At least it’s New York.
The thing Myka has learned most of all is that artifacts don’t care about your plans, or your weather preferences. If some washed up Civil War general’s belt buckle wants to kick off in the Missouri boondocks in the dead of winter, it will do so without even a blush of concern for how hard it sucks to chase men in shorts who think they’re soldiers around in the snow.
At least it’s New York. And at least Pete isn’t here.
Not that she really minds his presence anymore. Despite the incredible highs and lows, she does prefer not to work alone. It’s easier to corral men in shorts who think they’re soldiers when you’re not running around in the snow alone, and an extra pair of hands with a gun or Tesla is frequently lifesaving. Hell, she’s fond of him, and it’s childish to not admit that.
But it hasn’t been the worst thing, Pete being grounded. If someone were to manufacture a bespoke hell for her, it would definitely involve Pete dragging her through Times Square, and getting into some kind of argument with a guy in a Spongebob costume while she tried to dodge aspiring rappers hawking mixtapes. There would be a torturous trip to the M&M store, and an even more torturous sugar high to follow. She would step on gum, then on broken glass, and crunch miserably through crowd after crowd of tourists, and he would have both the Tesla and the Farnsworth.
It’s a bit of a fluff case, but hey, it’s New York, right?
That has been annoying her, though. Artie didn’t even bother sending Claudia with her. Claudia’s been jumpy since Tamalpais, and didn’t put up much of a fight, not even when Myka reminded her that the shirtless beefcakes at the Met are only sporting sculpted abs insofar as they are literally sculpted from stone or metal. Everyone’s on edge now. Artie’s been snapping at her heels the whole way through the case.
It’s just a pair of glasses, Myka! No, I don’t know whose they are, do you know how many people, historically, have done or seen things of energy-accumulating significance while in glasses? You know it’s insane, right, that you’re complaining to me about this? When you get to take a free solo trip to Manhattan and I have to hang around here with bored Pete? Do you know how much worse bored Pete is than normal Pete? It’s like babysitting an entire ZOO, Myka. At any minute he could start flinging banana peels— or worse. Now go get the damn glasses.
What happened was that a man died just a block away from the Met. He wasted away: dehydration, starvation, and the wear and tear of living under those conditions. On the Met’s state-of-the-art security camera feed, Artie found him, again and again. On Mondays, when the museum was closed, the camera feed caught him on the steps outside. Every morning, at 10 sharp, there he was. He left only by prompting at 5:30 or 9, depending on the day. He spent most of his time regarding one statue. Sometimes, distracted by tourists or separated from his quarry by a tour group, he would leave the gallery, but never for long; he’d reapproach soon, from a different angle, and stand at a different distance.
In all of the footage, he was wearing glasses. They were old-fashioned, round, probably wire-rimmed. It was difficult to tell on the grainy, black-and-white footage.
There were no glasses to be found on the body.
The glasses were, though, easily found: every morning that followed, at 10 sharp, they walked into the Met on the face of a new man.
He, too, was becoming pale and thin.
It was up to Myka to intervene.
All she had to do was walk into the museum, take the glasses off his face, and walk out. She felt almost good, as she mounted the front steps of the Met at a brisk half-jog.
Then came the problems.
The first was the demurely quiet row of police cruisers and paramedics, lights blazing, along Fifth Avenue. In the distance, a siren wailing towards her. It came with the Farnsworth squalling for her attention.
He’s— are those sirens? You can guess what happened. The actual news is that they’re expecting you.
“Oh. Was that always an option?”
Oh, was that always an option? Do you hear yourself sometimes? What happened to, thanks Artie, that’s so helpful. Stick this in your smug craw: the worlds of artifacts and art objects tend to overlap, less a venn diagram and more of a circle, so I’m in with curatorial staff at most major museums in the country. They’ll think you’re there investigating a ring of art thieves. Was that always an option. Next time YOU’RE babysitting Pete.
And then he hung up on her.
So the man had died.
The cops on the scene received her with some chagrin, but the museum staff nodded knowingly. At least no one asked what the President cared about a death at the Met.
Then she came upon the second problem.
A head of dark hair, bent over the body. Curling strands of raven hair brushing along the folds of his overcoat.
