THE MIRACLE OF ST ELIZABETH, An excerpt from the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
A text by the 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Dessislava Dimova
This being a crucial period of my life, a period of serious decision making, just as I sit there, all of a sudden – bang! Here it comes! Another decision! So I decide to put an end to the tormenting cycle (no more isolation, no more cheese sandwiches, no more insomnia and gossip magazines). I am dead set on it: the celebratory chapter of St Elizabeth's life must begin, she now takes matters into her own hands, she runs along the touchline, dribbles, passes the ball on to Ronaldo, Ronaldo to Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho kicks it back to St Elizabeth, she approaches the penalty line, strikes with her left foot, AAaand GOOooooooaaa… the ball hits the post. Such a missed opportunity, it was so close, a magnificent strike, magnificent play. St El. K. proves that she's a good team player; that's how it should be, that's how the game is played; soccer is a team effort, so is art, and even more so religion – unless one is god, but then one would not be human; unless one is Christ, and Christ died already and rose from the dead, but in any case, he is not in the game, so, the lesson is this: we need team play, COMmunication. Other people are a key factor in the celebratory cycle, and if, moreover, divine communication rises to the task, then we can surely expect miracles. Dear viewers, that’s why we are here, we need a miracle tonight, and we know that miracles happen in soccer, they happen in soccer more often than anywhere else, more often than in the lives of the saints. This is the end of the first half. We'll be right back after the commercials, waiting for the miracles of St Elizabeth.
I summon Elizabeth and Elizabeth to have a talk.
We are in the cave near the spring and the tree that lowers its branches every time I think of how much I love figs. The cave is quiet and cozy, the chairs are made of solid wood, the table is covered with a crocheted tablecloth, on the rough rock walls there are paintings of flowers – lilies, peonies, daisies – and also a few portraits of women, coquettish, self-assured, at ease with worldly affairs. On the table, there are cookies, Liège porcelain cups and Ceylon tea. Next to them, there's a big album of Leonardo's drawings, an illustrated catalogue of Dutch landscape painting and a magazine with pictures of male nudes.
Elizabeth and Elizabeth are sitting across from me, each with an elbow resting on the table. They look embarrassed and somewhat guilty, maybe because I asked them to come, or maybe because they can guess what I am about to say.
Elizabeth, the Old One, has lowered her head and plays with the edges of her faded robe. Elizabeth, the Worldly One, has her chin up, perhaps because the lace of her collar chafes against it. She appears ready to show contempt and reject any accusations, whatever they might be.
"Elizabeth," I begin, and both turn their eyes to me, expectantly.
"Elizabeth", I say, looking straight at the Old One, "you are not even a real saint. You are merely "Righteous" Elizabeth, and you would not even be on the calendar were it not for Zacharias. You do not have your own "life," you only appear in that of your husband."
"Well, he wouldn't be on the calendar, either, were it not for me," Elizabeth says, without raising her eyes.
"Quiet now. We are trying to analyze the situation," I say severely. "So, I am not even named after a saint."
"Well, there is a St Elizabeth, but she comes later," Elizabeth interrupts me again, still not daring to raise her eyes. How literal-minded she is, this woman. Who would have imagined that talking to one's predecessors would be like this! I won't let them disconcert me.
"And you gave birth to John the Baptist, also known as the Precursor, an unfortunate boy whose only purpose was to identify the Savior. Well, and baptize him, but this was merely symbolic, because the Holy Ghost descended to do the job. In other words, if we try to analyze logically the situation, he showed people what they could not see for themselves. I like that. But we cannot ignore the fact that in the biblical story you are a woman of small significance. You come after the Virgin Mary, after St Anne, after Mary Magdalene, even after the myrrh-bearing women. On the other hand, you conceived at an older age, which goes to show that women are ageless and, when chosen to do so, they can accomplish great deeds, even if it appears no longer possible. Is that right?"
"Yes, that's right," Elizabeth replies and looks up hopefully.
"Also, I like the fact that you spent the last part of your life in a cave, and that you asked the mountain to open for you. You could have asked the Earth to split open or you could have asked for an eagle, or the wind, to carry you away, but the mountain thing was not a bad idea. All in all, you are the proof that just like history, the Bible was written by men, and they failed to give due homage to those who deserved it the most. Also, that painters are only interested in young women and they wouldn't have shown such enthusiasm painting even the Virgin Mary, had the Bible mentioned that she was OLD. So, Elizabeth, I am going to paint your portrait and create works about your exile on the mountain, which you accepted, so that the Baptist could be saved and so that His command might be done. Because just like you, Elizabeth, I sit at home in Sofia, alone, isolated, in my cave; no tree lowers its branches for me there and I need to buy food and I need money, but I live like a hermit, trying to do what needs to be done, while people on the street sigh and whisper: "There goes another pile of daubs that will end up in the trash."
