The last story in Alt Hist Issue 7 is the wonderful “The Red Vortex” by Priya Sharma. Priya Sharma has contributed a number of stories to Alt Hist in the past. Her last story, “After Mary” from Alt Hist Issue 5, was recently recognized by Ellen Datlow as one of the most notable horror stories of 2013. Her latest piece for Alt Hist, “Red Vortex”, is my favourite of Priya Sharma’s stories so far. “Red Vortex” is a compelling exploration into the psychology of a great figure in history. Priya paints a picture of an early life that is completely believable and fearsome. The “Red Vortex” lifts the lid on the psyche of a monster.
The Red Vortex
by Priya Sharma
There is only red in the vortex. It’s an abyss. A whirlwind. It sucks me in, roaring in my ears, pouring out again from my nose and mouth. Through my fingers. My scribbling is furious, making my fingers bleed. The pencil lead snaps, the pressure tears the paper.
It is a catharsis in crimson. I am in the vortex.
I am the vortex.
I waited for the man who didn’t know he was my father. I’d followed him often, trying to glimpse myself in his face. I’d watch from the café across the street when I had money, sitting there while a skin formed on my milky coffee.
On the day I’d chosen to approach him I did my best to look presentable. I rose early so that I could shave, there being a queue at the shelter for hot water. I put on my only suit. Despite this attempt at respectability the mirror revealed a starving, lice ridden creature with sore feet from walking the streets all day in search of work. My hand trembled as I combed this wretch’s hair.
I hurried after him. We passed girls selling violets from baskets. The smell of charred chestnuts rose from a brazier. Bills posted on a wall proclaimed Wagner at the opera house. Only the year before, when I’d been in better circumstances, I’d buy the best seats for myself and August, my roommate. That was before I’d gone home to care for my mother. Before she told me everything.
He turned abruptly.
“How do you know my name?”
He smelt like an artist, all turps, oil and creation.
I’d imagined him as a frail intellectual but I could tell, even at a distance, he was muscular and athletic. I hadn’t expected him to be powerful. I hadn’t expected to admire him. I dithered before him like an idiot. The only thing that galvanised me was the thought of Papa before he died, barking at me to stand up straight. I wanted Ernest Bloch’s first impression of me to be a good one.
“I have a letter of introduction from your brother.”
He took it, examining the handwriting before ripping it open with a snort and pulling out the note with carelessness, not caring if it creased.
He read as he walked. I tried to keep up.
“My dear brother.” Bloch curled his lip. “I don’t hear from him in years and then he sends along some stray for me to take in. Do you know Samuel well?”
“He’s our family doctor.”
He gave me a half look, half smile that was all about his brother and nothing about me. We’d reached the door to his building.
“You’ve five minutes to convince me.”
I lay down red paint in thick, concentric rings. The watercolour paints wash together, the paper’s periphery pale and muted, its centre rich and dense. This duality pleases me. It reflects my own genesis. I am the product of two fathers.
“So, you paint.”
“Art is in my blood.”
No other comment could have earned me more derision. When Ernest finished pasting me with his tongue, he flicked through my portfolio. The sound of paint scarred sheets being sifted was excruciating.
A charcoal nude watched me from his easel. I recognised his style. The flow of her limbs. Her narrowed eyes regarding me with suspicion. Small, high breasts. A coil of hair slid over her delicate shoulder.
The furniture in his apartment was dark and dusty. Books were heaped on the sideboard in untidy heaps. I didn’t like this disorder. My mother was a consummate housekeeper. There were never untidy piles or dust in our home. No portraits of unclothed woman. Even with a maid, my mother still insisted on doing chores. She’d been a maid herself once, a distant cousin of my father, who’d come to work for him. She became his wife when he became a widower. In fact, she still called him Uncle, as she had when she had first arrived to help nurse his first wife. Uncle will be upset if you make too much noise at supper. Uncle is very tired tonight, play quietly.
Ernest picked out two pieces of my work for further scrutiny. One was my most accomplished still life, flowers spilling from an urn in sprays of colour. The other was of the red vortex. I hadn’t meant for him to see that. I should have removed it. I was making a mess of everything.
“This shows all the ability of a proficient schoolboy,” he pointed to the flowers, “it lacks courage.”
He went to the vortex, casting a long shadow over the bright rectangles of afternoon sunshine that marked the wooden floor. “This one is much more interesting.”