That head turned, as the body it crowned stood up, brushed off its thighs, and turned to face her. A familiar face broke out into a delighted and entirely unsurprised smile.
In her gloved hands, a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, their metal tarnished with time and use.
Once was mere circumstance. Twice was the beginning of a pattern.
How does she do that? How in the hell does she do that?
So here she is. Free trip to New York, about to perform the easiest artifact retrieval of her career, and H.G. Wells is gumming up the works.
“Agent… Boring, was it?” A museum employee with the most miserably hangdog expression Myka has seen in a long while is at her elbow, keeping a careful distance from the body. She realizes that this could have been a much easier case, were it not for her presence— and that of H.G., too, probably. Cut and dry, natural causes, paramedics in and out, and the whole museum is back in business in a matter of hours. Instead, the police are setting up a perimeter around the body as the feds set in. “This is Agent Wells, FBI Art Crime Team.”
“A pleasure,” says alleged FBI Agent Wells, extending a hand. The other remains occupied with the glasses.
Myka doesn’t take it. I wish we were meeting at gunpoint again. She wishes the path of least resistance was anything other than playing along with this charade.
“It’s a special exhibition on Botticelli,” says H.G., as the staff member scoots nervously away, back to the safer ground of the police perimeter. “As I’m sure you know.”
“Impersonating a federal agent is a federal crime, you know,” Myka hisses back.
“And I’m sure you’re here only under the auspices of perfect honesty?”
“My credentials match my story, at least,” Myka grumbles. They are, she admits grudgingly to herself, telling the same lie. The odds that this man even considered art theft at any point in his life are slim.
At least H.G. knows what the exhibit is. The first man was drawn, time and time again, to a massive carving of a winged bull with the head of a man, one of two supporting a vaulting, graven archway in a gallery styled to resemble the great hall of an Assyrian palace. It was only ever the one on the left that transfixed him. Myka knew where to go, and who to find, but not what he was looking at, only that it wasn’t the previous man’s lamassu.
This is a special exhibition, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The gallery is sparse with paintings, as galleries go. On loan from the Uffizi, Galleria Sabauda, and a number of smaller collections across Italy, Germany, and France, are a number of original works of Botticelli and his workshop.
From his position, and her memory of the footage, the painting this man died for is the gilded Madonna and Child. Myka fixes it in a cursory stare. The quality of the color is lovely— the blue of Mary’s cloak, or whatever the garment is, is rich and vibrant. It’s some kind of important iconography, she assumes, because no one trying in good faith to read a book would position a half-naked child directly in their line of sight. Those glasses must be something, she thinks. Maybe another pair of Timothy Leary’s, or one of his psychonaut peers.
In a statement on the relationship between aesthetics and truth, the painting faces a rendition on Venus, nude and lovely, modestly covering herself with hands, hair, and a filmy garment of gauze.
“Some gratitude goes a long way, you know,” says H.G. “After all, if it weren’t for me, you’d be chasing down paramedics right now.”
“Okay,” Myka says. “Fine. Thank you for saving me a corpse, and making me complicit in your federal offense. I really appreciate it. Can we go now?”
“Some gratitude, not negative gratitude, Agent Bering,” says H.G., who Myka thinks is enjoying herself to an unacceptable degree.
“Fine,” she says, keeping her voice low. In-two-three, out-two-three. Stress and anger make her prickly. Her life is easier when she smoothes those prickles out. She is an oasis of calm in an urban desert of nonsense. “What have we got?”
H.G. blinks innocently, as if to say, do you mean, what have I got? It reminds Myka of how little she trusts her. No one’s as good at looking innocent as a con or a killer, and she’s had over a century to practice her denials.
Oasis. An oasis of calm. Desert of nonsense, oasis of calm.
“Have you ever heard of Vernon Lee?”
Has she? Poe’s Annabel Lee springs to mind, but not a single Veron breaks the surface of her consciousness. “No. Who was he?”
“She, actually,” says H.G., with a little duck of her head and a Mona Lisa smile.
Right. Of course, honestly. How much of that does history hold? The half-tacit George Eliots, the entirely elided Helena George Wellses, and this mysterious Vernon Lee.
