First Place | Fiction Writing Contest
50th New Millennium Award for Fiction
Peter Newall of Odessa, Ukraine for “The Chinese General”
Newall will receive $1,000, an award plaque, and publication both online and in print.
The Chinese General
The first couple of days back on land after a voyage were always difficult for Viktor Krysanov. He had never suffered from seasickness, even when he was a student at the Marine Academy, and the instructors sent the boys out to sea in bad weather to weed out those who couldn’t take it. The old training ships flopped around in the waves like dying fish, and quite a few of his fellow-students turned green and lay on the deck moaning. But the first night out, Krysanov happily wolfed down a couple of extra portions of chicken that others couldn’t face. And since then, in nearly twenty years in the merchant marine, he had not once felt ill at sea, even in the worst weathers.
But every time he returned from a trip, the first forty-eight hours after docking were unpleasant. His ears rang and he felt dizzy. He stumbled on doorsteps, he dropped cutlery at meals and knocked over glasses. It wasn’t until the third day ashore that he felt balanced again. Even then he wasn’t really comfortable. His natural environment was the sea, not the flat, immobile surface of the earth, and whatever he did on land, he couldn’t forget that he was out of his element.
The only exception was when he was painting. He could stand in front of an easel for hours, painstakingly placing paint on canvas until he was satisfied he’d set down something worthwhile. The act of painting completely absorbed him; he would forget even to smoke or drink tea, let alone to eat. He didn’t have any stock subjects, but painted whatever engaged his imagination, although he realized after a time that the one subject he never turned to was the sea.
A stack of paintings leaned against one wall of his flat. This flat was huge by Odessa standards; nearly two hundred square metres. It provided Krysanov with a combined studio and living quarters. Ten years before a speculator had put up a block of apartments along the edge of Shevchenko Park, overlooking the beach, but the financial crisis left most of them unsold. Each flat was a single large undivided room with rough-dressed concrete walls, floor and ceiling. Big plate glass windows along the east wall gave views out over the Black Sea. There was cold running water and a toilet, and electricity if you were prepared to twist some bare wire-ends together. The owner, desperate for some return on his investment, rented them out for two hundred dollars a month.
Krysanov had a flat out in the Malynovsky suburb, and at first he used the seaside apartment as a studio to paint by day and went home at night. But more and more often, caught up in painting, he found himself still at the studio well after midnight. After a while he brought in a mattress so he could rest without going home; a table and chairs followed, and in the end, he camped in the studio four or five days a week. He had separated from his wife three years before, so he had no obligation to go home at all.
He’d been living this way for more than two years now, punctuated every couple of months with voyages as second officer on cargo vessels sailing to Asia or America. That work paid enough – and in dollars – to support him comfortably for the rest of the time. And the longer Krysanov lived and worked in the studio, alone and undisturbed, the better his painting became, he was convinced.
He liked the expansive dimensions of the studio, but the best feature was the aspect. It was on the ninth floor, well above the trees, giving him natural light and wide views out over the water to a far horizon. The Black Sea was a calm and relatively supine sea; it had none of the power or menace of the Atlantic, which when it was in the mood threw around, and sometimes swallowed, big tankers. Nevertheless, the Black Sea had its own moods. It washed the shores of both the old Ottoman Empire and the Slav countries that for centuries had confronted it. Perhaps for that reason it had a strangely dual character, sometimes topped with florid, decorative waves, and sometimes flat, apparently sullen and passive.
The light over the water changed too, but with the seasons. On winter mornings it was a pale lemon fading up to white, while in summer it was a rich blue as soon as the sun came up. While he had never tried to paint the Black Sea itself, he’d tried to capture that light in several paintings.
One evening – it was late October – Krysanov went to an exhibition of Anatoly Yarmolenko’s work. It was in a gallery on Bunin Street, in the old city centre. He was diffident about going, because Anatoly was a part of the Odessa art establishment and, Krysanov sensed, regarded him as something of an upstart. For his part, Krysanov felt the older man simply repeated one or two ideas, and his best work was behind him. He wasn’t sure what attitude to adopt to Anatoly. If he treated him as an equal he was likely to offend him, which might make difficulties given Anatoly’s contacts, but he wasn’t prepared to behave with deference towards him, either. Despite all this, he went. You should be seen there, he told himself, you should take every opportunity to remind this art crowd that you too are a painter.
