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Featured Story • May 2016

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The Muse

 

Amy Aderman

 
 

Angelica saw the man with the swan’s wing when she was arguing with Ned Clarke about the price of the new paintbrushes she’d been sent to buy. Mr. Clarke was in the middle of a speech about the quality of his wares and had just uttered “carved with only the best knives” about the handles when she saw the man with a swan’s wing in place of his left arm walk by the broad window.

“Done,” Angelica said. She dropped the coins on the counter with one hand and scooped up the paintbrushes with the other. Mr. Clarke continued his speech as she ran out the door.

At first she couldn’t find the man—her eyes had fixed on the wing as the most important detail and not looked so much at the rest of him. But luck was with her for the first time that day: the clumps of other shoppers drifted apart for just one moment and she found the elegant stranger turning onto a side street. She gripped the brushes tightly and pursued, like a bride running with her bouquet to the church.

Her skirt became covered with dust and the hem had a rip in it. The man hadn’t been running and soon it was easy enough to keep him in sight. Then she had the problem of keeping enough distance from him that he wouldn’t notice the panting, disheveled girl following him with a bundle of paintbrushes and her dark hair snaking down her back.

He walked far from the shops. She didn’t dare look at the street signs or try to memorize the route as they progressed, afraid that the man would vanish if she looked away. After all, who knew what talents a person looking like that might possess? She knew she must be lost by now but also knew that she couldn’t return to William without more information.

The shadows were growing longer when the stranger stopped at a faded brick house on the outskirts of the city. A number of tiles on its roof needed replacing. The hedges below the windows were so freshly trimmed that the clippings hadn’t been swept up yet. The man unlocked the front door and entered the tall house without once looking behind him.

Angelica slumped against a lamp post. She might look like a ragamuffin, but the paintbrushes were still in perfect condition and she’d found a subject William would want to paint. Finding a subject, however, did not help her find her way back to the house where she had lived for the past seven months.

The one coin lingering in her pocket had been meant for new stockings but now it paid one of the horse drawn carriages—just enough to take her back to the market district, from where she could find her way home.

William was eating supper when Angelica entered the tiny dining room and laid the paintbrushes on the table. Elizabeth, his wife, was not present; she was likely still composing with her friends on their latest waltz. The two spent so little time together that Angelica had wondered more than once how they’d been able to conceive their brood of children, now grown and living in households of their own. “You’re looking rather bedraggled. Were any boys chasing you today, my fleet-footed Atalanta?”

Angelica resolved to find out who Atalanta was another time. “I saw somebody you’ll want to paint—he has a swan’s wing instead of his left arm.”

“It could have been a cloak; you haven’t seen all of the ridiculous fashions the men wear here yet.”

“I followed him all the way across the city. I’d have seen the difference.”

“Well, now.” William tapped his fingers on the table, one of them landing in a bit of spilled wine. “Can you find him again?”

“Yes.”

“This could be very interesting. By the way, Thomas Barrett stopped by earlier. He would like you to pose for him,” the gray-haired painter said.

“He smells like rotten cheese and pinches like a chicken.”

William looked paternal for a moment before laughing. “I’ve never been in a position to notice Thomas’s pinching hands but you may be right about the rotten cheese. In any case, I’m sure he can find another model.”

* * *

William put off many things but never wasted time when it came to painting. Immediately after breakfast the next morning, he sent Angelica off with money for a carriage, a letter in an envelope only slightly smudged with paint, and instructions to “bring back a thorough description of that person.”

Luck was with her once more: the man himself opened the door of the old house when she knocked.

“Good morning,” Angelica said and gave the smile that had won her rides on wagons and carts almost all the way into the city when she had left the countryside. “I have an invitation for you from my master, the artist William Melow, to tour his studio.” The first version of the letter had simply said, “I wish to paint you” but Elizabeth had made an appearance before falling into bed and suggested that different phrasing might be more fruitful.

The man didn’t take the letter. He wore a dark blue robe with sleeves so long that they hung past his fingertips—or wingtips. Had Angelica not seen his exposed wing yesterday, she would never have suspected it. Then again, had she not seen the wing, she wouldn’t be standing here now, wondering if more of his body was covered with feathers.

“Why would somebody I haven’t met wish me to view his studio?” he asked.

“He has heard that you are an excellent judge of art and might know of somebody who would like to buy one of his paintings.”

“He heard wrong. I do not trade in anything.”

Angelica shrugged. “Either way, you’re the one he told me to deliver this to.” Her arm was growing tired from holding out the envelope and she hoped he would take it soon. When all else failed, exaggerating was always an option. “I’ve been instructed not to return until my task is complete.”