“Her name was Violet, but I can’t recall anyone calling her that— especially after she’d begun to dress comme un garçon, which was practically always.”
“Great history lesson,” says Myka. H.G. has the glasses in her hand, and is playing idly with them. There’s a gooey evidence bag in her pocket which now, metaphorically, has got Vernon Lee’s name on it. Or these might not even be Vernon Lee’s glasses, and H.G. is just being nostalgic in the middle of a crime scene for the joy of it. In retrospect, her kneejerk reaction to go for the throat back at Tamalpais feels warranted. “Do you have a point, or did a century in bronze make you forget that people don’t typically like it when you waste their time?”
H.G. only barely doesn’t flinch at the words century in bronze. She’s a killer, probably driven beyond most of the norms of human morality by said century. She’s a weird little puzzle, and carries herself like one. She has the air of a blithe and buoyant trickster goddess who wandered out of a museum exhibition and straight into modern life. It’s not a moral conundrum Myka’s interested in confronting right now, in a ring of nervous cops and fuming paramedics. But she does suspect she’s hurt her feelings, a bit.
Say Helena Wells really is just trying to help her out, and prove her merits. This is a terrible way to receive her. There must be a line of distrust and politeness that Myka can meet, somewhere in the intersection of you killed a man and its rejoinder, a man who would have killed you and as many more as he could manage.
“H.G.,” she says, after she gets no response.
That might be the line, actually. A little give and take, a little compromise, a little of the dance of hostility and familiarity that has been a constant in her life since she got transferred to South Dakota. I call you by your first name, you don’t kill me or anyone I love, we both swap tense niceties and banter with the weird comfort of a shared, dangerous secret. At any point, she can pretend to smell a rat and take Agent Wells and her suspect credentials into federal custody.
“Helena.” A beat. A smile, blooming on Helena’s face. Myka forces a tense pout when she thinks she’s going to smile back. Killers shouldn’t have beautiful smiles, which catch like wildfires or viral infections. The fact that the world contains countless objects of immense supernatural power seems to suggest that there should be a further order to it. Bad should look bad and good should look good, so that the confusing, near-magical manipulation of energy and will can play out against a thoroughly unconfusing backdrop. It’s in all the Arthuriana she’s ever read. Grubby Artie, like an old wizard, and boyish Pete, like a knight in training. The fact that the world works more like one of the mutual creations of Helena and her brother— it feels unfair. The world should never rise to meet the expectations of science fiction.
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not men?
“So these are Vernon Lee’s glasses, then,” she finally says.
“Of course,” Helena replies. “She was amazing, you know. Such an intellectual— such a critic! A radical pioneer of emotion.” Her voice rises in exclamation, and she lowers it confidentially. “A great lover of art, and of women too.” She has the audacity to wink at Myka.
“You knew her, then.” She’s seen these glasses on their original owner’s face. That’s— that’s genre fiction. It’s a high fantasy reflection on the wonders and horrors of inexorable time, a sleek sci-fi wink to a posthuman future.
“Walter Pater’s tenure at Oxford attracted many young aesthetes,” Helena says. “Vernon and I were among such pilgrims.” She’s still twisting, almost imperceptibly, the bridge of those glasses between her fingers. The metal is flimsy— it doesn’t seem cheap so much as made with the expectation it wouldn’t last, or wouldn’t see rough use. Myka finds her breath catching, tense in her belly, as she watches the light glint unevenly off the lenses, which are moving almost independently of their spindly frame. Probably breaking an artifact is fine.
“You don’t strike me as much of an aesthete,” Myka says. In an instant, she’d say Helena appreciates beauty with an attuned, almost whimsical sense of wonder and desire. But she’d tried Pater, precociously, in high school, and gone almost cross-eyed with an intense mix of boredom and confusion mere clauses into Appreciations. That was a high bar, but a fair one: she was a fifteen-year-old girl suspicious of beauty in its many forms. The last challenging read she’d tried was a dusty old edition of Fiore dei Liberi’s Il Fior di Battaglia. She didn’t know Italian, modern or Renaissance, but the diagrams of different sword techniques and her nascent grasp on Latin had taken her further in that book than plain English took her in Appreciations.
