Aphelion Issue 235, Volume 22
December 2018
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The Lady of the Stars

by T. N. Allan

For the most fleetingly ephemeral of moments I acquire a glimpse of that which is so much smaller than myself. Unbeknownst to the non-complexity of such lowly creatures as appear before me, to whom thought is but an unbreachable surface in compare to my boundless depths, I peer through layers of supple skin, espying this airy pygmy of a world through a taut derma fog.

Or perhaps it’s merely a dream, a vagary of images coruscated before my senses to give the impression of a linear stream of momentum. Something to which I append a narrative at the behest of a deeper subconscious of which I have no control.

I have no eyes as those Human creatures would understand them, but what I see is...

...A dead time, being not quite one thing nor another, or perhaps it is actually an Undead time of not yet night though no longer day. A sinking sun pours a generous measure of golden whiskey light down through the throat of a city, the liquid lines of the fading light producing darkly cubist monoliths from the industrial hulks which crowd the man made horizon, those thick black cancers of a smokers’ laboured disregard. Whether dead or undead, there is no denying that night shall be approaching soon, heralding the imminent arrival of the drunken crescent moon, beneath which the broken and the doomed shall once more stumble through the shambolic dance which passes for routine in their almost entirely sun starved lives.

A single window set high within the disheveled ruins of a tower block sits in curtained darkness, beneath which there lingers one Donovan Klein, who, perhaps more than any other single person in this city, so perfectly exemplifies the broken down classes of drink addled dreamers and angst shattered artisans. He is a man made poor through his own insecurities, driven to penury by his own perpetual state of panic. He has long since given up on the outside world, being quite happy to sequester himself away within the tumble down walls of his apartment, content to let the outside world, those very few parts which he still feels he requires, come to him instead. His curtains remain drawn at all hours, draping an all too fine veil of floral needlework across the relentlessly grim exterior of decaying buildings and broken toothed cobblestones. Such a thin veneer keeps out the worst excesses of the sodium lighting, though it is a poor defence when mustered against the bitter glare of reality.

At the present moment - itself, a cowering thing filled with anguish and despair - it is the stars which provide Donovan’s chief cause for concern; those unknowable flecks of heavenly silver and celestial gold which light pollution had been supposed to have eradicated from the urban skyline. Even beneath the drawn curtains, he can still feel their distantly burning presence, insisting upon the boundary which separates the controlled world within his apartment from the greater chaos of the outside. So strongly does he feel the distraction of those cold and illimitable stars, that he has entirely failed to maintain coherency about his thoughts as each day has slowly died away into darkness, destroying untold hours of work in the process.

In his ongoing attempts to capture upon canvas the human form in all of its seemingly limitless variations, he had until recently the somewhat wretched figure of Magdalena Martin in his employ. When she had first come knocking upon his door, the best part of a week prior to this current moment, she had been everything he could have hoped for in placing the advertisement. He had never before seen anyone possessing of a deformity quite like hers. There had been no hiding the fact of her particular deformation, even though she had attempted to conceal it by arriving dressed in a raincoat several sizes too large for her already ample frame, for on one side of her body her hip bones jutted out at such a violently extreme angle as to make her body seem positively acute. To his eyes, she had been the Art Deco of deformity. He had hired her on the spot, upon the strict understanding that he would paint only what he saw, and not, as she had so vehemently demanded, ‘to make play upon her physical condition as an artistic statement.’

Upon its vague state of completion, Donovan had taken stock of his handiwork, coming to realise that, what with the unconscious changes thrust upon the image by his state of increasing distraction, he had spectacularly failed to meet her sole demand. With his mind caught in the grip of those distant stars, those haunting spheres which keep a watchful vigil over mankind, he had painted Magdalena as being deep within the process of giving birth to the infantile form of a new born star; though with the deformed state of her hips the star had been bent and buckled so severely that it had more closely resembled the shape of that other cosmic voyeur, the crescent moon, which even now sat like a missing jigsaw piece in the sky beyond Donovan’s window. Had Magdalena actually given birth to such a creature, she would most surely have been ripped apart in the process; though the hideously wailing face which Donovan had unknowingly painted upon the malformed creature had seemed almost to suggest that ‘it’ had been the one to feel the many agonies of its birth, and not its unwitting surrogate.

Sensing the artist’s confusion, Magdalena had broken out of her hours deep pose and limped her way over to the canvas. A look of displeasure had been perpetually etched across her face in any case, the understandable result of a life spent in constant discomfort, but the look which had then morphed out of its usual hostility and had contorted into that of outright rage had threatened to burn a hole straight through the soiled canvas.