The man smiled. “Is that so? In that case, I’m sorry you weren’t given a better day for your task; it looks like rain.” He stepped back and shut the door.

She stared at the spot where his face had been, too surprised to knock again. Thunder rumbled.

Only a few drops of water had plummeted onto her hat when the door reopened. “You might need this,” the man said and pressed an umbrella into her free hand. Then he vanished back indoors.

“You want to hurry this along, girl?” the driver yelled from the road. “I’ll catch my death out here!”

“You’re being paid, aren’t you? Wait in the carriage if you’re scared of a little water,” she yelled back. Her cheeks burned but she planted her feet and unfurled the dusty umbrella.

The downpour began.

The letter and everything from her waist up remained dry, but the rain splashed off of the flagstones so hard that her skirts were soon soaked through. She was wondering just how long the carriage driver would wait when the door opened for the third time.

“Would you really stand here all day until I took it?” the man asked.

Angelica raised her chin and stared into his light brown eyes. “I’ve had harder duties.”

An expression she couldn’t name came over his face. “Why does your artist really want to see me?”

“Do whatever you must in order to convince him,” William had said.

So much for a tactful letter. “He wants to paint you,” Angelica said.

“And if I do not wish to be painted?”

She shrugged.

He reached out and plucked the envelope from her grasp, his hands still covered by the robe’s long sleeves. “I’ll stop by for the umbrella later. I make no other promises.”

She ran to the carriage and woke up the driver.

* * *

Five days passed before the swan-man walked into the studio. William half-heartedly painted Angelica, who stood before him in draperies meant to evoke a priestess about to receive a vision. But no visions appeared to be visiting William, who frowned, and muttered to himself, and stared at the canvas for a long time between brush strokes. She was getting up her nerve to ask if she might take a rest when Elizabeth stepped into the room, holding a packet of sheet music, and announced, “Mr. Josef Arnim is here to see you.”

The swan-man entered.

This time he wore a shirt without any sleeves. Angelica felt like a gawky country girl again as she couldn’t help staring. Nobody in the city ever went about with bared arms, even the laborers at the docks. His white feathers looked even brighter next to the dark red fabric.

William was looking at him too, but not wide-eyed staring. Angelica could tell the artist was already thinking about how he would put the unusual man into a painting.

“I am here to retrieve my umbrella,” Mr. Arnim said.

“Of course. Angelica, please fetch Mr. Arnim’s umbrella.” William smiled as he spoke.

Angelica had to hitch up her draperies to avoid tripping on the heavy fabric. When she handed the umbrella to him, he said, “I hope you did not take a cold.”

She shook her head. William was demanding but not unappreciative: she had spent the rest of the day snuggled on the studio’s sofa with a quilted robe on and blankets draped over her while Elizabeth brought in hot drinks, scolding her husband and convinced that Angelica would catch some sort of fever. She practiced her reading with a well-worn book that contained a story about Atalanta. Thomas Barrett made an appearance but luckily for her, he didn’t have any golden apples to be used as a temptation. She went limp among her blankets and pillows, and sniffled and snuffled until she knew her face must be an unbecoming shade of blotchy red. He retreated hastily. When William returned from seeing him out, he had laughed so hard he could not speak for several minutes.

“Good.” Mr. Arnim turned to William. “Why do you want to paint me?”

It wasn’t that William completely lacked tact, but that his passion for art was stronger than anything else. “I have never seen anybody who looks like you,” he said. “You would be a wonderful subject. So often we use our imaginations to make paintings more interesting but your appearance is more interesting than anything I can dream of.”

Mr. Arnim looked at him for a little while before speaking. “I have been to many cities and countries since I became…like this. In all of them, the first thing I do is spend a little time in public exposed. Nobody dares to say anything in this city. I do not know if they are stricken by terror of being rude or if they think that what I am is so impossible that they do not really see me. They are as quiet as if they’d taken a vow of silence. You and your assistant are the only ones to do anything at all, and nobody has asked to paint me since my travels began. What would you do with the painting after it was finished?”

William shrugged. “That can be your choice. If you wish, it can go in a gallery, or you can sell it, or I can keep it, or you can shut it away in a trunk for the rest of your life. All I want to do is create it.”

Mr. Arnim looked at Angelica once again. “You stood in a rainstorm, just so I would accept your message. I’ve only ever known one other person who was as strong-willed, and I have not seen her in a very long time.”

Angelica didn’t answer. What could you possibly say when somebody told you something like that?

“I will return tomorrow and you may begin to paint me then, if it is satisfactory to you.”

“That will be perfect,” William said.

“I never expect anything to be perfect. What would you like me to wear?” He glanced dubiously at the enormous trunk of costumes that stood in one corner of the room.

