“Posing for Tarkins” – Fiction by Joel Enos & Angela Enos

In Realms of Fancy - John William Godward, 1911
In Realms of Fancy – John William Godward, 1911

A naive young model gets caught in a reckless artist’s dangerous game in Joel Enos & Angela Enos‘ elegantly menacing story “Posing for Tarkins,” one of many flappy lits you can read in our Fall 2015 issue.

{ X }

THE LADY QUARANTAINE BLAMED HER MOOD’S SUDDEN SWING toward nostalgic melancholy on Stella. It was always Stella’s fault. It always had been.

“Scandalous!” Stella Potter laughed her horse’s neigh across the dinner table, prompting a look of shame from Philip, her long-suffering husband, and a chortle from another slightly intoxicated dinner guest, Carlotta Dunn.

“Who? Winifred Bunton?” This from Oscar Culmel, a dashing Spaniard and an artist in his own right, but only when his philandering allowed him time. “How do you mean?”

“No, no,” Ms. Potter took another large sip of wine. “Winifred is a class act. But that other artist back in the colony, the one who wanted to be Winifred but didn’t have half her talent…you know…Tarrrrrkinnnnnssss…” Another neigh. “Elaine, remember Tarkins? You knew him, didn’t you?”

The hostess of the evening, the Lady Elaine Quarantaine, smiled sadly at her unintentionally amusing friend. “Tarkins?” she said thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I did know him.”

But in truth, Lady Quarantaine most definitely knew Tarkins. She had killed him.

Elaine was not yet the Lady Quarantaine back then. She didn’t even go by Elaine. Of all the guests at this dinner that she’d prepared to celebrate her husband’s most recent art acquisition, only Stella knew that for a brief year, back in that faraway colony so awfully many years ago, the Lady Elaine had been much better known as the highly sought-after artist’s model, Durissa.

{ X }

The young Elaine and her family were in the colony because her father, though not as fortunate in business as some, had been entrepreneurial enough to know that the small ports and towns on the far reaches of the Empire were full of potential. He had a young wife, two small children, and an older daughter from his first marriage to Elaine’s mother. It was Elaine who would rechristen herself as the more glamorous-sounding “Durissa” and launch herself among the artists and thinkers of the expatriate community, all seeking their fortune in a rough but seductive land.

Durissa was the name of a port Elaine had never been to, but had found on a map. It made her feel as though she belonged with the self-invented artists she was cautiously mingling with, far more so than plain old Elaine ever could. The assumed name also bore the advantage of preventing her father from learning what his dear eldest daughter was up to; modeling for artists was not something a woman of her station did without permanent social repercussions. Of course, it was actually quite demure compared to what the other girls were doing and not at all, as her friend Stella would hiss in mock shock, “Scandalous!”

Stella, being a few years older and having already discovered suitors, kept a small flat of her own under the pretense of taking respectable art classes, as well as dictation, near city hall. Durissa, under the guise of doing the same, was using Stella’s new living quarters as a home base for her “Scandalous!” new life.

One night at a private exhibit, Durissa was feeling quite lost in the shadow of Stella, who had, as usual, been very loud while wearing a daring new gown. Durissa arrived at Stella’s flat earlier that day in her third-best party dress, because her friend had assured her that while true bohemians should never be the best dressed at a party, they must always the most interestingly dressed. The second part of the maxim was fulfilled by a bright red shawl of Stella’s own that she wrapped around Durissa’s shoulders as she admonished her for her lack of creativity.

“It’ll cover how hopelessly bourgeois your dress is and create a sense of mystery,” Stella assured her. “If you want to be someone’s muse, you’ve got to look like you know things they don’t and then make them desperately want to find out. It’s easy, really.”

Durissa nodded, allowed herself to be anointed with Stella’s pungent perfume, and felt almost transformed.

The transformation lasted until an hour into the party, when Stella and her “Scandalous!” dress had disappeared onto the balcony with a stranger. Once alone, she felt more like Elaine than Durissa. She fumbled with the shawl, attempting to remove it.

“No, don’t move an inch! Stay perfectly still.” A sharp voice cut through the hum of conversation around her, startling Durissa into the desired stillness.

