Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Voices - The Icon

My copy of the Fall Issue of Voices arrived in the mail today, included inside is my short story, The Icon, one of the oldest in my collection - written in 1993, back when my experiences working in Romania were still very fresh.

In case you're wondering why I'm receiving the Fall issue in January, it's due to a clerical error - my name went missing from the mailing list, and it slipped my mind until the editor put out a call for submissions for the Spring issue. It means that I missed the launch, and the chance to do another reading, too. Oh well, c'est le geurre.

So, nine short stories published in 2013, and I think that's all the more remarkable because I stopped submitting back in April, so that I could concentrate on writing my next novel. Sorry, I couldn't resist a little boast.

If you care to read The Icon, I've attached it below. It's not very long, only 2000 words. You could have it finished before your first cup of coffee.

                                 THE ICON

                                                                                                CW Lovatt - May 30, 1993

She peers at herself in the dressing table mirror, little crinkles in the corners of her eyes as the sides of her mouth pull into a critical frown. A gown of snow white satin accents the slimness of her waist before sweeping to the floor in a virginal cascade. Shoulders bare, a string of pearls loop around her neck, highlighting its graceful reach, before descending to her breasts.
On the dressing table (a Louis Quatorze) are amassed phials and decanters of perfumes, lotions and powders. Had she been asked, she supposed that she would have approved of the gentility they infused, but it would have been with an aristocrat's surprised air; for certainly, such things were to be taken for granted.
She observed her reflection: the brow, high and powdered, knit in perusal; the vivid blue eyes painted with brushings of mascara, accenting their allure; the cheekbones (high, proud and rouged) together with the nose (long, powdered, and arrogant) created a satisfactorily haughty expression, she decided, before her inspection descended to her mouth.
It was a broad mouth, the lips full, but the aforementioned corners still drawn, not quite ready to pronounce approval. They were painted a bold ruby-red, the bottom one pouting in the most refined, practiced way so that when a man looked at her his eyes would not see that pout, but his heart . . . ah, but his heart would feel!
One eye narrowed into a contemplative slit; she decided that the lips would need more paint after all.
It was a risky business of course, putting on one's face. Too little and you entered the ball as a wet hen, dowdy and unforgivably dull; too much and you would be the talk of Society, the Count's scarlet woman.
One corner of that patrician mouth finally pursed upward, turning into a lazy grin as she reached for the golden cylinder of lip-gloss.
On second thought, let Society talk. Was she not the Countess; and what did a countess care for such things?
The answer, of course, was proud and simple . . . nothing.

Yet, even as she dipped the tiny brush into the phial, a frightened voice inside her head bid her to hurry. A brief moment later, it warned her that it was already too late.
A foreboding crept over her as black spots began to materialize in the mirror, dissolving her reflection, one grain at a time.
"No!" she moaned, reluctant to leave, but she continued to wither, the black dots to expand, and the grains in the mirror to spread ever deeper with each passing moment.
"No, please. No!"

Still the dots continued to grow until her vision was filled with their black nothingness, as they united to form one solid field. Then, once assured of victory, the darkness began fading into grey.
As a final betrayal she opened her eyes, breaching her last defense, allowing in the morning and a heavy yoke of reality to settle around her heart.
The dream slipped from her mind like sand through her fingers, and as she unconsciously drew the last vestiges of warmth from its waning aura, she simultaneously prepared herself for the numbing shock when she flung the single blanket aside.
She sat up, breath fogging the air. A threadbare shawl lay on the floor beside the pallet. Shivering, she picked it up and hugged it around her shoulders, trying to ward away the chill, even as it sank ever deeper inside her. With a rueful sigh, she remembered that there was no wood for the fire.
Still the cold cleared her mind, and as she willed herself to keep from shivering, the guttural, arrhythmic sound of snoring caused her to turn her head to the unkempt form sprawled beside her, completing the transformation from her dream.
He had been drinking last night, but then he drank almost every night. She wished he wouldn't, yet lacked the will to protest.
History had taught her that it would not be wise to.
He worked hard, he insisted, and who was she to begrudge his relaxation? He usually said this while standing over her, weaving unsteadily, as his eyes narrowed to dangerous slits.
If ever she replied, it was guarded with apprehension, because when his eyes narrowed like that, his fists were seldom far behind.
She raised an icy hand to her face, gently touching her cheek. Her wince was resigned as her fingers came into contact with the bruise.
 He hadn't been so bad last night. God would agree with her that there were times when the beatings had been far, far worse. There were times when she had crawled, battered and bleeding, into a corner of their single room, praying for the drink to carry him off into sleep. There were times when she had woken on the cold, hard floor, with just the dimmest memories of how he had battered her unconscious. There had been broken bones and sprains; there had been eyes blackened and teeth hammered from her head - cuts and bruises beyond counting; but she knew the fault was hers, that somehow she had done something wrong. In the night, after she had fed Luca, and sang him to sleep, she would get down on her knees and pray before the icon of the Heavenly Child, and beg Him to guide her, to help her to be a better wife and mother.
Surely God was good. Surely one day He would hear her prayer.

