Save the Heart for Last
by Tessa Byars
Marina flicked the switch and the shutters rolled up, an unforgiving tide of Aegean sunlight slowly flooding the bedroom.
“C’mon, time to get up. I’ve made you some coffee.”
Yannis, or whatever his name was, gave a groan and pushed back the sheet, shielding his eyes and grinning sleepily.
“Getting up sounds a good idea.”
“Not that sort of getting up.” She evaded the hand he reached out towards her. “I’ve got work to do. The shower’s through there.”
He was cute, she thought, as she looked at his crestfallen face. Very cute, and a welcome change from the usual hangers-on or critics she met at art shows. And he had good feet she noted as he made his way to the shower. She hated broad feet stomping about, loathed their brutish toes. Once, after some rather unsatisfactory sex, she’d made herself overcome her distaste and took a mould of the feet in question. Several months later the feet’s owner saw them in the Knightsbridge window of Studio Minerva. Grotesque bronzes with a hefty price tag; the ankles jagged as if hacked off with a monstrous knife. Better his feet than his prick, his friends mocked: Marina Godwin ate men for breakfast.
Back in her workroom, Marina saw no reason to tell Yannis that last night, unable to sleep, she’d sat drawing him, his arm flung out across the bed, the line of his body somehow tender and innocent. Like a young lion, she’d thought, sated in a sweet and dreamless sleep. But it was no good, the sketch hadn’t taken wing, the image in her head wouldn’t translate onto paper. As she put it aside again, she heard the subdued clang of the electric gates and the roar of his motorbike fading quickly away in the distance. Perhaps she shouldn’t have sent him packing so early. She’d submerged her emotions in her work long ago, but she had almost allowed herself to be touched by his youth and charm. Too late now.
Resenting her unfamiliar lethargy, she wandered restlessly about the workroom. Life in London had become shallow and relentless, and though she was still admired and celebrated, she felt jaded, as if her best work was behind her. It didn’t take long for a female artist to disappear into obscurity. She’d hoped that the villa would bring her renewed energy and inspiration, but still nothing was coming. The previous owner had died childless and intestate, the last of her line. The house was too remote and dilapidated for the usual buyers, and the agent appointed by the municipality had been keen to get rid of it. This was the old Crete, survivor of a vanished age, he’d told her in his excellent English, such places rarely came on the market.
“She was an artist too—a restorer of ancient tapestries, but a little temperamental. The locals didn’t like to cross her. They’ll be pleased to have a sculptress here instead,” he added with practised charm, ‘– especially one as well-known as you.’
‘Sculptor,’ she’d corrected him, and he had shrugged, amused.
Yet the renovation had been so fraught with difficulties and mishaps, the builders so uncooperative, that she had nearly begun to believe the superstitions about her predecessor’s evil eye. She berated herself for ignoring the agent’s hint about the villa’s reputation, however ludicrous it was. There were no new ideas, only headaches; even the small figurine of Minerva with its broken spear that she’d bought in Heraklion was a disappointment. Verdigris-stained, barnacle-encrusted, and so recently dredged up from its centuries on the seabed that she could smell the ocean’s brine. It was a bargain, the dealer said, his eyes greedy. It had reminded her of the first work she had ever sold: an etching of the goddess, proud and unyielding, her creature, the owl, in the background. Facing her outstretched spear, a mortal gazed defiantly back, wild hair sweeping around her like waves.
Yesterday, surprised by a sudden tide of regret, she’d foregone the usual haggling and paid what the dealer asked, but today she rued her sentimentality. She’d been had: the figurine was a clever fake – one more thing obstinately refusing to spark the creativity that normally came so easily.
She scowled at the large wooden box she’d been nagging Stavros about for the last month. It felt like an accusation, mocking her inactivity. Despite the builders’ reluctance to remove it, her predecessor’s loom had finally gone; this was now her only relic. Full of broken shuttles, and dusty cones of faded wools and silks, there the wretched box sat, and always some excuse why Stavros couldn’t get round to it. What the hell was she supposed to do with it? “Stavros, or no Stavros,” she thought, preparing to move it herself, “out the damn thing goes.”
The day was hot, but a breeze whispered up from the sea below the villa. It rustled through the eucalyptus trees, ruffling the still water of the new infinity pool. It stole through the open doors and stirred the intricate filigree of a spider’s web that spanned the condemned box like a protective veil. Her interest caught at last, Marina watched an owl moth flutter helplessly in the web, enmeshing itself ever more deeply. The spider watched too, waiting for her prey.
“Well now, little one, what are you up to?” Marina said, taking up her sketch-pad again. “Let’s see what we can do with you, shall we?”
No visit to the amusing little taverna on the quayside that night. No charming Yannis to distract her, either: there was work to do, and the vague persistent headache of the last few weeks disappeared. “Minerva, my girl, you aren’t a fake at all. You’ve just come in disguise,” she thought, the excitement of a new project bubbling up inside her. By the end of the day the workroom was littered with sketches: the spider; the wooden box where it hung; even the dusty wool and silk appeared more vibrant – the dazzling colours of Cretan earth, sea and sky. She didn’t know of the owl moth’s incongruity, out of season, away from its normal habitat on distant shores: she saw only the beauty of its markings, the eyes on its wings as wide as its namesake’s.
But it was the web she was drawn to most. The maker in her marvelled at the spider’s artistry, and as the day wore on she was fascinated by subtle changes of light and shade revealing or concealing its complex structure. At some deep and visceral level, she knew she was observed just as acutely in return. When she finally went to bed shadowy figures scuttled through her dreams, like a challenge she couldn’t refuse.
