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THE WEEPING NUDE by Jennifer Lewis

“Get up.”

“No. It’s not even light out. I want to sleep.”

“You heard me.” He lights a candle, then another. Then claps his hands. “Move!”

She smells the turpentine. Hears the clinking of glass bottles. The room is freezing. Tiny sounds of the night drift through the walls. A horse kicks a stone, then neighs.

“I’m not posing,” she says.

“I’ve told you before. You never have to pose. You must be yourself.”

edvard munch weeping nude

The Weeping Nude, Edvard Munch 1913

This makes her smile. She likes being different than the others. Not another archetype, or myth or stupid symbol. How 18th century? She’s the youngest of his models. Only seventeen. A strong peasant girl with a wide face and wide-eyes, who earns room-and-board for cleaning the house of a lonely painter, who had just spent eight months in a sanatorium suffering from hallucinations and anxiety.  

“Fine,” she says, gathering herself under the blankets. She rises to all fours, articulating her spin, the blanket still on her back. She looks like tent. Her head thrashes and her hips shake until the blanket falls off.  She stands on her knees and takes of her white nightgown. Her now-famously dark hair covers her breasts. It keeps her warm. She’s thankful to her mother for giving her this thick mess.

She hears the bristles of the brush dancing on the canvas, the palette knife scraping the surface. She smiles to herself under all that hair. She loves the power of her beauty. Its ability to wake up this old man in the middle of the night.   

“Don’t move,” he says, commanded by inspiration. Grinning at her like she is  some kind of God. She wonders what his friend, Dr. Fraud, would think about this?

“Stay still, Moss Girl.”

Her thighs burn with fatigue. Her fingertips and toes are frozen. She fidgets. She doesn’t want to stay still anymore. A draft moves over her nipples and belly. She wants to crawl back under the blankets, but the chance that her portrait may hang in a museum keeps her still.

“You’re stronger than you think you are,” he says, “You’re a healthy girl.” She narrows her eyes. She feels badly for him. He had told her that he was a sickly kid, that he watched his mother die of tuberculosis when he was five, then his older sister at fourteen. One night when he allowed himself to drink, he said, “Illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle.”

She stays motionless until her thighs can no longer take it. She falls back on her heels. Her left leg cramps and she lunges it straight. She hates him for waking her up. She hates her mother for encouraging her to work for him. She hates that her only skill is to please this insane man. She places her head in her hands and feels her belly convulse with rage.

“Fantastic,” he says. “Bravo!”  

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