Winifred was eighteen-years-old when she met the love of her life, the monkey-man.
“I would like to paint your portrait.”
On a cool day just like any other, she was bent over a cart, smelling the loaves of bread that were spread before her. She straightened when the voice came from behind her, so close that the warm breath moved the fine hairs on the nape of her neck. “I shouldn’t like to be bothered while I’m choosing breads,” she said dismissively.
The man laughed, a croak of a laugh that made her wonder if he hadn’t laughed in years. “I’ve been watching you from across the street, Miss. You’ve been smelling these breads for ten minutes. If you ask me to wait until you’re finished, I’ll be standing here for the rest of the night.” When she tipped her head again and sniffed a loaf of rye, he said, “Are the breads unsatisfactory?”
The older gentleman, Mr. Harris, who baked and sold the breads, turned around and quivered his fat lip, “Young man, anyone who has ever bought my bread will tell you that it is the best bread in London. It is so fresh that it melts in your mouth.”
There was a thread of a smile in the man’s voice,“My apologies. I didn’t mean any offense, but this lady is taking so long to choose a loaf of bread.”
Winifred picked up a loaf of barley and handed Mr. Harris a fistful of coins. After her bread was wrapped, she said, “I enjoy smelling all of the breads before I choose a loaf. Don’t you ever stop bustling around so that you can simply smell the air?”
She finally looked at the man who wanted to paint her portrait and had to lean her head back to see his face. He might have been handsome had his hazel eyes not been so close together and his mouth a thin, crooked line. A pile of reddish-brown hair spiraled off of the top of his head and had grown so long that the ends curled around the collar of his tattered shirt.
His lips twisted into a smile that showed her a set of crooked teeth, “I’m an artist. Of course I like to slow down and smell the air, just not when all I can smell is manure and people who haven’t bathed in a fortnight.”
She glanced past him, at the muddy street where horses clomped their metal shoes and shook their heads when their drivers cracked whips. A mountainous woman with a babe in her arms hurried down the street, her gelatinous body rolling toward a vendor who had just put his jewelry on sale. She returned her attention to the artist and said, “I don’t wish to have my portrait painted.”
He folded his arms over his chest. His shirt hung loose from his emaciated frame. “You’re an attractive woman. Do you not want to be immortalized? When you’re dead, people will look upon your portrait and wonder if you were a goddess.”
She started walking down the street, but didn’t know where she was going. She hadn’t taken more than a few steps before he called, “You could have a chaperone.”
Turning around, she stared at the artist as he leaned against a brick wall, arms still coiled around his torso. His face was severe and angular, his top lip peeled back from his teeth, his eyelashes flickering. A notch had wrinkled the space between his heavy, apelike eyebrows. The shadows of the building he stood against obscured him from the view of the people meandering around. The artist wasn’t a civilized being who belonged in a London market, shopping for fish and bread, but rather a wild creature that might have been raised by monkeys in a jungle.
She lowered her eyes to the ground. “I haven’t had a chaperone in years.”
Something in his face changed. His mouth twitched and his eyebrows lowered so far that his large eyes nearly disappeared beneath them. “You’re a married woman?”
“I’m a fallen woman,” she said plainly. She didn’t fear the response anymore. “Do you still wish to paint me?”
“Of course,” he barked. “Even more so. Fallen women are more interesting than innocents.” Peeling off of the wall, he stepped deliberately closer to her. Even though he was quite small in stature, the confidence that poured off of him in rivulets made him the size of a god. He lowered his voice, “If you’ve already had a scandal, you have no reason to not let me paint your portrait.”
“Your arrogance is unbecoming,” she said softly, mouth contorting into a grin when he recoiled. “You could be displeasing to me. Are you unaware that most people would find your brash personality disagreeable?”
He choked out a sound that might have been a laugh or indigestion. Pushing out his jaw like a primate, he came closer to her and said, “You think you’re clever, but you haven’t said anything that I haven’t already said. I find myself disagreeable.” For a long moment, they stood together in the middle of the market. People grumbled as they had to break their quick paces to move around them.
