A comet of weak nebulosity, without a tail,
was found in the constellation of Aries,
moving toward the northeast
―Apparition of 1847
They found me there like a dead thing washed up on the beach
They found me and thought I was a corpse with skeletal wings
They wrapped me up in tissue-paper arms and carried me out of the sea
There I began
So now I am born
Stillborn … but alive
They look at me cautiously as though I might break under closer scrutiny
They speak to me silently as though sound might shatter me
I am mute and deaf and empty
I don’t remember why I am all of these things
I am broken and tangled and distraught
I am mostly empty
I am exhausted
And so my story begins…
The white of the skin was unbearable. A translucent Venetian Ceruse tainted with ageing platinum grey. It was stretched too tight around her sinew and bone. He could almost see through it.
With apparent care, he squeezed a fertile tube. The small worm, vermiculous, crawled into being. It was born neither opaque nor heavy―yielding an appropriately cold and beautiful white.
He brushed it onto a canvas. He applied the pigment, pure and naked, to the outline of her face which had been sealed, unbreathing, beneath a milky velatura.
I am embalming her, he mused.
Her cheeks were like damaged nacre, slightly chipped and peeling. Her eye whites were lightly iridescent and creamy. She had brow-less, alabaster temples.
‘They’ve taken the wings to Paris.’
His reverie was interrupted.
A faint bell-echo followed Lady Russell into the room. Her soft, metered footsteps tapped staccato against the floor. She walked in plainsong. She was like linen―bleached, gentle, expensive, austere.
She moved to stand beside him. She titled her head to one side, appraising the image.
‘When they found her,’ she referred to the sitter, ‘she was washed up on a beach at Balnakeil Bay.’
‘It’s like she was a grain of sand, lodged in the throat of the sea,’ she said quietly.
Francis was half listening. He considered the qualities of the LeClaire white. It would produce art-skin in glass layers, nuanced with a slight, but necessary, decaying grey.
‘When my husband heard that you were at Burlington, he naturally thought of a portrait. He wanted the artist to have a Gaelic connection I suppose.’
It may be too brittle, he thought. He reached for Cremnitz instead.
‘I’d prefer you didn’t use any lead-based pigment,’ she said. ‘There are children in the house and Lord knows what it would do to the girl.’
She was right. They both looked at the sitter. Painter’s colic would have explained the lack of hair.
‘My husband wrote to Claude Goureau at the Société. He is convinced that the wings are dragonfly wings. How he has time to concern himself with entomology is a mystery to me.’
The Deadly Nightshade, Francis thought, recalling the name that was used by many to describe the lady. Francis was a painter not a botanist. He had looked for the appellation in Flora Londinensi. The illustration showed a pale, purple flower. Atropa belladonna, dead man’s thumb.It produced a drug that caused indecision and delirium. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman.
‘Of course, I was against removing the wings,’ she went on, ‘but that surgeon from the Royal College insisted. The ocean had half torn the wings from her back. He said she was at risk of infection.’
Lady Russell looked out into the garden. From the window, the small flowers of the magnolias rested like infant stars beneath the sun.
Francis hadn’t seen the wings. He had arrived at Pembroke several weeks after they had been removed.
‘They were like mosaics―filmy, tessellated. But colourless,’ she said.
Francis turned his attention back to the sitter. Her body was that of a five or six year old girl. Her face was androgynous and ageless. She sat, swinging her legs, staring at Francis without blinking.
‘Does she speak?’ asked Francis.
‘Not that we’ve heard’.
‘Is she eating? She looks rather emaciated.’
‘She was in the kitchen yesterday. She found the turbot in a pale of brine. The girl drank the salt water from the bucket, lapping at it like a starving dog.’
‘What will you do with her?’
‘We’ll take her to Paris to allow Goureau to examine her. Then I suppose she’ll stay here with us.’
The parlour maids walked around the lady, the painter and the child like silent, white gulls. Over the next few days, they prepared the household for a trip to Dover and the crossing to Calais.
On the Strait of Dover, half way to France, the girl perched herself on the side of the boat. Her fingers, resembling the veins of a soft coral, fanned the wale. She breathed the salt in through her skin.
She slipped over the side.
They thought it best to let her go.
The comet, a naked-eye object, returned.
By October, dust and vapour streamed out from
the nucleus in an arching tail.
The coma was nearly equal to the
apparent width of the moon.
―Apparition of 1919
I am washed up on this wet sand
The ocean tries to erase me with wet strokes of its watery fingers
The sand clings to me as though I am its mother
It sucks at me and surrounds me
Ten million grains of wanting, starving sand
I am exhausted
I let the sand cover me until the next wave regurgitates us
A vomiting ocean casts me out
A delirious beach licks my skin
I begin to remember I once had a memory…
Johannes Janssen, walking beside great water-veins of Holland, became infatuated with the pale green Banded Demoiselle. He would take long, winding walks along muddy canals, searching for metallic comets in vivid emerald and bitter bronze.
The demoiselle was shielded by sparkling chartreuse armour, her tessellated wings sounded like lime and smelled like violins. He, on the other hand, was grey and salty. He lacked the strength to fish the North Sea. He had farewelled the drizzling day-sails in Den Helder’s service.
He now spent his time watching the canals as they coaxed water from Marsdiep, drawing it into the heart of the Netherlands, and draining it out again. The stubbornness of that land! It refused to give up and be drowned.
