Judith and Judith | Jay G Ying

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    Jay G Ying


    Judith and Judith


    In both paintings there was always destined to be a death – a punishment.

    ***

    I forgot Wolfgang had stood so quietly by the door watching me work; I forgot that he was waiting for me in that viewing room of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, a few days after the Artemisia Gentileschi painting had arrived. All the labour of my years seemed to come towards that single moment at last when the painting was lifted from its crate.

    ***

    As the painting was finally mounted on the wall I was aware of the differences in the measurements between both frames. I had reassured Wolfgang that it would not be a problem, however as both paintings were now side by side, the Gentileschi against the Caravaggio, the disagreement in their dimensions seemed to grow the more I stared, giving the impression that one act of violence was soon to subsume, disturb and infringe upon the other, and perhaps he was right, as if he was reading my mind, perhaps they needed to be placed greater apart.

    ***

    Before we left, when he and I were finally alone in that room, there across the wall, there it was at last, fixed the two heads of Judith and her maids, two further heads half always, half never, coming away from their stumps, half of each blade unviewed, in motion, inert, and in turn I studied both the beheading and then the slaying of Holofernes before I glanced back nervously at Wolfgang by the door, overcome with the feeling that he had somehow crept up right behind me and was breathing down my neck.

    ***

    In reality, all I saw was his face further away than I had expected, half hidden and outside of a ring cast from one of the overhead lamps, his eyes too lost in those two paintings to notice me noticing him. He was mesmerised by some seductive detail in those doubly well-proportioned deaths that I could not discern at the time.

    ***

    I thought actually how calming, how attractive, it was to catch him in that rare moment of unawareness, as if I had become invisible, having thought to myself: If only he could be like this more often. If only I could hold onto that instant as if it were his body in my hands.

    ***

    I cannot deny that often I felt disturbed by an almost perverse thrill to reach out and lick that painting, to turn back its life and ruin its surface by making those fleshes of oil wet and warm again in every stroke of my tongue.

    ***

    I remember on the first opening morning of the grand exhibition that outside his apartment the dry Via Venti Settembre swirled with an inviolable dusty air, and I had just stood paused, outside of the Palazzo Barberini, having taken a rushed photograph of the building’s door before I then slipped under the cool shadows of its arches. I stood by the entrance of the Galleria’s opening room watching the visitors enter group by group, curious to see what kind of people would pay to see the triumph of the painted woman twice. Again it felt as if my work was finally coming to pass, as if in that moment all the constellations aligned above me, because in that room underneath the lights, as women and women filed in, I could smell the almost tyrannical overpowering sense that I had done good for once by those dense and dark oils sweating on the canvas. In every photograph taken I felt as if the crowds were adoring me. There was a kind of power I had defeated to be there in that moment; a life I owned as I placed those two works of art together like pushing two magnets that wish to repel the other.

    ***

    That evening Wolfgang took me out to celebrate with some friends. Throughout the night I had trouble hearing his whispers as if my head was placed inside a bell jar. I could not concentrate on all those little details which seemed to move too fast around my body: somebody spilled a tray of drinks; an argument appeared out of nowhere; the sound of a dog crying on the street. Every word he communicated felt like symbols I had to decipher underneath the water. I wanted to stay at home and order in – I could not remember, for the life of me, how he had persuaded me to come out. Did he place my arms inside the sleeves of my coat, or did I? He must have planned the party a while ago. I was surprised by this new foresight of his he was usually so easy to figure.

    ***

    During the party I wanted to ask Wolfgang a question but I was disturbed by the presence of another group beside us; they were so large and loud it was as if their gravity drew everyone else towards their centre. They broke into song, the lights were dimmed, I remember a cake was brought out from the kitchen: its sparklers glowed like two eyes of an animal in the darkness. Even when the candles were extinguished there still lingered in that room the holes those two flames burned out, their presences marked only on a layer just underneath the air’s surface, and through all the noise and distractions I had completely forgotten what I wanted to ask Wolfgang that night I felt as if we were only minor characters in the backdrop of a painting, witnessing a greater story being told outside our little smudged outlines in the dark, thumbprints on the stem of a wine

    ***

    We returned to his apartment in the morning. I knew Wolfgang had sensed something was wrong yet he did not say a word. I started to run a shower but I changed my mind thinking it would take too long. The grime of     the bar was stuck to me, the smoke of stale cigarettes, the oil left on the tables, that hot congested air that can only be cooked up in enclosed spaces underground, it all lingered on me like the web of an insect. I remember falling asleep in its dirty mist, and as I closed my eyes there was the glow of two burning eyes still branded in my vision like an afterimage.