“I don’t wish to be remembered,” she told the artist, whose mouth tightened. Now that he was standing before her, she noticed the freckles on his pale skin.
“The portrait will be mine,” he gestured with his hands. Paint stained his long, tapered fingers. “None shall ever see it, except for my own eyes. You won’t be remembered for a long time, for I don’t intend to spend much longer here.”
“You’ll be leaving London soon?” she asked.
After a minute passed, he twisted his mouth into an unconvincing smile. “You’re still not as clever as I am. I won’t be leaving London until I’ve painted your portrait.” He leaned toward her and winked, “Will you be coming to my flat for our first session, or must I follow you to your home and serenade you from outside of your window until you give in?”
She wondered if someone’s entire body could turn red. In that moment, she knew that hers did. “I’m Winifred Palmer,” she said, resenting him for his widening smile. “Do you have a name or shall I refer to you as the artist?”
Winifred was posed on the settee that the artist had moved beneath the large window, the one beautiful feature in his apartment. The window overlooked the street with the vendors and the people that moved like swarms of bugs, scurrying from one cart to the next and devouring everything they could put their hands on. Because she was so high up, Winifred couldn’t hear the buzz of their voices or the clomping shoes of the horses. But when she twisted around, she could look down on them, those people who were more similar to bugs than they would care to admit.
She heard a scrape from another room and turned back around. The apartment walls were littered in portraits that Ettie’s clients had rejected. Ettie would rather be a failed artist, he had told her, than be dishonest, so he captured all of the weak chins and bulbous noses that he saw. This caused many people to flock to other artists who were kind enough to ignore those faults.
Ettie strode back into the room, his eyes tracing the contents of a sheet of paper. Paint blotched his gray shirt. His hair had grown so long that it curled against the nape of his neck.
She had known Ettie for seven weeks, and yet there was still so much of him that was foreign to her.
Ettie placed the letter on the table and rubbed the side of his face. Winifred knew what the letter said, but Ettie told her, anyway. “I have a month to come up with the money or else I lose this place.”
Winifred frowned. “What are you going to do?”
Ettie never planned for anything. “I’m not certain,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll start selling my body.”
He came over to his chair and easel. After sitting down, he lifted the sheet off of the canvas. Winifred readjusted her posture and tipped her head to the side, as she had done every day for the past seven weeks, “When will I get to see it?”
Ettie smirked as he sorted through his paints, “Eventually.”
“Are you being honest?”
He moved his face to the side of the canvas and looked at her, his dark lashes quivering. She wondered if he was pleased with what he saw. She didn’t know why she hoped he would be. “I’m always honest when I paint,” he said, and she looked at the portrait behind his head, a portrait of a woman with beady eyes and a large forehead.
One day Winifred waited an unusually long time for Ettie to emerge from his bedchamber. They had a routine that had never been broken before. Winifred sat on the couch and listened to the clock tick a quarter of an hour away, and then a half hour. After waiting and listening for any movement, she stood and walked toward the closed door that Ettie always came out of.
She pressed her ear to the door and thought she heard something, a soft, raspy breath. Perhaps Ettie had slept late. She backed away and thought that she would leave a note for him to let him know that she had been there, but a muffled groan caused her to hesitate.
A pained grunt burst through the door.
Winifred didn’t hesitate before she flung herself into the room. “Ettie, are you hurt?” she asked. She stumbled backwards when her eyes bounced all over him, every naked inch of his body. He was hollow and ashen, like a body that had been set on fire. His gray skin quivered and his face was puckered as if he had tasted something sour. The crooked object between his thighs was engorged and angry, red skin pulsing, veins jumping, like a piece of boiling meat.
