O' Artful Death - By Sarah Stewart Taylor



“I’M IMAGINING YOU as a corpse. You’d be lovely.”

He leaned forward to lift a strand of dark hair caught in the perspiration on her cheek and Mary burst out laughing when she saw the earnest, dreamy expression on his face.

“What do you mean? Corpses can’t be beautiful.” She rolled out from under him and propped herself up on her elbows, studying his gray eyes, the irises broken by slivers of brown and green. They reminded her of the eyes of a bird or a cat, intense and nearly unblinking.

It was early summer, and the Vermont hills around the colony were the bright green of the lush alfalfa in the fields, dotted here and there with sheep and stands of raucously colored wildflowers: white daisies, purple phlox, pink mallow and, farther into the woods, the tiny, hidden trilliums and jack-in-the-pulpits, shell pink and green.

They were lying on a blanket spread out on the thick grass of the cemetery, near where wildflowers grew along the iron fence, twining through the rails. The granite and slate stones were dull in the summer light. Outside the graveyard were the formal gardens that belonged to the big yellow house planted above them on a little rise. Up there the more pedigreed foxgloves and delphiniums and lilies filled their designated plots and below them, in the humid air, the Green River flowed placidly by, catching on a rock in the shallow bed every once in a while and swirling for a moment before moving on.

He was pale from working in the studio and when he leaned over to touch her again, his white hand looked like a slap mark on her sun-pinked cheek.

“You’ve always reminded me of Ophelia,” he said. “I would like to represent you lying dead in the brook, surrounded by flowers, like Mr. Millais’s painting. There’s something about your black hair and your dark eyes and your pale skin. It’s as though you were made of marble, as though you’ll never change. When you haven’t been out in the sun, that is.” He smiled and stroked the base of her throat.

She frowned, then reached up to place a finger against his lips. “Please don’t,” she said after a moment. “I don’t like to think about dying, I don’t think it’s beautiful at all.” His eyes filled with indignation, the way they did when one of the other artists disagreed with him.

“You speak as though it were something you could choose not to participate in,” he sneered. “We all die. We all rot away. None of us is safe from him.” He gestured toward one of the older stones, which depicted a leering, grinning skeleton holding an arrow. “And it can be beautiful. The moment of death, when the body is frozen in still life, like a painting or a sculpture. I’ve always thought about how remarkable it would be if you could create an image of someone just as they died, to freeze them in that instant when they are neither dead nor alive. If an artist could represent that moment of death, it would be a work of art like no other work of art, a masterpiece.”

“Like ‘The Lady of Shalott’ ” Mary said carefully, reciting. He made her feel that she should be careful about details, facts and names, that they were important to him. Besides, she felt she had said something wrong and she wanted to make it up to him. “It’s a poem I’ve just read in that little book you gave me. By the Lord of Tennyson. She looks down from her tower and sees Sir Lancelot, and leaves her weaving. Then the curse comes over her as she dies in the boat. ‘Till her blood was frozen slowly, and her eyes were darken’d wholly.’ I imagine her lying there, and I think she must have been the most beautiful lady, just as you say, in the moment that she died. Do you know that poem?”

“Of course. And it’s by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, my dearest poet.” He looked up toward the house, absentmindedly drawing circles on her neck with his fingertip.

She spoke thoughtfully, as though she had decided to give him a present of her words. “When I die, I want to be buried in a boat, like the Lady of Shalott,” she said.

“In a boat?”

“Mmmm. A boat made of marble. And I would lie in the boat forever, singing.” She stretched a bare foot out over the margin of the blanket and brushed it against the nap of