The blind man served as guide. He remembered the placement of each picture and identified for her: "Muses by Holman Hunt . . . Mother and Child . . . Rossetti . . . the old Christiansborg Castle, painted by the Dane Christen Købke. " He mispronounced that name, but she didnt 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 patchworked, 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 featuresa 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 said merely, 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 dark cave.
The widow hesitated. She had a mild dislike of the dark.
"This will be your paintings home," the tall man said, as the blind one felt his way inside.
"It is not my painting," she replied. "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 widows 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 widows 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 corpses 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"gesturing toward the other man "he doesnt 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. "But"
"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 . . . "
Excerpted from Breath and Bones© Susann Cokal. Published by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved
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