by Matt Sailor
About Matt Sailor
Matt Sailor is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He earned his MFA from Georgia State University, in Atlanta. He currently works as an associate editor with NANO Fiction. His fiction and essays have appeared in PANK, AGNI, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse, and Hobart, among others. His first novel, 1985, for which he received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, is in progress.
There’s this painting that you’ve probably seen, a Goya: “Saturn Devouring His Son.” It’s in the Prado, but I first saw it at the University Library in Valdosta. I would sit on the floor in the stacks with this girl I was dating, flipping through art books, our fingers brushing as we turned the pages.
She liked the classical period. Renaissance. Masaccio, Albrecht Dürer, Giotto di Bondone. Antiquity. She would run her fingers along the cracks in the frescoes, the chipped noses of the statues, as if she could feel them through the paper.
“Look,” she would say, guiding my fingers, burying her face in my neck.
Me, I liked Miro, Braque. Anything abstract, cubist. When she left for class I would spend hours staring at this double-page spread of Picasso’s “Guernica,” convinced if I stared long enough I could see the figures moving, writhing in pain.
There was this other girl, an art major. I can't remember her name, but she would find us in line at the dining hall, or lying on a blanket in the yard and ask Laura if she would sit for a painting. (That was the name of the girl I was seeing, Laura). This girl would tell Laura she had perfect features. Like Botticelli’s Venus or one of his Madonnas. Personally, I never saw the resemblance. I will admit that her skin was white as a statue, her curly hair so bright red I could imagine Titian grinding up cochineal to paint it. But I can’t imagine her as a painting, a statue, dusty in a museum. Only moving, breathing, glowing in that South Georgia sunrise. My head on her stomach, I would trace her blue veins, visible just beneath the flesh, with my forefinger. Her laughter was a trembling in my ears.
One thing we had in common art-wise was Goya. Sure, there were others. We both liked Velasquez, for example, but she liked “Las Meninas” and I just liked his paintings of dwarves. She thought I was making fun of them, but I wasn’t. They moved me. I would think of them leaving the studio, taking the dusky copper coin Velazquez paid them with, hanging the ruffled shirt on a hook and replacing it with tattered rags. I could see them walking down the streets of Madrid, holding their hands out for coins.
Goya, he painted a wide range of subjects. You’ve probably seen his portrait of Charles IV’s family. It’s famous. People often dismiss it as a cash job, but when I look at it I can’t stop staring at the edges of the portrait, where Goya painted these shadows ready to engulf the royal family. I think he was getting at something there, about what we all know has happened to them in the years since they posed, ready to be painted. It happened to Laura eventually, and by that I mean that we stopped seeing each other, not that she died. She came into my room one day and found me tickling the belly of Sharon, the girl who always wanted to paint her. Sharon, yes, that was her name.
But the thing that really bothers me about this painting, the Goya that I keep trying to tell you about, is that he first painted it on the wall inside his own house. And if you've seen the painting, Saturn is this giant with white, bulging eyes and sickly, gray hair like the Spanish moss that hangs from the trees in Valdosta. And this giant, Zeus’ father, this big naked terra cotta monster, is dangling one of his own children from his mouth like a limp fish. Not an infant, you understand. A full grown person, tiny by comparison to the father of the gods. He is staring right at you, Saturn. Because it’s a painting, he won’t look away. Because it’s a great painting, you can’t look away either.
How could he have looked at it every day? Goya. On his way to the market, the bath house, on his way to gather cochineal from the cornflower fields. Facing every trivial errand of the day with the truth staring back at him. The darkness immobile at either end of life.
I wondered. I couldn’t stop wondering, so I tried it myself. I had a friend who worked at the copy center print me off a giant poster of this painting, “Saturn Devouring His Son.” I put it up on the wall in my dorm room. It must have been seven feet tall. Laura thought I was crazy. “Why do you want that staring at you?”
I couldn’t explain it. Sharon understood. “It’s beautiful,” she said to me as I lifted up her shirt to expose her belly, perfectly tanned and slightly protruding. That was all she said, because Laura came in, and we all started yelling, and I never saw either of them again. Well, I saw them. Across the grass of the quadrangle, or sitting beside the vending machines in the Student Center. But it was the last time I really saw them. You know?
With Laura gone, I would stare at it for what might have been hours at a time. Those eyes. They got to me. They reminded me of Laura's eyes, which despite her bright red hair were the deepest black. Not brown eyes, but black ones, the pupil and the iris one blot of paint. In the painting, the eyes are the same color as the background. Black. And whenever I woke up in the middle of the night and looked over at the wall, as Goya must have done, I saw nothing but a room full of black interrupted by those pupils ringed with white.
I took the painting down, eventually, and left the wall blank. This was years ago. But sometimes, I still see them. Staring back at me. Small blips of light in the void.