    ***

    That sleep was the first time I dreamt of my slaying or my beheading.

    ***

    Another day in the gallery, during my break, I spotted Wolfgang slip in through the door, and although I could make out his head from my seat     I was so sure then that he could not see me. Just when one crowd might threaten to leave, so that the oval room would empty out and expose myself, like the movement of air through a lung, the space opened only to be filled immediately by another set of slow swaying tourists.

    ***

    Again, twice now, I had become a voyeur in that same room, finding him in a point of weakness as if to have seen him but to not really have known him. As my head turned to follow his body, as he moved closer to the paintings, my eyes following the invisible lines where I assumed he was looking, so it seemed for the lifetime or two as I stood there observing him he in turn examined those paintings similarly.

    ***

    Just as I thought to myself: We could be here forever like this, without looking my way, without discovering me, he suddenly turned to leave, marching straight out of the room back to his office.

    ***

    Months afterwards, on the final weekend of the exhibition, I woke again too early in the morning from my faithfully recurring dream of murder, and next to me I saw Wolfgang still sleeping, his dull head perched on the bed’s brink where his arm was splayed out, and as I looked over him I thought   I had just come straight from a dream ready with blade in hand, thinking that was it not always my destiny to have decapitated drunk Holofernes as he slept seduced and stupid in his tent, as if in a past life, and yet as the sun sliced through the blinds so Wolfgang shifted so the dream broke and I tore my eyes away from the slow bounding vein on his thick and marbled neck.

    ***

    Whose death did I just witness really?

    ***

    I heard the signs of animation pulsate torpidly back onto Via Venti Settembre with every rung bell or scream of a child, the linen sky as wan and dry as the old stretched hide of a cadaver.

    ***

    I found myself strangely shaken that morning as I later walked aimlessly outside taking cautionary photographs of my street here and there as if I had known in some way that this way of life, as it was laid out in the stones of the old buildings around me, would all end soon, adamant later that there were in those developing pictures all the preserved signs of a storm not yet at its fullest.

    ***

    Like a ghost I spent that entire day circling around from the Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri through to Quattro Fontane, then past Piazza del Quirinale, past Piazza Venezia, Ponte Fabricio, wandering without any set purpose. I stopped by the river to see the abandoned plague hospital on the small island thinking that in the hours since I had left Wolfgang, he was probably wondering where I had gone to.

    ***

    Yet I knew something was wrong when I returned to his apartment later that night. I felt a great shadow pass over the undisturbed blue living room, everything still the same since I had left it that morning, my phone still on the bedside table, only a note from Wolfgang saying he had left to pick up an old friend of his at Ciampino airport. In the darkness the cold television screens of the building opposite throbbed like spirits through the exposed windows; I could almost make out the fuzzy shape of a deer wounded and unmoving in its electric and leafy clearing.

    ***

    Did I make up that looped voicemail from the policeman at the Carabinieri? Did I dream that a thief had entered the museum in the evening and stolen my Gentileschi painting?

    ***

    I remember running as fast as I could back to the Galleria, back underneath those same arches, thinking that there was still the chance I was Judith beheading or slaying or beheading in someone else’s dream, to find attached to the wooden frame on the wall, unsurprised, where the work once stood, a thin uneven margin of canvas on each side only, its ragged and serrated edges already proof, in my mind, that the thief had used a knife to extract the work of art that stood in front of me in its gaping absence. The pair of women from the painting’s centre had been excised, their energies taken out of the room, out of time. The bedsheets dripping with Holofernes’s blood were gone, the dead man gone too, and nothing more was left in that wide space but faded shapes and smudges left out on the borders, two strips of black, the blurry impression of white or red fabric, snapshots of an old scene erased and taken, without anything to hold onto anymore.

    _

    Jay G Ying is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer and translator based in Edinburgh. His work can be found in The White Review, The Poetry Review, Ambit, amberflora, The Scores among others. He is a winner of the 2019 New Poet’s Prize, and was shortlisted twice for the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize. His first poetry pamphlet, Wedding Beasts, is forthcoming from Bitter Melon


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