issue 8

Still Life With Slain God and Lemon, by Anne Leonard

Francisco paints. Delicate strokes, the soft bristles gliding across the canvas. He is working in the genre of still lifes featuring dead deer, killed grouse, glistening fatty hams with the bone in the center. His god lies across a table, trussed at wrists and ankles, chest cut open to reveal the heart. The god’s face is masklike, not human, antlers sprouting from his head, eyes large and golden like an owl’s, teeth sharp and fanged. Above him, the branches of a lemon tree hang down incongruously, the leaves thick and glossy, the lemons vivid yellow. One can almost smell them.

In Francisco’s studio are dozens of other paintings with the same theme. He has been painting the dead god since Marco left him twenty years ago. In some of the paintings, the god has Marco’s face: beautiful, angry, pained. Francisco’s grief and rage have long faded, but he cannot stop this painting. He paints portraits of rich men and their families for money, but when he goes too long without painting the god, the god begins to show in the faces of lords and ladies.

Nico comes home with fresh bread and wine. Francisco washes the paint from his hands and soaks his brushes and stares at the still life. It is almost done. It looks on the canvas as he has seen it in his mind, but it lacks something. The warm red of the blood, the brightness of the lemon, the gleam of the antlers, even the golden-olive tones of the skin cannot give it life. There should be pain in the lines around the mouth. Instead, there is smooth inhuman calm.

He takes the painting off the easel and turns it to face the wall. He eats the bread without tasting it, drinks the wine as though it were water. His hands feel clumsy and his fingers thick. The hands of a mason or sailor, not an artist. There is a heaviness within him that he cannot find a way around. Once again, he has failed.

In bed that night, Nico traces one finger down Francisco’s chest. Francisco jerks suddenly, violently, with razor-sharp pain. It is as if Nico is slicing him open, the fingertip a knife cutting through skin and muscle and bone with the precision of a surgeon. He clenches his fists.

“What’s the matter?” Nico asks.

“Nothing.” His heart hammers frantically at his ribs. He would swear he could feel the blood coming from the wound, but his skin is dry, not even sweaty. Desperate, he turns onto his side and kisses Nico, reaches for the companion flesh, the muscle and blood of a living man. The pain ebbs but remains, an ache like a sore tooth.

He is not surprised in the morning when, looking in the mirror, he sees the flecks of gold in his eyes.

A week later, the first nubs of antlers appear. Instead of painting, Francisco walks. And walks and walks, under a blaze of sun. The soles of his sandals cannot hold off the heat of the cobbles, and he is glad of the discomfort of his feet. It proves he is not dreaming. Nico has noticed nothing of the changes.

What did he do to cause this?

He comes to a lemon tree. He puts his hand around a fruit, cupping it, and tugs until he achieves the satisfaction of its release. The skin is bright, pebbled, shiny in the sunlight. He peels the lemon and sucks on one end. Sour. Pleasing. He pictures the god with Marco’s face.

I painted him too often, he thinks. I summoned him. He will take me.

And then he thinks, No. I won’t accept it.

When he returns to his studio, he slashes the canvas he has been working on to ribbons.

That doesn’t stop the transformation. Passing through doorways, he turns his head so as not to strike his antlers against the frame. He paints wilted flowers in cracked vases, skulls, dead sparrows. He drinks. He shouts at Nico and throws things. Every day his eyes turn more gold, and he cannot bear to be touched. One day Nico shouts back at him, and Francisco storms out. When he returns, Nico is gone.

He leaves again, walking and seeing nothing. He turns onto narrower and narrower streets, steeper ones that leave him breathless, under ancient arches and through cool tunnels. Once he looks back at the town cascading down the hill and sees it as a picture, the red roofs dabs of paint and the dusty pale streets mere slashes of pigment[1] . He realizes wordlessly that he has stepped into some other world, unmapped. His shadow lies in front of him even when the sun is in his eyes. The shadow antlers look like branches.

He walks. His shadow never changes. The sun hangs motionless in the sky like a fat lemon.

His mind is vacant when he turns and blunders into someone. It is Marco. Marco, as he looked two decades ago, slim and elegant. Marco, who left after a quarrel and never returned. Marco, his face young and beautiful and not at all godlike.

This isn’t fair, Francisco thinks. He sags onto the ground. His forehead itches where the antlers grow out of it, and he rubs his skin tiredly. His hands smell of salt and unhappiness.

Marco squats beside him, touches his shoulder. “I wanted to come back,” he says. “But I was killed in an accident. You need to stop carrying me. Let me go.”

“I stopped missing you years ago.”

“But you haven’t forgiven me.”

“I have.”

“That’s not what your paintings say. They are still. Locked. Dying.” He puts his hand over Francisco’s heart. “Ask yourself, who killed the god?” He kisses Francisco. His lips are full and warm. They taste sour, delicious. Trembling, Francisco holds him, kisses his smooth skin over and over. He forgets about the antlers.

When Francisco opens his eyes, Marco is gone and the sun is setting. He sits on a stoop in a slum, exhausted and empty.

He staggers home and looks at every painting of Marco and the god. They are all alike. His skill increases through the years, but nothing in the art is new.

I killed the god, he thinks. He weeps. Then he piles the paintings in the courtyard and sets fire to the wooden frames. The ashes of the canvas carry upward like black moths, fluttering, each one taking away part of his heart.

By midnight the paintings are all burned, and Francisco is empty. In that emptiness there is a stillness, a peace. He feels himself a raw canvas, unpainted, waiting to be stretched over a frame.

Nico comes back two days later. Francisco holds out his hands and says, “I’m sorry. I love you. Will you forgive me?”

“Yes,” Nico says, touching his cheek.

The next day Francisco paints, his brush strokes confident and deft. Nico poses patiently. His eyes are brown and his mouth is generous.

Anne Leonard is a novelist and short story writer living in Northern California. Her novel Moth and Spark was published in 2014; her most recent short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and several anthologies. This story was inspired by the title, which was provided in slightly different form by another writer.

1 thought on “Still Life With Slain God and Lemon, by Anne Leonard”

  1. This was such a wonderful read. It kept reminding me of that one quote about lemon trees and how they explode with fruit as they end their lives to have the most fruitful bounty.
    Almost like how Francisco carries his grief in his heart.


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