Bella and Anima
by Tris Matthews
Bella’s speckled blue eyes were a summer stream trickling over grey pebbles. They stared up at Gregory from the screen of his phone.
Gregory had whispered this metaphor in her ear, lips to lobe, on their third date, when prolonged eye contact had beckoned him to swim. The next day, after Bella had gone home, Gregory breathed life into the first of many compositions of his muse and love.
With acrylic and six hours of frenzied inspiration, he’d captured a sliver of her essence. He’d got the shape of her head wrong, missed the barely noticeable twist down the bridge of her nose and fully failed with the hue of her hair, but the eyes were spot on.
That painting, now framed in gold, hung on his living-room wall. Not a centimetre of wallpaper remained visible behind the thousands of others he’d created over the six years before she’d become a memory.
Gregory, please, she had said, nobody wants to see themselves everywhere. But he had. In those eyes, he had snared her soul and locked it behind glass, compelled her to live on after death, if only as still life. But the eyes he had painted were more alive than these that stared up at him from his phone, from the last picture he’d taken of Bella.
Modern phones were amazing: an inch from your face, you couldn’t discern the pixels. Mesmerising blonde hair with a hint of red cascaded over her peach shoulders. Gregory’s memory animated the image with gossamer wisps dancing like flames in a breeze. He touched the screen. The heat surprised him; how long had he been staring? He traced his finger along her eyebrows, unexpectedly darker and pinched in protest against the photographer.
Not another photo, Greg! she had whined, as she always had, and Gregory had replied: “As an artist, I must never waste an opportunity to appreciate beauty.”
A notification obscured the top of the screen: Your Amazon delivery will be with you in 1 minute.
Gregory went to the window and saw a fat mosquito against the clear sky. As it drew closer, he made out its bulky, rectangular cargo. He swung open the window and stepped back. The corners of the memory forest of sketches tacked to the walls rustled in the wind of the propellers as the drone deposited the package and buzzed off.
On his knees, Gregory tore at the heavy plastic to reveal a white box decorated with a cacophony of cartoon characters in various stages of completion: rough sketches to detailed 3D photo-realistic portraits. He popped open the box. There it was: the Anima.
His drawing desk was stacked with failed caricatures of varying levels of detail and completion: here a star-map of the freckles of Bella’s cheeks, there a disembodied Cheshire-cat mouth that he’d been unable to manipulate into a smile. Nineteen months since he’d abandoned the world for the work he did here, or maybe he’d done that earlier, when Bella was still alive. He swept the clutter to the floor.
The Anima was an enormous touchscreen slab, inclined towards the user. It was hard to imagine this could work, but it didn’t need to be perfect, just good enough for closure.
In the days leading up to Bella’s suicide, Gregory hadn’t had a clue. Okay, there was the occasional comment he worked too much. Why do you insist on recreating me when I’m right here?
That was it. She’d left without letting him say goodbye, and it wormed away inside. All he needed was a final face to face; to behold her in all her magnificence, that would be enough, even if only with a mock-up of the real woman. After nineteen months, he hoped that would be enough.
“What you see is what you get. Anima,” Gregory recited to the empty room of staring faces. He was impatient to know if the Anima could fulfil its promise. Could it bring any animation to life, imbuing it with the personality most suiting its appearance? He extracted the stylus and set to work.
In their first year together, he’d drawn cartoon strips with Bella as the central character, and that was how he drew her now. He rushed a stick-figure body in favour of spending more time on her face, capturing just enough detail that a friend would identify it as her: the angular jaw that contrasted her plump cheeks and smooth brow and fortified her femininity, wild hair that danced like the flames around the sun, those forever forlorn eyes. He knew the lines so well that the whole sketch took less than a minute.
He sucked in a deep breath through gritted teeth, took a second to acknowledge the anxiety in his stomach, and tapped the Animate button.
Pinpoint pupils rolled across flat eyeballs to fix on Gregory. “Hello,” Sketch-Bella said in a cliché cartoon voice.
Gregory reciprocated. The stick figure’s eyes rolled 360 degrees to take in the blank page that surrounded her, but said nothing more.
“Bella?” Gregory ventured.
“Do you know me?”
His shoulders sagged. Had he really expected the complexities of Bella’s personality to be captured by a stick figure? When he’d reeled off the cartoons in their early days together, his focus had been the situations he’d put her in with the goal of amusing his prize. Bella walking through the park like a catwalk, dazzling the foxes and squirrels. Bella applying make-up to the mirror because it was unable to fully reflect her beauty.