A great distance ago, she held in her hands a book for art critics who no doubt thought swords were dastardly and tiresome. And it seems that Helena, for all that air of cultivated refinement, should be about the same: more comfortable on the business end of a gun than the business open face of a treatise on art criticism. Myka’s mental image of her among the likes of Oscar Wilde is inexorably one of Helena, bristling with metal gadgets, failing to saunter through a room draped with velvets and silks, a woman of action setting dandies and critics on edge. If she were to be really uncharitable, she’d say Helena appreciates beauty in the way of a scientist, which is not really all that different from the way of a butcher.
Not that Myka is some great Paterian aesthete. But she’s never tried to be.
“Perhaps not. But there was a great desire to be one, shared among many of my peers— and it was hard to resist, at first.” She stops twining those glasses between her fingers, much to Myka’s relief. “Besides— there’s an infectiousness to it. Talking to Vernon was like talking to art itself.” Helena reaches out her hand, offering up the glasses. “Try them— you’ll see what I mean.”
“I’m not— I am not taking an artifact for a joyride just because you couldn’t resist peer pressure!”
“They aren’t harmful, Myka.”
The absolute gall Helena has, sounding reproachful. There is the body of a man crumpled on the floor behind them as evidence to the contrary. It’s sallow and bent to unnatural proportions, as if his contemplation of the Botticelli had warped his physiognomy to look like a product of his workshop, given life and flesh. Helena rolls her eyes when Myka gestures to the body, and ignores the sharp sarcasm in the gesture.
“He didn’t have anyone looking out for him, did he? Do you think so little of me, that I’d let you waste away without intervening?”
“I don’t trust you enough to put on an accessory with a body count, if that’s what you mean by ‘little’.”
Hundred and whatever years old, and she pouts like a five year old. That’s not— she’s— UGH!
“You can give me all the puppy dog eyes you want,” Myka says, as seriously as she can manage. “I’m not putting them on.”
“You,” Helena says cheerfully, “are so reliably childish.”
How can the act of putting on a pair of glasses be so smug, Myka wonders. There isn’t a way to move your arms like an elementary school teacher who’s just been relieved by the vice principal; it isn’t in the repertoire of human expression. But something about the arch slant of Helena’s eyebrows and elbows says, and now you’re in for it, hmmm?
The thing that occurs to Myka second is that everyone around the man must have been wildly uncomfortable. Helena’s eyes, through the spectacles, seem magnified beyond reason, and they go on forever, shining dark. Like pools of oil, like caverns, like deep-sea trenches: pick a metaphor, and there they are. They are like two black holes collapsing, infinitely, back into her mind, both of their ravening mouths fixed on the Botticelli to Myka’s left. There is something strangely cute about it: in the high gothic architecture of Helena’s face, those great, lovely eyes make her look doelike and benignly curious, even as they make her look alien and ravenous. As the man who’d worn them before starved to death, those eyes peeking up from his wizened face could only have been frightening.
The other thing is the gasp of sheer, exuberant rapture. It sits at the intersection of surprise and obscenity. Helena’s face is a mask of delight, and supreme focus.
Nothing. She casts a quick glimpse around, and no one seems to have noticed what Helena’s doing. Or maybe, more specifically, no one cares that the profound nuisance in the middle of their day has undergone a sea change.
It occurs to her that she can just call Artie and ask him about Vernon Lee’s glasses, without mentioning the spectacle in front of her. But Helena seems so intense, and so exultant…
She waves a hand in front of Helena’s face, and sees her magnified eyes blink in response. Slowly, as if in a dream, her lips part. “Myka … it’s wonderful…!”
The Venus has fluorescently bright lips, curved upwards in an idle, coquettish smile. She towers, monumental beyond human proportion, and seems to curve outward to meet the viewer at every opportunity. Her forearms have strange bends to them; her fingers are dark, and seem stiff where her legs are positioned with fluidity. She’s pretty; she’s odd. Myka recalls her final realization in the Birth of Venus being paler, older, more peaceful; she doesn’t loom over the viewer, but rather emerges victorious from her enormous, scalloped shell.
“What Vernon saw in art,” Helena says, and pauses. She wets her lips with her tongue. Each word and movement seem to come reluctantly, like diversions from her true purpose. “Was what she saw in herself. Perfect attention. Its result was a … cultivated empathy with a work of art.”
