legs—they’re fused together. In actuality, Yemoja is half-fish. A mermaid.”

“The Little Mermaid.”

“Not exactly. The European version is prettified. Also virginal.”

She looked up, meeting his eyes. They were Copenhagen blue. “So you collect these Orishas?”

“As a rule, no. It’s difficult to come by Nigerian artefacts legally. This piece is relatively new—probably carved in Ibadan in the early part of the last century.” He put the statue into its bag, and replaced it in the drawer. “But you don’t think it compares with the Pratt.”

“To be honest, no.”

“And I’d pegged you as a girl with discriminating taste.”

They went back down the hall. “What do you think of the painting in that bathroom?” she asked.

“I can’t remember it.”

She pushed open the door and flicked the light switch. “Oh, that,” he said. “That was my wife’s acquisition.” They stood for a second, looking at it. “The artist is too dependent on his camera. He’s merely reproducing. Why, do you like it?”

“The artist is my cousin. It’s hard to be objective.”

They went downstairs. Toby was at the bottom, talking to Margot Binette-Duval. “There you are. You disappeared.”

“This poor girl was wandering around, looking for a toilet.” Jannik waved to his friend in the foyer. “Philippe, shall we have a look at those drawings?”

“So you found the washroom?” Margot asked, turning to her.

“Thanks, yes.”

“Good. Well, if you’ll excuse me, Toby, I must go and speak to the caterer.”

Lauren watched her go. “Her husband doesn’t like Sally’s ass.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The painting of Sally upstairs. He says you were too dependent on your camera.”

“Well, fuck him.”

“Then he showed me something in his office. He said it was genius. At first I thought he meant the Christopher Pratt print, but it was this Nigerian artefact. A fertility goddess—Yoruba or something.”

“You know he has a reputation for going after younger women, right?”

“I didn’t know. Can we get a drink?”

Halfway through the library, they were swarmed by a bunch of women. “Toby Aiken, are you the artist? What talent!” Lauren kept walking. Out in the foyer there was a girl sitting on the stairs, painting her toenails. She looked up and said in a bored voice, “God, I hate these parties. These parties are so boring.” It was the girl from the exhibition, dressed up in clothes from somebody’s attic: a crimson taffeta skirt pulled up over her legs, and a green blouse buttoned to the throat. There was a hat beside her on the stair, and she had one knee drawn up in front.

Her eyes met Lauren’s, coolly. Then she went back to painting, dipping in and out of her purple bottle with deft strokes. Shifted the skirt, pulling it higher over her knees. “Stop staring. You’re creeping me out.”

Lauren looked away. “Sorry.”

Final coat completed, the girl stretched out her legs, critically examined her toes. “You were at the show, right? That stupid one on Sunday. I remember you.”

“I remember you, too. So you live here?”

“Where else would I live? Although I’d much rather be back in Vermont, at my boarding school.” She screwed the cap back onto her bottle. “Now they’re making me go to this shitty school here. I think I’m going to kill them one night in their sleep.”

“Your parents?”

“Yeah, Jannik and Margot. Although, honestly, I can’t see any resemblance between us. Sometimes I think they must have kidnapped me before I had a memory.”

“What’s your name?”

“Birgitta.” The girl made another face. “My mother’s a bitch.”

She yawned and stood up, then, clutching her little purple bottle. Picked up the hat — garnished with flowers, like a June meadow — and turned to the mirror on the wall. “How do I look?” Crowned herself with the hat.

“Like Halloween,” Lauren said. The caterer’s boy walked by, head turned.

After class on Wednesday, she headed to the studio. For days, she’d been thinking about the Orisha, and wanting to create something in clay. She didn’t want to do a painting. She was wondering if fertility goddesses were really representations of female power, or just another depiction of the same-old-same-old — women being what men wanted them to be, like the David Hamilton girls.

The night before, while they were watching Netflix, her roommate Freya had mentioned getting her vagina waxed. She yawned when saying it, as though spreading her legs to get her muff ripped off was a sleep-inducing event. Freya was a math student, not interested in sociology. “It’s not actually a vagina wax,” Lauren said. “I mean, think about it. There’s nothing in your vagina that they can wax.”

