Elise Holding a Deer Mouse, 1829

Francesca da Cortona (1811 – 1879)
Elise Holding a Deer Mouse, 1829
Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

A white bonnet haloes Elise’s face, the bow taut around her throat. Flax-blonde bangs ruffle into her eyes. One hand is tucked under the cornflower shawl caping her shoulders. A mouse sits in her cold-nipped palm. A bracelet of duckfoot ivy is potted in her other hand, its green hearts ribboned down her chest. Behind her, birch trees veiled with snow antler the white fog. Her pyrite eyes sear through the canvas, lips pursed into a cello.
            One of the earliest pieces from Francesca da Cortona’s career, this piece was originally titled ‘Elise Grieving.’ The title’s implied weight in an otherwise serene scene made it so that da Cortona was unable to sell the painting in her lifetime. Upon inheriting her collection, her descendants later retitled it ‘Elise Holding a Deer Mouse.’ Nothing is known about the woman pictured, nor her relationship with da Cortona.
            The brushed bronze frame is backlit with bar lights, set against the seafoam wall. I realize a frame is just a crown.
            Your footsteps concuss the gallery floor and settle next to me. Every pressure in the gallery has its own weight: a cough down the hall is a puncture, the rustle of a wet rain coat is a shirring. It was my idea to meet at an art gallery because we haven’t been in the same city in twelve years and a coffee shop would bore you. Art galleries have the sleek stillness I associate with you, all marble floor and sheeted lighting and paper walls studded with curated decadence. I read of this collection in a pamphlet from a sea bus kiosk and hoped it would fascinate you, and by extension, you would be — again or finally, I don’t know — fascinated with me.
           “Do you think she was in love with her?” I say. “The painter, I mean. Do you think she was in love with the girl in the painting?”
            “Why do you think that?”
            “Elise just looks like she’s looking at someone she’s in love with.” 
            “I think that’s just being a good painter.”     
            You shift your bag to the elbow between us, a black leather tote replacing the canvas bookbag you’d shouldered everywhere in college.
            “You still steal things?” I eye the lip of bag where you used to slip in yuzu-noted perfumes, baby cacti, jars of calligraphy ink.
            “Not really.” You pick your thumbnail.
           That’s how we met: I saw you shoplift an antique letter opener and winked at you, promised not to tell. I flipped through a vintage microbiology textbook but didn’t buy it. When we stepped outside, you magicianed the blade from your sleeve and flipped it to me, bronze fleur de lis handle first. “I saw you eyeing it,” you said. “I like stealing things for people.” Back then, I wore my hair in twin Dutch plaits cinched from the peaks of my temples to the base of my skull and worked in a gardening centre on weekends. I painted my nails navy, maroon, taupe, to hide the crescents of dirt permanently clogged underneath. Your hair smelled like cedar when you rustled it. You wore diary padlocks as earrings but were otherwise dressed professionally, slacks and a white-button up. I’d later notice the pea-sized key around your neck, chain tucked under the petal of your blouse. It only materialized when you leaned — for a taxi, for the highest bookshelf, over a seawall with your eyes closed. That’s the only time you could be unlocked.
           “Should we steal it? The painting?” I ask, but you don’t reply. Since I last saw you, the gauges in your ears have puckered closed, your chain mail of cartilage hoops plucked out. I imagine you have a job as an ad executive or a museum curator, but didn’t ask on the phone even though I still want to know everything about you. I don’t know what you do or who is in your life and you don’t ask what I do or who is in mine. I have spent many years being randomly jarred, not by memory of you, but curiosity. Images of where you might be slot into my mind with no reason. You could be footprinting a sand dune, pressing a sake bottle to your lips, standing on a ferry’s white deck untangling your hair from your aviators. I last saw you the week before you boarded a plane for a post-grad internship in Shanghai. Back then, each part of you — knuckles, ear cartilage, wrist bone — was hemmed with stolen gold.