The thing that occurred to Myka first was how eager Helena had been to put those glasses on.
That rapture is giving way to a more intense look of displeasure. Myka tries to trace her gaze and thinks Helena might be looking down at the painting’s feet, and their elongated second toes.
Perfect attention… So the glasses amplify your capacity to focus on, and thus appreciate, the painting. But if what Helena says is true, they also turn your gaze back on yourself somehow. From Helena’s twinned ecstasy and displeasure, Myka guesses they amplify your emotional response.
So the glasses create a feedback loop between the art and your emotions. And if that cultivated empathy becomes too cultivated, the glasses let the art take you over entirely.
… Is that what empathy is, at the end of the day? Yikes.
Still with that same laborious cadence, Helena is saying: “Vernon and I were both fascinated by empiricism, at first. Where she eventually became the primary object of her own structuralist analysis, I was eventually… taken in by Gestalt psychology. This was aspirational for both of us: that an atomistic approach might give rise to a well-substantiated radical aestheticism; that the world was but a superstructure whose constituent parts could be endlessly and repeatedly manipulated.”
“Should the glasses stop you from talking?” It’s a genuine question, though it sounds meaner than she intends. There’s a dead man who, under the influence of the glasses, couldn’t think beyond the painting to basic human function. Helena’s articulate as ever, only in slow motion.
Helena’s brows furrow, and she seems to be about to deliver some sort of riposte; as she does, she turns.
Those eyes are fixed on Myka now. She has to remind herself that they’re Helena’s, so wild and vast under the glasses.
“What?” Do I have something on my face? springs to mind. So does knock it OFF before I knock those glasses off YOU.
“Did she ever turn these on her fellow woman, I wonder?” Helena muses both at and past her. “No, I suspect not— oh, Myka, beautiful Myka…”
Helena’s brow is furrowed once more with rapt concentration. She must be narrowing her eyes. Face to face, Myka can track the path of her eyes more clearly and does so with a hot flush of embarrassment, as they venture south along the lines of her body. There are a lot of thoughts clamoring to be heard at the front of her head, but the one that wins is the realization that Helena’s looking at her the way she looked at that Venus, with her broken forearms and dark toes. It’s embarrassing, trending toward insulting.
“Vernon said she had to train herself to look at Botticelli’s work and see its beauty,” says Helena. “It was a beauty in its anti-realism— a greater Truth in the sallow and unfriendly lines. Beauty for its own sake, against use and function…”
“Take the glasses off, Helena,” Myka hisses. She’s noticing cops looking their way, now. At some point a docent or paramedic will begin to wonder why an FBI agent would put on a dead man’s glasses.
“But I don’t think she ever turned that thought process onto a real body.”
Myka bites the bullet. If these glasses make their wearers lose themselves in art, then Helena may put up a huge fuss when Myka tries to pull them off her face. She’s going to have to put on a show of arresting her, and dragging her out of the Met by the shoulder. It’s going to be so annoying.
She’s about to reach out to take them when Helena, somehow, reaches up and removes them.
It doesn’t look like the easiest thing she’s ever done, but two men have died in these glasses. Comparatively, it's like scratching an itch.
Helena folds their arms back neatly before she offers them to Myka. She ignores the question, and brushes her hands off casually against her hips. It’s a timeless gesture of doneness, and readiness to go.
It takes Myka another second to formulate it. “Wait— how can you just take them off?”
There’s a smug little twinkle in Helena’s eye. It has a distinct air of elementary, my dear Watson, with its precise bastard relation to reality as well. “You’ve noticed, I imagine, that artifacts tend to single out or disproportionately effect certain individuals?”
“Oh. Oh of course.”
Undaunted by Myka’s obvious realization, Helena forges ahead. “Its corollary is that certain individuals will be less effected, or even ignored entirely, by an artifact. Vernon and I were not particularly philosophically compatible, so while her glasses offer me an incredible experience of beauty and cognition, their sway over me is insubstantial.”
“Right,” says Myka.
It’s hard to get the angle right, but by scooting about 30° right, she can conceal the glasses and the neutralizing bag, and whatever explosion of light and heat will be generated by their convergence, behind Helena. Only the end of the perimeter and the Madonna and Child have a clear view.