The usual tedious people were at the opening. Magda Adler, as she now called herself, was queening it over the place. She had been born Olga Sementsova, but changed her name to something sounding German to set herself apart, and to shock; German names were still not popular with Odessans. Without much more than that, by being pushier than anybody else she had become an accepted authority on art in the city.
She was a tall woman with a horse-like jaw who cropped her hair and adopted a deliberately loud voice. Her bony fingers, always holding a cigarette, were adorned with turquoise and silver rings. She wore loose baggy dresses over trousers tucked into boots, and draped several scarves round her long yellow neck. Krysanov would have preferred to avoid Magda, but she was influential in getting painters exhibited in Odessa and in getting their paintings sold. Resigned, he went over and spoke to her. He avoided open flattery, because she was alert to that from aspiring artists, but nevertheless he alluded to her learning in a way he hoped she’d notice. After a few minutes she dismissed him; relieved, Krysanov found the drinks table and got a beer.
He walked round the two rooms of the exhibition, trying to look with an open mind at the works on display. He had to admit Anatoly had taken a fresh approach to color; blocks of maroon and ochre filled the backgrounds to some very vigorous figure painting. A bit too obviously in thrall to Francis Bacon, but strong paintings nevertheless. Two already had red dots under them. He’d better look at the catalogue to see what sort of prices Anatoly was asking.
In the second room he saw the painter standing in front of a big canvas that suggested Ulysses, or perhaps Atlas. He was being interviewed by a local journalist whom Krysanov saw at all these gallery openings; the fellow had round glasses and a wispy beard, and used a microphone cover shaped like a frog in bright green cloth, no doubt to proclaim his bohemian credentials.
Krysanov wasn’t close enough to hear what Anatoly was saying, but he saw a flash, then another; the painter was being photographed for an art magazine or maybe the local newspaper. His lean, clean-shaven face, large dark eyes and high forehead certainly made him look like an artist. Maybe he sells more paintings because of it, thought Krysanov, and perhaps looking like a merchant seaman works against me as a painter. His eye moved to the photographer; a woman wearing a long black topcoat over a white woolen dress, her thick dark hair cut about her face in an angled, Japanese-looking style. Her features were not uncommon for Odessa, but her presentation was; it conveyed both foreignness and elegance.
Among this crowd, some of whom, like odious Gyorgy Salmanov with his cockatoo hair and big blue plastic glasses, were trying so desperately to stand out from the rest, this woman stood out without trying at all. She was going about her work with a smooth professional sureness; at one point she crouched, took a photograph, and stood again all in one graceful connected movement.
At first he was sure he’d never seen her before, but then, with a feeling that made his skin prickle like a rush of nicotine, Krysanov realized who the photographer was: Belya Pregel.
He’d have sworn twenty years ago that he’d know Belya at a glance anywhere. Yet it had taken him two or three minutes to realize that the woman he had spent a whole year of his life desiring, but who had never, except on one drunken night, allowed him the slightest intimacy, was ten paces from him.
He took an immediate step toward her, then hesitated. What was the point? It was twenty years ago, and nothing had come of it then. To speak to her now would only remind him that his youth had passed. Krysanov was about to turn away when Belya looked over at him. Her face was expressionless; Krysanov wondered if he were invisible to her. Then she smiled and raised a hand in a brief but deliberate greeting before turning to take another photograph. Now that he had been recognized, Krysanov had to go and speak to her.
“Hello, Viktor,” she greeted him calmly. She was neither enthusiastic nor cool, merely calm. Nothing in her manner suggested it was twenty years since they’d seen each other. She had been like that when they were students together; impenetrable, imperturbable. Perhaps it was why he had been so crazy about her. The explosive energies of the immediate post-perestroika time, which had stirred all of their group into wild conversations, ecstatic manifestos, complex plans, all infected with some idea of freedom or at least free money, had not seemed to stir her. She had been there, smoking and drinking like the others, taking photographs occasionally, but never leading any discussion, never loud.
Alcohol was the one certainty for everyone in those uncertain times, and once after a particularly heavy night of drinking Krysanov and Belya had ended up together in his bed. They were both so drunk that it was not a success. The next morning she went home on the tram without comment, and his attempts over the next weeks to persuade her to try again met only a faint smile and a refusal. He’d had to accept that she didn’t share his infatuation, and he reluctantly stopped pursuing her.
