Stirring : A Literary Collection

Rosanne Dingli



Egon Schiele: last days


She can see the hump of my body under the blankets. With my head drawn in under the covers, it is absolutely dark where I lie, although a small spray of gold light specks is visible between my knees. I smell more than I see, in this darkness of my own making. The day is hers.

            She insists, though, on doing things she thinks will please me, like pouring hot coffee into my blue cup. Her scratchings and small movements are all there is of her now. I try to dis-imagine her from the room, so it is once more as shabby and cold as before she came. The blue cup is empty - or perhaps it holds some ashes from the big man’s cigar.

            My brushes and the smell of their turpentine, my last good canvas and the twisted remains of paper are gone, too. I lie here and dismiss them from the room. She says we are more comfortable these days, and I must believe her.

She used the sewing shears to crop my fringe. In the mirror, I checked the details. Her exact work does not match that of past anxiety, which has stroked irregular lines on my forehead above my brow. But my eyes, she says, are less desperate. I can see flecks of green there but they may not be wholly mine.[1][1] They may be the flecks that belong to panic. All I have now is the small shower of light specks through the loose weave of the blanket on my knees. And my own smell: it is so dense and important it seeps through sheets and blankets, through the horsehair mattress. My smell permeates through thickness, through my skin, through her skin, she must think. But she never mentions it. She follows me everywhere and says little.

            All I have now is the thin feeling of folded legs, hinged like the ribs of an accordion. I remember I did not wear my long flannel underwear to bed last night, so my legs are bare, scratched by the jute sheet she takes, on some days, and shakes from the window. It is her sheet. The other one of the pair I have used as a drape on the window, hung from two nails already there. The sun does things with its folds and I paint them as the dead skin of a cadaver on whose parchment remains the sun throws a last reminder of warmth. Thin folds are arms of children reaching for the last wrinkled plums of summer; the legs of their mothers under brown skirts.

            My hands are gripped now between my knees and the blankets over my head protect rather than suffocate. Edith can see the hump my body makes from anywhere in the room. But she does not talk. Whether she thinks I am awake or not she does not offer words. I wait and listen for her footfall. She moves toward the door to the stairs. She gathers her skirt about her so I can imagine spindle legs in orange stockings; an extravagance we can ill-afford but which is somehow so necessary. She says it is. She is weak and feverish, but smooths her own forehead with a dry hand and stifles her sighs. She draws her hair up in a voluminous bunch, lifts her skirt to show the orange stockings and silently, starts her descent downstairs. There she will meet not only the cold and the stiff light of the street, but loud shouts from the butcher and the square head of the woman who sells turnips and pumpkin on the corner. They have no eyes. They see, they apprehend, they look at each other and at us, but they have no eyes. No spheres within those sockets, no globes under those palpebres that I can draw.

            Is she still here? I sense movement in the room. Perhaps it is my own feet shifting in the folds of sheet and brown blanket. My feet are sharp and thin, twisted to the shape of my stiff cheap shoes, piercing the fabric of my socks with sheer insistence. They are cramped and tense, cold. I rub them together to remember whether I do wear socks. It is too cold to feel. She will see my movement under the blanket if she watches my huddled form. Or perhaps I am too small to make a bump on the bed. She may think the bed is empty, that I have gone to look for the big man in town, to smell his cigar and discuss differences once again.

            My hands grip the thin top blanket. My hands are everywhere. I try to grasp them in the vice of my knees but they appear within the darkness of my blanket tent as claws, as fists of fingers which make a mockery of the meaning of peace and sleep. My hands are everywhere. They spring suddenly in front of my eyes from paintings I finished months ago. They appear in sketches of street children; splayed and decaying, gnarled and stressed by the very charcoal used to create them.[2][2]

            If I could see my hands in this darkness that smells of my body, they would be stained with black; black ingrained in creases, pores and minute cuts and scores which the weather makes in my skin. Edith looks at my hands when I paint. She looks softly and curiously at their thick and calcified nails, their grotesque knuckles. Sometimes I am all knuckles.