“Oh no, nothing like that,” William said, following his gaze. “I wish to paint you as you are. Wear anything you please, so long as it is not white.”

Mr. Arnim nodded. “Tomorrow, then.”

“Well, well, well,” William said once the swan-man left the studio and was safely out of hearing. He smiled triumphantly at Angelica. “Back to your pose. We have a lot to do before tomorrow morning.”

* * *

Angelica was cleaning paintbrushes alone in the studio when Josef Arnim returned. This time he wore a shirt like the one she had seen on him that first day that left his wing bare and clothed his human arm in a tight sleeve. He had honored William’s request by dressing in black. She let out a hiccup of laughter before she could stop herself.

He granted her a small smile. “Do you think your master will object?”

“He has a good sense of humor,” Angelica promised. “He’ll be here soon; he had to talk with his wife about a performance she’s giving next month.”

“A musician. I remember being a musician, once.” He cleared his throat. “What of you? What brought you to serve an artist in this city?”

Angelica set down the brushes and looked him in the eye. “I thought I’d become a dashing artist’s model and muse, and that he’d make me his mistress and I’d get to wear velvet every day for the rest of my life.”

It was the first time he’d laughed. “And now?”

“I’m not ‘ethereal’ enough to be a muse. There’s not much point in being somebody’s mistress when out of all the artists I’ve met so far, the ones who are halfway decent are either happily married, too poor to buy velvet, or more interested in pretty boys than pretty girls.”

“And being a model?”

She shrugged. “It’s better than milking cows all my life.”

“Don’t you want to be a painter yourself?”

“One of William’s sons told me about the time he painted a merchant’s daughter with snakes for a necklace and tying up her hair. They ate potato soup and stale bread for a long time before anybody else would commission a portrait. If I wanted to eat that, I would have stayed at home.”

“But what if that happens again and he cannot afford to pay you?” Mr. Arnim asked.

“It’s been years since anything like that happened. And if it did, there are other artists I could go to. It’s much easier to find work in a city.”

“I admire your practicality. It would be better if more people thought ahead like you.”

She looked suspiciously at him but he didn’t appear to be teasing. Then William entered the studio. Angelica stayed out of the way as the painter arranged his canvas and paints, and placed Mr. Arnim in just the right spot so that the morning sunlight streaked across his face and torso. William simply had him stand still and look out one of the windows. Sometimes he began his work in fits and starts, but this time he painted confidently from the beginning.

It was over a half-hour later when Mr. Arnim asked, “Are we expected to remain silent as monks when you are working?”

“If you would prefer to talk, you may,” William said. “Stretch a little and move as well if you like. I had meant to give you a rest sooner.”

“I had my portrait painted once before, when I was very young. This is much easier than standing still as a little boy when all of your brothers are fidgeting as well.”

“How many of you are there?”

“I have eleven brothers and a sister, who is the only one younger than me.”

“That sounds like a lot of children to take care of.”

Angelica smiled. She had five siblings herself, and with cousins and nieces and nephews always coming and going, it wasn’t difficult to gather a total of thirteen children on her family’s farm.

“Our father thought so as well. After our mother died, he soon remarried. Our stepmother didn’t take it very well when she realized that being married to a rich man couldn’t entirely make up for going from no children to thirteen all in one day. My sister was banished to our stepmother’s cousins early on, and it wasn’t too long after that before our stepmother turned my brothers and me into swans.”

“That seems like a rather old-fashioned way of dealing with people you don’t like. I haven’t heard of anybody being enchanted like that for centuries,” William said.

Mr. Arnim made a face. “I have no idea where she found that spell. And I still can’t decide whether she did it because she hated us or because she simply wanted some peace and quiet. You’d think it would have been easier for her to send all of us away to school.”

The gray-haired painter shook his head in bemusement. “It all sounds like something out of a children’s tale.”

Angelica remembered a traveling salesman had laid a curse that turned all of the bread in the house bright blue when her mother wouldn’t buy anything from him, but that had only been a small spell. The next batch of bread came out normal and the blue stains eventually washed off of their hands.

“I can promise you, it was no bedtime story to us,” Mr. Arnim said.

“I imagine it wasn’t. Are the rest of your brothers now human as well?” William asked.

“They are all completely human, unlike me.” His voice was bitter for a moment, then he breezed on. “We learned that our sister could free us, but she had to make a shirt for each of us out of nettles and she could not speak once until it was done, or we would be swans forever. It was a horrible task, but she did it. Everything would have been all right, but near the end a group of hunters was chasing us and she had to give us the shirts before we were killed for a feast. The spell was broken but one of the sleeves on my shirt was incomplete, and so I shall have this wing for the rest of my life.”

William carefully set his paintbrush down and stared at Mr. Arnim.

