This week's Flash Fiction Challenge was as follows:
Mine is about 1200 words. [Edit: I realized I'd missed the paranormal bit, so had to go in after the fact and change a few bits.]
Portrait of the Artist
She looked remarkably life-like, even for one of his portraits. Giovanni stepped back, adjusted his glasses, and nodded at Madame Warren. “Thank you. You may relax for a moment.”
He turned to the gallery owner. “Almost done Andre, then it's yours.”
Giovanni dreaded the thought of an end to this commission. He'd been doing portraits of the elites of Paris for decades, honing his skills, and building his reputation. Customers now were even coming from London and New York. Painting was all he could remember having done—his art was his life. Usually his subjects, not being professionals, would fidget for the whole session, show up every time in different clothes, and insist that their pose was identical to the previous one—even with his sketches to prove them different. As such, he'd learned to dash off a portrait in only a few sittings, with his signature style of bold colourful strokes.
This one was different. The lady, a new arrival to Paris with her husband, was a perfect model, in addition to being beautiful, witty, and charming. So of course he was falling in love with her. Not the first time this had happened, but this one felt different. He'd tried stretching out the sessions, but the portrait was as close to perfect as he could make it. In another day, Madame Warren would be gone.
The gallery owner motioned him over. “Giovanni, I think this is the best that you've done so far. Her husband will be very pleased.” He paused, then leaned closer. “And I think you're becoming a little attracted to the lovely lady, non? Maybe this has lent an extra layer to your art, a way to see into her soul?”
Giovanni blushed. “Perhaps. She is quite the woman. I do admit I will be sad to see the lady leave.”
“Well, maybe that won't have to be right away, my friend. Her husband is still in America, and the lady is here in Paris with few friends and a desire to see more of our beautiful city. Perhaps you, with all your connections, could act as her escort.”
“But she is married!” said Giovanni.
“Yes, I am aware of that,” said Andre. “But I know you will be a gentleman, no matter your feelings. Actually, it was her husband that suggested that you might help. His only request was that while you are out together, you do some quick sketches, just to show his wife enjoying the city. I'm sure the lady will be amenable to the idea.”
Lady Warren—Charlotte—was very amenable to the idea. Giovanni did have many links to the arts community in Paris, to writers, painters, singers, musicians, people from the symphony to the jazz club, from the galleries to the garrets, from the fanciest five star restaurant to the tiniest back alley cafe. His friends adored Charlotte, as she did them. And in the midst of this all, over the weeks, Giovanni did truly fall deeply in love. As did Charlotte—of that he was sure. When he confided this to Andre, the gallery owner shook his head.
“Ah Giovanni, but she is not real. She’s just a golem, animated for Monsieur Warren to be his companion. He’s quite elderly now, so that’s all he’s looking for. She’s modeled after a beautiful woman from the 1900’s. But you always knew she was not real, right?” He stared at the painter.
Giovanni felt a moment of panic, then realized that yes, of course, he’d always known that. “But does she know?”
“By no means, for that would spoil the illusion. But don’t tell her, just let her carry on.”
Giovanni spent a sleepless night. How could he face Charlotte? All those days together, the whispered words of endearment, the stolen kisses, was all of it meaningless? How had he let this happen? What if he did tell her? Although just a golem, the powerful spell gave her very real emotions, so he was convinced that she did feel love for him. But she would also feel pain at learning the truth, that it was all a lie. By morning, he had decided that he owed it to her, to be honest. When they met for lunch, he told her he had something to discuss, but she interrupted and said that she did too.
“You first, cherie,” he said, taking her hand across the table.
“My husband arrives in three days to see my portrait,” she said. “Oh, but don’t look so sad. In two days we then leave for a week for London, then he goes back to New York. Alone! I stay here. He’s even found me a little apartment. He’s already seen some of your sketches, and read my letters of all the fun I’ve had, and thinks I belong here.”
“On your own?” said Giovanni.
“With you, I think,” she said. “In some way. It wasn’t really clear from his letter. But what did you want to say?”
He couldn’t do it. Not yet, at least. She was so blissful, just as she was. He couldn’t risk her losing that pleasure. “Nothing my cherie. I just wanted to say how happy I’ve been, ever since that day you first walked into my studio. Come, finish your coffee, I promised we’d visit Pierre. He’s written a song he wants us to hear.”
The three days went by all too fast, and then it was time for Monsieur Warren to see the portrait.
“He wants to see it first as if you were painting it,” said Andre. “We’ll set up the lady in her gown, posing as before, and you at your easel. Just pretend to be adding something.”
It seemed a little peculiar but the painter was used to humouring the eccentricities of a customer. Charlotte settled in her chair, looking at Giovanni. He picked up his palette, selected a dab of paint, moved the brush toward the painting, and gazed back at her. Oh, but he so loved this woman.
“There, just like that,” said her husband. “Hold it there.”
There was a click, and then a brief flash of light. Giovanni froze, unable to move. He stared at Charlotte.
“Excellent,” said her husband. “Perfect timing. And those expressions. She’s trying to hide the love she has for the painter, since I am standing here too, but it’s there under the surface. Wonderful. Yet look at him, his love for her is plain to see, all over his face.”
Giovanni continued to stare at his darling Charlotte, unable to move, to speak, to even blink. He could only hear and see.
“Those extra weeks together did it,” said Andre, “building that love. It was a good suggestion on your part. But look at the sadness there too, as he knows he can never have her completely. He knows she’s just an animation, not real. But she doesn’t know.”
“Does he know he’s one too?” said the husband.
“No, not even a suspicion,” said Andre. “All the better for that inner conflict.”
“And they’re turned off now, right?” said the husband.
“No worries,” said Andre. “Completely shut down. We can make this a permanent exhibition.”