This is I, by KT Bryski

Content Notes

Contains discussion of suicide, mention of child’s death, depiction of drug use.

Light and night are falling from me,
Death and day are opening on me…
Who do you think you are, an artist? Here’s a story. When you were nothing more than an underfed slip of a girl, you carried home butter wrapped in newspaper. Unfolding it, you discovered—O serendipity!—reprinted poems of Tennyson. And thus, romantic appetite was kindled in the cutlery-maker’s daughter. No wonder you got tangled up with painters.
On either side the river lie long fields of barley and of rye. In Elaine’s mirror, they suckle the horizon like dead oceans. Yellow grass wilts in the heat, and the river creeps brown and sluggish, breaking around a stony shard of an island. Shalott’s four grey walls and four grey towers enclose a dirt patch. Withered roses scrabble up the hoary stones through sheer spite.
High in her eyrie, Elaine adjusts the beams of her loom. Hot, motionless air slicks the space between her shoulder blades. Her fingers cramp. She ignores the ache, weaving with the dispassionate industry of a spider, or a good Victorian housewife.
Knights ride along the road, two by two. Abbots, damsels, pageboys, shepherds. Passing her taciturn tower, they cross themselves and shudder.
Fuck them.
As the afternoon wallows into dusk, Elaine checks the mirror again. The tapestry spreads like mold across the walls. Same brittle fields, same market road. But then—
Another woman’s face fills the glass. Thin, translucent, with blue veins webbing her throat. Unremarkable, save for the tumbling masses of red hair.
Elaine’s feet fly off the treadle. “Who are you?”
The other woman hesitates, glancing behind as Elaine cannot. And then, archly, she says, “My name’s Gug.”
Tennyson wrote two versions of “The Lady of Shalott.” One in 1832, another ten years later. The revision gets anthologized. No one remembers the original.
A shame. I like it better.
Painters loved you for your hair. They scooped you from the milliner’s shop floor for it. Spilling from your bonnet in deep, burnished red, it damned you, saved you, transformed you from woman to muse.
There were three men, to start. A new artistic brotherhood, a trio of triply named young cads: John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They explained everything to your parents over tea. Their proposition wasn’t exactly respectable, but with the right safeguards in place…
So you modeled for them, these upstart painters. Better money than millinery. Easier work, too. Stand still, stay quiet. Hold this. Don’t move. Look dead. Smile. Smile more. You are scenery; you are art; you are certainly not a human woman who catches pneumonia while submerged in cold water as the drowned Ophelia.
They felt bad about that. Truly. You were simply the victim of artistic focus. It overshadows ordinary things like hypothermia. Artistic focus—
Gabriel’s face blazed with it.
“Gug?”
“Yes, Gug.” The stranger’s nostrils flare. “And you are?”
She matches tone for tone. “Lady Elaine of Shalott.”
“Really?”
Elaine gestures over her shoulder. Only shadows prowl the night’s quiet. In the corners, the tapestry lurks, coiled. The first conversation she’s had in years, and it’s this.
“How came you to my mirror?” Elaine asks.
“I didn’t. You’re in mine.”
Intriguing prospect. “Are you cursed too?”
“Yes,” Gug says, slowly. “Yes, I believe I am.”
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ate that shit up. Tennyson shit, I mean. Pseudomedieval Romanticism. Tragic fallen women with loose dresses and long hair. William Holman Hunt painted the Lady of Shalott. Rossetti painted her. John William Waterhouse painted her three times.
Does Waterhouse count as a Pre-Raphaelite? I don’t know, I was dead by then.
No one remembers my “Lady of Shalott,” any more than they remember the original poem. That’s history for you.
“I can’t paint anyone else,” Gabriel said.
Poor fool, you were flattered.
“I’ve fallen quite in love with you, Lizzie.”
Poor fool, you believed.
Finally, a flicker of interest stirs in Elaine’s breast. “What’s your curse?”
“Invisibility,” Gug says promptly.
“I can see you.”
“There’s seeing, and seeing.” She shakes her head, shakes out the red, red hair. “What about you?”
