City of Clay

by Andrew J. West

* This is an extract from the unpublished novel, City of Clay, which is about a New York portraitist who visits Thailand in search of the perfect model.


Eastlit September 2014. City of Clay Artwork. Picture by Vasan Sitthiket. Story by Andrew J WestI instruct my model to stand on a drop sheet near the covered front window. She lifts herself effortlessly from the lounge, weightless, borne on a carpet of air, serenely shifting herself without the slightest exertion, floating over to the drop sheet. I behold her every movement, allowing her soul to speak to me in the wordless language of her body.

She turns to face me directly.

The first thing I need her to do is remove her dress and for me to consider the entirety of her unencumbered configuration. With a simple nod from me, she unlocks the broach pinning the single piece dress draped over her shoulder, allowing the fabric to fall.

Seeing her entirely naked is shattering, causing me to physically tremble.

After regaining my senses, I examine her body as Michelangelo would have done the block of luminescent Carrara marble from which he was to carve out his David. She is the block from which I will create my David, but she is free from the impurities of Michelangelo’s marble.

Perhaps, after modeling her in clay and casting her in bronze, I will plate her in gold and ivory, with diamonds for eyes as the ancient Hellenic masters would have done. Her carbon will be my clay. I shall make a carbon copy of her as she is without the need for the slightest change.

She, liberated from the ugliness and evil of the world, will become an icon of refuge for all who see her. And if the ancient masters could make flesh of marble—capable of being shattered by any earthquake—then I can make truer tissue using the more malleable clay.

Clay, which already composes the physical body of the human being, may allow me to surpass the ancient Greeks whose greatest works didn’t survive the ravages of time.

If I could, I’d pinch her by the ankles and dip her in gold, or simply exhibit her as she is, but know that’s not the right approach. No, forming her in clay will be perfect. Then, I can leave it to the workers at the foundry to take care of the subsequent menial steps to transfer the original image I create in clay into a polished bronze masterpiece.

No! No! No! It must be gold! Solid gold: not gold plating! It must be gold, the noblest metal of all. Nothing is more perfect.

Such an exquisite work of art, cast life-size in gold, would be a sensation surpassing anything created in the world of art for the last two thousand years. Not since Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidus, which the Roman author Pliny the Elder considered the finest statue in the entire world, or Phidias’ colossal Athena Parthenos, will such a work have been seen by living eyes.

Even Michelangelo’s David, that aspires to equal its Hellenic antecedents, and is only considered the greatest sculpture in the world because the original Hellenic sculptures are extinct, will be surpassed in this work of art. He worked in impure marble, not ductile clay and gold. And I have her standing not three meters in front of me right now and don’t have to rely on mythology and intermediaries to distort my vision of her.

But, even as gold, the spirit of her mortal original will always live within it, the spirit of woman made golden goddess only through clay. Once the final mold is broken and her ultimate transformation revealed, she will live forever, long after the curtain on my own short life has fallen.

I turn out the light and, in absolute darkness, circle around her.

I must make the infinite inward distance of blackness visible. Leonardo da Vinci said, “The eye deludes itself least of all the senses.” But he was wrong: the eye deludes itself most of all the senses, and he of all artists should have known that. Any painter with a little training can deceive the eye with simple tricks of perspective, many of the rules for which Leonardo was first to develop.

I hesitate before allowing myself to touch her for the first time ever, hovering my fingers a fraction of an inch above her breasts. I sense the attraction of our opposing energies cross from one body to the other, so strong it discharges as a spark through the space separating us. Only once our equilibrium is established do I allow the pads of my fingertips to touchdown. I am Midas using the power to create gold for the first time.

This first touch is to be savoured. Her aromatic skin is as tactile as the petal of a fresh flower.

I draw in every inch of her body through my hands, kneading her with my fingers and thumbs, rubbing her with my open palms, allowing my hands to penetrate her skin, which is unspoiled by day’s destructive rays, as though she has never seen the direct sunlight. Through the layers of skin I feel her bone, cartilage, fluids, arterial and neural tissues, muscles and hair.

Her lamina transforms me.

In the pitch black, I’m able to shut down my conscious mind and summon up the lower levels that instinctively know what to do, allowing my mesmerized hands to work automatically as they memorize her body. I allow the laws of her nature to control me, summoning her spirit to pass through my hands and imprint itself.

Everything that once bound me to Earth, that once bound me to matter, becomes immaterial. The unnatural world and all the nonentities we surround ourselves with deliquesce. Replacing it, the mute music of her body offers ultimate knowledge in benign notes and chords annihilating everything outside of her from the perception of my senses.

There is one place my fingers avoid—the most sacred holy of holies—the entrance to her subterraneous cavern containing the sacred source of the greatest good and uncountable joys. Despite the almost impossibly powerful desire it summons within me to be explored, I wilfully resist, only permitting my fingers to feel her fine fleece. I decide not to consecrate her hallowed ground until it’s time to sanctify our union.

Holding her in my hands, I’ve found the answer to the great cosmic riddle and, having found her, my single wish is to hold her as I am now, forever.

With the power she has given me, I feel strong enough to keep the world from spinning and stop the sun’s emanations from ever reaching my door. Then, I could keep her entirely for myself and never have to share her with the world.I could keep her as the secret of my soul.

After hours of drawing her in, I’m inevitably sucked over the precipice into sleep, plummeting so far over the waterfall that I’m plunged deep beneath the surface, so far down I know I’ll never rise again, but will lie forever on the bottom of the crushing ocean.

Editor’s Note on Perfect Present:

You can view a larger picture of the drawing for City of Clay by clicking on the picture at the top or going to Vasan Sitthiket’s City of Clay artwork.

Note on Author’s Work:

Perfect Present is not Andrew J. West’s first story in Eastlit. The following works have also been published in Eastlit:

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