‘When you offered me the chance to act as a subject for your work, it was with the strict understanding that you would not, in any way, mock my affliction. This...this is simply obscene. Positively obscene. You’re not paying me enough to turn me into some kind of arthouse freak.’

Donovan might well have attempted to search for some placating answer, for some suitably soothing words which might have doused his subjects flaming ire, but fear had already begun to lay its unflinching grip upon him. Not the fear of the reaction of his irate model, though that would have passed as reason enough in any other circumstance, but fear that the influence of the stars had now moved beyond merely howling at the threshold of his abode, and had finally begun to seep through into the fragile kingdom of his mind. Why else should he have painted such a monstrosity? There could be no denying that the face of this starry infant had borne a truly hideous aspect, as though the creature, terrified of the nature of its existence, were attempting to howl its way into oblivion, preferring to scream a hole into itself rather than having to face the decades long after-birth effects of life. The skin within which the child’s grotesquely pointed head was wrapped had been painted in such a vividly crimson hue that it had appeared almost as if the child had been dipped into a pool of blood, baptised into some arcane diabolic practices. In all of its aspects, this ‘star child’ seemed to represent nothing more than a missed opportunity for a much needed termination.

Magdalena had hurriedly shuffled herself back into the secondary skin of her oversized raincoat, or as hurriedly as was possible given her bodily affliction. Donovan had stumbled in his attempts to stop her, desperately trying to lay the mental tracks on which his train of thoughts might have succeeded in finding purchase. ‘Ms Martin, please. I can only offer my most sincere apologies. I...I don’t know what could possibly have come over me.’ A lie, of course, but the truth would likely have sent her running faster than she had been already.

‘Well, whatever it is that came over you, it won’t be having me as its victim again. You paid me for a weeks study, and you’ve had a weeks study. I don’t think we need bother each other any longer than has already been necessary, do you?’ With those parting words, she was gone, dragging a trailing leg behind her as she exited through his front door, through that dreadful portal which separated the safety of the inner world from the frantic confusion of the chaotic outer world.

Ultimately, he had been unable to summon up the energy to feel anything stronger than apathy at her sudden departure. There was too much else to worry about, what with the ever shrinking dimensions of what he had previously thought to be his safe world. Magdalena Martin was just another cast off in the end; unable to see the beauty which lay in seclusion, wantonly hurling herself back into the cultural abyss of modernity with an air of contrary pride.

He had put the finished painting, defective though it was, with all the others; another canvas atop the increasing pile of Human variety which he had sought to document. There were dozens of works in the series now, not one of which had ever passed beyond the walls of the apartment. It had been an undertaking meant for the sole satisfaction of the artist, for the most part, an attempt to prove to himself that there were an infinite number of options open to a person in life, whether they be made by choice or through circumstance. Anything other than the drudgery of working one’s self into old age and decrepitude. To this end, Donovan had placed a series of advertisements in various newspapers and journals, seeking out those subjects who would best illustrate his point, each of whom had been, to his eyes, the antithesis of the worker drone figure which humanity seemed so depressingly intent upon holding up as an ideal. Piled up face to face and back to back behind the faded chaise lounge - a sop to the chocolate box decadence he had once, rather embarrassingly, felt a reclusive artist should aspire towards - were such societal oddities as conjoined triplets and extreme elephantiasis, rendered in whichever style he had felt best suited the unique nature of the particular model.

Yet within the heap of portraiture there lurks the root cause of his increasing madness, for buried deep within the wood and canvas pile there is the painting of the woman he had dubbed ‘The Lady of the Stars’; she who had been one of the earliest entries in the series, and whose meeting had heralded the descent into his current state of perpetual mental siege.


Her most immediately noticeable aspect - and the origin of the title latterly appointed to both the model and her portrait - had been her vast array of tattoos, an emphatically inky endeavour which had covered the entire surface area of her skin, both visible and otherwise. Donovan had, of course, been quite prepared for this peculiarity - he would never have agreed to any form of physical interaction with a potential model until a full telephone interview had been undertaken - but as he had first cast his enquiring eyes over his subject, his artistic sense of appreciation had been triggered by the sheer scale of the work which had evidently been put into the thorough modification of her body; admiration both for the unknown tattoo artist responsible for making such a complex canvas of her skin, and for the woman herself, for having sat through the considerable amount of pain which would have been a sure part of the process. To all intents and purposes, Courtney Lacroix - a name Donovan never used in relation to, nor ever heard directly from, the woman herself, save for their initial phone call - was a walking, talking, living, breathing, star map.

