The space was dimly lit as always. Even on the bluest, sunniest, most cloudless day the space was as gray and hazy as a clichéd English moor. The chemistry lab smell of oil paints, thinner and god knows what else lingered in her nostrils as Alice walked behind Henry.
“I had to work backward on this one,” he repeated. Alice hadn’t understood the first time but didn’t question him. She’d learned better. For every inch of talent in him there was a mile of eccentricity, and weirdness.
There were several easels set up with canvases mounted but none were complete. They were all similar–all depicting a woman, either an incomplete face or nude body in a sitting position.
“Is it a portrait?” Alice asked. Henry had mentioned portraits in their previous meeting.
“No. Well, not as it turned out.”
He stopped. They’d arrived. There was no cloth or tarp covering the canvas as there usually was to build suspense–nothing to tear away from the masterwork to make the stunning first impression every artist seemed to revel in and anticipate. It was another in the series of nude women in the same seated position, only this one was the most complete. The body was meticulously fleshed out, every detail and tone and shadow present. It looked positively alive. The skin seemed to breathe, sprouting self-aware goose pimples at being exposed.
Alice nodded her approval. “It’s very good.”
Henry flashed a full smile, top and bottom teeth.
“But where’s her head?”
It was the obvious question. After walking past canvas upon canvas of incompletions, of eyes and lips and cheekbones that had been left unfinished she had to wonder why he’d jettisoned all of those things for his big special reveal.
“Well, like I said…” There was a touch of confusion in Henry’s voice. “I had to work backward.”
“What does that mean?”
Alice found it hard to look away from the piece but managed for a moment to find the lost look on Henry’s face.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t eaten in a while. Maybe I’m not following.”
“It’s very good, Henry. But you keep saying you had to work backward and I don’t understand what you mean by that.”
Henry’s lips made an O shape.
“My model was very hard to paint,” he said. “She was so beautiful I thought she’d be perfect. But it was just too hard to capture everything. I tried but I just couldn’t do it. I had this idea as a way not to cheat a little and still capture all that was there.”
Alice shifted her eyes to the piece and back to Henry.
“I still don’t get it.”
“Wait just a sec.” Henry started away, toward a pile of twisted white tarps on the floor against the wall. They were stained. It was hard for Alice to see through the thickness of the air. He took the cloth in his grip and tore it away, finally achieving the big reveal moment that artists love so much–the stunning riveting compelling flash of creative shock and awe that hits the unsuspecting spectator right in the pants. It was a beautiful young female body. There was no head. There was blood. Alice could see clearly now as she recoiled. Her hand went to her mouth.
“You have to imagine her sitting down,” Henry said.