“If I should stay my weaving…glance down to Camelot… ”
“Doom.”
Elaine nods. Her loom clicks and creaks, warp and weft meshing like teeth. Always, she weaves what appears in the mirror. On the threads, Gug’s narrow cheeks and hooded brown eyes take shape. “Hardly invisible,” Elaine says.
“That isn’t me. It’s a phantasm.” Sudden tears choke Gug’s voice. “That’s no more me than my reflection.”
“Reflection is all I have, I fear.” Even so, she eases her feet upon the treadle. A faint scratching joins the loom’s clicking. Elaine cocks her head.
“A pencil.” Gug doesn’t look at her. “I was sketching a self-portrait when you entered my mirror.”
“May I see?”
Gug holds up a sketchbook. Faint lines, tentative and few. But Elaine sees the loom’s shape, her own upright body. Gug shrugs. “It only seems fair.”
Why Shalott?
Like I said: tragic fallen women. They were obsessed, the Pre-Raphaelites. Personally, I think it was adolescent guilt over their enthusiastic penises masquerading as High Moral Feeling. You look at Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shalott with her aureole of unbound hair, and you tell me that he didn’t have uncomfortable thoughts about sex. He stuck an allusion to the Garden of Eden in the background, just to drive the theme home. And (petty point, forgive me, but still) the loom is all wrong. Had he ever even seen one?
But then, what do I know? No one asked me.
No one ever asked me.
“You should spell your surname Siddal,” Gabriel told you. “Not Siddall.
Why?
“More genteel.”
So you drop the second L. So you drop your job at the milliner’s shop. So you drop modeling for everyone but him.
Nearly two centuries later, it’ll be a footnote. You changed the spelling of your name. Ah, well, it happens. But even historians have a hard time keeping it straight: was it Elizabeth Siddall or Siddal? Who’s the original? Who’s the facsimile?
It’s incredibly sad. But then, you were never sure yourself.
“I have to go,” Gug says. “He’s calling me.”
“Will you come back?”
“I’ll try.”
Somewhere far distant, a chair squeaks. The glass goes dark. Elaine weaves until the room’s light reddens like blood, and then she selects more thread from the eternally replenished basket and sets about winding the loom’s warp. Tedious work, but it gets her on her feet, and it’s technically weaving.
As she toils, she’s careful not to glance towards the window. In the curved mirror, the towers of Camelot soar. But for the first time, she doesn’t think about the markets and the crush of people; neither the waves singing upon the wharves, nor the willow trees that stroke the water’s face. It was nice, hearing another voice.
As the evening light fails, Gug’s face emerges in the mirror like a corpse through deep water. Elaine straightens on her bench. “You returned.” She isn’t sure how much relief to let into her voice. “I wasn’t certain you would.”
“I wasn’t sure I could.” The color rises in Gug’s cheeks. “Productive day?”
“Not as such.” Under the loom, she kicks the piled tapestry. “What use has the world for this?”
“Absolutely none,” Gug says. “It’s pretty. It keeps you quiet. Too busy to think. That’s the point, for women.”
“How perfectly awful.”
“I entirely agree.”
More than ever, Elaine wants to dash the loom to kindling and fling herself at the window, intoxicate herself on the glittering stars and the cool night air. But her fingers march on. “I’ve remembered another thing about my curse.”
“Oh?”
“Whatever it is, I shall die before I’m old.”
To her surprise, Gug smiles. Sad, broken, knowing smile. “Me too.”
We’re not going to talk about Rossetti’s stab at The Lady of Shalott. For one thing, you can barely see the Lady squashed into her funereal boat. The focus is all Lancelot.
That’s what Rossetti wanted. Lancelot love: idealized and passionate. Not the love that weathers household bills and tired squabbles and ordinary days unfolding one into the next.
Though to be fair—
To be fair, I wanted his brand of capital-R Romantic love too. What can I say? I have—had—an addictive personality.