The air was clogged with liquor, so acerbic and rank that it stung to take a single breath. Empty bottles were scattered on the floor, several of them broken into glittering, bloody shards. Ettie suddenly reached out for her, showing her his scraped palms. “Winnie,” he gasped. “Help me.”
Winifred stood on the curb of a street, her bodice rapidly rising and falling. Pushing her thick, golden curls out of her face, she flicked her eyes toward Ettie’s apartment window and imagined him inside, sprawled out on his bed and fisting the heavy weight between his thighs. She had only seen one of those before, and it hadn’t been quite so monstrous. She dug the heels of her hands into her eyes as if she could smother the memory of Ettie’s naked body.
And the alarming way that her body had reacted, the wetness and heat that dripped out of her stomach and pooled in her most secret place.
She started walking away from the apartment, expecting to feel Ettie reach for her hand and wrap it around his elbow. She had come to love the way that he chattered endlessly to her during their walks back to her home, although it had greatly irritated her at first.
There was only one other time that Ettie had made her feel as if she were nothing more than a dish that he wanted to devour. She had always been aware that Ettie was a perverted creature, barking out crude remarks about women’s bodies, offhandedly mentioning his sexual appetite. But there was one day, just a fortnight ago, that Ettie made it clear that he wanted Winifred for more than his artistic gain.
Winifred was propped on the settee by the window, eyeing Ettie, who was behind his easel. He sat like a monkey when he painted, his back hunched and legs folded so that he had to rest his weight on his feet. He was freshly tousled from bed, his curls swept back and his mouth still crusty. “Ettie,” she murmured, watching him move his hands behind the easel. “Where did you come from?”
Ettie glanced up at her and took a deep breath, “Hampshire. Are we talking about our childhoods now?”
“I don’t see why not. We’ve known each other for nearly five weeks.”
The corners of his lips curled. Turning back to the painting, he muttered, “I was born in Hampshire. My father was a lawyer. He sent me to London when I turned nineteen so that I could study medicine. He wanted a doctor in the family.” He put down his brush and reached down for his bottle of liquor. Winifred noticed that his hand trembled as he brought it up to his lips.
“You shouldn’t drink quite as much as you do,” she said quietly, even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about the alcohol. “My father always said that liquor poisons you.”
He smirked, “Love, liquor has already poisoned me. You’re flogging a dead horse. Anyways, I became bored with my classes and found myself enamored with a woman. I stopped attending my lectures so that I could stay in bed and paint her. Well, one thing and the next and the next, she became with child. Word traveled back to my father, who decided that he didn’t want an artist with a child that he couldn’t afford in his family anymore. Now I’m disowned.”
Winifred tried not to flinch away from the fact that another woman had carried Ettie’s baby. She lowered her voice, “What about the woman?”
“Oh,” Ettie took another drink of his liquor. His hand quivered as he set the bottle down. “She miscarried. We parted ways. Mind you, I was going to take care of her if she was to have my child. Because I couldn’t make more than pennies off of the portraits, I started to paint erotic art for old, lonely men who haven’t slept with their wives in more than two decades. After she miscarried, I grew weary of erotic art and gave it up. Now I’m living off of the money I made from the erotic art until something else catches my interest.”
After he made more marks on the canvas, he raised his eyes to her and said, “When we first met, you told me that you were a fallen woman. Why? Do you have no care for your reputation? Do you have no intention of finding a well-bred, wealthy husband? If you go around telling all of your suitors that you’re fallen, none will have you.”
“I’ve no interest in marrying,” she said softly. “I have the ability to take care of myself. I have since I left my home many years ago.”
“When I left, I stole a large sum from my family’s safe. After that depleted, I found small jobs, such as cleaning or mending. I also teach the other poor people who live in my neighboring community how to read. Many of them are illiterate. I’ll admit that I never have enough money to buy new dresses, but I have enough to feed myself and to pay my rent. I would rather keep my independence, no matter the cost, than settle for a marriage with a man who would be condescending to me because of my status.”