In one regard, she had been like an inversion of the actual cosmos. Black stars punctuated the bright abyssal in-betweens of her pale skin, causing them to take on a vaguely malevolent aura, even as they appeared to simultaneously map out what he had then considered to be the comfortably familiar patterns of the real night sky. Orion had painted a dark cross upon the fleshy expanse of her stomach, as though pointing the way to the location of some peculiar treasure, while Andromeda stained her shoulder blades with a dizzying spiral of clustering stars.

‘I acquired my tattoos over a period of six years, starting when I was a student at university,’ she began, launching into a description of her background as though presenting a speech as prelude to the work ahead. Moving as though she had been an invited guest into Donovan’s own private spaces - and not just the almost naked living room space which he used in lieu of an actual studio - she had cleared a place for herself to sit amidst the untidy jumble of unread books, half-finished canvases, and long abandoned crockery, settling herself down in anticipation of what Donovan could already foresee was to be the retelling of a well worn story. He thought it best to go along with her flow. ‘These tattoos were not always as you see them now. The star map has ultimately come to cover up many of my older, and less resonant, markings. It was while attending university, you see, that I began to develop the philosophy which these tattoos, and by extension myself, have since come to so effectively embody.’

Donovan was used to learning about the backgrounds of his subjects before painting them, though usually on his own terms of questioning and not through the well rehearsed soliloquy of his models. He’d found that it provided a context in which a given portrait could be presented, even if only to his own eyes. Though still in the early stages of the development of his series regarding the variety of humanity, he had already come to realise how crucial such information would be were he ever to present the series to the public. What he did not realise, as he sat then and listened to her story unfold, was that it would be that very information which would ultimately keep both his work and his own person away from the wider world.

Had I possessed a mouth I would have laughed at him then. Instead, I merely watched as the inevitable unfolded.

‘Your advertisement,’ she continued, ‘claimed you were “seeking those individuals who considered themselves to be either physically, morally, or spiritually distinct from the cultural norm”. I believe I represent all three of these things, so, quite naturally, I could not resist answering your call.’

Donovan considered for a moment simply cutting to the nub of the matter and asking her flat out about the nature of her tattoos, thereby exposing the obvious elephant in the room. He did not get the chance to do so, for the momentary silence was quickly filled once again by her voice.

‘I could go on to tell you that my dreams are darkly fruiting bodies, within which the night sky is little more than a mausoleum for the hanging corpses of dead and dying stars, but I think it would be better at this juncture if I were to ask you if you knew anything regarding Cosmicism?’

The question had caught the artist more than a little off his guard, both due to its unusual nature and the fact that he had not expected her to encourage his active participation in the telling of her story. She sat arching a hopefully expectant eyebrow in his direction, awaiting his reply. ‘I’m afraid Science Fiction isn’t really my thing.’ The sudden chill which had stolen a hold of the air served as indication enough that this had not been the correct thing for him to say. A cold glaze passed across her eyes, piercing straight through his affected calm.

‘Cosmicism is a philosophy, one which, I can assure you, may reveal the reality of those darkly grinding engines which churn out eternity to those who were previously unaware of such things. There was a Professor at my university, a Professor Zasterband, who taught me to see beyond the anthropocentric vision which, whether knowingly or not, we all believe to be the natural order of existence.’

Donovan had not really understood what she had meant by this, though the gravity with which she had expressed herself made it clear that this was a topic to be treated with nothing short of complete seriousness, so long as he wished to retain her services for a time sufficient enough to paint her portrait. ‘I take it you don’t believe ‘Humanity’ to be the centre of the universe then?’

‘I believe that mankind is of as little importance as anything else, no more special than the simplest of microbes or the merest speck of dirt. Our existence is due to nothing more than the alchemy of circumstance, and so we should expect the universe to treat us with as little regard as it appears to treat all other things.’

‘Is the universe so lacking in regard?’

‘Well, of course. Death and decay are everywhere in the universe. Entropy is one of the most consistent forces in the whole of existence, applicable to every last particle of reality, from the smallest of atoms to the greatest of stars. A star may support its own life for a certain period of time, true, but ultimately it too shall come to die. And at the centre of every galaxy there sits a black hole, a vacuum like opening eagerly consuming its own spawn, until such a time that it shall be forced to consume itself in order to satisfy its boundless hunger. If we were to consider the universe to be like a machine, then one day our world should be speared upon the point of a single cog within a mechanism far more complex than our comprehension permits us to allow, and that single moment, while considered endlessly horrifying to us, shall be of no particular importance to a thoroughly indifferent universe.’

‘That seems rather a bleak point of view, if you don’t mind my saying so.’

‘Reality can be cold. You know this already, or else you wouldn’t be wishing to paint me now.’