He smiled serenely in return.

“Are you possibly exaggerating, just the slightest bit?” William asked.

“I do not have a painter’s imagination,” Mr. Arnim said. “I would never be able to dream up an outlandish story such as this.”

“So you claim,” the painter murmured.

“Did your father find out?” Angelica asked. She had worked at being invisible on the sofa as much as possible once William began to work, but she couldn’t stop herself.

Mr. Arnim nodded. “We sent word once all of us were able to speak again. He was glad that we were alive and well, but our sister had married while she was working on the shirts and our father was mainly interested in playing with his new grandchildren.”

“And your stepmother?”

“I’ve heard she vanished as soon as my sister was able to speak again and told her rich, powerful husband everything.”

Angelica tucked her legs beneath her. “Aren’t you worried she might do something else to you?”

“From what I remember she was very concerned with appearances. It’s likely she was so embarrassed over her failure that she’ll never do anything like that again. I can only hope that she hasn’t met another widowed father.”

* * *

Angelica had never seen William complete a painting so quickly. What usually went on for months, this time went on for barely a couple of weeks. When she asked Elizabeth if this had ever happened before the musician said, “Not since the one he made after our first son was born and he was recovered enough from the shock of being a father to hold a brush.”

In a way, it was one of the simplest paintings Angelica had seen since she came to the city: it had no ancient ruins or people from those old stories all the painters were so fond of. Mr. Arnim was depicted in the studio itself, looking directly out of the painting. Admittedly, William had imagined the studio as being tidier than it was in real life. It was a sunny day in the painting and the light made the model’s feathers as pale as fresh snow. The look on his face was solemn but without any of the bitterness that had flashed across it while speaking of himself and his family. He appeared exactly as he was: a man with a bird’s wing for an arm, who would never be fully human or animal but who had made a space for himself.

“You’re in it, too,” Mr. Arnim said.

“No, I’m not,” Angelica said.

He pointed. At one edge of the canvas was a fold of fabric the same shade of green as the dress she’d been wearing when she’d stood out in the rain, and the toe of one of her worn shoes peeking out from beneath the hem.

“Why did you do that?” she asked.

“It seemed appropriate,” William said.

Angelica felt hot all over. She’d modeled for many paintings since arriving, but she was always turned into somebody else. This was the first time she’d ever been included as herself, even if any strangers seeing it wouldn’t know she was there.

“I wish you had been the painter hired when I was a child,” Mr. Arnim told William. “That artist made all of us appear far too angelic. You would have done a much better job of showing us as real children.”

William smiled. “There are many different ways of depicting a person. Maybe your parents hired that painter to imagine peaceful children.”

“Maybe.”

“As I promised, the painting is yours. What would you like to do?”

“Wrap it up. I’ll take it with me.” Once this task was done, Mr. Arnim tucked the painting under his wing. He wore long sleeves once more and a stranger never would have guessed that there was anything unusual about him. “Thank you. It has been a pleasure.” He left without even a glance back.

* * *

Mr. Arnim approached Angelica two weeks later as she walked home from a modeling session for Rosamund Hedges. “Have you had any more luck at living a life of leisure?” he asked.

Angelica laughed. “I did get to wear velvet, but the dress was tattered so I could appear as though I’d been roaming half-mad across the countryside after my lover was killed in a duel.”

“You seem admirably recovered.”

“This painter keeps her hands to herself, so that helps. What did you do with your painting?” She had sworn to herself to be dignified and not ask, but she couldn’t help it.

If Mr. Arnim was angry at her question, he didn’t show it. “I sent it to my family.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen them in years and it will be good for them to remember what I look like.”

“Wouldn’t that be easier if you were with them?”

“Someday, when my sister and I are ready. The painting will do until then.” He held out his human arm. “May I walk you back home? I’ve been meaning to ask your master’s wife where I can listen to her music.”

She took his arm and together they proceeded through the late afternoon crowds of people walking home to supper, or their children, or their own tales of magic that you would never hear of unless you kept a close watch and asked.

 
 

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Amy Aderman is a librarian living in western New York who is overly fond of fairy tales, research, and tea. Her short stories can be found in Daily Science Fiction and the anthology Ain’t Superstitious. Her first fantasy novel, The Way to Winter, is a retelling of H.C. Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen.

Here’s what she told us about the origin of “The Muse”: “One of the things I enjoy about fairy tales is imagining what takes place after they end. In this case, what happens to the youngest brother from The Wild Swans? Does he go looking for a way to change his swan wing back into a human arm or does he decide to remain as he is? What are things like between him and his sister with a visible reminder that she did not completely break the spell? I also wanted to explore how somebody who didn’t know the brother before everything happened might view him differently.”

 

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