Francesca da Cortona (1811 – 1879)
Witches Rejoice the Harvest, 1833
Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

Two witches with their heads lolled together: a peregrine-featured redhead with her temple notched to a brunette’s shoulder. Their hair tangles where they meet and ripples to their ankles. Limestone columns crumble into a pond studded with fallen red leaves behind them. Both of them bare-chested, skin pearlescent as the inside of an oyster, the butterflies of their hips skirted in gossamer. The redhead holds an apple. The brunette wears a wicker crown, askew in a way a goddess can assert but a king cannot. A copper goblet hangs between her pointer and middle finger and both their lips are kissed with purple wine. Either they both drank, or one sipped and then drunkened the other in passion.
            This piece emerged as da Cortona veered into more mystical territory, preferring motifs of godhood and vibrant depictions of witchcraft rather than the realistic portraits from her early years. It is considered her most triumphant work. Reports from the time claim that da Cortona spent an entire year on it, and eventually sold it to a village apothecary in exchange for a headache cure.
           “I like the other one more,” you say. “It’s gentler.”
           “That’s because the painter and the girl in the painting were in love.” I leave you to parse my intonation of the words the girl (hovered on), were (grazed past), in love (heavy), as if they are the mellowest notes of a glass of wine.
           “I think it’s because she was nineteen when she painted it. She hadn’t learned to be unrestrained yet.”
           I’d met you when we were nineteen, and if you were unrestrained then, you were unrestrained in the most elegant way. Refined rebellion. It was the way you pleated your clothes like a manila envelope, the fact you never fiddled with your jewellery, the daisy tattooed on your sternum that I almost never saw. You made eye contact with cashiers as you shoplifted nicotine gum (for your roommate, who was trying to quit), wool socks (for your mother, who lived in the countryside), wrist watches (for me, always late to class).
           “Why would she trade it like that?” I ask. “It took her a year.”
           “Maybe she didn’t like it.” It seems so simple when you say it, knotted off when you add, “A year isn’t as long as it seems. Or it was a really bad headache.”
           I believe you lapsed in your restraint just once: kissed me only one time in our campus’s botanical garden. You tucked the front lock of my hair around my ear and wound it into the base of my braid like you needed to arrange me, cupped your palm around the shell of my ear. Your lips minted with the floral green tea you ordered from the library coffee shop every day, your fingertips still warm from the cup at the side of my neck. We never spoke of it; it is just a loop of stitching we have never tugged closed.
           “If we want to steal one, it should be this one,” you say.
           “I thought you didn’t like it?”
           “It’s worth more, though.”
           “Oh, I meant we should steal it to hang. Not to sell.”

Francesca da Cortona (1811 – 1879)
Rafaela Post-Hunt, 1842
Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

Rafaela eats the heart of a man and she looks delicate doing it. The sinew must have felt warm on her palette, the iron jolt cloaking her tongue. There is satisfaction in her ladybug red teeth, the way her eyes gleam like flint. Her body, taught as the bowstring strung across her chest with its cable notched between her breasts, centaurs from a deer’s body. Antlers poke from her black crown of hair. Froths of moss, shorn leaves and heliotrope sprigs snare her antlers and trail behind her like a bridal veil. A man lies filleted at her feet, ribs pried open, chest gutted to reveal the bony maroon walls of his lung cavity. An arrow punctures his throat. He holds the fletches, wanting to touch the weapon but knowing he could not stop it.
            The only piece da Cortona produced between the years of 1834 through 1845, “Rafaela Post-Hunt” evolves the mythical eroticism from her earlier work into a violent depiction of slaughter, whose eeriness comes from the delight the subject seems to feel at the fruits of her violence. The piece was originally interpreted as a portrayal of a huntress of Artemis, but da Cortona denied these speculations. Nothing is known about this period of da Cortona’s life that might be used as a basis for interpretation.
           “Have you noticed they’re always holding something?” I say. “In the first one, the girl was holding a mouse, then the goddesses were holding a cup.”
           “Holding a heart is pretty different from holding a mouse.”
           “A mouse has a heart in it. Either way, you’re still holding a heart.”
           As I remember you, you were always holding something. You knew how to catch the grey doves who ruffled our university fountain in your hands. The freshman English students walking past in faux-leather oxfords, clutching worn volumes of Beowulf or Don Quixote, would shriek as their wings bucked in your palms. You held: ladybugs, dried roses, clay pots. Film cameras, suitcases, marzipan buttons you thumbed out of their wrappers. Sometimes my hand. A joke for you maybe, a playful gesture as we walked up a pier or down a highway, your fingers and tendon-taut wrist swinging mine through the crisp air. Forward, then back again.
           “I like this one,” you decide.
           “It’s not very gentle.”
           “No, no it’s really not.”
           “What do you think happened to Elise?” Even though we’ve stepped down the row and she’s set to my right, Elise’s gaze locks with mine.
           “It doesn’t say, we have no way to know.”
           “Don’t you think if they still knew each other, she’d still be painting her?”
           “You have these theories, but maybe Elise was just a girl she painted one time. It’s like the sign said, we don’t know anything about her.”
           But Elise is not the one I long to understand, Francesca da Cortona is. I want to know if she could sketch the shadow under Elise’s lip and match the exact pigment of her eyes years later because she had studied her so intently. I want to know if she has phantom memories of running her knuckle against the down at Elise’s hairline because she’d painted each strand with such attention. I want to know if she sees herself in Rafaela or the man or the arrow.

