At his usual parking spot by the far entrance to the woods, he turns the front of his car away from the low morning sun and switches off the engine. He sits for a while, sucking a mint, studying the bare trees as he waits, memorising their various winter hues, determining how best to aesthetically represent their sleep.
After five minutes or so he sees her. She has a dog on an extendable lead, a struggling pup too small to climb the high stile leading into the woods. She lifts the pup with one arm, uses the other to hoist herself up and over to the other side. He gets out of the car, locks the door, and swings his rucksack over his shoulder.
He carries a set of pencils and a hardback sketchbook inside the bag. The first eighteen pages have been neatly sliced out of the book, projects complete, but the cut-lines barely show. His paints are in his studio with a bed, a kettle, a wardrobe, a bookcase, and, lined up against the walls, his paintings. A canvas, primed brilliant white, stands blank on the easel ready for his return.
She walks slowly. He finds this strange for such a cold morning; normally the dog walkers are brisk, they want to be home and warm. She wears jeans and boots; there is a twist to her step, an unbalancing so slight it needs a sharp eye to notice the way her left leg compensates. No eye is sharper than his… he observes she has stronger thigh muscles in that left leg, maybe a touch of cellulite on the right. Narrow shoulders, small waist above the width of her hips. Her jacket is short, fitted; the long fur trim of its hood forms a halo of white that half-circles the back of her slim neck. So far, so good. Multi-shaded hair, blonde, gold, copper; short and dyed, arranged in a careful disarray he guesses took a long time to style. She is promising but he needs a front view to be certain she is exactly what he wants; experience dictates plain Janes and wilting Violets transfer badly. Two of his early canvasses had to be shredded, slashed – the insipid blandness of his subjects showed through in his work, spoiling the whole. As he overtakes her, slowing down to keep in step, he looks, meets her eyes… emerald green, long lashes. Oval face; plump cheeks; nose with slightly too much of an upturn; neat mouth with well-defined lips. The cold makes her eyes bright and brings red to her cheeks. Although she is older than he thought, late twenties, the life-spark he wanted to see in her is vivid, lending her features a lustrous, striking radiance. But she is not beautiful, yet.
She nods a reserved greeting. He says, ‘Freezing, isn’t it?’ and she nods again. He smiles his trust-me smile, wide enough to allow the mint of his breath to drift out. They strike up a conversation centred on the pup. Her voice is light, airy, and his heart leaps when she tells him the animal’s name is Wilde, after the author – she reads, she has a brain. He favours his intelligent subjects, they inspire their own subtleties of tints and tones; he will limn this one in pure bronze, the colour he keeps specifically for the clever.
He maintains an assuring distance as he talks her towards his quiet spot, a small clearing surrounded by sycamores and oaks. The main path is far, far behind them, the wet leaf-bed underfoot too thick for sound. His practised manner is polite, interested – it invites her to speak the trivialities he needs to illuminate and colour her. She obliges. He anticipates she will shine on canvas.
He tells her he is an artist, a recorder of nature. She confirms her intelligence by asking knowledgeable questions about technique, texture, line and perspective. He answers leisurely, with long looks that hold her gaze; she does not look away. He mentions Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Millais, and a nearby gallery in which some of their paintings hang. ‘We could go together. Tomorrow?’ Her eyelids lower and she says, ‘I’d like that.’ He can smell, almost taste, the tartness of her need, her loneliness. They discuss addresses, times, transportation. Soon afterwards they reach his quiet spot where they stand for a minute or two watching Wilde scrabble down into a pile of black leaves as he digs for the source of some compelling odour.
He asks her to sit for him one day. She stiffens. He smiles (trust me) and says he merely wants to sketch her. He reaches into his rucksack and shows her his book and pencils. A few seconds pass before she nods, ‘Maybe. We’ll see.’ He asks if she means yes. ‘All right,’ she laughs, ‘yes, you can sketch me. One day.’
Her consent given, he takes the knife from his pocket. She freezes, her eyes widen and he has to blink rapidly to stop her life-light from blinding him. He stabs, one precise tidy thrust under the left breast – in, up, and twist. In less than half a minute she is ready to be posed.
The dog lead remains gripped in her hand; a slice to the twine and the pup runs free. He works quickly to remove her clothing, sees he was right about the cellulite. It distorts the line of her right thigh so he lays her on that side, in the root-hollow of an old sycamore, to hide the ugly puckering from view. He arranges her limbs, rests her head gently on the root. A thin channel of blood runs down past her right breast, seeps into and through her bed of leaves. He thinks he will emphasise this line of blood heavily with his darkest mix of carmines.
He crouches on one knee, rests his sketchbook on the other as he prepares to stroke her every detail onto the page. The sun is at his back, higher now. Her outline forms an exquisite horizon of contours as it dips and rises. The green of her eyes complements the intensity of the copper undertones in her hair, picturesque against the darker shades of the tree bark. Her delicate veins thread blue across her skin, stilled streams of life, and he knows with absolute certainty she will transfer perfectly from life to page to canvas.
She is beautiful now.