There had been some truth to her words, his own desire to break away from the mundane reality of the everyday was proof enough of that, though Donovan had initially failed to see any obvious connection between this bleak philosophy of hers and the copious amounts of dark ink which so adorned her body. When asking her precisely how such a way of thinking had inspired her to commit to such a thorough tattooing upon herself, she had simply replied, ‘Tattoos should have some lasting significance. So I had a map of existence committed upon my body. A constant reminder to myself, and, I hope, as a prompting to others, that this is all we can ever truly know. A person may aspire to wealth, power, or celebrity, but none of it amounts to any great meaning in the end. The universe shall always be the limiting factor. One which, in itself, is destined to sink into perpetual decline.’

Somewhere deep within himself, Donovan had felt the faint twang of a chord being plucked. Loath as he was to admit it, there was a logic to such a point of view, though not one which he had been willing to let pass without challenge. ‘Surely, though, that makes the everyday all the more extraordinary? If this...’ he gestured around his apartment, encompassing the entire world within a single sweep of his arm, ‘is the totality of existence, then surely that makes life, in any form, the most important aspect of the universe, whether it should have come into being by accident or by design?’

She had been quite prepared for his scepticism, seemingly well used to arguing the validity of her views with others. ‘You’ve already contradicted yourself. By even allowing for the existence of a ‘designer’ for the universe, you have admitted that the life which is thusly designed would, by extension, have to be of considerably less importance than that of the ‘designer’. God, held in that regard, is perhaps the most supreme example of a limiting factor, one which has impinged itself upon the Human mind in such a way that it does not drive the individual instantly mad upon consideration. Believe me when I tell you that Human exceptionalism is every bit as mythical as any god ever was.’

Their conversations had continued in such a manner throughout the months it had taken Donovan to paint her portrait, the air which surrounded them at all times draped in an intimate mixture of tangled words and stray bristles; she talking down towards him in a knowingly condescending tone, he responding with a series of unintentionally off the cuff remarks, the natural consequence of his attempting to maintain at least half a mind upon his work; the Human mind being the scrying mirror in which she claimed the truth of her philosophy could be divined. ‘The overwhelming presence of fear and anxiety amongst our species, who, so far as we are aware, are the only species to have developed a conscience with which to reckon such feelings of dread, surely points towards the ultimate horror of existence. Which is to say nothing of the undeniable fact that the only way one may escape this nightmarish realm of physic is through the final horror of death, which terrifies our kind far more than the simplicity of an eternal non-existence ever could.’

Whereas most of his portraits were fully executed within the space of one or two weeks, ‘The Lady of the Stars’ had taken a considerably longer period of time. He had wanted to replicate every last one of her tattoos, such as were visible from the unashamedly frontal posture in which he had insisted she should pose for the piece. The work had been deeply intricate, requiring great precision and attention to detail on the part of the artist. For her part, she had maintained her level of interest in exploring the many points of her cosmological viewpoint with him, erasing the uncomfortable silence which might otherwise have encouraged the development of an unwanted undercurrent of sexual tension between the two, one which could only have been exacerbated by the necessity of her state of perpetual undress throughout the duration of the process. Somehow, Donovan had been unable to think of his model in quite such a regard; though it was true that having since gazed upon so many bodies in undress, he had found his libido had gradually solidified until it had resembled little more than a diminutive block of ice, over-familiarity with the human form engendering a state of apathy within his soul. Though she was not unattractive to his eyes - the eyes of an artist always readily seeking for the merest sliver of beauty with which to latch upon - the tattoos which had so liberally coated her body, making such grandiose epics of discovery out of every curve and contour, seemed almost to form an immovable layer between her skin, her real skin, and his attentive eyes.

For all of his models efforts to find some semblance of understanding within the artist for her obsessive devotion to her philosophy, he had never quite been able to find any degree of sympathy with her point of view. He was an artist, after all, and like all artists Donovan was at once in love and in loathing with the world which he inhabited. For all his determined misanthropy, and his long standing distaste for the artificially contrived world of men, he still felt at one with the real world, with that which existed beyond the dreary monotony of humanity. He simply could not find it within himself to share her view of an inherent lack of meaning behind existence. His art, and his appreciation of the artistry of others, gave his life meaning enough, even while he shunned the greater whole of what was expected of a human life in modernity.

