Milan Smith

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The Beginning and the End
short fiction by Milan Smith

     Sara loved the flesh of men, and was one of those who could easily pluck a man from the arms of his lover, keep him a night or a week, drive him mad with passion, and carelessly break him before sending him home. Because she was insatiable, and thoughtless, those who knew her called her a vampire. But she didn't care what others thought, and had enough money that she didn't have to. 
     Sara was also an artist, and would paint her lovers if she kept them overnight. With long, slow strokes she'd slather thick layers of paint on the canvas, often pushing the paint with her fingers, drawn to the smooth feel of the oils and the rough touch of canvas. Her works were always of nude men lying in the golden sun of morning, fresh from sleep. When she finished each piece, she'd send the man away. The paintings sold well, for the defeat in the eyes of her men haunted buyers, and she grew a reputation for painting broken souls in beautiful bodies.
     Then, after 50, with time withering her looks and the men less willing, Sara no longer left home. She continued to paint from memory those boys and men she'd once seduced, but over time her vision turned inward, and she began to paint other things. At first, her own body, now drying up and wrinkling. Other times just her face, and in her eyes, the fear that started to grow.
     As time passed Sara's hair turned gray and her breasts sagged, and she no longer noticed. Sometimes she sat naked and painted her body as it fell apart. One day Sara looked in the mirror and saw that she was truly old, so she no longer looked, and then painted only her own thoughts. Her paintings now became abstract, dizzying streaks of red and yellow and blue, in arcs and splotches, and the brush strokes grew heavier. By this time she was already looking for something specific, but she didn't know what, or how to find it. 
     During this first period years passed, and though flesh had been her great passion in youth, those years were now memories, and she found that she no longer missed that time of her life, and wondered why she'd ever allowed herself such turmoil. She focused ever more on the paintings, giving up her few distractions until all she had was that. So, her poinsettias and geraniums died from neglect, and the cat cried so loudly from hunger that she let it out and never saw it again.
     At the door, as the cat sprinted away, she stood briefly to let the sun fall on her face, to warm her stiff skin. A young man walked past on the road, he was dark and tall, and a few fleeting memories of her earlier days crossed her mind, when she was young and desirable, when she would rush through the grassy field behind her house and soak up the sun, or lay lazy between the sheets and listen to the breathing of some new lover. It all seemed so long ago, and now, such a waste of time. She stepped back inside and never looked out again . 
     Because she now worked day and night, the changing light from outside distracted her and she pulled all the shades and used a single bulb to paint by, and so thick shadows filled the house. The air began to smell musty and lay cool on the skin. She rarely left her chair by the easel except to eat once-a-day the food left by a delivery service, and to lie upon the couch a few hours each night. Her paintings grew darker, the bright colors became grays and browns and violets, and the streaks and arcs became fields of color that bumped and pushed each other across the canvas, while the brush strokes thinned and became almost invisible. Still, Sara didn't find what she was looking for, but each day she got closer. 
     Eventually, Sara felt her heart flutter from time-to-time, usually in the mornings, and she knew the end was near. She painted more furiously than ever. Everything she painted now was a failure, and she'd paint over her old canvases a thick layer of black paint, and start again. When the layers got too thick, she'd scrape them and try again, and soon a pile of flaked paint lay at her feet, which she ignored. Everything she painted was black and gray now, only those two colors, and the fields of color became two extremes that melted into one another in the middle, so where one color began and the other ended was impossible to tell. Her hands grew stiff, and she worried she wouldn't have time to finish. She painted now in fear, over and over, her paintings growing darker and darker. She knew what she wanted, she could see it, and the title was now in her mind, "The Beginning and the End." 
     Scraping became painful, her joints screamed when she moved, her back ached when she sat before the easel too long. But she knew she was close, close, and she was afraid she'd die before she found it. She knew she was old now, far older than she ever thought possible in her youth, but she'd forgotten her age, and didn't care to remember. For now, all life was the painting. And then one day she had it, her vision, and she found it by accident.
     She'd once again scraped the canvas of its top layers, then had painted upon it another layer of thick black paint, many layers, and smoothed the surface until there were no ridges, bumps or contours of any sort, just a black field on canvas. She turned and mixed her paints, the grays and blacks, and when she looked back, she quickly saw that she had it, that this is what she'd wanted, her vision of everything – simple, plain blackness. 
     She dropped the paints and stared for many minutes, at first to be certain this was it, then to admire what she'd worked on for so long, to reflect upon her triumph.
     All those hours spent painting her lovers had left her nothing that pleased her so much. A lifetime of work for this, and she wondered why it took so long. Her life was complete now, and that awed her, that sense of being truly through with it all. She was done. Sara signed the painting, hobbled to the couch, and died in her sleep content

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