A man stepped out of the crowd of black tuxedoes and grabbed Durissa firmly by the chin, turning her face in profile. “There. I had to see it. I never trust a woman without a strong profile,” he said, releasing his grip on her face. She could see him now, a man of middling height and looks that would be unremarkable without a personality that obviously was not lacking in certain panache. The brocade waistcoat, the impractical rings, the precision of his hair’s unkemptness: This man was certainly a bohemian. Stella’s absurd red shawl had worked.

“Forgive me, I was so taken with your profile that I forgot my manners. I’m Tarkins, artist. And you have a magnificent profile. Just the sort I’ve been looking for.”

“My name is Durissa.”

It was the first time she’d said it aloud to a stranger. With the artist Tarkins as witness, it became true.

“Pleased to meet you, Lady Durissa of the Marvelous Profile. Now, it’s criminal that two such fascinating creatures such as ourselves aren’t being more admired at this disappointment of a party, but I think I have a solution.”

Durissa’s daring gave way momentarily to Elaine’s well-taught caution. “I’m afraid that doesn’t sound at all—“

Tarkins looked her so squarely in the eye she feared he may grab her chin again.

“Dear, none of that business. But I am in great need of a beautiful woman to drink this old bore’s champagne with and lie in wait to see if his sodden wife will get sick on one of her priceless antiques.”

Durissa smiled, but only enough to remain mysterious.

The following day, a calling card was delivered to Stella’s rooms in an envelope inscribed only to “Durissa.” The card simply said “Tarkins, artist” followed by an address in a neighborhood Durissa knew only by its dubious reputation.

“He’s the most interesting man, dear,” Stella said slyly. “Not a terrible artist. And not at all a threat to your reputation, if you know what I mean.”

Stella made a hand gesture that alluded to the real reason Tarkins may have forsaken London to hide among the other “interesting” people in the edges of the colony.

“You should go. He wants to draw you!”

“Come with me, Stella.” Durissa was still not convinced and didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t quite as bold as she put forth.

But in the end, as was the way with Stella, something else came up, and Durissa went to visit the artist called Tarkins alone.

Tarkins’ studio was shabbier than she’d expected, but he entertained his guests with a grandeur that overshadowed the bohemian squalor. She was uncomfortable at first, but over time, as she realized his intentions were as purely artistic as Stella had promised, Durissa’s inhibitions eventually lowered enough that she spent several afternoons posing on a chaise in an artfully-draped Roman toga revealing one breast while she gazed at a broom handle standing in for a golden trident. The compositions were classical, but the lively studio was anything but. Tarkins was a lively raconteur, regaling Durissa with stories of his slightly risqué exploits, and inviting her to colorful bars to join his ever-rotating coterie of outcasts: natives, social criminals, substance abusers, displaced artists, and all stripes of those who felt rightfully unwelcome among the Colonial upper classes.

Tarkins himself was indeed a man of unapproved tastes. Once or twice while she was posing, Durissa saw handsome dark-skinned men slip from room to room as quietly and naturally as if they lived there. And maybe they did.

Aside from the phantom visitors, the only other resident of the studio besides the artist himself was a large, very loud parrot in an enormous brass cage. Durissa took an instant loathing to the gaudy creature and refused to pose near it. Tarkins found it all awfully amusing and claimed it was only natural that his two greatest models should be rivals.

Durissa never asked Tarkins about the young men and he never acknowledged that there were any. Everyone here was entitled to secrets. It wasn’t England, after all.

Many years and a lifetime later, the most unexpected things would put Durissa in mind of those long afternoons in the sun-drenched studio. Once Lord Quarantaine had caught her unawares at the edge of the garden on a late summer evening, standing absolutely still because she could swear the wind was carrying a trace of the sharp-smelling oil Tarkins had burnt in a little round lamp to ward off insects.  As with many transplants, Durissa’s sensitive English skin was no match for the local insect population. The incessant itching and swatting became a detriment to her holding still in Tarkins’ ever more demanding poses.

So instead of posing one afternoon, Durissa was delighted when she arrived at Tarkins’ studio and was briskly informed to put on her hat instead of her makeshift toga. They were going on an expedition.

Tarkins turned out to be remarkably deft at navigating the automobile across the rough terrain, zigging and zagging like a steeplechaser at speeds which frequently approached alarming. The veil of Durissa’s hat trailed behind her in the wind, flapping like a sail. She fancied they might take flight at any moment, rising above man and beast and sailing back to England through cloudless skies.