She leans back, craning her neck, when she drops them in, but Helena just watches, calm and quiet. A shower of amber sparks reflects in her dark eyes, which now seem small and mundane.
“Well,” says Myka, slipping the bag into her coat pocket. “Thanks, I guess.”
Helena smiles up at her. There’s something in her eyes that looks old, now— not as old as she truly is, but older than she appears to be, and tired too.
“You’re welcome,” she says quietly. Then she seems to remember herself. “All in a day’s work, right?”
“Normally we don’t commit federal crimes on the job.”
Helena frowns quizzically. “That can’t be true. Give me an hour with the law code, and I’ll have an itemized list of the ways you’re wrong.”
Oasis. But also don’t forget that the desert is still there. Shifting sands make all firm ground mere artifice, a trick of wind and physics. She might be up to her ankles in something nasty. But something in the last 30 seconds has made her want to do something she can’t quite articulate, something for Helena. Something in that register of beauty, which is not for use or function, but merely in the shape of its movements, and how the eye follows them.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Myka says, and she can’t. “But the Guggenheim’s just down the street. You know, if you want to tell me more about Vernon Lee and German psychology. Or whatever.”
Helena scrutinizes her. Her eyes do narrow when she’s focusing hard on a face, Myka notices. Out from behind the glasses, readjusting to the world, they seem to be reclaiming their characteristic depth, fathom by fathom.
“No,” she says finally. “I don’t think that would be wise.”
She’s still for a moment, and her eyes remain narrow in concentration. Then she smiles, small and tentative. Or maybe it’s insincere— Myka can’t tell. Then she turns on her heel and leaves.
Myka’s last sight of her is in profile, sharp and elegant. Her lips curve into an easy smile as she leans in to say something to a paramedic, and gestures to one of the museum staff. The arched halls affording passage into the galleries are high, but the ceilings of the galleries themselves, and the main hall, are higher. As Helena passes through the entryway, she seems suddenly adrift, a dark figure diminishing in scale against pale stone and among the relics of time and beauty. It’s only a dry burning sensation in Myka’s eyes that tells her she hasn’t blinked in a while.
When she does, Helena is gone.
Artifacts carry, with varying strictness, the energetic imprint of expectations. In other words, many appear to have a gimmick strictly because their owners or originators were pigeonholed, or were single-minded in their desires and strivings.
Vernon Lee had a fine eye for art, and a mind whose natural appetite for the artifice of art’s beauty had been cultivated from its near-starvation in youth. She was not limited in her exploration of beauty, though ‘natural’ and human beauty, as she identified them, were more intuitive to her, and thus compelled less of her energy and devotion.
Less, but not none. To be a great lover of beauty is, after all, to be a great lover of the world. In this way, Helena thought, it was a cruel trick that her glasses would cause later lovers of beauty to turn away from natural and human beauty, and live only in artifice.
Live, in her mind, were the long, generous limbs of that coquettish Venus, their bowing proportions which caused the painting to seem to lean towards her, and to burst vitally forth. She recalled that Vernon Lee shared Walter Pater’s initial disdain for Botticelli’s women, judged his Madonnas and nymphs peevish, sickly, and sallow. Those women like dying flowers, who seemed to buckle, like petals in the snow, under the warm touch of their own burdensome importance. Pure poetry, Vernon had said. Pure poetry of rhythm and imbalance, fascinated by the delicate balance by which imperfection was a thing which strove toward a transcendent beauty. In this way, it was the ultimate gesture of belief. The Venus’ toes were dark like they were frostbitten, and her hands had a gentle tension to them, like a startled hare ready to spring. Her smile was wistful in its flirtatiousness; newly born, she knew nothing of love except that she embodied it, and was formally amorous before she knew what that meant. It was a different kind of realism, one which had at its center a base humanity, a conative perfection.
And then there was Myka, putting herself in her eyes’ path.
Myka, Myka— no one would ever have misjudged her beauty the way they did Botticelli’s women. Helena had, in the style of the time, initially judged them as morose, weak, and vacant shades of women, whose lack of liveliness was as opposed to beauty as it was to realism.
