My mother had been too young, too pretty and had died too soon after giving birth to me, Sister Clemence told me. Of my father, she knew nothing. There was no name anywhere. Telling us children our histories was strictly forbidden but Sister Clemence had a soft place in her Christ-licked heart for me. I reminded her of a child she had lost when she, too, had been too young. Shortly thereafter, she took her vows. She smothered me in hugs smelling of laundry soap, incense and sweat, and kisses disturbingly wet. Touch was also verboten. Sister Clemence was bit of a dissenter.
She told me about my mother the one day after our catechism when I asked if the children under the church’s care were born of some sort of spontaneous conception, appearing out of thin air, like angels. Or ghosts. Sister Clemence assured me I had had a mother and when I pressed for details, those three facts were all she offered. At the time, it was a veritable buffet, and I chewed on those victuals most waking moments. Too young, too pretty, died too soon. I repeated these to myself as I stared at my reflection on windowpanes or in spoons. Young, yes I was, and certainly not dead. Was I pretty? What did pretty even mean?
At eight, it meant nothing, but at fifteen it meant the world. This I learned when a tall man stopped me en route to the market in the center square. He had slick peppered hair and a solicitous grin that made me want to both recoil and reach out to him.
“Where is such a pretty girl going dressed so plainly?” he asked as he fell into step next to me.
It was the 60s. Girls in town wore short skirts, pointy heels or boots creeping up their calves and earrings as big as satellites. I, however, had at least one more year before I could decide between going out into the world or taking my novitiate to stay with the church forever, and until that day, I had to dress in my basic blue jumper as big as a tent around me. I explained this to the man, along with the reason for my current journey. I was the only girl trusted for trips to the market. In all of my fifteen years, I’d been a model child, not crying once, not even after tripping down the stairs and skinning my knees. Lies didn’t exist to me. Neither did rebellion. I imagined I would choose to take my vows and carry on as I had been, even while the other girls, in their bunks at night, whispered about getting out and finding men to marry them into security.
There was something about this man, Yves. I had seen his face somewhere. On the movie magazines at the newsstands I passed going to the market. Later I realized it was Marcello Mastroianni on those covers, not Yves. They could have been twins.
Attraction, something I hadn’t known before, can make you do stupid things.
But it wasn’t stupid, was it? When he told me I was pretty enough to model, I blushed but believed him. And when he told me he could guarantee I’d never have to wear my frumpy frock again, I knew I’d follow him wherever he went. He had offered me something I hadn’t known to want, but now that it had been presented, I’d settle for nothing less.
“Shall we collect your things?” he asked.
“This is it,” I said, refusing to mention my other jumper, a change of underwear. I held out the money I had been given for the market.
Yves waved it away. “I don’t need your money,” he said. “Just your face.”
Within weeks, Yves had assembled a coterie of women to take care of me. They dyed my long mousy hair dark, rimmed my eyes in black, painstakingly applied false eyelashes and powdered my lips. They set out my clothes each morning and replaced breakfasts of hot cereal with cigarettes and coffee. When I looked in the mirror, framed by light bulbs and people, scarves and makeup, I wasn’t sure which face was mine. I practiced writing my new name, Claudette Landri, and walking with my back straight, chin up, arms posed just so.
Yves flew us to London, Milan, Madrid, Berlin. I angled and kneed and reclined in front of cameras and, when Yves wasn’t looking, gorged myself on Turkish delight. Money flowed along with champagne. I believed I was in love, but Yves didn’t feel the same. After I saw him and his assistant Hans entangled in a dark corner during one of my shoots, I chopped off all of my hair and slipped into one of Yves’ suits.
When I presented myself to him, he shook his head, seeing right through me.
The look, though—that he liked. So much so he had several more suits made for me, with waistcoats, cuff-links, all of it. I stood as I looked, like a dagger. Thin and sharp.
After seeing me in my finery on the covers of magazines, the world followed. By the looks of it, everyone in the world was a man. At parties, at the theater—a sea of affectations: canes, fedoras, wing-tip shoes. Looking like everyone else made me feel secure and anonymous, as though I were back with Sister Clemence.