I was surprised.
“You daub like a madman. Your passion controls the brush, not you. What is it you want from me?”
I wanted to tell him how the paint clings to the brush, how its smell persuades me to greater daring. How it spreads on the canvas in peaks and valleys. Streaks and stains. Its purity. It is my heart. My stomach. The cancer in Mamma’s breast, boring into her ribcage. My blood spilling on the floor, Papa’s fist still raised.
Instead: “I want to be better.”
“You’ve come all the way to Vienna for that?”
“For excellence. Show me how to be successful like you.”
“I can’t give you that. You have to take it for yourself.”
“You said I’m proficient. That I have passion. Show me how to use them.”
“No one can show you. You have to learn for yourself. Try and the process will show you. You’re in Vienna, surrounded by every type of art. Go and see the Klimt paintings. Look and learn.”
I refrained from spitting on the floor. Gustav Klimt and his ilk were infecting the splendour of Vienna with their gruesome modernism. What critics called sensual was merely corruption.
“No. I am for the traditionalists,” I replied.
“But your heart is not traditional.” He tipped the vortex on its side and stared into it again. “There is nothing traditional here.”
“I want to go to the Royal Academy.”
“Excellence. You went there yourself.”
“Excellence. You like that word. Yes, I was a student there, but I’d still be a painter without it. The Academy can’t teach you desire. Or discipline. And there are important things it can unteach you.”
I had no time for his word play.
“I want them to accept me.”
There was a shift that cast clouds across his eyes.
“You’ve already been rejected?”
“The rector said I’m more architect than artist.”
“Go and be an architect then,” was his retort, understanding my deceit completely.
“That’s not what I want.”
I was losing him. I followed him into the kitchen. He took a loaf of dark rye bread and cut slices with decisive strokes. Then the cheese, dense and yellow, leaving grease marks on the blade. I coveted his little snack.
“I want to be great,” I said, feet blistered, collar frayed and stomach rumbling.
He chewed, considering this.
“I have certain expectations.”
“Anything.” I was relieved that I hadn’t had to play my hand after all.
“You work. You work. You work. You follow orders. You suffer. Greatness requires sacrifice. You struggle.”
“My struggle,” I smiled, enamoured of the idea.
I throw myself in pigments upon the page. Scarlet burns the paper and warms me when I’m cold.
After Papa died there was only Mamma, Paula and Aunt Johanna. Paula was an adoring sister, Aunt Johanna stern but doting. Mamma was the only one who understood me though. She knew I’d be important. She encouraged me in everything.
I watched her ebb away upon the chaise. She called me close, putting a cachexic arm around me.
“My darling boy,” she sighed away another precious breath. “You didn’t want me to know about Vienna, did you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Such a good son. Always thinking of me. I know about the Royal Academy rejecting your application.”
I spluttered mock denials, wondering who’d denounced me.
“How can a mother not know?” Her smile was slight and sweet. “Listen to me. I can help you.”
“Not now. Sleep a while.”
“Listen to me! Dr Bloch has a brother in Vienna, an artist, who went to the Academy himself. I asked Dr Bloch to write a letter of introduction.”
“Don’t talk of Vienna.” I couldn’t think of leaving home again. When that time came it would mean that the unthinkable, inevitable had happened. She would be dead.
“Ernest Bloch can help you.”
“Why should he?” I was nothing to him.
“Because he’s your real father.”
I honoured my father but I loved my mother. I keep her photograph close. I’m no insipid, cowering boy though. I stood my ground, even when Papa flew at me for defying him. Mamma always tried to get between us. His belt buckle cut her. Then he’d kick me until I pissed blood.
When I lifted Mamma up to rearrange her cushions, she weighed less than a child in my arms.
“Please don’t judge me harshly. When baby Otto died I was heartbroken. Ernest was kind to me.”
I set my mouth in a line. I didn’t like the way she said his name. Ernest. I wanted to punish her. She’d been an obedient wife, but not a devoted one. She’d betrayed us.
“It was wicked of me but I have no regrets. Without Ernest there wouldn’t have been you.”
The thin line of my mouth contorted as she kissed my forehead.
“You cured me of all the pain of losing Otto.” She’d had too many of her children die. “You have it in you to be great, my son. One day the whole world will know your name.”
