The Girl in the Painting
Belinda awoke Tuesday morning in a bed. A bed with silk sheets, a down comforter, and feather pillows. This wouldn’t be remarkable had Belinda not been a girl in a painting.
For two centuries, Belinda had lived in this bed and though she was alive, the rest of her surroundings were not. And thank god for that. The delicate girl with olive-tinged skin and straw hair tied in a shining blue bow was condemned to an eternity under the threat of an enormous, fanged vampire. She spent her days – 80,300 of them – looking up at a white-faced man with a chin as pointed as his animalistic canine teeth. Virgil, as Belinda named him, was forever flying down towards her; his redlined black velvet cape outstretched like eagle wings. At the beginning, she would imagine the hissing noise he would have made had he been alive like she. She heard his sinister sneer only when she dreamed and often awoke in a fright, forgetting Virgil was as lifeless as his cool, translucent skin.
Why Belinda had been bestowed with the gift of life and the vampire not, she never understood. Virgil, the bed, and the meadow nocturne seen from a small square window adorned with translucent lace, were all paint. Strokes and patches, dots and drips of linseed oil mixed with cobalt and cadmium, emerald and alizarin.
Belinda was different, and her life-like quality drew spectators from around the globe to her permanent home in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. For decades, she had listened as aspiring artists gushed about her “internal luminosity” and amateur historians lamented her theft by Nazi official Hermann Göring. She had been subjected to the imploring microscope of conservators, and in more recent years, blinded by the incessant flashing of cameras. Her only peace came at night when the lights went out, the guards went home. She too, would sleep.
Lying in bed, the bed she now felt her bum pressing into, Belinda opened her eyes and closed them again. Was it real? She fingered the snow-white sheets and rubbed the stitching between her thumb and forefinger. The sheets were soft, smooth, slippery, even. She had never known anything other than the hard, scratchy surface of paint. She took hold of the comforter, yellowed from years of improper care in an East German cellar, and pulled it up to her neck. She giggled, startling herself with the sound of her own voice, as the plushness enveloped her body and she felt her internal temperature rise. She noticed her chest rise and fall and thought about the miracles of breath. She smiled and closed her eyes, but remembering Virgil, quickly opened them in a moment of fright. He wasn’t there towering over her fragile body. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Belinda screamed upon hearing a loud nasally snore from the body next to her.
“What is it?” Virgil said with a start. The alien noise had come from him.
“Belinda dear, shhh... What is it?”
“You! It’s you!” she jumped out of bed and feeling her legs for the first time, teetered and swayed as she stood over the bed.
“Of course it’s me,” Virgil said calmly. “Come back to bed.”
Belinda stood, her toothpick-like limbs shaking under her cotton nightgown.
Belinda stood for a moment in petrified silence before she could gather enough sense to think maybe she wasn’t a girl in a painting. She couldn’t remember any other past, but perhaps she and Virgil too, were real humans like those that came to the museum.
“Let me see your teeth.”
"My what?” Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Show me your teeth,” she repeated.
Virgil sat up in bed and looking straight at Belinda, gave her a toothy grin.
“You! You!” Belinda fell to her knees. “But – how? Who – who – who are we?”
Virgil climbed out of bed and scooped Belinda up like a small child. She burrowed her head into his shoulder, but pulled back and wailed upon realizing the material was the black velvet she had stared at in fear for so many centuries.
Virgil sat on the side of the bed and waited for her screams to dissolve into whimpers.
“I’ve been waiting for you to awake,” Virgil said calmly when Belinda grew calm.
“Where are we?”
“In the museum?”
“No, my dear.”
“But – but – but how?”
“Come here,” Virgil took Belinda’s hand and led her to the small, square window. Outside it was dark, but instead of a meadow, Belinda saw people hurriedly walking in black coats on cobblestoned streets lined with storefronts lit with neon signage.
“We’re alive,” Belinda whispered as she ran her fingertips along the cold windowpane.
A grumbling from Belinda’s stomach made itself audible, and she gripped her abdomen in embarrassment.
“You’re hungry,” Virgil explained at seeing Belinda’s apple cheeks turn rose red.