Though England wasn’t precisely where she wanted to be either, Durissa thought. Couldn’t one simply stay in the sky forever, in unmoving flight like the seabirds hovering over the shoreline?

It was a pleasant thing to imagine, being neither here nor there, Durissa decided. She closed her eyes against the dust and pictured herself adrift in the high-up blue of foreign skies.

“Nearly there!” Tarkins shouted over the engine’s roar. He was excited she’d conceded to ride with him and was thrilled to be showing her the sights of the land that her type usually avoided. “You won’t believe your own eyes!”

Durissa hardly believed anything anymore, but she kept her eyes shut tight and smiled.

“Look now, look!” Tarkins killed the engine and was instantly at her side of the car, helping her to the ground. Durissa obeyed and opened her eyes.

The watering hole was muddy and hot, surrounded by a fringe of brush and buzzing insects. Durissa’s heels sank into the damp soil, gingerly treading in Tarkins’ footprints as he hurried ahead of her, toward a spot obscured by a lattice of tall spiky grass.

“Really, Mr. Tarkins, here of all places?”

“Shhh!” He chastised her, placing a finger to his lips and pointing across the water.

The air was thick and her silk undergarments stuck to her sweaty skin. Her shoes, she was certain, were ruined.

And so they waited.

The elephants approached cautiously on enormous feet that padded silently into the clearing, trundling toward the watering hole in a slow, magnificent procession. The tilt and sway of the huge beasts’ movements mesmerized the two spies perched in their hiding place. Durissa had never seen such a thing in her life and she never would again.

“I must have one,” Tarkins declared after they returned to town. “I must paint you with it.”

“Pardon?” Durissa exclaimed. “I don’t very well see how that will happen, if you don’t mind my saying. I can’t say I fancy being trampled to death for the sake of your art.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Durissa darling. The poor beast would have to be dead. It would be harmless. You’d merely lend me your figure for the composition.”

Tarkins’ ability to see Durissa as an object d’art was partly why she was comfortable and content being alone with him for so many hours. But at times like this, his tendency to see living beings as mere props for potential artwork was troubling. Durissa was not going to pose with a dead beast, and she certainly didn’t want to think about how one went about procuring such a thing. It was all too terrible. It was one thing to ignore some of Tarkins’ more harmless predilections, but another entirely to consider desecrating a noble creature for a questionable artistic endeavor. And the people that would be involved, Durissa realized, would be far beyond Tarkins’ usual flirtations with the local underworld.

Tarkins could be rude and pushy when he wasn’t getting his way, but he was all charm and refined manners when he wanted something from you. A week after his first request for what she now thought of as the elephant proposal, he took her to lunch and came bearing a gift. The small box was wrapped in green tissue and fit perfectly in Durissa’s palm.

“Oh, Tarkins, you certainly can’t bribe me!”

The artist made a false show of offense. “How dare you accuse me of bribery, dear Durissa? I don’t do anything so common as bribe beautiful women, I merely bring offerings as one would to the temple of Aphrodite.”

It was flattering to be complimented so grandly, Durissa had to admit, and Tarkins’ manner always kept it light, not at all like when other men brought her gifts or wanted to dance at parties.  She relished this type of attention that at first had seemed to require no real reciprocation. Though now she felt trapped. Aside from Stella, Tarkins was her only friend. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him no outright; the thought of disappointing him and failing to live up to her own invented persona’s sense of daring weighed on Durissa crushingly.

Inside the box, nestled in a bed of cotton wool, was a tiny elephant carved intricately from ivory.

“Tarkins, it’s beautiful. What a lovely reminder of our outing to the watering hole.”

Tarkins raised his glass. “And a promise of many more, don’t you think?”

Durissa did not raise her glass, but smiled weakly. He was not going to give up easily on this one. Feeling out of her depth, Durissa began to fear that this was not going to end well for anyone involved. But still she kept her reservations to herself, doing nothing to lure Tarkins back from the precipice of his own dangerous fancy.

Ever the social chameleon, Tarkins seemed to sense her reticence on the subject and shifted the conversation to easy chatter. He recounted the story of how his dear pet bird had learned to unclasp the lock of her cage and the humorous folly of chasing her about the studio with a tea towel. Durissa felt her consciousness slide out of the present, returning to that empty blue place she had imagined during their drive to see the elephants. Tarkins did not appear to notice the loss of his audience and was now demonstrating his bird-capturing technique with great sweeping gestures.