            If I raise my arms, twist my angled elbows, I could grip the blanket over my head, feel with the heel of my hand the sockets in my face, the bone which protects my rolling eyes. But I lie still until I hear her shift again.

            ‘Egon,’ she said very softly one day. ‘I have cut my hair.’ And I painted her in her dull striped dress, putting in red stripes where there were none, struggling not to give her my hands. Her blouse was white, with an elaborate collar, making her hair appear bright and confusing. I gave her seven buttons, down the front of her tunic. I tried to ignore her shuffling feet, her plump shifting feet in large shoes.[3][3]

            If I cough, she will know I am awake. She has often told me I shift in my sleep, but coughing is a conscious reflex, so she prods me sometimes when I have coughed and urges me softly to look from the window at the sky. I have failed many times to see the sky.

            Dozing sporadically under the covers, waking to hear her shift and shuffle in the room, I feel her fever. The day is long and stifling, even in its extreme cold. I stretch and loll in the bed whose warmth is mine, when it is she who should be resting.

            I raise my head but keep the blanket over my face. She must not see me look at her. I see only her back as she sits hunched over the stove where she must be burning sticks from the sack someone brought yesterday. It is good dry wood. She has a habit of clapping sticks together before passing them through the small black door in the stove, but when I am asleep she makes no noise.

Her back is long and sculptured, like a cello’s. Her neck is that of an adolescent girl’s and a long plait dances into my eyes down the middle of that long sculptured naked back; a back not really hers but mine. Mine, stolen from the girls in the street.

            She winces when I tell her to sit so, or so. I pay models and they comply. None has yet refused to stand before me in the stances and positions I ask. They look at my hands, black with charcoal and streaked with turpentine on the knuckles. They take off their clothes and before they shrug them completely from the shoulders or kick them from their legs I say, ‘Like that: please keep that pose.’ They do not understand the plaintive argument of partial undress.

            One of them smiled once, squatting by the bed with her blouse half over her head. I was transported to the fury I had, the urgency I had, when painting those girls in Krumgau. The sweet necessity of painting Gerti with another face.

            ‘Look at the immense difference,’ Edith says to me sometimes. She means the contrast between the painting of her in the striped dress and the self-portraits. And the pictures of my sister. Gerti. And my hands in the portrait with the red shirt.[4][4] And the distorted tenseness of the figures from the street.

            From the street to my floor. From the light to misery’s penumbra. From contortions of the inner condition to twisted limbs from my pen. Symbols of human existence shining through landscape, bearing light from embryo to cadaver, cadaver to embryo.

            My body is alternately cold and warm. I curl into a crescent and stretch into a bone frame sporadically, spastically; hoping Edith will not see my movement. I hear her coughing softly, scraping back her chair in the silence. I feel her heavy movement. Two glasses tinkle against each other on the dresser as she passes. She is holding the kettle, perhaps, with the big burnt wad we use to hold the poker. She moves along the length of the far wall and I listen for the soft rustle of her skirt and the dribble as she squats over the pot. I too am bursting. I should relieve myself, pass a hot feverish stream of piss. Drink a long, grateful hot draught of water and brandy and lemon.

            She shuffles and sighs. Loudly now. Perhaps she is looking at the hump in the bed my body makes; long and thin, long and thin. I smell more than I see, in the darkness of brown blanket around my head. Warm breath from my nose and mouth makes everything humid and sweat clings to my armpits and the backs of my knees.

            She bumps against the bed and mumbles sorry under her breath. The blankets are pulled gently. She raises them delicately and I close my eyes not to see the slice of light let in behind me. I groan and shift and tighten the ball of my body as if in sleep, but she can tell I am awake.

            ‘Move,’ she says, not as softly now. I feel the heat of fever from her body as she slumps and curls quickly by my side. Fully clothed, she has allowed her body to fall clumsily and join mine in the bed. The blankets stretch between us. She craves my warmth, then shuns it as her temperature rises sharply. She groans again.

            Edith. Red hair and striped dress.