“Vive la bush,” Jenna had said, when they’d last Skyped. “All that hair removal? It’s just porn. I mean, show me a porn star with body hair. I’m sick of women feeling they have to conform to the porn norm.”

“What about Muslim women?” Lauren said. “And Muslim men? They’re not doing it for porn.” But Jenna wouldn’t relinquish her theory about men determining women’s body choices.

Today the studio was deserted, full of winter shadows. She dumped her coat on the bench and took down the hunk of polymer. When she’d started at Concordia, she hadn’t really considered any medium but paint. Then came the sculpture class, and it was stimulating — enlightening, even. There was something about kneading the medium with your fingers that opened up a different part of the brain. With paint, sometimes she felt she was over-thinking.

She had a couple of primitive sketches on the table, for scale — bodies, no heads. Sculpting a face also seemed like over-thinking. You couldn’t see a face without seeing thought. On Monday, she’d prepped the clay, feeding it through the Atlas until she had a workable mass. Now she began kneading. The polymer was malleable, soft between her palms.

She let her fingers work intuitively, pressing and squeezing. A figure started taking shape — two uneven dugs, and a belly. Limbs came next, the creases delineating arms from torso. The thing was barely recognizable as human. And there was too much clay — she had to lop it off, or use it. So she made stumpish legs, upright and far apart. The feet were large and pronated. She kept manipulating the medium, checking her sketches every now and then for scale. The shoulders seemed massive, too big for the breasts and belly. She moved upward, reducing the shoulders and making way for a neck and head.

The figure was hideous. A kind of Frankenstein, or maybe a Bride of Frankenstein — about eleven inches high, like Barbie. The right breast was indented, and the left hung down, a fried egg glommed onto the torso. It was something she might have made in second grade. She thought of Freya, with her sequences and permutations. It seemed like cheating, coming to Concordia to play with clay.

A janitor ducked his head in, saw her working, and went away. Drawing the legs up, she pulled the figure into a squat. Then she pushed the body forward. The arms were overly long, and the not-yet-hands grazed the ground. A crouch seemed the best way to imply motion, or the anticipation of motion. Years ago, in middle school, she used to crouch that way at the start of a sprint, bracing her feet against the starting blocks. She hadn’t sprinted for a long time, but she felt the figure’s tension, the springboard in its lumpy thighs.

Last came the head. First it was too flat, then it was large, almost Neanderthal. Her tools were still sitting there. A kind of rhythm had taken over between her fingers and the clay. When she finally slowed down, she saw that a face had emerged in the polymer. Or maybe it was the shadow of a face; maybe it was a Rorschach inkblot. Looking at it, she couldn’t say for sure what expression it wore. She thought it looked afraid — but also stoical and all-knowing, as if the worst had already happened.

When she finally crashed, it was dark outside. She knew she had to let the thing sit for a couple of days, before coming back to look at it. She wrapped it carefully in plastic and set it at the back of a shelf, with her student number on it. Some people left names on their works-in-progress, but Lauren never did. It seemed like jinxing it before completion, to own something that didn’t know what it was, yet.

Afterwards, on her night run, she envisioned another party: Margot Binette-Duval bringing out her newest acquisition. “Nine hundred dollars, I couldn’t resist. Jannik says I’m acquiring his taste for the primitive.” Crouched on the piano stool — the Bride of Frankenstein, unfinished but resigned, waiting for the starting shot.

Toby whispering, “Did you really have to give it a mastectomy?” Someone behind him: “This is one of those statements about gender.” The art director for Tremblant holding his plate under his chin and gobbling down a mushroom.

And laughter ringing out, mocking and shrill. Everyone turning to see the girl in the doorway, tossing her flowered hat. For a split second, a lull — one of those moments on stage when the cast is frozen and the narrator keeps going. Hat stopping mid-air. Then everyone waking up to resume mingling.

Ten days later, she was coming out of the Metro and about to cross Peel when she saw the girl, waiting for the light to change. She was with a friend, both of them wearing school ties and hiked-up kilts under their coats. The other girl had on navy tights, but Birgitta’s legs were bare.

Then the light changed, and they were all on the crosswalk in the slush. As they passed, she could have reached out and touched them. But they were giggling, grabbing onto each other, and when she looked over her shoulder, they were gone. There was something ephemeral about them. The afternoon closed in, turning to dusk.