All three of us Elizabeths become thoughtful. We look around the cave, and above at the blue sky, warm like a rooftop; we feel safe, and we each grab a cookie – we'll need some energy later, when we'll be far away from here.
I wash down the cookie with some tea and start again.
"Mrs Elizabeth," I say, already calmer, meaning to scold her only gently. "'Worldly' Elizabeth. It's better than being called "Righteous", but it doesn't even come close to being called a "saint." To be honest, I find the "worldly" part of your biography a bit annoying. I understand that it was important to draw from nude models, and I wholly approve of this thing with the housemaid. Your paintings are great. I find it also praiseworthy that you left your husband so that you could go to Munich. And the party-going is acceptable, too."
"What's the problem, then?" She looks at me slyly over her half-eaten cookie.
"You are too active! That's the problem. Better idle than work in vain, as the saying goes. It contradicts everything I believe in. You were always busy – you published stuff in magazines, you participated in ALL the exhibitions of the association, you collected traditional embroideries, you gave talks. It wasn't enough for you to become an artist, you had to be a public figure. Angelina Jolie is too much for me, Miss World is too much for me. All the appointments and this home business and home culture, you were just tireless! I get dizzy looking at you."
"It was important at the time. This was the 20th century, don't you see? The rebirth of the Bulgarian state, life was changing, there was construction going on, we were laying the foundations of what was to become the country's culture, the industry, the railways, all those things," she says.
"Right, you could at least have written a manifesto on the nude body, or you could have given a lecture on industrial design – but you, you chose "Home" and "traditional folk costumes", flowers and portraits of ladies. You just confirmed that a woman, no matter how educated, was still a woman and she should know her place. Also, you presented the traditional dresses as some kind of folk exotica."
"If you must know, at the time it was very important to rethink Bulgarian culture and art, to figure out how to reconcile our embrace of European values with the customs and traditions of the Bulgarian village," she fumes. "And if more women had followed, we would not be in this mess now!"
"You think you're so smart, don't you! If you had concentrated on your painting, rather than scattering your energy all over the place, Elena Karamihaylova would not be more famous than you now."
Stunned, Elizabeth fell silent. I only hoped she would not choke on the cookie, because I would never be able to forgive myself.
"And that's not all," I continue, pressing my advantage. "If you had concentrated on your art, if you had given more THOUGHT to your art, if you had actually considered what it meant to create art," I take a deep breath, before rushing to the finish line, "you could have become the Bulgarian Cézanne, no, what am I saying? – the Bulgarian Malevich, or at the very least, the Bulgarian Sonya Delaunay, or Lyubov Popova. There are more, but their names escape me now. Well, that's what I wanted to tell you."
"I have done more than others did at that time and place," she says after a pause, shocked, but proud.
"Maybe it was not enough," I say thoughtfully. "Maybe doing more than others do is not enough. Maybe just doing MORE is not enough. One must do what needs to be done."
We remain silent. Although angry with me, she seems to understand what I am saying.
"Anyway. It's not my place to reproach you. That's not why we are here. We are here to analyze the situation, because we have to decide what I'm going to do," I add.
"You do what needs to be done," Righteous Elizabeth says.
"I don't want to be in your place," Worldly Elizabeth sighs.
We get up, shake off the cookie crumbs from our skirts, and hug each other. They promise to keep their fingers crossed for me. I promise Righteous Elizabeth to introduce wrinkles and old age into fine art, and I assure Worldly Elizabeth that I will do as she asks and spray "Fuck Mrkvicka" on the façade of the Fine Arts Academy.
We kiss good-bye, and then Righteous Elizabeth calls out: "Open, Mountain!" A path appears through the rock and I set off, while they wave at me. In the light of the setting sun, their faces seem like a vision of dark red pointillist dots.
I said that COMmunication was important. I never said with whom.
Dessislava Dimova is a writer and a curator. She is the author of the novel A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman, published in Bulgarian by 21 Razvitie Foundation, 2009, and of two plays: The Match of the Last Century, a radioplay, co-written with Pierre Bismuth (The Transmitter Show, Performa, New York, 2013), and The Silence of Space (featured in the programme of the Night of Museums and Galleries, Plovdiv, 2014). Her essays and articles on contemporary art have appeared in a number of specialised international magazines. Dessislava Dimova lives and works in Brussels.
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