Ettie slowly rose from behind his canvas, revealing his paint-splattered chest. His stomach was caved in, his shoulders sunken inward. He came toward her with deliberate motions and his eyes wildly flitting from side to side. Rather than be intimidated, she pushed her chin up. Once he was in front of her, he sat down on his haunches and cupped her small face in his hands. “I don’t give a damn that you’re fallen, no matter what you did,” he muttered, his eyes large and black. “What I wouldn’t give to tear your dress off with my teeth right now.”
For just a moment, he bowed his head toward hers, and she reached around the nape of his neck. And then he was gone, bouncing like a monkey across the room, crouching into his chair. He picked up his liquor as if nothing had happened.
Winifred hurried to her own apartment and locked the door behind her, but still didn’t feel like that was enough of a barrier to keep Ettie out.
Winifred did not return to Ettie’s apartment for the next two weeks. After giving herself some time to forget about what she had seen, she went back to Ettie, who opened the door and leaned his hip against the wall. He had trimmed his hair and shaved the scruffy beard off of his chin. She pursed her lips as a warm feeling spread inside of her. The sensation was foreign to her. A need to be close to someone. To him.
She pressed herself to the front of him. He responded with a sharp intake of air. And then his lips were against hers, brushing lightly, teasing, biting, and she took more of him with a nudge of her mouth. They were moving, stepping backwards, and she closed her eyes and let him lead her. He could have been taking her to another world, where there were no consequences for pleasure and she would wake up knowing that she wouldn’t regret absorbing him into herself.
Some time later, Winifred lay in Ettie’s bed, which was little more than a mattress and a sheet. Blood stained the white cotton that he slept on. Ettie’s arms were curled around her, but suddenly her lover became her uncle. She was a young girl with developing breasts and eyes as round as saucers. The worst part had been the crushing weight of her uncle, whose stomach was distended and neck and face were bloated from the liquor. His sour, wet mouth rubbing against hers. That foreign object, which she now knew intimately, pressing against her pelvis.
One maid or another had come into the room, intending to light the hearth.
After that, Winifred remembered what happened in still images. Scrunching herself into the corner of her bed, trembling so fiercely that the coils screeched. She couldn’t stop trembling. Her breasts were sore. Her face was scratched. She watched her parents from a distance, watched her father urge his staggering brother from the room. Her mother mumbled incoherent noises to Winifred.
Ettie, who was half-dozing, pressed his face into her disheveled hair. He opened one of his eyes, while the other half of his face remained smushed against the pillow. “And you left after that?” he rasped.
“I left that very night,” Winifred murmured. Ettie’s face was relaxed for the first time since she had met him. The wrinkles that marked where he squinted his eyes were clear. His eyebrows were smooth. She pressed her thumb onto his bottom lip and pulled it out, making him look like a monkey. “I don’t want to leave you, Ettie.”
A week before Ettie died, Winifred realized that he would never paint again. Ettie had threatened that he would stop painting before. There were days when he drank too heavily or claimed to be fatigued. Sometimes he wouldn’t come out to greet her, but would rather lock himself inside of his bedchamber, letting the cigar smoke that breathed out of the cracks in the door answer for him.
She had once approached Ettie when he was sulking on the settee, his face squished into a cushion and his mouth drawn into a tight grimace. Kissing the notch between his heavy eyebrows, she had laughed and said, “You should have been an actor, Ettie, for I have never met such a dramatic man.”
The day that Ettie held a paintbrush for the last time was different than the other times that he had merely been searching for sympathy. When she entered his apartment, she found him sitting on the floor, head tucked between his knees, with all of his rejected paintings stacked around him. She didn’t move any closer to him.
After a handful of minutes ticked away, Ettie muttered something she didn’t hear. She hesitantly inched closer to him. “What did you say?” she asked.
“You’re a man now, Ettie.” He pressed his face into his thighs. Even sitting down on the floor, he seemed dangerous to her, as if he could spring up at any moment and attack her. “You’re a grown man, son. You’ll be a great doctor.”