You muster your courage and lift a pencil. Little things, hidden from Gabriel. A few sketches, self-portraits, figures from Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson. Faltering lines of your own poetry. You’re more furtive with those. Gabriel’s sister is a real poet and she despises you. Eventually, of course, Gabriel finds your sketchbook.
He’s delighted.
He can teach you, mold you. In his own drawings, he captures you at the easel. Mirrors reflecting mirrors. The heights only increase; Gabriel’s connections run deep. The great critic John Ruskin wishes to buy your work. Either piece by piece, or £150 per annum for everything you produce.
Piece by piece, you say. That’s how other artists do it.
They smile at each other, these two men. Over your head, like you’re a child.
Oh, dear. Sweet Guggums. Poor Lizzie. You’re too frail to produce regular work. Don’t you see that? Better to take the £150 like a good girl and dabble away at your little masterpieces.
But you’re an artist now.
“You must try and make yourself as simple a milkmaid as you can,” Ruskin says, “and only draw when you can’t help it.”
Fuck him. Fuck Gabriel too, for agreeing.
“Are you ever lonely?” Elaine asks.
“All the time.”
“But you mentioned—I thought you had a—”
“A lover?” Gug snorts. “That doesn’t help loneliness. Trust me.”
“I thought—”
“A knight astride a white steed, the chalice of his heart running over?” The snort sharpens. “I have no loyal knight and true.”
Elaine bites her lip. “A wandering eye, is it?”
Gug ticks names on her fingers. “Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Burden…but who am I to restrict the passions of genius?”
Leaving one hand upon the loom, Elaine rises. Cold glass lies dead against her palm, but she strokes the mirror as though caressing the other woman’s cheek. “I am sorry.”
“It’s all right. No, it isn’t, I—”
Elaine resettles herself. “Unburden your heart, if you would.”
And Gug does, gasping late into the night. The shuttle flies back and forth across the loom, Elaine pushing the treadle mechanically as she listens. Torturous love, yes, but also—
Waves breaking into light upon the shore; dawn seeping through smoked summer air; whiskey smoldering in the belly as laughter fills the room. Elaine aches and pines and presses Gug for more.
When Gug finally bids her goodnight, Elaine kneads her forehead. All through the night, the threads between them have tightened. Warp and weft, over and under, a single strong cloth. Except the room is empty. In the mirror stirs the barley, and nothing else.
“I am half-sick of shadows,” says the Lady of Shalott.
You know what happens next. It’s not a secret. The Lady of Shalott ends with death: in 1832, and 1842, and every painting thereafter. Why should this be different?
After stringing out the engagement for nearly ten years, Gabriel marries you. You get pregnant. If you can’t be an artist, you can take up your proper mantle as wife and mother.
Your daughter is stillborn.
Laudanum tastes like Christmas. Cinnamon and cloves catch in your chest; wine drowns the poppies’ bitterness. How cordial, this cordial. Down in the depths, grim amusement rolls over. Mostly, you drift.
The broad stream bears you far away—
Shadows creep across the apartments you share with Gabriel. Your own face keeps you company, smiling from canvases stacked along the walls and sketches piled on tables. When your feet obey, you waft through the dingy rooms like a ghost, leafing through your repeating image.
You sink to the couch and wait to feel something—some holiness, some dread—but the seas are empty. Somehow, the laudanum bottle rests in your hand again, the milk of paradise searing your throat.
Black clouds brood over the fields and darken the room. The treadle thuds, the shuttle flying with a lightning crack. In the mirror, Gug looks distant. “Are you all right, Elaine?”
“No.”
Beyond Shalott, fat raindrops ruffle the barley. A cold wind whistles through the curtains; the air smells charged, metallic. Elaine feels as though she could throw her scissors out the window and pierce the sky.
The wind tickles the back of her neck. She squares her shoulders to it. On the storming road, someone sings over the downpour: “Tirra lirra, tirra lirra.”
“Gug? What is it like, to feel the world upon your skin?”
“I thought I knew, once.”
For a long time, they sit in silence. Outside, the pale grass whispers, the yellow wood bending in the wind. At last, Gug wipes her nose on her sleeve. “You’re going to look, aren’t you? Down to Camelot?”
