By Catherine Mosier-Mills
In the fading light of the setting sun, Luka Yeshevsky sketched a face.
Luka drew the model’s lips, so carefully pursed around a smoldering cigarette, aligned to the curves of his chin. His pencil marked the contours and peaks of the quaint little nose, which rested plainly above the philtrum. He even captured the sagging lines beneath his model’s eyes, no doubt a result of the weary journey from St. Petersburg to Petrushka.
But his hand was having difficulty with the eyes. They were a tempest, he noted, because the gray flecks in the brown mirrored a summer storm. Their shape was odd: cat-like, and squinted, with creases and folds in places there normally weren’t.
His model exhaled and watched the smoke drift up to the rafters.
“Eyes down, would you?” Luka reprimanded, reaching for his eraser. “I’m not finished yet.”
The boy smirked, his mouth molding into a lopsided grin. “Sorry.” He placed the cigarette back in his mouth and took a puff. “I’ve been sitting here for a while. It’s quite hard to keep myself from getting restless.” Another breath, except this time, he thrust open the small side window and let the smoke escape into the August fog.
Luka took a moment to glance out the open window. It was the time of eternal twilight, the unsettling period in midsummer when the sun, much like an incorrigible child, refused to sleep until the fading hours of the night. It wouldn’t be black until eleven-thirty. This meant he had more light to work by, but it also meant another night racked by insomnia.
Curse the impossible eyes! He wiped away his most recent attempt at an eyelash. If he weren’t a perpetual perfectionist, he would just leave them out. But he was. So the picture had to look perfect.
“I didn’t mean to complain,” the model apologized, crossing his right leg over his left. He seemed quite aware of Luka’s frustration. “I lied. I like this. It’s relaxing. Petrushka is a nice break from the city.”
Luka grunted a response, his fingers rubbing in the shading beneath the eyes.
“I hadn’t even heard of this place before,” the boy continued. “It’s quite different from St. Petersburg. I’d imagine the people here are very humble, yes?”
“Some.” Luka blinked and lifted his pencil to the finely-combed hair, which he intended to capture in wispy fragments as opposed to the cartoonish strands his instructor was so fond of mocking. Most of the people here were simple folk—fishermen, retired farmers, church men—but he’d never bothered to get to know them. “It’s not uncommon to dislike Petrushka. Why should you like a town named after a marionette, anyway?”
The model gestured for an ashtray in which he could dispose his cigarette. “Any village seems comforting compared to where I grew up. Are you going to color in my face?”
Luka begrudgingly fetched the ashtray from the side desk and handed it over. Ordinarily, he didn’t speak more than a word to his creations, and when he did, it was a direct command: sit straight, eyes forward, for the love of God, stop slouching. “Only charcoal. Where did you grow up? Eyes up, please.”
The model obediently lifted his eyes but said hesitantly: “I’m not entirely sure of its name.”
“You said you were from Kiev when you answered.”
There was an awful pause. The youth shifted uncomfortably. “Perhaps…” Then he buried his face in his hands. “Oh, I lied, Sir. I’m an orphan.”
Luka set down his pencil. “Oh. How sad.”
“My parents died of typhus when I was young, so I was brought to the orphanage by a stranger.” He set the ashtray on the floor. “My mind caused me trouble, so I made trouble.”
Luka stopped for a moment. “Oh?”
“The fat old village doctor proclaimed that I thought frightful things. Overwhelming for a boy of my ‘tender age.’”
“What ideas did you think?”
He licked his lips. “Well…I’ve never confessed this before, because it’s odd. Marxist things, you know. I recited Engle before I’d memorized my Latin. One prospective couple asked me to sing them a beloved old Bible verse, and you know what I did? I said ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’”
Luka glared at him. “They must have been horrified.”
“Oh, yes,” the boy said, “The Headmaster kicked me out onto the streets shortly after. And then I answered your advertisement, because I’m starving and should find a bride soon.”
“Ah, yes, my advertisement,” Luka echoed, hoping the conversation would shift back to something less blasphemous. The model seemed wholly unaware of the gilded crucifix nailed to Luka’s doorway. “The ‘Common Man.’ It’s a little project I’m going to submit to a gallery.”
“Where is the gallery?”
Luka hesitated. If the boy found out, he would probably rip the portrait to shreds and begin to spew Bolshevik banter. But another glance at the cross reminded Luka of his sin: he should not lie. “Peterhof.” He quickly coughed into his sleeve so the boy wouldn’t have time to process the location. Perhaps he was unaware of the Czar’s summer residence. He was uneducated after all, wasn’t he?
Not a glimmer of recognition passed his eyes. “Oh. What a lovely town. Perhaps I’ll visit it when I have money for train fare. May I see the painting?”
Luka turned back to the infernal eyes. It was odd, he thought suddenly, how the two-dimensional portrait of this stranger had transformed into something much greater—much more real—than a boy on a page. He was proud of his creation.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked.
The model smiled. “I didn’t. It’s Tolya.”
“It’s funny,” he remarked, inscribing the name on the top. “Portraits often reveal what the ordinary face does not. They reveal truth and dispel lies.”
“Then it is not a sketch of a face,” Tolya responded. “It is a real face.” He smiled. “It is Tolya.”
This is a finalist in our Pinocchio Creative Response Contest in collaboration with Philadelphia Stories, Jr. From August 5-16, leave a comment on this post or like the link on our Facebook page to vote for this entry to win a prize!