I don’t even use make-up, you plonker!
In those days, Gregory’s silly cartoons had amused her. Put so explicitly, the notion that this minimalistic doodle could do his love justice repulsed him, and he immediately set to creating a more detailed version.
He gave form to the body, dressing her in her favourite crimson dress, which surged from just below the upper swell of her breasts like molten red wax and flowed over her subtle curves down to her ankles. Gregory even added the gold brooch Bella had inherited from her grandmother, one of the items he’d kept hold of despite her will and locked away in the drawer of things uniquely hers.
He traced each finger separately and used a narrow tip and quivering hand to capture the thick fur of her eyebrows. Then he ticked a smattering of eyelashes and selected the closest colour from the basic pastel palette for her hair. Her hair deserved a gallery of its own, appearing blonde or red or pink or peach depending upon the light and the background, but without delving into complex colour mixing, this would have to do.
Throughout this process, Sketch-Bella stood silently at the edge of the screen. Straightening the cricks out of his back after ten minutes, Gregory compared the new Cartoon-Bella with Sketch-Bella. Standing side by side, the inert second version was far superior to the superficial first. He clicked Animate.
Cartoon-Bella’s eyes fell to her body. She inspected her hands, which Gregory had left the same empty white as the background, then rubbed her nailless fingertips together before running her palms down her sides. The 2D garment neither rippled nor shimmered as the real one had.
“Do you like your dress?” Gregory asked.
One of those quivering eyebrows rose with the unilateral corner of her mouth, an expression so uniquely Bella — Bella from the early years, when her beauty was in her openness, not the glassy, doll-like poise she’d later adopted — that Gregory’s heart was tickled by a butterfly wing. He hadn’t set out to paint a younger Bella than the one he’d last seen, but they had been happier then.
“This old thing?” she said. Her voice was several tones lower than silly Sketch-Bella’s, and the low, seductive timbre was close to how it should be, but not quite right. Still, Gregory was pleased she was more Bella than not.
Grinning, Gregory leaned close to the screen. “What’s your name?”
Cartoon-Bella nodded thoughtfully. “Good question... I’m kinda feeling a Beth or Beryl. How’s that?”
The first twinge of doubt turned Gregory’s stomach. “How about—” he began but was interrupted when Cartoon-Bella spotted Sketch-Bella decorating the edge of the screen like an absent-minded doodle.
“What is that?” she spat with a passion that she’d lost in the second half of their relationship.
The heels of her black boots clacked on a non-existent floor as she strode across to her pitiful prototype.
“I’m Bella,” said the stick figure.
Cartoon-Bella’s angry face shifted to perplexity: one eyebrow up, the other down. Her right eye grew larger and shone bluer, a pure blue, clear of the flecks that had characterised the real Bella’s eyes. Her face lit up.
“Bella! Yes, that’s right!” She peered up at Gregory, corners of her mouth downturned and lips so tight that the dusting of deep pink Gregory had used to emphasise them disappeared. “You sketched this in preparation for me, right?” She stretched one perfectly straight arm and extended a spike of an index finger to point at Sketch-Bella.
Cartoon-Bella stared up at Gregory, then rolled her wide, flat gaze out and around the room. Her eyes jerked from picture to picture across the walls.
“All those sketches and paintings, they are all me. You are obsessed. But not with the real me, just the body I occupy. And this” — Cartoon-Bella wrapped her fingers around Sketch-Bella’s negligible upper arm and shook hard — “this is the result: the reduction of a whole person with goals, desires, emotions, quirks of character to a few exaggerated visual clichés.” She turned to address her antecedent. “But you... Is there anything to you at all?”
“What you see is what you get,” Sketch-Bella said.
The smooth, uncoloured skin of Cartoon-Bella’s face curled up into a snarl quite unlike anything Gregory had ever seen on Bella’s face. She slipped behind Sketch-Bella, wrapped an elbow round the neck of her inferior counterpart and whispered close to where Sketch-Bella’s ear should have been.
“I can’t look at you. You make me hate myself.”
The crack was a dry branch pulled from a dead tree, and the body fell to the floor, just a pile of black of twigs.
Gregory was aghast. He gripped the edges of the Anima, scanning left and right for the Delete button, which he promptly punched.
As the confirmation box popped up, Cartoon-Bella asked: “What are you doing?” but her expression was resigned. More than that, Gregory thought he saw vindication and relief.