Now that he heard her voice again, its timbre reminded him sharply, poignantly, of those youthful days. Low-pitched, not husky but warm; if he were to paint her voice, it would be a dark honey color. He said he hadn’t seen her around Odessa for a long time, and she told him she’d been living in St. Petersburg for more than ten years. It wasn’t clear whether she still lived there or whether she had returned to Odessa. She’d been asked by the gallery owner to take some photos. Krysanov nodded. He was listening to Belya speak, but all his attention was concentrated in his eyes, staring at her, drinking her in.
When you meet someone you knew well but haven’t seen for twenty years, it takes a little while to see the face you remember in the face they now present. You have to accept and then look past that face to find the person you knew. But this was the reverse. Krysanov was well aware he had aged, but looking at Belya he felt he must have got old overnight, his youth stolen from him by a spell, because she had not changed at all. She appeared exactly as he last saw her, a young woman at university. Her face was round and slightly pink-cheeked, her forehead broad and pale, her eyebrows soft, her hazel eyes clear. Her only makeup appeared to be a red lipstick; her lips were full, set in smooth flesh without a line. Her throat was white and firm.
Her carefully chosen clothes didn’t disclose her figure, but she had been plump then – he remembered glowingly white round shoulders and thighs in the darkness of his room – and from the shape of her hands and the small dimples at her wrists it seemed she still was.
She didn’t ask him what he thought of the paintings hanging on the walls, but about his own work. “I’m not famous,” he said. “I’m surprised you know that I paint.”
She smiled as she snapped the lens cap back on. “While I’ve been in Petersburg I’ve kept in touch with a few girlfriends. Someone told me you were making good paintings.” Krysanov couldn’t help feeling gratified, although he had no idea who that might have been.
As Belya was packing her camera into its case a man came toward them through the crowd, and from the way Belya half-turned as he approached, Krysanov guessed he was with her. From his face and manner a foreigner – a Pole perhaps, or even a German – he was older than Belya; tallish, wiry, pale-blue eyes, intelligent features, but certainly older; his cropped hair was a crisp white. A bit dry, thought Krysanov. Belya introduced them. The man was indeed a foreigner, an Englishman, and he was Belya’s husband. They had met in Petersburg. He spoke Russian, although with a marked English accent that Krysanov found amusing; it reminded him of the bad guys in Soviet spy films he’d watched as a boy.
The three of them exchanged a few more words, and then the couple moved to leave. Krysanov could not bear to see Belya disappear again so quickly, and for want of anything else to say he invited them to his flat for afternoon tea. He promised to send them the address, and asked Belya for her phone number. It seemed to Krysanov a slightly intimate inquiry, but she looked in her bag for a pen, wrote the number on a slip of card and handed it to him in the impersonal way she might have given it to a driver or an estate agent.
He sent her a message the next day, and within an hour Belya rang back; they would come round for afternoon tea on Friday. Now she had accepted his invitation, Krysanov was not sure he had been wise. He wanted to see Belya, but with her husband present he could hardly speak to her about what they did when they were young, his infatuation with her then, or anything personal at all. But he could not bear to cancel the arrangement either, so he waited for the day with an uncertain impatience.
Friday was a sunny late autumn day with a cold wind blowing, and the pair arrived red-cheeked and laughing. “How lovely to walk through Shevchenko Park again,” Belya said. They had brought a box of chocolates from Gostiny Dvor department store as a gift; she handed it to him smiling.
Krysanov had gone to some trouble over the afternoon tea, and he was pleased that they both took a second cup, although Belya’s husband ate only a forkful of the fruit cake he had bought. It emerged that they’d returned to Odessa intending to stay a month or so, but without any definite departure date. Krysanov found it hard to dislike the husband; well-mannered and attentive to Belya, he didn’t talk about himself at all, but asked Krysanov about the merchant marines, listening attentively to his answers. Belya said very little, just sat upright and drank her cup of tea.
He showed off the views from his windows. The trees had shed almost all their leaves, so the beach could be seen, a broad grey-white ribbon edging the dark blue sea. A man and two women were riding horses at a slow walk along the sand. One of the women dismounted and led her horse into the water, up to the shoulder. The animal shied its head, lifting its muzzle away from the froth of the low, slapping waves.