For Jannssen the time was coming when he would finally submit to the floods.
In late October, he decided to say his farewells. He went down to Amsterdam to see his sister, Jannetje. Her house was framed in crocheted curtains, the walls studded with Delfts Blauw.
She didn’t comprehend the nature of his visit. They talked about the war and the start ofKoninklijke Luchtvaart Maatchappij. She prepared smoked eel and hutspot. They dug small wells in the potato, filling them with butter―small salty pools of gezellic.
They travelled together to the library of the Nederlandse Entomologische Vereniging and spent hours flicking through books while dissolving zwart wit-poeder beneath their tongues.
Jannetje found a volume on damselflies.
‘Damselflies begin life as acquatic nymphs. The nymphs resemble adults but have no wings or reproductive organs. They are carnivorous, feeding off small aquatic organisms. The nymphs have fin-like gills. They moult several times until they transform into adults’.
She read silently for a while and then continued.
‘Listen to this Johannes,’ she said, ‘the Muséum National d’Historie Naturelle, Paris, has in its collection the largest pair of wings believed to belong to an insect in the order Odonata, suborder Zygoptera.’
‘The wings were donated to the museum from the estate of John Russell, 1st Earl of Russell, upon his death in 1878. It is unclear how the wings came to be in the Russell family’s possession.’
‘The wings, which are badly damaged, measure approximately 12 inches in length. The host insect has never been identified and there is still controversy about whether the wings are a hoax.’
Janssen took the book and squinted at the page. An artist’s reproduction showed a pair of wings. Cracks splintered through the transparent plates as if someone had carelessly dropped two slices of crisp, cold water.
‘Jannetje,’ he said, ‘I must be getting back. I promised myself I would spend a few days in Den Helder before winter.’ She smiled and nodded. They said their goodbyes. He took the steam train north, travelling straight from Amsterdam Centraal to Den Helder station―the terminus station.
It was evening when he arrived. It was a cold and clear night, the moon almost full. He put on his wool coat and scarf and walked from the station to the sea.
He waded, barefoot, into the shallows.
The ocean tossed a small body to his feet. It was grey-white and translucent, with skin like layers of wet, wrinkled paper draped over muscles, organs and bones. It was the body of a small water-logged child.
Janssen grabbed the girl by the arms and dragged her out of the water. Her shoulder blades were inscribed with fibrous, heliotrope scars. He rolled her gently onto her side and clawed at the inside of her throat with his fish-hook hands, trying to clear a way for the air.
His hands came out of her mouth with sea water, saliva and two bicuspid teeth. Revolted, he flung the girl’s teeth onto the sand. She was not breathing.
He held her mouth open and breathed into her, hoping it might be possible to effect resuscitation.
She tasted kindness, fear and confusion. But mostly kindness.
A spilling wave fell from her mouth. Several capillary waves rained onto the sand.
She opened her eyes and looked at the Dutchman. Her eyes were Nephrite, the colour of theBanded Demoiselle. Her pupils were small black holes against a nebula of green.
She looked past Janssen, straight into the moon. Blinked slowly and breathed deeply. She kicked her feet against the walls of her mind and swam away into the dark.
Janssen was in shock. He dropped her head gently back into the sand. He looked up and caught the soft haze of a comet overhead.
He lit his pipe and wondered.
The comet passed by the earth in August,
a tail of diaphanous white
followed it in stripes of spun sugar
―Apparition of 1989
I cannot remember exactly when I lost feeling in my feet
I think I was walking on water
Or beneath it
Water made of glass
That crashed and smashed
Around my toes
I cannot remember walking―without feeling―here before
I have no past or memory
I am stillborn…but alive
‘Lot six,’ a voice that sounded like syrup and champagne. Impeccable diction. She was dressed in black Armani, dark hair pulled away from her face. Impeccable dress.
‘An unnamed portrait by Scottish painter, Sir Francis Grant, circa 1845, now showing on the turntable.’
She leaned against the lectern. The quiet chatter, the hum of insect wings, calmed as the room focused its attention.
‘An unusual piece for the period. A girl seated half-length, in a white chemise. Believed to be commissioned by the 1st Earl of Russell to capture the likeness of one of his children before they died. The pallor and condition of the sitter arguably reveal the effects of lead poisoning or, as some believe, a mental illness, Trichotillomania, which causes the sufferer to pull out their own hair. This is consistent with what we know of the four children born to the Earl and his second wife, Frances. One of the children died and the remaining children were afflicted with mental disorders or other chronic illness.’
The soft flicking of pages ensued as thirty-two Sotherby’s catalogues were simultaneously fanned, stroked and scrutinised.
‘The painting was found in the family estate after Sir John’s death. Oil on canvas. Twenty five inches by thirty. Shall we start the bidding at 750 pounds?’
The black, brown and grey suited connoisseurs rolled out their bids in small waves, in soft salutes and with polite flags.
Somewhere above them, in the evening sky, a wide-tailed comet competed with the other light-loaners for a patch of darkness.
And beyond the comet, on the shore of a lunar mare, a white and wingless thing found herself washed up on a barren basaltic beach.
She looked back toward the earth, remembering something―the faint smell of linseed oil and turpentine, smoked eel and sea-salt, and a lady’s lamb’s wool touch.
There was no air.
She remembered something else―laying her head down on the sand. Closing her eyes.
She was stillborn, but alive.