I spent three months with my real father. His insistence that I begin my education again made me impatient. I suffered the indignity of childish exercises and lectures. Sometimes he’d slap the desk, too angry to notice that I didn’t flinch.
“No! Your grasp of form is clumsy. How can you hope to excel without mastering the basics?”
He made me go with him to exhibitions. I despised the squat white building at the top of Naschmarkt, with its ridiculous golden dome that looked like a cabbage. A modern monstrosity. I tapped my feet while he admired it. The art exhibited within was equally ridiculous.
“I’ve no interest in architecture.”
“You mean you have no interest in this.”
He was correct. By contrast, I’d often eulogised about the glorious proportions of the opera house, a building I adored. It was graceful and proper. I didn’t want us to start a debate that ended in an argument today. I was hungry. If he found me tolerable, he’d buy me lunch.
The café had fashionable heavy drapes and marble counters. Cream and chocolate creations flourished under glass domes. The air was full of cigarette smoke and conversation. A waiter brought a tray of coffee and cakes, overlooking my shabby clothes.
A crowd was on the street outside, bodies jostling against the café window. There were chants and banners. They were Mayor Lueger’s men, drumming up support for his manifesto on crime. I commented that I admired his ability to make decisions that were unpopular but necessary.
“So you agree with Lueger’s policies?” Ernest raised his chin, his way when questioning me.
“If he is to reduce unemployment, he must consider the Viennese first, not immigrants.”
“You’re an immigrant.”
“One day our countries will be reunited.” My home was on the border.
“And not all immigrants are useless layabouts,” he looked at me pointedly. “Many are physicians, surgeons, tailors, carpenters …”
“Money lenders,” I said without thinking.
“So, we are at the nub of it. The Jewish problem.”
I squirmed in my seat.
“All I’m saying is that the native Austrian should get priority …”
“So it’s not possible to be Austrian and Jewish?”
“Most Jews are Jewish first and Austrian second …”
“And all of them hard working taxpayers. So you agree with Lueger that I should be stripped of all assets and sent packing, along with every other Jew in Vienna?”
My cup rattled on the saucer. I’d gone too far. I muttered something about him being a good sort.
“Less orthodox?” Ernest sneered. “More palatable?”
Had this gone on our relationship might have ended there but Ernest turned to see who’d tapped his shoulder. I recognised my saviour as the girl in charcoal sketch. A slight creature, she slid into the empty chair beside us.
“You’ve cut your hair.” Ernest sounded petulant.
“You’re crabby today.” She kissed his cheek. At first I thought her no more than seventeen, but when she spoke I realised she was older.
“I’m in the middle of a painting. I need your hair long.”
“I shall have to get a wig then, shan’t I?”
“And I shall have to get a new model.”
Unruffled, she dismissed him and I felt her full attention. After a long look she tipped her head at Ernest as if to say, Well?
Ernest flicked the end of his cigarette into the ashtray. She’d diffused his anger, leaving exasperation.
“This is Liselle,” he said with a flick of the hand in her direction.
“Does he have a name?” Liselle asked.
“Nothing he’s earned yet,” he replied.
I told her my name. My cheeks burned as she laid a hand on Ernest’s arm. “He’s charming. He sounds like he’s reporting for duty. Why have you kept him hidden?”
Her boldness made me uncomfortable.
“He’s my new pupil.”
“A protégé! How exciting!”
“Liselle talks far too much for a model.” As Ernest spoke, she leant over and took his earlobe between her teeth. “Unusually she does see more than most prattling women. What do you make of my friend here?”
He jerked his head away from her. Liselle sighed and looked at me, sliding her hand up his thigh. Ernest’s charcoal sketch didn’t convey her colour. Skin like a pale apricot. Dark blonde curls. Yellow flecks around her pupil that made the blue of her eyes look stitched on. Clear eyes, like Mamma’s.
The appraisal was mutual.
“He has his destination fixed so firmly in his mind that he ignores all the possibilities of the journey,” she said. “He’s not open. He doesn’t understand that’s the only way to feel alive.”
I felt put down. She imagined herself the more sophisticated of us two because she was sleeping with Ernest.
“Shall we go?” Liselle asked. She clung to Ernest as he found his feet. Thankfully he’d thrown down money for the bill.
All that remained on the plates were crumbs and cream. I finished them after they’d gone.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
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