Krysanov could not prevent himself staring at Belya as she stood beside him at the window, not with the indulgent look you grant an old infatuation, but with the fascination that comes with a new one. He knew perfectly well it was absurd, that she was entirely unavailable to him, but nevertheless her presence, or perhaps some combination of the past and present Belya, overwhelmed him; his heart was actually racing. In a long dark-red dress with an embroidered bodice, it was apparent she was heavier than before, but she walked and sat gracefully. Her hips and shoulders were wide, but rounded and feminine. Her hands and forearms below three-quarter sleeves were smooth and white, and her face, even in the afternoon sunlight filling the studio, really was unlined. She looked at him directly, her hazel eyes meeting his, but he could read absolutely nothing in them; Belya simply looked at him.
And Krysanov understood that this flat look conveyed a very clear message: there is nothing here for you, save friendship with me and my husband if you wish it. He understood, yes, but he decided there was a kind of possession of her he could nevertheless pursue; he could paint her. That was something he could do that her husband could not. And even without touching her, painting a woman was a sensual exercise; Modigliani’s portraits of women were as intimate as any embrace.
But as soon as he decided this, he realized he couldn’t ask Belya to sit for him. His desire to paint her was not something he wanted the Englishman, or even Belya, to know about. It would make him seem adolescent, almost a fan. He could see what would happen. The Englishman would smile and agree to his wife sitting for a portrait; yes, of course, that would be marvelous. Then Krysanov would be under a kind of psychic scrutiny while he painted, feeling that the work had to gain their approval. He would not be able to let the painting disclose any desire, any intimacy, and in the end it would be wooden, worthless. He had to paint her without either of them knowing.
If he could take a few photographs of Belya, he could paint her without a sitting, but he could hardly ask to photograph her without explaining why, and then it would turn out the same. In the table drawer was a pinhole camera he’d bought in Yokohama on his last voyage.
If he could catch a few images of her, it might be enough to paint a portrait.
Belya asked if they could look through the canvases stacked against the walls, and the couple stood side by side, turning frames over one by one. While they did, Krysanov, sitting at the low table, concealed the little plastic camera in his folded hands and took as many shots of Belya as he could. He was afraid they would notice, but his desire to paint her portrait was so strong that he couldn’t put the camera down.
Belya and her husband looked at the paintings in turn, glancing up at each other occasionally. Krysanov remembered parts of each work that had left him dissatisfied, and was sure it was those they were remarking with their glances. He was relieved when they returned to the table. The Englishman said nothing about the paintings, but began to talk about their travels.
They had been to cities that Krysanov knew well, and the three of them exchanged stories of Hong Kong, Osaka and Shanghai. Krysanov mentioned the enormous portraits of the Chinese leadership set up in public places in Beijing; fifteen, twenty metres high, and reproduced in bright acrylic colours in a hyper-realistic style that allowed every medal, every hair to stand out. The most curious thing was that they were painted in a flat two-dimensional form, like icons, and like icons, by this technique they were dehumanized but at the same time became a representation of a greater power.
The conversation was engaging, but throughout it Krysanov could not put aside the idea of painting Belya. He almost wanted the afternoon to end, and the real Belya to leave, so he could start work on his own creation of her, his painting, Krysanov’s Belya.
The sun descended behind a bank of low cloud. Belya shivered, only slightly, but the Englishman immediately got up and retrieved their coats, thanking Krysanov for his hospitality with a circular politeness that sounded very strange in Russian. Krysanov watched Belya as she raised her arms to be helped into her coat, trying to gauge the shape of her body, the geometry of her neck and shoulders and hips.
As Krysanov was walking them to the door the Englishman asked him, almost apologetically, if any of his pictures were for sale. Krysanov said yes, and was there one in particular? “The dervish,” the Englishman said.
Krysanov knew the painting he meant. It was a night landscape. Under a starry purple sky, the tomb of the prophet Daniel stretched out on its rocky hillside, with a huge lion prowling in front of it. The figure of the dervish was smaller and to one side, but he had always considered it the real center of the painting. Indeed, as the painting developed he’d come to see the dervish as himself, the detached, inspired observer who saw more in the tableau than the ordinary eye. The dervish was really a small self-portrait, so it was slightly disconcerting that the Englishman had identified the painting by his figure. “What’s your price for it?” he asked.
