“Pentimento,” a story by Tanisha Shende, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 56th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
“Woman With Red Background,” by James Brewer
by Tanisha Shende
- the presence of evidence that an artist has painted over a previously-rendered subject.
- from Italian, literally “repentance’”
…..The first time I tried to convince Veronica that we’ve met before, it was a dark summer night, honeyed and sulky, and beneath my feet, the earth was still swollen with rain. Under my right arm, I carried one of her paintings in a wooden case, while my left hand held the scrap of paper bearing the Trevisan family home’s address, given to me in a brief yet frantic call from her aunt.
…..I had never been to Vero’s house, but it stood there solemnly, the apotheosis of all pretentious architecture, and there was no mistaking who it belonged to. White, blinding, towering – all brick, stone, and Corinthian columns, and more like a fortress than a home. The aunt answered the door, stiff yet betraying her misery in the redness of her eyes and her apprehension in the knitting of her eyebrows. She and the rest of the family must truly be desperate if they sought help from the outside world, but she still steps aside as if burnt when I walk past.
…..The entrance hall is all marble and rich-purple carpets, thick enough to soak up the water dripping from my coat and dark enough that the mud stains won’t show. Mrs. Trevisan leads me to the study, where I finally see Vero in something other than hospital gowns and bandages. She’s beautiful, I thought, for how could I not? She sat cross-legged on the desk, plucking arils from pomegranates. Her hands were pale and smooth, royal as if she’d truly bleed blue if someone were to cut her, and her dark hair floated down her back in soft curls, and she looked like a painting, one that I wanted to keep safe and hidden from the rest of the world.
…..“Quite a gloomy setting, no?” I said, knocking on the ajar door, and it was. Curtains drawn, dust visible, and without feature save for the photographs Vero had strewn about the desk. Something twisted inside me at the thought of her all alone in this room, in this house, but a quick glance at her aunt hovering near the door told me that any thoughts of bringing her outside would have to be stilled for now.
…..Vero looked up, her hand stopping half-way to her mouth, and I wished she didn’t. I wished she would keep her head down and her body covered, so I could pretend that everything was fine, that I had no reason to walk on eggshells around her. She was all bones, and I wanted to feed her. She was all tired eyes, and I wanted to send her to sleep. She was scared, and I wanted to reassure her, but I have run out of good things to promise. She looked like a snuffed-out candle, an amateur’s attempt at a Vermeer.
…..When Vero stayed silent, her once calculating and sharp eyes merely looking in my general direction, I walked closer to her, noting the bitemarks pressed red into Vero’s knuckles, from nightmares she must forget as soon as she wakes. “My name is Camille,” I offered, gentle for once. “We’ve met before. A long time ago, actually, if you can believe it.”
…..Vero stared at me, like she’d forgotten not only the incident, but also sarcasm and biting remarks, and when she finally spoke, her voice was small and patient. Before the incident, there was an urgency to everything she said, words hurled out with violence, and if they were birds flying out of her mouth, they’re ones that were already shot. “My aunt told me you have a painting for me,” she said, fiddling with the hem of her green sweater with one hand and hiding the photographs with her other.
…..I waited for Vero to continue, but when I accepted she was done, I nodded, placed the painting on the desk, and uncovered it as she swiveled around to face me. She leaned forward, resting her head on her hands, and asked, “Do you know what this is?”
…..“It’s one of the paintings your family sold. For the extra money, after what happened to your parents,” I replied, confusedly, because, surely, she must know at least this much?
…..“No, I meant–,” she broke off, looking away and hiding a slight upturn of her lips with her sleeve. My cheeks burned, realizing what she actually meant and hoping I didn’t make her feel stupid, but she only faced me again, this time more animated, and continued, “Do you know anything about the painting itself? The subject matter, the artist, the materials?”
…..For the first time, I really looked at the painting, laid bare, but though I may be a scholar, I am hardly a poet or an artist, and I could never describe it with the justice Vero deserved. Still, I tried, remembering how she taught me to look at art. “I see a naked man against a plain blue background with his hair flowing, his fingers outstretched, and what looks like wax dripping down his arm.”
…..Vero hummed. “It’s Robert Liberace’s oil painting Icarus. I think it’s lovely. He looks free.”
…..“Free? If that’s Icarus, then he’s lost his chance at being free. He has nothing because he flew too close to the sun in an effort to gain everything.”
…..“But isn’t that freeing though? Knowing you have nothing left to lose, no obligations holding you down, no expectations or pressure to be something others want you to be? He’s no longer stiff, living in his father’s shadow, and he no longer fears that his whole life is dependent on his father or that he’ll spend his whole life missing out on opportunities. Maybe there was more to Icarus than hubris. After all, there’s a certain glory in crashing when you should be soaring. At least then you know that you have agency,” Vero rambled, transfixed on the painting, but when I tried to respond, to draw more out of her, she continued. “Look at his hands.”