            Still the blanket is over my head. And over hers I think. Perhaps we have both slept a while because it feels dark and cold. No specks of golden light fall between my knees. Their knobbly vice keeps one of my hands in bony check. It is a sacrilege to touch myself now. She lies beside me, a wheeze of uneasy sleep escaping from her throat and onto the back of my neck. I feel the irregular puffs and pauses, I feel her knees shift and come to lie inside the backs of mine.

            The day was hers, but now she lies and struggles to breathe behind me. Still in her orange stockings? My free hand tries to feel but I pull it away and it gropes the blanket edge above my head and pulls it stretched.

            I think incongruously about the unfinished portrait: Otto, and my wonder at his hands, his drawing hands. Whether I shall ever finish it.

            There was a coloured blanket somewhere. A checked one with harlequin squares of colour and light and warmth. Thick folds of little squares of red and blue and green. If only it were thrown over us two now as we lie here in this bed. She raises her knee almost to her chest and curled in comfort, sleeps. But only for a while. The fever in her breast keeps her restless and she shivers now and then with what I feel.

            I smell more than I see. The scent of darkness has enfolded us even on the outside of this brown bed. The stove will run out of wood and night will hold us in its grip, knuckles whitening against the lowered sky. I smell her breath, her fever. If I turned, I could curve my back against the night and hold her heat against me.

            I feel soft wheezes exploding against the back of my neck and she shifts slightly. I feel a shoe against my foot.

            There was a pot of broth on the stove. Perhaps it is still warm. The marrow bones of cows, cleaved and sawn by the man in the alley, whose shouts rouse the neighbourhood, boiled in a mess of vegetables from the woman with the square head. Boiled until the broth was clear and golden like the light. The light?

            The window frames the lantern in the street. I see a glow through the blanket and in one breath, I have escaped the bed and its covers and its smell. I stand unsteadily on the cold floor and the glasses tinkle again on the dresser.

In the stove, embers flicker and I add a pile of sticks to their poor flame. With something over my shoulders I crouch. Coat or rug - it is a dull old grey, but shields my feverish back from the night. I listen to the silence. The street is dead. The city is dead. The butcher and the turnip woman are dead. I crave for a lemon.

            I take a lush branch from a lemon tree. It is laden with blossoms and fruit and the full moon has been cut with it. I swish it and wave it round my head. I lay the leaves on the dead bodies of people in the street; I sweep leaves and sweat from the colour in the night. I curse the fever in my head and crave for hot liquid to course down my throat and fill my head. I fill my eye sockets with my knuckles and fumble for the soup pot. It is half full, but cold as ice.

            I struggle to the bed again and tilt my freezing feet upward, pull the blanket gently over my shoulder, stretch the jute sheet over my face. And down again under my chin.

            Edith is still. Her face is half lit by the lantern outside the window. Long as the room, the look from her eyes stretches over my head and I search for what she is looking at, in the light from the street lantern. The whites of her eyes are phosphorescent, livid, and her brow over them is raised in fever and surprise.

            I turn to look at what has caught her gaze. My stare tunnels into cold darkness and without blinking, I look at flecks and specks created by the pumping of my own fever. I see hollowed eyes and the scraping of lemon leaves over bodies and bumps. The world is dead. Edith is still and cold. I dare not turn and feel inside her neck for a pulse.

[1][1] Portrait of the artist (A.P. von Gutersloh) 1918    Egon Schiele. Black crayon. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

 [1][2] Three Street Urchins 1919    Egon Schiele. Pencil drawing. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna 


[3][3] Edith Schiele, Standing 1915    Egon Schiele. Oil on Canvas. Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague 

[4][4] Self-Portrait with red shirt 1914    Egon Schiele. Pencil and opaque colours on paper. Sammlung Hans Dichand,     Vienna.

Date of Birth: October, 1953
Location: Perth, Western Australia
Publications: Stirring V2:E12
Books: "Death in Malta," "Counting Churches - The Malta Stories" (Due out April 2001), "Dust Gathered in an Afternoon" (Due out May 2001)
Awards: The Patricia Hackett Prize, The Springvale Award, The Lyndal Hadow FAWWA Award

Stirring : A Literary Collection

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