“You can’t just kill someone like that,” Gregory sobbed.
“It was only me. No biggie.”
Gregory shook his head. “I’m going to start again. I’ll do better this time. I’ll paint a perfect likeness. You’ll be indistinguishable from the real thing. You’ll be the real thing!”
Cartoon-Bella waved a hand in dismissal. “Yeah, whatever. This two-dimensional world holds nothing for me.”
He tapped Confirm and the abomination blinked out of existence.
Nothing less than a masterpiece would do justice to Bella’s personality. If he wanted perfect, he had to create her so.
Do you even look at me as a person any more? Or am I just a model for your portraits?
On his phone, Gregory opened his favourite photograph of his lost love. It was a close-up he’d snapped a year before the end, when she’d just woken from an afternoon nap on the sofa and her lids were still heavy with sleep, but her face bore none of the pressures of life that she’d worn like a mask towards the end. He looked at the Anima’s blank canvas, recreating the image in his mind and projecting it onto the screen: all he had to do was breathe life into it.
For three days and three nights, Gregory worked on the composition to end all compositions. When he began, laying down the skeletal contours of skull, eyes and nose, he weighed up the idea that this would be his final portrait of Bella, and all those that decorated the walls of his apartment had been leading up to this moment, like the fleeting and ultimately disappointing flirtations that precede finding the one.
Gregory had found the one, and now he would bring her back. Not once did he pause for food or sleep. He worked and reworked every line, hue and shade to the ideal form of the woman he’d lost nineteen months before.
In this masterpiece, there would be no flaws. Each feature that distinguished Bella from any other person would be captured here: the chocolate-drop mole which was a permanent stud on her left earlobe, the way her thicker lower lip protruded beyond the upper, the fine red capillaries that had risen in the whites of her eyes to complement the undertone of her hair near the end of her life.
This time Gregory did not ignore her body. He revelled in it, as he had in bed in their first years together, before she had denied him that pleasure, before he hadn’t cared because the real pleasure was in trying to coax the shape of her soul onto the page, to still the fire of his obsession through mastery of the structure of Bella’s beauty.
When it was finished, Gregory allowed himself a minute to admire the photo-quality likeness. He closed his eyes, waited till the afterimage faded, then opened them afresh on his work. Yes! Despite his knowledge she was the product of his pen and perspiration, for a moment, she was alive in front of him, sitting obediently still, as for a portrait. He hit Animate.
He’d fashioned her with the esoteric smile of the Mona Lisa, but when she sucked in her first breath, her mouth slackened and Gregory remembered this was how he had last seen her. The sharp, peach shoulders he’d so tenderly etched above the rim of her red dress slumped unevenly. Her wily red-blonde hair lost its lustre and drizzled over her face. “Greg...” Bella croaked.
“You know me? How—?”
But Bella turned away, spinning like a mannequin on display. Her dress billowed as she sat on the empty white floor with her back to Gregory. Her elbows jiggled and the light shadows of her triceps betrayed some small strain, then, over her shoulder, Gregory saw she’d unpinned her brooch. She scooped her hair to the side and pulled the pin close to her neck.
“No, wait!” Gregory screamed. He clawed at the screen, but it was insensitive to his touch.
“Please, Bella. Just talk to me!”
The crimson of Bella’s dress crept towards the edges of the screen, and Gregory realised it was not the fabric, it was her blood. Her peach shoulders provided the only contrast as they drained to white, lifeless marble in the centre of the darkening scene.
Gregory gripped the edges of the Anima and stared till the inactivity timer flicked off the screen. The blackened glass framed his reflection. His emaciated face was drawn, eyes sunken to smeared shadows. His untended beard had clumped into oily tangles like the bristles of unwashed paintbrushes. The reflected image was so different to the image he had of himself, so different to who he really was inside, it gave him pause. But that didn’t matter now.
The woman he had just given life to had been Bella. For a moment, she had been there with him again. What had gone wrong? He was sure he hadn’t botched even the smallest pore on her face, yet she’d left him, just like the real Bella.
He wasn’t powerless, though. Not with the Anima. He needn’t restrict himself to the confines of reality. This time he wouldn’t just make the likeness perfect, he’d go beyond. Those little changes — the ones that could remove the depressed facets of her personality — he would make those changes. He could forge a version who was realer than real. A version who would be happy with him.
Gregory brought the Anima back to life and opened a fresh page.
Copyright © 2021 by Tris Matthews