One night, Yves, Hans and I attended an after-party of a movie premier at the director’s chateau in Nice. We entered to an array of ice sculptures, waiters in crisp white carrying trays of champagne and caviar, and lesser models draped loosely in gold swathes standing still atop marble plinths. The most arresting spectacle, however, was another guest, a woman, audacious in a gown of screaming Klein Blue. Like lightning, an acute energy shot through me and everything else in the room disappeared until Yves, with his hand on my elbow, led me her way.
“May I present Delphine D’Arcy. Delphine, Claudette Landri.”
“The photographer,” I said, taking her offered hand and kissing it. I had seen her photographs in several galleries in Paris. All were of women, their bodies bound and bleeding, abused.
“The model,” she said. Up close I noticed she had woven feathers into her hair. With the plumes and the dress, it was as though she were beckoning me to shore. I hadn’t even realized I’d been lost at sea.
“A pair made in heaven,” Yves said. “Like—”
“Romeo and Juliet,” Delphine quipped.
“That’s rather bleak, n’est-ce pas?” From a passing waiter, Yves took a tray of champagne coupes. “Here,” he said. “Drink. Be merry.” He handed me the tray and left. I set it on an empty plinth. Delphine and I each took a glass. I raised mine to Delphine, but she swallowed hers quickly and dropped the coupe to the floor. So much for the toast.
“I find the fashion world perverse,” she said, reaching for another glass.
“Quite rich coming from the woman who photographs tortured women,” I said.
“Tortured woman,” she corrected. “The bodies are just one. Mine. Beauty must be refused.”
I considered this. “So that’s why you dislike me.”
She arched her eyebrow then let out a sharp laugh. “Perverse is a compliment. The people pulling your strings are the only people in the world who can make a woman look uglier than I can. I respect that. I respect them. Of you, I have no opinion—yet.” She finished her champagne and again, dropped the coupe. It shattered at her feet. “Come by my studio whenever you get back to Paris. Let me see if there’s more to you than men’s trousers and a pretty face.” She slid the tray to the floor and walked away through the puddle and shards of glass. Slick red footsteps trailed behind her.
When I rejoined the men, Hans asked me what I thought of Delphine.
I admitted I wasn’t sure as I bent over to brush a drop of champagne from my pant leg. “She called me ugly, then pretty, then said she had no opinion of me and invited me to her studio.”
Yves let out a low whistle. “Watch out,” he said. “It sounds as though Mme Delphine is on the prowl.”
The following month, Yves drove me through the city to the shabby outskirts where buildings with brass-buttoned doormen faded into tenements with flags of laundry waving in the windows. Yves parked his Peugot in front of one of the dilapidated warehouses that stood like tombstones marking a long-forgotten past.
“Surely Delphine could afford a studio in a nicer area,” I said.
“I’ve learned not to question her ways,” Yves said.
We walked up three rickety flights of stairs to the top floor. When Yves knocked on the door, it creaked open.
“Delphine?” Yves called.
“Back here,” a tiny voice replied. We followed the sound through the large space filled with backdrops, mirrors, lamps and other refuse. Stained mattresses sagged against the walls. Newspapers carpeted the floor.
We found Delphine rolling atop broken glass. Blood streaked across her skin.
“Our meeting in Nice inspired me,” she said, then nodded toward half a dozen bottles of Moët on an overturned milk crate. “Shake those up and spray me. You too, Yves.”
With my thumb paused at a cork, I asked, “Won’t this sting?”
Delphine laughed. “Oh, Yves. It’s so fitting that a prick like you finds all the sucklings.”
At this, he popped a bottle and aimed it at her. A scream ripped her open as her body convulsed. From above, a flash lit the room. Peering up, I saw a man, camera in hand, on a catwalk not much more than a horizontal ladder hung from chains. More flashes and screams flooded the room as Yves emptied the bottles and discarded them on the floor like peanut shells. Delphine strained against herself.
I stood, trembling hand in mouth.
“I think we’ve got it,” the man from above called. Delphine pulled herself from the floor and stood next to me, picking shards from her stomach and thighs.
“You look pale,” she said to me.
