A short story by Victoria Miguel
Illustration of various types of grapes. From: Batty Langley. Pomona, or, The fruit-garden illustrated. London: printed for G Strahan … [et al], 1729 [St Thomas’s Historical Collection FOL. SB361 L28]
In the dimly lit room he cast out his right arm, thumb leading. It hovered a moment when it reached its destination, a stubby white candle, lit so long that most of its surface was, by now, liquid, contained in the rugged cliffs of the very outer edges of wax that had not yet succumbed to the heat: his target. Thumb still protruding, he rotated his hand, positive to negative, and, leading with what little nail he had, he gouged down into the side of the candle and wrestled free a chunk of malleable but not yet molten wax. The candle gave a start, its flame engorged briefly as the formerly calm puddle rushed through this new opening and down its side,only to pool once more at its base. He drew his arm back to himself.
‘I shall sit here, you must take whichever seat suits you.’
He returned his focus to the wax. Bringing together all that he had collected into a single mass, allowing no small amount to remain embedded under his thumbnail or as a shroud upon his skin. This done, he assessed his spoils with pride.
‘The trick is to keep it moving.’
Distractedly, he rolled the wax between his thumb and middle finger.
‘The half-light really brings them out, don’t you think?
With his left hand, free of the burden of working the wax, he reached out and rotated the plate of grapes very slightly to the right.
‘That’s better. Not quite symmetrical, I don’t think that ever works, but a better proportion of green and black. I have never understood why we say they’re black. I make it more of a purple—aubergine—even in this light. How the grapes stand out one by one! I concede to the convention, of course I do, but when your aim is a fresh description based, as it should be, on your own observations, what do you do? Say what you see and then ask, as I ask you: Is this like the Ulysses you know?
Silence prevailed as the lump of wax took over his thoughts, permitting only the occasional mutterance; ‘And where to begin?;’ ‘What if’; ‘Perhaps if…’ in concert with a new system of rolling the wax between not just the thumb and middle finger but now also the index finger; if a pattern governed this, it was not obvious to the eye. This stalemate continued for some minutes, interrupted, or so it seemed, by a fluttering of the candle flame caused by a slight draught, which suggested movement in him of which there was, in reality, none. He was in contemplation. Eventually:
‘The image should stand out from the frame!’
Punctuated by another, briefer silence until the product of his right hand caught his attention.
‘It is just like a grape, is it not?It would not fool the birds I’m sure, but in its shape and general proportions…’
His wax ‘grape’ had come to rest in the palm of his left hand, which he extended forward halfway towards the plate of grapes, judging this the ideal distance to make an appraisal: not so close that his construction would be immediately revealed as a fake, but close enough to show some confidence in the comparison.
‘I admit that it would deceive neither the birds nor a trained eye but it is not a bad echo. Had I some simple tools and paints I could make it more grape-like but for me, it would lose its appeal. Artifice has its own value, does it not? There is little hope of competing with nature, little hope of declaring that the hand seems to have equalled the idea. No, it would fool no one, but I would rather be first in coarseness than second in delicacy. [Clearing his throat before beginning] Of the clusters of grapes some are ripe to bursting, some are turning dark, some are still green, and some appear to be budding. A good overview, but this is not what I see and it is hardly likely to rouse*the admiration of the Court, the envy of my peers, and the jealousy of Nature.’
Reaching out a little further with his left hand he dropped the wax ‘grape’ upon the plate and picked a green one. He had to squeeze more firmly than he had expected to in order to separate the single grape from the bunch whilst trying not to disturb the plate on the table, whose placement in relation to the candle he was so pleased with. The fleshy stalk marked where he had been. He brought the grape 10 cm or so from his nose to inspect its particular qualities. Under this scrutiny he could see that it was not just a simple ellipsoid; even before he had plucked it he had noticed that ‘the joining end’ was flatter, not pointier like one end of an egg might be. Having been wrenched from its cluster, that same end had opened up into quarters like a Brussels sprout scored for cooking. Dismissing whatever else it might reveal because of its broken form he reached out again, this time with the stronger right hand, and plucked another green one.
*His it is to rouse the revellers to dance, to laugh away dull care!
This grape came loose with a dull thud, its stalk remained embedded in the fruit giving the flatter end a firmer texture. He rolled this second grape in his hand for a while, testing its plumpness between his thumb and forefinger, seeing how it held up to pressure. Muttering again: ‘And how would you convey that? Next, he selected a black grape, performing this now established system of tests of form and plumpness. Very quickly he found himself lost in the rhythm of his investigations, diligently following his earnest desire to see and describe exactly what was before him. He stopped only when there were no more grapes on the plate to pluck, and all that remained was his own wax effigy sitting amongst the brittle, skeletal stalks. The grapes he had discarded pooled around his right elbow, except for those that had rolled and fallen to the floor, resting beside the right foot of his chair. Aghast at what he had done, he sat in stillness and silence until, somewhat recovered from the shock but otherwise defeated by his endeavours, he returned to his task.
‘It would be easier to envy it than to imitate it.[short pause] It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insufferably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. [tired pause] Well now, whose profession do we think is most difficult after literature?
He sat, solemnly contemplating his failure: his description un-written and the grapes now partially encircling him, scattered and decaying. A small movement reflected in the ornately-framed, dark, wooden mirror hanging on the wall to his left caught his eye. That heavy purple curtain could not have been moved by the draught that caused the candle’s flame to flicker.
‘What? Are you still here?’