“Have you been out? There?” Belinda pressed her finger to the window and looking at the street asked, “How long have you been alive? Or have you – have we – always been alive?”
Virgil shook his head, “I’ve watched you sleep for centuries.”
Belinda felt her body go numb; her fears had been real.
Belinda’s stomach grumbled again. Virgil stood and walked over to a coat rack near the door. It seemed the space they were in was limited to the room in the painting. There was no bathroom, no living room, no kitchen. Virgil took a heavy, grey felt coat from the hook, picked up a pair of wooden clogs sitting at the entrance, and brought them to Belinda.
“Put these on, dear. We need to get you something to eat.”
Outside, Belinda was shocked at the cold wind that brushed her face and numbed her ears. She was used to hearing the people at the museum, but the mechanical world of cars and ambulances, airplanes and street signals, was a shock to Belinda’s senses.
Virgil wrapped his arm around Belinda’s shoulders and guided her into a candle-lit café with mismatched chairs and a single waitress in a mini-skirt walking languidly between tables. She plopped two sets of menus on Virgil and Belinda’s table. Belinda opened one and suddenly realized she didn’t know the rules of food.
“What can I get you?”
Belinda stared at the hooped ring in the waitress’ nose and the matching one in her manicured eyebrow. Belinda felt her own hand subconsciously move to her nose.
“We’ll have two cups of coffee and a Frühstücksteller,” she heard Virgil say.
“Are you alright, Belinda?” Virgil asked when the waitress walked away.
“I’ve had quite a shock,” she said distractedly, looking in all directions.
The waitress returned with two piping hot cups of muted brown liquid and a three-tiered stand filled with meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Belinda looked on in interest, but before reaching for anything, watched as men with hair tied on the tops of their heads and women with dark rings around their eyes slathered jam on toast and cut pieces of cheese. Belinda picked up the knife in front of her and mimicked their movements, spreading butter on a miniature croissant. She took a bite and smiled with joy as the sweet grease coated her tongue and flaky bits of crust stuck to her lips. She took a bite of everything on the plate – cool cucumbers, smokey ham, and sweet strawberries.
“Who would’ve thought this is food!”
She took a sip of the coffee and made a face. “Ooh eew, I could do without this.” Belinda plopped a strawberry in her mouth to quell the bitter taste.
“Don’t you want any of this?” she said, noticing Virgil hadn’t taken a bite of the food.
Belinda licked plumb jam off her finger Virgil gave her a wide grin. Seeing his pointed teeth, Belinda turned cold. The jam left a sour, moldy taste in her mouth and she no longer felt hungry.
“I can’t eat the way you do, my dear.”
Belinda put down her fork.
“Then, how do you eat?” she said cautiously.
Virgil continued to smile and Belinda noticed a look of hunger in his narrow eyes. She sat, paralyzed in the high-backed vintage armchair.
“The bill, please,” Virgil asked when the waitress walked by.
Belinda could feel a rock form in her throat, her vocal cords paralyzed in terror. She played escape scenarios in her head, but was at a loss without experience in the human world.
Virgil took Belinda by the waist. She could feel the power in his hand.
He led her to an enormous concrete building with no visible windows. A line of people stood outside, but Virgil covered Belinda with his cape and pushed her inside as if they were invisible. A heavy, booming sound pulsed through the air and vibrated within Belinda’s veins. She felt disoriented and trapped in the dark, smoky room. She felt Virgil’s hand in hers and stumbled between the damp bodies, trying to keep up with the vampire’s graceful movements.
After climbing a series of stairs and maneuvering in and out of rooms that vibrated with impossibly loud thuds, Belinda found herself in a room alone with Virgil. She reached out, palming for one of the sweaty bodies but her hand hit cold concrete instead. Panicked, she screamed in the darkness, but her voice met the music and was lost in the dance of sonic waves. Just as Belinda’s eyes began to adjust, she saw the view she had lived as a nightmare for centuries. Virgil’s fangs were coming toward her, and just before she felt them clamp on her neck, she heard the vampire say, “Bon Appetit, my sweet.”