“I didn’t expect—”
She interrupted me. “But you’ve seen my work before. How did you think I did it?”
“—the screaming,” I finished.
“If the prints aren’t as shocking as the experience, then I’ve failed.” Dropping into a chair next to a rusty work table, she repeated, “I’ve failed,” and grabbed a pen. She began scribbling something onto a roll of butcher paper, her hand a blur, the paper filling quickly. Just as abruptly, she bounded up and kissed me on the shoulder. “My muse,” she said.
In addition to her photographs, Delphine began making videos. Different scenes, different tortures, some in black and white, others in garish Technicolor, all spliced together into hours of injury. Each time she finished a new film—as she called her works, though they lacked plot—she invited me over for our own premier party. She had her assistant run her projector. The images splashed onto the large drop cloth she had hung. I watched on, squeamish. She watched on, stoic.
I asked, “How can you do that to yourself?”
“Have you ever done something you’ve regretted? That you’d never be able to forgive yourself for?”
I shook my head. On screen, Delphine hung by her arms over a fire made from copies of her old photographs, her feet singed black.
“I have. Sixteen years ago.” She gestured toward her projected self. “I’ve been paying my penance since.”
“Sixteen years? You’d have been a child still.”
“I was thirteen, but I was no child. I was a monster. I still am. But now I keep myself contained. No one gets hurt but me.”
Yves accepted that he would no longer be leading me around. He continued to call upon me with job offers or party invitations, but I refused most if not all. Delphine appointed me her new assistant, and dismissed the previous one with a wave of her hand, as though simply clearing away the smoke from a cigarette. She taught me how to focus the cameras, choose lenses and films, crop an image before taking it, shoot a scene to minimize editing. Now I felt like the photographer and she the model, yet we both knew the power was not, and would never be, mine.
How did I acclimate to the horror of watching her defile herself? After a while, I no longer saw a person through the camera, only art. I came to know a good image and that’s all I looked for: quality. Bearing the burden, that was on Delphine. She wore the pain even better than she wore those vibrant, cocky gowns to the soirées we attended.
Delphine’s art wouldn’t have worked for another person. It hinged upon her beauty, that cursed cowl out of which she kept attempting to peel herself. Each injury added to her allure by showing her unrelenting strength.
My heart raced whenever I thought of her. If this wasn’t love, then what was? But I had thought Yves had been love, too, and look how wrong I had been there. I left myself space for error, an emotional distance I constantly had to enforce. When I heard the rumor wafting through our circles that Delphine and I were together, as lovers, only then did I consider that possibly—could it be?—I was correct after all. Delphine would kiss me, but never as Yves kissed Hans. Never even as Sister Clemence had kissed me. Did Delphine love me? I had no doubt. But was it passionate? Not at all. Still, when we were apart, I yearned to be back near her, especially in those rare moments when she wasn’t working. She could be soft. She could be caring. To me, anyway. To herself, she was nothing less than ruthless.
She woke me one morning, the sky outside the window still a pale field grey. All vibrancy had drained from her face. Madness pooled in her eyes. I had seen her flesh burnt, her body bleeding, her bones broken, but I had never seen her like this.
“Delphine, what’s wrong?” I asked, sitting up. “Have you been up all night?”
“Is it morning? Already?” She turned toward the window. “So it is. Bon.”
She smelled strongly of alcohol but from the slurring, it sounded as though she had been drinking instead of bathing in it. That was unusual.
I shouldered into my robe. Leaving the bedroom, I expected to find Delphine’s apartment a mess, the result of her all-night bacchanalia, but the rooms stood pristine, a lone, empty gin bottle on the counter the only artifact of her imbibing. A contained madness meant an explosion still to come.
I began to make coffee, but Delphine stopped me. “It’s today.”
For months she had been working on a new art piece, a performance, not for filming but for live viewing. She refused to tell me anything about it, other than it would be her greatest work, her final work. What would she do afterward, I had asked, but she brushed me away, asking for tea and silence. So I presumed she had chosen today for the big reveal, her final show—and then what? My anxiety melted into reverie as I began to think of us returning to Nice and stretching out for days on the warm sand, plumping and lulling and bronzing. We could go to Greece, make ourselves sick on olives and Retsina. And then on to America: New York or the City of Angels or any small town in between where we could perfect the flat, reedy accent and laugh as we spoke folksy phrases. Snug as bugs in rugs. Corn-fed. Bless your heart.