“Yes.”
“And the curse?”
Elaine gestures to her stifling room, the heaped weaving, the dispassionate mirror. “So you see it.” With a shuddering breath, she brings her lips to the mirror. They part on cold glass. “Goodbye,” she whispers. “Thank you for everything.”
She leaves the web. She leaves the loom.
She makes three paces through the room.
And as the rain patters fresh upon her cheeks, the mirror cracks from side to side, taking Gug with it.
It’s easy to read it as suicide. Tennyson did. Here’s the end of the 1842 revision:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
Lend her grace. At that time, they called such deaths a sin. In 1862, too, which is when I died. How, you ask?
It’s easy to read it as suicide. But the historians will never really know.
When you’re laid in your coffin, Gabriel tucks a bound manuscript beside you. It’s a collection of his poems, the only copies in existence. A grandly hysterical gesture, a capital-R Romantic parting gift as he weeps melodrama over your corpse.
Seven years later, he digs you up again. The poems, you see. The damned poems. Except he doesn’t have the courtesy to do it himself, sending a bevy of friends instead. From the ghastly encounter springs a legend: your hair kept growing after death; it filled the coffin with radiant red-gold; your corpse proved incorruptible, his own personal saint.
Let’s be very clear.
You were soup and bones by then. Nineteenth-century burial practices did nothing for preservation. Water, worms, and rot. When Gabriel opened the grave-robbed manuscript, it was scarcely legible through decay.
But you? You weren’t even allowed to putrefy like a human woman. That’s the story that lingers in the imagination: a smiling face—only sleeping!—and the red, red hair. Even in death, they twisted you into art.
There is wind upon the water and starlight in the trees. The dark leaves sigh as Elaine’s boat winds down the river. Her signature stands clear on the prow, marked in a sure hand. The Lady of Shalott. Deep within her marrow, ice sharpens and spreads. She drinks the night until she chokes on it and the river sings alone to the willows.
The boat bumps softly into Camelot. At the wharf, an assembled crowd reads the note pinned to her breast.
The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not—this is I,
The Lady of Shalott.
That’s how it should’ve gone. The 1832 ending. The Lady breaks the curse by throwing herself into it—the real curse wasn’t death, but a life of shadows all along! Sweet, sharp irony.
But that’s not what we expect of good Victorian women. The Angel in the House mustn’t break the precepts that bind her. The story here is disobedience and punishment, not apotheosis.
Let’s give the last word to a man, right? “She has a lovely face…”
Well, thank God for that.
After your death, you become his masterpiece. Beata Beatrix shows Beatrice at the moment of transcendence. Yes, that Beatrice, from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Twice met, forever a muse, just like you.
This is Gabriel’s best work. Gazing upward in spiritual trance, you emerge from a dark wash of earth tones, lit with gold. A flaming dove lays a poppy in your palms. After so many awkward compositions, Gabriel’s struck something truly poignant, genuinely arresting.
You have a lovely face.
The web was woven curiously—
In the end, Rossetti got what he wanted. That burns me. He wanted a Romance, an undemanding muse to feed him with true kind eyes. One more tragic fallen woman with loose dresses and long hair. That’s all I was, from the moment they spied me in the milliner’s shop.
Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall. Gabe and Gug. Exemplars of love. Male genius loosed by unattainable female beauty. Fuck that curious web—I wish I could’ve broken the charm.
Draw near and fear not—
Let this cracked mirror show something else.
This is I—
I painted. I wrote. I lived.
O God, remember me.
 

KT Bryski is a Canadian author and podcaster. Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Lightspeed, Nightmare, PodCastle and Apex. She’s won the Parsec Award and the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, and she has been a finalist for the Eugie, Aurora, and Sunburst Award. KT co-chairs ephemera, a speculative fiction reading series occurring monthly in Toronto (or YouTube, depending on COVID-19). When she’s not writing, she frolics through Toronto enjoying choral music and craft beer. Find her on Twitter @ktbryski.

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