He suddenly barked out a rough sound and shoved the towering portraits in front of him. The wood frames cracked against the glass, creating a cacophony of sound that made Winifred step back. “Ettie,” she said.
Ettie could have forgotten that she was standing in front of him. He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes and sobbed, “You’re a disappointment.” His voice was louder. “You’re a failure. You’ve been leeching off of me. Why would I continue to give an allowance to a son I don’t want? You’re not an artist. Painting won’t make you a living. You’ll be dead by the time you’re thirty.”
Rolling onto his side, Ettie knocked over the rest of his rejected portraits. Each one of them showed the face of someone with flaws. Ettie smothered his face with his hands as he cried. Winifred finally came forward and pushed aside a few of the portraits with her foot. She knelt beside Ettie, who was gasping, mouth pried open like a fish stolen from the water.
She drew his hands away from his face and used the sleeve of her dress to wipe the silvery residue from his cheeks. “Ettie?” she said again. As he gazed up at her, something went out from his face, some necessary thing that had given him life.
He licked the sticky film from his lips and whispered, “I’ll never find anything that will make me permanently happy.”
She had hardly known him for more than a few months, and yet she had to keep herself from flinching. She was just another portrait to Ettie. Picking up one of his paintings, she said, “Doesn’t your art make you happy?”
He laughed and took the painting from her hands. As he looked at it, he curled his lips and threw it aside. “Yes, love. Being rejected again and again by people who are too conceited to admit their flaws gives me the feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile. If my father were still alive, I would travel right away to tell him…” his voice broke off. He bit the side of his hand to keep himself from choking. After he gained his breath back, he said quietly, “Look, Father, at all of the wealth I have earned as an artist. I’ve proven you wrong. I own estates in Wales, Scotland, and France. I have a castle, Papa. I own statues that were carried out of Egyptian pyramids. Would you like to see them?”
Ettie’s body shook as he started to cry again. She coiled her arms around his neck and pulled him against her breast, like the small child that he’d been reduced to. She wanted to tell Ettie that she loved him.
The last time that Winifred came to Ettie’s apartment, he was swinging from the ceiling. Like a monkey, she thought, like the wild animal he’d always been. She wasn’t surprised to see him dangling from a rope. She had accepted it a long time ago, when she realized that Ettie was too dramatic to peacefully fade away.
She closed the door and leaned against it for a few moments, watching his rugged, sunken face. The bulging skin of his neck where the rope had tightened. His limp body, feet nearly scraping the floor. She wasn’t aware that she was crying until a hoarse sound hiccupped from her throat.
She started moving toward Ettie, crunching the glass that had protected all of his rejected portraits. Before she reached his body, she realized that his chair and easel were still sitting across from the settee. As she looked at where he had painted her, month after month, squinting his eyes and chewing on his lip as he glanced between her face and his canvas, her knees softened and she stumbled forward. A terrible noise ruptured from inside of her.
Winifred lowered herself into Ettie’s chair and stared at the white sheet that covered her portrait. Pinned to the sheet was a small scrap of paper written on in his scratchy handwriting. She reached out for the paper, but her hands shook so badly that she couldn’t pick it up and had to bend over to read it.
I’m sorry, Winnie. Your portrait is finished. I was honest when I painted it. I love you.
She glanced back up at his body. It seemed strange that in a matter of seconds, she had Ettie, and now this monkey was all that was left of him. Easing herself out of his chair, she shuffled back over to him and stood with her nose nearly brushing his neck. He didn’t smell like a dead person yet. She wrapped her arms around him, noticing that he was still warm, and thought about the times when they were twined around each other, two insane people who knew how to protect one another.
© Abbey Serena
Bio: Abbey is a senior at Bowling Green State University, studying Creative Writing. She has one upcoming publication in Ofi Press Magazine.