Durissa knew she could never pose with an elephant. But as always, she was unsure how to interject her refusal to the effusive Tarkins. She waited, never finding the moment to voice her opposition. And so, over the next few weeks, her lips remained sealed and Tarkins escalated his determination that he must obtain one of the massive creatures. His obsession frightened Durissa, but still she played along. It was all uncomfortably innocuous, really. Until the morning she went to Tarkins’ studio and encountered the man with the scars.

Either one of Tarkins’ mysterious men, or maybe even Tarkins himself while in his cups one debauched afternoon, had explained the scheme to paint Durissa with an elephant to the wrong stranger. This land was not short on those who would procure anything for a price. The problem of course being that Tarkins had almost no money to speak of. But he did not divulge that information as readily as he did his flights of fancy. So the illusion, most likely held by the man with the scars, was that the deal was done.

Such illusions could be deadly, Durissa feared.

The man with the scars looked at Durissa in the opposite way Tarkins did. The artist looked at her like a predator, but not a hungry one. The man with the scars, however, looked at her the way only a human predator could, with decided disinterest. As if he would attack or capture or kill first and then find out if there was a reason to. His survival was not dependent on killing and eating his prey, it was based on the misfortune of others. And he would create that misfortune if the price were amenable. Tarkins was playing a game with a demon, and he was too excited to remember that demons always win.

Durissa pulled her shawl tightly across her arms, despite the rising temperature. She would not pose while the man with the scars was near, that was certain. Durissa had heard father speak in hushed tones about men who procured things in this colony, that they could produce anything your heart desired, but you could never be sure of the price until it was too late.

Tarkins didn’t even ask to paint Durissa. Instead he engaged her in one of his monologues about adventure and truth and life and death, rolling sloppy cigarettes faster than he could smoke them, loose tobacco spilling onto his forgotten palette and ruining the carefully mixed colors. Durissa could only think of getting as far away from the man with the scars as possible, maybe even leaving the colony altogether. If the colony could create such beasts as the man with the scars, she had no use for it.

As soon as she could insert a word, she excused herself, claiming a headache. It was a lie, but she half convinced herself it was true, born from the cloud of Tarkins’ smoke and the squawking of the loathsome bird.

“Don’t come back this week, dear,” Tarkins said as she left. “But next Tuesday at four.” And then he said what she feared the most:

“I’ve found our elephant, darling.”

Tarkins handed her an envelope inscribed with her assumed name, containing her advance payment for posing with the elephant.

He loved the thrill of risking a great deal for a very small whim, she realized. To be new and shocking wasn’t enough. Would there be no end? Durissa remembered the strange characters in dank bars and wondered if her friend placed his trust too easily.

There was never a better opportunity for Durissa to tell Tarkins the session was off. But she had never learned how to cut through his enthusiasm to speak her mind. And obviously he’d already had dealings with the man with the scars. Perhaps it was too late anyway.

Durissa kept her distance from Tarkins in the days after meeting the man with the scars. She posed for her growing roster of artists about town, listened endlessly to Stella’s latest woes, and forced all thoughts of the elephant into a small corner of her mind.

On Tuesday at three, Durissa watched the blades of a ceiling fan arc in lazy circles behind a swath of mosquito netting draped over Stella’s bed. Stella had gone to meet a beau while his wife was out. She wouldn’t be home until dark. Durissa was borrowing the rooms to change for her dreaded session with Tarkins. She had gotten as far as removing her shoes, dress, and stockings before lying down on the bed, her languidness provoked not by exhaustion but anxious indecision.

A bottle of Stella’s signature perfume sat on the bedside table, carelessly uncorked. Its heady sweetness had drawn two enormous flies.

Tarkins thought her foolish about a great many things, Durissa suspected. Perhaps he was right about a few of them. But this was different. Tarkins was pushing his pixie-dust luck much too far.

Durissa lay on the bed in her pantalets and chemise. On the smooth expanse of her belly, she had balanced the ivory elephant in the hollow of her navel. It fit perfectly. She contemplated the ornament and her own skin and held still. She thought of the envelope of money Tarkins had handed her, still sealed in her handbag. The thought of opening it, counting it, seeing it with her own eyes was repugnant, and yet she hadn’t declined it.