In the morning she was up early, accosting Stavros’s wife before she had a chance to clean.
Despina looked offended. “Kyria, you say don’t go in workroom. I don’t go.”
“Cobwebs. Istoús aráchnis,” she tried to explain again, fumbling for the words. “Don’t touch the cobwebs. Not in the workroom. Not anywhere.”
Despina raised her eyebrows, “Istoús aráchnis?”
Exasperated, Marina took her by the hand and dragged her into the usually forbidden workroom, gesturing to the web and the sketches of the spider. Reminders of the previous night’s internet searches were hastily scrawled in large black letters across the whiteboard: ‘territorial’, ‘cannibalistic’, ‘the heart goes last’. And, above them, a photograph of a female spider, the tiny sinister pearls of her own eggs waiting to hatch and devour her, one organ at a time.
Despina picked up a couple of drawings and looked at them thoughtfully. Slowly she handed them back, her face inscrutable.
“You make mýthos, kyria? Arachne, yes?”
“Arachne. Of course. It’s perfect. Arachne.”
Absorbed by a surge of ideas, Marina turned back to the drawing board. She didn’t notice Despina walk quickly away into the early morning heat and sunshine, crossing herself and calling anxiously for Stavros.
Of all the work that had made her name, nothing was as all consuming to Marina as her Arachne project. Notes, drawings and photographs jostled on the walls of her studio in London, as they did in Crete: they became the landscape of her dreams, a reality as tangible as any other. She felt herself to be at the same time moth and spider, hunter and prey; both invigorated and exhausted by the task she had set herself. She worked late into the night, week after week, her head aching from poring over every detail, until she was satisfied there were no errors that might elude her, nothing to diminish or destroy what she planned.
The industrial scale of the installation dwarfed anything she had done before. She visited steel works; employed designers and specialist architects; argued with engineers. She insisted there could be no compromises, only solutions. Marina Godwin’s name opened doors: sponsors, curators, critics demanded her attention; there were dinners and drinks parties to attend, interviews to give. Yet, as the work progressed and her vision came ever closer to realisation, she felt her energy ebbing, and some unknown nemesis drawing nearer. She took no lovers to her bed. Since Yannis there had been none. But alone in London late one night, remembering his tenderness and the sweetness of his body, she wished she’d not so heedlessly let him slip away. She made a new drawing and sent it to him, telling him when she would be back in Crete. Maybe it’s not too late, she thought and waited, but there was no reply.
When she finally returned from London, Despina and Stavros saw how her eyes had darkened with exhaustion, the colour of the sea before a storm. They saw how thin she was becoming, and how her collarbones were etched in shadows. She complained of frequent headaches, and a pain in her side. There were prescriptions to collect and trips to the hospital. Fearful, they whispered to each other, even to the priest, who chided them for their country superstitions. The old gods had gone, he told them, they were only ever tales to frighten children; the kyria was in the Lord’s good hands. Despina lit a candle to the Virgin, just in case. But they knew. Something was eating away at her, bit by bit.
Whatever Marina’s diagnosis was she kept it close; the work alone mattered. She made late design changes, summoning specialists whose arcane skills were known only to the most trusted members of her team. When the doctor came Despina glared at him reproachfully, slapping the coffee down, but Marina ignored all his admonitions. If the pain got so that she couldn’t sleep she would get up and wander around the workroom. There was Minerva, guarding her sea-worn secrets with her broken spear—and there on the wall before her was the whiteboard. Her notes about the spider still stained it: ‘territorial’, ‘cannibalistic’, ‘ the heart goes last’. She couldn’t erase them. Her fingers traced the thick black words as if they were an invocation or a curse.
Hearing of her illness, Yannis came at last, and she was glad: even Despina saw a kind of healing in her, and she worked less feverishly than before. Sometimes, when the heat of the day had cooled, Yannis would sit with her on the terrace watching the sunset, or he would walk quietly with her in the garden. She would show him a seedpod, the shell of a snail, or the skull of a bird, bleached and fragile.
“You see how perfect the structure is? This, and this,” she’d say, pointing out its features. “That’s what we strive for, but nothing comes close, nothing. Yet still we challenge the gods. We have no choice. It’s what makes us human.”
Postcards of Marina Godwin’s etchings and drawings, the photographs, the glossy catalogues, and expensive small-scale reproductions of her sculptures, are selling well in the Tate Modern’s shop at her controversial retrospective. The exhibition rooms throng with visitors but, above all, it is the huge installation that draws the crowds; nothing like it has ever been attempted before. Arachne is her defining work, say the obituaries: a giant web, over twenty metres high, spanning the whole width of the Turbine Hall, steel hawsers anchoring it in place. Seeming to tremble in the draughts from the entrance doors, it thrums with faint, unsettling sounds, like cries of ecstasy, or of pain. It has all the miraculous dew-decked elegance and deceptive simplicity of a spider’s web on an autumn morning. And at its heart, suspended in space, is the desiccated husk of a female figure. It is that which gives the installation its extraordinary power, for the body is Marina’s, embalmed and preserved to her exact instructions. Arachne is an image at once poetic and terrifying.
There is an unusual hush in the Turbine Hall as people gaze up at it. Here and there students quietly take photos, sketch or make notes. But only one among them will learn the true cost of that ecstasy, and the urgency of that pain. Her dreams are the elusiveness of leaves, or waves, or stones, or the ineluctable mysteries of clouds, and what she sees is not what others see. In the shadowed emptiness of the slowly revolving body that was once Marina Godwin there echoes the defiant rhythm of a beating heart, and its rhythm is her own.