Krysanov tried to calculate an answer. He would be pleased to sell the painting, not so much for the money, but so it would be taken to Petersburg, hung, seen by people in their circle. He would have given it to Belya as a gift if she’d asked. On the other hand, he didn’t want her husband thinking he was some wide-eyed amateur, thrilled that anyone would give money for his work. It was difficult, but he had to say something. “A thousand dollars,” he replied. The Englishman glanced at Belya without expression, then back at him. “Agreed,” he said. “If I come over on Monday with the money, can I collect it then? It’s too big to carry away now.” Krysanov said yes, certainly, no problem; the Englishman nodded.
Krysanov had asked for twice what he thought the painting would fetch in Odessa. Now he was not sure if the Englishman had paid too much or he had asked too little. The fellow had an air of quiet confidence that made it difficult to assume he was naïve. Then it occurred to him that Belya might have asked her husband to buy a painting to do him a favor as an emerging artist. He almost ground his teeth thinking of that, but he’d agreed to sell the work, and there it was.
He had managed several surreptitious photographs of Belya, but he’d been so anxious to conceal the camera that the shots were probably blurred, or had missed her altogether. He was resigning himself to painting her from memory when she asked, “Why don’t we take a photo of us together?” She got a small camera from her bag. Krysanov stood it on the table, set to delay, and hurried over to stand next to Belya. She stepped around him so he ended up, uncomfortably, in the centre of the group. The camera whirred and clicked. They parted at the door to the lift, with Belya saying they should have lunch together. They agreed to call each other.
As soon as the lift doors closed Krysanov ran back inside and plugged the memory chip from the pinhole camera into his computer. Expanded to full screen, the photos of Belya he’d sneaked were indeed blurry, but he’d captured her unguarded, smiling widely in one of them – he didn’t remember that – and the shots were lively, real, a good enough basis for a portrait. But to be certain, he got out a pad and a box of charcoal sticks and tried to set down Belya’s likeness there and then.
First he drew her face at different angles; two or three of the sketches seemed to catch the structure he’d stared at. Then, taking a deep breath, he attempted in swift, curving lines to record her body shape, imagining her nude. He drew her full-length, trying to catch how her hips rolled as she walked, how her arm stretched round her breast when she reached for a cup of tea. He had filled half the pad before he stopped. When he stood to stretch his arms and flex his cramped shoulders, black charcoal streaks criss-crossed the front of his white shirt.
That evening an email arrived from Belya with the photo of the three of them attached; it was clear and focused, but there was nothing of her soul in it, and it was no use for the portrait. He deleted it.
The next morning, Saturday, Krysanov began to paint. He projected the best of the snatched photographs of Belya onto a big white screen next to his easel and started on a portrait. Usually he worked with music playing, but this time he found it distracting and quickly turned it off. He painted in silence, the silence of the big concrete box of his studio.
He got down the outline of a conventional head-and-shoulders portrait in three-quarter profile. It wasn’t bad; he’d caught the poise of her face and neck well. He developed it, laying on the oils thickly until he was satisfied he had the texture and depth of her skin right. However, he struggled to capture the expression in her eyes. He was trying to catch that impenetrable, expressionless look she had given him when they sat down to tea on Friday. He made several attempts, but each time he inflected her eyes with something he’d wanted to see in them, but had not been there. By Sunday evening he had a portrait, which was good, but wasn’t Belya. He began to fear that the task might be beyond him. He threw a cloth over the easel and stood for a long time at the window, watching the evening diminish into darkness. Not long after nightfall, a moon, a day or so past full, rose behind the lighthouse and painted a wavy stripe of yellow onto the black water, reaching right up to the beach below him. Looking at this simplicity and beauty, Krysanov despaired of ever painting anything better than second-rate. He drank three or four glasses of vodka before lying down to sleep.
On Monday morning he’d just set up a second canvas when Belya’s husband rang to say he was at the front of the building. Krysanov had forgotten he was coming. Turning the portrait to the wall, he dragged out the dervish painting – how long ago it seemed he’d painted that! – and hurried down in the lift. He handed the big rectangular canvas to the Englishman and took, without opening it, an envelope with money inside. They shook hands and the Englishman turned, the painting held out awkwardly in front of him, toward his car. Krysanov strode back into the lobby in time to catch the lift still on the ground floor; he was impatient to continue. It only occurred to him on re-entering the flat that the man might have expected to be invited in; if he had, he didn’t show a flicker of it. English politeness had its benefits.