…..“They gradually become looser,” I muttered.
…..“Yep. You see how Liberace leaves faint sketches of Icarus’ past movements? That’s a technique called pentimento. It usually refers to mistakes the artist has made and how they try to cover it up with another artwork on the same surface. There’s a hidden woman in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist! But Liberace used it intentionally, to show his figures in action, and I think it’s done particularly well here because I can follow Icarus as he becomes less tense and his head bows.” Vero lightly traced the painting as she spoke, looking up at me afterward, and I don’t know what she saw, but she immediately retreated back into herself, and all I wanted to do was draw her back in again. “I don’t remember all this, by the way. I found these thoughts scribbled in a journal somewhere. I know that girl is me, so those thoughts are mine, but the truth is that I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
…..“I understand,” I said automatically, even though I didn’t know what it was like to lose so much of yourself and not even know what you lost. I stumbled with my words, trying to find the perfect arrangement of words that would make Vero feel better, but knowing what I knew, I didn’t even want her to feel better. I wanted her to know exactly what happened and what she did, and, a little selfishly, I wanted her to see what that did to me. But she broke the silence once again.
…..“Pentimento means ‘repentance’ in Italian, you know? I didn’t; I had to look it up later. I’m not sure why, but I’m feeling repentant. And I think that’s why I wanted this painting back so badly.”
…..“Repentant,” I repeated, and because I truly hated her in that moment: “Is that what you feel? Repentant?”
…..I could tell she did not know what I was talking about, and I doubted anyone would tell the golden child gone amnesiac what really caused her memory loss, but her expression hardened nonetheless, and her mouth pressed into a thin line, and I knew then that I overstayed my welcome. I let myself out, and it was only later, when I laid awake in bed and stared at the ceiling until my vision blurred, that I truly detested myself for leaving her alone in that house again.
…..When Mrs. Trevisan begged me back to the house the following week, I found Vero in the library, only the books looked too new and the dust was too heavy. She was on the floor this time, always sitting in places not meant for her, surrounded by open books. Even before the incident, she would read books like it was a race, eyes still scanning the last page of one paperback and hands already reaching for another, and when I called her name this time, she looked up, and there was more in her eyes than just my reflection.
…..“I’m looking for something for someone,” she said, hushed, forgetting what happened last time or choosing to ignore it. “She must be important.”
…..I wanted to hurt Vero for forgetting that, too, of all things, but instead, I pushed the tea I pretended to make for myself toward her on the floor. For a second, I thought she wouldn’t move, but she ended up reaching for the mug and thanking me for the tea, and I couldn’t help but miss the time when she’d tell me to go fuck myself and complain about the cup or the temperature or the soaked teabags. “How do you know her?”
…..“I saw her in some photographs. I think I loved her. I look so cold and stiff in all my pictures, but I looked at her with love,” Vero explained, casually, sipping her tea while running her finger down a page. She suddenly looked up at me and said, “I looked at you the same way,” with her head tilted and brows drawn together, her signature look, as if she was trying to figure out what she saw in me.
…..If Vero was asking me a question through her expressions, I wouldn’t answer it. Instead, I sat down next to her, noticed she was thumbing through Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, and finally asked her what she was doing.
…..“I was reading my journal again, and I wrote something a while ago that said my mother would like some poetry to be read at her funeral. So, I figured I’d collect some Plath, or some Whitman, or, hell, even some Sappho for when the time comes.”
…..Vero side-eyed me the entire time while she spoke, and it wasn’t until later that I registered that action, which twisted my stomach into knots, because all I could think of was, for when the time comes. I remembered Caterina, how she’d died of grief after her husband’s arrest or maybe had let it kill her. Let death in when it knocked and left her daughter cradled by nightmares somewhere in that empty, empty house.
…..“I want to remember my mother,” Vero said, when I didn’t reply, and I stared ahead, unblinking and thinking of all the ways I could kill her and make it look like an accident. She sighed, irritated. “Surely, there’s a way. You know, those journals told me a lot about myself, including what happened with my parents, what I was like back then, what medications I was on.”
…..I turned to Veronica slowly, but she simply rolled up her sleeves, revealing bandages, and continued, like the asshole she is. “Aunt Genna told me that I shouldn’t peek, but how could I resist? I might not remember anything, but I can figure out what those cuts mean. And my poor medication bottle is oh so empty. Come with me to get a new prescription?”
…..More silence. Veronica was grinning, happy for any reaction, because that little sadist was always good at using and being used. I eyed the exit, already formulating some bullshit excuse to leave her and this house, but then: “Cam,” she said sweetly, and I wanted to ruin her. “I want my memory back.”
