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July 9, 2013 Fiction

The Painter's Arm

Eliza Smith

The Painter's Arm photo

My boyfriend cut off my arm while I slept. He had thought the whole thing through months in advance, he told me the next morning. Ever since your opening at the Stones’ gallery, he said. I was already asleep when he did it, but he put me farther under with an opiate through a mask pressed to my nose and mouth. He put a tarp under my shoulder and kept a torch close to cauterize the opened flesh. He used the same knife he used on his sculptures, one with a whirring blade and a well-oiled motor and a wooden handle. 

He told me in the morning as he changed my bandages that my arm had left my body easily, that his blade had sliced my flesh like a knife does warm butter. It’s a good knife, he told me, smiling. He took it out and showed it to me, showed me where my blood marked the metal, showed me a little shard of my bone and a small tug of my purple tendon. 

I asked to see my arm. Oh, it’s long gone, he said, and left the room for his studio in the yard. I could hear him chisel away at the redwood trunk he had been working on for months. 

I had painted with that arm. My canvases were large, and I had stretched long and wide to cover the white space. I used big brushes, slapping paint layer upon paint layer until the colors were no longer flat, but protuberant, part of the room. I had always painted quietly before I met my boyfriend. In basements, behind closed doors, during the night. It was only until I showed him my work that he decided it must see daylight, hang in galleries, sell. His work—wooden sculptures, rough-hewn busts, odd portraits—sat on coffee house sills. Once, he sold a set of five to an architecture firm. But that was the extent of his glory.

I don’t think he ever expected my success, and when it came he was stunned at first, and then angry, and angrier. He pouted like a child at my openings, touching the canvases. The paint’s not even dry yet! He would say to no one in particular. Don’t buy these, he would say over his fifth glass of wine. He would take me home at the end of the night, his teeth and tongue burgundy-stained and foul-smelling. He would rip my clothes off and bite my fingers hard enough to break them.

As I lay in bed, looking down at the stump of my shoulder, I felt not anger, but pity. I listened to him chip and chip away at his redwood; I imagined him splintering his hands and forearms. I thought then, what a marvelous subject he would make. How I would sculpt the anger in his furrowed brow with a deep smudge of brown. How I would warp the paint to show the deft throws of his arms as they struck the wood again and again. How I would keep his mouth a solitary line, tilted neither up nor down, but stretching from side to side in dissatisfied limbo. And then I shifted my body, heard the tarp under me crunch, felt a seep of blood as it left my nub. And I remembered that I couldn’t render him anymore; not him, or anything.

image: Andromeda Veach