Krysanov made a pot of black tea and tried another portrait, in almost full-face, looking past the viewer. It was better than the first. He nearly had the eyes right, and there was a firmness in the throat and shoulders that captured some of her calm solidity. The color was the most difficult. He could not paint her white, like a geisha, but there was no pink that matched her skin tone. It took him some time, layering over a dark base, to achieve an effect he felt satisfactory.
During that week the work took hold of him, and he didn’t leave the studio except to buy food, cigarettes, and tea. He slept there, and he saw paintings in his sleep, not what he had already painted, but aspects of Belya he had yet to get down on canvas. On some mornings he began work as soon as he got up, barefoot, in the t-shirt and shorts he had slept in, and didn’t stop even for tea until a headache told him he had left that too long.
In that time he completed three more portraits. Each was good, imbued with energy and even something of Belya’s very discreet sense of humor. They were better than any portraits he had done before, but half-way through the third he realized that the painting he had to make of Belya was not a portrait, but a full-length nude.
Putting the last portrait aside to dry, he took out the charcoal sketches he’d dashed off on that first evening, caught up in a combination of the real Belya and a twenty-year-old memory of her. He sat down with a cup of tea and studied them. If the nude was going to succeed, he had to begin with those big, robust curves: hip and shoulder and knee and breast. Pinning three or four of the sketches to the edge of a big new canvas, he began work.
On Saturday morning, he woke to hear foghorns booming sadly; they sounded like stranded whales. From the window he saw a dense sea-mist lapping the shore. As he stood looking down on its wet, woolly greyness, the phone rang. Belya’s husband asked if he were free to join them for lunch. He mentioned a restaurant not far from Shevchenko Park and the studio.
Krysanov was tempted to go. He needed a proper meal, and surely it would be better to see Belya than to spend the afternoon by himself smearing colored chemicals onto a piece of stretched cloth. But the Belya already hovering half-emerged on the canvas called to him more strongly than the Belya he would see with her husband for a couple of hours over a polite lunch, and after a brief hesitation he told the Englishman he was working, promised to call back in a few days, and returned to the painting. There would be plenty more chances to see Belya in the flesh anyway; the couple appeared to be in Odessa indefinitely now.
None of the portraits had been wholly satisfying, but the nude was developing beyond anything he could have hoped. He had portrayed Belya half-sitting, half-lying on a green divan. The pose allowed him to capture the wide hips and round thighs, the broad, curving shoulders and the heavy breasts he imagined, rather than remembered. One foot had to be clearly visible; again he had to imagine it, and rendered it chubby, white, rounded but nevertheless sweetly-shaped, like her hands.
The pose was revealing, intimate, but in a strange way not sexual. Perhaps because his infatuation with Belya meant he could not paint her as he might an anonymous model, perhaps because could not forget that she was married; whatever the reason, although her body was exposed the painting was not at all suggestive. Like the living Belya, the painted Belya maintained an inner privacy.
He worked on until the daylight from the big window failed.
That evening he received a message offering him a contract to take a cargo vessel to Haiphong, leaving the day after tomorrow, thirty-five days at sea, good money. Krysanov realized he badly needed to get back to sea; he felt desiccated, like a fish on land. He needed the clean air, the wide sky all around, and most of all the constant movement of an ocean-going vessel. He needed to get his sea-legs again. His blood was stagnating with all this immobility, and his back had become chronically stiff. But not this contract, he decided, two days from now is too soon. Once the Belya painting is finished, then I can go. There are always plenty of contracts on offer.
The next morning a sharp wind was keening round the corner of the building. Autumn had turned into winter. The sky was overcast and the sea steel-grey. Later, a few flecks of snow whirled past the window, but nothing came of them. Krysanov continued to work.
Having caught Belya’s body shape, he had to show the denseness of her flesh. He had finally worked out a palette that really reflected her skin color, from its palest to its darkest. To build up the depth and luminosity he wanted took many layers of paint; it was frustrating; the woman on the canvas was there, but not yet alive.
The work he had put into the portraits helped when it came to realizing her expression. He made her face slightly wider than it really was. It was the only way he could capture her singular placidity, that and her eyes, which he finally caught to his satisfaction.