…..“You piece of shit!” I hissed, too loud for this silent house, standing up quickly and sensing her flinch beside me. “Do you know who fucked up your memory, huh?!”
…..Vero frowned at me, rising as well and backing away slightly. “Who?” she asked, all innocent, and I would have strangled her, would have slammed her head against the floor and let her bleed out, would have–
…..“You did! You did it yourself, you fucking idiot!” I yelled, and Vero surged toward me, catching my tears, as if she couldn’t bear to see them hit the floor of her cursed house.
…..I have kissed Damian, and I have kissed Alice, but no matter what anyone says, I fell in love only once.
…..It’s something my Latin professor’s mother told me at dinner one night. “The last time you fall in love should be the first,” she had said, and her smile was wide enough that it could fit the whole world were she hungry enough to try and eat it. “If it’s not, you’ve never been in love at all.” And I knew that it was just a story, and that the world was full of people who loved and then stopped loving and then loved again, but I believed her anyway, with the sort of conviction that only people who believe in God have.
…..Tough luck, though, because when I fell in love, it was as bad as it could be – a suicide attempt, and Vero lying bloody on the floor, everything red like the inside of a mouth bitten through and quickly filling with blood.
…..Back when I found her, dying there, her small body convulsing like nothing alive ever should, it felt like something inside me snapped, a tiny capillary somewhere breaking under the pressure of what just happened –the smallest cry of outrage my body allowed itself at the way I was ruining myself through her.
…..And I knew it was love by how I couldn’t stand to look but looked anyway, and by how instead of straining like before a break, everything inside me went soft. Not like this, I thought, a puddle of blood already spreading on the bathroom tiles. Anything else. And my heart is an uncurling fist, like a hand going slack. All that talk of organs, blood, veins, arteries, and anatomy lessons, when really, my heart was always meant to be a room prepared for Vero but empty of her, clumsily wrapping itself around what I wanted but would never have.
…..Only, maybe I would have her, and maybe Vero thought of it, too, because the next call I received was from her, and against my better judgment, I was back at the house a few days after our fight.
…..Vero answered the door, her aunt hovering near her, but I couldn’t stand to have her stuck in that house any longer. My mother collects seal figurines, for luck, and when I convinced Mrs. Trevisan that Vero deserves better than this empty, dark house, I didn’t have one in my pocket. I knew that luck would get me nowhere and that veni, vidi, vici was never about having gods on one’s side anyway. Her aunt merely had to look at her niece to agree with me, and Vero and I walked outside to the garden together.
…..Vero drifted toward the camellias and stargazer lilies, her mother’s favorites, telling me how beautiful they all were and, in an embarrassingly sappy moment, I told her that she was more radiant than all of them combined. She looked away, a blush spilling on her cheeks, as she giggled like a small girl, and it would be truly lovely if people could grow younger instead of older, shrinking inside griefs and illnesses until they’d step out of them like from baggy clothes piled at their feet. We were both quiet for a while before Vero spoke again.
…..“I know things, but they’re all artificial. I know that I was very, very lonely, even when I had you. I know that I felt too stiff and closed off to be loved. I know that I felt unlovable and overwhelmed with my youth, that my whole life depended on my teenage years, and that I simultaneously believed that I was wasting them, and I feared my whole life would be missing out on opportunities. And I can try to figure out why I wanted to kill myself, and I want to explain to you why I did what I did, and I desperately want to stop feeling so numb and get rid of this deep unending sadness within me because I fear it will actually kill me one day, and I hate living with the quiet knowledge that I probably will try again, and–”
…..Vero broke down sobbing in my arms, and I wished for her father to come back to life, so I could kill him myself, but I had all this rage and nowhere to put it, so I merely held her tighter, and we stayed like that for what felt like hours until her breathing stabilized. When the sun went down, I took her back inside the house, only everything felt lighter. We passed by the study, with Robert Liberace’s Icarus hanging there, and I asked Vero if she still repented. She nodded, but then said that she’ll survive the feeling if it means that her new painting will be just as good as or even better than the original.
Author’s personal biography:
My name is Tanisha Shende, and I am a rising senior at Bergen County Academies. I have an interest in storytelling through art, which has led me to read literature extensively for most of my life. I also adore writing, although I entered a slump around middle school due to an increase in school work, but fortunately, I am now writing more than ever and have been recognized by several competitions and publications. Currently, I mostly write short stories, poetry, and essays, but I have a few novels in the works. Writing is an immersive and dear passion of mine, and I hope to carry it with me throughout the rest of my life.
Listen (on Spotify) to Keith Jarrett play “Radiance: Part 16”