The sun crept across the afternoon sky, tilting into the room at ever-shifting angles through the open window.

If three more motorcars pass by before I can count to a hundred, then Ill go, she bargained with herself.

Four motorcars passed by the time she counted to fifty and still Durissa did not move.

For the first time in her existence, Durissa made a choice without consulting anyone else, without soliciting advice, or worrying that it might offend.

She chose to stay.

She never told Tarkins explicitly that she would not pose. She took a coward’s path and left his dangerous game with the man with the scars to play out on its own. Durissa had been the only soul who knew of Tarkins’ nefarious dealings with the man with the scars. Her refusal could have kept her friend from pursuing such dangerous business with such notorious men. Or perhaps not. But she would never know now, because Tarkins was gone.

A week after the missed appointment, Durissa’s guilt overrode her cowardice, and she visited Tarkins’ studio. Though the windows were wide open for ventilation as always, the studio was silent. The door was locked tight and Durissa’s knock went unanswered.

The first squawk terrified her. She held her body stock-still—just like when she first met Tarkins, and every time she posed for him—except for her chin, which she raised to peer into the mass of green leaves overhead. The loud, clever parrot cocked its head and squawked again before taking to the sky.

Durissa ran all the way back to Stella’s flat. Her lungs burned.

The charm of playing Durissa began to dissolve after that afternoon. Before long, only Elaine could be found in the colony and the only trace of the model Durissa was left on canvas and in sketchbooks.

Could I have saved him? she would ask herself in the confused weeks after Tarkins’ disappearance. Did I murder him with my inaction? Am I as dangerous as the man with the scars?

The guilt never left her. But it did begin to fade after her father realized that the fortune he’d struck out to find in the colony was elusive, and he packed up his wife and children and retreated to London to a respectable job with an insurance agency.

A few years after their return, her father was filled with pride when his little Elaine married into a place of prominence with the Lord Quarantaine, an advantageous match for both her and the family. She quickly rose in the ranks as a sought-after hostess rather than as a sought-after model. And where Durissa could sit for hours listening to artists talk mostly about themselves with the utmost of patience, the Lady Quarantaine now did the same thing at endless dinner parties and functions, with a class of people who thought much more of themselves than poor old Tarkins ever had the chance to.

Slowly but surely the Lady Quarantaine forgot about the artist she knew when she was young and rebellious, who went in search of a dead elephant and never came back.

In time, the model Durissa was all but forgotten, even by Stella, as Durissa was now far too stale to be fresh gossip fodder. None of the artists Durissa had ever worked with were noteworthy enough to rate a spot in the collection that the Lord and Lady Quarantaine had amassed over the years. Only once a specter of Durissa had appeared in a small proprietor’s shop, eliciting an “Isn’t that bizarre?” from the Lord, but that was all.

It was bizarre, she agreed. But those pieces were not by Tarkins.

{ X }

“I can’t believe you don’t remember him!” Stella was undeniably intoxicated at this point. Philip was calling for the car. “I just wonder what happened to him. I mean, when you think about some of those pieces he painted…he may well have made it here in Britain…but I don’t remember him coming back when the rest of us did.”

Elaine helped her friend stand as Philip stepped forward with his wife’s coat.

“Dear Stella,” Elaine said, “so many people just disappeared back then, you never know where they went or what became of them. I mean, look at us ladies! You’d just never have known.”

“It is true, isn’t it?” said the now very serious Stella. “You never really know people and what they’re capable of, or what they’ll get up to.”

She looked Elaine in the eye.

“You just never really know.”

{ X }

IMG_6461_bw1(1)JOEL ENOS has written comics, graphic novels and books, published short fiction in Whispers from the Abyss, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Nonbinary Review’s alphanumeric and a comics adaptation of Anais Nin’s “Under a Glass Bell” in A Café in Space. He’s also edited many comics, books and manga including the best-selling series, Tokyo Ghoul.

ANGELA ENOS has been published in A Café in Space, FLAPPERHOUSE, Niteblade MagazineVisibility Fiction, Nonbinary Review’s alphanumeric, and Body Parts Magazine. She is also a designer and artist whose work in theatre has been seen across the United States. Find her on Twitter at @angelaenos

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