No, last night had not been so bad. True, he had been drinking, and true, he had hit her when she was slow to heat his soup, but had used only the flat of his hand.
She supposed that it was no more than what was right. A man must drink; how else was he to prove that he was a man? Once more she resolved to anticipate her husband, as only a good wife should.
Later he had almost been kind. Perhaps he had been rough; perhaps he had even hurt her more; but while she lay on their pallet with him on top, panting fumes into her face, he had used her the way she supposed that God had intended a wife to be used.
No, last night had not been so bad.

Perhaps, and her eyes now fluttered hopefully to the icon on the wall, perhaps God would be kind enough to give her another child. Countless times in the past she had conceived, and countless times miscarried, mostly, if the truth were to be told, from the beatings. Yet her husband was a man, and a man must work his will; and through him, the will of the god who denied her those children; but still she prayed, so far, to no avail.
For her there had been Luca, and only Luca.

While she sat, shivering on the edge of her pallet, she looked and could see in the morning's gloom his sleep-tousled head, just visible above his blanket. The sharp, deep ache of love filled her heart, and she willed it across the room to her son.
Ah, with Luca, God had indeed been kind! He was a good boy and loved his mother; but he was three months past his tenth year now, and the times that he wished to spend cuddled in the womb of her arms were less and less these days.
She sighed this thought away, and got up from the pallet. Soon her men would be awake, demanding their breakfast.
From long habit she went through an inventory in her mind as she managed a painful shuffle to the lone cupboard in the corner of the room; the insides of her thighs were bruised and chafed reminders of the night. She winced the soreness away, and stood before the cupboard, weathered arms crossed over shriveled breasts.
There was goat's cheese, and some pig fat as well. The soup was all gone, but there was still a wrinkled tomato at the back of the shelf. The end of a stale loaf of bread, scarcely more than a crust, would round it off. She frowned and nodded - a gesture more inward than visible - it would have to do.
Later she would go to the market, and if God was good, she would be able to gather wood along the way so that she would have enough for her fire, and enough to sell to pay for the food. If she was not so lucky she would beg on the street…and if she still lacked the money…
She chased the thought away with an impatient twitch of her head.
Of course it would be all right. She had managed so far, had she not? Was God not good? Was He not kind?
Her husband might lack perfection, but what of it? So what if he drank? So what if he beat her? So what if she knelt in front of the icon many nights, waiting for him to return, praying that a vagabond would fall upon him and kill him along the way? Afterwards, had she not always groveled before the Christ Child, filled with horror, and begged forgiveness for such evil thoughts? If anyone was wicked it was her.
Wearily, she tried to ward away this thought also, but without effect; instead, like a cancer, the old memory returned.
Yes, it was she who was wicked, not her husband.
A cracked mirror hung on the wall beside the cupboard. She gazed into its marred surface, and was not deluded that her reflection was due solely to the imperfections in the glass. The last cherished memories of her dream slowly twisted into a cruel taunt.
She was not yet thirty, but already old and withered beyond those years.
Yet she had not always looked this way. Once she had been beautiful, once, many years ago; during the time when she had been weak…

Hard days had come, with no wood to gather, and nothing to be begged for on the street.
Had it been for one day, or had it been more? Her memory refused to recall; but there had been a man, a rich man with dark curls, who flashed a smile filled with strong white teeth and had golden rings on his fingers, and a beautiful, warm coat of sheepskin. He had been willing to pay, enough for food and firewood for an entire week.
Eleven years ago, it had been.
She studied her son while he slept, but instead of his angelic face, she now only saw that of the wealthy stranger – the face of sin.
She had been so hungry.

              Graceless, she fell to the floor, her hands clasped under her chin while, yet again, her eyes sought the icon on the wall.
            "Forgive me!” she implored, whispering, “Forgive me! I was hungry! Doesn't it matter that I was hungry?" Unnoticed, a single tear crept down the weathered crevices of her cheek, eventually coming to nestle in the trembling corner of her mouth.
              But on this point, also, God remained silent.
                                    The End




  1. Wow. I'm floored by this short story, Chuck. It's moving and powerful. It says so very much. You paint a vivid picture of domestic violence in a simple scene. Thank you for writing this.

    1. I'm glad you like it, Lollie. It's soooo rewarding when someone gets what I'm trying to say.