On Tuesday—Krysanov was pretty sure it was Tuesday—he realized the painting was finished. He stood back from it, wiping his paint-spattered hands on his shirt. There was now a second Belya, a woman on canvas. She had much of the flesh-and-blood Belya about her, but existed in her own right, like a twin. She was very beautiful. And Krysanov was satisfied; at last he had expressed his desire and affection for Belya fittingly. The painting overtook the memory of their drunken, unsuccessful pairing twenty years ago. And it was good, really very good, the best painting he had ever done.
Krysanov spent most of the next two days outside, despite the cold. He walked along the beach, wandered round the port, and sat in the park staring out over the sea. Every time he returned to the studio he stood in front of Belya, each time faintly surprised she was still exactly as he had placed her. He ate a couple of big meals in the Georgian restaurant at the corner of the park, shaslik and chanakhi soup and khatchapuri. On Thursday night he went round to Yurii Pashutin’s flat and sat up until late drinking cognac with Yurii and his chain-smoking wife Iulia. On Friday morning Belya rang, sounding quite cheerful; they were returning to St. Petersburg next week, and they would like to see him before they went if he had any free time. As she was speaking, Krysanov noticed with slight surprise that he felt no distress at the news that Belya was leaving. It was agreed that they would come round for afternoon tea again, on Monday at three.
After he put down the phone, Krysanov stood in front of the picture yet again. The four portraits were propped in a row on the floor under the window, but the nude remained on its easel in the middle of the room. It really was fine, his best work, and the woman in it was alive. Secret, enigmatic, unknowable despite her nakedness, but certainly alive. Her skin was soft and warm. Her breasts would move with her breath if you looked away for a moment. Thick dark hair tumbled to her shoulders; her hazel eyes looked at the viewer with an expression that came from deep within her, but gave no invitation at all. Her pale body was at rest but at the same time, with her shoulders turned and one foot on the floor, ready to move, to get up from the dark green couch, to walk out of the canvas.
And as he looked at the painting, Krysanov realized he could not keep it.
He had created a permanent record of his infatuation for Belya; let’s tell the truth, he said to himself, my love for Belya. But the truth was also that Belya was going back to Petersburg with her husband. To keep a nude painting of her in his flat would be an adolescent’s fantasy. He didn’t want to look forever at a painting of a woman who was another man’s wife, a woman he wanted but could not have.
He could not keep the work, but neither could he sell it. He could not exhibit it in a saleroom; he could not show it to anyone at all. Nobody would believe he had painted it without her posing for him, and he would not allow that to be thought about her when it was not true. The portraits were something else, they were not at all intimate, but the nude could not be shown anywhere.
The only possibility was to give it to Belya, to whom, as he told himself, it really belonged.
But that, he knew at once, was not possible either.
To present Belya, and her husband, with a nude painting of her would embarrass her, and for what? His own narcissism. And the work would not be hung, they would not put a big nude picture of her in their bedroom, and neither would they put it in a place where their guests might see it. The more Krysanov tried to persuade himself he could give his painting to Belya, the more he realized he could not. The nude had to remain concealed, a secret.
On land, to remove any trace of a thing, it had to be destroyed: burned, crushed, dismantled. But the sea, as Krysanov knew, was far more subtle. The ocean doesn’t destroy its secrets, but hides them. Under the surface of the ocean a million secrets are preserved, ships and crews and their cargoes. Cannons and crowns lie down there, marble statues and emperors’ jewels, jars of Falernian wine, crates of Bohemian crystal, containers of German torpedoes, all unseen and unseeable on the ocean floor.
There was after all one way he could make sure Belya had the nude.
He searched through his materials until he found a roller. He mixed up a dense burnt-sienna wash. Standing squarely in front of his Belya, he loaded the roller and spread the wash thickly over the painting until the whole surface was dark brown. When he had finished he let out a deep breath. Then he went out to get something to eat while the canvas dried.
Later that night he put the most spiky, challenging music he had, Sam Rivers’s Fuchsia Swing Song, on the CD player, set it to repeat, turned up as loud as he could – noise was never a problem in this half-empty building – and began to paint.
On Monday they came for afternoon tea. Krysanov felt a suppressed excitement, but managed to act calmly. His conversation sounded stilted to him, but Belya and her husband did not seem to notice. They talked of what they had done over the last fortnight – seen the ballet at the Opera Theatre, driven up to Sofieski Park to see the last of the autumn leaves only to find them all fallen, gone out to Belya’s parents’ dacha.