The completion of the portrait had come as blessed relief for Donovan, following the months of wear placed upon his already fragile nerves; wear that had been driven by the incessant barrage of negative philosophy to which he had been so thoroughly subjected. More than once he had considered offering his model extra money in exchange for her silence on such matters, though he had dissuaded himself of such a notion through fear that he might lose such a unique study by virtue of offending whatever shred of self-interest she still possessed. On one particular occasion, when he had still held out some hope that he might elicit some more positive form of conversation from her, Donovan had remarked on the recursive nature of this particular work. ‘If we were to consider your skin to be like a canvas - let us say for both your tattoos and your particular views - then this entire exercise might be looked upon as collapsing in on itself, in a manner of speaking. The artist committing one canvas upon another.’

‘Like cannibalism?’, had been all she had offered him by way of a reply. Donovan had dropped the subject immediately, realising his model’s propensity for tapping any vein of conversation and diverting its flow back towards her own subterranean stream of thought.

For all the heavenly connotations aroused by the title of ‘The Lady of the Stars’, Donovan had never in all of his, admittedly sheltered, years, known a person quite as gloom ridden as she had appeared to be. For all her enthusiasm regarding her sole topic of interest, she had never once appeared to take any great pleasure in waxing darkly regarding her philosophies, instead merely espousing her theories as though they were hardened facts; facts which only a fool would deny. Indeed, he had developed the distinct impression that she considered such trivialities as ‘love’, ‘happiness’, and ‘contentment’, to be the preserve of the spiritually blinded and the ineffably foolish, to whom she was, of course, the intellectual superior. Over time, those black stars which were tattooed upon her skin had seemed to radiate their dismal colour outwards, until it had seemed to seep into his clothes and his hair, and into the very fabric of the studio itself, infecting everything it touched with an intangible air of virulently progressive decay. Though Donovan had felt himself to have achieved a more than respectable representation of the complexity of the tattooed star map, he had also felt sure that he could never have found a pigment so dark in hue as that of the ink which had made such a vivid monochrome tapestry of her flesh.

As was often the way, he had found the completion the portrait to have arrived as something of an anti-climax, even though it had been one tinged with a sense of weary relief. His model had dressed herself in silence, whilst continuing to exhibit a characteristic disinterest in the completed portrait. As he had handed over the final payment for her services, Donovan had queried why she had taken on the work, if life was as trivial to her as she had so readily claimed.

Her answer would be the last words the two would ever share.

‘Because one day you might paint more of me’.

And though I departed within that same vessel which had delivered me, part of my being lingered still within the warp and weft of the building, within the fabric of his skin and the sickly fibres of his failing mind.

He had thought once that the ‘outside’ was something he could keep at bay, that he could somehow lock himself away within a sealed vault of his own devising and so escape the frantic nature of an indifferent humanity, the same indifference which he can no longer help but to see in the stars. He realises now that he has failed to achieve such an end. It had been his own ambitions which had brought about this downfall, for had he not consented to allowing his models the privilege of open entry into his own private kingdom, then he should not have allowed for the contagious philosophies of the Lady of the Stars to make so thorough a contamination of him.

Every last one of the portraits in his series of anatomical peculiarities now appears clothed in a map of blackly opaline stars, though he had not painted them as such. Even Magdalena Martin, whose ill-proportions had made her an unsuitable host for such a map, now bears about her person the same tattoos as had been so willingly modelled by the Lady of the Stars.

He has felt his sanity slowly eroding away ever since she left his apartment for the final time. Since her departure, the stars outside his window have seemed to scream out their horror, their alien cries gradually increasing in both pitch and volume, as though they were attempting to howl themselves into oblivion. He can not help but think of them burning with the passion of utmost despair, cannibalising their own fiery bodies so that they might one day finally know the comfort of a return to blissful non-existence, leaving behind the horrors of a conscience existence in a realm which allows no quarter to even the merest degree of speculation.

It did not do to peer too closely beneath the placid veneer of existence.

The dimensions of what he had once considered ‘safety’ have now dwindled to such a degree that Donovan routinely spends his nights cowering beneath the pile of portraits, of which Magdalena Martin has proven to be the final entry, a last desperate attempt to throw up a barrier between himself and an unrelenting reality.

And one night soon, the faces of those portraits will scream out their sympathy.

And I, the great limiting factor, merely revel in the brevity of my lucid existence, until I drift serenely back into the default state of idiotic obscurity.


2017 T. N. Allan

Bio: Hailing from the oft-contested northern realm of Northumberland, England, T. N. Allan is now resident in the Scottish Borders, having studied creative writing at Edinburgh University from 2012 – 2013. Recent publications have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, ‘HorrorSleazeTrash’, 'Yellow Mama' magazine, 'The Flash Fiction Press', ‘365 Tomorrows’ and 'Gothic City Press', while poetry publications have appeared in print, as published by the 'Horror Writers Association', and 'Cemetery Moon Magazine'.

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