Francesca da Cortona (1811 – 1879)
The Maiden Rises from Hell, 1845
Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches

A stern woman with her hands folded against a burnished russet background. Her dark brown hair parts down the center, pleated over her ears in fashion of a medieval princess. Her chin juts against the light source, so her jawline is lit like the blade of a hunting knife. Her wine-red dress sheathes her from throat to wrist, and she appears to hold nothing; however, on closer inspection, a single eye glints from the cavern between her palms. Gold-irised, glossy like a dewdrop, held with the care of a pearl shelled in alabaster.
           Despite its evocative name, da Cortona returned to sombre, minimalist subject matter after her hiatus with realist portraits. Some have claimed the eye in the maiden’s palms resembles the young farm girl subject’s from one of her earliest works, ‘Elise Holding a Deer Mouse,’ but there is little ground to confirm this speculation.
           “It’s definitely her eye.” You lean close to the eye like it’s a spyglass.
           “I think so too.” I want to agree with you because you aren’t expecting me to. “It’s like I said, the painter is in love with Elise.”
           “Or she wants to harvest her eyes.”
           “I think it’s more innocent than that. Maybe she just wants to hold on to her, even just a piece.”
           After the kiss, I worried we’d speak less, and we did. I slept less and less on your couch. We sat less and less on park benches. On weekends, I listened to self-help audiobooks on the bus instead of doing my readings. I’d catch it in front of my apartment and circle all the way back again. Perhaps by coincidence we stopped running into each other at greenhouses or roller rinks or library basements like we always would.
           But there was one night, the night after a snowstorm when the clouds parted to a full moon in the last week of the year, that you called me near midnight knowing I would be awake. I walked my bike to your apartment. We made dinner at one in the morning. You julienned zucchini. I noted the ficus on your windowsill was dying and you weren’t offended. You taught me how to ribbon basil; I taught you how to propagate plants. You knuckled pasta dough and I over-salted the water. We sat on your iced deck chairs and swirled pesto onto our forks. Neither of us could remember if this was the winter solstice or if it had already passed. Neither of us knew what it meant if it was.
           “You should know that,” you said. “You know about natural things.”
           “You should know it,” I said. “You know everything.”
           “No.” You rested your empty bowl on the deck railing, in an indent of snow so it sat like a boat for the moon. “No, I don’t.” And it’s true. You did not know if it was the winter solstice and you do not know if it is Elise’s eye in the maiden’s hand. You did not know how to take care of your house plants and you do not know what colour my kitchen is painted. Unless you have learned since we knew each other, you do not know how to play solitaire, or chess, or violin, even though you strike me as someone who would play these things, shuffling piece or bow through your knuckles. You did not know how to fix your kitchen sink or how to calibrate a compass and I know because I taught you. You do not know that I think of you when I see a vee of gulls or a molecule of soap bubbles or a lighthouse winking at dusk, and I think of you not because of how I feel, but because I’ve never known how you do. You do not know that sometimes I contemplate stealing stationery or box teas from gas stations because part of me still wants to be like you, but I always put them back after a lap around the gum aisle. You do not know my home address or that I left the folder of Polaroids from the four years we knew each other in an old apartment by accident, and you do not know that I called my landlord to get them mailed back.
           I set my bowl in yours and the forks chimed together, then tucked my knees up to my chin. You gathered a ringlet of snow from the railing and squeezed it into your palm. I expected it to melt in the iron of your hand, but when you uncurled your fingers, it sat compressed into the shape of a key. We watched the fog shimmer across the skyline, hardly speaking, with only the stove light from your kitchen yellowing our backs.

Shaelin Bishop lives and writes on the unceded, traditional territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish peoples. Her work has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, The Puritan, Room and Minola Review as runner-up their 2019 fiction contest. More: Twitter @shaelinbishop