Authors: Susann Cokal
This little book treats of delicate subjects,
and has been sent to you only by request.
It is not intended for indiscriminate reading,
but for your own private information
This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2005 Susann Cokal
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Breath and bones / Susann Cokal.
ISBN 1-932961-06-2 (alk. paper)
1. Artists' modelsâFiction. 2. Women immigrantsâFiction.
3. Danish AmericansâFiction. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Book Design by SH â¢ CV
To three generations of Familjeflickorâ
Altid med de bedste hensigter
Beauty like hers is genius.
Hygiene: 26.2 miles from the western (narrow gauge) rail terminus at Harmsway, with tracks presently being extended to the village itself. It is halfway up the mountain and so situated as to promote respiratory hygiene and health, with picturesque scenery on every side. The hospital building was erected at a cost of $80,000 and is not equaled by any other such institution in the West; thus for the last half-decade it has rivaled the nearby gold mines in its contributions to the region's prosperity. The visitor may enjoy the naturally carbonated spring waters or tour the small but none the less distinguished gallery of paintings, privately owned and free to the public on the first Monday of each month. Of several good hotels, the Celestial is the best
The cemetery seemed to roll on for miles, its plinths and statues struggling through the folds of a hillside thinly dusted white. A strange situation for a house of art, the widow thought; but these graves, like the mine tailings on the mountain below or the crenellated fortress above, were nothing to her.
Two men met her at the fortress door. One was tall and raw and bony, with a disturbing stripe of pink scalp showing, as if he had been attacked by savages. His hands, also, were knotted with scar tissue, white ridges straining against the bones beneath. The other man, just slightly shorter, wore silken gloves, as if to say his own hands would do no more work on this earth; from his dark spectacles and blank expression, she surmised that he was blind. She did not ask their names, and they did not need to ask hers. She already knew the tall man, knew he was of her native country. She could speak as she wished, and he would translate.
“We are honored.” The blind man spoke English, but quite clearly. “Thank you for traveling all this way.”
“It was my husband's wish.” She saw no need to pretend she was glad of itâthough she was very glad finally to be unburdening herself of the crate and its contents. “Your drivers are opening the box now.”
The taller man translated for the blind one, then turned back to her.
“Would you like to see where it will hang?” he asked, and she supposed she would.
There were four rooms to the gallery, each one feebly seeping light through narrow windows. The first two were crowded, with pictures hung nearly floor to ceiling and some of the frames knocking against each other.
The blind man served as guide. He remembered the placement of each picture and identified for her: “
by Holman Hunt . . .
Mother and Child
. . . Rossetti . . . the old Christiansborg Castle, painted by the Dane Christen KÃ¸bke.” He mispronounced that name, but she didn't bother to correct him.
In the third room, the style of the pictures changed; even the untrained visitor could see they were the work of a single artist, and one who preferred to paint the same subject several times: women with spears, women with masks, women with fishes' tails. Some of the canvases had been patch-worked, cut apart and resewn, with layers of paint crumbling off into colored dust at the seams. Every one of them featured a woman with flaming red hair and sharp, pale featuresâa woman the widow would rather not see here.
The blind man perhaps felt the same way, for he chose not to dwell on these pictures. “Figures from mythology,” he merely said, and he unlocked the door to the fourth room, the one few visitors ever saw. The thin windows there were covered in velvet, making the room a tenebrous cave.
The widow hesitated. She had a mild dislike of the dark.
“This will be your painting's home,” the tall man said, as the blind one felt his way inside.
“It is not my painting,” she was quick to correct him. “My husband left it to your gallery in his will.”
The tall man turned the screw for the gaslight. “And this is not my gallery. The owner lives up the mountain.”
Light from the glass globes flared over the room and then subsided. Still the widow's eyes were dazzled. At first she saw only empty walls, and then something that made her raise the black handkerchief to her lips.
“Yes,” said her countryman. “It is.”
It was a large cylinder with thick, slightly green glass walls. The ends of the cylinder were of glass, too, and the craftsmanship was so fine that the joinings were scarcely visible. But it was what the cylinder held inside that constituted the great wonder: the body of a woman, floating in a clear
liquid, with a blue velvet gown and hair such a brilliant red that at first glance it appeared unnatural.
Again the blind man guessed the widow's thoughts. “She is real,” he said. “True flesh, preserved in alcohol and other fluids. Go on, step closer and look.”
The spectacle presented an irresistible lure; against a good part of her own will, the widow moved nearer. The corpse's hair and dress rippled faintly with the vibrations of her footsteps, while the scent of alcohol burned her nostrils. Up close, the body looked less alive; the flesh was a dead, arsenic white, and it, too, seemed to ripple. The face had lost some of its shape, as if the bones had turned to rubber; and most grotesque of all, the eyes were missing.
“Melted,” the tall man whispered in their native tongue, when he saw where she was looking, “eaten away in the alcohol. But he”âgesturing toward the other manâ“he doesn't know.”
The blind man clearly did not understand. “Is she not beautiful?” he asked, with his face turned toward the coffin as if in all the world he could see this one thing. He touched the top of the glass curve with the gloved hand, and the widow had to swallow hard. She felt very hot in her silks.
“Too beautiful for the grave,” the blind man went on, answering his own question. “Few scientists know this method of preservation; I learned it expressly for her. She was the last sight I saw before losing that faculty completely.”
If she breathed, she would surely be ill. “Butâ”
“It was not a slow death, though it took us weeks to repair.” The blind man spoke as if the death itself were of no importance. “If you look closely, you might see little wounds in her face and arms . . .”
She refused to look any closer. She heard the workmen approaching and felt a wave of relief that her duty here would soon be done. They came in stepping carefully, holding the immense canvas-wrapped picture removed from its crate.
The tall man gestured. “Against that wall.”
“And be gentle,” added the blind one.
The workmen propped it up, that artistic behemoth that had vexed her since the day her husband had bought it and proved that although he was
willing to raise her to the state of matrimony, he could not shake off the hold of past fascination.
Travel had loosened the canvas wrapping until it now billowed like a sail. The workmen pulled it away to reveal the flat image of a woman, skin startlingly white, hair brilliantly red: an echo of the figure in the tube. Again the widow shuddered, and she looked away for what she thought would be the last time.
But what she saw was hardly more reassuring. The motion of so many feet and limbs had carried over into the cylinder, and the corpse inside was moving: the arms thrashing bonelessly, the hair storming around the eyeless face, and the lips parting as if to tell a story.
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim . . .
NGEL IN THE
This was our first glimpse of Denmark. Very flat it looked,âjust out of water, and no more . . .
Don't move,” he said.
So Famke stifled her cough. She held her breath and tried to stay very, very still while the two frog-green eyes took her in. Up, down, and up again, a pencil tapped out her measure on the page, with a faint sound of scratching as he made refinements here or there.
Famke also had to repress the shivers, for it was cold in the room. She was wearing only the thinnest of summer chemises and was conscious that Albert could see everything beneath, right down to the triangle of red below her belly, which was as bright as the hair on her head. She felt exposed, proud and nervous in the way of a girl showing herself naked to a lover for the first time. But this was not the first time, and her companion was not pleased.
“Darling, do try to look alive,” he murmured. “And gracefulâor do you think nymphs are often hired for work on farms? It is more than positioning the bones, it's in the spirit, in the hands . . . like this”âhe demonstratedâ“see, darling, the
and beauty flowing from my fingertips? You are a good mimic; now mimic me.”