“But with all of that, do you know what made me feel most at home here?” Belya asked him, smiling. “It was when we went into the Natalka supermarket to buy food on the first night. As soon as I saw the aisles, arranged exactly as they always are here in Odessa, and the local brands, the Ukrainian porridge and vodka and kefir and bread and cheese, ten years vanished, and I felt absolutely as if I’d never left here.”
“You said you felt happy,” said her husband.
“Yes, and I was, but now I am happy to be going back to our home, very happy,” she said, reaching out to touch him on the knee. Then she asked Krysanov if he had any new work, given that he’d been shut away for a fortnight.
“Not a lot,” he said. He had hidden the portraits of her under a blanket in the furthest corner of the room. “I attempted a couple of things but I wasn’t satisfied, so I painted over them. But there is one new work I’d like to show you.” He got up, and took them over to the easel. On it, under a cloth, stood a big rectangular canvas in portrait configuration. He removed the cloth.
It was a picture of a Chinese general, a half-length portrait of a general of the People’s Army, boldly executed in the style he’d spoken about, the style of the giant portraits in Beijing. The general was depicted in his huge cap with a red star, an olive-drab uniform with lavish amounts of braid, delicately detailed gold pips on his epaulets and bars of brightly colored medal ribbons on his broad chest. He was staring with a beneficent gaze at a point above and to one side of the viewer, a point of celestial height. His face radiated calm, energy, inner strength, and humility; it was clear that his was the strength of the people, deployed solely for the people. The colors of the portrait were bright, almost harsh, and the detail meticulous. It was a strikingly good painting.
“It is very fine,” the Englishman said. “I’m glad you like it,” said Krysanov, “because it is my gift to you, to you both.” The Englishman began to protest, but Krysanov held up his hand, smiling. “It will give me a great deal of pleasure if you will accept it,” he said, looking at them in turn. Belya smiled back at him. He wondered if he saw some understanding in her eyes; he wasn’t sure.
They returned to the table and drank some more tea, but the conversation flagged, and it was obvious the visit was at an end. Krysanov wrapped the painting of the Chinese general in an old bedsheet and tied it with string.
At the door of the studio they had the conversation usual at such moments, they had to keep in touch, and why didn’t he visit them in St. Petersburg. Krysanov was certain he would never see Belya again, and he was certain she knew it too.
He went down in the lift with the couple and helped them stand the wrapped painting carefully on the back seat. He shook hands with the Englishman and kissed Belya goodbye. Unaccountably she hugged him tightly and warmly for a long moment. Then she broke the embrace and got in the car. She wound down the passenger window and waved. The Englishman beeped the horn. Krysanov stood in the windswept asphalt of the carpark and watched them drive away.
Well, she has the nude, he said to himself, half out loud. Under that Chinese general she has the nude. It was my best painting, and now it is covered up, but Belya has it.
And in that moment, standing in the carpark, Krysanov understood that in making the painting of Belya, he had done something worthy of her, and of himself. The painting itself didn’t matter now, it had been a means to an end. Making it had freed him from his shame and regret about the past. And even though he had obsessively painted Belya for these last two weeks, indeed painted her nude, he owed her husband nothing; the Chinese General was a very good painting and a generous gift.
The chilly afternoon wind died away. It was evening. A broad wash of dark purple was spreading slowly across the sky from the east.
Krysanov remained standing outside his building, watching the light fail. Maybe what he’d done was stupid, quixotic. Would it have been better to wait for a few months and decide what to do about the nude then? He grinned. Screw that; I’m an artist. Artists do such things; it’s in our nature. And I can paint another as good, whenever I please.
The sky had become almost entirely dark; the lights in the park came on slowly, casting a hazy yellow glow. A sea-mist was drifting in from the waterfront. Feeling suddenly cold, Krysanov went back inside to make a pot of tea.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Newall was born in Sydney, Australia, where he worked as a roadmender, in a dockyard, and as a lawyer. He has also lived in Kyoto, Japan, where he fronted a popular blues band, and in Odessa, Ukraine. He has been published in England, Hong Kong, the USA, and Australia.
The Chinese General
© 2021 Peter Newall