It was the miserable and tired quirk of Myka’s eyebrows, folding the skin of her forehead between them, that first lit into Helena.
One of Vernon’s guiding lines of inquiry had been, in paraphrase: how does my approach condition my response to a work of art? Am I seized by it, in a fleeting ecstatic state? Is beauty a constant in my life and psyche, or merely a lark? In a world where all atomization of experience can only be accomplished theoretically, what am I to do but approach, time and time again, with a mind fastidiously recording every detail about myself, my setting, and my proclivities, and see where I find the constants?
No gun between them, but a corpse. The soft sounds of conversation, echoing but diminished in the vast gallery. The range of emotions across Myka’s face, each pulling muscle and flesh to a new angle, all of them beautiful, all of them evocative. There was no initial apprehension of a dying flower of a woman to be overcome. She knew her eyes narrowed in focus only because the world darkened and blurred around Myka, who sharpened and clarified in response.
What was it, the feeling that shot down her neck to her chest, and hung there, humming and buzzing?
It occurred to her that her methods were the obverse of Vernon’s. The atomistic and additive methods looked in opposite directions as they performed the same functions: one pared away the larger structures of patterns and combinations, and searched for a core; the other looked outward, towards the endlessly constructed and constructing fabric of reality that emanated from it. Two truth claims, one object.
She didn’t know what Vernon would have said of human beauty. The glasses were no testament to it. The closest they came to consuming her was in the moment, in those first seconds, that an exquisite and near-tectonic twitch of annoyance moved Myka’s brow, and it seized her by the heart— that she was still alive to experience this, alive to see life and beauty, alive to think about its many forms. So all-encompassing was this grip on her heart that it pushed aside the constant corollary to her continued existence: that her life had been hollowed out and made unreal by loss, time, and a consumptive madness which would have been, in any other woman, brief and explosive, like a balloon popping. This corollary created for her the sensation that she was not clinging to life so much as lashed to it by her wrists and ankles, with only the hope that it might be in the service of drawing, hanging, and quartering her. She had no remaining desire to die, but she felt that life simply and inexorably happened around her, and would be most merciful at its close.
All this, brushed entirely aside by Myka’s nose wrinkling as she took stock of the situation.
She thought she put on a good show of calm when she removed the glasses, sending a silent and entirely aspirational thought to Vernon, wherever the time after life had secreted her: we’re not so different, you and I. We both thought the answer was additive, insofar as when you add all your attempts up you get, eventually, the true perfect thing, the singular object of your desire. It was like blowing a kiss to the cosmos, and hoping it landed.
All that desire for perfect understanding, gone to rot over the decades. All those artifacts, and how they warped your mind and nature, performing a thoughtless gesture again and again, without the capacity to know or care about the consequences.
Myka seemed sobered, too, and watched her with a new and wary friendliness.
It was wrong, suddenly, all wrong. She was standing there, watching beautiful Myka neutralize the glasses, surrounded by a group of people who didn’t seem to recognize that the world had, for a brief moment, reoriented on its axis. It confused and worried her heartily. It made her wish she’d shared in Charles’ obsession with man’s inhumanity to man; it had put him at greater ease with the world than her own obsessions ever could.
Like light scarring her vision, the quirk of Myka’s lips into a smile seemed still inflected by that radiant, transcendent, magnified image of them twisting into a frown— two types of concern mingling, with something unknown at their core.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Guggenheim’s just down the street. You know, if you want to tell me more about Vernon Lee and German psychology. Or whatever.”
She longed to, for a moment. She knew precisely where to start: you know, I rather think I bored her. When Myka’s fastidiously organized mind recovered from whatever the great and odd shock she’d clearly experienced alongside Helena was, she’d broach, once more, the topic of the bronze.
Vital, beautiful Myka. Helena thought that if she went with her down the street to the Guggenheim, she would indeed tell her. She would look into the dual image of Myka, the one that was real and material, and the one that was still seared into her retinas, which is the abstract desire of all that lives to live in the pleasure of beauty, and divulge more of herself than she ever meant to divulge.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think that would be wise.”
As she left the gallery, she blinked hard and fast, which made her eyes prickle with reflexive tears, but also made the image fade, finally, from her vision.