“Is everything ready?”
She blinked at my robe. “It’s a pity,” she said, straightening the lapel. “You’re becoming quite elegant. If only I had been there to see you as a child.” Then she pushed me away, saying, “Go dress, quickly.”
By the time we arrived at Delphine’s studio, a sea of people had formed outside. As a crest of bodies broke toward us, I realized the event happening that day must have been a secret to no one but myself. I pushed the hurt down deep and did my best to ignore that gnawing beast.
“But what is she planning?” Yves asked when he found me, pulling me aside. Delphine continued through the crowd, unaware.
“She didn’t even tell me about this until this morning.” I described Delphine’s eyes, the bloodshock of madness in them. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
“She’s an artist, Claudette. I wouldn’t worry.” Yves looked worried.
Like ducklings with their mother, the crowd followed Delphine into the warehouse, up to her studio. I saw Hans and Marco, Delphine’s dealer, and a few other faces I recognized from galleries and parties. The rest remained nameless, even those who acted like they knew, those who kissed the air beside my cheek and sweated with anticipation for Delphine’s final work. They glowed with pride, like we were all in this together. Soon, I wouldn’t have to share her with them anymore.
Inside, Delphine had erected a cube of steel bars, a free-standing prison cell. The mattresses, the newspapers, my prints we had hung to dry—all had been cleared away. The thing with betrayal is you never get to be justified for feeling it. The claims we put on things—our mines, our ours—are arbitrary at best. What, really, belongs to us? What can? I swallowed hard.
Before us Delphine stripped. She entered the cell, her body pale and thin, a steel bar itself. Reaching out, she locked the door and then swallowed the key, her throat taxed. Camera flashes winked and popped. Those vultures.
“Our past is a cage we can never escape,” Delphine croaked in a low monotone. Standing there, I saw her vulnerability. All ruthlressness she’d shed like her clothes and what was left: echoing sadness, regret and fear. She looked so small. If only I could have closed my palm around her and slid her into my breast pocket.
She continued, “I thought my grieving body would atone for my sins, but for some, salvation is not an option. I am one so cursed. I cursed myself.” She lifted a mirror pane from the floor and tilted it out, reflecting our ugly, greedy faces back at us. On me, she paused. “Worse, I cursed my daughter.”
Staring at the mirror, I saw my nose, the slight hook Yves had suggested I fix. For the first time—how had I missed it?—I noticed Delphine had the same hook. My face blanched.
“She’s talking about me, isn’t she?” I whispered to Yves.
“Claudette, no.” Yves put his hand on my shoulder. “She’s not—” but I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said, only the sound of glass to steel, the shattering rain, shards falling to the floor. A gasp tore through the room like the Mistral and voices cried, “Stop!”
But no one could stop Delphine as she sawed into herself with a fragment of glass. No one could get into the cage. No one could do anything but watch on in horror and I couldn’t even do that. I fled, just as she had fled from me, sixteen years prior.
At the funeral, Yves and Hans tried to convince me I was wrong. Delphine had lost a child. A premature birth, Delphine blamed herself. It was a weight she couldn’t shrug.
I searched for the records, the birth and death certificates, for Delphine’s daughter and for me. Nothing. I found nothing.
Eventually I made it to America, to New York, believing anyone could find anything there, somehow. I spend my days at the library, searching. The internet gives me hope, though my eyes are weak now and reading the glowing screen hurts. But now I have the weight I can’t shrug, even after all these years. I must keep looking. For the proof. For something I hadn’t thought to search for until it was gone. For my mother.
Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she plays in her band, ...y los dos pistoles, contributes to Creative Loafing Tampa, blogs for ARTiculate Suncoast and The Burger Online, creates zines and is an aspiring crazy cat lady. Her writing has appeared in Clamp Magazine, The Fiddleback, Connotation Press and more.
© 2014 Shae Krispinsky